Hold Steady Writing Prompt

As mentioned below, I’m currently enrolled in an online writing workshop put on by the guys at Barrelhouse. This week, the prompt came from editor Dave Housley (I hope he doesn’t mind I’m posting this), who had us work off this line: “He’s got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel.”

The line comes from the Hold Steady song “Cattle and the Creeping Things” (which, itself, is part of a larger narrative–Separation Sunday. Check it out.)

Anyway, here’s what I did. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

“He’s got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel.”

“Anything else?”

“Sorry, Alan. Perhaps he didn’t realize the gravity of the situation.”

“No one informed him?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

Alan, a man of great wealth and little faith, turned to the stranger that had been delivered to him. The man stood a little over six feet tall and wore a fedora that shadowed his features. A black shirt, jeans and leather jacket was all he wore. Alan had expected a clergy robe. He tried not to sound angry or impatient: “Do you know what’s happening here?”

The stranger’s head dipped. “Believe so. Daughter’s sick, right?”

A muffled scream seeped through ceiling above them. The sound of glass, shattering.

“You could say that.” Alan looked at the bishop, the one responsible for bringing this stranger into his house.

The bishop shrugged. “He’s our last resort.”

Alan rubbed his thumbs into his eyes and sighed deeply. “Listen Mr…” and when the stranger didn’t fill the blank, he went on. “Have you done anything like this before?”

The stranger looked up to the ceiling, where all the noise was coming from. Light fixtures shook and their illuminations flickered. “Twice,” he said after a long while. “One time worked, the other time didn’t.”

“What do you mean ‘didn’t’?”

“She’s dead.”

Alan’s legs gave out underneath him and he collapsed into the carpet. The bishop motioned as if to pick him up, but Alan brushed him away and sobbed into his arms crossed atop the knees.

“Well, would you at least like a whole Bible?” asked the Bishop. “You could use mine if you want.”

“Nope. Got the pages I need.”

Alan was still sobbing on the floor. “Goddamnit,” he repeated. “Gddamnit, Goddamnit, Goddamnit…”

The stranger stood above him, took cigarette out and lit it. “Indeed,” he said. He took the folded Bible pages out of his pocket and began reciting them—practicing as he climbed the stairs to the daughter’s room.

2 thoughts on “Hold Steady Writing Prompt

  1. “He’s got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel.”

    Speaking of faith, he lost his religion in fifth grade when his parents divorced and his mother started dating a two-timing chef who kept her hanging on with his perfect carbonarra. Sam was his name and he ran one of the town’s top-rated restaurants but decades later Johnny still can’t stomach Italian food. Sam ditched out Johnny’s mom seven years into their courtship, never bothered to make an honest woman out of her. Meanwhile, Johnny’s father moved to Georgia and joined a Baptist church. He leads the choir and asks Johnny every Christmas to come on down and sing at mass.

    “You’ve got such a great voice, son. Why don’t you share it with the Lord?”

    Every year Johnny denied his father the pleasure of hearing his baritone raised to the rafters, bouncing off the stained glass windows while parishioners wept with joy. “Work, dad. They won’t let me off for the holidays. The paper doesn’t sleep.” Of course, this was a lie. Johnny spent each December 24th curled up on the couch with a bottle of Jameson and a pile of classic mob films – Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy, Reservoir Dogs – which helped him connect with his roots. Somewhere out there his great-great grandfather was smiling down on the cinematic bloodbath, the silver-screen adaptation and exaggeration of his life’s work. “Forgive me father, for I have sinner,” he imagined his ancestors repeated by habit, like a stranger saying “God Bless You,” to someone who’s just sneezed.

    Two years ago, during a wave of massive layoffs, Johnny lost his position at the paper. Now he had no excuse to ditch his father. His mother spent the holidays in Florida with her best friend from high school, leaving behind the memories of the men who disappointed her on every occasion but whose legacies packed a particular sting come winter.

    So after all the years of denial Johnny found himself on Christmas eve sitting in a pew staring at his father’s back as he lead the choir in “Ave Maria.” Halfway through the performance he turned around beamed at Johnny, motioning for his son to sing along. Johnny mouthed the words that somehow he’d never forgotten and for a moment he felt peace, or the closest thing to it given the circumstances.

    The next day Johnny’s ex-girlfriend came to his father’s annual Christmas buffet, an open house that started at 10 a.m. and ran til the last visitor passed out on the couch from too much eggnog. Bethany hadn’t changed much, save a few additional curves that Johnny found alluring after too many waify city girls broke his heart. They talked for hours over hot toddies and spiked nog and wound up in a Motel 6 five blocks from his dad’s house. After making love three times he noticed the tan line on her ring finger. Hadn’t even bothered to ask.

    “Oh shit, Beth. Really?” She looked away and brought the sheet up to her shoulders as if covering up would erase their transgressions.

    “I came home to clear my head,” he said. “This is, this—“

    She kept staring out the window at the neon sign outside, its erratic blinking matching the beat of his heart.

    “Do you still love him? What is this?!”

    Bethany finally turned around. “It’s complicated. And it’s none of your business. You left me. You—“

    “Aw, for crying out loud. We were kids! You could have come with me.”

    “You never asked.”

    They sat in stoney silence for what seemed like hours but was probably a few minutes. Bethany made the first move, brushing his shoulder in a half-assed attempt at affection. He shrugged away and sighed.

    “Beth, you need to leave. You need to get dressed and go home to your husband. To your kids. Jesus Christ.”

    She rose and modestly dressed, keeping her back to him as she pulled on her tights, laced up her boots and threw her coat on. She opened the door and stared hard at him.

    “I just wanted to feel something again,” she said.

    When he didn’t reply, she shook the door handle until it nearly broke off.

    “That’s enough Beth! Enough.”

    Beth slammed the door and Johnny pushed his spine into the headboard, trying to remain as erect as possible, just like they taught them in Sunday school. He smoked half a pack of Camel Lights, then checked his watch. His flight was leaving in eight hours. He had to say goodbye to his dad before he left—had to thank him for getting him out of the city, for offering a place of salvation even if it only lead to sin.

    He leaned over to check one thing. Yep. Good old reliable motels. He stared at the bedstand’s top open drawer where a worn Bible sat like him—naked and alone.
    Johnny opened the book, scanned a few passages and tore out random pages. It didn’t matter which chapter he kept as long as the word traveled back with him to his sterile apartment which he’d tried so hard to separate from the past.

    He stuffed the pages in his pocket and took one last look in the mirror before stepping outside and moving on.

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