The next morning, Paul was walking to the church from his rooming house when he heard shouts from a small crowd. He found Samuel at the top of the church steps with six or eight men holding notebooks and shouting excited questions at him. Several more were trotting up the street. Paul guessed that they were reporters, eager to write about the pastor with the direct connection to God. Samuel’s expression showed that he felt quite in control of the situation, as if he expected it and this was the inevitable consequence of predicting the future. And perhaps it was. The spectacle brought to Paul’s mind a circus lion tamer.
Ten minutes into the group interview, the questions slowed, the energy spent. Samuel said, “You have taken time to see me, and I am happy to provide my time to you.” He waved Paul up the steps. “This is my assistant, Paul Winston. Time permitting, I am available for individual interviews. Paul will organize them.” He put his arm around Paul, leaned in, and said, “Set up a desk outside my office. Let’s schedule interviews half an hour apart. Can you handle that?” Without waiting for a reply, he patted him firmly on the shoulder, smiled and waved to his audience, and walked back into the church. The lion tamer gone, the reporters pounced on Paul, each vying for the first interview.
That afternoon, Paul was at his temporary station in the sanctuary, looking forward to the end of a long day. With no time for breaks, he was tired and hungry. The reporters were comfortable bullying their way past gatekeepers, and he had already intercepted close to a dozen. He gave immediate interviews with Samuel to several, and a few more had short waits. The rest he told to come back the next day, and they took the news with varying degrees of irritation.
One man scowled as Paul gave him his appointment. “Do you understand what a deadline is?” he asked. Paul could smell his cologne, cheap and strong.
Other reporters had been more than willing to share the importance of a press deadline. Paul said, “We’re all busy, fella. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.”
The man put both hands on Paul’s desk and leaned forward to stare down at him. He was not physically formidable and was only of medium height and weight, but he was at least a decade older than Paul’s twenty-five years and had made it clear that he thought the stature of the Los Angeles Record earned him a place at the head of the line. He acted as if his glare were imposing, but to Paul it looked contrived and artificial.
Paul sized him up. He was no taller than the man but much stockier. Paul interlaced his fingers and squeezed tightly to drain away some of his anger, stared at the reporter, and said crisply, “I’m sorry, sir, but you must return tomorrow to interview Reverend Hargrove.”
The man leaned forward, putting his face near Paul’s. “That’s … not … good … enough!” he said, and Paul felt driblets of spit spatter his face.
Paul’s hands unclasped and shot up to the man’s lapels. He pulled hard and aimed his forehead at the man’s nose. An organic crunch filled the sanctuary. Paul shoved him back upright as the man put his hands to his face. He looked around and blinked and then, groaning, he tottered toward the door.
The two other reporters who had been waiting took their appointments agreeably.
This wasn’t the first time Paul had lost his temper with a reporter that day. Like a recent immigrant who in a moment of anger swears in his native language instead of English, Paul sometimes fell back on baser forms of communication when pushed. He felt ashamed, especially since he was in God’s house, and he could imagine the look on Samuel’s face. But his patience was thin. This was no mere news story to him—he had heard nothing from his fiancée in San Francisco. The earthquake affected him personally.
The blue sky had faded to pink in the west when Paul finally left the church to return to his rooming house. Both were in the same neighborhood, the industrial section just east of downtown. The city had quieted, most of the businesses were dark, and Paul began to relax in the peaceful silence as he made his way home.
A wind came up from behind him, carrying the odor of the meat packing plants a mile up the Los Angeles River. The smell caught him like an unexpected punch, throwing him back to a hot summer evening five years earlier, to a robbery gone wrong. He remembered for a moment, only a moment, a dark incident that he would have given anything to erase. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the image, then blinked and took a deep breath. His heart raced as it had that evening, and he cleared his throat and wiped his hands on his pants. He was safe, he told himself.
That was long ago, and yet Paul’s heart raced with the memory. It still had the power to reach up from his conscience and yank him back to the past. More than anyone in the congregation, he justly deserved Hell.
He pushed the memory out of his mind and walked on, comforting himself that he knew one Person who could forgive.