Colter Cruthirds ~ You Can Live Forever in a Paradise on Earth

Julia knocked on the door and I answered in a pair of rat­ty blue jeans, hold­ing a put­ter and three golf balls. She had a friend with her, a teenage boy, who did all the talk­ing at first. He deliv­ered a script­ed speech about cre­ation ver­sus evo­lu­tion, and read from Hebrews some­thing that said

that every house has a builder. He said some oth­er things. Julia was wear­ing a white dress that hung just below her knees. Pretty thing.She caught me look­ing at her ankles so I turned to the boy and asked if he had any sci­en­tific evi­dence to back his claims. He hes­i­tat­ed and looked down. Julia stepped in, tuck­ing her straw­ber­ry blond hair behind her right ear, and asked me if I’d ever flown on an air­plane.

Yes, of course,” I said. Thinking back on it now, I prob­a­bly came off like a jerk. I don’t think it changed any­thing, though.

Did you know that whale flip­pers have a smoother drag coef­fi­cient than any plane that man has built?”

It’s evo­lu­tion, sweet.” I meant to say ‘sweet­heart’ but that would have been equal­ly offen­sive, I think. “But air­planes have only been around for a few hun­dred years. Whales have been around for a sight longer.”

Do air­plane wings evolve on their own, or were they designed?”

I want­ed to answer with­out con­ced­ing the argu­ment, but I knew she prob­a­bly had all the angles cov­ered. I leaned the put­ter again­st the door cas­ing and invit­ed them in. “I could make tea, or heat up some soup or some­thing,” I said.

Julia motioned to the boy and they fol­lowed me in. I hadn’t noticed how much of a slob I was before that. I almost apol­o­gized, but stopped because every­one I know apol­o­gizes about their mess before­hand. The boy was car­ry­ing a maroon leather satchel and wore black shoes. I felt sor­ry for him. We set­tled on tea and I put a pot of water on. We all made intro­duc­tions, Julia first, and then the boy. I can’t remem­ber the boy’s name.

I’m Paul,” I said.

Julia car­ried on about cre­ation and nod­ded to the boy. The boy read scrip­tures on cue and did his best to keep up. I offered him a Fig Newton and after he got an approv­ing nod from Julia, he accept­ed. He pulled some mag­a­zi­nes from the satchel and set them on the table.

Those for me?” I asked him.

For a small dona­tion—”

We don’t need a dona­tion,” Julia said.

I pulled two twen­ties from my pock­et, change from a bar tab the night before, and put them in the boy’s hand. Julia took the bills from him and placed them on the table. “It’s too much,” she said. “And any­way we don’t need a dona­tion. It would be bet­ter if you just read the lit­er­a­ture.”

I told her I didn’t mind, that I’d held them up for over an hour and thought they should be duly com­pen­sat­ed, but the words didn’t come out right. She asked if I might be inter­est­ed in a bible-study, and I told her yes because I want­ed to see her again. The boy record­ed some­thing on a slip of paper and thanked me for my time. Julia thanked me for the dona­tion and put out her hand for me to shake. It seemed improp­er to be shak­ing hands after read­ing scripture—like I was con­clud­ing a busi­ness deal—but I was more intrigued by the thought of touch­ing her. She wasn’t wear­ing any rings. Her hand was still warm from cup­ping her tea, and at that moment, I com­mit­ted myself to her.

I spent the next day refill­ing the soap and change machi­nes at the car wash and check­ing up on the girls at the snow cone stand. I made the bank at two. The teller, a blond in her ear­ly thir­ties hand­ed me a blank deposit slip. I filled it out and told her I didn’t love her any­more. She pre­tend­ed she didn’t hear me, but then, she always did that. I thought about get­ting a dog of some kind. Something big, lab or German shep­herd, what­ev­er would take up the most space in my house. It wasn’t lone­li­ness that both­ered me, but a lack of account­abil­i­ty. I need­ed to quit this soli­tary life. I need­ed to stay off the inter­net, to stop mas­tur­bat­ing three times a day.

The pet store only had pup­pies, so I went to the pound and picked up a mutt that weighed nine­ty-five pounds. She had some Chow in her; I could tell by the black tongue. I named her Caesar, because the hair on her head resem­bled a crown of lau­rels. I dropped her off at the vet, told him to give her the works.

She looks like she has a touch of mange, fel­la,” he said.

Yeah. Just fix her up. Call me when she’s clean as a bell. Or a whistle. You know what I mean. Just call me when she’s ready.”

Call you in a few days, fel­la.”

I drove home and sat in front of the com­put­er. Just one last time, I thought, and I’d can­cel my sub­scrip­tions, turn on search fil­ters, throw away the mag­a­zi­nes, the DVDs. I’d jog, med­i­tate, spend more time at the dri­ving range, and exor­cise all my onanis­tic demons.

I fin­ished and took a show­er. I went into the kitchen to grab a snack and saw the teacups from Julia’s vis­it next to the sink. The teabags, looped around, hung sad­ly again­st the insid­es of the cups. The bot­toms of the cups were stained. I tried to fig­ure which cup was Julia’s by look­ing for lip­stick on the rims, but of course there was no lip­stick. I took all three of the teabags and set them on the coun­ter to dry.

One thing about me: I collect—specifically, I col­lect arti­facts from the peo­ple I’ve loved, or have tried to love. It start­ed when my moth­er gave me a mono­grammed hand­ker­chief for my eighth birth­day. This gift sig­naled a rite of pas­sage for me; she gave me the hand­ker­chief and said my father used to always car­ry one with him. He was nev­er around, and the hand­ker­chief some­how meant that I was the man of the house. I miss my mother—her breath on my cheek when she hugged me before school, her fin­gers at the top of my neck. I keep the hand­ker­chief on a bureau next to my bed.

The first girl I kissed left me an ear­ring, the first girl I fucked left her panties. I have a comb from this pret­ty thing I fell in love with in Monterrey. I have the last page of a Doris Lessing nov­el I took from a mar­ried wom­an I seduced in a book­store in Chicago; we had sex in the bath­room, and nev­er exchanged names. I’ve col­lect­ed oth­er things—nylons, lighters, a lock of hair once.

*

I saw Julia about two weeks lat­er, on a Friday. I was tak­ing the dog in for some fol­low-up shots when I spot­ted Julia walk­ing door to door in one of those creepy pre­fab neigh­bor­hoods. She was by her­self this time, wear­ing the same white dress she‘d worn to my house. I parked and watched her from across the street for a few min­utes. She cov­ered four hous­es: three not-at-homes (she left pam­phlets) and an old lady who would only speak to her through a chained door. This didn’t seem to both­er her. As she was speak­ing to the lady she bent down and rubbed her ankle, as though she were sooth­ing a mos­qui­to bite.

I start­ed my car and rolled down the win­dow, pulled next to her as she walked on the edge of the old lady’s lawn. I said hel­lo to her, in my gen­tlest voice, and she turned. She didn’t rec­og­nize me. She was frightened—I could tell; it was unmis­tak­able. Caesar began bark­ing from the back seat. I told her to qui­et down, but this only seemed to incite her. Julia turned and walked away briskly and pulled a cell phone from her purse. I fol­lowed her in my car, yelled for her to stop. “The dog won’t bite,” I said. But she wasn’t lis­ten­ing. She dou­bled back to the old wom­an with the chained door and rang the bell repeat­ed­ly, slapped the wood­en frame with the palm of her hand. I drove off.

*

I didn’t stop mas­tur­bat­ing. Caesar would sit on her haunch­es, alert and sto­ic when she watched me; she nev­er seemed to pass judg­ment, and I couldn’t muster up enough shame to stop.

I gave up on Julia after a week. It just wasn’t in the cards. I thought about vis­it­ing the church; there was a Kingdom Hall a few miles from my house. If I went, I would see her even­tu­al­ly. I tried mak­ing a Sunday meet­ing, but I didn’t have the guts; I made it to the park­ing lot and watched from my car as mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion filed qui­et­ly through the front doors. The build­ing was plain and paint­ed white with green trim. The peo­ple were also plain, mod­er­ate­ly dressed in suits and short-sleeved oxfords, or in plain dress­es that hung past the knees. Julia walked alone. She was easy to pick out, like a tiger in the snow. I moved my seat and unbut­toned my pants. She had a hun­gry look—at least, at that moment, I imag­ined she did—and I won­dered if she was sat­is­fied with her reli­gion. She need­ed me, though she didn’t know it yet. She stopped and let a man in a motor­ized wheel­chair pass her, and said hel­lo to a group of teenage girls before going in.

I stopped—I couldn’t have fin­ished any­way. I but­toned my pants and loos­ened the knot on my tie. I would wait for her, I told myself. I could do that for us.

*

Julia came back to my house a week lat­er. She told me she was in the neigh­bor­hood, and she want­ed to check up on me, to see if I’d read the mag­a­zi­nes she’d left. I start­ed to apol­o­gize for the scare, but she stopped me and said she didn’t real­ize it was me until I said some­thing. “You did give a scare,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been that scared.” I invit­ed her in, and she set her purse down by the front door.

I lied and said, yes, I had read the mag­a­zi­nes.

It’s a won­der, isn’t it? This old world, imper­fect as it is.”

There’s a pic­ture of par­adise in one of those mag­a­zi­nes.” I sat down on my sofa, and motioned for her to sit beside me.

It’s real—it will be, at least.” She sat down, smooth­ing her dress over her knees with a prac­ticed motion. “Our eter­nal reward will be a har­mo­nious exis­tence in the new Eden.”

Maybe I’m just a pes­simist, but wouldn’t we just tear it up again?”

You have an inquis­i­tive mind. There’s noth­ing pes­simistic about that.”

I was always that kid,” I said. “Tearing things up, I mean.”

She grabbed my hand—I didn’t expect it. She looked at me. “I don’t know God’s exact plan. No one can. But I believe it is good.”

I asked her to eat lunch with me at an Indian restau­rant near my house. She let go of my hand. “No. Not today,” she said. “I came by to see if you want­ed to dis­cuss any­thing.”

I want­ed to dis­cuss many things with her, but didn’t have the words. Caesar was scratch­ing at the back door, want­i­ng to come in. “The dog. She doesn’t like it out­side. I would let her in, but she’s the jeal­ous type.”

Julia seemed tense after I said that. She sug­gest­ed we look at the lit­er­a­ture togeth­er, and I could ask her any ques­tions I had about them.

I admit­ted then that I’d mis­placed the mag­a­zi­nes. “I do want to fin­ish talk­ing about this. Are you sure you can’t use a meal? We don’t have to eat Indian.”

I don’t think it would be prop­er.”

You’re in my house, alone, aren’t you? What could be more improp­er than that?”

She stood and  walked to the door,  picked up her purse, and with­drew a soft, black leather bible. “I’ll just leave this with you for now. I could set up a bible study.”

With you?”

Yes, and one of the elders.”   She forced a smile and hand­ed me a memo pad and I wrote my phone num­ber. “I’ll call and make the arrange­ments, then.”

I opened the door for her. “Thank you,” she said. She turned toward me to say some­thing, but the heel of her shoe caught again­st the thresh­old and she stum­bled. I caught her arm before she fell.

I want­ed her to have twist­ed her ankle so I could scoop her into my arms, place her gen­tly on the couch, and mas­sage her swol­len lig­a­ments. Later we would lament how short our lives were, and she would offer her­self to me with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I would promise her the impos­si­ble, and she would believe me, and we would grow old and die togeth­er, and that would be our sto­ry. Instead, she thanked me and left.

*

The bible stud­ies appeared to go well. I played my part. Julia and a man she called Brother Walker met me at my house on Wednesdays at around six. We start­ed off with a book about fam­i­ly life, and then one on cre­ation. I began attend­ing con­gre­ga­tion­al meet­ings, and gave enough pre­tense to sit next to Julia dur­ing those meet­ings. I told them I was shy. I became her charge, so to speak; she was respon­si­ble for bring­ing me to the fold. I bought new suits—nothing too shiny. I was the embod­i­ment of broth­er­ly love, on the verge of bap­tism.

They sang songs at that church, and Julia shared her hymn­book with me and I would place my hand at the small of her back—a sub­tle ges­ture; one that could be mis­tak­en for hon­or­able com­mu­nion. Predictably, she would smile and hold the hymn­book closer. Her hair smelled like almonds.

We went on for months. I went through all this for Julia. I believe I was able to feign piety because I didn’t take any stock in any of it. And Julia gave me signs—small indi­ca­tions that she might be inter­est­ed in some­thing oth­er than my soul. She would habit­u­al­ly touch my hand when we were speaking—an unin­ten­tion­al caress fol­lowed by a won­der­ful­ly awk­ward with­drawal. Propriety can be a love­ly pris­on.

One Sunday, after a church meet­ing, she invit­ed me to go door-to-door with her. This was a mighty step. It was irreg­u­lar; I was not bap­tized, and was unqual­i­fied to preach. I didn’t com­plain. Julia ratio­nal­ized it by say­ing that I would just observe as she fol­lowed through with promis­ing leads.

I drove her to a run-down apart­ment com­plex at the edge of town. The com­plex was in a poor neigh­bor­hood bor­der­ing the indus­tri­al dis­trict. I parked next door, in the lot of a burned-out con­crete struc­ture with two huge banana trees in front. It was qui­et and the lot was sandy and inter­spersed with weeds. “You’ve come here by your­self?” I asked.

Not this neigh­bor­hood. I worked it with one of the Sydney twins almost a mon­th ago.” Julia knocked on the door and stepped back. “I like to check up on this guy every once in a while.”

There was a shuf­fle and what sound­ed like an iron skil­let falling again­st the floor. Julia knocked again. “Frank takes a while to come to the door.” She point­ed at her ear and whis­pered, “hard of hear­ing. He was a gun­nery sergeant in the Vietnam Conflict.”

The way she spoke real­ly killed me. She knew it all. I want­ed to grab her and shake her. I want­ed to pull her close to me and kiss her. The door was opened by a short pink man in car­go pants and a white sleeve­less shirt. He smiled at Julia. “Who are you?” he asked me.

He’s a friend,” Julia said.

I don’t like him,” the guy said, star­ing at me. He turned, leav­ing the door open. “Come in, any­way.”

We fol­lowed him into the house. “Let’s talk in the kitchen.” The hall­way was cov­ered in musty red car­pet and clut­tered with car parts. The kitchen was no bet­ter; dirty dish­es, mold, trash over­flow­ing. He had cov­ered the refrig­er­a­tor in obit­u­ary clip­pings.

He offered cof­fee. Julia declined and I accept­ed. “There’s a ket­tle,” he said. “Folgers in the cab­i­net to the right.”

I put the water on to boil. Julia asked him if he’d read the book she left for him on her last vis­it. Frank said yes, and left the kitchen. Julia pulled a small red book with gold let­ter­ing from her purse. It was enti­tled, You Can Live Forever in a Paradise on Earth. I had seen the book before. Frank walked back into the kitchen with his own dog-eared copy and sat down beside Julia.

What did you think of it?”

Frank looked at Julia and adjust­ed his hear­ing aid. Julia repeat­ed her­self. “Did you like it,” she said.

Yes, yes—it’s appeal­ing.” He turned to a pic­ture of an edenic gar­den filled with docile peo­ple and docile ani­mals. “Lambs and lions. Unnatural, but appeal­ing.”

It only seems unnat­u­ral because we are accus­tomed to liv­ing in a world of sin. But no one will want for any­thing, man or ani­mal, and there will be no rea­son for trans­gres­sion.”

Everyone trans­gress­es,” Frank said. His voice had a rough­ness too it, like he was always gar­gling. I imag­ined him lay­ing face up in a jun­gle, his hand cov­er­ing the bul­let holes in his throat, and him try­ing to cal­cu­late the luck he’d been grant­ed. But he didn’t have any scars I could see. The ket­tle whis­tled and I looked in the cab­i­net for cof­fee.

He said that we have all trans­gressed. Past tense. After Armageddon, Jehovah will relieve us of our sins.”

I made two cups of cof­fee. “Do you take it black, Frank?”

I don’t want any cof­fee,” he said.

I leaned again­st the coun­ter and sipped the cof­fee while they debat­ed. This went on for a while. Frank rem­i­nisced about his dead wife and asked ques­tions about the res­ur­rec­tion. He got emo­tion­al and Julia reached for his hand, like she had reached for mine so many times.

I fin­ished my cof­fee and placed the cup in the sink. I tried to tune them out. I took Frank’s cup and poured the cof­fee out, rinsed it. I don’t know why, but I began wash­ing the dish­es. I took off my coat and rolled up my sleeves. I filled the pots with water to soak, and began scrub­bing the plates. Julia and Frank seemed engrossed in one anoth­er. I laid a tow­el on the coun­ter to the right of the sink and spread the sil­ver­ware on it to dry. I scrubbed and rinsed.

I fin­ished and told Julia that I would wait in the car, that she should take all the time she need­ed. I told Frank good­bye as I fold­ed my coat over my arm. Julia said she would only be a moment longer.

*

The sun was bright and my eyes were hav­ing trou­ble adjust­ing on the dri­ve back. She kept rephras­ing the same ques­tion. “What hap­pened back there? Are you okay?”

I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just out of it. I’m going home to take a nap. I’ll be fine.”

I’ll go with you.”

There it was. The sun, the moon and the stars had, all at once, fal­l­en into my lap. It didn’t mat­ter how we got there or what it meant or what might or might not hap­pen. I drove slow­er. I didn’t want the ride to end.

I had trou­ble putting the key into the lock when we got there.  She took the key from me and insert­ed it into the dead­bolt lock, but the door swung open before she turned the key. Julia looked at me and pulled out her cell phone. “We need the police.”

The door­jamb was bro­ken; some­one had kicked in the door. Immediately I saw that they stole my lap­top, my tele­vi­sion and my DVD play­er. The enter­tain­ment cen­ter was bro­ken; they had been in a hur­ry to get out. The mess remind­ed me of Frank’s place. Fucking Frank.

Don’t you have a dog?” Julia asked.

I’d for­got­ten about Caesar. I called for her and heard her scratch­ing again­st the bath­room door. I let her out and noticed her nose was bloody. She licked my hands and brushed again­st me. Julia fin­ished talk­ing to the police and came inside. I expect­ed her to say some­thing about God’s wis­dom, and how “this old sys­tem of things” wouldn’t last, but she didn’t. She put her arms around me and cried. I think, at that moment, she would have let me kiss her.

 *

Caesar was skit­tish after that. She wouldn’t eat. I brought her back to the vet and asked him if there was any­thing to be done. He gave me some tran­quil­iz­ers and said to baby her for a few days. I let her ride around with me when I checked on the car­wash­es and the snow-cone stand. She would put her face direct­ly in front of the vents and I would turn the air con­di­tion­er on full-blast. I was busy; I’d let the car­wash­es go to hell when I was chas­ing after Julia, and I found out one of my girls at the snow-cone stand had quit three days before. This gave me an excuse not to attend the meet­ings with Julia, at least for a while.

I think she knew I wouldn’t be back. Frank, the gun­nery sergeant, had shown me up. He had poten­tial I would nev­er have. Belief, faith—call it what you will. I don’t know why this mat­tered so much, or why it mat­tered to me, but that’s as close to an expla­na­tion as I’m able to get—at least I knew it mat­tered.

 

I set up an inter­view with a replace­ment girl for the snow-cone stand. I met with her and gave her a quick run­down: how to mix syrups, how to lift big blocks of ice, how to up-sell.

She unnerved me a lit­tle; I could tell from the start there was some­thing off about her. But she had smooth fair skin and a good body, so I was inclined to let her have the job.

I’m an extro­vert,” she declared.

I can tell.”

You know that song, Putting on the Ritz? You know, the one from the eight­ies? I love that song.” She pushed back her dark rimmed glass­es. “Last year, when I got my first car, I drove from Mobile to San Diego and lis­tened to that song the whole time.”

I didn’t know what one thing had to do with the oth­er, and I thought about fir­ing her on the spot, but she pulled me to her and kissed me. I didn’t have time to react. She unbut­toned my shirt and then my pants. “Wait.” I said. “Let me close the shade and lock the door.” She wouldn’t stop though, and I ejac­u­lat­ed on her knee. “I’m sor­ry. It’s been a long time—”

This has nev­er hap­pened to you, I know.”

I hand­ed her a stack of nap­kins and checked on Caesar through the win­dow. The girl said thanks and left. I’d for­got­ten her name, or if she had given me one. My luck, she would come back a week lat­er, demand­ing mon­ey because she was under­age and had my semen all over her blue jeans. Fuck it, she could have the stand. I’m fin­ished with it.

*

Julia came by the house a few times, but I wouldn‘t answer the door. She called and left mes­sages that stepped on my heart. She was wor­ried about me, she said. “I missed you, again,” she said. Her voice was soft­er than usu­al, gen­uine­ly affectionate—even long­ing. I saved all her mes­sages and keep the tape in a cig­ar box with three tea bags. I still lis­ten to the tapes and I think she liked me, may­be she was even think­ing about mar­riage. I was a viable mate, in her eyes, but I wasn’t the man she thought I was.

~

Colter Cruthirds recent­ly received his doc­tor­ate from the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in Burnt Bridge Review, Dew on the Kudzu, and oth­er places of good repute. He lives in Hattiesburg with his wife, two daugh­ters, and Kurt Russell (the dog, not the actor).