Eric Arnold

Two Sermons

Lawton, OK

People praying. Some poker-faced, revealing nothing. Others lips quiver with beseechments. This is supposed to be silent praying, but there is a noise to it. Damp exhalations, fabric on fabric, fabric on wood, people trying to scratch themselves without unhinging their folded hands, golden-gray mustaches conducting bristly electricity. The nearly inaudible tenor drone of those who cannot quite keep their prayers silent, as if the Lord would not officiate over thoughts or words without noise. These are the lip-quiverers, and in them must be the slightest wrinkle or stain of doubt.

I am 30, terrified of death. I have come to church, arguably, for exactly this reason. My wife Brandie is in the military, distant, physically (Af’stan), emotionally, everything. We have a daughter, Cassidy, who lives with Brandie’s mother in a trailer park in Ardmore. Cassidy, 7, actually works in a restaurant, serving patty melts to truckers, farmers with faces sun-damaged and leather bound, stern families pummeling from suffering to death in either direction on I-35, biblical names, all of them. Child labor, and I have no control. It is, at times, uncertain who is writing these rules, and it is at once unequivocal that it is not I. And so: Calvary Baptist Church, Lawton OK. I am wearing only denim, trying to think not of the past, present or future. No tense at all. My lips do not quiver, but it just may be that I have crossed the blurred and heathen line that divides prayer and meditation.

I have not read the Bible. I know that it is filled with quotable moments, each categorized conveniently Name #:bigger #. The paper is generally thin, and its edges are the gold of player names on reasonably valuable baseball cards. I identify with homosexuality. I have looked into the wet, chocolate and unengaged eye of a cow. It was wearing my reflection and the perfect meniscus of the horizon, and I have sworn to never eat beef again in any form, jerkied included. I have written lyrics to Moody Blues songs on bathroom doors. I am confused, my pragmatism vacillates, and I adhere to no regular diet. I readily inhale even the tarriest of smoke. If my variables could be quantified, analyzed socio-econo-psycho-biochemically, I could likely be assured a short life expectancy. Assured with confidence.

In the place that I’m in, both physically and meta, I feel that maybe it’s appropriate to tell the story I have to tell like this. With which articles of faith I can conjure, a sermon, my own:
Ladies and gentleman, may I trouble you to ask, what is brotherhood? I live in a duplex. The other part of my plex, until recently, contained my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Erving Reynolds. May God get on his knees and bless Mr. and Mrs. Erving Reynolds. They were bakers of pie, purchasers of orange sherbet, wearers of polyester, sufferers of diabetes, devotees of Yours, God. In other words, a sweet old couple, rounded off from scalp to ankle and smelling of sleep. Why then, o congregation, would a man named Kirby, impaired on a rogue mixture of phenylcyclidine, ketamine, marijuana, Dr. Pepper and greed savagely murder Mr. Erving Reynolds, thus foreshadowing Mrs. Erving Reynolds fatal stroke less than 72 hours later? Ladies and gentlemen, are we not brothers?

How many of you are Lawtoners? Most of you, it appears. How many of you are here from New York City? Washington D.C? You must think that insane violence (excluding racially motivated or quiet country rape) exists not in these semi-rural, forgettable townships of America. You are wrong. Most nights the people who live in the duplex behind mine play music, mostly untextured bass. It is like the sound of massive railroad equipment rhythmically and repeatedly dropped, and they barbecue what could not be euphemized: varmint, typically squirrel. They laugh and fight in the same unintelligible sentences. And then later, while I am sweating in my unwashed sheets, they break into my kitchen, stealing my Wheat Thins, stealing my mayonnaise, stealing my cigarettes and canned peaches. They sit at my little fold-out kitchen table saying, “Fuck yeah,” as they feed the syrupy peaches into their mouths with their hands. These are the people, my children, who make their own tattoos, generally with little forethought or coordination. Misspelled words above their eyebrows, arguably more like engravings. I see them in the park down the road. These are the friends/enemies — the society of — Kirby.

And the parks here in Lawton, you would recognize not as the fairway lawn and happy child-studded playground type, but rather as the condom and syringe type from which deep mischievous laughter and the sound of breaking glass ascend in the night. Everybody owns a Camero or a truck, except for those who own both in one, the hybrid, the phoenix of southwest Oklahoma, the Chevrolet El Camino. O children, let me hear you acknowledge the El Camino with a grunt.

(Chorus: [grunt])

And so it was in this setting, horrible, familiar, that it came to pass, o congregation, that I would go to visit the El Camino of Kirby McVick in the impoundment lot, where it was laid to rest after the high speed chase that ended with Kirby hemorrhaging in a ditch outside Ponca City. For it was my mission to understand how we are not brothers, and in the life of mine that seeps tragedy but lacks poetry, I thought that visiting the El Camino would be, in some unnamable way, poetic. Is there not poetry in breaking into an impoundment lot and caressing the dented exterior of a sociopath’s El Camino sullenly and with warmth? My congregation, I think there is. Are we not brothers? Loosen your faces and let your eyes water with mine.


The Lawton impoundment lot is really just like a parking lot. But if you look closely, there is no associated commerce, and if you strain through your myopia in the purple twilight, you will see that it is perimetered by an 8 foot chain-link fence. Imagine yourselves standing with me on the corner of 19th and Monroe St, an August evening, nearly half-past eight. Across the street is the lot. Close your eyes and imagine. A truck from the Fort Still base is unloading some of the military types at the 7-11. It is quiet, as always, and city’s cheap infrastructure is excreting shadows. And in the twilight darkness that will be deeper than the night’s own, the unexpected and somewhat inappropriate flash of fireflies.

The jarheads are in the 7-11, which is lit within brightly as a television. We are watching. They finger orange bags of pork rinds, pluck cases from the electric tree of beer that refrigerates brightly off to the side. And the lone employee, willfully turned away from the action, stands with terminally poor posture and seems to be looking out at me, at us. And down the road, a dimly lit pawnshop, a lifeless taqueria, and further down: abandonment. In front of us: the fence, and behind it the El Camino, a kind of violent amethyst, unable to hide in this setting of pristine geometry. Are we going to climb the fence? Tell, my little creatures of God, my Godlets, are we going to climb it?

(Uh-huhs and Yeps and Damn straights)

We are climbing the fence. Like a giant injured spider, we are attempting to climb the fence. Physics opposes us, our own ungainly bodies and inappropriate attire oppose us. But we are climbing, oh Lord yes, we are climbing that fence. There is a bank of clouds to the distant west, not flashing lightning, but oozing it at a diminishing frequency, and certainly the storms will be all dried up by the time they’re blown overhead. The fence itself seems to be made of a substance too malleable to properly be termed metal, but that does not prevent it from digging into the shafts of your fingers.

With fingers throbbing and numb to all but pain, and with groin muscles angrily interrogating your brain, you have climbed the fence and fallen down clumsily and stepwise on the other side. Brothers. There is little of substance that divides us from the El Camino. A shattered windshield glowing mysteriously green on the asphalt. Not an obstacle.

(Chorus: Ain’t no mountain … , etc.)

Remember your cousin in Los Angeles who invented some sort of yam-based body lotion and walks around blithely in his Perry Ellis suit? Remember when you could buy frozen cans of concentrated limeade at the IGA and the androgynous check-out girl that smelled like cardboard? And how sometimes you would walk outside and the world would smell nauseatingly and inspiringly like a cafeteria breakfast? O the smells things have. And the day your sister ran out into the hailstorm narrowly dodging concussion while your mother was yelling, NO-No-no, decrescendo like that? And that was the same day at the end of June when your 4th grade social studies teacher committed suicide, an event that was never frankly discussed with you as it should have been so that all this and everything else has left you half-vacant and confused, wondering, asking on your metaphorical knees: Are we not brothers?

(…[nothing discernable])

Your mother’s pot roast, storm cloud gray? A little white dog in a parked Mazda Miata barking inconsequentially at air? A tall man operating a dust pan. A dust pan on a well of stairs. And the lighting is so bad or so good, depending on if you are the man operating the dust pan or if you are an observer of this artful tragedy. Or teaching a Congolese refugee to play Uno in a room with a fireplace. O Lord.

Your other cousin that is a stripper in Bakersfield named Nicki, who, in fact, also teaches Sunday school, bloodshot and nicotine-fixed? And your old best friend who is now a smoking cessation counselor in Wichita? The man in the seat next to you at the DMV who asked the woman what kind of pear she seemed to be enjoying so much and she responded: ‘the cheap kind.’ It was golden and brown and her pink wet maw was working at it like a Gatling gun. The Cheap Kind of Pear. Or how about when you decided: why not be a masseuse? And you rented the massage table with criminally rusty hinges on its fold-out legs. In the form of God? Brothers, should we thank the Lord for creating all this?


Public utilities and parks. Metal and soil that we share. Cast iron park benches, reservoirs. What are we?

(Brothers, Christians [overlaid])

Very well then. We are touching the El Camino. It is greasy and light purple, seeming soft under the swirls of our fingertips, like touching some great sculpture of Chapstick. It literally glows in the dark. An aura? Or glow-in-the dark paint? Each equally as likely. We are pressing our chests down against it’s crumpled hood, as if holding it down, and our outstretched arms reach for the windshield wipers, and our feet climb onto the bumper. Where are we tonight? Where are the Fingers of God? We are at an impoundment lot in Lawton, Oklahoma, or we are in a dark bedroom at the end of an unvarnished hall. Today, we worship, but tonight we will be splitting roast beef sandwiches or sifting through volcanic ash and rubble or sitting on the steps outside the public library.


Seward, AK

On the internet I watched a skinny Grecian-looking girl defecate into what appeared to be a crystal punchbowl. It was in a room that had the unmistakably over-vacuumed look of a budget hotel. I wondered, was she being tortured? What kind of a transaction was underpinning this? I thought it perhaps best to discontinue my viewing. I was lost without my hound.

It has been 6 days without Cornelia, and Roberta has been spiking her Diet Coke with real Coke, neglecting her insulin. She is pacing around, constantly breathing on me. But hers is not quite the warm dog breath in which I long to bathe.

I live in a house on Resurrection River Road. It was built to look like a log cabin, but I assure you that it is far better insulated, and its true frame is one of welded metal. I have made a modest sum in the harbor tour business. I live with my wife Roberta, who forgets to close her mouth when she sleeps and horrible noises emerge, and, until recently, our hound Cornelia. Outside the house, the Resurrection River. Water at once black and clear with a corrugated scaffolding of rapids as white as celebrity teeth, flowing with insane potency.

I have been questioning my faith, mounting uncertainty over Satan’s dark reign. I just don’t know. I don’t understand why He would have organized his chaos thusly. In these moments of doubt, let us know the details. A sermon:
It is summer and therefore green, except for that which is black and white. The skin of the mountains from which the glaciers have receded, the packed ice that is never far out of reach mingling seamlessly with the sky: an overcast white. The lie of heaven descending.

The fastest way to commute between Seward and Homer would be across the ice shelf, but there is no conceivable form of transportation that can accommodate this, except, of course, for the airplane (should it crash, your bodies will never be found; I believe this happened to a senator). I, possessing neither plane nor pilot’s license, am taking the long and roundabout drive. North toward Anchorage, and then east, bending back south. It is Cornelia and I, in our van. The only white that can be pure in Alaska is that of the snow and the sky. Our van used to be white. Now it is weathered, stippled and beige.

Father Satan, Satan’s children. Listen. It was only my intention to deliver some tattoo ink to my friend Mel, and enjoy some baked goods and maybe walk along the beach with Cornelia over the stones that are all shaped like little frisbees. Watch some idiot bald eagles and sea otters, marvel at enormous halibut being hauled off two-toned weary vessels and see volcanic islands warped by the static of the far reaches of visibility. Unlike in Seward, the sun comes out in Homer, and there is the possibility of vitamin D and mirage. And I am a human, and I will do as I please.

(… [ a … of encouragement and agreement]. A neckless man bites into his forearm as if it were a turkey leg at a county fair. It bleeds a little, but not as much as he probably would have liked.)

Listen to what happened on the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing where the fishermen pull off to the side to stand waist deep in the newly liquid water and pick off the running salmon. The moments are arranged like this: It is drizzling and the windows are down and I am accelerating. Cornelia is fraught with a benevolent canine enthusiasm that cannot be contained by the passenger seat. She is, all of a sudden, on my lap. 45 pounds of hound. Peril, right? I don’t detect it as such. An RV with, O Dark Lord, Utah plates lurches in front of us. Cornelia’s toenails, little sharpened coffee beans, are digging into my thighs and her head stretches elastically out the window. Her ears are flapping like American flags at a car dealership and her mouth is open and the vectors of physics that she is beholding blow her saliva off her tongue and into infinity. I, following my will rather than my reason, following Your Will Through Me rather than God’s Fear, which I have obliterated and strewn into the fire, I move into the lane of opposing traffic to pass the recreational probe of Utah Christians and things happen like this:

A truck, I would later find out to be polluted by fishermen from Tallahassee, with large and excessively treaded tires, filled with the mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and argon that we call Air, pulls recklessly from a ditch on the horizon and onto the Sterling Highway. Into the lane, albeit the appropriate lane, the lane that is already inhabited by me, Cornelia and the van, pushing the limits of our horsepower as we are passing this excessively long Mormon RV.

You can figure out what happens. You know that the truck is barreling at us and that Cornelia has her head out the window, oblivious. You can imagine the Tallahassee fishermen, being Tallahassee fishermen, are maybe a little bit drunk, and the Mormons in the RV seem to be heedlessly speeding up as we move to pass them. You can imagine that I attempt to control and compensate for all these unfortunate variables, my foot plantarflexed on the accelerator, but you can imagine that there is always one more variable. The driver side mirror, a rectangular black skillet off the side of the large Ford truck full of fishermen, which is perfectly capable of swerving into the shoulder and beyond with its massive all-terrain tires, but, in fact, makes no effort to swerve whatsoever. The driver side mirror, Father Satan.

I surpass the RV by millimeters, by microns. Cornelia is catching the drizzle in droplets on her Guinness black fur, unresponsive to my tugging at her thighs with my left hand, while my right hand is jerking the steering wheel into the correct lane ahead of the RV and there is some screeching and full-bore adrenaline, and perhaps the slightest misgiven tide of relief. Because I think we have made it – we have moved our physical presence out of the space that would be less-than-momentarily occupied by another physical presence. But what I do not properly account for, of course, of course, of course, are the two smaller but not insignificant physical presences that are protruding from the sides of the larger physical presences. Namely: the head of Cornelia and the truck’s driver side mirror.

Do you know what happens to a dog’s head when it is moving at 70 miles per hour toward an accelerating truck’s driver side mirror whose speed is approaching 65 miles per hour with the direction of its velocity vector offset a full 180 degrees from that of the dog head? You have renounced the Nazarene; so have I. You have undergone your Commitment Ritual and the Anointing in Magickal Body Fluids; we all have. You do your daily Awakening exercises; don’t we all? You have abided the words of High Priestess Maxine and High Priest Randy, and you have exercised your will, free and untainted by the lies and exploitation of the Nazarene, to take the Right-Hand Path. You have heard what Father Satan has said, that our faults and wanting are not emotional, nor are they the result of any lacking or hunger of the human soul, but rather nutritional, and you have struggled to strengthen your Aura with sufficient vitamin B12. You have embraced and exalted your necessary rage and rejected your ludicrous dependency on the Nazarene. Human, you, as I, have strived to achieve the Godhead. But what I am asking you is this, a question any Christian or idiot can answer: What do you think happens to a dog’s head?

(a variety of responses, for ex.: a violent smashing of hands in front of a teenage face, a guttural sound designed to represent some sort of detonation, a man with [count them:1,2,3] three eyebrows hissing like an angry cat)

It explodes. And my mouth is dry.

The conjoined twins with conjoined kidney failure ask: why aren’t our three collective kidneys good enough? When will Italy run out of graveyards with all those centuries of dead people? Why does the cypress sway on a windless day? Why do some dads wear Dockers and other dads wear sweatpants and drink warm beer in basements with their old communist friends?

Satan, my mouth is dry.

(A balding woman with smeared sports car red lipstick brings a glass of water)

And what am I to do without my hound? I am scrubbing my van with bleach and Lysol. I am burying the body of Cornelia on high ground over the Resurrection River and it is stiff, soft, strong and perfect, except for the explicit and horrific absence of her head. And I, Father Satan, am a wreck. And you are people, just tangles of wet and differentially charged pink membranes. And on a normal day, I would say there will come a day when every tooth will be black and sharp, but today I can say no more at all.

(A few boos, but mostly silence)

Eric Arnold lives and studies medicine in Dallas, Texas. His poems recently have appeared or are to appear in The Labletter and New York Quarterly. His short fiction has appeared in Elimae, Pindeldyboz and Monkey Bicycle.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing! Sometimes you want to delete all of the interwebs, a complete reset. Reading this I realize that at least for this one moment my finger pauses over the delete button.

Keep up the writing! This grabbed me by the neck and thrashed me silly. My eyes bulging out until I could break free and take a deep breath.

Full of win!

10:53 PM  

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