Luce was probably as surprised to find himself in the hospital room with Fen Sloughheart as Fen was to see him standing by his bed. Neither one of the men really wanted to see, much less talk, to the other, but there had been at least some tangential connection between their families from as far back as anyone could remember. Not close, but close enough they had to say they were related; besides, which, Luce had kind of grown up with Fen’s father, Bog. Fen knew all of this, of course, so he didn’t rant and rave or ask the old man to leave. He figured he was basically stuck in place to hear whatever ole Luce had come to say. And thankfully, Luce got right to the point.
“Now I didn’t particularly care for Charger, no surprise there, but I’ve always said he was generally a man of upstanding character and integrity. And every once in awhile he’d say something really kind of profound, statements I’ve remembered ever since,” Luce importantly reminisced. “It was an important guiding principle you’re daddy never learned, and one you’ve never really learned. Not that I’ve ever been particularly religious, but what he was talking about really had everything to do with being upfront and honest, consistently disciplined, and ‘walking your talk’ day in and day out, so to speak. At least that’s what I got out of it.” He pause and held Fen’s bleary gaze for a few moments. Sloughheart was still with him. “Yep, Charger said, ‘It’s not enough to believe the Word of God; you’ve got to live the Word of God, the whole Word of God. And it’s not enough to believe Jesus; you’ve got to believe in him and follow him. And it’s not enough to believe in the Spirit; you’ve got to be filled with the Spirit, filled to overflowing so that everyone with whom you come into contact cannot help but feel the overwhelming presence of the one, true, living God.’” Luce paused again to let Charger’s words sink into Sloughheart’s thick and muddled mind.
Fen still felt the painful, tight ache in his chest, along with some mild discomfort at the back of his neck and head. The rest of his body was just thoroughly spent, so much so he couldn’t have gotten out of bed to get away from Luce if he’d wanted to; it was physically out of the question. All said and done, the medical team attending to his care preliminarily conjectured that he had experienced a mild heart-attack, followed by an unusual combination of a slightly more severe heart-attack and mild nervous breakdown. They were running other tests but had already pretty much decided there was no compelling reason to transfer him to Grand Oak. So … there he was … with Luce.
“I’m not blind, Fen; I know you don’t want to hear any of this, and I know you want me to leave. Well, all in good time. I don’t really want to be here either, but I never got the chance to talk to your daddy before he just dropped dead… I’ve always felt guilty about that, even though I never intended to preach to him. Bottom line is, your dad should never have taken the pulpit at Ebenezer. He should never have entered the ministry, and I knew that as sure as I’m here talking to you now. And even though I didn’t know all of the details of his life, I knew enough to know he was making the lives of other people a living nightmare … maybe hell. So even though we were only barely related, and never really close friends, I felt compelled for some reason to go and talk to him … about three days before he passed, in fact. I didn’t do it, and I’ve regretted it ever since.” Now Fen was really listening closely. He’d never, of course, heard any of this before.
“Anyway … here you are, his son … and here I am to say what I probably would have said to Bog.” He paused again, looking deeply into Fen’s eyes. “Like I said before, I don’t know all of the details of your life, your relationships, or your ministry, and I don’t want to or need to, really. I know enough, and I can … sense enough. I’m not a deaf, dumb, blind and stupid man. So I’ll get right to the point. You and I both know you’re in trouble – doubtless, a lot of trouble – and I’m not going to preach to you; that’s someone else’s job as far as I’m concerned. However, I do know a few things you definitely need to do, and I’m just going to lay it out, plain and simple.” Fen still maintained eye contact as best he could, giving full attention to Luce.
“First, you need to come clean, Fen. You need to voluntarily make an unadulterated, full confession to the authorities, no ‘if, ands or buts’ about it, with no excuses. Just lay all of your cards on the table, period, and be willing to accept whatever may come as a consequence … like a man … with character and integrity. This is your opportunity, Fen, to stand tall and actually become what your daddy never was … well, to be more like Charger, at least in his good traits. Second, you need to immediately resign your ministry, and publically commit yourself to never, ever entering the ministry again … in any way, shape or form. Like Bog, your daddy, you should never have taken over Ebenezer, Fen. You were too young – not a criticism, just an honest observation – and I really don’t think you wanted to be the pastor of Ebenezer … not at first. You were more or less pushed into that position when you could have moved out and away, into something more fitting, and done so much more with your life. But … that didn’t happen, and so here you are; you definitely should not remain ‘here,’ that is, in the ministry, or in this area, whenever it might be possible for you to get out of Dodge. For right now, though, resign and remove yourself completely from that profession, Fen.
“Third,” Luce continued very business-like, “however it might be possible – and I pray it is – you need to make restitution and reparation when and where and to whomever you can, to the greatest extent you can, no holds barred. However much you may be despised, and even hated, you need to do this, Fen, not for yourself … but for those you’ve harmed. And, again, I don’t know all the details, but I have a gut feeling there’s plenty of this work to do to keep you busy for quite awhile. Fourth, and finally, you might be surprised to hear me say this, but … Fen, wherever you end up – even in jail or prison – you’ll have the opportunity to do something you’ve never done before, something you need to do. You’ll have the opportunity to learn. Your daddy never really gave you that opportunity, not really. Instead, I fully believe Bog did nothing more than poison you, but no matter how many people you’ve hurt, and no matter how many folks may understandably despise you now, you still have this opportunity. You’re still fairly young, and if you do the first three things I’ve told you to do, then you’ll have an undeserved, second chance to remold and remake yourself into something fairly respectable… Of course, this will probably, ultimately mean moving far away from here, as I’ve already said, but you’ll have the opportunity to live life as an almost brand-new person … maybe.”
Now, Luce was a good man, all in all – brass and crusty, but good – and he was an intelligent man with fairly good perception. He knew he didn’t have all the details, and so he knew there was probably an awful lot of reprehensible facts that might make his advice seem kind of naïve. But Luce also knew his advice was not naïve; incomplete, perhaps, but not puerile in the least. Luce was not a professional counsellor, or psychologist, or clergyman; he was an educated man, but his field had been in civil engineering. Oh, he knew what he believed and why he believed what he believed, but he was not in the hospital room with Fen Sloughheart to counsel or to pray with him. He was with Fen now to do something he very strongly felt like he should’ve done years ago with Fen’s father, Bog. He should have confronted Bog, but he let that opportunity slip by. Now, though, he had an opportunity to confront his son, and he wasn’t about to let this one by-pass him!
“Well, Mr. Featherwit, I umm … appreciate you’re coming by, and I’m sure you…”
“Have you heard a word I’ve said, or are you that thickheaded and incredulous?” Luce stood up and barked at Sloughheart. “You’re lying here in the hospital, lucky to be alive; you’re now constantly on the verge of totally falling apart, and your life and ministry are falling apart. Is this what you want, Fen?” Fen was rather shocked by the virility of the old man. “Can you see past the end of your nose? Hell! I know you can; you’re too self-concerned not to be able to see what’s coming down the line … and it’s like an 18-wheeler going 90-to-nothing, heading straight for you, while you’re just standing in the middle of the damn road, looking at its headlights! Hells bells! I know you’ve done some pretty reprehensible things in your life, even recently, but you can’t make me believe that if there’s any hope … even just a sliver of hope for you now, you’re not interested.”
Fen Sloughheart blinked, then rubbed his eyes and looked back at Luce. He nodded his head while he pushed the button on his pain pump – it was about time, and he couldn’t stand to be in pain – and then reached for his cup of water. He took a couple of long swigs and set the cup back down on his side-tray. Fen nodded again at Luce and sighed deeply. It really was over, wasn’t it? But maybe, just maybe, he didn’t quite have to go down in flames. Maybe what the old man was telling him was good advice … or, at least, some of it. His mind was ticking now. Perhaps he could use Luce’s astute suggestions to his advantage, with some modifications, of course.
“Alright… alright,” Fen answered Luce. “Can’t argue with age and wisdom, so … well, if you’re right, you’re right. I just don’t know exactly how to go about resigning the church. And besides that, I own the land the school is on.”
“What you do now, right now, is you pick up that phone,” Luce pointed to the phone by Fen’s bed, “and you call your church. You tell your secretary to grab pen and paper and take down exactly what you say. You tell her that due to major health problems as well as ongoing family and legal difficulties, you can no longer serve as pastor of Ebenezer Independent Fundamentalist Bible Church; therefore, you are resigning your ministry, and any and all positions, effective immediately. You then instruct her to call each and every member of the board, or council, and have her read your statement to them, clearly and word for word. So far as the land is concerned, you could do no better than to then call … well, the Verdure County Ministerial Association to inform them that you intend to sign over 50% ownership of the property to the Association, and 50% ownership of the property to Ebenezer Church.”
“Furthermore, you need to request that the Association procure the services of an auditing agency – very reputable, of course – to immediately go through the books. You also need to make it clear to Ebenezer Church that, even though you do not want the basic nature and … constitution of the school to change, you do intend some input from the Association in the continuing educational program. Does the school have a board? Then at least one out of three need to come from outside Ebenezer. Does the school have an associate principle? The principle will probably still come from the church, I know, but his associate should come from outside Ebenezer. How many teachers does Ebenezer have? I’d say you need to bring in some outsiders there, too, and you need to have all of your teachers evaluated… If I’m not mistaken, there is an Independent School Association for Better Private Education, the ISA-BPE? They administer yearly academic evaluations of teachers to try to better ensure quality education. Get them on board, immediately. Make it happen concurrently with your resignation.”
“O.k.” Fen Sloughheart surprisingly acquiesced. “If you don’t mind, please hand me the phone. I’ll put in my resignation, using the very words you suggested, in fact, and then I’ll call the principle of the school to have him contact the ISA-BPE for membership application, with the understanding that we stand prepared to both have our current staff evaluated and to be audited by their choice of an auditing agency. The association may choose to do this as well with one of their choice, but that remains to be seen; after all, they may not want to get involved.”
“Oh, something tells me they will,” Luce responded with half a smile. “We’re talking about prime property. Besides this, when you add the fact that they will not only own half, but also comprise at least 1/3 of the Board, fill at least one administrative position, and some teacher slots, well… It’s an opportunity, to be sure. It’s also a matter of avoiding unnecessary confusion and trouble. Your school has quite a few students, and the public school is packed full as it is, so … better to keep your school up and running, for awhile anyway, rather than letting it crash and burn overnight, so to speak. And if it can end up being genuinely improved academically in the process, so much the better … and you’ll be completely out of the picture.” Luce had to add the last emphatic statement just to make certain Sloughheart understood he was cutting all ties.
Resigning from the pulpit didn’t seem to bother Fen Sloughheart now. At this point, he figured if he were going to lose the church anyway, he may as well do it with as much grace as possible, and hopefully engender some sympathy along the way. So, too, for giving away the land, which would not really affect his pocket book that much. Fen had squirreled away quite a bit of money in savings and municipal bonds, CDs, land and precious metals, and had successfully done so under a pseudonym – with the help of an unsavory, ex-FBI member of his church – all completely unconnected with the name of Fen Sloughheart. No, he had plenty of money and then some. So now his mind was churning on how he might be able to come through this hellish debacle better than expected.
He chuckled unexpectedly. Hah! The devil take them all! I may yet have my day!