In a town that took a ‘Jesus Is Watching You Masturbate’ billboard seriously, S. Grady Barrett knew he was in trouble.
Author’s Note: This is the third part of a six-part story written from memory, and as memory is an unreliable source, I cannot say this story is entirely true, nor that it’s completely false. As a result, people’s names, the name of the newspaper and the town in which the newspaper is located do not appear in this story. Nor should they.
3: JESUS IS WATCHING YOU MASTURBATE
The day before the interview, I boarded a plane and flew to Albuquerque, got my rental car and started the three-hour drive. The plan, according to what I had been told, would be that I’d show up the following morning and speak with the editor. Afterward, I’d start reporting whatever story was assigned to me. But that was a day away, and I still had to navigate my way to this distant New Mexican village.
The highway out to the town wound through an astonishing array of landscape. The mesas, with blended hues of brown and red and pink and orange, turned into mountains with forests of evergreens and plants capped with the smallest amount of sparkling white snow, then back again. This might not be so bad, I thought.
But when I reached my destination, my hopeful vision of a peaceful, small town set in a dazzling desert landscape abruptly faded. The highway led me past the gas station at the edge of town, a place where shady characters driving pick-up trucks with shotgun racks stopped to refuel their vehicles and have a chat about local events.
Across the highway from the gas station, a giant billboard of Jesus sat directly above a store that sold products of the adult, triple-X variety. It said: “Jesus is watching you.”
I was unsure of the message’s intent. Assumedly, it was meant to discourage people from purchasing pornography. But it could also be meant to enhance local dirtbags’ jerk-off sessions by letting purveyors of fine pornography know someone is watching. More importantly, the statement seemed to advertise the fact that Jesus is a celestial voyeur. Perhaps that was the true price we paid when Jesus died on the cross. Now He gets to watch while we all gently cup our balls and stroke our shafts.
What a delightfully complicated little town, I thought. Then I realized a town that failed to see the irony in that enormous billboard may also lack a sense of humor.
After filling up the rental car, I searched for the hotel, a task I didn’t think would take all that long given the size of the area. I drove around the business district, looking for what had to be the only Courtyard Marriott within a 100-mile radius. Still, I couldn’t quite locate the establishment. Along the way, I happened across the newspaper’s building and was struck by the stunning dilapidation of the structure.
The building appeared as though it was built in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The windows were dirty, and paint was peeling from the stone, while the aluminum-framed front doors seemed somewhat crooked, as if the building had begun to lean. An empty, sun-faded asphalt parking lot was across the street, where chunks of the pavement and loose gravel littered the surface. Because the newspaper serviced a wide area beyond the town in which it resided, I hoped its office would have a little more panache. Instead, as I drove past, I looked over my shoulder. “Oh no: that place is a real shithole,” I said.
Finally, after a detour down a one-way street or two and finding a side road that took me back to the main road, I happened upon the hotel. As I was folding the map and gathering the travel papers—my itinerary and directions to the office from the hotel—that I had scattered in the front seat, R. called. “Well, how is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just got here and haven’t really seen the whole city.”
“OK. What’s your first impression? How’s it look?”
“It’s definitely a small town. It’s got a rural flavor.”
“OK. What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know. A lot of pick-up trucks.”
“OK. But is it nice? How is it?”
“Look, honey, I haven’t seen the whole town yet. I don’t really know.”
“OK. But you’re there: what are you seeing?”
“So far, it’s kind of a shithole, OK?”
“Oh no. Really? Is it that bad?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen the whole town yet. I haven’t talked to anyone. Maybe there’s a nice part I haven’t seen.”
“Yeah. OK. Maybe.”
“Hey, I’m checking into the hotel. Then I’m going to get dinner. I’ll report back later.”
“OK. Sounds good. Love you. Bye.”
“Love you. Bye.”
After I checked in and unpacked my clothes, I sat in the hotel room for a little while, flipping through television channels and occasionally getting up to look out the window at the parking lot. It was still early. The sun was still up. The conversation with R. rattled around my brain.
It didn’t take long before I was back out in my car, driving around town, searching for a place to eat, a place to have a drink, or a place where I could get an idea of the local color.
It took much longer than I expected to find a place to eat. Most every place was a chain restaurant, a Denny’s or a Golden Corral or something of that ilk. It’s not that I was opposed to eating at one of those restaurants, it’s that I wanted to experience something unique about the town, a small place that locals went for good food and a beer. Not able to find anything of the sort, I settled for a regional, chain-restaurant steakhouse whose name I cannot recall nor have I seen since.
After my first beer arrived and I had ordered my dinner, I asked the waitress if there was any place people liked to go in town. She was young, about college-age, I assumed, with dirty blonde hair and a friendly demeanor. “Well,” she said. “I’m not old enough to drink yet, so I can’t really say anything about bars…”
“What do people do around here?”
“I don’t know. My friends and me, we just get in our cars and drive around the main strip.”
“Do you want another beer?”
After dinner, I climbed back in to the car and drove around town again, careful to pick up some landmarks, so I could not only find my way back to the hotel, but understand how to get around when the following day when I would be reporting. I assumed every town has a nice part and a not-so-nice part, but as I drove around, I couldn’t really find what I thought was a nice part of town. Maybe my expectations were too high. The area I thought might be the nice part was suspiciously close to a trailer park and to houses with beacons of questionable behavior. A rusty washing machine sat in the untrimmed front yard of one home. In front of another home, a car sat in the driveway with the hood popped open. No one was around and the house was dark.
Finally, I came across a Dairy Queen and, with nothing better to do, I went inside and ordered a Blizzard with chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. After sitting in the car for a few minutes, slowly eating bite after bite of the Blizzard, I decided I had seen enough for now and went back to the hotel to finish my ice cream.
When I got back to the hotel room, I called R. and told her that the town, as far as I could tell, was, indeed, a bit ramshackle. But, I said, don’t worry. I’m sure the people at the newspaper will have some suggestions about where to live and where to go. Surely, this place couldn’t be all that bad. We hung up, and I got ready for bed.
Before I left Chicago, I put together a small file of information about the town—census data, local organizations, and public officials. The fact was, the town didn’t concern me all that much. I knew I didn’t want to stay too long and I had seen places like this before. My mother’s family is from a small town in Texas that was eerily similar to the one I was in. While I didn’t know what it would be like exactly to live there, I did have an idea of what to expect from the people, from the location, and from the job. So, as I sat in bed, I quietly reviewed all the information about this town while trying not to think about why I couldn’t quite admit to R. that we didn’t belong here, that she didn’t belong here.
—Photo by No Lands Too Foreign/Flickr