[This story was originally published by Small Spiral Notebook in 2002.]
Midnight. We stare at the moon through rain trails on the windows of Scott’s VW Beetle parked behind the Fort Missoula cemetery. Violent Femmes blast on the stereo and the vinyl seat vibrates my back. Danny’s got three earrings and wears streaks of mascara. Scott’s got a short blond Mohawk. Anthea has hair the color of a ripe mango. She sits in back with me and her jeans rub against mine. Danny leans over his seat and pushes a joint at my face. I wave my hand through cobwebs of smoke.
“Come on, Kurt,” he says. “I care about you.”
“No thanks,” I say.
“If it sucks, you never have to smoke again.”
Scott nods like he too might never smoke again. His Mohawk scratches the dome light. Anthea’s red-orange hair sticks to the window. She’s already high and stroking my leg with her fingers. This would feel good if she weren’t gawking at gravestones. Spittle trails from her mouth and shines in the moonlight.
“Quit drooling, dope fiend,” Danny says. “Quit looking more freaky than you are.”
Anthea giggles and wipes her face with her sleeve. She smiles at me. “You gonna smoke, sweetie?” She puts a hand on my chest and says, “You don’t have to.”
I take the joint in my fingers. It feels like a dead moth. I suck on it. Nothing happens. Scott flicks his lighter and singes my nose hairs.
“Breathe deep,” Anthea says. “Hold it.”
I suck in till my lungs burn and I choke.
Anthea takes the stub of my left arm and puts it in her lap. Danny and Scott face forward again and we all sit there watching rain slither down the windows.
Danny turns to me. “Why’d your dad blow his brains out if he was such a great guy and all?”
Anthea smacks his head and says, “I’m hungry for Pop Tarts.”
“Cherry Pop Tarts,” Scott says.
Five minutes later we climb out of the car at Rosauers.
“I don’t feel high,” I say. “I’ll just crash by the fertilizer bags.”
They go inside. I sit on a pallet of Weed & Feed out front. The Coke machine glows red on the wet part of the sidewalk. The handicapped parking sign’s pole is bent. After a minute or two a bald guy with a white isosceles triangle mustache walks over to me. He has a box of chocolate milk in one hand and a pack of Dolly Madison buns in the other.
“Hey there,” he says. “How do you like this town?”
“It’s all right,” I say.
“How long you been here?”
“Yeah? Where’d you come from?”
He winks. He’s got a blue Oxford shirt like my dad’s. It’s weird to see Dad’s shirt on some bald guy.
Two jocks in a black Mustang cruise through the lot. The driver has a roll of fat like a hot dog bun around his neck. He tosses a cigarette at the pavement and cranks a Def Leppard tune. His arm hangs out the window and his fingers wiggle in the rain. The Mustang squeals out of the lot and heads south on Reserve toward the golf course.
The bald man chuckles. “What’s your name?”
I think for a second. “Kurt.”
“Hi, Kurt. I’m Roy.” Roy looks at me like he’s trying to remember where we met before. “Do you know Jesus?”
I take a deep breath and the pot hits me. My fingers go numb and my lips get all fat. “Not personally,” I say. I can hardly spit out the words.
“I don’t mean to pry, Kurt. I’m in town visiting my daughter.” He waves his cinnamon buns at the neighborhood across the street. “Just thought I’d come for a midnight snack. Couldn’t help but notice the questionable crowd you arrived with.”
“They seemed sorta wild, is all.”
“They’re a pack of wild animals all right,” I say. Or that’s what I try to say. I’m not sure Roy can understand me with my lips all fat.
He goes on about the Gospel of John and the afterlife and how good deeds aren’t enough because Heaven isn’t something we earn. Heaven is a gift given by the grace of God. Roy thinks I’m the reason the Lord brought him here tonight. A stick of gum is still in its foil on the sidewalk by Roy’s foot. I reach but Roy steps on it.
“You look like a nice kid. Tell me, Kurt, were you born without a hand?”
“No,” I say and hold up my right hand.
Roy’s white mustache curls up over his smile. “I mean, were you born with only one?”
“Well, maybe the good Lord will bless you with two hands in the afterlife. Would you like that?”
“I would not know.”
“You bet you would! Maybe he’ll give you three hands, Kurt, or four. What church do you go to?”
I tell him the first one that comes to mind. It was a place we went on Easter back in Cleveland. “First Methodist.” It had a brick fireplace in the back. All through the service some guy in a polyester suit tossed logs on the fire and for a while I forgot about the three feet of snow outside.
Roy sips his chocolate milk. “Do they talk about being born again at First Methodist?”
I scratch an itch on my ankle. “Don’t think so.”
“Well, you’re what? Fifteen? I was all of 33 years old before I figured out I was just warming a seat in church and not getting any closer to Heaven. Then, Kurt, I let my Lord and Savior into my heart and never not once did I look back. Every single day has been a gift, I tell you. Every day.” Roy steps closer and takes the last bite of his first cinnamon roll. “Do you have any idea what I am talking about?”
“It can be the same for you. Revelations says Jesus is coming to separate the good from the bad. The goats will end up on one side of the fence, Kurt, and the sheep will end up on the other. If that happened tonight, Kurt, if Jesus came down to judge you, which side of the fence would you be on?”
“I try to be a good person.”
Roy crumples the empty milk carton in his hand. “That’s not biblical. When Jesus comes, goodness and niceness won’t have anything to do with it. The believers will vanish in a puff of smoke and the unbelievers will be cast down into eternal flame. You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“You can choose the other side of the fence, Kurt, right here, right now. You know what day it is?” Roy raises his second cinnamon roll above his head. “Today is the day the Lord has made, Kurt. Today is the day you will change your life.”
It’s just me and Roy and a kid in a blue apron pushing a train of grocery carts toward the automatic doors. I’m standing but don’t remember getting up. Roy has his hands on my shoulders. His eyes are dark green and too close to mine. His breath is all coffee and puke and cinnamon and yeast.
“Kurt, buddy, you can drive a stake in the ground right now. From this day forward you can walk with the Lord. It’s simple. No need to close your eyes or anything. Will you take my hand and open your heart to Jesus with me, Kurt?”
Roy has splotches on his forehead. He looks happy and gloomy like he’s trying to change his luck but knows he can’t. And I want to make him happy. So I imagine having another hand. This makes me laugh and not because it’s funny but because all of a sudden I feel a hand on the end of my left arm. I clench the fist. I wriggle the fingers.
Now Roy looks worried.
“You look funny,” he says. “Are you all right, Kurt?”
I try to stop laughing. “Which ones are the goats?” I ask.
“You said Jesus sorts out the sheep and the goats. Are the goats on the Heaven side of the fence or the Hell side? Because I don’t like sheep. I’d rather be a goat.”
Then Danny and Scott start making goat sounds or maybe sheep sounds. Bahh! Bahh! They waggle their heads and bleat at the sky. Anthea has one foot in a grocery cart. She rolls it in circles through the Handicapped Parking spot. I laugh so hard snot flies out of my nose and lands next to the stick of gum on the sidewalk. The gum still has Roy’s boot print in it.
I look around for Roy. He’s walking away with the bun I had hoped he’d offer me if I let Jesus into my heart. Roy cuts through the parking lot and stops at the streetlight. Scott and Danny tell me to get in the car. Roy jogs across the median. He doesn’t turn to wave goodbye. Then it’s gone—my new hand—as quick as it came.