The bean soup reminded him so palpably of his mother’s—it’s aroma, thickness, bits of carrot, onion, and smokey ham, and the steaming nuanced pepperiness of each spoonful as the uncanny elixir, cooled ritually by several sustained, gentle bursts of air from his pursed lips, made contact with the back of his tongue—capturing with preternatural verisimilitude the poignancy of sitting at the kitchen table of his childhood, he wondered if he’d said it wrong, said mmmgood, mom instead of “This is wonderful, Joan” as he reached for the tumbler of chilled coconut/almond milk, eyes pausing an instant over the enormous buttered square of hot cornbread on the saucer next to his bowl.
They were in the secretary’s office, Blow on the couch as before. Joan Bismark had moved the wooden end table around and then brought the food in from the kitchen. He’d offered to help, but she gave him a tight smile, shook her head slightly and waved him to the couch. “I need to keep moving. I’m a nervous wreck,” she said in the voice that had sounded flat and impersonal on the phone but now revealed a tension that reminded him of a taut banjo string. She fussed around at her desk, mostly on a computer, all the while constantly craning her neck to look out the window at the parking lot. She took one brief call and spoke quietly to someone she seemed to know, then unplugged the phone. Blow was just finishing his meal when she turned to him and seemed to be trying to sound natural, but the tightness slackened only enough to put a fibrillating quiver in her voice.
“Looks like you were hungry.”
“This soup is delicious, Joan. Reminds me of the way my mother made it. And the cornbread is out of this world. Did you make it?”
She laughed, and Blow was surprised when it didn’t come out brittle. Her laugh was real, from the throat. No quaver. Almost a bark. But what astonished him most was the transformation in her face. The first thing he noticed was the softness, a relaxing of muscles he saw now had made her face a clenched fist. Instead of sagging, though, there was a freeing of the eyes, allowing them to glow for a moment. They were a hazel brown, he saw, and intelligent. He saw this, the change in her eyes, before he noticed the smile. It surprised him that he had not noticed the smile first, because it was glorious, full lips stretched wide, cheeks dimpled on either side, a dazzling glimpse of teeth. The smile took ten years from her face. For its three or four seconds of existence it revealed a woman free of fear, a healthy, vibrant young woman. She was beautiful. Just for that moment. Then it all collapsed, the face, reddening dangerously under its halo of fine brown curls, crumpled and turned away from him and he sat on the couch and watched, helplessly confused, as her upper body in its pretty, desert-tan jacket, bent slowly over the desk and began convulsing.
A shrill cry rose out of her then. It began as a barely audible squeal that quickly grew so piercing and strong as it crescendoed into the wail of the damned that it overwhelmed any interference the convulsions might have given it. And it went on and on, breaking only for a desperate gasp for breath before continuing, building until it became a hoarse railing, a murderous anger at a betrayal somewhere just shy of the heavens. It continued while Blow moved the table aside and got up from the couch and moved across the office to her side.
She had gotten over the worst of it when he reached her. The convulsions were not as violent, coming more sporadically, like an engine dieseling down. The sobs were dwindling, and she had begun choking them off with loud rattling sniffs. Her face was angled down and wet with tears and her eyes were puffed and closed. Blow saw a little puddle that her tears had formed and he took some tissues from a box on the desk and dabbed her face. Her hands had been braced on either side of her on the desk, as if she were trying to push herself upright. One of them now reached up and took the tissues from Blow and she raised her face toward him and murmured something that sounded like “thank you.” She blew her nose in the tissues and tossed them into a wastebasket beside the desk and then she sighed heavily and sat up against the back of her chair and opened her eyes and forced a smile.
“Oh, Mr. Stone, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry--” Her voice was tiny.
“It’s okay, Joan, it’s okay...” Blow became aware of her scent, an interesting vaguely familiar perfume of a kind he wouldn’t have expected of a church lady, which was how he’d been regarding her. The scent had a sassy nip to it, a spiciness that rode on a subtle surf of some kind of uncommon floral essence. It worked its intended magic on him with an erotic rush he reflexively stifled while understanding it would remain, lurking in the shadows of his libido. He stepped back from her chair and made as if to have a better view through the window overlooking the parking lot. It was empty. He’d parked his truck on the side next to the door he’d used to enter the church.
“No one’s out there,” he said, trying to sound reassuring, which won another timid smile and an obliging nod.
A floodgate opened then. She began talking, jabbering. Her monologue started out with tentative fragments attempting to explain something that seemed bigger than what their situation entailed. It gradually gained coherence and momentum and grew confident in volume. Soon Blow could see she was in love with Chris Curtis and she wanted to talk about him more than anything else. Blow drifted back to the couch and sat back down. He was getting the sense that even though the church secretary glanced his way now and then she was addressing her remarks to a wider audience somewhere in the distance beyond the far wall of the room and was no longer fully conscious of his presence. She seemed to be delivering an obituary.
She started with how Rev. Curtis came to Patmos Evangelical after the church’s previous pastor was caught in a child pornography sting, which Blow remembered because he’d declined to represent the preacher, claiming an unspecified conflict of interest that was in fact a visceral repugnance for the accused and the crime. Curtis, who was still using his full name, had learned of the vacancy and applied. He’d already resigned his chaplain position. Joan Bismark recited the same vague reason Curtis had given, that he’d been in some unspecified trouble at Mecklenburg and felt he could no longer do his job with the necessary freedom to represent his theological beliefs.
These beliefs, she said, brought sweeping changes to the Patmos parish, driving many of the older members away but attracting a younger generation. The membership had been growing ever since, with the average age dropping proportionately. Curtis’s predecessor had been goading the congregation with fervid, shouted sermons from the Book of Revelation that the End Times were nigh. He’d urged the forming of committees to organize social confrontation, arming parishioners with placards that warned of sin’s wages and of doom on the horizon. Curtis’s debut sermon was in such contrast to this that half the congregation walked out before he finished. He’d worn the clerical vestments that morning as a gesture of respect, to help ease the transition—for the first and final time, she said. He’d opened his sermon with the biblical passage misquoted by the professional killer “Jules” in the movie Pulp Fiction, delivered with strident righteousness by actor Samuel L. Jackson:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
Curtis followed this with a brief verse of his own, consisting of only three questions. Joan Bismark handed Blow a small flier containing Curtis’s verse:
Would the divine were meek, a power sublime disinclined to meddle to quell our crises, preferring supplication, to be needed so completely one offers up self for the touch of grace? Would reason be in play, a mutuality of sorts, open invitation: you seek us out, we take you in, succor's yours, your soul joins ours, all in kind? Would this be culling, recruiting kindred spirits from the random multitude with still the same old signs that point the way from primal to live with love or die?
While he was still studying the words, Blow felt his cellphone vibrate. He saw the caller was Homer Price. He waited until the call went to his mailbox, then excused himself and put the device to his ear. Homer’s message was brief: “This isn’t me. We’ve got a fresh body. On the island. Looks like some old hippy. Pretty bad.”
Blow kept his face blank and looked up at Joan Bismark. She was looking at her computer screen. Her hands were in her lap.
“I’m sorry, Joan, something’s come up. I have to leave for a bit but I’ll check back as soon as I can. How long will you be here?”
“Oh, I’ll be here all night, Mr. Stone. I have to make sure all the members know we won’t have the service tomorrow.” Her voice sounded better than it had a few moments before.
“Thanks for the soup. And the cornbread. It was delicious.” He looked at the flier in his hand. “Mind if I keep this?”
She smiled and moved her head side to side. “We have plenty.”
He folded it gently and put it in his shirt pocked and left.