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Jesus on his back 

No matter what you might have heard on TV, there was nothing fancy about it. In fact, the only Jesus-y thing I can think of about that night is that my boyfriend, Honey Patterson, has this lighted statue of the Virgin Mary hot glued to the dashboard of his Chevelle. Somehow, he's got her wired into the speakers, so when the radio gets going on a song with a strong bass line in it ? BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! ? she blinks. Honey's Catholic, or at least his people are, and for some reason he thinks that's funny as hell.

Even though I'm Baptist with some Pentecostal on my Daddy's side, doing the things me and Honey did in front of the Virgin Mary can really tear you up in hindsight, especially given how it all turned out. Personally, I believe that any woman who could go through being knocked up by God deserves some respect. It's hard enough when the father is in jail halfway across the county, so I can only imagine what it's like being pregnant by God, Him off somewhere, taking care of all the fish in the sea and all the birds in the blue sky and everything that creepeth and runneth and swimmeth.

But, to get to my point: Contrary to what has been said, I can wholeheartedly attest to the fact that my baby Jimmy was made just like every other baby all the way back to the beginning of time, which is to say: The Old Fashioned Way. Same thing with how he was born. When Jimmy came out, he was screaming to beat the band, and looked just like any other baby. You couldn't tell there was anything different about him until they rolled him over.

It's one of those trick-of-the-eye things, you know?

At first, it looks like a big birthmark ? which is, they tell me, exactly what it is. It's almost like it doesn't want to be seen. But when you hold him out at arm's length, and turn your head just right, it falls together, and there, before you ? right in the middle of his back but a little off-center, from his shoulder down to the top of his butt ? is the prettiest picture of Jesus you ever seen. And not some Andy Gibb-looking Jesus, either. This is him looking the way you know he had to look coming from where he did in the world, with a wide, soft face and eyes dark as the bottom of a well. The first one to see it was an El Salvadorian nurse who was hosing Jimmy off in a sink. Her face went pale and her eyes went wide, and then she backed away, crossing herself and mumbling in Spanish, until her ass hit a tray of instruments and they went into the floor with a clatter like the end of the world.

 

You know that if twenty-five thousand people will go up to Minnesota to look at a cross that formed on a diner griddle, they were going to come out for this. The day after Jimmy was born, somebody snuck a camera into the nursery and then posted the pictures on the Internet. Soon, the whole world knew. My doctor kept us in the hospital for a couple days while the deep thinkers checked out the birthmark to make sure it wasn't cancerous or something. On Wednesday, though, they said we could go.

The nurses up on the maternity floor hadn't let me look out the window or watch the TV, and they told Momma not to say anything to upset me, so the first I heard about the hubbub was when we got ready to leave, me in a wheelchair and Momma beside me, Jimmy sleeping sound as a rock, wrapped up in a blanket and a little knitted hat they gave him in the nursery. When the doors to the hospital opened, the parking lot was full of people. More people than I've ever seen in one place in my life. People everywhere, screaming, praying, jumping up and down on the top of their cars, passing out and getting laid down on the cold December asphalt. I thought there had been some kind of horrible disaster, that all of them were waiting to get IN the hospital. But then they all sorta came at us at once. A herd of State Troopers were waiting on the sidewalk when we came out, and they got around us and buffaloed us through to a cop car. The whole time, I was having to lean over and cover the baby with my body, from all the flowers and roses and little pieces of paper and everything else they were throwing over the heads of the cops.

Momma was loving it, smiling, waving to the people. For nine months, she went around the house calling me a trollop, talking about how ashamed she was when they smirking old bitches at her church asked about my Condition, telling me what a no-count Honey was. Now, there she stood, acting like it was her who spent six hours pushing him out.

When we were through, and in the car, and out on the freeway, I felt something in my hair. I reached up and it was a hundred dollar bill, rolled up tight as a cigarette around a little slip of paper that said “PRAY FOR MY WIFE PLEASE SHE HAS CANCER.” 

As if I could do anything at all, anything more than the man in the moon. I rolled the money and the paper back up and put it into the bottom of my purse before I had to look at it again, with its crooked little letters.

 

It wasn't no better at home. Two weeks in, even more had showed up. The phone was ringing off the wall. I'd already had nine calls from people wanting to sell official merchandise, two from Ripley's Believe It or Not, one from the Family Channel, and one from a businessman in Utah who wanted me to sign something saying that if Jimmy died before his 18th birthday, the picture on his back would be removed by surgeons, stretched and tanned like shoe-leather, and donated to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I wouldn't even think about the money he offered. It was a lot. If I had thought about it, I might have been tempted.

Our neighbors had rented out their front yards and backyards and porches, and for four blocks around Momma's house, there wasn't a square foot of nothing that didn't have somebody praying on it in the daytime or sleeping on it at night. People kept bringing boxes of new clothes and toys and strollers up and leaving them on the porch. Momma kept dragging it into the house as quick as it came, until there was just a little trail through the living room.

Momma has been watching the televangelist shows on cable for years, and the week after me and Jimmy got home from the hospital, every one of them was talking about us. They're getting it all wrong, of course, saying I was a virgin when Jimmy was born, or that his daddy was a beam of light. On the Raymond Robinson Prayer Power Hour, they had a tape of Momma's house taken from a helicopter. Can you imagine that? Sending some poor fool out to risk his life to make helicopter video of Momma's shitty old house? From that high up, you could see the spot of greener grass that grows over the septic tank, and Honey's Chevelle in the driveway where he left it before he went off to jail for setting his landlady's car on fire two months ago. You could see the white crap Honey smeared on top of the house to stop that leak we had last summer, and the old tires he threw up there to keep the roof from lifting off in a high wind.

The whole time, a number was flashing at the bottom of the screen, along with PLEASE DONATE! HELP US FURTHER THE GLORY OF THE LORD! GOD'S WORK CAN'T GO ON WITHOUT $$$!  

I was mad at the whole mess. My boobs hurt. I had been up three nights straight. Jimmy couldn't sleep because of the floodlights the TV people had on the house. I turned to Momma with my face all pinched up and hateful and said, “Them TV preachers ain't nothing but damn crooks.” Momma wheeled on me, and I could smell the vodka on her strong.

“If you'd been here watching one of my shows instead of out with that boyfriend of yours, you wouldn't be in this pickle,” she said. I sat there awhile, then Jimmy started crying, so I went in my bedroom to change him.

You know how there are times when things change in your life, but you don't realize it for awhile? How, when you finally do, it's like jumping off a rock into cold water? I truly believe you can never gradually learn the big, important things. They have to come all at once, as if God knows the shock might kill you if it didn't fall on you like bricks. 

Right then, standing there with Jimmy in my arms, looking at the drawn shade, I knew that my life had flipped like a coin. No matter how it turned out, it wasn't ever going to be the way it was. I reached over and shut out the lamp. And when Jimmy started to cry in the dark, I reached over and rubbed his belly until he dropped off to sleep. The room got still. In the next room, I could hear Momma talking on the phone. I listened harder.

Outside, you could hear them singing. A hundred of them, a thousand, maybe, singing some old hymn that I couldn't quite place. I imagined the song rising up out of Arkansas to God, like the smoke from their fires.

 

The next morning, while I eating a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table, getting ready to feed Jimmy, I heard a horn blowing and I looked out the window. This monster-big bus was inching its way up the street, blowing the chrome bugles on top to make people get out of the way. The bus was this watery blue, covered in paintings of clouds and angels, and on the side, in big white letters, it said: “RAYMOND ROBINSON PRAYER POWER HOUR ? ON THE ROAD!”  Over the back wheels was a picture of Raymond Robinson that looked like something you might buy painted on velvet, his hair done all in one chunk like it was carved out of soap. Behind the bus was a black Suburban with tinted windows. When it stopped, men in jackets with “God Bless You!” on the back jumped out and started flagging the bus into the yard and spooling cable from the back of the truck.

“He's here!” Momma said. “I called him and he came! Like a guardian angel.”

Next thing I know, there is Raymond Robinson from TV and his big-haired wife, sitting in our house, drinking iced tea from mismatched glasses. Raymond Robinson's hair is pure white, and stiff as a board. In person, it makes a pretty, climbing wave that zooms back at his temple like a hood ornament. He had on sunglasses, and a little black Zorro cape that he whipped off when he came in. He was followed by a man with a TV camera on his shoulder. Momma had me go get Jimmy, even though he was sleeping and was cranky when he come out of the bed. The cameraman squatted in the corner and trained his big lens on Raymond Robinson.

“Rolling,” the cameraman said, and Raymond Robinson flashed his teeth.

“Hello, brothers and sisters,” he said. “We're coming to you today from the home of Brenda Tucker, just outside Little Rock, Arkansas. We're here with Sister Brenda and her daughter, Edina. As you may have seen on our program, Sister Edina recently gave birth to a very extraordinary child. A child who seems to bear ? Praise God! ? an image of Our Savior, Lord Jesus Christ, on his back.” He made “Jesus” sound just like he does on TV, like two words “JEE-zhus!” and gave his head a little shake when he said it, like he couldn't believe a guy like him wasn't struck stone-ass blind just for saying it. He turned away from the camera all of a sudden, and said, “Sister, can you turn the child over so our friends watching at home can see?'

The camera spun on me, and I felt frozen for a second. Momma gave me a nod. I set Jimmy up on his bottom and pulled his T-shirt up so the camera could get a look. Raymond Robinson leaned forward like he was gonna fall out of his chair. He reached over and squeezed his wife's leg, and she started up the waterworks like she always does on the show, her mascara rolling down her face in a clod, bawling “Praise Gaaaaaad!” and boo-hooing like the Grim Reaper was at the door. And then Raymond Robinson reached out his hand and stroked the picture on Jimmy's back, his face this mask of awe.

Right when I thought he was going to get down on his knees and weep, he turned to the cameraman and said: “Cut. Good deal, Tony.” Then he said to me, “You can cover him up now, darlin.” As soon as the camera was off, his wife started in with a little silver box of Kleenex she got out of her purse, trying to take some of that black shit off her face. Then Raymond Robinson took out a gold cigarette case and asked Momma if she minded if he smokes.

So then, he's sitting there, smoking, even though Momma will cough like she has TB if she sees Honey smoking through a CLOSED WINDOW. Raymond Robinson's wife split for the bus, and there we were. He kicked back like he owned the place and said: “Yeah, me and Roslyn have been trying for awhile to have children. Ya'll might remember that telethon we threw a couple years back to get her some of that in-vitro fertilization?” He dragged off his cigarette, and let the smoke come out slow, then scratched the back of his head. “Didn't take, though. That woman cried for I don't know how long.” In the corner, the cameraman was winding cables with big sweeps of his arms.

 

Raymond Robinson parked   bus in the front yard, and started doing his show live from there, with Momma's house in the background, all lit up like Mount Rushmore.  He had a long desk with a canopy over it to keep out the rain, and he did his whole bit right there, having his wife read articles from newspapers all over the world and then cutting to Raymond Robinson for what the Book of Revelation said about it. Every afternoon, he would come in and do a taped piece with us ? him, and his wife, and Jimmy, me, Momma and Tony the cameraman. The second day, after Raymond Robinson's guys saw that we hadn't put up a Christmas tree yet, they sent somebody to a lot over on the good side of town and brought back a Douglas fir that touched the ceiling, then sent in a prissy little man in a cardigan sweater to decorate it with brand-new ornaments and stack wrapped, empty boxes around the bottom. 

Momma was absolutely puffed up like a toad by all this.  One night, three weeks after me and Jimmy come home, we were watching the Prayer Power Hour. By that time, she had two TVs going, the console-color tuned to Raymond Robinson, and a little black and white from the bedroom on the floor beside it showing a Christian station that had set up across the street. I was feeding Jimmy, sitting in the platform rocker by the door, even though every time Momma looked at me, her face twisted up, and she made some crack about how she wished I wouldn't DO THAT in public. As if, instead of it just being me and her and Jimmy, I had whipped out my tit in the bleachers at the Daytona 500 or something.

That night, she told me: “Watch this.” Then, she goes over, watching the TV the whole time, and gives the curtain a little flutter. Sure enough, in about three seconds, over Raymond Robinson's left shoulder on the screen, the curtain gave a little twitch.

“It's almost like being the Lord Himself,” she said, “being able to change the things you see on TV.” She was drunker than nine thousand longshoremen. Earlier in the day, she had called Raymond Robinson's producer on the special cell phone number he had given her, and an hour later, two guys in headsets and God Bless You! jackets came in  with a cardboard box full of groceries and wet wipes and two jumbo-packs of Pampers. In the bottom of the box, underneath the cans of formula and the whole-wheat bread, there were three bottles of vodka ? Absolut vodka, not the cheap crap with the white label Momma usually drinks ? all wrapped in brown paper and taped up like homemade sin. When she found them, she unwrapped the bottles like Christmas presents and gave each one a kiss before she put it in the freezer.

I looked at her, standing there with the hem of the drapes in her hand, grinning down at the television like she'd just found the cure for cancer. Then I knew it would never stop. She wouldn't let it stop. Before Jimmy was born, I was a whore, a harlot, a trollop to be smirked over by the good ladies at the church who wore only nude-colored pantyhose. Now, I was blessed. I saw it all, our lives, laid out in front of me like photographs.

I could go out on the porch and tell them to all go fuck themselves ? that I was an unclean woman ? that me and Honey weren't married and probably never would be. It wouldn't matter. Momma and the people outside didn't care what I had to say. What they wanted was Jimmy. Not even Jimmy. Just his skin ? stretched and cured and put in a nice frame. Hung up somewhere so they could file past, and look, and daydream about Jesus and not their lives down here on earth. They wanted a miracle. My son, who didn't ask for Jesus on his back.

Jimmy started crying. I felt a hot wetness like blood, and looked, and I saw that my nipple had slipped out of his mouth and that I was leaking all down the front. I picked him up and went into my bedroom. I had tacked some butcher paper over the window, and the light that made it through was yellow like the light through the wing of a moth. I held Jimmy to me until he started to suck, with that rhythm that always makes me think of a boat on the ocean ? him the boat, and me the ocean. And I cried and I thought: This is the one thing nobody but us is ever going to understand, this exact moment: You the boat, and me the Ocean. Us alone together, and God nowhere to be seen.

 

Right now, I'm sitting on the couch with Eddie asleep beside me. The house is still. Outside, their fires have died down to coals. I'm passing the time writing this while I wait for the light to go out under Momma's door. Somebody, I think, should know why we left.

I know the light under Momma's door may not go out at all ? that she might fall asleep and leave it on. If it never goes out, I'll be brave. If it never goes out, I'll wait until three, and then I'll unbox one of the new baby carriers from the pile in the next room ? one of the things the people outside have been bringing to the doorstep like frankincense and myrrh. I'll pull the store tags off a diaper bag, and stuff it full of wet wipes and diapers and clothes and blankets. Earlier, I picked the cash out of a bunch of the envelopes and cards that have been coming to the door for weeks. It's not much, but it should get us settled someplace. Quiet as I can, I'll put Jimmy in the baby carrier, and tuck a quilt around him. Then, I'll take the keys from the nail by the sink, and we'll go. Honey's Chevelle is standing in the driveway full of gas, the way he keeps it so the tank won't rust. There's enough for four hundred miles, I think, and money in my purse for a thousand more if I want them. I have always wanted to see the ocean.

I've convinced myself that it'll be better this way, more how God would want. This way, no one will ever know. In a couple years, any person on the street might be Jimmy. Any person in line at the grocery store, or sitting in traffic. Any person in the world might be Jimmy, with a miracle on his back. Maybe people will be nicer to each other.

Sitting, staring at the light underneath Momma's door, even though I knew that leaving is for the best, I started to cry. I dug in my purse for a tissue, but came up with something else instead: the note with its crooked little letters that fell in my hair the day me and Jimmy left the hospital.

PRAY FOR MY WIFE PLEASE SHE HAS CANCER

This time, though, it didn't scare me. This time, when I read it, I saw a man in a gray little house somewhere, sitting at the kitchen table while his wife slept in the next room, putting the pencil to the paper a couple of times and then writing the words. PRAY FOR MY WIFE PLEASE SHE HAS CANCER. Casting out into the dark, stepping off like a man off the end of a dock:

PRAY FOR MY WIFE PLEASE SHE HAS CANCER.

So, I prayed. I bowed my head and prayed. I prayed like I have never prayed before, like the most righteous woman in the world, even though I knew it wouldn't do any good. God doesn't work like that, I think ? not like Raymond Robinson says. Not like a telephone line. Still, it was the best I, or you, or anybody could do. It was the human thing, and the closest a person can get to being like Jesus. Not walking on water or raising the dead or any of that other bullshit. Just this: to care, for one minute, about somebody I'd never met.

I put my hand out, and laid it on the warm small of Jimmy's back, and I prayed for the dying woman. I saw her smiling up at her husband, who stood by the bed and held her hand like it was the last true thing on earth. I prayed hard, my hair in my face and my eyes shut tight.

Right in the middle of it, I realized that I wasn't praying to God. I was praying to the Virgin on Honey's dashboard ? Mary, her arms stretched out to me, smiling through the back glass of the car and blessing the road that would roll out behind us.

I didn't stop though, not even when I realized I was praying to a chunk of plastic. I kept going. I prayed as hard as I have ever prayed before, ten times as hard, even though I knew it wouldn't do any good. All I knew was that when I looked up, the light might be out under Momma's door, and we could go. All I knew was that every second I kept my head down, we were another second closer to where we were all supposed to be in the wide, wide world.

 In addition to being an award-winning reporter for Arkansas Times, David Koon is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train, and the “New Stories from the South” anthology. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he was the 1999 James Michener/Copernicus Fellow in Fiction. He lives in Little Rock with his wife, Lisa, and his son, Sam. On Saturdays, he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  

 

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