Preacher Man

We shall meet but we shall miss him / There will be one vacant chair / We shall linger to caress him / While we breathe our evening prayer / When a year ago we gathered / Joy was in his mild blue eye / But a golden chord is severed / And our hopes in ruin lie. —Henry S. Washburn

Looking up, Jim saw an ebony-tattered sky and a cold, dirty moon. The sky mirrored the mood of the boys but their questions and despair went much deeper. Even the chicory-bitter brew that percolated on the beat up old pot didn’t elicit a comment this night. If there ever was a time that the group needed a little silent time this was it. The moisture on Jim’s cheeks puddled into rivulets and bridal veiled to the pier’s surface as he mused. What had gone wrong?

The group had been together nearly fifteen years, from their testosterone-goofy years in high school until they were men. Originally there were eight but Josh had been gung ho to prove his valor by enlisting in the army; he had paid with his life fighting that bastard Sadam. The seven remaining members declared themselves the Seven Horseman of the Acropolis until someone suggested that was just a little too extreme. Then someone mentioned the Seven Samurai and that seemed to stick until their fishing got serious. It’s funny how things change but change did indeed take place when the gang adopted the bat rays as their own. Thereafter, their moniker was The Mud Marlin Gang.

For years the gang had sought out halibut as their main goal but as time went on, and their lives entwined with job and family, they found that the nocturnal hours were the only reliable time to meet. Sharks and rays became the goal and they quickly became masters at coaxing in the big leppies, hounds, and guitars. Some would frown on these fish but not the gang, the fish were big, put up a good fight, and provided thrills to a sometimes all-too-boring world.

The bat rays—mud marlins, train engine immitatin’ slammers, bats out of hell—were the largest and strongest of their foes. They were the beasts that really required the heavy lines and group efforts needed to bring a big ‘un up to the pier. Hundred pounders were the goal and many had been landed over the years. Even so, they were not seen as anything special until the night Preacher Man looked into the Bette Davis eyes of a big female and received the message. Fish are fish, or at least that’s what most believed. But Preacher Man swore that the beast had spoken to him. “She looked me in the eyes and told me it’s our job to protect the fish on the pier.” His friends suggested that the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels had a little to do with the vision but Preacher Man angrily poked a finger at the group and shook his head. “No, you didn’t feel the message.” He received salvation that night, and soon, seemingly by osmosis, the group conversion had begun.

Thereafter, the fish were returned to the sea unless injured. If injured they were dealt a quick death, and a group member each week was designated as the person to eat (and not waste) the flesh given up by the fish. It seemed a little silly at first but if it kept Preacher Man happy, the group was willing to oblige. Having seen the light, Preacher Man took it upon himself to enlighten the other anglers on the pier. “Don’t you see? You need to keep only what you will use. Treat the fish with dignity and you become more dignified. Practice catch and release.” The sermons were short and simple and some listened if only because he seemed so sincere. Over time his preaching’s did have an effect on the pier—even if some still continued to ignore his exhortations.

Actually, Blaine (Preacher Man) had started to change before he met the ray and perhaps that change had given impetus to his conversion. Of all the gang he seemed to have the ideal life. Always the lady’s man, he had charismatic looks and brains to spare. By his mid-20s he was already close to being a millionaire and he had a beautiful wife and two wonderful children. Then the market collapsed, his business failed, and he was soon a virtual pauper. Shortly thereafter his wife, not so discreetly, hooked up with an old friend and left with the children. There is a fine line between love and hate and the same can be said for success and failure. And failure, in marriage or in business, can change your soul. Mr. Daniels became a frequent friend and Blaine seemed to change right before his friends. He became thin, disheveled and withdrawn, but he still made it a practice to attend the biweekly, Saturday-night get-to-gethers at the pier. Perhaps he simply needed a new purpose and his conversation with the ray gave him that purpose.
Sam and Matty were of a different faith. Pugnacious, quarrelsome, and mean-spirited, they were happy to follow the path of their Neanderthal-like ancestors. “Leave us alone and mind your own business” was their refrain when first confronted by Preacher Man. They made their own rules and didn’t have time for the type of drivel that the Preacher Man was spouting. “Man, that guy’s goofy in the head. He better watch it or someone’s going to toss him over the railing. Serves him right trying to tell us what is right and wrong.” Like those Devil-trains in the night, they were destined to collide.

Their first night at the pier, Sam hooked and landed a small bat ray, a mere youngster less than a foot wide and under five pounds in weight. After bringing it up to the pier, Sam stomped the fish into submission and then used his knife to cut a large groove into the mouth so that he could remove his hook and leader. Already destined to die, Matty finished the job by stomping the still quivering youngster once more before tossing it against the rail. The dirt, slime and blood-encrusted corpse lay on the pier for all to see. Luckily, The Bat Ray Gang wasn’t there that night or Sam and Matty would have been in deep trouble.

The regulars at the pier knew and respected the gang. Heck, the local legend Packy (with his trademark coonskin hat) had even found an old, rusty Coca Cola tray somewhere and presented it to the gang. In the middle of the tray Packy had put a picture of a bat ray and etched around it were the names of the group— Jim, Gypsy Boy, Rambler, Rock, Karloff, Slayer, and Preacher Man. It was a notable gift from someone they themselves respected and the tray became a prized possession. Not all of the pier’s regulars were “converts” to Preacher Man’s religion, nor did all practice his catch-and-release rules, but all respected the gang and were on their best behavior when the gang was present.

The regulars had a different view of Sam and Matty. Both could be easy to talk to, especially if you shared a little wine or a smoke, but they were also a little bit crazy. They once had told a group of tourists they would butt heads for a dollar each. Soon after, they lined up at opposite sides of the pier, put their heads down, and ran with heads lowered into each other at full steam. No one knew how they had avoided concussions but they sprang up laughing and collected their money. Another time Matty lowered himself over the railing and down to the pilings just to collect some mussels. When someone pointed out there was an easier way to collect mussels, Matty just laughed and gave him the middle finger. Nor were they interested in walking the long distance back to the restrooms at the front of the pier. Urine stained spots on the pier were their legacy—and worse.

The night that the gang and the boys finally met was slow, at least it was slow in the fish bite category. That, of course, gave Preacher Man time to find Sam and Matty and deliver a sermon. It also gave Sam time to tell Preach Man to leave them alone. Preacher Man understood, “sometimes it takes a little time to teach them what’s right.” Jim said “be careful with those two, they’re not the convertin’ type.” But Preacher Man did not give up so easily.

The third night that the groups met up was when the trouble started. Once again Sam and Matty had caught some bat rays, in this case a couple of twins about ten pounds each. The fish were tortured, cut up, and returned to the water. But the gang had not seen their deeds. Unfortunately July 4 was only a few days away and Matty had brought some fireworks to the pier. A few small fireworks were lit and made their normal explosions. The gang decided to warn them that such actions were not permitted. Indeed, fireworks a few years prior had led to a small fire and closing of part of the pier for several months. Jim and Rock walked down to the duo and tried to convince them of the danger of fireworks but Sam and Matty simply laughed at them. “Mind your own business, this is a public pier and we can do what we want to do.” Such was their reasoning and Jim and Rock walked back to the gang to discuss the response. Karloff and Slayer, both ex-wrestlers who enjoyed a little action, declared their intention to teach them a lesson but the rest said they should wait to see if the two continued to explode firecrackers.

What happened next was unexpected. Sam caught a small swell shark, no more than three or four pounds in size, and when it reached the pier’s surface the shark puffed up as they normally do when caught. Matty said he had never seen anything quite so funny in his life. After kicking the fish a couple of times he had a new idea. “Let’s blow it up Sam! We’ll stuff a firecracker down its throat and when it explodes we’ll have puffer all over the pier!” It seemed like a fine idea to Sam so soon the young shark was stuffed with a lighted firecracker and shortly thereafter the fish was blown to bits. Yellow pieces of skin, scarlet blotches of blood, and ivory flesh was scattered around the duo on the pier when the gang returned to see what had happened.

“What did you do” screamed the Preacher Man? Behind him stood six ready to fight members of his gang. Jim said “get out of here” and, for the first time that night, Matty and Sam seemed to grasp their predicament. They might put up a good fight but they were not going to win. As bullies often do, they decided to retreat. “It was a mistake, a firecracker accidentally went off as we were returning that fish to the sea.” It was a stupid lie but one that caught the group off balance. No one really believed it but Matty and Sam quickly packed up and left before the fight could begin.

The group talked into the night and agreed they should have taken action but now it was too late. They would be ready the next time they visited the pier and make sure the two roughies were taught a lesson. Preacher Man was the only one who didn’t join in the discussion, a fact little noticed that night. He would sometimes be thinkin’ when others were talkin’ and they just assumed this was the same. But this was different! Preacher Man was more than just offended, he felt a sin had been done and was determined to right a wrong.

As Matty and Sam headed home they consumed the remaining beers and discussed how they had been the victims. They too felt they had to right a wrong. How dare those idiots try to tell them what to do? How dare scum like that try to bully them in such a manner? What made that Preacher Man think he was better than them anyway? Their anger gave way to a plan. The gang was predictable, arriving at the pier every other Saturday around 9PM. Sam and Matty would visit the pier before their arrival and leave them a surprise.

Their plan seemed simple enough. They would fish several nights before the gang’s arrival and catch some sharks and rays. They would then nail up the mutilated corpses of those same fish in the spot where the gang always set up. Only they would do it before the gang arrived and be long gone before the gang’s arrival. It seemed so simple and it seemed a sure way to arouse the wrath of the gang. The gang would know who had done it but not be able to do anything about it. They didn’t plan to be around the gang when it was at the pier.

Preacher Man was the flaw in their plan. He knew these two were up to no good and were bound to do more evil. He couldn’t be at the pier every night but he talked to the regulars and told them to let him know what was going on. Reports came to him on Wednesday and Thursday night, two weeks later. Matty and Sam were seen catching sharks and rays and they were taking them with them off the pier. It was strange because it had never happened before. He decided to visit on Friday night and see what was going on.

That night, out toward the end of the pier, Preacher Man confronted them. Sam and Matty had just caught a medium-sized bat ray when he walked up and startled them. “What are you doing,” he asked. Noticing that Preacher Man was alone gave them some added courage and Matty proceeded to take the bat ray and slice off one of its wings. “We’re going to kill your precious bat rays is what we’re going to do,” said Matty before tossing the wing over the side of the pier. Something snapped and Preacher Man rushed forward to be confronted by two younger and stronger enemies. Matty struck Preacher Man twice knocking him down; Sam kicked him several times; both laughed that he wasn’t going to preach to them any more. As he lay on the ground, Matty and Sam sliced up the sharks and rays they had caught that night and nailed them to the pier. The pier was quickly soaked with blood. “Here, Preacher Man, here is something you can preach to.”

The Preacher Man had seen enough and though hurting physically, the injustices he had suffered during the last few years seemed to arouse a new inner strength. He rushed the two as they continued to laugh and nail the fish to the pier. Sam turned and held a knife out to Preacher Man. “Get back or we’ll nail you up next. Let’s see what your friends have to say about that.” But Preacher Man grabbed the knife and wrestled it from Sam’s grip. Matty rushed at him and it was stab or be stabbed and Preacher Man swung the knife up into Matty’s gut. It was like Japanese seppuche as the knife traversed the gut to chest and Matty’s intestines rushed out. Sam had grabbed another knife and he too rushed the still engaged Preacher Man. A stab into Preacher Man’s side didn’t even seem to faze him as he turned and slit Sam’s throat. Two human bodies joined the bodies of the fish on the pier but Preacher Man wasn’t done.

Sharks are attracted by blood and will feed on human remains when given the chance. In Preacher Man’s way of thinking that night, the best way that Matty and Sam could repay their debt to the slain sharks and rays was to be eaten by them. He cut up the remains of his foes and, one by one, dumped their body parts over the pier. The pier was awash in blood, both human and fish, but Preacher Man used his remaining strength to remove the mutilated bodies of the sharks and rays from the side of the pier and carefully place them in a bag he had found.

There was one more thing to be done. What he had done was wrong, he knew that, but he didn’t feel guilty. In fact, in some funny way, he felt a release from a cloud that had hung over his life for some time. Still, he had no intention of going to jail for his deed. His work was done. He would miss his friends but they would go on, such is life. He had no desire to continue his wasted life. Dipping his finger in the blood he wrote three names—Sam, Matty and Blaine—and under the names the date. Enough said! He climbed up on the railing of the pier and plunged into the dark and enveloping sea. Preacher Man had never learned to swim.

The early morning air still had a smell of violence when the fishermen found the gory deck, bloody names, and fishing equipment of Sam and Matty. Soon after, the police closed off the pier. When two mismatched arms, a leg, and the body of Preacher Man was found on the incoming tide later that morning, the entire beach was closed. It was the crime of the year and newspapers speculated as they do. Biographies portrayed the life of two losers, and a man who had been a winner—for a time. None of the stories accurately portrayed how the three had come to meet their deaths in such an insane and savage manner. None adequately presented the story of how a soul that has been hollowed by defeat can overcome the precautions and instincts ingrained by centuries of civilization. None dared give truth to the fact that humans retain their most basic animal instincts and can revert to a far more savage nature given the proper circumstance and motivation.

No one guessed at the truth but the gang and perhaps a regular or two at the pier.

They knew of the bad blood and the passion that resided in the soul of Preacher Man. And they knew that sometimes a man can only take so much before he goes a little crazy. The Preacher Man was a good man but life had dealt him a bad hand. They would remember and always respect him. And they knew that whatever he had done to the crazy duo was of their making. Live a bad life, die a bad death. It was simple.

Still, the Bat Ray Gang was in shock. To them a friend, a life-long buddy was gone. He had apparently killed himself after a fight with the brothers and each wondered if the group itself had played a part. If they had straightened out matters that first night perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. The group didn’t fish for two months but at last Jim called the others and said it would be the best thing to do— to continue to fish— and to finish Blaine’s work. They would all be disciples of The Preacher Man and insure that people did indeed follow the rules.

They met on the pier the next Saturday, the night of the cold, dirty moon and the stench of death still lingered on the pier. It would be many a moon before normalcy returned to the group and as each gave inner thought that night each suffered in his own individual way. Sometimes there are simply no answers that make sense! Perhaps, as the ancient Greeks believed, we are simply the pawns of some greater beings who themselves are imperfect. Jim finally tried that hot coffee but no amount of sugar could relieve the bitter taste in his mouth nor stop the tears that continued to flow.

Ken Jones — 2006

One Response to Preacher Man

  1. Ed Nassarre says:

    That was pretty intense. Brought a tear or two to my eyes. Well done Skipper.

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