A representative of The People Who Don't Believe the Messiah's Come Yet Believe the Messiah's Come approached Benny on 14th Street. The self-adhesive label plastered to the aggressor's shirt revealed him as Luke.
"Hello! I'd like to talk to you!" Luke had asked the hot dog vendor at University and 14th for extra sauerkraut, a shred of which wiggled between his front teeth. "Have you heard?"
"Luke?" Benny muttered. "Luke my ass."
"Save me!" cried the sauerkraut.
"Shit." Benny responded. Despite years of sidestepping Greenpeace guerillas, the Kiki Barbers of street-level solicitation able to shift left to match a pedestrian's jag to the right, Benny couldn't avoid Luke, who stood firm, like a tree planted in New York.
"The Messiah's come, and there are Jews—"
"You mean converts."
"—who know Jesus is the Messiah."
Glancing at the pamphlet Luke forced on him, Benny smirked. "Why not Communists for Theocracy? Royalists for Socialism? Red Socks for the Yankees? Come on. Jews for Jesus?"
A painfully thin man in green rayon shorts and knee-high socks disappearing into loafers scooted between them. Luke blinked but didn't lose focus. "The Messiah has come. He was predicted by Isaiah, also a Jew."
"Predicted, prophesied..." Luke tried to make the best of it. "A slip of the tongue, hey, so my ineptness makes you look good."
Benny stared at Luke's large, sad eyes. "What's your real name? And don't give me that reborn crap."
This time a skateboarding teenager, chain dangling between his belt and a pocket, whipped past. Benny watched the stream of pedestrians react to the skateboarder. He loved 14th Street, which over and over resisted gentrification. The presence of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods hadn't changed a thing. When Nordstrom announced it was opening beneath Best Buy he'd worried the end had come, but the store was an instant non-issue, another discount, mark-down emporium among the discount mark-down clothing, jewelry, shoe, household goods, electrics stores.
"You've heard the good news, haven't you?"
"What's that, mommy?" A little girl pointed to the cross propped against Luke's van.
Benny felt the weight of a failing educational system thud onto his shoulders. "Luke. A Jewish person does not believe the Messiah has come. That's what a Jewish person is. A person who is waiting for the Messiah. So how can a person who does not believe the Messiah has come, tell me he believes the Messiah has come. Such a person could convert to Christianity, no problem, but such a person as you maintain you are is a living contradiction. See my point?"
"But Jesus was Jewish."
Luke's droopy face assumed a look of tolerance Benny interpreted as canned, like elevator music that dumbed down even Peaches and Herb. He wanted to wipe the canned, droopy tolerance off Luke's face but for all his droopy sadness, the storefront convert was incorrigible.
Though his old friends figured him for a self-hating Jew, Luke had never been so happy. It started the day he read through a tract he'd found on the First Avenue bus. The President was in town for the U.N., traffic was stalled and he had time to ponder the importance of treating everyone with kindness, something not inconsistent with Judaism—or any religion he could think of—and that, to him, was significant. Jesus had made it the main bullet point, placed it top of the agenda, built his platform campaign on it. Luke was a clerk in Assemblywoman Harris' office. His self-image metamorphosed—he sensed he'd become less argumentative over the past few years and maybe a little classically handsome, too, in a certain light and ignoring his receding hair.
When Ruth the angel returned from a break, however, he reverted to his old clumsy self. She spotted Luke, knew the routine; touched the pedestrian's, Benny's, arm. Luke had felt her touch on his arm, light and gentle, feminine and wise in the way feminine females are wise, so cotton sheath not clinging but nonetheless lightweight and not hiding the femininity of hips, waist, and breasts. He identified with Benny's sudden distraction, the man's knowing someone had jolted his wiring.
And in fact the electricity flowing into Benny's forearm did feel special to Benny, gentle and fluorescent but not like those buzzing overhead lights in the shape of sheet cakes. His fingers which had been clenched relaxed, his hand dropped to his side. Looking into the angel's long-lashed eyes he would have said more than, "Oh!" but a kid playing blind man bumped him.
"Pay attention, Kendall!" The kid's mother.
Benny took the advice to heart. He hurried off to buy socks and underwear.
"Wait!" Luke called. Then the angel visited his arm and he forgot Benny.
"We can only do so much. You planted the seed." Ruth had been urged to change her name to Mary or Elizabeth. She'd have preferred "Carol" but the name wasn't a ringer like Mary, Elizabeth, or Luke, so she remained Ruth, third-generation, half Lutheran-American, half Jewish-American, now Jew-for-Jesus, Ruth.
For another half hour she and Luke spread the word, if only through persistence and that ten-foot wooden cross. At four Ruth checked her watch. "I'm getting a coffee, you want anything? A bagel, no, a brownie?"
Starbucks' bagels weren't real bagels, though neither Luke nor Ruth mentioned this. Jewish food as soul food was a point of ethnic pride confusing to birthright Christians. Mispronunciation of Yiddish was also painful. Birthright Christians had been known to say "shiska" instead of "shiksa" or "whooospa" rather than a guttural "hutzpa." Sometimes Luke felt an affinity with black people who graciously said nothing as white people tried to get their "she-wizzle" going.
"So you want a brownie?"
He gave her money for his iced coffee (with three packets of sugar and half-and-half) and a slice of lemon pound cake, and watched her glide west on 14th Street like Jesus on a calm Sea of Galilee.
By then Benny had purchased enough pairs of shorts and socks at one of the street's discount stores to last a month without doing laundry and a year without needing to restock. Shopping was an enervating enterprise. He decided on a cup of coffee. It was his turn at the counter.
"Sir?" Sharleze, the barrista, waited.
He ordered a cappuccino—its peak of froth would be good company. Behind him he heard a loud voice. Older, female, and most likely black.
"Believe in Jesus!"
Benny bet the speaker was that woman who wore a red shirtwaist dress with a white-ribbon tie and crepe-sole shoes. She was always neatly turned out.
"The end is coming, believe in Jesus." The way she said it was meant to be helpful, as a store announcer tells shoppers it's nearly closing time and they need to purchase their items now.
He walked his foamy, friendly cappuccino to the island of stirrers and sugar and looked over. There she was. He hadn't seen her for a while and was pleased she hadn't changed—still in red and wearing those comfortable shoes. She approached a man in line, made a few promises regarding end of days and faith, and cleverly made for the door before he could object. Benny suspected she knew her sweetness and race were in her favor. She held the door open.
In came the angel. Out went the evangelical.
Ruth spotted Benny staring at her, but couldn't place him. He remembered the feel of her touch on his arm and walked over to her, a bold move for him.
"I don't care if Jesus was Hawaiian, ha ha."
She looked away, embarrassed. Deciding his attempt at humor wasn't Starbucks-appropriate, he skulked to a little round table where someone had left the Daily News, paged through the sports section, struggling not to look over.
The barrista checked. "We're out of lemon bars."
"Let's get him a brownie." Ruth sounded conspiratorial. Dealing with conspiratorial-sounding female customers was one of the hardest parts of the job for Sharleze. She didn't need to pretend for even five seconds that she and this white woman were pals or females united. Her face remained blank as she told Ruth her total for two coffee drinks, a yogurt parfait, and a brownie.
Ruth's graceful eyebrows arched. "So much! I'll never get over it."
That was another hard part of the job. Being told by customers that once upon a time, coffee hadn't cost a week's rent; water came from the tap; and iced tea hadn't come in cans. Sharleze never understood their complaints. Who'd want to live back then?
Ruth sensed the barrista's disdain. It made her a little nervous. She voted for Obama and continued to support him, unlike so many other progressive whites who had expected him to perform miracles like Jesus Christ. Who was a Jew. She handed the barrista what she thought was a twenty.
"Starbucks has a strict policy." Sharleze returned the pamphlet.
Ruth gasped. "Really, I thought I was giving you money." She felt better after she paid. Throwing sugars and Sweet'n Lows in the cardboard holder, she spotted that man hunched over a newspaper. Now she remembered. He was the one Luke had been talking to earlier.
She walked over to him. "Aloha!"
"Hey, I'm really sorry." He stood and noticed she smelled like coffee and lilacs. How could he persuade her to touch his arm again, so he could feel that fluorescent-electricity-unlike-a-sheet-cake-of-energy tingle.
Sensing his need would be bottomless where she was concerned, Ruth winked and breezed toward the door. "Have a great day!"
He considered going after her, but counseled himself. Clearly she wasn't interested and she was who she was. That was every person's fate or good fortune, being who they were. He gulped the last of his coffee and decided to go to his sister's to watch the game; her partner Jane could tell you averages and psychological problems for each Met. Unlike him, his sister looked Italian. Benny assumed both Luke and the angel thought he was Jewish. Over the years, there'd been intermarriage, which in his family meant blonde northern Italians daring to breed with more swarthy southern countrymen. True, his aunt eloped with a Muslim man, but that wasn't a crisis as she was over forty and everyone had given up on her ever finding anyone. Benny was not a Catholic lapsed or relapsed, nor Christian, nor for Jesus. It wasn't that his childhood memories of church were painful, just not compelling. Religion did more harm than good, as far as he was concerned. The poor were comforted, yeah yeah yeah. Dr. King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day were good people, yeah yeah yeah, but for the middle class, fancy coffee drinks had about the same effect as prayer. He started toward the door.
Sharleze noticed he was leaving and swooped in to wipe the table. She was doing a little bit of everything today.
"I'm a pig."
She didn't disagree.
There should be a White People for Black People organization, he thought. No, better to be yourself and for yourself. Better to be Benny. He was the founder of Benny for Benny. Benny for Benny was going to bring Monica for Monica and Jane for Jane a pint of ice cream. He thanked Sharleze, presumably for Sharleze, grabbed a crumpled napkin from another table and threw it in the trash.
Sarah Sarai's fiction is in journals including Storyglossia, ragazine, South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, and Fairy Tale Review. She is a contributing editor at The Writing Disorder, and also writes poetry.