Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 34: Reverend Sam

Buy the Kindle book at




This pot thing is getting a little crazy. Today I’ve got a radio appearance, followed by a showing of Reefer Madness in Berkeley. I suppose you’d say I’m the emcee. I’m giving a little talk about the history, how it started as a propaganda film and became one of the most popular unintentional comedies of all time. Especially the part about marijuana leading to spontaneous acts of violence. Hilarious!

But I’ve got to wonder, what’s next? Dress as a cannabis leaf for the Hemp Festival? Cut the ribbon on a new head shop? Look! Up in the smoke – it’s Reeferman!

I’d like to know that this isn’t just an escape valve – some white noise to drown out my darker resonations. Take away all this hubbub and I am cryogenically frozen. If I knew that Jasmina had forsaken – was even capable of forsaking me – maybe then I could get on with things. Maybe I could go out with Molly. But then, Molly’s in the same boat, bound by ethics to keep our friendship at a safe level.

Stan the lawyer got me my home back. I might have been better off at Hieroglyphics Hall. I spend the late evenings at my window, staring across the street, expecting any moment to see her at the counter.


There’s a man in my head, like a tiny jockey on a very large horse. He’s a nice man – peaceful, calm, intelligent. Almost Jesus-like. But he tells me there’s no God. How can such a nice man say something like that? I shoo him away like a gnat.

Justin drives me all around Great Falls, buying me things with money from Grandma Irma. Mostly camping supplies: a small tent, a sleeping bag, lots of dried fruit and nuts. I get the feeling that he doesn’t believe in Cloudburst. He thinks that he’s dropping me in the middle of the wilderness.

I’m very grateful for his truck. The twenty-mile road is worse than ever, muddy with slush and snowmelt, pockmarked with holes and ruts. When the trip meter hits 15, though, I’m very insistent. Strangers are not welcome at Cloudburst, and I’m already in enough trouble without bringing in an Outlander. I’m already bracing myself for a horrendous beating. Why did my mother beat me for doing something I didn’t understand? Why did God punish Adam and Eve? How can someone be born with sin? That’s ridiculous.

“Are you ready?”

I smile. Such a sweet boy. “Thanks to you, I’m ready for just about anything.”

“I’m under orders.”

I give Justin a long kiss, hop from the cab and hitch my pack around my shoulders. He pulls the truck into a three-point turn, and I wait till he disappears around the bend before I start my trek.

I’m on the final stretch of the plateau, the road rising into a spread of sagebrush marked with patches of snow. The air is filled with light, and a hundred tiny smells from my childhood. Judging from my body, I seem to be no longer in my childhood, but I don’t know how I got here. I near the top of the rise and the earth begins to change: early shoots of wildgrass, blue wildflowers, a straggly pine. I feel the cold air snapping my lungs, opening things up. My pace quickens.

The road begins a steady back-and-forth into the foothills. The snowdrifts grow deeper. I spot a small coyote next to an outcropping of gray rocks, keeping an eye on me. He reminds me of Justin. The pines grow thick at the roadsides, and I know I am nearing the brink. I come to a hairpin turn. As it straightens back out I am greeted by the hidden valley of Cloudburst: the neat rows of cottages, the modest white steeple, the stream we call Jordan running along the northern edge.

As I descend the final switchbacks, I catch glimpses of the valley floor. The snow lies thick and barely disturbed. The cottages are unkempt, paint peeling from the walls, yards scattered with scraps of lumber. And I don’t see smoke anywhere. The road takes me around to the stream, which is pushing at its banks with snowmelt. A hundred feet further, I spot a familiar elm and a sign with the name of the cottage: EZEKIEL.

It looks like a ghost house. I open the door and creep in like a burglar. It is absolutely bare. The only signs are a stove bearing a broken handle and the striped purple-and-silver wallpaper. I know it’s a stupid thing to do, but I call out for Mama. No one answers. I come to the basement door and find that I am frozen in place. I stand there for a long time, and then I hear the small miracle of footsteps.

I wipe a circle in the window-dust and find a man walking along the stream. He wears a gray striped suit, the kind you would wear for church, marked with patches of dirt. He holds a shotgun, a pair of rabbits looped over his shoulder, and is whistling a tune that I recognize, an old hymn called “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

I race out the door, and immediately I realize my mistake: never surprise a man holding a shotgun. But Rev. Sam just turns and smiles. His thick hair and mustache have silvered, but he is as handsome and well-groomed as ever.

“Well! Who do we have here?”

I step slowly onto the walk. “Kelly,” I say. “Kelly Copper.”

“No!” Rev. Sam sets down his shotgun and rabbits and walks toward me. He looks me up and down and smiles, then takes me by the waist and lifts me up. It’s like a dream. Like heaven.

“Little Kelly Copper! You have become a grown-up, beautiful woman. What brings you to Cloudburst?”

He sets me down. I’m breathless.

“I… I wanted to come home. I thought Mama must be wondering where I am. Is she here?”

Rev. Sam smiles a little harder. “No. She’s away. For just a while. Why don’t you come to the church and I’ll make you some dinner? You must be famished!”

“Yes, I am.”

I follow Rev. Sam’s footsteps into the snow. The rabbits swing along his back, leaving trails of blood on his jacket.


Our dinner is fairly amazing. Rev. Sam rubs the rabbits with sage and pepper, wraps them in bay leaves and cooks them in a covered pan over the woodstove. Once we unwrap th leaves, the meat is moist and savory. On the side, we have sliced apples, canned by the good ladies of Cloudburst, with a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon. We eat in the pastor’s study, where Rev. Sam has converted his big walnut desk to a dining table. The wall opposite my seat features a painting of the valley in rich autumn colors, done by Isadora Hampstead. Isadora was a strange bird, walking laps around the cottages as she talked to herself and fiddled with her hair. But she certainly had a way with a brush; the golds of the aspen next to the church seem to flutter in the breeze.

Rev. Sam wears a moss-green suit with a silver vest, in much better condition than his hunting outfit but hanging a little loose on his frame. He eats with great concentration, but once he’s done he wipes his mustache and sets to reminiscing.

“A pastor is not supposed to have favorites, Kelly, but your Thursday Bible tutorial was the highlight of my week. You were such a radiant child. And sharp, too. Intellect and optimism are rare partners. And you had such interesting questions. You tested me – forced me to take even the most familiar parables and re-think them. The Prodigal Son bothered you greatly – you couldn’t stand the injustice. And here you are, the prodigal daughter. Forgive me for not serving a fatted calf.”

Rev. Sam laughs and takes a draught of water. I stare at my half-finished rabbit. I am unaccustomed to such large amounts, but I sense that I should eat while I can.


“Please. Call me Sam. You’re an adult now.”

“Sam.” The name feels strange, and short. “Where is… everybody?”

Sam crosses his legs and settles his chin into the cup of his hand. “The calling of a prophet is not purely a calling. At some point you have to determine whether you are up to declaring a grand vision. And prepared for the possibility that your vision will be rejected.”

“But it… It seemed like everyone was with you! It seemed so solid. What happened?”

Sam clears his throat. “Well. Lots of things. It’s a little hard to explain. The founding members began to die off, and the younger folks… With the increasing powers of technology, it was very difficult to ward off the influence of the outside world.”

“It’s just so disappointing. There were so many people I thought I would see again.”

“I’m very sorry, child. Believe me, my own disappointment is tenfold. Mostly in myself. If only I had expressed my vision more powerfully.”

“Oh but you did! I loved your sermons. You’re a wonderful orator, and your biblical knowledge is superb.”

Sam smiles and covers his mouth, as if he’s embarrassed to be enjoying my flattery. He drums his fingers on the desk and gives me a studied look.

“Kelly, I… I need to show you something. Please put on your coat.”

Sam picks up a lantern and takes me outside, where the cold air turns our breaths into long trains of steam. We cut a path between the twin lines of the cottages and come to the sacred garden, centered on a boulder supporting a white cross. Rev. Sam used to hold special bible classes here, or awards ceremonies. I’m assuming he has some homily to relate, one that requires an outdoor setting, but I’m wrong. He continues up a narrow path, into a clearing surrounded by pine trees and a low stone wall. Sam studies the geography of the place, then proceeds to a drift of snow near the center. A minute of digging reveals a slab of granite. He brushes away the remaining crystals.

I remember words from a play: Are these the shadows of the things that will be? I drop to my knees and read the rest: the dates, Blessed of God, Mother to Her Beloved Kelly. The blood rises through my body, pushing out tears. Rev. Sam draws me in. His jacket smells of woodsmoke.

We remain in the snow for a long time, but finally Rev. Sam kisses me on the forehead and pulls me to my feet. We walk along the swollen creek, the water flashing in the lantern-light, and return to the church. Sam settles me into a leather armchair and goes to make some tea. My eyes drift over the walls, an old drawing of Jesus walking on the water, a shelf of red books, Isadora’s painting. I feel the blood rising once more, only now it has no place to go. It presses against my skull, an intolerable, boiling anxiety. I can’t breathe. When I stand from the chair, I feel woozy and stagger forward, bracing myself on the desk. I’m reaching for a drink of water when I see the steak knife.

I hold the tip to my arm. The skin presses down. I can feel it already, the rush of blood, the release. It’s like the game, when the man explodes inside of me. I hear footsteps, and the crash of a teacup.

“Kelly! No!” Rev. Sam grabs my wrist. “My Lord, child, what are you…”

He stops when he sees the first stairstep. He runs a finger over the rise in the skin, then he rolls the sleeve up to my elbow. He takes my hands and looks at me with wide eyes.

“My God, Kelly. What would your mother think?”

I hear it in my mind but I do not say it: She would have done it for me.

Photo by MJV

No comments: