f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: While Yet We Were Sinners by William Jones

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

While Yet We Were Sinners by William Jones

I started out tending bar in one of those small hotels just outside the airport. Twelve stories high, maybe twelve hundred rooms. I’m not really sure.

I got a tour of the place when they hired me but I wasn’t payin much attention. All I could think about was the wife at home and the hungry mouth kids we couldn’t afford to feed.

In the years I worked there, I seen it all. One time, I had a guy lay down a C-bill for a dozen shots of whisky, then go up to his room and blow his brains out. I’ve seen junkies shoot up and cops take payoffs and I even watched a guy bleed out all over my bar. Some punk with a fuzzy goatee didn’t like the way the way this half-sloshed businessman was looking at him, so he broke a bottle of MGD and slit the guy’s throat. A half dozen bikers were there. They beat the kid so bad the paramedics said he’d never walk again. Far as I know, he went to prison in a wheelchair. And the bikers? We all decided it was self defense. The DA agreed and never brought charges against em.

Yeah. I seen it all. But I ain’t never seen nothin like Maggie.

This hotel was a classy joint. But when the economy’s bad, there ain’t no such thing as a classy joint. Not really. You get everybody and you take what you get. So the hotel brass tells me to make the place more appealing to the bar crowd. And I did. I’d been hanging out in bars my whole life so I knew what to do.

Soon, the hotel had to beef up security because my bar was attracting the local trash. And one of the security guards they hired was this little blonde thing named Maggie. She’d come in every day around six. There’d be a couple of regulars at the bar already sloshed by then, but mostly the place was quiet. The real rowdies didn’t show up till eight or nine. Or ten. Or eleven.

First time I seen Maggie, I checked her hand for a rock. She had one, alright. Big enough to land a helicopter on. So right off the bat I know two things about her. First, she’s a classy broad. The kind you don’t just buy a six-pack for and take to a cheap motel, but the kind you take to the Sizzler first. I mean, she could have been in Playboy if she’d wanted. Second, I know she’s married. A woman like that who’s also married, ain’t me or nobody else got a shot at.

Yeah, I’m married too, but that didn’t stop me from lookin.

Anyway, Maggie walks in and the drunks at the bar all sit up straight and start givin her the eye. You know the eye? Starts out at whatever point of interest the guy has and works its way to all the other parts before settling back on the first. Yeah, you know the eye. Well, she got plenty of it from every guy there. A lot of women pass through that place, but Maggie was different. Way different.

I seen Maggie do things nobody would believe. She broke up a fight between two bikers without layin a hand on either one. I wouldn’t even mess with these dudes. Your best bet is to let the cops come in, shoot em full of mace, and beat on em for a while. One of these ole boys had already whipped out a switchblade, the other was reaching for a gun. I seen Maggie come in and I says to her, “You better get out of here,” but she just holds up her hand and nods like she’s telling me to wait just a minute. Then she goes up to those guys and stands between em. It didn’t take thirty seconds for them all to start laughing. They hollered over to the bar and wanted to buy a drink for Maggie, and she told em she didn’t drink cause she was a Christian.

After she left, I heard them talkin about her. And not the way you might think. They said Maggie was the first Christian they ever met like that, the first one they actually liked.

Maggie didn’t have to step one foot in that bar. Most Christians wouldn’t have. But she chose to, even though none of the other security guards ever did. After all, their job was to protect the rest of the hotel from my customers, not my customers from themselves.

Now, we did have some people come in claiming to be Christian. They’d spout off to everybody, “Jesus did this” and “Jesus did that” and “you need to give your heart to Jesus right now and trade that liquor for a Bible.” College kids, mostly. Arrogant snots that never had a real job, never knew what it was like to cut the apron strings. My customers gave em such a hard time that not one of them ever came back.

Funny thing is, when word got out that Maggie was a Christian, she didn’t have to come in and talk about Jesus. People came to her.

One night, some of the regulars asked her about Jesus. I just stood behind the bar, wiping out some mugs, only half-listening because I knew they all wanted in her pants and they’d listen to her read the phonebook if it gave em a chance to stare at her cleavage for a half hour. So she tells these guys that if they really want to hear about Jesus, she’d be glad to tell em, that she’ll bring her Bible the next night and tell them anything they want to know. And she did.

I figured she’d be there by herself, that it was a joke. But the guys all showed up. The night after that, though, I noticed some of em didn’t come back. Just a few. I figured they might be sick, but they never came back. About a week later, I had a slow night. I was mad ’cause I didn’t have no tips to take home. Maggie came through ’round midnight and I asked her what she did with my regulars. She said she didn’t do nothin. Said Jesus did. So I told her to quit bringin Jesus around ’cause he’s bad for business.

She didn’t argue. She just smiled and laughed it off.

With the regulars fading, a new crowd started comin in. The hooker population started growing and a lot of the new guys were lookin for action. These weren’t the weary alcoholics who usually got drunk after work. Those guys were all too beaten down to have much interest in prostitutes. This new crowd was mostly well to do. One night, one of these new guys sees Maggie. It’s close to midnight and the guy’s pretty drunk, so he hollers at her.

“Hey, sweetheart. How much you charge?”

I lean over the bar, ready to knock this guy out, but Maggie holds up that hand and says, “It’s okay.” Then she says to the guy, “How much do I charge for what?”

He gives her the eye. “For doin what you do best, darlin.”

“I do that for free.” She smiled and sat down.

There’s a word for the way she looked. Guileless. That ain’t the kind of word I normally know but I asked a buddy of mine who’s smart with books and that’s what he told me.

This guy at the bar must’ve thought he was the luckiest man in the world. “When are you free, baby?” he asked.

“Right now,” Maggie said. “What do you want to start with?”

“How ’bout your name?”

“Maggie,” she said, holding out her right hand. “And you?”

“John.” The guy must’ve thought he was being cute. And he must’ve thought Maggie was too dumb to know the difference.

“Well, John,” Maggie said, “let me tell you about Jesus.” And she did. And John got mad and walked out.

I thought it was funny. Maggie did too, I think.

When she saw that he’d stiffed me, she laid some money on the bar and apologized for running my customers off. I told her not to worry, I didn’t want that kind anyway.

For six years, I watched Maggie do her thing. It got to where I’d call on her. You know, some stick figure would go into the bathroom all shaky, I’d call Maggie. She’d fish the poor thing out of the toilet and walk her to the bar, help her down a glass of lukewarm tap water.

Once she dragged this junkie out of the men’s room with blood oozing down his arms where he’d stabbed himself so many times with a needle, lookin for a vein. She cleaned him up, gave him a little pep talk, and invited him to church. She even invited me a few times, but I never went. My wife would want to tag along, and the last thing I needed was for her to see Maggie. Women like that spark jealousy, warranted or not, and that can make a man’s life miserable.

One night, we had a guy come in wearin a dress. He looked horrible. Had this long brown hair and ruby lipstick and thick mascara and a half-day’s beard growth. He sits at the bar and orders a margarita. I tell him to get lost. He cusses me in a woman’s voice. Then some of my customers come over and peel the guy off the bar. They start slappin him. Then they beat him. Then they pulled down his dress and I swear, this guy was wearing panties and a bra with fake rubber boobies.

Now, he’s wailing on the floor like a cat in heat when in comes Maggie, runnin full bore, her pony tail swingin back and forth. That’s the only time I ever heard her yell.

She tells those guys to back off and they do. Then she picks this guy up off the floor and takes him into the ladies’ room. A couple of customers and one of the other guards went and knocked on the door and she told em all to go away. When she finally came out of that bathroom, she was wearing the dress.

Let me tell ya, it looked a lot better on her.

The guy came out with her, wearin her security guard uniform, looking baggy and tired. She walked him to the bar, called him a cab, and he left. I asked her what happened in there and she said it was between him and God.

That’s Maggie. See what I mean about not being prepared for her?

Well, one night around one a.m., she comes into the bar. It had been a quiet night. There were just a couple of businessmen at a table, talking about some trade show. No regulars. I had Metallica playin, that song that goes, “I got something to say. I killed your baby today. Doesn’t matter much to me as long as it’s dead.” Maggie walks in, slouches over the bar, and orders a soda. I get her a Coke from the fridge and kill the music.

She thanks me. Says she needs some quiet.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

She shakes her head. “Long story.”

“I got time. Nothin but.”

She pops open the can. “I’m sick.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “You gonna take some time off?”

“I don’t think it’ll help.”

“Sure it will. Couple days’ rest--”

“You don’t understand. I’ve got cancer.”

“Cancer?” My eyes start watering. “That ain’t right. Can’t they do something?”

“No. The doctor didn’t catch it in time.”

“I don’t believe that.” I shake my head and grab a rag to wipe down the bar. “How could that Jesus of yours do that to you?”

“Don’t blame Jesus. He didn’t cause this. If anything, He fixed me when I was beyond repair.”

“Huh?”

“Did I ever tell you how I became a Christian?” she asks. She hadn’t. “I’ve told so many people that I lose track sometimes.” She takes a drink and sighs. “I grew up in a bad home. I got raped when I was sixteen. The boy said I was asking for it and I guess part of me thought I was, so I didn’t tell anybody, even when I missed my period.

“After a while, it became pretty obvious that I was pregnant. The whole school was calling me names. Slut. Whore. Tramp. I finally told my parents about the rape and they didn’t believe me, so I went and got myself an abortion. I figured if I made the baby go away, everything would be fine. After I recovered from the procedure, I went back to school and it was worse. Not only was everyone calling me the same stuff as before, they added baby killer to the list. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I kept having nightmares about my unborn child.

“Since everyone was calling me a slut and a whore anyway, I figured I might as well live up to it, you know? If you’re gonna get punished you might as well do the crime. So I started drinking, doing drugs--you name it, I did it.”

“Too bad I didn’t know ya back then,” I say, thinking it would make her laugh. It didn’t, so I wiped down the bar some more. “What happened?”

“I kept getting pregnant, kept having abortions. After the last one, I got real sick.

“The only reason I started going to church was because this guy I liked was a Christian. I was nervous at first, but I kept going back because the people there were actually nice to me. They treated me different, not like trash. They asked me to do things with them, made me feel special.

“One night, the preacher said Jesus died to give us all a second chance. Anyone who wanted it could come get it. So I went. I confessed everything. The abortions. The drugs. The suicide attempt. And when I asked Jesus to save me, the preacher put his finger under my chin and said, ‘Young lady. You will never be the same again.’ And I haven’t.

“I quit doing all the things I knew were wrong and I didn’t feel ashamed of myself anymore. I finally found true happiness. I fell in love with a boy at church. We got married. I had a baby girl. All that because Jesus freed me.

“So you see? Jesus didn’t do anything bad to me. He gave me life when I was broken. I’d have been dead years ago if not for Him.”

As a bartender, I heard a lot of stories. But that one there stuck with me.

After that, she told me she’d already given her two weeks notice and probably wouldn’t be back even if she did get better. Then she left. I planned a big surprise party for her, but she never came back. I found out later that she’d cashed in two weeks worth of sick days and vacation time. Use it or lose it, I guess.

After that, the bar just died. It was like Maggie was the light in that place and when she went away, it turned into another stinkin hole in the wall. A few months later, I quit. Sadness had settled over the bar and everyone in it. I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I got a job tending bar across town making twice what I was at the hotel and for a while, everything was cool. But it didn’t take long to realize that a change of location didn’t make up for not having Maggie around. I called the hotel to see if anyone had heard from her. No one had. Then I read in the paper that she’d died.

I ain’t never been to a funreal. But I had to go to Maggie’s. I had to see her one last time.

I had expected the place to be full of stuffy church people, and there were a few of them there. But mostly it was people I already knew. Hotel guards. That kid who’d come in with the long hair and dress. The junkie who’d bled all over the bar. The regulars I’d complained about losing. They all looked happier, pulled together--more solid than I remembered.

Filling up that room, I saw six years worth of people. My people; Maggie’s people. We all just sat there, staring at the open casket and looking at her with teary eyes. At the front of the room, I saw her husband. He was as handsome a man as she was beautiful a woman. And their kid was there, a gorgeous little girl who looked just like a miniature version of Maggie.

The preacher said something I’ll never forget: “Many of you told me the same thing that Maggie said to you, ‘While yet we were sinners, Jesus loved us anyway, and the pain we feel at our darkest hour is only temporary, so that we can better appreciate the love and peace that comes from accepting Him into our heart’.”

Like everyone Maggie said that to, I didn’t believe it at first. But then I remembered our last conversation at the bar.

The funeral was two weeks ago. Tonight was my last night tending bar. I ain’t gonna miss it. Of all the people I’ve met since the last time I saw Maggie, ain’t none of em even come close to fillin up the void she left. I guess I finally realized the only one who can is Jesus, because the light she shined came from Him.

On Monday morning, I start a new job. I figure if I’m gonna get to know Maggie’s Jesus, I might as well start by seeing life through the eyes of a carpenter.