Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 28

      "I'm not too big for a challenge and there's no challenge too big for me," the Quite Reverend said, wildly over-gesticulating as if he were playing charades with a tent full of the sight impaired. "Because when I see a challenge coming my way, it's not only me that picks up the gauntlet, it's not only me that gets the adrenaline flowing and the hackles all prickly and raised, and it's not only me that crouches way down low in the most fearsome karate stance you ever did lay your eyes on, ready to wrestle the Powers of Evil to the mat. No, brothers and sisters, it's not just me, for I am never alone. And if you wisely choose to join me on the well-worn path of righteousness I can promise that you will never be alone either, for the Lord our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Lamb and the Shepherd, is always standing with me, ready to fight side by side, blow for blow, and we are always—yes, I said always—victorious! For he is the undefeated champion, the winner of every bout by a knockout. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you he who was, still is, and always will be the heavyweight champion of the world: the King of Kings, Jesus Christ! Say hallelujah!

     "Hallelujah!"

     "Say hallelujah!"

     "HALLELUJAH!"

     "So be it 'til the end of time."

     The Quite Reverend paused at the edge of the stage and used a handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat which dotted his forehead. Tucking it sloppily into his rear pants pocket, he surveyed the crowd, his eyes pausing on each elderly, anemic, or crippled target as his well-honed Infirmity Sensors picked them out like Day-Glo ostrich eggs in an Easter egg hunt.

     "Is there a soul somewhere in this tent that needs saving?" he asked quietly, his eyebrows arched high. "Is there one among you who is in need of healing?" He turned and walked to the podium, then suddenly wheeled around to the audience. "No there is not!" he spat out, causing the crowd to jump in their seats and loudly suck in their breath as one. "There is not one soul under this tent that needs saving because as Jesus Christ is the puppeteer pulling the very strings of my life, every single soul sitting before me today needs saving, and needs saving now!"

     He pounded his fist on the podium, then looked up as if he'd just been stricken with an idea. "Brothers and sisters. You're probably wondering just how many souls will be saved today. I can hear you. I know you're sitting in your seat right now saying to yourself, 'There are only so many souls he can save in one afternoon, so how does he decide which souls to save and which not to save?' Well I want you to stop your fretting right this very minute, because there will be no rationing of soul saving, there will not be only one to a customer, not while our Lord Jesus Christ is doing the saving. Listen here! I'm not gonna save just one soul today, and I'm not gonna save just two souls. I'm gonna save every last soul in this here tent and I'm gonna do it for one unbelievably low price! And that price, brothers and sisters, is ab-so-lute-ly free!" He lowered his voice and raised his eyebrows questioningly. "'How can he do that?' you might ask, and if you did I’d tell you right here and now it was a darned good question. Well the answer is simple, my friends." He thrust out his chest and let his voice boom out, "I can do it because the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III saves souls in volume! Volume! VOLUME!"

     While the Quite Reverend was busy orating, his two navy blue-suited assistants were circulating through the audience, their eyes scanning the crowd like a Sectarian Secret Service, stopping to whisper to a few select people. Each person they spoke to nodded his or her head, then was led to an area at stage right where they were lined up single file. By the time the Quite Reverend had hit "Volume! Volume! VOLUME !", the lengthening procession at the side of the stage included a young girl on crutches with her left leg in a full cast which had been signed by her entire school class, the most prominent signature being a huge red "Eat Me"; Rachel Weinsteen, a teenage girl who was living proof that God has a sense of humor, since thanks to a port wine stain covering fully half of her face since birth, Rachel had absolutely no need for a nickname; a boy with his right arm in a sling, cradling the half cast which shored up his wrist, freshly broken the day before when he jumped off his parents' garage using the living room curtains as a parachute; a ninety-three year-old man whose hands had been long gnarled by arthritis but who really didn't mind since his memory was so full of holes the size of the Grand Canyon that he didn't remember ever having had full use of his hands and therefore didn't miss it; and a mother of three whose sudden and unexplained case of alopecia areata caused her to go completely bald when one day all her hair remained in her stocking cap when she pulled it from her head. The Quite Reverend's assistants only spoke to one person who declined to join the assemblage: Jose Rosenbloom, who had a hard time convincing them he wasn't hydrocephalic and there was no reason he should be paraded in front of the crowd.

     "Before we pray for the eternal salvation of the masses, let us not forget the here and now needs of those who require help in this life," the Quite Reverend continued. "The Lord is perfection, amen."

     "Amen," the crowd replied.

     "Jesus Christ is perfection, amen."

     "Amen."

     "But man...man is the very epitome of imperfection. Man is but a festering pimple on the buttocks of our Saviour, but as he is a forgiving and understanding Saviour—praise be the Lord!—he forgives us our flaws and understands our weaknesses." The Quite Reverend walked to the line-up of people at stage right. "While some of us are blessed with but a few insignificant flaws, others have more than their fair share. Could it be that the Lord is testing you? Perhaps. Might he be punishing you? Maybe so. Is he pissed off at you? Possibly. But you must never forget that the Lord Jesus Christ will not test you, punish you, or stay mad at you forever. He wants you back in the fold. He wants you to dedicate your life to spreading the good word. He wants you to live the sweet life." The Quite Reverend looked directly at the injured reserve lined up next to the stage and pointed at them in his best Uncle-Sam-Wants-You poster imitation.

     "Jesus Christ WANTS to heal you!!"

     He eyed the people his assistants pulled from the crowd like a chef searching for the ripest tomato and walked up to the boy with the half cast. He took the boy's good hand and lead him onto the stage.

     "Pssssst."

     The Quite Reverend heard the snake-like hissing coming from behind him but ignored it, knowing that maintaining his oratory momentum was crucial to serving up an inspirational—and profitable—meeting.

     "Psssssst."

     He put his hand behind his back and flicked his fingers, waving off whoever it was who was distractingly trying to get his attention from backstage.

     "Pssst. It's important!"

     The Quite Reverend turned and glared. One of his assistants was poking his head through the part in the curtains. With the slightest crooking of his index finger, and an extremely nasty scowl, the Quite Reverend motioned his assistant to come forward.

     "We've got a problem," the assistant whispered into the preacher’s ear.

     The Quite Reverend arched his eyebrows and pursed his lips in a grossly exaggerated show of shock, signaling his assistant "You're not kidding" just as clearly if he'd been close captioned for the common sense impaired.

     "The collection baskets are gone," the assistant whispered.

     "They're what?"

     "They're gone."

     "They can't be."

     "They are," the assistant said. "We've looked all over and they're nowhere to be found. What the hell do we do now?"

     "Look again."

     "Where?"

     "Everywhere."

     "But..."

     "Where were they?"

     "Beside the door in the trailer where we always keep them," the assistant said, "but they're not there anymore."

     "No collection baskets, no money; no money, no paychecks," the Quite Reverend said with finality. "Find them."

     The assistant hurried to the rear and exited through the curtain. The Quite Reverend pulled the young boy to the center of the stage and placed his hands palm down on the lad's head. He paused dramatically to regain his focus.

     "Jesus died for you, he died for me. He died for our sins. Don't close him out of your life for another precious second. Open your mouth and open your heart. Call out to him and say 'Jesus, come into my life'! Invite the King of Kings to become a part of you, to partake of your daily existence. Jesus Christ has the power to heal if only you will let him."

     He cradled the boy's broken arm in his hands and closed his eyes. "Let us pray. Dear God, I open my heart to you and I invite Jesus Christ to come into my life. I confess Jesus is the Lord of my life and I renounce all other Gods. I ask you to forgive me my sins and to cleanse me. Now I thank you Lord that I am a child of God, that I belong to you, that I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and on the authority of the word of God I am saved from my sins. And I belong to you. Give me the power, fill me with your holy spirit so that I will have the power to live for you the rest of my life in Jesus' name. Amen."

     "Hallelujah!"

     He quickly unwrapped the ace bandage from the boy's half cast. "I ask you Jesus, in return for this sinner's eternal commitment to your word and your work, knit these bones and heal this boy's arm!" Hoisting the arm up high, he removed the right-angled plaster splint and dramatically tossed it from the stage with a flourish.

     "Move your arm," he loudly told the boy, "for the healing has been done."

     The boy tentatively began to flex his arm, then stopped and looked up at the Quite Reverend, who grasped the boy's wrist with one hand and his upper arm with the other, quickly and firmly straightening it with a snap. The boy's eyes popped open wide as he sucked in a hard breath and groaned loudly from the pain.

     "Don't be such a baby," the Quite Reverend whispered harshly in the boy's ear.

     * * * * * *

     "Praise the Lord!" the Quite Reverend announced to the crowd. "It's a miracle!"

     "Hallelujah!" the crowd yelled as another of his assistants came to lead the shocked youth off the stage.

     "We still can't find the baskets," the assistant whispered to the Quite Reverend, trying to appear as casual as possible yet failing to hide just how frantic and frustrated he really was.

     "Keep looking," the Quite Reverend hissed.

     As the assistant escorted the boy—who was cradling his arm and moaning rather loudly—down one side of the stage, the Quite Reverend triumphantly walked to the other, where he looked down at the arthritic old man who gazed back at him with a sphinx-like smile wondering just where the hell he was and why in the world this used car salesman was strutting around the stage like Monty Hall hosting Healing for Dollars.

     "Where’s the sandwich I ordered?" the old man said loudly. "This isn’t what I wanted.."

     "Please join me on stage in a celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ," the Quite Reverend said with a smile as he stepped down from the stage.

     "I don't care how low your cheeses are priced, I asked for a liverwurst with sliced onion and relish on toasted wheat bread and that's exactly what I expect to get."

     "Ask and ye shall receive," the Quite Reverend said as he grasped the man's elbow and eased him toward the steps to the stage.

     "Of course I don't want seeds, young man. Seeds are in rye bread. Seeds are on rolls. I asked for wheat bread. My God, man, no one puts seeds in wheat bread."

     "Please come this way," the Quite Reverend said as he lead the old man up the stairs to the stage. "Now step up. Very good, now one more. I must ask you to hurry or you'll slow us down and it will be impossible to catch up."

     "I didn't say anything about mustard, slaw, or ketchup. Are you deaf, young man? Besides, do you have any idea how disgusting liverwurst would be with ketchup?" The man stopped and looked quizzically at the Quite Reverend. "You're not the regular boy here, are you? No wonder I'm having so much trouble getting my order. What have you done with Carlos?"

     The Quite Reverend finally maneuvered the man to the center of the stage. The old man stood hunched over, his claw-like hands dancing at his sides.

     "Jesus Christ died for your sins, as he died for mine," the Quite Reverend intoned. "It's a fact. And the sooner you accept that as the truth, the sooner you take him into your heart, the sooner you will bask in the peaceful serenity that your life was meant to be. Please, don't waste another second."

     "Seconds?" the old man asked, "I haven't even gotten my firsts yet."

     "For while your time here on earth is short—but a milli-microfraction of the blink of the Lord's eye—your days in the blessed company of our Saviour's heavenly bliss will be for all eternity. Yes, brothers and sisters, I said all eternity! So open your mind, open your heart, open your mouth and say 'Jesus, enter into my life'!"

     "Where?" the old man said as he looked around the stage. "What the hell are you talking about? My wife isn't here."

     "Roll out the red carpet and invite the Nazarene into your sacred temple. If you're in pain, Jesus has the cure. If you can't walk, Jesus will be your crutch. The King of Kings is the author who can rewrite every scene of your life, and you are merely the crippled actor."

     "Triple decker? Who asked for a triple decker?" the old man said, throwing his hands up in resignation. "Aw, the hell with it, I'll take whatever it is you made. A man could starve to death before he got anything to eat around this place."

     "Those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and salvation shall live the good life. They will prosper, spiritually as well as financially. They will be fruitful and multiply. They will receive their just deserts.

     "I don't want a piece of fruit for dessert," the old man said shaking his head, "but if you've got a piece of pound cake with strawberries I'll take that. And it might be a good idea to put the order in now so I'll get to eat it before I die."

     "Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ, has the power to heal," the Quite Reverend said as a strong shudder ran through his body, beginning at the top of his scalp and working its way down to his toes. His muscles tightened, causing him to stand statuesquely erect, adding a full three inches to his height. His eyelids fluttered, then slammed shut. The silence stretched on until it was taut enough to snap. Suddenly, his eyes popped open and he stared straight ahead as if in a trance, focusing on a vacant point about thirty feet in front of him and twelve feet above the ground.

     "Khirin onjoy esta du brahn," he began. "Er lestin, su lestin, frontov endron rawter stimp."

     The old man squinted at the Quite Reverend, shook his head to clear it, then poked the tip of his gnarled index finger in his ear and wiggled it around.

     "Bine frendo ent krehen deste gratuland trone. Bine shindiery roke int chatu ent frever conen. Du statuen gibling weenan krut forman. Estra dombron ilie fontage, derider steagrone almy prine, esta bine riton siten torkey."

     Jackson Robert grunted loudly. About ten minutes before, his eyelids had become heavier than a hypnotist's suggestion, finally losing all resistance and sliding shut. Although it felt so good and peaceful with them closed, decorum and the fear of his wife's wrath—"It's not fit to embarrass yourself and your family by falling asleep while listening to a man of God"—caused him to keep popping his eyelids open. But with each repetition his willpower ebbed, until with the third closing of his eyes he serenely gave in to the urge and fell asleep, drifting off into a dreamland that carried him back to his youthful Saturdays in the synagogue listening to the rabbi, the cantor, and the rest of the congregation chanting loudly in the Hebrew he didn’t understand. The sound was so lifelike he felt certain that were he to wake himself up he would still be able to hear it.

     "En brein gwide tor ritches, dron litasure avdiser, duron ent duron poron torstis curmunt," the Quite Reverend loudly droned on.

     Erta's eyes opened wide as she realized that the Quite Reverend was standing before her speaking in tongues, live and in person. "Here's where all that practicing in front of the TV will finally pay off," she thought, for she had still been trying to memorize his frequently broadcast glossolalial orations.

     She stood up. She shook her body, starting from her head and working her way down to her feet until she looked like a bad imitation of an epileptic. She clenched her fists and tensed her muscles, standing on her tiptoes to make herself feel taller. She fluttered her eyelids, or at least tried her best, for unlike most girls during their teen years, Erta had never spent time in front of a mirror practicing the flirtatious eye action. As a result, it looked like she had a cinder in each of her eyes. She closed her eyelids tightly, then opened them again, staring directly ahead at the Quite Reverend.

     "Ditashun erhy ent swithe du mense," he continued.

     "Forfin toofy nortin shtort," Erta said in her best approximation of his previous week's televised tongue speaking.

     "Correge deekin ersand tules," he said, lowering his eyes so he could see who was speaking along with him, albeit in an obviously very different tongue.

     "Hotten totten eben ozen," she said, her voice growing louder as she became more confident in her fluency.

     The old man strained to look at Erta, then turned back to the Quite Reverend. He put his palm over his left ear and pumped it lightly, as if using a plunger to clear the stoppage that was interfering with his hearing.

     "Bine deste melad pring, foron dinum est," the Quite Reverend said, cocking his head and leaning forward in an effort to better hear what Erta was saying.

     "Raisin treason rainy season, bumper stumper needs no reason," Erta continued, her voice rising in volume and pitch until it dominated the Quite Reverend's.

     "En valden tro, en dutshun orgine....." he said as he let his voice trail off.

     "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe," Erta shouted out, her lone voice filling the tent. "Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?"

     She stopped as she suddenly realized hers was the only voice she could hear. The Quite Reverend was standing at the front of the stage silently watching her. So were all of the people sitting in front of her, who had spun around in their seats and were now staring at her. She turned and looked around the tent. Every pair of eyes was upon her.

     "If I wanted Chinese food I would have asked for it," the old man said loudly as he walked off the stage shaking his head in disgust.

     Erta smiled sheepishly. She took a deep breath and sat down, closing her eyes tightly and pursing her lips. Jackson Robert's chin sank to his chest as he let out a loud snort, cutting through the deafening silence and startling him awake.

     "I can't understand a word anyone's saying," he groggily called out, not realizing he'd left his dream synagogue behind.

     "Shhh," Erta said, poking her husband in the ribs with her elbow.

     "What do you mean I can't be bar mitzvahed in English? It's the only language I know," he continued, suddenly stopping as he not only realized he was awake but also remembered where he was sitting. He looked around sheepishly.

     Erta closed her eyes and cradled her head in her hands. Speaking in tongues along with the Quite Reverend was even harder in person than it was at home. And definitely more embarrassing.

      

Chapter 29 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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