A Grace Period

30 Oct

The tourists were to file back onto the bus precisely one hour after getting out at the Santa Barbara Mission. Jerome was allowed to give them a five minute grace period, but then he had to be on his way, no variation, whether everyone made it or not. “At the hour you’ll hear the old mission bells ring as they have rung for over two hundred years,” he always said before the passengers got off the bus, “Within five minutes, be on the bus or you’ll end up waiting for the four o’clock tour and hope there’s room. There’s forgiveness in there,” and he’d point to the parish, “But out here we’re on a schedule.”  It sometimes got a nervous laugh, but so far never a hearty one.

Each group would debark and scatter about the same way. Some would take the mission tour, some would walk the grounds, some would go inside and gawk and talk, or maybe even pray, and some would head for the gift shop. Nine times out of ten, children would head straight for the fountain. Today was a hot day for Santa Barbara, nearly 80 degrees, and sure enough at least one little boy, maybe six years old, broke ranks and ran to the fountain, his mother dashing after him.

At the noon bells the hubbub commenced. Friends beckoned each other on the adobe steps for one last photo op, parents herded their children away from the fountain as they threw their pennies into it wishing. Wishing at the fountain seemed genuine to Jerome; wishing inside the House of God seemed a little self serving.

Jerome wasn’t a Catholic anymore, in college he’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but by thirty he’d decided it was okay to like what he called “the good parts” of Christianity, the loving kindness, the compassion, the peace. He accepted the idea of Jesus as the political activist the small world needed at a dire time, but as a rule the fighting and vitriol that came with religious packaging had lost the heart, made theology an encumbrance, eclipsed a savior.  Jerome accepted Jesus as a presence to be found in human compassion.  His quiet wish was that one day Jesus would come walking out of that mission, get on his bus and sit down for a ride along, even for just one day–and here came the passengers, back and boarding. Counting each, recognizing some, they wended their way down the aisle to plop down into their seats nattering about their souvenirs, chattering with speculations and fresh memories. Whatever reverent states of mind they might have held while in the church were abandoned; they were gabbing tourists now.

Two missing. Jerome looked to the fountain to see the little boy and mother were still there in the sun and shade of the willow, just talking, watching dragonflies, listening to the birds. The boy would drop his hand into the water and lift it out, holding it up to the cooling air and sunlight. The same scene could have played out for generations at this same fountain before buses, engines, touring throngs, photographs, gift shops or loud-talking part-time spiritualists. The five minutes were up and the two were lost in timelessness. No one on the bus noticed, enamored of phones and comparisons and what they’d have for lunch.  None responded when he called, “excuse me,” to ask someone to go get the stragglers, so he closed the doors, put the bus in gear and began to crawl the bus along slowly, just to give the mother and boy a second chance.

Mother and child both looked toward the sound of the rumbling engine. The mother put out her hand to the boy and he took it, and they walked quickly to the bus. Jerome slowed the bus to a stop and opened the doors. As the mother ushered the boy on board she put her hand on her heart and offered a gentle, “Thank you.” The boy did not make eye contact, and flinched slightly at Jerome’s, “Hiya.” The two sat down in the front row right behind Jerome, the mother holding the boy’s hand and listening intently as he looked out the window to the fountain, happily murmuring indistinguishable things.

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