The conversation with Gunar had sapped some of Emin’s enthusiasm for his work, but the poster at March 20 Square was much smaller and less enthusiasm was required. Emin had finished his task by mid-afternoon, and he was ready for a nap. But the thought of going back to his empty apartment depressed him, so rather than catching the bus to his neighborhood, Emin walked to the apartment of an English couple near March 20 Square. Julia and Robert Atherton ran a small charity that served indigent children in Berde. Not all the indigent children, but the indigent children of the Azeris who came to the weekly church services, held in a nearby factory.
Emin first visited the services about a year earlier, after finding one of the church’s brightly-colored advertising brochures. “Find a new life!” the brochure exhorted. As it happened, he found the brochure not long after Buna had begun a drinking spree, so he was worried and sad, ready to consider some suggestions for a new life. The church service was like a musical show, with singers and a small band. The preacher spoke for about 15 minutes about the need to follow God’s law, but the service was dominated by relentlessly cheery anthems about God’s law. Emin felt strangely warmed by the atmosphere, and he continued to go, even after Buna returned. He had made a few friends in the congregation, and even sold a few of his paintings to a member of the church.
Buna didn’t like the church much, but she went with him a few times, chatting with the cheery Athertons. Her English was much better than his, but she did not make friends with the church members.
“It’s easy for them to be so cheerful,” she remarked after one church service. “Here they are – with a nice apartment paid for by that church. They’ve got a maid. They’re rich here. So, of course, they are happy, clapping their hands and singing. But I don’t feel cheerful and I’m not going to lie about it.”
Emin saw her point. But he also liked being around people who were cheerful, who believed that the future held something wonderful, even if that future was very distant. And Julia Atherton seemed to be genuinely concerned for him, offering to pray for Buna and him. Emin wasn’t sure exactly what her praying meant and how it would help, but he understood that she was concerned for him. This in itself made visiting the weekly services worthwhile.
The Athertons lived on a quiet street, close enough to walk to the downtown, but far enough that the neighborhood was quiet. Even the air seemed cleaner here. Emin rang the doorbell, and while he waited for an answer, he looked at two birds eating cherries in a nearby tree. The birds had it easy, he thought. Eating what was in the trees or on the ground. Not worrying about politics or romance or jobs.
While he was contemplating this fact, the Atherton’s housekeeper, Liza, opened the door. A thin, gray-haired woman, Liza looked older than her 47 years, especially since she had her teeth pulled earlier in the year. She was still waiting for a set of false teeth, and had been assured they would come before the Heymar Alidev’s birthday party. In the meantime, she had mastered the art of eating without teeth, although her speech was still not very clear.
“Hello, Emin,” she said. “What brings you here?” “I was working on a job in the square,” he answered. “So I thought I’d stop in to see if Robert still needed that room painted.”
Liza told him Robert was at the children’s center, but Julia was home. Emin followed Liza back to the courtyard, where Julia was brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush by an outdoor sink. She was wearing shapeless sweat pants and a loose smock, and her wet hair hung around her shoulders. Yet, she seemed completely unembarrassed to see Emin, even happy to see him.
“Oh, hi. Just a minute,” she said, over the whirr of the electric toothbrush.
Emin felt awkward looking at her while she performed what he considered a private matter of personal hygiene, so he walked over to the small rose garden in the courtyard. The Atherton’s also had a gardener who to take care of the flowers twice weekly, and the touch of an experienced gardener was evident. The old flower blossoms had been nipped, the bushes had been expertly pruned. Only a few weeks ago, Julia had allowed him to take a few blossoms from this garden, and he had taken them home to Buna, pleased to give her something beautiful. Of course, she knew that he had not bought them, however, and she considered the flowers to be a gift from the Athertons, people she disliked. She had thrown the roses out the following day, when Emin was at work.
Julia approached him as he was observing a pollen-dusty bee fumble within the petals of an open rose blossom.
“Liza says you are here about the room?” she asked.
“Yes. I told Robert that I would do it, but we never agreed about when. I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d stop by to talk to him about it.”
“He’s at work,” she said.
“You knew that.”
“It’s Buna, isn’t it?”
Emin had to turn away, because he feared her look of pity, feared to express the emotions that were so close and raw. She took his hand, and pulled him toward her, holding him in a wordless embrace. He did not cry, but he began to breathe again.
“Emin, let’s pray.”
He let her guide him to a spot in the garden that English couple evidently used for this purpose. A small cross stood in a circle of daisies. Julia took two cushions for the chair in the garden nook, handed one to Emin and kneeled in front of the cross.
“Dear Father. Please bless us with your heavenly love. In the name of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, please guide us in your divine wisdom. We are nothing without you. We need your rod and staff to comfort and guide us. Please, guide Buna back into the light of your love. Please, show her the way home and apply the healing balm of your love unto the bleeding heart of your servant Emin. Please forgive them for their sins. They have doubted your love. They have wandered far from your path. Take them back, relieve them of the bondage of faithless ways. Bless them with the blood of your son Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Emin softly repeated “amen” after her, and they remained there on their knees for a few minutes, listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. As they remained there, silent in the garden, Emin realized that he really didn’t believe in God.
This was not a bleak realization for him. The late spring air still smelled sweet. The birds didn’t stop singing. But he couldn’t believe that Julia’s prayers had any significance beyond some sort psychological meaning for her. And he felt no need to share his realization with Julia. So, after they had sat quietly together in the garden, he politely excused himself. Julia said she would keep praying for Buna, and Emin thanked her. She hugged him again, and Emin enjoyed that, just feeling some of her closeness. He no longer felt like crying.