Almost always, then, after the news in the evening, Becky would watch another rerun while her husband showered. She knew so many of the old programs practically verbatim that those moments felt about like stepping over to someone’s house for a short visit.
You know how things are going.
You know what the conversation will be about.
You feel away from your life for a moment, yet you also feel supremely comfortable.
That comfort and security of the rerun, she didn’t know if anyone had ever written anything about it, but she thought somebody in a college somewhere must have done one of those studies they were always doing.
She liked that comfort, though, the dry routine of identical evenings, a time for putting back together all those parts of you that had been disassembled during the day. She liked, as well, to let the goodness of the day linger right up until bedtime, while the badness of the day would just have to wait until tomorrow.
So the doorbell rings this one night.
Very dark this time of year, yet not terribly cold since spring has already begun to pop some bulbs and swell up the leaf nodules on all the trees. It’s that time of year when a bit of evening yardwork might bring out some sweat even as exhaled breath turns into a chilly cloud.
Before turning on the porch light Becky peeks through the curtains to see who it might be. She lives in a time when the drop-in visit is almost unheard of, whether it’s because everyone’s grown terribly polite, or people just don’t feel much like calling on friends anymore is hard to say. Unexpected callers now, Becky knows, almost always turn out to be someone selling something: teams or clubs from the schools hawking candy or magazines or discount restaurant coupons. The most unusual visit they’d ever had (until this night) were some kids from the gay and lesbian club at the high school. They were soliciting funds to buy condoms for the local homeless shelter. It made the daily paper when the school board forced them to stop their fund drive.
As she recalls it – and she does so with no small amount of pride and a sense of decency – she and Jim did make a contribution to that cause. Nevertheless, saying no is still the protocol, as witnessed by more than one first-grader bundled up against the cold and selling ballpoint pens or birthday balloons, a couple of apologetic parents standing behind the child and wishing they were home.
Said no with great courtesy, she remembers. More than once.
Two people, it seems. That’s all she can see. Neither big nor not-big, shadows of an unclear mercantilism.
She turns on the light and opens the door.
A young man and a young woman then, the man with curly brown hair cut short, the woman with longish hair, brown, too, that could use some tipping or highlighting, though it looks perky enough pulled back in what Becky thinks could be called a “retro” ponytail.
Each is carrying a small, black briefcase.
The man is uncircumcised and the woman’s nipples are dark brown. He looks quite fit where she has the amplitude of long walks not yet taken. She has a birth belly, too, and is quite hairy in the crotch. Becky sees no piercings, no toe rings, no tattoos.
I have opened the door to naked people.
Pinned to the chest of each of them, Becky sees (just under the skin, the way we used to play with pins when we were kids) is a nametag identifying them as missionaries of a church whose name Becky readily recognizes, a church with a lot of work to do in her opinion to rise above the status of oppressive kooks – mainstream or not. Unless that pinning stands as some minor beacon of penance, she might have thought a stick-on nametag much to be preferred. Obsessive creature that she is, though, she notices a pronounced downward tilt to the young woman’s nametag. That bothers her.
“We’re selling nothing,” the young man says, “but we have a deal for you of wondrous proportions.”
She’s not quite sure how to react to that, feeling a bit confused since they both seem so comfortable with their state of undress, a state Becky doesn’t feel particularly bothered by at all. Becky wonders if maybe she and Jim need to revise their protocols for the drop-in sales call.
“May we come in?” the young woman says.
I’ll confess right now that it’s not easy to say no to naked people.
Really, she thinks, you already have every possible advantage over them so it seems only fair to give a little – a moment’s time, some respite from the always threatening night. She tried to remember if the rules of this creed allowed coffee or the occasional cookie. Certainly, a reward of some sort seemed mandatory in the face of this extraordinary dedication.
“Yes you can,” she says. “Please. There’s the living room, just go on in.”
How quickly, though, can the dogs of etiquette bite following even the smallest lapse in vigilance.
Excuse me, but before you sit let me get some towels. Your bare bottoms, you know, and there’s always feminine leakage – what creatures we are! Would you like blue or green towels and would you like some coffee? Pop? Juice?
On the other hand, these people are well-trained, she thinks, having already struck her as quite courteous and not at all apologetic about their unusual presentation.
“On the other hand,” she says, “let’s go back to the family room. It’s more comfortable there.”
And the furniture is older, too, not far from the top of their list of things to do, to refurbish, to replace.
Maybe we’d be even more comfortable in the garage. We have lawn chairs out there, along with bocce ball and Tiki Torches.
For a moment, Becky realizes a kind of gap has opened up – in her, a bit of a leak in her reservoir of cool. All manner of brigands, thugs, or thieves could have adopted this most unique disguise and Becky has fallen for it. Poor Jim, at this moment no doubt rinsing the conditioner out of his hair – he’ll have no inkling of the identity theft about to take place, the very worst of the genre where they rip the life right out of your body and then run off with your Discover card.
Well, shit, aren’t I a most gracious host.
They sit then – the family room – the young woman on the La-Z-Boy, the young man on one of the bar stools. Neither looks comfortable, Becky notices. The young man is trying hard to arrange his legs and feet on the rungs of the stool, and the young woman, leaning back, suddenly pops the footrest out on the La-Z-Boy and now seems aware that Becky’s looking at the bottoms of her dirty bare feet. She seems surprised by the chair but manages to retain her professional composure.
“My name is Jack,” the young man says.
“Then you must be Jill,” Becky says to the young woman.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“I’m sorry,” Becky says, somewhat aghast at her own rudeness. “Just a little humor.”
“No,” she says. “It’s not that. I was a little shocked, is all. My name is Jillian. You must have noticed my nametag.”
“I did notice your nametag,” Becky says, once again bothered by its slight crookedness. “I certainly did. But not your name.”
“Anyway …,” the young man begins.
Becky imagines that the spiel of Jack and Jill was predictable as well as filled with passionate metaphors and those Biblical references such people always seem to cite that never quite illustrate anything, all of it undoubtedly first-rate and vetted by both scholars and committees. Feet dangling, feet in the air, they dangled their Lord, too, their Redeemer, the great Enthusiast between them like some yo-yo on a colorful string, and Becky didn’t hear a word.
Mostly, she waited for them to finish because she was curious about where they were from and if they were married to each other or if they had other partners (she saw no wedding rings), or where they stayed when they were out like this, and how did they eat, and did they get paid. Did they, as well, travel naked (of course not, she guessed)? Did they still have laundry to do in strange cities? Prescription drugs to have refilled?
For as much as Jack and Jill might see themselves as missionaries, evangelizers of a profitable creed, not quite corporate types but certainly “uniformed” soldiers in an upbeat army, Becky simply saw them as young people getting going, starting out, and she wondered how they were doing. That image, she knew, would earn the young couple no points or credits on a log sheet in a church office somewhere, but in the end, Becky thought, this is my house and I will enjoy them on my terms.
Becky was reminded of her friend, Dahlia, a lovable zealot of a secular creed, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and how they’d gather with friends on occasion and paint themselves up with near holy zeal; the religious aspect continuing, too, with substantial donations to Dahlia for products received. Since Becky knew what Dahlia was about, Dahlia’s praise of her very minor good looks never offended her, nor did her constant pressure for Becky to sign on and join the converted.
This zealotry, though, now that she thought about it, had thrust itself at her on at least one other occasion, an incident where she was offended; ironically, too, a time when she and Jim still went to church. They’d been invited for dinner by the pastor and his wife, and both Jim and Becky fully expected that Jim would be asked to assume some leadership position in the church. What they got instead was a good dinner and then a long and terribly sincere pitch for Amway products. They never went back to that church again, but they did leave that night with a half gallon of an organic cleanser.
All this selling of beliefs is sometimes depressing.
Becky noticed Jillian’s feet were calloused and imagined her barefoot a lot. Of course she was young and young women, Becky knew, always like to go barefoot, and yes, most assuredly, Becky knew Jill and her brethren were all well beyond log cabins and buggy sod bungalows. She knew that. She didn’t imagine Jill carrying water buckets from a stream or cutting up a cord of wood into kindling, though she didn’t imagine her saying no to a whole lot, either. Her dark nipples and her belly had already told Becky that childbirth had taken place, and she pretty much guessed her to be somewhere in her late twenties or early thirties, though she looked to be maybe fifteen. Jack, naked or not, had a line or two of maturity on his cheeks, and maybe a fleck or two of gray in his neatly trimmed hair. Becky envisioned him (on a more mundane occasion) in a three-piece suit, perhaps directing a clerical staff in the engineering of yet another mass mailing.
Jillian said, “It is, in a way, the sort of joy you can feel in your bones, in your muscles.” She wiggled her toes as she said that, and then added, “Merriment, really, a kind of merriment.”
Yes, Becky had read some books on these folks, somehow missing the positive ones, maybe the ones that spelled out the merriment in detail. She didn’t recall the women’s stories as being very merry, but maybe she’d skimmed over those chapters or had gotten caught up in the merriment of the men – who always seemed to be about as merry as their dicks could make them.
Aren’t I in a mood?
Becky started to say, “I have some snickerdoodles. Would you like some? Perhaps a glass of milk or some tea?”
But then Jim walked into the room, Jim freshly-showered, Jim toweling off his head but otherwise quite bare to the world. Becky suddenly remembered she’d had no chance to say anything to Jim about their guests.
This small world where I seem to be the only one in it fully-clothed.
“These young people are sharing their faith with us, Jim,” Becky finally says.
If nothing else, Becky decided, there didn’t seem to be much point either in Jim being shocked or Jim running off to put some clothes on.
“How nice,” he says. “I suppose Becky has already told you we’re not all that much into religion.”
“I hadn’t, Jim,” Becky says.
“Oh, well, we’re not all that much into religion,” he says. “But beliefs – I can respect those. Passion, zealotry, fervor, you folks do that like a dish salesman selling TV channels.”
Jim finishes fluffing his hair and finally sits down next to Becky, his bath towel placed discretely across his lap. Becky remembered Jim had wanted to make love after his shower, so she knows he’s feeling a mix of both excitement and disappointment.
“You sell dishes?” Jillian asks.
“No, dear,” he says. “That’s just an expression.”
“I see,” she says. “It’s just that it made me think of the table, that’s all. How we all sit at the same table and we share – food, of course; our thoughts; all the many ways our day so often turns out to be not quite the day we had hoped. So many ways there are to be nourished.”
Becky, not quite seeing Jill’s words as a direct cue, thought she’d jump in anyway at that moment with, “Are you hungry, Jillian?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
“Jillian?” said Jack.
“I know,” Jillian said, then she whispered to Jack in a way that both Jim and Becky could easily hear, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth.”
“Oh my,” Becky said. “Let’s not get all debatable. After all, what better way is there for strangers to get to know each other than by sharing food? I bet that’s in your scripture somewhere, too.”
Becky hoped they were done with scholarly references; either that or she’d have to start quoting Martha Stewart.
“Jack has more experience at this than I do,” Jillian said. “We’re supposed to keep a certain distance, you know. It should be the Word that is the offering, not the person.”
“Without people,” Jim said, “words are simply dust muffins in a cold oven.”
At that, Becky picked up a small pillow on the couch and hit Jim on the head with it – playfully. She left him on his own then and went into the kitchen. A pot of soup still sat on the stove from their supper: chicken vegetable, quite tasty. She lit the fire beneath it, got some bowls from the cupboard, and cut several slices of bread from a fresh loaf Jim had baked just that day.
Becky thought it was nice, nicely human, that Jillian had admitted to being hungry. You can, after all, gain only so much nourishment from metaphorical tables.
“Please,” she said, putting the food on the bar in the family room, “this was our supper. Allow us to share it with you.”
Jim gave her a funny look then and a smile. Even Becky knew she’d never spoken like that before. The mood, the mode, the spirit, she thought – pretty contagious.
Before Jim joined Becky behind the bar he helped Jillian lower the footrest on the La-Z-Boy so she could get out of the chair. It was a comical scene as Jim struggled both to help her and to keep his towel from falling away – such modesty in an odd circumstance.
Becky noticed, too, that as Jillian got up on the barstool next to Jack they joined hands and said a brief gratitude for the meal.
They ate politely and with good manners as Jim and Becky talked about the weather and about the lack of crows due to an onset of some kind of avian flu. Jillian said she’d never seen so many squirrels.
“A lot of us,” Becky said, “are pretty diligent about putting nuts and corn and seeds out for the squirrels in the winter.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” Jillian said.
“You were born into this church?” Jim asked Jack.
“No, sir,” Jack said. “I have come to it later in my life.”
“A missionary came to your house one night,” Jim said, “she was naked and you had nothing to do …”
Neither Jack nor Jillian seemed to get the joke.
Without asking, Becky went back to the kitchen and returned with a plate of cookies.
Jillian took a bite of a large snickerdoodle, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and finally said, “You haven’t asked us why we’re naked.”
“It seemed more important that you knew why you were naked,” Becky said, “and you both seem comfortable with it.”
“Really,” Jillian began, “it’s quite hard. It’s like following a rope of faith way out to the very end where it turns into a tiny thread and a voice simply says, ‘Hold on.’ You don’t know if you can or not.”
Then Jim said, “But the police. Haven’t they stopped you or have they simply not seen you?”
“It’s right on our soliciting permit,” Jack said, “the one approved by your town.”
“Actually,” Jillian said, “yours is the first home we’ve been to.”
Finally wrapping his towel firmly around his waist, Jim left the room. He was done with Jack and Jillian, Becky knew. Their pitch had come out tepid and benign, at least as they’d delivered it. Perhaps other occasions put some fire into the rhetoric. Jim also left the room because he’d been staring too long at Jillian, certainly a fit substitute for the sex he’d been hoping to have with Becky – their little playtime now fading away into the evening.
As they stood by the front door Becky finally said to Jillian, “This just won’t do, dear. It’s not professional, not at all.”
With that, Becky leaned into Jillian and unclasped the crooked nametag pinned to Jillian’s flesh, backed the pin out a bit and then restuck it so that it was straight just above her breast. Only one drop of blood and Becky took care of that with a tissue.
“Much better,” Becky said as they walked back out into the night.
About the author
G. K. Wuori is the author of over seventy stories published throughout the world in the U.S., Japan, India, Germany, Spain, Algeria, Ireland, and Brazil. A Pushcart Prize winner and recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, his work has appeared in such journals as The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, The Barcelona Review, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Mad Hatters Review, TriQuarterly, and Five Points. His story collection, Nude In Tub, was a New Voices Award Nominee by the Quality Paperback Book Club and his novel, An American Outrage, was Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year in fiction. He currently lives in Sycamore, Illinois where he writes a monthly column called Cold Iron at www.gkwuori.com, and blogs at www.fancydancercoachlightcompany.blogspot.com.