Friday, 22 February 2019


AFTERGLOW

by Gregg Voss


Lauren had never once set foot in the church’s conference room, let alone sat in one of the black captain’s chairs that lined each side of the slender, bowed table. She recalled once, as a fourth grader, running past the room with Tommy and some other kids and being shooed away by a smiling, frowning Pastor Marty, who said he was “doing deals for the Lord, praise God,” before lightly closing the door on himself and the rest of the deacons.

But there she was at seventeen, and under different circumstances, the chair in which she sat would have been comfy. But the seat and the back felt scratchy and uneven like how she imagined Biblical sackcloth, and she could feel imperfections in the surfaces of the armrests. She would have adjusted the chair higher if she had known how, but instead, she felt about a foot too low as Pastor Marty glowered at her from the other side of the blonde-wood table. His only son, Tommy, sat next to him and fiddled with his fingers.

“Well, glory to God, here we are,” Pastor Marty said, and Lauren could see tiny flecks of sweat on his forehead and bald spot that faintly resembled a monk’s tonsure. The blinds were pulled, as if he was trying to conceal something from the rest of the world, though pencil-thin lines of light creeped across the table toward Lauren. 

Was it really a month ago that she had lay naked in the shabby Motel 6 room, staring at a ceiling that looked like a lunar surface, as Tommy snored next to her, creamy and curled in the fetal position? 

It had been the first time for them both, and for her, it hurt, more than she was willing to admit after Tommy finally awoke and took a swig of the Monster energy drink he had left on the desk the previous night. 

It had been a good pain, though, a satisfying pain. The kind of pain for which some wait a lifetime.

Hurting for Jesus.

But the first test had come back positive, the blue plus sign screaming at her from just beyond her thumb and forefinger. Her heartbeat tripled and churned under her bra as she retook the test, before running out of pee. Positive again. A frantic hour later, she called Tommy.

They had kept quiet for a full week, instead fretting and crying over Facetime about what to do. He had finally convinced her that meeting with his father was the right course of action. Pastor Marty was a tongue-talking prayer warrior. A counselor. An intercessor. He had the Batphone to God, Tommy said, and that connection couldn’t be broken.

He’d know what to do.

They had agreed that Tommy would take the lead in the discussion, because it was his father, after all, but his words broke down and spluttered in the heavy air of the conference room. He placed his hands over his tearful face as if to hide himself from a car careening toward him on the nearby interstate. 

That put Lauren on the firing line, and the hot lights of Pastor Marty’s glare caused her to stutter, but only once.

Words are seeds, she had heard Pastor Marty say repeatedly over the years from behind the clear plastic lectern in God’s holy sanctuary. As hers left her lips – “I-I’m pregnant” – they germinated and formed a gray mist that veiled the room. Tommy continued to whimper, enhancing the effect.

Pastor Marty stared blankly at her for the better part of a minute before tenting his fingers and placing them under his nostrils with several audible sighs. His eyeballs roamed her face to a spot behind her head, before returning to meet her eyes.

“You’ll have to get married,” he finally replied, as if those mirthless, hollow words were the antidote to hers, the panacea. 

Tommy had stopped his bleating and sat up in his chair, wiping tears from both eyes and emerging with a hopeful countenance.

“Doesn’t the Lord say in Exodus,” Pastor Marty said, “if a man entices a maiden to whom he is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.”

A pause, and he turned to Tommy.

“I’m profoundly disappointed in you, son,” he said. “Couldn’t you remember Corinthians – flee from sexual immorality? All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but one who sins sexually sins against his own body.”

Another pause and the glare returned to Lauren.

“And in Thessalonians: For this is the will of God,” he said, “that ye should abstain from fornication.”

The flecks of sweat on Pastor Marty’s forehead had grown and were glinting in the yellow light of the conference room as a vein on the left side of his head did pushups. He tugged at his tie to loosen it a bit, then crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.

“Preparations will begin immediately,” he said to no one in particular, and then turned his attention to Lauren, “Are your parents aware …”

“I don’t want to get married,” she said as simply and evenly as she could muster, a tone of voice that was choppier and weaker than she had hoped for, but nevertheless, those words became seeds.

Silence, as they grew.

“Biblically, your options are limited, young lady,” Pastor Marty replied with an imperious, parental tone, and it occurred to Lauren that in all the years she and her family had attended church, all of those Sundays and Wednesday nights, all those youth group evenings with poppy contemporary Christian music, that he had never called her by her first name. 

“I’m not getting married, not now, anyway,” she said, leaning forward and as she did so, her chair made a swooshing sound and the seat rose about half a foot, allowing her to look directly into Pastor Marty’s black marble eyes. 

“But the Bible says …” 

“I’m not ready,” Lauren cut him off, “and I know he isn’t either.”

Tommy had expended great effort to make himself look small in his chair, but sat up.

“What do you mean by that?” he said. “This sucks,” then stopped and corrected himself as Pastor Marty fired a stare at him, “It stinks, but I’m ready. We have to do this. The Bible says so.”

“You’re not ready,” Lauren said flatly, reflecting on not only Monster energy drinks but his farting, burping, off-color jokes and video games. Oh, so many video games … arcade, Xbox, Fortnite on his phone. Definitely not ready.

But there had always been something about him, a sort of bauble quality.

Thanks to funds that flowed into the church and Pastor Marty from tithing, second collections and other church fundraisers, Tommy had been a preppy kid growing up, always with the right style for that moment in time, feathered hair and polo shirts. As a pre-teen, Lauren had seen him for perhaps the first time, with as much of an attraction as can be gauged at that age. He was the first boy she had kissed, at age twelve, in the Cineplex parking lot, behind a van, away from the prying eyes of their friends.

Over the past two years, though, Tommy had drifted into pseudo-gothic garb, black t-shirts and jeans, even a pair of used combat boots he had purchased at the Army-Navy store downtown, along with a black leather jacket. He colored his straight, sandy hair black and it swept across his hairline from left to right, a lot like the guys she had seen in old movies, like Grease. He even tried smoking, Kools, for the smooth, minty taste.

The look was … sexy. 

Tommy had adopted a way of hooking his thumbs through his belt loops and leaning up against a wall, throwing his head back so his hair didn’t fall over his left eye. That was what ultimately led her to the conference room table. 

“Where you goin’ tonight?” he had said after that Wednesday’s youth group, in a lower tone that was part puberty, part on purpose to fit with his regalia. “Wanna go out?”

The movie had been the latest Mission Impossible epic, which she consented to because she thought Tom Cruise was as hot as he had been in old movies she had seen, Top Gun and Rain Man and the like. She had seen them all. Tommy simply wanted to see the action scenes, and he bobbed and bounced in his chair with each explosion, punching the air and grinning.

He had worn cologne that night, a loud fragrance she couldn’t place. But she had no experience in such matters and she thought it smelled divine, even as his lips touched her neck in the front seat of Pastor Marty’s Chrysler 300 and her hand ambled toward his crotch, hoping to feel what she saw in her mind’s eye.

He came up for air. “I’ve got an idea,” he had said, and twenty minutes and a credit card later he was entering her on the Motel 6 bed. She had freaked a little when she noticed a little bright red blood when it was over, but there was a commonsense reason for that, and Tommy gave her the quick biology lesson before curling up on his side of the bed.  

Now, that seemed so long ago.

“You’re … not … ready,” Pastor Marty intoned, placing flat emphasis on each word, as if that would somehow more effectively convey his disapproval. 

“I know I’m not,” Lauren said, before giving him a chance to continue.

“And we already know how you feel about my son.”

Lauren adjusted her backside in her chair before responding.          

“This is scary,” she said, “really, really scary. But I don’t want to make another mistake on top of this one.”

            “Let me ask you this,” Pastor Marty said, sitting up in his chair high enough that it looked as if he might spring across the table like in the movies. It caused Lauren to push back her own chair ever so slightly.

            “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” he said. “Have you been slain in the Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues? Because if you had been, your attitude and decisions about this matter would be much different. They would align with the Lord’s opinion, and that of his servant.”

            Lauren had accepted the Lord when she was nine, quivering as she stood in her Holy Ghost bench (not pew, never pew) when Pastor Marty gave the call. She didn’t walk down to the front of the sanctuary as much as she had floated, the sensation of her leg movements dissipating with each step. Every instinct within her was screaming not to embarrass herself, with all eyes upon her. That was the enemy, Pastor Marty said, as soon as she arrived up front, “trying to scare you into turning away from the Lord, praaaaisse God!”


            At fourteen, Pastor Marty physically baptized her in the turbid creek that ran a few hundred yards behind church and at that same time also baptized her in the Holy Spirit, where she metaphorically stepped out of the boat of her youth into the world of speaking in other tongues. She had expected something different from that experience, a lightness perhaps, or a profound sense of relief from the problems of that time of her life – mostly homework, chores and boys, boys, boys. Including Tommy, about whom she had begun fantasizing before stolidly repenting. But she had always had a hard time articulating the babble that she could hear in her mind.

            “You’ve been coming to this church for years and I don’t recall ever seeing you get excited about Jesus, get hopped up on the Word,” Pastor Marty said. “You come to the physical building, certainly, but I don’t see any enthusiasm, any spark. No assurance that you’re saved. And I’m not going to have this ministry torn apart and have its reputation – and my reputation as the Lord’s servant – damaged by a person who isn’t a tongue-talking, born-again child of the Lord Jesus Christ. I simply won’t have it.” His voice octave heightened with each word, enough to make Tommy flinch.

            So that was it. Pastor Marty was the closest thing in their city to a religious celebrity, what with his church that hosted thousands every Sunday in multiple services and fielded media requests for commentary when something happened that shook the community’s faith. Neither Lauren nor Tommy had been alive for 9/11, but in YouTube videos, a younger Pastor Marty, with much more hair, had been a beacon in the darkness as most wondered if that horrible event was the harbinger of the end times. In those videos, he stormed across the front of the sanctuary, rebuking the enemy and all his foul works in the precious Name, alternatively toggling between English and an unknown tongue, before the scene cut to his somber face as he was interviewed by a Channel 12 reporter. 

            And then, like John on the island of Patmos, there was silence in the conference room for what seemed like a half an hour. Everyone leaned back in their chairs, as if to catch a breath.

            Pastor Marty stood and placed his hands on the table and leaned toward Lauren.

            “The Bible says it clearly in First Corinthians – because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband,” he said. “That should be evidence enough to guide you in this unfortunate situation.”

            He paused before adding, “… if you’re a Christian.”

            “I’m saved.”

            “Doubtful. The Spirit would guide you toward my words.”

            “I’m not getting married.”

            “Then you’re a harlot, and you’ve led my son astray …”

            “I’m not a whore,” hot tears beginning to form behind Lauren’s eyeballs.

            “… and you’ll have to answer to the Lord Almighty if the reputation of my ministry is damaged. For the Bible says …”

            “I told you, I’m not getting married,” and Lauren turned toward Tommy. His hands were crossed on the table, and they made eye contact for a moment before he looked down. His greasy hair fell over his nose.

            “You will,” Pastor Marty said, “and if not, then you’ll go away. I’m aware of a special home for people like you where you can have the baby and then it will be adopted by loving Christian parents. That is the end of this discussion.” He rose to leave.

            That was the first time Lauren realized she was going to be a mother. 

            A mom. The word was another seed, fraught with meaning.

            Pastor Marty had reached the conference room door before Lauren spoke again.

            “Pastor?” 

            He stopped, and was that a hopeful echo in his eyes?

            “If we’re going to get married,” she said, motioning toward Tommy, “then wouldn’t it be important to know a little something about me first? You’re going to be the grandfather of our child, after all.”

            Grandfather. Another seed, and Lauren could tell it was growing fast in the fertile farmland of Pastor Marty’s mind.

            Brow furrowed and eyebrows raised, he returned to the table and sat down.

            “Yes, of course,” he said. “What would you like to tell me?”

            “It’s more of a question,” Lauren replied, and after a brief pause, she said, “What’s my name? My full name, first and last?”

            Pastor Marty’s jaw dropped just a hair and he turned to Tommy as if seeking a lifeline. But Tommy said nothing.

            Lauren got up from her chair, took two steps toward the conference room door, stepped out and closed it quietly.

            She was going to be a great mom.


* * * * *

Gregg Voss is a marketing communications writer during the day and covers high school sports most evenings and weekends. In the intervening time, he is a prolific fiction writer. He has completed his first long-form manuscript, a short story collection tentatively titled "The Valley of American Shadow," which he hopes to publish in 2019. He’s also working on his first novel. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife and daughter.

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