I didn't know when it was coming down, but I knew it was coming. My own father, an elder, had worked with Dickie Vreeman for years, so I knew it had been a decade or more since he'd been in the church. To me, excommunication seemed like putting the mark of the beast on a person; in one hundred years it was never done that I knew of. But I'd been through catechism, and I knew that the church said that discipline was one of what they called the "keys of the kingdom": "whatsoever shall be bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever shall be loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That was the principle. Discipline, people said, was one of the marks of the true church of the Lord.
It wasn't sleeping with Penny that brought it on either. It was the fact that Dickie never came to communion, maybe not for twenty years. Penny really didn't change the fact that he refused the means of grace; she just tallied another sin of a lesser degree. Excommunication was a matter of principle finally, a matter of the integrity of the church running headlong into the stiffness of Dickie's refusal to come to the Lord's Supper. Even Ed said so.
Early that summer Ed would climb the scaffold and be up there for hours, alone with Dickie. He’d take his trowel along in his back pocket, and it always made the work harder below because they'd be forever at the side looking for more buckets full of wet cement or bricks. He was up there trying to turn his nephew around. But Dickie was all of a grown man already.
Finally Ed would scramble down the scaffolding and look at me. "Can't get that man to wear a hard hat," he told me a couple times. “He flat refuses. All I need is a big fine." That’s all he’d say, but I knew there was more in what he didn’t.
Most noons Dickie would sneak over to Penny's for lunch, and Ed would go to home to his wife. But coffee time we'd be together out back where Ed laid a couple rough planks across some blocks.
You could see the way Ed took it all by the way he'd pour coffee from the thermos; the cup would shake just slightly in his fingers, enough so that he was embarrassed. Shaking made him hold the thing in two hands. But we never talked much. None of the Vreemans are talkers. Sometimes Ed would say something about baseball or the weather , but mostly they nodded at each other and looked around as if there was something new to see out back of the Wooden Shoe. We'd sit and eat sugar-flecked donuts Ed bought fresh from the bakery.
Only one morning the whole church business came up. Ed's hard hat leaned up toward the back of his head so the strip of hair down his forehead stuck out from the visor.
“Get some company last night, did you, Dickie?" Ed said.
Dickie nodded. The only way you could tell he was forty was the lines in his face. His cheeks were shallow where the skin drew back from his bones. Tight little lines grew out and away from his eyes like sun rays in a kid's drawing. "Doesn't matter anyway," he said.
"Be easier for everybody if you'd just take your papers up to some other church." Ed shook the drip off the edge of the donut.
“That’s the church I was born into,” Dickie said. “They don’t want me anymore—they’re going to have to throw me out, if they got the guts to do it.”
Dickie had such quiet blue eyes. He was so quiet that sometimes I was afraid of him.
Ed started to say something, and then he stopped.
Tomorrow: That Sunday in church