“Well glory to God! Can we have a hand-clap offering! Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for bringing our wonderful family back on this Lord’s Day! Are ya happy today, friends? Are you glad about what the Lord has done for you this week?”
A six-year-old boy dressed in a miniature three-piece suit, hid his face in his mother’s dress. A bald-headed usher with enormous false teeth grinned and led a family to empty chairs, where he then distributed bulletins to each one. “Thankya, Jesus,” said a grey-haired woman behind them, using her bulletin as a fan.
A young tattooed man wandered into a section in the back. The choir,
a collection of various-sized and aged people wearing ill-fitting robes, began a rousing introduction to the service. The congregation continued standing, some holding hands and swaying, some with arms lifted toward the ceiling lights, some staring with mouths open or close, under the enormous fluorescent bulbs interposed with speaker boxes hung with heavy wire.
Fifteen minutes passed, and an obviously impatient, rotund, and smiling pastor walked on stage gesticulating to the enraptured choir, that it was time to end the looping rocked-out hymn. It was as if his hands were saying, “yadayadayada….” Heads down and hands clasped, the choir came off the stage and disappeared through a small white door. “Pick up your bulletin, if you would. Just a few things we want our church family to be aware of, Glory to God…. The men’s baseball team will be signing up new members in the atrium directly following the service. Women’s Bible Study will be meeting in the Rebecca Room Tuesday as we have a drywall crew coming in to rough-in our new kitchen-glory to God! That’s ok! You can praise Him for that! Sweet rolls and coffee are to follow installation on this next Lord’s day, January eighteenth. ” On a more serious note- we need volunteers for the annual shrub pruning and bulb planting crew. We only need you for a couple of hours, so whatever time you can give, God will bless you for that. And on a final note- I know you’re busy-we all are-but don’t forget to order your yearly pledge card packets. I know many of you have been faithful about getting that done. Our ushers are coming around now to hand out order forms- if you would prayerfully consider the coming year and place your pledge in the offering plate when it comes around. Well, thank you, Jesus! And now let’s pray….. Dear Lord, we are a sinful people in the hands of a righteous God. Where we fail, you are faithful…and on one note not on the bulletin, we’re thankful for those of you all who have donated so generously to the gymnasium fund, halleluiah. And we all want to be prayerful for sister Bryant who took a spill and is in the hospital for a hip replacement, thank you, Jesus, we know you have a plan and you are in control.”
A bothered young mother carried her infant quickly out the back of the sanctuary, leaving the smell of dirty diaper in the air. A paraplegic with sad brown eyes and a veteran’s pin sat glued to the video camera and a bald usher in the front row lay prostrate before the curtained riser that was the stage. The preacher surreptitiously glanced at a digital clock stuck inside the podium: 11:05- fifty-five more minutes. Alter call in forty. Breakfast at Denny’s.
The church was just a jump off 81 and was reached by car or by crawling over the guardrail. Dudley crawled under and came in during the intercessory prayer. When the alter call was given, he walked among the tearful congregants and lay prone, looking solemnly up at the preacher. Reverend Dickey went from head to head laying on hands and opened his eyes to see the ragged and shivering golden retriever looking back.
Unsure what to do, Dickey continued down the line. A couple of people looked up and smiled and a woman sneezed. Dudley started licking the bottom of a woman’s shoe. An usher approached the dog and urged him to follow, but Dudley was tired and sad. He’d dodged cars and trucks in frigid weather all night. Instead, he sighed heavily and curled up at the feet of a catcher just as a portly woman fell out into his arms under the power of the Holy ghost. He fell into the deepest sleep of his life.
An hour after the service, the dog hadn’t moved. A slight drip of blood came from his mouth. A foul smell surrounded him. Reverend Dickey and two elders presumed he was dead, and threw a catcher blanket over his body. The offering had been counted and once again, proved disappointing. But the buffet lines were emptying out around town, and the men decided to call maintenance to dispose of the carcass Monday morning.
Monday morning, the dog was gone and the carpet had been vacuumed. Reverend Dickey unlocked the door to his office and closed it. It was furnished in warm oak, had a burgundy carpet and was encompassed with full book shelves. On the wall adjacent to his desk, facing the door and all who entered, was an enormous framed poster of Jesus on the cross. Several new magazines had been placed in his inbox, and Dickey relaxed into his leather swivel chair. The sermon for next week needed to be planned and he had an appointment with the elders at noon at Shoney’s. He reached into the back of his desk file drawer and pulled out a fifth of Old Crow.
The first sip burned majestically down his throat and his eyes momentarily blurred and rested upon the picture of Jesus. Then a large sigh exuded from beneath his desk. A hairy face lay across Dickey’s socks. Dickey rolled back in his chair and prepared to jump up, securely holding the bottle in one hand.
Dudley thumped his tail loudly and looked adoringly at the Reverend. “Holy shit!” A knock came at the door.
“Morning Reverend,” a happy voice continued down the hall. It was Steve, the maintenance man. Slowly Dickey put the bottle back in the drawer and went to the door, opening it.
“Hey, Steve– how’d the dog get in my office?” Brother Steve, a tall black man in his late twenties, was pushing a cart of cleaning supplies and toilet paper.
“In your office? I have no idea ‘bout that. I went to put him in the dumpster this morning but he was sniffing around the hall. I gave him one of my McDonald’s sandwiches and a dish of water. Sorry about that.”
“He’s gonna have to go.” Robert looked warily at Dickey, anticipating a new job.
“You gonna take him to the shelter, Rev?” he asked, walking away.
The dog wagged his tale and waited at the office door for Dickey to return, then curled up on the small couch in the office, sighed, and went to sleep. The Yellow Pages. Animal Control… Roanoke County….
“ I have a stray I need to get rid of.”
“Are you in Roanoke County?”
“You can bring him in to our Roanoke location. I can give you those directions.”
“You don’t pick up?”
“No, Sir. Not unless it’s a wild animal or you suspect its rabid.” Dudley wagged his tale and panted happily.
“I see. Well, he might be….”
“What makes you think so? Describe his behavior.” The good reverend twisted in his chair to avoid the plaintive look of the bedraggled dog.
“Never mind. I’ll bring him in.”
At noon, Rev. Dickey cancelled the elder’s meeting and drove the dog to the shelter. Every time he looked in his rear view mirror, the dog wagged his tale. The White Cadillac smelled entirely of indigested food and road kill. Dickey breathed through his nose and turned up the radio on the religious station, but couldn’t concentrate. Dudley started to whine and look nervously out the window, his long tongue coated with saliva that he flashed on the windows whenever he nervously jerked his head. In the rear view mirror, Dickey could see the dog pacing, uncomfortably and step and re-step on a King James and a pack of old church bulletins.
At the stoplight at Williamson Road, Reverend Dickey reached into the glove compartment for a pint of Jack Daniels. He waited until the light turned green, unscrewed the bottle, drank deeply, smacked his lips and watched Dudley in the mirror looking at him with great expectation. The heat of the whiskey hit Dickey hard, and for a moment, he remembered when, as a child, he had asked for dog and was told, “no.” The dog he had wanted was a bright German Sheppard pup born to a farm litter down the road from him in Alta Vista. Even his wife didn’t know about that pup- she wouldn’t have understood, so he kept the experience sacredly buried.
After a couple of false turns, Dickey found the shelter. Even from the parking lot he could hear the howl and furtive barks of nervous animals and it made him upset. He walked back to the car for another drink. Dudley wagged his tail expectantly, thinking they were leaving. Dickey drank and slammed shut the glove compartment. Dudley had already reentered the car, and he had to yank the rope around his neck to urge him out.
Obediently Dudley strode into the shelter, where it gazed at the Reverend on last time and whined. “This one needs a bath!” the animal control worker said, smiling. She was a young girl in her twenties, with metro-style glasses and a nose piercing.
“Will someone adopt him?,” Dickey asked authoritatively.
“May not be adoptable. He’s older. We’ll give him a few days.”
“He won’t be so bad after a bath. He’s not sick-looking….”
“We’ll see. We’ll have the doctor check him out. Thanks for bringing him in, sir.”
“Ur, do I need to sign anything or…”
“Nope- you’re good. Thanks again.”
Driving back to church on 81, the Reverend felt crappy. It was only twelve-thirty, and he was drunk off his ass. “Goddamn dog. Now I have to reschedule the elder’s meeting.” Instead of pulling into the church parking lot, he decided to go home. “They’ll find him a home,” he told himself. The cell phone rang. “Yeah, this is Reverend Dickey.”
“Is everything ok? You rescheduled the meeting today….”
“Had to drive that damn dog to the shelter.”
“You mean- the dog from Sunday? He lived?”
Sunday morning it finally warmed up and the sun shone brightly on what was left of the plowed snow. The congregation came in through the sunny front doors and chatted incessantly, sipping on coffee and nibbling cookies. Reverend Dickey jauntily made his way through the crowd, shaking hands and laughing earnestly. No one asked about the dog.
The processional began, and the elders seated a full house. Reverend Dickey took his place by the choir and clapped energetically. He worked his way to the podium, waiting for the fervent congregation to tire. “Let us pray,” he began. “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for keeping our family safe this week and allowing us to come together again.” It was then he felt the familiar hot breath of the golden against his legs, as it settled happily against his feet, in ghostly form; he felt the weight of the emaciated animal within a shadowy mist beneath the pulpit, and caught his breath.