f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 01/01/2006 - 02/01/2006

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Problem of Talking About God: Day 2

You can tell from the comments that not everyone agrees that we need language to talk about faith. God is the same forever so the words spoken two thousand years ago are just as valid today as they were then. Simple plain words have been changing people’s hearts forever. After all, it isn’t the words themselves that have the power. There is no incantation eloquent enough to win a soul on its own. God need enter the picture.

I agree. But part of me can’t help but feel that it’s a bit of a cop out, too. “Who cares how I proclaim the Gospel as long as I do so?”

The problem is with fiction writing you’ve specifically chosen a medium where language and communication aren’t secondary to the message—they are on equal footing with the message. Or is that a bit of blasphemy?

I don’t necessarily want to go down the old, “Message driven vs. craft driven fiction path.” It’s been trod bare. We all know where we stand.

Instead I want to take a slightly different look at what’s going on in Christian fiction by looking at our intent in writing.

To me there are three main reasons you would choose to write Christian fiction. (And possibly a fourth.) All are valid. Two, I think, can be considered slightly “higher” in their aim. But I have no quarrels with any of these.

1. Entertainment – This one should be self-explanatory. There are books that are written to bring pleasure to readers. The goal is to engage, but not necessarily to challenge. These can be a wide variety of genres. That tend to be undervalued and underappreciated, particularly by those of us on literary pedestals. Writing a novel that is successful at entertaining broadly is not an easy thing.

2. Evangelistic – The second kind of book is written specifically with non-believers in mind. Personally, I think any book that contains a conversion sequence is intrinsically evangelistic. These are the CBA books that seem to get the worst rap from all fields…but at its core can you argue with its intent? Can you even argue with the fruit that these books have long borne? Souls are won through Christian fiction. Through Left Behind and Janette Oke. Through Marilynne Robinson and Leif Enger.

3. Doctrinal – It’s perhaps not the right word, but I mean to convey that some Christian fiction, rather than focusing outward, instead turns its intentions on the church itself. The goal here IS to challenge. The Christian life—not the sake of the soul—is what’s at stake. It’s a slightly newer breed, but (from my viewpoint) seems to be growing.

(4. Worship – I think you can write a book solely in worship of God. But whether any of these have been published, I’m not sure. I think the writing is the most important thing.)

Tomorrow we’re going to look at #2 and #3 and discuss the issue of language and “God talk” when approaching these two different intentions.

::

Go to Day 3 of the Problem of Talking About God.

Monday, January 30, 2006

TS Beckett in The New Pantagruel

Word on the street is that Marvin's story is going to be available at The New Pantagruel on Wednesday. And, yes, I live on a very literary street.

The Problem with Talking About God: Day 1

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not listening closely enough. But, after having been in the church for thirty years—the last fourteen of which I’ve paid attention—I’d say that I don’t often hear that much new from the church.

Sure, we go in waves. Obscure guys like Jabez get their day. Or Narnia-mania gets us all talking about “safe lions.” But for the most part, the language and vocabulary of faith is rather limited. We spend a lot of time reworking plowed ground.

This came to me a bit back when I was reading your conversion stories. I read 75 in a row. No two were the same. And yet very few were…different. Please, in no way, should anyone take that as an insult. It’s a simple fact of what we’re facing.

Nearly everything important about faith and grace and the Gospel has been said before. We’re merely repeating it.

In reading the conversion stories, I began to see interesting parallels between “conversion dialogues” and chess. I’m teaching my daughter to play chess and since I don’t really know how to play, I’m learning along with her. I’ve been studying chess openings lately and to me, they are analogous to the logical parries and thrust at the heart of most witnessing.

For instance: the King’s Pawn Opening and Center Counter Defense = “Jesus was a great teacher” opinion and the “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” defense.

Just as a skilled chessman plays countless games and knows how to counter each gambit and move, so do evangelicals hold onto strong answers to the most common complaints against Christianity. In fact we even had a ready answer to those who ask us if we need to have a ready answer. Right? Isn’t 1 Peter 3:15 our admonition?

Which brings us to the first paradox that makes writing Christian fiction so complicated.

We need to approach faith with new words because it’s all been said before. Except we’re not writing for believers. We want non-believers to read our work—for whom it HASN’T been said before. Except, for the most part, our work is being read inside the church by people who are taking comfort in the message they accept. And therefore we should approach faith with new words. Because it’s all been said before.

We'll pick up here tomorrow.

(Thanks again for not abandoning ship during the great silence of early ’06.)

::

Go to Day 2 of The Problem With Talking About God.

Weird Things You Can Find on the Internet

I know the Internet is an unparalleled tool for communication, information sharing, self-expression, etc., but I still like it most for the wonderfully random things you can find.

Like this. Just in case you're ever confronted with a dead elephant.

One of the hints (see page 7) for dealing with a dead elephant: "Heavy equipment may be necessary to move a dead elephant." Really? Never would have guessed.

It reminds me of working on an emergency medicine book at my first publishing job ever and stopping work so I could read a chapter on treating sea snake bites.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Hiatus

Thanks for your patience during this unannounced down time. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming on Monday.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Jana Riess's New Blog

Likely you've seen this by now, but Jana Riess--Religion Editor for PW--is offering up a personal blog of reviews. The reviews, to date, have been all over the map in terms of coverage, but she's a sharp writer and always an engaging read.

Monday, January 23, 2006

T.L. Hines is Funny, Too

Publishing humor. Is there anything better?

Chuck Norris Is Funny

Not to me personally, but somebody's decided that he's our next national punchline.

Some examples:

Edited to add: The Japery's satirical take on the Chuck Norris boom.

SNL

Top 30 Chuck Norris Facts

To his credit Mr. Norris has been remarkably even-tempered about things.

The question I have for him is: "Seriously? It took four authors?"

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Need an Agent?

Published author Joe Faust gives his view on agents, coaxes superstar comic book author Kurt Busiek into leaving a very funny comment referencing Zeno's Paradox, and offers the greatest title for what could be a fantastic inspirational novel if only someone would dare to write it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Suggestion

I wonder if it would be more productive, healthier, and life affirming if we were the ones learning to ballroom dance, ice skate, etc. rather than simply watching "celebrities" do it on TV.

I wasn't sure the reality trend could get more frustrating. And yet it has.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Chuck Klosterman on White Guys Who Play Basketball

Race is one of those topics that's spoken about with more deference than intelligence, so I found this essay, "White Like Larry" by Chuck Klosterman really quite well done. He spends some time talking with Malcolm Gladwell, if that's more a draw than the NBA or Klosterman himself.

Plus it sets up this little comparison that I (and likely only I) found laugh-out-loud amusing:

Larry Bird is to Bob Dylan as Keith Van Horn is to Conner Oberst.

I'm trying to figure out if it's Van Horn or Bright Eyes who should be the most insulted.

Friday, January 06, 2006

"With Every Head Bowed" by T.S. Beckett

I am pleased to announce that this story has been picked up for publication by The New Pantagruel. This is one of the premier online Christian art journals and I'm grateful to them for agreeing to partner with faith*in*fiction for this contest. They're making some final edits on the story now and it should be up around mid-January. I'll definitely have the link here but encourageyou to spend some time at the journal looking around before then.

We've had some preliminary talks about partnering together again on another contest in 2006 so keep your eyes peeled for more details.

So, congrats to Marvin...and thanks to all of you for your submissions. I think next week we'll explore the aftermath of the contest a little and some things that can be learned after reading 75 conversions.

Good weekend to all.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

"The Fellowship of the Golden Emerod" by Christopher Fisher

I’ve felt old age creeping up on me for years, but geezerhood came suddenly this past Monday morning at exactly seven a.m., barely a month after my fortieth birthday. The night before, I’d felt something happening in my back door and tried one of those over-the-counter creams. You know, the kind you try to get your wife to buy for you while you wait in the car. In the morning I woke with what felt like an ear of corn in my tailpipe.

I called in sick at the office and went to the doctor. After some prodding downstairs, he said I had two sizable fourth-degree hemorrhoids. (If you’re curious about what that means, you can google it. But I’m betting you’ll regret that you did.) He wrote two prescriptions: Vicodin tablets every four to six hours by mouth, and a steroid to shove in at the other end three times daily. He also ordered me to sit still with a heating pad under my rump. Two days later I’m still here, watching TV, popping Vicodin every three hours and fifty-nine minutes, and slow-cooking my ass.

I hear keys rattling in the front door and turn. Carrie’s back from taking the girls to school. “Jamie forgot her purse,” she says, hustling toward the girls’ room.

After a moment, she comes back through the living room, stopping to lean over and kiss my forehead. “I’m going to work out after I drop this off. So I’ll be awhile.”

“Leave the door unlocked,” I say. “Gary’s bringing some movies.”

She stops in the doorway. “Is he ever going to get a job?”

“He’s looking,” I say. But she’s not buying it.

“Tell him no beer until after lunch. And none for you. Not with those pills you’re taking.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Just before closing the door, she points a finger. “No beer!”

I flip through channels for another ten minutes, looking for something to watch until Gary shows. When the knock comes, I shout, “Come on in!” without looking up. But the sound of the door opening is not followed by Gary’s usual “Hey, hey, hey!”

I look up to see two young men wearing white shirts and ties, each holding a Bible. “Oh, God,” I mutter and think maybe it’s time for another Vicodin.

I’m not dressed for company, wearing only boxer shorts and a threadbare white tank top. I reach for the afghan on the back of the couch and lay it over my lap. “Can I help you?”

One of them approaches and offers his hand, which I reluctantly shake. “Name’s Bill Herman.”

“Paul Keppel,” I say.

He motions to his partner “This is Ted Butler.”

The other kid steps up to shake my hand, and I laugh. “Bill and Ted?” They look at me, not getting it. “Like in the movie?” I say.

They stare at each other like they’ve never thought of this, and I expect them to say “Excellent!” and start in on some air guitar.

“Yeah. I guess so,” Bill says.

“Well, listen, Bill and Ted. My Dad was Jehovah’s Witness, so I’m not interested. And I’ve already got a Book of Mormon.”

“We’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or Mormons.”

“Well, I already go to church. I don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner, or a magazine subscription to help pay for your trip to Europe. And I write bad checks. All the time. So save yourselves some trouble and—”

“Where do you attend church?”

“At the First. . . United Baptist. . . Holiness Church.”

Bill smiles. “It’s not important.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Keppel.” Ted waves his hand. “Can I use your restroom?”

I point over my shoulder. “Through the kitchen. Last door on the right.”

“Thanks.” He sets his Bible on the glass-topped coffee table and leaves me alone with Bill, who lays his Bible next to Ted’s and sits on the sofa. Bill looks at the furniture, the stereo, the pictures on the walls as if casing the place for a burglary. Then his eyes catch the cord leading from the wall outlet and disappearing under my blanket. “Are you sick or something?”

I reach down to adjust the blanket, hiding the cord, and begin preparing some kind of denial. But then I think the truth may be enough to make them leave. “Yes, since you asked. I have two hemorrhoids as big as walnuts. I have to sit here on a hot pad until they go down and I can walk and crap like normal again.”

My confession doesn’t have the desired effect. Bill says, “That sucks!”

Then I hear Ted from the kitchen. “That really sucks!” He comes back and sits on the sofa next to Bill.

“Paul,” Bill says as if he knows me. “I know you must be wondering why we’re here.”

“Lucky guess.”

“I’d like to ask you a question, if that’s okay.”

I’ve heard this one a dozen times. Once, I even saw it scratched into the wall of a bathroom stall: If you were to die right now, and God asked you why he should let you into heaven, what would you say? I’ve never been one for vandalism, but I couldn’t resist pulling out my pocket knife and scratching a response: I’d say “Please don’t turn me away, God. I died on the crapper. Isn’t that humiliation enough?”

Bill sits forward a bit. “If you were to die tomorrow. . .”

Here it comes. I start working out a hemorrhoid version of my bathroom graffiti answer.

“Only you know you’re going to die tomorrow. What would you do today?”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Just then Gary opens the front door, a stack of DVDs under one arm and a six-pack of longnecks swinging at the end of the other.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he says. Then he notices my guests. “What’s this? A friggin’ Sunday meeting?”
I grew up with quite a bit of resentment towards religion. It comes with being raised by parents too righteous for things as “pagan” as Christmas or Thanksgiving. But where I’m resentful, Gary is outright hostile. He’s never given a good reason for hating church people so much. Sometimes I suspect he’s just trying to impress me.

“You want me to get rid of these Bible-Thumpers, Paul?”

“We can leave,” Bill says. “We can come back later, or never come back at all. It’s up to you.”

I feel sorry for them for some reason. As much as I’m bound to hate whatever it is they’ve come here to say, they just seem like a couple of nice kids.

“It’s okay, Gary. They’re cool.”

“They’re cool, are they?” Gary sits on the couch beside me, opens a bottle, and takes a long drink.

“Oh,” he says, holding the bottle up in front of them. “Does this bother you?”

“Not at all,” Bill says.

Ted shrugs. “Nope.”

“Well, that was rude of me, I guess.” Gary pulls out two more longnecks and hands them over. “I guess I should’ve offered you boys a drink.”

“Sure,” they say. “Thanks.”

Gary sinks into the couch as they open their bottles and tip them back for a sip.

“Not bad,” Bill says. He looks at the label on the bottle as if memorizing the brand for future reference. “Did you know the best beer in the world is made by a bunch of Catholic monks in Belgium?”

Gary stands and sets his bottle on the nearest Bible like it’s a fifty-cent coaster then stomps off to the bathroom.

Ted looks at me. “Did we say something wrong?”

“He’s just pissed because he couldn’t get a rise out of you. He’ll keep trying until he hits a nerve. He can get pretty ugly with religious types. Maybe you guys should go.”

“No need!” Gary shouts from the back. His voice has taken on an affected lisp. “I’m just getting out of these awful, scratchy clothes.” A moment later, he comes out of the kitchen wearing only a couple of towels—one around his waist, one coiled about his head like a turban—and a turquoise bra one of my daughters must’ve left lying out. He puts his hands on the cups of the bra. “Oh, that’s much better. All comfy now.” He prances back to the couch and sits so close he’s practically on my lap.

Bill and Ted snicker, but don’t seem at all uncomfortable.

“What the hell are you doing?” I say.

“Oh, Paul.” Gary pats me on the shoulder, his wrist so limp it makes me cringe. “We don’t have to hide our feeling from these two understanding young men.”

“Get away from me, dumb-ass.” I push him away then grimace, my nether region on fire.

“You should try not to strain,” Ted says. “That’s probably what got you in that condition in the first place.”

“Huh?”

“Did you know that’s how Elvis died?” Bill says. “Straining on the toilet.”

“Well, ain’t you just a well of knowledge?” Gary says.

“I guess. Wanna hear a Bible story about hemorrhoids?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“Okay. The Philistines were these people who were at war with Israel. They had this battle where the Philistines won and stole the Ark of the Covenant.”

“You mean with the animals?” I ask.

Gary laughs. “Not Noah’s Ark. The other one. Like in Indiana Jones.” He folds his arms across the bra on his chest. “Call me dumb-ass.”

“That’s right,” Bill says. “The Philistines stole it and God got pissed. He gave them all hemorrhoids so bad a lot of the Philistines died from them. Long story short, they got the hint and decided to send the Ark back to Israel. Only their priests said that to end the plague, they had to put an offering inside. But not regular money. The Philistine princes had to make golden images of their hemorrhoids and put them in the Ark.

“The Bible doesn’t say how they made these things. But to me, the idea of these princes with a mirror in one hand and a chisel in the other just doesn’t compute. The picture I get is of these princes lined up, naked and bent over with their heads between their legs, posing while a group of metal smiths hammer out the likeness of their inflamed cracks. Now that’s gotta be a humiliating experience for any ruler. Worse even than the hemorrhoids.”

Gary starts into a roll of laughter. “Can you imagine the President?” He stands up on the couch and assumes the position. And thank sweet Jesus he’s still wearing underwear beneath that towel.

“Hurry up and take your pictures, Senators! I’ve got a viewing in the Rose Garden in half an hour!”

It’s the worst George Dubya impression I’ve heard. But Bill and Ted are nearly suffocating with laughter. Gary jumps off the couch and trades high fives with the boys, and I’m wondering why they’re suddenly buddies.

“Hey, wait a minute, dammit! What are you saying? I’ve got hemorrhoids ‘cause God is punishing me?”

“No,” Bill says, trying to stifle his laughter. “It’s just a story that seemed. . . relevant.”

“Sounded like you were trying to make a point.”

“I didn’t think so,” Gary says. “Come on, Paul. It was funny.”

Ted sits forward in his chair. “I’m sorry, Mr. Keppel. Can I use your restroom again?

“Sure. Make yourself a sandwich while you’re at it.”

When he’s gone, Bill says, “Seriously, Mr. Keppel. We didn’t mean a thing by it. All we came here for was to ask that one question.”

Ted shouts from the bathroom, “Which you still haven’t answered, by the way.”

“What question?” Gary asks.

Ted comes back. “We were asking Mr. Keppel, if he knew he were going to die tomorrow, what would he do today?”

Gary’s smile fades. “Deep, man. Deep.”

I can’t help but laugh. Then I realize Gary’s not joking. I turn to the boys. “I guess this is the time we all hold hands and pray so I can go to heaven.”

Bill smiles, shakes his head. “We’re not here to save your soul. Just to get you thinking. Heaven is important, Paul. But so is life. Christ didn’t just preach heaven and hell. He touched people. He ate with them, laughed, drank. Really fellowshipped. Life is so much more than a bus ride to a final destination. You, all of us, should take time for those around us. Your kids. Your wife. Your neighbors. How will they remember you? What regrets will they have when you’re gone? Things they wished you had said. Places they wanted to go with you.”

I try to resist it, but I feel his words start to weigh on my shoulders. “Carrie and I have talked about taking a month in Alaska since we got married.”

“How long ago was that,” Bill asks.

“Seventeen years.”

“Don’t let it be another seventeen. Summer’s almost here. Take some time off to spend with your family. You never know when it might be too late.”

I look at the floor and nod.

Gary says, “Deep, man,” and scratches a rib underneath his bra.

Ted fidgets in his chair. “I’ve got to pee again.”

“Jesus,” I say. “You must have a bladder the size of a walnut!”

“Or one of your hemorrhoids,” Bill says.

Gary and the boys laugh, but I can only chuckle. I reach over and open a beer, forgetting all about the Vicodin, and just as I raise it to my mouth, the front door opens.

Carrie stands in the doorway, her jaw open, eyes darting from the preacher boys on the sofa to me mixing beer and pain killers on the couch, then to Gary standing in the middle, dressed like a drag queen at a day spa.

::

“The best thing about Alaska is the air,” Gary says. “I never really knew what people meant by ‘fresh air’ until we got to the lake cabin.”

“Will you shut the hell up about Alaska?”

Carrie and I planned the trip and reserved a big four-room cabin on a private lake. Gary, who had cleaned up considerably since meeting Bill and Ted, asked if he and his new fiancée, Brenda, could split the cost and come with us. I liked the idea, because it looked like I was going to need a loan to pay for the vacation. I was sure Carrie would never go along with bringing my old drinking buddy, but she surprised me by saying yes.

I guessed it had something to do with Gary getting religious. Ted gave him a pocket New Testament, and he’d read halfway through it before I made it off my heating pad and back to work. He’d read it every day since, he said. He also started spending Sunday mornings at the United Presbyterian something or other, where he met Brenda. He even found a steady job. And I hadn’t seen him drunk in months.

He was so different, in fact, the four weeks in Alaska didn’t drive me out of my skull like I thought it would. It was actually nice. Like family.

What did that punk kid call it?

Fellowship.

Whatever it was lasted the whole vacation, through the trip back home, and even the walk up the front steps. Then I turned the key in my front door and opened it.

The front room was empty. The TV, stereo, speakers, and even the entertainment cabinet that held them were gone. A quick look through the house would prove that everything worth more than ten bucks had been taken. The only furniture left in the living room was the glass-topped coffee table. There was a note.

Thanks for a most excellent time! ---Bill and Ted.

I felt like an idiot. But at least I wasn’t alone. Harrison County saw quite a few families taking out-of-state vacations this past summer. Before word of the scam got around, Bill and Ted hit twelve houses, making off with nearly two-hundred grand in cash, jewelry, and other pawn-friendly merchandise. Like mine, all the houses were isolated enough that no one would notice a moving truck coming or going in the dead of night. All the victims told a similar story about the nice young ministerial students who’d visited just weeks before, encouraging them to travel and spend time with their families.

“If I ever see those two again,” Gary says. “I think I might just kiss ‘em.”

“Are you insane? They robbed my house, you moron.”

“You’re insured.”

“So! They’re criminals. Con-artists for Christ’s sake.”

Gary smiles. “Exactly.”

I huff and take one of his beers.

He leans back in the bean bag that sits where my sofa used to be. “You know how lazy you are, Paul. If not for them, we never would have seen Alaska. That’s something, at least. And look at me.”

“But they were liars, Gary. Frauds. They didn’t believe that Jesus stuff any more than you did before you met them.”

“That’s not the point, Paul. Did you know there’s a story in the Bible where God talks through a jackass?”

“Well, ain’t you just a well of knowledge?”

“Very funny. Look, the point is, those kids were just a couple of two-legged jackasses.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on that.”

He sips his beer. “What I’m trying to say is, can’t you see how I’ve changed?”

I don’t answer. Of course I can see it. I just can’t bear him acting like this was the best thing that ever happened to him. Hell, maybe it was. But it wasn’t his house that got robbed.
“You know, Paul, you could make some changes, too.”

I shake my head. I’ll keep my eye on him for now, to see if this thing sticks. And if it does, who knows? Maybe I will.

Talking In Posts

Writers are talking to each other again on their blogs. This time Michael Snyder (author of "All Healed Up" below) talks about the thorny issue of "content" and our complicitness in the sins of our characters--and Mark Bertrand offers his response.

If I were to jump into the converation I'd start with Mike's story, then read his essay, then read Mark's response.

More Stories!

Here's that list I promised. These are other stories submitted during the contest. If you've a story from the contest available online that I've neglected to mention, please email me.

Newly added:
"The Master's Key" by Sheya Joie
"Sleeperhold" by Jim Sanders

"Conversion" by Phil Kan
"River of Faith" by Peter Thomas

"Little White Lies" by Kenn Allan
"Stumbling Stone" by Ann
"The Concubine's Son" by Sally Apokedak
"Another Day" by Michele Archer
"Isabella" by Elaina Avalos
"Suzy's Garden" by Becky920
"No Greater Love" by Rita Betti
"This is Freedom?" by Gina Burgess
"Mirry" by Elleann
"Lost And Found" by Linda Gilmore
"The Exile" by Glenda
"Saving Eden" by Gina Holmes
"Little Boy Lost" by Jeannette
"The Other Side Of Eden" by Janice LaQuiere
"Consider The Ravens" by Jane Lebak
"Raphael's Repent" by Caleb Meigs
"Samuel Jacobs" by David Meigs
"Lack Of Eloquence" by Rebecca Melvin
"The Legacy of Loco Komoko" by Chris Mikesell
"The Other Open Door" by Rebecca LuElla Miller
"Afraid of Death" by Noneuclidean
"Delores Finds Hope" by John Overman
"Fogbound" by Michelle Pendergrass
"Execution Day" by Angie Poole
"The Next Step" by Lori Saltis
"The Thief's Story" by Mirta Ana Schultz
"The Prophet" by DM Sheffield
"Death to Sin" by Sean Slagle
"Exodus" by Dee Stewart
"To the Ends of the Earth" by Virginia
"November Reign" by CL Will
"The Witness" by Jim Thompson
"Unwanted Grace" by Donald Crankshaw

Larry David on "Brokeback Mountain"

The creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is given a few inches in the NYTimes opinion page to talk about Brokeback Mountain.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Luna Moth" by Zita Consani

No-one takes his job very seriously and neither does he. He passes the time reading Batman comics and Playboy in the light of a single bare bulb hanging from the roof, dragging cigarettes; drinking coffee. At midnight he will do his round, walk round the whole building, flash his torch into bushes, corners, doorways, onto the barred windows. Tonight it is almost unbearably hot. He’s supposed to be wearing his security guard uniform but he slumps in a vest and boxers and slurps warm Coke. If he stumbles upon anything, anyone, he can pretend that he, too, is lurking, looking for opportunity. Then when the intruder turns his back he can hit him on the head with his gun. Anyway, it’s always vagrants smashing windows or pissing and passing out in the doorways. Bloody nuisances. Like rats coming out of their sewers. Always nosing around where they’re not wanted. It’s almost too hot to smoke, even. He stubs the cigarette out, glances at his wristwatch, yawns, gets up. He’s not gonna bother with the pants. He picks up his torch.

::

I am hiding under a table, curled under it like a cat. I was not afraid before he came. I saw big steel bowls, so silent and silver, and spoons and spatulas hanging from the walls. I saw knives also and chopper things and wooden boards and rolling pins but I was not afraid because they lay still in the moonlight, quietly gleaming and breathing. I am not afraid of the dark; I am afraid of him and that small light in his hands. I have good eyesight in the dark, like cats do, and the moonlight is kind to me. I am watching his every move. I see his legs are bare but he wears sneaker shoes. He walks then stops; I see the little light flashing in white arcs across the floor. He coughs and I hear the phlegm in his chest. He clears his throat. I see him bending down and peering under tables. I curl myself up tighter, back against the wall. If he flashes that light into my face perhaps he will see only eyes and think I am a cat and leave me. I see his legs stop at my table; I see the dim shape of his head and suddenly the white light I hate blinds me.

They have covered me with a big white cloth like a tablecloth, all starchy stiff. There is no more kind moonlight at all. I lie perfectly still like an animal in a circus ring that has forgotten everything it has been taught while the keepers and trainers stand around me, discussing my fate.

‘What we gonna do with her?’

They say that every time I am caught. They think it is their job to take care of me. They are just doing their job, but they do not know who my keeper is.

‘What’s your name?’

This they also always ask me. But I cannot think properly to answer them when they are all staring and the lights are so bright around me. It is if I am in a play and have forgotten my lines. When it is quiet under the moon and trees I grow strong and can face this storybook world full of ogres and witches, trolls and angels with all its terrible woe and danger.

::

The man who found me is talking to a fat man who scratches the side of his face with a great paw like a bear. He is large and hairy and smells like stale bread and sweat and beer.
‘I came in to check everything like normal. I heard nothing but one window was open that wasn’t open when I checked the first round. So I came inside, not expecting to find anything because no-one can fit through those bars, only a cat or child. Everything was normal; I don’t know what made me look under the tables. Then I found her, naked as the day she was born. She hasn’t said a word. I think she’s psycho.’

The big bear man is scratching his stomach and I watch it fall over his pants like a lump of white dough. Then I realize he is the baker man and maybe he thinks I’ve stolen his biscuits or buns? I saw them all lined up under their plastic and decorated with white icing. I spied little cakes with chocolate icing and flowers with real icing petals and fairy cakes with silver balls. I looked at them and they twinkled at me. I wanted to take one of those fairy cakes and put it in my treasure box. Not to eat, just to keep and look at. But I knew they weren’t mine to have. So I only looked at them and loved them.

They ruffle through my bag but they do not throw all my things out onto the floor. I am glad. I know now that everything will be alright and that this time will not be very hard to bear. They will take me somewhere and give me clothes and a place to sleep. They will feed me and ask all sorts of questions, always the same questions and I will tell them what I must tell them and then it will be all over and I will be free again.

‘Where are your clothes?’

This is the question that makes me feel ashamed, like Eve in the garden after the fruit. Before that, out under the stars, I was unaware as she was, feeling only soft wind on my skin. If I try to explain that it is very hot, they do not understand. When it is cold I have sheets and cloths and robes, like the lilies of the field. I long to lie down on the quiet earth wrapped in my own soft sheet; but instead this stiff tablecloth, this hard lino floor, these bright lights trying to blind me and questions I find so hard to answer.

‘What the bloody hell am I going to do with her? I should call the cops.’

‘Call Glenda, she’ll know what to do.’

The fat man is taking out his phone and speaking on it.

‘Well I dunno, she won’t talk, she’s got no identification on her. I don’t think she’s right in the head.’

I wait quietly while they scrape up chairs to guard me. I’m good at waiting, very good.

Soon the baker man’s daughter comes and pulls back the cloth to look at me. She looks closely into my eyes.

‘She’s very alert. I don’t think she’s drugged. She’s looking straight at us, like she’s compos mentis. Can’t she talk?’

‘She hasn’t said a thing. Maybe she’s a mute. We have to take her somewhere – just take her to the hospital Glenda, they can sort it out.’

‘I’ll take her tomorrow morning. It’s late now. She can sleep at my place tonight.’

‘Jesus, Glenda you can’t do that. You don’t know what kind of maniac she could be. If I call the cops they’ll come and pick her up.’

The baker man is yawning and scratching at his stomach and his head, then his beard. Glenda has her hands on her hips and stares hard at me.

‘I’ll take her home Dad. Look at her. She’s been lying like that without even trying to move or escape for…it must be half an hour since Dave called you and you called me. She hasn’t stolen anything, don’t call the cops. She needs to go into care. I’ll take her home and give her some clothes and food. I’ve got a sleeping bag. She can sleep on the couch and I’ll phone a doctor in the morning. He’ll have to check her and then we’ll decide what to do. Maybe I can find something out about her tonight.’

‘She might have lice.’

‘Or AIDS.’

I do not have lice. I can always feel when they are beginning to crawl over my scalp and I go immediately to Amy in the chemist. She is like an angel; she gives me medicine and almost anything I need.

‘Look at her hair. She must have chopped it herself. It’s so short I’ll be able to see in a moment.’

The baker’s daughter has long nails and she combs through my hair carefully, quite gently.
‘No, she’s clear. She smells alright. Better than you, Daddy.’

The man Dave who found me laughs.

‘She’s very thin but her skin is lovely, pale and rich, like cream. She looks like a snow elf.’

‘You better take her home then if you like her so much. She’s too thin for my bed, what about you Dave?’

Dave laughs and the fat baker man laughs and his stomach wobbles like a barely set jelly.

‘Well my girl, be the good Samaritan. I’m locking up and going back to dreamland.’

::

I have come home with the baker’s daughter. She has trussed me up like a turkey in the great tablecloth so that only my feet can move. She takes my bag and I follow her up the garden path. I can feel stone bricks under my bare feet and I shuffle behind her like a mummy risen from its tomb. When we are inside she switches on the light; with a little moan I turn my head from its glare. She switches it off and fumbles in the dark while I wait at the front door. She lights some candles; I smile at her when she comes towards me.

‘Come into the lounge,’ she says.

I follow her and sit down, as best as I can, on her couch. She opens my bag and takes out my sheet and white robe all entwined, so that one can hardly be told from another. She shakes the sheet open and out falls my robe onto the carpet like a ghost floating to the floor. Then she holds it up.

‘But you have clothes. Why aren’t you wearing them?’

‘It’s too hot.’ My voice sounds strange to me because sometimes I don’t hear it for many days.
She didn’t expect me to talk. I see in her eyes that she is startled, although she sets her mouth in a firm line and speaks strictly like teachers and mothers do.

‘I want you to put this on,’ she says. ‘Can I help you get out of that cloth?’

‘Yes,’ I say quietly.

She puts the robe over my head as if I am an invalid or a child. I long for her to leave, for them all to leave me be. But she is taking the things out of my bag and laying each thing next to her on the couch.

‘You have shoes too. Just one pair. And what’s this?’

My treasure box. Mine. Mine. Don’t open it. Just a winter leaf stripped of its flesh, all pale veins and lace; and some pearly shells oh and pebbles too don’t touch. She’s snapped the box open and shut quick as a clam, shoves it aside, then leans forward talking nice and slow.

‘Now what is your name?’

I watch the candlelight’s rich gold halo. It is an entrancing sight.

‘Well,’ I say. ‘Well sometimes I am Theresa, of the little flowers.’

‘Oh?’ she says. Glenda says. Her name is Glenda, I heard the baker man call her that.
‘And do you have other names?’

‘Sometimes I call myself Kitty, because I wish I could be a cat. Cats are quiet and free.’

‘But what is the name your parents gave you?

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know.’

I am very tired now and I wish she would let me sleep. But she must ask questions, they all must. And I know, deep down, that I must answer them and tell them what they need to hear. So I wait quietly. I have grown so good at waiting.

‘But where do you live? You must live somewhere.’

‘I find shelter under trees and in churches, in people’s homes. Sometimes I sleep in hospitals, even jails. But I don’t steal. I don’t need to because I am always cared for. I am a lily of the field.’

Glenda sits back with folded arms, looking at me, her head to one side. Her face looks long and shadowy in the yellow, flickery light, like a witch’s. She is wearing high pointy shoes even in the middle of the night. I tell her that I’m not afraid, that I was not even very afraid of that man one night who held me down and the other one on top of me, pushing himself into me. At first I wanted to scream because of the pain, but I lay very still and then I began to talk to him because his ear was close to mine and, I tell Glenda, even while he was grunting I think he heard me. Soon it was all over and he wiped me down with my own sheet and they left quickly.
Glenda does not know what to say. She looks at me a long time and then asks, ‘Do you want some cold white wine?’

I shake my head.

She goes to the kitchen and brings back a bottle and a glass. I watch her drink a full glass without pausing.

‘Shew it’s hot. Isn’t it hot? I’m so thirsty.’

She pours herself another glass.

I am waiting. I am waiting for her to ask the question.

‘You spoke to him while he was…what did you say to him?’

Now I will tell her. Now I will tell her and then she will go because it is well into the morning. How many times I have told this story, deep in the night, when people listen best.

‘I remember,’ I say, ‘I remember running away once, from the police. They thought I had stolen something but I hadn’t. I was a little afraid; my heart was thumping like a drum in my chest but I flew in the wind’s arms. I soon lost them and then I slipped into a little church. I was very young then, it was many years ago, I’d never been inside a church before. It was very early in the morning; there were candles burning and I was alone. It was so very quiet and I felt utterly safe. I sat for a long time in that deep, deep quiet, looking up at the windows and at the beautiful people and birds and flowers in the orange and red and blue and green glass all quietly shining. And I began to understand that this was the real world, waiting for me, where there was no shouting or hurting or fear. I began to understand that the world I was living in now was filled with all kinds of dark evils that one cannot see, like dark shapes of sharks lurking under bright blue waters. It was as if someone was telling me a story, the real story of life. There was no-one in the church but me, yet as I looked up at the light touching the glass pictures alive, someone was telling me the true story. I began to understand that God would take care of me, as He takes care of the birds and the lilies, and that no-one could make me afraid ever again. And that is what I told the man who was doing evil to me; that God sees him and can take care of him and help him to stop doing evil.’

‘My God a loony saint,’ says Glenda. The bottle of wine is nearly finished. She looks so very tired and like an old weary witch now, all hollow eyed and haunted.

She blows the candles out. She wants to draw the curtains but I ask her not to. I am left alone at last under the moon’s large, soft smile.

::

Glenda wishes she didn’t smoke so much. It’s only seven-thirty and already she’s had three. The damn girl’s disappeared and she feels responsible. She’s phoned the local psychiatric hospital; they tell her not to worry about her. She’s harmless they say. But, says Glenda, she sleeps naked at night if she’s hot; she’s clearly in need of care. She’s in danger. Glenda has a headache and some psychiatric nurse she’s speaking to is infuriatingly indifferent. Put me through to your head of department, Glenda tells her. He’s busy, says the nurse. We can’t commit her, it’s complicated. There has to be…yeah ok, says Glenda. She puts the phone down. Well it’s not my problem either. She gets dressed for work. Forget about it, she tells herself in the mirror. She finds a blackhead and squeezes it. But so.. well not innocent maybe, but like a child. That snow-cream skin and large eyes. Just forget it Glenda. Time for work. Such large eyes, like moons. There is a quiet gentle mystery about the moon, just like this loony whatever-her-name-is.

‘I’m a lily of the field…I mean Jesus really what…’ says Glenda aloud. She rolls her eyes, shakes her head and picks up crimson lipstick. She paints, pushes her lips together, grabs a tissue and dabs. ‘I s’pose she was abandoned or something and lost her mind. And now she thinks she’s some kind of saint. Well, let her think it. Why shouldn’t she think it?’

She picks up her handbag, sighs, digs in it for her keys.

‘Sh-t my nail. Well, some people have to work my loony lily. You can flit around like a lunar moth with no place to lay your head but I have to look after myself. Ain’t no-one gonna do it for me.’

The door slams; she steps into the street, a car honks loudly at her.

‘O.k., o.k., keep your bloody hair on.’

She looks at her watch, bites her lip.

Then she quickly hails a taxi.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"All Healed Up" by Michael Snyder

“Kill the toad, man. Before it kills you.”

That was the last thing my record producer ever said to me. He didn’t die or move away or anything. Like everyone else I know, he just got fed up and stopped talking to me. That was four years ago. I’ve been driving ever since.

My current travel companion smells like yeast and somebody else’s cigarettes. His name begins with a K but I gave up trying to remember it about a hundred miles back. I picked him up on I-65 at sunrise and he hasn’t stopped picking paint flecks off his jeans since, slipping them into a zippered pouch on his backpack. Had to ask him twice to stop singing. And I suspect I’ll either have to keep asking or shut the radio off. He’s telling me his story, how he wound up thumbing rides in the middle August, casting blame like breadcrumbs. Problem is, he still believes he’ll find his way home, oblivious to the defeat in his own eyes and the fact that he’s already booked passage on the orphan train. If not for a brainless supervisor, a lazy ex-girlfriend, a dismal zodiac reading, and some uppity negro named Tayshawn, my new friend would be the mayor of earth. His life is everyone’s fault but his. You can hear him working his tale out in fits and starts, repeating parts with added fervor, as if convincing me will somehow make it true.

He must realize his story’s out of gas so he decides to involve me. “So, Jeremy, is it? What do you do for a living?”

“You’re looking at it,” I say, eyes still on the road.

“That’s it, you just drive?”

“Pretty much.”

“Jeremy the driver, eh?”

A few seconds pass in silence, then he cocks his head like an overly curious basset hound, “So, you like an escort driver or whatchamacallit? A courier?”

I consider his original question again, vaguely aware of the underwater effect of heat shimmering on asphalt. What exactly do I do for a living? The question implies an exchange of some kind, a sacrifice maybe. But I don’t ask for much and I forfeit even less. I’m a nomad. Gas stations and ATM’s are my oases. And I’ve narrowed my addictions to exactly one. So I don’t really do much of anything. And I’m not sure what I do do actually qualifies as living.

K obviously reads too much into my silence. He snaps his dirty fingers and says, “I shoulda known, man. You’re running dope, aren’t you? Or is it guns? Just my friggin’ luck, hooking up with a damn drug smug—”

A familiar turbulence works its way through my system. I recognize the sound first, then the emotion. Laughter. My body and my brain are wracked with it. And when I realize how long it’s been since the last time, I laugh even harder. I can’t stop. Hell, I can barely drive.

The spasms subside when I narrowly miss sideswiping a tractor-trailer, sobering me up enough to make the exit and park alongside an antique gas pump. K is out of the car and heading toward the convenience store, either afraid or offended or both.

If he only knew how close to right he was.

***

I gave my sister cancer when we were nine. The adults in my world tried to convince me otherwise, but I knew what I knew.

The leaves were browning and the air reeked of exhaust from a nearby tire factory. I was Peter and she was Tinker Bell, dueling imaginary pirates when I knocked Katie out of our tree fort. The ambulance carted her off with a broken collarbone. She came home three months later with leukemia and died six months after that, on our birthday. We shared the same womb. She got the looks and brains. I got the attitude and all the healthy cells.

The shrinks talked about displacement, said that I was transferring blame and withdrawing to a dangerous place. Katie called me a silly boy for blaming myself, said that we were lucky that the broken collarbone helped them find the cancer so that God and Daddy could get her all healed up. That’s what she’d say, all healed up, with a pink-and-green inflection that made you believe it. I loved her even more for that.

We buried Katie two days later, along with the best of what was left of our family. My mother pretended that nothing happened. My father quit meeting my eyes.

My brain told me I killed my twin sister.Eventually they tried to replace Katie with a new baby. But it felt cheap, like buying a new hamster because the dog ate the last one, as if affections were disposable. Turns out, maybe they are.

Tink lost her light. Peter grew up, bitter and filled with regret.

***

I’m a little surprised when K-man returns from the men’s room, munching a Slim Jim and sipping chocolate milk. He leans one shoulder on the truck, trying to look casual but missing badly. It’s obvious he’s anxious about something but can’t figure how to broach the subject. Another attempt at small talk fizzles on his tongue so I point the neck of my Coke bottle at the tarp-covered truck bed and say, “Feel free to have a look around,” I say. “Might put your mind at ease.”

His neck turns pink and his hands fly up, miming surrender. “Hey, you say you ain’t carrying any shit, then I guess you ain’t carrying any.”

He climbs back into my truck and I follow. Once we reach cruising speed I say, “Just to be clear, you know I never really said that.” I watch his eyebrows flirt with his hairline. “You know, that I wasn’t carrying.”

His face and hands morph into the sign language equivalent of Say what?

I shrug and hit the seek button on the radio. His fidgeting turns chronic and his eyes scan every crevice of the cab. He scratches phantom itches and keeps stretching his back to mask his curiosity. The radio dial pauses to preview the strongest signals, teasing us with snippets of rap, country, talk, metal, and sports until I hear an all-too familiar voice. As it too disappears, K’s shoots forward. “Go back, man. I love that tune.”

I manually crank the digits back until the familiar voice returns, my voice from another lifetime. For once I don’t ask him to quit singing.

***

The assumption early on was that I would follow in my father’s lucrative footsteps. Lord knows I had the training. In the early days, Dad used to make Katie and me travel with him to hick towns all over the southeast. He’d drop us off at the local ice cream shop with a pocketful of quarters while he drove to the big tent to begin his reconnaissance, shaking hands, praying, re-inspecting his hair, and choreographing the transitions between music, healings, and offering plates. Katie and I would mingle with the hordes of religious nuts, cripples, and thrill seekers before taking up our posts on the front row. Our job was to feed the kitty, to prime the pump, to get the ball rolling, or any number of clichéd synonyms for warming up the crowd. “Nobody likes to go first,” he’d say, as if our pretending were perfectly normal. “You two are like movie ushers for the Holy Spirit.” I hadn’t learned the word pimping yet. With Katie as my escort, I hobbled and grimaced onto the stage. After receiving my holy antidote, Katie would grab a microphone and testify to my previous afflictions and subsequent healing.

Dad eventually graduated from backwoods revivals to local religious programming, and from there to a national platform—the higher the profile, the more conservative the ministry. Once he massaged his Katie testimony into tear-inducing spectacle, he gave up the healing routine altogether.

When I was fifteen I worked up the courage to challenge him on this. “Don’t you think it’s…I don’t know, sacrilegious to use Katie’s death to make money?”

“Is that what you think this is all about?” He looked shocked, hurt even. “Son, your sister’s death is the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But it’s like, like an casualty of war, unfortunate but necessary. It wreaked havoc on our lives, but God is using it for a greater good. Just like He’s going to use you.”

“You can tell God to keep his grubby hands off me.”

Dad smirked and shook his head. “You’re just like the Pharaoh, son. Your heart is as hard as your head--and that’s saying a lot. But mark my words, God is going to use you whether you sign up for eternity or not.”

“You mean like how you used us? In your healings?”

Dad flinched. He made a fist and I think he meant to use it. Instead he showed me his back, feeding the murder in my heart.

From that day forward my religion became the formation of a new self, the antithesis of my father, pursuing every god but his, indulging every whim into a fresh addiction. I moved in with communists, overdosed on jazz, and slept with blacks and Mexicans. Even forced myself to learn to write left-handed. The outlet for my cancerous existence was music, my own gritty brand of alt-rock. Rolling Stone christened me “an angry poet for a legion of disenfranchised misfits”. But I still couldn’t escape my father’s shadow. Art was not enough. I needed fame too, just to rub my father’s nose in it. Somewhere along the way I sabotaged my career, my passion, my one good gift, all for the empty pursuit of glory. I turned into the thing I hated most.

***

The Tennessee State troopers are out en force, tucked into blind spots on the median. The sight of them cranks on K’s curious fidgeting like a ratchet. His demeanor has sunk to just south of paranoid.

“You okay, man?” I say. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine, man. I’m fine. I mean, well, on second thought I guess I could use a tissue.” He leans forward and opens the glove box, then yelps like a little girl when Prince jumps into his lap.

“Calm down,” I say. “You’re gonna scare him.”

“Get him off me.” K tries mightily to shrink away from the hideous fist-sized toad resting on his thigh. “I think he freakin’ peed on me.”

“I think he thinks you peed on him.”

K’s feet keep backpedaling uselessly on the floor board until I scoop Prince into my own lap and caress his knobby brown flesh with my thumb. He blinks at the panting man in the passenger seat.

***

I was sober when Amanda told me she loved me—not a good combination at all.

“Wait,” I said. “You’re serious aren’t you?”

Eyes glistening, she bit her lip and nodded.

“We had a deal, remember?”

“What, you don’t think I know about you slipping out at night for cheeseburgers?” She meant this to be funny, making light of our ground rules—no hard drugs, no meat, and no falling in love. But it just hung there between us. Until the first tear fell, clearing tracks for others. I could never stand the way she looked like Katie when she cried.

“You know,” I said. “That’ is the single most unattractive quality I can think of.”

“What? Crying? Or the ability to actually fall in love with someone?”

“No, falling in love with me. I could never respect you for that.” That same afternoon, I drove past public restrooms until I could hear her bladder scream for mercy. When she duck-walked into the ladies’ room at a rest stop in Colorado I crammed two thousand dollars and a hand-written note into her purse and gave it to the security officer at the information desk. The note said: Sorry.

And I was.

That was 2002, the winter I spent with the hippies. These were the real hippies, the grow-your-own types, Manson family throwbacks, free love enthusiasts, not the rich kids with smelly dreadlocks, $300 sandals, and corporately sponsored jam band festivals with working toilets. They adopted me into their community as one of their own. It didn’t hurt that I had money. Or that I evened out the guy/girl ratio. Or that I was half their age. Or that I was a bit of a celebrity.

We practiced a nightly ritual which included bonfires, guitars and tambourines, reefer, and something they called The Chosen One, although I never observed any actual choosing. It was more of an even rotation. When his or her turn came up, the chosen one would select from an assortment of modified crack pipes, load it with what looked to be flecks of dried paste, and commence to leisurely toking.

By the time the hallucinations commenced in full, we were all primed with marijuana and ready for a show. And the chosen one rarely disappointed. Our communal intoxication left us with the profound impression that we’d finally partaken in something real.

After my third stint as the chosen one, I left $500 in the community money bag and snuck out of camp with Prince and a handful of loaded baggies.

***

We found an abandoned campground at the base of the Smokey Mountains. It turns out that K is less jumpy when given a job to do. He doesn’t talk any less though, recounting his mother’s battle with lung cancer and her subsequent memorial service in excruciating detail while he twists a can opener around a can of baked beans. He’s done most of the work, as I’m too anxious to help. Tonight I’m the chosen one.

We devour multiple helpings of sausage and beans while the gray sky fades to black and the forest chatter finds its groove. K rekindles our flame; sparks spiral skyward like the sparks in my veins. With no preamble I retrieve Prince from the glove box, then forage through my gym bag to produce a blue plate wrapped in tissue paper. To K’s horror I hold the toad with one hand and press my thumbs against various glands, squirting milky venom onto the dry plate. As it dries, it turns the color and texture of rubber cement. Minutes later I scrape the residue into the pipe I stole from the hippies.

I offer K a toke and am secretly pleased when he declines.

After an awkward silence, he says, “A toad named Prince, huh?”

“Just so you know.” I say. “I was groomed to be a preacher. Sometimes it comes out when, you know, I’m seeing things.”

“You ever turn violent?”

“Not yet. But feel free to kill me if I do.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

And so it begins. The smoky nectar burns in my mouth, my head, and my lungs before I feel it leaching into my bloodstream. I’ve only ever had one bad trip on this stuff and thankfully this doesn’t feel like another one. The first wave turns the forest into a kaleidoscope of grays and greens. The second wave is jazz, snippets of Coltrane bopping through the second movement of A Love Supreme, my heart keeping time with the inimitable Elvin Jones. Then I can smell a mixture of Katie’s skin and mom’s spice rack. Diamonds wink in my peripheral vision and I have the sensation of sifting endless mounds of dry soil with my hands. A voice not unlike mine alternates between laughing and whimpering, sometimes both together. My bloodstream teems with warm chlorophyll, my legs take root in the soil and spider out in every direction, my arms multiply and sprout impossibly-hued leaves. My last cognizant impression is one of me towering over a wide-eyed semi-stranger with a sermon welling up inside me. I think the stranger’s name begins with K.

***

My relationship with my father devolved into a series of nods and grunts and public pleasantries. Somewhere along the way, he’d lost the ability to distinguish between the mission and the ministry. Arrogance and the almighty dollar blurred the lines between the sacred and tacitly profane. This became clear to me on my seventeenth birthday when he excused himself from my party to take a phone call in his office. Shoulders touching, mom and I cut the cake and dished the ice cream for a gaggle of friends and aunts and cousins assembled to exaggerate yet another meaningless milestone. Ten minutes later I was dispatched to Dad’s office to tell him his ice cream was melting. But as I raised my hand to knock I heard Katie’s name. After a wave of guilt—I’d failed to pause even once that day to stop and think about my sister--I craned my ear and listened.

“I know, Stan. I know. But we can’t keep borrowing money just to save a few employees. We either need a new bag of tricks or the layoffs are inevitable.”

Stan Ewing was Dad’s business manager and maybe the only decent human being in their waning religious empire. He was a whiz with numbers and knew more dirty jokes than the drummer in my band.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Dad said. “But as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve milked the whole Katie angle dry. It’s got no traction any more.”

He went silent for a few beats, then laughed. “Unless you know any lepers we can heal or any more dead daughters to—"

The first blow missed the target. It caught Dad in the ear and sent the phone skittering across the hard would. Between his shock and my momentum, his cordovan chair flipped backward and I was on top of him, showering fists into his miserable face. My tears mixed with his blood and skewed cartilage.

Mother found us sprawled on the office floor, Dad unconscious and me flailing impotently with my broken hand and weeping.

I don’t remember, but mom swore I kept repeating, “You promised, Daddy. You promised Katie you’d get her all healed up.”

***

I’m flat on my back, basking in the hallucinogenic afterglow when I smell coffee. The sky is a big blue bowl of popcorn clouds. A twin engine prop plane buzzes somewhere above and behind me. The best part of abusing Prince’s venom is the sweet, velvety hangover—no nasty headaches or heartburn, just lapping waves of melancholy and a few twisted memories.

“You okay?”

I recognize the voice, but still can’t place anything but the K.

“Yeah,” I say, my tongue pasted to the inside of my mouth. “So far so good.”

“That was some show you put on last night. Kind of like fire-and-brimstone with a dapple of honey.”

I respond by grinning and moaning.

“Tell me something, is the Repo Man supposed to be Jesus?”

“I guess so. I don’t know, maybe.”

He’s quiet for a while, then says, “Thanks.”

“For what?” I say, although I think I know the answer. I can see the change in his eyes. He’s not my first convert. And frankly, if not for the lingering effects of toad venom, it would really piss me off.

“I can’t explain it really,” he says. “I guess you could say I found Jesus, or he found me or something. Either way, you introduced us and now I got my walking papers, so to speak. So, like I said, thanks.”

“Great, my life’s calling. I’m pimping for a God I have no use for.” But that’s not entirely true and I know it. Dad was right; my heart was hardened, but more like glass than iron. And behold, when the Repo Man stood at the door and knocked, he used a tire iron and shattered it into million pieces. And as hard as I rail against it, I sense my own conversion metastasizing in bits and pieces, patched and pasted and quilted with only minimal and begrudging consent from me. But my inner cynic refuses to concede or admit anything. “Hate to break it to you partner, but you’re about to trade the best years of your life for a few cheap, religious thrills.”

He’s quiet again, then says, “Listen, just so you know. I took your toad down to the creek and let him go. I think he was killing you, man.”

I stare at my shoes, resolved to press my rage through the fog in my brain. A twig snaps somewhere in the distance and I realize I’m alone. “Hey man, what’s your name again?”

But he’s already gone.

Monday, January 02, 2006

"When Bill Left the Porch" by Mike Duran

How in the hell do you drown in the desert? Well, leave it to Wild Bill to find out.

We descended into the canyon, buoyed by the rising warmth. And there he was, with his back to me, as usual. Toward the end, he rarely looked me in the eye, more out of shame than disregard. Once his debility blossomed, he turned his back on us all.

That’s probably why the desert held such fascination for him. It was vast and empty, like Bill.

“Don’t go out there,” he’d say in his helium voice, pointing toward the desolate expanse. “There are scorpions, mines, prickly things.”

When we were kids, he said this to frighten us, herd us into the monastery of doubt and distrust. Well, it worked. Trudy would scamper off and within minutes, return with Mom. “Bill, stop scaring them. Things ain’t that bad.”

“They need to hear it,” he’d retort, with a nasal blast. “I don’t want them wandering off. You remember what happened to the Rollins boy.”

Yeah, the poor kid became a permanent symbol to us, an icon of imprudence, another plank in Bill’s slow retreat from normalcy.

Trudy clung to Mom’s skirt and pouted. She learned to hate the desert because of him. The distant yapping of coyotes, the incessant arid breeze, and Bill’s paranoid rants, became one. He got so deep in her head she needed therapy and moved somewhere green, with fences and walls, where distance was calculable and mystery, minimal.

But I’d stay for the lecture.

“There’s too much wrong with the world, Jim. Disease, crime, freak accidents. You can never be too careful. Mom can pray all she wants, but you can’t stop it—you can only find shelter.” He’d wheeze in his cigarette and the ash blazed like a comet against the starry sky. “That’s why we moved. There’s less people here. And less people, means less problems... less chance things can go wrong. Just stay close. Stay on the porch, and you’ll be all right.” Then he’d settle back in his rocker with a quilt draped over his legs and gaze out into the twinkling black curtain. “Never, ever leave the porch.”

Yet there he was, five miles from home, floating.

So much had gone on between then and now, but somehow it seemed a fitting end. The house became a compound, a sanitized, air-conditioned hell, a cloister against ill winds and happenstance. Yet inside, Bill’s toxicity flourished.

Mom often tried to make sense of it, enunciate the exotic names. But like most neuroses, it transcended definition. He refused medication and we couldn’t coax him out of the house, much less get him to the hospital. “Do you realize what kind of germs are there?” he’d scoff, as if we were the oddballs. “It’s a breeding ground. And they’re all waiting to hitch a ride.”

As usual, Mom cut him slack. “Your father had a rough childhood, James. Besides, he needs God more than a doctor.” But the way she doted over him, all he needed was her.

The co-pilot, a Native American guy they called Rudy, turned around, pulled his headphones off and pointed into the ravine. A cumulus shadow rippled across the terrain, dousing us, before the relentless sun turned everything monochrome. The search party stood on the shoreline, solemn-looking, bracing themselves for the ensuing maelstrom. Nearby, Bill drifted weightless, for once in his life.

In a way, it was a relief seeing him there, lifeless, without anguish. He’d carried so much, so far. The inertia of his personality far exceeded his girth, no doubt making him an easy target. They christened him Wild Bill, way back when, in mockery. Maybe it was the panic attacks, the dark, sullen, psycho eyes or the feminine pitch. The name hung on through high school, but how Bill did, we’ll never know.

According to Mom, at one time, he took a swipe at the demons, tested the boundaries of his affliction. Like when they decided, spur of the moment, to drive to Yellowstone. Halfway there, Bill came to his senses. Said his ulcer was acting up or the car sounded funny, and hurried home. He always had a lame excuse. Those days he worked, even went to the market. But something snapped. The remainder of his life he leeched off disability and fossilized out back, staring off into the desert for hours on end, cordoning off mystery.

But the mystery caught up to him.

Three days ago, Trudy called. “James, Dad’s lost it.” She made her peace, supposedly, but remained stolid. Said he drove Mom to her grave, needed to find God before the final implosion. Somehow, I became the bridge between them, but my peace was far from made.

Anyway, I agreed to call.

We grew accustomed to his fits and I assumed this was one of them. After Mom died, they came with regularity. Of course, once the cloud passed, he renounced his paranoia and promised to fight the good fight, only to reinvent the scene round the corner. His vows never held water. Nor did they compel me to go rushing over, pronouncing absolution. Or receiving it.

But the lamentations became borderline suicidal.

“We should’ve got out more,” he whimpered. “She always wanted to see Old Faithful. But I locked her up.” He squeezed his eyes shut and drifted behind them. “Every Sunday she stood at the front door, holding that ugly, red leather Bible, hoping I’d finally make a move. ‘Will ya come, Bill? Will ya please come today?’ She looked so pretty in her church dress—the yellow one—with those white gloves. And that perfume... ” His chins trembled and he looked away. “Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I can still join her.”

Yeah, well, you told us never to leave the porch.

The rotors pummeled the parched air, casting dust and brush skyward as we settled on the desert floor. The search party stood before a tree-rimmed, turquoise pool with their hats off, fighting the gale.

When the storm first descended on Bill, fighting was futile.

It started with him on all fours, damp and ashen, by the rocker. Mom cried to Jesus and I phoned Doc Eagan. Columns of red dust rose along the barbed wire fence, signaling the old man’s arrival. We knew what was coming. He spread Bill’s shirt and nestled the stethoscope between folds of blubber. The stress finally caught up and Bill’s insides had buckled under the pressure.

“If you don’t stop smoking and lose some weight,” the doctor scolded, “you’ll have another one.” And he went back down the long red road.

But it didn’t stop Wild Bill. Rather, it seemed to fuel his innate pessimism. By then, he could barely walk; his ankles were blue and inflated, the outgrowth of emotional rigor mortis. He sat around, smoked and ate, and worried about it. He was circling the drain.

Trudy left long before, and I wasn’t about to stay for the next round. Despite his placations, I escaped and began to detox or, at least, medicate the pain. I found someone with Mom’s grace, who didn’t ask questions. But Bill never left me. He’d worn a rut in my brain like that old rocker of his, whittling away at the floorboards of my sanity. I visited, but mainly to see Mom. She remained unaffected by his madness. Yet even that changed.

One morning I arrived and found her draped across his massive frame, asleep. After the heart attack, she stationed herself at his bedside. On the nightstand, next to the ashtray, her Bible and reading glasses lay amidst unwashed dishes and gathering grime. Bill winked when I walked in and continued stroking her hair.

Some days, he leaned into me and lumbered out to the porch. I’d help him squeeze into the rocker and it would dissent and threaten to collapse. He stared into the wasteland, watched the sky turn auburn and dust funnels dance in the distance. Then he fired up a cigarette and resumed his ritual.

But his lectures weren’t what they used to be.

“You’re being careful, aren’t you?” He’d lost a decibel in the skirmish. “It’s getting bad out there.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“How’s Jordan?”

“She went back to school.”

“It’s not far, is it?”

“Not really.”

“People get antsy stacked on top of each other like that. It ain’t healthy, Jim. Folks live longer in the country. The air is better, there’s less chemicals. And if they’re gonna nuke us, they ain’t aiming for me.”

I ignored the affectation, as usual, and changed frequencies. Besides, I was there for Mom. She bathed him, fed him, found him the TV changer and watched over his soul. And it started to show.

She refused assistance, said she could do all things through Christ, at least, until the headaches came. I paid someone to clean and deliver groceries. She obliged, with reluctance, and went for tests. But in the end, she didn’t want to leave Bill—said he couldn’t make it without her—and declined chemo. Mom propped herself in that chair as long as possible, then surrendered. Church folks came over and wrinkled their noses at Bill. They stood over her, prattled in tongues, swayed and hollered, and left in the red cloud, taking their faith with them.

We buried her and Trudy wailed. She pounded on Wild Bill, then hugged him and wept. Said she forgave him, because that’s what Mom would’ve wanted.

But me, I stayed on the porch.

The engine droned to a stop as the pilots leapt out and summoned me. We picked our way through the scrub into the shadow of the canyon. A crystal spring slashed the red earth, like an incision in the desert floor, making it bleed teal.

“They believe the pool is sacred,” Rudy said over his shoulder, gesturing to the search party. “Visited by their ancestors. Now it’s just a hangout for local kids.”

A cool breeze swept past and rattled the leaves, filling the gorge with soft applause. Gravel and broken glass crunched beneath our feet as we approached the men. They stood with heads bowed, hats in hand. Their skin was dark and taut, and they glanced at me as I passed. Names and symbols, spray painted on the desert rock, marred the oasis, as did Wild Bill’s body, floating face down in the translucent blue. The men followed us to the shore, and one of them slung a rope into the water, attempting to lasso Bill.

We’d been trying to do that for years. When I last spoke to him, three days ago, he’d drifted out of reach.

“You alright, Dad?”

“I saw your mother again last night.”

“Trudy’s afraid—”

“She was standing in the desert with her church dress on. You know, the yellow one with the white gloves. I smelled her perfume mixed with the wildflowers.” He wheezed and something creaked, and I knew he was on the porch, in the rocker, staring into the flatland, smoking. “She called to me. ‘Will ya come, Bill? Will ya please come today?’ You know, like she used to.” The phone line hummed and got real quiet. “It’s time, Jim. I’ve been running from Him... putting it off too long.”

I called the Merchants, who lived two lots over, and asked if they would check on him later. They phoned that evening and said he was gone, the house abandoned. We notified the sheriff and a search party formed. I scheduled a flight in.

By the time I arrived, they’d sent for a chopper and started their sweep. A local tribe volunteered to assist, being they knew the terrain. I waited with the sheriff, listened to the radio garble, and scanned the mess with regret. The house stank, so I sat on the porch and studied the desert, then the rocker. Both sat desolate.

Next afternoon we got the call. The bird picked us up and made a beeline for the crimson foothills. Like all his rants, Bill’s talk of a hidden spring, an Eden in the outback, seemed ludicrous. Until they dredged him out of the crystalline water. Weathered hands grasped his soft, pale flesh and with great care, they rolled his bloated body over.

Then it was my turn to look away.

“I don’t know how a man this big made it this far.” Rudy removed his hat and peered at the corpse. “He was delirious... or driven. By the time he saw this water, he was probably dehydrated or hypothermic.” He shrugged and put his hat back on. “I imagine it threw him into shock. He drowned.”

The others stepped back, whispered amongst themselves, and glanced our way.

“Is something wrong?” I asked. “They seem... agitated.”

“Yeah. They are.” A tarp was spread next to the body and Rudy paused, as if contemplating the matter. “There are many paths in the desert. But out of all of them, your father chose this one. They believe it is not by chance... that he was guided here.” Dust swirled and he squinted. “These are baptismal waters, where the soul is cleansed. Here, the evil is washed away and the new man begins.”

One of the deputies approached holding the red leather Bible, swollen and oozing sacred water. Rudy looked at it, then at me.

I nodded. “It’s his.”

We boarded the helicopter and I sat staring at the tarp, pondering the enigma beneath. Maybe he’d been looking for this place all his life, a place where evil is washed away, where the new man begins, where the weary are made weightless. He took a chance, for once; braved the scorpions, mines and prickly things, wandered off like the Rollins boy, in search of adventure. Wild Bill heeded the call and ventured into the vast, untamed expanse.

We buried him beside Mom. Trudy said we’d come full-circle, that Mom finally got the old man to take a step of faith. She said I was the next in line.

The red leather Bible still sits on my bookshelf, swollen and brittle, carried by Wild Bill into the uttermost parts of the earth. He left the porch and, I believe, my time is nearing.