Rubber Lemon 1
July 25, 2010
Editorial Ed Cooke
one, but we are called to walk it without scaling the heights of invention or plunging into the abyss of incoherence. Very often glimpses of the divine are all we get, but these powerful promises are enough to sustain us through long periods of doubt, angst or plain, old and utterly debilitating monotony. It is such glimpses that the present collection offers. The contributors have thought for themselves and conveyed as faithfully as they are able the sense of God as He has graciously made Himself known to them. They have not tried to conform God to human standards and I have not imposed any doctrinal basis on their work. My hope for this project is that it will stimulate serious thought by exposing God’s work in situations where we have too long neglected to look for Him. ‘What if...?’ is at least as important a question as ‘What would Jesus do?’ if we are to live up to our Saviour’s expectation by performing greater works even than his.1 There can be no taboos when God longs for us to invite Him into every facet of our lives.
Those of us who attend church are often invited to reflect, and those of us who lead worship often try to make space for God to speak to us. When I introduce a quiet time, I am greeted with a sea of suitably furrowed brows. There appears to be more thinking going on than Rodin could shake a chisel at. The results of such pondering, though, are curiously absent. Fresh expressions of church turn out to be new skins for the same old applications. Even where there is innovation, it is subordinated to the unspeakable goal of growing the Sunday morning congregation. My concern is that genuine reflection has been supplanted. We are no longer thinkers but arrangers of the same few sanctioned sayings. My preferred yardstick is the quality of conversation over coffee. I hear much more about blessings, anointings and release than the real problems we face as we try to share what we have learned from God. Though Thomas Hobbes and I are the unlikeliest of bedfellows, I am with him all the way when he writes: ‘Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.’ The path of Christian evangelism is a narrow
Jesus Knelt in Grief Over the Death of Children Michael Lee Johnson
Breaking out of silence, Jesus knelt to his knees in moist desert sand, wrote messages with his fingertips to children— “Water is water, toys are toys, but by my fingers burn with life, though I toil over tombs with grief and tears— I’m the living and I am the dead. I was born to life to bring new hope into the death of children. I’m the messenger of the morning sun the prayer book between the morning dew, the play fields of your daily adventures. When I kneel here again, the end will be the end. Fire will be willed into my words. Driftwood and sand will turn to stone. I drag my fingers across hot sand once more; morning will come without a daybreak. Birds will no longer sing, and crickets lose their songs.”
Discovery Kimberley Rayson
You seem so very far, O God, enthroned in heavenly majesty And yet, just later in the day, disquietingly close to me You see the things I want to hide But love, incredibly, me inside. You seem so unequivocal, your love can know no compromise But when I try to pin you down I find I cannot summarise A father, shepherd, lamb, king, friend. . . Where all my questions start and end. You seem so gentle when Iâ€™m weak, and lenient when Iâ€™m slow to learn So it surprises me to meet the God of justice who may turn The tables in my comfort zone And stir my anger with his own. You seem so ancient Lord of time, whom Abraham and Sarah knew, Yet in a world changing so fast, I see the new things that you do, From age to age the same you stay Yet wait to show me a fresh way. You seem so holy, Son of God, Jesus, living free from blame Your goodness out of place in this, the messed up world to which you came But in the face of pain and loss I start to understand the cross. You are eternal, Lord of Lords, your glory endless ages spans Your love was there when time began, infinite are your thoughts and plans, But wonderfully I find your grace Meeting me in time and space. 7
Sanitation Jef Peeples
Give me the sanitized christ the hands clean christ the Arian, pretty not dirtied christ who smells of clean baby beds no crying he makes and starry angels the flannelgraph christ with his Roman nose and the palms not showing because the love is too painful the surgery necessary by hands rough and soiled is anesthesia-less and I cannot accept the truth as told or swallow the elemental medicine.
After John 8: “Go now.” John Pierce
Afterward, she walked away, naked as Eve, and felt no need to shrug her way by shadow home. By no means proud, nor numb, but she did not run, ceased to cry and met each gaze eye for eye— and this time, it was they who flinched, shattered by the blasphemy of grace.
Within the Sound of My Voice Deborah L. Reed “Okay, Mom,” Lisa thought as she glanced at her watch for the twentieth time in as many minutes. “Don’t make me come get you.” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel and glanced at the door of the tiny chapel, willing it to open. A million errands to run and her mother was late again. If she didn’t appear in the next few minutes, she’d have to pick the boys up from school before they went to the bank. If you lived in the real world like the rest of us, Mom, you’d realize how inconvenient that is. The chapel door opened and, to Lisa’s relief, her mother slowly emerged. A sweet smile crossed her face when she saw Lisa parked at the curb. “Hi, baby,” she said as she opened the car door. “Have you been waiting long?” “Mom, it’s twenty minutes after two. Your relief showed up twenty five minutes ago. Why didn’t you leave then?” Lisa bit back her irritation as Myrtle seated herself and struggled to engage the seat belt. “I decided at the last minute to say another rosary. I couldn’t just stop in the middle of it, could I? How would that make Mary feel?” Lisa reached over and took the seat belt from
her mother’s hands. The old lady docilely allowed her to position it across her chest and click it in place. “Mom, I think Mary would understand. I told you I didn’t want to take the boys to the bank, that I had a lot to do this afternoon. You said you’d try to be on time, remember?” “I said I’d try, Lisa,” her mother said as Lisa started the car and pulled away from the curb. “I didn’t know I was going to be saying a rosary when I told you that.” “You can say a rosary at home, Mom, people do it all the time.” “But it’s so much more meaningful when it’s said in front of the Blessed Sacrament. If you went to church more often, you’d understand that.” Lisa resisted the urge to pound the steering wheel. Going to Mass only once a week was tantamount to a sin to her mother, who attended church daily and went to Perpetual Adoration every other day. The argument that Lisa had three children to raise and a household to run was always met by the counterargument that one can always find time to go to church. Lisa bit back her frustration and changed the subject. “Did you remember to bring the check?” “It’s right here in my purse, baby. I already
Within the Sound of My Voice
filled out the deposit slip. If the lines aren’t too long, we should have plenty of time to pick up the boys.” The lines, however, were too long. It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and apparently half the town had decided to leave work a few hours early and cash their paycheck before the holiday began. Her mother stood placidly beside her at the end of the shortest line as Lisa pulled her cell phone from her purse. She’d have to ask Jim to pick up the boys and take them back to the office with him. “Oh, dear,” her mother said as Lisa finished her conversation and clicked the phone shut. “I was looking forward to seeing my grandsons.” Lisa bit back an angry retort. If her mother had left the chapel on time, they would have arrived at the bank before the rush. They would have then had plenty of time to pick up her grandsons from school. But arguing, Lisa knew from experience, was useless. Her mother lived in a world populated by spirits, angels and saints. The real world, with its time restraints, was only a blur to her, background noise for the life she led inside her head. Myrtle had once told her that on two separate occasions she had left her seat at church to approach the life-size crucifix over the altar, only to turn around and realize that she had left her body behind. Lisa’s gasp at this revelation had puzzled the older woman. Doesn’t this happen to everyone once in a while? “We’ll pick them up from the office if you like, Mom. You can talk to them in the car while I take you home.” Myrtle turned to face her. “That would be nice, dear,” she said. “Does that man have a gun?” “What?” Lisa said. Her mother’s second sen14
tence had been uttered as calmly as the first one. Surely she must have misunderstood. She slowly turned around. There were two men standing at the door of the bank. Both were wearing ski masks. Both had guns. Lisa watched in horror as they simultaneously lifted their arms, bracing the gun arm at the elbow with the other arm. She resisted the urge to throw her mother to the floor and cover her with her body, but that would only serve to draw attention to them. No, the best thing to do, she decided, is to stay as still as possible and pray that the men would not notice them. The two robbers slowly made their way toward the tellers’ windows, arms still outstretched, heads moving from side to side as they searched for any signs of resistance from the bank’s customers. The others, like Lisa, stood frozen in place, hoping to blend in with the crowd. Myrtle, however, apparently saw this as an evangelizing opportunity. As the taller of the two men passed her, she reached out and tapped him lightly on the arm. “Jesus doesn’t like you to do things like this,” she said simply. Both men stopped and stared at her. Lisa’s heart froze in her chest. She fought back a scream as the tall man reached over to finger the large silver crucifix her mother wore around her neck. “Oh, he wouldn’t, would he?” he said derisively. “And just how would you know that, old lady?” “Because He’s my best friend,” her mother replied pompously. “We know each other well.” The two men, directly in front of them now, turned their heads to stare at each other. Their
Within the Sound of My Voice
expressions were hidden by the masks, but Lisa could imagine that the two robbers were as amazed as the rest of the room at the old woman’s actions. She searched for something to say that would deflect the men’s anger. “Please, sir,” she said, placing a restraining hand on Myrtle’s arm. “She’s an old woman. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” Myrtle brushed her hand away. “Nonsense. I know exactly what I’m saying. I’m trying to tell these men that they’re facing a long stint in Purgatory if they don’t change their ways right now.” Again the two gunmen stared at each other, their original goal forgotten for the moment in the face of the old woman’s audacity. Lisa gasped as one of them pointed his gun at her mother’s chest. “Your Jesus ain’t gonna help you now, old lady.” Myrtle didn’t even flinch. “Of course He will.” A small part of Lisa’s mind registered admiration at her mother’s courage, the other part absolute terror at the situation they had found themselves in. Surely her mother could see that she was putting not only herself, but the entire room, in danger. The man cocked the pistol, the sound as loud as if he had actually fired it. “Admit that he won’t.” Myrtle cocked her head. “I can’t do that,” she said with a puzzled frown, as if she couldn’t believe that someone had actually asked her to do such a thing. “That would be denying Jesus.” This man is truly evil, Lisa thought with increasing horror, for this issue to be so important to him. It was as if Satan himself was standing in front of them, pointing a gun at her mother.
“Mom, please. . . ” she begged. Myrtle turned to face her. “What, dear?” she said as if she had no idea how Lisa would finish her sentence. “Just do what the man wants,” Lisa implored. “No. No, I can’t do that,” Myrtle said calmly. There was a loud explosion and Myrtle’s dress turned bright red.
9 “I can sing now,” Myrtle told the nurse. “That’s nice, dear.” Barbara answered absently as she checked the woman’s IV site. Hopefully this one wouldn’t blow. The old lady was a hard stick and the nurse was too tired and in too much pain to cope with inserting another one. The cold sore on the side of her mouth had reached its most painful stage and she was unable to ignore it despite the fact that they were short handed and she was in the middle of a hectic double shift. “But I couldn’t before,” Myrtle continued. “Couldn’t what, dear?” Barbara asked, her eyes still on Myrtle’s arm. Was there a slight redness around the needle? “Sing. I couldn’t sing at all before. But when I woke up, I knew I could. It’s a gift God gave me for being so faithful.” Barbara lifted her head and winced as a quick stab of pain shot through her lip. Myrtle graced her with a sweet smile. “Listen,” she said and burst into the first bars of Handel’s Messiah. Barbara backed away in amazement. Time seemed to stand still as Myrtle sang. The woman’s voice filled the entire room with its 15
Within the Sound of My Voice
beauty. It was like listening to a chorus of angels. The nurse stood in stunned silence for a brief moment after Myrtle had finished. “That was beautiful,” she breathed. “Thank you,” Myrtle replied graciously. “Like I said, it was a gift from God.” Barbara slowly left the room, the sound of the woman’s voice still in her ears. It was a good half hour before she realized that her cold sore was completely gone. “We’ve got checkout orders for the lady in 201,” Anna greeted her as she began her shift the next day. “The one who sings?” Barbara asked. “What?” “The gunshot victim. She’s going home today?” The other nurse shook her head. “Not her, her roommate. The one who came from the nursing home.” Barbara blinked in surprise. “But she’s eighty years old.” Anna gave a small shrug. “I know.” “And riddled with cancer.” “Not anymore. She just got up last night and started walking around, insisting that she was fine and wanted to leave. They ran some tests on her this morning and found no cancer at all.” Barbara stared at her in amazement. “The tests must be wrong.” Anna shook her head. “They’re not wrong. Go look at her. She looks about thirty years younger, in the peak of health.” “But that can’t be,” Barbara’s voice rose incredulously. “We expected her to die any day.” Anna gave a little snort. “She looks like she could live another forty years. Go see for yourself.” 16
Myrtle and her roommate were sitting in the visitors’ chairs, engaged in animated conversation, when Barbara entered the room. Myrtle looked up at her sweetly. “Good morning, dear. I was hoping I would see you today.” Barbara barely heard her. She was staring at the lady seated beside her, barely recognizable from the woman who had been lying in a semicomatose state only hours earlier. The woman was perched on the edge of her chair, one foot tucked under the knee of the other leg. I bet she hasn’t been able to sit like that in decades, Barbara thought to herself. How could this be? “This is my roommate, Barbara. She’s going home today. Isn’t that nice?” Barbara continued to stare, unable to take her eyes off the other woman. Her hand slowly rose to massage the corner of her lip. “Yes, Myrtle, that’s very nice. Uh, could you come with me for a moment?” “Of course, dear. Where are we going?” “There’s something I’d like you to help me with,” Barbara said as she offered the old lady her arm. They slowly made their way out of the room and down the long hall. Myrtle entertained the nurse with various escapades of her grandsons as they waited for the elevator, then made their way down another long hall on the fifth floor. She stopped in mid-sentence as they entered the Pediatric ICU ward. “Oh my,” she said sadly. “Oh the poor darlings.” There were eight newborns in the room, eight very sick babies, none of whom could survive without the various tubes, machines, and trained personnel that the ICU ward provided. Barbara
Within the Sound of My Voice
knew that many of them would not leave the hospital alive. “These are the babies that were born too early,” she told Myrtle. Myrtle slowly covered her face with her hands, rocking slightly as if to block out the image of the sick infants. “This is most distressing,” she was saying. “Their poor parents.” Barbara gently removed Myrtle’s hands from her face, staring at her intently. “Myrtle, there’s something I want you to do, something that can help these sick children.” “There’s nothing I can do!” Myrtle exclaimed frantically. The sight of the tiny, desperately ill children was almost more than the old woman could bear. “Please,” she begged. “Just get me out of here.” Myrtle turned to leave, but Barbara gently took her by the shoulders and turned her around. “There is something you can do, Myrtle,” she said softly. “You can sing.”
Nativity Kenneth Gurney
This one has nothing to do with Joseph or Mary or the Baby Jesus. This one has nothing to do with astrology or Venus and Mars or birth charts. Nor is it a play at Yuletide that we watch with kids in costume. It is at University Hospital everyday. Celebrated by a changing guard of men and women. Their wise kindred arrive laden with gifts. The night is less dark.
Promise Michael Neal Morris
few friends in the large school, but could never be considered popular. She had dated a little, mostly guys that had gone out with her friends, but occasionally someone in her catechism class. However, no one seemed interesting. If the boys talked at all, they talked about football and their father’s jobs and what they’re going to do some day. That was all. There was something though about Mr. Phillips that she liked. He was average looking, but really smart. He could speak five languages. Perhaps this enamored her in the beginning. That ability to express the feelings of pop songs in sounds that were unintelligible to her, but that made her feel as if they were coming from the tongue of an angel. Since the beginning, however, it was the promises she only half believed, but fully trusted, that excited her or helped her not to mind. The sun was almost completely down and the lights in the teacher’s parking lot were coming on. She grunted as she lifted her body from the bench, slowly and angrily, and began to walk home. Some mother, she thought. I could have gotten raped and killed, but she’d never suspect anything until breakfast.
She sat a bench in front of the school, smoking a thin cigarette and waiting for her mother. It was about six o’clock. The cigarette and the way she carried herself made her look a little older than sixteen. As she drew slowly and deeply on the finger-like paper, the lighted end glowed in a slow rhythmic pattern. Her right leg, a strong but pliable limb, dangled over her left with the same motion. She watched the street that separated Travis High School from an empty baseball diamond. Cars drove by in ones and twos lethargically. They’re packed with men who loathe their wives, she thought. Men who can’t stand the thought of seeing the complaining faces across the dinner table. Men bored with the mundane filled her mind. She saw them all come into their houses wishing that their secretaries were waiting unclothed at the door. Mr. Phillips. Sean. Why did he like it like that, and in the locker room? He taught Latin, was no athlete, and didn’t even play golf. Did it remind him of some adolescent fantasy? Was he secretly scoring with a bosomy cheerleader when they were together? Her books were heavy. She walked as if she She, Andrea, was no cheerleader. She had a had to drag them along, like an unwilling lit21
tle brother. It was completely dark by the time she was a quarter mile from the house. With an almost defiant looking gesture, she swung the books in front of her and held them to her chest tightly. She bent her head down and charged forward a little faster, the load relenting some to the viciousness of her fury. "Oh baby," her mother said when Andrea came in and asked why she had had to walk home. The woman’s wrung-out body did not rise from the sick green chair in front of the television, but rather turned woeful eyes sluggishly toward the girl. “Oh, baby, I forgot. I’m sorry." Andrea sighed and pity overtook her anger. Her mother then tilted her glass, almost empty of vodka, and watched a commercial through its blurred bottom. Andrea set her books in the corner of her room and turned on the small radio that waited for her on a three-legged night table beside her neatly made bed. After changing into thin pajamas, she took her algebra book and laying face down on the bed, worked the troublesome equations. She then tried to read her English assignment, but couldn’t concentrate and decided to leave it for study hall. She turned off the radio and picked up the metal crucifix lying beside it on the night table. She crossed herself, mumbled her nightly "Our Father", "Hail Mary", and "Glory Be", and crossed herself again. She turned the radio back on, then down to barely audible. She ran her thumbs along the cross and dim, bronze-colored figure. Then she repeated the Lord’s Prayer slowly, pausing to consider the phrase "on Earth as it is in Heaven." Her throat tightened as she cried in languid, thick tears and hoped that it would be soon.
Michael Neal Morris
The Winding Road Valerie Macon
Many miles your wanderings covered. Dead end roads, they didn’t stop you, just made a u-turn, kept on going. Never pulled your map or guide book, or asked the way when lost at night. Fueled by parents’ prayers you wandered unaware a greater power guiding down paths He wanted you to tread, protecting you in roadside peril equipping you for future work. Now compass found, your course is plotted. And so we watch with smiling hearts as up the mountain’s winding road you climb so high you’re out of sight. Your backpack rattles with tools of life, a traveler named Possibilities leads you on to greater heights.
Sign of the Twelve. . . Daniel Wilcox
The big multicolored circus tent Of the termite company ballooned Over the vast church and its vaulted bell tower; Only the elevated point of the cross showing, Apexed high and lifted up While below on the green, A large cloth sign of striking letters whipped in the wind, Celebrate Recoveryâ€”A 12-Step Program
Living Today in God’s Hands Michael Lee Johnson The concept of trusting God is an ongoing process of practicing to trust God. There is a difference between verbalizing the notion of “Trust God”, and internalizing the reality into a life experience of revelation through prayer & its fulfillment. When we have fears, we are not trusting God. When we have doubts, we are not trusting God. When we have overwhelming insecurities, we are not trusting God. For most people the idea of trusting God is all they hear, and on occasion read about. It hasn’t been internalized through trials, difficulties, or trusted into faith. We are, for the most part, impatient, refuse to trust that God’s timing is better than our own. Often our prayers are so desperate they get in the way of God’s work. Our worries are so great, our own answers, so few, we want to push God’s hand through self-centered prayer and place God on our own short deadline. We never know our true mission in life till we learn the real internalization of trusting in God. I am not a theologian, I am a skilled craftsmen, somewhat trained in psychology, who attends an anxiety group nearly every week, for years, trying to come to simple successful terms of living, yet hard to comprehend, till you see
the structure of the works, in life experiences. Trusting God is a matter of faith, yet our desperation & forcing of God’s timetable for our livesdemonstrates to God our true lack of trusted faith. We want to push the time clock. For this reason of pushing the time clock, God will often offer mercy and grace (more concepts most of us don’t truly understand)—keeping us in position till he determines the timing, in the larger plan, yet to unfold. In our darkness, of clutter and confused thought, we do not see the clearing; unable ourselves to unravel the misconnects of our own thought patterns. I was trapped in such a dilemma. Selfemployed, low income, rising health care costs, the internal unset of personal health issues that were threatening my job and ability to generate income as I got older, now age 62. What would I do since, in my case, there would be no retirement? I had little support and no real family structure to count on—tended to be a loner of sorts. I saw a depression coming. I knew the symptoms. After all I’ve spent a lifetime learning to identify them. Even though I didn’t feel like it I immediately sought out help with local social service resources before the emotional crash. But crash I did. Then I was bedridden: ignoring all but basic necessities, the days passed.
Living Today in God’s Hands
I prayed, then prayed, listened to church music and Christian messages, then prayed some more. Nothing happened. Silence was gouging in my ears. I felt as if God had slammed the door shut on my prayers, and said, “I got the message, now let me work.” When faith is weak, hope is less; when hope is gone, faith weakens more. It’s a cycle out of control with thoughts racing for self solutions. When the personal wall of emptiness is hit, and you realize you don’t have solutions, that it is now beyond your control and all you have is your nest egg of twisted thoughts-it’s then that God, often, will intervene quietly behind the scenes. It was here, I truly relieved my pain and suffering- made a total commitment to God‘s will, turning over the worries, the problems, the issues, and faith for solutions to someone other than myself. I wrote a small inspirational piece and placed it on my desk with scotch tape and read it daily before doing anything in my day. The sense of relief is enormous. Rather than losing control I actually gained control by giving my need for control up. It was here I internalized the true concept of faith and giving my will over to God’s plan not my own:
Michael Lee Johnson
Today Today there is peace within me. I trust God, revealed through Jesus Christ, that I am exactly where I am meant to be. I have given this control of my life over to God, through Jesus Christ, (all the fears, anxieties, self-doubts) & taken it away from myself. This is the gift of faith. His presence & healing settles in my bones. A transformation started at this point. In my case, the medication started to kick in; a trusted friend came into my business since he was getting older with his handyman services, and longed for something that would be less physically demanding; a personal lady friend came over daily offering support and structure to my unstructured life; my mother of 98 years passed away, leaving a small amount of monies that would help offset the rising cost of health care Then another intervention that would prop up my laagering self-esteem during a time of trial & lose. I had a huge box of unfinished, nearly forgotten poems beneath my work desk. Poetry seldom pays anything but self-esteem. There were poems dating back to early 1967, literally sitting idle in a box for over 40 years. I had no incentive, Most of the papers were tattered & torn, wrinkled old napkins folded over with ink smeared words placed there years ago; all waiting the creative hand of revival. In my distress, fledgling hope, I noted on the internet the advent of electronic poetry submis-
Living Today in God’s Hands
Michael Lee Johnson
sions making it easier to submit, quicker to get responses than the old fashion way, submitting via mail. Knowing from early experiences in the 1970’s that the chance of an unknown poet (especially one that failed creative writing class in university) getting a poem accepted for publication, with a quality journal, was about 3% or less out of a hundred submissions. I revised a few poems and submitted them, expecting nothing. To my astonishment, immediately poems were getting picked up for publication. Knowing, in my own mind, I was not a good writer, with each success I attributed the victory to God. Perhaps, my self-perceptions were in error again. Just perhaps. Within thirty months I have published over 121 poems, in over 449 different online literary, poetry journals, now in 23 different countries! No money, but a lot of self-esteem at a time of depression. God had waved his wand over me; taught me a lesson about faith, turning my will over to God and his ultimate plan. Trusting God is a process, an evolution of faith, grace, mercy; it happens over time, not on your time, but God’s, personalized plan for you on his time. God hears the simple prayers.
Bless His Only Name Kevin Heaton
Without a child’s faith to guide, the truth I could not see. Learned scholar’s sage advice, could never set me free. Seeking peace within myself, left emptiness and shame. I found grace beneath the cross, bless His only name.
Oceans of forgiveness, waves of glory roll; cleansing me of all I am, rescuing my soul. Calvary to Heaven’s gate, majesty for pain. Rhapsody in harmony, bless His only name.
Succeeding Stephen Williams
Daily sins fighting against them... sometimes winning sometimes failing crying roaring finally conceding... only prayer helping only with God succeeding.
The Fortune Teller Len Kuntz
of all the uniforms he had worn in his life, from boy scouts to a mouse costume for Halloween to a wedding dress beThe two runners were so odd together that joggers and cause one kinky night his wife had asked him. We all wear cyclists on the path did double-takes, same as when spot- uniforms, he thought, depending on the event and which ting minor celebrities in random locales. The tallest one wound we’re trying to assuage or deflect attention from. was bald, with a peculiar, fetus-shaped head and wary, Halloween really was an everyday affair if you thought disconnected eyes. The other was short and compact like about it. a modern-day appliance, with more hair on his body than “You okay?” the stocky pastor asked. He ran robotically, your run-of-the-mill llama. And yet, for their many dif- but with an efficient use of his limbs. His hair was dry, not ferences, the pair had a few remarkable things in common, a drop of sweat on him anywhere. It was chestnut-colored their maleness being obvious and their cache of untold se- and wavy, shaped in a mullet. Preston did not know it was crets being less so. permissible for pastors to have such a hair style. One of the runners was a pastor and the other—the tall The pastor’s name was Adam, same as the planet’s first lopsided-head runner– a bank executive, who was also man. Adam meant mud or earth or soil, in Greek or Hecovertly a drug addict. The addict’s habit was so long- brew, Preston remembered from Sunday school classes. standing and familiar anymore that it was not unlike a God made man from the earth and then gave him a scar you wear below your eye—a wound received brutally straightforward no nonsense name. during your youth– but now never see. The addict had Adam felt cursed. Partially he blamed his parents. His even done a few bumps this morning instead of coffee– father had been a Baptist Minister while his mother cham“moguls” they’d called the miniature domes of white pow- pioned the choir. Adam was led to the Lord before he was der in college, and his heart kick-drummed strong for the old enough to understand if that’s the route he actually moment. preferred. And then there was the issue of his name. “The They were only on mile three, with fifteen more to go. Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground.” Their alignment was off emotionally and physically. Thus His name, its earthy essence, annoyed Adam from the very far their conversation had been awkward and choppy as beginning. It felt burdensome, like a weight vest he’d been they tried to fend off feelings of embarrassment for being forced to wear even when swimming. It seemed impossitogether at all. At the same time they struggled to find a ble to live up to such a name. The only one worse would rhythm to their strides so that they could match pace. be Moses. The inability to meet the name’s expectations The addict’s name was Preston. Preston was nervous left Adam feeling perpetually dirty. Others saw something for several reasons: he had never run eighteen miles in different, but he knew, and the fact that he did ate away his life, let alone on blow, let alone with a man of God, at his inner confidence much the way a parasite feasts on who, even if he was wearing tight shorts and wife-beater its host, becoming visible only through its eventual physmesh tank, was still a pastor. Preston wondered how many ical wreckage. Adam grew delirious. His equilibrium was guesses it would take the common person to name the pas- shot. He had heavy night sweats. His vision was blurry tor’s occupation dressed in such a get-up. Preston thought and spotted. When he closed his eyes he saw squiggly 35
The Fortune Teller
particles floating across his retina and then other shapes and forms, those of boys he knew, posing naked. This war raged on, day by day, ravaging Adam’s sensibility. Living became an exhausting chore, the demands of presenting a false front unbearable. He despised himself. He had not grown up in a hunting family, but occasionally he’d slow down when driving past the little red store with the triple sign shouting, GUNS! AMMO! BAIT! Adam had been raised to be solution-oriented and a weapon could certainly solve his dilemma. Yet suicide was a sin, too. Adam’s head spun and he chuckled to himself, thinking about his predicament, his preposterous charade. “You all right?” This time it was Preston’s turn. For a moment Adam had forgotten where he was, what he was he doing. This happened sometimes, actually often, and privately Adam believed it might be the onset of Alzheimer’s, a wicked rebuke for a man so duplicitous. “I’m fine,” Adam said, hawking. “I must have got a bug caught in my throat.” Preston rubbed his bald head and wished he’d worn a cap or at least had sense to apply sunscreen. The day was cloudless and stern. Beyond the heads of the bushy cedar trees the sky hung an arrogant blue color seen only during Pacific Northwest summers. Sweat trickled down his chest, into his pubic region making him want to scratch. One morning several months back Lisa, Preston’s wife, had just got out of the shower and was toweling her auburn hair dry when she stepped on his misplaced vial of coke. Preston made up a story about seeing old college friends, how one had presented the tiny cylinder as a belated birthday gift. Lisa didn’t like it, not the story or the drugs themselves, but she let it go until Preston woke up in the middle of the night a week later and did a different vial of powder, half a gram in just two minutes. He hadn’t even bothered going to another room to do it or to turn on the bathroom fan in order to camouflage the sound of his Hoovering the white dust. Lisa clutched the lacy fringe of her bedtime camisole. “Oh my God,” she said. In that first instant, Lisa’s shock wasn’t directly about the drugs, but rather the fact that her husband resembled a bludgeoned victim. Yes, the rims of Preston’s nostrils looked like they had dried toothpaste stuck on them, but an inky crimson flow streamed out of them, drenching Preston’s neck and coating his chest and belly though Preston hadn’t yet noticed. He didn’t go to rehab. Instead the couple compromised 36
and Preston agreed to attend church with Lisa every other week. That was where he met Pastor Adam, when he got into an uncomfortable discussion about nothing, Adam clasping him on the shoulder or patting Preston’s arm in a way that Preston took as signs that Lisa had spilled the beans. To compensate, Preston mentioned he had been a runner, same as Adam. Preston had almost made the Olympics years ago. Preston had just done a line in the church bathroom, seated on the stall and flushing so as to overpower the snorting sound. Now the drug surged in Preston’s blood stream becoming a living entity independent of Preston, a pit bull baring its fangs through a chain link fence. In a matter of five minutes Preston had agreed to run with the pastor who was training for the Seattle Marathon. Preston didn’t realize what he’d done until he was home that night and sneaking another line. He hadn’t run in years, not even a block. And now he was going to run eighteen miles, with a man of God no less. They’d met in Duvall, a halfway point between their homes in Monroe and Falls City. The Snoqualmie Trail went as far east as Montana, Adam explained, its name changing a few times in between. “That so?” Preston said, and it was a feat just to get those two words out. They were on mile five. A sharp needle stitched Preston’s side and made him think of that scene in “Jaws” where the giant shark leaps onto the boat and the captain slides into the fish’s bear-trap mouth. “You okay?” Preston wasn’t, but he thought he’d slug the pastor if he asked that again. He hawked and spat and picked up his pace, not answering. Preston’s mother had been a housewife at first, then after her husband died she tried selling baked goods door-todoor around the neighborhood, garden vegetables outside Hanlon’s hardware store with permission from Leonard Sikes, a man with curling white nose hair, gout and a class ring from Pasco Senior High, same as Preston’s mother. “Cucumbers, get your cucumbers! Ten cents each!” his mother yelled, waving the phallic green stumps overhead. When he wasn’t in wrestling or choir practice, Preston was required to go along. He knew many of the customers and since there was no probable means of hiding—what with the wagon full of vegetables, the political campaign-style signs, and his mother shouting like a carnival barker. His humiliation was sealed and, in this and other ways, featuring other forms of shame, Preston was self-taught. The pastor wore a running belt with small, plastic can-
The Fortune Teller
teens of colored sports drink. He swallowed hardily, as if it was tequila. He handed Preston the bottle without breaking stride. Preston swallowed but didn’t accept it. He’d forgotten to bring any of his own liquid for rehydration. “That’s okay.” Adam arched a wooly eye brow. “You sure?” Preston nodded. He held up one palm like a traffic cop while the other hand fisted involuntarily. The curbside salesman gig didn’t last long, though, thank God. Anxious and inventive, Preston’s mother moved onto other schemes. Her first venture was charging people for weather forecasts. These were mostly rich folks from the north end who didn’t trust the inaccurate broadcasters on television (they weren’t yet known as meteorologists, same as janitors weren’t maintenance workers and used cars were just used instead of pre-owned.) Rich people counted on a thick blanket of snow for good skiing and didn’t want to make a trip to the mountain, only to be disappointed. Preston’s mother suffered from severe arthritis that left her stooped, with a sack-sized hunchback and knobby, twisted fingers. The upside was her ability to detect weather, her joints a Geiger counter whenever rain or snow storms loomed. She developed something of a reputation and earned loyalty from even the most jaded socialites. Then came the profession that suited her, the one she would be known for, the one that would change many lives, including the boy’s, for the good and bad. “Your folks live around here?” Adam asked. Preston had been wondering how long it would take for the stupid small talk to come around. “No,” he said, the word blunt. “Where then?” “Well that’s a long story.” Adam held out his hands as if claiming he hadn’t stolen anything. “We’ve got twelve more miles.” “We do?” Preston said. “Hey, if you’re not up for it.” “I’m good. Don’t worry about me.” That’s what he told Lisa, too. “Whatever you say, chief.” Preston’s mother had always been a believer in destiny, and now she’d found hers. Yet she knew survival hinged on whether or not she could make a profit from it.
“A fortune teller?” Adam said. This was not unusual, Preston tripping himself up. Why hadn’t he just invented a story? Why had he even started talking about his mother? His running partner was a pastor for God’s sake, and here was Preston, pitting one supernatural arm against the other. But it was too late to back out now. “She didn’t call it that.” “Well, what then?” Adam asked, putting an extra foot of width between them. Except in cases where the customer requested them, his mother abstained from using tarot cards. They made her feel gaudy and cheap, contrived and uninspired. Same with the crystal ball; no matter how long or how hard she stared, Preston’s mother never saw anything other than air bubbles frozen in the glass. She preferred a more modern approach, a far more intimate experience such as cupping a patron’s hands in her palms. She thought of it as a safe spoon position for strangers just starting to get acquainted. She read her first customer’s palm and confidently declared he would fall in love that very day and be married by month’s end. “Impossible!” the man said. His eyes were squishy and his breath in the enclosed space gave off the hint of whisky overlaid with spearmint gum. Preston’s mother puckered her lips and leaned forward, squeezing the man’s scratchy calluses. “It’s true,” she said, and the words blew from her lips like a Monarch butterfly. The man blinked several times. “It’s true,” she repeated, making him shiver. Perhaps she did get a sign that day, or maybe it was ploy, nevertheless Preston’s widowed mother and the man, Frank Stojack, an unpublished playwright and auto mechanic, fell into a spiraling, molten romance. By the end of that June, the pair was married. Adam thought about his own mother. In the mornings before church she ironed his dad’s shirts and slacks in the kitchen, humming while young Adam sat writing out bible verses to memorize. Often Adam’s mother would fall into a trance and so he’d be free to stare unabated, taking in her A-line dress. With its compressed waistline, pie-shaped upper torso, with the wavy, curtain-effect skirt, the gown became a sort of satin sculpture in Adam’s mind. The young boy imagined the maker of the dress sitting down in front of an easel with all the aplomb of a master painter. The designer might hesitate for a second, scratching his face as he searched his memory for the illustration 37
The Fortune Teller
that had come to him during a dream the night before, and once he’d captured it, he’d take the large pad and begin furiously sketching. If he was so inclined—and if there was enough time for Adam to finish his daydream—the designer would retrieve a bolt of fabric and scissors and cut and stitch and perfect each pucker until his drawn creation became the real thing, fitted now precisely on the frame of his hymn-humming mother. Imagination wasn’t always enough. On occasion, Adam needed to break through the veneer, test the waters, so to speak, and determine the authenticity of his inner desires. Every so often he was left home alone and during those times he’d sneak into his parent’s bedroom and flip through his mother’s closet, his vision keen and discriminating. Adam’s favorite frock was the speckled blue organza. With a sheath of netting across the shoulders, it was a cross between cotton candy and an Easter egg. He wore his mother’s lavender lipstick with it, her pushup brassiere, a pearl necklace and matching bracelet. If time allowed, he might even curl his bangs. Then, Adam became hostess of a grand party. Everyone in attendance was a friend and each commented on his stunning attire. “Why thank you,” he would say, clasping his cheek or chest and blushing freely. That night, after his parents had come home, Adam lay awake, staring at the ceiling where a fresco of the disappointed messiah looked back at him. If Adam closed his eyes, he saw nude school boy models. If his eyes were open, he saw the forlorn Christ. He finally got out of bed and, using the blunt point of a paperclip, cut open his skin. The sight of blood was a relief. He watched it bead up, then pool and spill over his wrist. The drops were shy at first, then assertive as they exploded brightly into the thick white shag carpeting. In the morning Adam, came to breakfast with the tender wound wrapped in strands of torn bed sheet. “What is this?” his father asked. “No son of mine gets a tattoo.” Adam’s mother unknotted the bandages with the deliberation of an experienced nurse. “But look,” she said, exposing what Adam had done. Her eyes shimmered with moisture. She couldn’t vocalize her pride, not with her husband the minister there, but later she would whisper in the boy’s ear. “I think it’s lovely. What a brave thing to do,” she said about the holy cross he had carved into his skin. 38
As they approached mile nine the trail swung northward, bring them close to Highway 202. Being that it was a Saturday and being that they had started their run so early in the morning, the road had very little traffic, yet distant stereo music blasted in the air. The music was bassheavy, hip hop. It bounced through the atmosphere like Morse code you felt rather than read. Adam heard it first, then Preston. The taller of them created his own word set, rhyming “murder” with “absurder,” “twenty street ho’s” with “pimped up gringo’s,” “great tail” with “make bail” and “my little sista’s trippin’” with “see what you been missin’.” It meant nothing, none of it, but during creation, it passed a little time. Preston’s mother hadn’t necessarily been husbandhunting. Oh sure, she got lonely from time to time, but she wasn’t looking for a financial hand out as some people assumed. On the contrary, now that her first hand-holding prediction had come true, she felt emboldened. She became more ambitious and career-minded. She read, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” She set goals and listed them in florid, cursive writing, the spiral notebook pages torn out with their frilly edges taped to the mirror. At their wedding, Preston’s mother gave out homemade business cards that read: RUTH STOJACK The Answers You Need, From the Person You Can Trust (509) 535-1521 Some cards she tucked in the palms of awkward relatives she’d not seen since the moon landing. Some poked out of the cake plates by the folded tip of a napkin. Many surprised men—and wives–would find her card days later, placed in the breast pocket of a suit jacket or starchencrusted dress shirt pocket. The runners reached the beginning of the incline. It was slight, yet Preston’s legs felt leaden from the added strain. Perspiration kept dripping into his eyes, burning. His nose ran. Sweat squiggled into his ears, in between his buttocks. Every inch of him was soaked. How many more miles did they have? “Mind if I borrow a hit of that sports drink?” he asked. Adam gallantly handed the container over, his expression not changing.
The Fortune Teller
Preston spit the first swallow out. It tasted like centuryold tea mixed with urine. Adam wasn’t one of those that forced-fed unbelievers God. He knew the power of patience. After all, it wasn’t a sales pitch he offered, rather eternal life. Adam tried to be an everyday Joe, unthreatening, accessible, a good listener. Privately, though, he wished he was funnier. On stage, in front of the pulpit, he could make the congregation laugh, but those were jokes culled from various research sources. Entertaining folks wasn’t as easy as it looked, no sir. Adam spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet. Sometimes he surfed the web the entire day and into the night. Once he got used to the taste, Preston drank threequarters of the bottle. Greedily, he considered downing the entire jug. “Thanks,” he said, handing it back. When Adam shook the container it pissed Preston off more than it should have. So what if he’d drunk all of it? The guy had five others. Preston’s mother would never read his palm. She’d shoo him away each time he asked– “Go, get out of here!”—like a pest or the neighbor’s dog. She feared seeing bad news. Such a thing was not altogether uncommon in her line of work. In those cases, Preston’s mother had to decide if she should lie and save her customers from undeserved fear and torment, or send them into terrible panic regarding their unfortunate yet inevitable future. She well understood that fibbing could possibly endanger her professional credibility. “You told my sister she would have a long, happy life, and look—she’s been hit by a train!” Preston’s mother loved her little boy enough to spare him a reading. In his case, she was satisfied learning as they went. Adam’s mother loved her boy, too. In fact, she was the boy’s best friend. She was soft and familiar and, up until he was well into his teens, Adam might come home from a difficult school day of being bullied and curl up against her downy bosom. She always smelled of cooking scents: rosemary, oregano, paprika, or cinnamon if pie-making had happened earlier in the day. She would smooth his forehead and kiss it there, her palm as hot as his skin. “God loves you so much,” she would whisper, making Adam convulse even harder. At mile twelve Adam’s pace had not slowed, he was charging hard. “How fast’re we going?” Preston asked.
The pastor had all kinds of running accessories, including a GPS watch that reported heart rate, location, calorie burn, stride length and speed. It could make a map of everywhere they’d been and anticipate where they were going. All the answers were there in the watch. Preston’s mother claimed the answers she got came from the bloodstream emanating from the heart. “Its nature and chemistry, that’s all. Heat rises through the skin pores, and these vapors, they’re invisible smoke signals, if you can picture it with me, wisps of a code. And that code is the truth,” she told him, her eyes distended. She had a thick German accent which seemed to slur when she was excited. “A person with—“ she never wanted to use the word “gift” because she felt it sounded hokey, like a breakfast cereal gimmick”—the ability can see what no one else can. To that person the pictures and words are the same as if they’ve been written on a blackboard, you know, like in school?” “We’re tearing it up,” the pastor said, not even breathing hard. “We’re going seven and a half minutes per mile.” Adam was thirty-five years old and he needed a race time of seven minutes and twenty-seven seconds to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which was his goal. At the pace they were going, however, Preston would be dead within the hour. “Hey, man,” Preston said, still running, but pulling up some. “I’ve gotta slow down. Sorry.” He tried not to pant so hard, yet he needed air. “Go ahead if you want, I’ll catch up.” “Nah,” the pastor said. He seemed to be running in place, a carousel pony sliding up and down while the world turned. “Go,” Preston said, his voice snarling. Adam took off. Adam wished he’d started running sooner in life. He wished he’d pursued it seriously. In school he’d never even thought to turn out for track. He had many regrets, and as each one began to float up to be accounted for, he pushed them away and said a prayer aloud, asking for God’s intercession. Preston watched the pastor sprint on. He thought about stopping altogether. Indeed, he waited until the pastor’s shape was too far away to discern. His mother was big on platitudes. “Quitters never prosper,” she said. “A stitch in time saves nine.” 39
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The boys in junior high football were so much larger than Preston. He quit two weeks into summer workouts with a broken rib. His mother demanded he continue, but Jack Stojack intervened. “Look at him, will ya?” Jack was a dried-up Irish drunk, shriveled like a happy raisin. “He’s built like a goddamn gazelle, not a footballer. It’s a rib broke now, next it’ll be his neck and when he gets himself paralyzed, how’ll we foot those bills?” “Quitters never prosper,” his mother said. Preston did opt out of football, but he remembered his mother’s call for persistence. He began to pester her about a reading two, three times a day. Instead of a salutation, he said, “When are you going to give me my future?” He invoked issues of fairness. “You’re my mother. You do it for strangers and yet not for one of your own.” “Well, they pay me, don’t they?” “Ah, they do, and so will I!” She slapped him, catching herself halfway through the motion so that the impact was not as severe as it might have been otherwise. “I’m sorry, Preston, but there’s two things at work here. One: you’re back-talking me. Two—and I’ll just come out with it–I’m afraid.” He hugged her around the waist, their two hearts bumping into one another with aggression. “But don’t call me a fortune teller, whatever you do. Sometimes it’s not a fortune I see but the opposite. Sometimes I see mighty, awful ruin.” She led him to the anteroom in the back of their house which was dimly lit except for the swath of sun that illuminated the banks of the drawn curtain. She told him to sit. She drew up a chair for herself. She told him to shut up and think of nothing but the universe in all its glory, flocks and flocks of twinkling star points. “I’m getting dizzy,” he teased. She patted his hand. “This is serious business. If you want fun and games, go and play your damn Pac-Man.” He apologized. Not another word was spoken. He saw the universe in a dream. It was one, unending black carpet bejeweled with rhinestones. He flew upon it, ebony wind rifling through his hair and bringing his skin to goose flesh. When he looked down he saw the shells of glowing planets, none of them earth. He could have stayed like this forever but 40
his mother snapped her fingers with a crisp, bat-cracking sound, and he opened his eyes. “You future is golden,” she said. “What does that mean?” “What I just said.” “That doesn’t make any sense.” She wrinkled her nose and Preston noticed for the first time that she had a long black hair growing out of the tip of it. He cursed himself for getting distracting by the errant nose whisker. He’d meant to search her eyes. They always held the truth. The eyes either confirmed what a person spoke, or they wavered and withdrew, and if they did the latter then you’d know it was lies you were getting. That’s what his mother had told Preston early on when she was explaining a few tricks of the trade. His mother stood up. She walked fast. Preston wondered over the length of her stride, the speed of it. Was it exaggerated? Why would she offer him only her back and conceal her eyes unless her eyes had a dark story to tell? Why was she being so evasive if the truth was nothing but good news? “Mother,” he screamed after her. “You’re lying, aren’t you? Something terrible’s going to happen, isn’t it? Tell me the truth. I want the truth!” One of the first things Adam learned about the bible was that “The Gospels” meant “The Good News.” The apostles were to spread the good news about Jesus, forgiveness, grace and salvation. That was a key responsibility of all Christians, including him. Adam wondered about a God that could overlook heinous acts with a simple confession and declaration. That kind of love was unfathomable. Indeed, the good news seemed too good to be true. And it haunted him that he thought this. Alas, it tortured him that he might likely be the only person on earth to contemplate such a thought. This fear and confusion slithered through Adam’s intestines, sending his gut rumbling. He stopped running and staggered over the side of the path, gasping, hands on hips. He looked up into the trees and saw a haughty crow staring back at him, its eyes unctuous and bright yellow. Preston thought he might be sick. Then he thought he needed to pee or do the other. His mind played the tricks his body was asking it to play, and he felt entirely helpless to disobey.
The Fortune Teller
He looked into the chest of a swaying husk of an evergreen tree. The space between branches formed a triangle of perfect white, and Preston imagined it as a mountain of cocaine, pure and plentiful and potent, as well as the end of things. Just then the brush on the side of the path shook. Tree limbs, too. A buck staggered out in a fury, its legs springing crookedly, chaotically, with none of the beauty Preston associated with deer. Might it be under pursuit? Cougars were known to lurk in the foothills around Issaquah and Snoqualmie, bear as well. Preston expected the buck’s trajectory to take it from one diagonal side of the dirt path to the other, but the creature was entranced by a bizarre force, bucking like a rodeo bull, eyes bulging, tongue foamy. Preston sprinted as it came after him, skipping in jagged prances. He believed the animal was about to pounce. He heard its suffocated screams, throaty and rust-coated, buzzing but a few feet behind him, the animal’s soupy mouth practically in his ear. By the time he caught up, the pastor was kneeling on the side of the path in a shaded spot. He was speaking rapidly. Preston didn’t recognize the language. The pastor’s eyes were open, bulging like the buck’s that had attacked him moments earlier. Preston wasn’t sure what to do, what to say. He stood for several minutes, watching, listening to chunky sentences of garbled language, trying to determine some kind of cadence, but finding none. As he made his way down the slope, pine needles crackled. Sunlight streamed through the breaks in between the evergreen boughs whose limbs now swayed like the robed arms of a choir. The pastor’s hands had been upraised. Without looking, he reached for Preston. “Hey,” Preston said. “What?” Preston took the hand in his. He allowed himself to be pulled, thighs to face, against the pastor. The pastor hugged Preston’s legs. “I’m sorry,” he said in English. “I just need forgiveness.” The pressure against Preston’s legs forced him to either break the pastor’s grip or kneel. He chose the latter.
“I know you don’t believe,” the pastor said, “but will you do this with me?” Preston looked over the pastor’s head, over the crest of the path. He thought he heard the buck stomping. He put his arm around the pastor and awaited the truth.
Contributors Kenneth Gurney lives in Albuquerque, NM, Kimberley Rayson is training as a Methodist USA. His poetry appears mostly on the web as Local Preacher. She lives in Cambridge, UK. he prefers to spend SASE and reading fee monies on pumpkin spice cookies for his Dianne. Deborah Reed currently resides in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her Kevin Heaton is a committed Christian who daughter, grandson, and two dogs. She is a rehas had a great deal of work published else- tired Science teacher who now works in Code where. Enforcement. Michael Lee Johnson is a poet and freelance Daniel Wilcox earned his degree in Creative writer from Itasca, Illinois. His books are all Writing from Cal State, Long Beach, taught available on Amazon. American literature, and wandered the world wide. He currently lives on the coast of CaliLen Kuntz is a Christian writer with a mis- fornia. sionary calling. Stephen Williams has been called ‘The Poet Valerie Macon: ‘I work, teach, write and live of Doom,’ ‘A Voice in the Wilderness’ and ‘A in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina and my poetry Minstrel for Love.’ He was born in Fort Belvoir, reaches beyond all borders.’ Virginia. His parents are native Texans. He has lived most of his life in California. Michael Morris is a teacher and writer living in North Texas. Jef Peeples is a poet and writing teacher currently living near Atlanta. John Pierce is currently a teacher in Central Texas. 43