The Peer Pressure Muse

Making my work public so people can bug me when I'm not producing. Story updates weekly.

This is a story about a very real and alive man named Jesus. Whether he could be described as an historical figure depends on how far you’d like to stretch the meaning of the word, but it’s true that a suitably-dedicated researcher could provide documentary evidence that he once walked the Earth. This is his story. It begins in a small farming town on a hot summer day when Jesus, traveling with Jason, gets the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of bikers.

“Pull off here,” said Jason, pointing to a hamburger stand.

Jesus looked at the place skeptically – it was run-down to the point of being slightly sketchy, the bright red paint had long since faded to a dusty salmon color, and the sign on the roof could only manage to read “epsi” if you squinted hard enough. Although neither Jason nor Jesus would ever know this, the “P” had for the past two years been propped up on the wall of a former cashier’s apartment as a decoration he found far more amusing than anyone else, particularly his girlfriend.

On the other hand, Jesus was hungry, so he pulled Jason’s old Honda into the dirt parking lot to the side of the stand between a pickup truck and half a dozen motorcycles. Across the parking lot was a chain link fence holding at bay a narrow yard choked with weeds, a seafoam green single-wide home and a rather sickly palm tree. On the other side of Mac’s was what might have been a self-storage lot, and across the street was a brown wood building with dark brown trim whose dusty windows failed to completely hide the offer of pool supplies within.

The dry noon heat was just starting to reach the level where dust hung in it and coated your tongue when you walked around. The day promised to get much hotter very soon, and Jesus did not look forward to the next two hours with no air conditioning in the car. He hoped conditions would be better at the hotel but nothing was certain.

The two men walked up to the counter in a swirl of stale grease aroma and “Don’t Stop Believing” wailing away through a pair of loudspeakers sticking out the side of the building. They took order slips and Jesus marked an X down next to the Mac’s Original Style Bacon Cheeseburger with Fries O’Plenty and a large Diet Coke on his. He handed the order slip to the clerk who treated him to a narrow-eyed adolescent glare before fading back into the gloom of the kitchen.

Jesus was almost to the table when Jason started. “Shit’s fucked up,” he said. Jesus waited. With Jason, shit was usually fucked up but it was his job to declare what that shit was and what was fucked up about it. One did not assume, one waited and was informed. “Like, these assholes think it’s cool to front us six weeks worth of shit and then be all like ‘gimme the money’ a week later. What, I’m gonna dump it off at wholesale prices?”

“All he did was ask how it’s coming, man. I was there.”

“Fuck that, you gotta read between the lines with him.”

Jesus sat stone-faced. Neither the Jason in front of him nor the Jason whose shit was fucked up for fronting them shit was given to any kind of subtext. To Jesus this was helpful, took out gray areas which was nice when the stakes got high. But trying to argue with Jason about fucked up shit was a waste of energy. Fucked up, the shit would remain.

Journey gave way for “Order ready for Jason, order ready for Heysus!” and Jesus sighed. They walked up to the counter. Jason said his name and was handed a Señor Mac’s Authentic Chile Dog de San Antonio (with fries). Jesus looked at the clerk and said, not for the first time in his life, “Actually, it’s Jesus.” For that is his name, pronounced Jeezus just like the preachers on the 700 Club used to say it.

“Whatever.” The clerk shoved the basket to Jesus and disappeared once again. He sat down at the table and picked up a fry, then the sky darkened and he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning to this shoulder-tapping eclipse, Jesus saw several large men wearing jeans and leather.

“You trying to be funny?” demanded the shoulder-tapper.

“No, not at all. Those your bikes?” Jesus asked, hoping to change the subject. He’s always liked machines, especially machines that go places, and can usually strike up a coherent conversation about them.

No such luck this time – “I was ASKING you, you trying to be FUNNY?” Jesus looked closer at the patches these guys had on their vests. The one he remembers, and they all had it, was this green and gray patch with a US flag with the stars replaced by a Christian cross. Not good.

“Hey, listen,” he said and started to stand up. In retrospect he probably could have made it out fine if he hadn’t stood up, but he was hoping to escape to Jason’s car before things got out of hand.

Things got out of hand.

Things got out of hand in ways that hurt far more than those bikers could ever dream of. They thought they were just kicking the shit out of some punk kid making fun of their religion, but what they didn’t know was that they were forcing this kid to live through untold sorrow, loss, misery and death. What they were setting in motion was way more than fucked up enough that if they had known what was going to happen they would have settled for a lot of yelling and intimidation and just run him off.

But they didn’t, couldn’t, know any of that. It’s not as if Jesus wasn’t a threat to any one of them – he was 24, a bit over six feet tall and worked for a living which showed, so when he went to stand up they made sure he couldn’t. After the first couple of blows landed Jesus curled up on the asphalt covering his head as best he could while the kicks came in. Jason roared in rage and Jesus heard the sound of someone running away, then back. “Gimme that,” somebody said and he heard a clank, then a whoosh, then

Find me on Mastodon: Taupe Hat Social

Jesus was sore everywhere, and felt wrong somehow. Not surprising given what had happened but weird, hard to explain. He decided to keep his eyes closed for a little while longer and try to make sense of the world. Something was poking him in the cheek and his ribs ached a dull throb where something hard was digging into them. He could hear people moving around but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Must have got his bell rung pretty hard, he thought, wondering if he was going to need an ambulance.

His reverie was interrupted by someone shaking him roughly by the shoulders. “Sikotheíte tempelis!” bellowed an unfamiliar voice. His eyes popped open and he sat up. Standing in front of Jesus was an improbably stout man with jet black hair dressed in an equally improbable outfit: a taupe cloak over a dinged-up metal chest protector (with abs!), a red and white kilt, tooled leather shin guards reaching above the knee, and sandals that were laced around the ankles and up underneath the shin guards.

Jesus goggled in confusion, barely having time to register what was in front of him before the angry man clouted him hard across the head. “Skata sta moutra sou, parte ta pragmata sas kai efthygrammisteite!” He gestured rudely next to the straw Jesus had been laying in, where lay a neat pile of gear like he had on. “Viia!” he yelled before stalking off.

Jesus watched his harasser as he cut his way across some grass until he reached another sleeping man who was then woken up the same way. Head swimming, he looked around trying to make sense of things. He was in an open field surrounded by several hundred other men in various states of getting up for the morning. Some of the men were yelling orders and getting men into line, others were eating breakfast, laughing together, pissing into the field. Jesus shivered in the morning chill. It turned out he had been sleeping under a long, narrow piece of rough cloth that looked a lot like the garment the man who woke him had been wearing. He wrapped it around himself against the chill and stood up.

When Jesus straightened up he found himself much closer to the ground than he was used to. His head snapped back like he had stood up too hard and he had to catch his balance. A wave of dizziness and nausea took him and he fell over sideways. This got the attention of a couple guys nearby who started shouting in the same unknown language everyone else was speaking. He looked at them helplessly and threw up into the grass.

One of the men bent down, put his hand on Jesus’s shoulder, and started asking him questions he couldn’t understand. “What the fuck is going on?” Jesus asked him. He drew back, clicked his tongue, and spoke to his friend. They both tensed up, and put their hands on swords he hadn’t yet noticed they were wearing. Jesus remembered the Abe Lincoln quote about not proving you’re a fool and made a loud groan, holding his throat and bugging his eyes a little at the two men. It looked like maybe this helped, a little – they relaxed some although they continued to stare hard.

As a matter of fact, that groan wasn’t much of an act. Jesus hurt like hell, all over, and then there was also this thing about being in an open field full of men dressed up like some sort of weird Ren Faire gathering speaking a language he couldn’t identify and whacking him angrily in the head. It was all too much. He threw up again.

One of the two swordsmen ran off and got the attention of the man who had woken Jesus up, speaking animatedly and pointing in his direction. They both returned and the stout man who Jesus by now took for being in charge clapped his hands on either side of his face and pulled Jesus toward him. He looked at him hard for a moment, scowled, and shoved him sideways before cutting loose with a string of words that were clearly understood by tone alone. He waved again at his belongings and walked away. The two guys cracked up at this.

Jesus laid on his side, wondering what the fuck he was going to do now. The guy who seemed to be in charge was built like a bowling ball and could probably rip his arms off to beat him with them if he wanted to, the other guys weren’t much help, and everybody had swords and spears in case he tried anything. He watched the two guys near him to see what they were doing. After enjoying the show of Jesus getting tossed around by Captain Bowling Ball, they had started to get their gear on, looked like the same kind of stuff Jesus had next to him. Looking busy seemed wise, so Jesus endeavored to get dressed after the fashion of the people around him.

This presented its own set of problems. Lacing up sandals, for example, was not a skill Jesus had ever learned. He looked at the feet of the men around him and did his best, but still spent the better part of the day with his sandals flopping around and the laces all wrapped around his ankles. The shin guard things were a little bit easier to figure out mostly because it was obvious where the laces were supposed to go, but he still had to keep hiking them up and re-tighten the laces. Instead of a shirt he had something like a poncho but shorter, like a hole where the head goes through and that’s it. Next went the belt which was just a strap of leather with a loop in one end. Jesus figured out a knot that worked to hold it and then the belt held his shirt-poncho thing down. The sword was in a sheath that had a strap that went across his shoulders, easy.

Then there was the helmet. Looking it over, Jesus thought that it looked like a great big fucking dong that his head was supposed to go into. It was made out of metal and there was a bit of a brim on the front part, then the back covered the back of his head and stuck down for his ears, all that made sense but the top of it… was a penis. It had a fat part at the end and kind of hung forward over the top of his head. But the other guys were putting their dong-hats on so Jesus put his on too. Crazy as things were Jesus couldn’t help but grin a little at the sight of all of these dudes wandering around a field with big dong-helmets on.

Finally wrapping himself up in the cloak, Jesus was the last guy dressed so all the other guys around were watching. Obviously he had put it on wrong – the moment he did everybody started laughing. One of the guys who was with him at first started prancing around swaying his hips really big and he realized he was wearing his cloak like their women did. Not knowing what else to do, he went with it. If he couldn’t figure out what the hell part of the world he was in he could at least crack a joke, so Jesus started prancing around too but also looking closer at how the other men were wearing their cloaks so he could get it right later.

Caught up as he was in his act, Jesus was caught unawares by a shield, his shield actually, slamming into his face so hard his nose bled. While he was busy acting a fool, Captain Brunswick the human bowling ball had come up to see what the fuss was about and found Jesus, his new least favorite person, in the middle of it all. So he gave Jesus his shield the hard way and then spent the next half a minute giving all the men but Jesus especially a huge ration of shit that once again didn’t require any knowledge of his language to perfectly understand. The men all started to form lines. In the midst of the confusion a soldier got Jesus’s attention and showed him where his spot was – probably saying something like “what the fuck are you doing, get in here!” but Jesus appreciated it just the same. He stepped into his spot and fixed his cloak so it wasn’t a joke for people.

Once they were all lined up the boss man came along down the line inspecting everybody, and stopped in front of Jesus. He looked him up and down, his face red as a tomato, and gave Jesus a good chewing out. He ended it with what sounded like a question, but, not comprehending, Jesus just stared at him. He repeated the question again, and ended it with “Eh?!” so Jesus grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. The tenpin crusher’s face crumpled into a whole new shape and turned purple, then he proceeded to beat the everliving shit out of Jesus, who didn’t expect it and didn’t get a chance to protect himself. Not that it would have mattered – the guy could hit like a train and he did, repeatedly.

Once he had wore himself out he hauled Jesus to the back of the line next to a man who looked way too old to be there and barely had any gear on. The old man looked at Jesus through cloudy eyes and was going to say something but then a shout went up and the line started to move. As quick as they were moving it was all the old man could do to keep from falling so whatever he was going to say never happened. Bossman walked off to one side for a while, probably to make sure Jesus wasn’t going to do anything else stupid and eventually worked his way forward along the line.

The line trudged on for hours. The countryside was familiar-but-different to Jesus. There were hills near and mountains in the distance that looked similar to what he knew in parts of California, but with surprises. Places he expected to be lush were dry, and vice-versa. And although he was no expert, the trees around looked different as well.

Mostly Jesus just tried to make sense out of a morass of things that made no sense. He had just had his ass beat hard, right after having had his ass beat hard, but the sore he felt was mostly a deep sense of tiredness, aching muscles and joints, feet that would have hurt like hell even if he had put his sandals on the right way. As they marched through the day, the tired part began to make sense, and he could see the same tiredness in the men around him. Clearly these men had been on the road for a long time.

Another group of tired-looking men joined in the line behind Jesus and his group. At one point they passed a run-down building that he first took to be an old stable until he noticed some kids looking nervously out at them from the unglazed windows. Jesus had seen a great deal of poverty in his life but nothing like this. In addition to the windows, the sagging roof was covered in grass and looked ready to cave in at any point, and the doorway was covered by nothing more than a flap of worn brown cloth.

The house hit him in a way that the men with swords and sandals and dong-helmets and chest protectors with abs on them didn’t. Thinking back, he realized he hadn’t seen a single road, a single powerline, not even a single airliner flying overhead in the sky. Everything around him screamed to Jesus that he was in the past, but he wasn’t able to get over the one burning, impossible question: How?

As impossible as it was, Jesus found himself on a long march with men dressed like ancient soldiers and a guy in charge who seemed like he was ready to beat him to death if he kept fucking around. Whatever the impossible answer to the impossible question was, Jesus decided that his best move was to avoid pissing anybody else off and see what came of things. His whole life had been a steady drumbeat of completely incomprehensible moments, and while this was by far the most incredible, it was far from the first – or the worst.

They kept marching through the day without stopping for meal breaks or rest. When they had to, men simply pissed on the ground before them as they marched. The day dragged on, the men marched, the scenery slowly brought itself into view and just as slowly fell behind them. The soldiers passed a few more houses, none in better shape than the first Jesus had seen. Only rarely could anybody be seen within and never outside. Clearly the occupants of these homes fled inside when the soldiers appeared, hoping the massive column of armed men would pass them by.

The old man spent the entire day looking as if he were about to keel over at any second, but by some miracle of stringy toughness and will he kept his feet the whole way. Jesus tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to himself, saying “Jesus.” The old man cocked an ear and said “Eh?” so Jesus repeated his name, slightly louder this time.

“Lisous?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face. Jesus tried correcting him but the old man really wanted to make an L sound instead of a J, so Jesus decided it was close enough. He waved at the old man to say his name. “Yassonas” he said. Jesus tried repeating it, the old man tried correcting him, Jesus tried saying it again, and the old man responded by grinning and shrugging. Clearly neither of them would be able to say the other’s name right. Jesus grinned right back.

Not long after, the man in charge grabbed Jesus, spoke gruffly to him, and took away his sword and shield. He then shoved Jesus off in the direction of three men who were wrestling some big pots around near the front of the line. Wanting to show willing (not to mention stay out of reach) Jesus ran up to the group of men.

Once he arrived, one of the men said something to Jesus, who responded with a shrug. The man yelled the same thing again, loudly. Jesus shrugged again and made a groaning noise, holding his throat. The man waved at some pack animals and yelled again. Walking over to the donkeys, Jesus spotted big spoons and other items that could only be for cooking food. This was good news: he’d spent a lot of time in kitchens, much of that with other people who didn’t speak the same language. If there was one thing Jesus could figure out how to do right in this fucked-over situation he found himself in, it was cook, language barrier or no.

He looked back at what the other cooks were setting up and brought what he thought they were going to need next. After a few trips he could see from the reaction of the cooks that he was mostly getting it right. One of the men was a bit more approachable and eventually introduced himself as Balious. Jesus introduced himself back, coming to terms with the fact that he was always going to be Lisous to these people. Correctly perceiving the language barrier, Balious began teaching “Lisous” the names for things.

After a while they had their kitchen set up on some tables somebody had brought over. Balious was in charge of the kitchen and was patient, so aside from a few random screwups the afternoon was smooth. The men all went down to a creek carrying simple buckets, filled them with water, dumped them into the big pots, and got a fire going under them. Balious sent Jesus off with another guy named Arsen to the creek. They both carried baskets with them and at the creek Arsen pulled a green leafy plant out of the water and ate it, beckoning to Jesus to do the same. It was good – watery but crisp, with a nice mustardy kind of flavor. The two men set to work filling their baskets. The water and soft mud of the creek felt good on Jesus’s tired feet.

By the time they returned with their filled baskets there was a dead deer on the ground next to the field kitchen. Jesus pointed at it and Balious said “Dorkas.”


“Dorkas.” Jesus couldn’t suppress a snicker at this, but none of the other guys found it funny – clearly that was just their word for deer. Balious began cleaning the carcass, placing the entrails into some other baskets and sending Jesus back to the creek with Arsen. Turns out they were there to clean out the intestines. Years of kitchen work paid off for Jesus who was mostly fine with everything, although he found cleaning out the large intestine pretty gross. Arsen demonstrated the technique: first he squeezed all the shit out of the intestine, then reached in and turned it inside out and scrubbed it down thoroughly. Looking downstream, Jesus saw a group of men bathing in the water and drinking from it. Ugh.

Back at the kitchen, the men cut up the meat and entrails, throwing most of it into the larger pot. Some of the nicer cuts were set aside. Balious wandered around kicking the dirt until he found a big flat rock and put it in the fire.

Meantime camp was getting set up. It was already colder than the morning had been so men were sent out to gather wood and set up fires. The captain came by and watched the cooks work for a while, mostly staring at Jesus. He talked to Balious for a while and Jesus heard their version of his name a couple times, then the captain wandered off. Balious looked over at Jesus and smiled. Jesus figured he’d put in a good word with the captain.

Once everything was cooking and there was no more work to be done the men sat down in the grass to rest. Jesus laid on his back and looked up at the sky, which was shockingly bright with more stars and more color than Jesus could ever remember seeing. After a few minutes he realized that, for the first time in his life, he was looking at a sky devoid of smog. He could hear the other cooks chatting quietly, and in the distance some men were singing. Jesus let himself relax and take in the moment.

Then he heard a noise – felt it as much as heard it. At first he thought it was his stomach rumbling, but then the sound got louder and sounded like an old motorbike engine. Finally the sound became something he was totally familiar with but couldn’t believe he was hearing. It was the trumpet of an elephant! He sat up and looked down the hill, and no shit, there were about 20 elephants walking up toward the camp. There were minders in front of and beside them guiding the beasts along. Jesus looked at the other cooks but they didn’t seem surprised. Arsen growled “elefades” and made a gesture at them with his thumb sticking out between the fingers of his fist before spitting on the ground in disgust.

The elephant dudes took their animals down to the creek, sending the erstwhile bathers hurrying back up to the camp. There was a lot of trumpeting and splashing around. It sounded like the elephants were happy to be in the water.

Balious called to Jesus and together the two men got the big flat rock out of the fire using some stout branches. Once it was flat on the ground, Balious used the rock to cook the good cuts of meat. Part way through he pulled out a small leather pouch and the other cooks got very quiet. Balious said some words of prayer before reaching into the pouch and carefully sprinkling some of its contents onto the venison steaks. Jesus moved downwind to get a whiff and for all he could tell it was just pepper. But then he looked at Balious and found him glaring at Jesus angrily as he put his pouch away. Jesus wondered if pepper was really that hard to come by.

He went back to work with the other cooks. Balious finished the steaks and left with them, probably to feed the head honchos. The rest of the cooks grabbed ladles and started feeding the soldiers who by now had begun to line up with bowls in hand. The cooks would scoop each man a ladle full of stew and Arsen would then throw some greens on top, which the soldiers seemed to really appreciate. Who was who in the pecking order was clear by watching what went into whose bowl. One man began to object to his portion, but the other soldiers shouted him down menacingly, so he shut up and left with his bowl.

The last guy in line was old Yassonas from the back of the line. By now the first pot was completely empty and the second nearly done so he got his bowl filled with mostly broth and some small chunks of meat, which he seemed happy enough for and happier still to see his marching partner. After Yassonas was fed the cooks helped themselves to the rest of the food – Jesus didn’t have a bowl but Arsen found one for him. Once they were done eating they dumped the pots over and took the utensils down to the creek, steering a wide berth upstream from where the elephants had been. Once all the work was finished they stoked up the cooking fire and settled in for the night.

Arsen woke Jesus up early the next morning and, after watching Jesus struggle to tie his sandals for a minute, laughed and showed him how to do it correctly. Together, they stoked the fire and kicked around to find more flat rocks to put in it. In the meantime, Balious and the other cook were mixing dough in a smallish pot. As soon as the rocks were hot enough, they began laying the dough over them, cooking flatbread out of coarse flour. Jesus nabbed a piece that had fallen off and found that it had a pleasant, almost nutty flavor.

The soldiers came up in dribs and drabs to get their breakfast and were handed flatbread hot off the rocks. As soon as the dough was finished, the cooks began packing up. Arsen and Jesus took the small pot and utensils down to the creek to clean up, then helped finish loading the donkeys.

All the while, Jesus listened to the captain screaming at his men and was glad it wasn’t him. The bruises from the previous morning’s beatings were so painful that he couldn’t even stand up straight.

Forming back up into line, Jesus was glad to see old Yassonas next to him – he hadn’t seen the old man at breakfast, although he doubted that Yassonas would have been able to eat the bread they were serving. In any case, the old man didn’t look any worse off than the day before, although the only way that could have been possible was if he were dead. Jesus wondered why the man was marching with the soldiers in the first place.

This day turned out to be exactly like the day before: the soldiers marched all day without rest and stopped at the end of the day. Seeing the captain headed his way, Jesus waved over to the cooks and the captain simply turned and walked back the way he came. Clearly this was now his job. He went and cooked and cleaned and slept and cooked and cleaned and marched, and did the same thing the next day, and continued in this fashion for a long time. While he picked up enough of the language to get by, Jesus didn’t have any real friends in the crowd – once he was able to function with the other cooks they stopped trying to teach him more of their language. He never learned where they were, or why they were marching, or for how long.

Some days were harder than others. When there wasn’t any game they’d have to cook flatbread for dinner and the soldiers complained. Rarely did they come across any greens as they had that first night. The water was often foul, often far away, and most often both. The line was being kept as close to water as possible but sometimes the landscape made that impossible. At one point virtually every man got a terrible case of the shits and the line had to halt for a day to get over them. Jesus noticed the lines were shorter after that, although he never learned what had been done with those who had died.

After a few weeks of keeping mostly to the plains the line turned in toward the mountains, working its way up a long valley. The days began getting cold and the nights awful – Jesus woke up one night with his arm in the fire after he’d fallen asleep too close to it. The burns were not bad but hurt like hell. As much as they were able, the men would scavenge pelts from the game they had caught and wear them over their cloaks.

One day the line didn’t march, and all the men were sent out to gather supplies. Jesus went to the water with the cooks to fill as many water skins as the donkeys could carry alongside the bundles of firewood others were hanging on their sides. People hunted everything they could find – even rats – and the elephant people were cutting grass and piling it into the baskets the elephants wore on their backs. It appeared that they were preparing to cross the mountain pass that loomed above the column, the sky cutting a notch between craggy snow-covered peaks.

That afternoon, the cooks fed everyone a larger-than-normal portion and then everyone hunkered down for the night.

The next day was rough going. The ground was steep and hard to walk on, with large boulders that had to be detoured around and large rocks that were easily dislodged by a careless soldier, but most of the ground was sharp gravel that readily and painfully invaded everyone’s sandals.

About two thirds of the way up the line reached a small hanging valley and began making camp. This high up there were no trees or tall grass, so for the first time Jesus was able to see the whole army – because that’s what it was – all spread out in front of and behind him. He boggled at the sight. There were at least a couple thousand men out there on the march, plus a herd of donkeys, some horses, and then at the very end of the line the elephants. It was an amazing sight to behold, would be an amazing sight to behold anywhere at any time, and not for the first time Jesus wondered what he was doing there, and then. The hamburger stand with Jason and the bikers couldn’t have been any farther away.

The next day the line started cutting switchbacks up the steep pass. The people in front were making the path as they went – there was a lot of starting and stopping and twice they had to go back the way they had come as the people in the lead ran into some insurmountable obstacle. Toward the top of the pass there was a loud commotion and screams in the line uphill from Jesus. Once they marched further up the hill he saw what the source of the upset was – some rocks had been knocked loose by someone near the front of the line and had rolled down the hill and hit two men. One of them had been hit in the leg, which was misshapen and covered in blood. The other man had been hit in the chest and was dead. As they walked by Jesus looked at the dead man, his skin already gray, his face showing the fear he had felt in his last moment, and his eyes seemed locked onto Jesus’s. He shook off an uncomfortable feeling and continued trudging up the hill.

The line stopped at the top of the pass and made camp. There was no point in looking for supplies – the land was nothing but rocks and gravel. Preparing the kitchen was difficult on account of the wind, which blew nonstop at the top of the pass carrying with it an eerie sound and trying to blow out the cookfires. Balious constructed a rough rock shelter on the windward side of the cookfire and the pots began heating up.

Jesus looked around and in spite of the biting cold found himself in awe of the view. He could see the mountain range they were crossing curving off in both directions, with the crazy shapes of cliffs and peaks poking out all around. Looking back the way they had come he could make out the glimmer of an ocean in the setting sun. The view reminded him of old National Geographic magazines he had read as a kid. Unfortunately it was too cold for him to spend much time taking in the beauty and he hastened back to the fire.

After serving the last of the food, the cooks spent the night in silence, huddled close together next to the cookfire. Jesus didn’t sleep and didn’t think anyone else did either – anyone finding himself close to falling off was sure to be awakened by the incessant trumpeting and rumbling of the elephants giving voice to their unhappiness at the cold and wind. Every now and again the donkeys would add to the bedlam, and Jesus wondered if they too were cold or if they were just fed up with the elephants making so much noise.

The sun finally rose but brought no heat nor any relief from the wind. The cooks wordlessly made their flatbread and shoved it at the soldiers who approached, and then just as wordlessly packed up their kitchen. Jesus’s eyes hurt from squinting so much against the wind and his head hurt from the smoke and lack of sleep the night before. All the men looked like he felt, which is to say dragged through a knothole. Eventually they got back in line – Yassonas barely even able to give a glance – and started down toward the forest on the other side of the pass.

Hiking down long hills is much more arduous than many people expect. One must constantly exert energy to keep from going too fast, and the thigh muscles quickly begin to burn. Meantime the muscles of the back are being held at an awkward angle respective to the hips so they start contributing pain. And when walking closely with others there will be constant slowdowns, which makes those thighs turn into logs of fire. The line of soldiers let out a quiet steady murmur of grunts, groans, and quiet yelps.

Yassonas had brought a walking stick with him from the other side of the pass. Leaning hard on it, he somehow managed to not fall off the mountain. They made a few switchbacks down the pass and the people making the trail must have known they would be murdered if they had to backtrack as the line moved steadily down without interruption or delay.

Jesus would always remember the sounds of that morning: his breath and his heart beating WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP in his ears. There was the whistle of wind passing through the rocks, the grunts and groans of exhausted men trying to move, and the damn elephants bitching and moaning at the back of the line. Jesus began to understand what Arsen had against them.

At long last the line approached the forest, and Jesus gratefully inhaled the scent of pine trees. The other men seemed to feel the same way – everybody started to quicken their pace and their steps seemed a bit easier. Suddenly Yassonas ran about fifteen feet in front of a very alarmed Jesus, who was worried the old man would finally fall and hurt himself. Then he turned up to face Jesus and said “Prosexte!” Jesus looked at him with his by now well-practiced “I don’t understand you” face and the old man screamed the same word again: “Prosexte!” He waved wildly up the hill and Jesus turned around just in time to see a rock the size of a washing machine spinning in midair, heading right for him. He felt the impact and then

Jesus felt heat and could hear voices yelling. There was a loud percussive sound that got louder and faster before dwindling away in the distance. He was laying on his side and hurt like crazy everywhere except for the back of his head, which felt numb. “How the fuck did I survive that?” he wondered. The rock probably weighed a ton and was flying through the air straight at him. He was afraid to open his eyes to see the wreckage of was once his body.

“Hey.” A voice in his ear. “Hey, you OK?” It took him a few seconds to realize the voice was familiar, and speaking English.

Jesus opened one eye just a crack and could see worn asphalt. The pain was too much. He closed his eye again and groaned. Peeking out again after a few moments he beheld the face of Jason, who he hadn’t seen in weeks. Jason looked worried.

“Take it easy,” he said. “There’s an ambulance coming. Don’t move though, OK?”

“How long?” Jesus asked.


“How long was I gone?”

Jason said, “At least like thirty seconds. You were flopping around like a fish the whole time. I thought you were dead.”

Jesus groaned again, and passed out.

Find me on Mastodon: Taupe Hat Social

The San Joaquin Valley of California has long been one of the most productive areas of farmland on Earth. While nobody alive today would remember, it was once possible, with only a few short portages, to canoe from Tulare Lake in the south, all the way north to the Sacramento Delta, out through the San Francisco Bay, and into the Pacific Ocean. The land reclaimed from these marshes consists of extremely rich soil, and the near-absence of frost in most of the Valley make it possible for farmers to grow three and sometimes four crops in a year. And grow the farmers do: cotton, corn, citrus of all kinds, wheat, alfalfa, grapes, and increasingly almonds. When you drive through the Valley, a region geologically flatter than Kansas, the biggest things around are grain silos and the water towers marking the location of small, dusty towns scattered along intersections here and there. Navigating the backroads of the area generally means remembering that roads running north to south are given a number and the name “Road” and those running east to west are designated “Avenue.” Most blocks in the area measure a neat 40 acres exactly.

Home to Grapes of Wrath and Hank Williams, there’s more than a little bit of country there – it’s still common to hear people talk with a slight Oklahoma drawl, especially in the oilfields around Bakersfield. The summers are hot by anyone’s notion of hot: highs in the hundred-teens, lows in the eighties, dry but unrelenting. Wintertime is rarely cold, but the dreaded tule fog is lethal. It’s not at all uncommon for a driver to see the hood ornament of their car disappear in the mist. An old joke is that when the tule fog sets in you send your passengers out with machetes to slice through the fog and push it off the side of the road so you can see. Unfortunately this also means there are terrible wrecks on the highways every year. If you get caught in this fog, get off the road and wait somewhere safe until it passes.

Before he even opened his eyes, Jesus knew he was in a hospital due to the sound of ventilation systems working hard, beeping equipment, people talking, and the particular odor resulting from the combination of strong antiseptics and sepsis. Remembering Jason talking to him on the road, he wasn’t surprised to be in a hospital, although some part of him wondered if he was there because some bikers had kicked the shit out of him or because of a boulder that should have turned him into paste. The more he thought things through, the more he figured he was there because of the bikers. He decided that the rock kicked down a hill by elephants in a land he never learned the name of must have been the most whacked out dream he’d ever had. If only.

Jesus briefly opened his eyes and immediately closed them against acute spinning. After a time he experimented with just opening his left eye, which worked out OK – the world was still trying to spin but it would only get about a quarter turn counterclockwise and then snap back to where it started. He found he could handle this for a few seconds at a time, and after a while a few seconds turned into a few seconds more until eventually he was able to open both eyes at the same time.

It was awful though – his head hurt, his body hurt, and his stomach was as sour as a pile of lemons. Eventually he felt the need to pee, which was enough to get him to shift around in hopes of getting up. This must have wiggled something loose as a machine in the room began beeping loudly, doing nothing good for Jesus’s headache.

A nurse came in and saw Jesus sitting up. She asked “Where are we planning to go here?” and pressed a button to silence the beeping.

“Bathroom,” Jesus tried to say, although the actual sound coming from his mouth was a sort of rasping gurgle. He looked startled, but the nurse was unfazed.

“No, you’re staying right there for now, and if you think you need the bathroom that’s probably just the catheter. Please don’t move – I’m going to fetch the doctor.” She left the room, and Jesus confirmed the presence of a tube where none should be. He tried fiddling with it, once, and was quickly disabused of the idea of doing anything else with it.

After a few minutes the nurse returned followed by a thin man in a doctor’s coat. He introduced himself as Dr. Skiff. He handed Jesus a small cup of water and encouraged him to take a few small sips, watching him closely as he did. Jesus could feel things in his throat moving around in response to the water and found his voice. Before he could say much Dr. Skiff cut him off. “I’ll answer as many of my questions as I can but first we need to run a few tests. You’ve been through a lot.” Dr. Skiff was neither friendly nor rude. Jesus was reminded of Mr. Spock, the science officer from the Enterprise, only Dr. Skiff had wavy hair and no bangs. Other than that and the pointy ears they were pretty much the same guy.

Jesus was subjected to a long series of tests involving being able to feel and move every part of him there was. Everything worked, which was nice to know even if it was painful to learn. Then Dr. Skiff asked him a series of questions – his name (Jesus saw a double-take from the nurse when he said his name although the doctor didn’t react), where he lived, what year it was, who the current President was, and so on. When he asked Jesus if he knew where he was he said, “Last thing I remember I was at a hamburger stand outside Strathmore.”

“Good,” said Dr. Skiff. “You suffered a brain injury, but based on what I see so far I’m optimistic about your recovery. To answer the most obvious question, you’re in Fresno Community Hospital. You were transferred here from Visalia due to the extent of your injuries. We have conducted a minor surgery to relieve pressure on your brain and to monitor your intracranial pressure – the amount of pressure between your brain and the inside of your skull. Fortunately that seems to have subsided – gotten better – and we have removed the subdural screw – what we used to monitor the pressure. In addition to that you have fractures – small breaks – to the ribs on your right side and a lot of contusions – bruising.” Jesus noticed a pattern in the way Dr. Skiff spoke – he’d use a medical term and then follow that up with the same thing in layman’s terms, always with kind of an embarrassed expression on his face. The effort was appreciated.

“How long was I out?”

Dr. Skiff checked his watch. “Just over three days.” Jesus sat stunned, but Dr. Skiff wasn’t done. “We’d like to keep you here for a few more days to monitor your ICP – the amount of pressure on your brain. It’s likely that this may increase in the next day or so but we have very effective medications to treat that. Please be very careful moving about – although I think when you try to move you’ll be reminded of that. Try to get as much rest as you can. Nurse Cardoza and her colleagues will be happy to answer any other questions you have for now.” He turned to walk out of the room.

“Wait,” said Jesus. “Can you take out… you know…”

“Your catheter?” Dr. Skiff gazed at Jesus for a few seconds before deciding. “That’s fine. Maria, can you take care of that?” He left the room without waiting for an answer.

Maria Cardoza stared at the whiteboard on the wall, trying to let go of the slight. She had worked with Dr. Skiff for the past five years and knew he wasn’t being intentionally rude – he never was. Still, the fact that it was unintentional didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating to deal with. She shrugged it off and wrote her name on the whiteboard before turning to her patient. There were a couple of things she was curious about.

Starting with his name – she had met many people named Jesus but few of them resembled her patient in any way, and none had pronounced their name the way he did. In her years working in the hospital she had met more than a few people with psychiatric issues who had believed themselves to be God, Satan, a Klingon, several wild animals, etc. But this patient didn’t appear to fall under that category. From what she could see, he was a perfectly ordinary 24-year-old Anglo male, six feet tall with a thin but not slight build, blonde hair, blue eyes. Also, what was he doing in Strathmore? His home was hours away, and the place he was hurt wasn’t exactly a town people flocked to for vacations. Maybe he had family there. She shrugged internally. Not her business to know.

“Hi there,” she said brightly. “Please call me Maria.”

“Jesus.” She looked at him quizzically. He added, “I’m not crazy, it’s just the name my mom gave me. It’s on my ID and everything.” Suddenly Jesus realized he didn’t know where any of his clothes were.

Maria chuckled. “I saw your name on your chart and just thought it was Jesus like people normally say it around here. Well, nice to meet you, Jesus.” There was a definite sparkle in her eyes when she pronounced his name the right way. Jesus had watched people react a lot of different ways to his name, and was happy at her amused reaction.

“Anyhow, before we remove your catheter I need to get your medical history. Are you allergic to any medications?” Maria went through the list quickly. There wasn’t much to discuss: no known allergies or any medical history to speak of, health good aside from his injury. Nothing in his answers provided any clue to his background.

“Where are my things?” Jesus asked.

“The paramedics cut your clothing off while you were in the ambulance. We never saw them – most likely they were disposed of in Visalia. Your wallet is on the table there along with a a photograph and a letter from someone named Jason.” No last name, she thought.

“Why did I have to get a catheter?” It’s good to avoid whining but some things are a lot to deal with.

“What, you think we want you peeing all over our nice sheets? We pay good money for those!” she said, laughing. “Seriously, you were out for several days and we had no way to know when you were going to wake up. This is no big deal, we’ll have it out before you know it. I’ll go get somebody to help and be right back.”

Maria breezed cheerfully out of the room. Watching her go, Jesus wondered how she did it. Being a nurse meant literally helping people with their piss and shit (he tried not to think about his own situation in that regard), not to mention horrible injuries – car wrecks and gunshots and hurt kids and who knows what. He would never stop being happy that some people want to do that work and are good at it.

Maria returned with another woman who introduced herself as Christine. They helped him lay back on the bed, and Jesus learned that the lights in the room can get very bright. He tried not to think about any of what was going on and ignore the sensations he was experiencing, but within a couple of minutes they were done, leaving him feeling raw and somewhat put upon. Christine carried the bag full of urine through a doorway Jesus hadn’t noticed before which turned out to be the bathroom.

“See?” said Maria. “Nothing to it!” She quickly changed the subject: “You’re not supposed to have any food yet but are you thirsty? You can have water or apple juice, and there’s ice if you want that instead.”

Jesus asked for some water which Maria brought along with some magazines. “Hope you like Better Homes and Gardens. We have Soap Digest if that’s your thing.” Jesus looked at her with a slightly horrified expression. She showed him how to work the bed and TV controls and where the call button was, and then left.

The next few days were uneventful. Thanks to the constant drip from the IV, Jesus had to pee often, which involved hitting the call button and waiting for a nurse to help him with the IV pole. Thankfully they left him alone in the bathroom. He was given increasingly thick liquids and then eventually soft food. On the second day his headache got worse and Dr. Skiff was brought in, but after an examination declared himself “currently unconcerned – not worried” and left.

He was brought down to the basement for a CT scan once a day. There was a little cartoon guy on the CT machine that would light up with different faces for “Breathe in,” “Hold… your breath,” “Breathe now.” Jesus thought the cartoon guy was funny, and the CT technician thought he heard that from his patients a lot.

The “letter” from Jason turned out to hold an actual letter along with $1400 in cash. Long and short of that was the hospital people told Jason that they didn’t know how long Jesus was going to be out, so Jason dumped the shit off to a wholesaler after all and gave Jesus his half. The letter was signed, “Thanks for nothing, Jason.”

“Why,” thought Jesus, “is every single Jason I know a complete asshole?” At least Jason paid Jesus his share.

Clothes turned out to be a small problem – all Jesus had to wear was a hospital gown and some booties. He asked Maria about that and she wondered aloud if he had anybody that he could call to bring clothes. Jesus told her there wasn’t anybody.

“What about your parents?” she asked.

Jesus shook his head. “Mom’s gone, and Dad… I don’t have any idea.”

“But you’re so young.”

“Long story.” Jesus tried and failed to not remember, or let it show on his face.

Maria mumbled something quiet and made the sign of the cross. “I’ll get a volunteer to bring you something before you leave.”


Maria paused. She’d been working with this patient for several days and he seemed relaxed to deal with. “Your name,” she began. “I have cousins named Jesus but I haven’t ever met any… anyone who looks like you do and pronounces your name in the way you do. Is it normal in the place you came from to do this?”

Jesus smiled. “No, it’s not normal in any part of the country to be named Jesus. That’s why I’m here – the guys who attacked me thought I was trying to be a smartass – sorry!” Maria waved away the language. “The thing is, people always get weird with me about my name. They always have.”

“Why don’t you change your name? What’s your middle name? You could go by that.”

“Hector,” he said, locking eyes.

After a few seconds she got it. “Oh, Jesus H. Christ... if my abuela ever heard someone make such a blasphemous joke she’d have her slipper off and, oh! So bad!” she cried. They laughed together until his ribs hurt and he had to stop.

The next day an old woman with a candy-striped uniform came in, introduced herself, pretended not to be offended at his name, and after looking him up and down promised to return shortly with something “decent” to wear. This proved to be a pair of brown polyester slacks, an earth-toned, floral-print polyester shirt with pearl snaps, a pair of brown penny loafers, and a package each of new socks and underwear. Jesus thanked her politely and promised to try the clothes on before he left. He could smell the mothballs from across the room, and wondered what sort of moth ate clothes like that.

By the fourth day the nurses removed his IV and he ate solid food for the first time. It only tumbled around in his stomach a little, but he was grateful to be able to sink his teeth into something, even if it was salisbury steak, one of the least favorite and most-eaten dishes of his teenage years

On the fifth day Dr. Skiff came to visit him after his CT scan. “I’ve ordered your release. You will need to refrain from strenuous physical activity – like working out or running – for at least a month. Additionally I’ll be sending you home with a course of antibiotics. Please take every last pill on schedule – it’s very important. You may take Tylenol for headaches, but do not take aspirin. Maria will be around shortly to help you get ready.” As abruptly as ever, he left.

Before Maria arrived, someone named Ger from the business office arrived with a small stack of paperwork to go over. Most of it was discharge instructions, which were briefly described. More attention was paid to the parts concerning billing. Jesus didn’t have steady employment and wasn’t about to tell the hospital how he earned most of his money. Ger entered “unemployed” in the requisite field, and then fished out a list of community aid organizations which might be able to help with some of the bill, which had a bottom-line figure that was enough to buy a luxury car with all the trimmings. Both Jesus and Ger knew full well that this bill was never going to be paid, but they said nothing of it.

Maria came in and asked Jesus if he needed any help getting dressed. He declined and she stepped outside to let him take care of the task. Once dressed he went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Yep, somebody’s grandpa last wore this outfit in 1975. He was sure not to attract any attention looking the way he did.

Maria came in with a wheelchair and when Jesus tried to object she played the “policy” card, so down he sat. As the chair wheeled into and out of two elevators and what seemed like half a mile of hallways, he decided it was a good thing after all – he was still pretty weak and in a lot of pain.

In the lobby Maria had the receptionist call a cab, and transferred Jesus to a regular chair. “I hope you get better and find yourself some people for next time,” she said, looked at him for a moment, and then left with the wheelchair. It was only after she’d gone around the corner that Jesus realized he had forgotten to thank Maria for everything she had done for him.

Find me on Mastodon: Taupe Hat Social

Traveling cross country by bus in America is rarely a comfortable or enjoyable process. The trip is extremely slow, prone to interruptions when either equipment or people break, inexplicable delays and unhelpful employees, horrifying and eye-watering bathrooms, and hours-long waits at bleak stations in the rougher parts of town when transferring from one bus to another. The only real upside is that it’s very cheap and will go basically anywhere provided you have ample time and the willingness to view some of the least-desirable scenery the country has to offer. On the other hand sometimes the passengers can be entertaining, or even friendly.

For Jesus, it was torture. After paying his cab fare at the station in Fresno he booked a ticket for the next bus to take him close to home. Several hours later (and an hour behind schedule) he was aboard and the bus began rattling north along the concrete slabs of Highway 99. This jostling made it impossible for him to get comfortable – both his ribs and head hurt fiercely in spite of the four Tylenol he had purchased from a convenience store near the station. Somewhere north of Turlock the bus inexplicably pulled over on the side of the freeway and a man sitting a couple seats behind Jesus immediately got up and made his way to the front of the bus where he was greeted by a pair of cops, guns drawn. He surrendered without any fuss and was taken away but the bus had to sit for another twenty minutes while the cops made sure they had all his luggage. All the while the bus sat with the engine and AC off, and the people aboard sweltered. Jesus hoped the prodigious stench from his unbathed, polyester-clad body wouldn’t be noticed by anyone else – it was bad enough for him. 100% polyester shirts should be illegal.

Finally, after a sleepless night spent at the station in Sacramento trying to fend off various manifestations of primarily human weirdness he was dropped off in Vallejo, the nearest stop to his home in Crockett. By now he was beyond wanting to figure out what bus to take and splurged on another cab right to his door. The driver had to wake him up when they arrived.

He met his landlady Janet on the stairs going up to his apartment. “Jesus, you look like shit. I watered your plants while you were away.” She knew not to ask, and he knew not to hassle her about going into his apartment.

“Thanks,” he said. Then, remembering, he paid rent for the next three months. Janet thanked him and he was finally able to get the rest of the way home. After a hot shower (doctor’s orders be damned), Jesus collapsed into his bed. He slept off and on for two days, getting up only to eat a tiny bit, use the bathroom, and water his plants (Janet really had taken good care of them, and he was grateful).

On the morning of the third day Jesus was sitting in his room, staring out the dusty window at the eucalyptus trees and the rusty corrugated walls of the massive sugar factory beyond them. The pain had finally reached a tolerable level, and it was time to eat something that didn’t come from the cupboard. He was getting dressed to go out when the phone rang. It was Charles. “You alive?”


“Good, I’ve got something for you,” Charles said. “Come on down, I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”

Jesus picked up his pace a little, and not only for the promise of work. The thing about Charles was that he loved only one thing more than talking about cooking, and that was the act of cooking itself. Jesus found it well worth the lectures on the finer arts of whatever was being made once the meal was ready, and he was hungry as hell.

As was usually the case, the battery was dead on his battered old pickup but for this reason Jesus always parked it facing downhill (in Crockett everywhere is either uphill or downhill) and it roll-started without any trouble.

He got to Pinole and parked the truck on San Pablo a few blocks from Charles’s house. Turned out that brief walk was about all he could manage – maybe he should have put Charles off for a day. But then there was the promise of a fresh-cooked meal. He sucked it up and made it the rest of the way.

Charles treated Jesus to a discourse on the finer points of risotto that didn’t lack for barbs thrown at various well-known chefs regarding their technique and presentation. Jesus waited patiently until food was served and found the wait well worth the time spent. The two men chatted cheerfully as they ate, waiting until after Charles cleared the plates to get down to business.

“Marin to Concord, daytime, easy. Two and a half bills for you.”

“What’s the catch?” Two hundred fifty dollars was a lot for a one-hour drive.

“Couple things: first, you gotta leave the car there. It ain’t too far from the BART though.”


Charles offered Jesus a bong hit but was waved off. “You gotta get it from Houseboat Jason.”

Here we must take a brief digression regarding the name Jason, but first you must know that Houseboat Jason was not the same Jason we last saw at a hamburger stand. Until about 1950, there were rarely more than a few dozen babies per year being given that name in the United States, and even after that use of the name didn’t reach the top 100 on the popularity charts until 1966. The inflection point was 1969. During the year of the Summer of Love more than twice as many Jasons were born as the year before, and this annual doubling of Jasons continued until 1974, at which time the name Jason remained stubbornly stuck in second place behind Michael. From 1971 until 1983 Jason remained in the top ten most-popular names for boys (there were also a few hundred girls named Jason during this period). If you were to throw a rock into a group of boys born during that time period, chances are the only reason you wouldn’t have hit a Jason is because you’d hit a Michael instead.

As a consequence a great many of the people Jesus knew and had dealings with were named Jason. Strangely he didn’t know very many Michaels, and of those he did know he didn’t have business with any of them. Sometimes a Jason would be named after something that distinguished him from the rest, sometimes not. Thus: Houseboat Jason, a man whose introduction will soon require further digression.

Jesus wasn’t going to let that offer stand, not for dealing with Houseboat Jason. “I’ll do it for four hundred.”

Charles laughed. “I figured you were going to say that. Three hundred, not a penny more. But on my mother it’s a simple job for you. All you’ve got to do is get the car, bring the car, and keep your mouth shut.”

So it was that a couple of days later Jesus found himself in Sausalito, making his way to the northern end of town toward Gate 6 ½ Road.

The houseboats of Sausalito have been a storied part of the history of the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1900s. Originally the houseboats were brought out by well-off San Franciscans to “anchor out” and throw parties (lubricated by an abundance of local bootleggers), or else to escape the City for peace and quiet. One look at the place is enough to understand the appeal: situated along Richardson Bay, Sausalito is both close to San Francisco and a world away. Surrounded on three sides by high terrain covered in a deep green blanket of coastal redwoods, conifers of all kinds and abundant eucalyptus and in the lee of Mount Tamalpais, this shallow anchorage boasts some of the calmest waters in the Bay, and rarely does the afternoon wind rise beyond the level of whistling through the rigging of one’s boat. To the northeast one sees the staid terraces of Old Money in the form of Belvedere, contrasted to the southwest by the riotous jumble of homes climbing the hills of Sausalito. What both communities have in common is the desire to see the Bay – large windows facing the water create kaleidoscopic effects when the sun is low in the sky, with beams of light refracting across the water in ever-shifting shapes. Often a light mist lies over the water, capturing the beams of light in an indescribable scene of ephemeral beauty. The waters teem with fish, birds, and scuttled boats dating back to the Gold Rush.

During World War II the houseboats were temporarily displaced by the Marinship yard, dedicated to cranking out Liberty Ships and tankers, an effort which attracted tens of thousands of primarily Black workers many of whom had fled the Jim Crow south in search of good work and better treatment. Unlike nearby Oakland which quickly grew a bustling Black middle class, Black workers arriving in Sausalito found themselves redlined into the confines of a former dairy farm adjacent to Sausalito called Marin City, which to this day remains a glaring example of racial segregation located in the heart of California’s deeply-liberal Bay Area.

With the end of the war came something of a return to form for Richardson Bay, bolstered now by the detritus of a formerly-busy shipyard. Marinas quickly formed around the shipways, of which there were six, named Gate 1 through 6. An eclectic group of former shipyard workers, beatniks, drifters, musicians, philosophers and lost souls began constructing houseboats of found materials, limited only by their imagination and ability to build something that could float. Old ferryboats were brought in and repurposed as homes, hotels, and flops. Others bought, found, or constructed boats which they anchored further out in Richardson Bay – so-called “anchor-outs” by the locals.

Not surprisingly, the established “hill people” of Sausalito looked at this floating raft of randomly-conjoined watercraft and the rather shaggy people who called it home with alarm and immediately set about trying to rid “their” community of this “menace.” So began the Houseboat Wars: a long, mostly cold (and occasionally absolutely frigid) conflict between those who sought order on land, and those on the water who sought a new way of life. Sailboats and motorboats and barges and ferries and ocean-going vessels, all served changing roles as time went on as homes, flophouses, schools, floating works of art, barricades against The Man in his various guises. Lawsuits were filed, boats were scuttled, guns were brandished. All the while some of the most famous names of an era called the place home, or at least a spot to hang out: Alan Watts, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding composed Dock of the Bay while sitting on Bill Graham’s houseboat, along an actual dock of the Bay. The place was equal parts frenetic and lethargic, wild and deeply cultured, grotesque and beautiful. No other place will be like it.

At the end of Gate 6½ road dock floated an aged wooden ferry. Originally christened The Baywater Brisk, she ran the Alameda-San Francisco route from 1928 until a year after the Bay Bridge was completed. After that she spent a brief amount of time moored off the Port of Stockton as its new owner tried and failed to get approval to convert her into a riverine casino. By the time the owner gave up the vessel had been painted black with blue stars on the outside, a cabaret complete with stage had mostly been built and half a dozen staterooms were completed. When the business venture failed, the owner sought to abandon the vessel, now named Delta Nightstar, where she was but the threat of a lawsuit from the port authority convinced him to sell the boat for pennies on the dollar to a broker who anchored her for storage out in Richardson Bay in 1956.

The Delta Nightstar was ignored by her owner long enough that starting somewhere around 1965 people began rowing skiffs out and squatting aboard her, making changes to suit their particular needs, most notably converting the upper deck into a greenhouse filled with the cannabis indica plants increasingly in demand throughout the Bay Area. This turned out to be a bridge too far for the local authorities who motored out, busted the people aboard and confiscated their crops. Inevitably this blew back on the ship’s owner, who found himself with a boat that wasn’t worth repairing and would be too expensive to scrap. Luckily (for him) an associate of the marijuana growers approached him with an offer and after an exchange of a shockingly small amount of currency the Delta Nightstar joined the evergrowing raft of floating humanity loosely associated with the Town of Sausalito.

By the early 1990s the Houseboat Wars were nearing an uneasy truce – in exchange for some semblance of organization on the part of the houseboaters the Town agreed to provide city utilities – water and most importantly sewer – to the docks. The Delta Nightstar, by now known by locals simply as the Black Ferry, was moved to the end of the northernmost dock in the Bay near her much more charismatic and beloved sister vessel known as the Yellow Ferry, which has been maintained variously as a museum, a tourist hotel, and simply a nice thing to take photographs of when visiting the area.

Conversely, the Black Ferry maintained a certain degree of infamy. She had a reputation, one might say, as being a place of ill repute. Whatever the truth of such rumors was, there was no question that the people who lived aboard the Black Ferry were a rougher sort but also somebody you might want to talk to if you wanted to exchange green for green, as it were. That lasted until 1988, when the Drug Enforcement Association acting in concert with the Marin County Sheriffs Department, the Sausalito Police Department, and the United States Coast Guard raided the vessel and confiscated substantial quantities of packaged marijuana, hashish, heroin, cocaine, six figures of cash, several dozen firearms, and the Black Ferry herself, taken by the state under civil forfeiture laws.

The state now found itself faced by the very same conundrum previously faced by the ship broker: an ancient vessel which would be barely seaworthy only after expensive repairs to the ship’s engines, and filled with just the sort of toxic mess that would make scuttling her impossible and scrapping her a high burden on the taxpayer. Furthermore, the vessel was hardly in saleable condition – her previous occupants had used her walls as a sort of studio of the dark arts, covering many of them in cryptic symbols and frightful invocations. The cabaret had been dedicated to depictions of the female form, or parts thereof, in various and often disturbing sexual situations. And the whole place stank of cigarettes, unwashed humans, and weed.

This proved a fortunate break for a wealthy couple living across the water in Belvedere. Their son, who they had spared no expense on in sending him to the finest of private schools in an area swimming with fine private schools, and in whom they had hung their hopes of familial succession, had instead persisted in hanging out with all the wrong sort of individual (bringing them home even!) and getting in all manner of scrapes with the law. The only reason this wayward young man was not in prison was that his father and the Sheriff had been fraternity brothers and the father had never missed an opportunity to sponsor a fundraiser for the department.

The Black Ferry turned out to be an ideal way to rid their household of their 22-year-old nuisance while at the same time being able to keep an eye on him. Another fundraiser later and the Black Ferry was very quietly put up for auction and just as quietly acquired by a discreet shell company headquartered overseas, and just like that the Black Ferry found herself once again occupied. An ornate brass telescope was kept in the living room of the parents house, ostensibly pointed toward the heavens, but it only took a few seconds for a practiced hand to direct its eye at the Black Ferry instead – and hands became well-practiced at this task.

This wayward son was of course none other than Houseboat Jason, a man about whom much can be said but only if one is inclined to speak ill of another. An example follows preceded by a necessary diversion:

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called Black American English, Black American Vernacular English, or once – briefly and very controversially – Ebonics, is a version (or dialect, idiolect, sociolect, etc) of American English spoken by many members of the Black community across the United States and Canada. Its origins remain in dispute but it’s agreed that this version of the language originated in the South and spread across the nation during the various Black Diasporas. Possessed of its own rules and structure, it is a way of speaking for millions of people and is in every way as grammatically and syntactically correct as is Standard American English, although one wouldn’t necessarily know that given the degree of racial discrimination Black Americans face in every aspect of their lives, including their way of speaking. For all that AAVE remains indisputably influential and more than holds its own as a member of the language families of North America.

How, one might wonder, is this diversion relevant in discussing Houseboat Jason? To put it simply: Houseboat Jason, born to a family of Dutch and English landowners who can trace their ancestry back to royal land grants in their respective kingdoms, can only ever be heard speaking in a rough approximation of AAVE. Were one to wonder whether this behavior could be considered problematic, it is. In fact, his way of speaking is problematic enough that the only right thing to do is to paraphrase his words rather than transcribe them. Expect this.

Jesus made his way down the 6 ½ dock. Toward the end a middle-aged man with a paunch and a shaggy beard was sitting on a bench. He accosted Jesus. “Where you headed?”

“Going to see Jason. Charles sent me.” Referring to this Jason’s way of living was redundant.

“Yeah?” The old guy stood up and Jesus was struck by how large he was – his potbelly was an easy distraction from the fact that his shoulders were wide enough that he probably had to turn sideways to get through some doorways. Jesus also noticed that the man’s eyes didn’t change with his smile.

“Yep, came to pick up a car, that’s what he told me.”

The old guy eyed him closely. “If you’ve got any guns, leave ‘em off the dock.”

Jesus assured the guard he had none such and was waved on to the Black Ferry. Another of Jason’s minions asked him about his business and then led Jesus into the cabaret. Upon the low stage was an elaborate chair that could only be described as a throne (it had in fact been built as such for a raucous and bawdily-rewritten stage production of King Lear many years back), surrounded on either side by end tables – food on one of them and a bong on the other.

Seated in the chair was a skinny guy about Jesus’s age, his blonde hair twisted into dreadlocks that were just a little too perfect. This was Jason. He immediately began razzing Jesus about his name, asking why he hadn’t brought any of the twelve disciples with him and demanding not for the first time to know why he didn’t just change his name which Houseboat Jason, in a moment of inadvertent irony, described as disrespectful.

Jesus weathered the onslaught of shit-talking. Houseboat Jason only did this when he was in a relaxed mood, a state of mind his visitors found highly preferable to a tense, non-relaxed Houseboat Jason. As he absorbed the abuse and waved off a bong hit, Jesus thought about his walk out on the dock. The tide had been all the way out and the sun had been baking the mud for a while. Also, it had rained the day before. When he heard the first of the incoming tide lapping against the Black Ferry it all came together.

“Hey Jason, you got any incense?”

Jason cocked his head for a moment listening then swore and waved at his guys, who quickly set about lighting incense in holders placed around the room and closing all the windows. Jason demanded of Jesus how he knew.

For the first time since stepping aboard, Jesus had reason to laugh. Houseboat Jason was on his back foot. “I went to Wu Zie.”

At this, Houseboat Jason coughed into his bong, making a mess, and began profanely professing his surprise and disbelief. He then declared himself ready to have Jesus thrown overboard and waved to two of his guys, who approached Jesus immediately.

“Hold on,” Jesus said. “I can prove it.” He had his hands up, but pointed to his shirt pocket. One of the henchmen reached into the pocket and pulled out an old Polaroid photo, glanced at it briefly, and handed it to Jason.

Jason goggled at the photo, then sent it back via his henchman to Jesus. For a moment Houseboat Jason sounded like the Belvedere kid he really was. What was it like? He wanted to know.

“Yeah,” said Jesus. “Everything you heard about that place is probably true. Plus some shit I’ll never talk about. Anyhow, you’ve got a car?”

Before Jason could reply, a loud fizzing sound could be heard from outside. This was the Gas – the reason Jesus asked for incense and the reason Jason realized Jesus was a local. The Gas (or the Big Fart as Jesus privately thought of it) only happens when several things happen in the right order. Nearly a century of people in boats dumping their sewage overboard had forever changed the microbial environment of the mud flats of Richardson Bay. This set the stage. Next, the previous day’s rain had flushed a substantial amount of nutrient-containing sediment out into the water from the creeks which border the Bay. Finally, an extra-low tide with the sun directly overhead baked a thickened layer over the top of the mud, while the heat and extra nutrients kicked the mud-dwelling bacteria just below into an orgy of feasting and reproducing and burping out a prodigious mix of malodorous waste gasses which remained mostly trapped under the hardened mud at the surface. Once the tide started coming in that mud softened, and the gasses rushed through the shallow water and out of it. The only thing for it was to close up as much of a boat as one could and light some incense to mask the stench. Fortunately, the conditions that led to the Gas only happened in the afternoon, the same time of day as the sea breeze picks up there, so the worst of the Gas was usually over in just a few minutes.

Naturally, Jason had forgotten that his bedroom window was open and the smell quickly flooded from there into the cabaret, driving everyone abovedecks where the odor of nightmares that was the Gas at least mixed with some amount of fresh air.

“So,” said Jesus to Jason while wiping his eyes, “you were going to give me some keys?”

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The car turned out to be an old Dodge sedan, the kind from the 80’s with nothing but sharp corners, front wheel drive that pulled the steering wheel hard every time you stepped on the gas, and looked like shit brand new. K body, they called it. For all that, this particular car was in pretty good shape and drove as well as it ever had. Jesus motored north on 101 before taking Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to 580 and the Richmond Bridge, passing the mammoth yellow castle of San Quentin State Penitentiary on the way.

Once across the bridge, Jesus took an exit that led to a long stretch of road next to a railway switching yard in north Richmond, following that around north and then east until the road became Highway 4, a narrow and often dodgy road that rolled through the tawny hills of the East Bay before dropping down into Concord.

The address was a townhouse complex off Port Chicago Highway near a drive-in movie theater, the kind of place that forever balanced on the edge between sharp and shabby. The people who lived there worked for a living and did their best to take care of things but didn’t have a lot left over afterwards. The Dodge fit right in next to the other cars in the lot.

Jesus walked up to the townhouse he had been sent to and pressed the cracked orange doorbell. The inside door opened but Jesus couldn’t see who was behind it through the outer security door.

“You got the keys?”

“Yeah, right here.”

“What the… hold on a second.” There was a clunk, then the outer door opened revealing a large-ish Black man with a shocked expression on his face.

Jesus gaped. “Tony?”

“Fuck yeah it’s me! Good to see you!” Jesus and Tony exchanged a few hand slaps and a one-handed one-pat hug. “Get your ass inside!”

Jesus and Tony had been friends in high school, most often meeting up in the detention hall after school for one dumb thing or another. Jesus looked at his old friend. Tony hadn’t changed a whole lot – filled out some and (thankfully) had changed his hairstyle.

“I see you finally got rid of that nasty old Jheri Curl.”

“What decade do you think we live in, Apostate?” Tony never stopped razzing Jesus about his name, and Jesus never wanted him to. “Besides, that shit gets into everything and no girl would let me even close to her pillow covers with that in my hair.”

“Told you! So how about now – you got a girl?”

Tony looked around pointedly. “You'll just have to figure that out for yourself.” Jesus also pointedly looked around at the townhouse which was furnished with a tatty sofa facing a large television bookended by a massive pair of speakers. The wood-panel walls of the living room were decorated only by a couple of posters which did not in any sense give the impression of a person living the family life. The kitchen and dining nook were clean enough but hardly sparkling. After giving Jesus a moment to take in the view, Tony asked, “What about you?”

“Nobody special,” Jesus replied. “Just, you know.”

“Yeah…” Tony knew well enough. “So how you living?”

“I’m bringing you these keys, so about like that. How about you?”

“You bringing me them keys, psh, how you think?” The men shared a laugh. They started filling each other in on their lives since high school, each sure that at least half of what the other told them was probably true (they were both about half right). Their old easy banter flowed as it always had, with plenty of good-natured shit talking and plenty of laughs. After they had swapped numbers, Tony told Jesus he had something to do, so Jesus got up and started for the door.

“The keys, motherfucker. I need the damn keys. Come on, I’ll drop you off at the BART station.” More laughter. Jesus handed Tony the damn keys. They hopped in the Dodge and drove off.

On the way Tony got quiet. This was also how Jesus remembered him, and knew to wait. Finally Tony spoke. “This shit can’t last, you know? Like I work and do my business and get crazy sometimes and all that, and it’s good for now, but it can’t last. You ever think of what you want to do?”

Jesus thought for a minute. “I guess I don’t, not really. It’s just kind of… stuff happens and I roll with whatever it is, and when I’m lucky I get paid. So far it’s been enough.” He thought about telling Tony what happened with the bikers and the crazy weeks-long dream he had after, but decided maybe another time or maybe not. “It’s just not important to me. As long as I’ve got food and a roof over my head, that’s all I really care about.”

“What about people? You need people. Everybody needs people.”

Jesus shook his head. “Maybe you do, but that’s not how I am. Too many people means too much bullshit, and I’ve had more than enough of that.”

Tony looked at his old friend, remembering. “Yeah, I guess you have. Sorry, man.”

“All good.”

They drove in silence until Tony pulled the old Dodge up in front of the BART station. As Jesus was getting out Tony said, “Thanks for bringing me this. I’m glad it was you.”

“Same here, Tony. Be seeing you.”

Jesus hopped on the BART and made his way back home, stopping along the way to collect his pay from Charles. On the trip, he thought about his conversation with Tony. He wasn’t bothered by his lack of connection to people – that had been a truth clear enough even Tony could see it – but he found himself somewhat bothered by his lack of… something. Ambition wasn’t the right word, or was it? He did odd jobs, some more aboveboard than others, working for people like Charles or doing handyman and construction work, but none of it was any more purposeful than to pay for rent and food. Was that it? He had no desire to take on a kingpin role, and starting a legitimate business seemed like the same kind of hassle. He knew a regular job wasn’t for him either – eventually the constant dealing-with-people got under his skin and he'd inevitably either quit or get fired.

It occurred to Jesus that what bothered him most was that he didn’t care about anything. Everybody he knew seemed to care about something, whether it was Charles and his cooking, Tony and pretending to chase women, or whatever the hell it was that Houseboat Jason was into. Even the Jason he’d been traveling with when he was attacked couldn’t shut up about his motorcycle. But Jesus? For him, caring about anything beyond taking care of immediate needs was repulsive somehow, and even though he knew why he wasn’t sure what to do about it, or if he even wanted to. After all, he had enough, didn’t he?

When Jesus got home the light was flashing on the answering machine. He took a minute to water the plants before he checked it, and his suspicions were confirmed. There was one message, a woman’s voice saying only “Booty calls.”

He met her a few months ago at Smiley’s (known to locals as the saddest bar in the Bay) while he was cooling off after getting burned on a job. She came in, looked around the bar, sat down next to Jesus and asked him to buy her a drink. It was nothing like love at first sight, more two people scratching an itch. All he knew about Gina is that she did office work for Alameda County, was forty years old, lived in American Canyon, and had a teenage son. She’d stopped by Smiley’s just to see what it looked like from the inside and stayed only long enough to finish her drink before heading to Jesus’s house.

They weren’t close, and to call them “lovers” would be ludicrous. Once every few weeks Jesus would get a phone call or message on his machine with the same two words, and within a couple hours Gina would drop by for an hour or two before finishing her trip home. It was an arrangement that suited both of them – neither wanted anything more from the other than what they had, and by explicit agreement the booty calls could end permanently if either of them felt the need.

After they were done, Gina liked to have a cigarette before getting dressed. She never asked, so Jesus never told her not to. Sitting up together in the early evening dusk, Jesus could only see her silhouette framed by the glow of the sky – hair cut into a practical sort of long bob, aquiline nose leading down to medium lips, breasts that weren't large but very proportional to her frame. The smoke from her cigarette curled as it rose, casting shadows upon itself. She looked good, he thought. More to the point, she seemed to enjoy their encounters as much as he did but aside from that had only ever asked him to buy her a drink that first time. They sat in silence for a few minutes, catching their breath and feeling the kind of relaxation that only comes after sex.

Eventually Gina got up and went to the bathroom, and Jesus got up and started straightening the room.

“One of these days I’m going to ask you about that Polaroid,” she said.

Jesus took a beat before responding. Then, not really knowing why, he replied. “What do you want to know?”

“Can I pick it up?” Jesus nodded, and Gina picked the photo up off the nightstand. The photo was old and somewhat battered. The perspective was very close to water. It looked like somewhere in the Bay, although she couldn’t place it – there were silhouettes of buildings in the far distance although they were too indistinct to make out. In the near foreground, slightly below the camera, was a pair of bald heads. About fifty feet away was a small motorboat with a center console – maybe a Boston Whaler. Standing in the bow was someone holding a camera, pointing it right at the person taking the picture.

“Who took this?”

“I did.”

“I feel like I’ve seen it before.” Gina stared at the photo for a few more moments, then looked up at Jesus. Her hair flashed red in a bit of sunlight.

Jesus walked over to a shelf made from planks laid over milk crates and picked something up. “I’m sure you have seen it before, only from the other side.” He handed Gina a yellowed newspaper clipping. Gina looked at it, her eyes widening.

“You were…?”

“Yeah. We were.”

Gina sat down on one of the dining chairs, staring at the article. There was a large photo depicting the Bay – Richardson Bay, she now understood. Coming up out of the water was a metal tube about four feet around with a tiny dock attached to it. Standing on that dock were three boys around twelve or thirteen years old, all clad in robes, their heads shaved, all sporting big grins. The tallest of the boys was holding up a Polaroid camera, with the tongue of a photo just starting to emerge from the slot.

The headline was explicit: “Newly-Discovered CULT School UNDERWATER off Sausalito!”

“Oh god,” Gina said. She put the clipping down on the table and looked up at Jesus. “I never knew… I remember when this happened… Oh god, I’m so sorry.” Her eyes began to shine.

Jesus held up his hand. “Don’t. It’s been a long time. I’m not that kid anymore. It’s okay. Really!” He didn’t expect that last word to come out as strong as it did, and he knew he was giving himself away. It didn’t matter. “I mean it, it was a long time ago. Go on, ask me anything you want.”

Gina thought for a moment, unsure if she wanted to go down this path. She had been in her early twenties when the news broke about Wu Zie. The scandal played out across the front pages of the Bay Area for months, and everyone she knew, herself included, had strong feelings about the cult. For her part, she had been heartbroken to hear about what happened to the children. And now here she was sitting in bed next to one of them. Jesus seemed to be waiting for an answer so for his sake she asked, “What was it like?”

Jesus sighed and paused for a moment before answering. “It was fucking bullshit. The whole thing was bullshit. Wu Zie, the underwater school, our ‘steadfast path,’ all of it was complete fucking bullshit. ‘Wu Zie’ isn’t even Chinese – it’s just some asshole’s idea of an ‘Asian-sounding’ name for his bullshit philosophy.”

This was a lot for Gina to absorb. Of course she’d heard about all this, but to hear it described so bluntly by somebody who had experienced it was still surprising. She grasped for something to make sense of. “Did you really go to school underwater?”

Jesus got up and filled a glass of water from the sink and looked out the kitchen window. He replied without turning around. “Yeah, that was a thing. Wu Zie told everyone that it was the perfect connection between the elements of earth and water, and had the room built with some shape he said would direct powerful energy into the students.

“Stupid motherfucker forgot about air though. After the first week somebody had to rig up a fan hooked up to a generator blowing into a long dryer hose so we’d get fresh air down there, and even after that we always had bad headaches at the end of the day.” He stared down into his water glass for a minute, remembering. “Also there wasn’t a bathroom or any plumbing so you had to bring your own water but if you brought too much you either had to use the bucket or pee into the Bay. If somebody had a bad stomach the whole classroom stank.”

Jesus turned around and gazed at Gina, who was staring intently out another window through tear-streaked eyes.

“You sure you want to hear about this?”

“No, I’m not sure.” Gina wiped her eyes and looked around for her clothes, at a loss to understand why this new information about her boy toy had her so upset. After all, it was a long time ago and she wasn't even involved. Then she remembered the thing she’d wondered about Jesus ever since meeting him. “Why did you keep the name you were given? You could have changed it, you know?”

Jesus put down his water glass, walked back to where his bed was and started putting his clothes back on. He only managed to get on his underwear and pants before he flopped down in one of the living room chairs, his head fixed toward the window. He was trying desperately to hold onto whatever was left of his control, to not cry in front of this other person, moreover he wanted nothing more than to not feel anything at all – examining this one question dug so deep into the core of who he was that he ran from it every chance he got.

Gina had seen enough agony in her life, and here she was creating more. She got up, dressed herself, went to the bathroom again, and found Jesus sitting just as he had been since he had sat down. She pulled twenty dollars out of her purse, set it on the dining table, and crouched down in front of him.

“Hey,” she said. “Don’t answer. Don’t try to, don’t even think of an answer, OK? I’m leaving. You go down to Smiley’s and get drunk on my dime. Just forget all this, OK? Promise?” Jesus looked up at her and nodded, stone-faced.

“Good.” Gina gathered her things and left. Driving home, it was all she could do to see the road through the tears. She had to stop a couple of times to wipe her eyes and catch her breath. Whatever she had had with Jesus up until that day was clearly over. Of all the things she didn't know in that moment, the one thing Gina was sure of was that she would never leave another message on Jesus’s answering machine.

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“Lyodotchka, time to get up, school today!” Jesus woke up dazed to the sound of a woman’s voice calling out. The last thing he remembered was heading to Smiley’s with the twenty Gina had given him having every intention of carrying out her wishes.

Looking around, Jesus found himself in a cramped bedroom decorated plainly, with floral-print wallpaper. In a bed opposite him a girl of about four years of age blinked sleepily at him. What had happened?

What Jesus did know is that he had to pee – hardly surprising given the night before. After checking that there was fabric covering him above and below the waist, Jesus got up, vaguely wondering at his lack of hangover from the night before. Come to think of it, aside from the full bladder he felt great – lithe, light on his feet, and filled with energy. As he got up the girl on the other side of the narrow room flipped over pointedly and hauled the blankets over her head. He could hardly find fault with this.

Stepping out of the bedroom Jesus found himself in a strikingly narrow apartment with a connected kitchen and dining room wedged between incomprehensibly high cupboards and shelves, with one door to the right and two to the left. The nearer of the two doors looked flimsy and was partway open, and the more distant door was clearly the exit to the apartment, being built of sturdier materials with a deadbolt lock above the knob. Nobody else was present although he could hear the sound of voices and dresser drawers behind the door to the right – presumably the woman who had woken up the toddler was getting dressed. Who was with her, and why was he here?

He poked his head hopefully into the nearer door and was relieved to find a toilet. Closing the door behind him, he got ready to pee and was overcome by the feeling that something was off. Looking down, he realized that what was off was actually missing. Furthermore, he looked at the pants he had just pulled down and discovered that they were covered in tiny printed flowers.

Shocked, Jesus quickly hiked up his pants and, looking in the mirror, found himself staring into the eyes of a girl of about nine or ten years old who was looking back at him with a horrified expression on her face. He stood there, transfixed, until the woman who had awoken him tapped on the door demanding that “Lyodochka” finish up and get out of the bathroom so other people could use it.

In that moment he realized the woman had been speaking Russian, a language he had learned from the indomitable Mr. Gunther in the stifling Wu Zie underwater classroom thanks to some nod in the direction of world peace. As striking as this awareness was, an overwhelming need led Jesus to sit on the toilet and pee – that need was the least confusing thing he was aware of and by far the most urgent.

After he finished up and washed his hands, Jesus opened the door to be confronted by a woman in her thirties with curly blonde hair wearing something that reminded Jesus of business attire. She quickly shoved past him and entered the bathroom, scolding him roundly for taking so long as she went.

Jesus wandered around the kitchen, opening cupboards and an old-timey refrigerator with a latch on the door. None of the food looked the least bit familiar to him. All the labels were written in Russian, prominently naming the item within the package: bread, milk, cheese, and several things Jesus didn’t know the names of.

The toilet flushed and after a few moments the blonde-haired woman emerged from the bathroom, took one look at Jesus, and uttered a stream of Russian which he only understood a fraction of, but was able to gather from it the gist that he should sit and eat – right now in fact. Sitting at the spot beckoned at, Jesus began eating some kind of flavorless porridge made of a grain he wasn’t familiar with. It was sort of chewy and had bits that were nearly crunchy, rather like undercooked grits. The woman sat down across from him and began peeling a hard-boiled egg.

She looked across the table at Jesus and said, in Russian, “Well, what?” Jesus managed a confused shrug at this, and the woman said (as far as Jesus was able to discern) “You haven’t said a single word all this morning. Do you believe yourself to be unwell?”

Jesus wracked his brain for a useful answer to this and finally, grasping his throat, managed “I’m sick in my…” before realizing he had forgotten the word for “throat.”

This lapse ended up making no difference, as the woman rolled her eyes and exclaimed “Lyodochka! You can tell me once or you can tell me until the end of time, but I will not have you avoiding school like this! I can see you aren’t unwell, and what I do see I’d rather not say at the moment. Off to school you will go! Now eat your breakfast.”

Recognizing mom vibes when he saw them, Jesus put his head down and finished his meal. He carried the bowl and spoon to the sink and quickly washed them, not wanting to give this woman any further excuse to find him lacking. She peered up from her egg and a newspaper and sent him off to get dressed.

Closing the door behind him Jesus was confronted by a new problem: he had no idea not only of what to wear but also where to find the clothes he was meant to put on. After poking fruitlessly around the bedroom, his eyes finally fell upon the girl still in bed, who he could clearly see was only pretending to be asleep. He gave her a shake and said “Wake up. Help!”

This was met by a not unexpected amount of grumbling but eventually the girl’s curiosity overcame her and she sat up in her bed, gazing in frank incomprehension at Jesus, who now understood that to this girl he was her older sister. Once she seemed alert, Jesus simply asked her what she ought to wear to school that day.

After clarifying that in fact Jesus was asking for fashion advice, the young girl narrowed her eyes and looked off to one side for a moment, then hopped out of bed, pulling open drawers and assembling an outfit in a size much too big for her. Jesus put the clothes on, struggling only slightly with the fastenings, and found himself in a pastel blue jumper with ruffles over a white shirt, and bright yellow knee socks.

He walked out into the dining room to a wall of astonished scolding. This time, the mother of the house was joined by an elderly woman glistening with gold teeth, both of whom were expressing in various ways how appalling his behavior had been all morning, and to return at once to the bedroom and get dressed for school, not the playground.

“Thanks for nothing” Jesus said to the giggling shape under the covers. He fished around until he found clothes that were obviously a school uniform, put it on, and left the room.

Jesus and the mom of the house walked together down four flights of stairs, down a cracked sidewalk, and stood at a bus stop. All around he saw large and largely-identical apartment blocks, each with a central semi-enclosed stairwell surrounded on either side by balconies from one end of the building to the end opposite. The only visible difference between one building and the next was the color of the panels beneath the balcony railings, and the clothing strung out to dry across them.

After a short time a bus arrived. Jesus sounded out the Cyrillic to decipher a name “Molodyozhnaya” although that didn’t mean anything to him. He boarded the bus with the mother, who paid the fare in a couple of coins, and they were off.

A few things struck Jesus as they rode the bus: first, there was an overwhelming pungent smell that reminded him of tobacco but was unlike anything he had encountered. (This was in fact cigarette tobacco but not a varietal he had ever encountered). Second, the people, or at least the adults, on the bus all carried themselves with the same basic affect – posture upright but only for show, as though everyone on the bus was a whipped dog who was trying to hold him or herself as though they weren’t, but with scars too deep to hide. Looking around, he saw no smiles from the people on the bus, no lighthearted chitchat, no swapping jokes, even among the other children whose instinct for joy was quickly brought to heel by the adults around them. The final thing that Jesus found remarkable was the incredible drabness of the surroundings. Even though they were traveling down what was clearly an important thoroughfare, the only signs Jesus saw gave navigation instructions to motorists. There were no billboards, no ads in windows – and for that matter Jesus couldn’t make out anything that resembled his notion of a store. The closest thing Jesus saw to decor was an occasional banner depicting lantern-jawed people in various heroic poses with captions exhorting the reader to patriotism through action of one form or another. They passed a parade of anonymous concrete towers with no apparent change in the design of the buildings or the character of the surroundings, which seemed to consist entirely of buildings, roads and leafy trees Jesus didn’t recognize. The roads were mostly populated by busses, a few trucks of unknown make or purpose, and only occasionally a passenger car that vaguely reminded Jesus of an old Fiat somebody who lived on one of the houseboats drove.

After about a quarter of an hour the mother Jesus was traveling with (he couldn’t reconcile himself to refer to her as his own mother although that was obviously who she felt herself to be) pulled a cord next to her seat, causing a bell to ring and a light to come on at the front of the bus, and stood up. Jesus also got up and the two of them exited the bus and walked toward the entrance to a subway station. The sign read “Molodyozhnaya Station” which matched the destination sign on the bus but told Jesus nothing more about his whereabouts.

He and the mother proceeded down a shockingly long and steep escalator. Quickly observing the people around him Jesus stood to the right and held onto the moving handrail, giving way to people who wished to walk down the escalator. After trying to joust his way up and down BART escalators over the years, Jesus thought this was a good idea and found himself wishing everybody did it.

The subway station itself proved to be surprisingly clean and well-maintained. The walls across from the tracks were made from white tile, the floors made of some kind of dark stone tiles that looked like cork interspersed with smaller reddish tiles. A double row of square pillars were clad in tan marble with bands of reddish marble near the floor and ceiling. The train, when it arrived, looked like something out of a history movie. Painted two shades of blue, the high-windowed cars were painted yellow inside featured wooden slat seats and painted metal rails with loops built into them for people to hang on to. There was no graffiti visible on the train Jesus boarded with the mother.

After boarding, a loud “BING-BONG” noise played followed by an incredibly muffled recording which Jesus eventually worked out to be saying “Warning, the doors are closing.” The subway may or may not have been as loud as the howling, shrieking BART trains Jesus was accustomed to but it was no slouch in that department, especially where the shrieking was concerned. Jesus stared at a route map posted near the door and learned that he was somewhere in Moscow – above the map legend was a title reading “Moscow Metro.” This answer only led to more questions but rather than try to wrap his head around the enormity of those, Jesus instead gazed at the map until he found Molodyozhnaya Station and from listening to the station announcements determined that they were coming in from a distant suburb toward central Moscow.

Jesus and the mother disembarked at Kiyevskaya Station, decorated to the astonishment of Jesus in a multitude of ornate, recessed chandeliers, columns with curving capitals, and a floor that was a mosaic of different colored stones arranged in geometrical shapes. They climbed a flight of stairs to a gallery where turnstiles let passengers in, and Jesus gawped at the intricate filagree of the ceiling, the columns with their brightly-colored stone, more mosaic on the floor. “Hurry, what is wrong with you?” demanded the mother. Beautiful as it was, to her this was simply a practical space meant for getting from one place to another. As they rode the long escalator to the surface Jesus again appreciated the politeness of the people standing to the right to allow others to pass, although his appreciation was colored somewhat by a trio of police officers hastening an angry, swearing man up to the surface.

The neighborhood Jesus found himself at the top of the escalator was nothing like the one they had left behind at Molodyozhnaya Station. Here there were buildings with character, age, and distinction. While there were still anonymous concrete blocks interspersed among them, those in no way defined the surroundings. They walked along a pleasant, tree-lined sidewalk. Clearly Jesus had not found himself in Moscow’s famous winter season. Here, the passenger cars here outnumbered the busses and were mostly much nicer-looking and larger models than the old and somewhat rusty Fiat look-a-likes he had seen before getting on the subway.

After a short walk they reached a simple building with a sign reading “School № 1465” and the mother gave Jesus a quick hug before departing, leaving him in front of the gate.

“Lyoda!” A girl about the same age as Jesus came up, wide grin on her face. “You ready?”

“What?” Jesus asked.

“What do you mean, what?” asked the other girl, surprised.

“I don’t know anything,” Jesus stammered. The other girl’s eyes narrowed, and she cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if anyone was paying attention.

“How can you not know, and why are you talking that way?”

Jesus grasped for a way out of this increasingly worrying conversation. He finally settled on flat denial, a technique which had long served him well in the group homes when something bad came up. “I was not!” he replied, and pushed past the girl toward the entrance to the building.

Hearing an anguished exclamation behind him, Jesus turned around to find the girl he had been speaking to on the verge of tears. It occurred to him that having somebody who knew what to do was going to be important very soon – the building was large and filled with classrooms, and he had no idea where to go.

“I’m sorry. I had a bad morning. My sister played a mean joke on me and mama got very mad. Then we had to take the second train and I was almost late. Am I sorry?”

This last gaffe brought the other girl up short. “Are you sorry?” she asked.

Quickly realizing his error, Jesus said “Of course I am sorry. Is it OK?” He didn’t remember how to ask for forgiveness.

“Yes, it’s OK, crazy-person. But why are you talking like an American?”

“Oh,” said Jesus, thinking fast, “It’s talk-like-an-American day, don’t you know?”

“I know of no such thing. But, whatever. Let’s get to class, crazy-person. I hope you’re ready.”

It should be obvious at this point that Jesus was not in any way, shape or form “ready” for anything at all he was going to be confronted by. He had gone from being a jilted lover, to a man drinking heavily at a bar, to what as far as he could work out was the body of a nine-year-old girl who took a long commute from the outskirts to a school in central Moscow. The fact that he had a passing understanding of the language was only a fortunate trick of fate. Without that, he would not have known where he was or what anyone was doing, but unfortunately this meant that he knew just enough to make the trouble he was in much, much worse.

Jesus’s friend, who he learned from other people greeting the two of them was named Nastya, kept up a stream of incessant chitchat as she led the two of them up a flight of stairs and down a hall. As they were passing a door Nastya stopped, staring at Jesus. “Well, dummy, are you going into class or what?”

Jesus briefly thought to dispute the slur but decided to let it pass and walked into the door they had stopped in front of. Nastya continued down the hall in the direction of more classrooms.

The classroom itself presented another obstacle – the desks were arranged in several rows, with two students sitting side by side at each desk. Jesus solved the problem of where to sit by looking at the students already in their desks. Most of them paid him no attention, but a group of kids near the back of the class looked at him in recognition, so he went down an aisle and found an empty chair with a boy greeting him by name. Sitting down, he muttered a quick greeting to the boy just as a bell rang. Looking at a name tag reading “L. Durakova,” he realized Nastya wasn’t calling him a dummy, just using his last name.

At the front of the classroom a woman with a formidable beehive hairdo stood up, sternly greeted the “smart boys and smart girls” in the classroom. The wall behind her desk featured a chalkboard and a Cyrillic lettering guide in block characters and cursive. In one corner of the room was a portrait of Lenin. The teacher announced that it was time for the students to do their exercises, and for the next ten minutes led the students through some mild calisthenics.

After the students had retaken their seats, the woman Jesus assumed to be the teacher gave an announcement: “Today, young pupils, we are to be honored by a visit from Lieutenant Colonel Rabdanov, political officer for the Moscow Military District of the Soviet Army.” The students clapped politely, although Jesus got the impression that the applause was somewhat forced. “For this honor we can thank young Masha who wished to share the joy of her patriotism at home with her classmates!” Masha, sitting front and center, primped on cue as the other students applauded once again, also on cue.

Next, the teacher sat at her desk, gathered a paper, and began taking roll. Before long she said, “Durakova.” No answer. Again, this time glaring straight at Jesus: “Lyudmila Durakova!”

“Here!” Jesus blurted out abashedly, and the taking of roll continued.

After roll was finished, the teacher instructed the classroom to sit silently as she turned to the chalkboard and wrote a list titled “Tenets of a Patriotic Soviet Youngster.” To the extent that Jesus was able to decipher the Cyrillic cursive (a form of writing which is almost laughably incomprehensible to people who didn’t grow up reading it) the list appeared to be a fairly anodyne set of instructions to pupils to put Motherland before basically anything else and to study extra hard, again for the benefit of the Motherland and all her people.

Once the list was written the teacher instructed Masha to go bring her father, and a few seconds later returned with a straight-backed man in a dark green dress uniform, complete with one of those absurdly-oversized Soviet army hats, and gilded epaulets. His chest glistened with a veritable wall of medals, and he wore a sash of unknown meaning to Jesus.

“Greetings, young pupils! Thank you all for your close attention, and thank you to Natalya Ivanova for her thoroughly tidy and accurate work listing your patriotic duties.” Much of this went over Jesus’s head, although he was mostly keeping up from the words he did know and inferring the meaning of those between. Following a subtle gesture from the teacher, the class applauded politely.

“No need, no need!” said Lieutenant Colonel Rabdanov. “Let’s begin with the basics of who I am. See, my official title is ‘political officer.’ Does anybody know what that means? One hand shot up, which proved to be that of Masha Rabdanova. He favored her with an arch look, and her hand descended. “What this means is that my job is to work with the unconquerable Red Army, alongside the all-seeing KGB, to ensure that all those who fight under the banner of our beloved flag,” gesturing to the flag on the wall, “are not only correctly versed, but indeed enthusiastic supporters of our glorious revolution of 1917 and the teachings of Vladimir Lenin.” Here, everyone paused for a moment, thinking of everything they had learned of that particular leader.

“So, as you can see my work is of the utmost importance. What good is it to give a man a rifle and teach him to shoot it if he doesn’t understand and support the goals of the Motherland? I must ensure he does, with all of his will.”

A hand went up. Rabdanov called on the boy who was attached to that hand. “What if the soldier forgot something?” Rabdanov treated the boy to a beaming smile, teeth glistening in the light coming through the window. “Of course that almost never happens but if it did, I would see to it that the soldier remembered. If he somehow still couldn’t remember, he would report to a new location where his training would be enhanced. After a visit to such a place, forgetting is impossible.”

At this point the teacher intervened. “So, Vasili Nikolayevich, how does one become a valuable political officer in the Red Army?”

“Ah, excellent question!” pronounced Rabdanov. “For me, it was always my hope to serve the People in a role very similar to the one I hold today. Toward this end I applied myself to my studies, especially around the subject of history and the philosophy of Communism, and when the time came I applied to the academy of the KGB. It was the will of the People that I should be accepted, and upon completion of my education at that academy I was assigned to a political officer role within the Red Army fifteen years ago. Since that time I have done my best to serve the Motherland to the utmost, and the People have seen fit to encourage my efforts by way of steady promotion through the ranks. But enough of me for now. How about you all? Whom do you want to become? Andreseevich – whom do YOU want to become?”

A boy in the third row quickly replied: “A cosmonaut, Vasili Nikolayevich.”

“Excellent,” pronounced the political officer, before calling upon another student by name and without referring to any list of students in hand. The students all seemed to have an answer readily at hand: doctor, physicist, professor, a bus driver, all completely laudable goals apparently. Then Rabdanov called out, “Durakova, whom do you want to be?”

Caught completely flat-footed, all Jesus could manage was to stammer out, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Rabdanov seemed truly surprised by this. “Surely there is some profession or trade you hope to someday use to provide for the Motherland just as she provides for you today. If you had to pick just one thing, what would it be?”

“I… I… a doctor!” he said, and only afterwards did he realize he had used the masculine form for the word and to the eyes of the world around him that was the wrong form. When he learned the language, of course, he had learned to refer to himself using the male form for nouns, and the habit had clearly shown up here – in the presence of a KGB officer of the Red Army. He gulped.

“Interesting. A doctor. Very interesting,” said Rabdanov, pointedly using the masculine form of the word as well. He gazed closely at Jesus, and then turned to the teacher, treating her to an even more searching stare, before abruptly smiling, turning to the class, and telling them they were all wonderful, intelligent, and above all patriotic young pupils who would certainly one day serve the Motherland with both esteem and purpose, and left the room.

In the silence that followed Rabdanov’s departure, one could hear a pin drop. The teacher stood frozen mid-wave saying goodbye to the political officer, and many of the students shot furtive glances at Jesus.

The tension in the air was well beyond that one might expect for a classroom full of nine-year-olds, although Jesus found it terrifyingly familiar – his education had been filled with such moments, most often after Wu Zie had made an appearance, given a similar speech, and departed in the company of one of his classmates he had selected for “enhanced tutoring in the ways of Wu Zie.” It escaped nobody’s notice that the student so selected was always a girl.

So Jesus, perhaps the most comfortable person in the room, waited the moment of tension out, and eventually the teacher gathered her wits about her and instructed the students to bring out their abacus for each desk and solve math problems from a particular page of their book. Once the pupils had begun about this task, she said “Durakova, leave your things and come with me at once.”

Jesus got up and walked with the teacher down to the ground floor of the building and into a complex of offices adjacent to the entrance. Here, she bade Jesus sit on a bench while she went into an office where a man in a suit sat behind a desk. With the door closed, Jesus couldn’t make out any of the conversation beyond observing the teacher in a high state of fear and excitement, while the man behind the desk sat passively with his hands folded together. After some time, the teacher ran out of steam, and the man behind the desk spoke to her in a calm voice for a few moments. There was a brief back and forth as he answered a pair of questions to the teacher, and then she left the office, walking past Jesus without even looking in his direction.

Jesus got up, unsure what to do, and the man behind the desk called out “You will come into my office please.” Jesus walked in and was instructed to shut the door and sit. The man behind the desk, titled “G. Lokon” by a plaque on his desk, stared silently at Jesus, who stared back, afraid and unsure. After apparently satisfying himself that the child seated across from him was in fact a child seated across from him, Lokon asked, “OK, tell me what happened with the political officer in your classroom.”

“I don’t know,” was the obvious reply.

“You’ll have to explain yourself better than that!” shouted Lokon. “I’ve seen a lot of odd and inappropriate things happen in this school since I took charge here but never have I had a pupil – in THIS school of all places – do something so foolish as to annoy a political officer of the Soviet Army by speaking to him in an American accent and pretending they don’t know anything. You must explain yourself!”

Lacking any kind of explanation, Jesus attempted to play it off as a joke. “I thought it would be funny,” he said.

Lokon was flabbergasted. “Funny? Do you think pretending to be an American to the KGB is funny? Does this remain funny to you?”

“No, not at all,” said Jesus. He was hoping to bring the temperature down, but there was one problem.

“If you no longer think this joke was funny why do you persist in talking to me in an American accent?” demanded Lokon. “You must understand, if this issue leaves my office then there will never again be an opportunity for you to explain yourself without repercussions. So explain yourself clearly, and do it without that stupid American accent.”

Jesus knew a box canyon when he had run up one – not for nothing did he hold the campus record for most afternoons in detention during his sophomore and junior years of high school. Still, he had to try a Hail Mary.

“I have a sore throat.”

“Oh, you have a sore throat, is that it? A sore throat that makes you sound like an American spy from the movies? This is what your strange sore throat has done to you? LAST CHANCE!” Lokon was standing up, pounding his desk, his face beet red. Jesus believed him, but had run out of ideas. He wondered what detention would be like at this school.

“I’m sorry, Gregori Danilovich. I have no answer for your questions.”

For this Jesus was treated to a stream of angry and colorful language probably not approved of in any school building anywhere at any point in history. Toward the end of is tirade, Lokon said “Fine. If you want to tell your story to the KGB then you must do so!” With that, he sent Jesus out to the bench he had sat on earlier and began making several very animated phone calls.

After a time, two men in dark, ill-fitting suits appeared in the office. They briefly spoke to Lokon and then stood before Jesus. “Lyudmila Alexeyevna Durakova, you will come with us.” Jesus got up, walked with the men out of the office, out of the building, and out of the gate in front of the school, where a black Fiat-clone with shiny paint awaited them. One of the men went around to the opposite side of the car and got in the back. “Get in,” said the other man, and sat beside him after Jesus obeyed.

The waiting driver immediately departed, and Jesus contemplated his situation. Whatever school detention looked like at School № 1465, this was clearly not it. As far as he could tell, he was currently in a KGB sandwich, being escorted to points unknown. He began wishing he’d tried harder to come up with some kind of explanation for Lokon’s questions. In any case, he reminded himself to stick to Russian, only to Russian, to act as though he didn’t know any language besides Russian. Perhaps if he did so he could somehow convince the KGB guys that he was in fact what he looked like – a nine-year-old Russian girl who was growing up in Moscow. He had no idea how this was supposed to work, but knew only that sticking to Russian was the only way.

On they drove, up onto a causeway from which a building could be seen with a rather rickety-looking “Pravda” sign atop it and the crazy and beautiful onion domes of the Kremlin ahead of them. Just as Jesus was about to ask a question, the man to his right pulled a cloth hood over his face. He yelled out in surprise – fortunately “Hey!” sounds roughly the same in both English and Russian – and one of the men told him to shut up, or else.

Having no desire to find out what “or else” meant with these people, Jesus shut up, trying to figure out from all the twists and turns the car had made where they were headed. It soon became clear that whatever route they were taking had exactly this idea in mind, as he counted two instances in which the car had taken four subsequent turns in the same direction. Not knowing where he was to begin with he soon lost his way.

The only conversation in the car came when the driver asked, “Is this really necessary? She’s just a little girl.” This led to a sharp rebuke from the man sitting to the left of Jesus, who reminded the driver of something important regarding his family, and the driver said nothing more.

Soon the car stopped, beeped the horn, and Jesus could hear the sound of a gate being raised. The car pulled forward, the noise repeated itself behind them, and Jesus found himself pulled out of the car by the man to the right. He was apparently the muscle in this operation, although Jesus speculated that given his currently diminutive form Mother Teresa could have handled the task with ease.

The party of three – Jesus and his two guards, walked forward for a moment, up an apparent ramp, and then after a quick left came to a stop. This turned out to be an elevator which went up, then stopped with a chime at whatever floor the guards had selected. Jesus was walked through a hall, past a door that closed with a loud bang, down another hall, and into a room, after which the hood was pulled off his head. He looked at the two men who had met him at the school and asked them what was happening. The man on the right looked studiously at the floor, while the man on the left replied, after a slight pause, “You are to answer questions which others will soon ask you.”

The man on the right handcuffed Jesus to the chair he was sitting on, which proved to be bolted to the floor, and then both men left the room. Jesus looked at the handcuff encircling his almost unbelievably slight wrist and considered trying to slip out of the cuff. In the end he decided that roaming freely about this unknown building in an unknown part of a town he didn’t know his way around wouldn’t be any kind of freedom really – it would just lead to a lot of exertion followed by a trip back to this same chair.

So he sat.

After a time, the door opened and one of his captors walked in accompanied by Rabdanov from the school, who took one look at Jesus and affirmed that that was her, then both men left without asking any questions of Jesus.

Jesus sat for what seemed like hours. He began to feel hungry and needed to use the bathroom, but he saw no way to communicate with his captors. Eventually the door opened, and a middle-aged woman walked in alone, closed the door behind her, and sat down. She opened a manilla folder she had brought in with her, flipped through a few pages, then closed it.

“Ludochka, such a pretty name. I’ve always loved having it. My name is Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kozlova. And you are Lyudmila Alexeivna Durakova, aged nine, daughter of Anna Ivanovna Durakova and the late Alexei Rostanovich Durakov, student at School number 1465. Have I missed anything?”

“No, comrade Kozlova.” Jesus was committed to the act now, everybody named by their titles unless otherwise specified, trying his best to not sound American.

“But why would you call me comrade rather than address me properly as Lyudmila Mikhailovna?” Kozlova was terrifyingly quick on her feet and had wasted no time getting Jesus off his game plan.

“I was simply…”

“Bullshit,” said Kozlova matter of factly.

“What?” asked Jesus, realizing only after saying that that he’d followed her into English.

“You heard me, little girl. I said ‘bullshit’ because I know it when I smell it, and whatever you were about to say stinks to high heaven.”


“LANGUAGE! I don’t know for a fact what you are, yet – and I will find out – but the one thing I do know is that I’m not going to listen to a nine-year-old girl swear in my presence. You have to mature into that right and, honey, you are far from.”

At this point Jesus knew there was nothing more he could do. He was caught, he knew he was caught, and the woman across the table knew he knew, even if she didn’t know the whole story. The only thing that gave him pause about telling the full truth was the knowledge that none of it made sense, leading to a not-unreasonable belief that they’d simply accuse him of more lying.

Which is of course what happened. Over the course of the next several days Jesus underwent a battery of interrogations, psychological examinations, physical examinations (which he found especially distressing), and “casual” conversations with Lyudmila Kozlova about life in America as he best remembered it. In the meantime, they’d moved him into a slightly more spacious cell with a sink, a toilet, and a bed that was actually somewhat comfortable – he was frequently surprised at how well-rested he felt when he woke up, even if he had no idea what time it was or what had been done to him while he was unconscious.

After five days, Kozlova called a meeting with the team who had been examining Lyudmila/Jesus to see if it was possible to build a whole profile of what they had learned. Kozlova, for it was her show, began working her way around the small conference room, asking each expert in turn for their opinion.


“The subject appears to speak and understand a relatively rudimentary amount of Russian, consistent with a student who had studied two to four years of the language at the secondary level. Her English on the other hand is fluently American, with an affect suggestive of somewhere along the West Coast of the United States, most likely somewhere in California. She is capable of communicating minimally in Spanish, with her vocabulary concentrated around terms used in the kitchen.”


“She has knowledge consistent with someone who has completed secondary school in the United States but has not completed any significant amount of college or university level coursework. There are some rather odd assertions she makes, but I will leave those to the psychologist.”

“Very well, psychology.”

“The subject displays an unusual amount of emotional trauma even for someone with her known history. She is reflexively avoidant of any form of attachment to another person and not receptive to any of our known bonding approaches. Furthermore she suffers from several apparent delusions, to wit: she believes herself to be a male aged 22, she believes herself to be a naturally-born American citizen improbably named Jesus, and she believes that the President of the United States is the current governor of Arkansas. Despite these conceptual errors, she scores neutrally on any psychosis scale and is capable of integrating and processing knowledge at a normal level. Her overall demeanor is consistent with someone of the age and background she believes herself to be.”

Kozlova sat with this for a few moments before calling out the next team member. “Security.”

“The girl herself raises no concerns. Her educational and behavioral record up until recent events is unremarkable. By all accounts, she was a normal student. Just prior to her coming to our attention she behaved in a way that was a marked departure from her previous social life, to the point that her behavior caused significant distress to another child who regarded their relationship as ‘best friends.’ Her mother on the other hand poses a significant concern. She is a physicist working for the applied materials laboratory of the Central University of Moscow, developing materials of highest classification. Any compromise coming from her would represent a significant risk to the Motherland.”

“About the mother, what has she to say?” Kozlova didn’t bother asking whether she’d been interrogated.

Security replied. “The mother appears to be a dedicated physicist. Her claim is that she regards the loss of her husband in the special action in Afghanistan to be a sacrifice to the Motherland, which she claims not to blame for his death. On this topic we can see that she is saying all the right words, but do not know whether she believes them. On the topic of her eldest daughter, she has shared that on the day Lyudmila came to our attention she had been behaving strangely – attempting to wear non-required attire to school, being alternately disrespectful of the household and also doing chores which she ordinarily left to others, and in many ways appeared to be disoriented. We assess these statements from the mother to be a combination of truth and convenient falsehood attempting to divert attention away from the mother herself.”

“Any evidence of contact outside her circle?”

“Nothing, Lyudmila Mikhailovna. We have been unable to find anything to suggest that.”

Kozlova paused, spinning her pen thoughtfully between her fingers. “Does anybody here believe that this child Lyudmila does not believe the things she is saying? In other words, does she believe her lies or not?”

After a few moments the psychologist spoke up: “Lyudmila Mikhailovna, to the best of my ability I assess the subject to believe completely the things she has said to us.”

“Interesting,” Kozlova said. “Your role in this matter is concluded. Please return to your duties.” The staff got up and filed out of the room without comment.

Sitting alone at the conference table, Kozlova pondered everything she had learned in the meeting alongside her own experience with young Lyudmila. Something had obviously been going on, but how? Did the Americans brainwash the child, or did they switch her out for a look-a-like so convincing that she convinced the child’s own mother? Thinking of her own two children, she found this possibility unlikely in the extreme. Most likely, she thought, the mother had been in on it.

But so sloppy! Kozlova had dealt with American illegals before, and they had never blundered this badly before. Which would have been unimportant, except for the involvement of this child. This was obviously outrageous, but it was also a worrying development. Suppose there were other children out there whose, for lack of a better term, programming was not so deficient?

These were problems for others, however. Kozlova had her orders from the Kremlin: learn everything possible, clean up the situation, compile and submit her report. The cleaning up portion of her task made her bitter nearly to the point of tears. These Americans! Did it never occur to them the consequence of this operation going badly? Did they not care about children? Before this day, Kozlova would have allowed that Americans probably loved their children too. But now? It was an inconceivable evil they had done, and it angered her that the true horrors were being left to her rather than to the cowards who caused all of this to happen.

As much as she wanted to delay the inevitable, Kozlova felt as though everything that could be known about this unusual subject was known. Finally she came to a decision – there was only one data point she didn’t have before she could submit her report. She got up and pressed a button next to a microphone in the center of the table. “Bring them both into the basement room. I want to talk to them together.”

Jesus found himself escorted out of his cell, down an elevator and another hallway, and into a room with a heavy metal door. There were two chairs facing away from the door, and the wall opposite was made from sandbags. Someone was seated in the chair to the left. That person, hands bound to the back of the chair, managed to turn around and Jesus immediately recognized the mother. She looked greatly the worse for wear, with bruises and cuts visible all over her face. Her left eye had swollen shut.

The guards shoved Jesus down into the empty chair on the right, leaving him to face the wall of sandbags. He wondered what those were for – were they still building out the basement and using these as a temporary wall? He had no idea.

Looking to his left, the mother was staring at him, sobbing. He hadn’t been assaulted in the ways she had, and the lack of visible injury had to be of great relief to the mother. Still, here they were with their hands cuffed to the back of chairs.

The door to the room, which had up to this point been left open, closed with a pointed slam. Kozlova walked around to face the two captives from one side, looking equal parts curious and annoyed. From the faint sounds they were making, Jesus could tell that there were at least two people standing behind them, although he didn’t dare turn around to see.

Kozlova paced back and forth, looking at them. Finally, she addressed the mother: “Anna Ivanovna, is there anything you want to say to or ask your daughter at this time?”

The mother sobbed audibly and then with some effort calmed herself enough to speak. “Lyoduchka, I don’t know what this game is all about, but PLEASE stop it! Think of your sister, of your grandmother, of yourself! None of this is funny! Look where we are – these are serious people. Please, please put this childish game aside. No mother should have to beg her own daughter, but now I am begging you. Stop this!”

Jesus looked over at the mother, tears filling his eyes. He knew what she was asking for, and knew that nothing he could do would help. To help her was beyond his ability, which is why they found themselves where they were. He hoped only that the grandmother and the four-year-old would be left to live their own lives free from whatever horrible fever dream this was.

Catching his own breath after sobbing, he looked back over at the mother and, taking pity on her, said simply “Mama, I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. I wish I did.”

Kozlova looked over their heads and gave a curt nod. A gunshot sounded, and with that the mother was dead. Jesus began crying anew. None of this had been the mother’s fault – had she not lost enough? And here she was, dead for no reason at all.

Kozlova gave another curt nod, but instead of a gunshot Jesus heard an argument. Kozlova quickly moved this out to the hallway where Jesus could hear only raised voices. He looked again at the lifeless woman beside him and seethed.

After a minute or so the argument seemed to have resolved itself and Kozlova came in, mopping her eyes and asked him, unable to control the quaver in her voice, “For one last time, what is all this? You must tell me what was going on!”

“FUCK YOU!” The seething had given way to rage. “I don’t know what the fuck was going on but you just murdered an innocent woman. Fuck you all and I hope you burn in” and Jesus heard a click just behind his ear.

He opened his eyes to find a different woman’s face hovering above his. She was in the latter part of her middle years and oddly familiar to Jesus. Finally he recognized her as Sandy, the proprietor and bartender at Smiley’s bar.

“The fuck?” he asked. His head was swimming and hurt a lot.

“I could ask you the same, Jesus.” Sandy paused. “But what I think I’m going to do is tell you that it’s time to go home. You’ve had enough.”

“Sure, but what happened?” Jesus was still trying to reconcile himself with being back in his neighborhood bar and not in some KGB interrogation room.

“Well, sonny, you got drunk, that’s what happened. I’ve never seen you pile it on like you did. And that last shot – you took the shot, tossed it back, and kept on going, right off the barstool. I was afraid you’d cracked your skull open the way you hit the floor.”

“Tell me I wasn’t out too long.”

“Only as long as it took for me to come around the bar and shake you awake.”

“Right. Um, cool. What’s my tab.”

“You’re paid up, but only so long as you go home now and don’t try to drive to get there. I know what your truck looks like and it’d better be here in the morning.”

Jesus nodded and set out into a thick fog, still drunk, hoping the walk home would clear his mind.

Find me on Mastodon: Taupe Hat Social

A few days later Jesus found himself in Charles’s kitchen, this time learning the finer points of cooking something called baklava. As usual they spent their time before the meal had been finished talking about non-work issues, as Charles carefully laid sheets of paper-thin and almost absurdly fragile dough atop one another and painted the layers with melted butter. Every few layers he’d add an even layer of finely-chopped nuts before putting more dough down. Jesus thought he’d go insane making a dish like that. On the topic of insanity:

“So you’re telling me that you’ve been having seizure dreams that last for days?” Charles looked up from where he’d been cutting the uncooked baklava into tidy little triangles.

“The first time, it was longer than that. Months.”

Charles shook his head. “Man, them bikers really fucked your head up. For real.” He was using a dish of honey to glue almonds atop each triangle of baklava. “If I didn’t know you like I do I’d say you were making shit up, or losing your mind.”

“Feels like I am when it happens. You know, I wake up and I’ve been through all this crazy shit and then it’s like I’m right where I was, just a few seconds later according to the people around me. But it’s not like it’s a dream where everything’s weird and you can fly and shit like that. It’s as real as me sitting here. So I wonder if I’ve gone crazy too.”

The conversation continued as Charles put the baklava in the oven and served Jesus a dish made from various heavily-seasoned vegetable items arranged like spokes on a wheel with wedges of pita bread in the center. Jesus started by trying one item at a time, beginning with a tangy cucumber salad in yogurt with fresh dill, and then a curried thing with chickpeas, tomatoes, and golden raisins.

“No, I mean it’s good like that, but here’s how it’s meant to be eaten.” Charles took a wedge of pita, swirled it around the center of his plate, mixing all the items together, and ate it off the bread. “See, this is how it’s done. You got your hot items and your cold items, they stay best if you only mix them together right before you eat them. So you mix up just as much as you’re about to eat at a time.”

Jesus gave that a try and was treated to something beyond the sum of all the flavors on his plate. “Wow,” was all he could manage. Visiting Charles was never a bad meal, but this was something at a whole other level.

Somehow Charles managed to clear his plate faster than Jesus despite the fact that he never seemed to stop talking. He wanted to know more details about Jesus’s unconscious adventures, asking for details here and there, then got up to clear the lunch plates. “That’s a hell of a story, man. Never knew you had problems with elephants before though.”

Charles chuckled. “Now you’re gonna want to watch this.” He took a pitcher with a dark-colored substance he referred to as “the syrup” out of the fridge, set it down, and pulled the baklava out of the oven, immediately filling the room with a mouth-watering nutty smell. Jesus saw that the baklava had turned golden brown, slightly higher in the center of each triangle than along the edges. Then Charles poured the syrup all down the edges of each triangle, leading to a sizzling noise. As he did, each triangle puffed up a bit more, and the smell of honey, spices, and something Jesus found familiar but oddly out-of-place was also in the air. It was pleasant, whatever it was, and smelled good with all the other flavors of the baklava.

“I’ll make us some coffee while we let this cool for a minute.” Charles began his coffee-making routine which like most things Charles did in a kitchen was both unfamiliar to Jesus and excellent in its result – this was not the first time Jesus had had coffee there. Charles brought him a cup, black.

Jesus sipped his coffee and sat back, completely content with the world. Sure, he’d worked in kitchens, could chop veggies, flip burgers, and put a salad on a plate. But Charles could cook, and Jesus was impressed every time he ate there.

Charles sat down with his own coffee and sat in silence, staring out across the Bay at Angel Island and Point Tiburon just to the north of it. The tide was heading out, leaving a lane of water a couple of hundreds yard wide which was lighter-colored and smoother than the waters beyond due to the millions of cubic feet per minute of water surging out of the Delta on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The sun was behind them, and occasionally a twinkle reached their eyes as a wave or a boat wake bounced the light back to Charles’s kitchen window. Jesus enjoyed the moment. The quiet, the coffee, a full stomach, a kitchen filled with delicious smells, and an incredible view, all working together to make something more than each constituent part very much in the same way that mixing the ingredients of the lunch Charles served did.

After Charles had served Jesus a slice of baklava – along with another cup of coffee – and both men had enjoyed their pastries, Charles got down to business. “Houseboat Jason asked for you by name for this one. I guess you impressed him somehow by how you, you know,” and here, Charles chuckled, “got the keys for a car and drove it to Concord. Beats me. Anyhow, for this job I’d feel a lot better if you had somebody with you, but I don’t have anybody lined up who can help. You got anyone in mind?”

“Maybe,” he said. “What kind of situation are we looking at?”

“Package delivery, cash return. A lot of cash, and the exchange is happening at The Swamp.”

Jesus sucked air between his teeth. “You sure you want me going there?” He was bound to stand out, and this was a place nobody in their right mind would want to stand out at.

“Jason says he’s arranged everything with the guys down there. You know that I know that situation, and given how things go down there it’s probably true. If it isn’t true, well, that’s why I want you to bring someone. If you can manage it, the two of you get a thousand each.”

“That’s not a lot for this run.”

“You got anyone or not?” Charles leaned forward in a way suggesting the amount wasn’t up for negotiation.

“Thousand bucks? I’m going to have to get back to you. Call you tomorrow?”

“Only if you say you’ve got somebody and you’ll do it.”

Jesus helped Charles clean up from the meal before leaving. Once that was done he thanked Charles for the good food and good time and got ready to leave. Before he was out the door Charles said to him, “If I don’t hear back from you tomorrow I’ll have to tell Jason you couldn’t take the job. I hope I don’t have to make that call though.”

Jesus nodded and pulled on his sweatshirt. “Oh, and one more thing,” said Charles. “Watch out for elephants!” Jesus cracked a grin and left to the sound of Charles’s mirth.

Driving home, Jesus thought about his options. The only person he’d worked jobs like this with before was Jason, and aside from the fact that Jason was a loose cannon at times, they were still pissed off at one another over what happened in Strathmore.

Then Jesus thought about Tony. The two of them had been through plenty of scrapes together, but that was when they were still teenagers. The situation was bound to be more serious than anything he and Tony had got up to back then. On the other hand, he had brought the car from Houseboat Jason to Tony. Worth a shot anyhow.

He called. Tony answered, “Yeah?”

“Tony, it’s Jesus,” but before he could say anything else Jesus had to wait through Tony hooting and hollering about how he was hearing the voice of Jesus Himself, how his auntie had been wrong about him, that he believed in Jesus after all, and so on. It had been several years since Jesus had had to hear all this, but Tony clearly hadn’t forgotten what to do. From Tony’s point of view anyway.

“Wow, it’s like I never heard that before, except for like a thousand other times.”

“Hah, man. You know you like it.” Tony had a certain drawl to his voice that Jesus recognized. He imagined Tony’s apartment filled with smoke, with a recently-forgotten bong smoldering away on the coffee table.

“You mean I put up with it from you because otherwise you’re pretty cool to hang with.”

“Oh, is that what this is about? You wanna hang out? Only if you bring a garage door opener.”

Jesus laughed. “Dude, how long did we drive around before that thing finally worked?”

“If I had to guess, it was about as long as it took for us to smoke that crappy eighth of weed you brought. Man, that shit was funny.” Tony was right. As teenagers, the two of them had on some stoned “this is a good idea” whim driven for several hours around a massive subdivision with a garage door opener one of them had found, pressing the button over and over until eventually a door obligingly rose to their command. Shrieking with laughter, the pair quickly drove off, their role as chaos agents fulfilled. Although they never learned about it, the aftermath was everything they had dreamed of: the next morning the husband went to get something out of the garage, found the door wide open, completely freaked out and checked that none of his tools had been stolen, then went inside and opened a round of blame game between his wife and their teenage son. As none of them had in fact left the garage door open they all righteously proclaimed their innocence and as such things generally go, the teenager wound up having to shoulder the blame.

“ANYhow,” Jesus said, “I was calling to see if you wanted any work. I need another person on something.”

“I could be down,” said Tony. “What’s the deal?”

“Pickup, dropoff, return cash. Marin to South City.”

“Why do you need another person? Is it gonna be a lot of cash?”

“Yeah. Also the exchange is happening at The Swamp.”

Jesus could hear Tony click his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Right. Man, I got you. You were thinking if you drove down to Sunnydale all by yourself your ghost-colored self was gonna get robbed, gotta bring a brother with you to make it OK.”

“Um,” Jesus said, at a loss for words.

The phone erupted in laughter. “Man, you know I’m fucking with you, right? Shit, here comes Token Tony to rescue your white ass again, just like the old days!”

“More like Tokin’ Tony,” Jesus retorted.

Tony coughed deeply, then laughed. “Well, that’s one thing you right about anyway. But why would I want to go down to Sunnydale? I haven’t been there in years and that’s not long enough.”

“Thousand dollars.”

“Shit, that’s all you had to say. Is this is a Charles thing? That man has his shit wired up tight, if it's him this job should be easy.”

“Yeah, it’s Charles and yeah he sure does.” Jesus breathed a sigh of relief. Then, remembering something, he asked: “You ever meet Houseboat Jason in person?”

“No, only talked on the phone a couple times. Something’s not right with that dude.”

Jesus chuckled. “Man, you have no idea… I’ll fill you in on the ride there. Pick you up at your place day after tomorrow.”

Tony got off the phone and thought about working this job with Jesus. What he knew was that they both worked for Charles, who was either an uncle, a cousin, or something else to Tony. All he really knew is that they were related. Tony trusted Charles to the ends of the earth in work and in good food. Jesus worked for him, so he had that to go on. Still, he’d only seen Jesus once in the past five years when he dropped off the car, and the problem with Sunnydale is that things could go sideways even for someone as organized as Charles. They’d have to be ready for anything.

Back in high school they’d become the sort of friends only a certain kind of teenage male can become: they’d run around together and do dumb shit, but if anything went wrong it was every man for himself. They both understood and respected that, and not infrequently one of them would get caught for something at school they had both done, only to find the other had been assigned detention later the same day for something else. This never failed to lead to massive amounts of shit-talking, which both of them enjoyed greatly.

Their home lives were similar enough for all their differences. Jesus lived in a group home for foster teens in Antioch where he was supposedly required to follow a long list of very strict rules about where to be and when, but in reality the people running the group home didn’t give a shit as long as nobody got arrested or pregnant, at which point they’d throw the kid under the bus with the various authorities and evict them.

Tony grew up in a big house in Pittsburg, the next town over. His grandparents owned the place and hosted a varying number of their children, grandchildren, spouses, friends and others whose presence could not be explained. The rules at home were simple: stay off the couch unless invited, no fighting inside, be home for dinner and ready for breakfast each day, and no disrespecting your elders. It was a lively house full of love, loudness, and the smells of good food. Jesus had been over a few times for dinner and probably the only reason anyone noticed his presence was that he was white. Once it became clear that he was going to enjoy his meal and not be disrespectful he was promptly ignored beyond the level of supervision all the people in the house experienced.

Tony had been living there since he was a toddler after his mom got arrested for getting into a car that had been used earlier in the evening to commit a robbery and despite having no knowledge of that event, when the car was brought to the side of the road by a phalanx of officers she was charged as an accessory to the robbery. Her public defender met her the morning of the trial and told her she was going to accept a plea deal in a few minutes. She tried to argue her innocence but the defender told her it didn’t matter, and by the time she thought to ask about the sentence the hearing had already started.

So it came to pass that Tony’s mom went to serve a 60-month sentence in Chowchilla when he was two. They traveled down to see her there twice, but he could barely remember the visits. She was released for good behavior after two and a half years, and came home to her parents’ house. With a felony record it was almost impossible for her to find work or a place of her own to rent, so for the rest of Tony’s childhood she was either there with him or staying with somebody for a while. She’d get work as often as she could, but the types of jobs where her felony record would be overlooked tended to be short in duration and even shorter in pay. Basically, she survived as best she could, parented as much as she was able, and never let Tony forget how much she loved him. Tony loved her back, and now that he was able to earn money on his own he would check in on her and make sure she had enough. She carried right on surviving, a lesson she desperately hoped her son would never have to learn.

The only time Tony had ever seen Jesus get emotional was when Tony asked him about his mother. They were walking out of detention and Tony mentioned the fact that it was his mother’s birthday and he didn’t know what to get her. This eventually led to Tony asking Jesus about why he was in foster care, what had happened to his parents. Jesus didn’t say a word for at least five minutes, then responded that he’d never known who his father was, and he didn’t want to talk about his mother. Tony never asked him again.

Tony thought about their old friendship. One of the things that had to be different now was that they had to have each other's backs, no more “every man for himself.” He trusted Charles enough to know that Jesus wasn’t going to leave him blowing in the wind if there was trouble, but these kinds of jobs required a lot of trust. Tony was looking forward to it, but he hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.

Find me on Mastodon: Taupe Hat Social

Two days later Jesus was navigating his battered old truck over Highway 4 with Tony in the seat next to him. Tony had spent the past ten minutes riffing on variations of how the truck made Jesus a redneck, hick, farmer, countrified, and similar derogatory references to rural living. Jesus gave back as good as he got, or tried to, but Tony was on an unstoppable roll.

When Tony finally seemed out of ideas, Jesus switched topics. “So before we get there, I’ve gotta talk to you about Houseboat Jason. You said the other day something wasn’t right about him…”


“Well, he’s white.”

“Oh, SHIT!” exclaimed Tony, laughing. “Ah man, that’s fucking funny. He always talk like that or was it just because he was talking to me?”

“Oh no, he always talks that way. Don’t ask me why either, dude grew up Marin County rich.”

By this point Tony was laughing hard enough that he had to mop his eyes with a corner of his shirt. “So you’re saying, this guy’s even whiter than you are. Oh man…” and his words drifted off into more howls of laughter peppered by various exclamations. Eventually he regained the ability to speak. “I just talked to him on the phone when he told me about the car, it was like thirty seconds. But even then something wasn’t right about how he talked. Man, that dude is trippin.”

“I thought you’d be offended,” Jesus said.

Tony eyed his friend for a moment before answering. “See, it’s like this: is it offensive that some white dude tries to talk like he's Black? Fuck yeah it is. Am I gonna let some dumbass white dude offend me because he does that? Fuck no. How am I gonna let some dumbass get to me like that? Him being a dumbass ain’t my problem and as long as he doesn’t fuck with my money it won’t be my problem either. Know what I’m saying?”


“Alright, so change of subject. You ever been to Sunnydale?” Now it was Tony’s turn to inform.


“If Charles is as organized as he always is, we won’t have any trouble there. What you need to know is that there’s two cliques up that way and they’ve been going at it hard for a while. The line between the two is basically Hahn Street which we’ll avoid, I hope. Long as you ain’t close to that line things are pretty chill most of the time. But you gonna stand out there, no two ways about that. I think that Jason dude is trying to get you killed. If it weren’t a Charles thing I would have told you not to go.”

Jesus nodded, hoping to remember the name of the street they were to avoid.

They came over the second crest of the Richmond Bridge, took the first exit, and drove over Sir Francis Drake. San Quentin managed to both squat and sprawl to their left as they came down into Larkspur, its massive yellow buttressed walls with slit windows and guard towers overlooking a sort of small village just to the east. If the design had been intended to scare people and keep them from a life of crime, it more than managed the first goal.

After a short trip down Highway 101 they found themselves in Sausalito. Tony looked up the hill at houses speckled among eucalyptus and redwood trees, with bay windows actually overlooking the Bay. It was definitely pretty, he thought. No wonder people were willing to pay so much to live there.

As they turned into the pothole-filled parking lot by the dock Tony spotted another battered old pickup truck, but this one had a gun rack with a rifle and a confederate flag sticker in the back window. He sighed. Didn’t matter where you were or how pretty a place was, there would always be people there to make it ugly.

This time when Jesus started toward the dock, the guy with the massive shoulders got up before he and Tony were even close. He stood astride the entrance, arms folded, and did not make any attempt at smiling.

Jesus walked right up to the man, who he had begun thinking of as “Shoulders” and waited. After half a minute he gave up with the staring contest. “Well?”

“Well, what?” replied Shoulders.

“I’m here to see Jason, same as last time.”

“Both of you?” asked Shoulders, looking pointedly at Tony.

“Yes, both of us.” Jesus was starting to get pretty irritated. “You going to let us in or should we head home and let Charles know you were the reason the thing fell through?”

“Whatever,” grumbled Shoulders. He went back to his bench and glared at Tony as the two men walked on down the dock.

After another check at the boat Jesus and Tony were escorted into the cabaret. Jesus introduced Tony to Jason, who did everything in his power to make everyone else in the room feel uncomfortable, attempting a complicated handshake, discussing a fraternal relationship from other mothers, and in general trying to ingratiate himself to Tony by effectively parodying how Tony actually was in his day to day life.

Tony responded by offering Jason a firm, traditional handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Shall we get to business?” Jesus had to make an effort not to gape at his friend, who spoke to Jason in a tone that reminded Jesus of old-timey radio people, an accent the reader might recognize as the “Mid-Atlantic dialect,” spoken by people educated in the ways of wealth in the past, but never a native dialect spoken at home. When it was still in use it was for public speech only. Or for Tony on this day, when talking to Houseboat Jason.

Jason was too full of himself and his excitement at meeting Tony to notice the jab, although some of his toadies stirred uneasily. He instructed Jesus and Tony to bring a pile of stuffed Army duffel bags to a specific address, talk to Marcus, exchange the duffel bags for cash, and return to get paid. When Jesus asked how much cash Jason explained that it was a bagful and so long as it was cash in there Jesus didn’t need to worry about how much it was.

After another awkward attempt at fancy handshakes with Tony, Jason bade them get on with it and left the cabaret. Jesus and Tony hefted the duffels which looked like and were Army surplus gear. Fully stuffed as they were, they were each about four feet long and a little over a foot around. No wonder it was a two-person job, Jesus thought. Each bag weighed probably close to thirty pounds, so with both men carrying two bags they could make it wherever they needed to go in one trip.

When they got to the end of the dock, Shoulders was standing in their way, his back to them, facing the parking lot. No way he didn’t hear them coming, thought Jesus, who said “Hey.”

“Hey what?” Shoulders replied without turning around.

“Can you move?”

“Only if you say please.”

Jesus missed the look of warning from Tony, his temper rising. “Fuck off. Please.”

Shoulders turned around and walked right up to Jesus, standing inches from him. He stood there for several seconds before saying, “Of course! Y’all have yourselves a great time. See you soon!” and very slowly went to his bench.

As they were throwing the duffel bags in the back of Jesus’s truck, Jesus began to vent. “What the fuck is wrong with that guy? We didn’t do shit to him, why’s he fucking with us that way? ASS fucking HOLE!”

Tony looked at his friend, decided he wasn’t up to explaining to his oblivious friend something so obvious, and instead said, “Doesn’t matter. Let’s just do the job and get paid.”

The job itself went without a hiccup – Tony knew the address on the note and said it was far enough from the border that there wasn’t much concern about conflict. Once they got to the right street in Sunnydale, two men stepped off the sidewalk and stood in front of the truck. Jesus stopped and one of the men came around the side to talk through the window. “Why you here?” he asked.

“Came to see Marcus.” The man at the window looked at Tony, the duffel bags in the truck, and then to his partner who gave a brief nod. Jesus was given instructions on where to park, where they were met by Marcus and another man. Marcus gave one of the duffel bags a whiff, handed over a smaller bag that was heavy with what proved to be cash, then he and the man he was with took the duffel bags and left. Jesus backed the truck out and he and Tony were on their way in no more than two minutes.

The drive back was calm. They took Geneva up to Interstate 380, merged on to 280, and then began the seemingly-endless parade of stoplights that is 19th Avenue and Park Presidio. The bag of money sat on the bench seat between the two men, who left it untouched during the drive.

As they started across the Golden Gate Tony said, “That dude with the tie-dye? I don’t want any trouble with him, you hear? Let him be the asshole he wants to be, let’s just not fuck around with him. We’ll get paid and get gone.”

Jesus thought about arguing, then thought better of it. Tony was of course right – whatever chip was on Shoulders’s shoulder, it didn’t need to be their problem. Still, it was hard for him to let go of his desire to stick up for his friend. This in itself puzzled Jesus. While he and Tony had been good pals in high school, they had both carried with them an attitude of “your mess, your problem.”

For that matter, he found being angry, like actually truly pissed off, to be a new thing. His usual response to someone who had got under his skin was to flip them off and walk away forever. The few times he’d been in a scrap had always been instigated by the other person – he’d defend himself when he had to but starting a fight was a foreign concept to Jesus. This was in fact one of the traits Charles appreciated about him – many of the jobs he had needed someone with just that kind of cool demeanor, almost impervious to anger.

Jesus thought about the murder chamber in Moscow. He’d felt rage, complete rage, and said as much to the KGB officer. Sure, it was a dream and all, but the feeling was just as real. And in a way, he felt like his anger was liberating – rather than be passive and let the world roll over him come good or bad, he was actually staking a claim on something. Not that it did any good in Moscow.

These musings ended as Jesus pulled into the parking lot. This time Shoulders was joined by another of Houseboat Jason’s toadies. Jesus didn’t know if the second guy was there to help in case of more trouble or simply to help keep an eye on the bag of money, but in any case the four men walked together all the way to the Black Ferry.

Once Jesus and Tony had boarded Shoulders peeled off and went back to his bench. Gerald, for that was his name, had grown up on a ranch in western Marin County, a rural area much like any other, and his family had not been shy about instilling some fairly obnoxious ideas about race – his was the truck Tony had noticed with the stars and bars earlier that day. Growing up, he did a great deal of hard work around the ranch and quickly gained a reputation for his strength. Watching Gerald McHenry buck hay was a vision of strength and endurance, one often enjoyed by the neighbor’s daughter. Gerald didn’t fail to notice the attention and had hopes of someday making something of it, but then the Vietnam War came along and he drew a low number.

Off to Vietnam Gerald went, not to fight, but to continue bucking heavy items. During basic training he proved to be poorly-made to be a soldier: he was slow to react to situations, was not a fast runner, and had just barely earned his marksman qualification. On the other hand he was easily the strongest man most of the instructors had ever seen and was good at following orders. Thus, Private McHenry was given the title of Materials Handler and was sent off to serve his enlistment working as a two-legged forklift in a place a few miles out of Saigon called Camp Davies.

Given his strength Gerald was typically assigned the most physically demanding tasks, which irritated him to no end. Why, he wondered, was he always assigned the shit jobs when the skinny Black guys (he thought of them using a different word, of course) got to sit their lazy asses in a forklift and drive around all day? To Gerald, this was some kind of twisted thing where the Black guys got it better than he did because of their skin color. He assumed it was due to affirmative action. It never crossed his mind that the people in charge looked at the massive guy who could lift two hundred pounds without breaking a sweat and the skinny guy who couldn’t do more than five push-ups and made intelligent decisions on how to most efficiently get the work done.

About six months into his stint Gerald went to Saigon on leave and, as was his habit, made a beeline to a brothel. While sipping a drink and waiting for a girl he liked to come around, Gerald got into an argument with a Marine, who resented the fact that Gerald got to sit on his ass behind the lines while he was out there in the shit trying not to get killed by the enemy or the environment. The argument quickly escalated into a fight which attracted the attention of a pair of MPs who were on duty patrolling the area. When one of them tried to intervene Gerald laid him flat on the pavement with one punch.

Gerald left Vietnam with an Article 128 dishonorable discharge and a three-year stint of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. Upon his release from that castle, he returned home in disgrace. His parents took him in but with no warmth. His younger brother was off fighting in Vietnam, never to return, and the girl who used to watch him buck hay had gone off to college in Los Angeles. He worked odd jobs until his parents sold off all of the ranch but the house and retired to Arizona, leaving him to rattle around in the big empty ranch house with nothing much to do but drink beer and listen to AM radio.

Houseboat Jason met Gerald (aka Shoulders) when the latter was working as a bouncer outside a tourist bar in Bodega Bay. He watched Gerald lift a drunk up by his collar one-handed, walk him out the door, and pitch him across the sidewalk and into the street. He offered Gerald the chance to do the same work for double what he made at the bar, and daytime only. This suited Gerald just fine, so every day he would put on his tie-dye shirt (which he didn’t much care for but regarded as work clothes) and mostly just sat on his bench in the shade watching the residents of the other houseboats come and go and challenged any strangers to state their business. It was easy work and it was steady.

He didn’t mind Jesus but wasn’t happy about the other guy – in his mind Black people needed to be in their place, and that place was somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Jesus and Tony met up with Houseboat Jason, who greeted both men enthusiastically, doing nothing in the process to change Tony’s impression of him. Jesus took the money and sat down at a coffee table, piling stacks of $20-dollar bills in front of him, counting as he went. The one thing Jason had learned from his father was never to let anyone else count your money – they can help look after it, but the counting was the responsibility of the man in charge and he, Jason, definitely felt that he was that man.

Once the counting of the stacks had been done to Jason’s satisfaction he put all but four of them in the bag, handing two each of those four to Jesus and Tony. With enthusiastic thanks, more dubious suggestions of family relationship to Tony, and a slightly less awkward handshake, Jason said goodbye and Jesus and Tony stepped off the Black Ferry, their pockets bulging with their earnings for the day. Jesus noticed the tide was nearly out and was happy to get away from the dock before the mud had time to bake in the sun.

Jesus looked down at the end of the dock and there was Shoulders, somehow looking bigger than he had before. There was a hardness to his eyes that neither Jason nor Tony liked the looks of.

“You good?” asked Shoulders.

“Yeah,” replied Jesus. “All good.” He kept walking down the dock, but Shoulders didn’t move.

“I wasn’t talking to you!” he shouted. “I was talking to your coon buddy from Marin City there. How ‘bout it, nigger, you good?”

Tony’s eyes widened. This was not a thing to ignore, but also he wasn’t near enough to his comfort zone to know how to respond instantly. He was working his way up to it but Jesus got there first. “The FUCK did you just say to my friend, you fucking Nazi asshole?” Jesus stomped up to Shoulders, who grinned in expectation and wriggled his shoulders slightly to loosen them up. But when Jesus got close to Shoulders the big man just threw Jesus sideways onto the shore with one hand and squared up with Tony who was both trying to defuse the situation and also keep his guard up. He could hear people running off the boat behind him, but kept his focus on the strongman in the tie-dye shirt.

Jesus picked himself up off the ground and ran full-tilt at Shoulders, hitting him just above the small of his back and knocking him clean off the dock. Shoulders fell face-first into the mud, his feet flipped over his head, and he landed heavily on his back with a loud squelch. Jesus looked up to see Houseboat Jason, staring at him, his face purple with rage. But before they could say anything, Jason looked up past Jesus, and then they all heard a police siren whoop twice. Two cops jumped out of the car, guns drawn, and started screaming at everybody to get down.

The cops immediately put Tony in handcuffs, treating him to language not much better than Shoulders had, before putting Jesus in cuffs. Within a few moments three more black-and-whites and a plainclothes car had arrived. The cops put everyone in cuffs and sat them all on the edge of the parking lot. It took three of them to haul Shoulders out of the muck next to the dock before he too was placed in cuffs. Jesus noted with satisfaction the Swamp Monster look the guy had taken on as a result of faceplanting in the mud. Although one of the cops wiped his face off a little, he was still filthy and no doubt would stink all to hell for the next week. For his part, the big-shouldered swamp monster glared at Jesus and Tony with seething rage.

As the cops were walking down the line getting everyone’s info, a black BMW M5 came skidding to a halt in the parking lot not far from the police cars. One of the cops went over to talk to the driver, then waved the plainclothes officer over. The three of them had a brief conversation, then the plainclothes went over to his car to make a radio call. After a minute or so, he got out of his car, walked to the BMW, and said something to the driver who drove away. The plainclothes cop then began a sort of chain-reaction conversation with the cop nearest him, who walked over to another cop, who then beckoned another cop over and so on until they all had the same information.

Jesus could hardly believe what happened next: the plainclothes cop went over to Houseboat Jason, removed his handcuffs, and shook his hand. The rest of the cops began releasing people until only Jesus and Tony were left cuffed, although one of the cops had enough sense to stand over Shoulders and make sure he behaved himself.

Jesus and Tony were hauled to their feet. As they were being walked to their patrol cars, Jason walked alongside Jesus, talking quietly. He asked Jesus if Jesus knew who had been in that car and when Jesus said he didn’t, Jason replied that that had been his dad, and they both had one message for Jesus and Tony:

They were fucked.

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Jesus rode silently in the back of the patrol car north along Highway 101 up past San Rafael, exiting the freeway and curving around to behold the famous Marin County Civic Center, a monument to the ego of the late architect, the bane of its maintenance people, and a strangely alienating place for those whose offices were inside. Not for nothing did George Lucas use it to film scenes of stark alienation in his first feature film.

And yet for all of its strangeness, the place carried a heavy weight of the mundane. If one lived in Marin County and needed to pay a parking ticket, talk to the planning department, or attend a court hearing, this bizarre quarter-mile long building built of pink arches with a rounded, oddly-patterned blue roof inexplicably topped with a stubby golden spire was the place to do so.

Another group of people who had to visit this building did so under less fortunate, although no less alienating circumstances: those who were incarcerated. For Jesus this meant no touring of the empty corridors with their blood-red floors, skylights, and weird sightlines. Instead, the patrol car he was in drove into a breezeway beneath the building where a metal gate rolled up to admit the patrol car he was in. When the car was inside and the gate was shut, he was brought out of the car into a space just like any other whose purpose was to book arrestees. There were fluorescent lights overhead, steel benches, beige walls, and a pair of partitioned-off booking desks with thick clear panels between the inmate side and those working desk duty. The room smelled of humans on a bad day: piss, shit, stale alcohol and fear.

Jesus was seated at a bench with one handcuff attached through a loop in front of him. After a few minutes Tony was brought in by two deputies and roughly seated on the bench some distance from Jesus. Once he was attached to the bench, the deputies left and were replaced by a corrections officer, who stood at the end of the room.

Jesus looked over at Tony, who didn't seem eager to meet his eye. Finally, he said “Tony... I'm sorry man.”

Tony kept his eyes forward. “Got me fucked up here, apostate.”

“No talking!” barked the officer.

So the two men sat in silence, alone in their thoughts.

Tony couldn't really blame Jesus for going after that guy, but also he couldn't help being mad at him for it. Big hippie-looking dude had been itching for a fight since they had first arrived. All Tony wanted was to slip past that motherfucker and spend some of his money having fun. Now they were both in a cage, and for nothing. Still, Tony figured he probably would have gone after that guy for what he had said – there are things that you just can't do, at least not without a payback. The part that bugged him the most was how that weird-ass Houseboat Jason's people all got to walk. The way that cop shook his hand, too. Rich people shit he figured, not incorrectly.

For his part Jesus was trying to think in several directions at once. First off he had somehow never been arrested before and didn’t know what to expect. The place had the same vibe as a couple of the group homes he stayed at, but multiplied. So he would, as he had so often done before, wait and see what happens. Then there was the situation with Houseboat Jason. Jesus didn’t know anything about Jason’s dad but clearly he was not only rich but had pull in the community. So that was worrying. But also fuck Houseboat Jason for turning on him like that when it was his shithead toady who started the whole thing. He worried about whether any of this was going to blow back on Charles. Probably not – Charles was on good terms with a lot of people and would probably just have to forget about any work from Houseboat Jason from then on. Jesus figured he’d be fine. Last, there was the fact that Tony had been arrested, and seemed pissed off at Jesus about it. Tony hadn't done anything so why was he in jail? It didn’t seem right.

After about half an hour another correctional officer came in with a long chain with cuffs that went around Jesus’s ankles and wrists, unhooked him from the bench, and led him to one of the desks where another officer took his fingerprints. Beside him was a clear plastic bag with Jesus’s wallet, belt and other things in it. He held up the bag: “Are these your belongings?”


“Are these all the belongings you had on your person when you were taken into custody?”

Jesus looked, there were no stacks of $20 bills. Fuck. Fuckety fucking fuck. He’d been robbed by men with badges on and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. “Yeah.”

“I will now open your wallet and count all items in it. Any item not determined to be contraband or profits from illegal activity will be returned to you upon your eventual release.” The officer pulled all the money out of Jesus’s wallet, counted it out, and wrote the amount on a form, and then listed his driver license, keys (four keys total), bank card and the polaroid, which he studied for a moment before writing it on his form.

“Sign here.” Jesus signed, and then the officer who had been standing behind him escorted him through a steel door which buzzed open as they approached and closed with a loud clang behind him.

So it came to pass that Jesus found himself an involuntary guest of the Marin County jail. The environment there was tense, an echoing space filled with angry voices, cheap fluorescent lights, and the slamming of steel doors. During booking he was informed that he was being held on charges of attempted murder in the first degree, a startling revelation that made no sense.

His initial appearance the next day was in a circular courtroom with the judge seated at a raised dais on one side, the jury box to his right, and visitor’s seating across from the jury box. It had a strange amphitheater-like layout. He was kept seated in the jury box under strict instructions not to talk to any inmate or visitor. It was a short hearing for Jesus: he was brought down by a bailiff, sworn in, and asked if he had an attorney or wished for a public defender. He said “Public defender, your honor,” and with that he was returned to the jury box.

Tony was in the same hearing, and continued to avoid making eye contact with Jesus. The look on his face was one of bitter resignation. When his turn came he also requested a public defender. Within an hour the inmates were all returned to the jail.

Meals were a challenge in learning the environment. From looking in the room it was clear that the men segregated themselves by race: closest to the food queue were a group of white people, then a substantially larger group of Hispanic people, and finally the Black inmate population whose numbers were greater by far than the other two groups combined. Jesus knew what he was looking at, and didn’t like it. Fancy snow-white Marin County sure did like to lock up people with darker skin.

After lunch all the inmates were brought back to their cells and once a headcount was completed an inmate trustee came through with correspondence. Jesus was handed a stack of paperwork including the arrest affidavit filed against him. It made for interesting reading:

As I approached the scene in my patrol car I observed three men engaged in melee. A large WMA in a tye-died shirt, later identified as GERALD O’NEILL, stood in a partial fighting stance but with his hands raised to shoulder height in front of him, attempting to avoid the fight. The other two men, later identified as suspects TONY FREEMAN (BMA) and JESUS CLEMONS (WMA), were aggressively posturing themselves in the direction of O’NEILL. Based on my experience and training they were preparing to assault O’NEILL.

As soon as I stopped and exited my patrol vehicle I heard CLEMONS say the following in a loud yell ‘IM GOING TO KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER.’ After saying that CLEMONS charged directly at O’NEILL and using a grappling technique forced O’NEILL off the dock in a head-downward position. At the same time, FREEMAN said in a yell ‘KILL THAT CRACKER.’ At this time I drew my service weapon and directed CLEMONS and FREEMAN to surrender and was able to take them into custody without incident.”

Jesus finished with the document, set it on the table, and stared at the wall for a while. Why would a cop lie like that? It didn’t make any sense – he’d seen bar fights before where both people were charged with disorderly conduct. What Jesus had actually done wasn’t any worse than a bar fight, mud notwithstanding. And the things Tony had supposedly said would be laughable if the situation weren’t serious. For one thing, he never said “cracker” to Jesus’s knowledge, but he’d certainly heard Tony call people, Jesus included, as “honky.” In other words, he wouldn’t have said what the cop swore he had. Given what was written down there, at least the attempted murder charge made sense. But why? He began to get an inkling of what Houseboat Jason had meant.

Jesus endured the county jail as best he could, trying to live with the stultifying boredom of being locked in a cage for most of the day. Taking a hint from his cellmate, he began exercising a couple times a day. The guy he was in with was older and had a lot of years of hard living written all across his face. Neither man asked the other why he was there – of all the questions one might ask a fellow inmate, this one was anathema. They talked little beyond introducing one another and organizing their shared life in the tiny cell.

On his third day behind bars Jesus received written notification that he had been assigned a public defender named Stefanie something or other, but there was no other information beyond an assurance that she would be meeting with him prior to his next hearing, set in a week.

Within a few days Jesus found himself settling in to a way of living familiar from his days in group homes. There was wake-up time, meal time, time in cell, time out of cell, time in a tiny courtyard for “exercise,” time set aside for showers every two days, time for chapel on Sundays for those who wished to attend (Jesus did not), time spent passing time with no aim.

At Sunday lunch Jesus was joined by one of the larger inmates in the group of white men. He introduced himself as Claude. Jesus introduced himself as Jesus.

Claude gazed at him steadily, his face expressionless. “I’d heard that’s what you were calling yourself.”

“It’s the name I was given when I was born.”

“That so?”


Claude leaned back, stroking his chin. He couldn’t believe what this guy was saying but his bullshit-detector was silent on the matter, and that was a well-tuned instrument. “So listen, uh, Jesus, how come you weren’t at chapel this morning?”

Jesus shrugged. “Not my thing, I guess.”

By now Claude was really wishing his bullshit-detector would go off, but as far as he could tell Jesus was being straight with him. He didn’t come across as either a clown or a fool, and only somebody like that would attempt to bullshit their way through this.

“Well, Jesus, you gotta come to chapel. All the brothers are in there every week, gives us a chance to meet up for a minute to stay on the same page.”


“Yeah, Jesus, brothers. Look around.” Jesus lifted his head and saw that every man at the table was looking right at him, probably twenty guys all staring closely. “See,” continued Claude, “I heard about what you done so I know what you’re willing to do. And we gotta stick together in here.” He went on to describe the other, darker inmates using the obvious sort of language that rarely needs to be repeated and assured Jesus that if he threw his hat in with Claude and the other “brothers” then he’d be safe.

“What kind of brothers are you talking about?” Jesus asked.

Claude laughed, as did the other men sitting close enough to hear. “Aryan ones. We’re the Brotherhood.”

Jesus felt his blood turn to ice. He’d heard of the Aryan Brotherhood and knew their reputation for not fucking around. Now he was being invited to join forces with them. To Jesus, there were only a few things worse than being a racist. For sure there were some things far worse than being a racist, but it was a really short list just the same. He was about to stall for time, then some deeper part of himself jumped in front of that idea.

“Fuck you,” he said quietly.

Pulling back, Claude demanded, “You wanna repeat that? Say it for the whole room to hear. Go on.”

“Fuck you, you racist nazi cocksucker piece of shit.” Jesus said this loudly and clearly, and the volume in the room dropped instantly.

It was on. Claude picked up his lunch tray and flung it at Jesus, who deflected it with his right arm as he got up and threw a wild left at Claude. Before long the two men were on the floor rolling around grappling. The other whites circled around, trying to aim kicks at Jesus without hitting Claude. Then the corrections officers started blowing whistles, and all the inmates quickly got into the same posture, knees on the floor, head tilted forward, hands reaching up behind them as far as they could go.

Everyone except for Jesus and Claude, who by now were laying side to side each holding the other by their lower hand while throwing haymakers with their upper hand. As fate would have it this meant Jesus was able to swing with his right hand, and he was landing punches with effect. Claude hit hard too, but this was clearly his weaker side. Jesus heard boots running toward him from multiple directions and shouted orders that he didn’t bother paying attention to – his singular goal was to completely destroy the fascist pig in front of him.

Through the din, Jesus heard someone say “Last fucking warning!” He continued pummeling Claude, who by now was only able to throw feeble blows back at Jesus. Hands seized him and pulled him away from Claude, but Jesus continued to struggle to break free, managing to land a solid kick to Claude’s stomach in the process.

“That’s it!” one of the guards ran up to Jesus, his nightstick swinging, and then Jesus saw only stars.

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