Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Death's Honesty (9)

Blow could see two vehicles in Patmos Evangelical’s gravel lot when when the church came into view. One was a full-size white pickup. The other a pale sedan. He couldn’t make out the car’s color until he’d entered the lot and gotten closer. The two vehicles were parked together beside the door Rev. Kirschbaum had entered after greeting them that morning. When Blow saw that the car was not pale blue, and was darker than the one Moriarty had driven--more a sooty gray—and that it had personalized tags proclaiming a biblical passage, and that both it and the pickup were empty, he circled back and parked near the entrance, facing the road. He decided to wait about half an hour before sending another text to the number Moriarty had given him and which she might well no longer have. The cab had cooled down during the drive from town, and because his fuel gauge needle was touching just above empty he turned the engine and a/c off. He reclined his seat a couple of clicks, leaned back, laid his head against the rest, closed his eyes, and, despite the two cups he’d had of Homer Price’s not-too-awful coffee, fell almost immediately asleep.
Consciousness began returning with the tickle of sweat rivulets down his temples and the sides of his face in the hot glare of a powerful light overhead, and with an urgent sequence of sharp, percussive tappings so near it could not be ignored. He kept his eyes shut while he struggled to reconcile the intrusions with whatever it was he guessed he’d been dreaming, the substance of which already had slipped out of reach trailing insolent shadows of futility and chagrin. A voice cut through this melee of irritations, pulling him fully awake with its insistent calling of his name.
“Stone! Stone!” Blow opened his eyes to the blazing face of an unclouded mid-afternoon sun he realized had emerged from behind the shield of a giant tulip poplar across the road. “Mr. Stone...” He heard the “mister” now, coming from the left with the tapping of something hard against the window next to his ear. He turned his head, but his sun-stunned eyes could make out only a vague semblance of what appeared to be someone staring at him. He pressed the button on his door to lower the window, but nothing happened. He felt around to ensure he had the right button, and pressed it again with the same result. He was about to act on an angry impulse to lower his head with its inadequate vision so near the button console he couldn’t mistake which one was right, when he remembered the engine was off, along with the truck’s electrics. His eyesight had improved enough by the time he’d turned the ignition and engaged its battery that he now recognized the face outside his truck.
Reverend Kirschbaum,” he said, when he’d gotten the window down. His voice sounded alien, almost as scratchy as the pastor’s, whose promise of iced tea along with a window view of the parking lot, lured Blow out of his truck’s stifling heat onto the graveled frying pan. A sporadic rustle of heaven-sent breeze blessed them on the trek to the gleaming white building that welcomed “all sinners.” The pastor had changed from his bathrobe and sandals to jeans, a T-shirt, and bright red sneakers. Still wearing the Jump Jackson ball cap.
I’m supposed to meet someone here,” Blow said, checking his phone to see if he’d gotten any calls. He grimaced when he saw the time. He’d been parked nearly an hour. “I guess I dozed off. You didn’t happen to see anyone else out here before, ah--”
Nobody came up to the church, Mr. Stone. I was in the kitchen helping Joan and Loretta get lunch ready for tomorrow. We always have something to eat after the service. You’re more than welcome to join us, you know. Love to have you.” Blow nodded and mumbled thanks. He pulled a tissue from the little pack he kept in a pocket and began dabbing sweat from his face. “I ducked into the Joan’s office to check the answering machine, just now, and saw you sitting out here. You coulda cooked you sat in that truck much longer, windows rolled up like that.”
They entered through the side door, which was near the rear of the building and opened to a space about six feet behind and to the side of the altar. A set of three steps led up to the altar platform. The pastor led Blow down the side aisle past twin rows of empty pews to a vestibule, where the school lunch room aroma he’d noticed entering the building, grew stronger.
Seems a lot bigger than it looks like from the parking lot,” Blow said when he’d stepped into the nave.
I guess you don’t go to church much,” the pastor said, nodding, a wide smile showing coffee-darkened teeth behind the beard and mustache. He didn’t wait for Blow to ask what made him say that. “Most churches look bigger once you get inside. It’s the open nave, what the architects call a cathedral ceiling. Looks nice, doesn’t it?”
Blow agreed sheepishly with the assessment of his church habits, which were limited to the occasional funeral or wedding. “I guess I’m one of those sinners your sign says are welcome here.”
And so you are—welcome, that is. I wouldn’t know the state of your soul, Mr. Stone, but I’m getting a good sense from you that you’re not as bad as you might think. Hey, the girls are making fresh bean soup in the kitchen. Soaked the beans overnight. Smell’s pretty good, doesn’t it. Let’s go into Joan’s office, where we can keep an eye on your truck, and I’ll get us a couple bowls of soup. How does that sound?”
It does smell good, but I’ll pass on the soup, Reverend. I had lunch about an hour ago just before heading out here. I could use a glass of that iced tea, though. Just mentioning that out there perked me right up.”
Ah yes. I’ll grab us a pitcher and a couple glasses. I’m thirsty, too.” They turned right after entering the vestibule, and went through an open doorway into a larger meeting room where Blow saw through another open doorway a tiny kitchen. A hefty woman was busy at a table in the kitchen, and did not look up when they passed through the meeting room to a closed door at the front of the church. This door opened to the church secretary’s office, where the pastor ushered Blow to a small couch against the wall facing a small window in front of the secretary’s desk. The window gave Blow a good view of his truck and the parking lot entrance. He was so intent on watching for anyone entering he hadn’t noticed the pastor leave the office.
Blow was still staring out the window when the pastor returned with the iced tea. He set the pitcher and glasses on the secretary’s desk, filled the glasses and set one on an end table next to Blow. “I forgot to ask if you like it sweet. I don’t, but I can get you some sugar or that artificial stuff? I can never remember what it’s called, but we have both.” Blow shook his head. “Thanks, Rev. Kirschbaum. This is fine.” He took a sip, smiled, then drank deeply, rattling the ice cubes when he set his glass back on the table. When he look up, the pastor was seated behind the desk, staring at Blow, a queer expression on his face. “Something wrong?” Blow said.
After a moment the pastor’s face relaxed. “Just my name.” He paused, as Blow’s face registered puzzlement, then he said, “I meant to say something when the deputy called me ‘Kirschbaum’ this morning, but I let it go. She said you were running late, and I figured she knew me from somewhere before.”
I’m confused, Reverend. Isn’t that how you introduced yourself this morning?”
Gee, if I did, it was a slip, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty careful, and I don’t believe in that Freudian stuff.” He laughed.
Now I’m even more confused. Are you saying you’ve changed your name? That you used to be Kirschbaum?”
That is my name, but I dropped the ‘Kirschbaum’ when I came here. Just go by my first and middle names now—Christopher Curtis. Please call me Chris. You can leave the “reverend” off, too. I’m not much for formalities, as you can probly tell.”
I feel kind of embarrassed, Chris--”
Don’t! You had no way of knowing, Mr. Stone. I figured the deputy knew me from Mecklenburg, or maybe from the license application I filled out at the clerk’s office.”
Blow’s sudden anger threatened to disrupt his poise, and he knew he had to leave before his host caught on. The lawyer/client agreement with Moriarty still bound him to confidentiality, but, blood near boiling, he intended to sever that relationship as soon as he was back in his truck. He drank more of the tea, then took a long deep breath and let it out in a loud sigh.
He stood. “Chris, I’m not much for formalities, either. My first name is Joe, but my friends call me Blow. Please call me whichever you’re most comfortable with.” He looked up, grinning. “Don’t ask. It’s not what you might think, and I’ll explain it next time we have a chance to talk, but it looks like I’ve been stood up here, by my client, and I’m overdue at the office. Thanks for rescuing me. And for the life-saving tea. Oh, and for getting me into your lovely church. It’s about time someone took an interest in trying to save my soul. As MacArthur said in the Philippines, “I shall return.”
He held up a hand, palm down to keep the pastor from rising, and was out the door quicker, as his mother would have said, than you could say Jack Robinson.

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