My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

Fiction: Mysterious Ways

Fiction: Mysterious Ways

A version of this short story first appeared in Inwood Indiana, a literary magazine edited by Glenn Lyvers.

I got called to speak for the Lord in the summer of ’92. Boy, what a summer that was, let me tell you. I hadn’t said a prayer in I couldn’t remember when, and I was a sinner in the worst ways—different women, sometimes by the day, sometimes for money, and plenty of liquor and all the lines we could find. When you’re not a servant of the Lord, raising heck can be a good time, let me tell you.

But it wasn’t my ways that caused the Lord to call my name. I had a buddy, a good buddy, who helped corral the women and suck down the liquor and snort the lines, sometimes right off their you-knows. Like I said, boy, what a summer. For a day job, me and my buddy installed telephones for big companies, before telephones turned smart and quit needing as many wires. There’s something to be said for a phone you can’t put in your pocket. Suits left their work at work back then. Now they hardly have time for my sermons, punching away in the pews.

My buddy, he had the sweetest kids—a boy and a girl—and the darndest doggone ex. But she’d popped out two good kids. The boy was bug-eyed and had to wear glasses a fourth-inch thick so his eyes wouldn’t drift towards his nose. The girl, I’m not ashamed to say, was as attractive as her mother, had her mother’s smoky blue eyes. But her hair was chopped all to pieces cause her momma refused to pay for a proper cut.

“She don’t want her daughter to out-shine her,” my buddy told me. “That’s how batty she is, jealous of a five-year-old.”

Gerald was his name, my buddy, Gerald with the big you-know and the handsome nose was how the girls talked about him. They just said I was Gerald’s friend, the one with the OK face. Now Gerald, he wasn’t so much nuts as just not ready for the responsibility. He’d had them kids before he was twenty-two and split from his ex—Crazy Susan he called her, instead of Lazy—by the time they were twenty-five. If I didn’t know all I knew, I’d have gone after her. The woman had the sexiest head of thick, curly hair—on top and below from what Gerald told me. And boy she could shake her hips when she walked down the grocery store aisle, in blue jeans and high-heeled pumps, batting her eyes like the crazy ones sometimes do.

When they got the divorce, Gerald didn’t even fight, satisfied with getting the kids on weekends, not wanting to feel guilty about the women and the liquor and the lines and all. I couldn’t blame him then and don’t judge him now. A man who don’t get that out of his system is doomed to fail anyhow. Sad thing was, Gerald didn’t get the time to, but for some reason, the Lord let me have mine. Like I’ve learned, He works in mysterious ways.

That’s how I came to get called to preach, the day Crazy Susan was doing cartwheels in her front yard. Not that it had to do with me directly, but I was with Gerald putting in phones when our boss drove out to deliver the message. Gerald’s old next-door neighbor had called headquarters, saying she’d never seen Susan quite like this.

“Sir, she’s doing flips in the grass,” our boss said the neighbor lady told him. “And if that don’t beat all, she’s naked from the waist up.”

Gerald asked me to come along, and I didn’t mind getting away from the cords and the suits for an afternoon, although leaving the AC in the middle of July in Alabama ain’t never a good idea. But heck, I’m not gonna lie—I wanted to see what Susan looked like from the waist up.

“She’s been telling me she found the Lord,” Gerald said, chain smoking Pall Malls and weaving his pickup in and out of the cars through town. “But she’s probably just off her pills. Doctor know’d it from the time she was three.”

He shook another Pall Mall up out of the pack.

“You regret her or the kids more?” I asked.

 “Both the same, I guess.” He thumbed his handsome nose.

“Think if you’d met her later, it would’ve gone different?”

“Some of us just ain’t cut out for it, for no time,” he said and flicked ash into the breeze.

When we turned onto Gerald’s old street, I couldn’t take my eyes off Susan’s handfuls bouncing with each cartwheel. She had on tight jeans that sucked the rest of her in and spilled her top half out in a flattering way. Gerald slammed his hand on the wheel a couple of times before we pulled in. He flung his cigarette and slung open the door. I stayed put, seeing as how it wasn’t my business, other than he was my good buddy and had asked me to come along. But dadjimit it was hot, even with the windows rolled down. I was sweating like a prostitute kneeled down for communion and couldn’t hardly find a dry spot on my white button-up to wipe my forehead.

I did my best not to keep on staring at Susan’s you-knows—the house was nice too, a one-story vinyl with a sturdy cement porch and wrought iron posts with Christmas lights wrapped around ’em. All the blinds were shut, but I could see the boy’s bug eyes and the girl’s gapped bangs peeking through. Susan was smiling wide, showing her long white teeth, while her feet flew over her head, her you-knows still the finest I’ve seen.

“Can’t you get by without all this Goddamn attention?” Gerald hollered. The whole neighborhood could hear him plain as day. “How embarrassed you think them kids are gonna be, when they get old enough to know better? You’re the worst damn thing ever happened to me.”

Susan stopped, put her hands on her hips, and pouted her lips into a frown. Her you-knows were shining with sweat, and Gerald’s white button-up was soaked through. Then, without as much as a sound, she marched over and punched Gerald smack in the gut. He doubled over, and to beat all, she bent down and rubbed her handfuls in his handsome nose.

“You miss these don’t ya,” she yelled louder than she had to, so the neighborhood could hear too. “But what do you care, huh? You get to ride the merry-go-round all day, don’t ya? With whoever the hell you want. What about me? You don’t think I want to get out and play?”

Gerald pushed her off him, not hard, just enough to get her you-knows out of his face. He clenched his fists like he was gonna sock her, and I wouldn’t have blamed him, even now in my preacher’s suit. But he went in for the kids instead. He came out the screen door with the boy and the girl, one under each arm, both of them bare foot, with only their clothes on their backs and the boy’s bug-eyed glasses.

Susan did a few cartwheels to the porch and hopped up the steps. She slammed the screen door. I reached across to open the driver’s side so Gerald could push the boy and the girl across the bench seat, their legs splayed around the stick shift. I told him to get on in the pickup, but he had other ideas.

“I’m gonna set her straight,” he said. “This is the last time she does me this way.”

I’m not making light, but he turned out to be right. Susan had the pistol raised with two hands before he even got to the porch. I couldn’t help but notice how her you-knows looked that much bigger, squeezed together that way. And like I said, I ain't trying to be flip, but I didn't think she'd really shoot the man.

I yelled for Gerald to get down, but that wouldn’t have done any good—he was as naked to the bullets as Susan’s you-knows. I’ve not seen another man’s life come and go up close since, and Lord willing I won’t have to, all that red and insides, that empty feeling you get when you wonder where you might go next. To this day I can’t even stomach a forkful of spaghetti or meatloaf at the church potlucks. But I believe I know where I'm going now. If it's between Heaven and Hell, I'll always take the option that leaves you in less of a mess.

The kids started hollering and carrying on something awful, but their momma was as quiet as she could be. She’d come off the porch and was standing in the grass over her ex. I grabbed the boy and the girl up in my arms and hustled them to the neighbor lady who had her head poked around her screen door, yelling at the top of her lungs. I told her to hush up and call 911, even though Gerald was deader than a doornail.

Jogging back, I saw Susan kneel down in the grass and turn her eyes up to Heaven. I stood over her, but she looked right through me. I’d always called her blue eyes smoky until I got a good look at ’em up close, for what they really were—shattered, like they’d been smashed into a million shards of blue.

“The Lord is my shepherd,” she mumbled to the sky.

 “Susan, get up,” I said. “No more faking.”

That word—faking—must’ve clicked cause she pushed herself up, the knees of her jeans grass-stained. She glanced over at Gerald, who was face down, shot with his own gun, the only dadgum thing he’d left her, come to find out. The sight of him didn’t seem to shake her.

“All sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord,” she said.

“What in the hell kind of nonsense is that?” I was getting pretty worked up with my friend laying there dead, but mindful of that pistol still in her left hand.

Susan locked eyes with me, reciting Matthew as steady and sure as if she were at the pulpit: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“Shitfire, woman. Don’t mean you put a bullet in his head.”

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “He is always with you, even now, until the end of time.”

The sirens were blaring but she still wasn’t fazed. I searched Susan’s shattered eyes, wondering if the Lord really was speaking to her. Even now, having been called, I can’t tell you for certain if He was or He wasn’t. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if He was, seeing as how Gerald was living the way he was and Susan being better off separated from the rest of us. But I can tell you for certain that I heard the Lord in the yard that day, telling me to follow Him.

Like I said, mysterious ways.

 

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