“Continuing Grace (we can always come back)” by Michael Tucker
It smelled funny in church. Antique wood paneling, breath mints, musty hymnals, Aqua Net Hairspray, polyester suits worn by old ladies since the 1970’s, sour old man sweat, cheap perfume, slightly mildewed carpet, and that institutional, indecipherable smell which is somehow contained in church buildings everywhere added up to a smell that Zach had come to hate. He didn’t want to be sitting here with his back pressed up against this hard and unforgiving, wooden pew on a Wednesday night smelling this funny church smell as the congregation of The Continuing Church of God brought their painfully discordant rendition of Hymn Number 422, “When Storms of Life Are Round Me Beating,” to a merciful end. Brother Don stood at the pulpit in a navy blue, pinstriped suit waiting to start this evening’s sermon. Zach hoped he wasn’t going to again pull out those horrific banners that displayed the beasts from the Book of Revelation alongside the visions of Daniel in all their terrible glory. He particularly dreaded the one that bore a demonic looking image of a drunken harlot clad in scarlet riding on a many- headed, leopard-spotted beast with snarling fangs and glowing eyes. Brother Don had just unfurled those scary, prophetic pictures in his sermon three Sundays ago, so he should be safe tonight. He hoped, too, that the pastor wouldn’t pull out those tapes of rock music being played backwards with its garbled, demonic voices that praised Satan. That was scary stuff— and besides what kind of person listens to music backwards anyway?
Zach had hoped to no avail that his mom would let him stay home this evening. He was, after all, already thirteen years old, and his friend Malora, who was also thirteen and who lived in the trailer at the end of the road with the grouchy old man she called Pap, stayed home alone all the time. Besides the fact that she always smelled of stale cigarette smoke, Zach really liked Malora. Unlike the people here at The Continuing Church of God, Malora made him laugh with her sarcasm and her silly streak. Brother Don with his slicked back hair, ruddy, rubbery face, and booming voice just made him feel sort of uncomfortable and more than a little unworthy.
Brother Don wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the handkerchief he kept in his lapel pocket, took a deep breath, and began his sermon. It didn’t sound much different to Zach from the one he had just heard this past Sunday or last Wednesday night or any of the other ones he had been forced to sit through before that for that matter.
“Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are truly living in the last days. Just as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, the world is full of filthy perversion and immorality. People have turned away from God. And just like He did to Sodom and Gomorrah, God will once again pour the vials of his wrath out upon the earth. The world is full of immorality and homosexual perversion…”
Zach glanced sheepishly over at David McAllister who was sitting three people away from him in the same row. Zach wasn’t sure what he felt when he looked at David, but he found himself looking at David often— even if it made his stomach do flips whenever he looked at him or thought about him for that matter. Besides, if he didn’t want to end up being burned up by the hand of God or turned into a pillar of salt, he had better stop staring secretly at David. He had seen him playing basketball at the park last week with his shirt off in the early spring sunshine. Zach wondered if his own skinny body would ever develop the muscles that David had. He thought about the naked statue in his art book that was named David, and he thought about how much the real David resembled its smooth and chiseled musculature there in the shimmering sunlight on the basketball court that early spring afternoon. His mother tapped him on the leg. She unwrapped a Certs and handed it to Zach. This was his cue to pay attention.
“… and yes, brothers and sisters, false information is all around us. Television. Radios. Newspapers. So-called universities of higher learning. All the Devil’s tools in these last days. Scripture tells us in Second Timothy 3: ‘This, know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents…’”
Zach squirmed in his seat. There it was: that funny church smell again.
“…ever learning and never able to come to the truth.’ Do you know my brethren that there are even those among us who claim today that animals have souls when the Holy Bible clearly tells us that this cannot be so?”
Zach’s mind wandered to Jerry, the fuzzy, gray ball of fur that had showed up shivering and mewing on their front porch two weeks ago. He couldn’t believe that his mom had agreed to let him keep the poor little, hungry kitten. Things had been tough since Zach’s dad had passed, and another mouth to feed was kind of a big deal, not to mention paying for cat litter and vet bills. All the stuff that came with being a pet owner added up to extra expenses, and most of the money his mom made at the factory went for rent and food, but who could say no to those bright green eyes? That little cry? That purr? That warm little body that made frantically loving circles around their ankles in the morning? Zach thought to himself that Jerry had a soul. He was sure of it. He didn’t care what Brother Don or his book said. He glanced over at David and felt another orange Certs being pressed into the palm of his hand.
It smelled like rain: fresh and green and sad and somehow fertile with more than a hint of earthworm and mud in its essence. Zach sat on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up. He looked at the box and the plush, blue blanket inside it. At least with all the rain, the ground would be soft. This was going to be hard. Each time someone he loved died, it brought back memories of all his previous losses. He barely remembered his Dad’s passing. He was five. The details were fleeting. Eating a bowl of Lucky Charms in the warm kitchen on a snowy morning. His mom looking pale and shocked on the phone. An emergency room waiting area. A closed pine casket on a white pedestal. The sickening stench of flowers. Eating food in the basement of The Continuing Church of God with its paper table cloths and folding metal chairs and that funny church smell. His Mom’s death was much more vivid in his mind. The details much more visceral. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. The constant doctor’s appointments. Chemotherapy. Sickness. Low red cell counts. Radiation. Isolation. The hospice people bringing in the hospital bed. Morphine. The sickening stench of flowers. A waxy skeletal figure that only vaguely resembled his mother in the pine casket lit by soft funeral parlor lighting. Brother Aaron, son of Brother Don, officiating at the freezing, January graveside service. Food prepared by the ladies of The Continuing Church of God and served in the same basement. Same paper tablecloths. Same metal folding chairs. Same damn funny smell… And now his best friend of the last fifteen years lay wrapped in a soft blanket in a cardboard box on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up, so Zach could bury him. It wasn’t unexpected, really. Jerry didn’t do much but sleep these past few weeks. Zach had found him stretched out dead on top of the dryer when he came in from work. His eyes were closed. Old Jerry must have drifted off into eternity in his sleep.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. No sign of lightning. Zach buried Jerry at the edge of the backyard. He scattered some lime over the fresh grave to keep other animals from digging Jerry up. I’ll never forget you, Jerry. May your soul be at peace in the land of mice and catnip, my friend. He went back to the shelter of the front porch and had a much needed, cathartic cry on the damp, cool concrete.
He fixed a veggie burger for dinner since there would be no food served in basement of The Continuing Church of God in Jerry’s honor. Not that Zach ever went back after his mother’s passing. Not even once. Malora would be picking him up in a few minutes. Going to shows together was sort of their thing. If he hadn’t already paid for the tickets, he would have called Malora and told her not to bother, but tonight Zach’s favorite band, Papadosio, was playing, and dancing would be fun. Sometimes dancing was the thing that kept Zach sane. It was the way he worked things out in his body, his mind, and his soul, and tonight, he would dance in Jerry the Cat’s honor.
Malora pulled into the driveway in her hulk of a Lincoln Town Car: dull silver with a Bad Religion bumper sticker on the left side and a multicolored, dancing Grateful Dead bear sticker on the right. She had stickered up the old beast of a car when it became hers after Pap’s death. She blew the horn. “I’m sorry about Jerry. You partying tonight?”
“Thanks. Nah, I’m staying sober,” Zach replied, sliding into the gigantic, leather front seat. It smelled of stale cigarette smoke. He took comfort in the fact that some things never change.
“You don’t mind driving, then? Do you? Hell, yeah, Dosio tonight! What do you want to hear the boys play?”
“Not at all, it’ll keep my mind straight ‘til we get there. And I would love to hear a super dank ‘Magreenery,’ ‘Out of Hiding,’ or ‘Utopiate,’ or hell yeah, ‘We Can Always Come Back.” It’s my favorite off the new album.”
“Dude, I want ‘Therian’ so bad. I love Sam’s voice so much. And did I tell you that I can see people’s animal spirits now?”
He slid into the driver’s seat and pulled away as Malora howled out the window at the moon at the top of her lungs.
It took almost an hour to reach the venue. Zach spent most of the ride thinking about Jerry and laughing at Malora’s sarcastic take on the customer base at Hot Topic. It was an okay enough job and it payed for her efficiency apartment in town, but damn, what posers. The topic of conversation somehow switched to include a lofty spiritual analysis of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club, Lana Del Rey, and Labyrinth-era David Bowie as her spirit animals, and the two travelers reached their destination before they knew it. They went inside the venue where it smelled of patchouli and fruity vape-smoke along with that magical essence of anticipation for incredible music hanging in the room: something kind of electric, yet somehow tangible. Tauk, the opening band, was already playing a heady mix of progressive rock and psychedelia.
They were greeted by the usual suspects in the regular congregation of Dosio family revelers. Shawn with his bear hugs and giddy excitement about what the boys would be playing tonight, Mark with his “Fuck, you two look beautiful tonight,” Claire with her kind smile and patchwork style, Rob, the merry prankster all lollipops and goofiness, and Nick with his bright eyes and intensity. They all gathered together at the rail up against the stage as the lights grew dim. They screamed and cheered as the time to rage was finally upon them: those nice boys in Papadosio took to the stage immersed in surreal lights and began to play.
From the first note onward, the music overwhelmed Zach. It felt like liberation-to be lost here in the lights, all violet, orange, green and white, and the sounds, those driving beats, shimmering synths, and soaring-vibed guitar melodies, to be at one in this moment with the crowd, moving together as a single organism and hanging on every note as if this sound was nourishing the very fiber of their souls. And perhaps they were. To Zach, this all felt somehow sacred. Malora was babbling on and on in his ear about how Sam had turned into a shining, white wolf creature behind the piano. To Zach, he just looked beautiful, pounding away at the keys with rhythmic abandon and arching his back elegantly as he played on, his silhouette glowing against the trippy projections on the seemingly liquid-LED screens that served as a backdrop. She rambled on that Anthony had morphed into a multi-limbed Hindu god and that she couldn’t even look at him because he was really freaking her out with his ability to send out gigantic love vibes with his guitar… and would you just look at Healy stealing faces and flailing away on the drums like a beast and Billy twiddling those knobs opening wormholes in space and Rob. . . he really made your feel that bass all the way down to the bottom of your soul like no other badass creature in the universe. Zach felt love wash over his entire being as the band veered a familiar melody into an achingly beautiful, uplifting jam. He kept riding the crest of the waves of the melody until all his grief, all his cares washed away from him. This felt like salvation. There was nothing left but joy and gratitude and appreciation. He was all ears and all heart. He felt the pleasant sensation of other human beings moving to the music with him. One body kept pressing itself against him in rhythmic sync to the epically danceable groove being laid down for them. This body belonged to a boy with glowing green eyes in a tie-dyed hoodie with a large lightning bolt patch sewn on the front. Zach smiled sweetly at him, and wordlessly they fell into a timeless hug. Chest pressed tightly against chest, all that existed for them was each other and the music. It was pure, and it felt like magic.
“Thanks for the awesome hug, brother. My name’s Jerry, and I’m grateful I met you. Have a great night.” He gently pulled away from Zach and danced off into the crowd.
Zach thought about Jerry the Cat and was overcome with gratitude for the deep friendship they had shared. He thought about each beautiful soul in the crowd and how grateful he was to be sharing this moment with each one of them. He thought about his Dad and how he never really had the chance to know him beyond Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons on the couch together. He thought about his Mom and how she had found meaning and purpose all those Sundays and Wednesdays at the Continuing Church of God— and how much she had wanted Zach to find his meaning there as well. I just found mine in a different place, Mom. That’s all. I love you. He pulled Malora close to him and smiled just as the hauntingly spacey synth line of “We Can Always Come Back” began— and it felt like a prayer. For Zach, it felt completely like grace.
Michael Tucker is working on degrees in English and Human Services at Hagerstown Community College. He enjoys live music, literary pursuits, and spending time with his partner, Tara, his daughter, Emily, and their menagerie of furry critters.