“So you’re not going to tell her?” Bentley asked.
Vernon studied himself in the mirror, tilting his head from side to side. “Bentley,” he said. “I’m tired of talking. I mean to do it this time.” He looked away from the mirror and into the eyes of his co-conspirator. A thick index finger emphasized his point. “And she can’t stop me.”
Bentley sighed. “Okay. When?”
“First thing Friday morning, when she leaves for her sister’s house. My appointment is at ten.”
“How long will she be gone?”
“Till sometime on Tuesday, plenty of time.”
“And you’re sure you want to go through with this?” Bentley asked, not for the first time. “Is it really necessary?”
Without answering, Reverend Vernon Vanderwalker returned his attention to the mirror. Not bad for fifty-four. Sure, he was a little beefy around the edges. But that wasn’t what bothered him. His biggest problem, the proverbial thorn in his side, was the desolate plain where his hair once dwelled. Maybe it was from age or stress. Maybe it was a tragic case of heredity. Regardless, Vernon’s head was both naked and ashamed. He thought of the Old Testament and how the sins of the fathers visited themselves upon the future generations and wondered. What kind of mess did my Daddy get himself into?
“It’s necessary,” he said.
For years he hid the problem artificially. But he grew tired of the hair-by-day, gone-by-night routine. He longed to wash his hair, not dry clean it. This new opportunity was the answer. His wife, however, was not convinced. She insisted that Vernon accept how God had made him and stop trying to be someone else. But Sarah would change her tune when she came home Tuesday to find a fresh-headed hunk of burning love waiting at the door.
“Sarah hates that wig,” Vernon said. “And I simply refuse to stand behind the pulpit while those lights make pretty little shapes on the ceiling from the reflections off my head.”
Bentley studied the brochure Vernon had given him. It was full of the clinic’s most recent “success” stories. Flipping it onto the Naugahyde couch, he pondered how best to address his concerns.
“Vernon, all those guys look like Chia Pets.”
“Chia what?” The preacher picked up the brochure and frowned.
“Chia Pets. You know those things you — well, you add the water and . . .” Bentley saw this was going nowhere. “Never mind. Look. If this is important to you, then it’s important to me. So, who do you have lined up to preach for you on Sunday?”
Vernon peered over the top of his glasses at tried not to covet Bentley and his obscenely thick coiffure. “What do you mean ‘preach for me?’” Vernon asked. “What can’t I preach for me?”
This confirmed Bentley’s worst fears. “Now, Vernon, I know it’s been a long time since you’ve missed a Sunday at this church.”
“Five years!” Vernon interrupted. “And that’s a streak I don’t intend to break. I made a commitment to this flock. And I don’t feel comfortable with anyone standing in that pulpit but me.” Vernon stomped to his desk and slumped into the expanse of his chair, which, unlike the couch, was real leather.
“Preacher,” Bentley began.
With the utterance of the word, Vernon felt sick. Only once before had Bentley Bunch, Chairman of the Deacons, addressed Vernon as “Preacher.” On that occasion, Bentley reported that Burl Simpson’s billy goat had eaten the blanket off of a live baby Jesus in the middle of last year’s nativity. This was of course very frightening for Jesus’s mother, who, having missed the cut to play the part of Mary, was refilling a small butane heater near the stable. She screamed loud enough to wake half the church cemetery, which was unfortunate because the poor goat was nervous — what some call a fainting goat — and instantly fell over dead. It was never clear if this death was due to the shock of the scream or from choking on the blanket. Autopsy reports were inconclusive.
In her haste to save her child, the woman broke the butane pipe’s connection, allowing sour gas to spill into the air. In all the commotion, no one noticed the growing stench, nor did they worry what might happen if that gas came in contact with an errant ember from the shepherds’ bond fire. When the smoke finally cleared, the stable was a pile of ash. Two of the wise men were missing eyebrows, and Burl Simpson was out ten bales of hay, three chickens, and one nervous goat. Whatever Bentley had to say right now would no doubt ruin Vernon’s day.
“Preacher, did the doctor explain to you exactly what you might expect from this procedure?”
“Yes,” Vernon shot back. “More hair!”
“No, I mean in terms of recovery.”
Vernon considered this. He seemed to recall the mention of “some general discomfort” and perhaps the need to “take it easy for a few days.” But that was it. At least, that was all he could remember.
Bentley retrieved his glasses from the thick brown pouch wedged in his shirt pocket. He put them on and held the brochure at arm’s length before reading aloud:
“Some patients will experience moderate to severe discomfort in the days immediately following this procedure. Scalp will be extremely tender, as well as red and swollen. Patients should plan on limited to no activity for no less than four days.”
Vernon did the math. Not good. “What am I going to do?” he wondered aloud. “If I can’t preach Sunday, that blows my cover.” Then after a short pause, “No pun intended.”
Bentley smiled, just to be polite.
Vernon began to absently flip the onion-skinned corner of a King James with his thumb.
Bentley walked to the window and watched a squirrel find a nut. “Vernon, I just think you’re going to have to fess up on this one. Tell Sarah what you want to do and reschedule this thing when it makes more sense. It’s not like we have two of you.”
Suddenly, the flipping fell silent. “What did you say?”
“I said you’re gonna have to fess up.”
“No, no. Not that. The other thing.”
“I said we don’t have two of you.” Bentley turned to face Vernon, who leaped to his feet and began rummaging through his top desk drawer.
“That’s it! Man alive, Bentley Bunch. You beat all! You know that? There are two of me!”
Bentley had the sudden urge to pray for the mental health of his pastor. He watched in disbelief as Vernon ripped through books and folders searching for something that was apparently as valuable as the holy grail itself, and just as elusive.
“Got it!” Vernon finally thrust a slip of paper above his head in triumph.
“Bentley, sit back down. There’s something I need to tell you.”
After ten apocalyptic minutes, Bentley Bunch sat stunned. “So, you’re telling me that you have a twin brother?”
“And he lives not three hours from this church?”
“And you two look just alike?”
“Well, hang on there.” Vernon felt compelled to clarify. “I wouldn’t say that. Virgil doesn’t exactly carry my —” He worked to find the appropriate word. “Presence.”
“But he does look like you?”
“And he sounds like you?”
“When he tries, he can sound more like me than I can.”
“And he’s a preacher too?”
“Unless the Church of God has excommunicated him.”
Bentley took a moment to digest this information. It was all so much so fast. Questions began to spill out of his mouth. “But how come we’ve never seen him? How come we didn’t even know he existed? You’ve been here for ten years, and you’ve never mentioned a twin brother.”
“Virgil is — ” Again, Vernon thought carefully about how best to describe his twin. “Virgil is just different. He and I have never been very close.”
Bentley asked the next obvious question. “So what makes you think he’ll even come, then?”
Vernon looked out the window and leaned back in his chair. Reluctant springs groaned in protest. “I never took two steps without my brother on my heels. It’s been like that since we were kids. When I played ball, Virgil played ball. When I went to work at Lutrell Hardware, Virgil went to work at Lutrell Hardware. And when I became a preacher — “
Bentley finished the statement. “Virgil became a preacher?”
“Exactly. If I ask, he’ll come.”
“Okay. So let’s say he’ll do it. Do you honestly believe he could pretend to be you on Sunday morning and just go back home without anyone knowing?”
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Think about it, Bentley. Sarah’s gone to her sister’s. The only time I have to be anywhere between Friday and Tuesday is at that pulpit Sunday morning, a good 20 feet from the first pew. Now, if Virgil can still do ‘me’ like he used to, those folks will never suspect a thing.”
“But it’s Mother’s Day. The place will be packed. I don’t know, Vernon. This all just sounds like a bad idea to me.” In truth, it was the dumbest idea Bentley had ever heard.
“Oh, relax, Bentley. It’ll work. I’ll write the sermon. Virgil will preach it. It’s foolproof.”
The phrase “famous last words” came to Bentley’s mind. But in the end, he agreed to be a part of the plan, if for no other reason than morbid curiosity.
Tolerance was not a significant part of Vernon Vanderwalker’s skill set. He had little tolerance for gambling. He had even less tolerance for foul language. He had almost no tolerance for crying babies in the church service. And, above all else, he had absolutely zero tolerance for pain.
Needless to say, the ride home from the Horton County Hair and Hip Replacement Center was not a pleasant one. His scalp throbbed with the pulse of every blurry yellow dash that bounced across his window. It was almost as if someone had cut holes in his head and stuffed them with — well, no wonder it hurt so much. He swallowed one of the large white pills the nurse had given him. Then he thought of having to see his brother the next day, so he swallowed another. He silently swore to himself that if Bentley hit one more bump, he would find himself on parking lot duty every rainy Sunday from now until Jesus came back. Oh, Jesus. Right now would be a great time to come back. Bump.
Bentley couldn’t help but feel sorry for his friend. No one should feel that bad, even if it did serve him right. Was it normal to do the entire head all at once? It reminded him of the picture on the front of a horror movie his son had brought home once. The villain had a slick white head with pins sticking out at every angle. He guessed Vernon had never seen that movie. Bentley thought that was a good thing. The best course of action would be to get Vernon home and in bed as quickly as possible. Once the pain medicine kicked in, sleep would take over from there. But for now, a little discomfort might build some character. With a smirk, Bentley aimed for just one more pothole.
Eventually, Bentley turned into the Vanderwalker driveway. That’s when the smirk vanished and Bentley’s heart sank.
“Hmmmmmm?” Vernon mumbled. The medicine was working. It would have been a good time to ask him for that new coffee machine in the Fellowship Hall. But there were more pressing issues at the moment.
“Vernon, doesn’t Sarah drive a green Lincoln?”
“Mmmm Hmmmm.” Vernon answered from some level of his subconscious.
Bentley’s mind began to race. The pastor’s wife wasn’t supposed to be home for four more days? How would he explain why her bandaged husband looked like a Confederate soldier after the battle of Gettysburg? There was certainly no hiding it. Vernon was half-looped on painkillers and, as Bentley now observed, was drooling onto his plaid button-down.
Before Bentley came to a complete stop, the Lincoln door opened. To his surprise and relief, the passenger was not Sarah Vanderwalker, who was apparently still enjoying her sister’s company in blissful oblivion. Instead, it was another Vernon, identical in nearly every way. He was leaning against his car and smiling — as Bentley’s Granny Gayle would have said — like a duck with new dentures. He was a day early, and apparently very proud of this fact. Only later did Bentley notice the Lincoln’s license plate. “REVITUP.”
As the Vernon clone drew closer and his teeth grew larger, Bentley could see the principle difference between the two brothers. The real Vernon, whose breath was now making nostril prints on the window, consistently exhibited remarkable poise, at least when conscious. His gate was always measured and controlled, his gestures calculated and concise. The other Vernon, who was now waving erratically, was more like a bad black market knock-off of the original. His joints had too much play in them. Bentley prepared himself and opened the door.
“You must be Deacon Bunch,” the knock-off said in a voice much higher and far less refined than his brother’s. A thin hand extended in a clammy gesture. As Bentley shook it, he was already regretting his decision to be a part of this charade. He remembered the goat that ate Christmas on that not-so-silent night last December.
“Bentley Bunch,” the deacon offered. “And you must be — “
“Virgil. Virgil Wilson Vanderwalker. But you can call me ‘Rev.’ Everybody does.”
Bentley broke the handshake. “How about I just stick with Virgil. That okay with you?”
“Sure, sure,” the brother agreed. “Fine by me. Call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late for supper.” As he laughed at his own corny joke, Bentley made mental note of yet another tragic family similarity. This would be a long weekend.
The two men worked with no small effort to move Vernon Vanderwalker from the car to his bed. Virgil hovered over his brother the entire time, tucking him in, checking his temperature, adjusting his pillows.
Vernon opened his eyes and smiled once, which delighted his brother, at least until Vernon whispered, “Thanks, honey.”
Later that evening, after dining on the chicken casserole Sarah had left in the fridge, an exhausted Bentley found solitude outside in a wicker rocking chair facing a western sky. In the stillness of the sunset, he could understand why Vernon and Sarah spoke so often of their time together here on the porch. Bentley missed his own wife and their quiet moments together. He looked over at the empty rocker next to him and pictured her there. She was so beautiful, so delicate, yet tough as nails to the very end. She was his iron Rose.
The creak of the screen door interrupted Bentley’s thoughts as Virgil walked onto the porch. Careful not to let the door slam, the dutiful brother eased it closed and sank into the other rocker, squashing Rose’s memory in an instant.
With a deep sigh, Virgil settled into a slow rhythm, back and forth. For a long time, the only sound was the occasional stretch of wicker as the two chairs adjusted to the weight of the men.
It was Bentley who eventually broke the silence.
Virgil turned his head but said nothing.
“I’m not sure why you showed up a whole day early.” Bentley paused the way old men do. “But I sure am glad you did.”
Both men laughed a little and returned their stares to the sunset.
“I didn’t mean to be a bother,” said Virgil. “But I told Martha — that’s my wife, Martha — I said, ‘Martha, I reckon I better head on early. If Sarah’s gone, then it’ll be up to me look after my baby brother.’ Ain’t nobody like family for that kind of thing.”
Bentley stopped rocking and looked at Virgil.
Sensing the questioning eyes, Virgil back-peddled. “Don’t get me wrong, Deacon Bunch. I’m sure you’d have done just fine. ”
“No,” Bentley said. “I’m glad you showed up when you did. That brother of yours is one heavy preacher.” They laughed again. “But Virgil, did you say ‘baby brother?’”
“Only by six minutes. But I was always bigger, so I kinda looked out for him, you know? Been doin’ it ever since.”
“How’s that exactly?”
“Well, when we were born, I was fine. But it took Vernon a long time to catch up. Even when he got older, Mama was always worried about him. So whatever it was Vernon decided to do, Mama made me go along and look out for him.”
“In case he got into trouble?”
“Trouble, or hurt, or sick. Whatever. He didn’t really need me. Most of the time I just got in the way. I never was too good at any of the things Vernon wanted to do. But I couldn’t tell him the truth. He had too much pride for that, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“Did you ever try to convince your mother that Vernon didn’t need help?”
“Oh sure, plenty. But she wouldn’t have it. If Vernon played ball, I played ball. If Vernon worked at Lutrell Hardware, I worked at Lutrell Hardware.”
“So, is that how you both ended up as ministers?” Bentley asked, feigning ignorance.
Virgil gave a knowing smile. “You catch on quick, Deacon Bunch.” Virgil reached over and patted Bentley’s arm. “It was a tent revival. A big one. And that preacher, man alive! He was something else. He had that crowd so wound up. When it came decision time, Vernon tugged Mama on the arm. Said he wanted to go down. Mama said ‘What for? You’re already baptized.’ But Vernon said he’d done felt the call. You know, to preach?”
“Well, Mama looks at me and says ‘Virgil, you go with him.’ So here I was walking the aisle with my brother to meet his call.” He paused for a moment and stared into the last sliver of burnt orange as it flirted with the horizon. “You know, I still don’t remember exactly how it happened. All I know is before I could say ‘hellfire and damnation’ that preacher had me and Vernon both by the back of the head shoutin’ and praisin’ the Lord for these two young men, God’s holy twins, ready to proclaim His Word to the lost.”
“Why didn’t you just say something?” Bentley wondered aloud.
“It was too late. I looked back there and saw Mama dancing around. Daddy had his hands in the air. Pretty much the whole community was under that one tent. I was as good as ordained right there on the spot.”
Bentley sat back in his rocker as the truth sank in.
“After a while, it just felt natural. We’d go and preach together sometimes. People loved it. Eventually, I had to make that decision for myself, of course. And I did. But over time, my brother and me sort of veered apart in our preaching styles.”
Bentley thought he understood. Growing up Southern Baptist, he spent endless Sundays coloring on offering envelopes and listening to a mono toned preacher drone on while his mother begged him to “please, for the love of the Lord, be still already.” He was not allowed to talk, laugh, cough, or breath unless absolutely necessary.
One Easter, however, the family agreed to accompany Granny Gale to her beloved Mt. Pisgah Church of God for services and covered-dish dinner immediately thereafter. That Sunday, Bentley could have shouted the Pledge of Allegiance if he wanted to. People there weren’t quiet at all. That preacher shouted the whole time, and so did everyone else. And that wasn’t all. Some of them were running and jumping and even dancing. Dancing! Up until then, Bentley thought it was a sin to open a noisy peppermint wrapper once the sermon started, let alone dance in church. He remembered Vernon’s comments about Virgil being a Church of God preacher. If Vernon’s brother was anything like the preacher at Granny Gale’s church — oh, holy night.
After several moments, Virgil climbed out of his rocker and rubbed his joints. “Well, Deacon Bunch, I reckon you better be gettin’ home to your family. I can take it from here.”
“Oh, it’s just me.” Bentley said. He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to share this with Virgil, but he did. “We lost Rose a few years ago to cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Virgil said with an honest compassion that touched Bentley.
“Thanks. The kids are grown now. So, it’s no problem to stay. I brought a bag. It’s in the trunk.”
Bentley descended the porch steps and headed toward his car. Virgil eased back into his rocker. The tree frogs pulsed in time with the crickets while the fireflies strobed along.
“You’re a good friend to my brother,” Virgil called from the porch.
Bentley turned back and smiled. “Your brother is a good man.”
They stood there for a moment before Virgil replied.
“It’s just nice to know he has someone like you looking out for him now.” He smiled. Not so much teeth this time, just gratitude.
Again, Bentley felt oddly comforted by Virgil’s words. It wasn’t easy being Vernon Vanderwalker’s closest friend. To have someone recognize the effort was — a nice moment.
Then, without warning, Virgil Vanderwalker turned back to the horizon, opened his mouth, and burst into joyful, excruciating song.
“Beyoooooooond the sunset,
In Heaven with Jesus, I’ll beeeee.”
The moment was over.
Saturday passed without incident. Vernon managed to pull himself from his drug-induced stupor to review Sunday’s sermon with Virgil, whose ability to impersonate his brother proved to be uncanny. Bentley marveled at how alike these two could pretend to be, especially after understanding just how different they truly were.
The two also arranged — as only sibling preachers could — a unique system of code for relaying messages to one another in the course of their clandestine operation. It was a type of game they had clearly played before. The first brother would provide a scripture reference, whereby the second brother would promptly quote the associated passage. Both brothers were impressive in their abilities to quickly recall even the most obscure of references. After a few volleys, Vernon announced that the Sunday signal for “all clear” would be Luke 1:23. A smile of recognition crossed Virgil’s face. Bentley flipped in his Bible. But before he could reach the third gospel, Virgil quoted the passage for him.
“And it came to pass, that as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.”
The two brothers laughed heartily, both reveling in what Bentley thought might very well be the one thing in life they truly enjoyed together. They agreed that this was the perfect “all clear” signal. Virgil would write the scripture on an offering envelope — yet another useful purpose, Bentley thought, and give it to the head deacon. Bentley would then fold it and hand-deliver it to Vernon once Virgil was in his car and homeward bound. Though he found the cloak and dagger routine a little silly, Bentley resigned to accept his role in silence for fear of raining on one of the nicest parades he had seen in a long time.
The day’s activities proved to be too much, too early for Vernon Vanderwalker. He slept soundly all night and was still asleep when Bentley and Virgil left for church the next morning. It was a short, ten-minute drive from porch to steeple, but the constant chatter from a nervous Virgil made each mile stretch longer than usual. Though he had insisted on driving, the preacher continued to rehearse the sermon, now from memory. He started, stopped, and started again. He phrased and rephrased, frowned and sighed.
“Virgil, is something wrong?”
“No. Well, yes. Deacon Bunch, I don’t know if I can do this.”
The sudden lack of confidence unnerved Bentley.
“This sermon,” Virgil said. “It’s just — well, did you read it?”
Bentley did read it. It was some of Vernon’s best work, he thought. It was thoughtful, insightful, with a real personal touch. Since it was Mother’s Day, Vernon had written of the women in Jesus’ life, from his mother to his friends Mary and Martha. It was a truly inspired look at how each of these women contributed to Jesus’s ministry, much like the women of today. Bentley thought again of Rose and smiled. He wasn’t sure he understood Virgil’s problem.
“Sure, I’ve read it. Don’t you like it?”
“Aw, it ain’t that. It’s a fine sermon. Fine. It just don’t have that — ” He pressed his lips together. “It ain’t got no ‘amen’ holes. Those people are just gonna sit there like they’re the mule and I’m a new gate.”
“Virgil, you’re going to do just fine. Just think ‘Vernon.’ These folks love his preaching and his sermons. Well, most of them. You’ll see.” He could tell Virgil wasn’t convinced.
Having waited until shortly before 11:00 AM to exit the study, Bentley helped Virgil avoid any unnecessary contact with the congregation. The pre-service absence was a break from protocol, but one could easily forgive such a thing if one assumed the preacher might not be feeling like himself. If one only knew.
It was a full house. Mother’s Day always brought with it more people in the pews. Some, like Carl Stripling, grumbled at having to attend church again so soon after Easter. His mother was turning seventy in three days, and all the brothers and sisters were coming in from as far as Blountsville. Even as he used one fingernail to scrape the grease from another, he began to nod off.
Carl had worked until 2 AM the night before, trying to exercise the demons from Doyle Trotter’s transmission. But the transmission remained possessed. So, Carl put it back together and decided to deliver the bad news to Doyle, possibly today at church.
Doyle’s wife had been by the shop three times that week asking about the car. She seemed very concerned and offered to leave it as long as it took. She would come by each day if she had too. Honestly, Carl was as happy to be rid of Doyle’s wife as he was Doyle’s car. First church, then dinner. Then Carl could wrap his arms around the one thing he truly desired, a pillow.
Bentley Bunch scanned the crowd and noticed Carl, along with his brothers and sisters. He also spotted Doyle Trotter, Doyle’s wife, and — wait. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. Bentley’s blood pressure spiked and his face flushed. Dressed in her Mother’s Day finest, though she and her husband had no children, Sarah Vanderwalker made her way toward him, claiming her usual seat in the second pew, piano side, directly in front of Bentley.
“Miss Sarah,” Bentley nodded with the usual courtesy. “Didn’t expect to see you here this morning.” He thought he could hear a billy goat bleating in the distance.
“Well, Bentley, I have to say, I didn’t either. But this morning I woke up and thought, ‘I told Margaret Cleghorn I’d bake a cobbler for the fellowship after church.’ Can you believe I forgot? Anyway, I told Claudine, you remember my sister Claudine, that I was sorry, but I had to get on back. So here I am!”
“Here you are.” Bentley grimaced and hoped it passed for a smile. “So, you haven’t been home yet?”
“Nope. Drove straight here. Thought I’d surprise Vernon.”
As Virgil walked to the pulpit, Mary Mavis ended the organ prelude, bringing the congregational chatter to a simultaneous tacit. Typically, the service would have begun with singing. However, for reasons not really explained to anyone, Bentley flipped the order this Sunday. The message would come first with an extended time of singing to follow.
After a few too many sips of water, Virgil was ready to begin. He had not looked at Bentley. In fact, he was avoiding eye contact with anyone. He kept thinking of the message. It needed something. These people needed something. They were so starched and proper, just like that sermon. Suddenly, it hit him. That was it! The sermon was too proper. It needed to start with a bang, something to get people’s attention. He looked out one last time over the congregation, although still not at Bentley for fear of losing his nerve.
As he saw the corsaged matriarchs scattered about the sanctuary with their husbands and children and grandchildren seated around them, he knew how he would begin. He would speak of his own mother, of Vernon’s mother. But the introduction would be unlike anything this crowd had ever heard before.
“Friends,” he began. He used the pinkie of his right hand to comb away a loose strand from his brother’s wig. “Before we get started this morning, I would like to share something with you.” He hung his head with manufactured humility. The loose strand fell back to his forehead, along with a bead of sweat. “I want to confess something that, were my wife here today, might be hard for her to hear.”
Sarah’s shoulders shook as she giggled silently in the second pew. He had not seen her yet.
Virgil cleared his throat and took another sip of water. Closing his eyes, he continued. “I’ve spent the best years of my life . . .” He paused for dramatic effect. “I’ve spent the best years of my life — not in the arms of my wife — but in the arms of another woman.”
If Burl Simpson’s nervous goat had survived the screams of Jesus’s mother that night at the manger, if it had overcome the synthetic chocking hazard as it swallowed the holy baby blanket, it most certainly would not have survived Sarah Vanderwalker’s shriek of terror that Sunday morning. Nor would it have survived the shock Virgil experienced as he watched his sister-in-law gasp for air and faint across the front pew of the church. It could not have withstood the congregation’s angry roar that reverberated off the room’s stained glass windows. And it most certainly would have given up its billy-goat ghost when six-foot-five, two hundred and seventy-two pound Doyle Trotter stood, pointed at his wife, and shouted.
“You Jezebel! I knew it!”
Bentley worked desperately to right Sarah back in her seat before trying to intervene on Virgil’s behalf. Even as he struggled against the weight of his circumstance, he knew this would get worse, much worse.
“Doyle, you idiot!” Maybelline said. “I’m not in love with the preacher! I’m in love with Carl!” There was a collective gasp from the congregation, the second of the day, as more screams filled the air.
Carl Stripling was just now waking up. “Hey now, wait a minute,” he said, mumbling and rubbing his eyes. “What?”
It was too late. Doyle had already launched into a full assault. Adrenaline kicked in as Carl, fearing for his life, stood and leaped flat-footed from pew to pew. Being closer to the front than the rear, he worked his way forward, clearing a Sunday School teacher, three deacons, and a WMU director before landing with a cacophony onto the organ and exiting by way of the baptistery. To everyone’s amazement, Doyle followed Carl’s path, although with the agility of a Jersey cow.
Just as Sarah was beginning to come to, someone shouted from the back of the room. “If the other woman’s not Maybelline Trotter, then who is it?” A chorus of shouts and accusations erupted at once.
Virgil, shaking and nauseous, and kind of needing to pee from all the water, finally spoke. “It . . . It all seemed so clear just a minute ago.” He propped his elbows on the pulpit to support his week knees. “But now, well — for the life of me — I can’t remember who it was.”
The congregation exploded, and Sarah fainted once more. Seeing the mob approach the stage, Bentley abandoned Sarah Vanderwalker and rushed to rescue Virgil. As they fled from the room, Virgil managed to scribble a note. He thrust it into Bentley’s hand.
“You give this to Vernon.” He was breathless. “You tell him I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.” Then, Virgil “Rev” Vanderwalker threw back the side door and sprinted to his car. In less than five seconds, the green Lincoln with the license plate that read “REVITUP” was nothing but a blur in the distance.
Only then did it occur to Bentley to look at the paper Virgil had given him. It was not the “all clear” scripture they had agreed on. Instead, in almost indecipherable scribble, was a new reference, Genesis 19:17. Looking around, Bentley spotted a Bible on a nearby pew. Grabbing it, he fumbled through the pages until he found the chapter. Using his finger to trace the columns, he neared the bottom of the page. Fifteen, Sixteen, there!
Despite the drama around him, Bentley laughed out loud when he read the verse. Even now, Virgil was looking out for his little brother.
“Escape for thy life;
look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain;
escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.”