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.”
“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).