I never learned his name. He was curly-haired, 40 or so, wearing dress slacks, an open-collar shirt and the jacket. He moved by our table, looking at me nervously and then paused near the restaurant's cash register. I watched from across the room as he rubbed his face and hitched his shoulders. I could see his expression resolve into decision, and he turned back to our table.
I was raised to tread lightly, and the best way to watch where you step is to pay strict attention to what's going on around you and to anyone nearby who might make trouble. I stared as he approached our table, but he didn't meet my gaze.
"Jesus told me to talk to you," he said as he stopped near me. No greeting. No asking pardon to interrupt our meal.
"And I bet it's because I'm sitting here in a wheelchair."
He rubbed his mouth and began a nervous shuffle at the table's edge. "There's a charismatic men's group meeting today at the Hilton on North Glenstone. There's healing. Miracles . . ."
"And you think I should be there?"
He had the aura of a recent convert, a soul lit up by literal interpretation of ringing words and healthy admonitions tumbling down 2,000 years of history.
I said nothing. He was not the first to make me resent the Man from Nazareth's facile use of the blind and the lame as metaphors for moral failures. I looked at my plate. I wondered idly if he expected the fish to multiply. Once again I had been drafted into a religious trinity not of my making—me, my wheelchair, and one of God's chosen.
"Jesus heals," he said.
"If God thinks I need healing, I suppose he can do it here, don't you think?"
"Our Lord does not want you to be in that wheelchair." He continued to shift his feet, never standing completely still, his hands moving from his jacket pockets to his face and back again. I could sense he was new to personal testimony, a novice teetering between evangelizing and embarrassment.
I wondered if he was going to touch me. I am uncomfortable when I am touched by strangers, and I didn't want him to lay hands on me to pray for healing, not there in the middle of the restaurant. I imagined his prayers wafting toward heaven borne aloft on the incense of fried fish and shrimp cocktail.
"As much as sin is sickness, sickness is sin."
I had begun to admire his jacket. I wanted one like it—soft, supple and a glorious café au lait brown. I had nearly bought one several months before, turning away at the last moment because the tag said "Made in India."
"What?" His bold declaration jerked me back from thinking about a $300 leather jacket stitched together by labor earning pennies per hour in a country where cows are sacred.
"I'm not sick," I said. "At least not now. I'm paralyzed."
"Please come. Jesus is calling." His voice was low, and he glanced side to side as he spoke. I watched his eyes. They shone. Tears or passion, I don't suppose it mattered, then or now.
"No," I said. "No." I wondered why he had approached me. The chair, of course, draws stares and comments, but in the dark corner of my mind where cynicism grows I've always thought people who ask me to take the featured role in Matthew's allegory of healing don't see me. They see another star for their heavenly crown.
And I burn with resentment.
He looked at the floor and then around the restaurant. He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets, turned and walked away.
As he left, I raised my cup of tea, took a sip and thought about that old puritan Paul. Angels walk among us, he said, to explain God's lesser mysteries and intentions.
We drive south, across land at once familiar and changing. We move through country I have known all my adult life, a place at once old and new, green pastures and second-growth timber laced together by barbed-wire fences, cattle and occasional crops. We travel outbound from the city where we live, off the northern fringes of the great Midwestern plateau and deep into the Ozark hill country.
The road is narrow, a two-lane blacktop, following old game trails and pioneer trade routes up and over, around and beyond hills, valleys and rocky divides where rivers run. There are towns with names like Bois D'Arc, Boaz and Brown Springs, little settlements that have dwindled down to a church, a cemetery, an abandoned store and a half-dozen houses.
My wife drives, intent on the road, hurrying to the place she feels most at peace. We are quiet, and I am struck that the little churches, each invariably painted white, each with a sign pushed up to the road's edge, are familiar markers on our way from the city to our cabin on the lake. Roads change, new houses are built, old buildings burn or collapse, but the little churches are constants.
Clio. Mount Olive. Elm Branch Christian. Church of God Holiness. Crane Bible Baptist.
I am tired, and so I close my eyes for a moment and sink into the memories of the people who gather in them on Sunday, morning and night, and for Wednesday prayer service as well. I have been there with them, for the preaching, for the revivals, for the altar call. I have sat in a simple cinder block church deep in the hills, as far from the pope in Rome as any heathen in Africa, and listened as a man whose only vestments are moral certainties preached The Word.
"Sin! Black sin rises like the stink of Satan from this town, this nation, this world! We are all sinners! Doomed to hell and its everlasting tortures unless we repent —repent and accept Jesus as Our Savior."
The Power of the Blood washes across the hardwood plank floors and the narrow oaken pews, and a whipcord country preacher strides the single aisle. He holds the truth in a worn Bible, and he is intent upon driving it into the hearts of his people like the nails pounded into the church door at Wittenburg. He is thin, hard-used, but he stands on the impenetrable and everlasting rock of faith.
He waves the Bible and points to a newcomer.
"The book says, 'Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already.' Hellbound! Unless you are washed in the blood of the Lamb you are hellbound!"
Our vehicle digs into a sharp curve, moving uphill, and I am pulled out of my reverie. There is a lonely house ahead on the left, its everyday shape outlined by a fence, but there's something more, something oddly white and indefinite, spread out parallel to the road. It is at the edge of my vision, this strange apparition, then it reveals itself completely.
Yes, the familiar—a small house, a chain-link fence enclosing the front yard. A car nosed up near the back door. A shed, perhaps a small old barn, with a missing loft door. But it is the fence that burns in my mind's eye.
There are three white crosses in the fence. Crosses delineated by foam cups stuffed through the diamonds of the interwoven wire. Three crosses, one perhaps 3 feet tall, the other two slightly smaller.
Golgotha in cups. Testimony to Our Savior crucified, with good thief and bad, hoisted on chain links. Testimony inspired by some country prophet risen to stride the floor of some church nearby, to speak in the spirit of a man who got his theology from the Bible rather than from professors.
_"On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,_
_ The emblem of suffering and shame."_
I want to stop. I want to know who knelt to thrust the cups into the chain link. What faith wanted to declare the Christ's eternal victory to people buzzing by at a mile a minute?
"Did you see that?" I ask my wife.
We say nothing more, each lost in our thoughts.
I close my eyes again as she drives on, and I see a figure striding down the aisle of a little country church, white shirt with collar open and tie askew, black trousers worn shiny. He has the hard-honed, leathery look of a man whose passion is faith, a man who burns with John's Revelations and knows we will be delivered from the cuts, cares and injustices of this world.
"Are ye washed in the blood of the Lamb?" he cries.
And in his hand he raises a foam cup.
* * *
Alan has the face of a cherub, and a doctorate of divinity, and he holds the Host above his head. His hands meet at a point above his wide shoulders, a shape that mimics the geometry of the stained glass behind and above him, a window in the church named for the Holy Trinity.
My friend, my priest, is offering Mass.
His hands come down to fetch the cup, and the words come down from the altar.
"Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
This is the cup of my blood,
The blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all
So that sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me."
I sit in the far corner of the church, beneath the seventh Station of the Cross, a representation of Our Lord falling, falling for the second time, falling for eternity, beneath the weight of the Cross.
Holy Trinity is a modern building, an arching A-frame minicathedral, but it encompasses a word made flesh thousands of years ago. A new building, with a door marked "Reconciliation," a room where stories are told as old and as sad as mankind. There Alan hears out the sins of those who can no longer carry them alone. When I find the courage to pry open the door, I sometimes expect to hear the tales echoing. Alan, when I'm there at least, is a quiet listener, Teflon or sponge, I know not which. He never offers forgiveness, but he usually suggests it might be all right to forgive myself.
It is Saturday evening, and the setting sun fires the windows of the church. I have been in that room and tried to lay my doubts and fears aside. I have closed its door and found this pew, this place at the edge of the gathering for evening Mass, to pray, apologize, rationalize over what I have done and what I've failed to do. The minutes have melted away, the church has filled and Mass has begun.
I smile as I watch him hold the chalice. I have brought the smile from behind the door, but somewhere between the little room and the pew it has been transformed. Inside the room it was a rueful smile, sardonic, bitter even, but now it cannot be named. It plays with me.
"I get so damn angry," I had told him. "And, yeah, I know. You're going to say anger is a form of self-pity."
"Everyone gets angry," he had said.
"I'd rather be at peace, not be forced to chew on frustration every day."
"But I watch you at the altar. You raise the Host, and the Cup, and I envy your belief. I expect your hands to glow as the accident of bread becomes . . ."
"Sometimes you must act like you believe before you can believe," he had said.
I sit, alone at the edge of the gathering. I think about the crosses in the fence, Golgotha in cups. I think about all the healers and heathens I have drawn into my orbit.
And I close my eyes and rest my head in my hands, remembering a lifetime of holy mysteries, there among the community of believers and pretenders, failures and posers, watched over by a Christ who'll rise once more and forever and walk to his destiny.
Gary Presley lives in southern Missouri. After working in the insurance business and commercial radio, he began writing. His work has appeared in such publications as Salon, Rock & Gem, The Ozark Mountaineer and Drexel Online Journal. Visit his website at www.garypresley.net/.