Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 29

     "The Lord may work in mysterious ways but he doesn't work cheap," the Quite Reverend continued without missing a beat, having learned over the years that dead air is the devil's broadcast frequency. "He prides himself on both his quality and his quantity, for each and every person who asks to be saved shall be saved, and your life evermore will be far, far better than you can possibly imagine in your most wonderful dreams. But the Lord Jesus Christ can't do this all by his lonesome; he needs your help. Yes, Jesus Christ is asking for your aid and assistance to make sure his word can be spread among as many people across the face of this big beautiful planet as possible."

     As he talked, the Quite Reverend paraded across the front of the stage, making eye contact with as many people as possible. "He will give you hope. He will give you his love. He will give you eternal life. And what does he ask in return?" He paused dramatically with his eyebrows raised high. "He doesn't want your house. He has no need of your car. And believe you me when I tell you He wouldn't watch your brand new twenty-five inch Sony color TV even if you gave it to him for Christmas and handed him the remote control. No, Jesus doesn't ask for much. And Jesus doesn't make any great demands. He asks only that you live your life according to his teachings and that you do everything you can to make sure as many people as possible get a chance to hear His message."

     The Quite Reverend stopped center stage and wiped his brow with a custom monogrammed Hav-A-Hank. "There are two ways to get the word of Jesus around. The first is to spread the gospel to everyone you know. To every single person you meet. To every man, woman and child who will hold still long enough to listen and even to those who won't. The second way is to make sure that those who dedicate their lives to spreading The Word are able to continue their sacred mission without having to worry about the mundane problems of this earth. It is for this reason that I ask you to open up your hearts as well as your wallets and surrender unto the Lord a love offering that will help me and my mission bring the word of God to our brothers and sisters far and wide."

     The Quite Reverend looked to his right and motioned to an assistant, who opened his lips as he raised his eyebrows, silently mouthing something which the preacher mistook for a stifled burp. Turning to his left, the Quite Reverend motioned to his other assistant, who exaggeratedly shook his head from side to side. The Quite Reverend turned back to the audience, waving his hands by his sides as a signal for his assistants to go out into the audience. The two men looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders, then, bending down, they each picked up a cardboard carton and started down the outer aisles.

     "As my assistants pass the collection baskets among you, remember what the Good Book says: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. Be generous with the Lord and He will be generous to you; stiff Him, and see what kind of service you get in the future."

     The assistants walked down the outer aisles, pausing at every other row to reach in their cartons and hand an ad hoc collection basket—the only kind they could find—to the person sitting in the end seat. They maintained perfect solemnity as they gave out an empty Maxwell House coffee can, a grease-stained red and white striped Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket, a Mr. Dee-Lish popcorn box, a Thom McCann shoe box, disposable aluminum meat loaf pans, a Wild Wild West lunch box, a white plastic colander, and the top of a Monopoly box complete with the instructions printed inside. Each person took the "basket" that was handed them, dropped their offering in it and passed it along, trying not to make an untoward face lest their true feelings be construed as questioning the sanity and abilities of a man of God.

     "We had to do something," one of the assistants whispered to the Quite Reverend when he returned to the stage. The baskets were being passed to the end of one row, then handed to the row behind it and passed back in the other direction

     "Let's just move this along as quickly as possible," the Quite Reverend replied sharply, "I don't like the feel of this at all."

     He would like the feel of it much better later that night when his assistants got around to adding up the collection results and discovered that what had been perceived by the crowd as a lack of money with which to buy standard collection baskets had played a sympathetic tap dance on their sense of charity, boosting the day's take a whopping 35% above expectations. This not only made the Quite Reverend very happy, but was the inspiration for what would become one of his most colorful trademarks: using a ragtag assortment of receptacles to collect the offering.

     But it didn’t feel very good while it was happening. While the baskets were being passed around, the assistants went backstage, where one of them picked up a cassette tape labeled "Meditation and Procession—The End" and slid it into the tape deck. They each picked up a brown cafeteria tray covered with blue and white plastic American Express tip trays, each tip tray holding two stacks of business-card size cards, one stack yellow and one stack orange. They returned to the stage.

     "Did you remember the music?" the Quite Reverend asked one of them.

     "It's ready and cued up," he replied. "Just hit the button on the remote."

     "Let us take this opportunity to thank the Lord for his help and guidance," the Quite Reverend told the crowd. "My assistants will now pass out prayer cards, each one bearing words of wisdom from the Good Book for you to ponder and meditate on, to guide you and to calm you. Let this be your personal prayer to remember in times of trouble, to lift up your spirits when they're down. Your personal prayer will reveal to each and every one of you a very special insight into yourself and your life. It will perhaps present the solution to a very troubling problem." He paused and looked at the small group of people still standing at the side of the stage waiting patiently to be healed. "The power of the Lord will rid you of your infirmity if you will let him into your heart. Your prayer card will be your medicine; Jesus Christ is your cure."

     The assistants walked down the aisles, exchanging a tip tray of cards for one of the motley assortment of collection boxes. Each person took a card from the top of one of the piles and passed the tray to the person sitting next to them.

     The Quite Reverend clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head. "Let us meditate on our prayer cards while the soothing sounds of heavenly hymns fill the air."

     He pressed the "Play" button on the remote in his hand, only to hear the white noise of blank tape hiss coming through the grey metal loudspeakers mounted on the tent poles. "You call that cued up?" he said to himself, wondering what could go wrong next.

     It only took a few seconds to find out, for that’s when the white noise was replaced by the throbbing beat of a bass guitar. The Quite Reverend furrowed his brow but kept his head bowed, trying to identify what was playing, for having used the same tapes for over three years meant he had the opening notes to "Meditation and Procession - The End" permanently embedded in his musical memory cells and this definitely was not it. A piano joined the bass, first playing along with the bass line, then embellishing it by adding a simple harmony part. As the drums picked up the beat, the Quite Reverend raised his eyes without lifting his head, straining to unobtrusively catch the eye of one of his assistants.

     The best things in life are free,
     But you can give 'em to the birds and bees.
     I need money. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I want. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I wa-a-a-a-a-ant. (That's what I want.)

     The Quite Reverend jerked his head up as his eyes darted around the tent, looking for his assistants. They were near the back of the tent, too busy handing out the last of the trays full of yellow and orange prayer cards while balancing an array of collection baskets that would have given a troupe of trained seals a fit to notice the decidedly offbeat—and unusually upbeat—musical selection.

     Your love gives me such a thrill,
     But your love don't pay my bills.
     I want money. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I want. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I wa-a-a-a-a-ant. (That's what I want.)

     The Quite Reverend started wildly waving his arms while darting from one side of the stage to the other trying to catch his assistants’ attention. He walked quickly to the curtains at the rear of the stage and tugged at them, desperately trying to find the center opening. He turned and saw one of his aides walking towards the stage with an arm full of shoe boxes, fried chicken buckets, and assorted other containers overflowing with silver coins, ones, fives, tens, twenties, and personal checks of all denominations. The Quite Reverend raced over to that side of the stage.

     "Fix it!" he called.

     "Fix what?"

     "The music, damn it! Are you deaf?"

     The assistant cocked his head and listened for a moment, his expression changing from puzzlement to confusion to wild-eyed panic. He started to dash backstage, the perilously balanced stack of collection baskets swaying.

     "I'll take those," the Quite Reverend barked, thrusting his arms out to his assistant who, startled by the preacher's sudden lunge, stopped cold in his tracks. Thanks to Newton's Second Law of Motion, which remains in effect even on a light gravity afternoon such as this, the stack of money-filled collection boxes continued their movement towards the backstage area without the benefit of the assistant's or the Quite Reverend’s hands to hold them. Moments later Newton's Law of Gravitation took over—never having been known to be one-upped by a measly second law—sucking the collection boxes and their contents towards the center of the Earth, though fortunately they were stopped from reaching the burning molten core by the soft ground and grass.

     "I'll take care of this," the Quite Reverend snapped as he fell to his hands and knees, scrambling to pick up the scattered paper money, checks, and change—why do people insist on donating change, anyway? "Just stop that God damned devil's music!"

     Money don't get everything it's true,
     But what it don't get I can't use.
     I need money. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I want. (That's what I want.)
     That's what I.....

     Silence. At last.

     "I swear to God," the Quite Reverend said aloud to himself, his voice carrying clear to the back of the hushed tent, "why the hell do I get saddled with such idiots? Is this some kind of cosmic test?" He greedily grabbed up fistsful of money, throwing it into the mismatched collection baskets. "It's a good thing I have the patience of Job and the bank account of Solomon," he continued, stuffing money in his jacket pockets, "'cause if my help had anything to do with it, a fool and his money would certainly soon be parted."

     The Quite Reverend was on the ground gathering up the spilt offering. His assistants were backstage arguing about whose fault it was that the collection baskets were missing and the cassette tape was mislabeled. The stage was empty and the loudspeakers were silent. The crowd started uneasily glancing at their watches, then at their neighbors, looking for some clue as to whether the meeting was over or not. The hoped-to-be-healed stood at the side of the stage eyeing each other questioningly.

     "I don't know about the rest of you," the arthritic old man loudly exclaimed as he hobbled towards an exit, "but I'm going somewhere where they understand the meaning of service. I'm starved."

     As if on cue the crowd stood up and began filing out.

      

Chapter 30 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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