Rulon left early Saturday morning, as he did six out of seven days, negotiating Comanche Drive’s steep hill with more than his usual caution. The plows and salt trucks had been through during the night, but the narrow asphalt of the street caught the light of the Cadillac’s headlamps and shone like wet paint. The snowmelt had refrozen after being salted. Estelle, his new employee, would help open the station, and he didn’t want to be late and set a poor example. When he got to the stoplight at Dorothy Lane and Woodman Drive, and the Caddy slid a good fifteen feet before it stopped, it occurred to him that Estelle might have a problem getting in from Beavercreek.
Estelle was there when he arrived. She waved from the pump islands where she was stocking the windshield towels, working away in the chill near-dark. She wore jeans, running shoes and a knee-length Cincinnati Bengals jacket. A white watch cap covered red-blond hair he had seen her wear in a bun of braids. The woman looked like an older Audrey Hepburn, and there was an economy to her movement that spoke training as either a gymnast or dancer. Five-thirty. He knew he had been right to trust the woman so soon with her own keys to the front and side door. This one won’t make an ass out of me, he thought.
He drove the Cadillac to its designated space beside the station, dinging the pump bell as he crossed it once and again with the car’s four steel-belted Goodyears. Pulling in and parking, he read: Dayton South Vet Clinic. His neighbor.
He planned on calling Navita to come in, but he’d wait, spending part of the morning training Estelle. Show her how to change a register tape, void a charge…
He reminded himself that you never really know what someone is capable of.
Navita could stand to learn a thing or two about work from Estelle, he thought.
When Navita got home to her apartment off East Stroop Road after seeing Bobby Ray, it had been around 2 a.m. She’d gone into the kitchen, deposited her coat and purse and taken down a box of Cheerios. She got milk from the fridge and made herself a snack, taking her bowl of cereal into the living room and plopping down on a leather sofa. She ate and picked up a remote and aimed it. A show on transgender love and its pitfalls bloomed to life. A therapist with a zit on his chin quoted from an article in JAMA about the mental health concerns certain physicians express regarding their patients and a “societal view that physical attributes determine sex.” She channel-surfed to a movie about Martians invading the Earth and realized she was being too literal trying to understand why everyone was so concerned when the aliens looked as frail as muscular dystrophy poster children, Jerry’s kids. One good shot in the alien nads, she thought.
When she finished the cereal, she took off her boots and the thigh-high stockings she’d destroyed getting undressed in a hurry at Bobby Ray’s. She slid down into the couch and pulled an afghan over her feet and legs and fell asleep in the minidress.
She woke when the phone rang. It was Rulon reminding her why she hadn’t been able to sleep at Bobby Ray’s. She tried to clear her head by sitting up.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d come in and work lunch,” Rulon said. He was waiting.
Navita heard herself say she’d be there in an hour. She hung up the phone, clicked off a movie about abused children murdering their parents, and made her way to the bathroom to shower and change. The day was bright, and the rectangle of light above the tub told her it was already mid-morning, but she didn’t hurry. She stripped off the minidress and stood naked in front of her mother’s heirloom mirror, a housewarming present. There was a plum-colored bite mark high on her right breast that would take days to disappear; its electric red mate was to be found on Bobby Ray, a half-inch or so below his tiger tattoo.
She thought back over the night before as she reached for the control for the shower and adjusted the temperature. When it was right, she stepped in.
Bobby Ray woke early and made coffee in his room at the Cheswick. He listened to street noise and a series of horn blasts through the thin glass of a window that faced Wayne Avenue and a row of high-rise tenements he had known the names of at one time and forgotten. He turned on a big-screen color television his brother Rulon had given him for Christmas the year before. Onscreen, a poet/beggar and his soon-to-be-princess daughter mouthed songs about fate. Bobby Ray recognized the musical as Kismet.
Navita had been nothing like his fantasies of her; she had far exceeded those. With the exception that he felt a sense of failure when he recalled her response. “Tepid” to his thinking. She was, after all, the one doing the pursuing. He figured she was comfortable with him but not relaxed, not uninhibited in a way he might yet hope for.
On the television, “Stranger in Paradise” made him smile. He got a shower and shave. The fast-talking poet/wizard placed a crown on his own head as Bobby Ray exited the bathroom, singing to himself.
When he was dressed, Bobby Ray picked up the remote for the TV and clicked off the musical. He uncloseted his insignia-decorated Air Force field jacket which he carried on his arm as he locked the door to Room 222 and headed to the stairs and down to the dim, stale-smelling lobby of the hotel. In the lobby, crackheads and street people tried to get out of the cold for a few minutes. Bobby Ray put on the field jacket, zipping it as he waved good morning to Arthur Grosvenor. (Arthur was busy swatting a crack whore named Dolores with a section from the Dayton Daily News and shouting for her to get the hell out of his hotel. “You can’t piss on the floor of a hotel, all right?” he said as he herded the slope-shouldered, coatless woman toward a side door. “Not this hotel.”)
Bobby Ray went through the revolving door of the Wayne Avenue entrance to the Cheswick and was struck by the wind swirl of outside air. He crossed the street.
Navita had elevated his morning mood. Even chilled, he was forced to smile.
The Subaru started hard after several halting misfires. A nasty plume of thick black smoke ribboned from the car’s exhaust. Bobby Ray pulled from the parking space and steered between a Miami Valley RTA bus and a Yellow cab, into snow-slowed traffic, as he turned left onto Wilmington and headed for Kettering. It was ten-thirty, and he wanted to be early. Rulon, like their father, despised being kept waiting.
Forty minutes later, Bobby Ray pulled in to the Wendy’s parking lot, got out and went inside. He ordered breakfast, went to the back of the restaurant and sat down. He heard an amiable voice say, It takes money, son. Then it repeated what it had said.
Then Bobby Ray heard music coming from somewhere behind the counter.
A female singer he didn’t recognize asked, “Was that Jesus on a Greyhound?”
Bobby Ray caught Thank God for that beautiful stranger as he waited.
* * *
From Wilmington Pike/Wright Brothers Parkway, a general cacophony of suburban traffic floated through an opening door with a No Smoking sticker on the outside of the glass, the sounds of the Saturday shopping rush and the beginning of the late-risers’ day trailing the customer’s entrance. That morning, from six until ten or so, it had snowed an additional inch; the wind, however, had died down considerably, leaving the sky a blue and abundant yes. When the customer who had come in for cigarettes had gone, the door swinging shut with a hinge-noise that cried out for WD-40, Rulon walked to the window facing Wilmington and the trickle he knew would soon swell to a wave. He looked at his watch, which read eleven-thirty. He felt himself getting angry.
Staring at the sky, Rulon wished Estelle had been more experienced since waiting was chief among the things he found difficult to do. He had told Estelle about his impatience with Navita White as diplomatically as he could, careful not to be seen as a gossip or someone who had it in for certain of his workers. But dispensed with so quickly, he was sure what he had meant to say had sounded like a warning for Estelle. He had felt the need to let Estelle Harding know precisely where she stood, which was in his highest regard, but the older woman had seemed more interested in the particulars of his operation than in his opinions about the work habits and dependability of his help. Estelle had moved to the cooler doors and was busily inventorying the store’s considerable stock of beer and wine, which they could figure on nearly selling out of between one and six that afternoon; weekends being a prime consumption day for alcohol, especially Saturdays.
Rulon stood facing the window across from the aisle of beef jerky and chips and assorted headache remedies. In front of him, on the shelves, were Cheez-Its and cheese puffs, three kinds of nuts in jars and sun-yellow bags of potato chips. Through the window he saw Navita drive up and park beside the propane exchange display.
Rulon said to Estelle, “My relief is here. I’ll go ahead then.”
Estelle stopped what she was doing and waved. At once, she went back to work.
Rulon opened the door for Navita; he thought better of saying anything to provoke her. She seemed distracted, as if she actually had hurried. There was probably a story for which he didn’t have time just now. He said, “I need to get going. I’m sure that brother of mine is waiting. Estelle could use a lesson on voiding charges, if you get a chance.”
Navita said, “I told you I’d be here. I couldn’t know my piece-of-shit Ford wouldn’t cooperate, could I now? You could lighten up, you know. You buggin, are you?”
Rulon looked at her. “I appreciate you coming in. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
He walked out. One confrontation down, one to go. It was clear to Rulon that his brother expected him to foot the bill for his latest mad dash at salvation, and he had every intention of watching Bobby Ray squirm before finally giving him a flat No.
Bobby Ray sat in a curved yellow booth near the door. He said, “Every horse I ever bet on ran hard then finished out of the money. Busted a gut every stride but no money.”
“So don’t bet on horses.”
“Exactly. I’d be betting on that voice. Whether I land in rose petals or—”
“—a river of shit.”
“What was that hymn Mommy used to sing to us?”
“To you. Mommy never sang to me.”
“I think it was ‘Throw Out a Lifeline’.”
Rulon was seated directly across from his brother in the booth. He sipped from a cup of coffee he had waited to cool but which didn’t seem to be getting a degree cooler.
Bobby Ray had eaten his food. He was obviously nervous; he sat tearing a napkin into strips. He said to Rulon, “Did you know that the word ‘inspired’ means ‘touched by the Hand of God’? I looked it up on the Internet. Navita’s showing me around the computer.”
Rulon shook his head. “Is that all Navita’s showing you: the computer?” he said.
Bobby Ray smiled. “I’m touched by love, brother-man. You remember love?”
“Somebody better throw you a lifeline. Bit deep, don’t you think?”
“I been a con man myself, off and on. I know the score. I ain’t conning you. That voice is as real as that pump bell you left in place at the station over there. What was it Daddy used to call that sound? The—”
“—Big Yes. I know what he calls it. He lives with me, remember?”
“This ain’t about me and you, Rulon. It’s bigger. A lot bigger.”
“It always is. I’ve got a station to run. This coffee is scalding.”
Rulon started to get up, but Bobby Ray put his hand on his brother’s arm.
It was Rulon who spoke. “Daddy could use a visit from you sometime,” he said.
“Money is the third arm of religion. I read that on the Internet, too. But God ain’t a business. Religion, either. And this is not about me getting rich. Besides, what’s money done for Daddy? He’s as big a prick retired as he was working. Worse maybe.”
“If it isn’t about money, what is it about? Superstar status? A last hurrah?”
Rulon knew that Bobby Ray would be hurt by any reference to his previous days of glory, so he poured it on: “Trying out for the All-God Team, are you?”
Bobby Ray stopped tearing up the napkin. “Screw you,” he said.
It was Rulon’s turn to smile. “Be the best piece of ass you ever had, my brother? So what? You figure preaching is like filling someone’s tank with gas?”
“Yeah, I do. That flashy Cadillac of yours never seems to want for gas.”
“You want me to help you fleece the flock, that it?”
What Bobby Ray said next surprised Rulon: “I wouldn’t make a nickel. Not a cent.”
The two sat facing each other in the booth. Bobby Ray seemed about to cave in to defeat, to yield to his brother’s better sense. But something in his brother’s tone made Rulon hesitate. He found himself listening, as if for the first time. What if his brother had been called? What if this were Bobby Ray’s one chance to pull himself up out of the shithole he had dug for himself? Don’t be a moron, he thought.
Rulon said, “You’re serious about this? You really believe you’re some sort of Saul on the Road to Damascus, don’t you? And you want me to believe it, too?”
“We see when we want to see. Remember learning that in Bible school?”
“That and scissorwork.”
“Cut it out,” Bobby Ray said realizing at once the bad pun. “Sorry.”
“No, I mean it. You think this is real. Am I right?”
“I do. But I can’t do what it’s asking me to do. Not a clue how. I’m no Moses.”
Rulon said, “I came here to say no to you, and I should. You’re certifiable. Have you thought what you’re asking? You’re asking me to—throw that out, will you.” He said, “No, sit the hell down. I want to know if you can give me your word you won’t take a dime from this scheme. You understand that if I think you’re on the level, playing me straight, I’d have no choice but to give it some serious thought. Which was not my intention.”
“That’s all I’d ask.”
“And how do you propose to live? You gonna stay at the Cheswick and keep humping Navita? What kind of preacher are you planning on being?”
Bobby Ray ignored the remark about his being with a black woman. He said, “The honest kind. I plan on telling folks what I heard—which is that we need to dive in, I guess. I haven’t thought it out beyond that. Put yourself in my shoes. Like you used to when we played football: you knew exactly where I was taking the ball even before I did. You were a good quarterback because you sold the play I wasn’t going to make, remember? That always gave me that extra half-second made everyone think I was the fastest motherbanger ever.”
“Motherbanger? So you want us to be a team again, right? How do we do that?”
Bobby Ray hunched himself over the tabletop of the booth, looking his brother in the eye. He waited until a mother and her son passed with their food and he knew they couldn’t hear. “If I blow it, I’ll leave Dayton and never come back. I mean it. What do you want me to say? I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s God, for chrissakes.”
Rulon kept his eyes on Bobby Ray. Don’t you know when you’re being hustled, you dick? he asked himself. He could tell Bobby Ray wanted to say something else, to stay in control, but he cut him off. He took a gulp of the still-steaming coffee. Rulon looked at his brother again. “Are you the asshole I think you are?”
Bobby Ray said, “Only one way to find out. I want you to know, for your information, for future reference, that I mean to cover your losses. I won’t let you down.”
Rulon said, “If you think that’s something I wouldn’t hold you to, think again. How much money are we talking’? Less than ten grand, I hope.”
“Enough to buy a circus tank and lease a gymnasium, for starters. I made some calls on the tank—it’s eleven grand and change, delivered. We may be able to lease it. And I was thinking Belmont High gym. I figure we get Arthur to rent us that banquet room in the basement at the Arms, which seats fifty or so. Three or four demonstration-services are about as far ahead as I’ve thought. Just before Christmas, the first time.”
“You’re running the ball,” Rulon said, “You pick the hole, Superstar.”
Bobby Ray said, “Yeah, but you’re calling the play. What do you think?”
Rulon downed the last of his coffee. He said, “In your first sermon I want you to tell the congregation that your brother will cut your dick off if you don’t tell it like it is.” He looked across the restaurant toward a trash can where the mother and son who had passed earlier were emptying a tray. “Let’s go. I’m losing my mind. Eleven thousand dollars?“
Bobby Ray glanced over his shoulder at the gas station across the street. When he turned back, Rulon was staring at him. He didn’t have to guess what Rulon must be thinking; he was pretty sure. Daddy had said, Life is what it is. And a crock of shit.
Rulon said, “You know that I’m serious as a heart attack when I say that you better be on the level…This ain’t high school. You want this, I won’t mess it up for you. Besides, if this goes big—and it might—I stand to lay up treasure in heaven. Right?”
There was a hardened reasonableness to his brother’s voice.
Bobby Ray forced himself to say, “Thanks, Rulon.” He got up and went over to the trash can. Rulon was right behind him, and Bobby Ray saw their reflection in the glass doors. He might forget what they said to one another that hour or so at the Wendy’s, might forget a lot of things, but he would recall that his brother was smiling and shaking his head as they exited. His fist of a heart had unclenched. All that it could.
“I have to get back at it,” Rulon said. “I’ve got a Civic got towed in that’s an overhaul. Mexican guy and his kid. You believe Navita promised it by Wednesday? They been at a motel out off of Stroop Road since I had Aces & Eights tow ‘em in.”
They were headed in the direction of Bobby Ray’s Subaru. Rulon said, “How ’bout you loan the Mexicans your wheels? Show me you mean business. You know, dive right in.”
Bobby Ray looked at his brother to see whether he was serious. When he saw that he was, he unfastened the ignition key from its place on the key ring and held it out. “Watch the brakes.” Then: “Why not? Navita can give me a ride back to the hotel.”
Rulon accepted the key as the two walked across the street to Jack’s Shell.
Navita and Bobby Ray spent the rest of the day in bed. The first round involved a variety of positions that both of them managed with some measure of patience. They enjoyed their partner’s body. And in the moderate intensity of that love-making, in feeding Navita’s considerable fire, Bobby Ray left nothing untried—he entered her from behind several ways involving the edge of the bed, sat up with the two connected and kissing, and in a variation of the missionary position in which he forced her legs wide before locking his legs inside hers and spreading her as they rocked into one another. Occasionally, one of them cried out and the other covered his or her partner’s mouth by stuffing a pillow into it: the walls were thin, and neither of them meant to involve the rest of the second floor rooms.
When Navita thought about the sex later—she simply could not. All her thinking was concentrated on the kisses they shared because she had, until then, never found herself breathless for another person. What she would think about for a long time was how focused Bobby Ray was on their time together, how he never made mention of another subject other than their respective pleasures. Bobby Ray took ‘considerate’ to new heights; he meditated on Navita’s responses, making her love cries his shibboleth in a secret society of flesh and blood whose initiation rituals she thought strikingly similar to yoga, which she had studied for a summer at UD when she was convinced that she could be a nurse. Failing chemistry had changed her life path. Navita had begun to think of sex as a way of walking that path.
At last, falling apart exhausted and sore, Navita saw that the bed had emptied of sheets and its spread and that the mattress of the bed was wet with sweat, so much so that she wondered if she might have inadvertently expelled a bit of something during her climax, a climax which was so shocking she was embarrassed to think back on it. She reached toward Bobby Ray and stroked the site of his tiger tattoo. Raising herself, she turned to address the tiger’s blue-green eyes—Bobby Ray’s eyes were closed, an arm across his forehead—in order to give thanks to whatever god fueled the animal this man was. And then Bobby Ray was there, smiling at her from his side of the bed.
“Thought I’d died and been resurrected,” he said. “If you know what I mean.”
She thought about telling him he was the keeper fuck of the century, but she didn’t want to sound corny. “Sorry I didn’t know you when you were my age,” she said.
Navita realized, by quick calculation, that she wouldn’t even have been in kindergarten when he was her age.
“Thanks,” he said and smiled, tracing the curve of her hip.
Navita said that if she could wish for anything it was that there always be between them a sense of having been given a wonderful present; there was no reason she could see that they couldn’t go on like this forever, every day in bed a kind of Christmas. “Back at you. After all, we’re in this together. If you’d like me to show you my appreciation…”
She pulled him to her, into her arms, and they lay kissing until they felt they might have another thrust or two in them. It would be after midnight before Navita cried No más. They slept in a tangle until the chill of the winter night outside made its way back to the bed they had deserted in favor of the fold-out couch, the soaked-through mattress being serviceable for everything but sleep.
Navita kidded that the whole mattress was the Wet Spot.
If she paused at the Gates of Dream, who could fault her? After all, the dream she was having was obviously Bobby Ray’s or sparked by their conversation that day on the way to the hotel when he had described the Voice and repeated its message to go and start a dive team. He had told her of his feeling of being called to found a church he already had named for him—the Church of the Diver—and how he envisioned his first sermon and the attending theatrics of the circus tank and diving platform and, perhaps, an outdoor fireworks show to rival the National Cash Register Christmas tree’s annual spectacle of lights.
In her dream, however, there was talk of insurance forms. And the divers wanted to call themselves the Faith Jumpers—after a poem that one of the divers had read in her freshman English class at UD—but Bobby Ray said “No way” and a wide rosette of water engulfed that diver and the next as they entered the tank, on cue, from 50 or so feet above. There were explosions of green and blue—spotlights had been trained on the tank—and an applause that first sounded like penny firecrackers until the third diver, a man who genuflected before his leap, and then the applause for that diver got so loud that Navita almost woke herself. These men and women were not, however, putting on a show. It was religion she was in the middle of. Even with the Speedos each diver wore and the splashes and the sound of homemade ropes hauling makeshift clear-plastic tarps to catch the spray so as not to drench the first several rows in what appeared to be an auditorium. People clasped their hands together in prayer between the dives. Navita knew what the crowd was praying for because she prayed herself: that none of the divers would be injured.
One more jumped and the water turned to blood and came trickling down over the shiny side of the tank. She felt Bobby Ray shaking her, telling her to wake up.
He said, “What was that all about?” and she said, “Nothing.”
She’d tell him later, when she could get the deafening applause out of her head.
Roy Bentley is the winner of several awards: the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs Individual Artist Fellowship (in poetry), and six Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships (all in poetry). His latest book of poems, The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2006. A chapbook entitled Captain America Gets Arlington Burial is due out in 2012. Recently, he published his first short story—after 30 years of trying!—in Foliate Oak. He teaches English and creative writing for Loras College in Dubuque, an area of Iowa often referred to as Sundown Mountain.