It was ninety-five in the shade. I was working in a dusty Good Will trailer rearranging burlap sacks filled with old clothes, toys, pots, pans, books and other assorted items brought in by the city's good people. There was dust in my beard, my shirt, my armpits, up my crack and in my lungs. I couldn't breathe. Every five minutes I had to step outside, cough it all up and drink in some air.
I'd been working my ass off all day long. I'd get just about caught up, emptying all the sacks left beside the truck when another car would drive up and set ten more down. Or they'd leave a couch or a bed which I'd have to haul up into the trailer and toss on top of all the other couches and beds. And then say: "Thank you, have a nice day!"
By five things had calmed down considerably. I got off at six, Thank God. My back felt like a loose spool of thread, my arms wouldn't raise above my head, and my face was hurting from a bad burn. For the first time all day I had actually caught up with my work. The burlap sacks were stacked neatly six or seven high, and the reclining chairs and other ravaged bits of furniture were piled in the back of the truck, up to the ceiling. Not exactly a picture for Better Homes and Gardens, but at least nobody would get an armchair in the back of the head as they unloaded the truck.
I was just about to sit down for the first time when a bright orange pickup drove up, filled to the brim with black plastic garbage bags. As it pulled past and stopped, I saw the bumper sticker on the back: HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS.
Well, seeing the pickup, the bags and the bumper sticker, I was about to close up the truck quickly and call it a day. I felt I was definitely being punished for something. My yellow T-shirt had been soaked through many times and with all the dust and crap was now a brown T-shirt with patches of gray. I wasn't about to take any more shit.
Three of them piled out of the front seat. A real clean-cut type, frail-looking guy with blond hair and not a trace of beard, though he was well into his thirties. Electrolysis, I thought. There was a tall black man behind him, walking real slow, dressed in black, wearing dark shades so you couldn't see his eyes. Behind him was an obese woman with bleached blonde hair wearing a white halter and bright yellow shorts. All three were bright and cheerful. A bad sign.
The blond-haired man spoke. "How goes it, brother? What a pleasant afternoon! How're you enjoyin' this wonderful afternoon?"
"I'm having a great time," I said with a tired stare. I would have really enjoyed a beer and a bed.
"You look down, brother. No need to, you know? We've all sinned."
Oh shit, I thought. I hadn't even said anything, yet here it came.
"Are you a Christian?"
"Nome," I garbled, studying my feet. I wasn't going to take any shit, I reminded myself.
"Well, that's okay. We're all brothers under the eyes of the Lord." (I noticed the guy had an expensive looking Seiko attached to his wrist. It glittered in the sunlight). "Do you ever get lonely?"
"No." I turned my back and starting unloading the bags. Some were open. There were shirts proclaiming I'M BORN AGAIN!, family games--Christian variations of Monopoly and Scrabble with phrases of Thees and Thous printed on little wooden squares. And above all there were bibles. Lots and lots of bibles.
Clean Cut gave me a hand with the bags while the other two grazed in the background and watched with these big silly grins plastered to their faces.
"Do you ever wonder?"
"Nope," I mumbled. I was a machine and I was losing my steam.
"I mean about this, all this around us." He whirled around and pointed to the street, to the shopping mall behind me. "Why things are like they are. Sin, brother. Sin. Do you ever think about Jesus?"
I didn't say anything. Maybe this would stop him.
"Jesus died for our sins, you know."
"No speaka da English."
It was no use. Even if he didn't speak it, he had pamphlets written up in Spanish ready for me in his truck, I figured.
I stood listening to him a few more minutes. Trying to do my job. I usually let them talk once they started. I was a sucker for salesmen of any kind, whether they were neighbors wanting to borrow ten bucks or more religious pilferers. I figured if you gave them something they'd be happy for a while and go away, stop knocking. I had no fears of reprisals from heaven for my rejection of religious menaces. If anything, I blushed for them, for the fools they were making of themselves, and tolerated as much as I could. I'd given the pony-tailed bald guy at the airport a buck for a flower so he'd leave me. The guy at the train station who jammed the Book into my hand so I didn't have a choice--I gave him two bucks. I was a pushover, an easy mark.
But this day I guess I'd had it up to my eyeballs, I'd had enough. I was exhausted, sick from the sun and dust and people, yeah people in general.
I turned to the blond-haired man. "Listen, motherfucker. I don't want to hear another word. You understand? One more word out of that asshole of a mouth of yours and I'm gonna' lay you and the Christ within you out on the fucking pavement! You understand what I'm saying? I'm tired and sick of this lousy job and I don't need any sermons just yet. Do you understand?"
The man said nothing. It appeared that he'd stopped breathing. He'd turned pale. His eyes were wide. His sheep had stopped smiling, too. They looked concerned and shook their heads slowly back and forth. Their leader started toying absently with his hundred dollar watch. In a moment the blank look on his face filled in again with color, the brows pursed together. A little smile crept onto his face. He had taken up the challenge.
"Brother, what have we said to offend you? Where does this anger come from? You've been carrying too much on your back for too long."
"Yeah," I muttered, "hundred pound sacks since ten o'clock this morning."
"It's nothing to make light of, brother. The Burden of Man's sins--He died for those sins. No man can handle the Burden alone." He went on, quoting from Saints John, Paul, and George, Chapter this, Verse that.
I stood stiffly. Dropped my sack. Staring in disbelief at this ignorant man who had donated his brain to heaven and left me with twenty-two trash sacks to boot. I grew tense. Clenched my fists. Remembered that I didn't fight, I wasn't a fighter.
"So, what do you think, brother?"
I smiled. Smashed him hard with a left to the chin. Caught him as he was about to fall and drove my knee up into his ribcage. The sheep were agitated. Jumping up and down. Running towards their leader.
I kicked the man in shades right in the belly, locked my hands and chopped him good on the back of the neck. Down he went, shades and all.
The large woman just stood there with her hand before her face, crying, wailing. "Brother Dave, Brother Willie!"
Brother Dave (the blond-haired guy, apparently) was on the ground groaning. He propped himself up on an elbow and looked at me. The sweat was dripping down my elbows.
"It's all right, brother. We forgive you. Jesus forgives you. If only you'd listen to his Word."
I smiled real pretty and offered a hand to help him up. I was beside myself with pleasure at the moment, with my new identity as a tough guy. I felt strong. But still unconvinced.
He was standing, wiped himself off. He'd ripped his clean navy trousers at the knee. He seemed calm as he wiped the blood from his cut lip.
The bastard didn't have much sense though. He kept talking.
"It's not your fault, brother. It's something gets inside of us. Some spirit. The devil. He doesn't want to hear the Word, to know the Truth."
The Truth was that Brother Willie was out, sprawled on the pavement and his good sister had fled the scene completely. And I had done it. Hadn't I? It was a miracle. Indeed, a spirit within me had broken free. I was dizzy with the force of this newfound strength.
"Listen, brother," I said, crossing him a hard one to the heart. He gasped for breath. I chopped him another one to the chin and he, too, was lights out, dear Jesus.
There was nothing to do now, so I sat down and waited. This, in itself, was no easy task given the adrenaline that pulsed through my body. I'd hurt my wrist on that last punch, the knuckles were torn, raw, the blood was flowing out. The blood, lovely warm witness to my actions. I sat rubbing the wrist, surveying my work. The good brothers lay on the pavement opposite each other, forming a modified sort of cross. They looked peaceful, contented. Like children sleeping. Brother Dave's Seiko had smashed open and its guts lay sprawled on the cement.
It wasn't but a few minutes before the sirens rose, the red flashing cherries blazed, and the blue-suited enforcers had me spread eagle against the truck, slapped the steel cuffs onto my wrists, and threw me into the back of their squad car.
All along I smiled. I said nothing. Beaming in triumph. Even as we pulled away with the flash and noise, the static on the police radio, the ambulance attendants' rushed confusion and that woman's voice as she pointed her finger inches away from my face and threatened: "The Lord will get you for that, the Lord will get you!"
As we pulled away the driver honked his horn twice.
What else could I do but smile?
Mitchell Waldman's fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications), and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com