Some folks, they say Jesus lives in your heart. I don’t know about that, but I know that he lives in my hands like they’re burning with fever and he curls up in the back of my neck. Sometimes, when he’s happy, he makes the skin behind my knees and elbows shrink up. Sometimes, he crawls right up my scalp and it itches like the head lice. I know exactly when he moved in. It was mid-September because the pippins were ripe and I kept sending my oldest boy, DJ, up the ladder and we filled my apron. It was Friday night because I always made apple pie on Fridays, and it was 1950 ‘cause I was with child––for the fourth time.
I’d wiped the baby’s nose and sent her to the porch with the kitten and a saucer of milk. I was alone in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes, trying to be real calm and breathing deep after Bull stormed out yelling that my pie wasn’t fit for the chickens. My hands were all red and chapped and I broke a glass in the soapy water and cut my finger. “Oh, Lord, just what I need.” I wrapped my stinging finger up in the dishtowel and pressed it against my chest.
And then there was this thought: not a voice coming out of a burning bush at Moses or out of the clouds at John the Baptist, but this thought that sure wasn’t mine. It arrived all at once: Why are you persecuting me? My hands felt like they were burnin’ up. I told the thought I wasn’t persecuting no Jesus, but it just said back to me: Why are you trying to poison your husband?
My scalp got all crawly. Ipecac isn’t really poison I argued, just gives Bull the stomach cramps and makes him vomit so he’ll leave me alone. I don’t care what the Bible says, I thought back, I just can’t submit to my husband no more. O you of little faith. He told me––without words you understand––to take the towel off my hand. The cut was gone; the towel was clean. Then he curled up at the back of my neck and went to sleep for a long time.
When he woke up again, about a month later, Bull was dead. I didn’t kill him; I put away the Ipecac after Jesus came in the dishwater. Jesus didn’t do it either. It was a train: smashed Bull and his truck all to hell. Bull had been sparkly like crystal but with all the cuts sharp as broken glass and he’d hated me for being soft and soaking up his hard words. I didn’t cry over him until Jesus woke up and he was so sad, he weighed down my shoulders, thinking: Bull, if only you’d taken a different road.
I packed up the kids and moved out to my cousin’s in Carson City and met Billy who sold insurance and sang in the choir at the First Methodist Church. His hands and temperament were softer than mine and he married me on February 14, 1951 down at the courthouse a month before Little Billy was born. I had that Jesus tingle a lot when Billy sang, and when he kissed me, and when we delivered barrels of toys to the Salvation Army at Christmas. We were mostly happy for thirty years until he died. I still go to his little church on Minnesota Street. Jesus, he loves church, stretching down my back sometimes, in a hurry to float me up through the pressed tin ceiling when everybody’s praying Our Father, who art in heaven. I keep my eyes open so God can’t play tricks. I’m not levitating in church, I’m always telling that Jesus. I smooth my hair a lot and people tell me, “Etta Mae, you’re so vain about your hair.” It’s not that; it’s them crawly spirit lice.
That Jesus, he’s been with me nearly fifty years and I keep waiting for him to say Give away all you own and become a missionary to Africa. But instead he just tells me to make my famous coleslaw for the potluck supper, to smile and shake hands with the visitors, and bake a casserole for the new widows.
In the Bible, Jesus says, “I am the vine.” I’m dead sure he meant ivy. Ivy crawls over rusted bicycles with bent rims, burned out cars and broken lawnmowers. You leave that ivy alone and the suckers cling and creep and take over. In a couple years you got this big hedge, hiding all the ugly stuff underneath ‘til it rots away, like it was never there. Jesus, he just came in and covered up my old rotten life with Bull and before that, too, so all I remember is Carson City, like I came to life here.
It’s not all peach cobbler and hymn sings. I was kinda aimless after Billy died, 'til the Methodist Women got me knitting afghans for the orphans in Romania. Little Billy died last year of a heart attack. My other three and the grandkids moved back to Missouri and don't visit much, and I have arthritis something terrible. Still, every night I read my Bible and thank Jesus.
Lately, I been praying for Rita. I kept flinching when I read where Jesus says, "Love one another." Lord knows I try, but the thoughts I have about Rita aren’t always charitable. She ran around on three husbands and wouldn’t take advice from Old Reverend Brady before he retired. I wanted to tell her, “You got to follow Jesus for things to get better,” but I didn’t know how. A year or two ago she hooked up with Spencer. He would remind me of Bull if I allowed myself to think back on it. Well, I could see she got on the wrong of side his fist some.
She said she was just clumsy, tripping over tricycles at her daycare and the like. She sat next to me in church last week, wouldn’t take off her sunglasses, said she had a migraine and the light hurt her eyes. The Jesus in me woke up full force, shouting Open your heart. My hands were burnin’, all of me went white hot and faint, like sure this is when I’d float to the ceiling and call down from on high. Don’t make me do this Jesus, I thought. But he flashed pictures in my head of dirty dishwater and healed cuts.
“Reverend Henderson?” I stood up in the middle of her sermon. She stopped talking and everyone looked at me. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but our sister Rita here needs healing, and she needs it now.” I sort of pulled Rita up and hugged her, long and swaying and the Jesus energy flooded through me, making me crawly, but something else, too. I could feel Rita’s stiff back and hard arms sighing down and she started crying while we pressed our chins into each other’s shoulders. Reverend Henderson said something and then I felt hands on my shoulders and knew they must be on Rita too. Jesus poured through me, out and in, and I saw pictures. The cripple being lowered through the roof on a mat and being healed, Jesus spitting into his hands and touching the blind man’s eyes to restore his sight, and the bleeding woman touching the hem of Jesus’ robe. Then I saw Jesus smile through his tears as the people slowly peeled off me and Rita. Then he shrunk down and settled in this pit at the center of me.
I sat down and Rita reached for my hand. She took off her sunglasses and I could see her black eye. Reverend Henderson walked back to the pulpit and started preaching again. I can’t even remember what she said; I felt all aglow like a firefly. That Jesus curled up in my neck and went to sleep but I swear I felt something prickly like cactus needles pokin’ around my heart.
©Cathy Warner 2003