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Short Story
5210 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

That Old Time Religion

Thomas Fleming

The year was 1951 and war was rumbling up and down the peninsula of Korea. Desperate for cannon fodder, the U.S. Army had decided to reexamine some of the rejects of World War II. The doctors decided that with the aid of a crash diet during basic training, Simon Burke could become a passable helot. His mother was horrified, but Simon found himself secretly welcoming the prospect of being devoured by the democratic version of Moloch. He had gotten his Ph.D. in philosophy and found zero jobs. Secular colleges had no interest in St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and their medieval view of the world. At Catholic colleges only Jesuits and other clerics were trusted to teach philosophy. Simon had wound up teaching English at Francis Xavier Preparatory School.

He lived at home with his mother and spent his nights struggling to write a Great Catholic Novel about Mother Elizabeth Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity and reputed to be a natural for canonization. After two years of this existence, he was bored with Mother, bored with Mother Seton and bored with the struggle to keep order among the pimply faced sixteen-year-olds who had a minimal, not to say subterranean interest in Alice Meynell, Joyce Kilmer, G.K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson, and other giants of Catholic literature.

Simon found the army boring too. Until the day he met Coleman Stapleton. At first, their only link was a common birthplace, the grungy industrial city on the banks of the Hudson River in northern New Jersey. Physically and sociologically, Stapleton seemed to be Simon’s total opposite. Remarkably handsome in a 1930-ish Duke-of-Windsor way, he was the American aristocrat personified. His father was the minister of the poshest Presbyterian church in town. Various other relatives owned the largest textile mill, the biggest law firm and other bastions of Wasp power.

At home, Stapleton would have recoiled from the very thought of associating with someone named Simon Burke. The realities of life in Camp Grundy, Tennessee, forced camaraderie upon them. The infantry company to which they were assigned numbered among its elements a group of thugs from the dead end of Brooklyn, another group of public enemies from the lower depths of Chicago, an assortment of kids who looked and acted like high school freshmen in an Andy Hardy movie, and two dozen lanky scared-looking mountain boys who had never worn shoes or seen a toilet before in their lives.

At first, Simon and Stapleton exchanged information. Simon was fascinated to hear that disillusion was more rife—and more deadly—among the Wasps than it was among the Catholics. As Stapleton described them, the upper class was wobbling along on a few shreds of patriotism and noblesse oblige, at which his generation scoffed. Stapleton was almost as interested to learn that discontent with the Democratic Party and weariness with pontificating monsignors was rampant behind the monolithic facade of Irish-American Catholicism.

It did not take long for Coleman Stapleton and Simon to discover a common obsession: religion. Coleman had majored in it at Harvard and had spent a year at the Yale Divinity School, where he finally decided there was no god. When he revealed this awful conclusion to the dean of the school, that reverend gentleman did not even blink. He told Stapleton that half of those who graduated had the same opinion. For Simon, still in the womb of Mother Church, this was an enormously shocking, incredibly exciting idea. It left him with a tormented wish to demonstrate that he too could be a spiritual daredevil.

On weekends they rode a rattletrap bus from Camp Grundy to the town of Prosperity, Tennessee, for a few hours of liquor and relative freedom. But Stapleton found the town’s lone bar, crowded with belching bellowing fellow privates, less than encouraging to his sense of noblesse oblige. Simon was inclined to agree with him. They frequently retreated to the woods for conversations theological and philosophical.

On this particular evening, as they walked along, they got involved in an incoherent argument about the psychology of conversion. Stapleton maintained that all converts had personality problems; Simon argued that some at least were normal and were simply expressing man’s basic need for faith. Suddenly they were interrupted by the incongruous sound of voices raised in song. “Thank you God,” Simon said, raising his eyes in mock piety “You have provided angels to convince this sinner of the folly of his ways.”

“Either that or we’re both growing anibaglous,” Coleman said.

“Or amplectant,” Simon said.

Stapleton’s fondness for brainbusting words was an offshoot of his basic snobbery. He had been surprised to find an Irish-American who had also read Mrs. Byrnes’ Dictionary of Preposterous Words and Phrases.

The music seemed to be ahead of them around a sharp bend in the twisting road. In a few minutes, they rounded the bend and found themselves on the edge of a large clearing in which a medium sized tent had been raised. Painted all over it in crude red letters was the slogan, JESUS SAVES. In the field next to the tent was a collection of farm trucks, tin lizzies and other debilitated forms of local transportation. They had stumbled upon a travelling evangelist plying his trade among the natives.

“Let’s go in,” Stapleton said.

For a moment Simon wanted to explain that Catholics were forbidden to attend religious services of other faiths. But that would have given Stapleton an unacceptable advantage in their ongoing struggle for intellectual supremacy. Simon followed Stapleton through the raised flap and sat down on a back bench just as the hymns ended and the sermon began.

The preacher was a big raw-boned sulfur-breathing redneck with a voice that crackled across the rows of benches like automatic rifle fire. He whipped the crowd and himself into a frenzy. They moaned and wailed with genuine fear as he roared out a vision of the damned on Judgment Day. After an hour of terror, they started leaping and shouting answers when he asked them if they wanted to be saved. Finally, he threw open his arms and urged them to come forward and confess their sins and be washed in the blood of the Lamb. The congregation almost trampled each other in the stampede to the platform.

Simon found himself far more involved than he wanted to be. It was so totally different from the bored, dozing mass goers at St. Patrick’s Church. He felt intimidated by this outburst of fervor, fear, ecstasy. He had to remind himself that he was looking at a bunch of yokels, nuts.

“Now what do you think about conversion, Simon Peter?” Stapleton asked, invoking a name he used when he was being especially derisive.

Usually Simon upheld the positive against Stapleton’s nihilistic negativism. But his ambivalence spoke, now. “You may have finally made me feel like a claqueur,” he said. “When confronted with such carminative inconcinnity, one has little choice.”

“Carminative?” Stapleton was forced to ask.

“Pertaining to farting,” Simon said.

Back in Prosperity, Simon had a sudden urge for several more drinks before they caught the ten o’clock bus back to camp. Stapleton never had to be persuaded to join him in the fine art of elbow bending. By the time they got on the bus, they were both drunk. They burst into the barracks minutes before lights out in a wildly ebullient mood.

“Brother Burke,” Stapleton shouted, “don’t you have a message for these lost spagogic souls?”

“Why sure I do, Elder Stapleton,” Simon roared. “Stychophobia is foreign to my nature.”

With some help from Stapleton, Simon clambered onto an upper bunk. “Up, up, you spawn of Satan, you brethren of Beelzebub,” he roared. “Up out of your slothful lewd slumbers and hearken to the word of the Lord!”

About half the company had already turned in. Simon stared down at their sleep-puffed faces and was swept by an uncontrollable desire to mock the travelling evangelist he had seen perform earlier in the evening. He flung out his arms and watched his shadow (there was an overhead bulb behind him) become a gigantic cross.

“Throw a net over him,” someone yelled.

“Stick his head down a toilet bowl.”

Simon cut loose. “Did Jonah snore in the belly of the whale? Did Daniel in the fiery furnace? Why then, 0 ye of no faith whatsoever, do you lie like worms in the bowels of the great beast, the U.S. Army? Your souls have been devoured and you don’t have the spiritual brain to realize it. The Lord has vomited you out of his mouth and you don’t have the spiritual nose to smell your own stink!

“Sinners, the hour has struck. The spirit’s anointed finger has penetrated the flesh of corruption in which your souls are hiding. The time has come to confess your iniquities in the face of the great God, to wash your sooty souls and carrion bodies in the fountain of eternal life, the heavenly river which pours down from Paradise, the breath of God everlasting!

“The hour has struck, I say. The time is nigh when the face of the great God will be written on the firmament. Then the flames of wickedness will reach to heaven’s own gates but they will not blacken even the little finger of the righteous. Are you among these elect? Look to your souls, ye bumfabulous vermin of destruction. Look before it’s too late!”

The voice of the duty officer came rumbling out of the darkness. “You’re goddamn right it’s too late! What’s your name, soldier? You’re on report.”

“I have no name,” Simon replied. “I come from beyond the stars where petty creatures such as you cannot penetrate.”

At that precise moment, Stapleton, anticipating this crisis, threw the switch that plunged the barracks into darkness. A mad scramble for safety followed with the duty officer roaring ineffectually in the background. Finally, in tomb-like silence, he called on the culprit to surrender. When Simon did not produce himself, the lights were turned on and the company mustered in front of their bunks. As the roll call began, Simon strolled out of the latrine in his skivvies. The duty officer, in search of a man in uniform, passed him without a glance.

The following day, Simon was something of a hero to his fellow privates. The sergeant lectured them half-heartedly for their behavior, obviously on the captain’s orders. Both were lazy bastards and nothing more seemed likely to come of the midnight sermon. It went into the company’s memory bank as one more piece of the madness of basic training. For Simon, it established him as Coleman Stapleton’s spiritual equal.

That evening, Stapleton and Simon were standing in front of the barracks comparing their hangovers when the hillbillies materialized around them. They seemed to emerge from the twilight descending on the parade ground. As usual, their uniforms did not fit. Yet their overall appearance reflected a heroic effort at neatness. Their hands and faces were scrubbed, their shoes were shined, their hair showed traces of a comb and brush. The total effect was aboriginal. Behind the frightened eyes and slack mouths Simon glimpsed the naiveté of the primitive.

Their spokesman was not a typical member of the group. Although he wore his uniform as uneasily as the rest, Baxter was a smaller, leaner specimen, with a fox-like face and a demonstrated ability to grasp the essentials of Army life. He was in Simon’s barracks detail and was an expert goof-off.

“Brother Burke,” Baxter said. “The boys were pretty impressed by the talk you gave last night.”

“You don’t say.”

“Pretty impressed,” Baxter said. He shifted from one foot to the other. “These boys, they don’t get much chance to hear preachin’ like that every day in the week. Even on Sunday, for that matter. Chaplain Hastings ain’t their sort of preacher.”

“Too bad,” Simon said. Chaplain Hastings was a northern Presbyterian. Simon was tempted to tell them he did not get much preaching from the Catholic chaplain, either. He was a thick-necked Neanderthal from New York named Murphy, who was confident that Cardinal Spellman would be canonized someday.

“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Boys here were wonderin’ if maybe you couldn’t help then out. Give us some more of that preachin’ one or two days a week.”

“Is that true?” Stapleton said to the other hillbillies.

They all nodded violently and did an agitated little foot-shuffling dance.

“How much do you pay your preachers back home?” Simon asked.

Baxter glanced warily at the others. “Oh, about five dollars a week and services. You know, firewood, repairs on the parsonage, that sort of thing.”

“What do you think of this, Elder Stapleton?”

“It could be a dolorifuge,” Stapleton said. “On the otherhand, it could do serious damage to your deontology.”

Dolorifuge was something that relieved the blues. Deontology was a theory of ethics.

“What about your deontology?” Simon asked.

“I try not to be doxastic,” Stapleton said. “I don’t have one.”

“You’d have to pay me ten,” Simon said, sure that this would get rid of them.

“Fair enough,” Baxter said, holding out his hand. “We’re all makin’ big money here.”

Simon began thinking about what he could do with ten dollars a week. The snacks at the PX, the extra drinks in the bar at Prosperity. It was an incredibly attractive amount of money for a man making only seventy eight dollars a month. In the fading light he could barely see Coleman Stapleton or the hillbillies. He was amazed when Stapleton said: “Brother Burke will give you his answer after supper. You realize he has to meditate deeply on such a request before he can be sure it’s the Lord’s intention.”

In the chow line, Stapleton challenged Simon. “You’re not going to turn them down, are you?”

“What would your father say if he heard you?” Simon murmured.

“Don’t mention that old fart,” Stapleton said. “I’ll get them up to fifteen bucks a week, I guarantee it. With that kind of money, we can get to Memphis.”

Memphis. Hotel rooms. Decent food. Civilization. Maybe even air conditioning. Simon collapsed. What harm could come from diddling a bunch of hayseeds? They might even learn something. “I hereby appoint you my agent, in spite of your ozostomia. Dominus vobiscum.

An hour after supper, Stapleton sat down on Simon’s bunk. “The service is at five tomorrow,” he said. “We get fifteen.”

“What the hell am I going to say to them?” Simon asked, instantly panicked. “I haven’t time to work anything up tonight. I’ve got to clean my goddamn rifle.”

“Your worries are over,” Stapleton said. “And so are mine. Take a look.”

He pointed to his bunk, several aisles away. Six of the hillbillies were working furiously around it, remaking the bed, shining Stapleton’s shoes, cleaning his rifle, squaring his footlocker.

“A preacher of the word,” Stapleton murmured in Simon’s ear, “has no time for menial tasks. He has to keep his mind tuned to the larger world of the spirit. The same goes for his Elder.”

The next evening at five o’clock Stapleton marched the group briskly to the center of the parade ground. In the declining afternoon sunlight, he formed them into a single rank and Simon began preaching. He used the same patter, mixing the Bible, Shakespeare, Moby Dick and Mrs. Byrnes. They loved it. Stapleton stood by, solemn faced, as befitted an elder.

Simon was amazed by the impact of his rhetoric on the hillbillies. By the time he finished, a fragile contentment, like skim-ice on a puddle, overlay the bewilderment on their faces. As they marched back he heard the two nearest him mutter: “Well, he sure beats the Reverend Benton but he don’t come up to old Cal Clements in my opinion.”

“Well sure,” the other one said. “But I’ll bet he does when he gets the rust outn’ his windpipe.”

Simon saw why they were paying him. It was not ignorance or stupidity. It was homesickness. In this incomprehensible army world his bogus ministry was a tiny fragment of home to which they clung, like a lost child clutches a familiar toy.

Stapleton and Baxter let them clump happily into the barracks. Outside, Baxter counted fifteen one dollar bills into Stapleton’s hand. “Worth every cent,” Baxter said with his foxy smile. “Worth every cent.”

That evening when Simon and Stapleton got to the mess hall, he blithely steered them away from the already formidable line. “The spiritual elite don’t stand and wait, Burke,” he said. “Let’s go inside and relax.”

They were barely seated when one of the disciples presented Simon with a full tray. Another performed the same service for Stapleton. They ate in silence for about five minutes. Then Stapleton began laughing. Simon smothered his mirth behind his hand at first. Finally he put his head down on the table and laughed so hard he was sure he was shaking the foundations of the mess hall.

“Only one thing worries me,” Simon said. “What the devil am I going to talk to them about, if we keep it up? We’ll be here at least ten more weeks.”

Stapleton shrugged. “It’s all the same subject—the conflict between the flesh and the spirit.”

“There’s more to Christianity than that.”

“Who says you’re preaching Christianity?”

There was a chill—no, more than a chill, a coldness, in Stapleton’s voice that Simon found unnerving. For the first time he realized this WASP really meant it when he said that he did not believe in God.

Whatever Simon was preaching, they soon had several things to worry about. As in all new revelations, for the first few weeks the disciples walked around with the happy glow of the converted. But when Simon’s rhetoric became more familiar, gaps began to appear in the attendance and the deserters were not inclined to pay their share of the costs of the production.

At Coleman’s advice, Simon denounced the deserters as children of darkness and warned that their failure to hearken to the Light would be recorded on high. But this technique proved only partially effective. It looked like the First Church of Zelotypia, as Coleman called it, would soon collapse.

One night, after a particularly parlous attendance, Stapleton asked Simon where he could get a bottle of mercurochrome. Simon suggested a medical corpsman with whom he sometimes played ping-pong at the PX. The medic gave him the stuff when Simon explained it was going to be part of a harmless practical joke. Stapleton was waiting outside the dispensary. He snatched the bottle out of Simon’s hand and plunged his index finger into it. In the dim light from the dispensary window, he displayed the bright red finger to Simon.

“You see before you,” Stapleton said, “the fiery finger of the Most High.”

The following day, at their sundown service, there were four absentees. Simon belabored them verbally with all the denunciatory adjectives in his vocabulary. Then he cried: “The giver of light, the most high lord, has sent us a sign. Into the corruptible flesh of Elder Stapleton he has infused a breath of spiritual flame, testimony of his power to consume those who do not heed his word. Yes, I say unto you, whoever receives the benediction of this finger shall be blessed forever. He who falls under its bane shall be cursed.”

Coleman held up the fiery finger. Its impact on the disciples was awesome. They returned to the barracks bug-eyed with fright. That night, the bus that was carrying the four delinquents back to camp struck a wandering deer and piled into a tree. None of the four was hurt badly but all received some rather painful injuries: cuts from flying glass, wrenched knees, black eyes and battered ribs.

This coincidence convinced Stapleton that supernatural power was the answer to all their problems. Henceforth, Simon was to be not a preacher but a seer. Simon pointed out that they were unlikely to be lucky enough to predict the next bus accident or anything else that might happen to the disciples.

“I don’t mean predictions. I mean telegnosis. Convincing them you know what they’re thinking,” Stapleton said.

“How do we manage that?”


Stapleton proved to be a good judge of Baxter’s character. For ten percent of their weekly stipend, he supplied Stapleton with a running dossier on the disciples’ personal lives. Simon was able to assure one that his romance with the lily of his valley was not fading as he feared. He extended his sympathy to a second, whose father had accidentally shot himself in the foot. He exhorted a third to stop jerking off in the shower. All became fearfully convinced they were confronting a man with a direct wire to the Almighty.

But Baxter proved to be a problem. He was not satisfied with his stipend. He wanted power. Stapleton saw no harm in it. One night, Simon anointed Baxter (with 3 in 1 oil) and he became a sort of high priest. Thereafter he too had his rifle cleaned, his shoes polished, his bunk made and his meals served.

At about this time, Coleman announced they had saved enough money for their weekend in Memphis. Baxter insisted on coming along. They got a hotel room and the first day, Simon ate six meals, five of them steaks. It was marvelous—until Stapleton announced that a tour of the red light district was on the schedule.

“We have to inspect the war between darkness and light first hand, right, Brother?” he said, with his bitter grin.

“Absolutely,” Simon said.

When the time for the tour came, Simon found himself indisposed. He brushed aside Stapleton’s wry suggestion that he was suffering from terrasis and stayed in his room, slowly getting drunk, wondering why he had been born an Irish Catholic, incapable of committing the one important sin. He told himself that it was essentially a problem of esthetics. He recoiled from the crudity of whore houses. But how did that explain Coleman Stapleton’s presence in one of these places, fucking a woman who spread her legs for a dozen, perhaps two dozen men a night? Why, with almost two hundred years of refinement in his blood, did he indulge? Was the mere insertion of the male organ into any vagina so productive of ecstasy, the inserter ignored the rest of it, the tawdry ambience, the ugly circumstances?

Simon groped for a frame of reference. The only one he found was the artist-hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. He too sought and supposedly enjoyed whores. Simon understood him perfectly. He had been using the whores as a bitter statement of his total rejection of the Catholic Church. Perhaps Stapleton was making a similar statement about Presbyterianism. Perhaps that was why Simon could not join him. In spite of disillusion, Simon could not escape the conviction that there was something fundamental, essential, in the word faith.

Nevertheless, Simon writhed as his imagination inflicted on him a kaleidoscope of images of Coleman Stapleton cavorting naked with a bevy of southern nymphs. Simon saw himself in the middle of the revel, naked too, side by side with his satanically handsome friend, while laughing, shouting women tormented them with an endless variety of breasts, pussies, bottoms. Ultimately exhausted, they lay there side by side and Stapleton saluted Simon with the ultimate acknowledgement of their equality. Now you know how it feels to fuck your brains out.

Clumps in the hall. The door burst open and Baxter and Stapleton reeled into the room. Baxter was noisily drunk. He shouted words like pussy and tits and counted up how many times and how long. Stapleton watched him for a while with cold amused eyes and remarked that by and large he found the Memphis whores more willing than the whores of Cambridge or New Haven. Whereupon he went to bed. Baxter sprawled in a chair, too drunk to get up. Suddenly his eyes narrowed; he made a heroic effort to collect his liquefied brain.

“Say,” he said. “Don’t he try to hex you with the finger?”


Baxter’s frown grew deeper furrows. “You ain’t no more preachers than me. But you got that hex.”

“It’s a sign from on high, Baxter,” Simon said.

“On high my ass. Know what I think? You’re workin’ for the old boy. Downstairs. But we got to play along with you on account of the hex.”

Simon sensed the presence of evil. It oozed from the drunken sneer on Baxter’s face. Somehow the sneer obliterated the memory of the contentment he had glimpsed on the disciples’ faces after his first sermon on the parade ground. Simon realized he had been living on the capital of that ersatz spiritual moment. The next day, when they returned to Camp Grundy, he told Stapleton about his talk with Baxter. “Maybe we ought to bag this thing,” Simon said.

Stapleton scoffed at his fears. “We’ll be okay as long as the mercurochrome holds out.”

“I’m through preaching,” Simon said.

Stapleton shrugged. “It’s your decision. The church will survive your defection, Simon Peter.”

For a moment Simon could not believe the anguish this cold response stirred in his belly. His intuition in Memphis had been right. He had failed Stapleton’s ultimate test of friendship. He had refused to join him in giving God the finger. So be it, so be it, Simon thought. Stapleton’s friendship was not worth Simon Burke’s immortal soul. This protestation did nothing to allay the anguish in his belly.

To Simon’s chagrin, Stapleton conducted a well attended service that afternoon. “The old finger,” Stapleton said. “It’s a lot less fickle than your oratory, Simon Peter.”

Services continued throughout the last weeks of basic training. As their fourteenth week began, the captain announced they had crawled the allotted yardage under machine gun fire, broken enough shins and sprained enough backs on the obstacle course, and drilled a sufficient number of robotic hours under the southern sun. They were ready for the final ordeal, a four-day bivouac in the hills.

The night before their march, Simon was wandering around the barracks area when he heard voices arguing violently. It was Baxter and Stapleton nose to nose. “The answer is no,” Stapleton said.

“Gentlemen,” Simon said. “Why this callignous quarrel?

“Fuck you too,” Baxter said and stalked into the darkness before Simon could explain to him that callignous meant obscure, dark or veiled.

“What’s eating him?” Simon asked.

“A question of theological succession,” Stapleton said. “He wants a sacred finger too.”

“Since time immemorial, high priests have been hungry for power. I’d watch out for him.”

“He wants to turn this into a business,” Stapleton said. “Next week we’ll split up. Eventually he’ll be back here in these hills: All he’d need would be a hex like this finger to live off their sweat for the rest of his life.”

“Elder Stapleton. You’re exhibiting concern for your congregation. Doesn’t that violate your philosophy?”

For a moment, Coleman Stapleton looked as if he might take Simon seriously. “Let’s call it the last gasp of noblesse oblige,” he said.

The next day they slogged off to bivouac. Simon found himself sharing a shelter-half with Stapleton. Only the fact that he brought along a bottle of Bourbon made the ordeal bearable. They fought their mock battles, starved on K rations and struggled to keep track of the tangle of unnecessary equipment the American soldier carries into combat.

The disciples alleviated some of their hardships. They set up the shelter-half, filled it with leafy boughs and filled their mess kits with what passed for food. But Simon thought they had begun to resent their duties. Stapleton did not help matters by getting drunk and losing his noblesse oblige. He ordered them around like servants.

On the last night, Stapleton came back to the shelter-half with a grin on his handsome face. “Burke,” he said. “Care to join me in some nice mountain ass?”


“Over the next hill. Baxter knows a family with about six sisters. They’ll do it for a half dollar.”

“We’re not supposed to straggle —“

“I’m starting to wonder about you, Simon Peter. You’ve denied me twice.”

Stapleton vanished into the darkness. Simon drank the last of the Bourbon with savage pleasure. Screw you, Stapleton, he thought. If I can’t outfuck you, I’ll outdrink you. He fell asleep imagining Stapleton astride some ecstatic blonde Daisy Mae. He woke up with the shakes and found Stapleton’s side of the shelter-half empty. When the sergeant’s roar dragged them into the predawn murk, Simon stumbled over gear and bodies to Baxter’s shelter-half.

“Where’s Stapleton?” he asked.

“How ‘n hell do I know?” Baxter said.

“I thought you and he went looking for pussy last night.”

“Just him. I only give him the directions.”

Simon was sure he was lying. Deceit, evil, lurked on that foxy face, in the pale blue eyes. Dread roiled Simon’s belly.

When they mustered and the sergeant found Stapleton missing he almost foamed at the mouth. The climax of bivouac was a four-mile speed march and the sergeant assumed the rich wiseguy had ducked back to camp to escape this ordeal. They marched without him. In an hour, half the company was gasping in the bushes along the road. Simon, galvanized by dread, amazed himself and the sergeant by being among the finishers.

Back in camp, there was no trace of Stapleton. The sergeant posted him as AWOL and proclaimed that he would be crucified as an example to the rest when he returned. Friday dragged to a close and so did Saturday. Stapleton did not reappear. Simon’s dread persisted, although common sense began to reproach him. Tomorrow Stapleton would come reeling in from his orgy in Memphis to mock Simon’s timidity once more.

On Sunday after their noon meal, Simon noticed with a thumping sensation in his stomach that Baxter and the disciples had disappeared. As Simon tried to figure out where the suspects might be, a familiar voice teased his ears. The word “salvation” twanged from the window above his head. Baxter was sermonizing in the shower room. Simon mounted the stairs to the second floor and paused outside the latrine door. The shower room was beyond the room with the sinks and urinals. Now he could hear Baxter’s whining monotone echoing against the cement walls. Taking a deep breath, Simon charged into the shower room. Baxter stood in the center and the hillbillies were at the rear. They looked terrified. When Baxter saw Simon, he jerked his right hand behind his back and moved away from him.

“Baxter,” Simon said. “What have you got in your hand?”

Baxter shook his head. He was too stunned to speak.

“Baxter, open your hand.”

Baxter lunged for the window. The disciples were in the way. Simon caught Baxter by the collar and spun him around. With a grunt he jerked Baxter’s arm out full length and tore his hand open. A small object fell onto the shower room’s concrete floor and rolled past Simon’s left foot. It took a moment for him to realize it was a human finger, dyed fiery red.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (March 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury