by Corey Farrenkopf
Someone bought the old church in South Chatham. They took down the cross, stripped all mention of Jesus from the front bulletin by the edge of Route 28. Stained glass still bled crimson at noon, windows still tucked between black shutters, white clapboard still spotted with moss. Mark, Cashel, and I watched from the other side of the street as two men dredged sun-yellowed paperbacks from the Christian free library shed on the property, piling them in a temporary dumpster in the parking lot.
“Not big on recycling,” I whispered.
Mark shook his head, adjusting his light blue baseball cap.
“What are you guys doing with the place?” Cashel called.
One of the men paused, looking over his shoulder, mouth open as if he couldn’t place the words. Without responding, the man waved his free hand, goading us to leave as he balanced a banker’s box of books with the other.
“Dude, it’s an easy question,” Mark added. “Are we talking about another church? A private residence? Maybe a nightclub?”
“Go,” the man said in a thick accent none of us could place, fully turning, muscles thick beneath baggy clothes. He dropped the box, the cardboard sides splitting, spilling Bibles and out-of-print Lives of Saints across the parking lot.
“Okay, cool, whatever,” I replied, dropping my skateboard to the sidewalk. “They’ll put up a sign.”
“True,” Cashel said, as he got on his own skateboard, pushing off, coasting down the hill toward the post office. Mark and I followed, careful as we crossed humped tree roots bisecting the pavement.
• • •
It had been over a month, and no one had put up a sign.
We hoped they’d do what they did in Yarmouth with the New Church. Turn it into a concert venue, high ceilings creating lush reverb for punk bands and noise rock groups. The Village Hall next door used to let us rent the space for shows, but someone carved a penis into a windowsill, and now they have a strict no-concert policy. The same thing happened at the Eastham Elks Lodge, and the Senior Center, and the old Rec Center. It was always a penis, graffitied on some wall, that ruined youth culture.
Almost all the venues on Cape Cod had gone under or closed to anyone below the age of sixty-five. Bingo nights were okay. Meat raffles, too. The New Church was the only option, but they didn’t have heat, so it was a seasonal thing.
The three of us, like everyone on the peninsula, needed something to drag us through the gray of winter when all the shops and restaurants catering to tourists closed.
We’d all decided to take a gap year before college, Mark’s father offering us jobs at his flooring company. Some days we installed oak in refinished dining rooms, others we sold tile from the show room. I enjoyed going to different job sites, seeing the insane money people pumped into old cottages by the water, but the salesman stuff wasn’t my thing. I barely knew the product. Could never find the right pitch. It was just one year, then I’d head to Western Mass and get a degree in biology or botany or something that wouldn’t involve selling linoleum to strangers.
• • •
“Think we should knock?” Mark asked.
“I think if we were meant to understand it, they’d write in English,” Cashel added.
The new owners had finally done something to the sign out front, slipping letters into the pre-spaced grooves. The language didn’t resemble any I was familiar with. Mark took a picture with his iPhone, ran it through an image search that kicked back no results. There were a lot of vowels, few consonants beyond Qs and Rs.
“Maybe it’s a Norwegian Death Metal thing? Those guys love making up languages,” Mark said.
“I could live with that,” I replied.
Metal was only two steps removed from punk. Maybe they’d let our band open shows? Get the crowd going. Regardless, anything was better than another bingo hall timesharing with square-dance instructors.
“So, you’re going to knock?” Cashel asked, prodding the back of my thigh with his skateboard.
“I guess,” I replied.
We crossed the street, but I traced the front path alone, passing beneath overgrown maples, their gray branches leafless in late autumn. Through the front window, the space looked abandoned, lights mute, no sounds drifting from within. Squinting, I could make out what looked like a new flat screen television above the altar, replacing the crucifix that had hung there.
The TV played the Netflix equivalent of ambient rock, a starscape, constellations wavering, pinpricks of light bleeding through tubes and diodes designed to calm someone as they studied for a test or wanted to set the mood for a Tinder date. It was weird to see the night sky hanging there, flickering above the pews, backset by boards in the ceiling. They’d left the lectern, draped with dark cloth, a bowl of fruit perched on top. Pomegranates maybe? Something with seeds and nodes and pulpy flesh.
I felt like a voyeur pressing my face to uncurtained windows. So, I knocked. The three rapped notes echoed through the space. I leaned an ear toward the door, searching for footsteps, a gruff reply from inside, but nothing came.
Again, I dragged my eyes through what I could see. Taking in the shaded pews, the few remaining candelabras, the starscape covering the wall, lens shifting, panning slowly to the left as if mapping the rotation of a distant galaxy. It was nuts to think humans had reached that point with technology, that satellites could filter images back from such distances.
I knocked again.
And again, but no one answered.
I considered trying the door handle to see if it was open but couldn’t bring myself to turn the knob.
• • •
My parents’ garage was half metal-bending shop, half recording studio. On the left stood two-ton metal shears, finger breaks, racks of sheet steel, and all the massive iron tools my father needed to create copper chimney caps and stove surrounds. The scent of oil lubricants and battery acid filled the space. On the other side stood the drum set and a wall of cheap amps we’d assembled from garage sales. A dozen patterned rugs blanketed the cement floor, attempting to absorb sound like the swaths of foam we hung from the walls. It wasn’t an ideal setup, but it was the only place we could have band practice, and if we hoped to get our CD finished before our year was up, we had to work with what we had.
Before we retired the band, we needed proof of its existence beyond a shitty four-track demo.
It took forever to get drum and bass tracks aligned. Cashel played too fast, cymbals crashing at inopportune moments while I missed notes, strings squealing from pressure. Being tone deaf didn’t help. I relied on my bandmates to assure me that, yes, that was a G or an F flat.
Cashel and I followed the readout on the computer screen, sharing a pair of earbuds, searching for a weak spot.
Mark tuned his Telecaster, sitting on a stool besides the wall of amps. He only used a distortion pedal, nothing else to vary tone. We were a standard punk band, no D-beats or breakdowns. More skatepunk than anything else.
“Are we good?” Mark asked.
“I think so,” I replied. “You ready?”
“Of course,” Mark said.
Cashel pressed record and the metronome counted in. The distortion was thick, palm muted through the intro, dragging into ringing chords for the chorus. Before Mark could get through the bridge, my father’s fire radio whirred into life, bleating out tones reminiscent of a dying bird. In addition to bending metal, my father was also a firefighter and that wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten to shut off his radio. He had one in every room of the house.
Overtime was how he made his money.
He couldn’t miss a tone.
Mark swore, dialing down the volume knob as the dispatcher’s voice cut from the radio.
“Dude, again? Really? You’re supposed to turn that off,” Mark said, shaking his head.
“I know, I know. Listen though,” I replied.
Neighbors called in flames through the windows and roof at 2550 Main Street. Ladder and pump are on the scene. Calling for two for coverage … the electric voice droned.
“Isn’t that the church?” Cashel asked.
“I think so,” I replied.
“You want to check it out?” Mark asked.
“You know my dad hates it when we show up,” I said.
“We’ll take my car,” Cashel said.
“He knows what your car looks like,” I replied.
“Just duck down when we pass. We’ll pretend you aren’t in the back seat,” Mark said.
• • •
The fire wasn’t in the church. It was in the old library shed out back. Smoke wept through a gash in the roof, its twin windows ringed black with soot. The door had been hacked inward, an ax blade shearing through lock and hinge as the crew searched for bodies. The flames were smothered by the time we got there, my father’s coworkers coiling hoses, retracting ladders. The air reeked of smoke and burnt plastic and something acrid and sour. I could taste it, metal on my tongue, something organic crisped and bubbling.
“You think they knocked a candle over?” Mark asked.
“Don’t know. But that thing’s getting condemned,” Cashel said. “I bet they’ll knock it down in a week.”
• • •
But they didn’t knock it down in a week. The new owners let the blackened carcass stand, patching windows and doors with plywood, the pale wood becoming scar tissue against the charred siding. One of the doors had makeshift hinges. Someone still moved in and out, despite the carcinogenic issues and the orange X painted on all four sides.
No one had boarded over the wound in the roof, though, two-by-fours split, pressing through the hole like shattered ribs. It didn’t so much look like one of the firefighters had hacked into the shingles as something had crashed through them, dropping from a great height to bring the building low.
My father said there was no known cause for the fire, no accelerant discovered. The entire inside had been stripped before flames licked up the walls.
“So, what did you write in the incident report?” I asked.
“Unknown. N/A. Something like that,” he replied. “If it’s not arson and no one died, we don’t look much beyond that.”
“But don’t you want to know?” I asked.
“I’ve been to enough fires. They’re usually more boring than you’d think.”
• • •
“I thought you said there was a huge TV,” Cashel said, pressing his face to the window.
“Yeah, above the altar,” I replied.
The three of us stood on the front step, Mark having joked about my weak forearms and knocking proficiency. It was a gray day, the sky low, a hint of snow in the air. The road behind us was dead. Winter had called snowbirds back to Florida or Jersey or whatever warmer state they lived in half the year. Only locals were left.
“Well, there’s nothing up there,” Cashel said.
“Are you kidding me, the thing was huge,” I replied, pushing Cashel aside, peering in. Above the altar, the cross was back, hanging from the wooden slats where the television had been. There was no way they would have put something that large up just to take it down. It was practically a movie theater screen, something you couldn’t purchase at Best Buy.
“See,” Cashel said.
“Yeah, but that’s insane,” I replied.
“How about we knock and just ask them? I’m starting to think there’s no way we’re playing a show here,” Mark said.
“I’m thinking that’s a hard pass,” Cashel said, knocking against the door’s glass window.
Only a faint electric hum came from within, but nothing human. After a moment, there was the stutter of steps from around back. We looked at each other, then jogged around the side of the building. The parking lot and burnt library came into view. The plywood door was open. A man hurried to close it, carrying what looked like a split pomegranate on a silver platter. The three of us edged back toward the church, clinging close to the wall, watching as the man disappeared through the back door.
“Is it like their food pantry or something?” Mark asked as we neared the sidewalk.
“Food pantries don’t take perishables. Stuff goes bad,” I said.
“And that thing looked raw as hell,” Cashel said.
“The pomegranate?” I asked.
“There’s no way that thing’s a pomegranate. It was practically beating,” Cashel said.
“Should we go look, or call someone?” I asked.
“Nope. We’re just going to walk away and come back at night,” Mark said.
“Night’s always the right idea,” Cashel replied.
• • •
Cashel was going to school in Ohio. Mark in PA. That’s why we decided to call it quits with the band. It would be a struggle. We’d get rusty, hands no longer remembering chords, which solo went where, lyrics wilting and mumbled. We’d seen other bands try to keep up long-distance relationships. They went from headlining shows to becoming opening acts, only a small crowd of old friends there to watch. The aging process wasn’t graceful in the scene.
That’s why we needed the CD. Proof of five years of effort. Fifteen years of friendship. We weren’t going to be sleeping over at each other’s houses every Friday night, waking groggy on couch cushions, the scent of greasy pizza and weed in the air. And that made me sad. We’d marked our weeks with band practice, movie trips, shows in Boston, and the occasional sushi run to Yarmouth. We were what each other looked forward to at the end of the week, something to push through another day of sanding floors, of trying to convince retired couples they really wanted the high-end tile.
The church seemed like a final adventure, something to mark our passage from youth, arriving at our next instar.
“You going to hit the right notes this time?” Cashel asked as we recorded vocals.
“It’s punk. As long as I’m close, it’s fine,” I replied, lips brushing the mic hovering before me.
“This is why we should have paid for lessons,” Mark said. He’d pushed for voice lessons, but they were pricey, and we barely had time between work and our self-imposed recording schedule.
We’d all crowded into my parents’ bathroom to do the vocals. With the lower ceilings and the tile, the sound was more manageable, crisp. Mark sat on the edge of the bathtub, while Cashel clicked keys on the laptop, sitting cross-legged on the black-and-white checkered floor.
“Maybe for the reunion tour I’ll spring for it,” I replied.
“Or maybe you’ll just grow out of being tone deaf,” Cashel said with a smile.
“That would be a blessing,” Mark said.
Truthfully, my concentration was shot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy cradling the pomegranate and the shed. Two weeks had passed, and we hadn’t worked up the nerve to go back, only driving by at night, watching the crimson-tinted light slipping from inside. They only gathered after sundown, the few shadowed figures we glimpsed from a distance.
“I think tonight’s the night,” I said.
Cashel and Mark looked at me askew.
“Once I know what’s going on over there, I’ll be able to record, be more focused. You guys can’t tell me you don’t hear it? That humming?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Mark said.
“I do hate lingering mysteries,” Cashel said.
“Conveniently, you’re both wearing black,” I replied, pointing to their band T-shirts and skinny jeans. For the most part, all we ever wore was black. “No one has to run home to swap out a jacket.”
“I’m passing,” Cashel said, looking away.
“I’m with him, man. We’ve got work tomorrow and that shit was real sketchy last time,” Mark said.
A distance grew between us, a near-translucent being rising from the floor, cold, sucking air from my throat. We rarely diverged. I knew they wanted to know as badly as I did, but I could hear the fear in their voices. My hands shook. Nothing was going to get better until I knew what was going on in the church. Months were ticking by. We had three songs done out of twelve and the mistakes piled up. Hours burned before us.
“Let’s just get it over with. We’re going to go inside eventually. It’s inevitable. You have to hear it calling,” I said.
“Not me man, not a word,” Mark said.
“Just drop it. I’m not getting slapped with trespassing over this,” Cashel said.
“Focus on the song. Let’s give it another go and we’ll call it a night,” Mark said, hand toying with the curtain.
“I can’t,” I said, stepping away from the mic, leaving them in my parents’ bathroom as I dropped down the stairs to the first floor. They knew how to get out.
• • •
It had begun to snow. A thin skin of white coated the parking lot and sidewalk. My footprints marked my path to the front door, clear against the grimy cement beneath.
Like any good church, the door was unlocked. I didn’t knock. I figured any denomination was happy to receive a new congregant, even if they arrived unannounced. The air inside the building was sweltering, the starscape back, obscuring the cross, TV rehung, pinpricks of orbiting light looming above the altar. I couldn’t recognize the constellations, couldn’t place the planets I’d always known. A man stood beneath the void, raising a platter with the pomegranate on it, as if making an offering to a digital god. I tried to speak, but couldn’t find my tongue, words thick in my throat.
There were a dozen other men seated in the pews, staring blankly at the starscape, mouths twitching through words too low to hear. The pomegranate floated off the plater, rising toward the screen, which wasn’t a screen. It wavered as the fruit passed into the night sky, rising and rising, muting stars as it obscured their view.
“Have you come to pray?” a voice asked from my side.
Another man stood beside the door, nearly identical to the man on the altar, to all the men gathered in the pews. Head shaved to stubble, mouth lolling wide, wider than his jaw should have allowed.
I stuttered through an incoherent reply. “No, I ah, just wanted to …”
“First you must make an offering,” the man said, hand clutching my shoulder. “Come, you will find joy here.”
I tried to pull away, to jerk from his grip, but he was strong, fingertips pressing between muscles, tunneling toward bone. He led me outside, into the cold December air, snow coming down harder than before. He dragged me around the corner of the church, feet slipping in the slush. A single candle flickered on the stone step leading to the burnt library. The door was ajar. I had told myself I wanted to see inside, but not like that, not without choice. The man pushed open the door as I fought to knock him off the step. He didn’t flinch.
“Pluck the fruit and bring it to me,” the man said, tossing me into the cinder-thick interior, the overwhelming scent of char and ash searing my sinuses. The walls were jet black, charcoal. The light from the doorway only reached so far, leaving the scarred walls in half shadow. A single spotlight fell through the wound in the ceiling, landing on the edge of something still, snow gathering around its base. There was my breath, and the man’s breath, and another breath farther inside. I looked for an unboarded window, another door, but there was nothing. No exit.
“It doesn’t hurt them. It’s what they’ve come to do,” the man said behind me. “Just tear one free. They don’t understand pain.”
“What doesn’t?” I asked.
In the corner, the shadows stirred in the moonlight. The thing was an amalgam of so many things. Flora and fauna crossbred. Legs akin to a horse, head boorish, the trunk of a dozen small trees twisting off its bloated body, some drifting into the floor as if it were impaled on bamboo spikes. There was no way it could walk or drag itself out of the shed. Hundreds of spherical growths sprouted along its torso and neck, an orchard of purplish flesh.
“Just one,” the man said, “Bring it to me and we will let you eat with those that have sent them. You can’t understand joy, until …”
But the man’s final words were cut off by a hollow crunch, the sound of splitting wood. There was a groan, then something colliding with the stone step, wet and hollow. I couldn’t turn away from the creature. It stared out with a single mournful eye, the globes growing from its body hanging about its ruined face. There was a hand on my shoulder, an arm around my waist, Cashel screaming in my ear, Mark swearing as he tried to uproot my feet while I reached forward, toward the creature, the man’s promise singing in my ear as my mouth grew wet.
Cashel and Mark managed to tip me backward, to drag me by the shoulders through the doorway, over the body of the man, a broken skateboard lying beside him, blood on the grip tape, crimson splotches marring the snow. My eyes were drawn to the sky, to the thousands of pinpricks disrupting the blackness, the distance, the ones who accepted the offered fruit. My heels dragged through the damp accumulation, across concrete, until they jammed me in the backseat of Cashel’s car, upholstery reeking of weed and French fries. The roof over my head was singed with burns from cigarettes ashed over a shoulder with the window open, a thousand black suns.
“Maybe night wasn’t the best option,” Cashel said.
“I don’t think daytime would be any better,” Mark replied from the seat beside me, hands pressed to my chest, pinning me.
“Guys. It’s fine. Just let me out. It will be like one second,” my mouth worked faster than my thoughts. “They just want the fruit. It’s just fruit.”
“Nope,” Cashel said, slamming the door. He jumped into the driver’s seat and engaged the childproof locks. I tried the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Mark slapped my hand away from the cool metal. “We’ve still got nine songs to finish.”
“And neither one of us wants to sing vocals,” Mark said.
Cashel sped off the front lawn where he’d parked, skidding through the snow, tearing up grass, bumper dropping low as he careened over the curb. Through the rear window, through the red-stained glass, the starscape hung, a black smear above the altar. None of those gathered turned at the sound of screeching tires, at the metal grind of steel sliding over curb. Only the mournful hum from the shed, louder than anything I’d ever heard, dragged them from their prayers as we pulled right on Route 28. A low E wavered through the air, calling them to their next harvest.
It was distinct, undeniable.
Maybe I wasn’t tone deaf after all.
Maybe I’d just never really listened.
Copyright © 2023 by Corey Farrenkopf