Last Mango In Texas
a novel by Ray Blackston

Below is the prologue from Last Mango In Texas

During that long Texas summer before I entered tenth grade, I rarely thought about marriage, though I wondered often about the season of life that preceded it—dating.

I was too inexperienced to discuss the issue with friends, and deep down, I craved the input of an authority figure—which is why I so anticipated what my father was about to say to me.

I was fifteen and male and seated at the family dinner table, just after the family dinner hour. Our house smelled of cooked onions, most of which my father devoured with his meat loaf. My brother and sister, both younger, bolted from the kitchen and piled into the family van behind Mom, and with a toot of the horn they headed for the second performance of my sister’s third-grade theater production. She would be Tinkerbell. I would be bored. Dad and I had seen the play the previous night. So with the rest of the clan absent, Dad summoned me into the den and decided that tonight was the perfect time for the two of us to have the talk.

He initiated this in a dutiful and fatherly manner.

“Kyle, I think it’s time for you and me to have the talk.”

With pursed lips Dad sank into his beige recliner, which seemed to hug him like an old friend. I sat on the sofa, in the middle. It did not so much hug me as hold me down. The room grew tense. The onions lingered. I waited expectantly.

“Son.” Dad’s single syllable was warning and greeting and question all in one.

            “Yeah, Dad?” Even though public school had educated me in all matters of health, including sex, this was my father speaking, so my posture was Triple A: anxious, alert, attentive.

Dad shifted his feet and glanced at the clock. “Son, you know . . . you know what’s right when it comes to dealing with girls, right?”

My nervous gaze crossed the carpet to his feet, then out the window to our forested back yard, and back to the carpet again. “Oh sure, Dad . . . yeah, I know.”


            I waited for more questions, a few facts, perhaps a bird, a bee. None of it came. Instead he made a phone call to arrange yet another business trip to New Mexico. Then the television flickered, a swarm of Dallas Cowboys ran onto the field, and over a sportscaster’s voice I heard Dad sigh in relief, as if our conversation were something he’d feared since my birth.

At halftime he told me it was his opinion that marrying early in life—he mentioned an age range of 22 to 26—was far better for a man than endless years of singleness. Said it would speed my maturity.

            “Thanks for the tip, Pops,” I said and rose from the sofa. Dad lacked follow-through in many areas, but somehow, on this night, I expected more depth. So I tried wooing him with food. “Want some popcorn? I’m gonna make a batch.”      
He nodded and muttered that he needed to pack for the business trip.

During the second half I waited for more dad-talk, but like the Cowboys’ offense, it never showed. I guessed what he’d said earlier—coupled with my public school wisdom—was enough, and soon I grew all tingly inside, knowing that I was now prepared to enter manhood and make wise decisions about the opposite sex.

            In the middle of the fourth quarter Mom and my siblings arrived home, and we all ate ice cream at the table. I sat in the chair on the end—always Dad’s seat—and between spoonfuls he winked at me because tonight was a big night for us both.

A Pagan’s Nightmare
a novel by Ray Blackston

"They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served
created things rather than the creator . . . "

With apologies to Sister Sledge, ABBA, The BeeGees, The Beatles, R.E.M, The Who, KC and the Sunshine Band,
Wild Cherry, the Dave Mathews Band, and anyone else who has ever produced original music.

Larry Hutch—all lanky, six-feet-three of him—bounded into my downtown Atlanta office at ten forty-five Monday morning and dropped a screenplay on my desk. Thwack.

“ This is it?” I asked.

Larry folded his arms, pressed his lips together in a kind of triumphant smirk, and nodded. “Done.”

He looked as if he’d run across Georgia to get here; he was sweating through his madras shirt onto my best chair. This was August, however, so I kept my composure and read his title page. Larry looked on, silent and self-assured.
I thumbed the inch-high stack of paper—thicker than the average screenplay—and felt a tiny breeze tickle my nostrils. “This is what you said I just had to read . . . your best yet?”

“ Done,” he repeated. Larry sat sprawled in the guest chair and gazed out of my 22nd story window. “I still may tweak the ending a bit, Ned. And it’s not a screenplay. I wrote it in novel form.”

I thumbed the pages a second time and noted the coffee stains on chapter one. “Does it have drama?”

He nodded. “By the boatload.”

“ Adventure?”

“ Gobs.”

“ Romance?”

“Of the highest quality.”

I read the first page with my usual dose of skepticism. “You have got to be—”


“ Completely.”

Larry interlocked his fingers behind his head and smiled the confident smile of a creative. “After you sell the movie rights, we’ll get the book deal. We’ll do this in reverse.”

And just like that, Confident Larry rose from his chair and departed. He left my door ajar, and seconds later I heard his muffled voice from down the hall.

“ Just read the first ten pages, Ned, then go visit a McDonald’s.” His booming laugh followed, a laugh more appropriate for a Halloween gig than an agent/writer meeting.

Nine years earlier, Larry graduated from film school. Twenty-two years earlier I had graduated from the University of Tennessee—which is why so many of my shirts were orange. Larry called me Agent Orange, most likely because I killed his previous idea, which was terrible. Aliens invaded a Billy Graham Crusade and, well, I’ll spare you the rest.

I spent the afternoon on other business. Calls to other authors. Ten other manuscripts to skim through and reject. I badly needed to sell something.

Around five thirty p.m., just before I left the office, I read Larry’s title page again, shook my head in bewilderment, and stuffed his inch-high stack into my briefcase.

It was August 14th, a sunny afternoon as I walked to my car. My Saab sat next to a city park; I remember that clearly. I also remember jingling my keys, unlocking the door, and recoiling when I touched the hot blue paint.

I climbed in and buckled my seatbelt. Traffic was horrendous in all directions, so I figured the thing to do was to stay put, to climb back out and go sit in the park and read Larry’s stuff. Like unearthing something rare and unexpected in your backyard, I had that feeling of discovery, the urge to dig further. A shaded bench looked welcoming beneath a burly magnolia, so I hurried over and took a seat and began reading.

A half hour later I had coined a new phrase for my profession. In my small circle of agent friends, a manuscript that we cannot put down is now known as a “bencher.” This is one that keeps you glued to a park bench and causes your spouse to question your whereabouts.

In my learned opinion, Larry had written a bencher. Or, at least the beginnings of one. And by the time I had finished his third chapter and darkness was descending on muggy Atlanta, I was experimenting with the term “double bencher.” That’s when you employ a flashlight and end up spending the night.

Oh, I should also mention that I was married, that Larry was single, and that my wife, Angie, was a devout Baptist.


Suffice it to say that a certain people—some would call them the fortunate ones—took over.

Well, took over is too strong of a phrase. Actually it was more like an inheritance. No, actually it was more like they were sitting at a very long table with many strangers, and in mid-course all the strangers left without finishing their strawberry cheesecake, so the fortunate ones just helped themselves.

How shameless—helping oneself to the early departeds’dessert. The gall!

Lanny Hooch will be our hero, or anti-hero—or perhaps an innocent bystander—depending on your perspective. You see, Lanny was in the right place at the right time: In a church, in northwest Atlanta, on a Monday morning, on his knees, atop hardwood floors, facing a baptismal.

He’d been here once before—the previous Friday—and on that morning he’d assumed a similar posture.

And you think Lanny was repentant?

Repentant? Hah!

Lanny owned Hooch Contracting, and on this day he was on his knees with his trusty Craftsman cordless drill, removing rusty wood screws from a ruined baseboard. The baptismal had sprung a leak, and the Baptists had summoned Lanny. He was a good worker. Punctual, with reasonable rates. Sometimes he cursed loudly if he hit his thumb with his hammer, and by ten a.m. he had done this twice. He was alone in the sanctuary however, so no one heard him.

Or did they? During his break he visited the men’s room. He washed his hands at the sink, reached for a paper towel, and spotted a sign next to the dispenser. SOMEONE ALWAYS HEARS, it read. The blue lettering was still wet, and Lanny returned to his work, wondering who had painted the sign.

Perhaps it was because Lanny was on his knees, down front in an empty sanctuary on a Monday morning in August, that he was picked. Though at this point he was thinking only about lunch, and of course the forty-mile drive to his next work site, an elementary school on the south side of Atlanta.

After he finished the repairs to the Baptist baseboard, Lanny climbed into his sage green Nissan Xterra and headed for the school, where he was to install a kiddie commode, the kind that force adults to sit all squished, with their knees up to their chins. But first Lanny had to stop for gas, so he took exit 57 and turned into a BP station. He stopped at this BP often; they usually had the lowest price.

In a hurry, he paid no attention to the price as he filled his twenty-gallon tank. For several minutes he stood staring out at the traffic, thinking about Miranda and sniffing the fumes. Miranda was his girlfriend. She was twenty-nine, and her flight back from Orlando was due in at one thirty. She had gone to visit her parents and had taken Monday as a vacation day. Lanny could not wait to see her again.

After he replaced his fuel cap, Lanny blinked his confusion as he finally read the sign above the pumps: UNLEADED: $0.12 PER GALLON FOR THE REDEEMED


“ No way!” Lanny shouted to the pump. He looked around to see if someone were holding a camera, filming him as part of a joke.

He saw no one; at that moment, he was the only one pumping gas.

Surely someone is messing with my head. But what if they’re not?

To Lanny, such price gouging seemed positively satanic, not to mention awfully unfair. This pit stop was also his first warning that something—he thought the air smelled funny, never mind the fumes—might be different about this particular Monday. But what could he do? He chalked it up to a practical joke and kept his composure. And composure was a trait he needed, since he had to hurry to south Atlanta to install the kiddie commode.

Lanny had only thirty-two dollars in his wallet, so he walked inside and asked the clerk in the Nike hat what the real price of gas was today.

“ For you it’s $6.66 per gallon,” said the clerk, blank-faced.

“ But that’s outrageous.” Lanny pushed away from the counter. “I won’t pay it.”

The clerk shrugged and pointed to the hidden camera mounted in the corner. “We have you on tape, and the gas is already in your truck. Don’t make us call the authorities.”

“ Then I’ll siphon the gas back out into your storage tank.”

“ We cannot take it back, sir. The gas is now tainted.”

In no mood to deal with police, a frustrated Lanny wrote out a check for $126.54.

Intelligent persons might pause here and say, “Wait, that does not compute! Twenty gallons times $6.66 equals $133.20.”

Intelligent persons would be mistaken. Even blue collars like Lanny know not to drive till their tank is empty. He still had one gallon left in his Xterra.

Hungry and feeling ripped off, he drove across the street to a McDonald’s. Everyone behind the counter was smiling the pasted-on smiles of those who have endured fast-food training but are still uncomfortable greeting the customers. Yet Lanny was confused by the uniforms, which, though still the basic red and yellow, possessed no golden arches but instead golden crosses—one on each sleeve.

Perhaps this was Lanny’s second warning. But he was hungry and still mad over the satanic gas gouging, so he ordered a cheeseburger, a fish sandwich, large fries, and a Coke.

He hoped that the smiling blond cashier girl would not tell him that his total was $6.66, and he felt relieved when she said, “That’ll be seven dollars and thirteen cents.”

Lanny was superstitious about the number thirteen—and normally he would have ordered something else just to change the total—but he was flustered by all the golden crosses and quickly forked over the money.

The cashier girl handed Lanny his change. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. P.” she said.

Lanny looked at her with his head cocked funny. “My name is not Mr. P. My last name starts with an H.”

Counter Girl smiled politely. “Today we’re referring to you as Mr. P.”

Even more confused, Lanny shook his head, picked up his tray, and sat in the far left corner, next to the window. He felt like he was being watched, so he munched his fish sandwich and avoided eye contact with the fast food workers. He was still eating, staring out the window at the traffic on I-285, when he noticed the billboard:

How Does It Feel to Be the Last One?


Nervously glancing around the restaurant, Lanny gobbled his cheeseburger before starting on his fries. Imagine his shock when he withdrew the first fry from the pouch and saw that it was curled into one long word, Pharisee. He frowned at the wordy potato and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. Then he read the slogan on the cardboard pouch: “McScriptures—a new kind of french fry, pure as gospel.”

Lanny tucked his fries into the bag, grabbed his Coke, and left his trash on the table for the smiling blonde to clean up. “I’m outta here,” he mumbled to himself as he pushed open the glass door.

Lanny was a self-professed pagan. Mannerly, sure, and usually a patient fellow, but he had wanted nothing to do with religion ever since eighth grade, ever since he’d found out that his neighbor, an associate pastor, had been convicted of trafficking drugs and adult magazines. That summer Lanny had made up his mind to use Sundays for golf. He would be a low-handicap pagan.

Perhaps that’s why Counter Girl referred to me as Mr. P, he thought as he climbed into his truck. How ironic. But I’m still ticked about the gas thing.

Traffic was horrible, and Lanny grew frustrated at the congestion. But when he got to where Highway 42 fed into six-lane I-285 to south Atlanta, no one would let him merge. Traffic was worse than bumper to bumper; it was religious bumper-sticker to religious bumper-sticker. They were all reading each other’s spiritual platitudes and giving each other the thumbs up.

In contrast, Lanny’s only bumper sticker read “Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep.”

Miranda put it there. She read novels on Sundays while Lanny played his golf.

Annoyed at what the day had wrought, Lanny waited for someone, anyone, to let him merge onto crowded I-285. But everyone ignored him, so he called Miranda’s cell, hoping to reach her before she boarded her flight from Orlando. He wondered if she too was experiencing the religious weirdness in the South today. There was no answer, so he tried her work number. That number went unanswered, so he called her cell again and left a message for her to call him as soon as possible.

The temperature was already near one hundred degrees, and Lanny turned his AC on high. Still no one would let him merge. Not the SUVs, not the minivans, not even the redhead in the silver Audi. Her bumper sticker read “Traffic is My Mission Field.”

But the redhead would not look his way, even though Lanny was motioning for her to lower her window so that he could ask her what was going on today in Hotlanta. He hoped the religious weirdness was a regional thing. In fact, he almost prayed that it was a regional thing, but then he remembered that he never prayed to anything but his golf clubs, which he tended to slice.

So Lanny sat waiting to merge, fiddling with the radio and eating his McScripture fries. He thought they tasted very much like regular fries, only with less salt.

Lanny had installed satellite radio in his vehicle and figured his best move now was to tune in to a station out of L.A. It was his favorite, as their mix of oldies and modern rock suited his worldview just fine. So he tuned to the station and increased the volume, only to hear The Beatles singing their greatest hit, “I Wanna Hold Your Tithe.”

Lanny slammed his fist into his seat. Someone is even changing the song lyrics, he thought to himself. That’s sacred territory.

Minutes later a little old lady in a Volkswagen Bus honked, waved a brochure that read "Repent of Bingo," and allowed Lanny to merge.

He waved with no sincerity at all, then tried Miranda again on the cell phone.

But again he got no answer. Maybe she’s already on the plane.

He tried her parents in Cocoa Beach—where they’d retired and where she’d been visiting.

Again, no answer.

He tried Miranda’s sister, Carla, in Augusta.

No luck there, either.

His father and mother had passed away two and four years earlier, respectively, so the next closest persons he thought about were his golf and poker buddies.

He tried all five of them.


Rolling along on congested I-285, sandwiched between zealots, Lanny felt very alone. In fact, he was beginning to feel like the lone yellow M&M in a bag full of reds. But not quite like that, since feeling alone in the world is much worse than being a solitary piece of chocolate, which has no feelings at all, even when it melts in your mouth instead of your hand.

The smaller shock to Lanny was that religious people seemed to be the only ones inhabiting the state of Georgia. The real shocker to him—it was more like a revolving question—was where had everyone else gone? Who had taken these people? And how did he—or she? it?—manage this?

Lanny’s thoughts ran wild. They ran in circles. They even ran all the way back to his childhood, when he had sat in the back during Sunday school.

Surely there’s no such thing as a reverse rapture? Is there? Did I miss that part?

Surprise, surprise.

Below is the first chapter from Flabbergasted, my debut novel from 2003.

In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.
- Proverbs 16:9

This is not my story to tell. Even if I wanted to I could not tell it. Two dozen orphans, a remote locale, and lack of paper allowed me to write only this brief introduction, and even it had to be scribbled hastily in pencil and sent via snail mail. My letters take two weeks to reach the United States.

If you guessed that I am missionary, you are correct. If you guessed that I am in my mid-twenties and have brown hair, then you are clairvoyant. If you guessed that I am about to tell you why I’m bending your ear instead of the story’s rightful owner, then you need to be patient and spend a moment pondering yesterday’s lesson in the village.

Yesterday I tried to explain to the children that life is full of ups and downs, and that some of the downs are actually ups, and some of the ups, downs. They only wanted to know how far is down.

I said it depends.

Depends on what? they asked.

I told them it depends on if you view the downs as a green valley or an endless abyss.

After I explained what an abyss was, they said that was way too far down and that they hoped our village would never play soccer or eat jungle muffins in an abyss.

What you need to know is, by North America’s standard of logic, what happened to the narrator of this story also involved something of an abyss. Call it a deep plunge.

The strange thing is that during my last furlough—home to visit the South, the beach, the seafood—I witnessed his plunge.

Well, at least the beginning of it.

At the last second he tried to reach out and grab my hand.

I refused.

But I did wave.

Now, whether the young man’s down was really an up, I’ll let you decide.

As for the orphans and the residue of yesterday’s lesson, we settled on something shallower than an abyss, and with a red magic marker I wrote our lesson on a small section of plywood. It hangs on the wall of my hut:

There are potholes on the road less traveled. Some deep, some not so deep, some you dig yourself. Most are filled with mud. Many contain rocks. Once in a while, however, you’ll be walking along and step in one a bit more accommodating . . . shabby, green, and pulsing with life.

It’ll tickle your feet, like clover.

Ninety percent of life is just showing up.
- Woody Allen

At a quarter past midnight I set my paint roller in the pan, the pan in the tub, my bathroom the latest victim in a week of odd-hour renovations.

Hands scrubbed, teeth brushed, I walked down the hall, cut off the lights, and fell prostrate across a mattress in my spare bedroom. A whiff of khaki latex seeped into the darkness, drifted past my pillow, and reminded me to be up at 8:00 a.m.

In the fuzzy state between sleep and awake, I reached to set the alarm on my digital clock. But I held the button too long and had to wait for the eight to come around as I dozed and saw the numbers, saw the numbers then dozed, and around again went the numbers.

The rumbling of a car engine woke me. It was Sunday morning. I sniffed the air, and above the fresh paint I detected the scent of females four miles away at North Hills Presbyterian Church.

The wind strained to cool my Blazer when I ran the yellow lights, and I ran three. Greenville was an unfamiliar city, and it bloomed green across my new geography, the upstate of South Carolina.

Sprawled between two office buildings on the uppity side of downtown, North Hills appeared manicured and popular. A tiny steeple rose from the red brick sanctuary.

The lot was filling fast. I parked in the back row, pausing there to watch well-dressed couples with immaculate children hurry toward the building. I checked my hair in the mirror and wondered who might be inside.

Understand that I did not resort to such tactics – without good cause and the cause was not that unusual.

Modern communication was the cause.

Kimberly Hargrove had communicated to me, by e-mail, that she was now interested in a surgical resident at West Dallas Hospital and would no longer be requiring my attention. This humbling piece of news arrived just six days after I had moved halfway across the country. Her contribution to this story ends here. Just know that what had looked promising had totally unraveled with two Thursday afternoon e-mails.

Relational rope burn.

Maybe you can relate.

Now, I'm aware that being dumped was poor motivation for what I was about to do. But what I was about to do would not have happened had it not been for a second piece of communication.

From an older woman.

No, not a romantic interest.

The real-estate lady.

Having just been transferred, I knew not a soul in Greenville, S.C. – until she had agreed to meet me at a mistreated three-bedroom in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac. I had signed the contract on the hood of her Saab as she stood beside me in her gold jacket and black heels, looking over my shoulder and drooling for commission. Seconds later she had tromped through the yard, proudly slapped a SOLD sticker across her FOR SALE sign, and nearly turned her ankle in the process.

"So where do the single people hang out in this town?" I inquired, noting that the sellers had even uprooted the mailbox.

"Well, Jay," she said, leaning over to brush grass clippings from her black heels, "there's the occasional outdoor concert, and in the fall there'll be plenty of football, but your best bet is in the same places where I find clients. I usually rotate between Baptist and Methodist."

"Churches?" I asked, not sure of her meaning.

She pulled off her left shoe and shook out the grassy contents. "You know . . . the networking thing. Although sometimes it looks good to tote along a Bible, just to fit in."

"You use churches to network for clients?"

"Almost exclusively."

"Is that, um, legal?" I had a finance degree, and this sounded like the spiritual equivalent of insider trading.

"Who knows. But half the city does it." She paused to empty her other shoe. "You don't have a girlfriend? You look like the type who would have a girlfriend."

"I used to. She sorta dumped me."

"Well, is it 'sorta,' or is it permanent?" She was quite aggressive, the real-estate lady.

I walked over to peer into the mailbox hole. "Feels permanent."

"And she did this recently?"

"By e-mail."

"Sounds like an airhead to me."

After this brief exchange, she leaned against her Saab to check over the contract. She thanked me, tore off my copy, and got into her car. I was inspecting a bent drain spout as she backed out of the driveway. She honked twice, then stopped and stuck her head out the window. "Ya know, Jay, if you really want to meet people, try the Pentecostals. They're very outgoing."

"How so?"

"Quite loud . . . and they stand up a lot."

"I'd prefer to sit."

"Then pick another one. Our churches outnumber the bars by a twenty-to-one margin. You'll figure it out."

So there I sat in my Chevy Blazer on a Sunday morning in May, in the last row of the parking lot of North Hills Presbyterian Church, trying to figure it out, trying to remember the last time I'd set foot inside a church. Four, five years, perhaps?

In retrospect, I suppose it was not the best-laid plan. And one much more common to men than mice.

I checked my hair again. Then my slacks, my jacket, and the buttons on my light blue oxford. Just blend in, scope the field, and try not to volunteer for anything.

I stepped out of my truck.

Did I mention I was not wearing a tie?

Bells rang out in two-second intervals as I crossed the parking lot and reached the front steps. Beyond the top step loomed a wooden double door, nine feet high and richly detailed. I pulled it open, and there was a middle-aged man in a midpriced suit standing in the middle of the foyer.

He gave the customary nod and handed me a bulletin.

Down the burgundy carpet sat pews of dark wood, detailed along the sides in the same pattern as the door. I searched for an empty slot. No one looked up. Just five hundred heads staring into bulletins, fascinated, as if Shakespeare himself had penned the announcements.

I took a seat in row twenty-something, next to an old man whose Bible lay open beside him, the pages psychedelic from his marks. Two children scribbled in the next pew, their hands stained by magic markers. Their mother shushed them as a hymn began. The choir sounded rich and reverent, and several sopranos made an impression, although the long green robes prevented me from checking for wedding bands.

Hymn over, the congregation stood to recite a creed, their voices a low monotone, my lips moving in mock conformity. We sat again. The old guy pulled out his checkbook.

Six men in suits worked the aisles, passing and receiving brass plates in the quiet manner of servants. A plate reached me containing a pile of envelopes and a twenty; it left with the contents unaffected.

The two kids turned and smiled. I made a face, and they whirred back around, giggling as their mother gave a firmer shush.

The pastor spoke of being in the world but not of the world, of having eternal thoughts in the midst of the temporary. His sermon was lengthy, definitely not monotone, but left me the same way I'd left the brass plate.

Blessed and dismissed, I shook strange hands, then looked around for a deacon to point me toward the singles class. Kids pulled parents through the pews, parents grabbed markers from the floor, and the elderly – the teeming mass of elderly – paused and dawdled on the burgundy carpet.

Leaving the twenty-fourth pew (I had counted the rows during the sermon), I heard the organist playing a lullaby and wondered if I should've tried the Pentecostals.

I caught the bulletin man midway up the aisle.

"The college class meets in the Sunday school wing," he directed, "just past the junior highs."

"What if I'm a bit older?" I asked. "College was five years ago."

"Ah, the singles," he said. "They meet in the little brick building across the parking lot."

The crowd forced me forward. "Thanks, I'll find it."

My first glance into the building revealed three rows of chairs arranged in semicircles. A thick wooden podium faced the center. A gray-suited man rested one arm on the podium, his back to the chairs, his attention in a book.

I strolled past the empty rows. Muted conversations made their way from around a corner.

Morning sunlight angled in through sheer white curtains, and I turned to see a kitchen full of singles. They were having coffee, orange juice, and those white powdered donuts.

The first person to make eye contact with me was a heavyset girl with short red hair, her round face beaming hospitality. She wiped a crumb from her flower-print dress, smiled briefly, and extended a hand. "No ring? Then you're in the right place."

Disarmed by the humor, I returned the greeting. "Jay Jarvis. No hidden rings."

"I'm Lydia," she said, letting go of my hand. "Your first time?"

"Just moved to South Carolina last month."

She gave me a Styrofoam coffee cup and left to greet more visitors. I was filling the cup with decaf when someone tapped my shoulder. And I turned to meet one Stanley Rhone, complete with navy blue suit, sculpted black hair, and a handshake three degrees too firm.

"From where did you move?" he asked. He looked at me cautiously, warily, in the same way toddlers view asparagus. A white hankie sprouted from his coat pocket.

"Dallas," I replied. "My firm transferred me just this –"

The gray-suited podium leaner had called us to attention. Fifty singles began taking their seats in the familiar social pattern of women in front and middle, with males occupying the perimeter. I took a seat at the end of the second row, behind Stanley, and tried to look alert.

A latecomer hurried in and took her seat. "Mr. Rhone will open us," said Gray-suit.

In the act of bowing my head, I deduced that I was a half second behind. I glanced left to check my timing and, across the heads and the silence, our eyes met.

She was likewise in mid-drop, glancing to her right from the far end of the second semicircle. The glare through the curtain backlit the brunette hair resting at her shoulders, but that same glare prevented me from confirming the hint of a smile.

I went with my preferred answer and shut my eyes.

Audible grunts rose from the row behind me. The grunts seemed well coordinated with Stanley's voice inflection, a rising tone producing a louder grunt. I considered turning quietly for a one-eyed peek, but to the best of my knowledge, peekage wasn't allowed.

Stanley finished the prayer, the grunting stopped, and Gray-suit began our lesson from Galatians. Fortunately, there were hardcover Bibles under each chair, and I unstuck some pages to reveal Psalm 139. I figured Galatians was to the east of Psalms, and by the time he finished reading the five verses, I was there.

The word idolatry floated through the air, up and around behind the semicircles and past the donuts, bypassed everyone else and landed smartly in my conscience. It stirred around for a moment, clanged between my skull, then disappeared, like the sermon, to that place where all conversation fades.

I glanced again across the room, but she quickly looked away – out the window, at the empty chair in front of her, then down at her sandals, well worn below her yellow sundress. She was one shade darker than the fifty other reverent Caucasians. Definitely American, but without the American condiments. No makeup. No jewelry.

I figured that she, too, might be a visitor. But who knew. Regardless, I wanted to meet her.

More Galatian words hovered over me, dropping now, searching for sin. Gray-suit spoke of fruit, of faith, of goodness and self-control. Heads nodded their agreement, the grunter gave an affirmation, and strictly from peer pressure, I reached in my jacket for a pen.

"Fruit, not fruits," said our teacher. "We cannot pick and choose among the attributes of God like the dinner line at a Baptist buffet."

Everyone laughed, but she refused to look my direction. Please look my direction.

Closing announcements followed, mentioning a food drive, a visit to see a sick person, and something about a trip to the beach over the long Memorial Day weekend.

I had no plans for the long Memorial Day weekend; maybe she'd be going. Anxious for an introduction, I left my coffee cup on my chair and hurried toward the door.

  Too late. The dark-haired girl was already in the parking lot. After a quick and insincere nice-to-meet-ya to Stanley, I peeled off my jacket, flung it over one shoulder, and strolled toward my Blazer.

One row over, her faded red Beetle puttered away.

Tuesday evening while grilling chicken on my deck, I was thinking of brass plates and women, of women and brass plates, and wondered if contributing to that plate would hurry God up as far as meeting the right one. I flipped the chicken over, sprinkled it with lemon pepper, and thought maybe dropping two twenties in the plate would help me meet her this year, or a hundred bucks and we'd meet within a month, or five hundred and the person would arrive in warp speed, like Spock to Captain Kirk.

Smoke was pouring from the grill, my dinner only two minutes from perfection, when the cordless phone rang. The voice on the other end thanked me for visiting North Hills and asked if I had any questions. I was tempted to ask about the girl in the Beetle but stopped myself and muttered something about planning to visit again soon.

"You're in the singles class, then?" asked Mr. Kyle, who mentioned he was both an elder and the membership chairman.

I swatted at a fly with my spatula and said, "Yessir, but I haven't been in one for a while."

"Perhaps you met my daughter, Allie?"

"I don't think so, sir."

"She attends that class," he said. "Whenever she's in town, that is."

I was certain he had some homely daughter with whom he'd try to set me up. I was not interested. "Sir, I'm sure your daughter is a nice girl, but my dinner is on the grill and . . ."

"I understand, Jay. We'll talk more later. But when you do visit us again, please say hello to my Allie. She's easy to recognize – she has dark hair and a year-round tan."

I dropped the spatula on my picnic table. "You say she has dark hair and a nice tan?"

   "Yes. She's been working near the equator."

My chicken began to blacken. "Elder Kyle, what kind of car does your daughter drive?"

"An old VW."

I was back at 9:30 sharp the following Sunday. After the church service, after another uninspiring sermon, and after I had dropped two twenties and a five in the brass plate, I made my way across the parking lot in a drizzle, using my just-found Good Book for an umbrella.

I suspect there are various reasons for sticking the singles class across the parking lot, in a building by itself: The married-adult classes may be discussing sex from a spiritual point of view and worry we might overhear them, or the elders may think our single minds are cluttered with sex and believe we should meet alone to repent, or the parents may worry that we're hung up on sex, and fear a bad influence on their children. Whatever the answer, it's got something to do with sex.

Entering the mecca of half circles, I wiped off my Bible and said hello to Lydia, and to Wade, who stood at the podium in the same gray suit. From the coffee crowd, mingled nods welcomed me back.

I'd nearly finished my orange juice when we were called to our seats, though I decided against a refill because I did not want to walk back in and have to sit by Stanley.

I sat at the opposite end of the row from my first visit and looked around for the elusive

Allie Kyle.

She was not in the room.

I didn't know what had happened to Galatians either. For now Wade was speaking on inheritance and lineage and begating.

Obed begat Jesse. Jesse begat David. No notes were taken because all the lesson contained was three thousand years of begating, and I supposed if an Old Testament man did not begat

he'd get banished to the singles class, which met by itself, in a tent, out across a wheat field from

the temple courts.

"The trip to the beach is scheduled for Memorial Weekend," announced Stanley, back in the role of emcee as our lesson ended. "Rooms are already reserved, but we need four volunteers to serve on the planning committee."

He tugged at a cuff link, ran two fingers through his perfect hair, and scanned the room.

Raising his hand was a stocky fellow named Steve, the only other guy in the class who forgot to wear a tie. Didn't shave much, either, and from the way he was leaning back in his chair, I could tell he was a singles-class veteran.

Lydia took the last bite of a donut, coughed, and said she could help.

"That gives us two," said Stanley. "No, make that three. Allie's not here but said she'd

volunteer. There'll be a meeting Wednesday night . . . anyone else?"

The class was silent. I sensed opportunity.

Suddenly my hand pulled away from my side and rose into the air. "I can help."

Heads turned toward me. Polite smiles all around.

"Thanks, Jay."

Home Page ~ About Ray ~ Interview with Ray ~ Read Chapter One ~ Latest News ~ Contacting Ray

© 2004 Ray Blackston
website by