Parabolic

Parabolic
David Armstrong

I met Jesus of Nazareth near a Wal-Mart south of Jackson, Tennessee about the same time my wife and I were talking divorce. Jesus was on foot, shortcutting through the grass between the parking lot and State Route 5.

He’d just come out of the GameStop where, I learned later, he’d sold his Call of Duty for PS4. He was headed across the road to get a payday loan. When he got to the shoulder of the road, he opened a cardboard sign that said “CHANGE IS GOOD”  in black magic marker. No cars slowed, so he folded the sign back up and hustled across to a Cash Corral in the mini-mall.

I watched him from where I was stopped at the red light. I’d seen Jesus before in those Gethsemane paintings with the heavenly spotlight beaming down. Also in a lot of stained glass windows, but never in person. He was different in some of the exact ways you’d expect him to be different. No robe, obviously. His hair was darker than it is in most pictures. But his beard, which wasn’t much of a beard at all, was an odd blond-ish color that made it look like he’d tried to bleach it. Or maybe he suffered from some kind of skin condition.

It could have been the “CHANGE IS GOOD” sign with those poorly formed S’s for dollar signs—the squiggled way they jerked back and forth like the desperate movements of a man drowning in debt. I’d been there. I felt something for the guy. I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but when the light turned green I pulled into the mini-mall and parked outside the Cash Corral.

Jesus came out looking like a sack of wet laundry. His face, which before had possessed this ruddy buoyancy, this Merry-Prankster-like optimism, was a mask of disappointment and, maybe I’m projecting here, shame.

I rolled down my window.

“Jesus,” I said. “Hey, Jesus.”

He turned around with his fingers on his chest.

“Yeah,” I said. “You need a ride?”

I hoped he’d smile, even if it was just because I was a bleeding-heart sucker he could pump for a twenty. Maybe he’d ask me for my address and promise to mail it back to me.

Instead, he walked to the passenger side and slumped in without a word.

“I’m Eric,” I said. I held out my hand. He shook it over the emergency brake. His palm was dry and dirty. Carpenter’s hands, I thought.

“Hey, man,” he said. “Obviously you know me, so no introduction necessary.”

“Can I take you somewhere?”

“Wherever, man,” he said. “I’ll just ride. I been on my feet all day. A car is, like, cool for a bit.”

Now I didn’t know where to go. I’d expected Jesus to give me a little bit of direction. What I really wanted was to kill a few hours before bouncing back to Gabriela. But now Jesus was in the car and I’d already made the offer. Jesus and I were kind of stuck.

“Wanna just ride around?” I said. I felt like an idiot.

“Yeah. Sounds all right by me.” Still with that hangdog look.

 

I guess you can’t tell a story about Jesus without it sounding like a parable. But none of the places we stopped that afternoon had any symbolic significance. Not so far as I could tell. I didn’t learn anything, and I still don’t know what Jesus’s deal was or why he seemed so down. He didn’t offer up any information.

What we did was drive around Jackson. After about twenty minutes of us turning down random streets, Jesus goes, “You want something, I could probably help you out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most people pick me up, they want something.”

“I don’t want something.”

“You want something, man. It’s okay.”

This close in the car, I could see he was in his early thirties. Was Jesus forever in his early thirties? Younger than me by a few years, which felt weird. My whole life I’d thought of Jesus as older than me. Wiser.

“Something relationship-wise, I could make it happen,” he said.

People say Jesus never married, so I wondered if he were picking up on my recent marital problems or just making a general guess.

“Everybody wants something,” I said. “Doesn’t mean that’s why I picked you up.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “Mind if we make a stop?” He pointed down Allen Avenue toward the high school. There was a football game going on because it was Friday evening. A small crowd of satin-jacketed supporters in green and gold queued up at the cinder-block ticket booth. High school kids in full pads high-stepped and stretched on the grass along the nearest endzone.

“Gotta get out,” Jesus said. I parked the car and went with him. He dug a few crumpled dollars out of his jeans for our tickets. This was the cash he made selling his video game. I told him I could pay, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I don’t take charity, dude,” he said.

Then we got inside, and he let me buy him a hotdog at the concession stand. We split an order of onion rings. Jesus liked football. First play from the line of scrimmage, a kid from the other team caught a fifteen-yarder and got smacked by a linebacker. Jesus hollered and whistled. The drive stalled, and our hometown Cougars took a punt on the thirty. They tried running it a couple times. Then the quarterback threw a wild one. Kid had a great arm. The football shot like a meteor in a triumphant arc about forty yards down the field into the waiting arms of a receiver who took it the rest of the way. The kid’s buoyant strides made him look like gravity had lost its hold for a few seconds. The crowd rose in that same weightless way, and the paean of their voices fluttered heavenward.

Jesus went nuts over that play. Both kids—quarterback and receiver—pointed up to the sky before chest-bumping and dinging their helmets together.

“We can go now,” Jesus said. He finished the hotdog.

“You have something to do with that, Jesus?”

“I do what I can, man,” is all he said.

 

We stopped to get a beer at a corner pub. It was a place I knew, a place I went alone sometimes. I’ll be honest, I’d thought about trawling for women a few nights, but I never followed through. Sitting there with Jesus gave me a twinge of guilt. If he sensed it, he didn’t say anything.

I asked him if he wanted to play pool and made a lame joke about him running the table. “Same principle as parting the Red Sea,” I said.

He didn’t laugh. He didn’t look angry either.

“Something I gotta do,” he said. He disappeared into the men’s room.

A minute later this hefty regular with a broad, rubbery face marched out like a drum major holding something pinched between his forefinger and thumb over his head.

“I passed it,” he said. “I Goddamn passed it!”

He threw the kidney stone into an empty glass. It clinked around in there like change in an offering plate. “Next round’s on me!”

I know what you’re thinking: nobody buys a round of drinks for the whole bar. It just doesn’t happen. But that night, with Jesus, it happened. That’s the truth.

 

It got late. I touched Jesus on the forearm—he was talking to kidney-stone guy. I told him I’d better head out.

“Thanks for the drive,” Jesus said. “You think about what you want?”

I told him I still didn’t want anything.

“Suit yourself.”

Panic crept in. How much would I hate myself if I had a free miracle coming and didn’t use it? “Serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

“Or a kidney stone,” said kidney-stone guy. He and Jesus laughed.

“My wife,” I said. “Gabriela. We’re taking a nose-dive. I work too late. She doesn’t appreciate me. I don’t appreciate her. The kid question pops up. Neither of us wants a stay-together baby, that kind of crap.”

I’d never said any of it to anyone. Who wants to listen?

“I still love her. That’s the problem.”

“Problem,” Jesus repeated.

“I didn’t stop loving her. Just all this stuff built up.”

“Like plaque,” kidney-stone guy said.

“Sure,” I said.

“How’s your sex life?” Jesus asked.

“My sex life?”

“You and your wife’s. Unless—”

“I don’t fool around, if that’s what you’re getting at.” I didn’t tell Jesus that I’d thought about it. They say Jesus knows your heart. He saw the flaws. “And sex life, I’m not even sure I’d call it that. More like sex history. In the past. Infrequent.”

Kidney-stone guy gave Jesus a look, maybe like I wasn’t the type of guy who could keep his wife happy in bed. Jesus didn’t reciprocate. Jesus isn’t into putting people down.

“How many times a week?” he said.

“I’d have to measure by the month,” I said. “Maybe twice.”

“That’s your problem.”

“Practically a no-go. Nothing I can do about it.”

“When’d you two meet?”

“College.” Again, I got the sense I was telling him information he already knew.

“And what’d you do then? To get her to sleep with you?”

“I don’t know. Took her out. Bought her stuff. Typical stuff. Dates. Nothing inspired. I’m not that imaginative.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow. I didn’t know what he was getting at, but it’s hard to look at Jesus and not think he might be making a point.

 

On the way home I bought Gabriela a bouquet of flowers at the supermarket. For supermarket flowers they looked good.

When I got home, they looked even better, like they’d bloomed and multiplied. I opened the door and Gabriela was on the couch in a sweatshirt and yoga pants. She was clicking away on her iPad. I held out the flowers.

“What’d you do?” she said.

“I just thought—”

She didn’t look happy. She found a vase and filled it with water and tore open the little plant-food packet, then snipped off the stems at an angle.

The whole time she didn’t say a word.

“I want a divorce,” she said.

I blinked.

“Don’t make a big thing of it. We both knew.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?’” she said. “Really?”

I couldn’t help feeling I’d been misled by Jesus, seeing as how he thought it was all about our sex life and buying flowers.

“So that’s it?” I said.

“That is, as you say, it.” She stared me down. I thought it was kind of a clichéd gesture, her hand on her hip like that. I got the sense she wanted me to clear out for the night. I gathered a few things and put them in a gym bag. I took running shorts and tennis shoes like I might try out the exercise room at the hotel.

“I’ll go now,” I said, “but this isn’t over.” It sounded more like a threat than I’d intended. “I found Jesus tonight. Just wandering near the Wal-Mart. He’s kind of a sad guy.” I don’t know why I said it. It didn’t pertain. Maybe I just wanted her to know Jesus was in the mix now.

“I don’t find that very funny,” she said.

 

There’s another thing I didn’t tell Jesus. I didn’t love myself anymore. I could remember being a little kid and just reaching out and touching the world whenever I wanted. The glory of trees blurring by as my mother drove us to town, the simplicity of air as it passed through my outstretched fingers. I didn’t feel like that anymore. I felt like the real me was increasingly receding deeper into my own skull, further and further removed from the people around me and any reasons to be happy. It wasn’t about Gabriela so much as it was about me, about feeling like I was my own vortex, and the rooms of my heart were forever shrinking from the entrance, growing dusty and dark and disused.

I sometimes thought about my brother, dead now. How we’d gone swimming in the pond near our house in those old Appalachian woods where we lived. How the light cracked the black-eyed susans and cattails and spun languorously in shimmering helixes and touched our pale skin in rippling waves. The shocking disruption of grasshoppers taking sudden flight from where they were munching a stalk. That smell of late summer, a haunting depth to its earthiness, like beneath it all was death but death was too distant to touch us, and in that dissonance was something joyous.

Then again, it sounds too muddled and nebulous to say you’re feeling “alienated.” When you meet Jesus, you have to be more direct with your diagnosis for the miracle to be applicable. Not enough food? Fish and loaves. Dead before your time? Arise! Caught in a storm? He’ll ease the waters. Easy fixes for Jesus. Clear-cut solutions to clear-cut problems. Like the slogan of a shipping and logistics company. But if all I needed was someone to save my soul, I’d have picked out a religion a long time ago and purchased it whole cloth. Taken advantage of those big introductory deals for new customers.

 

In my hotel room in the top drawer of the nightstand was a Gideons’ Bible. I guess I didn’t know they did that sort of thing anymore, but it was an older hotel with curtains the spent gold color of beer and the smell to match.

I flipped through the Bible. I tried that trick where you open the Bible and shut your eyes and do sort of an eeny-meeny-miney-mo thing with your finger and land on something at random, then open your eyes and get an answer like a fortune cookie. I had an aunt that did that. She said she always got good results because there was nothing in the Bible that wasn’t relevant.

I landed on Ephesians 6:17, which said, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

That verse was a little like Jesus. It felt like it should mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what. I’d never heard of a “helmet of salvation,” and none of the armor metaphor made much sense unless, since this was about my sex life, you could probably read the “sword of the Spirit” as a kind of phallic reference, but I couldn’t make the rest of it work out.

I ordered room service and paid twenty-two dollars for chicken parmesan with cold french fries.

After that I watched SportsCenter, which is something I only do in hotel rooms. I don’t really follow sports, but every time I turn on a television in a hotel room there it is, ESPN and SportsCenter. At some point I started associating road trips with SportsCenter, and now it’s kind of a Pavlovian thing.

The commentators were talking up the Syracuse and Louisville college match-up when someone knocked at my door. It was Jesus. I didn’t ask how he’d found me.

“Can I crash with you tonight, man?”

I had one of those rooms with just the one bed, but it was a California king, so I figured it’d be fine.

We watched ESPN for a bit. Jesus pointed at the screen and goes, “Syracuse went through all these mascots, and for a while there, back in the seventies, they had a Roman centurion. I hated that guy. Me and a bunch of other students booed him at games until they got rid of him.”

“You were at Syracuse?”

He shrugged noncommittally, which I suppose is the only way you can shrug.

“Jesus went to Syracuse,” I said.

We watched a while longer, then turned off the television and eventually the lights, making small talk. It wasn’t until the lights were out and the AC unit was making that loud groan that Jesus rolled over and kissed me on the cheek.

This sounds stupid to say, but it was gentle.

Maybe I’d always known this was going to happen from the moment I parked in front of the Cash Corral, but I don’t really believe that. I think any story involving Jesus tends to have that thing. That easy explanation, and then the darker one full of angles and blood and insuperable details. But even that makes this sound like a parable, and like I said, it’s not.

He wrapped his arms around me and held me, and I guess I couldn’t help it. I wept.

 

They told me my brother was swept out to sea by a riptide when he was on vacation with his family, and that’s how he drowned. I couldn’t picture his adult arms flailing or the strain of his overtaxed muscles in his calves and thighs. I could only imagine his lank, wet hair as a boy, the way he broke the surface of that pond, smiling and gasping for life, happy to join the world again after a little stint among the green murk below. Sitting there on the bank, watching him, I couldn’t help it. I always gasped in unison.

 

In the morning I woke up early and watched Jesus sleeping. He was artistically covered by a crumpled sheet like in so many iconic depictions of fluttering cloth and clouds.

I wanted to tell Jesus I loved him, or that I didn’t know what love was anymore, that I’d lost sight of something essential. Instead, I blew him this stupid kiss, like I was a little kid, and snuck out. I guess I trusted him to shower and leave and not do anything too bad to the room, which was still on my credit card.

 

I thought about what I’d say to Gabriela all the way home, but when I pulled up she was outside on the porch of our little house smoking a cigarette. The last time I’d seen her smoke a cigarette was before we got married. She looked like she’d been up all night.

“I stayed at a hotel,” I said.

She nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” She looked like she really wanted to know. She was always doing that. If I said I was sorry, she always asked Why? or What for? like she was making sure I was contrite for the right reasons. To me, that Why? always felt like a challenge, like it was necessary for me to clearly articulate the reasons for my failings.

“For everything. For—” But then I couldn’t help thinking how she was a separate person from me. And we were drifting. All of us. Always drifting. Not my wife or a woman I sometimes had sex with. Just a person I could never hope to know.

She dropped the cigarette, half smoked, and squashed it under the sole of her shoe.

“I slept with someone,” she said. “I’m sorry about it, if that matters.”

“I guess it was inevitable,” I said. “I am sorry though. I’m sorry I haven’t, you know, been here. Really here.” I pointed to the ground between us.

She nodded like she knew what I meant but that all was already lost.

That’s all we said about it. We knew something had changed. We couldn’t look at each other the same way. Not that we didn’t try. Domestic routines have a way of sliding back into place. You start out glancing sidewise. Then you meet each other’s eyes on occasion as you pass in the kitchen. Eventually you go back to staring one another in the face over a dinner table or as you brush your teeth. But that distance you put between you from before does something. It sheds a light on your own isolation, like sitting on the muddy bank of a pond watching my brother dive beneath the surface. I’m smiling one moment, and the next, as the ripples die and smooth out on the surface of the water, I realize I’m alone. Forever.

 

A couple years after my divorce from Gabriela, I was in a hotel on a business trip half-watching a segment on the ‘science of sport.’ A parabola, the host said, is a curve used most often to describe the trajectory of a toss under the influence of gravity. An object—a ball, say—leaves a person’s hand traveling horizontally and vertically, then loses momentum and falls. That arc, which in a vacuum describes a perfect parabola, is symmetrical, two-sided.

The word parabola comes from para-, meaning side-by-side, and bole, to throw.

Incidentally or not, the word parable comes from the same two roots. Parables were stories that concerned one thing but meant another.

Symmetrical.

It’s something I think about these days, how we travel in parabolas, or parabolae if you want to be accurate. We take off, we travel together a little while, we land. We’re a bunch of parabolas, I guess I’m saying. Stones tossed up to drop earthward, maybe to strike the surface of water and send the frogs ducking for cover. The shape of our lives always that arc. I haven’t sorted it all out. All I know is that for a time, while Gabriela and I were trying to make it work, I sometimes prayed. Maybe I was hoping Jesus would come back and finish the miracle. Dead too soon? Arise! Unhappy marriage?  Rekindle the spark!

Then I learned the thing about parabolas and couldn’t help thinking my prayers were being tossed up and landing on the ground unheard. Jesus never did show up again, but I’m glad we met. He changed my life, which sounds like one of those clichés, just a thing people say: ‘Jesus changed my life.’ But I mean it. I don’t look at things the same way anymore. I try to let things be simple again. I try to remember the play of light on that pond and the smile on my brother’s face. And I still sometimes go to high school football games just to watch the ball float across the night sky and sail past the harsh, white lights, carried by the sound of the cheering crowd.

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