I Shoveled, Jesus Watched

by Ronn D. Byrd

Jesus takes the final puff on His cigarette, looks at the red end and drops it on the ground that's sweaty with night dew. He fixes an eye on me. "Hurry up," He says, twisting His beard around His fingers. "This is taking too long." I let the dirt fall from my spade and set it against the hole I'm making. I wipe my hands on my jeans, trading mud for mud. "I don't see you helping none," I say. "Why don't you use your powers to pull this thing out of here? You know, command it or something?"

Jesus shakes his head, His curls flopping around. They get lit up by His halo, glowing warm like the lamp next to my bed. "Parlor tricks," He says. "I got an image to take care of. If I'm doing miracles all the time, they won't be special no more."

The evergreen branches hanging overhead start whispering, and I try to catch their conversation. It seems like they're giving me a warning, that I need to get home to bed. The sky's got the kind of clouds that shine from the inside when it's getting ready to rain. I can still see the stars and the moon, but I hear thunder clearing it's throat. No way I want to get caught out in the graveyard in the middle of a storm.

Jesus pulls open the pockets of my jacket until He finds the pack of Lucky Strikes. There's already a couple of butts dropped around Him. He looks just like my dad when He puts one in His mouth. I don't know why Jesus smokes. It's supposed to be real bad for you. My mom used to smoke. A lot. "Don't take my last one," I warn Him, pushing the shovel into the dirt. My hands are burning from working the handle; my feet stinging from kicking the blade. I'm going to be sore tomorrow, more sore if my dad catches me gone. But I got a goal and I mean to keep to it. Just a little more time and maybe I can be happy again.

Jesus' feet are sticking out from under His robe, and I see He doesn't have any toe nails. The skin's smooth where they should be. He wiggles them and blows smoke between His teeth.

I don't know if people really get buried at six feet, but time comes and goes and I'm already waist deep, colored black with dirt. I still got a ways to go, and I'm slippery with sweat. The graveyard's giving me the shivers. That's what my mom used to call it. The shivers when someone walks over your grave.

Tonight, when I was lying in bed and just getting sleepy, Jesus came to me. He's my best friend. He cheers me up when I get lonely and wish mom would come home. "Your eyes got leaks," He said. He came in my room with the wind. He had angles doing loops around Him, and He was glowing up the whole room. He wiped my eyes off and looked at His wet fingers.

"Quit acting like I'm a baby." I pushed Him away. He was making my head hurt. "You're going to wake up my dad." Jesus clapped His hands twice and the lights and angels were gone. "I'm the Son of God," He said, crossing His arms. "I can't walk in the door like normal folks. I have to make an entrance." His entrances are a pain in the rear, but I never tell Him that. I want to get into Heaven someday. I feel bad about not liking Jesus all the time. He's pretty nice to me.

I told Him I was thinking about mom and missing her. She's been gone three months and dad won't tell me when she's coming back. He'll turn his head or grab my shoulder hard, sometimes crying. "Hell," Jesus said, cracking his knuckles. It sounded like bugs getting stepped on. "We can go and find her. That'd make you feel better, right?" I told Him I didn't know where she was now. Mom was in bed for so long and asleep so much that I hardly talked to her. And then she was gone. Grandma tried to tell me what happened, but what she said didn't make sense.

Jesus knocked on my head, like He was knocking on wood. "I know everything, you dummy. I know where she is, and I can take you to her." That's how we got out here to the graveyard, sneaking out of the house after dad turned out the lights. And now it's me in the hole, getting grimy and cold, and Jesus is smoking my dad's last cigarettes. All this was His idea, and He hasn't helped me a whit.

Something don't feel right about what I'm doing. It's like when Grandma was talking to me -- it don't make sense that I'm going to find mom down here somewhere. I try to tell Jesus about it, but He says I'm being foolish. Any time I say I'm going home, He makes me think about mom and how much I miss her until I start digging again. I think He wants to see her more than me. I tear dirt out and toss it over my shoulder. It's the soggier parts now, and mud is over my ankles. Worms wiggle in front of my face. "You think she'll be glad to see me?" I sound alone in the hole, alone like when it snows and you can't hear anything but quiet. "She could have left because of me. Maybe she didn't want to have a kid no more."

I hear Jesus shuffling my playing cards. Taking a rest, I watch them in His fingers, the wax on them chewing up moonlight when the clouds let it through. "You'll feel better when you see her again," He says. "It'll make everything in the world right, you can trust me. You ever hear of Jesus leading folks wrong?" I spit in the air, out of the hole. I don't quite make it, hitting one of the worms and making it twist again. "No, but I heard of Jesus helping people, not letting them bust their backs while He watches."

He don't think that's funny. "I only help people who help themselves. You got to do this alone. Besides, I'm not just sitting here. I'm listening." "Listening to what?" "Listening." He's what my mom would call real solemn now. "I got people praying to me all the time, saying 'Jesus help me do this,' or 'Jesus give me that.' You know how hard it is to hear that? You should be glad I come to spend my time with you."

He picks out the face cards while He's talking, spinning them in the air. The last one is the king of spades. I pick it up, rubbing mud off the back until it squeaks. Maybe I complain, but I'm glad I got Jesus. My mom told me about Him when I was younger. She'd sit by my bed, reading the Bible to me. It had pictures in it, great big painted ones that showed special scenes, like Noah and the ark. I remember her smelling like vanilla, pointing to the picture of Jesus. She let me touch the pages, stiff and bent up. Mom said He was the Son of God, a good man who died a long time ago. I asked her if He was better than dad. She laughed herself silly, until she started coughing and pulled her handkerchief out, the one that was stained red. She told me she'd be with Jesus someday, and He'd take care of me when she couldn't. When she went away, Jesus started coming to see me, sometimes looking like the Bible picture, sometimes like the painting in church. Sometimes He don't look like either one, but kind of scary. Those are the times I pray for God to make Him go away. I think Jesus hears me. I think it makes Him sad.

Sometimes it seems I remember mom covered in flowers, asleep in a box. She looked real quiet, like when I'd sneak into her room and watch her. Everyone is with dad, holding his hand, and they all touch me, too. I'm cold, and even though I'm with all those people, I feel like I'm alone. I hate that feeling more than anything. Me and Jesus pass the digging time by telling jokes. Jesus knows a lot of dirty ones. He makes fun of me some, telling me how big my ears are and how I'm not strong enough to dig fast. My dad tells me the same things, that I'm not going to grow up big like him. Mom said I was just how God wanted me to be. I tell Jesus it was His dad who made me and to shut up. I keep tearing up the ground, wondering why He wants me to do this all myself. Sometimes I wonder if He's as powerful as folks think He is. It could be that what Jesus says about parlor tricks is just smoke, so we'll all still believe in Him. I ask Him all the time, if God's really there, why don't He talk to people like He used to? Jesus won't answer that one.

Midnight's rolling by now and I'm trying not to be scared. I just want to see her again, and smell her. I won't think about monsters in graveyards, or about her popping out of the ground with her eyes red and her teeth biting me. Jesus is playing with the matches, making them spit when they drop in the dew. The smoke burns my nose. "Graveyard's a strange place," He says, blowing smoke out high, watching it catch moonbeams. He points the cherry at me. "You know there'll be more people dead in the ground someday than ever was alive?" He scratches His head. Maybe He's wondering why His dad made people the way He did. I do. "It takes forever for folks to rot up. Dummies pay a fortune to get pumped full of chemicals and stretched out in steel coffins with pillows in them. Christ." That's my dad talking, and it even sounds like his voice for a second. It's something he said on the phone once. I stare at Jesus and He shrugs. He can take His own name in vain.

I hit the top of the box. It's tearing like paper, so I stop, bending over to catch my breath. I can see it smoking in the dark. Jesus leans over the piled up dirt, staring at me like this crow I saw a couple days back. I spit out some dirt that's in my mouth. "I don't... I don't know about this. You sure she's in here? I don't hear nothing and it smells real bad --" He cuts me off, grabbing my shoulder. He's in the hole with me now, even though it's barely as big as me. I never saw Him jump down. Sunday school says His hands are like touching a lamb. They feel like fingernails. "She's in there, don't you doubt me." I can't see His face. It's covered up with the dark. "Don't fear no smell, either. Wasn't much of a box you put her in." The wood is as black as me with the same dirt. It creaks when I step on it. I'm so tired now. Dad made the box, the one mom was in with all the flowers. Somebody told him it wasn't respectable. He said he couldn't do any better. "And nobody else could help him out." Jesus is tearing wet slivers off. "Nobody had the money, not even for a plot. Had to take the free piece he was given, on the edge of the graveyard. But it was --"

"Her favorite place." My voice and Jesus' blend together. If I close my eyes, I can hear the river, not far away. She'd spread a blanket and we'd stay the whole day here, watching the water go by. I watched it on the day dad lay another blanket down, one that went around a hole like the one I've made now. I pray, trying to make Jesus leave me alone. He's above me again, kicking the headstone with His foot. "Look here, dummy." His mouth isn't moving; His voice is in my head. The stone is sinking into the ground. Clouds are going over the moon. I think this must be the loneliest place on earth. I thought maybe I could get lucky, and break through the ground and bring her back with me. That I could make dad not look right through me when I talked to him. Then I could think about Jesus in pictures with mom sitting next to me. I guess I know what's under me, and if I don't, I got an idea. Something like fruit gone bad and a smell that's as far away from vanilla as you can get. The shivers, they grab me as hard as Jesus and I climb out of that hole, coughing and crying. I remember now, mom lying there in the flowers, looking better than all the time she was in bed. The room smelled like her, and I wouldn't take off my shirt that night because it felt like she was still with me.

And they put a lid on that box and nailed it shut. She went in the ground. The graveyard dirt is shoved under my nails and it hurts, just like the inside of me hurts. Jesus is with me again. He looks down towards the hole, like He hurts, too. "She's like Grandma tried to tell me." I wipe snot on my sleeve. "She said mom was like Grandpa Jim, and she wouldn't be here no more. But I watched them put her in the ground, so I knew she was still here." Jesus is out of cigarettes. He don't look powerful now or like my friend. He just looks like a picture somebody drew. And once I think that, He's gone. I stay beside that hole for the rest of the night, sometimes sleeping and dreaming. One time I wake up and decide I need to fill it back in. If I had all the wishes a person could have, I'd make her really sleeping, and that she'd wake up and carry me home. The best part of her gone. She's not here. I wish I could ask Jesus if mom was in Heaven with Him, just like she told me she'd be. I don't know if I'd believe Him. He told me some things I got to figure out for myself. I just fill in the hole, saying good-bye each time I shovel dirt.