Jesus was a good kid, but he could drive his mother crazy. Especially in the summertime. She couldn’t get a single thing done around the house with him tagging after her, leaving a trail of dirty socks and used cereal bowls, mooing I’m boooooooored.
She tried giving him suggestions. Would he like to hold the laundry? Learn how to make chicken chip bake? Run five laps around the house? She would time him . . .
Jesus met every suggestion with a flat look. To his mind, the only thing worse than boredom was an assignment.
Shooing him outside didn’t really work, either. She’d hardly get the screen door shut before she’d hear it slide open again, and behold, there was Jesus, drinking iced tea at the kitchen island, leafing through the Sears catalog, the screen door wide open behind him.
That’s why she took to locking Jesus out on summer days. Before you cluck your tongue, remember that this was the nineteen-eighties, and Jesus was far from the only kid exiled from his house on warm days. In fact, his mother got the idea from Lucifer’s mother down the block, who’d told her, “Honey, there’s a reason that mama birds have to kick their babies out of the nest.”
Summer mornings, Lucifer would wander over to Jesus’s garage, and most of the time he brought along his neighbor Becky. They were all twelve years old, but that summer Becky had started looking like she’d skipped ahead a few years.
She still had the same old Becky face—the snub nose, the spray of freckles—and the same old blonde Becky hair pulled back in a banana clip, but everything below the neck had gone weird. Breasts, to be specific, had entered the picture. Not that it was a particularly clear picture. She’d taken to wearing her father’s t-shirts, which made it hard to keep track of developments, but sometimes the wind would flatten the cloth against her chest, and the boys would get an idea of what was under the shirt. But they wanted a better idea.
“Let’s go to the pool,” Lucifer said day after day, as if the idea had just occurred to him. “That’s a great idea,” Jesus would say. “It is so hot.” But when Becky said, “You guys go ahead if you want to, I’ll just go back home,” the boys lost interest in the pool idea.
Jesus and Lucifer were both small for their age—”Late bloomers,” their mothers assured each other—but at least they hadn’t gotten gawky and clumsy like everyone else. In gym class, Lucifer could wing a dodgeball with such deadly speed and accuracy that only Jesus could dodge it. But who wanted to be nimble? Nimble counted for nothing in middle school. During the day, Jesus and Lucifer made fun of their pimply classmates who tripped over their own feet, but at night both boys drank a gallon of milk and hung from the shower curtain rod, hoping to kick-start a growth spurt, or at least to stretch themselves an extra half-inch.
All this, and they didn’t grow an inch. Becky blossomed, and tried to hide it with huge shirts and bad posture. The universe is cruel and hilarious.
That summer began as so many summers had before. They rode bikes over ketchup packets, chased each other with bottle rockets, attempted yo mama jokes, mutilated worms in the name of science, and argued about which one of the members in Duran Duran was gay (“It’s a trick question,” Lucifer protested. “They’re all gay.”) They invented games like Firing Squad, in which one person stood blindfolded against a garage door and attempted to catch the tennis balls the others rocketed at him. They held mock funerals, taking turns lying in a meadow of milkweed and scratchy Queen Anne’s Lace while the other two looked at the body mournfully. When it was Becky’s turn to be dead, they mourned her body a good, long time.
All of this made for a full and exciting first week of summer. By the second week, they were bored. One muggy morning they laid down on the garage floor, soaking in the coolness of the smooth concrete. Lucifer asked Becky if she had any questions about the male body, seriously, he would answer them.
“Knock it off, or I will leave,” she said. “I will leave so fast.”
“Let’s scream our heads off,” said Lucifer, turning toward Jesus. “I bet your mom will come running out if we scream.”
They did, and she did. “What are you doing?” she said as soon as she realized that no one was hurt. She stood at the door to the garage, holding an unplugged iron like she might brain somebody with it.
“It’s a play,” said Jesus. “We’re practicing a play.”
“Well, don’t,” she said. When the door closed, they heard her lock it.
Lucifer walked around the garage, touching the tools that dangled from the pegboard walls. Jesus said, “Don’t touch that, don’t touch that, that one’s gonna fall, just don’t,” but he was too distracted by the sight of Becky making concrete angels to sound like he really meant it. Then Lucifer came to the Radio Flyer wagon, and touched the handle hanging down.
What happened next wasn’t Lucifer’s fault. Nobody blamed him, even after it came out that the whole thing had been his idea. That was the thing about Lucifer: you could always count on him for an idea.
* * *
Like most neighborhoods around Gary, their block was filled with small ranch houses amid tall trees, mostly oaks and maples. But unlike the rest of the region, which had been scraped flat by glaciers a million years ago, their neighborhood had a big hill. And Jesus’s house was at the top.
Lucifer wheeled the wagon to the sidewalk and pointed it down the hill. He got in front and folded the long black handle back to himself. “I’ll steer.”
Becky got in behind him and grabbed two handfuls of his shirt. “Don’t think I’m going to put my arms around you, because I’m not,” she said. But she did wrap her legs around his waist, Jesus noticed.
This left Jesus to push the wagon from behind, like a tobogganer. Which was harder than you might think—the top of the hill was flat, and the other two were not light—but after a few slow steps, the wagon started picking up speed. He jumped in the back, kneeing Becky’s spine. “Sorry,” he said. He put his hands on her shoulders, but she gave him a black look. “Sorry,” he said again, and wrapped his fingers around the curved edge of the wagonbed.
The wagon really got moving, dropping down the hill like a roller coaster car, running over sidewalk squares like clacketa-clacketa-clacketa. All three of them leaned forward, squinting into the wind—until Becky leaned back into Jesus and he felt her warm weight all over his front like a lead apron, and that’s when the steering went just the slightest bit wobbly.
Lucifer had just enough time to say, “Whoa, now,” before the front wheels turned and locked, throwing the wagon over onto its side. Becky and Lucifer spilled out like dice from a cup. Jesus hung on, clenching harder as the wagon scraped along the concrete with a sound like the end of the universe, finally coming to rest on some guy’s lawn.
“Nice driving, shithead,” said Becky, sitting up to touch a raw spot on her knee.
“You’re the one who leaned back,” said Lucifer. “Threw off the balance.”
Jesus rolled out of the wagon. His skull felt like it was packed with cotton.
Becky said, “How could you tell I leaned back?”
“Well, you did,” said Lucifer. “You just admitted it.”
Jesus held up his hand and waved it in front of his face.
Becky wiped blood from her knee and flicked it at Lucifer. “Glad you were paying attention to the road.”
“Something happened,” Jesus said in a thick voice.
They turned to see him holding up his hand. At first, because there wasn’t much blood, they didn’t know what they were seeing. Was this some kind of sign language? Was Jesus making a joke? A bad joke, like when old bachelor uncles pretend to pull their thumb into two pieces?
Becky’s tongue fell with a clucking sound when she realized that the first joint of his index finger was gone.
Lucifer bolted up the hill. Becky took off after him, her t-shirt billowing like a ghost costume. It didn’t look like they were going for help.
Stay calm, Jesus told himself as he walked up the hill, holding up his stump like a little torch. He rang the doorbell at his house, but got no answer. Then he tried the door inside the garage: still locked, and his mother didn’t answer, even when he pounded. Now his finger was bleeding, and it looked like it was making up for lost time. Calm was a luxury he could no longer afford. If he didn’t get help soon, he thought, he was going to calmly bleed to death.
Jesus kicked the door and screamed so loud it brought tears to his eyes, but still, no answer. Where the hell was his mother? Her station wagon was right there in the driveway! Was she in the bathroom? Was she ironing downstairs with the record player turned up loud? Or was she in the kitchen, thinking I’m not falling for that play nonsense again? Jesus headbutted the door, then spat on it. That didn’t make any sense, but that’s how angry he was.
In the end, it took a call from Mrs. Ray, the neighbor lady, to bring his mother out. “Your son’s doing laps around your house,” said Mrs. Ray. “And it looks like he’s bleeding pretty good.”
Nothing makes an Indiana mother move faster than humiliation in front of the neighbors. She burst out of the front door with a box of band-aids and a bottle of peroxide, both of which she dropped as soon as she saw her son’s hand. “Car! Hospital!” she shouted. “Hustle, hurry, vamoose!” But here came Mr. Ray with a box of sandwich baggies, calling out, “We have to find the finger! They can sew it back on!”
Jesus’s mother hesitated. She didn’t want her boy to lose his finger, but she really didn’t want to prolong this spectacle. But Mr. Ray was already grabbing her arm, and what was she supposed to do? Shake free? Say, forget the finger, I just want this to be over? She joined the search.
They dragged the hill. Mr. Ray, a former lifeguard at Lake Shafer, made them link arms and walk slowly down the sidewalk, three steps forward, two steps back. Jesus was at one end of the line, his hand swaddled in a towel, mainly so none of them would have to look at it. He had finally stopped screaming, but he couldn’t keep from snuffling as he thought my finger, my finger, my finger, the thought like a new pulse. When his mother asked why they didn’t just search around the wrecked wagon, Mr. Ray said that body parts never turned up where you expected them. The finger might have been thrown clear, or tumbled down the rest of the hill. It might have been carried off by a squirrel.
She said, “I am usually not a bad mother, I swear.”
Mrs. Ray said, “Honestly, Hal, a squirrel?”
Mr. Ray led them down the hill, arm-in-arm, like the world’s saddest folk dance.
In the end, Jesus was the one who found the finger. It was just where his mother had predicted, in the grass a few feet away from the crashed wagon. Poking straight up, it looked like a little stake pounded into the ground.
This should have been a happy moment, the moment when everyone felt huge relief, as in the stories of the lost sheep, or the lost coin—but Jesus didn’t feel happy. What he felt, when he found his finger, was wobbly.
His knees buckled, his mother screamed, and for the second time that day, he hit the sidewalk.
The doctor sewed the finger back on, just like Mr. Ray had said he would. The nerves even grew back, mostly. After a year or so, Jesus hardly even thought about it. But when the fingertip got tingly on cold days, or someone noticed that one index finger was just a skosh shorter than the other one, Jesus would think about the day of the crash. And what he remembered first wasn’t the crash itself, or his mother locking him out, or his friends running away when he needed them most. What he remembered was the finger on the lawn.
Death was coming for Jesus. He knew that back then, just as he knew that death wasn’t going to be the end for him. But when he saw his finger—bolt upright on the grass, as if he had been buried and was crawling up through the soil—he knew for the first time that death wasn’t going to be the hard part.