In the third and final stage of dusk, the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon and Father Thomas’s empty studio apartment is fading to black, an insidious dimming as depressing and steady as the loss of his hearing. The stale, sticky hallway of the tenth floor assaults his nose: marijuana mixing with popcorn and something else—curry? —swirling together like some sort of strange soup, a noxious witch’s brew perhaps, or maybe it’s the godless incense of the lost and lonely. He locks the door behind him, opens a window and leans out, cleansing his nostrils with cold, fresh air. He scans the street far below with knowing eyes.
The boys and girls who were playing after school in the littered chain-link park have all gone back inside. The brown brick row of apartments on Drake Court Walk seems a little nicer than his, at least from the outside. The former priest is haunted by empty swings. Fighting against the shadows gathering in his mind, he imagines the children feasting on hot mac-n-cheese from cute little porridge bowls in front of the Disney channel. No one eats at the table anymore.
His stomach is growling but he doesn’t feel like eating. He just wants to sleep.
He remembers. Placing unleavened bread on the tongues of the flock. Their big, round, wide, believing eyes. “The Body of Christ.” Followed by the chalice of red wine. “The blood of Christ.” Broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
He walks to a small refrigerator, opens it, bends over to peek inside at the empty shelves. A cold bottle of gin waits for him on the door, not exactly communion wine. He unscrews the cap, takes a small sip, squints at the burn in his throat, walks over to a coffee pot sitting on an RV-sized kitchenette, measures three level scoops of Eight O’Clock coffee to ten cups of water (he will drink the whole pot before the night is through, pacing back and forth, thinking, thinking). With the push of a button, Mr. Coffee fills the small room with its Arabica breath and pleasant one-way conversation of clicks and sighs that always takes Thomas home again, to summer twilights of long ago, when he was an innocent, summer-tanned boy trapping lightening bugs in a jar. Dusk wasn’t so sad in those days. Whenever those long hot days dimmed, the fireflies would come, bright as a string of Christmas lights—mostly yellow and green, sometimes an orangish red or a dull blue—floating on the swamp maple air. Even the tuxedoed orchestra of crickets seemed happier, their vigorous chorus louder than the laughter on the lawn. One notable evening, Thomas’s best friend dared him to eat a lightening bug with the theory that his eyes would glow in the dark. “They’re magic, see?” Jimmy smashed one with a cruel and sudden clap, smearing the bug like soap in his hands, opening them again with the murderous hand gesture of Pontius Pilate. Thomas watched with guilt and sorrow as the light of the smeared insect faded on Jimmy’s sweaty palms; after that, he vowed never to imprison or harm another. That was the first in a long string of broken vows but the only one he’s ever managed to keep. Because the night needs every bit of light.
Tonight, the dull oven range serves as the only source of illumination in apartment 1001. Thomas carries a mug of fresh coffee by the handle and a bottle of gin by the neck over to the open window and lights a cigarette. For two or three seconds, his face transforms into a frightening jack-o’-lantern, then quickly disappears again into the inky blackness.
Not a star in the sky. The distant lanterns of the city wink and blink through the gathering fog, a Luciferian mist rounding the corner, slinking, slithering, searching the crack house at the corner of 22nd and Jones street. The devil is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
The gloaming. That’s the more romantic word of poets. “Do you know me in the gloaming, gaunt and dusty gray with roaming? Are you dumb because you know me not, or dumb because you know?” Thomas frequently quotes that almost scriptural line from Robert Frost as a prayerful question to God at the close of day, whenever his heart feels far away, ashen as the falling sky.
A certain theologian (he can’t remember who) once diagnosed such inexplicable melancholy as a homesick feeling for heaven. St. Augustine of Hippo confessed something similar, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
However, there’s also Charlotte Bronte. She described Jane Eyre’s view of the gloaming as the beginning of the “play-hour in the evening” and “the pleasantest fraction of the day” when the evening fires felt warmer and brighter, and the cold gray was exchanged for the ruddy red of a hearth. A bit of bread, a draught of coffee, yes, in the tender years of the fictional character’s physical, spiritual, and moral development.
In the world of nonfiction, babies and small children are always closest to God. But once they bite the forbidden fruit, their eyes are opened to good and evil, drawn helplessly to the latter. In a sense, they too, are driven from Paradise just as their original father, Adam. Spiritual death becomes their instant new reality with a physical death still pending. Every year of life pulls them away farther away from the Creator and their only salvation is a rebirth. But one cannot reenter into his mother’s womb. How can a man be reborn? So asked Nicodemus. The same sad story would only repeat itself, world without end, amen. Furthermore, if reincarnation were true, humans would never evolve higher than a cockroach.
There’s one on the wall. It catches Thomas’s eye, even in the dark. The cucaracha is not on the same level as a lightening bug and certainly isn’t covered under any protective vow. Thomas picks a heavy volume of Greg Bahnsen’s, Presuppositional Apologetics, off the floor and crunches the fast-moving creature. He hears a pop. A puss-like goo squirts and soils the wall.
The disgraced priest ponders the innate human loathing of roaches. A theological case can be made for a fear of snakes, but what about roaches? What is it about Blattaria that makes human flesh craw? The scientific name comes from the Latin word blatta which refers to a creature who hates the light. That’s it, then. God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
Thomas often pictures Satan as a cockroach: long, flat, brown, head down, stridulating, prickly legs, mouth constantly chewing, wreaking havoc in homes, a scavenger who lives in the sewer drain, a fast runner with wings, infesting, multiplying, impossible to kill, never failing to send a shiver up the human spine.
The long, filiform antennas of the bug are broken but still moving. Thomas scratches another match and melts the guts off the wall with a flame of fire.
“Ire in Gehennam.” Go to hell.
An argument as sudden, eerie green, and dangerous as a tornado in the apartment next to his. Thunderous screaming from a man. Hateful profanity. The slamming of a body against the wall. Glass breaking. Personal belongings being thrown into the hallway. “Stop it!” A woman screams. “Stop it!
Her last words, “Now what will I do? I have nowhere to go.” The sound of weeping fades and disappears down the smelly hall. The elevator door dings. Going down. She’s entering the world of the street people ten stories below.
Stories. Everyone has a story.
Whoever she is (the words the hateful man is calling her, none of them are her birth name), has fallen headlong to the bottom of Maslow’s scale: food, shelter, water—she must find all of these. She’ll need safety, too. The men down there are blatta: they shun the light. They love the night. They’re already crawling from their filthy crevices.
Not all of them are evil. No. Many are the same broken, rejected, forgotten, hungry, unbathed people he’d met at the food pantry, victims of poor personal choices who’ve given up on life.
Like the limping man in his sixties, walking his Chihuahua and refusing to make eye contact with the dangerous, twitchy drug dealer on the corner. Thomas spoke to the old man the other night. His name is Brian. He’s the last living member of his family and started to weep at the thought of ever losing his puppy. “I love him with the love of God,” he said, “and I can’t live without him. He’s all I have left in this world.” He invited Thomas inside a red brick building festering with drugs and diseased prostitutes. “This is all I can afford but it’s enough for me and Shadow.” He opened the door to his living quarters, the size of an animal trough or a manger. A kitchenette, a filthy bathroom, a stained couch for a bed, all in the limited square footage of a box, walls cardboard thin. Rap music, loud and offensive, enters Brian’s place uninvited day and night through a grimy vent. Thomas noticed how he flopped down on the couch with a weary, wheezy huff and struggled to pull off his shoes. He wasn’t wearing any socks. The circulation in his feet had gone missing and both had become a disturbing blackish purple, a visible prelude to death, decay slowly moving toe-to-crown. Darkness traveling up instead of coming down. Physiological dusk.
“I’d be honored if you’d stay and eat a meal in my home tonight.”
Thomas was touched and horrified by the invitation, both.
Brian pulled two hoagie rolls from the inside of his frig and loaded them with three kinds of lunch meat, squirting huge wet farts of horseradish sauce for a condiment. His fingernails were dirty and Shadow licked them clean between each layer of meat that was applied. “Ya know, pal, a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s,” he said with a phlegmy cough from years of smoking. For the first time in a long time, Thomas prayed over his meal. Silently, he named the hoagie: The Butt Worm Special.
By the time the unrecognized priest had managed to gag down most of his sandwich, Brian was well on his way to drunk, crying, confessing, and trying to hug him, struggling for level three of Maslow: love, belonging, acceptance, relationships. But the man smelled like smegma. Something dead. Nasty dick cheese. Thomas wanted to run, missing the polished safety of a screened confessional.
Sipping hooch, Thomas notices Brian and his adorable pooch from the open window of his tenth-floor hideaway with a surge of sympathy. God seems much the same way these days: a window watcher, high up, not willing to engage much further, maybe a tentative wave to the worshiper.
It’s Wednesday evening and Thomas is uninvited to the prayer service at St. Luke’s. He misses the food and fellowship of like-minded people who believe they’ve found the answer to life but still need a regular recharging of their faith in this present darkness. Oddly, he feels closer to God tonight because he’s not a fake anymore, no longer pretending to be holy. He’s asking hard, honest questions in a season of private purgatory.
There she is again. A regular. The strung-out hooker with the cherry Kool-Aid hair, pacing like an animal, screaming at the top of her lungs with a scratchy, irritating hoarseness. A man is refusing to pay the high price of fifty dollars for a germy, meth-toothed blow.
A pimp is in her face now, “Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!” Three identical commands in a paragraph heavy with cursing. But she won’t stop with the screeching. He’s had enough and sinks his fist hard into a belly swollen with cirrhosis. She falls to the ground, rolling, crying, calling him what he is: a bastard, a child of the devil.
Thomas finds himself hating the powerful bully and also wanting to thank him at the same time. For hitting the mute button, so to speak.
Someone’s breaking into a car. Someone else is throwing who knows what into a dumpster. The usual.
A black man, too big and long for what looks like a toddler bike under his lanky frame, is riding back and forth, back and forth, jonesing on Jones. Shifty. Watching. Waiting. For what?
Thomas feels like Jimmy Stewart in the classic movie, Rear Window, a helpless observer. He’s surprised by the clear acoustics coming from the amphitheater of row houses. He can hear everything, almost to a whisper, even though his hearing is humming down to nothing.
Two lesbians live on the other side of his apartment, one floor higher, on the eleventh of the L-shaped building. Every evening they watch the street with cigarette laughter, tapping their ashes out the window. Thomas has only ever seen the couple’s hands, never their faces. They scream down at the sidewalk stage, whooping and cheering like a Jerry Springer audience, entertained by the foolishness of fallen humanity.
A middle age white man, fat and bald, wearing dirty jeans and no belt, his ass crack showing. He’s crossing the road and making his way over to the dealer who wears the same hooded sweatshirt every night. Baldy is whispering something with shrugging hand motions. The dealer responds with a fearsome, pounding on his chest, grunting and pacing with gorilla-level rage. His powerful arms shove the white man, who topples backwards into the street. After an embarrassing moment—a recognition of personal weakness, fear, and indecision—the chubby man struggles to stand. The dealer punches him in the jaw with a long-armed reach, a direct hit that is almost beautiful, predatory. There’s a loud crack and the bald man’s head snaps to one side with force. He crumbles to the ground, hyperventilating, kicking, red-faced as an infant.
Thomas feels like crying, too. He wants to help the pathetic man to his feet. In the name of the Lord, in whom he’s lost all faith.
“Get up! Get up! GET UP!” The pimp, the dealer, and another violent man share a bad habit of repeating themselves three times. Shut up. Get up. Unintelligent, violent, predictable words—like one of those dolls with a handful of recorded phrases whenever you pull on a string—a thrice-fold repetition from an unholy triumvirate, an introduction to their sociopathic behavior. The same pattern, every night, all night. Whenever God turns out the damn lights.
Minutes later, there’s an all-out street fight. Male and female. Black and white. Old and young. A leper colony of rotting people shoving, scratching, biting, punching, blaspheming. Rabid.
Like God, the police never show. The men and women in blue seem to avoid this section of town. The prison is only a block away. But if the mental ward stays contained, it doesn’t really matter if they rip out their hair and eyes in a mad frenzy. This block of humanity is inconsequential. These people are nothing. If they die, they die. A gain for the city and not a loss. Scrooge’s surplus population.
Somebody’s children, Thomas thinks, maybe not God’s, but somebody’s.
The lesbians are yelling, “Go home, crackheads!” Only their puppet hands are visible. Jerry Seinfeld’s man hands.
Father Thomas is spinning from gin. He visualizes himself jumping to his death from the tenth floor. Three seconds until impact. Splat. Dead. Done. He wonders where he’d spend eternity if he did. He believes in hell more than heaven, judgment more than forgiveness. Somehow that saves him, for now.
Self-actualization, the tippy top of Maslow’s pyramid, has only led only to self-hatred for Father Thomas. “Oh, wretched man that I am!” So says the apostle Paul. There’s no such thing as a good man. And the white collar is a target for demonic possession.
There’s some LSD waiting for him—lycergic acid diethylamide—hidden at the appropriate address of 2 Corinthians 12.2 in his leather Bible, something to force him to open it again. Supposedly a spiritual enhancer, freely offered by a bored and lonely man from Nepal who works for the UPS. Paras slid a book of philosophy across the counter to Thomas. “Take it. Page 171. There you will find God, my friend.” Three single hits on paper disguised as dollar store stickers. Cut, place under the tongue, wait until soggy, chew, and swallow. Or place in a cup of hot tea and enter Narnia.
But isn’t that all spirituality is anyway? A series of colorful hallucinations? A false euphoria? Temporary. A bad trip. Tie-dye.
Die by your tie.
No. No. “Get thee behind me Satan.”
Thomas turns to observe his vacant apartment.
A makeshift bed of blankets, a mere mat on the floor in the far corner. The unopened Bible. Nevertheless, this housing situation would be heaven to the girl who’s been kicked to the street. It’s level one and two on Maslow, locked away from rape and cold weather, safe.
The street below is seething with hatred. Boiling over. Another animal hunt in the Colosseum. Gladiators in the arena.
Hands clap their approval from the eleventh.
Thomas pulls an iPhone from his pocket. Goes to YouTube. Downloads Andrea Bocelli. Turns the volume as high as it will go. Hangs dangerously far out the window.
The Lord’s Prayer.
The following four minutes are unforgettable. Heaven’s voice from a man who lives in darkness. Perfect pitch in pitch black. A blind tenor prodigy . Given by God. Crying in the wilderness. Eyes closed in permanent prayer.
The music echoes into the street.
Our Father which art in heaven…
Ears stop to listen.
Hallowed be thy name…
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven….
Anger subsides, fists unclench, jaws relax.
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…
Some heads look up. Others look down.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…
A woman with a plastic trash bag slung over her back, drops to her knees, folds her hands in prayer.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever…
Everyone hears the light piercing the darkness.
The crowd is temporarily paralyzed. A Shawshank prison yard moment.
Heaven reaching down. Divine ecstasy touching the street. A dawning in the dark.
The defrocked priest leans out the window, raises his hands to the sky.
No longer welcome in his own parish, Father Thomas forms the sign of the cross over those who live in the land and shadow of death.
Bells ring from the tower of a local church.
Rain falls from the sky, baptizing and emptying the street.