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From "Communion"

A novel by Greg Swann


On a ruler-straight road, the shortest distance between no beginning and no ending, a solitary note pealed forth. Plaintive and questioning, it sliced through the thick silence in the car as the headlights sliced through the empty night. In the driver's seat, Danny Macklin strenuously pretended not to notice the fading reverberations. Beside him, Agnes Lundgren sighed deeply, as at the nagging pain of an old wound.

Stretched across the back seat, Margareta stroked the neck of her guitar, gently, as with a child, but forlornly, as though the child were dead. With a strength that was half defiance, half despair, she thrashed the strings, pulling forth the companions to that first lonely note. "Babe Rainbow," she sang out. "Keep your glow on. There's a show on you know and they're all gonna be there."

"Maggie, must you?," Agnes demanded, shooting a glare over her shoulder.

"Put the gleam back in your eyes and do something to your hair. Keep your glow on. Babe Rainbow, oh. You gotta go on..." Her eyes wistful, locked on a vision of her own, Margareta picked out the notes of the chords individually, each ringing out with the heartbeat of a being fighting for its life.

"How many times do we have to hear this?," Agnes asked, her question seemingly directed to the universe at large. She glanced over at Danny. He said nothing, but his hands gripped tighter at the steering wheel.

"It must be hard looking up at the sun when you know in your heart you might never be warm. O-oh, I know it's hard looking up at the sun when you know deep inside you might never be warm..."

"It's depressing," Agnes said, not expecting a response and not getting one.

"Keep your glow on. Babe Rainbow. You gotta go on... O-oh, you gotta go on..."

"Are you finished?"

Margareta shrugged. "For now."

"Well, I for one don't see why you have to play that all the time!"

"...I think it's appropriate."

Agnes jerked her head around to make eye contact. "I don't know what you mean."

"Don't you, Mother?" Margareta fingered lazily at the stings.

Something in the question made Agnes turn back to face the road. "No, I don't. And if you're going to practice, practice the songs you'll be performing, not that ugly dirge. We have a lot riding on this..."

Maragreta smiled bitterly, but no one saw. "Put the gleam back in your eyes and do something--"

"Stop it! Stop it right now, young lady!" Agnes had spun back around, fire in eyes. "Danny and I have gone to a lot of trouble for your benefit, and I won't put up with insolence!"

"Especially if it's the truth," Margareta mumbled.

"What was that?!"

She sighed. "Nothing, Mother..."

"Nothing is right!"

"Not around here," Margareta mumbled, but no one heard. The silence again enveloped the three of them, the tension a wall of brittle glass. The headlights swept over the straight white lines of the highway, whisking them beneath the speeding car. Nowhere neared as fast as it receded.

Chapter 1--The Student

"No, no, no!," Pastor Jimmy DuPre, Sr., shouted from the floor of the auditorium. "Dammit, boy, you're putting your stresses in all the wrong places. It's 'the sigh-unt-ists and the sigh-coll-uh-gists cannot save your soul!'" The old man's hair was neither black nor grey but a crude mixture of both. It was slick with sweat, swept back over his ears. His unshaved face was covered with a stubble growing into a grey-black grizzle and his face was hard without being firm, menacing without the conviction of the righteous anger he projected in his speech. When he spoke normally, his voice carried the faintest tinge of the South, but when he stressed the enunciations he wanted to hear that tinge became a thick, wet clod of delta mud. "'The sigh-unt-ists!' 'The sigh-coll-uh-gists!' Damn, boy, even you ought to be able to handle that."

"The scientists," Jimmy Junior repeated unconvincingly. "The psychologists." His voice was muddied by fear, high-pitched and erratic in volume. He was trying. Good God, he was trying, but he knew that his fear of his father's reactions only made his performance worse.

"Dammit, 'sigh-coll-uh-gists'! Coll! Like every college boy those folks ever hated! Try it again, college boy!"

Jimmy Junior ran his sweaty palms along the sides of the pulpit. He stood alone on the empty stage, his eyes blinded by a fiery spot of light poised far back in the theater. Somewhere near, he knew, his father was pacing back and forth, hurling angry imprecations from the orchestra pit. But he couldn't see him, not with the light boring into his brain. He sensed him not by direct preception, but by his own reaction, by the sweat soaking his armpits, by the tight knot in his throat, by the raging turmoil in his stomach, by the palms that seemed never to dry. Solitude would not have frightened him, but this intangible contact terrified him, terrified him most by its power to leave him both devastated and indifferent. As though, he thought, not wanting to see the image that burst into his consciousness, but not knowing how to escape it... As though he is alone and I'm... I'm not here at all...

Where his father was stubby, squat, Jimmy Junior was tall, lanky. He held himself rimrod straight, at a soldier's attention, but his shoulders were swept in on themselves, as if he hoped to fold himself lengthwise. His face was long, lupine, but it held the look of a dog who has been beaten too many times, too inexplicably, the look of a child who has been frightened by a horror too grisly to imagine, too ephemeral to combat. He had his father's straight black hair and black eyes that were, at the same time, quizzical, bitter, and resigned.

It was the resignation that commanded his face when Pastor Jimmy DuPre, Jr., again attempted to recite his lines: "The scientists and the psychologists cannot save your soul!"

"Better. Better. You'll get it, boy. Someday..."

In his mind's eye, Junior saw his father preaching, as he had seen him preach every Sunday for years, his body writhing madly, his voice careening wildly from screams to whispers, his hair soaked and dripping with sweat. Preaching of the power of Jee-zhus, the love of Jee-zhus, the mercy of Jee-zhus, the vengence of Jee-zhus. For the fiftieth time that day, he attempted to imitate that style, to duplicate not just the sounds and gestures, but the fire of awesome righteousness behind them. "The sigh-unt--"

He cut himself without knowing quite why, at first. There was a glimmer of light at the back of the auditorium, a door opening. In the brief flash of light he saw a slim figure and a veil of reddish blonde hair. His mind filled in the rest: Maggie Lundgren. Where before he had felt merely humiliated by his failure and by his father's insults, as soon as he saw her he was swarmed in an unbearable degradation. He clenched his hands on the sides of the pulpit and could not go on.

"What the Sam Hill?!," Jimmy Senior demanded. He spun around and saw Margareta in the dim light, seating herself near the back. "Oh, it's you. So you made it safely, Praise Jee-zhus." He didn't wait for a reply. He turned back around with a calculating smile on his face. "That's all for now, boy. We'll pick it up again after supper." He waddled off toward a side door and was gone.

Junior took his time climbing down from the stage, fighting back against a nervousness that he thought was just shyness. He tried to collect himself as he walked toward her, tried to think of something light to say. But it was no use, it was never any use. He could never be phony with her, he had to tell the truth, no matter how ugly, had to face up to the fear and the humiliation and the degradation and the pain and the anger and the longing, the longing he chose never to examine to the root. He slowed, trying to think of something, anything, to make this matter less, but he couldn't. When he approached her, he said simply, softly, "Hi, Maggie."

"Hi, Jimmy."

She smiled and it was like the first dawn on the first morning. She was beautiful, so beautiful it hurt him to think of it. Her face was winsome, which made her look very young, and her clear blue eyes burned with a searing light. Her hair hung straight back, halfway down her back, the color the alloy of a copper and gold. She was lean, and he was never unaware of her pert breasts and her full behind; he chastised himself for thinking of them, but still he thought of them. In the two years that she had toured with the DuPre Revival, she had never failed to make him feel dreadfully uncomfortable--and incomparably alive.

Without knowing if the impulse began in himself or in her, he smiled in return. "'So you made it safely, Praise Jee-zhus.'" His mocking immitation of his father was perfect. She giggled and he joined her, laughing at things that never seemed to matter in her presence.

"Praise the Lord!," she returned. "Jee-zhus did guide my way." She laughed, the delighted laugh of a child.

He looked around the empty theater. "Did you come here to rehearse?"

"God no! I came to play." She had propped her guitar in the seat beside her. Grabbing it by the neck, she stood up.

"You want me to clear out of here?"

"No, Jimmy. Come on up on stage with me. You can be my audience."

They sat cross-legged on the hard wooden planks. She fingered at the guitar, picking out a complex melody that seemed to be rooted in something far simpler. "This is called 'It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry'," Margareta said. "It's a love song. I'm not sure I know how to perform it..."

"But you should know."

"Why should I?"

"You're... You're married!"

She smiled, wryly but wistfully. "What does that have to do with it?"

She began to sing and he let himself be swept up in it. The song was rough, almost comical, but it rang with truth.

I ride on a mail train, baby,
Can't buy a thrill,
I've been up all night,
Leaning on a window sill,
If I die on top of the hill,
Well, if I don't make it, you know my baby will.

He watched her looking out over through rows of empty seats, seeing none of it, yet seeming to see something that wasn't there.

Don't the moon look good, honey,
Shining through the trees?,
Don't the brakeman look good,
When he's flaggin' down them Double-E's?,
Don't the sun look good,
Coming down over the sea?,
And don't my man look fine, when he's coming after me?

Junior wasn't sure he knew the difference between rehearsing and playing, but he knew he'd never seen her as involved in her music as in this moment.

Well, the wintertime is coming, babe,
The windows are filled with frost,
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get across,
I want to be your lover, babe,
I don't want to be your boss,
Don't say I never warned you, when your train gets lost...

"That was beautiful," Junior said.

"I like it," Margareta agreed. She began to finger another piece, an intricate ballad that might have survived from Olde England or the American West. "This is something I've been working on for a while. I'm not sure I'm happy with it yet."

"You wrote it yourself?"

She nodded, her body swaying with the music.

"I didn't know you wrote any songs... It's not--" Junior didn't know why he stopped himself. And he didn't know why his question was so important to him. "It's not religious, is it?"

She smiled. "I'm not sure... It's not about God, and I won't play it at one of your father's revivals. But I think sometimes it may be the most religious piece of music ever written, a song about what religion really ought to be..."

"Are there words?"

"Not yet."

Junior bit his lower lip. "You don't... You don't believe in God, do you?"

She played the full chorus before answering. "I don't think so, Jimmy. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I did. Then things might make more sense, or maybe I'd stop trying to make them make sense. But no..., I don't think I do believe in God."

"Then why? Why are you doing this?" He asked the question of her, but it hung in the air between them, as if echoed back and forth by paired sounding boards.

She smiled bitterly. "Don't let's talk about it now. I want this to be a happy time, and it may be my last for a while." By an effort of will she cleared the pain from her face. "Here's a funny one: it's called 'Maggie's Farm'."

She sang and it was funny, but Junior thought it hit too close to home to be appropriate to a 'happy time'.

She was singing the last verse when he saw Agnes Lundgren come charging down the aisle, her flaming red hair seeming to scorch the space around her, her blue eyes bulging with the fury that seemed to drive her.

"Maggie!," she called out. "Get down here this instant! I have some costumes I want you to try on. We don't have time to waste on foolishness!"

Margareta smiled wryly at Junior as she finished the song: "They say sing while you slave, but I just get bored. I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Farm no more..."

"And what's that supposed to mean, young lady?"

"Nothing, Mother. Just a song."

"Well then, come along. Nice to see you, Junior." She turned and charged back up the aisle, expecting Margareta to follow. Her expectation proved true...

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