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Neumann's Journey Part VI: Neumann's Redemption

“—and what did the Prophet Peter say unto John in the olive grove?”
“—Tell us brother!”
“That ‘though the worm speaks truly of final things, who lends his ear to its whisper… finds only madness when the day is gone.’”
“—Amen!”
“The Prophet enjoins us to turn our thoughts away from final things, and I ask you—why? Why is the truth to be hidden?”
“—Speak it, brother!”
“I’ll tell you. I’ll confess to you now. How many sleepless nights I have spent with my ear pressed to the ground!”
“—Halleluiah!
“How many dark mornings I have been awakened by the ring of shovel striking stone.”
“—Praise be!”
“The worm grows fat with my indulgence. His whisper is my constant companion. Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, and drink from the river of blindness, I shall succour him, and bear my constant witness to his mysteries—”

Neumann stood transfixed. All his life, he had thought himself to be surrounded by madmen and thieves. Yet here was lunacy of a different order. The preacher raised an accusing finger; vibrating with an otherworldly indignation. His thick lips and fat pendulous jowls sent beads of sweat and saliva deep into the crowd of congregants. Neumann could see he was on the verge of sharing a profound revelation—where the audacious scale of his mendacity would be exposed at last. But as the man invoked the worm as his witness, he was suddenly cut short by a loud profanity hurled from somewhere at the back of the room.

Neumann turned his head and stared as a shoeless vagabond stuffed a sandwich in his maw and gestured rudely with what appeared to be a glass of sparkling wine. Neumann couldn’t tell if he was wearing a shirt, but his ill-fitting jacket was tucked into trousers, with a knotted length of electrical cord wrapped around his waist. As Neumann watched, he raised his glass and drained it at a swallow, then reached into a duffel bag and produced a second cable. One was connected to the other, and his suit was suddenly ablaze with hundreds of brilliant little bulbs. A black-eyed Susan twirled around like a propeller in his lapel. And when the man himself began a slow pirouette, Neumann could see the slogan, “John 3:16”, flashing across his back. And then the message itself began to dance around the room in seemingly endless iterations.

“…God loved the world this way: He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him will not die but will have eternal life. God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him may not be lost, but have eternal life. This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, His one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. Yes, God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost…”

Neumann had never heard anyone speak in tongues before, but as the man began to bob and sway, his voice growing ever more insistent, the words became strange and alien and eventually so stripped of earthly meaning they ceased to resemble words at all.

“…so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He (even) gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life. For God so loveth the world, that He hath given His only son, that none that believe in Him, should perish: but should have everlasting life. For God louede so the world that He yaf His oon bigetun sone, that ech man that beliueth in Him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf. So liek teh Ceiling Cat lieks teh ppl lots and he sez 'Oh hai I givez u me only kitteh and ifs u beleevs in him u wont evr diez no moar, k? Sic enim Deus dilexit mundum, ut Filium suum unigenitum daret: ut omnis qui credit in eum, non pereat, sed habeat…”

Neumann fully expected the man to spontaneously combust. The little fliers he pulled from his breast and tossed in the air by the handful were merely fuel for the ensuing flames. The danger passed, however, when a quick-thinking security guard disconnected the man’s power supply and another clapped a meaty hand around his mouth. The man tossed up a final spray of confetti as a third official, in a sparkling white business suit and cotton gloves, began to whisper in his ear.

Forgetting for a moment that nonsense prevailed, Neumann bent to read the strip that fluttered like the fortune of a Chinese cookie onto the floor beside him. It was as meaningless as he should have supposed, and Neumann wondered why he was surprised to find that the man not only to spoke in tongues, but wrote in them as well: Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς Αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

When Neumann looked up, he saw that the evangelist's fit had largely passed and that the security guards were no longer paying him the least attention. One had already disappeared with the duffel bag, and the other had taken up sentry duty at a linen-covered hospitality table. The remaining official stood behind him, pressing forward on the balls of his feet, hands clasped firmly behind his back, and continued whispering in the intruder's ear. He maintained this posture with some difficulty as the other unknotted the cord around his waist and stepped from trousers that promptly collapsed around his ankles. The old derelict's withered genitalia were concealed only intermittently by the flaps of his blazer, which in any case he soon shrugged off as he lurched toward the lectern at the front of the room. The official, who somehow managed through all this to keep his hands behind his back and his mouth within a very intimate proximity to the old man's overgrown ear, gave the impression of being dragged along by the lips as the other sauntered shamelessly down the aisle.

Neumann was certain that laws had been enacted to protect the public from just this sort of indecency, but as he scanned the crowd for any sign of moral outrage he could find none of the disgust he anticipated. Indeed, the only rumblings he could hear were from those who should have counted themselves fortunate to be spared an unobstructed view of the spectacle, yet who, far from rejoicing at this little bit of providence, were actually jostling for a closer look. A few voices rose in half-hearted protest as a group of men forced their way through the crowd. Neumann responded by inching closer to the exit, positioning himself for a quick escape should the circumstances call for it. When he stole a glance behind him, however, he saw that the door was being guarded by a familiar figure in blue jeans and loud mostly buttonless shirt.

Neumann swivelled around for a better look. The man was slouching against the door, casually taking in the breeze. He seemed to be covered in blood. He was missing a shoe, and when he raised his hands to bring the stub of a cigarette to his lips, Neumann could see his wrists were wrapped in gauze and chained together with a pair of handcuffs. He wheeled back toward the figures pushing through the crowd, and when they reached the aisle, he caught the gleam of a badge and the reassuring glimpse of a holstered side arm. Neumann supposed they were there to keep the peace, and was hopeful that basic standards of decency would be enforced at last. The officers, however, merely kept the onlookers from blocking the route, roping the area off with long, outstretched arms and the unspoken threat of swift and brutal retaliation.

Neumann turned again to the unguarded felon at the door. As he watched, the man took a final drag on his cigarette then flicked it onto the sidewalk before stepping from the path of an onrushing porter and wheelbarrow laden with bricks and bags of what appeared to be powdered cement. The unsteady contraption groaned like an old grizzly, and Neumann was quick to jump out of its way. He recalled the dubious advice once offered in the event that he were ever to have such an encounter in the wild: curl up and pretend to be dead already. Flight had always struck him as the preferable option. How could he have known the bulky load would be heaved in the same direction he fled, bricks tumbling left and right as the porter struggled to make the turn? Neumann found himself corralled between the back wall and the crowd of onlookers, forced to scamper down the aisle as that angry heap of bricks kept up its mad pursuit.

At the end of his path were three wooden steps leading to a dais where the preacher still stood at the lectern. As Neumann scrambled to the safety of higher ground, the man broke into a toothy grin and stretched his arms out in welcome. Neumann gave a squeal of revulsion and spun back toward the aisle, but was forced to halt when he saw the porter building up speed for a final charge. He didn’t think the other had the slightest chance of getting up the stairs, until he noticed with a gasp that the steps were flanked by a wheelchair ramp. In a panic he back-pedalled, shaking himself free with almost spastic convulsions of disgust from the preacher’s unsolicited embrace. The wheelbarrow hit the ramp at a frightening clip and the preacher waved his arms in an effort to pull Neumann back toward him. But Neumann continued his retreat until his heel caught the lip of an unexpected ledge and he fell, wide-eyed, into the tepid water of a baptismal pool.

Dazed by the impact, Neumann sat for some time in the shallows spouting the Holy Ghost like some ghastly parody of a public fountain. The preacher waded in after him, one arm extended, the other lifted high overhead. 'Arise,' he commanded as Neumann clutched at the outstretched arm, thinking the man meant to help him to his feet. Instead, the other grabbed him by the head and forced him viciously under. 'Rise,' he shouted again, as Neumann surfaced a second time, coughing and sputtering. He tried to wriggle free, but the preacher had him by the hair and his frantic blows bounced ineffectually off the man’s murderous forearms. Neumann went down again, but even under the water he could hear the preacher’s shrieking demand to rise up to the light. He tried, flailing like an enraged beast, twisting his head this way and that in an effort to locate his tormentor. When he finally gained his feet, he saw the other standing at the edge of the pool, arms raised victoriously, while the congregation danced and swayed to a lively hymn about redemption. Neumann’s angry threats and curses were lost in the din.

Neumann could see that the wheelbarrow had come to rest near a small annex to his left. The porter, wheezing like an asthmatic from his exertions, was bent over next to it, propped up with one hand on a knee and mopping the sweat from his brow with the other. When an official emerged from the murky room beside him, the porter straightened up and immediately set to work unloading the last of the bricks. The official, who only moments before had been attached like a parasitic fish to the evangelist’s ear, skipped lightly over the growing pile and exited discretely through a door at the back of the platform. As Neumann watched in disbelief, the evangelist poked his head out from the shadows, then squatted obscenely on his haunches and began stacking the bricks in his lair.

With his attention distracted by the scene playing out in front of the annex, Neumann was suddenly grappled from behind and heaved out of the water. He squirmed and thrashed his legs in resistance, nearly slipping out of his jacket and sliding back into the pool for his efforts. But once ashore he found his footing, and was able to straighten his outfit before whirling around to confront the scoundrel behind him. Neumann had to crane his neck to see over the expensively tailored suit, but he quickly recognized the other as the guard who’d helped subdue the evangelist earlier in the evening. He waved an angry fist under the man’s chin while the other stood there slack-jawed with a finger pressed up against his ear. Neumann found himself unable to do much more than glower—and this was clearly to no avail.

He looked back and caught the preacher’s eye. The latter seemed to recognize his need for attention, as he immediately gestured to the pixie-faced girl standing watch over the hospitality table, who hurried to the stage with a fluted glass and napkin stacked with tiny, crustless sandwiches. Neumann couldn’t countenance the idea of a young woman serving alcohol in such a disreputable setting, but the sight of food reminded him of his empty stomach and he persuaded himself to accept the proffered meal as a physical necessity—though he refused the drink on principle.

Well acquainted with musty loaves, he was struck less by the staleness of the offering than by the discovery that bread could be made to account for the entire substance of a sandwich. Worse, he was left with a thick, glutinous paste in his mouth, and was obliged, if only to keep from choking on the bolus that had lodged in his throat, to reconsider the drink he had been offered. The sharp tang of juniper was a pleasant surprise, at least, for Neumann had been expecting champagne, and after his first cautious sip, he allowed himself a more generous swallow. Then, seeing how little remained in his glass, he finished it off completely.

Still gripping the empty glass in one hand, Neumann slid the other between the buttons of his shirt. An unfamiliar fire was burning in his belly, with flames that licked his chest and threw off embers he could feel at the tips of his fingers. The scowl melted from his face, and Neumann realized he was grinning. The din had grown so loud he could hardly hear what the preacher was saying, but the man was slapping him on the back with great conviviality. Neumann kept his grin despite the impertinence. He even considered wandering over to the hospitality table to top up his drink. But as the pretty girl was no longer there to keep impatient hands at bay, the table had been overrun, and Neumann could see that the service had degenerated into something resembling a drunken cocktail party.

As though reading his mind, the preacher gestured to the idle porter who was crouched in front of the annex sharing a surreptitious cigarette with the evangelist. The man made a big show of getting to his feet, but he retrieved his glass from its hiding place in the wheelbarrow and peevishly handed it over. Neumann accepted the drink with pleasure, then sidled over to the preacher and began pounding him on the back like an old pub mate.

"Bottoms up!" he shouted into the man’s ear, and the smiling preacher nodded agreeably.

Go on to Neumann's Journey Part VII

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