Trying to find Jesus is one of the first things I remember doing. Fascinated by microcosm, I imagined I’d find him shining up from the dirt like a lost dime, cloaked and sandaled, tiny as a foil-covered chocolate Easter egg forgotten in a lampshade ruffle. I looked for him in my sock drawer, under footstools, beneath rocks in the garden, and in the holes of electrical outlets, which lured me although I had been told to stay away from them because something unbelievably powerful other than Jesus would come out of them and yank me away from Momma forever. I thought that if I were very still and actually did see my tiny Imaginary Jesus, he might crawl onto my hand and let met pet him.
I bought a journal. My creative writing teacher told us we should write everything that occurred to us for 15 minutes without stopping to think. She called this freewriting. Because there were things I was afraid to see coming out the end of my pencil, I didn’t freewrite very well. Though I did not lift the pencil, as I’d been told not to, the point of it often sat motionless as a stalled car at the end of a word. Nevertheless, I tried to freewrite every day at the back of the yard behind the cement shed. I sat with my back against the electric pole with metal foot hooks I occasionally climbed, trying to work up the nerve to climb right out of Raytown. I would link into the electrical infrastructure, into the wild blue yonder with the squirrels, running from yard to yard until I made it to the Chalk Pyramids, odd geological formations my cooped-up father said rose out of the ground near his hometown of Healy, Kansas, wherever that was. I didn’t ever have to come down if I didn’t want to. Sitting there amid last summer’s dead tomato vines and burst milkweed pods one evening, I wrote the cliché, “There has to be more to life than this.” My teacher didn’t like us to write in clichés. “’They tell me nothing,” I could hear her saying. I didn’t know what I meant by it other than that I wanted to be happy. I heard my cliché verbatim on a Christian radio drama, “Unshackled.” Each episode, a derelict left a life of sin that was scored by minor chords on the Wurlitzer, and to an up-tempo hymn, asked Jesus to save him. That I’d been able to tune in anything, much less a program about a reunion with Jesus between the crackles on my transistor radio sitting on the dirt beside me, was, I thought, its own kind of miracle. Maybe, like the man on the radio, I’d caused all my own problems. Maybe I was gay because I had sinned. Maybe when I found Imaginary Jesus again, that’s what he would tell me, and maybe he could help me stop.
I worked in Ladies Shoes where the other clerks looked like roller derby queens. For fun, they pulled shoe-fitting stools out from under each other, which did not stop me from hoping to reach them with my silent example. From the looks of the department, you would think Ladies Shoes were the only place in town that sold shoes. In this retail heyday of the early ‘80s, we had to use a number system, or the mobs became enraged and threw shoehorns and display shoes at us and at each other. I scurried its dark stockroom maze, balancing towers of shoeboxes between extended arms and chin. I tried not to read the obscene limericks and pictures scrawled on its plywood shelves of boobs and cracks with fart clouds coming out and disembodied penises coming in.
I helped the customers the other Ladies Shoe clerks hid from—old ladies, people with disabilities, the dirty. Because it came in 12-wide, the largest shoe the department offered, the Easy Step offered the only option for transvestites. It had a patent leather upper, crepe sole, block heels, and a gold buckle over the instep: a pilgrim nightmare. Transvestites frightened me until I sensed that if Jesus had sold shoes, he would have knelt before them as he would have any other woman, shoehorn at the ready. To my surprise, I found them interesting and nice. I approached them and every other customer with a strange spirit of humility I haven’t known since. Nothing turned me away. I straddled my shoe stool and touched sweaty bunions, nail fungus, a set of post-op toes with no bones that I had to guide into the shoe like thread into a needle. I listened to stories of careers long past, husbands buried, real and fictitious cruises to explain why they came back for yet another color of espadrilles. I didn’t push. If a pair of shoes made someone happy, I wanted that for her. Otherwise, I laid them back in their paper-lined box, heel to toe, toe to heel, smiled, and took them away.
The Bible Study leader played a record of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” while we passed around a Christmas present she had wrapped multiple times. When she lifted the needle, whoever held the package took off a layer of wrapping. Brenda won the privilege of removing the last piece and opened the box. Inside was a crocheted cross.
“Why did I wrap a cross for Brenda to have for Christmas?” The leader posed several rhetorical questions to the unsaved. I won the prize, I guess, for bringing the person most in need of saving. “Because Jesus’ death on the cross is the greatest gift you will ever receive.” That night, like many nights before, we were asked to enfold the fundamentalist reductio ad absurdum that if Jesus hadn’t been killed, his omniscient, loving Father who made him and the rest of us wouldn’t have been able to stand the sight of us. “I need all the help I can get,” Brenda said, looking embarrassed. My Bible Study leader had left me no way to avoid further witnessing. Here I had the opportunity for “follow-up” with a potential convert to make sure she understood “the plan of salvation,” and I didn’t want it. Brenda had enough problems.
Illustrations by Lisa Grossman