Every morning on the way to his mother’s, Flanners drove past the local church. It was an old one, designated as a landmark because of the bell tower, and attended on Sundays by a few elderly parishioners who sputtered up in tank-like sedans. Flanners had never attended. He got everything he needed from the rectangular signboard on the far edge of the church lawn, the sign that offered messages every week. The messages told him the future. Not in the way of specific events, but more like guiding phrases that helped him corral all his life inside common explanations. Although he’d never been religious, he’d always believed in forces shaping his life, and he wanted to tap into those forces. They used to be revealed by his newspaper horoscope, but he hated soiling his hands while flipping through its occasionally soggy pages for his forecast. Now he just checked his horoscope while in commute.

Flanners drove to his mother’s every day because after her health had declined, she’d begged him not to send her to an old folks’ home, and he hadn’t. He’d quit his job in computer programming to nurse her full-time. Although he disliked caring for her intimate needs, he also disliked the thought of strangers swabbing her body. It would have been easier for them to live together, but he couldn’t have withstood the noise from her television or the pressure from attending to her constantly. Yet even when he was dressing and shaving and eating in the morning, he always did so quickly, as if afraid that a disaster had occurred when he wasn’t there to help. At night he stayed until she fell asleep, then drove home. Luckily, she had enough finances from selling his father’s transcription company to support both of their lean lifestyles.

The sign’s forecasts often helped him with his mother. It once read: “Even when it rains, God peeks through the clouds.” That day, by sitting on a wet couch, he discovered his mother’s incontinence. Before he smelled it, he thought it was spilled tea. She claimed she hadn’t known, but he doubted her—she must have felt the wetness. She said she just hadn’t been able to warn him in time, and besides, that was her spot on the couch, he shouldn’t be stealing. But at least the store had a sale on adult diapers, and he stockpiled up. Driving to work the next morning, he gave a nod toward the sign, because if he hadn’t been buoyed by the promise of “peeking through the clouds,” he might have lacked the patience to deal with the situation.

One morning while driving to his mother’s, he slowed down as he approached the church. The signboard offered three bold, unmistakable words: “Go to Hell.” Flanners braked and stopped in the lane. He leaned on his open car door, glancing around for someone else to confirm his vision. Not until a car stopped behind him and honked, and then a second horn joined the chorus, did he swing back in and accelerate past the ill omen. The phrase looped in his head. He couldn’t believe the shock tactics the church had adopted. He tried to read any kind of redemptive message into the phrase and couldn’t. At first he thought only about how his life might turn sour, but then he thought about the literal interpretation, which only made the possibilities worse. While his newspaper horoscope had advised him to avoid fickle friends and needy partners, it had never outright damned him.

[Continued in Confrontation 110]