Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sunday Surprise

I was always the one who’d accompany our father to church on Sundays. We’d dress in our best and head out, my hand in his, walking like that all the way to St Mary’s. But instead of going in when we got there, we’d just circle the church grounds, round and round while the mass carried on inside. We’d walk without purpose, casually; “strolling” is the right word, without a care in the world, and all the time he’s telling me stories about Jesus and the Apostles, how the Roman FBI had an inside man among the disciples named Judas, who pretended to be Jesus’ best buddy. He said that Jesus got nailed to the cross just for being himself, and then three days later he appeared as a ghost to his friends even though his body had disappeared from its cave and floated up to the clouds. My father told me that Jesus was the greatest person who had ever lived, even greater than Adam and Eve, and Noah and Moses. Even greater than Satan, who my father believed was the most powerful person on earth.
Last Sunday, on the way home, we met a handsome couple—my father calls anything beautiful handsome—on the sidewalk walking in the opposite direction. You could tell they were happy just to be out on such a fine morning, enjoying the breeze, walking arm and arm.
“Good morning,” my father said. “What a handsome couple—don’t you think so, son? Very handsome, indeed.” My father shook his head because he couldn’t believe that there existed such a handsome couple in the world. “Truth is,” he said, “I can’t help but admire that jacket of yours. What a stunning piece of work!” He continued shaking his head side to side, slowly, repeating the word “awesome, awesome.” The couple exchanged confused looks. “And that tie,” my father said, “silk, isn’t it? The Lord Jesus wore a tie just like that,” he said.
My father was tracing an imaginary arc on the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe, hand on his hip, the other at his chin, nodding, smacking his cheeks, licking his lips. “Tell me about your shoes. Plain-toe oxfords? Is that what they’re called?”
The gentleman’s face looked confused and amused at the same time, but I could see that he was also a bit taken aback by my father’s manner. He turned to his wife—they seemed to be married—to say something, but my father beat him to it: “And the workmanship in that bag? Worth every penny. Those earrings, too, and that necklace—best pearls I’ve ever seen.”
My father was acting overwhelmed, shaking his head in disbelief at all the beautiful things that the handsome couple had.
The husband and wife tried to glue themselves together, his arm over her shoulder to squeeze her closer. They glanced at me, pretending that I was the cutest thing they had ever seen, their eyes asking if I could help them understand what my father was doing. My father continued his questioning.
 “How much would you accept for that watch on your wrist?”
The husband’s face went blank, shocked by my father’s suggestion.
“My son would love to have a watch just like that,” said my father, and then turning to me: “Son, wouldn’t you like to have one of those?”
Yes, I nodded, of course I would. It was beautiful, and had a band that looked like a bicycle chain. But I could see that the owner was not happy with the way things were developing, and he had no intention of selling his watch or anything else.
“Beautiful pearls,” my father said.  “Make a fine gift. How much would you take for them?”
“We’re absolutely not interested,” the husband said. “Thanks, and have a nice day.” He said it like someone who’s forcing himself to be nice. He tried to walk off with his wife’s elbow in his grip, but my father side-stepped to block his path and began to ask the woman about her bracelet. I noticed it too. It had gold bands as thick as my fingers braided around her wrist. I thought it was beautiful in a magical way, the way it glinted in the sunlight. It looked alive.
“We’re not selling anything at any price, not to you or your kid,” said the husband. “It was a pleasure to meet you, and your lovely son. Thank you. Have a nice day.”
My father blocked them again. He wasn’t finished, and they weren’t being nice.
“Let’s hear from the woman, let’s hear how she feels. Let’s hear the woman’s voice.”
The wife spoke up immediately: “I agree with my husband. Now please, let us pass.”
My father rubbed his chin like you see in the movies when someone’s thinking through a situation.
 “I don’t want to say this with my son present, but I’m left with no other option.”
The husband’s face seemed empty, except for the question mark on it.
“Are you honestly happy with this man,” asked my father of the man’s wife, “this man who can give you nothing but trinkets; who carries you around like that handbag you have on your own? Do you really believe he takes you seriously?  Thinks of you as anything but a handbag?”
I was lost. I noticed the woman’s face pass from pink to gray.
My father said: “I don’t want the pearls or bracelet so much as the watch. The kid wants the bracelet, I think, but what kid wouldn’t? Now, the watch is enough, and will make us forget all about the bracelet, not to mention the earrings and necklace. Let’s say I buy the watch—make it 20 bucks!—and you keep the pearls and bracelet? That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” My father always prided himself on being a reasonable man in an unreasonable world, and was always asking my mother if he sounded reasonable. You could hear him all the time around the house: Does that sound reasonable; is that reasonable?
The couple traded sour looks before the husband spoke, and not too kindly: “I wouldn’t sell it to you for a thousand, or any other price. Now beat it, jerk off!”
The husband had grown angry, which to me seemed like an exaggeration. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. My father was looking at the street or his shoes, and scratching his earlobe, shaking his head gently but he must have noticed something go wrong because with his other hand he pulled his pistol from his coat pocket.
“Okay, the watch for 20, or all for nothing.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. It was like my father was starring in a movie about strolling with his kid on a Sunday afternoon when he gets stopped by highway robbers. The husband, his face frozen in disbelief, jumped at my father, who leapt back just in time, though the pistol unfortunately exploded in his hand, and the man’s wrist was instantly gone. Remnants of his hand were hanging from a sliver of bloody skin and my father’s watch was broken into its original state of tiny parts, brass gears, springs, and screws mixed in with pieces of gooey bone on the ground at our feet. At the sound of the gunfire, the wife on her husband’s arm jumped straight up like a cat. The husband’s voice was calm, scary calm. He seemed to be stuck in confusion, while my father and I looked on. I also noticed that his face had yet to react to the pain of his hand’s destruction. The wife, in contrast, began to unsnap her jewelry—ears, neck, wrist, and stuff it inside her purse. Then she thrust its purple leather with all the embroidery on it into my hand. I was surprised by its weight, and for some reason I imagined a herd of purple cows grazing on purple grass, and purple pigs rolling around in purple slop, and purple rattlesnakes wiggling off through purple shrubbery. My father took the purse from me so that I could scrunch down to pick up the gold from the asphalt. Though it was broken and stained with the husband’s flesh and blood, gold is valuable no matter what.
For his part, the husband held his arm just below the elbow, dancing on one foot and then the other, rocking and moaning where he stood. My father told the wife to pull herself together, and get her man to a doctor as fast as possible, or “he’s likely to bleed to death on the street."
Naturally, she sprang into action. Placing one hand on his shoulder and the other on his handless arm that she gripped tightly like a tourniquet, she guided her husband to safety. My father pocketed his pistol, handed the purple purse back to me, and with my free hand warmly engulfed in his, we walked toward home where mother was waiting for her Sunday surprise, which, in all those years of marriage, my father had never once failed to bring home.

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