Sam Schultz told Asa about the protesters--two of them, but each holding a hand-lettered sign: God Hates Fags. Jesus Cursed Queers.
Really? thought Asa. But complete sentences. At least that.
Then he went out to talk to them.
“Look, you can’t bring hate signs onto this property. This is a church. We just had the Sunday School Christmas pageant. The kids don’t need to see this kind of crap.”
The bulky, barrel-chested protester said, “You got a fucking flamer as your minister here and you’re worried about a couple of signs? Your minister is a faggot. Did you know that?”
Asa stared at them.
“Yes, I know that. I’m the minister. And you need to get off this property right now.”
By this time some of the men—Sam Schultz, Mike Kiley and Asa’s partner, David—had come outside to see what was going on. Mike was still wearing his wife’s dress (the Three Kings had been Three Queens this year), hanging loosely on his lanky frame. He hadn’t yet had the chance to change.
“Mike, get back in here,” his wife called from church steps. He looked down at his hairy legs, up at the protesters and went back inside.
“What the fuck was that?” the other protester said as Mike walked away. “A tranny fag?”.
“Leave now,” Asa said forcefully, “Or I’ll call the state troopers.”
“Already did,” David said, holding up his cell phone.
The troopers took their time arriving. One of the men started yelling “God hates fags” over and over. By this time there was chaos in the Fellowship Hall. The little kids kept asking what was going on. Why were the police coming? What did the signs say? In between packing away Christmas pageant costumes and gathering up casserole dishes from the potluck supper, the mothers tried to come up with reasonable explanations that, at the same time, obscured what was going on.
But when nearly-deaf old Mrs. Fischer found out about the men picketing, she said in a voice that carried throughout the Hall, “’God hates fags’? What a despicable thing to say!”
One little boy demanded to know what ‘a fag’ was. He was only five. He’d know by fourth grade, at least, probably third.
“Tell him it’s a cigarette,” the boy’s father whispered to his wife, “That’s what they call them in Britain.”
“What? They call gay people ‘cigarettes’ in Britain? I never heard that.”
“No. Cigarettes. They call cigarettes ‘fags’ in Britain.”
“Mommy,” he asked again, “what’s ‘a fag’?”
“It’s a cigarette, Daddy says.”
“If they’re cigarettes, then what’s so bad about God hating them?”
*** *** ***
Later that night Asa told David how he planned to handle the situation. He’d write an editorial for the local newspaper; he’d speak at the December Town Hall meeting, maybe even invite the community to show their support for St. Mark’s by coming to a carol-sing in Patriot’s Park right after Christmas.
David laughed, “Forget about it. You know what some of the kids say to Charlie and Julie about having ‘faggot’ parents. You’re not going to change things.”
“I might,” Asa said, “I should try.”
But he knew David was right: St. Mark’s was a dwindling, progressive congregation in a small town where trucks had gun racks and the people who bothered to go to church mostly drove the distance to one where you could count on praise music, biblical literalism and heterosexuality. And also the belief that Jesus had not come to bring peace, but the American way.
Asa’s sister was a member of a church like that. She prayed for Asa’s salvation—since he was a Lutheran, his eternal itinerary was unclear.
She used to pray for him to be healed, healed of the sin of homosexuality. But her prayer life got complicated a few years ago when Asa and David had become the foster parents of eight-year-old Charlie and six-year-old Julie. They were sibling survivors of a horrible domestic abuse case. Even Asa’s sister recognized that practically no straight couple in the state would take on kids with their history and resulting problems. If it weren’t for the unnatural union between her brother and David, Charlie and Julie would most likely have gone without any kind of parents. They were still without a mother, of course. But to Asa’s sister, half a loaf was better than none.
*** *** ***
A few days later Asa was in his office working on the sermon for the third Sunday in Advent. People had been in and out all week dropping off the Christmas cookies the youth group would bring to the shut-ins after church on Sunday. So when a knock came at his door, he just said, “Come on in,” without looking up. It would be one more person with one more plate of cookies, stopping by to say hello.
But when he did look up he saw a bulky, barrel-chested man with a face he recognized--one of the picketers from the night of the Christmas pageant.
Asa stood up.
“What can I do for you?” he asked coldly.
“Look, my name is Lyle Bendix and I came to say I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry about the signs and shit. For the picketing. I mean, you got the wrong idea about us.”
Asa said, through tight lips, “I think you made pretty damn sure we got the right idea about you.”
“No, man. Wait--I know. I know. We gave you the wrong idea. Me, I’m as straight as a sawhorse. But my buddy’s been saying he thinks he’s gay. And we live out here in the middle of dip-shit nowhere. And what’s he gonna do? There’s no gay bars, you know, no karaoke and shit. It’s not like he can go down to the Agway and find a guy to—you know,” he shrugged his shoulders, “So I told him, ‘look, man, you can’t be a fag. Everybody would hate you. You’d be a social outcast, a pa-par—‘.”
“Pariah,” Asa finished.
“I just wanted to help him out. So I made the signs and convinced him to come here so he could see how he’d be treated if he were a gay. It was a bad idea, man. He ended up feeling really bad about upsetting the kids and the old ladies and shit. And he still keeps saying he’s gay and he doesn’t care what anybody thinks.”
Asa stared at him. There were rubes and there were rubes, he thought. Which kind was this one?
“Hey, uh, don’t you think that protesting a church potluck was kind of a stupid way for you to try and make your gay friend straight?”
Bendix nodded his heavy head as if it took great strength, which it probably did. It was the size of a watermelon. And not the seedless, specially-bred personal kind.
“Look, reverend, what I’m saying is, Steve doesn’t have a clue. He only told me he was gay because one night we were drunk and I was trying to get him to buy this girl a drink and he just kept saying, ‘I’m not into girls, Bendix. I’m a faggot, Bendix. Get used to it.’
“I thought it was just the beer talking. But then I got thinking. He never had a girlfriend in high school. He went out with my sister a few times, but he never even kissed her. So he’s lonely, man. And he’s not the type to go looking for help. He just wants to meet some people, you know? He wants—Christ, he wants whatever it is gay guys want.”
“Right,” Asa said through clenched teeth.
“Look, man, this is hard for me. I’m straight as a board--,” straight as a sawhorse, Asa mentally corrected, remembering Bendix’ weird phrase from before, “But my friend, Steve, man, he just needs some direction. He’s right out in the car. I said I’d talk to you first and if you were okay with, you know, giving him some tips, then maybe he could come in.”
“Yeah, well,” Asa looked at his watch. It was late afternoon already, “It’s not such a great idea, him coming in now. He really needs to make the decision to talk to me for himself. On contact me on his own--.”
“…and not have you play some kind of middle-man--.”
“Dude, the guy’s in pain,” he said, not even half convincingly.
“Christ,” Asa muttered, “bring him in, then.”
Right after Bendix left he knew he had made the wrong decision. The two of them wanted something. Money, possibly. But there wasn’t any money. And he was alone in the building. Not that he needed to be afraid of a couple of assholes--it’s not like this was Laramie. Just the same he called David, unable to remember whether or not he was in court today.
But he just got his voicemail: David Novotny. Leave me a message and I’ll get right back to you.
Asa hung up and sent him a text: Come to church or call Sam Schultz—Sam lived next door—ASAP.
Just as Asa hit ‘send,’ he heard Bendix and Steve clomping down the hall to his office.
And all at once, with stomach-sickening clarity he knew what they’d come for. They were after gay guys, gay guys like him.
Then they were standing in front of his desk, both of them big. Asa was shorter, lighter, easy to turn to pulp.
“Reverend,” Steve said, “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. But I think you got the wrong impression. Bendix, here,” he nodded his head toward him, “thought it’d be funny to play a little trick on me. He thought it’d be a real hoot to get you thinking I’m as queer as you. That’s the kind of sick sense of humor he’s got. Gettin’ somebody to think I’m cock-sucker like you.”
Steve put both his hands on Asa’s desk, one on a stack of papers, the other on the Bible opened to the Isaiah reading for the upcoming Sunday. Between his thick fingers, Asa could see …Lord God…anointed me… good news to the…prisoners…who mourn in Zion….
“Who the fuck do you think you are thinkin’ I’m a cock-sucker like you? You thought I was a cock-sucking, ass-licking, fudge-packing faggot like you. Did you? Did you?”
“No,” Asa said evenly, “No, I never even once thought you were a cock-sucking, ass-licking, fudge-packing faggot like me.”
“Bendix said you did. Said you wanted to give me some pointers on how to be a faggot.”
Steve’s hand shifted and Asa could see more broken phrases from Isaiah: a garland…of ashes…of gladness… former devastations--.
“Well, Bendix got it wrong.”
“I don’t think so. He’s my buddy. And you know what Bendix and I are going to do to the faggot minister?”
Asa’s intestines instantly knotted up, but he said, coolly, “I can’t begin to imagine.”
“I can’t begin to imagine,” Steve mimicked in falsetto and grabbed for Asa’s neck. But his fingers hooked on the detachable clerical collar and it came off in his hands. Disgusted, he threw it down and it skittered across the floor.
“Fuck!” he said, and backhanded Asa, “Fucking God-squad faggot.”
Asa put a hand to his jaw. There was the mineral taste of blood in his mouth.
Roughly Steve grabbed his arm and pulled him up, practically over the top of the desk. A mug of old coffee fell to the floor, shattered. A plate of Christmas cookies fell next. Bendix, quiet all this time, grabbed Asa’s other arm and Steve said, “Take him into the church. Up on the fucking altar.”
As they dragged him down the aisle Asa yelled, “Wait. Stop! I called the police. They’re on their way!” knowing that now he sounded desperate.
Neither responded. They just shoved him up against the pulpit and Bendix landed a punch in his left ribs. Winded, Asa gasped, struggled to get free. Then Steve slammed a meaty knee into his balls and Asa heard his scream as if it came from somewhere else, not from a human mouth at all. It was disembodied, as high-pitched as a woman’s. He fell to his knees, unable to speak.
“Listen, faggot,” it was Steve again, “we don’t want faggots in our town. This is a Christian town. And we’re going to show you what happens to cuntless cock-suckers around here.”
The pain was blinding and he still couldn’t speak, but Asa was more enraged than afraid. Fucking bastard assholes, he thought, his mind working furiously to find a way to defend himself, attack them.
Bendix spoke, “He’s on his knees, Steve. Get him to suck your cock.”
“Fuck you, asshole. Get him up off his knees.”
Now Bendix was pulling Asa up by his arms, pushing his back against the pulpit, then pulling his fist back to land it in his face. Asa moved his head and fist struck temple, his head a carnival of pain. Next Steve punched him hard in the solar plexus. He grunted, wanted to vomit, would have crumpled down again, except that Bendix had both his arms behind him now. He wrestled and struggled, knowing Steve could hurt him any way he wanted, any way at all.
But Steve was just laughing at Asa, turning him around so that now his face was mashed against the pulpit, Steve’s hand on his neck so he couldn’t look behind him.
“God, it’s pathetic. You’re too skinny to give a good beating to. You just fall apart. Faggot-fall-apart,” he turned to Bendix, “Go get the beer.”
Asa couldn’t see, but he heard Bendix walking up the aisle.
“You know the troopers know you from that night, don’t you?” he said to Steve and got no response.
“You know you’ll get caught. You’ll end up in prison.”
Steve leaned in close and whispered into Asa’s ear, “Yeah. But I’d rather be in jail than dead.”
So that was it. They were going to kill him.
“You know what happens to assholes in prisons,” Asa said, in a mix of anger at Steve, at God, at David for not having picked up the phone. He felt enough rage to explode out of Steve’s arms. He wrestled and twisted—but then took a punch to his kidney that made him suck in his breath, his back muscles spasm.
And he heard Bendix coming back, beer bottles clinking together in their cardboard carrier.
“We tried to buy queer-beer,” Bendix said, “So we got one of those art-TEE-san ones that cost a shitload.”
“We wanted to get our money’s worth,” Steve added.
A beer bottle. If Asa could get one in each hand and land it on their heads. If he could break one and shove the broken ends in their faces.
Bendix opened three bottles.
“Here, take this,” he said to Asa. Steve still had his face mashed against the pulpit, but Bendix stuck a bottle in his right hand.
“Drink it,” Steve said.
“No, wait,” Bendix interrupted, “We ought to have a toast to the holy man. This is my blood, shed for you,” he said and then clinked his bottle against Steve’s. After that he reached around and clinked it against Asa’s, “Drink up!”
“Cause when it’s empty it’ll go straight up your ass,” Steve said.
“And your cock’ll go straight into your mouth. And you’ll die the way you lived, a happy camper.”
At that, one of them put a knife against his backside. And then Asa thought he would lose his bowels.
Whoever held the knife dragged it downward, cutting through his pants, his shorts, his skin, drawing blood. He yelled and struggled.
“You’re a feisty girl-faggot,” Bendix said.
Asa dropped the beer, heard it crash against the wooden floor and with inhuman strength he swung around. On the altar table next to him was a heavy brass cross, three-feet tall, at least. He grabbed it and used it like a baseball bat in the hands of lunatic. He swung it this way and hit Bendix, that way and hit Steve and then again Bendix. And then he was running up the aisle, cross in hand, making for the door. He was so close, so close.
But then Steve was on him, knocking him down, dragging him up against the wainscoting in the church foyer, landing punch after punch on Asa’s face, his chest, his cock, his stomach.
This was it. This was the start of the beating to finish him off. He took a blow to his jaw and spat out a tooth.
And then suddenly the church door slammed open and Asa felt a blast of cold air. There stood Sam Schultz, framed in the doorway and backlit by daylight like a gun-slinger in a Western. Sam was even holding a rifle.
“What the fuck are you luna-hicks doing?” he roared.
Bendix and Steve stopped, stunned. They looked at the rifle as if they’d never seen a thing like that.
“Jump him,” Bendix said to Steve.
“Buckshot’s an ugly way to go,” Sam said.
“Jump him,” Bendix said again.
“No,” Steve said.
“I’ll jump him,” Bendix said.
And Sam shot him. He shot him in the foot and Bendix fell, howling.
“What the fuck, old man?” Steve said.
“Let the reverend go,” Sam said.
But Steve kept a tight hold on Asa’s neck, squeezing.
“Are you deaf?” Sam bellowed, “I said let the reverend go. He’s going to call the troopers from his office. And while he’s gone I just want you to know that I don’t mind a bit putting as many holes in both of you as I need to.”
Everything was moving in slow motion—Bendix rolling on the floor and wailing, Sam talking like a vigilante, Steve as stunned as a jack-lit deer.
“Let him go now!” Sam yelled, pointing the shotgun at Steve. Steve’s hand loosened on Asa’s throat. Bleeding, but numb, Asa struggled to his feet.
“Grab the fuckhead’s ankle,” Steve yelled as Asa walked past him. Bendix reached an arm out, but jerked his head around when he heard another shot.
Asa didn’t wait to see who got it that time, or where. He made it to his office, shut the door, dialed. 911. He could barely speak for the blood in his mouth. By rote he gave directions to the dispatcher and she repeated them, far, far too slowly:
“So it’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church? On route 22? On the far right at the intersection with county route 322?”
“Yes,” Asa said desperately, “White clapboard with a graveyard in the back. Hurry—hurry!”
“Stay on the line with me, sir” she said, “I need you to stay on the line with me until the troopers get there, do you understand that?”
“Sir? Stay on the line with--.”
“Yes. Okay. Yes.”
He heard noises in the foyer. He listened for the rifle. He wanted Sam to shoot both of them dead. That’s what he wanted.
But all he heard was scuffling and banging and cursing—then repeated, anguished cries.
And then something that sounded like a tire iron being thrown across the wooden floor.
The next moment he heard the sirens of the troop cars racing up Route 22.
“Sir,” the dispatcher asked, “are those sirens I’m hearing, sir? Are the troopers arriving?”
Asa glanced out the window and saw red lights pulsing against the white clapboard. “Yes. Yeah, they’re here.”
“Okay, sir. Is the ambulance there? Sir?”
But Asa set the phone down and stood motionless for a second. He felt another piece of tooth dislodge. He spat it out and it landed on the Isaiah reading, a blood-stained pearl. Then he opened his office door.
The troopers got to the church foyer just as Asa did. What he saw made no sense: Steve and Bendix were gone. The rifle was gone. Sam lay flat on his back, a trooper leaning over him. There was a growing corona of blood around Sam’s head, more blood on his chest and the blood-tipped brass cross was thrown to off to one side.
The troopers said nothing. One checked Sam’s pulse, then shook his head.
Asa, in disbelief, shook his head, too.
Then he heard another siren and an ambulance pulled behind the troop cars. He thought it had come for Sam, but the EMTs dragged a stretcher over to him. They put him on a back-board, pushing and touching and staunching the blood until he was no longer numb, but could feel every blow all over again. And then he began to cry—big sobs of pain and sadness and terror.
“David,” he implored, “Where’s David?”
“Who’s that, sweetie?” a female EMT said, “Your son?”
Asa looked at her, “Charlie—he’s my son. David’s my partner.”
*** *** ***
The troopers found Bendix and Steve with Sam’s rifle. They hadn’t shot him. They had beaten him to death with the brass cross.
Asa was too injured to do Sam’s funeral. The church council found a substitute for the Christmas Eve service and a few of the following Sundays. Asa had needed twenty-six stitches on his backside. He had a broken nose, collarbone and four broken ribs. He would need three tooth implants. His face was purpled and swollen with bruises that shut his eyes and swelled his lips.
David gave up trying to explain to Julie and Charlie what it was Asa wanted explained to them: That, in the end, love is stronger than hate. That’s the good news—the gospel—that Jesus lived. That’s what Asa wanted him to tell them.
But Julie and Charlie just stared at him. And, of course, David no longer believed that—if he ever had, even in those first years of loving, completely and irrationally, everything about Asa.
Who says love is stronger than hate?
Hadn’t Julie and Charlie seen what their mother looked like after their father had had another go at her? When their dad hit them, he didn’t draw blood or break bones the way he did with her. Probably because they were kids. But after they weren’t kids anymore, then what?
They had always lived with violence. They knew better than to bank on safety now, just because they were living with Asa and David. To them, growing up just meant choosing to be beaten—or to be the one who beats.
“They killed that man with the cross,” Charlie told David, hardness in his voice, “The cross always kills somebody.”
David didn’t have anything to say to contradict that. Because Sam was dead. And there was Asa, another victim of the cross, stubbornly—foolishly, David thought--clinging to its promise of love.
During the nights that followed, after the kids were asleep and Asa was stoned on his painkillers, David sat on the couch in the living room, drinking expensive wine--the way gay men do, he thought. And when his mind had wandered far enough from reason, he remembered what Job’s wife had told Job to do once his troubles had become insurmountable:Curse God and die.
She was no help-meet, that woman.
And he himself found it more comforting to believe in a world of random evil rather than in one of divine disregard. Which he couldn’t prove, but mightily suspected.
And so, as Asa and the kids slept fitfully, David kept watch with his wine and his worries wishing that he, unlike God, could protect them.