It happened on a Thursday. I guess you could call it a turning point, a moment of enlightenment or rebirth. I entered my flat like any other evening, or at least any other when I'd actually found the energy to leave for the day. Exhaustion piled upon exhaustion to be confronted with the squalor of my East-side dive bachelor after a day of frustration dealing with the unemployment office.
It was bad enough living on this side of town. I guess the cracked, water-stained walls, the broken, heaving tiles and the window taped with cellophane only served to complete the ambience. I mean, what more could you expect? No, the usual question people asked was, "When did the Earthquake/tornado hit?" in the mistaken belief that such a hackneyed phrase could be funny.
Books and papers from my one, abortive attempt at post-secondary were piled in one corner. In another you could find all of my old sports equipment. And in a third were all my dishes and kitchen utensils as I had no kitchen with shelves or cupboards to contain them. There was one sink and a toilet in a closet. To shower, I either headed to the Y or washed up by the sink.
In the fourth and final corner was the old mattress I used for a bed, in the middle of which sat a man. He seemed to be at complete ease there, as I suspect he would anywhere, in partial repose and smoking the last of my good hash (I could tell by the smell.)
I took his proffered joint and sank down in the one lone chair.
"You wanna tell me about it?" he asked.
I looked into the smooth mullatto face, not quite handsome enough to inspire jealousy, and breathed a deep sigh. It would be far easier than asking him, "What the fuck are you doing here?" and attempting to evict him. Before considering the possibility of speech, I had to attend to the joint though.
"I lost my job, not that I really give a shit my boss is an abusive, lying sociopath and I don't think anyone would be sorry if I tied him up and fatally assaulted him with a cheese grater. I got busted twice for possession..."
The pungent smoke escaped from my mouth, clouding the already murky air.
"So I'm at the border right, 'cause I was visiting a friend. And he had these pills. Incredible stuff, just incredible. You take two of them and it completely zaps all your stress. I don't even know what they're called--super valium or something--so the guy gives me a whole fucking bottle. Somehow they just knew. Searched my bags--the whole bit. So they're about to strip search me and they're discussing whether they should do a body cavity search and this real butch-looking chick cop walks in. And the guys start joking around asking her if she wants to do the cavity search. And at first it looks like she's gonna refuse, but then she takes out her billy club and pushes me in the back room. You could just tell she enjoyed ramming her fingers up my tight asshole. And then as I'm walking out of there, the rest of the crew are just laughing their asses off..." By this time I'm just fuming.
"Was she hot?"
"If you're into that type, I guess."
"I don't know about you, but if some hot butch cop enjoyed sticking here fingers up my ass, I'd be kinda flattered."
A low, gutteral laugh started to escape from my throat. Something popped inside of me--that heavy bag of worry, fear and sorrow I'd been dragging around so long.
"Huh, huh, huh, did I just score?" the said in his best Butthead impersonation. I don't think I laughed so hard in about three years.
"So dude, since you've decided to occupy central stage in my living room, maybe you could tell me you're name?"
"The name is Zak."
"You're kidding me right? A cool black guy named Zak. You've got to be kidding." Somehow that was even funnier.
"My name's Joey. Geez, I fucking hate that name..."
I stretched and sat back as the tension drained out of me, savouring the dope. The window was open and the first spring breeze of the year was playing with my papers and making my laundry dance. Outside, the rays of sunshine were thawing people out from the long winter and their cavorting carried up from the street.
The wind flipped open a book lying on top of my stacks of paper. I walked over to it--it was an old copy of Faust.
"I just had a crazy thought," I ventured.
"Shall I call you Mephistopheles?"
"Let's go for a walk," he offered.
"Well, I've got my shoes on. Let's go." I headed for the door.
Zak stood up and looked me up and down. "You're not going like that, are you?"
I glanced down. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans from the eighties. All the buttons had fallen out so the fly was held together with safety pins. My heavy metal t-shirt was so faded I had forgotten which band it advertised. I won't even describe the condition of my sneakers--unless you like the term "dogshit" featuring a prominent place in the story.
I walked over to my closet--at least the apartment had a closet--as Zak looked on.
"I'll make this easy for you," he said, picking out a pair of cotton sport slacks, a buttoned down shirt and a silver blazer. I put it on, then looked myself over in a fragment of mirror standing rakishly against the wall.
"I look like a banker," I said with disgust.
"Perfect. Now we go."
I tried to soak in all the action around me but the sun was so bright I had to shield my eyes. "Cigarette?" I took the proffered fag and Zak lit us both up.
"I had a hell of a time finding your stash there's so much shit in your room." I winced. I didn't feel like telling him the whole sordid story so I just said, "I'm opening a flea market. I assume you're going to make good on that?"
We kept walking.
"I know this cafe. It's a bit of a hike, though."
"I've got time," I replied.
Like most establishments this side of town, the place was a dive. I would've expected it to be empty, but instead, rows of long tables were jammed with working class couples feeding chips to their screaming kids. I walked up to the counter and ordered a coffee. Zak got a coke and a plate of chips.
One of the tables was free so we walked over and sat down. As Zak was squirting ketchup on his fries, a group of college kids came up and asked to share our table. I started to take out my cigarettes, then thought the better of it.
I glanced over at our neighbours. Four teens, two girls and two boys were debating amongst themselves. Unusually forward for me, I asked them, "Why the long faces?"
The girl closest to me answered.
``It's our pastor, sir.'' Diminutive and flat-chested, she was one of those who, even at the age of thirty, would still look like a thirteen-year-old. As they all turned towards me, open, like a flock of sheep desperately seeking their shepherd, she looked at me through large, out-of-fashion spectacles.
``He's left us. Just decided to quit. He said he needed more time with his family,'' she continued. ``We don't know what we're going to do!''
``Why that's funny,'' I joked. ``I happen to be an ordained reverend.''
``Really?'' her girlish blues grew huge behind the spectacles. ``And you're looking for a congregation?''
``As it so happens, I just moved here. I had to leave my old flock behind,'' I said, continuing the jest.
Now they were all sitting in a rapt circle around me. The other girl was much like her, but darker and wearing more fashionable spectacles. The two boys were likely in their late teens or early twenties, but also looked young for their age. One was thing, fair and rakish, the other shorter and more heavy-set. Neither sported glasses.
Before I could let them in on the joke she reached out her hand and started introductions. ``I'm Sarah and this is my best friend Kate. And these two are Josh and Peter.''
Kate gave me her and hand and the other two saluted me.
``I'm Rev. Casey,'' I said.
She took out a slip of paper. ``Let me write down my contact details. We want to have service on Sunday. Do you know the mall on Baker St.? We hold i in the auditorium underneath.'' She was busy scribbling while the others looked at me with more than a trace of relief mixed with desperation.
``Do you think you can make it?'' she pleaded.
``Well, it's been a while since I've roused the spirit, but I'll give my best college try.'' At this point, I didn't have the heart to let them down.
``Oh thank you sir. We're so glad to have met you!''
``Praise Jesus! Through God, all things are possible.'' I struggled to bring the dusty verses back life. Sunday school was a long, fucking time ago.
``Praise the Lord,'' she returned. ``We have a bible study right now, but we'll see you on Sunday, right''
``Bringing forth all the majesty and power of the Lord!'' I nodded.
They finished their Cokes and filed out of the restaurant.
``It looks like you've got yourself a gig!'' said Zachariah sardonically.
``Great. What the fuck am I gonna do now? I'm no reverend!'' I lit a cigarette and took a long drag.
``You think they're going to ask for credentials?''
He could see the gears ticking inside my brain.
``Fuck that was some strong hash!''
``Amen to that!''
``We are here, gathered today, in our ersatz place of worship, in the name of our saviour, Jesus Christ!'' I faltered forward.
``Praise Jesus,'' was the enthusiastic reply.
``Because in Jesus, we can have life! Eternal life!'' my voice thundered through the hall, in no small part through the help of a tiny silicon chip and a pair of large loudspeakers.
``Thank you Jesus!''
I felt myself growing, filling the auditorium. ``You can be the greatest sinner, `For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God...'''
``Praise the Lord.''
``You can be an axe murderer. But if you repent and put your faith in the Lord!''
```Whosoever believeth in me, shall not perish, but have everlasting life'''
``Thank you Jesus!''
I threw in all the usual stuff about eternal life and being born again and saved by faith and not works. So it went, call and refrain, call and refrain, until I stepped, exhausted, from the podium and the band fired up, playing elevatorized popular music.
I gave any number of sermons like these. The rule was: keep it simple, stupid. Whenever I tried to research some clever and delicate point from the Bible, it was usually lost on all but one or two in the congregation. The message that could be grasped by a twelve-year-old and rammed home with a sledgehammer was always the most effective. Other than that, I ministered to my flock, keeping them company, throwing out platitudes when they were sick or in trouble and saying prayers for them and their dead relatives.
My salary was paid from the donations. Most weeks, there were just coins and small bills, but at regular intervals, someone would throw in a donation of $1000
or more, as checks or large notes, and they were easy to skim. I rented an apartment in a better neighbourhood and bought new clothes. I had to look my best-- the body is a temple.
To cool down one Sunday after I had finished a particularly rousing sermon -- I had had them on the edge of their seats, some with tears in their eyes even -- I decided to walk home. Two blocks down, in his casual dealing stance, flanked by one of his girls, I spotted a familiar face.
``Just for you my friend,'' he started into his spiel, ``a designer high. Fuck, I don't even know what it's called, fucking super-scack or something. Normal price -- well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it -- but for you...''
``You're unusually talkative today,'' I cut hime off. ``But you know I'm off that shit.''
``Meet my girl, Candy.'' She towered over him in her fishnets and spike heels by almost a whole head. Her read-headed complexion set off his chocolate brown.
I shook her hand. She nodded to me.
``How goes the battle?'' my friend asked me.
``Satan was rattling around earlier this month, but I think we've got him on the run now.''
He nodded. ``I can tell you're enjoying you're new calling. Lots of nice women in the congregation?''
``Now that you mention it. Yeah, there's a few.''
He laughed. We were interupted by a pair of customers and while Zak was dealing, faces (and bodies) flashed through my mind. There was Sarah, dark-haired and buxum, with the face of an angel. There was Jo, bespectacled and just the opposite. The there was Leanne, a cutie if ever there was one, married, with one child, she had the body of an athlete.
Zak turned back to me and proffered a cigarette. We smoked in silence, then parted was with a hearty clasp of hands.
``Through grace and grace along we are saved!''
``Through the glorious grace of God, as his chosen people, we will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven!''
``Thank you, Jesus!''
``No one knows what glories await us in the Kingdom of our one true Lord...''
``Thank you, Jesus!''
``Suffice it to say,'' I paused for effect, ``That no one can yet grasp, nor even comprehend, what we will find there.''
``As true believers. As the one chosen people, what will we yet partake in?''
``Our sins will be removed from us!''
``We will be as babes, suckling at our mother's breast.
``Will we freely partake in all the sins that so long have been denied us in this life?'' From my elevated position in the podium I saw a few faces light up.
``Watch the suffering of the damned in Hell?'' A few more faces lit up.
I was in the sitting room helping one of the interns count the offering when Genevieve walked in. She was a brunette, medium height and married to Jake, a tall, non-descript fellow.
``Can I talk to you?'' she asked me, eyes wide. She beckoned me to my office. I took a seat at my desk. She closed the door and pulled up a stool.
``Is anything the matter?'' I cooed in a compassionate tone that I knew opened up the flood-gates. She leaned close, blue eyes wide, devouring me. I took her hand and said, ``The Lord be with you. There is nothing so great he cannot fix it.''
``It's... it's about my marriage,'' she started.
``Your husband, Jake? Tell me what's on your mind.''
``It's just that, it's just that...'' she trailed off.
She needed to be fucked, and fucked hard. That is all.
The sacrament was passed around and I began to feel the familiar sense of relief and release that accompanied it. I spotted a familiar face, his striking dark features standing out from the rest of the congregation. He tore off his share of bread and drank greedily from the wine. When my turn came, the wine was a torrent of blood, drenching me to the core. I had the sense of standing on a mountain of corpses, mouths running with blood. I broke the bread: an endless stream of bodies, gored, blown apart, shot to pieces, gone to join the Christ in His suffering! And me, standing high above, surveying the broken remains. So that I might have life, and abundant life!
The band lit up, the service was over. Parishioners came by to shake my hand, touch me on the arm. ``Thank you for praying for me," she said.
Soon my old friend came by. One by one the fingers of his right hand wrapped around my own -- two bodies interwoven.
``Fantastic service!'' he said. ``Brilliant, really brilliant. You should go national.''
I laughed. ``You flatter me.''
``No, really. You could start a whole new movement.''
``You didn't come by just to compliment me on my preaching. What brings you to these parts?''
``I'm having a little Thanksgiving celebration,'' said Zak finally. ``Just me and a few of my girls. We're holding it on Tuesday so it won't disturb your activities with the congregation.''
``Won't you say grace, Reverend?'' asked Zak as we sat down to a mountainous feast of wild fowl, venison and berries.
``Heavenly Father, we are gathered here today, to toast your holy name. I'd just like to thank You for the day, many moons ago now, that I was saved. And I ask that you bless each one of us sitting here today, that we may have good fellowship and glorify You in eternity. Bless this food; in Jesus' name, Amen.''
For a long time we hardly spoke, so focused were we on our food. And when we did speak, it was to exchange bad, old jokes, laughing raucously with each.
``Hey Zak, how can you tell if a woman is faking?''
``I don't know, how?'' he said, through a mouthful of leg.
As our appetites were slaked and more wine poured down our throats, we turned toward the desert table and our conversation became more philosophical.
``How's life been treating you anyways?'' asked Zak.
``Incredible. Better than I could've ever imagined.''
``What do you hate the most?''
``Compromise is the worst,'' he replied.