Dumb Religious Story #137

by Marcus Lessard

With a month’s worth of anticipation throwing its collective weight into these waning few moments, Jackie transferred some of the tension pent up in her arms and legs to the situation at hand. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, leadened her foot on the accelerator. Her ’85 Ford Pickup coursed the turn-off onto Pink Rock Road, and thrummed, rattling muffler and all, up onto Bear Path Way.

Zigzagging in this manner up the face of the monolithic pseudo-mountain known to the locals as Baby Grand Mesa, sister to the geologically older, more monolithic, and more well-known Grand Mesa, the zig which was Pink Rock Road, the zag which was Bear Path Way, and on and on and up and up—offered vista views of the river-forged Grand Valley, one of the more rugged and geologically diverse regions in the whole of Colorado’s Western Slope; and so it was, that, Leandro, all strapped in to the passenger’s seat of his mother’s once-bright-red-but-now-mostly-rust-red pickup, which, belching exhaust, and doing its best impersonation of the Little Engine that Could as it maneuvered the hairpin turns and inclines of this switchback roadway configuration; so it was that Leandro, his bright brown eyes tracing the ups and downs, the over and unders, the round and abouts, of this broad and particularly eclectic swath of Plateau Country all splayed out below (he saw—the sheer Book Cliffs with their striated bands of sandstone and shale; the black boulders of volcanic basalt strewn all along the valley floor; further off to the west, the bustling city of Grand Junction; then of course the flat-topped Baby Grand Mesa itself which towered over them, over Grand Junction, over everything, like earth’s top shelf); and so it was, that Leandro asked his question:

“Ma, how come people think the Creator isn’t smart enough to, um, like’ve made all the mountains, an’ hills, an’ stuff?”

Jackie sniggered. “I don’t think it’s that, heito.” Gripping the steering wheel tighter still until her fingers became claws, Jackie motored her way up Bear Path Way until it switch-backed over onto Old Yankee Girl Road; with nary a hand free to wave or to honk, it was with a simple nod that she messaged her quick hello at the tourist-types standing aside their Winnebago at the viewing-area turnoff. “I think it’s, well, that their imaginations aren’t, you know, big, bold, and adventurous enough to be able to balance out a creation story with modern-day science stuff, you know, like... the big bang, dinosaurs, five-billion-year-old earth.” Jackie adjusted her rearview mirror to escape the rays of sun reflecting off of the snows of the distant mountain peaks of Ouray, whose claimed age of sixty million years which dated it back to Mesozoic times, Jackie had no problem reconciling with her belief in that old adage “let there be light.”

“I saw a dinosaur bone when we went to Fruita last year, remember, Ma?”

“I do. Wasn’t that brontosaurus pinky-finger bone just the coolest thing ever?”

“Uh-huh. So, how come then, how come—”

“Well, hieto... ” Jackie, rolling down her window, granted release to a housefly, a specimen whose prehistoric origin neither would Jackie have ever second-guessed; “it’s like this... though, afterwards, we’re gonna’ have to hush up so that Moms can focus on the road and not miss the restaurant, ‘kay?” Rolling up the window, Jackie said, “The story of creation... wasn’t firsthand account, right? It’s prophecy, a story told by the Creator—supposedly, and which isn’t supposed to be interpreted literally. You know what that word means, right?” Leandro nodded. “Prophecy is spiritual code, a mystery. And what does it take to solve a mystery?” From her purse Jackie extracted a breath mint whose wrapper she, in a single motion, shed, then popped in her mouth. “Well,” answering her own question, she explained, “besides the help of a sleuth maybe like Angela Lansbury or Aurora Teagarden, we’ve gotta’ get ourselves to the point where we’ve big enough imagination to believe that our Father’s imagination is bigger still than our own; and that, whenever He says something—we believe it, simply because He said it. Really, then, it’s all about perspective, and trust, and... ” Jackie brightened “... which really is just another way of sayin’ that we try an’—” Jackie sucked on her breath mint.

“That we try an’ see through our Father’s eyes.” Leandro exhaled, noisily. “I know, Ma, I know. You’ve said it like a zillion times.”

Si. And now a zillion-and-one times, so that we don’t forget. We must see through our Father’s eyes... so that, whenever we see, for example, a brontosaurus pinky-finger bone, or a Western Colorado gorge that bears all the signs of bein’ not a day younger than 50 bazillion years old, we see—” Jackie winced as she spotted the sign which warned of falling rocks “—we see, not the cold, heartless outcome of a cosmic die toss, lest we too become cold and heartless, but the intelligent designs of a Being who hones our spiritual receptors so that He can radio our way even more of His secrets; and who speaks all the time, well—in riddles; and the super-dooperest of his riddles being—guess what? Nature.”

With the road careering this way and that, Jackie was jostled about in a driver’s seat whose upholstery had not been free of holes, rips and tears since Bill Clinton was president. Finally she found opportunity to glance over at her son, whom, with his six-year-old attention span, was gazing out the window: she wondered if she had perhaps gotten carried away with all of the big-person words and references that she kept throwing at Leandro inside of her present attempt at explanation, and that maybe he was not fully comprehending all of it. And so Jackie was pleasantly surprised when Leandro turned to her, and in an even and engaged voice said, “The dinosaur bones are proof that the Creator made ‘em, ‘cause, they’re really old—and the Creator’s really old too. So, He musta’ made ‘em! See... ” Leandro pressed thumbs and forefingers together to form finger-circles then raised hands together to just above his nose to form finger spectacles.

“There you go, Leo! I see you got your glasses on, the ones that let you see through your Father’s eyes.” Jackie kept her own eyes peeled for the sign which advertised and hearkened the nearing of their destination, which, if memory served her correct, would be just beyond that cluster of pine trees then around that sandstone embankment. And there it was: the sign, bolted into the vertical face of the wall of rock which kept on like a skyscraper to their right; it read:

Historic Tommyknocker Diner
1 mile
Servin’ up the Mud since 1891

A half mile came and went, and Jackie and Leandro found themselves wheeling along a veritable plain, as flat as Nebraska—what a former Colorado governor had once dubbed “Rooftop Land.” A sky, as blue as a robin’s egg, colored the horizon in every direction. And straight ahead, the few, spindly white aspens which skirted the roadway gave way finally to the only man-made structure visible anywhere. Dead ahead, Leandro espied a late-Victorian-style mansion, rising like a beacon out of this mile-high tableland, and which, after a century of misuse, on-and-off use, and weathering, appeared not a whole lot different than any other grossly-over-architectured-and-underfunded-greasy spoon struggling to make ends meet in a No Man’s Land setting.

Leandro exulted, “I can see through my Father’s eyes as far as the eye can see!” He lowered his finger-spectacles. “Ma,” he proclaimed, “you musta’ had your glasses on too, ‘cause, look, we made it to the top. Ma, you’re the smartest ma’ in the whole world!”

Even though Jackie was pleased that her son should think so, still she endeavored to clarify, “Actually it was Pastor Ray who taught me all that. You know, about seeing through our Father’s eyes an’ all.”

Leandro knit his brows. “Who’s... Pastor Ray?”

Jackie felt a moment’s fluster at this new bit of evidence which served to reinforce past evidences which were to suggest that her firstborn’s memory was maybe not as keen as others his age; renouncing, finally, though, what she no sooner viewed to be presumption on her part by reminding herself that even the least keen, with the poorest memories, the seeming unworthiest of those created in the image of the Creator, were worthier even than all of the mountains, mesas, rivers, deserts, the world over—Jackie, brightening, answered, “Pastor Ray? Why, he’s the one we’ve driven all this way to see! The one I’ve been telling you all about. And whadda’ you know,” she nodded over, “we’re here.” Pulse quickening underneath the angora sweater which she had for this special occasion purchased at the Clifton Goodwill, Jackie Gutierrez eased the brakes, then, coasted for landing into the graveled parking lot of the lone food establishment this side of Silverton still in operation from Colorado’s turn-of-the-century mining days; and where, a contingent (three, from the looks of it) of old acquaintances—former Immaculate Temple members—who, awaiting her, and presently, seeing her, clasped their hands and shouted in her direction benedictions like “praise be!” and “hallelujah!” and “Jackie made it!”

A man, she saw, standing there. A woman. And, a superman. A Saint. A Super Saint! It was Pastor Ray Massey himself, back from the dead, as it were. In joyous refrain Jackie yammered at her son, “It’s him. It’s really him!” Jackie, reddening, clapped a hand over her mouth: maybe revealing to her son that Supermom had a superhero all her own was not the most helpful of ways of securing for herself future occasion to exercise her shock-and-awe influence over his youthful sensibilities.

Or, on second thought, maybe not so superhero-ish.

Jackie killed the engine, her eyes never leaving the superman. She couldn’t help but notice the holes in his sneakers. She removed her driving glasses, wiped them clean with her sleeve, put them back on. Yes, holey sneakers; to go along with—hair which was every bit in a tussle, sunken eye sockets, skin that looked chapped and wrinkled; brown—no, red—eyes which were glossed over and dullish-looking; bones jutting out of skin like sticks from under a tarp; expression smeared by sarcastic-looking frown. Pastor looked like something straight out of The Walking Dead! Suddenly all of Jackie’s old fears rose up within her: where had Ray Massey been all of those years? Until Jackie reminded herself, even as she yanked the parking brake and waved a “hallelujah-hello” back at her fellows, that, the “heart overflowings” and “hope arisings” of Oneness Experience always proceeded the “light shinings” of revelation, which itself results from experiences full of “jagged edges” and “clouds of tears” and long hours spent looking “into our Father’s eyes”; the whole of which sacrosanct spiel made Jackie wonder if Pastor’s holey shoes had maybe been his awkward attempt at metaphor. A much less dour-looking Pastor Ray had of course run off that very spiel five years earlier as a means to teach her, to teach them, the wondrous cause-and-effects of looking at, and through, their Father’s eyes. Five years earlier, to the day. That day. His last. His end. Their beginning. That spiel. Those words.

Whanging shut the “it’s hella’ screechin’, Ma” (as Leandro would put it) driver’s side door, Jackie, with Leandro tagging along behind after a little coaxing from Moms, strode a few steps towards her fellows, only to find herself rushed at, then, engulfed, by soft yet resilient old arms which gave her the heartiest hug she had had since her preteen days when her father’s blackened sweaty forearms were still shoveling coal in the San Juans. Beatrice Cooper, more familiarly known as “Bea,” she of the hearty embraces, of the frumpy conventionality, of the polka-dot dresses, of the silly witticisms and endless list of bodily ailments; and Jackie, a much younger woman who was more inclined to things like health, and hip hop, and modern styles, and eating cheese in contrast to dishing it out—were never what one would have referred to as “friends”; indeed, the two had done scarce more than share casual acquaintance while participating in social and ceremonial functions as hosted by the now-defunct Immaculate Temple of the Beloveds; and yet, the hug which these old casual acquaintances shared, presently, here at 8,000 feet, bespoke a familiarity on the level of long-lost best friends. Thought Jackie to herself, “It’s not her, though. It’s him. It’s Pastor. It’s him we’re hugging right now, because of what he did, what he said: the holy spiel.” No sooner was Jackie overcome by the unexpected sensation of strength and vitality out of this elderly sister who, if memory served Jackie correct, had been no more than a wet noodle of a thing, forever bound up by sickness. Ending hug, taking a step back, it was then that Jackie noticed the absence of respirator, of oxygen tank, of walker, of neck brace; also Bea didn’t appear to have her prescription wood shoes on.

“Holy Toledo,” Jacked exclaimed. “You’re walking!”

Bea reached to touch her toes. “Back’s healed, too,” she said, her smile broadening as she straightened. She cast her sights over. “And praise be, ‘twas all thanks to Pastor Ray here, whose words that day—y’all know what words I’m talkin’ about, y’all know what day I mean.” Bea winked at Jackie’s child who was the spittin’ image of his momma as sure as the day was long. “Those words—” Bea cleared her throat “—‘bout the ‘healing rain’, and how we, in gettin’ the healing rain in our lives, could get our bodies and our souls restored.”

“Yes,” Jackie, musing, put in. “That part about the healing rain, I remember it!” No sooner did it occur to Jackie that introductions had yet to be made, and, wouldn’t it be nice if the others could be introduced to her son before getting right into it? Still Jackie so wished that Bea would continue with her testimony—this success story of hers as blossomed from that seed which was Pastor’s final sermon.

Her wish was no sooner granted as Bea began to root around in the faux-leather handbag that dangled from her elbow like ancient moss, her saying, “’Course, I’d written down on a notepad I had with me that day every word of that sermon—not only ‘cause of all the funny stuff Pastor was sayin’ about how it’d be his very last sermon and all but, because of the atmosphere in the chancel that day—which’d been electric, hadn’t it been? Likewise Pastor—he’d spoke the Word with such gut-wrenchin’ emotion, ‘twas like the Dove of Peace’d come right down on him!” Jackie, who had been employed also with pen and paper that day, nodded in earnest. “And so, I just had to write that sermon all down!” Jackie noticed that Bea’s hand was shaking as it proceeded to clamber noisily around the insides of her satchel, and out of which, Bea, at length, extracted a square of paper. Unfolding paper, she read aloud, “Wait for the healing rain... was what Pastor in his sermon had said.” She looked up. “And so I did wait. And waited some more. I waited until I felt dummy for waiting. Yet nothin’ happened, and for the longest time.” Bea re-folded the paper, ushered it back into her purse. Zippering, she said,

“Then one day, my sister, Edna, who lives over in Loveland, invited me come over and help her with a crochetin’ project. Turns out she just needed me advise her on whether or not the frontpost-half-double would be the best stitch to use for the pointy ears of the teddy-fox she was fixin’ for her niece.” Bea smirked. “That Edna, come to find out she was havin’ trouble too with gettin’ the loopstitches on her fox tail to fluff up properly, and we all know how sometimes difficult that can be!” Bea snickered. “Anyway, so, on the drive over, I passed by Glenwood Springs.”

Jackie lit up. “Where the famous hot springs are, right?”

Semi-famous, and depending on who you ask. The sign for the exit asked if I might be interested in ‘taking a break’ in their ‘healing waters.’ Goodness no, I was not! And gosh if I wouldn’t have kept right on down I-70 hadn’t Pastor’s words—about the healing rain, been in the mix of my thoughts at that very moment. As if moved by an invisible force, I turned off the exit.”

“The health benefits of hot-spring mineral waters have been well documented. Did it help? I mean, you went for a dip, right?”

“Lickety-split I was in those waters, Jackie Wackie. No bathing suit, but, did have with me my birthday suit!” The blush of cheer fading from her cheeks just as quickly as it had appeared on them, Bea with seriousness continued, “Soakin’ in those waters, all of a sudden I noticed that the pain in my legs didn’t feel quite so bad. And my psoriasis—the red patches on my arms, and waist—seemed to be fading before my very eyes. Thought maybe I was on to something, and so I ended up returnin’ to Glenwood Springs again and again over the whole course of that summer.” Bea bent her arms, raised up on her tippy-toes, jogged in place. “And so, see here, y’all, whether it be an out-and-out miracle that mineral waters heal up an ol’ girl like mines’ arthritis, crooked spine, shoddy legs, and psoriasis—I don’t know. What I do know is that all of that I had ‘afore, and I don’t seem to have it now, and that me turning offa’ that exit wouldn’t ever have happened hadn’t Pastor spoken so fine a Word that so-fine day five years ago, that, so etched in my memory it would end up bein’.”

Her healed body bubbling over with the energies of enthusiasm not unlike the bubbling spring waters which had effected that claimed healing, Bea, her bubble readying to burst, with legs motoring, and, with a yelp, tromped over to share a small token of her appreciation in the form of a big bear hug. Jackie the whole while reaffirmed the agreement she had since made with her own self that she was going to hold off with over-the-top expressions of thanksgiving such as the one played out in front of her; or, at least until she could get a better read on the narrowed glances, the furrowed brow, the snarky, almost feral smirk which this languid-looking version of Ray Massey kept on his mug like some kind of Halloween mask.

Reminding herself that staring was impolite, Jackie removed her sights off of this living, jiggling portrait of “Pastor with Old Lady Attached”; and with her scrutiny looking for a place to settle, found it invariably land upon the invisible man; that is to say, the tallish, gangly-looking millennial whom since the moment of her arrival Jackie had yet to hear a peep from; and whom she could see shifting as if nervously from one foot to the other; and whom Jackie knew to be—

“Brandon, right?” Jackie pounded pavement over to extend a hand. “You’re the young man used to operate the sound system at temple services, if I recall. You were so quiet and shy back then, we... we could hardly get you to sing the Lord’s praise during worship never mind do something like dance the aisles!” Jackie rolled her eyes sarcastically. “Unlike Bea here, who could probably at present dance all the way to Salt Lake.”

Bea laughed out loud. Brandon grinned awkwardly. Leandro giggled. The pastor looked hard on.

The awkwardness of Brandon’s grin no sooner though began to effuse into an overall awkwardness which seemed to flush over this entire face: the quivering lip and sudden spark in his eyes was his subconscious pronouncement to the others that he had at last been spotted and identified as a member of this gathering, and who, therefore, would be expected to participate socially. The young man took a deep breath. A shake in his voice, he said, “Yeah, guess I was kinda’ quiet back then, wasn’t I?” He swallowed, audibly; and in the refrain of a recording, “Words are, um... are overrated, though, they’re—they’re just letters, all glued together,” he stammered, reciting the line he had referenced time and again on his months-long media tour whenever confronted with questions about his all-too-obvious shyness. “Words,” he said, a bit less mechanically, his vocal chords starting to warm up, “are cheap. It is—it is actions that are—”

“—the currency of heroism,” Bea finished his sentence, smiling triumphantly. Everyone looked over. “I watch TV and read the newspaper, too!” Bea said, beaming.

The young man reached for Jackie’s hand, shook it. The two shared a hug. “Brandon, yes. Brandon Marks. That’s me.”

“That’s not his name,” Bea winked over. She padded over to place a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Or, at least not anymore.” Chin up, she announced, “Y’all, allow me to introduce... Captain America.” Bea sided a glance. “May I tell them?” with eyebrow raised she asked. “Although odds are they know already! Gosh, it was only in all the newspapers and on Fox News, on Hannity even. Y’all haven’t heard?”

“No, Leandro and I have not. Tell us!”

“It happened what, two years ago, Cap’n?” Turning from Brandon to Jackie, Bea explained, “In a nutshell... our guy here, putting to use his sound-system-operatin’ know-how, and all by his lonesome, foiled a Taliban raid on his camp in Kabul. Kabul. That’s in Pakistan, Jackie Wack.”

Brandon coughed. “Afghanistan, actually. West-central part.”

“Same rootin-tootin’ difference, Cap’n. There was rocks and sand and oil there, wasn’t there? So, what happened, Jackie Wack—and son of Jackie Wack, was that, the bad guys—they cut the lights at Cap’n’s compound, and so using his IT know-how Cap was able, then, to finagle those lights back on again. Cap, y’all, prevented a slaughter. He saved hundreds of lives.”

Jackie clasped her hands together. “You’re a hero!” She beckoned for her son. “Leo—now you come over here and with Moms say hola to Captain America.”

But Leandro stayed put. The wary look on the youngster’s face didn’t budge either. “Is he really Captain America, Mom? Where’s his shield?”

Drawing again from his mental casefile of canned responses to media-tour inquiries, Brandon Marks explained that he had “left his shield back at Wolverine’s place.” Why? Because “Wolverine’s roommate, The Hulk, insisted on using it as dinnerware. And I was a corporal, Ms. Cooper,” he for Bea clarified, “not a captain.”

“Ah, horse apples! If Captain America is what the press be callin’ you then that’s what ol’ Bea’s gonna’ call you too, hero man.” Bea whispered over at Jackie, “Hero. You said it!”

Nature presuming to make its protest against the deafening silence which followed as introduced into their midst by way of back-to-back personal testimonies; a silence, inside of which any attempt at human rendering would have seemed to be on the level of blasphemous—a westerly wind with ice on its breath at that moment whooshed in to sting cheeks and redden noses. The huddled assemblers were in this way awakened, and as if suddenly, to the realization that, here they were, standing and chatting, and now, reposing in thoughtful silence, with the chill of mid-November grating against their exposed heads and hands, and in a parking lot no less, and not instead were they burrowed into a cushy restaurant booth with their fingers curled around a hot and steaming cuppa’ Mesa Mud! Even so, each stood and listened, never minding the rush of air which howled no less it bit, as Brandon Marks raised his voice with plans to set the record straight. “That whole... ” he said, his voice projecting satisfactorily over the whistle of winds, “rescue ordeal they afterwards awarded me the Medal of Honor for? Welp, wouldn’t at all even have happened hadn’t it been for Pastor’s sermon, words of which I’d—like Bea—written down on piece of paper had with me that day... on the back of the church bulletin, in fact, and which I now keep forever in my back pocket here—” which Brandon patted, and out of which he proceeded to extract a laminated tab of yellow paper. “The words from that sermon which in particular got me were... ” Brandon read aloud “... as my soul slides down to die, how—” Brandon struggled to keep his voice steady “—how could I lose him, what did I try; bit by bit, I realize, that he was there with me; I looked into my Father’s eyes... ” Brandon cocked an eyebrow. “Remember, Pastor, how you used to suggest we take notes of all your inspired talks?”

The man they referred to as “Pastor” liked that: his inspired talks. His immediate impulse was to puke all over holey sneakers; and with follow-up impulse to laugh out loud. And yet he reserved response, mainly as a favor to his wife. His mouth—he continued to keep shut; and his ears, open; that way he might stay aground of the ridiculousness at hand so that when mouth finally did open he would have reference material enough to justify the tongue-lashings which would then ensue. Amusedly the pastor listened to the dark-eyed Spanish one as she flapped her yap with Sunday-morning-type banter and the all-too-typical sentimentalisms; a Spanish one who might have actually passed for “sexy” were it not for that infernal yap flappin’ of hers; and then, of course, there that was that little mouth to feed standing beside her.

Exclaimed Jackie, as she continued to speak her mind: “... so yeah, like I was sayin’, I used to write all your sermons down too! Also that last sermon of yours, Pastor... it was like somethin’ come outta’ the very gates of heaven! So powerful. So moving. So full of spiritual energy. So... short! You got up there, and literally you spoke only, like, fifteen to twenty sentences. Wasn’t any sermon we heard that day—but poetry, divine inspiration, a Word from heaven! It even rhymed!”

“Hallelujah, Jackie,” Bea, clapping, jumped up and down. “You said it!”

“Hallelujah!” Jackie exclaimed.

“Amen!” Brandon yelped, then, cringing, he grinned in repentance for what he no sooner recognized to be out-of-character loudness. Clearing his throat, Brandon resumed his narrative, “Anyway, so—there I was, out on recon patrol in the Al-am-shir Wilderness, just outside of Kabul, when, well, I got separated from my company, and I’m afraid to say I got lost.”

Bea sniggered. “Oh, Captain. You, lost? Superheroes don’t get—”

“I know, right? You can just see the obit in The Daily Sentinel: ‘Local Army Man Perishes: Takes Wrong Turn in Desert.’” Brandon shook his head. “Sometimes—guess I just get too wrapped up in my own little world and guess that’s what happened that day out on patrol, too. Anyway so, after days of wandering, seemingly in circles, finally I just collapsed into the softest, sandiest-lookin’ ravine that I could find and came finally to grips with the fact that... well, it was all gonna’ end for me, and soon.” Brandon’s throat rose and fell and made a harsh clicking sound. “I made—” he forced the words out, “my peace with the Creator, and then, and then, lying there, waited for the darkness to just overtake me.” A blast of wind, the coldest, bitterest yet, stirred to swaying the few leafless aspens which dotted the horizon, even as Brandon, softly, and as if meditatively, seizing the others with sparkle in his eye, went on to say, “And so, wouldn’t you know it, it was right then and there, as I lay in that sandy ravine, that I recalled Pastor’s farewell sermon, those words... ” Brandon raised his hand to showcase, again, the yellow paper “... about how, even when our soul’s about to slide down and die, that He is there with us.” The man they called “Captain America” and “hero” turned to address the man who was his hero, saying,

“And so I did, then, Pastor, what you’d on that last day advised us to do. I looked into my Father’s eyes.” Brandon thought it over. “Actually, it was the desert sun I’d squinted up into, and yet a sun which for me at that moment wasn’t just big yellow ball in the sky—but divine brilliance, the Creator’s face.” Brandon smirked. “Coulda’ burned out my retinas I stood starin’ up at that sun so long!” In obsequious display Brandon widened his eyes, assuring, in this way, the others, that he and his eyeballs were however just fine. “And then—and then,” Brandon went on, “all of a sudden the thought dawned on me that, I wasn’t alone—even then, when my only seeming companions were sun, sand, and, ya know, the grim reaper! That single thought gave me all the strength that I’d need. Liftin’ myself up off of those sands I started walking. Little did I realize that just over that next rocky ridge lay a settlement. I lived, Pastor. I survived, you guys! And all because of those words. Pastor, those words... those awesome... those... that you spoke that day.”

Jacked wiped a tear. “Wow!” she exclaimed, accepting the tissue that Bea from out of her purse handed her. Dabbing away at cheeks and eyes, Jackie said, “But—so how does any of that have to do with you saving—”

“Well, about a month later—the Taliban, the bastards, they surprised us. Somehow they gained access to our compound, cut the lights, and blocked access also to our stash of night-vision goggles, which they now had. In the panic, with friends around me gettin’ picked off by sniper fire like they were bad guys in a video game set on easy level, it was right then and there, amidst all the screaming and shootin’ that I recalled my earlier experience in the desert, and how I’d made it through. Those words, Pastor, your words... ” Brandon chanced a look over, “about lookin’ into our Father’s eyes... .” Brandon squared his shoulders. “Welp, a switch went off. Suddenly it struck me, as it had that day in the desert, that, I wasn’t alone, and suddenly also I realized I wasn’t scared. I picked up my M16, and my courage, and against a hailstorm of bullets, hightailed it over a two-hundred-yard obstacle course from hell—‘til finally I made it to the fusebox. I was hit multiple times—just grazed, luckily, in the legs, and arm. I flipped some switches, unplugged the wrongly placed wires, re-plugged the rights ones in. The compound lights flitted—then, came back on. And ‘course the tide turned almost immediately. The enemy, was overcome. Their leaders, were captured.”

Brandon’s wandering gaze, through which the eyes of his memory were forthwith granted vision, could all but see the brazed, mangled flesh above his left knee, the blood dripping from his right shoulder; it could all but hear the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire; could all but feel the adrenaline in him surge against the late-night desert air.

Brandon came to.

“There was a time, guys,” Brandon said, a shake in his voice, “when Captain America could hardly strum up the courage to make a tough decision or to in a social setting string two sentences together—Jackie, you were right about that! Since that time though, and even despite my country-boyish ways, and the sweat on my palms, I’ve cowboyed up and pressed forward to share my testimony with newspaper reporters, TV cameras, entire crowds even! Pastor—” the country-boy-turned-celebrity pivoted to look with trembling heart and moist eyes into the face of his hero: it was a face though, Brandon noticed, which glowered back at him with expression darkened by furrowed brow and cold, unblinking eyes; the folded arms and tapping of the foot as if with impatience only added to the overall look of a man who seemed less than interested in the sharing of personal testimonies. Flustered, Brandon finished his thought, “... thank... thank you, Pastor. Your words, you... have changed my life.”

Pastor Ray grumbled something indiscernible about Mormons (or was it “morons”); then, turning, he with no uncertain amount of vehemence hawked into the dusty gravel of the parking lot.

Being only six years of age, and, of backwoods persuasion no less than the others, Leandro Gutierrez was decidedly less mindful than his adult counterparts of such nuances as ex-pastors making pissed-off looking faces then spitting in disgust into parking-lot groundworks; and so, the awkward silence birthed in response to said spitting could have, and did have, no claim on him. Leandro’s perturbation stayed itself not at all on this pastor guy, but on the non-superhero-looking adult whom everyone kept insisting was the one and only Captain America, and who, as if singlehandedly, was keeping forever in the shadows the real superhero of Leandro’s estimations. Stretching himself every whit of his 4’3” stature, Leandro in protest offered as disclaimer, “My mom... she always says that whenever I got a problem or am afraid, that I need to look into my Father’s eyes. And so that’s what I do! I look up at the big tall mountains and see—His face, His eyes, hidin’ out in the rocks. And guess what? It works!” Leandro nodded with Bobblehead fervor. “My mom, she knows.”

Bea smiled over at Jackie, who, with motherly pride gleaming like starlight in her dark eyes and to the point even that it seemed to brighten the very darkness of her complexion, reached to lay a soft hand atop her son’s head. And while mother and son exchanged winks, and watermelon grins, Bea’s own grin began to deflate into the solemnity of deep thought. “That day,” at length Bea said and in the pontifical manner of speech-making. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. In the space of a single half-hour—” Bea leveled her sights at the others “—we eye-witnessed, on the one hand, the end of our beloved Immaculate Temple of the Beloveds; and on the other, the most moving and awe-inspiring send-off since that final farewell episode of The Golden Girls. Here’s how I remember it... ” Bea whet her lips. “Pastor,” she asked him, “may I?”

Upon discovering her glance over to be however met with the steely eyes and toothy snarl of Wolfman, and finding herself wholly unable to reconcile a Wolfman figure with her long-time perception of this former pastor of hers as harp-holding, cloud-sitting saint, Bea, for the sake of constancy, and, one might suppose, the salvaging of her own religious belief, chose to interpret these many signs of indignation as instead to signify constipation (an ailment normal, she reckoned, to a man of his maturity level); and so it was that Bea allowed herself to continue. “Here’s how I remember it... ” Bea picked as if nervously at the rhinestones affixed to the faux-leather purse which hung off her elbow. “Pastor—he arises, and, makes his way to the pulpit. He’s, well, we all notice that he’s... shaking. His normally bright clear eyes are all red and puffy. We don’t know yet, and in fact, would never know, if those tears he’d wept up ‘til then (‘cause clearly he’d been weeping) were because of how moved he’d been by that so-inspired sermon he’d penned and was preparin’ to deliver, or, if it was something else. Anyhow so, instead of the usual formalities of weekly announcement or introduction, Pastor—he just gets right down to it, only instead of a sermon it’s... ”

“A poem,” proposed Jackie.

Bea nodded.

“They call it, I think,” offered Brandon, “free verse poetry.” Everyone looked over. Brandon shrugged. “What? Took an English Lit course once back when I was in school.” He cleared his throat, darted a guilty glance over at the kid. “’Course this was back before I was enrolled at Superhero Academy.”

Bea rediscovered her grin, dimples and all. “Thank you, oh captain, my captain... for reminding us that—” she in like manner spared a glance down and over at Jackie’s boy “—that even superheroes need to go to school and keep up good grades. Yeah-huh,” Bea elicited, “a smatterin’ of some top-notch, free verse poetry, chock full a’ divine inspiration and that packed a real Dove-of-Peace punch-a-roo! So, Pastor, he, er... ” she beheld the man, noticing for the first time what looked to be, yes, it was a creepy-lookin’ clown face sketched onto the left side of his neck—though, which Bea was just as soon able to convince herself was not tattoo, no, only vagabond ink smudge which just so happened to look like clown nightmare and that had somehow, by the wiles of the devil no doubt, got splattered onto that guileless throat perhaps by way of windstorm not uncommon to these parts of Plateau Country; and so it was that Bea allowed herself to continue. “So Pastor, he... recites his limerick, his sanctified soliloquy, his soul-savin’ rhyme, his Creator-inspired free verse poem, and then, dropping, Pastor, your head, and running your hand through your hair—you exhaled, then you said—just like the Prophet once did: ‘it is finished,’ and then you walked offstage, and kept walking... out the door, never to be seen or heard from again.” Bea stilled herself. “Until now. Until recently. Until today.” Bea exchanged wary looks with Jackie. “When... we returned for service that following Sunday, we, um, found a sign on the door, which read ‘Gone Fishin’.” Bea forced a smile. “Rumor had it, Pastor, you’d tromped off to join the mission field in Africa; another rumor claimed you’d hopped a plane to Mexico to assist a failing temple there; still another rumor had it—”

“—that Pastor’d got translated up into the heavens, just like Elijah!” Jackie slapped her thigh. “Though, can’t say I ever really fell for that one, and obviously it wasn’t true ‘cause, here you are, standing right in front of us!” Jackie allowed mirth to subside as the light-hearted sniggerings in response to her truism ran their socially appropriate course. “Still, Pastor,” Jackie went on, “and seriously, you—or should I say, the Shekinah Glory that’d shone through you over the whole of that farewell service of our Immaculate Temple of the Beloveds, certainly has made a difference also in my life.” Jackie reached again for her son’s hand. “In fact, that’s why Leandro and I came out here today. It’s to show our appreciation, and also we came—” Jackie widened her eyes in appeal “—to see whatever had become of our dear Pastor Ray!” The puppy-dog glimmer in Jackie’s eye however lost a bit of its puppy dog as she then beheld the vein in the pastor’s neck that bulged like a banana under a wet blanket; it was then, too, that she noticed the clown tattoo. Before Jackie could however make a full registry of her doubts and confirm those past doubts which long had hounded her, she heard the words escape her lips, “Wherever it was, Pastor, you’ve been these past few years, we’re sure you were all the while looking in, and through, your Father’s eyes!”

Pastor Ray stood with lips pressed into a tight, menacing line. The bulge in his neck, Jackie noticed, had begun to pulsate.

“Yessiree,” Bea sang, “figured there’d be others with stories to share an’ thanks to give. ‘Fact, that’s why I invited y’all out here to celebrate that not-so-long-ago day when Pastor and his temple—our temple—said their farewells, offered their blessing.” Lifting her gaze, Bea directed attention to the spectacle of nature which surrounded them on all sides. “And a’ ‘course, I chose here, Mesa County’s best hideaway lunch spot, because, well, this is where Linda works. She’s gotta’ be a part of the celebration too, wouldn’t y’all agree?” Stretching wide her arms toward him in beaconing call, Bea megaphoned over, “We are here to commemorate you, Pastor Ray, for your time as our pastor. Also we wish to thank you, and oh so much, for that send-off sermon and those wonderful, wonderful words that you, er... left us with. Pardon all, but where might Pastor be goin’?”

“Into the restaurant, looks like,” offered Brandon, a question mark on his face and a squint in his eyes as he fought back the sun to get a better look. The 122-year-old oaken front entryway to The Tommyknocker Diner opened; then, it banged shut. “Yup. Restaurant.” Brandon scratched his head. “Wow. Musta’ really had something on his mind... without warnin’ he just ups and takes off on us like that!”

“Uncontrolled urination,” Bea, nodding, blurted. The others looked at her. “Pee,” she said louder. “He had to go pee. My Elmer, the Creator rest his soul, used to suffer from that same ailment. And those adult diapers he’d always insist on buying—goodness! They’d leak, well, like cheapo diapers that had a whole lotta’ pee in ‘em!”

“You really think that’s it?” Jackie narrowed her eyes at the door and the diner.

Bea followed Jackie’s gaze as her own gaze, by degrees, began to harden. “Let’s hope so, dear,” Bea said, a stab of sarcasm in her voice which seemed to betray all of her former jubilation. “Let’s hope it’s just his health that’s failing him and not instead his heart, and his head.”

Brandon bit his lip. “Should we follow him, our... shepherd of old? Was that our cue maybe?”

“Yeah, cue to give him some space and not just rant forever on about ourselves, sure!” Jackie sighed. “He looked upset, didn’t he? And not himself. You think, guys, that maybe Pastor’s struggling with something? I mean besides havin’ to go pee. Or maybe along with having to go pee he’s got also, say, an ingrown toenail, or some kinda’ virus he maybe caught down in Mexico while helping that temple down there, savin’ all them souls and whatever other good works he was up to?” Jackie shook her head. “Speaking for my own self, I just refuse to believe that our Pastor Ray could be anything other than that approved fellow-servant we all knew and loved, the good, the holy, the blessed in all heavenly places, the Right Beloved of the Creator, the Dove-of-Peace covered, agape-love manifestin’—”

* * * *

“Damned religious freaks!” he decried through gritted teeth, ricocheting shut the 122-year-old entryway to The Tommyknocker Diner, and with such force that napkins flew off tables, silverware rattled, and all three diner patrons gasped and scrambled for their hunting rifles. “Where is that scheming, conniving, underhanded little bible-thumper? Where is my wife!”

Great-great-granddaughter of the diner’s founder: miner-turned-millwright-turned-entrepreneur Sal Halloway—Sally Ann Halloway boasted duties which included: owner, proprietor, head cook, lead waitress, chief disciplinarian, person in charge of all things money, floor mopper, and grill greaser. And so, not unsurprisingly, it was Sally Ann who was on coffee-filler-upper-duty and smilingly employed in topping off with measured splashes of her locally famous Mesa Mud the mug held forth by a bearded patron, when, the diner environs, lulled by the slowdown of off-season, were intruded upon by what Sally at first feared might be a federal raid on her invitation-only herbal garden out back.

Looking up from the coffee she’d spilt—presently in the form of puddle on the service counter in addition to brown droplets dangling from the graying chin-hairs of the bearded patron, Sally however breathed easy when she noticed that it was just Ray Massey, being his usual train-wreck self again. For the bearded patron, Sally conveyed a cream, two sugars, and a heartfelt apology. Her muttered cursings as she proceeded to wipe clean the service counter sounded out over the clinkety-clank of butts and barrels striking floor, chairs, and carrying cases, as three no-longer-frenetic diner patrons laid to rest their hunting rifles. “Linda’s in back,” Sally said in a tired voice, a voice with rust and nails and cigarette smoke in it and which made her sound even older than the “1961” printed on her driver’s license. “She’s changin’ outta’ her uniform and freshenin’ up so she can join you all for your reunion shin-dig. Lind—she likes that booth o’er in the corner, one with view outta’ the window that shows overside the mesa, lets you see all the ways to Utah.” Sally pointed towards the far end of the diner at the sunroom which jutted angle-wise out of the northwest corner of building proper, turret-style. “And I’ll be a monkey’s ant, Ray Massey, if I don’t make good on her preferences over that of that whack-job husband of hers’s, who’s always insisting he sit at his so-favorite spot over by the confounded pies—pies he be always stickin’ his fingers into, and then never buys!”

Ray groaned as, rubbernecking, he began to make googly eyes at the dessert carousel over by the cash register, the one shelved with The Knockers’ award-winning cakes and fruit pies. “But—” he sniveled, “I got nothing to pay the piper with, Sal!”

“If Sal was here, he’d roll over in his grave, the kinda’ riff-raff I allows in this Knocker these latter days. And my name ain’t that, Ray Massey. Remember, my long-standing policy that y’all reserve the name ‘Sal’ for my esteemed forebear, respect for the dead, kinda’ like? And the reason you short on cash is that you always be tweakin’! For chrissake, just look at ya: probably haven’t slept in days!”

“Six, going on seven... but who’s counting?” As if meditatively, Ray added, “Good ol’ lucky number seven.”

Hands on hips, Sally regarded this man who was actually not undeserving of at least a lemon-peel’s worth of respect, what with his yesteryears spent as quasi-community leader—as pastor, if one could believe it. Resisting at length the urge she had to seize riff-raff item by the seat of his pants and jettison out of sunroom window, just as—or so it was claimed—her esteemed forebear was wont to do with the occasional freeloader, Sally, crossing her arms, said instead in a scolding voice, “And why you be yellin’ and slamming doors in my place like that, Ray Massey? Sure, Joe Rob, and Shane, and Carl here, are all regulars, and know ya’, and won’t be offended by yer antics. Still it’s cream and sugar they want in their Mud, not your hogwash!”

“Yeah, quiet ‘er down!” Joe Rob, looking up from his coffee, yelled over his beard. But then, lowering his coffee, Joe Rob lost his smile and in a voice without humor said, “You’ve been methin’ again, haven’t you, partner? Look how skinny you is!”

From their stools over by the bubble-gum dispenser Shane and Carl craned their necks overtop their steak and eggs to get a better look at just how skinny.

The role of black sheep was one that Ray Massey had by this point grown used to, learned to embrace even. “Meth’s a fine good time,” replied he, his boggly eyes with mock-seriousness meeting theirs, “but it ain’t no china white, that’s for damn sure.” Not knowing how to respond, exactly, to this salty, foreign-flavored comeback, three customers and one diner owner just didn’t. “Drink your joe, Joe,” Ray quipped, then resumed his march in the direction of the swinging doors at the rear of the diner whereon were posted the words “Employees Only,” and that Ray proceeded to blast open with a double-handed shove.

Rubber squeaked against linoleum as Ray’s bootheels ground him to a halt. Ray stretched a slow grin. Humming, bent indiscriminately over, and with her hand for balance pressed against the diner’s rumbling, industrial-strength dishwasher, Linda, attired but scantily, looked less like the wife and more like the Vegas call girl Ray had partied with the weekend prior—granted with the similarities fading in proportion to the progress that Linda made in hoisting from ankles to waistline a pair of conservative khaki slacks, which she secured around her waist, finally, with the snap of a button: until once again she was just the wife.

Her at-times sexy, Little-House-on-the Prairie good looks notwithstanding, Linda was not this time going to be saved from husband’s ever-enduring agitation over her Christian charity efforts on his behalf.

Ray tapped on her shoulder. Linda jumped. He had frightened her. It was something which, admittedly, he had been doing his fair share of over the years since That Day, as Linda would often refer to it.

“Very funny,” indignantly he said, as his reddened brown eyes met her green ones. “Nice try. But, tell me—did you think it was actually going to work?”

Linda blinked. “What... do you mean? What’s not going to work?”

Chancing a step backward, Ray allowed himself a bigger-picture view of the surprise and nonrecognition in those green eyes, which, he had to admit, was rather good acting, even for Linda.

“Your little scheme,” Ray answered. “It won’t work.”

Linda’s expression was as blank as the signature-line on those divorce papers that she held in reserve for a rainy day in a secret compartment in her bureau.

“Oh, come on.” Ray folded his arms. “Don’t even try to tell me it wasn’t you who convinced those Simple Sarahs out there into believin’ how ‘blessed’ their lives are now, thanks to me and some—“ Ray sneered “—sermon I farted out for them five years ago.” Ray reddened: he was no longer in the mood for the wife’s pretenses. Through clenched teeth he hissed, “Why can’t you get it through that Bejubus-lovin’ head a’ yours, Linda. I’m done. Done with Gawd. Done with Gawd stuff. Done with Bejebus. Done with holy water, with holy wafers, with holy rollers, with holy bologna, with holy... moley, what’s that?”

“My middle finger. Reserved exclusively for blasphemers.” Linda sighed, deeply. Her despair however as quickly gave way to concern as Linda then noticed the splash of hysteria in her husband’s red eyes, the flaring nostrils, that tell-tale bulging neck-vein—signs all which were to suggest that her husband was far from finished with his little pity party; she blurted in warning, “Ray—”

“I failed.” Ray narrowed his eyes. “No, the Creator failed!” He lowered his voice. “No, there is no Creator. And aren’t I Saint Peter if I don’t for the life of me enjoy sittin’ on this skinny ass all day long, smokin’ and shootin’ it up, while you make ends meet for us with this... this waitressing gig.”

“Ray.”

“And another thing—”

“Ray!”

Ray relaxed shoulder and neck muscles; he unfurled his fist. “What?” he said, calmer.

“I’m only going to say this once, and, I want you to listen to and believe what I’m about to tell you, because, well, I’m your wife, and if you can’t believe your wife... who can you believe?”

Ray’s heavy breathing abated. “What is it, you want to tell me?”

The sleeve of her blouse, Linda noticed, had a crease in it: pressing firmly with palm down, she makeshift ironed it. “Ray... ” she looked up to say, “whatever it is that’s on your mind right now, whatever, er, Simple Sarahs you might be referring to, I’d just like to say one thing about all that, and it’s this... ” Linda reared back, hollered, “I HAVE NO FRIGGIN’ IDEA WHAT YOUR’E TALKING ABOUT!” Linda inspected her sleeve. “Okay? Now, let’s forget about Sarah... whomever, and focus instead on the Beas, and Jackies, and Lindas in our lives, how about?” The wrinkle had flattened but slightly; still Linda appeared satisfied. She motioned over. “Oh, and would you please grab for me my belt: see it on that chair over there by the water heater?” With its sterling-silver edging and ornate Victorian etchings, the grandfather clock on the wall—a relic from turn-of-the-century days and stationed overtop the chair in question and which her husband, presently, made for—never ceased to attract Linda’s attention. “Look, it’s five minutes ‘til! Old friends oughta’ be pulling in any minute now.” Receiving belt, Linda gushed, “Oh, Ray, isn’t it swell that Bea Cooper, of all people, should invite us all come together to commemorate those good ol’ days?”

Ray started to say something, then, stopped.

Linda stood to her feet. “Not to say that the good ol’ days were always good. I mean, heck, there were only twelve of us total in that temple, and which included of course the two of us! Still, Ray, you were no kidding magical up there at that pulpit, and so it’s only right we honor you. You were a good—do you hear me, a good—pastor. You did a good job.” Linda stiffened. “Except for That Day. That last day. That last service. That last... sermon. What a nightmare! Day from hell!” Linda surveyed her arm. “And wouldn’t you know it I got a big ol’ wrinkle in this top and that just will not go away... ”

In a slippery dark voice, “Show’s over,” Ray said. He flicked a nod in the direction of the pink waitressing outfit slunk over the chair by the water heater. “High time,” he said, “for you-know-who to get back to work.”

Linda’s forehead creased. “Wait. What?”

“Wrinkle is as wrinkle does... said the prophets of Baal to the Good Samaritan while on their voyage to meet and greet Captain America.” Ray laughed out loud. He raised an eyebrow. “Reunion cancelled,” he said with a frown. “Time for everyone to go home.”

“What in the hell are you talking about, Raymond Massey!”

“Hmm... Raymond Massey wonders. Could Raymond be talking ‘bout, maybe, those whom the wife so curiously refers to as ‘old friends’—that they’d first off, mistake clear-as-day song lyrics for a—” Ray cursed “—sermon, that they’d, second, fail to identify the song lyrics in question as ones written and performed by rock-n-roll superstar Eric Clapton: duh, his top forty-hit single ‘My Father’s Eyes,’ and thirdly—”

“Ah geez, so they are here then? You’ve talked to them? What... did you say to them, Ray? Or—what was it they said to you!” Linda paused to connect the dots and consider the shape of the pattern coming to bear. “It was about That Day, wasn’t it?” Linda twitched nervously her upper lip. “Okay, okay,” still pondering, she nodded, “so, they couldn’t quite put a name to that sermon in disguise you’d walloped them with on That Day, huh? Ray, but these are country folks. C’mon, like Beatrice Cooper would even know who Eric Clapton is? Plus, Clapton’s British! Ray, look—”

“—and thirdly, and thirdly, that these country folk—as you call themwould fail to see that when a pastor gets up to preach a sermon, all teary-eyed, and red-faced, but instead of preachin’ a sermon starts reciting mother-stinkin’ song lyrics, ones that tell of failed dreams, broken promises, death, et cetera, et cetera, that maybe—maybe—Pastor Cry-ee Face did all that because he had crap else to say other than that he planned to end his time as pastor, and then, afterwards, his time as, well, person.” Ray pressed his lips together. He sniffled. “Only in the end Pastor Pissy Pants wouldn’t have the guts to go through with it.”

“Oh, Ray, please,” Linda moaned, “please, let’s not dig up those old bones. All those crazy, wasted years you spent over at the Pleasant Pines Rehab Center—are behind us. You’re better now! Dr. Rubinsky said so himself, remember? Tell me you’re not having those thoughts again. Ray... !”

The rubber of his soles squeaking as he pivoted, Ray began to walk. His palm pressed against door, defiantly he said, “So, no, I do not believe you when you tell me that you had nothing to do with... all that BS going on out front. And obviously I don’t believe them, either. Captain America? Really, Lind? You all couldn’t have come up with anything better than that? An actual war wound... a missing arm, or leg, and then maybe I’d consider believing, but instead you send me this tongue-tied wiener who tells me that my words—that Eric Clapton’s words that I’d took the liberty of borrowing—inspired him to blow away some towel-headed bad guys so that he could turn the lights in the desert back on again. Yeah right!”

Linda’s countenance shone with intrigue, and understanding. No sooner it darkened. “Wait,” she brushed aside a lock of her hair, “so you’re saying that you don’t believe me when I tell you that I had nothing to with, er, our old friends’—and yes, they were our friends, Ray—with, whatever positive, personal testimonies sounds like they’ve been sharing with you about your sermon in disguise—‘bout those lyrics, I mean, ones you’d used in place of sermon on That Day because you were too drunk, high, and strung out to have anything else ready, and then you’d heard that song on the radio on your drive to temple that morning? Right so far?” Linda, to calm herself, breathed slow and hard. Ray’s nod was slow and emphatic. Seeing that nod, Linda began to shudder with rage. “And now,” she said, at last able to regain control over her surging emotions, “when I tell you that I had nothing whatsoever to do with... all of this, you can’t believe me because... ?”

Ray smiled, fawningly. “L-Lind,” he stammered, “those local yokels out there are clearly full of it. They’d like me to believe I’m Someone Who Gives Two Shits, and which I know is your wish for me, too, and then, and then, on the wings of that false belief you’re thinkin’ I might then—to use Dr. Rubinsky at the Clinic’s expression—be ‘consciously motivated’ to put in an application at, say, a temp agency, at McDonalds, at Walmart, in a word that I’d start actin’ like the person you all want me to be: Someone Who Gives Two Shits.”

“He’s projecting again,” Linda ruminated, “avoiding the issues, shifting blame, appealing to my sympathies—defensive mechanisms one and all that Dr. Rubinsky warned me to be on guard against.” Loud and clear Linda declared, “It is wrong for you to dope around all day long and do nothing but get high and feel sorry for yourself.”

“Wrong!” Ray laughed. “Who are you to say what is right and what is wrong?” Ray shook his head. “Look, I just don’t see how any good whatsoever could come as result of a bad—of a plagiarized—sermon, nor do I understand how you could’ve had nothing to do with it. Hell, Lind, even the first grader, the kid, was spoutin’ the holy bologna!”

“I’m not asking you to understand,” Linda, squaring her shoulders, replied, “only that you believe me when I tell you a thing, and believe, not on the basis of you understanding it, but because I’m your wife, and because a relationship between husband and wife’s supposed to be based on trust. When I tell you a thing’s true and you don’t believe me, it’s like, well... the biggest insult you could ever possibly lay on me!”

Ray threw his hands into the air. “Great, now I’m laying insults on my wife!” He tore at his thinning brown hair. “Damn it all, then. Where’s that cliff I keep meaning to accidentally slip off of?”

“The Creator sucks. You suck. People suck. Life sucks. The world sucks. Doesn’t that about sum it up? And so it goes for the former Pastor Ray... ”

Ray’s faltering attempt at smile was rebuttal all in itself; still he found it necessary to say, “Murphy’s Law. It’s got me by the balls, Lind. What can I say?” Then, tottering over to deposit an invisible something into her hands, “Here—I won’t be needing these anymore. They don’t work. Pretty sure they never did.”

Linda stared down at her opened empty hand. “There’s nothing here.”

“My Father’s eyes—they’re supposed to be, or, so they say, or so Eric Clapton says. He’s British though, so you’ll have to excuse him. And now if you’ll excuse me... ” Ray thrust the door open like he was a regular Clint Eastwood.

No sooner were Ray’s nostril’s tantalized with the tell-tale, deep-fried aroma of Rocky Mountain oysters; never-minding that, as he was not to be diverted from his present course, Ray shuffled his way across the 119-year-old burnished mahogany floorboards, sidestepped the 107-year-old cast-iron wood stove, hurdled Carl’s thirty-year-old tackle box, and laid an indiscriminate bootheel down upon the bristly tail of Shane’s two-year-old golden retriever.

“Say, Ray... ” heralded Carl in the direction of the rush of wind, the streak of color, that had blown in from the back and was headed, presently, toward the front, “when’s you and I ever goin’ to go fishin’?”

But the olden entryway to The Tommyknocker Diner had since opened, and closed, on the rush of wind that was Ray Massey, rendering the old-timer’s casually delivered inquiry moot.

Moot, as concerning Ray Massy, but not as concerning his wife. “Fishing takes faith, Carl,” Linda Massey announced, as she with slow deliberate paces made her way to the service counter, the Employees Only door pendulating back and forth behind her. “Before you hook that worm, you gotta’ first believe there be fish beneath those waters.” Sighing, she joined her hands with Carl’s in petting Shane’s dog in an effort to calm her down and quell the barking. “So, no, Carl,” Linda spoke over at him, “Ray can’t—won’t—be your fishin’ partner anytime soon.” Linda bit her lip. “Though, you might wanna’ keep in mind that I like fishin’, too, and company, I like, and excursions, and that I might be up for some roddin’ and reelin’ myself!” Her soul, and her eyelids, heavy with the weight of the sorrows she had been forced to bear over five years’ time, Linda leveled a glossy-eyed gaze out of the beveled glass of the westside window, there to behold the scene playing out in the parking lot where some raging, ranting lunatic was waving his arms and swearing at three perfectly-on-the-level reunion invitees who deserved, if nothing else, medals, for their continued patience in the presence of a man who was clearly not seeing through his Father’s eyes. “But, before the wife ever does go fishing,” Linda stayed her sights on the mayhem outside, “first she’ll need to decide whether or not she still wishes to be that.”

Carl stopped petting Shane’s dog. “What d’yer mean?”

“A chat with a lawyer, is what I may need to have. One who specializes in divorce, who’ll maybe help me decide whether or not some papers I have are worth signing.”

* * * *

They stood there, each alongside his or her country-bumpkin mobile, motionless, and with wide eyes—traits, Ray considered, wholly consistent with the believe-anything sheep that their religion had made of them. Ray noticed also their stupid, smiley sheep faces which seemed to greet with anticipation the shepherd-turned-wolf who was approaching them, and closing in on them, presently.

He shooed them away, told them to go kick rocks, to shovel around their bullshit stories in someone else’s pasture; he explained to them and in no uncertain terms that although he in his many years as pastor had heard more than his fair share of dumb religious stories, still theirs, collectively, and individually, were dumbest by far; he confessed moreover that he should like nothing better than to lay hold of Captain America’s shield and paddle some dumb-religious-story-tellers butt with it, even until the tellers in question should learn to look past the Law of Moses and accept finally and embrace the law of the jungle! As three visitors scrambled away to hurriedly pack themselves into their automobiles, Ray raised his voice to thank them “kindly for coming” and wished them “God’s speed” on their journeys home.

“It’s LYRICS TO A SONG, YOU TELLERS OF DUMB RELIGIOUS STORIES!” the man formerly known as Pastor Ray roared at the bumpers, rear windows, and tail lights which with their owners retreated down the zig which was Old Yankee Girl Road, the zag which was Bear Path Way, and on and on and down and down, until the vehicles were spilled out into the Grand Valley and the Western Slope distances beyond.

Standing with arms folded in the parking lot of the claimed “best hideaway lunch spot” in the Western Slope, Ray Massey surveyed and pondered those distances.

He saw a sky so big, clear and blue that it could only be Colorado; he saw wispy clouds and a bright yellow sun... but no heaven. He saw cliffs and clefts, rivers and rivulets, mountain peaks and mountain passes—the many varied earthworks which altogether had earned the Mesa Region its reputation as rugged, other-worldly beauty. Ray curved a smile. He hollered out at the rocks and ridges, “Hey you—but there’s nothing other-worldly about you! You’re just the freak accident of billions of years of plate tectonics and wind and water erosion!”

An accident. And nothing more. Every last blade of grass. Every last grain of sand. The whole thing—one big, infernal, freak accident of nature.

“I smile,” Ray thought to himself. “Why is that? But Ray knew the reason why.

The smile twisted into a self-satisfied smirk.

Ray wanted to live.

He wanted to die.

He wanted to bide the remainder of his irreconcilably infernal and admittedly freaky existence on a sofa with a stockpile supply of syringes, meth pipes, only the finest of methadone product, and an endless list of available excuses. Murphy’s Law... meet Ray’s Law. Amen and amen.

Ray Massey resumed his scan of the ruggedly beautiful Mesa landscape. Scan though he may, he yet failed to see his Father’s eyes anywhere... they were to be found neither in the astral brilliance of the sun—where Captain Underpants had claimed he’d seen them, nor in and amongst the sundry rock formations which painted the landscape—where the kid claimed he had seen them hiding out. Ray looked and looked. They were nowhere.

"My Father’s Eyes" Words and Music by Eric Clapton Copyright © 1992 by E.C. Music Ltd. International Copyright Secured All Rights Reserved Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard LLC
About the Author

Marcus Lessard

"Dumb Religious Story #137" is Marcus Lessard’s first publication. Another of his stories was recently selected as a semifinalist in Gival Press’s short story competition. Marcus makes his living in Boulder, Colorado, cleaning downtown office buildings; and he writes in his free time. Formerly Marcus had studied chemical engineering at the University of Connecticut. Prior to living in Boulder he had lived for two years in Western Colorado. It was the diverse mountain landscape of the Western Slope region with its mesas, canyons, gorges, volcanic remnants, and the colorful and eclectic layering of sediment as seen in so many of the rock formations, that, for him, first birthed the idea for this story.