Many thanks to Phil Garland, this should have been finished months ago.
The neon sign buzzed like a thousand locusts. It glowed a harsh neon pink against the dark row of industrial lots that closed their gates early in the afternoon: Jesus Saves. It should have had a question mark.
Inside there was a hunched figure humming in the front row of pews. His torso bent forward and fingers interlaced across the back of his head. His neck was thick and his build suggested he had not often been idle. His voice, even at a low volume was sent up to the rafters and the reverberations made their way throughout the sanctuary. He sat on the edge of the wooden bench without restlessness. He wore a white collar and black shirt.
It had become his custom to get drunk on red wine, communion wine, and try to create psalms. He never wrote them down, a line he drew from sacrilege after all the pagans passed their poems and verse orally, while the Christians felt the need to record everything. He had also taken to smoking cigars and letting the frayed stubs litter the pulpit.
The door at the back of the sanctuary swung open breaking the Preacher from his stupor. A gaunt figure leaned heavily against the doorway as if an old friend stationed for support.”Father!” The nasally voice carried a foreign accent.
The voice grew louder as the figure drew forward, almost ratlike in his gait. He stopped a few feet behind the Preacher forcing him to turn his head.
“This isn’t that kind of church.” The Preacher sighed. “What the fuck is wrong with this town?’
“But Father if I am to be saved I must make a confession!” The figure began rocking back and forth.
The Preacher gave him an incredulous look that was not fully communicated in the candlelight. “Wait here.” He lurched upward and wandered back to the office nestled beside the expanse of the pulpit. He scanned the cluttered room looking for anything to use as a barrier. He only knew the Catholic rite from movies and he wasn’t about to build a goddamn booth for this fidgety son of a bitch. He stubbed out his cigar and took a hit of wine. The only thing within reach was a beat up flannelgraph with a limp cloud glue-gunned to the fabric and the figures of Mary and the three wise men kneeling in the centre. He grabbed the teaching aid and a yellowed tablecloth and went back to the sanctuary.
The man was still rocking but he had seated himself in one of the hard wooden pews. He jerked up expectantly as the Preacher ambled forward. “Stay there.” the Preacher commanded.
He set the flannelgraph down in the aisle and draped the tablecloth over it, hiding the virgin mother and her three amigos. He sat himself on the other side but he could still see the man’s feet shuffling madly on the dusty floor. “Now,” he asked.”What can I do for you?”
“My son” replied the man.
“You’re supposed to say my son, Father.”
“Dammit, this is my church and we’ll do it my way, you understand?”
“Whatever you say Father. It has been three years since my last confession.”
“Three years?! What the fuck you so wound up about then?”
“I broke a commandment Father.”
“That seems forgivable, what did you do?”
“I murdered a man father, I murdered a man in cold blood.” The Preacher now noticed the blood caked on the man’s boots. The nervous fidgeting had not stopped and the worn leather soles were muddied with the mixture of dust.
“Tell me more.”
“Well Father this is a man, one of my neighbours who often comes to my home. I live with my younger sister and our mother is quite old. We do not have much my sister is too small to work and my mother has taken to her bed. I am working many nights cleaning buses for the city. Tonight I had no buses to clean so I came home early. Our lock was broken and my mother was crying. You must know Father there is nothing worse than hearing the cries of your mother. This man, our neighbour, had come into our home and stolen our money. So we kept most of our savings in a coffee can in the kitchen. We cannot go to a bank. Well Father I was very angry, so angry that I could not see. I only saw red. I went to this man’s house and do you know what I saw Father? This man, my neighbour he was drinking and dancing around his apartment with a woman. He had his hand down her shirt and when I opened the door he was laughing, laughing so loud! I asked him about the money and he said, ‘What money? I have no money only this drink and this woman.’ Still they were laughing Father! I grabbed his bottle and smashed it across his head. The woman was screaming now Father she was screaming! I didn’t stop swinging until he stopped moving. There was so much blood Father I did not know a man had this much blood to lose. Then I wandered Father until I saw your sign.”
The dim light of the church threw weak shadows against the wall. In the silence the Preacher’s eyes drew upward to a figure of the most famous crucified Jewish man in history. The decorative recreation hung on the wall behind the confessor and the cheaply painted eyes pointed upward in a lolling gaze. There was a large amount of painted blood streaming down the face and the crown of thorns had gathered dust. “It was the right thing to do.” he said.
“What?” The man’s cry lodged itself permanently in his nasal cavity,
“Our Father, who is in heaven is a vengeful God and I believe you did what was right. Go and well, get out of here.”
The man rose quickly still unsteady on his feet and passed the makeshift barrier without looking back. The Preacher heard the doors close quietly and in a stupor of exhaustion he collapsed on the wooden bench.
He dreamed of a house. This house conjured familiar memories but he had never laid eyes on this place. He was in the kitchen with a peeling linoleum floor surrounded by windows. In an instant a wall of sound came crashing into him. The windows flexed out, ballooning like portholes until they shattered. The Preacher could feel his eyes bulging, a viscous liquid trailing down the side of his neck. He realized his ears were bleeding. He felt frozen, awash in sound that was rattling every molecule in his body. The cacophony didn’t rise or fall it held him rooted to the floor and gave no quarter.
A thud woke him from his stupor. His cheek was numb from sleeping on the wood and his head was throbbing in time with a heavy pounding on the door. “Is anybody in there?!” yelled a muffled voice. The Preacher got up and moved past his make-shift confessional with shoes sticking slightly to the floor. There were dark footprints of blood leading in and out of the sanctuary.
Two cops were standing in the foyer the size of a cargo elevator and loaded with religious tracts. “Oh good morning your reverence. It looks like we should have just let you sleep. We’re looking for a man who did this,” the cop held up a row of fat fingers and a Polaroid photograph of a mangled corpse. “We know the perp knew this man, if you’d call him that now. The guy is about six foot, one hundred and sixty pounds with dark eyes, you seen him?”
The Preacher stared expressionlessly at the moving lips. “Hey, HEY!” The cop on his left snapped his meaty fingers in front of the Preacher’s face. “You seen this guy or not? We got two other witnesses saying they seen a guy fitting that description in here last night and all we’re wondering is if you seen him.” The Preacher felt his tongue dried and limp between his teeth, he shook his head side to side.
“You a damn mute or something Reverend” The meaty fingers cop sneered. “Big help this guy is,” his overweight hand thumbed like a hitchhiker toward the Preacher.
“Yeah, seems like he used up all his words on praying for more booze,” the other replied. They laughed and turned awkwardly in the confined space of the foyer. “You better hope you haven’t seen that guy Padre, else we’ll be packing you in on obstruction of the LAW,” they said it together as if rehearsed and slammed the door.
The Preacher looked sidelong into a small mirror in the entrance to the sanctuary. His white collar was a canvas for yellow stains of sweat and blotchy red of spilled wine. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair rested in matted stringy clumps on his head. “A regular John the Baptist,” his Sunday school teacher would have said. But unlike the wanderer who feasted on wild honey he had caged himself in this place. His ears still rang from the memory of his dream and he noticed small lines of crusted blood on his earlobes.
The boy sat in the front seat of the truck, face resting against the cool glass of the window. The gravel kicked under the wheels and faint light broke through the heavy growth of young elms. The driver had a round face tucked under a dirty foam hat and was the same ageless “old” as all adults the boy knew. He didn’t know the man well but he was grateful to him. It was because of the boy’s insistent pleading that his parents even took him to church in the first place and they were quick to find any stranger to ferry their boy on his Sunday pilgrimage.
They never spoke much and there was always a talk radio program broadcasting the news or commenting on the weather that quietly punctuated the silence. The boy didn’t mind the lack of conversations his only fixation was on their destination, the church in the clearing.
There was no explanation for his desire to first attend the church. The boy had never heard about it as far as his parents knew and it was a spark that turned into a blaze, dishes washed, garbage taken out and the boys pleading eyes haunting them around every corner. The boy loved the sanctuary of the small building with high ceilings that narrowed at the top. The old benches without any backing for support and a smooth rosewood pulpit with a cross delicately carved in the front were all that furnished the interior.
The congregation loved him as well, every Sunday he would garner smiles and nods of approval. The pastor often referred to the boys attendance as proof of God’s hand in the lives of their community. The boy was encouraged to bring the Word home with him and this resulted in countless notes, cards and crafts made from construction paper and pipe cleaners. These creations contained scrawled verses from the gospels or usually a simple “Jesus Loves You” that were stashed underneath pillows or left hanging on the fridge. His parents response to these gifts was silence. They treated these artifacts with the same credence parents give to children they are uninterested in but do not have to worry about getting into trouble: just grow up and go away.
This day as the truck slowed to a stop and the man with the foam hat wrenched up the parking brake on the grassy incline the boy got a glimpse of something new. It glittered at the edge of the church’s clearing and as he closed the door of the truck he was drawn to the refracted light. The source of his fascination was a mound of broken glass. The pile had gathered in the morning light and sent it out like a beacon. The boy bent down and grabbed a large fragment slightly pricking his finger. At that moment he felt his tongue crackle and writhe and words, streams of words began babbling forth like a brook swelling into a stream.