49

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48

All the nervousness, all the worries, all the pain and fear and self-pity washed away in my tears of laughter. People walking by on the way to the movie theater looked at us sideways.

“Dorothy,” Elizabeth said, “‘God is groovy’?”

“Well, that’s how you kids talk, right?”

Making us laugh all the harder.

We pulled ourselves together, wiping our eyes, and entered the Venice. It was again very quiet compared to the street. The tall waitress was at the register, sorting through tickets. She greeted us and said, “Say, aren’t you the girl who asked about the junkie who died in the alley?” I said I was. “Any luck finding peace about that guy?”

“Long story.”

Caleb waved us over from a booth along the wall under the mural of Venice.

“I thought you girls were a no-show tonight,” he said, eating a piece of apple pie.

We introduced him to Dorothy and sat down. We told him what happened.

“Well, thanks for going out of your way to come down and find me,” he said. “Although, I might just keep coming anyway. It’s good getting out and talking to people before they land at my door.” He took some pie on his fork but kept talking. “Take the first guy you brought over. His name’s Jack. He’s been on heroin since he was in Vietnam. He was in tough shape. Suicidal. I got him in a program. Cross your fingers, but so far so good.” He ate the pie and pointed his fork at me. Talking with his mouth full, he said, “You had the right idea, Sarah.”

“Caleb, I don’t think I’ve had the right idea about anything in my whole life.”

“Now you stick a sock in it, Sarah,” Dorothy said, visibly angry. It startled me. “Look, you’ve had a rough time of it. You have, by anyone’s measure. But here’s the thing: You are strong. You are stronger than anyone I know. You had a terrible father. Well, you got out of there and made a life. A man died in your arms; you set out to help people. Brother Jed became a tyrant; you took charge. Can’t you see that?”

They all looked at me. I looked down. “All I know is, I wanted to save someone.”

“But you did,” Elizabeth said, taking my hands in hers.

“That man? Jack?”

Dorothy nodded. “You saved yourself.”

**

I kept my wood cross, eventually hanging it on the bedroom wall of my own apartment. One might think I would have thrown it away, but the fact was, I couldn’t say that I regretted One Path. Funny thing: I sought faith in the Lord, but what I found was faith in myself and faith in other people, like Elizabeth, Dorothy, and Caleb. I looked to Jesus to heal, but healing came instead from the people around me. I know what Jed would have said, that that is the hand of Jesus. And maybe he would be right. But I knew from then on that when I needed help, I would not look up into the air, up at a symbol, or to a self-appointed messiah, but instead start by looking around me to all the good people in my life.

 

THE END

47

“I knew it was time for me to go,” Elizabeth said. “And I’m sorry to have dragged you along. Thing is, at first I thought he was like Christ himself on earth, but lately, he looked very much mortal to me. Jed wants everyone to believe he is a good man. And he is a good man, but at the same time, he’s also in it for himself. He likes the spotlight. He likes having all these people—women in particular—look up to him.” She stroked my hair.

I wiped my nose with a fabric napkin.

“Maybe we should reconsider getting Jed that ass kicking he so richly deserves,” Dorothy said. We laughed, tension lifted. “I think he did both of you a big favor by evicting you from that would-be church.” She took a careful sip of tea. “Plus, you girls had the right idea, helping those men. Someone has to do something. I think getting that man from the vet agency was a stroke of genius.” She laughed.

Then it occurred to me, “We forgot about Caleb.”

“What about Caleb?” Elizabeth replied.

“It’s Tuesday, and tonight is the night we were going to meet him to try again.”

Dorothy suggested I give him a call, so I called New Path, but he had already gone. We tried again later, but the same result.

“What should we do, Elizabeth?” I asked, both of us looking out the windows onto the lake, the sun setting early on what had been a beautiful day. “He was so nice, so helpful. We should tell him we won’t be there anymore.”

“I don’t relish going down there and seeing Brother Jed,” Elizabeth said.

“Let’s all go,” Dorothy replied.

*

Dorothy drove us in her little Honda Civic. When we had gone to her big two-story carriage house, I was surprised to see such a little car. Dorothy was not a great driver, speeding and accelerating through yellow lights. But I couldn’t drive at all, so what could I say?

We parked in a parking lot by the Mann Theater and found ourselves across the street from Shinders. Brother Jed was in his usual spot, as were Mary and Olive and two other girls, our replacements.

“You ready?” Elizabeth asked.

I nodded, and we crossed with the light, Dorothy out in front, wearing a floppy hat and long coat that dragged a little on the ground.

“Have you heard the Good Word?” the young sister, a teenager really, asked me.

She didn’t recognize us. I had on a down jacket over a pantsuit, and Elizabeth a wool coat over jeans and a flowery shirt, clothes Dorothy found for us.

You could see the sister’s glassy-eyed look turn to awareness, and she stepped back, saying nothing.

Mary saw the young sister’s reaction and then saw us. “Elizabeth? Sar…Sarah?” She hesitated at first but then rushed over. “I’m so-so-so sor-ry.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about. “For what, Mary?”

“We…we turned our back on you.”

Then I realized she was referring to when we were at the church.

Elizabeth squeezed Mary’s hand. “It’s okay, really. We understand.”

Olive joined us and said how happy she was to see us. She leaned in. “I hope you are back. Jed’s been a tyrant all week.”

“Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothes; their true colors have been revealed to be that of the devil!” Jed yelled, pointing his Bible at us.

“I’m afraid not, Olive,” Elizabeth said.

Mary began to cry.

“So that’s the guy, eh?” Dorothy said. “Ladies, come around.” Dorothy waved all four sisters over, who did as they were told, not knowing what else to do. “Listen up. That man is a fraud. Sarah and Elizabeth know it, and if you really think about it, you do, too. Remember, God is groovy, Jed is not.”

They didn’t know what to do, so they stood there, looking at each other.

“Demons, be gone!” Jed yelled. “Do not pollute the faithful with your poisonous ways!”

“Oh, stick a sock in it, Jed,” Elizabeth yelled back. The three of us held our heads high, and we walked past down Seventh Street.

Just before the Venice Café, I stopped. I started laughing. Elizabeth and Dorothy looked at me like I was crazy, but then Elizabeth started to laugh. “You know how long I wanted to say that?” she said, which brought us all to hysterics.

46

TEN

EVENTUALLY, DOROTHY BOUGHT US LUNCH before taking us to her home as if we were a couple of strays. And I guess we were. Her house was huge, and she showed me to a guest room that she said was all mine. Even though it was only early afternoon, I went right to bed.

I didn’t get up the next morning, or even in the afternoon. By the next evening, I began to tire of staring at the ceiling and crying. I got dressed and went downstairs.

Elizabeth and Dorothy were just sitting down to dinner, and Dorothy said, “Perfect timing, Sarah.” She had a servant—a servant!—who brought us our meals,  a delicious dinner like I’d never had before, duck and cherries and asparagus. The servant woman asked if we wanted wine, and we said no.

“Girls, even Jesus drank wine,” Dorothy said, making Elizabeth laugh and, finally, me too.

Elizabeth asked Dorothy about her house, a mansion really, on Lake of the Isles, one of a number of huge houses facing a beautiful park filled with people walking and biking and simply enjoying the fresh air.

“It’s just me, now,” Dorothy replied. Dorothy had lost her husband three years before. He had been a college dean and was seventy when he died. She said “only” seventy; I guess when you’re in your seventies yourself, it no long seems old. She had three adult children, “Older than you two,” she said. All “off doing their thing,” leaving Dorothy to walk around the lake and go to various “club functions.” Whatever those were, she never said.

We ate and talked, and it was all very happy, ignoring the big cloud above our heads. But Dorothy had a way of keeping our spirits up, maybe because she was so strong and confident. In fact, Elizabeth, too, who seemed hurt but determined. Strange, I didn’t feel confident or determined, just lost and hopeless.

 

 

ELEVEN

DOROTHY WAS A WONDERFUL AND GENEROUS HOST. The servant, a nice older woman, brought us anything we wanted whenever we wanted it, from fruit and cheese to pastries. We fell into a routine of walks and tea and full meals. The next few days went by fast, and soon Elizabeth and Dorothy seemed to be old friends. I held back, sleeping late and trying to spend as much time as I could by myself. Happily, they seemed to be giving me room to do just that. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the harm I’d caused—to Elizabeth, to the tabernacle, to all those men I thought I was saving.

After almost a week, after another delicious dinner—I could feel my clothes growing tighter—we went to the sunroom which looked over the park. I sat next to Elizabeth on the couch.

“What can we do with you girls?” Dorothy said, pouring me tea. “I wonder if I know someone who could kick that man’s ass.“

Elizabeth laughed, but I said, “No, don’t do that!” which just made both Elizabeth and Dorothy laugh harder.

“Don’t worry, we won’t resort to violence,” Dorothy said, patting my knee.

Elizabeth said we had no idea what we would do. There weren’t a lot of options.

“Well, don’t you worry. You can stay here until you get on your feet,” Dorothy said. “But not too long. You two need to get out of your feeling-sorry-for-yourselves pit and get a job. Don’t misunderstand. I love having you both here—I mean, I live in a mausoleum, for Christ sake—but I bet you’d like to get your own place and get on with your lives.” Dorothy looked between the two of us sitting on the big couch. “What kind of job experience do you have?”

“I worked fast food when I was in high school,” Elizabeth said.

I looked down. “I never had a job. I just took care of my father.” A tear dropped in my lap.

Dorothy leaned forward. “Now I’ve upset you. I’m sorry.” She touched my knee again. “We don’t have to talk about jobs or your evil father or anything you don’t want to.”

I had told her about everything, including my father. But that wasn’t it. “I just feel like everything I touch I ruin.”

Elizabeth grabbed me and hugged me, holding me tight. “Sarah, no. You didn’t ruin anything. I’ve had it with ol’ Brother Jed for a long time. I’m sorry I got you in trouble. I convinced you to leave that night.”

“No! You were there for me. I owe you everything.”

45

We walked down the street, the opposite direction from where we normally walked to Hennepin or the tabernacle. The streets were muddy from the melting snow and whatever filth it mixed with, and I knew my shoes would never be clean again. All I could think about, even though we were probably going to die and go to hell, was the condition of my shoes.

Eventually, we found ourselves at a tiny diner called the Band Box, a strange little building on a triangular lot. “I’m cold,” Elizabeth said. She went in, and wordlessly I followed.

The place was mostly empty, being midmorning, with an old man drinking coffee at the counter and another old man dressed in rags at a table. I could smell him from across the little room. Elizabeth told the man with tattoos on each arm behind the counter that we were locked out of our apartment, and she asked if we could sit for a little while until we could contact someone and get in. He said sure.

We sat near the window. The man asked us if we wanted anything, and we said we didn’t have any money. He left, went behind the counter, and came back. “On the house,” he said, and poured us each a coffee. An act of kindness I promised myself I would never forget.

“Could we talk to Jed, explain what happened? Would he listen?” I said.

“In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him listen to anyone,” Elizabeth said.

The man in rags a few tables away was looking at us, and it made me fidget. I tried the coffee. I had never tasted coffee before; neither my father nor Grams drank it. It tasted terrible.

Elizabeth asked about my family, if I could go back. I told her everything, the whole story, no matter how much it hurt. She looked very concerned, and at the end, she said, “I’m sorry. That explains a lot.”

I didn’t know what she meant by that, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I asked Elizabeth if she had a family to go to. She said she was from Milwaukee and her family had pretty much divorced her when she was using drugs and living on the street before she found the Lord. I hadn’t known any of that before. Why hadn’t we talked like that earlier? We lived together. How could we have been such strangers?

I looked at the man in rags again, who was still staring at me. It took me a few seconds to realize he was touching himself. I looked away.

“Sarah, it’s going to be okay, okay? We’ll figure something out. Just remember to breathe. We escaped Brother Jed. It can only be uphill from here.” She smiled.

“Escape.” I remembered that nice woman, Dorothy, and what she said about “if you ever decide to escape.” I had no idea what she was talking about then, but now I did. I told Elizabeth about her and what she said.

“I don’t have a better idea. Give her a try.”

I didn’t have her number, but I remembered her full name, Dorothy Bussey, and she was easy enough to find in the phone book. The proprietor was nice enough to let us use the phone.

We were in luck, and she answered. She needed to be reminded of who I was. But then, “Oh, yes, I remember you. You’re the poor girl who had that terrible fright.”

A half-hour later, Dorothy joined Elizabeth and me at the Band Box. We told her the whole story, and she seemed to really listen to us.

“Sarah, I was surprised when you called, but I’m so glad you did. Girls, that sounds like a horrible experience. Goddamn men. What is it with having a wiener that makes them think they can push people around?”

I was shocked by such language, but also amused and a little pleased.

“What are you going to do?” Dorothy asked.

Neither of us answered. We had no idea.

“Well, we’ll figure it out,” Dorothy said. “You two are coming home with me.” She took a sip of coffee and, for what appeared to be the first time, noticed the man dressed in rags. She yelled across the restaurant, “Proprietor! That man is masturbating in your restaurant!”

He came from around the counter and chased the dirty man out into the street, curses flying both ways. Dorothy leaned over, as if in confidence, and said, “I mean, really. There must be a health code.”

44

Elizabeth came over, and I told her he left.

“Well, I suppose so. He has a nonprofit to run. He can’t be out here all night.”

I told her about his not coming back until next week.

“Yikes. I guess he can’t be out here every night, either.”

“But we can, sister?”

She looked at me and looked up into the snow falling harder around us. “Come on.” She walked with big strides up to Brother Jed, who was just getting to the best part of the story of Cain and Abel, preaching to no one except a young man who held onto a signpost, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.

“Jed, we are going home,” Sister Elizabeth yelled. “Mary! Olive! Come on, we’re leaving,” even bolder than the night before.

Brother Jed hesitated just a bit before continuing the story. Sisters Mary and Olive looked confused, looking back and forth between me and Elizabeth and Brother Jed. Elizabeth picked up the snowy box of extra pamphlets, and she and I started for the corner. We headed across the street of slush and dirt, feet sliding, sound muffled by the falling wet snow. We kept moving, head down against the weather, until at the other side I stopped and turned, only to have Mary and Olive almost walk into me. Brother Jed stood on his stool across the street, still waving his Bible, but looking at us. We turned and walked back to the apartment.

 

 

NINE

THE NEXT DAY I AWOKE TO THE SMELL OF BACON AND EGGS. I got up and went into the kitchen, where Elizabeth was cooking up an old-fashioned breakfast fit for a farmer.

“I thought we should celebrate,” she said.

“There’s not much to celebrate.”

“Oh, I think there’s a lot to celebrate.” She laid a plate in front of me with not only the bacon and eggs but also fresh biscuits. “I think you earned this.”

I asked where Mary and Olive were.

“They went to the tabernacle early.” Apparently, they had some tasks they didn’t finish the day before.

We ate breakfast. We laughed. I felt light, even though it made no sense because that evening I’d be back into the same predicament I was in before. Still, maybe sharing the task with Elizabeth made it lighter. Jesus makes all our burdens lighter, but all the praying I had done didn’t hold a thimble to the feeling I got from sharing with Elizabeth.

We walked to the tabernacle. The snow from the night before was already melting; the ground too warm to hold it, and the sun was bright, albeit at a November angle. Fall can be a beautiful time of year, but I think it can be a bit melancholy, too. It’s a time of transition from what was to what’s unknown.

I opened the door to the tabernacle. Brother Jed was onstage with all the sisters—over a dozen of them, new and old—seated in front of him. Mary and Olive sat apart in the front row, heads bowed in prayer.

Brother Jed saw us and stopped. He planted his feet as if readying to lift something heavy. His eyes grew big. “Be gone! Demons!” He slowly, dramatically lifted his arm and pointed at us. “This is a holy place! Be gone!”

No one turned their head, no one looked. Mary and Olive still prayed. All this because we went home the night before?

“Jed…” Elizabeth called to the stage.

“That man told me about your arrangement! Using our ministry to deal drugs!”

That was it. Of course, Johnny told him, just like he said he would.

“Don’t be an idiot, Jed. He was deceiving poor Sarah…”

He started off the stage, arm still ramrod straight, pointing at us. “Satan, leave this holy place!”

I didn’t know what to do. I held my wood cross tight in my pocket. He had to understand that I was trying to do good. Trying to do the right thing.

“Come on, Sarah,” Sister Elizabeth said.

We went back out the door into the cold street.

*

Back at the apartment, Elizabeth tried her key and then mine, but the locks had already been changed. We weren’t getting in. Jed must have had it all planned. The church rented the apartment; our names weren’t on anything. What could we do? So we left.

Out on the sidewalk, I was too stunned to say or do anything. What would become of us? It was just like three years earlier at the downtown library. Then I was lucky that Brother Jed came along to save me, but I knew no one would be along to save me now.

“Don’t worry, Sarah,” Elizabeth said. “Okay? Can you keep it together for me? I’ll figure out something.”

But one thing was very different from three years before. This time I wasn’t alone, and I hung onto that idea with whatever strength I had left.

43

EIGHT

AN EARLY SNOW FELL. Still before Thanksgiving, it was unseasonable but not unheard of. I wore a hat that Olive had knit for me and given to me just that day. Brother Jed wasn’t slowed by the weather, and the snow melted on contact with him, wearing no coat but filled with fire.

A group of young people, two men and three women, wearing not nearly enough for the cold, walked by laughing and stumbling. I’m not sure if they were drunk or high or simply finding it hard to navigate the new snow in their platform shoes. I should have approached them, but I didn’t.

All day Brother Jed had been looking at Sister Elizabeth and me sideways. He was unhappy with us—that was certain. He didn’t understand, of course. We didn’t tell him what we were doing, in part because I still didn’t want him to know how I had put the tabernacle in jeopardy. But now it was more that I didn’t want him to stop me.

Johnny crossed the street, his coat hood up over his head. My heart jumped. “Moby Dick’s. It’s too fucking cold out here,” he said and walked on down the avenue.

Elizabeth came to my side right away. We looked at each other. “He’s at Moby Dick’s Bar,” I said. Sister Elizabeth nodded and walked in the opposite direction around the corner.

I went back to handing out The Word to people passing by, who were few, given the weather.

The short young woman with a crew cut walked up to me. “Have you heard the word of the Waldos?” she said, thrusting a flyer in my hand.

I looked at the paper; it appeared to be for a band. The man with glasses she worked with joined her, seeming a little embarrassed.

“Have you heard the Word of the Lord?” I held out a pamphlet in each hand to the two of them. They hesitated. “Fair is fair,” I said.

She looked at me and smiled. He laughed. “Yes, fair is fair,” she said, and they both took one and moved on. Finally. I folded her flyer into quarters and put it in my pocket.

A dirty man with long hair, in jeans and a sweat shirt with holes in the elbows, walked up the sidewalk. I recognized him as that very same man I’d seen many times before. He looked worse than ever.

“Praise and all that—where’s Scorpion? I need Scorpion.”

It was the moment we had planned for, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Then I thought about the temple and the moneychangers. “This way, brother.”

I walked him around the corner, down the sidewalk, toward the alley. He followed, seeming nervous. When we got to the alley, Caleb stepped out.

“How’s it going, my friend?” Caleb said.

“What is this?” He wheeled around, right then left. “Are you a cop? I’m not doing anything. I’m just…”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m on your side. I just want to talk to you a minute.”

I drifted away, slowly at first, then I turned and walked quickly back to the corner. I looked back, and the man and Caleb were still talking.

“Well, that worked. I think,” Sister Elizabeth said, now standing behind my right shoulder.

I went back to handing out pamphlets with a newfound zeal. Maybe I could help these men. Maybe, just like I thought I was doing with Johnny but wasn’t, I could help them get the help they needed.

*

Over the next two hours, I walked two more men down the alley to Caleb, neither of whom were as receptive to conversation as the first guy. Oh, I didn’t have any illusions; much like how I knew and accepted that not everyone I talked to on the corner would find Jesus, I was sure that not everyone Caleb talked to would go to New Path and kick drugs. But it was a start.

We sisters worked the corner with few people to talk to, a fact that didn’t slow Brother Jed’s preaching one bit. We tried to keep warm, but my jacket was too light, and my feet were wet from the snow.

Caleb came around the corner. “Pretty quiet,” he said.

I suggested that it might be the weather.

“You’d think a junkie wouldn’t care much about that. If you gotta fix, you gotta fix.” He said he would be taking off. “But, Sarah, I really appreciate what you are doing. How about next Tuesday we try again?”

Next week! I hadn’t considered that. What would I do the next day and the next and the next? Send people to Johnny? I hadn’t solved anything!

He left with a smile.