Paper Jesus Visits the Shut-In

M- the live-in nurse keeps a tomato plant in a large clay pot on the concrete slab at the apartment’s front door. It’s June, but already the plant looks overwhelmed with clusters of small, tumorous green fruit.

Too many mouths to feed, the plant tells me while I wait for M- to answer the door.

They’re not all going to make it, mama, I tell her.     

“Mask or no?” I ask M- when he arrives.  

“Nothing but Republicans here, brother,” M- says.

“So no? I say.    

M- makes a gun with his thumb and pointer finger and pulls the trigger.

When I enter, I hand M- the card I bought at Dollar General. On the outside it says, “You’re An Angel!” On the inside I've written a note on behalf of the small church I pastor, thanking M- for taking care of S-, who is a member of our church but has a degenerative disease and hasn't been able to attend for years. I've included a $25 gift card for Cracker Barrel, which I also bought at Dollar General.

I'm no good at these visits. I don't like talking.

M- scuttles to the kitchen to open the card, and I sit on an aquamarine couch. I am a short distance from a TV on the wall that's the size of a mattress topper. The room is too warm. The smell is too personal. I have a large cat already on my lap. M- has the Golf Channel on mute. I want to leave.

“Good to know we have another sport in common,” I manage to say while watching Bryson DeChambeau warm-up on a putting green.  

“Only have one in common now,” M- says from the kitchen. “As soon as baseball went all Black Lives Matter I was done. You know how many blacks I ever seen at the last Reds game I was at, brother?”

Brother can’t say.  

“You couldn’t count ‘em on three fingers.”  

S- enters the room in his scooter wheelchair, tacking one small angle after another on the cluttered route from his bedroom. He and his chair are now in front of me. S- has his long white hair in a ponytail. His beard is fine like a wizard’s. He wears a white v-neck t-shirt and gray gym shorts. His stocking feet rest on the angled platform of the scooter the way a man’s feet rest on a barber’s chair or the fighting deck of a fishing boat.

S- moves the wheelchair with a control stick on the right armrest. His wrist is cocked around the knob because his fingers have grown intertwined like the twisted ends of an unnatural carrot. It seems to me that S- moves the control stick by the force of pressure from his shoulder into his arm, not by anything to do with his palsied hand.

S- is watching me while he tries to nudge a long, clear straw, clotted with something brown, to his lips. He smiles apologetically.

“Pardon the dramatic entrance,” he says. “I had to make sure I’d used the bathroom before you arrived. We should have been waiting for you.”

“Not a problem,” I say.  

“M- will tell you I’m going a little too regularly these days I’m afraid,” he says. “But T-M-I, S-! T.M.I.!”  

“Not a problem,” I say again.

Paper Jesus needs some air.

Later at Mariachi’s, the Devil asks me to name the three best, least-known Beatles’ songs. The Devil, fired from Malaiseville U. and now a cook at Bob Evans, is a last real friend. Neither one of us cares anymore what the other does or doesn’t do. Did or should have done or regretted doing or not doing. 

“And show your work,” the Devil says before I answer. He shakes the basket of chips at the bartender.

The Devil knows I don't mean it when I say I don’t actually like the Beatles. Knows I don't mean it when I say they were the world’s first boy band. He knows Paper Jesus is a fraud. He knows I like the Beatles as much as everybody else. I'm not original.

"'Taxman'?" Paper Jesus begins.

Bird Report

A crow still as a weathervane on the top limbs of the first of the flowering crabapple trees that line the long, asphalt driveway of the house off 42E. These trees never fail to bloom into a pink so deep they look like Eden's last outpost. My favorite trees on my way into town.