This Rover Crossed Over
By Larry Smith
Charlie Saba: a tall man, sandy blond with light blue eyes and effeminate hands and soft, narrow lips. A pretty male, but it's usually women who find him most attractive. Once he used to dandify himself to please them. He loved paisley when he was younger and still wore high-heeled leather boots with elaborate buckles intricately patterned like wrought iron. For the winters he owned a camel's hair coat that had been strikingly elegant three, four seasons ago. Now the lining was torn and the outer fabric matted and seedy. He wasn't overly concerned. The yen to dress up was now only intermittent, as was the sexual urge itself. By the same token, when it came upon him it came strongly.
He crossed Eighth Avenue and went into a McDonald's. The restaurant was dimly fluorescent, crowded but fairly quiet. Only in places like this at such hours of the night surrounded by other tired people content to drift thoughtlessly into their coffee was he at peace. The shuffling and jostling were over. The ship had beached him here, voyage's end: North Carolina to college in New York, then cross-country trips to and from California carrying marijuana, which was how he earned money and lived fairly well for some years. Then an arrest, but no indictment. To Paris with a friend, but they nearly starved. Back to New York where he worked for a talent agency helping administer accounts. California again, using drugs, until his money ran out. He became haggard for a while. Worked as a laborer in San Francisco, bought a bus ticket back to New York. Now on welfare, living in a one-room apartment on West 29th St. He eats fairly well, and doesn't care to drink or smoke much. His good looks have come back. Almost ruddy. Walks around a lot at night. Charlie Saba.
His intelligence is unimpaired. It's incisive, actually, which is why he often feels lost and desperate when he walks the streets. More than loneliness aches him. Loneliness he can take. But he also feels left out. The rich couples in and out of the theaters, their limousines: in their swagger, the nation's newly recovered pride in money and status. He's no longer young enough to either good-naturedly tolerate these strangers or pretend to hate what they stand for. A dull-edged envy is all he has. Meanwhile, the company of others like himself is colder comfort every day. "Fucking bunch of losers," he mumbles to himself.
A semi-circle of a half-dozen or so young people approached his table. By their dress, which was immaculate and informal – crisp bright t-shirts and deep-grooved corduroy on the boys, long dresses with demure floral patterns to the ankles on the girls – and by their expressions, smiley and uniformly energetic, Saba figured them to be Jesus people. They milled around for a full minute and passed a few whispers among themselves, then dispersed back to their own table where their plain cloth coats hung over the red plastic chairs.
One female drew nearer. She was extremely pretty. Her skin was milky smooth and her eyes a deeper, darker blue than his. Graceful, thin-armed, her features were too perfect; they would have been forgettable except that her mouth was broad and dipper-like. The lips were radiantly ruby red, almost unnaturally so. Her air of an acolyte's chastity caught his fancy. Waspish chastity intrigued him. Many of these people hadn't repressed their passions altogether. They held lust in abeyance as something they all knew about and thought was wrong, but they weren't as pathological as a lot of the Catholics he knew, or at least they weren't pathological in quite the same way.
"Can I have a word with you?" she asked.
"Yes." He nodded toward the chair beside him. She fetched her coat from the other table, came back and sat down.
"My name is Cindy," she said, showing a big toothy smile. "What's yours?"
"Oh, that's a very nice name," she said, in a tone that a doting adult would take with a child.
"It's a pretty good name," he said. "Thousands of horses have worn it with pride." His humor seemed to confuse her, which was too bad because he was proud of it. Then an unexpected thing happened. She leaned forward and looked at him earnestly and didn't say anything. It was as if she were waiting for him to speak, to take the lead. What was he supposed to say? That he assumed she wanted to talk about Jesus? That he knew she'd come to his table to discuss the destiny of his soul? He'd be damned before he'd give her or any other religion peddler the benefit of that much cooperation, or the satisfaction of knowing that their concerns were, to any degree, his own as well. So he remained obstinately silent. Of course he had never seen this before, a reborn who hesitated to go first.
Finally, she had to break the ice herself. "I wanted to talk to you about something very important."
Saba said "okay," but nothing more.
"It's about you, and who you are, and where you're going." Still, she hesitated to say the name "Jesus," still seeming to want to trap him into saying it first and thereby admit that somehow in some way her god was on his mind.
Again, though, all he said was "okay," blankly. Again, she was the one who finally gave in.
"I want to talk to you about Jesus." For a third time, he said only "okay."
"Do you know Jesus?" she asked.
"Not really," he said.
"Can I talk about Him to you?"
"Sure, go ahead."
Her eyes fixed on him as she launched in. "I believe that Jesus can salve every wound. When you're lonely on the street – and I know you're on the street, and I can tell you're lonely – He’s with you. He's by your side. Without Him, it's hell."
She paused. Her tone was light and pleasant, even in the way she said the word "hell." She seemed on the verge of singing a ditty, as if her sermon so far were the spoken recitative to some innocuous tune in a musical comedy. "People who are offered Jesus and refuse Him, and refuse the sacrifice He made for all of us, these people suffer damnation through all eternity, with terrible fire and sores and scabs and wailing despair." There was still an incongruous lilt in her tone. "It's bad enough never to have the chance to know Him, like all the poor dark-faced people on other continents. But to be offered His love, and to refuse it, that's terrible. If you say Yes to Jesus you'll be in paradise forever. It's so simple. You just open your heart and let the love pour in. You'll feel love for everyone you meet, and you'll forgive everyone who ever hurt you. That's really what heaven is, you know. To forgive everyone. First you've got to say Yes. You've got to take that step. You've got to open your heart. Maybe I'm talking too much. I can't help it because I'm so full with the love of Jesus that it just keeps overflowing. Do you know what I mean? Do you understand the things that I'm trying to say?"
"You mean you want me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior?" he asked. His tone was ingenuous, matter-of-fact, though with a slightly anxious edge to it. The obtuseness of the question confused her. Wasn't it obvious that that's precisely what she wanted? If he had to ask, she thought, perhaps it was because he suffered from some kind of a mental deficiency. Saba wondered himself why he'd responded in such an odd way, though he did have a sense, half clear to him at that moment, that his question was a prelude to a kind of game he'd been darkly, semi-consciously formulating all along, throughout her heartfelt peroration.
The lines in the restaurant were getting bigger, and some of the lights had been turned up a bit. The new customers were apparently filing in from a nightclub of some sort that just closed. It was almost four. Saba remembered it was Friday, so there was no work tomorrow for these people. There was a low buzzing among the customers, who were mostly young and black: fifteen, twenty people too nervous and full of the night to want to go home yet. Only a few of the girl's companions still lingered at their table and they too looked ready to go.
The idea came suddenly: a fearless powerful inner urge. It was in fact years since he'd felt anything this outrageous so self-confidently, with so little fear of rejection or consequence. And not just the urge came upon him at once, a whole stratagem followed on as well. He would try to fuck her and use for persuasion an odd, elaborate argument, each word of which was already sounding hard and clear in his mind, an old, old script somehow memorized and perfected months in advance.
"I will accept Him as my savior," he answered. Cindy was confused again, figuring that any conversion this fast must be suspect, Jesus' miraculous healing powers notwithstanding. "But you've got to do something for me," Saba continued, then rushed on to finish the whole proposal before she could enunciate a word of objection. "You've got to have sex with me in my apartment. For a long time. Two or three hours. Then when we're done I'll accept Jesus as my savior and I'll never sin again. I swear on my mother's grave, if you do this for me I'll give my life to Jesus forever."
"Shame on you," she said, her cheeks drawn back in a wounded pucker, the lilt in her voice gone. She jerked slightly forward, as if to get up. But she thought better of it. She'd stay and fight. Her place was with the sinners and publicans.
"Don't you know what you're doing to yourself?" she asked. Her smell, clean and sweet like wildflowers, strange to smell here of all places at this hour of the night, hovered on the table over the weak coffee. "Are you trying to ruin Jesus? You can't ruin Jesus. And you can't ruin the fortunate souls He's saved. But you can insult Him. You can violate the spirit. You can, you really can. Why do you want to? For what? It's your own poor soul at stake. You'll be among the forgotten. You'll be lost in the cracks of the world. No one will hear you squeal. No one will know your name or even guess that once a long time ago, millions of years ago, you were a person living on the earth like anyone else, and that you had a chance at love but instead you spat on the divine face and insulted the divine heart."
Saba contained his impatience, and kept control of himself. Of the plot. His anger was purposeful, a deep burning intent. Each of his thoughts was a hammer poised and ready to strike. It was the most lucid moment he had had in months. Step One, now.
"Look, either make love with me and I'll accept Jesus, or beat it. I haven't got the time for bullshit."
"Shame on you," was all she could say. The flesh on her willowy arms was like a baby's. And those red red lips...He could guess what her tits would look like and smell like, and the other thin lips between her legs. He could just about taste her.
"Beat it," he said. Her eyes grew moist. She was certainly upset, staring back, unblinking. Slowly she rose and began to turn away. Step two, now.
"But of course you might be making the worst mistake of your life," he said. "You might have just lost your soul."
"Me? Why my soul?" For the first time she was obviously irate, put-upon.
"Maybe Jesus sent you here to save me," he said. "How do you know you're not just being selfish, letting a miserable creature like me go to the devil, and you cheating Jesus out of a soul just because you're too damn self-centered to have sex with me?"
"Jesus wouldn't want me to sin with you," she said, almost petulantly.
"Say, where did all your friends go?" he asked. "They seem to have left you here with me. That's odd, isn't it? You'd think they'd stick around. Think they went home? Or outside, to fish for souls in the cold? Seems to me everything's been somehow prearranged to bring us together."
"Jesus doesn't ask people to sin for Him."
"How do you know?" he snapped. "Where do you come off knowing so much about God?"
"Oh, so you admit he's God!" she said, bitter and exhilarated.
"Of course I'll admit it. There, you see! We're halfway there. Every second we're together draws me closer to God. Closer and closer. You're not going to stop now, are you?"
"This is like the inquisition," she said, her voice cracking slightly.
"You're forgetting something," he said, glancing around to make sure the few people at the next table couldn't overhear. "You're forgetting that your body is nothing. Nothing. What a trivial thing to worry about when a human soul may be at stake."
"It would still be a sin. You're a very wicked man. Really, if you had any true desire for Jesus, you wouldn't have to be making me this horrible offer."
"It's because I'm so hurt and lonely," he said, lowering his voice, almost whispering. "You've got to prove to me you really care. I need you to prove it. Then I'll know. Then I'll be able, I'll be able to give myself."
Her eyes hardened. "You may be the devil himself," she said.
"Maybe. Maybe I am, but you'll never be sure. And what if I am? Jesus would still see into your heart. He'd know why you'd be making love with me. He'd certainly forgive you, wouldn't He? After all, He'd know you were doing it for Him. And wouldn't that be spitting in Satan's eye, to yield to his treachery only in order to more loudly glorify by your generosity the saving grace of Jesus?"
As he spoke he enunciated each word more convincingly. He had intended to play a shrewd game, yet with this impassioned eloquence he really surprised himself. It just flooded out. "Don't you know what happens when one single soul is saved?" he continued. "Angels dance around the throne of the Father for centuries. Imagine that!—-a thousand years of dancing angels because you, sweet Cindy on the streets of the city, were willing to take one drastic measure to help save one soul in peril."
She was extremely tired, almost numb, and her face was a blank. "It's still a sin," she said.
"No, no sin. Just an act," he said. "A gesture. If your soul is clean, I can't make your body dirty. If I'm lying, then it's only me that's damned."
"You're sick and twisted."
"Let's get out of here," he said, and reached forward and grabbed her elbow. "Put your coat on."
"No," she said, too weak to struggle physically.
"Please," he said, as his own eyes grew moist. "We'll just walk together, that's all. Please, I need you."
He got her out on the street. "I have to go home now," she said.
"Look," he said, "the dawn is coming up, the new dawn of my soul. Remember the angels that knocked on Abraham's door and Abraham fed them?"
"You know the Bible," she said, her tone now blank like her eyes.
"Abraham fed the strangers not knowing they were angels. What a beautiful thing!" His voice was dazzled, exuberant. They headed south toward his apartment, walking past vagrants and an occasional prostitute. Only a few cars were on the street.
"The devil quotes scripture," she said. "I've been warned of that."
"So what? So what? Oh Cindy, Cindy, don't you see! The only real sin is to refuse a soul in distress. Give yourself to me in faith, hope, and charity."
She tried to dart off toward a cross street, but he grabbed her elbow again and pressed tightly the heavy blue cloth of her coat. "Magdalene," he said. "Have you forgotten Magdalene?"
"I would never have expected you to know all those beautiful names," she said, almost dreamily. "Abraham, Magdalene. Do you know about them?"
"It's been so long," he said. "I've forgotten so much of it. I've been so lonely, so desperate."
"Look at that poor soul," she muttered as a dark Spanish whore wearing a parka above red silk shorts, her thighs chafing in the cold, walked by. Saba felt Cindy's resistance beginning to give way. He had pushed, now something was giving.
"Oh to risk it all for Jesus," he said. "What a glorious thing to do!"
She stared at him, nearly wide-eyed; she wanted to, he could surely see that now. Should he talk on, say more, press the advantage? – or not risk it, keep silent, bide his time until he could get her home and have her?
He spoke. "To sacrifice for Jesus, to...to..." For the first time he stumbled and, though he recovered in a moment, his cold composure was gone. His heart beat wildly. "And if our embrace does save my soul, oh what an embrace it will be! We'll melt in each other's arms, melt for the love of all mankind."
At 36th St. they kissed. The deep anger that had made him eloquent was gone. His tongue probed her gently and her breath was wonderful, like wintergreen.
I don't know why I gave in. Except that face of his, which was the color of wheat, and which I've known so many years in so many dreams of men like warriors with cruel eyes and smooth sunny flesh, drew me to him. I wanted to save him. Was it You who sent me? Are You pleased with me, Jesus?
Jesus is barefoot, white robe sheathed with a gray band, standing before her with hands gently folded.
Heaven vibrates with your deed. Of all women, you are blessed in the chorus of the elect. You heeded not yourself nor minded the perils of the lonely path but plunged in deep, down, down to the passion pit of the world for my name's sake and my name's sake only. The Father knows you and glorifies you.
Great stars of shimmering silver and bursts of red and blue illuminate the firmament as He speaks.
A lost soul is found. Go thou, be my ministering angel, my sweet honey of joy, the tender apostle of love's darker communion.
Cindy is dressed in a single loose piece of light green cloth twisted across her chest and between her legs, the scent of mint strong and invigorating.
I'm so glad. Amen.
Dear God, You saved me once from sin, won't You save me again? You saved my dark Spanish boy too, remember, the Spanish boy who never told his name when we coupled in the doorways and on the roofs even when sometimes the addicts came and slept nearby while we did it? Remember, his paws on me, his tongue lapping like a dog's tongue between my legs, and how I wanted it and bellowed for it, the hot vile things I'd say? How once I made the sounds a chicken makes, the wicked delight in that until You came to us and showed us Your face of purest goodness and light. We held hands in the church. We accepted You with both our hearts and souls. Don't throw me back now into the darkness after all You've done.
Jesus' deep blue eyes don't blink, stare unyielding, His voice soft but insidiously furious, a two-thousand year-old rage corralled in one hideously unruffable manner.
The devil came to you and tempted you, and you gave way at once. You wanted to yield, so you did. You yourself conjured the blond devil out of the pit of your own malevolent lust. Never again will I raise you up, you handmaiden of the bog, you reeking putridity in the nostril of the goat. I cast you out! I cast you and I separate you forever from heaven and sweet truth.
Cindy's cloak is undone, pubic hair growing wild around the edges, the top of her garment fallen to her waist reveals drooping breasts with rigid ruby red nipples. There's an acrid sulphur smell.
Oh that's terrible! That's awful!
It was so ugly, that place, the odor of abandoned hamburgers and half-eaten potatoes. The people there were the damned. Their eyes were dying. I had to get away from them, I had to. That bracing wind, those steam-swept streets emptied of frantic life. I had to get out, or choke.
Cindy is naked with a slight smell as her arms reach out.
I was so proud, too proud thinking I could serve you so.
Jesus gazes heavenward.
Abagtruyin opertygnum esse nipoiyt ebbanebban utty sutty utty.
He slipped out of her as she dozed off, almost smiling. Morning shadows on the bedpost, dishes in the sink, and the same ancient stains on the thick gray throw rug. Outside, matins, and the noise of jackhammers.
What about it? he thought. It's time.
Saba held her hand as she slept. She seemed to be sleeping comfortably, her breath coming in quiet child-like spurts. But she would surely ask him when she woke, and he'd surely have to answer. What words would he find to say it?
About Larry Smith