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The Clothesline: A Short Story

Hello. My name is Joel, and I’m a SINNER. Not a simple, lower case sinner, but a major, UPPER CASE one.

I used to think that’s what my Christian testimony would sound like. But I couldn’t be sure. I wasn’t a Christian.

Though I practically lived at church the first seventeen years of my life, I wasn’t at home there. My quiet, shiny-headed, preacher father and my excitable, high-haired, righteous mother dragged me to church every Sunday—morning and evening, evening and morning—and most Wednesday nights, too.

Even if I was too sick to attend school, they declared me sufficiently well to participate in every worship service, Bible study, choir practice, mission project, and youth group meeting. That’s not counting church suppers and special events like Vacation Bible School and the annual Fall Festival. While I doubted my doctor would always have agreed with Mom and Dad, they were careful to avoid asking his opinion. After all, they knew what was best for their only child, and the spiritual was infinitely more important than the physical.

My premature death might have kept me away from church, though I wouldn’t have counted on it. Knowing my parents, they would have used my four skateboards to wheel my coffin from one activity to the next and placed me in front of the room with my top up like a toilet lid in the hopes I’d soak up something spiritually significant through supernatural osmosis.

Not even the holiest of my church activities made me any holier, however, although they did add to my guilt about being such a weak-willed human being.

I couldn’t escape the feeling—at times it was downright depressing—that God meant for me to be more than I was. More and different, and I wasn’t either. What He expected from me had little effect on the words that sometimes slipped from my mouth, the magazines I kept hidden in my room, or the movies I sneaked into the theater to watch. Neither did His opinion affect what I drooled over on the Internet or keep me from dwelling on wickedly wonderful thoughts about the great-looking girls who’d never date a sorry Preacher’s Kid—a PK—like me. I was a virgin in real life, but I wasn’t one in my head!

More often than I can remember, I retreated to my room, kicked off my shoes, and sprawled out on top of the bed, where I subjected my deep-blue eyes, my finely sculpted nose, and the just okay rest of me to an imaginary thrashing for being such a loser in God’s sight. I was a big-time disappointment to Him, and I knew it. I couldn’t live up to my own meager standards, much less His far loftier ones.

But when I wasn’t busy feeling guilty about failing God, I had too much fun being the way I was to want to change. Hence the most important thing my involuntarily active church life failed to accomplish was turning me into a Believer.

No, that’s not exactly right, either.

I believed everything I’d ever been taught about God. I wouldn’t have felt so guilty if I hadn’t.

But somehow I missed the point. I didn’t make Jesus my Savior or Lord. And I wasn’t about to seek God’s forgiveness. I didn’t think even He could be so forgiving of sins I’d committed on purpose, and I felt too insecure to risk having Somebody as important as Him reject me outright.

Oh, everyone thought I was a good kid—that’s a major miracle for any teenaged PK!—and that probably explains why no one noticed I was lip-synching the right words, but never saying them aloud. I felt slightly less guilty knowing I was officially still a minor hypocrite. But—at the stroke of eighteen—I’d morph into a major, adult one.

I even had my folks fooled. They thought I hadn’t come forward for baptism yet because I was incurably terrified of the water. I’d started swimming lessons when I was eight, but got turned upside down underwater one day when whoever should have been life guarding wasn’t. After gulping down several mouthfuls of chlorinated water I wasn’t thirsty for, I panicked big time and almost drowned several of the strong adults who dove in to set me upright again.

That was my last lesson: #8 out of the 20 that had been prepaid. My instructors, relieved at not being sued for negligence, refunded the whole cost to my parents without being asked to. I not only never learned to swim, but switched from baths to showers and from drinking ice water to consuming huge quantities of sugar- and caffeine-laden soft drinks.

If God wanted me baptized immersion-style, He’d have to suit me up in a diving outfit with a full tank of oxygen. Maybe two. And putting me under anesthesia at the same time wouldn’t hurt, either.

But it didn’t matter. I had no reason to be baptized.

I celebrated my seventeenth birthday by getting my first paying job. Before that, I’d been volunteered into helping at the church food-and-clothes closet scores of times. The most important thing I learned from that was countless hours TIMES zero hourly pay EQUALS a whole lot of nothing to show for it.

But at least my involuntary volunteerism looked better on my job application than no work experience at all.

So I became a cashier in a local convenience store, earning two dollars above minimum wage and all the free fountain drinks I could consume during my shift without spending every minute round tripping to the store’s unisex restroom. The facility was leaky during every season of the year and cold enough to ice skate on in winter. In summer, I had to take my drink with me to keep from dehydrating in the unventilated hot box.

To my parents’ displeasure, I worked all day Sundays and after school till 9:45 on Wednesdays. They never caught on that I’d told my boss I would always be available those two times. Of course I managed to fit in additional hours whenever I needed to avoid special church activities.

Every week was the same, and my boss, Charlotte, was persistently and irritably thoughtful.

“Joel, are you sure you don’t want to take next Sunday off? You’ve worked every weekend since you started.” She knew I was a PK.

“Oh, no thanks, Charlotte. I’m saving for college and need every hour I can get. Besides, I’d just have to go to church.”

She couldn’t have missed me for the pagan I was.

Though I was lying about college—my parents finally agreed that my grades wouldn’t get me into dog obedience school—I was doing something good. By working Sundays and Wednesdays, I enabled two Christian coworkers, Christine and Gloria, to attend church more regularly than before.

Strange girls! They wanted to go and missed it when they couldn’t…

But more important, I began lifting the lid from my coffin of guilt. I wasn’t able to climb out of it yet, but at least I could breathe better. Because of my faithful abstinence from churchliness, I wasn’t constantly being reminded what a failure I was in God’s sight.

I suffered some painful side effects, though. Like the day Charlotte—who by then had begun taking an hour off on Sundays to attend church with Christine and Gloria—got smart with me about missing eight straight months of church. Without provocation or warning, she looked me in the eye without blinking.

“Who’s your pastor, Joel?”

I still blush about stumbling over my words hopelessly before finally remembering: my dad!

I graduated from both high school and the convenience store to become a carpenter helper for an older guy from church. At first I was hesitant about being around a 31-year-old Christian like Jerry, but when I discovered he could get just as angry and curse just as colorfully as any non-Christian, I began to feel at home.

I was still living with my folks in the church parsonage, where I didn’t feel at home.

“Joel, now that you’re not working on Sundays and Wednesday nights anymore, don’t you think it’s time you started attending church again?” I gave them credit for being realistic. They didn’t say “participating in church.” They knew they had to get me there first.

I acknowledged their concerns in my normal, noncommittal way. “Mmm, I’ll have to put that on my list to think about when I get around to it.” But that only made them more determined, and more determined on their part wasn’t a good thing for me.

If I’d still been a little kid, I might have tossed my favorite toys into a grocery bag along with some chocolate chip cookies and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I would’ve spent the day circling the block to run away from home without having to cross the forbidden street.

But now that I was of legal age, I had nowhere to go and no way to get there.

Though eighteen and smarter than Mom and Dad, I got bored with thinking up fresh excuses for not going to church. I relaxed a bit after I started writing my excuses down and recycling them. I wouldn’t say my home life was stressful, but after the first 135 times of being prodded to attend church—by then I’d turned nineteen—I considered the pros and cons of living as a street person just to get out of the house.

I may not have been brilliant enough for college, but I was cursed with enough sense to know I couldn’t afford to move out. Not even to the street, the curb, or the sidewalk.

Not by myself, anyway.

Jerry already had one helper when he hired me. Roberto, a probably-legal Mexican immigrant, was a year or so older than me. We got along great from the beginning; he wasn’t religious, either.

And he, too, was determined to escape the influence of disgustingly devout parents.

After several grueling hours of putting our heads together and scribbling illegible numbers all over two full-sized legal pads, we concluded we could afford to rent a small house at not a penny over $300 a month. But that had to include utilities. Though neither of us would have more than a dime left after rent and groceries, at least we’d be out on our own, free to live any way we chose.

Roberto was a good kid, too—better than me if I was any judge of character. The only significant difference between our old pagan lifestyles and our new ones would be the lack of hassles about staying away from church. Not having a phone would help with that, as would hiding our address from my parents.

But they tricked Roberto out of it. Where should we have Joel’s mail forwarded?

As if I ever got mail. But Roberto—affable and gullible fellow that he was—didn’t know that. He got lots of mail, mostly junk. It made him feel like a real American.

We soon admitted to one another that our plans weren’t going well. We had a better chance of tripping over a brown paper bag containing the Hope diamond than of finding a decent $300 rental including utilities. Despite our rapidly diminishing hope, we kept looking…

The only house in our price range was so lower class that its previous residents had been a pair of straggly rats and half a dozen putrid-looking mice. Our landlord was honest about his fight to keep the city from condemning the place. So we’d be on a day-to-day verbal lease and might have to vacate without warning. Legally and officially, we were house sitters, not tenants.

Although our new home was the least offensive-looking house on the block (thinking back now, it was probably the only one still standing), the neighborhood was one I’d always been scared to drive through in brightest daylight, much less to stop in overnight. But Roberto and I accepted living in terror as preferable to fending off pressures about church. And at least we owned nothing worth breaking in to steal.

We moved in one Wednesday evening while my folks were at church. I didn’t want them to see the house yet and tell us how stupid we were.

Roberto’s family had given him a few pieces of furniture, including a loveseat daybed that was way too short for his way too short, five-foot-four-inch frame. They also offered him a TV set.

But I had to pay my parents for my queen-sized bed. They had the nerve to say I could have it for nothing if I promised to come back to church! It wasn’t practical to sue them for it, though I was tempted to take it and conveniently forget to pay them. Surely they wouldn’t have had their only child arrested for an oversight like that. But I couldn’t count on surely, and so I paid them.

I was broke by the time Roberto and I moved our stuff into the living room, which turned out to also be the galley kitchen, the two miniature bedrooms, and the bathroom/laundry area. Apparently all of the interior walls had collapsed or been torn down over the years. But it was a grand-sized multi-purpose room for one lacking any privacy whatsoever, and we would make do.

Our faces were hidden in the shadows cast by a five-watt bulb peeking out through a broken overhead light fixture. Roberto knelt on the floor to get a table lamp and a hundred-watter out of one of his cardboard boxes.

We’d tossed a coin to see who had to go into the liquor store to ask for boxes.

I lost.

He also got out a flashlight so he could find a receptacle for the lamp. Good thing Roberto’s lamp didn’t have a three-prong plug—or a plug with one blade wider than the other!

“Hey, Man,” Roberto said so solemnly after a casual tour of the room that I thought he’d found a dead body in the closet. I hoped it was one of the rodent freeloaders who’d failed to vacate the place when we moved in. “You know this house got a washing machine, but no drying machine?”

“That’s okay, Roberto,” I replied. “We can’t afford to go to a Laundromat, so we should be thankful to have the washer.” What did he expect for $300 on a day-to-day, unwritten non-lease?

I wasn’t exaggerating about a Laundromat, either. I was already wondering if we weren’t in over our heads. Those mangy mice might start looking tasty sooner than later. That had worked for Charles Martin Smith in NEVER CRY WOLF. We could hold off on the rats and plump them up for Thanksgiving if we didn’t eat all the extra crumbs ourselves.

First things first, though.

“But no dryer, Man? How we gonna dry our clothes?”

“I guess we’ll have to hang them outside.”

Without responding, Roberto took the flashlight and stepped through the outside door on the kitchen side of the room and into the index card-sized back yard. He returned a moment later, shaking his head from side to side before plopping down on the floor and looking up at me with those liquid, puppy dog eyes of his. I wished I’d had a doggy treat to offer him. I wanted one, too. Our first supper had filled us up for forty-two minutes and forty-two minutes only, and our food budget didn’t permit snacks.

Roberto’s love seat was piled with liquor boxes, and our only chair was piled with me.

“No, man, nothing out there to hang wet clothes on!”

“Not even a fence?” I inquired, trying to remain serious. This problem didn’t strike me as earth-shattering.

But it was life-and-death to Roberto.

“Not a fence. Not a nothin’!”

I’d never heard Roberto sound so frustrated or irritated. I hoped he wouldn’t start pouting or crying.

“Not a nothing…” My voice had grown quiet and respectful by then, for I was trying to hide my own disappointment. I’d just realized my Mom wouldn’t be doing my laundry anymore.

“Well, maybe we can take our stuff to my folks’ house and do our clothes there.”

Roberto turned up his nose. Then, as if unsure I’d gotten the point, he pinched the front of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

“Or to your folks’ place…” I said, trying to demonstrate my flexibility and willingness to compromise.

The way he rolled his eyes in disgust made me laugh. He didn’t laugh with me. I hadn’t realized I was teaming up with such an independent clean-clothes-nik.

“Or maybe not,” I axed my original motion and its proposed amendment with that one fell, three-word swoop. “Do you have a better idea?”

Roberto thought for a moment. He looked older when he was thinking. I always looked like a kid next to him, though I was nine inches taller. Maybe it was my long, curly blond hair.

“Hey, Man, how dumb are we?”

I was thankful to hear him laugh.

“I dunno. How dumb?”

“We’re two carpenter helpers, right?”

“Jerry calls us that when we’re not messing up. I don’t generally use the colorful language he describes us with when we do.”

“And carpenter helpers do what?” He had done a better job than usual of ignoring my attempted humor. Besides, he knew I was the one who always messed up—never him.

“Besides helping a carpenter, you mean?” I couldn’t figure out where Roberto was headed.

“You’re not funny, man!”

Okay, let’s make that an independent cleanclothesnik who doesn’t always share my sense of humor.

“We… we make and repair stuff. Wooden stuff. Or at least we’re learning to do that. Neither of us is good at it yet, though.”

“Speaking only for yourself, Joel.” He pronounced it ho-EL. When Roberto almost calls me by name instead of saying “man,” I know I’m in trouble.

I remained silent for a moment while trying to untwist my foot and back it out of my mouth. Roberto had made a legitimate point. He would have a terrific career in carpentry. I wouldn’t. I’d end up demoted to the register at the convenience store. How will I pay my share of the rent then? I sighed without meaning to.

“So you’re better than I am, man.”

Mucho mejor—much better,” he said without false modesty.

“So what’s your point, Roberto? What’s the bottom line?”

“The bottom line?” Roberto raised his eyebrows. Though his English was often better than mine, American idioms—which he referred to as English idiocities with the accent on “cit”—had been known to cause serious injury to, if not the sudden death of, a previously healthy discussion.

“Yes, the bottom line. The point.”

“Oh, the point? Why you didn’t just say that, man?”

I thought I had.

“My mistake, Roberto.” I changed the subject. “Where’s the Tylenol?” I wasn’t sure anything short of solving the clothes-drying problem would keep this headache from getting as annoying as Roberto’s attitude.

He got up off the floor with an exaggerated groan and handed me a bottle from the box I had my feet propped up on. The label was in Spanish. Handwritten. I hoped he knew what he was medicating me with. Do they use witch doctors in Mexico? I wondered, but dared not ask.

“Okay, amigo, the point—the beneath line—is this: why not build a clothes line in the back yard?”

I raised one eyebrow. Why not indeed? I patted my left pants pocket—I’d felt fatter empty plastic sandwich bags—and stuck my right hand all the way to the bottom of the other pocket. The money clip that had been choked with bills at graduation was not just empty, but starving for attention without a single coin to clink a toast to.

“Uh, we’d need some materials. I’m broke now. How about you?”

Roberto pulled a skinny, neon-orange, nylon wallet from his right rear pants pocket. I wondered if it glowed in the dark. He opened it. He turned it upside down. He shook it vigorously. Nothing fell out but his library card.

Oh, gee! An independent clean-clothes-nik who doesn’t always share my sense of humor but likes to read! So that’s why he didn’t accept his parents’ offer of a TV set!

And I thought I knew this guy so well! I wondered if we weren’t like newly weds when they first discover their spouses aren’t the people they’re supposed to be. Like Jacob waking up after the wedding night and finding Leah in his bed instead of Rachel.

Well, kind of like, anyhow.

“You’re broke, too, huh, man?” I sometimes enjoy overstating the obvious.

“So what do you think?” He was undaunted. “Maybe we can get some materials from Jerry, you think?”

I couldn’t tell if he was serious. Except for Jerry’s willingness to hire two green kids like Roberto and me, which had resulted in exactly a 50% success rate thus far, he wasn’t known for his generosity. But at least he was excruciatingly honest most of the time. I just hadn’t expected him to subtract bathroom breaks from my paycheck.

“I dunno, Roberto. Jerry keeps pretty close tabs on his materials.”

“I didn’t mean steal them, man!”

Let’s make that an independent clean-clothes-nik who doesn’t always share my sense of humor, loves to read, and is exceedingly defensive about his sense of honor.

“Did I say we should steal them, Ro…uh, Roberto?” Roberto was proud of his name and wouldn’t let me or anyone else shorten it.

“What I meant, Joe, uh, Joel…” he knew how to put me in my place, though it made little difference whether he called me Hoe or ho-EL, “what I mean is maybe Jerry will loan us the materials and let us pay him back little by little.”

How come he could pronounce Jerry correctly? Maybe he didn’t know it started with a J.

“We’ll have to sign a contract in blood, don’t you think?” I laughed, but Roberto ignored me.

He’d already gotten out a pencil, clipboard, and legal pad from another box and begun jotting down what we’d need. To anyone not as broke as we were, our materials list would have seemed meager. Our major need was two eight-foot 4x4’s for the vertical poles and two shorter ones for the crossbars.

“Shouldn’t we just use 2x4’s for the crossbars?” I asked, confident that they were cheaper than 4x4’s and would require shorter, less expensive nails.

I’d soon be picking pennies up off the ground again, like when I was a little kid and thought they were worth something. This adulthood thing left a lot to be desired, and I almost wished I was back in high school.

But not in church, though.

“You’re thinking of dropping the crossbars somewhere down from the top, aren’t you?” Roberto asked. “Like a baby letter t…”

“Aren’t you, Roberto?” What were crossbars if they didn’t cross to form a lower case t?

“No, I want them across the top. Like a mature, grown up T.” Though he sounded like he had a reason for his preference, he didn’t share it with me. Maybe the look on his face was just a lingering shadow from the broken light, but it looked like a gloat to me.

“You’re the experienced carpenter,” I said. He ignored my sarcasm. Maybe he didn’t know how jealous I was.

We would also need wire, rope, or heavy cord for the lines, hooks to attach the lines to, amateur-usable cement to set the poles in the ground, and a good supply of nails. I hadn’t mastered the official carpentry jargon for nail sizes, but if the crossbars had to be 4x4’s, those nails would have to be long and heavy. We assumed Jerry would lend us the miscellaneous small tools we needed.

We told Jerry what we wanted to do and why we couldn’t.

“You don’t need much in the way of materials, do you?” He was more interested in our project than I’d expected. “You two guys are really that broke?”

We nodded, our faces somewhere on the far side of funereal looking. Jerry knew we didn’t waste our money on tobacco, liquor, drugs, or dating. Soon enough he’d see us losing weight, and we were both already skinny.

“Tell you what. You’ve been good…very good,” Jerry smiled at Roberto. Roberto smiled back and nodded immodestly.

“You’ve been trying. Uh, I know you’ve tried.” Those words were targeted at me, along with the grimace he tried too late to mask. I knew he would have preferred saying, “You’ve been exceptionally trying, and I’m going to fire you!”

“Tell you what, fellows. I’ll let you have these materials for nothing. Call it a bonus if you like.” He smiled at Roberto again. Then he looked at me. “And as an incentive to learn, practice, and improve—a lot!”

Roberto and I vied to out-thank Jerry by shaking both hands at the same time. If his arms had been handles on an old-fashioned water pump, we would have flash flooded the neighborhood during the first five minutes.

“One word of caution, though,” Jerry added. “Don’t mess up. I’ll give you just enough to do the job right if you work carefully. But I won’t give you anything extra. Not a single nail more. I won’t replace anything, either. ¿Comprende?

¡Sí!” we shouted in unison as we pumped another two feet of water, unconcerned about the possibility of wet feet.

“And, Joel, just do whatever Roberto tells you to do.”

¡Sí!” Why wouldn’t I, Jerry?

By the time we got our stuff home Friday evening, the sun was almost down. Our landlord stopped by for 1/30th of the monthly sitting fee and—with his blessing—we scheduled our little project for the next morning. Working as a team, we’d finish the job in a flash and have most of the afternoon left for laundry. All of it if I stayed out of Roberto’s way.

But the twenty-four hour stomach bug is no respecter of the best laid plans of mice and young adult human males, and Roberto got so sick during the night that he was weak, achy, feverish, and otherwise lifeless by Saturday morning. I got up several times that night to empty Roberto’s supper from the trashcan in the bathroom corner of the room and was just as happy we hadn’t eaten tacos, onions, or refried beans…

Undaunted by a little lost sleep, I was up by 7:43 and raring to start on the clothes line. But Roberto was down for the count—or at least for the day, unable to stay awake longer than required for his decreasing number of trips to the bathroom corner.

I noticed that Roberto had crammed seven grocery bags with dirty clothes; not a single article of clean clothing hung in his part of the closet. I feared he might decide against recovering if—upon regaining the first few of his senses—he discovered he’d still be unable to hang his clothes outside to dry.

I had a decision to make, and I made it as quickly and easily as if it were a smart one.

I would build the clothesline myself—without Roberto’s help! We’d discussed our plans in detail the night before. How far wrong could I go? I wouldn’t take a chance on doing the concrete by myself. We could prop up the poles in their holes for today, and when Roberto was up to it, we’d set them in a more proper, permanent, and professional way.

The vertical 4x4’s were already the right length, and I was confident that even I could measure and saw the third eight-foot board into two equal four-foot crossbars: one for each pole. These won’t be crossbars since Roberto wants them on top of the vertical pieces, I thought. They’ll be T-tops. I didn’t know if that was actually a carpentry term, but it made sense and rolled off my tongue more pleasantly than crossbars. That—and the sibilance in T-tops was less explosive.

I, expert carpenter that I was, found myself insecure about the security of Roberto’s preferred construction style. After all, I’d taken physics in high school, even if I almost flunked it; he’d never studied physics, though his common sense was superior to mine. But I had some vague recollection about levers and how they work…

Clothes heavy with water might tear the T-tops from the supporting poles like fluff from a dandelion in a hurricane. How many nails I used and how far in I hammered each one might prove inconsequential. I pictured the lines dragging the ground with heavy duty laundry like quilts, fancy coverlets, and bath towels.

In the real world, however, I wasn’t sure either of us owned even a blanket or a spread. Dish towels might have to double as our bath towels and dish rags as wash cloths.

I wished I could review the plans with Roberto once more and explain my objections, but it was just as well I couldn’t. He would start throwing up again if he discovered how determined I was to do this job without him and to improve on his plans to boot.

If I succeeded, he’d have to be nice about it. I had pride left, though not much, and I was determined to prove to Roberto that—just because he was the next Superman of woodwork and I was kryptonite—I wasn’t as inept as he and Jerry thought.

But I’d have to prove it to myself first.

Thanks to the power saw Jerry loaned us, I buzzed the third eight-foot board into two T-tops in short order and had to make only a couple of extra slices to bring their lengths within two inches of each other. I was just starting to sand the raw ends, which looked like badly injured accident victims prior to the arrival of medical help, when I got a brilliant idea. I could spread out and strengthen the support by nailing a 4x4x4 block to each side of the vertical poles so the T-top would lie securely flat across the three pieces rather than precariously on top of each pole by itself.

I sketched my idea in detail on the legal pad we’d doodled our plans on and lamented that my carpentry skills weren’t as accomplished as my drawing skills.

So I cut eight inches off each T-top-to-be and sawed each of those pieces in half. I was proud of myself and hoped Roberto would be. Of course he was cleverer at carpentry than I. I couldn’t deny that. He might have figured out a better way to secure the T-tops, but at least he’d have to admit my idea wasn’t totally stupid.

I dared not do any more sawing now; my 4x4x4’s were already well on the way to 3x3x3’s, though my T-tops were only an inch different in length.

I began sanding the cut ends again. It would take hours to get all four 4x4x4’s down to the exact same size and shape, no matter what the size. Sanding has never been my favorite pastime, but I’d never live today down if I didn’t do my professional best on something so simple.

Much less would I impress Roberto. Especially if he measured the support blocks and found them different in size or shape!

After five minutes of boredom and sneezing, sneezing and boredom, I looked up to see a little kid sitting on a fairly new, red Radio Flyer wagon at the juncture where our yard flowed indistinctly into the one behind it. I couldn’t tell if he lived back of us or not.

He stared at me through two of the darkest eyes I’d ever seen—quite a contrast to face and arms that looked like they’d been hidden away in the depths of a forest and never exposed to sunlight. Never ever.

He looked a little sad, but I couldn’t tell if anything was wrong.

“Hi! My name is Joel, but you can call me Joel. What’s yours?” Although I wasn’t crazy about kids (admitting that’ll get you out of church nursery duty real fast!), I couldn’t be rude. Besides, talking to him might take my mind off my mindless sanding.

He wasn’t just hesitant to respond. He didn’t.

Maybe I’d confused him with the doubletalk about calling me Joel. Or maybe his folks had taught him not to talk to nice strangers like me.

“That’s a great wagon you have there. They still make Radio Flyers, do they? Golly! I’m sorry, but I’ve already forgotten your name,” I said with an exaggerated smile.

He kept staring. I wished his parents had taught him that staring at a stranger he wasn’t allowed to speak to was as rude as staring at a friend.

“Now how can we be friends if you won’t tell me your name? I told you mine is Joel.”

“My name is Samuel,” the little boy answered with obvious hesitation, “but my parents call me Special Sammy.”

Halleluiah! At least he’s not mute!

“Why do they call you that, Sammy?”

I didn’t know enough about kids to say whether he was normal, but he didn’t seem like any average, everyday kid I’d ever met before. Perhaps he was mildly retarded or emotionally disturbed. Maybe he was sick or hurt. He might have been a socially maladjusted genius. Or maybe he was just a midget ax murderer putting on a convincing act at being shy.

I agreed with Sammy’s folks, anyhow. He was special.

“I don’t know.” Somewhere in the world the sands of an overturned hourglass had finished falling and were lounging lazily by the time he answered. “They just do.”

His lack of a better answer didn’t seem to faze him anymore than it satisfied me.

“Ah, well, that explains it,” I said in fun, not knowing whether he’d know I was teasing or be upset by it. “How old are you, Special Sammy?”

“I’m eleven. Almost…” I’d taken him for a young twelve—nowhere close to a thirteen, though.

“Ah? You’re a big almost-eleven, aren’t you? You look strong for your age. Do you want to help me with sanding?”

I held out one of the off-sized 4x4x4’s in one hand and a fresh strip of sandpaper in the other. I set them down again when my muscles started cramping. Apparently my proposal had been too similar to that of a suspicious stranger offering candy to a child.

Though he didn’t say anything else, Sammy stared at me without looking away once. He’d be a great asset to a Neighborhood Watch program, I thought.

Although he sat in his wagon without moving an eyebrow while I sanded, he hopped out the second I began nailing the pieces of the first pole together. Through my peripheral vision, I could see him pace back and forth, his eyes never leaving me. After several minutes, I made myself ignore him; attaching the T-top and supports to the vertical pole required my immediate attention—including the use of my peripheral vision.

I dared not mess up now. I’d spent too many hours sanding those four blocks to the same size and shape.

After completing one pole, I grabbed Jerry’s shovel from where it had been leaning against the back of the house and began a pole hole. Though the top twelve inches of soil were soft and came up easily once I whacked my way through two inches of stubborn grass roots, I ran into dry, brick-and-gravel enchunked earth below that. I hoped it wouldn’t break the shovel blade. The tip had already gotten slightly bent.

Roberto had insisted on the holes being two feet deep, and once he recovered from the flu, he’d measure the poles. I knew him that well now. If they were more than six feet above ground, he’d know I’d either rebelled or compromised. Or, worse still, I’d made an unforgivable error measuring the depth of the hole. Aware now how exasperatingly exacting Roberto could be, I couldn’t let him call me ho-EL over something so minor.

If I couldn’t dig far enough down before I or the shovel died, I’d cut a few inches off the poles—well, hopefully just a few—so Roberto couldn’t tell the difference. After all, that part would be below ground. I wouldn’t even have to sand the ends!

Or would I? Roberto was still Roberto. He should have been a mother!

The sun was almost straight overhead now, and the sweat was running from my forehead into my face and eyes. I decided to check on Roberto and get a drink of tap water; our budget didn’t have a line item for bottled water—not even a generic, cheapy brand—and soft drinks were a luxury of the past. While inside, I’d also look for a bandana to tie around my forehead as a sweatband.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes, Special Sammy,” I said. I wasn’t surprised by his failure to respond, but seeing him still pacing made me uneasy. I hoped he wasn’t becoming more of whatever he was and made a mental note to bring him a glass of water when I returned—a glass of water given not in Jesus’ name, but in St. Joel’s.

I didn’t even laugh at my own joke for once.

I stayed inside ten minutes longer than I’d intended. Roberto was still too flu bugged-out to inquire about my outdoor activities, and I settled for the least offensive of a batch of filthy bandanas our subtenant rodents wouldn’t come close to without holding their little noses.

I was surprised to find that Special Sammy and his red wagon were both gone when I returned with his water. And so was the first of my clothesline poles!

I looked all over the yard, but found no clues except for a few grains of saw dust that formed an almost indistinguishable trail through the dead grass towards the perimeter of the yard.

Sammy! I thought. It’s got to be Sammy! Why have you taken my pole? And where? And how do I get it back?

I didn’t know where Sammy lived, and—in this litigious age we live in—I wouldn’t have dared question him without first offering him the protection of an attorney, anyhow. And that’s if I could find him! He’d had more than a ten-minute head start no matter which way he’d gone, and the saw dust trail ended several feet from where it began.

Watching the time blink by on my digital watch like senior adult turtles out on walkers for a casual Sunday afternoon stroll, I was less sure than before what to do. Without the missing pole, I couldn’t complete today’s project. Jerry had already said he wouldn’t replace any material, and who knows when Roberto and I would have a few extra dollars to replace them on our own?

I thought about calling the Police, but couldn’t imagine them being courageous enough to come to this part of town. Anyway, I’d forgotten we didn’t have a phone and I didn’t have a quarter for a pay phone—even if I could have found one. The evening we moved in, I’d noticed an old fashioned phone booth like Superman used to change his clothes in. Six blocks up the street and closer to civilization, it had long since been stripped of any electronics and now served as a stand up home to a handful of homeless men who took turns sleeping in it.

I probably wouldn’t have called the Police, anyhow. My suspected thief was a good-sized, almost-eleven-year-old boy who was special, possibly not normal. I didn’t want Sammy to get into unnecessary trouble over this, no matter how much trouble he was causing me. I couldn’t live with the guilt…

“Young man, we can’t admit you to Harvard,” the admissions officer would say. “Your academic record is impeccable, but there’s a little matter of the clothesline pole you stole when you were eleven.”

“Sir, please don’t hold that against me,” Sammy would plead as if appealing to a kindly-looking juvenile judge. “It was just an ugly clothes pole. I thought I was doing the guy a favor. And I was only ten at the time, anyhow.”

I just wanted my pole back! My beautiful pole!

I began assembling the other pole. Each staccato strike my hammer made against the heavy nails reverberated throughout the neighborhood as if it were an empty concert hall—so empty I wondered if we even had neighbors.

I hoped the racket wouldn’t wake Roberto, though. Facing him with news of an indefinitely unfinishable clothesline would be a threat to my wellbeing, not to mention our being coworkers, housemates, and friends.

I looked up.

I was no longer alone. Special Sammy was back, and so was his wagon.

Aha! I thought. The criminal returns to the scene of his crime. Instinctively, I made note of the time.

I’d never seen Sammy smile before. He didn’t smile now, either. Instead he glared at me as if I were the criminal!

Though we were about seven feet apart, I could see bits of sawdust inside his wagon and on the outside of his clothes. I thought about asking him to take me to his parents on the pretext of meeting them, but dismissed the idea as a bad one. Special Sammy’s parents might not be happy to have him bring home a stranger Sammy shouldn’t have talked to in the first place.

So forthrightness and honesty were out. The only remaining option was deviousness and cunning.

After nailing the second pole together—once again accompanied by Sammy’s agitated pacing—I spent a few minutes admiring my handiwork. I hadn’t had a chance to examine the first one before it disappeared. But this one looked terrific! It may not have looked as spiffy as if Roberto had built it, but it looked incredibly better than Roberto would have thought me capable of. Never mind that I had already spent seven hours on a one-hour project!

“Special Sammy,” I tried to sound casual and non-threatening, “something happened to my other, uh, wooden thing like this while you were gone. Would you guard this one for me while I go inside a few minutes?” I wanted to make clear he’d have enough time to steal this pole, too. I didn’t know what I’d do if he didn’t want it, though.

He didn’t say a word. I’d lowered my expectations, and that was the exact response I’d expected.

I opened the back door and passed straight through our one room house, ignoring Roberto’s weak, confused, and pathetic cries. I pretended he was calling someone else’s name. I was a man on a mission, and I couldn’t let anything slow me down—guilt for ignoring the cries of a sick buddy would have to wait till later.

2.31 seconds later, I was out the front door, my feet barely touching the ground till I reached the back corner of the house. There I stuck my nose out, followed by my left eye, to check the scene of the intended second crime.

Sure enough, strong little Sammy was already struggling to position my clothesline pole along the length of his wagon. I hadn’t realized before how short he was compared to the pole. I retreated from Sammy’s potential line of sight, but peeked out again several minutes later. This time he was noisily dumping our borrowed hammer and coffee can of remaining nails into the red metal wagon.

Sammy hadn’t looked in my direction once during my covert observations. Head out, head unseen, head in. Head out, head unseen, head in.

When I heard the wagon rattle into first gear, I eased myself into the backyard and joined the procession at a discrete distance.

Sammy made good time, considering how often he had to stop to rebalance the pole. The wagon was less than half the length of the pole, and one side of the T-top—apparently the heavier of two equal sides—kept drooping to the ground and dragging. I’d have to re-sand that part before I let Roberto see it.

Sammy never looked back. He knew where he was going, even if I didn’t, and that’s all he cared about. Deserted backstreets led him to the edge of some woods too green and fresh to belong this close to a repulsive neighborhood like mine. He stopped suddenly and began maneuvering the wagon into a narrow path that disappeared into the forest. I rushed to catch up before he disappeared, too.

If I lose him now, I’m a goner. Or at least my clothesline will be.

He’d been gone no longer than forty minutes the first time. That meant an average of twenty minutes each way. But because his wagon would have been lighter coming back and wouldn’t need constant rebalancing, I cut five minutes off his return trip and allotted it to dumping his booty. I couldn’t do math without a calculator anymore, but I guessed his hiding place to be only four to eight minutes further into the woods. I’d been following him for twelve minutes, and we were already several minutes in and away from the street.

Worrying about losing him had been wasted effort. Even the quietest of little boys dragging a laden red wagon through a dense forest makes enough racket to be tracked by a deaf man. I stayed about fifteen feet behind except while freeing myself several times from the malicious tangle of thorny undergrowth that tripped and tore into me. It’s a wonder he didn’t hear me cry out each time I tried regaining my balance before helplessly toppling over like a felled tree.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Sammy’s crime, and that bugged me. Though he had twice taken my property without permission, he wasn’t an enemy. I didn’t know what to think of him. He must have had some reason for stealing the main parts of my clothesline, though I couldn’t imagine what. Maybe he didn’t know he was doing something wrong. Yeah, right!

Would Sammy’s folks have approved his actions today? I hoped not. Then again, maybe they’d put him up to it. Maybe they lived in the forest and needed a clothesline…

Whatever else, I didn’t want to scare him. I hoped he would voluntarily return my poles because it was the right thing to do, for I dared not coerce him. But if I accidentally frightened him off, maybe he’d run away too quickly to take the wagon. Then I could borrow it and hope I didn’t get arrested for stealing it.

After all, I wasn’t the criminal here.

Sammy stopped in a clearing and I dropped back several feet.

The first clothesline pole looked puny leaning against an oak tree that must have been old during the Civil War. Sammy sweated in his struggle to get the second one off the wagon and prop it against an adjacent maple tree that looked a tad younger than the oak. Though strong for his age, he looked tired, and I would have gladly stepped out and offered help had today’s circumstances been different.

Instead I hid behind a bush he couldn’t see through and pondered my predicament. Following Special Sammy deep into the woods and discovering his hiding place was one thing. Retrieving my property was something else. I didn’t want to confront him. I couldn’t afford to have his folks sue me! He could have accused me of almost anything…and I wasn’t the criminal.

Shall I just remain hidden till he leaves?

But that would mean dragging my poles home without the help of the wagon. Lugging them behind me would be tedious, though less wearisome than bearing their full weight on my back. I pictured Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, but wouldn’t let myself dwell on it. Jesus had nothing to do with today’s dilemma. And he wouldn’t be the one to have to sand the drag-roughened edges again to please a picky Roberto.

Oh! I’d forgotten Jesus’ first career was in carpentry! I hoped he hadn’t gotten into the world saving business because he couldn’t cut it as a carpenter…

Though I could hook the hammer through my belt easily enough, I went brain-exhausted trying to figure out managing both the heavy coffee can and the poles. Maybe I could stick the nails in my shirt and pants pockets and just ditch the can.

But, as much of a city boy as I was, I decided against a solo rescue of my clothesline. My face, hands, and arms were still bloody from the thorny vines I’d fallen victim to earlier. And I’d been empty handed then. How could I defend myself against them the next time when my arms were full and my mind preoccupied with not dropping everything?

More important, Sammy knew the path out and I didn’t. I’d be lost in the woods forever unless I followed him back. I hadn’t even paid attention to what streets led from home to the forest.

I stood as still as the trees, my eyes closed as I waited for something to happen.

Before I could consider any other useless plan, I heard Special Sammy start talking. But he didn’t seem to be addressing me. Had some buddy arrived on a different path?

I didn’t hear anyone respond to him, though. I kept listening. Kids talk to animals sometimes, don’t they? I thought. And to imaginary friends. He could’ve been talking to himself for all I knew. Whoever this one-sided chat involved, no one seemed to know or care about me.

So I peeked around the bush.

At first I didn’t see anyone, but—when I looked towards the oak and the maple again—I noticed Sammy on both knees facing one of the poles, his palms placed together in prayer. He seemed to be staring at the clothesline pole.

I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but…

“Jesus, like I told you, I done some bad, mean things today. You see these two ugly wood crosses? I stoled one from Mr. Joel while he went in his house. Jesus, bad soldiers killed you on a cross. I seen pictures of it in my Sunday School book. Mr. Joel doesn’t have a uniform on, but he must be bad, too. Why would he make a cross but to catch you and put you on it? I had to stop him. You suffered bad already. I stoled his first cross so he couldn’t do nothing else to you.

“Jesus, I feel real bad about that. I took something that wadn’t mine. I never done nothin’ like that before. But I had to protect you! Then when I went back, Mr. Joel was making another cross! He told me the first one was disappeared. Oh, Jesus, dear Jesus! I lied to him! I pretended I didn’t do it. I never been so bad before! You must be mighty mad at me. Mad and disappointed. Then I stoled the second cross, and I took those big nails, too. I couldn’t let him put ‘em through your hands and feet. That’s why I stoled the hammer, too. I’m so sorry! Please forgive me! Lord Jesus, what do I do now?”

He threw himself flat on the mossy ground, his face buried in the folds of his arms. The forest was still except for the muffled sounds of his sobbing.

Tears streamed down my face, too. I tried to look at my clothesline poles, but I couldn’t. Though I had every right to be proud of my work, these were no longer the components of a clothesline system, but homemade versions of ancient Roman instruments of torture. The bile from my stomach gurgled into my throat whenever I glanced at the crosses.

Sammy was right. They were ugly now.

I began tiptoeing towards the second cross, but stopped when I heard Sammy again.

“Thank you, Jesus. You’re such a good guy—the best buddy I ever had! I feel lots gooder now. Yes, I’ll give Mr. Joel his stuff back. And I’ll tell him I’m real sorry, too, just like you tolded me. I hope he says it’s okay like you did. Please help me explain I was only just trying to help you…”

Without waiting for him to finish, I crept up to the other cross and threw myself prostrate before it. Sammy glanced at me sideways when he heard me land on the ground, but closed his eyes again when he saw me start praying aloud. He didn’t seem surprised by my presence.

“Lord Jesus, Sammy was right about me being a bad guy. I helped crucify you before—not like those Roman soldiers, but by trying to keep you on the cross rather than inviting you to live in my heart. I knew the truth before—I’ve known the truth since I was Sammy’s age—but I accepted just enough of it to feel guilty for doing so much wrong.

“Lord Jesus, I love you and I want to be yours now. I accept your whole truth today. Please forgive me for everything I’ve done wrong against you. If there’s anything I can do to make amends, just tell me. And won’t you give me peace like you’ve given Special Sammy? Lord, thank you for loving and forgiving him. I love and forgive him, too. Help him and me be friends now. Amen.”

I opened my eyes. Sammy was looking at me again, and this time he was smiling. He may not have understood everything I said in my prayer, but he knew I’d forgiven him—just as God had now forgiven me.

I smiled back. The forgiveness I had thought impossible during my younger teen years had a wonderful, cleansing quality, and accepting it had already begun bringing me peace.

Without a word, Sammy pulled the first cross down from the trunk of the ancient oak. As strong as he was, his face was already red from the exertion. I got to my feet intending to help, but changed my mind and shook my head no instead, hoping he’d see the gentleness of my motion.

“I’m going to leave these poles—these crosses—here,” I said without further explanation. Then I took the cross from the wagon and—with Special Sammy’s help—leaned it back up against the oak. We couldn’t have been more reverent if we’d been Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body in the tomb.

Though I wasn’t looking forward to explaining any of this to Roberto, I needed a cross in the quiet woods where I could come confess my sins and think about what Jesus had endured to give me God’s forgiveness. I had a lot left to confess. Though God had already forgiven me, I wanted to own up to every old sin I could think of. That was the only way I could forgive myself and forget the past.

Though Sammy was too young to have a guilt load like mine, I thought he, too, might need a confession cross someday.

The next day was Sunday, and I knew where I’d be. If Roberto was over the stomach bug, I’d make him come with me. I’d walk forward during the invitation hymn and shake my father’s hand and tell him I was not just back in church, but home.

God would help me survive immersion—with or without a diving suit and anesthesia.

As I thought about Special Sammy and the significance of the clothesline crosses, I knew my Christian testimony would be the slightest and yet the most significant bit different from the one I used to imagine.

My name is Joel, and I’m a SINNER. But God has forgiven me, and what a difference that’s already made in my life!