Thirty Feet from Jesus
by James C. Bassett
"Parallax. It's when parallel lines converge to a point in the distance. Look."
Charlie pointed through the windscreen at the road ahead. The asphalt cut a black penstroke, absolutely straight and flat, to the horizon, slicing the barren sandplain into perfect mirror-image halves. Heat-shimmer wavered the distance in every direction.
Blue jammed his knee under the wheel to steer while he reached behind him with both hands and grabbed the headrest. He pulled hard, arching his back. His spine popped. "This has to be the single most boring road on the planet."
"It wouldn't be so bad if you'd just shut up about it," Ned said from the back seat.
Jack leaned his head against the rear-door window to feel the vibration. "I think the problem is, he wants you to quit complaining, Blue. If you hate it so much, why don't you let someone else drive?"
"You'd just get us lost."
"Lost? How could we get lost out here?"
"The road is straight, Blue," Ned muttered. "There are no exits, nowhere else to go but straight ahead."
"Could everybody just shut up, please?" Jen scrunched down between Ned and Jack, pushing her knees between the front seats. "I'm trying to sleep, for Christ's sake."
Before Blue could decide upon a retort, Charlie clapped his hands in delight and shouted, "Hey, speaking of Christ!"
The figure standing by the side of the road was lost far behind before anyone else saw it.
"What was it?" Ned asked.
"It was Jesus!"
"Shut up, Charlie."
Charlie clambered around so he was kneeling on his seat and propping his chin on the headrest to peer into the back seat.
"No, really. He looked just like the pictures of Jesus you see in Sunday school. Didn't you see him?"
Jack and Ned stared blankly at him; Jen kept her eyes closed.
"He had long brown hair and a beard," Charlie continued undeterred, "and he was wearing sky-blue robes and everything. I swear."
Jack gazed up at the sun-bleached sky. "The sky is white, not blue."
Ned snickered. "Don't be difficult," Blue snapped. "Was he hitching? Should we stop?"
"There's no room," Ned said.
We could toss some of Blue's drums from the wayback," Jack told him. "He only ever uses three anyway."
Blue threw a candy bar wrapper over his shoulder. "Shut up, Jack. I'm serious. What's someone doing out here on foot? It's the middle of nowhere, there's nothing around -- we haven't even passed another car in twenty minutes. He might need help."
Charlie sat properly in his seat again. "I want to know what he was doing out here in the first place."
"Wandering in the desert, I should think," Ned said.
Charlie ignored him. "Where did he come from? How did he get all the way out here?"
"There must be a town or something up ahead," said Blue.
"So why was he walking this way?" Charlie asked. "If he lives near here, he knows there's nothing this way."
"Maybe his car broke down."
Ned leaned forward. "Why would he go back, then? He'd still know there was nothing this way."
"Unless he'd been coming the other way," Jack said. "If there's nothing up ahead, he might have walked this way hoping to find something."
"We should go back."
Ned shook his head. "Blue, we don't have room. Besides, he's a couple miles back by now. We'll be lucky to make it to the next gig on time anyway, but we'll miss it for sure if we stop and turn around."
"Where is our next show, anyway?" Jack asked. "I don't even know what state I'm in anymore."
"I'm going back."
"Wait -- what's that?"
They all stared where Charlie pointed. Blue lifted his foot off the accelerator; the car slowed just enough for everyone to clearly see the man who stood along the roadside.
"That would be my guess," Jack said with a yawn.
Charlie turned to look back. "No, I mean -- I mean. . . ."
"That was the same guy."
Blue sped up again. "Couldn't have been."
"It was, I swear."
"He did look like a Sunday school Jesus," Ned admitted.
"What was he doing there?"
"Standing," Jack said.
"Standing," Jack said again. "Really. He was just standing there."
Jack yawned again. "Are we meant to understand the mind of God, Blue?"
"Shut up, Jack. It's not Jesus."
"Who art thou to judge, Blue?" Ned asked.
"Judge not others, lest ye be judged, Blue," Jack intoned.
Ned raised an eyebrow. "Lest ye be judged blue?"
"Can't you two ever be serious?"
Ned and Jack looked at one another and scowled intensely. "Ow," Ned griped after a few moments. "This hurts."
Jack smiled and shrugged. "Guess we can't. Sorry, Blue."
Jen elbowed them both in the ribs.
"Nice to know you're still with us," Jack told her.
"I wish I wasn't," she said. "I had a bad feeling about this tour right from the start."
Charlie lurched forward. "Not again! Look!"
"Slow down, Blue."
Slowing down meant just barely dipping below the speed limit. Still, it was enough for everyone in the car to catch a good look at the man on the roadside.
He looked just like the other two men they had passed: scraggly brown hair, brown beard, piercing Aryan-blue eyes. His age was indeterminate, his height and build perfectly medium. As the car sped past, he stretched out his arms as though calling them to him.
"Maybe," Jack muttered. "But not mine."
"A veritable host of Jesi," Ned offered.
Charlie turned to watch the figure recede into distance. "I wonder what's going on."
Ned tapped his watch and held it to his ear. "Is it the Apocalypse already? And me without a thing to wear."
"I really don't want to be here," Jen announced sourly.
"No one wants to be at the Apocalypse," Ned told her.
"That's not what I meant."
"The Apocalypse would explain the Second Coming," Jack said. "But what about the Third and Fourth?"
"Shut up, you spuds." Blue yawned, then said to Charlie, "It's probably just some kind of promotion. You know, like for one of those huge Baptist churches or something."
"Where? Blue, there's nothing in sight for a zillion miles."
"Why are you getting so worked up about this anyway, Charlie?" Jack asked. "So there's three guys dressed like Jesus standing by the road in the middle of a desert. What's the big deal?"
"There's nothing else interesting out here," Ned sighed.
Blue pointed. "We could stop and ask this one what's going on."
The Jesus who coalesced out of the rippling heat mirage this time was not alone. He stood in the shadow of an RV parked beside the road. An elderly couple sat before him in folding lounge chairs under a beach umbrella. They both wore green plastic sun visors and sipped cans of Diet Coke through straws as they listened to the Jesus. Airbrushed artwork on the spare tire cover identified the couple as Ed and Mabel Cahill from Memphis, TN. The RV also sported a bumper sticker announcing, "God is my co-pilot."
"Do you want to stop?" Blue asked Charlie.
"No, we don't," Ned and Jack both growled from the back seat.
"I wonder what's going on."
Blue shrugged. "Looked like he was preaching."
"No, I mean it, Charlie. I'm not making fun of you. The look on his face, the way he was moving -- I think he was preaching."
Jack leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "This is too weird."
"It's got to be some kind of a church thing," said Ned. "They probably, like, got dropped off by a bus or something. I'll bet you anything we see a revival tent soon."
"Why out here?"
"In terms of distances around here -- you know, people living so far away from everything -- maybe it's sort of centrally located."
"The center of the middle of nowhere?" Jack asked.
Ned shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"
"But wouldn't they have billboards or signs or something announcing a revival?"
Ned rolled his eyes. "What do you think the Jesi are all for, Charlie?"
"I don't know, Ned," Charlie screamed petulantly. "If I knew what this crap was all about, I wouldn't be wondering about it so much."
"Just be quiet, everyone," Jen snapped. "If I don't get some rest, I'm not going to be able to sing tonight."
"That's okay. Charlie can cover your parts."
"No he can't!"
Her tone provoked a harsh, self-conscious silence in the car for several minutes, which Blue eventually broke by asking, "Does anyone need to stop? 'Cause, if so, I think this is our chance."
The others looked forward. A dark mass on the horizon grew and separated as they approached, its formlessness gradually coalescing into discrete elements -- cars, trucks, vans, and campers of all sorts swarmed on both sides of the road.
Blue slowed to thirty, then to twenty. People milled about the cars, stood in the road, sat on folding chairs or car hoods. Concessions stands advertised hot dogs, sodas, ice cream, cotton candy. Men in black slacks and white shirts stood on platforms, waving Bibles and preaching to the crowds. Other people stood on their cars, selling Jesus statuettes, Jesus mugs, Jesus salt and pepper shakers, Jesus paintings on black velvet, rosary beads and crucifixes. A young boy standing beside a large cardboard box held up a t-shirt bearing the message, Jesus died for our sins, but all I got was this lousy t-shirt.
"I don't see Jesus anywhere," Charlie said as the car inched through the congestion.
"I wouldn't stick around for this, either, if I were him."
"Remember what happened last time," Jack pointed out.
"Don't stop, Blue," Ned said from the back seat.
"Don't worry, I wasn't planning to."
They passed out of the congregation, and Blue quickly resumed his normal speed. The mass behind them receded to a blot, then disappeared altogether into the vastness of distance.
They drove on across the desert, the road as straight as ever, the plain on either side still flat and featureless. Minutes stretched tediously into hours. The sun did not move in the sky. Jen dozed fitfully. Blue drummed his fingers softly on the steering wheel. Ned and Jack and Charlie all stared out the windows at nothing, their vision dulled.
Blue jammed his foot onto the brake pedal. The car screeched to a sudden halt, the rear end skidding sideways.
"Dammit, Blue what the --"
Jack fell silent, and gaped out the windscreen. Even Jen leaned forward to stare.
Planted a few yards in front of the car, exactly in the middle of the road, stood an enormous wooden cross. Naked but for swaddling cloth, Jesus hung atop the cross. His hands were nailed to the heavy crossbeam, his feet to the upright, and blood welled freely from these wounds and from a gash in his side just below the ribs. He gazed down at the occupants of the car with a sad, almost longing expression.
"What do we do?" Blue whispered.
"Should we help him?" Charlie asked. "Should we say anything?"
"If you want to talk to him, you'd better do it now," Jack said. "I have a feeling this is going to be your last chance."
"Shut up, Jack."
"It's got to be some kind of a stunt."
"It's not a stunt, Jack. Look at him -- he's really nailed up there. This is for real."
"It can't be."
"I'm going to talk to him," Charlie said. "I'm getting out."
"Don't get out, Charlie," Ned warned. "Blue, get moving."
Blue looked around helplessly. "He's in the way."
"Go around him," Ned said urgently. "Just get us out of here. Now, dammit."
"We can't just leave him like this," Charlie said.
"Yes we can. Drive."
Jen slumped back in her seat and closed her eyes again. "What am I doing here?" she muttered wearily to herself. "I didn't even want to make this trip in the first place."