Salvation City - By Sigrid Nunez


The best way to remember people after they’ve passed is to remember the good about them.

The first time Cole hears Pastor Wyatt say this he remembers how his mother hated when people said passed, or passed away. He’d come home from school one day and repeated the teacher’s announcement: Ruthie Lind was absent that day because her grandmother had passed.

“Died. Say died, pumpkin,” his mother said. “Passed sounds so silly.”

She had called him pumpkin and she did not seem to be angry with him, but he had felt obscurely ashamed. Later he was told that people were afraid to say died because they were afraid of dying. Passed was just a euphemism. The funny-sounding word was new to Cole and for a time it kept recurring, floating into his head for no apparent reason. But the first time he saw the word in a book he did not recognize it, he was so sure it began with a u. Followed by an f, of course.

Pastor Wyatt does not always say passed. More often he says went home. (“Had a great-aunt went home at a hundred and three.”) It all depends on whether the person he is talking about was saved or unsaved.

When he is preaching, Pastor Wyatt never says passed.

Pastor Wyatt is not afraid of dying.

“That’s my job in a nutshell. I’ve got to teach people not to be afraid. We’re all going to die, that’s for certain. And the thing for folks to do is stop wasting their energy being all headless and fearful like a herd of spooked cattle.”

At first, whenever Pastor Wyatt spoke directly to him, Cole would watch Pastor Wyatt’s hands. He was not yet comfortable looking Pastor Wyatt in the face. Cole was keeping so much in—he had so many secrets—he did not like to look anyone in the face if he could help it. He knew this gave the impression he’d done something wrong, and that is just how he felt: as if he’d done something wrong and was trying to hide it.

He still feels this way much of the time. He thinks he will always feel this way.

Pastor Wyatt himself has a way of looking at people that Cole would call staring. His mother would have called it fucking rude. But from what he can tell, other people are not at all disturbed by the way Pastor Wyatt looks—or stares—at them.

Cole understands that Pastor Wyatt is thought to be handsome, though Cole himself has no opinion about this. But he has observed that people are delighted to have Pastor Wyatt’s attention on them, especially if they are women.

Pastor Wyatt always looks right into the face of the person he is talking to, and his eyes are almost like hands that reach out and hold you so you can’t turn away. Somewhere Cole has read about a person giving someone else a searching look. He thinks this is a good description of what Pastor Wyatt does, too. But with Pastor Wyatt it’s not something that happens once, or once in a while, but more like every time, and in the beginning Cole hated it.

He has never known anyone who looks so hard at other people. (He’s got Holy Spirit high beams, members of the congregation like to say.) Cole has never known anyone who smiles so much, either. He smiles even when he preaches and when he is preaching about bad things, like temptation and sin. He smiles so that people won’t be afraid. He is a tall man with a wide neck and naturally padded shoulders, and around shorter people he tends to slouch, bending his knees if need be—he does not like the feeling of towering over anyone. (Cole always thinks of this when Pastor Wyatt tells him to stand up straight, or not to hunch at the table.) When he is among children, Pastor Wyatt will sometimes do a full knee bend, balancing on the balls of his feet. It would break his heart to know that any child was afraid of him.

Pastor Wyatt still shakes hands with people. He pays no attention to the warning to switch to the elbow bump. Cole remembers learning about this while he was still in regular school. Public health officials were trying to get people to switch because touching elbows did not spread infection the way touching hands did. Cole knows there are many people who have switched, but he sees the elbow bump only when he is around strangers. The people he sees