UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 07/2008
An Unconventional Exorcism
Bishop Partouche, a servant of the Episcopalian Church, sat shotgun in Fish’s late-model Cadillac, light from the neon Foxy’s Topless suffusing them both with a red the color of deep sin. The bishop clutched a bible underneath his jacket. Fish shifted uneasily in his seat. Partouche could tell his presence was making him uneasy, the strange gulf between their two professions as deep as the chasm between heaven and hell. But tonight, probably for the first and only time, they both wanted the same thing: to save the life of Sarah Williams, for entirely different reasons, of course.
Fish chewed bubble gum, exhaling the candy smell that came off as bilious when it mixed with the odor of his aftershave, in such close quarters. The bishop stifled the urge to belch in disgust, and readied himself to cross the threshold, taking a deep breath. Fish looked over at him and spoke: “You sure you won’t let me pay you, father?”
The bishop let the misnomer pass (the mafia-affiliated strip club proprietor had probably grown up Catholic). “That’s alright, son. I don’t believe in indulgences.” Fish nodded, glad that his false invitation at benevolence had gone unaccepted. Now he could say he had tried. He tried again, for the hell of it, under the guise of sympathy.
“Won’t your church, uh, ex-communicate you for doing this?” The bishop gave a small smile. Still clutching at Catholic straws, he thought. He watched a few men trickle into the red shadow of the gentlemen’s club, and said, “They’ve already done the equivalent of ex-communicate me.” He let that hang in the air. Fish couldn’t let it. He waved his arm, the oversized Rolex shifting over beef, hair, and tattoos. “Do you mind if I ask why, father?”
“Not at all.” The bishop said. “I had the bad taste to recognize the love of one man for another, in the sight of God, consecrating their matrimonial vows at my local diocese. When our Archbishop got wind of it, I was transferred, then, finally…relieved.”
Fish nodded, trying to appear sympathetic, stifling the urge to tell gay jokes. He needed this preacher. In fact, it was almost show time. Meet and greet was over. He swung his door open, and the priest got out next to him. The bishop squared himself to the den of inequity, thumping out a pulse of bass that constrained the heart into a state of begging that was the opposite of meditation, transcendence exchanged for the gutter. He breathed and stepped forward. Fish followed behind him, breathing on him.
A light rain began to fall. Fish spoke to his back. “I had my boys do like you said. The plan’ll go off without a hitch, father. I’ll see to that.” The bishop nodded. Fish glanced at him sidelong as they walked into the foyer where two girls, plastic surgery from collagen lips to silicone breasts, prepared to stamp him and cover him, and got the universal sign for ‘comp’ from Fish, letting the two pass, unimpeded, into the strobe of lights.
“You sure this’ll work father?”
The bishop leaned into him, ignoring the refracted mirrors of funhouse flesh. “My faith provides less of a blueprint for this sort of thing than the others. But there is enough to give this girl’s soul a fighting chance. The ‘Book of Occasional Services’ has something about this in it. But I must admit, I am still nervous.” He pondered for an analogy, or maybe a metaphor, and came up with a simile. “Maybe something like a rabbi on the night of his first big circumcision.”
A waitress broke into their conversation, stacked with a figure that would have tested the faith of all but the messiah. She braced her face with an indiscriminate smile, ready to laugh at the worst platitude, if it came with a tip. “Would you like something to drink?”
The bishop smiled politely. “Orange juice.” She struggled with the idea of a chaser without alcohol, as if it was warm milk, and then she trotted off. The bishop went to sit down at a table, and Fish eyed him uncertainly. Orange juice? He stuck out here like a sore thumb. He wasn’t even looking at the girl dancing onstage, a Nubian goddess with ass-cheeks like swollen melons, baby oil glistening like the tears of a man begging to touch her. The girls would peg him immediately as a cop (priest was too implausible), trying to roust a hand job solicitation beef out of them. If he scared off Sarah, that would be the end of the whole plan. Fish watched the waitress bring him his drink, and he moved to the back of the room, from semi-darkness to the total absence of light. He watched, and waited for Jade to take the stage.
Bishop Partouche accepted his drink with grace, paid and tipped the waitress, returning her ever-present flirtation with a humble smile toward her, a plea to a wayward sheep that left her puzzled, and moseying on to more obvious prey. He drank the OJ, crushed ice cube with his teeth, and mulled over the case, as it had been presented to him.
One Sarah Williams had fled from home at the age of eighteen, to escape a father who, it turned out, was an ordained minister. The father preached against the sins of the flesh, but did not abstain in his own life, or, with his own daughter, so the story went. As a result, Sarah rightfully fled home, and right or wrong, got a job at Foxy’s to spite her father-
It was at this point in the story that Fish emphasized that he did not allow her to go topless, in fact, did not allow her to do anything other than serve drinks until her eighteenth birthday-
A year to the day that she had renounced her father, and his church with it, she reported to her fellow exotic dancers that her menstrual cycle had altogether ceased.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!!!” The voice of the DJ brought woke the bishop from his thoughts. “Oh, who am I kidding. Just Gentlemen. Let’s welcome to the main stage….JA-AAADE!!!” He stretched her name over multiple syllables, still breathing spit over the microphone as she went into her set. The bishop watched her, filtering out the catcalls, the whistles, the tattoo on her lower back, her breasts, and her body, focusing only on the eyes. It was her; he saw the child, the hurt, the Sarah through the stage name. Men clapped and one put a dollar in her garter.
Shortly after confiding her state to her friends, men who received private dances from her began experiencing strange, and altogether unpleasant phenomenon, so intense that they were forced to confide to wives and girlfriends (and in one case, a mother) that they had spent rent money, food money, whatever kind of money at a strip club, and on a certain stripper, who they were sure had hexed or bewitched them.
The most tolerant wives were perplexed, or maybe laughed at first. But truck drivers returned home from dances with Jade / Sarah, speaking in Sanskrit, or other devilish, dervish tongues that couldn’t be explained away by even the most Pentecostal backwater upbringing. Levitations and possessions were reported. Men returned to the club with threats, usually lobbed at Fish, since Sarah only worked sporadically (she was one of the few girls, Fish knew, who had neither child nor a drug habit to support).
“Please, gentlemen!” The DJ, the one who was in on the plan, said. “Give till it hurts.” One man apparently took the words to heart. He stood, almost prostrate, shedding an average dollar per second, and Sarah weathered it, head cocked to the side in amusement, tucking her black hair behind the pink nautilus of her ear, slowly bleeding him until his hands were empty of money and the dream evaporated.
The bishop was afraid that he might have to fight this gentleman for the chance at a private dance that would put him face to face with the demon. He jockeyed at the edge of the stage, and Sarah descended, giving her wobbly stilettos the respect they deserved as she slowly touched the ground. She braced through creepy old man vibes, and smiled at the bishop.
“Hi.” She said.
“Hello.” He muttered, reddening, trying to hide his embarrassment. She took his feeble hand, cringing as she led him, thinking that his nervousness would have been endearing in a younger man. But someone who made it to his age and still retained that sense of shame, well, that was just weakness. You rarely encountered a real man here. Every one had some near-fatal flaw that explained their presence here. She led him over to a burgundy, pie-shaped couch. The bishop sank into the shag velour.
She dropped to her knees, both hands, with long black nails, resting on his thighs. He cleared his head and closed his eyes, which she probably interpreted as some form of premature ecstasy, but which was, in fact, Bishop Partouche’s attempt to recall a passage from the bible…the washing of the feet. That’s what she was doing. She was washing his feet.
He opened his eyes, and there was no biblical allusion, no form of denial that could will what was now in front of him to be other than her ass, bouncing inches from his nose. He fought it, bestial carnality, lust. He felt rage, disgust with himself that he could not rise above this moment, but the disgust became fear as he focused on it, where it cleaved, where the material of her black panties had become wadded, like an overstuffed black thong that had him entranced. One moment, it was her posterior, the next…the face of a demon, mime-white skin, failed sallow eyes of yellow, what the men must have seen before they found themselves possessed. Fish watched from his booth, smoking an oversized Havana Tampa. He saw the priest pull his bible, and gave the DJ the cue. The record skipped. The girl onstage stopped dancing. Patrons turned around in their seats.
Doormen, bouncers, drug dealers, all stood and formed the appointed ring, all sinners. But the disciples had not been without sin, either. It was all a matter of degree. And though he wasn’t into the kabala, or obscure rites, he had some faith in numerology. And Fish had gotten the number right. The priest shouted, and held out the book, screaming as she shook, with a fertile might that could have brought Babylon toppling down.
“Jesus summoned twelve disciples, gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and sickness.”
The face opened, widened until the eyebrows became horns, matching piety with the putrid, terrifying the priest, draining Sarah’s eyes of light, exhausting her body as it writhed on demonic strings. The record skipped again, the trashy strains of the club staple ‘Girls Girls Girls’ on the hour, every hour, replaced with the sonorous creep of ‘Amazing Grace,’ slowly bowing every head in reverence, and wilting the demon’s ears with more effect than the words directly from the source the bishop clutched in his hands.
“Lord!” The priest violently shouted, racked with pain, as he drained it from her, “Even the demons are subject to us, in your name!” Now he spoke to her, though he knew she wasn’t to blame. Her bastard father was: “Freely you received Satan! Cast him out in the same freedom.”
Now, faith buttressed and reaffirmed, even in the most stoic and muscle-bound of the bouncers standing there in their cummerbunds, the bishop made his demand, knowing that if it came out in English, and not in some dead form of Sanskrit, the exorcism had been a success.
“Speak with a new tongue!” There was silence. Fish watched, hiding behind his waitresses and using their thin frames as a shield. He watched as the white demon with the yellow eyes, and the smile deep from hell, bounced around the club, and became trapped in the glass, a memory imprisoned in crystal.
The rest of the club listened and waited, cigarettes burning, drink glasses left unattended. “God have mercy on me.” She whimpered, shivering in the first holy ecstasy she had ever known. ‘Amazing Grace’ skipped. The needle tore vinyl as it was replaced with another record, an ‘Every hour, on the hour’ request: “Hot for Teacher”.
The bishop smiled and stood, knowing that his excommunication meant nothing to him now, just as his act here tonight would mean nothing to his archdiocese, even though, for him, it had justified the last forty years of his life, which had begun with seminary. He gave the girl a small pat at the top of her head, and walked out of the club, into the still-raining night.
Inside, Fish surveyed what was his, exhaled, with arms folded across his chest, at one with the world, knowing that the rolled-up dollar bill with the pyramid and eagle waiting for the cocaine was sitting in his office, calling to him, and that he had another girl back in his stable (even if that dumb bishop thought she was in his flock). And he was very satisfied, remembering how the Father had refused his money, when he would have been willing to give him almost any amount to make this strange problem go away. As big a headache as the whole thing was though, he would have also been willing to lay down top dollar to see that little exorcism deal one more time.
He thought about it, then felt a hand on his shoulder, and stopped thinking. It was Sheila, dragging him away from the floor, and toward that bump he had waiting for him in the back of the club.Joseph Hirsch has two screenplays in development. His travels have taken him to Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, and Germany. He is currently serving out the remainder of his contract with the U.S. Army, in El Paso, Texas.
© 2008 Underground Voices