The name’s Max and I sell dreams. Or, better, I sell the cars my customers drive in their dreams. But, even better, I show my customers the truth: that they can have everything they’ve ever dreamed of and more. In fact, they deserve it.
And I should know. I’m a self-made man. An innovator. A risk-taker. The epitome of the American dream. I fled rural Tennessee ten years ago and landed here, in New York City, with nothing but the clothes on my back, my wits, and my determination, and I made my money as the best salesman at the Queens Auto Mall. Heck, I even made my name. Perfect, isn’t it? Max conveys power and confidence and Littlefield hints at my humble roots in the rural south.
Now, before I tell my story, I’ve got to tell you I am no family man. I have a family, but they are no kin of mine.
What happened was these two heirlooms—matching gold pendants: one holding a ruby and one holding an emerald—were stolen from a locked safe during a family party and Mamma and Daddy blamed me for it. Now, I couldn’t have stolen anything. I left that party early and I had the alibi to prove it. Of course, nobody listened. Once rumors start, they can hardly be contained. So I left and I haven’t said a word to my family since.
That is, until six months ago, when my sister, ten years younger, sent me a message on Facebook and asked if she could stay with me. She said she was in New York and didn’t have money for a hotel room.
I was suspicious. I wondered how she found me, considering I changed my name. I wondered if she was a spy sent by my family to frame me. Or, was she trying to coax a confession out of me? That was never going to happen since I didn’t have any confession to give.
I thought about deleting the message…but I had a soft spot for Caylee–only twenty years old, wandering the streets of New York by her lonesome.
So I messaged her my address. Three hours later, she showed up at my door, lugging two suitcases and seven, yes seven, bags looped over her arms.
“Henry! How are you, hon?” She hugged me with all of her bags jangling around.
“Caylee! It’s Max now. I’ve been great, good to see you. Planning on staying awhile?”
Turns out she was. She told me she’d left home for good. When I asked why, she just shook her head and changed the subject. After that, we talked about our jobs—she had just quit hers as a secretary at a small law firm—then we talked about the city, the weather, TV, movies, and, of course, cars.
Neither of us mentioned the rest of the family or the past, which made me feel a little better.
Her phone didn’t have any security, so when she went to the bathroom, I checked her text messages and calls to see if she’d talked to any family. She hadn’t in two weeks. Though Mamma and Daddy had sent her dozens of messages asking where she was and if she was OK.
When she stepped outside my apartment to make a call, I listened by the window—but she was only quitting her secretary job.
“I don’t mind how it looks and don’t worry, I don’t need your reference. But thank you for your concern,” she said.
I even rummaged through her bags and suitcases while she was outside, and all I found aside from outfits, jewelry, amenities, makeup, a purse, stray coins, feminine products, and a pair of noise cancelling headphones, was a pamphlet titled: The Wonders of Erasmus. I shrugged that off as subway station literature distributed by some proselytizing homeless person. Reading material while she waited for my reply.
The next day we went out for seafood at Pearl Fish—this real fancy spot. She ordered scallops and I got the lobster.
“Henry, I got to tell you something,” she said, anxiously.
This was it. The catch. My family coming to rob me of my personal riches.
I dropped the fork and shell cracker on my plate next to the hollowed out lobster, gave Caylee a wolfish grin and said, “What is it, Sis?”
She reached under the table, shuffled stuff around in her purse, and pulled out that exact same pamphlet I’d found earlier: The Wonders of Erasmus. “I got to tell you why I left home.”
“Well, it was because I joined this online religious organization that Mamma and Daddy just did not approve of.” She balanced the pamphlet on both palms and held it out to me, like she was handing me the Holy Grail.
I stroked my sideburns, relieved. I took the pamphlet and pretended to read through it. “Interesting…and who is Erasmus?”
She smiled wide as a watermelon. “He’s the leader. And let me tell you, he’s amazing. I’ve seen all his Youtube videos and read all his sermons. He’s so passionate and speaks so many truths. Not like all those pretender Baptists, with their fancy, expensive churches and clothes. Erasmus cares about us regular folk.”
I didn’t know about her, but I wasn’t “regular folk” anymore.
I leaned back in my chair. “And you came all the way to New York to worship with this man?”
“Well,” she said, averting her eyes, “yes and no.”
She paused. I sat there, thinking.
“I was hoping you’d come with me. There’s this big convention in Manhattan, and I don’t know my way around. Please? It’ll be fun, and, I don’t know…” she looked under the table, massaging her fingers. “Maybe you’ll like it and join too.”
It hurt to hold my laughter in. “Sure! I’d love to show you around the city. We’ll make a day of it, see all the sights, then go to your little convention.”
She clapped like a cymbalist. “I’m so excited! Thanks for being agreeable, Henry.”
“Please. Call me Max.”
The day of the convention, I took her to all the famous tourist attractions: The Empire State Building, Times Square, Central Park, you name it. We even took a detour into the East Village and got, in my opinion, the best one dollar slice of pizza in the whole city. While we were there, we watched two pigeons steal a pizza crust off this guy’s paper plate. That really cracked Caylee up.
“This city’s so tough,” she said, laughing like a loon, “y’all got gangs of birds roaming the street!”
It was good to see her happy. In Tennessee, I remembered her as a shy girl who kept to herself aside from her secret pets. When she was little, I’d catch her sniffling over a dead baby bird, or a mouse, or a lizard splayed out in a shoebox. She loved her secret pets, but they suffocated a lot. She always forgot the air holes. What was odd, though, was that after they died, she kept them in her shoeboxes, checking on their tiny, lifeless bodies from time to time, sometimes even talking to them. Like she thought they would wake up at any moment.
Until they started to smell, that is. Then Mamma and Daddy tossed her pets away like rotten apple cores.
We got to the convention around four. It was in the cafeteria of a Hyatt Hotel and was a jumbled mess. Hundreds of people milled about between lines of booths, squeezed tight as subway passengers on a rush hour train. The booths were decorated with neon crosses, fish flying over the ocean, the Virgin Mary dancing, and Jesus in a Superman pose. Plus the requisite sharpied poster boards, streamers, glitter, and bright primary colors that hurt my eyes. Over-caffeinated twenty year olds with vaudeville smiles occupied the booths. They gave me the heebie jeebies. Good salespeople should be serene and confident. They shouldn’t seem like somebody’s pointing a gun at their heads. You’d think religious folks could figure that out.
Caylee, on the other hand, loved it. She was practically skipping. Sometimes she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the next booth where she listened, big-eyed, to the pitch. They sold things like bibles with lamb’s wool covers, Jesus graphic T-shirts, holy water from a stream in Kansas, and lotion that gave one’s skin the shining beneficence of heaven.
Caylee bought the lotion and little stuffed Jesus fridge magnet that was winking and giving the whole world a thumbs up.
Despite the mess, I was fascinated. It reminded me of the grandiosity of auto shows. But I’d never seen an audience this crazed. Erasmus was doing something right.
Eventually, two men wearing cassocks appeared at the end of the hall, clanged on two triangles, and ushered “the flock” into “the cathedral” that was actually the hotel’s conference room.
We filed inside and sat up front on metal fold-out chairs. Caylee was like a toddler on a sugar high. She bounced in her seat, squeezed my hand, and pointed all around the cathedral, babbling about the meaning of everything.
I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t stop staring at the printed vinyl banners hung from the walls that depicted several smiling and shining Jesus Christs laying on the beach, hang-gliding, playing basketball and doing a whole lot of other crazy things. In front, however, a giant picture of another man dangled above the stage. His hair was tonsured and he wore a pin-striped suit; he looked off into the distance with the aloof, softened aspect of a saint.
Must be Erasmus, I thought.
A piano was tucked away in the corner and a woman settled onto the bench in front of it. Everyone stood. Caylee gave me a you’re-embarrassing-me look, so I stood too. Then everyone started clapping. We clapped slowly, in time with the song, then faster and faster until the church service was the opening act of a rock concert.
That’s when Erasmus, fashioned in the same dress as the picture above the stage, jogged from the back of the room. He raised his hands to the sky and screamed, “Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the Lord!” we said.
As we clapped, Erasmus jumped on stage and ran back and forth, throwing his arms up, demanding more noise. Whoops, yowls, and “Praise the Lords” echoed throughout the small conference room. Somehow, the music sped up and Erasmus sprinted back and forth, faster and faster like a pinball, until he ran up a wall and back-flipped down to earth.
The crowd exploded. He ran to the opposite side and back-flipped again. The congregants—a miss-matched collection of working class, lower-middle class, and rich hippy—jittered and shook as they cheered Erasmus on. One lady in a long and stained blue dress, dropped to the floor and made angels in rhythm with the music. Another lady ran in place and swung her arms around like the hands of a clock. A man in corduroys and a bowler hat sprang into the air like a kangaroo.
Erasmus impressed me. I admire the guts it takes to sell oneself so shamelessly.
When Erasmus finally shimmied, and yes, I mean shimmied, up to the podium, the crowd shouted to him: they asked, they pleaded, they begged for him to speak. His face leaned closer towards the microphone as his hips swiveled behind the lectern. He got so close we could hear him panting. The tension was tighter than a guitar string. The crowd buzzed and vibrated. Finally, he spoke: “Brothers! Sisters! Do you feel it? Do you feel the spirit of Jesus Christ tonight? He’s flowing through every one of you, and we don’t need nothing to feel it besides your bodily vessels. You don’t need stained glass or golden crosses or fancy buildings…all you need is the Lord!”
With that declaration, the place was a rock concert. Everyone danced, pulsated, and screamed between punctuated shouts from Erasmus. No homily or hymns in this church. Only flesh, excitement, and madness.
That’s when I got an idea. I started shaking, grooving, and jouncing along with the rest. I shot my hands to the sky and screamed, “Praise the Lord! Praise the All-Mighty!” I twirled, I hopped, I danced away from Caylee and between the rows, grooving with everybody. Once I got to the aisle, I leapt up, spread-eagled, tumbled onto the floor, and rolled around like a gymnast. Then I stopped, lying on my back, looked up into the ceiling and convulsed. “The spirit’s got me by the throat!” I moved like a demon spawn—spastic, insane—in short, a spectacle. I felt every eye guzzling my wildness. I did not stop. I scrunched my knees to my chest and shot up to my feet. I ran in place, flapping my arms. Then someone put a hand on my shoulder.
“This man is blessed!” shouted Erasmus. “Give him your love, brothers and sisters, give him your love!” He raised my arm like a prize fighter while I shook, sweat, and spat out gibberish.
Everyone wanted to talk to me after the service. They said things like “the spirit tossed you around like a rag doll out there!” and “The glory of the lord has touched you!” and finally: “You should feel blessed, Mr. Littlefield, that happens once or twice in a lifetime to true believers…”
I shook everyone’s hand, and made sure everyone got my business card. Even Erasmus.
“Give me a call, reverend, and I can find the perfect car for your sojourns.”
He bowed his tonsured head. “Thank you, but I don’t need anything more than what I have. The Lord will provide.”
“You just keep me in mind,” I said, pushing my card into his hand and folding his fingers around it. “I could be the Lord’s messenger.”
Caylee didn’t join me and my new friends. While I was meeting all those people, she sat in a chair in the back of the room with her arms crossed. She stared dumbly at that picture of Erasmus high above her.
On the taxi ride back, the driver played reggae. I monitored the car’s route and Caylee watched the frantic people navigating New York.
“That was low what you did, Henry,” she said.
“I don’t care what you want to be called. You’re awful.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t act the fool.”
She pressed her forehead against the window. “Well, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened back there.”
“You know what happened,” I said. “The spirit took me like a rocket ship.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“What? You talking about the chats I had with your fellow worshippers?”
“That’s what you call it?”
“That’s what I call it. If you’re mad about the business cards, grow up. It’s my job, Caylee.”
I reached for her hand, but she pulled away. She didn’t say anything after that, just got as close to the door as possible. The driver turned up the radio’s volume, and I sat with my hands together, staring at the taxi’s headlights for the rest of the ride home.
When we got home, Caylee ran to the guest bedroom and slammed the door. I went to bed early—I had work the next day. But I couldn’t sleep. I thought about how religions are like leeches that suck money from the poor, prey on the vulnerable, and trick the faithful. They act like saints, but they’re greedy rats pretending to follow some big bearded man when the real God is sitting in their pockets.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing I knew I was waking up to the sound of Caylee’s suitcases rolling on the floor and her bags crinkling.
I caught her right as she was leaving. We made eye contact, but she didn’t say nothing. Just walked out. I watched from the window as she escaped, like a drunk hare on speed, stumbling here and there, trying to balance her stuff. I watched her until she disappeared around a corner, her heels clacking against the pavement.
That was when I checked my emergency funds stuffed into two shoeboxes and hidden under a removable section of floor in the kitchen.
It was gone. All fifty thousand dollars of it.
I tried calling Caylee, but she wouldn’t pick up. After my fifteenth call a voice answered saying the number wasn’t in service anymore.
I remember sitting cross legged on the sticky linoleum, staring at the removed section of floor until the sun came up and I could hear people’s talk buzzing outside. I couldn’t think of what to do.
So I went to work.
That was six months ago. One month ago, I got an email from my Mamma asking if I knew where Caylee was.
I did not respond.
Two weeks ago, I got an email from Daddy saying a family friend had seen Caylee in Alabama, driving around in a red convertible with two tattooed freaks. Daddy wanted to know if I knew anything.
I didn’t respond to him either.
Last week I got an email from Mamma with the biggest lie yet. She said the police found Caylee unresponsive in a cabin in Mississippi with a needle in her arm. The authorities revived her with Narcan, then held her at the station until Daddy picked her up and took her home to Tennessee.
Mamma asked if I knew where Caylee could have got the money for all the drugs, jewelry, and clothes they found in the cabin. Then she asked me to come back to Tennessee for an intervention to “save Caylee from temptation and the Devil’s mighty grip.”
Lies. I know they’re trying to drag me back. They still blame me for those heirlooms. I bet Caylee’s traveling the country, looking for a new religion to follow is all.
Those animals that Caylee hid in shoeboxes…I wonder if she meant for them to suffocate. If, when I caught her, those tears were fake. Maybe she was a little sociopath who liked torturing animals. Maybe she came here to steal my money and everything before that was just a distraction. Maybe she wanted to get me back for leaving all those years ago. For stealing from the family–even though I did nothing wrong.
One thing’s for sure: you can’t trust nobody. Especially family. They’re all out for their own hide and no one else’s.