Blackchurch Furnace by Nathan Singer is a scathing satire of faith, family, and all that we hold dear, where the only thing you can believe in are the voices in your own head … and they are every bit as crazy as you are (available January 15, 2018).
Blackchurch is not the sort of place where folks are inclined to be up in each other’s business, and strange house guests at a neighbor’s pad are not likely to be noticed, let alone remarked upon. So on a day in early October, when two beat-up-looking crackers, a pregnant teenage whore, and a small, androgynous Japanese woman in a large-brimmed sombrero, sunglasses, and wrapped in a patchwork down comforter came to call on D’antre Philips with heads full of prophetic visions and tales of the apocalypse already in progress, nary an eye was blinked. When the end times do come to Blackchurch, it’ll be a day like any other day. And the next day will be too.
MIN, age 14…“Que Sera Sera”
Exhibiting the titular wisdom, like Tituba at a witch burning, MeShayle stood pointing fingers at other dead-ringers and hangers-on. She lived on her own, where Countee Cullen met Geezer Butler for pagan prayers and H-bomb bass tone. She lived on her own. Alone, where lost poets guzzle Jack and go deaf from thrash and blind from dirt crank (and there are no old brothers here).
There’d never be a blast beat without Art Blakey. Street corner rhymin’ set to tin cans rolling down an alley. And it just ain’t loud enough. This just ain’t loud enough. TURN THIS FUCKER UP.
MeShayle was a no-nonsense baller, ya heard. Played the streets like a violin, like a Shaolin, her body was the temple where the lonesome and the loathsome came to worship. Worshipping as they came. Her thighs the gateway to the garden. Or so she kept ’em figuring, triggering hot-spot guilt rides when suburbanite suitn’tie albino cockroaches come to town for conventions and a taste for the unconventional. To go to town on a lil sista who’s been down here before. Fever producer, tension reducer, she’s a street walking medic holding the world’s oldest cure-all. Keepin’ a steady beat blasting—
“This all you got?”
And she fourteen years old.
“You cain’t fade me!!!”
Did I mention that she fourteen?
She fourteen years old
and she ain’t never owned a pair of roller skates.
MeShayle ain’t never been to a school dance. Never had a first date or bum-rushed a show. Ain’t ne’er gonna crush on nobody her own age. Her peers are zombies, wash-outs and ain’never-beens—young enough to know better, too old to care. Rocking a tune at the edge of the world…And it’s flat, ya heard. Flat.
The tune, the world, the rock, the edge—
It’s flat, ya heard? It’s flat, ya feel me.
Feel me. You feel me?
It’s flat. Turn it up.
She ain’t got no delusions that it ain’t all flat and dry like a drought-choked wheat field in July. Whores burn like witches out here. Burn like fading stars. Like little Black girls in an Alabama church basement.
(MeShayle, my bail, someday won’t you play your very own song? Trés bien ensemble.)
But for now, here, in 2001, whatever will be will be. She just fittin’ to let ’em all burn. And keep a driving beat on old trash cans and thrash a hunk of old furnace and rusted drain pipe and scream at the night—
“This all you got? This all you got!?!! You ain’t fadin’ me! This ain’t loud!!! It ain’t loud at all. This ain’t LOUD enough, ya heard!?!! TURN THIS FUCKER UP!”
Letters to Eva
Reminiscing on the dawn of the apocalypse. Year one. You remember, right, the floods that year that drowned the Big Easy and ravaged the mighty Mississip? You remember the all-out war in the holy dust pit and the children of Abraham massacring each other over sand and the love of a merciful god? Remember all that? Those were the days, huh? Simpler times. F’real. I was living then as I am now in a one-room efficiency in an old Catholic church. It wasn’t a church by the time I moved in. Archdiocese sold it cheap to a neighborhood slumlord. That’s my luck, y’heard. I am only the third tenant ever. I gotta bounce soon, though, cuz I’m taunting fate up in here.
Kinda crazy living in a converted church. Cuz it still looks like a church, knamsayin? It’s got all the regular church shit, but none of it’s holy anymore. I guess. No more crucifix on the wall, just a pale shadow of a cross in the paint left behind. Where the confessional used to be is now a storage closet. In what was once the sacristy I found a half-filled wine rack. Cheap, screw-cap Rosé. The blood of Christ, $11.95 a jug. Amen. I drink it late at night in the parking lot behind the abandoned orphanage. Some nights, if you’re quiet enough…and sufficiently tore up, you can hear the ghost whispers of long-gone sinners echoing faintly through the hall, begging forgiveness for they trespasses. Sins of the mind. Of the heart. Sins of the flesh. And they all boring as hell.
On the corner of Blackstone and Churchwalk is where we live. The lullaby of a twelve-gauge. Forgotten, bloody, on the last page. A lost riddle in a bullet night, and we ambling, dexterous, down a sidewalk of dull and forgettable secrets. Alleys littered with wreckage lead to the cage door. To the stage door. To the tabernacle. And the raked stage is breaking straight through to the cellar floor, bleeding through a river of black. Cellar door leading to a river of black. Flowing to the mouth of the hell-blasting furnace. Screaming, rattling, wailing, clattering. And we all feed the furnace in this Blackchurch. On the corner of Blackstone and Churchwalk where we live.
I make my living, such as it is, flipping boxes on an assembly line at a factory that makes plastic bottles. Every bit as big ballin’ as it sounds. Cuz nothing says true playa like wearing goggles and earplugs at 2 a.m. surrounded by Northern hilljacks with Confederate flags on they belt buckles. Bitch-ass crackers can’t even pronounce my name.
“Deanntry, go’n wrap that skid.”
“It’s D’antre, mothafucka!”
“That’s what I said: Deanntry.”
“DEE! ON! TRAY! D’antre!”
“I’ll jus’ call yah Philips. Philips, go’n wrap that skid.”
Ain’t so bad, though, really. The machines keep a straight beat going, so I just spend my time on the line following the rhythm and working out my words. It’s not like I need to think too much doing that shit. Got some rough characters working this factory, and that’s good to me. Always looking for characters. One time back, while I was doing a stretch at County, some little chicken-n-dumplins-lookin housewife who worked here just up-ended one night and shot some other bitch right in the throat. No words went down or provocation that anyone could see, she just pulled a snub-nose out of her purse and started popping. Just standing there in line at the punch clock. I can see how that could happen. And a coupla years before that one of the forklift drivers got brought down in a hail of cop gunfire outside a house he’d just set fire to. Right on the outskirts of downtown Cincinnati. Course there was a woman involved, ya heard? I don’t normally take up for the police, but the cat was one of them neo-nazi skinheaded motherfuckers, and he shot a homeboy of mine who lived in that house. So fuck his bald ass. Word.
Rent’s cheap in the Church, and that’s what I’m all about right now. I’m just biding my time, you know, until my shit gets worked out. I’ve been MCing in this town since high school, and I’ve had some success with the mic. Rocked a few crowds in my day. Back in the day. Way back, at this point. Before I went to the pen. And then I went back. And then I went back again. But I’m out now and I’m putting the pen to paper this time, you feel me? I’m published, son. Believe that. When my daughter was little I wrote a book for her called Princess Africa Jones. Maybe you heard of it. I doubt it. But it got picked up by Hedgehog Press in 2002, and to date I’ve made one hundred forty-seven dollars and sixty-two cents in royalties. Pimp. That’s probably the end of the line, though, cuz it got remaindered a year later when Hedgehog done got bought out. I haven’t so much as heard from my agent in 572 days and thirteen hours. I don’t even know if he’s still my agent any more. Maybe I should call him. Maybe he dead.
My baby girl’s mad teenagerish these days, and she and her mama done moved away to Wisconsin. Word. Wisconsin. Now look…I can understand being born Black in Wisconsin, and all right, you got people there, so you stay. You can’t help it really. But to be Black…and move to Wisconsin? Did I miss something? Tijuana, my baby’s mama, is a dancer of the exotic variety, and I know she making her daily bread with that…but come on now. They ain’t got no decent strip joints in Chicago or Detroit? I guess they pay top dollar for a naked Black ass up in the land of cheese. Makes sense. Last I heard TJ done got pretty fat…I’m sure she still fine as fuck. Always was.
Make some nooooooise, fellas! Don’t you wish YOU were in Tijuana right now?
And my baby Dameka, she at that age, you know. When she was tiny, I was her hero. Her whole world, you feel me. Even when I was locked up I could do no wrong. But she don’t want to know about me these days. What can you do? That little book I wrote for her as a baby don’t mean much now. And she ain’t impressed that her daddy used to kick it with The Pharcyde. She ain’t fazed that her daddy’s crew opened up for The X Clan. Who The X Clan? Just some corny-ass old shit. She’s all about that capitalist money rap that rules the game these days. The fake thugs. Rims and furs and too many gold. The red the black and the green? That shit don’t look nice on me, Daddy.
So here I am back living in Madisonville, on the Blackchurch side. Day Jah fuckin’ Voo. Thought for sure I’d have at least be moved out of Cincinnati by now. Or even Ohio. But nope. Not only am I still in Cincinnati, I’m right back in the same hood I stayed at coming up. Now it’s really just me, though. Most of my relations are dead or moved away. Most of my cats coming up are all in the ground or locked up or gone. And the few left over are just shells anymore. If I’m about chilling with ghosts I’ll just stay up in this haunted-ass church. So that’s just what I do. Drinking free wine, puffing a blunt or two, eating jalapeno salsa, and jerking off to Steel Magnolias. Daryl Hannah, son, what? She got that lazy, sleepy fuck me look in her eyes that’s real good to me. You ain’t got to judge. (And people will say, D, why not that mermaid movie instead where you can see her titties? Cuz I ain’t into fish, kid. Y’all got me fucked up.)
Anymore I’m just chillin’ in the wake of the apocalypse.
I guess it all started when I got some mail that wasn’t mine. It was addressed to some woman named Eva, no last name given, in Canton, Ohio. RETURN TO SENDER. The return address was a nameless P.O. Box in Tennessee, but right there was that big yellow forwarding label with my address as plain as day. Figured it was a screw up at the post office. And I suppose the neighborly thing to do would be to walk on over there, step over the homeless people, bob and weave through the crackheads, wait nine years in line—fuck that. I threw it away and thought no more about it.
Until the next week when I got another one. Same deal—Eva, RETURN TO SENDER, P.O. Box, yellow label forwarded to Blackstone St. And I threw that one away. Next week I got another and said, Hell with this. Shit shows up at my crib it’s my shit to read, know what I’m saying?
This is what the letter said:
Hope you’re well. Haven’t heard from you in a while, so I thought I’d drop you a line and say howdy. I’m living with Dino and Chip these days. Yes, they’re still with Lynne and Margie. Everyone sends their love. Some good news, my headaches are a lot less frequent now. Still having that eye thing, but I’m coping. Everybody’s cool and actually mellow, if you can believe that. Dino’s eased up on a lot of the old “Indian rights” stuff these days, and isn’t so much giving me and Chip the business about “Your ancestors destroyed my people and took their land” blah blahbity blah. I’m sure it’s only temporary, though. You know how he is. Crazy red bastard.
You’ll be happy to know I’m seeing a doctor about the anger issues. A specialist. I think I’m making a lot of progress. It’s hard with that retarded jackass still in office, but I’m making my personal peace. One day at a time, right? So there it is.
Dino and I are laying asphalt full time now, plus making some scratch on the side…but I probably shouldn’t go into thatin detail. THEY’re likely reading my mail. I know they’re tapping the phones.
I was thinking about the baby the other day. The first one. Do you realize if he (or she) had lived he’d be ten years old today? It’s kind of weird to think about what could have been. Guess all you can do is play the hand God deals you and pray for the best. Well, that’s all. Talk to you soon I hope. Give my best to Micki and Jason and your mom.
All My Love,
Just a bunch of jibber jabber to me, so I pitched it. Another came the next week and I didn’t even open it. Out to the trash it went. Then another came. And then another…
Proper Care and Maintenance
Doorbell jangled me out of bed around nine-twenty-nine. My apartment is on the second floor, where the church offices used to be. I stumbled on down the stairs and opened the door to find this pasty looking white dude in navy blue coveralls sniffing and blinking back a weekday morning hangover.
“Are you D’antre Philips?”
“Will Fanon.” His eyes and nose screamed ‘Alcoholic!’ Blood-spotted red. On his left hand he wore a black leather glove. On just the one hand.
“Your landlord hired me to come service your unit.”
“Say what now?”
“Your furnace. Says it makes some horrible noise and clicks on and off real sporadic-like.”
“Yeah. Come on in.”
“Name’s Will Fanon,” he said again.
“Good to meet ya. It’s down this way. Watch your step. This basement is crazy.”
I grabbed a flashlight from the hall closet and led him down into the church cellar—which sorta has the vibe of an eighteenth-century prison. Dirt floor, stone walls, old broken pews and church brik-a-brak sinking into wet earth. The crumbling foundation has let an ever-present river of mud furrow itself a pathway through the floor.
“Well,” Will Fanon said, “this certainly ain’t too pleasant down here. Looks like a good place for a murder.”
“Folks have been murdered down here, actually. Upstairs too.”
“In this neighborhood I believe it,” he replied.
“Every other tenant that has rented the crib upstairs done either killed or got killed by a loved one. That’s why I live alone, ya heard?”
“Any other problems with the machine besides the noise?”
“Well, it’s either arctic-ass cold up in this piece, or so hot your skin melts off. Even three floors up. Out in the church proper the stage floor is warpin’ cuz it’s right over the furnace.”
“You’ll have to talk to somebody else about that. I just deal with pressure boilers and furnace units.”
“Well, here it is. Watch y’head.” I flipped the bolt lock on the broken wooden door to the furnace room. Creaked as it opened. Will held a quick breath at the sight of the thing.
“Man alive,” he gasped. “Is she ever a beauty.” Just looked like a big nasty hunk of scrap metal and aluminum tubes to me. But he obviously saw something more there. Way more, apparently. “Great model. Great year. She’ll blast for a hundred years yet. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Philips.”
“Yeah, it’s a charmed life I live.”
He proceeded to poke his head around the various shafts and pipes, whistling and nodding in approval, but periodically clenching his teeth and shuddering in what I took to be withdraw. “You know, on the boiler end, they’re replacing these old models with what’s called an Ohio Special.” Twitch.
“Is that right.”
Don’t be havin’ no delirium tremens ’til you leave out this bitch, goddamn it.
“Requires no operator at all. Blasphemy. No good will come of that. Mark my words, Mr. Philips.”
“Call me D’antre.”
With his one good hand he popped off a metal plate and began messing with this coil and that switch. I heard a scratch-and-scurry sound down the cavern a ways. I aimed my flashlight around the cellar. Fuckin’ rats. ’Bout shit when I saw a bunch of giant, rotting papier maché faces along the south wall, probably from a play or something. Mental note: don’t never come down here drunk or blunted. Over one of the heads, The Castle of River Sam was painted on the back wall. Figured it was the name of the play the decaying faces were from. (I was mistaken.)
“There’s no major problems with this unit, D’antre. It just needs a little love.”
“Aw’ight. Say brah, what happened to your hand?”
He stopped and stepped out to engage me directly, just as serious as a razor at your nuts.
“I got arrogant. And prideful. I love my boilers and they love me. But they won’t be taken for granted. Now I know. My heart has been humbled.”
And back to work he went, mopping the sweat from his forehead, even though it was plenty cool down there.
“Yeah, this is a wonderful piece of work,” he said. “Wish I had both hands, but you know what they say. If wishes were beggars we’d all have a free ride.”
“Hey man, this gonna take long?”
A resonant slam of metal and a few echoy clicks, and he dusted his bare hand against his coveralls.
“That’s all, folks. Should purr like a JAP on payday.”
“JAP on payday. That’s a new one.”
As I led him back up the half-broken steps he started in with, “You live in Blackchurch a long time, D’antre?”
“Well, I was born in Madisonville, and I grew up on the Blackchurch side. I’ve spent most of my life either in…or near…greater Cincinnati. So yeah, more or less. But I moved into this place a minute ago.”
“A minute ago?”
“Well, not literally a minute. What about you?”
“We’ve been here ten years, or there ’bouts. It’s okay, I suppose. I’m not really too comfortable being surrounded by Blacks, though. No offense.”
“Um. Aw’ight. None taken I guess.”
Least he’s honest.
As we got to the foyer by the front door I saw him hesitate to leave.
“These bullet holes?” he asked referring to the poor putty job on the door.
There’s really no missing a DT shake if you know what it is when you see it. Hmmmm…let me see now. Bet ole Mr. Fanon here’s got a whole day of calls up ahead of him and no chance to take a little nip. Gonna be a looooong day, ain’t it Mista Alki White Man. Hurts, don’t it. HURTS! I had a half a mind to just chuck him on out the door and let his withdraw-sufferin’, Black-fearin’ ass sweat it out…but what can I say. I got a big heart, knahmean?
“Say, uh, Will, right?”
“If you got a minute, you want a beer before you go?” And his red eyes lit right up. “Oh wait. I ain’t got no beer. How about a cup of wine?”
“Don’t worry, I ain’t gay. It’s church wine. Came with the church.”
“Wouldn’t say no to a sip or too.”
Course you wouldn’t.
So at 10:29 a.m. I poured us both two jumbo-sized plastic cups of Rosé. Fine breakfast.
“Here’s to ya,” I said. He raised his cup and nodded thanks.
“So what do you do with yourself, D’antre?”
“Well…I write. I plot hostile takeover. I struggle to maintain my tenuous grip on reality. Not much.”
“Yeah, I heard from your landlord yer a writer.”
“For all intents and purposes.”
“I ain’t much for books or reading or any of that stuff. But I would like to write a book someday.”
“Yeah? And what would that be about?”
“It would be partly an operations manual for high pressure boilers. And partly a Bible.”
“Like the King James?”
“No, my own Bible. Entirely my own. Even got a title already.”
“Lay it on me, slick.”
“For Proper Care and Maintenance of Ancient and Angry Gods.”
“If you doubt the holy power of pressure boilers let me take you sometime to see what’s churning deep underground beneath University Hospital. Massive boiler. Three stories large. Red hot coals. Conveyor belts. Multiple operators on hand day and night 365 days a year. That baby runs the sterilizers, the incubators, everything in the entire hospital. It gives life…and can just as easily deliver death. We boiler operators are mad fools. But we keep your world alive. And we pay a heavy price sometimes.”
He looked at his gloved-hand and guzzled a mouthful of wine. I saw his eyes relax for the first time, and the jittering eased away.
“Why do it?” I asked.
“Because…I have felt the touch of God.”
“Haw preach’em now,” I said, and poured him another full cup.
“You got kids, D’antre?”
“Daughter. Don’t see her much. She and her moms hit the open road some years ago.”
“Moms? As in she’s got more than one?”
“Okay. So you got rid of the kid AND the woman? Jackpot!”
I should have felt mad, maybe, but I didn’t.
“Yeah…well…I was aw’ight with seein’ her mama go, anyhow.”
“I’m shocked my wife don’t leave,” he said. No shit. “I got a son myself. Goes to college up at Ohio State.”
“Good for him.”
“He’s a goddamn toad.”
“Nothin’ but a rotten, ungrateful little punk growing up,” he said, shaking his head in well-rehearsed disgust. “You understand. Angry at the world. But now he’s all big and smart with his college learning. Thinks he’s better than me…little self-righteous creep…on the rare occasion we actually talk it’s all…I don’t know…”
“That’s hard, man.”
“I had two boys, actually. Once. The little one, well…Christ…I loved that boy. But he died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks. The other one, peh. He’s the one that’s had to live. Least he left. Good riddance.”
“What’s your problem with him?”
“I just don’t need to be preached at by some snot-nosed liberal know-it-all. I’d call him out for a faggot, but he’s got himself a wife now, so there goes that theory. I really only see him ’bout once a year, but he manages to ruin everything any time he’s down here. Every year come Christmas time I gotta hear ’bout how I’m wrong about every goddamn thing under the sun, and I gotta spend my entire Christmas—or…what do you people call it…Swanzea? Quasi?”
“Yeah, I gotta spend my entire Kwanzaa hearing about how I’m a bigot, or I’m a sexist, or I’m a zeeno, phobo, whatinhellever.”
“That must make for a tough Kwanzaa.”
“Does it ever.”
“But then…he still your son, knahmsayin?”
“He’s a fuckin’ toad.” Will raised his cup and said, “To our babies. And the goddamn monsters they become.” I raised my cup as well, and couldn’t help for the moment but to think about my own Mama.
Excerpted from BLACKCHURCH FURNACE © Copyright 2018 by Nathan Singer. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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Nathan Singer is a novelist, playwright, composer, and experimental performing artist. He is also the lead vocalist and guitarist for award-winning “ultra-blues” band The Whiskey Shambles. His published novels are the controversial and critically-acclaimed A Prayer for Dawn, Chasing the Wolf, In the Light of You, The Song in the Squall, Transorbital, and the forthcoming Blackchurch Furnace. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he is working on a multitude of new projects.