I spent my first Holy Saturday helping my friend Rick move. I had offered my services partly out of brotherly feeling, but also partly – like Wellington’s soldiers – for the promise of drink. By the time we’d unloaded the rented U-Haul van for the third time, I was sure I’d earned it.
Since before I’d met him, Rick had been living in a two-bedroom condo facing Papago Park. The co-owner of a successful telemarketing operation, he had trained himself to be frugal as a general rule, setting up shop a two-mile drive from home and confining his evenings out to those restaurants for which he held coupons. When fancy did strike him, in the form of a predilection for a new hobby or type of gadget or knicknack, he could afford to submit guilt-free. Over the years, his little home had all but disappeared under the relics of these enthusiasms. Hauling box after box of them in and out of the U-Haul van, up and down walkways, consumed the better part of our day.
Grunting and sweating under the April desert sun, I kept flashing forward mentally to the Vigil Mass our parish’s RCIA team had been gushing over. “It’s awesome,” they’d sworn, their eyes shining like the eyes of Moonies. “If you really want to know what Catholicism is all about, come see!”
But taking too deep a draught of Catholic culture, too quickly, seemed unwise. I had begun my pre-catechumenate at the beginning of Advent, barely four months earlier — better to moderate my dosage and make sure to leave myself wanting more. I’d spent the previous day, which I’d had off, following a wooden cross around the ASU campus. It had struck me as a bit theatrical and more than enough for the time being.
As an anchor to the things of the world, I could not have asked for better than Rick. Though raised Greek Orthodox, he considered himself a man of affairs first and foremost. “Nobody has more faith in Jesus than me,” he liked to say. “But if anyone ever tells me I’m too practical, I tell him, ‘Thank you for the compliment’.”
Rick was convinced he’d gotten his new house for a song. Real-estate prices had begun dropping the past November, so he was able to afford a new Spanish-colonial with three bedrooms, two baths, and 14-foot ceilings. It was situated on a quiet cul-de-sac in Chandler, which he judged to be just a little less chi-chi than Scottsdale but far less overstuffed with fussy retirees.
The house also had a backyard, one large enough to stir Rick’s visionary side. Its only amenity so far was a ficus tree – or rather, the trunk and the stumps of a few branches. “It was all dead on one side,” Rick explained, “so I paid some kid a few bucks to prune it.” Rick’s plans for the rest evolved with each succeeding trip. “I think I’ll stick in a bocce court,” he said on the first. By the second, he’d embellished that into a badminton court, plus a bar set in a hut thatched with palm fronds.
As we piled into Rick’s car, having dropped off the van at the rental agency in advance of the deadline, we felt anticipation sweetening our fatigue. We had big plans to hatch, and even before that we would get good and smashed.
But barely had we pulled out of the driveway when Rick and his wife, Yuna, started bickering, and by the time we’d arrived back at the house, the bickering had escalated into a fight. Out of respect for their privacy, I slunk into the guest bedroom and dropped face-first onto the futon. In my exhaustion, I drifted off even as their voices carried through the walls.
Awakening to a dark and silent house, I tiptoed past stacks of boxes into the living room. I glanced at the crack under Rick’s bedroom door: there was no light. Next I opened the refrigerator. Rick had not managed a trip to the Bev-Mo on Ray Road. Instead of a case of Stella Artois, all I saw in the way of booze was a six-pack of baby Coronas and a bottle of Yellow Tail shiraz.
Rick, I knew, was a stickler for keeping promises. He would want me to drink these; indeed, he might be overcome with shame if I didn’t. Settling onto his leather sofa, I made short work of them. Enveloped by shadow, hemmed in by boxes, the refrigerator’s hum the only sound, I quickly nodded off again.
When I awoke the second time, pale sunlight was spilling through the Arcadia doors, which faced eastward. The house was still silent. It was just after daybreak, I realized, and the morning had caught me in that mellow, slaphappy state that settles in just before drunkenness fades into nothing, leaving no hangover.
To enjoy it, I needed a cigarette, so I slid open the door and stepped into the backyard. My eyes settled on the ficus tree. Against the whitening sky, it looked pitch black and mutilated. But I had lit a Pall Mall 100 – a long, slow-burning cigarette. As I smoked my way toward the filter, the sun pushed up higher, and for the first time I noticed tiny shoots growing from the ficus tree. Of the same fresh and innocent green as snow peas still in their pods, they practically covered the trunk and branches.
“Well, shit,” I said, flicking my spent butt into the grass. And I began counting down the minutes to the next RCIA class, where the story – I knew – would bring down the house.