New fiction by August West from his forthcoming book The Far End of the Earth

05 June 2022 | August West | Clipper Media

The Insolent Caretaker

22 May 2022 | August West | Clipper Media

The Merrimack River, which runs through the centre of Franklin, Illinois, is known to freeze in the winter and run dry before it reaches the next county in the summer.

The old-timers might tell you that the fickle river is Franklin’s only claim to fame, but that is not really true.

At one time The Merrimack was also home to a ragtag and very dysfunctional religious sect that went by the name The Faithful Mormons. 

There is nothing to prove (or disprove) that they were an early incarnation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Mormons, but it was unlikely Mr Smith and his Mormons would have first set up shop in Illinois rather than Utah. 

The congregation, such as it was, consisted of perhaps 30 ‘parishioners,’ split half-and-half between men and women and an unknown number of children. 

Each Sunday, the faithful among them would squeeze into the small, rather dilapidated white tent that had been set up a short distance from the river. It contained little more than a makeshift pulpit, twenty-or-so chairs, and two collection trays.

The leader of The Faithful Morons, as they were known in the beer hall, was a portly, rather unkempt busybody named Pastor Bellwether. 

Pastor B was not an accredited minister, of course, but surely it would be rude to refer to him as the Lead Moron. And yet that was how he was known.

He was a man of God and rum and Coca Cola, which he very much enjoyed, especially on ‘special occasions:’ A beautiful sunset, an especially ambitious belch or drunkenly discovering a half-full glass of rum leftover from the night before.

Every Friday night Pastor B pissed away the church money in a game of all-night poker in town and he made no secret of the fact that he also preferred to urinate into a coffee cup rather than venture out back to the proper facilities. 

Otherwise, Pastor B spent an inordinate amount of time and energy daydreaming about The Lust of his Life, Penny Parker. 

She was a delightful, charming, and cultured beauty who was also capable of wearing a come hither smile that could melt a lump of coal. 

Still, Penny had so far refused to allow Pastor B to lay hands or anything else on her, despite his assertions that the ‘laying of hands’ was in fact one of his sacred duties.

One night, returning drunkenly from another unfortunate night with the poker chips, he discovered his would-be lover in the rose garden, her sublime figure basking in the moonlight. She was the very essence of classic beauty, he thought, more radiant than even the most sumptuous painting known to man.

He sullied in beside her, pretending to admire a rose that just happened to be level with her rather sumptuous left bosom.

“A wondrous creation,” he said without shifting his gaze. “One of God’s greatest wonders, if you were to ask me.”

“I did not ask you,” she fairly hissed at him.

“A man would be very lucky indeed to—“

“Must you? We are in pubic.”

“We are in a garden.”

“A garden that can be seen by the eyes of the Lord.”

He sighed mournfully. 

“You are quick on her feet,” he said. “And likely quick on—“

“Good night to you,” she said, running off in a-full-blown-huff.

“Poor me,” Pastor B said out loud.

Damn her! He would find a way to nullify her pack of rabid and faithful suitors. He would be victorious in the end. After all, not only did he have God on his side – he also had Him in his pulpit. 

Pastor B woke up Sunday morning feeling decidedly sullen, despite the distant feeling of love in his heart and lust in his active loins. 

Those feelings had only multiplied by the time he reached the tent for the Sunday service.

He had by then decided that he must decide: Should he openly pursue Penny Parker once and for all or remain the deer in forlorn headlights for yet another week? 

His sermon began as usual, with a cute joke, a homely meant to highlight his well-read upbringing and a comedic observation about the odd habits of the parishioners in the next county.

If his darling one was aware of his constant gaze she did not let on, and so she had no reason to suspect anything untoward. 

Thankfully, no one noticed his somewhat… amorous interest in the podium, but he could not help but feel it did not bode well.

“My dear friends,” he began. “The man standing before you at this very moment is a sinner. 

“Yet, who amongst us can say they are free from sin? Anyone? Indeed. We are born fledgling Angels of the Lord, but when He looks down upon us, as He often does, He sees humans first and disciples second. He feels both love and pity in equal measure. 

“But I now confess: I have lusted after women. Well, one woman. And although we remain far apart, I continue to yearn for her in my heart. 

“I know God will forgive me. And I pray that you will as well. And so I implore you to refrain from taking pity or forsaking the lost Lambs of God. We must always endeavour to mark the cross of our Lord with every deed, every thought, every desire.

“Please open your hymnals to page 239.” 

They did as he asked, but he could not help but notice that an almost inhuman chemical reaction had been dispersed and was floating through the air. Perhaps he had gone too far?

The parishioners did not know the object of his lust, but in hindsight, he had to admit that perhaps his words may have implied she was sitting among them! Right at this very moment!

“Settle down. Settle down,” he said to this flock at the end of the hymn. “Until next week – may the Lord be with you.”

He did not move from his pulpit but instead stood waiting for them to fully disperse. He did not know if she was among them. 

When safe, he turned off the light on the lectern and retreated to his ‘study’ in the rear of the tent. 

He felt spineless. A spineless Lamb of God. 

Never mind. The rum and cola tasted cool and sensual. He rolled each sip around in his mouth, in much the same way as he has seen the wine-drinkers do at their festive meals.

The nectar helped, to be sure, but he felt so pensive. It fairly oozed from his pores, allowing him a perfect excuse to partake in another glorious sip.

Almost a full week passed before the object of his desires finally made herself known to Pastor B when, on Saturday evening, she poked her luscious head of perfect blonde inside the flap of his study. 

“Forgive me,” she said, her voice no more than an early-morning peep from a young sparrow.

“Come in my child,” he said. He was breathless, overwhelmed as usual by her grace and beauty. 

He begged her to sit and then he moved in so close he could actually feel her sumptuous warmth upon his lovelorn knee. If God were to strike him down at this very second, he silently declared, why he could surely die a happy man. 

“I did not come here for that,” she said, but not as harshly as he might have expected.

“I see,” he said. “What then, my child?”

“I need a favour.”

“It is hereby granted.”

“But you do not even know what I might ask.”

“It is hereby granted,” he said again without really meaning to do so.

She sighed slightly and moved her knee a tad closer to his own.

“I beg your—”

“I wish to be baptised,” she said at last. 

“Oh,” he said, his mind now racing at the prospect of a biblical encounter with this dear Angel of the Lord.

“Not for that,” she said, as though once again reading his feckless mind.

“I see.”

“So, will you do this for me?”

“Why of course, dear. We shall do so at our earliest convenience.”

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“But the river is frozen solid, my child. Let us wait until we can feel the warmth of the summer breeze.”

“The water will have disappeared by then. No. It must be this way. Will you do this thing for me?”

“Of course, my child. I will ask Our Lord for guidance.”

With that settled, she rushed out without uttering another thought or deed. 

Pastor B looked up to the Lord. There was no reply. But he could hear any laughter, either. Could it be a sign that the mission was not entirely foolish? Or was He merely sleeping? He had no idea what time it might be in His world. Perhaps His clock only chimes once a year. Or once every millennium? 

Stop, he said to himself. This predicament alone is more than he can hope to chew in his human, earth-bound mouth. 

The rain had begun to fall in the early morning. It was soft and pure and did not change to snow, and so he laid in his bed and listened intently as the steady stream of drops landed in the decrepit pail beside his bed. 

Pastor B was thankful for the diversion. Anything to keep his mind off the lustful thoughts scorching his restless brain. 

He was half-inclined to reach out for personal relief but he was still clinging to the juvenile notion that he should ‘save’ himself for his love later in the day. Just in case.

He knew the truth by now. Today would not be a fresh start. It would be the end of so many dreams. 

Poor me, he thought once again. He did not even bother to raise his palms to his Lord.

Penny Parker blew into the tent wearing a delightful white frock and a cool wisp of a hat. All eyes turned to watch her entrance. She looked lovely. And happy. 

She saw him at once and gently pulled him aside.

“Oh Reverend,” she said. “How can I ever repay you?”

He did not say the words he wanted so much to say.

“Thank you for your discretion as well,” she said. “God would be so proud of you.”

Who cared, he thought. Everyone had let him down. Even his Lord. He would do whatever was necessary to survive this horrid day and then he would return to his darkened home to bask once again in the incandescent glow of rum and cola. 

Pastor B took his place in the pulpit. He was jittery and jingly. He wondered if it was too late to send the insolent caretaker to fetch him a drink.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son. John 3:16-17. 

“My friends, I have a special announcement. Today—”

Good Lord. What had happened? The entire congregation was abuzz! They were chatting and laughing like children on their first school outing after a long, cold winter. 

“Friends. Friends. No, I am not going to offer a cash prize to the first person to recite from memory the Ten Commandments.”

The buzz grew even louder.

“Friends, I fear you misunderstood. I said I would NOT be offering a cash prize!”

Enough. They were so giddy they were not even listening to him. He nipped to the back for a nip. Or two. 

Once liquored, he returned wearing his winter coat, boots, and cheap woollen hat.

The insolent caretaker followed behind him, carrying an ax and shovel. They pushed back the flap and walked through the church without comment.

His impudent flock followed without a single voice asking a single question! What simpletons! he thought. If he were to lead them to the cusp of a cliff,  would they follow him to certain death? 

Next week he might find out, he thought, once the love of his life had departed his care and set out to do whatever on earth she intended to do once she found herself safely under the watchful gaze of Our Lord.

He walked to the river in silence but his flock could not have been more boisterous. He had never seen them so happy. One might have thought they were marching to a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. 

As they reached their destination the crowd finally fell silent. They were confused. Were they to witness a wedding? Or a public thrashing? Or to watch Pastor B publicly urinate into a coffee cup?

The insolent caretaker took his tools to the middle of the frozen river and began to prepare for the secret event. He not-so-carefully chipped at the ice with the ax which he then brushed aside with the shovel. 

“Surely we are not meant to go ice-fishing,” one of the flock said to much gaiety. 

“Or are to expected to dig our way to China?” said another.

Much to everyone’s surprise, just as the caretaker appeared to have finished the task at hand the lovely Penny Parker pushed her way through the crowd and ran gleefully to take her place beside the caretaker in the middle of the frozen river.

It was then, without warning, that the ice broke open even further under the weight of the two souls and sucked both the lovely Penny Parker and the insolent caretaker into the river below in one fell swoop. 

They were gone in seconds. All that remained was the shovel, the pick having remained in the hand of the caretaker.

Everyone fell silent. Even Pastor B. Indeed. by now it was so quiet they suddenly became aware of the sound of a bird singing in a nearby tree. The wonders of nature, he thought to himself. 

Pastor B looked to the flock. They looked at him. Had they come to witness a double suicide, their confused looks seemed to be asking. 

And -good Lord!- were others expected to follow suit?

Pastor B turned silently and began the short walk back to the church.

“The shovel, Paster B,” one of the young boys shouted. “Do you wish me to recover it?”

“No, no,” a woman’s voice said. “It is too late for all that.”

It was indeed too late for all that.  

Pastor B entered the church and walked straight into the back and closed the flap behind him. 

He soon became aware that the flock have taken their seats. Did they really expect him to continue with the service! 

He let would let them be. They were on their own now. Just as he was.

He poured a drink of course. And then another. He did not want to face the police stone-cold sober. How on earth would he explain what had just happened? 

The bodies of Penny Parker and the still-nameless insolent caretaker were recovered in the next country once the river thawed in the springtime. It was reported to be a grizzly sight. 

Only a rudimentary autopsy was stipulated, given that it was widely assumed to have been a double suicide. 

But even so, it was revealed that the lovely Penny Parker had been with child. Which perhaps explained her rush to formalise her standing in the eyes of the Lord?

The would-be father never came forward, leading many to believe the would-be baby may have come from the loins of the insolent caretaker. 

Pastor B did not believe nor comment on such an absurdity, saying only that one could easily find another caretaker, but true love seemed destined to remain forever elusive.

22 May 2022

UK spelling