Cautiously, Andrew Barnett carries two bags up a flight of perilously steep, sun-warped, rickety, rotten, rusty nail-spiked steps which lead to a musty loft above Dunbar’s Garage. At the second switch back, he comes to a faded blue entrance, under the dim light of a singular yellow bulb. His swollen left hand inserts and turns a silver key, freshly cut from Ace Hardware; it works. The door opens to a sticky mattress, a filthy bathroom, and a crooked kitchenette. This prize rents for only $350 a month, but the roaches are free and privacy is guaranteed. A good deal, really. Some clean sheets, a generous amount of Comet cleanser, a roach bomb or two or three, a coffee pot, and—Walla! —home sweet home.
He pulls a bottle of Paul Masson peach brandy from one of the bags and sets it on the counter top. The whole idea of a brown paper bag always amuses him. It’s not like people don’t already know what’s inside. Furthermore, why does a depraved culture pretend to blush or protest the sight of liquor walking down the street? It’s so hypocritical and foolish. There are worse sins, and some that need to be body bagged.
Andrew removes his clerical collar and, for a moment, holds it to the neck of the bottle. He unbuttons and removes his black overcoat. Sore ribs again. Grunting, he gingerly removes a shoulder holster securing a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm. Later, he’ll strip the weapon and cleanse it of all black residue. If only his mind could be stripped and cleansed of filth just as easily. Atonement comes with blood. There’s no Hoppes for the wicked. Andrew laughs at his own joke. Now, off with his black shoes, black pants, and black socks. Boring. Convenient. Appropriate. Black as a holy color.
Momentarily naked, he assesses his ribs, winces, then impatiently steals a swig of Paul. He unzips a large duffle bag and slips into a thick sweatshirt and Levi jeans. He unfolds a brown leather jacket and feels for a harmonica in the right inner pocket; still there. Next, Timberland boots. He’s officially off the Divine clock. He fills a flask with peach—his favorite—because it reminds him of safer, happier days in South Carolina and a soft tongue he used to kiss; a long time ago, yes, but she comes rushing back to him with a simple taste and tightly closed eyes, a bittersweet reunion, a cheap date for less than fifteen bucks.
A long walk on a such a crisp and starry night will do him good; it will clear his mind a bit, maybe even restore an ounce of faith in himself, in humanity, in God.
The brandy keeps Andrew warm, like invisible arms, her arms. A few blocks away, he finally reaches the river’s edge, a twin-span bridge twinkling like Christmas lights off in the distance. This is his favorite spot. The tide has been coming in. He pauses and listens to the last in a series of loud, sloshy slaps against the bulkhead, the water settling down, as if some fat man has just cannonballed into the river; however, midstream is smooth as glass under the brilliant heavens. He looks at his watch. It’s been a thirty-minute stroll. Alcohol is on his breath and in his blood. He is pleasantly dizzy.
Looking up, 54 Proof steam puffs from his mouth, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord….”
It is enough. The sound of his harmonica haunts the night to the tune of an old hymn, “Abide with Me.” Fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens. Lord with me abide.
Suddenly, the music stops. His song and prayer unfinished. He can’t play. He can’t pray.
Andrew’s teeth start to chatter, but not from the cold.
“Who are you?”