The Devil’s Playground

The sun rose that day like every other before it, breaking through the early morning haze that blanketed the gulf coast of Florida, not quite smog not quite fog just smothering denseness that would soon burn off with the rising sun. Winter was already breaking and the heat of summer was just beginning to nibble at the edges of the weekly forecasts shamelessly predictable and monotonously provided by the purveyors of the local cable conglomerate. It had been two weeks since the “spring ahead” ridiculousness that was daylight savings time and most folks had begun adjusting to a new sleep pattern, not that they would so easily abandon this excuse for being late to most everything but definitely Sunday morning church.

Preacher Dan had been up since before the first streaks of light had etched their way into the fading dark, this was a sermon he had been waiting to preach for a long time, oh yes this would be a wake up call for the automatons that stared at him every Sunday, well when they weren’t checking their watches, phones, or pretending to read the bulletin. Downing his fifth no sixth cup of dark roast Colombian brew, God he really did love his Keurig coffee maker on demand always hot perfect coffee, and best of all he didn’t need that two bit nag of a wife snoring in the next room to get up and make it for him, oh yes this was going to be a glorious day and he had just the medicine for his congregation of sheep.

Serena popped the pop tarts out of the toaster onto the paper plates, strawberry for little Nickie, cinnamon for the boys James and Jasper. She loved her three little ones, at least that’s what she kept telling herself, but how relieved had she been when the last one had finally started school giving her a much needed break. She hadn’t wasted any of her time either, a regular at the gym she had regained her slim figure and girl next door looks, even making a few “friends,” well that’s how she liked to think of them, it wasn’t like her husband Bob bothered to notice her anymore. She didn’t yell for Bob, he wouldn’t be up for another couple of hours and never made it to Church with her and the kids anyway. It was an embarrassment having to come up with a clever excuse every Sunday and she was sure all the other women talked behind her back about it. She was going to wear her little blue dress today with the white hose, it never failed to draw the attention of the ushers and why shouldn’t she look good anyway? She sure wasn’t going to give the other ladies something else to look down on her for.

Tommy extricated his arm from under the young woman lying next to him, careful not to wake her he was intent on a quick escape pulling his pants on he grabs his shoes and shirt and makes his way to the apartment’s front door hoping his bike is still parked outside. The Harley had been a gift to himself when Nancy had passed away last year, she had been too young and vibrant to die that way and he had been living on borrowed time ever since. He had turned thirty-seven a week after the funeral, which probably gave him almost 20 years on the young lady upstairs, not something he was proud of but not something he gave a whole lot of thought to either. He hit the Dunkin’ drive through for a coffee and bagel on the way to church ready to spend another Sunday droning into the microphone leading the congregation through the same songs week in and week out, he would be going through the motions all while replaying the feel of that tight young body from the night before.

John had the family loaded in Tahoe, you could see yourself in the gloss of the wax job, the SUV was his baby and got a thorough detailing every Saturday. John loved his family, he had married his high school sweetheart and they had two perfect little girls, a perfect little house, and the perfect little life. John was all about precision and routine, in fact he liked things to be just perfect; he liked to be early to church so that he could park up front on the pavement, no dusty back lot for his baby. Being on time also meant getting “his” pew third one back on the right side, close enough to show he was interested but not so close as to be considered a church “freak.” He had written the tithe check out that morning ten percent just like the Good Book said. He had to admit it just royally pissed him off that most of the deadbeats he went to church with weren’t giving anywhere near that, it was one of the reasons he had joined the finance committee to begin with. Almost there two more lights and a right turn, the old lady in front of him slowed at the yellow light braking to a stop just as it turned red. Well fuckin’ beautiful there was plenty of time to get through that he fumes flipping her the double bird for good measure, bunch of idiots they shouldn’t even be letting these folks drive and so the pot begins to simmer.

Linda pulls into her spot at the back of the church she is running a little late this morning she has been working on exactly what she wants to say during the morning announcements. Linda works with the kids every Sunday its an under appreciated ministry and always seems to be lacking in resources and volunteers, but she soldiers on its for the kids after all. She prayed all night that God would give her the right words to say and she was pretty sure she had heard Him loud and clear. It was time to challenge the congregation, people needed to get off their lazy butts and begin pitching in around here. This was God’s house after all and if he wanted to use her to deliver the message well she had no problem with that. She was already setting the example, wasn’t she? She wasn’t going to point anyone in particular out, but there were more than a few couples that just dropped their kids and never bothered to volunteer, was it really too much to ask?

There will be one hundred thirty-seven souls in the church this morning, they all have a story, a variation on these, some more sordid some slightly more mundane but all coming together for two hours on this sunny Sunday morning.

The swings are swinging, the carousel is turning and with a grin the devil prepares to turn it up just a little, a little push here, a backward glance there, “hmm I think I’ll sit on this side today…” oh its gleeful and oh so easy, let the games begin. All his best friends are here, avarice, lust, gossip, anger, pride, envy, self righteousness, despair, impatience, and maybe his favorite; contempt oh the fun they will have today.

Tommy strums the first chords adjusting the strap on his guitar as the words escape his lips, not those on the screen, not those on the page, and to be honest he can’t say where they come from…

 “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me…”

He falters as he finishes the first chorus, but a voice from the back kicks in strong and clear…

“I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see…”

John had never sung in church before but he couldn’t help it today, the band picks it up and the congregation falls in with him.

“Pack it up boys,” the devil says, maybe next week…

They sang that chorus six times that Sunday, nobody really remembers what the sermon was about and the announcements were never given, but sometimes it only takes a small amount of inspiration to stand up to the playground bully…

About the Author

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Born in Manhattan in 1965 Joseph Castagno is the son of a second generation Italian American father. His mother’s family were mixed heritage people: Indigenous Haudenosaunee, French, some of the earliest Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley. Growing up with such a multicultural heritage provided him with a view of both the immigrant experience, a perspective on the founding principles and ideals of the United States as well as the original teachings and ways of Northeastern Indigenous people. Having lived all over the United States Joseph has a broad perspective on US society and the variety of social values and customs that make up this great country. He currently resides in Florida with his wife Tammy, having raised four children they are now enjoying their grandchildren. Joseph has always had a passion for reading and writing and has published a number of articles in local papers and magazines. After a long career in healthcare he published his first novel “Jake” in 2016 drawing on his experiences and observations living in the Southeast and Florida. His current novel “Traffic” has just been published and he is currently working on his next novel and spoiling his granddaughters!

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Short Stories

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