“Has the Rooster Crowed Three Times Yet?” - Bradley J. Scott, III

            I watched the mayor waddle across the crosswalk to confront Jim Chrestman. My friend Jim was a regular beneath the monument to the Confederate dead. It was the traditional place for speech-making that he used most days. While its use tended to be for political rallies, Jim discussed world problems with no political agenda.
            “There will be a day of reckoning. Just watch the cars going around the square. I smell the carbon dioxide spewing into the air.”
            The mayor stood there in a bright-green, knee-length skirt, glaring as Jim crossed her line of propriety. The red, round face and orange hair contrasted with her bright-white blouse and green vest. She had used the spot where he stood, prior months, to garner the conservative Southern vote. I don’t know for certain, but I got the impression she felt his liberal ideas sullied her recent mayoral victory.
            “Why do you think we have so many tornadoes ‒ “
            The mayor interrupted him before his diatribe continued. “Mr. Chrestman, I told you speaking without a permit can get you arrested.”
            “Ma’am, I pay my taxes. I should be able to speak without your harassment.”
            I’m not sure why his speeches bothered her. Jim had few listeners. And while he harbored liberal ideas, he never used profanity. I watched as she strode away, effusing frustration, anger, and hatred.
            Jim lived alone, having never married. He wasn’t ugly. Though unkempt, he had a Gary Cooper look. Tall, thin, with a big head, he caught anyone’s attention. Darkly tanned face, he was still quite handsome, though he was past sixty. He told me he had had a girlfriend in his twenties. But it didn’t work because his mama never liked her.

            “So Jim, what’s your plan for the day?” I was at his house to have coffee and share donuts. It had become our Monday morning breakfast tradition.
            “Not much. Got to go to the square.”
            I knew his answer before asking. I had to ask, though, out of principle. “What you preaching about today?”
            “Mikey, wish you wouldn’t use the word preach.” Looking at me while sipping his black coffee, he added, “The word preach has the connotation of religion. As a devout atheist I take offense at that.”
            “You’re so full of shit. The other day you told me you were a reformed druid. I think you told me you were a Baptist just a few weeks ago.”
            Jim smiled as he maintained that today, at least, he was a devout atheist.
            I didn’t want to hurt Jim’s feelings, but after six months of preaching, I wondered if he ever realized that no one but the mayor had been listening to him. As a roundabout way to suggest no one listened, I said, “Don’t you think you need a stance or platform of some sort to get more people to listen?”
            “Platform?”
            I hoped I wasn’t going to be creating a monster when I said, “Yeah, to get people’s attention.”
            Grinning, he said, “Get people’s attention. Hmmm. You know, I like seeing myself as a rabble rouser.” I watched him gulp some of his straight black coffee from a greenish jadeite mug before he said, “Jim Chrestman, ‘rabble rouser,’ does have a nice ring.”
            Looking at me, I could tell he had an epiphany of some sort. He said, “You’ve given me an idea. It’ll be a grand experiment.”
            All I could think was, Oh, shit.

           
It had been a while since I’d seen Jim. I went on vacation with my wife and kids to Disney World. I had to visit the bank on the square to do some business the day after we got back. The teller let me know that Jim had not been preaching on the square for several days and wanted me to make sure he was okay. Since Jim never answered his landline, and he didn’t have a cell for texting, I knew I needed to drop in to check on him.
            Jim didn’t mind if I entered his house without knocking. Opening the door into his dark house from the back kitchen, I needed time for my pupils to dilate. Even in the middle of the day, the place always seemed dark because Jim liked to keep his thick curtains closed. He said it made the place feel cooler and helped save on air-conditioning.
            Yelling through the darkness, I said, “Hey, Jim. I hear you haven’t been preaching.”
            Moving farther into the darkness, I could hear sixties rock emanating loudly behind one of his back bedroom doors. Jim was eclectic when it came to listening to music. Other than not listening to gospel or rap, he didn’t seem to have a favorite genre. Jim kept his front door locked and often couldn’t hear because of the loud music. Jim seemed always to be playing something on his fifty-year-old Toshiba reel to reel. Often, I had to walk on in to find him, but this time he heard me.
            When he came out of a back bedroom, the den lit up like a sunrise. Jim wasn’t a neat person, but at the same time he kept books and papers stacked upright and out of the way on the sixties shag carpet in the den area. When his mother passed, the furniture or other home accouterments were never updated. It felt like I had stepped into an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.
            The first thing he said was, “I told you I don’t preach.” But after staring at me for a few seconds, he said, “Now that you mention it, I do plan to start preaching.”
            “Really? What religion?”
            “Not so much a religion but rather a message.”
            “I thought that is what you’ve been doing.”
            Ignoring what I said, he told me to come on back; he wanted to show me something. As I walked toward the back bedroom, he said, “I’ve been working on your idea while you were away.”
            Again, I thought, Oh, shit.
           
A computer and printer were on a large office desk in front of a closed-draped window. A large, mid-century lamp sat on the desk’s corner. In front of the desk, a cheap swivel chair on a plastic mat for rolling completed his work area. On the other side of the room was a bookcase that held his reel-to-reel player. There were hundreds of tapes stacked and lined up, somewhat askew, on the shelves. Some of the tapes were in their cases while many were out. Two huge JVC speakers were in each corner of the room, away from the desk area. Where there would be a bed, he had piled some very unique clothing and costume items on the floor.
            Jim’s voice rose in excitement as he said, “Look at what I bought on eBay.”
            I said, “Nice.” Looking at him for a moment, I said, “Why?”
            “It’s for my preaching, as you call it.” He said this as he went and picked up a piece of paper on his desk.
            “Here, I want you to look at my sermon topics for every Saturday at 10.”
            “What happened to every day, 10 to 11?”

“I need time to prepare better sermons, and I think the townspeople need time to let things simmer.” After handing me the paper, Jim said, “I chose 10 a.m. on Saturday because that’s when the square is most crowded. And if it’s a football weekend, I should be able to preach to hundreds on a Saturday.”
            The flyer had the following titles to his upcoming sermons:
            Saturday 1: Might as Well Believe in Santa Claus Because God Isn’t Real
            Saturday 2: Abortion: It’s a Woman’s Right
            Saturday 3: This Confederate Monument Offends Me: Please Tear it Down
            Saturday 4: Capital Punishment Should Only Be Reserved for the Mississippi Cracker
            Saturday 5: Evolution and Why the Mississippi Cracker Will Disappear
            Saturday 6: Trumpism Was a Fascist Pig Disease
            Saturday 7: The Good of Socialism and Evils of Capitalism
           
Jim never said a word as I looked at the sermon titles. “Are you fucking crazy?” came out of my mouth without thinking.
            I think Jim had been serious, but maybe not, when he said, “Not exactly the reaction I expected, but I guess the titles are a bit provocative.”
            “What do you think will happen when you talk to people in this ultra-conservative, ultra-Christian, far-right-wing community about there’s not a God? What do you think the mayor will say?” Pausing for a moment, I said, “That’s not even discussing these other interesting topics you have lined up.”
            “Mikey, I went to church while you were away.”
            “Really?”
            “I went to that stodgy old First Baptist Church. Did you know my mama had been a Baptist?”
            Before I could respond he said, “That’s the church she dragged me to when I was a kid. Hasn’t changed a bit.” Jim seemed to be getting worked up.
            “So what does that have to do with what you’re planning to do now?”
            “I think people in this town, including the mayor, need a little disequilibrium. A little yin to your yang kind of thing.” Jim looked at me, smiling, and said, “I just want people to think more.”
            “Are you saying you may not agree with your sermon topics?”
            Being coy, Jim said, “Not saying that. Come and listen. Make your own decision.”
            Jim started showing me his eBay purchases without any additional defense of his plans. The outfit I thought might get him killed was the Union officer’s uniform he would wear for the sermon This Confederate Monument Offends Me: Please Tear it Down. The Santa Claus suit would be his first costume, worn for his sermon titled Might as Well Believe in Santa Claus Because God Isn’t Real. The grim reaper costume had been for his sermon Capital Punishment Should Only Be Reserved for the Mississippi Cracker. The Nazi Gestapo costume he had bought was for the sermon titled Trumpism Was a Fascist Pig Disease. He didn’t have anything special for his other sermons, other than T-shirts bearing photos of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Gloria Steinem.
            After showing me his purchases, Jim asked me if I could help advertise. He went back over to his desk and held out a stack of papers that announced his first sermon, Might as Well Believe in Santa Claus Because God Isn’t Real. In addition to the time and date information, the flyers Jim created had a photo of a bald little girl. Below the picture he captioned it: Would Your God Allow Your Five-Year-Old Daughter to Suffer from Cancer Most of Her Life?
           
“Do you mind if I hang these up around three in the morning?” I really didn’t want to be a part of this but Jim is my friend.
            His response came out a quick and soft, “Thank you!”

            My wife agreed ‒ Jim was “fucking nuts.” But, as he wanted me to do, I hung up his flyers around town. I put them up late at night, though not at 3 a.m.
            My wife had me do some things around the house now that we were back from vacation. The next day I had to go to the hardware store on the square to get paint and a brush. It didn’t take but a minute before someone asked, “What’s up with your friend?” From the church, someone else I knew asked, “Is he really going to say bad things about God?” Another acquaintance told me to tell Jim he was “going to hell.”
            I knew I had to talk to Jim after my hardware store experience. But, as expected, after relaying everything, he laughed and said, “It’s working. I should have a nice crowd Saturday.”
            Half joking, I said, “I hope none of them brings a rope.”
            Jim grinned.
            “Are you serious about doing this?”
            “As serious as God giving someone cancer.” He said this with a solemn face.
            “Is this all about your mother dying of cancer?” Not sure why I thought of that, but it seemed like the thing to say.
            “Mikey, that would be negatory. I’ve known people die of cancer. It was her time. I don’t think God had anything to do with her passing one way or another.”
            “So you do believe in God?”
            Looking at me seriously, Jim said, “Let’s just say I’m going to present to my audience the possibility God doesn’t exist.”
            “That should go over well.” I tried to be sarcastic. Jim couldn’t always recognize sarcasm.
            Seeing Jim in his short sleeves, short pants, and Birkenstocks, I said, “Are you really going to dress up as Santa Claus in this August heat?”
            He said with a nonchalant tone, “Sometimes we have to suffer for our beliefs.”
            “Jim, I don’t think I want to hang up flyers anymore.”
            “Don’t worry, Mikey; after Saturday you won’t need to do that for me again.”
            After a lengthy pause Jim added, “I wonder how long it will be before you hear a rooster crow three times?”

            Jim made it through his first two sermons. The mayor tried to shut him down, but Jim had been smart enough to get a permit to speak on the square for the next ten Saturdays from 10 to 11. I thought it was sort of funny since the mayor and her council had begrudgingly permitted his speeches before his epiphany. Rumor had been that some on the council thought Jim added a quaintness to their town. Not anymore.
            I didn’t attend either of his sermons, though I heard about them. As he predicted, the crowd size grew from his first to the second. His pro-life stance and the right for a woman to have control of her body caused a lot of booing and death threats. Because of Jim, the media became involved. Television news from Memphis interviewed him, and every day the town newspaper wrote about him.
            Our small town had never had to deal with riotous types of crowds. Hence there were no ordinances that could put a stop to Jim’s sermons. I had heard that the mayor and her council were going to try to develop a plan, but since his sermons were not obscene, they were going to have a difficult time stopping him through legal means. The police were now worried about crowd control, according to a policeman friend. My neighbor, who was friends with a member of the council, said the police chief was in the mayor’s ear every night.
            As his friend, the mayor, everyone in my church, and anyone I saw about town asked me to stop him. I could feel hatred toward me for being his friend. My wife wanted me to stop seeing him for our family’s sake.
            His third sermon topic was bound to draw a thousand or more people. The idea that a highly revered statue of our fallen Southern soldiers be torn down would be considered heresy by most townspeople.
            On the day before his third sermon, I decided to make one last attempt to stop him. Though a three-mile walk, I went by foot. I didn’t want any of the townspeople to see my car in his driveway.
            When I opened his back door, I could hear Grand Funk Railroad blaring from his back bedroom. Rather than screaming, I decided to walk on back. As I cracked the door open, I could see Jim wearing his Union officer uniform while practicing his sermon in front of a tall floor mirror. Trying not to scare him, I knocked loudly on the inside of the bedroom door. Seeing me from the mirror, he smiled and went to turn down his tape player.
            “Hey, Mikey, how are ya?”
            “Ahhhh, I’m okay. How are you?”
            “Just practicing for tomorrow. Whatcha think?” Jim stood at attention.
            “You look great. Put some whiskers on and you could pass for Sherman.”
            “You know, now that you mention it, I wondered if you have a small tape recorder I could borrow?”
            “Don’t think so. Why?”
            “I plan to record the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and play it before starting my sermon.”
            “Jim, I love your passion, but do you want to keep doing this?” Before he could say anything, I added, “The townspeople are getting upset. They bug me about what you’re saying. The mayor called my house last night and told me to shut you up.”
            Jim said, “Tell the mayor and anybody else I’ve gone crazy and that you’re no longer my friend. I don’t care.”
            “But Jim, that’s not true. I am your friend.” Looking at him in that ridiculous uniform, I knew I wasn’t going to stop him.
            I added, “It’s really not the townspeople that worry me. Some of those county rednecks who fly the stars and bars are whom you should worry about. You know, the ones who don’t have a sense of humor and come to town only on Saturday.”
            “You mean like the ones who threw this brick through my den window last night?” Jim held up a brick lying on the top of his desk. He said, “It makes a great paperweight.”
            “Did you report that to the police?”
            “Naw. Who knows, may have been them.”
            Jim walked with me out front as I could tell there was nothing I could say. He asked, “Where’s your car?”
            I said, “It’s a nice day. I decided to walk.”
            He asked, “Have you heard a rooster crow three times yet?”

            Jim called me Saturday morning, right at 7 a.m. His voice seemed strained. His calling me had been only the second time in our friendship. The first time he called me had been to find out if my wife giving birth went okay. This time he asked if I could get over to his house as soon as possible.
            The morning was bright blue; not a cloud. It was still cool, though you could tell it would be a hot one with the humidity. I saw a squad car, and the front door had a slight crack when I got to Jim’s house. Entering, I saw a policeman with his arms crossed between the kitchen and the den. The mayor sat in the oversized, cushioned living room chair. Jim lay face down in the middle of the shag carpet.
            The mayor told me in a loud voice, “Sit down.”
            I tried to ask, “What happened?”
            She repeated herself with a gruffer voice, “Sit down,” while looking over at the muscle-bound, sunglass-shaded cop.
            Once I was seated, she spoke using a condescending tone. “Unfortunately, I believe Mr. Chrestman has had a fatal heart attack.” After a moment she added, “He was that way when I came over to talk to him about his plans.”
            Rotund, her butt took up the majority of the chair. She wore a sparkly, pink dress with a matching hat, gloves, and purse. I could smell an overpowering perfume. It felt like a dream with my friend’s nose in the carpet and her seated there wearing over-the-top church attire. It all seemed too surreal.
            Waking up, I said, “You’ll never get ‒
            “Michael, Michael, there is nothing for us to get away with. My council, the police, and the coroner have agreed that Jim had a heart attack. End of story, as they say.” She looked at me with a serene smile.
            “Don’t you know there’ll be an investigation?”
            “Perhaps.” She kept her serene smile as she added, “That’s why you’re here now. It’s fortunate that you’re his only friend.”
            “I suppose your friend here is going to kill me?”
            She giggled and said, “No, of course not.”
            She bent toward me and said, “Frank, our trusty coroner, says that nothing will show up in case there is ever an autopsy.”
            “So you expect me to cover for you?” I’m sure she sensed anger in my voice.
            “Michael, honey, you need to see this as a win-win. Jim admitted he was near the end of his life. He told me last night he wanted to go out with a hurrah. He wanted the notoriety. He wanted to be remembered.”
            I said sarcastically, “How thoughtful.”
            The mayor got up, moved toward me, bent down, and whispered, “Things were getting out of hand. Somebody was going to get hurt with the shit he was stirring up.” Despite the difficulty of a woman of her girth, she got on one knee. Staring into my eyes, she grabbed both my hands and said, “You’re going to tell everyone that Jim had a fatal heart attack this morning.” Pausing for effect, she winked and said, “By the way, how are the wife and kids?”
            The mayor asking me that last question caught me by surprise. It made me think of Jim asking me, “Have you heard a rooster crow three times yet?”

Bradley J. Scott, III is a professor of science education at a university in the deep south. Due to writing provocative materials, he uses a pen name to avoid being tarred and feathered. Bradley loves junking at garage sales, flea markets and estate sales. Collecting Jadeite glassware and sports memorabilia are passions. Outside of reading and writing fiction, gardening, wood crafting, beer drinking and selling stuff on eBay are things he likes to do. His wife and two boys (ages 11 and 13) are his loves and provide his life’s balance. Bradley, as a part of his profession in science education, has published non-fiction textbooks and multiple peer reviewed journal articles. As a fiction writer. the short story is his favorite format. His publication record is quite eclectic. Science fiction, dystopian and southern gothic are some of the manuscripts that he has been honored with publication.