By Jeff Blechle
Rabbi Walsh raises his mud-caked boot against the swirling black storm and drives his heel into Murphy's flank. The donkey lets out a human howl, slips on a wet rock and goes down in a clap of thunder. In the valley below, an innkeeper is reattaching his downspout as Walsh and Murphy splatter down the hillside, unnoticed. The innkeeper ducks inside and pulls a wet newspaper off his head.
"Where's that damned priest?" asks a man who has been drinking from a bottle of rye. No one else is in the place.
"He's not a priest, he's a rabbi," snaps the innkeeper. "And he rides a donkey."
"Rabbi? I told you to call me a priest!"
"Rabbi, priest . . . what's the difference?" The innkeeper swims behind the bar and pours himself a glass of bourbon, neat. "And fifty bucks is very reasonable for an exorcism. I should charge a finder's fee."
The man sprays the innkeeper's face with whiskey. "Fifty dollars! I told you I needed a priest! My daughter is possessed by the devil up there and you call me a shyster rabbi!"
"If you ask me, that kid don't need a priest, she needs some discipline. Between you and that destructive brat up there you're gonna get some hellacious bill."
"You'll watch your mouth, man!"
The innkeeper smacks his towel against the bar and writes up a bill with excessive flourishes and underlinings, culminating in a paraph that requires a second sheet of paper.
"Why you dirty -"
An animal-like growl swoops down the stairs and silences the enraged man. The two men turn their eyes slowly toward the dark oak staircase that fades upward into a dim yellow light. The light flashes and goes out.
"My Freda," the man says meekly, turning to the innkeeper. "What happening to her?"
The bartender makes a mental note of the price of a light bulb.
The chilling roar comes again and echoes throughout the building like a chorus of sawed-on church bells. A bottle of gin rattles off a shelf. The two men rush to a corner table with a bottle of whiskey. After a few horrified guzzles, there is a pounding at the door.
"I want you and that monster out of here!" the innkeeper says in a tremble, shuffling toward the door with his hand over his thumping heart. When he unlatches the door, Rabbi Walsh bursts in like a returning fetus and shakes off the wetness and his gold round-rimmed glasses fall to the floor.
"Hoysheesh! I'm getting too old for this, Mike! I got a busted ankle and a knot on my head the size of Sinai, thanks to that bewitched donkey, may he rot! Some trade-in for a '71 Buick, huh?" He looks back and forth at the two dour faces as he wrings his brown beard. "What? You two geniuses think I can afford rain gear because I'm saving a few clams a week on gas? Meanwhile, where's this big emergency I braved the storm for?"
The customer lurches up to Walsh and grabs his arm. "Father, please I -"
"Listen," Walsh says, pulling away with a disgusted scowl and throwing his dripping hands at him, "I'm no father, especially not yours, handsome." Adjusting his skullcap, he chuckles darkly and addresses the innkeeper, "This might seem ironic, Mike, but I could certainly put a glass of water to good use. And that rotten mule outside, may he soon rest in peace, could use a kick in the ass, no pun intended." He hobbles a few steps. "Look at this ankle joint here! You know a pretty young nurse in the village? And I use 'pretty' as an adverb, mind you."
Mike returns from the bar with a glass of whiskey and offers it to Walsh.
"Are you kidding me? You know I'm a man of the cloth. I'm in league with the Almighty and you try to defile me with-"
"FOR THEE, PIOUS RABBI, AND FOR THY ANGELS I HAVE PREPARED WORMS WHICH NEVER DIE! UH HU HU HU HU HU!" The hideous outburst from upstairs trails off in a rumble of thunder, sending the hackle on Walsh's neck to its horizontal limit and his eyes spiraling as if a knife has pierced his back.
"Holy Cow!" The rabbi snatches the whiskey and inhales it with his eyes bulging behind his spectacles. "I'm allergic to worms! Listen, I must have made a wrong turn off that cliff! Goodnight!" He spins but as he grabs the door handle, he feels an enormous hand grip his shoulder.
"And where do you think you're going, preacher?"
"If it's any of your business, I'm going to get me and my ass away from this place!" He puts his hand to the side of his bearded mouth. "Hey Murph, I could use a little help in here!"
"Look, this bum says you exorcise evil spirits for fifty dollars, and you're going to do it!" The man turns Walsh around and pushes him toward the staircase. He shoves Mike after him and then pulls out a gun. "And you're going with him, you swindler barkeep!"
Walsh leans toward Mike, adjusts his glasses and mutters, "You told me over the phone this was an emergency bar mitzvah. I told you last time, no more exorcisms. You couldn't call that priest I recommended?"
"I kept getting his answering machine," Mike whispers as they cautiously ascend the stairs. "I'm ready to sell out anyway, start over with a boot shop or something. People want to drink spirits, not be harassed by them, you know? Only after I bought this place was I informed that it was built on an ancient burial ground. You work and you slave and-"
The man fires his gun into the ceiling. "Get going! Move! Move! Move!"
After a few frantic steps the rabbi leans close to Mike's ear and whispers, "Why always in a bed? Every exorcism I hear about, the guy's thrashing around in a bed. So who's he hurting? I say let the demon run its course and then maybe you're out, what, a new set of sheets and a couple pillow cases? This is nutty. I shouldn't have to moil over some attention-happy poltergeist to supplement my income. And Murph, he eats fifty dollars in two sittings, and now they got this new leash law ordinance-" The rabbi stops and rubs his beard. "And how come nobody ever gets possessed by angels? Them satanists would finally have to go to work, that's how come."
Mike grabs Rabbi Walsh and says in a quiet panic, "I ain't going up there I tell ya. Not after last time when I had to help you with that possessed shriner in the honeymoon suite. I'm a bartender not a deacon."
"You'd rather get shot?"
Mike follows Walsh's gaze down to the anguishing father, who appears inconsolable as he checks the change return on the payphone.
"You'll do fine," Walsh says, patting the man's hand as they make the landing and shuffle down the dark hallway. "I ain't saying you won't be killed like most deacons do when they assist on their second assignment, I'm just saying you'll do fine standing between me and that violent, thrashing demon. Besides, a deacon barkeep you can replace, but a rabbi exorcist? Come on!"
When Walsh opens the door to the room, objects are floating around in disco lighting and a teenage girl wearing men's pajamas is dancing on her head just above the trouncing mattress. She looks happy.
"Whosis whatsis!" Walsh shouts, just before a bowling trophy smacks him over his skullcap and drops onto his toe. As he's hopping around squeezing his boot, Mike picks up his bowling trophy, which he had placed in the room to justify his pricey rates, and mombos toward the inverted child with a deranged face.
Walsh hops to the child's rescue without wanting to, trips over a spinning night stand, flips end over end and cracks his forehead on the bed frame. When he looks up, Mike is about to strike her in the belly.
"Hey, nudnick! You don't bash the child, you bash the demon!"
The possessed girl reaches over and twists Mike's nose and he cries, "Ow!" but Walsh thinks he says "How!" so he struggles to his feet and tells him.
"Lots of dialogue, that's how." He gives Mike an unpromising look. "Oh right, last time you fainted when that possessed shriner tried to slip on your bronzed baby shoe and you missed the whole fiasco. This time pay attention." Walsh ducks a lava lamp trailing two extension cords. He starts pacing. "Down through the ages, from, In the beginning . . . to . . . smite the earth with a curse, the answers to everything have been found in talk; Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you. I only know it works. What, you never read 'Hills Like White Elephants' with that pregnant kid who munched down a sprig of wormwood that her boyfriend told her was endive?" He looks over at the girl, who is spinning like a propeller, and his haughty learned expression weakens. "Hey, uh, what's it gonna hurt we administer a quart of Pepto-Bismo first?" The girl spins into a spirited soft-shoe on the ceiling. "Anyway, she's built healthy enough . . . but that face! Well, you seen the poor kid's old man, right?"
"Will you get on with it?" Mike asks, surveying the escalating damage with a knot in his throat.
Rabbi Walsh removes a small black book from his damp jacket and begins chanting in mock Aramaic, peeking occasionally over at Mike, whose manner has turned from horror-stricken to peevish. After about five minutes of this, Walsh performs some hand gestures, dodges a curtain rod, slams the book and says, "That's that. Goodnight."
Mike's face turns from the rabbi to the somersaulting girl and back again. "That's that? What's what? I could have done that. Look, she's looks worse than ever. And that stench, my dry cleaner will skewer me!" He turns in time to see a houseplant catch fire. "I should report you to the synagogue, Walsh."
The rabbi breaks a table lamp across the side of Mike's neck but before Mike cartwheels into a dresser and gives up his two front teeth, the rabbi realizes how frightened he is to be alone with the possessed girl.
"Have a seat, rabbi," she snarls. She points to a chair and it slides up behind him. The flying objects fall to the floor and the room brightens with a beige glow. When Walsh bends to sit down, the chair moves away and he falls to the floor.
"Ha ha! With your comic timing I'm not amused," he grumbles as he climbs into the chair rubbing his hip. He crosses his legs and offers her a sustained wince. "So, vile demon, why is it you have come to possess this child, you needed a vehicle to showcase your Three Stooges fixation?"
"I get bored roiling around in fire, wouldn't you? Besides, slapstick is less than entertaining in the spirit world. Without bodies and props you get nothing but dumb stares."
"There weren't steps you could have taken to prevent your fall from grace? Weren't you an angel once upon a time?"
"What are you, a convert?" She assumes the stance of an opera singer about to hit a high C. "I'm Hermorphodes, one of the originals that got cast out of heaven! I was trying to talk some sense into those troublemaking angels. We had it made floating around in white puffy clouds all day making fun of stupid mortals, especially the phony buffoons mincing out of the Parthenon pretending they knew where they parked their chariots. But when do men listen to a woman? Like when I wisecracked about that dinosaur debacle and suddenly God is muttering about me out of the side of His mouth like He didn't give me ears. It all makes me want to puke just thinking about it."
Rabbi Walsh jerks up his hands. "Now hold it, hold on. Maybe the kid would like to hold on to her supper! You should think of someone else for a change. Then maybe you could get a reprieve."
"Are you kidding?" She places her fists on her hips and leers up at the water-damaged plaster. "Possession is nine tenths of the Law!"
"Now look, I'm going to ask you nice just once, leave the child this instant before my ulcer acts up. Why don't you go possess a maple tree or a fire hydrant for God's sake? This is no good for anybody. Look at that face!"
"Hey, it wasn't so hot when I got in here. You seen her old man, right?" She hops off the bed and starts pacing and assesses herself in a full-length mirror. "I'm not such a bad sort, I'm just eternally displaced." She places a hand on her belly and dances a quick waltz. "I know I shouldn't have used my lilting singsong voice before the Holy Tribunal, but I was so pissed! Hell with them." She stops dancing and rotates horizontally over the flaming houseplant. "I'm no spring chicken you know. I've done my time and now I'm starting my overdue rampage. Well, actually I started last week possessing some old fart in Glenshire. But after twenty minutes of saltines and crab dip, he gets cute and shoots craps on the commode and I'm just sitting there like a schmuck with a handful of toilet paper. I don't know . . . I just think I'll do better in a youngster."
Lightning strikes very close to the inn.
"Okay, here's the deal," Walsh says. "You beat it and I put in a good word down to the synagogue tomorrow. Otherwise I know an ex-priest who isn't as patient with smart aleck kids as I am. Besides, it's a half hour with you already, I charge by the job you know."
She turns an indignant glower on him that fogs his spectacles.
"Guess what, I don't take orders from a guy that looks like John Lennon on the Hey Jude album." She raises her hands and Mike levitates off the floor and slowly crashes through the window. They go to the window and watch him pick up speed over the parking lot, ricochet off a shrub and dart headfirst into a small culvert. "Besides, I kind of like this body," she says. "It amuses me. I might seduce a young man in the village tomorrow."
"Hmph, not with that puss."
"Oh yeah? Who says I don't clean up nice, smart mouth!" She hops back onto the bed and picks up a copy of The New Yorker and begins snapping the inverted pages in reverse order. "Scram rabbi, you bore me. Anyway, I doubt you could exorcise a sneeze with a handful of black pepper."
With affected nonchalance, Walsh slaps his knees, stands up and sighs. "Welp, so you can't win em all. I guess I'll plop down on my ass and get the hell out of here. Oy, my aching-"
She flings the magazine and gets on all fours, gazing up at him with great beaming interest. "You got a donkey?"
"Of course I got a donkey," he shrugs and moves his upturned palms in front of him like they're pushing against springs, "all rabbis trade in their Buicks for donkeys eventually. What?"
She extends her hand. "Hi, I'm a pretty young nurse named Freda."
"Diagram that sentence."
As they tiptoe hand in hand down the stairs and through the bar, they're glad to see Freda's old man sprawled across the pool table with his jowl nuzzling a cue ball. Rabbi Walsh sneaks fifty dollars out of the man's wallet, grabs a bottle of brandy and leaves a nickel. Outside the storm has stopped and the sweet smell of hyacinth whirls around them in a humid erratic breeze.
"Murphy, Freda, Freda, Murphy. Upsy daisy. And we're off."
As they clop through the flickering valley, Freda explains what became of all the souls that were around before God filled Moses in and why Jesus didn't just climb down off that cross and make things so much easier on the Jews and why the law: energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change forms excludes the dead from eternal rest. After this unsolicited tirade, Walsh asks for a small favor. Freda starts babbling something in Latin and suddenly Walsh experiences a stabbing uneasiness and then a craving for a banana split without nuts. They clop out of the gloom, up a rocky embankment and onto a washed out road where they see a cloud-flattened sun behind a stand of birch trees.
"Mmmm, good stuff," Freda says after another chug of brandy. She squeezes him tight with one arm and rests her chin on his shoulder, staring into the reddish-gold sunrise. "I like you better now, Walsh."
"Easy on that hooch, you may be three-thousand years old but you're still a kid. Some kid!" He rolls up his sleeves and pushes up his cap irritably. One of his socks falls around his ankle. "My God, when will I learn to stop moonlighting? I should have bought that sub shop with Hermes when I had the chance."
"Aww, shut up. I just made ya thirty years younger didn't I?"
"Yeah, but I was only forty-two at the time!"
"So maybe you'll learn to be a little more specific with your mumbly wishes. I'm a demon not a linguist."
"I told you my Latin was a little rusty." He gives Murphy an annoyed kick and one of his boots flips off. "What's worse, I feel I've been hoodwinked out of my early retirement. I had a modest pension coming, you know."
"It's easier on your ass, ain't it? And more roomy? Huh? So shut up. Besides, the townfolk'll be more understanding this way. They'll say quaint things like, 'What a cute couple they make,' or 'Dear God, look at those filthy carnies!'" She throws her head back and laughs.
They clop along for another mile without speaking. The rabbi falls off, shouts, "Only to Job!" and then gets back on.
"My clothes don't fit anymore. And neither does Murphy!" He wipes his nose with the front of his wrist and then takes off his glasses to clean them. He can see with perfect clarity but he puts them back on and says nothing.
She gives him a big squeeze and kisses the back of his ear. "You look adorable, my little Hebrew. But don't be ungrateful or I'll give you back your beard and that long shnoz."
"What will I tell Ma? She'll have questions, I know her."
"Hey, you know now what you knew then, don't you? Isn't that what everyone wants nowadays, youth and foreknowledge?"
"So maybe I didn't know enough yet. I had a lot to learn. And there was a lot I wished I didn't know. Wait a minute!" He throws open his huge coat, pulls his pants away from his belly and peers inside. "Oy, thank God I don't have to go through that again."
"Hey, rabbi, I said shut-" Freda rears back the empty bottle of brandy and shatters it over his head, "up!"
She takes him as far as the St. Lambert memorial in the village square and flips his limp body off onto the steps. He wakes up with a wicked headache and a horrendous story to tell but nobody even pretends to listen to it so he applies for a job at Shnitzy's Deli, gets hired, and by the time he reaches legal working age, winds up with full-time and pretty good perks.
This article was previously published in The Timber Creek Review
from the February 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine