This is the continued fictionalized story of one man’s life-long struggle with organized religion and his combative relationship with an egotistical, arrogant and often bigoted deity, who may or may not be all in his head.
I knew my wife was cheating on me.
I don’t know how I knew for sure, and I couldn’t prove it. There was just this feeling I got when she left every Sunday morning; bright and early, dressed as well as she knows how.
It didn’t take long for me to realize who she was going to see. And when I did, that’s when the fear finally possessed me. What does he want with her? What were they doing together and just how long had this been going on? When I approached her about it one dreary Saturday evening, while she was ironing clothes for yet another early morning tryst, she just shook her head, smiled and began talking.
Apparently, the two had begun seeing each other when I lost my job some years ago. Times were hard and stress was high. And with me being in the grips of a fantastic depression-led bender, I wasn’t much help. I guess he had been.
At first they only talked. It was initially a very friendly affair. But as the days grew longer without an income, and as the accounts dried and the bills began to turn into warnings, the two grew increasingly close.
I remember many mornings, her waking for work and sneaking off to the bathroom. Behind the closed door I’d hear whispering. Before, I had just brushed it off. But once I knew the truth, I realized how foolish I had been. She had been talking to him.
Soon, she said, he had begun giving her money. A little bit here and there, just to hold us over until the next unemployment check. And once I found a job, I guess she felt she owed him. So every Sunday, she’d wake up, get dressed and go to his house. There she’d perform for him, sometimes for hours at a time. Recently, she’d been bringing my daughter.
I could’ve killed her right then.
But what right did I have to be angry? When she needed me, I wasn’t there. She did the most logical thing, I guess. She had turned to him; a man I hadn’t seen nor talked to in years.
My Parents’ God.
When she was done ironing, she asked if I wanted to come with her the next day. Maybe, she began, I would want to thank him. He did help us through a tight spot.
I agreed, if only because I meant to kill the bastard.
His place was 15 minutes away from ours. It was bigger than I had thought, and there were a lot of people who had come to visit. The parking lot was full and many of the cars were luxury.
All four of us, the kids included, jumped out of the car and began walking toward the giant building that had two very defining features. One, it was huge; one story, but long, wide and expansive. I couldn’t imagine him making practical use of all that extra living space, nonetheless it befit his ego. Just like all his others, this house wasn’t just a living space, but an architectural monument to its owner’s bloated sense of self.
The second defining feature was that the building was on fire.
“Is that building on fire?” I asked, just to be sure.
“Is the ‘what’ on ‘what,’ now?” My wife mumbled absent mindedly. She was busy searching through her purse to make sure she had money to pay our host. (He was requiring that she pay him back for his “gifts,” in weekly installments.)
“The building,” I repeated. “Is it on fucking fire?”
“Don’t be so negative, the building is fine.” We walked with our two children in tow, toward the four heavy steel doors of what I can only describe as a raging inferno.
There was a long line of people, snaking out of the front and around the corner — they were waiting to get in. The people were all sweating profusely from the heat. Two men near the doors began to physically smoke, their clothes sparking as cinders ignited just underneath the fabric.
One of the men spun his head slowly toward us. The fire had removed the top layer of skin from his face, leaving him looking like a skeleton wrapped in cooked bacon.
Quietly, he panted the Lord’s Prayer. And dark clouds emanated from his mouth, along with orange, stinging sparks.
“You know, we don’t…we don’t have to stay,” I reminded my wife. There were, after all, people dying right in front of us. Nonetheless, she hunkered down at the end of the line without a response. She was really determined to go, fire or not. It was then that I remember thinking, Christ almighty, I think she loves him.
Upon entrance, people were offered patches of duct tape for their mouths as well as masks of smiling, hollow-eyed cartoon caricatures to place over their heads. Little sweating girls ran up and down the line offering duct tape and masks, and as far as I noticed, I was the only person to refuse.
We soon emptied into the main room of the building. It was sweltering. Fire licked up the sides of every wall and hung from the ceiling like drapes. Burned material fell to the ground and atop the heads of parishioners. There were rows and rows of people in the audience, all wearing their smiling masks and moaning muffled responses from their duct taped mouths.
But where was the man of the hour? He was suspiciously absent. Instead, one of his many cronies stood at the podium, smoking and sweating like a baked glazed ham; frothing at the mouth about everything except the obvious.
“This is fucking crazy!” I yelled. “There are people on fire here! On fire!”
“Thank the Lord,” an old woman moaned next to me. “Despite the heat, we done made it anyhow. The fire couldn’t turn us away, the smoke couldn’t turn us away, Lord Jesus, the second and third degree burns…couldn’t turn us away, Hallelujah!” She nodded as if she expected me to agree with her. Instead, I stared at her like she was insane.
For twenty awkward seconds our eyes locked at an impasse between her naïve hopefulness and my incredulous need to antagonize. She didn’t blink and neither did I.
Finally, I offered, “I think you need to just shut the fuck up.” She agreed.
“Hallelujah, church! Is there an “amen” out there for me this morning,” The Crony implored. The burning audience moaned as best they could in response. The young ushers standing in the aisles helped, screaming their responses and clapping furiously.
“We made it out, didn’t we,” the preacher called to more muted responses. “The devil tried, but he couldn’t turn us away, could he? Cause we’re here to do the Laaawd’s work! Y’know, someone told me it’s hot! I know it’s hot!” He paused for the punchline, “but I know a place that’s hotter!”
The crowd erupted in breathless gasps and stifled grunts. Large, round women wept and flinched in obvious pain as the flames licked closer to their skin. Bubbles and boils began to expand and explode along their arms and legs and large pieces of the ceiling began to collapse.
Still, this was to be expected. These were warriors of The Word after all. I knew them well; I had grown up with their type.
My family is a church-going people. Many a winter, we found ourselves trudging through the Washington, D.C., snow-burdened tundra to make morning service for no other reason than, “because it’s Sunday.” Often we’d push through traffic at 10 mph, passing accident after accident caused by people who had no more business being on the road than we did.
Once during a particularly nasty snow storm, while traveling north along highway 295, we passed a major accident involving a Sunday School bus. The damage had been impressive and the accident hastily moved to the side of the road by police. The bus, carrying nearly two dozen underprivileged children to church, had lost traction and rear-ended two small sedans before sliding off the highway and into the back of a tractor trailer bed that had been stalled on the shoulder.
The drivers of the sedans left the scene unscathed. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the bus riders. The trailer bed had sliced into the fast-moving bus like a knife through room temperature chicken fat, removing its top half and roof, along with the heads and upper torsos of the driver and six rows of children.
News reports said the remaining riders, in apparent fits of shock, began waiving their bibles at the corpses, attempting to raise them from the dead. Reports say that one headless body belonging to an unnamed black male from the Anacostia section of D.C., actually did jump to its feet. Interviewed doctors are certain however that the action was simply the result of the brain and nervous system convulsing, before shutting down completely.
The bus had belonged to the First Baptist Church of Gideon. Their motto was and still is: Through rain, sleet or shine; we will not be deterred.
It was halfway into the service when it finally happened. Someone dropped to the floor.
I had been eyeing the crowd closely. There had been people smoking, coughing, hacking and going into heat-related seizures, but all in all, everyone remained impressively composed.
Was I crazy? Maybe this whole thing was the horrible hallucination of an alcohol-hungry brain snapping under the weight of day-to-day life. This wouldn’t be my first experience with drug-induced, visual misrepresentations.
Maybe, hopefully, I was actually alone in all of this.
But that’s when it happened and I was jolted to surity.
One of the ushers, a young girl no older than thirteen, seized up. She stiffened like a board, as if trying to right herself, before crumpling to the floor like a bag of heavy fruit.
“Oh my God! That girl just fell-da-fuck out!” I jumped up screaming. “She dead!”
I felt vindicated. I remember thinking, “See! I told you this shit was dangerous! Ol’ girl just fell-da-fuck out! Pack ya shit, let’s go hoooooome!” But this was to no avail. In fact, the majority of those within earshot chose to ignore us both.
The girl lay on the ground for close to 5 minutes before another usher and two elderly women picked the child up by her elbows and dragged her quietly from the room. If you had asked me at the time, I would have guessed that they meant to imprison and beat her. They carted her away, their facial expressions forcing back scowls of anger and disappointment. And they did so quietly, with fairly few people noticing.
I looked down at my arm and it had started smoking. Cinders from the ceiling had fallen in my lap and my son was screaming that he wanted to leave. My wife, who apparently wasn’t aware of any of this, remained seated and quiet.
“Hey, I’m a take him out for a walk, alright?”
My wife leaned close to me and nodded, “Sure. He’s probably just tired.” She turned to face The Crony at the podium, smiling.
Looking one last time at my wife and daughter, before I left, I had to ask, “You’re not…going to die or anything, are you?”
They looked at me as if I’d said the dumbest thing in recorded human history. Meanwhile, the large woman behind my wife leaned back as her large and obviously artificial breasts began to bubble and boil over and out of her nipples. The vibrations within the two sacks of medical plastic grew until both prosthesis exploded in a rain shower of skin, fat and transparent jelly.
“Hallelujah,” she muttered weakly. “Glory hallelujah anyhow…”
My wife didn’t notice that either.
I held my son close to my chest and we scrambled through the inferno. The walls were caving in; large pieces of ceiling fell randomly, some as big as small cars. The building, I remember thinking, would not last long.
Through the chaos, I looked up and saw daylight, as well as four figures moving hastily toward the open-air freedom of outdoors. I hugged my son, and barreled through.
We burst through the front doors to find five people sitting coolly outside. The girl who had unceremoniously fell-da-fuck out, the usher, the two older women, and one even older woman who had planted herself onto a folding chair were all waiting outside.
Of course, my son is oblivious to all of this. The mind of a four-year-old boy is as hard to focus as sunlight through a glass of water. We’d been walking in circles, quietly passing the time while the old folks chatted, the young girl recuperated and the building burned behind us. Somehow, our conversation drifted to a playhouse he had received some time ago.
“Daddy,” he asked.
“Daddy, when I get bigger, can I still play with my house?”
“I don’t know son. It’s already kind of small for you now.”
“Ohhhh,” he moaned.
He was obviously disappointed. My son was at the age where anything he loved could quickly become an obsession. He had his favorite pajamas, his favorite breakfast, his favorite cartoon and his playhouse. He loved that playhouse and the idea that he couldn’t hold onto it forever and ever broke his heart.
“But why?” he asked.
“Well, you’re getting too big.”
He hung his head defeated and we continued to walk in circles while a combined choir of pained screams and spiritual exaltation wafted to the heavens on cinder-filled gusts of fire air. The early morning sun was beginning to get heavy in the sky and summer winds began blowing over the smoldering ruins of what was once a beautiful place of worship. It was against this backdrop of sadness and chaos that he finally showed.
He pulled up in his brand new Mercedes Benz. It was top of the line, custom fitted with an ivory paint job; white on white and beautiful. It was the type of car that can drive by a man with its arm out, grabbing hold of his soul and snatching as it passes.
He swung by us at 35 mph, turning sharply into a parking space, screeching perfectly between a 2005 Chevy Impala and a peanut brown Volkswagen. There he idled for a moment with his doors closed and windows up. Finally, he flung open a door; driving it into the exterior of the Volkswagen with an audible crunch that left a dent.
He was dressed in a wedding day white suit jacket, I’m assuming so that he would match his car. He wore a pair of Versace sun shades and, as far as I can tell, a genuine look of confusion as to why his house was, in fact, on fucking fire.
He squinted his eyes, as if trying to recall, saying, “I don’t remember it being like that.”
“Dude,” I called to him. “You’re house is on fire…what the fuck?”
He walked up to me and threw a heavy hand on my shoulder and I flinched. “Did anyone show up for my weekly shindig?”
“Mothafucka, they’re in there now!”
“No shit!” His look of confusion turned into utter disbelief, “What the hell? Why are they in there?”
“Because you told them to go in there!”
“Bullshit, I didn’t tell them to do that! Don’t put that one on me!”
“The building’s on fire! Why the hell would I tell them to go in there?”
“They’re in there to worship you,” I began. “You’re the Holy of Holies, the Light of the World.”
“Well, the Light of the World just got a new suit and I’ll be damned if I get it singed fuckin’ around with some fire. I don’t even want to break a sweat in this thing. … Did they pay tithes yet?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well shit, they can go.”
“Don’t tell me, tell them, stupid!” I screamed.
He laughed, “I ain’t goin’ in there! Fuck you!”
So instead, the three of us walked to a car facing the building. We sat on its hood so that we could watch the fire burn.
“This is pretty fuckin’ comical,” he began.
“I don’t think it’s funny at all, my wife and daughter are in there. Oh and by the way — asshole! What the fuck are you doing with my wife?”
“Oh really? You’re just now finding out about that? Homie, I might be an asshole, but you’re an idiot. What’d you think, she was waking up early, getting dressed and smelling all good so that she could go to knitting class? Get the fuck outta here.”
“I thought that…My Rock, My Sword and Shield would at least give me a heads up that my wife is hitting on him. But I guess that’s too much to ask of someone like you, right; too much of an inconvenience?”
“Something like that…”
“You said it yourself: She came onto me. What was I supposed to do? When was the last time I turned someone away? Answer me that one with ya know-it-all ass?
He was right, she had come onto him. She knew how I felt about him and the history that he and I shared. She knew about his and my falling out and that I hadn’t seen or talked to him in years. She knew everything and yet she still chose him for security when things between us grew tough.
“At this point, I think you hate me only because, you know, you’re like the people in there: You only do things because you’re used to doing them; out of some perverted sense of self-obligation.
“So what if your wife likes me? Where else was she supposed to go and what else was she supposed to put her faith in? You? Ha, that’s a good one. You know what happened last time she put her trust in you, right? I ain’t even gonna get into the drinking you hypocritical piece of shit.”
I couldn’t look at the fire anymore. I knew it was burning and I could feel its heat, but to
watch it burn filled me with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and doom. Everything was crumbling into a crackling and spent pile of black ash and there was nothing I could do about it. Or better yet, there was nothing I was willing to do, I reminded myself. I had been in that fire some 20 minutes earlier. I chose to leave with me and my son’s life, but maybe I could’ve done more.
I felt his eyes on me as I stared down at my unpolished and too-worn Sunday shoes. “You’re just lucky it was me,” he said, “and not same random on the street. At least you know what I’ll do to her.”
I couldn’t look at him, but I could hear him smiling. He was right, and we both knew it.
We sat there in front of that burning building for a few more minutes. Every so often a chorus or a trumpet of exaltation would punch through the crackling chaos.
Outside the building, the girl and ushers had long since returned to the burning death trap. The Crony had begun his sermon and they were not going to allow a little bit of “hot air” to come in between them and the affections of their beloved Pastor and a god that, unbeknownst to them, was actually outside sitting next to me.
Soon the late-morning sky turned dark orange and heavy. It was empty of all life, except for the sights and sounds of the flickering and failing building.
Eventually the service ended and the doors were kicked open from the inside. A smoldering stream of people poured clumsily out. All of the old, young, large and small, one by one, left the building on wobbly legs. Some needed assistance and were carried. Most — if not all — needed some form of medical attention.
“Y’all kill me sometimes,” My Parent’s God said, rising from the car’s hood. “Y’all get so attached to things; cars, buildings, people…vendettas. I know this one chick — you might know her, might not. She got married to her fuckin’ Prince Charming, y’see?
“Dude came outta nowhere just, bam, fit her life perfectly. He was everything she’d ever wanted and more than what she ever thought she deserved. They got married, had kids, moved into a suburban, middle-class house, the whole fuckin’ nine.
“Then this…this dude starts questioning and wondering if she was his everything. Dude had everything that should make him happy: house, kids, perpetual source of willing, if not dull, pussy. But he ain’t happy, y’see?
“See, he was her everything, but she didn’t really mean all that much to him; neither did the house, the kids, the life. He didn’t realize until he was damn near a decade into the shit that he wanted something more.
“So he starts experimenting with drugs, alcohol. He starts fuckin’ other women, just to see, right? He just wanted to see if life was really as butter knife dull as he feared. There just had to be more, right? Of course she finds out. She finds out and the illusion she had built her entire life on top of bows and eventually collapses under the weight of its own arrogance. She was just so sure, y’know?
“But here’s the kicker: She had to know, right? She had to know things were falling down around her. She had to. I mean, he’s coming in all hours of the night, disappearing on weekends and coming home smelling like perfume. She don’t wear perfume, she don’t know shit about perfume and he comes home smelling like someone else’s $100 bucks, come on. She just…didn’t want to see. She was so invested, lock, stock and bond into the illusion that she simply ignored the obvious, even when it was falling down on top of her.
“She eventually killed herself. Open stove, gas running and unlit pilot light, I mean they say it was an accident, but she knew. She knew.” He took a deep breath, “Or at least she will, when it all actually happens next year. Don’t tell anybody though, it’s a project I’ve been working on for a while now. I’m kinda proud of it.”
I looked at him straight, “are you sure you’re god?”
“I’m everything, baby.”
“Okay, then you’re a piece of shit.”
He smiled in that manner in which I’d grown accustomed — it was a mix between boyish excitement and devilish curiosity. “I’m that too,” he agreed.
“But yeah, you guys…you gotta learn to let shit go,” he continued. “Hell, I know some of you, grown adults, still holding onto things that happened to you in high school…”
I slid off the car’s hood, glaring at him with fists clinched. He looked at me and smiled his smile, “or whatever.”
My son and I watched as he walked toward the escaping crowd, stepping over individuals who had passed out on the sidewalk. He walked over them and through those coughing and collapsing, right up to my wife and kissed her openly on the mouth.
He wanted me to see. He didn’t force her and he didn’t grab her, she simply submitted. She was his now. I had lost.
“Daddy, I have a great idea,” my son began.
“Yeah? What is it, son?”
“If I get too big for my playhouse? You can just throw it away and I can get a bigger playhouse!”
I thought for a minute and then looked at him, “you’re right, that is a very good idea.” He smiled as I picked him up, carrying him in my arms.