On Saturdays I work my on-campus job in the Admissions department. My boss Tony Ringmaster, the Director of Enrollment, has a jawline that looks like it could take a bite out of a King James. He always wears a suit, even on the weekends. My job is this: I sit at his desk in his office and make phone calls. He leaves a stack of printouts for me on his desk, each one a lead for a different prospective student. I call the number on the paper and follow a script. My first call is to Perfecto Fernandez Junior, a tenth-grader who, according to his file, seems like a good fit for the Doubter Program. I ring him up.
“Good evening. My name is,” I read, verbatim, “Abe and I’m an enrollment counselor at Beyond Belief International Christian University. How are you this evening?”
“Who the fuck’re you?”
“I understand you’ve been experiencing some difficulty in your personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Can you tell me about your salvation?”
“Seriously, who the fuck is this? Is this Manny? Did Manny put you up to this? This is fucking hilarious, man.”
“I hear you, I really do. You know, I’m actually a Doubter myself, a student in our celebrated Doubter Program.”
He yells to someone in another room, “Hey Manny! Did you do this? I got this dude calling, asking me about my Lord and Savior or some bullshit.”
“Don’t you agree it sounds fun to earn your bachelors degree or associates degree or other certificate in an enriching spiritual environment designed to replace your feelings of doubt with the knowledge that your Creator made you this way on purpose?”
He hangs up.
There’s a notes section at the bottom of the prospect sheet. I write: Do not call. I stare at it for a while, then I erase it and write Perfecto is a rising star and would be a great fit and file it in the VIP inbox for prospective students the Dean should call personally.
Tony’s office looks like someone hollowed-out the chest cavity of the Brawny Paper Towel Man and booked it as a hunting lodge. There’s a bolt-action rifle on the wall. It’s late. There’s no one else around. I look at the stack of printouts on the desk, then back to the rifle, and decide to take it down. I rack the bolt and shoulder it. I get paid five bucks an hour for this job. It would’ve been eight bucks if I’d elected to take Beyond Bucks university scrip. I rest the muzzle on the stack and think about how it would feel to put a bullet through all that paper. I whisper pow and squeeze the trigger, but it turns out the magazine’s not empty. I’m blasted back into Tony’s gator-leather desk chair. My ears are ringing. There’s a smoking hole through all four inches of paper, the desk, and the roll-pad on the floor. I’m fishing the bullet out of the carpet when Security Dave dashes in and tazes me. I’m lucky it wasn’t a professor, most of them are armed. When I wake up, I see they’ve called in Tony to assess the damage. He’s wearing a suit and munching on a microwave burrito. He looks at the hole in his desk that I just gangland-assassinated, then smiles.
“Bet that felt pretty good, didn’t it, boss?” He whacks me on the back with his giant hand. “Go home, champ. We’ll see you next week.”
I want out of this aftershave shitthole so bad, but I really need the cash.
“If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Ringmaster, mind if I finish out my shift?”
He pokes a finger through the hole in the prospect sheets.
“Well, you didn’t hit any of the contact info, so what the hey. Try not to kill the love seat.”
Tony and Security Dave clear out, and it’s just me again. I go back to making my calls. I’m half an inch down the stack when I reach a contact sheet with no name, no address, and no phone number. I’m about to toss it in the bin when I see there’s a tiny comment in the notes box:
That’s it. Just March and 23 and a little d. There’s no r. I hold it up close to my nose to get a good look. It’s cursive, but it’s not handwritten. It’s not printer ink, either. I can’t tell what it is. Tony has a magnifying glass where he ties fly fishing lures. I hold it up to the paper. It’s made of fibers. Little patches of beet-red fibers are entangled with the regular white fibers of the paper, forming a perfectly-legible March 23d in lovely crimson calligraphy. It’s not a watermark. I can see it fine even without a backlight. I check the other papers left in the stack to see if they have one, too. Nothing. I check all the papers I’ve completed, even Perfecto’s that I put in the VIP box as a prank. Nothing. I’m thinking it must have come out of the ream that way, so I go down the hall to the copy room where Tony’s weekday staff keeps all the paper. I start by reading the labels of the unopened reams. Executive Linen, Crestfallen Dove, Eames Creek. Nothing even close to March 23d. The only reams that are already open are in the copier, so I pull out the trays. It takes me half an hour, but I look at every last goddamn sheet. Still nothing. I go back to Tony’s office and look at it again under the magnifying glass. There’s no way anybody did this by hand, the letterwork is too intricate. The surface of the paper is perfectly smooth. If somebody did it by hand it would be wrinkled or torn. This thing is immaculate. I put it in a manila file folder and take it back with me to the bunkhouse, tucked under my arm like a sacred text.
The Chastity Director, Mr. Rodfrey, is in his office reading a worn-out teen bible with a Sergeant Slaughter sticker flexing on the cover. His office is a former janitor’s closet in an old high school that’s leased by the state to Beyond Belief International Christian University. We’re considered international because our founder immigrated from Canada at age nine. Mr. Rodfrey holds out a bowl of Werther’s and invites me to sit. He tells me to call him Rod from now on, just Rod. He unwraps a candy and rolls it around his tongue while he speaks.
“So, Abe, I’ve been reviewing your Sexcellence stats with the other directors, and, I have to just come right out and say it: we’re pumped. You’ve set a school record for minimal sexual activity and sexual ideation behaviors. Your masturbation avoidance, just for one example, is off the charts.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I think about you every time I don’t masturbate.”
“Oh, Abe,” he crunches his candy, “that’s why we love you.” He slaps a thin stack of paper with the back of his hand. “I mean, look at these surveys! Do I use a washrag when cleaning my genitals? E: Always. Do I ensure my palms and fingers remain fully-covered by said washrag? E: Always. Do I keep my eyes fixed on the waterproof anti-arousal stimuli provided in each shower stall during said washing of said genitals? E: Always. Abe, you might be the least sexually-active person ever to attend this school.”
Rod used to be married. His wife left after she caught him getting fondled by the realtor. He claims a revival preacher cast a homosexual demon named Carlos the Defiler out of him and now he’s cured. He got hired here to foist his views on students who, for reasons that are often too heart-breaking to comprehend, sign themselves up for the Dysorientation Program. His desk is so small I can’t tell which end is the front.
“Listen, Abe. We can’t just hide achievements like this under a bushel. No! Ha-ha. Other students need to hear about how you’re not doing it. I was thinking we start small, say, how do you feel about leading the Fellatory Accountability Group in a few weeks?”
“Fantastic,” I lie.
“Now, I know it might feel a bit awkward for you, waltzing into that meeting with all those Dysoriented students, and you being in here as a Doubter and all, but I just think that those folks need a good strong role model for Radical Christian Abstinence, don’t you?”
Those miserable kids don’t need a role model, but I’ll consent to anything that graduates me from this godforsaken hole on time. I pat my hands on my armrests and thank him for the pep talk. He holds out the bowl of Werther’s and gives me a minimal-contact hug. He smells like old strawberries.
“And don’t let that little bunkmate of yours lead you astray!” he calls to me as I leave.
On the top floor of the school there’s a utility access that opens onto the roof. I clamber up some lockers and pull myself through the hatch. MacKenzie is up here already and bums me a cigarette.
“Hey, Mack,” I say as she lights mine with hers.
Mack’s enrolled in the Dysoriented Program. When she was seventeen and in a fit of rage, Mack smashed her family’s minivan through a bay window, obliterating her mother’s prized Tiffany lamp. In the ensuing fracas, Mack blurted out she’s a lesbian. Her mother stopped speaking to her, and her father said he would only pay her college tuition if she attended Beyond Belief instead of the state university.
I tell Mack that Rod, uggh, Mr. Rodfrey is going to make me a show-pony for the Dysoriented Program thanks to my record-breaking nonexistent sex life.
“Why do you keep giving this place what it wants?” she asks.
We stand there and smoke a while in silence. She seems glum. I find out why when she pulls a wadded-up piece of paper out of her sweater pocket. It’s a letter from her dad:
My dear sweet Mackie, I’m sorry to report that your Mother and I have decided to take separate journeys in the Lord. She’s leaving me what’s left of the minivan, but is taking the house and the remaining Tiffany’s. Since I can’t refinance the mortgage if my name’s not on the lien, I will be unable to keep paying for your college tuition. Please know that your father will love you forever. — Daddy
“The only reason I’m here was for that tuition.”
She ashes her cigarette.
“Maybe if you and I fucked, my Mom would take me back,” she says.
She wads up the letter again.
“Better do it quick,” I say, “I only fuck college girls.”
She slugs me in the shoulder. We burn the letter together and flip birds at the ashes as they sail off in the wind.
Mack’s a third-timer. She’s been expelled twice from Beyond Belief before, once for pleasuring herself in the baptistry, and again for pasting stills from Buns, Balls, Butts, Nuts, Backs n’ Sacks: Volume III into the chapel service PowerPoint. The slide animations were a master stroke. From what we can tell, there aren’t any sins that can keep you from getting re-admitted here except failure to pay. They’d enroll Satan himself as long as the check doesn’t bounce, which is in the realm of possibility once you see what they charge for tuition.
The next morning, Mack dangles upside down from the top bunk and mists my face with her hair spritzer. She says we’ve got to haul ass or we’re going to miss breakfast. Mack’s my bunkmate. All the students here are boarded in bunk houses in the back lot. With so many enrolled in the Dysoriented Program, everyone’s assigned an opposite-sex bunkmate in an effort to curb unstructured same-sex social encounters. It’s about as effective as it sounds.
After breakfast the whole campus shuts down for the mandatory daily chapel service. We barely make it on time. Chapel is always a real drag, especially for the Doubters like me. You sit there wordlessly staring at the backs of hundreds of heads while someone yaps from the pulpit. The only way to fly is to make a game of it. First one to laugh loses. Today I pull out my best material. I scribble “Under the Sheets” after song titles in the hymnal. I do “Deeper and Deeper” and “How Firm a Foundation,” but Mack doesn’t bite. When I do “Jesus Never Fails” and she’s still just sitting there, stone cold, listening — actually listening — to the sermon, I know something’s wrong.
Long after midnight, the bunkhouse is quiet except for Creighton, one of the Hypomasculine Program kids, snoring in the bunk next to mine. His face is pancaked on a Teddy Ruxpin comfort pillow that he’s had since childhood. It’s stained the color of unflushed toilet water. There’s a skin tag nesting in his underarm hairs that looks like a lump of half-cooked hamburger. Unable to decide which is worse, the pillow or the meat, I can’t sleep. I’m staring at the bed springs above me when Mack drops down from the top bunk and lands silently in her socks. Before I understand what’s happening, she slips into my bed and puts her hand between my legs. She presses her lips to mine. It feels like I’m being frenched by my sister. I try to push her off me, but I don’t want to hurt her or wake up the other students. She wimpers, “Please, Lord, let this work, even just once.” She’s crying. Her tears roll into my mouth. I stop pushing her and gently wrap my arms around her instead. She takes her hands off me and sobs quietly into my neck:
“Why won’t He fix me?”
Mack avoids me for a while. I spot her eating Lucky Charms in the cafeteria at odd hours when the hot tray line is walled up and the students are gone. She uses inconvenient hallways where she won’t bump into me. When we climb in and out of our bunks we use different sides. We still sit next to each other in chapel because we’re assigned seats next to our bunkmates, but she doesn’t look at me and I try not to look at her. I feel bad. I catch myself thinking why can’t she just go back to normal, but what’s normal, anyway? There’s no normal, there’s only what you forgive, what you love. I miss my friend, the Mack that methodically burned dick-pics into all the classroom projectors, the Mack that painted big blue eyes on her boobs and ran around in a giant novelty sombrero scaring the freshmen. It comes as a great relief when, after weeks of separation, she breaks radio silence. We’re in chapel. She discretely shoves a hymnal into my lap turned to hymn number 37, “Jesus is Coming Again…Under the Sheets.”
“Welcome back,” I whisper.
The main office pages me to come down. My father and my kid sister Darla are waiting there for me, making an unannounced visit. I say hello and my father says empty my bookbag. I dump the contents onto the coffee table in the waiting area. My dad likes to spring these surprise inspections. There’s no pattern to it. Maybe he heard a kid backtalking on TV, or saw someone eat without praying first at a Melvin’s Buffet. Whatever happens he shows up hot and convinced that something sinful is going on. He hands Darla a clipboard and pen and starts itemizing the stuff I dumped.
“Waiting for God, one copy. Medicated lip balm, one ounce. Pencils, five, three unsharpened. Compact disc player, containing…Miles Davis B-word Brew? Don’t bother writing that down, this is going straight into the trash. A condom wrapper?!”
“That’s from a lollipop,” I protest, “It’s see-through plastic.”
“What’s a condom wrapper?” Darla asks.
“How am I supposed to trust you?,” he continues, “For all I know everything is see-through these days. See-through bras, exhibition showers. You’re probably wearing briefs right now with a little see-through window in front for your privates like a space helmet. Lower your trousers.”
“Get your fucking hands off me.”
His eyes crack open, red-rimmed. Darla is jumping up and down on the clipboard in her little sneakers singing Get your fucking hands off, hands off, hands off.
“Darla that’s enough! Don’t you see what you would be doing to her if I let you stay at home, if I let you go to that state school overrun with dope-smoking sexpots rejecting organized religion? I can’t have you around her, not while she’s at such an impressionable age. Your mother didn’t raise you to be this way.”
“My mother didn’t raise me because she died before she had the chance.”
I smash my empty bookbag into his rat-like face and storm off. I turn the corner near the main hall and almost knock over Mr. Rodfrey, or Rod, fuck, whatever.
“Ready for the accountability group, Abe?”
Shit. I forgot I agreed to this. He leads me down the hall and we step into one of the Masculine Studies labs. The lights are half-dimmed and the tables have been pushed aside. Everyone is seated around an open circle of chairs. I’m still breathing fast and my chest is thumping.
“Now Abe’s a modest guy,” Rod says, “but I invited him here to share his Sexpertise with us tonight. Ya’ll should know that Abe here has achieved the best Sexcellence score in our school’s history. How ‘bout a little round of applause for Abe?”
Rod golf claps and a few students copy him. Most just scratch their hair or run their fingers along their outseams. A broad-shouldered kid with a coif of blond surfer hair cups his hands around his mouth and hoots. He looks like a moose who learned how to wear Timberlands and manspread.
“I don’t know about ya’ll,” Rod says, “But I’m ready for a tip. Tell us, Abe, how can we avoid sexual experiences as well as you have?”
“How about role play?” the manspreading moose suggests.
“I love it!” says Rod.
“How about,” the manspreader says, “you, Mr. Rodfrey, be the Good Christian Boy and I be the Secular Kid come to tempt you with my worldly ways.”
Rod jiggles in his seat and rubs his hands together, “Ooh, c’mon, let’s see it.”
The manspreader slings a backpack over one shoulder and struts over toward Rod. He says, fully in-character, “Hey kid, check this out,” and reaches into his backpack. He pulls out a large-print-edition romance novel, Hung Jury: A Matlock Jr. Story, an honest-to-God bodice-ripper the size of a road atlas. Rod is too scandalized to speak. The manspreader says, “Too hot? I’ll cool you down,” then looks at me and says, “Hit the lights.” The whole room looks at me. So does Mr. Rodfrey. I obey the manspreader without thinking. The room goes dark. The manspreader clicks a remote and suddenly the room is full of disco lights and dance music. He whips his shirt and pants off with one grand motion and now he’s bare-assed except for the boots and a fluorescent banana hammock, whirling his gleaming cock in the blacklights like a Picasso light drawing. Half the students run out screaming. One vomits into a trash can. The others are in some kind of transient vegetative state. I’m caught between all three emotions and can’t decide which to act on. Rod is on the verge of passing out. He buries his face in his lap and screams, “NO, CARLOS, NO! GET THEE AWAY FROM ME, DEMON!” The demon talk freaks the manspreader, so he throws some pants on and escapes shirtless. The other students flee and now it’s just me and Rod. He’s barely able to breathe. I’ve never seem him this disarmed before. He’s genuinely hurting. Overwhelmed with pity, I turn off the strip club ambience and pull up a chair. He sucks some tears out of his mustache. I put my hand on his shoulder and ask if he’s alright. He thrusts both his hands into my chest and I tumble over the back of my chair.
“Get your filthy hands off me, you sinful bastard! I know this was you and your queer little friend!”
Mack is waiting for me outside the bunkhouse. She’s carving a gingerbread man in the surface of an orange with a pocket knife. She pries him loose and he pops out with a little pith penis. As I walk up to her she makes him do a little dance in my face.
“Knock it off, Mack.”
I slap the little orange man out of her hands and he disappears in the grass. She’s shocked and pointed.
“Whoa, Abe, chill. What happened?”
“You crushed him, that’s what happened. It wasn’t funny.”
“I made him honest.”
“You broke him. Like shattering a plate on the floor or something. It was cruel.“
She stays there, outside, holding her orange. I kick the bunkhouse door open and go to bed.
March twenty-third is the anniversary of my mother’s death. I want to say, “She was a saint,” but that wouldn’t do her justice. All the ladies at our church regarded her as a second mother — or their only mother, for a few. A steady train of casserole dishes kept our kitchen counter warm, brought by women who would drop by our house any given day of the week hungry for advice. The doorbell would ring, and my mother would point down the hall and tell me to go play with my sister. I’d press my ear to the AC vent in the floor. The ductwork carried voices easily. Little Darla would pull my hair. “Quit it, Sissy,” I’d whisper. The whole town’s drama quietly paraded through our house. Kendra Kenworth’s husband shot his balls off stuffing a pistol in his waistband, both her chances at motherhood blasted out the bottom of his cargo shorts. Nancy Freeman had the shits and couldn’t get around town without a comprehensive set of exit strategies. Faye Boggs was pregnant with her lover’s baby and wanted an abortion. Faye seemed to need permission and my mother granted it. “Darling,” my mother said, “you’ve got to take care of yourself first or you won’t be able to take care of anybody else.” When my father found out about Faye he was furious.
So was Faye’s lover.
Folks that don’t grow up churchy probably don’t understand the logistics of evangelical communion. The Lord’s Supper is a rare and solemn occurrence, sometimes held only once a year, on Easter. There isn’t a shared cup down front. Evangelicals are afraid of germs and body movement, among other terrors. Communion is served family-style: silver trays of tiny plastic cups and communion wafers are passed from person to person along the pews. The cups hold grape juice, not wine, for obvious reasons, even though only the grownups take communion. There’s no sacred ceremony for the juice behind the scenes. Someone in the church kitchen simply unscrews a cap and pours shots of from concentrate Grape™ liquid. On Easter Sunday there are lots of unfamiliar faces, folks who attend only on the high holy days. No one noticed, or even cared to ask, why Faye Boggs’ jilted lover was helping prepare the communion cups. The most critical thing to understand about evangelical communion is that, once everyone has been served their sacraments, the whole congregation drinks their juice at the same exact moment. “This is My blood,” the preacher quoted from the pulpit, “which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of Me.” Hundreds of slurps rose and faded, followed by a widespread disquiet. The taste was off.
The next day my mother was in the kitchen spreading peanut butter over slices of bread when the doorbell rang. I was on my knees gathering up bits of a toy spaceship that I’d dropped, scattering little pieces between her feet. I carefully picked up each silver piece, brushing against her like a house cat. She stepped over me, clutching her stomach, and regained her balance as she answered the door. It was Nancy Freeman holding a nine-by-twelve baked macaroni with floral print oven mitts.
“Oh, Sweetie,” my mother sounding delighted, “you didn’t have to do that. Come on in.”
“I don’t want to impose,” Nancy said through a grimace.
“Don’t be silly, get in here.”
My mother glanced at me over her shoulder. I understood it was time to disappear. Nancy had barely entered the house when she suddenly whipped off her oven mitts, dumped the macaroni in my mother’s arms, then bolted with purpose down the hall to our bathroom. Even without my ear pressed to the air conditioning vent, a violent sound thundered from the bathroom, a cacophony that seemed impossible to have come from a human anus, yet there it was, a scatalogical miracle as painful to hear as it must have been to produce. Suddenly another sound rose up, the sound of oven-safe glass shattering. In the kitchen a spill of macaroni spread itself on the bare floor, steaming and aromatic. Next to it lay my mother, a gush of blood fanning out from her mouth like a red cloud.
“Oh Lord, it’s glowing in the dark!” exclaimed Nancy from the bathroom.
The toilet flushed, the sink ran, and Nancy reappeared. She saw my mother and shrieked, then vomited a little, bright red like she’d been eating a candy apple.
The last time I saw my mother alive she was being lifted into the back of an ambulance. Neighbors clutched their elbows in their driveways while crickets sang from their lawns. The emergency technicians slammed the rear doors of the ambulance and signaled to the driver. I tried as hard as I could to glimpse my mother’s face through the twin rear windows of the ambulance as it sped away, standing barefoot in the road at dusk, squinting at the distant glowing windows that shone back at me like an animal’s eyes in firelight.
“You’re squeezing my hand, Abe,” Darla said to me.
We sat down together on the porch and waited for my father to come home. He had been away that weekend on a business trip. A doctor came to see the three of us in a hospital waiting room the next day, saying something quietly to my father about yellow phosphorous, rat poison. My father told me to take Darla outside and play. On a grassy hill next to the hospital I taught her how to roll like a log. We rolled down the hill together, over and over. I would hold her hand as we climbed the hill, rolled down it again, climbing and rolling, climbing and rolling, until there was no room for any more memories of that day except the sheen of Darla’s tiny palms, the coolness of Piedmont soil.
By the following Sunday, most of the adult congregation were dead, including Faye Boggs. “It weren’t Faye’s idea,” her lover said to the judge, confessing, “but I still hate her for it. It was that nasty woman who told Faye and all them casserole ladies that they was alright with the Lord, no matter what evil they done.”
A few nights after the incident with Mr. Rodfrey, I’m lying awake, caught again between Teddy Ruxpin and the hamburger, when a black hood is drawn over my head. I’m carried out of the bunkhouse screaming, cuffed, tossed in the back of a van, and driven somewhere far from the school. The van stops. A thumb-shaped man in a tactical vest pulls off my hood. We’re at a derelict country church. Four men burst out of it, greasy fingers from whatever unseen hand sprouted the thumb-shaped man in the vest. They pluck me out of the van. I drive my heel into the nearest pair of testicles. Their owner knees me in a kidney. I’m heaved through the foyer. The pulpit at the far end of the sanctuary is bare save for an altar with a kneepad running its length. Gallon jugs of Great Value Purified Water sit on one end of it. The men dump me on it and loosen my gag. I hear a knife flick open. I beg to know what the hell they’re doing. They say stop resisting. A rough blade splits my handcuffs. They pin down my arms and legs, then quiet as someone else enters the sanctuary. I hear his boots scrape the floor.
“Are we ready?” he asks.
“Yes, Pastor,” one of the men replies.
The pastor straddles the altar. He moves like steel rods are shot through his sleeves and denim. He spreads a rag over my face. I taste the breath of everyone who’s been under it before. He seizes my hair in his fingers and starts pouring.
“DO YOU BELIEVE?” he shouts in a tent-revival drawl.
Water floods my mouth.
“DO YOU BELIEVE THAT JESUS OF NAZARETH WAS BORN TO THE VIRGIN MARY IN BETHLEHEM?”
“DO YOU BELIEVE THAT HE DIED ON THE CROSS FOR YOUR SINS?”
The water stops briefly as the empty jug clatters on the floor like a toy drum. I moan through the rag. The water returns.
“DO YOU BELIEVE THAT HE ROSE AGAIN ON THE THIRD DAY, AND ASCENDED TO HEAVEN, PROMISING TO RETURN AGAIN IN GLORY?”
He stops pouring and removes the rag. Through coughs I say yes, I believe, yes, you fucking fascist.
“THEN I BAPTIZE YOU,” dousing my uncovered face with the rest of the jug, “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
The pastor straightens his back. His men release me. I roll to the floor gasping and raw. He dismounts the altar and strides out of the church. Standing by the door I see Mr. Rodfrey and my father, both of them covering their mouths with their hands.
I’m back in my daily routine again the following day. I won’t let them see me break. My hand trembles any time I grip something, even a pencil. I sit in the back rows of all my classes, where no one can see it. I don’t speak in the cafeteria. Neither does Mack. She sees my hand shake when I lay down my fork. She puts her hand over mine and gives me a dumpy smile that says: Welcome to the Fuck-Ups Club.
In chapel neither of us makes any jokes. A moment of silent prayer is punctured when a girl a few rows ahead of us starts shrieking. She’s standing on her seat, clutching her hair to her chest, and pointing wildly at the floor. Other students start screaming. They leap onto their chairs and grip each other’s arms. There’s something below.
Mack shouts my name.
I look down.
There’s a tiny bright light between my feet — no, not between them, beneath them, far below the solid floor — like a point on a horizon, or a blind spot. I shove my seat back but the light stays fixed the way the Moon seems to give chase over treetops in a fast moving car. Mack sees a light, too. Everyone does. Soon we realize we’re not being visited by hundreds of individual lights but are encountering a single, very powerful, very remote phenomenon. It’s as if a star has landed on the far side of the globe and is radiating light through miles of crust and magma, penetrating them as it would optical glass. The character of the light is indescribable. All the hidden and compressed beauty of the cosmos is bursting through a pinprick in the fabric of Being. Even a brief glance fills me with intolerable joy.
The chapel descends into chaos until one of the students has the presence of mind to connect the TV receiver to the projector over the pulpit. We quiet ourselves immediately and fixate on the screen. It’s on every channel. It’s happening everywhere. Finally we see it. Not it. Him. A hole has been torn in the sky over Jerusalem. Eternal light flows out of it, piercing the swerves of the Earth. Bathed in that impossible glow we witness a human figure appear, gently and silently, like a child’s hair drifting through a slant of afternoon sun. We see His silhouette touch the ground. He raises His arms. He welcomes the world to itself.
The silence of the chapel is transformed into shouts and laughter. The students and faculty are holding hands and dancing, both enemies and friends. Mutual secret loves are revealed. Young men kiss. Young women caress each other’s faces. Friends embrace. No one is alone. Mack falls into me, and I into her. Our faces are wet. We weep for each other, weep for ourselves, weep for the end of weeping. We look again at the light far below us, and then back to the image of a carpenter on a hilltop. There He is. And then, only a heartbeat later, a wave of pain ripples through His body. He falls. A mist of blood whirls in the air where He had been standing.
He is gone.
Mack is the first of us to speak:
“What the fuck?”
Private First Class Tommy “T-Bone” Thompson, a name the world will never forget, sits in his dress uniform staring down the barrel of a congressional hearing microphone, flanked on either side by his legal counsel. Oklahoma Senator Jim Dumphrees asks PFC Thompson why the safety on his service rifle was disabled that day.
“Mr. Senator, Sir, on that particular day in question, which was the day on which my safety was disabled, Sir, well, it was that light, Sir, being right there under it, I just felt…well, Sir, I can’t explain it.”
The AV nerds have moved the chapel projector into the school cafeteria so that not even mealtime can interrupt the round-the-clock media coverage of The Second Death of Christ. Yesterday we watched an international team of ballistics experts illustrate how, while PFC T-Bone was on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem firing celebratory rounds into the air with unrestrained ecstasy, one of those projectiles traveled a perfect rainbow over the seven-minute drive to the craggy hill ancient Roman-occupied Israel called The Place of the Skull, ripping a hole through Christ’s left ventricle, killing Him instantly. What are the odds.
The school cafeteria can’t stop laughing.
It’s been seven days, and the light from the Blind Spot, which is what everyone calls it now, hasn’t stopped shining, nor has it dimmed, not even during that tragic moment. Mr. Rodfrey, pardon me, Rod skips over to me near the cereal wall. He’s holding hands with Tony, my boss from Admissions. He and Tony glance into the Blind Spot then into each other’s eyes and giggle like middle schoolers. Rod apologizes to me profusely, for everything, and I say I forgive him, as many times as he wishes to hear it. Tony kisses him, and Rod cries happily into a napkin.
I fill a couple bowls with Lucky Charms and sit down next to Mack. I methodically move all my marshmallows into her bowl because I know how much she likes them. Mack’s got her sneakers propped on the edge of the table. She’s on the phone with her mother. She’s laughing, saying “I know, I know,” and telling her, without sarcasm, how much she loves her, too. Mack looks down at the tiles beneath us from time to time. We have yet to find a negative emotion that can’t be transformed by staring into the Blind Spot. What those bad feelings get transformed into, nobody has a name for yet, but there’s a shared understanding that we have all the time in the world to think of one.
“No, Mr. Senator, I did not observe any hostiles or threats or anything like that. To tell you the truth, Sir, I’m not sure I could anymore even tell anybody what a threat looks like.”
“I say I don’t know what a threat looks like. Everybody…well, Sir, everybody looks like a friend.”
“So at the moment Christ was raising His arms, you were discharging your weapon out of…sheer joy?”
“Yeah, pretty much, Mr. Senator, Sir. Yup.”
His eyes become red and swollen and his lips quiver.
PFC T-Bone’s lawyers have their palms over their mouths now, trying to shove their laughter back down. They backslap him like he’s a beloved rookie who’s just struck out, the little toy solidier who killed God on live TV. The gallery of senators are howling and dabbing their eyes. T-Bone looks into in his lap and tears of relief roll down his cheeks.
“God bless, ya’ll,” he sobs.
In the bed springs under Mack’s bunk mattress above me, I’ve tucked the nameless prospect sheet with the blood red March 23d woven into its fibers. I look up at it whenever I have trouble sleeping. It’s the second-most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.