THE MIRACLE SHOW
By Jessica Dahl
I’m not a good fit here. Even my yard looks out of place. My neighbors have squared shrubs and grass cut almost to the bare earth. I have a healthy but weedy garden. My grass shares space with ivy, clover, and violets, but I mow them down level and they co-exist, as I co-exist with my neighbors.
Wednesday morning, as I started the coffee, I decided what I wanted for breakfast: one egg, one piece of toast, and…a small tomato. The tomato was still in my garden, so I put on my robe and shuffled out the door and around to the side yard in my slippers. I can see both my closest neighbors’ yards from there since I live in a mobile home park (and they can see me). As I reached for my tomato, Betty opened her front door. She was in her cotton shift, as usual.
“Belinda, good seeing you,” she said. “Oh, did you grow that?” I picked another tomato and handed it to her. “Say, would you like to go to that new church in Reilly Town with us on Sunday? They call it Miracles A-Flowing. The Holy Spirit shows up every Sunday. Real miracles are happening. The bus comes right down the street here and picks us up.”
“I have to rush,” I said. “Work, you know.” I started back to my front door.
My hand was on the knob when my other next-door neighbor, diminutive grey-haired Mr. Bob Corning stepped out his door already dressed in sneakers, tee shirt, and baggy jeans held up with a belt riding low under his belly. I had a passing notion that Bob was always standing by his door, fully dressed, waiting for me to show up. I can’t walk outside my house without some of my neighbors taking notes, but they in turn provide me with news about the trailer park.
“Oh, good morning,” he said, pretending to be surprised to see me. “Did you hear? Last night, Thelma Redding from Mulberry Street fell down her steps. She broke her neck and died.”
The news slapped me in the face. How did he know about Thelma’s death before I did? I handed him the tomato that I was going to eat for breakfast and left. I’d seen the ambulance enter the park last night. Ambulances are a common sight here. This is a park for people over the age of fifty-five, and though I barely qualify, most of the residents are well over that age. Usually I don’t pay much attention, but this time it stopped on the street behind mine, close to my home. I could see between the trailers that it was Thelma’s place. I threw on a jacket and walked through my neighbor’s yard, pressing his precious grass into the mud. I watched in dismay as the paramedics carried Thelma to the emergency vehicle on a stretcher.
“What happened to her? Where are you taking her?” I asked the closest one.
“She’s had a bad fall from her back porch. We’re taking her to River City Hospital,” he said and clamped his jaw shut, turning away grimfaced.
I called the hospital later for news about Thelma. The woman at the information desk just answered my questions with a question, “Are you a member of her family?”
This morning back in my trailer, I sat and picked at my toast and egg, and allowed myself a moment of grief. I hadn’t wanted to share it with Bob, a man who didn’t care about her. Thelma was my only real friend here. Just two days ago, I’d visited her for tea and conversation. We usually talked about pottery, rare books, and growing herbs. Sometimes she broke out her tarot cards and updated me about my prospects in life, but when I suggested we do that, her face froze and she changed the subject. Had she found some bad news in the cards recently? I never thought she took those readings seriously, but she seemed jumpy that night. Something was worrying her.
I cleared the table, picked up the phone receiver, and called her sister, Lois, to offer sympathy and help.
Thursday after work I met her at Thelma’s trailer. While I was there, I meant to look for clues to the question of Thelma’s recent strange state of mind. What had been bothering her?
“Belinda, thanks for coming,” said Lois, shaking her head. “I don’t think I could face this alone. It’s so sad. She had such a hard life.”
We walked into the trailer’s living room. The first thing I noticed was a tract from Church of Miracles A-Flowing sitting on a side table by Thelma’s couch.
“She lost her husband so young, and then her boy, Danny, turned out so bad.” Sobs mingled with quivering whispers. I had known that she once had a husband and son, but she didn’t like to talk about them. I assumed they were both dead.
I followed her back to the bedroom. The curtain of one window was drawn back, and a pair of binoculars lay on the table by Thelma’s bed. I looked out the window. All I saw was a fence, a warehouse behind it, and a grey object hooked on a shrub by the fence — Thelma’s hat.
“What should I do with her clothes and her furniture?” asked Lois cradling her head.
I opened the little drawer in the night table. I saw a flashlight, a pill bottle, a pen and an open notepad with writing. I read: The warehouse — the church — how are they connected? I flipped through the pages. Among various everyday matters, another note caught my eye: What will they do if they know that I know? Thelma had a habit of writing down her thoughts. She said that it helped her clarify things. I quickly snuck the small pad into my pocket.
I didn’t say anything about the hat, the notepad, or the window to Lois, who had been oblivious to my noticing. She had enough to worry about. Anyway, maybe Thelma was just being nosey like her neighbors, but I think she needed to know something, and now so did I.
After Lois and I packed a few boxes, she left in her car, and I turned to walk home. Then I changed my mind. I walked back to the fence--neighbors be damned. I found something interesting there — a small gap in the fence occupied by a thick stand of trees. Thelma had slipped through the trees — that’s how she had lost her hat to a mischievous branch. But why?
Friday morning, as I drove left out of the park onto Charles Street, on my way to the Reilly Town Press where I work as a clerk, I passed that same warehouse behind Thelma’s place. The back of the warehouse lot bordered the trailer park, but the driveway entered from Charles Street. I glanced at it with new curiosity.
The place was easy to miss from this angle. It was set back and obscured by trees and marked by a simple sign saying CMF, not much of a clue. But then, in my rearview mirror, I saw a truck exit the driveway onto Charles Street. Painted on the side of the truck was: Church of Miracles A-Flowing. Hallelujah! There was the connection. I decided to visit the church with Betty after all.
When I got to the Press, I shared all of this with Jude. As the most recently hired reporter on our small staff, Jude was closer to me in pecking order than to the other reporters. We talked often, usually about sports. I told him about the church, the warehouse, the things I saw at Thelma’s place.
“She wrote some cryptic notes about someone and developed an obsession with a warehouse,” said Jude. “So what?”
Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m., I was on the Miracle bus with half my neighbors. Bob Corning was chatting with Mrs. Davis about the happenings last Sunday, and Jane Williams was chatting with Al Homer about her health problems that she hoped would be cured.
“Maybe Reverend Pillar can fix this knee for me,” said Jane. “I hate the idea of surgery.”
The bus people collectively sounded like the polite buzz of several dozen bees.
Twenty-five minutes later our bus pulled into the parking lot of what must have once been a grocery store — the size and shape was right. The many large windows were curtained now, and the automatic-opening doors had been replaced with a more appropriate wooden double door, painted heavenly sky blue. The two windows on either side of the doors displayed neon signs — one showed Jesus walking on water and the other said Church of Miracles A-Flowing. Our bus driver opened the bus doors, and we stepped into the church.
From the inside, the building looked more like a lecture hall than a church. The architect had maintained the principle space as one huge room. Cheap new carpeting replaced the old vinyl flooring, and a raised section in one corner provided spaces for the choir and the pulpit. A huge, rough wooden cross hung behind the pulpit. New lighting and a very efficient sound system had been added, necessary for a room this size. The rest of the room was filled with hundreds of folding chairs. Most were occupied. I wondered how many people were actually permitted by fire code.
As we filed in, the choir (men on one side, women on the other, black and white together) offered mellow spirituals. The instrumental background must have been provided electronically, since no instruments were in evidence. No sooner had we been seated than the show began. The lighting dimmed around us and brightened around the pulpit.
And there he was — the very Reverend Daniel L. Pillar in his white and gold sequined robe, teeth gleaming. The choir threw themselves into a rousing rendition of Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Reverend D. L., fiery eyes flashing, threw himself into a spirited sermon about the miracles of Jesus and the importance of believing. Communion was accompanied by a demonstration of one of Jesus’ miracles. D. L. turned a carafe of water into wine as the crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed.
As the last person received the flesh and blood of Christ, the chest of the figure on the cross began to glow red and pulse in the shape of a heart. Blood dripped from the nail holes. The choir screamed in rapture and so did the crowd.
Then the healing began, but not before the collection plates were passed to every man, woman, and child. People shouted with joy as they shed their ailments. Two of them were my neighbors. Martha Kelly, who had suffered from arthritis for twenty years, was dancing in the aisle. Robert Lumbache threw away his cane. They’d be sore tomorrow when they get over their religious delirium.
The return trip was noisy and joyful. None of the park people had seen this much excitement for three or four decades. Even I was tired just from watching. I took a nap when we finally arrived home at four o’clock. Then I ate a light dinner at six and sat at my ice cream parlor table in my small kitchen, thinking about Thelma and the church. What did the church store in the warehouse? What had Thelma known, and why did it worry her? And finally, with alarm, did she really just fall down those steps?
Suddenly, I remembered the notepad that I’d picked up at Thelma’s. I retrieved it from the pocket of my jacket and flipped through it. A news clipping fell out, and I set it aside and continued to flip pages. The last page revealed the answer. She’d written:
Is it really my Danny? It’s been so long since I’ve seen him. What is he up to? What would his congregation think if they knew he had served ten years in the penitentiary?
Was that really him in the window of the warehouse? I have to find out.
Then I unfolded the news clipping and gasped. The headline stated: Three Men Arrested In Attempted Liquor Store Robbery. The photograph showed a picture of the Reverend D. L. Pillar from about twenty years ago. The cutline under the photo said: Nineteen-year-old Daniel O’Leary was charged with holding seven people at gunpoint.
That was enough for me. I picked up the phone.
I said, “Jude, we need to look at that warehouse, and it’s Sunday night. This is the least likely time for anyone to be there.”
“Bee, you’re as nosey as your neighbors. It’s my day off,” whined Jude.
“I’ll make sure you win the Warthogs tickets. You know I can.” And I could. It was my job to draw the tickets this time. “I think Thelma was the Rev. D. L.’s mother. She saw him in the warehouse window, and he found out. He killed her and made it look like an accident, because she knew who he really was.”
“With that bunch of snoopy old people as potential witnesses around? His own mother? Didn’t you say these are church people?” countered Jude.
“But are these really religious people? I think not. And they did it in her backyard where there isn’t much light at night.”
Fifteen minutes later, we met at the warehouse. I’d come on foot, and Jude had parked his old blue clunker on the street. We knocked at the office first. No answer.
“What’s our next move?” Jude wanted to know.
“Let’s check around the truck dock. Something could be open there.”
“Why do you think that?” asked Jude.
Before I could answer, a Miracles A-Flowing truck turned into the driveway, passed us, and started to backup to the warehouse dock. We hid in the shadow of an overgrown hedge. The dock door started to rumble up, chains clanking. Two beefy young men in denim walked out the door and into the back of the truck to unload it.
“What do you see?” asked Jude. We crept after the truck and I peeked around the corner.
I shrugged. “Just medium size boxes and I can’t read what’s printed on them.”
Soon they were done. The men went back into the warehouse, and the truck drove away. We waited a few minutes.
“They left the door open! We need to get a better look at the boxes,” I said.
“No!” he said, but he followed me anyway.
Jude pulled me up onto the dock, and we looked in and checked the dock area, but the men had moved on. I bent over the boxes. They said things like: relics, cross chips, and red dye. The open dock door showed me that the sky was darkening. Jude was slinking around in the shadows.
I used the key in my pocket to open the boxes. Inside the first box, I found small plastic packets with labels that said: Genuine Scraps from the Burial Shroud of Jesus Christ. In the second, I found: Authentic Chips from the Actual True Cross of Jesus Christ. What was he going to do? Use them as door prizes? In the third, marked: Red Dye, I found wine (or blood) colored vials of liquid.
“Jude, do you know what this is?” He didn’t answer. “These are props for the Rev. D. L.’s parlor tricks at the Church of Miracles A-Flowing. Let’s hide ‘til they go home. Then we can search some more. Okay? ”
This time he didn’t answer because one of the dock boys had just walked back into the dock area with a cigarette in his mouth (despite the large, clearly marked No Smoking sign) on the wall. As he caught sight of us, his mouth fell open and he dropped the cigarette into a box of shredded packing paper.
That’s when all hell broke loose at the Miracles warehouse. Boom. Crackle. Whoosh. Fire leaped from the box.
The dock man ran for a fire extinguisher. We ran for the dock door. Outside, I stopped and hid in a stand of trees and weeds. Jude ran past me, but skulked back. From there we saw the warehouse go up in an amazing flash of orange fire.
Seconds later we saw two figures running behind a screen of fire and smoke.
In a matter of minutes, the police and the firefighters had pulled into the warehouse parking lot to the wail of discordant sirens.
Suddenly, a second explosion upstaged the fire. Whoosh. Boom. Pop. The most spectacular firework display I’d ever seen (mostly because it was so close) erupted from the warehouse. Neon reds, blues, and whites against the night sky. Starbursts, fountains, the face of Jesus.
Just in time to catch some brilliant photos, a helicopter, labeled WTUP from the River City radio station, appeared. That’s when Jude astonished me and walked out to meet the newcomers, but he knew what he was doing. Jude presented a comprehensive, objective, if not completely honest, report of the incident. Everyone loves a good witness.
Jude was a minor hero in the eyes of the police and firefighters and a big shot in front of the big city press. He managed to save a few juicy morsels just for his own story and scoop those tickets for the Warthogs game as well. I got a chance to tell the police about what I’d seen at Thelma’s and give them her notepad, and the newspaper clipping.
Fortunately, damage from the fire (and fireworks) was limited to a few tree branches and the warehouse itself, and now anything incriminating (that was left) would be found for sure. What a shame so much had been destroyed.
In the end there was a more knowledgeable witness. One of the dock boys had fallen and broken a leg in his haste, and was making a statement. The police wanted to know why he was leaving the property, for one thing. He was a block away before his foot caught in a storm drain, well beyond any danger from the fire. He divulged that the Reverend D. L. had been planning a huge Jesus tent event and that the fireworks display was to be the grand finale.
Maybe he could shine some light on Thelma’s death, too. This should shut down the miracles show (and Reverend D. L. Pillar), but who knows about Danny O’Leary? God knows he’d proven himself a slippery enough devil. I began to imagine who he might be the next time around.
stayed busy with lots of other things before she got serious about writing. She
waited tables, walked horses, and designed on computer, to name a few. She went
to college and earned a degree in graphic design. She raised a family. Then she
got back to writing.
She has published several fiction and nonfiction pieces under another name.