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The Steeple’s Shadows

words by D.M. Leopold
09.02.2010

Seville slouched at the end of the line near a timid child with sockets plunged so deep in his skull that the arches of his brows cast dour shadows over his chubby cheeks as a vagrant breeze pilfered the sweet pungent sting of pulverized ginger and garlic and powdered curry spices wafting from his dark starchy hair. His mother hurriedly raised her hands to her restlessly flapping lips and restrained an embarrassed little chortle as her sari, tousled by the wind, tickled the tops of her hairy big toes.

The boy dawdled with a tangle of stanchions, latching and unlatching the metallic loops like some prepubescent bouncer slumping rather meagerly over the velvet rope. He opened a path from Seville to the front of the line where a skinny fellow recklessly flailed his limbs in the foolish hope he could will the wheels of the giant slot machine to stop on a winning combination. The leviathan’s shadow menaced the child, threatening to topple and crush his bony spine.

The boy turned his back to point at the large stuccoed castle across the street.

“Can we go there next?” he begged, reattaching the rope as they scooted forward one place in line.

Seville followed the aim of the child’s finger beyond the building’s turrets to the parking lots below and the desolate alleys sprawling toward the neon pink glow of an electrified cross buzzing in the night.

Earlier in the day, Seville had pushed his way into the church’s dimly lit vestibule where a concrete statue of Mary stood, facing him, as the weathered wooden doors, grown into the arch of the church’s entrance, creaked to a close behind him. He picked at the vibrant paint chipping away from her face and a fleck pricked his skin beneath the fingernail and he squeezed his knuckle tightly, to stem the pain.

He snuck into the chapel where the pilled crimson carpet unfurled down the center of the church between two long aisles of empty pews and awaited Sunday mornings and the shuffling feet of parishioners trudging toward the alter to cower beneath the massive beams of a steel cross dangling above. Sunlight poured through the stained glass windows, each depicting a station of the cross, and lighted the path to crucifixion as particles of dust lingering in the air turned blue and green and yellow.

Seville approached a row of steepled confessionals with their ornate carved peaks, unlit, like dominos waiting to be toppled, and reached out his swarthy hand to rap his knuckles against one of the doors. Unsure if he’d arouse a priest, Seville cautiously peered into the darkness.

Inside the tiny room a thin bench worn at the front by the sweaty thighs of nervous sinners awaiting their penance invited Seville to take a seat, if only for a moment or two. He nestled himself onto the cold slats near a screen latticed by delicate curves of wood with a shade covering the opening so he couldn’t see through to the other side. With the door closed behind him, he tucked his head into the hard and unforgiving corner and worked to nod off. He shifted his rear across the bench anxiously until his mind simply gave up on consciousness and drifted into thoughtless meditation. As his mouth hung wide and his tongue began to shrivel, the partition opened with a whoosh and startled Seville into a state of dreamy alertness.

“In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit,” the priest whispered, crossing himself.

Seville wondered if he should say something. He wanted to slip away into the church, then burst through the heavy doors and out into the day and keep running until the steeple faded from sight. He felt compelled, though, to speak to the wild-haired silhouette lurking in the void.

“I’m not really sure I belong here.”

“That’s alright. I know you were resting, son. Tell me though, are you Catholic?”

“I just wanted someplace quiet.”

“You may find the relief you need in the Lord.”

Seville felt accosted, as if a bum had approached him on the street looking for money to buy booze.

“Are you suffering, son? Because sometimes we must suffer here on earth to reap the rewards of heaven.”

Seville shoved the door open with his foot and hustled through the chapel, but the priest, a blurry white blob over his shoulder, gave chase for a stride or two and hollered, “Do nothing and nothing shall come of it, but act and you shall receive.”

As his voice echoed through the hall, the priest made his way back into the booth and an old lady scooted off her pew, heading into the confessional to bear her withered soul.

Seville’s gaze returned to the child whose crooked finger now pointed at him. He feared he uttered words during his memory and the child accused him of talking to himself, but the boy’s flat feet tumbled over each other and his aim swung to the left. He spun in circles to while away the boredom of watching his mother, painted red in the reflection of the reeling machine, hold her breath. She wrung her hands in anticipation of a life altering windfall, but fate sent the pair away empty handed.

The sun-soaked brunette managing the line beckoned Seville and, as he delved into the spasm of flashing lights, he caught her stealing a glance at a strand of rope swaying overhead. A net, attached to the yellowed twine, patiently awaited the moment when the shiny bits of paper detained in its mesh could suffocate the grand prize winner who dreamed of mansions, foreign cars, and the cut the government would skim off the top. When her eyes, bulging from the surgically tightened skin of her face, met his, Seville felt he might win tonight.

He clasped the giant plastic ball at the end of the slot machine’s arm and tugged toward the earth with his whole body, not letting go until the cherries, blurry behind the smudged plexi glass windows, started to whirl.

But the wheels locked into place with a kachug, settling on three blank spaces as they sometimes do and the lady shrugged her shoulders and handed Seville a coupon for a buy one get one free at the casino’s all you can eat buffet.

“Another day, another dollar,” her glistening, Botox swollen lips pouted. “We’ll see you again tomorrow, right?”

Seville tucked tail and tossed the ticket onto a stack of the brightly colored slips piled at the bottom of a rusted out trashcan, then headed toward the people mover gliding up the gentle slope near the casino. The lights of passing cars streaked the canopy above him orange and red and then disappeared through the end of the tube where the thumping of overstressed stereos rumbled through the night.

At the crest of the hill, a greasy old filth pot with oily hair minded a shrunken replica of the slot machine quelling the hopes of the dreamers below. He sat on a bar stool with a green leathery cushion squelched beneath the weight of his dimpled ass. The straps of a beige apron pulled down on his sagging body with the burden of all the players he’d sent away disappointed.

A head of permed thinning hair bobbed in a clear plastic bonnet at the front of the line. The woman’s veiny arms drooped with excess skin as she pulled on the machine’s silver handle, but she was not disillusioned with the hope of grand prizes. Instead, the liver-spot-speckled hand of her sturdy husband clutched her elbow as they scooted toward the old man who dug into his pockets to pluck a coupon from the apron’s depths even before the wheels stopped spinning.

Exhausted by age, he reclined back onto his seat and let the dirty lenses of his tarnished glasses drift over the amblers slipping into the casino’s side door where Seville hid behind a fake plastic tree, afraid the man might holler to him like some carny who spotted a sucker in the crowd.

But his attention turned to the glut of short skirts and propped cleavage making its way through the surge of people trudging over the bridge and the traffic below. Seville dodged the codger’s gaze by ducking in to the congestion of flesh and he waddled over the span in an ape like half crouch, but he stumbled, his arms flailed, and he gasped.

“Next,” the old man yelled, gurgling through the phlegm sticking in his throat.

Seville was startled. He was at the front of the line.

“You going or not?” The impatient sot sized up the boy in front of him, but thoughts of fate and free will crowded Seville’s mind. Not a single synapse sparked, and he couldn’t settle on any words to speak.

“Look, I’ll make it easy for you.” He fished through his trousers and pulled out a chip encircled in black and golden stripes.

“This side, you play,” he said and showed Seville a lion’s head. “This side, you walk.” He flipped the disc and rested the chip on his yellowed thumbnail.

Seville heard his knuckle crack as he flicked the coin into the space between them. The man jutted his elbow from his side like a wing to swipe the chip from the air, but his atrophied muscles failed to respond and by the time his hand swatted the void in front of him the chip had bounced beneath the stool. Seville leaned over like a child watching a magician to see if the coin had disappeared. But the lion’s head lay there, growling.

“Alright, step on up. Fate’s made up her mind, son.”

Seville shook his head in denial.

“I think I’ve had my share tonight.” He turned to make his way across the bridge and the old man shrugged and started to bark at a middle aged woman, clad in absurd couture garb from head to toe, waiting for her chance to play.

Seville paused to let his hands dangle over the cars waiting at the light below and he rubbed at the point in his palm where the creases converged in an effort to calm his tireless nerves, but a scream, urgent and diabolic, erupted from the horde behind him and he whirled around in fear. Men, young and old, rushed toward the tizzy while some cowered and others craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the unraveling spectacle as they frisked themselves to ensure their wallets and limbs were still in place. Seville expected the sirens to blare and cops to emerge with their guns blazing. Instead he watched the gaudy woman hopping up and down, emitting shrieks at the peak of each leap.

“Christ,” Seville muttered to himself as the old bastard scooted off his stool to scrutinize the combination on the wheels. She had indeed won the grand prize.

D.M. Leopold‘s work has appeared in Gloom Cupboard. With a B.A. in Creative writing, his newest blog is thepoliticalpoemsofdmleopold.blogspot.com.  He lives, writes, and works in Richmond, Virginia.

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