Miriam sat at a table with two other party goers, her powder-blue eyes glancing about the room as she took another sip of wine. She was ordinarily quite at home at a dinner gathering, but tonight she felt quite awkward and more than a little out of place. The party was abuzz with people from all over her small town, but there were few she had ever met.
She recognized the man with the scraggly beard who was currently slapping his legs and barking a loud, toothless laugh. In fact, she’d even spoken to him several times, usually having told him, “No. I have no change.”
She also recognized the lady who was often found sitting by the bread vendor at the market, holding her small child in her lap and looking pathetic. Her hand always outstretched and her eyes upturned. Tonight she still held her child, but she was bouncing the giggling boy on her knee, clapping in time with the music.
She had not, to her knowledge, seen the man with one leg before. She couldn’t help but stare. He was a marvelous dancer.
At first she had wondered why any of these people had been invited to such an occasion. Soon, she began to wonder why she had.
Her eyes came back to the two men seated with her. They were friendly enough, in a common sort of way, and the younger of the two was the host of the celebration. They had introduced themselves, though the older man’s name left her head almost as soon as she’d heard it.
She felt obligated to attempt some small talk, and had to raise her voice to uncomfortable levels to pierce the din of the room.
“So how do you two know each other? How did you... um... meet?” she asked, hoping she hadn’t yelled.
“I was drunk, off my ass, on the street. He helped me out.” the older man yelled.
“Oh!” said Miriam.
“He had tried to ride it home.” interjected the younger man. He began laughing as he added, “Sarah was not happy!”
“Who’s Sarah?” Miriam asked with a confused smile.
“His ass,” the young man replied.
“You still had the tether around your hand,” continued the young man, “and I think Sarah had dragged you about fifty feet before you even noticed you’d fallen off!”
Miriam giggled. She hated when she giggled. It rarely meant that she was actually amused, and more often than not it meant that she didn’t know what to say or how to respond.
“God, I was a mess,” said the old man. “I think I’d pissed myself, too.”
“Yes, Ben, you did,” said the young man, raising his eyebrows and remembering a certain scent.
“Some things never change!” laughed the old fellow.
Another round of laughs broke out between them, and Miriam tittered nervously. She was relieved, though, that the young man had mentioned his friend’s name. She thought she’d try to move the conversation into a more comfortable subject matter.
“So what do you do, Ben?” she asked.
“I’m a dung collector,” said Ben with a smile.
This was not a more comfortable subject matter. She was sure she could feel the precise shade of red on her face. “Is that... How is that for you?”
“It’s the shittiest job around,” said Ben seriously.
And Ben laughed. “But business is always booming!” He set forth on what was, apparently, a standard set of dung-related witticisms. They were designed to put off, or put at ease, anyone who asked about his profession. Miriam was not put at ease. She giggled and tittered and felt like crying.
Ben calmed himself from his personal laugh-fest. “Jesus, how long has it been since that night?”
“Almost two years,” Jesus said.
“Two years! My God. Seems like longer.” He placed a hand on Jesus’s shoulder. Jesus folded his hands around his cup of wine, and looked over at his friend.
“This here is a very special young man,” said Ben, suddenly addressing Miriam with an unexpected air of formality. “I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone like him.”
“Oh?” said Miriam.
“I’ve known a lot of people, but not a one of them has ever been my friend.” Ben looked at the young man with eyes as deep as a clear, blue lake. “He is my best friend, ever.”
Miriam was silent and, somehow, finally began to feel comfortable. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “God bless you, young man. You have a good heart.”
Jesus smiled. “Thank-you, ma’am.”
Miriam smiled back. “I think you’ll go far in life with an attitude like that. Happy birthday.”
Ben slapped him on the back and raised his cup. “Happy twenty-first, Jesus. Thanks for inviting us. I’m just sorry I don’t have anything to give you.”
“Don’t worry, Ben. I have my reward.” he said as he waved away the apology. “Just don’t piss yourself.”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” said Ben.