It started with a hamburger. Whopper, large fries, Diet Coke. No, something with more meat. A political exchange, at the bus stop outside Piggly Wiggly.
“You’re a fan,” I said, pointing at her badge, The President Is the Commander-in-Chief. It was pinned at quarter-thigh where the denim fringe of her Daisy Dukes peeked out like tendrils. This girl was live.
“The president know what good for us,” she said and I believed her. I gazed at her belly ring, a simple hoop, fake gold, then down to the button fly, unbuttoned, her candy cane triangle below. “We should trust every decision he make. He know right from wrong.”
“I’ll take your word,” I said. “Me, I’m not much into politics.”
“Me neither,” she whispered. “This for work.”
I zoomed in on the red-white stripes of her two-piece. “You’re a lifeguard.”
She poked me in the chest. “Yeah right.”
“Life’s a beach,” I said.
She had never been to the beach, if we’re to believe what she told me, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t. I talked big on my full tank of gas, tried to persuade her to get her feet wet. She insisted she was on the clock.
“You could call it training,” I said. She stared at me with anime eyes. “I’ll drown and you save me.”
“Shut up,” she said, taking my hand in hers.
I was fortune’s son.
Now there’s French fries in her teeth, between her lips, glossed with orange, outlined black like her eyes, and her hair, streaked with fire strands, midnight at the oasis. She glanced up at me, switched the radio to Nelly, rocked her blouse off her shoulder, mocha cream, silk with sweat, pink glitter. Her top too big for her size, I expected she’d tumble out at the next speed bump. I punched the pedal, stopped short at a crosswalk, apologized for the rock ‘n’ roll.
She grinned, digging her fingers into the bag, peeling wax paper from the meat. Her nails were long, slick with swirls. Sparkly letters spelled R-O-Y-A-L on each hand. She bit into the burger with a girlish eyeroll. Her appetite was man-size, her cheeks chipmunked. I’d never before seen such freckles. She was a saint who didn’t know it, hadn’t yet answered the call. A superhero at nineteen, she tagged herself a whore. “I’m just a hoe,” she said.
So naïve, out of practice, I didn’t realize, didn’t let myself know. I pegged her for a bop, that’s all. She was at the bus stop, had never been to the beach. She said she was hungry. At least I could feed her.
We passed a blockbuster billboard. She said she’d never seen a movie.
“Shut up,” I said.
I promised her beach and a movie.
“I sposed to be workin,” she told me again. Then she asked if I wanted to have personal fun. I wasn’t sure what that would look like. “What it look like to you?” she said. I told her something sweet like you and me and the beach and the movies. She waved me on, not taking me serious. I revved the engine, amped the sounds.
When not watching the road I watched her mouth as she opened wide and chewed and sipped. After another verse she singsonged: “Personal fu-un?”
I tugged at my shirt front as the chorus steamed over us. “Not for coinage,” I said. “You’re not a slot machine.”
She said she could be. “Zing zing?” Then she jiggled with conviction, bunnyhopping in her seat to the rhyme and the beat. She was fast, this live girl, a seasoned professional.
“No, you’d have to really get with me,” I struggled to explain. “Both of us together, same time and place, that sort of fun.”
She shrugged. “No fun for the hoe, nope.” She popped her p like a school kid. Her lips were split cumquats. She didn’t like sex. “Don’t have to,” she said.
“So what, I’m supposed to pretend?”
“You pay for the privilege of bein happy.”
“I don’t pay for sex.” Once I heard myself I knew I sounded like a narrow bastard. I tried to take it back.
“That’s what all y’all think,” she said. “But y’all dead wrong.”
I fumbled for the words. She spread her legs, wagged her knees, kissing the bag between her thighs. “I need something real.” That’s me sounding off again. I couldn’t help myself. Fries in her mouth, her lips on the straw. “I have to do . . . it has to be . . . right.”
“All kindsa right,” she said. She was truthtelling. “Like right now.” She pulled a greasy fry to her teeth, tapped it three times, spun it round like a magic wand then fed it my way, nails trailing on my cheek.
We drove for a couple more songs. She recollected how she’d come down south to Gethsemane from Newark where she first pulled a train. Head only. Always with a wrap. She was done with school by tenth grade. Her mama couldn’t care for her and all her little brothers and sisters and her cousins were moving in. So she left with this guy who’s supportive of her work. When I said she could do something else, she clapped her knees. The bag between her thighs gasped. “This what I do,” she said. “You don’t want personal fun, fine. Take me back where I got on.”
She rolled her eyes.
“No action adventure? Romantic comedy?”
She tore off another mouthful, rang her man up on a cell phone. “He a fuckin faggot.” Her voice was hard. “Where we at?” I’d cut across a gap in the median, heading back now the way we’d come. “Where we at?” She wanted to know how long. I told her two songs. Ten minutes max.
I scanned the preset stations while she kept on the phone, laughing too loud, acting, I could tell, though not sure who’s the audience. She half-leaned out the window like a dog, hair whipped back in black lightning bolts. Traffic, wind noise, busted CD player, no good songs on the FM. She sideways glared at me. “Fuckin faggot.” The only words I could make out. Then: “Castles Made of Sand.” I needed this music.
I pushed the volume, fixed my mind on the six-string and the haze of the highway. Midafternoon, mid March, already it’s hard to breathe with the air conditioner beat. I expected the engine to give out any day. I’d need a miracle, same as this girl, who in truth was a lot like me. She didn’t have it in her to change her path. I figured she’d be dead in no time and she couldn’t care less.
When the DJ called a Two for Tuesday Hendrix Doubleshot, I thought God’s on my side. It could happen. Then I recognized the opening alarm of “Crosstown Traffic.”
I can’t not see the ex when I hear this tune. She ground me into the glassphalt, hit-and-run, left for roadkill.
I let the guitar play. Music is the master of the universe. I’d run tracks across her back, I promised myself.
But I never said nothing, I swear, bro. Not a word, and I had every right. She stole away with my infant son. I would never see him again, she told me. I couldn’t let that be.
I was a good husband, a good father. I was there for her and for my son, always for him. She was nowhere.
Now she’s holed up with her folks out here among the churches, malls and office parks, high school football stadiums, paintball forests, wild boar kills, games with Glocks, rifles, AKs, bows and arrows. Kids in this town still play cowboys and Indians, I know it. I won’t let my son grow up like that.
I took the next exit, told her sorry for the upset. She was off the phone now. “No worries,” she said. “My man at the stop. He waitin.” She looked out her window.
My stomach flipped. I didn’t like her tone. I didn’t want to know her man and I sure as hell didn’t want him knowing me. Coming up on an intersection, I slowed before the light, pulled over to the curb. I would let her off here.
“Devil fool!” she yelled at me, rubbernecking nearly out of her seat. “White man with a young black girl, you trippin, keep on.”
I swerved into traffic, breath tight, beet-faced. “Damn faggot.” She speed-dialed. “Where you at?” I crossed the light as the yellow turned. “Fool bitch tryin to punk me out. Sheeeit.”
I bounded into the parking lot, barely braking, front fender scraping on a drop and rise in the pavement. “Please,” I said. “I don’t want trouble.”
She looked at me like I was nothing. Less than.
I tried another tack. “Get . . . the fuck out.” I meant to sound like there was something behind my words.
She laughed and said, “Whackass bitch,” then kicked open the door as a jacked Thunderbird stormed across the lot.
Backing out, I banged the rear fender and probably the exhaust. The passenger door slammed as I braked, punched into gear. I zagged across the neighborhood, cutting down side streets. The engine hacked. I wouldn’t get a hundred bucks for parts. Not in this janky hellhole.
I didn’t look in the mirror until on my own block. There was no one behind me but I drove past my building to be safe. I parked around the corner, cooled my head on the steering wheel, eyes shut, listened to my breathing in the dark.
Hours later I was still torn up. The girl called me gay. I get that many guys would have jumped her whether she liked it or not. But me doing what’s right doesn’t make me less a man. Some might argue it would have been more right to give her the business. Everyone has to make a living. But I’m a reluctant consumer, period. Paying for fun that ain’t? That’s no value meal. And don’t call me white. I may not know what I am, but I’m not white, not like dandruff or cream cheese. Don’t call me white.
That’s the NOFX tune I was mumbling at work now, plunging a gristly mop into a bucket of gray froth. The gig was doable, but shameful. Mom always said all she wanted for me was more. Here I was back where she started. Underage, illegal, uneducated, she had far fewer opportunities. But no one was opening doors for me either. Not until the Reverend’s wife. She must have pitied my sorry state, or maybe her kindness was an attempt to redeem herself for that minor indiscretion in the church parking lot. It could have been divine intervention, if you happen to believe, or a test of faith. If nothing else, it was my next step. It started with Cannibal Corpse.
Early evening after the incident with the superhero, Good Charlotte arrived at First Church of the Church Before Church to pick up a package from her husband’s office. I was under the desk with the vacuum, my AweMediaPlayer on the Slayer channel. She told me later how she felt like a voyeur, peeping at me bent over, headbanging. I startled when I saw her.
First impression: Texas. Big Texas eyes, big smile, frosted hair with auburn roots peeking through. You could tell she relished her role as the Reverend’s wife. Her cheeks were flushed. She’d been jogging. Her hair was perfect, outfit soft and clean, snow-white with buttercup trim, a tiny logo on her breast. She appeared to be healthy, fit, for a middle-aged woman.
Apologizing for the interruption, she introduced herself as Mrs. Reverend Puck and wished ma blessed evening as she left. I may have nodded. I don’t think I said three words.
We ran into each other often over the next few weeks. These times, I’m convinced, were intentional. She would make up excuses for coming round: to retrieve a book, a phone number, video of a special service. She soon said, “You can call me Ms. Charlotte, if ya like.” I wanted to suggest the alternative I preferred (the band name Good Charlotte, though I didn’t much like the band) but I wouldn’t risk disrespecting her.
We lived in different worlds, which may have made it easier to talk freely. I told her about the drama with the ex, how she wouldn’t let me see my son.
“It will be if she forces my hand,” I said.
“No no, sugar.” She patted my palm. The feeling was electric, the rock on her ring finger dazzling in the fluorescent light. “Give God a try. It’s His call anyhow.” Thinking less than holy thoughts, I let her pitch the power and glory of the Lord while staring at dirt on the floor.
When I mentioned how her hairdo was arena rock, standing room only, she teased me about my own: short, spiked, bottle-blond. I let her touch. “A cock’s albino crown,” she called it. “A bed of sun-kissed nails.” I considered proposing some sort of Eastern headstand body work, but I didn’t want to cross the line. Good Charlotte was the Reverend’s wife. I needed this job.
One night, she stopped by First Church after attending a reception at the city’s most popular gallery. She groused on how contemporary still lifes and landscape paintings lacked vitality, the human element, however messy it might be. Local curators were too tame, she said. “So afraid of hearing the dreaded words, ‘I’m offended!’ they never take any chances.” She cornered me outside by the dumpster. I could smell champagne on her breath. “If it’s always the same old same old, it’s the same old. That’s just dead.” She fingered the buttons on my shirt. I gripped the neck of the garbage bag with both hands.
“I’m a good person,” she said. Her eyes were glassy, tuned into mine. “But all good all the time is the same as bearing false witness. A sin and a lie. What good ever came, what bright shiny new happiness ever came from the same old?”
I stared at her ring, then placing my hands on her shoulders, I looked at her directly and said, “Ms. Charlotte.”
She let her eyelids drop. “I’m not like all the other women round here.”
“Me neither,” I said.
She frowned and slouched toward her Suburban. I hurled the trash in the bin, trailed her. Leaning against the driver’s door, she broke down. “The Reverend says I’m hellbound.”
“No . . .” I caressed her arm.
“All I want is to be kissed.” She grabbed my hand, placed it on the curve below her navel. “The Reverend says it’s disgusting.” She held on tight. I petted her with my fingertips. “You’re a man,” she said. “Am I so old and ugly?”
I shushed her, told her there was nothing I’d like more than to make her feel good, that she was right, not wrong, not sinful in her desires, which were natural and decent and beautiful like her. All the while my fingers cat-scratching at her box. But I had to respect her marriage. I felt her opening through the thin fabric of her dress. How I wanted to get down on my knees! I told her so and she purred.
No, I couldn’t trespass on her vows. I wouldn’t take advantage of her weakness. She squeezed my wrist, pressed me closer. If she were to separate or divorce, I said I’d be the first in line to treat her right. And the line would stretch around the block. Her Texas eyes turned Japanese as she clamped down on my fingertips.
This may seem old-fashioned, brother, and you can laugh all you want—I’m used to being in the minority—but I still believe if you make an intimate commitment, then you’re obliged to see it through. I was faithful to the end with the ex, even after she disappeared beside me in our bed. I believe in second chances, second comings. Even now, I want to believe.
I told Good Charlotte all this, retracted my claws. “I want to do right,” I said. She pushed me away and sped off. At least she didn’t call me a fag.
I wouldn’t see her again for more than a week. Saturday evening, I was spitshining the House of God for tomorrow’s performance. She came by late as I was locking up. Handing me an aluminum foil baking pan, still warm on the underside, she said she was sorry for the other night, ashamed of her behavior.
I told her to quit it as I peeled back the cover on an orgy of fried fingers I couldn’t identify right off. She smiled at my reaction, said it was okra, a Southern delicacy, a woefully misunderstood vegetable. She promised I’d like it, begged me to forgive her. With a mouthful of what tasted like slimy eggplant, hint of bark, I again told her to stop, nothing to forgive. She seemed relieved by my attitude and my appetite.
We sat down on a bench, chatting between bites. The temperature had dropped from the day’s oppressive highs, but the air was still thick and damp. I updated her on the lack of progress with the ex, who still wouldn’t let me in the door. She’d give me sixty seconds to plead my case through the screen, time it on her cell phone, and there would be her daddy in the shadows, his fist rough-and-ready on the barrel of a shotgun.
Good Charlotte advised a lawyer. I told her I could barely make rent. When she said I should get a better job, I dished on two worthless years of college and my last real gig at the auto parts warehouse back in Alameda. Then the months of physical therapy for a dislocated shoulder, workman’s comp, a headache from the start. I told her how when I was laid up I taught myself basic web design, multimedia apps, but it’s no-thank-you from the corporates.
Her soft blue eyes lit up like sparklers. She said she might be able to lend a hand. I waved my greasy fingers in the air, put on a clownish face. She tossed me a napkin, ordered me to services early the next morning.
I hadn’t been inside a church on official business since I left home. As you know, bro, not even for the wedding. I wasn’t sure what I believed beyond life is hell. I couldn’t get out of bed, anyhow, before noon. But if there was an employment opportunity that would buy me time with my son, hell, I’d bow down to the morning star, Satan and Miley Cyrus. Jesus would be easy.
The First Church Reverend was a polished, rose-cheeked scarecrow of a man, a decade Good Charlotte’s senior. He had a full head of hair that looked like a radioactive slick, peach and bubbly. It must have come from the drugstore. He delivered his sermon, “The Value of Prudence in All Things,” with a gentle authority, suggesting that we use the Holy Spirit as a cheesecloth, to siphon the impurities from our thoughts, words and actions before we think, speak or do anything. We should never worry about going it alone since we’re protected by round-the-clock surveillance from up above. When he said this, a thousand pink and white faces in the pews gazed toward the ceiling fans, whirring like ghosts in the track lighting. He concluded that it’s our personal responsibility to be vigilant at all times. “Be careful,” he said. Then he wrapped his large hands around a supersize King James Version and thrusting The Book forward pronounced, “Fear not! There’s nothing to be afraid of under the watchful eye of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
After services I met up with Good Charlotte, standing by her husband’s side in the blazing noon sun as she wished parishioners a blessed afternoon and a beautiful week and said she looked forward to seeing them again on Wednesday. Once the crowd thinned, she introduced me to the Reverend, who hired me on the spot with a handshake. His wife had conveyed to him my story, he explained, and the timing was heaven sent. “Such is God’s way,” he said. “We’re behind the curve in modernizing our ministry. I want all the bells and whistles, JAG. A first-rate presence for First Church online.” I would bring him a mockup of my proposed design by midweek.
As he clasped my hand again, I saw my fingers on a chiffon dress. I glanced at Good Charlotte, all big teeth and hair, as if she’d never made me touch her. My palms were clammy. I apologized, blamed the weather.
The pay was fair and the work fun, though far from full-time. So I kept up the cleaning in the evenings, and in mornings and on days off built a whooping, whistling web site the Reverend said was inspired by the Spirit.
The home page featured a full-color photograph of a well-attended service with the Reverend on fire front and center, faith evident in the look on his face, the strength of his hands, his upright posture. A life-size cross, carved from regional pine, loomed high on the wall behind the altar. A beam of sunlight shot through a side window onto the KJV he held above his head. FIRST CHURCH OF THE CHURCH BEFORE CHURCH blinked in bold white script at the top of the screen. Just below in italics scrolled the banner under the spiritual guardianship of Reverend Bartholomew Puck through the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Reverend commended me for my word choice.
I set up a text archive of sermons (THE WORD) and a picture gallery of Sunday services (PRAISE JESUS) culled from a half-dozen cameras mounted throughout the church. I knew seeing themselves online would give parishioners that rockstar glow. I was charged with updating these pages every week. Brainstorming with the Reverend led to a host of rich content, including podcasts of sermons, MP3s of local Christian pop bands and, per Good Charlotte’s suggestion, homespun recipes, emailed from the flock, for tasties like barbeque pulled pork, red velvet cake and deep-fried okra.
The Reverend believed most folks worried endlessly on corporeal matters, which he called “little nothings.” Such non-spiritual concerns, he argued, were the root of all evil, undermining faith, community and brotherly love. To meet his demand for an interactive space where parishioners could purge their anxieties, I launched FEAR NOT, a blog that would gain national notoriety in the months ahead.
Good Charlotte would come to me after every service, saying how the Reverend and the congregation so loved my work, as did she. Hearing this over and over was an unexpected upside to the gig. But the mandatory church-going made me feel like a fraud, a mortgage or mortuary broker, snaking my way into the garden to blacken my own bottom line. I didn’t buy the First Church belief in the Holy Trinity or Almighty judgment, wrath, redemption and the sweet hereafter. But I liked making others happy. It had been far too long. I was determined to do what I could to be of service.
Who it was I uplifted didn’t matter. We’re all human, we all suffer, and we need pick-me-ups, however trivial. If web photos gave these folks a bump, then I would choose the most flattering snapshots I could find. If I earned decent wages for a job well done and had to put on a game face Sunday mornings to do so, that was the cost of business, like suiting up for the office or plying politicians with whores. It’s the American way.
Word of mouth would soon lead to viral demand among the storefront ministries in town. The region’s mega houses of worship and the other midsize ones on par with First Church were already hotwired, as of course was Bliss U, the nation’s leading ministerial college. All these institutions were Christian, mostly Born Again, each professing nearly identical beliefs in God the Son and the Scriptures. But they competed with each other for warm bodies and the contents of genuine faux leather wallets. They sparred over public policy, moral values and what seemed to me like nitpicky differences of opinion on how to read the same damn book. This set them apart from each other. Good for me, the laggards now longed for a dynamic web presence to match their identities.
As the go-to designer and e-maintenance man for communities of faith—I was easy to work with, they said, humble and God-fearing, more reasonably priced than the established techies in town—I would give up the mop and soon bank the funds to fight for my son. Good Charlotte would put the word in with her attorney, who’d certify-mail what I hoped would be an intimidating letter to convince the ex it was her legal and moral responsibility to share custody. I’d also overhaul the Saturn, a hefty nut, all told, but cheaper than procuring another ride and crucial for self-preservation. I had to drive. Open road with the sounds full blast, this was my lifeline to God.