Bubba Cantwell’s a better salesman than I am. He even sold me on selling Bibles.
His daddy’s a preacher. A real boring preacher, even as preachers go. Oh, Lordy, don’t tell Bubba I said that. It’s true, but don’t tell him. He thinks his daddy is best friends with Jesus.
Anyway, Reverend Cantwell is connected with a company that spreads the Word of God to regular people and heathens. Every summer, the company sends teenage boys to towns all over Georgia to sell Bibles. The boys earn some spending money and the church helps save sinners. It’s a pretty good deal all around, I reckon.
Earlier today, we Bible boys were deep in farm country. Folks out there are even poorer than in the rest of the state. President Roosevelt keeps saying that things will get better, but I haven’t seen that happening yet. It’s bad times for most people.
After starting the day with breakfast and a prayer meeting, we split up and went our own ways to sell the Good Book. I waved to Bubba as we separated, and he waved back with a grin. He had already sold more Bibles than any of the other boys and was looking to increase his lead. At first I had wanted the title of champion salesman myself, but I’d stopped caring about that. This was just a job. The Reverend had told us the Bible is truth, and the truth will set you free, but right about then, I was feeling kind of trapped.
I scuffed my way down the dirt road. There wasn’t much to do, so I whooped up some muddy red dust clouds with my feet. Then the wind started blowing the wrong way and I decided that wasn’t so much fun after all. Besides, I was getting my clothes dusty. I brushed off my shirt with a Bible.
I spotted a house a ways down the road. It looked nicer than I was expecting. Almost shiny in the sun. I wondered if it was a mirage. I’d read about those in school but had never seen one. There weren’t any palm trees or water, so if it was a mirage, it wasn’t trying very hard.
My dusty shoes walked me closer. The house wasn’t a mirage, but it had been painted recently and the owner had tried to take care of it. The windows were clean and there was a pretty assortment of purple and yellow flowers planted in a bed out front. Good omens for me selling a Bible there.
I walked slowly up the steps, taking care not to sound like a cow tromping in. Rev. Cantwell had told us that in the training class. Even the part about not sounding like a cow. He thought it was funny and would make us remember it. He was wrong about it being funny, but I did remember it.
I rapped at the door. Three evenly spaced knocks, just like the Reverend had said. Not too fast and not too slow.
No answer. I started to turn away, then I heard footsteps. Through the glass, I saw a grey-haired man walking slowly to the door. He pulled it open and looked down at me with a friendly half-smile.
“Hello, young man. What can I do for you?”
“My name is Douglas Warren and I’m with the Message of Christ Bible Company. I have here the finest Bible available anywhere and I was wondering if I could interest you in …”
I continued my speech as I watched the man’s face. It sagged from polite attention into poorly concealed boredom. Sort of like my face during Rev. Cantwell’s sermons.
“Let me interrupt you, son,” he said. “I already have a Bible, and most of the people around these parts already have one, too.”
“But sir, this one has the words of our Lord and Savior printed in red. And it has every book from Genesis to Revelation.”
I was proud I knew the last book was called Revelation, not Revelations. It was one big revelation, not a bunch of tiny ones pasted together. What that revelation was, I wasn’t sure. There were a whole bunch of angels and monsters and the good side won in the end, I think.
The man gave me a wry look. “It wouldn’t be much of a Bible if it didn’t have every book. And I don’t need to see Jesus’s words in red for me to figure out when he’s talking.”
“All right, sir,” I continued, trying another technique. “Some folks like to have more than one Bible around the house. Then they can turn to the Lord’s word for comfort wherever they are at the moment.” I didn’t like that argument, but it had worked on a couple of stubborn customers in the past.
The man shook his head slowly. “Some people can afford to do that, but times are real hard for folks around here. The farmers haven’t got enough money to provide for their own families. Some of them get pretty sick, too. I’m their doctor and I’ve seen more suffering than anyone should have to bear.”
So he’s a doctor, I thought. That’s why he could afford to keep his house looking so nice. But he wasn’t going to buy a second Bible. I knew I was done.
“All right, sir,” I said, putting my sample Bible back in the case to give my hand a rest. “I’m sorry I couldn’t interest you in the Word of God.”
“I’m plenty interested, young man. I just don’t need two copies of the same newspaper.” He closed the door and I trudged back to the dusty road.
* * *
It was a good ways to the next house. This one wasn’t nearly as nice-looking. The paint was all chipped and one of the boards was missing from the front stairs. I took an extra-large step across the gap and knocked at the splintery front door.
After a moment, the door opened slowly. A woman stared at me from behind thick round glasses, her hair pulled back so tightly that it made my head hurt to look at it. She couldn’t have been much past thirty but she was as fat as a stuffed turkey. I tried not to stare.
“My name is Douglas Warren and I’m with the Message of Christ Bible Company. I have here the finest Bible …”
I gave my usual speech. The reaction was much more gratifying this time. Instead of losing focus, the woman’s tired face became happier and more animated the longer I talked. When I paused for a minute, she jumped right in.
“You say the words of Jesus are in red? How wonderful! What a beautiful idea! Jacob, come see this!” She beckoned with her hand and a sad-looking man came to stand by her side.
“What is it, Martha?” he asked.
“Show him the red printing, young man,” the woman told me. I handed him the Bible, opened to the Sermon on the Mount. That was a good part that everybody liked.
The man smiled faintly. “I see. But I don’t know if we have the money for this.”
“It’s less than you might expect,” I said. “Only two dollars and fifty cents.”
The man grimaced.
“Please, sugar,” the woman said. “You know how much my Bible reading means to me.”
The man shrugged. “All right. Let me go get the money.”
As he turned and walked away, two girls entered the room. One was about thirteen and the other was much younger; maybe six. They were both wearing clothes that looked like they’d been made from feed sacks. I’d seen a lot of that in poor families who were trying to do what they could for their children. I began to feel a little guilty about selling them a Bible.
The girls were carrying bowls as they passed by. I couldn’t see what was in them, but the enticing smell made my stomach rumble. The woman heard the gurgling and smiled.
Her husband returned and counted coins into my hand. I thanked him and handed the new Bible to his wife, who accepted it as if it were a fragile and priceless treasure.
“Thank you kindly, young man. You said your name was Douglas?”
“Yes, ma’am, but everybody calls me Doug.”
“I’m Martha Keene and this is my husband, Jacob, and my daughters, Bess and Mary.”
“Pleased to meet y’all,” I answered. I wasn’t sure which daughter was which, and they scurried out of the room before I could ask.
“Doug, would you stay to dinner with us? We have a good amount of food and there will be plenty left over for our supper this evening.”
I looked directly at Mr. Keene. “Are you sure it’s all right for me to stay?”
I expected hesitation but received a warm smile instead. “Of course, son. We’re always glad to set out an extra plate for a guest.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Guilt pinched me again about taking his money for a Bible. Then I saw Mrs. Keene caressing her new book with tender affection and I felt a little better. She laid it reverently on the sideboard.
I stepped inside and eyed the dinner table as the girls returned with more food. If I had had my mouth open, someone would have had to wipe my slobber off the floor. Crispy fried okra. Warm mounds of collards and snap beans. Farm-fresh tomatoes, as red as a midsummer sunset. Biscuits like fluffy pillows. A little dish of country ham.
We sat down at the big pine table with Mr. Keene on my right, Bess (the older daughter, I had learned) on my left, and Mary and Mrs. Keene across from me. We joined hands to say grace. Mr. Keene’s hand was thickly calloused but warm; a hard-working appliance. Bess’s palm was soft and damp, and I wondered if she had ever held hands with a boy. We bowed our heads.
“Heavenly father,” Mrs. Keene intoned, “we thank you for the food we are about to receive, and for bringing this young man into our home with a beautiful copy of your Word for all of us to read. Amen.”
I noticed the stress on “all of us” and wondered which member of the family was the Biblical shirker in Mrs. Keene’s mind. When I opened my eyes, Bess was staring at her plate in embarrassment and I had my answer.
“Doug, would you like some tomatoes?” asked Mr. Keene, offering me the dish.
We ate and talked. The Keenes wanted to know all about me and how I had become a Bible salesman. I told them in the most cheerful terms I could manage. When I felt my enthusiasm running low, I took another bite of fried okra and was happy all over again.
“So tell me a little about your family,” I managed to ask at last.
There was a strange pause. I hadn’t expected the question to be difficult.
Mary, who had hardly said a word during the meal, was the first to speak.
“I wish that Meg and Viola were still here,” she said.
Mrs. Keene’s cheeks reddened.
“Honey,” said Mr. Keene, “I don’t know if Doug wants to hear about that.”
“It’s okay if you want to talk about it,” I answered carefully.
Mr. Keene drew a long breath. He looked as sad as when I had first seen him at the door.
“We lost two of our daughters to typhoid fever three months ago. They died one day after the other. Doc Braselton said it was the saddest thing he’d ever seen, and he’s seen a lot.”
“I am so sorry,” I said, feeling my happiness fall away. I didn’t think fried okra would bring it back.
“I had typhoid, too,” Bess said quietly. “I had it but I survived. I don’t know why.”
“I still don’t understand,” Mary said.
“Jesus took your sweet sisters to be with him,” said Mrs. Keene.
“Why did Jesus kill Meg and Viola, Mama?”
Mrs. Keene looked like Mary had poked her in the eye. She blinked several times.
“Jesus didn’t kill them, honey. It was their time.”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways. He has a plan that we cannot know.”
“But if he had a plan for Meg and Viola to die, then why did we pray for them to live?”
“We didn’t know his plan. We can only pray what we feel in our hearts.”
“Did we make God angry by asking him to change his plan?”
“No, sugar. God loves all his children.”
Mary sighed. She put her small hand on top of her mother’s.
“We loved them, Mama. They shouldn’t have died.”
Mrs. Keene’s stoicism crumbled like an old newspaper. She leaned forward and pressed her cheek against her daughter’s hand. She cried and cried.
Mr. Keene came over and laid a comforting hand on his wife’s back. Bess stared at her plate and said nothing.
Rev. Cantwell would have spoken right up. He would have said that Mrs. Keene should take solace in the truth of the Bible and the promise of God’s eternal paradise. I could hear him asking, “O death, where is thy sting?”
Mrs. Keene could have told him. That sting was here, right here, and it burned and screamed something awful. The Bible, true or not, wasn’t making her feel any better. Her daughters were gone forever and Jesus wasn’t bringing them back.
I realized that truth is more than what you read in the Bible. Sometimes truth is a big flashing scythe that leaves blood and pain in a cloud of dust that won’t brush off.
Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia’s Ghosts. He has also written a number of short stories for adults, all of which are set in Georgia, where he grew up. His work has appeared in the Eunoia Review, the Oddville Press, Close to the Bone, Dark Fire Fiction, Idle Ink, and After Dinner Conversation, and is forthcoming in SPANK the CARP. Carl currently resides in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.