f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006

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

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all a fantastic 2006 filled with brilliant writing and absorbing reading.

Plus good olives. Everybody should enjoy good olives.

Friday, December 30, 2005

"Holy Sonnet" by J. Mark Bertrand

Everything breaks.

Bones and promises and pencil points sharpened too fine. Chains break. Hearts break. Backs and arms break. This perpetual snapping, it’s the white noise of existence. Deaf to its beat, we move to the rhythm of breaking.

I’m sore from the strain of holding my forearm up for their colored markers. The line still stretches out from behind my cubicle and into the lobby, and now that the graphic designers have gotten to the front, it’s taking longer than ever. Pierce is doing Celtic knotwork at the edge of the cast, just at my elbow crease, while Amy Lovell scouts for virgin plaster near the wrist. It’s flattering, all this attention from people who took no notice of me before.

Just because my fiancé broke my wrist.

My ex-fiancé, I guess I should say, or you’ll think I’m one of those weak women who wants to be hurt. You’ll think I’m a victim.

“You’re taking too long,” somebody tells Pierce.

I think so too, but I’m not saying. Pierce smells like mint and studies his work minutely through ice-blue eyes. This is the closest he’s ever been to me.

Every so often the phone rings and I have to answer with my good hand. My smooth receptionist voice, no hint of accent left, the one thing I can still be proud of.

When I was in college ten years ago, my best friend dated an art major. We used to hang out for hours in the studio where the art students worked. It was stupid, but I always had this fear that was also a dream: that one of them would ask me to model. It never happened, and maybe I would have been too scared to say yes if it had, but sometimes I could see myself reclining like an odalisque, a center of attention, an object of desire.

Now I must be content to serve as canvas.

“Maybe,” Pierce says, “I could come back after lunch and color some of this in.”

“Move over, Michelangelo,” Amy Lovell tells him. She nudges Pierce aside and turns my forearm just so. Amy wears a black turtleneck and black designer glasses. The fine ridge of her nose, the swell of cheekbones—up close she’s like the women who grace the pages of the magazines stacked under my desk. As her felt tip touches the plaster, I notice the chipped polish on my nails and wish I could hide them from her.

Amy sketches an abstract design that wraps over the place where the cast bridges between my thumb and forefinger, then inks her name along the side. When she’s done, she rubs her hand over the cast as if it were my skin, and finally looks me in the face. Her gaze goes through me and into me, like she knows more than I dare tell a living soul. Apart from you.

“You take care of yourself,” she says. Her voice trembles at the last.

::

Here’s what I didn’t realize before: when he hurts you, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. I’ve been where you are, sneering at the stupidity of a girl who goes back for more. Was she an abused child? Does she have low self-esteem?

This is the one sacrifice you can make that no one respects.

But say he does love you, only there are demons, dark muses who give him visions of rage to act out. And there you are, available. An object, a canvas. Say he’s the only one who ever has loved you. How can you give that up?

“He doesn’t love you,” your mama says, “or he wouldn’t do this to you.”

And when the pain is fresh, that makes sense. You remember the sound your wrist made when it popped, and how you curled in a ball on the linoleum with the cat worrying your face, and there was nothing you wouldn’t have given for it to stop.

But then you lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling you knew as a girl, the hard cast propped on the swell of your hip, and you think what it’s like to be alone and unloved. You want to tell your mother—you want to tell them all—not to worry. But not so loud that they can hear you and answer back.

“It’s all right, mama, not the end of the world,” you say. “Everything breaks.”

I can’t expect you to understand.

It’s winter still and easy enough to lie. For my mother, a story about sliding on the ice and breaking my wrist as I broke my fall. I hold back a few vivid details, saving them as a response to her questions, only she doesn’t ask any. She doesn’t want to know why I’ve moved out of my shared apartment and back into my childhood room. She doesn’t want to know where my engagement ring is, which saves me from lying about a damaged prong and a trip to the jeweler. And I’d just as soon save myself the lies.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” she says, and offers to do everything for me. I’m thirty, a grown woman, but I let her baby me all the same. She is good about not mentioning my fiancé and I am good about not noticing that she doesn’t. We have a lot of practice, I guess, from all the years of not mentioning my dad.


* * * * *

Turns out an English degree is perfect preparation for temp work. I can sit for hours with a dog-eared copy of the Norton Anthology open on my lap, routing calls and signing for packages and reading metaphysical poets. When I get bored with that, there’s always a stock of wrinkled fashion mags built up by receptionists over the years. I leaf through the oldest ones and see if I can still smell the scent in the perfume samplers.

The phone rings and I answer in that cool, professional tone, uttering words I know by heart. Silence follows, full of presence.

“Hello?” I ask.

“It’s me. Don’t hang up.”

His voice breaks and he starts to cough. I wait. The pulse thumps hard in my wrist like it’s going to shatter the cast.

“Are you still there?”

Now it’s my turn to be quiet.

“You know I’m sorry,” he says. “That wasn’t me, not the real me.”

Part of me wants to say: I know. Part of me wants to cry or scream or both. Now my heart beats so strong I can feel the pulse in my breath. The pause lasts. We sit there listening to each other’s breathing.

The lobby doors swing wide and a bicycle messenger walks in with a long, cardboard tube. He hasn’t bothered to take his helmet or sunglasses off. He passes his clipboard over and I sign for the package. I check the label and see that the delivery is for Amy Lovell. Without saying a word, the messenger turns to go. I watch him swish through the doors and disappear.

“You can come back,” my ex-fiancé says. “I swear to you that won’t happen again.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Don’t know what?”

“I need time.”

“Time?” he says. “So you’re thinking about it, at least.”

“I don’t know,” I repeat. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what I want or what I’m going to do or what I’ll regret.

“I’m not going to pressure you,” he says. “Just remember I love you, baby, and I’m so, so sorry. Let me make it up to you.”

The tears break before he finishes and come so quick they blind me. I mop them up with Kleenex as best I can.

“You’re crying,” he says. “Don’t cry.”

I look up and find Amy Lovell standing there. She reaches across the counter and grabs the package, then stops when she sees my face.

“Look,” he says. “I need to see you. I don’t want to do this over the phone. Let’s meet somewhere and talk.”

Amy comes around the divider and kneels next to me, just like she did when she wrote on my cast. This time, she reaches for the switchboard and cuts the line. Then she holds my bandaged hand in hers the way she might hold a kitten or a bird. I must be really crying now, because she puts my head against her chest and hugs me. All I can remember are the wet marks on her silk blouse and the sparkle of the cross at her throat.

::

Amy’s afraid, I can tell. Scared of being my lifeline. Scared I might pull her under.

And I might.

She’s a nice girl from a nice world where nice men don’t twist your arm behind your back until you scream. But if they did, Amy would know what to do. No doubts, no second guesses. Amy would do the right thing—the obvious, rational thing—just like you would. Just like anyone would. The truth is obvious to everyone but me.

She takes me out for coffee after work, and we end up getting dinner and spending hours talking, though mainly about nothing. We’re about the same age, but have almost nothing in common. I hate her music, she hates mine. I’ve never seen any of her favorite movies and she rolls her eyes at mine. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. We get along.

“You’re not just doing this, right?” I ask her. “Out of pity, I mean?”

I figured she’d deny it right away, but instead she gets thoughtful and runs her hand through her hair.

“Honestly,” she says, “I saw you crying and I felt bad. I signed your cast, and I didn’t even know your name.”

“The temp,” I say.

“But I felt like I should know it. In fact....”

“In fact what?”

“Don’t laugh,” she says, “but I felt like God wanted me to know it.”

I don’t laugh, but I don’t know what else to do, so I just look away.

“You’re laughing.”

“No, I’m not.” I have to make eye contact to prove it, but instead my gaze fixes on her little cross. It dangles back and forth in the fold of her blouse. Not just a fashion accessory, I guess. She notices me looking at the cross and pinches it between her fingers to bring it out into the light.

“Well,” I say, “God got what he wanted.”

“You think I’m crazy.”

“No,” I say. Who am I to judge? “I’m glad you listened to him.”

::

So it’s midnight and we’re sitting on the rug in Amy’s apartment, using the couch as our backrest. Her pad is like her: clean lines, a little expensive, everything in its place. The gas fire whispers behind glass, and on the mantel she has black-and-white photos of herself posing with family and friends on ski slopes, at beach houses and on the decks of ships. We couldn’t be more different.

She says she wants to know what really happened to my arm, so I tell her and she nods the whole time like she’s already heard the story.

“You’ve been through a lot,” she says.

More than you know, I think, but then that look of hers stops me. Maybe my whole past is written on my face. Maybe she sees everything: my dad chasing me with the belt, the bullies all through school, the first guy I ever slept with (who never called me again). And maybe she’s been through more than I give her credit for. Not as much as me, I hope.

It’s no big deal,” I tell her, running my fingers over the graffiti on my cast. “It’s the way of the world, Amy. Everything breaks.”

“Yeah,” she says, “but not for good.”

“He really loves me. He’s just screwed up like me. Like everyone, I guess.”

She takes a breath, and I fully expect her to launch into the usual speech. He doesn’t really love you or he wouldn’t have done this. As if it were that easy—either, or—and this is a social issue and not my life.

“He broke your arm,” she says. “Your arm will heal. So will you.”

She touches my cast with a cautious fingertip, then reaches and pulls me into a hug, the way a friend might, and I have no desire to cry. Call it a miracle, but I feel better.

::

Amy thinks she’s heaven sent and my mom is inclined to agree, so much so that all the pious talk I remember from childhood starts resurfacing. It’s Jesus this and Jesus that whenever Amy’s around, and I can tell it makes my new friend uncomfortable. Not that Amy doesn’t want to talk about Jesus—she does—but my mom believes in all religion equally for the comfort value. It’s what gets you through the day with a husband like she had, or without one for that matter. I try to explain all this to Amy, who seems baffled.

“Religion is her painkiller, like Marx said.”

“I wish I could tell you what it’s really like,” Amy says. “You’re saying life is hard, and faith makes you forget. But it’s more than that.”

“Life is hard,” I say. “That’s reality.”

“So is happiness, though. So is joy. So are all the good things in life. There’s more to reality than pain.”

I smile. “Maybe for you.”

She hates the implication of remarks like that—I’ve suffered and she hasn’t—but we’re close enough now for me to tweak her.

Amy shakes her head. “You make it sound like I’m blinding myself to how ugly the world really is. I’m not. I know what’s out there. I’m just saying that’s not all there is. Faith is a consolation, not a consolation prize. It doesn’t make you forget. It makes you whole.”

::

When he calls now, I don’t cry and I don’t hang up. But I don’t listen, either. He tells me not to turn my back on what we have. He tells me we were good for each other. He tells me he won’t take the ring back unless he can see me.

One time he sits in the parking lot of my building and waits for me to come out. I can see his car through the plate glass window. When I tell her, Amy goes out to meet him. He opens the door as she approaches and looms over her. For a second I have this premonition of disaster: Amy twisted up and thrown to the pavement. But she stands her ground and finally he leaves.

“The ice is melting out there,” she says.

I’ll put the ring in the mail. I should have done it a long time ago. Maybe he’ll open the package and take that as a sign it’s all over. Maybe he won’t. I’m not sure if it matters anymore.


* * * * *

It matters what you think of me.

It matters that you’re there. I have to believe that.

Otherwise who am I telling this story to and what does it matter? I could be fooling myself, lying to myself. I could be talking to myself. Then, this echo, this breath means nothing. This pain means nothing. Or it means what I make of it, which isn’t enough. I don’t know what it means. That’s for you to sort out.

Now I’m self-conscious like an old lady caught mumbling to herself, calling out to God knows what to break, blow, burn and make her new. Amy holds my hand like a kitten or a bird and says world without end amen and on earth as it is in heaven.

And I, in my still small voice, say it with her.

Tentatively.

Listening to see if anyone answers back.

::

Everything breaks. And everything also mends.

Now that it’s coming off, I am beginning to feel some affection for this cast. The nurse leaves me alone in the room to wait, and I spend the time studying the layered hieroglyphs on my forearm, including the one I made myself: a tiny Maltese cross, four triangles whose points touch at the center. I had asked Amy to do it, and she handed the marker to me.

The doctor catches me admiring the cast.

“Would you like to keep it?”

I shake my head. “Get this thing off of me.”

A few minutes with the saw, and then he opens the cast like a clamshell. Underneath, the skin is pale and lined. The cool air hits and I feel exposed. I move my fingers, rotate my wrist. As the doctor examines me, his fingertips send pulses through my arm.

“Good as new,” he says.

“Better.”

The halves of the cast lie empty on the examining table. I pick them up. Already it’s hard to imagine I was ever encased in this. Hard to remember the reason why. It was all so long ago, part of an old life. Something that happened to another woman. My finger rubs at the ridged surface.

“I think I will take it,” I say. “As a reminder.”

Outside, the air is crisp but not frigid. Birdsong carries over the sound of traffic. I thread my way through the parked cars, moving at an unfamiliar pace. I run my hand up and down my arm, feeling the muscles and tendons under the skin as if they were new flesh. As if not my wrist but my whole body has been mended. As if the world has been mended, too. It was empty and now it’s full.

So this is spring.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Finder's Fee" by Laura Alice Eakes

They call me the finder.

By the time I was four-years-old, I was so good at locating the lost that my parents changed my name from Ann to Antonia—the female version of Anthony for St. Anthony, patron of lost things. But no one prays to me.

They pay me.

How much are my services worth? That depends on the importance of the find. You lose your wedding ring because you had it off when you shouldn't have, I'm likely to make you pay through the nose. On the other hand, if you hand your suitcase over to the baggage handlers at an airport with the confidence of it reaching the correct destination and it doesn't, my fees are more than reasonable. After all, lost luggage is easy for me to find, so easy I can't figure out why the airlines can't do it with all their computers.

I use my mind.

To kick in the odd gene—surely it's a gene, since everything else in our minds and bodies comes down to genes these days--I usually need to do no more than touch the seeker's hand and look into his—or her—eyes. This, I soon discovered after putting up my shingle in a respectable office high-rise, isn't enough for most people. They want magic, incense and candles, chants and dances.

Incense gives me a migraine.

Chanting creeps me out.

I don't dance for even an aerobics instructor.

Candles I can do. For a touch of the dramatic, I pull out tapers according to the color of the object lost. Green for money, of course.

I go through a lot of green candles, and much of the resultant finds come my way, though I locate pets and children for free. For this latter humanitarian effort, the media loves to trot me out for a feature piece every now and again. their latest piece on how I found a Guide Dog stolen from its owner got me so much publicity I have more business than I can handle. I'm considering that I will stop finding animate "losees," as I call them, when a man walks into my office, his Cole Haans silent on my plush, forest green carpet, and settles his Italian suited posterior in one of my black leather visitor chairs. He doesn't introduce himself. He doesn't shake my hand. He simply sits down and stares at me with celandine green eyes cold enough to refreeze the Great Lakes into glaciers. I know my blood runs frostily enough to produce ice crystals like clots. That makes my heart and lungs labor and my brain go numb.

"How may I help you?" I ask.

Dumb question. See how anesthetized my brain is? What else would he be doing here? He needs me to find something for him.

His nostrils flare, then pinch as though he smells something like garlic breath. "I need you to find something for me," he announces in a voice as smooth and rich as velvet, the real stuff woven from silk thread, not that polyester stuff that shines too much.

See, I'm clairvoyant, too.

And a little facetious.

I smile at him. "Of course you do. What is it?"

I'd be happy to find him a tie that was more interesting than the gray on gray he currently wears with a gray shirt and gray suit. I'm surprised his hair isn't gray. It's red. Okay, it's auburn, but next to all that gray, it's positively foxy. I pay a fortune every month to have hair that color.

Maybe he does, too.

The notion makes me smile more broadly. "I have a ninety-eight per cent success rate at finding money and jewelry, and a ninety-four per cent success rate at finding sp—"

"I know your statistics." He frowns deeply enough that, turned sideways, his mouth would make a credible comma. "Including the fact that you pretend to be twenty years older than you are."

I flinch. Only my doctor and hairdresser know for sure that I don't really have gray hair under my dye-job, and the lines around my eyes are mostly manufactured with clever make-up.

"No one would take me seriously if they knew I was only—"

He cut off my defense with a slashing motion of his hand. It looked like the sort of hand that would sport a pinky ring with an enormous diamond. Since it doesn't, I suspected that's what he wants me to find.

I start to reach for the white candles on the shelf behind my desk chair.

"I don't care why you're pretending to be forty-eight, so long as you can help me find—" The smooth velvet of his voice reaches a seam in its fabric.

I wait.

He stands up, walks to the window that gives a rather spectacular view of the Potomac and monuments beyond, then turns back with his hands clasped behind his back. I shiver again under the arctic blast of his gaze. "I need you to find my soul."

My fingers freeze on a handful of candles. "Your soul?" I stall as my mind races through my colors of candles and the significance I attach to each one.

Besides white for diamonds and silver, I have green for money, red for stray spouses, and black for stray cats.

Black for stray souls, too?

"Your soul," I repeat. Inspired, I straighten in my desk chair. "Do you mean soul as in soul music? Aretha Franklin and James Brown?"

The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "No, I mean as in my eternal soul."

"Oh, well, um..." Where is mine for that matter? "What makes you think you've lost it? I mean, don't you need a preacher?"

Or his keeper?

"I can't be seen going into a church." He says in a tone that suggests I should know this.

I don't, so I ask, "Why not?"

"I'm an anti religion in politics lobbyist."

Now I'm really confused. Not about the lobbyist part. I know of an organization that promotes religion in politics, so why not one who opposed it? And if he is in politics opposing churches, he sure can't be seen promoting it by frequenting a church.

But why does he think he needs to find his soul?

If he's not simply crazy.

Do crazy men walk around in designer suits?

He shrugs shoulders broad enough to be attractive, but not too broad for elegance. "Something's missing in my life."

I start to ask him why he thinks that something is his soul, then I risk another glance into his eyes—I'm wearing a warm sweater after all—and know he's right. Eyes are supposed to be the windows to the soul.

His windows lead one into nothing more than the blankness of space.

Cold doesn't begin to express the chill that prickles over my skin and seeps down to my marrow. I have to get rid of him—now—or I'm in danger of losing my own soul.

If I have one.

That thought making me queasy, I stand. "As you know, Mister..." He doesn't supply his name, and I don't really want it, so continue, "I need time to meditate and open my mind as to the whereabouts of the missing...ehem...item."

I'm coughing because he's giving me pneumonia, not because I'm nervous.

Or downright scared?

He stands with controlled slowness. "I'll be in touch in twenty-four hours."

"But, sir—"

My office isn't very big, and he's already out the door.

I flop onto my chair with uncontrolled haste. Twenty-four hours to find his soul? Not long enough to find something simple like a lost five karat diamond ring, but I sure want to be successful so he doesn't return after that.

Where to start?

Usually, I can look into someone's eyes and see enough that a few minutes of meditation tells me where the lost object lies—or resides if it's animate. With Mr. Designer suit, his eyes reveal nothing.

Except doubts about my own soul's location.

I attended church for many years. Mom always advised me to keep my special talent to myself. But one can't hide a gift like that. The choir director lost her music one day. She looked so much like crying, I told her where it was. Then I told a distraught usher where he'd misplaced one of the offering bags. Then... Well, one thing led to another until the pastor pulled Mom and me into his office one day and prayed a prayer that scared me as much as the soulless man who'd just left my office scared me. Pastor said I was ungodly. If so I couldn't see the point in going to church, so stopped. I put up my shingle soon afterward, and didn't worry about my soul until today.

If a man who fights religion is concerned about his soul's existence, I sure should worry, too. I'm not antireligion at all. My gift comes from somewhere. I liked church. I'd been told I wasn't good enough for godly people, though, so separated from them.

Was I wrong?

Was that pastor?

I must find out.

Not sure I want to trust a church, I go looking for people with souls.

Brown eyes. Black eyes. Green eyes. No-color eyes. I walk along the streets during rush hour and look into as many eyes as I can. Too many are empty. They're so empty I fear looking into a mirror because those soulless eyes scare me, and I don't want to be afraid of myself.

A giant mirror in a lady's room confronts me anyway. Before I manage to avoid my reflection, I look into my own eyes, one blue, one brown, and see—

After I emerge from a stall, I splash cold water on my face, rinse the foul taste from my mouth, and powder my nose—without looking at the mirror.

No wonder Mr. Designer Suit came to me. No doubt he'd looked into my eyes in a photo and saw the same thing I saw in his eyes.

Emptiness. Darkness.

Still nauseated, I stumble to the bathroom door. A woman holds it open for me. She smiles. She nods. She looks into my eyes.

She has a soul so present I want to grab her and demand, "How did you find your soul?"

Knowing she'll run shrieking to the nearest cop, telling him about the crazy woman in the lady's room, I thank her for holding the door and stride away. I need another technique. Looking into eyes just depresses me.

The city surrounds me with blaring horns, hissing air brakes, and gusts of exhaust mingling with the aroma of cooking meals. Dozens of restaurants from as many nationalities line the streets, people running, sauntering, staggering their way to the doors. Tucked amongst this melee is a grotto, a fountain surrounded by tiny shops and one large bookstore.

I head for it like a cruise missile locked on a target.

Warm air redolent of coffee, paper, and ink greets me at the door. The atmosphere is hushed like a college library during finals, save for the whir click of the cash registers and the muffled hiss of a cappuccino machine. I glance around at the thousands of books and have no idea where to start.

You'd think a finder could locate the right book.

I see a clerk and consider asking him for assistance. "Excuse me, sir, where will I find a book on souls?" Well, why not?

He doesn't look at me like I'm nuts. He directs me to the New Age section and the religion section. Knowing the former too well, as I'm too often locked into that box by the press, I head for the religion section. The choice makes me dizzy. One after another, so fast their fluttering pages look like flocks of trapped doves, I yank books from the shelves and skim the blurbs. Using references from Scripture... Scripturally sound and... Portrayed in Scripture...

Which one will give me the answer in time?

I drop onto a bench convenient for exhausted seekers, and stare at the row of books in front of my nose without really seeing them. Slowly, my brain conjures up memories from college regarding research. I never finished college and don't need to write papers in my line of work, since I'm the original source, but something... Something...

Titles of the row of books before me penetrate my brain. An original source. The Holy Bible.

Not caring which version, I yank one from the shelf and flip the gold-edged pages. Hundreds of pages. More pages than I can possibly read and comprehend in the eighteen hours I have left. Where to start? What to look for? Finders or seekers? Does either exist within these pages?

I sit there so long simply holding onto the Bible that a clerk walks up to me. "May I help you?"

This being such a phenomenon in a bookstore, I simply stare at her for I'm sure a half hour a so, then think to ask, "Where do I start in this thing?"

Her upper lip curls. "Most people start reading books at the beginning."

I look into her soulless eyes. "I don't have time to do that. Is there a study guide?"

She looks at me as though I've grown a second nose and yanks a book off the shelf. It's such a big book it should be classified as a lethal weapon and require a license. "This is an index of sorts."

I take it and stagger to the register. "The cost has me wondering if I can add this to my fee.

Only if I find an answer.

Shopping bag over my arm, making me list to one side, I head for the coffee shop and purchase the largest, strongest caffeine drink they offer. Then I seat myself at a table in the corner and begin to read.

The index thing leads me from Genesis to one of the Chronicles, to Ruth. I read each entry, making little sense of any of them as my latte cools, and the café empties. Impatient, too aware of passing time, I flip a few entries.

And discover Isaiah.

"With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee earnestly: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness." Isaiah 26:9 NASV

With my soul...

What if I don't have one?

Frantic, certain my watch is ticking like the heart in The Tell-Tale Heart, I read, flip pages, read. Again and again I find references to seeking God, of a soul yearning for God, of promises that if I seek I will find—what?

My Soul!

I've had it all along. That's the problem. I need to give my soul to the Lord, accept the forgiveness of my sins and believe in His love, His plan, His mercy.

Haltingly, I do this, as the lights flash, warning me the store is about to close. I lurch to my feet, toss my empty cup in the trash, and head for the lady's room before the subway ride home. Heart pounding louder than Poe's corpse's, I stand at the sink with my eyes closed. I'm praying, "This is the most important find of my life. Lord, let it be there."

Shaking, I open my eyes and see that light replaces the darkness once behind my eyes.

Before I can absorb what all I'm taking in, the door opens behind me and a clerk pokes her head in. "You have to leave now."

"I know." I give her a happy smile as I gather up my books. "Did you know that I have a soul?"

"Of course you do." She doesn't say it with the patient patronization of those speaking to the mentally unbalanced; she says it with complete sincerity.

I want to hug her, but figure I'd better not. So I trot out of the store and hop on an escalator to the subway platform. At home, I curl up with more caffeine and read and read and read. By the time I have to go to my office to meet Mr. Italian Suit, I know I am about to deliver the most important information of my career as a finder.

Wrapped in a warm sweater, I sit behind my desk awaiting his arrival. Precisely twenty-four hours from when he left my office, he returns, Italian loafers today silent on the carpet, person clad in a New York designer's idea of business casual.

He settles himself in a chair before speaking. "Well?" He doesn't meet my eyes.

I take a deep breath. "To find your soul, you need to give it away."

His eyes narrow, and I plunge on, shivering ever so slightly, giving him my inexpert explanation of how Jesus bought our souls on the cross, when He died for our sins, then rose from the dead. "So that," I conclude, "is how you find your own soul."

"And you expect me to believe you?" he demands, starting to rise.

I hold up a staying hand. "Look at me and tell me if you should believe me."

He looks. He jerks back as though smacked, and his face whitens. His eyes still lack the light of a soul returned to God, and he blinks several times, hard, like he's trying to remove an irritant. I wait, gradually growing aware that the chill he brings with him no longer touches my exposed skin. I wait for the light to come to his eyes.

Before it does, he stands. "I'll think about this. How much do I owe you?"

I rise also, smiling. "You owe me nothing. The fee has already been paid."

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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"The Deal" by Don Hoesel

“You remember any of this?”

My father’s voice startles me after an hour of navigating the winding mountain roads without a word between us. Since the stop for gas in Chelsea, when he asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, the rumbling of the V-8 has filled the aural vacuum. Maybe what made me jump, beyond the fact that the timbre of my father’s voice could wake Lazarus, is that I’d been considering the same thing – how none of this seemed familiar until the last turn, when I could see the red outline of the cider mill through the pine trees some two-hundred feet below us.

As a boy I would watch for that mill, playing a game with my father to see who could spot it first. I can’t remember a time when he won that contest and I am certain now that he derived the greater pleasure from my small triumphs. He took me to see the mill once, when I was eight or nine. We walked through the place, watching the coring, peeling and pressing of the apples. He’d told me that before the mill was ushered into the twentieth century, migrant workers, mostly black families, would show up at harvest time to pick and process the fruit.

For a few of those seasons my father had worked alongside them, sweating beneath the sun, learning the work songs of a different people. He’d lost the tip of his finger in the press during his last harvest and the mill foreman had burned the wound with lye to stop the bleeding. They had loaded him into the back of the man’s car and driven him twenty miles to Randle, where the doctor had given my father a shot for the pain, telling him there was little he could do that the lye had not already done. That same afternoon my father was back working at the press.

“I remember the mill,” I say.

My father nods but does not take his eyes from the road. His large hands, tough and brown like leather, rest on the wheel, guiding the Ford around curves and up inclines that must be as familiar to him as the halls of the hospital are to me. I do not know how often he has taken this trip since my mom passed; maybe this is the first time. But he grew up in these mountains, on land owned by his people for generations; this place is a part of him in a way that my suburban childhood home could never be for me.

“You win again,” he says.

I do not answer but turn away to look out the window. It is strange that I am back in this place, sitting alongside this man, as if the intervening twenty years have been erased. How many times as a child did I take this trip with him, sitting in the silence of a different cab and sharing the lost and simple pleasure of just being together?

“So how’s that doctor thing working out?”

Like most children, I once thought my father the wisest man in the world. He seldom spoke and when he did his words were reasoned, filled with the wisdom of a people for whom both logic and superstition held sway. By the time I took my first breath in the world he was educated, in the top five percent of his class at the University of Virginia, but more than ever convinced that people spoke too much. It is this that makes my father’s question seem out of place – the fact that it is idle chatter and unlike him.

“Everything’s great, dad. My residency will be over next month. Then I’ll probably take that job out in California. I think I told you about it.”

He nods but does not answer and when I look, his eyes are dark. His hands have tightened on the wheel, draining the color from his knuckles. It takes me a fraction of a second before I, too, feel the palpable unsettlement that has crept into the cab. As I refocus my attention on the green outside of the truck, I know without knowing how that we are very near the place. Call it a psychic scar or some other metaphysical crap but I do not think a person can live through something traumatic without elements of the event searing themselves into the unconscious.

What’s funny to me is that, for an event that has wrought such grave consequences, I don’t remember much of the accident, only turning at the sound of my mother’s gasp, watching her look down on me with an expression that only later I identified as an apology. The rest of it I can relive only as images: lights flashing, someone in black and yellow reaching for me, a window with spider web cracks. Then nothing until the hospital: a physical therapy session. I sometimes wonder what happened to the other memories, for surely I must have some that cover the period between my first awakening in the hospital to the painful stretching of damaged bones and muscles in the PT room. Among my clearest recollections is that my father had not been there; I remember looking around the room as I held the padded bars, like someone just waking to a knowledge of himself. I cried then, asking about my mother and my father, and the therapist set me in a wheelchair and took me back to my room.

I’m watching now – looking for the tree, wondering if we left a mark on it as identifiable as the one it left on our family. Perhaps a mile goes by and I see nothing; I know we must have passed it.

“It was back a ways,” my father says. I can see his face in profile, the suggestion of a sad smile that alights on his craggy skin, and I am pleased that he could feel my need.

In a way, that tree ended two things for me: my happy childhood and my relationship with my father. When he buried my mother, with me still in the hospital, he buried a part of himself – the part that told jokes, that smiled, that hugged. I think I missed his touch the most: a hand on my shoulder while I struggled to reel in a trout, the rough play on the floor of the family room, how he would tousle my hair when he put me to bed.

“You remember that fish you caught up in Randle?” he asks me. I’m starting to wonder if my memories are that transparent or if, more likely, our thoughts are running along similar veins.

“It weighed seventeen pounds,” I answer. “I still have that picture; it’s on the wall of my office.”

He looks at me for a moment and I see a warmth in his eyes that I have not seen in twenty years, and maybe a hint of sadness. It makes me wonder, again, about the invitation to make this trip with him – and my eagerness to accept such a journey down a path littered with emotional and physical scars.

Maybe one of the things that I picked up from my daddy’s people, the mountain folk whose blood courses though my veins, is a sort of fatalism – the knowledge that things happen, that no one but God almighty can say why, and that it does no use to dwell on the acts of this mysterious, sometimes vengeful being. It is a stoicism of the simple folk, which makes me wonder if this trip means anything at all. Maybe the baggage I’ve carried over the last twenty years is a suspect gift from my mother’s side, and my father has been over this thing for a long time. Maybe.

The Ford is navigating a steeper stretch of rutted road and I anticipate a half-remembered level out. When we hit it, it is like the sky opening before us –like nothing else exists in the world except for the blue canopy and us. It strikes me almost the same as it did when I was young, even through the years of schooling that have worked so hard to teach me that God does not exist. It is romanticism of the worst kind and, despite the view, I laugh. My father’s kin would never have been affected by a view in this way; everything they did, everything they were, was bound up in nature in a way that people who rely on machinery and supply chains cannot fathom. To them, to my father, God is something else entirely – not a beauty-invoked catharsis, but a being to be respected and appeased and feared.

“What’s so funny?”

I allow the mirth to recede and meet his eyes.

“I guess I’m just nervous. It’s been a long time.”

We exit the truck and I feel the crisp air on my skin. It feels good in my lungs, free of the antiseptic odors of the hospital, the smell of subdivision fertilizer and the scent of cigars in my office. Beneath my feet the leaves crunch with a fierceness amplified by the silence of this remote place.
My father is at the back of the truck and he lowers the tailgate. He reaches beneath the canvas cover and pulls out two orange vests, two canteens and our jacketed guns. I unzip the bag and remove my Remington. This is the first my dad has seen of it and he admires it with a practiced eye.

“That an 870?” he says in a way that tells me he already knows the answer. I doubt there is a gun in existence that my father does not recognize.

“It is.” I like the gun, the way it feels in my hands, the slight recoil into my shoulder, the accuracy – even as I know that it is something that my father would never own. My father’s guns get used; by the end of a hunt, mud will coat the stock, the barrel might have another ding and the trigger will be imperceptibly worn by the caress of his finger. The 870 looks new, expensive – it’s all styling.

When he pulls his gun from its case I am not surprised to see that he is still using the Winchester Model 70. It is a classic firearm and carries with it the marks of a thousand expeditions. When I was younger, I watched him buy and sell any number of guns, never attaching any maudlin sentiment to any of them. Can it be a coincidence that this one that he has kept is the first that he let me shoot?

We don the orange vests and set off, my father taking the lead. I always walked behind him when I was young, following in his steps, mimicking the way he held his gun, how his head would turn as he watched the forest. In a few steps we are off the road and entering the cover of the trees, browning leaves crunching beneath our waterproof boots. There is a familiarity to this, even through the marked differences – the foremost being the length of my stride. The last time I hunted with my father I was only nine and had to work to keep up with his steps. Now I find myself slowing to match his gait, wondering if his step has slowed a bit over the years.

We pass a mile in comfortable silence, scanning the woods for movement, for hoof prints preserved in soft earth, for rut marks gouged in tree bark; this last is most important as it would signify the passage of a buck. Mockingbirds provide the only sound beyond our steps and the wind and I am lulled into a sense of peace that I can only get when I am hunting. When we break through into a clearing I instantly know the place, vivid even after two decades. I locate the tree stand on the other side of the empty space that covers maybe twenty yards. The wood has worn to gray beneath the assault of the elements. I shot my first and only buck from that stand, then dressed the carcass under my father’s patient tutelage.

If the sight means anything to the older man, he does not show it in his steady stride. He looks ready to pass through and out of the clearing, his path taking him due west, but all I remember past this spot is a steep drop off, something I doubt a goat would attempt to navigate. In a low voice I call after him.

“Dad, why don’t we try the tree stand?”

He stops and half turns to wait while I come alongside him. When I do, he nods and starts off again, an unspoken invitation to remain at his shoulder. The clearing and the tree stand disappear behind us; I wonder if my initials could have still been seen in one of the boards or if, like so many other things, time has erased its existence.

“I made a deal, you know.”

I look at my father but his eyes are on the path. When some time passes without an answer from me, he meets my gaze.

“When you and your mom were lying in that hospital, I made a deal.”

I am caught off guard by the statement, by this admission of something; the only thing that I can think to do is nod.

He goes quiet then and casts a practiced eye over the forest. For a while nothing passes between us but shared labor until, after several moments, each one of which I count to myself, he starts again.

“Do you know what it was like sitting next to her?”

As a doctor I have watched family gather in a terminal patient’s room, saying their goodbyes, making their peace with whomever they needed to. But no, I do not know what it’s like detached from clinical distance.

“I bet I argued with God for two days over your mom’s bed. I begged Him to let her live.” He snorts and shifts his gun to the other hand. “I know I cursed Him some.”

If my father is waiting for some sort of response from me, I am in no position to give it. I have never heard him talk like this and I am wholly unprepared to process it, much less answer. I think he knows because his pauses seem to be for his own sake, as if the words need to be said, regardless of whether or not I am here to bear witness to their speaking.

“I asked God to spare her because I couldn’t take the thought of living alone.”

He looks at me then, as if making sure that he has my attention, as if I could be focused on anything else but his face, his words.

“I guessed that He had to take one of you.”

He does not look away, even as he continues to walk; his eyes bore into mine with a weight of emotion of which I would not have imagined him capable. And then I am given clarity. I can see a man at his wife’s side, begging a God he can not understand to let her live, offering the life of his son in exchange. A deal that God rejected.

After he sees the knowledge take hold he looks away, his eyes red. I have never once seen my father cry, not even in the aftermath of my mother’s loss. It shakes me to see him like this – a tremor through the things I have held most solid.

Almost unnoticed, the forest ends and we come out of the trees to stand at the edge of a cliff. Below us are rocks and mountain sediment. And a view that rivals anything I have ever seen. Still, I can hardly look away from my father’s face.

He sets the butt of his Winchester on the rock and turns into the wind, his eyes closed as if the air offers some kind of absolution.

“Do you have any idea how it feels to offer something that important, only to see her die anyway?”

His eyes are still shut but I answer.

“I don’t, dad.”

He gives a smile that is filled with pain but does not acknowledge my admission. I, who have seen men and women fighting for their very lives, can see that my dad is engaged in something similar – some kind of silent war that I am incapable of understanding.

“I added myself to the deal, too,” he says finally. “I said I would give myself to God. Whatever that meant.”

I reach for him now, wrapping my hand around his arm, my fingers pressing into flesh that feels bony and thin.

“You wanted Him to take me and leave her. I would have done the same thing. I understand, dad.” I want to pull him away from the edge, to talk to him, to empty the vessel through this emotional sieve, to keep him from doing what I think he may have come here for.

He turns and grasps my shoulder in his large hand, holding it fiercely.

“You can’t understand, son; it took me twenty years to do that.” Love and sorrow fill his voice in equal measure. “After seeing the man you’ve become, I finally know that God made the right choice. He let my angel die but gave the world a man who heals – a man with so much to give.”

I am caught in this strange and beautiful moment, but also puzzled.

“Then why are we here, dad?”

With his hand still on my shoulder he looks out over the valley below, and there is something in his eyes that I have never seen: a brightness, a peace.

“Because I had to fulfill my end of the deal.”

Monday, December 26, 2005

Conversion Short Stories

It's that time of year. Over the next two weeks, I'm going to be posting an assortment of stories from the many that you turned in. They are a mix of conventional and unconventional looks at conversion, start a wide variety of characters, and hint at the breadth of narrative possibilities within even a single thematic topic.

I'll soon be posting a collected list of even more stories and I hope you take the time to read through as many as you can and choose your own favorites.

Godspeed and go with Providence.

Our first begins below.

"Found in the Translation" by Roger E. Bruner

I flapped my blanket as quietly as I could in the open air to unfold it the rest of the way and then let it parachute to the ground and land wherever it chose. In the process of sitting first and then trying to lie down on my back, I banged my head so hard against an unexpected rock that I sat up again involuntarily, dizzy from the blow to my head but dizzier still from rising so quickly. Uttering vulgarities I wouldn’t dare admit I knew the meaning of and wouldn’t have normally used in the presence of other Christians, I yelped pitifully before putting both hands over my mouth to keep from cursing out loud again.

Unhampered by any of man’s monuments to civilization or God’s own natural self-tributes, the moonlight shone brightly on the dry, rocky, trash-littered, dirt field and enabled me to observe at a glance the rows and columns of sleeping bodies belonging to other recent high school graduates—snug in their sleeping bags—from all over the United States. I breathed a quick prayer of thanks that no one seemed to have heard my un-Christlike language, and then I added a sincere postscript of apology.

I touched the back of my head gingerly, winced at the pain, and then sighed in relief at finding no traces of blood—wet or dried—on my scalp or in my long blonde hair.

After running my hands over the ground to locate a spot that seemed freer from rocks, I lay down again, nestled my head in the crook of my left arm, and closed my eyes. This was far too early to be having to go to bed, and I didn’t feel the least sleepy! I scratched my nose with finely manicured fingernails that would be worn down to utter ugliness by this time tomorrow. Suddenly aware of the size of my borrowed blanket—perhaps it was even king-sized!—I grabbed one side and started rolling towards the other side till my petite body was several layers deep inside. I hoped I wouldn’t need to get up during the night! At least now I could be snug and partially warm! But, still aware of the night chill, I made a mental note to move closer to the campfire the next evening, even if it meant being separated from my new friend, Alicia.

One more disaster dealt with, I thought to myself as I realized my dizziness had been replaced by a minor headache. This could have been worse. Or could it?

I fought with all the strength I had—and then prayed for more strength still—to keep from weeping aloud and being overheard by the same girls who’d slept so soundly through my outburst just moments before and tomorrow might remember only a vague dream about an angry, eighteen year old girl yelling vulgarities into the night sky.

But the tears I refused to cry were not from the pain of my injury this time; I could endure that till it went away completely. Nor were they from being miserable in my makeshift sleeping bag; a new day would break eventually, and the sun and the temperature would certainly both rise, and so would I.

No, these were tears of frustration…


* * * * *


I alone had failed to receive the crucial email message sent earlier in the week to alert these hundred and forty-four volunteer missionaries that the whole nature of our trip had changed. No longer were we coming to a semi-civilized Mexican town two hours south of San Diego to do evangelism and outreach with the local Baptist church, but to a tiny Mexican village so far out in the boonies that it was an unlabeled pin-prick on regional maps and had never been taken seriously enough—even after two hundred-plus years of existence—for census takers to bother going there to count the thirty-five remaining residents.

And my mission team was here now to do construction! I hadn’t even been permitted to nail picture hangers into the wall at home, and there were good reasons for that!

All of the sixteen or so houses in the village had been largely or totally destroyed by a freak tropical storm. Indeed, only the small, unused Catholic church seemed to be untouched, and that had made as much of an impression on the villagers themselves as it had on our team.

It had taken a lot of prayer in the first place to get pumped up and willing to minister to a town without malls, for I knew it would take me far outside my comfort zone. But at least it was a town with electricity, plumbing, and a single McDonalds. I’d been ready to share my testimony in song and drama and pass out leaflets in Spanish on street corners and perhaps even in local bars, but I was unprepared to face the task of helping rebuild Santa María. Santa María: a hole in the wall without a single place to shop or buy even a snack. Where did the villagers obtain food and clothing? And how could such a place exist just four hours from San Diego and yet have no electricity or running water?

It just happened that—I wasn’t yet prepared to admit that God was in charge of the circumstances—two highly qualified construction builders from Tucson were available during the same nine days my team was scheduled to be in Mexico. They’d gathered together a tractor trailer full of donated building supplies, food, clothing, and bedding (I’d borrowed my blanket from the donations), but it had proven impossible to find volunteers to do the grunt work on such short notice. So it seemed appropriate that the mission agency alter our plans and attempt to meet more pressing needs. And it seemed natural to put the two builders in charge of the project. Charlie and Rob seemed like pretty okay guys for being older married men in their early thirties.

One hundred and forty-three people—everyone but me—had known about the change in plans days before arriving at the San Diego airport. Everyone else had been told to bring sleeping bags and one or two basic, light-weight hand tools. They’d been cautioned that there would be no need for cosmetics or small electrical appliances like curling irons, blower-driers, and boom boxes. They were told to bring only their oldest and scrappiest-looking clothes and to wear only their most comfortable shoes, for there’d be no occasion to dress in the kind of clothing we’d originally been told to bring. I’d had to pay $25 extra airfare for baggage made overweight by items everyone else knew to avoid bringing!

It’s little wonder I’d been in shock the whole length of the bus ride from San Diego to Santa María.


* * * * *


Several tears rolled down my cheek and landed on my borrowed blanket. My arm had gone to sleep beneath my head. I shook my hand and arm to get the blood flowing again and then—out of desperation—I unwrapped just enough to search the ground and find a rock flat enough to use as a pillow. The last thing on my mind before dropping off to sleep was, “If Santa María is really this isolated, how had anyone known it was here and needed relief efforts?” That’s a question I never heard answered, but I knew God knew.


* * * * *

I was awakened at sunrise the next morning by Alicia, an African-American swetheart whose plain face shone brightly when she smiled. She’d evidently been up for a while.

“Kim, time to rise and shine! You know what they told us yesterday…”

“No, what?” I groaned irritably. My Cedartown, Georgia, accent had transformed those two simplest of words into at least three syllables and possibly more, and I could hear some of the Yankee girls laughing at my accent.

“That we’d need to use all available daylight for work—and sleep only when it’s too dark to do anything else. It’s light now.”

I shook my head groggily. I still had a trace of a headache. No, I hadn’t heard that regrettable bit of news. I’d been too preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself.

I instinctively turned on my cell phone—I’d turned it off upon realizing there’d be nowhere to charge it—to see if I had voice mail or text messages, but found no signal in this remote area. I tossed my phone lightly towards the foot of my blanket, but it hit a rock underneath, causing the battery to pop off. I laughed for the first time since leaving San Diego. Alicia laughed with me, but had no idea why I’d thought this to be so funny. I was simply thankful that nothing had popped off my head when it hit that same rock last night!

We walked together over to where the semi was parked. Packaged food was being passed out to the team members for breakfast, and Charlie and Rob—as project leaders—made signs to the villagers to come join us for breakfast. Charlie and Rob made an awkward and only partially successful effort to quiet the crowd enough for the blessing to be heard.

The drastic, rapidly-made change in plans had resulted in an equally drastic and disturbing oversight: our group had no translators! Although many of the kids had studied Spanish in high school, no one was fluent enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with the villagers. I thought about my own four years of high school French and shook my head in disgust. If only we’d been doing a relief project in France! Or, better still, evangelism!

Apparently the villagers had been made aware of our intentions prior to our arrival, for they seemed warm, receptive, and appreciative, and they obviously planned to be active participants in the reconstruction of their own homes. They seemed happy in spite of everything they’d been through, and that just blew my mind! I’d never lost anything of consequence before except an expensive gold earring, and yet these folks appeared to have lost almost everything they owned. I decided I could afford to display a better attitude and participate cheerfully just as if I weren’t doing dirty, sweaty, dangerous work in my favorite American Eagle jeans, Hollister tops, and Gucci leather flats, while freezing to death on the hard ground at night.


* * * * *


So much for my good intentions, I sighed silently. Rob and I had just returned from an emergency trip to San Diego to get my broken arm treated, and I could imagine the glares of the guys and girls alike as they expressed resentment behind my back that much of the day had been wasted because Rob had had to leave 100% of the work supervision to Charlie, and there just wasn’t enough of Charlie to go around. Why had I volunteered to climb to the second rung of a secure ladder—just eighteen inches off the ground!—if I knew I was terrified of heights? I was sure they were questioning that, too, and I felt horrible that I had now become a useless house builder who would have no choice but to sit around idly and baby my tan while everyone else labored and burned in the hot sun.

I tried to help by passing out water bottles and fetching items I could carry in one hand, but it was soon apparent I was in the way. It made the workers nervous to have to be on constant guard against hitting my broken arm with a careless 2x4! So I moved from the construction area and sat in the slight shade afforded by the overhang of the Catholic church roof. People passed by frequently as they entered the one-room building to get a reprieve from the glaring sunlight. And that’s where a plentiful supply of drinking water was kept. The villagers looked at me sympathetically and gently patted my cast; even the other team members became more understanding of the fact that my uselessness was more upsetting to me than to them.

The villagers seemed to have great respect for their little church, and yet it seemed more a superstitious reverence—especially now after its miraculous survival—than love of a place God meant for Christian brothers and sisters to meet together in worship. As the simple houses began to come together, I noticed that crucifixes—many of them going back for generations or perhaps even centuries—were the first things the villagers hung on their inside walls. And yet I saw no Bibles—had they been destroyed in the storm?—and none of the villagers seemed inclined to hold even the simplest of worship services that first Sunday morning.

I didn’t care whether these wonderful people were Catholic, Baptist, or something in between, but I was concerned whether any of them even knew Jesus as their personal Savior. There was no way I could make any inquiries or give my personal testimony. Why hadn’t I studied Spanish in high school instead of French? Surely God knew I would end up in this setting and could have prepared me for it better!

I realized I’d been neglecting my own Bible reading for the past few days, but—when I opened my suitcase to get out the bilingual New Testament I’d purchased especially for the evangelistic project—I discovered I’d accidentally bought a Bible that was in one language only: Spanish! And that was the only Bible I’d brought! As tempted as I was to toss it unopened back into the suitcase, I found myself starting to laugh. It began with soft giggles that built quickly to loud, raucous, side-splitting hilarity!

Okay, Lord, if that’s what you want me to do. But don’t ask me to do it without laughing. Please!

From that day on, I sat at the entrance of the Catholic church and read aloud from that Spanish New Testament for hours at a time. I became hoarse long before the end of the day and drank more water than those doing construction. I couldn’t pronounce the words accurately, of course, and I had no idea what they meant except where the Spanish was similar in appearance to English or French. I was certain that my mispronunciations were made all the more ridiculous by the mixture of my Georgia accent and my highly inappropriate attempts to read Spanish using French rules of pronunciation.

Then one villager finally looked over my shoulder to see what I was reading and recognized—apparently for the first time—that the writing was in Spanish! He started correcting me patiently—word by word—until he was satisfied I had the whole sentence down right.

Then he’d return to work, and someone else would take his place with me.

It became a popular pastime among the villagers to stop and help Señorita Keem read aloud from her book. I’d not yet been aware of it, but Alicia told me one evening before bed that small groups of listeners had started forming nearby while my various mentors worked with me. Whereas they’d been amused at my initial efforts, they’d grown so interested that they would stand and listen intently during their entire break, often forgetting to go inside and drink their much-needed water.

Okay, Lord, I guess you knew what you were doing, but how can I know if we’ve reached anyone at all?

Concerned for the welfare of the villagers who stood in the hot sunlight to listen to me read, I asked Charlie and Rob to help me bring some water outside so the workers wouldn’t suffer because of their failure to go inside for it. They agreed that was the only proper thing to do.

But, Lord, are we getting through to people? Is this touching anyone? Anyone at all?


* * * * *


It wasn’t until we were boarding the bus to return to San Diego shortly after sunrise on the ninth day that a bashful young mother named María, whose retarded daughter I’d helped entertain several times while María worked with the other women, came to me and handed me a piece of paper—apparently a note of some kind written in Spanish with a red pencil. She eyed the Spanish Bible sitting on my lap and smiled shyly. She patted it lovingly, and I realized that someone had been touched by my reading after all. I handed the Bible to her, aware that it belonged to her and to the whole village more now than it ever had belonged to me, but she put it back on my lap. I smiled and handed it to her again, nodding my head in affirmation, and she clung to it as if it were a priceless treasure. I gripped her note and cried aloud without embarrassment, frustrated that I had no idea what it said. The first thing I’d do when I got home was to get it translated.

But I couldn’t wait that long! At the airport, I asked the first bilingual Hispanic I met to help me. The note said:

"Miss Kim, that book you read to us from must be very special. I heard when you read that Jesus was the Source of Living Water. And then you stopped and asked the men to bring water outside so we would not get sick while listening to you. I believe what the book says about this Jesus, but I need to hear more. Come back again soon. Please!”

I enrolled in the local community college a few weeks later. When asked my major, I responded with an enthusiasm that could have come only from God.

“Spanish!”

Friday, December 23, 2005

Favorites of 2005 – Books

These are books all outside of CBA. You know how I feel about books like A Bride Most Begrudging and River Rising, but it’d get politically tricky if I started playing favorites among other BHP or CBA authors.

My reading was down this year compared to year’s previous. I think it’s because I spent the entire year reading at work, too. Still I managed to finish about 45 or so books. Never as many as I intend, but more than most of America, unfortunately.

Fiction

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Forget the hype and the awards for a second. Did the book deliver? To me, yes, absolutely. I know others were frustrated by its pace and lack of structured plot. But the bittersweet tension of man desperately in love with life who has preached for years about this world only as a place of sojourn—it’s a theme that resonates deeply with me.

You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon – Sometimes structure makes the story. Apart, the three lives Chaon explores here might not amount to much. But his sleight of hand in revealing only just as much as we need to know shows how to turn a literary novel into a mystery of the soul.

Winterkill by C.J. Box – T.L. Hines introduced me to the Joe Pickett mysteries of C.J. Box and I made it through all five this year. His newest is Out of Range, and while all of them are strong, I liked Winterkill the best. Box has mastered carving fascinating, complex, and timely mysteries out of the issues and concerns faced by folks like his game warden character.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders – I have a thing for weird little books and this one qualifies. Someone called it an Animal Farm for today. That may be overreaching. I don’t think this is making it under Donald Rumsfeld’s Christmas tree this year though.

::

Non-Fiction

Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons – The book is a recasting of Red Sox-focused columns Simmons wrote for his early website and then for ESPN. I read most originally online and mostly just wanted to point you in Simmons direction if you’ve never heard of him. He’s fashioning a hugely successful “new media” career at the same time the respective career (sports columnist) in the “old media” of newspaper is becoming extinct.

The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Taylor – Forty-five miles off the San Francisco coast are a jagged set of islands around which dozens of great white sharks congregate during the winter…and are studied by an intrepid group of scientists. If it’s a shark book, I read it.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics by Stephen Leavitt – Entertaining pop-sociology books. They challenge you to think beyond the status quo and that’s never the worst thing.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Rosenthal
– Again, the structure makes the book. Basically it’s exactly what its title implies—Rosenthal examines her life as an encyclopedia and in reading through her alphabetical list of entries we’re given reasons to chuckle. This fits into the memoir-craze and “eloquent life” genre of writers and essayists like Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, and others. My favorite entries were about her brother (who having grown up in a houseful of sisters never realized he could get away with wrapping a towel around his waist) and her realization that rich people differ from the rest of us mostly in the size of their framed photos.

::

Poetry
Questions About Angels by Billy Collins
– Just came across him and have been really enjoying him. He writes welcoming poetry—little meditations on the very familiar and in unadorned language either evokes a new awareness or, at least, a chuckle.

“Weighing the Dog” and “Pensees”
stood out for me.

::

Most Disappointing

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - DaVinci Code meets Dracula. Or it should've been. Instead, we're reminded about just how boring history can be when presented by people who don't understand not all of us care about each and every detail.

Faithful by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan - Two acclaimed novelists decide before the 2004 season they're going to write a book about the Red Sox. The Red Sox then go on to win the World Series for the first time in 87 years. And we get this crap--basically convincing us that they aren't such good writers after all...and that they don't really understand baseball. Well done.

::

So that’s it for 2005. Post your favorites of the year at the discussion board.

Next week? Short stories!

Interview with Athol Dickson

Athol Dickson (author of River Rising which I've talked about here) was recently interviewed by Gina Holmes. Take a gander.

And enjoy the rest of the interviews as well. Gina is very quickly getting one-on-one's with the gamut of the CBA industry.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Blog of the Year

Clayton James Cubitt's photoblog documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was unforgettable.

Top 11 Scenes/Quotes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

I hate wrapping presents. The only thing that makes it tolerable is marrying it with my annual viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And since that was last night, I thought I’d share my ten favorite moments/quotes.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some great books from 2005. Today we’re all about Chevy Chase.

::

1. Clark Gets Stuck in the Attic - I love physical comedy and this scene is pratfall after pratfall. Ray Charles’ “The Spirit of Christmas” plays on the soundtrack and Clark bursts into joyous tears…while wearing a mink stole and pink ladies gloves. Sublimely absurd...and touching.

2. Going to Get the Christmas Tree – “Clark, we’re stuck under a truck.” “Do you honestly think I don’t know that!?”

3. Clark’s Rant – After getting his Christmas bonus (Jelly of the Month Club), he launches into a crescendoing tirade against his boss. Had to have been improvised by Chevy Chase. “Where’s the Tylenol?”

4. Setting Up the Christmas Tree – “Lotta sap in here. Looks great. Little full. Lot of sap.”

5. Shopping at the Department Store – I have been known to laugh at ribald humor.

6. Ruby Sue – “That’s something, ain’t it? She falls in well, eyes go crossed. Gets kicked by a mule, they go back to normal.”

7. Squirrel! – Again with the physical comedy. And who knew squirrels were high in cholesterol?

8. Uhh, Dad, This Box is Meowing – We all have one these aunts, right?

9. Crunch Enhancer – “Yeah it's a non-nutritive cereal varnish. It's semi-permeable. It's not osmotic. What it does is... it coats and seals the flake, prevents the milk from penetrating it.”

10. Snots – “Scratch him on the belly, he’ll love you till the day you die.” “I really shouldn’t. My hands are all chapped.”

11. The Plate in Eddie's Head – “I had to have it replaced, because every time Catherine revved up the microwave, I'd piss my pants and forget who I was for about a half-hour or so.”
::
Here’s two sites where you can listen to your favorite moments from the film! Isn't the Internet so wonderfully pointless sometimes?

Moviewavs and Reelwavs

Andy Crouch on Christians Transforming Culture

This seems like a good essay to launch us into 2006.

Time's Photos of the Year

Time Magazine is letting you vote on the photo of the year. The choices offered will remind you of just how rough a year it's been for many.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Favorites from 2005 – Movies

We don’t regularly attend a lot of movies in the theater and that was before adding a third kid in 2005. So I’ve got almost nothing to say about the hip, current, and newest releases. Also: this has been the cruddiest 18 months of movies I can remember in a while.

And so with that, here's the most pointless year-end recap ever!

The Incredibles – Pixar topped themselves. And that seemed nearly impossible.

Crash – Great cast. Tough questions. This wasn’t a pretty look at the issue of race in America, but it offered hope without seeming trite.

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit – Aardman launches their stars onto the big screen. Quite a romp.

The Aviator – I liked this much more than I expected. Is it me or did people just lead larger lives back in the day? We obsess over celebrities today, but to put somebody under a microscope, they need to be pretty small.

Pooh’s Heffalump Movie – This is an absolute delight. Was I sniffling during “Little Mr. Roo?” Maybe.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – No, it doesn’t match the insanity of the book…but portions are wonderful. Including a favorite scene involving a doomed sperm whale. Mos-Def is cannily just off-center. Martin Freeman is solidly British. Sam Rockwell channels Bill Clinton.

Hotel Rwanda – Points a lot of fingers and with pretty good cause. But then Darfur proved we’ve not come close to figuring out what to do with tribalism in Africa.

Millions – Just saw it the other night. Sweet Christmas story about faith as seen through the eyes of a child. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time.

::

Film I Liked LeastOceans Twelve.

Film That Most DisappointedThe Life Aquatic. Wes Anderson starts believing the hype.

Most Pointless FilmLords of Dogtown. There’s an engrossing documentary called Dogtown and Z-Boys about the rise of skateboarding. This is an uninspired “dramatization” of that.

Oddest PhenomenonMarch of the Penguins. I saw it. I enjoyed it. But can anyone tell me the difference between this and what’s on PBS for free most nights? (Besides Morgan Freeman narrating?)

Best Five Minutes of an Awful FilmSW3: Revenge of the Sith – When Darth Vader finally shows up it almost redeemed an otherwise atrocious film.

Want to SeeMurderball. Good Night and Good Luck. The Constant Gardner. HP4. Batman Begins.

Should Writers Blog?

Joe Faust considers the question, decides "Yes," and shares a few reasons.

He also introduces a good phrase: "writer's entropy"--the lack of will to write. Less scary, but likely more prevalent than "writer's block." This is having something to say, but lacking the discipline and energy to say it.

Gilead Not Done Winning Awards

This time it picks up the 2006 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion which is presented jointly by the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and the University of Louisville.

Doesn't sound as prestigious as the Pulitzer? Well, it's the first novel ever to win the award--normally given to theologians. And it carries a $200,000 cash prize. (I found the list of past winners interesting. Particularly Stephen Carter, who I think went on to write a pretty well-received novel called The Emporer of Ocean Park.)

In PW comments on the award and book I found this:
Many readers seemed to find Robinson's combination of theological rumination with serious fiction unique, but "religious thought has been a subject in classic literature for many centuries, and I don't understand why it has come to be counted as not native to the novel," [Robinson] said. "As a teacher I tell my students to consult in themselves about what it is they feel most deeply, about how they place themselves in the landscape. If religion is what they feel most deeply, that is what they should write."