I have started so many novels. I’ve completely lost count of how many times I have written opening chapters but never got much beyond that. This one, however, is one I keep coming back to. Several subsequent chapters have been written, rewritten, and rewritten again, but the book remains unfinished.
The latest revision on this chapter was made during February of 2016, for the final class of my MA program but the original version is several years older.
The Right Reverend Elijah J. Hogg and Naked Jesus
By Lee Wright
The Right Reverend Elijah J. Hogg was thoroughly shitfaced the night the golden chariot of fire came to him. Of course, by that point in his life, Hogg was thoroughly shitfaced every night. A teetotaler for nigh on to fifty years, Hogg had gotten drunk for the first time the night his wife drove off with his truck, his dog, his best friend, and his home. The fact that the latter—a double-wide mobile home—was also his church added public insult to injury. From that point forward, Hogg had harbored absolutely no interest in seeing the moon and stars through sober eyes. On the night of the holy encounter, Hogg was doing exactly what he had been doing every evening for five years—sitting in a sagging lawn chair on the narrow back porch of his dilapidated mobile home, smoking off-brand cigarettes, listening to a distant clear channel gospel station on his old Phillips radio, and drinking George Dickel Tennessee Whisky from a cheap souvenir shot glass.
The shot glass was imprinted with a brightly colored caricature of a bearded elf standing beneath a boldly printed command to “SEE ROCK CITY!”. Below the elf’s feet was a promise that, from said attraction, one could “SEE SEVEN STATES!” But Elijah Hogg had never seen Rock City and he’d never seen seven states. In fact, except for one short trip down to Atlanta back in 1969, he’d never been more than twenty miles from the shores of Winnepesaukah Lake. Although the Tennessee line was barely a half hour drive away, Hogg had never even been outside the state of Georgia. He was inherently sedentary and proudly so. Even the annual sight of migrating birds sometimes made him vaguely uneasy.
Hogg had been born to an unemployed coal miner and a part-time cleaning lady on the east side of Winnepesaukah Lake, near Hooper’s Creek, and he had lived most of his life on that same piece of land. Before he was called to the Ministry, he had worked for a spell at the Jernigan Textiles plant just half a mile down the road—walking distance in a place like Ensign County. And, although he had reluctantly relocated to Golden Pines Estates shortly after the unexpected loss of his home and place of worship, he rather looked forward to spending his afterlife interred among the rolling hills of the placid little lake’s eastern shore. After all, love ‘em or hate ‘em, a man should be with his family in death. And Hogg was utterly convinced that his death wouldn’t be long in coming.
He was sure that, after nearly a decade of hard nightly drinking, his liver had to be permanently pickled. What’s more, he would swear on a stack of Bibles (and Elijah Hogg was a man who actually had a stack of Bibles) that he could literally feel his lungs atrophying from abuse and general neglect. He was just shy of his fifty-fifth birthday but he looked sixty and felt seventy. But not a spry seventy like that couple of ex-hippies who lived just across the rutted, gravelly lane. For the once and future reverend, every day was a series of physical challenges and unbroken misery; however, every night, thanks to the Dickel, was a smooth slide into a waking dreamland where he was still the man he had been at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Once, not so long ago, the Right Reverend Elijah J. Hogg had been a Bible-thumping blowhard of the first order. He could sermonize for hours on end and only bothered to cut himself off after two hours because that was about all his bladder could take at a stretch. For a while, he had tried introducing a brief intermission to the service but he found that he was routinely losing more than half his flock while he peed. They were faithful but they had things to do and were quick to scoot if given half a chance. For a few sermons, he had enlisted Sisters Clara and Juanita Seagraves to sing an uplifting hymn or two while he relieved himself, but even then he lost more than a few of his thirty odd parishioners. One Sunday, he even lost Sisters Clara and Juanita. Eventually, he came to the uncomfortable realization that any sermon over two hours (not counting praise and worship, offering, announcements, altar calls and such) was just too much for the lay person—no matter how full of the Holy Spirit he or she might be—to absorb in a single sitting, even given the benefit of a short, hymn-filled intermission.
But two hours of preaching just wasn’t enough.
The problem was that God routinely gave Hogg far more than two hours’ worth of Sunday sermon yet rarely offered editing suggestions. Try as he might, Hogg just couldn’t pray the messages down to a reasonable length. This left him with a sermon surplus that did to his soul what urine did to his bladder. It filled him up and made him uncomfortable, fidgety and anxious. He felt—no, he knew—that, if he didn’t get the Word out in time, the consequences would no doubt be both dire and embarrassing. He needed a place to relieve himself and, one fateful Sunday afternoon, he found it in the form of a bush behind the church.
The bush was part of a thick hedge formed by a row of rhododendron. Hogg was trimming it with an old pair of manual garden shears in anticipation of imminent flowering. The work usually relaxed him but he’d never done it on a Sunday. Sunday, after all, was the Lord’s day—a holy day, reserved for doing God’s work but, since the hedge marked the boundary between the church grounds and the cemetery, its maintenance was church work so he figured a little bit of pruning wasn’t likely cause his eternal damnation.
Three weeks had passed since he’d officially given up on the idea of ever delivering a complete sermon and the Spirit was bubbling violently deep inside his gut like a bad taco. As he clipped, he began to speak—first under his breath then gradually louder and louder, with steadily increasing fervor and conviction. By the time he reached the last bush in the row, he was shouting, praising God, stomping his right foot and twitching his left shoulder exactly the way he did at the pulpit. Hogg dropped the clippers, wiped his brow with a sleeve and began to pace. He quoted the Prophets, the Disciples, the Apostles, the Son, and the Almighty Father Himself. He spouted scripture and lapsed briefly into traditional song then into the Tongues of the Holy Spirit. He spoke to the bush as if it were an old friend. He chided the bush for its backsliding and worldliness. He begged the bush to pray with him and let Jesus into its green heart. He wept and laid hands on its leaves to cast out the red mites that infested it. Two hours later, spent, drenched in sweat and desperately in need of a good long pee, he casually mentioned to the rhododendron bush that tithes, offerings, and charitable donations were what kept the church going. But there were still a few drops of the Word left clinging to him that had to be shaken off. He asked the bush to remember the other bushes in its prayers and said that it should come back later in the evening for the prayer meeting. It should also bring a friend who wasn’t familiar with God’s plan for shrubbery. After all, a church that wasn’t growing was a church that was dying.
Hogg sighed and unzipped his fly. He closed his eyes and prayed silently while the bush received its golden anointing.
Finally drained—physically, emotionally and spiritually—Hogg sat on the ground and stared at the bush. The bush stared back. I did not burst into flame or even ripple its leaves in the April wind. It just sat there, ready for more. The bush was infinitely patient and open to the Word.
Watching from the window of their mobile home, some thirty yards away, Hogg’s wife, Betty, frowned.
When the Reverend repeated the scene the following Sunday, Betty dug a stale cigarette out of the back of a kitchen cabinet and lit up in the trailer’s cramped laundry room. By midsummer, Hogg was tossing Communion wafers into the hedge and watering the bushes with the Thunderbird they used to represent the blood of Christ. That was when she added to her now two-pack-a-day-but-still-secret habit by swigging directly from the backup bottle of Communion wine. By the fall of that year, Betty Hogg was convinced that her husband was possessed by some sort of demon and, since she’d heard somewhere that possession is nine-tenths of the law, she turned to the local sheriff for help.
Sheriff Douglas Van Hooten had been friends with Elijah Hogg since they were kids and Van Hooten was a founding member of Hogg’s church, the Glory Glory Glory House. As it turned out, Van Hooten, being a good friend, helped Betty in quite unexpected ways. He never spoke to Elijah about the fruitlessness of ministering to flora but he did speak to Betty about her own needs. In the beginning, she was reluctant to discuss such matters, but after a couple of hours in his office and half a bottle of the Blood of Christ, the kindly lawman took her to Heaven and she never wanted to go back. The following night, Van Hooten’s brother, Carl, hooked his wrecker up to Glory Glory Glory House and towed it away. Carl was followed closely by Betty, the sheriff, and Revelation the Dog, all of whom were crammed into Hogg’s fire-engine red 1962 Ford pickup. They parked the church behind Carl Van Hooten’s filling station and turned it into Ensign County’s first member’s only honky tonk, the Rolling Thunderbird.
News travels fast in a small, close-knit community like Ensign County so, the very next afternoon, Hogg’s congregation convened at the Winnepesaukah Coast Diner to discuss their options. The Right Reverend himself was not invited. Over hash browns and apple pie, it was agreed that, if Elijah Hogg couldn’t keep his own house together, then he surely couldn’t keep God’s House together. In the end, it was decided that the flock would be better led by another shepherd. Just who that shepherd might be was a matter of serious debate. The meeting had started promptly at seven and, by half past eight, voices were being raised. At a quarter of nine, Sherriff Van Hooten and both his deputies were called to break up the resulting brawl. The Winnepesaukah Coast would be closed two days for repairs but, since its octogenarian owner, Lila MacAfee, had thrown the first punch—as well as the first plate, the first glass and the first cash register—no charges were ever filed.
The following Sunday, half of Hogg’s former congregation attended Ensign Baptist and most of the rest joined the Ensign County Church of God’s Holy Light. A few with tin ears joined the music-free Ensign Church of Christ. Only four members—Sheriff Van Hooten, Betty Hogg, Carl Van Hooten, and Carl’s best friend and longtime roommate, Eric—decided to give up on church altogether.
Due to convoluted state, local and federal tax laws in association with a poorly thought out and fairly antiquated bridewealth agreement, Betty Hogg actually owned the trailer that had housed the church so Hogg had no real recourse for getting it back. Furthermore, Hogg’s Uncle Barney, who held the deed to the land, decided that, without the church in the way, it would be a great place to build a couple of duplexes.
Elijah Hogg suddenly found himself utterly destitute and devastatingly despondent. His Uncle Barney, being at least a moderately kind soul, took pity on him and offered him one of the unrented trailers at the back of Golden Pines in exchange for doing a little landscaping and general maintenance. In less than a week, Elijah Hogg had gone from pastor of one of the small county’s fifteen Protestant churches to an unemployed loon living between a chubby hooker and a couple of sixteen year-olds with a newborn and a meth habit.
Word had already begun to spread, however, about Hogg’s shrubbery sermons and, mostly out of curiosity, a former member of his congregation offered to pay him for a little hedge trimming work. Hogg knew what the man expected from him and he didn’t fail to deliver. Even though Hogg no longer had a churchhouse, God was still giving him sermons and the bushes were still mute, patient and immobile. So he clipped and he preached and found a new vocation. By the following summer, he was getting fairly steady work doing landscape maintenance. Preaching to bushes, trees, and flowers wasn’t as satisfying as preaching to people and the money wasn’t great but the work kept him supplied with ham sandwiches, cigarettes, and Dickel.
So Elijah Hogg drank. And drank and drank and drank. Each night, he faced the moon with bleary eyes and a heavy heart but was spared the bittersweet agony of God’s glorious sunrises. It had literally been years since he had seen the end of a night. That’s why he at first, thought the spacecraft was the sun and that he had somehow not consumed enough alcohol to knock himself out. Of course, had Hogg not been plastered like a broken arm, he might have realized that the light was rising and intensifying considerably faster than was typical for a dawn on Earth. What’s more, the light was rising in the west. The crest of Snipe Mountain went brass then deeply golden as the sky behind it transitioned from cobalt to vermillion to crimson. A wave of warmth, uncommonly strong for a night in late May, fell on Hogg’s face and he lifted his bloodshot eyes to the heavens for the first time in months.
Humming a low, harmonious, three-note angel song that rattled Hogg’s teeth and rather pleasantly tickled his tailbone, the magnificent golden chariot of fire came into view and slid across the mountaintop. It hung above him, a great, shining Star of David haloed by fiery red light that pulsed in time with the hummed hymn.
Hogg dropped the bottle of Dickel, pissed his overalls, and slowly stood, knees and back creaking loudly with the effort. He raised his arms to heaven and closed his eyes, unworthy of bearing witness to the magnificence of the Father’s return.
The old lawn chair, in which he had been sitting before the Coming of Jesus, skittered across the narrow porch, off the edge and into immaculately trimmed bushes. Windows rattled, the porch swayed and a strong, dry wind came from the east to swirl madly around his tiny backyard. The county issued garbage can danced across the thin brown grass before falling over and expectorating its contents directly into the heart of the maelstrom. Cigarette butts, paper plates, and scratch-off lottery tickets filled the air, redneck confetti in celebration of the Rapture.
Eyes still closed, Hogg descended the three concrete block steps to his backyard. At the exact moment his left foot touched grass, the angels sang six new notes in rapid succession then finished their hymn with a single, sustained note so low it made the backs of his eyeballs ache. The ship hovered for a moment, rippled ever so slightly then shrank from a massive form that filled the night sky to one just slightly smaller than Hogg’s backyard. This new, smaller form allowed it to settle gently onto the grass not more than a few feet from where Hogg stood waiting. Gradually, the angel song faded and the glorious golden light dimmed. For a moment, everything was perfectly still and perfectly silent. Then, somewhere across the lake, a dog barked once, whimpered, and was silent.
Hogg knew he shouldn’t look, but he just couldn’t help himself. He slowly opened one eye halfway, then all the way, and stared cyclops-like at the magnificent vessel that loomed before him. The ship was now not much taller than a semi truck cab, but it was still the most impressive thing he’d ever seen. Its skin was smooth gold with a deep, reflective luster that seemed to flow ever-so-slowly across the angled contours of the ship. Hogg opened both eyes and his jaw dropped. Something rattled inside the ship and a previously unseen door slid open, revealing the backlit naked form of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus smiled, waved casually to Hogg with his left hand and stepped out into the warm Georgia night.
The Messiah was tall, swarthy, thin and extremely hirsute. He sported long, curly hair and a ZZ Top beard that reached halfway to his navel. His eyes were wide, dark and gentle above a disproportionally large nose. If you’re someone like Elijah Hogg, you know exactly what the Bible says about Jesus’ background, family, homeland, and even appearance but, for some reason, you still really don’t expect Him to look... Well... So Jewish. You also don’t expect Him to be hung like a world class porn star. But hung Jesus was. Flaccid, the Divine Pecker reached at least a third of the way to bulbous Holy Knees and was blessed with the girth of a Bible. And don’t even get me started on the magnificence of His balls.
Hogg closed his eyes and dropped to his knees, crying with a mixture of joy at the Rapture and fear that he might be just a little bit gay for being so impressed with the size of the Holy Junk.
Jesus chuckled softly then said: “Arise, Elijah.”
The Lord’s voice was surprisingly nasal; however, due to the considerable size of the nose through which He spoke, His words were sonorous and commanding.
Hogg rose unsteadily amid further sounds of creaking and popping. As he did, he tried his best to keep his eyes off the Fleshy Scepter of the Son. Jesus smiled beneficently and placed His hands gently on Hogg’s bony shoulders. Something moved beyond Jesus and Hogg’s eyes were drawn to the ship. Two naked, Rubenesque women disembarked and stood flanking the Savior. One was tall and pale, with long red hair, breasts like well-played softballs, and multiple tattoos inked primarily in shades of lavender. The other was dark as the night sky, with breasts like ripe watermelons and an ass like a basketball. Both wore copious amounts of turquoise jewelry and sported enough pubic hair to hide a small dog.
“Jesus,” Hogg whispered, blaspheming for the first time in his life.
Hogg intended the word as more of a concise comment on the appearance of the women than an actual greeting but the Messiah said, “It’s pronounced Hey-Zeus.”
Hogg turned his eyes back to the Son of God and cocked his head to one side. “What?”
“I said, ‘It’s pronounced Hey-Zeus.’ Not Jee-zus.”
“Hey-Zeus,” Hogg said reverently.
Jesus smiled. “And you are Elijah Hogg, a teacher of My Word.”
“Yes, Father. I am Elijah. And I am ready. Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord, I am ready!”
“Patience, my son,” Jesus said. “Two fortnights and two days will pass before I return for you.”
The pale woman giggled while the darker one rolled her eyes and shook her head. Jesus smiled, showing yellow, uneven teeth.
“The world is wicked and has forgotten me,” Jesus said.
Hogg nodded. “Yes. Yes, yes.”
“But you, my son,” Jesus said. “You are pure of heart. Not so much pure of liver and lung these days, but your heart is good.”
“I’m afflicted with the curse of drink,” Hogg said, casting his eyes downward, “and with the sin of smoke.”
Jesus cupped Hogg’s face with both hands and raised the fallen minister’s fallen chin. “This night, my son, I set you free,” Jesus said. “I set you free.”
Hogg began to cry. “Thank you, thank you, oh thank you Jesus—I mean Hey-Zuse. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen and hallelujah.” A snot bubble formed on Hogg’s nose. “Hallelujah!” The bubble burst. Jesus wiped his left eye with the back of his right hand.
“The world is wicked,” Jesus said again.
“They have forgotten You,” Hogg said.
“Wicked, wicked world,” Hogg said.
“Wicked backsliding worldly world full of church stealing heathens!”
Jesus looked at His gold Rolex, the only thing He wore. “Listen, Elijah…”
“Wicked and blasphemous! They have turned from Your face and forgotten Your Word!”
Jesus nodded. “I know. I have that whole omniscience thing, you know.”
Hogg backed up and shuffled his feet. He put his right hand high in the air and his left shoulder twitched. “But Glory is upon us! We shall cast off of the yoke of wickedness and we shall march into Heaven singing Glory to God on the Highest.”
Jesus sighed. “Elijah.”
“The evil shall be trodden under our feet-ah. Hallelujah, amen and praise His-ah Holy Name!”
“The Day of Redemption is at hand and all shall see the—”
Jesus smacked Hogg hard across the right cheek. The Reverend staggered to his left, turned around once and sat down hard on the ground.
“Forgive me,” Hogg said. “I sometimes get carried away by Your Glory.”
“I understand,” Jesus said. “I am pretty glorious. But I don’t have all night. We need to talk.”
“Of course,” Hogg said.
Jesus spoke faster now. “As I was saying, the world has become wicked and forgotten me.”
“Amen,” Hogg said. “Wicked.”
“The world has become wicked and forgotten me. My patience grows thin and my nerves grow raw. The hour of my divine retribution is at hand.”
Hogg’s jaw dropped again but, this time, it betrayed a hint of a sly smile. “You’re going to destroy the world.” It wasn’t a question.
“The world? No. Just part of Ensign County… Am I pronouncing that correctly? In-Sine?”
Jesus looked at the dark woman. “You owe me five bucks.”
“I told you crackers talk funny,” the pale angel said with a chuckle.
Jesus turned back to Hogg. “Elijah, I have a job for you.”
“You want me to build an ark?”
“An ark,” said the dark angel. “He asked if you want him to build an ark.”
Jesus sighed. “No, Elijah. I don’t want you to build an ark. I’m just going to destroy Ensign County, not the whole world. The animals, as a whole, will be fine.”
“Then what would you have me do, Father?”
Lightning flashed as Jesus gave Hogg a lopsided grin and gestured toward the door of the great ship. "Step inside, Elijah, and we'll talk about that."
Elijah hesitated only for a second before he let the naked angels lead him into the ship.
As the door slid closed behind them, thunder rumbled through the night.
A storm was coming.
© 2016 Lee Wright