Fiction: The Back Pew

Man WritingFor Myrtle, For Good or Ill

This is Nolan Cosgrove’s story as I know it. He grumbled it to me in frustrated fragments and hints. He’d mutter parts of it with chicken noodle soup dripping from his beard. He’d shoot some of the story to the ducks at the Wild Horse Shoe park by the little league ballpark. That park where we talked a few times–if you could call it talking. I guess I learned the real story from others, really.

I always kind of liked Nolan though. His beard made the other kids in our Bible study class nervous. His tone couldn’t be called pleasant. The church, which I don’t go to anymore, had been meaning to kick him out for a while. But he’d gone to high school with the head pastor. And that bond, in Minis, Oklahoma, is pretty unshakable.

He was a guest teacher sometimes at our Wednesday night school that my folks made me go to. On first glance, I never would’ve had him pegged as a man of conviction. The first thing he asked me was where I went to school.

“Minis North.”

“Oh yeah? Glenn Stubbard still the principal there?”

“Mr. Stubbard?” I asked excitedly.

“I went to school with him. We rode the same bus. Pulled down his pants once.”

He had a proud look on his face. We didn’t learn a lot from the story of Easter that night.


I guess the head pastor, Kent Jones, found out about this talk. The next Wednesday I was sitting on the hard bench of the church’s front yard, where I always waited for my parents to pick me up, making me late yet again for WWF reruns. Pastor Kent came up like he was going to put a caring hand on my shoulder, but then he stopped awkwardly and just put his hand in his pocket. He said to not listen to Nolan, he’d been going through a hard time.

“…For thirty years, really. He’s been prone to kinda talk nonsense ever since college…”

One of the high-up-in-the-church married couples, Karen and Lloyd Williams, walked by and Pastor Kent completely stopped talking, politely nodding at them. When they walked off, he continued.

“He had a rough break up. He quit the church for 5 years and wrote 3 books in longhand about finding his own spirituality. There was a lot in there about women being dangerous, and even churches were too worldly for a man looking to save his eternal soul. I still have the books. The Road to Hell is Paved with Polite. The Beaches of Afterthought. Writings of Love. I always liked the third one the best, you could tell he was calming down.

“Then he started coming back. That was tough. I asked him why, he said he just needed to be there a few moments on Sunday. I had a good idea why. I had to talk to the rest of the congregation, starting with the hymn leaders and Sunday morning donut volunteers. Finally I had to ask the Williamses, who organize just about everything. No one here but me and the Williamses had read the books, but they had heard that they were strange. I told them that the publishing house he went through wasn’t exactly reputable, or maybe even real. They were a vanity publishing company run out of Elk City, and no one I have talked to had ever actually seen it. Besides, this was just one of those things a man needed to go through. The congregation was still skeptical. Some had seen him at Homeland buying a bunch of junk food and cokes and still writing checks for $10 over, complaining that he couldn’t go $20 over. Others had seen him getting in arguments with the old lady cashiers at McDonalds. So, before letting him into the Sunday service I let Nolan in to kind of help out with a spaghetti dinner one night. I was nervous that whole week. When it came, though, he’d brought some of his own spices. He was quiet, but very functional. He did a good job. After that everyone seemed to forget the problems. I grew up with the guy, I try to keep him here with things to do.”


I always wondered why Pastor Kent told me all that. Sometimes, it’s my thinking, that at certain moments people just need to talk, just to get rid of things. I could’ve been anyone. I just happened to be there. Anyway, after the talk I started looking for Nolan at Sunday services, to see if he’d do anything crazy. I mean, Pastor Kent talked about him like he was some writer, but every time I saw him or had him as an instructor he’d just say things that were nonsensical and vaguely mean. For a while I just thought he wasn’t there at the services. But actually what was happening was he snuck in for the last 15 minutes of each service. I saw it one day. He was dressed in a white shirt and a black tie and khakies. He held the hymn book in front of his stomach and looked pretty respectful actually. Sometimes he’d crane his neck like he was looking for something.

Every time, 30 minutes in, when Pastor Kent would start on the main homily Nolan would sneeze really loud and say he was sorry. But he never looked very sorry.

By the time me and my folks filed out, he‘d be gone from his back pew.


I actually talked to Nolan 6 months later. He was waiting tables at Denny’s out on Minis Road closer to Harding. He was missing the beard, but he had a carpet of 5 o’clock shadow. I didn’t recognize him at first. When he went on break he came over to me. I was reading. He put his coffee cup on top of my book, The Old Man and the Sea, and started making faces like it hurt him to even sit by me. He unfolded a stack of graph paper that had words on it, no shapes. Intermittently he’d write two really fast sentences on it. He talked about a few stories he heard on NPR. I didn’t know what that was. He didn’t ask me anything about church, which kind of relieved me. I wouldn’t have known what to say. My folks had been getting into more fights about money and whatever else, and with that they stopped worrying about my attendance at a school that didn’t give me a grade for anything. So as I awaited maybe a story about our old minister, Nolan said this:

“Did you tell Glenn Stubbard you knew me? Ha. What did he say?”

“No, I didn’t ask him. He’s a principal.”


I acted like I was setting my silverware out on the table like real dinner table style. As I unfurled the napkin I stole a glance. I could only see what could’ve been the title of the page.

At Dawn, A Believer’s Lament

I couldn’t understand how a guy like this kept writing works with titles like this. I wondered if and when I’d be able to read them, and if I read them, would they make any sense? Nolan saw that I looked nervously puzzled.

“Do you like firecrackers?”

“Not really.”

“Are you gay or something? yKnow that’s not safe in this town. You better ungay or something.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Anyway, down at Wild Horse Shoe Park by the little league complex, they let you light them year round. You know that?”


“I’m there a lot.”

“I can’t drive. Not a rich kid.”

“Sucks for you then.”


My days at school seemed to get slower and just worse. I hated school like going to the dentist or cutting my toenails, or watching daytime Nickelodeon on a sick day. I wished I had my own car so that I could leave school whenever I wanted. Go to McDonalds or Taco Bell or who knows where else. Or even go see if Nolan was really down there at Wild Horse Shoe throwing Black Cats.

One day I got off the bus, looked at the office, the other buildings, then turned around and just kept walking. It was 2 miles from the school to the park. I had to pass the cemetery, the pharmacy, the Four Paws Resort and a few other fast food chains. I finally made it, and, sure enough, there was Nolan. But he had no fire crackers. He was instead throwing pages into the tepid green pond.

“What’s the matter?”

“Just making action.”


“It’s no good. I’ve lost my touch.”

He absently kicked at a floating paper leaf.

I grabbed it and he ran after me, swinging his stumpy leg really hard, actually. Jesus, I said as I ran.

“What if you actually kick me, Nolan?!”

“I’m trying to kick you, you little shit nozel. Get over here.”

I ran like the mean Okie wind. I felt a hand slap my sneaker. He was done. He wouldn’t get up after that fall.

I read the title page.

Stories On Ancient Rivers

“Why don’t you go to the church anymore?” I asked.

“Doomsday prophesying. Apocalyptic evangelicals. Feature slappin good time, eh?”


“Why don’t you go?” Nolan asked.

“My parents stopped making me.”



“I was making that noise because it makes sense. You have other things to do, dude.”

“The Williams Mafia.”


At that moment Nolan tripped over a stroller with a baby in it and a mom rolling it. I don’t know how we didn’t see that coming. I helped Nolan up though.



The next Sunday at church I kind of led my parents to the back pew. It was the side opposite of Nolan’s spot. A few minutes went by and my folks talked about how I wasn’t mowing the lawn, or really carrying my weight at all. Everything they were saying, at the time anyway, was depressing me. Everyone rose for the first song, and Nolan’s carpeted seat was empty. I watched my clock a lot during the discussion. I wasn’t listening closely, but was in my own head. When 40 minutes hit, Nolan still hadn’t come. Mom told me to stop looking around. After the service mom wanted to go talk to a friend, and dad wanted to go home. I wanted to watch WWF, which they knew but didn’t acknowledge. When they parted weirdly, Karen Williams came up to me.

“Hey Mr. Richard.”

She was pretty. A red head.

“Hey Mrs. Williams.”


“Nice service, huh?”

“Not really. But I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

“Me too.”

“I bet Mr. Richard.”

“So, what’s up?”

“I saw you at the park with Nolan.”

“Yeah, you know him?”

“What did you guys talk about?”

“Books. Girls. He talked about plants a bit. Other times he was just talking to himself pretty much.”

She nodded, looking curious. Lloyd Williams came from around the corner and touched her on the elbow. She smiled at him, and then they walked off. My parents asked me how I knew the Williamses. I said I didn’t really know them.


Two things happened the next day when I went with my break dancing friend to Denny’s. We sat in the smoking section so my friend could smoke. I coughed, but braved on. Nolan was pretending not to know me or something. I kept waving, and got nothing. Sometimes he knew you and sometimes he didn’t. He sat down in the non smoking section with a woman. I kept trying to crane my head but when I would Casey would get pissed at me for not listening to him telling stories that I think were just Adam Sandler records. Anyway I listened. A half hour passed. The girl stormed out. I looked up too late though. I could’ve sworn I saw a swoosh of red hair pass the stuffed animal machine.


When I got home it was still daylight. Dad said I smelled like smoke. He’d find something for me to do, By God. He walked around and just preached and talked. Then he dragged me out to the car and he took me to church and just dropped me off. He didn’t even care that I wasn’t in those classes anymore. I was furious. I didn’t know what to do. I walked inside and moved along the barely lit dark grey tiles to the church proper. The only things that were lit were the giant Virgin Mary presentation behind the altar and a few candelabras. Out of laziness I sat in the back pew. Out of comfort, too.

Pastor Kent came up to me. I was surprised and looked it. He said it looked like I’d seen a ghost. He said it was funny to see me there, and I agreed that it was. I asked him if Nolan was lonely. He said, yeah, he was a lonely guy.

“I try to organize a hoops game, every now and then. And I even bought a fooseball table to try to get him over more. But he just wants to sit there in his end of the duplex and write all the time. I don’t get it. He’s really good though, so I guess that makes it fun for him.”

“Or less lonely.”

“I guess. Still seems like a lonely job to me.”

“You like preaching and talking to people though.”


Pastor Kent then told me a story about Nolan. He said that the girl who broke his heart in college was also the girl whose life he had saved. There was a kind of psycho kid in the dorm hall across from hers. He’d been knocking on her door for some minutes. He started to call her names that the pastor wouldn’t repeat, and said he knew she wasn’t actually going to the free movie that night. Just tell him the truth and he would go away. Then he kicked down her door.

Down the hall, Kent and Nolan had the same room. It was the rare night the roomies were together, Nolan was always in the stacks of the library reading or writing. Nolan and her had been going for walks after their Bible As Lit class. But this was one of those rare nights.

Pastor Kent held the kid back as long as he could. Nolan grabbed a nail gun from under his bunk, don’t know why he had it, and he marched across the hall and planted a nail in the dude’s knee, and knocked him out in two punches. But not before the freak had taken a bite out of the top of her left ear. Like I said, the guy was weird.

I couldn’t believe it, but I could somehow.

Afterwards the girl really wanted to just get married to Nolan. He wanted to marry her too. He actually really agonized about it. He’d spend hours by himself at the great reading room. He’d go down to the union and walk around the hobos and the late night fun loving frat guys. Then he’d go back to the reading room and stop in the luxurious ante-room. There were four portraits who stared at Nolan and he stared back. There was Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes and Victor Hugo. All of them had written very large, and very great books. Nolan liked the Goethe portrait the best because it looked like he was looking at something funny outside the frame, something funny that was getting away from him, but he didn’t care. Because, what can you do? Nolan laughed out loud very loudly, and kept laughing. A studious girl looked at him, packed up her lap top and walked out of the ante-room, the Persian rugs muting her steps.

Nolan sat down one night after 6 hours of writing in a notepad in front of a Sportscenter rerun and told the future Pastor Kent that if he got married it would take away from his writings. Kent asked him if he was crazy. He said not yet.

The girl had cried for hours after Nolan told her. And Nolan crawled into his bed and wanted to die. But he wrote instead of dying.

Years after that while trying to complete his doctoral thesis, he did lose his mind. Someone had found him throwing pages of his thesis into the Duck Pond of the campus, and screaming at the ducks. The judges in the theology department had previously spent a great deal of time rubbing their heads about Nolan Cosgrove’s thesis: My Love, She’s Missing Part of Her Ear: A Treatise on the Life Inward.


Pastor Kent said he was sorry to load me with all this information.

“You are just a 10th grader,” he said.


“Yeah, you’re right.”

I went to Denny’s and found out that Nolan had been fired. What had he done? He’d spilled hot soup on a guy. The boss, Amir, told him to settle down and have a coke over in the corner to think about it. He was cool for a while. There was a kind of Bible study from these harmless kids in the booth facing Nolan. He just stared at them threateningly. He thought they had something to do with a number of crimes. These were the two he kept repeating though:

1. They were spreading around the apocalyptic evangelical agenda, and were planning on spreading their doomsday rhetoric and nihilism (the nihilism doctrine, for Nolan, was explained by their commander in chief George W. Bush when he told Bob Woodward, “History books, what does it matter what they say about us? We’ll all be dead.”)

2. They had tried to break down his love’s door and rape her.

He rose from his booth and walked over to the Abercrombie clad guys. Before he could raise his arm Amir carried him out and told him not to come back.


I never saw him again. But a funny thing did happen. The next 10 weeks or so Karen Williams sat next to me and my folks. Lloyd was away on business. I watched her watch church and the time seemed to go by faster than ever. On the tenth day she talked to me.

“How have you been Mr. Richard?”



“Why do you still come here all the time?” I asked. To me church still seemed the most boring thing in the world.

“I’ll always come here,” she said.

She brushed her hair back with her left hand. The soft red hair came to a rest behind a gnarled ear, the only feature on her that wasn’t textbook beautiful. But it was a different kind, of course. Her face shined, but quietly, as voices rose. Or maybe that’s just how I want to remember it.

(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Contact Danny by way of email.

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