Paradise


by Virginia Konchan

Sales had been slowing at Jesus' Guns for months, until finally, Jesus, my mustached Cuban boss with three little ones at home´┐Żthat's how he began introducing himself, that fall, to strangers, like a frigging Dickens's character´┐Żannounced that he was packing up shop and, after liquidation, relocating to the Florida Keys.

It was November.  The news came while I was staring out of the dirty storefront window, contemplating whether my mother would prefer a nightgown or a detective fiction novel for Christmas: in under a minute, my decision was moot. I turned to Loretta, the only other part-timer at Jesus', who had just received the de facto ax as well, expecting an outburst—Loretta was a real bruiser when crossed—but she was nonchalantly applying lipstick, without a mirror.  It was a bang-up job, no smears. 

Loretta was my age—17—with no apparent ambition in life other than to find steady receptionist work.  Maybe she considered this her lucky break.

Jesus' aesthetic was shabby chic:  on the left side of the front door was a hand-printed sign that said "Happiness is a Warm Gun."  It was Loretta who told me that Lennon ripped that title from the 1962 Peanuts book by Charles Schulz entitled Happiness is a Warm Puppy. 

After two days of thinking up new cuss words to apply to Jesus along with our classic standards, Loretta and I gathered our wits and hit the classified section hard.  Unlike Jesus, who was pushing 60, we were in the bloom of youth.  I was an avid reader and was good with putting broken electronics back together; Loretta, while a little on the tawdry side—her hair hadn't been deeply conditioned in years—could quote whole passages from the Bible from heart and also possessed a natural gift for diplomacy. 

A sweet-talker, Loretta had been given the responsibility of explaining to our customers the reason behind the five-day waiting period for a gun permit.  In her capable hands, the majority of Brooklyn's homicidal youth left the shop whistling. 

The first of the two exceptions jumped the counter, clobbered Loretta with a crowbar (one of the eight staples she received in her scalp fell out yesterday in her coffee) and took the gun anyway. No. 2 camped out for two days beneath the awning of the store quoting lines from Driving Miss Daisy to incoming customers, until finally Jesus gave him a job as a middle man between Jesus' Guns and the IRS.  I will never forget the image of Jesus holding out his hand to Ralph, who only wanted to off his nagging mother, and who is now a professional tax consultant, as declared by Jesus. 

I will never forget it because it is a vision of Jesus' inimitable grace.

By day three, our liquidation efforts were on a roll.  Jesus put Loretta in charge of customer transactions, removing signage, and ordering inventory for the new store; I was told to pack boxes, fast.  Whose mind, d'ya think, was valued more?  Loretta—typical—concealed her pride at being selected for high-order tasks by smack-talking the man.       

"Haven't you noticed that our employee handbook only exists in Jesus' mind?" she asked, surly.  "Or how, when I return from lunch two minutes late, he's already been pacing for six?" 

Personally?  Not only did I find her attitude unbecoming, she didn't have a case.  Our building was ventilated:  everyone was clothed.  We were hard core rank and file—what the heck did she expect?  Kid gloves and caviar?  The small illegalities that routinely went down at Jesus' Guns (pirating Wi-Fi from the nail salon next door, occasionally letting machine guns slip into the hands of middle-schoolers) had occasioned a few sleepless nights, but pay day, around here, meant pay day, for real.

Loretta was tough.  She could go eight hours without using the restroom, and wore no jewelry, with the exception of a slim steel band on her marriageable hand, a washer from her granddaddy's toolbox.  She twisted it when she was nervous, and polished it with windex when she was bored.  She took it off once, to apply lotion, and—I couldn't help but notice—the skin underneath the ring was a Loch Ness monster green.

After a few calls, I lined up work at a car wash in Brooklyn Heights, between an abandoned factory and a restaurant that sold fried chicken, and began to fantasize about being asked what an intelligent, good-looking young man like me was doing working at a car wash, when I should be writing a term paper on Lolita. Me:  I never had the chance.  Sugar Daddy/Mommy (opening door to Lexus):  Welcome to Paradise.

On the fourth day of liquidation, only eight revolvers to go, while Jesus huffed around the store complaining on the phone to new vendors in Florida, Loretta turned to me, and whispered, all prissy, "I got a job!"          

"Where?!" I asked. 

"At a three-star hotel!"  For a split-second, the sordid room glowed.  Though the transfer was lateral, and I suspected she would be asked, within a week, to cover for the maid just this once, and thereafter found herself wiping down walls that had been soiled with the aftermath of transactional love, it would have been cruel to rob her of her glory.  Believe me when I tell you that had you seen her face—in momentary possession of all its marbles, and illuminated from within by infantile fantasies of a non-degrading occupation that allowed you to make rent—you too would not have had the heart.   

"They are going to love you," I avowed, but she didn't hear me over the sound of her nail file.  A few minutes later she began drawing, with a gummy pen from an emptied Folgers jar, the outline of a horse on the inside of her leg, while Jesus continued to pace the store railing about hidden costs.

"Hey," said Jesus, after the cash register's final 'ding' of the day, "I don't want to ride out the final hour alone.  You kids want to work OT for an increase in pay? I'll make it rain, on the last day, in cash."

"How much," said Loretta, capping her pen.

"I'll bump your hourly rate to 8," he said.

"8.50," she said.

"8.50, then," he said.  "Not a quarter more.  Sonny?"  

"Yeah, whatever," I said.  I felt sick.

"Super, super," he said.  "Howabout we have ourselves a little pizza party in the store on Friday?  The three of us, plus Mitzie."  His granddaughter Mitzie looked about 40 but was actually 16.  Indolent and learning-disabled, she was the store mascot, and made a killer quesadilla in the microwave, of which she occasionally offered me a bite. 

We all, including Mitzie, rose to the eleventh hour, our final chance to turn Jesus' only assets—automatic weapons—into cash, but none of us could hold a candle to Loretta, who spent Friday not selling, but hawking Jesus' wares.  "Pizza," Jesus cried, entering the door shortly after five with several steaming pies.  The joint filled up with the smell of burnt cheese. 

No sooner had we opened the cardboard boxes when two women from the brothel one building over sailed in, wearing skirts so short that Loretta's artwork, on one of those four legs, would have been completely exposed to not only the whore's pimp, but all the love-starved men of the world, before they even paid.  And as peek-previews are a no-no, for a whore, Loretta's body art on one of their thighs could possibly result in termination, a fate which, as Loretta and I were discovering, might be a blessing in disguise. 

"We smelled y'all from next door," said the shorter of the two, exuding a strong waft of Tommy Boy perfume.  "Can we join the party?"  Mitzie sneezed.

"One piece each," Jesus snarled.  They flitted around for a few minutes, asking Mitzie dumb questions like "Whatcha doing," when it was clear the poor child didn't have a prayer for any activity combining intentionality and fine motor skills.  She was singing the refrain to Jimmy Cracked Corn, while making a tower out of nickels.  "She's happy," said Jesus.  "Leaver alone."

It occurred to me, when Mitzie hit her high note, that today might be the last day I would ever see Loretta, the only person in the world who knew what it was like to work for Jesus.  Who would help her finish the crossword, put air in the tires of her Huffy ten speed?  

Panicked, I began introducing dough to my mouth in faster intervals, washing down my dread with swigs of Coke.  Before long, the whores drifted away, trailing a stream of thank you so muches, and Loretta upped the ante of our party within seconds.  "I'm ready," she said, "for payouts."  

"No shake," said Jesus.  "I got hit hard today with workers comp insurance back pay."  My blood ran cold.   Remember your horse, Loretta, your future as a maid.  Remember—though I couldn't bear to invest much hope in this department—me. 

"The money," Loretta enunciated.  Loretta's one thought—repeated over and over—was imprinted on the wall of my own brain, a lisping monologue ignorance of human vice, and therefore reality.  Poor Loretta.  She was going to have a hard go in this world, a really hard go.  She was thinking:  surely he did not understand.

"It's not gonna happen today," said Jesus, "so just relax.  It'll be in your mailbox, if you have one, next Friday."  He turned to face me, the ostensible man of reason.  "You know how these thing go, right Sonny?" 

I had seen Gladiator:  I knew my hour had come. 

Without even giving Jesus the dignity of a response, I took hold of Loretta's elbow and steered her frozen statue out the door.  It was like wheeling an empty dolly.  Once out on the sidewalk, I gathered what was left of my breath and said, rapid fire,

"Loretta, we both know we just got totally manhandled.  By the man."  But her eyes remained fixed, at some vanishing point far in the distance, farther even than her next place of employment, likely to be another souped-up scam.  Loretta went to church on Sundays, with her foster mom; my last stop therefore was scriptural.  "We turned the other cheek, Loretta.  We gave him the shirts off our backs.  We had to: we needed the money." 

"Our pockets are empty," she said.  "We allowed ourselves to be violated weekly for the past two years for nothing."  The dumbwaiter of my stomach took a plunge.

"Loretta," I said.  "Hey, Loretta.  Look."

The gold-plated ring I produced from my pocket bore a tiny black opal.  She deserved this ring, and her last week's pay, plus a bonus.  But as a compositional data analysis cannot be conducted on suffering, assigning a value to Loretta's labors probably would have just sullied the beauty of self-sacrifice. That is what I tried to tell myself, but, unfortunately, there was no way around the fact of Loretta's dime store jeans, and the fact that she needed new ones, unless I wanted to lie to myself, or, worse, her. 

Unemotional, she took my token of ardor, admiring its dark glint.  "Give me the washer, Loretta," I said.  She then did something I had never anticipated in my wildest dreams:  she wrenched the washer off her finger and threw it on the sidewalk. 

It bounced a few feet, and landed curbside in a tuft of grass. 

It was at that moment—the 27th of November, at 6:43 p.m.—when I finally got it straight.  Loretta's washer was a washer, not a ring, and we hadn't been taken, or duped:  we had been screwed. 

While locking up that night, when I saw Loretta on her knees in front of the store, combing the ground for her washer, I didn't say a word.  I knew there was a pucker in time, between when the world had changed and we who had only ever known the worst of it were willing to believe it actually had.




BIO: Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Drunken Boat, and Joyland, among other places. Regular contributor to The Conversant, and Jacket2, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and lives in Chicago.