I really enjoy those religious thriller movies. The ones in which a person, usually a despicable sort who gives joints to kindergartners and steals brooches from blind senior citizens, receives divine and tangible evidence of God’s omnipotence. Then Theology experts and Vatican investigators descend upon the person to appraise whether their Stigmata is sufficiently Old Testament. I’m drawn to those films likely because the only papal decree I’ve ever witnessed was to defrock the Monsignor of the church I attended as a child after it was determined he liked putting more than Holy Water and wafers in the mouths of altar boys. I find the intrigue, the mysticism of religion fascinating. I found it boring as shit when I was a kid, but I came to view it differently after I saw the Dead Sea scrolls on traveling exhibition when I was in college. These papers are a sight worth seeing, no matter your belief system. Each one a hammered copper or papyrus, believed to be written by apostles in the forgotten language of Jesus, preserved in chambers devoid of moisture and strong lighting so to prevent decay, much like the epidermis of Michael Jackson. The scrolls were interesting to marvel at, but the spectacle lay in beholding the effect they had on those who had traveled far to gaze at them. In the middle of a crowded museum, onlookers collapsed to their knees, choked on tears and breathlessness at the sight of these documents. They behaved much like an unstable Michael Jackson fan in the front row of his concert (Now that I’m thinking of all these parallels, if it’s ever determined that Jesus resurrected himself to embody Michael Jackson, I’m going to be severely disappointed, since Jermaine really needed some holy uplift). I realized that day how potent faith is, but as humans, we still seek empirical evidence that God is orchestrating this existential crisis we’re all mired in.
The desire to commune with the Holy is the reason people are always claiming to see the face of Jesus in the syrup poured on pancakes or the yolk of a cracked egg. It is also the reason I demand dining out for breakfast as often as possible. Every time the syrup cascades from its pitcher, I wait in hopeful suspense. The closest I ever got was a vague outline of Jerry Garcia. There was also the time that I was convinced it was His likeness emblazoned on the fuselage of an airplane, but G assured me that while Alaska Airlines may hub out of God’s country, they paint the faces of Eskimos on their Boeing fleet. Regardless of my losing streak, I continue to search in simple sugars because I know it will happen in the least likely of places.
Then one day, I was folding laundry and placing tidy stacks upon the couch in front of our bay window when a rusted and paint-chipped panel van pulled up in front of our home and parked in the grassy shoulder abutting the sidewalk. I smiled at the suburban rage this would induce in G given his white man’s burden to bemoan his trampled grass. I watched the van, figuring the driver was making a call or deciphering bad directions as most people did when they pulled over in front of our house. The door opened, though, and a man stepped out from the van. He had a lanky build covered with tanned leathery skin. His hair was brown and disheveled, grazing his shoulders. He wore tattered shorts and sandals, and most notably, no shirt. We lived in a section of town where interlopers of the shirtless, van-driving variety would draw attention. I watched with interest as he opened the side of the van and began to unload items onto our sidewalk. One by one he hoisted random and cumbersome pieces out of that van and began to assemble them into a rickety fabrication. As I strained to see what he’d fashioned from bricks and planks of wood, he dropped two dumbbells at the base. He’d built a makeshift weight bench. Right there, on the sidewalk in front of my house, he began repetitions of bicep curls and presses.
I yelled for G to come to the window so that he could see what I was seeing. He squinted, trying to make sense of the scene, and finally shrugged. I twirled him around and marched him to the front door, demanding he get to the bottom of why our front yard was being used as a Bally’s for the homeless. I resumed my post at the window, concealed by a drape, to witness the exchange. It was brief and perfunctory – a few words, head nodding, and concluded with a handshake. When G returned through the front door, his face held a sheepish expression.
“He’s just…working out. I see no problem with that.”
I studied G’s face and considered his tone. Then it occurred to me. I’d seen this face before. I’d seen the glaze that washes over dumbstruck eyes. I’d seen it in the Heard Museum of Chicago.
“You think that’s Jesus, don’t you?”
He met my eyes and his lips turned up a little at the edges. “I don’t know,” he started cautiously as my eyes narrowed. “It may have crossed my mind.”
I began to regale him with facts to consider, like that I was a woman with a small child to protect, alone most of the week, with a strange man prone to random acts of exercise loitering outside. Would not Jesus care a little more about healing the needy than building the B.C. version of the Bowflex? If our lawn were Eden, this could be the apple or the snake. I struggled to call forth further religious iconography. I could see that G, despite his more Pagan upbringing, was not going to ask this modern-day saint to hoist his benchpress upon his back, like a wooden cross, and carry it out of our neighborhood. When the bearded vagabond was still there two hours later, eating a snack upon his portable YMCA and staring directly at our house, I decided to take action. I called the police. I requested, in the tone of a concerned citizen, that an officer ask our sweating stranger to move from our shoulder, which as a point of interest, is a No Parking zone. The cop on the other end of the phone said gruffly, “We’ve already had a few calls about this guy, ma’am. He’s just a caterer there for a wedding.” I expressed my sincere doubt that this man had passed any Board of Health codes to operate a catering business out of the ramshackle van parked outside. With this the officer agreed to dispatch a squad car to usher the man off our property. As the shirtless stranger loaded his equipment, G shot me a stare reserved for sinners holding a First Class ticket to Hell.
Whenever the topic of religion comes up between us, I swear I see that same look cross his face. If I become really quiet, I think I even hear him whisper Judas when asking me what I’d like for dinner. I feel guilt over it from time to time, but then I remind myself that some people think Charles Manson bears a resemblance to Jesus. I did take away one lesson, though. Whenever I feel really disinterested in going to work out, I remember this man and think Don’t go to the gym, my child. God will bring the gym to you.
And then I pour some extra syrup on my pancakes and hope the Vatican will be calling soon.
(WWHD? What would your husband do?)