Return to List

Voice In The Wilderness

 

 

 

          He paused in the sunset, his red hair stirring in the breeze.  Something excited him about the setting; he could feel it in the air.  As the sun set over the buildings, one last flash of brilliance greeted his tired eyes.  Without a moonlit sky, night fell suddenly over Skid Row, deepening quickly into progressive shades of gray, purple, and then black.  As lamplight cast his shadow onto the pavement, a special warmth seemed to surround his soul, fortifying him against the unknown.

          Against the darkness, which had gobbled up the street, an inner peace and abiding faith swelled inside him.  It was the worst time on Skid Row—no place for shoppers, tourists, or anyone else on foot.  But for Elijah Gray, it was a special time: a period in which was tested his spiritual strength.  With bible in hand, he was ready for the worst part of his twenty-four hour service to God.

          In every corner and pocket, he could hear them: the misbegotten and castaway—the dregs of his congregation, settling for the evening or lurking singly or in small groups in alleys and in the park.  Many of them, after pandering uptown awhile were now returning, withdrawing with bottle-in-hand, into the bowels of the city.  Collectively, whenever possible, this—the worst of the street people—huddled for a smoke, a swig of wine, or just to talk a spell.  Today, during normal working hours, he had preached to pedestrians and anyone else who happened to look his way.  Earlier, in the late morning, he had preached to the homeless, especially the growing number of families huddled in the park, by the river, or camped in vacant lots.  To them, the victims of social and economic woes, he conducted sermons wherever they happened to be.  But at night, as they bedded down, he visited them only long enough to gather their prayer requests before striking out for the heartland of Skid Row.

          For the heartland bums, as he called them, it was time to find a nook and, in many cases, enjoy, their hard-won booze.  A few lingered on the sidewalk or by the curb to share a joke or beg a light.  Some hovered as moths around a streetlight or set trashcans ablaze to warm their hands.  Tonight, at the end of his preaching schedule, he turned onto an unlit stretch of alley.  His only outward illumination was his flashlight, which he used sparingly, and the glow of cigarettes down the line.

          As airport runway lights guiding his approach, he used these beacons to prevent himself from tripping over legs and knees in the dark.  With his Bible in hand, he sought out familiar faces or just derelicts that were still awake.  Occasionally, while probing the darkness with his flashlight, a voice would threaten and he would quickly turn it off.  But most of the time they stared like zombies as the bottle passed.  Heads would drop, bodies would crumple, until one by one they fell asleep.

          Tonight, at what seemed to be a likely spot, Elijah stopped, turned off his light, and stood there peering into the dark.

          “Listen,” he suddenly cried, “don’t go to sleep!  It’s me again: Elijah Gray.  I’ve got something to tell you.  So, hold on a minute; your lives may depend on it.  Just watch my light and listen to my voice.  The last thing I want you to hear before you fall asleep is this: it’s not too late!  That’s right my friends, Jesus wants you just like you are.  Why, I don’t know.  I’ve had several talks with him about you.  I keep telling him that you’re not listening.  I’d love to stay with my homeless congregation where at least they’re sober.  I’d also like to stay in the mission where its warm and I can get a good night’s sleep.  But he wants me to spend my evenings here in the hollow—a dark, cold, living hell, where I can get beaten up, maybe killed.”

          “I use to be like you guys,” his voice softened. “Before I hit the skids, I had a family, a big house, and a good job.  Then I lost them all one by one.  First my wife died and then my daughter ran off to Lord knows where.  And suddenly I was hitting the bottle.  It was so easy to stay lit after work.  But then I began drinking during lunch and sometimes even for breakfast, until finally I lost my job, too.  I never planned my end, but that’s what it was: a death wish.  I was so unhappy I wanted to drink myself to death.  But I’m not asking you to give up the booze now, this very moment.  I’m only asking that you listen to me.  This is the easy part.  The Lord will help you through the hard part later.  Right now, just say to yourself, ‘Jesus, I’m listening.  I’m a sinner, but my eyes aren’t shut and my heart is open.  So give me a chance like you did for Elijah.  I don’t want to burn in Satan’s fires.  I don’t want to die of sclerosis of the liver or brain rot either.  I want to live a happy life and someday be where you are Lord: paradise.’

          I’m praying Lord!” he cried. “I’m repenting before it’s too late, before I get sick, die, and wake up in hell!  Hear my prayer Lord.  Hallelujah!  I’m waiting, watching, my eyes uplifted, my spirits afire.  I hear you at the gates of my heart, the mouth of my soul, knowing you’re there but heeding you not, feeling your love but blinded by sin.  Pull me up Lord.  Stand me on my feet.  I want to walk out of here whole, believing, trusting, and the man you want me to be!

          At this point, after his lofty introduction, he walked down the dark corridor, praying under his breath.  Out of politeness he tried keeping his beam low to avoid their eyes.  Derelicts, who had been in the darkness too long, were sensitive to light.  He had learned to be patient with such people, not merely out of compassion but out of fear of the unknown.  Right now, of course, he was in the most unknowable portion of Skid Row: an alley.

          Normally, he would preach to anyone that would listen: in the park, on the street, in front of stores, or anywhere else they could be found.  Seldom would he venture into a place like this, especially at night, unless he knew who the occupants were.  Drug addicts, lunatics, and occasional gang members frequented Skid Row’s alleys in search of mischief, drug money, initiation rites, or just to raise hell.  Late at night like this, however, even street punks and the normal criminal element avoided this part of town.

          To enter an alley down here at this hour, as he was doing, would have struck most gang members as stupid if not brave.  It would have been considered insane to anyone else watching him go in.  But for Elijah Gray, it was not a test of manhood that brought him into harm’s way.  He would, if the Lord permitted, avoid this sector entirely, and concentrate on the homeless families and pedestrians up town.  They at least listened to him and would not threaten him as did the derelicts in Skid Row.  While in the business district, his main headquarters, shoppers and workers had become his greatest beneficiaries, often giving him enough money to buy food and occasionally rent a room.

          Skid Row, on the other hand, was filled with danger.  It was the most depressing place a preacher could be.  It was, of course, where he had found God, but it was also where he hit the skids—the lowest and weakest point in his life.  To a reformed drunk, who had been an alcoholic and dropout, himself, the temptation to drink like everyone else down here was therefore strong.  Far from uplifting his spirit or making him feel good, it was a constant reminder of what he was and what could not do.  The derelicts on Skid Row, including old friends, simply would not listen.  There would be few success stories like his own down here.  Most men and women who wound up on the street remained there for life.  A growing number of them seemed beyond God’s reach.  With liquor or drugs as soul mates, many of them would reach the point of no return when, with ruined minds, it was too late to accept Christ.  It was for these wretches that his gospel remained on the street.  But it was for old friends, that pitiful few he wanted to save, that he braved the dark, enduring the abuse of other derelicts in what seemed the blackest hole on earth.

 

******

          Already he had detected several familiar faces.  Unfortunately, they were hostile, apathetic, or too drunk to hear.  Only a few of these men had shown him interest in the past, while most of them viewed Elijah with irritation: a constant reminder that they lived dreary, unproductive lives.  Caught in his flashlight’s glow were Skunk Larson, the deaf-mute Little Tom, and Smokin’ Al Breen.  He could hear Old Judd talking to himself somewhere in the dark.  Although there were others he now recognized, he had a limit on how far he would go.  After hearing cursing ahead, he stopped abruptly, shut off his light, and stood there pensively in the dark.

          “I’ve been there brothers.” he spoke nervously now. “After hitting the skids, I would sit in the alley like this with my bottle, staring at the dark.  Sometimes I was afraid.  Most of the time I was too drunk to care.  But there’s a greater darkness than this.  It lies inside you, and only the Lord can reach it after you let him in.”  “Let Jesus be your lamp!” his voice rose again.  “Let Jesus be your friend!”

          As he quoted from the Bible, he heard movement in the darkness: a great onrush of bodies seemed headed his way.  He could hear frightened voices and the shuffle of feet as they approached.  For one awful moment, he could smell their unwashed bodies coming closer and closer.  The normal mixture of body odors, garbage, and cheap wine, grew stronger in the air.  Backing up quickly onto the sidewalk, he watched in horror as several of them followed him out.  He found himself bumping into men who had already exited and felt relief as they continued running down the street.  Something had obviously spooked them.  Judging by the glow of their cigarettes, the first group, which included his friends, remained seated while this latter group fled.  As fireflies in blackest night, the remaining derelicts, exhibited the delayed reaction of drunks, rising gradually as points of light, until they, too, emerged on the street.

          For several moments, derelicts, drug addicts, and schizophrenics mulled in the front of the alley in separate groups.  Within each group, there was a further breakdown on the basis of personalities, gender, or age.  Most people on Skid Row, he had found, clumped sooner or later into such cliques, staking out territories in alleys, underpasses, or parks.  Such cliques ranged in size from two or three people to a dozen or more individuals, rallying around one dominant bum.

          Due to their larger numbers, alley bums, such as these, had greater influence in Skid Row.  Not only did they push drug addicts and schizophrenics into the deepest recesses in town, but they kept other derelicts from other alleys out.  Fortunately for Elijah, Smokin’ Al was the alley boss of this group.  Otherwise, this detour on his agenda would be foolhardy, if not downright insane.

          Moved by their collective helplessness now, he prayed for these lost souls, especially for the friends he had known so long.  These, the flotsam of modern society in the most despised sector of town, were acting like children who were afraid of the dark.  Although Elijah had become a nuisance for many of them, for others, like Smokin’ Al, he had given encouragement and hope.  Ironically, Al Bream didn’t drink and, contrary to his name, did not even smoke.  Bronco Stevens, Al’s best friend, however, had been an alcoholic most of his adult life.  He had, over the years, developed liver damage, and grew progressively ill.  All the signs of sclerosis of the liver had been there, but Bronco would not listen until it was too late.  Nevertheless, after much praying and preaching, Al’s friend, at the end of his life, had accepted Christ.  Elijah had stayed with him in the hospital, giving him spiritual comfort throughout his long agonizing death.  When it was over, Smokin’ Al Breen, Old Judd, and Little Tom were waiting for him on the street below.  He knew that he had finally made headway in Al’s group, though it was at the expense of Bronco Steven’s life. 

          Countless others, he was sure, were terminally ill, and many of them who had been released from mental institutions prematurely were still insane.  But the most pitiful wrecks he had ever encountered were the drug addicts, many of which were afflicted with AIDS.  These jittering, perspiring, and pathetic wretches were at the lowest level on Skid Row.  They were feared and despised by even the winos, because of the threat they posed.  Elijah, who had difficulty fighting his own prejudices, felt intimidated, himself, by this group.  He did not mind the vile moods of drunks nearly as much as he did the unpredictability of addicts.  One day, in a drug-induced state, they would pretend to be listening to everything he said.  On the following day, however, they would be scheming for more drugs.  To provide themselves with drug money, in fact, many addicts would waylay their best friends.  There was nothing sacred in Skid Row, except friendship between drunks, and yet many of the same addicts, who claimed to have been saved, would commit murder for a fix.

 

******

          While many of them continued running, other addicts, too weak or disoriented to go much further, lingered on the sidewalks, blinking dumbly in the light.  Most of them were still high on drugs, but a few, who had not provided for their habit, were going through various stages of withdrawal.  The schizophrenics, who included several Afghanistan, Iraq, and even older Viet Nam veterans, were the most nomadic people on Skid Row.  Like many of the drug addicts before them, they continued wandering down the street.  Whatever had driven all these people out of the alley, Elijah realized, still lurked in the shadows.  He could not even imagine what it might be, but various theories were presented to him as he decided what to do.

          On his way toward the alley, he was greeted by Skunk—the most malodorous man on Skid Row.  Skunk, as were all the other drunks in Al’s group except Al, himself, was inebriated.  It was almost impossible to understand what he said.  It sounded like “Don’t go into the alley, there’s crazed addicts in there!”  Several other unintelligible theories were given by members of Smokin’ Al’s group as they stood there on the street.  Old Judd thought that crazed veterans were running amuck.  Finally, as Elijah had hoped, Smokin’ Al, the only sober man in this group, gave his opinion of what had happened tonight.

          “Jive—that’s what they givin’ you rev!” He stuck out his chin. “It was those cars comin’ in tonight.  Lord know what dey doin’ in dere now!”

          “Cars?” Elijah frowned. “What cars?  I’ve never seen cars around here, except police cars.  Was it those hoodlums again?”

          “Wuddn’t no cops this time rev.” he said firmly. “Wuddn’t no hoodlums neither.  Twas three cars filled with people: weirdoes wearin’ black robes.  Leastways das what the druggies was saying.  Only hoods is what wuz on dim people’s heads!”

          “Hoods?” Elijah frowned. “What kind of hoods?”

          “Kind dat hide yo head,” Al explained “like dem folks in da movies.” “You know.” He tried demonstrating with his coat. “Sneaky-like, like dey should be holdin’ candles and sayin’ something spooky and strange.”

          “Devil-worshippers?” Elijah frowned. “Is that what you’re saying, Al?  Devil worshippers chased these folks out?”

          “No.” Al shook his head. “I din’t sayin nuttin.  Das what dem druggies said.  Usually dem folks see’n bats or snakes—stuff dat is abstract, you know, hard to explain.  But dis talk sound solid ‘n real, like dey not makin’ it up.  I heered it from three dif’rent addicts, at three dif’rent times!”

          As he listened to Al talk, Elijah looked passed him at the alley, slowly digesting what he said.  In a court of law Al, who often saw things that weren’t there, wouldn’t be a reliable witness.  But he spoke clearly and reasonably now, and he had never willingly lied about anything in the past.  It seemed possible, for that matter, that what Old Judd claimed might also be true, since a group of vets did, in fact, inhabit the bowels of Skid Row.

          “Well, it’s the end of October, isn’t it?” Elijah mumbled aloud. “…. It’s Halloween.  Sometimes I loose track of time, but I do remember seeing partygoers on Eighth.  They were heading north though, not south.  What on earth would partygoers be doing down here?

          “Maybe dey slummin’ it.” Al shrugged. “Fact is rev’rend, dey’s here in our alley, not on eighth.  You got no business in dere tonight!”

          Probing the darkness a moment, Elijah uttered a nervous laugh as Al followed behind.  He was almost convinced that Al’s devil-worshippers were nothing more than young people having fun.  But the fact remained that something had, in fact, spooked these people, and that something was still inside and had not yet come out.

          “Hol’ on rev!” Al grabbed the back of his coat. “I said you can’t be goin’ in dat alley.  Dem folks, what go in dis alley, up to no good!  You gonna get yo’self kilt!

          “You really think so?” Elijah stopped walking. “What makes you so sure, Al.  You didn’t see them yourself.  How can you be so sure?”

          “I dunno.  Call it gut reaction.  Mebbe da Lawd speakin’ to me now,” Al replied, holding firmly onto his coat. “But you ain’t goin’ in dere rev’rend!  Dey gonna put you in one of dose voodoo trances and cut off yo’ head!”

          A familiar feeling of resolve came over Elijah now, as he listened to the details of what devil worshippers did to preachers like him.  It was hearsay evidence, taken from people who lived in a dream world, spoken by a man who had trouble with reality, himself, and yet it was getting to him.  At the very least, he sensed that a threat waited for him in the darkness beyond.

          “Please.” He reached around to disengage his hand. “I know what I’m doing, Al.  As long as they weren’t speeding, what’s the harm?  Maybe they drove out the other side.  It could be silly kids, playing Halloween games.  The scare, itself, could still have been caused by another addict or lunatic’s hallucination.  Skunk or Old Judd could be right.”  “Come on, Al” He pulled away gently. “The Lord’s with me.  He’ll guide my way!”“

          “He will?” Al looked at him quizzically. “What he say to you rev’?  Why would da Lawd want you to get yo’self kilt?  They ain’t no one left in dat alley cept dem weirdoes; and dey ain’t gonna listen to you tonight rev.  Dey gonna cut you up real fine!  You gonna come out of dat alley a soprano and mebbe even lose yo’ head!

 

******

          Of all the derelicts in Skid Row, Smokin’ Al Breen was his favorite.  He had always, in spite of his surroundings, remained cheerful.  Even now his sense of humor broke through the darkness, putting a smile on Elijah’s face.  But he, like all the other men and women, was agitated tonight.  Except occasional gang members’ cars racing through here during the day, nothing that Elijah could remember had ever affected them like this…. Something evil had come this way.  He was sure of this now.

          Although mentally ill, himself, Smokin’ Al was not a wino and had never used drugs.  An incident, which Al had never explained, had left him emotionally disturbed, but not disoriented as were many derelicts on Skid Row.  Unlike Skunk, Old Judd, and Little Tom, whose dementia had begun with wine, Al could be cured.  Elijah was certain of this.  As the only sober man in this group, he was the most levelheaded.  He was also the closest to God.  Elijah trusted this enigmatic man, whose theory, of all the ones he had heard so far, somehow carried the ring of truth.

          “Al,” he called over his shoulder, “how long ago did they arrive?”

          “Just befo’ you came,” replied Al.  “Dat’s what Blinky and her friends said.  Dis is as far I go, rev!”

          Skunk, Old Judd, and Little Tom, Elijah noted, had already turned back.

          “I wished I’d gotten a look at them.” He swallowed heavily now.  “This doesn’t make sense…. It doesn’t make sense at all!

          “No suh, it don’t…. I wouldn’t go no futhah rev.  Damn it man, thems devil-worshipers up dere!” Smokin’ Al’s voice trailed off in the background as he followed the others into the dark.

 

******

          A foreboding filled him as he watched them depart.  Left by himself to face it alone, he gripped his flashlight as he would a weapon.  His left hand pressed his Bible to his chest.  What waited for him this time in the alley: drug addicts, lunatics, or was it Halloween revelers about to pull a prank?  In spite of his abiding faith, he felt foolish and vulnerable now, as if, for the first time in his career, he had gone too far.

          Alert to sounds and movement all around, Elijah laughed hysterically to himself before uttering the Twenty-third Psalm, “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because God is with me.  His rod and staff, they comfort me.  He preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies.  He anointest my head with oil.  My cup runneth over…”

          As he tried to go on, his throat constricted with fear.  There was no noise now except the sound of his footsteps and a faint rustling ahead.  And yet he could smell something far more ominous than body odor, urine, or alcohol in the air: candles and incense.  He was almost sure of it: odors often associated with religious ceremonies, such as a Black Mass.

          Attempting to recite the Lord’s Prayer now, he found that he was too petrified with fear.  The prayer remained muddled in his head.  In its place a repetitious “Save me Lord!  Give me strength!” poured out of his trembling lips.  He was going much further than he had planned, into the worst pocket of Skid Row.  Could Skunk be right?  Would he be attacked by one of the alley’s numerous addicts?  Or, as Old Judd, warned, would one of the resident psychos waylay him in the dark?  Right now, most of all, he feared Al’s warning the most.  His friend had heard someone give a stereotype description of Satan worshipers.  Up ahead, on the other side of the alley, he would soon find out if he was right.

 

 

******

          Playing off bricks, trash cans, cardboard boxes, and garbage strewn on the ground, Elijah’s flashlight searched for movement in the shadows and signs of life.  After several moments of searching, he realized that he had the remaining alley to himself.  Al had been right.  The homeless, drunks, drug addicts, and even the schizophrenics had been cleaned out.  Normally, this far in, there should be a few addicts or schizophrenics or at least a drunk or two passed out against a wall.  But this time there was not so much as a black cat roaming in the dark.

          As his light focused straight ahead into the blackness, it seemed to reach into the very depths of hell.  In spite of his misgivings, Elijah felt that he was doing the right thing.  It was, he was convinced, God’s will that he check this out.  And yet, viewed logically and intelligently, it seemed quite insane…. Al had asked the right question: “Why would the Lord want him to get himself killed?  He was breaking the cardinal rules for street preachers: never go into an alley late at night and always keep an exit directly at your back.

          Although he could not see or hear them yet, he knew they were there.  Unseen and unheard yet, they could not camouflage their presence.  Not only was there a foul odor emitted by this group, but there was an utter silence that that made him think they were up to no good.

          Finally, quite by accident, one of them bumped a trash can to his left and was caught scrambling away in his light.  Skirting the darkness far ahead, he disappeared into the shadows whence he had come.  Except for the sound of Elijah’s footsteps then, the quiet returned to the alley, until he came closer with his beam.

          Several bodies skirted the light this time before disappearing mysteriously into the dark.  They were, he realized now, veterans, still affected by the horrors of war.  Raising his flashlight higher in the direction of each noise, he found them retreating from the radiance as would wild animals confronted with light.  Marveling at this reaction, Elijah found himself following them further and further in.

          He had no experience preaching to this group.  They were the most illusive derelicts in Skid Row.  Nevertheless, his worst scenario included being attacked by these men.  He didn’t expect to find them running from him.  In the dark, they had been ready to attack, until he showed them light.  This appeared to be symbolic of what they were: night creatures--afraid of God, fleeing from the word as much from the light.  The truth was, of course, these poor men were insane.  Unlike many derelicts who still had a chance, they were not responsible for what they had become.  For them it seemed to be too late.

          “Come back,” he called. “don’t be afraid!  Come out of the darkness!  Please, join us on the street.  You’re lives aren’t over because of what you endured!”

          Lowering his flashlight to his side, he listened expectantly as they hovered in the darkness.

          “My name’s Elijah.” he cried hoarsely. “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  My mission is to bring you the word—the Word of God.  I’ve never met you before.  You’re like ghosts around here; no one has ever seen you up close.  How do you find food?  Where do you sleep?”  “Please,” he said softly “come out of the darkness, into the light!

          As wild animals on the fringe of a campsite, afraid of the fire but not of the camper nearby, they remained hidden in the blackness, as if waiting for their chance.

          “Listen,” Elijah tried another tactic. “I was never in Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan.  I admit it, I dodged service to my county, and I regret it now.  But I had a brother who fought in Iraq.  He’s had problems, too, just like you.  Fortunately, for Ethan, he got help before it was too late.  He found the Lord.  You can too!

          As he rambled on a moment, he could hear one of them whispering warnings to his squad “Watch out men, he’s got a flame-thrower!  He’s trying to flush us out!”.

          As long as he pointed his beam downward and kept talking, they crept continuously up to him, mumbling feverishly to themselves.  But if he even moved it an inch, he could hear them retreating again.  While his beam rose perceptibly higher, his throat constricted once more with fear as the radiance played upon the dark.  As soon as he dropped his beam, they were drawn in, no longer threatened by the beam.  Occasionally, as the light jerked upwards, he would catch glimpses of them.  They seemed to be darting to and fro in the shadows.  Unlike the derelicts, which had been frightened in the night, these men seemed to relish it.  They appeared to be drawn into it.  Hiding in the alleys at all hours, they were rarely seen in the day.  Instead of the deadpan stares of drunks or the desperate look of the homeless, he detected several shabbily clad creatures looking back wild-eyed and fearful at him and to the light in his hands.

          As would drunks and addicts during a binge, they found it difficult to distinguish the real world from fantasy.  Ironically, in spite of his message, they considered him the enemy.  For some reason, they saw a flame-thrower in his hand.  More likely, however, something else had frightened them first to push them this way.  While he walked toward them, scanning with his light, they continued to retreat, until he could no longer catch them in his beam.  The shock had evidently been too great.  He could hear the sound of their footsteps echoing somewhere to his left, as if another corridor intersected this alley not far ahead.  When he raised his flashlight into the space occupied by those men, it seemed to burn endlessly through the darkness, as if there was no end to this alley and it would eventually reach into the depths of hell.

 

******

          Elijah had now passed most of the way through the alley, and yet, so far, he had caught no devil-worshippers or Halloween pranksters in his light.  From out of the shadows now, as if on cue, appeared more drug addicts--the group he trusted the least.  He had not heard their footsteps, until they were at the boundary of his light.  Now, from their own dark corridor, they seemed to appear out of nowhere, several men and women, drawn as moths toward his light.

          Voices, ranging from whispers to shouts, broke the eerie quiet.  At first glance, they all appeared drugged, shuffling trance-like up to him, with smiles, zombie-like expressions, and popeyed looks of awe.  He could hear all manner of nonsense pouring from their mouths, from obscene greetings to outright heckling.  Some of them, however, those afflicted with disease or malnutrition, were not so lucky, trailing miserably after the first onrush.  They reminded him of starving animals searching for food.  These desperate addicts, in spite of their afflictions, could be the most dangerous souls on Skid Row.

          Almost lost in their catcalls and guffaws, was another sound he had to strain to hear.  It sounded like someone groaning in the shadows, but he could not be sure.

          Ignoring the addicts as best he could, he searched for the source of the groan.  After walking only a short distance, he saw something he had missed before with his light: a derelict crumpled against the wall.

          “What is wrong with this man?” he looked back suspiciously at them now.

          “They hit him.” an emaciated young man stepped forward from the group. “Dumb asshole just stood as they approached, like a cat does when it sees the headlights of a car.”

          “Let’s have a look.” Elijah sighed, reaching down to the man. “When did this happen?  How long has he been lying here like this?”

          “He ain’t moved for hours.” The young man wiped his nose. “He sort of hit the wall and bounced onto the ground.”

          Rolling him gently over onto his back, Elijah turned the light directly onto his face.  By now the entire crowd had encircled him.  The man had bruises on his face, which could mean many things for a drunk.  He could, in fact, have been hit by a car.  He could also, as he staggered to find his nest, have walked into the wall accidentally and knocked himself out.  Knowing the reputation of these people, however, Elijah considered one more possibility.  Seeing all the signs of a mugging here, he again held his flashlight as a weapon in his hand as he inspected the man.

          The young man who had chosen to be a spokesman for the others had spoken with remarkable clarity for someone under the influence of drugs, and yet it was he that Elijah feared the most.  A slight caste in one of his eyes made him appear sinister.  He seemed to enjoy the misfortune of this man.

          Focusing his attention now upon to the man, he said a short prayer for him and then asked God to deliver him from this group.  As if Elijah’s words had given him life, the man’s face suddenly twitched and he emitted a groan.  Smiling faintly at him, Elijah kept a wary eye on the addicts as the man came to.

          “Far out man!” the young man cried. “He’s back from the dead!”

          “Wha-a-a-a happenned?” he heard him mumble.

          “You’re injured.” Elijah tried to explain. “I don’t know how bad yet.  They said you were hit by a car.”

          “I-I’m-mm ho-o-kay,” the man’s tongue rolled thickly around in his mouth.

          “Don’t try to move.” Elijah shook his head “You probably need a doctor.  Sit here against the wall until I get help!”

 

******

          During the silence that followed, he saw a flashlight beam, and discovered, with mixed emotions, that a fourth group of derelicts was emerging from the dark.  Realizing that another corridor crossed this alley, he stood there in wonderment, as the last group approached.  As his flashlight beam played upon bricks, concrete, cardboard boxes, and mounds of trash, it finally caught the dark entrances on each side of the alley.  It seemed, in his befuddled state of mind, as if he had stumbled into a great cavern: an underworld city of bums.  When he heard voices again and looked around shakily, the terrible illusion faded, as would a dream within a dream.  It seemed to Elijah at such times that life here on Skid Row was divided into various levels of torment--a nightmare, as in Dante’s Inferno, in which he was preaching the Gospel among the damned.

          When the drunk looked up and saw his friends, he suddenly came alive.  Against Elijah’s advice, he struggled to his feet, shirking off his efforts to give him a helping hand.  His friends were allowed to steady him a moment, then allowed him to go it alone when he was finally standing up.

          “We’ll take care of him,” said the man holding the light. “

          “Suit yourselves,” Elijah snorted, rising to his feet. “He’s a very lucky man.  He sure is drunk!”

          “I’mm-mm not injurrred,” the man said, wobbling around in the dark.

          Turning back to the drug addicts, Elijah wondered when they would leave.  They just stood there in overwhelming numbers, as the fourth group departed, blocking his passage to the end of the alley.  He could hear them talking in murmurs amongst themselves.

          Suddenly, as if the Lord himself had given him a prod, he began gently edging his way through this group.  Silently, without explaining his actions he continued onward, listening to their murmurs of surprise, more afraid, at this point, of what was behind him than what lie ahead. 

          He knew that something waited up ahead but he was not sure what it was.  At least it would not be drug addicts or drunks.  They were now safely behind him as were the vets.  Nor was it gang members or other criminal elements roaming this netherland of Skid Row?  Only God’s fool would enter such a zone, traveling further than any sober or sane person would ever go.

         

******

          As he pressed deeper and deeper into the unknown, he found his legs going where his mind no longer wanted to go.  Pure faith drove him now.  For several more moments into a corridor darker than anything he had ever known where even the lunatics and addicts didn’t go, he walked quietly, his flashlight trained directly ahead.  When he thought he might have escaped danger and that there was nothing more menacing left to find, he stopped and pondered the dark.  He had thought he was close to the exit now, but suddenly the alley seemed to deepen…  Had Al’s devil-worshippers gone out the other side?  Or was there actually miles of alley ahead?  This question, which he tried shrugging off, seemed absurd, and yet the illusion, if that’s what it was, was stark and menacing.  Where there more denizens lurking ahead.  Not wanting to believe this was the case, he was tempted to pivot, at this point, and report back to his friends.  He would like to say, with a clear conscious, that he had found nothing up here.  He was a preacher, after all, and an ex-street person, himself.  He felt ill equipped emotionally to confront devil-worshippers, if that is what they were.  This kind of stuff was in novels and movies.  He had always considered these types of people to be phonies; harmless fools who had taken a wrong turn.  He had preached a simple and fundamentalist message, which was devoid of supernaturalism and belief in the occult.  He did not believe in ghosts, witches, or sorcerers, as did many of the Jamaican and Haitian people on the street.  And yet here he was plunging into the unknown, half convinced that Satanists had invaded Skid Rows…. Now, however, as he looked back into the darkness, it seemed too late to retreat.  He had traveled too far down the alley, which never seemed to end.

          It was at the very moment that he saw the end.  There it was, he thought, sighing with relief: the alley exit.  He could see a street lamp ahead.  But then suddenly, at that point, several meters ahead, he saw a second light from the alley wall.  It was a mere crack of radiance below a door—probably the side entrance to a building on the next street.  Almost immediately, in spite of the terror he felt, he found himself pressing forward but stopping just short of the door.  Coming from inside the building, he heard voices and resounding echoes that originated deep within the room.  Again, as he approached the door, he recited the Twenty-third Psalm.  This time he followed it with a hurried recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  While scanning the brick wall beyond the first door, he discovered a second door: a large corrugated entrance that looked like a shipment door.  This small door was merely an exit, perhaps an emergency exit, while an aged sign over the corrugated door read “Receiving.”  Though he saw light around the edges of the door it was locked.  After trying to raise the shipping door, he found it locked too.  Tiptoeing onto the street, as if he was crossing a minefield, he emerged onto the sidewalk.  Looking up he saw a third sign, obviously the marquee of the building that read in faded letters Faber and Sons, he approached the main entrance with the greatest trepidation.  There were cars parked on the street, which should have been another warning sign for Elijah, and yet he reached for the doorknob, turned it, and found it unlocked.  Uttering a plea to God for forgiveness for his foolishness, he muttered Christ’s words to his disciples, “Thou shall not tempt to Lord.”

Entering a shadowy room, which might have been the receptionist room but was now barren of furniture or décor, he kept his light trained on the floor and listened to voices deep in the bowels of the building.   He expected to hear the conventional mumbo jumbo heard during satanic rites, but instead he heard laughter and merriment.  The current room, in fact, upon close inspection, seemed to be a receptionist’s room at one time.  There was a counter in front of the fourth door.  Behind the counter was an ancient pull-away desk, a rusty filing cabinet, barren shelves along the walls, and an empty trash can nearby, all of which indicated to him that it had not been used in this capacity for a long time.  How vandals or thieves had missed writing graffiti or stealing the remaining chair behind the desk, he couldn’t imagine.  Why the third door was unlocked was also a mystery to him now.  In spite of his suspicions and fear, however, he pressed his ear to the fourth door and listened to noise on the other side.  The muffled sounds seemed to indicate that a party was in progress.  Turning the doorknob, he opened the door.  A faint creaking—the sound of an inner sanctum, caused him to jump and utter a startled gasp.  After shining his light down a short passageway, he discovered yet another door. 

          Without pausing, he found himself turning its knob, opening the fifth door, and, in slow, measured increments, climbing up a rickety timeworn staircase.  Each step creaked and moaned—bringing to mind again the proverbial inner sanctum.  By now Elijah was certain that they must have heard him.  At the top of the stairs, he discovered a darkened balcony, which allowed him to overlook what seemed to be warehouse below.  Quickly, he turned off his flashlight. 

          Several dozen men and women were socializing in Halloween costumes, ranging from hooded monks to caped vampires.  Because of the large volume of participants, he assumed that many of them had entered the warehouse from the street, just as he had.  Clearly, his mind rejoiced, this was not a Black Mass or Satanic orgy.  One of his original suspicions proved to be true.  These were simply young adults (college or high school students) in the midst of Halloween revelry.  The hooded monk was probably one of the devil-worshippers Al had seen…. Is this what had frightened the derelicts out of the alley?  He wondered.  It didn’t seem likely to him.  Could it have been something else he hadn’t seen?  Or had Skunk or Old Judd been right?  Had one of the addicts gone berserk earlier or had it been the vets all along?… What had caused the panic and stampede out the other end of the alley?

          Quietly retracing his steps, Elijah walked down the noisy staircase, thankful that there was so much noise down below.  When he emerged in the street below, he looked around, wondering which way to go.  There was no alley left to search.  Should he circle around and return to his friends or call it a night and return to his apartment downtown.  Deciding to return and report “all clear” to his friends waiting on the next street, he began putting distance between himself and the building. 

          It was at that very moment that something flew passed the corner of his eye.  Directly ahead now he saw the headlights of a swiftly moving car.  With less than a moment to get out its way, he cursed himself for testing God and placing his life at risk.  Would he suffer the same fate of poor Harold Longland, a bygone friend targeted by a drunken motorist?  What if he swerved, ran up on the curb, and tried to run him down, as the motorist had done to Harold?  Where could he hide?  What recess could he find?  Looking around for entryways and more alleys, he found an endless row of boarded up buildings with shallow entrances but no place to hide.

          As the car slowed down a few meters down the boulevard, as if to toy with him before plunging ahead, he uttered a portion of the Lord’s prayer and then began whimpering miserably to himself:  “Please Lord, let him pass me by.  I have much more work to do for you.  Don’t let them run me down!”  Convinced that this was exactly what he was going to do, he pressed himself as flat as he could against a nearby wall, held his breath, and waited for it to approach.  As he stood there holding onto an ancient drainpipe, he found his memory traveling back over time in which he had fallen from society and wound up a derelict on the street.  It had been a long and heart-rending odyssey and it seemed to be ending now.  But as he opened his eyes and looked straight ahead, the car remained stopped, engine rumbling and lights piercing the dark.  It just sat there a moment, until he heard the doors open and shut.  Shadows emerged, halting momentarily, as they caught sight of Elijah.  Soon he heard the faint sound of footsteps coming from that direction, its occupants—dark robed figures with flashlights in their hands were walking his way.

          In the glow of their lights now, he felt trapped, not knowing whether he should flee or stay.  If he fled, they could easily run him down.  If he stayed, there was no telling what they would do.  So far they had said nothing intimidating to him.  They had even stopped to avoid running him over.  They walked ever so slowly in a nonchalant way, politely training their beams to the ground.  And yet they symbolized in his confused and disoriented mind all that was evil in life.  Were they, as Al surmised, devil-worshippers and evil purveyors of the black arts?

          When they were a few meters from where he stood, he spiritually took the offensive.  He began quoting scripture to them as if they were just ordinary bums.  While he sermonized, he heard one of them talking but ignored him, fearing to break his concentration at such a time.  Caught in the glow of a street lamp across the street now, were outsiders, not denizens of Skid Row, and yet the most terrifying specters he had seen.  With shaven heads and tattooed necks and arms, six gang-bangers approached Elijah, mischief in their dark eyes.

          “Hey,” the tallest and meanest looking Hispanic called out, “you’re that preacher bum I saw up in Pershing Square!”

          “That’s him all right,” a squat, bowlegged youth nodded. “My Uncle Diego told me about him.  His name’s Elijah, like that dude in the Bible.”

          For a moment, their banter almost sounded friendly.  Perhaps, he thought hopefully, they were just being whimsical and wanted to make fun of him for a while.  But then, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth Hispanic youth stepped forth.  As they began mocking him, Elijah’s mind reeled with images of his own destruction.

          “Hey, preacher let’s hear a prayer,” the third youth taunted.

          “Yeah, padre,” a fourth sneered, “perform a miracle for us.  Turn my piss into wine.”

          While waving a shiny knife, the fifth Hispanic merely sneered, while a sixth, recalling another famous passage, suggested he raise himself from the dead.  Lord, Elijah whispered to himself, is this how you want me to end?  I’ve been faithful and have fought to good fight.  Long ago, after changing my life, I’ve tried to live a righteous life.  I’ve dedicated my life in service to you.  I have so much to do for the downtrodden and misbegotten.  Please save me now.  Don’t let these thugs harm your servant.  If I die, who will minister on Skid Row?

          Suddenly, as he prayed with his eyes shut, he was surrounded by the six youths.  It had happened in the past.  To prove their machismo and callous disregard for law and order, another beating—perhaps murder—at the hands of gang-bangers was about to commence.  Opening his eyes, he looked around at their shadowy forms, expecting to feel fists pummeling him, perhaps knives, until he heard a deep voice in his mind say, “Fear not, Elijah. I’ve heard your prayer.  Warn them once.  Then, if necessary, in my name, strike them down!”

          “I speak for the Lord,” Elijah shouted in a shaky voice. “Back off.  Don’t tempt God’s anger.  Hurry, while there’s still time.  Flee this place and never come back!”

          “Ho-ho.” The chief gang member snickered. “He’s threatening us.  He wants us to runaway.  This guy’s got balls.  He speaks for God!  He parades around as preacher, but he’s just another stinking bum!”

          A pipe materialized in the sixth gang member’s hand, and the fifth Hispanic who brandished the knife, brought back his blade.  As the other youths pulled out brass knuckles and more knives, voices sounded from the door Elijah had exited, “What’s going on over there?  What are those guys doing?… Hey, we’re calling the police!”  While the Halloween merrymakers stood helplessly by and watched Elijah’s apparent demise, the ground shook below the preacher.  After this, as the Spirit of the Lord filled Elijah, there was thunder and then the crackle of lighting out of the clear, cloudless, night sky.   A flash of light around their silhouettes, accompanied by a collective gasp, was followed by an eerie sight.  For a moment, Elijah looked around the group in wonder: he could see their bone structure against the light and smell burning flesh.  The evil rampage of this gang against helpless vagrants had ended.  Rising up onto his legs after cowering on the sidewalk, Elijah watched his tormentors crumple and break apart into ashes that were blown away in a sudden gust of wind.

          At that point, a young man in a Buzz Lightyear costume edged forward. “Whoa,” he hooted, “did you see that?”

“Yeah,” a female voice sounded, “what a way to end Halloween night!”

 A third young man dressed as a cowboy outfit slapped his knee. “That was awesome, mister! How’d you do it?  That was trick, right?  Where’s those guys go?  They seemed to vanish in thin air!”

          At least two dozen more costumed figures—cartoon characters, goblins, vampires, and ghosts muttered in awe, until a tall, muscular girl masquerading as a zombie stepped forth.

          “No,” she exclaimed, frowning at the others. “As one of the designated drivers, I’m not drunk.  Didn’t you feel that shaker and hear thunder?  Lighting struck those gang-bangers, turning them into carbon fragments.”  “This wasn’t an illusion or parlor trick.” She visibly shuddered. “…. When the police arrive, this is going to be hard to explain.”

          “Don’t worry,” a masked vampire reassured her. “I was told about this place.  The police avoid it like the plague.  This is Skid Row.  It’ll take them an hour to answer this call.”

          “Well, we were trespassing,” the zombie reminded them. “That building might be abandoned, but it belongs to someone.  Half of us are under age.  We reported a gang-banger attack in front of Faber and Sons Warehouse.  The police can’t ignore that.  Let’s get-the-hell out of here before they arrive!”

            Moving hastily to their cars parked on the street, they barely gave him anymore notice.  Fear of being caught outweighed Elijah’s miracle, which was just as well, he thought.  How could he ever explain what happened to patrolmen when the asked him what happened.  Light-headedly, as he began sprinting down the block, he imagined a play script in his mind. 

Policeman: “Did you call in a potential homicide?” one of them might ask.

“No, officer,” Elijah could see himself replying, “Halloween merrymakers made the call.”

“Where are they?” a second policeman would challenge. “I don’t see any merrymakers.  Are you drunk sir?”

“No, officer,” Elijah would insist. “It’s true.  Because they were afraid of getting into trouble, they went home.  Many of them were underage.”
          “All right sport.” The officer would snarl after a cursory inspection. “You tell me yourself, what happened here tonight.”

“It’s like this officer,” Elijah would try explaining, “a gang of Hispanics attacked me, and the Lord struck them dead…”

The remainder of the story he would tell them (unless he lied) was too fantastic—just the sort of thing a burnt out drunk might tell.  Although police force paid little attention to Skid Row bums, he avoided such encounters.  No one was going to believe his story, especially the police. 

“No,” he told himself, as he pivoted sharply right at the corner and headed for his small apartment downtown, “I know what happened…. So did those kids.  It’s not an illusion as some of them thought or a hallucination.  I witnessed a miracle.  The Lord saved me.  My faith has paid off!” 

Feeling stronger in his belief than ever before in his checkered life, Elijah Gray called it a night and, after visiting the all-night diner near his apartment, turned in for a well-earned rest.