By Josh Allen
THIS ALL STARTED because of Hal Jenkins. That’s the first thing I want to say. Hal’s a Mormon bishop, and he lives around the corner from me on Silver Sage Drive. He’s like fifty, and he wears a suit and a tie all the time. And a white shirt. Always a white shirt, like it’s a sign of his purity. About twice a month, Hal drops by my house, usually with something his wife has baked, and he wants to “just chat” and “see how I’m doing.” There are only three or four ex-Mormons in my neighborhood, so that makes me special—one of Hal’s “special projects.”
I know Mormons. I used to be one. It starts with brownies and friendly chats and little by little they drag you in. They invite you to play in a softball game or to come to a barbeque or to do something you can’t refuse—like help build a wheelchair ramp for an old lady. They don’t take no for an answer. They think if they just keep showing up, keep smiling, keep bringing you baked goods, eventually you’ll come around.
So Hal comes around, to my house, a lot, but I never let him in. Most of the time, I don’t even open the door, and he’ll leave his cookies or whatever on my doorstep with a note. “Sorry I missed you. Hope to see you soon. Bishop Jenkins.” I dump his cookies in the trash, or I toss his homemade bread into the back yard for the birds. Sometimes, I forget to check the peephole when he knocks, and I open. Then I tell it like it is. I tell him I know what he’s doing. I refuse his cinnamon rolls or whatever he’s brought because I tell him his offering is impure, tainted with the things he expects me to do. I tell him I don’t want to be a Mormon bishop’s personal project, and I close the door. I’ve told him all this at least four times.
But he comes back. He always comes back. Give it a month or so, and there he’ll be. Standing on my porch. A baked invitation to church in his hands.
He last came three weeks ago. He rang the bell, and my buddy Jake was coming over to watch the Jazz and the Lakers go at it, so I didn’t check the peephole. This time, instead of cookies or brownies or cinnamon rolls, he was holding a blue guitar by the neck.
“I understand you play,” he said, nodding at it. “I just found this at a garage sale. If you’ll teach me, I’ll pay you the going rate.” He really said that. The going rate.
I closed the door.
Let me pause here and say this. Hal Jenkins is a liar. He doesn’t care about the guitar, and I know it. He’s a poser, and he got that guitar for one reason and one reason alone—so he could bring it to my door and weasel into my life. I wasn’t accepting his Mormonism for free, so now he was offering to pay me for it. The going rate.
That night, when I thought about Hal, standing there on my porch, strangling that guitar by the neck, I couldn’t sit. I walked up and down the stairs. I made fists and dug my fingers into my palms. I had this thirsty taste in my mouth, and I even forgot to eat dinner.
I thought of the words my buddy Jake uses to describe Mormons. Passive-aggressive. Jake was right about the aggressive part. Hal had been dropping by my house leaving things for me for over a year. But it was me who’d been passive. I’d been the one standing silently at the peephole waiting for him to walk away, muting the television as I saw his truck pull into the driveway, hiding out in my own home. I needed to reverse things. It was time for me to become aggressive and for them to become passive. It was time for me to leave something for him. That’s how this started.
I waited a little more than a week, and on a Tuesday night two weeks ago, I set the alarm for 2:30 a.m. When it went off, I stumbled out of bed. I’d slept in my clothes so I’d be ready, and I blinked hard as I switched on lights and dragged myself into the garage. There, I picked up a paintbrush and a half-full can of red paint that was leftover from doing my mother’s garden shed. I rummaged through a toolbox till I found a big flathead screwdriver, and I slipped it, upside-down, into my back jeans pocket.
I drove to his house, 836 Silver Sage, and parked along the street three houses up. I clicked my truck door shut. That night was quiet—cockroach quiet—so quiet I heard the hum of trucks on I-15 two miles away. In the dark, all those neighborhood houses looked the same, like they’d grown there, clones or offshoots from the same plant. I walked up to Hal’s garage door and pressed one hand to it. It was made of wood and heavy looking. I used the screwdriver to pry open the paint can, and I looked up and down the street for headlights. I listened. Nothing. So I dipped my brush and felt it grow red-paint heavy.
I’d decided days before what to write. I had the perfect thing. It didn’t take even two minutes, and just like that, I’d finally left something for him.
BISHOP JENKINS TOUCHES BOYS.
That’s what I painted, right on his garage door. In bright red letters for everyone to see—the paperboy, men on their way to work, women in exercise pants pushing strollers.
At the end of the driveway, I checked the street again and then looked at my work. I’d done it sloppy. The letters were crooked and slanted up. In a few places, the paint ran down in tiny streaks all the way to his driveway.
“Your turn,” I said softly. “A note on your door.” And I drove home, put the paint can in the garage, covered it and the brush with a tarp, and slept sweet for the next four hours.
Now, I want to tell the truth here, and I want you to know it’s the truth. So let me be clear. I don’t know whether Hal Jenkins ever touched a boy or not. He probably never did, and I don’t really care. That was never the point.
In the morning, on my way to work, I drove by to see it in daylight. Hal had found it by then, though, and had hidden it by opening the garage door. But after work, on my way home, the door was back down, and my words were still there, all in big caps, spelling my message out for the whole neighborhood to see.
But they were there, too. Of course. The Mormons. Maybe thirty of them. They were showing up in mass, like they do, like worker ants, with brushes and rollers. The men were home from work now, and they’d changed into old jeans and were coming to pitch in, help out, fix this outrage as a group. I circled the block a few times and watched them. A few of them started on the garage door, but they weren’t just painting the door. They were painting his whole house. Three men assembled scaffolding in the driveway. Two women set up a long table in the yard and laid out pizza boxes and trays of donuts and two-liter bottles of soda.
They’d made an event out of it—a Mormon activity.
I should have known. I should have remembered and expected this. But I wouldn’t let it take anything away from me. In fact, in a way, it added to it.
I drove off, pulled into my garage and pushed the button to bring down the door. I had done all this. It was me who had made them gather like sheep. Through the day, they’d probably made dozens of phone calls, and some of them—the leaders—might even have held an emergency meeting somewhere. Someone had made a trip to the store to buy paint and supplies. Someone had decided when to gather in Hal Jenkins’s driveway. Someone had picked up the pizza and donuts. And someone had paid for all of it. They’d done it because of me. I was controlling everything. For once, I was in charge of them.
Even more, here’s what I’d bet—beneath all the painting and the donuts and the phone calls and the appalled looks cast at my words on that door, I bet there were doubts. Some of them, I’m sure, had considered the possibilities: “Could this be true?” “Could somebody know something?” “Why would anybody do this if it was all a lie?” And that day, on that street, I’d bet you anything there was a father talking to his son asking, “Have you ever been alone with Bishop Jenkins?” or “Has he ever tried to touch you?”
It felt good. It made the fist clenching and the head shaking and the hard, angry breathing go away. I’d become the one leaving notes on people’s doors, and when I sat down to eat my dinner that night, I had a thought—a good one.
I could do this again.
I could plant more seeds of doubt. I could keep turning the tables. After all, Mormons are everywhere in Utah. Every neighborhood has a bishop.
FINDING THEM WAS the easiest thing in the world. Like fish in a barrel. I’d pick a random neighborhood and drive through it slowly till I came across somebody—a mother pushing a stroller, a young couple holding hands, a few kids dribbling a basketball—and I’d pull over beside them.
“Excuse me,” I’d call out the window. “Can you help me?” And like moths they’d come because Mormons are suckers for a man in need. “I’m thinking of buying a house in this neighborhood,” I’d say. “But before I do, I’d like to meet the bishop. Can you point me to his place?”
And like that, I’d get names and addresses and carefully given directions and friendly smiles and waves.
Fish in a barrel.
THE NEXT THREE you probably know about already because the local news—channel 5, the Mormon station, of course—picked up the story.
“It seems a vandal is targeting Mormon bishops,” the blonde reporter said, and interspersed with her story, they showed footage of the garage doors. They got all of them.
BISHOP PRATT HIRES WHORES
BISHOP SELLERS USES PORN
BISHOP WILSON LIKES LITTLE GIRLS
You might think I was tiring of it, but I wasn’t. Each time I did it, I got that same feeling, that same sense that I was the one in control, and each time I did it, they gathered like flies to undo my damage. I’d drive by and watch them—dressed in their old jeans, wielding rollers and brushes. I heard that a local businessman, a Mormon who owns a paint store, started donating paint supplies to all of the “victimized” bishops.
After my notes made the news, I chose a neighborhood way out in the west side. All of the houses I’d done had been on the east, so to be safe, I needed to branch out. In the evening, I drove out to Herriman, through a maze of new construction, passing kids tossing footballs and old couples out on walks.
I pulled over next to a young woman. She was in her front yard pushing a black wheelbarrow across her lawn. She wore these yellow work gloves and a straw hat. The wheelbarrow looked heavy, and she seemed busy—good signs, I thought.
I rolled down the window.
“Excuse me,” I smiled. I went through my routine.
“Oh, Bishop Stewart is fabulous,” she said letting go of the wheelbarrow and walking toward my truck. “He’s only been the bishop a few months. He lives—” She started to gesture with her yellow-gloved hands, but she stopped and let them fall to her sides. She looked at my truck and then at me.
“Why did you want to meet him?” she asked.
“I’m new in town,” I said. “I’m thinking of buying a house around the corner, and I just want to meet him before I do.”
She folded her arms.
“Why does it matter who your bishop is?” she asked. “They change every five years anyway.”
I put my head down. I still thought I could pull this off. “I know it,” I said softly. “I’ve just had a rough go of it lately. Ex-wife. I’ll spare you the details.” I waited a few seconds. “It’s crazy, I know, but before I move in, I just need to meet him. I need to know he’s good.”
“Well,” she said. “Bishop Stewart’s good. He’s most definitely that.” And she raised her yellow gloves and pointed up the street.
I know now those yellow gloves were a warning. I should have paid attention to them, but I didn’t.
I showed up a little before 3 a.m. His house was two stories—white stucco and off-white brick—and it stood out even in the dark. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and I parked in front of his neighbor’s place. I lifted my paint can and brush out of my truck, and I checked my back pocket to make sure the screwdriver was still in it, and then I walked up.
No lights. Not anywhere. Big maple trees flanked either side of his driveway. It was dark, as dark as a trash bag, and the wind was blowing just a little, just enough to rustle the leaves in the trees. That breeze stood out though—like it sometimes can at night—more noticeable on my hands and face.
I hunched down, clinked open the paint can, and dipped my brush. Then I heard a sound, a grumbling, a man clearing his throat. I spun around so fast I almost fell.
He was standing on the lawn not thirty feet away. He was looking at me and leaning—really leaning—against one of the maple trees.
“Sister Baker told me you might show up tonight,” he said, and he said it all calm, like he’d practiced those words over.
My throat got real hot, and my breaths in and out grew loud and thick.
“Don’t run,” he said, reading my mind. “You drive a red Ford Ranger, and your license plate is 183 VJZ. Run and your life gets a whole lot harder.”
Something pulsed in the back of my head. I was trying to focus, to look at him, but it was so dark, and his voice, so practiced and still, made everything fuzzy. He took one slow step forward. His shadowy shape seemed small and short, no more than 170 pounds. I held the paintbrush tight, bristles up, and paint ran down the handle and onto my fingers.
“Tell me,” he said. “What were you planning to paint on there?” And he motioned to the garage. “Something about sex? That’s what all the others have been about.”
I squinted but couldn’t see him at all. I didn’t want to talk, but he had me.
“Bishop Stewart is a fag,” I said.
“You could paint that,” he said. He bent down and picked a soda can up off the grass. He took a sip from it, and I heard him swallow twice. I craned my neck and looked at my truck. “A fag,” he said. “That’s plenty ugly. But it’s not true. Don’t you believe in the truth?”
He sipped from the can again. Two more swallows. He took a few slow steps and moved off the grass and onto the driveway.
“Look,” I said, setting the paintbrush on the upturned lid. “Let’s work something out here.” Inside my front jeans pocket, I felt my keys pressing against my leg.
“183 VJZ,” he said slowly, and he took another sip from his can. “I think things will go better for you if you just listen for a minute.”
He started walking again, taking those slow steps. I kind of backed up.
“You’ve been going about this all wrong,” he said. He sounded young, maybe in his mid-thirties. “Lies will just make them like me more. The truth, though. The truth could rock their world. If you really wanted to mess things up, you’d paint the truth.”
He waited. He wanted me to ask. I could tell.
“Fine,” I said. “Fine. What’s the truth?”
“Good question.” He sipped his drink slowly, the way some men smoke a cigarette. He was still just a shadow, but I could tell, he was enjoying this. I made out the can in his hand. It was a Mountain Dew.
“The truth,” he said, and then he moved his hand slowly from left to right, like he was picturing the words on the door. “Bishop Stewart hates you all.”
I didn’t know what to say.
He thought for a second, and then he said it again. “Bishop Stewart hates you all.” He nodded. “You could paint that. It’s true sometimes. I do hate them sometimes. The problem is that it’s not true all the time. Sometimes I don’t hate them. Sometimes I just don’t care. Sometimes I just want them to leave me alone.”
He looked at the garage door again and raised his hand one more time.
“Leave me alone,” he chuckled. “You should paint that.”
“I want to go,” I said. I knelt to put the lid on the paint can. “I’m going to go.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, and he said it so quietly.
He started pacing up and down the driveway, along the side, right where the grass and driveway met. I remembered the news story about the garage doors, and I pictured it, only this time, I pictured it with my mug shot on the screen.
When he got close, I tried to make out his face.
“Bishop Stewart doesn’t love you,” he said, and he sounded pleased. He drained his Mountain Dew, crushed the can, and tossed it back onto the lawn. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s what you can paint. You can tell them the truth. Tell them I don’t love them.”
I didn’t move.
“Paint it,” he said. “Paint it now.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
He shrugged. “Somebody should tell them the truth. I can’t, and you can. You’re here. You have a paintbrush, so you’re the guy. Paint it, and I’ll never call the cops.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cell phone, and held it up so I could see. “Don’t paint it, and I’ll call them right now.” He flipped his wrist and the phone opened. “You have five seconds. One. Two. Three.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it. You’re crazy, but I’ll do it. This’ll be my last one, okay? I’ll do what you want, and then we’ll both get on with our lives.”
“Just paint,” he said, and he sat down on his lawn, leaning his back against one of his maple trees.
I dipped the brush in the can again. I hadn’t been cleaning the brush between hits, so it was crusty and stiff, and I pressed it to the garage door and slid it down to start the B. The door was aluminum, but the brush slid hard and rough.
He sat with his knees pulled up and his arms resting on them. I painted fast, just slapping it up on the door.
I finished the word ‘Bishop.’ When I did, I looked at him and said it. “Bishop.” He shook his head, so I said it again, “Bishop, Bishop.”
“Bishop Stewart,” I said, and I said his name slowly. It was the first time I’d used it, and I wanted him to know I’d remember it, so I said it low and mocking. “Bishop Stewart doesn’t love you.”
His cell phone was still in his hand, and he was kind of shaking it. I started on his name. I could feel things kind of shifting, so I pressed.
“Who don’t you love?” I said.
“You,” he said. “Shut up and paint.”
“Me?” I said. “That’s nothing. I’m easy not to love.”
“You’re just a start,” he said. “I don’t love a lot of people.”
“Sure,” I said. I finished the T and dipped the brush again.
He looked down, sort of putting his head between his knees.
“You want to know?” he said. “You really want to know? Okay. I don’t love my own son,” he said. “I don’t love my son. How’s that?”
I looked at the door.
“You’d like him,” he said. “He calls me ‘bishop’ too.” I heard him stand up. “He says it the same way you just did—like it’s an insult. I’ll say, ‘It’s you’re night for dishes, Nathan,’ and he’ll give a Hitler salute and say, ‘Yes, bishop,’ or I’ll say, ‘Go clean your room,’ and he’ll kneel and say, ‘As you wish, my bishop.’”
I’d had enough.
“Look,” I said, and I put the paintbrush down, lying it across the top of the paint can. “I just want to go home. If you want this done, you can finish it yourself. Because I’m telling you right now, I’m done. I don’t care anymore. How much can they do to me? Flip open your phone and call the police and tell them 183 VJZ because I’m done.”
He stood up and stretched his neck, turning his head from side to side. I thought he might be getting ready to charge me, and I balled one fist. Instead, he looked at me and he said, “Please.” He said it quietly. That’s the punch he threw, and then he motioned to the paintbrush. “Please,” he said. “I’m not ordering you, and if you want to go, you can go. I won’t call anybody. I’m just asking you now. Please finish.”
I looked at my truck. It wasn’t even fifty yards away. If I started walking, I’d be there in less than twenty seconds. That’s all it would have taken. Twenty seconds.
But I bent and picked up the paintbrush. And then I did something I don’t quite get. I went back to the word BISHOP and touched up a sloppy curve in the S.
“Thank you,” he said.
He didn’t say anything else while I worked. I didn’t either. I kind of got into a rhythm, just dipping and painting. When I put the final stroke on the last U, I stepped back to look.
“Finished,” I said. I bent down and started tapping the lid onto the paint can with the back of my screwdriver. “All done.”
He looked up and read the words on the garage door out loud, and then he said, “That’s fine work.”
“Can I go?” I asked, which was strange because he’d already said I could.
“The truth,” he motioned to the garage door with one arm, “shall set you free.” Then he looked at me. He stepped off the grass, onto the driveway, and came right up by my side. I saw him. He had a mole over his right temple and a cleft in his chin. His lower lip was slightly bigger than his upper one. He had stubble on his face and creases under his eyes. “Go home,” he said. “Get some sleep,” he said.
I pocketed my screwdriver and felt how the red paint on my hands had half dried and grown sticky. I picked up my paint can and walked down the driveway.
As I got to the end of it, I heard him speak. He said, “And the destroying angel will pass over you,” and I thought he was still talking to me, that he was offering me forgiveness or something, but when I turned, his back was to me. He didn’t even know I was there. He was looking at the words on the door, those red words, like blood, on the door.