By Rachael Peralez
a cool beer
I had exactly four Pall Malls left when Leroy asked to bum one. I told him that I had them timed perfectly so I could smoke one every two hours while we hooked animal carcasses on the side of the road in service to the great state of Mississippi. Didn’t he love Mississippi, with its sweetgums and good catfishing? We had after all, broken her laws with our insatiable appetite for amphetamines and marijuana and crack cocaine. Big black Leroy told me to shut my stupid mouth and give him a goddamned cigarette. Stop talking for once in my life. I obliged both requests. Leroy had a pretty short temper and possessed all the strength of a very pissed-off Philistine. At least the Old Testament Philistines. I figured having my face intact was worth one cigarette and my very temporary silence. When I handed him the cigarette he tapped it against his palm and wrinkled his nose.
“You say you used to be a preacher, huh?”
“Yeeeah but I can’t save you, Leroy,” I told him as I jabbed my sticker into a dead raccoon.
It’s ring tail flapped as I lifted it up like a puppet and bobbed it in front of Leroy singing Jesus Loves Me This I know For the Bible Tells Me So. I pranced around until a warden came over and told Leroy to stop provoking Reverend Balls Deep. This time it was Leroy who obliged because my temper wasn’t all that placid either, and sometimes I’d go into some holy rages. One such rage landed me here. Picking up carcasses and eating overcooked, canned spinach in a prison chow hall. At least they let me out to walk along the highway and see the red tails and look at everyone’s trash.
I wrote some of my best sermons after I had pumped a little cold into my veins. Sometimes, I would strut up to the pulpit feeling like my chest had opened up and the golden light of the most holy lamb had filled it to bursting with his word. My flock would walk up to me to shake my wet hand and look at me the way a cow looks at a new gate after those most inspired sermons. I just hugged necks, and gripped hands, and tell them I’d pray for them. Then I would get into my Volvo and follow one of the members to his little home and eat chicken salad with pools of opaque liquid shimmering on top, while some dog stared at us through the screen door. I would make a few jokes, say a few prayers. By the end of lunch usually I was coming down. I kept seeing that big buffalo-headed deceiver in the every corner. Just flashes of his grin. My gums itched. I was a Baptist minister so I couldn’t ask for a beer to soften my heartbeat. I always thought of that joke about how you keep a Baptist from drinking all your beer on a fishing trip is to invite another Baptist along, when all I wanted was a Benzo and cold Coors.
When my giggling got too nervous and the conversation turned to the devil I knew it was time to haul ass out of there. I ran over everything in my path on the way home. Squirrels never thought I was serious and just dillied in the road chasing each other in these tight little circles until I heard at least one of them thump around in my undercarriage. I liked it. I liked it because I knew I could come back later under the pretense of being that soft-hearted preacher who picked up dead animals and buried them. I had a secret though. I just loved their pearly bones. I could make them live better, purer, clean as wool that’s been washed by the blood. I would take them home and clean them, stripping away their skin and flesh and set their carcasses out in a neat row on my back porch for the maggots to clean and the sun to bleach.
I had a Great Dane skeleton too. I kept the smallest tail vertebrae on a chain around my neck. Such a beautiful animal. Tall and lean, it would gallop across my yard, glossy muscles bunching and sliding across those heavy bones. The dog belonged to my neighbor, Jacob, who asked me if I had seen Moses when he didn’t come home for his dog bed and kibble.
“Nooo. Not today,” I said. “Where you think he ran off to?”
Jacob leaned against the horsewire fence and stared at the woods across the road.
I had to bury Moses. Let the beetles do the work, otherwise I’d have flies coming from the ends of the earth. I was pretty used to the smell by that time, but that’s a damn big dog to just leave rotting on your back porch. When the meat had finally been eaten, I set the bones in cold water and scrubbed them with a toothbrush. I was putting things in their right place. In their purest, pearl-white form. God himself never had a prettier collection of souls.
I guess I been partaking a little heavily the Sunday the sheriff came and hauled me off the jail. I had stayed up for three nights plunging the same needle into the veins on the tops of my feet over and over and trimming passages out of Isaiah with a pair of nail scissors. I was alone. There was always speculation as to why I was alone. Especially from the Methodists. The truth is I guess I never had but one sexual thought in my entire life, and that was when Lazarus rose from the grave in the bible. I had a picture bible growing up that my daddy had gotten me from some salesman with crooked fencepost teeth at the Zondervan’s book store. I guess I was about six. He kept hitching at his crotch and saying how rich the drawings were. So Daddy got it for me and explained about how I couldn’t draw in the pages on the ride home because it was still the bible and did I understand? But I wasn’t really listening because I had found my love. Lazarus. Oh Lazarus. He was holding Jesus’ hand and the gauzy wrapping hung off his handsome face. Martha and Mary were gripping Jesus’ robes and weeping, and I was so happy that I started flipping around the pages so Daddy wouldn’t know that I loved a dead man.
I took that bible back to my room and looked at Lazarus again under the dusty antique lamp I begged my momma to get me at a flea market. He had tears streaming down his face into his dark beard. Jesus looked so pleased. I got my first erection.
I had that brightness in me that Sunday morning. I was nearly weeping from the fullness of The Word when I saw Carol Jennings and Laura Miller in the back pew tittering and flipping through a magazine. They were the dark spot in the corner. I rubbed the smooth rabbit skull I kept in my pocket and cleared my throat into the mic. They went on snatching the pages back and forth and sighing wetly. The congregation was dead silent. Electricity ticked behind my eyes and threaded through my brain. I tore my sermon in half and pushed my shoulder into the pulpit stand until it collapsed, and the sanctuary filled with the howl of feedback. I yanked at my tie and strode down the aisle toward them. Harlots harlots harlots harlots harlots. When I finally got to the back pew I snatched the magazine away from Carol’s trembling hands.
“This is a house of worship. This is a house of God.”
She was crying, and I had my thumb pressed against the hard little knot on her throat and kept pressing when I felt strong deacon hands pulling me away. They pushed their weight into me until I felt the rough carpet against my face. My rabbit skull splintered in my pocket and I was sure that it was actually my spine cracking.
Well, the sheriff came and found three eightballs in my car. They also searched my house and found my collections, and three more grams of crystal, a little less than an eighth of dope and twenty-five Benzos. So I went to trial, and then I went to jail because as much as I taught them about forgiveness, no one wanted to post my bond. I guess I did try and strangle a thirteen-year old-girl.
They finally started loading us into the van after we had dumped our bags in the flatbed behind the sheriff’s truck. The warden chained Big Leroy to me and ducked our heads before we hopped into the vans like shackled circus elephants. On the ride back, I leaned over to Leroy and whispered to the side of his head that I took something from the road. Leroy told me to shut up, that I was going to get everyone on lockdown. I shook my pants leg, and vile odor puffed into the air around us.
“Oh Jesus, Leroy. Leroy’s cutting them over here. I call this cruel and unusual punishment. Jesus Lord. I’ve got to say a prayer for you son. You got a demon in your asshole.”
The van burst into raucous laughter, and Angel kicked the seat behind us. Chains rattled and the warden hollered at us to settle down. I reached into the cuff of my pants leg and resituated the dead ground rattler I had found all flattened under an empty Dr Thunder box. I could feel some kind of sticky ooze matting my leg hair together. Another one for my collection. Another one to show my love real sacrifice. Real pretty. Real nice.
It happened like this on the first day I came to the pen. The day I first saw my love. After they brought me into the general population from the holding cell, they shoved some clean sheets at me and prodded me towards my cell. I had been clean for a few weeks, and everything seemed muddy. I had my bible, and I was ready to pay my penance with some Ahab, who had killed a kid when he blew up his meth lab just to make a little biker blue. My mind slogged as I ticked through verses and parables. The florescent lights hummed above me, and I looked down at the V of the flip flops cutting between my socked toes.
When I finally reached my cell and walked inside, he was not King Ahab who sat there but my beloved Lazarus. He was thin and had the same sharpness about his dark features as my wild-eyed children’s bible version. But he was so. So alive. Too much guts and moving bits and wet-mouthed speech. I came in and began making my bunk. I learned his named was Graham and he was excited to have a preacher here with him. Maybe I could help him learn to be better. Because he had accidentally killed his girlfriend’s boy child? girl child? when he was high on junk, and left the gas on, and then left to get some more more more. He started crying then and lifted his hair away from his face to show me where his girlfriend had come home and tried to tear out his eye when she found her dead baby and him asleep in the front yard. I put my hand on top of his head and called him my son like some pedo priest. He was disgustingly warm.
I read to him every night from the bible because he said he never was real smart with books or church. Sometimes Herman from across the way would scream in his sleep and wake up everyone on the block. If you listened hard enough you could hear Angel whisper to him in Spanish until the night went silent again. Graham would ask me if there was such a thing as haints, and I would tell him that the bible tells us we go right to Him or to that lake of fire.
“Aren’t such things as haints. Go back to sleep, son.”
I concocted my plan to make Graham mine one morning when I got up before him to arrange my little collection of polished bones under the edge of my blanket. Graham never called me Reverend Balls Deep like everyone else despite my collection and the need to belt Give Me Oil in My Lamp Keep it Burning Burning Burning in the communal showers.
He was sleeping so soundly that his chest barely rose, and his hand curled next to his nose. I watched him until he began to writhe under his blankets and wondered how hard it would be to give someone a lobotomy. Too hard. Pillow to the face? Graham was too young, too full of come. Too risky. I ruminated for weeks. All the while Graham kept talking, and moving, and leaking fluids like the rest of humanity. It finally came to me when we were out picking up dead animals, and Leroy hollered like a lost calf, and dashed to the warden screaming snake.
“It’s a goddamned snake.”
The warden laughed at him and told him to get back to work, snake was probably scareder of his hollering and stomping than he was of it. It came to me then. I would poison Graham, just enough to make him cool and still. I could have really used some tweak.
Now I had my snake and just had to get it past the guards. I pinched the head off the rest of the body and let the length of the snake slap the floor. I tensed and looked around. Leroy stared out of the window and ignored me yanking his hands as I shifted around. I clutched the head in my hands and figured it would be easiest to just hold it in my fist. The guards rarely paid Reverend Balls Deep any mind. I was crazy but harmless. I got the snake head in without any trouble. I usually held the animals I wanted in my mouth until I got to my cell where I retched them into my hand and admired them. I figured a snake head might be a little too risky. The guards didn’t even look as they were unlocking my cuffs. It was a little too easy.
When I got to my cell, Graham was sitting on his bunk with the porno mag he traded a guard a horse contact for. I was so excited I just stood on foot rolling the snake head around between my fingers until he looked up from the sweat moistened Hustler.
“Heey, Graham.” I grinned and made all my nice teeth show.
“Hey, Reverend.” He looked back at the pages of the mounds of fecund flesh flopping all over one another in a slick pile. I crawled in my bunk and hid the head under my pillow until night came.
That night I made Graham my Lazarus. I sat cross-legged in the bunk above him and counted his breaths. I was at 18,127 when I decided that number seemed holy enough and slid down beside him clutching the snake head by its jaws. His tender, little wrist lay there full of lacy veins carrying blood back to his steady heart. I traced his forehead and felt the warm pulse of blood in my loins. I pried the snake’s jaws open and tapped his wrist with such care. Graham’s eyes fluttered under his lids. I couldn’t move. He breathed sulfurous sweet on my face and I did it. I plunged the fang into his wrist and pressed the head as hard as I could. Graham came to swinging and caught my front teeth. He flung blood from his knuckles and jumped clean out of bed.
“Son son son you were having a nightmare,” I pleaded.
The snake head had bounced away into a dark corner somewhere. Graham caught his breath and looked at his wrist.
“Godalmighty it hurts.”
I sat down on the floor. “Well yeah. You whacked my teeth pretty good.”
“I feel kind of sick preacher.”
I got him back to his bunk and bandaged his wrist with some scotch tape and toilet paper. I waited until his breathing became uneven and he began moaning a girl’s name over and over again. I hopped off my bunk and slid in bed beside him. He was sweating and begging was it Amanda? Or Jennifer? for a cool drink of water. I petted him and told him he was going to be just fine. Soon he was going to walk from that old grave because he was a friend of Jesus. Just a little glass, Lord. That’s all I need.
“I want to go home, preacher.”
“You’re on your way, son. I’m right here with you.” I held his hand, and pulled the white sheets over him, and tucked them around him. His dark eyes flicked around the room. They were wild and confused. He grabbed at my uniform and pressed his face against my chest. My Lazarus draped in white. In his most perfect form.
About the author
Rachael completed her undergraduate degree at University of Texas and her MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, where she received the award of Best Thesis for a collection of her short stories. Her work has recently been published in the Crack the Spine, Furtive Dalliance, and Literally Stories literary magazines.