I returned to my bunk, sliding my pink flip-flops across the black- speckled, white, linoleum floor and sat down to the accompaniment of the complaining bedsprings. I leaned against the wall and folded my arms, pausing mentally to process his words and formulate my response. There would have been a certain pleasure in unleashing my rabid thoughts like a crazed hound and letting them bite the old guy…hoping that they would infect him with my disillusion and disgust for the God that he apparently loved.
Still leaning, almost haughtily, against the yellowed wall, I responded, “You know something, Reverend…I don’t think you and I know each other well enough for you to broach the subject of God in the context of my life and the situation that I’m in…it just doesn’t seem right…I mean…in this regard, you don’t even know me, and it’s presumptuous of you to assume that we’re on the same page where God is concerned….” I paused again to let the words hang there like loosed dog-hair in a faltering breeze.
Thinking this was an opening, he started, “But I thought….”
I wasn’t ready for what he thought, and this was one topic that I didn’t need to discuss with someone who was nearly a stranger to me…angry at everything, I didn’t want to listen…it was still my turn…the acid thoughts that I had been brewing for the last several months still needed airing…I didn’t have any patience…so I interrupted…after looking up at the mismatched fluorescent light tubes in the ceiling, I leaned over and grabbed my ankles, trying to hold-on to myself, trying to keep my confined, yet racing mind under control; and then, with my chest pressing against my legs and my hands, white-knuckled, squeezing my ankles, I elbowed my way into his words…it was unexpected…I was embarrassed and scared of myself, but I couldn’t stop…red faced and with my pulse pounding in my temples, I nearly growled, “What if I told you that GOD had commanded me to kill that man…that mother-fucker…what would you think about that?” Staring at the black speck in the floor that was directly in front of his left shoe, I rushed on…“Or what would you think if I told you that your God is DEAD and that’s evident by how fucked-up the world is…what would you say THEN?!” I yelled… “WHAT WOULD YOU FUCKING SAY THEN?!” The words echoed, and bounced, and ripped through the air, thrashing the currents of rage and inconsideration and pretence and posturing and falsehood and all the other evil and imagined shadows and ghosts that plundered and dashed in the black silence between us. The taste of algal mold flashed in my mind as my aching jaw and lips pressed together, restraining my urgent, pulsing tongue…baby flesh coated in verdant bubbles and slime and his diaper soggy with green water that was running across the dirty pool-deck…making little rivers of thickly flowing mud that redirected themselves around beer cans and the dirty tennis-shoes of the man standing there…. “Yeah,” I growled through clamped teeth, “you thought we had talked before so I must be ok with God and all of that, right? Well…I’m not.” My raging, fiery-brown, tear-filled eyes slung themselves back up at him, daring him to respond…I whispered, “So, do you really want to talk, Reverend?”
His huge eyes were staring at me and I could see the delicate tip of his fat, pink tongue running back and forth across the edges of his top and then bottom teeth. The light glistened on his scalp through his thinning hair and I noticed again the bulge that hung over his belt. The minister had his hands resting in his lap and the middle finger and thumb of his right hand absently spun the gold ring that was on his left hand. He swallowed hard and licked the thick cotton from the corners of his mouth and looked around the room like he had forgotten where he’d put the iced-tea that he didn’t have but desperately wanted at that moment. He cleared his dry throat and hesitantly began, “But…but you’ve got to think about God…” he said unsteadily, “you’ve killed a man…and…things aren’t going to be the same…never again.” His bewildered eyes sought the remote ends of the ceiling, and then the bedpost, and then the wall behind me, and finally, reached nervously over to my own eyes. The man swallowed again, then licked the corners of his mouth again, with his eyes still timidly on mine…waiting….
“You’re right, Reverend,” I leaned forward again, “they aren’t ever going to be the same. So what?” I snapped, “We’ll all go on living. You’ll live your life and I’ll live mine. I’ll deal with whatever comes my way and you’ll deal with whatever comes your way.”
“But what about your soul?” His words stumbled as he swallowed thickly, still spinning the ring on his left hand, “What about your eternity?” he asked urgently. “Aren’t you concerned with that?” Now I was looking around the room like I’d lost something. I know I had thrown the words out there…they were still echoing in my own ears.
Exasperated, I said, “Haven’t you been listening to me?” I looked sideways, eyes wide with searching, first one way and then the other, like the words might have landed somewhere on the floor, or maybe on the bed or nightstand, and I could pick them up and throw them at him again. “Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? LISTEN! I don’t believe in your God, therefore, there’s no SOUL to consider and my ETERNITY is going to consist of rotting in the ground…you know…worm food, just like YOU!”
Again the silence became tangible in the cell. The minister sat there on his red chair, looking at me and then looking away. His eyes sought the corners of the ceiling again, as though they could provide him some sort of comfort…or maybe he was looking up there to find reassurance from his God, I don’t know…but after several long moments, when I thought he was going to excuse himself, possibly offering to return at some later date, he stood and walked the two steps over to the night-stand and picked up one of the books.
“You know anything about Cormack McCarthy?” he asked, looking sideways at me. Not waiting for a response, he continued…looking at the back of the book, “Mostly western stuff, huh? You like his work?”
“I do like his work,” I said, leaning back into the wall, trying to decompress a little, “and, no, it’s not all ‘western stuff.’ His stories are beautiful written, and violent, and real to life, yet they help me disengage from my own life for a while, that’s all.”
Turning to me again, he offered, “And become involved with what’s rotten in someone else’s life, huh?”
A little smile touched his mouth and I wondered for an instant if he had been putting on an act earlier…there was a little too much intelligence in his eye as it caught mine in that smile’s moment.
I leaned forward to rub my eyes, not wanting to start-up with him again. “Yeah, you could say that,” I answered into my hands, “I can become involved with what’s rotten in someone else’s life without actually becoming involved. It’s safer that way” I mumbled, while pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes.
Replacing the book on the night-stand, he turned to me, “What’d ya say? ‘Bout bein’ safer?”
I removed my hands from my face and said, “It’s safer that way…becoming involved in someone’s life without actually becoming involved. Stars swirled in my eyes as I turned to look at the man. The department insignia on his shirt was dancing with the stars in my brain and I had to close my eyes to answer him. “You can care about what happens and know that you don’t have to do anything about it because it’s just a story. It’s from inside someone’s imagination. Yeah, I can read about their shitty life and then put the book down and they go away. It’s that easy,” I said, almost choking, wiping my blurring, tear-filled eyes, “…it’s that safe…inside the book.”
To be continued….