20 August 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 2
Hand Shaking Jesus
The crowds on Walnut Street are pretty thick, the whole of Shadyside's shopping district overflowed with street-fair vendors and gawkers. I didn't think about this when I started on the walk. Really, it would have been difficult to think of anything but Rayna's mom. She hadn't told us on our whole vacation, our three-year anniversary trip, ten days in North Carolina.
Doctors told her that she could see a year, maybe two if she could handle the treatment. But they said to prepare for the worst. Fredo was pretty antsy when Rayna and I got home. I grabbed the leash and kissed Rayna on the head. She held the phone with both hands and sobbed into the receiver. At the other end, I was sure Cathy, her mother, had the same tears in her eyes.
I didn't know if I should leave, but Fredo needed to go out. He couldn't have known what was going on. A dog's a dog. I figured I could use a coffee anyway, time to sit, time to think of something to say to Rayna, someway to make sense of Cathy's report, and her cheerfulness despite it. The fair vendors are nice, I guess, a distraction, at least. There's a guy who will paint a pile of sports equipment for you, then put your name and numbers on the back of a Penguins jersey that's draped over a corner. Although it's not my taste at all, I try to picture one in my living room. I'm just trying to forget the image I've invented in my head: my mother-in-law with a scarf tied to her head, gaunt, withering underneath the silk.
Maybe it's something that would work in the bathroom. I see the guy will paint a Steelers or a Nittany Lions one, too. Fredo trots along beside me, dodging a low-slung bag and stooping when a child's hand reaches for his head. He's not small enough to really be stepped on, but occasionally a pair of legs bumps him to the side. His ears go back. I feel sorry for him.
Right now, I just want to escape, run from these crowds, the news. I'm not ready for this. I've already lost enough loved ones before their time. I see a gap between two tents. I pull Fredo through and emerge from the canvas into the crowd on the other side. I hear some music and listen for the direction it's coming from. I decide it's to the right, and tug Fredo along against the flow of people. He walks behind me and I go straight forward, broad-shouldered, trying to protect him from the bumping legs. The music is getting louder and in two more steps we're free. We stand across from a small stage, and Fredo comes around and sits down in front of me. It's considerably less crowded here, but the band has a nice little audience. Most are dancing. I mean really dancing, just tearing it up. They're sort-of flailing around in time with the music, bouncing to the bass with their arms up. It's not totally chaotic, but seriously freeform.
It's totally irrational, but they piss me off because they're so into it. The music itself is thumping with a disco, dance-club bass drum, pounding away on the quarter notes. The audience pulsates with each beat. I don't want to, but I just grow angrier with their intensifying exuberance, their attempt at bliss. When the band really gets going, the crowd throws their arms up and cheers, which makes the band go harder and, in turn, the cheering get louder. I can see they're feeding each other. The song ends with a "wooooo" from the crowd.
There's a guy with baggy shorts not too far from us who is still bouncing. The band is conversing, no music, but he's still moving in time to a phantom beat. His overgrown hair flops up and down over wire-rim glasses that rest just above his forehead. I guess he's just a few years younger than me, maybe 20 or 22. He catches me watching him, but doesn't stop. Our eyes meet and I try to act as though I've been staring through him. But he doesn't look away. Instead, he smiles and comes toward me. I panic for a second and look for a getaway, but there are crowds and tents everywhere.
"Dude! That was sick," he yells in a kind of freaky way at me, I guess. I just nod. I'm not much of a talker, at least not to people I don't know, people I don't want to get to know. He stoops down to Fredo and rubs his head. Fredo ducks away, just as wary as I am of strangers.
"Awesome dog, man. What is he?"
"Pit bull." I say with a totally straight face, hoping he'll back off. Fredo's not. He doesn't look anything like a pit bull and certainly doesn't have the temperament. "He's a mutt."
The guy chuckles, like it was a good joke. Fredo is warming up to him, licking his hand. "Right on. What's his name?"
"Fredo." I mean to ask him what the name of the band is, but I don't. The guy looks Fredo right in the eye. "Dude, don't end up like Fredo Corleone, sleepin' with the fishes."
Somehow, the guy bounces through our short chat. I want to reach out and grab him, maybe wrestle him to the ground if I need to. I just need to stop his bouncing, the irritating joy that's intensifying my grief. The band starts up again, the guitar jangly, playing a single-note line. The guy jumps up, the music finally rescuing me from his unintentional assault. His head rolls back and both arms reach out, palms up. I don't get it, but it's like he's in some sort of ecstasy.
"Oh, no! This song!" He yells out. "I love it. It's like shaking hands with Jesus."
Rayna's mom swears that she shook hands with Jesus once. Which means that I did, too. It's a long drive to Florida from Pittsburgh. After twenty-three hours on the road, anyone would be pretty fatigued. You might see things that aren't there, or things you want to see. The unbelievable becomes believable. The old Camry died somewhere in northern Florida, just past the border in that sort-of no-man's land. It's beautiful country, really, if you ignore the Confederate flags. There can be miles in between houses on those old two-lane highways. We stopped right in between.
The light was dimming and Rayna was asleep in the backseat. Cathy and I jumped out and popped the hood. The trip was her idea, a week in a Condo on the Gulf with her daughter and son-in-law, on her tab. She wouldn't fly, though, so she made me drive. Which is why we were bent over the engine, fiddling with the spark plugs. I'm not really all that good with cars. I changed the brake pads once, and put in headlight lamps. I had no idea what was wrong, though. I was just delaying the inevitable, a two- or three-mile hike to the nearest house.
Then we noticed him. He was leaning over with us, nodding as I pulled a spark-plug wire. His long hair was pulled back neatly and he had a bushy beard. There were no robes or anything, though, just jeans and a short-sleeve, button down shirt.
I think I must have stepped back a bit, balked, and Cathy grabbed my arm. The guy just smiled and plugged the cable back in. He was acting so naturally, like he was a buddy who had always helped me work on my car. He only said four sentences the while we were with him. "I think I know what's wrong. Do you have any tools?" Those were the first two. His voice was what I expected from the way he looked, low, gravelly, with the slightest of southern drawls.
"Um, I think I have a Leatherman in the trunk."
He just smiled and nodded.
Cathy looked at me with her eyebrows raised before contributing, "There might be a screwdriver in the glove compartment."
He nodded again.
It was a nice night, and I specifically remember thinking how quiet and peaceful it was right then. It was like someone hushed the whole world, like everyone but us was taking a nap. I might have closed my eyes and joined them in their sleep. I had only been rooting around in the trunk, looking for the multi-tool underneath all our luggage for maybe thirty seconds when I heard the hood slam shut. The guy was walking towards me, wiping his hands on his jeans.
"Try it now."
It started right up. The funny thing, though, was I never had any doubt that it would. As soon as he told me to start it, I knew it was going to start. No matter who Cathy says he is, there's some sense in which he was our savior. He delivered us from... well, from being stuck in Northern Florida.
I jumped out of the car and said thanks and Cathy said thanks. We shook each others' hands and he said, "You'd do the same for me." Maybe I would. Then he was gone. I think maybe he walked off into the woods or just down the road in the opposite direction we were going. All I remember is he showed up and then disappeared.
When I pulled back out onto the road I wasn't really thinking too hard about the guy. I figured he was some nice local. His house could have been just off the road, back where we couldn't see it. But I asked the question because he had fixed the car, because he had come out of nowhere.
"Where'd that guy come from?"
It took a minute for Cathy to answer, but when she did, she sounded sure. "I know where he came from."
It struck me as weird, the tone in her voice. "Yeah? Where?"
"Tommy, did you notice anything weird when you shook his hand?"
I didn't. His hand was rough and thin, but the grip was tight. "Um, no."
"Nothing at all?"
"No, Cathy. Nothing."
"When I reached to shake his hand, I misjudged." She paused and looked at me. "I kinda grabbed his wrist instead. There were scars. I could feel them."
"Ok." It's strange, when I think back. I don't know why I didn't see where she was going.
"They were deep."
"Alright, they were deep."
"Like something had gone all the way through his wrist."
"Wow. Gross." I'm not sure I believe in Jesus. I believe he existed, of course. He's a real historical figure and some people followed him around. Then the Romans crucified him. I'd like to believe the next part, the rising from the dead. I just want some more proof.
"It was Jesus, Tommy."
And there's the proof, right? We break down in the middle of nowhere. Jesus shows up, messes around with our engine, and tells us to be on our way. Jesus fixed my car and I'm having a hard time believing in him. He comes to me to show he's alive and I still can't stop being the skeptic.
I wonder, as the memory of that night flashes through my brain again, what Cathy might think of this scene, the band, the crowd. I imagine that Rayna and I would be content to stand on the perimeter taking it all in. But Cathy, she'd fling herself right into it. She'd walk right in between the bouncing and whirling and nudge one of them. She'd try to understand, try to see Jesus in all of it, wherever he may be. Thinking about it, I sort of want to know the name of the band now. I might not be all that interested normally, but the reaction they're getting is fascinating. It's totally impressive, the fanaticism they've inspired. I mean, how could I ignore a musical experience that has been equated to meeting the Messiah?
I don't have the courage of my mother-in-law, though. I can't handle talking to one of the flailing devotees mid-song. My curiosity can wait. One of the stores across the way has a girl sitting out at a table. She's selling books and candles and jewelry. She may have an answer. Seems she's been sitting there the whole time, talking to people as they stop at her table. They only linger for a moment, picking up a book and flipping it over to read the back or fingering a silver necklace.
Fredo and I trot up to the table. She doesn't look at us at first, kind of glazed over. When she does look up at me, her long earrings clatter. She's maybe forty, but a young forty. Her nose is long, beakish, but she has a gentle smile.
"Hello," she says to me, her smile evaporating into a blank look, unreadable.
"Um, hi." She makes me stutter. I don't know why. "I, ah... I'm... I was wondering if you knew the name of the, ah, the band."
I point behind me at the stage. "The, ah, the one playing?"
"Oh." She shakes her head. "No."
"Right. Ok." I pick up a candleholder. It's a raven, spindly legs, hole in its back to place the candle. I don't know why I'm lingering. But I feel like I'm supposed to say something more. "How much is the... how much for this?"
She's watching my hands. "I don't know. Eight dollars?"
I put it back down. I'm not really interested in it. "Sure."
"You're a very sincere man." She's looking back up at my face now. I don't think her eyes blink.
"Your voice. There's a sincerity I rarely hear."
I stop fiddling. I don't really know what to say. My jaw drops a little, ready to react. But nothing comes out. My mouth is slightly open, like a nutcracker whose handle is barely cocked. Fredo whimpers. He's lying under the table.
"I could probably tell you more if we did a reading." She hands me a pink sheet of paper, "Psychic Readings by Sally." There's a price list with the usual stuff: palm reading, tea leaf, séance. There's some stuff I've never heard of, too: psychic circulation analysis, mind clarification, channel pronouncement.
I fold the paper and slip it into my pocket. I see what's going on now, but I'm still stuttering "Maybe, um... some, ah, other time?"
"Do you know that scientists have measured the presence of spirits?"
I want to walk away, but she's engaged me and I hate being rude. "No." I shake my head, trying to look disinterested.
"Over forty independent studies have been completed." She lays her hands out on the table, palms up.
"I, ah, didn't know... that." I pick up a book, flip it over to read the blurbs, hope that this will hinder the conversation.
"That's an interesting read."
I don't even know what I've picked up. The first blurb reads: A thorough investigation into the realms of lives abundant. Dr. Chandra expertly delves not only into the how and why of rebirth, but the intangible feeling of oneness and the longing for paradise. This book enlightens while it teaches. It is a triumph for all who have lived a life before!
I pretend that I'm too engrossed to answer.
Sally leans across the table. She's right underneath me. I can see her tall forehead just beyond the book. "You don't seem to be the type to believe in reincarnation."
"I was a cynic in a previous life," I joke, but it's not really even funny to me.
"You planted vegetables in a previous life." She sounds genuine. There's no hint of irony in her voice. "Before that, you begged in a village in Guatemala. And before that, a goat and a mole rat. You're slowly moving toward paradise."
I'm smiling. I can't take her seriously, but I wish I could. "It's paradise in the next life, then?"
"Perhaps. That may be up to you."
It's time to go. I have to find a way out of this, so I return to why I approached her in the first place. "So you don't know the name of the band?"
Her head swivels back and forth. "That? No."
"Well, um... thanks." I offer the book to her, but instead she grabs my wrist. Her fingers are very cold.
"Your father, he's proud of you and wants you to take the train with him."
The first part is laughable, it's so vague, and I would think she's a pretty lousy fortune-teller except my father did love trains. He collected hundreds of models. We rode trains together countless times, took the scenic Horseshoe Curve trip twenty times one year. It was a little weird that she came up with that, but there was no way I was going to ride any more trains with him. He died when I was seventeen.
"If you'd like, I probably could tell you more. But it's too noisy out here on the street. We'd have to go inside for a full reading."
I gently pull my arm away from her. "No, thank you."
"Ok, but one last thing. Your mother-in-law, she'll pull through. But it may be time to help her move furniture again."
When Rayna and I were dating, her mother had me move furniture once. Cathy had called the day before to tell me not to come. It had only been two days since Steven's death, during my last semester of college, almost two years before Rayna and I would get married. She called that morning and said that she would get her neighbor to help her move the dresser, one of those crazy old, heavy, solid-wood monstrosities. But I was on her porch at twenty-five 'til one, a little earlier than we had agreed on over the weekend. At that point I just needed something to get my mind off my brother's accident, hit by the mirror of a tractor-trailer riding his bike to class. It was all I could think about for the prior two days, between holding my mom and trying to finish my senior thesis. Without a break, there would be no way I could hold it together. And I had to hold it together at the funeral, for my mom, for my sister. They would be counting on me.
I knocked on the door. No answer came. I knocked again, this time hard enough that my knuckles throbbed. It was funny how good that felt, the ache in the joint, skin reddening. It was obvious that Cathy wasn't home, so I knocked again, a steady rapping this time, gradually louder, harder, with more ferocity. By the time I stopped, when I didn't need to knock anymore, my middle- and ring-finger were bleeding, totally numb. I wiped the oozing blood onto my t-shirt, made red streaks near my waistline, and tried the door. No one locks their doors in small towns. Everyone trusts everyone, believes in everyone.
It didn't look like Cathy had been gone long, or that she expected to stay away for any length of time. I could hear the radio playing in the kitchen and the vacuum cleaner sat in the middle of the living room. There was a dolly sitting by the front door. Cathy said that she might be able to borrow one from her church. Its big rubber tires bumped on the steps as I dragged it to the second floor.
I knew exactly where the dresser was, in the spare bedroom, where I had slept at least a dozen times. It was plain, walnut, beat up, but still usable. Cathy had taped the drawers up so they wouldn't fall out when I moved it. I carefully peeled the tape off the top drawer. It slid out easily, squeaking at first, but not resisting. It was empty; floral-patterned shelf-paper tacked the bottom, violets and roses criss-crossed. I don't know what I expected. I think I hoped it was still full, full of stuff Cathy forgot, or maybe full of bits and pieces she wanted to get rid of, an earring without its match, a Time from the early eighties, romance novels with their covers torn away, things she wanted to give away to the unsuspecting new owner who had answered the classified ad for a free dresser. But there was nothing.
Then I had a thought. I could put something in it. It wasn't so much that it needed to be filled, but that I needed to unload. I can remember the heaviness more that anything about that day. Something had to come off me. I needed to fill the drawer, let someone else deal with what went in.
At first, I couldn't find anything that I could peel away, though. Well, not much. A bloody t-shirt. Couple of coins. A gold chain with a crucifix that my grandmother had given me on my fourteenth birthday. My fingers felt thick on the small clasp, but I got the ends apart without too much struggle. I cupped the necklace in my hands and held it up to my ear as I shook. It barely made a noise. I wish it had been louder. I don't think I would have put it in the drawer if it had been louder. But in it went.
The dresser wasn't as heavy as I had first feared, even after my addition. I taped the top drawer back up and tipped it onto the dolly. As it bumped back down the stairs, I fought against its manageable weight, one hand on top to keep it from bumping right off. It sort of blocked everything in the old house's narrow entryway, so I just put it in the center. Then I hoisted myself up, sitting atop it to wait for Cathy.
It wasn't long until I heard the back door, the one that went from the side porch to the kitchen. It creaked open and slammed shut. I figured that I better call out to her so that she wouldn't be surprised that someone was in the house. "Hey, Cathy! It's just Tom."
"Saw your car, Tommy." Cathy always used nicknames. For me, it was never Thomas or even Tom. For Rayna, it was Raynie or Rayne Rayne. I've never heard her call her daughter Lorayne. Even I call her Lorayne every once in a while.
"Oh, sorry I was a couple minutes early. Front door was open."
Cathy came around the corner carrying a big, cardboard box, arms nearly stretched as far as she could reach to hold it. She stopped at the end of the entry hall. "Wow, Tommy. You work fast!" Then she disappeared back into the kitchen. "Come here a second. I want to show you something."
I slipped off the dresser and headed into the kitchen, where the old orange linoleum had just been torn up to lay tile down.
"Hey, where's Rayna? Thought we were all gonna get lunch together."
I propped myself up on the doorjamb and gently knocked my head on it a couple times. Cathy stood over the box, leaning on the table. "She's getting her hair cut. She should be home in twenty minutes, maybe?"
She motioned for me to come over. "Tommy, come here." Pointed into the box. "Check it out."
At first, it just looked like a blanket in a box, a ratty, brown, polyester bedspread tossed in with the hope it would be forever forgotten. But there, in the corner, covered a little bit, was a puppy. "A dog." I wanted to smile, but my face just wouldn't do it. The words came out with no inflection, no feeling, totally flat.
"Yeah, Tommy. A dog." She reached in a scratched his head, but he didn't open his eyes. "He was stuck under the Frederick's back porch. Mr. Frederick heard whimpering. We spent the last hour and a half trying to fish him out. We don't know what happened to the mother."
I ran my hand down his back, could feel his small ribs. His little tail started wagging, the first sign of life that I saw. "I've never had a dog."
"Well, name him and he's yours."
"No." I was in college. I didn't want to have to take care of a dog. I needed to be able to take off at a moment's notice, without worrying how the thing was going to eat or where it would crap. What if I had to go home all of a sudden, like to my brother's funeral?
Cathy raised her eyebrows as if to say I can't imagine what you're going through, but I won't bring it up if you don't want to talk about it. I'm happy to talk about something else: "Which? No to giving him a name, or no to taking him?"
I shook my head. "Neither."
"Well, we've got to give him a name." She drew the blanket back and cradled the little guy in one hand. He didn't struggle, but whined a bit as she lifted him to her chest. "C'mon, what do you got?"
"I got nothin'."
She kept pressing, though. "Tommy, he has to have a name. How else are we going to call him when he tries to chase cars?"
"Um..." She held him out to me, basically shoved him into my chest and let go. I didn't have any choice but to hold on to him.
"How about Cupcake?" Cathy asked.
"Don't think so."
She smiled. "Alright, smartie-pants. Do one better."
"Ok." It was the first thing that popped into my mind. "Fredo."
"Fredo?" Her hands went to her hips. "An Italian dog."
I bit my lip. "Well, whatever."
"No, no. I like it. Just commenting on his distinguished ethnicity." She scratched his head. "Hey, Fredo. Got to find you a home, now."
I tried to explain. "I just thought it might be nice."
"I used to... Um, when we were in high school... It's a long story."
"What is, Tommy?"
"No, it's stupid."
"Why is it stupid?"
"It was sort of an inside joke, Fredo." The puppy started licking my hand. "I used to call my brother, Stephen, that."
Cathy nodded. "Fredo, a good name."
"For a while in eighth grade, he would slick his hair back. My sister said he looked like some sort of Italian greaser or something. Whenever I saw him around his friends I'd grab his head with both hands and kiss his forehead and I'd be like 'Hey Fredo! My brother!' I wanted to embarrass him. You know?"
Cathy nodded some more. "And I bet you did."
"Yeah." I smiled thinking about it, first time in a couple days. "I don't know... it was just like a thing."
"I think it's a nice way to honor him."
I shook my head. "Right. Make fun of him even now."
Cathy grabbed my shoulders, forced me to look straight in her eyes. "It's a good way to remember him, to smile when you remember him. And a better name than I could come up with."
"When are the people coming for the dresser?"
"Oh, I don't know. They said they might come today, or tomorrow, or next Thursday. Thanks for moving it, Tommy. I couldn't have done it by myself."
I thought about the top drawer. Already, I wanted it back. But I couldn't walk over and peel that tape away now. It was done. I didn't want to hear the questions. I didn't want to speak the answers.
Cathy continued, sensing my discomfort in the silence. "I've really wanted to start redecorating that room. That old thing has been around too long. Maybe I'll go call them now. See if they can come by. Get rid of it as soon as possible."
Fredo whimpered again, so I started bouncing him like he was a baby. "Good idea," I replied. "Maybe they'll want a puppy, too."
There's a feeling that the air is being sucked out of my lungs, a whirring from the band that swirls around me, and I cringe when the lady says the thing about my mother-in-law.
It's gotten crowded around the little table. People pick up trinkets and examine them. They push past me because I'm in the way. I feel my weight being shifted from side to side. She's not paying attention to them, though. Our eyes are fixed and she must think she has me. She's closed in and made her sale. And I want to have faith in her words. I want them to be true.
I wonder to myself what I'd give to circle around the Horseshoe Curve with my father again. I wonder what Rayna would say if I went home and told her that Cathy was going to be OK, if we just have faith. It's just not something I'm ready for, though, not something I can believe in. At some point I gave my faith away and ceased to have belief. Maybe it was that day I put the crucifix in the dresser drawer. It doesn't matter what I believe, though. The reality is clear. I'm not going to go home and call Cathy and expect her to ask me to come over and move another dresser. She's not going to tell me that the cancer diagnosis is some sort of mistake. She'll tell me she's dying, that there's no doubt about it.
And I know the thing about my father is just a fluke. If I try really hard I can even concede that she does have some sort of powers. That maybe being a psychic is like tuning a radio. Every once in a while she finds a station that's broadcasting, but most of the time it's just static. The rest is just conjecture, tricks. She sees my wedding ring, knows I'm married, and figures that at some point I had to have moved my mother-in-law's furniture. Hasn't everyone?
I struggle to say something to the woman as I break eye contact. I guess I'm a little rude. Eventually, I just turn away without uttering a word. Fredo yelps as I pull him away from the safe spot he's found under the table, probably a little too hard. I need to escape, though, to get away from this confrontation.
I hate it, but some part of me wants to stay, to attempt to overcome the doubt, but from where I stand it looks insurmountable. I can almost feel it, though; the release that would come with trusting this woman's prediction. The moment that I gave myself over could be rapturous, euphoric, take the burden of my future, of Cathy's future, out of my hands.
The band still plays, machine-like, the bass drum urging, pounding itself into my head. The fans are bouncing all over the place. I see them give themselves over, surrender. I can't understand it, their willingness to plug into the music, publicly, with all of us doubters standing at the perimeter. I wonder if I'm capable of it. Trying not to hesitate, not to think, I walk right in between them, right in front of the band. I nod my head to the music. Fredo keeps a lookout, gets close to me, hoping he doesn't get stepped on. The bouncing guy, the one from before, sails past me, both fists pumping above his head. I catch his eyes for a moment and he smiles and nods with me to the beat of the bass drum before circling around to the stage.
It's not like me, but I'm bouncing a little now, too. I'm giving myself over to this thing. And, for at least the next five or six minutes, I'll let the music dictate how I feel, how I move. I'm not expecting the same ecstasy those around me are finding, but I admit that I want it. The music feels good, and I realize, for the very first time, that I want to know what it feels like to shake hands with Jesus, too.
About the author:
Noah McGee is a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon University Creative Writing Department, where he won the Adamson Award for short fiction. He has work recently in Ghoti Magazine, and when he's not working or writing, you can find him riding his bicycle up the hills of Pittsburgh or drinking beer with his wife at D's.