Note: This is a slightly modified version of the first chapter of my upcoming novel, out this summer.
Central Alabama, 1993
The man who was supposed to be Jesus Christ bore his large wooden cross with grace and surprising ease up a long, steep incline in rush hour traffic, the crossbeam over his shoulder and the upright extending several feet back down to the pavement behind him where two large wheels with knobby tires rolled easily over the gravel and broken glass along the side of the road.
He stayed tight to the guardrail, a globe of mosquitos whirling about his head. Passing vehicles caught his white coveralls in their headlight beams and actually made him glow a little in the strange, shifting light of dusk but passing motorists paid him no mind. They had places to go and no time for apparitions; besides, they’d seen such things before. Roadside Jesuses were everywhere these days and this, they knew, was no apparition. It was Alabama.
He crossed into Pine County, the back of his neck black and bloody from slapping engorged mosquitos. There was a country store just outside the city limits and he made for it. It was cool and bright inside and smelled like pine cleaner. After a quick clean-up in the men’s room he gathered supplies and dropped bug spray, two cans of Vienna sausages and a Miller tall boy beside the register. The cashier began scanning his items and he asked for a pack of Winstons.
“You know Jesus didn’t have wheels back in the day and he sure could’ve used some,” the cashier said as she scanned the cigarettes. She was small and slender with long blonde hair strung with multicolored beads and a label reading “Mercy” on her name tag.
“What exactly are you saying?” the man asked.
“Only that Jesus didn’t have some things is all,” she said.
“Like wheels for his cross,” he said.
“Like that,” she said. “Or ice cubes.”
“Or running shoes.”
“Old lockback knife.”
“Wine ice cream.”
“And nowhere to lay his head.”
“Ain’t you the philosopher,” she said.
“Only when there’s money in my pocket and no bench warrants out on me.”
She giggled. “You’re also a Payne.”
“I have been called that,” he said.
“I recognized you right off. Your grandaddy’s got that horse farm,” she said. “And we went to school together.”
“More like a field of burr grass and poison oak,” Payne said. “And you were in eighth grade when I was a senior with your cousin.”
“Yeah but seventh grade,” she said.
“Your folks alright?” he asked.
“Mama’s passed and daddy’s driving long-haul,” she said.
“Sorry about your mom.”
He gathered his items and walked outside where the cross was leaning against a dumpster beside a gravel road running back through a locked cattle gate. He set his food and drink on the crossbeam as though it were a lunch counter. When he finished both cans of sausages he tipped each against his lips and drank the juice then tossed them in the dumpster.
“Damn,” the cashier named Mercy said as she rounded the corner holding a cigarette. “I ain’t ever seen that, drinking Vienna juice.”
“I never saw a girl with her hair done up like a bead curtain in a hippy van,” Payne said. He tossed the can in the dumpster and chased the Vienna liquor with a pull from the tall boy.
“What’s a hippy van?” she asked.
He lit a cigarette. “Something from the good old days.”
“Sounds like a way of saying you don’t like my hair,” she said.
“I don’t feel any one or other way about it.”
“Some philosopher you are,” she said.
She went back inside but returned a few minutes later with more tall boys. “Fetch your killing tree and come on,” she said starting down the gravel road. “You can tell me about them good old days.”
Payne caught up with her at a stand of dogwoods and water oaks shading a double-wide trailer. It was a full moon and he could see a floating deck and above-ground oval swimming pool out front. He thought he could make out the base of an old brick fireplace at one end of the slab and a small garden past that in silhouette against the silvery moonlight.
Payne leaned the cross against a tree and joined Mercy on the deck beneath a canopy of small white Christmas lights and a few electric bug zappers. Mercy handed Payne the beers. “Knock yourself out,” she said heading for the trailer. “I’ll be out shortly.”
Payne walked around with his beer and checked out the electrical setup. A line of fresh dirt back to the house from the outlet. He squatted and looked under the deck. Looks properly mounted and grounded, maybe overworked from too many splitters and extension cords. Didn’t seem to be doing much for the skeeters. And looks like new work. Reckon who put that in?
Mercy returned with light rum and Sprite Zero.
“It’s the only mixer I have unless someone or both feel like walking back up to the store,” she said. “And there might be a pizza coming. Drivers sometimes get lost.”
Payne stood back up. “Electricals seem to be holding up,” he said.
“I know. Too many cords,” she said. “But the Christmas lights are nice and I need the zappers.”
“A fan or three blowing across here will keep the skeeters off.”
“Where were you when I needed you?” she said.
“That’s what you get for being called Mercy and not Prudence.”
“Ha. Ha. Mercy is a nickname. I was named after both my grandmas, Celeste and Marzie,” she said. “Never liked that first name so I used the middle but sister couldn’t say it right. Always came out sounding like Mercy. Everyone took to it.”
Payne kept drinking and she kept talking. She told him she was an artist and was going to community college in the fall to take paramedic classes and eventually become a flight attendant. He told her he’d left college a year ago.
“You just up and left?” she asked. “Your last semester?”
“I broke into the pool one night. And they are as proud of their swim team as they are of John Wesley,” was all he told her.
“They kicked you out of school for swimming?” she asked.
“There were multiple offenses,” Payne said.
“There’s got to be more to that story,” Mercy said.
“There’s always more to every story,” he said.
Why even talk about getting thrown out of a Methodist college for moral turpitude? The Methodists might have shown mercy had he been a business major or pre-med, but there had to be consequences since he was a ministerial student. Or so they said. The real reason he knew was that he got caught inside the college’s natatorium while also inside the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. They had been discovered by campus police violating pool rules in the deep end near the ladder, their clothes suddenly illuminated in circles of light on the pool deck, the campus cop sweeping his flashlight beam back and forth between them and their clothing. Then dressing in the dark, saying nothing and awash in doom while the cops waited outside.
“What I’m trying to figure out,” she said, “is whether you’re running away from something or running after something.”
“I’m a blank slate as of sometime today,” he said.
“No signs or visions?” she asked. “Angelic beings?”
“Saw a dead crow in a ditch,” Payne said.
“A dead crow? Lort,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest signs.”
“What are you? Some kind of swami?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not touched or anything,” she said. “Just curious and read too much.”
“You might say.”
“So what am I looking at here?” Payne asked.
“Change,” she said. “A dead crow is change. Big change.”
“Because I happened to walk by it on the road?”
“Yeah,” she said. “But you noticed it.”
“Hard to miss,” he said.
“There were traffic lights and buildings and cars speeding by, all kinds of things to get your attention,” she said. “But you noticed the dead crow. And not just noticed it. Still thinking about it.”
“I also remember what I saw on the men’s room wall when I was taking a leak at your store up yonder,” he said. “Mighty rude stuff, you ask me.”
She giggled. “Yeah I’ve seen it and I’ll be the one cleaning it off the wall,” she said. “Folks usually take a dead crow as good because crows are assholes. Not everyone thinks that but most do and it does mean something new is coming if you believe in that direction.”
“Bird mortality aside, something is always coming,” he said. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
Mercy stood up and began walking across the deck toward the pool unbuttoning her shirt as she went. “Like I said, I don’t have the gift.” She dropped her shirt and continued down the steps. “Just a library card, internet that’s slow as Christmas and a pool of my own.”
“I have had bad luck with swimming pools,” Payne said.
“The past ain’t prophesy,” Mercy said. She stepped out of her panties when she got to the ladder.
Payne watched her climb. It was the natatorium all over again and he was feeling something akin to love but more specific.
When Payne stood he instantly perceived his Vienna sausages had not held the line against all those tall boys and little bit of rum, but he shed his coveralls anyway. He flung them without looking in the general direction of the dogwoods behind him then followed the trail of her clothes to the pool. Payne left his underclothes at the foot of the ladder and climbed looking forward to washing off the blood and sweat and smashed mosquitoes from his back. Up on the small platform, Mercy splashed him from one end of the pool. The water washed over his head and left a dogwood petal clinging to his cheek; a perfect shot. He turned his back to her. The Christmas lights twinkled over the deck where the cross leaned against the rails and the coveralls he’d blindly flung were hanging from the cross like a deflated scarecrow. “Lucky throw” he thought as he crouched then spun a backflip into the pool.
He sank to the bottom and thought he could feel the cool water lifting the sweat and blood and mosquito grime off his skin. Looking up through the surface of the pool the moon shimmered then burst into white fragments as Mercy glided over him, her beaded hair a kaleidoscopic halo illuminated by bright fractured moonlight encircling her face. It grew brighter and then her legs were disappearing up and out of sight. Before he could follow the water heaved and filled with light. He was shoved forward then began tumbling backwards in the rushing water wondering if that untamed and untamable cosmic horse had finally thrown him.
He ended up on his back choking on pool water and tasting chlorine. Rolling over on his side to catch his breath and protect his vitals he sought physical orientation and clothing. He coughed and called to Mercy but couldn’t hear himself over a rumbling engine. The side of the pool was partially torn and crumpled underneath the front wheels of a large truck. It was still running and some of the pool’s external aluminum frame protruded downward from the grill like tusks. Payne rubbed his eyes and attempted to stand, but a hand grasped his wrist and dragged him away from the pool and across the grass and then he found himself looking up into the face of a very angry man standing with one boot on Payne’s chest.
“Fucker!” the angry man said. “You’re as shit out of luck as Jesus on Friday.”
“But this is Tuesday,” Payne managed to say, defusing the situation with humor, but the angry man only grinned and punched him in the face.
Stars filled Payne’s vision. Whether they were just in his head or strung through tree branches or up in the heavens above he could not say; but he was certain it was Tuesday.
A tad weathered from exhaustion and the demon rum, not to mention having just taken a beating that had all the earmarks of one’s karmic chickens looking for a nice fixer-upper, his mind heeding the call that his body couldn’t, the call to get him, you know, out of there. So he was drifting now, gliding over land, over water and settling in the South Pacific, Easter Island where he became a monolith among monoliths in some kind of grand chess game of the gods, all staring out to sea where the moon shimmered on the surface of warm tropical waters. He could see Mercy awash in silver light at the edge of the cliff, small feet with purple toenails curling over nothing but gravity, knees bent, poised for launch. Then she turned and called to him and he blinked. When he opened his eyes she was sitting on wet grass just a few feet away with her back against the rear wheel of an old tow truck. It was parked partially inside one end of the ruined swimming pool and he noticed that the yoke used to secure and lift the front wheels of vehicles was in the shape of a cross. Then everything went from dark to black.
When Payne awoke moments or minutes or hours later–he was betting on minutes–there were flashing lights and commotion. His outstretched arms pulled at his shoulders and he was unable to move his hands but was relieved to feel a blanket over his privates. He could hear Mercy but couldn’t see her. Lifting his head he looked straight down his tunnel vision to see the angry man, somewhat out of focus and handcuffed, being pushed into the back seat of a brown vehicle. Payne wished he were looking through a rifle scope and wondered if it would be better or worse seeing the world through the wrong end of cheap binoculars for the rest of his life.
“What’s the hoopla?” he managed to ask someone hovering over him, a volunteer fireman with a patch on his sleeve, a serpent wrapped around what looked too much like a nail.
“Just hold still, bubba,” the paramedic said. ” I never un-crucified someone. This might get sporty.”
Payne felt pressure in his hand and by the time he turned his head to see, his hand was free. Hovering at the end of the tunnel a shiny nail lay in the palm of a latex glove smeared with blood. Then he felt pressure in his other hand, and throbbing that preceded an eruption of pain. That was new. This time he didn’t try to see.
“How you feeling now, buddy?” the paramedic asked.
“Like Jesus,” Payne said. “On Friday.”