Before the lightning storm that took down Jesus, the town of Saltsville had been in the throes of the worst drought since 1972. The grass was dead, the corn was wilting, and the Town Council’s creative capacities were stretched to their limits in seeking euphemisms with which to request its conservative constituency to refrain from flushing their toilets. The farmers, of which there were still a good number in Saltsville, met at the 4H clubhouse to map water rotation schedules and speculate about whether they might find a way to make use of the unflushed toilet water without having to report it to the FDA.
The drought had surely been a factor in the ease with which the Saltsville Reformed Church had caught fire, but rational explanations were not at the forefront of anyone’s mind the morning after, as the congregation gathered on the scorched front lawn, bent over the singed remains of the Son of God. The thirty-foot wooden Messiah, hands raised and robes flowing, had burst into flame at approximately midnight before plummeting from his steeple perch.
“We’ve been smitten!” Gladys Miller, president of the Women’s Benevolent Society, declared. She struggled to her feet from that most uncomfortable of squatting positions and clutched the hand of Jesus, severed and blackened, to her chest.
“You mean smited,” said Lindy Flingham, Gladys’s co-president.
“Pretty sure it’s smote,” said Gladys’s husband, Frank, who had been up most of the night analyzing the finer points of the conjugation. No one heard him, or at least, no one responded.
Frank had been at the church when the lightning struck. Between the rising smoke and the sirens superfluously employed by the Saltsville Volunteer Firefighters, who did little to conceal how thrilled they were to see some action (and after ten o’clock!), it had been easy for him and his two accomplices to sneak out the side door and retreat into the woods unscathed. Their consciences, though, weren’t so lucky; given the circumstances surrounding their late-night business and the bolt of judgment descending from the heavens, the three men found themselves in rare agreement with their wives—the church had been targeted for smiting, and it was all their faults.
The Saltsville Men of God was a group devoted to the faith, their fathers having built the place with their own hands after the pastor at Mercy Baptist East had been caught with an extensive collection of sex dummies in the pastorium crawl space. The men’s duties were thankless, including: arriving early to straighten the rows of folding chairs that filled the sanctuary, carrying the gold spray-painted offertory plates up and down the aisle with the proper degree of somberness, patching the roof, mowing the lawn, and volunteering their wives to make brownies and lemonade for after the service.
The Women’s Benevolent Society’s brownies were award-winning; they’d taken first prize at last year’s All-State Faith-based Organization Fair. The youth group, too, had made out well there—their shoe drive for a partner church in Costa Rica had drawn in eighty-two pounds of gently-used footwear (and over forty new packs of tube socks). The Men of God hadn’t even been invited to rent a table.
Back before the drought and the smiting, their weekly meetings had been focused mainly on why it was that no one took them seriously.
“Maybe because everything we do is a failure?” Ben said. Ben owned the Saltsville hardware store and approached conversation as he did his lumber and nails: dead-on and with no regard for the feelings of either party.
“Not everything we do,” said Frank. As the group’s official founder, he defended it unconditionally, even against other members when necessary. “What about that school supply drive last summer? We collected over a hundred pounds of stuff!”
“Fail.” They’d also made a pit stop at Hersheypark on their way to the drop-off point at their sister church a hundred miles away. When they’d arrived, the back of the van was coated in a thick sludge of melted crayon and chocolate.
Frank’s cheeks reddened. “Well, what about the 5K for Alzheimer’s we organized?”
“A Walk to Remember?” said Matthias. “That was just wrong.”
It hadn’t been their only appellative faux-pas, either. Frank had noticed the group’s own acronym problem years earlier. Shortly after their motion to coalesce as an official Church Organization had been passed at the annual meeting, he’d been out in the garage painting a banner for some charity event when Gladys appeared in the doorway.
“Smog?” she’d said, scratching her eyebrow the way she did when she was balancing her checkbook.
“Smog?” Frank repeated, clearly confused. When he looked back at the banner he gasped, but tried to play it off as a cough, wiping the corner of his mouth on his flannel. Saltsville Men of God: S.M.O.G. Could they really have been that stupid? The trick was, he decided, to remain calm. “Oh, SMOG! Yes, it’s a reference to our . . . calling.” He reached into his metal reserve for the top biblical buzzwords, “to let the light of God and the clarity of his purpose shine through the murkiness of unchristian society.” He cast an eye up at Gladys, trying to discern whether she was going to let him off with that. She sighed.
“Come in and eat,” she said.
“Could be the S.M.O.G. thing,” Frank said. Too late to change it now, after that dumbass explanation, and several banners painted since. The meeting ended the same way they always did, with a game of pool and several deflated egos.
Then, in early spring when the crocuses had just begun peeking through the frost, Ethel Kowaski, the church secretary, had keeled over right in the middle of the closing hymn. While all the other groups took on their emergency CPR and ambulatory-related duties, the otherwise unassigned Men of God found themselves standing holding the offering plates. They usually gave the plates to Ethel for processing after collection. But now it was a task all their own.
The counting of the offering was by far the most important job ever entrusted to them, and they were not about to let it slip from their grip. When Ethel returned from the hospital weeks later, limping, and with her lazy eye drifting even more precariously, the Men assured her they had everything under control for as long as she needed so as not to place any undue stress on her recovering self.
It was just the break they’d been needing. No more wife pity, or being overlooked at the congregational meeting or the fair. Now they’d secured a duty, one every bit as essential as the work of the Women’s Benevolent Society and the Coalition for the Advancement of Anti-Triclavianist Theology. They had the money.
The first time, they’d come upon the casino without even meaning to, which Frank considered clear evidence of divine intervention. S.M.O.G had been in charge of the offering for a few months now, and it was doing wonders for their reputation. Pastor Bob had even ascribed to the group the title of “donations management.” As a result, Frank and Ben found themselves driving east toward Allentown to retrieve a new pulpit, purchased for the church by the estate of Elias Westor, one of their most recently deceased congregants. Frank turned off the radio, which had given way to static as they drove out of town.
“Why would he buy a pulpit?” he said. “We have a pulpit.”
“‘Cause he was a bastard,” said Ben.
“Well, I guess it was a gift.”
“Or his final act of defiance. Can’t very well throw out a dead man’s spite pulpit. Bastard.”
They saw the first billboard about twenty miles out: Sands Casino and Resort—the golden desert scene glittering like a reverse mirage—Your destiny is waiting.
Frank looked sidelong at Ben. “Destiny,” he said dreamily.
“Forget it. No pit stops.” Frank had known he’d say that. He was still sore about the crayon thing. The casino sparkled as they passed.
“Dunno why anyone would go in there anyway,” Ben said. “Games are fixed.”
“I hear they have good restaurants.”
“No one goes in there for the food,” said Ben, and they’d wrestled the dead man’s spite pulpit into the bed of Frank’s pick-up and drove home.
But Frank wasn’t one to let things go. In fact, he had begun to formulate a plan. He decided to bring all three of them back the next week under the guise of baseball. The Triple-A IronPigs played within a mile of the casino and made for the perfect cover story—inconspicuous to the rest of the congregation and unappealing to their wives. Frank told the guys he’d won tickets in a raffle and tucked the Ziploc full of offering money in his glove compartment.
“Frank, I thought we decided last time this was a bad idea,” said Ben.
“You decided. I’m trying to do the Lord’s work.”
“What work? I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Bible specifically against gambling.”
“Pretty sure there’s something in there about being fruitful and multiplying, too,” offered Matthias.
“Exactly—thank you, Matthias! And anyway, we we’re not gonna gamble. We’ll do blackjack. Frank reached into the glove compartment and took out the bag of money, separated it into three piles. “It’s a sure thing, like in that movie with the MIT kids. Here’s a little bit for us each to get started.”
Ben waved the money away.
“Fine, you don’t have to play. Matthias, you know what to do, right?”
Two hours later they stood sunblind and penniless in the parking lot.
“I don’t understand,” Frank said.
“You did watch the movie, didn’t you, Frank?” said Ben.
Frank removed his baseball cap, rubbed the sweat from his brow back across his bald head.
“I watched the trailer,” he said.
“You mean you weren’t counting?” Ben said.
“It was Pay-Per-View!”
“Jesus, Frank, Matthias shouldn’t even pay you back—you deserved to lose.”
Frank blanched. “The thing is, it wasn’t exactly my money in the technical sense—”
“Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say,” Ben said.
“Well, I made sixteen dollars at the slots,” Matthias said.
Frank made an accusatory turn toward Matthias. “You gave the church offering to the one-armed bandit?”
“Christ on a cracker,” said Ben.
“That was the offering?” Matthias said.
“I didn’t mean—” Frank stuttered. “I just thought—”
“Don’t say that,” Ben said. “You actually thought and this was what you came up with?”
“I just wanted to do something good for the church,” Frank said.
“Holy hell,” said Matthias.
Frank held out the Ziploc as Matthias pulled roll after roll of nickels from his cargo pockets. The Saltsville Reformed Jesus was struck by lightning two days later.
“To me it’s obvious,” Ben said. “Looks like somebody in the church has done something mighty displeasing to the Lord.” He reached out to Gladys for the burnt piece of statue, and as he took it, it looked briefly like he and Jesus were shaking hands. Normally Ben had a habit of staying quiet in big groups, a silence you could count on, and Frank wondered why now of all times he’d decided to have a big mouth. Looking around, he could see the other parishioners were taken aback as well. Frank tried to catch Ben’s eye. He gave his nose an exaggerated scratch he hoped would come off as some kind of signal. But Ben only stared straight back at him and said, “We have to find out who it is.”
“Not sure that’s very New Testament—” Frank said.
“I propose an investigation!” Ben said, raising the Jesus hand skyward. The Benevolent Women nodded their approval.
“An investigation? Are you insane?” Frank said when the crowd had dispersed and they were left to rake the charred Jesus bits off the lawn.
“An investigation run by us. It’s how all the best corruption works. Remember that whole UN racket—Oil for Food?”
Frank thought for a moment. He had a point. “Fine then. What do we investigate?”
“Nothing! And then in a few months when all this blows over we’ll say it was inconclusive, and nobody will care.”
“They’ll care when they find out the money is missing.”
“They won’t find out.” Ben pulled a set of papers accordioned into thirds from his back pocket and handed them to Frank. Frank unfolded them gingerly, skimming the lengthy, incoherent URL header Ben had somehow managed to print in its entirety, before arriving at the crux of the text—detailed instructions for how to count cards.
Frank searched Ben’s face; he’d thought Ben was smarter than recycling the same asinine idea that’d got them there. But Ben just pointed Jesus’s fingers at him and said, “No, for real this time.”
So the three of them read the instructions. They practiced different formations, with each of them taking point. As it turned out, you didn’t have to count all the cards, just the tens and the face cards, though that was still a lot when you considered multiple decks in circulation. It quickly became apparent that Ben was the only one of them with the capacity to keep a tally of that many numbers running in his head.
They’d have to use their own money to start off now. That was unfortunate, but still it was approaching foolproof if they could get three of them to a table, which wouldn’t be too hard on a weeknight. If they pretended not to know each other no one would suspect them—a perk of aging; the dealers were bound to underestimate their capacity for criminal enterprise. Ben and Frank would play—Ben counting and Frank trying to count—and Matthias would fold early and reliably, serving as a lookout and distraction for the dealer. He would cause some kind of scene if necessary, but Frank really hoped it wouldn’t come to that. At their final prep meeting, all they could think up for potential commotions was that he take off his pants, feign a heart attack, or some combination thereof.
They entered the casino, all golden chandeliers and polished marble in the hall, but Frank was no longer taken with the place, and anyway, inside the gaming room the aesthetic dropped rapidly from grandeur to something like mania. A chaotic run of flashing lights, bells, whistles, and canned applause from the slot machines offered a surface layer of excitement, but the room itself was swathed in cheap burgundy industrial carpet and reeked of cigarettes. It was dark, too—both dimly lit and completely windowless so as not to accidentally alert the gamblers to the passage of time. Frank couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Looking around, he watched the other patrons giving away their savings, and wondered if they, too, felt the gaucheness of the room in the pits of their stomachs.
Still they approached the blackjack tables and took their posts. They played a hand in which he and Ben both folded, but it was still just luck at this point—they hadn’t seen enough cards. In the next, his card was the nine of spades, and he stared at it unblinking, until the spades watered into black hearts. He felt indicted.
He fiddled with a chip from the pile. It slipped from his hand and he bent to retrieve it, cursing his waning dexterity, the hiss and crackle of his knees and ankles. And then, he saw it: beneath the table a video camera, different than the other surveillance cameras on the ceiling, tiny and partially obscured by a strip of black velvet. Angled upward at just the right tilt. And at that moment he knew all his life’s transgressions had paid off.
As a teenager, Frank had once stolen a mouth mirror from his father’s dental practice and had tried to use it to see up Cynthia Stewart’s skirt in geometry class. He had been caught, received a beating from the principal, and another from his father upon his return home. He had been humiliated. But now, as he removed the tiny memory card from the side of the camera and slipped it into the pocket of his chinos, he felt a swell of pride.
“You okay down there?” Frank looked up to see a waitress in a black miniskirt standing before him. For a moment, he wished he’d left the camera rolling just a bit longer. He tried not to look guilty.
“I’m fine, dear,” he said, brandishing the token he’d retrieved. “Just slower getting up these days.” He hoisted himself back to his feet and she gave him a smile—mostly pity, sure, but it was a nice smile nonetheless—and left.
Frank pulled the brim of his cap down lower. He tried to look for the nearest security camera without moving his head. Beside him Ben was pursing his lips like they’d practiced to keep from muttering numbers under his breath.
“We have to go,” Frank whispered.
Ben said nothing.
“I’m in the middle of a hand.”
“He folds!” Frank said. He scooped up the remaining chips and dragged Ben away by the elbow.
“What in the ever-loving fuck, Frank—”
“Just look down and don’t say another word until we get in the car. Where’s Matthias? Never mind actually, don’t talk!”
They hustled through the automatic doors and Frank was relieved to find Matthias out in the lot, leaning up against the van and eating from a packet of Swedish fish.
“What’s with you two? Frank’s looking whiter than a bleached sheet and pillow set!”
“Weren’t you supposed to be on lookout?” said Ben.
“I hit the bonus on Wheel of Fortune.”
“Get in the car,” said Frank, and in a rare moment of compliance, Matthias unlocked the van and Ben, too, actually did what he said. “Look, I found a way to get our money back.”
“I could’ve gotten our money back if you hadn’t yanked me outta there,” said Ben.
“Neither of you could win at blackjack even if you got blackjack,” Matthias said. He had woven through the parking lot and put them back on the highway, the van whining with the effort of acceleration.
“Just shush and keep driving; I can’t show you here.”
Finally, when the casino’s shimmer was out of sight, Frank pulled the memory card from his pocket and turned to the backseat to show it to Ben.
“What is it?” Ben said.
“Some kind of microchip?” said Matthias, trying to catch a look in the rearview.
“It’s our salvation,” Frank said. He offered them a dramatic pause, then explained the camera at its questionable angle, confessed his schoolboy peeping, but at the end of it, the two still looked at him blankly. “Look, Ben—give me your fancy phone.” Ben’s daughter had bought him a smartphone that, as his wife liked to tease, was smarter than him. He passed it to Frank, who inserted the SD card into its base, and Sam scooched forward closer to Frank as he pressed play. Sure enough, the crotch of a chino-clad man appeared, taken from the angle beneath the table Frank had described.
“Lovely,” Ben said. Matthias tried to steal a peek at the screen.
“Eyes on the road, perv,” Frank said. He hit fast-forward: a parade of men’s legs, a few lacy women’s panties, some decidedly not lacy panties, and in two cases—the jackpot—skirted women who had forgone underwear completely.
“No way they’d want this to hit the news. So we go in and offer it back to them. Quiet, no mess.”
“You want to blackmail a casino?” said Ben.
“Why not?” said Frank. “It’s just business.”
“I can think of a few reasons,” said Ben.
“Not like you’ve got a better idea, Mr. ‘I Propose an Investigation’!” said Frank.
Ben groaned, but no one refuted Frank any further.
“Guys?” Ben said after a while, popping his head up over Matthais’s headrest. “If you really wanna blackmail the casino, where are we going now?”
Matthias looked at Frank, who’s face quickly betrayed the absence of a plan.
“Why do I always have to have the idea?” Frank said.
Ben facepalmed himself, and Matthias swung the van across two lanes, exited, and returned to the eastbound highway. “Somebody better get inspired about what we’re going to say to these people. I doubt their first instinct will be to shower us with cash.”
Back through the gilded lobby and into the smokescreen, Frank wished he was better dressed for the task at hand—a sports coat, or maybe a leather jacket. The other S.M.O.G flanked him as he stood his ground, until a woman in a pencil skirt came out from behind the reception desk to offer her assistance. Frank demanded to speak to the manager, and she looked them all over and mumbled something into her headset.
“He’ll be right with you,” she said, motioning them off to the side to clear the doorway.
“I think he may want to see us in his office,” Frank said, but the woman had already clacked away. Moments later a man approached them—he wore a well-tailored suit, its sheen suggesting a cashmere blend, but as he got closer it became clear he was much too young to be in charge—his face was ravaged with acne, whiteheads a Milky Way across his cheeks, his forehead cratered by breakouts past.
“Hi, I’m Alexander. Welcome to Sands Casino and Resort. How may I help you today?”
“Sorry to bother you, Alex, but we were looking for the manager.”
“I’m the floor manager,” he said. Alexander scratched his face and Frank shuddered.
“Right, but, you know, the real boss.” As soon as he said it, Frank realized he’d made a mistake—something in Alexander’s eyes extinguished, a front porch light flicked off.
“Mr. Distachio’s not in right now, but if the slot machine ate your quarter, I assure you I can assist you.”
“Alright listen here, Sparky—” said Matthias, but Frank dug a thumb into Matthias’ shoulder blade until he cut himself off.
“Never mind. I think it just sorted itself out,” said Frank, and he walked into the din of the game room, hoping to God that the rest of the S.M.O.G. would follow.
He approached a blackjack table, pulled his sunglasses from his front pocket, and put them on while Ben and Matthias secured their places at the table.
“We’re ready!” Frank said to an unenthused dealer. “Okay, Ben! Don’t forget to count!”
The dealer looked up. “Excuse me, sir. Please take your glasses off.”
“No thanks,” said Frank.
“Sir, I can’t deal you in if you’re not in compliance with casino policy.”
Frank snorted and pushed the glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.
“I’ll take that as your forfeiture,” said the dealer, who began the round, leaving Frank out of it. Frank backed away from the table, then circled around to stand behind Ben.
“Oh, good one!” he said.
“Sir! I’ll have you removed.”
Matthias appeared and began to cough theatrically, and when he caught the dealer’s attention he looked across the table at Ben and winked, hard. Ben tugged on his earlobe as if to return the signal and flipped a chip off his thumb into the pot.
“Alright,” said the dealer. He reached his hand beneath the table, a panic button no doubt, because the security guards were upon them quickly, hulking, then second-guessing whether these elderly men were really their charges—these guys?—before zip-tying them at the dealer’s confirmation.
Frank had imagined a glitzy ride to a top-floor penthouse, but they were instead pushed into a service elevator and shuttled downward, which made sense when he remembered they were not in Vegas, or even Atlantic City, but the middle-of-nowhere flatlands, the casino itself squat and sprawling.
The hallway was sheathed in dirty carpet and tinted a sickly green by fluorescent lights overhead. Midst the dinge, Frank was beginning to wonder whether the casino would in fact have enough money to drop on blackmail, but when they reached the large oak door at the end of the corridor, his hopes were renewed. At least Distachio lived up to his stereotype—a round man in pinstripes and a red tie, wiry hair gelled into a single unit, his tie clip a particular achievement in the tawdry: a cluster of seraphim surrounding the cursive initials A.D.D. Frank would’ve laughed had he not still been filled with chagrin over his own shoddy acronym.
“Alright gentlemen,” said Distachio. “I hear you’ve been causing some kinda ruckus upstairs. You got a reason why I shouldn’t just give you the boot and put your mugs on our no-fly list?”
Frank studied the man, considered the best way to convey a sense of authority.
“Actually, we do,” said Ben from behind him.
Frank saw his own surprise mirrored on Distachio’s face.
“You do. Well, by all means.”
“You’re gonna have to get your cronies to take these hog ties off us first.”
“Ben!” Frank whispered, but Distachio just laughed and waved a hand at the guard, who cut the zip ties.
Ben handed his phone to Frank, who cued up the footage. “We found this on an SD card from a camera under your table. This is just a copy, of course.”
“Well, it’s illegal. Sex offender registry and all that.”
“There’s no evidence the anyone with casino affiliation installed that. I know I certainly had nothing to do with it,” said Distachio.
“I doubt that’ll matter either way when it airs on WFMZ tonight,” said Ben. “Publicity. Ladies getting their panties all a’twist.”
“Literally!” Matthias said.
“Alright, alright,” said Distachio. He tapped the ash off his cigarette and strode back behind his desk. The carpet singed a burnt plastic smell, and a man in butler attire came and swept up the embers. Frank rubbed his wrists.
“So you want money,” said Distachio.
“Seven-hundred sixty-four dollars,” said Matthias. Distachio looked up, thrown.
“A month!” Frank said.
“No, no monthly payments. Too complicated. I’ll give you three grand for the card and your phone right now, and your word that the ‘other copy’ thing was bull.”
The four were silent for a moment. Distachio sighed. “Fine, five grand. Final offer.”
“Deal,” Frank said. They shook, and Distachio pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked his desk drawer.
The next Sunday, Frank could hardly stand still through the opening hymn—he hadn’t felt so boyish since his wedding day. When Pastor Bob opened the floor to announcements, S.M.O.G sprung up, sending their folding chairs askew.
“As stewards of the offertory the Saltsville Men of God would like to announce an anonymous gift. Since the storm, we’ve organized a campaign to gather community support,” said Frank, holding up the Ziploc, two thick wads of cash and Matthias’s quarters on display. “The gift should bring roof and steeple repair within our reach.”
“And in light of the generosity bestowed upon us,” said Ben. “We’ve decided to close the investigation into the impropriety-induced-lightning, extending the tenet of Christ’s mercy to all sinners.”
“Over five grand!” Matthias said, pointing to the bag.
The Saltsville congregants—Benevolent Women and Anti-Triclavianists alike—released a flurry of applause, and S.M.O.G .beamed while their wives, pleasantly surprised with the outcome of whatever they’d been up to lately, offered sanctioning nods. Finally, Frank thought, having triumphed over storm and smiting and Sands, that journey through infernal smoke and din, he had achieved his destiny.