Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Pentecost

  

 

Because George Merlack’s friend Ben Greiss had the celebrity of being a television weatherman, Ben’s accident had been noted in the newspaper as well as on the ten o’clock news.  It had something to do with paint thinner and fumes and a spark igniting a cloud of flame, but Merlack didn’t know the science of it.  The only chemistry he knew was how photographs were developed, something he did in the dark room he borrowed a few times a month at the station where he’d been hired the same year as Ben. He’d never painted anything.  He’d lived in apartments for his whole adult life and owned no tools except a screwdriver with interchangeable heads, a hammer, and a set of pliers he’d never used.  His father had brought them to his first apartment and left them “because everybody needs to at least take care of something.” 

Though nothing about the accident was ever reported in the newspaper again, the television news anchor mentioned, one evening, that Ben would survive, that everyone at the station missed him and wished him well.  Ben’s wife, when Merlack called, said Ben was disfigured.  “They can fix that,” Merlack said, and Charlene hung up, leaving him to think cooked and charred. 

At the station, Merlack worked in sales as an accountant, the person who kept the books and carried budget forecasts and ad revenue projections to executives each quarter.  Ben Greiss was the only on-screen employee he knew because they’d met at a Lutheran Synod retreat six years ago when Merlack recognized Ben as he sat two rows away during a presentation on the church and political action.  He’d thought of waving when Ben looked his way, that perhaps Ben recognized him, too, but he was glad he hadn’t when, after the question and answer session ended, he introduced himself and Ben admitted he didn’t remember ever seeing him.

They swapped stories about their jobs over lunch.  Ben owned up to being thirty-eight, three years older than Merlack.  “You look so fit,” he’d said.  “You should be the one on camera.”  From that day on, Merlack made a point of watching Ben work each weekday evening on the ten o’clock news.

The new weatherman, Chris Kittrell, was twenty-three years old, and his idea of forecasting was to perform as if he was on a kid’s show.  Every weather icon had a smile or a frown or the thin, straight line of neutrality.  He rhymed his forecasts—“a pressure drop means rain will pop,” “high pressure, picnic weather.”  Merlack thought of Ben sitting at home sickened by the performance, but the ratings were up, and he recorded two new ads for pre- and post-weather, both sold at a higher rate than the ones sold during the preceding quarter.

Ben had acted as if the weather was as important as political change.  He’d been meticulous about the chances for rain or snow, making sure people understood that a 40% chance of precipitation meant it was more likely to stay dry despite the approaching front.  He’d never uttered anything like “A wind from the east wakes the rainy beast.”  Worse, Kittrell threw the suns at the map.  The clouds and the winds as well.  And all of it, to Merlack’s disappointment, stuck.

“What do you think of Ben’s replacement?” Sheila Matterson, the payroll clerk, asked near the end of Kittrell’s second week.

“I keep hoping the cartoons fall off the map.”

Sheila frowned.  She’d been in human resources three months, and the only thing she’d ever asked him was where he worked out because she was looking to find a good gym to join. “I’ve never gone,” he said, but he didn’t mention that he did 100 sit ups and 100 push ups every day, 50 each morning and 50 before bed.  So far that had kept him trim, yet even though Sheila was at least five years younger, she was soft in the middle and starting to go thick in the hips.  “Velcro’s a miracle,” she said.  “You have a better chance to get your wish playing the lottery.”

“That’s ok then.  The lottery gives people hope.”

“Three cheers for hope,” she said.  “Tomorrow’s a sunny day.”  She threw up her hands in what looked to be an imitation of the new weatherman.  When Merlack didn’t react, she said, “Sunny day” and raised her hands again.  “Get it?”

“You missed your calling,” Merlack said.

“Weather’s so boring.  You have to do something to make it interesting.”

When, weeks later, he visited Ben after he learned he’d been released from the hospital, Ben’s wife Charlene guided him to the couch and sat so close beside him that he felt like a prisoner.  Ben sat in a chair separated by the width of the room.  Because the drapes were drawn, the light was dim, as if it the idea was to create a sense of twilight.  He’d been in Ben’s house a dozen times, and the drapes had always been open.  “A man has to see his work,” Ben had said more than once.

“Ben’s eyes are hypersensitive now,” Charlene said, and Merlack nodded as if he believed it.  He has no lips, Merlack thought.  He has no nose.

Looking at Ben, Merlack said, “What happens next?”  He felt as if he was interviewing Job, and he remembered that Job’s friends were struck down by God as one more test of faith.

“We go day-to-day,” Charlene nearly whispered into his ear.

Merlack felt disoriented.  “Ben, you check out the guy who’s filling in for you?” he said.

“We don’t worry about weather these days,” Charlene said, and Merlack, before he could ask another question, saw Ben raise the index finger of his right hand. Charlene cleared her throat.  “Ben’s tired,” she said.  “You understand.”

“Of course.” 

She stood, placing herself between Merlack and Ben, and Merlack, as he rose, let his sleeve ride up to check the time.  Eight minutes he’d been in the house, three of them exclusively with Charlene as she stalled him in the kitchen.

As he left, he saw that the sides of the deck had been built up.  “This is new,” he said when he saw Charlene watching him from the doorway.

“More privacy,” she said. Standing there, one hand resting against the doorframe as if she expected him to try to re-enter the house, she looked fitter than Sheila.  “Ben enjoys being out here,” she said.  “You understand.”

“Perfectly.” 

Before she closed the door, Charlene said, “Ben would prefer you not to visit again.  He wants me to thank you for that courtesy.” 

On Sunday mornings, since September, Merlack had been volunteering at church, teaching the seventh and eighth grade boys.  Right off, he saw that many of the boys seemed restless after a few minutes.  Though they listened and never spoke out of turn, he was glad the lessons lasted only as long as the news.  He broke up his session like the nightly broadcast.  He offered fifteen minutes of lesson, five minutes of Bible story, and five minutes of examples from the news, something the boys needed since they seemed to know nothing except sports, video games, and popular music.  “Twelve and thirteen are hard,” Caroline Landis, who taught the girls of the same age, said. 

He agreed with that, relieved, in January, when the older boys, as promised, were sent to the minister for three months of preparation for confirmation.  With only seven boys left behind, he relaxed, asking them questions and inviting them to talk, even if their favorite subject was Wii sports.

“We give them gifts when their time comes,” Caroline said in February.  “Twenty-eight years running for me now.”  She showed him the New Testaments inscribed with the names of each of her eighth grade girls.  “You still have time to get them made,” she said.

On Palm Sunday Merlack watched the six boys he’d taught from September to January kneel, the five girls in this year’s class behind them.  Each, in turn, perfectly recited a memorized Bible verse.  All, in unison, recited the Apostle’s Creed, though Merlack, from where he was sitting, couldn’t verify that every voice was audible.  They accepted communion, raising their eyes to the pastor and taking the wafer on their tongues, sipping from the bronze-colored goblet the pastor wiped with a white cloth after each one drank.

Afterward, Merlack shook hands with the boys and gave each a small, paperback New Testament inscribed with their names.  The books were flexible enough to be stuffed into their pockets.

Easter was a Sunday when all the classes met for one large celebration, so it was the following week, late April, when the older boys returned to stay until September. Merlack congratulated them all again, but they seemed sullen.  After three and a half months, the boys seemed different, strangers.  “Will they get over coming back?” he asked Caroline before church. 

“My girls seem just fine,” she said.  “I think they’re happy to be away from Pastor Fries.  He comes across pretty liberal and all.”

They’d walked up a short flight of stairs, and she was breathing so heavily that Merlack was alarmed.  “Boys are boys, I guess,” he said.

She smiled, beads of perspiration on her broad forehead.  “Well, you know I’ve had my eighth graders for going on two years, but you took yours on right in the middle.”

“Maybe so,” Merlack said, suddenly afraid he’d given away some secret about himself. 

Ratings continued to rise for the evening news.  Ad revenue kept its corresponding bump.  The general manager was so pleased he sent an email declaring the last hour of the first Friday afternoon in May “Happy Hour.”

The party was just down the hall in the conference room, beer and wine and plates of crackers surrounded by bowls of dips.  He skirted the crackers and dip, but he drank a glass of Pinot Grigio and poured himself a second one to hold.  He barely recognized anyone.  Standing by himself, he eyed the door as he worked his way through the second glass of wine.  A few more minutes, he thought, and then he was startled by a finger jabbed into his back, a voice growling, “Stick ’em up.”

He took a step forward before he pivoted and saw Sheila still keeping her finger-gun cocked while she drank a Coors Light from a long neck bottle.  “You’re out of the closet,” she said.

“What?”

She pretended to holster her hand and laughed.  “Drinking.  I thought you were a strict bottled-water man.”

“I’ve probably had enough.”

“I’ve probably not,” she said.  “You and your self-discipline.  I know that voice.  It’s the one that keeps whispering in my ear to marry it.”  She side-stepped and put her bottle on the table, reaching for another before she slid back in front of him.  “You may not believe it, but I’m going to be a big loser.” 

Merlack looked at her blankly.

“Pounds,” she said.  “Don’t you watch television?”

“Not much.”

“Twenty-five pounds,” she went on.  “Then I’ll be thin like this again.  Check this out.”  She pulled a photo from a narrow pocket in the trim leather jacket she was wearing over a white, lace-trimmed blouse that looked, to Merlack, like the top of a slip.  It was a picture of Sheila in a bikini so revealing it was easy to imagine the rest of her naked.  He felt her hand on his arm.  “That’s only seven years ago.  The summer I graduated from college.  I still have that suit.  I swear I’ll wear it to work the day I don’t look like a pig in it.”  Her fingers clenched slightly on his arm.  “You like her, don’t you?” she said.  “Wait until you see her.  It won’t be long.”

The last Sunday in May, half way through the story of the Ascension, one of the eighth graders, Nick Pascucci, turned himself into a flame thrower.  He stood up and blew a burst of fire from his mouth, bringing whoops from the semi-circle, the nearest boys nearly tipping over their chairs as they leaned away.

“Hey,” Merlack said, slamming the Bible shut, but Pascucci had already sat down.

“It’s just lighter fluid,” Pascucci said. “You just spit it out over a flame, and there it goes.  You remember Kiss, don’t you?  My Dad talks about them all the time.”  Pascucci, apparently unharmed, extended his legs and slid into a slouch.  “It’s just a show,” he said.  “Just be sure not to inhale.”

Caleb Lodge, the boy who sat beside Pascucci every Sunday, laughed.

“But somebody surely will injure himself.”

“A real idiot, maybe.”

Merlack stared hard at Nick Pascucci.  Legendary lay unspoken in the room, a slow-melting lozenge that would take weeks or maybe months to dissolve.  He thought of asking Pascucci how it was someone with an Italian name attended a Lutheran church, a boy with olive skin and a trace of mustache above his lips already, nothing like Caleb Lodge, who was so fair and smooth-skinned Merlack thought he might have skipped a grade in school.  A boy like Caleb would stick close to someone tough; he would do whatever was necessary to have an ally. 

At work the next day, just before five o’clock, Merlack called up an Excel file, the columns of figures as familiar as Bible stories.  There was a plausible reason to be looking at them; the fiscal year would be over soon.  He kept the columns open, but minimized, while he began a Google search under “fire-breathers.”  Sure enough, one of the early citations pictured the guy from Kiss.  Gene Simmons was his name.  Merlack recognized the makeup, but he couldn’t remember any of the group’s songs.  What he most remembered was the way the band’s stylized logo was carved into half the desks he sat in during high school, all of the carvings looking to be as old as he was.

Finally, he found a site that claimed to reveal the secrets of carnival tricks, but when he heard someone clear her throat, he clicked on the Excel file, and it filled the screen again.  “Still at it?” Sheila said from the entrance to his cubicle.

Merlack glanced back at the screen, certain, suddenly, she’d seen the last photographs of sideshow acts.  “It never ends,” he said. 

“Yes, it does.  In exactly six minutes.”  Sheila looked over the partition at the digital clock on the far wall.  “In five,” she said.

“I still have this one thing to check on.  I’ll run late for sure.”

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “If you promise to be finished by five-thirty, I’ll spring for the first round of drinks.  We might even have food with our alcohol.  What do you eat at home?  Hungry Man dinners?  Whatever else you’re looking at on there, finish up.  I know it’s not porn, or I wouldn’t have interrupted you.” 

Forty minutes later, while they waited for their drinks, Merlack re-evaluated Sheila’s body.  It didn’t seem any different than it had at the Friday happy hour. She swept her dark hair off her eyes and cocked her head to the side, the hair falling back far enough that she swept it away again.  “I’ve been doing these workouts they have on the fitness channel.  You know.  The ones for the core.”  When she patted herself, saying, “See, it works,” her blouse pulled open at the buttons, exposing a bit of black bra. 

Without the two glasses of wine he’d had at the party, Merlack felt awkward.  “It looks like it.”

She hesitated, sitting up and drawing her shoulders back before she looked down at herself.  “I’ve lost seven pounds.”

“Kittrell would slap a happy sun on you,” Merlack said, and she laughed, sweeping her hair back again.

 She reached for the beer the waitress had brought on a tray, and his eyes went back to where the blouse stretched. “Why do you hate Chris?  It’s not his fault that Ben Greiss burned himself up.”

 He waited for his glass of wine to be placed in front of him before he said, “He’s an act.”

“Of course he’s an act.  Ben was an act, a different one, that’s all.” 

“Ben was serious.  He knew people counted on him to be right.” 

“We all have heat in our houses.  We all have air conditioning.  The weather doesn’t matter anymore.”

“I don’t have air conditioning.” 

Sheila tipped her head back, lifted her beer, and drained half of it.  “Such a frontiersman,” she said.

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

She waved her hand as if she was fanning herself. ”Ok,” she said.  “I’m having another beer before I think about food.  You want to catch up?”

Merlack stared at her.  She was so careless about herself   “I don’t think so,” he said.

Her cheery smile froze.  “You go home and open your windows,” she said.  “You let some air in and see if Chris got it right tonight.” 

Merlack raised his glass as if he was offering a toast.  “A smiley face for sunshine’s grace.”

“I got this all wrong,” she said, “but I’ll pay your tab anyway.  What’s one white wine among a shit load of beer?”

Merlack finished his wine in one gulp and fished out a five and two one dollar bills.  “No,” he said, laying them down as he stood.  “The tip’s covered too.”

“You’re so fair,” she said.  “If everybody was like you, the whole world would sit with its legs crossed.”

The following Sunday Merlack began by reading the story of Pentecost from his Bible.  “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues.” 

“It was fifty days after Easter,” he said.  “Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier.”  Surely, he thought, all these boys had heard this story before, but they were more attentive than usual, even Pascucci.  “Listen,” he went on, turning the page to where he’d inserted a note card, “there used to be men in sideshows who turned a blowtorch on themselves, snuffing the flame with their mouths. 

Pascucci slouched down in his chair.  “Nobody could do that but some freak,” he said.

“The trick is in the tongue’s insulation,” Merlack said. He’d written down the information on the card before following Sheila to the bar.   “It’s just like Kiss in reverse.  You have to tip your head back because flame burns upward.  You have to be sure to breathe out.”  He was rolling now, the note card unnecessary.  “You can even do fire on the tongue by dripping the fuel there.  A lot of saliva helps, but it can be done without hurting yourself.”

Merlack paused.

“Who cares about a sideshow freak,” Pascucci said.

“These men weren’t freaks.  They practiced.  They understood the chemical properties of the body.”

“They had to be freaks.  Who else would be in a sideshow?”

“Even so,” Merlack said, “what would be the real danger of doing a trick like this?”

“Your aim is bad,” Pascucci said, and every boy laughed.

 “No,” Merlack said.  “It would be that some young child might imitate you.”

“Nobody’s that dumb,” Caleb Lodge said.  He snapped open a lighter and moved the flame next to his face.  Before Merlack could speak, Caleb held the open lighter above his short blond hair.  “Mademoiselle,” he said.  “Senorita.  Fraulein.”

Pascucci laughed.

“That’s not funny,” Merlack said, but Caleb moved the lighter until the flame was a few inches from his lips.

“It’s just Pentecost,” he said. 

Merlack could see the other boys considering.  “I see that the lighter has a monogram,” he said.  “RDL—is it your father’s?”

Caleb closed the lighter and stuffed it in his pocket.  Pascucci smirked.  There was more to read of the Pentecost story, and Merlack looked down at the Bible again.  He knew he’d shamed Caleb to silence, but all through church and that afternoon he thought about those boys and how he had only three more months to teach them anything they might remember longer than the length of a nightly weather forecast.

During the week he watched Chris Kittrell perform, and each morning he drove to work in exactly the weather that had been predicted: Tuesday—clouds and wind; Wednesday—showers; Thursday—steady rain; Friday—gradual clearing.  Friday night Kittrell tossed smiling suns against the map, filling the entire state.  

Saturday dawned warm and sunny, but Merlack was pleased.  After all the rain, wouldn’t Ben come outside for at least a little time of private weather on a beautiful June day?  He knew Ben’s yard, how it ended at towering forsythia bushes that were laced with honeysuckle in order to be a natural fence where the land slanted downhill quickly to a swampy area that would never be developed.  At one o’clock, he worked his way along the narrow dry patch of scrub weeds just behind those bushes until he was directly behind Ben’s house.

 He waited with his camera and its telephoto lens for nearly an hour.  Finally, Charlene stepped outside, scanning the back yard for a few seconds before Ben, wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sunglasses he pressed against his face with one finger, stepped outside.  Above the glasses, Ben’s forehead was smooth; below them, his face made Merlack look away for a moment before he raised the camera into a small opening in the forsythia. 

Through the lens, Merlack noted Ben’s unharmed arms and legs.  He watched Ben step cautiously to the railing and glance up, holding on with both hands, at the cloudless sky.  When Ben’s eyes dropped, they seemed to be staring directly at him, and Merlack, hearing himself breathe heavily, snapped three pictures in quick succession. 

Hours later, when the photographs were developed and he’d carried them home, Merlack looked from one to the other, each showing Ben’s disfigured face, most of what lay below his eyes the deep red of merlot.  Merlack’s stomach churned with shame and guilt, forcing him into the bathroom.  He leaned over the sink with its brown stain that curled out from the drain like the remnants of some terrible, habitual sin.  The faucet had been dripping for months.  He stared into the mirror above the sink and saw the face he’d grown into by his mid-twenties, the one he’d had now for ten years.  It was like looking at a doll.

Thirty-eight, Merlack thought.  Ben had half a life to live.  He had to lay the photos face down on the living room table to stop staring.  Before he turned on the television, he laid the shirt he would wear in the morning over them.

The weekend weatherman was a young woman he’d never met.  She looked as if she’d never missed a day of working on her core, and all that appeared on her state map were nine pairs of high and low temperatures, none of the peaks and valleys differing by more than two degrees.  Near the end of her forecast, she tugged a visor down over her forehead and put on sunglasses.  “Enjoy a perfect Sunday,” she said, beaming at the camera.

He skipped his sit-ups and push-ups.  In the dark, lying in bed, he rested both hands on his stomach and felt for the small softness of fat. 

Merlack carried the photos inside his Bible to Sunday School.  Before he read the Bible passage, he said, “I want all of you to take a look at these and consider on it.”  He handed the photos to three of the younger boys.  Two of them sucked in their breath and passed the photo on; the other lowered his head and held the photo on his lap.  Pascucci leaned over and said “Let me see,” grabbing the photo.  The boy didn’t look up. 

Pascucci laughed and handed it to Caleb Lodge, who laughed at once, hard and harsh, the ha-ha of cartoon villains. “What’s so funny?” Merlack said.

“Who did you get to wear all that makeup?” Pascucci said.

“This is real.”

“If he’s so real, where does he live?”

None of these boys, Merlack thought, reads a newspaper or watches the news.  How did they learn anything?  Two boys were crying.  The boy Pascucci had taken the picture from looked up at last and stared so intently at Merlack that he hesitated, trying to pitch the tone of his voice to gentle authority.  “I can’t tell you that.  He lives in a house like everyone else, but he doesn’t want to be seen.” 

“Like Bigfoot.”

One of the crying boys seemed to stop, but the other was hunched over, his shoulders shuddering.  Merlack felt himself growing afraid.   “Like a real man,” he said, spacing the words. 

“Trust me.”     

“And he got all burned up because he tried to breathe fire.” 

Merlack pulled the photo from Caleb’s hand; he reached for the others and slid them into his Bible.  “That’s enough,” he said.  “Let’s talk about missionaries who learn another language in order to take God’s word to those in foreign countries.  Think about how they must be guided by the Holy Ghost.”  He saw the other boys glance at the Bible, but Pascucci said nothing more. 

Twenty minutes later the boys filed out more quietly than usual, Merlack squeezed the Bible between his hands and stared at the sky through the window, noting the accumulation of clouds in the west.  He sensed his legs trembling, and he concentrated on steadying himself, suddenly exhausted.  He decided to skip church. 

Outside, the wind had picked up.  His car was parked two blocks away, and as he turned the corner he saw Pascucci and Caleb huddled together in the recessed doorway of the parsonage, their faces nearly touching as Pascucci lit a cigarette with his lighter, then lit Caleb’s, the flame cupped by his hand 

They were skipping church, too, or maybe, he decided, just going in late, planning to sit in the back and making sure their parents noticed them as they filed out.  He imagined them sucking on mints during the sermon, hearing just enough to summarize if their parents asked. The sun blinked out behind the approaching bank of clouds, and he had a moment’s pleasure in knowing, by the look of the graying sky, that the woman’s forecast was wrong.  He imagined the boys trying the fire breathing trick as they faced into the wind, the flame hurled into their faces, and though that would never happen, he turned away quickly as if his thoughts might be heard.  He hurried on, glad the boys hadn’t noticed him, busy with lighting up.

 

On the corner of the next block was a half-filled, open wire-mesh trash container.  He slid the photos from the Bible and laid them upside down on top.  As he started to turn away, the photos fluttered in the wind and skidded against the side of the basket.  Merlack pivoted, stuck his Bible under his left arm, and caught all three photos in his right hand, using it to pull aside sections of Saturday’s newspaper, a pizza box, and a damp, heavy plastic bag.  He pushed the pictures underneath, deep enough that no one, passing by, would notice them as they discarded whatever it was they no longer wanted.  For a moment he tested the weight of the damp bag, and then, satisfied it would hold everything in place, laid it on top.

He could see his car half a block away.  He shifted the Bible to his left hand and fumbled his keys from his sport coat pocket.  The wind swirled harder, and though he kept his eyes on the car, he knew it was impossible to leave those photos behind.  He’d have to take them home and burn them, but first, because he didn’t own a lighter or keep matches, he’d have to buy something to light those photos with.  He looked up again and evaluated the sky, assessing the shape and size of the clouds as if they would reveal more than the immediate future.

 

 

 

Gary Fincke’s newest collection, A Room of Rain, was published in March by West Virginia University.  Braddock Avenue Books published his novel How Blasphemy Sounds to God in 2014. An earlier collection, Sorry I Worried You, won the Flannery O’Connor Prize.