James Arthur Anderson

The Altar


JULY, 2002

Bill Johnson let out the decelerator pedal, lowered the blade and rammed the dozer forward through the tangled grove of blackberry bushes and ragweed. The treads squealed in protest as the big blade crushed forward to gather its load of foliage and blackish earth. Johnson puffed contentedly on a Phillips cigar, a leftover from his daughter Marsha’s wedding last weekend. The hot sun scorched his tanned arms, raising up beads of sweat on his forearms as he wrestled with the steering levers to keep his caterpillared beast moving ahead in a straight line.

It was funny, he thought, inhaling the cigar deeply and tasting its fragrance, how this open field of bushes and vines appeared out of nowhere in the middle of acres of thick oaks. It had come as a welcome relief to the construction crew who had spent the past seven weeks cutting and mulching the trees and uprooting the stubborn oak stumps.

Bill guessed that a house probably stood here once, long ago from the looks of it-maybe back as far as Roger Williams’ time for all he knew. The dozer would uncover it, though, or at least what was left of its stone foundation. The dozer would uncover it all and by next summer a road would cut the forest in two. Brand new homes and maybe even a shopping plaza would crop up almost overnight, like maggots on a piece of meat. Who knows, he thought. Maybe it would even be a mall someday. He chuckled at the thought-the Chepachet Mall. The mall would be larger than the town. But why not? Once the road was finished, anything was possible. It would only be a half an hour to Route 95, and from there you could get to anywhere in the state in less than an hour.

He took another puff of his cigar, tilted his yellow hard hat over his graying forehead to stop the glare of the sun, then shifted the dozer into reverse for another run. He smiled as he felt the power of the dozer beneath him. To his friends and his family, he was just a small, quiet guy who liked to do paint-by-numbers and drink a beer or two while watching the Boston Red Sox game on TV. But Monday through Friday, eight in the morning until four- thirty in the afternoon, he was ten feet tall riding high on the seat of his twelve-ton black-and-yellow bulldozer. He could do anything.

Intoxicated by the smell of diesel fuel and exhaust fumes, he dropped the blade down again and edged the machine forward, bringing order and civilization to this tract of wasteland in western Rhode Island. It was weird how this, one of America’s most densely-populated states (at least that’s what they’d taught him at Aldrich Junior High School) still had so much open space that you could lose anything in it. He was thinking about that-and how for all that anybody knew Jimmy Hoffa might be buried right here in this field-when the dozer blade shuddered as it hit something hard. The tractor ground to a halt, the treads going round and round in the earth without moving the machine forward. He frowned as he thought of a turtle flipped over on its back.

“What the hell?”

The cigar popped out of his mouth and fell into the dirt, still only half smoked.

He backed the dozer up, then edged forward again, more carefully this time. He tried to peer into the furrowed earth in front of him as the blade jammed again.

“No old foundation’s gonna stop this baby!” He bragged to no one in particular as he charged the dozer forward.

Still, it wouldn’t budge.

“Shit!” he said as he put the machine in neutral and climbed down from his perch. Cursing fluently, he walked around the front of the blade to examine the problem. “Must be one hell of a boulder.”

He scrambled around the front of the blade and over the wall of dirt he had plowed forward. He looked at the pile of heaped earth and examined the ground carefully, digging into the soft dirt with calloused hands.

It was a rock, all right. But it didn’t seem that big. In fact, it stood straight up, like a tall tombstone with only the top edge poking through the dirt. The dozer should have knocked it over easily. As he felt around the edge of the stone, he realized that the thing was polished smooth. And despite the heat, it was cold, almost icy to the touch.

“I’ll be dipped in shit,” he said, yanking his hand away. It felt as if he had touched something from another world. If it hadn’t been so cold, he would have thought he’d touched the very gates of hell. But everyone knew hell was hotter than…well, hotter than hell.

Hot, cold, or whatever, he had hit something very strange. It was a gravestone, he realized. It had to be. And this open place was-or at least once had been-a graveyard. It all made sense now, this clearing in the middle of the woods. A sudden draft chilled his bones. Though he was a practical man who made fun of ghosts and spooks and vampires, he hissed a final curse and turned back towards the bulldozer. The historical people would want to see this, he rationalized as he climbed up on the tread. Meanwhile, his gut feeling told him to just beat it the hell out of this place, beat it out of here before….

Without warning, the dozer’s tread leaped to life, crawling backward through the mulch with a sudden life of its own. Johnson gasped once and swore in defiance before the tread pulled him down, down, and under….

He felt his legs go first-intense, flaming pain shot through his entire being as the bones broke and twisted like green tree limbs. Then coldness flooded him where the joint had been. A sticky fluid covered him from the waist down. Vaguely, he wondered if it were blood, then he knew it was much worse.

The sun blinded him as he tried to roll over and crawl. Then he saw a shadow moving forward, impossibly forward, as the blade lowed and aimed directly for him….

He heard a laugh that wasn’t his own. In the few seconds he had left he remembered his fallen cigar and, with regret, wished he’d been able to finish it.


JULY, 2003

The glory of the One Who moves all things

Penetrates all the universe, reflecting

In one part more and in another part less.

— Dante

When night darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons

of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

— John Milton



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