Diane Payne

It's said the Lord works in mysterious ways -- you would too, if your work was never done.

I walk down Seventeenth street praying Jesus will provide me with powerful words to convince the Road Knights motorcycle gang and the Lock family to want Jesus. Though I'm only thirteen, I have visions of becoming a famous evangelist, the youngest one with a TV show. It'll be called something hip, like Freaked Out on Jesus. Billy Graham can still have his show and audience. My show will be for the more difficult converts, the skeptics who ridicule everything. But even they will come around after watching my show.

Come on, Jesus, I pray while walking, Give me the words and I'll do your work. My first stop is at the Road Knights' house. Once when they were drunk playing poker, a friend and I were collecting money for a school project and they emptied their pockets for us. And Grandpa bowls next to them on Tuesday nights. He says they're all right. They just like long hair and loud mufflers. One of the guys even helped him fix his lawn mower.

Yet there's something about making these house calls alone that's a bit intimidating with folks like the Road Knights. God is not their thing. Jesus didn't always drag his disciples along when he preached. He was strong, and didn't get humiliated when people ridiculed him.

That's it, I remind myself. I've got to be humble. Be like Jesus. Come on, Jesus, give me the words and I'll be humble no matter what they say or do. Let them pick me up by my shoulders and throw me on the streets. I won't be embarrassed. I'll return. I'm doing this for you. I hope you're paying attention, Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus seems to get distracted. I can be certain he's about to fill me with words and when someone opens their door, I freeze. I get tongue-tied for Jesus. This is especially unfortunate for someone who wants to have her own TV show.

Except for all the Harleys parked on the lawn, no one could tell this was the home of a motorcycle gang. Except for the oldest neighbors on the block, most of the homes look like they need paint and windows fixed. This is a house filled with people wearing leather, both men and women, and none of them seem to be parents or family-oriented. I have never seen one motorcyclist leave alone. If one pulls out, all the rest follow. Guess that's why they call themselves a gang.

That's it. Jesus just gave me an idea. Before I lose my nerve, I knock on the door. A large man with a long scraggly beard answers. He's being too friendly; must not have any idea I'm a Christian on a mission.

"You bowl on Tuesday nights?" I ask him. He looks suspicious, so I quickly add, "My grandpa's team bowls next to you."

"Who's your grandpa?"

"Hans. The guy who mows lawns."

A deep smoker's laugh vibrates off his chest. "Hans. He's a good man. Reminds me of my own grandpa. He's all right, isn't he?"

"Oh, yeah. Fine. That's not why I'm here." Come on, Jesus. Don't leave me tongue-tied now. "You know, I was wondering if the Road Knights might like to get involved with my church. You know, start a club called Jesus' Mufflers, or something like that."

The big man spits out his beer laughing. Leaning over the kitchen table, he pounds another guy on the shoulder, the one who is waiting for him to get back to their poker game, and says, "Did you hear that? She wants us to start a motorcycle club called Jesus' Mufflers!"

Come on, Jesus, I'm losing them. Make me say something sensible. It's not like I'm trying to sell them a used Pinto. Don't you want these guys on your side? Think about it, Jesus. They could be your crusaders with other bikers. That's it! "Okay, that name may not be right. But what about Cruisin' Crusaders? You could cruise all night and when you see people, you can tell them about Jesus."

"What do you want us to tell people about Jesus? That he's a hypocrite who hates people like us?"

"Oh, no. As a matter of fact, you look a lot like Jesus. Jesus would have been driving a Harley instead of wearing out all those sandals if they had them back then. Don't you know that Jesus loves you?"

"I'm glad your grandpa don't talk like this. Don't you want a beer or something? Is it that hard for you to be like other teenagers?"

"No, I get high on Jesus. And you could too."

"Yeah, but we don't want to. So go on," the man at the table says.

"But if you die," I hurry and get this crucial part in, "do you know if you'll go to heaven or hell?"

"What difference does it make? I'll be dead. I live for the now, sweetheart. When I'm dead, my body can go to science for all I care. Is that why you do this? To get a place in heaven? You wouldn't do this otherwise? If Jesus wasn't promising you a room in heaven, you'd have a beer and live like normal people?"

Come on, Jesus. These people are smarter than most. I've never thought about this before. Why aren't these things in the Bible? Come on, give me words quick. "You know, you'd be a great evangelist. Really. Are you sure you don't want to get saved?"

"Enough," he says, ushering me to the door. "You should take up bowling with your grandpa. Stay away from the churches. It's ruining you."

"It don't have to be called Cruisin' Crusaders. You can think of another name," I say walking to the sidewalk.

"We got a name. The Road Knights!" the man at the table yells back.

As I head to the Locks' house, I wonder if I'd be a Christian if I didn't believe in heaven. Heaven does sound unbelievable. Do babies go to hell because they're not saved? Do Christians who backslide go to hell? I wonder who really gets to heaven? Mom thinks her mother's in heaven but what if she isn't? What is hell -- a Grand Canyon of fire?

Mrs. Lock is sitting on her front steps. This makes it much easier than knocking on the door. People who knock on the door remind me of the bill collectors we hide from at home. I feel like Lazarus, or whoever that greedy bill collector was in the Bible. But I'm not a bill collector. I'm a soul collector. Can't they see the difference? If I could just get these people to church Sunday night, they'd understand what I'm talking about. The Strung Out For Jesus rock band will be playing. It'll be mostly young people in blue jeans. The old folks go to the morning services and think these evening services are a disgrace to God, but the minister says God is flexible and doesn't mind seeing the church used this way, so they don't say much.

Mrs. Lock is drinking beer out of a quart bottle and smoking a cigarette. I don't see her kids around but I hear the stereo blasting and figure they're in the house.

"How ya doing, Mrs. Lock?"

"I got a goddamn headache. Why?"

This isn't the greeting I was hoping for. "That's too bad."

"You're telling me. I was up all night. Now I got to go to work in two hours." She laughs a minute, "But it was worth being up all night. There's a goddamn price you got to pay to have fun."

"Ain't that the truth?" I say, desperately trying to fit in.

Then Lou Ann joins us on the steps. It's never been the same between us since that night Lou Ann and her brothers saw me pinching my tits in the mirror. Now I've learned to close my curtains. And I'm trying to be less vain, more like Jesus, but Jesus was from a different time, and he wasn't exactly normal. If he was a girl, he probably wouldn't have cared about breasts because they wore those loose robes no one could see through anyway.

"So, what brings our neighborhood Jesus Freak to our House of Sin?" Lou Ann asks. Mrs. Lock laughs with her. And once again, Jesus leaves me tongue-tied.

"This ain't no house of sin."

"Come on, what is it you want?"

I want to say your soul, but can tell that doesn't sound right. "Nothing. I just thought I'd invite you to our church Sunday night. You know Ray Gonzalez, right? Well, his group is playing then."

"Ray used to be a cool dude. Liked him when he played in garages better than in churches."

"Well, he plays about the same kind of music."

"Shee-it! You think I'm stupid?"

"I'm telling you our church is different at night. People go barefoot, wear cut-offs."

I don't get to finish. "And talk about being high on Jesus. I know your rap. Damn. Give me my weed and let me get high on the real thing."

"I ain't been in a church in years, " Mrs. Lock says. "Didn't even get married in one. We ain't got nothing against you and your church; it just ain't for us."

"You probably think I'm worried you'll go to hell but I don't think that way. Doesn't really matter to me if there's a heaven or hell." I'm on a roll, though I'm not sure if this is the Road Knights speaking or Jesus. Gets confusing when the adrenaline rolls. "All I care about is the now. And the now ain't all that great. But there's something about being with other Jesus Freaks that makes it seem less shitty. You know your house ain't no more a house of sin than my own."

"I don't know why your Ma don't throw your old man out. We can hear him hollering over here. I know men like him. Plenty of 'em come in the bar and drink 'til they pass out on their stool. They're at their best when they're unconscious. I don't bring those men home. Once we drag them out the back door, I never think twice about them. Ain't none of my concern what happens to them. Those loudmouth bastards are nothing but trouble. Some people drink and have a good time. Those are the people I like serving booze to. Your ma should throw him out."

"Yeah, I know. I keep praying he'll change."

"So Jesus ain't working no miracles on your family, is he?" Lou Ann laughs.

"Not really, but things are better now. You never know, things may change."

"Yeah, sure. Maybe a tornado will wipe us all out. I like getting high my way. Don't need to wait for no miracles cause I feel like I'm having a miracle when I take acid. You should try it. See what Jesus looks like then."

This has been a difficult day. First I lose faith in heaven, now I lose faith in miracles. I don't know if Jesus is trying to make me see things more clearly or if Satan is leading me astray. Sometimes they're like the same person. "Well, I got to go make dinner but remember tomorrow night you can walk to church with me if you want."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's what we'll be wanting to do. Right, Ma?"

"Quit picking on her, Lou Ann!"

"Don't worry. She's got Jesus on her side. She can take it. Ain't that right?"

"Yeah, sort of. Well, remember Jesus loves you," I add before crossing the street."

"Thanks, I feel better now. Hey, your tits haven't grown much, have they?" Lou Ann yells. "Maybe that will be God's next miracle!"

"Lou Ann, don't be such a brat," Mrs. Lock says while laughing.

It ain't easy to love my neighbors, but I keep trying.

The next day I ask a few friends to pray the Road Knights and Locks will come to church. They laugh. Think I'm getting more and more fanatical. I remind them if they'd pray for the Locks and Road Knights, it'd make a difference, but no one believes me.

Our church is three blocks from Seventeenth Street. About an hour before church begins, the Locks are sitting on their front steps drinking beer; even a few of the Road Knights are there. I keep looking at them through our front porch window, praying Jesus will give me the confidence to return with one more invite. They seem to be having a good time, a better time than they'll have in church. Jesus wouldn't back away. He'd be over there. So I cross the street. Everyone laughs as they seem me approach. In my head, I repeat, "I'm high on Jesus. I'm high on Jesus." By the time I get near them, I actually believe it.

"Well, anyone want to go to church with me? It'll be good tonight."

They all laugh. "Can we bring our beer?" a Road Knight asks.

"Sure," I say, hoping it'll be finished by the time we get to the church door.

"Oh, yeah? Can we bring a full cooler?"

"If you want." Jesus, I pray to myself, if I ain't saying the right things, you should intervene now. I'm not too sure about all the church rules.

"Shee-it! What the hell. I'll go with you," Mrs. Lock says. "It won't kill me. You say they have live music tonight? Well, I'm ready for some music. Back home our church used to have gospel music, good gospel music, but you say they got rock and roll tonight. Well," she laughs again, "I like rock and roll, too."

"You mean it, Ma?" Lou Ann asks.

"'Bout time I do something to set a good example."

"Oh, get off it!"

"No, I'm serious."

"Ah, what the hell. If I can bring my beer, I'm coming too," the Road Knight man says.

Next thing I know, they all pick up their bottles of beer and walk with me. Fortunately, no one bothered to fill a cooler. My underarms are sweating something terrible. This must be what is meant by a religious experience. Unless I control myself, I'm certain I'll start talking in tongues. That's how close I feel to Jesus right now, but I know it'd frighten the neighbors if I started talking in tongues, so I bite it, hoping I'll feel like this again. I've seen others talk in tongues but I haven't yet. "Jesus, don't tell me this is my only chance," I pray. "I don't mean to be cutting you off right now, but we may lose them if I start talking in tongues."

Before entering the church, they set their beer bottles by the bushes instead of bringing them in.

"Will be like piss water when we get out, but it'll be better than nothing," a Road Knight says.

"I ain't bringing mine in case Jesus does a miracle and turns it into holy water," Mrs. Lock says. "Can't take no chances. Be my luck she finally gets to see a miracle when he screws with my beer."

"Ya never know," I say, certain this is already a miracle.

There's ten of us and we're not quiet, so most of the people turn around to watch us find a seat. All of their faces look like they're praying we won't sit next to them, but I forgive them for those thoughts and know they'll change their mind after they see my neighbors go up to the altar call and get saved. We take up one entire pew, the last pew in the balcony. It's extremely hot up there and all of us are sweating, but no one says anything. They're just as curious about the other folks as they are about them.

The young preacher starts off with a rather slow prayer, one that puts the Willy the Road Knight man to sleep. Mrs. Lock wakes him and he groans loudly. It's a good thing the band starts playing right away or they'd walk out. Long prayers can make anyone feel that way. On my show, I'll only have short prayers and I'll try to say them fast, not in this long, drawn out voice some preachers use. The music gets our entire row tapping their feet and shaking their hips. It looks like the band is going to convince them.

"Shit, can't believe Ray sold out to a Jesus Freak band," Lou Ann whispers, but not quiet enough to stop the people from three rows ahead of turning their heads. "Nothing's the same anymore."

When it's finally time for the altar call, none of my neighbors leave their seats. Lots of other people do, but some of them are regulars and go to every altar call. I start praying one of them will get up and get saved, but no one moves. They just stare at those weeping by the altar.

"God, they know how to ruin a good night, don't they?" Willy says.

I try not to lose faith, hoping the music is just having a delayed effect and will hit one of them at home.

As we walk home, Mrs. Lock says, "It wasn't half bad. Better than I thought. But I got to tell you, I'm not going back."

"It's just too bad Ray turned Christian," Lou Ann adds.

When we get to our homes, we say goodnight, and I fall asleep dreaming of my TV show. On my show we'll have a different ending, an ending where everyone gets saved. But my show is on hold. Jesus makes me wait for everything. All of this waiting must be to make me strong and patient, but I seem to be getting more impatient and confused. I'm not even sure how I'll describe miracles or heaven anymore. I guess that I'll just have to count on Jesus to untie my tongue and say the right words. Don't know why he's not as eager as I am to get this show on TV. Can't he see how it'll change the world? Seems like my days not only end with more questions than answers, but my stomach is getting as knotted as my tongue is tied waiting for all these things to happen.

Diane Payne ( lives near the Mexican border with her daughter and dog, and teaches writing at her local community college. She has been published in numerous magazines.

"Tongue-Tied" is an excerpt from an unpublished book about growing up in Holland, Michigan.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Diane Payne.