32

Sister Elizabeth asked what I found out, and I told them what I knew. “I wonder if he was a Christian,” I said.

“You could go…to the…the funeral,” Sister Mary said.

“Oh, I could never do that.” I put my fork down and looked down at my plate.

“Why not?” Sister Elizabeth said.

“Wouldn’t that be presumptuous?” I could not look at them.

“Sarah, the poor man died in your arms. I think you have a right to go to his funeral.” Sister Elizabeth sounded a little exasperated.

“What would Brother Jed say?”

“Don’t worry about that, Sarah. You go if you need to.”

 

 

FOUR

SATURDAY I GOT OFF THE BUS across the street from the cremation society, a modern building in a nice neighborhood. I was surprised to see that it looked much like any funeral home; it appeared very respectful and tasteful, but also very nondenominational. People were arriving, cars pulling in the lot on the south side, and several people stood by the doors talking. I waited for traffic to clear on the busy four-lane street and crossed.

I walked up to the door, and, taking a deep breath, I walked right in. A good number of people milled about, many older, nearly all dressed in black. I did not own any black, so I wore what I always wore, plus my favorite green sweater that Sister Olive knit for me. I took it off and draped it over my arm. In the entrance, a table held mimeographed programs, and on the front of the program was a picture of Mr. Finnegan holding two little boys on some happy occasion. I put a program in my pocket. I looked around. No crosses were in sight. Nature photography decorated the lobby, and the furniture looked much like what I grew up with, Danish Modern. Beautiful flower arrangements lined one wall, and I wondered if they were all for Mr. Finnegan or were there other services that day?

I walked through the crowd to where a bulletin board covered in pictures leaned against the wall. There he was. As a child, playing on a swing. Learning to ski. Riding a bicycle. A teen going to the prom. In a letter jacket with a girl. There he was as an adult, as a father, as a husband. At Christmas. On vacations. In front of a barbecue. Behind the counter of what looked like a pharmacy. He looked much heavier than I remembered him. Cheeks round. Nothing hinted at how we met.

People crowded around to get a good look at the pictures, so I made way. I moved slowly across the room, through the people standing in twos, threes, and fours. I listened carefully. People socialized with each other as if it were a party, and sometimes I heard snippets of conversation about Mr. Finnegan.

“I can’t believe this,” a chubby gray-haired woman said to a bald man.

“It’s just sad is all. Just sad,” he said.

“He had such a great sense of humor. And he would do anything for you.”

“So true. Do you want something to drink?” And off they went to the punch bowl.

I stopped next to a tall blond woman holding a baby. “Do you know what he was on?” she said.

“I heard heroin,” her friend, a thin woman in a dress far too short and shoes far too tall, replied.

“Heroin! That’s so low class.”

“That’s what I hear, anyway.”

“I mean, who uses heroin? Now coke or Quaaludes, sure, but heroin?”

The smell of flowers was overwhelming, and between the smell and all the strange things, I began to feel a little dizzy. I got to the far wall where there was a very modern green sofa. I sat and watched. I found it fascinating; I had not been to a funeral in eight years, when my grams died shortly after I turned sixteen. That funeral looked a lot like this, except the people were a lot older and there were a lot fewer of them. Grams was old, and not too many of her friends were there at the end. I was so upset; she had taken care of me like a daughter, and I missed her so.

Now I felt happy for Grams. And I was happy for Mr. Finnegan as well. They were in the arms of Jesus. I know Grams was, anyway.

31

I opened the paper.

“Don’t let Brother Jed catch you,” she teased.

“I want to see if there is something about that man.” The obituaries were toward the back. I looked them over one at a time, and there he was.

 

Albert Finnegan Jr.

Born 6/2/1948, died 10/02/1979

Survived by his two children, Jason, seven, and Samuel, four

Parents Albert Finnegan Sr., Margaret Finnegan

Sister Donna Rosenthal, Ex-wife Patti Boyle

Services Saturday, 10/6/79, 2 p.m. at the Cremation Society

Albert touched so many people’s lives and will be remembered for his helpful, supportive nature. Sadly, his disease took him from us before his time.

 

It said he died of a disease. The police said it was drugs. He had children. Two children. He was married at one time, but not at the end. Could he have been Christian? He was being cremated, but that did not mean anything anymore. “Finnegan” was an Irish name; he could have been Catholic or Episcopalian, either of which would mean he would have been far from Jesus. But he could have been saved at some point.

I wanted to know more.

 

 

THREE

I SHARED A VERY NICE TWO-BEDROOM APARTMENT with Sister Olive, Sister Mary, and Sister Elizabeth in an old apartment building with wood floors and dark woodwork. Sometimes it got cold in the winter, but we made do. We tried to live very simply, and the only things on the walls were a beautiful picture of Jesus and a cross in the dining room. The tabernacle paid the rent. The four of us needed to live together, Brother Jed said, because the devil is always trying to make people stray, especially women. The One Path Tabernacle had many, many followers, and about ten sisters at any one time helped at the church, but Brother Jed said the four of us were his right hand.

The next night was Sister Elizabeth’s night to cook, and she made her delicious lasagna—the secret was in the cashews, she said. Sister Elizabeth looked after us, being the oldest at thirty years old and having been with the tabernacle since Brother Jed founded it five years before. Sister Elizabeth was tall and strong with long black hair. She always took new girls under her wing until they knew how things were done and they got over feeling homesick, which happened to everyone for a while. I admired her. I hoped someday I could be like Sister Elizabeth for new girls joining the church.

“Sister Mary, will you say the blessing?” she said.

“Bless this…bless this, oh Father…our…”

Sister Mary was a good friend, and we shared a room. She looked quite the opposite of Sister Elizabeth—not that she was not beautiful in her own way, only that she was shorter and more round with a round face. She was a little slow. She had some sort of problem at birth, but she did very well, and she had us now.

We ate. We talked about work we needed to do at the church. We talked about one of the new girls and how hard it was for her to come around and see the Way. We talked about the previous day on the corner and our challenges and our blessings.

“I think that old blind man who lives with his son in the Rand is going to come to the tabernacle,” Sister Olive said.

“You mean that stocky man, right?” Sister Elizabeth said. “He’s not blind.”

Sister Olive set her fork down. “Not blind?”

“I’ve seen him walking around without the glasses or the cane.”

“But why—”

“Imagine if he could see, where was he looking at you?” Elizabeth took a drink of water.

“Oh…oh!” Sister Olive said. “And we talked for a good fifteen minutes. I even gave him a hug. Two.” She looked down at her plate; after a moment, she went back to her lasagna.

“Sister Mary, how was your evening?” Sister Elizabeth said.

Sister Mary dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin and sat up straight. “Go…good. God was good to…to me tonight. No one took…the Lord’s name in vain…at…me…all evening.”

“I guess that’s something. Did I see you reading the paper, Sister Sarah?” Sister Elizabeth said, taking another bite.

“Sarah wanted to know about the man who died,” Sister Olive said. I was not sure if she was trying to defend me or tattle on me.

Sister Elizabeth smiled and said to me, “That’s okay. You can look at the newspaper if you want.”

That confused me. Brother Jed said that the news was for earthly pursuits, and the Good News was the only news that mattered.

30

God was kind. We were blessed with a beautiful Indian summer evening to do God’s work, the last of the day’s sun reflected off the buildings, growing dimmer until all that remained were neon lights. A typical night on the avenue, all sorts of people walked by, while cars moved back and forth, bunching up at the lights in a sort of city dance.

However, I could not stop thinking about Mr. Finnegan. I was the last person to see him alive, and I did not know anything about him, other than his name. Was he saved? Did he have a family? How did he end up dying such a terrible death there in the alley?

Brother Jed preached up a storm. He was beautiful with his blue eyes and long, dark hair in a ponytail. When he preached, he would stand on his stool and twist and spin and gyrate his thin body, throwing his hands up in the air, screaming, and doing everything Jesus asked of him. He had a fire that came from Jesus himself. Anyone could see it, if only they would stop and look.

Our goal was to get people to look. As Brother Jed preached, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Mary, Sister Olive, and I handed out pamphlets and tried to engage people in conversation. Although Brother Jed wore a suit, we dressed humbly. All the better to relate to the people, Jed said. We wore long skirts and white shirts buttoned up to our necks and scarves over our heads.

“Have you heard the Word of the Lord?” I said to the short girl with the crew cut and black boots. She worked at Shinders, and I saw her almost every evening.

“Yeah. Funny you ask. Just the other day he bought a Tribune from me. I was surprised how much he sounded like Mel Brooks. He wanted me to ask you: What’s the deal with the schmatte?”

Who Mel Brooks was and what schmatte meant, I had no idea. She usually had something—God, forgive me—smart-alecky to say. Someday she was going to take a pamphlet, I was sure of it.

Hennepin Avenue was the perfect place to do his work, on one of the busiest corners in the city, surrounded by bars and other sinful businesses. It did not make our work easy, but it made it that much more important.

A man in a suit with a newspaper came out of Shinders.

“Sir, would you like to hear the Word of the Lord?”

“Fuck off.”

I watched him walk down the street. That man was one of God’s children; if he remembered that, he would not talk like that. The devil clouded his view. He glanced at his newspaper.

The newspaper! I thought. It should have something about Mr. Finnegan in it!

Brother Jed was occupied, facing the other direction, having what looked like a serious discussion with three young men who seemed to be looking for an argument. I put my pamphlets in the front pocket of my jean skirt and went into the newsstand. I had only been in there once or twice. It felt strange. It seemed really bright and colorful from all the books and magazines, and the floor creaked like the floor in the tabernacle. I got in line behind a man buying a magazine. I could see it was pornography, and I averted my eyes. When he finished, I picked up a Minneapolis Star and gave a quarter to the man with black-rimmed glasses.

Marmaduke is especially funny today,” he said.

Back out on the street, I stood by the store window where there was good light. It had been many years since I read the Star. The front page had a story about the new pope, John Paul II, coming to New York, speaking to a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden. How different from our little ministry on the corner with no one watching. I was not worried, though. Brother Jed always said that people are lost now, but more and more people are turning away from their pagan ways of popes and porn and finding their way back to Jesus.

“What do you have there, Sister Sarah?” Sister Olive said, looking over my shoulder. Olive was only eighteen, having come to us two years earlier after selling her body on the street for drugs. She was saved, of course, but still, something about her brought unwanted attention from men, especially on Hennepin. Maybe it was because she was—how do I put this?—large. Even as modestly as we dressed, men seem to notice that. I was thankful men usually left me alone. I kept my long sandy hair up under a scarf, and I did not wear makeup; it was strictly forbidden.

29

He turned back, looking inside me with his blue eyes. “In our teachings, we know our bodies are a temple. A temple to Jesus. When we abuse that temple, be it through drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, sex, or dancing, we are abusing Jesus’s temple. Another way to put it is that Jesus gave us our bodies for a purpose, and that purpose is to do his work. When you destroy your body, you are destroying his work.” He circled back until he stood next to me and rubbed my back. “Do you understand, Sister Sarah?”

I leaned over and put my head in my hands. “I do. Really, I do. I just wish I could have saved him.” I reached in the pocket of my jean skirt and rubbed my cross, a small wood one Brother Jed gave me when I first met him.

“Now remember: Only Jesus can save.”

I looked up at him. “Certainly, Brother Jed. I did not mean…I mean, I tried to…” I started to cry even more. “I thought if I prayed hard enough, if I asked Jesus just right, he would save the man. Why did he not save Mr. Finnegan?”

He placed his hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps it was a test.”

I looked up. With the lights behind him, he looked like Jesus himself. “A test?”

He paced away again across the old stage, floorboards creaking. Suddenly he turned back to me. “Yes, perhaps Jesus was testing you, Sister.”

“Why?”

Brother Jed had that fire in his eyes. “To see if you have faith. Faith that he knows what is best. Faith that you have given up control to him.”

I jumped out of the folding metal chair. “How can that be, Brother Jed? How can that be?” I waved my hands about, one holding a tissue and the wood cross, the other the hot chocolate, sloshing a drop on the floor. “Are you telling me Jesus killed that man to see if I have faith?”

“No, I don’t mean—” he said with a lot less fire.

“How could Jesus do something like that? Just to test me?”

Sisters Elizabeth and Olive light as butterflies touched my shoulder and helped me back in the chair.

“No, I mean…What I mean is, like right now, Sister. You doubt Jesus right now. Doubting he knows the plan. The plan for all of us. You doubt him right now.”

“You are saying I failed the test?”

“No. Not at all. Only—”

I got up again from the folding chair and walked toward the large oak cross on the wall. “That if I only had more faith, I could have saved him. I could have saved the man.”

“No—”

“A test. It was a test.” For the first time since we arrived back at the tabernacle, I stopped crying. I looked at the cross, and I knew Brother Jed was right: God put Mr. Finnegan in front of me as a test, a test of my faith, and I failed. I could have saved him if only I had tried harder. I failed him. If only I had enough faith in him and his glory. Right then I vowed I would never let that happen again; next time I would be the vessel for his work, and not let him, or anyone, down. Brother Jed was so right. I decided right then two things: First, the next time Jesus gave me a test, I would not fail. Second, I had to make up for failing that man. I had to save someone.

 

 

                               TWO

WE WALKED ACROSS THE AVENUE in front of a row of headlights, Brother Jed in the lead with his head up, Bible held to his chest, with Elizabeth, Olive, Mary, and me following, all us sisters quiet, heads down. At our familiar corner at Seventh Street and Hennepin Avenue in front of Shinders Newsstand, we got to work. Jed snapped his stool open and set it down in the middle of the sidewalk, and I put the box I had been carrying against the wall and handed out a stack of pamphlets to each sister, finally taking a stack myself. We gathered in a circle and prayed for a successful evening. Jed led the prayer, loud enough for all to hear, and then stepped up on his stool holding his Bible high, yelling the Good Word as if his booming voice were Gabriel’s horn.

28

A dirty man with long hair, in jeans and a sweat shirt with holes in the elbows, turned the corner, walking away down Seventh Street. Jed told us not to chase people, but I hurried anyway and caught him and held out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Word of the Lord?” He looked sick but smiled just a bit and kept stumbling along in the direction of the Venice Café. I had seen him many times, and it was always the same. I thought, someday, someday soon, I am going to reach that man.

A man in a green leisure suit came out of the Venice, stumbling badly. He nearly bumped into the dirty man. The Venice man seemed confused, but weirdly happy, too. He slowly turned in circles, looking up. Two young men said something to him, laughed, and walked on.  The World Theater door opened, and a line of people flooded out, chatting and laughing, surrounding the leisure suit man, who seemed confused or maybe even panicky. He turned away and walked into the alley.

So many lost souls. Standing on that corner most nights had made me painfully aware of the damage the devil can do, and this man was especially damaged.

I continued to spread the Good News, but I could not stop thinking about the man in the leisure suit. He had looked like he needed help—not only spiritual help but also physical help right then. I had a duty to perform on the corner for our church and Brother Jed, but was it not also important to be of service, just as Jesus was to the downtrodden?

I went down the street to just before the Venice Café. At the alley, I peered in. It was very dark, but I could see someone lying on the pavement, face up, arms out like Jesus on the cross. “Sir?” I said, carefully approaching. No one else was around that I could see, but I felt frightened. I knelt down next to him. His eyes were open but, I thought, not seeing. I touched his shoulder. “Sir? Are you okay?” He looked past me as if looking straight to heaven. He mumbled something. I leaned closer. “What did you say?”

“Forgive me.”

I began to cry and sat down on the damp pavement. I lifted his head into my lap and put my hand on his forehead. “Jesus forgives you. Jesus forgives us all.”

He looked at me. My head shaded him from the light above. “You are so beautiful,” he said.

*

“Brother Jed, I tried to save him. I really did.” I wiped my nose with a tissue. “The poor man. He just lay there, staring up at me. He had this peaceful smile.”

We sat on the stage of the tabernacle on metal folding chairs, Sisters Olive, Mary, and Elizabeth at my side with Brother Jed in front of me, knees almost touching. Sister Mary got up and walked quietly away.

“Did you pray for him?” Brother Jed asked.

“Oh, yes! Yes!” I leaned forward and grabbed his hand. I needed to hold his hand. “I prayed as hard as I could. Believe me, Brother Jed. Do you believe me?”

“Of course, Sister Sarah. Of course, I believe you. You did everything you could. Jesus must have wanted him home.”

My tears kept coming. “I understand, Brother Jed. I do. As I held Mr. Finnegan—”

“Mr. Finnegan?”

“The police call him Mr. Finnegan.” I blew my nose with a honk, something Grams used to say not to do. “As I held Mr. Finnegan and prayed, he closed his eyes and was gone. Just like that. It must have been Jesus’s will, I understand. But the poor man. Dying in a dirty, smelly alley.”

“Now Sister Sarah—”

I blew my nose again, only more discreetly. “You should have seen him, Brother Jed. You should have seen him.” Sister Mary came back just as quietly as she had left, putting a mug of hot chocolate in my free hand before sitting back down.

Brother Jed caressed the back of my hand. “Now, calm down now. Remember the teachings. People who go down the road that man went down are going to have to answer to Jesus. Sinners—”

“But how do you know he was a sinner? He looked like a good man. He looked like any other of Jesus’s children. Only lost. Oh, so lost.”

He stood up and paced a few feet across the stage with his hands behind his back. “You are so young, Sister Sarah. The police officer told you it was most likely a drug overdose, right?”

I nodded. Even before taking a sip, the cup’s warmth and the hot chocolate smell felt soothing.

27

“Whew! What a relief.” He handed me the bag with my burger.

I settled in to enjoy the first food I had had all day. And it tasted good, like steak to a starving man.

As I ate, I decided two things: “Serious” is underappreciated, and “fun” is overrated. That was one. Second was, after all that had happened, I would go to the Venice Café and ask that beautiful waitress out. Brother, life is short.

An old guy came down the stairs. It took me a second, but I realized it was the old blind guy, only with no cane or sunglasses. He headed toward the door, but he stopped when he saw me eating.

“Young man, where’d you get that burger?”

“Moby Dick’s. Hey, aren’t you the blind guy?”

“Yeah, used to be. Isn’t that something?” He laughed. “People used to say flogging your Polish made you blind, but they got it backward.”

 

 

FIVE

I HAD THE MORNING SHIFT THE NEXT DAY. I got off the bus at Fifth and walked up Hennepin to work. At nine thirty, the avenue was quiet except for a crazy man in rags screaming something about nothing that made sense. He stood in the middle of the street, waving his hands in the air. I ignored him as usual.

I went in Shinders, the corner newsstand, and grabbed a Tribune from the counter. The short cashier girl with a crew cut was laughing with the guy with glasses. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you,” she said, coming over. “How’s it going?”

“Better than yesterday.”

Chulo was already at the job when I got in. I opened the newspaper, and I found it, right on the front page. “Hey,” I yelled over to Chulo, who was, as usual, leaning on the mop. “Take a look.”

The paper reported that Bishop Whelan, sixty-seven, died in an apparent accident when he fell and hit his head. He was, it said, ministering to homeless people living under a bridge by a rail line. The paper said he did it all the time, reaching out to the needy and destitute.

“Mr. Ferris did a good thing,” Chulo said.

“A fitting way for the holy father to go out, I guess,” I said. I looked at Chulo. “Hey, man, where’d you get that fedora?”

“I found it in the Adonis. Lost and found. Someone lost it, and I found it.”

I never learned how the boss pulled it off. Like I said, what happens at the Adonis stays at the Adonis. I paged through the A section while Chulo snapped open the sports.

Chulo looked over to me. “Hey, Dwayne.”

“Yeah, Chulo?”

“Want to smoke a number?”

THE END

 

js2

 

Jean Skirt

 

 

ONE

WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD?”

I held out a pamphlet, and the teenager in platform shoes bumped past my hand as if I were not even there. It is not that people who ignore us cannot see us, Brother Jed says, but that they are blinded by the devil. Their ignoring us gives us all the more reason to be out there on the corner where the devil does his work.

“Excuse me, ma’am, would you like to hear the Word of the Lord?” I handed the woman a pamphlet. She said nothing, but at least she took it. She struggled with a toddler—a little boy with a big afro—who wanted to go the other direction. She dragged him wailing down the sidewalk.

Brother Jed stood on his stool, pleading with passersby to stop and hear the Good Word. I would like to have stood and listened because I never tired of Brother Jed’s preaching, but my three sisters and I had to do our part as well.

26

He scratched his head. “I wish you boys would have called me in the first place. Believe me, I don’t want him in the Adonis anymore than you do. No, even less. Publicity like that will close us.” Which was just what Chulo had said.

Mr. Ferris walked down the hall, unlocked the panic alarm, and carefully opened the door. The van was still there. He closed the door again. “You two sit tight. Do you hear me, Laurel and Hardy? Don’t do anything.” He left through the front door.

We just stood there for too long, moaning filtering down the stairs.

Chulo turned to me. “Hey, amigo, who’s Laurel and Hardy?”

FOUR

BUSINESS WENT ON LIKE NORMAL. I sold tickets. After Chulo mopped up the basement and the stairs and the hall and anything else with bishop blood on them, he went back to goofing off. I finally came down from Chulo’s Maui Wowie. By seven, the rain had stopped, and it was getting busier with the after-work crowd coming in. All very normal. But it wasn’t. Not for one second could I forget: There was a dead man on the floor next to me.

“One, please,” the hot chick with long blond hair said. She wore a leather jacket and miniskirt. Obviously a hooker, but right then, who cared?

“Which one?”

“I think the Adonis,” she said. She was foxy. Beautiful eyes.

I looked at her top to bottom. “Are you sure you don’t mean the American? The Adonis is the gay theater.”

She bit her lip, rather flirty like. “Well, I kind of like the Adonis. All those beautiful boys.”

“Cool.” I sold her the ticket. She smiled at me and winked and slowly made her way down the hall. I couldn’t see much from my window, but I did get to glimpse a bit of her bootie, tight and small, in her tiny skirt.

Chulo came down the hall with his mop bucket. I rapped on the glass, and he came over.

“Okay, Chulo, there was a woman,” I said through the glass.

“No, it wasn’t.”

“What do you mean? Of course it was.”

“What theater did he-she go to?”

“The Adonis.” I must have been tired. “Oh! Sure. Got it.” Why would a woman, even a hooker, go to the gay theater? Still, in my defense, she—I mean, he—was pretty convincing.

Chulo asked if I was hungry, and I said I could eat. I gave him five bucks, and he headed to Moby Dick’s bar to get us some burgers.

A few minutes later, Mr. Ferris came in, moving in a hurry.

“Dwayne, who’s around?”

“No one, Mr. Ferris.”

He asked where Chulo was, and I told him. He went to the back door, unlocked and opened it. Two big bruiser white guys in overalls and caps came in followed by Officer Penna. They all hurried up the hall toward the box office. Mr. Ferris told me to open up, and I stepped over the bishop and got the door. I stood in the lobby as the big white guys picked up the bishop like nothing and carried him back down the hall with Mr. Ferris following.

Penna stood across from me and gave me a look that said, “You bullshitted me. You know it. I know it. You’re going to pay someday.” It was quite a look.

Message delivered, he followed behind the bishop moving company. “Lock up behind us, will you, Dwayne?” Ferris yelled back.

“Sure, boss.” I ran down the hall after them.

Out they went. I peeked out the door. They were putting the big package in the back of what I was sure was that very same police van. In fact, I knew it was the same one because of the door ding on the passenger side.

I figured it best not to be seen peeking, so I locked up as quickly as possible. Mr. Ferris and Penna and the two goons were in the building for, at most, thirty seconds. Just like that, it was all over.

I guess that day Ferris got his money’s worth out of that envelope of cash.

I went back to the box office and locked the door behind me, rattling the doorknob to make sure it was locked, as if I were locking the day outside. I straightened up the merchandise a bit with my leftover nervous energy. I could smell the bishop—Old Spice and something metallic. Finally, I sat back down and took a deep breath.

After a couple more minutes, Chulo returned, carrying two takeout bags and large cups.

“You missed Mr. Ferris,” I said.

“He came back? What about the bishop?” he asked.

“What bishop?” I said.