Church of the Poison Mind

All afternoon Bill Blake catalogued his depression. The money was gone. The beer almost. Rent long past due. Worse, beating-off had lost all charm in time with the porn. And the porn was just some semi-glamorous soul-killing connection to a world that was offered up through a peep-hole known as a VCR and a television, a world that was as appropriate as daytime TV, as dismal and necessary to anyone not accustomed to a world without Jerry Springer.

Outside in the dark, the strip malls are approaching, their lights serpentine like a necklace along the horizon, their shadows ominous and oppressive. Those strip malls go up in two weeks. First the indigenous vegetation is mowed mercilessly to the ground, then comes the wood skeleton, next the drywall partition with the yellow insulation stuffing and the enclosed aluminum duct canals, followed by a healthy dose of chicken wire and stucco spray. Macaroni-and-cheese architectural misery.

From his bedroom window, Bill can see, on top of what was some of the most prime farm soil in the country, the glowing fast-food signs arranged on a corner a half mile away; Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, their placement neat on perfect rectangular blue-gray asphalt blocks. Soon to be ghettoized condos whose lights 500 yards off reveal, even at night, a desert that has long since been domesticated. Fast-food wrappings and Diet Pepsi cans clump in the weeds, tearaway color newspaper ads offering shiny objects from places like Kmart, Target and Radio Shack hang from barren and ill-nourished mesquite tree branches and cling to the outside lower edges of backyard fences. Empty 40-ounce beer bottles trigger stinging flashes of reflective light from headlights of passing cars traveling on the nearby two-lane highway, a highway soon to be jettisoned in favor of the new corporation-friendly freeway. An injured stray dog limps along in the shadows in futile hope of a feeding, a victim of an obscene suburban torture.

At night, Mr. Mackel's windows next door are a perpetual dim blue/yellow, as if the moon is hanging inside, a moon, no doubt, sucked out of the sky by the evil satellite dish sitting atop his horrible dwelling. If Bill looks out his front door, he can see into Mackel's square front window. He can see the man sitting there, his features pinned between a crack in the curtains, all life removed, his sullen face a blank screen upon which the television light plays out its unholy assurances. The only times he has noticed the old man out of that chair are on rare occasions when the old guy retrieves his mail.

His frail and thin body moves with a defeated grace like a starving cat with too many kittens to feed. The '64 wing-tailed Chrysler sits in his carport as if it, in the year it was pushed off the assembly line, is the year his life story stopped evolving, like something horrible and ugly came down to kill him, but not enough to stop his heart from beating.

It is an eerie surrender, Bill thinks, a kind of surrender he wants no part of. Bill looks at Mr. Mackel again and sees himself in the not-too-distant future.

Bill hasn't been to church in 20 years, not since his last day as an altar boy when Father O'Leary slapped him so hard it left a stinging four-finger imprint on his cheek like a perfect salute. This was after the Pastor found Bill downing red wine backstage before Mass, straight from the Manischewitz bottle. When that happened, Bill threw his altar vestment directly into O'Leary's round face, ran out the back door of Our Mother of Sorrows parish and hopped on his Sting-Ray with a strange new joy buzzing in his blood and head: He discovered alcohol and the illusion of confidence it offered. It made him happy. There was no looking back.

But like McDonald's, God had been tattooed on his psyche before he could talk, therefore a near impossible idea to shake, and redemption is not an easy word to define once he learned that his tricks no longer keep the ducks in a row. Now Bill finds himself on the steps and about to enter the town's new church, a free-standing building sandwiched between Gold's Gym and Blockbuster Video. He is in his one suit, an ill-fitting and wrinkled brown two-piece laugh that he has carried around since the late Eighties.

An usher hands Bill a program and he slides into a pew at the back. From his vantage point he has a clear view of many backs of heads. Lots of balding and gray ones, fat and cockeyed ones; as unattractive as it is, it is still a far sight better than looking at the fronts of heads. The women are all wearing floral print or dark solid colors. Most of the men came dressed in horrible pastels. They all look like they shop for clothes at the same outlet, in some nearby mall.

The priest standing at the altar has a short, sharp hairdo and looks silly in the updated vestments. The altar looks cheap and fake as well. The carnations and gladiola appear to be plastic and somehow appropriate for a church of white cinderblock with track lighting. The scene is homogenous, stuffy, even claustrophobic.

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