The Good Reverend

by Ross McMeekin

Snow gathered outside on the low edges of the windows as Rev. Andrew Cherry sat in a dim room on the east wing of the nursing home, reading the newspaper to one of his convalescent congregation members, who was lying in bed, covers up to her chin, eyes drifting from open to closed. Weekly, Andrew visited nursing homes and read to his elderly congregants. His church was aging, its membership dwindling, but he found great meaning in it.

“The tax levy has been met with opposition…” he read, without thinking about the words, because he was imagining his life would dash through the new year and on to summer—where might he vacation?—when in reality he had an inoperable stomach condition and the doctor counted the likely duration of his life in months. What was it about death that its existence hid like a hare in the winter alpines, white fur blending in with the snow? Even now, with his condition, he still so often missed he was dying, thinking instead he’d reside here on earth through his forties and on to old age.

After he finished the article, he turned the page and began reading about complaints of the stench coming from a pulp factory on the waterfront, and without realizing it he began to notice the smell of the nursing home: tangy, chemical. And he realized that soon enough he would be right there, in a room smelling loudly of pine. Andrew Cherry, on the bed, being read to by another pastor in a room at the nursing home up the road that he’d already reserved. It occurred to him for the thousandth time, though it still felt like the first, not just that he would die, but that he would be replaced.

There was a knock at the door. In walked the woman’s son, wearing a dark blue suit with a burgundy tie. His forehead was moist.

“Mind if I take over?” the son said. Every time he’d visited, Andrew had seen him either coming or going, and the son was always gracious. “Is she asleep?”

Andrew glanced over. Her eyes were closed. He nodded.

The son whispered Thank you for coming.

Of course.

Andrew picked up his satchel and turned to go and the son stopped him.

I’m sorry, I have something I need to ask you. The son paused and glanced out the door. With mom fading, well, I’m feeling depressed. I feel as though my faith is being tested by this. Believing there’s a heaven for mom. Can we pray for her?

Andrew of course agreed, and they both prayed, Andrew first. He spoke about confidence in saving grace and assuredness of heaven. As he spoke, the words spoken in his own voice comforted him. He’d been alone since he found out about his condition. No one knew yet that he was dying. He didn’t know when he would share it. To tell his congregation would result in each of them asking how he was doing whenever they met, each question an inadvertent reminder of what was happening, and what might or might not come.

When the son began to pray, Andrew opened his eyes and looked at him. He appeared so very worried his mom might not go to heaven; in a sermon Andrew would call it a profound love. But now, as the son began to cry, Andrew struggled not to believe it was a bittersweet naivety. As always, his doubts came and went like chickadees to and from the feeder outside the window. He watched as they arrived and asked forgiveness as they left.




Late that evening—it was early morning, really—Andrew slid out from beneath the covers of his bed. He’d been awake all night. He would read, begin to doze off, put down the book, turn off his light, and moments later he’d be wide awake again. This happened many times.

He walked to the front door and looked through the window and thin mesh screen. Across the street, lights were on at his neighbor’s house. Often when he couldn’t sleep Andrew would find the neighbor pacing back and forth across his front room, sometimes eating what looked to be a sandwich, always with the drapes open, as if he wanted to be seen.

The man stopped and looked out the window. For a moment Andrew feared the neighbor had seen him, but then he realized the light in the man’s living room would make the window into a mirror. The neighbor was looking at himself. Andrew watched as he raised his arms, flexed for a few moments, sagged down, and continued pacing. He’d seen the man do this before. Perhaps he was worried about his body. Andrew knew he didn’t worry enough about his own. He thought it would be tough to get in shape through the holiday season, with so many church potlucks and holiday dinners, but maybe in the new year he could get a gym membership. He thought of how good an idea that was, that maybe he could meet a woman outside of those he met at church, someone with whom he could share a long life, even children.

But he caught himself again. Why were his hopes all about life on earth, and not the better place? The thought of earthly pleasures gave him more comfort than the promise of singing in the heavenly choir.

He remembered a funeral he’d attended with his family when he was very young, and the sound of the pipe organ. It was the first one he’d heard, and the sound struck him—though he wouldn’t have used these words—as being ornate and dignified. The deceased was a pastor, beloved by the community, and with each person who went up to the pulpit to speak their memories of him, his legend seemed to grow. Andrew had shared many times that this was the moment he wanted to be a pastor. But now he realized that, even in his childhood, the desire that sparked his heart wasn’t just to serve God, but also to be a servant of God, with all its respect.




In his few hours of sleep he had a dream. He was standing in the middle of a pit, barefooted, damp soil underneath. The light coming from above was dim and far away; it seemed the size of a quarter. After he got his bearings he tried to climb up the pockmarked walls, but he could get no further than a few feet before the soil edges crumbled.

Slowly—in the dream this felt natural—a great many ropes were lowered from the light like streamers attached to a fan. He reached out to grab the first, but it fell into his hands. He grabbed another, and another, and they all fell. He did this for some time, hope and hope dashed.

He looked around him at all of the ropes laying on the ground and realized the logic of it: he could pull ropes until they filled the hole, and they would become the ground he stood on, and in this way he would slowly rise. He grabbed rope after rope, but before he could get more than a foot off the ground, he woke.

That was it, he thought, a clear vision from God. He felt comforted that God would grant him something like that. He could use it in a sermon, and it might be his best anecdote since he’d taken over the church a decade ago. As he drifted back to sleep he forgot about the dream, and when he woke didn’t remember it.




Later that day, after he finished filling a plate at the salad bar of a local diner, he took a seat in the booth across the table from Mary Wilkins, an elder in the church in charge of the music. She was good friends with Denise Pratter, the dying mother. Her shoulder-length hair was lightly permed and she wore a blue golf shirt with a white sailboat insignia.

“If anyone gets to heaven, it’ll be Denise,” she said.

He stirred his French onion soup and cheese stuck to his spoon. “She was a remarkable woman.”

Mary gasped. “She, she hasn’t…”

He dropped the spoon. “What’s wrong?”

“You said was. Was a remarkable woman. She died.”

“No, no, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean was. She’s alive. She’s very much alive. That was terrible of me.”

Mary stared at him.

The rest of the meeting was somewhat uncomfortable and he walked home, past the occasional storefront and gas station, on the icy sidewalk. He wished for a moment he could go back and say something different to Mary. Even in a small way, to have a place in his mind where Denise was already dead felt like a sin. And these sorts of accidents became gossip, and gossip eroded trust, and trust could be lost in an instant, only to take years to rebuild. He thought of the church, and the building repairs needed there, and how they would be paid for. What would be his legacy? That of watching as the church building limped its way toward being condemned?

He felt pain in his stomach: here he was thinking of his legacy in terms of a church building. What did that matter next to his years of comforting the afflicted? But wasn’t even that a legacy? Why did that matter to him?

As he walked, he thought no, in the end his legacy didn’t really matter to him, not when it came down to it. He’d just been lost in his imagination again and its yearning for acclaim. He asked for forgiveness.

It was at that moment he stopped on the sidewalk and looked up and saw a billboard. In it lay a baby-blue lagoon that looked like gel, with two lovers sprouting out of it like tan nymphs, and behind them, in the distance, a yacht.

Maybe, he thought, he could travel to Bali. He could save up. It would take until summer, or maybe fall, but in the tropics the weather would still be agreeable. Maybe more agreeable than in summer. Maybe he could take a sabbatical, spend a month there. It looked like the kind of place you couldn’t help but relax. And by then he might have a girlfriend, even a wife. He pictured himself as a grandfather with children at his feet.

And he asked for forgiveness.

Ross McMeekin is author of the novel The Hummingbirds (Skyhorse, 2018). His stories have appeared in places like Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Redivider, and Green Mountains Review. He edits the literary journal Spartan. You can find him at