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Plague of Flies Cont...
Mr. Withers was yanked from his reverie as Mrs. Withers jerked the station wagon into a tight parking space, pumping the brakes several times as she positioned the car to her liking and causing her gray beehive hairdo to lurch forward and back. A silver chain looped from her glasses around her neck. Her hair was beginning to gray from the mousey brown of middle age. She wore a floral dress. She took great care with her appearance as church was both a spiritual and social outing for her. She and Mr. Withers were mostly homebodies.
Everyone drifted into the church, talking and greeting one another. The building also served as a community center. Mr. Withers read the Lost Dog flyers, the Babysitter Wanted flyers with fringes of tabs at the bottom with phone numbers printed on them. Some of the fringes had been torn away and he shuddered to think about the caliber of babysitter one received from a flyer on a public bulletin board. He passed the fellowship hall with its ring of chairs from the alcoholics’ support meeting the night before and suddenly craved a drink.
The church was a modest building in the shape of a cross. Large, plain windows ran along the sides of the sanctuary. Pine pews against white. Low ceilings made Mr. Withers feel claustrophobic. He sighed as they seated themselves in the first row, earning a sideways glare and a little poke in his protruding belly from his wife. Candles sat in gold holders. A cross decorated the pulpit where the preacher now stood, clearing his throat. Mr. Withers was uninspired. The congregation settled and the church grew silent.
Mr. Withers glanced around, trying to move only his eyes to avoid the pious elbow of his wife driving into his appendix. She was sitting there with her mouth slightly open and her eyes fixed upon the preacher who was doing his verbal slow build. It would crescendo soon and her eyes would widen as he became increasingly animated. The sermon would move over them in waves, crashing into them with climactic outbursts and fist waving. Sometimes Mr. Withers felt beaten up by the end of it.
His eyes moved to the choir in their little box to the left of the preacher. A large man in the last row had a finger in his nose. He was pasty white with a blonde crew-cut. Every once in a while his shoulders would shrug, his eyes would squeeze shut and his cheeks would puff out as if he were imploding nonchalantly.
Mr. Withers tried to concentrate on looking at the preacher. The words plodded heavily along and he struggled to keep his eyes fixed on him. The room felt warm and he loosened his tie. He didn’t have the nerve to get up in the middle of the sermon for a breath of fresh air no matter how long it droned on or how hot he became or how his belief in the words had disappeared or how much he felt as if he were crawling in his own skin. The monotone of the sermon thrummed in Mr. Wither’s ears like the humming of a mosquito. He pulled a white handkerchief from his shirt pocket and began to dab at his forehead. His wife peered at him from the corners of her eyes. He offered a half-hearted smile of surrender, which seemed to placate her, and she turned back to the preacher.
Mr. Withers’ head began to bob as it did every Sunday at this time in the proceedings. It was a painful effort to keep himself from toppling forward at the preacher’s feet like some overzealous, repentant sinner. He stared down at his shoes as the words ground onward relentlessly. The brown leather was so highly polished they looked like the chitinous backs of two June bugs at rest.
Suddenly the shoes stirred, a subtle shifting at first that Mr. Withers didn’t notice, a mere shuffle. He peered down at them, puzzled. A little shift. The left shoe turned its toe inward slightly. Then at once they flew up from the floor, flinging him upside down. His great belly heaved toward his chest, a shifting mound of jelly. His tie hung over his face, obscuring some of his vision as they sailed up and out of the front row, over the preacher’s head, hauling him along as he bellowed for help in terror and confusion. The congregation gasped and shrieked as the shoes u-turned past the big cross then glided over their heads. Mr. Withers flailed his arms in rapid, jerky circular motions, clawing at the air and reaching for anything to grab. The thin hair of his comb-over dangled from his head limply, as if finally resting from the years of stretching over Mr. Wither’s shiny scalp.
The preacher fell to his knees, eyes wild, hands clutching the Bible in a white-knuckled grip as he stared up at this floating parishioner. Mrs. Withers pulled her purse to her chest, embracing it for comfort and stared, mouth agape, but unable to make a sound. Her eyes followed her husband floating toward the middle of the assembly.
The choir suddenly burst into song as the shoes headed for the bare bulb that dangled over Mrs. Thornapple in the 7th row. Mr. Withers hovered over her as they clicked against the bulb. He flailed and shouted, reaching down into the flock for anything to get his hands on. Clutching in a blind panic, he caught hold of Mrs. Thornapple’s blue and gray wig. She screamed, blinked wildly and rose up, egged on by the screaming congregation and feverish singing of the choir.
“Thy right hand, O Lord, is become
glorious in power
thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed
in pieces the enemy…”*
She swatted at him with her yellow umbrella, but the wig pulled off as the shoes darted toward a window at the end of the center row of pews. Sweat rained from Mr. Withers as the shoes tapped madly at the glass. He heard shouts of, “Bring him down!” and “He’s possessed, call an exorcist!” rising out of the confusion.
In the second row a small boy had been sitting quietly, watching. Now he ran toward Mr. Withers. He stopped directly below him and smiling, smiling ear to ear with unbridled glee, turned to the window and flung it open, setting Mr. Withers,
and Mrs. Thornapple’s blue and gray wig