Sunday, 6 A.M.
Had you seen his eyes from the civilian side of the cell bars, you’d have sworn the man was watching TV. That same vacant, drop-jawed mentally challenged gaze of wonder. The looker was Vincent Howle staring into nothing, searching for connections between losing his wife, being labeled the Devil and landing in jail.
Vincent blinked slowly, then pressed his palms into his eyes. His synapses were impaired, dulled, like seeing the world through a shower curtain. Inside his head, thoughts that ought to have been tiny lightning flashes of clarity and natural good sense were instead a floating muddle of bewilderment surfing a tide of Jack Daniels. I’m in jail, Vincent Howle thought. Again. Then after a pause he listened for a second opinion. “Dear God,” he whispered. “This can’t be real.”
In a deep cave from somewhere around his fifteenth birthday, he heard the preacher’s voice. The tall, lanky reverend moved with the robotic actions of a miniature wooden figure that milks a cow when the wind blows just right. “How do we know what is real?” the preacher had shouted rhetorically, thrusting his arms up and down then answering his own question before anybody could reply. “What is our sixth sense?” he demanded with the rising inflection of a Final Jeopardy answer. “The sixth-ah senseis the grace of G a w d-ah,” he shouted, stretching the Lord’s name in a horizon-to-horizon rainbow. “Forgiveness is the sixth-ah!” Then swooning like the worst white dancer you ever saw he sang out in that revival voice, “the Fa-ther-ah, the Son-ah, the Ho-ly Ghost-tah,” his words loud and rhyming, like Red-Ro-va, Red-Ro-va send Vin-cent right O-va. Fifteen-year-old Vincent, caught up in the mesmerizing passion of the moment, spontaneously yodeled from a pew near the back, “It’s-the 6-ah, 6-ah, 6-ah that’s real-ah!!” like a ra-ra-ra football cheer.
That night, after a few cold ones he’d bought from a bootlegger at a joint called Best Stretch, Vincent answered the knock at his trailer door, and when he did, four of the church deacons slapped him silly. “We’re gonna beat the Devil outta you, boy,” one said.
“I’m sorry,” Vincent shouted, throwing up his arms against the whirling hive of flying fists. “I didn’t mean it,” he kept saying as he ducked and dodged.
“6-6-6! You don’t know what sorry is!” said another.
With tears slinging from his cheeks, Vincent shouted, “I love you, Lord. I love you, Lord.”
Vincent turned from the cell bars. “I’m in jail,” he said, as if the repetition might jar him loose from a bad dream. Behind him, one of the inmates, another drunk, attempted what looked like one-armed pushups as he steadied himself and urinated against the wall.
“I think I’ll take this situation one sense at a time,” Vincent said to nobody in particular. Smells like drunk whiz against a jail cell wall. Sounds like a demolition derby inside my head. Feels like cheap tequila when you pass it through your nose. Tastes like the tequila that doesn’t quite make it all the way. Looks like hard time. He totaled the five. Vincent ruled out any possibility of a number six, redemption. “Adds up to some bad luck,” he said.
“Bad luck,” he said again. His brain was like a dull knife trying to slice and dice what he knew in order to pare some sense out of what he couldn’t understand. He remembered walking into The Paradise Lounge the night before, the whole crowd singing Every Time I Roll The Dice, and sort of remembered George Miles, the bartender saying, “Bo, you’re drunker than a dog,” and offering to drive Vincent home. Otherwise, Vincent didn’t know where to begin. He thought, Where do you draw the starting line for bad luck?
Correct, a shadowy figure resembling Alex Trebek said.
Did it start the night before with his first drink at The Paradise Lounge, or with the accompanying thoughts of Arnelle and her former lover, Roy?
Limit your responses to a single question, Trebek instructed.
How do you know when you’ve somehow crossed the line?
Alex stood mute, expressionless. Did bad luck originate for Vincent with the 666 blunder at revival services or before there even was a Vincent? Did it begin with Arnelle’s lips on Roy’s lips? Would you place the point of bad luck’s origin at the moment Vincent opened the bedroom door on Arnelle and Roy?
More specific, Alex instructed.
When you saw the naked back of your wife bronco-riding a man who bellowed the lyrics to She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes?
“BINGO!”Alex said with a tight-lipped smile.
Vincent slowly tilted back his head and shut his eyes, just as he had the night before at the request of the state trooper. “Buddy,” Vincent pleaded to Alex, “where does this road come out?”
“Buddy,” Alex answered, “hit don’t.”