Preacher ManbyHeathen Hemmingway©
The man in black was standing alone on a dark street corner. In front of him was an old church. He stood there looking up at the church in awe. It was an enormous and impressive thing, looming overhead in the semi-darkness. It was misting rain that night. The streetlights tried feebly to penetrate the gloom. Standing in front of the church wearing a leather jacket and black denim jeans, the man in black was a shadow among shadows. Cold drops of rain beaded up in his hair, but he didn't seem to notice. He wasn't a person of faith but he certainly appreciated beauty in its many forms. He had never seen such a grand church in person. The detail was almost enough to take his breath away. The structure stood tall and solid like a fortress, disappearing into the clouds overhead.
While he stood there looking at the towering church he experienced a brief memory from his childhood. The man was brought up dirt poor. What the old folks back home would have called 'hard poor'. His mother was a remarkable woman, one of those infinitely resilient patient souls of the old South. She always encouraged him to read, bringing home nickel and dime books from thrift stores and yard sales every chance she got. Times were hard and money was scarce, but that never stopped his mother from bringing him books to read. She knew he was a brilliant child, and his intelligence was an avenue out of poverty. Thanks to her he cultivated a love to learn and a desire for information. He remembered how she would go to the library in Tallassee once a month and buy stacks of the outdated periodicals for him to read. One day she came home with a huge box of old National Geographic books. He had taken the stack of books and nestled away in a corner and read them all day long. There was more than one night that his mother had found him asleep with one of those old books in his lap. That always filled his mother with a secret pride.
He remembered seeing a picture of an old church that reminded him of the one he was standing in front of, hidden within the pages of one of those old National Geographics.
As the man stood there he realized that it had been over twenty years once he had set foot inside of a church for any reason other than a wedding or a funeral. He glanced around him quickly and then looked back up at the church.
"Well, I suppose it's time." He whispered.
"Yeah, sure is." He replied to himself quietly. "Let's put this one behind us."
The man looked around him again then walked up the marble steps to the huge front door of the church, then stepped inside.
The church was immense and dimly lit. As he closed the door behind him, he was met with a host of smells. Oddly enough, he immediately felt himself comforted by the smells that greeted him. A strong presence of old stained wood and a hint of candle smoke, with a thin scent of heavy felt. There were two long rows of pews lined up to the right and left of him, both stretching forward for many yards. The church seemed to be as wide as it was tall. The man in black had a sudden thought, a memory. At his sister's wedding, watching his nieces run up and down between the rows of pews in their white Sunday dresses. They were carrying bouquets of magnolias, tied with silver ribbon. A sash of the same color was tied neatly around their waists, with a big silver bow at the hip. Their hair was curly and blonde, almost the same color at the ribbons. Their curls bounced as they ran down the aisles with big grins on their faces. He stood there staring blankly, not realizing he had lost himself in a memory.
That happened to the man in black quite often, you might say. His memories tortured him, drove him. Yet there were times when a sweet memory stopped him in his tracks. And maybe it was memories like that, that kept him going. That memory was from a long time ago in a small nameless church back in the old South, and here he was a thousand miles away in the heart of the big bustling city. He looked up, and instantly found himself awestruck at the myriad of beautiful stained glass windows staring down at him.
"So much art in one place. So much beauty." He said, almost breathless. "You're a long way from home, kid."
The man in black felt a deep sadness in his heart, and it probably showed on his face. He wasn't in anguish because he was there to kill the preacher man. He was sad because he was so far from home.
The pain was sharp and sudden. The man clutched his chest and winced. He inhaled, held the breath for a moment and then exhaled slowly. He was deathly pale and his skin was damp with sweat. Each time his heart would beat a bolt of pain ran through him. It felt like being stabbed with a hot ice pick, he thought to himself. His right hand instinctively fumbled for the safety of his right pocket. His hand found its target and he sighed aloud.
For years he carried rosary beads in the right pocket of his frock. He was often seen with his hand in that pocket, clutching hard on the rosary beads. Many in his flock thought it to be one of his most endearing attributes. What his followers did not know was that a year ago he replaced the beads with something, something that his hand clutched tightly as he sat motionless waiting for the pain to pass.
"Just one more time, and we'll go to the doctor." He whispered to himself. "It's from the stress, that's all. It will get better when things calm down." He said breathlessly. "If it doesn't get better I will go. I promise."
He sat there for several minutes as the pain slowly ebbed away. The stinging pain gradually subsided until it was only a dull throbbing deep in his chest. He looked around him carefully; a habit he had developed without thought in the past year, and pulled his clenched fist from the pocket. He opened his hand and stared at the outstretched palm solemnly. A pair of faded pink panties were wadded in his hand, stained with sweat. He held them to his nose and inhaled deeply. He tilted his head back with the panties still pressed to his face. His eyes were tightly closed. He took them away and shook his head, as the pain had muffled his senses.
He heard a familiar noise from somewhere behind him. A long, low creaking followed by a soft thud. He did not start at the sound. He gingerly stood upright and put the panties back into his right pocket. He gave them a brief squeeze, as if to comfort himself. He knew the sound. It was very familiar to him. He walked through a narrow door and looked out into the dim atrium. At the end of the long rows of pews stood a dark figure. A man dressed in black was standing there, looking in his direction. The man looked toward the confessional booth then back at him.
Another bolt of pain ran through him almost as if a reminder. He nodded and then gestured with his hand toward the booth.
"If you will give me a moment, Son." He gasped. "I will be right with you."
The man in black nodded.
"Of course Sir." The stranger said in a gravely voice. "No rush."
The man in black settled into the narrow wooden seat inside the confessional. It smelled strongly of oil soap and fabric. There was a thin wood panel between where he sat and the partition next to him, with another wooden panel behind the first. The panels were carved with small holes in the wood, but they were lined up opposite one another so he couldn't see straight into the partition next to him. Anonymity, he supposed, was important if you're going to pour your heart out and confess your sins. The panels separated the two sections of the confessional. One for the preacher man and one for the tormented creature who was confessing. There was a small rectangular hole in the center of the two panels at about knee height. The man in black could only imagine what the hole was for. Maybe holding hands while one prayed, he wondered?
He reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of latex gloves then quickly slid his hands into them, drawing them snug with a snap. He patted the breast pocket of his jacket then took a deep breath, held it for several seconds then exhaled slowly.
He was tired. Not just fatigue, but what his mama would have called bone tired. For several weeks he had been wrestling with the realization that the job was taking a hell of a lot more out of him than it used to, when the door of the other partition opened and a shadow stepped inside. There was a brief moment of soft light in the confessional, and then it grew dim again as the door closed.
"Miserable night outside." The preacher man said with a heavy sigh.
After several moments the man in black replied.
There was a tense pause, and then the preacher man spoke up, a little louder.
"I was nervous, the first time I set foot inside of a confessional. It's perfectly natural." He quipped in a friendly voice.
"I'm not certain if it's being nervous." The man in black answered solemnly.
He was listening, carefully. He saw no one else when he entered the church, and while in the confessional he had been listening intently for any sign of other people. The absolute lack of sound comforted him, assuring he was alone with the preacher man.
"I guess…" The man in black said. "I'm like most folks in that I don't know where to start."
"Then tell me what you can. And we'll go from there. If you were determined enough to come here in the rain, I have no doubt you have the strength to say what you came here to say. I know things are weighing down on you, otherwise you wouldn't be here." The preacher replied softly. His tone was reassuring. "Please trust me when I tell you that you will feel much better after talking about the things that burden you."
There was another pause, this one longer. Then the man in black spoke.
"I've killed people." He said. "Quite a few."
The silence lingered on for long moments, and then the man in black continued.
"I've come to realize that I'm driven by something that I don't quite understand. Part of me wants to believe that I'm setting something right in the world that is terribly wrong. And part of me feels like I'm doing it for selfish reasons. Maybe killing my father over and over again for dying like a coward and leaving me as a kid."
More silence followed, and after a few seconds the man in black spoke on.
"I'm not certain if it's because I'm a mean a bastard at heart and I just enjoy hurting people, or maybe because I enjoy hurting certain people because I can easily justify it. Either way it's the same."
"Well." The preacher man interjected softly. "It is very brave of you to admit all of this, and I see by the fact that you have given such thoughts to your actions that you are still human, despite your actions. I would suggest that you remember that when you decide the next step to take in your recovery."
"Am I really looking for a recovery?" The man in black asked.
"In one form or another, I believe so, yes." Replied the preacher man. "You seem nervous, and I can't help but believe that it's not just because you are talking to me. You didn't look too comfortable when I saw you earlier. Does this church make you nervous? I ask that because it happens quite often. When one is feeling doubtful, this old church can be fairly intimidating in its own right."
"I was hurt by the church when I was young. Badly. And I can't seem to forget how much I hate my father. He did some of the most unspeakable things. To my mama and my sisters." Answered the man in black. "He was a preacher man. He was supposed to hold us together. Instead he tore us apart. The church stood behind him, like scared sheep."
The man in black didn't realize it, but his accent had taken on an exaggerated drawl, much as it did when he was angry.
'I cah'nt seem to f'get hah much I hate m'ah father.'
The preacher man sat silently, listening. The man in black expected this to happen. In fact, he had planned on it. Several more moments of dead silence passed, and all the while the man in black was listening for any tell tale signs of another person in the church with them. There were none. He pulled an envelope from his breast pocket and put it in the rectangular hole in the wooden panel.
"I'd like to think that I can set things right. At least in some small way. Maybe restore a little balance to the world. And my life."
The preacher man picked up the envelope and opened it carefully. There was a piece of yellowish paper folded three times like a business letter. The paper was thick and glossy, and slightly tacky. He paid it no mind, assuming the man had been sweating, or maybe the rain had gotten to it.
"Odd way to make a donation, although the gesture is appreciated. However, if this is your way of making amends I should tell you to ask yourself whether or not this will truly make you feel any better. Money is a weak form of atonement." He commented.
"Donation?" The man in black asked. "Not quite. But, I suppose in a way it could be seen that way."
The preacher man unfolded the paper and saw a young girl's face staring back at him from a photograph. Almost instantly, he inhaled sharply and turned toward the man in black.
"You don't scare me!" He hissed, his consoling nature gone in an instant. Suddenly his words were sharp and full of venom. "If you think you can blackmail me…"
The man in black cut his words short.
"I wouldn't talk right now if I were you. I'm going to talk and you're going to listen. That's how it's going to work. We both know what you did to that girl, and we both know why I'm here. You've hidden behind the church for too long, and I've fought to step out of my father's shadow for too long. Tonight I'm going to kill two proverbial birds with the same stone."
"You can't prove a thing." Barked the preacher man under his breath. "How dare you come in here under my roof and try to threaten me!"
A sudden pain ran through his chest, a hard chilling jolt of agony. He gasped for breath, and found that he had an odd taste in his mouth. Coppery and acidic. His vision doubled and he sat bolt upright, trying to catch his breath. A thin, acrid odor filled his nostrils and his skin was covered in a solid sheet of goose bumps. He looked down and saw he was gripping the paper tightly, his hands and fingers tacky.
"Wha?" He squeaked, and then fell to the floor in a heap.
The man in black stood up and opened the confessional door, peering around the church cautiously. He opened the other door and knelt in front of the preacher man, picking up the paper and envelope, tucking the paper back inside and depositing the envelope back into his breast pocket. He placed two fingers against the preacher man's neck just under the crook of his jaw. After several seconds he stood up then removed the gloves, putting them in his pocket without thought. He walked to the entrance and pushed the door open a bit and stared outside. It was still storming out, raining angrily.
He stepped out into the chilly rain, and as the door slowly closed behind him he looked back up at the church and spoke quietly into the gloom.
"There is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion."