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Hunt by Megan Ayers

To start, Cub’s ain’t so much a bar as it is a babysitter. Youngish ones and their too loud mouths; girls and that barely-there look, all sweating to the juke box, one arm slung over the top of the smudged glass as they lean up against the chrome, hot-like, like they’re ready to lay down. Their boys, stupid hoofing and snorting all around them like hogs after slop. And me and Grange just sit on our stools, hunched over sweating glasses of foam, mostly, trading quick stories about the times before, about the people in Cub’s and their families we knew from Sundays after church, days at the high school.

Wasn’t too long ago that me and Grange were lined up, rocketing our heads and shoulders into Eastfork’s ugly offense, toe-to-toe sweating next to each other, pushing them back and back. And afterward, past the screaming fans and the shrill cheers, me and Grange together, him bigger, older than me by a year but still in my class, mean-skinned and quiet, we’d go off, steal some of daddy’s beers from the busted up fridge in the garage, go out to the quarry and drink and howl and throw shit. Now, just a couple years removed from these kids we don’t know from Adam, except maybe their older brothers we played against in high school, their older sisters we’d share between us till Grange got sick of me crowding his turf, would chase me off with a look and a growl, his heavy fist against the back of my skull while I was making time with some girl too drunk to care who I was or where I was going. But these girls here, I tell you, enough to make a man hate his life not to have them. That way. They roam in packs. And girls they are, not women. Not flattened women with wide bottoms and frizzed hair, skin cracked and bruised from putting up. No, these ones are girls. Soft creatures that could curl around you, hook their legs to your ears and just wiggle. They do that. Wiggle. Hard to hold down. They slip right out of your arms and into the night.

Me and Grange had started early and by the time we took our spot at Cub’s the stars had fallen wild around us. We knew something was up by the people milling around Cub’s dirt lot, boys hollering after their girls, mad drunk crying out the names they needed. And we didn’t care, the stupid fucks. They’d learn when they got a bit older. They’d learn that they’d just pissed it away like boys do, spit and blood and punching stupidity. But we hadn’t given up, me and Grange, we knew it was our night, only just eleven and already those idiot jackals leaving their women crying in rusted-out truck beds. We elbowed each other knowing.

Inside Cub’s was yellow and smoky and dark. Bodies sweated up against each other, old boys braying at jokes they’d told a hundred times, pool balls clinking hard, a line at the long bar three deep, and the girls, my God, they were all over, arms around each other, leaning drunk with pouts and grins, the neon red and blue in their heavy glassy eyes searching out men, lingering here or there, acting bored with their present company, practically begging that kind of attention with their willowy limbs, arched backs, bare shoulders daring.

I saw one seek my eye, one in a pink number with brown hair, sleepy eyes, and summer skin. She looked at me for too long and then nodded, her arms crossed in front of her as she leaned against the juke box. She turned her back to me and bent to the glass, searching for her part of the night. I knew her from around, Grange had thumbed her out to me a few weeks prior, talked to her a bit, but I didn’t know what came of it.

I elbowed Grange and he waved me off. He was focused on the game overhead, ordering another while I pushed off the stool and split through the crowd to my summer girl. I creeped up on her, saw her back beaded with sweat and wanted to run my mouth across it, her soft arms, round calves, plump thighs, and I saw us together: her in my lap, leaning in, face to face with her eyes closed, whimpering and wet. From the angle of her face, watching me like a doe, I could see that she saw me coming up behind her, knew me from the way she waited too long to turn around. And then it came up, that song I can only hum, and she turned into me, looking up, her lips wet, eyes wanting, and she took a step to me, hooked her smooth arms around my neck and began to sway. Damn that girl. She closed her eyes and leaned into me. I could smell her, her hair and sweat, and I could feel her heat, small and concentrated like a baby rabbit’s rapid heart pressed flat against tall grass, waiting invisible to be swooped up by a hawk.

I took her waist in my hands and pulled her to me, bending to her ear to whisper hello.

I could tell she was three sheets gone, but hell, I didn’t care. Wasn’t too presentable myself, and I started to guide my sleepy summer girl asway through the crowd to my truck where she and I could recline without being crowded.

She lifted her face to me as I eased her through the throng and murmured, “Now?” and I kissed her neck, a salty tang like melon and blood, until we breathed the cool of the night’s blanket of dark outside of Cub’s dirt lot empty of stragglers, a chorus of tree frogs welcoming us together.

I guided her to my truck where I opened the rusty door and kissed her mouth in the dome light. Lifting her up onto the seat, she was light and ready and slow with sleep and beer, and I knew just then: this quick sweetness before me would take me and go. But here she was, this soft, sleepy summer girl was in my truck, laid out across the seat with her legs apart, and she was murmuring an invitation, asking me to keep her warm, doing this little squirm like she was going to try to get out of her jean shorts. What could I do but oblige? So I leaned over on top of her and touched her face and kissed her neck and chest, and I made my way down to start to fumble with her clothes when I heard a rustling behind, a ragged breath that inspired a quickness in me. Whipping around, my face met a glancing fist. Grange, the bastard’d gone mean, cock-eyed. I was lucky for it, his being the hardest fist I’d known these years. My head disconnected from my neck for just a second and hit the frame of the door, the thud rousing my summer girl to scream, “Grange no!” and then I was gone, sinking with woozy grace to my knees, vision blurring.

He pushed me out of the way and grabbed the girl from my truck, hoisting her over his shoulder like some fiery cave-man out to grab his share. He looked me in the face and I mustered to spit blood on his shoe, garbled, “What the fuck, man?” because friends don’t do that to friends, and he bore past me out the parking lot with my summer girl on his shoulder, lurching into the hot night like he’d got somewhere to go. With the frogs twilling in my ears I tried to staggered after them, blood stinging my eyes, Grange’s fist making the world dark and far away. I coughed and hollered after them, confused and tired and tipsy, too. I lunged at Grange’s back, summer girl’s kicking legs. I tripped over my own fool feet and faced into the dusty lot. There wasn’t much will left, so I let them go, and the night darkened around me.

The shadow of Grange’s back disappeared, and my summer girl’d dropped one tiny pink flip-flop in the dirt of Cub’s. It was up-ended and I crawled to and fingered it. The dirty depression of her foot was embedded in the pink foam, and I made out the shape of her little ordered toes. I brought it to my face and smelled the ghost of her foot, wished she was mine. I imagined her naked right foot dangling behind Grange, brown dirt on the edges, but the sole pink and cool and clean. I thought about the way her brown eyes took me in, all. Even in her sleepy way, she knew me. But I gave up on it, hands and knees back to my truck where the passenger door was hanging open, the dome light gathering the attention of feathery night moths and the crunchy tink of June bugs. I cursed and spat and wiped the blood from my face, hazarded to my feet and fished for my keys. I stood there, fighting against the earth’s sway pulling me to the ground, admiring the nocturnal songs, the sweet air drifting my hair, drying the blood that was caking hard to my face. Murky laughter from Cub’s drifted out the open windows and was lost in the night, over green fields and into the dense, weedy wood. I shifted from one foot to the other, and sat down in the dirt to ruminate. Some minutes passed. A couple laughed their way out of Cub’s and pointed me out in whispers. They called after me and I waved them off. I scratched my head. I made a circle in the dirt and drew a line through it. I drew another and another, little deer tracks circling around my place leaned against the truck, defeated. I thought on Mamma and Daddy. Tried to conjure their faces. I brought to mind sitting around the table when Daddy and me had bagged a doe that first fall after I had left home. We’d watched and waited all day, nothing, stillness the bond between us, the earth under us, and at last she had stepped into the clearing like a dancer, delicate and well-formed. It was my shot to take, Daddy offering it up to me, and I trained my sights on her. She stood in the dusk, the golden grass just under her belly as the sun slanted flat across the open field. She just stood and stood, wanting us to admire her, pausing for us to savor. I took her then, there. She fell for me and waited until I was upon her to close her eyes in death, sharing. Daddy left to ready the car and I cleaned her on my own, opened her up, felt her life heat against my naked skin. She was spilled in the field and I had done it. The drive home was silent, miles. At dinner, Daddy smiled at me, then, the venison wafting all over the house, jokes about having too much for once, Mamma beaming across. It was all mine to take.

I  righted myself, slapped the dirt away with the decision to hazard a drive. I looked up at the clear night, the host of stars and galaxies bearing down on top of me, almost lost my balance in the bigness of it all when a cop cruiser rumbled into the dirt lot of Cub’s, parked, lights flashing, and I froze with my key in the door.

There wasn’t nothing I was doing wrong at that point aside from bleeding alone, but I knew I looked like hell. With my back to the cop, I could feel he was eyeballing my stillness from behind his bulletproof window. Still, I had my head down and I was frozen. Nothing sudden, hunched trying hard to be invisible.

Behind me, two car doors opened and closed, he called my name. I waited. Heavy feet made way across the gravel and dirt to where I was holding my breath. One of them cleared their throats, called after me again and I turned slow, blinded by the flashing red and blue. Beyond the halo of light I saw Grange in the backseat looking glum and put out. He scowled and flipped me a salute to tell me we weren’t on no speaking terms as of yet.

One of the officers ranged into my space and hitched up his jangling leather belt. He was a couple years ahead me in school, played JV then quit. He thumbed behind him, “Know that guy?”

I stepped to the side and put a hand up to my face to shield my night eyes of the glare, nodded, playing the game that he wanted me to play: we both knew Grange, who didn’t?

“Been drinking?”

I chanced a smile to prepare my compromise when the other officer, shadowed by the strobing lights, called out after tinny static wafted out the cruiser window. Another call. The officer in front of me, Tim Dunk I think his name was, rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the pink flip-flop I still was holding in my hand.

“Bet I know who that belongs to,” he said, and I handed it over with a cough, rubbed my arm against my face to keep the sweat and blood out of my eyes.

The officer at the cruiser called after him again, and he turned from me and pitched his head at Grange. The one I couldn’t see opened the door for Grange and he leaned out to tumble into the dirt.

“You boys take it easy, now. Go home,” the shadowed one said. His partner tipped his hat at me with a sigh. He turned his back on me and the two left with their lights still whirling, Grange still plopped in the dirt, hunched over and breathing hard.

Knowing Grange like I do, having many a night where one of us is swinging for some unknown and forgotten reason, I approached him tense. His head hung to his chest and his breath came in gasps and coughs. His brown hair was dusted with lot dirt, and there was blood on his jeans. I stopped short, out of arm’s reach, watched and waited. Grange moved his hands in circles in the dirt, picked up clumps and crumbled them between his paws. He scratched his head. I kicked some dirt at him to his attention and he looked up at me, his dirty face smeared with blood and sweat, three long scabbing red lines extending from his left eye to his chin. She’d raked him good.

He looked down at the dirt again and wiped his nose across the length of his forearm, coughed and shook his head.

“They’re all alike,” he said, “Every last one of them.”

I took his too proud hand and hefted him to unsteady feet, wrapped an arm around his shoulder and we swayed back into Cub’s determined to fight back that’d did us in.

The bartender saw us stagger in bloody and spent, rang a bell above the bar and shouted out, “To the losers!” The bar tuned their glasses to us and upended, pawing at our backs and hooting in our defeat. It happened mostly to others we knew, but like I said before, tonight was ours, and me and Grange basked in the friendly glory of a nights’ ribbing. Wasn’t no harm in it.

We shouldered our way to the bar where cool glasses waited for us on the house, and we knew they’d keep coming. Casualties always pay.

—–

Megan Ayers has been published in journals like Bluestem Magazine, EDGE, The Emprise Review, and Moon Milk Review. Her work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing in Cincinnati, OH where she lives with her husband and two dogs.

God’s Naked Will by C.D. Mitchell

“But you’re a preacher’s daughter,” he said.

“You’re a preacher. So what?  Have you ever done it?”Nancyworked at her buttons. Mooney sat and watched. After removing her blouse, she turned her back to him and lifted her hair. “Unhook my bra,” she said.

Mooney reached and fumbled with the clasp. Then he tried with both hands.

Nancylooked at him over her shoulder. “Don’t you know how to unhook a bra?” She dropped her hair and reached the clasp with her right hand. The bra flew out of the back of the truck and her breasts sprang free. With her skirt pulled up around her waist she rolled over on top of Mooney, straddling him. She unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it back, exposing his bare chest.

“You’re a preacher’s daughter.” He whispered the words into her ear as she kissed at his chest and neck.

“I bet you fuck all the preachers’ daughters,” she said.

“No, I don’t do this. I can’t do this.”

“I need it just like anyone else.” She slid down his torso and began to unbutton his pants. He grabbed her hands and pushed her off him as he sat up.

“What are you doing?” She held her arm across her chest as if she were shy. Her thin arm could not hide the flesh that overflowed from behind.

“You play the piano in your father’s church. You were speaking in tongues at the altar tonight. You just can’t be doing this,” Mooney said.

“The world already had its Virgin Mary, and I wasn’t it. Don’t you like women, or are you queer?” She eased away to the far side of the truck and let her skirt drop around her feet. She wore no panties, and her tanned body glistened in the light of the moon. The dark patch between her legs hid what he had yearned for all of his life.

“But you said you wanted to be a missionary,” he said.

“Daddy Johnny won’t buy me a car unless I do.”

“I’ve saved myself for my bride.”

She laughed. “You’re a virgin?”

“Are you?”

She laughed again. This time the joke seemed funnier. After slipping back into her skirt, she hopped out of the truck and retrieved her bra. “Let’s get married,” she said as she slid the straps over each shoulder. “Then you can say you saved yourself for your bride. I’ll do anything to get away from Daddy. He drives me nuts.”

Mooney sat up and began to button his shirt. “Marrying you wouldn’t make it right if we had sex tonight.”

She jumped back into his arms. “If we get married, it doesn’t matter.” She ravaged his mouth and face with kisses. “The Bible says the only way to correct fornication is to marry your woman.”

“I’ve never read that.”

“It’s there,” she said between gasps for air. “Trust me. If we’re getting married anyway, it’s fine.”

He kissed her lips and cupped her breasts through her bra, sliding his left hand down her leg and up her skirt.

“You aren’t taking me back to Daddy’s?” The pleading in her voice seemed nearly as strong as her desire. Her hand found his crotch, and she rubbed her palm against him.

“Put your clothes on. I’m taking you home.”

She jerked away from him and grabbed her blouse. He knew they had to leave immediately; he couldn’t resist her much longer.

On the drive home, he cursed his own chastity.

The next morning Mooney returned toChicagoto finish plans for his move toArkansaswhere he’d begin his new church. A Pentecostal minister who preached fire and brimstone every time he crawled behind the pulpit, Mooney knew he couldn’t speak about the evils of wine and women until he experienced those evils. Being saved when he was ten years old and called to the ministry when he was twelve, Mooney hadn’t lived a normal life like many of the sinners who attended his services. Now 22 years old, Mooney could fill the aisles with weeping souls running to the altars seeking forgiveness for their sins–souls willing to dedicate the rest of their lives to Jesus.

But he had never been with a woman.

The last night of the revival in Success,Arkansas, Mooney had preached an early Easter message. He passionately described the pain and agony Christ endured while hanging on the cross. In the middle of his sermon he changed his tone, and like a college professor he lectured from an article by a physician who described in detail how the flesh of Christ’s hands and feet tore as the soldiers dropped into a hole the cross to which he was nailed. The entire congregation wept while Mooney gave the altar call.

As Nancy Elias–the seventeen year old daughter of Reverend Johnny Elias–played the piano and sang the words to That Old Rugged Cross, Mooney begged the sinners to come forward to give their lives to Jesus, begged the Christians seeking a closer walk in Christ to join the sinners and seek God’s power. The aisles filled.

The revival had been a tremendous success. Mooney had been so impressed with the people that he purchased from Elias an abandoned church site in a nearby town called Delbert. God’s plan for Mooney included a move to Delbert to begin a new ministry in the small town that had never been able to support a Full Gospel church. Mooney hoped some of the new converts from the church in Success might consider making the short drive to Delbert to help support his ministry when he returned fromChicago.

After the service that evening, Johnny Elias encouraged his daughter and Mooney to spend some time together.

“She has no curfew tonight as long as she’s with you, Brother Mooney,” Elias said as he slapped the evangelist on the back. “I am going on home. I still have to preach tomorrow morning.”

Fifteen minutes later they were lying in the back of a truck in a pasture tucked away in the hills ofCrowley’s Ridge.

The ability to convince someone to change their way of life gave Mooney a tremendous sense of power. After all, he wasn’t trying to sell a car, or a camper, or a life insurance policy. The souls he brought to Christ would forever live a righteous life and tithe 10% of their income to the church. This power was a matter of pride. Still, he had no idea what to do with a woman, or if he could even convince one to go to bed with him. But after that night in the pasture with Nancy Elias, he knew he couldn’t wait to find a bride.

The ministers he admired most were those who stood behind the pulpits and spoke of their battles to overcome drugs and alcohol, pornography and sex. Those preachers spoke from a well-spring of experience that he lacked.  The closest he had ever come to being with a woman was the time he had spent with Nancy Elias in the back of a truck parked in the hills ofCrowley’s Ridge.

As a boy, Mooney had never even played hooky, and he would never have considered drinking alcohol. But he would sneak into the girl’s bathroom and hide in a stall so they wouldn’t know he was there, and he’d wait for them to come in; and he listened to them talk about boys and kissing and other things that girls talk about only with other girls. Mooney had lied to Nancy Elias. His status as a virgin was not a conscious choice. He had wanted women, had yearned for women, had pursued women, but never had an opportunity to be with one. His evening in the pasture forced him to accept that although he might be chaste on his wedding day, his bride would not. Why should he be a virgin when he wed? Even if he committed the sin of fornication, couldn’t he always ask forgiveness?

He remembered when he was ten years old and had prayed for months for God to give him a bike; then he gave up, stole a bike, and later prayed for forgiveness. God works in mysterious ways. The Messiah died to forgive us for all of our sins; Mooney did not want his death to be in vain.

But the convicting power of Christ fell upon him as he struggled to plot his way to carnal knowledge. The Bible condemned sex outside of marriage. He couldn’t have sex with any of his female friends or other girls he had dated —they would know him for a hypocrite. Lies would be told to hide the truth.  One sin led to another. The slippery slope of sin was a topic he had preached on many times. He knew he couldn’t call just anyone and ask them to meet him for sex.

Mooney walked into the lobby of the Palmerhouse Hilton in downtownChicagoand checked into a suite. After he had locked the door and gone to the bathroom, he walked to the window and opened the curtains. A forest of tall buildings rose far above the sidewalks and the people below.  Although he could hear the planes, fog hid them from his view.

He had stayed in many hotels while evangelizing. The phone book and the Bible would be in the nightstand by the bed. Mooney laughed. He was acting as if someone might hear him and know who he was and why he was here. His church would be ruined before he ever held his first service if word of this got out in Delbert. But he felt safe inChicago. No one in his new hometown would ever know—only the woman who fornicated with him tonight, and God. But God would forgive him, and he would never see the woman again.

He picked up the phone and dialed room service. A bottle ofLouisJadotBeaujolaisVillagewould be delivered to his room shortly. The lady on the phone said it was an excellent wine after he asked her to recommend a good one.

The yellow pages of the directory opened immediately to the E’s where he found the heading for Escort Services. Scrolling down through the listings he spotted one that he couldn’t believe.

God’s Own Escort Service. A Touch From Above With Every Date.

A tiny voice answered after three rings.

“God’s Own Escort Service. How can we touch you today?”

The time for hesitation was over. He spoke clearly and forcefully, like calling the repentant to the altar instead of a whore to his room.

“I need a lady sent to room 1515 at the Palmerhouse Hilton.”

“Do you have a preference, sir?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, sweetheart?”

“Well, I mean, preference for what?”

The lady on the other end of the phone giggled.

“Is this vice again? You know this isn’t going to work.”

“Actually, no. But I’ve never done this before…I’m a preacher.”

“Never called an escort, or never been with a woman?”

“This will be my first time. Ever.”

“I can’t guarantee you’ll get laid, mister.” She giggled. “I mean, minister. Do you have a preference for any one of our girls? Why of course you don’t. If you’re a virgin you’ve never been with any girl.” She giggled again. “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”

“I want someone who knows how to keep her mouth shut. But I also want someone who knows what she’s doing. And she must be white.”

“What are you, a bigot?”

“No. But my faith prohibits inter-racial marriages.”

“Your faith probably prohibits premarital sex, too.”

“I’m paying for this,” Mooney said.

“They all know what their doing, sweetie. Jezebel, Mary and Delilah are the only ones left right now. And they are all white. There’s a writers conference going on at the Palmer House and the rest of the girls are all out, including all our black girls.”

“The girls use biblical names?”

“This is God’s Own Escort Service. What did you expect?”

“Is that Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary?”

“Haha. You’ll be the only virgin in the room, sweetie.”

“Send me Delilah. I always wondered what Samson saw in her.”

“An excellent choice. Our Delilah even has a beautician’s license. She’ll be right there.”

After hanging up the phone, he settled in to wait. The room was smaller than he’d expected, but he figured they’d spend most of their time on the bed anyway. He turned on the television and flipped through the channels. Channel nineteen had a church service. Mooney didn’t recognize the minister, but he knew the service was Pentecostal as he could hear the believers speaking in tongues. Moving away from the television, he walked into the bathroom and removed the plastic film from one of the glasses sitting on the counter next to the sink. He poured himself a glass from the tap. Every time he drank water he thought of Christ turning the water into wine. What he would give if he could find a flask of that wine. As good as it must have been at the time, the centuries would undoubtedly have spoiled it. But who knows. Wine made by a vintner like Christ himself could surely last the ages. If he could ever find wine that good, he would use it for communion instead of that silly grape juice. Mooney was sure wine was used for the original Lord’s Supper, and he believed the church was foolish for ignoring the historical accuracy of the ritual. He returned to the phone and tried to callNancy. No one answered at her house, so he hung up after the seventh ring.

The sound of prayer and praise from the television caught his attention. The sing-song voice of the television evangelist was unmistakable. The voices coming from the television rose to a crescendo, so Mooney left the seat next to the phone and crawled up into the bed. A choir shared the stage with the evangelist, and they clapped their hands and danced and sang behind him as he prowled the platform shouting to be heard over the music. Ushers brought members of the congregation to the man, and he touched them and they fell out–smitten in the spirit as they collapsed to the floor, writhing and praying and speaking in tongues as they lay on their backs.

Mooney picked up the remote to switch the channels when he noticed a beautiful redheaded girl being led to the stage. She couldn’t have been older thanNancy. Her hands were raised and extended as she prayed, and they brought her forward to stand in front of the evangelist, who turned and walked over to her. He stood in front of her for just a moment, and then passed her by without touching her. The girl looked up into the camera as it closed in on her face. Her emerald eyes brimmed with tears. As she looked into the camera, she prayed in tongues. In his mind Mooney understood the words she spoke, and he knew the girl prayed for him

Sweat streaked Mooney’s cheeks. The camera panned away as he dropped the remote onto the nightstand.

Maybe Delilah wouldn’t come. Yes. That was it. The girl on the phone had already suspected him of being a vice. His church inArkansas–and a young lady willing to become his new bride–seemed so far away. He’d used the little bit of money left from his mother’s life insurance to make the down payment on that old empty church building and taken out a considerable mortgage. Before he made it back toChicago, he realized what a salesman the Reverend Johnny Elias had been—trying to pawn off his old church and young daughter in the same week. Mooney’s destiny lay in starting a new church there where many had failed before him—where even Elias had failed and needed to move to the county seat of Success in order to pay the church mortgage. But Mooney knew if he taught the truth—the word of God—his church would prosper where others had failed. But he needed a wife: a helpmate to share the duties of his ministry.Nancywould be wonderful if she were older. She could take over in his church and do as she had done with her father for years. He believed God’s anointing on her life would grow even stronger once she quit being such a slut.

After turning the television off and leaning back on the bed, Mooney picked up the Bible on the nightstand.  He loved to open the book at random and read the scriptures, believing in God’s will to guide him to the chapters and verses that led him through times of need. Opening the Bible, he selected a verse.

Numbers, Chapter 22,

22. And God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass and his two servants were with him.

23. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass to turn her into the way.

 

Mooney read on about the ass and how it turned three times to save its master from death by the hand of the angel, and all three times, Balaam smote the ass.

28. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29. And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me. I would there were a sword in my hand, for now would I kill thee.

30. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.

Mooney laughed aloud. A man talks to his ass on the side of the road with servants watching, and the best he can say is, “Nay.”

31. And the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head and fell flat on his face.

32. And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33. And the ass saw me and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me surely now also I had slain thee and saved her alive.

34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned, for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So that was where Jimmy Swaggart had found those words. I have sinned. A loud knock echoed through the room. A gruff voice outside the door said, “Room service.”

Mooney lay for just a moment longer, and then remembered the wine he ordered when he first arrived. He walked to the door and opened it. A black man in uniform stood outside the door with a stainless steel cart. On the top shelf of the cart sat the bottle of burgundy Mooney had ordered. The man wheeled the cart through the door. He opened the bottle while Mooney signed the receipt for the charge and the tip. The gentleman thanked him enthusiastically and backed through the open door, pulling it shut behind him.

He gulped the first glass of wine. Crimson juice dribbled from the edge of his mouth. A warmth built from the pit of his stomach and eased through his torso to the extremities of his arms and legs. He poured another glass. Gulped it down. Poured another. The wine was good. Excellent.

With the bottle in his hand he walked to the recliner next to the window.  The fog had settled into the city and now hid all but the closest buildings from his view. He didn’t know what time it was. Maybe he could just stay the night and eat at the buffet. He poured another glass.

The first time Mooney attended a Pentecostal church was at the request of a friend from school. Mooney had never seen anything like it. The people stood and jumped and ran in circles around the church and shouted and praised God and spoke in languages he’d never heard before–and that he could only attempt to repeat.

Etau Kondi Hela Bo Kondi.

He didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew it was real. He felt it as the hair stood on his neck and arms, as he stood and cried, as he leapt into the aisle to join the others.  He ran to the altar and fell to his knees, confessing his horrible sins, the lies he’d told at school, the disrespect with which he’d treated his mother, the school supplies he’d borrowed from his fellow students and never paid back. He’d lived such a horrible life and did not want to burn in hell. The preacher described it vividly; if we died unsaved, we would burn in the lake of fire for eternity.

“How long is eternity?” The preacher stood on the platform as he talked that day. “If you started in Maine, and took a bucket of water from the Atlantic Ocean, then walked across the United States and poured that bucket of water in the Pacific Ocean, then walked back, and kept doing this until you drained all the water in the Atlantic and poured it into the Pacific, you wouldn’t even be started on the first day of eternity. Now imagine walking through a lake of fire every step of the way, a fire ten times hotter than the hottest fires on earth.” The preacher told of people dying, and screaming out in their last breaths that they could feel the heat from hell’s fires burning on their feet; he told how they begged to have water poured on them to ease their pain.

And even though Mooney had been saved that day, he couldn’t sleep for a week.They had returned the following Sunday and the same preacher spoke of the rapture and how those who were saved and had died would burst from their graves and be the first to rise into the heavens to meet Jesus. Then the believers who were saved and ready to go would be whisked away in the twinkling of an eye. And those left behind would face the tribulation period when everyone would be required to renounce God and accept the mark of the beast in order to buy and sell. The preacher spoke of the United Nations as the means the anti-Christ would use to ascend to world power and dominion and how the nation ofIsraelwould be fooled into believing that this man was the Messiah. He explained how our own social security number would evolve into the mark of the beast and how in the future we would become a cash-free economy where only credit cards and debit cards would be used and how these numbers would be implanted in our skins and that would be the only way to hold a job or buy anything to eat. Mooney didn’t wait for the altar call that Sunday, but ran to the altar, crying and pleading to be saved again.

Mooney found the love and adulation in the church that he had lost when his mother died. He was not smart enough to do well in class; he had no athletic skills, but he could out-Jesus even the loudest Pentecostal church member. That day the minister used him as an example and said the whole congregation should have the faith and fear of this child. Dozens of believers came forward and people jumped up and down and praised and shouted and spoke in tongues and fell out in the spirit and lay on the floor—women with towels thrown over their legs to cover them as they lay in a peaceful sleep. And Mooney had fallen out in the spirit and lay on the floor with one eye open and trained on the black garters and white crotch of Sister Harris, who lay just a few feet away, not completely covered by her towel.

The whole ordeal happened too fast. She entered the room and asked for three hundred dollars. He told her she was beautiful. She asked if he wanted a blow job first. He asked if that was extra.

“You got an hour, sweetie, of anything you want. But I don’t take it up the ass.”

She told him to take his clothes off and lean back on the bed. She stripped, methodically, efficiently—a ritualistic performance. Then she slid a condom over his erection. He shuddered at her touch.

“You really haven’t done this before.” She spoke the words as a bold declaration, affirming her belief in something she must have deemed a lie.

He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew he was inside her and his world was warm and wet and moist and building to a rapture that he could no longer contain. He moaned and called out his savior’s name, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” then he fell back, spent and limp on the bed.

She crawled off and eased up beside him. He looked at her face. She was pretty, but older. He would have guessed her to be around forty, although he couldn’t tell for sure. Her dark eyes and coal black hair surrounded cheeks flushed with a natural glow and lips covered with red lipstick.

He broke into tears.

“Sweetie, are you ok? Are you all right, mister? Did I do something wrong?” She struggled to look him in the face and he turned and twisted trying to avoid looking at her. He’d spent his life trying to save souls for Christ, and within a few moments of weakness had damned his soul–and hers–to an eternity in hell.

“I can’t believe what I have done.”

“Well, you ain’t getting your money back, mister, so you can stop the act.”

He knelt naked by the side of the bed and began to pray. He asked God to forgive him and to allow him to rise above his sin.  Delilah sat and watched and chewed her gum. She got up and went to the bathroom where she wet a washcloth and cleaned herself. She walked back into the room and sat in the recliner.

Then God spoke to Mooney in a loud, clear voice. At least, Mooney thought he heard God’s voice.

“Make this woman your wife. Correct your sin. I have chosen your helpmate.” Mooney assumed Delilah had heard the words also. He crawled naked across the floor to the chair where she sat. Still on his knees, he leaned up into her lap where he could look into her eyes.

“Get that nasty rubber off my leg,” she said as she jerked away from his touch.

“Will you marry me?”

Delilah looked at him for a moment, then cackled out loud. “You have got to be kidding,” she said.

“Can you sing?”

“Sure I can sing.”

“Then you can sing for Jesus. I want you to be my wife. I’ve bought a church inArkansas. I’ll be moving to Delbert soon, and I need a partner to help me build my church.”

“I used to go to church when I was little,” she said. “What church you go to?”

“I am a Pentecostal evangelist,” Mooney said.

“Oh. Yeah. Kinda hard to tell with you naked on the floor and blubbering like that. Don’t they call you guys ‘Holy Rollers’ cause you act all crazy and run around the church and speak in tongues?”

“Last year I paid taxes on $200,000 of net income. I am an evangelist. Every church I preach at collects a love offering for me, and Pentecostal folks are generous. I own the church where we’ll be going. The answering service said you’re a beautician.  You can open a beauty shop next door if you like; there’s a building there perfect for it, and I’ll split everything with you if you’ll go and be my wife. You can sing in the choir and play the piano–”

“I don’t play no piano, Billy Graham.”

“My name is Charles Marrs. But everyone calls me Mooney.”

“Marrs. Isn’t that the candy bar people?”

“I am related in some way, but we use an extra R in our last name. At least my mother said so, before she died.”

“You want to marry the first person you lay? I’m a hooker. You know what hookers do? This may be the end of your day, but I got five more people I got to fu…have sex with before I go to bed, alone, to sleep.”

“If God can forgive your sins, I can. If we marry, at least one of us will have been pure. And God has spoken to me in a clear, loud voice and told me that is exactly what he wants me to do. Marry you. One of us needs some experience so that we’ll know what we’re doing. But the only way I can be forgiven of this sin is to make you my wife.”

Delilah sat and looked at him. She looked at her reflection in the mirror.

“You can’t want to turn tricks the rest of your life.”

“I got a ten-year-old boy. His daddy plays for the Bears. My lawyer is working on the child support.”

“Oh,” Mooney said. He got up from the floor and looked around for his clothes. He saw his pants and bent down for them. After he pulled them on he sat on the side of the bed. “Ok. I understand.”

“Understand what?”

“Well, with a child you wouldn’t want to leave your home. With the support of a professional athlete, you wouldn’t need the money. I understand why you won’t marry me now.”

“Oh no, wait just a minute, Reverend. I didn’t say I wouldn’t. I said I had a son. And I’m not getting a penny of support yet. You ain’t trying to back out now, are you?”

“Well, you having a son is a different matter. Is your son black?”

“Why do you ask that?”

“You said his daddy plays football.”

“My son is mulatto, and that doesn’t matter for shit.”

“It does to my church. My church doesn’t believe in inter-racial marriages.”

“You ain’t marrying my son, you sneaky little shit.”She leaned forward in the recliner. “I love my son and he goes where I go. You made me a deal. You said you’d split everything with me if I married you. I accept. You get me and my son in the bargain. In fact, he should get a third.”

“Your son wasn’t part of the deal.”

“I know what you want. You want to go into that church with a ready-made family. Preachers are never single. They can’t just go out and get laid, especially in a small town.”

Mooney got up, poured himself another glass of wine, and then sat down in the other chair next to the window. This was his test. God’s will sat in front of him. Naked.

“I expect to receive some big money from this back child support. You don’t have to worry about supporting us if you don’t want to. But I would do anything to give my son a chance at a better life. Anywhere butChicago.”

She stood up and came to him, kneeling at his feet and resting her head in his lap.

Outside the window the fog had lifted. He could see the planes taking off and flying past, soaring through the skies to carry strangers to unknown destinations. He finished his glass of wine and picked up the phone to order another bottle.

C.D. Mitchell teaches writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals online and in print. Catch him online at www.cdmitchell.net, or find him on Facebook.