A Baptist minister was expected to be beyond mere carnal temptation, which maybe he was. But carnal wasn’t how a man like Roger fell from grace. It was loneliness. Joan was as often oblivious in her bottles as not. A life held delicately out of sight from the congregation of a small and intimate church. But people could always feel the energy between a lonely man and the woman he desires and who desires him. And that was Olivia.
Their moment had come on a rainy afternoon, after Sunday service. Olivia’s car wasn’t working. She had texted to say she wouldn’t be coming to service because she wasn’t in the mood to see the church. Was thinking of leaving it for something else. Maybe becoming a Buddhist or a Unitarian. Roger visited her after service and found her in her night clothes looking desperate. They had hugged. He pressed her tight, felt her breasts up against his chest. Found his lips touching her warm, unwashed neck, his fingers twined in in the curlers embedded in her morning hair. An hour later he sighed against her ear as his orgasm swelled and throbbed inside her and felt her belly tense and twist with her feral heat under his thrusts, in the sheer joy of his pleasure in her.
“Should we be together?” she’d asked. “If people love each other, does it have to be a sin?”
“We don’t know what God’s will can be,” he’d said, and kissed her ear. “Maybe we could.”
“Can’t we ask?” she’d said.
“Sometime,” he’d said. “Not now.”
When Roger had dressed and kissed Olivia goodbye, he’d arrived home with the smell of her body in his clothes. Joan was drunk. She was drunk almost daily now. Her intuition was at its sharpest when she was drunk and some devil whispered in her ear. It took less than ten minutes to break every dish and cup on the tiled floor at his feet as she screamed her pain at him.
The next Sunday’s sermon was about humility before God. There was a reading from Genesis and Rev. Roger Amberson re-told the old story of Noah and the Ark, and then of Abraham, called to sacrifice his son. About searching out the will of God and about obedience even if that will was a mystery. And then he did a fatal thing, exhaling the curse in the air like a cough. “Let us take a special moment in prayer, “ he said to the little congregation of thirty souls. “Let’s all of us take a moment to ask God to tell us His will for our lives.”
The room grew silent as heads dipped and lips moved. Whispers filled the air like distant bird song.
Then the gasps came, moving like a wave through the room.
Then the tears came. The muttered protests.
“Halleluiah,” said one. Finally the tears of denial which shook the congregation for an hour.
A cemetery at mid-morning has the gloomy loneliness of a shopping center waiting to open. The sky was gray, the air cool but not cold.
Up the road to the gravesite a familiar gray Honda Prius approached slowly, reluctantly. Olivia knew that would Roger. He was driving alone, unless he had brought his dog along. She clenched her teeth against what she knew was coming.
The car turned off the pavement onto the grass at a cautionary distance. She turned away and looked at the thirty objects piled on the ground in a neat row. A distant, soft shutting of the car door.
Roger stood in front of the car. Seeing she would not come over, he leaned and then sat against the hood and waited. They looked at each other across the expanse of frost glinting grass.
She glanced at her watch. The funeral members would arrive in twenty minutes. Roger had gotten up off the car, still standing, hesitating. A soul twisting in the wind.
I don't twist, she thought. That part is done.
Another car came up the road that would be Bruce and Bobby's car. Another one of those couple situations that a small congregation discreetly looked away from. Now things would be difficult, she thought. Difficult because in their own way they were as stubborn as she was. They would not twist in the blowing wind of God. They parked next to Roger. The two men sat in the car for a long time consulting between themselves. She saw their faces touch affectionately and they came out of the car. Roger went over to them and the three men huddled for a long time in the cool, shadowless gray of the cemetery, discussing her.
I don't want to do this, she whispered to the wind. Lord, don't let me weaken now. This is my offering. Let me make it alone. I can do this alone.
The three men were coming. Bruce and Bobby holding hands defiantly.
Soon they were close enough for her to read their faces. The two men in love both wore dark glasses against the sun. Against her eyes.
"Morning," called Bobby, raising his free hand.
"You don't have to do this," called Roger.
"Morning ya'all," she said.
"We came here to talk," said Roger.
"Talk's what you're good for, Roger."
"My mind is set."
"You don't need to do this," said Roger.
"You mean, I don't want to do this," she said. "Reckon neither do you. But." She folded her arms and stood a little taller. “Anyone else coming?”
"We need to talk about what you're doing here," said Bruce is that gentle contralto that hooked men and women alike. "This ain't kind. Kind still counts."
"It ain't about kind," she said. "It's the will of God, is all."
The men gathered around her. Bruce and Bobby put their hands in their pockets. "You think,” said Bobby, “this is your little ark you're building here. Don't you?"
She looked up at the cheerless gray overcast. "Looks like rain to you does it?"
"No, Roger. No. It's done and sealed. You can do what's right in your eyes or you can get on with your life. But my place this morning is here."
They were coming now. There was a black shiny hearse parking. For a moment she was afraid she had chosen the wrong spot and they would pass her. But the open grave was over there, right over there. The hearse settled into the place she had expected and waited. Several more cars all with their headlights on followed and parked close to the hearse. A pair of white government Ford vans pulled up and men in blue uniforms and white caps began to spill out and receive their wooden carbines from the back.
"Look at them,” said Bruce. “You got to call this off.”
"You still standing there?" She said. "Let’s get to it.”
"You don't need to do this."
"There's where you’re wrong," she said. "I - WE need to do this. Ya’all know you do. God spoke to me, Bruce. Roger. God said the same thing to every one of you. Same message, up and down, just like it is, and you know what you have to do. When God speaks, you got to."
"How do you know its God anyway," said Roger. "What if it’s the devil?"
“Oh hell no. It’s way worse than that. It’s way worse than that. Making a deal with God, it’s not any different from making a deal with the devil except if you have to choose the devil, the great deceiver, might keep his word. Like a contract. But the Bible says ‘who can call God to account?’ God doesn’t have to keep his word and who’s going to make him? It’s all corrupt, all the way through.”
She was about to speak when she saw a familiar car approaching. The last car she had expected. Joan. For the first time she was truly afraid.
The car parked next to Rogers and Joan began running up the hill. There was no twisting in the wind in this woman. She panted up to them. "What's everybody standing around for?” she said “Let's go."
Olivia stared at her, feeling desperate. "Joan, you know why we're here? Why I'm here?"
"God spoke to you, I know all about it."
“Roger told you.”
“No,” she said, “God did.”
Olivia trembled, suddenly feeling oddly jealous of this woman in a way she had not felt over Roger.
"God told me exactly the same thing,” said Joan. “Now I'm here. Lord gets ready, you got to move."
Roger stepped away from her, as though seeing her for the first time. "You?"
"Me!" snapped Joan. "The fallen woman. You think God doesn’t speak to fallen women too? And I know what God told each of you, and I'm here because I'm on it. Is that a sign there?" She pointed down.
"Goddamn you Joanie" yelled Roger.
"Damn right!" She said. "Damn right. Without my even asking, God spoke to me. How about that? Didn’t think God would speak to some fucking drunk like me? I didn't even believe in Jesus or none of that phony shit. And you know what? I'm fucking here. How about that shit? You see that, God?" She looked up.
"You see that, Roger," said Olivia. "She wasn't even a believer. And she got the very same thing God told me when I prayed. You prayed. All you prayed. You have to believe now. Everyone the same. It's a miracle."
"Fucking miracle!" screamed Joan, and Olivia wondered if she was high on something.
"I know he did," said Bobby. "I just don’t know why."
"I tried to kill my ass last night," said Joan. Everyone looked at her. "I put a belt round my neck just to see how it felt. I tied it to the shower rod and sort of jumped and the rod came down on me. I just lay on the bathroom floor crying. And God spoke in my ear. And God told me what He told you."
"This has got to be the damnedest, and I mean damnedest idea anybody had," said Bruce. "Bobby and I are in love. And we're good for each other. God wouldn't forbid that. This is from the devil."
“You know what’s wrong with you people?” said Joan. “You thought you were going to be Noah. You thought you were going to be like the last motherfucker standing.”
Olivia glanced across the street. The mourners had gathered and were looking at them, wondering.
“She’s right,” said Olivia. “The devil gets you by your worst. Give me this, I give you that. God gets you by your best. You thought you were going to be like Noah, build an ark, be the big lone hero, and be the last man left standing. Get the last laugh when everyone sees you were right because they’re drowning and they’re not laughing anymore. Let me ask you – You ask God his will, He tells you to stop playing the lottery and build an ark. So you build your big ass ark, and it never rains? What then? You still got to build it. The rain and the how and the why ain’t your business. Your business is to build the ark and let it go. God told you and you did it and if you look like a fool and wreck your life, and wreck your family and spend your savings and lose your house and go bankrupt and homeless and everybody hates you and it doesn’t even rain? Who you going to complain to when it doesn’t even rain?”
“God will keep his promise,” said Roger. “Even if we don’t know what that promise is.”
“What if the blessing isn’t meant for us? Maybe it goes to somebody else and all we do is pay the check for it. You ask God to know his will all the time, I heard you pray this at the church all the time. But that's because you don't really think God would ever take you up on it. And then He does."
"You trying to make people hate couples like me and Bruce?" said Bobby
"No, Robert. Not in a million years. You ever see those news clips of the Civil Rights marches in the '60s? You know who was the best friend Civil Rights folks ever had? Bull Conner. That white cracker that put fire hoses on women. And police dogs tearing the clothes off men and kids right in front of the TV cameras. That's when that shit got real. That's when people started to feel it. You don’t get to be a hero every time. Someone has to put the hounds out to tear at some hearts and put a face on things. That's what's happening here. Now you - " She stabbed a finger in Roger's chest. "You pick up that fucking sign. If you got the balls."
Roger hesitated. He looked down at the signs as though he'd discovered a rattlesnake at his feet.
"You do it like this - asshole!" It was Joan who grabbed a sign and waved it over Roger’s head. The sign said "God Hates Fags".
"Jesus Olivia” yelled Bobby. "People are going to hate you for this!"
"I KNOW!" Her eyes welled with tears. She dropped to her knees. She touched a wooden stake nailed to a poster board sign. The sign said "Your Homosexual Fruit Faggoty Soldier Son is Burning in Hell"
" . . . I know . . . ."
She wrapped her fingers around the wood and lifted it.
The people were coming down the pavement in front of them, dressed in black. A group of eight men in dress blues and sharp white marine caps with red bands were carrying the flag draped casket.
"God hates fags," she whispered. Then louder "God hates fags!' Her stomach rolled with agony. "God hates fags!"
Joan began waving her sign. "Fucking A,” she whispered. Then - "Hey! Your fag son is fucking ass in Hell!"
A local TV van had pulled up. The satellite antennae rose erect and a pair of reporters with video cameras ran to them.
Bruce waited until the camera man had come close, the black glass eye sweeping the scene.
He waited, looked at Olivia, and spat on her face.
Olivia shook back her tears. "I know," she whispered. She stepped back and shrieked "God hates fags!"
Roger picked up his sign limply, but said nothing. Joan turned, reared back her left leg and kicked him hard in the ass. Roger staggered.
Joan stood in front of him. “You know what God would say? God would say ‘That rain ain’t none of your damn business. Build the ark. And you think maybe you don’t want to build an ark and maybe fuck up the rest of your life because you don’t get to be the last man standing, then God is going to say ‘maybe then you need to shut the fuck up Roger boy and grow a pair and stop asking Me what My will for your life is!’ This is the life you got!“
“Stop! Stop!” Roger lifted the sign a little higher.
Bobby was staring at the grass blankly. His knees wavered and for a moment he looked like he would fall. The black eye of the video camera was staring at him, panning back across the scene. Across the street, the people in black were aghast.
"God hates fags!" Yelled Olivia and Joan together.
Bobby picked up a sign. Bruce was backing away from him shaking his head.
“How long we got to do this, Olivia?”
“Till God tells us to stop.”
“And when’s that? An hour? Forty days and forty nights?”
“Maybe never. “ Her eyes were hard as marbles. “Maybe that’s what it takes. Joan’s right, maybe this is the life you got now.”
Weeping, Bobby lifted the sign, shook off the tears. He looked at Roger, bared his teeth in a dog snarl.
As the men waved their signs in front of the TV cameras, they joined the women in their chants.
A soft rain began to fall.