A Short Story
The silence of the church was broken by the click-click-click of a cigarette lighter. Late afternoon sunshine streamed through stained-glass windows, lighting up the floor in patches of fiery color, and casting a saintly glow upon the man sitting in the back pew.
At the front of the sanctuary there hung a wooden cross. It bore a life-sized image of the crucified Christ, frozen in perpetual agony, its head bowed. Before lighting a cigarette, the man glanced up at the crucifix.
“Mind if I smoke?”
The image of Christ did not reply. The man lit his cigarette.
In the golden light, the smoke shone like a halo around the man’s head. He gave an impression of casual elegance in a suit tailored to his lanky frame. The only untidy touches were his face, which was unshaven, and his tie, which was loosely knotted and askew. He smelled faintly of cologne and strongly of alcohol.
“Nice place you’ve got,” he said. He leaned back, crossed his legs, and stretched out his arms along the back of the pew. “Dazzling and sleepy at the same time, like a sunset. Beautiful and quiet. Very nice.”
The Christ on the cross said nothing.
“The front door’s unlocked,” said the smoker. “Look, I know that’s your thing. You welcome everyone with open arms, I get that, but you still might want to think about putting a lock on your door. There are some awful people out there.”
The man smoked for a few minutes in silence.
“It’s nice to be back,” he said at last. “Nice to see some things never change. I guess it’s—well, hello,” he exclaimed, for another man came padding into the sanctuary to join him and the crucified Christ.
The newcomer, a balding gentleman with glasses and a bushy brown beard, smiled in amiable bewilderment. “May I help you?”
“No, thank you,” said the smoker, rising to throw away the stub of his cigarette. He shook a fresh cigarette from the box as he returned to his pew. “Damn,” he said, clicking his lighter in vain. “Out of juice. Hey buddy, you got a light?”
The bearded gentleman disappeared for a couple of minutes, and returned with a box of matches. The smoker had not moved. He sat in the back pew, legs crossed, gazing at the Christ.
At the sound of a match striking, the smoker held out his cigarette. The bearded man lit it.
“Hey thanks,” said the smoker after a deep puff. “You’re a good man. What brings you here on a Thursday night? You the janitor?”
The bearded man chuckled. “The pastor. May I join you?”
“Knock yourself out, Padre.”
The pastor sat beside the smoker, and they watched the evening light fade. The smoker began a third cigarette.
“Why the back pew?” asked the pastor at last. “If you’re here to talk with God, wouldn’t you rather sit up front?”
The smoker shook his head. “Nah, I like the back. Someone once told me that two kinds of people sit in the back pew of a church: those on their way in, and those on their way out.”
“Which kind are you?”
“Well, when I leave here, I’m going to blow a man’s brains out. That probably puts me in the second category.” The smoker grinned crookedly. “I’m pretty sure the Big Guy frowns on that kind of thing. Ah, well. Don’t mind me.”
With that, he pulled out a handgun and began rummaging in his other pocket for bullets.
If the pastor felt anything, it was hidden by his beard and glasses, and by the gathering gloom. He sat implacable, like a statue, as the smoker fumbled with the handgun. Only the pastor’s hands moved, and they trembled.
“I don’t approve of murder,” said the pastor.
“Didn’t think you would,” muttered the smoker.
“I don’t approve of suicide, either.”
The smoker paused, puffed twice on his cigarette, and put down the gun. “All right, Padre, you got me. How’d you know? I didn’t say anything about suicide.”
“Not a divine revelation?”
It was the pastor’s turn to smile crookedly. “If that makes you feel better, sure. Divine revelation. Look here, man, why in God’s name do you want to kill yourself?”
The cigarette smoke, which the afternoon sun had transfigured into gold, now hung over the smoker like a storm cloud in the twilight. He no longer seemed saintly. He looked diabolical.
“Have you read Ecclesiastes, Padre? Wait—you’re a goddamn pastor; of course you’ve read it. Do you remember what the Teacher wrote? ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’”
“‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,’” said the pastor gently. “I’m pretty sure that’s also in there somewhere.”
The smoker picked up the gun. “Those aren’t the Teacher’s final words. You know that. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ That’s his conclusion, and I can’t live with it.”
“Do you really believe in it?”
“I grew up in the church. After leaving it, I turned to science and philosophy and social justice. After that mess of contradictions, I tried everything else. Everything, Padre. Nothing makes sense. Nothing even feels good anymore. There’s nothing left.”
The pastor laid a shaking hand on the smoker’s arm. “So what brought you here?”
“I guess I wanted one last moment of peace,” said the smoker. “Besides,” he added, glancing up at the Christ on the cross, “I had to say goodbye to the Big Guy. He walked right into his own death. I like to think he’s got a little sympathy toward suicide.”
The pastor frowned, and held his companion’s arm a little tighter. “Jesus was a martyr and a sacrifice,” he said. “There’s a big difference between martyrdom and suicide.”
“What difference? They’re people killing themselves, for God’s sake.”
“For absolutely different reasons! The suicide kills himself because he thinks nothing matters. The martyr kills himself because he believes in something that matters more than his own life.”
The smoker shook his head. “You know, I never got the whole crucifixion thing. It seems bloodthirsty. I don’t understand why the Big Guy had to die.”
“Nobody gets the crucifixion thing,” replied the pastor. “Nobody truly understands it, but that’s not the point here. Listen to me. Something matters. Somewhere, here in this church, or out there in the dark, something matters enough for you to keep living. I believe it’s right here.” The pastor motioned toward the cross. “I pray that you find it here. Maybe you’ll look elsewhere. Wherever you look, I’m convinced that somewhere, something matters. If you shoot yourself tonight, you’ll never find it.”
The smoker and the pastor sat in silence. Shadows filled the sanctuary as the last gleam of daylight disappeared. At last, the smoker plucked the stub of his cigarette from his lips.
A light flared in the darkness, and the smoker caught a whiff of sulfur. The pastor had lit another match.
“Need a light?” asked the man of God.
The man in the suit shook his head. “Nah, I’m quitting. I just decided. Never liked cigarettes much anyway. Besides,” he added with a tired chuckle, “those things will kill you.”
“They’re not the only things,” said the pastor. His hands had stopped shaking. “You won’t be needing this anymore,” he said, and took the gun.
“I paid good money for that,” said the man in the suit. “Did you just rob me? In your own church?” He looked up at the image of Christ, now a silhouette in the gloom. “Did you see that, Big Guy?”
“Get over it,” said the pastor. “It couldn’t have cost you that much. You’ll live.”
“Yes,” said the man in the suit, rising and dusting flecks of cigarette ash from his coat. “Yes, I suppose I will.” He sidled out of the back pew and strolled to the exit, pausing at the door.
“Hey Padre,” he said. “Thanks for the light.”
I wrote this short story on a Sunday afternoon just to get it out of my system. That’s pretty much all I have to say about it.
However, I will make an important clarification. I actually wrote this story in March or April 2017, months after this blog ended its run in December 2016, but labeled this post with a past date in order to keep it from replacing the blog’s final post on the homepage. I must clarify: Typewriter Monkey Task Force is finished. I have no plans whatsoever to revive it. That said, I might occasionally use it as a place to dump creative writing. We’ll see.
Thanks for reading!