Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 33

     The Bankers arrived at the Quite Reverend's tent meeting separately and left the same way, not out of any traditional family superstition—though there could have been a strong case for that considering Erta's nearly obsessive insistence on leaving a room through the same door she entered—but rather because that's just the way it happened. Jackson Robert had been so embarrassed by his being caught sleeping in public—not to mention babbling aloud to the crowd—that he slid out of the meeting as inconspicuously as possible and drove home, completely missing the evangelical coin toss. Once in the anonymous safety of the house, he lowered all the window shades, took off his shoes, got in bed with his clothes on, pulled the covers up over his head, and closed his eyes tightly.

     Erta became so enraptured of speaking in imitation tongues during the meeting that she remained in her seat practicing for some twenty-five minutes after it was over. When she finally felt that she had the brand new dialect down pat, no mean feat considering she'd only heard it one time through, she took a deep breath, held it in, and scared up the courage to look at her orange prayer card. She saw a drawing of the mustachioed man running at full gallop dragging a young boy behind him by the arm. It read:

Chance
ADVANCE TO
ST. CHARLES PLACE
IF YOU PASS GO, COLLECT $200

     She squinted her eyes and furrowed her brow—it made absolutely no sense to her as a prayer card, or for that matter, as anything else. "Ours is not to reason why," she said to herself as she dropped the card in her well-worn black purse and stood up, looking around for her husband. She would have been searching for Jet and Job also, but it never crossed her mind that either of them would be there. It didn't take long for her to scan the nearly empty tent, nor much longer to survey the now sparse parking lot.

     "He's a big boy, he can take care of himself," she said aloud as she started her car, pausing to wonder whether she was referring to Jackson Robert, Jet, or Job, and deciding that she really couldn't be talking about any of them.

     She stopped at Papandapoulas' New York Style Deli and bought five chicken pot pies for dinner, one for each with an extra for whoever needed it which, even though there was no way he would actually need it, would inevitably be Job. Erta thought these pot pies were special because they were homemade and had "real chunks of vegetables and whole pieces of chicken", but it was hard to fool the rest of the family—they knew that beneath the supposedly homemade veneer lurked a substance which was still just pot pie guts.

     As she sat in the car at the exit of the parking lot behind the deli waiting for a hole to appear in traffic, Erta glanced across the street at what had been the vacant building left by the recently closed Suds 'N Studs, a combination Laundromat and tuxedo rental store that never outgrew its conceptual identity crisis. A brand-new sign had been crudely painted across the front window by a neophyte sign painter who had better intentions than technique. In large, uneven black letters it announced:

The 1st Church of St. Charles of the Ritz

     The attracting force wouldn't have been any stronger had the building been the world's largest and strongest electromagnet. Erta opened the car door and walked across the street, leaving the car in the exit lane with the engine running. Gasoline has no meaning in the religious scheme of life.

     Thus was Erta introduced to the fourteenth of what would be her seventeen religions, this one presided over by Dr. Hans Leifsen, a first generation Italian-American from South Philly whose real name was Guido Carmine Vito Antonio D'Allesandro and who claimed to have a Ph.D. from the Stockholm College of Divinity, a school which it turns out actually existed, though its only curriculum was in the art of candy making. Dr. Hans, as he referred to himself, preached that since the body is the Lord's temple it's only fitting that we pay tribute to Him by making the structure as beautiful as possible. After all, the Catholic Church has never been known to deliberately build ugly cathedrals, have they? Hence, each member of this church was required to join the Dr. Hans-owned David and Goliath Exercise Club next door and have their hair cut at least weekly in Delilah's Beauty Salon, which was conveniently located in the rear of the building. Make-up tips and nutritional regimens were a regular part of the Sunday morning service, while referrals to his-brother-the-reconstructive-surgeon were made for those churchgoers who showed the greatest need by flaunting their wealth when the collection plate was passed around.

     During the seven months she would spend with this religion, Erta might not have moved any closer to salvation, but she would most certainly look better than she had during her tenure with any of the sixteen other religions.

     * * * * * *

     No sooner had the first person stood up to leave the tent than Job bolted out of his seat and made a beeline for daylight. He quickly trotted to the nearest parked car and ducked behind it. There, shielded from the emerging crowd's view, he paranoically looked around and, satisfied he wasn't being watched, pulled three prayer cards from his pocket. Job figured that if one prayer card was good for him, three would no doubt triple his fortunes. Even in matters of religion and fate Job was just plain greedy.

     The first card he looked at was a yellow one which showed the mustachioed man looking at his pocket watch in surprise. The card read:

Community Chest
Grand Opera Opening
COLLECT $50
FROM EVERY PLAYER
FOR OPENING NIGHT SEATS

     Job sneered and crinkled his nose in disgust. "I hate the fuckin' opera," he said. He looked at the second card, which was orange with a drawing of the mustachioed man hugging a woman, presumably his wife.

Chance
YOUR BUILDING
AND LOAN MATURES
COLLECT $150

     Job screwed up his face, furrowing his brow as he stared at the enigmatic card. A building he knew, a loan he knew, but he had no earthly idea what a building and loan could be, except of course that he had to admit it seemed to pay quite well when it matured. He looked at the third card, also yellow, which showed the mustachioed man hoisting a huge stocking overflowing with money over his head.

Community Chest
XMAS FUND
MATURES
COLLECT $100

     Job shook his head hard as if to clear it. What kind of a religious prayer card spells Christmas as "Xmas"? Just as he was about to tear the cards into little pieces and scatter them to the winds, Ironhead Fiore, the quarterback of the high school football team, popped around the side of the car.

     "Wanna trade prayer cards?" Job asked him.

     "Do I want to what?"

     "Do you wanna trade prayer cards?" Job repeated.

     "What are you, nuts or something?"

     "No, why?"

     "Why the hell would I want to trade prayer cards," Ironhead asked, "better yet trade 'em with you? It's probably a sacrilege. Maybe even a mortal sin."

     "No way," Job told him, "didn't you hear when the preacher said you can trade 'em with your friends and collect the whole set just like baseball cards?"

     Ironhead looked at him doubtfully. "Nah, I don't think so."

     "He did," Job said emphatically, holding up his right hand with three fingers extended in the International Symbol of a sworn promise. "So how 'bout it?"

     "Nah."

     "I'll give you two cards for your one."

     "Hmmm," Ironhead buzzed as he thought about it for a moment, "Nope, don't think so."

     "Aw c'mon, man."

     "Uh-uh," Ironhead said as he turned to walk away.

     "Okay, okay," Job said. "You drive a hard bargain. I'll trade you three prayer cards, two yellow ones and one orange one, for your one. But that's my last offer."

     Ironhead stopped and turned around. He looked at Job, trying to figure out why in the world he was so desperate to trade cards. Finally, not being able to think of any good reason not to do it, he went ahead and swapped with Job, who nonchalantly stuffed his new card in his pocket and strolled away. He walked about ten steps before turning around and, seeing that Ironhead was examining his three new cards, took off at a full run, trying to put as much distance between them as possible before Ironhead realized he had three of the most unsuitable and inscrutable prayer cards ever printed.

     It wasn't until he was about half a block from home that Job stopped to catch his breath and started laughing at the great swindle he'd just pulled off. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the yellow card he'd gotten from Ironhead. There was a drawing of the mustachioed man holding a bouquet of flowers while wearing a ribbon sash that read "2nd Pri". The card read:

Community Chest
YOU HAVE WON
SECOND PRIZE
IN A
BEAUTY CONTEST
COLLECT $10

     He stared at the card in disbelief. Only Second Prize? And what's with the lousy ten bucks anyway? Had he kept the other cards he would have been in line for hundreds of dollars, maybe more if there were lots of players. Hell, each person who was in the tent probably counted as a player, meaning he could have gotten thousands even.

     What kind of shit is this?

     He angrily tore the card into little jaggedy pieces, threw them on the ground, and stomped on them over and over and over. He left the pieces where they were and continued stomping his feet all the way home where he stomped into the back hallway, stomped through the kitchen, stomped up the stairs, and stomped into his bedroom.

     "Is that you, Job?" Jackson Robert called out.

     Job slammed his bedroom door so hard the mirror fell off the back of the door and shattered into a million pointy little bad luck pieces.

     "Guess so," Jackson Robert said.

     * * * * * *

     Jet left the tent meeting early, though not as early as Jackson Robert had. He didn't leave out of embarrassment like his father, nor because he was afraid to be around when everyone got a look at their prayer cards. Jet left simply because he was bored.

     Jet's tolerance for boredom was about on par with his brother's tolerance for frustration. He'd been itching to leave the tent for quite some time, in fact he had once but came back because of his well-known curiosity. When the white-haired woman wearing the blue hat and white gloves who was sitting next to him handed over the stack of prayer cards, Jet smiled sweetly, took the top card, and passed the deck to the person on his right. He flipped the orange card over just as the Quite Reverend loudly dropped the odd array of collection baskets; the about to ensue commotion would be just the diversion he was looking for. He dropped his prayer card on the ground.

     "Excuse me," he said to the woman sitting next to him as he fell to all fours in a mock search for the card, which he quickly palmed and slid into his shirt pocket.

     "Excuse me. Pardon me. Sorry," he said to each person as he crawled past their legs on his way to the end of the row, where he slithered on his stomach under the bottom of the canvas tent, making a successful escape to the freedom of the parking lot.

     He stood up and brushed himself off, then sauntered down Broad Street reading posters for yard sales, stopping to salivate over the cheese Danish in the bakery that cost seven cents more than he had in his pocket, and kicking any empty soda cans that came within ten feet of him.

     As he stood at the curb waiting for a break in traffic so he could cross the street near Cordin's Jewelry Store, he spied a mud splattered white van sitting at the red light. The driver of the van was on the way to the car wash to have the heavily caked-on mud—which he'd gotten all over the van when he took it for a high-speed rally run through the quarry outside of town—washed off before his employer realized he not only had very little regard for company property, but had even less for the concept of working for his salary.

     When the van would emerge from the two dollar brushless car wash the neat navy blue letters of the sign painted on the side of the van would read:

Goddwin’s Hardware

     But when Jet saw the truck as he waited to cross the street, big blobs of splattered mud obliterated much of the side of the truck, including five of the navy blue letters. It read:

     God win’s a war

     Had the Quite Reverend seen this, he would have thought it to be an obvious truth—since he was convinced that God wins every war—and he would immediately incorporate the concept into his next sermon, repeating it nightly for the next three weeks as he so often did. Had Jackson Robert seen the sign, he would have pointed out that the apostrophe was extraneous, for he, like so many compulsives, often had great difficulty seeing the words for the punctuation errors. Had Erta seen the splattered sign, she would have wondered what the war was about and who lost, since she always had a penchant for the underdog, whether she knew who it was and what they were fighting for or not. And had Job seen the sign, he would have gotten angry because as far as he was concerned if God had won, it meant he had lost, since to Job's simplistic-negative-egocentric way of thinking everything in life inevitably came down to "them and me."

     When Jet saw the sign on the truck, it immediately reminded him of the orange card in his pocket. He pulled it out. It was blank. When he turned it over, he didn't see a drawing of the mustachioed man, his tuxedo, cane, or top hat—just black thin-lined wedding invitation script which read:

Be not rash with thy mouth.
Ecclesiastes 5:2

     He handed it to the first person who walked by.

 

Chapter 34 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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