The Minister’s Black Mass
When the fireplace was so full that the air grew heavy and beads of sweat broke out across his forehead, Tom went to bed. But the hallway where he expected to find the doors to his family wasn’t the narrow, wood-paneled one he expected. What he found instead: floral wallpaper, rose-tinted golden sconces, thick red carpet stretched out beneath warm, soundless air. Stretched so far away that the red door at the end was the size of his thumb. The only door. He stopped and put a hand out, leaned against the wall, the heat of the fire at his back. His teeth felt loose; the taste and smell of fresh soil filled his head. He grew sick at the image of an earthworm wriggling beneath his tongue.
A lifetime, and he made it to the door, which opened up to his bedroom. Susan slept sprawled on cool sheets. He laid next to her and tried to speak, to call to her—I really don’t know what I said. Just tell me what I said—but he couldn’t form her name with his mouth full of grit. He turned to the window and watched the giant yellow waxing moon, watched for the night-riders, and fell asleep with an uneasy breed of dread hanging over him like a tattered cloud.
Tom couldn’t get to the parking lot fast enough. He’d been distracted through his entire sermon by the young couple in the back—the first visitors they’d had in three, four months. They’d managed to escape him while he stood at the back of the sanctuary shaking the stiff, dry hands of his aging sheep. The cold blasted him when he threw open the double doors. The man leaned against the brick wall in a blue parka, smoking a cigarette and holding a purse.
“Hello,” Tom said. He held up his hand, hesitated somewhere between wave and salute. He raised himself up on the balls of his feet, rocked back down with the click of his tongue. The man smiled briefly beneath narrow eyes. They both watched the empty street. It was an unseasonably warm February, raining instead of snowing, freezing, melting, turning to slush, everything buried beneath dead, waterlogged leaves.
“I’m sure it’s obvious, but I’m Pastor Thomas.” He laughed, rocked on his heels. “Remember? From the service?” He laughed again.
“I got that much,” the man said. He forced another smile and pointed at the world with his cigarette. “Terrible weather.”
Tom nodded. “I wish it would make up its mind.”
The doors clanked open and two sing-songy voices spilled out, Vivian Muenster, tall and dyed, and Thela Hendrickson, white and gray. They waved at Tom and touched their hair, but when they took in the man next to him they gave him a suspicious look. He wished right then that he was brave enough to ask the man for a cigarette so he could light up right in front of them. There was something about how the man did it himself—casually, in front of a minister—that made him magnetic.
When the women were out of earshot: “They’re all that’s left, women like that. We’re down to forty-eight now, all of them older.” What are you doing? “There’s no adult Sunday school any more.” The words were just tumbling out. He should be trying to get this guy to come back. “And the few kids we do have are all in a single, mixed class.” The man looked concerned. He looked Tom up and down. Tom thought he saw a smirk. “But, of course, we’ve got a lot of new opportunities headed our way. New programs, etc. Things are growing.”
“That’s great.” The man dropped the butt of his cigarette in an oily puddle where it hissed. “I’m not much of a believer. My girlfriend”—he held up her purse—“is trying to get me into it all.” He grinned—it had been a smirk. “Good luck with that.”
Tom found himself laughing. The double-doors clanked open and the man’s girlfriend joined them, smiled. “Well hello,” she said, taking her purse. “You must be the pastor.”
Susan and Colt were in the kitchen when Tom came in from the garage.
“Missed you at service today,” he said. He dropped his keys on the bar, where his son sat on a stool, and kissed his wife, who was at the sink starting a new batch of kombucha. The smell of vinegar hung heavy in the air.
“I know,” Susan said with an exaggerated look of guilt on her face. She was tall, like Tom, and had the same dark hair. More than once they’d been mistaken for siblings. She was working to become a realtor after years of staying home and was Lutheran and collected bright, colorful plates. He loved her. She said, “You smell like smoke,” and Tom felt the same rush of energy he had at the church.
He made no excuse, just leaned in, whispered, “I need you to be in service.” Branches, black with rain, scratched at the kitchen window. Outside was a neighborhood of tan, brick duplexes.
“Do you see it, too?” she said. She pointed across the street. “There? Foil in the windows. In the winter? Why? And are they going to start parking in the yard next?”
Colt was absorbed in his tablet, scrolling through what looked like Reddit (but Tom couldn’t really tell any of those sites apart anymore). He clamped down on his son’s shoulder. He said, “I said, I missed you in service today.” Firm but friendly.
Without looking up: “Mom said I didn’t have to go.” The parents exchanged glances, both flushed. Tom hated the tablet, the phone, all of it. He’d been proud of Colt’s enthusiasm for technology when he was young, had bought him a computer, saw the future embodied. But now Colt was shrinking on the horizon.
Tom said, “What kind of mouse walks on two legs?”
The water turned on behind him. When Colt didn’t respond, Susan said, “Mickey.”
“Right. And what kind of duck walks on two legs?” When Susan spoke up, Tom held out a finger, silenced her. He leaned on the bar and got within a foot of Colt, who was as tall and dark-haired as Tom and Susan, but gangly and unhealthy looking. Tom said, “I said, What kind of duck walks on two legs?”
Colt’s phone dinged a notification and Tom’s whole body tensed. Colt said, “They all do, dumbass.” Susan laughed.
Tom sighed. “You ruined the joke! That’s what I’m supposed to say after you say Donald.”
Susan said, “I was going to say Donald.”.
Colt stood and went to his room. Over his shoulder as went down the hallway: “Only the old people at church think you’re funny, Dad.”
Tom: “Your mother told me this morning that you’ve chosen not to have a car again this month instead of paying your insurance like an adult.”
They sat on the counter and drank green tea.
“Do you want to do something for Valentine’s Day?” Susan asked. “Please don’t want to do something for Valentine’s Day.”
“I don’t want to do anything for Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh thank you I love you. I’m just exhausted.”
And he was.
The church’s administrative assistant was heavily freckled and had been working without pay for almost three weeks. A thousand mercies. She went by Mikey. She blocked Tom’s office door. She said, “Now after you left last week the city called about the water bill again.” Coldness gripped Tom’s chest, and every danger in the universe pressed in on him. He forced a smile. She said, “Now what are we going to do about that?”
“All we need is one good Sunday,” he said. He tried to step around her, but she cut off every attempt. “One good offering. It’ll be enough to show them we can start to pay it down.” He squeezed past her. “What am I doing today?”
Her face and shoulders fell. “Sal Higdon took a turn for the worse.”
“You pray for him every week.”
“I thought Rhetty was a widow.”
“Right. I guess I should get over there. I guess we should get ready for that funeral, too.”
“And please call the city today. Will you?”
“I’m just going to go drop in right now. Can you call the room and tell them I’m coming?”
He stopped at the Git-n-Gallup and bought flowers and a cup of coffee, which he filled halfway with cream. In the parking lot at the hospital, he sat in the car, boxed in by his breath on the windows. He tried to center himself enough to say a prayer. To prepare himself for his least favorite part of the ministry. But he couldn’t seem to sit still on the altar.
Where his mind went instead: the grant money he’d gotten from the synod, which was gone, and the English tutoring program, which was now costing them money. The congregation was withering, revenue drying up. Father God, Father God. Father God. He picked up the flowers and opened the door to the biting cold, fruitless.
What Mikey had filled him in on: Sal Higdon, eighty-three, pancreatic cancer that had chewed its way through the rest of his body. He was liver-spotted, the skin on his face so dry it was peeling. Buried under miles of morphine and an eruption of tubes. Tom wasn’t sure exactly how long the congregation had been praying for him, how many times he’d said the name and then forgotten it. The room smelled like antiseptic and barbecue.
Rhetty glowed and thanked him for the flowers. She was lithe, strange, and putting on the just-another-day-of-business kind of grief that many wives adopt when their path to widowhood is a long and grueling one. Her sister was visiting from Texas. She complained that the barbecue ribs she’d picked up just weren’t the same. When Sal stirred, Rhetty went to his side and leaned her ear towards his cracked mouth. She listened. She said, “Why that’s Pastor Thomas, Sal.” She gave an embarrassed, resigned smile. She listened. “Pastor Phelps has been retired for years now, Sal.” Then they spoke in whispers.
The Texan sister showed him the screen of her phone, blue and white. “Look at all these people saying sweet things about Sal on Facebook. Rhet. Rhet, honey?” She brushed past Tom and moved to her sister’s side. Look at all the nice things they’re saying about Sal.” She held the phone close enough to Sal’s face that he closed his eyes. “Look at all the nice things they’re saying about you, Sal. If Sal can make it through two wars he can make it through this. Sal, thoughts and prayers.”
“Is that what Facebook does?” Rhetty asked. She pushed her glasses to her forehead and squinted at the screen.
“Ben showed me how to do it. I found a group you can join that just tells you facts about American history.
“Look up the church,” Rhetty said. “Can you join up with St. Andrew’s?” Her sister couldn’t find anything. “Well why isn’t the church on there Pastor Thomas?”
That’s it, Facebook. Most middle-aged people used it. Young people used it.
A building-wide thud sucked the noise out of the room and everything went dark. The only sound was the chatter of voices up and down the hall, and Tom felt like he was going over the edge of something. There was another thud, and the auxiliary lights and equipment all blinked to life, cast the room in a ghostly blue.
Before he left he sat next to Sal and took his hand. He lowered his head and prayed, but his mind wouldn’t attach itself to the words.
Despite the bleakness of the day, Tom arrived home optimistic, energized with new ideas and a plan to receistate the church. Facebook. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Students at the seminary were probably taking classes about it now. And most importantly: It was something that he and Colt could do together. Optimist. Problem Solver. Dad.
Colt was in his room on the bed, his laptop on his stomach. Tom said, “Paging Dr. Internet. Have I got something to tell you.”
“Yes.” Tom brushed clothes off Colt’s desk chair and rolled it up to the bed, sat. “Facebook,” he said. “We’re going to put the church on Facebook.” He smiled at his own idea. “Taking the church digital.”
“You know you’re the last church on the planet to do that, right? You’ll have to have an account.” What came next was one of the greatest disappointments in Tom’s life. Colt opened an account for his father, started the church’s page, and populated it with images he found on Google. It took him no more than ten minutes. He moved so quickly that Tom didn’t even have a chance to give him input. “There you go,” Colt said. “Done.”
“Well are you going to show me how to do it?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll figure it out. A billion other people have.”
Anger burst all around his disappointment like the earth around a meteor at impact. He stopped in the doorway. “So have you decided yet what you’re going to do with that marvel in the driveway?”
He couldn’t sleep without praying and he wasn’t interested in praying. He couldn’t help but imagine the Facebook page—an island slowly filling with people in his mind now—so he went to the guest room and booted up his own computer. He had to move two unfinished P-38 Lightning model planes and a wavy stack of Fine Gardening and The Lutheran from the desk to the bed. Susan’s mother’s Precious Moments collection circled the room on a shelf at the top of the wall. They’d been an unexpected gift, a little early inheritance. They made Tom uneasy; he felt naked under the weight of hundreds of dopey eyes. From the window behind the desk he could see the house with the foil in the windows, which glared with the electric orange glow of the arc lights up and down the street. Impenetrable, he thought. Opaque.
Facebook suggested friends to him, though he had no idea how they knew he knew these people. Colt had been right; using it was intuitive. But the whole thing felt invasive. Enough that when one of those suggestions was Bishop Melson, he quickly turned the monitor off, realized what he’d done, and turned it back on again.
Aluminum foil. A knot somewhere inside of him began to loosen.
He checked down the hallway in both directions. He could hear something on the TV in the living room and Susan groaning, which meant she was doing her yoga.
He locked the door.
He typed pornography into the search engine. There was no secret thrill in it; he simply felt compelled to show God he had other things going on, too. He opened the first result, but couldn’t even look at a video—the page was a sea of flailing, pumping thumbnails and cartoons having sex, and the whole thing repulsed him all at once—caricatures and satires of sex.
Not even worth the transgression.
But he regretted opening the page all the same, because it was something he could no longer say he’d never done. He closed the window. He opened another and straightened his back, put his fingers above the keys. Maybe there was something else. Something less cheap.
He wanted to find something awe-inspiring.
In the middle of the aisle during announcements, a buoyancy overcame Tom, and he floated above the white surface of the clean, ambient light and his white-haired congregants. A dying bride. My dying bride. His optimism peaked when he brought up Facebook. He made a joke about the kids these days and their social media and received tepid laughter. Sign up for it. Follow the group. Let’s make the best of this and get our message out there. The optimism faded. In the back pew, Rick Hallerman wrote something on the back of an envelope. Some smiled, some coughed.
That night he sat at the computer and refreshed the Facebook page. He thought about the cartoon animals having sex. Could someone get into violent videos? Animal abuse? Too dark. He wanted something theatrical. A manic kind of irony opened him up: Satan worship.
A joke. But real? Was it real?
If anything, it would be an academic investigation.
A cursory search brought him to Wikipedia (I should use this more often, what the world has become). An overview of Satanism. The Church of Satan: purply, pseudo-philosophical ideas about worshipping the self. There was also a lot about the Satanic Panic, which he remembered vividly—a boy his age in his own town had testified that he was the victim of ritual abuse. This, the boy said, is why he knew it was his father who’d strangled his mother.
A hysterical delusion. Where did it all come from, though? If there’s a signifier, there’s a signified. Right? A great mystery bloomed in his chest and he saw an image of an island filled with naked men and women embracing lust and death and dirt.
He looked at pictures of Satan. The Satan. Not something from the silly, recycled pantheon of generic occultism. The Adversary. Here a beautiful, bronze-armored prince, winged, crestfallen with resigned melancholia. There a David-esque nude, tall and broad, fair-headed, a face full of hate. Here thick-horned and heart-red, the overlord of the Lake of Fire. A towering figure, a god of rebellion and revolt, a symbol of determination. Those qualities were so attractive to people that they actually submitted to Him, to something knowingly evil. Tom wanted to be crushed like that, burnt and bowing to cobalt altars. He clicked on a link in a footnote to an article about fourteenth-century German witchcraft and felt a strange thud when the screen filled with crimson. Across the top in mesmerizing gold: the scarlet goat. Beneath that: he who would seek wisdom must seek it from Azazal. Below that: a crude site map, fat blue links that could hardly be read against the red background. He closed the browser, turned off the monitor, and stood. He looked at the house with the foil windows. Lazy, melting icicles clung to the gutters, their tips dripped away, a toothless gum. He longed for the cold of a real winter. For jagged, heart-piercing stalactites that could kill a person.
He sat back down at the computer. He’d just check Facebook one more time. Too his surprise: four followers! He found their faces on the side of the page: Colt, Susan, Mikey.
He didn’t believe in the devil. Didn’t preach it from the pulpit, had never mentioned him once in his tenure as minister.
On the the scarlet goat he learned about the four witches’ feasts: Candlemas, February 2; Walpurgisnacht, May 1; Lammas, August 1; Halloween, October 31.
That night he dreamed of indigo. An indigo sky, an indigo plain, smooth and unsure in every direction. Dark fluid beaded up out of every pore at the tips of his fingers. He wiped his hand across his bare chest, a purple smudge.
A mob of some kind of bird—or bat—or something reptilian—flew silently overhead, cut across the sky just above the surface of the plain. The flyers stopped in the distance and hovered, wings still, over something titanic and bestial, which lied waiting to spring, to snatch them all up in its jaws. But nothing arises and they flew away, winked out on the horizon. A sudden dread spread out from his marrow—
—and the plain was an ocean and he wished—
—and he was at his wedding in that stupid purple bowtie and cumberbumb. His father was declaring them man and wife, but all he could think about was the purple, how much he hated it. He tried to pull it off but struggled, the dark ink on his hands spreading everywhere, and he felt himself waking and then struggling against waking, and then there was Susan, in the white sun, rocking him with her foot in her blue yoga sweatsuit, her arms full of laundry.
“I can tell you’ve yet another very busy half-day ahead of you. Wake up. Wake up.”
“Talk to your son about that car.”
He took a day off. He needed one. Just a day to decompress, regroup. He’d have better ideas and more motivation with a little rest and recovery. Just the thought of it got him up early for the first time all week.
“I’m taking a mental health day,” he told Mikey. “That sort of thing.”
“Are you going to tell the congregation—well—he’s calling back again—what do I tell him?”
“Just one day,” he said. “I promise.”
“I know you don’t like me giving out your cell number, but I just don’t know how to answer his questions. Tom?” Tom? “I tried calling you all morning but you wouldn’t answer.”
What time was it? “Please do not give my cell or home number to anyone. Look,” he added, “did you see we had six following? And did you see the post? Hello PASTOR THOMAS so happy to JOIN!!! Thela Borowski. On the internet. Who would have guessed?”
He made a cup of green tea and sat on Colt’s bed while it cooled, threw his bare feet up on the bed. He prayed a wordless prayer. The fishtank, swallowed whole by algae, hummed and bubbled. The morning’s weird rain had stopped and the panes of the windows were thick with the house’s breath. The room felt damp despite the box fan whirring on low in the corner, rustling a wall of pencil drawings: dragons and women in short dresses and some sort of Japanese cartoons. Tom stood and looked at them closely. He reached up to pull one of the particularly lewd ones down, but stopped when the garage door slammed open and Susan came in talking loudly on her phone.
He watched her through the sliver of open door. He could only half-see her in the kitchen at the end of the hall: putting bags of groceries onto the island, the phone in the crook of her neck. He knew she was talking to her mother just by the volume of her voice. How are things going with your foot—No, I want to know. She put flowers in a vase, which she filled with water. She drew them together, lowered her head, and breathed. What do you mean how is Tom doing? How should he be doing? Tom stepped back but leaned against the doorframe. Oh, no—not anything like that. He’s really making some strides with drawing people in—no not, I know, and prayer, of course—He’s got this whole Facebook page going with Colt and and it’s going to get out to the younger crowd—I know—I know.”
Tom shut the door and stood with his back to it. How should he be doing? He took a sip of his tea, but it had already grown tepid. He sat it on Colt’s desk. A book tucked at the end of Colt’s top shelf caught his eye and he pulled it down. He recognized it—the teen study bible he’d given him at confirmation. He pulled back the hardcover and the glue cracked for the first time.
“Tom?” Susan was in the doorway with a concerned look on her face. “Did you not go in today?”
That night: eleven followers. And a comment from Jeanie Chestnut: HOW does this work now???
With Colt out with friends and Susan in bed, the house fell silent. When he was done writing his homily on the trumpets of Jericho (he was working from home now, he’d decided), he ate a banana and checked Facebook. There were no new followers, but there was a new comment. From Rhetty Higdon: SAL DIED TODAY.
The scarlet goat.
They’d been Hebrew witches who worshipped Azazel, the fallen angel, the scapegoat, and perverted Yom Kippur by having sex with goats. How and where? And why, really? Tom lowered himself into the situation until his skin crawled. God’s response to it all: Never suffer a witch to live. Whosoever lieth with a beast shall be put to death. A car pulled into the driveway and a door slammed. Colt crossed the yard to the front door. According to a man who testified against a witch at the Inquisition, one of their spells was still being used, one he had witnessed in person, in fear for his life.
The door to the room creaked open, and Colt leaned in his head. “Dad,” he said. “Hey. So I’ve been thinking about it, and uh—I think you’re right about the insurance, but I still have to figure out—”
“Not now,” Tom said. He waved him away. “I’m doing something. Can’t you see that?”
“Okay, all right, whatever, don’t freak out.” He threw his hands up.
“Shut the door.”
He scrolled through the Azazal Worshippers’ spellbook—a rarity to have one so old and intact, they said: a spell to cure a toothache, a spell to stop excessive nosebleeds, one to curse your enemy with poisoned soil, one to make a barren woman fertile, one to torment another witch, one to move the future forward, to untie the scarlet knot.
Just three words to move the future forward, whatever that meant. Did it delay the future? Or make it come faster? You spoke three words, snapped your fingers, kissed the anus of a chicken, chopped off its head, and drank its blood. The smell of chicken shit filled his mind and mouth and he gagged, laughed nervously. Just three words.
But to speak to the spirits, you first had to submit.
He closed his eyes and tried to conjure some image of the devil in his mind and an image snapped into place and he chose it: a man in a blue parka smoking a cigarette. I’m not much of a believer. Yes, that was who he would be.
He spoke the three words. He snapped. He laughed nervously.
He felt cold, so he built a fire, stood in the living room and watched. He was bursting with ideas. He’d have to figure out how the promote the Facebook page. He’d seen people do that on his news feed—sharing things and inviting people. He’d go to campus, talk to students one-on-one. No, students wouldn’t contribute financially. He could partner with a secular organization—the public library? The local theater? Do something charitable and Christian-but-not-Christian. He could meet middle-aged people there, draw them in. He could tell them about Facebook. He could do it himself. He’d contact the library about a literacy program and set up a board and invite people in the community and he could make those people his friends, his congregants. Would they be interested in teaching English as a second language? Sponsoring a foreign student? They’d love it!
Sweat spread from the collar of his t-shirt but he kept feeding the fire. He added an armful of logs so that it filled up the whole fireplace. The coals at the bottom blazed white-hot, grew iridescent.
“Tom?” Susan at the mouth of the hallway.
He said, “Do you know how much I love you?”
“What?” she asked, putting on her glasses, where the fire danced. “What’s going on? What’s with that fire?” She came close to him, pressed her fingers against his sweaty shirt and grimaced.
He smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Getting too cold, he said. This whole house is drafty. Wood saves money, too, Susan.” He smiled.
“Honey,” she said. “Are you okay?”
He opened his mouth to speak but something pressed against the back of his throat, something so large that he couldn’t even gag. Susan’s eyes narrowed, but slowly, and the thing laboring in his mouth stretched his jaw so wide that the muscles began to cramp and he tried to scream, cry out, but his airway was blocked. It tasted like gravel and dirt and knocked against the back of his teeth, scraped off the enamel as it pressed through, loosening everything in its way.
The rock came all the way out and hung, suspended in the space between he and Susan. His jaw ached. He couldn’t understand how a rock of that size could have moved through him, out of him. A dark granite, jagged at the bottom. But on top: something like green-gray moss. When he steps towards it he could see it was a forest, and island of dense greenery, and he could swear he saw people, naked, pouring out of the woods and over the edge to some bleak death, their limbs thrashing and contoring until they disappeared into the haze of dark beneath the island.
Susan said, “That’s not true. How could that be true? It’s going to be fine.” The rock was gone, the air empty of falling bodies.
“What’s going to be fine?”
She was on the verge of tears. “It’s going to be fine, right?”
“Yes,” he said. His ragged throat winced, his voice cracked. “It’s going to be fine.”
“How could you not tell me?”
When he woke in the morning, though, he couldn’t have felt better. He kissed Susan on her cheek while she slept. Hope to see you in service. He didn’t even need coffee. He didn’t think twice about the crack squaring its way up between the bricks over the fireplace. And outside! For once it was freezing. It was still dark, but the world was alive with ice and the phosphorescence of the arc lights. The bare trees all glass, black limbs crackling against a black sky.
He even greeted Mikey with a smile that morning. “The future is upon us, Mikey. It is a beautiful day.” Then, in boomy, cartoonish voice: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” He laughed. “Oh Mikey, I have so many ideas. We’re really going to have to sit down and talk it all through. Take notes and all.”
“How soon?” She was stuck somewhere between a bright smile and the crush of grief. “Because they’re shutting the water off tomorrow.”
“No worries.” He took her by the shoulders, kissed her on the cheek. He shut himself in his office and reviewed his notes for the sermon.
His optimism soared even more when the service began. There were five, maybe six faces in the crowd that he didn’t recognize—a nervous-looking couple in their twenties, a young family who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep their toddler quiet (it didn’t even bother him). On the front row: Susan and Colt. He tried to make eye contact with Susan through most of the hymns. To say with his eyes Look at the people. Smile. I love you, look at the people. But she wouldn’t look at him.
Still, he beamed. The building felt full, people packed in, the pale, stone walls stacked up to the vaulted ceiling. He felt a kind of disappearing, the sort of sacramental presence that he’d dreamed of throughout his whole ministry.
When they passed the brassy plates, the nervous-looking husband dropped in an envelope.
He came to understand that things were going to be okay when he held the bread above his head at the Lord’s Table and his shadow stretched out across the congregants’ faces, where the blue-gold light of stained glass danced like refracted light beneath the surface of the water.
He shut himself behind the wooden communion rail along with the deacon and acolyte and they distributed the bread and wine. Each congregant kneeled, extended their cupped hands upwards, supplicant, and waited. The body of Christ, for you. The deacon behind him: The blood of Christ, poured out for you. The bread was dipped in the cup and the brass lip of the cup wiped off, and the congregants chewed, worked their jaws, licked their lips, looked towards him as if to say More. He tore it from the loaf, lifted it to heaven, and gave it to them.
The new family appeared at the front of the line and Tom began to develop a plan. He’d make them feel welcome with a big smile, show them the kind of warmth that would draw them back again and again. The Spirit would move them all together. When they knelt he made a cross on the boy’s forehead and blessed him. The moment was upon him, but when the couple lifted their faces to him they were downturned, almost angry. Tom’s smile vanished. A bar of yellow light moved across their faces, and something there flickered like a neon sign. Just for a moment. A hiccup in the existence of their eyes and mouths. He closed his eyes and lifted the bread, his hands shaking.
And then their faces were gone. Obscured by something like water and then smooth and featureless, mannequin-like, glassy white. The boy’s face somehow roiled. He turned to see if the others had seen it, but they were all that way. A row of the faceless on their knees before him, the faceless in the line going down the center aisle.
He stepped back and they stood and leaned on the rail. He didn’t understand if they were angry or concerned. Some tilted their heads to the side, curious or insane. He said, “What is this?” But nobody spoke, only moved their heads, inched closer to him, the whole room of people pressing themselves forward against the rail. He said, louder, “What is this?” And the pianist stopped her hymn and turned to him, blank-faced. He looked for Susan and Colt, but couldn’t tell any of them apart.
So he did the first thing that came to his mind (he was a coward, he understood now): he pretended to faint. Stepped backwards and swooned, groaned, fell into the deacon, knocking the gold cup out of his hands. He fell flat, unafraid of pain. The wine pooled around the side of his face and dripped down the first step. He heard voices. And for the first time he noticed, with the room tilted to the side, there, at the back of the church in the last pew: a man in a blue parka.
They pushed him onto his back, where he found a halo of concerned faces hovering over him.
At home he sat on a stool at the bar and drank orange juice while Susan and Colt watched him. Every few minutes or so, Susan would look deeply into his eyes. Are you doing okay? Are you still doing okay? Yes, he was. He was just fine. He’d just locked his knees, he was sure of it, had been so busy working on the service and his sermon over the last few days that he hadn’t stopped to eat. The last few days?
He drained the glass and poured another. He said, “Anyway, can you believe it? All those people there?”
Susan touched her fingers to her lips, shook her head, and left the room.
“Facebook,” Colt said, smiling. “I deleted all of the Old People Posts and shared a couple of articles that the synod posted, said something about the service, asked a few people to share the page. There are already forty-something followers. Don’t you follow it? I was thinking, maybe I could film your sermon or the choir or something and we could put those videos up there—”
Tom choked on a laugh, some deep release he didn’t even know was needed, and his left eye teared up. Breathing became difficult and then he smelled that same fresh soil. He opened his mouth and it poured forth. He choked and gagged and Colt watched him with a slow-growing sort of terror. The soil kept coming, thudded softly on the kitchen floor and Tom’s shoes. When it had piled up high enough to bury his feet, it stopped. He coughed, his throat raw and warm with blood.
Colt’s face was slack. Whatever he’d said, he’d put the weight of the entire world on his son’s shoulders. His eyes welled and he wiped at them. He said, “Well. Fuck you, too, I guess.”
Tom tried to respond, to make right what he didn’t know was wrong, but his teeth just gritted on the mud in his mouth.
From the living room: “What’s going on in there?”
They stopped at the Git-N-Gallup and bought coffee, Tom’s half full of creamer, Susan’t black. They sat in the car in the hospital parking lot, the heater blasting, the windows petaled with rain. At the edge of the parking lot, in a low bed of fog, a bare redbud stretched upwards, a veiny black behind Susan’s head. She hadn’t touched her coffee. She said, “This is going to be good, Tom. We’re going to get an opinion, and an opinion means we’ll have a clear path.”
The coffee burned his tongue. He turned to ask her what she meant, but her face was gone. A rainy mass of sparrows erupted from the redbud behind her, flew from her head in a swell.
He began to unhinge when he felt the gritty scrape of rock across the back of his teeth.
He has no pictures on his walls. He lives in a basement apartment beneath a white, cinder block house. At night he stands on the top step and smokes. He drops the butts in a rusted coffee can beneath a box hedge.
During the days he works as a file clerk at a law office downtown. He arrives every day at seven-thirty, promptly. He has come to love aspects of the job. The endless opening and closing of drawers, discovering things and then hiding them back away. He could also work without speaking.
He writes everything down in composition books: the time it took him to walk to work, the cost of the coffee he bought, the latest headlines, the name of whatever paperback he was reading, the weather on the hour, the food he eats and the food he needs to buy, the species of birds he observes. There is a shelf of these notebooks under the squat basement window at the top of the wall.
And, in the evenings, after he’s smoked his last cigarette, he descends the concrete steps back down to the basement, where he worships his Father.
Chase Dearinger’s stories have appeared in Bayou, The Southampton Review, Fiddleblack, Short Story America, and other magazines. He’s currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University.
Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.