This is by far the longest post I’ve ever done on Mapping the Edge. It’s a story that grew from a fractured partial dream. In the dream, I was flagged down by someone by the side of the road. I lowered my passenger window and the man leaned in. I didn’t recognize the man, but I heard myself speak.
“Preacher, what are you doing out here?”
“Oh, not much,” he said, “just dragging the devil by the tail up and down the highway.”
Then I woke up. Ten days later, there’s this…
. – . – . – .
I pulled over and asked the preacher if he needed a ride, and the first thing I noticed was his smell. It wasn’t human. The second thing I noticed was his hands. He held his hands in the air, like a surgeon after scrubbing in. It wasn’t oil on his hands.
“My brother, I need more than that, but we’ll start with the ride,” he said. The odor oozed in the car ahead of the body.
Even before he sat down, I fought the impulse to vomit. I swallowed back flush, and pressed my left hand onto the driver door panel of controls. All four windows lowered as if in slow motion.
“Howdy, friend and neighbor.”
“Good morning, preacher,” I said. I breathed through my mouth in gasps, and imagined that my smeller was disconnected from my respiratory system.
“Insert tab A into slot B.” He snapped the buckle of his seat belt, then tugged on it to make sure it was secure. He flipped my rear view mirror up, and pulled the passenger mirror in against the door frame. There were hand prints in blood on my seat belt, buckle, mirrors, on everything he touched.
“Bless you for stopping, now floor it.”
I pulled out without looking behind me. Cars and trucks and semis seldom used this stretch of road since the interstate bypass had opened.
“How fast is fast enough,” I asked. I yelled over the roar from the open windows.
“I’ll tell you when.”
The preacher looked at his feet. He scooted them forward and to the sides, then he raised them. He looked around and behind his feet. He leaned forward as far as the seat belt and dashboard allowed, and checked under the passenger seat. He reached under the driver seat and pulled and pushed. Then he looked over his left shoulder to the back seat. The preacher unbuckled himself and raised up enough to check the back floorboards.
“Need something,” I asked. “Maybe a towel? Bandages? Leak-proof gloves?”
“I need a gallon of butter pecan ice cream and a fifth of whiskey. Where would they be? You do have them, don’t you?”
“Not on me.”
He laughed. “Do you always go through life so unprepared?”
“I’ll take you home. To my place, I mean.”
That seemed to settle him a bit. I tried to ignite a regular conversation, if only to distract from the man’s odor and the blood.
“What have you been up to these days,” I asked.
“Oh, the usual. Dragging the devil by the tail up and down the highway.”
“That’s nice. You’re bleeding. Have you noticed?”
“I have, but it’s not all mine.” He grinned.
“That’s nice,” I said.
We drove a while in silence. I was going much faster than my comfort level, which, for me, was already pretty fast. He never said when. Whenever the road was straight enough to allow me to look away, I sneaked a momentary glance at my passenger and the damage. The preacher sat nearly motionless for the rest of the drive, his wrists resting on his knees, letting them drip mostly onto the floor mat.
His fingers were curled in mid-grasp, as if still holding the devil’s tail, or whatever he had really fought with, maybe a hot muffler for all I knew. The preacher’s hands appeared to be suffering from muscle fatigue, along with multiple cuts and burns.
They were not brimstone black, as I thought a preacher’s hands should be, after a night of dragging the devil or whatever up and down the highway. His hands were not blood-soaked, not completely. There were patches of grey powder here and there, as though he had sifted through fresh ashes as part of the dragging.
“The devil’s tail must be made of barbed wire.”
He didn’t respond.
“Maybe barbed wire baked over an open flame?”
He moaned, just loud enough to hear over the wind.
“Preacher, you’re hurting. Your hands are burned and chewed up. Looks like you’ve gone a few rounds with a burning bush.” I laughed but he didn’t.
“I’m taking you to a doctor.”
He twisted his wrists and observed his palms. “No, my brother. I’m fine. Believe it or not, they’re not burned so much as frost-bitten. With a little nibble thrown in here and there.”
“You’re not fine.”
“Now, but I will be, after ice cream and whiskey.”
“Preacher, you can’t keep doing this. You’re risking permanent damage. Plus, some lost trucker could smash you flat and never look back.”
“Oh, he would look back, my son. Everybody looks back. You have no idea how much permanent damage I’m preventing. Every battle I’m engaged in, every distraction I create, every demon I slow, means that someone in our town is at peace, if only for a night, or a few precious hours.”
“But our peace is at your expense.”
“It’s a small price, my son. Small price.”
I raced for a while in silence, still accelerating, and still waiting for him to say when.
“People think the devil and his demons are hot,” he said. I didn’t say anything, because the road ahead was curvy, and at my speed, I needed to focus.
“They are, sort of, but the heat is mostly skin deep, even with that ol’ cloven-hooved scoundrel. Go in any farther and they’re all as cold as a witch’s you-know-what.”
I slid through one turn, over-corrected, and fishtailed through the next one. “What do you do once you’re inside the devil?” It felt like the most awkward question I’d ever asked. I replayed it in my head. What do you do once you’re inside the devil? What does the devil do once he’s possessed by you, preacher?
“Oh, you know,” he said, “I pull and tug. I grab something tangible and attempt an extraction.”
“And if the stuff you tug and pull on won’t come out?”
“Then I try to dislodge it. I jiggle whatever I latch onto. If I can, I rearrange the stuff from where it was to where it wasn’t. I disrupt. That’s what I am, really. I’m a disrupter. He’s a disrupter of souls, and I’m a disrupter of him.”
His hands squeezed and jerked and flinched as a cut-off snake’s tail does. “Just like that. All night long, until the morning sun, the devil and his demons, if they try to join in, that is. Then when the sun rises, they scurry off in all directions, like the roaches they are. Three-toed slothful ones.”
“I guess demon wrestling is not an exact science,” I said.
“What really is?”
I saw the stretch of road ahead, the one that leads to my driveway. I breathed deep and exhaled a long sigh of relief as I slid to a stop. I turned off the ignition, but left my windows down. “Thank God,” I said out loud.
“I recommend it.”
I removed my key. “Don’t move and don’t touch anything else,” I said. “I’ll come over and help you out.”
* * *
“This is heaven-found,” the preacher said, “heaven-found on this crazy, miserable, pitiful, broken-down earth.”
He sat on the edge of my bed, naked except for a colorful beach towel draped across his lap. His skin was rough in patches. It reminded me of a network of tree roots stretching through earth. I imagined the preacher having some untreated skin condition.
On the towel in his lap, right where the palm tree meets the orange circle of the sun, sat my massive blue plastic bowl I use for popcorn. The sides of the bowl were almost a foot high. The bottom was so wide that he could have soaked his feet in it, if they had made contact with the devil. The preacher slid his hands in and out of the contents, squishing ice cream between worn fingers.
“Scrape the corners, please. Get it all,” he said.
I dug the scoop so hard into the ice cream carton, that the thin soggy cardboard became deformed. I flung the scoop into the preacher’s lap until whatever the scoop had in it dropped into the big bowl with a splash. I tossed the empty carton in the general direction of the trash, then I picked up the whiskey bottle and unscrewed the lid. I held the bottle above the bowl and tilted it, but didn’t pour.
“Please. Pour until I say when.”
I tipped the bottle until it made a glugging sound.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“Pour… Pour… That’s good.”
He let his hands soak, but not without making strange hissing sounds, as the alcohol met open wounds.
“It burns almost as bad as holy water,” he said, “but it smells so much better.”
“I didn’t know they bleed,” I said. “I didn’t know they had blood, or hearts that beat.”
“The devil’s folk? I usually don’t like to blow my own horn, but not all of their black hearts beat as they once did.”
I put the whiskey bottle on the floor and squatted in front of the naked preacher. “What’s it like to take hold of the devil himself? To feel him?”
“It’s anti-climactic,” he said. “Satan’s just another created being, sort of like us, but angrier. Cast-out road rage. He’s got respectable leadership and organizational skills, albeit misguided.”
“Huh,” was all I had the capacity to say.
“If not for the pride thing that was found inside him, he’d be a likable being. He’s ambitious and creative, and at one time very attractive.”
“But, he’s the devil,” I countered. “He’s the father of lies. He’s not like us at all. He’s the other.”
“Yes, but that other was still God-made for a purpose,” the preacher said. “Lucifer was made from love, just like we were, and just like us, he’s limited, finite. He’s as equal to the Creator as finite is to infinite, just like we are. The question is, does that change how you see the devil, or does it change how you see yourself?”
I repeated my previous response. “Huh.” All I could say was little more than a grunt.
“My feelings exactly,” he laughed.
“But couldn’t you set your sights a little lower? Maybe go for a lesser demon, or just a really bad human person?”
“Why aim so low? Besides, he started it.”
Again, all I could come up with was another huh. I thought about the preaching preacher on my bed, and those hands of his that dragged the devil’s tail for a living, his nakedness, and the heart-shaped wet spot I’d see on my bed spread if he stood up. I thought about my popcorn bowl and the contents, and I asked the only question that came to me.
“Why butter pecan?”
“Because, I love the smell.”
“Oh.” At least it wasn’t huh.
“Plus,” he added, “even though I know they’re in there, it’s always a pleasant surprise to find fragments of real pecans suspended in the distilled softness. We all need texture in our lives, don’t we?”
“I guess so.”
“Of course we do. Without it, our lives would have the pale yellow consistency of artificially flavored vanilla. Bleh.” He shuddered at the thought of being a servant to such a cursed normal life.
“Are you hungry, preacher?” He started answering before the gry part of the word came out of me.
“Only for a 24-hour breakfast diner, where they bring your food on so many plates that there isn’t room on the table, and the server has to hold the small plates, until you transfer the wheat toast, the toast that was buttered before it was toasted, to the big plate (that’s the the big plate is the one with your over-medium eggs and crisp bacon), and you stack the bacon, so you can rake the hash browns from their small plate into a pile next to the bacon.”
“You’re only hungry for that?”
“Only for that.”
“What about the waffles,” I asked.
“Waffles! Yes! Bless your heart! They must always have their own plate,” the preacher said. “There’s always room for waffles. Always.”
* * *
We chose a table by the window, so the preacher could monitor the highway, and see what I didn’t. In our entire time at the diner, we didn’t see the passing of a single car or truck or motorcycle or semi. Still, the space between our words was not empty. It was filled with a consistent roar of traffic from the nearby interstate. We heard it even through the wall of thick glass between us and the parking lot.
He had hardly spoken since the pale girl brought our food and waited for him to off-load the contents from the small plates onto his egg-and-bacon plate. She was barely more than a girl, and as pale as she was young. The preacher didn’t look up. He played with what had once been a perfectly-shaped waffle. Now, it was a tortured fold of deep-fried dough drug through syrup. The preacher sat slumped and back-bent, like a comma.
I tried to be profound. “Preacher, it’s impossible for me to tell the difference between a fatigued victor and the defeated one.”
He stabbed the waffle dough and swirled, fork scraping against glazed porcelain.
“Preacher? Are you okay?”
“Me? Yes, I’m fine. Weary, but fine.”
“Dragging the devil by the tail up and down the highway, that’ll do it, I guess.”
“That’ll do what?” He looked up then back down.
“Wear you out, make you look like yourself.”
“I didn’t see any mirrors in your home,” the preacher asked. “Care to explain why? Do you struggle with vanity?”
“I have my moments, but that’s not why I don’t have mirrors. I mean, I have mirrors, I just keep them locked away.”
“I’ve never found them useful.”
“Interesting.” The preacher finished his juice. “Such tiny glasses,” he said. “Such large breakfasts, and such tiny glasses. I want you to do something for me.”
“You mean in addition to the lift, the two speeding tickets, the potential cancellation of my auto insurance, the shower, the ice cream and whiskey in my popcorn bowl, and the breakfast?”
“Oh, and possibly permanent blood stains in my car?”
“As an exercise, go home, pull out a mirror, and look deep inside it.”
“You mean look in the mirror, not inside it. It’s a reflective surface. Mirrors don’t have insides.”
He smiled. “When I say look deep inside it, I mean look inside it, deeply. Don’t be satisfied with the surface reflection of things. Look inside the mirror. Open it up. The inside is there.”
“A mirror doesn’t open, preacher. It’s a flat surface.”
He grinned. “A little faith would go a long way with you.”
“It’s not a faith thing. There’s no opening a mirror, because there’s no inside to open. The inside of a mirror is the back of the front.”
The preacher rejected my scientific argument. “Stop over-thinking. Be bold enough to stand in front of the mirror and just look. Stare. Keep staring. Stare longer than you think you should. Don’t suck in. Don’t flex. Relax, slouch, slump. Be who you really are when you’re not looking. It takes faith to do that. You’re lack of it redefines nothing.”
I didn’t want to argue anymore about mirrors and staring, and I hoped he’d drop the sermon about the inside of flat things, so I sat there without talking.
“Go home,” he said. “Go home and look inside. I’ll show you. Look inside, like this.”
The preacher scanned the highway, as if tracking movement.
“I sometimes wonder the same thing,” he said.
“I didn’t say a word,” I said.
“But you hesitated to discuss the mirror thing further. I take it as a sign,” he said. “I also wonder why we hesitate to look inside the mirror.” He continued to stare at the stretch of empty highway in front of the diner.
This again, I thought. Please stop tugging at me, Preacher. I’m not one of your tail-wagging demons.
“We mount mirrors in prominent places throughout our homes,” he said.
Great. Just great, I thought. More sermononizing.
The preacher continued. “We waste our lives merely glancing at mirrors as we pass, toing and froing. That collection of momentary glances shapes the myth of who we want to be, but really aren’t. If we spent the stare time, we would see more than a shallow reflection. Yet, you won’t even look into one. That tells me all I need to know about your insides. You’re flat, like a mirror’s surface.” The preacher’s eyes never drifted from the highway.
“I mean that in love,” he added.
Time to go, I thought. I slid a few dollar bills under the salt shaker as my offering. “Staring makes me uncomfortable,” I said. “Good day, preacher.”
“Makes me uncomfortable too.” His head moved, and, at times, tilted sideways, like a dog’s when it’s trying to comprehend. His eyes followed things that I’m not quite sure were all the way there, but maybe their reflections were. The frost-bitten parts were still there.
“Go home,” he said. “Go home until you know it’s safe to come out again.”
“What are you going to do,” I asked.
“What am I going to do? Drag tail. What else can I do?”
“How will I know when that abandoned highway is safe?” I laughed, and it came out more condescending than I’d intended.
“How about I bag a demon, and bring him, kicking and screaming, to your doorstep. Will you believe then? Probably not, because you’ll refuse to look.”
“Don’t be shocked if he knows the way,” I said.
He folded his hands on the edge of the table, as if almost in prayer.
“Preacher, your hands look shredded. You need a doctor.”
“It’s just the whiskey. It’s a harsh healer.”
“Maybe you should stop chasing demon tail. Retire. Good day, preacher.”
“It’s what I do. It’s my calling. Go.”
“Then leave the devil be. Pick on a smaller demon next time. They come in different sizes, don’t they?”
“They do,” the preacher said.
“Then grab a shorter tail. Maybe a smooth one, one without those sharp pointy things.” I picked up my fork. “One with a forked tail.”
He didn’t look at me or laugh.
“Maybe you should skip the tail and grab a less abrasive body part. Good luck finding a ride.”
He looked up and stared at me. “That’s it. You’re right.”
“I’ve been wrestling with the wrong end of the problem. Next time, I’m going for the throat.”
He looked out the window at the highway and became lost in it. This time, he had a broad grin. I stood, but sat back down. I’m not sure if the glint of saliva in the corners of his mouth was my imagination or not. My time with the preacher had blurred my lines. I motioned for the server.
“Do you need something?” She dried her hands on the butt of her jeans and waited for my answer.
I tried to get the preacher’s attention to see if he needed a refill, but gave up. He seemed to be unaware of her presence, and mine. I didn’t know whether to ask for the check or more coffee, or maybe forgiveness for being blind and deaf to it all, or say goodbye for good.
“Well?” Her hands clung to her thin hips.
I motioned for the server girl to come closer. “Lean over,” I said.
She shook her head. “Perv. I’ve fallen for that one a thousand times.”
“Perv? Really?” I grinned as innocently as I knew how, and motioned again. She rolled her eyes and bent toward me. I smelled Juicy Fruit gum.
“Do you notice anything strange at work here? Or out there?” I nodded toward the highway.
“That depends,” she whispered back. “Do you?”
She stood upright and took our empty plates. “Thanks for stacking dishes,” she said. “Saves me work.” She started to walk off, then spun around. “That doesn’t mean that you get a cut of my tip though. Got it?”
“Your tip is already taken care of,” I said. “Here.”
I moved the salt shaker, but she said to leave her tip where it was. “It gives you a chance to add to it,” she said. She said she’d come back for the rest of the dirty dishes, but never did. The preacher and I sat there for the longest time at the dirty table. I wanted to leave, but I think I stayed mostly because he told me to go. I stared at the preacher, and sometimes at the pale girl. The preacher stared out the window.
Sometimes, he pointed out the window. A few times, he made a fist and shook it at something that only he saw. His fingers twitched and flinched. I didn’t know if, in his mind, he’d discovered a stray pecan in he popcorn bowl, or if he had seized something deeper inside, something dislodged and frozen, something deep inside a mirror.
I envied the preacher’s passion. His life had purpose. He was willing to go for the throat, but I felt as if I were just passing through my life. I almost wanted to tell him that, but I didn’t want to take out a mirror, and I didn’t want to stare until I stopped sucking in.
I wanted to want to, but I wasn’t ready, not yet. At least I was thinking about wanting to want to. That should count for something. I was pulled out of myself by the sound of flesh thumping against glass. The preacher tapped the window to get someone or something’s attention.
“There you are,” he said, mostly to whatever he saw. “I see you.” The preacher grinned and waved. I waved back, in case he was looking at my reflection, but I don’t think it was my reflection that he saw into. “And I see that you see me,” he said.
I leaned over and tried to position myself at the same angle with the light, so that I could also see the thing. All I saw was the hood of my car outside, and the dim reflection of the young pale girl behind the counter. She poured coffee for the stranger who sat across from us at the diner’s bar area.
Most likely, he was just passing through or lost. He had to be passing or lost to take this exit. Nobody came here intentionally. The stranger couldn’t have been who the preacher saw, because he seemed to have all of his limbs. Nothing extra was hanging off, not that I could tell from a reflection.
That said, I admit that I don’t always notice my full surroundings, and I don’t always ask the right questions. I waved at the reflection of the girl. I held up my mug to the glass and pointed out its emptiness. One more, I thought. Then I’m distancing myself from this world.
The reflection made its way around the end of the counter. Coffee sloshed in the pot. I can’t be sure, but I think her reflection rolled its eyes. As soon as the reflection was gone from my line of sight, the pale girl appeared at our table. There, I thought. I looked into a mirror. Happy, preacher? Homework done.
She poured aggressively. If that were not possible, then I don’t know how else to categorize her pouring technique. When she was done, when our mugs were full, when our table had become coffee-spattered, she checked her watch. She put the coffee pot on the counter, and left without a word through the back exit. She opened the door butt-first. From her apron, she pulled out a bent cigarette and a lighter.
The preacher and I finished our refills.
“Preacher, she looks too young to work around hot things, like coffee and grills, let alone smoke.”
“I still see you,” the preacher said, louder than he should have. “I see you as clearly as I see myself.”
“Shh,” I said. “Not so loud. People are staring. Staring makes me nervous, remember?”
“Of course they are, and of course it does,” the preacher said. “And I’m staring back.”
The stranger turned and scanned the preacher, then spoke to me. “Is there anything worth doing in this god-forsaken town tonight?”
“You could take a late night stroll with me” The preacher spoke with an authoritative voice. He still stared out the window.
“What would we do on this late night stroll? Hold hands?”
“Just walk the highway, up and down, from one exit to the other.”
“Is it safe out there?”
“Not exactly, but that makes life a bit more interesting. Don’t you agree?”
“Preacher,” I said, “stop, just stop.” I grabbed his forearm, but he pulled away. “Please be quiet about what you do. People will think you’re crazy.”
“Or should I be quiet because people will associate you with crazy?”
I looked at the stranger. He kept his back to us, and the last thing I wanted was to make a scene.
“I’m going to do what you suggested,” the preacher said to me. “I’m going for his throat.”
I grabbed the preacher and forced him back into his booth. “Stop it! He’s not one of your —”
“Not one of my what?” The preacher looked at me.
“He’s not a stranger from another realm,” I said. “He’s just a stranger from another town.”
“You’re blind. He’s one of them,” the preacher yelled.
The stranger looked around at us. “Sir, I’m just passing through,” he said. “No reason to be rude.”
The girl came back inside, smoke escaping her nostrils. She opened a stick of gum, then another, and stuffed them both in her mouth.
“I’m just looking for a good time tonight, that’s all.” The stranger grinned at the pale girl. The girl blushed and giggled. She acted shy, but unbuttoned the top button of her shirt.
“See,” I said to the preacher. “Look at him. He’s not one of your enemies. He’s human. He might be a stranger, but so what? He’s flesh and blood, just like me. He’s one of the good guys. Remember what you said about Satan? He’s just like us, only meaner? Right now, you’re the mean one.”
“Things are never as they seem,” the preacher said. He held his mug in both hands and moved the mug in a circular motion. Coffee grounds swirled near the bottom in what coffee he had not drunk.
“No, they certainly are not, not in your world.” I said.
“Not in any world.” The preacher seemed more interested in the movement of coffee residue than in what I had to say to him. “I’m going to kill him. I’ve got no choice. You’ll thank me later.”
“Look at me, preacher.” He looked up at me, then back down to his mug. I stopped the mug’s rotation. “Not everybody you see is against you. Stop being so paranoid. Just —”
I was interrupted by vicious coughing spell by the stranger. There was a period of silence where his face became deep red, then he hacked something loose and jelly-like into his napkin. He gasped for air and spun around to us.
“Dang! You almost got your wish. I could have died in your arms.”
The preacher applauded with a series of slow, concussive claps. “Bravo,” he yelled. “What a performance!”
“It’s no act,” the stranger said between coughs. “I nearly choked to death.”
“Even better,” the preacher said. He applauded again. “This is not your first possession. You should know that there’s an art to talking, eating and breathing air on this side of eternity. Possession is only nine tenths of the law, remember?”
I pinned the preacher’s hands to the table. “Shut up already! Just sit there and be quiet!” I pulled out a few napkins and stuffed them into his hands to soak up the blood. A few of his deeper cuts had re-opened during his clapping.
“My apologies on his behalf,” I said to the stranger and to everyone else. “My friend’s not well.” A few customers left. One or two others observed us for a few seconds, then returned to their meals.
“Apology accepted,” the stranger said. He spun around so that his back was to us again. The pale girl rushed a glass of water to the stranger and he downed it in one gulp and coughed again. She picked up the empty glass, and the stranger grabbed her wrist and kissed the back of her hand. “Bless you,” he said.
“By the way, it’s a date,” he said in an excessively loud voice, then resumed eating his meal, as if the choking incident never happened.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “What was that?”
The stranger pivoted and faced our table. The stool made a high-pitched squeal. He shoveled an overloaded fork of eggs and hash browns into his mouth. He raked the fork along his teeth and pointed the fork at me.
“I wasn’t talking to you.” The sentence came out of his mouth in a series of spits.
The stranger then spoke to the preacher through food chewed but not yet swallowed. “Sure, I’ll meet you on the highway tonight. Sounds like loads of fun.” The stranger swallowed hard. He sipped his coffee. He swished the liquid in his closed mouth, then swallowed. Then he took another drink.
“By the way, preacher,” the stranger said, “how are your hands? Let me see.”
“Still functional,” the preacher said. He refused to hold them up for display. The preacher dabbed at one hand with the napkin wad, then the other. Several times he turned the napkin wad around and inside out, searching for a white spot.
“It’s just a little surface damage from excessive applause,” I said. “He gets carried away sometimes. No big deal. His hands are fine.”
The preacher flicked away the wad, and grasped his mug again. This time he reversed the mug’s rotation. The coffee grounds began to swirl in the opposite direction. Once he had the grounds at full spin, he spoke to the stranger.
“How’s the tail,” the preacher said. “Or should I say, what’s left of it?”
“I’ll survive,” the stranger said. Then he looked directly at me. “Now, I’m talking to you. Do you know what we call the preacher on the other side of the highway? Death Grip.” He laughed.
“So, I’ve heard,” the preacher said. “Word travels, even around here.”
My gaze ping-ponged between the preacher and the stranger. For the first time since I had met the preacher, after years of rescuing him from time to time, after having come to see him as my burden, my way of tithing, I suddenly realized that maybe I had been his burden all along. This was the first time that I had felt in the way of his mission.
“I presume that you’ve reported our little late night incident to the rest of your cronies on your side of the road,” the preacher said.
“Yes, I have. Retaliation plans are already in place.”
The stranger’s mouth stretched into a wide grin. The preacher put his mug down and shoved it to the side. He watched the coffee grounds slow, come to a stop, then settle. Then he looked at me. Before he could speak, I did.
“I don’t know what to say to you, other than I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. All this time, I thought you were the town crazy.” He opened his mouth again to speak, but I spoke again instead.
“I know, I know. I should go home and look inside until I don’t suck in.”
“Take the girl with you,” the preacher said. “Take her before he does.”
“Good luck with that. Her best parts are already on my side of the mirror. She’s delicious, isn’t she, preacher? That’s right. You wouldn’t know.” The stranger burped. “Pardon me.”
“As if,” the preacher said.
“Ouch. I’m hurt.” The stranger came over to our table. He stretched to one side then the other, then arched his back. He massaged his lower back just below the belt line.
“It must feel good to stand and give your broken tail a break, huh?” I was proud of myself. It was my first direct engagement with the enemy. “Go self-apply some butt salve, or something.”
The stranger reached over and mussed my hair, as if I were impotent. “Butt salve. Cute. I don’t think I know your tag-team partner, preacher.”
“Not yet, but you will.” The preacher placed one of his hands on mine and tapped, the way a father would, or a maybe a brother.
“Oh, ye of bloated faith. See you love birds later tonight.”
The stranger exited, but stopped at our window. He pressed his forehead against the glass and shaded both sides of his eyes. He looked beyond the preacher and me. He smiled and waved, and blew a kiss to the girl behind the counter. I turned just in time to see her catch his kiss with an exaggerated dramatic gesture, then return one of her own.
“That man is so, so, so hot,” she said. She wiped her face with her hands, then fanned her flushed face. “He makes me weak. I don’t know why.”
“He’s too old for you,” I said, “and too wrong for you.”
“And,” she stretched the word until it took a full three seconds for the single syllable to leave her mouth, “that would explain his hotness. That, and his twenty dollar tip.”
I felt if there was anything the girl would listen to more closely than talk of love or lust, it would be money. I slipped her tip from under the salt shaker. On it, I wrote my name, number and address. Below that, I wrote, “Don’t follow him.” I folded the dollar bill neatly, and placed the shaker on back top.
The preacher covered my hands with both of his, I think to get my attention, or maybe he was thanking, or forgiving me. Until his full touch, I had not realized how rough and deeply battle-scared they actually were. Scars criss-crossed, new carved into old.
The oldest of the scars were worn smooth, like washed-up sea stones. The more recent wounds were bound together by strips of new flesh stretched fresh and pink. The damage was extensive, but appeared almost organic, as if a natural consequence of life. Then it hit me.
“Preacher, your skin condition —”
“After your shower, when you were naked on my bed —”
“Could you say that part a little louder,” he said.
“Sorry.” I lowered my voice and leaned across the table. He met me half way. “I thought you had a skin condition that looked like tree roots. They’re all scars, aren’t they? You’re covered in scars.”
He didn’t answer.
“You’re one big scar. One big walking, breathing, living battle scar.”
“Don’t forget to pick up plenty of butter pecan and whiskey on the way home.” The preacher squeezed hard, then he let me go.
– . – . – . –