THE MONEY CHANGERS
By James Santore
It was morning time in South Lymon, Ohio and there were fourteen men standing in front of a house. The grass on the front lawn was long and patchy and moist with morning dew. It was early April, and it was cold. Overhead was blue and dry, just a cloud or two. The wind was rhythmic. Every few minutes swift rushes would funnel between the houses sending unzipped jackets rippling, and fanning the branches of trees. Tall and lanky black poplars forty feet high would lean forward then arch back, green leaves kicking the breeze. Small, rounded Japanese maples the color of beets, and white and pink flowering dogwoods would convulse up and down, dancing for the men. A biting wind. One of those days that made you wake up and think twice about what season it was.
The men were kicking at a crazed, ruptured sidewalk the color of old sweatpants. They were dressed in jeans and wore thick flannels over white t-shirts. A few had light jackets of tan or navy blue. Most were in their forties or early fifties, but a couple were well over seventy, and one was just eighteen.
They wore their hair short, and looked much like the other men in this part of Ohio: either sinewy, with coarse, weathered skin, and hair that always seemed to be thinning out yet never completely disappearing; or fleshy men with whey skin, thick dark hair, and beefy arms. It was the genetic compromise in this part of the Buckeye State. Once he reached a certain age, a man tended to drift toward one or the other.
For a few more minutes they talked, and then one pointed toward a yellowed and washed out twin house two lots left of where they stood. He was paying particular attention to its four squared, eight-foot pillars; the white paint peeled, crusted, and chipped.
Then, as if an alarm sounded, they all scattered, heading toward their homes.
The men and their families called themselves The Armor of God. And they were the only ones who called themselves that. They were nineteen families, one hundred and thirteen people aged two months to seventy-four years. Over the last decade, they had mutely bought all of the sixteen abandoned, neglected twin homes that amounted to the unincorporated town of South Lymon. It had gone from company town to ghost town to a God-fearing village of pious (or sanctimonious, depending in which aisle you stood) Christians, whose unwavering, irrefutably dogmatic beliefs were stamped in first-century Christianity.
The AOR believed two things were undeniable:
1) modern religion had become watered down to the point of sacrilege (or worse, secularity)
2) that Jesus Christ was not sent to earth as the loving, tender, and solicitous Savior fashionable theology would have you believe. For he was the Messianic Warrior, arrayed with a garment dipped in blood splayed as one who has tramped through the winepress.
“They call us offenders,” said the county executive. He sipped his coffee from a warm thermos the color of its contents.
“Offenders. We violate moral law. In fact, it seems they’re the only ones who don’t violate moral law.”
John Huff’s son was home for college – just the weekend, then back to Cincinnati for finals. The men were headed south on State Route 139; a dotted, two lane backwater. They were three miles from South Lymon.
John went on. “I appreciate you coming with me. This’ll be good experience. Dealing with others, with people different, very different from you isn’t always easy. It takes practice.”
“Yessum. Ma backward ways sure do need some refinin’.”
Hal Huff smiled, rapidly scanning his dad. John was fifty-nine. He wore an Ohio State baseball hat, maroon sweatshirt, tennis shoes and jeans. He was from the slender, pasty, thinning hair syndicate of Ohioans.
John had large, deep creases from the base of his nose to his chin, and his skin was tough. He had been the principal of Zeune High School for twenty-eight years before his retirement from education. To the bewilderment of those who knew him best, for he was a rather taciturn man, he then ran for county executive. In a district of eleven thousand – most of whose education he oversaw – his triumph was predictable.
The men glided along in Huff’s ’07 metallic Chevy Silverado. The radio was off and it was in this crisp silence that they were able to take in the scenery. Its beauty was something neither tired of, and something on which they could agree.
On both sides of Route 139 stood large, ashy box elders, hickories with trunks like iron, and fat maples. On the left they passed a chicken-wire fence wrapped around wood posts that cited the square perimeter of a mobile home sitting thirty feet from the road. There was a rounded, big leaf magnolia at the center of the lawn, its gargantuan leaves lapping at the air. It had rose-colored buds that were blooming into milky flowers. Hal looked out the passenger side window at a dry creek bed following the road. He knew that a mile or so behind it was where he and his dad used to hunt. About five years ago, Hal’d lost the taste for it, if he’d ever had it to begin with. It was the beginning of his realization that his dad wasn’t the strongest man alive, that his mom couldn’t fix everything, and that Hal had a mind of his own, and he’d better start using it.
They moved around an arcing bend protected on the right by a corroded section of guardrail, and lazily drifted southwest for another four hundred feet, with John driving slow enough that the men could hear birdsong. Next came the left-hand turn into South Lymon’s only neighborhood. John made it, and a mile down the road turned left again, but was stopped by a gate fifteen feet in. It was three feet high, weakly and sluggardly set across the community’s only approach, and held up by two squared posts that were loosely planted in either end of the front yards bordering the street.
There was a sign: lined paper with (very childish) writing in black marker. It was stapled left-of-center on the fence.
Hal opened the truck door and walked to the fence, which parted in the middle. He carefully lifted each side, and respectfully swung them back into the neighborhood and onto the lawns. He got back into the truck.
“What did it say?”
“Cast out the money changers.”
Inside all but two of South Lymon’s homes the families were busy. Wives, daughters, and grandmothers were scrubbing, bleaching; abrading all remnants of dust, dirt, grime, mildew, and rust. They worked soundlessly, for Saturday was a day of cleansing. The fetor of sodium and calcium hypochlorite oxidized and reduced with a sense of purpose, of place, that had gone missing – or was never present outside the community.
John looked at his son and clucked conspiratorially. “They’re dirt poor, and they refuse a cash settlement.” He shook his head and whiffed at the country smell; tasted it – a tinny taste, like coins. It was so strong it made him pinch his lips and narrow his eyes.
“I’m sure it’s more than that, Dad. They’re at society’s outer rim. The first family moved here from what, Toledo? Now why do that? Why here? They’re poor. They’re unheard. And that’s probably the way it’s been in their families for generations. Money tends to stay with money. And there’s not enough going around to go around. Seems like a few have $99 and then there’s the billions of us left to fight over the last hundred pennies.”
Hal turned toward his dad. “Come on. Do you honestly think these people are here primarily because of the word of Jesus Christ? That’s just something to grasp on to. It’s something. Like moving to Slab City, or following the Grateful Dead. They’ve been marginalized and are insignificant specks in a society gone mad on capitalism. This here is what you call desperation. Hopelessness. For them it is end times – has been for a while. I give them credit for realizing it.”
John gazed into the side mirror. ‘My God’ he thought, ‘My money’s gone to turning him into a Socialist.’
“What happened to the days when you used to agree with everything I said?”
Over breakfast, John had explained the reason for the short trip. The county exec. was conducting a sort of preemptive strike. The next day, real-estate agents from Columbus were to repossess one of the AOR’s twin homes. Delinquent, the property had been sold by the bank. The new owner, a well-to-do broker friend of John’s, had purchased the property in hopes of gathering up the rest (the AOR had stopped payments on all the houses), using the existing public septic system (which still worked well and was rare in Zeune County), and make available some rental units. But the main ploy was to get these religious weirdos out. John, and most everyone else in Zeune County who were queasy about living next-door to a mushrooming encampment of ecclesiastical unabombers, had been optimistic that this first, of hopefully sixteen purchases, would inveigle the owners to leave before being formally removed – home by home. Who knows what would happen if it came to that?
John had been thinking about it a lot.
Hal meditated on his own situation. He was a self-conscious, quiet, only child who felt his doting mother and father had put an inordinate amount of pressure on him. To do what – succeed? He never really knew what that meant. At least not in any way that he’d been able to figure it. And after almost seventeen years of school, he was less sure than ever. Pressure, constraint, and convention. Hell, even though he, and probably all these religious dogmatists were never exactly told what they had to do or how they had to look or how they had to perform, they were constantly being sucked in by society’s gravitational pull. And like the AOR, Hal had decided he wasn’t going to take the saferoute and fall into line.
Shit, maybe he’d go off the grid. Blow off finals and just take off…
“What is that school teaching you, anyway?”
“How to make, take, and hide money. How to find a job that will provide financial security, civic esteem, et cetera. How to be just smart enough to do a job, but not ever ask ‘why?’. Giving the masters what they want – robots.”
John shook his head. “Look. Let’s make this quick. I didn’t exactly tell your mother where we were going. She’d tell me to mind my own business and let them default in privacy.”
The small community was square-shaped. There was the road going down the middle, which the Huff’s were on, one that crossed that road six houses down, one six down from that, and roads parallel to either side of the middle one.
The Huffs bumped along the rutted macadam. John wanted to greet the men, let them know that everything was on the up and up, that no one was going to treat them unfairly. He faintly knew a few of them, the way you know people you’ve never talked to but have nodded at because you’ve lived in the same rural county for a decade. Trips to town were infrequent for the AOR men, but they did happen. And though he didn’t understand the AOR, and didn’t really want them around, he did understand the anger he expected to meet. No one likes to feel as if he’s being done wrong.
Thirty feet down from an old yellow house at the end of the quiet street John stopped the truck and looked toward his son. He seemed to want to make sure that what he saw was really happening. Like cockroaches out of a darkened closet, men were filtering from their houses and coming down the road. Within thirty seconds, there were close to twenty of them out front of the to-be-repossessed house. Then two pick-ups appeared, both with winches attached to their front. The Huffs stayed where they were, and the AOR men paid them no mind, though they must have known they were there.
Two men got out of each truck, and with the help of several others, slackened each winch’s line, and brought them to an end post. Once there, they were twisted around three, four times, before being brought back and clamped onto the winches.
“Oh boy,” John whispered.
With some slack in the line, the men got in the trucks, moved them head-on to the foreclosed upon house, and backed up. The pillars gave way immediately. The house gasped, and then started to fall forward like an avalanche, crumbling upon itself.
“Holy shit.” Hal was mesmerized. “I might want to stay here.”
In his side view mirror, Hal glanced an old man – he could tell by the slumped shoulders, the humped back, and his shuffling pace – approaching the truck. For some reason he got real nervous and just froze. He wanted to say something to his dad, but instead closed his eyes for two seconds, maybe three.
the wind started to pick up – that winter-like pulse of short, strong gusts. Then he saw, felt the cool touch of a slug gun’s twenty-four inch fluted barrel against his dad’s temple. In the space of a heartbeat, an eight pound Ithaca bottom-ejecting pump shotgun, just like the one his dad had, was leveled and then fired into John’s head, shattering his skull (and pretty much everything else from the neck up).
Hal’s face twisted like a balloon animal as he watched skin bone blood – he didn’t know what else – pour out of what was left of his father’s head.
Hal did have the time to scream – but he didn’t – while he watched the very old man (he must have been seventy) pull with his gnarled and knotty fingers, which were shaking tremendously, the fore-end of the magazine to the rear of the gun, then forward, push the slide forward, and pull the trigger, releasing one Remington Copper solid Sabot Slug one thousand seven hundred twenty five feet per second into the center of Hal’s head – just above the bridge of his nose. Like his father’s, Hal’s head exploded like a roman candle…
It was a strange voice, fizzing, with a cough like a rusty saw, that guided him back. He opened his eyes. It was the old guy, standing by the driver-side door.
“You don’t feel it Mr. Huff? There’s no spring anymore.”
On the ride home, the wind started to die down. And later that day, as the sun gathered momentum, it beamed brightly, an opalescent fire of strength. It was enough to hurt your eyes – and your head. Hal sat on the back porch and listened to the birds sing. He watched a deer feeding on the grass. Their eyes met, then, like a wave in the ocean, it bounced off into the depth of the woods.