Fiction by Michael Dean Clark
A pastor with a heroin addiction fights for his life to deliver the eulogy of a young man he could not save.
Scott watches his hands. He should focus on the tiny butane torch or superheated silver spoon that had most likely been some grandmother’s wedding gift. But weddings are beginnings and today is just an end.
If not the spoon with its neglect-browned scalloped edges, he should watch its partially immersed face that has become, for yet another moment, his reason for existence. Just enough to push the thoughts away, submerge the fact that he has nothing of worth to say about Jesse, a sweet, earnest, awkward kid who loved everyone else but couldn’t love himself. Depression built a wall no kind words could breach and a cage even medication couldn’t unlock. But Scott won’t think about this yet, even though the funeral he’s in charge of performing is just a couple hours away. All his compulsions allow him to see are his hands through the peripheral phantom of curling smoke.
Tracing the length of his left hand with his eyes, he remembers to avoid burning himself again, the months-old, comet-tailed red scar on his inner thigh blinking memory spasms. The nails on fingers wrapped around the handle of the spoon, trimmed clean to exactly the same length fold smoothly into his skin, not a hangnail or rough spot. Small patches of blond hair on each knuckle hide deepening grooves. He knows without looking his palms are still young, elastic despite it all. They reject wear, pushing it outward to the publicly accessible real estate of the backs of his hands. This is what people see, their eyes finding still-emerging craters and ripples no amount of moisturizer prevents.
By the wrist, he is lost and his gaze travels up his forearm. A year ago, it was thicker. Now, it’s as if the water’s been sucked away, leaving a thin sheet of skin over veins clinging weakly to a bone pedestal. The difference is so great people have asked about his diet. He says he takes high-caffeine Starbucks supplements. When a couple asked where they could get the pills, he’d been forced to warn them, straight-faced, about the dangers of addiction.
Scott ceases his anatomical musings with a glance at the polished teak box resting just beyond his hands on the equally teak desktop. Lid up, its base blends seamlessly with the surface while the contents pop like neon lights against the maroon velvet lining. An already-opened alcohol swab waits on its torn package and the air moves with Fiona Apple’s voice singing I only travel by foot and by foot it’s a slow climb, but I’m good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time.
From preparation to injection, moments are meaningless. Mere efficiency. Inhaling, he places the elements of his bastardized communion back in the box, snapping the lid shut. He looks away from his father’s initials carved on its face. Racing the weight of thickening limbs, he drops the swab into the trash and turns up the fan on the miniature desktop air freshener. Sinking into his chair’s cushions, his head lolls to the side. From a distance, he hears a noise.
The groaning goes on for hours or minutes or thirty seconds before Scott realizes he’s making it. He tries to clamp a hand over his sagging mouth but stops at the sight of its veins throbbing and pulsing. Tiny holes at the base of each follicle gape like emptied eye sockets. Turning it over, he watches blood pool in the hollow of his palm and can’t tell if it’s really there or not.
They would have driven the nails through his wrists, not his hands.
His weight shifts and the worn nickel cross in his pocket digs against his thigh while he watches images of his closest friends—usually in sunny places, always smiling—fade in and out on the screen of his laptop. Each image feels sinister in its insidiously genuine happiness.
How can anyone feel this good when people like Jesse can only suffer? People like him?
Scott held counseling sessions with the kid once a week for three months and tried to tell him they had these feelings in common, that he doubted and felt empty most of the time too. But every time he verged on showing Jesse the depth of his pain, the physical scars that might have lent more weight to his hope that they showed he still believed in healing he’d yet to feel, Scott couldn’t. The fear walled up in his throat like a dam and the words drowned behind it.
Maybe what they actually shared were the things neither could feel, like the comfort of the dishonest certainty from people around them. But those talks never carried any comfort for Jesse, not even in the most basic sense of reminding him that he wasn’t alone in his isolation. Maybe he could sense the things Scott could never say and their absence made it all feel like a lie.
The next picture on the screen is his ex-fiancé, Gina, and he lurches to snap the computer shut like closing a door in her face. It takes him three tries. The effort ends the precious few moments where his need to control every aspect of his universe had evaporated into a lethargic space where time expanded like a rubber band stretching out beyond the horizon. These moments were why he suffered the rest of it, or so he’d convinced himself, and when they ended it was like a thousand rubber bands snapping against his naked body.
Without trying, Scott begins cataloging the neatly arranged items around the square of the desktop he cleared for his box, fighting to still the sense of it all ending. Just beyond the computer on the right is a small printer, its tray propped on top of his cell phone, which is either blinking a missed call or signaling him in sentient machine code. His thoughts drift to the saved message from Jesse from the day before he killed himself and a shadow falls over the office. There was nothing of note in the message, just the kid saying hello. Maybe that should have been a warning, but Scott refuses to linger on the thought. To the immediate left of the printer and facing him is a suddenly terrifying stapler. He leans forward to hide it behind his office phone and can’t stop his momentum before banging his head against the corner of the desk. It won’t hurt until tomorrow.
His face against the cool dark wood, Scott is eye-level with a neatly-fanned pile of letters and a stack of papers. The top one reads “Local Boy Dies, Suicide Suspected” and he lets out a slow, gasping, eyes-closed sob. He can’t be a mourner. People need assurance the world isn’t too broken to continue caring. But faith is hard to hold onto when he pauses to find that he still believes he could have saved Jesse. Maybe if Scott had let the kid in, even just a little more, just enough to see how much darkness he was wrestling with. Isn’t that what he always preached faith is? Grasping for some light against the moments that feel most pitch black? The picture in those words only moves away, replaced with the look on Jesse’s mom’s face when she fell into his arms in the hospital hallway, pressing her face into Scott’s chest after they declared her only child brain dead.
“He wasn’t sad. He was happy.” The words were muffled and then she pulled back enough to look up at him through eyes ringed with black eyeliner gone starburst from her tears. “He was…happy, right?”
The desperation in her tone blanks the memory playing on the screen in Scott’s head and his stomach pitches into his throat as the ocean in his head drops from high to low tide, gagging him. He gulps and struggles to hold off the next heave by imagining the contents of his desk drawers.
The lower right-hand drawer’s contents are so lodged in his mind they appear in list form: open surf wax, bubble-gum scented; Quiksilver sandals, worn; one re-gifted bottle of chardonnay, untouched; three DVDs, Garden State, Heat, Riding Giants; 200-count coffee filters, unopened; one still-sealed bottle of caramel syrup. By the end of the inventory, Scott breathes evenly while slicks of sweat break like dank tropical storms against his skin.
Moving to the upper right-hand drawer, he inhales deeply and a rattling cough causes purple and orange flares to burst before his eyes. He yanks it open and rifles through the contents: printer paper, one ream of ivory; printer ink cartridges—black, cyan, magenta; four compact discs he refuses to replace with digital copies--Nothing is Sound, Core, The Black Album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star; three full-sized chocolate bars—two Hershey’s and one Ghirardelli’s mint; the church checkbook. Shame scalds him at the sight of the last check made out to “Cash.” The memo line reads “Ministry Donation.”
The center drawer is last, even though the paper bags he’s looking for are there. So is the worst piece of Jesse. But it’s the only piece that matters. Scott imagines the kid’s face, dead eyes moving from his fix kit to his face and live mouth asking Didn’t you love me enough to hold off for once? He has no answer and sifts through the rest: keys to church doors and his motorcycle, boxes of paper clips and staples, pink and yellow Post-it notes, miniature Hershey’s chocolate bars, cheap Bic pens, cheaper sharpened pencils, four thumb drives, and loose change totaling 74 cents in two quarters, two dimes, and four pennies. Sweeping it all aside sets him spinning and he barely gets one of the sacks to his mouth before everything comes up. He’s still lurching when the knock comes.
“Pastor Scott, are you ok?” The handle jiggles, but the brass deadbolt is shot.
“Fine,” he grunts, the slide in his head deepening. “I’m just—” he heaves, “—getting ready.”
“Yeah, ‘m sure.”
“Well, people are starting to get here.”
”Be out soon,” he says, a little louder than he wants.
After a few seconds, he drags himself to standing, fighting the warp and sway of the walls around him. It takes two tentative steps to circle the desk, five to cross the room, and two more to get far enough inside his closet bathroom to shut the door. Each step is agony and he strips off his white t-shirt as he goes, catching a breeze but no relief from the rotating fan in the corner. The rattle of its turning taps a Morse code that carries a meaning he can’t make out. Closing the door, Scott drops the lunch-sized puke sack onto the white tile floor and kneels in front of the toilet.
Oh God, I tried. I know this isn’t my thorn, but if it isn’t, what is it?
What if you were Jesse’s thorn, a voice that sounds like his own seems to answer aloud.
Scott heaves again. When he’s done, he wipes his face with the extra-soft toilet paper. The plushness of it is terrifying. He is suddenly convinced the 762 squares left on the extra thick roll will smother him right there in the bathroom. He drops it like a snake and trembles, his hands opening and closing in an incomprehensible sign language, and refuses to touch the paper towels coiled on top of the toilet’s tank.
Instead, he pulls himself up on the white pedestal sink to rinse off his face. It rocks slightly under his weight and Scott looks at his reflection. Generally, he hates thinking about himself for more than thirty seconds at a time, but he can stare into a mirror for hours, especially this one with its brushed silver frame hung the length of its rectangle to accommodate his 6’5” frame. The image is exactly what he expects: the sloppy heap of imminent collapse in all forms.
No one sees it yet.
At 35, he still looks healthy. He’s pretty lean, save the small boiler and handles pressing into the waistband of his shorts. His face is clear and a mild tan says he spends a good amount of time in the San Diego sun. Even his hair seems healthy, a full head cropped with clippers and shaped at the edges.
They don’t look close enough. At the gums pulling away from the tops of my teeth. The gray stealing the blue in my eyes. The lumped ridge of my nose. How my smile lifts more on the left than the right.
He spins the high school class ring around his right middle finger and scratches at the lines of his tattoos—a Celtic cross, the full text of Romans 3:23, and a pin-up Bette Page with U.S.M.C. under it—each green with age on his left arm. The angry purple slash of a scar at his collarbone from the stray mortar pulses with the pounding heartbeat he’s only just noticed.
He should shower but has no time. Instead, he splashes water on his face and chest before applying every toiletry he has; his electric toothbrush and whitening toothpaste give way to the burn of Listerine for germs and then the sting of Scope for breath. He shaved earlier, the fear his razor would try to slash his neck if he waited seeming less crazy now. He puts alcohol on the silver hoop in the cartilage of his left ear, smears deodorant under each arm, and slaps on Old Spice hard enough to feel it through the deadened nerves of his face. The scent carries his father into the room, but Scott forces him out just as quickly. He already disapproves of himself enough.
When he’s done, he feels good enough to leave, and it’s only after he’s opened the door that he notices he hadn't locked it. Fear slithers up the back of his neck and he stumbles back into the office, grabbing the side of the four-shelf, mission-style teak bookshelf on the wall next to the bathroom. Leaning with all his weight, he’s glad he used all six anchors to attach it to the wall. The spinning speeds up and he pants for more air than the rattling fan can produce. So, he reads his shelves, moving dutifully from left to right, up to down like any other book he studies.
The top is taken up with, but not full of, six Bibles: the King James Version, the New International Version, the Living Bible, The Message (Old and New Testaments), a Greek New Testament, and a Hebrew Old Testament. It occurs to him for the first time that all his Bibles are wrapped in the same dead brown leather. Shelf two is for non-fiction, alternative faiths, and commentary, from left to right: the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, Wiccan Magic, the Koran, the Catholic Study Bible (apocryphal texts included), The Life of Christ in Stereo, Tyndale’s Omnibus Bible Commentary, The God Delusion, the Satanic Bible, The Art of War, The War of Art, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Your Best Life Now, The Anarchist’s Cookbook, St. Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, Velvet Elvis, Mere Christianity, Night, Lions and Lambs, Blue Like Jazz, a bound set of Sister Theresa’s letters on doubt, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Chuck Klosterman Box Set (Fargo, Rock City/Sex, Drugs, & Coco Puffs/Dying to Live/IV), and six copies of 40 Days of Purpose. Shelf three holds eight novels: A Son Comes Home, Big Sur, The Bridge of San Luis Ray, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Pelican Brief, and Wonderboys. Shelf four houses three editions of World Magazine, six editions of Time, three editions of Mother Jones, and six editions of Christianity Today. It also holds several notebooks of Scott’s own writing: two detailed accounts of his sins, seven sets of notes from his personal studies, three separate novels in progress, one complete screenplay, four collections of quotes he finds meaningful, and ten of the most horrific moments of being a pastor. Jesse would someday be eleven when Scott can make himself write it down.
By the bottom of the case, Scott is calm again, although two or three of the books he expected to find aren’t there and he assumes his secretary has stolen them. Of course, she didn’t. But still. He looks out a window at the midday sun and wishes for sunset instead. The sofa below it is covered by the blanket he slept under the night before and his clothes for the service—dark brown slacks, white dress shirt, white undershirt, brown and gold tie—rest over its back. He walks over, chemical detachment evaporating, and glances sadly at the coffee pot on the knee-level teak coffee table. Its orange power light glows and the full pot steams. Dropping a Hershey’s Kiss into the mug, Scott pours coffee over it and then, without stirring, takes a drink and immediately burns his tongue. The cactus prickle pain deepens his sadness.
Setting the cup down to cool, he drops his shorts and slides on the slacks, their cotton scratching like wire brush. He glances longingly at the board shorts next to his green and white surfboard he wishes he was paddling out on and then pulls on an equally scratchy undershirt. His eyes stray along the far wall as he finishes dressing, stopping briefly on each object: signed pictures of him with North County celebrities Eddie Vedder, Tony Hawk, Jon Foreman; medium-sized mini-fridge with twelve-inch Gumby and Pokey figures on top; Powell & Peralta hat on the floor next to it; 1982 Chargers calendar on the wall; a Zimbabwean walking stick from a mission trip in the far corner. Each item holds a comfort he’s too tired to feel.
Through the solid oak door, Scott hears the movement of people filing past toward the sanctuary. He imagines them, awkward in steps and words because they must force away silence. The sanctuary was already set when he arrived, Jesse’s body boxed in dark-stained maple on the stage to the right of the pulpit. No flowers, though. Not the kid’s style. Instead, dozens of supermarket candy bouquets with Snickers bars and boxes of Milk Duds on sticks in place of sunflowers or roses. That way everyone leaves with something sweet, Jesse’s mother said through tears as they planned the service. Sliding bare feet into his dress sandals, Scott moves back through the room, weaving in the space between two visitor chairs. The corner of the desk catches his thigh and he almost goes down, managing, barely, to stay on his feet and limp back around to his chair. An immediate knot forms in the meat of his thigh.
Seated, he finds the mechanics of reopening his laptop ungainly. His fingers move independent of intention, at odds with each other like unclasping a bra for the first time. Finally, with a permanent crunch, he manages to lift the screen. Gina’s face reappears while the internal components power back up and then a picture of his face grins out from under a jumble of desktop icons he keeps telling himself to organize. He can’t remember feeling as genuine as that smile seems. He hits print. As soon as the printer wheels squeakily eject three sparse pages outlining a life, Scott shuts the computer down completely. It complies, but takes its time doing so. Scott swears he hears it mutter something vaguely threatening just before the blue power light is extinguished.
The throbbing radiating from deep in his face refuses to be ignored any longer as he snatches up the notes, like his sinuses have crystallized and are shattering into razor shards behind his eyes. Noting the bottle of pain killer next to his forgotten coffee, he groans out of his chair and tucks his notes into a pocket as he walks to the table. They’re just points to riff on and Bible verses long memorized. He eats three aspirin dry, the metallic tang of the pills matching the flavor in his mouth before turning to paste in the back of his throat. Scott swallows hard and then collects the rest of what he needs for the service.
It’s a fairly standard memorial. Some of Jesse’s favorite music will accompany a slideshow on the screen behind the choir loft. People will be moved at the sight of him at the beach or playing soccer or leading the junior high group on his guitar. Scott watched the show the night before, imagining a bullet hole marring the kid’s face in each. He hopes people will latch onto the significance of the opening scripture—John 17:13–19—because a prayer for protection against what the world does to people seems like something they all need. After a short time for sharing memories, Jesse’s parents will read a statement, and then the viewing will start. Scott hopes the make-up artist did a good job. Then, they’ll sing “It Will Be Worth It All That Day,” he’ll give a fifteen-minute sermon, and Jesse’s best friend Kate will close in prayer. Even on paper, Scott isn’t sure he’ll make it through the service. A second knock scuttles those thoughts.
“It’s time Pastor.” Scott is struck once again by how polite his congregation is; how they only get him when he’s really needed.
“Be there in one minute,” he says, his voice so hollow it cracks.
“Alright, I’ll start the PowerPoint.”
Footsteps move away and he slides the desk drawer open, taking out all he really has left of Jesse and sliding it into his left pocket. He wants its weight against his leg, pictures the five bullets he’d loaded into it the night before and the one chamber left empty. He puts a picture into his shirt pocket and sweeps up the newspaper article as well. He plans to use the headline as part of his sermon, but may change his mind. For a second, he stops and stretches his neck, rolling his head around on his shoulders and opening his mouth wide to loosen his clenched jaw. His cheeks are raw and his teeth hurt from grinding.
As he does, Scott hears music still coming from the speaker on the top of his bookshelf. Picking up the teak box from the desk with his free hand, he walks over slowly, noting the song, “Fragile” by Sting, is the last on the “Jesse’s Day” playlist he made yesterday. The realization does nothing for him. He places the box in front of the speaker and turns off the music on his phone. The sting of twin disappointments—at the drugs’ ineffectiveness and in himself—mingle in his stomach like food poisoning.
For a second he picks at his nails and rubs his head, the sensation of spiders crawling just beneath his scalp. He’s still sweating, but now it makes him shiver. Absence always comes too soon, always before he’s braced himself for it. Grabbing the aluminum water bottle that keeps his mouth from cottoning up, Scott goes to the door, the tiny silver cross that belonged to his father tinkling against the gun as they bang against his thigh in the same pocket. Pausing at the lock on his office door for a second, he imagines leaving, walking out the side door of the church just across from his office, firing up his bike, and never returning. But there is no freedom in that dream and it dies instantly. He shakes his head, unlocks the door, and walks into the hall, praying for something more than he has to offer.
Entering the sanctuary at just the moment the first slide show ends, Scott walks directly to the pulpit, takes the gun from his pocket but not his notes, and plants his feet underneath himself. He hears a gasp from the pews, but presses on, setting the nickel-plated revolver on the top of the podium so that it is visible to everyone in the room. Everything he had planned drains from his mind, like a plug at the base of his skull has been pulled. For a moment, he waits, terrified there will be nothing left. And then it stops, every thought gone but one. Scott inhales deeply and then leans into the microphone in front of him.
“When he was still alive, I believed that with God’s help I could save Jesse. The fact that we are here today proves how much of a lie I was telling myself.” He picks up the gun and holds it in the air above his head. “His death is no lesson, no parable. But I have learned something from it.” He cocks the gun and watches eyes go wide across the room. “Death is like this gun. It has one purpose. And it’s waiting on us. Where then will we find grace in the shadow of that reality?”
Lowering the gun slowly, Scott sets it back down and the room shudders with a collective convulsion of relief. He looks out on the room, considering his next words. None of this is planned.
“Maybe Jesse knew better than the rest of us. Maybe he was begging us to be honest…with ourselves and each other. Or maybe this was as senseless as it feels. Faith isn’t a salve designed to make us feel better. It’s the wound itself, healing when we believe the bleeding will never stop.”
Scanning the faces looking back at him, Scott sees only confusion in their eyes. Picking up the gun again, he flips the revolver to the left and then upright and the bullets tumble from their chambers, clattering one by one against the wooden stage.
“But for the wounds of love to begin that healing, we have to be honest, with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Only then will we see where the bleeding is coming from.”
Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and non-fiction whose work has appeared most recently in Drunk Monkeys, Jabberwock Review, Punctuate and The Other Journal, among others. Editor of the book Black Was Not a Label (Pronto) and co-editor of Bloomsbury Academic Collection's Creative Writing in the Digital Age (2015), Creative Writing Innovations (2017) and Imaginative Teaching (2021), he lives and works in the Los Angeles, California, area.
The author wrote the following about this story on his Twitter account @MDeanClark (15 February 2021):
I wrote and workshopped the first version of this 11 years ago and have seen it rejected more than 30 times over the years. It gets at something I think about a lot. The dishonesty some call hope, and the real thing in the midst of real pain.
It also sits with the loneliness pastors often feel (something I watched growing up in the home of one and the presence of many others). When the needs of people are your full-time job, your own needs can get lost or even spiritualized away as burdens one bears in silence.
I guess this also came out of my own wrestling with a sense of loneliness, a disconnect in rooms where I should have felt connection. Even still, there was hope.
I am grateful, then, that the folks at @foreshadow_mag gave this story a home after such a long journey. I hope it finds you well, but if not, please know you're not alone.