Beyond The Eye | Dino Parenti

Beyond The Eyes

 
 
The policeman staggered on bleeding feet a dozen yards behind the priest.

Save for his patrolman’s hat and badge, the latter having been pinned raw into his bare flesh above his heart, he was naked—leashed to an ancient nag that, for the past four hours, has been dragging him across the desert at a sluggish gait.

Atop its saddle, bowed by the sun, sat the priest. He’d shed his cassock some time earlier, tearing from it a three-foot swath to cinch around his head before tossing the rest. The wind snared the frock inches from the ground where it billowed to life and scurried past the trailing policeman’s ear, startling him back to awareness for just a brief moment.

An hour into the ordeal, his skin had begun to blister and then molt; scaly white fringes at the shoulders fluttered in the hot respiration like used car-lot streamers. By the second hour, his punctured heels and insteps were lancing fire up his legs, the smolder settling in his belly and driving in stakes.

At times, without warning, he would cackle to the sky, and sometimes he would whip a sine-wave across his tether only to watch it flat-line two-thirds the way to the mare’s scraggy rump. More delirium than defiance; the remnant itch of severed limbs and severed wills. Even as he awoke hours earlier, groggy and stripped on a dried riverbed of devil’s claw under the gnarled shadow of Joshua trees, he knew the fight had left him for all time. And yet beneath this resignation stirred a rare and rejuvenating elation, even beyond the sweet whiplash of first love.

Even beyond that delicious moment when he let his arrow fly into that first pedophile.

*

The man started talking without preamble of any kind. No bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned. No obligatory, fortifying breath of the agitated.

The priest was no stranger to the occasional hesitation, false-start, filibuster, obscenity, sob, and even out-and-out lie within the confessional, but omitting the habitual overture of penance was rare, though even that hardly troubled him. Many things hadn’t for some time. Even the neighbor’s broken-down pit bull that barked at every floor creak and passing car had long ceased to be vexing.

It took the grim words pouring through the screen over the next two hours to shake him to the marrow again, and though the sensation was a debilitating one, it was also welcome—a dichotomy that served to wrack him even further.

For his part, he said next to nothing save for the intermittent, yes, my son, which he uttered solely from conditioning. The details of the man’s dark and sanguine odyssey overwhelmed him as much as his icy candor in relaying them, and when the uninterrupted monologue finally ended, the priest could find no words of consolation, even as the man slipped quietly from the booth.

What the priest did next surprised him only in hindsight: he pulled aside the musty drapes and peered out. Never before had he felt so compelled to do such a thing; it was usually enough just to imagine the face behind the admissions of infidelity or thievery or covetousness. But not in this case. He had to know. He had to see, and what he saw baffled him as it aroused the more dormant and recalcitrant aspects of his temperament.

Just as the man strode out the front doors of the church—this man who had just confessed in a most eloquent and detailed manner to three murders—the priest was all but certain that it had been a policeman.

*

The sun continued to hack away at the lurching policeman.

He uttered no sound through it all, keeping his head down and his eyes hooked to the Giacometti shadow sprouting from his shredded feet. Occasionally he’d trace it to where it slithered under the horse ahead, conjugating with the animal’s own cast splashed long before itself and its hunkered pilot. A vagrant logic reminded him he could never actually split them, but neither did he want to stop trying to rift the two lose, and if he could’ve seen himself then, the smile dangling from his jaw might’ve smitten all that remained of his reason, and the dying vestiges of his consciousness would’ve been just fine with that.

As to where they were going or what the priest had in mind, he couldn’t guess. There still skittered a hope for something his brain wasn’t yet up to concretizing, but that nevertheless delivered an encouraging ice to his belly that offset some the ubiquitous agony.

Buttes loomed before them in a tight archipelago, perhaps a mile out if the sun wasn’t bending the distance, and the priest pulled him steadily towards them, his makeshift headband drawn wind-sock horizontal. He never looked back once since they started, never moving faster than a brisk walk as the horse seemed disinclined or incapable of producing greater velocity.

The policeman was encouraged by this. Lack of hesitation suggested purpose to this errand, and if the padre needed to restrain contact, then he would react in kind in advance of this revelation.

*

The voice was the same a week later through the confessional screen, hoarse but composed: “You didn’t call the cops.”

The priest hadn’t expected him to return. In the intervening days he considered going to the authorities despite not knowing the officer’s name, or what he looked like, or if he was even a policeman to begin with. But even beyond the fact that he would’ve been in breach of his sacramental oaths, he had no idea how or even if a policeman could be turned over to other policemen. If there existed a formal, public channel by which to undertake this, he certainly didn’t know of it, especially with a department floundering through its latest rounds of corruption and abuse charges.

“You didn’t turn yourself in, my son,” the priest said. “I assume this to mean you seek guidance or absolution.”

A pause, then: “You’re obligated under the law, padre.”

The priest found himself strangely bereft of anxiety, experiencing instead a sudden, heightened sense of bolstering not unlike a boxer’s to being punched. “As are you, my son,” he said.

Silence ensued that was cut only by the long draw of the man’s breaths and the adamant second hand of the priest’s watch.

“Seems we have ourselves a quandary,” the man said at length. “I don’t suppose you’ve got suggestions as to how we might extricate ourselves from this pickle?”

The priest chuckled affably. “Regrettably, my vision is limited. But I can offer ministry. Perhaps a different perspective?”

The reply chortle dripped with acid.

“I’ve heard it said that however ingrained, or sacred, or seemingly irrefutable our constructs, there’s no virtue in keeping to them once they’ve been rendered as fallacy by the best of us. And even less if bested by our worst. You of all people should know this.”

The priest’s mouth went dry as he considered the statement—words well thought-out and rooted in an ideology that echoed his own burgeoning misgivings and bewilderments of late—and the rest of their communion was spent in mutual silence.

*

At a knobble of slumped, staggered boulders the priest yoked his mount southward. They commenced up a series of switchbacks until they summited a mesa that brought into view a ribbon of dunes breaking upon the dark swell of foothills.

The policeman’s legs roasted as much from within as without, the burning in his hamstrings matching those of his soles, though he found he could bear it so long as he kept moving. He didn’t even break stride when, not twenty minutes earlier, his foot came down inches from a procession of scorpions that instantly hoisted their pincers and cocked back the sickle of their tails at the sudden upheaval.

He wanted to spit on them, but the water had siphoned from his mouth to his pores where it perpetually ejected as a viscous, all-encompassing shroud. Even the pair of dragonflies buzzing him for the past twenty minutes were loathed to attempt landing on his body, shooting away instantly upon contact.

The priest drew his horse to the edge of the mesa’s drop and only then did he finally turn to his quarry, motioning him with a wide sweep of his arm to step up to the rim and join him.

So this is it, thought the policeman. There was no fear. Not in the mortal sense of fear. His was the dread of deficiency—of leaving a thing half-finished. To no small extent his entire existence fell under this heading, but most especially his career, and even more specifically, the last few months of it.

“Tell me something, officer,” said the priest, his voice buffeting in the hot wind. “Do you think it possible that this world holds somewhere within it the means to extinguish our lapses? An honorable aesthetic beyond what we’ve been able to conceive, and which yearns to get discovered?”

The policeman gazed at the sepia expanse before him, and though he ached all over and knew himself to be broken beyond repair, he reveled in the thought that this boundless, unbearable beauty will outlive him and all others. “I thought our sins were already paid for, padre,” he said.

The priest considered the statement before ultimately shaking his head. “The final iniquity of his martyrdom. Your sins are your own. No one has a right to absolve them. To deprive you of the privilege to evolve from your shortcomings.”

The policeman chortled. “Behold, boys and girls,” he declared to the horizon. “A new man for a new god!”

“I’m a man first and foremost, officer,” said the priest. He reined the horse left and clicked his tongue to get her moving. “We have some distance to cover yet.”

*

The maybe-policeman would turn up randomly in the confessional throughout the ensuing weeks, mostly to drop offhand comments and engage in brief dialogues regarding the failure of systems and the inevitable fall of civilization, and despite all the priest’s subtle prodding, there were no further confessions of slaughter.

Amidst dense pockets of interspersed silence—which they shared often and in mutual accord—they would listen to workmen patching the church’s drafty windows and its endlessly leaky roof. The scant endowments of late have only allowed for the most rudimentary of cosmetic repairs, and this by the most slothful of laborers. All the while, the walls kept peeling and cracking while the floor maintained its gradual, precipitous slump to the west.

As if for maximum inscrutability, the policeman would appear specifically during those peak hours of labor, or very late at night when the church was all but empty. The thought of premeditation disquieted the priest greatly, as he realized the officer likely knew not only what his schedule was, but what he looked like and possibly even where he lived. His unease had prompted him to go so far as to ask some of his clerical brothers if they’ve held confession with a man with a deep, raspy voice and a plethora of bloody sins to declare, but none claimed to have held counsel with such an individual.

Then in the middle of the afternoon one Friday, the man took his customary place in the shriving pew, only this time he initiated nothing. The priest recognized him at once by the pensive rhythm of his breathing, and the heavy silence dragged for over ten minutes—long enough for the dread to settle in his bones like permafrost.

“Have you done something, my son?” he asked at length.

The soft creak-and-groan of the adjoining bench shedding its load was the first response, followed promptly by: “Watch the news tonight, padre. I hear the Dodgers are faring well this year.

And once more he was gone.

*

Upon descending into a dry riverbed, the horse arched its corded neck and snorted prehistoric gratitude at no longer having its steps sharply veered by a vast cobble of pumice stone that awaited them at the foot of the mesa.

During that petrous leg of their trek, the priest offset the imbalance and blistering heat by brooding over the policeman’s victims. He had tracked down every newspaper article and followed every newscast, and after bearing witness to all the testimonies and details of torture that would’ve pried winces from Torquemada himself—unbeknownst to the public, inflicted upon them by the hands of a sworn officer of the law—the priest felt none of the usual wrenching of the heart for this broken soul. Rather, he found himself sympathizing in frightening and even profound ways, as if comprehending suddenly all the nuances of a language that only vaguely resembled English.

When the priest cast an eye back at the policeman, he saw the signs of his body starting to break down—the wobbly legs, the occasional full-body tremors that threatened to topple him. Still, he held fast and determined, his eyes pinned to the patch of earth beneath his feet so as to avoid planting them on jagged rock.

There is a chance then, thought the priest. If the officer could make it this far, having done all that he has done on top of this day’s ordeal, then it might work. All that was left to worry about was whether or not he possessed the mettle to fulfill his end of the plan.

*

It was the third news story following election coverage and a moderate earthquake in Indonesia: Man found gutted near Dodger stadium.

A witness described the body as “field-dressed like an elk.” ID confirmed him to be one Stanley Ulrich, 38 of Placentia, recently exculpated via procedural technicalities of numerous assault charges, including the sexual abuse of a minor.

No suspects as of yet.  Exact cause of death pending.

“Arrow through the heart,” muttered the priest. If they find the heart.

When the policeman had revealed all the grisly details of his process that first day in the confessional, he mentioned that he would dump his victim’s organs into a hog-pen in Riverside for “unequivocal” disposal after first taking them down with arrows.

He turned off the TV and tossed the half-eaten Weight-Watcher’s chili con carne with beans, point value of five, into the trash. At the corner window of his apartment he side-saddled the sill and lit a cigarette. The ocean breeze backwashed the belched steam from the Long Beach refinery, gusting it inland and canting the gas fires northward to the brink of extinguishing.

So he had done it again. The policeman had taken another life, and then came to the church and all but revealed it in the confessional.

The priest dragged slow and deep, holding the smoke as long as he could bear it until tears bubbled and spilled, and the muscles in his neck threatened to burst. All his reasoning screamed that he should run at once to the authorities, though nothing remotely similar hailed from his heart. There seemed to be a purpose to the man’s declaration of his sins—purpose beyond guilt or want of validation, and this purpose demanded discovery and release.

Nutter was barking again next door. His owner, Eddie, hadn’t been home for three days going, which was about the norm. Since moving in six months prior, his gambling livelihood had kept him away at odd, inconsistent hours.

One night, about a week after moving in, the priest found himself trapped on the balcony by the tiger-striped pit bull who’d somehow gotten out and had perched itself at the top of the stairs. The beast cocked its chiseled, boxy head before hoisting it to sniff at this new interloper.

The priest briefly considered making a run back into his apartment, but stood his ground instead until the dog ultimately yawned and trundled over and plopped himself down into a sit right on the priest’s feet.

Eddie stepped out of his door a moment later, and what he saw widened his usually droopy eyes into poker chips.

“Well, well,” he said. “It’s obvious Nutter’s taken a fancy to you, and that’s a rare fuckin’ occurrence, believe you me.”

“So it seems,” said the priest. He tried extricating his feet, but the dense animal was firmly nested, his flappy testicles draping the laces of his left shoe. Sensing no other recourse, he reached tentatively down to pet the dog, and upon contact, Nutter rolled back his head and gazed up with his one cataract eyeball, his tongue lolling to the side in a half-toothless pooch-grin.

Eddie watched it all through a sidelong squint simmering with regret, exasperation, and disappointment. “You’re a priest, right?” he said.

The priest nodded while maintaining a futile game of keep-away from Nutter’s eager tongue.

“I thought so,” Eddie said, and began chewing madly on a thumbnail. “Say, would you mind feeding him when you can?”

Nutter kept gazing cloud-nine at the priest.

“I suppose so,” he replied.

“Sweet!” clapped Eddie. “Okay, so the door’s always unlocked and his food’s in the big trash can by the fridge. Just a scoop or two every other day’ll do him fine. Gotta burn, man. Thanks a ton.”

And that was it. In the subsequent months, he had only seen Eddie a handful of times, and every day when he went to replenish Nutter’s dish, it was always empty. He had even taken it upon himself to walk the dog during the day, and before retiring for the night, sparing some play-time regardless of the sticky bands of slobber he’d have to all but shower off afterwards.

The priest snuffed out his half-drawn smoke, stepped out into the lukewarm evening, and entered Eddie’s apartment. Nutter’s barking ceased at once and he padded over to rub his grated face cat-like against the priest’s leg, leaving fresh bands of drool for good measure.

Eddie had neglected again to refill the trashcan with dog food. He’d been home the night before and the priest assumed Eddie would’ve taken care of it, but he must’ve lost a bundle at the tables judging by his erratic pacing on their shared balcony, and accusatory wails at Nutter who cowered against the rail, unable to stop his nubbin of a tail from wagging despite the castigation.

The priest checked all the cabinets and could only find a couple of cans of ravioli. All the while Nutter panted persistently and nosed the priest in the rear.

When he opened one of the island drawers for a can opener, he found a .357 Magnum instead sitting by itself atop the flowered drawer liner. He didn’t dwell on it too much beyond assuming that Eddie’s line carried with it a corresponding risk of bodily harm. It did compel him to consider going to the police again, but it pertained solely to his friendly, neighborhood killer-cop-confesser.

He eased the drawer closed and dug around further until he found a can opener. He then plopped a tower of slumping pasta into Nutter’s bowl before returning to his apartment. He stood at his screen door a while, watching the last of the sun’s umbra draining into the pacific. A 747 leaving LAX banked above the western tower of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and he thought of the souls aboard and wondered if their fates were mapped and where the routes might lead, or if the roads just ran in ever reducing concentric circles into black, unimaginable compression. His heart ached to consider it, but the schism had widened over the decades. Too many years of lapsing and relapsing, of nagging questions and unsatisfactory answers, with seldom a successful broken cycle to show for it all.

He drew the crucifix from under his tank-top and curled it within a fist against his lips. He’d purchased the iron Saxon cross in the north coast of France many years back, mostly for its weight and barbed ends. The seller claimed it to be tenth century, but when the priest had it appraised by a German theologian a few years later, he was told that it likely hailed from the sixteen-hundreds. That was fine. It cost him little, and for a while it served its purpose as daily reminder of the sacrifice, though these days he was hardly aware of it as the scar tissue on his chest had grown thick. Only its heft would assert its presence now and again, usually while on a knee offering rote prayer before the altar.

A few minutes later Nutter head-butted open the screen door to Eddie’s apartment and padded clumsily to the priest’s doormat and half-sat on it. He licked his chops of stray Ragu before fixing his white marble eye up at the priest and grunting his dog-smile.

“All full?” he asked Nutter, who replied with a sound that lived transiently between a chuckling snort and a howl.

There was a further reason he hadn’t initially gone to the police, and it came upon him suddenly as did revelation from what he could remember of it. The officer’s victims, as relayed by the man himself the prior week, were of the most vile and irreparable dispositions. Child abusers and pederasts. Multiple violators who had gambled on the infirmity of the legal system and won.

Each night he prayed for the fortitude to forgive this executioner, as well as his victims. He did this out on the balcony well after the apartment was asleep, sometimes smothered under a marine-layer fleece, sometimes under the cocked smile of a crescent moon goring through the sky near Orion’s sword—always with Nutter at his feet, as the dog afforded not only a congregation bereft of cynicism and doubt, but one not groveling for the absolution of every reasonably sufferable tribulation.

Nutter reminded him of his decency. That it wasn’t a thing to bootlick for, but rather the piston that fired naturally within his heart.

Mostly though, he sought forgiveness for himself in the peace of night, for as the further he considered the policeman’s legitimate transgressions, the more he became filled with a rejuvenating, transcendent satisfaction that, under holy light, should not be.

*

“How’s your strength?” the priest called back as they approached the edge of the first dunes.

The policeman considered his rending feet, the scalding wind scourging sand into his naked flesh, the steel bracelets scissoring across his wrists, and in the end only shrugged.

“Just a tad parched, padre,” he chuckled.

“We both are,” said the priest.

They started to climb.

*

“What’s the verdict, padre?” said the man. “Come to any epiphanies regarding our mutual, ticklish state of affairs?”

Three days since his last visit. The priest had intended to prepare something should the man return—to anticipate as much as possible every contingency and form his case in advance—but his free time was spent appealing for their mutual souls, Nutter’s blind gaze acting as both sanction and accelerant.

“It depends, my son,” he said. “Have you ceased to visit murder upon your fellow man for all time?”

The man sighed long and pensive. “My fellow man indeed,” he muttered. He sounded weary. “Since our last palaver, I’ve abstained.”

“And do you feel relief for this?” said the priest.

“I don’t feel anything at all about it. Tracking down wild pigs requires patience. All in good time.”

Something in the priest’s chest fluttered, and he admonished himself for the post-breakfast cigarette he’d sworn to shun while brushing his teeth.

“But what of your oath to uphold the law?”

A bristly rasp issued from behind the screen, as if from the scratching of facial stubble.

“Aren’t our prohibitions only as valid and resilient as our capacity to enforce them?” said the man.

The priest traced the vertical of the cross beneath his vestment before swallowing a bitter lump. He said, “Do you not accept then that the almighty watches over us and guides our hearts and actions?”

“Hmm…” groaned the man. The priest could hear him shifting about—could feel the weight of his boots as they tapped a metronomic rhythm on the walnut floor until he arrived at his new train, whereupon the drumming stopped. “I came to the conclusion some time back, I can’t say when exactly, that to know the creator of all things would be an impossibility lest it permitted its existence to be viewed at a level so inversely proportional to his presumed omniscience as to render our notions of status and morality as no more sacred nor significant than a nibble of cheese employed to lure a lab rat into a maze. How can we ever claim then that he’s indeed out there, or denned tightly within these doughy shells equipped with the most fickle, inadequate senses?”

The priest clutched the crucifix through his frock as if grabbing at the stab of infarction. “Were you never of faith?” he whispered. “Did you not ever feel his grace?”

The man muttered something inarticulate that implied bewilderment.

“Isn’t our sense of grace…merely representational…?” he seemed to ask of somebody else within the confessional, and for the first time, his usual eloquence faltered. “Constructs our brains cobble together…through whatever these piss-poor senses can assimilate…? Who’s to say then if a man’s emotional response to an admittedly intense experience holds any grander validity if it’s inferred to be the endowment of a creator, or the by-product of garden-variety adaptation?”

A stomp rattled the confessional. It took the priest a moment to acknowledge that it wasn’t the clumsy foot of a worker on the roof, but rather one of his own that had slammed down in frustration.

“If it’s all randomness,” he said, dabbing the sweat from his brow, “then how do you define the value?”

“Value isn’t just some monopolized religious commodity!” snapped the man. “You carve your own damn meaning from…”

The priest heard him rise suddenly.

“I’ll be leaving you now, padre. I didn’t know this was an intervention for your benefit. Good luck to you.”

He marched out of the booth. This time the priest rose after him, the forthcoming infraction only a faint keen in the nether of his brain.

When he parted the drapes he saw the man—very obviously a police officer, or at least dressed as one—almost out the door.

“Wait!” he called, raising the bowed heads of the sprinkling knelt in prayer.

The officer paused to square up his hat, but didn’t turn. “I was wrong about you, padre,” he barked back before pushing past laborers caulking the front door.

*

Part way up a steep dune, the policeman’s legs finally gave out and he crumpled to his knees. Heeding the struggle, the priest halted his mare and drew her to a profile with the officer.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

Upon regaining his breath, the policeman adjusted his crooked hat and peered up at the priest from under its stubby brim.

“If your intent…is attrition,” he said, “you might as well kill me now, padre. It’s just that whenever I’ve bent a knee…it’s been to propose marriage…or tie my shoes. What you’re hoping for…I wasn’t wired for.”

The priest gripped tightly on the saddle’s pommel. “No, sir. I expected not.”

“And no offense,” continued the policeman, “but nothing about you…bleeds to do murder. That truth…outshines all others in your eyes.”

“You humble me, officer,” said the priest.

The policeman snorted, only to grimace the all-over agony his dryness wrought.

“I confess then to be at a loss…as to your intentions this day, padre.”

The priest thought of the officer’s victims. One in particular stood out from the others, a man named Wilkes. His trial had been taped and the Youtube clips have haunted him daily since. The testimony of the little boy with the red hair and the guileless eyes with the shattered spine from being tossed out a second-story window by Wilkes. To prove some point about determination or the like to his mother, the prosecutor said of the motive. The perpetrator remained especially glib during this recount.

“My intentions,” the priest said, “are to transcend all we assumed insurmountable. Or die trying. I accept now that these temples can no longer contain us. In either case, today we break from this penitentiary for all time.”

*

Two weeks and the policeman hadn’t returned. In the intervening time, one ex-con, recently exonerated accused rapist, found eviscerated in Mt. Washington, plus a reduced-sentence, community-serving spousal-and-child abuser, likewise disemboweled and discovered handcuffed in the trunk of his car two days after it had been set on fire in Sun Valley.

This evening, a pair of meth-heads loosed on a gang-rape charge upon witness recantation, hog-tied and emptied of their innards behind a motel dumpster in Lancaster.

For the first time, the words serial-killer were uttered.

The priest read the news captions on the silenced bar TV, the only eyes in the place not draped upon the stage and the pair of topless amazons engaged in a synchronized pole dance. Not that anyone paid him any mind in return being out of his vestments, not even the barkeep who had wordlessly placed the shot of Old Crow before him that he’d ordered some twenty minutes earlier, and which still sat untouched on the counter before him.

Nutter had passed in the night. He seemed fine the day before, alert and even spirited as he attempted several fragmentary play-bows before rolling on his back and offering his belly along with his customary blind gaze of trust, this while the priest engaged in his late-night prayers. But when he opened his door this morning to feed him, Nutter’s stiff body was curled up against the screen door, several columns of ants streaming to-and-from the corpse from under the doormat.

“It truly gets hot out there, doesn’t it?”

The priest didn’t bother to look at the individual who’d just taken the adjacent corner stool. He knew that voice as well as his own father’s.

“Yes, I know,” the priest said to the gabby television anchor live-on-the-scene. “I have an uncle with a small ranch that I visit often in Indian Wells. He’s infirmed.”

“Ah, now that’s a shame,” said the policeman. He glanced nonchalantly across both shoulders. “Not exactly where you’d expect to find a man of the cloth, wouldn’t you agree, padre?”

This time the priest did look at him. Like himself, the policeman appeared to be in his mid-forties, though with a soft, dimpled face and kind hazel eyes. Not what he had pictured, but then neither were so many other things, and that was enough for him to take his drink and toss it quickly back, after which he said, “Did you find me here, I wonder?”

The policeman, dressed now simply in jeans and a white tucked-in polo, shrugged an uncanny mixture of boredom and acquiescence before nodding at the television. “My first twofer,” he said. “Wouldn’t recommend taking down pairs with a bow. I winged the skinny one in the neck as he tried to run before I put a second arrow in his back below the heart. Certainly wouldn’t advise it without a syringe or two of Propofol to even the odds. I’m keeping some in the car from now on. Future contingencies and so forth.”

Without the screen between them, he was less formal and more affable, though the priest supposed that the majesty of the confessional augmented his impressions.

“You can’t stop yourself anymore, can you?” he said.

The policeman smiled sheepishly back. “That’s what you’re for, padre. Or were in any case.” He turned somber then, and even made to flag down the bartender before staying his own hand. “I had hoped you had a perspective I hadn’t yet considered. I truly did. An angle on the world different from the tired slogans pitched by politicos and life-coaches and, no offense to you, your pious ilk.” He plucked a pistachio from the bowl between them and placed it delicately on his tongue before curling it into his mouth. “My brother, Tom, he believed there were others privy to these angles. He was a cop too, before he was slayed by a pair of psychos in some dip-shit Arizona diner last year. I’ve wondered sometimes ever since if he still believed that in those final moments. Likely so. Stubborn, idealistic fool to the end, my kid brother. Alas, it isn’t a prophet’s world. It never really was.”

The priest unwittingly embraced his own elbows. “Perhaps you’re right about that,” he said. “What about your parents? They’ve already lost one son.”

“They’re gone,” said the policeman.

“But you sully their memory doing the things you’ve done.”

The policeman shook his head. “My father was a hunter, unsullied by societal conventions. He would understand.”

“And your mother who carried and nurtured you? What would she say to your solutions?”

Another pistachio disappeared. “Well, you got a point with her, padre. She didn’t like that my father took me along when he killed things. Hated just as much when he’d mount the stags’ heads on the living room wall. She made him take them down though. Wouldn’t have them in the house. But you know the irony? She’s the one who taught me archery. She was a homemaker and midwife, but her father taught her the bow-and-arrow when she was a teen. Got to the stage where I started running wild at about the same age, she figured the discipline would do me the same good. As to whether or not the experiment was a success, I’ll let you be the judge of that, padre.”

“There may still be a chance,” said the priest. “I don’t suppose you’d care to return to the church with me to discuss…options?”

The policeman chuckled. “You sound like all my department captain whenever he’s sweeping his shit under the rug. Pardon my French.”

The priest sighed. “Yours is a different level of scandal, my son.”

“Is it really though? Yours or mine? When you get down to it, we’re both just the skim-off in a grand dilution of competing interests. In either case, righteousness always gets kicked to the curb. Like a panhandler.”

The priest took stock of every wayward, bored face in the room before pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Are we to leave it on the curb then?” he said. “Pass it by, hoping it evolves legs on its own?”

For an instant something dark and unbridled gleamed in the policeman’s eyes, only to cloud over just as quickly. He reached across the counter then and gave the priest’s shoulder a congenial squeeze. “You’re a decent man, padre,” he said. “As for myself…? Well. In any case, you’ll likely not see me again save for on the boob-tube. Certainly if this is to culminate along predictable lines.”

The priest regarded him through weighty lids. “You’d be surprised, my son, how things can sometimes still turn.”

“Goddamn, I hope so,” grinned the officer as he rose from his stool.

“Are you a married man, officer? Any children of your own that need a protector?”

The officer rubbed at his chin and stared pensively in the direction of the stage, mostly at the redhead, the one sporting the state of Texas pasties and arching her back till her auburn pate met the floor.

“None of the above. I guess that ended up working out in my favor after all. Goodbye, padre.” He started for the back door.

The moment he was gone, the priest slipped off his stool and, fighting off the inevitable assault of second-thoughts, followed him out.

Eddie’s gun was in his car, his dismay at having taken it in the first place now troubling him for entirely different reasons.

*

When the policeman awoke, the first thing he saw was his patrol car slumped in a ditch several yards away, all its doors agape including the trunk. Then he noticed his hand-cuffed wrists, his nudity, his throb of his own badge lanced through his chest.

Eventually he sat up, and this brought him out of a shadow and into a sky too impossibly white to have ever held color. When his eyes finally adjusted they narrowed on the rope tied to his cuffs, and this he followed to the horse, charcoal grey and gnarled of limb, upon which was perched the spectral apparition of the priest in full vestments.

The cop rose shakily. The Propofol the priest had stuck him with was still a lump of lead in the middle of his skull. It all started to come back to him then—the priest following him out of the tittie-bar, forcing him to his own squad car with a serious Dirty Harry, the handcuffing and subsequent blacking out from the world.

Seeing the priest now on horseback, the gun jutting from his waistband, his bow and quiver which he kept in his cruiser now slung from the saddle, he couldn’t stop the cheek-to-cheek grin from widening.

“Well now,” he said, glancing about to establish his bearings. “Where to, sheriff? West to Big Bear?”

The priest shook his head. “A hunter would feel too at home in the woods, and comfort isn’t in our future, son.”

The policeman smirked. “Lead the way then, padre.”

The priest nodded towards the shimmering, nothing expanse to the east.

“Out there,” he replied. “Just you, me and eternity.”

*

Hours dropped away as they continued their zigzag along the rippled humps of dunes.

At one point the priest drew Eddie’s gun from his belt and flung it into the sand. Then he unhooked the policeman’s bow and quiver from the saddle, and likewise cast them to the desert.

The policeman never looked up, his eyes moored to the ground, one teetering step after another.

Just as the sun kissed the horizon at their backs, the priest at last halted the horse at the base of a blackened swell of slate and obsidian. He squinted up at the zenith, half blind from the miles of broiling sand they’d traversed, then yanked off his collar and peeled away his clerical shirt which was chalked white from the salt loss. Like his cassock earlier, he let the wind have these as well. All that remained against his bare and ashen flesh was the iron crucifix.

He peered back at the policeman who was doubled over now and dry-heaving, the blood from his flayed soles painting the shale behind him in black herringbone swaths.  He waited for him to gather himself before finally speaking.

“Somewhere on the other side of this mound lies a town. Nothing large. A service station, a general store, a chapel. A municipal building that doubles as a police station and clinic. A few small ranches and homes. Easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Beyond that, in all directions, lies a perpetuity of all we’ve just traversed.”

The policeman panned slowly across the monolithic embankment and nodded at the priest. The pain was a part of him now. He owned it like nothing he ever has in the whole of his existence.

“Maybe we’ll come across it,” said the priest. “Maybe we won’t. Are you prepared for that?”

The policeman’s ensuing smile was practically euphoric. “I’m ready…for anything,” he said.

The priest echoed the smile, at which point he unbridled the crucifix from his neck. He held it out a moment as if to drop it, only to reel it back into himself. The policeman then watched as the priest took it by the hilt and pressed its sharpened end against his own eye.

Before plunging it in, he heard him say, “For anything…”

The policeman’s exuberant howl merged with the priest’s agonized one, growing to a crescendo as he then took his second eye before tossing the cross and heeling the nag into a straight gallop up the hill. The policeman wasted no time ripping the badge from his own flesh, then watched with mounting anticipation as the animal trundled up the uneven griddle of jagged stone, waiting for the rope to go taut and the inexorable sloughing of the hat from his crown.

 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

Dino ParentiWhen not scribbling twisted musings into spiral notebooks, photographing the odd puddle or junk pile, or building old furniture, Dino Parenti earns a little scratch drawing buildings.

 
 
 

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