This section introduces one of the sub-plots in which abusive letters are being sent anonymously to many in the town.
THE REVEREND HEWITT seemed to have finished his sermon, which had been tedious, Annie thought, even by his own standards. He had performed none of his usual gestures and flourishes, which distracted the eye at least, like an elaborate garnish around a dish of pickled hog’s brains and kidney flavored ice cream. In the pews, people were rubbing their necks, the young children asleep or crying. Like everyone, Annie turned her eyes to Earl Shlockenburger, who was holding a list of the sick and shut-ins and other local announcements. Earl was a little deaf and never really understood any of the Reverend’s sermons anyway. Many times over the years he had stood up, declared that God’s word had been rightly divided, and had started towards the altar only to have had the Reverend continue after what had merely been a dramatic pause.
Earl’s wife, Brenda, nudged him. He glanced around at the congregation. All eyes were upon him. They wanted to see his bent old body shuffling up the aisle, that little piece of paper, their reprieve, in his hand. Earl had become so associated with the end of Hewitt’s sermons it had become common in town for people to say “It’s time for Earl” whenever anything unpleasant or excessively extended had to end.
Like a tremulous dissenter, Earl rose, clutching his rag of paper.
“We have heard the word of God rightly divided,” he announced and began to make his way to the front.
Annie noticed now that the Reverend was watching Earl with a dark, brooding expression, and as the Elder turned toward the congregation and opened out his sheet, Hewitt declared with more passion than he had mustered during the whole sermon, “Of God, certainly. But not of the Devil.”
Abruptly Hewitt lifted a sheet of paper over his head and addressed the congregation in a tremulous voice. “I received this . . . thing three days ago. It contains the most vile and vicious calumny against me and my wife.” His voice had risen to a shout.
A murmur ran through the church as he took a moment to compose himself, gently patting and stroking his immaculate hair as if it were a high-strung pet he had unintentionally startled.
Earl stood frozen and bewildered for a moment, which made him look uncannily like an aged version of the wooden Christ behind him, and finally made his way back to his seat.
“Most insidious of all,” Hewitt went on, “this thing was written by someone among us, someone here today. A person who seems to feel that here in God’s own house, the Almighty cannot see into his heart.” He paused, panning his head slowly over the congregation. “I do not call this a letter because it invites no correspondence. It is an act of vicious cowardice intended to poison me at the very root of my life. Its sinister aim is clear: that I should look out every Sunday at this, my congregation” - he held his arms out wide - “in the knowledge that one of you holds me in contempt. It is the serpent in the garden.”
Pausing again, he drew himself up. It looked to Annie as if he had added a few more inches to the box he stood on behind the dais. She could hardly believe what was happening.
“I prayed for God’s wisdom in this matter, and He guided me to do what I shall do now.” Here he glanced down at his wife in the front pew, who looked as surprised and confused as everyone else. “I’m going to throw this coward’s lies back into his face. I’m going to say to Satan, I am not afraid. I will not keep this in darkness to fester. I am going to read every word.”
He was still holding the piece of paper away from him in his pinched fingers. He shook it for a moment, as if he were throttling a rat, then placed it on the dais. After putting on his glasses, he read.
Dear Reverend Hewitt,
This Sunday you gave yet another one of your interminable sermons. Small, gleaming man, you are the evolution of some Medieval instrument of inquisitional torture. You wield yourself against us, your poor heretics.
Can’t you see us writhing in the pews? Of course you can’t. Your ego is impenetrable, a shell of vanity around what was once your life. Your now putrefied life: if nothing can break in, nothing can break out. You are a dead chick in the hollow of the inviolable egg of your ego. Not a gesture made, not a glance given, not a word spoken that is not preconceived. And yet, like all those without imagination, you are completely sincere. You make me shudder, the manly firmness of your handshake, the cupping of my elbow, utterly rehearsed, constraining me as you try to suck me into the null vacuum of your eyes. In that moment I know you would preach hatred as mindlessly as you preach love, would shoot a man in the head as readily as deliver him a homily. Like so many priests and conservatives, you are the voice of the void. I keep expecting your face to fall away. All at once to see through the little proscenium of that hair you so love into space, without stars, an utter darkness that speaks not just of individual death, but of the annihilation of us all. The horror. The horror. The horror is the void with a bad haircut, with a ridiculous little mustache. Heil the horror. You are the horror, which is the profundity of all space and time trapped in a little, vain man, whose every feeling, if he can be said to have feelings - tenderness, regret, piety, love - is an inflected reflex of hatred and anger.
I find myself morbidly fascinated by how you and Judy got together. No doubt she was one of your parishioners somewhere, staring at you implacably from the front pew. You were drawn to her severe attention in the great sea swell of yawns and eyerubbing. Rigid in her posture, unadorned and un-made-up, she seemed unsexual, which also drew you, since you had always felt something of a qualm at the thought of having such demands placed upon you. She never spoke about herself, which suited you, since you have no interest in other lives. You saw in her an acolyte, an echo chamber for your vanity.
I like to imagine that on your wedding night she took you by surprise, meeting your dry kiss with liquid passion, filling you with a visceral horror. You had missed it, that yearning deeply buried in her basilisk eyes. To your surprise, she wasn’t quite dead. A necrophiliac’s nightmare: the corpse has opened her eyes, her livid skin takes color, a lewd grin distorts the rictus of her mouth. Quickly you thrust the stake through her heart: as she went to kiss you again, you flinched and told her that her breath was bad, that her body had an unpleasant odor, that her breasts were strangely stretched and slack for one so young. Whenever she spoke, you stifled yawns, checked your watch. Under such tutelage, Judy became the irredeemably loathsome woman she is today, vile, hateful, balked, everything in her curdled and corrupted. I prefer you. She is a wound, merely, whose suppuration has crusted into the semblance of a woman. Gall, canker, and no more. While you, with such limitations of mind and sensibility one is astonished you have brain enough to take your next breath, are among the best of what you were born to be, she is the worst of what she was born to be. She is unbearable because she might truly have been other than she is. She makes me never cease to be amazed by what any human being can allow herself to become.
Taking off his glasses, he looked up at the congregation.
Abruptly, Annie’s dad, who was right beside her, stood up. “I get one,” he shouted. “I get one of these. I gone to a lawyer.”
Then Miss Kelly’s thin body curled up as meekly as a sprout. “I got one too,” she said. “It was dreadful. I . . .” Overcome, she sat down.
Reverend Hewitt clearly hadn’t expected this. “Who else got one of these?”
Slowly hands were raised, one coaxing another until almost a dozen were up. Annie put her hand inside her father’s elbow and eased him back down.
“One among us,” the Reverend declared. “One here has betrayed our fellowship. I speak now to that one: If your heart is not completely black, here, in the house of your Lord, you will now stand up.”
Annie hunched a little lower, as did everyone, as if they feared that against their wishes, as in a dream, they would find themselves standing. They all glanced around, the usually sleepy air of that church utterly evaporated. With blood in the air, guilt in all their hearts, evil among them, this place had become, for once, a real church. The air electric, every one of them waited for the snake, the kiss, for the hanged man to show his face.