Actually, It's Jesus, 5: Prologue
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.”
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 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.
“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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