“Praying for the Soul” by Nathaniel Tower

He didn’t know how to pray for someone that was dead. They all had told him to pray. But what was the point? Hadn’t God already decided what would happen to him? Besides, there was no him left to pray for. There was just a body. The him was long gone, and God had already decided what to do with him. All that was left was the body, and man decided what to do with that.

That’s what John Carpenter thought as he stared at the synthetic rubber body in the charcoal suit in the half-opened cedar coffin. The skin looked pulled on, as if it hadn’t rested there naturally, and the rubber had been haphazardly painted by a former union painter, or maybe a failed artist type. The color, although reminiscent of human flesh tone, did not match any color the man had ever worn on his skin, especially not in his pale dying days. The body was wrapped in a suit of the finest Italian threads that he had never before seen the body wear. He wondered if the body parts beneath the suit were painted as well. He also wondered if the body wore shoes on its feet beneath the closed wood of the lower half of the casket. There wasn’t much point. No one saw those feet, and the body wasn’t going to do anymore walking. He couldn’t help but think it would be a waste of a good pair of shoes, just like it was a waste of a suit. Hopefully someone would retrieve the gold ring and the gold watch that were currently wrapped around the rubber finger and wrist before the casket was closed and buried beneath the dirt. The body certainly wouldn’t need that gold, and there was no need to keep track of time. Not only would the body be unable to look at the time as it ticked by, but there was simply no need of time when you were looking at an eternity.

After he had examined the body for a moment, he began looking at the floor, not because he couldn’t bear to look at the body anymore, but because looking at it didn’t make him feel the way he was supposed to feel when he was looking upon the body of his dead father. Looking at the floor, he noticed a dead bug resting silently beneath the coffin. He wanted to hate the funeral home for presenting his father’s body in such a filthy environment, but he couldn’t find it in himself to feel that way.

He knelt down, not to devote himself in the silent act of praying for his father’s soul to be saved, but rather to take a closer look at the bug. The dead bug had curled up like a fetus, its six legs held tightly around its body as if either trying to keep itself warm or trying to offer itself some affection, its eyes wide but not clearly opened or closed—they just stared blankly and hugely out at the mostly living world around it. The bug looked more real, like it had once had life. The body simply looked like it wasn’t alive; there was no sign that it had ever been. John continued to kneel on the wooden plank in spite of the pains that began to shoot from his knees to his hips, and he continued to keep his head down and his eyes glued to that dead bug rather than to the body that may or may not have been his father’s.

Behind him, he could hear the mourners discussing his pain and devotion. “Poor John,” a voice he couldn’t recognize said, “he is hurting so much right now. Just look at him.”

“Poor, poor child,” another voice said.

He wondered why they insisted on calling him a child when he was nineteen years old. He was plenty old to understand death, and they couldn’t be more wrong about how much he was hurting. In truth, he felt no hurt at all. He had more sympathy for the dead bug than the rubberized body in the casket.

“What are we going to do?” the voices behind him asked in unison, vainly thinking that there was something they could do to ease the pain that the loss of a father might potentially have. Not that there was any pain. But if there had been, no old bats would be able to take away that pain. They didn’t really care about making him feel better. They cared only of the satisfaction they would get out of feeling useful.

It wasn’t necessarily that John Carpenter hadn’t loved the man that had gone by the same name when he had been alive, thus making the boy John Carpenter Jr., although he could now drop the Jr. from his title just as he had always tried to do when the man had been alive. The women mourning behind him likely would still refer to the deceased man as John Carpenter and himself as the Jr. of that same name, but that didn’t bother him much. He didn’t associate with them enough to care about what they would call him. He just wished they would either leave or stop talking about him at this particular moment. At any other moment, he wouldn’t have minded their talking about him, but right now he was trying to focus on other things and they were just being distracting. He wanted to shoot them an evil look or turn around and shout at them for their insolence, but he thought better of it and decided to continue to stare at the dead bug in his apparent reverence.

There was something else they didn’t know. They didn’t know that he had been the one to kill his father. Of course he hadn’t done it on purpose, at least he didn’t think so. But nonetheless, he had killed him, and if they had been aware of the circumstances, they would realize that he was not feeling the pain they thought he was feeling, although they might have made the mistake of believing that the events actually had made those nonexistent feelings worse. In reality, he felt nothing at all, nothing more than the dead bug felt. That dead bug didn’t feel the breeze of the ceiling fan that whipped the warm air around the stuffy room, and if John Carpenter had stomped on it with his heel, the dead bug would have felt no worse off than it already was. It wouldn’t look as pleasant, but it would have made no difference to the bug, just as the suit and makeup made no difference to the elder John Carpenter that rested stiffly in the coffin. And John Carpenter Jr., who had ceased being John Carpenter Jr. when he had pulled the trigger, felt nothing that the bug and the dead man didn’t feel.

John didn’t react when the boney hand placed itself on his thin right shoulder. He was aware of the presence of the hand, and he could easily ascertain that it belonged to one of those incessantly chirping women that had errantly judged his motives for kneeling. His eyes remained fixated upon that motionless bug as the voice that belonged to the same body as the hand spoke:

“Dear, I think it’s best if you walk away now. You can’t pray all day. You’ve got to move on.” The frailty in the voice feigned the sympathy that he assumed she was trying to exude.

In spite of her falsely soothing tones, he remained silent with his knees pressing into the unforgiving wood.  He wasn’t about to rise for this woman, and he thought even that he should start praying just to contradict her. But he didn’t know how, and so he simply remained in his position of seeming homage, staring at a dead bug and thinking about whether or not he had killed his father on purpose. He supposed it didn’t really matter. Either way the man was dead.

Without looking, John knew that the head that spoke behind him had turned and sent a questioning glance to the person behind it, a glance that asked, “What do I do now?” He still refused to budge. The other woman walked up and placed her boney hand on his left shoulder. Unlike the first hand that rested motionlessly, this hand rubbed the shoulder gently before its accompanying voice said, “John, honey, you have to move along now. There’s others here to mourn as well.”

“They can mourn from where they are,” escaped from his barely parted lips, a reflex; he hadn’t meant to speak the words; he hadn’t even meant to think them. “They don’t need to kneel to mourn,” made its way shortly thereafter.

The hand stopped rubbing and the two women glanced at each other with heartbroken looks in their eyes. They gave off the air that they truly cared for John’s emotions, but he felt it was just smoke and mirrors. Suddenly, the sight of the curled-up bug made him sick, a deeply penetrating nausea that tightened his stomach into thick knots and nearly paralyzed his body save for the gag reflex. He shut his eyes tightly and buried his sunken face into his still-boyish hands. The women made their hearts drop at this sight, believing the boy had fallen into a deep and mournful sob that he tried to hide from them. Knowing the glances without observing them, John rose to his feet, pushed the wooden kneeler to the puke orange-carpeted floor with a gentle thud, and stormed away from his father, the bug, and the women’s disingenuous appearances.

The nearly dozen people gathered in the room watched confusedly as John walked away from it all, his hands still half burying his face as he retreated, the women still looking at each other with their forged sympathy. “Should we call after him?” the one concerned voice asked to the other. “No, I think we best let him go,” the other responded after a short pause and a heavy sigh that clearly indicated her heartfelt sorrow to the small crowd of onlookers.


John wasn’t sure why those stupid old women had come to the visitation in the first place. They hadn’t given a damn about his father when he had been alive. Neither had he, but that was different. He was the son. His appearance was more than just a slight expectation. Their stories of relation were sketchy at best, loosely drawn explanations that he was certain only demonstrated their desperate wants for attention and some meager amounts of inheritance.

Sitting on the stone wall outside the funeral home, John wondered about those women, just as he wondered about the death of his father that he may or may not have caused. It was impossible to say for sure. If any of those inside had asked, he would have easily been able to defend himself, but he couldn’t lie to his own head. All he could do was replay the situation over and over in his head; each new viewing gave him a little more insight to the incident—the accident—but none really proved anything.

He had certainly killed before—none of which anyone knew about except himself and the people that he had killed, but they didn’t matter now anyway—but this was different. This was his father. Killing the father, especially when you didn’t seem to care, was a surefire straightaway ticket to hell. He wasn’t sure if he believed in hell, and he was pretty sure he didn’t believe in heaven, but the idea of the former still terrified him nonetheless.

Staring at the rain-slicked gravel that circled its way around the funeral home, he tried to think about the accident, but his thoughts instantly drifted to his inheritance. His father had never given him anything, and now all of the money would be his, unless of course those withering old women had their way. He had seen neither before, and he was convinced that they were merely frauds. Before he could expose them though, he had to make sure that they didn’t somehow know the details of his father’s death, which he wasn’t even sure of himself.

As all of these thoughts rolled through his mind, a car’s tires slid clumsily along the wet gravel, sending small stones bouncing out of place as it journeyed around the circle. Although he pretended not to care, he eagerly eyed the black car while still maintaining the appearance that his eyes were fixed on the ground. John Carpenter was quite interested to see just who it was that was arriving so late to the visitation. He hadn’t really figured anyone would come at all, and everyone that he could possibly imagine and more had already arrived. Surely this was a mistake; this person had either come on the wrong date or misread the name of the deceased. There was also the possibility that the car was simply turning around; it had gone the wrong way and was using the circle drive to right its path. Or, it was even possible, the passengers of the vehicle needed to use a restroom or find a telephone, and this was just the location they had happened upon. There were many logical explanations, the least logical being that this car was actually here for John Carpenter’s father’s funeral.

It seemed even more illogical when the car screeched to a halt and out came the finest specimen of a human that John had ever seen. The young woman transcended humanity, and for a moment, John forgot all about how he hated everyone he had ever met, his father included, and those two phony old bitches being at the top of the list. Even before he had seen her, he could tell that whatever was attached to the confident black high-heeled shoe that emerged from the vehicle and placed itself daintily on the gravel without waiting for an escort was something of an anomaly in the dull and horrific world John had always known. Then, when he spotted her full figure dressed in a tight-fitting black dress that followed every curve of her body from shoulder to shin, he knew she couldn’t possibly be of the same species as all the people he had known. And all that was before he even saw her face. It was her face, her flawless unpainted face, that made him realize the existence of beauty, love, and possibly even God all at the same time. Had someone asked him to describe the woman’s face, he simply would have been unable to do so even though he stared right at it. The finest fruits and sunrises and sunsets and vast verandas and oceans and mountain vistas all flashed before his eyes as he searched for something that was even vaguely reminiscent of her beauty. He found nothing until he saw that in the glimmer of her deep blue eyes, a tiny sparkle reminding him of an icicle clinging to a rooftop as the sun shined brightly upon it. It was the only earthly thing he had ever observed that possessed any resemblance to the woman that now had moved to within five feet of his still gawking visage.

“John Carpenter?” she chirped angelically and soothingly in a voice that must have rivaled the Sirens in its alluring pitch.

“Yes, ma’m,” he managed to choke out of his rapidly closing throat.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said with a bright smile that, had he truly been mourning, would have assured him that the world would one day again be okay.

“Thank you,” he said, his cheeks beginning to feel hot. He wanted to look down, but he could not bring his eyes away from the captivating sparkle in her eyes.

“I’m Margaret Mandelly.” She held her eyes firmly upon his as she spoke, her gaze matching his in both intensity and interest.

“Did you know my father, Margaret?” he managed.

“In a sense.” She smiled a vague smile that he could not interpret. “Call me Virginia,” she added.

“I thought your name was Margaret?” he said inquisitively, wondering why anyone would introduce themselves by a name they didn’t want to be called.

“It is. At least formally. But this isn’t very formal, now is it?” She winked one of her expansive glistening ocean blue eyes as she spoke, another baffling gesture.

“How did you know my father?” Although the woman was beautiful, he was quickly becoming frustrated by her words and mannerisms, just as he did with all humans. Looking at her, he felt that she was the type of thing that God had created just for people to look at. It hadn’t been possible to create something this beautiful that was also pleasant to talk to. There had to be a sacrifice in her creation; John felt God had sacrificed the correct thing.

“That’s a complicated question to answer.” John didn’t think so. He saw it as something quite simple. She could tell he was thinking that, so she continued. “Your father knew my mother…”

John didn’t like where this was going. He expected for a moment that this woman had been sent for the sole purpose of seeking what money was due to her mother. Likely his father had had an affair with the elder version of Margaret Virginia Mandelly. If the mother looked anything like the daughter, John wouldn’t have blamed his father. Had John himself been married, he would have happily had an affair with this woman right there on the gravel road.

“Don’t worry, I’m not here for money,” she said, reading his thoughts, hopefully only the former. “Your father doesn’t owe my mother anything.” John suddenly enjoyed listening to her proper grammar. Unlike most of the women he had met, this one, aside from her beauty, avoided the usage of the double negative. “If anything, my mother owes your father something.”

“So how do you know my father?”

“I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk to you.” She sat down next to him on the stone wall as she spoke, crossing her right leg over her left. He could see her silky smooth shins clearly, and he wished at that moment that she had not been so proper.

“What do you want to talk to me for?”

“I want to make sure you’re doing okay.” She uncrossed her legs and recrossed them, her left one now over her right so that her black shoe rested just inches from his pant leg. He could feel the molecules between the two articles of clothing touching each other, drawn together as two magnets. Desperately he wanted to touch her, but his father’s funeral didn’t seem the proper occasion. He wasn’t desperate for long, for Virginia reached out her slender arm and placed her delicate hand on his shoulder as she asked, “Is there somewhere more private we can go?”

There was no one around, and there was nothing he wanted more than to exit with this woman, but he wondered if he could really disgrace his father’s memory by abandoning the man at his own funeral. The only physical reminder of a blood relative. It seemed wrong, but John had already killed the man, so how much more could he possibly hurt him? With only a little reluctance, he agreed with a simple nod of his head, and the two walked, her arm resting gingerly in his, to the car that still rested upon the wet gravel just yards away. Unknown to John, as the two entered the black car, Mildred and Estelle, the two old bats from inside the funeral home, had come outside for either a smoke or to find John, and as they lit their cigarettes, they gasped in disbelief at the boy whose father had just died and who now was fleeing from the scene. They didn’t discuss his motives as they puffed away, and if they had actually observed Virginia’s beauty, they would have instantly known, but they were too absorbed in pretending that they cared about John’s well being to notice the woman, so it was safe to assume that they simply figured the boy could not take the grief of the day. Either that or he couldn’t take the guilt anymore. But how, of course, could they possibly have known that?


The love was quick, if one could call it love. John would have liked to call it that, although he didn’t have enough experience in that science to know for certain. Virginia wouldn’t have, but she wouldn’t tell that to John. Her methods were very calculated, and she used no spontaneity in her actions or words. John thought he was spontaneous, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, and her movements restricted any potential for spontaneous behavior on his part. The whole time, John thought about the beautiful woman in his arms. The whole time, Virginia thought about the dead man in the coffin that she hadn’t ever seen before. She didn’t think about him longingly; she just thought about how that man’s death must be affecting this man’s judgment. John didn’t think that the dead man affected him at all, but as soon as Virginia removed herself from atop of him, his thoughts immediately returned to what he tried not to think about while staring at that fetal bug below the casket. There really was nothing else for him to think about it, and no matter how much he tried to think about Virginia, all he could think about was the father he had killed.

He was sure of it now. He had killed his father. Somehow this woman made him realize that. He didn’t understand how. She said nothing of the man except for those brief words that indicated some vague relationship her mother had had with him. There was just something about the whole situation that made him realize that he was a killer, as if she had been sent to him just to remind him.

“Tell me about your father,” she suddenly asked from the bedside position adjacent to him, the ruffled sheets pulled over her body to prevent any unwanted exposure.

The request stunned him. Why, in this most intimate of circumstances, would she want to know about his father? Of course, had she known his thoughts, she may have wondered why, in this most intimate of circumstances, would he want to think about his dead father.

She did not accept his silence as an answer. “Tell me about your father,” she said again, this time more of a command than a request.

“What do you want to know?” He didn’t look at her when he asked, afraid of the piercing glance from her ocean eyes that would make him spill every detail.

“I want to know whatever you can tell me.”

“I don’t work like that. I need specific questions and then I give specific answers. I don’t know how to tell someone about something otherwise.”

“Okay, then tell me if you loved him.”

He felt as if this angel were leading him straight to hell. He had already committed the sin of fornication, and now he had to choose between the sin of lying to this beautiful woman or admitting to the sin of hating and killing his father. For a moment, he almost wished he were back in the company of those awful old women rather than lying naked next to this devilish seductress.

“Well?” she responded to his silence.

“No, I didn’t,” he said with his eyes fixed to the ceiling. His eyes were a hollow brown, like the empty shell of an acorn. She had noticed the hollowness at the exact same moment that he had observed the fullness of hers. Through the eyes, one could tell that she had a soul and that he didn’t. John Carpenter was simply an empty man with nothing to live for, which was certainly the reason he had succumbed to her advances the day of his father’s funeral.

“Why not?” She was now supporting her head with her left hand which was supported by the elbow resting on the bed. She stared at him intently but not looking at any feature in particular. She was just soaking his entire being into her eyes, which was possibly how they had become so full.

He continued to stare at the ceiling, observing the cracks in the plaster and the off-colored spots where the seeping water had done damage. He wouldn’t have expected this woman to have such an unpresentable ceiling in her own bedroom. “You have cracks in your ceiling. And water damage,” was all he said in response to her question.

“So you didn’t love your father because of the cracks in my ceiling.” She stated it rather than questioning it, almost as if she believed his response actually made sense. Perhaps his answer indicated that his reasons for not loving his father were trivial. “Did you hate your father?”

Still staring at the ceiling, he hesitated as he honestly pondered the answer to this follow up question. After several moments of silence, he finally uttered his monosyllabic response. “Yes.”

“Why did you hate him?”

He wanted to tell her that it was because of the cracks in the ceiling, but he knew that made no sense. The truth was he didn’t know why he hated his father. He liked to believe that he hated his father because his mother had died when he was just a baby. He liked to believe that he hated his father because they had the same name. He liked to believe that he hated his father because the man seemed promiscuous. But none of the things that he liked to believe were actually true. Yes, his mother had died when he was a baby, his father did have the same name, and his father was promiscuous in his widower days, but none of those facts contributed to the hate he held for his father. The simple truth was that he hated everyone, those old women, his father, the woman next to him, and possibly even himself. No one had ever done anything that seemed to suggest that any one deserved anything other than his hatred. Virginia perhaps would have if she hadn’t started to lead him down this path.

Virginia still eyed him intently, obviously waiting for an answer. He decided to appease her. “I hated him because he was trash.” He didn’t believe the words, nor did he disbelieve them. He just said them because they were there and they were easy.

“Did you kill your father?” was her next question.

He sighed, staring at those cracks, wondering if he could trust her with this information. He decided he couldn’t, not after just one moment of carnal relations.

“My father was murdered,” was all he said.

“Did you kill him?” she persisted immediately.

John became infuriated by her persistence and decided not to hold back his emotions regardless of her appearance. “The man died. He was my father. He died and today is his funeral and I’m supposed to be mourning but instead I’m out fornicating and listening to ridiculous accusations. I don’t have to tell you anything. You’re just a cheap and evil whore, just like the rest of them.” His face turned bright red as he spoke, a red that seeped down into his neck and chest. Although his eyes remained hollow, he had a sudden passion about him, a passion much greater than what he had exhibited in the bed with Virginia. He stood violently from the bed, stomping his bare feet on the creaking wooden floor, tearing the sheet off her as he rose, exposing her flawless nudity to whatever happened to gaze upon her at the time. He didn’t bother looking. He had had her, and that was enough. He wished he had left as soon as the deed had been completed. This woman had nothing to offer him.

Virginia stared apathetically, her lips contorted into a twisted smile, her head still rested upon her hand, no embarrassment suggested by her sudden exposure. She was a proud and confident woman that felt no need to hide what God had given her, and she still felt that she could use her body to get the information that she wanted out of John.

“Just tell me if you killed him. I just want to know. The only reason I went to bed with you was because I thought you killed him.”

John’s anger subsided at her words, replaced by complete bafflement as he wondered why this beautiful woman would want to sleep with a murderer, not that he was one.

“Oh, don’t act so shocked. Look at me compared to you. I must have slept with you for a specific reason. It certainly wasn’t love or lust or pleasure.”

Her words did not ease his confusion, but the way she batted her eyelids at him, the ocean waves splashing repeatedly on the shore, made him confess every detail of the day he killed his father.

“…he had just returned from hunting with no kill, so I told him that we should go back out together, and I asked to use his gun and I aimed it at a deer and then I looked over at him and saw that he was the real target I was hunting. The deer was no enemy to me. The deer embodied nothing that I hated. My father, he embodied everything—”

“And what is it that you hate?” She asked this question with the same compassion she had used when she had first introduced herself to him, no sign that she was at all repelled by his admission to the murder.

For a moment, he didn’t know how to answer her question. How could she possibly understand the deep-seated hatred that he held for every living soul? As far as he could remember, he simply had hated everyone he had ever met. There was no reason to feel any differently toward anyone, not even Virginia. She was no different. She, like every other human, cared only for herself, and everything she did was to advance her own being. Sure, there were many that did charity work and dedicated their earthly lives to people, but weren’t they all just doing that to give themselves a place in heaven? It was all for the sake of self-advancement. That’s why those women had come to the funeral and shown such sympathy for the situation. That’s why the beautiful Virginia had arrived at the scene. That’s why John had followed Virginia to her bed. That’s why John had killed his father in the first place. There was no other reason why anyone ever did anything. And thus there was no reason not to feel hatred for everyone except maybe for the self. He decided to answer Virginia’s question the only way he knew how. “I hate everything except hate,” he told her bluntly.

“You have no soul,” she replied as she reached for the sheet and tugged it out of his hand. “Get the hell out of my home. You have a funeral to attend.”

John happily complied, barely dressing himself before he departed and caught a ride back to the funeral home in Virginia’s black car. He entered the room that held his father’s coffin with a confidence and demeanor that suggested he had never even left. He returned to the kneeler at the foot of the coffin and looked for the curled-up bug. The bug was nowhere to be seen, probably the victim of the wind or a handkerchief. The bug mattered not, though. What mattered was that John had returned to pray for himself, holding on to the firm realization that nothing else in the world mattered to him other than himself, and that was a universal truth that applied to all. For a moment, his hatred for everyone subsided, and he closed his eyes tightly to pray as the women, returned from their smoking break, glanced at his devotion in complete admiration, believing that he was praying harder than any had prayed before.

John Carpenter kneeled silently, both physically and mentally, for a long while until even the greedy, frauds left. He didn’t know how to pray for himself. There didn’t seem much point in praying for someone without a soul. Believing that there was nothing in the world to pray for, he rose from the kneeler, shut his father’s coffin, and marched proudly out of the funeral home onto the dried gravel road.

More fiction at Used Furniture.

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