The First Church of the Iterated Christ in Little Aleppo was nondenominational and independent. It would be more precise to say that the church was omni-denominational, and no other house of worship wanted anything to do with it, but in the interests of propriety people in the neighborhood say that the church is nondenominational and independent. The fourth First Church of the Iterated Christ was not only nondenominational, but also became nondimensional after one of the congregants read from a Bible he had gotten from the section of the bookstore with no title that bore a large handwritten sign reading, “Whatever you do, don’t read any of these damned things aloud in a consecrated building.”
And so the fifth First Church was raised on the site of the fourth; none of the applicants for the preacher position were given a solid answer as to why the post had become available. Nor were the round of applicants after that, or after that, etc. For some reason, the fifth iteration of the First Church couldn’t keep hold of a preacher.
There had been several con men appointed to the post; the neighborhood saw them coming, and quickly sent them packing. Little Aleppo could spot a crooked Man of God a mile away: the righteous preacher wears the best suit he can afford; the wicked one wears the best suit you can afford. Had it not been written into the building’s lease that it could not be lost in a card game, the church would have been lost in several card games.
Also the true of faith came to preach at the First Church. Terrence Mompkins was from a family church of revivalist Pentecostals in Baton Deluge, Louisiana. Those of you in the big cities might sneer and call them snake-handlers, which would be insulting and wrong. Okay, not specifically “wrong;” more like “not entirely right.” The Mompkins’ family church did handle snakes, but they also handled everything else they could get their hands on: eels, catfish, one time Terrence’s aunt threw a full-grown gator at his uncle. (There may have been reasons other than religion involved in that last one.)
His great-uncle Theophilus was the leader of the church, and had translated his own Bible from the ancient Greek; he had not done a bang-up job. Theophilus had trouble with telling the subject from the object, so Jonah ate the whale and Jesus did the crucifying; he also had trouble with verbs, and mistranslated “assembled” in the story of Noah to mean “fuck” so Noah fucked two of every animal; nouns were also a concern, and where most normal crazy people saw the part about handling “snakes,” Theophilus saw handle “all them critters.”
So in the barely-reclaimed swamp outside Baton Deluge, the Mompkins would spend Sundays in their tiny church on their family land praising Jesus by waving possums at one another.
All worship is correct, and any step taken towards the Lord is in the right direction; all paths are the true path. God will find you in the language you were taught as a child. Still, you didn’t want to be there when they broke out the raccoons.
Terrence had grown up in that tiny church on his family land listening to his great-uncle’s version of the Bible. He had not been to many places, and he had met very few people, but he knew that the world would accept the Gospel that he wanted to share with them. Theophilus had been in the Navy for 20 years; he had been to many places, and met many people, and he knew the world would think his Bible was weird as shit.
“You may wanna reconsider, Terry.”
“My bags are packed, Great-Uncle Theo.”
“My Greek is much better now. Gimme six months to take another pass at the sucker.”
But Terrence Mompkins was no liar: his bags were packed. He traveled the country preaching the Gospel he knew, and handling animals. In Schenectady, he told the congregation about the time Jesus turned wine into water; he then violently shook a chicken until everyone was uncomfortable. He went to Boise to preach of the time that David blew Goliath, and flung a turtle like a discus right into the organist’s head; he was not invited back. In Gallup, New Mexico, he began the service by punting an armadillo into a pregnant woman.
He was too weird for America, and so he left the mainland and went to California.
And it is here that you might be expecting the epiphany, the comeback story, the duckling’s blossoming into the swan, but Terrence started off his first sermon at the First Church of the Iterated Christ by throwing owls at the congregation–he got a nice tight spiral on them, too–and that’s not acceptable even in Little Aleppo.
He didn’t have to go home, but he couldn’t preach there; Terrence Mompkins was shown the church door.
(It worked out okay for him, though. He works at the Little Aleppo Zoo; he was great with animals once he stopped throwing them at people, plus he continues his ministry: all the hippos have been baptized numerous times. I’ll tell you about the zoo one of these days. It’s an interesting story.)
But a church needs a pastor like a bookstore needs a cat, and so the deacons had to hire someone before Sunday.
There was Mistress Bubonsky, who described her background as “syncretic Proto-Platonism mixed with Ante-Supplicationist underpinnings and a shmear of Buddhism.” The deacons had no idea what she was talking about, but she was available and willing to accept the salary. Her first sermon was on the topic of Cosmophony, and by the time she finished speaking nine hours after she began, the church was empty and the “Preacher Wanted” sign was already back up in the stained glass window.
The deacons hired a whirling dervish next, but Little Aleppians like to pre-game before church and everyone ended up vomiting. Rabbis, shamans, a transgendered imam from Missoula, and several disgraced televangelists. There was a Buddhist who would not answer any questions, and a Catholic priest who had all the answers.
A recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s divinity school was hired, and everyone in the neighborhood was very impressed until he started preaching, at which point they were bored. Little Aleppians did not believe in thinking about God, and would tolerate very little theological debate; God–it seemed obvious to the congregation–was just a Macguffin in the story. Maltese Falcon was just a paperweight, but that wasn’t the point: the search for it was.
The deacons tried to explain the Iterated Christ to the recent graduate; they told him of the Infinicy of Jesus.
“I don’t think that’s a word,” he said.
“This isn’t going to work out,” the deacons said.
The phone in the church’s back office rang and one of the deacons excused himself; the recent graduate was arguing for his job.
“First Church of the Iterated Christ. Oh, hello, Precarious.”
“Yes, we need one. Why?”
“You did? Where?”
“Figures. You’re vouching for him?”
“Then shepherd to us our new shepherd, Precarious.”
He hung up the phone and went back out to the church; the recent graduate was still arguing for his job.
“You’re still here, son? The position’s been filled.”
The other three deacons turned to look at him.
“Friend of mine from the old days knows a guy.”
The recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s divinity school stared at the other men in confusion. People from the University of Chicago were not used to being fired.
“That’s how you run your church? ‘Friend of mine from the old days?’ That’s the resume you need to be hired here!?”
The fattest of the deacons leaned across the table.
“Deacon Blue had some very interesting old days, son.”
The recent graduate noticed for the first time that the deacon who had taken the phone call had a fu manchu mustache and a skull’s-head ring on the middle finger of his right hand.
Early the next morning, a cherry red Ford Mustang with white leather seats drove down Rose Street; the top was down. Skinny white guy with a cigarette dangling at the wheel. Enormous black guy missing the left sleeve of his suit jacket in the passenger seat. Tweed briefcase with a small and familiar insignia inlaid near the handle on the back bench. The tires did not touch the curb when the driver eased to a stop in front of the First Church of the Iterated Christ.
The Mustang’s radio was blasting Little Aleppo’s local radio station, KHAY; Frankie Nickels was on the air.
“You find the song, or does the song find you? When you hit on it, when you hear it that first time–Jesus, that first time, it never comes again–and it gets its claws in your heart: did you find that song or did that song find you?
“You know the one I’m talking about. The song you don’t listen to in front of people. The one that’s the tempo of your mother’s heartbeat, and the guitars sound like that morning you woke up in love.
“You know the song I mean.
“I’m talking about love, L-U-V, and it comes in all flavors. Least it does in English. You go somewhere else, somewhere you can’t hear the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–Hey!–and they probably got a dozen words for love. Family love, friendly love, frisky love. You can be more specific in your affections in foreign tongues, they tell me.
“But this is love American-Style, and if you went to Paul Bunyan High like I did–go Blue Oxen!–then you only know English, too. Guy I know who owns a bookstore once told me that Little Aleppo had ‘a poverty of polyglots.’ He likes to talk all fancy.
“Love got a lot to do in English, man! You love a sandwich, your cousin, a sunny day, that little puppy of yours, and certainly that fox or fella you can’t wait to be alone with. Love! Swiss-army knife of a word.
“Look at all love’s iterations.
“And you love that song, right? That song that barged into your heart like a wacky neighbor on some old-fashioned sitcom: no knocking, no by-your-leave, doesn’t even wipe his shoes.
“They choose us. Songs choose us. People choose us. Love chooses us.
“Gotta keep your ears open, y’know?”
From the tenement windows, KHAY blasted like it did every morning. Frankie Nickels scruffed-up alto doppler shifted up and down the Main Drag from car speakers, and you could hear her voice play peek-a-boo as the door to the Morning Tavern opened and closed. She sounded like coffee and cab rides home, a little bit of nighttime in the dawn: Frankie Nickels’ voice reminded you that just because the sun was up didn’t mean things were going to be any clearer.
The Reverend Arcade Jones did not listen to KHAY in the morning–he preferred gospel music–but he was out of bed well before 8:00 a.m. His small apartment on the second floor of the church was right under the belfry, and the First Church’s massive bell, the Calling Judge, began its daily tolling at 8. You didn’t want to be asleep when it rang: it was like having a space shuttle launch for an alarm clock.
(Eight was the earliest that any of the houses of worship were allowed to start bothering people. For years, the church bells had begun at that time due to an informal agreement among the pastors, but then the Baptists hired an early-riser to lead their congregation and he started ringing his bells at five in the morning, leading to an emergency meeting of the Town Fathers to pass a law. According to Mr. Venable, it was the only time in Little Aleppo’s history that governmental action had stopped a riot.)
Arcade Jones liked the early morning, quiet and thoughtful, and he shaved his head and face in the shower; he had no mirror, and so he kept his eyes closed and used his fingers like a racoon, prowling all over his head and jaw to find sharp stubble. The sixth pew on the right needed to be fixed. The Ladies Auxiliary needed an answer on the date for the bake sale. The church mice were quiet; too quiet.
There is always work for an honest man in Little Aleppo, though not nearly as much as there is for crooks.
And then the suit: the Reverend Arcade Jones was a sharp dresser; his suits could poke your eye out from a block away. The Reverend was a 6’5″, 300-pound black guy and his closet was full of colors only a 6’5″, 300-pound black guy could wear: creamsicle orange, and lilypad green, and banana yellow, and ketchup red. (Not purple, though: as a kid, he had worn a purple shirt one time–one damn time–and his brothers called him Grimace for years. Never purple.)
Down the tiny staircase he barely fit into, and into the back office with the fridge that needed to be cleaned out and Polaroids on the wall of people 86’ed for trying to boost the collection plate, and then the reception area where Mrs. Fong answered the phone, and then into the church. The Reverend liked to straighten up in the morning, and while he did he named the parts of his home.
The semi-circular dome with stained glass in the east was the apse. In front of that was the raised platform that he and the deacons sat on during services; this is the bema. If you were to look at the church from above, it would form a cross; the space running north-south that made up the tee-bar of the cross is a transept. The open part with the pews is the nave, and behind that is the vestibule called a narthex.
And in the narthex was a confessional booth, and no one so far had been able to explain to Arcade Jones what it was doing there.
“It’s a confessional,” he said to Deacon Blue the first time he saw it.
“Is this a Catholic church?”
“No, but it’s a catholic church,” Deacon Blue said.
The Reverend had not been in Little Aleppo long, but he was beginning to get the feeling it was impossible to get a straight answer out of the neighborhood.
The doors to the booth were always open, both of them, but not this morning when Arcade Jones came downstairs in a suit the same shade of green as the leaves of the Peregrine tree. This morning, one of them–the penitent’s door–was closed. He went over and knocked.
“Father?” came a man’s voice from inside the booth.
“Oh, no. I’m a…wait, hold on.”
Arcade squeezed himself into his side of the confessional. It was like watching an elephant get into a hot tub.
“Ooh, tight in here!” He wrenched his arm free from between his body and the wall of the booth, and slid open the door to the small latticed window.
“Okay, got it. Let’s do this.”
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” the man said.
“Oh, I’m not a priest.”
“It has been…what?”
“I’m not a priest. This isn’t a Catholic church. It’s a nondenominational and independent church that I haven’t unlocked the doors yet, so tell me who you are and how you got in here before I kick your ass.”
The man in the penitent’s side of the confessional held his face right up close to the window so the Reverend could see it through the lattice; when Arcade looked him in the eyes, his brain felt like it was bursting with greasy popcorn and his nose started running.
“Hello, Officer Rodriguez. I heard you were back.”
“Seriously, you’re not a priest?”
“Am I wearing a collar or a fine silk tie?”
“I can’t see. Lean forward.”
“Take my word for it.”
Arcade Jones put a massive hand up against the screen.
“What sin could you possibly confess, son? I think you’re square with the Lord.”
“Sloth. The sin of sloth.”
“The cuddliest sin.”
“I’m here for a reason, I have to be. A ghost cop needs a mission. Justice or something. I gotta, I dunno, crack my last case. That sort of thing.”
The Reverend had a voice the size and depth of an Olympic swimming pool, but he was good at modulating it. He spoke very softly and tenderly.
“Son, are you getting your theology from John Woo movies?”
“Is that where I saw that?”
“I think maybe.”
“What does the Bible say?”
“About ghost cops? Not much.”
“About ghosts in general.”
“I think there’s a story about a guy who dies and comes back to life.”
“Are you saying I’m Jesus Christ?”
“Yes. But so is the man who murdered you. And your mother who cried over you, and the funeral home director who overcharged her. You are the Christ, son. We are all the Christ in this church.”
Officer Rodriguez was quiet for a second.
“Preacher, no offense, but that is not helpful at all.”
“Sometimes the truth isn’t helpful. Sometimes the truth sits there on your chest and won’t let you breathe. Sometimes it slaps you around. Truth has its own agenda.”
Officer Rodriguez was quiet again, and Arcade Jones worked the tips of his fingers into the holes in the lattice divider; when he had a bit of a grip, he pulled and CRACK it came off and he set it on his lap.
“Another thing to fix,” the Reverend said, and he reached his hand through the hole he had made and offered it to Romeo Rodriguez, who realized he had not shaken anyone’s hand since he had been murdered and so he began to cry as he took Arcade’s hand.
“You like football?”
Officer Rodriguez coughed and wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve.
“Yeah, yeah. I like football.”
“Me, too. Used to play a little.”
They sat there for most of the morning talking about football and God, and they also talked about boats for a while for some reason, while the sun melted through the stained glass windows in the apse of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, casting harmonized colors on the pews in the nave. The sixth one on the right needed to be fixed. Behind the pews was the narthex, and then the doors that led out to the front yard where the Christmas tree still stood, and beyond that was Rose Street that ran east off of the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.