THE SALVATION SKITS
by Miss Alister
Photography by Sarah R. Bloom
I. The Need
Just before dawn, Ray and Val stepped over the lifeless bodies sprawled on soiled couches, chairs, floors, and left the dead party and its soggy stench. They got into Ray’s beat-up Chevy van and did a line to keep them awake on the drive to Denny’s. They’d spent most of the night apart from one another, caught up in a vortex of sick fucks and drugs. It’s not the way Ray wanted it, but Val had a desperate edge to her these days and he didn’t want to lose her. They ate their Grand Slams in silence, neither wanting to tell the other just how far into perversion they’d gone, but silence is the biggest tattle tale. So they shifted to small talk to shut it up and tried to enjoy the tail end of the coke high for what it was apart from the debauchery.
Back in the van, they did another line to get them to their shithole apartment on the south side. The more distance that got put between last night and them, the easier it was to fool each other back to the comfort of oblivion, until Val saw the church and the people queuing up. She put her hands on the dash and sucked in air so severely, Ray jerked the wheel to avoid imagined doom. “Fuck, Val!” But she didn’t give a shit if his heart blew up at 160 beats per minute, just demanded he pull into the church parking lot and either go in with her or wait for her or leave her there, she didn’t give a shit about that, either.
This happened a fair amount lately, the after-party Pavlovian remorse and desire for redemption on seeing a church. Val grew up conditioned to believe she could find something called God only within the walls of a steepled building. So Ray pulled in and parked on the far side of the lot. Everybody’s gotta do their thing, find what they’re looking for no matter how long or hard a way it is to go. Val would be out of there as soon as her high wore off and she realized she was sitting in a sea of flowered old lady dresses and suits, dressed like a tart. He’d wait for her as always, say a few prayers of his own out where they’re more likely to count for something, maybe catch a few winks if the timing’s right.
Ray watched Val shake her tight ass around to the front of the van and head toward the church, her high heels clicking and her tits jiggling, trying to spill out of her top. She’d pasted a smile on her face that Ray imagined felt to her like it was sweet, but it came off more Jezebel than Ruth. He laughed, slid his seat back and jacked off. One prayer answered, just like that.
II. Pick-up Line
Val smiled her way up the church steps, shook a few hands, spoke a few saccharin words, wanted to be liked. She felt a camaraderie with these people, a warmth in her heart that let her know these were her people and she’d be back again, every Sunday. She would. She felt excitement, like this might be the day that the miraculous change would happen and stick within her like drinking and drugs had stuck within. Swap one religion for another, just like that, because with God anything is possible. With every step toward the sanctuary, she felt that more strongly. Reverence was an awesome drug indeed.
A rosy-cheeked young man stepped up to usher her to a seat. With a little work, he could be hot she thought. She smiled and winked at him when he handed her a bulletin. He blushed and hastened away. Shit. She didn’t mean to fuck up like that. She sat down and smoothed it over in her mind, made it like it never happened. She concentrated on the wavy, slow-mo organ prelude, some of the gazillion organ pipes pumping out flutes and cellos and oboes. Amazing contraption. She wished she knew how to play. Oh, the things she would accomplish when she was clean! She closed her eyes and smiled. Dream, baby, dream.
Val felt a swish of air and opened her eyes to a pale, young woman sitting down next to her. She looked to be around her own age, somewhere in her mid- to upper twenties, anyway. She was stick-thin, swimming in a flowered old lady dress with a lace collar. And her look couldn’t have been plainer: glasses, no makeup, stick-straight mouse-brown hair held back on either side of her face by baby barrettes. She was so sweet, though, offered Val her hand and introduced herself as May. Val smiled warmly, took May’s limp hand and introduced herself back. She could feel genuine goodness coming off May and she basked in it, smiling, until the service began with the church announcements. Maybe May would be her homegirl in this new scene.
May locked her car door and started across the parking lot for the church, bible in hand. When she looked toward the church steps, a flash of red caught her eye. It was a blonde bombshell with a bouffant hairdo in a tight, bright red ruched bodice, a belt sparkling with red rhinestones, faded stretch jeans that hugged her Barbie legs all the way down to her ankles, and three-inch red alligator-print stilettos. May shuddered and relocated her bible tight to her chest, tried in vain to keep her eyes from snapping back to the red flash.
The sight of the red woman was just too sensational to resist, and May succumbed to the urge to blatantly gape at her, endured too easily the shame she felt in doing it. God would get her for this, but some depraved part of her had risen up so radically and had so overwhelmed her that she concertedly turned from the choice to recite Philippians 4:8 over and over in an effort to right her sinful thoughts. Instead, she quickened her pace toward the church steps, calculating the angle of approach that would best allow her to get a glimpse of the red woman’s face without appearing to be trying to.
When she got close enough to estimate the woman’s age, she was taken aback by a pleasurable sense of identity on determining it to be close to her own age of twenty-six. Even though the red woman’s makeup was muted and mussed, like from a night of drunken revelry and maybe sleeping God knows where, it did little to detract from her allure. May consoled herself with the fact that it was still far too much makeup for church, too much rouge and black eye shadow and mascara to bring before a holy God.
May looked around at the other parishioners who were approaching and navigating the church steps and saw a mix of fierce whispering and shocked expressions. And some of them she could see were working painfully hard to appear nonplussed, to be like Jesus, to not stand in the way of letting this sinner get her God fix, for she might just be saved this very day. They were, all of them, woefully aware of their duties as Christians, and most importantly, as members of their fine church, to greet newcomers with warmth and love, but this was too difficult a situation.
The majority of the women simply didn’t know what to do, how to act, what to say, and so they nudged their men to go forward and do the dirty work. But the men were damned if they’d approach the red woman lest they appear to be pandering to their basest sexual desires and later be accused by a witness—walking by, across the street, say—who wasn’t fully apprised of this unique and delicate set of circumstances.
There was the odd matriarch who dared approach, either out of mean curiosity or a desire to feel the red woman out, to check her wellbeing, her state of mind, prepared to take matters into hand and turn her away should she be determined capable of causing trouble. Each of the daring ones ended up concluding their interviews with wry smiles and seemed satisfied enough to allow her to proceed into the church.
The greeters seemed to take their cues from these daring women and were stiff, but polite. The ushers all hesitated but one brave, young rosy-cheeked soul, who tightened his jaw muscles and stepped up to the task, smiled uncomfortably, bent stiffly forward and back in an abbreviated bow. The church was filling up quickly and the back of the church always filled up first with football fans and sleepers. So the rosy usher had no choice but to lead the red woman to the middle pews in a somber procession of two, her with her sex and him fending off a hard-on with an arsenal of holy thoughts.
May was next up to be seated, hoping she’d get the young rosy, but he’d made a beeline for the first old bag he could find, to balance things out. One of the venerable church fathers stepped up to her instead and smiled, whispered “Good morning, Miss May,” and waited for a signal from her regarding seating. May smiled and cast an exaggerated glance at the red woman and said to the usher, “I don’t mind,” to which he replied, “Bless you my child.” May lowered her eyes in mawkish humility and blushed. Indeed, she wished it was a desire to witness to the red women that drove her, and not the sick ache within, to be envied by women and lusted after by men.
IV. The Act
The imposing, white-haired Rev. Dr. Silbus McInnery sat in prayer in his favorite cushy chair in the fireplace room as he waited for his cue to enter the sanctuary and begin the service. One of the deacons rushed in with intent to prepare him regarding a flashy red-clad, improperly coifed woman whom his wife had found to be named Val. But the Reverend Doctor waved him away and continued to wait in his garden of prayer for the end of the church announcements. As soon as the Introit was begun, he got up and moved to the side door to the sanctuary, and when it concluded he blustered in, the wind made by the door causing his great robe to billow and his pulpit stole to flutter out to his sides and back.
He strode to the pulpit and grasped both wings of it with both hands and swept his smile mightily over the congregation. He did a glaring double take when his eyes took in the red flash of Val. And he inwardly cursed his humanity as he tried desperately to right his mind and unstick his eyes so that they might continue their godly sweeping straight into his booming Call to Worship. Val’s presence had taken him by such surprise that for the first time since his first pastorship, he truly felt as if he might not be able to carry the service. His mind displayed an array of prime excuses to depart, each with appropriate words of explanation and apology.
The assistant pastor came forward with a glass of water and whispered, “Reverend Doctor, your words may lead another soul to our Lord and Savior this day. Here is sustenance that you may continue in His name.” The Reverend Doctor grabbed at the glass and gulped the water and his eyes bulged. It was not water but vodka. He took another swallow, then smiled, full of love and recovery, and began his Call to Worship, “Great and gracious God, we gather before you this hour to promote the worship of God as revealed through Jesus Christ…” After that it was a piece of cake.
Midway through the sermon however, Val’s enthusiasm began to wane as her cocaine high gave way to the harsh consequences of twelve hours of hard partying and sex with strangers and the reality of a head pounding to the rhythm of sleep-or-die. She dug in her purse and popped a caffeine tablet, was so desperate she chewed it. She looked around at the sea of flowered old lady dresses and suits and ties. She looked down at her breasts oozing out of her sizzling red bodice, at her poured-on jeans and her glittery red nails and gaudy faux jewels, and she thought, “My God, what am I doing here?”
At the same time she felt as though the real Val inside the sex package was failing, dying, and she cried dry tears for that Val, so sad for her, so ashamed that she mostly stood by and watched the dying. These post-partying, high-flying attempts at redemption were poorly done farces, pure embarrassment, and she could never think clearly enough to do it right, to keep her shit together on a Saturday night so she could get up early and don a flowered old lady dress. Somehow, up against booze and drugs and sex, religion didn’t get it. Anger surfaced at that thought.
If she was incapable of dragging herself rightly to the altar to receive salvation, how would she get there? Who’s the intermediary that gets you from you to the Jesus who’s supposed to save you? The Holy Ghost? And where might it be found? Via prayer? And what if you won’t or can’t because it’s not your nature to dog prayer to the point of salvation and you weren’t brought up religious? Why should you be damned by your own DNA and screwed up childhood, two things you had no control over? Just exactly how is it that with God all things are possible? What are the mechanics of that? She couldn’t think, sat stone-faced in the hard, unfriendly pew, pissed and waiting to eject herself from this torture.
The Reverend Doctor was wrapping up. “…Father, may no one leave here without a sense of sinfulness and without calling upon You and thanking You for forgiveness already received. We pray these things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” The air literally swooned with pure love and saving grace and the organist allowed it to blossom a moment before letting loose and taking it to greater heights with a resounding introduction to the crowd-pleaser, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” But Val could stand no more, saw the congregation’s rising to sing as the perfect opportunity to run from this great, stiff place. She stretched her lips like a smile at May, plowed past her and walked down the never-ending aisle to the high arched doors, fighting like a wildcat to keep her chin up and look proud to be a sinner.
Ray woke to the mad rattling of the van’s passenger-side door handle. He squinted his eyes toward the commotion and realized it was Val, shaking the shit out of the thing, hollering at him to open the goddamned door. He slid his seat forward, raked his hair back with his fingers and just looked over at her and laughed. She was beautiful inflamed with rage. He took his time reaching over to pull the lock up, and the instant he did, Val yanked the door open, jumped in and slammed the door shut like liquid.
She didn’t say a word, just flipped the visor down and stared at her face in the mirror. She saw the sagging raccoon eyes, blotchy cheeks and dry lips of a has-been hooker. Val slapped the visor mirror back up, turned toward Ray and glared at him, asked him why the fuck he lets her shake her smashed ass into Sunday morning church after partying all night. They both knew the answer—it was the only time she had the nerve—and so he said nothing. The exchange of looks was enough. Val snapped her head back forward, stared straight ahead and sat with her hands between her knees, her back stiff, her fierce will fighting back tears and losing for once. She bit her lip, got control enough to say, “I’m done trying, Ray.”
Ray swung his feet over the engine hump. “Here, Baby,” he said to Val. He wrapped his arms around her and held her, let her cry. She cried for herself, for again and again fucking up the whole concept of church and praying to be saved from the darknesses she felt powerless to break free from. And she cried for the congregation of proper church people that had to deal with the sight of her there in her sleazy outfit and red spiked heels. She thought of the church service, how she heard the words but couldn’t feel the words, until the congregation rose to sing the stirring final hymn. And now, relaxed into Ray’s arms, she felt the same pure love and saving grace coming through him that she couldn’t deal with in the church. She smiled. “Well fuck if you’re not my prayer, Ray. Show me the way.”
Miss Alister currently lives in New England but spent most of her years down south. The southern years were the widest-eyed ones that took in the mystique and the romance but found more beauty in the blues and poverty and sweet twangs and drawls and sleazy chicks and hobos crawling through the nights, all the gritty stuff of life in the unbearable heat. Her blog, “The Essence of a Thing,” can be found HERE.
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Sarah R. Bloom is a fine art photographer living outside Philadelphia, Pa. with her daughter and a husband she imported from England. Her work has appeared in and around the Philadelphia area including The Art of the State show in Harrisburg in 2008. She began taking self-portraits in August of 2006 and began a project to take a daily self-portrait for a year (she did it for two years), and has cultivated the self-portrait as her primary (but by no means only) format for communicating her art. Sarah’s website, “Sad and Beautiful World,” is HERE.
Links to the original photographs @ flickr:
Produced by Walter Conley.
ISSUE #4 is scheduled for Jan 15, 2010.
Submissions are CLOSED at the present time, but watch for news on an upcoming project. Comments and queries to Walter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All material copyright©2009 by respective creators.