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Sweet Armageddon

ISSUE:  Summer 1988

Quiet winter thunder during the blowing night caused Amos to turn his head on the pillow and lift his thin aching body to stare toward the nailed window. Skeletal branches of a leafless redbud jerked as if suffering. His breathing slowed, though Martha sighed beside him, hers a gentle wheeze. Fingers of her right hand drifted across the sheet in search of him.

. . . a great earthquake . . . the moon became as blood. . . .

The thunder was a CSX coal drag passing through Richmond’s freight yard on a journey to Newport News and the bay. The coal would be dumped into a ship’s hold, blackness showering down, and if a man lay under it, could he know a deeper darkness? Yes. At the end would come the perfection of everything, even of blackness itself.

He lowered himself to the bed so as not to disturb Martha. He no longer minded his body’s pain. Pain was honest and spoke the truth. When an arm, a shoulder, a spinal disc hurt, the message signaled a malfunctioning of parts. Pain, too, would be perfected. Was not that the message given mankind these last days?

. . . thrust in thy sickle and reap . . . for the time is come . . . the harvest of the earth is ripe. . . .

Signs were incessant, their velocity increasing like a whirlwind. Everywhere his eyes fell on destruction. INFANT BABY FOUND IN DUMPSTER. He’d wakened during the chilled night and pictured a newborn child among egg shells, rinds, and moist coffee grounds. Images of wickedness no longer sickened him. They confirmed.

. . . I will turn thee back and put hooks in thy jaws. . . .

He listened to sounds from the street: a pickup starting, dogs barking, shoes slapping cracked pavement. In this neighborhood somebody was always running, flight in their feet, rapacity in their stride. Wind gusted, causing a limb of the redbud to scrape the gutter. Noise easily penetrated the flimsy siding of the tiny house.

Despite the constant scouring of limb against gutter, he slipped back into a dusky sleep for 30 minutes, brought fully awake by squealing tires and the gunning of an engine in front of the house, a residence never new for him and Martha, lived in dozens of times before they rented it from a dark man who came late Friday nights to collect his money. Floors were covered with buckled linoleum, windows needed caulking, and the water heater leaked. About was the faint smell of gas. Down at the corner the neighborhood became black. Numberless raucous children spun frantically or climbed misshapen apple trees to throw hard, shriveled fruit at one another.

He and Martha had never owned a house, not in 42 years of marriage. They possessed only a few sticks of furniture. All their lives together they had been sojourners. How many decrepit residences filled with cast-off sofas, chairs whose legs were not substantial, dishes stained yellow, knives never sharp? If they wanted to discard an item, the hullabaloo among the congregations.

How long, O Lord? How long?

He dressed slowly, careful of his balance, or lack of it, steadying himself on the antique chest of drawers from Martha’s family as he pulled at his long Johns and heavy trousers. He wore also a plaid shirt, a sweater, and a wool cap. He’d once been tall, had run the distances at Davidson, and established a North Carolina collegiate record for the mile which remained on the books nearly a decade. Age, the relentless wear of the ministry, had honed him down.

. . . even to hoar hairs will I carry you . . . .

For a time a black-and-white photograph of him hung in the gym passageway, framed behind glass, and during years he returned to homecomings, he walked past that picture, not eyeing it openly, glancing sidelong shyly. The October afternoon he passed and it was gone, he broke stride and felt breathless, as if he’d been robbed of his body.

. . . God will not hear vanity . . . .

He walked softly down through the cold house to the kitchen, so small and dismal in spite of paintings—flaming mums, pink roses, blue iris—Martha had put up, none new, most done years before she gave herself entirely to him, her life, her dreams, in the old way of women to men. He clenched his eyes as if he stood in a storm at thoughts of what he’d given her in return.

Her hair had once been thickly dark, and she’d been gladdened by all sights before her violet eyes, a child at a feast till he took her into the mountains where they lived in little more than a shack, the wind a skinning knife, howling like the damned, their water frozen, she in a mink coat as she chipped ice from their sink and tried not to weep. He held her shivering body against his own, trying to keep her from knowing winter.

. . . they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her. . . .

He stopped before this scarred sink, blackened where dripping had worn away enamel. The faucets he’d fixed countless times ate washers. He bent to look out the window at the narrow back yard and the unpainted plank fence. His patching hadn’t prevented children from using his yard as a short cut to an alley which in turn led to a street and middle-school playground. They left a trail which ruined his meager grass. Children climbed over, dogs dug under despite brickbats and rocks he’d stomped into holes. A mongrel turned on him snarling, backing Amos into his own house.

. . . then shall be great tribulation . . . one stone not left upon another. . . .

He peered at the sky. For an instant a growing redness thrilled him, a celestial conflagration, yet even as his knees gave, he saw it was only the sun’s first scarlet rays striking breaking clouds, He pictured the cataclysm, the rolling thunder and terrifying lightning streaking down black corridors of earth, the dazzling rapture in the heavens.

He heated a pan of water for his tea. He did not drink coffee or other stronger stimulants. His freshman year in college he’d become tipsy when an upperclassman fed him grapefruit juice spiked with tasteless vodka. Amos climbed an ancient sycamore beside the river and alarmed others, who called for him to come down from the white branches. Like a tightrope walker, he made his way along a limb, not realizing what he’d drunk, believing his feeling the joy of life on a languid June day, the goodness of God’s world. He spread his arms and dived into the fast tawny water. They thought him dead, broken and drowned, but he was merely knocked windless, his face and chest lacerated. They cheered him that afternoon, girls too, and he received a bid to a good fraternity, which he declined not only from lack of funds but also the suspicion he was already promised.

. . . wine . . . at the last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder . . . .

So many doors had been open to him, hallways of marble and power. A recruiter offered a position with the trust department of the largest bank in Virginia; yet Amos made his irrevocable choice, which came not on a mountaintop or even a scene of beauty and peace, but along a busy Richmond street when he while wrestling with decision looked upward among shadows of tomb-like buildings to a simple cross touched by resplendent sunlight atop the belfry of a colonial church as out of place in the business district as milk among oil. That cross sparkled in his eyes, seemed to detach itself and float down like a shimmering blossom and settle burning on his forehead, a divine kiss. At the same time over the din of traffic, under it, from within, from everywhere, he heard a still small voice say, “Take my hand and walk with me.”

. . . choose you this day whom you will serve. . . .

His water was ready, the boiling sounding hollow in the nearly empty pan. He sat at a small table he himself had built. He was no handyman, no person with a gift for tools, but he’d been forced through necessity to adapt his fingers to hammer and saw. He could repair leaks, mend furniture, and had wired the extra telephone to the bedroom upstairs.

As if his thinking caused it, those phones rang now. He hurried to the one at the foot of the steps so Martha would not be disturbed.

“Shiner,” the voice said. “Blind my eyes!”

Laughter before the connection broke. Neighborhood children who made fun of his baldness, the sunlight reflecting from it. They would never believe he’d had fine hair once, auburn locks which fell across his brow when he preached. He hardly remembered losing it, as if he’d wakened one winter morning, gazed into the mirror, and seen for the first time the deterioration wrought by service and age.

. . .Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season. . . .

A rumbling, a vibration which reached his feet through the floor. He stood from the table, rushed to the front door, and opened it. Sounds of traffic, always, night or day. Wet discolored leaves lay flat against broken pavement. A flight of pigeons flew over so close he heard the wash of their wings. Then sonic boom, the plane unseen, perhaps an aircraft to be used by God for the last closing of His angry hand. The plane flew on.

He knelt for the newspaper on the stoop. During the summer glossy blue lizards had crept from crumbled mortar to sun themselves and made him think of Brazil and his years among Indians at the jungle’s edge—quiet, dark-eyed people whose aroused savagery was like the wrath of terrible children. Now he lived in the American jungle proclaimed by the Times-Dispatch he held: MAN KNIFES TWO DAUGHTERS, WIFE, NEIGHBOR.

He stopped reading and would allow his subscription to lapse. Did he not know what appeared in the papers and periodicals before they lay at his door?

. . . nation shall rise against nation . . . earthquakes. . . famine . . .pestilences . . . fearful sights. . . .

Fearful sights: LONG VIOLATED CHILDREN CLAIM THEY LOVE THEIR FATHER. God’s omnipotent hand was lifted against the world’s culminating evil.

. . . she shall be burned with fire; for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her . . . .

As he returned to the kitchen, he heard Martha rise from their bed and scuff her way to the house’s single bathroom. He listened to her cough and the gurgling of the old plumbing. She washed herself. He knew every sound of her. Long ago they reached the point when nothing was hidden. Dissected each was before the other’s eye, but tenderly.

. . . better a dinner of herbs where love is . . . .

She came down the steps, a brittle woman now, her skin old linen, her arms crossed against cold, her posture pulled forward by the arms. She’d wrapped herself in a mended lilac housecoat. She wore her white wool socks pulled high on her shrinking calves and the rose-colored slippers he’d bought for her last birthday. Her hair, now sparsely white and carefully brushed, had been what first attracted him as he walked behind her from a Grace Street market—long, bouncy, alive with a sunlit vibrancy.

“I’ll do your tea,” he said, again haunted by her face, time’s leaching of it. Her smile was automatic, her brave banner. She could’ve come from some great misfortune, a ghastly hurt or death, and her eyes darted at him as if surprised he was in the house.

. . . bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. . . .

“Will you be going to the post office?” she asked, her voice a slight tremolo. With a ladylike sweep of hands, she sat at the table and prayed. Her bluish fingers curved to her cup. He felt he could’ve reached to her hair and plucked it from her head like cotton. I never wanted this to happen to you, he thought. I meant to bring you treasure.

Yes, he said, he would go to the post office, but first he fixed her a slice of toast, buttered it, and spread it with orange marmalade. He didn’t realize the hot water had again failed till he rinsed his cup at the sink. She’d washed herself in cold and not complained.

He crossed to the utility closet at the rear of the kitchen where the heater was enclosed, pipes rusty and corroded around the joints. As he sniffed, he adjusted the burner, yet no matter how he fooled with the controls, the yellow flame burned feebly and as if about to expire. He’d telephoned the gas company and been told it was not their responsibility since the heater was inside the house. That meant asking a plumber to come, and the last insolent bloodsucker had charged $25.00 just for walking in the door.

On his knees he shut off the gas, cleaned the burner nozzle with a snip of stove wire, and again lit the flame. He looked for Martha and found her in the parlor dusting—parlor too grand a word for the shadowy room hardly large enough to hold the love seat, the black upright piano, and two chairs. He’d taped the rosebud wallpaper at the top to keep it from peeling farther. A dampness prevailed even in summer.

At times she played the piano, leaning to the hymnal open upon it, her delicate fingers arched to the keys as if touching flesh. From walls hung more of her flower paintings and sunny landscapes as well as the enlargement of him and her young and shining on a Brazil beach with Mary standing between them—Mary, four years old, a bright grinning little girl who held a seashell toward the camera while beyond lay the ocean, not blue, but a shimmering undisturbed green, like a pasture, solid enough to walk across.

. . . the flocks of my pasture are men. . . .

“Let me,” he said, drawing the dust rag, a piece of old flannel nightgown, from her hand. She’d been running it over the coffee table which held the theological phamphlets, his Bible, and the one book he’d authored, The Ever Perfect God, published not by any notable press but a private Memphis house with the last money Martha had held onto from her inheritance. The volume received one review, that in a conservative Presbyterian journal, and sold less than 200 copies over a decade. Cardboard boxes containing the remainder of the limited printing were stored in the cramped, dirt-dauber infested attic.

“I’m stronger today” she told him, not wishing to give up the cloth.

“Better to rest.”

What was wrong with her? Nothing specific, no ailment the doctor could positively identify and say do this, do that. She had simply broken down physically, her body called on too long to bear weight and function. At times a hand would not obey or a leg wobble. In lifting her cup, she might bump her chin. She stumbled when no obstruction existed to tangle her feet.

He accompanied her up to their bed, the room displaying pots of flowers on a bench before the window. All windows were nailed against thieves. She kept plants growing no matter where they traveled over the earth. The view was to the east and brown frame houses nearly identical to the one they lived in, dwellings built for employees at the Philip Morris stemmery from which the coarse odor of tobacco seeped through the neighborhood.

A middle-age man who worked for the city lived directly across the street, and Amos had seen him beat his wife—on a Saturday night, a silent, flat drama during which the woman simply hunched against a wall and held fingers curved over her face. She was passive, sullen, and never raised her eyes. Her flaxen hair flung about with the blows.

. . . woman is the glory of man. . . .

Martha turned on her side toward the flowers. He went back downstairs, buttoned up his overcoat, and reset his cap. When he left the house, he relocked the door behind, though anyone half determined could easily force entrance.

Break-ins around the neighborhood were almost as common as the arrogant quarreling starlings, and during late summer he’d wakened with the certainty somebody stood outside touching the house. He switched on the bedside lamp, hoping to scare off whoever was there, but pretended to Martha he wished only to rearrange the coverlet.

. . . I come as a thief. . . .

Wind gusted, punching him, gathering street grit to throw against his face, stirring trash of the gutters. A bristling cur barked at him, the stiffly moving dog member of a gang which dug in his yard. He walked wide to pass, careful to keep his gaze from meeting the animal’s bulging lustrous eyes, a contact, he’d read, which often prompted attack.

He needed gloves. He turned up his coat collar and again adjusted the cap loose on his head. Was he actually shrinking? He felt smaller, lighter, as if his bones were twigs and his skin paperish fabric over them. If he knocked against an object, he might tear.

He glanced at the sky, a silverish blue, cumulous clouds bunching, steeds of the heavens.

. . . behold a pale horse . . . his name that sat on him was Death. . . .

Two blacks ran down the sidewalk toward him, causing fear to squeeze up through his chest to his throat. As they flew past, he whirled. They sped across a lot where a house had burned to cinders. At the rear they leaped through a fence gap. No one gave chase. His heart beat wildly.

At the corner he walked toward Belvedere and his post office. He allowed no mail delivery to the house. Too much was stolen on the block, including a check that had required months to straighten out with the Board of Missions. For an entire week he and Martha lived mostly on breakfast food, peanut butter, and A&P pancake mix.

Sirens startled him, and he winced as fire engines swept by, red lights flaring and reflecting from the trucks’ yellow sheen. Their power pushed against him like a flow of water, and he reached both hands to his cap to hold it in place. The roar cause his ears to ache. Great tires beat the pavement, and the tromboning exhausts left behind an oily blue pall.

. . . power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. . . .

Again he walked, on the fringe of commerce now, a beauty parlor, a music store displaying a trumpet in its dusty window, a doughnut shop, a launderette where women slouched smoking and waiting in plastic orange chairs, used furniture sold on the sidewalk, motorcycles, some disemboweled. Across a wall an obscene word had been sprayed with red paint.

Then the gauntlet, the youths loitering, both black and white, a few older, yet not men either, people in society’s limbo, only dangerous. They leaned against storefronts and power poles, hands in jackets, their eyes weighing passersby. Amos believed they sensed when he carried money, that those feral eyes invaded his pockets and it was only a matter of time and opportunity till he was seized and shaken to be emptied.

“Give us the word, Shiner,” one said, though Amos saw no lips move. The laughter contained no mirth, and he willed himself not to hurry or show his fright. Blood pounded his ears.

. . . in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts. . . .

The post office was a substation where clerks worked behind caged windows. Tarnished combination boxes were no longer used, their glass insets shattered. A trash bin overflowed. The spray painter had been here too, the same filthy word Written this time over a spotless young sailor proclaiming GO WITH THE BEST.

Amos stood in line. Ahead were two black women, one holding a baby which peered over its mother’s shoulder at him, the ebony eyes unblinking and seemingly worldly. The other woman bought a money order and stamped envelope, acts which required shifts of a shopping bag and pocketbook. Suddenly the baby started crying, still staring at Amos, and the mother faced him as if he’d done something to cause it.

When Amos reached the window, the clerk recognized him and turned to ranks of wooden alphabetized pigeonholes. Apprehension gripped Amos when he failed to see the grayish envelope sent by Ministerial Retirement, but then it appeared, lodged between unsolicited catalogues. He kept all catalogues, not that he ordered from them, but it pleased Martha to leaf through the pages.

A fourth piece of mail was a letter from the development office at Davidson. He no longer sent money, yet the college continued to carry him on its roll. Once he’d welcomed the magazine, eager to learn what classmates were doing. Now it was as if the time he knew those men had been in another century. At least the hurt was gone, his sense of failure caused by turning page after page listing accomplishments and awards. The year his book came out, Davidson mentioned it—not with a review of recommendation, but merely a sentence in the alumni notes.

. . . envy is the rottenness of the bones. . . .

He began the second leg of his journey, the walk from the post office to the bank. He fitted the check into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled his sweater down tight against it. As he crossed the street with the light, a city bus rolled by so close he felt its diesel exhaust blow against his legs. Passengers stared at him from the superiority of elevation. The rear of the bus displayed a poster of a beautiful black girl wearing a skimpy pink bathing suit and drinking a diet cola.

He passed the tattoo parlor, relieved that this time of morning no gangs loitered at the entrance, and averted his eyes from the coiled green dragon with its yellow fiery mouth and split red tongue. There were carmine hearts, serpents, and a voluptuous Asiatic woman who grew from petals of a blue tulip. The whore, he thought, of Babylon.

Then a series of empty stores, one with headless unclothed manikins in the window. He heard a moan, perhaps human, or the wind, and thought of hideous perversions taking place in darkness. He was glad to see in the distance a city policeman mounted on a plodding sorrel.

. . . Behold a red horse. . . .

He pressed his inner arm against the check, so little for what he’d given the church. It, his social security, and the pittance from the Board of Missions were all he had in this world. For a time he held services in the abandoned bakery, preaching the word to men whose drink- and life-ravaged faces were glazed with doom and despair.

He passed an alley, careful to curve out from it in case anyone lay in wait, and saw two grown men fighting—hitting each other with quiet deadliness, both bloody, clothes torn, their bodies bunched in violence. He hurried past.

. . . every man’s sword shall be against his brother. . . .

Even this paltry check had to be cashed at a bank. For that he needed to cross Broad Street, like a border where one stepped into a more prosperous country. White buildings rose in the sunshine, concrete gleamed, and tinted glass shone as if lavender insect eyes. A fountain splashed above a scalloped pond before the temple of money.

. . . I will rain upon him an overflowing rain. . . .

Swift doors hissed open before him, and he walked among potted shrubs, blond furniture, and sculptured birds on pedestals. Vultures, he thought. He signed the back of the check before a teller’s eyes, a young woman painted and doll-like who always asked whether he had an account, though certain he did not. She’d seen him a hundred times, yet required identification which she studied before accepting the check and subtracting the bank’s five-dollar fee. He and Martha could eat an entire day on that fee.

Cash in hand, he feared the return to the house. He thought of himself as an unarmed ship making its way among mines and submarines. His routine was to travel extra blocks to avoid the route used to come to the bank. Often he wove a path through a Safeway store to throw off anyone who might be following.

He had another trick. He sat in a chair near the bank’s entrance and when nobody watched bent quickly to shape the dollar bills around his skinny ankle. He jerked his white cotton sock up over it. Elastic bound the money tight. A surprised woman customer glanced down at him. He pretended to be retying his shoelaces.

The large man walked laughing from the manager’s office beside the radiant vault. He wore a gray overcoat and matching homburg. Despite his size, he moved easily, and his skin shone under the gilded lighting. His dark trousers were creased, his black shoes polished. He pulled on yellow pigskin gloves as he talked back over his shoulder to the manager, who followed with an air of subservience. The large man’s green eyes swept past Amos and leaped back.

“Speed, is it you?” he asked.

“Whale?” Amos replied, and they held out their arms to each other and hugged. Whale buffeted him, pounded his back, danced him while the branch manager, tellers, and customers watched and smiled.

“Look at him, will you!” Whale cried, holding Amos at arms’ length and turning him for all to see. Whale’s complexion was rosy, his teeth outsized. Swept-back silverish hair had been precisely barbered, the flesh of his jowls shaved to a gloss. He smelled of cologne. Those heavy jowls quivered with happiness.

“Thinking about you just this morning, telling Pam how you and I stole the class bell and hid it in the cemetery!” Whale said, still manhandling Amos. “Listen, you’re eating breakfast with me.”

Denying Whale was like standing up to a force of nature. He was all encompassing arms and pressing body. Amos explained he had to get back to Martha, and Whale offered to pick her up too. Amos didn’t want him to see the shabby little house, the decaying neighborhood, his diminished wife.

“She can’t,” She said. “She’s under the care of a doctor.”

A bent truth, and he hated lying. All his life in the big things he’d told the truth, but he would protect Martha from being shocked and humiliated by having Whale appear at the door while she had no time to prepare herself, mask her frailty, induce color into her cheeks, lift from the closet some last sheer garment.

“We’ll take her flowers,” Whale said, and Amos dissuaded him from that too. The easiest thing was to go to breakfast and escape as soon as possible. The manager invited Amos into the paneled office and handed him a modish phone. His fingers shaky, Amos touched the lighted buttons while Whale and the manager stood in the doorway talking of new accounts. The manager, a fair young man, wore a charcoal suit with vest.

The phone rang seven times before Martha answered, and Amos almost panicked. He pictured her lying on the floor of the cold house, her robe loose, her feet bare. He thought of her violated and bloody. Then her voice—well-bred, friendly, despite the tremolo expressing no alarm.

“Why I’m fine,” she said. “I was playing the piano. Whale? You mean Thomas Ferguson? How nice. You were such friends. Don’t you worry about me. I’m warm. He used to ask me out. Always breaking things. Tell him I send my love.”

“If you smell gas—”

“Amos, I’m not helpless.”

Then Whale had the phone from his hand, talking to Martha, his voice loud and hearty, speaking so everybody in the bank could hear, calling her beautiful, telling her she’d always been his favorite girl, promising that his Pam would get them together for dinner. Though dinner was never likely—Amos had learned to come up with excuses—he knew how pleased and flattered Martha must be. He imagined her lifting fingers to her hair in the immemorial primping gesture of women.

He received the phone back but was hardly able to hang up before Whale had hold of him again, crowding him out through the lobby and glass doors. They crossed to the lot at the side of the bank where a bluish black limousine was parked in a reserved space. The upholstery was tan leather, and the dash controls had the stainless steel complexity of a laboratory. It is, Amos thought, the kind of car I’ve ridden in only at funerals. The smiling manager opened the door for Whale and waved as they backed away.

. . . all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them. . . .

“I no longer need to work,” Whale told Amos. “They kicked me upstairs, use me mostly on consulting stuff. But I love it.”

He drove aggressively, pushing the car’s nose into the street so boldly the other traffic had to swerve, honk, make room. Whale grinned and winked as he sped them downtown.

“Where you carrying us?” Amos asked.

“Going to fatten you up, buddy. Now give me a playback on your life these past years.”

Amos wouldn’t even attempt to explain he’d been to the mountains, runty towns, the muddied Amazon, to Philistines everywhere, that he’d been mocked and rejected and was not only waiting for the end but praying for it. Each morning he opened his eyes hoping the dawn the last the heavens were denied to the faithful. Whale couldn’t understand. Amos might as well be speaking a dead language. He said he’d merely been occupied with duties of the ministry till his retirement of the last 18 months.

“I noticed you limping,” Whale said.

“The gnawings of arthritis.”

“Thought maybe a witch doctor got you. You were down in the jungle, weren’t you? Poisoned spear or arrow. Makes a better story.”

They’d roomed together at Davidson, both athletes, Whale center on the football team, yet they were never alike. Whale worshiped in chapel with no more change of spirit than when snapping his wet towel through the locker room or lying beside a girl in the grass. Amos loved him, however, and helped him graduate, while Whale in his turn wished to share every delight he came upon with Amos.

They moved along stately Monument Avenue now, before the granite mansions artfully restored under the gaze of Confederate heroes on horses forever prancing. Stylish people walked between painted black jockeys and wrought-iron lamps and gates. Brass nameplates on elegant porches glinted. Cars parked at the curbs had the European flair.

. . . riches profit not in the days of wrath. . . .

“You took Martha away, you know that,” Whale said. “Why she picked a brain like you instead of a warm lovable human being like me, I can’t figure. And you dragged her to the jungle.”

Whale drove too fast and waved at a policeman beyond Lee’s statue. Amos had taken Martha down there and remembered the pain in her violet eyes when she first saw children with open sores. She’d kept the clinic running even as funds were withdrawn, till in her weakness and despair at the death of their daughter Mary she’d also fallen prey to meningitis and lain burning with fever on a straw mattress for 20 days. He would lift her mosquito netting and sponge her parchment-like face, and during that 20th day she raised fingers to his wrist, making no words with her trembling lips but a sound like the rasping of sandpaper.

. . . beauty is vain but a woman that feareth the Lord shall be praised. . . .

“Me, I’ve tied the knot again,” Whale said, slowing at a light, yet impatient, the signal a personal affront for changing against him. They stopped beside a church built of hewn stone in the Gothic manner, a soaring structure whose arched stained-glass windows portrayed the feeding of the multitude, Christ’s walking on water, and the dolorous procession of the cross. It was a society church, the sort of pulpit Amos had never been offered. His largest congregation was less than 200 souls, and in the end he lost even that because of the stand he’d taken.

“What happened to your first wife?” he asked.

“Becky left me for a Winston-Salem horse breeder. Parting was friendly, unlike Tess who was looking for a fancy man— which God knows I’m not—and tried to empty my pockets.”

“Tess?” Amos asked, turning to him. “You’ve been married three times?”

“I believe in family,” Whale said and laughed as he punched at Amos with gloved knuckles.

Whale apparently traded in women like his cars for newer sleeker models. During Amos’ life it never occurred to him his helpmate could be other than Martha. She was more than anything he believed he would ever possess or deserve. When in Cumberland Gap the pretty redheaded organist entered his study and bared her breasts for him, he’d bowed his head and covered his eyes, causing her to pull furiously at her blouse and leave the church not to come back.

. . . thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the side of thine house. . . .

Whale swerved at one of the grander brownstones. Before the entrance was a green canopy with white initials in English script. Amos glimpsed an empty terrace, balconies, and a uniformed doorman. The place was a private men’s club.

“I’m not dressed for this!” Amos protested.

“Saturday mornings make no difference,” Whale said. “Men come anyway they want. I’ve been in Bermudas.”

He parked in a fenced lot, waved their way past the guard, and they entered the club by a side entrance which led to a plush foyer and elevator. They went up from street level to the first floor with its wine carpets and gilt portraits of Lee, Jackson, and Stuart. Wooden columns and wainscoting reflected an amber light. They hung their coats on numbered brass-capped pegs.

Amos, aware of his seediness, felt a surge of inferiority. He seemed insubstantial and as if he’d cast no shadow in these opulent rooms hung with hunting tapestries and glittering teardrop chandeliers. Whale, laying an arm around Amos’s shoulder, forced him along.

They passed through double doors into a vaulted chamber where three long rows of banquet tables had been set and men were already eating, drinking, calling to one another. Whale had been correct about dress. Some were indeed properly turned out while others wore jeans, boots, and a few who’d been playing squash or paddle tennis had on sweat suits. The room was too warm, logs burning in a stone fireplace large enough to enclose a small car. Above the fireplace another portrait, this one of a stern periwigged George Washington. Whale hauled Amos around to make introductions.

“This character got me through college,” Whale said. “I’d flunked everything except women without him.”

Big men, beefy, important, who shook hands strongly, and Amos felt the emanations of power from their florid fingers. Casual dress or not, there were fine watches, diamonds, and the tables were covered with heavy linen, silver, and delicate crystal. Shiny black waiters in white jackets carried trays steaming with meat, eggs, pastries, and pewter pots of jams, coffee, cream.

The world’s victors, Amos thought, and stiffened his back. He held their eyes. They possessed the sureness and strength of those dedicated to money. He sat and ate at the urgings of Whale, who heaped his plate, but the hotly spiced abundance was dust in his mouth. He felt small, old, and angry he’d devoted his life to God’s work for so little while these men reveled in vulgar abundance.

Immediately he was shamed at himself and silently asked forgiveness. Their time would come. It was written:

. . . the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn . . . for no man buyeth their merchandise any longer . . . the gold and silver, the precious stones . . . purple and silk . . . ivory . . . chariots . . . and souls of men. . . .

“He was better than the rest of us,” Whale said, talking loud enough to be heard down the table. “He made us feel we’d spit on the floor. One hell of a guy.”

Let him talk, Amos thought, not attempting to explain his life now, for it would be inconceivable to Whale and those gathered here to feast that before the church court he’d charged his denomination was becoming too liberal and worldly. He argued men of the cloth no longer believed fully in the sacred invioability of Scripture, that pastors stood in the pulpit who denied the Virgin birth and the veiy deity of Jesus Himself, calling Him merely a window on the nature of God. Christ a window! What blasphemy!

So he’d written his book, The Ever Perfect God, the volume he’d spent the last of Martha’s inheritance on, and named names, called lords of the church Pharisees whose interests were their own ambitions and not the spread of the pure and holy Word.

. . . they shall lay hands on you and persecute you. . . .

He wasn’t banished. The church no longer did that, believing itself too civilized. He was given a softly worded warning by the Committee on Ministers, yet afterwards had slight chance of finding a congregation. The story spread he was a belligerent fundamentalist and trouble maker. He would’ve accepted even a country pulpit, but no delegation arrived to hear him preach or question his theology. In a sick, facile society which had forgotten its roots, he carried spiritual contagion.

Finally it had been left to him to nail up a sign Martha painted over the doorway of the closed neighborhood bakery. Daily he preached to those off the street who sat in secondhand chairs and sang from tattered hymnals while Martha played a piano the keys of which stuck. The lost, the drunks, the derelicts, men and women who hoped for a little warmth, coffee, a kind word. Yet he taught them. Truth isn’t partial, he said. The absolute cannot be modified.

The pitiful collection of battered coins and grimy dollars wasn’t enough for him and Martha to live on. He worked part time as an orderly in a nursing home while she clerked in a florist shop, arriving home nights so weary she dropped onto the sofa and sighed as if giving up the ghost. It was a question of their persevering and keeping the faith till he reached the age to qualify for his pensions, including the Board of Missions one he’d had to battle for.

“What are you if not denominational?” an obese attorney down the table asked, a speared link of sausage dripping egg yolk held before his yearning lips.

“I’m a believer in God’s sovereignty and the sole efficacy of Christ’s blood,” Amos answered, chin raised as if challenged.

“Well, okay,” the attorney said and looked mystified as he fed the sopped meat into his mouth.

Amos wanted out, to be away from this pagan table, this heated temple of excess, to go back to his loving wife and his Bible. He stood and made excuses. Men raised their glasses to him. Whale, his mouth flashing food gobs, rose to go to the door with him. Others called farewell.

“I mean we got to get together,” Whale said, helping Amos on with his coat. “I intend to plant a big wet kiss on Martha. Give me your phone number,”

Whale drew a silver pencil and a small notebook with a leather cover from the jacket of his banker’s suit, the leather having his initials embossed on it in gold. Amos gave a number, one digit of which was incorrect. Still Whale might be able to track them down. Refusals would then have to be constructed.

The doorman saluted Amos as he moved quickly out the great front entrance flanked by stone horses. Under the blowing canopy, Whale again hugged him, laying his cheek alongside Amos’, and for an instant Amos fought tears. He felt if he didn’t hurry away, he might weep. What kind of tears would they be? For the loss of the world and the dear ones left behind.

“Let me drive you,” Whale called after him.

“I’ve business to attend to,” Amos said and walked rapidly in the direction of downtown, but as soon as he reached the corner, he doubled back to the rear of the club where a clanging fan exhausted odors of the indulgent repast inside.

. . . and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and all the mighty men . . . hid themselves in the dens of the rocks of the mountains and said, Fall on us and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne. . . .

Worried about Martha he waited for a city bus that seemed would never arrive. He sat near the driver and door so he could be off fast, yet still had four blocks to cover. He half ran, his breath came in gasps, and the stitch in his side caused him to bend. Keep her well, he prayed. Keep her well.

At the house he fitted the trembling key to the lock. He thought he smelled gas, but Martha was all right. She had put on her wool dress, dark sweater, and cotton stockings. She sat at the kitchen table dealing out a hand of solitaire, using cards she’d carried all these years, white fleurs-de-lis on a royal blue background, perhaps from a sorority or bridge club, a deck from another life.

O thou whom my soul loveth. . . .

Her fingers were so fragile, made for the holding of roses and fine porcelain. He checked the gas heater. The pilot flame burned feebly. He laid out his money on the table, and they made small piles of bills, each dollar allotted to its purpose. He answered questions about Whale and pretended to have enjoyed the breakfast.

During the afternoon they napped side by side, prayed, and he read to her, not another volume from the free library, but his own book, the passage they both loved:

“Whom the Lord loveth, he chaseneth.” How the words shock till one understands that what appears to be misfortune is merely correction arising from the loving concern of a father preparing his child for a feast at his gorgeous table. The pagan is lost. The Father will not waste Himself but allow them to have what they wish in this world because at the end they will be wisped away like smoke in a whirlwind; but when at last God collects His loving family, He will minister unto them through the golden corridors of a joyous eternity.

Amos believed it with all his being.

For supper he served them lettuce, apple sauce, a portion of chicken, and a glass of low-fat milk. By night they had prayed and were again in bed. They lay singing the old hymns to one another as fingers touched.

Dogs barked. A plane flew over. Amos thought he heard a shout, perhaps a scream, but his ears were no longer trustworthy, and the sound might have been wind or the skeletal branch scraping the gutter. A police car raced up the street, its siren shrilling, the flashing red lights penetrating darkness of the bedroom’s cold ceiling.

During the night, half sleeping, half dreaming, he became confused, and his eyes fluttered and brightened with visions of the dazzling rapture, the gathering of the faithful into the aureate Heavens as the world and those abandoned upon it passed away with great noise, terrible fire, the blood and cries of the dying.

. . . Blessed is he that watchest. . . .

He woke fully, not knowing the time, but at the nailed window he saw a crimson glow and simultaneously felt a tremor through the earth. Was that a trumpet he heard? Stretching upward, his heart drumming, he pushed one hand to Martha and lifted the other toward the rattling panes as if offering her and himself skyward on his own agitated palm.


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