Chapter Forty-Five: What Jeff Knew

Editor’s Note: I wasn’t the first to drop out of Seminary. That “honor” goes to Jeff Hudson. Below is the story Jeff told me when—one night, when we both happened to be at Gentleman Jim’s, and Jeff was already three whiskies deep, and there was no one else to talk to, or maybe that’s not nice, and I should say Jeff looked like he needed someone to talk to—I asked why he dropped out of Seminary. 

Jeff Hudson couldn’t touch his cornflakes. His milk set up on the table, sweating. Coffee, bitter and black, was the only chaser he could stomach with the morning paper these days. 

“Goddamn Satanists,” he said. 

Flies had gotten in the house, buzzing around the oven. The windows were open and birdsong spat around their breakfast. Wasn’t enough noise to stop Bonnie from hearing what he thought was a whisper. 

“Everything ok, dear?” she asked. 

Death, taxes, and innocent Bonnie not knowing the stakes of the world. She’d never left Vine. She didn’t know what was out there. She baked a hell of a pie and walked her mother to church Sundays and Wednesdays. She was pure and right. 

“Don’t you read the paper today, honey,” he said. He had a chivalric smile, he knew. 

What that killer—who was still out there, no matter what some quote-unquote militia thought they were doing about it—didn’t know was that he was lucky. Because if ol’ Jeff had been around, he knew, that killer would’ve had a harder time getting to them Hayes boys. Jeff knew them Hayes boys—well, not first-name basis, but their mother was a few years behind him in school—and moreover, really, Jeff understood the dangers of the world and would have prevented that Evil from entering Vine. So that killer? He was lucky Jeff was off at Seminary. 

* * *

What the people of Vine did not know was that Seminary was not as righteous as it was cracked up to be. No sir. Them Preachers walk around Vine like monks? Well. 

Jeff had arrived at the campus and was immediately shocked at the brazen style of dress of unmarried women outside of Vine—tight-fitting clothes and colors brighter than a crayon box—but settled in with his studies. Professor Hill was a sage and wise advisor, and after Jeff wrote a paper arguing of the validity of continued U.S. guidance to the people of South America for the ongoing mission of uplifting and Christianizing those who were walking in darkness, Professor Hill would often host Jeff in his own campus apartment for extended theological discussions and a shared bottle of wine. 

“What I admire so much about Vine,” Professor Hill would say. “Is its emphasis on first principles: God gave Adam dominion over the earth and the animals. God gave Adam dominion over Eve. Here on the outside, we have this debate—everyone says: you know, communism or capitalism? Well. You know what I say? Only in Vine, do we see first principles. Edenic.”

“Truly Vine is a beacon of righteousness in apocalyptic times,” Jeff would say. 

“Only problem is y’all got that Flaming Sword up around Vine, metaphorically speaking, of course” Professor Hill would say. Professor Hill would never want his students mistaking metaphors. “But lo, do I understand the outside world is a corrupting force.”

Outside, the college football game raged on. The blaring trumpets with their rah-rah encouragement. The roar of the frothing crowd. The brutality of the very spectacle itself—men sweating and smashing and bleeding together—the animalist savagery of the outside world was enough to turn your stomach. Jeff knew it. Right there down in his bones. Years later, it’d be what he couldn’t describe to Bonnie. Can’t make someone that pure know that pit of revulsion in their stomach. The sweating men; the immodest women.

There was one night. Now, this was what he didn’t care to talk about much, see? Another Seminarian—who shall remain nameless, okay? Because he still has a position in the Church of Vine to this day, okay?—well, he wanted to go to a party. Seminarians weren’t supposed to be out after 9 p.m. on weekdays. A sponsor (outside lesion to Vine employed by the University to keep Seminarians in line) would put tape over your door, Monday through Thursday. But there were ways around that, old boy who still has a position in the Church of Vine said. He knew a guy. And wasn’t it worth it to live once? 

“Plus,” old boy said. “What if, at this party, we meet someone who is lost in darkness? What if we meet someone who is ready to live humbly and serve God?” 

Well. Jeff didn’t feel right about missing the opportunity to bring a lost soul to the light. So he put on his breastplate of righteousness, took up the shield of faith, wore a button-down shirt he thought looked pretty sensible for mixed company, and walked out into the witching hour. 

But when he got there, not one soul was ready to receive The Lord. Not one soul was willing to entertain the idea that the modern world was broken, that one needed to live humbly and serve God. One young man even thought Jeff was quote-unquote threatening his girlfriend, which—you could hardly call it that, Jeff knew, given what other horrors the outside world was heaping on these people. Stubborn sheep of Satan, Jeff knew. 

Didn’t bother old boy, though. He seemed a regular King Solomon with his wives, talking to unmarried women like that. Well. Jeff knew what was in some people’s hearts, he guessed. He’d carry that forever. 

Sure wouldn’t tell Bonnie, years later, who still didn’t know about the Hayes murders. 

* * *

Jeff was at the General Store picking up some paper towels and a couple TV dinners for Bonnie and him when he knew he saw it. Fluorescent lights shining down on the aisles, one of them mirrors that lets you see around corners, the gleaming wall of beers and colas in the Frigidaire. Just another day in Vine? No, the danger was here. 

Jeff kept his head on a swivel. He knew that evil would not announce its presence flamboyantly, but that the Devil was a sly and a sneak. A mother was pushing her babe in a stroller down the Family Care aisle—probably picking up diapers or formula, Jeff figured—and they seemed innocent enough. Sensible bonnets atop both their heads. Jeff thought of Bonnie, so pure. But there, in the Chip-and-Dip aisle, what was the blast of air? Had a cockroach scurried past? Jeff kept a low profile, his eyeline maintained above the shelves as he assumed a slight crouch. He walked cautiously around the corner, in the canned soup aisle. 

What could thrive in Vine was a family—traditional, you know, the right family. Husband/father, wife/mother, couple kids. Established authority of the parents, a projected chart of growth for the children. Hell, you could get a dog for all Jeff cared. But that killer? When he took them Hayes boys? He violated that principle Vine had. Now Jeff was in the canned soup aisle—you could feed that whole family on canned soup, canned soup was a modern miracle like Jesus’s loaves and fishes—and that killer had ruined the purity of the canned soup aisle.

Well. Jeff wasn’t going to let that happen to this mother and babe. He would stand sentry and chivalric, capped with the helmet of faith, the helmet over his head on a swivel as he scanned the General Store for signs of the evil. 

“Fine day, ma’am,” he called. 

“Say there, Jeff,” Charlie said. Jeff knew Charlie, he’d known him since grade school. “You feeling alright, buddy?”

Jeff knew other customers probably wouldn’t want to hear this, so he lowered his voice. “Don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, Charlie,” he said. “You got an evil in your store. I’m on it, though.”

“Say there, Jeff,” Charlie said. “You had a few today?”

Charlie didn’t understand, Jeff thought later. He’d always been a little stupid, that way. Poor, naive Charlie. Teetotaler. He was like Bonnie, Jeff thought on the walk home, tossing pebbles into the forest. Now Jeff lived humbly and served God, but the way the world was these days? Who didn’t stop off at Gentleman Jim’s every now and again to ease the burden of Satan on their shoulders? 

Dark beyond, just beyond the treeline, not where them Hayes boys had been murdered, but a place like it. Nah, Charlie wasn’t like Bonnie. Men couldn’t be. People like Charlie were—how would Professor Hill say it?—willfully obtuse. In the dark of the forest? Jeff knew what was there. Charlie wanted to run his store, keep his store quiet? Well, don’t come crying to ol’ Jeff when the evil comes. 

A wind got in his ears. Jeff chucked his beer can at the foot of the forest, gave the demons a warning stare. Not tonight, he thought of the ass-kicking he could give a demon. He walked home with his feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. 

* * *

“We fight against principalities,” he said later, drinking a cold glass of milk on the porch. His stomach made a noise even in the rain. He’d been thinking about how some people? They’ll plant seeds, but they won’t account for the birds, how deep in the soil they can get, and act surprised when there are no flowers. Children did that, but adults too, willfully obtuse. How are you going to get the plank out of your neighbor’s eye when your eye—he hadn’t thought Bonnie had heard him. 

“Fight against what now dear?” she asked. 

She’d made a roast that night, a good one. Buttery soft potatoes, a good, thick gravy. Plenty of pepper. What they didn’t understand, men like Charlie? You fortify yourself against the evils of this world, you just might get a wife like Bonnie. 

“You know I was in the store yesterday,” he said. “I could swear, you know, I do worry about Vine sometimes. Men can’t be men here anymore. I mean, how can we be expected to be a beacon of righteousness when right here in our midst there is such evil lurking?”

“We’re lucky to have you, dear.”

Did Jeff detect sarcasm in Bonnie’s voice? That couldn’t be right. Bonnie was pure—she would sometimes shrink against his touch, honestly kind of in awe of his muscles and masculinity, Jeff knew. Seminary hadn’t worked out, sure, but she knew he was righteous, and besides, it had led to a good, humble life of labor. One that sculpted and carved Jeff into a real man, which could be sort of awe-inspiring to a pure woman like Bonnie, in the way that people in the Bible had to avert their eyes from angels. 

“Is it okay if I go to bed?” Bonnie asked. Her teacup was empty and she had folded in the leaf of her book jacket. “I’m feeling really tired.”

Jeff didn’t like for his wife to go to bed so early, thought they should be able to stay up a little after dinner, thought there were times they could be Husband and Wife, but he wasn’t about to make a mess of things. Wouldn’t be chivalric to do so. “Of course, sweetie,” he said. 

Besides, Jeff knew it was rude to have one in mixed company. Just a man at home. But if Bonnie wanted to go to bed early, well. Jeff didn’t see anything wrong with a hard-working man having a glass of wine, reminisce a little bit about the days of theological discussions with Professor Hill—well. Jeff was out of wine. But Jeff knew he had some good whiskey back in the shed, and walked off the porch into the rain to retrieve it. 

Walking in the dark of the rain, he thought of the evil. Now the evil knew damn well to leave Jeff alone, especially when he was getting the good whiskey from the shed. 

When he came back there was Bonnie. She almost looked ready to say something. 

“Say, sweetie,” Jeff said. “Thought you’d gone to bed.”

There was a look on her face that Jeff couldn’t place. Almost as though she’d received some divine revelation. That was to be expected, Jeff figured—much as Bonnie prayed, God must be speaking to her. Still, he didn’t understand the look, and so didn’t like it. 

“I thought I might ask to have a glass of whiskey with my husband,” she said. 

Well, that was alright. Jeff thought she was ready to say something heinous. But the evil knew to leave their house alone. The evil knew not to trespass against Jeff’s family. 

“You know when I was in Seminary,” Jeff said, pouring. “Before they kicked—well, there was time, I don’t want to say who, you might know him, this was when I was in Seminary, okay? What I saw in the outside world. The people of Vine don’t understand. They don’t get it—Professor Hill didn’t get it, even though I thought he did. I am the one who sees what’s coming around the corner. I am the one who sees the threat of evil. I am the one who sees what it takes to consecrate a land. I am the one who wears the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. I am the one who wields the sword of the Spirit and takes up the shield of faith. But they, even back then—do you know what they said to me? Do you know what their real theology is? Do you know what their real beliefs are? I tell you what, Vine is real lucky to have me. And that killer? Who killed them Hayes boys? He’s lucky—aw hell, honey, I swore myself I wasn’t going to tell you about that. Not very chivalric. Not fit for the ears of mixed company. But we live in the world, so better for you to know it. I tell you what, a husband? Protects his wife. A man? He sits at the head of the household in a holy manner. Befitting of God’s designs on Earth. First principles, God gave Adam dominion, and that killer? If I had been here?”

Now there was a different look on Bonnie’s face. She was sitting forward in her seat. Eyes alert. Elbow on her knee, glass held in her hand down near her shins. She was rapt. Had she suspected he was a fraud? Had she suspected he wasn’t the man he presented himself to be? He racked his brain back through the thoughts he had thought and the words he had spoke. No, his armor had not cracked. So wherefore now was Bonnie’s sudden visage of know-it-all-ness? 

“Weak men tremble before righteousness,” she said. He was pretty sure that her tone of voice was sincere. Jeff was pretty sure. “We’re lucky to have you, dear.” She sipped her whiskey like she had drank it before, and Jeff remembered that she had, that in their courtship days they would go dancing and carousing at Gentleman Jim’s, that Pure Bonnie could once face down evil and take a shot of whiskey righteousness right in its face. 

“Not just me as your wife but all of Vine is lucky to have you, dear.”

Bonnie finished her drink and poured them both another. She hadn’t been scared of him earlier, how could she be? Jeff knew.  

* * *

“There’s no other way to put it, Jeff,” Professor Hill had said. “You freaked a lot of people out.”

They were sitting not in Professor Hill’s campus apartment but his office. Jeff had thought he would be reprimanded for attending the party, but knew Professor Hill to be a reasonable man who would understand the desire to evangelize. But no, Professor Hill was siding with the outsiders who had thrown a party

“The other students there, they think you’re dangerous,” Professor Hill said. 

Jeff knew this. A badge of honor for any man, Jeff thought. Guess not. 

“I’m writing this report as is, and you are not going to be a Preacher of Vine. I’m sorry. We’ll make it quiet. You won’t go home in disgrace. You’ll be set up to live humbly, serve God. You’ll be okay.”

Well, that would be Vine’s loss. Jeff knew. Hell, he thought years later, Vine had already lost—lost them Hayes boys, while Jeff was off at Seminary, off failing at Seminary—no, that wasn’t the way to put it—lost them Hayes boys as in had them murdered when Jeff wasn’t around to protect them. Like the Hayes Boys’ mother had needed a real man, like Jeff, Vine had needed a real and righteous protector. He walked along the street by the tree line, bright in the afternoon sun, sunny enough for anyone who wasn’t a righteous man to let their guard down.

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