In the early evening McDermott stood before the Christmas tree in the sanctuary, where everything was quiet, the tree’s lights the only luminescence. It rose eight feet, and the lights were old fashioned, shaped like tiny bulbous cones, green and blue and red and gold, their glow warmer than an LED’s.
Ornaments of many sizes, some frosted with white or glitter, sparkled and glinted. Strands of tinsel spiraled up around the pine needles, and a haloed angel gleamed at the top. Gazing at it, just for a moment he felt that this season was somehow a celebration of the transcendent.
Behind him, the heavy oak door creaked open, and he turned as it clunked shut behind Rita Bradley, whose delicate face was somber, green eyes anxious. Wearing a backpack, she lugged a guitar almost as big as she was and tried to smile. “Reverend McDermott? I was hoping you’d be here…”
She was only eleven and usually cheerful, but the look on her face belonged on someone much older. He liked her, and thought her one precocious girl. Shortly after he’d come to Harrison, in southern Indiana, the church had a potluck dinner, and before everyone sat down, some girls near him were discussing Amy Winehouse.
One said that Winehouse may have been rich and famous, but she died all alone. Without rancor Rita had said, “But we all die alone, don’t we?” McDermott had looked at her and she’d raised her eyebrows as if to ask, isn’t that right? He’d wondered if she heard that somewhere, but his high regard for her began then.
But now, all his Christmas glow evaporated and the stress of the holidays crashed down on him. He smiled anyway. “You wanted to talk to me?”
They walked over to the pew in front of the altar and sat down. He glanced at the gold cross in the middle of the table, then at Rita, whose guitar and backpack lay at her feet.
She grimaced. “I told Mom and Dad I wanted to run over ‘What Child Is This?’ before League.” League was the youth group for pre-teens, which met on Thursdays and he led. In next week’s Christmas program, Rita was playing guitar and the members of League were singing “What Child Is This?”. Her guitar playing was rudimentary but good enough, and her voice was clear and strong.
“That why you’re here?”
“I’ll show you why.” She leaned over her backpack and got something. When she rose and turned, a huge baggie full of greenish gold buds the size of small pickles was on her lap.
McDermott was twenty-eight, grew up in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, and went to seminary in Chicago. He recognized weed. He’d smoked it, bought it occasionally, as an undergrad. What he was looking at must be a quarter pound. Unless deflation had struck weed prices, this must be two thousand dollars worth.
“Where did you get it?”
“From Steve’s duffle bag. This afternoon.” Her face looked guilty. “I was just looking for a guitar pick. He keeps his effects pedals, strings, swiper and everything in his duffle bag.”
“You know. That thing that lets you buy his CD with a credit card.”
He did know. Steve was her brother, nineteen, a freshman at Harrison Community College, and playing in Paranormal, a local garage band. He’d always seemed pleasant and easy going but somehow aloof to McDermott, who liked him well enough.
Steve’s parents had paid for pressing a CD of his songs recorded on his laptop. Last summer McDermott had gone to see him at a local coffee house and bought a copy of the CD, Over and Over and Again. The title track was a love song, but McDermott thought its first verse hinted at something more: “Sometimes--I don’t know why--it’s like I could fly/ Off to space or someplace shining and high.” The song had a nice reggae beat, but to McDermott that first verse was what sold it.
Shortly after the night McDermott bought the CD, Steve had informed his parents that he would no longer attend church. They hadn’t tried to force the issue, though Craig Bradley, Steve’s and Rita’s father, had asked McDermott to talk to Steve. McDermott agreed to, though it made him uncomfortable.
Ministers were supposed to reach out to their congregations, after all, respond to their needs. Of course, Craig Bradley, who owned an insurance agency, was a member of the church Session, Kiwanis, and The Gideons and served on the Harrison School Board, but McDermott would’ve done the same for any congregant. He hoped.
His talk with Steve went about as McDermott had expected. Steve was uncomfortable but polite over the phone, and McDermott bent over backward trying to avoid pressuring him. At twenty-eight he actually felt closer to Steve’s need to assert his independence than Craig Bradley’s opposition to it.
McDermott gazed back at the bag of weed, before he slapped his leg. “How about if you put that back in your backpack, and let’s go over to my office.”
League wouldn’t begin for another forty minutes, but he didn’t relish the thought of running into anyone, with Rita carrying her jumbo baggie of dope.
As they walked to his office in the attached annex building, he tried to think. He didn’t feel it was a huge deal if Steve was smoking weed--him and a couple million other American adolescents. As long as he was still functioning, going to school, playing in his band, doing what he needed to do.
On the other hand, a big bag of weed like this was probably for more than personal use, and if he was dealing he was asking for trouble. Besides which, McDermott might think Steve’s smoking weed was no big deal, but if his parents found out Steve was and the preacher knew it, there’d be hell to pay. Anyway, what was he supposed to tell Rita? Just slip it back in the duffle bag?
Her backpack on her lap, Rita sat across from his desk, and he sat down gazing for a moment at the bookcase behind her, thinking this was exactly why he was considering getting a master’s degree in psychology--praying about it.
He was a social, political, and religious liberal, like most students at his seminary. His congregants were, if not fundamentalists, at least very conservative in their faith, and their politics were from Fox News.
Rita’s father, for one, was always urging McDermott to preach against abortion, gay marriage, and the ban on prayer in school. At moments like that, starting grad school full time, maybe back in Chicago, had a real allure; but McDermott suspected he was in Harrison for a reason.
He asked Rita. “Did you know Steve was using marijuana?”
She glanced down in a sort of nod. “His eyes are glassy sometimes, and he won’t look you in the eye. He’s just…different. He smells smoky sometimes, too. And everybody knows Twitch smokes weed.”
Rita looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth. “The singer--in Paranormal.” She shook her head. “The guy Steve does all his songwriting with now. They collaborate. And everything they write is ugly and nasty—like Twitch.” She frowned at her lap. “Their shows are like going to a scary movie.”
“So do your parents know Steve’s smoking marijuana?”
Her mouth curled. “They act like they don’t. I think they just don’t want to believe it. Not their boy. Not their family.” She slumped in her chair.
He laid his thumb under his jaw line, his fingers alongside his face. The quarter pound of weed in Rita’s backpack might as well be a ton: She didn’t want to rat Steve out but knew he was screwing up.
“I can see why you’re worried.”
McDermott wanted to say that smoking pot wouldn’t necessarily ruin Steve’s life, but he’d seen weed turn friends into zombies for years. Rita didn’t need to hear her preacher condone it. Finally, he said, “Marijuana can mess people up, but it won’t necessarily ruin Steve’s life. I believe he has a lot of character.”
His finger tips tapped his desk. “How about if you leave it with me? I’ll think about what to do. And pray. I won’t tell your parents without talking to you.”
She gave him the weed, which he locked in his desk. “So,” he said, “what do you say you run over ‘What Child Is This?’”
She smiled wanly.
In the sanctuary, he turned on the lights and set them between dim and bright. He sat in the pew before the dais, and Rita took her guitar up there. Light reflected off the golden cross, off the polished blonde wood of Rita’s guitar, off her green eyes. She strummed a minor chord, glanced at him, and began, chords and melody haunting as she sang: “What child is this laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
By the time the song rose to the soaring answer: “This, this is Christ the King,” he was entranced, marveling at the persistence of beauty and hope, marveling at the hymn. When she finished, he applauded. “You guys are gonna steal the show.”
A few League members had come into the sanctuary and clapped too. Rita blushed and put up her guitar and they all went over to the annex. They had their business meeting, which concerned mainly a New Years Eve movie marathon and sleepover for League members, at the Church.
Then the kids donned their costumes and went to rehearse their performance. Joseph and Mary crouched on stage on both sides of where baby Jesus--temporarily removed from the manger scene out front--would be. The scripture reader stood at the pulpit and began the story of Jesus’ birth. On cue, the shepherds and the wise men came on. After that, Rita entered and they all formed a semi-circle. She began the song, and with the first chorus everyone joined in; again wonder came over McDermott.
Tempered, however, by his concern over the situation with the weed, which had never been far from his thoughts. Rita would be going home; Steve might have already noticed his weed was gone, and things could get bad.
Twenty minutes later, as everyone was at the door leaving, McDermott said, “Rita, do you have a second? There’s something I think Steve might help us with. I wondered if you could give him a call?”
Her eyebrows rose but she shrugged. “Oh, sure. No problem.”
As the door closed behind the departing members, she asked, “You really want to call Stevie?”
McDermott spread his hands. “I think it’d be best.”
As she punched in the number, he said, “Let me speak to him, OK?”
She handed him the phone, and Steve came on the line. “Lovely Rita, how may I serve you?”
“Actually this is Reverend McDermott, Steve.”
Steve sounded puzzled. “Rita’s number shows…Is everything all right?"
McDermott cleared his throat. “Yes--I hope so. Uh, Rita was looking for a guitar pick and found something in your duffle bag.” Steve’s sharp inhalation came over the phone. “She brought it to me,” McDermott said. “Do you think you could stop by the church and talk about it?”
“She had no right! It‘s not all mine even…”
“I don’t want to cause you problems.” McDermott shook his head, unsure what to do. “But this is serious. I wish you’d come over and talk about it.”
Steve’s voice rose. “What’s there to talk about? I want my stuff back! It’s mine.”
“It’s not that simple. Now that it’s been--”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. For sure.” Steve disconnected.
McDermott handed Rita her phone across his desk. “He’s coming.”
She gave the smallest of nods. “He’s mad, right?”
McDermott took a breath. “He sounds upset. I think maybe it’d be better if you weren’t here when he comes.”
She shook her head. “No way. I’ll face Steve right now. He’s the one who should be ashamed.”
McDermott was having problems thinking clearly; he had to decide what to do. The safest thing would be to call Craig Bradley, and let him sort out this mess, wouldn’t it? But that’d be betraying Rita: if she’d wanted her dad to handle this, she’d have shown the weed to him. Still, she was a little girl; what did she know? Probably she knew that her dad was a prize horse’s ass, just as McDermott knew.
Craig Bradley was pompous and domineering at church session meetings. At the last two, he’d kept demanding that Trinity Presbyterian take a stand against “The War on Christmas,” until The Session finally voted—over McDermott’s objections—to insert a declaration on it in the Church bulletin.
And privately Craig was always telling how helpful a wife would be for his career, and mentioning eligible women. McDermott wasn’t exactly in the market, though. He still wasn’t over Callie, his girlfriend before he came to Harrison. A grad student at the University of Chicago, she’d wanted him to stay in Chicago, but he felt—or hoped—that the job offer at Trinity was providential, that he was supposed to go. They were still in touch—after fifteen months--and Craig’s matchmaking set McDermott’s teeth on edge.
Be all that as it might, Steve was Craig Bradley’s responsibility; didn’t he deserve to know? Steve was nineteen, though, which made him an adult in the eyes of the law, technically.
The door to his office sprang open and Steve strode in. He stopped just inside the doorway, wearing jeans, work shoes, and a leather jacket. His long hair was gone, and he sported a crew cut. He had a silver stud in one ear and hadn’t shaved in a couple days, it seemed, though his beard was too sparse for the full scruffy effect he probably wanted. He glared.
“I want it back. Now.”
“Look who’s here,” Rita said. “Stevie—the drug dealer.” She muttered something about apes, but McDermott couldn’t make out all the words.
“What the hell’s that got to do with anything?” Steve seemed ready to scream.
“Even apes do go bald eventually.” Rita enunciated clearly. “You taught me that.”
“So you could memorize the names of the guitar strings.” Steve grimaced. “So what?”
“Why do you think I started playing?” Rita eyed him. “Cause I wanted to be like you.” She looked like she might spit at him.
Stressed, really stressed, McDermott thought.
“Know what, Rita?” Steve pushed his hands down like he was shoving a swing. “I don’t give a damn. I want my dope!” He stepped up to McDermott’s desk. “You got no right to it.”
McDermott was trying to figure out Rita’s words. Go bald? Apes? Eventually? He turned his head to one side and back. “Maybe not. Neither do you, I guess. Possession of marijuana is illegal.”
Steve kicked the desk. “That’s the law. I’m talking about right and wrong!”
McDermott shrugged. “Right and wrong’s a little trickier. Is it right to break the law? Right to hurt your family? Endanger yourself? Right to sell people dope? Would it be right for me to know about this and not let your parents know?”
“You’re just scared of my father! You don’t wanna make him mad. That’s all.”
“That concerns me.” He glanced down. Maybe it was the wrong thing to say, but it was the truth. “The thing is, I think he’d have a right to be mad.”
“I NEED THAT DOPE!” Steve’s eyes seemed to protrude for a moment, and he shoved his fingers across both sides of his scalp. “Everybody in the band kicked in two fifty. Twitch went ballistic.”
“You told Twitch about this?” Rita drew back.
“I had to,” Steve said. “He found out later, he’d have freaked out worse.”
“But Twitch is evil, Stevie.”
He shook his head. “He’s just angry--about everything.”
“So your band is selling drugs?” McDermott asked.
“Just till we do an album.” Steve hiked his shoulders for a second. “That dope’s mine. I want it back.”
That isn’t going to happen,” McDermott said. “I just can‘t do it.”
“Man!” Looking on the verge of tears Steve stepped closer, at the side of the desk, his voice pleading. “We paid a thousand dollars for the weed. A thousand dollars.”
“Yeah,” another voice growled. “No way you’re ripping us off.”
A muscular guy with bleached blonde hair stood in the door, blue eyes flaring. He looked a few years older than Steve and a couple inches shorter, with faint blemishes on his face that looked like pimples waiting to happen.
He marched over between Steve and Rita and glared at her. “Bitch!”
Rita winced, but drew herself up and stared at him.
“She brought the pot to me,” McDermott said, rising to his feet, “because she was scared. For her brother.”
“Yeah, fuck you, asshole!” Twitch turned his head to scowl at him, eyes glassy, pupils filling the irises. “Fuck you, all right?” He turned back to Rita, “She stole our shit!” He whipped back his arm. Steve grabbed his wrist. Twitch struggled against his grip. They fell across the desk wrestling.
McDermott punched in 911 on his cell phone. He held it out and shouted, “Stop it. Now! I’ve got 911 punched in. I’ll hit send.”
The two writhed in a grunting embrace. Books and bookends flew off the desk. Rita jumped out of the way. McDermott’s paperweight with the snow and reindeer tumbled off. He drew back and slapped the desk, the clap like a door slamming. “STOP!”
The two ceased struggling but still grappled. They seemed to relax. Gingerly, they released each other and climbed off the desk. Both faced McDermott, panting, Twitch’s face sullen, Steve’s pallid and taut.
“Give us our shit,” Twitch said.
McDermott stared at him. “You need to leave now.” He jiggled the phone in his hand.
Twitch started to come around the desk. Steve grabbed him around the shoulders. Tugging against him, Twitch jabbed a finger at McDermott. “I’ll burn your god damned church down, motherfucker! I’ll knock your fucking teeth out.”
“If you don’t leave now,” McDermott said, “I’m hitting send.”
Twitch jerked and twisted in Steve’s grasp, unable to wrench free. He subsided, and Steve murmured something to him. He turned Twitch around, still murmuring to him, and began to ease him toward the doorway. There he turned Twitch loose and gave his shoulder a little shove.
Twitch glared at McDermott. “That dope is starting us on our album, asshole.” He made “album” sound like “eternal salvation.” He raised his chin. “No way you keep it.”
Steve whispered something and pushed his shoulder again. Twitch scowled at him. Steve gave his shoulder another little push, and Twitch stalked out. The three of them in the office stared at each other, McDermott’s heart racing. Faintly the door to the church creaked open and crunched shut. McDermott squeezed the cell phone. Should he call the cops? Craig Bradley?
Steve stepped back into the room’s center. “I told him I wouldn’t leave without it.” He looked McDermott in the eyes.
“Why don’t you record your band on your computer?” He knew it sounded lame as it came out. “That album of yours sounded fine.”
“Aw, hell--” Steve scowled. “That was acoustic stuff, no drums. We’ve recorded Paranormal on my rig. It sounds like--” He shook his head. “To get a good drum sound you need like twelve mikes, twelve tracks. Anyway it’s not the same.” His voice rose. “I gotta have the weed back! Or things are gonna get really bad.”
Things are already bad, McDermott thought. His shoulders slumped. “Steve. This is how you want your life to be?” He could ask you that, too.
Something flickered in Steve’s eyes. He sighed through his nose. “Yeah, yeah. Ok…Still I gotta have it back.”
“You paid a thousand dollars for the pot,” McDermott said. “What if I buy it from you?” He felt a pang: it was a lot of money.
“We were gonna get over nineteen hundred for it!”
McDermott held up a hand. “I’m not giving you a profit. I’ll give your money back.”
“What’re you gonna do with the weed?” Steve was frowning.
“Flush it down the toilet. And I want you and your sister to watch me when I do it.”
Steve drew back. “And you’ve got like a thousand dollars just lying around?”
“That swiper of yours. I’ll use my credit card.”
Steve stared at him a moment. “I’ll go get it.”
While he was gone neither Rita nor McDermott said much, but he did think a little about apes going bald. In no time, Steve strode back into the office breathing hard. He set the swiper, a thing small enough to hold in one palm, on the desk. McDermott held out his MasterCard.
As Steve plucked it from his hand, McDermott said, “Merry Christmas.”
He glanced up, startled. “Yeah, you too. Merry Christmas.” He sat on the desk and reached for the swiper.
And happy New Year to us all, thought McDermott.
Once the credit card transaction was done, McDermott got the marijuana.
“OK, I want you to watch me.” He walked to the tiny lavatory out in the hall, and with Rita and Steve in the doorway, tossed in a couple of the buds and flushed the toilet. Flushing the whole quarter pound took a few minutes, and McDermott spent the time worrying.
Maybe this was a copout, buying his way out, but Christ, what good solution was there for the whole fiasco? The situation could come back to haunt him, he knew that, too. He would speak to a lawyer about it.
But, what about Twitch? McDermott imagined him coming into church some Sunday morning wearing a black trench coat with an AK-47 inside. He probably needed to report Twitch’s threat to the police, except how could he, without explaining everything?
He threw the last bud into the toilet and shook the baggie over it until not a speck of weed clung to it. He flushed the toilet and tossed the big baggie in the trash receptacle.
Out in the hall, they stood in a triangle, and he gazed at Steve. “I’m concerned about Twitch. He seems pretty unstable.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Steve said, “I never saw him like that before. He was freaked out. And really stoned.”
McDermott said. “Are you sure?”
“I write songs with him. I know him.”
McDermott wished he felt reassured.
Rita said, “You better not buy more, Stevie! I mean it.”
“Steve,” McDermott said, “please. Think long and hard about getting out of that band.”
“I will. Think about it. Twitch was always cool.” His face was blank. “Tonight, he was, like, pitiful.”
“Yeah.” McDermott said, “Goes to show…”
“What?” Steve frowned.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Steve rolled his eyes. “Go bald eventually. What the hell’s that supposed to mean anyway?” DSS
Kent McDaniel, 64, of Chicago, IL. is a musician who has worked as a hay hauler, janitor and public school teacher. His novel, "Jimmy Stu Lives," was published last spring by Penumbra Publishing. His blog is here.
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