Bruce J. Berger
Bart McCandle bent low near the edge of his land, leaned against a post of his cattle fence, and ignored the throbbing of his arthritic knees. He pushed aside small clumps of icy grass and made his way slowly down the fence, glancing occasionally up the narrow, quiet lane to make sure he remained alone. He´d been certain that morning as he looked up across his empty field from his kitchen, having finished with the Saturday Morning Telegraph, that he´d seen something fall from the sky. He´d blinked as if trying to wake up from a dream, then scratched his head in wonder for a minute until, as he´d flipped on his old Motorola radio and heard the horror about Columbia breaking up over eastern Texas, he´d put two and two together. At last, out of breath, he spied the object for which he had been searching.
‘Boy, oh boy, oh boy!’ he said to no one as a broad smile spread across his face. He knelt near the object to get a better view, stroking his beard. The twisted grey metal was nothing like he had imagined. Just over a foot long, perhaps five inches at it’s widest, it did not seem like it had orbited the earth just hours before. He could not tell its function or to what it might have been attached. But, whatever it had been, it now belonged to him alone.
Bart stripped off his fur-lined leather gloves, replaced them with rubber gloves, and reached down with great care to pick up the piece of metal. He´d already heard that parts of the spacecraft might be radioactive, and, although skeptical of that claim, he wouldn´t take any chances. He half-expected there to be an electric shock as he touched the metal, but it just felt cold and discarded. He placed it into a red Igloo cooler and hoisted the cooler into the back of his corroded 1977 Blazer, the one his neighbors laughed at.
Let them laugh now, he thought. They wouldn´t laugh if they knew what God has just sent me.
‘Come with me to your new home, Oh Glorious Angel.’
Riding her Schwinn three-speed down the rutted dirt lane, Sherry tried to avoid the holes and stray rocks that might send her head over keel had she paid less attention. She knew that the shortcut wouldn’t be as safe as her usual route home, but the weather had turned colder and windier, dark clouds blew in from the west, and she wanted to save ten minutes on her way home from school.
Engrossed as she was with looking down at her front wheel to steer clear of the worst holes, she did not notice the ancient man until she was almost upon him. When he moved into her path she startled and fell off her bike. He loomed over her with his wild grey and white beard, long unkempt hair, bushy eyebrows, scowling. His coveralls were covered in mud.
‘What are you doing here?’ He stepped towards her as she picked herself off the ground, her ankle throbbing where the bike had banged it.
‘Just goin´ home. I’m sorry I crossed your land, Mr. Mc ....’ In her fear, she could not remember his name, although two minutes earlier it would have rattled easily off her tongue.
‘McCandle. Don´t you forget it.’
‘I won´t, Mr. McCandle.’
‘What´s your name?’
‘Sherry. Sherry Waters.’
‘Waters? Do I know your family?’
‘Maybe you heard of my Dad? He´s preacher at Palestine Evangelical?’
‘God, yes, read all about him. A Bible thumper. Read about that church, too. You born again yet?’ He laughed, amusing himself while the girl´s face took on a dark red hue.
‘Can´t ´til I´m more grown up.’ He looked carefully over her and thought that it wouldn´t be long before she was grown enough.
‘Want to be saved? There´s better ways than that church to do it, ya know.’
‘Well, sure, I wanna be saved. Doesn´t everyone?’
‘I got the way to save you, if you really want.’ He nodded towards his house and smiled, almost by that gesture inviting her to join him there.
‘Well, I ought to let my Dad do it, as he´s preacher and all.’
She mounted her bike and began to pedal away, but he barked out her name. She stopped and turned to see him smiling still. His blue eyes twinkled with amusement. He looked less like a madman now. In fact, he seemed more like a lonely and disheveled Santa.
‘Sherry, you can use my lane on your way home from school any time.’
‘Well, that´s nice of you Mr. McCandle. I have to go now.’
‘You did what?’ Her father´s anger rose and veins popped out along his neck and forehead as she explained again how she´d crossed McCandle´s land and happened upon him. ‘You stay away from there, you hear? He´s as like to tear your heart out and eat it as let you pass safely. You see what he looks like, don´t you? He´s completely crazy, looks just like Charles Manson, you ask me.’
‘He´s not crazy at all. Maybe he just needs a haircut. And a shave. And maybe some new clothes.’
‘Don´t you talk back to me, miss. He´s a known sex fiend. Now scrub up for dinner and help your mother set the table.’ Sherry picked up her backpack and fled to her room.
‘A known sex fiend?’ Patricia Waters, a huge woman with large blonde hair and bright red lipstick-covered lips, approached from the kitchen. ‘You know that´s nonsense, Robert. That ranch has been in the McCandle family for years, you knew his dad from the Elks Club before he died. Bart may be a bit messed up in the head, but he´s never been known to harm a fly. Why´d you go and tell Sherry that lie?’
Pastor Robert Waters would have an answer to every question brought to him by his congregants, but the one person he had difficulty responding to was his wife. She did not quite threaten him, but her physical presence always made him think carefully before he answered. He would not let her boss him around in his own house, but every situation needed to be approached with the utmost delicacy. If it ever got violent, he´d probably be the one heading to the emergency room for care.
‘Don´t contradict me, Trish. First, it ain´t goin´ to be his land much longer. He´s in arrears in his taxes and the damned place is about to be foreclosed by the state. His lawyer, Carl Ellicott, confided in me. And no matter whose land it is, it´s just as well that Sherry not go there. It´s lonely out that way, and she´s too trusting a soul. I tell you, there´s a devil in that guy. It´s more than just his head being out of whack.’
He saw them arrive in a blue Ford van. They parked on his lane and emerged slowly, five government workers in shiny orange Ty-Vek suits and orange steel hats. The government could care less about trespassing, he thought. Watching from his kitchen, Bart saw them unfold a map, point to the trees lining his field, and space themselves along in a forty foot line. They stepped carefully, heads down, keeping the line more or less even. In a few minutes, one knelt to pick something up from the tall grass and place it into a green plastic bag, then stopped to mark in a notebook removed from a side pocket. They had not yet reached the end of the field before Bart lost interest.
He retreated to his basement. The room was dark, save for a few candles that he had lit on a low table, surrounding the strip of metal. He removed his shoes, knelt before the table, and bowed his head to the ground, as he had seen Muslims do on television. He wanted to pray, but no meaningful words came to mind. His parents had raised him Protestant, but he could never focus on the teaching. The church to him was a Sunday jail. When he was old enough to refuse to attend, he would spend the day sleeping late, eating a leisurely breakfast, and riding whatever horse pleased his fancy.
As he lifted his head from the floor and studied the twisted piece in more detail, it seemed to glow of its own accord, not merely reflect the flickering candlelight. The glowing contained a message meant only for Bart. He needed to interpret the message and only then would he know what to do. He began a low chant, using a melody he could not place. Soon, his chanting took the shape of words. ‘Ever Powerful Messenger, show me the way!’ Pleased when he had formed a sentence, Bart repeated it with more vigor. ‘God has sent you to me to show me the way!’ The lonely object, torn from its mother, winked at him. ‘Help me save my land, Oh Mysterious One Who Rained Down From The Heavens.’
He thought about the orange suits who would try to steal away the Ever Powerful Messenger if they knew He was there and began to cry. They would steal not only the Ever Powerful Messenger but all of his land. ‘They want You because of your magic, but You came to me alone!’ He bowed his head once more to the floor, pressing his forehead into the concrete.
The brick church sat overlooking the four-lane highway, known locally as Loop 256. Sycamores and box elders surrounded the church. An American flag flew from a flagpole next to its parking lot, but higher still was the bright white steeple rising from the apex of the church´s slanted roof.
The Waters family drove up in their minivan, Robert Waters at the wheel, Patricia at his side, and Sherry and younger brother Thomas in the rear. The cargo area had been packed with refreshments to be shared with the faithful following the early Sunday morning service: trays of one-day old pastries saved for them by the Sweet Tooth Bakery and a large metal container of cherry Kool-Aid. A few regulars had already arrived and were huddled outside the church´s side door, waiting for Pastor Waters to open the sanctuary.
‘Trish, take the Danish. Sherry, grab the Kool-Aid container. Hi, Fred, April, Ray, Gladys …’ He opened the door, Thomas at his side, and marched in ahead of everyone, paying no further attention to his wife or daughter.
‘Ugh. This is heavy,’ Sherry mumbled as she struggled with the container. Then a hand reached out from behind her and easily lifted it out. She turned to see Bart McCandle, appearing almost exactly as he had the day before when he´d surprised her on his land. The same dirty coveralls and unkempt beard, she thought.
‘I´ll carry that in for you, Sherry.’ His voice struck her as warm and considerate.
‘Oh, that´s all right, Mr. McCandle, I can do it.’
‘Nonsense. Your dad shoulda carried it himself. Way too heavy for a young girl like you.’ He kept the container and walked towards the church, but stopped when Patricia Waters, clutching two large cardboard boxes of pastries, addressed him.
‘Mr. McCandle? You´re coming to our church?’ She handed the two boxes to Sherry.
‘Yes, Mrs. Waters.’
‘How do you know Sherry, if I may ask?’ Patricia fluffed at the side of her hairdo, trying to tame a few hairs that had blown out of place.
‘Oh, Mom!’ Sherry looked at McCandle over the top of the boxes cradled in her arms, scowling to convey her displeasure that he would be questioned.
‘Met when she was crossin´ my land to save time going home, I expect.’
‘Yes, she did mention that. But what´s the meaning of your visit here today? I mean, you´re not one of us.’
‘It´s Sunday morning, Ma´am, and I wanted to see what all the talk was about, I expect.’
‘About saving. God has sent down his Messenger and it´s near time for bein´ saved.’
‘God´s messenger?’ She shook her head as if she could not have heard him correctly. ‘Mr. McCandle, of course you´re welcome, but …’
‘Mom! Leave him be. He´s here so let´s all go in.’
‘It´s OK, Sherry. Mom has a right to ask. Truth to tell, with messages from heaven rainin´ down every day, I been thinkin´ a lot about saving.’
‘Raining. Down.’ Patricia repeated the words slowly to herself, trying to process the image offered up by someone who was not all there.
‘Yes, Ma´am,’ he continued, ‘and so you see I´m hopin´ to be saved too, some day soon.’
Patricia Waters surveyed McCandle closely. Despite his smile, he did not appear to be joking. ‘Well, you´ll need to clean yourself up, of course, before our service starts. There´s the gent´s room just to the right when you go in. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, you know.’
McCandle´s smile disappeared as if a shadow cast by a thundercloud had fallen across his face. He carried the drink container into the building, placed it on a table at the rear of the sanctuary, stomped out, hopped into his Blazer, and sped off without another word.
‘Gosh, Mom, now look what you´ve done!’
‘Go inside with those boxes and get to praying.’
After their return from church, Sherry claimed she was off to visit her friend Stacy and climbed on her Schwinn. Ten minutes from her house, she diverted her course and headed toward McCandle´s land. When she reached the end of his lane, she looked carefully around, saw no one, and pedaled towards his house. She wanted to find out from McCandle what he meant when he talked about messengers raining down and how he thought he could save her.
Her parents thought of McCandle as dangerous, yet what did they know? He had wanted to come pray in their church. How dangerous was that?
Sex fiend, she thought, remembering her father´s warning. There was a band called ‘Sex Fiends’ that her friend Judy had forced her to listen to one afternoon. She´d been greatly disturbed by the lyrics, something about ‘living a nightmare,’ but McCandle did not remind her at all of the band or their lyrics. When her father used the term, she looked it up on the internet, had even wandered into a chat room trying to get a better understanding of its meaning and how it might relate to her, but nothing made sense. She knew about sex and that men could hurt girls like her, but that didn´t jive with McCandle´s pleasant smile. Once you got past the uncontrolled hair and the dirty coveralls, McCandle seemed like someone´s grandpa.
Sherry parked her bike against the fence and approached the rear of McCandle´s house. She would ring his doorbell and surprise him.
He did not seem surprised in the least when he opened his door to find Sherry standing there.
‘I´ve been expecting you, Sherry.’
‘I hope I´m not bothering you, Mr. McCandle, but I´m really sorry about this morn ...’
‘But nothing. I´m delighted to see you again. And you´ve come to be saved, I take it?’
‘Well, I was curious about that.’
‘Then step right in, young lady. It was right for me not to stay at your church this morning. Your mom had the good sense to shoo me away. The saving will take place right here, today. We´ll both be saved.’
He led her into his dark basement, holding her hand as she descended the narrow-planked wooden staircase. She saw the flickering of the candlelight on a table. The candles threw their dim light on something metallic that Sherry did not recognize. McCandle motioned to Sherry to follow him closely, then to bow to what he apparently regarded as an altar, first onto his knees and then lowering his head so that his forehead touched the concrete. Sherry followed his lead, and the floor felt grimy and rough against her. He whispered. ‘Stay like that now as I begin to pray.’ Fascinated, Sherry obeyed.
‘Ever Powerful Messenger, I entreat you, help me to save this young girl, Sherry Waters,’ he intoned in a sing-song chant. Sherry had to repress a giggle. The man was nuts, after all. At least her Dad had got that one right.
He reached out and grabbed her hand. Sherry recoiled, but Bart held on, saying nothing. She forced herself to believe that McCandle meant her no harm and relaxed.
‘Do you hear that, Sherry?’ Where his voice had been smooth and hopeful during his chanting, it now creaked with barely suppressed emotion. ‘Do you hear what the Ever Powerful Messenger has told me? We´ll save you, and you´re the one who will help me save my land. You´ll explain to the orange suits who want to take away my land and everything else that´s important to me that my land has been blessed and must be mine forever.’
‘Mr. McCandle, I don´t ...’ Before she could finish her sentence, he yanked her to her feet and placed his hand across her mouth, stifling her.
‘Shhh! We must not disturb the Ever Powerful Messenger with complaints. Will you do as He asks?’ He removed his hand. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting, and when she looked him in the face, she could see the tears welling up in his eyes.
‘Of course, Mr. McCandle. May I get closer to ... to the Ever Powerful Messenger?’
‘Yes, but do not disturb Him.’
‘But, Mr. McCandle, I feel drawn to ... Him, as if he is asking me to hold Him. May I pick Him up for just a short while?’
‘Yes, but treat Him with the dignity He deserves.’
She reached out to the warped metal, obviously a remnant of something that must have been in a bad accident. She picked it up gingerly, turning it over in her hands, studying every crease and edge.
McCandle watched her in silence. She put her face close to the metal and thought she could make out some letters. Could that be an F? Something she couldn´t read. Then wasn´t the next one an R? And a D? Was it possible? It dawned on her that the word ‘Ford’ that had been stamped onto the metal when it was new.
‘He´s beautiful, Mr. McCandle.’ She pressed her cheek against the metal and closed her eyes. ‘He´s soft and knowing, Mr. McCandle. You did well to find Him.’
‘He came to me from the heavens, Sherry.’
‘Yes, I know, but few people would have recognized Him for who He is.’
‘You can sense it, can´t you? That He´s a force for good?’
‘Oh, very much. Thank you so much for letting me see Him and talk to Him up close.’
As she replaced the ersatz god on its throne, the doorbell rang, they glanced at each other, and ran back up the narrow stairway. Bart opened the front door to see the Ty-Vek-suited men he´d seen earlier.
‘Mr. McCandle?’ The leader stepped forward, half looking at a map he held and half at him.
‘That´s me. Bart McCandle. What´s your business on my land?’
‘We´re searching for parts of Columbia, I´m sure you know. Have you seen anything that might´ve fallen on ... your land recently?’
‘And you, Miss ... You are?’
‘Sherry Waters, a friend.’ The leader of the search party looked down at Sherry, then looked up at Bart with renewed interest, and then back down at Sherry.
‘Have you seen anything that might´ve come down from the sky?’
‘No sir. No sir.’
‘Well, if you see something strange lying around, let us know.’ He produced two business cards, one for each of them. ‘Don´t touch it yourself. It could be radioactive. Thanks for your time.’
They watched the men walk to their van and drive off, then turned to each other and smiled as compatriots in deception.