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Meadowbrook School
   

The Reluctant Preacher by Andrew McNabb

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Billup woke to a pair of crossed eyes peeking in on him. “Git!” he said.

But the boy was slow in moving. “Thought preachers preached on Sunday,” said the boy, taking off down the hall shrieking and laughing.

When Billup sat up, blood rushed to the top of his head, blinding him for a moment. When he could see again, he thought he saw the boy, but then the vision vanished before his eyes, and Billup thought it fitting. He’d been trying to figure out for days if the boy had been interested in what he had to say or was just wild and bored; whatever it was, right now, he didn’t want to think about it. He scratched his head and let it droop. The days spent at his sister’s were adding up, and if he’d expected some kind of result here, it hadn’t happened yet. “Don’t even like people,” he muttered. “How’s I s’posed to be a preacher.”

He smacked his tongue off the roof of his mouth to get rid of the ick but realized it was impossible in that environment. He was tired and rumpled and thought himself just another fouled aspect of the apartment, like the couch he’d been sleeping on, legs chopped off so the cushions were nearly on the floor, or the carpet stained from spills unattended, or the ashes and dust and dirt spread about as if by dozens of murderers uncareful about their crime scene.

 

Newport Art Museum

Eastern Yacht Sales

Meadow View Imports

But I ain’t here for comfort, he reminded himself as he walked out into the kitchen for a glass of water. A glass was hard to find. Dishes were piled up in the sink and on counters. He cursed his sister, and he cursed the Lord for giving him this vocation and giving him such little talent to do it. And most of all he cursed those people out in the world that he was supposed to preach to. If they just did what they were supposed to do, he could’ve continued doing what he’d been doing, which was being alone and observing His word, working his warehouse job and eating three square meals a day.

He drank right from the tap, all the while thinking he didn’t need that boy telling him it was Sunday; he knew that already, and everyone around here seemed to think he was inept. From them, the sentiment was unacceptable. If there was one thing he was good at, it was spotting the sinfulness in others, and there was sin just floating all over this rundown place, in his sister’s heart, and in the hearts of her three rotten boys.

He creaked down the hallway to his nephews’ room. His shoulders were round but pointed at their tops with knobby bones that looked almost like spikes atop the armor of a medieval knight, which was appropriate because when he’d started off on his journey that’s how he thought of himself: a knight on his own crusade.

It hadn’t been an easy one, his crusade, and because it was in the early stages, he chalked up his fecklessness to inexperience. But when, Billup wondered, would the Lord be taking care of him like he was supposed to? Hadn’t he been waiting patiently, through the embarrassing moments, the awkward speeches, the rebuffs from all those he proselytized?

He shook his head. Ain’t no use lying to yourself, he thought. It hadn’t been exactly that way. He’d been out there, going from place to place, sure. But his preaching had been sporadic. His grasp of the Bible wasn’t good, and he never knew quite how to start out. Most of the time, he was afraid to talk to people. He’d sit on benches in parks sometimes for hours, deliberating over who should be approached, oftentimes approaching no one. He’d given it all up to engage his calling and couldn’t help but think of that painting of the apostles, the one where little flames flickered above their heads signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit. If God wanted him to preach, then He could very well give him a flame.

As he’d waited for it, he’d burned through his money, staying at cheap hotels, eating his meals out. Three months he’d been at it and didn’t know how much longer he’d last. He’d only been a week at his sister’s. Stopping by on his way somewhere else, he’d told her, to another city, where he’d spread the word of God, but the reality was he’d limped into town, scrounging money for his bus fare. He’d thought it would be a nice place to relax in for a while, but he’d just gotten more of the same.

He’d never seen her boys before, but it took no time to discover they were rowdy, even the littlest one, who possessed a rage that seemed to emanate from crossed yellow eyes that followed Billup wherever he went.

Ever since he’d arrived, though, he wondered if he’d been drawn there for a reason. Their daddy had left a long time ago; Billup didn’t know how long but knew that what those boys needed in their lives was a man, and not a man of this earth, but Jesus himself. It was a way to start out, perhaps, teaching the boys. So he’d tried to introduce them to Him, but they did everything they could to keep his words out of their heads, sitting and staring dumb-eyed at the TV, or even walking right out the door when he was talking. But that littlest one seemed like he could be cracked. Sometimes listening, sometimes not, often seeming to just act according to the way his big brothers wanted him to.

Billup stopped, for a moment, outside their door. He was ashamed to admit he was afraid of them, but he’d been admitting all sorts of things lately, and so he admitted this one, too. He thought of what the littlest one had said upon seeing him, “Funny looking man.” He’d retorted, “Looks don’t matter in the next world,” but whatever pride he got from his response diminished in an instant when the boy replied, “Well, we ain’t in the next world now.”

He reminded himself, they weren’t ordinary, the way they ran around that house screaming and fighting and tormenting their mother. Just last night he’d heard the three laughing, evil-like, and walked outside to find the littlest one slamming the head of a frog with a shovel.

“Get away, there!” he’d yelled.

But the littlest one didn’t move. He only looked up at Billup, straight into his eyes. And Billup saw before him not a boy of seven, but a man with full-formed intention. Man stared at boy, and boy at man, and everyone knew that if Billup was going to do something he would have done it already, so the littlest one raised the shovel over his head and smacked down so hard the frog’s stomach came right through its mouth.

“Little devil!” Billup had yelled, but when he reached out, the middle one, Kyle, pulled him by the back of his shirt, and the littlest one got away.

Now, Billup opened the door. The littlest one was back in bed. His lids fluttered with pretend sleep. Billup took the time to study the boys, thinking they looked almost normal. The oldest, Shane, snored like the man he was becoming, and Kyle, the next one down, was trying to keep up. Billup looked back at the littlest one, whose eyes were now fully open and fully crossed and looking right back at Billup as if he wanted to say something.

“What you want to say?” asked Billup.

In response, the littlest one just shut his eyes tight. Billup thought that if that was the game he wanted to play, then so be it. And for that matter, he wasn’t going to get them up at all. That was his sister’s job, and she was going to have to learn how to do it because when he left here, what was she gonna do then?

“Raisin’ a buncha atheists,” he said, closing the door and heading to her room.

“Whatsa atheist?” the littlest one shouted. Billup heard him but kept going. He felt a stranger among these people. The day he’d arrived, he’d been downright mystified when his sister, Churchy, had showed up at the door to greet him. Obscured behind the dirty screen, she might have been anyone except her. If it hadn’t been for her voice, Billup would have asked the shadow for his sister. Once inside, he couldn’t help but stare at features that had been consumed by added flesh, thinking her grotesque, the way she bulged out of old, pilly sweatpants. But she’d looked right back into his eyes. A cigarette dangling from her mouth letting him know she didn’t give a damn.

Since he’d been there, he’d tried to piece together her life, wanting to ask her how she’d landed in public housing. They’d grown up poor, but respectable, and would never have relied on the government for anything. But he’d kept his tongue. Last night he nearly lost it, though, after she’d asked if he had money to contribute. He didn’t answer directly. “Preaching the good word don’t pay well,” he’d said. “Got to rely on the goodness of strangers. Just like it’s said in the Bible. Go and preach and bring nothing with you.” But Churchy just looked at him blankly, as if she didn’t care what his answer was, then just continued on doing what she’d been doing.

And now, a knock on her door brought no response, so he pushed it open. A poison mixture of sweat and stale breath filled his nose. The room was dark and dirty, with clothes piled all over, and Billup half-expected something to rise from beneath them. Churchy lay, a large blue lump in the middle of the bed.

“Churchy ain’t you gonna get them kids up and get ’em to church?”

But Churchy didn’t move. Billup looked for a rising of the mound.

“Dammit Churchy!” he said. And Churchy rolled over to face him.

Billup waited for her to say something. When she didn’t, he called her name again. “Churchy!”

She repositioned herself and wheezed out, “You wanna take ’em, Billup, you go ahead.”

“Ain’t my job,” said Billup. “It’s yours. You should be settin’ an example for ’em. Why you think they run around like Satan incarnate?”

Churchy closed her eyes. “You’re the preacher,” she said. When Billup didn’t answer, she just puffed and
rolled back over.

 

Yellow, morning sunlight poured through the curtainless windows, creating a midday feel that added to Billup’s anxiety. He walked about the unit for as long as he could take it, making a half-hearted attempt to clean up. If she wasn’t going to get those kids up, they’d sleep until noon, he thought. If they missed the service, whose fault would it be? And as he’d been doing lately, he sought in scripture an answer for the action he should take. Jesus must’ve said something about just such a situation as he found himself in, but if it was there, he couldn’t remember it. He shook his head. Of course, it would be his fault if those kids didn’t make it to church. His sister was right about one thing, he was a preacher, and was that any way to act?

He woke the boys. With surprisingly little protest, they soon appeared in the living room fully clothed. Billup had no misconception that their lack of fight was due to the early hour. “Now we’re going down to the service. You boys’ll behave yourselves.”

It was the oldest one, Shane, who spoke. He was fourteen and a foot taller than the next one down. He was just a few inches shorter than Billup and probably weighed as much. He’d already started to shave and, from a distance, could’ve passed for the father of the other two. “We don’t go to church, mister. Momma’s never made us.”

“Well that’s her fault. She can do what she wants. But you don’t got a choice. You want to be saved, don’t ya?”

The boys didn’t answer. “Sunday’s meant to be kept holy,” said Billup, calm now, embarking on the day’s first lesson. “It’s meant for you to be thankful to the Lord.”

The littlest one piped up, “What we got to be thankful for? God didn’t give us nothing compared to what most people got.”

“Pssh,” said Billup. “That’s a ignorant thing to say.” He thought for a moment and then said, “You ain’t poor like the little children in Africa. You should see them, about half the size as you from misnutrition.” He looked around the apartment, pointed to the open jar of peanut butter on the kitchen table, the loaf of bread. “They ain’t even got that much. Look like they well-fed, but that’s just their little bellies all swelled up. By world standards, you guys is rich.”

“Don’t live in the world,” muttered Kyle, “live in America.”

Billup said, “That’s right, and you’re lucky for it. Ain’t been nowhere else, so you don’t even know it.”

The littlest one burst out, “Where you been, mister?” The look in his eye told Billup he already knew.

“Don’t you worry about that,” said Billup, moving toward the door.

And the boys followed, sniggering, because they knew he hadn’t been anywhere either.

 

All through the service, Billup hardly paid attention, watching the boys instead, smacking and pinching when attention strayed. When the littlest one fell asleep, Billup just let him be: it was better than him crawling underneath the pew as he’d been doing all service long.

When he remembered, he prayed for a sign that what he was doing was the right thing, thinking he’d maybe misunderstood his calling, if he’d even been called at all. He’d never heard God’s voice or had a dream in which He appeared. It was just a feeling he got inside, that even though he’d been doing the right thing in his own life, he should tell people about how it should be in theirs. But when he thought about it now, he realized he had all sorts of deep feelings, and he didn’t run off chasing every one of them.

Before he knew it, the music was playing, and people were walking out of the church. He gathered the boys and got in the line of people that had formed waiting to speak to the reverend. When it was his turn, he said, “Reverend, wanted to introduce myself. Billup McCluskey, and these here are my nephews. You ain’t seen much of ’em, but you’ll be seeing more, ’at’s for sure.” He smiled and waited for encouraging words.

The reverend shook Billup’s hand and said, “Welcome,” but then moved on to the extended hands of other congregants passing by.

When the kids sniggered, the heat rose to Billup’s face. “Quit your sniggering,” he said and blocked traffic on one side of the reverend. “I’m a preacher myself, ya know.”

The reverend looked more closely now. “That so?” He looked down at the boys, as if wanting them to affirm the claim. “You got yourself a congregation?”

The boys looked up at Billup, sensing something good and humiliating was going to happen. Billup thought he saw a smile on the reverend’s face. “Course I got me a congregation. The world’s my congregation. I’m what you call a itinerant preacher.”

“I see,” said the reverend… and he went no further. He looked around Billup in an obvious way, contorting his body to shake the hand of a congregant passing by. But Billup didn’t move, seeing no reason he shouldn’t get proper acknowledgement from the reverend.

“Jesus himself wandered the countryside preaching to anyone who’d listen. You got it easy in here, just enter and all the peoples is already here.”

“Well, Mr. Billup, it’s Sunday, and you’re here, too. What are we s’posed to think about that?” He was quick in saying it. He added, “But you’re still welcome here anytime. Now, I got to be greeting the rest of these here people.”

“McCluskey,” said Billup, grabbing the littlest one by the shoulders and moving on. “The name’s Reverend McCluskey.”

 

On the walk home, Billup looked out for smirks and sniggers, ready to wallop out at the first infraction. When it didn’t happen, he sought a reason, thinking it was the strength of the evil in those boys, knowing when to hold back, to save insults for the most powerful time. He wondered, though, if maybe he’d gotten their respect from telling that reverend what he could do with his congregation.

Thinking that was the case, a little tenderness toward the boys came over him, and, caught up in the brilliance of the day, he looked around at God’s earth and pointed up at the trees, saying how the new green nuts were like little baskets of vegetables there for the baby squirrels, and how beautiful it all was, the birds singing their lovely spring songs. “Ain’t nothing like nature to let one know God’s presence is all among us.”

But the boys couldn’t have cared less. They acted as if Billup wasn’t even there. They were barely out of sight of the church when they started acting up again. Kyle and Shane turned their torment on the littlest one. They threw pebbles at him, whistling through their teeth.

“Quit it,” said the littlest one. His plea was echoed by Billup, who only noticed half of what was going on, still looking all around him for things he could show the boys. But his head snapped to attention when the littlest one’s feet were kicked out from underneath him.

“You ain’t supposed to do that,” cried the littlest one, looking to both brothers to see who did it.

“Retard,” said Shane.

“You goin’ get it,” said the littlest one.

“Which one you talkin’ to?” said Kyle. “Cross eyes and all.”

The littlest one squeezed his fists at his side, and the veins in the side of his head pulsed like little purple snakes all coiled and ready to strike. He ran full speed at Shane, who met him with a fist he didn’t pull back. The littlest one crumpled to the ground, crying but for a moment before getting back to his feet, ready to charge again.

“Hey!” said Billup to Shane. “What you doin’ there?”

Shane squared off as if ready to box. “Stupid little retard,” he said. “Cross-eyed jackass. You come at me again, and I’ll knock you down so hard you won’t get up.”

The littlest one looked at Billup, whose jaw was tense and who had his own fists squeezed. Shane and Kyle started walking again, and Billup was relieved. He said, “Just a bully.”

But the littlest one, red in the face, wasn’t content. “That ain’t what’s supposed to be done,” he said. “I’m gonna get him one day, you goin’ see.”

Billup wondered what a real preacher would have done in that case and recognizing an opportunity said, “The Lord says in his own prayer, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He was delighted with himself, the way those words sprang right into his head. That’s what preachers did, quoted quick from the Bible. He thought of all those pages of notes of references in the Bible he had in his black duffel bag, back at the house, and how when he used them like this, they seemed worthwhile.

When no other quotes came to mind, he said to the littlest one, “That’s the Lord’s prayer, and if you don’t remember nothin’ else, you should remember that.”

The littlest one just looked up at Billup, stared at him, maybe distressed, maybe something else; Billup could never tell, the way those eyes were.

“You understand what I said? You’ll be better off one day if you just turn the other cheek. All sorts a meanness in this world. God takes care of those on the receiving end.”

The boy was silent for a minute, seeming to think about what Billup had said. “Easy for you to say. Ain’t no one knocking you down, bullying you.” He looked up at Billup, as if wanting him to refute it.

Billup replied with a tone, “You just do what you’re s’posed to do. God looks kindly on the afflicted. Should be glad you got trials to go through.”

“Yo ain’t got nothin’ to go through,” mumbled the boy as he kicked a stone.

It took all the pride in his body for Billup to keep from saying he had plenty to go through. That they were more alike than the boy knew. Billup then drifted off to his own worries, making no response at all.

The two walked, slowly and in silence, as the distance between them and the boys ahead grew. Soon, the housing complex appeared, looking displaced and city-like against the backdrop of all the green trees.

 

Billup and Churchy sat at the kitchen table while the boys watched television in the other room. Sunday morning wasn’t even half over, and Billup already wanted to go back to bed. With nothing but silence between them, Billup’s mind wandered, thinking how ever since he’d taken up this life, the days had become so long. He thought how some days he wished it would all just end because wasn’t this here life just a precursor to the real thing: life after death? And he knew he’d gladly take his own life if it wasn’t a mortal sin that would prevent him from paradise, where this world’s obligations would be no more. Why would someone want to go to work if they could just always be on vacation? That’s how he thought of it. But he was working class and knew that nothing ever came for free, so he accepted his lot but was secretly resentful that his price to pay was so steep.

Tired of the silence, and still feeling slighted by the reverend, he said to his sister, “Got to be a entrepreneur of the spirit. Other preachers have their congregation already, don’t have to do nothin’ except step inside the church doors, and folks is already there, but I got to get out there and get ’em myself. You know that phrase, preachin’ to the choir? Well that’s what they do. They already got themselves a situation, whereas I’m more like a biblical pilgrim as it were.”

Churchy chewed and chewed a slice of bread covered side to side with peanut butter. Billup looked at her and then away, alternately imagining what she was thinking and then trying to forget. When she was done with her first piece, Billup watched her reach for another, disgusted by her dimpled hands, brown skin around the knuckles.

He continued, “The problem with people today is they don’t care, see? All they care about is gettin’ richer
an’ richer.”

Churchy swallowed. Looking like she felt obligated to respond, she said, “And what’s wrong with that?” It was the first words she’d spoken since she’d been woken by the littlest one pounding on her door, complaining about his brother. Billup wanted to count her question as a victory, because that’s what preachers tried to do, get a rise out of people, but he saw that any interest faded from her face as soon as the words had left her mouth. Still, he searched his mind’s catalogue for a quote. “The good Lord himself said, No one can serve two masters, God and mammon.” He smiled. “That’s Matthew, 6:24.”

Churchy responded by way of a chew. And Billup wondered if she’d heard him at all and was grateful
when a minor fracas in the other room turned into a shrieking brawl.

“Shut up in there!” he yelled. Turning back to Churchy, he said, “Should keep them kids quiet on the Lord’s day.”

Still Churchy had nothing to add, and Billup had had all he could take. “Dammit Churchy, the way you just sit there, lettin’ those kids do whatever they damn well please.”

Churchy shifted slowly in her seat. To Billup, her body was as slothful as her brain, and when she failed to give a response, he was incensed because that was worse than if she’d exploded at him because then at least he’d know she was still alive. He pounded his fist on the table. He’d get a rise out of her if it was the last thing he did.

“Your place is a mess! You ain’t got no job. No money.”

She calmly responded, “Well, you’re stayin’ here, ain’t ya?”

“I’m just here on my ways someplace else.”

“Well you still stayin’. Don’t see you puttin’ up no money for food aroun’ here. All you do is yell at them kids.”

“I’m a disciple,” said Billup, “and it’s something you wouldn’t know nothing about.”

“Pssh,” said Churchy. And Billup rose from the table. He’d let his hunger go on long enough. If she wasn’t going to make him breakfast, he’d make it himself. As soon as those kitchen cabinets opened, he was surrounded by the boys. Just as lazy as their mother, he thought, waitin’ for someone to make ’em their breakfast.

He picked through, looking for anything edible. There were some crackers in the cabinet, a couple of eggs in the fridge. Still sore from their exchange, he said to his sister, “Churchy, you ain’t got no food in the house. What are those boys supposed to do?”

Churchy was staring down into an ashtray full of stamped out cigarettes. A spoon in her hand from the coffee she’d just stirred made it look as if it was a bowl of cereal to be eaten. She said, “Don’t you mind those boys, Billup.” Her tone was harsh and quick, as if she’d finally found it in her to stand up to him. “They been fine all they lives without you. You see ’em; they ain’t starving.”

“We’re starving. Sure we are,” said Shane. “We got misnutrition just like them kids in Africa. See?” He lifted his shirt and puffed out his belly to the great delight of his brothers.

The littlest one got so excited that he lifted his shirt, too. “See? See?” he cried. “I got misnutrition, too!” But he was slow in covering his weak spot, and Kyle lunged for the opening, smacking him across his little belly so hard it sounded like a pane of glass breaking.

“Owww!”

“You deserve it you little retard,” Kyle said quickly, looking askance at his momma and Billup to gauge the level of trouble.

“Christian boys don’t do such things!” screamed Billup. “It ain’t how it’s supposed to be. You see that Jesus up on the cross? What you think he up there for? To make amends for things like this.”

The littlest one looked from Billup to Kyle. “I ain’t no retard,” he said.

“Crossed eyes means you’re retarded.”

Shane nudged Kyle in the arm. “Look Kyle, they ain’t crossed no more!”

The littlest one ran for the mirror, and the older boys roared when he’d left the room. It was just a moment before the littlest one returned, sulking and feeling foolish for falling for their trick.

Billup just shook his head. “Starving spiritually,” he said, sullenly, as if he was now one of the boys.

Billup sat, feeling empty in his chair, and invisible, the way they ignored him. Whatever groundwork he’d tried to lay that week had been disregarded, and he thought, if he couldn’t have an effect on his own people, how was he supposed to have an effect on others? “Don’t even like people,” he muttered. “How’s I supposed to preach to ’em.”

“You ain’t a real preacher anyway,” said the littlest one. “Goin’ ta other people’s churches. You ain’t even got no congregation!”

 

Billup walked out the sliding glass door at the back of Churchy’s unit and into the courtyard, which was common space shared by the tenants on this block of the complex. The sky outside was blue, and the sun was hot and white. Spring had turned to summer in the course of just a few short hours. Billup squinted and looked about. Sweat dotted his forehead.

It was hunger that had driven him outside. And the quest for resolution. While he’d sat at the table watching the boys eat, he’d thought maybe sometimes people just got signals that weren’t signals at all, or that they were signals God had intended, but He wanted you to fail because that would lead to something else He’d wanted you to do all along. Whatever it was, he needed to find someone to preach to so he could know one way or another if that was what he was supposed to do. However it went, he’d take it that that was God’s sign, and if he had no success, it might just be time to up and leave.

As he looked about, his stomach growled, and he hoped it would go well, if only so someone would give him a meal like they were supposed to. He’d deferred his portion of breakfast to the children, had sat there watching while Churchy served the boys bread with peanut butter, those few eggs and a cut up apple that had appeared out of nowhere. She’d looked almost motherly, he’d thought. But that sentiment soon vanished when she uttered a few reproofs that were so off-balance the boys laughed so hard they nearly choked. Billup thought she’d done it for his sake, so he evoked the name of Jesus again, berating the boys, and that made Shane and Kyle laugh even harder. The littlest one, though, looked confused. “How’s it go again, with Jesus?”

Billup looked into the boy’s crossed eyes because he thought he’d asked it as a serious question, but his eyes were impervious to interpretation. And just as he began to speak, to tell the littlest one again how it was with Jesus, Shane interjected, “We already been to church today.”

And the littlest one said, “Yeah, we already been.”

So Billup stopped right there. He stared ahead, willing blankness to take over his mind. Instead, filling his mind were visions of the cities he’d visited, of the corners he’d stood on, of the half-hearted attempts he made at talking to passersby. He’d thought how no one had ever offered him a night stay, or even a meal. And he felt a fool for giving up all those things he’d given up: his job, his apartment, his routine. His savings had been wasted, and even Churchy had it better than he did.

If he was going to be a preacher, then someone better just tell him how it is to preach, and if that didn’t happen soon enough, he was going back to that job in the warehouse where he’d sit atop that forklift and move it around all day without having to speak to no one.

And now, with the sun pulsing down on his head, Billup felt more than ever the burden he’d been called to. He looked about the courtyard for someone to preach to.

From around the corner, across the courtyard, came a man.

“How do, sir?” Billup called out.

The man nodded and kept walking, appearing to avert direction to avoid him. Billup wondered if he should walk after him, strike up a conversation, but thought better of it when he saw that the man had the type of face that always looked mean unless he was laughing, and even then it could look mean, too, as if what was funny was you.

The sun continued to penetrate, a rooster crowed, and Billup cursed the voice inside him that told him it was just that type of person he was supposed to talk to: the less receptive they were, the more they needed the word of the good Lord, Jesus Christ.

And as he stood there halfway out in the courtyard waiting for someone else to come by, he heard the door to Churchy’s apartment open. He looked over. The littlest one stood staring at him. “You preachin’, sir?”

“What if I is, boy?”

The boy didn’t answer, but looked on curiously. And then after a time, his brothers came out the door, and the littlest one popped up to his feet like a marionette. “Whatcha doin’, sir?” he called. “Catching flies?”

His brothers laughed, and that got the littlest one excited, and so he carried on. “Lookin’ a fair bit like a rat out there baking in the sun!” He laughed hysterically at his joke but stopped abruptly when his brothers didn’t seem to hear him. They were headed around the side of the complex, Billup could see, with a few loose cigarettes taken from their momma’s purse. Shane put one behind his ear and looked over at Billup as if to challenge him, and Kyle let one dangle from his lips.

There was a group of youths waiting for them, and no doubt they’d spend the afternoon doing what Billup had seen them doing every day since he’d got there, hang around and smoke, roughhouse, and harass people foolish enough to walk by.

“You go with your brothers, and you’ll get yourself a whippin’,” Billup called out to the littlest one.

The boy stood still for a moment, deliberating. He looked over at Billup and then to the side of the building around which his brothers had disappeared.

“Word of God’s about to get preached,” said Billup, hoping to entice the boy. When that didn’t do it, he added, “You go there, and you’ll jus’ get beat down again, for no reason at all.”

“Maybe there is a reason,” the boy retorted.

“Better be a good one then,” said Billup, surprised by the anger in his voice.

The boy seemed to think about that. And then he ran around the corner after his brothers.

Billup stood for a moment, waiting for the boy to return. When he didn’t, Billup turned and walked across the lot, resolve hardening. “To hell with him. If I’m gonna be a preacher, gonna be a preacher. Let the boy do whatever he wants to do. What he does don’t affect me.”

Trying to get himself in the mood, he looked down at his feet, covered in broken-down shoes, and tried to envision what they would have looked like in sandals walking across a desert. He envisioned his jeans and white and red checked shirt as a robe. Reaching up, he felt his beard that was just a few days old and envisioned it as a nice, bushy one. Instead of being inspired, all he could think about was whether those disciples back then ever failed to get a meal or shelter. It must have been the case, but he didn’t recall any of that from the parts of the Bible he’d been reading. And then it came to him that many of those disciples actually got hung up or were crucified just like Jesus or were stoned or dragged behind a Roman’s chariot or thrown to his lions. It made him feel foolish.

When he rounded the corner, he saw a man and a woman sitting on a stoop. Acknowledging his opportunity, he walked over, but it wasn’t until he was right up on them that he recognized the man who’d avoided him in the courtyard.

“Howdy there,” said Billup, looking intently into the man’s face.

“Yessir,” said the man.

“Nice day, now, isn’t it?”

“It’s okay,” said the man. “He’p you with something?”

Billup, ready for this question, broke into a rehearsed line. “Well, sir, I thought it might be I who can help you. How would you characterize your relationship with Jesus Christ?”

“Pssh,” said the man, as if he’d heard it all before. “I’m just fine with Him, and He’s just fine with me.”

“That so?” said Billup, scratching his chin. He only realized when the words were out of his mouth that his tone was questioning, not open-ended like he’d wanted it to be.

“Yeah that’s so,” said the man. “Don’t need nobody to be tellin’ me how it is I should have my relationship with Him.”

Billup looked to the lady, saw that she liked the way the man talked to him, like Billup was a fool. “Nobody’s tellin’ you nothing about that. I’m just asking you how it is, like. ’Cause Jesus is a powerful man. Our Savior and…” He stopped, reached for his pocket Bible. He thumbed awkwardly through it to the passage he was thinking about. And raising his arms, gesticulating back and forth like he saw another preacher do one time, he bellowed out, “It says here in … John 14:6… I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He closed the book with a snap and said, “Jesus hisself said that. So I don’t know what you mean exactly when you say that you’re fine with Him and He’s fine with you, but if you don’t believe, you’ll find yourself in a heap of trouble when your time comes.”

But the man was unaffected. “Don’t you Jehovah Witnesses has something better to do ’an walk around botherin’ people on a Sunday?”

“I ain’t no Jehova,” said Billup, offended. “I’m just a man who recognizes how it’s supposed to be in the world, and that’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you, too.”

“Pssh,” said the man, again. “Well go on an’ tell someone else about it. Like I said, I’m alright with Him, and He’s alright with me.”

Billup grasped for the words of a real preacher, wanting some other quote to make the man think or, better yet, to make him feel like the jackass he was, making a man feel stupid who was just trying to talk about the Lord. But nothing came to mind, and he just stood, blank-faced. Anger welled up inside him. He couldn’t just leave it this way.

“Ain’t you got no food?” Billup pleaded. “Been on the road for months preaching, and nobody want to listen.” When the two didn’t respond, Billup kicked the ground. “You’re just like bullies, you. Well I ain’t care! Don’t listen no more.”

The man and the woman were staring at a point over Billup’s shoulder, and so Billup said, “What you staring at?”

The man pointed. And Billup turned to see the boy standing there. “What you want, boy?” said Billup. “Here to see me get beat down? I ain’t no different ’an you!”

When the littlest one didn’t answer, Billup squeezed his fists and took off, walking quick, right past the boy. Anger and confusion powered him forth, deep bursts of air blew from his mouth as if he was trying to expel the evil within. He walked and walked, his mind not conscious of where his feet were going. Finally, he found himself at the edge of the complex. He stood staring at the patch of woods before him on the other side of the street and wanted to disappear into it, to be swallowed whole. But instead of doing something about it, he just stood there, wondering: where it was a man like him should go.

 

For now, he’d sit in the park at the edge of the woods until he figured what to do. Walking through it, he delighted in its ugliness, the rundown swing set sitting idle, the half-dozen carved-up picnic benches in various stages of rot. To him it was simply an extension of where he’d come from, reinforcement.

His shoes crackled on the burned-out grass as he headed to the spot he’d been to several days prior. He’d gone to the park that day to get out of the house and to formulate Bible arguments. But all his Bible had been used for was a pillow for his head as he’d lied down on a nice little patch of grass under a tree. He’d slept that afternoon away.

At the same spot now, he lay down again, not nearly so carefree. When the anger swelled, he told himself he should be calm because after all, he’d asked for sign from God, and it had been proved he wasn’t a preacher, right? He felt all empty, but fact was fact, and he’d had no success. He’d go back to his little town, carry on with life. But for right now, he’d just have a little sleep. Later on he’d go to Churchy’s and see what she’d been able to wrangle for her kids for dinner, and this time he’d partake front and center. No more deferring to those little devils; he’d have his due, and after that, he’d hit the road.

But every time he closed his eyes, faces popped up: the indifferent people he’d talked to in his travels, the reverend, the man and the woman on the stoop, but worst of all, those damn boys. “Just a joke to all of ’em,” he said, pulling up grass with his hands as if it was the hair from their heads. But he was maddest of all at the Lord for telling him he should be doing something he had no business doing, without the temperament or maybe even the conviction, to call him away from his simple life of fearing Him, and giving him no success, couldn’t even bring the littlest one around.

The littlest one. It was all his fault. Maybe Jesus had brought him to his sister’s just like he’d thought, and the littlest one just didn’t want to cooperate. If he didn’t follow through on his calling as a preacher, it would be all the littlest one’s fault, not his. He couldn’t lay down any longer. He sat up and looked about, and it just so happened that from his vantage point, he could see the crowd of youths through the trees. He squinted to take in the scene. The littlest one was there, sure enough, front and center, arms waving, no doubt telling of Billup’s humiliation and tacking on his own half-truths.

“Little heathen,” said Billup, rage growing inside him. “I ain’t one to be messed with.”

He took off in their direction, anger pumping him forward. He focused on the littlest one, who was gesturing wildly, pointing up to the sky. But Billup didn’t concentrate on that. Playing in his mind were fists smashing down on the boy’s head. And as if he controlled the boy’s brothers’ by remote, they began to beat the littlest one down, sending him crumpling to the ground. They laughed and whooped and kicked him in the stomach.

And Billup kept on, just as the boys did, relentless. He was closer now, nearly right up on them, but what he’d do, he didn’t know. Their kicking didn’t cease, and his anger turned from the littlest one to them.

Bursting out from behind the cars in the parking lot, “Hey!” he shouted.

The boys were startled. They dispersed. Billup ran after Shane, his hands outstretched to choke him.

“He done it!” screamed Shane, running for his life. “He ast for it! Say he could take anything we’d give out and he’ll forgive us, just like in the Lord’s prayer.”

Billup lunged, missing by an inch. He stopped, gasped for breath. Shane’s words raced through his mind as he reached for their meaning. He looked down at the littlest one and into his eyes, which in this light looked not nearly so crossed.

Billup bent over, put his hands on his knees. Kyle shouted from across the lot, “He ast for it! Little retard think he’s a itinerant preacher, too!”

 

“The Reluctant Preacher” was first published in Scrivener’s Pen <http://www.scrivenerspen.com/Archives/Volume2Issue3/preacher.html>.

 

God Bless America© 2003 Timshel Literature