When an angel appears, it’s not the dramatic thing you might expect. Invariably, he simply shows up. So when Matt and I hear the trumpet, we simply shift to one side of the sidewalk like the rest of the crowd. You don’t feel a shiver of the supernatural when he passes you, either. He walks by, shimmering, sword in hand. Matt exhales; his first sighting. We are close enough to see it happen. The angel lays his hand on a man’s shoulder and reads a pronouncement, still holding the sword.

Matt and I have spent hours discussing angels. I’m a Presbyterian, fifth generation. He’s a New Jersey atheist, third generation. He thinks they’re aliens. I think they are what they are. “You can’t believe that!” As if I’m insane. “I can see them.” I point this out. It’s obvious. They are what they are.

“For crimes against the LORD,” the angel is saying, “you”–I’ll leave his name out–”are condemned to the Hell prepared for Satan and his angels!” His voice leaves my ears ringing, that’s how loud an angel can be.

“You trust your sight too much.” Matt grumbles that things aren’t so obvious. “You’re lacking the, you know, evidence.” I’m big on evidence. The angels. Other things. “I can feel it, Carter!” He’s forceful on this point. I always shrug. “I don’t.”

It’s about then you feel the supernatural shiver, when the grey portal opens, and the offender steps through. No flames, but no light either. Matt needs to blink. A short list of the Big Sins is going to come next (and it does). “Let this be a warning,” the angel tells us, surveying the crowd, his eye literally shining, bright around the edges. It’s very hard to look an angel in the eyes, but I know Matt is giving it a shot. “The LORD will not be mocked: his law will be kept, and his kingdom will fill the earth.” He’s looking to my left, where Matt’s standing. A pang of fear, then, that the angel is doing double duty.

“Nothing’s changed.” He’ll point out statistics. Crime is down, church attendance is up, but not by much. “It’s starting to.” The angels are sinking into our psyche, I think, still. “Come on, Carter, they don’t even care!” America, or the angels? Well, both. To Matt, America is either spectacularly mistrusting, or spectacularly stupid. The angels are simply dispassionate gophers for Yahweh, or the mothership, or another dimension, or some combination thereof. “The American dream didn’t ever factor God in.” It’s true. And it’s truer that turning a nation-sized ship around isn’t so easy.

“You’re Matt,” the angels says. His face is blank.

“Why only America?” This is a question for me, too. “They’re popping up in Europe, too.” A few in Africa. A few that we know of in China: angels are easy to spot from satellites, if you can catch them as they come in. “But mostly America.” Yes, mostly America, and even more than that, mostly New York City. “Maybe we deserve it more.” I am ambiguous, and I usually shrug.

Matt doesn’t say anything. I can see him trying his best to hold the angel’s gaze, his best to keep his face just as blank.

“You don’t believe,” says the angel, shaking his head as if this is confusing to him. “Why?” Matt decides to speak, or finds his voice, or is somehow compelled. “I don’t have any evidence you are from God.” Sheathing his sword, the angel shrugs fluidly. “I suppose,” he replies. “Do you have a cigarette?” Matt blinks. Finally. He’s not a secret smoker, but this is ever so slightly unusual. “Sure.” He fumbles through his pockets, pulls out a pack of Camels and hands one to the angel.

Who lights it on his signet ring. The angel takes a drag, inhales, and blows out smoke as if this is completely normal. Then he drops the still burning cigarette on the cracked concrete and stubs it out with his foot. “Well, at least that I can understand,” he says, face as blank as ever.

Then he’s no longer there. Just… gone, leaving us slack-jawed, the crowd staring.

Matt starts to shake. Visibly. We don’t say anything, just walk around for a while “Maybe it was a training run or something,” I say, trying to break the tension.
“I’m going to be most famous New Jersey atheist of my generation,” Matt tells me. “when that angel shows up on Oprah trying to kick the habit.”

I grin. Nothing has changed, after all. Though maybe I’ll sing extra-loud on Sunday.