Nazereth

He said, Oh God. But quietly so his mother couldn’t hear. She would be filled with God’s righteous anger. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain. The Ten Commandments were cross-stitched and hanging in the living room. Next to: As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. This is how you know it’s a Christian household, his mother said. He was in his room. God, he said. Goddamnit. Jesus Christ. Jesus damn Christ. If I die right now, he thought, I’m going to hell, for all eternity, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The rich man only wanted a drop of water to quench his thirst, so great was his torment. And he was sinning now. He was damning himself to hell by these words. God might strike him down. There’d be a flash of lightning and a thunder clap, and he’d fall down dead. Demons would gleefully carry his soul to hell. The torment for fallen Christians in hell is especially terrible, because they knew the Truth and rejected it, like Satan, the prince of demons. Why God why? his mother would ask, crying over his lifeless body. But if she knew she’d not only assent to God’s judgment, she’d demand it. She trusted in His wisdom absolutely. If God told her to take him to a mountain and build an altar and sacrifice him, she’d slice his throat. Isaiah! his mother yelled. Isaiah! Time to get up! Let’s go, sweetie! It’s a beautiful day the Lord has made! Get up and rejoice!

Dear Lord Jesus, his mother said, you are the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and we praise you for that. We thank you for this day that you have fearfully and wonderfully made. A day that reveals the beauty of your creation. We thank you for the blue sky and sunshine, but also for the rain this past week, which makes the beautiful flowers grow, that I love so much. We come before you today and humbly ask that you help Greg Fitzgerald find a job. We ask that during this time of hardship for his family they would rely on you for support and strength. We ask that you provide all their needs according to your infinite wisdom. We pray always for Grandma. We come before you again and again because you have said, Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be open. We are asking today that you would heal Grandma. We ask that these chemotherapy treatments are successful, that during this time of great suffering and pain, she would rediscover the love you have for her. Lord, we don’t know what her relationship with you is, but we ask that she would seek you out, that she would accept you into her heart, that she would be saved. We continue to pray for Debra, that with the sudden and sad passing of Glen, a passing that is still so difficult to accept, you would comfort her during this lonely and painful time. Please help her accept your plan for her life, even when it doesn’t make any sense. We ask that the children would know that even though their earthly father is gone, their heavenly father is still there, and will never leave them. We ask that you bless each and every one of us, that we may grow in holiness. We ask that we may learn everything we need to learn today, that I may teach my children in the most effective and productive way possible, both academically and spiritually. May we do all today from the smallest task to the most important one for your glory.
    His mother looked at him.    
    Father God, he said. Thank you for this day you have made. Thank you for the house we live in, for the food we eat, for everything. We pray for Grandma, that she would be healed and that you would give her strength during this time. We pray she would be well enough to come visit again soon. We pray for Ken Lee–
    Lui, his mother said.
    Lee?
    Lu-i. An e sound.
    Lu-i?
    Yes.
    –for Ken Lui, who is imprisoned in China for preaching your Word. Keep him strong and faithful to the church. Please help him be released so he can see his family again and continue to preach your gospel. Comfort his family during this time. In Jesus name.
    Okay, Becky, your turn.
    Jesus, thank you for Toby and Harriet and Piggy–
    Those are your stuffed animals, he said.
    Isaiah, it’s okay to be thankful for those, mom said.
    –and Gem and Doggy. Mommy, I’m hungry!

He was trying to work on Saxon Algebra II. He kicked the table in frustration. Becky was happily drawing with her crayons. Enjoy it now, he said. Soon you’ll be losing your mind with this crap. Isaiah! his mother said. Don’t use that language around your sister. If you’re having a tough time, take a deep breath. Say a prayer. Write down any questions you have for Mr. Emerson. You’ll be seeing him tomorrow night. And take a break now. He went outside to the backyard. Cat came out. She lived in the other half of their duplex. Her father was the pastor of their church. Cat called their house the last Christian commune. What are you doing? Cat said. Do you want to juggle? He said. They’d taught themselves to juggle. They joked about running off to Paris to be street performers. We’ll live in a tent in the Jardin de Luxembourg, Cat said. We’ll earn enough money to buy food and one day we’ll be discovered by someone passing by and we’ll perform on stage and travel the world and we’ll be rich and famous and have all the money we’ve ever wanted. Nah, Cat said. I have to return some library books. Do you want to come with? I have to ask my mom, he said. Momma’s boy, she said.

They walked down Union Street. I’m hungry, Cat said. They went into the 7-Eleven. Are you hungry? I don’t have any money, he said. What do you want? she said. A Snickers? Mmm, that’s what I want. She picked up two Snickers and dropped them into her bag. She picked out two Bazooka Joes and went to the cashier.
    Hi sweetie, the cashier said.
    Hello, dear sir, Cat said. How are you?
    Wonderful now that you’re here.
    Aw, that’s nice. So good to see you. She paid for the gum.
    Bye, sweetie, come again soon.
    Ciao, ciao, she said.
    You know him? he said. She shrugged. Just some old creep. She handed him the Snickers bar. Stealing is wrong, he said. I don’t steal, she said. What? He said. You stole these. Don’t be crazy, darling. I go back and pay later. It’s just a little game we play. Me and that old creep. It’s not stealing. I don’t want to go to hell. God, don’t be so stupid. You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, he said. Oh Jesus Christ, she said.

At the library, after she returned the books, she took his hand and led him to the health section. She was smiling as she looked for a book. You’ll like it, she said. Very educational. She found it and gave it to him. It was How Sex Works. She was laughing. She put her face close to him and brushed her body against him. You wanna do it? she said.

Jeremiah came home from college with his new girlfriend Tara. She was a feminist his mother said. We have to watch for her, for her influence over Jeremiah. Perhaps he’s convinced her of the truth of Christianity, but given his past record with women, I highly doubt it. When Tara saw the pro-life brochures his mother had left out on her desk, she rolled her eyes and gave Jeremiah a little smirk. Mom found them making out in Jeremiah’s room. Not in my house, she said. She’s got her hooks into him, she said to dad. She’s in control of him, not the Lord. I don’t even think he’s going to church anymore. You’re suffocating me! Jeremiah yelled. I can’t goddamn breathe. I’m going to Tara’s. Don’t fucking call me!

If you ever feel funny, his mother said. If you ever feel a little strange, then you should put the book down or shut off the movie or just not be with that person. We must keep our thoughts and bodies pure for Christ and for our future spouse. Let’s say a prayer for purity together. She took his hands. Jesus, we ask you to not only purify Isaiah’s heart and mind but also his body. He’s growing and having new experiences and we ask that you guide him and that he looks for your will in all things. Lord, the most important gift we can give our future spouse is the gift of purity, and I ask that Isaiah treasures this gift and that he can give it unwrapped to his future bride without guilt or regrets.
    She looked at him.
    Is there anything else you want to add or ask Jesus forgiveness for?
    No, he said.
    In his precious name we pray, amen!

Here’s how it works, Pastor Dean said. If you want to take Cat out for lunch you have to ask me. I’m her father. I’m her protector. I’m responsible for her well-being, you see? That’s how it works in the real world–you ask the father. He paused. Okay, go ahead. But we’re just friends, Isaiah said. It doesn’t matter. You ask me. Can I take Cat to lunch? He said. Yes, you can buddy. He laughed. Don’t be nervous. I’m just trying to help you. This is how the real world works, and I want you to be ready.

I heard the tense, angry voices in the kitchen. Pastor Dean had come over. Cat was gone. They couldn’t find her. She didn’t come home last night. No one knew where she was. They’d called the police.
    Isaiah! Isaiah!
    Sweetie, this is very important. Cat could be in serious danger. Did she tell you if she was going anywhere, on a trip or anything?
    Are you sure?
    This is serious, Isaiah. She could be in serious trouble. Are you absolutely sure she didn’t say anything about where she was going or who with? Maybe not directly but offhand or as a joke.
    The police are here.
    They might want to talk to you, Isaiah, her best friend.
    If you lie to them you’ll go to jail.    
    Dean, Isaiah’s not a liar. Don’t threaten him. He always tells the truth, right sweetheart? You’d tell us if you knew, right dear?

I was angry with her for not telling me. She’d run off with her secret boyfriend Tim Farlesky, aka Chase Matthews (his stage name), aka Jesus the Nazarene. I’d played a Roman guard. I auditioned for one of the disciples, but George the director said my talents could be better used with less lines and less stage time. Cat was Mary Magdalene. The whore. She liked saying that. Oh me? I’m playing the whore. I am the whore of Babylon. She laughed. I saw them kiss before they went on stage. Before she poured the perfume and washed his feet with her hair, a giant synthetic wig (That does not even feel remotely good, Farlesky said). They hung out in the lounge below the stage, the actors’ dressing room. All the cool kids hung out there. Farlesky was twenty-five. He was going to be an actor in New York City, he said. He’d gotten into Juilliard but his father had died and he couldn’t afford it. He’d played all the leads in high school and local theatre. Most famously, he said, was the lead in Harvey. All the papers wrote about me. I mean for a high school play, we got some pretty fucking good press. They called me an “acting wunderkind,” which means like a really fucking good actor. He showed everyone the tape. He was doing an impression of Jimmy Stewart playing the character. It was a good impression. He was going to go to the Actor’s Studio in New York, after this Jesus play ended. Fuck that uptown Juilliard shit, he said. If it’s good enough for Marlon fucking Brando and Paul fucking Newman, it’s good enough for Chase fucking Matthews. First theatre in New York, get a few Tony noms, maybe a win, blow a few theatre critics (not that I’d need to, but you know how it goes), then out to LA for a movie, make some real fucking money. He used to talk with me while he waited offstage for his cue. Along with my Roman guard duties, I helped out backstage. Cat is something, he said. I’ve never met anyone like her. I mean, you know her, she’s your best friend. You’ve known her since you were born she told me. I haven’t known anyone since I was born. Tell me, dude, Isaac, is her dad a real hard ass, being a pastor and all? A fucking pastor. I’ve gotten involved with a lot of crazy ass girls, but a pastor’s daughter. Fuck, that’s a first. Shit, I shouldn’t swear around you. Cat says you’re going to be a pastor too. That’s real cool, man. Helping people out and shit. And you’re homeschooled too, right? Fuck, you must get all the girls. Shit, that’s me.

Let all the children come unto me, Jesus says. Stop for one moment, George says. He comes up and takes Jesus aside. He leans close. A little less, well, sensual, he says. You’re not inviting them into your bed. Right, right, Jesus says. I’m just a very sensual person. It’s hard for me to turn that off. You’re so right, George says. I think you’re exactly right. But you’re a highly talented professional actor, and I know you can do it. Tamp it down. Their parents are here, and I don’t want them to call the police. George smiles. Jesus smiles. Let’s fucking do this, Jesus says. Back in position. Let all the children come unto me, he says. He picks up a little girl and put her on his lap. I tell you, Verily, verily, I say unto you, if anyone causes one these little ones to sin, it would be better for a millstone to be tied around his neck and for him to be thrown in the deep blue sea; it is better for him not to have been born.

I walk around on break. I listen to conversations. No one notices me. He’s the best-looking Christ we’ve ever had, George says. He’s talking to Jules, the make-up artist. You might need to make him uglier. Can you do that? I think a lot of women are going to be saved this year. Some men too. I’d like him to be my personal Lord and Savior, Jules says. He looks like an angel, George says. A beautiful angel sent from heaven. Who would crucify him? I couldn’t. Oh God, no. Could you, sweet Jules? You couldn’t even kill that mouse. You couldn’t crucify our sweet angel Jesus, could you?

It was late after rehearsal. He was supposed to drive us home. I’m sure it’s okay for “Jesus” to drive you home, mom said. Cat and Farlesky were waiting for me in his car. I went out into the empty parking lot. They were in the backseat. He was lying on his back. His pants and underwear were pulled down. Cat’s shirt was off. Her head was at his crotch. He saw me. He held up his hand. Five minutes, he mouthed. He smiled and gave a thumbs up.

I got to whip him. I got to punch him. (Really fucking punch me, Isaac, he said. Really go for it. This has to be fucking real). I got to spit on him. I got to scream, Crucify him! I pushed him as he carried the cross. It was made of real wood. More realistic that way, George said. That’s what separates us from all the other shitty amateur passion plays around here. There was lots of blood. George was proud of the realism and brutality. Let’s give ‘em a show! he often shouted. Farlesky had to be in makeup for two hours before curtain call for the latex makeup on his back, to make it look like his flesh was shredded, like he’d been whipped nearly to death. He carried the cross, gasping for breath, stumbling down the center aisle, blood dripping from his back onto the floor, the audience horrified. The crucified Christ. I nailed him to the cross. His hands, his feet. My God, my God, why have you forgotten me! (Forsaken! George yells. Forsaken! I just think, Jesus says, forgotten is a more contemporary word, that the audience will understand better. Chase, George says. The audience will understand forsaken. It’s well known to many people. I’ve never heard it before, he says and shrugs). The crucified Christ crying. Tears coming down his face, down his cheeks, framed with the crown of thorns. The audience crying. I can pretty much cry on demand, he said, but sometimes for extra help I put my fingers under my armpits to get some sweat and rub them into my eyes. It’s good during the crucifixion scene because it fucking stings and I can’t see shit. Then I can just really feel it, just connect to the emotion of this fucking terrible event. If I can’t see, it’s like I’m confused, I don’t know what’s going on. Like, yo, why are you pounding those fucking nails into my hands? That fucking hurts, man. I imagine it’s like the craziest sadomachistic shit ever. And when I say, My God, My God why have you fucking forgotten me, that’s like an epic orgasm. That’s how I think about it. But I’m not a Christian or anything. I’ve never read the Bible so I could be wrong. I’ve never been to church. When my father died we just cremated him and spread the ashes in the backyard. But fuck, Jesus was a cool dude. Cat’s helped me understand that. Like when he says to the men who brought that woman who fucked that dude. The woman they all wanted to stone. He’s like, Who hasn’t fucked a bitch? If you haven’t fucked a bitch then you can throw a stone. But all the men stopped, because everyone’s fucked a bitch. So they all went away. Jesus was cool. He’s like, whatever lady, if no one’s going to throw a stone, I’m not throwing one neither. I forgive you, my child, now get the fuck out of here before those crazy fuckers come back.

What we have witnessed is the Truth, George says. What you have seen literally happened almost two thousand years ago. George’s face is red and sweaty under the stage lights. Here are the facts: Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Jesus is the Son of the Living God. He suffered terribly and died on the cross for all of our sins–for yours and mine. He rose three days later and ascended into Heaven. He is alive today. He gives us a choice. A choice between the everlasting pain and torment of hell and eternal happiness with Him in heaven. I present this choice to you. Do you accept Jesus into your heart? Whether you have never done so or wish to recommit your life to Jesus, I ask everyone who feels the call of Christ to bow their heads and say this prayer in the silence of your heart: Jesus, I am truly sorry for my sins. You are the son of the living God. You died on the cross for my sins. I ask you into my heart. I dedicate my life to you. You are my Lord and Savior. Amen.

Farlesky came to our church one Sunday. He came as our friend. Cat, like me, wasn’t allowed to date. Everyone loved him. He smiled, shook hands, said he was so happy to be there. When at the end of the service Pastor Dean asked any visitors to stand and introduce themselves, he confidently stood and smiled. My name is Chase, he said, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. I know Cat and Isaac from the passion play we’re acting in together–well, I have one of lead roles, Jesus Christ, you may have heard of him–and they invited me to come spend this beautiful Sunday morning with you all. I have to be honest with you, I’ve never been to church before, I’m not religious, so all this is very new to me. And I only took this acting job for the little money it paid and the character study it would provide, but since I’ve studied and really mediated upon the words of Christ, my soul, my soul has been touched. And it’s just wonderful to be in a community of true believers, of authentic Christians. So thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to me and letting me worship here with you. Everyone clapped. Afterwards, in his most contrite and pleading face, he asked Pastor Dean to pray with him. You see, I haven’t always lived a righteous life, he said. Never, really. I’m a sinner, I know that now. When my father died, when I couldn’t go to Juilliard, I was angry. I was angry at everything and everyone, including God. I cursed God. I had so much anger. I got into drugs, sex, all kinds of shitty stuff. But I want to let that go of all that. I want the blood of Jesus to cleanse my dark heart. Will you pray with me? Pastor Dean gave him a hug. The elders laid hands on him. He accepted Jesus into his heart. He was crying.

Cat said she was going to the closing party. I had to go to Becky’s dance recital. Cat said goodbye and hugged me. She never usually did that. Pastor Dean went to Farlesky’s mother’s apartment. It was sad, he said. She lives in a cloud of cigarette smoke and television. Her biggest concern was who was going to pay for Tim’s half of the rent. Not that her son had kidnapped my sixteen-year-old daughter and taken her off God knows where. Cat’s mother found the pregnancy test in the garbage. It was illegal in our state for a minor to get an abortion. Not in New York, my mother said. So that’s where they went. To kill an innocent baby. That baby didn’t do anything. That poor innocent life. Killed because of the selfishness of their parents. God will call them to account. Not now, but on the last day, the day of judgment. He’ll ask all of us to account for our lives, what we have done and what we have not done. He’ll separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil. I’ve asked Jesus to forgive my sins. I’m not perfect. No matter what we’ve done if we ask him forgiveness, he’ll give it. She doesn’t know what she’s doing to herself. God help her if she doesn’t ask forgiveness.

Cat called. It was a Wednesday night. Isaiah’s parents were at the prayer group. We need help, Isaiah, she said. We need money. We don’t have any money to buy food. I wouldn’t be calling you if we didn’t really need your help. I don’t have any money, he said. Please Isaiah, you have to help us or we’re going to starve. I’m sick, I can’t work now. Please, please. We don’t even have heat in the apartment. Just a hundred dollars, she said. You can go to Western Union. Just a hundred dollars. You’re the only person who can help us. Your mom and dad are really worried about you, he said. You should ask them for money. I can’t, she said. They’ll be angry with me. They won’t give me money. Where are you? he said. You might tell, she said. I’m not going to tell, he said. I promise. We’re in Coney Island, she said. It’s cold here. We’re in this fucking shitty apartment. There’s roaches everywhere. It’s disgusting, Isaiah. Chase got a job but he won’t get paid for two weeks. We’ll pay you back the money, I swear to God. You should come home, he said. Don’t you get it? she said. I can’t come home. Not after what I did. My parents will never forgive me. Yeah they will, he said. No, she said. They won’t. And even if they did it won’t ever be the same. Don’t you understand anything? Just please send some money. Please, Isaiah. We’re going to have to go to a homeless shelter or something. Why don’t you steal something? he said. Isaiah, help us out. You’re my best friend. You’re my only friend. Jesus will forgive you, he said. Just say this prayer with me. Dear Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins. No, she said. I won’t say it. Cat, just say this prayer with me, and I’ll send you money. Say this prayer and everything will be okay. Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins. I’ve made mistakes but nothing compares to your love for me. Say the prayer with me, Cat. Fucking say the prayer with me. Fucking say it. Or you’ll go to hell. You’ll go to hell for all eternity and nothing will save you. It will be too late. Forever and ever, everlasting torment. Say it, Cat. Say it.