By Ryan Shoemaker
Ryan Shoemaker’s story collection Beyond the Lights is forthcoming from No Record Press. T.C. Boyle called it a collection that “moves effortlessly from brilliant comedic pieces to stories of deep emotional resonance.” Ryan’s work has appeared in Gulf Stream, Santa Monica Review, Booth, Juked, and Silk Road. Find him at RyanShoemaker.net.
Or download the audio file here: Jesus Christ (Almost) Visits the Mormons
Mormon Bishop Bruce Horkley of the Burbank 4th Ward sat at his desk, rehearsing out loud for the sacrament meeting he’d preside over in thirty minutes. He wanted his delivery of the weekly announcements to be flawless and spiritually evocative. And Thursday night, the Relief Society will have a quilting project. He cleared his throat. The timbre of his voice must sound solemn and apostolic. The Boy Scout Pancake Breakfast fundraiser will be this Saturday at nine. He slowed his tempo to emphasize each syllable, as if every halting word, no matter how mundane, bore a weight on his soul that might bring tears to his eyes at any moment. And the Red Cross blood drive will take place next Thursday at the Riverside building. All donors will receive a coupon for a free pint of Baskin Robbins ice cream. Bishop Horkley raised his chin and fixed his narrowed eyes on the ceiling, mouth slightly agape—an expression somewhere between euphoria and indigestion he’d been working on for the last month in his bathroom mirror.
Suddenly, there were three soft knocks at the office door.
Bishop Horkley smiled, silently congratulating himself on the foresight to lock the door. A month ago, his first administrative decision as the new bishop was to stop paying Sister Peterson’s premium cable package. Dale Carney, second counselor in the bishopric, had pled the old woman’s case: “She’s eighty-eight years old, Bishop, lives on a fixed income, and doesn’t have family for five hundred miles. She gets a little lonely. She keeps the TV on all day just to feel like somebody’s home with her.” Bishop Horkley rattled the cable bill in his hand. “But the premium cable package?” he asked. “HBO. Cinemax. Showtime. What’s wrong with basic cable? What’s wrong with Bonanza reruns and PBS? Have you seen the quality coming out of public broadcasting? Antique Roadshow. This Old House. New Scandinavian Cooking.” Bishop Horkley brought a closed fist down on his desk. “Brother Carney, these are the Lord’s sacred funds!”
Sister Peterson had called a week later, begging the bishop to at least let her finish the last season of Game of Thrones before he cut her off. Bishop Horkley was unmoved. And now he suspected the old lady was dropping by his church office to argue her case in person.
There were three more knocks at the door. And then, as if acted upon by an unseen hand, the lock mechanism clicked and the door handle turned. A bearded man, with thick brown hair parted down the middle, stood in the doorway. He wore sandals and what seemed to be a white bathrobe.
Bishop Horkley rose from behind the desk, his hand involuntarily brushing over his bald, speckled head, a habit he had when seeing a man with luxuriant hair.
“Excuse me.” The bishop gave his words a flinty edge, hoping this man—obviously homeless and certainly insane and no doubt sniffing around for a few bucks—would catch the irritation in his voice.
Bishop Horkley suspected the word was on the streets about the new Mormon bishop in Burbank, whispered through some skid-row grapevine or penned on dingy bathroom stalls. For the last month, they’d come in droves—the insane, the homeless, the indigent—each Sunday, hoping for a pushover and an easy handout. There’d been a legless man in a Jazzy wheelchair painted with red racing stripes, a deranged old woman with a kitten in her purse that she’d occasionally pull out and lick, and a whole family of gypsies—real gypsies with gold teeth and accordions—who just needed some money, not much, they said, to buy a Blu-ray player. “I’m sorry,” Bishop Horkley had told all of them with a stern finality, “but these are the Lord’s sacred funds.”
The bearded man didn’t say anything; with a half smile, he just stared at Bishop Horkley with brown, amiable—or crazy—eyes that absorbed him and everything in the office at a glance. The gaze unsettled Bishop Horkley, who began to wonder if this man had picked the lock and entered his office to steal something—or even to do him bodily harm.
“Are you looking for someone?” the bishop asked. His heart thudded against his crisply pressed white shirt.
“I’m looking for you,” the man said. “You don’t recognize me?”
A clammy sweat glazed Bishop Horkley’s bald head. His glutes clenched, just in case he had to vault the desk and shoulder his way through the office door. He’d heard about this before, some jilted homeless case, denied a handout, returning for vengeance. He stared at the man—who did look vaguely familiar—trying to place him. Had he stopped by in the last month for a handout? Bishop Horkley couldn’t remember.
“Do I know you?” the bishop asked.
“Well, I hope so,” the man said. He stepped into the office, and, with a quick swipe of a finger through the air, the heavy door closed. Then the man turned his hands to show his palms. “I’m Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Horkley gaped at the nail prints. “Lord, I’m so sorry. I didn’t recognize—” And then a thought struck him. He pivoted to look out his office window. “Is this the Second Coming?” he asked. “The end of times? The final judgment?” The bishop took in the great sprawl of the San Fernando Valley overlaid with a golden haze of pollution and particulate matter. In the distance, car windshields winked brightly on the I-5. Jetliners roared out of Bob Hope Airport. Forest Lawn Cemetery appeared placid and pastoral, ropes of silvery water arcing from the sprinklers. No open graves and risen dead. No engulfing fire over the Hollywood Hills. No dark horsemen charging up Sunset Canyon Drive. Bishop Horkley was relieved it wasn’t the end of the world—he was only one month into his five-year tenure as bishop.
Jesus laughed. “It’s not quite the end yet—though I get that all the time. No, I just like to get out sometimes to visit my flock.”
“I see,” Bishop Horkley said, not knowing the etiquette for divine visitation. Should he offer up his cushioned, high-backed leather chair and take one of the wooden chairs lining the office wall? The sight of the wooden chairs, the uninviting dark stripes of lacquered oak grain and the sharp, perfect angles of the armrests, sent a flash of hot pain down Bishop Horkley’s right thigh.
The bishop causally rested a hand on the high leather back of his chair, a subtle, proprietary gesture. And why would Jesus need a soft chair, he thought? As a resurrected being, couldn’t he sit comfortably on a bed of nails?
“So,” Bishop Horkley said, trying to fill the silence.
“May I sit?” the Lord finally asked, motioning to one of the wooden chairs.
Bishop Horkley was relieved. “Of course. Please.”
Jesus sat and crossed his legs. “I want to attend your meetings today. I want to instruct and bless the members of the Burbank 4th Ward.” Jesus raised his arms. “If their faith is sufficient, maybe I’ll even do some healing.”
Bishop Horkley was distracted. He couldn’t help staring at Jesus’ long beard and sandals. It’d never occurred to him that the Savior of Mankind bore a striking resemblance to his third-grade teacher, Mr. Blum, a bearded, Birkenstock-wearing, banjo-strumming hippie—an alumnus of UC Berkeley, who’d made them march around the playground singing weepy dirges by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Even as an eight-year-old, the bishop didn’t like the man’s liberal, counterculture leanings.
“Oh, you want to stay for church?” Bishop Horkley asked. “Like for the entire three hours?”
“Yes. I think the ward members would enjoy it,” Jesus said.
Bishop Horkley nodded. “Lord, let me just say that your presence among us—not just in spirit—would be a great blessing, never to be forgotten, I’m sure.” He sucked in a mouthful of air and let it go with a low grunt. “It’s just that—”
“You’re worried about your congregation,” Jesus said. “You feel my divine presence might overwhelm them at first?”
“Oh, no, no, nothing like that,” Bishop Horkley said. “I’ve come down with an iron fist over the last month, really pounded into the members the need for reverence, punctuality, and modesty, daily scripture study and prayer—otherwise they’ll face damnation. No, Lord, I think they’re worthy of your presence. It’s just that . . . I wonder if what you’re wearing—though I’m sure it was quite fashionable in ancient Palestine—might be slightly disruptive. I’m just concerned about some of our younger, more impressionable deacons. It’s taken me a whole month just to get them to wear a full suit and vest. They see you and next Sunday I may have a dozen deacons show up for church in bathrobes and flip-flops. And the beard. I mean, it’s not like in your day you could just run down to the Rite Aid in Nazareth to pick up a Gillette Fusion. But I fear the priests will see the beard as a license to become Grizzly Adams. No offense, Lord. These kids just don’t understand historical context. That’s my humble concern.”
Jesus tugged at his beard. “Disruptive? You think so?”
“I do, Lord,” Bishop Horkley said. “If we could move you just a baby step into the twenty-first century.” The bishop reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a handful of ties, each sealed in a sleeve of clear, sterile plastic. “I bought them from a discount bin at Walmart. Ten ties for ten bucks. What a deal! Say what you want about the Chinese, but they make a darn good tie.” The bishop slid one across the desk. “I think red’s a good color for you.”
Jesus eyed the tie suspiciously. “Well, okay. Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “So I had this thought. For the sacrament, I want to perform a miracle: make a loaf of bread appear out of thin air. As the Bread of Life, I think members will appreciate the symbolism of the gesture. Then I’ll break and bless the bread.”
“Wow,” Bishop Horkley said. “That would be memorable!” Then he looked at his hands. “It’s just that—”
Jesus raised his eyebrows.
“I hesitate bringing it up,” the bishop said, brushing away a speck of dust from the desktop. “It’s just that I was wondering, Lord, if this miraculous loaf of bread could be, say, whole grain, gluten-free, and organic? Maybe a brown rice or quinoa? I feel silly even asking, but Sister Kipner will give me heck if even a molecule of gluten passes between her twins’ lips.”
“What are you saying?” Jesus asked.
Bishop Horkley clasped his hands together. “If it’s not too much to ask, Lord, could we just stick with the Whole Foods organic tapioca bread we’ve been using?”
“No bread miracle?” Jesus’s voice ticked up an octave.
“It would just mean fewer problems—for me,” Bishop Horkley said. “Fewer complaints, fewer distractions as I humbly labor to lead this flock back to your presence. I just don’t have the stomach for another of Sister Kipner’s lectures on gut inflammation, intestinal permeability, and smelly stools.”
“Well . . . okay,” Jesus said, staring blankly at the desktop. “Then I’ll just have to convey my infinite and everlasting love when I address the congregation. These are trying times. Many are struggling right now, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and financially. I can hear it in their prayers. They’re worried about crime, unemployment, global warming, overpopulation, gun control, healthcare costs, illegal immigration, bio-warfare, terrorism, drought, earthquakes, clowns, infidelity, robots.”
Bishop Horkley nodded earnestly but was suddenly distracted by a thin, barely audible sound from the baseboard behind his desk, a sound like a pair of tiny teeth gnawing on wood. Bishop Horkley’s fingers coiled into tight fists. A rat in the Lord’s house! Unthinkable!
“Prescription drug abuse,” Jesus continued, “failing schools, social security, cyber bullying, erectile dysfunction—”
“Is it a long message?” Bishop Horkley asked loudly, hoping to scare the rat away.
“What?” Jesus said.
“I mean”—the bishop drummed his knuckles against the desktop—“how many minutes? Two? Five? Ten? It’s just that you picked one doozy of a Sunday to visit, Lord—though I’m so glad you’re here, so honored by your presence. You see, I asked Brother and Sister Spears to speak, and if they don’t get every second I promised them, I’ll hear about it for the next three months. I’m sure you know what a pain in the keaster they are.” Bishop Horkley snapped his fingers. “Hey, I wonder, Lord, if just your holy presence would be enough to convey that message of love and hope. I can see it now: you sitting on the stand, projecting goodness and love—but never speaking a word, just a tear or two sliding down your cheeks. I could even kind of lean over and put my arm over your shoulder. That would really drive it home.”
“Just sit there and say nothing?” Jesus asked.
“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply,” Bishop Horkley said. “I think that was Ronald Regan. Powerful words from the Gipper.”
Jesus uncrossed his legs. “Well, how about after sacrament meeting? I thought I’d visit the Primary children. You know, kind of like what I did during my earthly ministry.”
Bishop Horkley pulled a white handkerchief from his breast pocket. “That story gets me every time.” He dabbed at his moist eyes. “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Yes, exactly,” Jesus said, scooting to the edge of his chair, his voice animated. “I want to take the children up in my arms, put my hands on them and bless them—”
Bishop Horkley raised his palm. “No touching.”
“What?” Jesus’s broad shoulders slumped.
“No hugging. No lap sitting. It’s just better not to touch them,” Bishop Horkley said. “Parents freak out about that kind of stuff. And remember to prop open the classroom door so we can monitor what’s going on. Church policy.” Bishop Horkley patted Church Handbook 2, which sat on the corner of the desk. Its merlot cover and smooth finish comforted him. He found the same comfort in the dense insurance manuals he pored over at work, all the procedures and policies and rules safeguarding against chaos.
Bishop Horkley set his elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “And I’m assuming you’ve had a Whooping cough vaccination?”
“Well, no,” Jesus said, his head snapping up, his eyes wide and perplexed, “but I am a resurrected being. Isn’t that enough?”
“I know, right?” Bishop Horkley shook his head. “But tell that to Sister Franklin, our Primary president, and to her six children, who’ve never tasted sugar, and to her hipster husband with that awful beard—no offense, Lord. The family’s one big nut case. I swear they feel God’s put them on this green earth with some liberal agenda to educate us about air-borne diseases and Chromium 6 in the city water, and exhaust particles poisoning the homes around the airport. That’s all they talk about. They keep threatening to move to the Rocky Mountains. I hope.”
“So, no blessing the children?” Jesus said.
“Think of the liability,” Bishop Horkley said. “Anyway, these kids are so sensitive and easily startled, so scared of anything new. They’ll scream stranger danger the minute you walk through the door.”
“You don’t think they’ll recognize me?” Jesus said. He looked hurt.
“Well, maybe some of the older kids,” the bishop said. “But even that’s problematic. It’s like Santa Claus. What kid doesn’t love the idea of a fat man in a red suit dropping down the chimney with a sack full of gifts? But a fat man in a Santa suit at the Burbank Mall? Terrifying!”
“You think I’ll scare them?” Jesus asked.
“The beard and the robe and the long hair,” Bishop Horkley said. “Afraid so. I’m betting they think you’re a homeless guy who just wandered in off the street.”
“I really wanted to see the kids,” Jesus said.
“Well, maybe we can do something,” Bishop Horkley said. “I mean, you did travel a long way.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “How about I go to the Primary room, tell the kids we have a special visitor, then I throw open the curtains—and you’re outside the window, waving and blowing kisses. And then you kind of do this Mary Poppins thing and float away.”
“I don’t know,” Jesus said. “It sounds hokey.”
“Nonsense,” Bishop Horkley said. “Kids love that stuff. This is Southern California, Lord. You’re competing with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disneyland. Even better if you can shoot lasers from your eyes and hurl a couple of fireballs. That just might impress them.”
Jesus scratched the back of his neck. “I’m kind of getting the feeling you don’t need me.”
Bishop Horkley let go a long breath, as if conceding something. He firmly gripped the chair’s padded armrests. “Lord, apart from a couple of eccentrics in the ward, I’m running a tight ship here. You should see the members after sacrament meeting. They don’t say a word—just quietly leave the chapel with bowed heads and folded arms. I’ve turned them into a God-fearing people. You’re a busy man, and I don’t want to waste your time when the lost sheep are out there. But I really appreciate your visit.” Bishop Horkley stood and moved toward the office door.
Jesus stood, too.
“Personally,” Bishop Horkley said, leaning toward the Savior and speaking in a half whisper. “I think your time would be better spent in the Burbank 2nd Ward. You should see those people after sacrament meeting, shaking hands, embracing, talking, smiling. I’ve never seen such irreverence! And that new bishop with the glasses. I’ve heard some ward members actually call him by his first name. Can you imagine that? The disrespect.”
“So there’s nothing you need?” Jesus asked, shuffling through the door. “Nothing I can do?”
Bishop Horkley waved. “We’re good. But it was great to finally meet you. Thanks for thinking of us, Lord. Really.”
The bishop closed the door and stood there, his hand resting on the curved brass handle. Such ardor filled his breast, such peace and joy—that he could report personally to the Son of God that all was well in this small corner of Zion.
He took a step toward his desk, a lightness in his feet, as if he were levitating. Out of habit, he ran his hand over his hairless scalp but stopped and turned suddenly. What had Jesus asked before leaving? Was there something the bishop needed? Something the Savior could do? Of course! His hand shot out for the door handle. It had been forty years since he’d savored the silken weight of a full head of hair. After all his years of dedication and service to the Kingdom, he deserved it!
Bishop Horkley threw the door open, panting in anticipation.
But the Savior was already gone.