A Triptych Tale …

Atoms of Jesus

A Triptych Tale

 

Your mama’s name was Hannah, kid. I met her in rehab at St. Theresa’s seven years ago.

St. T’s was an old plantation house sunk in the middle of a hundred acres of marsh-drowned forest. After standing empty for years it had been donated to the Church, and it became a mercy house. The addicts got the attic; the wheelchairs got the servants’ quarters behind the kitchen. The sisters got the caretaker’s cottage. The disabled but ambulatory, like your mama and me, we got the nice rooms at the top of the stairs over the dining room.

The sign over check-in said: We Help People Find Their Way Home. First time I saw your mama, she was standing under that sign.

I knew what she was. She had that thousand-yard stare you see in soldiers and orphans — and us. And the clumsy, she had that, too. She’d stumble on flat ground like she was expecting one more stair. She never got used to walking on human feet. I remember the fierce red scars on her left arm, the little baby-fist burns on her chest. She had a nasty sore on her lip that wouldn’t get better. The nuns kept putting Band-Aids on it. She kept peeling them off.

Hannah wouldn’t talk to nobody at first. She wouldn’t eat. Wouldn’t come downstairs. They had to set her food outside her door. The plates came back to the kitchen untouched. Melanie would scrape them into the garbage and say, “That little crankhead’s gonna die if she don’t eat.”

First time I saw your mama, she was standing under that sign.

The day after Hannah arrived, Sister Adele came to me and said, “Listen, Charles, I want you to look out for Hannah. Will you do that for me?”

I said, sure I would. I’d do anything for Sister Adele. She sat with me through my first month at St. T’s, when I was curled up in my bed with the shakes and shivers so bad I couldn’t speak. She didn’t say a word, most nights. Didn’t read, or knit, or pray. Didn’t do a thing but let me know that she was there with me, and that saved my miserable life.

And she gave me my name. Charles. Charles sounds like a prince or a king, or somebody good. Pure grace, to give someone like me a name like that.

So I took to knocking on Hannah’s door before supper. She wouldn’t answer. I’d say, “Hey, Miss Hannah, mashed potatoes and fried chicken tonight! You don’t want to miss that.” And that’s all I’d say. I wouldn’t push.

This one day I said, “Hey, Hannah. We got ham and pea soup. Melanie made real bread tonight, can’t you smell it? Come on, before it’s gone.” And she cracked the door and peeked out at me.

“Oh, was the bread that won you over, right? I’m Charles, by the way.”

“I know who you are,” she said. “I know what you are. I’ll come downstairs with you, but can I ask you to do one thing, please?”

That accent. Louisiana, for sure. “Anything. Ask away.”

“Don’t touch me? Please. You can’t touch me.”

See, she knew what would happen if we touched. Just like you did.

“No touch,” I told her. “Promise.”

But I had to help her with the stairs that first time. Her left leg wasn’t too good; I found out later she’d broken it three times. Once when she was dropped. Once when some junkie pushed her off a fire escape. And just before she came to St. T’s, she’d twisted her ankle running from a cop. This life, it can mess a body up a thousand different ways.

I offered her my fake arm to hold onto. She looked at me like I’d offered her a rattlesnake.

“It’s okay,” I said. I pulled up my sleeve. “See? This here is plastic. That’s all. It’s skin that burns you, and there’s none of that on this arm.”

She looked up at me. Clear and empty as a baby’s, those eyes, too big for that little face. Just like yours, kid.

This life, it can mess a body up a thousand different ways.

“Take hold, now,” I said. “I’ll steady you, I won’t hurt you.” I held out my arm again, and this time she took it. We started down the stairs together.

“You been burned too,” she said.

“Yeah. So you don’t need to be afraid of me, I know how it works, and I’m not going to let it happen to either of us. Tell me, Hannah, where you from?”

“You know where I’m from.”

“No, girl, where’d you get dropped? Where’d you live while you were learning your words? New Orleans?”

“Oh. Baton Rouge,” she said. “They dropped me down in Baton Rouge, maybe ten years ago.”

“Baton Rooozh,” I said. “I’ve been. Beautiful name. Not such a beautiful place, unless you like skinheads and oil refineries and chemical plants. I’d think it was a hard place for you to be dropped. Watch this last step, here. It’s a doozy.”

When we got to the dining room, they’d already said grace. Everybody looked up from their plates at the girl, her arm still on mine. “This is Hannah,” I told them. “She’s new. Say hi, and welcome to her.”

I pulled out a chair for her, next to mine. “Melanie’s a wonder,” I said. “You’re gonna love this. See what you’ve been missing all this time.”

She looked around the table, eyeing the others like a cornered rabbit. “Are there more?” she whispered.

“More what?”

“Any more like us here?”

“No, honey. You’re the first I’ve seen in years. It’s just you and me. All these others, they’re just plain people. They can’t burn you. They don’t hurt no one but themselves.”

She fidgeted when I leaned close, so I scooted my chair away from her.

“Do what I do,” I whispered. “It’s how they do here.” I folded my hands on my lap, closed my eyes, and sat still for a minute.

“Amen,” I said, when we’d both sat long enough.

She picked at her plate for a while and ate a little, I was happy to see. But she didn’t say a single word to me or nobody for the rest of the evening.

#

Three nights after that, the first spring thunderheads rolled in off the Gulf. I was lying in bed listening to the thunder when Sister Adele pounded on my door.

“Charles!”

I stumbled to the door. I hadn’t strapped my arm on. “What’s the trouble, Sister?”

“Forgive me for disturbing you at this hour,” she said. “But Hannah’s gone. She’s not in her room. I can’t find her anywhere. When did you see her last?”

“Not since supper,” I said. I looked at the rain streaking the window behind me. “But maybe I know where she is.”

I found Hannah standing in the center of the baseball diamond on the back lawn. Mouth open, eyes closed, the rain pounding down on her. Her nightshirt clung to her little body. She looked like a drowned woman floating on the end of a chain at the bottom of a lake.

I called to her twice. She didn’t answer. I had to stand right in front of her and shout to get her attention.

“Hey, girl.”

Her eyelids fluttered. “Charles?”

“You can’t stand out here in a storm like this,” I said. “The others, this isn’t a thing they do. They’ll think you’re crazy.”

“She’s not in her room. I can’t find her anywhere. When did you see her last?”

“When it rains like this sometimes, I remember. Home was like this. Dark and wet and windy like this.”

“Not like this,” I said. “There were no trees, no solid ground or anything else. Nothing but sky and lightning, above and below. And it was wet, it was rain, but it wasn’t water. It shot through you like bullets.”

“It felt good, though. It put off a nice clean smell,” she said. “Like that stuff you mop the floor with.”

“This rain can’t feed you. This rain can make a body sick.”

She opened her eyes. “I don’t care.”

“You’ve been here long enough to know better,” I said. “You stay out here and you’ll catch pneumonia. C’mon now.”

“But you remember, don’t you? This isn’t a dream.”

“It’s no dream. But right now, we got to get inside.”

#

In the months after that, I did what I could to make things easier for her. Started walking with her around the grounds so she’d be tired enough to sleep through the night. She liked being outside. We’d go walking after supper, just after the sun melted into the marsh, when the sky goes clear and space shines through. That’s when the singing starts out in the marsh.

She wanted to know what sang out there, what made those little chips of light? What made that long, low trill? What was that splashing in the water, making ripples that made the stars tremble?

One night I caught a little green frog for her. She’d never seen one before. 

“You feel it, don’t you? It wants to live.”

“So many shapes flesh can take,” she said, cupping it in her hands. “Look at how its eyes shine! But there’s no love or hate in there. There’s no self, either. It doesn’t think: I’m a frog.”

“Frogs aren’t troubled by such things,” I said. “I think before we were dropped, neither were we.”

“There’s something there,” she said. “A drive. You feel it, don’t you? It wants to live. It wants to catch the stars glinting in the water. It wants to make eggs that will hatch more eyes to see more stars.”

She crouched and set it down gently in the grass. Two hops and a wet slap and it was back in the marsh. It kicked away under the water as fast as it could. Ten feet out it surfaced again. It drifted in the black water, blinking its bulging eyes, watching her.

That was the first time I ever saw her smile.

#

After a while she started coming down to dinner real regular. Breakfast and lunch, too. Come summer, her cheeks had filled in. The circles under her eyes went away. Every time I saw her, seemed like she was softer, pinker, even frecklier. She wasn’t ever gonna get better, but she was better than she’d been.

And she was talking more. She talked to Adele. Who doesn’t? And she talked to me. She liked talking, but it tired her out. She told me she’d been on Earth a month before she figured out what words were.

I got her story from her in bits and pieces. In her first days, she hid herself away from people. She stole what she needed from dumpsters and garbage cans. She slept out on the ground at first, and then in alleyway boxes and garages and kids’ plastic playhouses. She got bolder. She learned that sometimes, if she put out her hand, people would give her things. Cops picked her up a few times, and then they dropped her in a hospital jail in Baton Rouge for a few weeks. She watched TV there, she slept in a bed, got three meals a day for free. She learned enough there to get her started on her words.

When they let her go, she went back to panhandling. That went better now that she could talk. She also became a thief — a clumsy one. She tried to pick a man’s pocket one day. He grabbed her by the wrist and wouldn’t let go. He made her follow him. She figured he was leading her to the cops, or back to the hospital jail, which was fine with her. But here’s what he did: he took her into a diner and bought her a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

After she finished, he told her the price of lunch was that she couldn’t do that again. Not to him, not to nobody.

She told him she had to eat. She asked him what she’d have to do for him to buy her another sandwich tomorrow. He said, “You can sweep up my shop.”

Later, he made a place for her in his shop so she could “guard” it at night. She said, “You bracque! Maybe you need a guard from me. You don’t know what I am. I could rob you. I could take your tools and sell them. I could pick up one of these chisels and cut you with it. People kill people. I’ve seen that.”

“People kill people. I’ve seen that.”

He said, “You won’t. You can’t. I know this about you: the only person you could ever harm is you.”

His name was Michael. He was your papa, kid. He was a human being. A good one.

Michael cared for your mama out of charity. Charity’s one kind of love. It can grow into other kinds sometimes. That’s the way it worked for Michael. For Hannah, it was the other kind from the start.

“Michael was a carpenter,” Hannah told me. “He made little cradles and cribs and things for babies out of wood.”

“That’s a noble trade, carpenter,” I said. “Jesus’ trade.”

“Who’s this Jesus?” she asked. “They’re always going on about him here.”

So I told her about Jesus. How he said, “I am the living bread, the bread of heaven. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him. And now, two thousand years later, there’s little atoms of Jesus floating around everywhere. Some are air, some are water, some’s in the mashed potatoes. And anyone who eats Jesus becomes Jesus, so their atoms are Jesus, too. Pretty soon the whole planet’s going to be made of Jesus.

She laughed. That laugh of hers, like little bells. I heard that laugh more and more often over the next year and a half.

#

I remember this one day, near the end. The last visit-day in August. Visit-days were busy for those of us who didn’t get visitors. We took the chores of those who did. Hannah and I had finished picking up the kitchen after dinner. We were standing on the edge of the lawn outside, so Hannah could have a smoke. She’d taken up smoking a few months before. Lots of us do. It makes the time pass. It burns up these bodies a little faster.

The sun hung from mossy branches out in the marsh. The families of the others were leaving. This cokehead we both knew, Robert, he was walking his wife and his six-year-old son back to their car. They were holding hands as they walked. The son was crying. He wanted Robert to come home with them. Robert scooped him up in his arms, hugged him, kissed him, whispered something in his ear. When he put the boy into the car, the boy reached for him again, through the window. He kept reaching as the car drove away.

Hannah’s hands trembled as she lit her cigarette. Her face was far away, and her eyes were rimmed in red. She saw me watching her, the way I do, and she tried real hard to smile.

I held out my fake hand to her, and she took it. We stood like that for a good while.

She squeezed my hand a little. “Can you feel this at all?”

“I feel it just fine.”

“Tell me something? Did you have family?”

“No.”

She squinted up at me. “Guy that looks like this, he never had a wife or a girlfriend?”

“Near as I can gather, he was a loner, and a bit of an asshole.”

“Where was he? When they dropped you in? You never told me that.”

“I woke up in a VA bed down in Pensacola. Plastic hose down my throat, wires and tubes coming out of my arm, one eye all bandaged up. Wasn’t so bad though. I had a nice big window. Palm trees, a nice little beach, the Gulf. I walked up and down that beach in my mind for months.”

She squeezed my hand a little. “Can you feel this at all?”

“A bed with a view, lucky you. I woke up with a car crushed around me, soaked in blood, screaming my lungs out.” She tapped the ash off her cigarette. “You remember anything? From before that?”

“No. Lightning flashes. Dreams I can’t remember when I wake up. I love the rain too, girl.”

“I don’t remember much besides the rain,” she said. “There was one thing, though …” Her voice trailed off because Sister Adele walked by. She’d seen Hannah holding my hand before. She didn’t stop, but she smiled at us as she passed. We both smiled back.

“Mass tomorrow morning, Charles,” Adele said over her shoulder. “We’re short a deacon. Would you be up for that?”

“Sure, Sister. What would you like me to read?”

“Pick anything you like,” she said.

Hannah watched Adele walk away. “These people,” she said. “They think after they die, they go someplace else. Someplace nice. Or someplace bad, but someplace, anyway.”

“Maybe they do.”

“Maybe. But not us, Charles. That’s the one thing I remember real clear. We can’t ever go back, or forward, or anywhere else. This is it, for us.

I thought on that for a while. “So you knew that before we were dropped?”

“I think so.”

“Any of the others you’ve met, they have anything to say about that?”

“No,” she said. “You’re the first that wasn’t batshit crazy.”

“How many others have you met?”

“Two besides you. First was this guy squatting in a hurricane house, down by the river. He screamed at me, ‘Go away, please, go away.’ Second was when I was in prison. She was a skinny little junkie. She’d pulled out all her hair, strand by strand. And she talked a lot.”

“She talked. Did she say anything about this?”

“Naw. She was all questions, no answers. ‘Why, why, why? Why do they wake us up so broken, in such a broken place?’ And she grabbed me once. See, here? The marks her fingers made?”

“Oh, she got you,” I said. “You got to watch. I ran into this street girl. She grabbed my arm too, couldn’t let go. Cooked us both medium rare. I thought I was gonna die.”

“Is … is that how you lost your arm?”

“Nope. This guy here was a soldier. A roadside bomb took his arm off. Jellied up his brain real good, too. I had a hell of a time in this head my first year or so.”

“I don’t know anything about this woman,” she said. “I don’t know her name. I wish I hadn’t crawled out of that car and wandered off. She had a ring! She was married. Maybe she had a baby of her own.”

“You didn’t know any better,” I said.

“I had a hell of a time in this head my first year or so.”

She took my hand again. “That junkie,” she said. “She asked me why we were here. I told her it didn’t matter. She was here for whatever time she had left, and she’d better learn to deal with it. That’s when she grabbed my arm. I shouldn’t have told her that. It was a fair question. It does matter. Why are we here?”

“If we chose, we know why we’re here,” I said. “And maybe we can remember. If we were chosen, though, it could be anything. Maybe some kind of punishment. Or we’re supposed to learn something.”

“I’ve been punished some. But I didn’t learn much. Just, babies are sweet. Mike was sweet.”

“Mike?” She’d always called her husband Michael.

“My baby.” She looked away from me. We’d skirted this subject before. She didn’t like talking about it. Or anything that had to do with the end of her time with Michael.

“He’d be eight years old now,” she said.

She’d already decided what she was going to do. A week after that last visit-day, she was gone.

#

She hadn’t talked about you much before that. But the last couple of days I was with her, you were all she talked about. She loved watching you become an actual, real person as you grew. Just like she’d become an actual, real person.

She told me that you were one of us, too. But different. You burned her when she held you, but your burn was slower, softer. And her burn didn’t harm you. She held you and held you, until she couldn’t anymore.

She never gave me the details about how Michael died, and I didn’t press. Some kind of accident. Things fell apart for her after that. She hadn’t been able to care for herself before Michael, and when he was gone, she had you to worry about, too. She started selling things. Michael’s tools, the furniture, her wedding ring. When she had nothing to sell, they started taking things from her: water, power, the shop, the car, the house. It was the cops who took the last thing she had left.

That was you, Mike. Nine-month-old baby, pried screaming from her arms — that broke her. She went back to living in the streets, the way she had before. But it was worse this time. And seven years later, she was standing under that check-in sign at St. Theresa’s.

She’d taken some clothes, nothing more. She left an envelope marked Charles taped to her mirror. The letter inside said she was going to go look for you. Said I shouldn’t worry, she’d be back for me after she found you. Here, read it. Keep it. You’ll know she loved you and never forgot you. It’s all there.

No, kid. She never did come back.

I’ve been looking for her. I was hoping that when I found you, I’d find her, too.

If I do find her, if she’s still alive somewhere, I got a few things to tell her. Things I figured out from what she’d told me, things that came clear the moment I saw you. We’re scattered and broken and beaten down and burned away from each other so we’ll do what your mama did.

We’re not here to learn, or be punished. We’re not here to soak up them atoms of Jesus, either.

We’re here to sow atoms of our own.

Fred Senese teaches at a small university in rural Appalachia. He has published three books of nonfiction, and his most recent short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Firewords Quarterly, Zetetic, The Molotov Cocktail, among others. Contact him at fredsenese.com or @fsenese on Twitter.