Last Halloween

Last Halloween

 

THE SNAKE slithered across the man’s face and wound around his neck. It slipped beneath his collar where it, no doubt, explored the rest of his sickly frame.

Of course, Corey could only detect the rancid odor emanating from the man and could not enjoy the wild talent of his tattoo artist. This frail soul’s bodyweight was evident by the lack of impact it made on the weathered wood of the bench.

“Reverend,” the man said, his voice both moist and gravelly like carbon grit within the drippings from an old oil pan. “Long time.”

Corey turned his head, more out of habit than any expectation that he’d suddenly be able to see. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize your voice, friend.” He immediately regretted the use of the word ‘friend,’ realizing he’d chosen it as a means of ingratiating himself to a stranger he feared.

“We were never friends, Reverend. Brothers, maybe. Not friends.”

“You are a fellow believer?”

The man’s thick laughter devolved into body-wracking coughs that made Cory lean away with the word “tuberculosis” flashing through his mind.

“I’m a believer. Sure am. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. All of that shit. Said the prayer when I was 18, I did. Got me fire insurance that day.”

Corey felt the words ‘praise God’ on the tip of his tongue, but they tasted bitter and he held them in. While he was certainly not the judge of men’s souls, there was something more than just the man’s scent that revolted him. Something deeper and more real than the bench or the park or the blood that coursed through their veins. The spiritual essence of his strange park bench neighbor was black.

“Tell me how you received Jesus as your Lord. I always love to hear how someone’s spirit was born,” Corey said.

The man paused and his clothes shuffled as he adjusted his position on the bench. “I was sittin’ at home and this TV preacher came on. He was doin’ a show that weekend where he’d be healing people. I never had interest in that shit before, but figured I’d go. I was snortin’ coke and just had a big fight with my girl. She walked out on me. I figured I might find something special at the show. So I went down there that weekend. Didn’t even need the nose candy. Just sat there and watched this guy lift people out of wheel chairs and knock people down with some power that must have come out of his hands. The man was on fire. I felt this excitement growing, something I couldn’t control. Then he said that all I had to do was call out the name and say Jesus Christ. I’d said it before, of course. But this time, it was different. I actually saw Jesus on the stage. And he was holding out his arms to me. It was as if he was sayin’ ‘no matter what you do, I love you.’ It was the most spiritual thing I’d ever felt. And bam, I no longer needed coke. And there was a woman nearby who also had said the name. She moved in with me and we both stopped doing coke.”

Corey said, “Did you begin reading the Bible?”

“No, Reverend. What we found is that Jesus just speaks to us. He talks to us in … so many ways. In music, in other things … It’s so spiritual. He’s number one.”

“So you no longer take drugs?” Corey asked.

“We don’t do coke. We smoke a little meth now and then. She’ll score some heroin, but we just gave up the nose candy like that!”

Corey could go on asking about harmful indulgences that he was sure this man still did, but it seemed pointless. Instead he said, “I can see why you think we’re brothers. But, tell me, why did you sit down to talk to me? I don’t heal people and I encourage people to read the Bible to get God’s will for their lives. If you know who I am, you would know this.”

“Last Halloween I was toking the Holy Spirit at this groovy club downtown. You might know it. It’s the VC.”

Corey nodded. “Yes, it’s a ministry of the Vineyard.”

“Right on. Right on.” the man paused for a phlegmy cough. “Well, there was this real mellow vibe going through the joint and I saw a vision of all these angels, beautiful women with long hair flowing and their robes were-”

“Maybe you could skip to the part that involves me. I don’t need to know the details of this … vision.”

“That’s cool. That’s cool.” He hacked up something and spat it to the ground. “I saw that an awakening is coming. Something so fresh and awesome is coming. And when I saw you, sittin’ here, blind, alone … I wanted you to know that there’s something for you, too, Reverend.”

“Is Trevor still healing the blind?”

“Reverend Harmon still has the gift. In fact, by the power of the spirit, he kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach and healed her child’s autism. Just last week.”

“I’m afraid my blindness is beyond his gift. See, if God has given me blindness, then it serves His loving purpose in my life. I hear you speak of some mystical faith that doesn’t result in any meaningful change in your life and is only a means to improve your enjoyment of this world. Unfortunately, that’s not the same message that the Bible tells.”

“You don’t even know, bro. I’ve changed. I declare the Name now. I admit that He’s God!”

“So does Satan.”

“Whatever, man. I support Israel! Satan doesn’t do that.”

“No, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I hear people talk about supporting the political nation of Israel and how that will result in God’s blessing to America and yet, I see in the Bible that God is not concerned with nations or politics. He is not impressed by nations that claim Him as God and offer sacrifices in religious observance. He looks to the hearts of people. And what does He see there? He sees people who do whatever they want, whenever they want. He sees people who worship their own comfort and physical condition. He sees people who worship Him on their terms instead of being broken before Him in humility and true worship. Do you think God is impressed that a nation of sinful, rebellious people give political support to another nation of sinful, rebellious people? Is that glorifying Him?”

“The Bible says those who bless Jacob will be blessed.”

“Israel, the true Israel is the body of Christ, the Kingdom made up of the poor in spirit and those who mourn for their sinfulness and are pure in heart because of the cleansing of Jesus. And it does, indeed go well for the world when it blesses Christians. And it goes bad for those who persecute Christians. They are the true Israel. But more important to being blessed, is to receive the birthright and the blessing from God. To do that, you need to leave all your sinfulness on the alter. You need to repent of your rebellious life that follows your appetite for pleasure.”

Corey realized midway that his park bench guest was gone. The stench ebbed and was soon gone on the breeze, wafted away as something with as little substance of the outward rites of the Alls Hallowed Eve.

 

 

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Closing Time

Closing Time

Photo by Jadon Barnes

Dina tended bar and smoked weed. These two life-defining activities didn’t generally happen at the same time. They did, however, often occur in close proximity to one another. Her third pursuit was men, though she wouldn’t put it in such terms. Not even on Facebook would she do more than state ‘in a relationship.’ There her interest was ‘world peace.’

Her world, however, was markedly devoid of peace, despite the steady stream of dope she consumed. Inside her thin frame beat a heart that longed for something greater than all the world seemed to offer her. In fact, even what the world didn’t offer her felt as cheap as a plastic kazoo in a five-year-old’s party swag bag.

Bellied up to the bar were various men of power. The small ‘p’ in that word is certainly intentional and meaningful. To her right sat Vincent DeLuca, a man the size of a double-door refrigerator. Instead of a water/ice dispenser, he seemed to have a booze on ice intake nozzle. Elbows on the polished mahogany, it was hard for anyone to sit near him. Those who knew him, did not. Those who knew only his reputation did. His reputation was summed up in the word billionaire. Like others in the small ‘p’ world, a temporary and fickle currency defined his ‘net worth.’

How sad. Dina thought. And yet, she felt that same sadness. For her, though, it boiled down to the fact that joy was an illusion. Not just that, but it was an illusion of an illusion, the mere shadow of all the smoke and mirrors. It appeared like the promise of a jackpot at a casino where slumped old carcasses dumped all their money despite the common knowledge that their chances of winning were next to nil.

Sitting at the bar, these men consumed copious amounts of liquor and leered at the female wait staff, suggesting at times that their money and influence should make them desirable.

Dina knew better. She’d seen what happened when a waitress or bartender hooked up with one of these men. One time she heard that he passed out on top of her. Another vomited and expected her to clean it up. The common theme for these men was an expectation that the world should serve their whims. When it didn’t, or even when it did, they found their way back to suck on the end of a bottle.

In the center spot sat William ‘Bill’ Thomas. He ran his own business, but was merely a ‘millionaire.’ Unlike the other lechers, he wore a more classy veneer. But a few drinks in and a bad round of golf later, and even the most polished finish will show signs of wear.

Dina witnessed the time his wife, who was three years younger than him, and a perfect, pert compliment to his symmetrical, dark-haired looks. They both spent enough time in the gym to keep their physiques rock-solid. What wasn’t given so much attention and certainly wasn’t rock-solid was their marriage. Two kids in, they fought over who would have to pick them up from day-care, who would take care of them when they were sick, who forgot to pay the nanny, how much attention Bill’s assistant paid to him, or how much time she spent with the tennis coach at the club.

Neither would file for divorce because their business was selling wedding coordinating, catering, dresses and tuxedos. They were the one-stop shop. They’d started it together. They were the perfect package. If they fell apart, so did the dream.

Seeing the commercialism of weddings and witnessing the bridezillas that stormed through the club every Spring, Summer and Fall (and sometimes Winter), she felt that it, too, was another delusion, a chimera.

Living with men, however, left her just as empty. She wondered why she would expect something even remotely similar to what the wedding dream promised given what she could plainly see. Her desire for fidelity, comfort, protection and love that didn’t depend on some exchange of IOUs was only making her feel more desperate and alone. She wondered if anyone could truly erase that irrational hope from their heart.

She suspected it couldn’t be removed. It was like the appendix, a part that seemed pointless, but served some purpose that eluded the medical community. And sometimes only seemed to exist to explode and kill someone from the inside.

Her boyfriend, on the other hand, seemed happy enough to live with her, doing nice things to get something from her, later. How could he be so content while she remained miserable?

She gave the men warning that they’d be closing in ten minutes. Vince flung some wads of cash onto the bar as his glassy eyes undressed her. The tip was excessive, but not out of the goodness of his heart. He expected to get something back. Maybe another time before he consumed so much depressant. He waved to her and called her by a sexist, demeaning term of endearment that had never been acceptable by moral society.

Bill brooded over his beer, which was nearing the bottom of the tall class, the head smearing the edges of the tumbler. Normally, his hair never fell from its perfectly cut and combed neatness. Tonight, two strands hung free over his forehead giving him an entirely disheveled appearance.

At the end of the bar sat a stranger who had been knocking back shots of whiskey like one might swallow down water. His eyes remained clear and his smile stretched out pleasantly. Black was the style for most of these men because it slimmed them. But the new patron wore brilliant white pants and a rich, white sports coat with ivory buttons on the cuff. His shirt was a white and orange Hawaiian pattern with a well-starched collar.

He tossed back another two ounces of amber fluid and said, “Hit me with another, Dina!”

She carried the bottle over and studied him closely for obvious signs of intoxication. “Are you driving?”

“Always,” he said, chuckling. “Driving people to achieve their best. Driving the world to enjoy all it can with the limited time left on this blue orb.”

Dina decided not to pour the next shot. “Do you have someone to take you home? Because I can call a cab.” She even reached for the phone at the bar.

Instantly, his ice-cold hand clamped onto her wrist and his face was inches from hers. “I neither need a cab or any assistance from you. But you need something from me.”

Dina tried to pull away, but her reflexes were slow and her mind felt foggy.

“You wonder if you can be free from the desire for marriage, security and the good things of this life. But you don’t embrace yourself. Until you embrace yourself, you will always be trying to live in two worlds, one which is simply shut to you.”

Bill looked over at the two, but didn’t move to help. He dropped a tip and left the bar.

“Go home and use your power over your boyfriend. Make him serve you, make him earn whatever you give out. You’ll begin to see how good it feels, the power it gives.”

There was the word: power. The thing she’d been noticing about the men who drank their money away.

Pulling her hand from the man’s grasp, she turned to collect the glasses. “I think there’s something else.”

When she turned back, the man was gone, no tip.

Blessing or Cursing

by Mikael Kristensen

by Mikael Kristensen

Corey was blinder than a bat, of that there was no argument. He wasn’t born that way. For forty years he’d enjoyed perfect 20/20 vision. His piercing black eyes were his most remarkable tools of his trade. With a fierce stare, he would deliver resounding points to conclude his Sunday message, leaving a lasting impression upon everyone in attendance, with possible exception to those in the last few rows.

Then, at the age of 40, his lovely wife Esther contracted a rapid case of breast cancer, which claimed her life in a matter of months. With her passing, his eyes simply died and the world turned black.

Neither doctor nor specialist could uncover the cause. Most suspected this to be a case of psychological “blindness.” No amount of time on a therapist’s couch, however, could expose a mental block that might be removed to restore his vision. Likewise, the thick cataracts that formed over his ebony orbs could not be attributed to a psychiatric condition.

With each week the gathered faithful dwindled to a small band of misfits. Most followed after a promising pupil of his who struck out on his own, forming a much different “ministry.”

Corey sunk to his lowest by the anniversary of Esther’s passing. He no longer heard the voice of God speak from his time reading Scripture. His prayers felt flat and seemed to bounce off a cold, hard sky.

As he slumped on the soft ground in front of Esther’s tombstone, he heard some leaves rustle and a furry face with a wet nose bump into his cheek.

A warm tongue licked him.

The old golden retriever had no collar and no one ever responded to Corey’s notice in the paper about the dog. He named him Scooter because he could hear the dog walk, dragging his rear paws across the floor in a long stretch. It sounded like he was scooting across the floor.

The name fit. As did the dog, which seemed to be trained to lead a blind man.

It was then, during that unseasonably warm autumn, Corey fell down beside his bed and unloaded all the pain and anger he was nurturing into a bitter brew. He gave God ‘what for,’ so to speak. With a sprawling list of well-remembered injustices, Corey presented his sad case before his Savior.

Blessing or cursing. 

It was on that threadbare floor in the upper room of the aged parsonage of a dying church that Corey heaped a shovelful of dirt on the old, dead corpse of his old man. The new Corey, the one to whom God’s spirit gave birth so long ago, had been like a twin in utero, struggling for supremacy and life with the dead sibling. And while there was no contest of which was alive, the living twin couldn’t grow until it divested itself of the dead half.

Suddenly, Corey could see. Not with his piercing black eyes. No, those remained as dark as the heart of all those who cling to the earth, rejecting God’s love. But he could see God’s tender love in all the hurt through which he’d traveled, dark valleys, filled with deathly shadows. He could see his Father preparing the cups filled with bitterness, but with loving care, as a mother would administer some noxious medicine that must be swallowed to cure a vile disease.

Corey loved Esther. But he loved her too much.

The eyes that drilled his messages into parishioners had become more important than the heart that longed to worship God.

Those who regarded him highly didn’t hold God in as high esteem. He’d supplanted his Lord with his personality and ego.

For his own wellbeing, God needed to bring him to the lowest point. And now he waited, mindful that Joseph spent years upon years in a dungeon, falsely accused, having been sold as a slave by his brothers, before rising to the second highest position in Egypt and saving couples lives during the famine. Moses fled Egypt to live humbly as a shepherd for 40 years in the wilderness before being called back to serve God in the great Exodus.

Corey sat on the park bench, scratching Scooter behind the ears and rubbing his head, praying silently to be used in whatever way God would see fit.

Just then, a horrid smell wafted past his face and hung around in the air as someone sat down beside him. If a person’s smell could indicate the state of their soul, this man resided in the deepest pits of damnation.