Clint Bentley is a writer and filmmaker. His most recent film as a writer was Transpecos. This story is his first published work of fiction.
Baptism at the Cineplex 9
We had just flown to the far reaches of an unknown galaxy, sailing along beams of light, wonder beyond wonder unfolding before us. We found a planet out there with a civilization advanced as much as our own and, mastering their weapons and technology, our heroes consumed them all in waves of spectacular fire.
Kind of a long story. They deserved it though.
Now the movie’s over and we’re standing in line waiting for a urinal to open up. Or a stall. Smashed popcorn and jujubes bloom across the cracked tile floor. The bathroom smells like urine and purple disinfectant.
JW’s voice echoes out from the farthest stall. “. . . and so I said buddy I understand that, but nine dollars a bag? For deer corn? When were you gonna get around to mentioning fleecing us all like that? Course, then he started going on about incremental overhead and dry freight charges and . . .”
A flushing toilet drowns him out.
JW was part of my congregation until his wife died from myxoma in the left chamber of her heart. He wept hoarsely through her funeral as I spoke, and then at the gravesite he took me aside and said, “If you weren’t a reverend I’d kick the shit out of you.” I haven’t seen him on a Sunday since. I looked back on my notes from her service, but I never understood what would have upset him so much. I asked Deacon Jim for his thoughts, but he just said cryptically, “Sometimes all people need is what they know. They don’t want anything new.”
Andrew Bardiger steps back from a urinal, looking down to find his belt loop while he talks. “Yeah, but what do you expect when a casino man starts running a feed store? Give it a year and that’s how much it’ll be over at Sattler’s too. We’ll be driving an hour just to get it at the regular price.”
Someone replaces Andrew at the urinal and we’re all pretending not to listen to the two men as they talk across the bathroom. Same thing everyone does after service: lined up on our church lawn waiting to compliment or critique my sermon, staring at the grass, pretending they don’t hear the prayer requests of the person in front of them.
A few people behind me mumble between themselves, but no one’s mentioning the movie. Which is understandable. It was pretty disappointing. At least the aliens looked real, someone sighed at the end. Whatever that means.
Even still, I’ve loved almost every movie I’ve seen in a theater. It always feels spiritual: all these figures that seem to be living and breathing—laughing, making love—when really they’re just flickering light, disappearing as breathless as they came. And when they laugh, we can forget any heartache we brought in with us. And when they weep, they can break our hearts. And in whatever world they live in, no one really dies. They each stand up unharmed in some other reality beyond this screen, shedding clothes stained by unreal blood, shaking their heads like wow and moving on to new lives, new roles to play. Even the most gruesome event holds no power over them in the end. We need them for this.
I’ve tried that analogy in a few sermons. I think it works even better now that movies are almost all digital instead of film—the source now something you can’t even hold, much less understand how it’s made. My congregation never takes to it. They look down at their laps or fake half-smiles like they’re waiting on a relative to get through a story he thinks is funny. But I still try and work things like that in—try not to fall into cynicism. The pearls before swine camp many pastors fall into in small towns like this one where a lot of your energy is spent mitigating disputes over wallpaper patterns in the choir bathroom renovation.
“All right, JW. Holler at me when you get those scales fixed and I’ll bring that bull out.” Andrew shakes his hands out at the sink and wipes them on his pants as he leaves.
Another urinal opens up and I step to it. Next to me a huge young man who looks like a huge old woman is giving himself an insulin shot in a pinched fold of his stomach mid-pee. The few people in here from my congregation pretend they don’t notice me. I’ve been their pastor less than a year and most of them have children older than me. They don’t seem to know how to interact with me in public yet.
One of our last projects in seminary was to write an essay imagining how each of us would serve the world after school. By writing it, we could better bring it to existence. I imagined my future self into some far corner of the world: driving crates of food across conflict lines into refugee camps, comforting victims of some ancient and incurable plague. What I didn’t envision was a tiny one-piano church only a half-hour drive from seminary, as if discarded on a desolate Texas road between two forgotten towns.
“Where’d they say he came from?” JW asks. “Reno?” No one tells him Andrew left.
Toilets roar randomly. The young man next to me is still at it with his shot. I finish up and turn toward the sink and I bump into an old man who’s hobbling in past the line.
“Excuse me,” I say, but he doesn’t respond. I start washing my hands and watch him in the mirror.
He stands in the middle of the bathroom, scanning the place like he’s looking for somebody. He’s a strange assembly of a man: gray, sun-strangled hair, cracked boots, walking with a clubfoot limp. He bends down, straining to peek under the stalls, then straightens himself and reaches behind him like he’s tucking in the back of his shirt. When his hand comes back around it does with a flash of silver and white and he’s holding a thick-barreled pistol.
The bathroom goes silent.
We all stare.
And for a moment the old man just stands there, looking around at us.
Then he’s screaming, “All right! Everybody in! Let’s go! In in in!”
They all step inside trying to keep their order in line. The old man grabs the last guy in line, drags him to the sinks and jams the pistol in his chest.
“Get your fuckin’ wallet out!” The old man has a crackled yell. He’s stronger than his frame suggests. “Let’s go, Jack!”
The man on the sink just looks confused. He glances at us like what should I do? But we don’t have an answer for that. The old man starts poking him in the chest with his pistol, driving him up onto the counter. “Let’s go let’s go let’s go!” Grimacing, the man pulls his wallet. The rest of us just watch like maybe it’s something personal between those two. Maybe it doesn’t concern us.
No one runs. No one says a word.
The old man snatches the wallet and back-steps to the mouth of the bathroom. Glances out, then back to us. He gestures the pistol at us and the young man with the insulin collapses.
My brain has washed itself blank with some biochemical combination. I witness the event without processing it. I can barely remember to breathe.
Theater noise drifts in from the lobby: voices all mixed together, the lunatic cartoon sounds of the arcade games, the steady hum of the a/c. But in here, silence echoes off the tile. The old man holds up his new wallet and gestures with the fat pistol toward the floor.
“Wallets and cell phones. Throw ’em out there.” He yells like he’s scolding us. A lot of us are looking around at each other, pleading silently for who knows what. But he doesn’t give us much time to think about it. He turns and gooses a guy next to him with the pistol. “Come on, bud. Throw yours out there.” That guy, in a loose neon polo, smiles involuntarily from the goosing and grabs his stomach, then hardens his face again and looks embarrassed. Trembling, he pulls out his wallet. The old man snatches it from him and throws it in the middle of the room like he’s showing us how to play a game.
“Let’s go, assholes! Throw ’em out there! Now!”
And we do. Our phones and wallets are fwopping onto the tile, gathering into a slipshod mound. He gestures the gun from person to person until we’ve all thrown something out there. The young man with insulin doesn’t stir.
We answer yes with our silence. He seems disappointed at the pile, disappointed at us.
“Nobody friggin’ move.” He stifles a groan as he bends down, one knee on the ground, and starts filling his pockets. Dropping wallets into his tucked-in shirt.
But somebody does move.
And then the whole universe ruptures.
The guy in the neon polo screams and runs in at the old man. Somebody yelps. Somebody else moves. A stall door slams. The old man spins and makes a strange cat noise and his gun explodes, shattering the air in the room. Another man grabs him from behind, and then the three of them are lurching like they’re all falling and trying to hold each other up.
Some high electronic tone sings inside my ears.
Then a pop. But not like the shot. This sound is ancient, a branch snapping under water. The gun slides out from them and skips gleefully over to me and I grab it up without even thinking.
And now what?
When I look up, everyone is staring me. In the middle of the bathroom, the old man stands hunched, mumbling and cradling his wrist. He starts to run but someone grabs him, stands him there between us all. He seems so much weaker than when we first saw him. I lift the pistol toward him, and the old man closes his eyes, bows his head. I try to speak, to tell him to get on the floor, but my throat is closed up. The gun is so light in my hands. The trigger so soft. The other two men step back like stray dogs. One nods to me, encouraging.
No that’s not right.
I break open the revolver and the bullets chitter across the floor like cockroaches. A couple guys sprint out of the bathroom and are yelling far away. The rest just wait. The old man steals a glance at the wallet-pile. Some voice speaks softly, “Man, we oughta—” and somehow that breaks the seal of my voice.
“Hey!” I scream.
And they all go silent again.
Then words just roll out of me, without my shepherding or management. I don’t pre-form sentences in my head, don’t consider vocabulary, don’t link thoughts—it all just flows out and I’m speaking in tongues, but I know they can understand every word of it. Even before I say it. I tell them about this old man, and I know his whole life. How he was a perfect infant, unsullied yet by the filthy stream of history and loved so deeply by those who bore him, but slowly and methodically through a well-practiced method perfected by time, he was shaped into a broken boy and never mended and grew gnarled into a broken man and now surely he would die a broken old creature. An insect-rotten tree swaying in the wind. But we could change that—here he is, asking us for help—here we are, with the power to grant him that help if we only take a moment and just say yes. And it’s our fault as much as anyone’s that this is the only way he knows how to ask us. I gasp for breath. Everyone stands hushed. My head is light like I’ve sucked helium. A few women are in here somehow: all fried hair and caked makeup. When did they get here? How long have I been speaking? Doesn’t matter. I take in a deep breath and my blood races thin through my body and I rise up on a pillar of air. I float over to the old man, put my hand on his shoulder. Brittle bones under paper skin. So simple. So frail. I could draw down Light and disintegrate him right now if I only said the words. I could bring down burning coals from above and ruin the entire Cineplex 9. All of Concho County and the surrounding cities.
They all know this and they nod.
But I don’t disintegrate anyone. I don’t call down glowing stones of fire. I speak softly. Delicately. And it’s the most moving sermon I’ve ever delivered. Here in a movie theater bathroom. This is the reason I went into the ministry. Not to stand in a pulpit speaking to old women and their drowsy husbands. This moment. Trying to describe it later—to officers on the scene, to the judge, to you—will forever cheapen it. These words truer than anything I’ve been able to say in a church. How this man is our brother and if we expect him to make a promise to us, then we must also make a promise back to him. A covenant. That we will love and protect him now as we would our own family, as we will promise to do for every creature we meet, no matter how ugly or sad or weird, for we are all ugly and sad and weird and only different faces of the same Soul. Hands are raised. Heads bow. They’re nodding and whispering. A grown man breaks into weeping and falls. Yes he’s saying. Yes yes over and over. The words burn hypnotic around them and they all whisper back amen. Then someone steps forward yes and he raises his hand to the old man’s chest yes, to touch his heart, to bless him. And I say yes, and the people echo me yes yes, and then he shoots him.
A red cloud bursts out the old man’s chest. Sprays across our reflection in the mirror. He swats at the air and falls.
A sulphur-smell hangs in the air. The old man just lies there, blinking fast.
Somewhere to my right I hear, “Jesus, JW. Why in fuck’d you do that?” But JW doesn’t answer. JW just stares down at the body like he’s curious how it ended up there, like why is it shriveling up like that. JW checks his tiny pistol, slips it in his pocket. “Good work, pastor.” He pats my shoulder and steps out. Everyone follows him. Like they were just waiting for this all along and now it’s done and it’s time to go home.
I hear sirens cry out across the county, announcing their approach. I bend down to the old man, crumpled on his side. He’s still blinking quick and taking shallow breaths—hitching in little pockets of air like he’s storing them up for later. Blood seeps out of him: dull-dark and unhurried. Even that part of him looks old and used up. He makes a tiny pawing gesture at the floor, as some newborns do when presented for baptism. That same vacuous stare too—looking out but not focused on any one thing, taking in the whole world at once and it’s all too much, all too wondrous—the cold bite of the holy water causing them to gasp. I try to think of something to say to him. But I’m empty. Mute. Like maybe I said something completely different than I meant to and now have been left alone.
Finally I realize he’s blinking so much from his hair in his face. Brittle and nicotine stained. I move it aside and think maybe that’s all I should’ve done in the first place: just some simple act instead of all those words. The sirens are close now, crying just outside. Crying for a child in a movie theater bathroom, soaking wet of his own blood.