by Joel Zlotnik
Paul, his arms full of pants, stood in line with the other men. It looked to him like this was another department store going-out-of-business sale. Only if that were the case, the line would be mostly women and he wouldn’t be standing there in his underwear.
Paul held every single pair of pants he owned. He shuffled forward with his Levis and khakis and itchy wool suit pants, even his sweats, more than a dozen in all. Paul’s skinny arms ached and his chicken legs were freezing in his blue polka dot boxers as he headed toward the church door for the Blessing of the Pants.
It was a chilly desert morning in early spring and the clouds weighed heavy in the sky, with no hint of clearing.
It was almost a year ago, on a Saturday like this, that he first encountered Rose. Sitting on the patio at a coffee shop that used to be a Starbucks in his favorite flannel shirt and gray hoodie, he was half-reading Stephen King’s Misery, half-watching the other people half-reading their Kindles.
He had a perfect view of two thongs sticking out of two pairs of low-slung sweat pants worn by two teenage girls. Paul, who thought he wanted to have kids some day, wondered if these girls’ fathers knew that 27-year-old guys like him couldn’t stop staring at their daughters’ underwear.
“Getting a good look?” the voice came from behind Paul. Startled, he nearly choked on his latte. He turned to find a girl about his age dressed all in black except for a pink scarf. She was little, probably wouldn’t come up to Paul’s chest in high heels. She had a fragile, thin face and nearly transparent blue eyes that bored right into him, convicting him of his voyeuristic sins.
His mind scrambled for words to free him from the shame, his cheeks turning pinker than his accuser’s scarf. What flashed through his mind was the time his mom walked into his bedroom without knocking and found him at his desk watching porn with his mouse in one hand and his dick in the other. No words then either.
“Excuse me?” he finally offered.
“Don’t you think those girls are a little young for you to be staring at their panties?”
“What? I wasn’t staring. I was uh, just, um … what’re you talking about?”
“Admit it. I busted you buddy,” the girl said, tilting her head sideways, like a curious cocker spaniel. Her long black hair fell forward, covering one eye. She smiled a satisfied smile, shook her head, tossed her hair back and stood up.
“I was just reading,” Paul said to the girl who was now in front of him.
“Dude, you’re bright red,” said the girl. Without invitation, she sat.
“I always look like this.”
“Yeah, right. What do your friends call you, Red?”
“Actually, I’m Paul.”
“Well it’s a pleasure meeting you, Paul. I’m Rose.”
Rose did the cocker spaniel head tilt thing again and looked at the thong girls. “You like thongs, Paul?”
Paul wasn’t sure how to answer. And who was this girl? Paul never talked to anyone at the coffee shop, let alone a girl like this. He wasn’t the kind of guy who talked to cute girls at coffee shops, or anywhere else for that matter.
He was the guy who went to those places and looked at cute girls, wishing he could talk to them. It’s not that he didn’t consider himself good looking. He was blessed with a lean six-foot frame, full head of chestnut hair and dark brown eyes; almost an all-American boy look (if only his face were thinner, and his ears didn’t stick out quite so much).
Paul’s problem was that he never got over that nervousness around the opposite sex that most guys started putting behind them in ninth or tenth grade. When he saw a cute girl at the gym or coffee shop, he spent so much time debating in his head about what to say that he never said anything.
So here he was in a conversation about underwear, his face as bright as Rose’s scarf.
“Thongs?” he stuttered. “Um, well, yeah sure, I guess I like them.”
“Have you ever worn a thong?”
“Uh, no.” That was a lie. Once in college, his one and only real girlfriend left a black thong in his dorm room and he tried it on. The thin fabric strip running up his butt felt strange, not bad, just strange, and the way the silk hugged his dick tightly made him hard.
“You look like you’d like it,” Rose said, as if reading his mind.
“What the hell does that mean?” He wasn’t sure why he was defending himself to a stranger he’d probably never see again.
“Now don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Rose said, laughing and flipping her hair out of her face.
Paul started laughing too, and realized he very much wanted to see this girl again. Then the stomach churn began and his palms started sweating, despite the cold early spring air where sweat hardly seemed possible.
“Hey pal, keep moving.” The three-chinned bald man behind Paul was nudging him, his arms full of plaid golf pants. A gap that could hold six or seven men had developed between Paul and the middle-aged man ahead of him wearing a tweed jacket and tighty whities.
Judging by the number of guys in front of him, Paul figured he had at least an hour until he made it inside the massive wooden doors of the old stone church. What kind of nuts would stand in line for hours, in their underwear, waiting to get their pants blessed?
What troubled Paul almost as much was that no one passing the church seemed to notice a few hundred guys lining up in their skivvies, pants cradled in their arms like grocery sacks. Or if they did notice, they thought it was normal. Much different than a year ago, when the first Blessing of the Pants made news around the country:
TUCSON – A fourth-generation tailor, whose livelihood fell victim to the New Depression, hung out his shingle again today at a once-shuttered Catholic church, claiming he could transform the lives of men by blessing their pants.
Thomas Krause, (who asked to be referred to as Reverend), said after the nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, millions of people are rightly abandoning religion because they realize there is no evidence to justify God’s existence.
“With the alleged birthplace of religion reduced to radioactive rubble, how can anyone pick up a Holy Bible, a Torah or Koran and believe one single word?” said Krause. “What I offer my followers is hope, hope in something tangible, hope that we will find redemption from these tragic times through the simple acts of life.”
Krause declined to allow a reporter and photographer into the church service.
Calls for comment to the Diocese of Tucson, Congregation Bet Shalom and the Islamic Center of Tucson were not returned.
What freaks, Paul thought. Another lunatic fringe group to give people around the country reason to joke about what the Arizona sun does to a person’s brain.
But that was back when Paul had a job – a junior software engineer for a company that developed warehouse inventory tracking programs. Back before most of the businesses that utilized warehouses for their inventory went out of business. And, back before Rose.
It hadn’t taken long for Paul to fall in love with Rose. But then no one ever talked him the way she did, vocalizing her thoughts without regard for how they might sound to the person receiving them.
“You don’t want me to think you’re a pervert, do you Paul?” she asked that morning at the coffee shop.
“I’m not a pervert.”
“Then be a gentleman and ask me for my number. Then call and ask me out so you can prove it.”
“You don’t even know if I’m single.”
“Yes I do. And Paul? Don’t wait three days to call me.”
Paul sent a text that night: hi its paul … it was nice meeting u 2day J
Rose responded: i told u 2 call me!!! L
Why on earth did he want anything to do with this girl?
Paul called Rose and they talked for an hour. Actually, Rose did most of the talking, which was fine by Paul. Three years younger than Paul, Rose grew up in Tucson, the only child of overprotective parents with high expectations. They pushed Rose to become a doctor like her father. She decided she could heal people with music rather than medicine, and learned to play the guitar. She tended bar to pay the rent, one of the few industries that continued thriving.
“My parents forced me to take piano lessons for years,” Paul said, jumping into the conversation as he stared at the dying Fichus in the corner of his one-bedroom townhouse. “My piano teacher’s house smelled like cigarettes and mothballs and I hated it, but I can still play now.”
“Oh yeah, what comes out of Paul’s fingers at the keyboard?
“I like old blues, a little jazz. My parents were pissed when I started playing Ray Charles instead of Tchaikovsky.”
“I knew there was some soul in there somewhere,” Rose said. Paul pictured her flipping her hair. “If you’re nice, maybe I’ll let you sit in with us one night.”
“You’re in a band?”
“Yessir, you have the pleasure of speaking with the lead singer and guitarist for Ruby’s Tuesday, an all-girl Rolling Stones cover band.”
“Get out of here. I love the Stones.”
“Frankly Paul, I’m a little disappointed you’ve never heard of us. We’re the hottest all-girl Rolling Stones cover band in Arizona.”
“There’s more than one?”
“Very funny, Paul. So I guess you don’t get out to too many clubs.”
“Well, honestly, I don’t have a lot of friends here. Tucson is a different world compared to San Francisco and I’ve only been here a few months,” Paul said. “This place is … well, how should I put it … there are a few too many people wearing cowboy boots in this town.”
Rose laughed into the phone looking at her favorite pair of weathered black boots next to the front door of her downtown studio apartment.
“It’s not the boots that are the problem, it’s the fact that no one in this town ever puts them on and goes anywhere. It’s even worse now. The Jesus freaks have been circling the wagons since Jerusalem was nuked.”
“Yeah, did you hear about that lunatic and his church of the sacred pants?”
“Paul, my darling, I hate to break it you, but that lunatic is probably the most sane person in the Old Pueblo.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No sir. You stay here a while longer and you’ll see. Now, weren’t you supposed to ask me out?”
The phone slickened in Paul’s hand. “Um … what are you doing Friday night?”
“We’re playing at the Boondocks. Come by at eight, we’ll have a beer and you can hear us play.”
“Cool, that sounds great.”
“Oh and Paul.”
Wear boots. That was the last thing Rose had said just before he left this morning with his pants. He tried to be quiet; she hated waking up early, especially after a gig. But as he grabbed his keys gingerly off the dresser, her naked body rustled under the sheets. She shook her head, a mass of black hair popping out and said “Love you Paul. Wear boots.”
So as his pants grew heavy in his arms, and he inched toward the church door in his boots and boxer shorts, he tried to imagine the absurd possibility that his life could be altered by a former tailor blessing his pants.
It was six months ago this week that Rose moved in with Paul. Rose was at his place just about every night anyway, and already commandeered his closet.
His company just started laying people off. He felt pretty safe though. He didn’t make much money compared to the senior engineers and he worked twice as hard. A month after Rose hung her hat at Paul’s, he walked into her bar in the middle of the day, the manila envelope containing his severance information tucked under his arm.
“Don’t worry baby, I’ll support you. You can be my bitch,” Rose said.
Paul couldn’t ever remember feeling less like laughing, but he did anyway.
“Do you have any idea how hard it’s going to be to find another job?” Paul asked her, thinking how his company was just one more notch in the New Depression’s gun belt.
“Um, yeah, baby, I kind of do,” Rose said, cocking her head toward the men lining the bar.
Monday afternoon and each high-backed vinyl chair was occupied with an unemployed car salesman or insurance agent or teacher or bus driver or lawyer or waiter.
An air of humble resignation hung over them thicker than the cloud of blue cigarette smoke. It wasn’t sadness, or shame, or even embarrassment that Paul was feeling after losing a job for the first time in his life. The prevailing sentiment was acceptance.
“Jesus Christ, what am I going to do?”
“Don’t worry Paul. And don’t think Jesus is going to lend you a hand,” Rose said, sliding a shot of Jack Daniels his way. “This’ll help.”
“Welcome to the club,” said a man in a blue button-down shirt as he raised his beer. “Real estate?”
“Software,” Paul said and he held the shot toward the guy, then at Rose. He downed it, and the brown liquor warmed his stomach but didn’t numb the feeling of getting punched in the gut.
“Good luck, brother,” said the man.
The man in tweed standing ahead of him in line reminded Paul of the well-wisher at the bar. Paul spent a few seconds too many looking the tweed man over, and broke his self-imposed no eye contact rule. It cost him.
“How you doing, brother?” The tweed man’s gruff voice and the deep lines in his face gave him away as a lifelong smoker.
Paul shrugged his thin shoulders, sighed and said, “Ah, well. You know.”
At times like this, Paul envied Rose the most for her ability to say what was on her mind. He wished he could tell the man: I graduated with honors from Stanford, interned at Apple and now I’m in some godforsaken town where I haven’t worked in five months and I can’t even get someone to call me back for an interview; I’m living off the government and my girlfriend, who has to wear low-cut tops and flirt with losers like you so she can squeeze an extra dollar tip from their unemployment checks; I sold my car and pawned my piano, oh and I’m standing here in my fucking underwear and my feet are killing me in this ridiculous pair of cowboy boots while I wait to have some fucking lunatic bless my pants.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” the man said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together like he needed a smoke.
It’s tough? Was that the best the old man could do?
“You know I taught high school English for 27 years and wasn’t even considering retirement. Then the district doubles class sizes, enacts an over 50 mandatory retirement and then our pension fund goes broke.”
The man was about the same age as Paul’s dad, who spent his entire career with the IRS. Another New Depression-proof career.
“Every year I had my students read Of Mice and Men. You ever read it?”
“I wasn’t much into literature. Computers are my thing.”
“You should read it. Looks like you’ve got time on your hands. Say, you have a cigarette by any chance?”
“Sorry,” Paul said.
“Anyway, you work more than half your life at teaching—a noble profession—and you try and inspire young minds and all you ask for is a little place of your own, to live off the fat of the land and raise chickens and rabbits and …”
The man stopped and his sunken eyes swelled, his chest heaved and he did nothing to fight back the sobs. He dropped his pants, his knees buckled as he fell to the ground on the rumpled pile of slacks.
Paul had never seen a man break like this in person, even though it was a routine part of the daily news. They showed the suffering nightly: The families left behind by suicide, newborns abandoned at fire stations or worse – in dumpsters, old women beaten and robbed of their wedding bands and the few dollars left in their purses. It was TV though, somebody and somewhere else. “Wheel of Fortune” was up next and the suffering was forgotten as quickly as it took to buy the first vowel.
This man was too real. Paul didn’t think he would ever be able to forget the sound of his breathless sobs, gasping for air, his wire-rimmed glasses crooked on his face, snot running out of his nose as he lay in his underwear in a crumpled heap.
He set his pants down and put his hands on the old man’s heaving shoulders. The tweed jacket felt coarse and he squeezed a couple of times like a trainer warming up a boxer.
“It’s okay man. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. It’ll work out.” He was trying to convince himself. “Things will get better, they have to.”
The shuddering stopped and he buried his face in one sleeve and wiped away the tears and the snot in one quick motion. He half laughed and half wheezed, took a deep breath and let out a deeper sigh.
“Things will get better, they have to,” the man echoed. “Brother, I hope you’re right. It would be a shame for you to grow old in a world where men are weeping in the streets. God, what I really need is a smoke.”
The man gathered his pants, stood up, and they moved forward in uncomfortable silence.
Paul thought of his first date with Rose, how she looked on stage, her little hips swaying side to side. She didn’t look a thing like Mick Jagger, but she embodied all of his spirit and swagger.
Near the end of the set, she shook the sweat-soaked hair out of her face, took the mike stand in one hand and surveyed the crowd by putting the other hand up to her forehead like a ship’s captain searching for land. Paul got the feeling that Rose thought she was playing to a sold-out show at Wembley Stadium, not a few dozen drunken cowboys.
Her gaze fixed on him at a table front and center. “I’d like to dedicate this next song to my newest groupie, Paul the Perv.” With that, she slid a hand into her low-slung black jeans, pulled out the thin black strap of her thong and let it thwack against her hip. Rose winked at a blushing Paul, cocked her head and said: “Remember baby, you can’t always get what you want, but you might just get what you need.”
After the show, she bounced off the stage and ordered shots of Jack Daniels. She pulled her chair close to Paul’s and he felt the heat radiating from her body.
“Well?” she asked.
“Wow, you were amazing. If Mick ever dies, I think you’ve got a job.”
“Good answer, Paul.” She leaned closer and kissed Paul hard on the lips. She tasted a little salty from her sweat but god, was it sweet. The waitress brought the shots, and Rose offered a toast: “To getting what we need.”
“To getting what we need,” Paul repeated.
They swallowed the Jack and slammed down the glasses.
About every 15 minutes, the church doors swung and roughly fifty men exited as the same number entered. The group that just went in left Paul fifth in line. Soon his pants would be blessed and he’d be on his way home to Rose. He needed to take off his boots and the rest of his clothes and climb into bed with her.
Sure, she made him do things like get his pants blessed, and he couldn’t remember a day since they met that she hadn’t made him blush at least once. She didn’t even need to be there. The first morning he woke up at her place, he walked into the bathroom and on top of the toilet was a pink sticky note that said: “Enjoy your piss!”
The only time Paul really felt good lately, the only time he felt safe, was when he wrapped his arms around Rose and closed his eyes. His body enveloped hers, the smell of her hair and her skin mixing with his own and after a few minutes he was lost in her, not able to tell where he ended and she began. He slowed his breathing, synchronizing the rise and fall of their chests, listened to the rhythm of their breath and forgot.
He forgot he was behind on his mortgage. Even with Rose’s help there was no way they could afford his townhouse. His first home was heading to foreclosure. He forgot that he waited two hours at Circle K to interview for a minimum wage cashier’s job, which he didn’t get. He forgot that since he was fifteen, this was the longest he’d ever gone without working. He forgot that his mom offered to let him move home into his room that was now a gym.
None of it mattered to Rose. “Don’t worry baby, it’ll work out, you’ll be my bitch.” She said it every time Paul worried. It made him smile, but he had a hard time seeing everything work out.
“Good morning, gentlemen. Please have a seat.” Paul walked slowly down the aisle of the musty church. A man, Reverend Krause he presumed, stood in front of the spot where a life-sized crucifix once hung. The outline of the cross was still visible where the paint spent years fading around it.
The men filed into the pews and Paul realized how tired he was from holding his pants in line the whole morning. The wooden bench was cold against his skinny bare thighs.
“Gentlemen, please drop your pants in front of you.”
The pants tumbled making dull thuds like falling flour sacks. Paul gazed down at the mounds and they reminded him of the way dirt looked before crops started sprouting.
Rev. Krause walked up and down the aisle like a drill sergeant. He was wearing the top half of a dark blue, three-piece, pinstriped suit, crisp white shirt and a red bowtie with electric blue paisleys like miniature shrimp. On his feet were black wing-tip shoes shined to a high gloss, and black socks with red stripes. His silk boxer shorts also were red with electric blue paisleys. His hair was slicked back, dark with gray creeping in at his temples.
“Gentlemen, I would like to thank you for coming. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is The Reverend Thomas Krause.” He stopped and stretched his arms out toward the men. “And I am here to help you.”
Reverend Krause didn’t sound very much like a preacher. His voice had a high pitch and it crackled. It was not a steady and authoritative voice meant to instill belief. His shoulders hunched noticeably, the opposite of the puffed out chest of a man of god. And, although somehow Paul got used to standing among a group of pantsless men, the same way you unknowingly adjusted to a foul smelling cab, the preacher – in his paisley boxer shorts – emphasized the absurdity of the situation.
He resumed pacing, his silk shorts and wingtips reflecting the light coming through the stained-glass windows.
“Let me first dispel the myths that are on the minds of at least a few of you. First, I have not lost my mind.” Krause held the gaze of each man as he passed. “I am not here to steal what’s left of your money. I have no interest in turning you away from any supreme being in whom you may still believe.”
No problem there, Paul thought. Aside from the occasional wedding or funeral, he was a teenager when he last attended church.
“I call myself Reverend not because I’m a man who preaches the word of God, but because I believe I can lead you and your brothers down the road to a better life. However, the truth, gentlemen, is that what I believe is inconsequential. What your wife believes, what your children believe, what your mother-in-law believes? Inconsequential.”
Paul and a number of the other men started nodding their heads without realizing it.
“There is but one belief that matters in your life, gentlemen, and it is yours and yours alone. For four generations, the Krause family has succeeded with needle and thread, dressing the most successful men of business and industry on two continents. My story is not unique. When business and industry started crumbling, my family’s business, built over a century, went with it. Take a good hard look at me, gentlemen. How many of you think I’m a failure?”
The church was silent.
“I don’t believe I am either. And I don’t believe a single one of you is a failure. Gentlemen, please rise.”
Paul and the other men rose.
“Take a close look at the men standing next to you. Do they look like failures? Do you believe they can succeed? Do you think they believe you can succeed?”
“Gentlemen, you need but one thing to succeed.”
Krause walked back to the altar and lifted a pair of dark blue, pinstriped suit pants from a valet. He talked with an urgency, his pace quickening, and he began to preach.
“You need to believe. You need to wake up each morning and believe you can succeed. Do you understand? Whether you’re walking to the unemployment office, or the grocery store to buy bread for your family with your food stamps, or to the job interview where hundreds will apply for one opening. You wake up and you put your pants on, you put your pants on one leg at a time.” There was a long pause. “And gentlemen, no matter what you do, you believe.”
The Reverend stopped. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The suit pants were folded over his arm and he began pacing again, looking each man in the eye.
“Gentlemen, please join me,” Rev. Krause said, motioning toward the piles of pants. “Put on every pair you own.”
Paul bent and lifted his left leg across his right and yanked off his boot. He repeated the action with the other. He heard shoes falling to the floor and a couple of grunts as older men reached for the floor. Paul then picked up his favorite pair of weathered khakis. He wondered how many thousands of times in his life he put his pants on … one leg at a time. How old was he when he started dressing himself? Five, maybe six. More than 20 years for sure, and not a day without sticking one leg, then the other, into a pair of pants or shorts. One leg in at a time, and then pull them up.
Oh wait, there was that day last summer when it reached 110 degrees and Rose insisted they go twenty-four hours without a stitch of clothing. Things were going perfectly until there was a knock on the door. Paul reached for his shorts and Rose shouted at him to stop.
“No way baby. Twenty-four hours. No clothes.”
“I am not answering the door naked, Rose.”
“Fine, chicken shit, I’ll do it.”
And before Paul could protest, Rose was buying King Size Kit Kats from two bug-eyed Scouts selling their way to Space Camp.
The memory caused Paul to laugh out loud. The laugh came from deep inside, a laugh buried under months of humiliation and sadness. The teacher putting on corduroys next to him, the one who broke down earlier, shot him an odd look and then broke into a smile himself, a smile that morphed into a laugh. And then it spread, man after man, hopping around, pulling on pants – jeans, and plaids, and chinos – and laughing like each had a ghost behind them tickling their sides.
Paul, on his knees, hysterical in the heap of pants, looked up at the laughing Reverend Krause just in time to see him pull a blue paisley handkerchief from his breast pocket and wipe away the tears streaming down his face.
It wasn’t yet noon when Paul entered his townhouse quietly, knowing Rose would be asleep. She was a lump under the white sheets. Exhausted, Paul sat on the edge of the bed and repeated the ritual of pulling off his boots. He tried to stifle a chuckle. He then took off his favorite khakis – one leg at a time – and stripped naked. He slid under the sheets and felt Rose’s body heat, like it was sending him a signal. He pressed against her, wrapping his arms around her tightly.
“Hey baby,” Rose stirred, sliding back into Paul. “How’d it go?”
“It’s gonna be okay, Rose.”
“It’s about time you believed me.”
Paul slowed his breathing, getting in tune with Rose, and fell asleep.
– THE END –
Zlotnik is a former Southern California journalist who got out just in time and was able to find a full-time job. Visit his occasionally updated blog at: mindofjzlotnik.blogspot.com