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“Hallelujah! Oh, Lord, this is a great day for all. Come, brother. Come, sister. Let us all rejoice in the glory of the Holy Name! Let its glory and lovingkindness fall down on you like sweet rain and fall in love with the word of the Lord as I have done so myself. Feel the energy and feel the heat pierce your unfaithful veins and flow through you like the River Jordan. Come, my children! Come, my loves!”
It was Atticus Rose’s fourth sermon of the day. The wooden chapel stunk of sweat and rot and he had a pounding headache.
“Oh, glory! Thou art my friend, my brother, and my father all at once. Yes, truly the Lord has guided me onto the path of virtue and love. Come, my brothers. Let me take you with me so that you too can experience my state of joy and love for life. Come, my children! Come, my loves!”
Sweat was slowly dripping down Atticus’s wrinkled forehead like a leaky faucet. It inched down his ski-slope nose and when it reached the end of it, dove to the ground. The heat was overwhelming. It felt, to the preacher and his congregants, as if the entire sky was resting on their shoulders.
“Hallelujah! May we all be blessed and may we all follow the road of truth. Glory! Let us all bless each other and lead our fellow neighbors to the road of truth! And let us say, Amen.”
The traveling preacher was met with an astounding applause. The congregation had risen to its feet. They were hooked.
He stepped down from the podium and was swarmed by a crowd of people. One man lost his job at the auto factory and was down on his luck and needed to get back on his feet. Another, a short, diminutive man with an embarrassingly obvious comb-over had a great-aunt who had just had a stroke and needed prayers for her. A pushy red-headed woman needed guidance over a major career choice. Atticus walked past them, humming a hymn, and let the door slam shut behind him.
Preacher Rose started up his Jeep and began to drive to his next chapel, eighty miles away, in Kenosha. A cloud of dust trailed the dusty car as it rattled toward the highway, slowly and loudly. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the cracked leather headrest. It had been a long day, and it was at least an hour drive to his next destination, where he would bestow his words of wisdom upon yet another eager crowd. The heat was all-consuming. It went in his ears, his mouth, his eyes. His entire body was aflame with this looming, oppressive heat. Atticus wondered, half-seriously, if Lake Michigan, a bluish haze in the distance, was boiling. It wasn’t.
Quietly, cautiously, he began to sing Amazing Grace, the only song whose lyrics he fully knew.
He was eight and it was drizzling. That’s all he remembered about the day when his older brother, Tobias, packed up his bags and left his screaming mother and sad little one-story house with the sagging roof and missing shingles and faded wallpaper and dirty carpet and weariness that only comes with years of pain and set off to be the greatest preacher in Indiana and to never ever come back. And six years later, Atticus did the same thing, only this time there was no screaming mother to leave behind or sad old house because by that time he was living with the Foxes who were a very kind and gracious old couple with no kids of their own that took Atticus in at age ten when he had nowhere else to go and Atticus never had the resistance and the screaming and crying of someone who loved him no he just slipped out the window at night pretending that he had to make it a secret as if they would care if they knew and murmured to himself that he would be the greatest preacher in Indiana and walked away grinning to himself but with heavy tears in his eyes.
Atticus turned the Jeep onto the highway and sat in traffic, which apparently does not spare even the very best preachers in Indiana. It had been a while since he thought about that night and of his brother. Tobias is most definitely not the best preacher in Indiana, thought Atticus. It’s me.
The Fox Family, once consisting of two lonely old people, Tim and Francene, were not a family in any real sense of the word. There were no shared Thanksgivings. There were no happy birthday celebrations. Tim and Francene lived a very small, ordinary, quiet life. It was Tim who, on his seventy-sixth birthday, face illuminated by a dull glow from a single birthday candle, decided to bring a child into their house. Francene decided that it was easier to just agree than to fight Tim on such issues. So they called Bright Futures, signed some forms, and by Tim’s seventy-eighth birthday a small, troubled boy with droopy orange curls and a gap in his teeth came into their house. His name was Atticus.
It wasn’t long before Tim’s dream of one big happy family faded into fantasy. Francene, too weary from age to be a mother, was largely indifferent to Atticus. And Tim quickly regretted his decision to bring some meaning to his life. He was never cut out to be a father, even when he was young. So Atticus had a lonely childhood in a lonely house with a group of lonely parents.
It wasn’t until he was fourteen when, remembering his brother, he set out to be the greatest preacher in Indiana. But by that time Francene was in bed all day and Tim was sitting beside her and stroking her thin hair. So the boy just walked out. They either never knew or never cared.
He hadn’t heard again about the Fox family until he was twenty-four, and he was reading the Monday edition of the Indianapolis Star . There was a small blurb in the Obituaries: “Francene Fox, of Peehawkee, Indiana, died on Friday. She was ninety-two.” And that was all. Mr. Rose put the newspaper down, took a sip of coffee, and slept.
The traffic had finally cleared. The highway was once again free and flowing, and Atticus took his Jeep and headed towards Kenosha. He ran through his stock sermon in his head. Hallelujah... Glory.... Come, Brothers... Even though he’d said it thousands of times, there was still that moment, just as he was about to exclaim “Hallelujah!”, that he was sure that he couldn’t do it. Surely he would stumble. Surely he would fall. Surely the words would catch in his throat and the congregation would have a moment of collective confusement and then burst out laughing at the fumbling, crying preacher. And then he could not be the greatest preacher in Indiana and he would have to go back to the Foxes even though they were long gone.
These thoughts, although having just danced through his mind for a fleeting moment, enraged Atticus. He slammed his head on the steering wheel, beeped his horn, and screamed. His face was red with rage and salty tears were streaming down his face. Everything was wrong with the world. Where brothers could just walk out and leave. Where mothers would be helpless to do anything but collapse on the flower pot and weep. Where old, ignorant people could become parents. Where it could feel like you were baking in the Devil’s oven and nothing could save you from this overwhelming heat. It was a world where, no matter how hard he tried, he still could not be the greatest preacher in Indiana.
Through his tears, the preacher gripped the steering wheel, muscles quaking, and swerved to the right. The guardrail snapped, the car soared, like a fallen angel, down to the earth, and wrapped around a tree. Atticus, metallic blood streaming down his face, drifting in and out of consciousness, moaned.
“It was never about You,” he whispered. “It was always about you.”
Seventy five miles to the north, in a small, creaking chapel in Wisconsin, a group of impatient, middle-aged, unfulfilled Kenoshans sat, banging a beat on their knees. Someone let out a little cough, and some dust blew off of an old Bible.