To this day I can’t drink grape kool-aid or eat vanilla wafers. It’s because of the summer when I was six. My family wasn’t particularly religious, but my mother saw an opportunity for free kidsitting, so she sent me to Vacation Bible School. And it wasn’t all bad. I didn’t care for making felt cutouts to illustrate Bible stories and, like I said, the kool-aid and vanilla wafers. But there was one thing that was positive. It came from a talk by the local minister. Reverend Sodabeer was his name, and his talk was about Jesus coming back. Like a sequel.
So why is he coming back? I asked. To bring us salvation, he said. I had to think about that. I didn’t know what salvation was or why I needed it, but the Reverend said we needed it to keep us from harm. Because the world is a wicked place, he said. I wasn’t so sure. Life was pretty good that summer. But it made me think. So I asked him when he expected Jesus to return. He said it would be soon, but he didn’t have a specific date, like the Tuesday after next. So I said, well, if you don’t know, could he already be here? The Reverend said he doubted it, but he couldn’t rule it out either. I asked if there’d be an announcement when he arrived. He didn’t think so. His answers were confusing. I mean, if Jesus was coming back and there wasn’t going to be an announcement, how would we know when he arrived? More importantly, what would he look like? How would we know it was him? I was thinking of the portrait in my parents’ bedroom where Jesus has blue eyes, long brown hair, and is wearing a bathrobe. Reverend Sodabeer couldn’t answer my questions, but he was pretty certain about Jesus’ imminent return.
Then it occurred to me, so I asked, could one of us be Jesus? Judging by the way the Reverend looked at me, I don’t think anyone had ever asked him that. It took him a whole minute to answer. But he finally said, probably not. Why is that? I asked. Reverend Sodabeer looked like he had indigestion, probably from the vanilla wafers. After a moment, he said that all of us were sinners, even us kids in Vacation Bible School. And he said it like he meant it, which got me to thinking. I knew for a fact that several of my friends were sinners. As for me, I’d been good, for the most part. There was that unfortunate incident with Missus Sheldon’s window, but that was an accident, I swear. And there was the time I took apart the lawnmower to see how it worked, and Dad couldn’t get it back together. Those weren’t sins exactly, not like in the Bible. I’m not saying I was an angel. But I definitely wasn’t a sinner. So I said to Reverend Sodabeer, could it be me? Could I be Jesus? Again, he just gave me this look. I think he really appreciated the conversation, but his mouth started twitching. That was when our teacher, Missus Teppi, interrupted the conversation and asked us to put our hands together for the Reverend. I thought she wanted us to pray for him because of his stomach thing. But no. She wanted us to thank him with applause. Which we did. Then she passed out kool-aid and more vanilla wafers. I had more questions, but the Reverend didn’t stay for lunch.
When I got home that afternoon, my mother wanted to know what had happened. She said that the Reverend had called. I said I wasn’t surprised. I told her it had been a great talk. I said that I had asked a lot of questions, so he was probably calling to thank me. She said he told her I should see a doctor. That’s odd, I said, because he was the one with the upset stomach. I was feeling great. Then I told her I was thinking I might be Jesus. My mother seemed amused by the idea. But not my dad. When he got home from work, he said that any more Jesus talk, and he’d take a belt to my hide. Which made me think Jesus probably had a tough time with old Joseph, since my dad and him were both carpenters. It made me wonder if Jesus got into trouble for going around telling everyone he was Jesus.
I spent the rest of that summer wrestling with a lot of thoughts. Then in the autumn I started first grade. Missus Sauer’s class. And the second thing she did, right after asking us what we did during the summer, was to ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. She wanted us to tell the whole class. Before Vacation Bible School, I had been thinking lumberjack or maybe a pilot. And considering the reaction the Reverend had to my idea of being Jesus, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through that again. Then there’s this thing about commitment. I mean, if you say it – like you say you want to be a truck driver – then you feel a kind of obligation to go through with it. At least I did. I was in the last row, so I had some time to think about what I was going to say.
As you might expect, everyone was kind of predictable. The girls wanted to be nurses and teachers, that sort of thing. Not like today. But I figured the girls didn’t have a real shot at being Jesus anyway. And the boys all wanted to be firemen, policemen, or cowboys. Nothing too original. Then Missus Sauer called on me. I kind of hedged at first. I said I’d been thinking I was Jesus and didn’t have to worry about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But if that didn’t work out, I’d probably be a lumberjack. Missus Sauer got real quiet, like she might be coming down with something. Later she called my mother, and my mother told me about it when I got home. But this time we kept it to ourselves. I don’t think my dad ever found out.
As for the other boys in class, I wasn’t worried that any of them might be Jesus. Like Joey Spagollini whom everyone called Spaghetti. Joey said that Jesus was coming back as an Italian because of the Pope being Italian. He could have been right. But that portrait I mentioned, the one of Jesus. He didn’t look very Italian. And we weren’t Catholics. We were Protestants. Like Jesus.
Then there was Zoos Sanchez, a Mexican kid. Showed up half way through the first term. Our teacher introduced him to the class. “Hey Zoos,” she said, like where they keep lions and things. He had an accent. One day I saw him spell his name like “Jesus.” I figured the kid had serious problems. There was no way Zoos was Jesus. Besides, he told everyone that he wanted to be a doctor. Only one in class. Damned if he didn’t become one, too.
And there was Willy Jackson. Forever getting into trouble. Spent more time in the Assistant Principal’s office than he did in Missus Sauer’s class. The little creep eventually became a lawyer, which I think he deserved.
Like I said, there wasn’t a lot of competition for being Jesus. So I practiced being him for the rest of the year. Like when Spaghetti’s dog got sick. I patted him on the head, and the next day he seemed better. After that I went around the neighborhood doing healings on all the cats and dogs. I figured I’d start small and work my way up. Sometimes it even worked. But the more I found out what Jesus was supposed to do when he got back, the more I thought I might not be up for the job. You could say that my confidence was suffering. And the salvation thing really bothered me from the start. I don’t know when it changed – me thinking that I was Jesus – but it didn’t happen all at once. It was gradual. I got preoccupied with other things. As you can imagine, there were a lot of distractions growing up. I was in the third grade when I figured it was time to make a different career choice. So when our teacher, Missus Stafford, asked the what-do-you-want-to-be question, I made it easy on myself. I said third basemen for the Cardinals. This time no one called my mother.