What can I do with you?
Your love is like the morning mist,
Like the early dew that disappears—
Therefore, I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
I killed you with the words of my mouth.
Between the altar and the congregation, Reverend Marshall thought of dinner. He swayed forward rhythmically on the balls of his feet as he spoke above a murmuring “Just as I Am.” The deacons who flanked him had closed their eyes in reverence, or somnolence, with their chins set into their necks like pancake batter, their tanned hands folded at the smalls of their backs.
Since no one had come forward, he set to wrapping up his altar call. He nodded at the soundman, who pulled the sliders back. Then he put his hand behind his back, signaling to the band that this was the last verse. After the song ended, the pianist punched in a livelier tune, and you could almost hear the crowd release a colloidal sigh.
Time to eat.
They flopped their bibles atop the backs of the pews like steaks overflowing a plate, stuffed their bulletins into their purses and dropped hymnals into their dusty slots.
Thus another Sunday closer to kingdom come.
The City of Churches Christian Celebration Center was the Titanic of churches—big and expensive—and sinking fast with people hurdling overboard in droves. Once, its opulence had known no bounds. Evidences of this: The church maintained two salaried security guards, a Starbucks in the hallway, and endless corridors and rooms for Sunday school, Bible studies, potlucks and so on. Behind the stage in the center was a giant projection screen, and off to the side, a suspended and Christ-less crucifix swayed in the AC.
Some ne’er-do-well technician from Dallas had incorrectly suspended a sound system from the ceiling, and it had run up the church a half million dollars. Which was only for the house system. The budget had stretched to bear the costs of mikes and stands and live drums and plexiglass casing, which were soon dispensed with (because of the older ears) in favor of an electronic drum set, only to have the drummer diagnosed with carpal tunnel (because there was no bounce to the electric drum pads)—and so the church abandoned the idea of a live drummer indefinitely. This morning, there were pre-recorded drums on a CD recorded in Brentwood, Tennessee.
It sounded pretty good to most in attendance.
Other sound problems ensued and took several months of trial and error to get under control. Not least of these was a severe buzzing emitted from the preacher’s podium mike, an entropic glitch in the wire from God to man. Near the ceiling speakers, six racks of stage lights were suspended, and in the dimly lit sound booth, there was a tangle of broadcast equipment, recording machines, blank tapes and gutted computers. A tape rolled on, recording the broadcast that would be heard next week, on Praise 103.5, your place for positive hits—but derelict and still rolling as the soundman had rushed off early and forgotten to press stop.
The church purchased all this two years before the slide began.
Reverend Marshall was only there for the interregnum, while the council found a more adequate pastor. Once, the church had maintained three separate services: Two in the morning—early bird and normal time—and one in the evening with a more contemporary flare during which the live drums would be brought out. The Reverend Doctor John C. Gentry Jr. preached each service. He had a photographic memory and didn’t use notes. His voice had a comfortable diction, a lull to it even, and a message people wanted to hear. In this own way, Gentry had built a following to be remembered, drawing quadrupled attendance with his messages of prosperity and blessing, just deserts for those who kept the commandments.
But when scandal came, it rent the congregation asunder, and many washed away like seaweed in a riptide. It was as if their hopes of heaven on earth had hinged solely on the Reverend Gentry. Even now, the Reverend Marshall reminded his dwindling congregation, gently but consistently, that Reverend Gentry had not died for all their sins—Jesus had—and that God called them to commit to the body. That is, commit to a community of believers who could love and trust each other. Not to a man who was imperfect and “missed the mark on occasion.” Nevertheless, the church waned.
Speaking of the scandal: Nothing had been proven, per se, but the shame of a believer can burn through even the most rehearsed of facades. It was an affair with a woman—the church sexton of all people—and it had been revealed at a business meeting. Gentry was sitting on the front row, while the present members reviewed their monthly budgetary items. His wife stormed to the front, severely demanding whose number he had kept calling. A hush fell over the meetinghouse. The flabbergasted preacher looked up at his wife and she knew, and he knew she knew. Tears she didn’t think she had left streamed. A fist lodged in her throat. He followed after and later that week, he was abruptly dismissed.
Such was the downfall of the Reverend Doctor John C. Gentry Jr.
And for that matter, the City of Churches’ Christian Celebration Center (CCCCC), as well. Marshall figured it was doomed to slide to a hundred members like most successful churches usually do. The ideal way to get your attendance up was to bring in new believers, converts or those off the straight and narrow—it doesn’t matter. But these days, church growth wasn’t “Kingdom Growth,” as such. Just people fed up with one church, who trotted across town to attend a church that hadn’t ground their gears yet. Always bitching, this stiff-neck’d people. And meantime, the church was but an overpriced sarcophagus.
The service ended and few lingered. The Lions would be on soon and food awaited in homes, restaurants and bars. Marshall’s stomach growled and gurlged as he jawed with a deacon, his mind away on business concerning turnip greens, roasts, butterbeans, squash, and sweet potato casserole—after all, he was a Southerner up in this Godforsaken tundra, commonly called the Thumb of Michigan.
Suddenly, a thunderous blast made him shit where he stood. What follows is an official transcript from the tape that was still rolling:
Gunman: “Gimme all yer money!”…sounds of reloading…
…frantic cries from women…
…a man screams….
…two children whimper….
Marshall: “Okay, we’ll give you the money…. put the gun down.”
Gunman: “I’m not fuckin around here!” …sounds of bills ruffling…
Marshall: “Here. It’s all I have.”
…wounded man moans….
Gunman: “Where’s the fuckin poor box!”
Marshall: “The offering plates?… in the back…” …feet stomping …
…wooden plates overturning onto the floor…
…muffled noises in hall…
It was late by the time Marshall got home. He’d given his statement and description of the gunman, then after consoling a few witnesses, he drove to the hospital to visit. He’d been on his feet all day, so his wife poured him his tea and reheated his supper. He slumped into his couch and gazed up at the Pale Galilean, wraithlike and obedient above his mantle. He took a sip of his tea and was quickly asleep.
While our man is asleep, let’s talk a bit about him. See him there. He’s a handsome man, isn’t he? He has two children, long since grown and married. He’s grown plump—but this is a sign he’s well fed. His wife even had to buy him a larger belt!
I know this is ass-backwards—and the ass is in the back, by the way—but the story starts near the end. And since you’re as good as dead anyway, and we have only to pluck you from a crossfire of religious paroxysms and legal ambiguities over your so-called right to life (as if you made a choice in getting it). Between your birth and your death, you did your best against entropy, but failed, and your life was just a collision of a few substances that grew into something that is now, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Also, I am legally bound to deny you access to the other side of these gates. Which I’m assuming that you are assuming—and you’d assume correctly, I suppose, that these are the pearly gates.
Anyway, I will read you this story until either you wake up or they unplug your body. This story is of your friends and relatives, coworkers and contacts, before and after your death.
Our next man is crazy. He is crazy because he thinks he is divine. Moreover, there are people in The City of Churches, as you know, who followed, armed and paid money to Michael Savior and Archangel for his Big Brother Jesus. He had a sword that he wore hilt-to-waist—a sword that was indeed sharp and dangerous, but kitschy enough to escape the notice of local law enforcement. He also came by a shotgun. This story is about the Reverends Gentry and Marshall and their struggle against a crazy man, Christian Name Richard Negron, who thought he was the second Son of God.
So let’s begin with that night when a young man named Richard Negron heard a voice….
Ritchie lay in his bed. His mattress felt more like a grill than a bed, being purchased by the school wholesale from Stan Stan the Mattress Man years ago. He was flipping through Time Magazine. The FBI had fire-grenaded the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, and there were pictures of Abrams tanks and swat teams.
Ritchie flopped the magazine on the floor by his bed. His freshman dorm room was quiet for the first time in months. It was finals week, and he was jacked on coffee at two am, three sleepless nights from the end.
He heard voices.
He got up and entered the cold hall. He shivered in his boxers and groped into the bathroom light. Nobody was in there. Nobody was anywhere. They were either studying away from the dorm or getting plastered at a frat house.
It was even colder in the bathroom, because someone had left a window open to smoke and forgotten to shut it. At the john, he pulled his pizzle out. It was nothing but a pale mushroom peaking out from a clump of moss. He aimed at an encrustation on the inner edge of the toilet bowl and fired at it, trying to chip it off with his stream. No dice. He shook and flicked his member until it returned to a sufficient size, and then he left, letting the door shut loudly.
He slurped a drink at the water fountain and returned to his dark dorm. He arranged himself in his covers with multiple pillows inserted at critical areas between his legs and pinched in his arms around his head like a vice. After he had swished to a comfortable enough position, he listened in the quiet.
The fucking voices again, he thought.
He got up and checked the hall. Nobody. He knocked on a few doors around his, but nobody answered, so he returned again.
He rearranged himself like before, shut his eyes and squeezed his pillow so hard his ears hurt.
Too much coffee.
He got up and turned on the light. A pile of clothes lay in his closet, cascading into his room.
Laundry. Do your laundry.
So he sifted his clothes for spare change and set out for the basement Laundromat and returned to his studies for a time.
At length, he pulled open the drier and began folding his clothes methodically. He opened the washer and heard the voices again.
He heard the voices more, and started paying attention to them. He sat there, wondering who the hell it was. It was a man—not a student—with a booming voice. It said, “You are Son of God,” in a voice that had an African-like accent.
He peered around the room. Nothing. Only in his head.
He heard it repeating the message. He peered into the microwave. The sound was louder there. He lifted it, shook it, set it down and picked it up again, examining it. He shrugged.
In his room, he covered the crack beneath his door, cracked his window and lit a half lid he’d been saving. He drew hard and
His roommate stirred, talked a little gibberish, and rolled over.
You are Son of God. The Archangel will bear his sword against the profit herd. He will cut off the tongues of idolaters. You are Son of God.
Ritchie felt a cold sweat coming on. He had a fever and his throat hurt. He thought that it was because of the extra cigarettes he’d been burning down. He finished the roach and returned to his bed.
The voice repeated the same lines. So he wrote them down on his notebook.
“You are Son of God. The Archangel will bear his sword against the profit herd. He will cut off the tongues of the idolaters. You are Son of God.”
He furrowed his brows at what he’d written and wondered if it was a loop. He swallowed some cough syrup with codeine and at length fell asleep.
When he awoke, he was drenched in sweat. His mouth tasted of tin. He was dehydrated and gasping. His roommate descended from the bunk and called 911.
The paramedics rushed him to the hospital. He flailed in his bed, flinging driplines that caught on machinery going rickety clacket on the floor. The nurses held him down and poured ice on him. He was in and out of consciousness for the first fifteen minutes, but his fever burned long into the next night.
He had visions—fiery visions of hell, brimstone, bubbling firths of poisonous water.
After a week, the nurses and doctor stabilized his temperature. He woke surrounded by his family who got him home with great care. While he recovered in his bedroom, he wrote down all he had seen and heard in his dreams. And for the first time, Ritchie Negron entertained the notion that he was the Son of God.
North of town, the Reverend Gentry surveyed his 10-acre lot. He breathed in the wet morning air and squinted into the rising sun. He had great plans for his growing church. He stabbed his shovel into the gravely earth, smiled for the camera, and heaved the dirt over his shoulder. Behind the cameras, there stood hundreds from his congregation. And behind them, a few bearded hippie protesters had chained themselves to a tree that was apparently on wetlands and was definitely about to be bulldozed.
Gentry turned to his head deacon. We got to get them unchained, he said.
The deacon nodded and motioned to two men in the crowd who were the size of trees. They threaded their way through the crowd to the back where the environmentalists were chained.
Beat it, one said.
We’ve heard enough and you’ve lost, said the other.
The protesters spit on the two men.
The two men jumped backwards as if the spittle contained venom. So the two men retrieved a heavy maul from a truck nearby. One of the men swung the maul over his head and broke the chain with one blow, and the other grabbed two of the hippies, tossed them aside and gathered the chain.
Get out of here, he said to the hippies. This is private property.
You think you own something just because gravity makes you stick to it, said one of the hippies.
Yeah, they both said. Move it along, dufus.
Meanwhile, the crowd made a ring around the dozers and watched while the machines began to clear the lot.
Gentry beamed at his wife. She smiled back at him. He turned back toward the action in front at the land that was now the property of Gentry Ministries and The City of Churches Christian Celebration Center. He liked his new lot, which made him think about his childhood in Texas for some reason. In his mind, he knew her….
….Cue bugler and drummers drumming a death march outside adobe barracks…. a broken saber, a not-so-subtle phallic symbol, is cast in the dust….
All but one man diiiied
There at Bitter Creeeeek
And they say he ran a-waaaay
Marked with th’ cowards’ shaaaame
What doy’do when yer branded
And you fight for your name?
And where-ever you go for the rest of your life
You must proooove ….
Yore a MAN!
Which inspired a generation of Chuck Conners fans, trying to disprove claims of their own cowardice, only to land themselves in canopy jungle, water boiling inside their boots, doomed to be always paranoid of Vietcong ambush.
To Gentry, Texas’ birth was like that of a terrible queen’s, sprung out fully formed in some calamitous parthenogenesis, beautiful yet treacherous, dripping in creosote, stumbling and groping into a life of welter and waste. Even before Santa Ana was driven back, and his horses were spent and their spilled entrails splayed muddy in the dust, men had fought over her, died and scalped their portions.
Thus Texas endured, fragmented yet contiguous.
Gentry and the board of investors of his non-profit company, Gentry Ministries International, had purchased this plot of land for a new church building. Their church, The City of Churches Christian Church, was bursting out of its current building and needed space desperately.
During the fundraising, Gentry established a system of offering titles in what he called the Partnership Program:
- 1. Partner’s Plus: $50 per month or more pledge to Gentry Ministries International
- 2. Ministry Partner: $25 per month
- 3. One of the Twelve: $12 per month
Gentry had taken out a loan on a retired private jet. A well-to-do pyramid schemer had decided it was time for an upgrade, but didn’t have the heart to scrap the old thing. When it came to Gentry, he replaced the little bottles of liquor in the built-in mini bar with sacramental grape juice.
Well, y’all, I have to go, said Gentry to the gathering. See y’all tomarrah.
He had a pilot lesson that he couldn’t miss. So he got into his car and drove to the airfield.
When he arrived, he was greeted with the grunt of a mechanic that echoed in the hangar. He had a midsized Cessna business craft that was built in the so-called Current Malaise of the Carter Administration. It had the name OsmoCare written on its side. OsmoCare made health products; from meal-replacement shake mixes to diet pills to whatever vitamins were considered best by the market in those days. OsmoCare wasn’t available in stores. You could get it from your local OsmoCare dealer, who, like any good drug dealer, gave out free samples.
I’ll have to paint over that, Gentry thought. He envisioned the logo: Gentry Ministries, italicized with each T painted like a wooden cross.
Excuse me, is Jim Nadolny around, Gentry asked.
The mechanic shrugged. It was as if Gentry had asked for the ontological status of the man, and the mechanic had let the question roll off of him as immaterial to the main point: Jim’s existence, which was established at this point.
Gentry regarded him. Could I trouble you to find him?
With great difficulty, the mechanic got up and retrieved Jim, who was on the other side of the jet at the other end.
It’ll be a few minutes before we can take you up, Jim said.
Gentry assured Jim that he was in no hurry and to take his time.
Which was good, Jim told him, because Gentry’s new used jet was still undergoing a little maintenance. Jim hoisted himself up onto the scaffolding that was positioned by the far wing. He growled at some intestinal workings inside the wing and pulled out a fistful of cables and wires. He inspected them. Oh well, he muttered and tossed them aside.
How’s she look, Jim? Gentry said. I hope she’ll make it.
Jim looked underneath the plane’s belly at Gentry as if he were a Martian.
Are you kidding?
Gentry didn’t know why he would be kidding about it, so he said no.
Did you think you were gonna fly this thing first?—was more my gist, sir.
No. I mean. I don’t know what I thought.
We got a practice plane. Just give me a minute and we’ll go over there.
While Jim’s ulcers grew on the other side of the plane, Gentry wondered when he was going to be able to fly his plane, the one that would help him spread the Gospel around the world. In about fifteen minutes, he climbed down the scaffolding with defeat in his eyes.
She’s gonna need some more work, John. A lot more.
I know, but I got a good price, so it don’t matter. All for spreadin the good news.
A few hangars down lay the practice plane. It was an old jalopy of a plane and its paint was stripped and peeled like bad sunburn. Gentry was nervous at the sight of it. Jim hopped into the driver’s seat and turned it on.
Come on, he said. He started its engine and it shunted and shuttered and came to life with a worrisome cloud of black smoke. Gentry climbed into the passenger seat and strapped himself in.
Jim flipped some switches. He gave a few gauges a cursory glance and buzzed out onto the runway.
Not many people who own their own jet fly it themselves, Jim hollered.
Jim repeated himself. It hadn’t occurred to Gentry to hire a pilot. He did some quick math in his head and figured he was right to take lessons instead of hiring a pilot.
The g-force shifted Gentry’s inners at takeoff. He watched the grass blur by him and give way to sky. With his forearm, he braced himself against the window and tried to relax. His adrenaline ran high.
Jim looked over at him. Ever fly in one of these things?
You look a little nervous.
No, just excited.
Jim aimed his sight forward, glancing over the whirring propeller. When the planed had reached its destined altitude, Jim began the lesson.
All right, write this down: This is not a steering wheel. This is a yoke. If I pitch it… if I tilt it forward, the nose of the plane dips a little, see? Jim demonstrated gently.
Gentry nodded. I don’t have a pen and paper, is that okay?
Yeah, that’s fine.
I’ve got a question. Have you been drinking, because I smelled…
Just a little. Helps with the g-force, Jim lied. Now, as I was saying, this yoke… Whenever you hear in a movie someone yelling PULL UP, PULL UP!—that means the pilot needs to pull up on this yoke. That pitches the plane backward.
Again, Gentry nodded and Jim demonstrated.
Now this here is your throttle. The basic principal is the same as it is on land. Pull out and your engine will run faster; push in and it will go slower.
Now lean over and look down by my feet.
These are how you turn the plane right and left. If I press the right pedal, it goes right, and if I press the left pedal, guess what happens?
It leans left?
Correct-a-mundo. Now. Jim began unbuckling his safety belt.
What’re you doing?
It’s your turn. He pulled his legs up into his chest and pivoted toward Gentry.
What the… what in Sam Hill do you think you’re doin?
Teaching you to fly. Unbuckle your belt and git over here. The plane won’t fly itself.
Exasperated and nervous, Gentry fiddled with the buckle. It wouldn’t come undone.
Here. Jim unbuckled it easily.
Fly the plane!
Jim just grinned. Now let’s switch.
On his way past, Gentry could smell the sickly-sweet odor of whiskey on Jim’s breath. Fear gripped his stomach.
When Gentry finally made it into the pilot’s seat, Jim calmly instructed him to hold the yoke steady, to press lightly on this pedal, then this one, and so on. Gentry began to relax. This wasn’t so hard, he thought. He looked out over the land, the rows of corn and soybeans like a patchwork quilt spread over all this. Red barns punctuated the roads. Except for the whir of the propeller, everything was silent. Beyond, the Rio Grande . All this will be yours, he said in his mind. Then in his mind, he recanted the devil’s words, even though he was able to justify them, assuring himself it was just because he’d read the passage so much and that the scenery must have been like what Jesus saw in the desert.
At length, Jim instructed Gentry to switch. The lesson was almost over. Gentry untangled himself from his seat buckle with a little more dexterity. He said goodbye and got into his car to leave. And then he said a little prayer as he was accustomed to do, a prayer of thanks for surviving a drunken flight lesson.