Revelations: A New testament book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by commentators, who know nothing.
“Last call before Utah!” Michael said with amplified glee as he off-ramped the Cadillac onto the streets of West Wendover, Nevada.
Towns like West Wendover existed for people in serious need of sin. The tiny metropolis hugged the Nevada/Utah border as tightly as its visitors hugged commodes around two in the morning. Utah’s less-than-moral masses flocked to locations like West Wendover whenever they felt the need for less repressed expressions of humanity. Unlike in Wendover proper, two steps across the state border into Utah, here you could gamble, smoke, drink to excess and even cavort with the town’s three prostitutes. Where Reno was a discount Las Vegas, West Wendover did not even rank as a discount Reno. It was several steps more quaint and debased, and more desperate in its collective depression for there is no sadder sight on the western frontier than an escaped Mormon on a three-day bender.
Michael had not inquired about Faith’s desire or ability to drink. He merely assumed that Faith could slide comfortably into any environment – a lovely chameleon sans the scales. He did, however, glance in her direction as he cornered through the exit, which took them regrettably but briefly into the state of Utah, where Michael assumed there would be a patrol car waiting to bust inebriated visitors from the Nevada side. He saw Faith’s face, which maintained its steady and thus reassuring “this could be interesting” expression. Past her smile and through the passenger window he saw the Wendover, Utah patrol car he anticipated, and studiously kept the Cadillac three miles per hour below the posted speed limit until they reached the Nevada side of the road.
Michael slid past the fourth-rate casinos and the more obvious tourist joints, looking for a truer dive. Being surrounded by cargo pants adorned yuppies in a West Wendover slot machine gallery was as unappetizing as West Wendover’s three prostitutes, and likely as much of a soul draining experience. Instead he scanned the side streets looking for authenticity, a place where one might find aged and broken Elko cowboy poets, young tradesmen killing off the work day, and anyone that spoke in multisyllabic words.
He was looking for West Wendover’s version of San Francisco’s Horsetail Lounge.
He did not find it, but instead spied a collection of pickup trucks huddled in a manner common to working class drinking establishments. He cornered sharply, jostling Faith into the passenger door, then expertly wedged the Cadillac between a Ford F150 and a Dodge Ram, both of which had seen better days a decade previous.
“You sure know how to show a gal a good time,” Faith joked, opening her door a second before Michael open his. Sounds of the highway came through, but so did the fading strings of a Wagner symphony, which were replaced with Louis Armstrong’s blaring trumpet and cement mixer voice. Both tunes spewed out of the bar’s saloon doors. Overhead, a neon sign that had not experience electricity this millennia read “Horsemen Bar and Grill”.
“I have a good feeling about this place,” Michael said as his head cleared the Cadillac’s door frame.
The barroom’s twin doors split as Michael let Faith enter first. The lounge was in the semi-comatose state that Michael preferred – lubricated enough for people to say what they really thought, and sober enough to say so clearly. Faith’s entrance, followed by Michael’s, caused a chain reaction of bar patron reactions. Faith’s natural grace and well above average looks launched the lustful notice of the men inside the Horsemen Bar and Grill, which in turn launched the instinctive distrust and dislike of the women therein. Once Michael entered, pointed to an empty spot at the bar, and rested his arm on Faith’s shoulder while gesturing, the men lost their interest and the women lost their resentment, and the Horsemen Bar and Grill returned to its subdued and mildly intoxicated stance.
“I prefer to stand,” Michael said as they walked up to the last remaining barstool. Faith raised one cheek and slid onto the split, duct taped Naugahyde stool, showing that this was not her first, and likely not her thousandth such landing. Michael was all smiles as he scanned the room, analyzing the patrons, their all too familiar poses and states of psychological disrepair. An old and wrinkled female barfly, one who could have been Shel Silverstein’s inspiration for the song Queen of the Silver Dollar, sat at the end of the bar, wearing an outfit that she should have retired thirty years before, one that was too barren in fabric for her well-aged and Nevada weather-worn hide. Two tradesmen sat in silent concentration of a television, hands curled around beer mugs and speaking only when an athlete committed an error that neither of the viewers would have made, at least in their youth’s minds. One kid, likely on premises under false premises, and equally likely carrying a fake ID, played pinball in the corner, looking up and round furtively between plays and sipping a cocktail that was long on Coke and short on rum.
The entire vibe suited Michael’s needs as he assembled in his head the events of the past days – of Faith, the road, and a now openly gay Pope. “There might not be a better bar,” he thought, “to start a spiritual road trip and head trip.”
The Horsemen’s Bar and Grill barmaid solidified his thinking. She sidestepped and simultaneously spun from the cash register to where Michael stood. She was a woman of a certain age, to young not to appreciate a good romp in the sack, but too old and stout to any longer have her choice of horizontal partners. She most likely had kids at home, and a former husband who occasionally came to visit the kids at exactly the wrong time, that being when the kids were not there but a half drunk and completely naked cowboy was. Her face had long ago forgotten how to smile and parts of her child support check had been invested in a tattoo sleeve cascading down her left arm.
“What will ya have,” she spoke to Michael while looking at Faith, knowing it polite to ask the lady first but knowing who was paying the tab.
“Just a coke for me,” Faith said. This surprised and yet didn’t surprise Michael. Faith was solid in psyche, and likely saved booze for rare and important occasions, which any night in the Horsemen Bar and Grill was not. It was then Michael realized that she had not touched the glass of wine he had poured her the night before.
The barmaid, with perfect disinterest, turned to Michael. “I’m thinking an Irish Whiskey would do well. What else would be better to christen a spiritual journey to Lebanon?”
“I could make you a Mother Superior, but I think that might be a bit frilly for you.”
“Thank you kindly, but no,” Michael said as a shot glass slid in front of him and the barmaid blindly and successfully grabbed a bottle of Jameson from the well. “I fear I had that drink one night, though my memory of that week is fuzzy.”
“So, let me guess. You come here for Reverend Chuck.” the barmaid asked without any hint of humor.
“What?” said Michael. Faith’s attention was oddly focused on the barmaid as well.
“You said something about something spiritual. I figured you had come to talk to Chuck.”
“Well, I don’t know this Reverend Chuck. Do a lot of people seek him out? Is he here in … whatever town this is?”
The barmaid smiled that smile every parent does when they see their child preparing to make a painful mistake and thinking ‘well, they gotta learn it themselves’.
“Reverend Chuck is in the Wholly Holy Booth. Right over there,” she said while pointing to a back corner of the bar.
Tucked far away was the very last of the Horsemen Bar and Grill’s rickety and cigarette smoke hued booths. It was common and unusual in one breath. There was nothing special about the booth itself. It was, as one might expect in such an establishment, worn, faded, visually uncomfortable, but quite proper for competitive alcohol consumption and perhaps for sleeping it all off. But it was near a doorway that led to the bathrooms, which offered anyone sitting in the Wholly Holy Booth to both study the bar’s humanity as well as being convenient for rapid bladder adjustments. It had its own television set, mounted on the wall so that only the person sitting with their back to the bar could see it. This was the same position that afforded a view of every cute and Daisy Duke clad buttock entering the bathrooms, and the equally entertainingly blanched, vomit fumed faces that exited. On the other wall, the one to which the booth’s table was bolted, someone had inserted into the electrical socket a night light with a faux stained-glass diffuser.
Michael looked at the booth, and saw a lone man in a specifically non-western hat, facing the direction of the television, the bathrooms, and a young couple seated opposite him. The television cast dingy halos around the three, as the man in the hat waved his arms in not-quite-random gestures while the young couple smiled. The man’s hands came down with a soft and solemn thud on the booth’s deck, then together, palm-to-palm. At this the young couple, faces glowing and radiantly happy, tenderly and passionately kissed. They scooted out of the booth, bowed, joyously patted the shoulder of the man in the hat, and left the bar hand in hand.
Michael turned from the spectacle to the barmaid, who flashed a broken smile and nodded. Nothing more needed saying. The Horsemen Bar and Grill in West Wendover, Nevada had a resident shaman, and with the divine intervention of a tattooed, single mother booze slinger, commanded Michael to attend.
Michael looked at Faith, who gave the same “this could be interesting” expression she had before. “I would think,” she began, “that a spiritual quest such as yours needs to look at everything, every ritual. If you are lucky, he is performing communion and has a bottle stashed under the table.” She laughed at her own joke, and it was the first time Michael had heard her laugh. It was a tone stuck happily between a giggle and a full-throated roar, and was in its own self-assured and unassuming way, beautiful.
Michael nodded and said, “Let’s see what cosmic insights Reverend Chuck has to offer.”
There was much to do, many things to set in motion, many more to control, and Etch knew it.
It took very little persuading and lying to convince the Horsemen that they were to follow Etch’s orders. Etch rapidly concocted a series of believable falsehoods concerning Satan’s whereabouts, what was the Master’s master plan, and how they all should prepare. For each of the Horsemen, Etch recruited what passed in Hell’s state of disorganization for a reliable demon to accompany, and by threat of Satan’s ability to annihilate anyone, to obey Etch’s instructions.
He also ordered Blecklick to procure enough booze to keep Satan in a state of uselessness for the foreseeable future. Blecklick, in a frenzy of over-the-top effort to please Etch, arranged for a cargo ship from Portsmouth and the nearby Bombay distillery to mysteriously sink in the English Channel, through a local oceanic fissure, and fall with a cavernous echo into Hell and land within a kilometer of Satan’s palace. Without needing direction, Bleclick summoned a small army of inferior demons, who shuttled case after case of gin from the wreckage to the palace, past the confused and distraught crew of the cargo ship who debated if their new port of call was better than Portsmouth. All agreed the weather in Hell was much more agreeable, though the surroundings were not as scenic.
“I’m a God loving Christian!” one of the formerly able-bodied seamen yelled to a passing demon. “I am not supposed to be here.”
“Tell it to the judge. He’s a Jesus hugger too. He’s over in the snake cages, just past the lava flume ride.”
Etch was begrudgingly impressed by Bleclick’s results, if not his heavy-handed process. But having a wrecked container ship in Hell was small stuff considering that the End Times were, finally, coming. Through the heightened chaos, which was measurably above Hell’s norm, Etch had to continually remind himself that this was the Big Show, the final play, that all else was insignificant. He focused on keeping Satan contained until the right moment, and for the Horsemen to begin devastating mankind in advance of Satan’s unwelcome sobriety. Etch knew that Satan would not be pleased that someone else launched the Apocolypse, and had let loose his primary weapons of mass destruction. But if the wreckage had already begun, and if mankind were cowering in fear over a horrific but fulfilled prophecy, then Satan would have little option but to accelerate the assault, to claim victory, and to relocate Hell on Earth.
The one thing hampering Etch was a plan for the plan. Yes, freeing the Horsemen was a step, and the destruction of mankind was the goal, but he had not fully thought through the bits in between. The Horsemen could not act on their own. From the start, the End Times was to be a war like no other, and that required a general’s orchestration.
Etch reluctantly admitted to himself that he was no military mastermind. He had not thought far past releasing the Horsemen. They awaited guidance while knocking a millennia of soot off their tack and saddling their steeds. They expected to receive a game plan from Satan himself, one which El Diablo had started but never finished. Tricking the Horsemen would be, well, tricky.
Etch dashed into Satan’s palace, and into what was once his study. It was a dark and formerly majestic inner sanctum, as well as a museum to Satan’s fading glories. Paintings, stretching multiple stories high, retold tales of Satan’s handiwork going back to a lavish garden where, using only fruit, he manipulated the world’s premier bimbo into defying the Almighty. Other portraits reminded viewers, had there been any allowed in this part of his palace, of his starring roles in the Crusades, playing both the hero and the villain, who were the same two entities for both sides of the conflicts. There was even a rendition of him in a wilderness setting, offering multiple temptations to an unsuspecting prophet, whose face had long ago been torn out of the mural during a fit of brandy-induced resentment. All these works were once lavish, magnificent and entirely awe inspiring. Now they were barely visible behind lairs of cobwebs.
Heavy desks were covered in both new and ancient books, which in turn were coated in sulfur dust. These books covered all aspects of earth, people, societies, religions and warfare. It was the place where Satan had originally intended to map his war against God, but which had sat nearly idle since Satan discovered discount wine in the late tenth century. The only activity this room saw was an occasional importation of books and some new technology, all of which sat in the cleaner corners of the expansive and otherwise unused study.
Etch knew he needed to visualize the problem. Before chronic alcoholism became his way of life, Satan could hold in his mind all competing aspects concerning human thought and beliefs, affording him instant understanding of what would and would not work, and where to push for advantages. This level of insight was far above Etch’s paygrade. Instead, Etch sought out a recent map of the world and studied it until he felt he could convince the Horsemen that whatever he hacked together was in fact a product of Satan’s careful consideration. He skipped over Africa, sensing that additional deprivations there would be largely ineffective in igniting mass panic. China was of interest, but its grinding poverty in western provinces would make Hunger’s job moot. Australia was out since Ausies would take the End Times in stride and with a smile, as they drunkenly did with everything else.
America. That was the obvious choice to Etch. Wealth to be eradicated, peace to be shattered, and Hunger would have a grand time reversing America’s collective gluttony. Plus, the United States was the media’s center of technology. The world acquired satellite downlinks to get CNN, and so any pandemonium exploding in America would be broadcast to the world.
But this America, it was a big place, and Etch had but Four Horsemen. He looked at the map over, and over again, realizing that much had changed since the End Times had first been conceived. It was one thing to crush the bulk of civilization when they still lingered around their ancient temples scattered throughout the Middle East. It was another thing entirely to bring to their collective knees a few billion people who had randomly relocated to all inhabitable regions and Siberia. Even leveraging American telecasts, to exaggerate what the deadly Horsemen could do, was insufficient. Etch needed to make their actions appear to grow, to spread like a malignancy in the body of humanity, and to reach a televised crescendo that included a personal appearance by Satan himself.
Etch decided that for the maximum impact, the Horsemen would split-up, lay waste in distant regions, and let the media capture the carnage from four different perspectives. This would make it look as if the world was coming apart at all locations as opposed to suffering an isolated assault.
Etch flicked a rather harry spider off a holder carved from the spine of one of Satan’s random victims, drew a pencil from it and scribbled notes furiously on the map before rolling it up and heading back to a pasture near a fresh hill of crystal rubble.
As he approached, Etch saw that the Horsemen were nearly ready, though some were less ready than others. The horses themselves bucked and pranced, saddles in place, cinches tight to their chests. They knew things were changing and that perhaps excitement was about to end their perpetual grazing and general boredom. There appeared to be an ongoing disagreement among the Horsemen, as they examined the remaining assorted reins and bits, attempting to decide which belonged to each horse. Death finally grabbed one set, snatching them from Hunger’s hands, and marched toward his shimmering, pale horse. War decided the bridle with red accents must be for his stallion and strode to a horse of similar color. Hunger and Strife were ready to fight it out for the remaining tack when Etch came into the pasture, map in hand, and Blecklick closely following with a small table strapped to his back.
“Horsemen!” Etch shouted over the general din of Hades. “Come. I have just been with Satan,” Etch said, knowing that the best way to lie was to tell the truth, but not all of it. “I have your phase one battle plan.”
“Phase one?!” screamed War. “Phase Fucking One?! This is the End Times. This is all out bloodshed. There are no phases!”
Etch waited just long enough for the other Horsemen to start thinking War had a point before saying, “Would you like to voice your objections to the Boss?” The Horsemen murmured, staring at their feet and shifting from foot to foot in fearful indecision.
“As I thought,” Etch said driving home the point, making sure each of the Horsemen was ready to do Etch’s bidding by thinking that they were doing Satan’s. “The Master’s plan begins as such. You start by destroying the mightiest nation on Earth …”
“Might we do better with a less intense target. You know, start small and work our way up?” Strife immediately regretted his suggestion as the other Horsemen stared at him with disgust, and War hurling his riding gloves into Strife’s face.
“The Master’s plan is the Master’s plan,” Etch replied as Blecklick slid the table from his back and placed it in front of Etch. The Horsemen inched closer. “Argue against it not! No demon, not even you, second guesses the Morning Star. He sent the crystal key to you for a reason. He released you from confinement. He is ready to unleash you upon the Earth.”
The murmurs continued, but each of the Horsemen reluctantly shuffled toward the table as Etch unfurled his map and spread it before them.
“The plan is simple. You will start at four corners of this land called the United States. Death, you start here in the North East. Hunger, the North West. War, down in the lower left. And Strife, you start down here at the tip of this dangling, penis looking like place.”
The Horsemen silently resented the basic plan. For a seeming eternity, they had imagined riding together, in one band, assaulting some grand palace or sacred church. They had envisioned themselves as a singular force, ready to attack the very soul of God on earth and destroy it. Now, this! A plan that separated them, cast them far apart with no united objective. The very notion grieved Strife.
Etch sensed and feared their unease, so he improvised toward what substituted for a strategy.
“From those corners, you will destroy and bring all to their knees. You will charge forth and meet in the middle of this continent, leaving devastation behind as you go!” There were murmurs of approval from the Horsemen, save Strife who was still dismayed at being assigned to the tip of a flaccid peninsula.
“Where?” Death asked with suspicion. “There is much land in the ‘middle’.”
Cornered and without a complete plan, and thus without an answer, Etch did what he did best and made a rapid, completely uninformed decision. To make his fakery appear real, he splayed his hands to two opposing corners of the map, then dragged pointed fingers slowly toward the middle. Once all the Horsemen’s eyes were entranced by this movement, Etch stared at the map and noticed a meaningless icon near the center of the land mass. He drew his fingertips to land on that image, then focusing sharply to read, made his announcement.
“You will rejoin one another here. In Lebanon!”
The most disturbing of Reverend Chuck’s characteristics, and they were all disturbing in various degrees, was that he rarely blinked.
Michael noticed this shortly after he and Faith saddled into the recently vacated half of the back-corner booth in the Horsemen Bar and Grill. Across from them sat a man in an oddly reshaped homberg chapeau, dark beard neatly groomed, his right hand lovingly clutching a coffee cup while his left hand curled around a shot glass in what appeared to be a death grip.
“Fifteen dollars for a wedding, a shot of whiskey for random philosophical bullshit,” Reverend Chuck said, unblinkingly, without prompting.
“Philosophical bullshit? A John Valby devotee?” Michael replied.
“Isn’t every right-thinking person?”
“So, you are a right-thinking person.”
“I never said that,” Reverend Chuck replied in monotone.
Faith and Michael simultaneously turned to one another wearing half smiles that one might if they encountered Alice’s Mad Hatter in a chemically sedated state.
Michael held up a hand and, once he had the attention of the barmaid, pointed at Reverend Chuck’s empty shot glass.
“Philosophical bullshit it is then,” said Reverend Chuck before emitting a minor belch, sans a follow-on apology.
“Are you really a reverend?” Faith asked. Reverend Chuck cast his eyes up to the dim nightlight and its dime store stained glass façade, then back at Faith. When she didn’t buckle he said “Duly ordained by the United Church of Pan-Denominationalism. Mail order clergy, if you will. Hence why I just married those terminally affectionate kids, paperwork pending.”
“An almost fake friar,” Michael said, guessing that Reverend Chuck would be more amused than offended.
“I prefer discount divinity student. Authentic priests should be shot on sight. I don’t like being shot.”
Faith arched her eyebrows, wondering if the Reverend Chuck’s body had actually absorbed lead at one time. Had money hit the table, she would have wagered that Reverend Chuck sported at least one scar from an entry wound.
“Let’s just say those who speak the truth are universally reviled. And, I fear, you are here seeking the truth.”
“That’s the truth,” said Michael.
“Well, it’s been said before. There’s a seeker born every minute.”
“Perhaps this is a universal constant.”
“The only two constants are human foolishness and all attempts to outlaw such,” Reverend Chuck said, a small smile cracking his otherwise stony, stoned face.
“We were on our way around the country, looking for spiritual insight. We stopped here and someone suggested you held some degree of enlightenment.”
“Insights I can offer. Revelations, you’re on your own. Divagate to your heart’s delight.”
“Why no revelations?”, Faith asked sincerely.
“Have you ever read the Book of Revelations? Let’s just say it doesn’t end on a happy note. So, I stay out of the prophecy business and stick to metaphysical mental masturbation.”
Michael hesitated for a second or two. He was cursed with a fast spinning imagination that rapidly visualized things said, and he needed a moment or three to erase the image of Reverend Chuck masturbating while reciting Descartes before he could continue.
“I guess to understand what is spiritual, we have to understand what it is.”
“Spirituality? In essence, it is denial.”
“To believe is to deny?” asked Faith.
“That sounds like a contradiction,” Michael added.
“What is belief?” Reverend Chuck challenged as the barmaid reached between the conversationalists, refilling Reverend Chuck’s coffee cup after bringing his shot glass to the point of overflow via a bottle of Ezra Brooks bourbon. Reverend Chuck slurped the shot in a single, well-practiced and indescribably smooth motion, his head never leaving level and his eyes still refusing to blink. He then took a long sip of coffee, and noticing the reaction of his guest said “I enjoy a fully alert stupor. Now then, what is belief?”
“I’ve always thought it to be understanding without proof,” Michael replied, echoing a line he had relentlessly exercised to the exasperation of the denizens at sundry San Francisco dives.
The Reverend Chuck imperceptibly tilted his head, smiling wryly. “Very serviceable, your definition. That then leads to the obvious query. What is the essence of the unprovable?”
Michael and Faith were stumped. The unprovable seemed to be a simple concept, but in its void there seemed to be no essence. Uncomfortable seconds ticked by with Reverend Chuck staring intently not at them, but blearily into the gap between them.
“Here’s the twenty-dollar clue to life,” he finally spewed, realizing that neither Faith or Michael had pondered the imponderable deeply enough, and that any further delay would be both futile and prematurely end his newfound supply of free whiskey. “The essence of the unknowable is that it pisses us off. We humans, we ape-like entities, who by the way have not been out of the trees all that long, we hate uncertainty. Cannot stand it. We have to have an explanation for everything, and for somewhat sound survival reasons. Uncertainty smells like catastrophe. Spiritualism is yet another attempt to understand the universe, which is beyond our current capacity to understand. And the more fearful of uncertainty you are, the tighter you hold onto unprovable beliefs.”
“That might explain that preacher we saw,” said Faith. “He seems absolutely certain of his beliefs, but he cannot know they are right.”
“What preacher are you talking about?” Reverend Chuck asked with mild interest.
“Some old, bloated, ego stoked, evangelical televangelist.”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I think his name was Righthouse or something like that,” Michael chimed in.
Reverend Chuck’s mouth twitched. “I think I saw him,” he said, lifting a finger away from his coffee cup and toward the television hanging on the wall above Michael and Faith. “He was on after the Pope’s kissing frenzy.”
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
“Beware of spirituality. It can lead you to evangelism, or worse.”
“What could be worse than that?”
Reverend Chuck looked down at his empty shot glass, then back at Michael, then back to the empty shot glass. Michael raised a hand and soon thereafter Reverend Chuck was relieved of a fate worse than theocracy.
“Exactly how much time do you spend here, contemplating philosophical bullshit?”
“It isn’t a matter of time,” Reverend Chuck said with a dram of drama. “It is the location. Location, location, location. We sit in the Wholly Holy Booth, one of the few naturally occurring vortexes of simultaneous awakening and release. Only here and a few other spots on the face of God’s gray earth can one absorb everything and accept nothing. And it’s the only bar in town I have not been kicked out of.”
“Ok, let’s spin this back a bit. So, people believe in the unbelievable in order to avoid the suffering of not knowing. That’s your main point about spirituality.”
“Purple,” replied Reverend Chuck.
“Funny, you don’t look Buddhist,” said Faith, recognizing the obscure religious training technique.
For the first time Reverend Chuck nearly smiled, amused that Faith knew something of the Buddhist priesthood and could hijack an overworked joke in the process.
“What?” said Michael, confused by them both.
The Reverend Chuck leaned in ever so slightly, waited two beats before speaking, and drilled into Michael’s gaze.
“Disconnect. Every time you think you are on a path to knowledge or enlightenment, crash yourself. Divert. Jump your mental ship. Only once your mind can accept everything without instantly questioning it, can it truly accept nothing.”
“And nothing is the goal?”
“No. Just accepting that nothing is something.”
“I get it,” said Faith, surprising and yet not surprising everyone.
“Taking what you said then,” Michael continued, “We have to accept that God exists and doesn’t exist.”
“And that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter.”
“Or that maybe …” Michael’s voice ran silent as his thoughts caught up. “Here’s a revelation. Maybe then the absence of spirituality, the abandonment of belief, is the only way to understand God.”
The only drinking glass in the Horsemen Bar and Grill that did not rattle was the one the Reverend Chuck held ever tightly in his hand. Every bottle of hooch clinked into the one’s adjoining it. Every barfly fell silent as the accumulated ceiling dust shook loose and drifted down, making table-top beer, wine and spirits undrinkable. Earthquakes were not unknown in the Nevada/Utah regions, but this one was impressive by local standards. Even a San Francisco native would have taken notice.
“I told you. Revelations don’t end on a happy note.”
Buddha panicked. Jesus was merely confused.
Moses/Mohamed looked on in morbid fascination, though this did not stop them from flinging their various arms at each other’s heads, shouting in pain when a blow rarely landed, and yet not coming to the realization that they were only hurting themselves by trying to hurt the other, who were themselves.
What had Buddha newly distressed was not the slow unification of his two most spiteful and constantly combative flat mates. Nor was it their fisticuffs. In fact, Buddha could not even be concerned with his nominal complaints of being overweight, living in an unjust universe, and being incorrectly cast as a source of pan-dimensional wisdom. At this instant, Buddha was hysterical that his frame, like those of Moses and Mohamed, was distorting, sliding, seeping away without his permission. It started with the fleshy bits around his cankles, who on their own began crawling snake-like in Jesus’ general direction. This had the visually unsettling effect of dragging Buddha’s ample blubber downward, pulling it from his gut, toward his legs, then outward.
Jesus did likewise, though his show was far less dramatic. Being lean from years of alternating between asceticism and stonerhood, Jesus had little meat to contribute. Yet his flesh, too, was sliding away from his body, reaching empathetically toward an unempathetic Buddha.
“Far out!” Jesus said with amazement.
“This can’t fucking be happening to me,” Buddha began to sob. “I don’t want you. I don’t want this. I want to be left alone.”
“Don’t have a fitra,” Mohamed mocked.
Lao said, “Want is the source of all misery?”
Buddha erupted. “Don’t mock me with my own words, you asshole!”
Lao, said and did nothing. Lao was very comfortable doing nothing and allowing the universe to do what it damn well pleased.
A surge of unstable energy flashed through their transmundane plane. It pulsed as Jesus’ and Buddha’s bodies, like Moses and Mohamed before them, glopped ever more together. Less effected by reality or the lack thereof, Jesus began walking toward Buddha, not swayed by Buddha’s protests.
“Stay back you addled hippie! Stay back!”
“I think this is good, man. It’s all good.”
Buddha tried crawling backwards, sliding his ample rump, one lumbering cheek at a time, across the nothingness. But he had grown so large, so bulbous, so hefty that Jesus’s easy pace soon caught up to the not-quite-fleeing Buddha.
“It’s okay, man. It’s all okay,” Jesus said before falling toward the still not-vertical Buddha, belly flopping onto and then into his body, emerging momentarily on the other side before half ricocheting back.
“Ooooooooooo. This sucks!” screamed Buddha.
“Mazda in the making?” asked Zoroaster.
“Perhaps,” said Lao. “It is the nature of things.”
Reverend Righthouse was mightily pleased that morning. He was delighted by the expanding attendance numbers for his Sunday sermons, and how this was going to necessitate expanding his already expansive church into something larger still. But as content as this made him, the church’s accelerating cash flow was even more satisfying.
“Your donations my friends,” he thundered during the weekly telecast, “My family, my fellow Christians. Your giving goes to spreading The Word to every corner of America. Your generosity is in service to our Lord.”
True as this was, the generosity of those who responded to Righthouse’s Sunday tele-surmons – the lazy, the old, the hermits, the congenitally generous, those worried about their own salvation or the lack thereof – also went to Reverend Righthouse’s bank accounts, off-shore trust, and the new wing of his not entirely humble abode. And within the office of the First United Church of Kansas, donations also went to the purchase of a large desk made from illegally harvested mahogany, nearly priceless art that was not strictly sectarian, a professional kitchen that would make a Food Network celebrity chef salivate, two full time chefs who were one half step below celebrity status and thus in their own heaven, and a never-ending supply of victuals that would never meet the lips of a poor person.
Reverend Righthouse belched, openly, loudly as he glanced from the television monitors, to the monthly cash flow report with a comma filled bottom line, to the once overflowing plate of chicken-fried steak and its tasty, artery clogging pork gravy sludge. It was, indeed, a pleasing morning – greatly pleasing to Reverend Righthouse, though less pleasing to Katie Mae. Ever loyal, ever willing to serve Reverend Righthouse, and by proxy serve The Lord, she was nonetheless worried about the Reverend’s endless intake, uncontrolled girth, and were it not for her adoration, she would have been disgusted by his inconsiderate burb and the gravy trail traveling from his chin down to where his belt buckle should be visible, but was not due to the convex arc of his belly.
Yet Katie Mae smiled because Reverend Righthouse smiled, though they smiled from different sensations. And Tick smiled, even though he was mad as Hell at Hell.
Tick resented the detour Satan’s adjutant had sent upwards, because it called a halt to all the work Tick had done. He had spent the evening before thinking through the next phases of Reverend Righthouse’s fame, downfall and despoiling. What hurt the most perhaps was that Tick had been meticulous in planning. Execution depended on carefully leading his victims into sin, then exposing that sin for all the world to witness. Tick loved the process, and the climax. Reverend Jimmy Swaggart remained his best work, not for the complexity of the sin – getting hookers to nail preachers was easy enough – but for the location and the finale. Swaggart lived in the swampy flesh folds of the evangelical bible belt, where every pious person sinned a bit, but kept it to themselves. Tick meticulously orchestrated Swaggart’s rise through the Assemblies of God church and to the pinnacle of the Pentecostals, standing abroad hundreds of churches whose influence spanned much of the globe.
Only when Swaggart’s fame was nearly universal did Tick pull the plug. With subtle whispers in various ears, nudging others who boxed Swaggart in, Tick personally led him to the pulpit for a tearful, sobbing, bone-shaking public confession.
It made Tick smile and shed a tear himself. Not from pity, but for the artistry with which he raised and then erased Swaggart’s reputation, and thus diseased the minds of the faithful. It was as spectacular and it was sinister, and if Tick had any appreciation for such concepts, he would have considered it beautiful.
Though Righthouse was no Swaggart, having weaknesses in less useful places, this project was still very pleasing to Tick for it offered the same essential elements. Stepwise Tick coordinated influences, often subtle, but always with purpose. “You wife is sexy,” Tick had whispered into the ear of the chief accountant for Righthouse’s First United Church of Kansas not long after Tick had convinced the wife to purchase some new lingerie, the kind which “other women” normally wore. This led to the accountant calling in sick for two days in a row, which in turn delayed the monthly financial reports until today, a morning in which Reverend Righthouse was otherwise unoccupied and could take full appreciation of the numbers. Tick arranged other food stocks to spoil, leaving a disgruntled chef, classically trained in fine French cuisine, to reluctantly default to preparing Reverend Righthouse’s favorite chicken-fried steak. A plate full of that culinary sin would add sensuality to Righthouse’s greed, gluttony and undeserved sense of accomplishment in the name of The Lord.
And Tick would have been delighted were it not for Etch’s envoy.
“A word,” Beljub said to Tick, motioning him into another room while picking at a loose scab on his rightmost antennae.
“I’m busy, ass wipe!” was what Tick wanted to say, being knee deep in devising Reverend Righthouse’s next deadly sin. Despite Tick’s talents, he had never led a priest, minster, preacher, rabbi, monk or shaman through each of the seven deadly sins, and was working diligently to make Reverend Righthouse his first septuple showpiece. This took a great deal of concentration, which Beljub broke.
“Sure, right away,” Tick said to the demon he thought inferior to himself. But Beljub spoke for Etch, and Etch represented Satan, and you simply didn’t ignore the Big Man or his servants if you wanted to keep your job, head or life.
Only when Beljob had Tick’s full attention did he deliver the startling and, for Tick, devastating news.
“Well, that is it,” Tick thought to himself once Beljub sank through the floor, the cement foundation, the sand, and rock, heading ever downwards back to Hell. “All that planning for nothing. My work … my project is incomplete. The End Times and the end. No more Reverend Righthouses, no more Jim Bakers, no more Bishop Balls, Rabbi Freundels, Louis Farrakhans, Yogi Desais, Shoko Asaharas, Swami Premanandas …” The list of Tick’s accomplishments were of some renown.
Now, it would all be over.
Tick fretted at his loss. “What to do, what to do,” he pondered as he paced. There was no stopping the End Times, and once done, religion and religious leaders would be untouchable. “There is nothing left,” he said to himself while turning, the last of his words leaving his lips the exact moment he saw Reverend Righthouse’s bloated torso come into view.
“Well. There is one left,” Tick thought. “Only time for this last one and one last sin. And he is already plump for popping. One last bang, I say!”
Tick thought furiously about what would be the right approach. He had already covered as much ground with Righthouse as could easily be done. Anything else would take longer. Incorporating sin into the life of an allegedly pious man takes time as well as temptation, and now with the End Times scheduled, there was too little time for finesse.
Tick paced, fretted, and was mentally doubling back through his options when an almost divine spark of inspiration occurred to him. It fit nearly too well. After all, what would motivate a man like Righthouse to do otherwise unspeakable things, to violate his own dogma? The man had spent the better part of his adult life warning others of the Apocalypse, the Judgement, and the penalty for ignoring either. The one thing that motivated Righthouse above all else was about to come true, and it was the best way to make him Tick’s grand finale. Tick needed to make Righthouse part of the End Times itself. Global devastation would not be instantaneous, so Tick had sufficient time to trick, conjure and despoil whatever he must to provide the Right Reverend Righthouse a center stage starring role for Satan’s return and the television masses that would surely watch.
Tick had only formulated the goal, when images evolved on the muted television monitor, changing from nominal news network talking heads to a street scene from New York. Tick had never seen a Horseman, but the entity on TV was unmistakable. The screen was obscured with a pale horse, easily twenty-four hands high and donning thick, black tack. It snorted at everything, wisps of smoke jetting from blood red nostrils. Atop the horse was a being – Tick could not even think of it as a man. The rider wore little, and what he did appeared to be armor assembled from the skulls and bones of animals Tick could not identify, but which were subtly human in shape and size. The rider intently scanned the perimeter, as if to look for something more handy than challenging, then swung a broadsword that could have been measured in yards. Random limbs, heads and even an entire severed hot dog cart flew in whatever direction the sword flew.
“That’s one intense sombitch,” Tick thought. It had been such a long time that Tick could not recall how many Horsemen there were to be, or who they were. It didn’t matter much. A news network was reporting the end of time in real time.
Tick slid over to Righthouse, slithering alongside his body, putting a mouth to Reverend Righthouse’s ear.
“Now that’s interesting,” he whispered, and waited until Righthouse looked up from the cholesterol carnage on his plate to the real carnage on television.
“Let’s settle-in for the night,” Faith said with a small hint of urgency and what Michael mistook for latent romantic desire.
“Probably wise,” Michael replied having come to the reluctant conclusion, after a few minutes of examining the top the slumped-over Reverend Chuck’s hat, that their lively discussion was over. The Reverend was snoring peaceably, each hand still clinched unrelentingly around his empty coffee cup and shot glass.
“I think I saw some economy motels on the Utah side,” she said moving without her characteristic fluidity and easy pace. She was not tense, by Michael’s estimation, but her attitude was different.
“That quake seems to have you all shook-up,” he quipped to no effect.
“Nah. Just tired. Deep philosophical debates can wear a woman down. I need an hour in the tub and another eight in the sheets.”
“Excitement can be overrated,” she said knowingly as they moved past the bar stools and toward the door, with Faith tugging on Michael collar, as if she wanted to whisper in his ear. She said nothing aside from “I’m just tired,” as he tilted his head down to better hear her.
She didn’t let go until they were outside. Speed, distraction and pulling his head lower got them out of the Horsemen Bar and Grill before Michael could notice that the patrons therein were, one-by-one, going silent and staring at the television behind the bar, one that Faith spied as Reverend Chuck entered post-intemperance slumber. She didn’t know what she was seeing on the television screen, but instinctively knew that Michael should not. All she could be certain about was that it involved New York City, a demonic looking humanoid monster on horseback, and a fair amount of blood.