Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters’
Sunday mornings invariably began with a call from Chesney’s mother, urging him to turn on his television and tune in to whichever one of the religious programs had most filled her with enthusiasm. Most often, it was The New New Tabernacle of the Air, fronted by the Reverend William Lee Hardacre. He was broad-shouldered, tall, and fiftyish, with silver hair that looked as if it had been poured into a mold and let to set overnight. He wore tailor-made suits with western-style piping on the lapels and a big gold and diamond ring that flashed as brightly as his piercing blue eyes whenever he raised his hands to call down divine blessings–or, more often, wrath–on some celebrity whose behavior had caught his attention over the preceding week.
Reverend Billy Lee, as he was known to the throngs who loved him, had started out in life as a lawyer, specializing in labor-management mediation. Well into a successful legal career, he caught the fiction bug and began penning a series of bestselling novels set in the world of corporate law. Then, somewhere in the middle of his seventh blockbuster, he experienced some kind of spiritual epiphany. He gave up both his legal practice and his literary output to enter a seminary. When he emerged from his religious studies–it was never clear whether or not he had obtained the doctorate in theology he had sought–he launched The New New Tabernacle of the Air.
As a television preacher, the Reverend Billy Lee did not fit the mold. He had no choir, no guests, no books to flog, no “prayer requests” backed up by a phone bank of telemarketers cadging donations from the faithful. Instead he sold commercial time to charitable foundations and businesses that could demonstrate a commitment to ethical standards.
The show opened with Hardacre at a desk, commenting on news items from the past week. His analysis was always sharp and often insightful, especially when it came to spotting hypocrisy among the famous and powerful. The final ten minutes would see the preacher single out one particular celebrity–a movie star, a politician, a professional athlete, a pundit–for what a Time magazine profile of Hardacre once called “a precise and comprehensive flaying.”
Like a prosecutor summing up for the jury, the preacher would detail the excesses and egotisms of his weekly target then invite his legions of viewers to write to the object of his censure–he always had their actual mailing addresses to pass along–and express their views. Letitia Arnstruther never failed to take the reverend up on that invitation. She spent most Sunday afternoons at her writing desk, pen scratching over lilac-colored stationery, composing missives full of pointedly phrased descriptions of the eternal fate that awaited them if they failed to change their ways: “Your bowels will roast on eternal coals, your eyeballs will boil in their sockets, your parched and swollen tongue will protrude as you beg for one droplet of soothing moisture — and beg in vain.”
Her concluding paragraph always expressed a sincere hope that the sinner would turn from his iniquities, and thus avoid the wrath she had so lovingly detailed. She liked to read her best passages over the phone to Chesney, and urged him to join her in the campaign to rid the world of whatever evil the Reverend Billy Lee had unleashed her and her fellow devotees against.
But today, the phone had not rung in Chesney’s studio apartment. Grateful to be left alone, he got up late and ate a bowl of corn flakes while rereading a standalone issue of The Driver, the one where the hero foils a plot to kidnap a billionaire’s beautiful daughter to force the magnate into financing the presidential election campaign of a man who was a member of a secret terrorist organization. But though he had always enjoyed the comix artist’s striking images, especially the way the amply endowed kidnap victim was rendered, this time the tale failed to capture him.
Before he knew it, he had tidied up the nook and washed and put away his bowl, spoon and coffee cup. Normally, he made a point of leaving them in the sink. Sunday was his day to be sloppy and lazy, which he knew was a reaction against all those Sundays when he was growing up: his mother always made him tidy his room to a military standard of neatness before they went off to their first church service of the day. She’d also made him wear a tie.
He wiped out the sink until the stainless steel shone, surprised that he did not feel even a twinge of disaffection for the task. Drying his hands, he looked around to see if there were any other chores that needed doing and a moment later he was tidying the bedclothes and pushing the bed up into the wall.
Still the phone hadn’t rung. He wondered if something might have happened to his mother, though that seemed as unlikely as if “something might have happened” to the Himalayas. Letitia Arnstruther was the kind of person who happened to others. She herself was as unaffected by the doings of others as Mount Everest was by the tiny, gasping creatures that crept up to its ice-capped peak. Except, Chesney admitted, when it came to sins committed by persons of note–especially what she always referred to as the “sins of the flesh,” by which she did not mean gluttony.
The few Sundays when she hadn’t called had coincided with an exceptionally enrapturing performance by one of her favorite television preachers. He found the tv remote and flicked on the channel that carried The New New Tabernacle of the Air, which went out live in this time zone.
He caught the Revered Billy Lee in mid-fulmination: “Lust and fornication, brothers and sisters! Sodom and Gomorrah! The fleshpots of Egypt, the Whore of Babylon! But I say unto you that these are as nothing compared to the recent conduct of the celebrated TeShawn “Bad Boy” Bougaineville.”
Chesney was vaguely aware of having heard of the person in question. He thought Bougaineville might have been the football player who had shot up his girlfriend’s Lexus when her behavior had failed to satisfy him. Chesney remembered the man saying, “Bleep, I done give the dumb bleep the bleepin’ ride inna firs’ place.”
Chesney muted the sound. The preacher was in full cry, his helmet of silver hair shining in the carefully positioned lights so that it formed a halo above his earnest face. His eyes flashed, his capped teeth gleamed, his square jaw jutted as he bit off each phrase, while a trickle of sweat descended from one temple. He could imagine his mother seated on the overstuffed sofa, knees locked and hands clasped, leaning forward, with a flush of pink in her cheeks. TeShawn would be getting a memorable letter from Letitia Arnstruther.
That’ll be it, he thought. But then something odd: across the bottom of the screen came a crawl. Chesney watched the words go by. The program scheduled for this time period is not available. We present a repeat performance of last week’s New New Tabernacle of the Air. We are sorry for the inconvenience.
Chesney clicked the remote. Life coverage of a football game was scheduled to begin just about now. He found a pre-game interview with a young man described as the NFL’s most highly paid wide receiver and realized it was none other than TeShawn Bougaineville. But instead of talking trash, the player was tearfully confessing to a longstanding fondness for cocaine and fast women. The sports reporter interviewing him was in tears. “How awful for you,” he blubbered and the expression of sympathy made TeShawn break down and sob.
“What the hepty-doo-dah’s going on?” Chesney said. He switched channels again and saw the Sunday public affairs show, In Contention. But the three regular panelists were not shouting each other down or trading insults. Instead, they didn’t have much to say about anything, and what they did say seemed to Chesney to lack all conviction.
He shut off the tv and went out. It was a mild day and he headed for the park, a wide belt of greenery that paralleled both banks of a slow-moving river. It was usually a lively place when the weather cooperated: couples necking on the grass slopes, skateboarders daring each other to try potentially neck-snapping stunts on the step-seats of the concrete amphitheater where local theater groups put on plays; older folks walking in pairs and shaking their canes at in-line skaters who whizzed past them on the asphalt paths.
But today it was quiet, only a couple of solitary pedestrians staring into the river’s muddy flow, a woman sitting on one of the steps of the amphitheater, her chin in her hands. Chesney made his way past the civil war memorial, heading by habit toward the basketball court where a food cart sold hot dogs. He always bought a steaming hot chili dog smothered in fried onions and ate it on one of the nearby benches, keeping an eye out for any young women who might come jogging past in their form-fitting pants and halters. For the past few months, he had been keeping a special watch for the reappearance of one young woman in particular.
It had been on the first really warm Sunday in the late spring. Chesney had been sitting here and choking down a foot-long when he had noticed a truly spectacular pair of spandex-covered breasts come bouncing long the path. It was four or five seconds before he raised his eyes to the face above the twin objects of his attention, and it was only then that he realized that he knew her. The number of young and beautiful women that the actuary knew socially could have been counted on the fingers of Captain Hook’s left hand, but he had actually spent several minutes in the company of the one who was now trotting, with a lithe and lissome grace, in his general direction.
Her name was Poppy. She was twenty-four and blonde, and the possessor of a heart-shaped face that contained the most arresting pair of deep blue eyes Chesney had ever had turned upon him. Their single previous encounter had been an opportunity for the young man to make a good impression: she had approached the left-side elevator in the lobby of Chesney’s building just as the doors were closing. He was already in the car and had reached out a hand and caused the doors to part again. She had given him a smile that he would have considered fair compensation if the doors had bitten off his hand and added a blithe, “Why, thank you, kind sir!” in a playful theatrical tone.
Chesney had swallowed and almost managed to ask her what floor she wanted. But while he was still forming the words in his mind and wondering if he could voice them in a breezy manner to match hers, she had reached past him, the sleeve of her silk blouse touching his wrist while a gentle waft of some exquisite scent tantalized his nose. The effect was paralyzing and before it passed, she had pressed the button herself. She was going to the top of the building, the tenth floor, where Chesney had never been. “Up on ten,” was the rarefied zone where the lions of the company roamed–vice-presidents and senior vice-presidents and the pride of the pride: president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board, silver-maned Warren Theophilus Paxton, himself.
The elevator began to rise. She looked at him, he quickly turned his eyes up to the row of illuminated numbers above the doors and, at that moment, the car jerked to an unexpected stop.
“We’re stuck,” she said.
“Um,” Chesney managed, then added a look of what he hoped was reassuring fortitude in the face of danger.
“Can you do something?” she said. “I don’t want to be late for Daddy’s birthday.”
There was a button to push in case of emergency. Chesney pushed it. Somewhere, a bell clanged and kept on clanging until he released the button. Next to the controls was a steel panel with the outline of a telephone on it. He opened the panel and found a phone handset. He put the phone to his ear and heard nothing, but a moment later a woman’s voice told him he had reached the automated response service of the company that installed and serviced the elevator. “Please hold,” she said. “Someone will be right with you.”
Chesney could talk to women on the phone. “We’re stuck,” he said. He could actually talk to women in person, if they weren’t young and attractive. He could even talk to the young and attractive ones, so long as it wasn’t face to face, and provided they gave him time to construct a sentence.
The woman on the hone said nothing in reply to his remark. After a moment, she repeated the exact words she had spoken before, and he realized he was hearing a computer-generated response. Then there was a click and a man with a sing-song Indian accent said his name was Gary and how could he help? In the background, Chesney could hear other Indian voices
“We’re stuck,” Chesney said again. He could hear a rattle of keys on a computer keyboard at the other end of the line, then Gary said, “You are in elevator number one?”
“The left one,” Chesney said. “I don’t know its number.”
“There is no cause for alarm,” the Indian said, and somewhere near him a woman with the same accent spoke the exact same words with the same cheerful intonation. “We have alerted the”–there was a pause, then Gary went on–“Muncie Fire Department. They are on their way. Remain calm.”
“But,” Chesney said, “We’re not in Muncie. We’re not even in Indiana. We’re in–”
“Just a minute,” said Gary. Chesney heard a click, then the phone joined an electronic version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” that was already in progress. He heard several bars of it, then the woman’s voice he had first heard interrupted the music to tell him that his call was important to them and that he should remain on the line rather than hang up and call again.
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