28. I have finally found a place to live / In the penance of the Lord

Blind Faith—Presence of the Lord

The October day Charles was to move dawned humid and perfect, as usual. There’s nothing like Miami, he thought as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. Especially now that I can afford a condo at the beach.

October had always been a month of reflection for Charles. It seemed that old memories and especially old regrets would surface unbidden all month. For no apparent reason, Charles would find himself dwelling on ancient insults and foolish behavior, unkind words spoken and regretted, feeling again the raw hurt as if it were current. When he had lived in the North, he attributed the timing of these floods of remem­brance to the change of seasons, but here in Florida, in the absence of seasonal cues, the nostalgic rerunning of emotion continued as before. Charles has the worst time with recurring regretful memories in the fall, especially October, and also in the spring. Spring reawakens memory that lies as dormant as the tulip, Charles thought. But when it blooms, its fruit is often bitter.

A memory would surge in like a wave, often causing Charles to hold his breath and wince. The memories were not the same each season, but there were some commonly occurring ones: unkind words he said, stupid mistakes he made, chances he took that turned out badly. Charles would be going along fine and, bam, one would hit him, and he relived the horrible moment.

While packing up his desk, Charles pulled out a list he keeps of regrets, ironically titled, “For the Forgiveness of Sins.” The list was an ineffectual attempt a few years ago to put these ghostly visitors to rest. If I commit these to paper, he thought, perhaps I can forget about them. It didn’t help. Charles looked at the list, sighed, and added a couple more items to the list.

Charles had always looked upon these unwanted memories as a reflection of his attitude towards whatever his current situation was. The déjà vu was worst when he was unhappiest. Actually, he realized as he brushed his teeth, so much has been happening this month, there hasn’t been time enough for the traditional October preoccupation with the past to intrude, until yesterday.

All through the previous day, as he packed, Charles had reflected on the old Chinese curse Chip had once told him: May all your dreams come true. Selling Snagology for big bucks and having his messiah novel Misheard Lyrics accepted by a big publisher had come pretty close to fulfilling all of his dreams. What was left? As he worked to finish packing for the move, Charles inevitably ran into little bits of his past and was nagged by the feeling that deep down he knew what was missing. Each time he tried to con­front the feeling, it remained out of reach.

Now, while brushing his teeth, a conversation he had a few months ago with Chip kept returning to his mind. After listening quietly to Charles’s attacks on religion, Chip, possibly fed up with Charles’s attitude, had said, “You know what Dylan said, Chuck, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Might be God, might be the Devil, might just be yourself, but it’s true, you do gotta serve somebody.”

“Look, don’t go quoting Dylan on the subject of religion,” Charles had said. “He’s even more mixed up than the rest of us on that score. You know I’m not only an agnostic but also a radical pessimist: Whatever happens is for the worst. I don’t see any Supreme Being taking care of my business.”

“But he does! You’ve no idea how complete your life will be once you decide to believe. Just believe, and the crazy evil world no longer matters. It’s you who’s saved. It’s you who has a personal relationship with God.”

Charles hadn’t let Chip know at the time, but their long arguments about religion and faith had stirred uncomfortable feelings within him. These feelings were magnified by his recent thoughts about the force in the Universe keeping matter and antimatter from annihilating everything.

The idea that it might be better to believe made him queasy. Suddenly, the memory of making out with his high school girlfriend in the church at night walloped him like a punch. He gripped the washbasin with both hands, closed his eyes and leaned over, half expecting to vomit.

Charles opened his eyes and glanced at the worn and dirty tile floor. There, inches from his slippered feet, crouched a cockroach, its body, legs and antennae motionless. Charles regarded the pest for a moment and idly moved his left foot to crush it. The cockroach shot forward under the trash can. “Damn!” Charles muttered, and quickly snatched the can off the floor, re-aimed his foot, and stomped, once again missing the tiny beast, who ran along the baseboard under the washstand and then along the base of the tub to Charles’s right. “God damn you, cockroach!” Charles whirled quickly and slammed his left foot savagely down on the insect, squishing its guts into the grout line between the tub and the floor. Crap, he thought, one more thing I’ll have to clean up before I can get my security deposit back.

As he turned to switch off the light and go get dressed, he was struck by another old regretful memory: As a boy, he and his friend Dexter had found a sick and obviously dying toad on his friend’s front lawn. As the toad tried feebly to hop away, the other boy grabbed it and said, “Hey, Charles, have you ever opened one of these things up?” Charles admitted that he hadn’t, and Dexter said, “Hold it a minute while I go inside and get my knife.”

Charles sat self-consciously on the grass in the middle of his friend’s yard wondering what to do. He wasn’t too keen on dissecting the toad, but he was sure that even if he let the animal go, it wouldn’t be able to escape. He thought of putting the toad in the woodpile on the other side of the driveway, but he couldn’t think of a plausible lie to tell his friend about the toad’s miraculous escape.

While he was contemplating his options, Dexter came running out of the house and plopped down next to him holding a Boy Scout penknife.

“OK,” he said, “Let’s get started.” The boy grabbed the toad from Charles’s limp grasp, flipped it on its back and quickly slit a two-inch incision in the toad’s belly. Charles stared, fascinated and repulsed, as the boy grasped the edges of cut skin and spread them apart. There, in the belly of the toad, were what looked to Charles to be several thousand small black ants, some still writhing. “Wow,” he said weakly. “Wow.”

“Yeah, isn’t it cool?” Dexter said. No, thought Charles, it isn’t cool, but he nodded anyway. He looked at Dexter with new eyes and decided that perhaps he needed a different best friend.

As the years went by, the boys drifted apart, despite the fact that Dexter lived just across the street. In high school, Dexter managed to buy an old junker of a car which he would frequently park in the middle of his family’s front lawn at odd angles after a night out in the woods drinking stolen beer with his friends. One morning, when Charles left his house to catch the school bus, he noticed the car was all banged up and resting against a tree in Dexter’s front yard with the driver’s door wide open. Dexter was laying half in the car and half on the grass. Charles ran across the street and pulled Dexter out onto the grass.

“Dexter, Dexter, are you OK?” Charles saw blood on his forehead, and Dexter’s left eye was swollen shut. Charles put his ear to Dexter’s chest but heard nothing. He turned Dexter’s head to start CPR, but the head flopped over to an impossible angle. His friend had died of a broken neck. Charles ran to Dexter’s front door and pounded but there was nobody home. He ran across to his own house and told his mother what happened. She called the hospital and soon the medics were taking the body away in an ambulance. Charles had never seen a dead body before.

Shaking his head to clear the vision, Charles snapped off the bathroom light, got dressed in an old shirt and jeans, and concentrated on boxing up his books, his stereo, and his hundreds of record albums, which were his only possessions of any value. He’d sold his furniture, except for his grad school cinder block and board shelves, a couple of patio chairs and the bed. By late afternoon, the living room was strewn with boxes of albums labeled alphabetically.

Later in the evening, Charles had just finished the only frozen dinner left in the freezer when the doorbell rang. He went to the intercom. “Yes?”

“Charles, is that you?”

“This is Charles. Who’s speaking please?”

“Charles, it’s me, Edie.”

For a second, Charles thought, Edie who? Then he placed the voice and a thrill went up his spine.

“Edie Packer, as I live and breathe! I haven’t seen you since Denver!”

“Will you let me in or what?”

That’s Edie, all right, he thought. Forthright as ever. “Sorry. Just a minute. Fourth floor.” Charles pressed the buzzer to let his old lover in.

He was struck by an irrational desire to tidy up the place. He smiled at himself as he surveyed the box-strewn living room. Funny, he’d had a dream about Edie just last week.

He opened the door and waited just outside in the hall. After Edie had climbed the last flight of stairs, Charles was surprised at her appearance. She looked much as she did in Denver so many years before, but now a bit overweight, with ragged dirty jeans, wild hair, and wild eyes.

“Edie! God, it’s been like forever!”

She walked close to embrace and kiss him. He responded mechanically, which she seemed to notice. She peered at him through narrowed eyes.

“How have you been, Charles?”

“Just great, Edie. Come on in, I’ll see if I’ve got anything to drink. Don’t mind the mess; I’m moving.”

Charles had eaten, given away or trashed almost everything in his refrigerator, but he looked anyway. There in the back corner of the top shelf was an old bottle of André champagne a well-meaning friend had brought to a party a year ago. Charles couldn’t stand that champagne and, in fact, had been surprised that it was still around, lan­guishing forgotten among the moldy tofu and rotten lettuce.

He got the bottle out and started working on the white plastic cork. While he was in the kitchen, Edie began to root about in his stuff. She pulled out a few books and a few albums. When Charles came back in with two red plastic cups of wine, Edie was standing in the middle of the room with an armful of possessions.

“These are mine,” she said simply.

“Oh, I didn’t realize. Well, OK, take them then.”

She held out an old red candle shaped like an elephant. They had kept it in their bedroom the year they lived together. Seeing it, Charles was surprised that he still had it after all these moves and years.

“Do you remember this, Charles? We used to make love by its light.”

Turn on your love light, baby.” Charles grinned at the memory of their old rituals. She’d strip nude, put on a brown choker and lie on the bed, legs akimbo. He’d perform a striptease, ending by hanging his underwear on his rod and jumping upon her. They always had cheap wine on the bedstand next to the elephant candle, but never André.

Once while he was screwing her, the elephant candle lit some photos lying on the bedstand on fire. Charles had calmly grabbed his underwear and, without missing any strokes, damped out the blaze. When they were finished, Edie couldn’t believe what he had done. He said, “There was no reason to get excited, I just put it out.”

“My savior,” she said with an ironic laugh. “Light my fire,” and they did it again.

Charles handed her the cup and she sat in one of the patio chairs, cradling the candle in her lap. They reminisced for a while, sipping from the cups. Finally, Edie asked, “Do you remember what I said to you before you left me?”

Charles couldn’t, or didn’t choose to.

“I said you would always be mine and I wouldn’t let anyone else have you.” Feeling uncomfortable, Charles said nothing.

“After we last saw each other in Denver, I went to San Francisco and lived in Haight Ashbury for a while. It was way after its peak, of course, but before it got yuppified. There were still a few communes, though, and after walking the streets for a while, I joined one. The only people in communes after the hippie era were pretty radical. It was weird to be with people talking about revolution again.”

Edie took a gulp of wine and held out the cup to Charles for a refill. As he poured the wine, Charles wondered what she was leading up to. As her hands turned the once-elephant candle over and over in her lap, her eyes were far away.

She shrugged. “I became the lover of this female painter and we were together for 10 years. We got a place together on Telegraph Hill. She was doing well in the galleries by then.”

Edie’s revelation startled Charles at first. Then he remembered what Edie had told him when they last met: “I’ve been thinking a lot about becoming a lesbian.” Charles had thought this almost comical at the time. Edie had made it sound like a rational decision that one should consider objectively before making.

Edie took a long sip. “The cops began watching the house because she was dealing dope. They were amazingly crude—sometimes they just hung out in front of the apartment and smoked. She made most of her deals at the galleries anyway. When they finally busted her, I completely freaked out. I attacked the cops, throwing candles and books, kicking and scratching. I managed to mace one of them before they carried me away screaming.

“Before the preliminary hearing, they had some stupid shrink examine me. I decided I would snow him and deliberately acted crazy. He was such a fucking tool. Anyway, he determined that I was not competent to stand trial. As I look back now, I may well have not been; I was pretty far out there then.”

Edie got up and walked over to the stereo, which was always the last thing Charles packed. She placed the elephant candle on the bookshelf and, with some difficulty, got it to light. Then she raised the cup to her lips, cradling it with both hands as if praying, or accepting wine from a chalice.

“The joke was on me, though. They committed me, and I was institutionalized for eight years. But I convinced them I was cured, and now I’ve come for you.”

Edie had delivered the whole monologue in such a flat, detached voice that this last startled Charles. He snapped upright in his seat. Although he felt threatened, Edie was speaking in such tranquil tones, he didn’t know what to think. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, you’re going to come back to me or,” she pulled a small black gun from her pocket, “you’re going nowhere.”

A bolt raced up Charles’s spine. His heart thumped into high. Everything in the room seemed crystalline, much more real than it had been moments before, and time seemed to move like sludge. The wine, which had been giving Charles a glowing buzz, was forgotten. He surveyed the box-strewn path to the door, glanced at the window, and began to sweat.

“Come on now, Edie,” he said feebly through dry lips.

“No,” she said, “I’m not coming anywhere. You need to make a decision. You see, I’ve done this before, killed someone. It’s not real hard. Especially after Nam. You just pretend you’re in a movie. I’m in a movie; I’m the heroine; and I’ve been done wrong. It’s perfectly logical to grab a gun and shoot someone. Real easy. You hardly need to think about it; it’s just the movie.”

She leaned back against the shelves, holding the gun carelessly. “After I got out of the looney bin, I went to Mexico for a while. I had fooled the shrinks into believing I was cured, but I was still lost, and I was looking for something to believe in, corny as it sounds. I believed in you, Charles, and you betrayed me. I devoted my life to you . . .”

“Not true,” said Charles desperately, “you had your own interests. You weren’t even faithful to me. How can you say you devoted yourself to me?”

“Shut up. I mean it. I was devoted totally to you. I realize you were the father I never had. But now I’ve found a new father. Have you ever heard of Santeria or Palo Mayombe?”

Charles was bewildered. The adrenaline rush parched his throat. He tried feebly, “Jazz musicians?”

Edie laughed raucously, squeezing her eyes tight and throwing back her head. “No, they’re magical religions. One from the Caribbean, the other from Africa via Cuba. You see, when I got to Mexico, I looked up some of my lover’s old friends—dealers and pushers. I needed a place to crash and some cash, and I hadn’t turned tricks since I first hit SF. Besides, those Mexican whores are a tough bunch and they don’t like competition. So, I looked up José in Matamoros.

“To make a long story short, he got me involved in this cult down there, a blood cult, you know, sacrifices and shit, and I finally found something to believe in, something that works.” Edie moved down the length of the shelves toward the door.

“You see, me and my crew believe that by making sacrifices, we bring luck to our drug business. And it works. Since we started sacrificing the odd college student or drifter, there have been no busts and no cops.” Edie laughed lightly and smiled.

Now Charles was really horrified. He looked around the room again for escape routes, but with boxes piled everywhere, there was no way he would be able to move quickly enough. Edie was holding the gun casually in her right hand. But Charles suspected she would use it quickly if he tried anything.

“I became José’s lover and even more good fortune came to us. Finally, he let me perform the ritual killings, and now my life is like a pure shining light. I have found the way.”

Edie was glowing as she stepped away from the bookshelves, placing herself between Charles and the door. Charles was mesmerized for a moment, forgetting where he was. Edie’s odd perfume combined with the scent of the candle held him still as he stared at her face. The peaceful visage before him was just what he had seen in his railroad station dream. Edie was transfixed, transcendent as she pointed the gun at him.

She looked like all the saints in Charles’s catechism books back when he was a child. Beatific. Bathed in the joy and righteousness of belief. And the light of the candle on the bare wall behind Edie’s head almost looked like a halo.

Charles decided he needed to distract her in some way. She was obviously too unstable to reason with and had made her peace with the idea of killing him. Christ, he thought, if she’s been slaughtering strangers for years, I shouldn’t be much of a problem. Or should I?

“Edie, Edie, put down the gun and let’s talk.”

“I’m not putting down the gun unless you say you’ll stay with me always. And you better mean it you bastard, or I’ll blow your dick off!” She aimed the gun at his crotch for a moment, and then let her arm drop to her side.

“Edie, c’mon. Hey, do you know what just happened to me? Do you know why I’m packing? I just sold my first novel to a New York publisher, and I got a big advance. They think it’ll be a best seller. Kinda like that Springsteen song, eh? Yeah, I’m gonna be a star! I’m pulling outta here to win!”

Charles leaned forward in his chair, pretending to be excited.

“What? What did you say?” Edie spoke distractedly, frowning. “A book. That’s nice. I’m look­ing forward to sharing your success, you bastard. It’ll be nice to be rich. But you gotta say it. You gotta say you’ll stay with me forever.”

“Edie, how can I say that? I mean, we haven’t seen each other for eons. Let’s put down the gun, get real wide on this wine, and see what happens. Come on, let’s get to know each other all over again.”

Edie looked doubtful. Charles moved to the very edge of his chair. Edie drifted back toward the shelves, propping the elbow of her gun arm on a tattered paperback copy of The Fountainhead, vaguely aiming the gun in Charles’s direction.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes I think I know you only too well. You married that bitch because she was willing to kowtow to you; she had no spine. And that’s what you want. You want a little girl to roll over for you. Well, I’m not a little girl and I’m not going to roll over, unless I roll over you! Say it. Say you’ll love me forever.” Edie pointed the gun at the middle of Charles’s chest.

“All right.” Charles was willing to say anything she wanted him to at this point. “All right. I’ll love you forever.”

“I don’t believe you. Why do you love me?”

This had been a sore spot in their relationship. Once, Edie had asked Charles why he loved her. Charles had been unable to put his finger on a specific reason, and so had lamely said, “Because of your sense of humor.” Edie, not really knowing what she had wanted Charles to say, was furious, nonetheless. “Sense of humor?! Shit! I’d rather you loved me for my tits!” They had broken up for three days over the incident.

Charles knew he needed a better answer now. “Because you’re so fine, and so smart, and so sexy and so neat. Please, let’s put down the gun and party. Hey, I’ve got some sinsemilla I’ve been saving for years.”

Charles got up as if to go get the pot.

“WHY DO YOU LOVE ME!” she shrieked, leveling the gun at him with two hands, like all the cops on TV.

Charles collapsed back into his chair. “Honey, that’s such a hard question to answer. C’mon now, be reasonable.”

“WHY?”

“OK, why, let’s see, why. Because you’re so smart. You know how I feel about smart women.” Edie visibly softened. “Yes,” Charles continued. “You were smart enough to get out of that hospital, and you’re smart enough to have found me here, just when I needed you the most.”

“Yes.”

“And I love your body. You know I’ve always loved your body. Show me your breasts. Please. I want to see them again. Edie, take off your shirt and let’s make love.”

Edie seemed taken by rapture, not really looking at Charles, an otherworldly smile on her lips. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s make love.” The flame guttered in the elephant candle, making her halo skitter on the wall.

Charles was panicked at the thought of making it with this madwoman. He decided to grab for the gun while Edie was entranced. About six feet separated them. Charles slowly rose once more from his seat, hoping she wouldn’t notice. Once he was almost at full height, he lunged toward Edie. She lurched convulsively to her left and he missed his try for the gun. They crashed over on top of boxes of record albums with Charles falling heavily on top of Edie.

The boxes split, and the slippery LPs spilled out beneath them. Charles clutched Edie’s right arm and tried to bang it on the floor. Edie screamed obscenities and fought back with surprising strength. They wrestled on the slick albums, legs and arms thrashing and Edie screaming like a madwoman. Charles was trying to bend back Edie’s wrist when the gun went off, hitting him in the left side. He fell off her in shock and she rose unsteadily to her feet, the gun dangling from her finger by the trigger guard.

Charles sprawled in pain among A through H of his record collection, rolling over on his belly and pressing his face against a Hendrix album. Edie stood up and wobbled as if drunk, staring at the blood coming from Charles’s side.

“Oh my god,” Edie yelped. “Charles, how could I ever hurt you? Oh shit. Oh my god!” Before Charles could react, she put the gun to her head.

“Goodbye, Charles. I’m not meant for this world. I’ll find my destiny beyond.”

“NO!!” Charles screamed as she pulled the trigger and spread her brains onto his living room wall.

After lying there in pain, shock, and relief for a minute, Charles gathered his strength to sit up. The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach album appeared between his legs. Dazed, Charles stared at the giant peach on the cover. He vaguely thought he should get to a doctor. But a more primitive urge gripped him. He floundered to his feet, slipping on the albums, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his side, and lurched to the door.

The trip to the cathedral was an agony of pain. Charles fell several times. Once a street beggar extended his hand and helped him up. “You all right, buddy?” Charles pushed him away and careened down the street toward the church.

When he got inside, he saw that Friday night confessions were winding up. Only one woman remained waiting in the pews. The low murmur of sinners reciting penances at the altar rail filled the darkened space.

He made his way with difficulty to the pew behind the woman and lay upon the cool wood. She got up and walked to the confessional. The murmuring of penances continued as Charles blacked out.

He came to as the woman was parting the curtain to leave. He struggled to his feet and entered the confessional, falling heavily against the dark wood.

The priest worked the slide. Charles saw the dimly lit silhouette through the mesh and remembered childhood, remembered confessing to cursing and lying, but never to masturbating. He began, haltingly, to recite words made unfamiliar by the gap of years. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been . . . 50 years since my last confession and these are my sins . . .”

Exhausted, Charles paused. Sweated. Bled.

“Yes, my son, what do you have to confess?”

“I . . . I haven’t been a very good Catholic for the last 50 years.”

“What makes you say that, my son?”

“Well, I’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain. I’ve lied. I’ve envied my neighbor’s wife and goods . . . I’ve broken most of the Commandments.”

“Have you killed?”

“No, although I was ready to tonight.”

“Have you committed adultery?”

“Only in my heart. But I’ve wanted to often.”

“Do you seek God’s forgiveness?”

Charles paused. It was getting hard to breathe. “Yes, I guess I do. That’s another thing. For 50 years, I haven’t believed there was a God.”

The priest paused for a moment. “What has changed your mind?”

“I, I uh, I’ve been thinking . . .” Charles laid down on the cramped confessional bench. “I need something to believe in. I think there may be a God, and faith may be what I need to make my life whole.”

“Rest assured there is a God, my son. He is good, and He helps those who love Him.”

“Oh, you’re saving my life.”

“Everlasting life is what God is about. Do you repent for your sins?”

“Yes, . . . Father, I do.” Charles was barely breathing as he rasped this out.

“My son, is there something the matter with you?”

No answer.

“My son . . .”

The priest leaned closer to the screen and saw Charles lying on the bench, his side wet with blood. “My son?” Charles could not answer.

The priest hurried out of his cubicle to investigate. He found Charles lying in a pool of blood and ran to the vestry to call the paramedics. When he returned, the priest dragged Charles out into the aisle. Charles was breathing irregularly.

The priest began rudimentary CPR. He was not trained and called upon his TV viewing to guide him. Minutes passed in the quiet church. Unaware, on the other side of the cathedral several mourners trickled in to light candles. A group of women from a lesbian Bible study group meeting in the basement came up the back stairs. One of the women noticed the priest bent over Charles on the floor.

“Hey, Father, you OK?” asked one. The priest turned. “I called the paramedics. Do any of you know CPR?”

Shocked, the women rushed over. “Stand aside, Father. I’ll take over, I’ve had CPR.” The woman knelt and pressed her ear to Charles’s chest, then probed his mouth.

“Hey,” she said, “I recognize this guy! This is the bastard that was on Sunrise Miami defending his piece of sh—garbage article attacking lesbians!”

The woman straightened, angry at the memory. “Whataya gonna do, Maggie?” asked one of the others. Maggie shook her head, uncertain.

“Please,” said the priest, “For the love of God!”

“Yeah, you’re right, Father, for the love of God.” Maggie began pumping Charles’s chest. “Karla, you go out front and wait for the paramedics. Tess, go see if you can find some bandages or cotton or something to help stop the bleeding.”

“There should be some towels in the vestry,” said the priest. “Hurry!”

The priest sank into a pew and began to pray. After five minutes, the paramedics arrived. By this time Charles had negligible pulse and no respiration. The paramedics took over CPR as they transferred him to their truck and rushed him to the hospital.

At the hospital, Charles still wasn’t breathing, although his color was good from the CPR. They rushed him to the ER. A bleary-eyed resident prepared to shock him. He hit him with the paddles. No response. He hit him again. And got a regular heartbeat. Charles had been clinically dead for 15 minutes.

 

Charles was released from the ICU on another perfect day in Miami. The sun baked the orange terracotta tiles of the hospital roof and light streamed into Charles’s room. With the bed slightly inclined, Charles drifted in and out for most of the morning.

Around 11 o’clock, Chip showed up. He had on a plaid sport coat, white golf shirt, and khaki slacks. “Hey, hey,” he greeted Charles, “It was nip and tuck at the Chip and Chuck show!”

Charles grimaced at Chip’s hackneyed joke. Not only did he hate it when Chip called him Chuck, he especially hated the nip and tuck quip that Chip used often. He pulled himself up in the bed.

“That’s for sure. I almost didn’t make it.”

“I heard they found you at St. Mary’s Cathedral. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. What the hell were you doing there?”

Charles’s face flushed. “I, ah, went there to make my last confession.”

“Good agnostics die hard, hah Charles?” If Chip was concerned, it didn’t show beneath his humor.

Charles was puzzled by Chip’s attitude. Why is he acting so flip? And why is he calling me Charles? Something’s going on. “Well, you know what Pascal said, it’s better to believe futilely than to not believe stupidly.”

Chip roared out his booming laugh. “Sho’ you right, Charles! But seriously, I got something to tell you. I’ve quit the church, my car is packed, and I’m going to California with the church secretary. Pretty stereotypical, hah?”

“What!? You’re leaving with Rita?” Charles tried to sit upright but winced at the pain. This was incredible. He couldn’t believe it. “What about Trixie and Robby?”

“I told Trixie she can have everything and just let me know when the divorce is final. As for Robby, I hardly see him anyway, what with the church taking all my time and him out most nights with his high school buddies. I’ll take him for a couple weeks here and there and we’ll probably have a better relationship for it.” Chip started to pick his teeth with a business card.

Charles was stunned. In all their conversations about religion, Chip had seemed the stalwart believer. He had taken Charles to task for his divorce and his agnosticism. Yet here he was, acting as if he was free of a great weight, chucking it all to run off with a younger woman, and one who was the star of Charles’s fantasies to boot!

“This is so sudden. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Dude, I had to keep up appearances. Plus, I just decided a couple days ago.”

“What are you going to do in California?”

“Who knows? Isn’t that great? I haven’t got a plan; I haven’t got a clue! Maybe I’ll break into the movies, hah?”

Maybe I’m dreaming this, Charles thought. After all, I lost a lot of blood. “Well, what brought this on?”

“I decided that my problem is not only am I sick of the church, but I’m not that crazy about God either. He’s got to be one sadistic son-of-a-bitch, and I don’t want to be an accomplice anymore. I mean, you’re right, Charles. What kind of benevolent deity allows Cat 5 hurricanes, and tsunamis, and earthquakes, and too many disasters to count?”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this. What about all those arguments we had about faith? You were always trying to convince me to believe. What about that?”

“Just going through the motions, my friend. Call it force of habit. I mean, I’ve had doubts all along, but the last few years it’s been tough to believe. Plus, like I told you, I began to come around to your way of thinking, after all the long hours we spent disagreeing. So, I’m retiring. You’ve been a retired Catholic for years. Now I’m joining you, as a retired Methodist. Gonna head for Graceland and mow the ceiling before settling down in Lost Angeles.”

Chip had always referred to LA with disgust, calling it either Lost Angeles or LALA Land. Charles was flabbergasted. Chip represented pure faith to him. And now—adultery, divorce, abandonment. It was too much to take. He slumped back in his bed.

“But Chip, you’re the biggest reason why I think I’ve found my own faith . . .”

“Glad to hear it, little buddy. Real glad. It’s just, while you found yours, somehow, I misplaced mine. But don’t worry. It’s a big old goofy world, but it’s got to be around here someplace.” Chip made a show of patting his pockets. Charles still couldn’t believe the careless way Chip was acting. He seemed high with relief at leaving his old life behind.

“Look, I gotta go. Rita is waiting for me in the car, and it’s a long way to Memphis. So, take good care of yourself and get better soon. I’ll text when I get there, and, hey, once I get settled and you get healed, you’re welcome on my couch anytime.” Chip moved to the bed to hug Charles. They embraced, and Charles caught Chip’s hand.

“Really, Chip, thanks a ton for everything you’ve done for me. I love you.”

“I love you too, Charles. Just don’t turn into a monsignor on me or anything, OK?” Chip again wrapped his huge arms around Charles, gave him a hug that made Charles wince, then turned and strode out of the room chuckling to himself.

Charles just felt tired. His mind was fogged with the shock of recent events. The TV was showing an old movie: The Candidate with Robert Redford. He stared at it for a few moments, then held up his left hand and looked at his wedding ring. With some difficulty, he slipped it off and held it up to the sun, watching it glint as he turned it. Sighing, he put it on the bedstand.

Out the window, Charles could see the top of one of the hospital buildings where a stack streamed a white plume of water vapor. He watched as it feathered back and forth, almost disappearing in a strong breeze, then billowing up again. He was not quite awake and not quite asleep. In a trance, he watched the vapor playing atop the stack, looking like a living thing dancing and bobbing and weaving. After a while, his lunch came, and then, just before he drifted off, he heard Redford say, “What do we do now?”

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