Page 35 - WTP Vol. XI #3
P. 35

 The hotel was huge and bright and cheap: one of countless prefab towers arrayed along the beach. A gravestone fixed with balconies. A massive stucco cuckoo clock. Its “ballroom” was the site for talks and Worship, and the whole group had to squeeze into a claustrophobic dining room, all linoleum and plas- tic chairs and stark views of the parking lot. They’d eaten hot dogs that first night. Mark and Amber sat together, though they hardly spoke a word.
In the first lull after eating, when the plates had all been trashed and the tables cleared of condiments, the senior pastor, Dennis, had taken up the micro- phone and told them they were going to the beach to sing and pray. This promise of the beach propelled the masses from their chairs, then swept them semi- neatly toward the buses in the lot. Mark and Amber boarded in a cloud of stubborn silence. They took
edge of which greeted them now in the tumble and hush of the surf.
On this beach they were instructed to assemble al- phabetically. The flock was then divided into groups, the last of which, Whitsitt and Unger included, was told to follow Spencer. His guitar was on his back, slung across it like a rifle. He led them down the shoreline, trudging like a Bedouin across the dimpled sand. When at last he turned to face them, he in- structed them to sit.
Somehow it was even darker here, just down the beach, and all Mark could see of his friend was a smudge, a sullen blur at the periphery. There was freedom in this blindness, the permission to believe. He almost expected a column of flame, a sign that would arise in fiery plumage from the gulf.
Instead Spencer talked. The guitar remained slung on his back, soundless as he spoke to them of Jesus, of the sacrifice He’d made and of the pain of crucifixion, the torture He’d endured to save their souls. Then
the pastor shifted up, invoked the fullness of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit was among them, alive and on the move. The Father, God in Heaven, was smiling down upon them, waiting to accept them in His all- enfolding hands. His living grace had been extended. All they had to do was pray aloud and ask forgiveness. All they had to do was take His Son into their hearts.
Spencer’s voice was different. The light dancing irony that played about his words—even in the midst of lengthy sermons, back at church—was shackled in favor of weighty solemnity, a solemnity strained and enhanced, on occasion, by the falter and crack of his musical voice. A cynic, an Amber, might have thought he was performing, but the sand and the waves and the huge speckled sky all conspired to reduce Mark’s defenses, and he submitted to the sound, the dip and rise of Spencer’s speech.
He now instructed them to look out at the water. He told them to pray by themselves, and in silence. The other two groups had gone silent as well, so that all you could hear were the wind and the waves, the relentless sonic essence of the earth, its purest ele- ments. Mark did as he’d been told. He looked out at the water and the band of blackened clouds, the mire at the horizon where they met and intermingled. Everything else disappeared. Spencer and Amber,
the other retreatants, the bus and the lot, the measly lights of Pensacola. An impossible yearning had en- tered his chest, had spread to his limbs and his face.
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here was freedom in
this blindness, the per- mission to believe. He almost expected a column of flame, a sign that would arise in fiery plumage from the gulf. “
 their former seats, in the bus’s final row. He was already turning away from her, holding up that piety which shielded him, alone. She didn’t want to be here. That was fine. An Amber problem. But this was what he’d come for and he’d see it to its end.
The bus bumped and groaned through the dark for ten minutes, took a few turns, and then stopped. At last they disembarked onto a lot that faced the beach. Pensacola, to the west, was dispersed into a smatter- ing of dim, inconstant lights, like a power plant spied through its own befouled atmosphere. Beyond the lot on which they stood, the only semblance of develop- ment, lay a stretch of unspoiled beach. The pastors led them down onto the sand, and in that dark, at
the end of what had proved a day of long and weary travel, Mark envisioned them en masse as chosen wanderers. It started as a joke but then became, as he embraced it, as total in its truth as any testament. They were not so much kids on a routine retreat as pilgrims brought forth on a journey, the shadowy

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