Tucked into an endless commercial strip-a Dunkin Donuts, a smattering of real estate agents, an oversaturation of T-shirt stores, and other Cape Cod artifacts-was once an unprepossessing family residence. Unlikely danger. A divine ambush.
It was 1974 by the clock, the winding down of Nam. Five years after Woodstock and four years before Jim Jones's Guyana.
That is to say, it was the last sputtering gasps of bellbottoms, of the omnipresent whiff of illegal substances, of unbounded terrible possibility.
He was an engineer by trade, she a raiser of children, five by biology, though it was hard to tell where her progeny left off and the rest of mankind began, as I observed the comings and goings in their house.
I suspect it was her idea, Marge's, this mad experiment, this hair-brained scheme, as anyone could have told you. For this was Satan's turf, Main Street, Hyannis; and even I, no babe in the woods, upon seeing it at night flashed back to that scariest of childhood memories: Pinnochio riding into Pleasure Island.
No doubt she exercised some sweet persuasion on Joe-something from Luke 12, about wise men discerning not only the weather by their times. Like Joseph in the famine. Like Zerubbabel in captivity. Men who put a finger to the wind and act while the current is auspicious.
The shingle over the door boasted too much-and not enough: "The Living Room." And it may have added underneath, "a coffee house," though I don't recall. In truth it was a few throw pillows and a small coffee machine, Tetley tea in styrofoam cups, and the promise of words of life; and was indeed their living room.
They stumbled in unawares, tie-dyed, stringy-haired twentysomethings, not sensing God's trap, not knowing of their date with destiny. Some turning on their heels at once, others, inexplicably even to themselves, deciding to stay. I, ever on the fringe, and making myself small in a corner, watched night after night.
I had followed the boy from Huemos-sur-Ollon to this glorified sandbar, having nothing better to do with my life at the end of the 20th century, and already disbelieving for joy (Luke 24:41), though not letting on, scoffer and mocker that I was. I'd insisted on proofs, on my terms, but got back such kinds that transcend logic and made my arsenal of argumentation look like toys in a boy's nursery. I was caught off balance by love, wisdom, some fearful power.
The kid had hitched from Westfield, Mass., in '71, on the lam and out to score hashish and whatever. He scouted out a place to crash. Got a tip-but there was a catch: a night's sleep for a religious head trip. Joe and Marge gave him the gospel, once. He believed on the spot. Spent the next six months on the beach reading the Bible and drinking beer. God polishing His instrument.
It was a parable acting itself out: the down-and-outers, the drunks, the doped up, coming in off the street, out of Pleasure Island. And a solemn threshing going on-the wheat brought into eternal barns, the chaff blown back outside (though how many seeds were sown those nights that sprouted only by some future watering?).
I didn't know about God then, how He likes to do His business, His strange work, with one hand tied behind His back-a middle-aged couple and a ninth-grade dropout, ex-druggie armed with only a Bible and a throw pillow. The whole story of Gideon with a too-big army that needed to be thinned, and thinned some more, the better to make it plain that it is not by might, not by strategy, but by the Holy Spirit.
In the years after The Living Room I forgot about it pretty much, went my way, took a few wrong forks in the road, suffered some-and not necessarily for righteousness.
But in this late summer of my life it comes to me again on a gust of memory, the place where I first saw something like two halves of a circle matching up, something making sense.
And what I most recall, what of everything remains, is Marge standing in her doorway that first day, beaming at a stranger not smiling back, a vagabond, all dirty and dissipated and full of fear.
"... the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more" (Psalm 103:16). So let it be-with men and houses all. But be it known that for its brief appointed hour there was a net for catching men, and a tree where the birds of the air came and perched, and whose branches pointed upward, ever upward, and beyond.