CONNOR WAS THINKING about God again. In the Piggly Wiggly parking lot he'd found a flyer under his windshield wiper--red flames of hell and big capital letters, "GOD HATES SINNERS"--and he'd thought about it most of the way home. Why did God hate sinners? "Sins of Sodomy and Unnatural Acts" was the explanation on the flyer. After a moment he got the subtext.
He was visiting his sister and her live-in girlfriend. As a joke they'd watched three straight hours of TV preachers the night before. The girls giggled to hear how hell would be filled with lesbians and liberals. Connor, though he didn't believe a word of it, took it more seriously and wondered how they could laugh at such hatred.
It was his turn to cook tonight; his front seat held plastic bags of collard greens, fresh blackeyed peas, a package of fatback. He caught the redlight at Forbus Street, and someone in a dark blue Buick began honking and waving. He rolled down his window, raised his eyebrows: Yes? Then he saw with delight that the driver of the Buick was an old friend: Gerrard, a madman and former partner in crime. Gerrard signaled them into the funeral home parking lot a half-block ahead. Like a drunk he staggered out of the Buick and began beating on Connor's windshield, grinning crazily. He wore a Cub Scout den mother shirt and army fatigues with a hole in the knee, and he was screaming for Connor to open the motherfucking door, motherfucker!
"I'm running from the cops," he said as he climbed in. "Well, not really. That's just a joke. Where in the hell have you been, Connor?"
"You're sitting on my collards," Connor said.
"Aw, man," Gerrard said. "They'll be okay. Here comes the funeral home dude. Let's scoot."
Out of the big black double doors came a man in a dark three-piece suit, a gray-haired light-skinned black man wearing wire-rim glasses. "Can I help you gentlemen?" he asked, leaning to look in the car window.
"Hey," Gerrard said, and he pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his shirt-pocket. "That's my car over there, that blue bomb. You don't care if I leave it here for a little while, do you?"
"That why you're waving that Jackson at me?"
Connor watched Gerrard cram the bill back in his shirt.
"It wouldn't be but an hour or so."
"Well, we've got a visitation later today. We need to keep this parking lot clear."
"See, I'm out of gas," Gerrard said. "I was on my way to the Cub Scouts on account of their wholesome activities for youth when my blue bomb started sputtering and choking. This is my friend and he's taking me up the road. We have to find one of those new high-tech gas cans. They won't let you pump it into a milk jug no more."
The man glanced at Connor, who nodded, trying to keep a straight face.
"Well, we won't tow you unless you're still here tonight," the man said.
"Thank you, Reverend," Gerrard said.
"I'm not a Reverend. I'm a funeral director."
"Do you know where we can find a Reverend? We might need one later."
The man stood up and squinted at them. Connor put the car in gear. "Thank you," he called. He waved over his shoulder.
"Rock on, Rev," Gerrard said. Staring in the sideview mirror he gave the man the devil sign.
Luke Whisnant has taught creative writing and literature at East Carolina since 1982. He is editor of Tar River Poetry, and plays guitar and sings with the band See You Tuesday. About "Subtext," he says, "This piece started as an attempt to show my students how to use a model story as a jumpstart for one of their own pieces. The first four paragraphs of 'Subtext' are based on the opening of John Holman's story 'Squabble'; after that, it veers off in a direction I didn't expect. I liked the results so well that I'll be including 'Subtext' in my next book, The Connor Project."