Rent was due, I was out of booze, and the only food I had left was half a jar of off brand jam. There wasn’t any work to be had. I tried several places that had placed ads for unskilled labor; but none of them would interview me on the spot and they all refused to even accept my application because I didn’t have a phone. I tried going back to Ready Labor, but they kept turning me away. I even tried the plasma bank; but the pillar legged phlebotomist who tried to toss me without paying me for my time was working the desk and she had no intention of letting me through. Vindictive bitch.
With the couple of bucks I had left in my pocket, I bought a half stale loaf of bread and a bottle of cheap wine. That didn’t solve my rent problem; so I knew it was only a matter of time. I could’ve slipped off; but I didn’t relish the idea of sleeping outdoors. Especially in August. Better to hold out and leave when I was forced to – which, I figured, gave me a day. Maybe half a day at the most.
I managed to sneak upstairs without anybody in the front office seeing me. The rush of air conditioning washed over me as I slammed the door behind me and locked the deadbolt and chain. I told myself I was getting ready for a stand off. “If they want me out,” I said to the empty room, “They’ll have to break down the door to get me out.”
After I sat down, I wanted a cigarette. Only two left. I needed to conserve, so I decided to hold off. I made myself a jam sandwich instead. At first, I was only going to eat one slice of bread, so that I could make the loaf last as long as possible. But then I told myself there wasn’t any point. I may not even get through the whole loaf anyway, before it goes bad or they kick me out. I wondered briefly if Monkey Man would be the one to boot me, or if they’d send a plain uniform to do it. I took out a pocket knife that I’d found in the parking lot outside of the bar. It was a decent, clean blade. I used it to spread the jam over one piece of bread. Then I wiped the blade on another piece of bread and put it on top. After I closed up the loaf of bread and the jam jar, I sat down to enjoy my dinner feeling oddly self-satisfied.
When you’re hungry, you want to eat really fast. You want to gobble up food in front of you and every bit of food that’s near you, without even bothering to chew it first, much less taste it. I fought the urge. I ate my sandwich in small, careful bites. There was no point in behaving like an animal until there was no other option. Sometimes the simplest food has the best flavor, and I had learned to treat every meal – regardless of the quality or quantity – like my last. When you do that, you enjoy it just a little more.
I finished my sandwich and cracked open the bottle of vino. The label said merlot. The price tag said rot gut. But it would work. I found my coffee cup – they only kitchenware I owned besides the pocket knife – filled it halfway and drank it down slowly, letting it pour down my gullet. Then I poured another half cup, lit a cigarette, and turned on the radio. It was tuned to the classical station. Dvorćek was playing. I closed my eyes, inhaled the smoke along with the music, keeping the flavors of everything in my mouth.
A knock on the door interrupted my revelry.
Fuck, I thought. They came for me sooner than I expected. I hadn’t even bothered to pack up the little bit of shit I had.
I sat for a moment, hoping it was a fluke. Maybe it was somebody looking for Loyce. Maybe it was a lost pizza boy. I told myself there was no need to panic.
There was another knock. This one was more insistent.
I turned off the radio. Maybe they’d take the hint and go away.
The knocking came again with even greater urgency.
“Well fuck,” I said aloud and standing up. “All right,” I called out. “All right, goddammit. Let me pack my shit before you make me homeless, you bastards.”
I opened the door expecting to see a not-so-smiling Smiling Dave or an grumpier than usual Fat Marta. Instead I found a couple kids dressed in white button down shirts, dark ties, dark pants, and gym shoes. Each of them had a rectangular plastic name tag pinned to their shirt pocket, identifying themselves as Latter Day Saints.
“Good day,” the taller Sandy haired one said. “Have you heard the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
“Uh. No.” I moved to close the door.
“Well,” the dark haired one said. He was shorter and little pudgy. “Have we come at an inconvenient time?”
Yes. I didn’t want to stand there with the door open. For one, it was letting in the summer heat; more importantly (maybe) I didn’t want to chance being seen by Smiling Dave or Fat Marta. “Yeah. I mean, no. Listen,” I said looking around to make sure there was no one out and about. Naturally there wasn’t that time of day. “You guys want to come in? I don’t want to let the air conditioning out.”
I had no idea why I let them in, but it seemed to please them and they agreed immediately. The minute the words left my mouth, I regretted them. Why didn’t I slam the door in their round, beardless little faces and tell them to fuck off? I had this image of Dad standing on the front porch of the old house screaming at a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses to get off of his property. Why didn’t I follow suit?
They thanked me as they stepped in. “It’s pretty hot out there,” the tall one said.
I sat down in the chair and motioned for them to use the bed. No point in not being a good host, I guess. Then I drank down the last of my wine and poured more, filling the cup. I lit my last cigarette. “No worries, I said. I knew I had to get rid of them quickly and hope that Dave or Marta didn’t notice the opening and closing of the door. The pudgy one coughed a little when the cigarette smoke reached him. The other eyed it like he wanted one. This might be more interesting than I thought. I pointed to the wine bottle. “You guys want some? It’s quality stuff. Guaranteed to sprout hair on your balls.”
They laughed uncomfortably in unison. I was going to ask if they shared a brain when the sandy haired one – his name tag identified him as Bartholomew Romney – pulled a bible out of his knapsack. “We just wanted to talk to you about God,” he said, “and about letting Him into your life.”
“I doubt God would want to live here,” I said. “The walls are being held up by legions of mutant cockroaches bent on world domination.”
The dark haired one – Amos Sanford – looked around nervously. I thought I heard him make a nervous squeaking sound.
“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “They only come out at night.”
“Well,” Bartholomew continued. “God made the cockroaches, too. But you’re special. We’re all special – all people that is – because…”
I hadn’t intended to give him an intro. Have to keep them off script. “Let me ask you something,” I asked, draining my cup and pouring another. “So you’re traveling around, knocking on doors, trying to convert people. Right?”
“Right,” Amos squeaked.
“Riiight,” I echoed. I stamped out my last cigarette in the ash tray. “So you endure the weather, lousy food, rude people, and risk bodily harm. Right?”
“Right.” That time it was Bartholomew.
“Riiight,” I echoed. “So why do it?”
“We’d really like to focus on this,” Bartholomew said, trying to focus on the bible in his lap. He opened it in preparation the hard sell.
I catch him mid-sentence while he’s quoting John 3:16. “Sure sure sure,” I said. “We can get to all that. But really. This is important to me. I want to know. Why go through all the shit? What’s the point?”
“Faith,” Amos finally found something to say. “We do it for our faith. Because of our faith.”
“And the Great Commission,” Bartholomew added.
“Faith,” I echoed. “Commission. Riiight.” I down the cup of wine I had just poured. It was going down easier and easier. “You guys SURE you don’t want some of this? You look thirsty.”
“We’re sure,” Bartholomew answered. His tone was unconvincing.
I kind of felt bad for them. Kind of. I mean, they looked more like bad door to door vacuum cleaner salesmen than missionaries from God. I didn’t think they’d be much help if Smiling Dave or Fat Marta kicked in the door. I thought maybe they’d at least be reliable witnesses to what I saw as my eventual unlawful beating and subsequent arrest. After all, it was a sin to lie. Right?
“Suit yourself,” I said, and sat back.
Bartholomew let the silence settle for half a beat before he went into his bit. I didn’t feel like talking to them anymore, and clearly I wasn’t offending their moral sensibilities enough to make them leave. I either had to listen to them talk or I had to it up.
The thing that amazed me was how little it had all changed. Verse after verse. Salvation. Damnation. Obligation. I watched more than I listened to them they were babbling on and telling bible stories – using the old parable approach, I guess, because it worked so well for Jesus. In the past, when other well intended people went out of their way to save my soul and used the parable method to make it all sound so circular and reasonable, I pointed out (if you took the book seriously, which I didn’t) that it hadn’t worked out so well for Jesus in the end. I didn’t bother pointing that out this time, though. Bartholomew did most of the talking. Amos mostly interrupted with qualifiers and addendums – sometimes to his partner’s annoyance. The sandy haired kid was moving on to the compelling lives of prophets, like Stephen (who was stoned) and Moses (who made the mistake of taking too much credit) and John the Baptist (beheaded). Then the disciples, like Peter (who was crucified upside down.) But mostly Paul (died in prison.) The only ones who focus on Peter are the Catholics. Bartholomew spoke about these characters the way some people talk about celebrities. “Oh, wasn’t Angelina Jolie just WONDERFUL in that film?” or “I wish Paris Hilton would get a real job,” or “I really liked Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele; but James Bond? Give me Sean Connery!”
After a while I got more tired of listening than I had been of talking. “So,” I interrupted another great story of faith and a bloody awful death, “what about Joseph Smith?”
Amos seemed to get more animated. Apparently that was his part of the show. He dove straight into the story of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the great Mormon Revival. Eden was in Missouri. Native Americans were lost Israelites. Special secret languages, mystical rocks, angelic visions. I wanted to ask about the wonders of polygamy and the castration of boys in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; but he didn’t give me a chance. He talked and talked. It was Bartholomew’s turn to fidget and look uncomfortable. I drank.
“Listen,” I finally interrupted. “I don’t suppose one of you has a cigarette, do you?”
Amos looked over at his partner, who had been staring off into outer space – whether he was seeing angelic visions or fantasizing about Mary Magdalene I couldn’t tell. “How about you, Bart?” His attention snapped back to the present. “You don’t happen to have a smoke, do you? ONE cigarette for a poor sinner, please? Pretty please?”
He hesitated, but (much to his partner’s annoyance) he pulled a pack with two cigarettes left out of his knapsack. He stopped short of giving me the pack – mostly because he felt Amos glaring at him – but he handed it over nonetheless.
I tapped out one and handed it back. He promptly put his last cigarette in his mouth. After I lit mine, I let him use the lighter. “Thanks, man,” I said. “You know how it is.” I pointed at the quickly dissipating bottle of vino. “You sure you don’t want a taste?”
Bartholomew inhaled and shook his head. But Amos, apparently sick of his partner being the only one to indulge, said “I will.”
“Greeat,” I smiled, handing him the bottle. “Take a swig. I only have the one cup, I’m afraid.” Amos looked at me; I wasn’t sure if he worried he might catch something from the bottle or if he found it impossible to believe I didn’t have a whole cabinet of dinnerware. “Go on,” I encouraged. “No worries. Really.” I smiled. For a second I thought the smile changed his mind. He took a healthy swig and handed it back to me, trying not to look like he was gagging on the stuff.
“Be careful, man,” I said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.” I held it up to Bart. “You’re welcome, too,” I said. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, grabbed the bottle, and tipped it back. At first I thought he was going to choke, too. But he didn’t.
“Listen,” I said to both of them, “you don’t happen to have any money do you? If the three of us are going to drink, we might as well get more. Don’t you think?”
“I…” Amos was fumbling through his book.
I stood up. “Listen. I don’t suppose either of you is actually 21. Are you?”
“I am,” Bart answered.
“Bart!” I crowed. “My boy Bart! And you have money? right?”
Bart nodded. “Uh huh.”
“Greeat! Why don’t you go up to that liquor store on the corner and get is a big jug of wine. Amos’ll stay here and keep trying to convert me. He’s close, I can tell ya. I want to hear all about Jesus and Joseph Smith and magical underwear.”
Bart stood up. Amos looked up like he was nervous, but it was clear that Bart was the one in charge. “Sure. I guess that’s ok…”
“Good good good!” I slapped him on the shoulder. It was bony. “While you’re there, get a couple packs of smokes too, okay?” He nodded. “Alllrightee then!”
Bart left on the booze run and I offered Amos another drink. He took a bigger drink than before. I filled my cup and offered him the bottom of the bottle.
“Listen kid,” I said. “How old are you?”
Amos hiccupped. “Eight… eight… eighteen.”
“And you LIKE this gig?”
For a second he looked defensive. But for only a second. “Sure,” he said. “It’s import… hic…import…hic… impor’nant to …”
“Right right right,” I interrupted him. “Faith and works and all that.”
“Have you ever gotten laid?”
He looked shock, but I could tell by the crimson color his face was developing that he hadn’t. “Laid? You know? Sex? Gettin’ some? Shooting your load? Getting your rocks off? Pussy?” With every derivation his complexion got redder and redder. “What?” I asked finally. “You don’t like girls?”
That got him to talk. “I like girls,” he said. “I just… we’re not s’pose to…”
“Ah. I see. Tell me kid,” I slapped him on the knee. It made him jump a little. “Is there a particular girl you have in mind?”
“Amy.” He sighed. God, what romantic crap.
“Is she back home?”
He shook his head. After a few deep breathes and some more hiccups he told me she was the daughter of the family they were staying with locally. He didn’t describe her; but I could tell by the mushy dreamy look in his big round eyes that she was the most beautiful thing in the world for him. At the moment.
“You know,” I went on, “girls usually like a little experience. Know what I mean?” I leaned in. “You know… there’s a woman two doors down… a nice woman. Her name’s Loyce. And I bet if you went over there and asked real nice, she might, eh… loosen you up a little.” Amos almost looked horrified. Almost. I didn’t push it. “Whatever, man,” I said. “It’s all you.”
Bart got back not long after that. He brought a huge jug of burgundy wine, a twelve pack of beer, and a carton of cigarettes. Blessed be the young and the egomaniacal. For they shall over do themselves every time.
“Great timing, Bart!” I chirped. We’d run out of wine and were talking about Amos’s girl troubles.”
Bart smiled and Amos looked ashamed. I cracked open a beer, tore open one of the new packs of smokes, and went on. “I was telling Amos here that there’s a really nice lady two doors down who might like a couple of guys like you. And, if you was to treat her nice and pay her for her trouble, she might unburden you of your virginity. I can almost bet that she’s probably never seen a virgin before… let alone met one.”
Amos and Bart each drank a beer. Then Bart had another. Amos tried to smoke a cigarette, but he ended up coughing and putting it out half spent. “Those things are expensive,” I cautioned. “Don’t waste ‘em like that.” I kept on with the sex talk. It became clear pretty quickly that while young Amos fancied the daughter, Bart thought himself man enough for the mother. Naturally I encouraged them. Amos and Bart were both blushing and coughing and looking around. And the more uncomfortable it got for them, the more they drank. Blessed are the virginal. For they shall be better entertainment than television.
Finally, after some prodding, I had them prepared to go see Loyce. I got them on their feet, gave them their knapsacks and the rest of the beer – minus one for me – and ushered them out the door. “Be sure and tell her I sent you,” I told them. Both of them nodded. “You treat her nice, okay? She’s a nice person.” I looked around again and made sure that Smiling Dave or Fat Marta wasn’t around. The coast was clear. I turned them in the right direction and reminded them of which door it was. “Be nice,” I told her. “Offer her a beer. Be friendly. Save the Jesus and Joseph Smith stuff for another time.” They both nodded like they were being sent off on a dangerous mission.
I closed the door I heard them talking to Loyce. Then I heard the door close. She let them in. I knew she would. Good ol’ Loyce. I looked around. The big jug of wine hadn’t even been cracked open yet, and there was most of a carton of smokes left. I sat down, opened the beer, turned on the radio, took a drink, and closed my eyes. Debussy was playing.