An excerpt from The Word

A Novel by Charles Alverson

Chapter 1

He wasn't young; he wasn't old. His pale skin suggested a library, monk's cell or confinement far from the sun. Stripped to the waist and displaying a colorful collection of amateur tattoos, Joe Dixon was diligently whitewashing the walls and ceiling of the small storefront on Clemenson Street, His fine but sturdy bone structure was modestly suited to the job. Cropped brown hair and wispy beard lent him a Biblical look. That was the whole idea.

As he covered the glittery mauve paint of the failed dance studio with a thick coat of purest, cheapest, white, Joe reckoned that he had just about a month to save his butt. The thousand bucks from Mulligan had paid a month's rent. A deposit on the electricity, gallons of whitewash, brushes and four pieces of junk furniture and the mattress he slept on in the back of the storefront took most of the rest. He had enough left to eat for a month if he didn't go crazy at McDonald's.

Back in Folsom, while starting a three-to-five stretch for armed robbery, it had occurred to Joe that as criminals went, he was crap. Over more than fifteen years, scam after scam had earned him ever-lengthening stays in prison. Each time, Joe had attempted to learn a new and successful criminal trade. It occurred to him that if these in-house experts were any good, they'd be out on the street living high. There had to be a better investment for his cigarettes.

A couple of days later, a trusty librarian had handed Joe a bible instead of the biography he'd been expecting and wouldn't listen to reason. Not even for cigarettes. 'You just read that,' the trusty insisted. 'It's the real thing - the King James Version.'

That didn't mean much to Joe, but out of sheer boredom he'd opened the battered black-leather covers and started turning the pages. It could have been worse. It could have been a Jackie Collins. Joe hadn't had a bible in his hands since he'd briefly tried to sell slightly hot bibles door to door ten years before. He began to recognize bits from his sales spiel, and that lured him on. He didn't have much else to do.

The pay-off began soon. A few days later, when Joe had routinely reported for assessment, the foxy-faced young sociology graduate gestured him to a chair, paged through a file between puke-colored covers and then looked at him sharply. 'You a good Christian, Joe?' he asked suddenly.

'So-so,' Joe answered. He wasn't much good at lying either.

'That's not what I hear,' said the counselor. 'I hear you've been reading the bible pretty steadily.' He prided himself on his intelligence network in the holding cells. The trusties mostly told him what he wanted to hear.

Joe shrugged noncommittally. 'It's something to read,' he said, sticking to a semi-truthful tack but willing to switch if something better came up.

The counselor looked back down at the file. 'It doesn't look here as if you are much of a hard guy, Joe,' he said.

'No,' Joe admitted as if this were a grievous fault.

'That's good, because I've got a job for you that wouldn't suit a hard guy.'

Joe's eyebrows said: Oh? His mouth said nothing.

'That's right. You see, Joe, the chaplain here needs a new assistant, and I think it could be you.' He looked down again. 'You're a Baptist?'

'That's right,' Joe said, beginning to get with the program.

'What kind?'

'Ordinary kind,' said Joe, taking no chances.

'That's good, too,' said the counselor. 'The last guy we tried was hard-shell, fire and brimstone, strict Sabbatarian.' He frowned. 'Reverend Perkins found him a little too…'

Joe knew that he wouldn't be too. Not at all

He got the job. A week later, still reading the bible, Joe was in the general population reporting for work in the chaplain's office.

As Joe opened the door, the chaplain's number one assistant, a grizzled old con with a brush-like crewcut, looked up at him skeptically. A nameplate on the desk read F.X. Reilly. Behind Reilly, the door indicated: The Chaplain is IN.

'You Dixon?' the old con asked.

'That's right,' Joe said.

'Sit down, ' Reilly said. Before Joe hit the wood, Reilly asked. 'You've come to work for the chaplain?'

'That's right,' Joe said again.

'That's wrong,' Reilly said. 'You've come to work for me. I work for the chaplain. Understood?'

'Understood,' Joe said.

'Cigarette?" Reilly asked.

'Don't use them,' Joe said.

'Even better,' Reilly said. 'I'm a heavy smoker. You bear that in mind.' He opened a drawer to indicate where any surplus cigarettes could be dropped.

'I will,' Joe said.

'You and I are going to get along,' Reilly said. This was more order than prediction. 'Now, Reverend Perkins is in there'-he jerked his thumb at the door. 'He will fill you in on your duties. Listen very carefully and then come out here and I will sum them up in three words. Any idea what they are?'

'Anything you say?' said Joe, who was a quick learner.

'You and I are going to get along,' Reilly said, 'now go talk to The Man.'

© 2000 Charles Alverson

THE STORY FROM HERE: Joe studies his bible and from Reilly picks up the gist of a plan that is supposed to keep him out of prison and put him on easy street. He is released and chooses Gardenia, a community in West Los Angeles, in which to found The Word, Reilly's get-rich scheme. Things are slow at first, and money is short, but gradually Joe builds a following if not a congregation. Each of the individuals who drifts into The Word has needs, and Joe does his best to meet them. Manny needs comfort when his grandson dies; Elsie just wants a place to sing hymns; Cameo needs the strength to live with a terrible birthmark on her face; Gerri, a singer and dancer, needs a break and, though she doesn't know it, love. Even Reilly shows up, and all he needs is a place to die. In the end Joe finds, despite himself, he has built up a little community based on mutual need and friendship. When Gerri gets her break--a big one--Joe has to decide whether to go with her or stay with The Word.

Author: Charles Alverson chas@eunet.yu
Agent: Lora Fountain