Etta Mae’s Jesus
It was mid-September when Jesus first moved in. Etta Mae remembers the day, if not the date, because the pippins were on their way to rotting, and she sent her oldest boy up the ladder with a bucket, while she held the wooden legs steady and battled back the nausea rising in her throat. It was a Friday night because she always made pie on Fridays, and it was 1960 because she was newly pregnant—for the fourth time.
They were eating dessert when Bull shot up from the table and loomed over her, yelling, “Woman, your pie ain’t fit for the chickens!” His face went purple as he glared, balling his free hand into a fist. Etta Mae stared at her aproned lap while Bull turned toward the sink, opened the cabinet under it and slammed his pie along with the plate into the trash. Then he spit and stomped out the door, screen banging hard behind him.
“Don’t mind him,” Etta Mae said, as she sent the three boys into the living room. “You go on and watch TV for a bit.”
She fished Bull’s plate from the trash and placed it on the stack of dirty dishes. She plugged the basin, ran hot water, and pressed her waist up against the porcelain rim. An empty milk glass slipped from her hands and broke. Fishing out pieces from the soapy water, she saw a thin line of pink dripping from her ring finger toward her wrist before she felt the sting of water on her cut. She dropped the broken pieces into the wastebasket atop Bull’s half-eaten pie and wrapped her hand in the dishtowel. She pressed her finger against her ribs, just above her heart, and tried to stop shaking. Bull had been so close to hitting her. This couldn’t go on.
Then came a thought—not a voice—but a question that surely hadn’t come from her: Why are you persecuting me?
It could only be Jesus asking, and she answered with her own thought: I’m not persecuting you.
But she was met with another question: Why are you trying to poison your husband?
Her breath caught. No one knew about the ipecac she kept behind the canned goods. She tried to explain to the Jesus-thought that it wasn’t really poison, that she gave Bull just enough to bring on the stomach cramps so he would leave her alone. I don’t care what the Bible says, she told the Jesus-thought, I can’t submit no more.
The thought didn’t say any more, but it told her, without words, to take the towel from her hand. When Etta Mae did, her cut was gone, and the towel was dry and spotless. Her scalp tingled at the sight, crawling like she had headlice. Her ears began to ring, a wave of dizziness washed through her, and then everything went still as she felt Jesus curl up at the back of her neck, just above her hairline, and fall asleep.
She poured out the ipecac that night. A month later, a train smashed Bull’s truck to pieces. A policeman knocked on her door with the news. There was no crossing arm, and Bull was dead before anyone could pull him from the truck. Etta Mae didn’t cry over Bull until the boys were asleep and she crawled into the bed she’d shared with Bull, sliding her hand toward the dip in the mattress where he’d slept. Jesus woke up then, and he was so sad, he weighed down her heart, reminding her of how things had been back in the early days before the first baby came. When she was all cried out, Jesus curled up again, leaving her with one last thought: Bull, if only you’d taken a different road.
Etta Mae bought a new Chevy wagon with the insurance payout, packed up the kids and set out West on US 50. Jesus began to stir in Carson City, a tingling that ran down Etta Mae’s hands until it felt like the steering wheel was on fire, so she pulled off the road, rented an apartment, and enrolled the boys in school. She met Billy, who sold insurance, at First Methodist Church where he sang in the choir. Billy’s hands and temper were so much softer than Bull’s, so much softer than her own, that Etta Mae found herself down at the courthouse on April 21, 1961, marrying Billy two weeks before Bull’s last baby was due.
When he brought them home from the hospital, Billy took the new baby from Etta Mae’s arms, pressed the boy’s cheek to his own, said, “Welcome home, son,” and laid William Jr. in his bassinet. They were mostly happy for the next 30 years, until a heart attack took Billy.
He’s been gone a decade, but Etta Mae still worships at the little church on Minnesota Street on Sunday mornings, looking at another baritone sitting in Billy’s spot in the choir loft. Jesus loves church, even when the sermons almost put Etta Mae to sleep. He stretches down the length of her back sometimes, like he wants to float her right through the pressed tin ceiling into heaven when everybody’s saying the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not flying up in church, she has to remind Jesus as she smooths down her hair after the “amen.” More than one member of the ladies’ circle has whispered about Etta Mae’s vanity. It’s Jesus and the crawly spirit lice, not vanity, but Etta Mae doesn’t see how she could possibly say so.
Even after she met Billy, it hadn’t all been peach cobbler and hymn songs. Her oldest two boys, terrors of the Sunday school, moved to Vegas after high school and still had too much of Bull’s temper for their own good. Over the years, Etta Mae has posted more bail bonds than she cares to recall. Her third son made a career in the Coast Guard, permanently stationed in Alaska. She hasn’t seen him since Billy’s funeral. And William Jr. lives in San Francisco with another man. Etta Mae calls and writes and has knitted them both rainbow hats and scarves for their special parade. But like the Jesus lice, she keeps all these goings on to herself. The ladies’ circle would certainly have something to say on the subject, as they do about all subjects troubling the church.
On this Sunday, the lector read a passage of Jesus saying, “I am the vine,” and Etta Mae immediately thought of the ivy hedge Bull never trimmed, how it crept over a rusty outgrown tricycle, a broken lawnmower, car parts she couldn’t name, and other junk, until they became part of the hedge. And ivy-vine Jesus had crept over her old rotten life with Bull until all the memories of him were wrapped so tight with Jesus coming to her, that she couldn’t have cut them apart if she tried.
Jesus came wide awake this morning when Etta Mae thought about ivy. He filled her head with arms wrapping around someone so tight that love squeezed out everything else. And the hug Jesus planted wasn’t for any of Etta Mae’s sons, but for Rita, a woman Etta Mae didn’t always think kindly of. It wasn’t a secret that Rita had run around with Spencer while her husband was dying of cancer. Now Rita was living with Spencer. Every now and then, Etta Mae came across them at the Raley’s with a shopping cart too full of jug-sized booze, and his voice would remind her of Bull for an instant. The Sunday before the ivy reading, Rita, wearing a pair of too big sunglasses, sat across the aisle from Etta Mae. When they shook hands at greeting time, Rita waved at her glasses, said she had a migraine, and managed a sheepish smile. But on this vine-morning, Rita, wearing those sunglasses again, sat down right next to Etta Mae. With only Rita’s purse on the bench between them, Etta Mae could feel sadness seeping off Rita as powerful as the smell of baking pie from the oven.
After the scriptures came the sermon, and after that came the time of joys and concerns when members of the congregation asked for prayers: for victims of hurricanes and hunger if they were feeling broad minded; for weddings and births if they wanted good news on a day of too much bad; for their new car or dentures if they were the kind who prayed for such things. Often the joys and concerns dragged on so long the Sunday School kids could be heard racing through the fellowship hall toward the cookies and lemonade. Noon would come and go, and stomachs would growl as perked coffee odor wafted into the sanctuary. Every few months some parishioners would complain, and the church council would toss out ideas like returning to days of written prayer slips, or to lists of names in the bulletin, but they were always torn between minding the clock and allowing the Spirit to move as it would.
That particular Sunday, the ivy-loving Jesus, who was squarely in the spirit-moving camp, spun inside Etta Mae full force. She had never before stood up, had never asked for prayer, but Jesus pushed her out of the pew on wobbly legs as she blurted, “Jesus asked me to pray for Rita.” White hot and dizzy, she held out her hand to Rita, who, to Etta Mae’s surprise, took it and stood up next to her. Then Etta Mae pressed against Rita until there was no space between them from shoulder to knee, just polyester and cotton, heat and pressure. Jesus-energy flooded through Etta Mae like an electric circuit as Rita’s stiff back loosened and her hard arms curled around Etta Mae, and both women pressed damp chins into each other’s shoulders.
Etta Mae heard the melody of Reverend Henderson’s voice, but couldn’t make out words over her pounding pulse. Soon she heard rustling as the congregation circled around her and Rita. Buzzing with current, hands rested on her back and shoulders. Only their weight kept her from floating to the ceiling, as prayers jumbled with smells of shampoo, perfume, and coffee breath. Then the room went quiet except for their breath. Etta Mae opened her eyes for a moment and saw Rita’s bowed head, the black eye visible in the gap behind her sunglasses. She held Rita tighter. Jesus was perfectly happy then, and he settled back down, purring like a cat in a sunny windowsill.
Finally Reverend Henderson broke the spell with a soft, “Amen.” The people slowly peeled away leaving Rita and Etta Mae in an embrace, blessing still hot on their skin.
Cathy Warner is author of Home By Another Road, and Burnt Offerings, and editor of Poemographs, and Viral Verse: Poetry of the Pandemic. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications. She lives, writes, sells real estate, worships, and renovates homes in Western Washington. Find her at cathywarner.com.
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What an amazing story. Cathy Warner, I now have a new favorite story by you. Thank you!