Jesus or Juju
by Roger Poppen
Roger Poppen took up creative writing after retiring as a professor of behavior analysis. He has published one novel, Mister Lucky, and several shorter works in online and print magazines, including Flashquake, Long Story Short, The Cynic, and Ducts, as well as Amarillo Bay. More of his work may be seen at http://mypage.siu.edu/drrock/
As if swimming upward from a great, crushing depth, Cissie struggled to wakefulness. She had been dreaming. A sexual dream. A disgusting sexual dream. With William, a man she'd barely met. She could feel his steely gray eyes boring into her—more than eyes boring into her. And in ways that she'd never done with Jake, her husband. "Dear Jesus," she whispered, "please forgive me. And Jake, oh Jake, you know I'd never do that."
But Jesus, and Jake—dead now these eighteen months—were silent. Cissie knew that all she had to do was pray for forgiveness, ask with sincerity and contrition, and it was done. But she felt no absolution, no sense of calm. The feeling of shame remained. She closed her eyes, curling on her side in the comfortable 'S' position that brought on slumber, but again saw William's eyes and felt herself yield to him.
The glowing red numerals on the bedside clock read 5:17. More than an hour before her usual rising time, but sleep was impossible. She sat up and switched on the bedside lamp, put on her glasses, and picked up the book that lay atop the covers on the empty side of the bed. She opened it to the page she'd bookmarked but got no sense of the words, no connection to what she'd read last night before falling asleep. She was cold—she always turned down the thermostat at night—and had to use the toilet. Sighing, she swung her feet over the edge of the bed and felt for her slippers.
Rags, a tawny-colored dog of no particular ancestry, thumped his tail on the floor and rose from his sleeping place next to the refrigerator. "Hello, boy," Cissie said, patting the head that nuzzled her thigh.
Cissie switched on the bathroom light and closed the door before Rags could squeeze in with her, the bathroom just off the kitchen. She'd moved into the downstairs guest room after Jake died. The master bedroom and bath suite upstairs, which they'd shared all those years, was too large, too empty.
The face in the mirror over the sink looked none the worse for early awakening. A little puffy around the eyes perhaps, but the creases in forehead and jowls had not deepened. With short-cropped hair, dyed chestnut to cover the gray, Cissie took brief satisfaction in the fact that, as her friends reminded her, she looked much younger than her 62 years. She shed her robe and nightgown and put on the warm-up suit she wore for her brisk early walk with the dog.
Rags wagged his tail and trotted expectantly to the back door. "Too early, boy," Cissie said. "It's still dark out." She turned up the thermostat, fixed a cup of tea in the microwave, and sat at the kitchen table with her journal. Rags paced back and forth, confused, nails ticking on the tile floor. "Lie down," Cissie said sharply. The dog curled reluctantly at her feet, tail thumping a few times, and rested his nose resignedly on his front paws.
Cissie usually wrote in her journal after returning from their morning walk, noting animals seen around the suburban neighborhood—deer, an occasional opossum, a rare red fox—nature holding out against the encroachment of civilization. The journal was a place to review plans for the coming day and record her thoughts about the previous one. After Jake died, the journal was essential to get through another day, and another. She had vowed never to leave one day blank.
She sipped her tea, inhaling the sweet fragrance of Earl Gray. She seldom recorded dreams. Occasionally, something vivid stayed with her: pleasant dreams like flying or bathing her daughter, Lydia, when she was a baby; or unpleasant, like falling or being locked in a strange house. She rarely dreamed of Jake anymore, and never of sex.
Cissie closed her eyes and thought of what to write. She felt William's encircling arms. And more than this, a heated yearning at her center. "Dear Jesus," she whispered.
Where was this coming from? What was this incubus that haunted her? Cissie's theology—her church's theology—included a devil, but he was never a topic of Pastor Whiteside's sermons. Satan seemed a remote malevolence, responsible for large-scale atrocities like genocides and terrorist attacks, not someone to taunt a lonely widow. Individual problems, according to Pastor Whiteside, were the product of original sin, human imperfection; they were met by drawing closer to God, asking for His guidance. Mrs. Whiteside and other women in the church were so helpful after Jake died, comforting her through those first dark days and weeks. But this was not something she could seek counsel about. She smiled at the thought of describing her dream to any of the prim ladies in Sunday School class.
Cissie briefly considered e-mailing Lydia. Her daughter was a corporate lawyer off in New York City, single, and no doubt knowledgeable in the ways of women and men. But Liddie was more concerned with making partner than attaining one, and sex was not a mother-daughter topic they'd ever been comfortable discussing.
Then it occurred to her—Wanda. Wacky Wanda. An aging flower child, Wanda had never left the '60s. She and her husband, Herb, ran a New Age bookstore, with incense and crystals and waterpipes and who knew what all. They'd been friends since college despite their separate paths. When Wanda offered to put Cissie in touch with Jake's spirit after the funeral, Cissie had backed off from their relationship. But Wanda was someone with whom she could discuss anything, menstrual cramps or menopause, dieting or dreams.
Wanda had introduced Cissie to the book club several years ago, an informal group of a dozen or so folks of a certain age who enjoyed reading. They met monthly in one another's homes to discuss a selected book. Jake had not joined her in this so the group, thankfully, evoked few memories of him. It was there she'd met William a few weeks ago, a visitor. Tall, with wavy gray hair thinning on top. And those piercing gray eyes.
Cissie paged back in her journal to see what she had recorded: 'Met "William" at book club. Seems nice enough. A little stiff.' She smiled at the word 'stiff;' she'd meant 'aloof' but in the present circumstance it took on another meaning. The quotation marks around his name reminded her of the encounter. They'd exchanged names and Cissie had said, "Oh, like Will Shakespeare or Bill Clinton?" Her name was Cecelia but she'd been called Cissie her entire life and she used nicknames for family and friends as well. He'd replied, "William," in a tone that suggested he was weary of defending himself against those who would truncate his name. Stiff.
She wrote in her journal: 'Dreamed about William. Sex!' The exclamation point serving in the stead of sordid details. 'Talk to Wanda.' Underlined.
Cissie closed the journal abruptly and stood. "C'mon, boy," she said, "let's go for a walk." Rags scrambled to his feet and pattered to the back door, tail wagging like a device for added propulsion.
Chimes tinkled as Cissie opened the door of Space and Time and a sweet cinnamon fragrance filled her nostrils.
"Cissie!" Wanda exclaimed, rushing from behind the counter to embrace her, all swirling gypsy skirts and jangling earrings. "It's been ages. Here, I was just about to have some tea."
She led Cissie to a low table surrounded by floor cushions where a tray with a steaming teapot and tiny cups was centered. Large and buxom, Wanda descended gracefully, like a multi-colored cloud, to sit cross-legged and pour the tea. Cissie unbent with a bit more hesitation and sat beside her. Wanda's herbal tea tasted like seaweed and smelled like cat litter, but to demur was impossible.
"So, how are you, and Herb?" Cissie began.
"Just fine." Wanda waved her hand dismissively. "So, what brings you here?"
"Just to say hi. It's been a while."
Wanda shook her head and smiled knowingly. "Don't be shy. You have something to tell me."
Cissie laughed. "Wacky Wanda. You are too much. Okay, I had a dream."
"I knew it. Tell me."
When Cissie had finished, Wanda said, "Well, it's about time."
"What do you mean?"
"When I saw William at book club, I just knew he was the man for you. So I've been burning love candles for you two." Wanda's dark eyes gleamed. She could be spooky at times.
Cissie laughed, a little nervously. "I'm not looking for a man. And what do you mean, love candles?"
The door chimes jingled and two middle-aged women entered. "Feel free to look around," Wanda called out. "Ask me if you're looking for something in particular."
The women murmured thanks and proceeded slowly to investigate the shelves. "You could spend hours in here," one of them said.
"What do you mean, love candles?" Cissie repeated in a half-whisper.
"Juju candles you burn between possessions of two people to bring them together."
Cissie straightened, a sour look on her face.
Wanda reached quickly to pat her hand. "I know, I know. You don't believe this mumbo-jumbo," she said, smiling. "But when's the last time you had a dream like this? When's the last time you came to see me at the shop?"
"Excuse me," one of the customers said. "Which of the astrology books would you recommend?"
Wanda stood effortlessly. "Be right back," she said over her shoulder. Cissie shook her head and sipped her tea.
The chimes tinkled as the ladies left, and Wanda returned to take her seat. "Now, where were we?"
"Love candles. What possessions?" Cissie asked.
"Oh, anything. Just something that you've touched. I used that lovely signed picture you gave me, the one of you at the pyramid in Cancun. Lots of power in that."
"And William? You have a signed picture of William?"
"No, just a coat button. I took a button from his topcoat in the bedroom at the Clark's house, at book club. The third button down."
"Wanda! You stole a button from his coat?"
Wanda laughed. "Relax. People lose buttons all the time. There were spare buttons on the hem so he can replace it easily."
"Why didn't you take one of those?"
"Because it has to be something he's touched," Wanda said, as if explaining to a child.
"What if he's married?" Cissie asked. "Not that I believe in your candles. But still, all this nonsense could be about a married man."
"Did you see a wedding ring?"
"No, I didn't notice," Cissie said with disdain. "I don't go around looking at men's ring fingers."
"Well, I do. No ring."
"That doesn't mean anything. Lots of married men don't wear wedding rings."
"I also asked Bob Clark, who invited him. He said no, he wasn't married."
"Well, you should have asked me," Cissie said with an exasperated sigh.
"I didn't because I knew what you'd say." Wanda stroked her hand and smiled. "You don't believe in this anyway, so what difference does it make."
Cissie struggled to her feet and Wanda stood to hug her. "Relax, darling. Whatever happens, happens. Life occurs. Embrace it."
Cissie had to smile at the platitudes. She felt warmth and care in Wanda's bosomy embrace, an almost intoxicating fragrance of her perfume. She kissed Wanda on the cheek. "Wacky Wanda," she said.
"See you Thursday night, at book club," Wanda called after her, the voice blending with the chimes.
Cissie considered skipping the book club meeting, unsure how she'd feel or act around William. She thought Wanda's love potion was ridiculous and the dream mere coincidence. But those events elevated William from a mere acquaintance to—what—an object of special attention, at least. But curiosity got the better of her. She decided to go if for no other reason than to prove Wanda's wacky theory wrong.
She arrived just a minute or two before seven, the scheduled starting time. People were standing around chatting—the weather, the war, what their children were doing. Ginger Morgan, the hostess of this month's meeting, took her coat to put in the bedroom. Cissie had an urge to follow to see if William's coat was there, missing a button. Instead she joined the others. Wanda smiled from across the room and nodded her head toward a small group standing to one side. William was talking with Bob Clark and his wife. Wanda kept jerking her head, as if she had a tic, motioning her to join them. To play along, Cissie walked over.
William smiled warmly when he saw her. "Ah, it's Cissie isn't it?"
"I'm glad you decided to come back," she said, smiling in return.
"Yes, yes. I was just telling the Clarks how much I enjoyed myself last time. I'm so glad they invited me." He seemed much less stand-offish than before, more animated, almost effusive. His eyes seemed to twinkle rather than bore with that intensity she recalled from their first meeting, from her dream . . .
Quickly, she said, "Well, we always like to have new people. New points of view."
Just then, Ginger said, "Well, I think it's about time we got started. If you can find someplace to sit. We have a good turnout tonight so we might have to bring in some chairs from the dining room."
Cissie took a seat on a sofa and Wanda plopped down beside her. "Good for you," she said. "Just let things happen."
William and Bob Clark each carried in a pair of dining room chairs, placing them across the room, and sat down.
Ginger said, "Well, did everyone have a chance to finish the book this time? It was a pretty long one . . ." The doorbell rang. She said, "Excuse me," and got up to answer it.
Voices of greeting were heard from the vestibule.
William stood and said, "I just want to take a minute to thank everyone for their hospitality and kindness last month. I felt very comfortable, right at home with you all. So I asked the Clarks and the Morgans if it would be okay to invite my partner." Laughing, he continued, "Carlos doesn't read as much as I do, and maybe you folks can encourage him to read more."
All heads turned as Ginger walked in accompanied by a dark-haired man, slender, almost effeminate, neatly dressed in black slacks and polo shirt, wearing an uncertain smile.
"Damn," Wanda whispered in Cissie's ear. "I should have found something more powerful than a coat button."
All Cissie could say was, "Sweet Jesus."
Cissie awoke next Sunday morning to what at first sounded like knocking at her bedroom door, then a scratching noise. She opened her eyes and whatever she'd been dreaming evaporated in the sunlight streaming through the openings between the curtains. A glance at the bedside clock showed 9:37. Again, the scratching noise.
Rags. His bladder must be bursting.
Cissie hurriedly put on robe and slippers and let the dog out the kitchen door into the back yard.
"Nine-thirty!" she said aloud. She'd never make it to Sunday School on time. She never slept this late, though the past few days she had felt lethargic. "The Blahs" she termed it, but it was more complicated than that. Ever since Thursday night. It was what she deserved for listening to Wanda's devilish schemes about juju candles. She had decided once again to distance herself from her old friend. Wanda had left several messages on her answering machine but she hadn't returned the calls. And no more book club.
Cissie looked around the kitchen, the familiar cabinets, the aging appliances, the old-fashioned table and chairs. She needed a project to occupy herself—maybe remodeling the kitchen. She looked again at the table—where Liddie had first pulled herself up to standing, where Jake had sat doing the monthly bills, where the three of them had supper every evening. Tears burned and she sat heavily on a creaking chair, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes to stop their flow. She hadn't felt this bad in months. "Dear Lord," she whispered, "help me through this." But the leaden feeling remained. Maybe she'd skip church altogether today.
Scratching at the kitchen door intruded into her dark thoughts and Cissie rose to let in the dog and give him food and water. 'The Lord helps those who help themselves,' she thought, and went into the bedroom to get ready for church.
The number of people crowding the auditorium was surprising. Almost like Easter. Cissie tried to remember if it was some special holy day. She should have read the church bulletin that was mailed every week, but it was always the same old same old. Maybe Reverend Whiteside had said something about a special service; she couldn't remember.
The familiar hymns sung by the congregation, the harmony of the choir, the smell of dusty carpet and fresh wood polish, the gleaming blues and reds of the stained glass windows, soothed her. Then the pastor introduced the special speaker: Dr. T. Davis Bilton was an evangelist on a 'Wake Up America' crusade.
A tall, ruddy-faced man, whose broad-shouldered, well-tailored suit could not disguise his paunch, strode to the platform. Dr. Bilton took Genesis chapters 18 and 19 as his text, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In dramatic tones, from barely audible whispers to thundering bombast, he drew parallels between the wicked cities of the plain and all the abominations rampant in the United States, chiefly "men lying with men as though they were women." While all the difficulties America was currently experiencing might not be direct punishments from God, they were signs of what lay in store unless it turned from its evil path. An extra offering was taken to support this important ministry, and CDs were on sale in the church vestibule. Cissie felt nauseous.
After the service, Dr. Bilton and the pastor stood at the exit, greeting parishioners as they departed, but Cissie avoided them. She also declined the invitation to join some of the women from her Sunday School class, and their husbands, at the K&W cafeteria they often went to after church.
She felt anger rising as she drove home, upset that the church she had gone to her whole life would invite an anti-gay speaker. Jesus was about love and acceptance. He always reached out to the outcast, those whom society shunned. Wasn't the whole point of the New Testament to replace the God of Wrath in the Old? There were lots of things you could get stoned to death for that nobody paid attention to now. She recalled something she'd read about Jesus being gay, He and His 'beloved disciple,' John. She didn't believe it, of course, but neither did she believe the hateful things she'd heard that morning. Or those stories about Mary Magdelene; maybe Jesus was bisexual. She chuckled aloud at this blasphemy. But metaphorically, anyway. Hadn't Jesus said He was all things to all men?
Cissie's cheeks heated with a touch of guilt as she remembered how she'd acted toward William at book club. She had rushed out as soon as it was over, not meeting William's partner, not even saying good-bye. She recalled how relaxed William had seemed, how pleased he was to be accepted. She would go to book club next time and and talk with them, let them know she had no ill feelings. More than this, that she welcomed them and would like to be their friend.
With this decision, she felt a release of the anger and guilt and heaviness that she'd been carrying. There were no shafts of golden light or angels playing trumpets, but she felt a lightness of spirit she'd not felt for a long time. "Thank you, Jesus," she whispered.
At home, she put Rags outside, then took out her journal to write down her insights while they were fresh. She'd no sooner sat down when the telephone rang. 'Probably Wanda,' she thought, and was going to let it ring. But her new found feelings of acceptance extended to Wanda, too, so she hurried to answer it.
"Hello, Cissie? This is William."
She sat heavily in the chair beside the phone table. "William?"
"Yes, from book club. Is this a bad time for you?"
"Oh, no. I was just thinking about you." What should she tell him? Should she apologize?
"You looked ill at book club. How are you feeling?"
"Oh, I'm fine. Yes I was feeling a little . . . bad . . . but I'm much better now. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet Carlos, your partner. I hope I get to talk with him next time."
"Well, I'm afraid not next time. He's my business partner and he's off on another buying trip."
"Your business partner?"
"Yes. We have a small import business. Carlos travels all over Latin America, finding interesting things to send back. Curios and such. We supply retail outlets, not the big chains but small stores. Actually, I had quite a nice talk with your friend, Wanda."
"Yes. She was quite interested in some of our things from Peru and Ecuador."
"I'll bet she was."
"Well, look. I didn't call to talk about business. I, um, called to see if you'd like to have coffee sometime. I'd like to get to know you better. Maybe we could meet at Barnes & Noble for coffee. Sometime this week, perhaps?"
"I prefer tea," was all she could think to say.
"I'm sure they have tea," William said, laughing. "How is Tuesday afternoon, say around four? The Barnes & Noble in Central Mall?"
"All right. Tuesday at four."
As soon as she hung up, Cissie called Wanda. Her friend listened patiently as she told about the sermon, and her thoughts in the car, and William's phone call.
"Uh-huh," Wanda said. "I thought it would work better this time."
"What would work better?"
"The juju candles. I got some more personal items when William came by the shop—a signed business card and hairs from his head."
"Yeah. While he was looking around the shop, he left his hat on the counter. He is shedding a little, you know."
"Wanda!" Cissie said, laughing, tears coming to her eyes. "Wonderful, wacky Wanda! I don't know if it's juju or Jesus, but something's going right for a change."
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