I’m about to take a week-long (or so) sabbatical from writing while I grade some papers and visit with my two youngest kids over their spring break. In the meantime, in place of any actual blogging, here’s a story I published a few years back. I hope you find something in it that you like.
Brother Floyd sat in the second pew from the front, staring straight ahead. He would have been sitting on the front pew if it had still been in the church, but the first pews on each side of the aisle were gone. For that matter, so was his heavy oak pulpit. He saw a few splinters that might have been the remnants, but as far as he could tell it had been crushed, brand new sound system and all.
From the hole in the roof, rainwater dripped onto his head in irregular plops. The entire middle section of the roof was gone, apparently ripped skyward. Brother Floyd had not been there, of course, but he figured that the tornado must have jumped and landed right on the roof. And after it had ripped open the ceiling, it must have sucked the two front pews right out through the hole. Not any other pew, not a single one—just those first two.
Then there was the pulpit itself. Phallic, monolithic, sacral, it had stood in the same place ever since he had become pastor of Golgotha Landing Baptist Church, a good four years now. In Floyd’s opinion, he had the best of the smaller churches around Pinedale, and he had had the best pulpit. He had loved the perfection of the grain, visible under the dark coat of varnish. He loved how, from the perspective of the congregation in the first three or four rows, the top of the pulpit seemed to touch the base of the life-sized wooden cross mounted over the baptismal pit. He had always found it comforting, the way his symbol and Christ’s seemed connected.
And now his lovely podium was buried under toilets.
Brother Floyd had never considered the possibility that one day he would see a pile of toilets inside the church, especially one that covered his pulpit. But there it was—a heap, a veritable mountain of gaping white mouths, some broken, some shattered into fragments, most whole. And now, from that once-comforting perspective, from the second row of his fine little church, the optical illusion had changed. The hill of toilets was so high that now only the very top of the cross was visible.
As he stared at the pile, two basic thoughts occupied Brother Floyds’ mind. First, why had the tornado punched a hole in the roof of his church and taken only the front pew from both the right and left rows? And second, where had the tornado gotten all those toilets? As far as he knew, toilets did not naturally occur in heaps, waiting to be swept up by the first tornado that came along.
Lost in these thoughts, Floyd did not hear the doors of the church swing open or the soft footfalls on the carpeted floor. He was not aware that anyone else was nearby until Rudy Dufresne was standing beside him, talking.
Now there’s somethin you don’t see every day
said Rudy, pushing his green John Deere cap back on his head and scratching his scalp through wiry red hair,
That’s the biggest pile of commodes I’ve ever seen.
Though he was surprised, Floyd did not start or cry out. He turned to look briefly at Rudy and then resumed his contemplation. Rudy said
Now I once saw four or five commodes thrown together in a junkyard, but there’s probably forty, maybe even fifty here. Never seen that many in a pile
and Floyd said
That’s real interesting, Rudy
and Rudy replied
I wonder if this is a sign of some kind.
Floyd did not know, but nevertheless he said
I doubt it.
Rudy took a seat on the pew to Floyd’s left, directly across the aisle. He looked up at the hill of toilets for a moment, taking the sight in from Floyd’s perspective. The two men were silent for perhaps a minute. Finally Rudy said
Say, preacher, that’s what I was comin down to ask you about. Signs. We had somethin weird happen out at my place
and Floyd said
not looking at Rudy, unable to take his eyes away from the sight in front of him, while Rudy said
Yeah. See, after that twister passed, we came out of our storm cellar to see what was what. I figured the house would be gone, no roof on the barn, crops blown away, tractor all busted up. But you know what I saw?
Rudy turned to Floyd, cleared his throat twice, glanced nervously at the pile of commodes, wondered what was so fascinating about them. Floyd still stared straight ahead, perhaps not even listening.
Rudy cleared his throat a third time and said
I say, you know what I saw?
so Floyd said gently
No, Rudy. What?
and Rudy said
That goddam twister—aw God, preacher, pardon my French—that dang twister didn’t hit anything on my place but that fool wrought-iron spiked fence my oldest boy put up around his Momma’s flower beds. Took every durn spike, every durn piece of iron except for one post.
Floyd snorted and said
Sure is odd, all right. What’s this about a sign, though?
Rudy took off his cap and mopped his brow with a dirty shirt sleeve, saying
Well, now, that’s the really weird part. The tornado skewered my rooster on that one spike
and Floyd said
so Rudy said
Yeah, skewered, shoved that rooster right down on it, shoved that spike right up his a—up his hindquarters
and Floyd said
And you figure that’s a sign from God.
Rudy scratched his head again. Floyd wondered briefly if his head really itched or if the gesture were some kind of mannerism that meant nothing in particular. Rudy got up and climbed the two steps to the choir loft, a five-wide, five-deep collection of folding chairs partitioned off behind a short wooden balustrade. Floyd knew what Rudy was seeing, had seen it himself earlier. Not one chair had been taken or even knocked over, though they were in disarray, run together in little wrecks of harmless metal, not one of them dented so badly that a hammer couldn’t straighten them back out. They were all there, all twenty-five.
Floyd watched Rudy count the chairs, mouth moving silently. He appeared to start over a time or two, probably certain he had lost count, that his initial total could not possibly be right. Finally, Rudy stopped counting and just looked at the chairs. Then he looked from the chairs to the toilets and back again. Floyd knew he was trying to work it all out, to make some sense of it, but he also knew that logic would not work and that the sense of the chairs and the toilets would elude them both. Finally Rudy said
Say, preacher, how about you and me unstack these chamber pots? I don’t like the look of em.
Floyd stood up. Hands in his pockets, he looked at Rudy Dufresne, a man who was easily six-three and two hundred thirty pounds, a man currently dwarfed by the biggest pile of toilets ever to land in a southeast Arkansas Baptist church. Floyd could tell that Rudy meant what he said; the toilets spooked him. He said
Dufresne looked embarrassed. He took off his hat and fanned himself with it, looking intently at the pile for several moments, silent. Floyd wondered if he could answer the question, if he knew why. Then, finally, he said
Because if you see em from the corner of your eye—the white basins, the hollowed out insides—it looks like a mountain of skulls. It’s too creepy.
Floyd looked at the pile again. Looking at it straight on, the toilets just looked like toilets. Out of place, ridiculous, surreal, absurd—but creepy they were not. Rudy was wrong.
But Rudy was right, too, because if you turned ninety degrees or so to the right or the left, the toilets became something else. In the corner of your eye, in the country where sight and imagination meet to play tug-of-war, the white ceramic surface of the toilets became a bleached, crumbling pile of skulls, straight out of some fairy tale about a giant who terrorizes a countryside picking his teeth with the femur bones of failed heroes, the empty basins the hollow black staring sockets of death and decay. Yes, Rudy was right. In the corner of your eye, the toilets were creepy. So he said
Okay, let’s unstack them.
They stood on opposite sides of the pile, trying to decide how to start. Neither man was sure how heavy a toilet was, whether he could pick one up and move it on his own. Floyd said
We better work together. If I pull one of these out over here, the whole shebang might fall on you
and Rudy, coming around to Floyd’s side of the pile, said
Buried under an avalanche of turdbowls. Not a good end to a rough day.
Floyd grabbed the base of a toilet near the bottom of the pile, one that looked disconnected from the infrastructure of the stack. Rudy grabbed the top and together they lifted. Floyd’s first thought was that, while it wasn’t as heavy as he might have believed, he was glad he hadn’t tried to lift it himself. Rudy grinned and opened his mouth to say something, and then they heard it begin.
First there was a low, creaking groan, the sound of metal fatigue or fingernails on a faraway chalkboard. They looked up at the hill of toilets, a hill that had suddenly begun muttering, trembling slightly. They looked at each other again, a gesture of simultaneous understanding. They dropped the toilet and ran in opposite directions, Floyd down the two steps to the church floor and back up the aisle. Halfway to the doors, he looked back over his shoulder. Two or three toilets on top of the pile shuddered and fell, bouncing down the ceramic terrain, crushing pieces of white basin as they hit. Floyd saw Rudy dive into the baptismal pit headfirst, legs disappearing last as if he had sunk beneath the waters that were not there.
From the back of the church, Floyd watched the quick disintegration of the mountain. Toilets tumbled from the peak, end over end, striking toilets, sending up little clouds of white splintery toilet dust. Toilets from the middle slid outward, shifting over toilets, burying toilets and being buried, screeching plates creating fault lines that just as quickly vanished. Floyd saw Rudy poke his head over the edge of the pit, his eyes wide, his mouth open and hollow. The mountain oozed outward, crashing against the choir loft balustrade, spilling into the first few rows of pews. Soon Floyd could even see a few splintered boards from his pulpit, stark brown against the whiteness.
After the last toilet had come to rest, Floyd made his way back up the aisle, picking carefully over pieces of the fallen mountain. He stumbled his way to the first pew in line and sat down again, resting his feet on the side of a broken toilet. Rudy had climbed back over the side of the pit and was walking gingerly, leaping from place to place as if on stepping-stones in a brook. Soon he was sitting next to Floyd. For a few moments they surveyed the blasted landscape before them. Then Rudy said
Well, that was the goddamdest—aw hell, preacher, pardon my French—that was the durndest thing I’ve ever seen
and Floyd said
It was pretty impressive.
For several moments they sat still, quiet, listening to nothing in particular. Finally Rudy spoke.
So what about the sign?
but Floyd said
and thought for a few moments. Then it came to him and he continued
Oh. The chicken. Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about a skewered chicken
but, as patiently as he could, Rudy said
It was my rooster. He’s sittin in my yard right now with a three-foot piece of iron up his butt. I thought maybe it was a sign that my boy was queer.
Floyd burst into laughter. Rudy sat quietly. After a moment Floyd saw that he was serious and tried to choke off his giggles, finally subsiding after a moment into relatively quiet snorts. Rudy said
Well, I did
and Floyd asked
Rudy was silent, mistrustful, as if he expected to be laughed at again no matter what he said, but finally he answered
Well, a rooster is also called a cock, and that iron spike
but Floyd interrupted
I see, I see. Well, like I said, I wouldn’t worry about it much. Seems like God wouldn’t send a tornado just to plant a rooster on a spike.
Rudy nodded and said
I don’t think He’d do it just for that either. But did you hear what happened to Bill Johnson? Twister took his barn and then jumped out in his cotton and carved a letter C. I didn’t even know twisters could curve, but the goddam—ah hell, preacher, sorry—the twister carved a big C in the cotton and then jumped over into the woods.
Floyd considered this information. He looked at Rudy, who had taken off his cap as was fanning himself with it. He still looked serious. So Floyd said
So you think . . . what . . . that God was telling Bill that he’s an average farmer? Or maybe that the C stands for cotton and so Bill’s got the right crop, or maybe it stands for corn and he’s got the wrong one?
Rudy laughed and said
Brother, I don’t know what it means. I guess it could mean any of that stuff or nothin at all. Just like these here commodes. Probably doesn’t mean anything that they dropped through a hole in your roof and buried your pulpit.
Floyd snorted. Of course it meant nothing. What could it really mean? It was weird, nothing more or less. Such things happened. This was no weirder than that time years ago when it rained frogs in a town up north. Or when a Louisiana duck hunter’s boat was sunk by a turtle frozen in a block of ice, one that just fell out of the clear sky. Or when that man in Mississippi got crushed by a piano while riding a bicycle on a country road, like something out of a cartoon. Meaningless, random, the epitome of rudderless chance was lying at their feet, broken and splintered and sharp. Finally Floyd said
I’ve never thought that everything has to mean something. Tell you the truth, I’m more curious about why the twister took both our first-row pews and left everything else. That’s the mystery I’d really like solved.
Rudy snorted and said
Shoot, preacher, that one’s easy. This is a Baptist church, right? I bet God just thought that all that wood was goin to waste, since nobody sits on the first row anyhow.
Floyd burst into laughter. He felt it welling deep within him, down in the furthest part of his mind, laughter bright and gleaming and shattered. He laughed until tears spilled from his eyes and ran gently down his cheeks, until his sides burned and his kidneys ached. Suddenly he realized that he had to urinate badly, and that he was currently in the presence of dozens of unusable toilets. That set him off again, laughing.
Rudy Dufresne listened to him. He kept fanning himself with his John Deere cap, his efforts creating the only breeze blowing for miles. The day had become quite still.