Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts
Meets Southern California
By Holly Day
Jesus is standing in the soft shoulder of the Ventura Freeway, impatiently scanning the horizon for oncoming traffic. The tops of His flip-flop-clad feet are burning up from near-constant exposure to the sun, the bottoms swollen from walking all day over blacktop and concrete. He considers taking His flannel shirt off and just carrying it, but decides being a little warm is much better than being completely sunburnt. "There is no such thing as gridlock," He suddenly says out loud. "There is also no such thing as a lunch rush-hour." He bites his lip and looks nervously up at the sky. "A car will be coming to pick me up shortly," He tries. "It will rain soon."
It seems to be getting hotter. Summer insects trill happily in the waist-high yellow grass as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky, burning away the last traces of the early-morning fog. Jesus sits down by the side of the road and wipes the sweat off His forehead with the edge of His shirt. His fingers drag along the sand beside Him, impossibly feel damp gravel beneath the cracked topsoil. He grins at something somewhere in the sky before enlarging the now-damp scratches in the ground. Water seeps into the hole, fills the hole and over the side some. It is cool, sweet, and soon Jesus is back on His feet, walking along the road once more. He reaches into His pocket for the empty pack of cigarettes and finds that, amazingly, there is still one left.
He finds he also has exactly one match left. "I promise I'll quit tomorrow," He says as He lights the cigarette. Smoke rushes into His lungs, fills them completely from the very first drag on.
The hills are high enough here for Jesus to see over the smog, to actually see the smog as a thin yellow strip separating the city from the sky. It's not as bad as it used to be, He reminds himself, but it could still use some work. The ocean glitters white and sapphire in the distance, appearing impossibly close. He cuts diagonal across the road in order to get a better look, and is nearly mowed down by a badly-dented, white '67 Chevy.
The car screeches to a halt inches from Jesus. A scared-looking girl with dirty blond hair and a bad complexion is yelling something at Jesus, but He can't hear what she's saying through the closed windows. He smiles, waves, and walks over to the driver's side of the car. "Hello there," He calls out pleasantly, tapping lightly on the rolled-up window with His knuckles.
The woman rolls her window down. "What are you, fuckin' nuts? Didn't you see me coming? For chrissakes, what are you doing walking around up here? You're going to get yourself killed!" She beings to roll her window back up, then stops halfway. "Say," she says. "You're not wandering numbly away from the scene of a terrible accident or anything like that, are you? I mean, should I be concerned?"
"Nothing like that," Jesus says, still smiling pleasantly. "I'm just trying to get a ride back to town, that's all. I walked up here, and now I don't feel like walking back down."
The girl snorts and shakes her head. "Crazy! Sounds like something I'd do." She reaches over to the passenger's side and flips the door lock up. "Get in," she says. "I could use someone to talk to."
Jesus climbs into the vehicle, ducking low to keep from hitting His head on the door frame. The inside of the car is much cooler than the road outside, the air-conditioner running at a sputtering full-blast. The floor of the car is littered with debris from six or seven different fast-food restaurants. "Excuse the mess," the girl says, shrugging half-embarrassed, half daring Him to say something negative about her lifestyle. "I'm on the road a lot, don't get much chance to eat at home."
"Hey, doesn't bother me a bit," answers Jesus, struggling with the seatbelt. "I'm just happy to be getting out of here." He suddenly realizes He has no idea where He is supposed to go.
"Well, I'm going all the way past Malibu, so I can drop you off just about anywhere. Just tell me when to stop." She reaches across to the seat behind Jesus and produces a black pouch full of cassette tapes. She drops it on Jesus' lap. "Here," she says. "You pick something."
Jesus stares blankly at the pile of homemade tapes on front of Him. He tries to read a few of the labels, but can't make out the cramped scribble-handwriting no matter how hard He tries. He gives up, pulls a tape out at random, and hands it to the girl. She squints at the tape, grunts, looking as though Jesus has perhaps failed some sort of test, and pops it into the tape player.
"You can drop me off in Malibu," Jesus says after a bit. "I really don't have a destination. I'm just kind of traveling along the coast, exploring, I guess." He glances sideways at the girl, is relieved to see her grin.
"Crazy!" The car is going very fast now, whipping around the sharp turns going down the hill. "I'm Sheila, by the way. I'll be your captain, pilot, copilot, and stewardess for the duration of the flight." She laughs maniacally, both hands wrapped firmly around the rubberized steering wheel. Jesus grips the strap of his shoulder harness, watching the speedometer soar up to fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty.
"I'm Jay," He manages, a little weakly. Yellow hills flash by at a frightening speed, the ground quickly rising and falling beside the car like the filled-in lines of an oscilloscope. He can feel the whole car wobble every time the wheels hit a small rock or dip into a pothole in the road.
Jesus is standing in the soft shoulder of the Ventura Freeway, partly shaded by a withered magnolia scrub. Sheila stands by her car, hands on her hips, talking wildly to no one in particular. "If you drive slow, the car overheats, dummy!" she suddenly shouts, kicking the right front tire of the car. "Ouch!" she says, collapsing on the ground, holding onto her injured foot. "You fucking asshole car! Fuck you, car!"
Jesus has had enough. He walks over to where the girl is sitting and squats down next to her. "Hey," He says. "It's okay. You just got to let the car cool down a bit, and then we can drive some more. It's okay."
"We need water!" Sheila snarls, whirling on Jesus. "We don't have any goddamn water to put in the car. We're not fuckin' goin' anywhere!" She brushes the loose hair back from her face and glares at Jesus angrily. "What're you lookin' at?"
"You're getting a sunburn," says Jesus, softly, patiently. "Your face is all pink, and your eyes are a little puffy. You should get out of the road and sit in the shade. I'll push the car to the side of the road and join you in a moment." Without waiting for her to respond, Jesus gets up and walks around to the driver's side of the car. He opens the door and turns the wheel to the right. In the rearview mirror He sees Sheila get up and obediently walk to the magnolia tree. She sits on the ground beneath the tree and watches Jesus push the car over to the shoulder of the road and up the shallow slope of the hill a little ways. He rolls down all of the car windows and opens the rear hatch.
"Sorry I yelled at you," Sheila says when He comes back to sit beside her. She has begun drawing a series of pictures in the dry earth with the sharp end of a stick, little whirls and stick figures and a three-dimensional box. "I just hate cars, that's all. I like to drive fast because the faster I get to my destination the less time I have to sit in that damned car."
"I prefer walking, myself," Jesus says. He picks up another stick and pokes it into the dirt. The stick stands upright by itself for a few seconds, then slumps back to the ground. He tries again in another spot with the same results.
"What are you doing?" asks Sheila, putting her own stick down. She leans in closer to Jesus for a better look.
"Making a better tree for us to sit under," answers Jesus, trying yet another spot. This time the stick stays upright for nearly a full minute before imperceptible shifts in the sand cause it to fall over again.
"You're a nut!" she says, clapping her hands and laughing. The color on her face has faded from pink to a light tan. "Oh, that's wonderful." She leans back a bit and pulls her knees up to her chest. She reaches into her shirt pocket and takes out a pack of cigarettes. She lights two cigarettes and passes one over to Jesus.
Jesus takes the cigarette gratefully. It seems to have grown a little cooler, but that could have something to do with His present state of inactivity. He wipes clean the pictures of stick men and flowers and scribbles with the bottom of His shoe and begins a new sketch, wavy lines and perfect circles. He takes a deep drag on His cigarette and closes His eyes for a moment. Then He opens them.
"There was this guy I knew, a long time ago. Pete. Pete Myers. Went to school with him until his parents moved to another city. We kept in touch for a little while, then I got lazy and stopped writing." Jesus takes another long drag from His cigarette, pauses sufficiently before continuing.
"Pete and I used to ditch school all the time together. We'd get stoned first thing in the morning and go hang out at this little patch of overgrown farmland at the edge of town. There were almost enough trees there to call it a forest. The whole time we were supposed to be in class, we'd be playing War, and Urban Commando, and GI Joe. We had these big sticks that we'd pretend were guns, have little pieces of bark for knives and pistols. Fuckin' fourteen years old, and we were still playing War."
"It sounds like fun," says Sheila softly. She rests her head on the tops of her knees and stares out at the hills in the distance, at the far-away ocean, listening.
"Yeah. It was. Anyway, one day we were out there, making idiots of ourselves, when we came across this girl lying in the middle of the field.
"She was about our age, maybe a little older, wearing blue jeans and a ripped-up T-shirt, and she was all curled in a little ball around a real gun. We thought she was dead at first, but she sat up real quick when we poked her and pointed the gun at us and said something like, 'Don't move, I'll shoot,' or something like that." Jesus shakes His head and absent-mindedly sketches out a stick figure with a top hat in the dirt.
"Turned out she had gone out there to kill herself. Something about her parents getting divorced and fighting over who would get custody of her, and some guy or another dumping her the day before, and her dog or cat getting run over by a car--a whole bunch of shit. Oh, and she was flunking some class or another as well. She had come out to the middle of our field to shoot herself, got scared, then decided to just lie there and will herself to die. She'd already been there a full night and part of a day when we showed up."
Jesus pauses and leans back against the stunted tree, watching Sheila out of the corner of His eye. Her eyes are still fixed on the ocean in the distance, the cigarette dangling between her fingers, obviously forgotten, a good inch-and-a-half of ash clinging to the end. Jesus draws a picture of an A-frame house next to the figure with the top hat, followed by a crude picture of a dog with big teeth. It is getting darker, the air growing even cooler. Crickets chirp in the long yellow grasses behind them. He is beginning to think He should have told the fishing story instead, when Sheila suddenly leaps to her feet.
"And what?" she shouts. "Then what? This isn't a story, dammit! What the hell happened to her? Did she kill herself? Did you all end up having sex together? What?! What's the fucking point?!""
"There's no point, Sheila," Jesus says. "I guess I just felt like talking about someone I used to know, and someone I didn't really know at all. I'm pretty sure the girl didn't kill herself. People don't usually want to kill themselves. I think a lot of people kill themselves because they think they're supposed to. All they need is someone to come along and tell them they don't have to."
Sheila comes back over to sit beside Jesus. After a few minutes, she leans her head against His shoulder and whispers, "How did you know?"
Jesus wakes up to early-morning sunlight pouring in through the cracked windshield of the '67 Chevy. The girl in the driver's seat moans, fighting hard against consciousness. Jesus reaches over and brushes the thin blond wisps of hair from her face with His fingertips.
"Jay?" She creaks her eyelids open and stares at Jesus through gummy lashes. "You're still here," she says, smiling, suddenly becoming fully awake. "Wow."
"Of course I'm still here. We got water in the car now."
Sheila turns the key in the ignition, and the car roars to life. "Someone stop by while I was asleep?"
"A truck driver pulled over late last night. He offered to give us a tow, but I told him we just needed water."
Sheila nods sleepily and turns the key in the ignition. The engine starts right up without sputtering or rattling, as it always will from this day forward. "Nice car," she murmurs, patting the dashboard, and pulls out onto the road. The dying tree that provided them with shelter the day before has grown taller overnight, dark green leaves and fleshy white magnolia blossoms unfurling like tiny flags in the muted light behind them.
"Did you sleep all right? Sheila asks Jesus, passing Him a lit cigarette. Jesus thinks about refusing, remembering His promise to the other He, then decides to be polite and takes the cigarette. She continues without waiting for Him to respond. "I've fallen asleep here more times than I care to count," she says. "There aren't any springs in the seats." She punches the side of Jesus' seat lightly. "It's all foam rubber. My idea," she adds, beaming proudly.
"Very nice." Jesus shifts position, somewhat anxious. He is supposed to be some place else right now, and the car is not going in the right direction. At least it doesn't feel like it is.
Sheila notices His discomfort. "Hey," she says. "I appreciate you listening to me last night. I'm not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers in the first place, and I'm especially not in the habit of telling complete strangers my life story. I think I really needed someone to listen to me last night, and I'm glad I ran into you." They are at the bottom of the hill now, almost to the beach. "Can I buy you breakfast or something? I'm starving, so we've got to stop for food anyway."
Jesus isn't really hungry, but Sheila seems so eager to feed Him. The California coast stretches out before them, the Malibu peninsula far away and barely visible through the thick early-morning fog. A few surfers dot the clear green waves, bobbing like ducks just above the waterline. Jesus rolls down His window and breathes in the cool moist air. He can smell the rotting seaweed on the beach, the sweet sea salt, the faint trace of cities in the distance. He almost asks Sheila to stop the car right there, let Him out so He can walk the rest of the way.
"Look!" Sheila says, pointing to a little wooden just around the next corner. She pulls the car over to the side of the road and screeches to a dusty halt. "I wonder if it's even open yet. Have you ever eaten here before?" Jesus shakes His head. The smell of lard and potatoes frying reaches Jesus through the thick fog, hung there in front of Him as if trapped. He is suddenly very hungry after all. "Come on!" Sheila calls, climbing out of the car, gesturing for Him to follow her. "This place is great!"
The stand is located as close to the edge of a cliff as safely possible, ruling out possible mud slides and floods. Waves crash loudly against the bottom of the cliff, hollowing the rock face a little each time they attack. There is already a small cave dug into the rock, barely visible from where Jesus is standing. A bleary-eyed fry cook greets the pair from inside the stand. "Man, are you two up early!" the cook says, grinning. "I just turned the stove on a couple minutes ago!"
"What do you feel like having?" Sheila asks, pulling her wallet out of her pocket and quickly rifling through the faded bills inside it. "Get anything you want."
Jesus scans the menu, mouth watering. At this point, everything looks good. He settles on a large rare hamburger with onions and green peppers ("At this time in the morning, man? You're crazy!") followed by a strawberry milkshake. To assuage His guilt at spending most of Sheila's money, He quickly heals a cluster of deep acne scars on the right side of her face. The miracles are coming easier, He notes, somewhat surprised. Sheila orders herself some sort of standard breakfast sandwich and an orange juice.
They sit at a wooden picnic table overlooking the ocean. Directly below them the waves strike the cliff face with such force that jets of sea spray splatter the couple lightly. Off in the distance the last dolphins of the morning go through their acrobatic routines one more time before heading off to hide in deeper waters.
Jesus is halfway through His burger before He hears the child crying. Sheila notices it first.
She puts her drink down and walks over to the edge of the cliff. "Did you hear that?"
Jesus gets up and stands beside Her, peering down into the ocean. The sound is louder now, impossibly rising above the racket of water smashing into rock. No words, just one almost continuous wail of terror, the voice warbling now and then as though the screamer was swallowing massive amounts of water.
An arm, a small black head, a bright blue windbreaker. Jesus sees the boy, stares uncomprehendingly for several seconds before realizing He's looking at a child. "Oh my God," moans Sheila, clutching at Jesus' arm. "We've got to do something!"
"Get the guy at the stand. Tell him to call someone, the police. Hurry!" Jesus shakes Sheila, a little too roughly. She pulls away from Him and stumbles towards the little shack. Jesus watches her retreat for a moment before turning back to the struggling child.
You can save him, says a little voice in Jesus' head. You could just climb down there and pull the kid out and carry him back up the cliff with you. Hey, You're the Messiah, right? Jesus shakes His head until His ears buzz. "There's got to be a better way," He says out loud. "There has to be." He lies down flat on the rock and inches as far as He can over the edge of the cliff, face down, trying to get a better look at the situation.
The child has both arms wrapped around a rock now, clinging desperately for his life. Jesus tries to get a look at the boy's face, tries to catch the child's attention, but there is too much confusion below. You can save him, the voice says again. He looks around, sees Sheila waving her arms excitedly at the bleary fry cook, looks back at the churning waves just beneath Him, at the small white hands fighting to keep a hold on the smooth wet rock. The morning rush hour has just begun, the winding road behind Him gradually filling with compact cars speeding towards both pleasant and unpleasant destinations. No. He has been here before.
"I'm sorry," he says, then repeats himself, shouting this time, "I'm sorry! Please," and His voice trails off. The child seems to hear Him, turns to face Jesus full-on, and it's not the face of a child down there, not even the face of a human being, it's something so bright and powerful and beautiful that Jesus is momentarily blinded…. A test. Another fucking test.
When His eyesight returns the child is gone. Sheila is staring down at Him uncomprehendingly. "Hey, man," she says, finishing off the last of Jesus' strawberry milkshake. "Are you all right? Are you, like, an epileptic or something?"
"I'm fine." Jesus climbs slowly to His feet and brushes the sand off His clothes. "I'm just fine."
(Holly Day lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her son, Wolfegang, and her
cat, Calypso. She currently works as a music journalist for Guitar One and
XLR8R magazines, and was recently invited to pen the intro for the new
guidebook, Jimi Hendrix: Bluesman [publication slated for the end of 1999].)