The following was written in 2007 as part of a contest in which I would write one lucky/unlucky fan into the Failed Cities. The winner, Jack Townsend, was one of the original Failed Cities super fans. He proved such a loyal and true soldier, in fact, that eventually I hired him on fulltime. He’s been my intrepid webmaster and lieutenant of all things digital ever since.
“How a Street Preacher Is Born” is one of a dozen such glimpses of never before seen corners and characters that comprise the all-new anthology Steel Graffiti: Stories from the Failed Cities.
Steel Graffiti will be included in THE FAILED CITIES—DEFINITIVE EDITION coming to all e-reading formats on November 14th.
“How a Street Preacher Is Born”
They come out of the Steel Seminary with their collars starched deadman-stiff and their tab shirts steamed clean, swinging their bata sticks the same way cherries swing their pricks: awkward as hell without knowing it.
The new boy in our House is Reverend Helljack. Five dollar handle like that’ll get you a razzing from the ranks all by itself. It doesn’t help his cause that he’s a walking, talking ad for Alpine Mist; a 6’1” Nordic blonde with princely features that are considered legal tender in the jailhouses where some of the more reformed members of our order once served time.
Reverend Mallet says the kid should’ve been a masseuse, that Nords are only good for rubbing down rich old biddies in some swank ski resort. You won’t get much mileage out of telling Mallet about Scandinavia a thousand years past; he thinks the Norse God of Thunder is a digimetal band.
His bata stick hasn’t got a mark on it and neither does the kid holding it in hands that can’t keep from shaking just a little bit and I ask Reverend Helljack if he’s ready to tend the flock.
“Hurdy Gur,” comes his answer, and I ponder whether he’s been scared dumb and gibbering ‘til he cracks the thinnest ghost of a smile and I realize it’s a piece of his personal catch-speak.
Initiation for the newbies is their first night walk, their first patrols taking the Steel Gospel to the streets. We don’t swear them in ourselves; we just escort them to it. For Reverend Helljack it’s a trio of laced 38th Street tribesmen busting the security grid of a corner store. He come up on them about an hour into Helljack’s debut patrol and I tell him it’s time to get his other stick wet.
He looks ready and like he knows good and damn well he’s not ready at the same time.
They always do.
We let the newest Reverend feel us standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him, let him feel strong and protected and goddamn legion in his mightiness. And then we hang back. It’s a little like a mama bird nudging her hatchling off the branch and a lot like throwing raw meat to a pack of rabid dogs. I took thirty stitches in the crown the night they pulled the same gag on me, and I was considered no less than a prodigy in my Seminary days.
Helljack’s in it up to his eyeballs before he knows he’s flying a solo mission. You can see the big cartoon storm clouds in his eyes right away, but I give him high marks for his recovery. The good reverend swallows his medicine and belts out two licks for every shot he takes. If they’ve got the sand for it, attrition is the sword and shield of the inexperienced, and Reverend Helljack wins that battle in spades.
In the end there’s three bodies on the pavement and one of the Neo Ricans gets away. The third body is Helljack, braced on his hands and knees trying to keep his broken ribs from forcing his guts up into his throat. We stand tall over him, waiting for it. Comedy or tragedy. They only ever wear one of those masks after the first beatdown.
“Hurdy Gur,” the kid coughs up through about a pint of his own juice. And then he smiles.
That’s how street preachers are born: in their own blood, from a womb of stained concrete and starless night. We swaddle them in a few skinny words of praise, a slap on the back, and the first notch in their bata stick. Their wounds heal, then scab over hard. The rest of them does, too.
That’s the steel you can only acquire outside the Seminary.
To preach the Gospel you can’t be made from anything less. Not in the Failed Cities.