Beyond Jerusalem

Kenesaw reached into the cooler and pulled out a bottle of Manischewitz. “Lay it on me.”

“It’s the megachurch,” Earl said. “They’ve been telling folks that hoodrats fuck like Philistines in the Tower of Babel and they’re steering clear.”

“What’s the number?”

“Forty all day,” Earl said. “Eleven adults.”

The inside of the Winnebago peeled and stunk of canned cat food. Earl and Kenesaw sat opposite each other at a long, thin table on springs that folded up into the wall. Earl was dressed as Jesus in preparation for a one-act he did three times a day. The trailer stunk of cat food because Kenesaw had developed a taste for it in the ‘80s. He’d even bought a cat because he hated all the questions, although the cat was only ever served dry food. AMERICA!, the cat, lounged in a casserole dish resting on the electric stove that Kenesaw had busted up the other night.

“I wonder how they found out about the tower,” Kenesaw said.

Earl shifted the excess robes from one side to the other and adjusted his wool beard. “They’ve got electric guitars,” he said. “The people melt.”

“They’re out to bleed me. They keep sticking and sticking and they want to bleed me out.”

A bird called out from the trees that hung outside the office and AMERICA! stuck up his cat-head. “No harm meant, sir, but I’d like to bash the skull of that Reverend Reggie,” Earl said. “And then shit on what’s left.”

“Take it easy,” Kenesaw said. “I’ll deal with him. What else?”

Earl went about fixing his beard as he talked down into it. “It’s Cody,” he said. “She locked herself in the Belly of the Whale and she’s threatening to deface Jonah.”

“What do I keep you around for, kid, if you can’t keep my daughter in check?”

Earl was quiet, and the electric fan turned. “We’ve fought some recently,” he said.

Kenesaw ran around his desk, looking for the pack of Camels he knew he had somewhere, and found them lying beneath the most recent map of his Young Earth Amusement Park. It detailed the locations of each ride—the Red Sea Roaring Rapids, Escape from Sodom & Gomorrah!, King Solomon’s Tomb—as they related to The Second Coming, a massive, groaning relic of a wooden coaster built in 1977 and highly regarded by roller coaster enthusiasts for its age and relative lack of safety. These enthusiasts—or “hapless geeks,” as Kenesaw would have put it—made yearly pilgrimages to Florida to ride the Second Coming, and their business nearly kept the park afloat.

“I don’t care for the details,” Kenesaw said. “I just care that you keep her off the ledge.”

Clouds shifted up high and new, yellow light sliced in through the chalky blinds. “Go and clean the triceratops,” Kenesaw said. “I’ll see to Cody.”

The trail that led out from Kenesaw’s office cut a path through the baked mud and the knee-high saw-grass and dumped out in the flat-middle of Jerusalem where the kids, when there were kids, gnawed on lamb shank served by a dropout wearing a fez and where there was always a woman, ripe and hay-swept, cradling a porcelain Jesus in a clapboard manger. Kenesaw had made it a habit of carrying with him at all times a crusted Bible he had swiped from a shithouse motel outside of Tallahassee. He carried the book—on account of it providing a tangible amount of luck—and as he walked he often used it as a plate for the jumbo-sized Corinthian corn dog he ate every day for breakfast. Now his cell phone buzzed, and Kenesaw saw a text from his daughter: You will be here in five minutes. There is a rip in the blowhole. That’s how I got in. It is an eight-foot fall, but there is a rope ladder. You aren’t going to tell Earl.

Beyond Jerusalem, across a makeshift bridge above a makeshift Tigris, was the spit of park dedicated to the reproduction of Ninevah. This section was most famous for its attraction depicting the story of Jonah and the Whale. At fifteen high and twenty across, the model whale was originally purchased by Kenesaw’s father from a failed boardwalk aquarium in Rhode Island. The whale was broken up, shipped to Young Earth, and reassembled with a ten-foot glass plated belly. Kenesaw swept across, picking at his teeth with the corn dog stick, and climbed on the back of the whale and shot down into the blowhole.

Cody was there smoking a menthol. Across the table was a half-form mannequin with a green cape and a quill pen. “Right on time,” she said.

Kenesaw reached and adjusted the wig of the mannequin. “They came back,” he said.

“They never left.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to do to me,” he said, “having a go at poor Earl like that.”

“It’s not Earl,” she said.

Kenesaw tossed back the bottle of Manischewitz. “I don’t know how you get it in your head that I am doing wrong by you,” he said.

Cody thumbed a hollow-wood apple core that was part of the scene. “I need to go up there,” she said. “To Vermont.”

“Nothing those folks will tell you up there that we can’t tell you here,” he said.

“Worse and worse,” she said. “It’s not going away and I can’t control it. Look at you, you don’t see me for a week and you assume it’s stopped. It hasn’t stopped.”

“There isn’t any money,” he said. “You think I’m proud? The money’s gone, kid.”

A bell sounded and Earl’s voice came in through the load speakers: Attention park patrons, the Florida Wildlife Commission has issued a warning for oversized pythons in the Osceola Valley. Please, keep your children near, and God bless. Cody took the bottle.

“Maybe you need to think a little harder about selling,” she said.

Kenesaw paced around the belly, running lines through his hair. “If I ever find myself needing fiduciary advice from a seventeen year old, you’re at the top of the list.”

Cody shook. Her eyes rolled into her head and became clear and white and her arms shot up quick and pulled at her hair. Kenesaw went over and ripped the robes from Jonah’s half-form and wrapped them around his fist and stuck his fist into Cody’s mouth to keep her from biting her tongue in two. The red cloth filled her mouth, and Kenesaw could hear the muffled words of his daughter, possessed by whatever it was that possessed her. He held her arms back and she fought and fought with a strange sort of strength and then stopped. Then her eyes came back and her muscles relaxed.

“Earl will call soon,” she said. “You are going to leave and meet with him.”

Kenesaw ran his hands through Cody’s hair. “Let’s forget Earl for now,” he said.

“I can’t control it,” she said. “I don’t know how to control it.”

“I’d send you up there if I could, Cody.” Kenesaw went away and toward the plaster stomach lining. “I’d have you up there first chance I got.”

His cell phone buzzed. Kenesaw picked up and Earl was on the line, his voice wild.

“This is bad,” he said. “It’s the triceratops.”

“What’s the issue?”

“I’m in my Willard Libby outfit, right? On my way to do the one-act about the evils of Carbon Dating, right? Fuck, Ken, you’ve just got to get down here. Down to the triceratops.”

“Tell me what the issue is.”

“We don’t have time. I am sweating frogs in this coat and Reverend Reggie is at it again.”

Kenesaw hung up and told Cody to sit tight. Then he shimmied up the rope ladder, slid down the tail of the whale and headed out beneath the sweating sun toward the front of the park and the triceratops.

Hand-crafted by park founder Clarence Kenesaw in the shadow of The Second Coming, the plaster and porcelain statue of Jesus Christ riding a triceratops had welcomed man, woman and child on many a day where the sun beat hard enough to fry the brain and confuse the senses. There he was, every day, white and tan and Anglican, smiling at those who went on by like a father watching his son skin his first deer. The triceratops himself, all pale, chipped greens and historical inaccuracies, had his head eternally cocked down, sifting through the pavement for primordial reeds. As Kenesaw neared, he noticed that a crowd that had gathered around the statue and that everyone had a piece of paper in their hands. Once he got up close, he saw the word “HERETIC” dashed across the statue in red paint, and he saw that the same peach-colored piece of paper had been tossed around the grounds and taped to the triceratops.

“It’s not good,” Earl said.

Kenesaw reached up and grabbed a sheet from the horn. It smelled like baked goods, and it said:

Attention, honorable folks of the Osceola valley!
Attention, men and women in service of a kind and just God!
A man in my position can only sit back and allow the good and the just and the faithful to be bamboozled by a man taken with Satan for so long!
Hamilton Kenesaw!
Say his name aloud, venerable sheep, for I am your shepherd and he is the Beast!
Say his name aloud, lest it take on additional power!
Shout it across the swamps, across the treeless plains! Let the words drip from your mouths and choke the power from his name like the kudzu vines choking life from the cypress trees!
Hamilton Kenesaw!
In Kenesaw, this county has a man who wears the armor of a soldier of God, only to profit from His word and openly bask in his vile pattern of non-belief!
In Kenesaw, this county has a man who once sold his only brother’s saxophone to fund a two-week journey through the black, feral darkness of heroin and women of ill-repute!
In Kenesaw, this county has a man who openly showcases his witch of a daughter, constantly writhing with violent, red visions off to the public like a Babylonian sideshow!
In Kenesaw, this county has a man who not only employs, but welcomes into his family, a drunken, degenerate savage of a Seminole who once poached the sacred Panther and used it’s bones for ritualistic medicine!
Yes, loyal brethren. Hamilton Kenesaw is a shadowed, sin of a man. But fear not!
Reverend Reggie is here for the Osceola Valley, as he has been for a decade!
Attend my services, and wash away the stench of festering amorality and vice!
There are many things crawling in the night, my friends!
Let the words of God, as filtered through the ordained megaphone of my voice,
guide you like a lantern alone in the Everglades!
Together we will make it to heaven!
If you only believe in yourselves, gentle sheep,
as He has believed in you,
and as I have believed in you!

Earl had gathered up the paper stuck to the triceratops. “I’d like to burn that man alive,” he said. “I’d like to cut off his fingers and then light him up.”

Kenesaw trashed the sermon he had in his hands. “I better take a trip out to the church,” he said. “You got things handled out here?”

Earl nodded. “I never killed that fucking panther,” he said. “It was dead when I found it.”

“I know,” Kenesaw said. “No one with half a mind believes anything that man says.”

“Tell Reggie that he’d do well not to come near me.”

Kenesaw slung into his Jeep and came out through the park gates and onto the highway. Reggie’s church inhabited six acres of near unusable swampland just up the way from Young Earth, and the two establishments competed for local billboard space with the Kissimmee chapter of the Pro-Life League and Pentecostal Pines, a retirement home for fanatics. Kenesaw shot down the 15, bottle of Manischewitz just fitting in the cup holder, watching the thunderheads gather and loom in the far-off sky like credit card debt. A gilded, golden cross and a man in an alligator suit marked the turn to the church, and Kenesaw made it, heading once again into the thick, Germanic spit of trees that kept the shimmering sanctuary out of plain sight.

Across the parking lot, through the strip mall that sold all manner of Christian novelty items, and past the movie theater that only showed made-for-TV movies, was the interior of the church; the raw, sweating guts of the place where few folks had any business. The building was all whites and yellows, like an egg, and the ceiling went up and curved in so high that it reminded Kenesaw of the way he thought of heaven as a child—long, clear and endless. The front desk was unattended save for a switchboard lit like Christmas. On either side of the desk, tall racks were propped up by cardboard cutouts in the shape of some vague, ancient temple and stuffed with energy bars. Kenesaw read the cardbaord—FAITH BARS, ALL THE FIBER NEEDED TO STAVE OFF THE DEVIL—and reached toward the racks and picked up a handful of bars. Lemontations, Bel and the Dragonfruit, Leviticustard, Jubilee’s Peaches. Kenesaw heard the click of heels down the marble walkway.

“Those are wildly popular,” she said.

Kenesaw set the bars back. “I take it they are.”

“Feel free, Hamilton. The profit margins are bananas.”

“I’m trying to cut down on my fiber.”

“Each one has a Bible verse inside,” she said. “It’s like a fortune cookie, but without all that Chinese mysticism.”

Roberta was a hawkish, peck of a woman, slim and unforgiving, and her razor-sharp hips had driven Kenesaw mad since the day he met her. “I’m afraid you’ve picked a rather poor day to drop in, brother. You see, Reggie is tied up. Wednesday is never any good for us.”

Kenesaw reached behind him and stuffed a Bel and the Dragonfruit into his pocket. “Amazing, then, that you still find time to vandalize my property.”

“Oh please,” Roberta said. “You’re a reasonable man. We didn’t vandalize anything.”

“Those zombies of yours,” he said. “You put them up to it.”

Behind the desk, Roberta pulled a cigar box from a drawer. She lit the end with a match and took a long puff. “They believe in my husband,” she said. “It’s amazing, the things they will do for us.”

Kenesaw watched Roberta move the cigar in slow, swelling circles inside of her mouth. “I’m going to sue,” he said. “I know how deep his pockets are. You two have been poking at me for years. I’ve got the evidence. The courts will shine upon me.”

Roberta laughed. “You’re a degenerate,” she said. “You’re a drunk, heathen degenerate, and, frankly, you smell worse and worse every time I see you. You’ve got nothing on Reggie.”

The first time that Kenesaw met Roberta, she was seventeen and had been hospitalized with self-inflicted stigmata wounds. She was just a kid riding north from the Keys, drunk and alone, falling victim to one of the local snake-oil dealers offering up the gospel. She stumbled onto Kenesaw land, brandishing a bottle of cooking wine, bleeding deep from her palms and her side. When she spoke, she spoke of driving lawn spikes into her hands and knifing down the edge of a broomstick and driving it into her side. She wanted everyone to believe that she felt the warmth of God warmer than anybody else. Old man Kenesaw took her in, and Reggie showed her the light.

“I’d like to have a word with him either way,” Kenesaw said. “If it’s not too much to ask.”

Roberta stubbed her cigar and placed it in a plastic bag and back into the box. “Follow me,” she said. “I don’t think he’s going to be happy.”

They walked together through the hallway, across wine-red carpeting, listening to the smooth jazz that seeped in through speakers hidden inside of planters. On the other side of the plexiglass walls, in a courtyard that connected two separate walkways, four peacocks thrust around, hemming and hawing, setting themselves up on chairs and fountains, fanning out their plumage. Kenesaw and Roberta came to the door at the end of the hall—it was eight feet tall and had two long, tallow candles burning on either side.

Reverend Reggie was wearing a crisp, white karate gi with a golden cross embroidered on the back. He was going at a plastic torso tucked into the corner of the room. Along the walls, each in a distinct, decorative frame, were pictures of the Revered himself with any conservative celeb that happened to pass through the swamp: Jeb Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jeff Foxworthy. Reggie pulled a towel from next to the torso and turned toward the door. “Give us a minute, will you Berts? It’s been a while since I’ve seen old Hamilton here.”

Roberta left, and Reverend Reggie wiped his face down and motioned for Hamilton to sit. He did, noticing the way the room smelled like genitals and aftershave.

Reggie made himself busy at a cabinet behind his desk. “So you’re here about the sermon,” he said.

“It was low. Over the top, too.”

“They expect that from me,” he said, motioning around the room. “You don’t get all this without being a little over the top.”

Reggie came toward Kenesaw, holding a decanter filled with a noxious green liquid. He was still sporting the same Pete Rose haircut he’d had for decades. “I’ve been making liquor out of lima beans,” he said. “It’s wild. Let me pour you a glass.”

Kenesaw took the glass he was handed. “You’ve got to leave Cody and Earl out of this,” he said.

“That may have been an oversight on my part.”

“She’s your niece, for fuck’s sake. Slander me all the way to Tallahassee, but take it easy on your niece, will you?”

“Tell Cody I apologize.”

Kenesaw sniffed at the homemade hooch. It smelled like butter and nail polish. “Tell her yourself.”

“I won’t apologize to the Seminole,” Reggie said. “He’s a violent sort, and I think you’d be best to get him out of your life.”

“You got no place giving me any advice.”

“I only want the best for my brother.”

Behind Reggie, a huge stained-glass window made the treetops in the distance yellow and green and blue. Kenesaw took a quick swig from of lima bean and watched a bird flutter across the window, changing color as it went. The phone rang, and Reggie answered it, and before he hung up the door had opened and Kenesaw turned to see Roberta leading a peacock by a leash into the room. It sat itself up on a perch next to Reggie and made the sort of sound a peacock makes; a sound Kenesaw couldn’t describe.

“Sorry about the bird,” Reggie said. “It thinks I’m its mother. Will only eat when I feed it.”

Reggie reached into a pouch and pulled out a handful of dried insects. The peacock pecked his hand.

“So,” Reggie said. “You’ve got to sell to me.”

Kenesaw set his glass down. “That’s what this is about?”

“That’s what it’s always been about, Hamilton.”

“You still want the park.”

“I’ve always wanted the park.”

Kenesaw ran a finger quick through his hair. “It’s not for sale, same as ever.”

“In a place like this, brother, the things I know could sink a man.”

“Then let me sink.”

“That wouldn’t be very Christian of me, would it?”

The bird kept pecking away at Reggie’s palm.

“You’re trying to bully me,” Kenesaw said. “I come in here, and you’re trying to intimidate me with a peacock? Am I clear?”

“Four hundred thousand,” Reggie said. “I reckon that’s more than fair.”

“I know just as much as you do,” Kenesaw said. “These people think you’re a goddamn saint. I know about the things you’ve done.”

Reggie pulled his hand back and reached into a drawer. “That’s the difference between you and I, Hamilton. I don’t run from my problems. I don’t hide my sins. The people, they know about anything you could drum up on me. Roberta and I, we wear our past sins out and open and on our bodies.”

“Does Roberta know that you’re a homo?”

The peacock screamed.

“Does she know about your time in Ybor City? Does she know about your days of sucking cock for pills?”

“Roberta knows all that there is to know, Hamilton.”

Reggie wrote out a check and passed it across the table. “Just sell. We won’t have to see each other ever again.”

“I’d burn Young Earth to the ground before I ever sold it to you, Reggie. I think Dad would get behind a plan like that.”

“You’re still proud of that man, aren’t you Hamilton?”

“Nobody calls me Hamilton.”

The peacock went up and his plumage fanned out in a green and blue shitstorm. “You think there’s some kind of honor in wearing his name,” Reggie said.

“No more honor in forgetting it straight off.”

Reggie stood and moved toward the peacock and ran a hand across the feathers. “Take the check, brother. Take the check and think it over.”

Kenesaw stood and shuffled to the door. “I don’t want to get a ticket,” he said. “Validate my parking, will you?”

Reggie sat back behind his desk. “Talk to Roberta,” he said. “Buy a Faith Bar.”

Kenesaw opened the door and looked out into the hall. Roberta was there, fixing her lipstick. He heard Reggie as he closed the door: “Do it for Cody.”

Roberta headed down the hall and swung a set of keys from her waist and opened a door. Kenesaw watched. He came up to the door and he said he would take a Lemontations and he would pay cash and then closed the door behind him. He came up close and Roberta smelled just like she did the last time—like smoked fish and Bible pages—and he ran a hand up her thigh and let it rest there on the waistband of her skirt. Roberta stuck the set of keys into her mouth and pulled her hair back into a quick and messy ponytail and she pulled her panties down and let them fold in on themselves again and again until they pooled at her heels. Kenesaw undid his fly and turned her around. He went into her hard and pushed her body up against boxes of Faith Bars and pamphlets about abstinence education. They finished, and Roberta whispered: “you’re disgusting.” Kenesaw buttoned his pants and went to the car and decided to sleep it off. He forgot to get his parking validated.

The night air crept into the Jeep, thick and warm. Kenesaw wrung the engine and hit the highway, back across the heat-baked asphalt and the billboards written from the point of view of an unborn fetus. He lit a cigarette and cracked a window and a Ronettes song came on the radio. Outside it was moist and feral and the thunderclouds had moved inland and stood out deep and dreadful against the thick black sky. Kenesaw reached for his bottle of Manischewitz in the cup holder, but it was empty. He tossed the bottle out the window and made his next left for a drink.

The Toasted Coconut was as the only Tiki Bar in Central Florida. Plastic coconut husks lined the bartop and ukulele music piped through the speakers and when you ordered their signature drink—a fruity little thing with six different rums that tasted like artificial cherry—the lights dim and drums beat and pre-recorded thunder hits in the distance. The bartender was a thick Laotian man named Lee, who wore his thinning hair in a ponytail and polished porcelain shrunken head mugs, and stood against the peeling wallpaper with pineapples sagging in horizontal paths. Kenesaw caught sight of Cody, still seventeen and swarming with men, sipping a lava-red cocktail and digging her nail into a kiwi garnish. Kenesaw made eyes at the men, and they fanned out like insects.

“Lee,” Kenesaw said. “I need a Shark’s Tooth.”

Lee turned around and took an armful of gin bottles. Cody sipped her drink and wiped a bit of ice from her lips. “How’s old uncle Reggie?”

“Never mind Reggie.”

“Still a prick.”

“I said never mind.”

Lee turned a blender and watched the TV. He cursed and shut it off. The orange and yellow liquid went into a glass and he put it before Kenesaw. “Goddamn Gators,” he said. “Got no chance at the title this year.”

Kenesaw turned the drink to him. “Basketball or football?”

Lee crossed his arms. “It’s September.”

“Lee,” Kenesaw said, “what are you doing serving minors in here?”

“Not a minor,” he said. “Got an ID that says twenty one. It’s a good looking ID.”

“Stop it,” Cody said.

Lee went behind a set of beaded curtains. Kenesaw took a sip of the Shark’s Tooth.

“He thinks he’s God,” Kenesaw said. “Been like that his whole life.”

Cody went in her purse and pulled out a joint. She lit it up and Lee stared at her through the beaded curtains, but turned back around. “He’s got some things over you, I guess.”

“I’m going to make it out alright,” he said. “If God is on his side, then God ain’t worth siding up with.”

Cody held the smoke deep in her lungs and she exhaled like she was letting out a deep and tragic secret. “You’ll be okay,” she said.

The TV ran a story about the fear of a new population of super snake loose in the glades—of pythons breeding with cobras that had been shipped in by those exotic animal nuts and mated—and how local reptile experts feared the super snake would turn to human flesh. Lee shuffled in the back.

“I’m leaving for Vermont tomorrow,” Cody said. “I am taking Earl with me.”

“You can’t go,” he said. “I need him. I can’t find a man to work like that easy.”

“We’ll be married,” she said. “We’ll get hitched in St. Augustine, with the Atlantic at our backs.”

“You’ve got no money.”

“We’ll get by,” she said. “I got ways.”

“I know the ways you got.”

“There’s a little money,” she said. “We got a little money. We can go on the cheap.”

Kenesaw took his finger and fucked around in the frosted glass of the drink. “What happens when you have a vision?”

“Earl can do it,” she said. “He’s seen you calm me.”

Kenesaw felt the electric pulse of his phone and reached in. Voicemail from Earl. He said in a quick and sharp voice that Reggie had set fire to the triceratops and that he had caught him trying to rush out and tied him up in the Winnebago and needed Kenesaw back straight off because if he were left alone with Reggie he’d kill him.

Kenesaw excused himself from the bar and went outside for a smoke. He caught sight of the flames, thick and slithering in the stillness of the night, and he thought of bolting into the Jeep and taking care of his brother for good. He thought of the triceratops, melting down to scrap with his savior on his back. Maybe I’ll sell, he thought. Maybe I’ll sell to Reggie and take the money and go with Cody and Earl to Vermont and maybe make good on a few things. He thought of Earl holding a knife to his brother’s neck, and he pictured Roberta safe and sound and feeling a stinging in the palms of her hands. There was a slick rustling near the trees, in the overgrown grass that came out from the shallow swamp, and Kenesaw listened to the anxious calls of the birds up there in the cypress trees—the kind of calls that knew what was coming—and for the first time in a long time, Kenesaw thought about God.  

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