Artwork by Ira Joel Haber
A sweet-smelling rain drizzled on the Holy Ghost Tabernacle's metal roof, leading Sister Millie to whisper to Sister Claudette, "Sho' a good sign for Lucille's buryin' day. A good rain likely to bring a Holy Ghost blessin'."
"Bless God," Claudette replied, adding, "but poor Reverend Posh. Imagine being a minister at your wife's funeral. Just look at him," she sighed.
Before Millie could reply, lightning struck a tree outside. Smoldering bark flew against the tabernacle's windows.
"Sister Millie, is that a sign?" Claudette trembled.
"It sho' is."
Trying to maintain a tenuous momentum, Reverend Jeremiah Posh sobbed, "Lucille, you dear to these sheep, but you gone now... gone. You too good for this world, too good for us, so God took you back."
But the ladies heard none of this, because Millie whispered, "Satan be stirrin' up an ill wind, and God is allowin' it." She was voicing what many others were thinking. "We got to stand in prayer behind Reverend Posh, else Satan—" ending her worry mid-sentence for fear it might be true.
Even Posh, whom the Holy Ghost had never failed, suspected pagan forces were conspiring to ruin the encomium. And so they were. Jupiter Pluvius pummeled the Tabernacle's metal roof with July rain, Thor rattled its windows with deafening thunder, and Sister Emmy's six-month old son Elijah wailed in aggrieved protest. Posh often invoked I Kings 19 to show the Holy Ghost spoke in a still, small voice. Now, that soft voice proved to be a liability, because Pluvius was playing the metal roof like a snare drum and the sons of Odin and Emmy were shouting at one another. Each bout of deafening clangor preceded silence quickening the people's hearing. Posh hopscotched between unheard shouts and piercing sotto voce.
Eulogy fit poorly with Posh's "all are sinners through and through" theology, so he had started with a confession on Lucille's behalf. How she was unworthy. How she liked the drink. How she liked the men who bought her drinks. How—
The storm became ominous just as Reverend Posh came to a rhetorical sleight to transform Lucille's shortcomings into works of glory. The trinity of pagans drummed, thundered, and screamed, and Lucille's redemption was lost in the din.
Even at wakes, Posh incited the passions of his flock through dance, song, and acclamation in hopes of invoking the Holy Ghost. Today, he had begun in a muted tone, Lucille's sins having left him feeling ill. He was unprepared to battle the pagans. His arms felt leaden, his legs had lost their dance, and his face contorted with grief. More and more of the people regarded him with sadness, void of expectation.
Brother James sighed and looked at his wife Fanny, who did little to hide her smile. Lucille had seduced James when they both had been inebriated. "Just one little time," she had said, not much to Fanny's liking. Reverend Posh had presided over their public confession and reconciliation, "as demanded by the Holy Ghost," but Fanny still hated Lucille. "I hope that bitch burns in hell," she snarled, when news of Lucille's death made its way to her through the Tabernacle's prayer chain.
The storm continued, and Posh looked drained. He mustered the strength to say, "Lucille, there was no one like you," but again, his voice was drowned out.
Billy Edwards, a nine-year old sinner too young to be baptized and too big to be nine, shouted amen and chuckled to himself. Billy hated Lucille for too often calling him a hooligan and a cretin. Billy was no saint, but Lucille's judgment of character was fueled by the spirits, most especially Jim Beam. As soon as she died, the people, save Fanny and Billy, forgot her love of drink.
When Sister Winnie heard of Lucille's death, she cried, "Sister Lucille a saint, a saint o' the lamb." That became the canonical thumbnail of Lucille's alcohol-drenched life. Hoping to buoy Posh, the people shouted, "Lord, you have taken a great saint from us. Help us, Lord."
Bitch ain't no saint, thought Billy. For fun, the young hooligan shouted, "Amen, she a great aint."
Oblivious to Billy's dropped s, every quarter of the congregation responded with shouted amens and hosannas. Sister Mary Lou began speaking in tongues.
In the noisy ruckus, the combined chatter of Christians and pagans, Billy reached over the painted wooden pew and pinched his sister Sally May smartly on the rear end, just as lightning flashed. She shrieked. Sally May ain't no saint, either, Billy thought.
The saints surmised a Holy Ghost blessing was falling. The congregation shouted amen, amen, amen, nearly in unison. The sisters jumped to their feet; the brothers clapped their hands. Elder Bones, as the arthritic Edward Lasher was called, jumped to the top of a pew and danced in the spirit, hopping back and forth, sending shards of chipped paint fluttering to the floor. He shouted, "I in the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is good. Amen, amen."
These silly sheep, Posh thought. Do they have to amen everything? Here Lucille dead, and they amen like a blessin' fall. They probably amen and dance in the Holy Ghost when I dead, too.
Lighting flashed. The thunder sounded like it was tearing the sky's fabric. Wind raged. But Elijah remained silent, having discovered his mom's purse handle made for good gumming. Posh raised his hands in a sweeping gesture and jumped from the floor. Thunder and wind raged again, but Elijah cooed calmly. The effect was so dramatic, it overcame Posh's grief. He shouted, "Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen. Bless you, Lord of the Sabaoth, you lion of Zion, maker of men, dasher of fools, and foe of sinners. You blessed One. Amen. Who on earth here below? Who? Who? Who can question thy mighty will, thy inscrutable intelligence, thy bountiful mercy?" Posh's cheeks glowed with refreshed zeal. The black-dressed sisters started swaying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. "Amen, Lord. Amen, Lord. Amen, Lord," they shouted like holy chorus girls. A heaven blessing, a season of halleluiahs, was under way.
Posh danced down the aisle away from the casket, kicking his heels in the air, tapping them together every third or fourth hop. He paused to kiss Sister Beadle, whom he recently healed of blindness. She asked, "Is it you, Reverend Posh?" Casting a furtive glance to the nearby saints, he chuckled uneasily, "Is it me! You like to kid, Sister." He hugged Elders Jones and Fletcher. As he approached the former Firebottom, Lucy Kilroy, he hesitated. Then he drew her close, held her snugly around the waist and pressed himself against her. He kissed her on the mouth, bent her back, and kissed her again. Lucy looked shocked but pleased. Several of the people grumbled. Memories of Lucy's demon possession, Posh's exorcism leaving her naked and him hiding in the prayer closet when the deacons came calling to find out what the hell was going on, his unction-inspired command she marry John Kilroy, and her miraculous fecundation by the cursedly sterile Kilroy—healed, just in the nick of time—had provoked the saints, even though the Holy Ghost condoned the entire affair in a word of prophecy.
Regarding the people severely, Posh stepped back and swept his hands around the congregation, to the North, South, East, and West—to the four corners of the earth as he would say in commentary on the hand gestures employed in his sermons. "Can I hear an Amen? Can the Holy Ghost hear an amen?"
The people shouted amen. "Now that, that," Posh declared, using the self-authorizing elliptical phrase he favored most. "What the Lord say, the Lord say," he concluded with theological tautology rendering logical parsing blasphemous.
Sitting to Lucy's right, John Kilroy looked to the wide board pine floor, his gaze falling on a punched out tree knot, the home of a dark spider, eerily illuminated by a light inadvertently left on in the crawlspace under the sanctuary. The spider was wrapping a doomed insect in a silk coffin. John shivered. "John, raise your eyes, son," Posh demanded. Uncharacteristically, Kilroy looked Posh in the eyes. Posh said, "The Lord acts in strange ways, but none stranger than creating women, by whom even the best of us are ensnared. Is that so?"
"And did not our great Lord raise you up? Has he not blessed your sorry loins, perhaps to make you a new Abraham? Might not your seed be like the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore?"
Blushing, Kilroy replied, "As the Lord will."
"Now that, people, is faith. This withered tree has already sired one child o' promise. He a promising man, if you follow me. I raise my voice in prophecy: John Kilroy will be blessed with many children."
"You hear that, Lucy?" he added, returning her admiring gaze.
"I do," she replied, demurely rubbing her expansive belly.
"John, you ready to be blessed like Abraham?"
Kilroy blinked hard and said amen. Lucy mouthed words to Posh indicating the Little Kilroy—as Posh called "the baby" from the pulpit—also was saying amen. "Little Kilroy sayin' amen, too!" Posh announced to the congregation. "Give the Lord a hand, people."
A few saints clapped. Posh decided it unwise to seek more than tepid affirmation.
Posh hugged Kilroy and whispered in his ear, "The Lord giveth and the Lord can take away." He whispered, "You follow me?"
Kilroy kissed Posh on the cheek. "You a man o' God, Reverend. I follow the Lord."
Posh turned and strode the aisle, stopping at the open casket. Lucille's body was dressed in a yellowed muslin dress. Gaudy white ruffles encircled her motionless hands. Posh bowed his head and wept again. "She didn't make 50, but God is good," he offered. The people shouted amen. Brother Rupert Jones joined Posh, and the two knelt to pray. As they knelt, Jones' knees cracked.
Six-year old Sally Jones started to sing. In contradiction to Posh's all-are-sinners theology and his oft-repeated claim children are "begat in sin and sin at the breast," he often insisted children are innocent. Sally's sweet, clear voice sounded angelic. She sang, "Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o'er his foes; he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever, with his saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!"
"From the mouth of babes," Posh intoned, directing Brother Jones back to his pew, "comes a wisdom that touches God, that feels no sting o' death. Sally Jones, I raise my voice to prophesy you will be a great saint." Sally curtsied.
Posh approached the casket, his shabby funeral suit marked with sweat under the arms. He regarded Lucille's lifeless face. He kissed his hands and gently touched her cheeks. "You can't be dead, Lucille." Fighting back tears, he called out, "Lucille, I command thee, come forth. Like Lazarus, who answered our Lord's death-defying call, I command thee, come forth."
One-armed Sister Emily Feltzer shouted, "Amen, you a man o' God. The Lord is mighty on you. Mighty enough to do all things," adding in an unlikely coda, "I gonna clap down a blessin'."
Jack White, sitting in the back, whispered to his half-brother Paul, "What this damn fool up to now?"
Billy Edwards overheard and giggled.
Posh heard Billy's giggle and ran the aisle to him. "Billy Edwards? Billy, why have you delighted the Evil One, that dark destroyer, Satan, master of this world?"
Billy looked nervously to his feet. "Billy? I don't think you want me to get Holy Ghost on you, do you, boy?"
Billy muttered, "Jack White call you a—."
Posh flashed his eyes to White. "Brother White, has God called you to prophesy? Are you a man o' God? Do you have the gift? Have you exorcised devils, healed the blind, and raised the dead?"
White, who was an unbeliever, a drunk, and drunk, said, "Reverend Posh, You a man o' God. No one doubt that. Even I don't doubt that. But you ain't able to raise Lucille from the dead."
Posh was outraged, "Get thee behind me, Satan. You foe, you beguiler, you enemy in a dress of wisdom."
White said, "Posh, she dead. Lucille gone to be with the saints. I a sinner, and I know that. She dead. I sorry, because I know she loved you. She never stopped loving you, even when..." As if putting himself back on track, White continued, "True, she loved booze, like me, but she loved you more."
Startled by White's honesty, Posh bowed his head, then whispered, "The Holy Ghost say to be silent. White, you give up that booze. The Holy Ghost say that, too. But the Holy Ghost also say, my Lucille gonna rise up."
Posh ran back the aisle. Ugly snot swung from his nose. "Lucille, I command thee. In the name of Jehovah, in the name of Jesus, our crucified Lord, stand up. Shake off the clothes of death."
Shocked, the people fell silent. Posh stared at Lucille, looking for signs of life. "I command thee. I command thee."
Sally resumed singing. "Up from the grave he arose..."
Arms raised, Posh began praying. "O Lord, you stronger than death. You create life. You the Lord of life. You raised Jesus from the dead, and he raised Lazarus. O Lord, this people, your people, need to see your power today. Our faith is falterin', Lord. Today, we need you to act. We need it today, like never before."
Sister Mary Perkins, whose husband Filmore died the previous month, cried softly. Her sister Eleanor murmured, "Reverend Posh, God tellin' me, he don't play favorites. Your Lucille, she no better than Mary's Filmore. Both them dead, both gonna stay dead."
Posh's authority on such matters was not subject to question. Furthermore, women were to be silent in the Church, unless Posh called on them to speak. He faced Sister Eleanor. "Eleanor, did not our Lord heal you of diabetes?"
"Then say amen."
"Now say, God raise up Lucille."
"God ain't sayin' that. He sayin', some curses stay. After you healed me o' diabetes, even you say the Lord allowed a thorn to stay in my flesh. I pee every half hour. My cuts don't heal. I black out. Them thorns. Sho' I healed, but them thorns stay. God sayin' Lucille's thorn is death."
"Sister Eleanor, were you healed of diabetes?"
"I was. Bless God, bless God, O my soul."
"By whose prayer? By whose prophesy?"
"By yours, Reverend. I bless you for that."
"Then, why, why, you fu-, why you fightin' me now? What wrong with you? You want the devil to bring diabetes back?"
"I speakin' for God. He don't play favorites. I ain't sayin'. He sayin' Lucille dead. She gonna stay dead."
Posh breathed deeply and choked on phlegm. He kneeled to catch his breath. Sister Baldwin helped him stand. "Thank you, Sister."
"Sister Eleanor, I got a word from God for you. This harsh word is not mine. I utter it in fear, fear for your soul. This week, we will bury you in this Church. Devil diabetes has destroyed your kidneys. Satan has been prowling, waiting for you to rebuke God's stayin' power. I'm sorry, Sister. God has spoken."
Eleanor sat, defeated, and began weeping.
Posh looked at the people. "Anyone else here ready to join Satan? Anyone else here want to rumble with Posh and the Holy Ghost?"
Brother Black raised his hands, and shouted, "Bless you, Jehovah, bless you. A word on me, Reverend."
"Then speak," said Posh. "God ain't used to waitin'."
Black looked somberly at the people. He shouted, parroting Posh's prophetic style, "You wretched, filthy, sinful, perverted, fallen, adulterous, licentious, drunk, whore-mongering people. You blight. You unworthy, backbiting, gossipin', Holy Ghost denying idolaters. God say, 'Get thee out o' my house. I gonna do a miracle. I gonna raise this bitch... uh, I gonna raise this saint... and I raisin' her now. But I ain't raisin' her to impress this house o' sin, this people like unto Ichabod.' God say, 'Get thee out. Go wander through the desert.' God say, 'Let the rain be a baptizin'.'"
Posh's voice boomed, "People o' God. You heard Jehovah's voice. Now out, out to the land of sin."
The people rushed from the sanctuary into the rain. Jehovah sent them to the wilderness once before, but that was on a rainless afternoon. Not as remote as it seemed, the wilderness was the parking lot. The people were to mill around the lot until the Lord and Posh called them back.
As the people rushed out, Brother Black stayed behind. When the people, including the 350-pound, wheelchair-confined Mrs. Jacobs, were outside, Posh took Black's hand. "Thank you, Brother Black," Posh said.
Black responded, "You a real man o' God, Reverend. None like you anywhere else."
Posh moved to hug him, but Black stopped him short. "But you listen to me, you stupid fool. The people gone now, and you need to hear this. Lucille dead. She gonna stay dead. Eleanor right about that."
Posh punched Black square on the lips, sending blood flying against the wall. Black dropped to the floor. Posh yelled, "Jesus, why have you forsaken me? Here I am, Lord. I ready to do your will, but my Lucille dead. How can I carry on, Lord?"
Black said, "Posh, I give you that one. You needed it, but if there another one, I will break you in half. You doubt it, run a line up to the Holy Gho' and see whose ass get kicked. Lucille dead. She gonna stay dead. You really wanna bring the people in here and let 'em watch you pray for her to be raised from the dead? What wrong with you? Even the prophets of Baal ain't that stupid."
Posh mumbled, "Lucille can't be gone. I can't live without my Lucille. True, I sinned against her night and day. True, I was sinning against her the night she... but I just a man."
"Posh, I know you hurtin'. But you listen. I ain't a man o' God, but I know she dead. Time for being sorry is gone."
"You right, she gone. My Lucille dead. True, she was a drunk, and she was a bitch, but she was my drunk bitch. Now she gone," Posh sobbed.
"Give me a hand, Black. I gotta git cleaned up. You, go bring the people in from the wilderness. Satan a prowling. They probably already dancing and drinking and worshippin' the golden calf."
As he strained to help Posh stand, Black passed wind. Black's mortified expression caused Posh to chuckle. Posh said, "You need a healin'. How that wife live with you? What the hell she been feedin' you?"
Embarrassed, and aware another transgression was dangerously close, Black apologized.
"No need. As they say, what done, done. Who gone, gone. My Lucille is gone. Even a stink-ass fool like you know that. So, Black, bring in the sheaves. Any golden calves out there, just look the other way."
Encouraged by the driving rain, Mrs. Jacobs and the rest of the flock quickly returned to their pews, shivering and expectant.
"People o' God?"
"People o' God?"
Amen, amen, amen.
"People o' God, is this Lucille?" Posh asked, pointing to Lucille's body.
"People o' God?"
"People o' God, this is not Lucille. This was Lucille, but now she robed in glory. This pretty old weddin' dress ain't a robe o' glory. Lucille raised from the dead, raised to glory. I believe in the resurrection. I command you also to believe. That that."
Distant thunder growled, and heavy rain pounded on the Church roof. Elijah had finally fallen asleep.
"Black and I talked a little theee-ology," Posh cried. "He a bless man, and I lucky to have him here. We fought a hideous demon. You doubt that, go to the vestibule and take a deep breath. That a foul spirit. Billy, do you say amen to that?"
Billy amened and held his nose. "That a foul spirit, Reverend."
"Good boy, Billy. Black took a demon's punch. He a man o' God. I name him a deacon, just now. Not I, but the Holy Ghost. Black, you a deacon. That that. People o' God, Lucille with God now. That that. Now give the Lord an amen."
"Give the Lord a hand."
The people clapped.
"You call that a hand?"
The peopled clapped and shouted. The sister and brother saints started dancing in the aisle. Sister Perkins spoke in tongues.
"Amen. Jehovah, our great God, into thy hands I commend the spirit of our departed sister. You care for her spirit, and we will bury the flesh. Lucille Posh, you with God now."
The people cheered. Posh wept.
"She my wife, Lord. Tell her I love her. Tell her she always be mine."