John Sperling

Services were over in the hot church with the low ceilings. There was a rush to the double doors, so Owens hung back. He stood near the literature rack, joining a formerly pretty woman. She fanned herself with a blue and white pamphlet.

"Sure is stuffy in here," he said.

The woman looked at him, then looked at the thin booklet in her hand. She held it out. It read:

All God Wants Is Your Heart

"Oh," he said.

"I should probably read it." She folded it into her purse. Owens looked at her tight clothing.

"I’m waiting for the crowd to thin," he said.


"A body could be trampled trying to get out the doors on a summer day. Late service is always like that, so stuffy and with everybody itching to go eat." Owens ran a thick finger along the rubbered metal of the pamphlet rack. "You’re new to this church, am I right?"

"Yes," she said. Though she was not old, she was not young either, and he wondered what she’d looked like in her twenties.

Outside, Owens and the woman navigated through small clusters of the chattering faithful.

"Let’s get away from these people," she said, and he followed her to the side of the lawn, a patch of brown grass in direct sun. The others were gathering near the two big trees, looking for cool.

"My name is Owens. Not Owen, singular, but Owens, plural."

"I’m Amanda."

"Do you belong to another parish?"

"I just wanted to see what it was like here. It’s close to where I’m staying."

"Where’s that?" He pulled at the collar of his shirt rhythmically, trying to effect a breeze on his wet neck.

"The Calypso Motel. It’s over there on Baker."

"Oh, okay." He hadn’t meant it to sound sad or pitying. "You just passing through?"

Again she held the pamphlet out to him. "A heart is a lot to ask for," she said.


At the diner, there was air conditioning, but not enough.

"That’s a nice car you have, that Lincoln." Amanda used a paper napkin to dab the sweat from her hairline.

"Thanks, but it’s getting old. Thinking about buying a new one. Have to look good for my clients." He fingered the gold cross hanging at his neck. "What do you do?"

"I used to be a word processor at a law firm."

"Used to." Owens squeezed a lemon wedge over his iced tea. He looked at the steaming coffee cup in front of Amanda. He pulled his shirt away from his underarms.

"I got sick for a while and I couldn’t work." She took a sip from the mug.

"I have to ask: How can you drink coffee on a day when it’s a hundred and five? Your forehead is sweating."

"I like coffee, okay fucker?" she said. "You fucker." Owens froze, his open mouth poised over the straw. Amanda laughed, high-pitched. "Just kidding."


On a summer night in 1982, Owens adjusted the air vent as Tim guided his road-worn Impala toward the back end of a deserted parking lot. They were young back then, agents at the same real estate office. Tim usually gave Owens a ride home, and they would have lively conversations about rock bands and baseball trades and dreams of great wealth. Sometimes, they also had sex. At twenty-two, Tim was already married. Owens found this consistently arousing, although Tim preferred not to discuss it. To Owens it felt forbidden, even dangerous, just to hold hands.

Tim cut the engine and they sat in the darkness. Owens was about to say something when Tim took him by the neck and kissed him roughly. Owens pressed back against the scratch of Tim's stubble, and they kissed deeper, making low noises inside each other's mouths.

Owens wasn't surprised to feel the ache, the sadness. It always accompanied their lovemaking, waiting in the background, a voice that said this will come to an end, because everything does. Owens pulled back.

"Let’s take a break." Owens wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve.

"Yeah, okay." Tim tapped Owens’ leg with the back of his hand. "Hey, O."


"I’m getting a divorce."

"Well, you keep saying that." Owens cranked the window down for fresh air. "I don’t expect that from you. You shouldn’t promise that."

"It’s nothing to do with you and me." Tim put his hand on Owens’ neck. "Linda’s the one who wants it."

Owens knew he should say something. That he was sorry, that it was for the best, that these things happen. He stared out the window and his eyes fixed on a styrofoam cup, halfway across the parking lot. "I should go home now," he said.


Heat swamped the city. Old people were dying under the beating sun, corpses on bus benches. On Sunday, Amanda was at church, wearing the same outfit as the week before. This time, they made a plan. During the closing prayer, Amanda and Owens made their way to the doors, stepping quietly past the rows of bowed heads. When the prayer was over, they were the first ones outside, and Owens laughed and clapped her shoulder like they’d won a prize.

Over at the diner, they found a table away from the glare of the front window.

"Wonder when this heat will break."

"Doesn’t matter," said Amanda. "Whole damn world’s going to hell." She put her sunglasses away and leaned in. "You been watching me, haven’t you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, I know what’s going on," she said. "I sure do." An ambulance sounded its siren blocks away.

"I don’t know what to say."

"You have to look over your shoulder all the time, it’s a fucked up world."

"I guess we didn’t get the same thing from the sermon," he said. The siren grew louder, then faded.

"Owens, how old are you?"

"I’m forty."

"You look forty-five," she said.

"I beg your pardon?" He couldn’t help but laugh.

"You heard me." She reached over to his iced tea and dipped her fingers down in it, pinching at something. She extracted an ice cube.

"That’s mine, cut that out." Owens wondered if she was on drugs. She threw the ice cube right at his chest. It bounced and left a wet mark on his shirt. "Cut that out," he said again. She wiped her fingertips dry.

"I’m thirty-six," she said. A busboy stopped to fill their iced tea and coffee.

Using her hands, Amanda rummaged through her salad, eventually picking out a black olive. She rolled it around in her fingers. "Owens, do you want to have sex with me?"

"No," he said.

"Liar." She threw the olive at him. It glanced off his ear.

"Don’t throw things at me!" A waitress chewed her gum and stared at them. Owens almost never shouted; he sounded girlish when he shouted.

"Listen," she said, "I could use some money."

His face reddened and he looked down at his sandwich. "I could give you some money," he said.


Tim and Owens lay in each other’s arms, laughing and breathing hard. Owens rolled sideways and looked over the side of the bed. He produced a white sock. "Here, use this."

"You left your necklace on." Tim pointed to the hollow at the base of Owens' throat.

"Oh yeah, I forgot." Owens traced the edges of the small gold crucifix.

"That means Jesus saw everything."

"Don't say that. I don’t like when you say stuff like that."

"Well, at least we didn't get anything on him." Tim got up and pulled on his underwear. "You want some water, O?"

"Sure." Owens got up and shook out the sheets. When Tim reappeared in the doorway with a glass in his hand, Owens noticed the spot again; he couldn't help looking at it.

"What." Tim looked down at his thigh. "Oh." He held up his leg to get a closer look at the purple-red sore. He rubbed his thumb over it, as if he were trying to erase it.

"Is it getting bigger?"

"It’s not getting bigger," Tim said. "Here. Take your water."

"What do you think it is?"

"I don't know. Listen it's official."

"The divorce."

"Yeah. Her lawyer called. I have to go sign the papers this week." He sat on the edge of the bed and let his hand rest on his thigh, covering the welt. "She says she doesn’t want to be friends. She just wants to move on."

"Yeah, that’s for the best," Owens said.

A week later, Owens noticed a second purple spot, this time on Tim’s ankle.


Amanda was paying a week at a time in a motel on the city’s main thoroughfare, Baker Road. Prostitutes stood on the highway with their big falling hair, thumbing rides. Owens watched through the window. Behind him, Amanda was fussing with an individually wrapped cheese slice.

"Come here," he said. "Come over here."

She took a bite of her cheese. “What?”

“Look at those girls. What do you think of those girls?”

“They need money, like everybody else. You didn’t forget what I said, right? They’ll kick me out of this place if I don’t pay up.”

“I didn’t forget.”

“I’m not a prostitute, you know. I’m not like them.”

“Do you think they get beat up a lot?” Owens ran his hand along her back.

"You better not hit me,” she said. “Because I will cut off your balls if you do."

"Why would I hit you?" he said, but yes, there was something about her. He pulled her down onto the thin mattress.

During sex, Amanda whispered things in his ear that made him feel strong and powerful. He only said two words: "You're perfect." After it was done, he handed her his wallet. She took out a fifty and two twenties. When she was putting the money in her purse, Owens saw a loose stack of church pamphlets inside, identical except for the colors: mustard, olive, taupe, maroon.

"I believe I like you, Owens, even if you do look like a fish."

"Do I?"

"Yes," she said, "just like a fish." She tapped a cigarette against the back of her hand. "Tell me something. You’re this Christian, right?" She lit the cigarette, grimaced, and inhaled. "And you believe in Jesus and the Bible and all?"

"I do," he said.

“Do you think if I prayed to Him he would stop people from talking about me, watching me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

"Okay, you don’t know. Like fuck you don’t know.” She took a hit from her cigarette. “What about what we just did? Wasn’t it wrong?"

"Yes," he said. "It’s wrong because we’re not married."

"I’m not going to marry you, Owens."

"I’m not going to ask you."


On Monday, he took her with him to Cartown. He was thinking about getting another car, but not brand new. A brand-new car was a bad investment, he’d explained.

The convertible was a two-seater, so Amanda had to wait in the showroom while Owens and the salesperson, Roberta, took the test drive.

He drove carefully, a long block around. Roberta asked if he didn’t want to take it out on the open road, so he got on the highway. He was just being nice; he’d already decided this was the car for him. He drove faster, and the warm air rushed around their heads while they talked.

"Now this is a real plum, isn't it?" Owens had to shout over the roar of the wind. "I mean, you get noticed in a car like this, am I right?"

"You're right," Roberta said, holding her hairdo in place in the convertible.

When they returned to Cartown, Owens spotted an empty parking space near the front of the crowded lot. Then Roberta was saying something, but it sounded like static. What is she saying? His arms locked up and his chest closed in. There was pain.

His hands lost the wheel, and then there was the bang sound, the sound of impact. The airbags blossomed in a cloud of powder.

The two-seater was crumpled against a parked station wagon. There were already people closing in, and smoke was coming from somewhere. One door opened and Roberta stepped out, wobbly and crying. Owens was slumped in the driver’s seat and there was blood on the airbag.

"Let me through," Amanda said. "I'm with him."


Owens knew that Tim was still prowling the bookstores when he had the energy. This was not a secret between them. Tim was looking thinner these days. Even in the small waiting-room chair, Tim had plenty of room to shift around, agitated.

"It's been a half hour already," he said.

"I know," said Owens. "But look at it this way, at least now we'll know what's going on."

"Yeah, that's great. You know my family isn't talking to me since I came out to them? Not even my mom. Just my aunt. Fucking hypocrites, fucking losers. How many of them have been in jail, but now I'm the criminal. Nice."

"Did you talk to your Aunt Colleen today?"

"Yeah, she just wants to talk about the Bible and how God will clean me." He narrowed his eyes on Owens' crucifix. "Bullshit."

"I don't know," Owens said. "A couple of trips to church couldn't hurt, right?"

"I'll probably burst into flames when I walk through the door."

"Colleen's a nice lady—she doesn't mean anything by it."

The doctor smelled of cigarettes. He closed the door behind him and turned to Owens. "Okay, well here's the good news first. Your test came up clean—you're not infected." The doctor's face changed and he looked at Tim.

Tim began to cry; he covered his face with his hands. The doctor said, "I'm sorry." He said it in a way that made Owens think that he'd practiced for it. Practiced saying only those two words, with an intonation that was appropriately warm but curt enough to say: There is nothing more to discuss; you are to blame. "I gave Vickie a list of referrals—get it from her on your way out."

"That's it?" The hitch of his voice was muffled behind his hands.

"We don't know yet what this thing is. GRID, they're calling it. I'm seeing more and more…guys like you…coming in here every week. I'm sorry."

Tim began going to church once a week with his Aunt Colleen. He had more sores now. His aunt said that the infection was the harvest of sin, that he’d been seduced by the devil and this was the fruit of the seed left behind.

Owens met him at the apartment after Aunt Colleen dropped him off from Sunday service. They sat at the kitchen table, and Owens could hear Tim's breathing. "What about Linda?"

"What about her?" Tim unknotted his tie and pulled it loose.

"Is she, you know, does she have it?"

"No, she's fine."

"That's good."

"You know what Aunt Colleen said to me? She told me that my blood is dirty. That I should let Jesus cleanse my blood with his blood. I called her a stupid cow, but she just forgave me."

"Must be doing something for you, you keep going back."

A month later, Tim was attending a study group twice a week. Owens was surprised when Tim quoted scripture to him. He invited Owens to come to a meeting. He explained that everybody there was friendly, just a bunch of guys "struggling with their own desires like me and you."

"I’m not struggling," Owens said.


Ever since his Grandpa Hal died, Owens had hated hospitals. He’d watched the old man go slowly blind and crazy, shitting himself in bed. The bad smells were overlaid with flowers and disinfectant in that small white room. In that room, the relatives pleaded, the nurses spoke their secret language, and Grandpa Hal sometimes cried out, looking around with his frightened, milky eyes.

Now Owens, sedated, saw that he was in such a room. There was a television, there was an IV bag. Amanda was standing by the window. At first, he couldn’t speak, he could only open and close his mouth. He could have laughed: Now I really look like a fish.

"Well it’s about time," Amanda said. She was smiling, her arms folded. "What are you saying? I can’t hear you."

"I was gay."

"One more time?" She puzzled at his broad face.

"I was gay, and then I found the Lord," he said. He was slurring his words.

"Brother, you have got to be kidding me. So that’s why no kids, no ex-wives..." She was quiet then, watching him.

"How do I look?" He made a weak gesture at his face, the bulging purple eye, the two long lacerations, the powder burn from the airbag.

"Not so great," said Amanda. "But you’re damn lucky you didn’t break anything. Listen, do you have any money?"

Then the room teetered and things went blurry. It was a great effort to say: "Take what you need." He waited for the swaying to stop. "Tell me something."


"Are you my friend?" He tried to sit up but fell back.

"You gotta be shitting me," she said. "What kind of question is that?"


On an otherwise unremarkable Thursday, Tim announced that he was going on a six-week retreat. It was a program that could change him back to the way God wanted him. The Relearning Adventure, it was called. Owens tried to talk him out of it. "I’m afraid you won’t come back," he said.

But Tim did come back. He was weak and tired, and within a month, he developed pneumonia. Owens sat by the bed and read to Tim from the Bible. In the last days, Tim was saying odd things, talking to people who weren’t there. Sometimes he held the Bible to his chest and babbled nonsense as Aunt Colleen and Owens came in and out of the room. When he finally stopped breathing, when it was over, Owens asked Colleen what he should do with the Bible. She wouldn’t respond. It was like he wasn’t even there.


"If you’re gay, you’re gay," said Amanda, driving the Lincoln home from the hospital. "You can’t change it. There were guys I tried to change, believe me."

"You’re wrong," he said. "When I realized where my salvation was, who I was really meant to be, it was easy."

"Big," she said, pulling the car up the circular driveway in front of Owens’ Tudor. She smiled at him. "Poor baby," she said.

"I'll be okay."

She helped him up the stairs to his bedroom. He ran a shaking hand over her breast.

"Owens, you need to rest."

He was standing next to the bed. Amanda placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him.

"Hey." He fell backwards onto the down comforter, hands scrambling. Amanda turned away and her hair moved when she shook her head.

"You helpless fuck. You can’t do shit." She laughed, then turned to look at herself in the full-length mirror.

"It was a fag who gave me this dress. Real nice guy back in Salt Lake City."

"I don't like that word." Owens managed to prop himself up on his pillow.

"I hope for your sake you haven't been taping me." She looked up at the light fixture. "Everybody's always taping me."

"Are you okay?" He really wanted to know. She turned off the light and left the room.


At Tim’s funeral there were several aggressively happy, scrubbed-looking people. Mutual condolences exhausted, the quiet conversations became personal; many of the attendees described themselves as "formerly homosexual."

Owens flirted with one of the guys openly. His name was Ian and he was built like a quarterback. He was friendly and they talked for some time, staying a half hour after the other mourners had gone. Ian kept putting his hand on Owens’ back and inviting him to meetings. "Tuesdays and Thursdays at the church. Nothing formal, just a bunch of guys hanging out and talking."


In the morning, he took his medicine with orange juice, and the juice was bitter in his mouth. Amanda was fluffing his pillows when she said, "I have to leave."


"I’m going back to Utah to stay with my mother."

"You don’t have to," he said. "Do you need money? I can give you money."

"I know you can, I’ll sure take you up on that. But I have to go."

"Why? What’s so great about Utah?"

"Look, fucker, this isn’t a jail. You can’t keep me here."

"Oh. No, of course it’s not a jail.”

"You fucking fish face." Amanda pulled the second pillow from under his head. She folded it in half. She pressed it, fat and thick, against his neck. "Listen, I see how you and those people look at me, like I’m some kind of riff-raff cunt."

"What are you doing, cut that out." He was weak as water.

"Queerbait," she said. She pushed the pillow into his neck harder and Owens couldn’t get his breath. He waved his arms. She stopped. He was gasping.

"I know you have cash in this house and I want it."

"What? What?"

"Faggot." She pressed the pillow over his face this time. She pushed down hard. Owens reached out but couldn’t get a hold of anything. He tried to suck air through the dense fabric. She took the pillow off him and he gasped wildly. He was red-faced and one of his cuts was bleeding again, soaking the bandage. "Where is it, where’s the money?"

"There’s a shoebox, it’s at the very back of the closet." He tilted his head toward the far wall, and his breathing was rough and loud. "Five, six thousand. That’s all there is in the house." The room was tipping again.

She slid the closet door open. "You’d better be telling the truth," she said. "I’ll fucking kill you."

"You don't have to hurt me," he said.

"I put something in your juice to help you rest." She pulled out shoes and file boxes from the closet. "You're going to rest for a long time," she said.


Owens eventually accepted that Ian wasn’t interested in having sex with him, but he appreciated the new friendship. They began going places together: movies, baseball games, church services. He was becoming part of a group of friends.

They had long talks about God and the proper function of sex, and Owens started going to their Tuesday and Thursday discussion meetings. He came to the slow realization that this was what he'd been hungry for. All the tricks he'd had, all the strangers he'd spent drunken nights with, they were tricks, that was the right word for it. It was all a trick, a cheap replacement for a deeper need.

He came to believe that this hunger was for love and not for sex; that to hug a man, to weep with him and laugh with him, that these things were so much better than fucking, no matter what his dick said. He fell in love, deeply and profoundly, with every one of the men in his group.

He joined the church and was baptized. He signed up for the next Relearning Adventure Retreat.

After his sign-up, they gathered at Ian's apartment for a Coming In Party. You're coming in to the love of God; you're coming home, they told him.

At the party some of the guys sat on the couch watching a football game, but it was easy to tell who was really into it and who was in the stage referred to as A.A.I., or "Act As If." A.A.I. was an important part of the process, where you had to try to identify with more masculine interests. The promise was that no man would laugh at you for trying.

"So how do you feel, man?" Michael, a slender and almost pretty man, was crunching on a celery stick.

"I feel great, Mike. I feel…right."

"Praise Jesus. I am so glad I met Ian. He saved my life, I mean that."

"How long have you been reborn?" Owens popped a cracker in his mouth.

"I got beat up in the park one night. I was looking for sex, that's what I used to do. That was a year ago. My friends got so mad at me when I told them I was joining the Relearning Adventure. But now two of them are dead. You know, from the…"

"The thing, yeah. I heard they're calling it AIDS."

"Now my life isn't lonely. I don't feel dirty like I used to." Michael took a step closer. "I don't wake up with my head pounding and some stranger next to me." He looked into Owens' eyes. "Of course," he said, "it's not always easy."


The slam of the front door woke him. The ceiling was moving. Owens watched it shift and pitch. He thought about Tim and Ian and the other men: Texas Roger in the back of a pickup, under all those stars. The movie usher, Frank was his name.

I’ll call the police, he thought, I should call the police. He was so tired and the room drifted away and back again. He thought about Trevor and Francisco and the beaches in Mexico. And Josh, he was the one with the blind mother, the one who told Owens he loved him after their third date. I was going to make a phone call. He knew that the phone was in pieces, that she’d broken it. He couldn’t remember what she looked like. I was in the hospital. What else happened?

When he saw the discarded pillow, Owens knew that the blood on it was his own, and he touched the bandage on his face. Where’s Tim? He pulled the pillow to him. His eyes kept closing. I’ll give him a call once I get that phone fixed. I just need some rest, is all. He pressed his face into the pillow and smelled perfume and sweat and blood. He breathed deeper. Things were fading away. Once Tim gets here, I'll make him that pasta he likes.

He knew he should try to stay awake, but couldn’t think of why. With great effort, he opened his eyes, but could not see. The room had turned into a mass of dark, undulating shapes; there was nothing to focus on. I was thinking of a woman. Who was the woman? And suddenly she was there, he could see her clear as glass, his Amanda. Everything was slowing down and falling away, but her image was bright as the sun, and she was a terrible angel, speeding down Baker Road, hair blowing in the open window of the Lincoln, hundreds of miles from Utah.


John Sperling is a native of California and has been published in Pearl, Spout, and Smokelong.com. His hobbies include lying down, relaxing, napping, and resting. He is finishing his first novel.


© 2007 Swink, Inc.