Esther Lewis marched through the quiet streets of Concrete, head high despite a mild drizzle. Grateful it was the soft perpetual kind that eventually soaked through if you were out in it long enough, rather than the kind that saturated every layer before you could open an umbrella. Esther didn’t mind the mist. It was a trifle. A minor inconvenience. She didn’t let it impede her from doing her work — the Lord’s work.
Esther Lewis wrote a petition. Angry at the federal government for rejecting God and ending the prohibition of alcohol, she walked door to door in Concrete gathering signatures. There was an evil amongst the people of her town, her county, state, and this nation. A wickedness. A blight in the eyes of God. His loyal servant, Esther shouldered the burden, took it on herself to ensure His will was done on Earth, as it was in Heaven. Esther believed in her Holy edict, and that edict was to prevent the sale of alcohol in Concrete. That was the long game. In the short term, her petition was designed to prohibit the sale of beer, wine, and spirits after Seven P.M. in the town.
A massive two-story Victorian dwelling perched on the Northeast corner of Baker and McKee. The Colt home. Esther knew them, the Colts. One of the larger families in town, sixteen Colt children were born in that house to a wicked whore of a mother. Degenerate gambler Fred Colt was the likely father of most. After sixteen children, Fred abandoned his wife Carrie and their thirteen surviving children. He took the family’s savings and absconded to Canada with the daughter of a local dairy farmer. Barely eighteen years of age, Fred seduced her into sinful depravity. The poor girl-child was never equipped with the tools to fight off a voracious predator like Fred Colt. Esther was sure he plied her with alcohol. “Satan’s Syrup,” he’d poured down her gullet and washed away every virtuous fiber of morality. It turned men into heathen Philistines, and made Bacchanalian Jezebels of women.
“For the wages of sin is death,” making her way up the concrete steps to the home’s porch, Esther quoted the book of Romans, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
After Fred’s abrupt abandonment, Carrie Colt made her way through the home of almost every single man in Concrete, eventually moving on to Sedro-Woolley in search of new conquests. Esther didn’t understand. The Good Lord saw fit to grace Carrie Colt with thirteen children, and still she was not sated.
Esther herself never married. At forty-nine years of age, her life since childhood had been spent in devotion to her one true love, her Lord and savior Jesus Christ. She wondered which of the Colt children might be here to answer the door. The Colt children were all long grown. Many moved on to Seattle or beyond, but the eldest of them still managed and worked the family’s timber holdings. The family of siblings was doing well for themselves, and they took care of each other, including the crippled layabout Eddy.
Esther knocked on the door. She didn’t hear a reply, and after a moment she again rapped on the thin glass window set into the door. Through the sheer white curtains, she saw a thin figure limping toward the entrance.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” She glanced away, toward the street, wondering if she could make it out of sight before he reached the door. Not only was Eddy Colt a junk-addict, he was also a nihilist. She smoothed the wrinkles in her coat. No. She would not run from this. The Lord put the test of this man before her today, she must steel herself, and face the challenge.
“I am the daughter of a King that is not moved by the world.” Esther smiled as Eddy Colt opened the door to greet her, “Good day, Master Colt.”
Eddy’s face was gaunt and unshaven. His clothes seemed to hang from his frame. The man looked like he should be wasting away in a San Francisco opium den, rather than lurking in the quiet community of Concrete.
“Esther.” Crossing his arms, Eddy grinned and leaned against the inside of the door frame, a grim sort of glee lit his eyes. “Won’t find a market here for what you’re selling, but you’re welcome to try.”
Esther cleared her throat unnecessarily, “Yes. Well. As I’m sure you’re aware, our national government ended the prohibition of alcohol five years ago. Our own Washington State legislature has continued to open doors to the perils of alcohol with increasingly libertine and permissive laws. The good grace of society and our civilization risks drowning, washed away in a torrent of wine and whiskey. ‘Nor drunkards, nor swindlers will inherit the Kingdom of God.’”
Reaching a hand into his pants pocket, Eddy withdrew a steel flask. He never broke eye contact with Esther as he unscrewed the cap and raised the flask to his mouth. Esther heard the glug-glug sound as the spirits drained. Lowering the flask, Eddy wiped away the spillage from his chin, then held the flask out to Esther. Satan. The Devil himself, offering her the poison of hell. An acrid whiff of whiskey stung her nose. Her mouth stayed fixed in a smile, whilst her eyes narrowed.
“No, thank you. Master Colt.”
“Pity. Would do you good to loosen that mound of hair on top of your head for once. It’s pinched the sense from your brain.” Eddy took another drink.
“At least you’ve the decency to acknowledge I’ve a brain. How very progressive of you.”
“I’m nothing if not modern, Esther. I support a woman’s right to do whatever she wants. In fact, if you join me inside, I’ll happily fuck that religion right out of you.”
The very idea of it! Her cheeks flushed, red-hot, on fire. Her right knee twitched, and the knuckles of her hands went white. She felt light-headed. How dare he suggest such a thing? It wasn’t decent. Not fit for Christian society!
“Eddy Colt! I’ve never been so insulted!” Esther Lewis had more than she could take. She spun on a heel and descended the steps away from the Colt house.
“That’s because you’re sheltered, Esther. My offer stands. Anytime you want to learn why the devil is winning the war for women’s flesh, I’ll be here.” His volume increased the farther away Esther got from him. The vulgarian.
She sputtered. Fuming, she doffed her hat and fanned her face with it while she walked. She couldn’t believe the audacity of that man.
“Lord, grant me strength.” Her mind scrambled to find the verse that would be salve to the fires of her anger. Everything scattered as she settled on it. Nothing held still inside her head long enough to grasp it. Her feet beat a rapid tempo on the sidewalk. The neighborhood around her blurred as she struggled to still her mind long enough to focus on just one thought.
“For God so loved the world,” she started John three-sixteen, it was the simple, basic, fundamental tenet upon which she built her entire faith. It was the bedrock, the foundation of Christianity.
“For God so loved the world,” she didn’t know why she couldn’t complete the verse. The words were there. She knew them. Understood them. Believed them with every part of her heart and soul. Why were they escaping her now? This was a test. It was a test back with Eddy Colt, it was a test now.
“For God so loved the world,” so lost in her struggle, Esther was oblivious to how far she walked. The rumbling of a train shook the ground beneath her. The pressure release of steam from the train’s engine displaced enough air that she felt the impact in her ears. The train whistled, shattering any progress toward a restful mind.
“For God so loved the world!” The ambient train noise was now so loud, she shouted to overcome it, but the rest of the words still wouldn’t form in her mouth. The sound of the train’s engine faded, moving away from her while the still piercing clang of steel wheels against the iron track persisted. At least she could hear herself now.
“For God so loved the world,” after she said it, a voice from behind her continued it.
“He gave his only begotten Son,” Esther turned to find the owner of the voice. The words stopped after “son.”
Esther continued, “Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish,” she stopped speaking, eying the young woman in front of her.
“But have everlasting life.” The filthy young woman completed the verse. By her ragged clothing, and bindle-stick, Esther assumed the girl jumped from the passing train.
“That’s a fine verse. Pappy used to read the good book at me when I was young.” The young woman closed the distance between them, offering her hand for a shake.
“Name o’ Natalie, ma’am. Know anywhere a weary traveller like myself could find a bite hereabouts?” Natalie waited for Esther to take her hand. Esther was flushed, sweating, breathing heavy from her frantic pace through Concrete.
“Say, ma’am, are you okay? Maybe you should cop a squat over here and take a breather.” The hobo girl gestured to a bench along the exterior wall of the train station. Esther turned as Natalie took her gently by the elbow and led her to the bench. Esther sat and smoothed her skirt.
“Thank you, young lady.”
“No sweat. It’s Natalie. You are?”
“Of course.” Natalie set her bindle on the ground and sat next to Esther, “What’s the name God gave you?”
“Esther Merideth Lewis.”
“Hep. Nice to meet you, Esther.” Natalie held out her hand again. Her fingernails were filthy, and her hands were clad in fingerless gloves, frayed where the fingers probably used to be. Esther took her hand and shook it. “You seem rattled. Everything okay?”
“Oh. I just had an encounter with a terrible, wicked man.”
Natalie puffed up a bit and looked around, “Oh? He didn’t hurt you, did he? Nothing puts me in the frame for a scrap like guys hurtin’ dames. Dig?”
“Nothing like that. His wicked words were sinful and deliberately sacreligious, said with the sole purpose of getting under my skin. I’ve been searching for the right scripture to calm myself.”
“The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” Natalie smiled.
“Exodus fourteen fourteen.” Esther returned the smile, “You’re a blessing, child. Why do you live like this?” Esther indicated Natalies filthy clothes, “Come to the church, we have baths, and beds. Hot soup. Even coffee.”
Natalie scrunched up her chin and looked away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I’m not really comfortable in church.”
“Why not? You know the scripture. You’ve been saved, haven’t you?”
“Oh, I got my own deal going with the big guy upstairs. He and I,” Natalie crossed her first and second fingers, holding them up for Esther to see, “We’re like this.”
“Then everything will be fine.” Esther stood and offered her hand to Natalie, “Come on.”
Natalie made a miserable smile. An attempt to show that she was grateful for the offer, but had to decline. She’d love to accept. Nothing would please her more than joining Esther at church and taking a hot bath, eating some soup and donning a fresh gown while curling up with a hot cup of coffee. The smile said all of it, and at the same time it also said “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
Natalie looked down and removed her cloche hat. Dirty brown hair fell about her face. She looked at Esther through the hair in front of her eyes, “I’ve been run out of a lot of churches. You seem nice. Just as soon not get run out of yours too.”
“Well you must have done something to get kicked out. Did you steal?”
“No, Esther. I never stole from a church. Never did nothing woulda got me kicked out based on anything I ever read in the good book.”
“Enough of this. Spit it out, then. What did you do?” Esther crossed her arms.
“I fell in love with a woman.” Natalie stared at the river valley beyond the train tracks, and the bank on the other side of the river, lined with tall conifers tinted hazy blue in the Pacific Northwest drizzle. “Then I made the mistake of not hiding the fact.”
“That’s not entirely uncommon. You just need a good man to take you into his arms, give you a family, then…”
Natalie cut Esther short, “No. I don’t need a man. Don’t want a man. The church and church-going folk aren’t amenable to that, so I don’t go into churches anymore.” Grabbing her bindle-stick, she stood and put on her hat, “I am that I am.”
Esther squinted at Natalie, “It’s blasphemy, then, on top of the deviance.”
“It ain’t blasphemy, and I ain’t a deviant. I am as God made me.” Natalie stepped closer to Esther, “I am that I am.”
This was another test. It had to be. Twice in one day the Lord was sending her these challenges. She knew how to answer them, “You’re still welcome in God’s house if you renounce your deviancy and ask the Lord for forgiveness. We won’t turn you away if you make it right with Jesus.” Esther’s heart rate increased again. Not to the same point it had been when dealing with Eddy, but enough to remind her of it. She turned and walked away. She put the choice on Natalie. The doors of the church would open to her if she merely humbled herself before the Lord.
“I’m still right with God by my estimation.” Natalie rested her bindle-stick on her shoulder.
“‘If anyone should think to himself, ‘I will do well enough if I follow the dictates of my heart,’” Esther stopped long enough to turn and look back to Natalie, “Yahweh will not pardon him. His wrath shall burn against him.’ Deuteronomy. Twenty-nine nineteen, twenty-nine twenty. ”
“‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you.’ Ephesians four thirty-two. I just wanted to know where I could get a bite to eat around here, Esther.”
Esther had enough of this young vagabond’s contrarian perversity. It was her choice to refuse God’s help, not Esther’s. She offered the hospitality of the church. Natalie only had to renounce her wickedness and she would be welcomed with open arms.
“And the devil who deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone with the beast and the false prophet; and they will be tormented day and night forever.” She spoke aloud to herself as she turned and left, “The Revelation of John.” Confident she had passed both of the Lord’s tests for her, she made her way to the church, knowing she would find her comfort there in the house of God.