• watchin’ and prayin’ •
‘Jesus loves me, this I know. So the Bible, tells me so.’
I heard this every day of my waking life, until I was six years old.
That was when Mam, left us. She was just gone, one day. She had found something better. Something with better pay. I missed her singing, more than anything. More than her coffee-colored hands, more than her salty smell, more than her rice-n-chicken, more than her ‘watchin’. “Watch the ‘pitcher’,” Mam would say, meaning, ‘movie’. “I’m watchin’, Mam,” I’d say, “I’ma watchin’ yooou…” and then, I’d close one eye, and make the other bigger, and then, I’d go, “Uh-huh, Mam, I got my eye on yoooou!” And then I would press my little face into hers, and smush it all around, and she would laugh, trying to get me off her, and shout, “Honaay, quit on thayat nayow, git yersef doooooowwwn!”
I had learned to ‘watch’, from Mam. I ‘watched’, like her, she: I ‘watched’ everything. Mostly, she watched the ‘white folks’, and said, “Mn, mmn,” a lot. I had to admit, we ‘white folks’ was pretty funny.
As for me, ‘watching’ was everything. Like a sport. I watched bugs, and creepy crawly things. I had myself a ‘horney toad’ called ‘Slim’. He liked ants, and had the most delightful funny smell, about him.
I watched the girl across the way, Ray Nell Cannon was her name. She didn’t think much of me, onna account o’ I was ‘a smelly little midget’, she told me, one day. I fell for her hard, after that. From then on, when I watched her, playing with Trixie, her dog, I crawled under the shrub, my favorite ‘watchin’ place’.
The dirt was real dry, under there, and the fine grey dust, was the perfect spot to find little ‘sand lions’, that set the most amazing little cone-shaped dirt traps. And when an unsuspecting ant fell in, it weren’t long, before, whup! that was it, for that little critter. I may have ‘helped’ one, or two along, to becoming ‘dinner’.
Until about then, I hadn’t realized, that anything was expected, of me. They say, I didn’t speak a word, until I was three. Mam, was my defender, “Lookit. He don’ say much, but lookit thayat faaaace! He gots them big eyes, an’ they gots plenny to say!”
That was a true thing, what she’d say. Mam, I mean. Why, I ‘talked’ all the time, ‘in my mind’. Aaaalllll the time. To myself, that is. You ever tried to ‘shut off’ your brain? It can’t be done.
My brain. It was always saying something. One minute, it was somethin’ like, “Do I have a granddad? I never met one.” And then, it’d be, “How do I know if green is green, or for sure, that red is red, when all on the T.V., is black and white?” (T.V., if you don’t know, was all in ‘black and white’, back then.) On, and on, and on, it went, like that.
On and on and on, it went. I couldn’t get it to SHUT UP!! I was so busy, what with just THINKIN’ all the time, it never occurred to me, to speak. That’s all it was. No great mystery. I wasn’t retarded, or nothin’, like a lot of white folks was ‘in-clined’ — that’s a ‘Mam’ word: she liked that one, and so did I — to think.
Until Mam left us, I had never known a true silence. It was then, our house ‘came empty, and quiet, was when Mam left.
After that, things just wasn’t the same, ’round the house. Momma, in bed, all the time. Poppa, workin’ all day, ’til dark, ‘cept for Sunday, and that was ‘Church Day’. Or, fish in’ or huntin’, or somethin’, or just ‘stayin’ away’. Beats me, where he’d get off to. But, at least it kept the screamin’ down. Momma was screamin’ a lot, in them days. Cryin’ too. I did’nt know what to do. So I ‘stayed gone’, too. Just playin’, outside. Explorin’, crawdad fishin’ with a string and bacon, in the ditch in front of the house, by the gravel road. Or playing with my parachute, that I had made with a rock, some string, and a hanky I stole from the dirty laundry. There was always lots of that. I loved to crawl ’round in it, like a old huntin’ dog, and lay in it, especially my daddy’s work shirts: they smelled like sweat. I liked that smell. Didn’t miss him so bad, then.
And big old cardboard boxes. Boy, did I love to lay around, and roll, and crawl, and just — think — in them. My own little house, all to myself.
To be honest, with Mam being there, always, I had never ‘missed’ either of them, my mom or pop, that is, or, for that matter, anyone. It just never was a thing to think about, so I din’t.
Until Mam left, I had never known loneliness. With Mam there, life had been, one, big, ‘one’. Love, all the time. Mornin’, noon, an’ night.
But, then, one day, she was gone.
And, that was, more or less, it. Then, after that, come the ‘sick time’, which went on, forever for me, and I saw my death, in a ‘booger suit’, all nasty, and boogery, sneakin’ up on me. That was when they called on the Preacher man, and it was on that day, when I had a fever of a hunderd an’ six, they said, when Jesus, my blessed Savior, ‘walked in’.
Momma had a Bible, bound in white. It had a zipper, all ’round it. To keep out the ‘bad stuff’, as I saw it. Otherwise, what would be the point of it?
It was, about then, too, more or less, I guess, that, ‘the bad’, crept in. That booger man didn’ leave, at all, he just hung around, waitin’ for me to ‘be bad’.
Momma. Poor Momma, how she suffered
At first, it was her ‘sick headaches’. ‘My Grains’ she called em’. Crawlin’ around, in her head, like maggots in a dead cow, I’d seen, one day, by the road, all expanded, and everything. I could just see them maggots crawlin’ round, in Momma’s head, with no room to expand, it hurt me, just thinkin’ ’bout it.
Those ‘sick headaches’, it seemed, they went on, and on. It was an everyday thing, when she wasn’t polishing the floors. She couldn’t get anything clean enough. It was ’bout then, she ‘took to’ beating us.
Those floors, they gleamed. They hurt my eyes, when the sun came through. ‘Switche’s were her thing. We’d all l’ine up’, the four of us, all a’cryin’, askin’ her, had we ‘done’ anything. Sometimes, that took all morning. And then, we took to ‘scrubbin’. A house can never be too clean.
She changed her hair. She was a ‘normal redhead’. And, then, it was black, one day. She put on blue velvet, and sat on the couch, and waited for our Daddy to come home, with a big knife in her hand, and she didn’t watch, ‘Guiding Light’, even though it had, ‘Rob and Laura’, for which, we had been waiting, for weeks, to find out, ‘what happened’, but I did.
When I heard his car, coming up the driveway, I ran, to meet him: I always did, but today was different. How it was different, I could not know, but somehow, I knew. I don’t know what happened, having been sent to my room, but, the Police came. Momma was in ‘the hospital’, for a while, after that. Mrs. Cannon, from across the street, took care of us, for a while: she was nice. She taught me ‘macramé’.
“Jesus loves me, this I know,” after Mam left, we still sang this, in Sunday School. And, then, after that, it was something different: it, somehow, became, ‘this, I knew.’
After that, every day, was ‘new’, if not, better. And, it was so. So very different. Every day. It became, so very. Different, from any other. Every day was something different. I learned about ‘horny toads’, and ‘black- widder spiders’, and ‘huntin’ dogs’, and scorpions.
It even, eventually, became, as they say, as in fairy tales, ‘sticks and stones, may break my bones.’
Yes. Yes, bones were broken.
Yes, bones were broken, but ‘scratch’, that. That’s a whole other story. I haven’t the strength, to go into that: but, I almost killed my little brother, by accident. Broke his legs in three places. Spent a whole year, in a body cast. Some things, you cain’t never forgive yer’self, even with Jesus’ love. I know, ’cause, I asked. I was eight, then.
Let’s move foreword. To dates, beyond that.
I met Ray at Revival. They were there, all, in their chairs.
Some, were small, and soft, and demure. But, there was one, an Hispanic man, small, hate-filled, and, ‘badly burned’, not more than twenty, who dared, it seemed, the so-called, fucking-‘holy spirit’, or, so, he spewed, vocally, irrevocably, he dared, ‘His Mercy’, to come within two yards, of him.
But, by then, at twelve (“Thank you, Jesus!”), I was ‘filled’, with the ‘Holy Spirit’. It was him, for me, and me, for him.
God, I just knew, we together: “We”: would ‘fix’ him. When I was done, by God, and Jesus, through whom, I spoke, he would walk, and talk, as I did.
“In the ‘Nam, it was all fucked up…” he had said. He never pre-fixed, or suffixed, his sentences. Usually, if he said anything ‘useful’, it was ensconced between profanities. Yeah, he carried that burden, but, to my eyes, ‘through the eyes of Jesus’, to me, he was good.
Ray Ramirez was not worried about ‘going to Hell.’ To hear him tell it, he was in it, already. How he moaned, and continually complained, and cursed God, and the government. In flames, continually. Abandoned, or so he said.
Somehow, I felt, it was my ‘job’, to ‘transport’ this…sad man…from the depths of ‘realism’, to the realms of ecclesiastical ecstasy. And I was the boy for the job, and I would do it. “In Jesus, all things are possible.”
Little, did I know. Ray did not need a man of God. What he needed was, and I say this with all humility, and humanity, was a psychiatrist.
There was within our congregation, our little band of followers, a homespun hauteur, when what was needed was humility, and even though we had the right to remain humble, as the saying goes, we hadn’t the ability.
And so, ‘enfilled with the Holy Spirit’, we took our little vials of sacred oils, and making our way to all the churches of our town (I rode in the back of the truck) and anointed the entrances to every one, praying in tongues, what ones of us could, and asking, no, commanding, as was our right as we saw it, the great and terrible warrior-angel Michael, bearing a great sword of justice, to bring down upon these unwary sinners a flood, a deluge, of the Holy Spirit in a great fire of revival, as it happened in the Bible, in the Book of Acts, when all those present were suddenly filled with His Spirit, and all spoke in unknown tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance, and, though diverse they were in their origins, for that time, all had a flame over their heads, and did miracles, and understood each other, and in His Holy Spirit, were as one. Revival was about to come, whether they wanted it, or not, and we were about to see to it, as with God, all things are possible, and with Him with us, who could stand agin’ us. This much, we knew, and for sure — come hell, or high water — It would come.
Ray Ramirez lived in a wheelchair, in a one-room apartment next to his sister’s house. His burn scars covered most of his body. He had partial use of his hands, but they weren’t much good. He had no dexterity to speak of, except for verbal abuse. In this, he was a master. Jesus had sent me to his house, to bring ‘Jesus’ love’ to him. That was all I knew. He took one look at me, and put me to use. In no time, I was his personal slave.
I am not stupid, though you may think so, if you will. I had the example of Jesus to follow, and follow Him, I did. I worked harder than I ever had, in all of my twelve years, but I was also given a gift: the gift of compassion, and of the understanding of suffering, beyond what I imagined, even Jesus did.
Ray was a ‘hard case’. There was no compassion in him. He was beyond cynical. There was a ‘black hole’, in him. And that ‘dark gravity’, inextricably, drew me in.
Not that I’m complaining. I have now known sin, and its opposite, revelation. It was a gift to a twelve-year old boy, who had naught, but Jesus, within. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It was knowledge I wanted, and had done, since I was ten. I once spent two weeks in my room, as punishment, by my parents, for something I did. I thought that was a long time. Two years is forever, by comparison, to a kid.
So, all during Christmas vacation, after I had done my chores, I would go over to help out Ray, in any way I could.
“Where you been, motherfucker?” he, inevitably, said.
It wasn’t like I had to pray all ‘the time. I had been Jesus. It was in me. I had been beaten. I had been scorned. I had been misunderstood since the age of remembrance. Even I didn’t know what I was about. I was a mystery, even to me. But, I was, as I am, now, and always, though I have my faults, and an inveterate pain in the ass, I am, essentially, good. I don’t need to be nailed to a tree, or anything else, to know that.
So — Ray. He had a story you won’t believe, except, that it’s true, unless it’s not, but one look at that man’s burned and scarred and broken body, impoverished and ignored, striving to live, would make you ashamed, as it did me, to doubt him, to not take him at his profane, God-and-man-hating, word.
Even so, I couldn’t help loving a man. He was almost dirt, so like me, and like me, for no reason I could understand, he was still breathing. Broken, like me, nothing else could break him. We were almost one person: the darkness of him craved my light, and my ‘light’, as I was, so Jesus-filled, craved him.
It stunk. Everything about him, was redolent of piss, and shit. His eyes gleamed, with hatred, for me, and everything. And yet, like me, a worthless thing, he, too, wanted to find — it — whatever form it took, the ‘good’. Well, maybe me, more than him. But I wanted to find it, and more than that, I wanted more than anything, to bring Ray with me. I knew I could see it. It was there, just out of reach, and was, to all ratiocination, unattainable, but for prayer.
You wouldn’t think I’d turn out an atheist, but I did. Ray helped me, more than I can say. Yes, it is a love story. He became my Christ. Just a dirty-minded, distraught and defamed, and discarded, young Vietnam vet, in a one room apartment.
I don’t know ’bout your Christ, but my Christ, was a burnt-out, broken, paraplegic, patriotic, foul-mouthed, despondent, Hispanic atheist.
What, couldn’t you love a man, like that? What, after all, was Christ, all about. I think I knew one, in our time.
And, as it turns out, I am, even after all that, in this man’s opinion, so much, the better, for it.
~ Tim Burchfield