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[Fiction]

White-Bread Jesus

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When that bully Cavanaugh rises in the middle of the opening prayer like a self-righteous Sadducee, shouldered round by all his fawning scribes and elders, to silence Reverend Wesley Edwards (was he shouting? of course he was shouting, God is deaf as a stump), neither he nor Jesus is surprised. In fact, they welcome it. Such persecutions are to be expected when what is hidden is revealed, and indeed stand as validation of it. What else is the Easter story about — for Christ’s sake? Who concurs: As they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you. A prophet in his own country, and all that, my son. But rejoice and be glad, your reward is great. His immediate reward is to have to sit beside the pulpit, biting his tongue, staring out on the sad blank faces of his First Presbyterian congregation, while the banker, having skipped ahead in the proceedings to the tithes and offerings, money being all he knows (and power, Cavanaugh knows power), speaks of the general good health of the church finances, its immediate needs (an assistant minister, for example — urgently!), and Easter as a loving family occasion. No, no, you idiot! It is a time of rejection of family, indeed of all earthly connections! Have you no ears? If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple! Leave everything — everything! — and follow me! You ignorant fool! Listen to your own son Tommy’s scripture reading: “But who do you say that I am?” Do you not know? It’s all Wesley can do to stop another noisy eruption from coming on. The indwelling Christ, too, is aboil with indignation, cursing traders and moneychangers and all their abominable progeny. A den of robbers! They are polluting the temple! Drive them out! He’s in a state, they’re both in a state.

It has been a trying couple of weeks. The Passion of Wesley Edwards. He’s not kidding, he’s endured it all in this Passiontide fortnight, from the deathly silence of God and the collapse of his faith, through all the upheavals at home and a plunge into harrowing desolation, a veritable descent into hell, to — finally — a kind of weird convulsive redemption that has left him rattled and confused and not completely in control of himself. Wesley was always a dutiful son and responsible student, and he has tried, all his life long and even now while suffering so, to be a dutiful and responsible pastor and citizen, which is to say a typical West Condon hypocrite, and though the rain-soaked Sunrise Service atop a strip-mine hump didn’t go well (all right, so he forgot to put on one of his shoes, what was so important about that?), he got himself dried off and properly dressed and dug up one of his old Easter sermons and was prepared to fulfill his parishioners’ expectations of him for one more day.

And the service began calmly enough. In spite of the storm, there was a large wet but festive crowd, a chirrupy twitter of Easter greetings, colorful floral displays banking the brick walls. Priscilla Tindle, accompanied by muffled thunder and the drum of rain on the tiled roof, did something peppily Risen-Sonish on the organ to get things started, there was the usual unsingable hymn (“The Strife is O’er . . .”), followed by the doxology and prayer of confession muttered in unison, a cantata (“Was It a Morning Like This?”), and then the weekly welcome and church tidings. This was normally his task (and what tidings he had!), but Cavanaugh took it over, canceling the rest of Easter. No problem with that. In fact, a great relief. Just a sham, he would never have got through it all, the maddening detail of his ministry — all the weddings and baptisms and funerals and christenings, the bake sales and potluck suppers, sickroom visits, board meetings, Girl Scouts, quilters, the obligatory golf foursomes and service clubs, spiritual counseling, breakfast clubs and Bible study, not to mention just keeping the church clean and the pianos tuned and the lights and toilets working — contributing intimately to his crisis. But then the banker’s wiseacre brat read the Easter scripture lesson and reached the part where John says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you,” and he couldn’t hold back: “You don’t know the half of it!” he cried, and launched into his Job-inspired diatribe in the name of the opening prayer (“I will not restrain my mouth! I will speak in the anguish of my spirit! I will complain in the bitterness of my soul!”) and got sat down.

While Cavanaugh carries on with his family-values malarkey, thanking his son for the scripture reading and speaking of the church as one big family — there is a suffocating stench worse than the old family farm in the haying season of wet clothing, damp bodies, thick perfume, musty songbooks, and dead flowers that seems to be rising from the speech itself — Wesley glances over at Prissy sitting at her keyboard and sees that she is staring at him, clearly in shocked pain, but as if trying to console him with her sorrowful but adoring gaze. Jesus asks who she is. Priscilla Tindle. Wife of the choir director. Used to be a dancer.

Hah. You, as we say, know her.

An innocent flirtation. Her husband . . .

Is impotent.

. . . Is a nice fellow.

Thus, Wesley carries on with what he thinks of as a redemptive dialogue if it is not a damnatory one, trying not to move his lips or yelp out loud, sitting meekly as a lamb, while the banker speaks sentimentally of his mortally ill wife, Irene, who so longed to be here today, thanking everyone for their Christian expressions of concern and sympathy, and announcing a special fund that she is establishing with her own substantial contribution for the purpose of creating a proper well-equipped fellowship hall in the church basement. She has fond hopes, he says, that in lieu of gifts and flowers for her, her fellow presbyters will add their own generous offerings to the fund in the hope that she might see the consecration of the hall in her own lifetime. Pledge slips can be dropped in the collection plates being passed.

Money, money, money, groans Jesus. Why don’t you drive that viper out? Nothing good dwells in his flesh! Cast him out!

If I tried to do that, they’d lock me up.

They’re going to lock you up anyway. But all right, this is a complete farce, so rise, let us go hence. The place stinks.

And so, stirring a dark muddy murmur through the sluggish sea of gaping faces, he rises, withdrawing his briar pipe and tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket, and steps down into the midst of his congregation. No, not a sea. A stagnant pond, a backwater. Wherein he has been drowning. He nods at each of his parishioners as he strolls up the aisle, eyeing them one by one in search of an understanding spirit (there is none), idly filling his pipe with sweet tobacco, tamping it with his finger. The poor ignorant hypocritical fools. He hates them — he would like to tear their silly bonnets off their heads, strangle them with their own gaudy ties — but he pities them too, lost as they are in the wilderness of their hand-me-down banalities. Nor can he altogether condemn them, for all too recently has he been of their number.

Why seek ye the living among the dead? Tell them that nothing but eternal hell awaits them!

Shut up, he says to Jesus, I’m in enough trouble as it is, and a lady in a pink hat with flowers says, “I didn’t say anything, Reverend Edwards! Are you all right? What trouble?” Not just to Jesus, then.

Do something! It is time to wake them from their sleep! It may be your last chance!

[inline_ad ad=2]A collection plate reaches the aisle up which he walks. He takes it, stares into it a moment as though trying to decipher its contents, his pipe clamped in his teeth, then he heaves it across the church, coins and bills and pledges flying. “Woe to you, hypocrites!” he bellows, coached from within. “You desolate whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones! Woe!”

That’s my good man! Brilliant! Truly, I say unto you, there will not be left here one stone upon another . . .

“I tell you, there’ll be no fellowship hall, no church either! There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down!” He gestures to indicate this wholesale destruction and strides, pleased with the exit he is making (but brick, he corrects himself, not stone), on out of the church and into the waters of chaos awaiting him outside.

Later, he finds himself walking in the downpour at the edge of town along a small gravel road, lined with soggy patches of hardscrabble farmland, a few scraggly sassafras, black locust, and mulberry trees drooping skeletally over the roadside ditch as though contemplating a final exasperated plunge, and, in the near distance, scrimmed by the sheets of rain, the strange combed disturbance of a strip mine, looking like a field harrowed by giants, black water pooling in its long deep furrows. He seems to have forgotten to return to the manse. Perhaps he dreads it. A site of much suffering. He is still clamping the pacifying stem of his pipe between his teeth, though its contents have long since been doused by the rain. His hat is gone, who knows where. Why is he out here? It is not Jesus Christ who asks this question, he asks it of himself. An unconscious return to his boyhood on the family farm? If so, he is being presented with a desperate parody of it, bleak, wasted, lifeless: these muddy yellow plots with their mean little houses and their collapsing unpainted outbuildings bear no resemblance to his hardworking father’s well-kept acres with their rich fields and orchards, red barns, bright white house and sheds, groomed lawn, well-oiled equipment, and healthy flocks and herds, except to suggest the inevitable decay and death of all beauty. No, encouraged by his mother, who was not born to a farm, poor woman, Wesley took up his faith as career, left happily, to his father’s and grandparents’ great disappointment, and never looked back; if he feels nostalgia for anything it is for the comforting old certainties — as embodied in his father’s sturdy hickory fences and the black family Bible with its notched carmined edges — to which, all too effortlessly, he has successfully clung all these years.

No longer. Although his faith was always more an occupational convenience than a mission and tainted from early days by irony (he and Debra were both whimsically amused children of The Golden Bough, Eastertide in the early years of their marriage their most ardent season), he had felt at home in it. The routines of it filled his life quite amiably, its language playing on his tongue as easily as that of baseball or the weather — until that Ash Wednesday Rotary Club luncheon forty days ago when everything, with dreadful simplicity, changed. He was asked to give the usual benediction, and, in the middle of a prayer routinely delivered hundreds of times, he was silenced by the sudden realization: My God! What am I saying? I don’t believe any of this! He blinked, cleared his throat, bit his lip, apologized, and finished as best he could, fearing, with good reason, that nothing would ever be the same again. For a month, he plunged into an introspective frenzy, scribbling out page after page of justification for his faith, his calling, his life, his very being (there was no justification), rereading all his old course notes and desultory diary entries, his infinitely tedious sermons and lectures, and poring through all the old books that had once meant so much to him, from Augustine and Abelard to Kierkegaard, Kant, Buber and Tillich, books he hadn’t looked at in years, not since he moved to West Condon, realizing in his wretchedness that he had never understood any of them, nor would he ever, he wasn’t smart enough, or good enough, the Mystery was forever denied him, he was nothing but a hapless fool living an empty meaningless life. Only Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” made sense to him. He lost his appetite, developed a sniffle, as much of self-pity as of a cold, suffered sleepless nights and so felt only half awake by day. He stopped taking his vitamins. He wore the same clothes every day. He didn’t want to think about such things. It was actually convenient that that manic orphan boy had returned to keep Debra entertained, he had no time for her or for anything else beyond his most unavoidable pastoral duties and the impassioned soul-searching that possessed him Who was he? What did he really believe? He found he could not reject God entirely, the world seemed unimaginable without Him, but he no longer had the dimmest idea who or what God was or might be or might have been. God as a kingly father figure had vanished years ago along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but his long-held notion that the universe was something like the Spirit expressing itself through matter, the Resurrection story a kind of sublime mythology, now seemed vacuous and dishonest. It was too much for him, really, he’d never figure it out. He’d been a poor student, the Bible his only refuge, and now that refuge was denied him. When he tried to explain all this to Debra, she said God had simply found him unworthy. In short, He had turned His back on Wesley. Speaking anthropomorphically. But God owed him more than that, he felt. Wesley had, after all, in his fashion, devoted his life to Him When he’d prayed to Him, he’d always felt God was listening, they were having a kind of conversation. But it was mostly one-sided. It was time for God to speak to him. If God would only speak, he thought, all would be well. Was that too much to ask?

So on Passion Sunday, known also as Quiet Sunday, he made his appeal during the scripture reading and opening prayer (“O God, do not keep silence; do not hold thy peace or be still, O God! Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?”) and then stood motionless throughout his notorious “Silent Sermon,” head cocked toward the rafters, listening intently. Naturally, there was a lot of restlessness among the congregation. He raised one hand to shush them, cupped the other to his ear. A quarter of an hour passed. Nothing. He lowered his head. Not in prayer, as those in the pews probably thought, but in abject despair. He had no choice. It was not that he would forsake the pulpit; the pulpit was forsaking him. He had attempted to express all this last week on Palm Sunday — a day for irrevocable decisions — in his sermon of the “Parable of the Holy Ass,” in which, speaking as Jesus spoke (“Is he not a maker of parables?”), he told of all the neglected mules and donkeys of the Bible, from those of Absalom, Abigail, and Abraham to the mounts of Moses and Solomon, and then imagined for the somewhat amazed congregation the fate of the ass that Jesus rode into Jerusalem the Sunday before his execution, after the Prophet had dismounted and gone on to glory, no longer interested in the beast that had served him so humbly and so well. “Jesus rode me, but he rides me no more,” he declared, speaking for the abandoned donkey, thus imitating the dumb ass that spoke with human voice and restrained the false prophet Balaam’s madness — or, rather, parodying that ass, for here no restraint was at hand. What can one do with a rejected donkey, too clumsy and stupid to make its own way in the world? Rent it out as a circus animal perhaps, a caricature of itself: come see the ass the Prophet rode, a creature for children to ride, adults to mock and abuse . . . As ever, he was misunderstood by his congregation. They called it his “funny donkey sermon,” and few if any grasped in it his intention to abandon his calling. Or his dismissal by it. Most thought it might be some sort of Sunday-school story for the children, as there were many in the audience, waving their little palm branches, and at least he said something, which was better than the nothing of the week before. The organist flashed him a look of wrenching sorrow, though it was hard to know what she meant by it. It was a look she wore as if born with it. At the door he was either avoided or complimented with the usual banalities. Another failure. Debra was not there. She had left in the middle of the service, looking somewhat exasperated.

Debra, too, has been changing, but gradually over the years, not so suddenly as he, and in a contrary direction, finding resolve and purpose — one might almost say personality, character — in her intensifying commitment, not just to the Christian ethic — that’s easy, they’ve shared this — but to the fundamental message, the spookier side of the hung-Christ story and its cataclysmic place in human history. Their bed was no longer a frivolous playground, it was a place of prayer. She was increasingly dissatisfied with him, accusing him of smugness and hypocrisy and of playing to privilege (she was right, all this was true), ridiculing his sermons and his pious platitudes and his meaningless little pastoral routines, insisting on some transcendent vision alien and inaccessible to him. On the Sunday before Lent and that fateful Rotary Club meeting, as if to taunt her (she was totally fascinated by that crazy suicidal boy, Wesley wanted her attention), he used a frivolous golfing metaphor, suggesting that approaching Jesus was like approaching the green in a game of golf (he’d hoped she’d recall their myth-and-folklore days, green the symbolic color of the Risen Son as emanation of the Green God, and all that). One should “make straight paths for your feet” and strive to enter by the narrow gate that leads to life, but whatever else happens along the way from first tee to journey’s end, he announced solemnly, it’s all won on the approach shots. It was easy enough to power your way down the fairway toward Jesus, and even if you sinned and sliced into the rough or hooked into a waterhole, there was still time for redemption, so long as you kept your eye on the goal and advanced toward the green’s blood-flagged tree with measured strokes and avoided the devil’s sand traps. His parishioners loved it, or so they said at the door afterwards, grins on their faces, but Debra was furious and she did a very strange thing. She dumped all his golf clubs out in the driveway and drove the car back and forth over them, the mad boy Colin cheering her on, both of them laughing hysterically.

Well. Those two. Wesley traces their marital difficulties back to the moment during the Brunist troubles five years ago when the Meredith boy spent a wildly distraught night at the manse and tried to kill himself. Cavanaugh and his so-called Common Sense Committee had persuaded Wesley, against his better judgment, to help them try to break up the cult by luring away its weakest members, and consequently he had participated (he is ashamed of this now) in the hotboxing of young Meredith, a vulnerable unstable boy, easy to confuse and persuade, but an unreliable convert. Colin, weeping, agreed to renounce the cult and moved that same night into the manse, under Wesley’s protection. It was Debra who found him later, lying naked in the bathroom with his wrists slashed. He was rushed to hospital (Debra managed this, Wesley feeling about as stable as the boy at that moment and lacing police and television interviews), and he was released a few days later to the same mental institution where the brain-damaged coal miner Giovanni Bruno was also later sent. Colin is an orphan, someone had to sign the committal papers, Wesley did. Debra was terribly upset with him. “We could care for him!” “Oh, Debra, he’s very disturbed. He needs professional care.” Cavanaugh’s phrase. Debra never forgave him that. Nor for what happened after . . .

You don’t want to talk about that.

I don’t want to talk about that. Where have you been? I was rather hoping you’d left.

Just resting. Seventh day and all that.

What right do you have to rest? You’ve created nothing. A bellyache. Jesus acknowledges this with his silence. A cranky vindictive silence: the turmoil within brings Wesley to a temporary halt at the edge of the road (the miserable farms are behind him, now nothing but the bizarre extraterrestrial landscape of inundated strip mines, reminders of this morning’s ignominy), clutching his soaked gut. God is dead. And has left His Only Begotten buried in him like a gassy tumor. When did this happen? Thursday night probably. Debra left him that night after offering to prepare for him what she bitingly called a last supper. “It’s our anniversary,” he said. “Oh. Is it? Well, I’m sorry, dear Wesley. Shall I make you an omelet before I go?” “No. What thou doest,” he said, quoting his own traditional Thursday sermon on the theme of the betrayal of Judas, one of those annual replays Debra finds so despicable, “do quickly.” He wanted to break her neck but instead accepted her chilling bye-bye kiss (“This is forever, Wesley . . .”) on his forehead. After she’d left, he decided to commune with Jesus’ body and blood, consuming the True Vine and Bread of Life, as was the evening’s custom: he ate an entire loaf of sliced white bread, washing it down with a half-gallon of jug wine, and when that was done, emptied the gin and bourbon bottles.

He woke up the next day before dawn on the floor where he’d fallen, suffering from a splitting headache, his sacred head, as if disfigured and crowned with piercing thorn, as someone has said. “O blessed Head so wounded, reviled and put to scorn . . .” Thus, deep in hell, he mocked himself. He even had (the passion of Wesley Edwards was complete) a pain in his side and his hands were numb; he worried he might be coming down with multiple sclerosis, though probably this was from sleeping all night on the bathroom tiles. Had he been throwing up ? He had been throwing up. He was lying in the evidence. It was Good Friday. He had more services to face, hospital calls, God knows what all. What a season. It never stopped. He stripped and crawled on all fours into the shower and scourged himself with stinging lashes of ice-cold water. Which woke him up, but he was still desperately sick, and he threw up again, this time finding the throne, praise the Lord. Left a sour vinegary taste in his mouth. In the mirror, he saw a skull with some pale greenish skin stretched over it, eyes red like the devil’s, its tongue out. He did not stay to study the ghastly apparition but pulled on his bathrobe, the silky lavender one given him one bygone Christmas by Debra (how she longed for her own little manger event, oh yes, failure upon failure!), and staggered into the kitchen, hoping to find she’d come back and cleaned up his mess. No such luck. It was not a pretty sight, the walls decorated with the eggs he’d thrown at them, milk spilled and sour now, chairs and table overturned, though it was not so bad as the bathroom. He leaned into the sink and drank straight from the tap, consumed by thirst. There were puddles of pale wax here and there. He must have lit some candles. Lucky he didn’t burn the manse down.

In the bedroom he found Debra’s old wedding nightgown with the hand-embroidered scarlet hearts ripped to shreds. In grief? Rage? Horror? Of course, she’s grown pretty heavy, it doesn’t fit anymore. So maybe just in humiliation. A more intimate grief. Or maybe he found it and tore it up himself. Probably. Everything else of hers was gone. All her clothes, shoes, hats, toiletries, personal papers, scarves and kerchiefs, adornments. Her red-rimmed reading glasses. Address book. Her sunflower alarm clock and makeup mirror. Probably the stuff had been disappearing for weeks, he hadn’t noticed. Empty dresser drawers hung open like jaws agape, her closet stripped like a vacated jail cell, door mournfully ajar. Though he hadn’t slept in it, the bed was unmade. A spectacle of hurried flight. No matter. Good riddance. Those who marry will only have worldly troubles, it would have been wiser not to have married in the first place. Which was something not thought so much as heard. It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful woman. I know, I know. Wesley, like his mother, often held inner dialogues with himself, responding silently, more or less silently, to his parents, his grandmother, his professors, his coaches, his old girlfriends, Debra, people who challenged him in any way. But who was this? There was a man here in West Condon some years ago with whom he’d had the first serious conversations about religion since seminary. Justin Miller, the newspaperman. An atheist and romantic rationalist. A fundamentalist in his way, infuriatingly aggressive and blockheaded, but smart and well-read. Debra liked to say in her damning faint-praise way that Wesley was more interesting when Miller was in town. Miller had departed about the same time the Brunists did, having launched that madness largely with his own perverse evangel and having thereby made himself unwelcome around here, and for some years after, Wesley had continued his conversations with the man in his head, worrying his way through all the arguments Justin had thrown at him. This was not a one-sided dialogue. Wesley often won the point, or convinced himself he did, but sometimes the Miller within was cleverer than he — or, more accurately, closer to a truth Wesley was reluctant to acknowledge. These inward exchanges had eventually faded away, Miller having been dead to him for some time, except as an occasional television image, but now during this Lenten crisis, he had arisen once more in Wesley’s thoughts like unattended prophecy. Not so much the things Miller had said, but the things he himself had said in reply. A brief period of creative thinking, hinting at dramatic changes in his life, quietly snuffed out with the newsman’s departure. On the floor, crumpled up, lay Debra’s pithy farewell note: Dear Wesley. I’m leaving you. Love, Debra. Two of the seven words at least were words of endearment. But used more as knives to the heart than as balm. Never mind. Forget her. Those who have wives should live . . . ? . . . As though they had none, Wesley said aloud, completing the thought. A text he’d never preached upon except in private to himself. So, was this Miller? No. He knew who it was.

He had a white-bread Jesus inside him.

The revelation was sudden and explosive. Almost as though the floor were heaving. Wesley flung off the robe and lurched to the bathroom, where he emptied out violently at both ends, adding to the mess in there and to his despair, a thorough purging, his quaking gut gushing out as did Judas’ bowels. As he sat there, letting it rip like the tearing of a veil, he thought of this immediate ordeal, somewhat hopefully, as ridding himself of the invasive Godson, but in fact it was only the debris he expelled, as it were. The residue continued to speak above the eruptions. Hah, it declared. Let the temple be purified! A voice more distinct than ever, as if freed from the muffling crusts and dregs. Whereupon, Wesley, his belly relaxing at last, came to understand the Communion service in a way he had not done before.

You let that bully push you around, Jesus Christ says now. You didn’t stand up for me as you ought. You denied me.

No. Should’ve denied you maybe. Didn’t. Only doubted. Your story’s so full of holes.

Probably you were reading the wrong people.

Well, the Evangelists . . .

Like I say. Another generation, never met them. They made up stuff and couldn’t get their story straight. And they may have had their reasons, but they changed everything. You can’t trust them.

I know that. I wrote a paper on it.

You got a B. It wasn’t very good.

How do you know what I got?

What? Am I not the Son of God?

Are you asking me or telling me?

You don’t believe in me . . .

How can I not?

Wesley, all alone in the inhospitable world, is climbing a small rise, snapping his replies out around his bobbing pipe stem, gesticulating in the rain. Which has let up, though there is still thunder in the distance and the sky is dark. There are legends of Indian burial mounds in the area. Maybe he’s on one. Walking on pagan bones. Dem dry bones. Getting a bath today. He is surrounded by folds of raked land (one of those huge steam shovels, taller than the buildings of West Condon, sits idly in pooling water at the bottom of a giant furrow: won’t it rust in the rain?) and considers that the road he’s on may be merely an access road for the strip mine. Going nowhere, like himself. Which would be one reason he’s never been on it before. He doesn’t know why the mines look like that, though he supposes it’s not unlike digging up potatoes with a harrow. Though coal doesn’t grow in rows. He’s been here for years and knows almost nothing about mining, other than that you sometimes dig it out from underneath, other times scrape it off the top. Bad business either way. No miners in his congregation. No owners either, who mostly live elsewhere, one big city or another. An engineer, once. Man who coached the church softball team but whose main pastime was extended fishing and hunting trips up north. Wife sang in the choir. Had nice legs. Which she showed in a friendly way. He ignores Jesus’ remark. He is an innocent man. This has often gone unappreciated. Maybe too innocent. Miller often railed at him on the subject, saying innocence was the main cause of the mess the world was in. Suffer me no little children. Did Miller say that or did Jesus? Jesus, he recalls, rather liked little children. Some say, too much. Not his problem. On the contrary.

From the top of the little hump, he can see, some distance off, perched on the side of a hill and silhouetted against the drizzly sky, one of those intricate spidery mine structures for tipping and emptying coal cars. Or were they for loading them? What does he know? It does not look like a cross, it looks more like a crazy assemblage from a child’s toy box, but it has the stark lonely aspect of one, and it adds to his melancholy. Must be Deepwater No. 9. He saw it up close only once. The day after the disaster. Ninety-eight men dead or buried. Most catastrophic thing to happen to the little town since the early days of the union battles. About which he also knows nothing. He and Debra went out there because it seemed the Christian thing to do. Offer consolation and so on. He felt completely out of place. He knew none of those people and didn’t really know how to talk to them. They brushed him aside like the clumsy ineffectual intruder he was. The best he could do was commiserate with other ministers he recognized and offer his church facilities (though for what, he couldn’t imagine). He was grateful to see Justin Miller out there, covering the disaster for his newspaper. He ached for a connection that would make him feel less an outsider. But Miller was tired and ill-humored and belittled him, calling him, in effect, a complacent ill-informed hypocrite. Which he was. What could he say? He went home, didn’t return, though Debra stayed on to serve doughnuts and coffee in the Red Cross shelter next to the Salvation Army canteen. When she came home, she said: People are suffering. And we’ve lost touch with them. His response was a Sunday sermon on the spiritual origin of physical matter i.e., that the carbon in the coal is not from the soil but from the air. He’d discovered this in the set of encyclopedias kept in his church office, frequent source of sermon inspiration. Didn’t know why he hadn’t looked up “coal” before. It was created, he’d learned, in the carboniferous age when the earth was seething hot and the air was saturated with the fine dust of carbon atoms, a time when there were dense forests, trees a hundred feet tall and forty-foot ferns, bats with wingspreads twenty feet, dragonflies as big as vultures (the grandeur fascinated him, and he took notes for other sermons) — “And then: the earth shrank, the crust wrinkled, forests sank into shallow seas, tons of boiling mud buried millions of green trees in the earth’s hot maw, mountains pitched upward, vomiting floods of lava, earthquakes split mountaintops into jagged peaks, seas bubbled — ah! we live, my friends, in a quiet time: 8,500,000furious years were needed to press out that one bed of coal out there, which we hack out, bring up, burn in minutes — we live, yes, in a quiet time, but at incredible speed . . .” Debra called his sermon frivolous, an insult to the dead and bereaved (she said that someone, who was either scandalized or laughing, told her they thought he’d said “in the earth’s hot ma”), and went straight back out to the mine, arriving just as they were bringing up that fellow Bruno, the lone survivor. It’s a miracle, she said when she got back. She was clearly moved.

If that is the Deepwater mine, then he’s not all that far from the old No-Name Wilderness Church Camp. You could see that same mine structure from Inspiration Point. Different angle of course. And closer maybe. The Presbyterian kids at camp called it the Tower of Hell, and threatened to take the little ones over there and drop them down the bottomless pit. “You just keep falling forever and ever, and you can’t see anything even with your eyes wide open!” And that hill must be the one where the Brunists gathered to await the end of the world five years ago, the infamous Mount of Redemption, so called. Another kind of bleak forevering. How did he find his way here? To this hump, this vista, this convergence? He reconsiders his abandoned Presbyterian belief in predestination, for he seems to be doing what he has to do, even though he does not know he is doing it. That hill, he knows, is the Brunist patron Mr. John P. Suggs’s next target. He should probably warn Cavanaugh, but he owes the man no favors. When Suggs approached him back in the early fall with a fair offer on the old abandoned camp, Wesley was interested. Church camps no longer had much appeal among his Presbyterians, and it would require a major investment to make it operational again, even as a rental. Except for the occasional church picnic and the annual Sunrise Service, it had fallen into complete disuse. Debra, having a romantic attachment to the place, objected. She wanted to fix it up, use it as a church retreat maybe. She loved it out there. Wesley felt more comfortable in town, hated the flies and mosquitoes, the dark, the straw ticking and old dust, the privies and communal latrines and showers, the constant worry about snakes and ticks, the burrs, thorns, and nettles, the lack of books, bad food; but the rough life excited Debra. She confessed once that she felt like she was naked all the time out there, or wanted to be. She still had fading hopes the camp could be restored, in the way that she still had fading hopes they might have a child. She hated strip mining and said it was his moral duty to protect the camp from such a brutal sacrilege. Then suddenly she changed her mind and urged him to complete the sale. They could use the revenue for her halfway house for troubled teenagers, she said. Her pet project. Her abrupt turnaround was a surprise, but it suited him. The sale was approved by the synod, and in early February the papers were signed, turning the land over to Suggs. Whereupon Colin Meredith turned up with his strange beatific smile and goggle eyes and the conspiratorial whispering began.

You were deceived.

It was not something I wanted to think about. I deceived myself.

So what’s going on out there now?

I don’t know.

You have some idea.

I have some idea. A kind of evangelical commune.

You know what I mean.

She loves that camp. Always has. She’s a good camp mom.

Especially for that boy.

He’s an orphan. She’s the mother he never had.

As he’s the child she never had.

Well . . .

You are filled with remorse about that. And you’re jealous.

Nonsense.

Those sexy Easter egg hunts, for example. With the boy around, no time for that. Made you angry.

Not angry. Just . . . disappointed.

Wesley feels wobbly through the middle. Is Jesus laughing? He’s probably imagining all those eggs splattered against the kitchen walls. The expulsion of unclean spirits was one of Jesus’ best tricks. Wesley needs a similar sort of exorcist to rid himself of the indwelling Christ, buried within him for three days now with no sign of rising. Anyway, it’s not just that stupid boy. The decline of the egg game has been going on for some time. Though Debra has continued to hide Easter eggs for him each year till this, she had already stopped — well before that end-of-the-world carnival over there — hiding the last one between her thighs. The World-Egg, she used to call it. As was their youthful fancy, her wishful thinking. He didn’t object to her withdrawal. It was becoming all too testing anyway. Over the years, she had become less warm to him, more impatient, was adding a chin, her egg-nest thighs were spreading, the enticing little gap in there had closed, the bloom, as they say, was off the rose.

The bizarre events of that Sunday gathering on the mine hill five years ago rolled over him. He did not go out there and did not watch the coverage. He had a sermon to deliver, even if to a half-empty church. No doubt another pretty piece of his trademark nonsense. Maybe he looked up “delusions” in the church encyclopedia. The apocalyptic Brunist cult embarrassed him. He felt exposed by them, as if his faith were being mocked by their nutty extremism. Miller in fact made a comment to him much to that effect. Debra was irritable with him — she still hadn’t forgiven him for the Colin Meredith episode a few days earlier, would never — and stayed glued to the television after the service, finally going on out to help care for the injured. Fulfilling her Christian duty, as he thought of it at the time, though in truth the rift between them was opening, she was finding a cause and he was not it. She visited Colin in the mental hospital every week or two thereafter, a hundred-mile drive each way, exchanged letters with him between visits, his being mostly protestations of his sanity and complaints about his treatment, sent him little packets of food and clothing. Finally, after a year or so, she secured his release and brought him back to the manse, making it clear there was nothing Wesley could do about it. Now she openly mothered the boy, cuddling him in her soft bosom when he cried or got hysterical, feeding him when he seemed not to want to eat, washing his clothes and buying him new, reading to him from the Bible and saying his bedtime prayers with him, all of which Wesley indulged with Christian forbearance, while expecting worse to come. Inevitably, it did, and it was back to the mental hospital for Colin. Debra tried to shield the boy, but Wesley had seen all and said no. The hospital visits resumed (“They’re torturing him up there,” Debra protested tearfully), but when Colin was released once more, Wesley put his foot down. In front of the front door. Debra was furious, screaming at him that he was worse than the Antichrist. Colin assumed his familiar pose of the sorrowful martyr and promptly vanished. Debra imagined death and disaster and blamed Wesley for a catalogue of horrors, though, as it turned out, Colin had simply hitchhiked to California where some of his fellow cultists had settled. The letters resumed.

If Wesley’s own fate has brought him here today like a severed head on a platter, whither now is it taking him? This dirt road may lead to the camp. Is he meant to follow it? To what end? Does he want her back? He does not. She took the car when she went. Does he want it back? It would be useful right now, it’s a long walk back, but wet’s wet, it hardly matters. But how is he going to fulfill his pastoral duties without it? He is not going to fulfill them, with it or not.

How will you get food and drink?

If I get hungry, I’ll order out pizza.

And if they come to get you as they came for me?

Ah . . . Good question . . .

Remember the old rule of the prophet, my son. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.

He pauses. He is standing in the middle of the road, worn away to hard greasy clay here at the crest of the little hump, staring out on the vast barren desolation and the fateful mine hill beyond, and he feels a momentary horror in his heart. But also a thrill, and something like illumination. Am I a prophet, then?

Have I not said? Why do you not understand what I say? I have appointed you! You only have I chosen!

A prophet. That is to say, a truth teller. His life, yes, is beginning to make sense. He has always felt some special mission awaited him. You will do great things, Wesley, his mother often said. He has come here to this hillock in the rain to receive the news. He understands better now the nature of his recent crisis, his forty days in the wilderness of his own confused and troubled thoughts. Of course, they are still rather confused and troubled, but the pattern gradually being revealed is heartening. If he didn’t invent it all himself. How could he have? He’s not smart enough. But he is getting smarter. The fog, he feels, is lifting. A kind of wisdom is descending on him, he has a purpose now, his self-confidence is returning. He’s not sure what he’ll have to say, but he is certain it will be important.

Let not your heart be troubled, my son. What to say will be given to you. I will be your mouth and teach you. I will give you words that no one can withstand! I will make my words in your mouth a fire! He knew this would be the Christ’s reply. Such thoughts have been on his mind since this dialogue began. Not consciously but underneath. That he might be being used by some power beyond him. Even if it does not exist. If that makes sense. The pride in that. But also the fear of losing control over his own thoughts. Prophets do not merely tell the truth, they are possessed by the truth. He has used all these lines in sermons, and they have come back to haunt him. Or, as Jesus would say, perhaps is saying, they have come back to re-create him. Is he ready for this? He is still hopeful, but the sudden surge of self-confidence is draining away. He is cold and wet and tired. He had not realized how tired he was. He wants to return to the manse. Perhaps he can figure things out tomorrow. He can read Kierkegaard again.

No, says Jesus, listen to me. Forget the past. I declare new things. The old has passed away, the new has come. Let us proceed.

He glances back over his shoulder as if to survey that which has passed away and sees the banker’s tall lanky son, a few hundred yards down the road, standing under an umbrella on a small plank bridge over the ditch.

They’re after you. You should have paid heed to that line from Psalms: Muzzle your mouth before the wicked.

I know. But I don’t seem able completely to control myself.

Even as he says this, or thinks it, he is charging down the hill straight at the boy, staring fiercely at him. The boy staggers back a step, looks around as though pretending to be sightseeing or searching for some place to hide. “Crazy weather, eh, Reverend Edwards?” Tommy says awkwardly as Wesley storms up. “In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor,” Wesley shouts in righteous fury, removing at last the pipe stem from his mouth and pointing it at the boy. “Let them be caught in the schemes which they themselves have devised!” The boy looks somewhat aghast. “Really? I — I don’t know what you mean, Reverend Edwards.” The minister lowers his voice. “You are a wicked boy, Tommy Cavanaugh. Beware. The wicked will not go unpunished. It’s God’s law.” And he turns abruptly on his heel and strides back down the gravel road toward town. Tomorrow will begin tomorrow. For now he needs a hot bath.

Wesley had left the manse in a state of egg-spattered squalor following upon three days of serious neglect and abuse, and it is that sad state which greets him when he returns, there being no magic in the world, though by leaving the lights off (he’s not at home) he is able to dismiss the worst of it to shadow. “Let there be dark!” he says. More than three days of neglect. Debra traditionally does her spring housecleaning the first half of Easter week, but this year those energies were devoted to getting the Brunists moved in at the camp. Likewise all their supplies; he’d seen her empty out the cupboards under the sink and bundle the stuff to the car. So, that’s right, he couldn’t really clean the place up properly if he wanted to, good, forget it. The prophet’s drear unkempt hovel. Which he has entirely to himself now. There’s a certain melancholy in this, and a certain elation. He runs himself a hot bath, strips off his wet clothing and throws it on the pile of other wet clothing, and — “I stand naked before the Lord!” he declares to the silent house, and Jesus replies good-naturedly (they are coming to an understanding): Nakedness will not separate you from the love of Christ, my son! — settles his cold shivering body (now, as it were, the humble abode of the Master) into the hot water for a long healing soak and a solemn meditation on the nature of his new vocation.

While walking home through the deluged town (the drains are clogged, the potholed streets are like running rivers, the desolate little town is in deep decay, no one cares), Jesus brought him the new evangel: The end has already happened. It was something Wesley already knew, has always known, and yet, walking through the cold rain down deserted streets in a numbed body, it was a revelation. He was thinking about the Brunists and their apocalyptic visions to which his wife has been drawn, and Jesus said: They’re prophets of the past. That’s old news. The world has already ended. In fact, it ended when it began. This is not merely a post-Christian or post-historical world, as some of those people you’ve been reading say, it is a post-world world. We are born into our deaths, my son, which have already happened. I am the first and the last, he said, acknowledging John the Seer, who he said was blind as a bat, the beginning and the end, and so are you. We are not, but only think we are. Our actions are nothing more than the mechanical rituals of the mindless dead. This is the truth. Go forth and prophesy.

A prophet, Wesley knows (he has preached on this), does not see into the future, he simply sees the inner truth of the eternal present more clearly than others. He understands what Jesus is saying. He knows that he was born into death. Sure. This makes sense. Someone he read back in college said as much. All beginnings contain their own endings and are contained by them. It is his calling now to bring this truth to the world, or at least to this place on earth where he’s been found, and reveal all the hypocrisy and injustice and corruption and expose the madness of sectarian conflict which has no foundation. To what end such endeavor? There are no further ends, the question is irrelevant. Ignorance is sin and this town is full of it, for every man is stupid and without knowledge, as Jesus has reminded him, that’s all one needs to know. Thus, his feelings of failure and unworthiness are being transcended by a new sense of mission. His life, thought wasted, is acquiring meaning. Direction. Procrastination, the cause until now of much regret, can be seen in retrospect as a patient waiting for the spirit to descend. He would perhaps prefer to continue his ministry as of old (it ensures the comfort of hot baths, for example), but it’s too late for that. Actions have been taken, in particular his own, and, like Adam before him (Adam did not eat the apple, the apple ate him), he has to live with their consequences. If one can speak of consequences in a world that has already ended. He is somewhat overwhelmed by all this heady speculation and fearful that he might be inadequate to the charge laid upon him, he was only a B student, after all. But at the same time he feels he has indeed been chosen, if not by Jesus (has Jesus really been talking to him or has he only imagined it? this question is also irrelevant) then by his genes, and he knows that, either way, there is nothing he can do about it. Thus, he’s a Presbyterian after all.

He also understands that he who has taken up residence within is not so much the Risen Christ, about whom there are still doubts, as the suffering Jesus who was betrayed and forsaken. He, too, has suffered and has been betrayed and forsaken, they share this. Which explains in part why Jesus has chosen him. I have chosen you out of the world, he said. I can see you are a prophet, for you bear the wounds of one.

With the Lord, Jesus says now, a thousand years are sometimes as one day, and sometimes a day is as a thousand years. This day has been more like the latter. One wonders if it will ever end.

I have often wondered the same each year on this Easter day. Even now I should be doing baptisms, christenings, evening services, who knows what all. All in celebration of your rising. What’s there to celebrate?

Did you not arise from the dead?

No, Jesus says with what might be a sigh (it causes bubbles in the bathwater). My time has not yet come. Is it not evident? What would I be doing lodged in here if it had? It has been one insufferable tomb after another.

Then it has all been a lie! A fabrication!

No, no, my son. Remember your Golden Bough, Et al. Truth is not fact. Don’t confuse myth and history.

But the Bible says —

That story’s not true. Wishful thinking. Mine, everybody’s. You know better than to trust that book. I’m still waiting. Though I have no expectations. Perhaps waiting is the wrong word.

But they saw you! They said so!

Did they? People will say anything to draw a crowd.

“No, they didn’t see me, Wesley. I promise. I was careful.” It is not Jesus Christ who has said this. It is Priscilla Tindle standing in his bathroom door. Drenched, her wet hair in her eyes. “I have been so worried about you. I came here right after church, but you weren’t here.”

“But how did you get in? I thought the door was locked.”

“It was. I came in the back door. The garden gate was bolted, but it’s easy to scale. Are you all right? Somebody has thrown eggs all over your kitchen wall.”

“I know. I did. I was trying . . . to understand something . . .”

“I didn’t mean to intrude, Wesley. But I had to warn you. I heard Ralph talking with Ted Cavanaugh. They’re going to send you to a mental hospital. They plan to ask Debra to sign the committal papers. They’re also recruiting the entire Board of Deacons as backup witnesses. That’s why they talked to Ralph about it.”

This is not a surprise. He and Jesus have surmised the same. Even now, Jesus is saying: Have I not so prophesied? All the same, it is an alarming prospect. He remembers Debra’s tales of poor Colin. Electric shock treatments: What do they do to you? And what if that’s not all? Is her signature enough to authorize a lobotomy? They will destroy his creativity and thwart his mission. How can he prophesy from inside a mental institution? Who will take him seriously? “Tell me. Do you think I’m crazy?”

“No, Wesley. You’re different. But I believe in you. You’re the most sane man I know.”

“Who do you say,” he asks speculatively, “that I am?”

“You are a saint, Wesley. A noble and kind and wonderful man. A teacher. When I came to you for help, you told me about the megalopsychoi. The great-souled ones. You are one of those.” She is standing in the room now and removing her wet clothes. Jesus is remarking on her lithe interesting body. She and her husband, Ralph, were both dancers once and she is still in good shape. When she came to him for religious counseling (she confessed: “I don’t think my husband is completely a man . . .”), it somehow got a little too personal. Perhaps because he had tried to explain to her, in his best pastoral manner, the nature of the male erection. He remembers standing in his office in the middle of this well-intended disquisition, gazing meditatively out the window onto the church parking lot, where some boys were playing kick-the-can, with his pipe in his mouth and his pants around his ankles, Priscilla passionately hugging his bottom, his penis in her mouth, and though he wasn’t sure just how it had got in there, by that time it didn’t make much sense to take it out again. Of course, the affair, though brief, was sinful and it pained him, but it was also hugely satisfying and was a deeply loving relationship. She really understood him in a way that no woman had before. I know what you mean, Jesus says. “I’m ready to do anything for you,” Prissy whispers, peeling down her leotards. Jesus makes a remark about what is revealed that is not entirely in character. “I adore you, Wesley.”

She steps into the tub and kneels between his feet and commences to wash them, one at a time. And then she lifts them and kisses them. “You are so beautiful,” she says. “You are the most beautiful man I have ever known.” When she says this, she is gazing affectionately past his feet at his middle parts, which are beginning to stir as though in enactment of the Easter legend. It is not hard to prophesy what will happen next. Is he being tested? Be anxious for nothing, Jesus says. As it is written, no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. She has a car, she can be helpful to us. I, too, have known the company of helpful women of dubious morals. So, accept her gift with a willing heart, do not disparage it, for every good and perfect gift is, as they say, from above. Remember, as it is written in the scriptures, she who receives a prophet as a prophet should receive a prophet’s reward.


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December 2008