The Gould house smelled like Sunday dinner and the trappings of commercialized religion. The house itself was one of the large old Victorians that rose like a classic architectural sentinel on the north side of town near the overlooking cliff rock and the only considerable clusters of trees in the whole of Berlin, Wyoming. It was often dubbed the “green side” of town because that’s where the main city park and the walking trails and the cemetery were, and where the little green men from space lived in their log cabin commune.
The homestead where Carrie Gould and her mother lived was a tall, gaudy pink and white haunted candy palace with a nice kept yard full of colorful flowers. The interior was tidy, but gaudy as well, flooded with knick-knacks and bric-a-brac and portraits of white Jesus in a doctor’s gown, and soft sheep, and framed cross-stitch Bible verses on the walls. But still, there was a flip chill in the air, an icy bastard lingering in the shadows.
Despite all the clutter, the house was warm and inviting. The furniture was soft and friendly. The windows were clean and clear. The intentions of the after Sunday service meal, however, were not.
Pastor Craig Stikk and Steel Brandenburg III sat in the front parlor part of the house sipping coffee in an uncomfortable silence as they waited for the meal to be served. There was a heart of cruel intent in the room and Steel put his hand to his chest to feel if it was his own. He wasn’t sure it was. Intent. Intentions.
Then the pastor asked. “So, Steel. What are your intentions with our lovely Miss Carrie?” He sipped at his coffee annoyingly, his black jellybean eyes searching above the tipped brim of the cup as he waited for an answer.
“I’m not sure, pastor. Our relationship has just begun. We’re exploring each other,” Streel said, and he smiled to himself deep inside.
But the pastor frowned at his remark, and then shifted. “And speaking of relationships… Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
Steel laughed. “No. He never returned my calls, so I dropped him.”
A look of painful concern passed over Pastor Stikk’s perverted face. His pencil-thin moustache wriggled with distaste for the young man. “Steel. That’s not something to take so lightly. A personal relationship with your Lord and Savior is the most important thing in life. Do you not care to tend to your eternal soul?”
“Look, I’m not religious. I never had a taste for it, and I certainly don’t want my face pushed into it.”
“I’m not trying to push your face in it… I’m just saying that, well, Carrie is a very religious person, and don’t you think she should be with someone who shares in her beliefs? Don’t you believe she should be with someone who fosters and encourages her faith?”
Steel drained his coffee cup and set it down. He looked straight across at the pastor and grinned his cocky grin. “You mean someone like you?”
The pastor shifted in his seat and then leaned forward and whispered, “Frankly, yes. Life is too short not to be bold. I do indeed believe I would be a better mate to her, and I’m sorry if this offends you, but I don’t believe you’re good enough for her.”
Steel scoffed. “I don’t understand why everyone in this town thinks I’m such a horrible person.”
The pastor leaned away from him. “Well, maybe you are. Perhaps some deep personal soul searching is in order then, Steel. Other people obviously must see far deeper than you do. Personally, I’d be ashamed of myself.”
“I don’t need everyone shaming me and telling me how to live my life. People need to stop being so damn judgmental. That’s what I can’t stand about religion—the self-righteous attitude. Did your God make you and everyone else God? And this whole pointless conversation boils down to one thing: You want to get with my girl. Gross. Aren’t you like 20 years older than her?”
“I believe Carrie needs a mature man in her life,” the pastor said.
“And that’s where you fit in?”
“Steel, God spoke to me on this matter. The Lord Himself told me I should take Carrie as my own. Me. Not you. And I cannot disobey God. She will be mine, not yours.”
“Well, I’m not going to just turn her over to you. I haven’t even gotten any action from her yet.”
The pastor slapped a palm to his forehead in disbelief. “Good gravy, Steel. Must you speak of her in that way? It’s so disrespectful and Carrie doesn’t deserve it.”
“You said something about gravy… This is how this whole story started. Gravy.”
“You’re rambling incoherently, Steel. ‘Good gravy’… It’s a term used when someone is expressing befuddlement… And you are befuddling me.”
It was at that point that Mother Melba Gould came bouncing into the room. “Gentleman! I bring good news. Dinner is ready. Please come to the table.”
The great Sunday feast was spread out on the large dining room table atop a precious cloth. They all took a seat and Melba called upon Pastor Stikk to lead the prayer.
He stood, cleared his throat, and bowed his head. “Dear Lord, we ask that you look upon us with your everlasting grace and mercy as we prepare to enjoy this beautiful meal prepared by these two lovely women, your humble servants. We ask that we gain an understanding of and appreciation for your boundless gifts, such as these before us. Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful day and the opportunity for myself, Steel, lovely Carrie and Melba to come together in this beautiful home to commune with each other among these overflowing dishes. May we find sustenance and joy, and may this togetherness not only satisfy the hunger of our bodies, but also the hunger of our faith. Amen.” He sat back down, unfurled a napkin, and tucked it into his shirt collar. “Well, let’s eat.”
Platters and bowls were soon being passed around as everyone filled their plates with tender pot roast and carrots, a green-bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, niblets of buttered corn, a chilled spiral macaroni salad, beef noodle soup, spring rolls, sweet potato casserole, cheese chunks and crackers, fun fruit-filled gelatin, pickled beets and black olives, tapioca pudding, cranberry sauce, buttered rolls, wild rice pilaf, and goblets of iced tea, lemonade, and cold milk. Knives and forks and spoons quickly began to work, and they clinked against the Gould’s finest dinnerware as they moved like robots and the eating began.
“Thank you, pastor,” Melba said with a smile. “That was a beautiful blessing over our table.”
“It was my pleasure, Melba,” the pastor replied. “As you and your lovely daughter are a great pleasure to me.” He moved his hand beneath the table and squeezed at her thigh. Melba blushed and went “Ooooh.”
Steel coughed and reached for a glass of moo juice and drank.
“Everything okay there, Steel?” The pastor asked. “You seem choked up by something.”
“I’m fine. Thank you. Something just went down the wrong pipe.”
“Pipe. Right,” the pastor replied with a sneer. “Speaking of pipe… Carrie, I was hoping you and Steel would start up some counseling sessions with me.”
“Counseling?” Steel wondered aloud. “What for?”
“Well, Steel. I often counsel young couples on the ways of Christian-based male-female relationships. It’s spiritual guidance really as you two walk with God along the path of love and eventually marriage.”
“I’m not…” Steel began, but Carrie broke in after a quick, tight-lipped smile aimed at him.
“We would love to, pastor. I think your guidance would be priceless. Thank you for offering.”
“Not a problem. That’s part of what I do in my role as the lead shepherd for the congregation.” He chuckled oddly. “I must look over my flock.” He smiled big and then glanced over at Steel who was sitting across from him and next to Carrie. “I just want to be sure that God is always a part of your togetherness.”
“I thought I made it clear to you in the other room earlier that I’m not religious,” Steel broke in. “I don’t want or need counseling in spiritual matters… Especially when it comes to our relationship. That’s our business, not yours.”
Melba Gould’s mouth dropped open and some of the beef noodle soup dribbled out. “You’re not religious?”
“Not especially, mam.” Steel answered. “The mountains of my life have never been moved much by faith.”
The room was silent for a moment.
“Well then, Steel,” the pastor said as he speared another slice of ham with his fork and put it on his plate. “Then you need it more than anyone.”
Carrie grasped his hand. “It’s important to me, Steel. I don’t think I can carry on in this relationship if you’re not a man of faith. You’ll be amazed by what God can do for you if you just let him in.”
Steel looked around the table. “You know, there’s such a thing as religious freedom. Meaning, I have just as much right not to be religious as you all have to be religious. And Carrie, baby, I just want you to accept me for who I am.”
“And she has…” the pastor began, but Steel put a finger up toward his face. “With all due respect, pastor, this is not for you to decide.”
“I beg to differ, young man,” the pastor snarled in return. “As a leader in the church, it’s my responsibility to watch over and guide her faith.” He slammed his fist down on the table. “It’s my God-given earthly task and I will not allow a non-believer to soil this beautiful young woman’s soul!”
Steel stood and barked, “All you truly care about is getting in her pants! And I’m not going to let that happen!” He looked around at the shocked faces. “My apologies Ms. Gould. I think I’ll step outside for some air.”
TO BE CONTINUED