An Inquisition

by Rick Taliaferro

When I saw the bumper stickers on Fredric's white delivery van, which I was hoping to drive, I almost turned around and left. I didn't think this would be the place for me. On the left of the rear bumper: "Things Go Better With Christ." On the right: "He's the Real Thing."

Stuff like that always makes me smirk, but like I'm smirking from a queasy stomach. All these smug bastards turning Christ into a commercial jingle. Like the way they've turned Malcolm X into a fashion statement, his name plastered on caps, shirts, jewelry.

But, I needed a job and maybe working for Fredric the Florist wouldn't be too bad. For money, I can ignore some things. What can I say –- I'm a whore.

A loud buzzer sounded when I entered the overheated muggy greenhouse. I figured someone would come to greet me, so I unzipped my jacket to keep cool while I waited and to show off my Sta-Prest white shirt and brown tie.

In front of me was a short wall of plastic bags of Farmer Dell's Kow Komposte. Near my head was a big hanging red clay pot full of ferns. I saw something in the pot that wasn't a fern, and when I pushed them apart, there was a rattlesnake lifting its head. I jerked back, knocking over bundles of wire garden fencing, then saw a sign on the pot advertising RATTLER GARDZ, for pesky critters.

I was straightening the fencing when I heard, "You here about the delivery job?" I turned to see a stocky man with a big belly in his undershirt, holding a chewed up cigar. Probably a construction worker doing an addition to the greenhouse. "Yes," I said. "Can you direct me to the owner?"

"I am the owner. Mr. Fredric."

"Oh, uh, yes sir, I'm here about the job."

He took a drag off the stogie, spouted smoke and said, "Get over here."

"Yes sir." I followed Mr. Fredric between long green fiberglass flowerbeds, violets on the left, I think, and white carnations on the right, and watched him lumber to the back of the humid greenhouse. I try not to have stereotypes, but he wasn't my idea of a florist, though I haven't seen many florists. And that's always bugged me, stereotypes, prejudice. People who take their notions and paste them onto the world. Why can't a florist look like a Sumo wrestler? So, stop pasting, I told myself.

Mr. Fredric sat down on a screechy swivel chair at a cluttered workbench, keeping his back to me.

I stopped respectfully a few feet away, and heard some gospel-sounding singing and a man shouting to send in faith seeds, whatever you can spare. To the right was an office where a thin woman was watching a big TV that was the source of the singing and shouting.

Uh-oh. The bumper stickers. Televangelists. Well, if I got the job, I'd be away a lot on deliveries.

The woman came out, took her hands out of her flowered smock, and said "My, you're an industrious looking young man."

I guessed she was Mrs. Fredric. "Yes m'am. I love to work. I plan on being a millionaire before I'm thirty."

She looked at me approvingly, like we had something in common. "It sounds like you've got plans."

"Well, I haven't decided what business to go into," I said modestly. Then I poured it on. "But I'm only sixteen-and a-half, nearly seventeen, with a perfect driving record, and I figure I've got a few years to try out different businesses. Which is one reason why I would like to work here. It would give me a chance to see how a small business is run. And . . ."

"We've got a big business," Mr. Fredric said, without looking up. "Sales and profit."

"We've always done a rather large business," Mrs. Fredric said.

I looked around the greenhouse, thought fast, and said, "You sure do. Your property is so big, I almost got lost driving back here." But, I noticed there were no customers, and it was kind of spooky.

"Lost?" Mr. Fredric asked. "We need someone who can follow directions and make deliveries to the right places."

I hadn't thought fast enough.

"Oh, I was just joking," I said. "I mean, not about how big your place is, but about getting lost." I could see only the right side of Mr. Fredric's face, and it busily chewed the smoldering cigar as he sketched at what looked like a greeting card. The thick hair on his left wrist almost covered up his gold watch, and the yellow pencil was like a straw in his right fist. I was interested in what he was drawing, but couldn't see it.

"Before we get to the details of the job, my wife and I have to know some things about you," he said.

"Ask away, sir," I said enthusiastically.

From a mess of clay pots, dirt clods, and thorny rose stems, Mr. Fredric picked up a book and screeched around in his chair. His big hands covered the title. "There are several candidates for this position," he said.

"Naturally, we want someone who will best represent our venture," Mrs. Fredric said.

"That's me," I said. "And I can work any hours, except for school days and Wednesday nights when I'm in Business 101 at State." I tried to sound smart, but not too smart. "I'm in the early enrollment program."

"Yes, well, you certainly make a nice appearance," she said. "Good posture. Eager."

I looked modestly at my shined black loafers and could have added a few more adjectives, but thought better of it.

"However, we are also concerned with religious convictions."

"Religious convictions?" I asked.

"They show through. People can always tell when the Lord is in your heart. And we want people to know He is in our business."

Again, uh-oh. I shifted my feet and looked from her to him.

"Yeah," Mr. Fredric said. "And I'm not so sure you have Jesus in your heart. You look troubled all of a sudden."

"Well, I . . ."

"Jesus can help you with any problem you have," Mrs. Fredric said. "Big or small, He fits them all."

It felt like she was selling their line of prom bouquets, rather than talking about Christ.

Fredric turned around and set the book down gently. It was hard to keep from laughing at the title because I wasn't sure if it was serious. "How to Make Jesus Work for You." On the cover was the millionaire who wrote it, smiling away in front of the mansion and the Cadillacs that the Great Financial Adviser in the Sky had bestowed. Mr. Fredric carefully picked up the card he had been sketching at and swung back around. "Your hands clean?" he asked.

I held them out. "I could do surgery with them," I said. I noticed how grimy his were.

"Take a look at this. You get ideas like this when you read the right books and put your faith in Jesus."

I took the card and read, "For Easter, And For All Special Occasions . . ." then opened it. The left side picked up where the front cover left off:

"It's Fredric the Florist, ready to complement the important events in your life with a wide selection of beautiful floral arrangements. But remember, every day is an important, exciting event, so why wait for a special occasion? Make today a special occasion."

A man on the right side of the card was speaking the advertisement. Beneath him were Fredric's business hours, phone number, and the credit cards he accepted. My eyes must have gone as big as silver dollars.

"You see how we've brought Jesus into our business?" Mrs. Fredric asked. "And by doing this, we'll bring him into our customers' lives."

Along with the Kow Komposte.

"I'm having a slew of these printed for our Easter rush," Mr. Fredric said. "All hell is going to bust loose if Valentine's Day was any indication." He reached out and flicked the card with his middle finger. "Damn good idea, huh?" Then he chuckled at Mrs. Fredric, "He likes it so much he's speechless."

"Uhh," I said, thinking that I needed a job and we all have to make compromises, but could I work for them?

"Now don't get all excited," Mr. Fredric kidded. "Calm down, calm down."

"Is that your only reaction?" Mrs. Fredric asked. "Aren't you moved by the power of the Lord?"

I looked again at the card, at the man in the long white robe, whose smiling mouth was speaking the blurb. He had a neat yellow beard and long neat yellow hair, beautifully blow-dried. On top of his head was a comfortable band of thorns, tilted kind of stylish, and there wasn't any blood running down his face. Above his head was a gleaming yellow halo. He held out a bouquet of lilies.

"It's very moving," I said and closed the card and ran my thumb and forefinger along the fold several times. "You've really hit the nail on the head. I think a lot of people will eat this right up." I tried to make my anger sound like whole-hearted agreement.

Fredric was proud and happy, but Mrs. Fredric doubted me. "You know, we're all puzzled at some time in our lives," she said. "But Jesus will help you to understand His purpose."

"And bring you whatever you want," Mr. Fredric said. He picked up a pair of pruning shears and began cleaning his fingernails.

"I guess so," I said. "It looks like the guy who wrote that book made out like a bandit."

"It's logical," Mrs. Fredric said, unoffended. "He turned to Jesus, and it follows that Jesus wants him to have those things. It's a sign he's saved."

Coincidentally, something on the TV grabbed my attention, a charity request. There were long lines of starving forlorn children with painfully big stomachs like they were pregnant with hunger and with more flies on them than clothes. I stared.

"Oh, I don't think that does any good to show that," Mrs. Fredric said. She brought a remote control from the deep pocket of her smock and flicked off the TV.

"They're not saved anyway," I hissed, maybe too tensely.

Mrs. Fredric edged away from me. Mr. Fredric said, "The Lord's ways are a mystery."

I smirked.

"You do believe in Him, don't you?" Mrs. Fredric asked. She held her forearms in front of her as if to deflect a punch.

"Well?" Mr. Fredric asked. He stood between Mrs. Fredric and me, blew out a puff of gray smoke, and pointed the shears. "Do you believe in Him?"

I looked at the card. The cover was quivering either from the air stream from an overhead heating duct, or my shaking fingers. "No."

"You don't believe in Jesus Christ?" they asked, speaking and pointing in unison at the card.

"Not this one."

Fredric tossed the shears to his other hand like he wanted to get a better grip on them.

I backed up a few steps, not sure if I had insulted his religious convictions or his advertising idea.

"Now you settle down," Mrs. Fredric said to him, gripping his bicep. "Remember what we are." Then she turned to me, and said, "I'm afraid, young man, that you don't have the necessary qualifications for this job. Let's not fool ourselves. Your only concern in life is money."

I must have really looked puzzled when she said that. After a few seconds, I zipped my jacket and handed the card back.

"Keep it," she said. "And if you look at it long enough, perhaps you'll see the light."

I looked at the card and said, "The only thing I see is we're still crucifying Him."

Mr. Fredric got upset about that, but Mrs. Fredric held him back. "You'd better leave now," she said to me.

The RATTLER GARDZ looked more real than ever when I passed them. Outside, the chilly March air was refreshing, but I could smell cigar smoke like sulphur on my clothes and in my hair.

When I reached for my car door, I saw I was still carrying Mr. Fredric's promotional card. I looked around for a garbage can, and when I didn't see one, flung the card like a tin can lid. It flew up into the low overcast sky, looped and sailed into some gray budding maple branches where it stuck.

I started the car, gave it the gas, and figured it was going to be a long way to my first million.

BIO: Rick Taliaferro is a freelance writer and editor (TextPosit).  In his spare time, he spends one hour, or one page, or 200 words per day on fiction. He recently had a novel published, Cascades, and is currently rewriting the first draft of a new novel. Before he became the Associate Editor at Bartleby Snopes, several of his stories appeared in the journal.