--- W R E N F O R D J O N E S
The prophet had driven to the city in a new car. It was a white Continental with expensive leather seats and he had followed a small highway that ran out of the flatlands of Damascus and across the Delta and through the far green country to the very edge of the desert.
In New Mexico, he had gotten lost and driven the back country until the car stalled west of Gideon. Gideon was a small village that consisted of a diner and gas station. A sand storm blew through the village and the prophet took cover in the diner until thick dirt and sand lay crusted on the automobile. After the storm, someone had written wash me in fingernail on the back window but a heavy rain had cleaned it before he broke through the mountains and into Nevada. He liked the village a great deal and before leaving he took it as a surname and ordained himself in the parking lot of the diner and headed toward the city.
Bibles filled to capacity the back seat of the Continental. Plastic shrink wrap shielded them from heat and dust and kept them from sliding into the floor board each time the Lincoln hit a pothole or rounded a corner. Occasionally, the car swayed too hard to the left or right and the Bibles shifted, but before they toppled a large hand reached into the backseat and settled them.
The prophet wore a white suit and maroon derby. He had oversized hands and feet and a thin torso. In the seat next to him sat an old trumpet and occasionally he would look at it or tap the horn with furtive movements. He endlessly puffed on a cigar as the humming air conditioner circulated second-hand smoke throughout the interior of the Lincoln. Gospel music played on the radio and he kept perfect time, tapping a bandaged thumb on the steering wheel. On each block and at every intersection he looked out the window and into the hot night and surveyed the city and the people and the millions upon millions of flashing and dazzling lights.
The prophet turned off the main strip and drove along a busy side street, stopping at the edge of a crowded sidewalk. Street vendors pushed sun glasses and watches to passing tourists and an old woman without any legs sold paper fans. A large brick church stood across the street, shrouded in darkness and unseen by the those on the sidewalk. A woman sat alone on the steps of the church. She wore baggy jeans and a brown tee shirt. Her brown hair was cropped and trimmed close to the sides. She pulled raw peanuts from a paper bag and cracked them and ate them and watched with curiosity as the automobile parked at the edge of the sidewalk.
The prophet rolled down the car window and surveyed the street and all the milling people. He turned off the radio and grabbed the trumpet and jumped from the car, blowing loudly and frantically into the night. When everyone on the sidewalk had noticed him, he tucked the trumpet under his arm and preached.
"Sinners you all," he said and sounded the trumpet again. "Merchants. Business. Profit. Forgive these Lord. They take your house. Takers they are."
The prophet paced in front of the car and his tone and manner fluctuated between normal speech and a cadence resembling an incantation. Yet, the charm and sound of his voice was also easing, especially to anyone that cared to listen. He spoke liberally and forcefully and his voice carried with it a certain blessed assurance and his gestures evoked holiness.
The woman on the steps watched and listened as everyone turned back to their business and others scurried away. The prophet responded by playing a beautiful melody on the trumpet. The sound matched perfectly the movement on the sidewalk until everyone was still again and the trumpet went silent. He tucked the horn back under his arm and continued to preach. "Jesus let the people hear your prophet. Forty days. The world will end. Jesus will come again. Coming a second time. Ready are you for the riddle?" he concluded and paused for effect.
The woman listened from the steps of the church. She bit hard into a peanut and listened to the words of the prophet.
"In the middle meets. North. South. West. East. Object which?" the prophet said and paused again for effect. "Repent to Jesus. To him repent and answer meet."
The prophet blew hard on the trumpet a final time and threw the horn back into the car. He clapped twice and raised both hands high into the air and flexed his oversized palms at the crowd. Two large wounds were in the center of each hand and hard scabs had formed over the holes.
"Stigmata Lord. Hear your prophet," he pleaded. "Help these sinners to repent. Repent to you dear Lord. Sin help them to see."
The prophet fell into a rigid trance and stood with transfixed arms, as if nailed to an invisible cross. After several moments, the crowd began to move again, but the man's body stood rigid and firm and his face contorted as if reacting to sharp bodily pains. He fell from the trance and lumbered back into the automobile.
A man stumbled across the street in front of the automobile and walked toward the church. The prophet watched him move into the shadows and talk with the woman still sitting on the steps. The man searched through his pockets and counted out money to the woman. She took the money and shoved it deep into her purse. She lifted the tee shirt and the man felt the exposed skin. He kissed her chest hard until the woman pushed him away. The man swore at her and stumbled off into the darkness. The woman coughed hard and spat on the sidewalk. She turned and walked in the opposite direction.
The prophet watched her move gracefully through the shadows and away from the church. He followed after her, driving the automobile along the edge of the unpainted curve. He leaned out the car window and motioned to her.
"I'm lost," he said and removed the derby. "Got turnt around."
The woman stopped and looked at the prophet. She cracked into another peanut and spat husk onto the sidewalk.
"That was a good thing you did back there," she said.
"Following the example set by Jesus," he said and clapped the derby back onto his bald head.
The woman spat husk onto the sidewalk and wondered about the melody. She felt a cool breeze coming from the air conditioner and smelled the expensive leather seats. The elusive sound of the trumpet reminded her of something that once had happened, but yet she still could not remember. Like trying to place a familiar face, she thought about the melody and where she had heard it and where she was at the time and she tried to remember what she was doing.
She stared at the prophet and bit into another peanut and suddenly realized where she had heard the sound. It came back to her in an instant. It all happened weeks ago somewhere further down the strip. She remembered walking a new section of streets and suddenly hearing a trumpet sound in the distance. The sound stood out in her mind because she was walking a new area of town and she remembered watching and listening to everything around her. She then recalled how everyone on the street had stopped and listened to the melody and how she turned slowly around in circles searching for the sound. When the melody suddenly stopped, she remembered dismissing it as nothing more than a musician leaving one of the many Jazz clubs crammed into the side alleys.
"Looking for any female company?"
"Man can always use company. "
"I've layed with niggers before."
"Just so you know."
"Don't mean anything by it."
"You got the wrong idea."
"Need a ride?"
"You ain't a cop?"
The prophet smiled and shook his head. The woman hurried into the car and adjusted herself into the leather seat and rolled down the window. Desert air blew into the car.
"I can turn the air conditioner off."
"No. I like it hot and cold at the same time."
"I'll turn it off."
"No. Leave it."
She switched the air conditioner back on. The prophet hit the gas hard and the car roared away into the night. She pulled a peanut from the bag and cracked into it and spat husk out the window. The shell hung for a brief moment in the air before whipping away. She put the purse on the floorboard and looked at the Bibles stacked neatly in the backseat. The trumpet glowed yellow as the car passed under a traffic light. She picked up the horn and fingered the valves.
"Where'd you learn to play?"
"Took a lectronics course at the junior college where I'm from."
"You learned to play the bugle."
"It's a trumpet," he interrupted.
"You learned to play the trumpet taking electronics?"
"Sorta. My teacher played and he gave some of us lessons."
"Must a been quite a bugler. I mean trumpeter."
"Played a Jazz band down in New Orleans. And could he dress."
"That's a hell of a suit you got on," she said and spat husk out the window.
"These are holy vestments," he said and extended a hand. "Call me Gideon."
"Jewel," she said and took the prophet's hand and felt the scab and wondered about the meaning of the riddle.
"Pretty name," he thought out loud.
"Long way from Mississippi," she said and cracked into another peanut.
The prophet glared at Jewel.
"Always look at the plates," she said and thought about the riddle.
"Only days out. It's just the start of my mission trip."
"What's the mission?"
"Sharing my riddle."
The prophet pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his coat pocket and handed it to Jewel. She unfolded the note and read the cryptic message. The note contained a string of archaic letters written across the top of the paper and several legible sentences printed along the bottom. Jewel ignored the strange letters and focused instead on the recognizable words.
"It's a form of Hebrew called koine," he said. "Had someone at the college translate it for me."
"You're taking the Lord in vain." Jewel folded the message and handed it back to the prophet. He carefully placed the note backed inside the coat pocket.
"I'm not crazy Miss Jewel."
"That was still a good thing you did back there."
The prophet turned off the main road and into a dark alley. The alley was empty and quiet. Light from an Asian sign across the street advertised sushi. Some of the light spilled into the alley and the trumpet glittered shades of red and gold. He parked the car next to a large dumpster that smelled of seaweed and fish.
"Hell of a place for Jesus to call you to ain't it?"
"You got the wrong idea Miss Jewel. Before being called into the priesthood, I was a peecan farmer," he said and sat back in the seat.
"Why'd you pull off the road then?"
"It was a cool gray morning," he said, ignoring her and continuing the story. "And I seen a voice suddenly speak in a loud whisper and shake a tree as thick as a truck clean of peecans and felt'em fall like hard, muddy rain on top of me. I woke up with these wounds," he concluded and frantically shook his hands.
"Why'd you turn off the road?"
"Because I heard Gawd's voice," he responded. "He called me to prophesy. He told me to sell my earthly goods and preach the riddle to all the world."
"Don't know many preachers with a fancy car like this," she concluded.
"A prophet am I," he interrupted. "This car and suit are all that belong to me. Been called to lead the priesthood of believers and save the lost."
"It was a good thing you did back there. Screaming at all those people about money and everything," she said.
"I've been led here by the Lord Gawd. Been lead to you Miss Jewel. Gawd has put me and you together for a single purpose."
"And it'll cost forty five."
"Listen before it's too late," he commanded.
The prophet seized her. He held her face between his large hands. She felt the scabs against her cheeks and thought hard about the meaning of the riddle.
"Miss Jewel, pray to receive Jesus."
"What'll you do for me?"
"Give you eternal life."
"It was a good thing you did back there."
"Just say what I say and believe it."
"Then do something for me?" she pleaded.
"Yes," he answered.
Jewel closed her eyes and the prophet lifted up his hand.
"Dear Jesus, I admit that I'm a sinner. Say it," he said. "Say it."
"It was a real good thing you did back there."
"Don't talk to me," he commanded. "Talk to Gawd."
Jewel bowed her head and repeated the prayer. The prophet flexed opened one of his palms and tore loose the scab. He rubbed the wound on her face, smearing her cheeks and mouth with fresh blood.
"Too kay mah soo lee ohh furm dey tek mah," he said. "Seh mola frop ser com tolah dis com per meel."
Jewel peered up and watched and listened as the prophet spoke in tongues.
"Holy macca se oh. Holy macca se oh. I come to you asking for forgiveness of all my sins. Say it," he commanded.
Jewel repeated the prayer.
"I believe that you died on the cross and I believe you rose again on the third day. Say it," he said.
Jewel repeated the prayer.
"I believe that you died on the cross for my sins and I ask that you forgive me right now of all my sins. Say it," he said.
Jewel again repeated the words of the prophet.
"Come into my heart and save me and give me eternal life," he concluded.
Jewel repeated the last line of the prayer and everything fell silent. Sounds from the city were the only things that moved in the car. The prophet sat rigid and Jewel watched him and wondered about the riddle. She wondered if he really had heard voices in the pecan orchid or whether he was just crazy. She wondered about the prayer and realized that his passion had made her words sincere, but most of all she thought about the riddle and what it meant.
Blood from the open wound trickled down the prophet's index finger. Jewel took his hand and placed it inside her mouth and sucked on the finger. The calloused finger tasted of dirt and sweat and she licked away the blood and sucked clean the wound in the palm of the hand. She softly kissed the palm and turned the hand over and kissed the chapped knuckles.
"At's a lot for a workin man."
"That's what it cost."
"Get to go inside your mouth for that much."
Jewel released his hand and slid towards him and caressed his thighs and traced the outline of his zipper with the stub of a fingernail.
"Need the money first," she said.
The prophet pulled several bills from his coat pocket and handed them to her. Jewel quickly took the money and shoved it into the purse.
"Get to go in your mouth," he said.
Jewel responded by unbuckling the leather belt and snapping loose the trousers. She pulled down the zipper and found him and plunged her head deep into his lap and he flinched with pain as she moved completely over him. Her movements were slow and deliberate and precise and he felt the warmness of her mouth and tongue and the hard, sharp leftovers of peanuts. He stretched and flexed the muscles in his long legs and gave in to her completely and fell into the rhythms and sounds of the dark city until at last she leaned out of the car window and spat hard onto the wall of the alley. She leaned further out the window and coughed and spat hard again.
They both sat in complete silence as Jewel wiped her mouth clean. She bit hard into a peanut and spat husk out the window. After several minutes, the prophet cleaned himself with a handkerchief and tucked the shirt back into the pants and buckled them and folded the handkerchief and put it back into his pocket.
Two Chinese women exited a back door by the dumpster. They looked at them and quickly scurried away. Gideon cranked the automobile and slowly backed the car out of the alley.
Later they drove along empty back streets. Occasionally, a figure would step from the shadows and then disappear as the car passed by. Gideon parked the car next to an empty curve. A magazine stand stood nearby, closed and boarded for the night. Gideon pulled several crisp hundred dollar bills from a hidden pocket and gave them to Jewel.
"It's a tithe," he said.
Jewel took the money and folded it and tucked it into her purse and thought about the riddle. She stepped out of the car. Gideon reached in the back seat and opened a package of Bibles and handed her one. She took the Bible and shoved it deep into the purse.
"It's the cross. That's the riddle."
"In the middle meets. North. South. West. East. Object which?"
"Thanks for the extra money."
"It's a tithe."
Jewel hurried away into the night. The prophet watched her cross the street and walk into the shadows of the storefronts. An old pickup truck pulled up next to her and stopped. The prophet watched as Jewel talked with the driver. She climbed into the truck and it disappeared into a dark alley.
Gideon sat quietly and listened to the sounds of the city. He watched a girl exit the alley and cross the street and walk furtively along the darkened storefronts. He followed her and drove slowly up next to her and leaned out the car window.
"I'm lost," he said.
The girl stopped and looked at him. She quickly checked both ends of the empty street and walked towards the car.
"You a cop?" she asked.
Gideon smiled and shook his head. The girl hurried into the car. The prophet hit the gas hard and the car roared away into the night.
© crossconnect 1995-2000
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |