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Fiction, Short Fiction, Humor
A Miracle On Walnut Street
by Mike Johnson
Jesse James, an outlaw, stood in line.
Dust from the rocky lowland trail clung heavily at every fold in his clothes. Drifted in a small gray cloud as he pulled a soiled bandanna from his shirt pocket. He wiped dirt from the corners of his eyes. Rubbing a gaunt unshaven face with the back of his hand, he stared intently at the counter hand. Fluorescent lighting above the checkout counter washed the clerk's pale rounded features of with an unflattering yellow cast. The little man employed a habitual giggle just loud enough to distract or annoy. He fussed unnecessarily. Pale plump hands fluttered nervously above the register keys.
Jesse moved slowly with the line.
He gazed about, losers and loiterers. Pompous and pious all around without direction or resolve. None here were marked with dignity or touched by destiny.
No enemy in sight worthy of salute.
Noise lapped and flowed.
Inane chattering gossip.
Snatches of muted conversation were somehow reassuring, connecting him briefly to a small stream of humanity ebbing slowly by aisles and counters towards the door.
Jesse faced the clerk.
Left hand holding a bottle of cheap red wine. Right hand lightly on the grip of an old break top pistol inside the waistband of his pants.
In a sudden moment of quiet stretching like an ocean between living and dying, the counter hand found reprieve.
He grinned happily, chubby face alive with pleasure methodically counting change from the outlaw's last ten-dollar bill. Jesse caught a reflection of innocence in the smile and indulged himself in his decision to spare a life. Unknowing, unaware of anything beyond his small domain, the officer of wines, spirits and groceries continued with plump banter and cheerful cajoling as the outlaw moved to the exit.
He peered through noonday glare.
Eyes shaded against unexpected brightness. Beyond parked cars filed in orderly rows, a raised knoll with trees and bright manicured grass promised shade and rest. Jesse sat, propping himself against a tree. With legs drawn up he pulled an old stained hat low to cover his eyes. Settling into a comfortable position he opened the bottle and drank.
He jerked awake from long sleeping and slowly pulled into a sitting position. Cramped pain seeped from his neck to shoulder.
Another long comforting draught as he remembered the morning's events. For many years the bottle stood as a buffer against normality and boredom. Of late, excessive drinking had become a needed liniment to soothe the passage of time between waking and sleeping.
So it was today.
Last mouthful of wine swallowed against sudden rising nausea. He closed his eyes and with clenched fists choked back familiar sickness until relief came. Bad feelings passed.
Sweat felt cold on his brow in the midday Texas heat. Slowly Jesse described an uneven path along Seventeenth Street, sometimes steadying himself against walls and trees. At seventeenth and walnut he paused leaning on a low ornamental garden wall.
He thought of his lonely childhood.
Recalled three wasted years in the navy. Reflections from the past briefly filtered to the surface of his remembering.
He sat unsteadily on the wall thinking of Jesse James and the gang. Wondering how much truth would ever be distilled from so many fanciful stories and wild rumors. He gave thanks to the outlaw for good council and friendship always appearing in times of stress or pain.
More frequently of late it seemed.
Jesus Christ, Jesse's soulful eyed savior stood suddenly before him. He dropped to his knees; spread wide both arms and bowed his head, thankful to find redemption so unexpectedly. Jesus spoke with somber intonation gazing down upon the sinner.
Another wandering soul reaching for light in a cruel world of darkness.
" Jesse, Jesse…Obviously our last conversation meant nothing to you. Once again I see you fucked up, crawling along the god dammed sidewalk and behaving like an asshole. I think this is the third time in as many weeks someone has called in a complaint about you." Jesse heard those words from his lord, felt the sounds of admonition like scalding rain upon his skin. Lifting his eyes he saw saint Peter on his left side. Jesus Christ at his right. Without warning he was held beneath his arms and raised to his feet.
Hard burning steel hands leaving smoldering holes in his flesh.
Peter spoke. " Listen to me. The last warning. One more call and you're gone. Two days in the tank. I will personally see that your stay will not be a happy one. I don't give a fuck if you decide to kill yourself but I do care that you do it in a public place". The words continued. Jesse felt each one as a whiplash across his naked back. They left as they appeared. Without fanfare. Silent, magnificent in absolute authority.
Saint Peter with fiery eyes appeared again.
"Go to Jabbies, get a coffee, straighten up for a while." Grasping his wrist the archangel of the lord forced a glowing parchment into his hand. "Here's for a clean break, a new beginning. For that fresh start you're going to make for me."
Meanwhile, fat girl and the white trash trailer bitch moved with their latest haul, all properly positioned upon their shopping carts. Some smaller items were paid for. Others justifiably liberated from claws of the larcenous convenience store stockpile.
Only another half mile or so and then sanctuary within Amberlight.
Amberlight apartments stood at the far end of Walnut Street. A recent newspaper article described the ten shabby buildings as "an affront to our community."
The "community" had endured Amberlight's affront for many years. For many years this seedy block of dwellings had withstood buffeting from local newspaper columnists and self-righteous provincial politicians. Each claiming to represent community interests. Actually, Amberlight apartments were a community in their own right.
Within the decrepit boundaries, many a rogue and misfit found shelter. Blending perfectly into this unsightly conglomerate of humanity was the artist Jesse Walcott. Dear harmless Jesse the painter. Lanky sparse frame and ragged clothes. A wide brimmed straw hat often concealed his face but never diminished the light behind those bright hopeful eyes.
Amberlight afforded him two small rooms and a tiny kitchen wherein he lived comfortably.
An old sleeping bag served as his bed. He would retire to either room when sufficient space was available between paintings and sketches.
A small iron pan boiled, fried, stewed, or baked any edible scraps of convenience. It was occasionally cleaned when flavors conflicted noticeably.
Life was not easy for Jesse.
His artistic soul burned with a driving passion to paint and draw.
In conflict, an equally pressing need to pay rent followed at his heel like an unwelcome shadow.
As this specter of responsibility was held at bay by the liquor bottle, it was often replaced by the shade of a legendry historical figure. The outlaw Jesse James.
To address rent paying and eating requirements Jesse would undertake unskilled laboring work. He would also teach at the local college. Either occupation was afforded equal prominence but always dependant upon his recent intake of booze. There were about twenty occupants of Amberlight at any given time. A few occasionally claimed to have found a home.
To their home then, fat girl and the trailer bitch made their way. Their way, would lead to the end of Walnut Street.
Undoubtedly passing a reborn Jesse Walcott.
"Thought they were going to haul the poor old bastard away this time" Fat girl spoke with some concern.
Bitch ran her fingers through stringy blond hair shaking her head. "He aint really old, I mean really old. About fifty? Maybe a few years either way?" "Well…let's ask him. He aint goin nowhere in a hurry."
Jesse raised his arm, forced himself to straighten cramped fingers and read a few words from his parchment of salvation. There folded into a crumpled wad glowing with unmistakable righteousness was a five-dollar bill.
"Hey babe. How old you?"
Jesse focused with some difficulty upon the familiar rotund outline from whence came this insolent question.
He mentally processed the implications for a while.
Brother Frank died somewhere about 1915.
Jesse shot down by Bob Ford must have been forty years earlier at least. So about one hundred and forty years probably.
Yet for sure Jesse James died with a thirty six-caliber bullet in the back of his head.
So what the hell was he doing here talking to two disreputable walnut street nightwalkers?
He closed his eyes tightly for a few seconds to restructure a kaleidoscope of confusion into meaningful reality.
"Forty" he replied, "forty years old. That was this morning though, my sisters. This afternoon I was reborn by the infinite grace of the archangel, and sweet Jesus Christ himself. Behold a sign."
He held aloft the five-dollar note.
"We thought those two cops was going to throw your shabby ass in the can" said the bitch.
Not at all impressed at the sight of his five-dollar ticket to salvation. "I stood," replied Jesse "In the shadow of the lord. Insulated from the deceit and cunning of my enemies."
"Well excuse us please. We just thought you was drunk again. For sure didn't realize that Jesus was in the middle of savin' you."
Jesse ignored the fat girl. Smiled indulgently at her unseemly comments. "I will," he said, "proceed to Jabbies, purchase a cup of coffee or two then return to Amberlight. Upon entering my home I shall cast myself down upon my knees to give thanks for the blessing of my rebirth. I will pray earnestly for you troubled ladies asking that a miracle of forgiveness is bestowed upon your bimbo heads."
He heard their derisive laughter and scornful comments. Slowly his left hand moved to the well-worn colt pistol holstered at his waist.
Calm now with no anger.
Such simple well practiced movements. Before the smell of burning powder had dispersed. Before a crowd of onlookers could assemble at the sound of two quick shots, he would be riding with gold in his saddlebags.
Cold intent, pitiless narrow eyed stare would be remembered by any who met him. A calling card from the outlaw Jesse James.
A few unthinking words from the trailer bitch probably saved both women from sudden death on that hot paved sidewalk. "A miracle" she said. "Yeah show us your miracle Jess, ask god to give us a buck or two right now."
"Make it ten and you can come home with me baby" fat girl said giggling foolishly.
"Make that a twenty and we will both come home with you," added the bitch. Jesse closed his eyes against their blasphemous laughter.
Perhaps his five dollars would persuade both of them not to accompany him anywhere.
He remembered his messiah, thought upon those wondrous miracles of Jesus and asked earnestly for a sign. "Not for me though dear lord" he entreated. "As you know, I am already a believer since early this afternoon. For these hapless whores before me. A sign that they may repent and find such joy as I have."
He recalled from childhood Sunday school teachings the miracles of his savior. Feeding a multitude on the shores of Galilee. Walking upon the waters, transforming water into wine. A great happiness borne of sudden enlightenment slowly washed over Jesse. Here was revealed a true sign from above. Given to him as he asked. There upon that dirty dusty Walnut street sidewalk a supernatural event of astonishing proportions was revealed. An endorsement of ancient biblical truths. Indisputable and undeniable. Unforgettable to any onlooker.
Jesse opened his eyes, gazing upon fat girl and the bitch. He smiled with serene understanding speaking softly to his audience.
"It is given for you to see my two sad, sorry sisters. A new direction to follow and dedicate with great fear unto the lord. Repent disgraceful daughters of dirt and find peace." His eyes rolled towards the clouds.
In one graceful movement Jesse turned on his heel, unzipped his pants and pissed with great satisfaction against a slender flowering cherry tree growing from the sidewalk.
As a goodly and dedicated stream of pale yellow urine curved and splashed against the tree trunk his voice rose to a bellow, inviting the attention of several pedestrians.
The sisters of shame were struck dumb at the sight of this revelation. Another small miracle for the record. They stood amazed at the sound of his voice.
Jesse addressed the rapidly growing throng. "As Jesus himself, and before a great multitude turned water into fine wine, so then by all good grace have I now turned the finest of wine into water."………"Behold"….