I pulled up to the parking lot on the back side of the church and could see the people cascading down the stairs. The usual line of vehicles were posed in positions to be the next one to be on the road. After parking my car, I got out and walked over to the wheelchair ramp, easily making my way up the slope as people hogged the steps. I always figured they would fix this setup. The preachers and speakers always stand near the doors giving their goodbyes and farewells and it bottlenecked the congregation in what seemed like a blockade. It was like the line of holy fortification had been broken and they couldn’t stand it.
Martha was standing just outside the door, talking with a few people, and I inched up to her and put my hand on the small of her back. She turned and smiled.
“Hey, Jake. Oh, I want you to meet my new friends.” Her head followed her arm back to the couple standing behind her – in front of me. “This is Sally and Greg Kraus.”
Sally was standing very quietly, dressed in a plain red skirt and common white blouse. She had a smile consisting of several crooked teeth, and a few dark spots on her neck. Not really an asian supermodel by any standards, but she had a nice body. Greg was tall and lanky, and sported an early morning five o’clock shadow. His suit looked very stylish, but it didn’t seem to fit his build that well.
I nodded to Sally and shook Greg’s hand. “Nice to meet you.” He had a really firm grip.
“You should have heard her in my class today. Guest speaker.” Martha began again. “One of the most insightful classes I’ve ever been in. I was quite impressed, I must tell you.” She smiled and nodded at Sally. Sally lowered her head in a somewhat half head nod, half bow, letting her hair shake and bob as well.
I could see Greg smiling at his wife. He looked at me strangely, and I could tell he stared every so often at the tattoos on my arm. “I didn’t see you in the church. Do you come to the classes?”
I shook my head no.
“Service?” he followed up.
“Nope. Work, usually.”
He bit his lip and made one of those hmmph noises. “Well…,” He looked down at his wife and looked back at us. “We better head out. We still have a lot of unpacking to do from the move. It was very nice meeting you both.” He shook my hand again, and I watched them head down the stairs.
“They’re really nice, Jake.”
“Of course, it was church. People are always nice in church.” I rolled my eyes at her.
“Oh, stop it,” she said as she playfully smacked my arm. “They were nice. She really does know a lot; she is well read. It takes a dedicated person to be that knowledgeable.”
“Or just a lot of time.” That reminded me. I looked at my watch. “We need to be heading out too. I have to get to work in awhile.
I dropped her off back at home, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed out the door. She was trying to talk about her church stuff during the meal. Honestly, I didn’t care. The rest of the week was fine, but Sunday always got her riled up, and I tried to drone her out. When I told her I’d call her later, she told me she was going to be up at church again. Again. Some stupid youth group event was going on all afternoon. Whatever, I hope we don’t have to talk about it at dinner.
I pulled up to the strip of stores in the center of the town, and found an open parking spot near the dry cleaners. After parallel parking, I opened the container in between the seats and pulled out a little yellow paper. I promptly eased out of the car, placed the ticket under the windshield wiper, and left my car under the watching eye of the blinking red parking meter.
I began walking down the street, but then I saw two girls who looked to be about high school age started approaching me. They were wearing grey shirts with the dark blue lettering ‘Remember to whom you belong’ written across the front, and a picture of a church. I noticed, in a sarcastic voice in my head, that it went very well with their designer pants and shoes. I tried to look away or into a nearby store out of feigned interest. If only I had someone with me, I could do the ‘wave off’ while pretending to have an engaging conversation. But I was stuck, and soon I just stood staring into the headlights of the two bubbly enthused teens and I gave up.
“Hello, sir. We’re trying to get a large collection of clothing to donate to the homeless. We have a donation center across the street. Do you think that you could help us out.”
I looked down at their shoes and then back up at them. Man, I wanted to shove it in their faces, but I just let it simmer. “Not right now.” I tried to begin walking past them.
“Oh come on. You’d have to have something you can give. Just let us know what, and when and where we can pick it up, and we can come pick it up for you.”
“That’s alright.” Again I tried to leave, but they kept up their pestering.
“Jeez. I know you have to have something.”
“My wife deals with this shit. Ok?”
“Sure.” One of the girls said while the other one mouthed “Ok.” With dismayed looks on their faces, they finally let me through. As I walked away, I heard the larger of the two say “Man, we must be like the only considerate people.” I clenched my fist.
I noticed a familiar face walking amongst the Religious and Philosophy section, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. She muttered something in a foreign tongue, while reading the pages. Oh right, I thought, it was that Sally from Martha’s church, taking a break from packing I guess. I pushed my book cart along the aisle and nodded to her. No response. She was so immersed in her book, she didn’t even notice the nod. I hate when people snub me like that. Especially since my wife kept raving about her earlier. Oh well, we weren’t really acquainted. I stood down the aisle, and I saw her pull the security tag from inside the book, and stick the book into her large purse.
I wasn’t really sure what to do. I mean, I didn’t know the lady that well, and it’s not really my book. Fuck it, I guess. I wasn’t really fond of this place as it is. I did, however, think it would be funny to see if she got caught. We’ve seen it in the store once or twice. They never have anything intellectual, of course. Usually some adult magazines or DVDs. For a week or two there was that spree of kids trying to swipe ‘Steal This Book.’ But I watched her walk away very calmly, stealing words of wisdom, and she never once gave away her hidden agenda.
Right through the door she went. I looked around the store. Everything was as it lay just minutes before. Astounding, I thought. That’s something I rarely get to witness, actually seeing someone else steal something for once. I went back to business, pretending I as well had witnessed nothing.
I had a few assorted philosophical anthologies to put in their places. The students around here love to buy the anthologies. They never seem to buy any of these books that focus on just one author. My boss of course knew this, and had me make little displays showing these featured collections. It was stupid, I thought. Why should all these authors be lumped in one book. I guess people just don’t know what they want. Some did, I thought, as I looked over at the door and chuckled.
As opposed to what just occurred, however, there did happen to be a large profit in selling books on Christianity. I guess it makes sense, but I didn’t find it very appealing. I swear there were at least a hundred copies of the bible right next to me. Ridiculous. I grabbed one of them. The Good News Bible. I snickered, and sidestepped over to the religious fiction section, and placed it in front of the other books. It seemed to fit. I turned around to the shelves behind me and started filtering in the extra books from storage into their places.
I couldn’t help but think it was just like back in prison. People have a lot of time to think about shit. There’s a lot of time to sit back and think about what goes on in this world. I saw far too many people get caught up in Christianity and reading their donated copies of the Bibles. I, however, enjoyed the company of the other books that were available to us prisoners. I guess I could say I got used to their company, and a bookstore seemed like the best place to try and get back into the working world again. Except, of course, the fact that I was working for someone, and the pay wasn’t that great.
I could see him, the manager, roaming through the place, and when he saw me he walked on over.
“Jake. I heard you were late again today.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I got bumrushed by some goody goodies down the block.”
“Just come in on time, and I won’t have to keep talking to you about this.” He ran his hands through his hair and scanned the aisle as I kept shoving books into the spots. I heard him give a loud sigh. “Aww, Jake.” I turned and looked to see what was up. He showed the Bible and shoved it in my hands. “It’s in the wrong place. You can’t have this place looking like it’s all out of order. Customers are going to start to notice.”
“But, some customer probably did it.” I paused. “Customers do some crazy things. I can’t keep track of this many books.”
“Then what am I paying you for?”
“Menial labor,” I retorted. I was tired of the same old routine. Just let me shelve the books in peace.
“You have to start somewhere. Now finish up, I have some other things I’d like you to work on in the back.”
After he left, I put the misplaced book back where I moved it to in the first place and chuckled. Some people need to have a better sense of humor. I think it went better there anyway.
But then again, maybe I don’t know best. I was also pretty sure I wouldn’t get another parking ticket with the decoy, but I can’t win every time.
That night I headed out with Martha to get some food and see a movie. We passed by the church and I could see a wedding ceremony getting out. She spoke up through the silence. “Jake. Do you think… If I wanted you to come to a service sometime, would you come with me?”
I’ve heard this so many times. Yes, I too missed the times when we were closer, and I could see it meant so much to her, but I still wasn’t sure if I could feign interest long enough for her.
“No. I mean, I’ll think on it. But most likely no.”
There was a short interlude of silence.
“I gave a lot of our things to charity today.”
“You did what?!” I wanted to glare at her while she sat there transfixed in shock, but I had to watch the road.
“Well, it’s stuff we don’t need, and there are people who need it more than we do. You had some old shirts you never wear.” She was right about that, at least. “You also had some other junk you were keeping around for no reason. I gave away that broken watch of yours.”
“What? Why would you do that. I liked that watch! I was going to fix that.”
“Yeah, you always keep saying you are going to fix it. I figured I would let someone else fix it and use it, or even sell it. They need the money more.” I kept staring down the road, but she continued. “I gave a lot of my stuff too, so don’t be so mad at me. I had to give something! They put me in charge; I was helping organize the youth group. They sent the kids all over town asking for donations.”
“Your kids are a bunch of rich assholes who don’t know the value of donations. I ran into some of them today.”
“I’m sure they meant well,” she said quietly, but I huffed at the idea.
Once again, we were stuck in silence. I grew tired of this routine, and decided maybe I could get her talking, get us talking. My thoughts turned to the events of today.
“So, tell me about this Sally you introduced me to. Who is she, where is she from?”
Her complexion became warmer and it seemed like she was more engaged.
“Well, she’s from China.”
“That’s it?” I had already assumed that, or somewhere related.
“Well, she was orphaned as a child. I’m telling you, Jake, this woman has been through so much.” She saw me motioning with my hands to continue the story. I’ve heard this story too much. She used to say it about me. Same old story. Just hurry it up. “She came upon some missionaries, you know, from California I think it was. They took her in and made sure she was well fed. I can’t imagine how she managed before them.”
“There are ways.” I grinned. “I’m sure you know how.”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “But most importantly she needed a Christian touch, Jake. They showed her the way, and now she travels doing mission work with her husband, whom you also met.”
“You said she was well read. Has she ever mentioned the kind of stuff she reads?”
“Nothing in particular, really. She was just able to analyze everything we discussed with such clarity.” She was deeply hooked into this conversation, I could tell, but I was slowly running out of things to ask about. I didn’t think I was willing to break her over what I saw today. She seemed too cheerful about life in general.
Ever since I met her, though, I never quite saw how she could be so transfixed in the goodness of things, when she obviously saw her share of the bad. Now I won’t say when she first met me I was anything remotely horrible, but neither was I on her side. My sentence was nothing grand, but I did my time. I understand what it’s like to need things. I just happened to be caught doing it too many times for too many things. Back when she volunteered with the church in the prisons, I know she saw her share of horrors. Hell, I saw them all around me. But she set them aside. Set my faults behind, and gave me a chance. I think she used to throw her sex and love at me, hoping I would become a triumph of hers and take to her lifestyle. She saw it as an inevitability, and therefore trusted it as such. Boy, did I let her down. Now she just wants to ease in the dogma, but withhold the parts I liked best. As much as I hate the talks, I love the person underneath, and I’ve been wondering if I should start walking the walk to make things easier for both of us. But it’s so hard to care. But I curious to see what is exactly going on with this book thief.
“Ok, I’ll go.” I resigned before I could let myself argue it over in my head for too long.
I think it had been the trying for so long, but no matter what it was, she was speechless. She was tearing up.
“Ok, ok, let’s just leave it at that. I’ll give it a try.”
That Sunday, I came to service, and found my wife waiting for me outside the doors. She, of course, talked once again about her weekly class, but she cleaerly wanted to emphasize it more, perhaps because I had actually come to service for once.
I guess the church took kindly to the fact that missionaries had finally settled down in the area and they decided to let them dive right into helping them run the service. They had the natural friendship and the experience to back it up, it would seem. So, during the service, the very familiar, and yet peculiar, face of Sally came into view, as it was that she was reading the gospel verse of the day. She took to the stand, and maneuvered the microphone so that it bent down to hear mouth. She calmly read aloud, and I could hear the words echo across the walls.
“Today’s gospel passage comes from Luke, chapter 23, verses 39-43.” She paused, looked out over the crowd, and began. “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we are indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The verse was showered with a reply of ‘Amen’s, and she sat back down. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. The situation was ridiculous. My wife stared at me with wide open eyes, but I did not stop. Quickly, I tried to muffle my laugh, and rather noisily inched around the others in the pew to exit the room.
She followed me, naturally. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She looked over at the closed doors to the filled room, and lowered her voice. “Why are you laughing during the service?”
“The woman is a joke, Martha.”
“What? I don’t understand. She didn’t do anything.”
“That’s just it. I saw her stealing.” I chuckled again, short and abrupt. “She’s a thief, and yet no one knows.”
“I don’t believe you. The day after youth group function, she helped deliver all the donations to the homeless shelter.”
“Even so, she’s a fraud. And further, she acts likes she wants to apologize, and yet she’s too afraid to say it out loud. Like what she just said in there. It’s foul. Why is she any different?” I laughed some more. “What? Does she think that its alright to steal because it’s all forgiven in the end? Why do I have to serve time when people like that don’t?”
She looked sad and yet scared. “Look.” I paused and stared at her. “I know I am not perfect. I can and will admit that I was a delinquent. It’s out there. I’ve said it more than this, too. I had to be that way, it was the way of the world. But look. Look at me, Martha.” She looked. “I’m not that man anymore, but if you expect me to go into this world where others can’t even show themselves, where people can’t even see the lies, I just can’t do it.”
Whatever she believed about Sally, she turned around and went back to her congregation.
The next few days were strained, and I could see we were dying. It was probably for the best. The charade was over, and we both knew it now. At least she finally accepted it.
That week, during my time at the book store, I happened across Sally once more. I knew she was going to steal again, but it seemed like the point of my accusation was gone. My wife was not here. The people of the church were not here. The theft of a book has to be, like what, a slap on the wrist. The teenagers we caught with the magazines never got much punishment. I hated the fact that she got away with it, but did it really matter? Who was I proving wrong about her? It was then that I noticed her watch. It definitely was not a watch made for a woman, and I clearly recall it not being able to tell time just last week. And yet, there it was, ticking out the seconds of the moment. Stealing from the homeless, stealing from me, was just wrong.
I was still aggravated every so often that I wasn’t surviving on my own, and that I had to work for someone else. But it was the honorable thing to do. I was becoming more honorable, it’s just how the system works, and I didn’t need any damn church telling me so. I walked up to Sally as she neared the door, and much to her wide-eyed dismay, pulled the book out from her purse.