This week's story is an excerpt from my book and it's about faith and delusion. This story is broken into two parts; the next part scheduled to be published next week.
Let me know what you think in the comments section.
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First Harvest Ministries
Wilmington, North Carolina
Pastor: Mark Stryker
Mark Stryker was a short man that had the body of a stocky baby, with a balding pattern that left him with a monk-style semi-circle of hair that he kept trimmed short. He usually had an equally low cropped mustache and goatee as well. He mostly wore a serious expression on his face; the countenance of a man on a mission from God. Even when he did smile, which he did not-too-infrequently, it was the cautioned, restrained kind of smile that religious Christians have; like they were being watched and didn’t trust themselves to enjoy things too much. There is a type of full-bodied, uninhibited laughter distinct to sinners and non-believers that you learn to appreciate after you’ve fallen from grace.
In his former life, Mark owned a prosthetics supply company and made a damn good living out of it. He was telling me once about the lifestyle that he had and how warped and ungodly his priorities were. ‘Oh,’ he said, shaking his head with a wide-eyed grave look on his face, ‘I told myself that if I ever had less than a hundred grand in the bank that I was gonna blow my head off. And I meant it too.’ Mark became somewhat of an expert in the field of medical prosthetics and was brought in to hospitals regularly for consultations. The doctors would explain the patient’s situation and he would perch his chin up on his thumb and index finger and nod and, when the doctor was done talking, he’d point vaguely out in front of him and suggest this or that model of whatever fake body part, and then order it for them. Mark never went to college. I don’t even know if he graduated from high school.
From what Mark says, and I don’t have any reason to doubt this, back when he was working prosthetics, the medical field was brimming with sex-crazed coke addicts with huge god-complexes. He would go to these lavish parties with these doctors where they’d take quaaludes and do lines of blow off of strippers’ tits. They’d throw enough money at the strippers until the strippers became whores and then they’d fuck them two at a time and then swap positions. Mark’s wife left him sometime during the course of his budding prosthetics career and he developed an estranged relationship with his children, but the lifestyle and the money were too good for either of these setbacks to make him give it up.
One evening while he was stumbling home from one of these coke-orgy parties, he started getting the spinnies and ducked under a bridge to throw-up. He propped up against one of the support columns with one hand and leaned over and vomited up everything that he could. A pink and orange stream projected out onto the ground and splattered back on his brown patent leather shoes. Then he shoved his chubby little finger down his throat and touched the very back part of his tongue and forced out whatever was left in his stomach until the world around him became stationary again. When he was done, he wiped his finger off on his trousers and wiped off the corners of his mouth with the sleeve of his blazer. He heard the scraping of gravel up in the corner and looked up to see a few small rocks rolling down the concrete ramp that led up to the bottom of the overpass. Now, for any rational-thinking man wearing a double-breasted Italian suit, a clunky gold watch, and carrying at least a thousand dollars cash on them who happens to find themselves under a dimly lit overpass in Wilmington, North Carolina at 3:42AM, this is about the oh shit moment when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you haul ass out of there, and into public lighting, as quickly as your $4,000 Brooks Brothers will take you. Mark was not in a position to feel any such rational fear, however.
‘Th’fuck?’ he said as he balanced himself against the column with one hand did a squinty drunken stare up into the dark recess at the top of the ramp. He could hear movement, but couldn’t make out any figures. ‘Hellooo,’ he sang out as he closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows for emphasis. He really was asking for it. No response. ‘Somebudy up there?’ Still nothing. A car passed by on the street below and, as the headlights washed by, he could make out two small figures crouched up in the corner.
‘Hey,’ he said.
‘Go away,’ came a child’s voice.
‘Is that a fuckin’, kid?’
‘Hey! Is that a fuckin’ kid up there?’
‘Leave us the fuck alone,’ said the kid.
‘Hey,’ he said, as he started to stumble his way towards the sound of the voices. ‘What are ya’ll, what’re you kids doin’ out here?’
‘Go away,’ came the voice in response. ‘Go the fuck away, or I’ll cut your fucking balls off.’
Mark stopped at the foot of the concrete ramp. Another car passed by and this time he could make out that there were two children, an older and a younger one. The older one was holding something in his hand that may very well have been a knife.
‘Hey,’ he said, as he raised his hands up in surrender and his arms formed a lazy Y. ‘Hey, I’m not. I don’t mean any harm to, hiccup, ‘scuse me, to, uh, to you and your, hiccup, your friend.’
An inconvenient time to get the hiccups.
‘Go. Away,’ came the voice in a cautionary tone.
Mark, still with his hands in the air, took a wobbly step forward, onto the concrete ramp.
‘Hey, look, I just wanna…’
‘You think I’m fuckin’ playin’ with you?’ came the voice of the older child as he stood up to where the shadow cast by the nearby street light cut diagonally from his right shoulder down to just below his left pectoral and illuminated his bust in a jaundiced, yellow glow. He held up the knife at a slight diagonal angle in front of his chest and turned it back and forth with his wrist to reflect the light.
Mark retracted his step and stood there at the base of the ramp with his hands in the air, his whole body doing a slow, drunken teetering motion. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘hiccup, look, I just wanna…’ keeping his left hand up in the air, he reached around and fished out his wallet from his back pocket. Holding the wallet out in front of him at eye-level in a sort-of I’m still surrendering, but I also need to, like, use both hands for this motion, he opened up his tri-fold wallet and leafed out about half of the stack of money without counting. Holding his wallet unfolded in his left hand, he raised it back up in the air and offered out the wad of cash in front of him with the other hand. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Here, take this, hiccup.’
The kid ducked back into the shadows and Mark could hear whispering. Then the older boy slowly stepped out of the shadows and onto the top of the ramp. His hair was dark brown and matted down on one side and he was wearing an oversized maroon sweatshirt that was frayed around the collar and had holes torn into the ends of the sleeves that he stuck his thumbs through. He had on a pair of shorts that were, at one time, either white or very close to white, but were now kind of a smog-gray with asphalt colored markings. He wore black socks with blacker velco-strapped shoes. He was crouching down cautiously and stopped when he got into the light at the top of the ramp and looked suspiciously from side to side. Once he saw that the coast was clear, he started slowly shuffling his way down the ramp towards Mark in a sideways motion, leading with his left side and keeping his right, knife-wielding hand, bent back behind him like he was about to serve a tennis ball. Mark cautiously proceeded up the ramp to meet him in a counter sideways motion, leading with his right foot. He extended the money out in front of him with his right hand and kept his left hand raised up behind him so that, from the side, he had an awkward, slow-motion fencing stance.
As the boy got closer, his gaze kept shifting back and forth from the money in Mark’s hand, back up to his face, back to the cash, back to his face. Mark could now see that the boy, probably thirteen or fourteen, also had freckles and the remnants of a recent black eye. They met about a quarter of the way up the ramp and, without saying a word, the boy snatched the money out of Mark’s hand and stuffed it in his pocket. Then he switched his stance and shimmied up the ramp, holding his knife out in front of him and watching Mark intently. He stopped at the top of the ramp, scanned around to see if anyone had seen the transaction, and disappeared into the shadows. Mark stood there for a moment at the base of the ramp, still holding his hands up in the air and he could hear shuffling around up in the shadows.
‘Okay,’ he said, and dropped his arms down to mid-body level where they protruded out from his ribs in lazy vectors. ‘hiccup, okay?’
‘Okay, I’ll, uh, hiccup, I’ll, uh, leave you alone,’ and he turned to the left and slowly dropped his arms as he staggered away.
‘Thanks,’ came a voice from the shadows as he was walking up the grassy slope, back towards the street above.
‘You’re welcome,’ he said and stopped for a moment, ‘hiccup, have a good night,’ and he gracelessly clomped up the steep incline onto the street.
Mark woke up in his bed a little after noon, on top of his comforter, next to a light brown, watery vomit stain that started at the edge of the bed and ran down the side and formed a dried-up puddle on the floor. He was barefoot but still wearing his suit. He had no memory of how he got home or of anything after the bridge, but he did find a half-eaten McDonald’s Fillet-o-fish sandwich in the bottom right pocket of his blazer and a warm syrupy strawberry milkshake on the nightstand.
He couldn’t stop thinking about those kids. He came back the next night and brought them blankets and then the night after that and brought some sandwiches from a local deli. Pretty soon he started driving around to local homeless hangouts with pans of hot food in his truck and he’d feed and minister to anyone that would show up. I’m not exactly sure when he ‘saw the light,’ but shortly after this he sold his prosthetics business and sobered up and began a full-time career as a man of God.
-- end, part (1/2)