Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Smell of Jesus

Excerpt from Raw Edges: A Memoir,  by Phyllis Barber (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2010)
          “I smell Jesus on you, honey,” the stranger said to me. He sat across from Spinner and me in the padded vinyl booth at Roslyn’s, a bar on East Colfax where Spinner invited me to hang out for the evening. He’d moved into my place the summer before when he’d needed help with his daughter. He’d stayed.
         “Come again?” I asked the man with three missing teeth and three hoops in his left ear. Four minutes ago, he’d slid into our booth, uninvited, with a glass of something that looked like whiskey in one hand. “Do you mind?” he said, then sat quietly sipping his drink until those words popped out of him.
                 The music was too loud, there were too many Christmas lights that felt phoney, too many bikers and too much snow outside the massive front window.
                 “I smell Jesus on you,” the man said again, louder this time, then rested his forearms on the formica.
                 “What’s with the Jesus stuff?” Spinner spoke loudly into my ear, and even then he was hard to hear.
                 “Did he say what I think he said?” I shouted back over a heavy metal strain of ‘White Christmas.’ Spinner shrugged his shoulders.
                 I played with the clipbacks of my star earrings, the ones I always wore at Christmastime, the ones I wore when David and I used to have our neighborhood Christmas parties. I unclipped the rhinestone star to rub my too-long-pinched ear lobe and felt a point of the star sharp against my palm. These were the earrings I’d worn to accompany my son Jeremy when he played Bach and Vivaldi on his violin. The same ones I’d worn when I played piano at the Heather Restaurant near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City where bagpipers piped on Friday nights. I thought of the white satin blouse with the string of rhinestones on the collar and cuffs. The crepe tuxedo I’d worn for those occasions another lifetime ago.
                 The stranger sipped his drink and rocked his head to the beat of the music. I scoped the big window where winter raged against the glass. I looked back at the man who held his glass up against the light and squinted at the remains.
                  I wanted to make a joke and say that Jesus was a fisherman and did I smell like a fish, but then Spinner wouldn’t laugh. He didn’t understand my sense of humor.
                  The man set his drink on the table, then thumped his thumb to the last of the “White Christmas” beat. “He comes like a thief in the night,” he said in the space between songs.
           I unclipped the other earring and propped my head on Spinner’s shoulder. I felt tired, weary, hanging out in this foreign territory just before Christmas, the season of the year when I should be nestled in bed with a good man and my children safe asleep in the next room. But I was doing time for thinking I knew things, for thinking I knew what it meant to be “in the world but not of it.”
                  Spinner twirled his glass.
          Spinner, I thought. The beat up bad boy dressed in a Harley-Davidson Reunion T-shirt. He’d probably brought me to the bar tonight to find a connection. With my empty ring finger, I felt the sticky edges of an old strip of duct tape on the vinyl seat.
          As the beginnings of a quieter “Silent Night” bled through the speakers, the stranger stretched his arms toward me. “I’ve lost my feeling. Give me some.”
          Spinner pulled away from my head on his shoulder and slid back into the corner of the booth to watch.
          I smiled at the stranger with my smile that fit around whatever came along and ignored his outstretched arms. I reached for Spinner’s hand instead, squeezing his fingers, but his hand limped out on me as if it were a dead trout. I gave it back and clipped the stars onto my ears again, trying to keep myself busy, trying not to think of my other life in the beautiful home David and I had remodeled twice—the big step-down room with its panoramic views of Mt. Olympus, our grand piano with its brass candelabra where I’d accompanied scores of musicians as well as our sons. There were so many dreams in those refinished wooden floors, the leaded glass windows and the over-sized dark blue Persian rug.
         “People call me Rev,” the man with mustard and brown eyes said from across the table. His faded blue baseball cap didn’t hide the wrinkles in his forehead and the loose, sagging skin around his eyes.
                 “So, if you’re a Rev,” I said, “give us a sermon. We could use a good sermon.”
         “Pull yourself together,” Spinner whispered. He was an elemental man easily embarrassed by public display. “Why did I buy you a beer? You’re the cheapest drunk I ever met.”
                 “Here is the church and here is the steeple.” I played the children’s game my mother had taught me: interlocked hands, raised index fingers for a steeple. “Here’s a church for you,” I said, holding my hands out playfully to the man who was dusky above the collar of his black T-shirt and striped vest with a torn lapel.
         The Rev’s eyes put a hole in me first, then Spinner. “What’s with you two?” he asked, his hands pointing to each of us at the same time.
         I looked over at Spinner and his ever-present cigarette. My shoulder muscles stiffened. His skin seemed colorless in the strange light of the bar. Surrounded by a cloud of smoke, he re-positioned himself in the sticky red booth.
         “This woman,” the Rev said solemnly, pointing his slightly crooked finger at me, “is love, Man.” His gaze zeroed in on me, one eye squinted, his chin on his wrists on the table.
        The inside of my head spun with the effects of the beer I wasn’t used to drinking. The sound of the clashing glasses and the throbbing bass beat jangled my head, made it slide like a trombone. This wasn’t my home or my place or my shore.
         “You’ve got a fan,” Spinner said, exercising his hands on the formica.
                 “I’ll take what I can get.” I laughed, then reached over to pat Spinner’s cheek.
         “Don’t,” he snapped, twisting away. I could feel the way his face wasn’t there, that it was gone all of a sudden. The face I thought I loved. I looked out the window again, suddenly hoping someone was watching, maybe even Jesus since we were on the subject. He might be out in the cold tonight, looking for his lost sheep, waiting to take us all back to the other ninety and nine safe in the pen. Maybe he was standing out there on the curb, his arms stretched out, his eyes beaming with the holy light of I love you/the stars love you/all the Universe loves you.
         The stranger, a crabbed-up old man in eight-day-old clothes, sat across the table staring. His eyes seemed the kind that could see under every layer of a person’s clothing and all the layers of their skin. Maybe he recognized something I’d lost. Maybe, even though I was dressed in Levis and a turtleneck and had buried my graying hair under a champagne dye that did no justice to my skin tones, he could really see me.
         “You glow,” Preacher said as the bossa nova ‘Silent Night’ played on and he took another sip of his drink.
         I wanted to say ‘like a round yon virgin?’, but didn’t. I smiled to myself at the improbable thought. I’d been a virgin once. David and I’d both been virgins when we married.
         “This guy’s something else,”Spinner said, itching the corner of his square jawbone with two fingers and tapping ashes into the sandbag-bottomed ashtray.
                 The “Silent Night” tempo cranked into a turbo beat.
                 “Dance with me, Spinner,” I said, knowing he’d shake his head no. I wanted to capture Christmas somehow, to feel it inside and out. I wanted to sing “Holy infant, so tender and mild” like I had for so many Decembers.
         The stranger slid his hand across the table. “Put your hand in the hand, woman.”
                 I closed my eyes where water was gathering and bent over to wipe my eyes with the ribbing of my sweatshirt. Nobody knew what they were doing when they were drunk. I hated drunk and how nobody was there for anybody else when they were.
                 “I need to go home,” I said.
                 “Don’t do your disappearing act,” Spinner said.
                 “Love is everything,” I said. “Right, Rev?”
                 The man suddenly became mute, like a neo-sphinx swaying his head subtly from side to side.
                 After a community roar at the bar—the favored Denver Broncos rallying in the fourth quarter—I turned to Spinner. I leaned in close to keep things between us. “Do you really love me?” I asked in an as-private-as-could-be whisper.
                 He leaned to the left to frisk his jacket for another cigarette, leaving me with lots of air around myself. All the time the stranger, even though he couldn’t hear us, watched our every move as he sipped his whiskey.
         “Love is a suffering thing,” the man finally said. Then he sat still, as if listening for inspiration from the PA system. “Would you like to dance with me?” he asked, making moves to slide out of the booth.
         I was speechless.
                 “Dance with him,” Spinner said. “You were just saying you wanted to dance.”
                 The Rev bowed at the end of the table, one hand flat against his ribs, the other at his back. “May I have this dance?”
                 “Why not?” I finally decided.
                 He was six inches shorter, about five foot three. His body seemed scrawled carelessly together like illegible handwriting, a curling spine holding a frail skeleton in place. I didn’t care, though my breasts seemed too close to his nose as I stood up and faced him.
                 He led me to the postage-stamp dance floor as Elvis sang “Blue Christmas.” Miniature lights chased each other around the window. That man put his hand on my back. We assumed the traditional slow dance position. A pre-fab Santa’s boot stood on the bar, the patchy velour on the toe rubbed white. A few random candy canes wrapped in cellophane, most of them broken at the crook, were stuffed into the boot.
                 When he laid his head close to my neck, I didn’t object. Maybe because it was Christmas and maybe because I didn’t care about much anymore.
                 “You’ve got Jesus in every pore, woman,” he said, his ear pressed flat against my collar bone.
                 We shuffled across the floor as if there were no one else in the room. Next to him I felt especially large and especially small at the moment, a raw-boned woman standing a head over the Rev, bigger and broader than he was, and yet....
                 “You can’t change anybody. Look what they did to Jesus.”
                 “But I love the man,” I said. Then I felt even smaller, not unlike a bottle tossed against a curb that wouldn’t break and kept on rolling.
                 The stranger put his hand on the boney part of my chest—a firm palm against the tops of letters stenciled on my sweatshirt. I didn’t flinch because this moment felt right. I felt his life surge into mine. I put my hand on top of his and bowed my forehead against the top of his baseball cap. The song ended. It left a sudden space of quiet in the room, a sparse little comma of calm.
        He escorted me back to the booth where Spinner sat against the corner with his jacket buttoned and his arms folded. “Adios, my friends,” the man said as he helped me into the booth and pecked a kiss on my cheek. Then he walked to the bar, held up his finger to order another drink and squeezed his misshapen body onto a stool. As he bent over the bar, a large gap between his T-shirt and pants appeared. The laundry-grayed elastic of his underwear stretched across the dark skin of his lower back.
                 “Welcome back,” Spinner said, crushing his cigarette into the already full ash tray. “Did you dance your feet off?”
                 “Right up to the ankles.”
                 “He was sure cutting in close. Is that a good idea to let a stranger get that familiar?”
                 “It’s Christmas,” I said.
                 “Don’t they all want the same thing?” he said.
                 “Does that include you?”
                 He twisted the ashtray with his thumb. “So what are you trying to say?”
                 “Please take me home. The storm’s over.” I looked outside. Everything was white and still. Enough snow to make the world seem soft.
                 He picked up the ash tray, then let it fall back to the table, a solid thunk of  deadweight sand on formica.

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