wo Jehovah’s Witnesses, a man and a woman. He wears a tan suit, a wide man; she’s small, a dumpling with a stippled smile. Polite isn’t the word. Cordial maybe.
Am I Mister Winner? the man asks.
You wouldn’t think so. I’m wearing a blue bathing suit, my workplace attire. My hands fall slack. I am bewildered by my own appearance.
The tan man is baffled.
You are? he says.
Yes. Me. Please, I explain, the bathing suit, well, it’s that I work late. It’s blue by chance. Apologies.
We hover in the doorway, tan man and smiling woman on one side, me on the other. It’s an awkward threshold.
Skepticism isn’t word. Vexation maybe.
Mister Winner, tan man begins.
I expect a sermon. I adopt a shrinking posture. I make my bones skeptical. I let my eyes slide. I turn falsely compliant. It’s my drill.
Mister Winner, tan man begins again. We, we Witnesses, we will have a congress in Rome in July. People from all over the world will come. So, I took the liberty…
I don’t let tan man finish. I don’t so much interrupt him as nod vigorously. It’s a “no” as big as an ox. I let it roam.
The tan man smells the gristle. He recognizes the scent. He’s seen the wrong sides of doors, I can tell. I study his sturdy vulnerability. Even the stippled dumpling seems like a veteran.
I understand, says tan man.
He’s moved a rook into my half of the board, but gently. No, he’s not new to this.
Listen, I say finally, I’m an American. Church and state don’t mix. Even if you were, say, the priest, the mullah, the sage, I would say the same…
Tan man thinks this over.
Please excuse me, he says. I just recently learned about your magazine. I took the liberty of coming in person. Our congress, well, there will be many Americans. I thought to myself, “Why not try…” My aim, our aim, was merely to inform, so that you might write something if you wished.
I am impressed by tan man’s self-possession. Not the seamless prattle of vacant recitation. He’s implausibly post-skeptical, truthful even. He’s knocked at the door of a magazine editor to ask a favor — publicity. He does not grin. He does not proselytize. He proffers no literature. He does not presume entitlement.
Some of our co-brethren told me about your magazine, he says.
Tan man regresses me. I’m a 12-year-old boy selling Boy Scout cookies in Washington, D.C. I tug on my olive-colored sash and knock on thick wooden doors. I carry pockets full of quarters. I go door-to-door hoping to avoid mistreatment. Satisfaction, to me, is kindness and a smile. I am a tiny, perspiring idealist.
That’s changed. Now jaded, I’m in a manufactured blue bathing suit in front of tan man. I doubt promises. I suspect affection. I gird against the comprehensiveness of global insincerity. I watch potato-chip crime shows whose heinousness feeds on basic instinct. I am my own nostalgia’s worst nightmare. I would not, at 12, knock at my own door.
But tan man has.
It’s complicated, says tan man. I admit that, he adds. Faith and journalism. Your job must be difficult that way. The dumpling woman maintains her long smile.
I say, Listen, let me give you my card. I can’t write about you. I can’t take the side of faith, of any faith. But I’m here.
Suddenly, I’m my adult self greeting its younger version, the 12-year-old Boy Scout: No, no cookies, I tell the scout. Thanks anyway. But good luck! Enjoy yourself. Don’t stay out past dark. My adult self says please and thank you to the boy. I’m in a time before the insulting target practice called daily life.
Tan man bows. Thank you, Mister Winner, he says. Thank you for seeing us. Please excuse us if we disturbed you.
Dumpling woman points to a pile of magazines I keep by door. My makeshift library.
May I? she asks.
And I find myself leaning down. Please, I say. Please take what you’d like. With my compliments.
Thank you, she says. Thank you, says tan man.
Within seconds, they’re gone. I think of omitted thanks, of casual rudeness. I pine for the cordial. Is it so hard, decency? Is it so difficult, elegance? Apparently it is. Business is the new prejudice, the rationalizing mantra of the made-up mind: prepackaged, self-absorbed, indulgent toward aggressive weariness.
Me at the door, an invention of the postmodern West, the sum of real and imagined hurts, ready to pounce. Me, a slab of anxious flesh, tendons tensed, spoiling for a fight.
Then, tan man. Bless him.
— Christopher P. Winner’s email address is [email protected]