Is this the Rapture?
The RN&R’s annual holiday fiction story
Besides Easter, Christmas Eve was Dale Branson’s favorite service. He radiated a solemnity more fitting persecution than nativity. The restless children clattering around him on the folding chairs and their overwrought mothers radiated that thing called Christmas cheer. They smiled, they nodded, they sighed, they commiserated. “Mr. Branson, can Freddy use this seat?” He recognized the bony woman speaking to him, though he didn’t recall her name. He recognized the child, too, who wanted the seat, a buck-toothed, special needs kid—they used to call them idiots, he thought. The boy gazed to a distant corner of the community center, where a banner called out for “Peace” or “Joy” or something along those lines.
“Does he know Spanish?” Dale pointed to the banner and shifted his cashmere overcoat into his lap. He’d hoped to have some elbow room, but the church—that is, the little hall they shared with the bridge club—was more crowded than he had seen it in 12 years of attendance.
“He’s just learning his letters, aren’t you, Freddy?” She leaned toward her son, who swung his head and grunted assent. Dale understood what a stupid question he had posed. The boy must have been nine. “He knows the sign for ‘God,’ don’t you, Freddy? And he knows the sign for ‘baby’ and ‘Jesus.'” She appeared to tickle his palm. Freddy drew back his upper lip. The gap between his front teeth must’ve measured a half inch.
The service began with the Holy Church of the Contemporary Christ’s rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the traditional Mendelssohn melody supplanted by a swinging gospel rhapsody. The electric organ wailed. Freddy cheered and danced, butting his head into Dale’s elbow. Dale hummed along, saying, “Excuse me,” now and then to the small music enthusiast.
By the time Reverend Ricketts stood to deliver his sermon, it was nearly midnight and Dale held back a yawn. He felt a twang of pain. Freddy, apparently eager for a communion wafer, was chomping down on his pinkie, two huge buck teeth working the knuckle like a beaver on green wood. Alarmed, Dale nevertheless let the boy gnaw on his finger, unsure what to do. “Um, Mrs. ….” In his business life he never forgot names. He understood the value of names.
“Freddy, no!” Her wide shoulders dipped over her Christmassy plaid skirt. “Oh, Mr. Branson, we’re so sorry.”
“He’s ready to be cleansed of his sins,” Dale joked.
“What sins could this boy have?” her spectacles turned on him.
Before he had a chance to explain, Reverend Ricketts bellowed, “And tonight I invite you to witness the miracle! A shepherd, an anonymous shepherd, has risen amongst our flock and pledged … one million dollars for the construction of our long-awaited Stadium of Prayer!” Oohs and aahs filled the hall before an enfilade of thundering applause swept over the congregation. Dale felt warmth swell inside him. Reverend Ricketts beamed a grin through the dim hall as if seeking out the unnamed hero. “Let us pray that we may all find the will to sacrifice worldly material for spiritual gain.”
The congregation stirred. Whisperers whispered. Dale noticed dozens, soon hundreds of eyes, glasses and grins lasering in on him. He looked straight ahead, mortified. White faces, brown faces, black faces, big and small. He was the only one in the flock even remotely capable of donating a million dollars to the Holy Church of the Contemporary Christ, and he wished Ricketts had been more discreet.
“Let us share the Peace of the Lord!” the reverend called. People hugged and shook hands. Freddy’s mom clung to Dale’s neck, whispering in his ear, “It’s the most wonderful Christmas ever.” Freddy scratched at Dale’s pant pocket, where Dale would later find a blot of drool darkening the seam. He shuffled away from the boy and his mother, glancing around with a fake smile.
A dark, bearded Hispanic man hunched in a jeans jacket and sandals. He nodded, showing gray, rotted teeth as he pointed a crooked index finger at Dale before someone escorted the demented addict toward the altar.
Dale’s neck felt damp. He wanted to leave, even before Communion. It wasn’t a sacrifice—it was a tithe—and paradoxically he wished he were home, where always the ghost of a cavernous loneliness threatened to tap him on the shoulder.
He pushed his security code into the bleeping green box. A stocking-capped gnome flickered to life in its recessed niche and announced, “Welcome to my garden!” Dale clacked beneath a colorful frieze of the Last Supper into the kitchen. Lights popped on automatically wherever he walked. He opened the restaurant-sized refrigerator to see what midnight snack Theresa had left him. When he saw the giant slice of homemade lemon meringue pie, he was glad she had refused to take the day off.
He hung his head in prayer before taking a bite. The espresso machine hissed to life. Startled, he looked up. Theresa must have set it to go off.
His life had begun with a prayer. He had been living 32 years when his life began, and since that time of transformation he had tried to live as a servant of God. He was married back then but was no servant to his wife Martha, who waited tables and came home grumpy. He was a mediocre student of electrical engineering. They moved from one job to the next after he dropped out, a year’s tuition short of a degree.
He arrived in Carson City in the late ‘80s to work as a line supervisor at a light manufacturing plant. Martha finally seemed happy. His employer made a public offering that bombed, and he was included in the first round of firings. A job counselor told him to give himself one month for every $10,000 of annual salary he wanted. Just three months, he decided. He wasn’t a greedy man.
After four months, he decided to move to Reno. He could live poor. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner three nights a week proved that. Martha nagged him to file for unemployment, which he considered welfare: a payroll tax to benefit the shiftless. Give unto Caesar, his father would say every April.
Like his father, he attended church out of habit—Martha was too tired after a busy Saturday night—and he even attended a Bible study class where he could get hot coffee and warm pastries on Thursdays. One Thursday, he shuffled along the sidewalk toward the county complex where he planned to deposit his pride inside an envelope with an unemployment insurance form. He got the whole way to the glass door before erupting, “No, fuck it.” A woman with a maroon beehive pursed her lips in disapproval. Turmoil pecked at his liver the whole afternoon. Sometimes he wished he drank.
Later that day, his friends greeted him in the church cellar on Island Avenue near the river. They spoke about Nicodemus, the Pharisee sent to question Jesus. That was when Jesus declared a person must be born again of the spirit to see the Kingdom of Heaven. In his sour mood, Dale tested the assistant minister, like a Pharisee trying to trip up Christ. “Humans are born once,” Dale said. “You get a job, a cranky wife. The end.” The part about Martha slipped out unintentionally.
The assistant minister said, “It’s true, faith doesn’t guarantee you a job.”
“I need a job,” Dale muttered.
Martha brought home all the dough back then. Dale gardened on their patio. He felt … emasculated. Since he could suffer no greater humiliation than what he already experienced, he decided that night, following the Bible study, to pray. He actually got down on his knees during a commercial for hair-styling gel, squeezed his eyes shut and prayed, “Lord, help me to understand what it means to be born again. If I can figure it out, then I’ll be smart enough to get a job.”
In truth, his butt was back on the couch before his words had time to fly to heaven, but he had done something, and the story of Jesus and Nicodemus pestered him. Later that night, long after Martha had gone to bed, he caressed the wilted leaf of a potted tomato plant. If he couldn’t earn money to buy food, he would grow it, but nothing had grown in the pots out on the tiny concrete deck.
Somehow, in his sleepy head, the Bible study and a friend’s gardening advice got mixed up. “Has your faith wilted? Did you check the ph level?” Dale imagined himself praying again, and a spirit came to him, and he knew he must start his own business. An infomercial was playing on TV when he awoke. “Has your garden wilted?” Dale said to the television. “Check the ph level.” Martha wasn’t too thrilled to hear he was applying for a small business loan.
And so was born Garden Magic, a metal stick that measured the ph level of the soil, sometimes accurately. It came with directions that recommended sending a soil sample to the local agricultural division.
The beauty of Dale’s ideas was that they incorporated old patents from the first wave of digital and microchip technologies that had outlived their usefulness. Marketing Garden Magic during the wee hours created just enough demand that he could barely satisfy his old employer, who was now his manufacturer.
Sadly, Martha didn’t share his newfound enthusiasm for business or spiritual matters. As Dale found Jesus, she found a guy named Jesús, who drove a Monte Carlo and had a blue crucifix tattooed on the inside of his forearm. Dale dragged her to free marriage counseling at the Holy Church of the Contemporary Christ, his new place of worship. Martha just said, “Dale, it’s not even a church. It’s someone’s house.” This was prior to the warehouse, the middle school gymnasium and, finally, the community center.
He and Martha were divorced before the advent of Garden Gnome Plus, which came with a free “Sprite Ride” attachment if you ordered in the next fifteen minutes. The Garden Gnome Plus could sprinkle, greet, scare crows, spin and grin. Plus, he was waterproof. (The sound board fizzled out on the first model whenever the sprinkler operated.)
America loved it. Each gnome had a personalized name tag. The popularity of Garden Gnome Plus made Chia Pets seem only a passing fancy. Pet rock? Bah. Keep Garden Gnome Plus inside your apartment to frighten intruders. One of Dale’s commercials showed a menacing black glove twisting a knob. The burglar flees in confusion when Garden Gnome Plus shouts, “Go away, Birdies!”
Dale slurped the dregs of his decaf espresso. He almost dropped the demitasse when he heard Peter, the gnome in the mansion’s side hall, say, “Welcome to my garden!”
He had no friends who would visit him this late. Maybe it was Theresa? He slipped under the frieze of the Last Supper and saw a dim figure bending over the gnome. The person didn’t move, but a voice said, “It’s so clever. And if both motion sensors go off at once?”
“Go away, Birdies!” Peter shouted.
“You can set them to sequence or random,” Dale said. “There’s a three-way toggle. Hey, do I know you?” He thought to run to the bedroom for his 9 mm. The security company would be getting a phone call.
“Where’s your Christmas tree?”
The voice didn’t seem to be coming from the stranger’s mouth. It came from everywhere, more inside Dale’s own head than without.
Dale’s nose twitched. The stench reminded him of guided hunting trips in Big Smoky Valley—desert, mountain, body odor. Whoever he was, this guy needed a shower.
“The police will be here any minute,” Dale said. “Take what you want and leave.”
The man moved toward him out of the dark hallway. He had some kind of plush shawl covering his shoulders. He was as short as Martha, 5’3”, with wild black hair and a curly, untamed beard.
Stepping backward, Dale said, “Aren’t you chilly in those sandals?”
The man brushed past him, asking, “So where’s your tree?”
Dale let out a gasp. The words and his lips weren’t in sync. The lips moved as if in Aramaic but the words came to Dale in resonant American.
“I don’t have one, I swear.” Dale slipped away to trip the alarm. Before he took two steps, the house quaked with the wail of the burglar alarm, and all the lights popped on.
“Come on back,” the man called.
Dale trembled as he walked.
“The tree’s a pagan symbol?” the man said. “And that’s not what Christmas is about?”
“Yes,” Dale said.
“Dale, do you have the Christmas spirit?” the little man grinned. His hawkish nose bobbed. He seemed to be mocking Dale. “You gave them a lot of money.”
“Do you plan on killing me?” Dale imagined it was a cult leader and wondered if there were others.
“And you don’t recognize me?” he asked.
“I’ve never seen you before. I can give you money, jewels if you want.”
“Or a hot cup of cocoa?”
“I think so,” Dale stuttered, unsure where Theresa kept the cocoa. His life might depend on knowing where she kept the cocoa. He shut his eyes and motioned his lips in a fleeting prayer.
“Dale,” the man said, “is this who you think I am?” His face and body morphed. He rose until he was 6’3” and his suddenly blond hair flowed over his crimson shawl. His blues eyes pierced Dale’s heart.
“Lord, it is you!”
Dale fell to his knees. He covered his face with his hands. “Is this the Rapture?”
He clung to Christ’s knees. He wept and finally worked up the temerity to gaze upon the face of the Son of Man.
He was the olive-skinned Semite again. Dale reminded himself that he was in the presence of the living God.
“Why are you crying?” he asked Jesus.
Copious tears wet his curly beard. “Just for once, for once, I would like to be recognized without turning into an Aryan. Ye of little faith. It always takes a miracle. I mean, it’s as if … it’s like. …” He seemed at a loss for words.
“It’s like with Thomas,” Dale offered.
“Yes, exactly. If you’re not sticking your fingers into my wounds—and that hurts, you know—you won’t accept my divinity.”
“I’m sorry, Lord Jesus Christ.”
For a long time they looked at each other.
“OK,” Jesus said, “take a look.” He opened his palm where a red blossom appeared. “Do you need to touch it?”
Dale wanted to. “No, no, of course not, Lord! Lord, is this the Rapture?”
“Dale, you’ve read the Gospels every week for years. When did I ever say anything about a Rapture? The righteous disappearing to heaven, everyone else left behind to battle Lucifer’s legions? Come on, it sounds like bad fiction.”
“Well, Lord, you did say—”
“Don’t quote Scripture to me, Dale.”
“You’re right, Lord, I’m so sorry.”
After a few uncomfortable minutes of silence, Dale ventured, “Lord, why did you come?”
“What, you want me gone? The little Jewish carpenter shows up for a bisl of kugl, and you hurry me out into the nas and kalt?”
The Savior grinned. He seemed to keep changing, not only his face, but one personality to another.
Jesus held out his hands. “I’m here, Dale, because you’re lonely. I’m your eye in the needle. I’ll cradle you forever.” Jesus smoothed Dale’s tears as a mother would. “You’re distracted. You can’t help but notice my feet aren’t clean. Walking the desert in sandals doesn’t make for clean feet, you know. Did you think it was nothing when Mary washed my feet with her hair? Or when I washed the feet of my own disciples?”
Dale awoke in his silk pajamas. It was Christmas morning, a Saturday, and Theresa rattled around in the kitchen. A set of second cousins, hangers-on from Modesto, would be showing up for dinner in the afternoon. By now, Theresa certainly would have found the gift he set out for her, a diamond bracelet, nothing too fancy or expensive. He was eager for his traditional car ride, three hours of sacred music in the Jaguar with no one on the mountain roads.
The day passed, the evening passed, and he gave little thought to the visitation, which must have been delusion or dream. He had felt the warmth of the man. He had seen the wounds. Before he slept that night, he prayed for understanding.
The next morning he left to attend his usual Sunday service. As he stepped toward the garage, he noticed that Peter, his garden gnome, was missing. Maybe Theresa had moved him for cleaning.
He stood from his folding chair and accepted peace from those around him. “Peace be with you,” he returned, shaking hands. Stumbling toward him up the makeshift aisle, Freddy held a malformed mass of hardened and glazed clay. Dale was surprised when the boy stopped before him, looking up.
“He couldn’t wait,” his mother caught up. “He made this in Sunday school last week, but he forgot to give it to you on Christmas Eve.”
Freddy slammed the hardened clay into Dale’s groin. Dale jerked and gasped for air, managed a thank-you and wondered what it was. Whatever it was, there were buck teeth marks in it. It was roundish, and a drop of saliva clung to it. It was blue and purple with a smear of yellow here and there.
The mother turned Freddy back to his seat as the organ wailed, the trap kit pounded and voices rose.
“Wait!” shouted Dale. He ran to the boy, bent onto his knees and squeezed him. Freddy made a gleeful squeal and gnawed on Dale’s pristine white collar. Dale picked him up and spun him.
He saw that Freddy’s mom was in tears, too. He admitted to her that he forgot her name—Jolette, she said.
As he returned to his seat wiping tears he saw the dark, bearded man in the jeans jacket and sandals lurking near the double doors. He motioned to Dale. He pointed a curly index finger as if in accusation. Or invitation. It was hard to tell. Dale wouldn’t have gone to him except that he saw Peter. He reasoned later that it could have been one of ten thousand Garden Gnome Pluses with similar coloring and clothing. The name tag was missing, but wouldn’t a thief remove the tag? The man, who Dale knew drifted from one recovery program to the next, held up the Garden Gnome Plus for display. He canted and smirked as Dale approached.
“What’s your name?”
“No speak English.”
“I’m Dale. What’s your name?” Dale gestured.
“Ah. Juan,” he said.
Again, Dale lowered himself to his knees. John. The one who preceded Jesus. “Were you in my house the other night, Juan?”
Juan wriggled in fear, the garden gnome bobbing overhead, but he couldn’t free himself of Dale’s embrace.
“It’s cold outside,” Dale said, “and you’re wearing sandals.”
Someone grabbed the garden gnome because Juan was threatening to smash it on Dale’s head. One way or another, whether Juan liked it or not, he was going to have a hot shower in a million-dollar mansion and, oddly enough, clean toe nails. Dale enlisted Reverend Ricketts to supervise, and he thought it best not to explain himself too thoroughly, but he insisted on performing the long overdue pedicure himself.