Royce Mullins and The Case of Virtue's Burn, A Novel: Chapter One

by Jeff Hart

The first time that I talked with God was when John the Bulldog had me kneeling on the beach at Coney Island with his effeminate Walther PPK pointed at my head. Someone ought to have told John that just because Bond minced around with that purse cannon a few decades ago doesn’t mean it’s ever been a widely accepted murder weapon for the Y-chromosome set. However, one finds that discussions of masculinity and constructive criticism both are low priorities during an execution.

“Last request?” asked John.

“Ah fuck,” I said, not being the erudite sort when faced with a firearm, no matter how precious.

Here you would expect an assassin with a modicum of panache to answer with something at least as clever as “Sorry, all out of fucks.” It’s a rule amongst bad men who make other men kneel in the surf to always have the last word, to send unfortunate souls like myself screaming into the afterlife still bristling from a well-executed quip. I watched John, accurately nicknamed for a slobbering and notably slow-witted member of the canine family, knit his brow in consternation as he searched for a witty rejoinder to play me out on. It was during that time that I began my monologue to the Lord on High, which went a little something like this.

God, it’s me Royce. I realize we haven’t had much occasion to speak what with my aversion to telepathic sky beasts but, as I’m sure you’ve heard, there are no atheists in fox holes and I’ve definitely dug myself quite a deep one here, boss. It seems that you and I might be meeting soon, but I’d like to point out that I’m woefully unprepared for that eventuality and am hoping you might see fit to do me a solid and postpone our engagement to a later time. I realize there are other members of your flock, ones that have served you with the loyalty and deference a deity like yourself clearly deserves, who are also praying to you at this very moment, likely suffering from cancer or poverty or other disasters not of their own making, whereas it could be argued that I, humble Royce, have this impending displacement of my face and brain more than coming to me. A man in my profession-a doer of odd jobs much like your only begotten son the sometimes carpenter-does not have much opportunity to live a life of morality, to wonder at the spiritual consequences of accepting paltry sums of money to commit admittedly un-commandment like acts. At least I have kept busy. Wasn’t it you, Lord, that said idle hands do the devil’s work? Isn’t that somewhere in the scriptures? Tell you what. Give me a pass on this one and I’ll look it up and get back to you. If earnest research isn’t so much your bag, maybe I can just owe you one. I can be the kind of guy you’d feel proud for sparing, sir, if you’d only give me another go at it before unwinding me from this mortal coil.

“Sorry,” said John, eyes aglow with electric wit, “but I don’t give one.”

“Good one,” I said.

Time slowed as I waited for John to scratch his trigger finger. There came then a slight change in temperature, a crackling in the air above us, a distant whooshing sound. I’d expected an elegant bolt of divine lightning. What I got was a flaming ball of trash.

I was knocked back by the impact and while I didn’t begin immediately speaking in tongues, I will admit, my eyes did well up with tears of appreciation for what I at first viewed as a miracle. But then my eyes begin to water at a stink more potent than even Coney Island could produce. Something was-what’s another word for suspicious? I did not expect the divine to smell this way. It was when the Zedong brand condom wrappers began to flutter down around me that I realized there must be a rational explanation for my abrupt reversal of fortune.

Having long ago run out of space for people, it was only a matter of time before the Chinese ran out of space for their garbage. The logical solution, at least for a people sometimes enamored with communism and leaving babies on mountaintops, was to stuff the offal into some rockets and shoot it into the sun. Apparently, there was a miscalculation somewhere, an ignored decimal place that forever obliterated the stereotype of Chinese math acumen. Unless you’re the cynical type that believes they might’ve garbage bombed us on purpose, in which case you still likely believe the Chinese to be good at math but lacking when it comes to the humanities. Mistake or not, the trash rockets missed the sun by a few billion miles and broke apart over New York. John the Bulldog was the first of many trash rain-related casualties that night.

Out on the beach, brushing off the knees of my pants, I didn’t spend a lot of time mourning John the Newly Minted Landfill, whose broken body smoldered unpleasantly beneath a pile of fish bones. The way I saw it, he had it coming and something out there agreed with me. I did, however, honor his passing with a eulogy appropriate to our profession.

“Tough break, John,” I said. “Don’t be so down in the dumps about it.”

I’d learn the next morning that God, like any knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing loan shark, collected his debts swiftly.

I emerged from my office-I’d been sleeping there since Claudette kicked me out two years ago-to find my car buried beneath a pile of recalled Happy Meal toys.

“Lead paint job,” I remarked, and was surprised to find myself answered by the quiet laughter of a young man so remarkably unobtrusive that I’d mistaken him for part of my steps.

“Mr. Mullins?” asked the kid, twisting his skinny torso to squint up at me through horn-rimmed glasses engaged in a perpetual struggle not to slide down his flat face.


“My name is Paul Fennel,” he said. “God told me you would help me.”

Paul hesitated a moment before adding two words that, for me, are akin to blasphemy.

“Pro bono.”

Jeff Hart lives in Brooklyn. His other writing can be found over at Culture Blues.

Photo by Fabio, from Flickr.