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But For the Grace of God by Brett Thomas
published in Volume 1, Issue 4 on September 15th, 1994

"But for the grace of God," Jeremy Rodgers' mother had taught him to pray, whenever he saw a person on crutches or in a wheelchair, "there go I." The prayer was a little ritual, not so much to thank God for health, but to ward off the living death of physical deformity that so many are frightened of.

Twenty years after hearing that advice for the first time, Jeremy sat in a small apartment. His mother had died a few years before, having fallen out of God's good graces, herself.

Now, the only son of Virginia Harper Rodgers, nee Virginia Marie Harper, sat in a small, one-room apartment in Atlanta, GA. The plaster walls had been white, once, but were now faded and peeling. It was summer, and the humidity and heat were causing misery throughout the city. The window in Jeremy's apartment was open, but it faced up against the brick wall of a neighboring building, and offered little relief from the heat.

The scattered furnishings were extremely mismatched. A red secretary's chair was the only seat in the house, and it faced a short-legged, small table with an old 19" TV on it. The TV, with simulated wood-grain finish, was large enough that it overhung the sides. A single bed was stuck in the corner by the window, with twisted and stained sheets upon it. On the other side of the window from the bed stood a 1958 GE refrigerator, of the style that young children occasionally get trapped in.

The only item in the room - including its occupant - that had been manufactured after 1976 was a small microwave that was on the short, faded green counter beside the refrigerator.

Laying amongst all this urban splendor was Jeremy himself, flat on his back, on the bare, wooden floor. Sweat darkened his filthy blue jeans, and his frame was thin to the point of being unhealthy. Long, uncombed brown hair splayed out around him like a halo, and spilled across his bare shoulders, which were as white as high clouds in a blue sky.

A practiced eye would have seen the track marks up and down both arms, noted the smell of stale urine, the lack of a phone, the unwashed body - and come up with "drug addict". An unpracticed eye could have seen the needle laying on the floor, and reached the same conclusion.

Jeremy lay almost motionless on the floor for several hours, as morphine coursed through his system. His contact had been unable to get anything else that week, but morphine worked well enough. He had shot up the last dose of it three hours before, and was beginning to come down, when someone knocked on the door. Slowly, he began to move. He propped himself up on his elbows first, then sat up, still resting his weight on his arms.

At this point, Jeremy's eyes came open. He looked around, dazedly, and sat the rest of the way up.

By he time he got to the door, the person on the other side had knocked twice. He fumbled with the locks, and finally jerked the door open, still half-leaning on it for support.

A large-bodied black woman stood on the other side of entryway. "Hello," she said, smiling broadly. "I'm Loretta Williams. I live on the third floor. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"

Jeremy looked at her for a long moment. "Jesus?"

The smile never wavered. "Yes." She began her spiel again. "Have you accepted him as-"

Vague memories of Sunday school came to Jeremy. "I like Jesus," he decided, nodding in agreement with himself. His voice, when it finally came, was surprisingly deep. The way he uttered this, and anything else, seemed to say that the entire weight of his intellect was behind it. He sounded much like an over-serious child, who had finally decided which candy-store delicacy to purchase with his allowance.

Loretta's smile widened, somehow. "Good!" She handed him a piece of paper, with a cross prominently centered on the top. "We're having a building revival tonight, the Reverend Robert Smith will be speaking."

A frown crossed Jeremy's face. "Revival?" he asked, uncertainly.

"Yes," she confirmed. "Tonight, in the basement, at eight. Will you come?"

"To the basement?"

The smile wavered, momentarily. "Yes. Tonight. I hope you'll be there."

Jeremy watched her walk away, and it was almost five minutes after that before it occurred to him to close the door. Doing so took all of his concentration, and, when he stopped thinking about holding it, the leaflet fluttered softly to the floor.

Two hours later, the visitor that Jeremy had been originally expecting arrived. By this time, the morphine had worn off, and Jeremy was a little clearer, so he was able to get to the door on the first knock.

The visitor was a short, black man. He wore a leather jacket, blue pants, and an Atlanta Braves ballcap. Jeremy's face lit up at his arrival.

"Ray!"

Ray stepped in, and looked around the apartment. "Hey, man. How you been?"

"What did you bring me?"

Ray laughed. "That's what I like about you man, you get right to the point."

Jeremy smiled happily at the perceived compliment.

"I got the good stuff, man." He handed Jeremy a plastic bag full of heroin.

Jeremy dug deep in his left front pocket, and pulled out a wad of bills. He extended his left hand, holding the money, and reached for the bag with his right.

Ray laughed again, took the money, and tossed the bag to Jeremy. A less ambitious man might have robbed the addict; Ray knew that a safely addicted rich weirdo was better than a lump sum any day. Jeremy was job security to people like Ray.

The dealer's eyes scanned around the room, as Jeremy happily took the bag over to his faded, green counter. Ray's gaze came to rest on the leaflet at his own feet, and Ray bent over to pick it up.

"What's this, Jer?" Ray's eyes scanned the paper, and a look of concern crossed his face, as he had visions of his best client going religious. "Revival? Whaddya need a revival for, when you got me?"

Jeremy looked around from preparing his needles. He seemed to think about this statement. "I like Jesus," he decided.

"Man, you don't need to be hanging out with them people! They're crazy."

"I like Jesus."

Ray threw up his hands. "Alright man, whatever. Only Jesus you need is Purple. I'll catch you next week."

Jeremy wasn't listening; he had gone back to his smack.

At 7:45 PM, Loretta began making her rounds. The drug addict on the fifth floor. The welfare mother on the sixth. The drug addict on the third floor, and the immigrant family on the second.

One of the last stops she made was at Jeremy's apartment. She had almost passed it by, but something had told her to stop, and Loretta Williams always listened to those little voices, which she thought of as being the true word of God.

As before, it took several knocks before anyone answered. When Jeremy finally came to the door, he seemed even more lethargic and out of touch with reality than before. She brought her smile up to her face from somewhere deep within.

"Are you ready to go?"

He looked bewildered. "Go?"

"To the revival!" she encouraged.

"Revival?" Jeremy thought for a few seconds. "Jesus! I like Jesus!"

"Then, let's go, child!"

The Reverend Robert Smith looked out at the fifty or so people packed into the small, gray basement, lined up in neat rows of folding chairs. He'd played smaller crowds, and much bigger crowds. This group was largely made up of lower class black families, whose only hope was God. He could feel the energy in the room.

The murmuring in the crowd died down as the Reverend took the podium. He reached out with both arms, each grabbing a side of it, and rested his weight on the stand. "Good evening, brothers and sisters! Are you ready to worship the Lord?"

The reply came back: A resounding "Yes!"

"Good! Because that's what we're here tonight to do: Worship the Lord!"

A few "Amen!"s came back at him from the crowd. "But I want everyone to remember - worshipping the Lord isn't something you do just tonight. You should do it every day!" He paused for the "Amen". "Every hour! Every minute!"

Reverend Smith leaned back a little, seizing up the crowd. There was one white man, in the middle of the crowd, sitting next to one of the women who had been on the organizing committee.

"God says to us in the bible-"

Suddenly, a clatter came from the area of the white boy, as folding chairs were pushed and thrown out of position. Reverend Smith paused, giving it a chance to clear up, but it didn't. The man had apparently fallen out of his chair, and was laying on the floor, having some sort of seizure. Several of the people around him had stepped back, and a circle was forming around the man. Reverend Smith ran down the aisle, and people unthinkingly got of his way. Thus, he was able to reach Jeremy's prone form quickly.

"What happened?" he asked Loretta.

"I don't know, Reverend. I think he's on drugs."

Reverend Smith glanced around at the knowing, unhappy faces of those nearby. The woman was probably right. Slowly, he leaned over the prone young man. Jeremy's eyes were rolled back in his head, and his chest thrust up fiercely through his dirty T-shirt.

The Reverend cleared his throat, and held his right hand up into the air. "Lord, I call on you!"

The mutterings of the congregation were silenced, as they looked at him. He could feel them coming around to him, spiritually. "We have here a young man who has lost his way! He has strayed from the green pastures of Your love!" He looked around briefly at the surrounding people. "And who amongst us has not done that before, my Lord?" There were murmurings of agreement. "And since he cannot help himself, my Lord, I ask you to do whatever is necessary to lead this man from the road to hell that he has set himself upon!" As the "Amen" rose from the congregation, Reverend Smith rode the wave of spiritually energy, and hit Jeremy hard in the forehead.

Suddenly, everything was clear. The pain. The loss. The drugs. Jeremy's eyes snapped open, clear for the first time in years. The first face he saw was Reverend Smith's. Instinctively, Jeremy's right hand snapped out and grabbed the surprised Reverend's throat. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" he demanded. Jeremy leapt to his feet, dragging the preacher to the floor. His glance swung from side to side, looking for an exit, as a cornered animal might. He saw it, and began to push through the frightened congregation towards it, screaming all the while.

"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"


In his apartment, Jeremy threw the door shut, and snapped the locks, as the tears rolled down his face. He kept muttering over and over, like a litany, "What did they do, what did they do, what did they do?"

He stumbled blindly across the room to the counter, to the needle he had been preparing just before Loretta arrived. He did shot up quickly, his tears spattering on the counter as he did so.

Fifteen minutes later, with the heroin numbing some of his pain, Jeremy was able to face what had happened.

Four years before, he had been a promising young banker. He'd had a beautiful -pregnant- he remembered, with a sob - wife, a house, a car-

Jeremy's thoughts broke off. The car had been a red convertible. He'd loved that car almost as much as his wife, and the two of them, in her fourth month, had decided to go on vacation. Despite what had occurred in the basement, he had no memory of what had happened next - although he did remember what the car looked like after being run over in a highway accident by a tractor-trailer. He touched his head absently, as he remembered the head injury. He cursed as he remembered the wretched existence since - keeping himself drugged to forget the pain of loss - of his wife, his life - and himself. That was the biggest of all - in his previous condition, even the memories of his wife and existence had been lost completely. But he hadn't been able to hide completely from himself what he had once been - and what he could have been.

As the night wore on, and Jeremy took more of the heroin, he remembered his brother - and vaguely remembered a court hearing at which Jeremy had been declared incompetent. His brother had gotten control of the money - and promised to send him some every month. Jeremy hadn't cared. He collapsed into the bed, and cried with frustration, loss, and rage.

Two hours later, hunger woke him up. He arose to put a frozen dinner in the microwave, but discovered that, when he put weight on his feet, they both hurt. When he sat back down on the bed, and reached down to take off his shoes, he noticed the blood on both sides of his hands, with some surprise. He discovered that he seemed to have circular wounds on both sides of his hands, and the same marks on his feet, once he took his shoes and blood-stained socks off. Cursing the pain, Jeremy got up to make some food. While he was setting out a pizza, he noticed the heroin still sitting on the counter. Remembering its properties as a local anesthetic, he rubbed some on both hands and feet.

For a while he was numbed, physically, and doped up enough to be numbed mentally. In fact, he almost reached his original child- like level; 5:00 am found him seated, Indian style, on his bed, passing a piece of string through the holes in his feet, and giggling insanely.

Every jag has a crash, and Jeremy's came that morning. He didn't wake up for twelve hours, and, by then, it was too late. Heroin and blood loss had done their jobs, and he laid in bed, unable to move.

Now that he was drug-free and clear, again, Jeremy realized - to a certain extent - what had happened. One of the dubious benefits of a Catholic school education was knowledge of some spiritual events - such as the stigmata, the reproduction of the wounds of Christ on the human body. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Jeremy knew that the wounds were inaccurate - that the Romans and probably not nailed Christ up literally - and that, even if they had, the nails had been in the wrists and not in the palms.

Jeremy felt his rage building, again. First God had taken his life, his love, and, most outrageously, his mind. Now, He saw fit to give them back, but only at the expense of Jeremy's body. And only for a little while, at that.

If he'd had a phone, he might have called for help. If he'd had some friends, someone might have dropped in. If - well, if the universe were a loving place, perhaps none of it would have happened in the first place.

Officer Robin LaRouche was the first into the smelly apartment. Death was the most evident smell, followed closely by urine. He wrinkled his nose, and looked at his partner, coming in through the broken door. "Why can't these guys clean up before they die, Dave?"

His partner shook his head.

Robin picked his way over to the bed. An emaciated figure was stretched out on the blood-stained sheets, rigid in death. "Why do these people do this?" he demanded, rhetorically.

Dave looked at the dead junkie, arms outstretched, legs together. "What's that, man, get killed?"

Robin shook his head. "Naw, this idiot's a suicide." He pointed with disgust at Jeremy's wounds. "Wounds of Christ. Damned religious fanatic."

Loretta peeked nervously in from the hall, and saw the two policemen standing over the bed. If she had been Catholic, she would have crossed herself. As it was, she merely bowed her head briefly.

"But for the grace of God," she murmured softly, "There go I."

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