A Short Story

Bruno, the week’s hall monitor for Sunday school, stroked the right side of his bushy mustache as he stood just outside the little kitchen in the church basement. He still had no idea where he’d picked up the habit of stroking the one side of his mustache when something intrigued him, but there it was. No changing now. Not at almost sixty years old.

He shifted and leaned hard on his cane, again thankful for the new hallway carpet that provided at least some cushion for when he found himself standing long enough that his hips and knees began to moan at him. Oh, they were already starting to whine now, but he ignored them. Pretty much ignored the hall as well, except for a quick glance left and right to see if any wayward kids had decided to start roaming the building instead of staying in their assigned classrooms.

The glances would be enough, and Bruno’s aching joints would have to make do, because no way could he pull himself away from the spectacle going on inside the plain kitchen, its whitewashed walls bathed in sterile florescent light from overhead fixtures. Bruno had been standing there watching for a good ten minutes now. He’d said nothing the entire time, because that was his way when he found himself intrigued—yes, another habit he’d never break. The objects of his attention had offered no words of their own either during their mesmerizing performance. Within the kitchen two middle-schoolers toiled away like dam-building beavers on meth. In their case, though, construction centered on puzzles—and plenty of them too.

The two kids—Carrie and Tom—had arrived almost right after Sunday school got going, escorted by Mr. Joseph Schenk, this month’s middle-school teacher, who had been quick to tell Bruno that Tom and Carrie would be confined to the kitchen for the rest of the service, as they’d been acting up in class and then got huffy when Mr. Schenk asked them to please settle down. Bruno had simply nodded. But after Mr. Schenk had shuffled off on a cane of his own, Bruno turned toward the kitchen and tried to offer a smile of sympathy to the kids. However, they paid him no mind at all, having already started pushing four of the long white tables together to make one giant work surface. And then came the puzzles from the storage closet in the back corner of the kitchen.

Dozens and dozens of mini puzzles. Some only ten pieces, the majority twenty-five, and a handful at thirty. Bruno first mused that Carrie and Tom might be up to more mischief, maybe planning to dump out all the puzzles and then mix up the pieces before putting them back into the boxes. Bruno had to confess—to himself and God—that he’d even smiled at that notion, as he’d always thought Pastor Beth seemed a little too proud of all the Bible puzzles she’d collected through the years for the kids ministry. No two puzzles the same … and even more, no two puzzles told the same Bible story. The artistry of the puzzles also varied, with different styles and perspectives reflecting the times and culture in which the illustrations had originally been crafted—from Cubism and Impressionism all the way to Realism and Baroque. Still, Bruno had always thought it to be a neat collection of puzzles, despite many of them not having all the original pieces—welcome to Sunday school, right? Plus, even if Pastor Beth had a bit of a big head about the puzzle collection, it would be pretty cruel to do something like mix them all up.

But Tom and Carrie had gotten right to putting each puzzle together. Bruno had almost gone back to his chair at the main junction of hallways after seeing Carrie start building a Noah’s Ark puzzle, while Tom got busy with the Virgin Mary as she sat on her bed while listening to Angel Gabriel’s news. But then Bruno stopped and just watched when neither of them actually finished either puzzle, leaving jagged edges. And on they went to two more … and two more … and two more, leaving each one unfinished on at least two edges and some without any smooth edges at all.

So now Bruno stood there leaning against the doorway—he threw a quick glance left and then right, saw no one—as Carrie and Tom dove into the next pair of puzzles. Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for Tom, and for Carrie, the Ascension of Jesus. As Bruno watched Carrie buzz through the little puzzle, he smiled, since he knew that one was missing a vital piece: the face of Jesus. Pastor Beth had even tried to cut a piece of cardboard to fit the hole, going so far as to draw a smiley face on it to represent the glorified mug of Jesus. But then some kids redid the smiley face into the villain from the Happy Death Day movies, and Pastor Beth decided that a faceless Jesus was just dandy—“Allows the kids to use their imaginations,” she’d said.

Carrie finished the Jesus puzzle, all the edges jagged—along with the jagged, missing face of Jesus, of course. Bruno turned his eyes toward Tom’s progress on the walls of Jericho, but a noise from down the hallway to the right yanked his attention away.

“Mr. Bruno, Mr. Bruno!” squeaked a little boy named Jules.

Bruno smiled at Jules and waited for him to approach so they could repeat their weekly ritual. Had that much time passed already this morning?

“Which way to the bathroom?” Jules asked as he stopped in front of Bruno and looked up.

Bruno drew himself to his full stature and braced his left hand against the doorframe as his right lifted his cane and pointed down a side hall.

“Still there?” Jules asked.

Squinting one eye, Bruno stared down at him and gave his biggest smile. “Still, Jules,” he said.

Jules giggled and scampered away, singing his usual bathroom tune, “Gotta Pee”—a parody of the hit “Meant to Be” by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line.

Bruno still wondered where Jules had learned the song, but it always made him laugh, so he didn’t bother telling Pastor Beth about it.

Turning back to the kitchen, Bruno leaned on his cane again and blew out a sharp breath through his nostrils, feeling the hot air on his thick mustache. The knees and hips were not happy, but Bruno told them to shut up. No way was he going to miss what looked like the grand finale.

Tom and Carrie had apparently finished with all the mini puzzles they planned to build, because now they were sliding the individual puzzles around on the giant work surface. The corner of the table nearest to Bruno soon had the Garden of Eden puzzle sitting next to Cain Kills Abel. Bruno breath-laughed at the differences in artwork, with the Eden imagery a lush, sweeping painting that could have appeared in some gallery, while the Cain puzzle featured near cartoonish depictions of two young men wearing animal skins—one of them with a big frown and holding a rock overheard, and the other lying on the ground with a defensive hand up, his face frozen in terror.

One after another, the puzzles found specific places on the table. Bruno, though, couldn’t make rhyme or reason of it, aside from the few with at least one smooth edge being on the outside. None of the puzzles had been completely finished, and now he also noticed that some were missing pieces that had been there before the interruption by Jules. Bruno pursed his lips at that, but what came next made him think, What the hell?

Carrie and Tom began force-fitting the puzzles together, jamming one jagged edge into another into another wherever possible until every last uncompleted puzzle had been used. After they’d finished, they looked at the mishmash creation and then smiled at each other before staring down at the crooked cacophony of images, colors, artistry, stories, and several gaps that showed the white of the table beneath.

Staring at the puzzle conglomeration from the doorway, Bruno now furrowed his eyebrows, still unable to make heads or tails of it. Even the few smooth-edged puzzles on the outside did little to give it any sense of order, as nothing lined up to make it a perfect rectangle or square or any other symmetrical object.

Aside from the numerous gaps, the interior of the puzzle seemed even more confused than the edges, with Queen Esther’s face connected to the jawbone of an ass held by Samson, and the healing hand of Peter almost resting on the shoulder of the young shepherd David as he let loose his sling against Goliath. Oh, and best—or worst—of all: The tastefully bloody, crying Jesus hanging on the cross just at the edge of the battle of Jericho as the Israelites cut down those heathen Canaanites.

Bruno finally shook his head. He just couldn’t figure it out. “You got me,” he said. “I’m stumped.”

Tom and Carrie both looked up at him.

“Yeah,” Carrie said. “So are we.”

Bruno said nothing for a moment as he thought on it some more. Finally he said, “I mean, I’ve seen pieces of an old car twisted around and put on display in a museum, so I guess art can look pretty crazy sometimes.” He shrugged. “You got a title for your masterpiece there?”

Tom nodded. “The Bible According to Mr. Joseph Schenk, Sunday School Teacher, et al.”

Now Bruno had to shake his head again. “But it doesn’t all fit together.”

Carrie smiled at him and said, “Exactly.”