March 25, 2024 Short Story

The Preacher Before His Time

The Preacher Before His Time Artwork by DALL·E

He thought he knew these people. Through the lens of his cracked shield needing a wash to better shine its black. He'd known their grandparents, and they thought nothing wrong with showing up early any old morning. A hearse laid up to call. Most preachers didn't hit a stick on a dry Monday, but for the rare funeral slobbered, and he knew that didn't happen much around here, the home folks ripe for family-gatherings only on a Sunday when internet down. The cross of Christ emblazoned in stickers, WWJD across the smashed bumper. Regardless, he hoped to be expected.

He thought he saw a curtain move after his second rap on the metal door. The single-wide had seen every better day. As long as he'd been preaching and visiting, he'd seen quite a bit worse in this section.

“Kin I hep yu-nuh,” the child said, come to the door.

He off-hatted his wears and held to the rail.

“Mind there,” the preacher said.

“My feets tough.”

Dirty, the preacher wanted to tell the boy when his father shoved past to the stoop.

“A might early dont'cha reckon, preacher-man.”

“Look just like your Granddad, Johnnie, and right on time right like him.”

The young, waking father flattered for a second, then embarrassed by mention of the good, dead man, he pushed the child back inside away from the sole words of religion.

“Honey, who dat, dey come to collek agin?” an older woman's voice sallied from behind the father's pretended calm.

“Hush you, company, decent.”

“Dont'cha, dont'cha, Diddy don't you be...,” said she to he.

Then he turned to repeat to the preacher. No hitch there.

“A might early for a Monday, dont'cha think?”

“I can stretch in my truck, son.”

“Might be good idea, I reckon I can hurry.”

The preacher put back on his hat. It was a cold winter by Lowcountry standards, and the child needed more than a hot meal, the preacher thought after closing his soggy vehicle's door and revving the sharp-broke finger to stroke the heat. He looked at his phone. His wife had texted a worry. Joy to the World, the preacher hummed to himself. He saw his breath in the reattached mirror and adjusted his hair mussed from the old-school hat. The local Christian radio station had stopped its holiday music last week. It had been a good long Christmas, no funerals, one home from hospital, one baptism at church. Joy, the preacher sang the one note.

Johnnie, now dressed by some people's accounts, motioned. He had tied on too many coats to be fixing to invite anybody inside what made for a house. The Rev. reached for his gloves after switching off the overhauled engine.

“What exactly you wanna talk to me about, sir?”

“I have another dead coffee in the truck, son, if you wan--”

“No sir, stronger stuff for me these days,” Johnnie said, before hearing how unnecessary and pathetic the groundless joke sounded to himself, much less to an old man of some cloth. Echoing. A bounce. Flat the journey.

“I know I'm not really your preacher, but I knew all your family all too well, them always in church, now the grave.”

The preacher bowed like stairs, and although the fatherly man hoped he would not launch into prayer, he wanted to say God bless or rest in peace out of respect for his dead kin and the preacher. He soon thought how silly that also would feel. He'd stopped calling on God in prison, and didn't want to stir anything up with the man or his people.

He started scratching, made nervous by God's calling on him this morning. The preacher sipped his coffee, unbothered by what his would-be host might say, more concerned for future action, but he didn't frighten. He touched the cross in his pocket and nodded to move along conversation.

“Don't know how rightly that gots do to me, time's change.”

Edgy, he scratched at fresh and too many half-sad scabs on his unshaven neck, never looking down at his own dirty bare feet, now moist in a wash from fresh morning's cold dew.

“Your grandparents--”

“Don't mean to be ornery, sir, but direct, what so early the day, week, just spit it out, time you can spit--”

The preacher spat. Black like bad phlegm but from coffee.

“You come into money, son, big money, birthday today.”

The father of a man quit picking at his neck, not at the mention of birthday, but when a mama eagle soared majestic up out of the cypress swamp behind the hand-me-down trailer. He had long heard talk, but after all the run-ins, quit asking questions of any lace-drawered lawyer in town.

“They kept calling you, said sent letters, some returned, asked at the prison.”

The word made the man more nervous. The older woman, who'd been peering out each window one by one too fast for their good, banged the door back open, an excuse for a gun in her one good arm. She glared at the couple, eyes not set aright.

“Whatchoo say today is, preacher?” the man said.

“13th. February the thirteenth, Friday.”

“Birthday tomorrow,” the man said.

“Evil!” the woman shouted and pointed the gun at the eagle. Eyed the black truck, were the preacher-man's wife therein.

The fatherly man felt the woman's look behind him long before and after the preacher. He didn't turn to address her.

“Back in the house!” he yelled.

“Ain't no house, house-trailer, trailer-home!” the woman also dirty-barefooted said. “House-trailer, trailer-home!” Transport wheels rotting, their house a chemistry-lab mover of shaky tweaks' methodical madness.

She slammed the drugged door, and that carted child or another screamed before the woman could again. Salvation for some, an angel barreling away from runway.

“Well, son, consider that a good tomorrow.” The carriage of time.

A trained, paid professional at ignoring death amid life, the preacher looked around at what some would never say a house yard or passage. He grimaced and hauled real slight in that way preachers pass no-talk judgment without damning words.

“I know, I know, we gittin' to cleanin',” the fatherly man said. “Fixin' to--”

He acted like he wanted to hang his head, but out of fatigue or shame, the preacher did not know. Maybe the man had forgotten how.

“Same time tomorrow then?”

A spin and turn. The man looked confused. He scratched more under his torn shirtsleeves.

“To drive you to the lawyer's in town, son, your birthday, Johnnie, the money's ready then.”

“Yeah, that be OK,” the man said. “That gonna be OK.”

Before getting back in, the preacher reached for his phone, replied to wife's text, but message not sent, too far from town this close to swamp. He reached to close the pickup door, and he only felt Heaven when the trailer-wife's buckshot lodged deep in his back.

Johnnie stood there back on the stoop, his pants legs' rolled cuffs both wicked wet up high from the ground. He should've shivered in the cold to remember his Grandfather or that dead man's preacher, but he forget even the money when he heaved shut the worn door to an undeserving amount of rest.

“Lawyers 'n' preachers be damned, botherin' us agin, botherin' us agin, botherin' us agin.”

The woman let out a three-finger slap, reprimand for the repetition. The dirty words had come forth out from the soil-footed son, prone to emulate pa in their morass of vague crimes untold, uncounted, and untethered, the old world never really trying to catch up with the younger generations' ways, even the kind country preacher-man, college educated as he were, unaware of how hands of a clock linger longer out this way these days this time of dying-day year, where money and family, hell church, don't mean but so much any more, and crime? Well, crime, ill-defined like the rest, a man's king of his house if not his car, of trailer buzzards constantly encircling, and defense of such all the same regardless in this watery land rural all too tepid and 'most forgotten by near to all sides since a war. Land of the pickups let down easy most mornin's since.