When Paul finished one neighborhood, Samuel assigned a new one and insisted that he knock on every door. Samuel recorded Paul’s progress on a city trolley line map, with completed neighborhoods marked with a star.
As the days turned into weeks, Paul had to admit that he was improving, and he felt less anxiety in talking to strangers. Though Samuel didn’t say so, Paul thought that one reason for the assignment was to take his mind off Thena. This seemed like relieving the pain of a broken leg by hitting your thumb with a hammer.
Work did indeed occupy his mind, but he still mourned her frequently. He would turn over and over in his mind the question of whether she had died a painful death. He still felt enormously guilty about doing nothing to warn her of the earthquake. Memories often ambushed him as he walked through peaceful neighborhoods, bringing to mind the things that Thena had talked about—what she would make him for breakfast when they were married, her plans to decorate their bedroom, her hopes for children. He walked past the kinds of homes they had dreamed of owning and saw young wives like Thena had dreamed of becoming. And it was his fault. His stressful task was his penance, and he pushed on without complaint.
About a month into his assignment, Paul felt almost comfortable. His anxiety would have returned had he been asked to speak to a crowd or preach from a pulpit, but his door-to-door evangelism worked fairly well. He had even debated a few people and held his own and, in a few cases, he imagined that he made conversions.
He took pride in his success, however small, knowing that it was the result of hard work—and perhaps natural ability, if Samuel were right—rather than luck. Samuel had coached him with increasing intensity over the previous two years, assigning books to read, working with him to analyze and critique all manner of apologetics arguments, and shaping his debate technique.
In early June in the well-to-do neighborhood of Angelino Heights, Paul noted an odd street name that stood out from the many Spanish names: Stageira Street. He turned down the walk of a two-story house covered in white stucco and with a blue-tiled roof. While the house seemed in good condition, the large yard was overgrown. The hedge, possibly trimmed square the previous fall, bore new light green growth sprouting at odd angles, and neglected bushes sagged with big flowers. A burly tree supported a frayed rope without a swing. The neglect couldn’t hide the generous and thoughtful design, and Paul imagined a child playing here, safe within its hedge walls.
He knocked on the door and was surprised to see a man open it. Paul rarely spoke to men as he made his visits—most doors were either answered by women or not at all. The man appeared about Samuel’s age—maybe fifty. He was of average size, or perhaps slightly smaller, and he wore a jacket but no tie. Stubble covered his cheeks, and he had a bushy Wyatt Earp moustache that overhung his upper lip. He looked annoyed, as if he had been interrupted, and one hand held a book with a finger holding his place.
“Have you been saved, sir?” Paul asked him.
“Saved from what?”
“From the fires of hell. Christianity offers salvation from eternal torment. It worked for me, and if you haven’t been saved, it will work for you. Wouldn’t you say that eternity in hell is something to be avoided?”
The man considered him for a few seconds as if deciding what to do with this curious annoyance.
“You don’t want to talk to me, son.” He turned to go back into his house. “I’m an atheist. Your God doesn’t exist.”
Well, that was different, Paul thought as he watched the door slam shut.