Plain Heathen Mischief

Plain Heathen Mischief

by Martin Clark
Plain Heathen Mischief

Plain Heathen Mischief

by Martin Clark


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Moments after finishing a six-month sentence in the Roanoke jail for a crime he might not have committed, Baptist minister Joel King is served some unwelcome papers. His wife wants a divorce, and the teenage vixen everyone believes he seduced is suing him for five million dollars.

Holding on to his faith with a white-knuckle grip, Joel accepts a ride out west with Edmund Brooks, a member of his former flock who has some Commandment-challenging ideas about helping Joel help himself. Plain Heathen Mischief ranges from the cross to the double cross, from Virginia to Las Vegas, from courtrooms to trout streams, as Martin Clark follows his Job-like hero through dubious choices and high-dollar insurance scams to a redemption no reader could possibly predict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400034116
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2005
Series: Vintage Contemporaries
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 934,090
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Martin Clark, a circuit court judge, lives in Stuart, Virginia. His first novel, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, was a New York Times Notable Book, a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, a finalist for the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, and appeared on several bestseller lists. His Web site is

Read an Excerpt


After considering the possibilities for six days and six nights, it seemed pointless to mention sex or weakness or the girl, so Joel King decided his final sermon would be pale and simple, no more and no less than the ordinary things he’d said to his congregation in the past. There were, of course, several last-stand temptations he’d contemplated while staring at his laptop, and two he’d quixotically pecked to life even though he knew all along they’d never depart his study. The first composition was a blaze of fury, defiance and “how-dare-you” indignation. Jacked on coffee and Jonathan Edwards, he wasted an afternoon creating a fiery screed that would have him going out unbowed and bare-knuckled, every syllable a conflagration, every breath a test of will, the pulpit seething with brimstone and bit- ter jabs into the air. Then, on Friday morning, his wife called him a “pissant,” and by that evening, during a long, drab rain, a flamboyant collapse seemed—for an hour or so at least—like a good choice. Midway through this one, he started to use a Pentecostal tongue, typed the word “Gawd” a lot and didn’t worry about periods, just strung together sentences he could preach big-time, throwing back his head and squeezing his eyes shut, the snot and tears running on his cheeks as he finished his career with a sopping, over-the-top, tent-revival mea culpa full of biblical caterwauling and pitifully rococo pleas to the forgiving heavenly Father.

It was all foolishness, though, silly and self-pitying, because his temperament was neither angry nor dramatic, and in the end he wasn’t going to turn nasty or cry like the caramelized hucksters on the round-the-clock religion channels. Despite his musings and indulgences, there was little doubt he’d settle on fifteen minutes of typical Baptist formula—a New Testament passage, a homily anchored in humanity and levity, and a message whose three small themes combined to reveal a bigger picture.

Standing beside his high-back chair in front of fifty-eight crowded pews, Joel could hear the choir crank up behind him, close to sixty pious folks cloaked by awkward robes with zippered fronts. There were a couple of strong baritones in the mix and a single passable alto, the rest an earnest muddle, a high, flat trilling that sounded vaguely strained and far too formal. Out in his church, he saw men and women standing shoulder to shoulder and sharing hymnals, the women giving every note its due, most of the men mute or barely mumbling the song’s refrain. He was searching for something to keep, something vivid and clear he could walk off with: a shaft of blue-tinted light from the stained glass, a boy’s loopy grin above a shirt collar several sizes too big, the furrows of wisdom and contentment that marked a sage face. He looked for the Lord’s kind alms, took in everything before him with the hope of seeing more than was there.

All he got at first was a thought, an odd realization that skittered across his mind. It occurred to him that almost every house of worship he’d laid eyes on—this one included—was carpeted in red. He actually opened his mouth and whispered the word into the music: “Red.” The color of so many things touched by his trade. Obviously he discerned the Savior’s shed blood in the crimson floor, the gift of death and resurrection stretching from entrance to altar in commercial-grade glory that didn’t show wear and was hard to soil. The color of passion was there, too, passion in so many of its ways and varieties, from generous to brutal. The hue of fire, the devil’s shade, the heart’s stain—just about everything under the sun was covered in the red aisles of the Roanoke First Baptist Church. And perhaps that is what I will take away from this day, Joel concluded as he shut his hymnal. That, and nothing else.

He opened his sermon with scripture from the Book of Matthew as his flock sat expectantly, waiting for a hint, an explanation, an apology, a denial. When he hesitated at five minutes before noon to sip from a water glass resting on the edge of the pulpit, backs turned rigid, ears cocked and the church’s weight rustled and creaked forward. Walter Butler began rolling the dial on his hearing aid. Peggy and Larry Rice—newlyweds Joel had baptized after Larry’s drug rehab—mouthed “Please, Jesus,” and held hands. Joel cleared his throat and finished his last point, said nothing they wanted to hear, and as he called for the closing prayer, very few heads were bowed or humble. He peered out at the bewilderment and mild anger of people who felt they were owed and not paid. The single satisfied expression belonged to Edmund Brooks, who was staring at him from the far end of the front row, nodding slightly in the way people did when they agreed with their preacher, when the message had found truth or mentioned something everyone thought needed to be said.

Joel looked away from Edmund, letting his eyes wander through his congregation until a bit of magic stirred up in the corner of his sight, a striking impossibility that spun his head and returned him to Edmund’s pew seat. Joel saw a red blur he’d overlooked, a silky scarlet rope suddenly growing out of the rug, as if the red on the floor were pouring into Edmund, rising from the ground. What in the Lord’s name? What the . . . Queer as it seemed, it was like the crazy world was finally coming apart, trying to wrap itself around Edmund’s windpipe.

Joel had to blink and scrub his eyes before he realized what was happening. There was nothing aberrant or miraculous in his vision, no Revelation’s horse or water turning into wine—Edmund was simply wearing a necktie the exact color of the carpet. He was hunched forward, his elbows were propped on his thighs, and his posture caused the tie to fall in an unbroken crimson path that began at his collar and widened into more of the same at his feet. Like he was bleeding rug from his throat, Joel thought, or the ground had latched on to his neck with a red tether and was pulling him down. Even though Joel was able to solve the illusion, he still kept watch on Edmund during the prayer, cheating through slits that appeared completely closed.

Edmund was a newcomer to Roanoke First Baptist, a businessman from Las Vegas who’d been in town for a year or so. Sitting in church, he was simultaneously still and kinetic, jittery and static in the same outline, like a kid’s whirligig with a spinning center inside a stationary metal frame, the whole contraption set off by yanking a string. Every Sunday he dropped a hundred-dollar bill into the collection plate—yes, the preacher was aware of who generously tithed—and he engulfed Joel’s hand with two palms and ten fingers the first time the men met each other after the service, Joel dressed in his preacher’s robe, Edmund in a black dandy suit. Edmund was dark-haired, tall and handsome, with powerful shoulders and features that fit together well, but Joel noticed early on that his left hand was somewhat peculiar. Edmund’s ring finger was much smaller than the rest, not ugly or deformed, but just grown in miniature, a tiny fourth digit with a nail the size of a match head. Perhaps to compensate, he wore a diamond band on his middle finger and fancy cuff links that complemented the ring.

At the conclusion of the prayer, Joel stood beneath the pulpit while the choir ploughed through “Nearer My God to Thee.” This was when people would walk up the aisle to join the church or ask for baptism; they would lean close to embrace Joel, and he would speak to them in a low voice—not a whisper, just his normal tone dropped two clicks softer—as the choir repeated the first and second verses of whatever hymn was being sung. He began to fade out of “Nearer My God” for an instant, things went quiet in his head, and the red floor, colored windows and fine clothes gradually receded, ebbed away from him. He swallowed hard and tried to wet his mouth, felt dread, sorrow and shame cutting through his stomach. No one came to the front asking to be saved, so he made his way to the end of the aisle, a crackling buzz in his ears and a tremble in his legs, adrenaline and tension seeping into his limbs as if a sickness were about to begin, a voracious, leeching fever.

At the door, people passed by in a Cubist jumble of eyes and lips and noses and teeth. He was trying to stay steady, trying to escape from the shakes and weakness, struggling to slow the gush of fractured, spotty scenes and piece them into sense. A little boy and girl were running up and down the center aisle, rambunctious twins were clamoring around under the pews, Nancy Fitzpatrick was removing flowers from the communion table, and Austin Whitehead was shutting off the sound system. On any other Sunday, Joel would have waited for everyone to leave, then humbly knelt in his empty church and said a prayer of thanksgiving.

About ten people into the line, he found a few crumbs of equilibrium and began to get a better take on the smears and fragments streaming by him. He was aware of several more hugs than he was used to, and tears. Folks recalled old times, their greetings were more heartfelt and somber than normal, and a man who wouldn’t quit probing his face offered him a small wooden cross, carved by hand, he insisted, not store-bought. It was a compassionate crowd; the doubters and finger-waggers and letter-writers who wanted him gone had either stayed away or were skulking out the side exit, packs of men and women wound up in muttered, grumbling conversations. Horace Ayers waited until he was far removed from the sanctuary and almost to his car before he told his wife of twenty-six years Joel King was a liar and a damn disgrace. Of all the mob with torches and rope, only Foster Pullins—the deacon who’d pushed the hardest for Joel’s dismissal—met him at the door and wished him well, claiming he’d remember Joel in his prayers.

Edmund Brooks smiled and shook hands, his same ritual repeated without any change, as if he’d understood the meaning of what Joel had done and wanted to abide by his minister’s last wishes. “Good message, Preacher. A good sermon.” Edmund always said this.

“Thank you,” Joel answered.

“See you soon. You take care, okay?” This instead of “See you next week,” his usual remark.

“I will. Thanks for everything.” Joel gave Edmund a limp embrace before he turned to leave, then said goodbye to the Clements, a sweet, elderly couple who smelled of mothballs and liniment and took a long time to shuffle past. He glanced outside, where he noticed Edmund chatting with Regina Patterson. Edmund touched her arm—right above her elbow—and when he started to walk off, both his eyes were still on her, lagging behind, pure white at one corner of the sockets, his dark pupils jammed as far left as they could go at the other corner. Regina gazed at him, and a tiny separation appeared between her lips, a little gap she didn’t do away with until Edmund had corrected his eyes and moved on. A few moments later, Edmund greeted her husband with the same pleasant vigor he brought to every exchange, said something cordial and looked over his shoulder at the church’s doorway. Joel saw the whole affair for what it was, and was relieved he would not be charged with sorting through the alpha and omega of three people’s sinful distress.

About half the crowd had filed by when Julie Richardson arrived in front of him. Julie was married to an orthopedic surgeon who was as diffident as she was brash. She was a gradation above the high end of acceptable, five tennis bracelets too many on one wrist and a face job at age forty-six that pulled her skin so taut her cheeks and forehead appeared to be grocery meat tightly bound in shrink-wrap. Today, her smooth, stretched countenance was conspicuously set on grim, and her whole person—jewels, perfume, snug skirt, tanning-bed-brown arms—was stacked onto four-hundred-dollar high heels, waiting to crash against Joel like a country-club tsunami. Here it comes, he thought. Here it comes.

Julie grabbed both his hands and then stood there theatrically mute for the longest time. She and Joel looked as if they were frozen in the middle of some zoot-suit swing step or at the very beginning of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” A playful child’s foot clipped a pew near the front of the church, made a deep, bass sound that bounced all over the sanctuary.

“Joel, I’m so, so sorry about this,” Julie announced, still at arm’s length.

“Thanks. I appreciate your saying that.”

“So very sorry,” she repeated.

“Most things happen for a reason. You and Howard have been fine friends.” He felt Julie tighten her grip. “I’m disappointed to be going. I’ll miss everyone.”

“And I don’t care who hears it, I’ll say it right here in front of the Lord and everyone else, but I know you didn’t lay a hand on that girl. You did not touch her, and I’ll say to anyone and everyone that she’s a damn tramp and her father’s a rich fool and you’re being railroaded. So there.” She twisted around to face the people standing behind her. “Railroaded,” she said loudly.

“Julie, listen, I appreciate the support, but this is not the place or—”

She lunged forward and seized him, circled her bony arms around his ribs and patted his back. “You keep your chin up, Joel King. You’re always welcome in our house.” She pulled away, transferred a kiss from her fingertips to Joel’s cheek, then jingled and sparkled down the front stairs, headed to a fine car and three or four afternoon white wines.

Beyond the rest of the people waiting, anxious to say goodbye or thank him for a generous visit to a sickbed, he caught sight of Martha, his wife, leaning against the end of a pew. She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t give an inch, kept a lifeless, tight smile cut into her face and avoided as many people as she could. She wasn’t going to run out or leave early or be brought low in her own sanctuary, but she darn sure wasn’t about to stand at Joel’s elbow or hold his hand when they left and walked to the van to drive away. She was as enigmatic as he about what had happened, albeit with a lit- tle more cool edge in the way she said her few farewells and accepted a needlepoint verse from her ladies’ Bible study group. Joel watched her suffer in her inexpensive minister’s wife’s dress, saw her tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear.

Cathy Reynolds was a dependable, practical woman, a schoolteacher with two mannerly children, and she was next in line, behind Julie. She stood erect and wiped her eyes with a balled-up tissue. “Good luck, Joel.”

“Thank you. Thanks.”

“I can be at the trial if you like. To speak for you.”

He half-smiled. “There’s no need. And it wouldn’t be right to drag this church into court.”

Cathy opened her purse and stuffed the damp knot of tissue inside. “We believe in you, Joel. We really do. And no matter what happened, that doesn’t change the good and decent man you are. All the fine things you’ve done, the time you’ve given, the families you’ve helped—we won’t forget.”

Joel hung his head, blocked almost the entire church from his view. He saw his wingtip shoes on the carpet, his own legs, Cathy Reynolds’s ankles and shins, and a stray bulletin someone had dropped near the door. He surrendered, finally starting to cry, kept his face angled down and his body upright so the first tears never touched skin but just fell straight onto the rug, three or four sprinkles that turned the red a fuller, darker hue. Joel stayed bent and thanked Cathy a second time in a voice sad and dismal. He was moved because he understood her affirmation, her pledge to him, was really much more than that. If he was a fraud and a cad, then this was about her and her worship and where she prayed and the fundamental things holding her faith together. If her minister was a liar, then what of his gospel? If she couldn’t believe in his innocence and divine goodness, then she was merely another gullible chump, no better than some penniless, misguided freak standing atop a western mountain on the seventh day of the seventh year since the seventieth whatever, expecting the clouds to crack open and heaven’s steps to unfold like attic stairs out of a ceiling.

Cathy ducked and slanted her head, trying to see Joel’s face. “Things happen for a reason, Joel. The Lord always has a plan.”

Joel didn’t answer, and Cathy walked away. He glanced at the rest of the line, saw a family standing in front of him—the Wilsons—one of the kids holding something she’d made in Sunday school, the parents clutching Bibles. Suddenly Joel couldn’t think of any reason to finish what he was doing, standing inches inside his church to shake hands with people he’d bruised and disappointed. He risked another peek at his wife. “You have ruined us,” she’d told him last night. “I cannot forgive you for this.” He lifted his hand above his head and gave a quick, stiff-wristed wave, a subdued version of his customary ending for the service, the benediction blessing, where he held both hands high and boomed good words, an entreaty to the Lord to be with him and his church “now and forevermore.” As he pivoted and turned his back on the remnants of his congregation, he realized he had neglected the benediction today, had simply taken a numbed walk down the aisle when the final song was finished.

Joel stepped through the door into a pretty November afternoon, brisk and windless, the tail end of chimney smoke from the house down the street playing out in the air, the Blue Ridge Mountains tumbling and rising behind the parking lot. “You have ruined us, Joel.” Dopers and drinkers can climb back into the ministry, often with a roguish flair and charisma that come from hitting bottom and wallowing in filth, then pulling free with a hard-knocks faith and a clean start. Adolescents listen whenever the heroin addict rolls up his sleeves and shows the needle scars; people find frankness and redemption in a prodigal evangelist’s story of a fortune handed over to liquor and limousines; and sin and tribulation—as long as they’re several years past—are the standbys in any preacher’s bag of tricks. But a sex scandal involving a teenage girl is simply a getting-off point to nowhere, a fall from grace so abhorrent that it would only draw rebukes and frigid stares if offered as evidence of a minister’s devil-wrestling credentials.

Joel began walking faster, considered looking back but didn’t. He thought someone might call out his name or chase after him, but no one did. He never ran, though, no sir. While he hadn’t been bold with his theology or a barn burner in the pulpit, he had been a steadfast pillar for his church, a tall, strapping, honest man whose acts were full of diligence and reflection and whose thoughtful sermons went directly to the point. He had won his congregation’s trust and affection because of his rapturous dedication to even the most distasteful aspects of his duties: He’d journeyed to Haiti with his tools and carpenter’s belt to help transform a shanty into a sturdy schoolhouse; he’d comforted the AIDS-rotted hand of a forty-year-old First Baptist electrician named Joe Barbour while the emaciated man’s boyfriend wept and declared there was no God, no Heaven and no fairness for mankind; and he’d honored his denomination’s dogma without becoming hidebound, had installed a woman as youth minister, allowed the NA addicts to smoke in the fellowship hall during their meetings, and often yielded discreetly to his wife’s superior judgment in matters of ecclesiastical significance.

He left swiftly, embarrassed and contrite and tarnished, but he was not afraid and didn’t run.

Christina Agnes Norway Darden’s mother carried her to term without the slightest hint of distress, showed only a whispery sway along her abdomen at six months and never got sick or swollen or achy in her joints. When Christy was born, she seemed too clearly perfect, almost monstrously so, as if she were a fairy’s hoax or a changeling wrought by hands overqualified for the task. She slept and ate and burped on an exact schedule, rarely cried, and spoke and toddled sooner than normal and all at once, with scant warning or transition. Her eyes, though, her eyes were the giveaway and the riddle: for several years after her birth, she blinked slowly . . . cautiously . . . infrequently, and when people tried to study her closely or discover what was inside, they got nowhere, zero, found themselves stymied by a warren of baffles and trapdoors just behind her pure blue gaze.

Not long after her twelfth birthday, the first glitches came, the unmistakable warnings—stealing cigarettes, calling a social studies teacher a bitch, shoplifting a tube of drugstore lipstick—but her parents treated the misdeeds like a lug in a car engine or a hesitation in an electrical switch, buried their heads and pretended the delinquency was a fluke or hiccup, all the while realizing Christy would probably grow worse, that they were witnessing starts and not a conclusion. And they simply didn’t know what to do, because they’d done everything already—loved her and coddled her and bought her the best, spoiled her in fact. “Who the hell can get a handle on kids?” Big Bill Darden had snapped at his wife after they’d received another call from the grocery store, informing them that their fourteen-year-old daughter had been apprehended at the dairy case again, sniffing the tops of whipped cream, glassy-eyed and buzzed from the pops of amyl nitrite.

At sixteen there was a brief lull. Christy became withdrawn and introverted and happy to be let alone, spent a lot of time talking on the phone to friends and reading about animals, especially tigers, elephants and giraffes, even said she might want to study veterinary science, travel to Africa. Her parents purchased a new BMW for her, and she squealed and leapt with delight, hugged them both, shocked by how beautiful the car was and how expensive it smelled, like leather boots straight from the box.

The free fall began near the middle of her senior year at Cave Spring High School. Christy read a Cosmopolitan piece about Oscar Wilde—“Men We Love to Like”—discovered an old copy of Bright Lights, Big City and finally found her view of the world, decided there was far more joy in archness and revelry than in girls’ soccer and prom committee. She and her two best friends became the “know-betters.” The cute name was a puerile takeoff on the gracious atom bomb often dropped by a set of Roanokers who still did things a certain way, still had teas and cotillions and black-tie doings to raise money for the local theater troupe. Christy couldn’t count the times her mother had complained over a whiskey sour that so-and-so down the avenue or some philistine at the club “surely should know better.” The phrase was also a hoary Virginia reprimand, usually coupled with a full recitation of the offender’s given names and spoken with practiced astonishment: “Chistina Agnes Norway Darden—you know better than that.”

Inasmuch as self-awareness appeared to be the bedrock of correct living, the know-betters’ credo was simple: you could do whatever you wanted, no matter how decadent, bad or bitchy, so long as you recognized that the pissy deed or tacky earrings were beneath accepted standards. Knowledge was the power to act as you pleased, a philosophy that quickly became too sloppy to be ironic and far too hands-on to be mistaken for aloofness. Not surprisingly, Christy’s final summer before college turned into an unbroken stretch of wild, self-indulgent tumults and carte blanche partying, and no one really called her on it, especially when word got around about what had been happening over at Roanoke First Baptist.

Christy heard about Preacher Joel’s sorry departure two days after he’d fled the church. She was sitting in a Charlottesville restaurant, spacing on the ting-ting-ting sounds in the background of the Chinese music, eating the crunchy noodles served with the wonton soup and letting the rest of her meal go cold, when a friend from Roanoke stopped by her table and shared the news, then congratulated her for being so strong. Her parents had probably called, too, but she hadn’t checked her messages since Friday, didn’t feel like dealing with all that. “What’s the sound I’m hearing in the music?” she asked the friend. “A flute or something? It kinda inhabits your skull, huh?” Christy and her date, a grubby Roman—as in numeral; he was a IV—had been drinking bourbon and vacuuming crank since ten that morning, and it was now dusk.

“Enchanting,” the walleyed Roman declared, and he and Christy fell into a laughing jag, ignored the kind girl standing beside them and lost track of where she went and what she said as she left.

It was maybe a week later—Christy didn’t really keep up with days and dates—when she decided to call Joel. She was sitting on the sofa at her condominium, dressed in a sweatshirt, panties and a pair of men’s silk stockings that fit poorly, too loose in the calves, the heels climbing the rear of her legs. She couldn’t recall where she’d come across the socks, but she did remember spending the last three days with a stockbroker named Josh, having sex and taking showers and eating Häagen-Dazs with her hands. She knew better, of course. Josh had dropped her next to Scott Stadium because she was winding down from some methamphetamine and gin and starting to freak a little, and for some reason she didn’t want him to know her address even though he was severely gorgeous and drove a superb Porsche.

Her hands were shaking, the burning in her nose was poking toward her brain, and her elbow had been skinned, leaving a patch of torn red flesh that was just starting to scab. Things were slipping away . . . slipping away. Slipping away. She’d been to maybe ten classes all year, and here it was almost Christmas. She’d decided on the University of Virginia because it was close to home and seemed to have its fair share of weekday parties and Roman layabouts with guaranteed incomes, but she’d not figured on the place being so damn hard. The professors were old bastards full of bile and departmental grudges who heaped on work and had no interest in the short-skirt treats she obliquely offered. Her advisor was constantly hounding her, some counselor kept phoning and leaving shit on her door, and this self-important boy in a blazer from the student something-or-other came by to let her know he “was there” for her. Great. What also was there for Christy was a problem so daunting—one of her favorite words—that all her father’s considerable money and all her considerable allure might not be able to make it vanish. A vile crone who taught her horrible English class had charged her with an honor violation, which meant she could get kicked out of school. Christy had purchased her first research paper from the Rolling Stone classifieds, typed a cover sheet with a new title and her name, and turned in the fine work on Edgar Allan Poe a day before the deadline. It was early in the semester when some good parties were popping up, so she was anxious to get her nails done and shop for new shoes and find an afternoon bash. The first couple pages she’d skimmed seemed like okay stuff, so who could’ve guessed there’d be a stupid disclaimer at the end of the paper, warning everybody that the essay was written by a professor and should be used only as a research tool? So she submitted Professor Holt of Stanford’s Poe discussion with the telltale message still attached, looked like a cheat and a dumbass. She probably could ride this thing with Joel a tad longer though, and that might, just might, win her some sympathy in the honor hearing, if she could remember when she was supposed to show up for that kangaroo court. She’d written it down somewhere but hadn’t even told her parents yet. She’d have to work herself into a good bawl for the confession, say over and over she had no idea how this had happened, and let them suggest it was because of the stress and trauma. After all, she’d had no problems with her grades in high school, just a few brushes with the law and some community service hours the judge made her do and a totally unfair DUI on graduation night. Her hands wouldn’t stay still and she really was going to call Joel, but first she needed to find Thomas and have him bring by some Valium to level her mood. This meant she’d have to screw him, and even worse, he’d want to hang around after they were done and play his ratty guitar. Perhaps he’d settle for something quicker. She felt bad about everything with Joel, but no way was she backing out of this now. Everyone would kill her, especially her father, and—duh—there’d be no payoff, no fat, liberating check from the church to compensate her for her suffering. It would be cool if she and Joel could somehow hook up, not forever, but just for a while. She really liked him, that’s what she wanted to say. She should call and say hello and let him know how miserable and guilty she was about what was happening. And say something slutty right before she got off the line, like how hot his kisses made her, unroll the flypaper a little bit more.

Even after three calls, Thomas was taking a decade to get there, so she punched in Joel’s number and listened to it ring and ring and ring. At the restaurant, her dopey friend had told her Joel didn’t have to go to jail until after Christmas, so he ought to be around, and he probably wasn’t doing anything important. But his wife answered the phone—a hazard she hadn’t even considered in her addled state—and the whole idea got far too daunting. Christy didn’t say a word. Her hand had this twitchy, mercurial palsy, and she could barely keep the receiver next to her ear. Her tongue was dead and useless, a giant, fossilized slug filling the space in her mouth.

“Christy, is that you? Christy?”

Fucking caller ID. Busted.

She hung up and looked out the window. No sign of Thomas. She remembered there was some champagne in the fridge, but it had been there for a long time, without a cork or stopper. She wondered whether the alcohol evaporates or only the fizz. She and Josh the stockbroker had done away with a fifth that evening, and she wanted some more booze to keep her buzz marching. When she checked, the bottle was still in the refrigerator, although she could tell from picking it up there wasn’t much left to drink. She started gulping the flat dregs without a glass; the taste was stale and toothless, like cold water with a trace of something poisonous mixed in.

Thomas finally arrived at her condo, and he wanted to sing to her, but she was ready to get down to business, really wanted the Valium. So she put her hand in his pants, and she made him give her five pills. She took them all, washed into her gullet with the last of the spent champagne.

Before too long, he was on top of her, working like a busy bee, saying things that bounced off her ears and didn’t sink in. The drugs did their job right away, put the kibosh on her tremors, and she started to feel loose and warm. The heat began at her toes, then filled in below her knees, felt like a gentle quilt being pulled across her. She looked past Thomas’s jackhammering butt to see what was happening, discovered that both socks were missing and her legs were naked. The feeling crept into her stomach, and she reminded herself to breathe because her lungs were next, then her heart. She lost herself for a few minutes, and when she picked up again the cozy sensation had broken out in her wrists and hands.

She wondered when Thomas would realize she’d fallen unconscious. He’d probably keep humping and not even notice, then pull out the guitar and strum “Fire and Rain” like it was some huge treasure. Kiss her mouth before he left and not catch on that she was the same temperature as the room. The comfort slid into her neck and fingered her jaw, and she was gone except for the last little snatch of her face. She turned a cheek flush to the pillow and forgot about breathing. She wasn’t sure she’d come to again, but a melancholy ending had been in the back of her mind for several weeks now. She’d seen the hobgoblins who were riding shotgun with the drugs and booze and handsome boys, knew what there was to know and simply didn’t give a shit.


Q:So how did writing your second novel differ from the first? Did you feel that good old second book pressure?
A:I'd have to say it was a very different experience for a number of reasons. I had about two decades to write The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, and I wrote this new book in roughly three and a half years, slow by industry standards but pretty good for a dilettante with a day job. Also there's the fact that I've actually been through the entire publishing process. The first time around, I had no idea what to expect and was just happy to see my book in print and on the shelf at the Patrick County Library. Now, knowing what's coming, I can't help but hold my breath and cross my fingers and worry about this and that–it's a different feeling in many respects. Finally, most folks don't like to admit it, but I read every review of Many Aspects, good, bad and in-between. I'm fortunate most were charitable, but even the harsh ones usually contained something worthwhile, and a couple pointed out shortcomings that, in retrospect, seem obvious and easily correctable. This whole notion that some especially bright readers are going to be sifting through your pages keeps you on your toes while you're writing and reminds you that it's probably not a good idea to get sloppy or cut corners. Last time, as far as I knew, my only audience was my former law
partner, a couple of old friends and the guy at the copy center.

Q:What was the genesis for Plain Heathen Mischief?
A:One of the big plot strands for Plain Heathen Mischief comes from an actual case I heard, a slick, clever flim-flam that caused two civil juries to deadlockbefore the plaintiff finally convinced a third jury he was entitled to a fat verdict and walked away with money he didn't deserve. I'm not sure I should say more than that, and the lawyer in me makes me add a disclaimer here: This fellow won his case, and it is merely my opinion that he hoodwinked a jury. He was vindicated in court, and my take on the case could be totally wrong. Obviously, I just used the skeleton from this scam, the basic grift as I understood it, then translated it into a different, more elaborate context.

Q:Lawyer Sa'ad X Sa'ad, one of the shadiest cats in this novel, has a wall of gumball/candy machines in his Las Vegas office. He says, "The machines are my metaphor for the justice system." How so?

A:The rest of the quote states, "if you have enough money to put in, sooner or later you'll get out what you're after." Unfortunately, to some extent the metaphor holds true in the world of jurisprudence–cash makes a difference. It's one of the smaller themes in the book, but in the long run, deep pockets will transcend everything else–race, gender, status or family connections. I'm not saying the justice system is corrupt per se, or that there aren't a lot of excellent legal-aid lawyers and public defenders. (In fact, I'd feel comfortable with my local PD representing me.) When it's allowed to do its job, the trial process is a
remarkable instrument. It's simply that money can buy endless, frustrating delays, force settlements with under-funded adversaries, and discourage many people before they really ever get started. The bottom line is that financial wherewithal won't always overcome the truth or guarantee a particular outcome, but a significant bankroll in the right–or perhaps "wrong" is a better choice–hands can sure do some damage.

Q:This novel follows Joel King, a preacher who has fallen from grace and gotten himself into some pretty bad legal and ethical trouble. What made you want to explore the trials of a man of the cloth?

A:I thought it would be interesting to place a decent, honest minister in difficult circumstances and see what happened, how far he would yield or bend or stray. Plain Heathen Mischief isn't about a charlatan ripping off senior citizens or a cad out for an easy buck. Joel King is a devout man facing hard choices, and he's tossed in with two con-men whose racket might not strike many people as altogether bad. It becomes very easy to compromise and rationalize when you're broke or down on your luck, and that's what bedevils Joel throughout the book. And if that theme isn't to your liking, one of my friends mentioned that this novel is a primer on insurance fraud, the kind of thing my mother said shouldn't see the light of day because it'll just give people bad ideas and a blueprint as to how to break the law.

Q:Joel seems to be a bit of a modern day Job–tested by trial after trial. Did you have Job in mind at all while creating Joel?
A:Job certainly crossed my mind, yes. Joel, though, like most of us, doesn't quite have Job's faith, nor is Joel completely blameless for his circumstances as the Bible suggests Job was.

Q:Joel does some pretty heavy wrestling with faith, morality and what it takes to be a preacher. In the end he reflects, "I'm secure because I've walked through the valley, not because I've done an exegesis on the Book of Nahum or touched the parchment pages of some original manuscript..." He finds, as his sister Sophie says, "It's a lot easier to preach it than to live it." Why do you think it takes so many mistakes for Joel to arrive at that realization?
A:All the time, I see smart, well-intentioned people who stumble or slip or backslide or break a promise on the way to better things. It's a fact of life, and I wanted this book to accurately track that kind of struggle. Awareness and equilibrium, in my opinion, don't come in lightning bolts or garish neon epiphanies when you're strung out in your basement searching for the little dab of cocaine you hid last week. It's all more subtle,
incremental, gradual. As a judge I see relapses and inexplicable choices every day, even from the people who are truly trying. For someone like Joel, an out-of-work minister who isn't particularly worldly, it takes a fair amount of trial and error and hot-stove touching before he finally gets his life in order.

Q:This is a novel about faith in the modern world. A world that has Joel feeling "flat weary of people taking shots at us for addressing tough issues and actually believing in something other than smart-mouth skepticism." Do you think in this day and age, faith and skepticism can find some kind of harmony?
A:In the end, one will necessarily have to trump the other, and that tension is at the heart of virtually every religion. When confronted with a still-born baby or a spouse killed by a drunk driver or a cancer-stricken six-year-old, we all ultimately ask "Why?" Sometimes I sit in court or pick up a newspaper and can only shake my head. It's almost impossible to satisfactorily account for uninvited tragedy, and no matter how you come at it, the whole scheme of things can often seem random and merciless. When we receive what we perceive to be a stone-solid, undeserved screwing, we're either going to make the leap of faith and buy into religion, or abandon it and become cynical. As someone who's had his share of worldly ass-kickings but still chooses to believe, I guess I like my minister's explanation as well as any I've heard: "Look," he says to me, "you certainly wouldn't want to count on a Creator so simple that even you could figure out his majesty."

Q:Plain Heathen Mischief travels from Roanoke, Virginia, to Las Vegas, to Missoula, Montana. Why did you choose to set the novel in these cities? Are these places especially close to your heart?

A:Roanoke, Virginia is one of my favorite cities–friendly, classy and full of charm. Missoula, Montana has the best trout fishing in the country, if not the world. And Las Vegas is a city that comes as billed, with all the glitz, decadence, gambling and rococo excesses you'd expect. As for the last two places, it's hard to beat a three-in-the-morning blackjack at the Golden Nugget or a day of fly-fishing on the Bitterroot.

Q:Your novel takes on, among many things, perjury, bribery, theft, crooked cops and people who get away with murder. Doesn't speak too highly of our justice system. Are these things you've seen first hand?
A:The court system is flooded with lies, cons, scams, flip-flops, zigzags and pitifully dumb excuses. For instance, several years ago a defendant–with look-you-in-the-eye-earnestness–told twelve jurors that he had confessed to sodomizing a young boy so the child wouldn't be charged with making a false report to the police. That was an especially nice touch; this cad was so concerned about the kid who'd reported him that he didn't want to get the victim in trouble by contradicting his story. Then there's the daily appearance of the "two dudes" defense and all its variants: "Really, this TV is stolen? Hey, I got it from two dudes–one was named Harold and the other was this guy from South Carolina they call 'Ace.' Never seen them before that day, ain't seen them since." People lie all the time; they lie to get money or property or an extra twenty dollars shaved from a child support payment. That doesn't mean, though, that the system itself is broken or corrupt. Most judges I know–in fact every judge I know–is honest and decent. All things given, I think we do a good job of wading through all the bogs and swearing contests to get a satisfactory outcome.

Q:How did you come to be one of the youngest circuit court judges in the history of the commonwealth of Virginia and what made you decide to turn your talents to

A:Judges in Virginia are appointed by the legislate based on the recommendations of local bar groups. Inasmuch as I got the gig, it's probably no surprise to anyone that I think we have a good system. You're nominated by the people who are going to have to live with you, who've worked with you, and who've broken bread with you at the diner around the corner from the courthouse. Then you're questioned and scrutinized by the general assembly. The idea of popularly elected judges strikes me as ludicrous and unworkable–I mean, what platform do you run on? Elect me and I'll abolish The Bill of Rights? More dollars for plaintiffs with soft-tissue injuries only chiropractors can identify? And what do you do when the lawyer who gave you ten grand shows up in your court? As for my age relative to my job–I started on the bench when I was thirty-three–it's just one of those things that happened. I wish I had a better story to tell about it, but I don't.

To answer the other part of your question, I started writing in college, and I have the rejection letters to prove it. One editor wrote back and told me that my writing gave her vertigo; I still have that one. When I became a judge, I'd already written several chapters of Mobile Home Living.

Q:A young judge with curly dark haired makes a very brief appearance in this novel. Hmmm...
A:Nah, I'm now a middle-age judge with short graying hair.

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