By Clint McCown
Featured Art: Rusty Car by Ellery Pollard
As Reverend Tyree settled himself onto the torn front seat of his rust-spotted DeSoto and turned the ignition, he had a brief moment of hope. The motor sputtered, coughed, and whirred without catching. He turned the key again, with the same result. The old rattletrap was trying to give him a night off, it seemed. One more failed attempt and he would be justified in staying home with Mildred and his mother and listening to the radio for a change. And why shouldn’t he stay at home? The clean-up crews hadn’t fully cleared the streets after the tornado, so driving could be dangerous, especially on the side of town where the county jail was located. The inmates wouldn’t care if he skipped a visit. But when he turned the key a third time, the engine caught, and that was it, he was trapped for yet another Saturday night.
He dreaded the jailhouse even more than the hospital. The hospital was relatively cheerful, especially in the evenings, and he had learned that if he made his rounds about an hour after dinnertime, many of the patients he was supposed to visit would have already drifted off to sleep. Then he could sit by their beds and read magazines. He would always leave evidence of his visit—a printed card with a picture of Jesus on it and a passage from St. Luke: Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.
The jailhouse was a different place entirely. Everything about it made him uneasy—the dim lighting, the dirty walls, the chill that seemed to radiate from the cell bars, the creaking wooden hallways, the unidentifiable and unsanitary smell.
And the inmates. Some were from his own congregation, of course—public drunks and brawlers, mostly, whom he had come to counsel. Elmer Maddox, and Jess Hawley, and Tump Wood. The regulars. But there were others there, as well, strangers, lurking in the shadows of their cells, men he couldn’t put names to. Those were the ones who spooked him. He didn’t know what they’d been locked up for, or what they might do. Sometimes they muttered things in his direction, things he didn’t quite catch. But he knew they were mocking him.
He tried to remind himself that many of God’s holiest servants had spent time in jail, including some of the more famous apostles, like Peter and Paul. John the Baptist had been imprisoned. Of course, none of the men in the county lockup were likely to die as Christian martyrs. These men were far too weak and insincere to let themselves be crucified upside down or to have their heads served up on a platter for the glory of God. He couldn’t even get them to give up dancing.
But it was his job to tend his flock, no matter how unsavory the individual sheep might be. This evening he had two inmates on his list: Bryce Hatton and Marshall Raby.
Bryce was the one who worried him. Quick tempered, surly, and disrespectful of authority. Everyone knew he’d shot his cousin. The boy’s marriage was in trouble to boot, the Reverend had learned that much from his counseling sessions with Patty. Their sacred union hadn’t been very sacred after all, and maybe Bryce blamed the Reverend for that, since he’d performed the ceremony. Who knew what craziness a mind like that might leap to?
Crazy people unnerved him. Sometimes he tried to imagine what it must be like to give in to the criminal impulse, to lose control, to take that dark plunge into chaos. But he couldn’t do it. A clear head and a steady hand, those were his blessings in life. His role in this world was to respect boundaries, not violate them. He knew it might be helpful if he could empathize from time to time with church members who strayed, so that he might better comprehend their faults and offer guidance. But the power wasn’t in him. People like Bryce were mysteries he would never solve.
But he had more on his plate tonight than just Bryce and Marshall. He also had business to take up with Sheriff Tune. Unpleasant business. The soul of the town was hovering over the abyss. The Beast was approaching, plain as day. He had to force Sheriff Tune to do something.
He wasn’t hopeful. The Reverend had brought a number of crises to Sheriff Tune’s attention, and the Sheriff had always advised him to take his complaints to the Mayor. Herod passing him off to Pilot. Or Pilot to Herod, he wasn’t sure which analogy applied. In either case, the Mayor had never been any help, always thanking him for his concerns but never making the slightest effort to correct the problems. But that was hardly surprising. Both men were backsliding Presbyterians, part of Reverend Sinclair’s congregation. It was a wonder they ever got anything done.
They had even ignored his warnings about Madame Zubu the Mysterious. She was corrupting the younger congregants, he knew that for a fact. The teens in his youth group talked about little else, telling lurid tales of her fortune telling skills. They had all squandered good money to sit at her card table and watch her gaze into a crystal ball and mumble nonsense. She was a charlatan who should be run out of town. Yet the Sheriff continued to allow her to practice her voo-doo, or hoo-doo, or whatever it was, right there in an upstairs front window on the south side of the square. He’d written a letter to the editor about it, attempting to alert the larger community to the problem, but Tom Parsons had never printed it. Typical. Tom Parsons owned the very building Madame Zubu had set up shop in, and from what the Reverend had heard, Mr. Parsons didn’t even charge her any rent.
She had no shades or curtains, so every Tuesday and Thursday night anyone passing by could see her sitting at her table, like a black widow waiting in her web. Sometimes she had a young child with her, a boy of maybe six or seven, which was disgraceful. The room was illuminated by a single string of multi-colored Christmas lights draped over a chandelier. She wore a long brightly patterned blue robe that might have been Chinese, and a shiny red turban with a wild heathen feather tucked in its folds. The walls around her were painted black. Black, for God’s sake. She read palms, and consulted Tarot cards, and predicted the future from tea leaves and signs.
Well, he could predict things, too. He could predict that certain fools in positions of authority were treading the broad path to Hell, and Madame Zubu the Mysterious was leading their parade. It was bad enough that the carnival came to town every year, dragging in perverts and derelicts from the big northern cities, but having Madame Zubu the Mysterious as a fixture on the town square was more than a decent community ought to tolerate.
And what about that prize-fighting exhibition Tom Parsons had set up? That would be a carnival, too. Drunks and gamblers and pickpockets would swarm into town from across the state line, just to watch dimwitted behemoths bash each other’s brains in. He couldn’t imagine why a man of Mr. Parsons’ position would sponsor such violence, or why the Sheriff hadn’t immediately put a stop to it. Jesus had been quite specific about fighting. A good Christian turned the other cheek, he didn’t trade blows until someone was unconscious. Yet Mr. Parsons had the gall to call his upcoming spectacle a sporting event. The more he thought about it, the more he realized what a dark presence Mr. Parsons was becoming in the community.
But the Reverend couldn’t dwell on any of that now. He had to concentrate on the matter at hand: the dead man in the window of Fred’s Five-and-Dime. The one the tornado had dropped so unceremoniously onto the courthouse lawn. The stranger no one could identify.
As he pulled up alongside the jailhouse, he ran over something in the street—a piece of metal, from the sound of it—that flipped up hard against the undercarriage and clanked back to the pavement. He sighed. He couldn’t afford any repairs right now. He climbed out and peered underneath the DeSoto to check for radiator leaks or broken hoses, but he couldn’t make out much in the darkness. The only light came from the dim yellow bulb above the jailhouse door, and all it showed him was the flaking chrome of his front bumper and what appeared to be a crowbar lying on the pavement next to his front tire. He reached under the automobile, careful not to soil his only suit coat, and dragged the bar out into the light. It wasn’t a crowbar, after all, but an iron rod, storm debris of some kind. He couldn’t leave it in the road where any school child might find it–unsupervised boys could get into trouble with a bar like this. He tossed it through his open window onto the front seat and headed inside the jail.
On any other Saturday evening this floor of the building would have been bristling with deputies filing paperwork and processing drunks, and maybe a couple of trustees mopping the halls. But tonight the place was calm, virtually empty, and when the Reverend inadvertently let the front door slam shut behind him, the noise echoed up the stairwell like a gunshot. All the ground floor offices were dark except for the receiving area, which housed the holding cell and a few old desks and benches. Reverend Tyree eased the glass-paned door open and stepped tentatively into the room. The Sheriff sat hunched over a deputy’s desk studying a dog-eared piece of notebook paper. Coffee mugs and crumpled Dairy Queen bags cluttered the filing cabinets lining the walls, and thick manila folders and mounds of mimeographed documents covered nearly every flat surface. The holding cell at the back of the room was empty for a change. Two men in work clothes whom the Reverend didn’t recognize sat on a wooden bench in the corner playing checkers. The Sheriff continued to frown over the piece of paper in his hands, and his frown deepened when he looked up and saw who had just come through the door. He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“I see you’re busy,” the Reverend said. “I’ll just go on up.”
The Sheriff spit a wad of gum into the wastebasket by the desk. “Reverend, I believe you wasted a trip.”
“Nine times out of ten,” he answered, attempting a smile. “But the tenth time is what counts.”
“Nothing counts this evening,” the Sheriff told him. “Bryce Hatton and Marshall Raby aren’t available.”
“You can’t deny them spiritual counsel,” the Reverend objected, and the two men playing checkers laughed.
“All right, you two,” said Sheriff Tune. “Game’s over. Go back to your cells.”
The two men grumbled, but they both rose from the table and ambled toward Reverend Tyree, who stepped clear of the doorway to let them pass. He kept a careful eye on them as they trudged up the stairs.
“I’m not denying anybody anything,” the Sheriff continued. “Bryce is in the hospital. He took a bad spill this morning.”
“My Lord,” said Reverend Tyree. “Is he all right?”
“I guess he’ll live. Doc McKinney thinks so, anyway. But he’s pretty banged up.” He leaned forward and shook his head. “The real disappointment is Marshall.”
If Reverend Tyree had a favorite at the jail, it was Marshall Raby. Marshall was polite and eager to please, always smiling and nodding his head. Maybe he didn’t really listen to the Reverend’s speeches on self-improvement, but at least he didn’t interrupt. Best of all, Marshall had no history of violence, he was merely a thief, and the Reverend was encouraged by that. The last friend Jesus made on this earth had been a thief.
“What did Marshall do?” he asked.
“He betrayed a trust. I left him in charge here this morning. He stole a new Packard and lit out for Alabama.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He got scared when Bryce hurt himself. Once the ambulance showed up, he just took off.”
“How do you know all this?” the Reverend asked.
Sheriff Tune raised the sheet of notepaper he’d been frowning over. “He left a letter of apology.”
Reverend Tyree brightened. Maybe his counseling sessions had made an impact on Marshall after all.
“A letter of apology is a good sign,” he said. “I mean, that’s a Christian gesture. I think Marshall’s becoming a better person.”
Sheriff Tune dropped Marshall’s letter onto the desk. “Reverend, yesterday he was serving six months for car theft. Today he’s a fugitive in another stolen car. I don’t consider that progress.”
The Sheriff was right, of course. The devil had won again. The devil always won in this town, no matter how hard the Reverend tried. Sinners ignored him, or scoffed in his face, or whispered jokes behind his back. Maybe if he’d been a large man, like Sheriff Tune, he could have made people listen. But he was short, and bald, and his voice was too high, and he lived in a rented house with a barren wife, and his automobile was third-rate, and his shoes were scuffed, and no one took him seriously, even at the price of their salvation. He was as laughable now as he had been in high school, when he was shoved around routinely by every shop-class bully and every jock in a letter jacket. Sheriff Tune had probably been a bully himself, tripping the weaker, more studious kids in the hallways. But high school was over. Roland T. Tyree had made something of himself, he was a member of the clergy, and that deserved respect. He would not be put off from his greater mission.
“There’s another matter we need to talk about,” he said, and he could see the annoyance come over the Sheriff’s sunburned face.
“Like you said, Reverend, I’m kind of busy this evening.” He spread his hands to indicate the pile of paperwork in front of him.
The Reverend put his own hands on the desktop and leaned forward to make his point more forcefully. “There’s a darkness swallowing the land,” he said.
The Sheriff swiveled his chair toward the window. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” he said. “Happens every night about this time. I’ll look into it.”
“I’m talking about that thing in the dime-store window,” he said.
The Sheriff turned back to Reverend Tyree and nodded. “Unusual situation, I’ll grant you that,” he said. “But as long as the health inspector approves, there’s no code violation.”
“What about moral violations?” the Reverend demanded. “What about standards of decency? He’s turned death into a sideshow.”
“All we’re trying to do is find out who the poor man is,” the Sheriff said.
“I can tell you who he is,” the Reverend said, his voice rising. “He’s the seven-headed beast. He’s the angel of the bottom less pit. He’s Abaddon, and Mammon, and Belial, and Beelzebub, and all the other minions of Satan.”
The Sheriff smiled. “You wouldn’t have an address on that, would you?”
“I’m talking about the spiritual impact on this community,” the Reverend declared, and he banged his fist on the edge of the desk. He had seen a Bishop do that once in seminary and had been impressed by the dramatic power of the gesture. But this was an old piece of wood, dried out by too many seasons of radiator heat. The overhanging lip of the desktop sheared away and clattered obscenely to the floor.
Even the furniture mocked him.
“You broke my desk,” said Sheriff Tune, not angrily, as the Reverend expected, but with mild surprise.
Why did everything always have to turn ridiculous? He was a certified man of God, he had genuine spiritual insights. Yet whenever he tried to explain himself, some grotesque absurdity always blocked his path. Jesus had talked in parables and people understood him just fine. Reverend Tyree couldn’t even make a straightforward point without looking like a fool.
“That’s defacing city property,” Sheriff Tune said. Then he picked up the chunk of wood and held it to the fractured edge, lining up the fit as closely as possible. “Clean break, though. I might could nail it back together.”
The Reverend didn’t know what to say. The air seemed to have gone right out of him. For a fleeting moment, he’d had the upper hand, he’d felt it, but now Sheriff Tune had the advantage again.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The Sheriff put the piece of wood on Marshall Raby’s letter like a paperweight. “Look, Reverend, why don’t you just go on home before you break something else,” he said. “This dime-store business won’t last much longer, I can promise you that. The funeral’s tomorrow afternoon.”
The Sheriff didn’t understand. Reverend Tyree had been blessed with an insight. No, more than that, it was an epiphany. A life-changing vision. He had talked it all through with his wife, and though she hadn’t understood him any better than the Sheriff, she had at least helped him crystallize his thoughts. This abomination from the whirlwind was poisoning the town, he could feel it in his bones. The body’s deformities and its nakedness exuded a subtle and sinister power, inflaming even the weakest imaginations. People were children when it came to the unknown, and here was the boogeyman they had believed in all their lives. Mildred had filled him in on the gossip. The man was a sex fiend, an escaped killer, a communist from the Soviet Union, even a caveman preserved by a glacier and carried south in the storm.
He knew what would come next. Before long the body would cease to be human at all, would become instead whatever best suited their collective fears—an alien from another planet, a mutated creature created by nuclear fallout, a haint born of thin air and sent by the Devil to pollute men’s minds—and this last speculation wouldn’t be far wrong. With every passing hour the dead man’s stature would grow.
He’d seen the first signs already. Even his poor deluded Mildred had succumbed to the hysteria, suggesting that the naked man might be some kind of holy messenger from God. From God—as if this apparition might be a manifestation of Jesus Christ himself. She had told the Reverend he should find a lesson in the man’s arrival and use it in his sermon Sunday morning.
But what sermon Sunday morning? Didn’t she understand that his church had just been taken away from him by the hand of the Almighty, that First Baptist was no longer a place of worship but a soggy pile of rubble? They weren’t a wealthy congregation, it might take years to rebuild, and in the meantime he would lose his flock to Second Baptist, which had escaped the storm. Didn’t Mildred see that her husband had just been fired? And not by the board-members who paid his salary, but by God himself.
But the board-members, too, would have their say. He knew they would blame him for buying the wrong insurance policy, the cheaper version that excluded Acts of God. His agent, Jimmy Vann, had advised him against cutting corners, but the Reverend thought Jimmy was merely trying to pad the premium. After all, why would a church need protection from Acts of God? That contradicted everything he believed in.
“You can’t bury him here,” the Reverend insisted. “You have to take him out of this town. Now. Tonight. He puts us all in jeopardy.”
The Sheriff narrowed his eyes and chewed the inside of his cheek. “I’m not sure I see it that way,” he said.
The Reverend took a deep breath. He felt lightheaded and needed to sit down. But he couldn’t sit down, not with Sheriff Tune staring at him. A chill climbed slowly up his spine, and cold fingers tightened around his neck. He had to get out of this room. But he couldn’t leave, not yet, not until he’d made the Sheriff realize what was at stake. He cast about in his mind, searching for some pertinent argument that might tip the scales, but his thoughts were tumbling over one another, jumbling in his head, and before he could even begin to sort anything out, someone rapped sharply on the office doorframe behind him.
“Yes ma’am,” the Sheriff said, staring past him. “What can I help you with?”
A middle-aged woman in gardening clothes entered the room cradling a Boston terrier. She had blood on her pale blue blouse, and she looked stricken, as though she had already seen the fallen world that Reverend Tyree was predicting.
The Reverend eased away from the desk as she approached. He didn’t like Boston terriers. They were snappish dogs who couldn’t be trusted. The eyes of this one followed him as he circled away toward the holding cell.
“Evening, Mrs. Crabtree,” said the Sheriff.
“I want someone arrested,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Yes, ma’am,” Sheriff Tune answered, “but I’ll have to ask you to leave your dog outside. We don’t allow animals in the jailhouse.”
“He’s dead,” she said, and burst into tears. She sank down onto the bench by the door, still hugging the dead Boston terrier, whose glassy eyes remained fixed on Reverend Tyree. Sheriff Tune rose from his desk and walked quickly to her. He crouched at her feet and examined the bloody animal.
The Reverend knew he could never reclaim the Sheriff’s attention now. This woman and her dead dog had usurped his place at the head of the line.
“We have to insure our spiritual safety,” the Reverend said. “If you won’t help me, I’ll talk to the mayor.”
The woman scowled in his direction, as if he were the one interrupting. He wanted to say something threatening and cruel, but he had no bluster left.
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you,” the Sheriff said, his focus still on the dog. The implication in his tone was clear. Their conversation was over. The Reverend was dismissed.
He didn’t know what to do next, but he knew he couldn’t stay there, not with a dead dog staring at him and the room growing smaller with every breath. He strode past the Sheriff into the hallway and burst through the door into the night.
The DeSoto’s motor caught on the first turn of the key—a good omen. He floored the accelerator, and by the time he crossed Green Street three blocks away, he was clipping along at nearly twenty-five miles an hour. Ten miles over the speed limit in the heart of the town. But he didn’t care. Maybe a deputy would pull him over. He could get himself arrested and taken back to jail.
He swung onto Elk and entered the square, then hit his brakes and skidded to a stop against the courthouse curb. The tornado had destroyed half the businesses downtown, and the rest were closed for the night. There were no deputies, no clean-up crews, no curious prowlers. Everyone was safe at home, recuperating from their sleepless night before. He was alone in a ghost town.
He got out of his car and stood looking up at the darkened office window of Madame Zubu the Mysterious. He couldn’t see her, but he knew she was there, cackling in her blackened room, conjuring up demons, casting her spells over the dozing town. The dark arts were on the rise. He shuddered and turned away. Something had to be done. He walked briskly across the street, past Dr. McKinney’s office and Monahan’s Funeral Home, then down the hill to the display window of Fred’s Five-and-Dime.
The dead man looked pale in the moonlight, and Reverend Tyree stared at him for a long while, wondering who he might be.
The night air felt soothing on his face. An answer would come to him if he thought hard enough. If he prayed hard enough.
Never could there be a more willing servant. If God would put the weapon in his hand, he would strike. He would cleanse this town of evil and bring salvation, even to those who abused and ignored him. He might have to be stern, even severe. Sometimes a parent had to discipline a child, and this town was a child in almost every way. He would not spare the rod.
And then he saw that God, in ways more mysterious than Madame Zubu would ever know, had placed him on the proper path, had brought him here, to this storefront window, to grant him grace and set things right again. The miracle was already underway, the tool he prayed for was already in his hand. He couldn’t even remember taking it from the front seat, but there it was, rough and cool in his stubby fingers, the iron bar he’d picked up from the roadway outside the jail. It was heavy, and solid, and ready for the Lord’s work.
He swung it forward, like Samson wielding the jawbone of an ass, slaughtering the Philistines. The glass cracked, but didn’t fall, so he swung the bar again, and this time the entire plate-glass window shattered, raining down in long shards onto the pavement and into the store. Some of it fell into the casket and onto the dead man’s yellow checkered shirt. He knocked away a few jagged pieces from the lower frame and stepped through the window.
The creature was heavy, but Roland Tyree was filled with the holy spirit, and his normal limitations didn’t apply. He hoisted the wet, cowboy-like thing over his shoulder and leapt back onto the sidewalk. The weight doubled him over, drove him to his knees on the rough pavement, and he surprised himself by growling as he straightened back up.
The eyes of the dog still followed him, even here, but that didn’t frighten him, not anymore. His soul was strong again, and through this act he would strengthen others, as well. God was testing him, as God always tested him, but this time he knew the answers. This time he would pass.
As he staggered up the dark hill in the empty night, the future began to form in his mind. He would put this burden in his trunk and drive across the state line, deep into Alabama, just as Marshall Raby had done. When he reached the Tennessee River he would park on the bridge, drag the body to the rail, and dump it over the side. It was the Lord’s will, even Mildred could see that.
He would baptize this monster once and for all, purify it of corruption, deliver it back to the elements where it belonged. And when it had disappeared beneath the swift, black waters, the curse on his life, on all their lives, would at last be lifted.
He would kneel on the bridge and give thanks.
He would pray for the souls of the lost.
He would ask God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, to finally give it a name.
Clint McCown has published four novels and six collections of poems. A story collection, Music for Hard Times, is forthcoming. He has received the Midwest Book Award, the Society of Midland Authors Award, the Gable Prize, the Breé Book Award, the American Fiction Prize (twice), and a Barnes & Noble Great New Writer designation, among other honors. He teaches in the MFA programs at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Originally published in NOR 6