An excerpt from my novel(-in-progress) is up at Narrative Backstage today, alongside audio readings from James Salter, Donald Hall, and Ann Beattie, new fiction from Richard Bausch, Stuart Dybek, Josh Weil, and Charlie Smith, new nonfiction from Rick Bass, and much more.
Originally this post included a disquisition on the use of autobiographical elements in made-up stories, but I thought the better of that long-windedness. Suffice it to say that the excerpt is called fiction for a reason. Here’s how it starts:
When the Flock Changed
My mother was a preacher until the cops shut her down. Well, okay, she kept at it halfheartedly in our living room for a while, but the fire had wiped out not just her warehouse church and the halfway house she ran out of it, but her passion, her commitment, and maybe even, deep down, her belief. All those years of serving the Lord, of taking to the streets to let the homeless and addicted and just plain lonely know what a friend they had in Jesus, and now she had no proper house of worship, no sea of folding chairs or repository of sermons on tape. She was practically a layperson. Worse, her flock knew it and was slipping away.
The church ladies saw the blaze as a sign of God’s disfavor. Mom had created a makeshift dorm in the sanctuary, a commercial space, and one of the guys had fallen asleep with a joint still burning. Maybe she shouldn’t have spent so much time ministering to the riffraff when there were perfectly normal people’s problems to attend to. Our Heavenly Father wouldn’t have let the church burn down if she’d been in tune with Him and His Word. So the flock was saying.
I think my little sister, Faith, and I knew, even as we stood that sunny August morning beside the scorched remains of folding chairs and tambourines, worried for our friends who’d been living there, that the church would end up shuttered. As Faith paced and kicked up anthills, I surveyed the wreckage. A shard of my friend Luke’s rainbow bong glinted along the periphery. He’d only been out of the mental hospital for a few months and didn’t need any more trouble. Glancing over to make sure the cops weren’t watching, I stooped and slid the iridescent glass into my pocket. A second later one of the officers turned. “Behind the yellow tape,” he yelled, motioning toward me as if directing traffic. “This is a crime scene.”
Three policemen took measurements, one shouted into a CB, another scrawled notes. Mom batted her eyelashes, tried to talk to them, but they weren’t especially interested in what she had to say. The detectives had already interviewed her. “Step aside, ma’am,” one of them said.
Our mother wasn’t used to being treated like that. She was plump, sure, but she had a pretty face, a large chest, and thick blond hair. She had yellow cat eyes that she insisted were also blond. Mom was like a high school cheerleader for God — and, like a cheerleader, she was accustomed to deference. And a large following.
In the weeks that followed, Mom stood in the backyard, hands in her pockets, staring at the pool, until standing still became too much effort. Then she dropped into a lounge chair. As the position of the sun changed, she followed the shade, staying close enough to the water to dip her feet in and glide them back and forth. But even these desultory activities failed to give full expression to her ennui, and at last she took to her bed. She’d sleep till around noon. Then she’d venture to the kitchen for coffee to fortify her for the grueling afternoon lineup of Hawaii Five-O and Carol Burnett Show reruns.
She announced that she’d no longer be driving Faith and me to school. “We live close enough for y’all to just march your own little butts down there,” she said. “And unfortunately, I’m sure you can also find your way home.” Then she lay back down and pulled the sheets over her head. A whiff of sour air escaped from the covers. They smelled like old people and old people’s problems, and I vowed that I would shower twice a day for the rest of my life so my bed would smell only of shampoo and deodorant soap and maybe some exotic perfume.
If you’d like to read the whole thing now, it’ll set you back $3. (Or you can submit to the current contest and gain access to all of Narrative Backstage.) When the spring issue of the magazine goes live online, you can read the piece for free, and eventually the print version will be available at your local bookstore.
In case you’re wondering, “When the Flock Changed” isn’t the title of my book. I’m keeping that part to myself for now.