(Excerpt from a collection of stories I’m working on with the artist El Chepe)
The missionaries thought they were going to Magnus, a prim town where the people were prosperous and kept a lid on things. Instead they were sent on to Sweet City, where the church was rotting into the sea. When Mark and John arrived it was early fall and the activity of summer hadn’t tapered all the way off yet. Salmonberries grew up through the church floor boards, and migrant workers slept on the pews. Within a couple of weeks the town emptied out, the ships took all the workers away, and it was just the locals left. The town collapsed in toward its spiritual center, the Sweet City Saloon. Summer or winter, Rosie played whiskey-soaked hymns in the bar, and holy honkytonk in the church.
The missionaries did not go to the saloon, but went politely house to house. The locals invited them in, but teased them by pretending not to know who Jesus Christ was. They offered them alcohol, then spiked the soft drinks the missionaries requested instead. “You don’t say?” they’d say, upon hearing the word of the Bible and its teachings. Or they said “Well, I’ll be damned,” and made the young men wince. “But Sonny,” said Dirty Curly, “have you heard about Odin?” Peg-Legged Jake said, “Have you heard about Raven, the trickster?” Hard Rock said, “What does the Bible have to say about banshees?” The children were the worst, and made a game out of teasing the missionaries when they came and went on the town’s mossy staircases.
It was around the time John had learned not to accept beverages at all that he saw the girl for the first time. It had been a long day of knocking on doors and trying to talk to people in the camps and tent cities. They’d been mocked, ignored, and yelled at, and finally invited in by Rosie. Rosie was a girl but not the girl. She sat them down and chatted lightly from the kitchen as she clinked about. To the people of Sweet City, Rosie was severe and straight-laced, determined to have less fun than everyone else and always trying to protect her hands. To Mark and John, she was like a passionate gypsy girl from a storybook. She had long dark hair and her eyebrows were always storming into each other. At one point she hooted with laughter from the kitchen and then turned and hid her mouth behind her arm and waved a dish towel above her head as if in surrender. She put down snacks in front of them and said, “I’ll just keep playing the piano, if you don’t mind.” The missionaries sat in peace and listened. Her father came home and glowered at them, then went into a different room without saying anything.
Afterward the missionaries walked down to the ramshackle liveaboard they shared. Mark came in from pissing over the rail and then John went out. A girl’s head popped out of the water a few feet from where John’s pee hit an oil slick and scummy foam. He fumbled at his fly. He was startled but not surprised anymore by anything the locals did.
The girl giggled—about the peeing, he figured. It looked like her neck had been cut and bruised but it was hard for him to see through her ropy dark hair. She had big lips that hid her teeth and her eyes seemed silver, which John took to be a trick of the low light. “Ish ok,” she said, “Whash your name?” John thought oh great, a drunk, abused girl, swimming alone and slurring her words. What else is new.
They were doing the work of the Lord and were supposed to be open-hearted and love everybody. John tried. He really tried. And most of the time, he was a very generous-hearted young man. But it had been a long day. Also, they were supposed to avoid all occasions of sin. He started to go inside, but then he thought “What if she dies out here?” And he thought, “What if she’s the only person I can reach on this stupid island?”
He came back out, stooping through the narrow doorway. She was gone. Her absence made everything seem strange and silent, and John had the feeling of a small child playing hide and seek in the woods. The last gulls were flying across the water to their roosts in the cliffs.
Her head popped up on the other side of the boat—like a seal, he thought.
“Did you mish me?” she asked, and John said, “I’m John. What’s your name?”
“Phyllish,” she said. He asked if her parents knew where she was. It was hard to tell how old she was. She said she didn’t know where her parents were.
John knew Mark should be here for this. This was why they were supposed to stick together always. Here was this wet girl. The thought of her body, wet, needing to be wrapped up in a blanket or a towel, her flesh goosepimpling, her—“Shut it down, shut it down!” thought John.
Her head whipped around and he looked where she looked. The pump from the fish plant was disgorging guts and blood out through an underwater pipe into the Narrows. The reddening churn of water looked like a shark attack. He and Mark had laughed about it the first several times they saw it, still laughed sometimes. Phyllis gave a muscular lunge in the direction of the fish guts, then disappeared beneath the water. “Like an athlete,” thought John, and then, “or an animal.” He stared after her for a few moments. A few gulls had looped back and wheeled above that bloody spot. The feeling of being alone crept back to John. He went inside to Mark’s snoring.
John sat cramped in the little galley, the lip of the table digging into his forearms. He started to write, “Dear Mother and Dad.” He set the pen down. He took out a pack of cards and began to set up for solitaire. Then he stared across the room to the stove. A wooden spoon hung from the stove, swinging with the slight motion of the boat. John stared and stroked his chin absently as if he had a beard, as if he could grow a beard, as if her were an old man.
(To be continued)