Friday, November 30, 2012


By Kent E. Goolsby

The sun laid down beyond the edge of the furthest bare trees, igniting their branches and leaving them charred silhouettes against the forever fading sky. There was a heaviness in the air that seemed to always arrive before the storms of early spring. Rain began to trickle, droplets echoing as they crashed down upon dried leaves. A creek sat just beyond the property line of the old church. It continued it's course, unaffected and uncaring of the approaching darkness. It twisted and rolled under a rusty barbwire fence like a trespasser making their way onto another's land, then it turned away from the church and ran into the night.
            Curtis McKenzie sat at his desk in the back office of the church, one arm resting on the polished oak top, the other posed on his elbow, cradling his head in his hand. He sat turned from the desk, staring out at the creek through the large window to his side. The night had snuck up on him and he had neglected to even turn on a lamp. The office was shrouded in darkness, save for the the fleeting sun and the dull yellow light from the sanctuary seeping in through the door that stood ajar. There were noises in the church that night, like almost every other night. Pews echoed as if bodies still sat on them, passing collection plates and shifting uncomfortably beneath the words of the sermon. There was a sense of guilt that never seemed to leave this place. It hung in the air like the large brass chandelier overhead. It was in the dull off white paint that chipped away from the walls. It swam in the baptismal pool and hid behind the pulpit. It was forever in attendance.
            The rain's rhythm began to beat quickly against the window pane. McKenzie found the sound relaxing, for it drowned out the ghostly noises heard faintly past the door. He leaned forward and clicked the desk light on. The light bulb crackled to life and chased away the approaching shadows back into the corners of the room. The revealed hardwood floor showed it's age where many heavy boots had been drug across it for the better part of a century. He glanced up at the clock and with a sigh pushed his chair back from the desk. “I swear if that preacher don't show up again...,” the sound of his words dried quickly in the stale air. He leaned down and lifted a bottle from the bottom most drawer of the desk. Placing it in front of him he unscrewed the cap and after lifting it's weight to his lips he replaced the cap and sat the bottle aside. He shifted uneasily in the chair and turned his attention back to the window. There was nothing to see beyond the darkness of the dusty glass. He didn't feel alone in the old church, although he was. There hadn't been any visitors since the service at 10 that morning. The attendance had been increasing over the last couple of weeks but had slumped today. The collection money had been collected and counted and pastor Claybourne would not be pleased.
             McKenzie had worked for Claybourne for two years. He was the general care-taker for the Baptist church and it's property, which meant minding everything from a leak in the roof to a stopped up toilet in the women's bathroom. He took his job dead-seriously and was at the church most of the day. It was about 9 months ago that pastor Claybourne had stressed to McKenzie the importance of this Sunday night ritual.  McKenzie was to never leave the money alone and he was to no longer put it in the safe as he had done the first year or so he had worked there. Claybourne explained that it was no longer safe to simply leave the money in the church and he would come get it every Sunday night and personally deposit it in the bank Monday morning.  McKenzie figured the safe to be just as good at holding money as the bank was but had learned long ago not to argue with Claybourne. For a preacher Claybourne had a mean streak in him that was known throughout the county.
            He had heard several stories of Claybourne's aggressive attitude towards bars, stills and drinking in general. McKenzie's brother Ray had said that any night of the week you could find Claybourne down at Dukes spitting fire and casting hell and damnation upon those unlucky enough to be within hearing range of his high, creaky ramblings. This, McKenzie supposed, was why attendance had gone up in recent months.
            McKenzie grew restless. There was some nameless yearning for movement within him, as if the  blood in his veins flowed like river after a long afternoon of steady rain. He looked about the office. Unlike the sanctuary, the back office was never painted. Knots showed themselves in the warped boards like eyes watching him. Large pictures of former pastors hung from the wall, each surrounded by an intricate wooden frame. These too, made him feel as if he was being looked upon.  He glanced again at the clock and rose to his feet. His work boots felt heavier to him now then they had that morning. It had been a long Sunday. Feeling weary but stable on his feet, McKenzie slowly made his way to the window. Though McKenzie was much older than he once was he still felt a great fight in him, a struggle for usefulness. He told himself he wasn't dead yet numerous times throughout the course of a day. As he reached the window, lightning seared the western sky and though he knew the thunder came from above, it felt very low and near to him, like the rumble of a 305 small block just behind the dash.  The wind whimpered at the window. He leaned closer, his long nose pressed upon the cold glass. He could have sworn he saw something at the edge of property. Another bolt of lighting split the blackened sky and exposed the yard in a brief, other-worldly light. For an instant McKenzie saw a man emerge from the unforgiving woods that border the now swollen creek.
                        The trailing thunder shook the window pane in front of McKenzie's eyes, which were open beyond the round edge of his glasses. The lock on the window rattled like coins in the devil's pocket. He removed his glasses from his nose and squinted futility through the saturated glass. Almost immediately disbelief washed over him. McKenzie had stopped trusting his eyes years ago. “There ain't no way someone would dare be up in those woods on a night like this,” he said, his breath painting a thin cloud of perspiration on the glass before him. He stood back from the window, his heart still beating madly in his chest. “All the same, I oughta check it out,” his voice nervous under the sound of pounding rain. He took his coat from the back of the chair and put it on. It was as heavy as a sack of potatoes and colored spinach green with a grey fur lining surrounding the hood.  He had purchased it at the army surplus store some numberless years ago. Before making his way to the sanctuary he went to the closet on the far side of the room. Opening the door he reached between the hanging pastoral robes and pulled from it's depths a Remington '48 Sportsman 2+1. After making certain it was loaded, McKenzie turned and went trough the office door and into the dimly lit sanctuary.
            McKenzie always had the same uneasy feeling when entering the sanctuary, as if it had been waiting for his arrival. His mother had made him feel this way every Sunday afternoon throughout her later years. Waiting for him by the backdoor in the kitchen of the old house, she would sit staring at nothing but the sun creeping across the stained linoleum floor. Stepping inside the door was like stepping onto vibrating train tracks as his mother's words rolled slow and heavy over him. She laid guilt upon him like too many logs onto a dying fire. He stood smothered until she had had her say, then they ate dinner in silence. Though he felt no joy in her passing, the absence of their Sunday afternoon ritual met him with relief.
            As McKenzie made his way across the sanctuary he let the gun come to rest on his shoulder. The lit chandelier loomed overhead, pressing shadows onto the faded red carpet beneath his boots. He noted how much the sanctuary had fallen into disrepair. He had told Claybourne several times that the ceiling required costly repairs or risked caving in. Claybourne had responded to each concern as one would a door to door salesman's pitch. McKenzie studied the pulpit as he walked past. Cracks at its base had begun to split the wood. Years of Claybourne slamming his brick like bible upon it had taken it's toll. McKenzie shuddered at the thought of Claybourne's voice booming over the crowded pews, holding the book high over his head and sending it crashing down like the thunder that waited for him as he neared the door.
            McKenzie brought the gun down and held it his hands.  He paused briefly and with one last survey of the sanctuary, he pushed the door open with his shoulder. The wind blew rain from the darkness that met McKenzie's glasses and clouded them almost immediately. “Aw, damn...”, he said as he took his glasses off and placed them in his coat pocket. “Can't see nothin' out here anyway.” Shifting the gun to his left hand he reached into his coat and withdrew a large, steel flash light. Pointing into the blackness the light came to life feebly and revealed nothing but the rain pounding the soil as a tiller would, turning the yard into soft, wet dirt. “Is anybody out here?” yelled Mckenzie, his voice cracking in the darkness. He waited, the only reply was the sound of thunder from deep in the woods as if something had crash landed beyond his field of vision. His jacket was already soaked through with  rain, it now felt more like a coating of tar on him, weighing his every movement. He managed to step off the porch and began to make his way towards the woods. He gave up on the flashlight, clicking it off and replacing it back inside his coat. After what felt like ten minutes worth of slow, lumbering footsteps, he came across a large oak tree and even in the darkness realized where he was. The tree was the only oak in the back of the property before you reached the woods, it's thick and ancient roots spreading like a spider's legs, holding the earth below it.  He breathed heavy and hard and came to rest on the roots beneath the great tree.
             The rain had come to a sudden stop, the final drops still echoing beyond the tree line. The clouds began a slow retreat to the southeast, allowing a ghostly pale moon to wonder into view. The bare branches from the oak tree cast long, thin shadows reaching for the dark, impenetrable woods before him. McKenzie breathed a sigh of relief and leaned the shotgun against the rough bark of the tree as he squinted into the black. There was no sound now. The moon began drawing shapes out of the darkness before him.
            A shot boomed from the direction of the creek and McKenzie felt in his right leg a sharp sudden pain, like no other pain he had felt before. He swore into the damp air and fell forward, down toward the wet ground. He could barely move. His mind raced at a speed that he hadn't experienced in years. He heard feet fall near him. “That aint no preacher,” said a young boy's voice from above him. Another voice spoke much closer to him, “It's old man McKenzie.”  “Aw, shit.” McKenzie struggled to turn himself over, to see the faces of those who stood above him. His coat weighed him down like a great quilt, tucking him into the dirt. He rose his head just enough to see the wooden stock of his shotgun on the far side of the oak tree, just out of arms reach. A familiar feeling began to creep within him. The nameless stirring of a tired, restless soul, not yet fit to lay eyes on the glory. He turned the mud in his hands and began to inch forward, the pain in his leg like a great weight in tow. “Where do you think your goin' old man?” said the voice furthest from him. They both laughed uneasily and McKenzie heard them step away from him. “What are we goin' do now?” said one of them.  “Hold on, just let me think a minute,” replied the other.
            As a great cloud lumbered in from the west, the branches of the oak tree began to creak above McKenzie's head. He pulled himself slowly along its roots, wishing desperately to hold in his shaking hands not the wood of the tree, but the wooden stock of the shotgun. With his muscles aching and the weight of his muddy clothes growing heavier with every movement, he felt as though he was climbing a mountain, it's summit somewhere beyond the heavens. After what seemed like an eternity he at last felt his fingernails scrape the stock of the 12 gauge for no more than a second before his temple was impacted by a steel toed boot.  “Whoa now, mister! Can't let you be grabbing at that,” a voice said in the darkness. The boy's words fell on deaf ears for the pain McKenzie felt was beyond physical. He heard nothing but saw a blinding light. His head felt like it was splitting and along with the buckshot in his leg he knew he wasn't long for this world. But it wasn't death that began to grip him in that dark formless night – it was something else, something more familiar and he almost felt comfort as he lost consciousness upon the bed of roots beneath the oak tree.
            McKenzie had never seen the ocean before, but now he did more than see it, he felt it. A cool breeze brushed his tough, unshaven cheek as he stood barefoot upon the warm sand of some nameless beach. Before him waves rose and fell in the distance beneath a faded blue jean sky as the moon shown like a dead sun in the twilight. Here McKenzie should have known peace. Here McKenzie should have called it quits. But even though these waves were calm and the temperature mild, he had no want to be here, on what he thought surely were the sands of time. This was not the heaven he had asked for.
            He awoke in a coughing fit with his hands bound, face down on a dry, dirt floor. The rain had long ceased and the only sound he heard was a ringing that was now fading in his ears. As his vision began to focus, he saw shreds of moon light slipping in between the rotting pieces of wood that made up the walls of a small shed he found himself in. His thoughts were scattered like the splitters of an old barn that had been blown across a great field by a tornado. Through the absence of coherent thought he was met by wave of nostalgia that carried him back to his youth, when on multiple occasions he had sought refuge in his father's workshop to hide in terror from the sounds of his drunken father yelling his name into the night air: “CURTIS! CURTIS WHERE ARE YOU BOY!? I KNEW YOU WASN'T GONNA FINISH THEM CHORES! I DONE TOLD YOU WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU DIDN'T! CURTIS! IF YOU KNOW WHATS GOOD FOR YOU, YOU BETTER ANSWER ME BOY!”
            He was startled by the childlike unease that followed this vibrant memory. From where he lay he could see several rusted farming tools hanging from nails above an old wooden work bench. His eyes went from tool to tool until they came to rest on an old hand saw. “That outta do it,” he wheezed. As McKenzie attempted to roll over onto his back, he was abruptly reminded of the wound to his leg as a sharp pain ran the length of his body and brought him completely out of his half-daze. “Goddam-!” his voice cut short by another coughing fit, his body rattling.  On his second attempt he managed to roll onto his back, his face twisted with pain to the point of being unrecognizable. When he relaxed and opened his eyes he saw above him a network of broken boards and rusted tin. Through the many holes in the roof he saw rubber tires which had been laid upon the tin roof to keep it from blowing off during a spring storm, such as the one that had just passed. As his breathing slowed and the ache in his leg subsided, the light seeping in through the walls and roof had begun to retreat into the darkness like a spooked dog. McKenzie knew that this night's storms were far from over.
            After what felt like a lifetime of misery, McKenzie sat upright, his wounded leg stretched out before him as he leaned with his back against the work bench. With a throat that felt lined with sandpaper, he breathed deeply and watched his chest rise and fall beneath his tattered denim overalls. Much to his surprise the wound on his leg had all but stopped bleeding, small pieces of buck shot spread across his thigh like a rash. “If them boys had waited till I was a few feet closer, that would've been it” he choked. McKenzie raised his head and looked about the shack.  In the center of the dirt sat an old familiar John Deere tractor, it's paint faded to a dull spinach color. At once he realized where the boys had stashed him. He was in the crumbling old church shed at the edge of the property.
            Once he felt he had the strength, McKenzie began to struggle to get to his feet. After several attempts he finally stood, dizzy, with his hip resting against the work bench. His head was light and he was drenched in sweat, looking down he noticed his leg wound had begun to bleed again. “Shit... body ain't worth nothin' no more” he said, in a half-laugh, half-croak. The shed seemed like an ancient tomb for the long forgotten tools of man. In the corner beside a faded metal gas can, was a stack of used tires, their tread worn smooth. Leaning against the stack was a cluster of shovels, a posthole digger and an old garden hoe. McKenzie, limping, made his way to the corner with his shoulder leaning on the side of the John Deere tractor to prevent him from what would surely be his final stumble. He reached out and pulled at the garden hoe, which seemed to be hooked on a tire at the base of the stack. After another brief coughing fit, he gathered his breath, and with both hands wrenched the hoe free, toppling a few tires in the process. His wrists had gone from badly bruised to bleeding, each movement dragging the rope across his tired, paper-like skin.
            After several minutes McKenzie stood below the hand saw, a foot or two out of arms reach. He raised the garden hoe above his head and managed to hook it's end through the saw's handle and pull it free from where it hung. Once it found his hands he held it in his grip so tightly and with such purpose that his knuckles began to turn white. He laid it on the workbench and began to open the bench vise that was anchored to edge of the table. McKenzie's father had had one very similar, cast iron, flecked with spots of red that it was undoubtedly once painted. He clung steadfast to the present moment as nostalgia once again tried to pull him back, like a swimmer being caught in a rip tide. He placed the saw in the vise and clamped it tight, the blade pointing upward, baring it's teeth. As he drug the rope faster and faster across the blade, the aching in his wrists rivaled that of his leg wound. He was grateful for the distracting pain, it sent the memories reeling. At last, the fibers of the rope tore and fell away. He shook his hands and touched each wrist gingerly. The skin had been gnawed pretty good, but it didn't look serious. Not as serious as his leg anyway.  He walked over to the doors and tried to push them open. He hadn't expected them too, and they didn't, however they did open just enough to see a chain on the other side that had been drawn through the handles and padlocked. Frustrated, he turned his attention back to the shed. There were no bolt cutters in the shed, he had looked high and low for a good ten minutes.  No crowbar either, nothing strong enough to dig the hinges out of the frame. That often sought sense of value had begun to stir inside of him, he felt a purpose within him now that he hadn't felt in years. At this moment he would have been taken by surprise if he were to have looked in a mirror and seen an old man's face staring back at him. Youth, in it's most enduring sense, is nothing but a frame of mind, one that all men are capable of possessing even in their latest hours. McKenzie halted his search and briefly held his breath and exhaled. His pace was frantic but his mind very clear. He closed his eyes and pictured the crystal clear water from his dream. When he opened them, his eyes met the set of keys dangling out the ignition of the John Deere tractor.
            He began the climb, using mostly his arms and taking great care not to apply too much weight to his injured leg. After squirming his way into the seat, he winced in pain as he pressed down on the clutch, his leg throbbing. “Come on now,” he pleaded, as if trying to coax the tractor into starting. He turned the key and the engine bucked but didn't turn over. He tried again. The old frame shook as it fought for life. “Well, at least it ain't the battery,” he said, as he leaned over the steering wheel and spun the gas cap off.  He brought his face close the opening hoping to catch a whiff of any fumes. All he smelled was the damp night air.
            For the first time since freeing himself, McKenzie felt a slight ping of defeat. He leaned back in the seat and let out the clutch. Balling his hand into a fist he pounded the steering wheel with great effort. The pain ricocheted from his wrist through his brain, leaving clarity in its wake. Despite the pain he snapped his fingers and turned in the seat, he had noticed a gas can when he had first awoke to  this nightmare. After a slow dismount McKenzie grabbed the metal gas can. He didn't have to check it, judging by its weight there was at least a couple of gallons of gas in it.
            After dumping the entire contents of the canister into the fuel tank, McKenzie made the ascent once more to the driver’s seat. He turned the key and with great relief the engine roared to life. Inside the small shed it sounded more like a jet turbine than a tractor. To gain more running room between the tractor and door, McKenzie eased it into reverse and crept back until the rear tires bumped the wall of the shed. After wiping the sweat from his eyes, he found himself once again picturing the ocean from his dream. It was as if he saw something he wasn't supposed to have seen yet, like someone had pulled the curtain back before the show was ready to go on. He sighed. “Now or never,” he spoke, not to himself, but to the tractor. He pushed the stick into first gear and held the clutch with his weak leg while he revved the engine with the other. The sound swelled around him as if he was standing underneath a great waterfall. He popped the clutch and the old tires gripped true as he lurched forward.
            The door didn't stand a chance. As the tractor barreled through the wood, the hinges cracked free, taking with them a large portion of the front of the shed. Splinters filled the air as McKenzie raised an arm to protect his face from the carnage that flew around him. It was pure chaos. The maddening sound of the tractor's engine was greeted by the booming thunder overhead, while the rain danced with splinters all around him. Lightening framed the scene in quick, bright bursts. The tires slid to a stop just outside the shed. Absent minded and rattled, McKenzie let the clutch out with the transmission still in gear and the engine stuttered and came to a halt. For what seemed like far more than a moment he buried his face in his hands and heard nothing but the low boom of thunder beneath the high pitched ringing in his ears.
            He left the seat of the John Deere like a falling star back to the damp earth. His breathing became slow and heavy as his eyes rested on the church. The lights of the sanctuary shown through the stained glass in an array of colors made more vibrate by the surrounding darkness. He straightened his back and limped his way across the yard in the direction of the oak tree. The rain was coming down harder than ever. The weight of his rain soaked coat began to grow upon his shoulders, threatening to return him to the dirt from which he came. In a fit of aggravation, McKenzie stripped himself of the burden and when his jacket hit the ground, he realized he had torn his shirt from his own back as well.
            When he reached the tree, he leaned his shoulder against the rough bark and surveyed the ground with disappointment overwhelming his blood like poison.  He stomped in frustration, his boot coming down upon the prize which he sought. With great care McKenzie bent over and withdrew from the mud his shotgun. He checked the breech – still loaded. He did not jump, nor was he startled when a gunshot rang out from within the church. “Claybourne,” he whispered as the rain ceased upon the earth.
            Shirtless and fractured, McKenzie made his way to the side door of the sanctuary. Without the suffocating drone of rain, he felt the world come to ease around him. McKenzie paused before the door as if it were the very gate of hell. He checked the breech once more: 2+1. He could clearly hear turbulence in the form of raised, half-crazed voices from beyond the door. He wiped the rain and sweat from his forehead and eyes, unknowingly smearing blood and dirt across his face. He looked down as if  to pray, squinting into the darkness and found the safety on the shotgun and made sure it was switched off. McKenzie took a deep, damp breath and held it, as if the air inside was alien and unbreathable. He entered the church and raised the '48 Sportsman.
            Claybourne was beside his pulpit, in the very spot he stood on Sunday services when he wanted to convey to his audience that a man had nothing to hide behind when it came to the matter of the final judgment. He had in his hand not a bible, but a pistol that was leveled at the man who had knocked McKenzie unconscious. In the light of the sanctuary, McKenzie recognized Claybourne's brother, Ray, pointing a shotgun toward the preacher. Laying on the ground beside Ray was the other, much younger man, almost a boy, that had been present in their earlier confrontation. The color of his blood lost in the red carpet beneath the pews.
            “McKenzie! How the hell you get out of that shed?” Ray blurted out. His eyes only glancing at the dramatic entrance before returning to Claybourne. McKenzie said nothing as he kept the 48' Sportsman trained on Ray. He had no understanding of what was unfolding before him, but he knew for damn sure who knocked his ass out and bound him. “Shoot him, shoot him!” screamed Claybourne, “He's trying to rob us!.” “Thas bullshit and you know it.” said Ray in a much calmer tone.  “Don't you wonder why you been givin' the preacher (he said the word preacher as if it had quotation marks around it) the church's money personally instead of the bank?” The thought had crossed McKenzie's mind, but it had been shuffled to the back of the deck of his concerns. However, here he was, an animal bent on survival,  his thoughts as white and clean as new linen. He realized that he had interrupted a deal gone as sour as the soil in this county.
            Ray directed his voice back to Claybourne. “You owe me my cut, and seeing as you just up and decided to shoot my friend here, I'll be taking his cut as well,” he said while nudging his head toward the body on the floor. “It's your mess to clean up Claybourne.” “We can still work something out,” Claybourne said quickly. “Take a look at old McKenzie here, bare-chested and blood soaked, covered in more mud than skin. He looks like the kinda fella that would have shot that boy there for trying to break into the good Lord's house.” Ray hesitated and allowed his eyes to gauge McKenzie. “You know what, you may be right, you do got a way with words preach...”  The rest of his sentence was lost in the thunderous clap of the preacher's pistol. Ray spun around like a drunken ballerina and collapsed in a heap among the pews.
             Claybourne was considerably younger, and faster than McKenzie. He swung the pistol around and sought the old man's stature. McKenzie's muscles felt taut and ripe and when he pulled the trigger of the '48 Sportsman their shots rang out simultaneously in the dusty air like the world's shortest fireworks display. Claybourne's face twisted in disbelief as the force of the shotgun blast plummeted him headlong into the baptismal pool. The water flooded briefly upon his entrance, turning the surrounding carpet a deeper, darker red. Claybourne began to leak like a busted red pen in the pocket of a white button-up shirt. The water no more holy.
            McKenzie lowered the shotgun. He was no more closer to hitting his target than Claybourne had been, but McKenzie's scatter gun had prevailed. The pistol's bullet had come to rest in the carpet before McKenzie, forming a small, dark mark in the red carpet, like the a first sign of cancer in an otherwise healthy lung.  He laid the shotgun down on the cushion of the front pew and made his way slowly into the back office. His mind was vacant and oddly calm. His body trembled as the adrenaline subsided. He picked up his keys off the desk and turned to the closet. He found no coat kept in the closet's depths, only spare clergy robes. He jerked three of the robes from their hangers and put them on, layering them one over the other against his skin in an attempt to stifle the chill that ran down his spine. As McKenzie crossed his arms and tried to retain heat, his eyes followed the vacant spot of the robes in the closet down to the floor. There he saw a large duffle bag against the back of the wall of the closet. He leaned down with his weight on his good leg and pulled the bag into the dim light of the room. The bag was well worn and he studied it for quite sometime. His concentration was broken by strange colors that  coated the walls of the room. It took him a moment to realize that the morning sun had begun painting the colors of the stain glass upon the office walls. He contemplated the bag once more and felt the idleness of the world around him and for the last time dismissed it. He reached forward and unzipped the bag.


Author: Kent Goolsby

This is the first short story I've written that I've enjoyed enough to share. While I enjoy writing very much, I'm first and foremost a songwriter and have put out records and toured the country for the past 4 years with my band, The Only Sons, that recently split up. While prepping my debut solo album, I have also been working on a few short stories to keep the wheels turning. I'm a huge fan of William Gay, Larry Brown and Tom Franklin, and my location (Tennessee) lends itself to the stories I write. This story in particular is influenced by my living condition - I reside in the church parsonage of a  Presbyterian church as my roommate and bass player's mother is the preacher.