May 20, 2009

Interruptions and acts of God

The water rolled down the hill from the hotel, blackening the gutter. Bits of burnt trash were carried along. The water ran past the rubber boots and rubber truck tires, down the pavement in sheets, down the hill past the people who cried, and the water was black with soot and burnt belongs.

After the preacher was finished preaching, but before the bodies were buried, the man stood up. He wore black and white, with a bow tie, and he was the first to the microphone. He was the first to testify, even though he didn't know the dead, and didn't know anyone there. He was the first to talk, even though he was a stranger, and hadn't said amen. He came with neither affirmations nor consolations, neither heaven proclamations nor Jesus deliverations. He didn't even speak in that style. Instead he stood up, went first, and said As-Salaam-Alaikum.

Leaves withered away from the flames, shrinking into themselves, twisting and turning yellow, then black. The heat made the air look like melting glass. The fire sucked in sound.

The muslim man said he brought the greetings of a God they knew, but did not recognize, a prophet they had heard of, but never heard. He was sorry to interrupt, he said, but he was there for the prophet and that God. He said he was there to tell them there was an answer to this emptiness. He said if they felt abandoned, if they felt the preacher's words were hollow, and if Jesus was gone now, lost now, if the church seemed meaningless and heaven was apparently empty, then he wanted them to know that the Nation of Islam was there.

The preacher didn't look at the muslim man while he talked and the congregation looked down, nobody meeting anybody's eyes, as if he was just somebody's aunt, expected to do this, harmless but always saying something hysterical. Outside, camera men talked about other TV stations they'd worked for and hearse drivers hid in back, sneaking cigarettes and being careful to look somber.

The hotel was left a heap, a slumping hulk on the hill, its burnt timbers in silhouette a broken, splintered spine. The trees smelled like smoke even after the smoke had all blown away. The smell stayed for days, until the people wondered if they only imagined it lingering, hanging there like resentment.