"You want to buy your way into heaven!”
A storefront nun confronted the contents of her tambourine. Empty. No, wait... a dull clatter on the drumhead. A nickel. Sister Elspeth Joyful frowned.
“Slim pickin’s Sister,” said a tall robust man in brown suit, gray spats and a Panama hat from the open door of the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction.
“I beg your pardon, but you have thrown a nickel on the tambourine,” Sister Joyful turned to the accuser of the day’s offering. “We ask not beyond the means of our flock, stranger. Matthew 7:7.”
“‘Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.’ James 4:2,” said the man in the doorway. “The Bible is a almanac of failed good intentions, Sister. You can help me; I am asking. Here, accept this as a further token of my sincerity.” The visitor produced a large fruit basket, beribboned and covered with cellophane, of the kind often left by a well-wisher in a stateroom of a great ocean liner.
Sister Joyful accepted the gift of fruit and looked the man over. Expensive suit, brilliantined hair parted in the center, a style long gone by. White silk cravat. “You have found abundant comfort, stranger. Have you been to services?”
“Yes, many times. I came in disguise as a simple working man. I am in disguise now, Sister.” He pulled back one side of the heavy velvet draperies that kept at bay the unruly doings of the unemployed. A smoky bronze sunbeam struggled in through filthy storefront glass. “Equinoxial light—the ecliptic. The long shadows of evening are most excellent for an apotheosis.”
The man—erect with a mane of white hair and yachtsman’s deep tan—must be a professor. This man was a gift and gifts were doubtful. “You are the Devil, then.” Sister Joyful stood her ground.
“I am Joseph Force Crater; I am a judge of the New York State Supreme Court. I am not the Adversary. Your chastity is safe with me, I am a Democrat.”
“We abjure the consumption of alcohol,” Sister Joyful volunteered.
“The Devil’s drink,” said the man. A lie, he smelled of brandy; he would not face life without a chippendale armoire, Persian rugs and a drink close to hand. The man was not merely well-to-do; he was wealthy. He seemed perplexed—a time traveler off course in a flow of technology. A double martini would fix everything for him. He had the air of one born to command who at the moment hadn’t the slightest inkling.
“You are lost.”
“Amen, Sister.” The man removed his coat, then beckoned her to come closer. He wore a heavy gold ring on his left hand.
“You are married...” There would be a pliant trophy of a wife to manage his household, to set off the vintage porcelain vases she stuffed herself with armloads of irises cut from her very own dooryard.
“I have a wife. That is true."
“Physically you will resemble each other,” posited Sister Joyful. “When couples live together, over the years they come to look alike. But that still doesn’t explain why some people come to look like their pets, or vice versa. Do you have a pet? A dog, perhaps?” Sister Joyful pictured her elegant proselyte at ease in tennis flannels with a golden retriever playing Frisbee in a deer park.
“Chickens. I keep chickens, game fowl. Add that to the glandular confusion attendant upon middle age.”
“I worked my way through college,” said Judge Crater.
“As do so many good and worthy souls,” said Sister Joyful. “But you have come to me, to the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction, out of a soul-sickness. You seek spiritual solace.”
“No, actually. I am looking for a woman, a woman who will help me to perform a mighty feat. Here,” he withdrew an alligator hide wallet from an inside pocket and flourished a bill of large denomination.
The Sister recoiled as if from a serpent. "You want to buy your way into heaven!”
“Sure enough do. That’s a hundred-dollar bill. Good for twenty minutes of your time I figure, what with the nickel in the tambourine. I am a passing-fair pianist, a good dancer and well-liked by theater folk. I am not bragging. This is just a filling-in. You are a fine-looking woman, Sister Joyful, and I would find it pleasant to spend some time with you.”
“Well the social opportunities hereabouts are limited,” said Sister Joyful as she accepted the hundred-dollar bill. Through the streaked glazing of the storefront mission’s plate glass, she pointed to a crimson and gilt marquee across the street. Professor LaBonte’s Flea Circus—Extraordinary, Incomparable. See the Amazing Rollo perform His Bravura Exploits on the Flea Trapeze. Chariot races afternoons at 3:30 and 5:30, said the flashing blue neon.
“A good life— that of a flea,” said Judge Crater. “There are dogs everywhere. I am partial to schnauzers, myself. For a man stranded on the rocky shoals of matrimony there can be no hiding place.”
In the street a homeless man clutched at his chest and fell to the pavement. He collapsed like a slow-motion marionette whose strings were being cut one by one. “Interesting,” said Joseph Force Crater. “That man out there, he seems to be having a stroke.” The man gave a final twitch, then lay still. There was a slight trickle of a greenish fluid at the corners of his mouth. “The man... we saw him clutch his chest. He died. Or is near death.”
“The city morgue wagon picks up on alternate Thursdays. He’ll keep.”
“Isn’t it wonderful what they can do these days. Let’s help him nonetheless,” exclaimed Joseph Force Crater. “This is, after all, our Christian duty.”
“No, that will just encourage them. First one derelict tosses a fit in front of the mission and then the next. They’ll be coming in brigades. We will be overwhelmed. I’d be dishing out chicken broth and celery sandwiches all the day. There would be no time for my ministry.”
“Hmm... as you say.” Judge Crater composed himself as he adjusted the knot of his cravat. "Stella, that’s my wife, thinks I’ve run away with a chorus girl. She will be hiring private detectives. The Pinkerton thugs.”
“A chorus girl.” Sister Joyful took a step back and appraised the Judge. Substantial—a man to watch they would have said in his youth.
“They are watching me—even as we speak,” said Judge Crater. “That man.”
“The man in the street,” said Sister Joyful. “He is dead.”
The judge attempted to open the door and found it locked. “Madam... Sister, unlock this door at once. I will save that man if he yet has the breath of life in him.” He struck the door a mighty thump with the flat of his hand, rattling a leaded cut crystal pane incised with nouveau filigrees—an architectural detailing much coveted by brownstone renovators.
“Deadbolt,” said Sister Joyful. “You locked yourself in.”
Judge Crater unfastened the bolt. “Hmm, so I have. Nice nouveau glazing. It is wise you have a deadbolt. Young urban professionals have been known to loot churches in their avidity,” remarked the Judge. He swung open the door the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction and was immediately assailed by the sights, sounds and smells of New York. A trolley car clanged past, its motorman mouthing obscenities. Heedless of his own person he strode through streams of yellow-liveried taxicabs.
The Sister and the Supreme Court justice dodged through an onrush of homicidal cabbies and juggernauting trolley cars to reach the corpse, which lay sprawled on the center median. The judge reached the fallen geezer and, kneeling to taking a pulse, found none.
“Alas, I was too late,” said the judge to Sister Joyful. “He is indeed deceased.”
“As are you if you have uttered a falsehood in the hope that I, a poor woman of the cloth, would be deluded and thereby fall under your spell. I am very sure that even the Pinkertons’ brief does not extend past the Pearly Gates. Pardon me. I am coming undone.” Sister Joyful brushed a stray lock out of her eye. Undoing her kerchief, she thrust the unruly wisp of hair back in order and retied her kerchief all the more tightly to keep herself from any future disarray.
“Modesty. I like that in a woman. The kerchief. You are a lay sister?”
“Not much,” replied the sister. “Not lately. The church...”
“I understand,” said Judge Crater. “One’s charms are not to be shared with the casual passer-by.”
There was a squeal of brakes as a taxicab swerved to miss them by a hair’s breadth. They could feel the whirlwind of its spinning tires against their faces. A driver of middle-eastern mien cursed at them. “Fiacre,” said Judge Crater, as he knelt beside the derelict. The man’s face had turned blue.
“What you say?” The Sister had served her mission of comfort in the ghettos of the inner city.
“Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of taxi drivers,” elucidated the Judge, his arm suddenly around the waist of Sister Joyful. “The Bowery was first envisioned as a tree-shaded boulevard, where the gentry of New Amsterdam might essay forth, wives and children in tow, on a charabanc, or with matched pairs of horses in black lacquered landaus, called fiacres by the burghers.”
“Oh. Interesting...” replied Sister Joyful as she disengaged herself. The man has power, she thought. Whether it was The Power remained to be seen. “...how interesting. We’ll see,” said Sister Joyful, as she folded her wimple into a pillow to place beneath the head of the newly expired wino.
“See what, my pigeon-poultry?” The arm was replaced.
“If there is a saint named Fucker,” she replied demurely.
“Fee-ACK-er,” a generous smile adorned the clean-shaven features of Joseph Force Crater, corpse and fugitive, styled the ‘Missingest Man in America’ by the sensational tabloids.
The dead man sat up. “Martha...”
“Wrong answer,” said Judge Crater as he pressed his thumbs into the man’s throat. “Kick the bucket; you have outstayed your welcome upon this mortal coil. Martha will have to be bereft.” The man gurgled and was still.
“But... you just killed him.”
“It was foreordained. Look closely, Sister; don’t his clothes fit him well for a down-and-outer? He is not a potential postulant. He is a suicide—abhorred by God and man alike.” This was Judge Crater’s first miracle.
“You have restored a dead man to life,” said Sister Joyful.
“Have I? I seem to be gifted with miraculous powers.”
“Then killed him again.”
“Etiam capillus unus habet umbram, even one hair has its shadow. His eye is on the sparrow.”
“His cheeks—how rosy...” exclaimed Sister Joyful.
“His nose like a cherry,” said Judge Crater, quoting Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas. “A boozer and a toper, one of the castoffs of proper society. He might have been somebody but blew away his chances at an afterlife by drinking himself to death.”
“A contender,” said Sister Joyful, quoting Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. “This is indeed a miracle. You have made a dead man rosy.”
“And I dedicate it to you—this, my first miracle: the rosy, healthful look of the corpse.”
“Whose pocket you picked.”
“Better me, an emissary of Heaven, than the police or the coroner’s hirelings.”
“You have performed a miracle. Not a big one, but a miracle nonetheless, and I am a witness.” The Sister’s eyes were moist. She snuffled. “There—I am crying tears of joy."
“Shush,” uttered Judge Crater, “we have talked enough of you. Now we are moving on to me, my wants and needs."
In the stuffy confines of the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction, the Sister confronted Judge Crater. “You are the Messenger, God’s Chosen One.”
“Nope, wrong on all counts. I am a stiff sent to do miracles. I am a cad and a lecher. And a thief. Or a suborned politician; choose one please.” The judge produced a handkerchief. “Here. Blow. Christ, it stinks in here. You should really have some men in.”
As the sister honked and wiped, Joseph Force Crater sniffed the motionless air, clapped his panama hat on his head and extended the sister a hand. “Come. We shall walk. The Chapel of Divine Satisfaction has a mold infestation, yeast... whatever. Its mephitic humors clog the lungs. We shall walk and talk.”
Sister Joyful gratefully refolded Judge Crater’s pocket kerchief and tucked the now sodden silk into his breast pocket. “Mold...” she cooed. As the two exited the storefront church they observed a crowd assembled around the dead man in the median. A mortuary wagon and three policemen stood by as a white-coated surgeon listened to the man’s chest with a stethoscope.
Judge Crater strode over and, shouldering his way past the attending physician, placed the flat of his hand against the man’s chest. “Dead. Dead as a planked mackerel. Oh, I know what you are thinking. It takes one to know one. But that one died peaceably, by his own hand—in sin but right on time. Not like the trauma of having one’s life cut off before you’ve had any time to plan a proper farewell. Stella—my wife, soon to be ex-wife, or would have been if I had lived to accept the divorce decree—warned me about playing on the edge. I was her lawyer for her first divorce, you know. A usufruct of the Law, you get to keep what’s left over.” read more »