The Penitent Go to Texas

Just before Easter, Val saw a woman he swore was Cecily, the girlfriend who had slept with an angel of God. Or so she’d claimed. They were in the HEB; he was in the frozen foods aisle hunting a bag of peas while she stood in the checkout line reading a tabloid. Her hips were wider, her hair was shorter and winged out from her neck, but she chewed on her inner lip the same. He was older by a couple of decades and he wore a bristled mustache now, so there was no reason she should recognize him, but when she looked up from the paper he hurried away toward the eggs and milk, hoping she hadn’t spied him.

Six days later, he saw her in the garden shop. He was placing an order for fertilizer and she had her head in a cooler, smelling a sunrise of lilies. He still wasn’t sure it was Cecily, but it was the woman from the grocery store. He looked a moment too long, and he realized how this woman’s little bird arms in her long-sleeved blouse were so like the ones he remembered now, for the first time in years, hammering at his back in the dark. He kept his voice low and his head down and as soon as his credit card cleared he slipped away, his fist around the little bell as he opened and closed the garden shop’s door.

For days, he kept to side roads, avoided stores, called his landscape customers and moved appointments so all his lawns for the rest of the month were outside of town, at estates in the Dominion or out 46 at the farm houses of old folks. But he couldn’t shake her. She was with him every time he was alone.

His wife, Gwen, asked what was on his mind, and he thought about what to say, how to tell her the story—how to tell anyone the story—but he just shook his head and said he was thinking about accounts, about his schedule. He told her a different story, how an old high school friend had come to him for work but he wouldn’t give it because the friend was recently in prison, and it felt like a betrayal, which was true but that had happened months ago. His wife nodded along with him and said, “Well, I’m sure you did the right thing. You can’t always stand by everyone.”

 

Val had been nineteen. It occurred to him now that he’d never known how old Cecily was. She might have been nineteen, she might have been closer to twenty-five. They’d met in the parking lot of the HEB, where she was struggling to get a bulk flat of yogurt into her trunk. He helped her load, remarked on all the milk and bread, the plastic sacks overloaded with cuts of lamb. “You must be feeding the whole church picnic,” he’d joked. She’d smiled at him and almost touched his arm. “I’m Val,” he’d said, and he offered his hand and she shook it.

“Is that short for Valentino?” she’d said.

“Might be better if it was. My mother had a thing for those romance comics, the prince on the white horse.”

“Valiant,” she’d said. She stared at him for a long minute and he made to step away, unsure what else to do, but she stopped him. Told him her name, invited him home to help her unload. Then she said, “I’m sorry, that’s an odd thing to ask.”

She seemed not embarrassed but ashamed, her cheeks like two carnations, and Val didn’t know what he could say but yes.

At her trailer, she’d only let him set her groceries on the porch, said she didn’t like to invite a man inside on the first date.

He said, “Is this a date?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I suppose, but you’ll have to let me make the next better.”

They went to town football games and took walks along the Cibolo where they had picnics and fed ducks. She talked a lot about God but he didn’t mind it. Then on their seventh date she invited him inside.

It was late in the evening and in the dark of the trailer she let him kiss her, though she kept her lips closed and her arms tight across her chest. Then a tiny voice from the hallway said, “Mommy?”

Cecily turned on a table lamp and knelt in front of a tiny girl, all pink pajamas with bunny heads for buttons. The girl was holding a Barbie doll in a homemade dress, the plain cloth thick so it masked the doll’s breasts, the blonde hair chopped short and tucked under a stiff white cap. The girl was staring at Val and her mother at the same time, her eyes splayed.

“Angel, this is Mommy’s friend Val.”

Val waved at the girl. The girl waved back, Mennonite Barbie swinging in her little fist. The girl said, “It’s noisy in the backyard. I can’t sleep.”

“We’re taking care of that, sweetie,” Cecily said. “Just go on back to bed now. If you can’t sleep, you know what you can do?”

“Talk to Mary?” The girl raised up Mennonite Barbie like a rabbit she’d killed. Cecily nodded and kissed the girl, turned her around, and followed her into the dark hole of the hallway.

When she’d returned, Cecily said, “She’s three.”

“Listen,” Val said, “I’m keeping her up. I ought to go.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” she said, “if you promise not to ever tell anyone.” He looked around the small room and shrugged and nodded his head. She pushed her fists between her breasts and leaned in to whisper. “God wants us to be together.”

“He does,” Val said. He’d meant it as a question but it didn’t sound like one.

Cecily backed away a few steps into a side room, an overhead light in there flaring to silhouette her in front of a white iron bedframe with a red comforter. She was facing him still, and she pulled her blouse over her head, her cotton bra heavy with her breasts. “Come and see,” she said. “Come and see how pure I am.”

 

In the morning the sky was a flat blue, no clouds at all, and the early sun stretched the shadows long. Val met the boys in his own driveway and handed Randal the keys to the pickup while Jesús hitched the trailer. Val gave them a list of addresses with times scrawled in the margins, and they discussed the morning’s routine. When they’d driven off, he climbed up into his ’78 Suburban and drove out to Blanco then turned down Main Street to John’s Road. He crossed the highway and turned down the access road.

He reached the entrance to an old subdivision but he turned instead down the side road, into what used to be a dusty row of trailers and doublewides. The road had been paved years ago, though it followed the same winding route between the mesquites and knobby live oaks. The homes at the ends of the caliche drives were no older than a decade. It took him till the end of the road to get his bearings, and he didn’t spot Cecily’s place until he’d turned around and was halfway back. He parked across the road and looked at it. The trailer was still there, a hump of aluminum siding on a cinderblock foundation, but the old steps had been torn out and replaced with a fine oak deck, two pale blue Adirondack chairs and a little red barbecue pit. Some of the trees had been cut back, the cedar shrubs pulled out. Other homes huddled in on the little lot like protective teenagers sheltering a bullied child. The new crowding hid the backyard from view and he couldn’t tell if the shed he remembered was still back there.

A set of knuckles hit his passenger window and he jumped. A man stood there, one elbow on the big sideview mirror. Val reached across the bench and cranked down the glass.

“Waiting on someone?” the man said.

“No, just looking. Used to know someone out this way.”

“Just reminiscing?”

Val looked to the little trailer. “Something like that.” He looked back at the man. “Sorry about just setting here. I’ll move along.”

“It’s alright. I come out here to look around sometimes myself. A lot of memories back in here.”

“You don’t live around here?”

“I do but I was gone awhile,” the man said. “Just moved back, after a long time.”

“A long time,” Val said. They both regarded the trailer again, Val over his elbow on the doorframe and the man through the width of the Suburban.

After a minute, the man said, “It’s always the women that bring us back, isn’t it.”

“It’s most of the time them. It’s often them that drives us off, too.”

* * *

In an early May heat, a street preacher accosted Val in the parking lot outside the corner store. They were across the high school and Val had no reason to assume the shuffling man was a preacher at all: his clothes were rank and his gait uncontrolled as he lurched into Val’s shadow on the cement. But the worn, color-tabbed bible clutched in his hands told his profession clear enough. The preacher leaned to one side and looked upward at Val as though his neck had fused to his spine and his only means of gazing skyward was askance. He was smiling but his voice was fierce. He said, “Have you been saved?”

Val tried to step around the preacher, but the preacher unpeeled one hand from his holy book and seized Val by the shoulder. “Son, I ask you, have you been saved?”

Val looked into the preacher’s electric eyes and shook his head. “I work on it anew every day,” he said. “You mind I could get around you?”

Val stepped into the parking lot to make for the corner store, but the preacher cleaved to his arm and Val had to drag him alongside. They walked together.

“Satan is right here in this very town. He lives in the hearts of drunkards and abusers and liberals and women. Are you a drunkard?”

“I hold my own.”

“Are you a liberal?”

“I’m a libertarian, now get off me.”

The old preacher gasped and gripped Val’s shoulder harder; he leaned into Val’s side and peered up at him from his crooked posture. “The Lord Christ who is Himself the Word has made all words to have power. Liberal and libertarian and libertine and women’s lib alike—you have been touched by evil, my son. Have you known the flesh of woman as well?”

“Mister, I been with my share and I’m a married man now. I’m not sure you even know what you’re talking about.”

“Women are sin!” The preacher slapped his book against Val’s arm and Val stopped walking and twisted his shoulder free. “You who have known sin are the devil!”

“Now listen here, preacher. I may be a son of a bitch and this town sure as hell needs its share of saving, but you talk about women, why, there was a woman right here in this town who had herself once been with—had been in the presence of an angel of God. So what do you think of that?”

The preacher reeled backward, gazed crookedly upwards and he howled at the white summer sun. “Sweet Lord, save this man,” he said, then he lost his balance and staggered to catch himself and as his feet moved so did he, jogging in a shuffle off across the parking lot toward some new mission unseen, muttering the while. Val watched after him and shook his head, then he entered the corner store.

He reached for a can of root beer from the cooler and popped it at the counter while the cashier rang him up. Val nodded out the glass doors to the far end of the lot where the preacher pitched and swayed along the roadside, headed down Blanco into town.

“You know that preacher out there?”

“Jeremy? He ain’t no preacher. He’s just a old crazy hangs around some days. You want me to call the cops?”

“No, that’s alright. He was just hanging on me is all.” Val paid and took his change but he stayed leaning against the counter and pulled again on his root beer. The cashier leaned in with him and they watched the preacher Jeremy disappear around the bend. “He kept talking about women being the devil.”

“It’s the truth sometimes.”

“That’s what I told him, but then I was telling him a story about one who was something else.”

“What was she?”

“She was devoted, is what she was.”

“This a old girlfriend of yours?”

Val drained his bottle and handed it to the cashier, who pitched it into a bucket behind the counter. Val shook his head slowly, as though it rested on a loose swivel and had caught a drift of wind.

“Way I heard it, this girl was flat in love with the Lord. Like she was married to him or something. Had herself a wedding dress and spent her evenings embroidering it with scripture until it was hemmed all around with verses in rows like tiers on a wedding cake.”

“Way you heard it.”

“Maybe that old boy was right, though. She was crazy herself, I suppose.”

“Some of them is alright.”

Val nodded, then tipped two fingers to his eyebrow and pushed from the counter, said “I best be getting on home to my own,” and he walked back out into the bright sunshine, one hand hot from the door handle and the other still cold from the root beer.

 

Val woke in the night to the yowl of a cat in the street and in a rush he jogged to the toilet to piss. When he returned, he ran a hand among the sheets then slipped into them. He stared at the window gauzed in thin curtains for a long time, listening and thinking of nothing at all. Then he rolled onto his side and watched his wife in the blue light from the street lamp through the curtains. He mouthed her name, Gwen, but he didn’t want to wake her—he mouthed it only to name her, like Adam in the Garden: Here is my wife.

He lay on his back and tried to recall more details of that other woman from all those years ago. Not the woman he’d seen in the streets but the younger Cecily, the first woman he’d ever been with. Yet no distinct features occurred to him. Even the color of her hair had left him—he thought it might have been a darkish blonde but it could just as easily have been bronze or even auburn. He never had known the color of her eyes. He arranged his memories of that night until he recalled at last the pendulous weight of each breast as he uncupped them from her bra, and for a few moments he enjoyed the hazy reminiscence of her warm and soft in that trailer. But then he recollected what had happened after and he let the memories go. Turned in the blankets and studied his wife instead.

Gwen breathed in the indigo dark. He extended an arm with his finger outheld to stroke her cheek but thought better of it. She seemed a hologram made from the blue night’s light, and he worried that if he touched her she would shimmer and dissolve. He thought of what it was like when he kissed her, the press of her lips beneath his mustache and the sweet scent of her breath. He closed his eyes and pictured the curve of her hip where it met her thigh, the place he liked to hold when they made love. When he opened his eyes he watched her as one watches a plane receding in the sky, waiting for the moment it becomes too small and disappears. But his wife remained as she was, breathing steadily on. What luck he’d had. He held his breath and stilled his body and then slipped his fingers into her curled hand, and she stirred and lolled her head but did not wake, and he exhaled and closed his eyes again and slept.

* * *

Val dropped the ramps and unchained the big yellow Walker from the rail, then he hopped into the trailer and backed the mower down where Randal waited with the sled. Jesús was sorting the nylon lines and checking the gas and oil levels in the weedeaters. Behind them the lawn stretched wide and green, only the frayed tips of the Augustine going brown in the summer sun, and Val surveyed the slopes and shallows though he knew by heart the route he would take. The huge house skinned in white Austin stone sat atop a small hill like a magistrate, watching them. Val stared at it a moment.

He let Randal hitch the sled to the back of the Walker as he lifted out the little Snapper push mower, checked the gas and oil in it. The three men gathered at the rear of the trailer, Jesús with the big Troy-Bilt slung over one narrow shoulder.

“Hace calor,” Jesús said to neither man, but more between them.

Randal nodded without looking at him and said “Si,” then to Val he said, “So, boss, I can take a look at those flower beds if you want. Ain’t done much to them since the summer started.”

Val glanced up toward the house where the little shrubs and a narrow strip of wilting marigolds and zinnias flashed in the morning light. “Sure,” he said. “But get them edges first, out along the fence, you and Jesús both. Entiende, Jesús? Los bordes?” Jesús nodded. “Then let Jesús take the little mower up behind the house while you check the beds.”

The men broke, Randal and Jesús walking apart like duelists in opposite directions to trim the fringe along the fence until they met behind the house. Val watched them a moment, then slipped on his heavy headphones over his ball cap and stepped into the sled, adjusted his feet, then switched on the key and set the choke and fired the big mower. It lurched and tugged at his grip but he followed it easily, the little wheels of his sled bouncing lightly through the grass and the engine growling before him as he glided out to the edge of the property. He spun a tight arc while he slapped the blades into gear and then he was lost to the world, rolling over the sprawling lawn and thinking about anything but work. The sandwiches Gwen had made him, the orange drum of water in the truck bed, the crazy preacher he’d met the other day, the crazy girl he’d met those many years ago. At the end of the lawn he spun a half-circle and rode back the opposite direction, all his lawns cut in ordered stripes to follow the contours of the land instead of awkward spirals like the kids would do. Like he would have done back then.

He dipped and rose along the roll of the vast lawn, his knees bending and unbending with the motion like a sailor aboard a rocking vessel, which is how he often felt out here alone in the bright sun, like a captain on some great green sea that he alone knew how to navigate.

When he’d finished, he raised the blades and rumbled back to the truck. Jesús and Randal stood there waiting, a cup of water each, and when he killed the engine and stepped down from the sled they handed him a cup as well. He looked into the water and watched it shiver, the vibrations of the mower still trembling in his hands. He downed the water and poured himself another and they all took out their paper sacks of lunches and stood leaning against the bed of the truck as they ate. They compared sandwiches like schoolboys: Randal had baloney, Jesús some unidentified loosemeat that they could not translate from his description, Val a thick chicken salad on wheat with the lettuce still dripping from when his wife had washed it. The other men shook their heads.

Randal said as he always said, “Man, your wife needs to teach my wife how to make a sandwich.”

Val only nodded and ate in silence.

“Hey Jesús, your woman make good sandwiches? You like them there she gives you?”

“No soy casado.”

“I don’t know what that means, amigo.”

“Sin esposa,” Jesús said.

“I think he’s saying he ain’t married,” Val said.

“Well maybe that’s a good thing, eh, Jesús?”

Jesús laughed and nodded.

“You just got lucky, didn’t you, Val? Never knew a rotten woman in your whole life, I bet.”

Val looked at them, cracked a grin. He said, “I don’t know about rotten. But there was this one girl, right here in Boerne, she was about the opposite, too saintly for her own good and half-crazy at that.”

“I figure every gal in this town is at least half-crazy—”

Jesús laughed and slapped the truck. “Locas,” he said. “Todas locas!”

Randal eyed him sideways but continued undisturbed. “What makes this one here so special?”

“This one here didn’t seem crazy in the beginning. Pure as the driven snow, first you’d think to talk to her. Good Christian woman. But then she’d take to preaching to a fellow, talking about how God had preordained their meeting. Said she herself had been with an angel. You know what I mean, been with? Said she did him, right there in her own bed, said an angel was the father of her child.”

“You’re shitting me. That never happened.”

“You want to hear this story or don’t you?”

“Go on, then,” Randal said. He took the last bite of his sandwich and pushed the wadded plastic bag into his paper sack.

“Way she told it, there was this angel who’d come to her and said she was blessed by God. Said he, the angel, was there to look after her and be with her all the time, said she was a bride of Christ. And then they’d slept together, her eyes rolled back in her head and some bliss like you couldn’t imagine—”

“My wife used to talk that way about foreplay but damned if I ever believed her.”

“Alright, never mind. You don’t want to hear this story, I won’t tell it.”

“Angels fucking women on behalf of God? And here in this town, of all the places? Come on, Val.”

“Los ángeles están en todas partes,” Jesús said, “pero estaría aterrado de ver a uno.”

“What was that?” Randal said.

“Nada,” Jesús said.</p

Val grabbed the empty paper sacks from the bed of the truck, crushed them together into a ball, leaned and chucked it in the open window of the cab. “Come on, guys, enough bullshitting. I got a business to run.”

 

Cecily’s bra had shone white in the bedroom light and her hips tilted and she held her arm outstretched. But the voice of the girl had weighed on young Val and he was slow in his approach. When he put his hands on her bare arms she recoiled, but when he backed away she pulled him closer.

“Listen,” he said. “You sure about this?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice so small it sounded like it was already coming from beneath the comforter. “It’s just, this is my first time,” she said.

“Well, that’s okay,” Val said, taking her arm in one hand and reaching with the other for her breasts. He found one, a soft cone of cotton and underwire though he couldn’t massage anything through the stiff cup. He reached with his other hand and tried to lift off her clasped bra like a shirt, and she wriggled to help him until her breasts popped free. “Wait,” he said. “What do you mean, your first time?”

“You mean my daughter?” She had her thin arms out like chicken wings, the bra pinching the flesh near her collarbone. Her voice was shaky and dim. “I only meant it’s my first time since my last time.”

“Well,” Val said.

But when he got the bra over her head and reached for her left breast, she said, “I am a virgin in Christ.”

His hand was already on her breast when she said this, and he left it there, his other hand on the button of his own jeans.

“Come again?”

“I’m born again, and Jesus made me pure.” They stood there in the shadows. “But then he abandoned me.”

They stood a moment longer, just their breath in the room. Then Val said, “So, you still want to do this?”

“I need to.” She shuffled backward until her knees hit the bed and she fell into it. She hooked her thumbs under her skirt and started worming her hips and grunting until she’d worked her skirt and her thick panties down her hips and thighs. Val unbuttoned his jeans and let them fall to the floor, where he kicked them toward the door. Cecily squirmed until all her material was wadded at her ankles, then she lay back and waited.

He looked at her in the light, her skin aglare from the bare bulb overhead, and he took a long breath. Then he crawled atop her.

Val tried to keep his weight off her, his arms going shaky and his knees burning against the cheap sheets, but she didn’t seem to care. After a while, Val started panting, his breath hot in her cleavage, and Cecily began to gasp. He took it as a cue and started grunting, but then she began to chant, “Oh God! Oh God!” and he realized she actually meant it, that he was revenge for her love affair gone wrong with the Almighty. Val never really finished. He lay on top of her for a few cautious minutes, then he slipped off the bed and started looking for his jeans.

 

Val drove Randal and Jesús each to his home in the bruised dusk, their clothes stiff with chaff and sweat, each sipping a Bud Light from a can in a paper bag. Randal said, “So what did this angel look like?”

“What angel?” Val said.

“The one that girl said she’d seen. The crazy one.”

“How the hell should I know?”

“You’re the one told the story.”

Val looked over. Randal and Jesús both were watching him in the dim light of the cab, their heads turned in parallel motion like puppets on the same string. Val sipped from his can and sighed.

“Well, the way I remember it, she said it was something terrible to see, terrible but beautiful, like looking directly into an eclipse. Said this angel was a perfection of manhood, all golden muscles and flowing hair, said his wings looked like fire but were a comfort to touch.”

Randal whistled and Val looked over. Jesús was crossing himself.

“Did anyone see the angel? I mean, apart from this girl.”

Val downed the last of his beer and tucked the empty under the seat. “I imagine anyone who did would be just as crazy as she was,” he said. “This here’s your stop, Jesús. Hasta mañana.”

Jesús shook his head, crossed himself again and then with the same hand waved good-bye. “Mañana,” he said. He climbed halfway out of the truck then stopped, put a hand on Randal’s arm. “Cervezas?” he said, with his free hand cocking a thumb over his shoulder.

Randal looked at his watch, then at Val. He shook his head and said, “Sure, what the hell.” He climbed out of the cab. “I’ll probably have to call my wife,” he said, then he turned and waved to Val and Val drove on. He took a different route home, cutting across the highway and up a thin access road. Out the passenger window flashed a stand of scrubby trees, and somewhere back beyond them was the backyard of the trailer, the memory of a rusty shed, a man’s dry voice crying out in the night. But Val never turned his head to look for it. He gripped the wheel and followed his headlights back over the highway.

On John’s Road, he stopped at a light and waited with his blinker on. But he was stopped beside his old church, the one his family used to attend and that he’d never set foot in after high school, not even to marry Gwen. He looked at it so long the light changed green and back to red. He switched his blinker and when the light changed again he pulled left and parked.

The sanctuary was open but empty save an odor of wood and dust in the carpet between the pews. The faint memory of burned wicks snuffed days before. He stood in the back with one hand on the rear pew, staring at the window over the altar, the glass showing no color that time of day. Shapes cut into the glass he could hardly remember. After a few moments he sat down in the pew beside him, still in the back of the church. He looked around him, ran a hand over the padded seat, pulled a finger down the gilded edges of the pew bible. He realized he was holding his breath and exhaled. Then he stood again and backed out of the sanctuary. He made sure to pull the door shut behind him.

 

He ate two helpings of his wife’s barbecue meatloaf, the caramelized onions slipping out from the beefy slices as he chewed.

“You got some sauce on your chin,” Gwen said. She handed him a napkin and he rubbed it over his mouth and chin, then lifted a huge forkful of meatloaf and wrapped his lips around it and took up another even as he chewed. “Slow down there,” Gwen said. “I cooked it through, so I don’t think it’s gonna crawl off the plate and run away.”

Val set down the fork, swallowed half his mouthful then washed down the rest with a long swig of beer from his can. He laughed but it came out half a belch, and he laughed again.

“Sorry, hon,” he said. “This is some damn fine meatloaf, though.”

“Well thank you,” she said.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think there ever was such a thing. Good meatloaf. Figured it was just always meatloaf, same as any other.” He lifted the loaded fork again and ate. Around his mouthful he said, “This here is, mm, yes ma’am.” He swallowed and took another pull from his beer. “Matter of fact, the boys today were talking about your cooking, said they were jealous I had such a wife.”

“That’s sweet of them,” Gwen said.

“No ma’am, sweet of you.” He looked at her, set down his fork and leaned against his elbows on the table, his jaw in his cupped hands. “I couldn’t take much sweeter.”

“Stop being foolish, Val. You already got me.” But she smiled at him sideways, that crooked smile he loved so much.

 

“You’re leaving?” Cecily said, her sheets pulled tight against her chest to hide her damp breasts.

“No, no,” Val said. “That was, you know, it was great, really. I thought I’d go for a short walk, just need to clear my head.”

“But you can’t leave,” she said. Her eyes were huge in the bright bedroom.

“I’m not, I’m just stretching my legs,” he said, his brain moving in a panic. Then he said, “Just in your backyard, if that’ll make you feel better.” He was pretty sure there was a dog back there, he could hear the chain muted in the darkness, but he hoped it would leave him alone long enough so he could hop the fence.

But she gasped and sat up onto her knees, the sheet tighter on her breasts, and she was shaking her head violently.

“Not the back,” she whispered. “He’ll see you!”

Val had gotten both his legs into his jeans but he stopped, the front belt loops hooked to his forefingers and the jeans on his thighs.

“Who’ll see me?”

“My angel,” Cecily said.

“Your daughter?”

“No, my angel, the angel that God sent to me.”

Val stared at her. She quaked in her sheet. Her wet eyes gleamed.

“God sent me an angel, but I loved the angel so much that God grew jealous and abandoned me. And He called the angel back to Him, but I am a selfish sinner and I couldn’t let my angel go, so I keep him in my tool shed. But I can release him now that God has sent me you, only you have to stay.”

Val stared. His shirt peeked from beneath the blanket, tucked half under the bed. He swiped for it and tugged it inside-out over his head. He stuffed his still-socked feet into his shoes, ignored the laces. Cecily was yelling now, “You have to stay! You have to stay!” and in the back of the trailer a small voice slipped through a thin door:

“Mommy?”

Cecily was saying, “Val, you can’t go, we have to wed—”

He grabbed the blanket at the foot of the bed and bent toward her quivering face. He said, “Cecily, relax.” She was crying. He said, “Cecily,” then switched modes and said, “My child, don’t worry.” She caught her breath and stopped crying, so he went for it: “You have nothing to worry about. I’m a new angel. I’m here to forgive you.”

“Only Christ has the power to forgive,” she whimpered. Val shook his head, gripped the blanket hard.

“That’s right,” he said. “That’s right, and I am Jesus.” Her eyelids disappeared, gone so wide they lifted back behind her eyeballs.

“You’re a bride of Christ again. So just calm down.”

She threw her arms around him, kissed him everywhere, his eyebrows, his ears, his chin, until he had to pry away her wrists and twist out of her grip. He headed for the door and she fell naked from the bed, crawled after him.

He said, “This angel’s out back? I’m going to return him to God, and then I’m coming back, okay?”

“Yes, Lord, oh yes Jesus,” she said.

He ran. In the hallway that joined the living and dining areas, the girl was standing with her Barbie, stripped naked now too, held out in front of her like a crucifix to a vampire. Her pajamas were stained in a little circle like a shadow between her legs. He stared at her too long, his memory gnawing at him, his heart jumping to see the stain, but the girl only stared back. Then he heard Cecily climb from the bed and Val veered right through the kitchen and hit the back door running, burst into the weedy yard behind the trailer. The moon had risen but the clouds were thick and gray. He could just make out the fence, old and leaning, and a shed in the corner, tiny and alive with sound. Shufflings and a chain. And Val stopped. Behind him, in the trailer, the girl was crying and Cecily was shouting, “Praise be to God!” A light came on somewhere in the trailer and a long bar of yellow shot into the yard through the open back door, a corridor interrupted by the shapeless mass of Val’s shadow. Off to the left, in the dark, was the shed. To the right, the lowest portion of the leaning fence. Val looked behind him, then tiptoed left.

There was no lock on the shed. He pulled the metal door aside, the sharp whine of hinges masking the gasp of a shape on the floor. Something white, like ash still in the form of a leaf, drifted into the yard from the dark. The shape lunged after the ash, chains dragging the floor, thin hands grasping at Val’s ankles, a patchy beard and horrible breath sending forth an inhuman voice, the tonsils two rocks in his throat.

“Oh sweet Jesus, help me, man. You gotta help me.” The voice was giving out, gasping and panting, the chains shifting on the floor.

Val shook his head, looked back at the trailer in the dark, that bar of light and the thin Formica countertop cutting through it in the kitchen. He spun away from the shed and ran, leaped the fence but the fence collapsed under him and he tumbled into a tangle of wire and long grass. Two voices came to him in the night, one from the shed that said, “Jesus Christ, you son of a bitch, help me!” and the other, from the trailer, “Lord, my Lord?”

Val climbed off the fallen fence. A dog began to bark. Several hundred yards away a semi pushed hard down the highway, a car or a pickup, then more semis. Val broke into the trees and ran for the highway, through branches that slapped his face and arms.

 

That night he woke with a kick of his feet, his heart hammering, his breathing ragged. He jerked up onto his elbows and scanned the blue dark of his bedroom.

“Is this the trailer?” he said. “Was that the shed?”

He felt a hand on his arm and he yelped and pulled away but then he saw the face of his wife looking at him, the pale oval of her like a spirit in the dark. His heartrate slowed, he touched her arm in return and then he lay on his back, catching his breath.

“You alright, sweetheart?” his wife said.

“Had a hell of a dream,” he said.

“What was it about?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Go on back to sleep.”

She sighed and rolled away from him. “You’re so damned cranky when you wake up like that,” she said.

He rolled from bed to piss, and when he returned he felt the sheets then climbed in, propped on an elbow and bent to kiss Gwen’s cheek. She rolled back toward him and rested her head on his arm, her hand on his chest.

“You’re warm,” she said.

He said nothing. He breathed deliberately and slow, thought cool thoughts, cold beer, the light touch of his wife’s fingertips, the wind on a roof in winter when he set aside the lawn mowing and took to cleaning chimneys. And he lay with his eyes open for a long time, because when he closed them, he could still see the form of a man, not flaming and golden but pale and crippled, bent in the shadows, steam rising from his naked, scarred back. In the distance of the memory a child’s voice, calling into the dark, Daddy, Daddy, are you in the shed?

 

At breakfast he told his wife the story, his eyes on his eggs as they went cold. He left out the part about seeing the man in the shed, told her only about Cecily crying after him in the dark as he ran.

Gwen said, “That’s a hell of a tale.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“You ever see her again?”

Val thought for several minutes, the images of the woman in the HEB, at the garden shop. Other times he’d seen a woman driving a car in town and he’d turned away down a side road just in case it was her. All these detours in his life the past months. He didn’t tell Gwen any of this.

“I heard stories about her,” he said. “That she’d taken to driving past my house in the night until I finally went off to Amarillo for work. Heard later she’d got pregnant again by God knows who.”

“But not by you.”

“Hell no, not by me.”

Gwen covered his hand with hers and said, “I kind of worried that’s why you were telling me the story.”

Val said, “Well.” He moved his gaze from his plate to the table but not to her. “No, that ain’t it at all. But I have been thinking. The thing I wonder sometimes is if that girl was onto something. Sometimes I worry I did wrong running out on her, like I might have got onto God’s bad side for it.”

“God’s got no bad side that I know of. No good side either. He just is.”

“I don’t know. Just seems I been feeling more religious lately, thinking about that girl. You ever feel maybe we need more religion in our life?”

“Val, let me tell you about religion. You can have all the trappings and the ceremonies and the mumbo jumbo you want. You can read prayers out a book or dance in the aisles or just do like the Amish, sit and stare at each other for a hour or so. You can have priests and popes or no preachers at all. I believe myself a Christian but I’ll tell you, I think every religion there is boils down to this. It’s about security, about having a purpose in life, a reason to wake up in the morning. It’s about knowing the world’s the way it’s supposed to be and that if something goes wrong with that, someone’ll be there to help you through it. And darling, you are my religion.”

* * *

After work, Randal and Jesús climbed into the cab of Val’s truck but Val kept it idling. He said, “Y’all feel like grabbing a beer?”

“Well hell, Val. You don’t have to ask me twice.”

“Voy a cenar con una mujer,” Jesús said.

“How’s that?” Randal said.

“Says he’s got a date.”

“Goddamn, Jesús, why didn’t you say so? Who is this woman? Is she caliente?”

Jesús only laughed and shook his head, and Val put a hand on Randal’s arm.

“Leave him be. We’ll just grab a few ourselves.”

They dropped Jesús at his house and headed to the Raccoon Saloon, where they took a table in the back and ate tortilla chips and drank Bud Light. A football game played behind the bar and mostly they watched it, though sometimes a woman would walk into the bar and Randal would elbow Val and nod at her.

After the third beer, Val said, “I heard some more of that story.”

“What story.”

“That woman I told you about that time, the religious one.”

“Said she fucked a angel?”

“She’s the one. There’s more to it. Seems she kept the angel.”

“I don’t follow.”

Val downed his beer and sat turning the glass on the table as he told about the man in the shed, the scent of body odor and rust.

“Angels don’t smell that way,” Randal said.

“I only know it how I heard it.”

“Well I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Alright then, I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Tell it.”

“It was me with that woman.”

“The god-fucker? She fucked you?”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m telling the truth.”

“So tell the truth, then. What’d you really see in that shed out back?”

“A man, I’m telling you. Skinny as hell, dirty and pale, growth on his face. Not quite a beard. All oily and shaking in the cold.”

“Was he really in chains?”

“He really was. Collar around his neck. Scared me to death.”

“At least he wasn’t no angel.”

“I’ll tell you what, I don’t know what the hell he was. I just know he wasn’t me, and I thank God for that.”

“You talk like you didn’t wind up in chains anyway. You got married, you’re working a hard job, when’s the last time you had a beer with me or Jesús after a long day in the sun? This is the first time I can remember. You don’t ever cut loose, Val, just head straight on home every damn night. They call it a ball and chain for a reason, and you’re the reason.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. Far as I’m concerned you have yourself as good a wife as you deserve, and I got better. Ball and chain is just an excuse to go out drinking, to pretend we got something to run from. My Gwen ain’t the chain, Randal, she’s the damned key.”

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Randal said. “You know how I like your wife, Val. I am sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just buy me another beer.”

 

In the night Val woke in damp shorts and in a panic he realized he’d wet himself. He checked the sheets but it had only just happened and hadn’t seeped upward yet. He held the bedclothes away from himself and looked at Gwen in the dark but she didn’t stir, and he slipped carefully out of bed. In the bathroom he left the light off and balled his shorts up to disguise the stain, and he tucked them into the bottom of the hamper. He damped a cloth and wiped at himself then rinsed it several times and wrung it out and stuffed it into the hamper as well. Everything on an instinct he’d thought he’d long forgotten.

He sat naked on the toilet and felt his breath, a hand on his chest, his eyes closed. He’d been six years old the last time he’d wet himself. He could still see the shapes the tree branches made in shadow through his bedroom window, remembered which looked like eyes and which looked like fingers. He could hear the sighs his mother made, her nightgown white and papery, as she gathered up the sheets.

He thought of the girl with the Mennonite Barbie. The tiny voice in the trailer.

Actually, now he thought about it, he’d been twenty. A week before he’d left for Amarillo. A week after they’d found the body of a man in an abandoned shed. His wet shorts in the trash in Boerne and all his dry ones in a suitcase as he drove across West Texas.

In the closet he dressed with the door closed, then he peered through the bedroom but Gwen was still asleep. In the kitchen he wrote a note and hung it from the fridge. He set a pot of coffee to brew and left it for Gwen. In the truck he let the gear out and rolled down the drive, then started the engine in the street and coasted up the road.

He drove out to the highway and up the access road to the small billboard where he’d emerged from the trees gasping and frantic twenty years before. He parked the truck in the grass and climbed a small wire fence and traced his way through the trees until he came to a line of backyards.

The fences all had changed, all horizontal wood planks to make a set of walls. The wire fence he’d broken in his escape long lost in the undergrowth or else removed. He walked the fences with a hand along the top, lifting his chin over them to peer into the yards until he found Cecily’s trailer. What had once been her trailer. He recognized the back door from his dreams, but the shed was gone, a plastic playset with a slide and a swing in its place. He put a shoe in the fence planks and pulled himself onto the fence, careful of the creaks in the wood as he swung a leg over and dropped into the yard. In the trees next door he could see the sky paling with the coming dawn, and he heard a birdcall and a ruffle of wings, then a cardinal arced across the yard to a tree opposite. He crouched and watched it. With his knees bent and his arms wide for balance he crabwalked to the playset, his eyes on the trailer windows, then he hid himself behind the slide and pushed his hands through the cedar needles and oak leaves. He knew what he was looking for as sure as he knew he wouldn’t find it, the ashy feathers he’d seen in the shed certainly decayed and washed away. But he found in the exposed earth beneath the leaves the packed impression of the shed, the squared lines of the old foundation. He looked back at the trailer, sat in the earth under the slide with a hand on the rope of the swing, and he waited. More birds stirred and a pair of squirrels took to chasing each other, and the sun mounted and the sky went blue. The morning shadows were long and he could make out the cut of the lines in the patchy Bermuda grass. Whoever mowed it mowed it in spirals. He mapped the contours and plotted a route for grass he would never cut.

When he saw the woman in the window he saw that it wasn’t Cecily, nor was it the woman he’d seen around town. She was younger, her blonde hair cropped short, her face too wide, her shoulders too small. He waited until she’d left the kitchen and he crawled backward to the fence, watched the windows, stood and hopped back into the woods and returned to his truck. On the access road he stood with a hand on the door handle, the semis and cars sweeping past on the highway. He checked his watch and saw that in town, Jesús and Randal would be at the gas station where they usually met, wondering what was taking him so long. He wondered what had taken him so long himself.

He climbed into the truck, and he pulled onto the road and crossed the highway back into town, turned down Main Street and meandered in and out of side neighborhoods, watching the sidewalks, the roadsides. He passed the cemetery and then the Racoon Saloon, headed to the edge of town, then he circled down the highway around the town and came back in from the other side. As he drove others joined him, neighbors off to work or taking children to school. Some recognized his truck and raised two fingers from their steering wheels, and he did the same and nodded at them.

He got to Blanco and turned up it toward the high school. He pulled into the convenience store across from the high school and he poured a cup of coffee. The same man behind the counter. He said, “Heard any good stories lately?”

Val said, “I’ve heard them all. Now I’m looking for some new ones.”

From there Val turned down Esser to River Road then swung around in his seat because he’d found what he was looking for. Jeremy the preacher was out by Cibolo Creek, standing over the dam. He was waving his arms at the ducks.

Val parked halfway down the road and walked back up along the creek, Jeremy the preacher’s back to him. He could hear the words, could see the flagged Bible flapping open in his left hand. “Behold, he shall come up and fly as the ducks, and spread his wings over Boerne, and at that day shall the heart of the mighty men of Kendall be as the stomach of a woman in her pains.”

Val came to the narrow concrete dam and Jeremy turned and saw him. His eyes went wide and his voice went soft, his crooked spine threatening to pitch him over the dam and his face like a frightened child. “I beheld the hills of the Hill Country,” he said. “There was no man, and all the birds were fled. All the cities were broken down in the fury of the Lord.”

“So I hear,” Val said. He climbed over the iron bars blocking the entrance to the dam, stepped out onto the dam and offered Jeremy his hand. Jeremy shook his head but he followed Val back to the bank. Val waited for Jeremy to climb over the bars but Jeremy only leaned on them, keeping to his side, his cocked head seeming to peer not at Val but at the soft crash of the water into the pool below. Val said, “Tell me another story about the Lord.”

Samuel Snoek-Brown lives in Portland, OR, where he teaches writing and serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. Online, he lives at http://snoekbrown.com. His short fiction has appeared in Eunoia Review, Bartleby Snopes, Portland Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Red Fez, among others. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Box Cutters and of the novel Hagridden, for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship.

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5 Responses to The Penitent Go to Texas

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  2. kvennarad says:

    When people ask me how to write, I point them at this guy.

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