THE GREAT CROWD
I’m standing on my front porch and I’m nervous because I’m late. I locked myself out of my unit again, so I had to go across to Mrs. Cahill’s and call James, and he had to come from the junior high and climb in through the bathroom window. All that took only fifteen minutes, because the junior high is right next to where my unit is. But I don’t like to be late to the Kingdom Hall even one minute. I’m sort of famous for being early and helping to set up chairs and even vacuuming sometimes, which is not required. So I’m nervously smoothing my skirt when James finally comes up to the other side of my door and says, very suspiciously, “Yes, who is it?”
“Ha ha ha, James. Let me in.”
“Hmm. How do I know you’re not one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“I’m late, James.”
The door swings open and James is smiling and holding my Bible and my keys, which I guess had been on the table before I went for my walk. I grab them. “Sorry James, thank you James, bye James!” I say, and then I’m running to my hatchback.
“Stephanie, hold up a sec.”
Reluctantly I do, because James is my younger brother by one year and he’s so nice. “That beard is dumb-looking,” I say. He has this big new brown beard. I’m just having fun with him. Actually he looks sort of like Isaiah, from the pictures in The Watchtower.
“Why thank you,” he says, and he kind of pets it.
Then I remember how incredibly late I am so I get into my hatchback and start it. I don’t want James to tell me about how I should leave a key with him or Mrs. Cahill. The best solution to when I lock myself out is James comes over and climbs in the bathroom window, and I really don’t want to discuss it.
“What do you say to dinner tomorrow night?”
“I need advance notice, James. I might have plans.” The truth is that I study the Bible and The Watchtower every night and I don’t like to miss a single night. Also, James’s wife Emily isn’t the most welcoming person. Usually when I come over she goes out and does lay-ups in the driveway until I’m gone. Sometimes she has to turn on the floodlight and wear mittens, because of how cold it gets in Connecticut. She was a big basketball player in college.
“It’s kind of important,” James says, as I’m backing up, but I just wave and head toward the exit. When I’m going to the Kingdom Hall I just want to be there already. My enthusiasm level is very high. The last thing I hear James say is, “How’s the car running?”
The car is running fine. The reason James asked is that recently it was making a banging noise and smoking whenever I stopped at stop signs. Finally the smoke was happening while I was driving and it was difficult to see, plus people were honking and one person yelled something unkind, so I pulled over and went up to a house that I remembered from my ministry work and called James. James was angry but I knew he would get over it in a few days. The whole thing ended up costing him four hundred dollars. He’s definitely not rich from being a guidance counselor, but he knows that I’m less rich from being a shirt presser at Battison’s. That’s one example of what I mean about him being so nice.
James and I were brought up Catholic but now he’s no religion at all, or so he says, and Emily observes Jewish holidays only for the food, and who knows about Barb and Kayla, who are five years old and a year and a half. It’s hard not to go into recruitment mode a tiny bit around the kids. Nobody likes to think about cute little kids being wiped off the face of the earth come Armageddon. Probably one reason I haven’t been invited over lately is that last time I was babysitting Barb I dug a (very small!) pit next to the compost pile in their backyard as a visual demonstration of the pit Joseph got thrown into after he was stripped of his many-colored coat. Barb was very excited by the pit and wouldn’t get out of it. She insisted on sleeping there, so that when the slave traders came by they could take her just like they took Joseph. Emily lost a coin flip that night and had to sleep next to Barb in a sleeping bag, which I guess caused her grass allergies to go crazy all week.
In the parking lot at the Kingdom Hall I give a hello wave to Harold Spenk, one of the elders, who is also running late. His suit is very wrinkled. His wife divorced him one year ago and ever since then his clothes have been wrinkled.
“Not you, too, Stephanie!” he says, checking his watch. “Well I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
“Your suit is very wrinkled.”
“That’s true, that’s true,” he says, looking at it. “I need to send this one out.”
“And your shirt.”
He winks and holds the door open for me. He smells like underarm deodorant, but I don’t mention it because I don’t want to overdo my constructive criticism.
We enter the main hall and at the podium is Ted Porterfield, the Service Overseer, who is also a pharmacist in the Rite Aid at the mall. As I’m taking my seat he asks the congregation for an example of how we can be sure that Bible prophecy is accurate. My hand shoots into the air.
Ted says, “Oh, hello Sister Counihan.”
The usher hands me a microphone and I go into the whole story of the fall of Babylon and how it was foretold in the Bible nearly two hundred years before it happened, specifically mentioning Cyrus, the Persian King, who hadn’t even been born yet, and how all you have to do is look in the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah for proof.
Next Ted asks for an example of Bible prophecy directly relevant to our mission as Witnesses and my hand goes into the air again. There are no other hands in the air.
“Anyone?” says Ted, looking around. “Anyone other than Sister Counihan want to take a shot? Sister McLellan?”
Gabrielle McLellan, who always sits in the front row with her two very poorly behaved sons, looks up at Ted in a startled manner and starts flipping through her Bible. One of the sons takes the Bible and throws it at the other son.
I take the microphone and explain how it says in Timothy 3:1-5 that in the final age of this world men will love nothing but money and self, and how in Matthew 24:7 it says that nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages, which is of course is exactly what is happening today. I explain all this in a very calm manner. I find that when I’m talking about the Bible I get a nice warmth in my chest.
Ted says, “Well, great .” But I go on to say that soon true Christians will live in the new kingdom on earth where death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. This is the great crowd we speak of, which will be amazing, and which is supported directly in Revelations 7:9: “… And, look! A great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes,” etc. etc.
I haven’t even taken off my coat yet!
Years ago James used to come to meetings with me, if there was nothing good on television, and then we’d go to Friendly’s after and get milkshakes. That was before he got married. Everyone loved James and thought he was so nice, which was good and bad for me because it made me fantasize about James becoming a Witness.
Back when I first became a Witness James was not pleased at all. He and some Witnesses got into a shouting match in front of our old house when James said that Witnesses prey on the weak. Once he realized how happy it made me to be a Witness, how I started laughing more and paying attention to my hair and clothes, he became okay with it. Our dad and our step-mom Lindsay never became okay with it, but then they moved to Maine and bought a log cabin, so that ended that.
After the Service Meeting ten-year -old Alisa Farber comes up and tells me that I’m an inspiration to her. “The way you have the truth memorized,” she says. “It makes me want to work harder.”
When I see people like Alisa I start wishing James and his whole family were Witnesses. We could commute together to meetings. I inform Alisa that her glasses are smudged. She thanks me and wipes them on the hem of her dress as she goes to join Greg and Janet Farber by the door. They all wave and walk out looking very similar to the happy, perfect Witness families you see illustrated in The Watchtower, except of course no one in those pictures is wearing glasses due to the earthly paradise setting.
When I get home it turns out I can’t shut my electric garage door. It goes up fine but it gets stuck coming down, so I poke at it with a broom and it starts making a screeching noise like a train stopping suddenly. There’s a bad smell that’s getting worse, so I go inside and call James. The first thing he says is that I should come on Friday because Emily’s making meatloaf. I love meatloaf, as James knows from our childhood together, when I would basically request it three to five times a week. I say fine and he says great, and then he advises me to go out and unplug the garage door before someone calls the police.
Work is normal the next day except that I have to train a new girl on the sleever, which means I can’t mentally test myself like I usually do. I never study the Witness materials at work because I could injure myself, and also because my manager told me very nicely to stop it or she’d have to fire me, but I do like to think about what I studied the night before, which in this case was an article about Constantine’s role at Nicaea and how that led to the false concept of the Holy Trinity.
“That’s it?” the girl says. “You just slide it on and clamp those down?” She’s been shadowing me on the sleever, which I guess is very simple.
I tell her that sometimes you have to operate both the sleever and the cuff-and-collar machine at once, which can get stressful with the running back and forth.
“How long you worked back here?” She looks around and flaps the bottom of her very tight t-shirt like she needs some air. She has black, black hair and Naughty is written on her shirt in glitter.
“Don’t listen to her! Don’t listen to her, she a kook, man!”
Oscar yells this as he walks by on his way to the break area.
“Ha ha, Oscar,” I say.
“She a Mormon, man! She a Latter Day Christian Voodoo Scientist, man!”
I trained Oscar on the sleever two years ago, before he moved up to spotter, and he of course knows that I am a Jehovah’s Witness. He smiles at the new girl with his tongue out.
“Nine years is how long I’ve worked back here,” I tell the girl. Her eyes kind of puff out.
“Don’t you wanna move up to counter person or somethin’?”
“Not really!” I say. Actually, I’m very happy as a shirt presser, as it gives me so much time to pray and think, but to explain that to her would mean explaining my beliefs, and my manager has specifically told me to not do that anymore.
The girl looks at me in a squinty way and I feel my face get red. When James and I were younger other kids would sometimes look at me the same way and then call me retarded, which would make James punch or tackle them. I think retarded people are very special but I’m not one of them! Actually as I understand it I have a problem with my chromosomes, which possibly resulted from chemicals our dad breathed in Vietnam. When we were kids all I knew was that I wanted to pull other kids’ hair. It was like I simply could not resist pulling other kids’ hair! This created plenty of stressful situations. But I got over that, and obviously found something else to focus on (Jehovah).
Later as I’m leaving I see Oscar and the new girl getting into his truck and I think, well, there goes another couple on the road to before-marriage sex; two more people that won’t probably be part of the great crowd, along with, for example, homosexuals and gamblers and alcoholics. It can be depressing if you stop to think about how many people there are to educate, and how most of them don’t want to listen.
That night I enter James and Emily’s house through the garage door and their golden retriever Sandy goes nuts with joy. The reason is that I always walk right to the kitchen pantry and find the super-sized box of Milk Bones and give her six or seven Milk Bones. But this time James walks in and instead of saying, “Well now, Sandy, aren’t you lucky?” or something happy he says, “Stephanie, enough with the (curse word) Milk Bones!” and he takes them and puts them back in the box. That’s how I know that he and Emily have just had a fight.
“Did you guys just have a fight?” I say, and he looks a little sorry.
He leans in to kiss me on the cheek, but his beard tickles so I pull away. I notice that the kitchen walls are yellow.
“Why are the walls yellow?”
“We painted,” says James.
“Why did you paint?” The walls were white before and that looked fine.
Emily comes into the kitchen carrying Kayla the way some people carry firewood, taking wide steps. Kayla’s crying and pulling on the legs of her tights like she very badly wants to have them off. Barb starts yelling from the living room about the television being turned to the news. It’s a very stressful environment, even with the meatloaf smell coming from the oven. “Come on in, Stephanie!” says Emily, but she says it so that the meaning is, “Thanks for making things more stressful!”
James takes Sandy outside to go number two, and I find Barb in the living room karate- chopping a throw pillow. “Hey Barb, want me to tell you a story?”
She stops, because she’s a sucker for a story as long as it has slaves or diseases in it. I mute the television and she sits cross-legged on the couch. I think for a second and come up with the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt outside of Sodom, which has high entertainment value. Barb’s eyes, looking up at me now, are like these very expensive and exotic green marbles, where you look at them and it hurts a little, you’re so thankful that they exist. It’s like God is rubbing it in by making me notice her eyes, reminding me of how much work I still have to do.
Barb glances at the television, which is showing a commercial with an old couple riding a bicycle made for two next to a huge spinning vitamin. The oven timer dings in the kitchen and Emily hollers for James to come back inside. “Who’s your favorite person in the world?” I say, changing strategies, because it’s like Jehovah is right there over my shoulder going, “Hurry up and explain to her about Armageddon!”
She’s going through a Bruce Lee phase.
She names two girls in her class at school and also a pop singer and Emily before saying James.
“Now what if you went to sleep tonight and you never got to see him again? If you never got to see any of those people again?”
She cocks her head at me. “Who would I see?”
“That’s what I mean. Nobody.”
Barb places both hands on her hair and presses down, frowning. She looks at the doorway to the kitchen. “Would I still get to live in a log cabin?”
“No. But that would be nice, right? To live in a log cabin forever with the people you love? Because that’s another distinct possibility.”
I guess she got the log cabin thing from where her grandpa lives in Maine.
Emily pokes her head in the room and sees us talking. “Hey, hey, these stories, these stories,” she says, and she comes in and touches a pile of normal cartoon storybooks with her toe.
“Mom, are we still going to Maine?” says Barb. It’s like her hair is on fire.
Emily smiles tightly and goes out into the kitchen and I hear her saying something to James about Barb spilling the beans.
“You guys are going to see your grandpa?” I say. I haven’t talked to my dad since he moved away five years ago. His wife Lindsay was a very impatient person. Over time her personality rubbed off on him, so that they both said many insensitive things when I became a Witness.
“Mom, are we still going to Maine?” Barb yells.
When I get to the kitchen James is bent over the meatloaf pan with a knife, putting pieces onto paper plates. Kayla is by the dog dishes in just her diaper, looking interested in something floating in the water dish. “You got her?” James says to Emily, who is setting the table.
“Sure, I’ll just do nine things at once,” says Emily.
“Stephanie, let’s go fetch Sandy.” James takes two forks from the table to go with the two plates, and when we get outside he sets them on the hood of their Civic. He puts both hands against the car and breathes deeply like he’s trying to push the car backwards into the woods next to the house.
“How long will you be gone?” I say. James has left before and I’ve just had to be extra careful about not forgetting my keys and things like that. I take one of Emily’s basketballs from the bushes and shoot a hoop with it. The ball goes off of the rim and into the street and down the street until we can’t see it anymore.
“Nice trick,” says James.
“I’ll go get it.” I know that it will end up in the cul-de-sac because that’s happened before.
“Don’t worry about it.” He reaches up and squeezes the back of his neck. “We put the house on the market, Steph. We’re moving up to Maine.”
“Oh,” I say. I picture the basketball rolling and rolling.
“It’s because of the kids,” he says. He hands me my food. “We could use some help with the kids, and Dad and Lindsay are just sitting around up there, plus it’s cheaper up there. Lots of plusses to moving, really. This is all sort of whirlwind. I know it’s a lot of information at once.”
“Remember the Richardsons’ driveway?” I say. The one difficult thing for me when I’m alone with James is that I can’t help remembering how we were as children. I remember us on trips in the way back of the station wagon or weeding in the garden during the summers. I remember James letting me sit on his bed and watch him glue together his model racecars. I remember us zooming our bikes down the Richardson’s steep driveway (with their permission), and so on and so on, and all those memories lead into me imagining James as a Witness: doing field service together, quizzing each other on study materials, mingling with other Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall. I wish that stuff wouldn’t sneak into my head all the time but it does.
“I’ll be back, of course, to check in,” he says. “And you can hop on a bus and come visit anytime.”
“That’s fine,” I say.
I just take a bite of the food because I don’t know what’s fine. So James is moving away. I’m getting that itchy feeling I get when I need to go look in my Bible.
“You’ll have to ask the Witnesses to help you out more,” James says. “Like with car trouble and stuff. Feel free to act a little upset here.” He smiles through his beard.
I’m trying to focus on the positive. Like how it’s probably very pretty in Maine, and how there must be a nice Kingdom Hall near where he’s moving.
“You know, soon. When we sell the house,” he says. “We’ve got ads out. People are looking at it.”
“Maybe you could buy a new house with a long driveway like the Richardsons’.”
James just watches me take another bite. I bring up the Richardsons’ driveway very often, so maybe he feels talked out on that subject. The meatloaf tastes nothing like I remember from childhood so when Sandy comes running around the side of the house I set my plate down on the ground and she eats it all and almost eats the plate. James puts his plate on the ground and Sandy eats his dinner, too. The driveway has big slobber spots.
“Look at her go,” James says. It’s like he’s never watched Sandy eating before. “What else can we feed her?”
James raises a finger high in the air. He finds a fresh box in the garage and spreads out six or seven, which I’ve always found to be the magic number.
We watch Sandy crunching and snuffling around, quivering with excitement. It’s such a nice thing to watch. I could watch it for a long time.
“She’s gonna get sick to her stomach,” says James, after a bit. “She’s gonna have the runs all over the place.”
“But right now she doesn’t,” I say. “Right now she’s just happy.”
The next morning is a Saturday and I’ve promised the Farbers and Harold Spenk I’ll meet them for field service in Canton. Usually I’m excited to go door-to-door and work on my communication skills, but today I feel like staying in bed, or maybe going for a long walk by myself, with no purpose other than the walking, with no talking involved. Pretty soon I think of the story of Jonah, who was given direct orders by Jehovah to go preach in the wicked town of Nineveh. He didn’t want to go, so he took a boat in the opposite direction. We all know what happened after that. One thing about the Bible: there’s always someone in there who’s felt the same things you’re feeling, only thousands of years before.
By the time I get to the Stop & Shop in Canton I’m twenty minutes late and only Harold is there, leaning against his car. “There she is!” he says.
He’s wearing a new blue suit. There’s powdered sugar on his tie and I point it out.
“Greg and Janet went thataway,” he says, flapping his tie around. “Greg brought his apple turnovers. I would have saved you one but I know you don’t love them.”
Actually Greg brings his turnovers to meetings very often and they taste like folded-up newspaper.
We walk into a residential neighborhood and the first house we go up to has an old hose hanging off the front porch like a dead snake. A pretty girl comes out with her hair in a towel and tells us her parents aren’t home. “My, though, isn’t it a beautiful morning?” says Harold. The girl agrees that it is. Harold looks at me like maybe I have something to say about that, but I don’t, and the girl goes back inside. I’m having a little trouble getting warmed up. The same is true for the next few houses. In between houses Harold keeps sticking out his arms and telling me about his new suit.
“I saw it yesterday at Men’s Wearhouse. Two hundred dollars for this suit.”
“It’s too small.”
“It’s European. It’s a European cut, the guy said.”
“Also you smell like underarm deodorant.”
“That’s aftershave,” he says. “Too much?”
Then I remember that I’ve smelled the smell before, on my dad, when James and I were really little. I remember James and I playing with my dad while he got ready for work, and how sometimes he would hug us into his sides and our faces would just get buried in his undershirt. It would be so warm and you could smell his deodorant or aftershave or whatever it was. It’s an okay memory.
“No, I guess it’s not too much,” I say to Harold, and he seems relieved.
At our next house a man in jeans and a Phillies sweatshirt opens the door.
“Phillies, huh? You a Phillies fan?” says Harold. Harold is good at engaging people in regular conversation before they have a chance to be impolite.
The man looks at his sweatshirt like he’s never seen it before. “Can I help you?”
“Well, my name is Harold, this is Stephanie, and today we’re talking to people about the Bible–”
“Right, not interested.” The man quickly shuts the door. Harold respectfully announces that he’s going to leave some literature and the man’s voice comes through the door telling him not to.
It goes basically like that for the next hour, with people acting irritated or just not answering the bell. At one house a man appears on the roof above us with a very powerful looking stapler and tells us to “hightail it” off his property. This just makes Harold more peppy. He reminds me that Witnesses average seven hundred and forty random calls for every convert.
I ring the bell at a rundown sort of house with leftover pumpkin and skeleton decals in the window and a woman answers the door. Her belly is similar in size to Harold’s and the inside of her house smells like waffles. She takes the brochure that I give her, entitled “What Does God Require of Us?” and looks for a while at the illustration on the back depicting life after Armageddon. In the illustration there is a gushing waterfall and an extremely contented- looking Asian family. The children are playing with the cutest tiger cubs you’ve ever seen. A butterfly has alighted on the mom’s shoulder.
“Now, tell me,” I say to the woman. “What do you think of when you look at that picture?”
“Honestly, I think it looks a little idealistic.”
“Exactly! That ideal world is what God has in store for us.” I tell her that we can see from the book of Genesis that when God created the earth he didn’t intend for there to be suffering, and that it’s only because people ignored God’s laws and took charge of their own affairs that things got messed up. I tell her that the only way back to paradise is to dedicate oneself to Jehovah, and I point out that if she doesn’t do this she’ll be obliterated on Judgment Day. That’s a big topic, and normally we’re supposed to ease into it.
The woman has that squinty expression on her face. Harold clears his throat and touches my shoulder as if to say, “Need a hand here?” He changes the topic to boysenberry syrup and has the woman smiling in a few seconds. He hands her some more brochures, and they even read Psalm 37:29 out loud together before he’s done.
On the way down her pebble driveway Harold asks if I wouldn’t mind resting a bit before the next house. “I’m a little pooped,” he says. It turns out we’re back near the Stop & Shop, so we go and sit in his car.
His car is very sloppy inside and I tell him so. I remind him that the Bible tells us to be clean in every way, including spiritually, morally, mentally and physically.
“That’s a good point. I need to work on the physical part.” He takes a dirty soda cup, with the straw sticking out and everything, and shoves it under his seat. “Listen, Stephanie. Are you doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” I tell him.
He nods. “I just care about you, is all.” He tucks in his chin and takes a deep breath. “Actually, it’s more than that. I like you, Stephanie. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while now. I like you. Ha! There, I said it.” He does something with his lips, like he’s trying to make them disappear inside his mouth.
“I like you, too, Harold.”
“I’m up there in that big house on Heritage. All alone now since Beth left, and here you are, single. You’re a passionate Witness. You’re honest. You don’t pull any punches! I like that about you. I think you’re very pretty. Listen to me, spilling my guts here.”
At this point he puts his hand on my hand, which is on my Bible, and he lowers his voice.
“Also, I know you’re a little different. But what’s that? We’re all different, right? That’s how God makes us.”
I get out of his car and say “Bye Harold” and then I’m walking to my hatchback, looking in my handbag for my keys.
Harold gets out and trots after me.
“Stephanie, don’t go. I didn’t mean— I could look after you, you could look after me. It makes a lot of sense is all I’m saying.”
“Bye Harold!” For some reason I picture Oscar from work and the new girl getting into his truck, and I get a shiver.
“Don’t you want a family, Stephanie?”
“I have one!” I say, practically screaming. What I mean is, I have James. Possibly Harold forgot about James. Several shoppers with carts are looking at me now. Harold stands there while I put on my seatbelt and back up and drive off. My hands are shaking.
Driving home I realize that I’m going way too fast. I’m passing lots of cars. I don’t want to cause a pileup like you see in the news so I change directions and go to the Kingdom Hall, which is close by. When I get there I just sit in the parking lot with the engine off. Every time a car comes near the entrance I’m afraid it’s going to be Harold, so I can’t stop being nervous.
I get out and start walking, just to walk. I take the bark dust footpath that goes behind the Kingdom Hall, and where it comes out of the woods there’s just a regular street. I go down that for a while and when I come to a busy road I cross it to get to the hill on the other side. It’s a little unsafe and to tell the truth I get honked at by a truck. My heart is going as fast as it was when I left Harold, but at least it makes sense now because of the truck and the walking.
I’m concentrating on my footsteps and the sounds in the trees. The loudest sounds are of birds chirping and the wind shaking the branches. Finally I stop and close my eyes, and it’s like Armageddon has already happened and I’m standing there in the new system on earth, with everything returned to the way it was in Eden. But of course in addition to these sounds there will be people sounds, like of laughter and cooperation and chitchat, the sounds of the great crowd enjoying life ever after. In my head paradise looks the way it does in the brochures, with vibrantly colored flowers and smiling people of many ethnicities. What’s different is that James is also there. He’s sitting next to me at a big table piled high with amazing-smelling meatloaf. I open my eyes then and make myself speed up because I’ve almost stopped walking.
Just when I’m wondering if I’m ever going to see a house, I come across one all by itself, and there’s a young man in a green flannel shirt on the lawn, stuffing dead leaves into a black plastic bag. He stops what he’s doing and looks at me in disbelief, probably because there are no sidewalks on this road. “Where’d you come from?” His head goes left and then right. “People drive like maniacs up here. You should be careful.”
The elders teach us to look for opportunities to introduce Jehovah’s lessons into everyday conversation, and I can tell this young man is friendly and a little impressed with me for just appearing out of nowhere in penny loafers and a skirt. I’m sure there’s hot chocolate in the red thermos resting at his feet and that he would share some with me if I told him I was chilly, which I am. His shirt has a little logo on it that reminds me of the burning bush, and there’s a leaf blower by the garage that he would have to agree is shaped like a bazooka, which is how we could get onto the topic of all the war and hatred in the world. It’s like God is saying, “Go for it, Stephanie!” except this time my inner voice is saying back, “Be quiet for a second! I’m thinking!” And when I think about it all I really want to do is ask this guy where the nearest bus stop is. So that’s what I do.
It takes almost two hours to get back to town with all of the transfers involved, but it feels correct not to be at the wheel and to let the drivers make all the dangerous technical decisions. I’m not in the best shape. I keep picturing the leaf man running along next to the bus and screaming with his green flannel shirt in flames, which is how it will happen during Armageddon thanks to me not saving him. When the bus gets near the Bushy Hill Mall I see the big Rite Aid sign and pull the cord.
I guess Saturdays are popular days to deal with aches and pains because there are six people waiting to talk with Ted Porterfield at the pharmacy counter. Ted has guided me through many of the Bible’s thorniest passages, and so now just standing in line watching him lean down and tell people to check aisle six for this or that ointment, or discontinue taking a certain pill if it causes vomiting, makes me feel like things will be alright.
When he sees my face he asks if I’m the one who called about the sick baby and I say, “It’s me, Sister Counihan.” He puts his hand to his forehead in surprise, but for a moment I see him as he saw me, a stranger, the worried mother of a sick baby, possibly married to a non-Witness version of Harold Spenk. I understand that I was meant to feel that way for a second, to better grasp that person’s fear about the temporariness of life. It’s supposed to teach me something about my mission. I ask Ted about this and he says, “Hey Stephanie, you know you’re allowed to take a breather.” When I just look at him, he says, “A day off.”
“To study more, you mean?”
He waves another pharmacist over and then he opens the little white half-door and invites me back through the aisle where they keep all the bins of pills. Just past this area is a tiny, grey-painted office with a desk, three armchairs, a flowering plant and a calendar showing a girl in cutoff jeans washing a Corvette. “I’d invite you over to West Coast Smoothie but my break’s not for another two hours.”
“That calendar probably shouldn’t be there.”
“It’s not mine. I thought you might say something about that. Jeremy put that up, another pharmacist, to get under my skin. I think it’s a good joke.”
“How long has it been there?”
“Why don’t I just get rid of it,” says Ted, but I notice that he just sticks it over by some boxes and not in the trashcan. “You’ve had a rough time in your ministry work today. I can tell. What I’m saying is, you’re such a tireless worker, Stephanie. So tireless. People can be cruel out there.”
“Nobody was cruel today.”
“You’re allowed to go to the movies once in a while,” he says. “My daughter has a video game that comes with a wand.” He begins kind of dancing with the imaginary wand. “We play each other in tennis.” He goes to a small refrigerator and comes back with half a cheesecake, peeling off the plastic. “Someone brought this in. You can stay here if you like, and rest awhile. Clean yourself up in the bathroom, fix your hair. I should get back to the counter. Why don’t you just rest? The scripture will be there when you return.”
“I can’t picture paradise correctly,” I say.
“There will be no pain,” says Ted, calmly. He sets down the cheesecake. “There will be only joy. No one will ever die.”
“I can’t picture what we’ll be doing all that time, though.”
In the Watchtower illustrations there is only smiling and farming and cavorting with animals, which seem to me now like the first things that would come to mind for the person doing the drawings.
Ted straightens his back, the fluorescent light making his nose glint. “Can this wait until right before Tuesday’s meeting?”
There are bags under Ted’s eyes, I guess from answering questions all morning and getting breathed on by sick people. I wonder if sometimes he gets frustrated by how long it’s taking for Armageddon to come. Probably he’s eager for it to get here, so that he and his daughter Willow can play that tennis video game next to a lush green field or whatever he imagines paradise to be. I see him and Willow in my head, acting lovingly toward one another, and I see the Farbers all arranged on a picnic blanket and eating apple turnovers in the sunlight. I see Harold Spenk by a gurgling stream with his mother, who used to come to meetings before her ankles swelled up from old age. I see them all and I’m happy for them but if I walked into that picture I wouldn’t know where to sit down.
“Yes it can.” I don’t want Ted to think I’m unappreciative.
“You should rest.”
“I don’t need to rest.” I step out between the towers of pills and almost knock over a tower. I’m actually feeling very alert all of a sudden. “You’re nice to talk to me.”
Ted steadies the tower, blinking up into the lights. When he looks at me he shakes his head and smiles, then goes into the office and comes out with the calendar. “I don’t know what I’m doing with this thing.”
“I have to go now.”
“Thank you for raising your hand during meetings,” he says. “You don’t realize how much I count on you for that.” He opens a low cabinet in the hall and inside is a paper shredder attached to a cardboard box. He tears off the first few months of the calendar. “You should be up there, not me.”
Out in the store I find a section with magazines and romance novels and books about pets, but no maps. I just want to see what Maine looks like. Then I find a shelf with guidebooks and there’s one on New England that costs sixteen dollars. Because of how alert I’m feeling I just take it to the register and pay for it. While the cashier is giving me my change I hear Ted’s paper shredder stop at eight shreds, which means he’s having some difficulty. I stand there by the door for a minute listening for the ninth shred but it doesn’t come. The book in my hand feels warm and full of promise.
The Maine part of the book I look at during the bus ride to James’s house. I bump my head twice on the metal rail in front of me from leaning over so intensely. There are color photos in the book. They’re old, and the people in them have sideburns and flared pants, but they’re actual people, not drawings. Maine looks like a great place, with plenty of places for walking and enough office buildings for there to be a need for dry cleaning services. The state bird is a happy little creature called the black-capped chickadee. I get this feeling that I should be highlighting whole sections with a highlighter, the way I do with The Watchtower. I remember my Watchtower and my Bible sitting in my hatchback at the Kingdom Hall and they’re like these friends that have become just a little bit boring.
It’s when I’m walking up to James’ house that I find the words to explain it, which is that I’ll just be taking a break from my ministry work. Like Ted said: a breather. Except a very long one. Seeing Emily’s basketball by the garage I get this urge to learn how to do lay-ups and free throws. Like really learn. I set down the guidebook and take the ball and shoot it, and when it goes into the street I just barely save it from rolling down to the cul-de-sac again. I take some more shots and finally swish one and it feels wonderful. My blouse is untucked and smudged in sort of an exhilarating way. Ministry work has taken up so much of my brain space! I’m ready to tell all of this to James, that I’m refocusing my energies with the blessing of Jehovah, who knows and has always known the contents of my heart.
“I’ll come with you, James,” I say to myself, going up the front walk. When I ring the bell and no one answers, I yell it: “I’ll come with you!” The reflection I see in the glass door is of someone with a joyful new purpose.
I hear voices coming from way inside, or possibly the back deck, where Barb sometimes likes to show off her Bruce Lee kicks. I go running in my loafers around the side of the house, along Sandy’s path through the brush, until I see a short woman in a purple V-neck sweater standing inside the master bedroom window, sliding it down and up, down and up. She sees me and her frowning mouth opens like a fish’s.
I stop and check to make sure I’m at the right house. The bushes with their little blue-green leaves don’t seem familiar. Maybe I’m on some other dog’s path.
“My God,” the woman says.
Finally I see the compost pile in the corner of the yard, with the outline of the pit next to it. The pit has been filled with dirt. Emily’s voice comes from the back hallway in a tone I’ve never heard her use before, extra friendly, like the one I aim for in field service: “We just had these floors entirely refinished.”
“I’m sold,” says a man’s voice. “I am. It’s Deb who’s on the fence.”
When I look again James is standing a few feet behind the short woman. His chin is raised and his face is small and sharp- looking, even with the beard. I suck in my breath to speak and he shakes his head fiercely, his cheeks turning red: No. No.
I’m cold from the basketball sweat and I really want to come inside. There’s so much I want to say! James makes a terrible, hateful face at me then, mashing his teeth together so that his jaw kind of slides around. His expression knocks me a step backwards, then another, until finally I’m off the path and he’s nodding. I’m just taking steps to keep from falling over. The woman pushes her fat head through the window. “Someone’s out here,” she says. When she turns to find James, he isn’t there anymore. “Mr. Counihan?”
Off the path the ground drops down to a place where Sandy goes number two and where I once saw James toss a dead mole with a lacrosse stick. A hidden place. As I fall, branches jab into my back and snap off and then jab again, like hands that want to hurt me but hold me upright. One branch does something very painful to my ear. I don’t know how I’m going to stop. I can’t see the house anymore, just leaves and the empty sky moving past. For a second I am zooming down the Richardsons’ driveway. I try to think of that story, any story, and then I am on my knees in these new woods.
Jeff O'Keefe lives in San Francisco with his wife and son, where he's at work on a collection of stories. He was a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his fiction has been published in Epoch and Fourteen Hills.