The Winning Loser
When Paul Shohver graduated from Martin Luther King-Mother Theresa-Mahatma Ghandi high(abbreviated as KTG)with ambition to become a human rights lawyer, he had quite naturally been the top of his class. A bright, hardworking, conscientious student, Paul was the top candidate for valedictorian to absolutely nobody’s surprise. In the end he did not receive the top honor because a poor orphaned immigrant from the Middle East stood shivering alongside him, with the most sympathetic, sorrowful eyes, one would have to have a heart of stone to refuse her.
If there was anyone who did not have a heart of stone, it was Paul.
Paul Shohver considered himself a good person for as long as he could remember. As a child, he had given every toy, gift and present away to his friends who were less fortunate than him. He loved to give away his allowance to the first homeless person he came across. Nothing pleased him more than allowing someone to push ahead of him in line.
This was perhaps the origin of his dream for a career in human rights law. He did not know why being nice to people made him feel so good. But ever since he could remember, doing for others produced a warm and fuzzy feeling inside of him.
So when the skinny, shivering, hijab wearing brown girl named Hala was nominated by the Social Studies teacher, Mr. Brown, Paul’s heart melted.
Mr. Brown(curiously the only white teacher) was also the only teacher to oppose Paul as valedictorian.
Mr. Hamid the science teacher, Mr. Chiang the math teacher, Ms. Santiago the Spanish teacher, Miss Lafou the French teacher and Mrs. Jackson the English teacher all commended Paul and recommended him for class valedictorian. They each awarded him with certificates and honors in their respective subjects. Ms. Santiago named him an honorary Latino. He never once got below an A or finished a class without receiving distinctions. He was renowned for excellence both personally and socially, volunteering his free time to tutor his less academically inclined classmates. All this placed him so far above his peers, that there were no competition or jealousy. He was loved by all his classmates and nobody could imagine a more deserving candidate. The valedictorian honor was a fitting cap to a successful high school education which would sweep him into any law program he wanted.
Nobody knew anything about Hala. She had arrived with a wave of refugees from a raging civil war in her home country. Her first day at KTG, she was greeted with exaggerated niceness and politeness by the teacher and student body, well known KTG policy. She wore a long black dress, covering everything except little shoe points jutting out at the bottom. A big maroon colored hijab rested on her head, above her big grey eyes and round brown face. She never smiled. When she first arrived, kids approached her and noticed that she was always shaking. Teachers tried to include her and would kindly ask her questions but it would only cause the shaking to intensify. Eventually all the teachers became so gentle with her that they allowed her to skip any test, assignment, presentation or even school day that she desired. The teachers wanted with all their hearts to help this poor, immigrant, minority girl, but they were scared to scare her, so they spent the school year tiptoeing around her, in the hope that one day the shaking will stop.
Mr. Brown succeeded where all others failed. He had entered the teaching profession with one professed goal in mind: to help the disadvantaged. When he interviewed at KTG, both him and the interviewer realized they were the perfect fit. He began his crusade for the underdog and had not looked back since. In his first year, he caught a boy hefting a bag of gumballs in the air in front of his jealous friends. He ran over, grabbed it and started distributing the gumballs. “Don’t be selfish Gill,” he said with self righteousness. Leaving the boy crying and his friends laughing, he walked away proudly, winking at a shocked teacher he passed. A few months after that a deliveryman came into his classroom with items that the kids had ordered from Scholastic: books, toys, games and other odds and ends. His sharp virtue sense got alerted. What about the kids whose parents couldn’t afford anything? Would it not be better if everyone got something? After everything was distributed and he smilingly closed the door on the deliveryman, he took a crate and started walking around and collecting the items. The kids whose parents spoiled them with gifts were crying as he collected everything. “You would want this if you had nothing, Jake.” he said to the sobbing wealthy kid who had been in the process of ripping the packaging from The Chronicles of Narnia. He redistributed so that everyone got something. One Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire here, one Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban there. The class in an uproar, he lifted his arms and with a smile said, “And now you all get to enjoy everything.” He was loved and held in contempt. When Hala arrived, she was his pet project. He had no more luck than anyone in getting her to stop shaking, but after brainstorming, he came up with the brilliant idea of nominating her as valedictorian.
When asked for his reason, his mouth dropped open. “Does she need a reason? After all she’s been through? Where she is now? The first brown, minority, refugee, female valedictorian to represent our graduating class and you would refuse her? I smell racism.” When the r word was dropped, as he knew would happen, the school administration shut up and the nomination was accepted without further hitch. The remaining obstacle was the judge panel and he shook almost as much as his nominee as he saw the unanimous opposition he was facing.
When Paul was called up to the deliberating panel to be interviewed, he saw Hala waiting with him. She averted her eyes to the ground and shook. He tried to speak to her but that just made the shaking worse. He looked her over, saw her simple modest clothing, her hijab and her shy gazing at the floor and he suddenly knew what he had to do. Any liberal lover of humans would do the same. “You should be the valedictorian,” he said. “You deserve it for all that you’ve been through.” He didn’t know why but as he said this he felt as warm and fuzzy sensation billow out into his chest. She wrenched her eyes away from the floor and looked at him with wide open eyes. A small hint of a smile quivered at the corner of her mouth. It was like a sunburst was shining inside of him. He felt as if he was walking on a cloud.
He walked right into the room where the teachers sat and announced, “I support Hala in her candidacy for valedictorian.” They all looked at him, burst into tears and clapped their hands. “That’s a future human rights lawyer right there.” Mr. Brown declared. He beamed and was filled with gladness.
At the graduation ceremony, his parents waited for the expected honor their son would receive, but were shocked to see the shaking, shy, hijab wearing girl called up to the podium, where she struggled to utter a few English phrases while staring at the ground in painful embarrassment.
Mr. and Mrs. Shohver were incensed. They protested, attacked, threatened and sobbed but to no avail. “Your son is a role model,” the principal Ms. Nguyen said. “He had the top marks of his class.”
“So then why wasn’t he valedictorian?”
“Do you know what Hala has been through? The first of her kind to make it this far. For that alone, she deserves it.”
They ran up to Paul, where pictures were flashed of them in miserable tears and Paul smiling proudly.
“You deserved it. It could have opened up all sorts of doors for you.”
He just went on smiling. He smiled because he knew that he was a good person. Mr. Brown had told him that with tears in his eyes, after handing him a self printed certificate, where written in big letters it said: Valedictorian of Virtue.
That summer, after graduation, Paul went in search of a summer job. His father had offered him a job at his law firm doing research, stamping papers and getting coffee. When he showed up on the first day, he saw a man begging his father for a job. He whistled, walking past him, until something made him stop. It was the man’s skin color. Turning around slowly, he saw the blackness of the man’s skin, the arrogant refusal of his father to hire him and something clicked in his brain.
“Give him my job dad.” he said and when the man flashed him a grateful but confused smile, he felt glad. He felt that surge of happiness, of contentment, of well being. He felt virtuous.
He went to buy himself a Baskin and Robins after walking back out the way he had come, ignoring the man’s thanks and instead basking in his own glory of being a good person. He was so preoccupied, that when the man finally chased him down, out of breath, as he was sinking his teeth into a delicious chocolate fudge, he had no idea who he was.
“You just saved me! I needed that!”
He smiled at him confused, eating his ice cream. “Yes? What?”
“You just let me have your job!”
He tipped his head politely smiling. “Yes, yes.”
The man stared at him. “My name is Sam Doolittle. If there is anything I can do for you, I owe you one man.”
He smiled and nodded. This man was taking away his pleasure by offering something in return. He tried to ignore him.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, you’re his son!”
He nodded and dug his face into his ice cream.
“I’m sorry, am I disturbing you? I’m disturbing you. Take care now.”
After finishing his ice cream he threw out his napkin, then seeing an old person smile and nod approvingly at him, he turned and walked to every table, picking up trash, dirty napkins, empty ice cream cups and wiping down melted ice cream and throwing it all away. Peeking behind him, he saw a few people talking and pointing to him with smiles on their faces and he bent over and picked up every bit of trash he could find off the ground. When the whole place was clean, an employee came out with a big smile on his face and said, “You want a job?”
He looked at everyone watching and with a big smile he said, “Nope. Just a good deed.”
“Thief!” He turned and saw a man running away from the grocery next door with a bag clutched in his hand and a big heavyset guy chasing him. He squinted, trying to see the thief and noticed that he was dark skinned. Bravely, he jumped up, pushed a chair out of the way and ran as fast as he could towards the thief.
“Don’t be a hero, he might have a gun!”
“What a good Samaritan!”
People behind him were cheering and gasping as the thief came barreling towards him. As collision neared people yelled, “Take him down!”
Adrenaline filled him as the man came upon him and he lightly stepped to the side, allowing him to pass.
The cheers turned to confusion and shock, as he started running and drove straight into the fat store owner.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?”
“You racist!” he said, smiling triumphantly, lying on top of the man with a slight headache. “That should teach you a lesson.”
The cheering crowd now beheld a complete change. People started muttering angrily.
“You saw that?”
“He let that thief get away!”
“Somebody oughta arrest him!”
“Obstruction of justice!”
As he got up, people were starting to come after him, fists ready for punching.
Suddenly a short, wiry man came out of nowhere and yanked him away, pulling him after him. “Come on, come on.”
He ran with the wiry man for a few blocks until he was out of breath. The man squinted at him. He had a big nose and large glasses that kept sliding down. He work a shirt with red stripes that had sweat stains around the armpits and corduroy pants that were too short. He slid out his hand and grinned. “Saul Fater.”
Shaking his hand gingerly, he glanced around him.
“They were about ready to kill you,” Saul observed, a small smile playing on his thin lips.
“I was just trying to help that poor guy. There’s racism all around us, how could folks not see it?”
“You don’t need to convince me. I’m a leftist, communist, socialist, humanist, anti fascist, anti Zionist, anti capitalist, anti nationalist, anti religious Jew.”
He nodded, happy at all the virtue, but a bit confused. “An anti religious Jew? Isn’t that a contradiction? Like anti religious Christian? Or anti religious Muslim?”
Saul laughed like Paul had said something cute and naive. “Oh no my friend. It’s different for Jews. You see we’re an ethnicity. So I can hate the Jewish religion while still being a proud Jew. Same with Zionism. I can hate the Jewish state while still being a proud Jew.” He smiled knowingly and then seemed to change tactics. “You know I’m more religious than so called religious Jews. I engage in tikkun olam which means fixing the world. That’s the only relevant bit of Judaism that remains. The archaic rituals are caveman stuff for the idiots.”
Paul kept nodding, and wondering, so is he religious? He thought to ask but decided against it out of a certainty that the response will be even more confusing and contradictory.
“So what exactly is your ideology?” Saul said.
He shrugged and smiled with humility. “Oh I don’t know about any of that. I just try to be a good person.”
Saul nodded excitedly. “Yes. That’s the core of it. We’re both for the common universal good of mankind. Absolute equality.”
Paul felt the sunburst and the gladness and he smiled broadly.
Saul eyed him quickly then said, “Come join me. I’m an activist and could use a guy like you.”
Paul’s eyes lit up. “You mean that?” He had always wanted to be a human rights lawyer. As far as he knew they were the most virtuous people out there. While that was his goal, being an activist could impress people and help him get one step closer.
“Yes I do mean that my friend. We are all about helping the disadvantaged as I could see you’re very passionate about.”
“I am. I hope to be a human rights lawyer.”
Saul grabbed him by his shoulders and shook. “You’re not just a good person, you’re a great person. Come. Let’s fight for the minorities.”
Paul hesitated. “You mean b-b-br-”
“Yes yes, brown people. You’re with a friend you don’t have to be shy.”
Paul followed Saul down the street, into a parked car(BMW, Paul noted a little disappointed) and drove ten minutes to a crowd of people. White, Jewish people.
“But I thought-” he started.
“Yes yes, we’re helping the disadvantaged. What better place to start than a pro Israel rally?”
“But where’s the brown people?”
“Never mind that,” he said dismissively. “If you look at the edge of the crowd down there you can spot some Palestinians protesting.”
He craned his neck towards the protesters but only saw more white people. Pasty white Hasidic Jews with dangling side curls holding up signs with the Palestinian flag and an equation showing a swastika equals a star of David. The only non-Hasidic protesters were also pasty white, holding similar placards but with a different equation. A Jew equals a Nazi. The thing was that the Jew looked like the ones standing next to them, side curls and all.
He quickly stopped looking and turned back to Saul. He had a fanatic, rabid look of hatred in his eyes. “Look at these Je-Zionists. So hypocritical. Look at these occupiers. Seventy years after the Holocaust and now they’re doing the same thing to others.”
“These people?” He looked at them. Families milling around, children dancing to music, running around.
“Yes. They look all innocent now, but so did the Nazis at their parades. Don’t be fooled.” His eyes had a faraway look to them. “What we need is a bomb. A big bomb.”
“What?” Paul swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, his forehead sweaty. “I have to go.”
“What? Where?” Saul looked concerned. “I was going to introduce you to the Palestinians.”
“There’s only Jews there. And more white people.”
He left quickly, disenchanted with Saul, with communists and with Jews and feeling depressed.
He didn’t feel virtuous anymore and he wanted to find brown people.
Paul returned home and set to the task of finding an internship. Preferably one which was virtuous.
After vigorously searching the ads, he struck gold.
“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Sustainable product tester.”
He went to the address written and presented himself to Mr. Slick.
“So why should I hire you?” Mr. Slick looked at him expectantly, running a manicured hand through shiny black hair.
“Tell you what. You want a pair of shoes? Put these on.” He whipped out a pair of bright green sneakers with a big tree logo on it. “Go ahead, try it. Tell me what you think.”
He smiled and carefully put them on.
“Woow! How do you feel? Those shoes are made of pure biodegradable stuff. Everything you feel is natural. For every shoe manufactured, we feed an African family. How about that?”
“A whole family?”
“Yeah,” Slick smiled. “I only distribute sustainable products here. No footprints. Conditions that favor the worker. My motto is, if it don’t hurt the bottom line, I don’t carry the line.”
He stood up all of a sudden and walked to his office door, flinging it open.
A sound of wheels rolling approached the room. A black man with a grizzled face and white stubble stared into the office disinterested.
“I noticed there was some missing toilet paper rolls from the utility closet.”
He swung his head towards Paul and grinned. “I always check.” He turned back. “Have you been filching?”
The janitor gave him a look that showed utter disinterest and a cynical mocking look. “My family is struggling. Do you really care about one toilet paper roll?”
“Fired!” Mr. Slick’s face was bright red, sweaty and his smooth hair was haphazard. “You thief. You thief. Get out of my sight.”
Paul felt a rage within him. He took off a shoe and threw it at Mr. Slick’s face, hitting him squarely on the cheek.
Slick reflexively grabbed his cheek, yelling. “What the hell?”
“You racist. I will not work for a racist.”
“That man robbed me! I give all my money to Africans! How the hell could I be a racist?”
The whole time inside that office, Paul was waiting to feel virtuous. He thought the sustainability would do it. But there was nothing like sticking up for a brown person. His heart filled with gladness as the sunburst with all its warmth filled him.
“I will not work for you.” He said righteously as he smiled at the open mouthed janitor. “I will stand in solidarity with my brother. Come brother.”
He walked out feeling proud, happy, good, leaving Mr. Slick behind looking absolutely confused.
The janitor quickly hurried after him.
“My friend!” He said. “That was quite a performance you made there.”
“Anytime my brother.” He said kindly.
They walked out in the street, Paul with his head held high, the janitor with his jacket bulging with toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls and liquid soap bottles.
The janitor looked up at him and said, “Say, you wanna come over for a bite?”
He hesitated, but the man pulled his sleeve. “Come on, I don’t bite.”
He followed him along the street until they reached a house. Loud voices could be heard from the house.
He followed the janitor in and saw a fight going one. A woman was screaming at a man who was threatening her with a broomstick.
“Somebody call the cops!” she screamed. “Please please!”
He glanced at the janitor who was busy placing his booty from the utility closet in neat rows on the floor, seemingly oblivious to the fighting.
“Don’t you call the cops,” the man with the broom said, though Paul was unsure who he was talking to. His gaze was on the woman but he seemed to be referring to Paul. “You white folks get involved, you all racist. Why do you think them white cops are killing black kids all over the country.”
Paul couldn’t argue with that. While it looked bad, with the man waving that broom threateningly at the woman, he couldn’t deny the man’s logic.
“Call the cops!” the woman shrieked. “He gonna beat me. He gonna rape me.”
“Shut your trap woman. It’s the white cops who rape us. Who beat us. They took us out from Africa on those ships, don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
The janitor carefully and efficiently piled up his three piles: toilet paper, paper towels and soap. He straightened and looked down proudly.
“Now you go look what your daddy brought you.”
“Toilet paper?” the man glanced over for a fleeting instant. “You go put that in the bathroom pops, it was empty when I went earlier.”
“Please call the cops sir!” the girl was pleading with Paul now, begging him.
The man suddenly threw down the broom and started chasing the girl around the house.
Paul suddenly heard a knock on the door and seeing that nobody else was around, walked over and opened it.
An old man dressed in an army uniform stood there stooped over with a toothless smile on his wrinkled face. Flanking him were two bright eyed young men with big, white toothed smiles and starched white shirts and navy pants. They both had chains with crosses dangling beneath their neck and held bibles tightly clutched to their sides. The old grinning man held out a tray in shaking hands with little flower lapels on them.
“Careful grampy,” one of the young men put his hand under the teetering tray while the other one firmly held the old man’s arm.
“Support your veterans.” The old man squeaked, although it came out as, “Shpo yo veters.”
Paul felt the familiar glow as he reached into his pockets and saw the three men eyeing him with big smiles.
The old man shook the young man off his arm in annoyance. “I cin shtan uh mashel.” his voice quavered angrily.
The young man quickly let him go and they resumed their sunny dispositions.
As Paul’s fingers closed on some coins, he heard the woman hollering as she ran behind him, and past him right into the three people at the door.
The old man was barreled into and almost crumpled to the ground, only supported by the young men’s quick reflexes.
The old man was helped up, wheezing and coughing, the tray of pins on the ground flipped over.
“Watch it!” one of the young men yelled after the girl. “You could really hurt someone.”
“Well well look what we got here.” the man with the broom had come and looked slowly from one face to another. “It’s slavery all over again. The white man comes with the gun in one hand, the bible in the other. You gonna try this again, huh? Well I’ll see you try. Get the hell off my property.”
The young men looked indignantly at him. “How dare you talk to a veteran that way?”
“A a a, keep your silver tongue to yourself churchmen. Last time we listened to you, you had us fooled with your crosses and your wafers and we followed you out of mother Africa. I aint falling for that again.”
He spat on the ground, on the scattered flowers decorating the welcome mat.
“There now you gone and messed my mat.”
“You spat on it!” a young man protested.
Paul bent down and carefully started picking up the flowers. He glanced up and felt the sunburst unfurling in his chest as they all looked down on him silently.
He meticulously picked up the bits that had torn off until he heard the black guy say, “There we go, that’s the kind of symbolism I like. The white man needs to pick up those wilted flowers he ruined. Let’s go my friend pick em up. Clean up that mess you made all those years ago and are still making today.”
“That is quite enough.” The young men yanked him up. “You shouldn’t be cleaning up a mess you didn’t make.” and one of them reached over and flung the flowers back on the ground. “You fellow, clean it up.”
“You racist, I’ll kill you.”
Paul was shoved to the side as the man tackled them and the old man went flying.
“Heeeeeelp.” The old man screeched in a terrible voice.
Paul glanced over at the black man who was fighting the young men. He felt a yearning deep down to help the black man. He took a step closer.
The young men managed to get him to the ground and were trying to form a choke-hold over him. Neither seemed very adept at it and were looking at each other anxiously.
“You fools,” the grounded man laughed. “You don’t know what you’re doing. I could feel the hesitation. Why don’t you just get up and walk away.”
The young men looked at each other and then almost obediently stopped struggling and got up with a sheepish look on their faces.
“Violence is the devil’s work,” one said, extending his arm to help the black man up. “We’re sorry.”
The man got up slowly, looking at them suspiciously. Then he grinned maliciously. “You a couple of right dopey whiteys eh? Peace and love and all that?”
“We’re the servants of the Christian lord, sir. In his name we preach peace and love.”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “And all that nonsense. Give me a gun over peace and love any day. Hypocrites.”
Paul looked at him in horror. “But sir, isn’t that what we all want?”
“Na, I aint none of that. That’s all lies and fluff.”
His heart pounded furiously. Sweat poured all over his forehead. He felt his knees go weak, almost collapse.
“You ok there buddy?” The two young men gave him concerned looks. “You look unwell, come with us.”
He followed them, swaying, teetering as the man jeered at their backs.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” he said in a weak and shaking voice.
They walked slowly, supporting the old man between them and he was also being supported by the strong arm of one of the young men. He looked at him with a caring smile. “Well so do we buddy. So do we.”
They took him to their home, a cozy little cottage, and after putting the old man to bed, they took care of Paul. They fussed over him, one making him warm chicken soup, the other weak camomile tea.
One wet a washrag with warm water and carefully dabbed at his forehead. “Lie down buddy, you’re weak. You need rest.” He gave him a warm smile and started singing a song in a low soothing voice.
Paul didn’t even know that he was sick. He was a bit shaken when he went off with the three of them, but as he spent more time with them, he seemed to become sicker and sicker.
By the time he had reached their front steps, he needed to be dragged up. The two strong young men pulled him without complaining and gently started soothing and helping him — like he was a patient in a hospital.
“Don’t feel ashamed,” the one rubbing the wet rag said to him now in a soft voice. “We are all weak weak creatures. That’s what our lord and savior said after all.”
“Who are you?” Paul said in awe.
“Rhye Chisnitz is me and my brother is Zeke. The elder is our grandpa, Marshall. We’re Mormons.”
“Oh,” he said uneasily. “It’s not so popular to be religious these days.”
“Yeah, what did you say your name was?”
“Paul, like St. Paul! Glad to meet you Paul. Do you know who you’re named after Paul?” he smiled down on him, a patient look in his eyes.
“My grandfather I think,”
“Oh no you’re not, Paul, you’re named after the man who spread Christianity to the world. Did you know that Paul was Christian when it was absolutely unpopular? The Romans were mocking and persecuting those few early Christians. Did that matter Paul? Did it?”
Paul thought. “But how do you know if you’re a good person if nobody agrees with what you’re doing?”
“Nobody has to,” Rhye said patiently, tapping lightly on his knee. “The bible does and that’s all that matters.”
“But being a good person feels good. It feels right. That’s why I spent my life being one.”
“You think you’re a good person?” Rhye chuckled lightly. “Until you accept our lord and savior, I’m afraid you’re not a good person. It’s like a pretty vessel with no wine in it, do you understand? You’re a pretty vessel that’s it, but there’s no wine inside you. Don’t you want wine inside you?”
Paul thought carefully about that. He had never had any alcohol because it was disapproved of by his parents and teachers. It made him feel glad to not join other kids in drinking and be obedient to authority.
“What if I don’t want to drink wine?”
Rhye looked at him confused. “Who’s talking about drinking wine? I’m talking about accepting our lord and savior. Don’t get caught up in metaphors buddy. Accepting Christianity is like drinking sweet wine, filling an empty vessel. It could be also juice or water not necessarily wine. Doesn’t it feel good to fill something empty?”
“Yes, please Paul, I don’t mean to pressure you, but you see I have mission you understand. If you’re not receptive to my mission, then I’m wasting my time here with you, you understand?” He looked at Paul apologetically.
Paul felt bad. He didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He wanted to be liked by all.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to waste your time. What can I do?”
“I’ve told you twice already,” Rhye said smiling patiently, but without the precious warmth. “I’ll tell you a third time. Accept our lord and savior.”
“I accept him,” Paul said eager to please.
“That’s wonderful to hear!” Rhye clapped his hands and cheered. “Hip hip hooray!”
Paul’s heart shone warmly. He smiled at the Mormon, who smiled back at him.
“You are now shining with the light of the lord. You look so much happier than you did a minute ago.”
“I do?” He was filled with overflowing joy.
“You were a good person before. You are now a good Christian which is even better.”
“Yes, now you may join us on our mission.”
“What mission is that?”
“We shall go and convert people to Christianity. Do you know any Jews? Muslims? Hindus? Atheists?”
He thought of Saul Fater, the Jew who hated Judaism. Would he be interested in being converted?
“I know a Jew,”
Rhye’s eyes lit up. “Great! You think he may convert?”
“Well he doesn’t really like Judaism,”
“Perfect!” Rhye’s entire face seemed to shine. His fingers were drumming his knee excitedly. “Do you know how special it is to convert a Jew? They’re existence is a rejection of Christianity. By converting one…well you know how I spoke about filling you with wine? Well a Jew would be like a Bordeaux.”
Paul didn’t understand any of this and he wasn’t even sure he could track down Saul Fater, but Rhye’s excitement was infectious. He couldn’t help but beam feeling the warmth course through him.
“You know I see a lot of potential for you in the church,” Rhye stroked his beardless chin. “Have you ever thought of becoming a clergy?”
“Priesthood, you know there’s a lot of room for growth in the Mormon church.”
“I always wanted to be a human rights lawyer,” he said hesitantly, and then trying to retain the happy air, said, “but I’m open to other things.”
“Lawyer?” Rhye seemed a bit disappointed. “Well, it ain’t no clergyman I tell you. Truthfully hardly no lawyers are good people.”
“But even a human rights lawyer?”
“I suppose…” he looked thoughtful. “But first you gotta join us on our mission. Ok?”
“Ok,” he said. “You think that’ll help me get accepted as a candidate?”
“For law?” Rhye’s mouth twitched like he was trying to suppress a laugh. “Why not?”
“Ok,” he said brightly. “When do we get started?”
“Just as soon as we get you baptized. Come. We’ll go now.”
He lifted himself carefully up and the Mormon grabbed his hand. “Come on buddy, we gotta get moving.”
He suddenly realized he wasn’t sick and got up, following Rhye out the house.
After saying bye to his father and grandfather, Rhye led him down the street.
“There’s a church a couple blocks away.”
He followed him down the street. Rhye was silent most of the time except for an occasional, “Not far now,”
As they arrived at the church, they saw a crowd of people gathered, holding rainbow signs. People were chanting slogans:
“Stop the hate!”
“Free love for all!”
“Choice not force!”
Paul’s heart swelled with gladness at the crowd.
Rhye snorted. “Homosexuals. Just ignore them buddy.”
And like a compass shifts, his feelings shifted away from Rhye and converting to Christianity and towards these rainbow, slogan yelling people. A man dressed in nothing but a rainbow flag marched up and down with a loudspeaker, chanting, “We’re queer and we’re here!”
“Oh, have mercy on me!” Rhye said in exasperation. “The man is parading in the nude. What about the children?”
Paul turned to him. “I have to go.”
“Yes let’s run to the shelter of the church!”
“No, I’m not converting. I’m sorry.”
“What?” Rhye sputtered. “B-but what about the mission?”
“I can’t.” He quickly walked past to avoid seeing Rhye’s disappointment and joined the rainbow crowd.
The Colors of the Rainbow
It didn’t take long for Paul to get swept up in the fervor.
There were mothers with rainbow paint on their faces pushing babies in strollers with rainbow paint on their faces. There were three slim men with only speedos on and rainbow paint artistically designing their body, doing a little dance, which consisted mostly of shaking their behinds to the sound of a bongo being played by a fat bearded man, also in the nude except for a strange outfit which seemed to be a speedo with suspenders.
Paul glowed in the feeling of unity all around him. He especially glowed when a black man, naked except for a tight pair of pink biker shorts and wearing red lipstick, approached him, slapped an arm across his shoulder and said in a jarringly deep voice, “We loveeee our allies.”
He felt so glad, dizziness overcame him.
The man pulled him closely into a hug. “We need more people like you. You’re a good person.”
“Thank you!” The warmth and fuzziness was almost too much.
The man left him and danced away, to the beat of the bongo.
He turned and saw a tall lady with long black hair, a tight red dress, netted stockings, and makeup on, give him a wink. He smiled and then gave a start when he realized the woman was a man.
“You’re kinda cute,” the dressed up man said in a deep voice, which was trying to sound feminine.
He nodded and quickly walked away.
Weaving his way through the crowd, he noticed some protesters at the fringes.
A black man was approaching from the protesters and yelling, “This is unnatural! Open your bible.”
He looked closer and saw the man was familiar. It was the guy he gave the job too. Doolittle.
Doolittle spotted him. “Hey pal, what are you doing there?” He waved back at him and then got a start when he saw a small group of young people separate from the crowd and grab Doolittle, dragging him away.
He quickly hurried after them. They brought him to an alley nearby and while two were holding his arms a big, muscular one was punching him.
“Hey!” he said and they all looked up at him.
The big muscular guy was wearing a tight black body suit and black lipstick. He stopped mid-punch and stared.
There was a girl wearing a long black trench-coat and also black lipstick who was holding one arm and a short, skinny kid wearing black stockings and piercings all over his face who was holding the other. They glared at him.
“Mind your own business!” The girl screamed suddenly. “These people are the enemy.”
Doolittle suddenly scrambled out of their grasp and ran away.
“Yeah and stay away!” The small kid shrieked.
He smiled. “I support you. I’m an ally.”
They looked at him and their faces softened.
“Why didn’t you say so?” The girl said. “Come join us.”
He followed them through the streets to a park.
“No cops here,” the small kid said and produced a joint from his pocket.
Paul smiled nervously. “Um, I don’t.”
“Come on,” the girl said, smiling darkly. “It’ll be fun.”
Virtuous, virtuous, he thought. What would a good person do?
“Hey what’s wrong? You never smoked?”
He shook his head. “I always thought it was wrong,”
“That’s what the authority wants you to think. Forget them. We all ditched our parents.”
“Parents don’t know NOTHING. Parents ain’t NOTHING.” The muscular body suited guy spoke up with anger in his voice.
“Parents think we should all be like them. No individuality.” The girl agreed.
“Parents are irrelevant.” The small kid spat out. “Here, just pass me a light,”
The muscular guy tossed him a lighter.
He lit it and took a deep inhale and broke into coughing.
“Good stuff,” he said. “Here have some guy,” he passed it to Paul. “When in Rome do as they do.”
“The Romans persecuted Christians though,” Paul said.
“Good for them!” The girl said loudly. “I wish the government did today,” she gave an embarrassed smile. “Oops, don’t quote me on that.”
“Quote ME on that,” the muscular guy said, his face red with fury. “Christians are the most violent group to ever hit the earth. They deserve to be massacred. Or burned at the stake.”
“Isn’t that bad to wish violence on anyone?” Paul said timidly.
“No! We tried to deal with them peacefully. And they’re persecuting everyone else. LGBT’s. Muslims. Black people. You name it.”
Paul thought back to them beating Doolittle. “But that black guy before…”
“Uncle Tom. They’re traitors to the cause. They’re licking the white Christian Zionist boot.”
Paul tried to understand but he was confused. There seemed to be a contradiction somewhere and he didn’t know how Zionism got brought up.
“So you guys are anti Christian?”
“Hell yeah!” The muscular guy said.
“And anti Muslim?”
“Hell no, when did I say that?”
“Yes, they’re a persecuted minority like us.”
“I didn’t see any at the protest.”
The muscular guy seemed to think to himself about that.
“They’re too busy being persecuted by the Zionists!” The small kid screamed. “You expect them to be super human?”
“If the Zionists would end the occupation the Muslims would be out on the street protesting with us.”
“What about the Jews?”
“The Zionist occupiers will never be allies!”
Paul started getting a headache so he switched subjects. “Do any of you have a religion?”
“Hell yeah. Flying spaghetti monster.” The girl said grinning.
Paul smiles surprised. “I never heard of it.”
“Yes, it’s the one true religion.”
“What do they preach?”
“Spaghetti.” The small kid said and they all burst out laughing.
He smiled confused. “I don’t understand. Does it tell followers to give charity?”
“Nope. Don’t need religion for that.”
“So you give charity?”
He thought. “Does it teach to treat others how you would be treated? To love your fellow? To care for the weak, the orphan, the widow?”
“No no and no. All of that is common sense.” The small kid laughed. “Don’t need no religion for that.”
“So you do those things?”
“What is this an interrogation?” The girl said, squinting at him.
“We’re busy with more important causes,” the muscular guy said. “Equality. Free love. LGBT rights. Muslim rights. All that stuff you said,” he gave a wave of his arm. “That stuff is already taken care of by the government. They take care of all those people so we don’t have to.”
“Do you have missions in your religion?”
“Missions? Like in a video game?”
He shook his head. “You don’t try to convert people?”
“Why, you want to convert?”
He laughed. “I’m not sure. Maybe. Christians believe in converting people. That’s their mission. And if they convert a Jew they get extra points.”
They stared at him.
“Come to think of it it is kind of like a videogame.”
The girl was looking at him with raised eyebrows. “What are we talking about here?”
“I’m also super confused,” The small kid laughed. “Something about Jews.”
“Zionazis you mean,” the muscular guy said. “Down with the occupation. From the river to the sea.”
Paul didn’t understand why every conversation I get into seems to lead back tot his topic. But he was afraid to ask. He didn’t doubt he would just confused even more. What seemed obvious to other people about this always seemed to twist his brain into a pretzel.
“So what do you guys do?” He said moving on past those complexities.
“Smoke weed. Chill. Rebel. Protest.” The girl smiled and took a long inhale. “We’re in lifelong battle against authority and status quo.”
“Don’t you go to school?”
“Not until the fascist government of America gives us free tuition.”
The small kid jumped up and did a little dance. “We’re boycotting them!”
The muscular guy pointed at him. “What about you?”
Paul smiled. “I want to be a human rights lawyer.”
“Lawyers,” he said in disdain. “They’re part of the system. They LOVE the status quo.”
“But I want to fight for human rights, to make the world a better place.”
“Whose rights you going to fight for?” The girl said.
“Black people, brown people, you guys,” he felt that warm glow as he saw them nodding in approval. “All the disadvantaged.”
This was what he lived for. The agreement. The unanimous feeling of agreement and approval all around.
Suddenly red and blue lights started flashing and a brief siren sounded.
They were all illuminated when a stern voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Put up your hands. You are all under arrest.”
The Promised Land
They were screaming names at the policemen from behind the bars of the jail cell when a police approached.
“That’s me,” he said hopefully.
“Your dad’s here to bail you out.”
His heart leapt for joy.
They took him out of the jail amid his companions jeering.
His father was waiting outside by the entrance and took him by the hand right away, calling out to the police, “Thank you officers.”
They walked outside and his father turned and glared at him.
“What’s this? You smoking pot? I never thought I’d see the day.”
Mr. Shohver was a busy man, conservative in his ways and with little patience for foolishness.
“You think you’ll get into any decent school with this on your record? Think again.”
He felt bad. He would have told him that didn’t even smoke but he knew it wouldn’t matter.
“Foolishness I tell you. With all your good grades, this is what happens. I thought raised you better than this.”
He felt like crying.
He looked ahead and saw his old teacher Mr. Brown.
“Paul, my favorite pupil. How are you? Got into Harvard yet?” He laughed out loud and gave Mr. Shohver a smile. “You should be proud, he’s a good kid.”
“Yes he is. Unfortunately though he just got arrested for smoking pot. I fear he’s ruined his future.”
Mr. Brown pointed at Paul in amazement. “Him?” Then, “Listen, we’ve all been there huh? Tell you what. What program you interested in?”
“I’d like to be a human rights lawyer.” Paul said. “I want to help the disadvantaged.”
Mr. Brown smiled. “I remember now. What a good person. I got the chills just now.”
He turned to Paul’s father. “Could I just have a moment with your son?”
He pulled Paul aside and tears were suddenly streaming down his face.
“You know I never stopped thinking about it.”
“The graduation. You deserved that valedictorian honor. I don’t know why I did what I did,” he was crying now. “Actually I do know, I wanted to feel virtuous.”
Paul gave him a hug. “I understand,”
“Thank you so much Paul,”
His heart brimmed with gladness at being able to comfort him.
“I would have done the same thing.”
“I mean she was shaking! And her hijab! Nala needed a break.”
Hala, he thought but nodded saying nothing.
“I’ve been feeling such guilt like I shortchanged you. Listen I have a contact at Colombia. I’ll give him a call and see what I can do.”
Paul’s heart leapt with joy.
“Thank you so much!”
“My pleasure, I’ll be in touch with you.”
He nodded to Mr. Shohver and hurried off.
Mr. Shohver stared after him. “Is he ok? I thought I heard him crying.”
“He said he has a contact at Colombia University. He said he’ll give him a call for me.”
His father looked at him at loss for words. “What? Why?”
“Because I didn’t get the valedictorian.”
“Yes they robbed you of that, how could I forget. If I remember correctly, you said nothing, just smiled stupidly like you were proud of being passed over for a mumbling, shaking Arab girl who could barely speak English. You are a real pushover, huh?”
Paul reddened. “But now I have a shortcut to Colombia. Some doors close and others open.”
Mr. Shohver made a sound and huffed off.
When Paul arrived at home he got a phone call from Mr. Brown.
“So it’s looking good Paul. The guy said he’ll get you an interview, which will be formality, and you got a spot saved.”
“Thank you so much. Is there anything I need for this interview?”
“Only one. He said they like people who have been involved in humanitarian causes abroad. Have you?”
Paul felt his heart sink. “No.” He said in a small voice.
“Don’t worry about it Paul, it’s very easy. Just go to Africa or something and do some activism for some cause. Could you do that? You kind of have to, so just do that and let me know when it’s done abd we’ll set the interview.”
Paul hung up, his hand trembling from anxiety, excitement, nervousness and dread. How was he going to do something like this? Africa? What organization?
He went outside in the cool evening to clear his head and get some fresh air.
He was walking deep in thought, down the street, when a car suddenly screeched to stop beside him and the window rolled down to reveal the face of Saul Fater.
“Hey there!” Saul big eyes were wild and glasses were slid down to the tip of his nose. “I’m headed to the airport to catch a flight for Turkey. Gonna board a flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip. Wanna come?”
Paul and Saul arrived in Turkey, hopped in a cab, and sped to the waiting boat at the harbor, where they arrived just in time to catch the boat to Gaza.
Paul had jumped at the opportunity which seemed to be the perfect solution. His father, while not quite sure what that was (“How dangerous could a place with the name ‘strip’ be,” he had joked) had given the trip his blessing and even paid for it, in the hopes that the doors of the law school would open wide with it.
The plane ride to Turkey was long and uncomfortable (Saul had insisted on the window seat) so that by the time they landed Paul eagerly left the airplane without understanding what exactly they were going to do.
Saul was vague, purposely or not, about the exact nature of what they were going to do.
When asked, “What kind of activism are we doing?” Saul just saying, “Bringing supplies,” and when Paul didn’t see any supplies being boarded just said with a knowing smile, “You’ll see.”
When they arrived at the harbor, Paul uneasily pointed out the boat they were boarding was named The Martyr.
“Don’t martyrs die?”
“Haha that’s a good joke. It’s only a name, don’t worry.”
It was only when they were pulling away from the Turkish shore in the choppy Mediterranean waters, that Saul casually said to Paul, “We’re breaking the Israeli blockade.”
“I thought we’re bringing supplies?”
“That’s a good story and stick to it. This is much bigger than any supplies though.”
“I thought they’re starving?”
“Starving for attention.”
“I thought they’re freezing?”
“Some of their bank accounts, yes.”
Paul felt humiliated. “You lied to me. Why?”
“Because this is a top secret mission. Do you really regret coming?”
Paul shook his head and stalked off. He saw a group of Turks standing together and talking Turkish in loud tones.
A man suddenly approached him. He was a white man wearing a black and white patterned Muslim head scarf. He smiled at Paul. “So. Here we are. Are you ready to be a martyr?” The man spoke in a pleasant Irish accent.
“Yes.” the man said calmly. “My name is Ian Blogue and I’m an Irish MP. If my constituents would know where I am,” he gave a melodic laugh. “It’s a farce really of course. The Israelis don’t want any trouble. But without trouble, there’s no media spotlight. And the cash only flows in with the attention of the world.” he winked mischievously. “I don’t expect to die here, although I daresay the death of an Irish politician would be a gift-wrapped present to the cause. But I’m not interested in dying for the cause. Instead I’ve brought a little white flag,” he whipped out a little white cloth confidentially. “Let the Israelis see this. They don’t want to kill me any more than I want to die. Why are you here lad?”
The man looked at him curiously.
“I need to do activism overseas to get into my human rights law program.”
“Ah,” the man’s eyes twinkled. “Perfect place for that, eh? In that case, I would highly suggest you stick with me. We’ll be right peaceful here.”
As it turned out, the Israelis didn’t stop them, didn’t give them any trouble at all. (“Highly suspicious” the Irishman said)
They arrived in Gaza without a hitch and were right away whisked to a rally in Gaza City.
Crowds of people were marching and holding up pictures of a dark, bearded man with an angry look and screaming with rage.
“The Zionists murdered a freedom fighter,” Saul said to him quietly. “The poor man was on the toilet apparently when they dropped their bomb. Their viciousness and cruelty is endless.”
An Palestinian approached them and gestured wildly. “Ze ogubation! Ze Israeely ogubation! When will we be able to drive ze Jews into ze sea?” Tears ran down his cheeks as he said that.
“Don’t worry sir, you have our support.” Saul said, and then started chanting loudly, “Drive the Jews into the sea!”
It seemed to catch on in no time and soon the whole crowd was chanting it.
Saul looked overjoyed.
“I’m a Jew and I support you,” he said smiling brightly at the Palestinian who had approached them, who was nodding enthusiastically.
Suddenly the Palestinian pointed to Saul and chanted, “Jew Jew Jew!”
Everyone turned and moved towards them, grabbing at them, saying, “Jew Jew Jew,”
Saul started panicking as he was lifted up in the air by a group of men and carried off into the crowd.
“Throw the Jew into the sea!” everyone started chanting.
Saul was crying now. “I’m not a Jew! I’m a Christian. I’m an atheist.”
“Throw the Jew into the sea!”
“Please I’ll convert to Islam!”
Paul backed away, his heart pounding in terror and bumped into someone behind him.
“Watch out there lad.”
He realized it was the Irishman from the boat and turned around relieved. “T-t-they took him! Saul!”
“Ah yes?” He squinted at the crowds. “He’s just a Jew isn’t he? Well he should have known better. One can’t expect these people to embrace their enemy. Anyways it’s too late for him. Come, I know how to escape from this mess.”
He followed him away from the crowd to a parked car. “I have the benefit as a politician to be entitled to certain extras. This is in case of emergency.” He waved to the driver, a mustached Palestinian who was smoking a cigarette and finally got his attention. “Mr. Brogue, Irish M.P. We need to leave. Now.”
The man got out, opened the doors for them and they set off. Arabic music played loudly for the duration of the drive.
“Where are we going?” Paul said weakly, his stomach heaving from fright and anxiety.
“Why, Israel of course. Where else?”
“We’re not staying in Gaza?”
“No, I would never. Lovely people and lovely cause, but if you don’t realize the savagery, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.”
“Savagery?” Paul said nauseous. “I thought the Israelis are savage.”
“Ha. That’s a laugh.” he sat back and gave him a patient look, like he was explaining the obvious to a child. “The Israelis are occupying, land thieving, colonizing scum. But say what you want about them, if you follow their rules, you’ll be treated fairly. They’re arrogant land-thirsty Jews, but they’re civilized blokes and if given a choice between the bloodthirsty Gaza mob you just saw and an IDF soldier, I would take the latter in a heartbeat.”
Paul was quiet. It seemed that his whole world had turned upside down. This liberal cause, which seemed so simple once upon a time, was now full of contradictions, hypocrisy and sheer terror at seeing the Palestinian mob carry Saul Fater away. What other simple truths were not so simple? He felt sick and his head hurt. Putting his head in his hands and closing his eyes he said, “And here I thought I was coming here to help the disadvantaged but instead I’m running away from them in terror.”
“Ah, but welcome to the real world my friend. I know it sometimes seems a tad contradictory and complicated to comprehend, but trust me when I tell you, there is a method to the madness. We white western blokes have an obligation and a duty to support the colored races in restitution for the sins of our fathers. This is a perpetual restitution. The sins committed by whites go back centuries if not millennia. We will never really atone for it. The best we can do it try to help, support and advantage them, every possible opportunity we have. That is why America engages in Affirmative Action policies. That is why we allow Middle Eastern refugees to settle in Europe in vast numbers. That is why customs and values which we would never tolerate, are accepted and supported in the Islamic religion. Do you understand now?”
Paul made a pained expression. “I gave up my valedictorian honor to a poor Middle Eastern refugee girl named Hala. She couldn’t even speak English. But I gave it to her because…because of all her suffering. I felt bad.”
“Yes, as you must. It was the right thing to do.”
“I wanted to be a good person, more than anything else. I wanted to be liked by all, to cause no hurt.”
“Yes, me too,” The Irishman’s voice was choking up. “All of us liberals want the same thing, young lad. You see I can relate to your circumstances terribly. When I was younger, before I went into politics, I was a young aspiring poet. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I read and wrote poetry all day and all night. I was so inspired. I wanted to become Ireland’s national poet, make my country proud, my family proud.
I entered a contest. This contest would catapult a young Gaelic to the national spotlight. I wanted desperately to be that one. I spent days and nights, drafting and composing the finest verses I could dream up. I stayed up nights. I consumed coffee by the gallons. Finally, I had done it. The most beautiful, meaningful verses which expressed my love and affection for my motherland. The judges lined us all up, had us recite our poems to the nation. I thought I’d won for sure, my verses were miles ahead of the others.
There was a boy though, a little black boy from South Africa. He had recently come to Ireland but as you can well imagine there was nothing Irish about him. I cried when our liberal president, one of the judges, turned to the cameras and the nation and said, ‘This is for those racist Irish who say a black can’t be Irish. I vote for little Mbecki.”
He was sobbing audibly now. “It would be one thing if the boy was good, truly better than me. The boy couldn’t speak a word of English or Gaelic for that matter. This abomination was done purely for racial reasons. I lost because I had the wrong skin color.”
Paul listened and unhappily realized the parallel to his own situation.
“Now don’t call me a racist because I am not one. However I am not an idiot either. I call out the truth when I see it.”
They drove in silence for a while, with Brogue saying once, “Maybe I should quit politics and go back to poetry. I’m getting damned sick of this whole business.”
They finally reached the border crossing into Israel and were told to get out of the car. Israeli soldiers surrounded them, giving them hard looks.
“Hello fellows,” Brogue said cheerfully. “Remember me?”
One of them, the leader it seemed, approached. “Of course we remember you Brogue. We have your picture and life story on file and know how much you love to come visit us here. Still the aspiring poet?”
Brogue smiled thinly. “You Israelis with your wisecracks.”
“And you.” The soldier pointed at Paul. “Who are you?”
Paul swallowed nervously. “My name is Paul Shohver.”
“What were you doing with a bunch of anti-Israeli protesters on a flotilla to Gaza?”
“I’m trying to get into a law program and I needed to be involved in activism overseas.”
The soldier smirked at him. “First time I heard that story. Anyways I believe you. And there are ways to check you out if you’re lying.” He glanced at the other soldiers. “Avi. Shimon. Take these two activists straight to the airport and put them on a plane back to their home country.” He turned back to Paul and gave him a hard look. “I hope you enjoyed Gaza because it’s the last time you’re seeing it. You’ve been blacklisted.”
They were then taken into a military jeep, driven to the airport and by the next evening, Paul was back in the U.S.A.
A Place Where I Belong
Paul called Mr. Brown first thing(“Gaza! You’re braver than me!”)and set up the interview. It was supposed to be a shoe-in. So when Paul showed up, dressed in a brand new expensive suit his father bought(“You got to dress like a lawyer son”)and the interviewee, listened to what had to day and then apologized, he was very confused.
“Sorry for what?”
“Unfortunately, we gave your spot away. Affirmative action you see.”
“Our university has a policy of awarding a certain quota of spots to certain minority groups. Unfortunately your spot had to go to one of them because she was overlooked earlier.”
“Oh send her in Janice. Here she is, bringing me some documentation. Just a formality at this point of course.”
Paul’s jaw dropped open when he saw the familiar face of Hala walk into the room. She was still shaking.