Listen to that, that wicked cackle and pop when Bruce let off on the throttle. He had been working on his Fat Boy in the shed all morning, and now he had it: washed and waxed, gleaming chrome, and that unmistakable Harley sound.

He was running a little late now, running up Shear’s Road into town the back way. He was supposed to be at Katie’s soccer game, well, a while ago. Now he was coming up Fieldstone Drive toward the middle school, and right there on the street in front of the Presbyterian Church sat this car, probably some church lady in there fixing the flowers for tomorrow’s service. And what did Bruce spy with his little eye? Her purse right there on the car seat inside the open window. Before he knew it, Bruce had hooked it onto his finger and was sailing up the road with that purse sitting right in his crotch.

Under the portico outside the school, he went through the purse and took the money and the credit cards out of the wallet, put it back in the purse. He could hear the little girls squealing at their game behind the school, could see all the parents’ cars in the parking lot. Everything just like it always was only better. He rode across the street and flung the purse into an open dumpster behind the high school where it rang like a gong when it hit. Sweet.

Bruce already knew what he was going to do. He rode up to the main drag and walked into the McDonald’s, ordered, what, three dozens, five dozen Big Macs? How many kids were there on a soccer team anyhow? Then he went across the street to the Get’n’Go and bought Cokes and Dr. Peppers and Gatorade in all different colors. He asked for extra plastic bags so when his burgers were all ready to go, he could load all he’d bought into the bags, hang them off his handlebars and speed his way back to the middle school. Sometimes it amazed him how things could fall into place.

The soccer game was just now getting over. The little girls, their uniform shirts so long they were like little tunics, were cheering each other. Who won? Nobody really cared, did they? Not with munchkins like these. They just herded up and down the field chasing a ball that looked to be waist high. Little cuties. He waded into them, into Katie’s team, the Pink Panthers, and began handing out his sodas and hamburgers.

“Daddy!” Katie hollered at him. “Did you see my goal?”

“Sure, honey, it was great.”

Kids were taking the pops and carrying them to their moms and dads to twist open the tops, tearing into the hamburgers.

This lady was coming at him. Terrific legs in her little runner’s shorts, “Hey,” she said. No tits. That’s what’s wrong with those woman runners. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Bruce told her.

“Did you bring this,” she hesitated a second, “this crap down here? This soda and all this?”

And then he saw Cindy up in the bleachers, and he saw that she was glaring at him, too.

Later, standing by Cindy’s car, he admitted, what the hell, who knew hamburgers and pop were bad for kids these days? He would have killed somebody for a Ronald McDonald hamburger when he was their age. Yes, even when he was their age and all there was was the shitty What-a-Burger, Bruce knew there was a bigger, better world out there. The only question was how to get there. Then he said, “What did you do to your car?” Because the plastic air damn down below what would be the front bumper if cars had bumpers like they used to was all smashed up and half missing.

“Oh, that? I did that on one of those concrete thingie-doos at the Harris Teeter parking lot. I was wondering if you could fix it for me.”

“That little piece of plastic is going to cost you six or seven hundred dollars. You got that kind of money?” Bruce was sorry as soon as he said it. Now Cindy would just come back on him about child support. Which she did. Ruined his day, but if that’s what she wanted, OK.

Suddenly there was this goofy looking little guy standing in the middle of their argument. He had on a white dress shirt and blue pants that look like they went with a suit and he was skinny as a stick but with a round tummy that hung over his belt. His sandy hair stuck out in funny ways all over his head. “Hey,” he said, and before he could say anything else, Bruce said, “Bug off. This is a private conversation here.”

“No,” the little guy said, “I just wanted to say that was a fine thing you did back there, those hamburgers and soda.”

“Sure,” Bruce said.

“I mean, it was real Christ-like, you know? You know how Jesus fed the multitudes?” When, if ever, had anybody ever said Bruce was like Jesus? He began to feel better about this guy. Validated, like Cindy was always talking about. “Vern Hart,” the guy said and stuck out his hand to shake. “That’s my team down there.” Faith, that was Vern’s team. The league patsies in their yellow t-shirts somebody’s mom dyed for them and their iron-on numbers and blue gym shorts that came from the Army-Navy. Christians.

“Listen, Vern, we got to finish this little talk, OK?”

“Bless you just the same,” Vern said, “my church is out on the by-pass, the old Carpet-for-Less place. If you ever feel the need, you know.” And he was gone.

“So,” Cindy said, “Where’d you get the money for all those hamburgers?”

Bruce smiled. “The Getting Place.” The good old Getting Place, where all sorts of surprising things come from.

Down under the big maple tree that stood in front of where Bruce grew up, up on the Mill Hill, Bruce and Ronnie Hayton played with their Hot Wheels, taking two fingers and making roads in the dust. It seemed like every day Ronnie had a new one. “Where’dja get that red Corvette?”

And the answer was always the same, “The Getting Place.” Bruce got this picture in his head, a big old tree, maybe with a tree house where a boy could live all by himself in it, but with a big hole in the side of the tree for sure. And inside that hole would be all the stuff anybody could want: toys, bikes, tennis shoes, money, hot dogs and soda pops.

Until one day Bruce said, “Let’s go to the Getting Place, let’s me and you go get some new cars.” And they did go, up on Main Street, into the old-fashioned kind of dime store they don’t have any more, full of bins of rubber balls, bubble stuff, baby dolls and their clothes, and up on the shelves model cars and airplanes, little bottles of paint and brushes, and a whole rack of Hot Wheels cars in their plastic packaging.

“Which one you want?” Ronnie asked as they spun the rack. Bruce said a black race car with yellow wheels and a stripe down the middle. “OK,” Ronnie told him. “Go tell the man up there you got to pee and where is the bathroom.” Bruce did, and the man led him back behind a little curtain and watched him into the bathroom. When he came out, Ronnie said, “Let’s go,” and outside, “here’s your car.”

See how easy that was? Bruce and Ronnie got other stuff from that store and stuff from the grocery store, candy bars, those chocolate cupcakes with white icing squiggles down the middle. As they got older they moved on to packs of cigarettes, from rubber balls to softballs then baseballs, fishing lures and tools. Sometimes they got caught; sometimes they ran like hell. But nothing that bad ever happened to them. They had to pay for stuff, to stay out of a store like forever, but they always went back after a while to one Getting Place or another.

They swore: The Getting Place was just between him and Ronnie. Bruce had never even explained it to Cindy, not even when he thought he was in love. Ronnie moved away somewhere; somewhere out there Bruce knew he still had his Getting Places. Now, a guy in his late-twenties, Bruce did, too. Stealing wasn’t as much fun without Ronnie to go along, or at least to tell about it, but it was fun enough even if he didn’t need what he stole. He stole a golf club once, stuck it down his pant leg. He didn’t know what kind it was. Probably it was still out in the shed somewhere, good for killing snakes or something like that. He wished he could show that to Ronnie.

Stealing stuff made him feel good. But he’d never been blessed before, though, like that Vern guy had said. All brand-new, Bruce rode around on his Harley for days soaking in his blessing. Except when he got home one afternoon, there was a cop car in front of his trailer, two wheels up in the yard, two in the street.

“Hey,” he hollered when he shut off his bike, “you’re ruining my lawn.” This was supposed to be a joke, his yard being a pounded piece of red dirt with a dog tied out back. A mean dog, too. But it was only Alvin Beale, his old buddy he’d sat the bench with back when he was trying to play football. That coach hated him. “Alvin, buddy.”

Alvin kind of smiled. It had been a while, maybe. He said, “You got all your paperwork up to date on that scooter?”

Bruce said he surely did, and he sat himself down on the front stoop beside Alvin to shoot the shit for a while. Football, fishing, cars and dogs, they covered that. Then Alvin said, “You know Mrs. Martha Maclelland?”

“Who?”

“You know, Mrs. Mack, Mrs. Raymond Maclelland? Our sixth grade teacher?”

“Oh yeah, shit yeah. Lie, lay, swim, swum. Mrs. Mack.”

“Anyhow, somebody stole her pocketbook from out of her car right on Fieldstone Drive. Chalkeye found it Monday morning in the dumpster behind the high school.” Chalkeye had been the school janitor long enough to know lots of good things might be found in a dumpster if you only took the time to look.

That’s what Alvin told him, and then he said again as he was climbing in his cop car, that he sure hoped Bruce had the paperwork up to date on his motorcycle since the word was coming down to be checking on all the bikers now that the weather had turned nice.

*

Well, shit. Now here he was sitting in the jailhouse hoping somebody would go bail for him.

Alvin Beale came in, and the guard let him into the cell then left them alone. “God, Bruce, I just about told you they were on to you.”

“You didn’t, though.”

“Guy’s got to keep his job, you know?”

Bruce hadn’t looked at the name on that credit card, and neither had the help who swiped it through the card machine and let him scrawl some squiggle on the signature line. And if he had known, would he have done anything different? “How’s it going to go down?”

“They got you on both surveillance cameras.”

“Shit.”

“You got a little rap sheet going. You might have to do some time.”

“Aw, man.” Bruce started rubbing his hands up and down his pants, looking around as if up in some corner or under the steel cot he was going to find a clue to get him out of this mess. “You could be a character witness for me,” he told Alvin.

“Bullshit.”

“I know, I know. I just got to think.”

“You should have done some thinking last Saturday.”

“Fuck you,” but as Bruce said it, the guard was letting somebody through the big door at the end of the hall. It was that preacher in the same blue pants but wearing a yellow Banlon shirt. Talk about a character witness.

“How you doing, Preacher?” Bruce said, and Alvin said he had to be going. Alvin out, the preacher in, was that bad to worse or what?

“You know,” Preacher Hart started--he put on this world weary voice Bruce had heard his whole life from teachers and principals, “you disappoint me. I had you figured for a good man, a family man.”

“I try to be,” Bruce said, putting on the same voice he’s always used with the same teachers and principals, full of crocodile contrition.

“That’s not what I’m hearing. I hear you took that money. I hear you are not a good father, you weren’t a good husband. I hear you’re about a year behind in your child support.”

“That’s Cindy talking. There’s two sides to every story.” Bruce was getting his back up now.

The preacher let out a sigh and cut him off. “You know what? I want to believe in you. I want to believe that whatever made you buy those children hamburgers and sodas, that goodness that made you do something for others and not just yourself, that goodness is in you. In you trying to get out. Am I right?”

Bruce admitted to the preacher he was right, and he felt a wave of warm light pass over him just like after the soccer game.

Then without any preamble the preacher offered to go his bail without Bruce even having to ask. On the condition Bruce be in his church on Sunday morning. Well, all right, then. How hard could it be to put up with a little church music, a little preaching?

First things first, though. He got on his bike—fuckers impounded it and he had to pay a fine and get an inspection to get it back—and rode straight over to Cindy’s place. There was little Katie slamming her soccer ball against the side of the building, kicking the hell out of it, right foot, left foot. “You’re the best,” Bruce told her.

“Daddy, why did you lie to me?”

“Lie to you how?”

“You didn’t see my goal, did you?”

The storm door banged open and Cindy said, “Honey, get in the house; your daddy and I have some business to discuss.”

“Right here on the street?”

“Right here. Everybody knows anyway, so what difference does it make?”

“Knows what?”

“Bruce, you shame me and shame Katie, too.”

“Hey, last time I checked we’re divorced.”

“I’ve still got your name. So when it’s right there in the Tribune for all the world to see. That preacher was over here. I thought I’d never get rid of him. God.”

“Preacher Hart? He’s my man. He went my bail.”

“You could have rotted in there for all I care.” But that wasn’t exactly true. Vern Hart was going to do some things for Cindy, or so he said. He was going to talk to the judge, make sure Bruce didn’t do jail time in return for Bruce promising to catch up on child support and alimony. And when he said that, Cindy felt a little glow of hope come up inside her.

*

Right away Bruce didn’t like the looks of the place. The big plate glass windows had been painted over with pictures that were supposed to be Jesus and his disciples doing this and that—riding in a sail boat fishing, eating dinner at a big long table, handing out picnic baskets to gangs of people—clumsy, goofy drawings like maybe kids made them. Inside there were more paintings on the cinderblock walls and Bible verses on felt banners. A mess of mismatched chairs lined up in uneven rows.

A big black man approached Bruce and announced himself, “Leroy Walker. Man, how you been keeping Bruce?” Leroy Walker—Bruce had not seen him since high school. And here he was in nice neat britches with creases in them, a sharp shirt with palm trees swaying all over it and still looking like he could break a guy in half. At football practice, Leroy Walker had come close a number of times to breaking Bruce in half.

“I’m OK, OK. Nice place.”

“We try, man. All in Jesus’ name.”

“Right.”

“So, Preacher wants you right up in front.” Leroy had Bruce by the elbow and was steering him up the long aisle, probably passing all kinds of other people he’d known in high school. Bruce didn’t want to look. There at the front was an empty bench, a bench just like the one Bruce had sat on for all those football games, and Leroy steered him to it.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s all right. It’s just the sinners’ bench. We all been on the sinners’ bench at one time or another.”

But it wasn’t all right. After the singing, some rocking out with electric guitars, which wasn’t too bad, Preacher Hart got down to business. “Friends. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have a sinner come among us—as we all are sinners, we know—but Bruce has come among us. Stand up Bruce if you will.” And Bruce had to stand, wishing he had pounds of rocks in his pockets to pull him back down, wishing those rocks could pull him right through the floor. “Bruce is a thief. But those crucified with our Christ were thieves, too, and we know of those two, one repented and found grace. Jesus visited grace upon him even as He was dying only to live again.”

And so on. Forty-five minutes of preaching with Bruce as Exhibit A—the repentant thief. Except when the alter call came, Bruce did not answer. He sunk his head between his shoulders and felt like buckets and buckets of cold piss were being dumped over him.

At last the preacher gave up. Some five or six other souls had rededicated themselves to Christ. That haul would have to do. Bruce told himself, put up with a little more singing and you’re out of here.

There stood the preacher handshaking one and all as they left. Bruce tried to go wide, but the preacher intercepted him, took his hand and looked earnestly into his eyes. “You fucked me over, man,” Bruce told him. And he tried to get himself out of the parking lot as fast as he could without running anybody over.

*

That warm glow? It went away. So what, Bruce thought, he didn’t care. Besides he got what he wanted, got out of jail and got his bike back. Parked in his yard, the engine still pinging as it cooled, that old hog put the wind back in him. As he lay back on his stoop and nursed his third cold one, he watched sideways as a gold colored car rolled slowly down his street passing one trailer house and another. It looked like a stalking lion, low, its exhaust making a deep throated purr.

The car stopped right in front of his place, and Leroy Walker climbed out. He was wearing a dress shirt and tie, sharp polished shoes, a gold pen stuck out of his pocket. Simple enough: He’d heard what Bruce said to his preacher and now he was coming to beat the living shit out of him.

Bruce sat straight up and took hold of the top step with both hands to keep himself from running off into the stand of scrub pines behind his place. Be a man, he thought. Be cool.

“Bruce, buddy,” Leroy said in a low, even tone.

“What you want with me?”

“Bruce,” Here was Leroy sounding like Bruce had hurt his feelings.

“I ain’t scared of you.”

“No, man, it’s nothing like that. Jesus is all about forgiveness.”

“Why’d Hart put me up on that bench?”

“We all been on the sinners’ bench. I was on it weeks and weeks before I let Jesus in. Preacher praying for me; Yvonne praying for me. And me nothing but a balled up knot of pride. Finally I let go. I had to let go. You. You got to let go.”

Bruce laughed a little, “I thought you were coming over here to kick my ass.”

“It don’t work like that.”

“You used to.”

“Bruce, football—that’s a game. That’s the object of the game. We’re talking about real life here.”

“Real life.” Bruce let the words roll around in his head. Looking at TV, drinking beer, riding around on his scooter, trying to score a little nookie—if that wasn’t real life, what was?

“I want to see your ass on that sinners’ bench this Sunday, hear me?”

Bruce nodded.

“Praise Jesus,” Leroy Walker told him, and he let his powerful hand fall onto Bruce’s shoulder.

*

You know those little do-hickeys they got these days? You just stick this hose down in a gas tank and rattle it around and pretty soon gas starts to spurt out the end. Beats sucking on some old piece of garden hose. They sell them in all the hardware stores. Bruce got his at Morrow Brothers, that old time hardware on Main Street, slipped it under his jacket while the old guy was in the back cutting a piece of glass for a customer.

Now he slipped it under his jacket again and rode out into the dark. He was looking for that preacher’s place, but he couldn’t find it, couldn’t find anybody around his silly-ass church, couldn’t get a clue as to where to look, couldn’t figure how such a man might live a normal life. Leroy was another matter.

Down Shears road at that new development with big brick pillars with a fancy name—Runnymeade, whatever that was—on big golden plaques set into the brick, down in there where every house looked like a little castle. Leroy Walker lived in a castle. Who would have guessed? And there sat his fancy gold car pulled up in front of his place looking just like an ad in a magazine, the kind of magazine about people Bruce had no use for.

Bruce cut the engine and coasted up silently alongside Leroy’s car. The damn thing had a latch on the tank that could only be opened from the inside like all the cars did these days. Bruce was ready for that, and he easily pried the cover open. Messed it up, flimsy tinny shit even on a high end car.

It wasn’t cool to steal from friends or neighbors; Bruce knew this. He wanted to keep the peace with the people around him. Which isn’t to say he’d not stolen his share of gasoline, a tank full here and there in a lonely parking lot at night, maybe from a car left behind a shop to be fixed in the morning.

Just then Bruce didn’t care. Everything about Leroy pissed him off. His house, his car. Where did a black man get off owning shit like this? That Leroy had come over to his place and made nice made everything worse. Sinners’ bench? No chance of that.

When his tank was full, Bruce started his bike, opened the throttle and tore off. Would Leroy notice? Would Leroy know who? Oh, yeah. For sure.

Bruce sported around for hours on that tank of gas. One thing you got to say for motorcycles is they get good mileage. Still, he couldn’t help but believe Leroy had rolled out of his comfortable bed at the sound of Bruce’s engine and was out hunting him right now. Or maybe sitting outside Bruce’s place waiting. So Bruce went by Cindy’s place instead.

He stood outside rattling the flimsy storm door, knocking on the glass, knowing she knew that if she didn’t get up and let him in he’d start hollering.

A light went on in the front room; Cindy appeared in one of his old worn out shirts. She opening the door but didn’t unlatch the storm door. “We’ve been through this, Bruce.”

“Been through what?”

She gave him a flat stare.

“What?”

Which was worse, let him in or let him holler and cuss while she called 911? After the last time, Alvin Beale caught her on the street and told her to get a restraining order. Except, she’d said, Bruce was all right most of the time. “Everybody,” Alvin said, “is all right most of the time.”

There he sat in Cindy’s living room, on her busted down couch covered with a throw, she in a porch rocker brought in just so she and Katie would have chairs to sit on.

“That preacher,” he said.

“Don’t tell me. I know all about it. Honest to God, Bruce, you want to pick a fight with everybody in this town. The man’s trying to help you. And I wish you’d let him. I don’t like the way he looks at me when he comes over here.”

After protracted negotiations, after being turned away from her bed yet again, Bruce slept on Cindy’s couch. Always a sound sleeper, Leroy Walker lay with Yvonne in their king-sized bed, at peace with the world, secure in the bosom of the Lord. Preacher Vern Hart did not sleep.

*

Preacher Hart tossed and turned while his heart let in his own private iniquity. It was lust that ate at him. For the longest time, the object of his fantasies had been Yvonne Walker. Beautiful as she was, she was a real lady of the church, modest in dress and behavior. And her husband was a pillar of the church, not to mention a former all-state football player in two different positions. The combination encouraged the preacher to exercise restraint.

Cindy Webb, Bruce’s ex-, was another matter. When Preacher Hart had gone to her door, he had roused her from sleep even though it was after ten o’clock in the morning. She stood before him, behind her locked storm door wearing a man’s shirt partly buttoned. Perhaps that was all she wore; he couldn’t say for sure, though he had since often wondered about it. When she finally let him in, she went off and came back wearing sweat pants to conceal her fine long legs. As they talked about Bruce and what could be done for him, the preacher could not keep from noticing her breasts moving loosely beneath the fabric of the shirt, noting the cleft between visible inside the carelessly buttoned garment. It was as if the woman had no regard for his position.

Preacher Hart had never made love to a woman. He had never fondled a bare breast, had never felt a breast covered by a brassiere and a blouse except by the merest accident. Pure in act, but not in thought, he suffered an unrelenting erection thinking of Cindy Webb. He imagined himself opening her shirt; he imagined the soft treasures waiting for him there. He imagined Cindy Webb inviting him to do more in language no church lady would ever use. He relieved himself with his hand.

In a world fraught with beatings, robberies, rapes, murders, famines, pestilence and wars, you might think, in the grand scheme of things, no biggie, just one poor lonely preacher getting his rocks off. But Preacher Hart lay on his sweaty and stained sheets filled with shame and self-loathing, farther from sleep than he had ever been, still unable to let go of the image of Cindy Webb’s breasts dancing inside her shirt.

What could he do to make things right? What could he do to undo his secret sin? Still unable to sleep, he went at himself again. Then, tired and sore, he slept.

Is this how a man in this day and age might be reckoned to wrestle with an angel of the Lord?

*

“Preacher.” It wasn’t the voice of the Lord, but the basso profundo voice of Leroy Walker on the phone. Six-thirty in the morning, and Leroy was in no mood just now to talk about forgiveness. Leroy had been trespassed against, pure and simple. And at this moment, he was ready to go Old Testament all the way. No turning the other cheek, but having been smitten, ready to smite somebody back.

“Listen, let me handle this,” the preacher told him, suddenly returned to himself and filled with higher purpose. He appreciated once again how God worked his plans in mysterious ways. He would have another go at Bruce’s soul straight away.

*

Bruce had a job though most people might not have thought so. He worked over at the Honda junkyard in Rowan County pulling parts off wrecked Honda cars. His daddy worked out there before he died, and he got Bruce on when the last textile mill left town. Don’t go out there looking for a left front fender, you’ll be making a long drive for nothing, most busted up part on a car.

But this man who was coming along the road wasn’t looking for any parts for any car, though Lord knows, his rattly old van could use some help. Big old sixteen passenger thing, beat to hell, exhaust blowing blue. Somebody had painted the word FAITH in big yellow letters on the sides and across the stubby hood, only there it was backwards like on an ambulance so if you looked in your mirror you’d see FAITH coming up behind you. Preacher Hart liked the idea of that.

Bruce’s boss man sat in a busted up Lazyboy all day, sending his boys out in the yard for parts, taking in the money. The boss man, name of Henry Snipes, had a microphone hooked up to a P.A. so he could just pick it up and holler out to get somebody to fetch a part: “Get me an alternator for a 1999 Accord. I think there’s still one in that green car back of row six.” Damned if he wasn’t right. Hadn’t been in the yard for ten years, but he had a handle on every car out there. Bruce didn’t much like his boss, but he’d never had a boss he liked. At least this one paid in cash.

The man hollered at the preacher as soon as he got in the door, “Ain’t got nothing for you. Honda car parts, no Honda motorcycle parts, nothing for no other kinds of cars. You’d think people these days don’t know how to read.”

The preacher kept on coming, “I’m looking for a man.”

“Who would that be?”

He asked for Bruce, and the man said, “You not from the government or nothing?”

All around the greasy room sat assorted parts with little pasteboard tags identifying model and year. The walls were covered with old calendars advertising different car parts and services, each featuring a woman in an alluring posture with her clothes sliding off her. Everywhere he looked, the Preacher saw women leaning across the hoods of cars as their breasts tried to slide out of their skimpy tops, or women with impossibly long legs in tight tiny shorts pushing their firm butts at him. These women, mouths wet and welcoming, eye full of eager promise, would not turn him loose.

Preacher Hart, feeling himself growing red in the face, said, “Preacher,” in a mumbly way, a kind of way that might make a man wonder if he was ashamed to admit it.

“You don’t seem like one.” But Henry called for Bruce on the P.A.

The preacher moved toward a calendar with a clear celluloid sheet covering a girl. When he pulled up the sheet, her bathing suit went with it. There she lay naked to the world.

Henry Snipes had sidled up behind him. “Quite a sight, ain’t she? Old enough to be your granny by now I expect. But still a sight.” He made an appreciative sigh, and the preacher heard himself sighing along.

From out on the road came the sound of a Harley-Davidson running through the gears. The boss man chuckled. “That would be your boy. I guess I’m going to have to dock his pay today.”

*

Leroy sat before a cup of coffee made the way he preferred it, strong and black, just like him he always said. Yvonne tried to settle him down before he headed for work. “You can’t let that Bruce get to you. He’s a weak-willed man, a little man, you see that.”

Leroy grunted.

“And you been so good, walking with the Lord.”

“Good,” he said as if he was unfamiliar with the idea.

“It’s just a car.”

Yvonne was sorry she said that. Leroy loved his car; he loved his house and his suits and the gold pen in his shirt pocket. He earned these things, and besides, didn’t the preacher say blessings came to those who loved the Lord?

*

They keep all the high-end stuff at Wal-Mart in a kind of corral. A challenge, but Bruce was up for it. He could make things right at least with Katie if he could cop her one of those video games she kept hollering about. What was it? Farmville? Something like that. First he cruised through the produce section and grabbed a banana, ate it as he went up and down the aisles and stashed the peel in the hunting and fishing department, hung out there for a while looking at the guns locked in their glass cases. He always thought it’d be good to have a nice nine millimeter like the cops on TV. He’d get one soon enough. But just now that wasn’t his mission.

Once in the electronics section, Bruce realized he didn’t have a clue about any of this computer shit. There was this guy, gray Carolina Panthers hoodie, black jeans, cheap running shoes and a grungy ball cap flipping through the heavy metal CDs. He asked him.

“No, man, can’t help you. If I had a computer I’d be downloading this stuff like everybody else, you know?

Bruce didn’t know. He didn’t own a computer, either. Couldn’t ask the help for sure, so he wandered over to the computer games. There were a few with cartoon characters he didn’t recognize on the cover of the plastic box. Even if he didn’t get the right one, he was sure he could get something Katie would be happy with. Surprise her.

In one slick move, he made like he was hitching up his butt sagging blue jeans and stuffed in the games using his own baggy hoodie to hide them. Then he fooled around flipping through the CDs, waiting until the lady at the cash register was busy with two different people asking some kind of complicated bullshit then slipped out through the security gate which started dinging real loud. He held up both hands above his head to show her, and she said, “That’s OK. Sometimes it just does that.”

Relaxed, so damned pleased, Bruce had just straddled his bike when the guy in the Panthers hoodie was right there beside him, “Let’s see what you got under your shirt, partner.”

“Fuck off,” Bruce told him.

Then the guy flicked out a little wallet with a badge in it: only a security cop. He saw what Bruce was thinking. “Don’t you do it. I made the call when you went out the door.” And sure as shit, here came a Crown Vic with all its lights flashing.

“Goddamn, Bruce,” Alvin Beale told him. “Get in the car.” Bruce sat there locked in the backseat while Alvin did his incident report writing down the names and prices of the games, then stood around shooting the shit with the store security guy for another fifteen minutes.

“You and him asshole buddies?” Bruce said as soon as they pulled out of the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“Leave it alone,” Alvin said. “You got enough trouble right now.”

*

Owning a junkyard does give a man plenty of time to think. Henry Snipes popped the lever on his Lazyboy and put it into full recline mode thinking to catch a little nap. Business was slow just now. Instead, he found himself thinking of the preacher who’d come in the other day looking for Bruce. Poor ol’ boy, there he’d stood frozen stiff in front of that girl. Looking at those raccoon eyes, like he’d been up half the night pulling his pud, you’d think he’d never seen a naked gal before. Maybe he hadn’t.

This place, Snipes often thought, was this the kind of place where a man might go hunting for his heart’s desires? Not some big-assed desire like winning the lottery, but some little thing that would make him feel like his life was complete in some necessary, manageable way. That missing wheel cover, the hatchback to replace the one that kept leaking after getting rear-ended. To be able to sit in his car waiting for the light to change and feel like he was one of the tribe of clean decent people who didn’t go around in cars with their air dams duct taped to the fender and a rag in place of a gas cap.

And what is wrong with that? We’re only simple animals, after all. Henry knew nothing of Bruce’s Getting Place, but if he had, it would have made perfect sense. Down in the basement of our brains there are all sorts of raisin sized glands that make us do what we do. We want, we lust, we crave this and that. We can’t help it. A man could ruin himself, beat himself to death fretting over what comes naturally.

*

Preacher Hart thought otherwise. He sat parked in his van outside Cindy Webb’s apartment building trying prayerfully to find some excuse for what he’d do next.

People are no damned good, and that’s a pure biblical fact, starting with Adam and Eve. Actually, starting with Eve. It was her, wasn’t it? That Cindy Webb who couldn’t keep her shirt buttoned. The Preacher found himself growing angry. A just and vengeful God, that’s Who he was thinking of now. And the preacher began to consider, if perhaps only elliptically, his role might come to be the instrument of His will.

Sometimes he was filled with envy, envy for the preachers from name-brand religions, those Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians in their tall brick churches with stained glass windows. Some day, he thought, he would build his church, if not on a rock, on a foundation of just such bricks. He would leave the pre-fab Carpet for Less building where once a customer could choose from hundreds of carpets and remnants in dozens of colors and designs, all outgassing a myriad of petrochemicals, the smell of which still hung in the air.

But that wasn’t it so much. Jesus was probably OK with Vern Hart’s ambition, to want a Crystal Cathedral. And a television audience was good, too, right? To fill stadiums and have saved souls running down the steep steps like rivers to his alter call represented the church triumphant? No sin there.

His lust, though, was another matter.

Some higher purpose, he told himself, had called the Preacher to Cindy Webb’s townhouse. He wanted to believe that. He turned off the van and went up to Cindy’s door. He could hear her through the storm door talking on the phone.

“Why are you calling me? I don’t have the money; guess why not. Rot in there for all I care.” But after she hung up, she thought, maybe that preacher could still help her out, maybe he could get Bruce to pay up. And almost by magic, there he stood. When she let the Preacher in, she wished she was wearing a bra under her t-shirt.

Preacher Hart looked to be in considerable pain. Cindy offered to get him a glass of ice water or some sweet tea. Maybe a couple of aspirin.

“No, he said, “it’s just that….” He took a step toward her and buried his head between her breasts. It took her a moment to realize the noise she heard was his sobbing.

Cindy worked at Big Daddy’s Barbeque nights and cleaned people’s houses three or four days a week—whenever she could, actually. She could see what that preacher was thinking, coming over in the middle of the morning and her still in some old cut-offs and the t-shirt she’d slept in.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if Cindy knew about the Getting Place, knew a place where little girls’ soccer shoes grew on bushes waiting to be picked, and computers sprouted right out of the ground? Pick one as soon as it ripens and next year come back and get another one when that one goes out of date and doesn’t have all the new software and won’t download the newest games.

Some people claim the devil can only come through your door if you invite him in. Cindy didn’t know that, though she should have thought of it by now considering the men she’d let cross her threshold. Shouldn’t have let this one in the door, she thought. Well, live and learn.

She gently pulled the preacher’s head away from the thin fabric of her dampened t-shirt, set him down on her couch and began to stroke his hair and speak to him in the same tender voice she had used to calm Katie when she was a tiny child. Making sure he kept his hands to himself, she promised him, “Everything’s going to be all right.”

*

A small corner of the Honda junkyard is reserved for Acuras. Acura, a kind of Honda for finer folks; you’ll rarely gets such people out to a junkyard parts hunting. But every so often, one will come through the door.

This fellow, a big black man, filled up the whole damned door when he walked in, and Henry Snipes wondered if he hadn’t seen him somewhere before. Black folks didn’t come to the Honda junkyard much, but that’s a different story.

The very place was unclean, and Leroy Walker felt a need to gird himself up in his old headgear and pads for protection. Was it the lewd pictures of the half-naked women or was it just the grime, because Leroy had been fastidious long before he ever found Jesus?

All the man wanted was the lid for his gas cap. Not so easy, is it, since even on a high-end car that cover plate is welded into place, not screwed? Yeah, Henry had one but Leroy would have to come back tomorrow or maybe the day after. Just now he didn’t have anybody in the yard who he’d trust with a cutting torch.

The Preacher had gotten Leroy into this. And now maybe he was trying to get him out. He had arranged for another deacon of the church to fix the cover plate, match up the paint, make it just like new. All Leroy had to do was run out to the junkyard and get one. It didn’t matter, unclean was unclean. And this place was unclean.

Out in the clear air, Leroy took a deep breath. There sat his car with the lid to the gas cap mangled and bent. The things of this world are fleeting. Indeed, they are, but did it have to be a little pissant to teach him that?

*

Some few days passed.

Then didn’t what happened next have to happen?

Hadn’t Henry Snipes’ wife told him as much? All day she sat at home drinking coffee and chain smoking her Salems working out some poor woman’s horoscope. Casting, she called it, and she got paid good money for doing it, making these little pie charts with goofy symbols all over them. Then the customer (she might prefer to call herself a seeker) came to the house and sat with his wife at the kitchen table and shared a cup of coffee while they went over the chart. The crazy thing was people believed in those charts. They saw in them the story of their lives, past, present, and what could happen on up the road. After today, maybe Henry would start to believe a little too because she had told him as he stepped out the door: Today looked to be an inauspicious day for him: Beware.

When Bruce came in, Henry didn’t say anything about his skipping out. The boy was bad to pitch a drunk, but at least he wasn’t a meth head. In his line of business, you took the help you could get.

That talk about the gas cap cover being welded in place? That was a lie. All it took was a ten millimeter socket and a little wiggle to pop the thing loose from the paint. Henry just wanted that black man who thought so well of himself—he could feel pride rolling off the man, that gold pen in his pocket and all, probably a pimp—he wanted that man to have to make another trip out to the ass-end of the county. He sent Bruce out into the yard to fetch the cover.

If he had been thinking at all, Bruce would have realized the part he was retrieving was the very piece of Leroy’s car he’d ruined. But he was as he always was, a tangled wad of contradictions not tied too tightly together: Mad as hell and yet somehow pleased with himself at the same time. Bailed out of jail a second time, but sure that for all the shit piling up around him that he would continue to live his life pretty much as he had been. Maybe a little time in the work farm, but hey, three hots and a cot for a few months. Beat working in a junkyard. To anybody else, that life might look like a cascade of fuck-ups, but wasn’t it the way his daddy before him and his daddy before him had lived? And hadn’t they done OK? Sticking it to this one and that, hanging with your buds, always watching out for number one, but still managing to come out, well, OK. If his job at the junkyard was gone when he got out, he would find something like it. So OK, OK, what the hell.

*

Think of some kind of cartoon where an anvil is falling off a big old building at some poor guy walking along all innocent. Until a hero of some kind swoops in and grabs it at the last minute.

The preacher had seen that cartoon before, and he knew he had to be the Underdog, the Mighty Mouse, that small unlikely and unexpected hero, who saved Bruce and Leroy from both each other and themselves and from whatever ugly outcome might follow. Maybe Cindy would hear about what he’d done and love him for it. He tried to take back that last thought.

Leroy Walker always drove the speed limit. Yes, he was once all-state at two positions, he had a college degree from a pretty good school, he was in Rotary, but he was still a black man driving a stylish car. And maybe his caution was a good thing since on this day, while he took his time and checked his rearview mirror often, Preacher Hart sped along as fast as his van with poor compression and hitting on only five of its six cylinder so as to reach the Honda junkyard before Leroy.

*

Beware? What the hell was that was all about? This morning was looking to be, not so different from every other day, a slow business day. Henry Snipes stretched his recliner to its fully recumbent position and glided into a happy dream where he cruised along in a 1972 Cadillac El Dorado with a calendar girl come to life at his side. She took his hand and placed it on her bare thigh.

Henry woke to a ruckus. Here was a fellow—now who the hell was he? It took a minute to register: That damned preacher. And what was he doing? He was all in a sweat with tears running down his face ripping Henry’s calendar collection off the wall, throwing each of them into a pile on the greasy floor.

Preacher Hart hadn’t planned to do it; he was a mild-tempered man. But the sight of the women, inviting him, tempting him even if it was only to buy a particular brand of spark plugs, all the sudden became too much. He had to do something to ease the knot of passion tying up his heart. He didn’t have time to think, wasn’t able to think.

But, really, wasn’t it like Jesus driving the money changers from the temple? In some cases, then, may wrath have its justifications? Except was the preacher’s wrath about pin-up girls or his own sorry self?

In an instant, Henry forgot he had a bad back, pulled the lever on his Lazyboy and launched himself into the room. He had not laid his hands on another man in anger in twenty or more years, but now he took the preacher by the front of his shirt, cocked his arm and let his fist fly.

A booming voice—for just an instant the preacher thought he might be hearing the voice of God Himself—said, “Turn him loose.” There stood Leroy Walker, so big he blocked out the day.

Unfortunately, as Leroy had learned back in high school physics class and had made a career of proving on the football field, objects in motion tend to stay in motion so Henry’s fist continued to follow its projected path. The little preacher’s head snapped back and blood squirted out of his nose.

“Old man, you’re going to pay for that.” You’d think the voice was thunder calling down lightning.

Though Preacher Hart had never had the chance to witness the full measure of Leroy’s power, he said what he knew he must. “No, don’t you do it.”

Bruce knew a thing or two about that power. Here he stood just inside the backdoor to the shop with Leroy’s gas cap cover in his hand, every nerve ending in his body flashing, telling him he should run like hell but stuck, frozen in place.

Henry or Bruce? Both at this moment seemed equally deserving of Leroy’s fury.

Leroy had made all-state as fullback and linebacker. When the option play came around the end, he had to choose: take out the quarterback or the pitch back? What if he got it wrong? Better, he learned, to act decisively rather than not act at all.

That was some time back. Now he discovered his ferocity had abruptly abandoned him. He stood looking from Henry, to Bruce, to the preacher.

And Henry, too, saw the preacher standing across from him, maybe saw him clearly for the first time, saw him in all his frailty. Pitiful. He picked up the cleanest greasy rag from a box on the floor and handed it him to staunch the blood running onto his white shirt. With Leroy standing on his left and Bruce on his right, each stuck in a weird kind of suspended animation, Henry considered the situation before him and said, “Well, shit. Anybody for bridge?”

What made these men laugh out loud? None of them had ever played a hand of bridge; none knew how you even went about playing. Henry, Bruce and Leroy knew a thing or two about poker, though Leroy had promised Yvonne he’d given it up. Preacher Hart knew for a fact that cards were an evil in themselves though he might have admitted to playing a few hands of Go, Fish as a child.

The preacher, dabbing the rag against his nose, spoke softly: “I think this would be a good time to offer a word of prayer.”

“About what?”

As the preacher would have it, a prayer for friendship and brotherhood and letting all by-gones be. Wasn’t that what Jesus would do?

But Henry said, “Come on, Preacher. Cut the crap. Let’s have a prayer about what we really want. Me, just to get through a night without having to get up four and five times just to piss. To get up every morning and hope to take a decent dump. You know?”

As for Leroy, would his prayer be for his golden car restored to its perfect state, his slacks eternally creased, his wife always beautiful and adoring? Or would it be simply to live a life without always having to be constantly watching his rearview mirror?

The preacher might claim not to know, but he did. Really, truly, down deep in his heart did he not want some woman, Cindy Webb or whoever came to him in his nightly fantasies, to take him in her arms and give him what he most desired, just to get himself laid?

Didn’t it all come down to finding the Getting Place, that promised place of perpetual fulfillment, that place Bruce had been seeking since he was a boy? But what if turns out that the things we want the most can’t be found there?

A Southerner by birth and upbringing, but long time Alaska resident, FRANK SOOS writes fiction and essays. His short story collections are Early Yet and Unified Field Theory (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction); essays are Bamboo Fly Rod Suite and Unpleasantries. With artist Margo Klass, he has published Double Moon, his short responses to her box constructions.