Bible Store Blues
One day my friend Mindy and I decide we must find jobs.
I already have one. I work for three hours at a week at the used bookstore near my house. I make $7 an hour. This is an astonishing amount of money, yet I feel I must find a real job.
For the past three months I have been coming home from school, taking a nap, eating dinner, and going online. Then I fall asleep again. I have time for a job.
The library is not hiring. They give us applications anyway. We carefully place them in the backseat of my car. We never see them again.
Our next stop is the parking lot of the Bible store. This store used to be a church. I used to attend that church. When my family moved to Mullica Hill I insisted we go to church. I am not sure which part of my four-year-old mind church appealed to, but I pretty quickly regretted my religious fervor.
We go to the Hilltop and ask for applications. The girl at the counter says they are not hiring. We should have guessed; all the waiters are standing around eating stale cake.
As a joke, I walk into the Bible store and say I am looking for a job. Mindy stands on the second floor and laughs while I speak to the owner. She is noncommittal (�We�re not hiring right now�) until she asks me to write my name and phone number down.
�Oh! Ellen Rhudy!�
And then she says that one of her two employees is pregnant and she will need someone to replace her in about three weeks.
My father is the mayor.
We also go to Electric Mobility. They manufacture the Rascal scooter. We accept the thick, five-page-long applications handed to us by the receptionist and fill them out.
To complete my application, I must return for a group interview the next week. I don�t find this out until I return a few days later to hand in my application.
When the owner of the Bible store calls to ask me in for an interview, I go. I do not have to fill out an application. I bullshit her for fifteen minutes. We do not discuss religion. She offers the job. I accept. I throw out my Electric Mobility application.
My second week there, my boss begins to quiz me on religion. Is she already suspicious? I admit that I do not know how old a child is when she goes through communion. I have a vague memory that my friend Kara went through communion when she was 15. Or was that confirmation?
I pretend to have a sincere, anthropological interest in religion when I tell people about my job. This is not quite a lie.
On my first day I meet a woman named S. She does a Christian radio program on Mondays. Every Monday she calls and asks to speak to the owner. When I say the owner isn�t in, which she usually isn�t when S calls, she says, �uh�uh�� That is when I ask if I can take a message and S says she was just calling to see if J was going to listen to her show.
An hour later S always calls back to ask if J listened. I don�t know, I always say. �uh�uh�� she says. Then we awkwardly remove ourselves from the conversation and hang up.
The store sells Bibleman action figures, videos and t-shirts. J tells me that she had thought no one would buy the action figures�they�re fairly ugly and campy�but they are one of the bestselling items in the store. This means we sell maybe one action figure every few weeks.
After three months at the store I order two Bibleman shirts. I figure it is about time. I give one to my friend Rob. The other I will keep for myself.
In June, a woman comes in looking for a Bible. She would like to look inside before buying one, she says, but all the Bibles are covered in plastic wrap. She explains that she wants to be sure it is the sort of reading she is looking for. Recent versions of the Bible have not been honest in carrying God�s word. They have been changing it, making it more acceptable, more palatable. She does not want this.
A pastor rents an office in the back of the store. He walks out while J is talking to this woman, while J is offering to remove plastic wrap from one of the Bibles�no, no, says the woman, I don�t want you to do that, no one will buy it if it�s not wrapped�and introduces himself to the woman. They begin to talk about the Methodist church. They talk about the homosexual agenda.
Then the woman begins to talk about Muslims. They are coming into our country, she says, and they expect us to accept them. They walk on our streets, they parade their religion and try to force it down our throats, and I simply will not stand for it.
I stand behind the register, doing inventory, and listen. I cannot look at the woman. I am afraid she will see my eyes and understand.
I am not Muslim.
I am not Christian.
I do not believe in God.
And what would they say, if they knew?
You�re working at a religious bookstore? my old Shakespearean Readings teacher asks. But you have a brain! How does that work?
I tell my boss that I am going to see the third Harry Potter film. It is opening night, of course I am going to see it. She says that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. I attempt to make amends by discussing what a powerful film The Passion is.
This is just one slip-up in a list of many.
A couple of months after I begin work, J says she is ordering t-shirts that we will wear while working. I am immediately suspicious. She checks the tag on my shirt (that�s the same size my daughter wears, she says) and decides to order me an adult medium or small. Okay, I say. Sure. I am pretty certain that this new t-shirt measure has been imposed only because of me. And when, a few weeks later, I am working when the other girl, G, comes in, and she is not wearing a t-shirt but her normal clothes, I realize that I was right.
For my first week I must walk around the store and look at books whenever I don�t have a set task. The bookstore is fairly small, but still manages to carry a wide variety of books: books on how Christians forgive people, books on how Christians do not have sex before marriage, books on how Christians of all shapes and sizes must resist sexual thoughts, books on George W. Bush�s faith, books on how the liberal media has taken over the United States, books on the Rapture (both fiction and nonfiction), and Bibles for everyone you can imagine. Bibles for mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, singles, children of every age, teen girls, teen boys. Three different comic strip Bibles.
Every once in a while I read a chapter from one of the comic Bibles. Before my job at the Bible store I had read parts of the Bible perhaps two times. Now, if I am extremely bored (and this only happens a few times) I read a story and plan to commit it to memory for recitation to my boss. See, I am a Christian!
I never remember the stories, though. Just the pictures.
I have been at the Bible store about two months when J begins, once or twice a week, to walk up to me and say, �You are such a blessing to us. I don�t know what we would do without you.�
Then she lists five or ten things I have been doing terribly, fire-able offenses. I do not ask customers what they were not able to find, I once failed to ask a woman for her phone number and address, I accepted a credit card for an item for which we are not supposed to accept credit cards, I do not fill the shelves when I have spare time, I did not check every card off the packing list when putting new cards out.
When she reaches the end of her list, she claps her hands, tells me what a wonderful employee I am, and goes to her office to order more books and cards to be returned to the distributors in six months.
Out of nowhere, my boss asks where I attend church.
The Bible store is actually in an old church, the same one I insisted my family attend when I was younger. The congregation is in a new church now, about a mile away, and we still go there for the Christmas service. J wants to know whether I am active in my church, in the youth group, and I spend a few minutes struggling before managing to say that I attend services, but am not in the youth group. That seems a safe enough answer to me.
But what church do I go to?
Trinity Methodist, I reply.
That is the same church J attends.
Bibleman wears the helm of God. He carries the Sword of Salvation. He also carries a Bible, which he slashes at nonbelievers in a threatening manner.
J�s daughter, C, is insane and fun and the only thing that makes going to work worthwhile. C growls at me. She runs behind bookshelves and jumps out when I walk by, and tries to pull me off my stool when I am at the computer. Sometimes J emerges from her office to tell C to stop bothering me, and I never manage to tell J that C is the only thing keeping me awake for the four or five or six hours I�m there.
At the end of the school year I cut back on sleep, sitting up till one each night writing or working on my computer, and I feel dazed every time I enter the Bible store. I am tired and constantly contradict myself when I talk to C and sometimes pretend I cannot hear her or feel her, so that she says I am insane and strange. I thank her and say that she is also insane and strange and the weirdest little girl I have ever met, and worry when her mother hears any part of these conversations.
�What sort of music do you listen to?� J asks. �What�s your favorite band?�
I try to explain and, finding no answer, I tell her that I listen to indie rock.
�Well!� she says. �We need to get you listening to some of these Christian artists.�
I work in a store that sells the idea of people like me going to hell.
And why are we going to hell, why am I going to hell? Because I can�t believe in this wonderful story that there is a God somewhere who gives a shit what happens to us. Because I can�t accept the idea that if there were a God he would want us to kill each other over these delineations we�ve made, �you�re a different religion than I am so I will do my best to convert you or, failing that, kill you�; that he would want us to love our neighbors but only conditionally, only if he weren�t a pervert or a non-believer.
We sell tracts for Christians to hand out to nonbelievers. J asks if I know what they are and she says that you can hand them out to anyone, that some people hand them out on the street. If J knew of my agnostic label, she would hand me tracts, Bibles, or one of the numerous books we carry that are written by formerly Atheist journalists who have seen the light.
How is this any different from what I do? If my job would not be at risk, I would encourage C to read the Harry Potter books and watch the films. As it is, I try to convert people to my own beliefs, to getting Bush out of office, ending war, saving the environment, shopping at independent book and record shops. But somehow this sort of conversion seems less harmful to me. It is good, it is helping people to find themselves and some level of truth, it is helping people to change the world, or at least their small patch of it, for good.
And this must be how they see it, too.
S has saved several people through her radio program.
This is a point of pride.
J is on her second marriage. From her first, she has a 22-year-old daughter who has an out-of-wedlock child.
When I am angry, I think about this.
S�s jaw wobbles constantly, side to side. This is such a hilarious trait that I tell all my friends about it, attempting an imitation and settling on telling them she is just like a cow chewing its cud, only she is too lazy to actually chew and so her jaw just wobbles.
After a while it occurs to me that the wobbling jaw is likely not a freakish Christian feature but a symptom of an actual disease, maybe Parkinson�s, which my great-aunt has. S walks with a cane. She buys books �on account� and then takes months to settle her accounts. I am not sure how to deal with S, whether I should feel exasperation or pity or neither when she calls or comes in the store. For a while I think that if I were a Christian I wouldn�t have made fun of her, until I realize that I am not thinking about being a Christian in the whole sense of it, that I am just thinking of the general Christian ideals of being kind to one another, not of believing in God. If you were to cut God out of the proposition, I could say that I live a fairly Christian life: I don�t drink often, smoke, do drugs, am a virgin, have not stolen since I was six years old and took a pack of gum from the Acme. My only fault, the only important one, is that I make fun of people, often cruelly, often to their faces; to them, my only fault is that I do not believe in God.