At long last, the first round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, you can read about it HERE and HERE. For them interested, the title voting results are found HERE.
As a quick summary, we solicited titles, readers voted on a favorite, we each wrote a story using that title.
The winning title was The Great Metaphysician.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Perry’s submission.
The Great Metaphysician
Copyright 2022 — Perry Broxson
(3,245 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
To the Debt Reclamation Agency in Seville, Alabama, she was Mrs. Dorothy Marie Chambers, Case Number: 9350029. To everyone else, she was Dot. With no hesitation, she’d tell people: “I’m Dot and I’m seventy-six years young.” If they smiled, she’d add, “And when I die, I know that I know that I know, I’m going to heaven. My husband, Carl Senior, is up there now building me mansion on a hilltop.”
Her accommodations on Planet Earth, however, were not so certain. A month prior, she’d been informed by Sea Breeze Senior Living Community that she was in arrears, and that she’d need to find a more affordable housing arrangement. Immediately, she called her son, Carl Junior, and remonstrated.
“Junior,” she cried, “they say I’m broke. They want me to move out. What happened? You were supposed to be watching my money.”
Carl Junior sighed, counted to three, then said: “Mom, I’ve been warning you for . . . for three years now . . . that your spending was out of control. You give too much to ministries.”
“But Pastor J.J. Jenkins said I was sowing seeds,” she explained. “He said I’d harvest the bounty; that my fruits would be plentiful.”
Carl Junior literally bit his tongue. He swallowed bloody saliva and calmly said, “Well, Mom. He lied. I’ll take a day off work and talk to the Executive Director at Sea Breeze. Maybe we can sort this out.”
At 9:49am the next day, Carl Junior arrived at Sea Breeze. He was late. His ’95 Mazda wouldn’t start. Battery, this time. It was the alternator the previous week. Already exhausted, he sat with the Executive Director and the CFO for a full two hours, going over numbers, trying to find a way for his mother to remain a resident at the Senior Living Community. At last, a solution was forged. In addition to her Medicare and SSN check, he’d personally pump in six-hundred bucks to cover her monthly nut.
Armed with a box of pralines and good news, Carl Junior strode down the long hallway to his mother’s current suite. He knocked. “It’s me, Mom. Carl Junior.”
“Come in. It’s not locked.”
He pushed the door, but it resisted. He pushed harder, and it gave way. Entering the room, he was shocked. Everywhere, there were waist-high stacks of stuff. At first glance, he saw coffee table bibles, plastic crucifixes, prayer blankets, and pillows with embroidered scriptures. “Mom,” he blurted, “what the hell is all this?”
Instead of explaining, she scolded. “You watch your mouth, young man.”
“Listen,” he said, lowering his tone, “I’m sorry. But look at this.” He picked up a jar full of sand and read the label. “Soil, upon which our Lord and Savior trod. Jerusalem Dreams, Inc.” He looked at her, mouth agape. “You bought dirt?”
In her bed, she huffed and pulled her cover to her neck. “It’s the sacred sands of the Holy Land. It’s hallowed ground.”
Carl Junior shook his head and showed her a green bottle. “What’s this?”
“That’s oil. It’s been blessed,” she explained. “I anoint my joints with it. Helps my arthritis.”
Carl Junior turned the bottle to read the fine print. “Nineteen-nine dollars for three ounces?” He unscrewed the cap and sniffed. “It’s cooking oil, Mom. Cotton seed. I know this. I manage the kitchen at Applebee’s.”
She jutted her lower lip, pouting. “It’s olive oil from Mount Olivet. And it’s been blessed by Pastor J.J. Jenkins himself.”
Instead of explaining, Dot pointed the TV remote and pressed the button. Upon her small flat screen, a man appeared. He was tatted and wore skinny jeans and a tight white tee-shirt. He was devilishly handsome and sported a closely shorn beard. His wavy blond hair was an independent appendage, bouncing and flouncing with each word he barked.
“That’s J.J. Jenkins?” Carl Junior asked.
She nodded naughtily. “Handsome devil, ain’t he?”
“Mom!” he shouted. “Daddy didn’t work three jobs for forty-years so that you could squander money on some hipster pastor.”
“Don’t you judge me,” Dot countered. “You need to honor your mother, Carl Junior. Besides, it wasn’t J.J. that moved me, it was the Holy Spirit.”
Carl Junior grabbed two handfuls of his thinning hair and pulled. “Mom! God does not need money! If it’s true that God created everything in the universe, why would He need you to write checks for . . .” he looked up at the TV screen . . . “for water! Really? That guy is hocking water in a bottle!”
“It’s holy water,” she corrected. “From the River Jordan. Where Jesus was baptized.”
“Or,” Carl Junior railed, “it’s from one of the thirty-nine toilets in Pastor J.J. Jenkins’ mansion in Dallas, Texas. Tell me, Mom, how can you possibly know the difference?”
She shook her head disappointedly. “Spare the rod,” she murmured. “I told your daddy that you was possessed by the devil of rebellion. But he said nooo it was just a teenage phase. Now look at you. Abusing your poor Mama. Cussin’ and fussin’. And don’t think I didn’t hear what you said.”
“What I said?”
She clutched her bunched prayer blanket and repeated, “You said, ‘if it’s true that God created everything in the universe.’ You said if. There are no ifs with the Lord Jesus Christ, Carl Junior. He either is or He ain’t. Tell me . . . tell your Mama. Do you believe that God is sovereign and that He is our savior, our redeemer, our creator?”
“Mom,” he said, “you’re changing the subject. It’s what you do. What you always do. My beliefs are not relevant. Your fiscal irresponsibility is what’s relevant. Lynn and I don’t have the cash to bail you out. I you must know, we’re struggling. Lynn pleaded with me to let Sea Breeze move you out, to find a cheaper place. This is a huge strain on our marriage.”
“Lynn,” Dot snarled. “If I’d treated your father like she treats you, he’d have” –
“Don’t, Mom,” Carl Junior interrupted. “Don’t say anything that you’ll regret. That we’ll both regret.”
“Carl Senior was a Godly man,” Dot protested. “He’d have approved of my relationship with God. He’s looking down right now, Carl Junior, and he’s ashamed, ashamed . . . by how badly you’re treating me.” She dropped her face into her pillow and wept.
Seething, Carl Junior plucked a ceramic baby Jesus from the nativity scene on her mantle. He squeezed the Jesus as she cried. When her wailing reached a crescendo, he crushed the bauble with his bare hand.
“Mom,” he said, calmer than thought he could. “Mom.”
She persisted in her lament for eight more minutes.
Minute two: “Mom.”
Minute five: “Mother.”
Minute eight: “Please stop crying and talk to me.
Finally, she lifted her puffy face and asked, “Do you know, Carl Junior . . . do you know that you know that you know that Jesus Christ dwells in your heart?”
He sighed deeply. He became physically deflated, as if he had a leak. “Can we not talk about God, Mom? There’s a lot of other stuff – family stuff – to talk about. Rob and Shirley’s daughter, Francine, finished up Veterinary school. Bill, their youngest, is getting married in June. As for my kids – Todd is in karate and Tilda is in dance. I’ve got some photos here on my phone if you want” –
“No,” she yelled, “all I want is to die. I want to go to my heavenly home and be with my heavenly family. To be welcomed into the bosom of Abraham. To be secured within the loving arms of Jesus.”
“Mom, you don’t mean that.”
She held her breath like a petulant child, then blurted: “Yes-I-do-yes-I-do-yes-I-do!”
“No, Mom,” he said. “You’re relatively healthy. You can still do things. You could volunteer – right here, at Sea Breeze. Start a book club. A sewing circle. Bridge. Dominos. Maybe write letters to soldiers overseas . . . something . . . anything. Just, please, don’t write checks to TV preachers.”
“Don’t lecture me; I’m your mother.”
Carl Junior pushed back. “And I’m your son. You’ve got family. People who love you. But you seem more interested in this J.J. Jenkins guy than us.”
Her face hardened, as did her heart. Through clenched dentures, she said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father, mother, wife, children, brother and sisters – yes, and his own life also – this person is unworthy of me.”
Carl Junior knew the verse. It was a red-letter quotation in Luke – which meant, it was attributed to Jesus himself. In Sunday school, he’d thought nothing of it. Read again, after college, he realized, if true, Jesus of Nazareth was a bona fide cult leader . . . not the begotten Son of God.
“Mom, are you taking your meds?”
She gave him a blazing gaze, her white hair swirling like steam. “I pray that the Lord takes me home tonight, Carl Junior.”
“Mom,” he said, stroking her liver-spotted hand. “You don’t mean that. We want you here – with us. We’re family and we lo” –
“But you’re not my family,” she shouted. “This life is but a vapor that appeareth for a little time and vanisheth away.”
He pushed his palm out and said, “No more bible babble. Enough is enough.”
Dot narrowed her wild eyes and surmised, “Take heed, lest ye have an evil heart of unbelief.” She clutched one of a dozen crucifixes and wagged it at him.
Carl Junior’s head dropped. He refused to engage with a zealot, even if that zealot was his ever-distancing mother. “Call me, Mom. If you need anything . . . anything at all. Lynn’s car is in the shop. Got to pick her up now.”
He navigated a path through the clutter and opened the door. He looked back. Pushing a praline into her mouth, she was enthralled with the TV preacher, J.J. Jenkins. “I love you, Mom.” He waited a few beats. Then a few more. When the thread of time had spooled to its end, he left.
At midnight in Room 442 at Sea Breeze Senior Living Community, a stranger came calling on Dot Chambers.
Dot awoke. Something, as delicate as a cat paw, was tickling her toes. “I don’t need my medication,” she mumbled, thinking it was a caretaker.
“Wakey wakey,” the too cheerful voice sang. “You can sleep when you’re dead, Dorothy.”
The staff, her friends, her family – they all called her Dot. The name Dorothy had a prickly connotation. She lifted her head from the yellowed pillow and looked at the figure at the foot of her bed. The room was dark, save the low glow of the TV screen affixed to the wall, but she could tell it was a tall, lean man.
“Who are you?”
There was a chuff that seemed to emanate from the nose, almost equine. “Why it’s me, Dorothy. The answer to your prayers.”
“Carl Junior? Are you trying to scare your old mother?”
Another chuff, this one more bovine than equine. “You would mistake the Great Metaphysician, Joe Black, for a mere mortal? A mortal named for a third-rate hamburger chain? Dorothy, you’re better than that.”
“I’m Dot!” she shouted. “I know I’m arguing with a dream, but I’m Dot. All my friends call me Dot!
The figure moved ever so slightly, and the TV illuminated the contour of its elongated face. “I’m not your friend, Dorothy. I’m your doctor.”
She saw the edges of his jaw stretch into an impossibly wide smile. Suddenly certain she was talking to a crocodile, she reached for her glasses, knocking her water cup onto the floor. “Who are you? What are you?”
“I told you. I’m Doctor Joe Black, the Great Metaphysician.”
There was a scratch of a match. There was a tapered flame. There was a face, lit from the chin up.
“You’re,” she started and stopped. “You’re . . . you’re J.J. Jenkins. The TV pastor.”
He chuffed and his face blurred, becoming something vulpine. The flame extinguished. “I’m not. But for the time being, I can be.”
Dot pinched the thin skin on her arm and commanded herself to wake up. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “None of this makes any sense.” She reached for the Call Button on her nightstand.
As she thumbed the big red button, the figure casually bent and lifted a heavy leather bag and placed it on the foot of her bed. “I’ve brought you a gift,” Joe Black said.
“This damn thing!” she said, shaking the plastic gadget. “It’s broke. It’s old and it’s broke.”
“Entropy,” Joe Black said. “As time marches on, there is a natural decline into disorder, dysfunction, and decay. So it is with you, Dorothy Chambers.” The figure pointed to the TV screen. A commercial for cat litter was instantly replaced with the image of a beautiful young woman dancing in a high school gym.
“That’s me,” she said, drinking in the imagery.
“Yes. And so is this.” He flicked his finger like a magic wand, and the same young girl was shown bare breasted, protesting the Viet Nam war. There were flowers in her hair and peace signs painted on her face. She yelled and shook her fist at some unseen authority.
“Me,” Dot said, embarrassed but ebullient.
“You,” Joe Black agreed. He showed more scenes from her life. Her wedding. The birth of her son. Picnics. Fishing trips. Birthday parties. Pool parties. Cocktail parties.
Joe Black wolf-whistled, then said, “Quite the looker, Dorothy. And what a lust for life!”
She shook her head, unhappy with her happiness. “I was a sinful woman. Worldly. Living a wretched, secular life. Then I found Christ.”
The TV reflected her statement, showing her being baptized in a clear creek by a handsome, blond pastor, that could have passed for J.J. Jenkins’ father.
Joe Black commented: “That was thirty-eight years ago, Dorothy. Half your natural life.”
“Yes,” she said, pleased with her choice.
The screen showed images of Carl Junior and Senior eating TV dinners. Her chair was empty. The screen split, showing her at the church, playing the organ, cleaning the pews, mimeographing bulletins, washing communion glasses.
“I was . . . am . . . a servant of the Lord,” she boasted.
The screen buzzed and blanched to black. Then it showed her, naked, kneeling, in the pastor’s quarters. The handsome blond man was holding her ears as she fellated him.
“Stop it!” Dot shouted. “Stop your dirty-birdy pornography. That’s not me. I never” –
Joe Black stopped her. “You did do it. But I don’t care. No one cares, Dorothy. Not even God.”
“I was,” she stammered, “in a bad place. Confused. My husband and I were fighting so much, you see.”
Joe Black did not acknowledge her saga. Instead, he turned his attention to the leather bag seated on the bed. His skinny fingers fiddled with a brass buckle. The bag opened. A smell, as if belched, permeated the room. Joe Black chuffed, rolled up his sleeves, and reached inside.
“Meet Felix,” he said, pulling a black cat from the bag.
“Oh,” she said, surprised as the cat padded up her leg, over her belly, and settled upon her chest. “I don’t understand. Why are you giving me a cat?”
“Your prayer,” he said. “I believe the exact quote was: ‘I pray that the Lord takes me home tonight.’”
She tried to remove the cat but it arched and hissed and bared its needle teeth. “I was upset,” she said. “Carl Junior never understood my relationship with Jesus. He pokes at me. Tries my soul. Sometimes I say things I don’t mean.”
Felix placed his full weight on her upper chest and neck. She had no choice but to lie back.
“I need you to relax, Dorothy,” Joe Black said. “Remember, I am the Great Metaphysician. I know what’s best for you.”
“But the cat,” she protested. “I can barely breathe.”
“Yes,” he said, “I hear you. I acknowledge your distress. Relax, Dorothy.”
His words were soft and soothing, as if burnished by tides over eons.
She did relax, if only a little. “I didn’t mean it,” she whispered. “I don’t think I’m ready. My son. My grandkids. They need me.”
Joe Black looked over his shoulder at the TV. The channel showed Carl Junior splashing in a clear creek with Todd and Tilda, as Lynn prepared the picnic on a blanket.
“Do they?” Joe Black asked.
“Yes,” she said, her voice suddenly strong. “They need me to share the gospel. They need to know the Truth.”
Felix pushed Dot’s chin back with the brow on his head. Forcefully, the cat put his nose to hers and breathed in what she breathed out.
“The Truth,” Joe Black repeated, goosing the word. “The Truth. Pray tell, Dorothy; what exactly is the Truth?”
She breathed deeply, as did the cat. Something happened. She seemed to shrink. Felix, inversely, seemed to grow.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, pausing for oxygen. “The Truth . . . the Truth is that God is an angry God. A jealous God. A wrathful God.”
Seemingly intrigued, Joe Black waggled his white fingers and said, “Do tell.”
“And . . . and . . . He loves . . . me,” she panted.
Felix flared his black nostrils and drank in her essence. With each breath, he expanded. With each breath, she contracted.
“Jesus love me this I know,” Joe Black sang. “For the bible tell me so.”
Dot tried to push Felix off her chest, but he’d feasted deeply, and was fat with spirit.
“You blaspheme,” she squeaked through blue lips. “You mock my God.”
Joe Black reached out and petted Felix, raking his skinny fingers through his fur. “No, dear Dorothy. I mock you. Because it is you that has mocked God. You that has angered Him. You that has earned His wrath.”
Dot’s eyes bulged and her face purpled. All the while, Felix purred and stretched and licked his whiskers.
Joe Black gestured one last time to the TV on the wall. The volume boomed as hellish imagery filled the screen. Brimstone belched clots of black smoke; fumaroles spewed loops of lava; skies rained cinders and winds wrought flames.
Amidst the Boschian hellscape, was a single figure, robed in black hooded cloak.
“God,” Dot said, as Felix stole her final breaths. “God. Help. Me.”
“God gave you a loving family,” Joe Black said. “He gave you health and wealth and happiness. And you rejected it.”
“No,” she said, wasting her final, earthly word. Before she died, she reflected that if she’d used that single word thirty-eight years ago, when the handsome blond pastor knocked on her door and asked if he could share God’s word with her, things might have been turned out different. Turned out . . . better.
Joe Black opened the bag and Felix entered. Their work was done.
Upon the TV screen on Dot’s wall, the man in black peeled back his hood. His face was red and skeletal. His eyes were embers. His teeth jagged stalactites. The crop of hair, between his horns, was blond and wavy and wild.
Reaching for the door, Joe Black glanced over his shoulder and smiled. From the screen, the man in black smiled back. As he opened his arms to receive his new guest, the TV faded to black.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
R. G. Broxson submission<<link
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
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