Neither pretty nor homely, fat nor thin, Bernice Gardener was a middling girl, all her fenders straight but no chrome or pinstripes. With a few ounces of vinegar, some colored powders or a curling iron, she might have done well with boys. Bernice, though, didn’t alter her pale skin and left her brown hair straight, aside from an occasional colored hairband. She wore jeans and print blouses or modest dresses her mother constructed from dime-store patterns. Though she tripled the outside reading assignment and earned the highest score in her English class, her teachers dismissed her as a mind of no consequence because she read The Thorn Birds, Peyton Place, and Gone with the Wind. She had pondered the term “making love” until she bought Valley of the Dolls in a used bookstore because she wondered why the girl on the cover seemed so pleased to be in a martini glass.
Once, Brick Brinkman offered her a ride and a Coca-Cola fortified with whiskey. She drank it, because she could not offer a polite reason not to. Brinkman set his hand on the knee of her polyester pants. It was humid there, and when he pressed it higher, it left a damp, sticky path. She watched it rotate until the thumb rested in the seam between her legs. He glanced up, and her strange countenance halted him. He dropped her at her house and they did not speak again.
Elvis Foster resided in Electric City, one among several small towns born during the construction boom that supported the Grand Coulee Dam, once the world’s largest concrete structure. North and south, the coulee itself lined fifty miles of horizon each side—rusty basalt walls and shale spills lichened in the damp shadows, sprinkled with low brush and scrub pine where enough dirt collected to allow them purchase. Beneath lay manufactured reservoirs and canals and the desert the government had proposed to irrigate seventy years before. It appeared to Elvis a lot of work to make a hot room not much cooler.
When he was nine, Elvis’s parents divorced. He alternated households dependent upon his mother’s alcohol tolerance and his father’s melancholies. His father eventually found Prozac and Xanax, and his mother, after a rollover, surrendered drink and became, if not a model presence, a parent determined to compensate for her disregard. Her doting following her neglect, paired with Elvis’s father’s uncertain moods, left Elvis like a river that lacked a channel.
At fifteen, he cut his sideburns long, to narrow attention to his cleft chin—something a magazine said would attract girls. In a mirror or window’s reflection, he saw blue eyes, a wide jaw, high cheekbones, straight teeth, and a smile not unlike other men who were called handsome. But his uncommon whiskers and guileless temperament disturbed his high school peers enough to require a nickname: Elvis.
Most he knew possessed such handles: Coyote, Arizona Bill, Porkchop, Hammer, Slats, Road Queen, The Sipper, Annette the Pet. Such tags, though, arose from the heroic or comic or habit or irony, which lent those bearing them a kinship with the consensus. Elvis’s title, fostered from a thin resemblance to a ridiculous and long-dead celebrity, was simple ridicule.
No one believed in Almira Jesus. He didn’t even turn Jesus until his late thirties—already past Christ’s original run—when he grew a beard and began to frequent local taverns. He preferred secular conversation, because he didn’t care to get bogged down in dogma and sinners were not hard to find. Most in such places added, divided, multiplied, and squared, and square-rooted their thoughts all at once, and though they equaled no number at all, they made a kind of amusing horse sense.
Inside Crazy Eddie’s Tavern, he ordered ice water, then declared: “Repent, you meth-cooking, dope-smoking, beer-drinking, unemployment-check-chasing heathens.”
“That supposed to be funny?” someone asked.
Almira Jesus cocked is head. “No one appreciates my sense of humor.” He drank from the water glass. “Sending the demons into the swine herd and then having them barrel over a cliff into the sea, that was a little Chaplinesque, wasn’t it? But who thought to laugh?” he asked. “And raising Lazarus from the dead just so Caiaphas could kill him two days later: irony, correct?”
Jesus lit a cigarette.
“No smoking,” Eddie said behind the bar.
Almira Jesus stared as the ash lengthened, until someone named Ernie allowed him an empty beer bottle. He dropped the cigarette inside.
“Change some water to wine,” someone else suggested.
“I never did that,” the Lord replied.
“The gospel of Luke says otherwise. 22:19,” a smug woman from the bar replied.
“Luke wasn’t even born yet,” the Lord told her. “Look it up.”
“I left my bible in my other pants,” she said.
Almira Jesus nodded at her purse. “You’ve got a smartphone, I presume. Try Google.”
Bernice, quick with numbers, after graduation found work balancing ledgers for the hardware store and the pharmacy and a bait shop, which together provided ample income for her and her mother. Both resided in a tiny one-bedroom house—Bernice slept in a converted loft—free of liens and mortgage.
Each completed her assigned chores by noon, Bernice totaled her accounts after lunch, and the two alternated preparing dinners. They ate with little chatter. After the dishes were in the dishwasher, Bernice read far into the night, three or four books at a time. However, the events and characters and romance appeared as foreign as her daily rituals, and she felt wrapped in cellophane and abandoned in the back of the refrigerator.
Her mother, participating in a similar routine, found, if not joy, at least resonance when she searched the laundry stacks to match socks or set the oven timer at forty-five minutes to change the lawn sprinklers. For this, Bernice envied and resented her.
Senior year in high school, Elvis suddenly found his peers comfortable with him. His graduating class voted him president and best personality. But his successes faded in and out like a distant radio station, while his failures produced a perfect signal. His girlfriends were fortunate accidents who should have provided him an education.
Graduation, Elvis’s peers bolted for local colleges or took union apprenticeships two hundred miles away at the state’s growing nuclear power facility. Elvis hired out as mechanic at the service station in town. The spring following, Elvis’s mother died of a heart blockage. His father had relocated and remarried, leaving Elvis sole heir.
Soon after, an acquaintance, Carlson—he and Elvis played varsity offensive line together—introduced Elvis to his sister. Even in first grade, Elvis longed for a woman to repair him, though Carlson’s sister wasn’t anything akin to the visions he’d conjured. A skinny, dirty-mouthed brunette with an impressive cleavage, Rose had managed to get a bun in the oven in middle school and another at seventeen, leaving her a four-year-old daughter who refused to speak and a son who appeared a toddling lunatic. Still, she was the only female with an interest and, after a year, Elvis provided a proper ring and they married.
Despite the savings in rent, Rose would not abandon her Easter-egg-blue duplex, a two-bedroom box barely enough for a blooming family, so Elvis’s mother’s house remained unoccupied. A real estate company posted a new sign each year, but the market had fallen after the dam’s new powerhouse finished. Elvis paid a neighbor thirty dollars a month to maintain the small lawn.
In spring, the Bureau of Reclamation dropped the reservoir to accept the mountain runoff. Dying fish flailed in ten-foot-high culverts. The lake bottom turned shallow pools the local kids dammed with riprap, then chased ten-pound carp with baseball bats from one end to the other. Tuesday mornings, Bernice drove her lumbering sedan to the bait shop to retrieve the week’s receipts and checks for deposit. The bait business was slow, but Howard, the proprietor, suffered with gout, so had recently hired a counterperson. Sarah was thin, with disorderly hair. She wore peasant blouses and Levi’s, threadbare at the knees, belted by a hemp rope. The woman insisted on calling her Bernie and hugged her each encounter. Bernice endured Sarah’s greeting and affections with her usual stiffness.
“Well, the Negroes are happy,” Sarah noted.
“They love those carp.”
“The fish those boys are chasing.”
“I know what carp are,” Bernice said.
“They taste like a swamp to me, but those Negroes don’t mind.”
Bernice collected the books and bank wallet.
“You do know what a Negro is,” Sarah said.
Bernice glanced up a moment.
Sarah smiled. “I’d like to see you laugh, Bernie. It would do me good.”
“I laugh,” Bernice said.
“Home mostly, when my dog stops too fast chasing a stick and somersaults.”
“I suppose he’s the only witness.”
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur.”
“Won’t stand up in court.”
“We aren’t in court,” Bernice replied.
Admittedly, they were strange, these Christians who never went to church nor read the bible and slept with each other’s wives and watched Fox News. It made religion a tough sell, and add to that Almira Jesus didn’t appear as interested in shepherding sheep as he was in pulling their tails.
You would think a preacher’s past might put his ministry in context, but Almira Jesus’s muddied the waters. In his younger days, he went by Kale Adkins, scion of the wealthiest wheat family in Lincoln County. High school, he starred in basketball and baseball and missed none on his SAT. Those who followed such things predicted he would turn WSU’s basketball program around. Instead, he attended Whitman College, an elite liberal arts school, where he stood out on their frisbee team and wrote a dissertation on Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the theory of God Almighty that is referenced still by Ivy League academics. Home did not require teaching assistantships or fellowships or master’s or PhD programs to continue his studies. He was heir to a ten-million-dollar ranch and had two brothers who loved nothing more than plowing and planting. He thought them the philosophers.
Harvests, Adkins drove a wheat truck and combine and plowed the summer fallow and balanced the year-end accounts and oversaw the investments and taxes for his third of the net. For this, his brothers happily allowed him the old house. Every wall of every room he lined with bookcases from swap meets, and every week the mail truck delivered another box. He wrote copiously, to remember what he thought and add it to what he would think until he felt the sum was whole, yet he published nothing. Publication was just one more feather in an academic headdress for which he had no need, as he was not a member of that tribe.
The brothers allotted him the rose garden as well, which he babied with steer manure and compost until the buds opened and exploded in bloody reds, buttery yellows, and creamy whites and pinks. In addition, in the backyard he constructed a henhouse for eggs and the occasional fryer, and behind it planted vegetables and herbs from which he cooked soups and stews without a recipe, delivering them to his brother’s family wearing a chef’s hat.
In the tavern, a dozen cell phone screens greened the faces of his congregation. Someone held up the appropriate Wikipedia page. “He’s right. Luke was too young to see any of it.”
“Luke was Greek,” the Lord said. “Where do you think the virgin birth came from? Greek mythology is full of Zeus’s bastard sons: Hercules, Perseus, Minos, Argos, Endymion.”
A thin man rose from a bar stool, red-faced. “Are you calling Jesus Christ a bastard?”
Almira Jesus reached into his satchel and waved a tiny softbound bible—the same as the Seventh-Day Adventists hand out free across the street from schools. “It seems, if you believe this book.” He shook the bible. “And this one.” He raised a worn dictionary. “There’s not much argument.”
As Elvis feared, Rose turned out sexually unreliable. She enjoyed sex and was pleasant enough in appearance that men were inclined to join her in the venture, but that did not explain why she preferred others instead of Elvis himself. She sated his appetites with hand or mouth, but permitted him between her legs so rarely Elvis had little idea how to perform.
She refused employment, and they subsisted on hamburger casseroles and the deer Elvis killed in season and scraps from those Carlson poached when his own freezer grew empty.
Sex and love are barely second cousins, Crazy Eddie told him when he complained. Carlson added: Life is not a retard eating chocolates.
Her son, Jasper, pissed on the bathroom molding until the wood splintered and the drywall flaked like dandruff, but he bowed his head when scolded and appeared truly contrite. He asked Elvis to teach him to smoke cigarettes. Rose was all for it, as it calmed her, but Elvis, atypically, put his foot down. The entire month of June, the daughter curled herself between the sofa and the wall behind it, reading picture books and coloring circles and arrows on a yellow legal pad. She ate her meals there as well, and shoved candle wax into her ears whenever the television was on.
The next week, Bernice arrived at the bait shop early.
“What do you call a dog with no legs?” Sarah asked her.
Bernice didn’t know.
“It doesn’t matter—it won’t come to you anyhow,” Sarah said.
Bernice opened the drawer for the paperwork.
“That was a little funny,” Sarah told her.
Bernice said, “It really wasn’t.”
“Even if it was, you wouldn’t have laughed.”
Sarah turned her eyelids out, making her eyes look like veiny orbs, and contorted her mouth. Bernice looked away.
“No on the slapstick, then,” Sarah said. She stuck two pencils in her nose to make sure.
“Are you going to write with those now?” Bernice asked.
Sarah slapped her hands. “I knew it,” she said. “You do have a sense of humor!”
“That wasn’t a joke. It was a question.”
“But it was funny. You’re a natural.”
“Will you let me be?” Bernice asked.
Sarah nodded. “Go to the tavern with me tonight. That’s the price of peace.”
“I have to spend time with you in order for you to leave me alone?”
“That’s the size of it.”
“It makes no sense.”
“Okay, lets try it this way.” Sarah paused. “You value a ledger, don’t you? Well, I’ll buy anything you want—beer, food, songs on the juke. All you need to do is agree to go,” Sarah said.
“Oh, and I will be your taxi,” Sarah added. “You would never forgive me if you got a ticket driving and drinking, though that might be very funny.”
Bernice shrugged. “I’m probably busy.”
“We haven’t set a date,” Sarah said.
Bernice rifled through her papers. “You will leave me alone after?” she asked.
“I will never ask anything of you again.”
“Okay,” Bernice said.
That afternoon she deposited the checks. At home, she totaled her columns and found her numbers correct. Her mother stirred through the refrigerator for dinner’s contents and determined a potato chip casserole would clean up the leftovers without requiring a grocery visit. When Sarah’s pickup parked and she bumped the horn twice, Bernice collected a sweater and her pocketbook.
Her mother stared.
“I am going out,” Bernice said.
“You don’t go out,” her mother replied.
“Well, tonight I guess you’re wrong,” Bernice said.
“You might have told me.”
“You might have asked,” Bernice replied.
Inside the tavern, Sarah chose a booth and Bernice followed. Sarah ordered a pitcher and filled both glasses when it arrived. Bernice lifted hers. Her warm fingerprints melted into concentric arcs on the frosted glass. She drank. It was unlike anything to which she was accustomed. Foam whited her lip.
“Have you ever even drunk beer?” Sarah asked
“No,” Bernice said.
“I think I am ready to leave now,” Bernice told her.
“No,” she said. “I wasn’t laughing at you. Well, I was laughing because of you. It’s because you tell the truth. Most people would lie and say they drank beer or accuse me of debauchery because I know more about beer than they did. It’s so damned interesting, people telling the truth.” Sarah reached across the table and patted Bernice’s hand. “Try some more,” she said. “It’s an acquired taste.”
Bernice sipped from her glass. She didn’t enjoy it as much as tolerate it.
“Should I be drunk yet?” Bernice asked.
“If you’re asking, you’re not.”
Bernice lifted her glass and emptied it. Sarah laughed and then poured and waved at Eddie, the bartender, for a second pitcher. Men, their ample T-shirted bellies rolled across belts that held tape measures, knives, and key chains, shot pool or played arcade games.
“Do you smoke?” Sarah asked her.
Bernice shook her head.
“Good,” Sarah said. “No one wants to kiss an ashtray.”
“I don’t worry over such things,” Bernice said.
“You don’t have a beau?”
Bernice shook her head.
“It’s how you carry yourself,” Sarah told her. “You walk like you’re headed for the gallows, and when you talk to someone you look for the end of the conversation before it gets started.” She drank. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m criticizing. It’s my mother in me.”
“I’m not offended,” Bernice said, and she wasn’t, though it was precisely the kind of observation that would otherwise put her into a sulk. She drank more of her beer and examined the menu.
“I hope you like meat,” Sarah said. “They could put together a salad, maybe, but it’s not likely to be exotic.”
“It says they have homemade soup.”
Sarah nodded. “Eddie rolls the dough after morning coffee and cuts the noodles himself. He buys the chickens from Arlen West, who raises them free-range and kills and wraps them before your eyes.”
“How did you come to know this?” Bernice asked.
“Inquiry,” Sarah replied.
She hailed from New Mexico, where people were rare enough that you talked to anyone you encountered, she said. At eighteen, she moved to Los Angeles and spent a year smoking dope and avoiding would-be rapists who couldn’t tell love from a felony. A year later she was waiting tables and delivering cocktails in Alaska, where she ate moose and days lasted three weeks and nights six, then ended up in Seattle, where she lived with a college professor who possessed more ardor for Russian literature than sex, which suited Sarah fine as long as he managed rent and the utilities. A bicycle-versus-city-bus melee returned him to his parents in Oregon to recuperate, and the landlord evicted her a month later. She drove a dinged pickup east with $325 in her wallet. She landed the bait shop job when she stopped for directions.
Bernice’s story took less time. She spent most days in her head, and a few words might be too many or a yearlong soliloquy incomplete, so she stuck to a few inarguable details.
Bernice ordered the soup, and Sarah a Reuben, and they shared their meals to both their satisfactions. Eddie bussed their plates, but both shook their heads when he asked to refill the pitcher. Later, Sarah delivered her home, as promised. Afterwards, in her loft, Bernice undressed and donned her pajamas, then lay between her cool sheets. She read from Wuthering Heights, a romance that seemed to defy love, or at least love joined to anything resembling hope. She slipped into a doze with the book upon her chest, silent as a cave. She woke almost giddy.
Inside a week, Elvis’s life turned bedlam of another order. On Friday, George Jones died. Elvis’s most pressing memory was, as a preschooler, waking to build lunch sandwiches with his father while George Jones records turned on the record. Years later, the voice in his head remained some combination of his father’s and the one on the record, broken and mulish with catastrophe; each song bloody work that no number of stitches could shut.
The Monday following, a realtor informed Elvis she had unloaded his mother’s house for twice the market value. The county commissioners had determined a golf course would earn the town resort status, and his mother’s property would be the fifteenth green and sixteenth tee.
At the bank drive-up window, he handed the brunette teller the check and watched her count aloud 671 hundred-dollar bills, then deposit them into an envelope that Elvis, on the other side of the window, lifted from the drawer. Next, Elvis found a barber with an empty chair, and, for twenty dollars, she shaved his head and face smooth. He bought genuine Levi’s, a Western shirt with turquoise snaps, tooled cowboy boots, fresh underwear, and heavy socks, then paid $1.50 for a truck stop shower. Cleaned up, he retired to the tavern, where he plugged the juke and punched George Jones numbers until his fingers hurt.
An hour later, the door jangled and the bank’s brunette entered. She had intended to order her lunch takeout, but when Elvis nodded at her, she joined him. Her name was Wendy, like the girl in Peter Pan: feisty Wendy who bossed her brothers and struck a match in Peter’s heart without touching south of there.
Elvis lit a cigarette and examined the tavern patrons through the smoke. Three cuckolds shot pool. At a second table sat two divorced wives, single victims or perpetrators of similar crimes. Eddie, the only person with any sense, remained a bachelor.
The door’s bell jangled again. Carlson ordered a meal, then recognized Elvis with a woman other than his sister.
“Rose screwing someone new?” Carlson asked.
“Not that I know of,” Elvis replied.
“So what’s she about?” Carlson nodded at Wendy.
“Maybe I just enjoy his company,” Wendy replied.
Elvis glimpsed his distorted self in the silver napkin dispenser. The skin of his scalp and beneath his sideburns was pasty, unweathered, as different from the rest of his face as was his hair. He was simply the ghost of Elvis. He drank again, and, for a moment, the smoky peace for which he’d pined settled upon him as if the flashing Budweiser and Coors signs and hymns by Merle Haggard and the Allman Brothers made the place church. He drank once more, then rubbed his eyes, disconcerted by the tears pressing past their lids, as he did not feel happy or sad enough to merit them.
“You don’t look like Jesus,” another woman said. Her name was Grace. She was not a regular but perched upon a bar stool next to her father, who was. The tavern was not her milieu, and she was unhappy, but there nonetheless.
“The manna is filled with bad lipids.” He slapped his belly. “If I’m not careful, I’ll die before my time.”
“God will see to that,” someone in the back replied.
“If history is any indication,” Almira Jesus said.
“And I’ll be there with a hammer and the nails,” said the same voice.
“I hope you don’t mean that,” Almira Jesus raised his voice. “Though someone else will be if you’re not up to the task.”
Another woman crossed herself. From the darkness, someone threw an empty beer can at the savior.
“It’s good to see nothing has changed,” Almira Jesus said.
Eddie plopped hamburger patties on the griddle, then shook grease from the French fries. He delivered a burger to Almira Jesus, who thanked him then wolfed down half the meal and chased it with more water. He rose.
“You are not men or women,” he declared. “You are wraiths, playing at believing. I curse you. You will all die. Each breath will remind you of the one that won’t happen, the air that glues itself to your lungs and will not leave.”
“We will all die anyway,” someone shouted.
“Yes, but now you have to grieve over it more than otherwise.”
Eddie delivered a pitcher half-filled with ice, as he knew that Jesus of Almira’s sermons equaled three ice trays and a gallon from the tap.
“It was simpler in the past; I can tell you that by listening at the Senior Center. And I read occasionally. Old folks will tell you they climbed a hill two ways to get to the store. It isn’t that they didn’t have it rough; they did. Now it’s not so hard, but it’s more complicated.”
“Which are you? Hard or complicated?” someone said.
“Both, but I am Jesus and you are not.”
“Drink a beer and you won’t be either.”
Jesus shook his head. “I tried it.” He lifted his water glass. “Though this does no good either.”
Carlson returned half an hour later, Rose in tow. Carlson took a place next to Wendy, leaving Rose to Elvis. She pressed her cool hands to his scalp. “What have you done?” she whispered.
“He got a haircut is all,” Carlson said.
The blood through Rose’s fingers pulsed like tiny electrical charges on Elvis’s fresh skin. “Don’t call it a haircut,” Rose said. She poured beer from a pitcher into a glass. Wendy lifted her stocking foot and put it between Elvis’s legs.
“This is his wife right here,” Carlson said to her.
“I didn’t marry him then hump the middle school P.E. department,” Wendy replied.
“Fair,” Rose said, “though unkind.”
“No more than you doing so,” Wendy said.
Rose lifted and emptied her glass and stood. “I need to fetch Jasper.” She looked at her brother. “You leave off my husband. This is not your concern,” she said.
She exited through the back. That night, Elvis took a room in the Sky Deck Motel, and he and Wendy fumbled at each other until they managed some sort of physical agreement. Early morning, before first light, Elvis rose and returned to the truck stop and its all-night grill, where he ordered coffee and a ham sandwich. He ate as seriously as a monk and recalled the boy Jasper’s smell, like wet dough, when he burrowed between himself and Rose mornings. Elvis glanced into the mirror behind the counter; in it was something his stepdaughter could sketch with a circle and a few bent lines.
Almira Jesus drank more from the water glass, then refilled it.
“Them schoolkids watch your movie,” a drunk hollered. “It’s not in English, though.”
“That one by the Road Warrior. He hates Jews. You know the guy.”
“I do,” Jesus of Almira replied. “That movie was in three or four languages. None of them I spoke. I mean, I recognized the words, but not the order they were in.”
“It was bloody,” someone said.
“But kids are used to that,” the drunk argued. “Video games.”
“I cried at the end,” Grace said. Her father sipped from a schooner glass.
“The price of the ticket was ridiculous,” Jesus said.
“He’s a Jew, all right,” another in the back shouted.
“Did you like the movie?” Grace asked.
“The soundtrack was inspired,” Jesus said. “I should have considered strings. It elevates everything.”
“What about Mary Madgelene?” Grace pressed. She stood; her weight tipped forward.
“She was beautiful,” Jesus of Almira said.
“Did you love her?”
“I love everyone. It’s in the contract.”
“Love, love,” Grace said.
“Yes,” she said.
He opened his dictionary and found the citation. “Ardor,” he said. “Definition 3. I felt ardor, yes.”
“That’s not what she wants to know,” a barrel-chested man said.
“Bumping uglies,” someone shouted.
“Erotic love?” Almira Jesus asked.
“Yes,” came the consensus.
“No,” the Lord said. “She was not inclined toward such things.”
“She was a prostitute,” Grace said.
“But not a communist,” the Lord answered. “I was broke.”
“But she loved you,” Grace said.
“So much more reason not to give me what so many already possessed.”
“But it would have been different,” Grace said. Her hair swept across half her profile like a bird wing, and in the low light, her face glowed. Her bent mouth didn’t smile; she looked prepared to devour any falsity.
“Do you know that?” Almira Jesus asked.
Grace said nothing.
“Neither did she,” the Lord said. “And she was not willing to risk making her feelings ordinary.”
“But you wanted to?” Grace asked.
Almira Jesus gazed at her. “Come here,” he pointed to his table. “Please.”
Grace descended her stool and walked toward Jesus. She wore dark slacks and a black summer sweater upon which the light reflected in flashes like water. Almira Jesus smiled as she neared him. He motioned to an empty chair for Grace to sit.
“Even the Lord cannot make a thing so by preaching it. I can only preach what is so and live with it.”
“How do you explain miracles?”
“Cataract surgeries and cochlear implants. The blind are made to see a thousand times a day now, and the deaf to hear. But what do they listen to, what do they see?”
“So miracles are of no use?” someone asked.
Almira Jesus said, “I’m not sure miracles are supposed to be useful. On the other hand, I am grateful for my spectacles.” He looked to Grace.
“A messiah is not a corrective lens.”
“No, and you are not a virgin,” the Lord said.
Grace didn’t answer.
“You cared for him.”
She remained silent.
Perspiration dripped from Almira Jesus’s temple, and he swiped at it with a napkin. “There once was a young woman. She saw herself as plain, but what she mistook for ordinary was translucence. Her beauty told a truth, a generous truth, not a lie, of course—she would not have lies—but a truth that caught all the good light it could and warmed one’s visage, so even the homely appeared noble and wise, and those already beautiful, well, they were not less so, but they were not more so either.”
He drank from his water.
“This woman, she was a miracle. And if she,” he motioned to Grace, “were to acknowledge it, she could love others and be loved. But she could not acknowledge it, or, more accurately, she could not believe what she saw. So after thirty years or seventy—it hardly matters—she was cast into the fires and the gnashing of teeth.”
There were audible sounds of surprise. Her father stood, spilling his beer. “No prophet is sending her to hell or to the dentist for teeth grinding, you hear?”
Almira Jesus tipped the pitcher and refilled his water glass. “Brother,” he said, “have faith the size of a mustard seed and a great tree will grow.” He shifted in his booth so he could see Grace more clearly. “Stories have lots of endings. Perhaps instead, this woman, she encounters a man. A sad man or a crazy man or one who is both, but something else, too. He drinks and smokes too much. He tries to kiss her once at a bar, maybe, or asks her awkwardly for a date. And she feels something. Not the fancy of love or the thrust of Eros, nor guilt, nor pity. Or perhaps them all. He is not unattractive, though he behaves as if he is Frankenstein’s monster. He is poison to himself.
“Then he delivers her a mean fact. There is no God, or a boy who slept with her was not true, or the beer is gone from the keg. And she shouts at him, ‘Why tell me this?,’ and he doesn’t reply, because he cannot say that he has considered every argument for silence yet spoken anyway. He didn’t desire her to mend his wounds; he instead pined to open his skin with her sharp edges, to bleed upon her and make her visible.
“And then she finds herself speaking gently to him, and he to her, and they kiss, and, after a respectable number of days and the appropriate trading of affection, she perhaps leads him to her bedroom, and they undress one another and intertwine themselves, and she becomes a virgin and will never be anything different after.”
Grace’s eyes glistened in the light, and her father cried simply and openly. Jesus of Almira was not sure why. Perhaps the man was a disappointment as a parent; though his heart was in it, maybe he did not possess the knack.
Almira Jesus smiled, then nodded to the rest of the crowd. “The rest of you will die awful deaths.”
“What deaths aren’t?” Eddie asked.
Almira Jesus laughed. He turned to the congregation and lifted his water glass. “I was mistaken,” he said. “You shall live forever.”
In the truck, after their second visit to Crazy Eddie’s, Sarah squeezed Bernice’s hand and, at a stop sign, lifted it to kiss, then let it go. After, the air through the air conditioner fan cooled the wet place Sarah’s mouth left.
Inside the tavern, men had tipped their hats or smiled in Sarah’s direction. Bernice wondered whether Sarah would have invited the men to join them if Bernice were attractive enough to double-date. She slipped into what she recognized as her sullen, selfish silence. She saw, too, Sarah had behaved in no manner that required apology, and her contrition would not appease Bernice anyway. Bernice had no charts to navigate such emotional waters, and she knew this, too.
That night, Sarah parked the truck in Bernice’s gravel driveway. Bernice tugged the door handle, but it wouldn’t give.
“It sticks,” Sarah said.
She bent across Bernice to jimmy the handle, and Bernice kissed her on the mouth. They both sat a minute, breathing.
“I’m sorry,” Bernice said.
Sarah patted the steering wheel. “Can we think about this a little bit?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Bernice said.
“I kissed back.”
“Do you like girls?” Bernice asked.
“I like you,” Sarah said.
In the coulee, sixties survivors, in their own sixties and beyond, still light joints with quivering hands in bathrooms and parking lots while their grandchildren steal painkillers or cook methamphetamine. The few between work union at the dam or teach school or patch power lines for county utilities. No one locks their doors here—the crimes were personal, not arbitrary, and not the kind a locked door could stop. Many see small towns all the same—hateful, ignorant, narrow; in fact, they are. Here, they enjoy their water toys and their beer. They have cobbled patriotism into a strange and self-serving prejudice that turns sawdust under even a little scrutiny; so, they don’t scrutinize it.
But also, locals, despite their Confederate flag bumper stickers, share fishing holes and swap lures with black children and their fathers. An Indian will order whiskey and tip his glass to the Little Big Horn, and Eddie will offer him another for Wounded Knee. After 9/11, an itinerant oiler harassed Ali, the grocer. The oiler found himself with a blanket bungeed over his head and baseball bats bruising his ribs.
So the locals did not tell lesbian jokes in earshot of Sarah and Bernice, and told fewer when not in their presence. The two were described as good friends and the nicest people in the county. Locals greeted them heartily but with respectful formality.
Sarah moved into Bernice’s house six months later. As for Bernice’s mother, three seemed to make two easier, and she talked more to her daughter those six months than she had in the six years previous. In private, Sarah and Bernice kissed, but went no further, though they saw each other naked when they dressed and undressed; Bernice knew they would touch each other in more ways, but she was relieved to see no hurry in it. In fact, Bernice thought of the term bliss from the title of so many bodice rippers each time she considered her life, chaste as it was.
After his breakfast, Elvis purchased a Mustang straight from the lot and raced it a hundred miles an hour to Coulee City and back until a cop ticketed him. The following morning he did the same, and the one after, until three local troopers addressed him by name and conversed with him genially. Once ticketed, he followed the speed limit scrupulously until the following morning. Eddie conducted a pool on the date Elvis would pile himself into a guardrail or tree or rock or just sail from the Million-Dollar Mile’s two-hundred-foot cliffs. The bet never paid, as Elvis traveled his course for two months unscathed and undeterred, aside from tumbling lights. Finally, he was arrested and jailed. In his cell, he read comic books and a bible and considered following the models of Christ or Batman. Hair and beard peppered his scalp and face in a random, patternless manner that looked only vague.
Rose visited a week into his stint and paid a thousand dollars on his fines and another hundred in bail, and, when he agreed to sell the Mustang, the judge freed him. That evening, in Rose’s front yard—he had never figured the house his—Elvis put a hose on mist and watered the front planter, watching drops gather and descend the broad hosta fronds. After feeding the kids, Rose crossed the dark lawn toward him. The house light oranged her profile, and she looked prettier than she was.
“I was mad at you,” Rose said.
Elvis didn’t reply.
“Don’t you want to know why?” Rose asked.
“I can’t think of anything I’d like to know less,” Elvis said.
Rose was quiet awhile. “You’re right,” she said.
“That gutter over the kitchen is sagging,” Elvis said.
“I thought you patched it last fall.”
“It’s the low spot. Rain runs from both sides, and the weight pulls out the nails. Tomorrow I’ll anchor it with a molly screw.”
“You want to go on dates? You want kisses and presents? Is that it?”
Elvis gazed into the black night. He knew the constellations, or at least some, though he found himself disagreeing with their names. Orion’s Belt, the Bear, and the Crab existed only because some book stitched the dots that way. If another sewed them in a different order, bears could turn ducks or beer bottles or angels on the wing.
Rose put her hands to his scalp. They still felt electric there. She moved next to him and leaned, and he bore her weight.
“I don’t even know what to call you,” she said.
“Allen,” he replied.
“Is that your real name?” Her voice vibrated in his ribs.
“No,” he said.
She glanced up at him. “I’ve always liked it.”
They remained quiet awhile. In the window, the boy appeared and disappeared, bouncing on the sofa, it turned out. The girl sat behind it, her chin perched on the sill. She ate a cookie and stared. Elvis lifted his hand to wave, and she returned the gesture.
“Allen?” Rose asked.
Elvis didn’t reply.
Near the end of the year, a new, boyish minister was assigned to the Assembly Church. In his first service, he lectured his congregation about the iniquity of all things homosexual, all the while openly staring at Bernice. When the collection plate made the rounds, it returned empty. Outside after the service, Bernice’s mother told her: “You get yourself to that library. Borrow us some other books with other gods.”
The next Sunday, the minister’s congregation dwindled from 110 to sixteen. The week after, the temperature dropped below zero and, though it was well known Almira Jesus had never set foot in any church, he got close enough to soak the foundation with gasoline and strike a wood match and burn it to the ground. He was not arrested or charged. The young minister was transferred and the church never rebuilt. Elvis and Rose had exchanged vows there and, as children, attended holiday services, though now, when on occasion they pass the abandoned concrete foundation, they recall nothing spoken or sung or taught there.
Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he held a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel America, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, Other Voices, The Contemporary West, Quarterly West, and The New York Times. His first novel, Lonesome Animals, was a top-ten pick in 2012 for The Seattle Times; it was followed by The Hour of Lead in 2014, which won the Washington Book Award 2015 and was named by Kirkus as a top-100 pick for 2014. Holbert’s third novel, Whiskey, was published in March 2018.