This Used to be a Church

There’s just the thing about the men hanging around, the realtor says. This used to be a church. They had a soup kitchen out the back, and the drunks, you know, they have this memory of a free meal. They come back like stray cats.

They’re harmless, he adds, and grins—seeming to say, that’s life, the big city, there are drunks.

And the preacher, he was a soft touch, I’ve heard he let a few of them sleep in the church basement from time to time. So be sure to lock up when you leave, otherwise they’ll creep in looking for a warm place to sleep.

Is there a ritual to tell your god to clear out?

“Just turn on the hose if they get too close,” he says, and laughs; it’s a funny joke.

She takes the place. On Sunday nights, she listens to the sound of laughter coming through the floorboards, the low sound of Irish songs. Arguments that flare and die down in waves. When she comes home late from her night job, jangling her keys at the door, they’re standing on the corner, waiting politely for her to go in first.

A man comes close, his face bundled up with scarves. Can I sing you a song? he asks, low and quiet. I’ll sing you a song for a bed tonight.

You don’t have to sing, she says.

She is only one step away from the drunks, always has been. Maybe the realtor recognized that in her when he showed her the place. She could be one of the red-faced women in the kitchen that she grew up with. I tell you, you’re a saint for staying with him, the women always told each other.

She left the man she was supposed to marry, so she will never be called a saint. He was a sober Protestant, serious and ashamed of her family’s loudness. Every time she took him home, he sat very upright in his chair, refusing every drink offered. In the car he said I don’t know how you’re related to those people, and laughed, both of them in on the joke.

Come join us, the man says at the door the next night. Come have a drink and a song.

When her friend visits the next week with a houseplant and a bottle of wine, they stay up late talking and slowly draining the bottle. She watches the level go down by magic, not fully aware of when her friend takes a drink or when she does.

I’m sorry about the singing, she says. The boys are in fine form tonight.

The singing? her friend asks.

And there is a moment, like taking a leap off a cliff into water of uncertain depth: Will she press further, ask, Can’t you hear it? The singing? Or will she laugh and say, Never mind. I just thought I heard something. This place used to be a church, you know.

Blair Hurley
Blair Hurley

Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted, published by W. W. Norton and longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her second novel will be published in 2023. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize winner and an ASME Fiction award finalist.