Brother Jacinto’s Mission
by Charles C. Cole
Toby Aylsward was moving cross-country, driving alone, making relatively quick time by limiting stops for fueling, eating and bathroom breaks.
He and his girlfriend of two years had just separated. He’d returned to their apartment early, only to find a half-naked man in his kitchen and his beloved Harriet sprawled across the Formica counter in the middle of their groceries. A loaf of pumpernickel was crushed unceremoniously under her lower back, the air still actively escaping from the bread bag.
Suddenly, returning to graduate school, some seventy hours away, had become very appealing. Within hours, Toby was packed, planning on recharging at his childhood home first and too embarrassed to alert his family to his circumstances.
Nobody knew he was traveling in the middle of the near-desolate west on a moonless night at two o’clock in the morning, the driver’s window open, desperately, if comically, pulling at the hair on his ankles to jolt himself awake.
Not expecting much for local entertainment, he tentatively tried the radio and was surprised by a strong signal, albeit one with fundamentalist religious programming.
“That is why you should not hesitate,” a male voice proclaimed, “not for one minute, if you want to go to Him, then go, and he will accept you with open, unconditionally loving arms, and you will have the peace you’ve earned.
“But, brothers and sisters, don’t forget those you’ve left behind. That’s right: discard your unwanted material belongings over at Brother Jacinto’s Calvary Mission so that he might have the much-needed financial backing to carry on God’s work here on earth. Tell your so-called Green-earther friends, it’s just like recycling but with a higher, spiritual purpose.”
Toby snorted and laughed. “Kill yourself as a shortcut to God? Is that what he said? Who’s going to fall for this nonsense?”
“Life is hard. You know it is. You’ve been a practicing devout Christian since you could walk on your own two feet. You’ve been rising to face the day’s challenges, each more demanding than the last, even while you struggle to pay the rent and take care of your medical bills.”
“Amen!” Toby cheered.
“Now is the time to transcend to the Lord. You don’t have to prove anything to your judgmental neighbors or your self-centered co-workers. Keep the radio on, my friends, and I will be there with you, offering support when you leave us for His paradise in the Great Beyond. I’m not suggesting you do anything rash.”
“The hell you’re not.”
“I’m saying: if you’ve been told that this is your last rodeo, that nothing is going to end your suffering, who are we to disagree with a competent medical authority?”
That was enough. Toby punched off the radio and pulled into the nearby all-night diner for an order of coffee with a side of common sense. Outside, a couple of big-rigs were idling before resuming the long haul. Inside, a towering trucker with a long red beard was paying his bill with cash from a camouflage-patterned fanny back. For a moment at least, the place was quiet, if not empty.
The raven-haired waitress, “Arline” per her nametag, was in her late twenties with three colorful studs in each ear. She brought Toby’s two generous slices of pecan pie and a large scoop of French vanilla ice cream. She plopped a black-and-gold insulated carafe of coffee on the table, explaining, “Some folks like to pour their own. We’re all about choice here at Highway Pie and Serve.”
“Live Free or Die,” said Toby, raising his mug in a friendly toast.
“That’s the New Hampshire state motto. It’s on all our license plates.”
“Makes sense.” She seemed uncertain.
“I choose to live free,” said Toby, clarifying where he stood. “How about you?”
“If that means debt-free, honey, count me in.”
“I think it means: ‘Hey, Washington, you monitor Big Business and world peace; we’ll take care of ourselves.”
“That sounds better. I didn’t much like the sound of the ‘die’ part.”
“Which reminds me,” said Toby, “in the car, this religious radio show was pretty much suggesting listeners chuck it all away if life was bringing them down. Have you heard about that? Is that for real?”
“That’s Brother Jacinto. He’s real all right. It started out as sort of a joke, I think. He was looking for a cash infusion to build his New Works Life Center. Runs his ministry out of an old Wonder Bread delivery truck now.”
“The local banks were turning him away on account of he was new to these parts and didn’t have a regular income. So he put out an on-air solicitation of sorts. Well, it worked!”
“He’s holding court over there, at the far corner table,” Arline said, indicating. “The show’s taped, so he could be sleeping in bed, but folks know he’ll be here and they stop by, at all hours. The owner’s his cousin. I dare you to introduce yourself. He’s got quite a way with words. Of course, I guess all ministers do if they’re any good.”
Brother Jacinto, a modern day Friar Tuck, was pushing sixty with thick, wavy white hair, small wire-frame glasses, and a short beard with smudges of black. He had a small portable radio on low as he listened intently, arms crossed and one ear cocked to his own prerecorded advice.
Toby had to get back on the road, but the coffee hadn’t kicked in. Why not? He approached, pretending to be searching for the restroom.
“The bathroom’s in the front,” said Jacinto. “Or are you sneaking up on me for a closer look? I don’t bite.”
“I heard your show.”
“First time as a listener?”
“And last. I’m just traveling through.”
Jacinto pushed his glasses up and assessed his new guest. He clicked off the radio. “Praise the Lord! Are you here to make a donation?”
“You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“There isn’t time to waste.”
“About that, how’s it feel to push the destitute into their graves?”
Jacinto removed his glasses and rubbed his nose, readying a comeback. “You’re not a Christian man, are you?”
“I like sleeping late on Sundays,” said Toby. “Besides, my hands get all sweaty when I pray; I always seem to do it wrong.”
“What do your friends call you?”
“Toby.” He surprised himself by blurting his name.
“Have a seat, Toby. You have my attention.” Toby slid into the booth opposite Jacinto who, with a nod, instructed Arline to bring over Toby’s coffee and unfinished pie.
“Son, I spend my career listening to the unheard and giving their lives a greater purpose. What can possibly be wrong with that?”
“What if all they really need is a good night’s sleep and a prescription for antidepressants?”
“Are you a doctor?” asked Jacinto.
“I’d like to be one day. I’ve been on a break from my studies for some much-needed California sun.”
“You follow a woman?”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Let me ask you: Do you have money burning a hole in your brand-name pockets? Do you have an inheritance to fall back on in a financial crisis?”
“Some, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I’m trying to understand if you’re a good guy or a bad guy. It seems obvious, but I believe in giving people, even the wrongheaded kind, a chance to prove themselves.”
“You have options,” said Jacinto, “for your future.”
“I’d like to think so.”
“Not everyone does.”
“What happens to your donors,” said Toby, “when they give you all their material wealth? I suppose you have a deep pit out back for them to swan-dive into.”
“You’ve got it wrong. They let go of the weight of their worries, they quit struggling with their decisions, and they ascend.”
“But how do you know?” asked Toby.
“I’ve got inside information, son. This is the arrangement I’ve made. The Lord gets an eternal soul and I get the loose change and lint from their worn pockets. I think of it as a 90-10 split.”
“And whatever’s in their bank accounts, you get that,” said Toby.
“Such as there is. Of course. They aren’t going to need it.”
“What about those they leave behind?”
“When there’s nobody else, then there’s me,” said Jacinto.
“Is that on your business card? There must be other worthy causes.”
“But they don’t have a local ambassador, do they? I’m here and more authentic than that child actor you see in the brochures for Orphans of the Brazilian Slums. There are plenty of other causes, I’ll allow. But not nearly as dear to their wounded hearts, it seems. I don’t look for them. Where would I go? They find me. The Lord gives them a nudge. Like you.”
“I have not been nudged,” said Toby. “I got tired and hungry. This place was convenient and open.”
“What brought you to my table? Is the size of your pocketbook holding you down, rubbing a sore spot under your waistband? Are you looking to leave the world a better place than the way you found it?”
“What? No. I am fine with my life and I plan on living for a long time. I came over here to confront you, not to fill your offertory.”
“Are you sure? You have the pale haggard face of someone who wants to unburden themselves. I’ve seen it often.”
“That’s my ‘freeway face’, from driving solo for over fifteen hours without sleep. That’s all.”
“Maybe or maybe it’s both.”
“You sure are certain of yourself, Brother Jack.”
“Brother Jack? I like it. Well, no one’s ever come back for a refund.”
“But some must have hesitated, didn’t they?” asked Toby. “They needed convincing.”
Brother Jacinto smiled. “You probably have a personal computer.”
“Sure. Who doesn’t? What of it?”
“Then you’ve probably heard of Boolean logic. Something is true or it’s false, one or the other. I’m either a righteous man or a con man. And I’ve seen way too much injustice in the world to think, for a minute, that I am a partner of the evil-doers. I do not perpetrate fraud. I incarnate hope from broken dreams. I’m sort of a supernatural travel agent. Well, there’s a cost to my services.”
“Just tell me what you do with the money.”
“Is that what defines the value of a person, for you?”
“A fleet of fancy cars? A quarterly business trip to the Caribbean? A porn addiction?”
Jacinto laughed long and loud. Arline gently banged the service bell on the counter to get his attention.
“Sorry, Arline,” Jacinto called out. “Don’t tell Cousin Reggie. I’ll keep it down. Toby here is a doubter with a fertile imagination.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I had to catch my breath first,” said Jacinto. “I’m afraid my lungs get a little cramped by my appetite. So, I’m building a church, big enough for an old-fashioned revival meeting, with a high balcony for a chorus of the sweetest voices anyone’s ever heard in these parts and acoustics that make prayer resonate like the word of God without any microphones, with windows behind the altar aimed toward the sky, so striking you feel like if you stare through them that you just might see the Pearly Gates glinting in the distance.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“The blueprints are in the front seat of my truck, right outside. I’ll be happy to bring them in.”
“No, you don’t,” Arline called out. “No messes. He can follow you to your mobile office in the parking lot, if that’s what it takes.”
“Arline, you’re on fire tonight, girl! When everything is built and operational, I’ve got a special pew with your name on it, just for tolerating my frequent off-menu specials.”
“So you’re sincere?” asked Toby.
“Arline, am I sincere?”
“Like a late afternoon downpour: refreshing for your crops but pretty intimidating if you happen to be camping in an area prone to flash floods. If you’re in a good place in your own mind, he’s got more good news. If you’re in a bad place, nothing Brother Jacinto says is going to turn your prospects around.”
“Arline, you will be my first guest lecturer, I mean that. You have more wisdom than can possibly fit in that tiny orange apron of yours.”
Arline waved him off and went back to wiping down the counter.
“So you’re not some spiritual vampire,” said Toby. “I’ll concede that. But that doesn’t mean I’m okay with your methods. No, you do your thing and I’ll do mine, a thousand miles apart, and we’ll stay out of each other’s way. That’s the best deal on the table.”
“If you ever double back to see that girl of yours -”
“That’s not going to happen; we didn’t part on the best of terms.”
“You saw the future differently, didn’t you?”
“You could say that.”
“Nonetheless, this is the fastest, straightest highway between points east and points west. You’ll be back one day. And when you return, I expect you to stop by and make a donation because, by then, a visit to Brother Jacinto’s New Works Life Center will be as common and necessary for your fellow travelers as stopping at the Pie and Serve is for gas and food.”
Arline arrived with a “NWLC” travel mug, the coffee poured and the lid on.
“Are you kicking me out?” asked Toby.
“I’m doing you a favor,” said Arline, “getting you back on the road before you overthink it, ending your visit on a positive note.”
“I owe you for the pie.”
“I’ve got it,” said Jacinto. “Pay me back the next time I see you. We have a tradition here: if you end up at this table, your meal’s on me. It’s only fair.”
“You’re something else,” said Toby. “This whole setup is. Out here in the desert, it might seem reassuring to the lonely and despondent, but I don’t know how it’ll play out east.”
“That reminds me, I just met a manager of a small radio station in Vermont. I might be following right behind you, at least my mission. Late at night, when you need a break from your studies, give the radio dial a spin and keep listening. I’ll bet this isn’t the last you’ve heard of Brother Jack’s New Works Life Center.”
Toby waved him off and stood up. “I kinda hope it is.”
Though Toby had to use the bathroom, he decided instead to jump in his car and move on, to put some long highway miles between himself and the curious proselytizing diner. As he started the car, he automatically turned on the radio. At the sound of Brother Jacinto’s continuing holy speechifying, Toby instinctively turned the radio off and rolled the window down for some much-appreciated fresh air.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole