A Beginning. We had been conducting workshops all week; today was the last day. The first story, Panic! at the Disco, centered on a man who assumed people were yelling, “This dance club’s on fire!” because his moves were so hot. We read and critiqued the story of Jennifer and her boyfriend Hewitt, titled Jennifer Loves Hewitt. And a third student imagined a cookbook written by David Foster Wallace.
We were crammed around two large lab tables pushed together, the twelve of us. I was seated at a corner, trying not to lean my torso into the sharp edge protruding out at me. Jane sat two seats to my right, and wanted to begin this workshop as she did all the others. She leaned forward, around the students between us, and asked me to read a section of my story aloud. She suggested the opening paragraph.
Jesus is a really shitty professor. Standing at the front of the lecture hall, he looked odd in a coat and tie, no beard and trimmed hair. But I suppose the dress code applies to everyone, even the Son of God. Staring forlornly out at our Religious Studies class on the first day of the semester, he looked as if he expected more from the Second Coming. I think we all did. The syllabus began with Buddhism, which I couldn’t imagine was Jesus’ forte. Alas, the curriculum was set in stone, although that shouldn’t have been a problem for him.
A Middle. “So,” said Jane, “let’s start with this: Who is the main character of the story?” She looked around the table. “Caitlin?” she asked, looking at Courtney.
“Courtney,” Courtney corrected her.
Jane jutted her chin slightly left and squinted, puzzled. “No,” she said slowly. “There weren’t any characters named Courtney in the story.” She flipped through the piece, skimming each page. “I think it’s pretty clear the main character is Jesus.” She looked up and nodded at Courtney, nudging her glasses back up the bridge of her nose before continuing. “Okay, let’s discuss this Jesus Christ character. What do we know about him? Do we sympathize with him or not?” Jane gestured to the chalkboard stretching across the entire front wall, made up of two smaller chalkboards pushed together. Scribbled on the left panel, the white chalk nearly washed out by the morning sun barging in through the windows, was WAYS TO DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS. Jane had written that at the start of class as a reminder of our discussion on character development a few classes ago, prompted by a student’s contention that because his main character hated both warm soda and carpets, that character was neither flat nor static.
On the right panel, streaks of chalk were only partially erased. The right edge of this panel sat behind the open door, which had swung recklessly around its hinge until banging against the chalk ledge, then had vibrated back about six inches before coming to rest. Out the open doorway sat a vending machine, flanked on either side by the men’s and women’s restrooms. A girl was jabbing the heel of her palm into the front of the machine and firmly instructing the stuck bag of Bugles to accept its fate as her morning snack, dammit. A boy paused momentarily outside the men’s restroom to zip his fly before echoing down the hallway.
Answering Jane’s question, Keith cleared his throat and said, “I don’t think there was enough development of Jesus. At the end of the story, I still didn’t know much about him.” He sat slouched in his seat, his left ankle resting on his right thigh, tapping his fingers lazily on the instep of his shoe. This posture and his glasses often conspired to grant him an aura of casual intelligence. Recently, trying to put Jane’s grammar lessons to use, he had proclaimed his favorite band to be The Whom.
“What do other people think about that?” Jane asked. “Do people agree with Keith?”
“Yeah, I do,” said Chloe. “There wasn’t a whole lot of depth to his character.”
Leah leaned forward in her seat and reached her hand out towards the middle of the table to catch Jane’s attention. Leah’s last story, a series of diary entries written by a mother grieving the death of an infant daughter, had been written with an anguish that bled through the fiction unit and into something real. “I think the lack of character development actually helped make him more relatable.” She spoke softly, as she always did, and I leaned forward to catch every word, grimacing as I bumped my sternum against the corner of the table. “There’s no need to characterize him. Others have already done that. Matthew, for example, and Mark, Luke and John. He could be two-dimensional in the story because he’s Jesus, and Jesus isn’t two-dimensional, so therefore he wasn’t two-dimensional.” All the air gone from her lungs, she deflated back into her seat.
“Well,” Jane said, “that may be so, but we need to focus on what he’s like in this story.” She pressed her forefinger into the story as she spoke. “Emily, how about you, what did you think?”
“Jesus was cool,” Emily said. “I have nothing actually constructive to say because this is an intro class and I’m the obligatory classmate who doesn’t give a shit.”
Matt cleared his throat and said, “I didn’t think there was a whole lot of development, honestly. He’s sort of a one-note character, sort of flat.” He shrugged and Jane nodded.
Leah’s spine snapped straight and she said, “No, he wasn’t flat, because he’s Jesus. We all already know who he is, what he did. We know him.”
As we filed out of the classroom, Jesus said, “I’ll be in my office later this afternoon.” He shrugged indifferently. “Stop by if you want.”
Sitting in my dorm after class, I couldn’t help but feel the urge to take advantage of this opportunity. Here was the Messiah, available to answer any and all questions I had. He was no longer bloodied and inanimate on the cross, towering up behind the pastor at church and leering at me on Christmas Eve, wondering why he hadn’t seen me since Easter. Deciding to go, I made a list of questions I wanted to ask, questions like: Are we all Christians now? Should I start going to church more often? And can I submit prayers in person? If so, I’d like to sleep with Maggie from math class, please.
Door ajar, I peeked into his office as I knocked. Slouched down in his chair against a backdrop of disorderly bookshelves, his feet were up on the desk, a New York Times crossword puzzle balancing on his thigh. He had changed since class – he was now wearing a white robe that descended down his body to his Birkenstocks, a rope belt knotted around his waist. He had also donned a cheap-looking Jesus-style wig and beard, complete with a plastic Crown of Thorns. He was a Halloween store Jesus.
He looked up to nod me into his office, then returned to the puzzle, chewing the back of his pen, brow furrowed. A few moments passed in silence and then he began talking to himself. “Give ‘em blank. Four letters,” he said. “I don’t know, give ‘em what? Fish? Wine? Hope? Love? No, none of those end in L.” He mumbled inaudibly for a few seconds before exploding in exasperation, yelling, “Oh, for my own sake! I give up!” The puzzle fell to the floor as his feet thudded to the ground and he clambered up in his seat. He tossed the pen onto his desk and wriggled his fingers underneath his snug crown to massage his temples. Smiling wearily, he asked, “How are you, my son?”
“Not too bad, not too bad at all,” I answered, drumming my fingers on the arm rests of my chair. “So, you’re a college professor now?”
“Yeah, the pay scale for Messiah didn’t keep up with inflation, so I looked elsewhere for employment. Not that academia is all that much better these days. At least I’m not an adjunct.”
I thought about some of the questions I wanted to ask Jesus. “Let me ask you this, Mr. Christ –”
Jesus bristled at my formality and interjected with a raised hand, his open palm facing me. “Please, call me Jesus. Mr. Christ was my father.” He chuckled softly to himself before stopping and raising his hand once more. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “actually, God was my father.”
“What about Joseph?”
“Well, yeah.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I send a card to both on Father’s Day.”
A brief pause drifted over our group, lapsing into a silence, and I glanced over at the other half of the class, engaged in a workshop of their own. Huddled in the opposite corner across the room, those twelve students were being led by another MFA student, a second year student like Jane. In that corner of the room was another door, this one closed, built farther back along the same wall as the first door. One of the students was balancing on the back two legs of his chair, his head resting against the square glass window of the door, across which the boy with the zipped fly had echoed not long ago.
A girl was reading the final sentence of her story aloud for the group: “The gun was cold and heavy in her hand. She held it to her temple and pulled the trigger. At the flash of the muzzle, she awoke from her dream and suddenly realized that everyone she had ever loved was gay.” She held her story against her chest, smiling down into her lap, her eyes flitting up to the faces surrounding her. The workshop leader, her back to me, clasped her hands together and asked the group to comment.
A classmate, her voice wavering slightly, answered first. “Your writing sort of reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates. You know that story about the girl in the Detroit Correctional Institute, how it’s written kinda like the first draft of a story? Yeah, this is, too.”
“Yeah,” agreed another student. “A little like Oates, but at the same time, totally different. Mostly not, but then again, sort of.”
“Actually,” a third student said, “I’d peg you as more of a young Alice Munro, because back then, she didn’t have a Nobel Prize, either.”
A brief pause in the feedback prompted the leader to ask the boy leaning his head against the door for his opinion. He answered, “Your story reminds me of Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” because I didn’t read that for class, either.”
Finally, another student compared the girl to George Orwell because even he sometimes struggled with specific setting details. “Apparently,” the student said, “the first draft of his novel was called The 1980s.”
“What’s all this?” I asked, gesturing to the bookshelves behind Jesus. Thick books stood at attention on the shelves, some of them looking as though they might disintegrate into a pile of dust should anyone attempt to flip through them. On another shelf were stacks of scrolls, yellowed parchment and a stone tablet.
He twisted his torso around in his chair, surveying the shelves, and said, “Oh, that’s just some research. I haven’t published anything in a while and I need to impress the tenure committee.”
“What was the last thing you published?”
“I wrote an article called Pontius Pilate: Dick.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t well-received. Apparently it was too biased.”
“And what about the Bible? That’s a collection of stories from your life, right?”
“Yeah,” Jesus said, “some of them originally appeared in The New Yorker.”
“So, what are you working on now?” I asked.
He got up from his chair and stood at the bookshelves, his back to me. He picked up a few papers, examined them. As he searched, he said, “I’m working on two things right now – a self-improvement book tentatively titled The Power of Me Compels You! and also this.” He turned around, handing me a manuscript, and said, “It’s just a rough draft.” The title of the work was: Christianity > Buddhism: A Critical Comparative Examination.
“So, you’re comparing things like Heaven and Nirvana?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “and I do, admittedly, have to give them the edge on that one. I mean, who do we have, Switchfoot? Give me a break.” Jesus talked excitedly for a few moments about his own band, called, or: The Band Formerly Known as Ichthys. He then turned his attention to In Utero, heaping praise onto Kurt Cobain. “And Dave Grohl drummed his fucking heart out in Nirvana, sure, I can’t deny that, but Foo Fighters? I mean, every song sounds the same, man!”
Preach, Jesus, preach.
Jane asked our group about the plot, and I returned my attention to my own workshop.
“Well,” said Mario, “I thought the plot was a bit ludicrous.”
I leaned back in my chair and listened to Jane ask others in the group to offer their thoughts on the plot. The wall of windows behind me provided a view of the courtyard below, asleep for the winter under a covering of snow, the fountain rooted in a sheet of ice. The sky – cloudless and smooth; the mid-morning sun – painted low in the sky and still yawning away from the horizon. The rays of sun, weaving through the grasping fingers of the bare trees, reflected off the snow and up through our third floor windows, bathing the room in a harsh glow. The dust particles basked in the warmth, aimlessly.
“You thought it was ludicrous?” asked Shania. She sat facing the windows, the same spot she had occupied last class, also a workshop. Evidently, she had learned from an entire class period spent squinting into the aggressive sunrays and was now wearing sunglasses. “In what way was it ludicrous?”
Mario looked down, not meeting Shania’s gaze, and said, “Well, Jesus comes back and he’s a teacher, and he’s, like, sad.”
“So, what’s your issue with?” Shania asked. “The Second Coming or that teaching isn’t always a rewarding job experience?”
Matt jumped in, saying, “I had trouble believing that Jesus wouldn’t be able to tackle a New York Times crossword puzzle.”
“You don’t know what day it was,” Shania shot back. “It could have been a weekend puzzle. You ever done one of those? They’re hard as shit, you don’t even know!”
Jane rapped her knuckles sharply against the tabletop, reasserting control. “Hey, hey, hey!” With all eyes back on her, she continued, saying, “Let’s get back to the story. What is the plot asking of the reader?”
“To suspend your disbelief,” answered Mario.
Jane next called on Leah. “I thought there was too much plot,” she said, nearly whispered. “There’s no need to provide Jesus with a story, because he already has one.”
“So,” Mario responded, “maybe he should have just written ‘You know Jesus? The dude from the Bible? Yeah, go read that, it’s a great story’ on a piece of paper and handed it in.”
“So,” I asked Jesus, “you’ve been dead for two thousand years, huh? How’s that been? What have you been doing to pass the time?”
“Well,” he answered, “I was brushing up on my Hebrew, keeping up with the slang.”
“Oh, yeah? How’d that go?”
“Actually, I stopped. Instead of taking a course on Judaism, I decided to just read Portnoy’s Complaint because I figured it would be easier. Now, I’m all shiksa this! and goyim that! You know, l’chaim and whatnot. I’ve also been masturbating non-stop, but whether that’s because of the book or just all the free time, I really can’t say.”
“Any other hobbies?” I asked.
“I also took up whittling.”
“Whittling, did you say?”
“Yeah, one of the disciples turned me on to it. I think it might have been Judas. So, good job for that, but I can’t give him too much credit because, you know, he turned out to be an asshole. Just like I said he would.” Jesus shrugged his shoulders as a way of resigning himself to the dickishness of Judas.
And An End. “So, we don’t have much time left,” said Jane. “Let’s talk about the ending of the story.”
“I thought it was surprising,” Chloe said. “I was worried it would be really preachy, but it wasn’t really.”
“I didn’t think it was preachy enough,” said Leah.
“Did you get more requests for miracles or carpentry stuff?” I asked Jesus.
“Oh, I built a lot of bookshelves, birdhouses, stuff like that,” Jesus answered. “I once built a model ship and called it the U.S.S. Miracle. I tried to fit it in this empty bottle I had lying around, but I just simply do not understand how they do that.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty tricky.”
“Anyway, I filled the empty bottle with water and turned it into wine, had myself a good time.” He scratched his fake beard wistfully and sighed at the whitewashed wall, maybe imagining himself with a bottle of Merlot and a TiVo full of Alias episodes, or whatever people do with a night to themselves.
I really hated to ruin his moment, but I still had one more question I wanted to ask. I knew death would come, but that was about all I knew. Jesus had been there, he had been killed and lived to tell the tale, more or less. I wanted to know if it hurt – not the process of dying, that was just life – but right before, a few seconds before. Was there a white light, any pain, what? Was it out-of-body; did it hurt the most right before?
I draped my torso over the left armrest of my chair, trying to gently nudge into his peripheral. He looked my way, still in a sort of stupor, and I asked him my question. He began to laugh and cut me off, saying:
“Oh no, getting crucified was awesome, are you kidding? I’ve been up in heaven for two thousand years, showing chicks my scars. I was getting laid all the time.”
Eating lunch in town a couple hours after class, my friend pointed towards the front door of the restaurant and said, “Dude looks like Jesus.”
I looked up to see a man walking in, his robe descending down his body to his Birkenstocks, a rope belt knotted around his waist. He stamped his feet, shedding snow onto the welcome mat. Following him, twelve students crowded around the hostess, following her to a long narrow table. Jesus sat at the middle of the table and his students sat on each side of him, all of them on the same side of the table.
Jesus wearily refused the wine list and asked about the restaurant’s whiskey. “Or whiskey or bourbon or whatever,” he said. When the waitress asked if he’d be interested in Maker’s Mark, he snapped, “I am the Maker’s Mark!” She retreated sheepishly, bringing him back a beer instead, and Jesus then began to field questions from his students. One student asked him about tips for beginner water walkers. “Try Utah,” Jesus answered. “Very buoyant lakes, from what I’ve heard.” And on he went, at one point scolding a student who asked him to multiply his meal after the student decided he was hungry enough to eat more than one piece of salmon. Jesus himself didn’t really seem to be eating; he just spread his arms out in front of him, smiling and nodding at the students on either side of him. They slowly began turning to each other, speaking in hushed tones, laughing softly. A few students, feeling the stillness at the center of the table, cast wayward glances back towards Jesus, just as whispering students can feel the stern silence of a professor waiting to continue with the lesson. But Jesus was simply sipping at his drink through a smile, pleasantly lost in his mind. He seemed content to leave the students to themselves.
The title of the cookbook was Infinite Zest. Chapter One was titled “Looking to Add More Seafood to Your Diet? Consider the Lobster.” Chapter Two was just a picture of an Aquafina bottle, the caption reading: “fig. 1: This is Water.” And that was it, that was the whole story; i.e. a Food Network recipe for lobster rolls and a bottle of water.
Born and raised in Lansdale, PA, Owen is a recent graduate of Penn State University, with a B.A. in History. This is his first published story.