The German Shepard gave a low grow before it barked three times. His hackles came up like quills. He was big-boned with a black and tan body and after he jumped off the porch he took three steps before he stopped as if he had hit a wall. He stood there, as tense as a sprinter in the starting block, his nostrils flaring to capture any scent that was carried to him on the wind. A swath of afternoon sunlight sparkled in his brown eyes. He barked three more times but now they were different than before and Wilson Tucker knew that his pet did not sense an immediate threat.
The man edged forward on his pine rocker and took another sip from his can of Bud Light, his third that day, one of many that he intended to drink for he was in a drinking mood which meant he was relaxed and when he was relaxed he believed he was in harmony with the world and he enjoyed nothing more than drinking beer.
Max looked back when Wilson moved and then he returned his vigilance to the woods by sitting on his haunches with his ears almost flat on his head. As he panted an elastic line of drool stretched from his tongue and halfway down to the grass before it broke free.
It was the first week of fall in Pennsylvania on a day that broke with light breezes and mostly clear skies. The trees rustled as squirrels prepared for winter by foraging along the ground for acorns. In the sky above the tallest trees a few crows kept returning like ink spots dripping from a pen. From the bottom porch step the land stretched flat for fifteen feet before it sloped down into a bottom covered with rhododendron. It was twenty yards across to the other side and another slope that rose up into the hardwoods and a well-worn deer path that came out of the trees. Wilson kept a salt lick on the bottom so he could watch the deer come to it at first light or at dusk. Max would watch them from the back porch but he would never give chase or bark because he had only been trained to bark at the approach of humans. This was so because the land was posted and Wilson was not fond of trespassers.
Wilson got up and stood by the wooden porch railing. His eyes narrowed into slits as he tried to make sense of the metal clicking noises; click – click – click – click.
“What the hell!” he cried out.
Max stood up. His tail wagged furiously like an over sized duster. Together they watched the girl come out of the woods. She moved forward on aluminum crutches as if, perhaps, she was something mythical that had entered the world for the first time. The ease with which she moved made it almost appear that the crutches were as much her flesh and blood as every other part of her body. On her head she wore a black baseball cap that covered most of her tucked-up red hair. Click – click – click. One crutch tip planted in the ground. She would rock forward on it until she could plant the other tip in the same way. This went on and on. Click – click – click. The sound of her coming had a certain harmony to it like the sound of wind chimes.
A fast moving cloud went across the sun and for a moment the girl became part of a its shadow. When the cloud was gone, Wilson expected a shower of sparks to fly off the crutches.
On the bottom she gathered more momentum and started up the hill. She had a ruddy face with freckles and her tiny dark eyes gave her a mysterious appearance, like a waif who stared out from an orphanage window. Wisps of red hair curled out from her under hat like flames from a flare. Her right pant leg was tied off with something dark, up several inches above where her right knee used to be. The excess denim swayed back and forth.
Wilson believed she would not make it up the hill but she did so with surprising ease. It was if she was carried along by a strong current. She stopped before the porch, caught her breath and wiped the sweat from her face with her forearm.
“Good boy, good boy.” She scratched Max between his ears.
Wilson’s eyes narrowed again. He was angry. It didn’t matter that she was a teenage girl. All trespassers were equally guilty. He owned the land. But she had ignored this with her arrival which bemused him with any lack of respect for his land.
“What the hell are you doing here? You’ve just crossed posted land!”
She answered with a smile and it showed her perfect teeth. Her eyes were no longer dark but bright blue, as if some hidden light shimmered above her high cheekbones.
“Do you ever smile? What am I doing here? I thought that was obvious. I certainly came to visit you.”
Wilson fumed at what he perceived was sarcasm. He emptied his beer and dropped the can on the pine decking. “Little girl, where in the hell do you live?”
“I’m almost fourteen.” She smirked and her nose wrinkled. “I live two hills over depending on what you consider a hill.”
Wilson made a mental map of the area. He went to each farm house; each shotgun shack; each mobile home and their ubiquitous cars and trucks out in front on cinder blocks.
“Well, you better go back over those hills because you’re trespassing.”
Her tenacious approach up the porch steps caught Wilson off guard. He stepped back as if a larger man had shoved him in the chest. He rubbed his stubbled chin and then ran his big knuckled hand once through his black hair. He wanted to know about her leg and he knew in time he would.
“So, do you plan on having me arrested for trespassing? You must want to know why I’m here? It’s because I must talk with you. See, I’ve I learned some things about your life. And that’s why I’m here.”
“My life? What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Andrea P. Portersmith. My friends call me Andy. I go to Hepburn Baptist Church. In Bible study I’ve been learning about people who refuse to go to Church or read the Bible, people like you who’ve fallen from God’s Graces. I’m a missionary and my mission is to help save your soul so you can dedicate your life to Jesus Christ and bathe in His eternal light.”
“Who told you about me?”
“I told you.”
“I don’t think God dropped a flyer into your Bible class with my name on it. If you want a chance to talk to me, it’s best to be honest. Isn’t that what your Bible teaches?”
Wilson believed she was momentarily undone by his call to honesty. She poked the decking with the ball of her foot. At the same time a white-throated sparrow landed in the bird feeder by the porch and pecked about in the seed. When she started to speak the bird flew away and her voice seemed to go with it, because it trailed off as the bird disappeared. “My uncle told me. He owns the Mill Run Road convenience store.”
“Billy Jenkins is your uncle? The son-of-a-bitch served in Vietnam and now he’s doing this to me. But this time he gets a pass because he’s a Veteran.”
“Yeah, and he told me you buy more beer than the 82nd Airborne. He says that a lot.”
“Does he go to your church?”
“Sometimes. But at least he makes the effort to go.”
“Isn’t it true it’s all in the intentions?”
“What about your intentions?”
“For going to church?”
“I have none. How’s that for an intention?”
“That’s no intention. That’s a sin.”
“Who’s that?” Wilson cried out. Max barked and circled the girl as he was trained to circle any person when he heard that command. The dog’s intentions were playful in spite of its riotous barking.
“Funny, funny, funny,” she said. “But I’m not scared. I love animals and they love me.”
Wilson studied her. She was a nubile looking thing, sexy in her own unique way, with a dancer’s lithe neck and shoulders firmed to perfection from walking with her crutches. She wore hip-hugger blue jeans and a wide belt, a leather hiking shoe and a coal-black tee shirt. On the front of it the word SALVATION was spelled out in large pick letters. Wilson smiled when he thought of the word would be an apt sexual metaphor because it ran over her firm breasts. Salvation, he knew, could be found in many things.
“I see that. Max loves you already. So, has my Salvation come here to rescue me from all my past and present demons?” He feigned his sarcastic fear by looking around as if he expected to be attacked at any moment by ghouls.
She looked down at her shirt and Wilson looked down into his cooler. He got a beer out of the packed ice, snapped back the aluminum tab, and took a drink. His huge Adam’s apple moved when he swallowed his beer.
“Isn’t there more to life than drinking beer all day? Isn’t there more to life than that?” Her voice had a defiant edge to it, which she followed by glaring at the beer and then back at Wilson.
A song suddenly came to him and he wondered why it had come at all but he let it overtake him by tapping his foot and smiling. He felt good inside, almost joyous. Then the melody came to him and he tried to follow it by swaying back and forth in measure of the silent song. In a rough voice, one which he knew deserved no place before an audience, even an audience of one, he started to sing in a soft voice.
“Sal-Va-Tion, Sal-Va-Tion, Sal-Va-Tion is real. Sal-Va-Tion, Sal-Va-Tion, Sal-Va-Tion is real. Da-Do-Do, Da-Do-Do. Da-Do-Do, Da-Do-Do”
Wilson’s amusement with himself had him smiling because in most cases he would not let go of his emotions in the company of strangers. Why was it different now? It didn’t matter. It was what it was. The song was from the Cranberries, one of his favorite Irish groups, and it was still lingering in his mind when he sat down to consider Salvation’s eyes, which seemed better suited to a store front mannequin in the way they fixed on him and would not move. Off to the side of the porch a mockingbird perched on a lower branch of the oak tree.
“Salvation, do you like the Cranberries? That was one of their songs. Did you like it?”
“My name is not Salvation. I told you my name.”
“Well, since you’ve come here to save me, you might was well become my Salvation. Now, go ahead and tell me what you’ve learned about my life. I deserve to know what makes you the expert. You have my word that I’ll listen. But make it quick and make it impressionable because you won’t have long to save me.”
“Of course.” She changed at once. Her voice became forceful and her bright eyes seemed to darken like pearls that were dropped into a mine shaft. “Can’t you see what’s become of you? Every day you sit up here with idle hands, doing nothing but drinking beer. You could be giving back to God. You should be thankful because he has given you so many blessed things. Be thankful! Don’t you understand! Be thankful and be fearful. Humble yourself before his Glory. You have one life and you must give it to God!”
Wilson shook his head. He knew that he drank too much if other people had a voice in how much he drank. But voices were merely opinions that swayed back and forth like limbs in the trees on a blustery day. He had enjoyed drinking for a long time and he believed he would enjoy it for even longer if he could. He thought he understood when he was younger but now he could not understand the arrogance behind a person wanting to change another person in the name of religion. Wilson lived in agreement with himself, seeking no approval from others for his egocentric viewpoints about his own life.
Ten years ago when he inherited some money from his grandfather, Wilson bought his land on which he built a contemporary, fourteen-hundred square foot log cabin. After it’s completion he wanted nothing more and nothing less from life than to live in the present moment, or what he would call his presentness which he came to believe belonged only to him.
On some days he drank beer in the morning and if wanted too he would piss off his back porch. Naked, under a full moon, he sat out back reading Hemingway, Quantum Physics, and Buddhism. Acceptance from the world was never a priority. Some found it strange when a hiker strayed and found him meditating under a beech tree with his Zune on and his ear buds in his ears. Others found him stranger when he suggested that living and dying existed only in the mind. He studied String and Chaos theory. When politicians were caught in scandals, he considered it an apropos acknowledgment to those who had voted for them. In the end he believed those with the greatest power had the greatest flaws. And that was the primary reason why war existed.
He was always quick with a handshake and a warm, sincere greeting to those he encountered when he was out buying beer or groceries. He had no friends and this was his choosing. He obsessed over how writers viewed the mind. In this way he became fascinated by his own perceptions. Life brought him contentment and chances to revel in his own imperfections. These chances, he believed, were the stepping stones to acquiring knowledge.
Now, as he looked around, he attempted to become the observer who was observing himself. “Salvation,” he said, “God is chocolate. I give my life to God and God gives my life to me. But I try not to get too much chocolate because it can be bad for you. Too much of anything is bad for you.”
She shifted her weight and shook her head, while her tiny hands, highlighted by her pretty red fingernails, tapped nervously along the crutch’s middle bars. “No. Who said that?”
“You shouldn’t say those things. You should go to church. I’ll bring you a Bible!”
“Salvation, why do I need a bible? Is it to believe in God?”
“Why?” she replied, her voice rising as if it was to emphasize what would follow. “To find and know God through our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s why!”
Wilson smiled and extended his arms with the beer can nearly hidden in his big hand. “Salvation,” he said. “Welcome to my church. All you have to do is look around and you will find God. Does that make sense to you? Hell, if I get lucky, Jesus Christ might stop by and drink a beer with me. But there’s nothing divine here. There’s no divinity or divine thing. In any case, have you ever taken the time to stop and look around? Just stop and look at the world around you. Eternity is here. Eternity is now. Eternity happens every moment of your life. Everything that has ever happened or will ever happen has only happened in the here and now.”
“Blasphemer!” She paused as if she was stunned by the weight of her declaration. Wilson smiled. It seemed to calm her. “I’m sorry I said that,” she said softly. “But I care about you. I want you to find Salvation. Please, please, please go back to God. Any person can be forgiven.”
“I think Salvation has found me.” Wilson sipped from his beer.
“Was Jesus Christ the Son of God?” She asked, as if she believed the question could not be rebutted.
“Yes he was. But so am I and so are you and so is every person who has ever lived or will ever live. Now will you answer a real question for me?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Salvation, what is God? Is He some biblical manifestation that you want to bring to me?”
She smiled before her convictions. “If you would study the Bible, then you would come to know God in all His glory. If you would come to church and accept the Holy Spirit you would come to know God in all His infinite wisdom!”
“That’s very nice, Salvation. It’s rhetorical, but very nice. Now, before I answer, I believe it’s time for another beer. We must always make time for another beer. Would you agree?”
She scrunched her nose at him. In this, he thought, she assumed for the first time a naïve innocence that was befitting her age.
“I think you drink too much,” she said.
“Perhaps I do. But let’s return to my question about God. You never answered it? Do you know why? Perhaps it’s because you don’t know what God is or is not. Of course you think you do by saying this and that, but I don’t believe that any person knows what God is. It’s an abstract term in which we conceptualize. That’s dangerous. I know I don’t know – but what I do know is simple – God is greater than any definition man can give to It. Now go and tell that to your preacher.”
“Let me bring you a Bible,” she insisted.
“No. Honey, I’ve read the Bible and I have no desire to read it again.”
“Salvation, I don’t know you well enough to miss you when you’re gone.” Wilson chuckled, remembering that Johnny Cash had said something like that to a future son-in-law.
“I want you to be saved! I care about you!”
“Hell, how can I be saved when I’ve never been in trouble? Baby, what happened to your leg?”
“A few years ago I got cancer in it and I had to get it amputated. Through suffering we might reach the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Wilson looked down and shook his head. “You foolish, foolish girl. Life on earth should never be about suffering. Do you believe God wants any person to suffer? Would a true God let your leg be amputated? I don’t think so. A person’s life should be filled with joy!”
“I see what I see and I won’t be able to sleep knowing your soul is on its way to hell. Please, give me the chance to show how God can change your life.”
“Salvation, I’ll take you home if you like. But your business here is finished. Let’s make a separate peace and move forward from it. We can do that, can’t we?”
Her thin lips pressed together until they appeared as one. He symbolized this as line of demarcation from which there was no return once it had been crossed. He had crossed it. Her neck flushed and the color rose into her face. He was going to tell her that he respected her convictions and felt great compassion for everything that had happened to her but before he could speak again, she began to shout. “No, I don’t want a ride! I don’t want your help. If you won’t let me bring you a Bible, then I won’t take your ride!”
She whirled and her hat flew off. When she left the porch she did not use the steps and when she reached the path she was moving far too fast. Wilson got up and rushed to the porch railing. “Hey, Salvation. Stop acting this way…”
She launched herself off the embankment. In the air her body appeared weightless, like a ski jumper, except now the poles were her crutches and now they looked artificial in her arms.
Wilson gripped the porch railing. He relaxed a little when her foot touched down on the hard packed earth. However, his optimism was the short-lived time between a hummingbird’s wing beats. She screamed. Her body pitched down the slope, rolling like flotsam in a run away wave.
When he reached the bottom, Wilson sat down so he could cradle her in his arms. She was sobbing and trying, momentarily, to get away from his embrace. “Oh, God. It hurts. It hurts. I think I broke my leg. Oh, God. It hurts!”
Wilson brushed the hair from her face. Her head lay on his chest and she moved her left hand to rest on his shoulder. Her sobbing became deeper as if she had given him her trust.
The sobs vibrated through Wilson and he knew that they would stay with him forever. Max whimpered and started to lick her cheek. Wilson closed his eyes and started to cry with her. He kissed her forehead and whispered, “Salvation, Jesus loves you. Do you know that. Yes, baby, Jesus loves you.” He felt these words were the truest he had ever spoken and he wondered if she would ever believe that he had meant it.
Wilson looked into the sky and started a silent prayer. The woods seemed eerily still. In the distance he thought he heard a siren rising out and up from some distant and broken land. Just then he felt that someone was watching over them, but he wasn’t certain who it could be.