It was in an impassioned service of worship at Water's Edge Evangelical Church, sitting at the far end of a packed pew, that Mateo decided he did not want to believe in God. He didn’t disbelieve. Rather, he didn’t want to affirm belief. If it came his turn to profess, he intended, like a nervous freshman on the first day of class, to answer, “Pass.”
A sweating, invigorated preacher stalked the stage in premium denim and a tailored silk button down. “Satan is on the prowl!” he insisted. “He just wants to waste your time. If he can’t make you do something bad, he’ll make you just sit around and do nothing. You don’t need corruptibility, you just have to give in to…” he paused in an act of well-oiled showmanship, “inactivity.”
“Come on!” shouted a woman two rows behind Mateo through hands held like parentheses around her mouth. There was a living swell of approving murmurs that washed through the crowd.
The whoops were jolts of electricity to the pastor’s nervous system, and he responded with increased fervor at each one, strutting and glaring, as though he were taunting a playground rival. “If the devil can’t make you transgress, he’ll just make you do less!”
His rhymes and alliterations provoked cheers, gasps, and calls of “Wow!” from the well-rehearsed congregation.
“The devil doesn’t wait in alleyways. He waits in church hallways.”
The audience moaned with glee, each hallelujah a vote in favor.
Mateo, of course, knew that all of this was true. He could see a bloated demon resting unashamedly on the shoulders of the preacher, an elastic tail coiled around his throat like a python. It was savoring the dishonesty which all such beings can sense; hypocrisy smells like a buttery, just-toasted pastry to them. Mateo could see the thing, of course, because Mateo was an angel, a particularly disinterested angel on the verge of agnosticism, ready to resign.
Water’s Edge nested inside a converted Catholic cathedral in the old Gothic style. Out front, a flamboyant, red and yellow vinyl sign with the church’s name and logo, a cresting ocean wave, hung in anachronistic and stark contrast to the stone face of the monumental edifice. The interior of the church had enjoyed no renovation as of yet from its new tenants. Their attendance was swelling within the spacious rented facility, but they had no obligation to invest in its trappings. Thus the carpet smelled of the must of old library and attic. Resident spiders had recently marched out in a union protest, a counter-reformation, as their fibrous nests were now being violated on a weekly basis.
A start-up church, it’s raw style and abrasively honest message had attracted a cross-section of the socially marginalized and culturally combative looking for representation. The pastor knew exactly what they were looking for. Next week he would bring in the State Lieutenant Governor for an interview and prayer over the coming election.
Mateo sat, arms crossed on the pew in front of him, slouched down on his forearms, petulant, grimacing, and wishing it would be over. He closed his eyes. His boredom and disgust had stretched into a thinly spread fury. He had no questions about the metaphysical nature of reality nor the hierarchy of the cosmic combatants. He wasn’t confused by the theological principles. He was simply repulsed by their application. From the feigned cheers of surprise from parishioners who came already knowing what they would experience, to the performance on stage that bore the heavy breathing and exaggerated zeal of community theater, Mateo couldn’t stand it. He tried to find a pasture in his mind in which to retire where there was no church, no people, and no God who cared about their destiny.
Angels, though, are bound to houses of worship like a gagging Doberman chained to a front yard oak. They orbit in an assigned radius. And here, Mateo was charged to guard, protect, fight, ward off, and otherwise perform the duties of a sentry in the platoons of heaven. But Mateo was AWOL at his post, as checked out as a freeway toll booth coin collector.
There was only one aspect of his service in-residence that he enjoyed, and that was tending to the rose garden. In a courtyard, next to a wall of glass windows, were three symmetrical rows of bushes, flora marching in formation, gentle explosions of reds, pinks, and whites. Each was a grave marker of a former congregant, dedicated by a former priest, who let them go to the highest bidders, funding a mahogany reworking of his office wing. Mateo found as much authentic life here as anywhere in the church.
Mid-week, he sat tending them the way angels do. He waved his hands over the stems like a conductor to induce better posture in one and a moist sheen across the leaves of another. They swayed gently under his work, baby birds opening their petal mouths to their mother. You’ve probably noticed that roses sometimes inexplicably dance when there is no breeze. This was his only solace.
A towering, radiant being suddenly stood over him and his garden. “Stand up,” commanded his superior, another divine appointment to this growing flock. “There are better things to do.”
Mateo obliged silently and sullenly.
Puriel was a dutiful mentor to her ward. Angels are born, of course, like any other species; they simply appear off the ends of the visible spectrum akin to ultraviolet and infrared. In their younger years, they have to be pruned and coached, lectured and disciplined. Puriel took seriously her charge to raise Mateo. She was rigid and versed in the law. He had proven disinterested and apathetic. Where he was round, she was angular. Like all of the other angels bound to this site, she was locked in the cataclysmic, black and white battle for the unaware souls who gathered on the Sabbath. They were a fearsome, serious host, humorless and dedicated. Except Mateo. Mateo wanted to garden and mostly be alone.
“You have to attend to every soul who passes through the doors,” Puriel commanded. “They’re all sacred. And each one stands on the precipice of a mountain, ready to fall to either side. It’s a war,” she insisted. None of this was new information to Mateo. This wasn’t a new speech.
“They all seem fake to me,” he said. This wasn’t a new feeling of indifference.
“That’s irrelevant!” she snapped. “That’s exactly where you come in! You’re supposed to be the voice on the other shoulder prodding them to righteousness.”
“What if I don’t care?”
“Insolent!” she shouted. He was prepared for a familiar, stinging swat from her, but a voice from the entrance to the courtyard interrupted. “Hello?”
Both of the guardians turned. A young man had stepped into the open space, though the church was closed. Someone must have left a door ajar. He was dressed in dark plaid and denim, with unkempt blonde hair a couple of weeks late for a cut. He looked lost but curious, as if he had wandered in to explore the church and was afraid of being accused of trespassing. Slowly, he progressed.
The zealous pastor entered from the other side of the courtyard, summoned by the voice. He was tall, and his presence was dominating. “May I help you!” he said with a big, salesman’s smile.
“You’re the pastor.”
“Yes, I am!” he answered exuberantly, though it had not been a question.
“My name is Liam,” the stranger said slowly and clearly. When he spoke, his voice felt like the moment a morning window is opened in a stuffy room. “I need some help.”
“Liam,” the cleric confirmed, pumping the guest’s hand. “You’ve come to the right place. I can pray some fabulous blessings on your life.”
“It’s not really for me,” said Liam. “I have a friend that I’ve been taking care of. She’s a mom with two kids, and she’s on the verge of eviction. She needs a job.”
“Well, now,” said the preacher, taking a step back, “that’s not really what we do here. That’s really tough,” he said, pretending to console.
“She’ll be by later today,” the man continued, as if he didn’t hear. “I think you should hire her.”
“We don’t have any staffing needs,” the pastor said, now more firm. “And if we did, we’d advertise online, not….”
“You need an admin to work in the front office,” the man continued. The pastor looked a bit perplexed.
“Wait a minute,” Mateo said. “How did he know that?”
“No one stopped him at the front door,” Puriel reasoned.
“I’m sorry,” the pastor tried to round out the conversation. “We’re not really looking.”
“You need her, she’s the right one for the job, and it will save her from losing her apartment,” the persistent guest said. He paused, then added quizzically, as if he weren’t quite sure why further evidence was needed, “For her kids.”
“Look, friend,” said the pastor, putting an unfriendly hand on the young man’s shoulder. “What’s happening right now, is you’re really not using my time effectively.”
Liam stared him eye to eye, undaunted but without any apparent aggression. “This is your one chance,” was his peculiar answer.
“Goodbye,” the pastor condescended. And with that, he turned on his heels and excused himself, back down the hallway from which he had first appeared.
Liam stood and stared after the man. Then he turned, and Mateo thought for a moment that the stranger looked directly at him, but he realized Liam was only noticing the flowers. Then he left.
“See!” Mateo said to his overseer. “That’s how they are! What’s the point of protecting them!”
She was incensed by his quick challenge, added to the fact that she, too, was bothered by the conversation they had just heard. “You’re going to learn to tend to them whether you feel like it or not!” she answered. “This is your place. This is your role. Shepherds don’t have to enjoy the sheep. You’re going to watch over them until their owner comes back for them, and that’s your only choice!”
“It’s not!” Mateo countered.
She knew immediately what he meant, and she froze.
“I don’t have to say ‘yes’ to any of this.” He knew this was true. Desertions were rare, but not unheard of.
“The other path is only darkness,” she said in a much more quiet but still cold voice.
“Not that either!” he said. “I just won’t take sides.”
“You can’t not take sides,” she answered. “Everything is either one side or another. Everyone decides. They decide,” she gestured to where the people had been standing, “and we decide. There’s no third way.”
“I won’t, though!” he insisted, now in a frustrated whine, showing the marks of his age. “I’m just going to refuse. I’m not going to choose, and I’m not going to do any assignments.” He looked at the roses at his feet, his only interest. He kicked one of them hard, sending its decapitated head rolling across the empty floor.
“Mateo,” she said, with the powerfully calm voice of a judge whose word is law. “You’re talking about a decision with eternal consequences.”
He shook his head and bit his lip with determined resignation. “Then I decide ‘no,’” he said.
She gasped, because with this incantation, he had already begun a process that was not in her hands to rework. Beneath him, the floor started to bubble. Where there had been solid tiles, there was now a swirling circle of mist that seemed to flow in and out of the ground beneath him. Soon it was not so much hard floor as something swampy, and slowly, he began to descend into it. He looked into her eyes, and for the first and last time, perceived a sort of heartache in her.
It made little difference. She belonged to the world of a kind of institutionalized warfare administration, a calculating military complex, and there would never be a nuance of unthreatened tolerance in that world. They would never know leisure or unproductive creativity. His last thought was that the side committed to creation had been lured into constant lust for destruction. He wouldn’t have climbed back up if he could.
The oozing puddle enveloped his knees, his hips, his waist, his chest. He closed his eyes as it swallowed his head.
Mateo awakened, not in a blazing inferno, but in a patch of sunlight, on a couch, an old one, with the broken-in softness of a newly fallen snow bank. His mind drifted into consciousness and focus. Afraid to draw attention to himself, he glanced around the room without moving. It was a living room, with bookshelves, a freestanding globe, oil paintings on the walls that were neither spectacular nor offensive, and a cracked and weathered leather lounge chair across from him that looked like it had served its owner well. What had awakened him was the sunlight which fell through a window that stretched from the floor to the high-arched ceiling. It brightened the room like a child’s smile. Clearly, he had slept there long enough for the sunlight to run its course across the room and finally land on his eyelids. He was decidedly not being tortured, and his surroundings were anything but smoldering. His surroundings, wherever he was, were obviously pleasant, and it was obviously mid-afternoon. He sat up slowly and hesitantly.
That was when he realized he was not alone. Beside the couch was a second chair, just by his head, one he couldn’t see from where he first peeked out through squinting eyes, and in the chair was a person. He jolted erect and stared at his companion.
In a moment Mateo recognized him. “From the church!” he stammered in surprise.
The man nodded, and hinted at a grin.
“Liam, you said.”
He nodded again.
“Where is this?”
“My house,” said Liam.
“What am I doing here? Where is this? Who are you?” There were a barrage of other questions waiting in line, but none would make sense without some foundation from which to begin. “Who are you?” Mateo asked again.
The man now smiled a conciliatory smile, a welcome sign at a final travel destination reached just before midnight kind of smile. “The owner of this house,” he said playfully.
“But who are you?” Mateo pried.
“I thought we might finish your conversation,” Liam proceeded confidently, as he had with the pastor.
“The one you were having with Puriel,” he said.
Mateo’s face wrinkled with confusion and then wide-eyed shock. “How did you hear that?” he insisted.
Now Liam lifted to his mouth something that Mateo had not seen at first, a slender, brown cigar, with a red-eyed glint on its tip, and he took a long, relaxed drag. Mateo became aware of the smell of tobacco in the room, not an acrid, overbearing odor, but a familiar, leathery varnish.
“Wait a minute,” Mateo asked as he froze. “What are you?”
“Mateo,” the voice was fatherly, “I wanted to offer to let you stay here, at my house. No particular duties as before. There are many rooms, choose as you like.”
Now Mateo stared in hesitant wonder. “How did I get here?”
“Some people charge the front door with a battering ram and find out it won’t move an inch. All you have to do is knock, and the door is opened.”
“I didn’t knock,” Mateo countered.
“To realize what matters and what does not is to knock,” he answered simply.
“Wait! Are you…you’re….” Mateo trailed off. He was afraid to name it, but he suspected.
Liam breathed in again through the peppery, roasted stick between his fingers and blew it out in a small gust. It was, Mateo thought, both decidedly unmessianic and disarming at the same time.
“I thought I was done for,” the young guest said in relief. “I thought it was over.” He had the overwhelming urge to fall to his knees, but at the same time he was paralyzed with reverent awe.
“Those damn angels,” Liam said, and winked.
And now there is, on an unnoticeable cul-de-sac, in a nameless Midwestern town of even less significance than a common Midwestern town, a little, indescript house, which doesn’t appear particularly large or small on the outside. None of the neighbors have ever seen the owner, but the roses, they say, are always well-tended.