Editor’s Note: This story is a work of fiction.
In front of Walmart, two zealous young men distribute leaflets. One of the guys walks up to me and asks, “Heaven or hell? Which one do you choose? “
“Are these my only options?” I ask intelligently. “What if I chose none of the above? “
The other young man comes forward and waves a pamphlet in my face. “Heaven or hell? Which one do you choose?”
I snatch the pamphlet from her hands. I’ll use that as proof later.
The brochure is produced by the Universal Brotherhood of Light. Non-believers and detractors call them ‘United’ (pronounced you knees). No one had heard of this so-called “fellowship” until Brother Calvin Culfire came here two years ago.
Supposedly, Brother Culfire had been on a mission in Africa, but no one knows what church he belonged to, or what country in Africa, or any of the details. An online search reveals absolutely nothing – as if Elder Culfire and the “fellowship” never existed before they showed up here.
This county has always been religious – primarily Baptists and Methodists, as well as Catholics and various evangelicals. But no one puts the fear of the Lord in people like Brother Culfire. It is said that when he preaches eternal damnation, the smell of sulfur permeates the air like rotten eggs, and the fiery breath of hell burns the eyebrows of the worshipers on the first bench.
I don’t know all of this, but I do know that the United States has practically taken control of the county. And there have been a lot of ugly rumors. Shortly after her arrival, a wave of young women became pregnant and many claimed that Brother Culfire was the father. But the women had passed the age of consent and no paternity lawsuit was filed.
(Brother Culfire and the United deny the claims, saying the rumors are the work of the devil, spread by rival jealous churches. And don’t blame them for the sins of lustful women.)
Elder Calvin is also said to attack the elderly and the dying, forcing or coercing them into surrendering their property to the “brotherhood.” It is a fact, not a rumor, that many heirlooms have been lost, or Fly, in this way.
I find a Walmart manager near customer service. His badge says “Larry”. The last time I saw him he was stocking lettuce in the produce aisle. I guess he got promoted.
“I want to file a complaint,” I told him.
“Is this a product? – or an associate?
“Neither – it’s the United.
“I don’t know anyone by that name,” Larry said stiffly.
“You know who I’m talking about. They distribute brochures in front of your store. I present the pamphlet as proof.
Larry’s spine stiffened noticeably. “I suggest you read the First Amendment. It guarantees the free exercise of religion as well as freedom of expression.
“Yeah? Well what about my freedom of religion?”
“It’s not in the Constitution,” says Larry. “But you to do have the freedom to shop elsewhere … “
Now I am really upset. It’s hard enough to be approached by the United States. Now I’m getting disgusted by a guy who just last week was stocking up on lettuce and carrots.
“I think I’ll take care of you,” I told him.
I am a journalist, columnist and novelist – now mostly retired. Every now and then I write for the local newspaper. I have an idea for a story – and oh what a story that will be. I need my editor’s approval first.
Initially, he is reluctant to give it away. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Churches and religion are generally prohibited.
“I promise I’ll be gentle,” I assure him.
“Well, okay – but be careful,” he finally concedes. “We don’t want to offend Brother Culfire or the United.”
“I promise I won’t be offending.”
“Okay, so – just be careful.”
Brother Culfire is not at all what I expected. He wears designer jeans, a dress shirt and Allen Edmonds loafers. Her jet black hair is perfectly styled. Her eyes are a peculiar and striking shade of purple. He could be a movie star – or at least a successful car or insurance salesman. I remember the dirty stories about him and the young women, and I think they could very well be true.
He reaches out for a handshake. A gold Rolex hangs loosely from his wrist. Her nails are shiny and manicured. His hand is soft, but his grip is firm and solid.
“Sir. Freeman, it’s very good to see you, sir. I’ve been waiting for you for some time now. His teeth glow white in the pale light of the church.
I take a quick glance at my watch. – I have ten minutes early, I counter.
“Indeed, you are absolutely right. Sit down, please. Put you at ease.”
We are seated on the front bench about six feet apart. I have never been comfortable on a church bench in my life.
“Calvin Culfire – is that your real name? “
“Of course, why do you ask? “
“Well, that name won’t be on Google. I can’t find anything about you online – at least nothing until you come here.
“There are much better sources of information,” Elder Culfire says. “I never use the Internet, but I know everything about you, Mr. Freeman.”
I suddenly have a very bad feeling. It was a bad idea. I never left a story, but I want to run away and run away. Stupidly, I have to ask, “What do you know about me?
His eyes are bewitching. I can’t look away. There is a deep, dark hum in the background. Maybe it’s his voice. Images appear in front of me, images that I had long forgotten or deleted.
Merle Stanley was born with cerebral palsy. He’s flat on his back and I’m sitting on his chest, punching him relentlessly in the face, repeatedly – left, right, left, right, left, right – and I sing, yes, I sing as I hit it: “I worked on the railroad, all day …”
A band of school children are gathered and sing with me. They had teased and tormented me until I turned on Merle. Every time I hear this song I cringe and feel sick and sorry. Now it looks like I’ll hear this song forever. It’s hit in my head like a nasty earworm—
But the music and the stage are changing now, moving like the stuff of dreams. I’m maybe 10 years older, in my early twenties. The stereo screams “Sympathy for the Devil” from the Rolling Stones. I’m drunk and dancing madly – frolicking with my first wife and her lovely best friend. Suddenly I seize the moment. I carry them to the bedroom and throw them on the bed. Later, I would blame her for the failure of our marriage …
Oh my Lord, it’s hot in here – and it smells like rotten eggs. Worst of all, I realize that these gruesome scenes could go on and on.
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Elder Culfire said quietly. “You always wanted to write a bestseller—”
Now I’m at a cocktail party, maybe in New York, or LA I’m surrounded by rich, glamorous people. We are celebrating the publication of my latest and greatest book.
“Heaven or hell? Which one do you choose?” Asks Brother Culfire.
My new novel will be released in December. I’m sure it will be a bestseller.