Editor’s note: This is the fourth chapter of Charles Thomas‘ 2017 novel “Headcase.” Watershed Voice will publish a chapter each week until the story is complete. What you are about to read is not the original Headcase text but an updated version, with editing from WSV Executive Editor Alek Haak-Frost. You can read Chapter 3 here.
It’s pitch black when I exit the store with my prescription and a Diet Coke. The March air is growing colder; the temperature has dropped since my walk home earlier in the day. I take out one of the big purple pills and swallow it with a big gulp of pop as I walk.
i’m not leaving.
These pills always mess me up, I’ve been down this road before. But the way things are, I don’t see any other real option. It’s this or lose control completely. That’s another path I’ve been down before and it’s even worse than the drugs.
If I’m charged with murder, being crazy won’t help me, at least not here in Michigan. California, maybe, but not here. I knew a guy in the hospital that killed his girlfriend in a psychotic rage, and was found to be not competent to stand trial because of his mental illness. He was shipped to the hospital and forced to take heavy doses of medication. Just as I was being discharged, he was being sent back to jail. Drugged into competency.
As I walk around downtown, it starts to become clear to me who I should turn to. I have one friend I can trust to help me with something like this. I ask a couple people I see on the street if I can borrow their cellphone to make a call but get nowhere. It was a stupid thing to do. We crazies always scare the normals when we talk to them. I almost give up on making a call but then I remember Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
The Amway, as everyone calls it, is one of the nicest hotels in town. It is an imposing glass tower right on the Grand River, and is well known for its helpful staff. I walk in the revolving door and go right up to the man at the reception desk.
“Excuse me. I’m a friend of a guest and need to use the phone.”
The man just looks at me. I don’t look like someone who would be staying here. He must know I’m lying.
what he knows is you’re a killer.
I tell myself to ignore the voice and keep a straight face.
“I’ll let you use it, but it’ll cost you a buck.”
The bastard. But what choice do I have? I reach back in my pocket and find the money. He gives me a glance that says, “I’m surprised this guy is actually willing to pay this outrageous charge.”
“Local call only. No more than five minutes.”
“Fine,” I said, and dialed up my friend.
After a very brief call, I walk out of the hotel without a word. The weekend has clearly started and there are quite a few people on the streets dressed up for a night out at the bars. Young people in the prime of their lives without a care in the world besides what beer to drink or how to get home when after they’re drunk. They have a life I always thought I’d have too. But my life is not carefree, especially not tonight.
As I walk up the street, I try to not to think about what happened but it just keeps coming back to me. I can’t get Johnny’s bloody, swollen neck out of my mind. All that blood covering his bed, pooling in his pillow.
I pass a couple of college girls, one wearing a Grand Valley sweatshirt, as I walk by Flannigan’s. Based on the way they are walking and the laughter accompanying everything they say, I’m pretty sure they’ve been drinking for quite a while. What I wouldn’t give to be an anonymous drunken college student in this moment.
I make my way up Pearl Street and see my destination in the distance. It’s right where Pearl dead-ends into Division, and at this moment, it looks like heaven to me.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, in all its gothic splendor, stands out like a lighthouse beacon in the night sky. With its grand architecture, it looks like a mini version of some ancient European cathedral. The church is sandwiched between a tall office building on one side and an equally tall community college building behind it.
It isn’t the closest church to my apartment by far, nor was I raised Episcopalian. My twin brother and I were raised Catholic. But religion or God weren’t what initially brought me to St. Mark’s, it was the food.
A group of women at the church traditionally make lunch for everyone who attends the 10:30 “Mission” service. The mission service is designed for people staying at the homeless shelter a few blocks down the street. When good church women start handing out free food a mere six blocks from a homeless shelter, word gets around quickly. I heard about St. Mark’s within a day of landing at the Guiding Light Mission, and have kindly accepted their generosity many times since.
I spent my first Sunday back in GR in the back pews of St. Mark’s with about 20 other guys. The lunch program, as usual, was successful in filling the pews that morning. There must have been 50 people total in the church, most of them homeless.
I vividly recall first meeting Father Chris Parsons that same Sunday morning. He was handsome and not much older than me. He had striking blue eyes and blond hair that was close cropped in a monastic style. He welcomed me with a big smile and a hearty handshake like I was actually someone of worth.
The service was a lot like the Catholic Mass of my childhood, so I was able to follow it pretty easily. Everything seemed normal until Fr. Chris started his sermon. I wish I could remember the whole sermon but I do recall the first sentence.
“In today’s readings, we hear more about the rich, elitist first century assholes, so arrogant they didn’t even notice the Son of God walking next to them.”
I’d never heard a priest use the word “asshole” before, especially not in a sermon. The rest of the sermon followed suit. It was filled with references to rap music and movies the people in the pews would relate to. It was strange, but my downtrodden brothers seemed to really get into it. I remember a lot of loud “amens” from them. The guy knew how to connect with his audience.
Fr. Chris hooked me for sure. I was a regular at St. Mark’s from that day forward. As time went by, I got to know Fr. Chris pretty well after I started helping out around the church. He said he didn’t get to talk to many people that were as interested in theology as I was. We also liked some of the same books. He even had me over for dinner a few times. Fr. Chris took a real interest in me. I got so comfortable with him that I started to tell him about some of the religious ideas that I had that were not exactly orthodox. He always listened patiently and no matter what I said, he never told me I was crazy or wrong.
I remember one time being really sick and talking to Fr. Chris after the service. I was explaining why I thought cannibalism was acceptable to God because we drink his Son’s blood and eat his Son’s flesh every Sunday. Wouldn’t it be okay to eat other people as long as you don’t kill them yourself? God doesn’t want people in Africa to be hungry, I reasoned; he wants them to eat each other.
Fr. Chris just nodded, nonplussed, and said he could understand why I thought that way, but that God intended the Eucharist to be a special meal where He shared part of himself with us. It didn’t give us permission to take from anyone else.
As I approach the little church tonight, the night Johnny was murdered, Fr. Chris is there waiting for me. His Toyota is parked in the parking lot adjacent to the church, and the big wooden doors of St. Mark’s are wide open. I can see that candles have been lit inside the sanctuary, and for the first time tonight I feel at peace.
Fr. Chris is sitting in a back pew facing the altar.
“Hey, Father Chris,” I say as I walk into the sanctuary.
He turns around and smiles at me.
“You sounded pretty upset on the phone, my friend.”
Even at this hour, he is dressed in his clericals and has a peaceful smile for me.
“Bless me,” I say to him, “for I have sinned.”
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].