“Good morning, Boss,” Pete said. “Sleep well?” “What?” Roger asked as he sat up. “What time is it?” “I don’t know. I sold my watch. You sure missed a great sunrise.”
THE MISSIONARY BY JOSEPH SALING 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 67
Every time Laura called her brother Roger for a favor, he reached for his wallet. Laura’s favors were never cheap. The last one cost him $500 to bail out an 80-year-old man who’d been arrested in Main Street for fighting. Laura swore it was a case of mistaken identity. Minutes after he was released from jail the man had a heart attack and died.
“How much?” Roger asked.
“No. This isn’t going to cost you anything.”
“Sis, I’m swamped. Can we cut to the chase?” Roger put the phone on speaker. He was going through the Truman Fox Inn event list. “Just tell me how much you need and how soon you need it, and I’ll tell you if I can or can’t.”
“Roger, I’m not asking for money. If things go right, you’re going to thank me.”
“If things go right.” Roger sighed loud enough for Laura to hear. “So, tell me. Why am I going to thank you?”
“This man Pete’s been coming to the shelter a couple of months now. I just found out he’s an experienced bartender, and with the holidays coming, knowing you’ll need extra help, I figured you could use him. And he could certainly use a job.”
“Sis. I can’t—”
“He’s really good, Roger. He’s worked at some of the finest places in New York.“
“If he’s really good, what’s he doing in a shelter?”
“Rough times, Roger. But he’s pulling himself together. Don’t stall. We both know you’re going to ask me to send him over.”
“Sis, I’ve got responsibilities.”
“We all have. There’s lots of people who need our help.”
Roger knew it was pointless. Even when they were kids his sister always outwaited him. “OK, send him over. But I’m not promising anything beyond talking to him.”
“You’re a good man, Roger.”
A half hour later Pete knocked on the bar manager’s door. He was tall, maybe six-two, and clearly younger than Roger’s 48 years. He wore clothes that didn’t fit—baggy jeans that were too short, a maroon zippered jacket over a plaid shirt, and tennis shoes covered in mud. His eyes were shaded by a ball cap, and his face hid in a red beard. “I’m Pete,” he said.
“I know.” Roger pushed the event list to one side.
“Miss Laura said you can give me a job, Boss.”
“I said I’d talk to you. I didn’t promise a job.”
“She told me that too.”
“Sit down.” Roger pointed to the chair in front of his desk. “And don’t call me boss. My name’s Grumbee.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Mr Grumbee.” Roger stared at the man. “Take your cap off. I can’t see your eyes.” Pete took it off.
“You don’t have any hair,” Roger said.
“They shaved it at the Mission. They do things for you there. Some you have to let them do if you want to stay, like check you for parasites. They’ve got food, socks, a place to shower. They gave me this cap. Miss Laura gave me a razor too and told me I should shave, but I told her I didn’t have the job yet.”
“Uh-huh.” Roger stared at the list of events for a minute. Then he asked Pete if he knew how to work a bar.
“I can work any bar you got, Boss. God knows I’ve been in enough of them.”
Roger was about to end the conversation right there when the phone rang.
“Oh good, he got there,” Laura said.
“I know what you’re going to say, Roger, and I don’t blame you. But you know what we said the other night, about Christian duty.”
“I know what I said, but—”
“Roger, I wouldn’t blame you if you sent him back. But once you get beyond all the crud, you’ll discover Pete’s a good man who just needs help. Also, I know it’s hard to act on all those new ideas. But maybe Pete was sent to us. Besides, I don’t have time to find him something else. I leave tonight and won’t be back until after the holidays.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Roger said. “Have a safe trip.” He hung up without waiting for her to say goodbye.
Roger stared at the row of file cabinets pushed against the concrete blocks that defined the walls of his office. “Twelve years,” he said to himself. “Twelve fucking years and I’m still sitting here.”
“What’s that, Boss?”
“Nothing.” Roger looked at Pete. “Just nothing ever changes.”
Roger stood up and walked around his desk. Standing next to Pete, he said, “OK. Laura says I’ve got a Christian duty, and I do need another bartender. So. It looks like you’re elected.”
“To both. You’re my Christian duty, and, lucky for you, my bartender. But you can’t tend bar looking like that.” He took a white jacket with a gold hotel crest from a hanger on a rack next to the door. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up. I don’t suppose you have a pressed pair of black pants somewhere?”
“You’re looking at all I got, Boss,” Pete said.
“Yeah, I know. We’ll stop at Walmart, and you can get a pair of pants, a white shirt, a pair of shoes, whatever else you need.”
“What do I use for money?”
Roger looked up at the ceiling. “I’ll pay. If you work after tonight, I’ll take it out of your wages or you can pay me back from your tips. If you don’t work after tonight, well hell, just call it a favor. Laura can’t always be right.”
Roger and Pete walked side by side through the aisles at Walmart. Along with shirt, pants, and shoes, they’d collected three pairs of socks, a pack of underwear, and a beard trimmer. Roger paid, and then he and Pete rode in silence until Pete finally asked, “Where we going, Boss?”
“My house. You can get cleaned up, and then—shit.”
“What’s matter, Boss?”
“You call me boss one more time, I’m letting you out right here.”
“Sorry, Boss, uh, Mr Grumbee. I thought you sounded like something was wrong.”
“My wife’s going to be home. I forgot. This is Peggy’s day off.”
“I had a cousin named Peggy. She was the first girl I kissed. I haven’t seen her since I was a kid.”
Roger glanced over at Pete. “She’s not your cousin.” Then under his breath, “Lord, make her understand.”
“What’s that, Boss?” Pete said.
“Nothing. Just don’t say anything when we get to the house. I’ll show you where you can get cleaned up. Just don’t say anything. We need to get in there and out without upsetting her.”
“This your neighborhood, Boss? Sure is nice.”
“You’re not bringing that derelict in here,” Peggy said. She pulled the screen door closed and latched it. “Why didn’t you let him clean up at the hotel?” she asked.
“Because there aren’t any rooms. And I can’t just leave him in the employee locker room. Not after all the thefts. Besides, the shower’s not working.”
“I don’t want to listen to it, Roger. I said you’re not bringing him in.”
“What’s happened to your sanity? I heard that things like this happen when men get close to 50.”
“You don’t understand,” Roger said. “It has nothing to do with sanity. It’s about Christian duty. I was talking to Laura—”
“I knew your crazy sister had something to do with this.”
“My sister is not crazy,” Roger said. “And I would appreciate you not talking about her that way in front of strangers.”
“At least we partially agree on what this man is.”
“Miss Laura’s a nice lady, Lady.”
Roger turned quickly and glared at Pete. “I told you not to say anything.”
Peggy laughed. “You wouldn’t know Christian duty if it slapped you on the cheek.” Then she got serious. “You have a duty to this family, Roger. You don’t know anything about this man. We have children for crying out loud. Thank God they’re at Mother’s. You want us all to wake up dead, lying in pools of blood?”
“Peggy, be reasonable.”
“You be reasonable. I told you you’re not bringing him in, and that’s that.” Then she stepped back and closed the door. Roger heard the lock click.
“Peggy!” Roger shouted.
She opened the door and unlocked the screen.
“Now you’re being reasonable,” Roger said.
“Give me your wallet and your phone.”
“Just give them to me.”
After he gave them to her, Peggy stepped back, closed the screen door, and latched it.
“Why’d you take my wallet and phone?”
“Because if you’re going to insist on taking care of this, this derelict, I’m not going to let you spend our money to do it. Besides, he might try to kill you, and if he does, I want your wallet where it’s safe and your data limit preserved for the family.” Then she closed the door and Roger heard the lock click again.
“Peggy! Open this door! I’m going to stay right here until you let me do my Christian duty.”
“I think she’s mad, Boss,” Pete said.
“Let’s go.” Roger stepped off the breezeway and over the shrubs at the edge of the yard. “And don’t call me boss.” They went around to the front porch, but Peggy had already locked it. “This is ridiculous,” Roger said. “Peggy! Open the door!”
Roger stepped off the porch and looked up at the house. Then he looked at Pete. “Come on,” he said, leading him out to the street where he sat down on the curb. “Sit down.”
“Boss, I think I’ve caused you enough trouble. I’ll just go back—”
“Sit down,” Roger repeated. “And stop calling me boss.” Pete sat down.
They sat for a long time without speaking. Roger would look back at the house and shake his head. Then Pete would look back. After a while, Pete finally spoke. “I don’t think she likes me very much, Boss.”
“She doesn’t have to like you. This isn’t about liking. It’s about love and charity and all those other things that are part of a Christian duty.”
“I don’t know much about Christian duty,” Pete said. “Is it like being saved? I’ve been saved already, Boss.”
“It has nothing to do with being saved. Each of us has a Christian duty, whether we want one or not, or at least that’s the way Laura puts it.”
“Laura’s a nice lady.”
“Laura’s crazy. But sometimes she makes sense. And her heart’s in the right place even if her head isn’t.”
“I like how you said that,” Pete said.
Afternoon passed into evening. Roger stopped looking over his shoulder at the house.
Peggy had always been controlling. From their very first date when she chided him for leaving too much tip and went back to the table to pick up a dollar. Roger tried to explain what it was like to work for tips and how hard it was to make a living waiting tables. But Peggy merely handed back the dollar to him, and looped her arm through his. Something in the way she smiled as she did it made him realize maybe he had been too generous. Ever since, he’d counted on her to help keep his generosity in check.
Peggy wasn’t always right. If she and Roger had been walking down the street and Pete had approached for a handout, she would have used the same looped arm technique and led them by in silence. There was such a thing as being too guarded, Roger thought. But it had been Peggy who’d seen to their steady progress through life, to Roger’s advancement in his career, to their management of money so they could live where they did, to raising the children in a way they would never feel deprived and still not be spoiled by a generous but ill-conceived impulse.
“You know, Boss,” Pete said when it started getting dark, “all this Christian duty is making me hungry. I bet we could go down to that hotel of yours and get a good meal.”
“It’s not my hotel,” Roger said. “And even if it were, I wouldn’t take you in there to feed you. Not the way you look.”
“You’re right. I bet, though, we could go to the Mission. They have some good-looking women down there and good food, and your sister—”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Roger said. “We all have our Christian duty to perform and for some God only knows reason you were sent to be mine. I don’t know why. And I don’t know how I’m going to do it. But we have to stay here while I figure it out.”
“I don’t like being your Christian duty, Boss.”
“Stop it. Stop calling me boss. And it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. There is no liking it or not liking it. As I understand it we are given few chances, and if we don’t perform when the chance is there we have hell to pay for it.”
“Where would we be if Gandhi had shirked his Christian duty?”
“Mahatma Gandhi. He was a great man, Pete.” Roger thought about the movie Laura had them over to watch on Netflix. “A little hunger didn’t disturb him or get in the way of his Christian duty. And we shouldn’t let it get in our way either. He was a model for us all.”
“It sure gets dark fast this time of year,” Pete said.
“You know, all I know is what I see,” Pete said. “And what I see is your wife don’t think I’m her Christian duty, and she got mad at you. I bet she doesn’t open that door for as long as I’m sitting here. Maybe if I just go and you get back to your hotel, she’ll let you in when you get home.” Pete stood up, but Roger yelled at him to sit back down with such force that Pete instantly plopped back onto the curb.
“Neither one of us is leaving. She started this, you know. She started with wanting to join a church and making me go with her. I told her I didn’t want to go. But she said it would be good for us. We’d meet new people, and it would broaden our horizons. So we went with Laura one Sunday, and that’s where I heard about Christian duty.”
“I like, Miss Laura.”
“I’m not surprised. Most of you people like her. I don’t understand why she goes down to the shelter except that she never got married. It’s like she uses all of you as family.”
“She’s got you.”
“It’s not the same. You have any brothers, Pete?”
“Two. They don’t have anything to do with me, though.”
“See. That’s what I mean. I asked her a few weeks ago why she always went down there, and she took Peggy and me to one of her Bible studies, and this guy started talking about Christian duty. Peggy got it, but it took me a while. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but Peggy and Laura have been working on me ever since. Then you showed up. You aren’t what Peggy had in mind. She talked about serving on boards and getting involved in fundraising. But Laura said there are other ways to serve. ‘We can only do what we can do,’ she said. So that’s how it is. You’re my Christian duty, Pete. You’re what I can do, and so we’re going to sit here until Peggy lets me do it.”
Lights started going off in the houses across the street, and when Pete turned to look, the light went off inside Roger’s house.
“I don’t think she’s going to let you do your Christian duty tonight, Boss,” he said. “Maybe we should go down to the Mission before all the beds are gone. Or maybe you could go down to the hotel and get yourself a room and I’ll just go to the park.”
Roger sighed. “You don’t understand, do you, Pete?”
“I understand it’s getting cold and someone like you’s probably not used to it.”
“How’d you get to be homeless?”
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “Slept on a curb once. Then on a park bench. And soon I just sort of found I had no place else to sleep. There wasn’t a plan to it. Just happened. Like you said about Christian duty.”
“You been on the street long?”
“Got no idea. I don’t count the days. I don’t count the weeks. And I don’t count the months. I did at first, but then I realized it didn’t change anything. So, I stopped.
“But there was one day when things did change. This guy came from nowhere and took me down to the Mission. I didn’t know who he was, but I guess it was his Christian duty. He introduced me around and showed me how I could get food and a place to sleep. And people who worked there always smiled. So it was better than what I had, and I just kept going. I don’t make friends very well, but I’ve made some down there.”
Pete stopped talking and the two men sat staring at each other. Eventually Roger said, “And that’s it? That’s your whole story?”
“That’s it, Boss.”
“Don’t you get tired of living that way?”
“Sometimes. But I got no place else to go, and most people down there are like your sister and treat us good. I think you’d like it.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Roger said.
The night wore on, and the two men spent the rest of it wrapped in their own thoughts. Pete stopped looking around at the house. He spoke once when the moon came up behind the house across the street. “Look at that,” he said. But Roger, who had lain down on the curb, made no reply.
Roger woke up when Billy Wise from the house next door came out to go to school. “Good morning, Mr Grumbee,” Billy said. “You camping out?”
Roger looked up into the boy’s face but didn’t say anything. So, Billy stepped around him and went on his way.
“Good morning, Boss,” Pete said. “Sleep well?”
“What?” Roger asked as he sat up. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know. I sold my watch. You sure missed a great sunrise. I guess doing a Christian duty wore you out.”
“This is ridiculous,” Roger said and stood up. “You stay here. I’m going up to the house and make her open the door.”
“I don’t think you can do that, Boss,” Pete said.
“Cause she’s not there. She came out a little bit after the sun came up and got in your car.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Cause you looked peaceful. Am I still your Christian duty today, or was that just yesterday?”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. I waved, but she didn’t look at us. She just got in your car and drove away.”
“Why didn’t you stop her?”
“Didn’t think it was my place. You hungry?”
Roger sat down and tried to recall everything that had happened. He remembered that shortly before he fell asleep he had a plan. He would remind Peggy what her father said on their wedding day. Something about times when trusting her husband would be as important as loving him. Roger didn’t have it quite right in the morning, but he knew it was a way to get through to Peggy on this business of Christian duty. Now, in the sun, he didn’t remember exactly what he had planned to say. Not that it mattered though.
Roger looked over at Pete who just sat quietly watching him. “What did you say?” Roger asked.
“I asked if you was hungry, Boss.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I am.”
“Maybe we can get something down at your hotel.”
Roger looked away, remembering the events list he’d completely pushed from his mind the day before. “I doubt it,” he said. “They’re never going to let me set foot in there again.”
“What about your sister’s, Miss Laura’s?”
“Laura’s gone. She was leaving last night for the holidays. That’s why she was so insistent I give you a job. She hates leaving things undone.”
“Well, Boss,” Pete said, “I sure do appreciate all you did for me yesterday. Maybe I can do something for you. Maybe you can be my Christian duty like that Gandhi fellow you talked about. At the Mission they usually have something left over after they feed the people who slept there. If we go now, we might be able to get some breakfast before they put it away. I can introduce you like that other man did me.”
Pete stood up and reached down, offering to help Roger to his feet. Roger looked up at him and for the first time noticed that Pete’s eyes were probably the bluest eyes he had ever seen. “Do you think they’ll have coffee?” he asked
“They’ve always got coffee. I ain’t never seen a day they didn’t have coffee.”
“I could use a cup of coffee,” Roger said. “It’s like an elixir.”
“You said it, Boss. They got good elixir at the Mission.”
Roger stared up at Pete. Then he reached up and took the hand Pete held out to help him up. “Let’s go. I can use some elixir.”
I was nine years old and sitting on the front porch swing at my grandparents’ house with my cousin. She asked what I was going to do when I grew up, and I told her I was going to write books about Jesus. “Really?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered. “My mother will read them,” she said. “And then she’ll cry.” That was all it took. I was going to be a writer. Could there be anything better than to write something that someone else will read and then cry? But I’ve never written a book about Jesus. I write what I think I saw and what I think it means, and I don’t have to be right about any of it. When you read what I’ve written you’ll come to it with what you’ve seen, what you think you’ve seen, and what you think it means. And together we will have created art.
My writing has been published in journals like The Raintown Review and the Bacopa Literary Review, and I have a book of poems called A Matter of Mind published by FootHills Publishing.
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