My Name Is Jesus
My name is Jesus, and I am a slave.
I am sitting in a small room with a gun held to my head, where every day I am forced to perform the miracle.
A man enters the room with a large glass pitcher of water. I hold it in my hands, and the water turns to wine.
If I hesitate, the gun slams into my face, cutting me and bringing blinding pain. It’s not death they threaten me with. It is the pain.
The men are Italian Mafia. I was kidnapped by them when I was twelve years old; and though I know that no one will ever hear this story as I tell it now with my tortured thoughts, I must tell it, so here it is…
I was born in New York City, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Essex Street. My parents owned and operated a small restaurant and catering service out of an old, small building that sat pinched in-between a pickle shop and an electronics store, and we had an apartment above, as most of these proprietors did. It was an entirely Jewish neighborhood, and we knew our neighbors well.
My father used to be a carpenter, and before I was born he owned a construction company that made good money building custom houses for wealthy New Yorkers, but when I was very young he lost his job and ended up helping out in the restaurant, which was my mother’s enterprise.
My father’s name is Joe. My mother’s name is Mary. I have younger brothers, James and Joses, and a younger sister, Salome.
Ah,…I remember Salome. We were closest in age to each other and therefore shared the secrets and the special relationship that only those siblings with domineering older brothers can understand. When I picture her now I see a skinny, pretty little eight-year-old girl, staring with a precious blend of curiosity and trust up into my eyes, sitting cross-legged on the rug as I sit upon the footstool of my father’s easy chair, and I am tying her curly hair up into ribbons. The ribbons are dark red but look bright against her soft black locks. Her hair smells freshly wet and clean and like the cheap shampoo my mother uses but without the cigarette smoke and she is smiling at me.
My right hand curls into a fist, scraping at the scarred wood of the chair into which I am bound. Remembering her simple beauty in this horrid place of ugly brutish force. My head turns in revulsion from the pitcher of water placed before me, and the heavy hand of my guard rises, holding its heavy metal gun. I know that hand will never bring death, never that, for I am much too precious; but pain, hours and days and long nights and seasons of pain and I am afraid. I turn to face the pitcher and pick it up, holding it in both hands, and I pray for death, quick, painless death, but instead like a survival instinct the powerful spirit ecstasy surges through my chest, bending my frail starved body forward and the world sharpens becomes clear the tingle starts in my fingers and I can feel it changing and I put it down and it is wine. I will not look my guard in the eyes. I turn to face the rough planks of the wooden wall and I curse the miracle and with all of my heart and soul I wish I was dead.
Where was I.
Yes, my father, and my family.
My father used to hit me. He said I wasn’t his kid a couple times, but that was a long time ago and the memory vagues with remembering, but the pain is sharp and distinct. His hand slapping my face. My mother crying out. I sit there stunned, and look up into my brother’s eyes. He is standing there in the doorway watching me. Approval. That is what I see there. Approval, and a wishful twitch of his right arm.
I don’t look like my dad. My brothers do; that same squeezing together of the flesh and bones around the eyes, turning every expression into a doubtful wince. My facial features take after my mother. Maybe that’s why me and my little sister got along so well. We both look like Mom.
And you know, she told me once I wasn’t his. It was after he hit me one time, then stormed out of our apartment slamming the door hard making the special glasses rattle and clink together in the hutch. I was crying, sobbing, more I think now more from incomprehension than from actual hurting, and she gathered my stinging little face in her big soft hands that smelled of olive oil and garlic and she fixed my eyes with hers and she said very firmly: “That-man-is-not-your-father.” She held my face wiping my tears away with her thumbs and she said: “Jesus, your father is…” and her eyes dropped and flicked away to the open window where a white lace curtain flapped silently on the warm night’s breeze, and her face took on a look of radiance, softly glowing…chaste. I learned that word years later on and it fit her so well in that moment remembered that I never forgot it. It was like its definition locked into her picture in my mind and became one. Chaste. Radiant. Remembering…
Remembering what? I never found out.
Anyway, the years went on and my dad grew more distant and eventually just ignored me altogether. I helped out in my mother’s restaurant more and more as I got older. My hands forgot their carpenter skills foisted upon them by my brothers, and took on the smell of garlic and olive oil. I loved it. I was behind the counter all day with Mom, wrapping sandwiches, baking bread, my head just clearing the white plastic cutting board and the metal trays of the scales that jiggled as a heavy man would walk by. I could look out through the glass display case at the customers as they peered in scrupulously at the meats and cheeses and prepared kosher dishes. Salome would be tottering around the store, getting pats on the head from customers, getting cooed over and fed little candies by some of the ladies. My dad was out all day driving the big sputtering box truck for deliveries. My brothers were in school. I was old enough for school, but for some reason my mother taught me at home. I never knew why. She told my dad she just needed more help at the store, but it seemed like something more than that. In-between customers we would sit in the back room and read the Torah aloud and talk about what we thought certain passages meant. She patiently taught me the oral history of Judaism and I had memorized a good portion of it by the time I was ten years old. Rabbi Cohen would stop by once a day and get a sandwich or something to eat, but he never paid for it. He would sit with me and talk about the Old Testament and tell stories from memory that elaborated upon the lives of the prophets. At the end of his visit he would take my hands in his, stare into my eyes, and say a quiet prayer. Then he would thank my mother—thank her! When at Temple all the people, our friends and neighbors and relatives treated him with such deference, to thank my mother, I never knew why he did that. That time was always so special to me; it seemed like this was something I could do with my life, just study the teachings of the prophets and learn to be close to God. I felt so right then.
A few days after my twelfth birthday Dad came into the store in the middle of the day. He was excited. He said he knew he had recognized one of the addresses on the delivery list. It was one of the houses his construction company had built. It belonged to a rich Italian family, Frank and Jenna Balistrieri, and their son was getting married to a nice Jewish girl. They were doing a traditional Jewish ceremony and they wanted us to do the catering.
My dad sat down at the counter, looking tired and elated at the same time. I knew this was an important account for us; our regular cadre of loyal neighborhood customers just barely made us enough money to pay the bills. I knew we were poor. It was mid-afternoon and the store was empty.
I wiped my hands on my stained apron and came around the counter sat at a table and looked at my dad. I imagined him driving up a long, curving driveway lined with immaculately trimmed trees in our rusty old truck. Maybe he’s listening to the radio and he doesn’t notice the neighborhood at first, but when he gets to the house he knows it. He parks in front. The truck rocks on it’s brakes like a distressed little boat. The motor hisses down and ticks into silence. A few unidentified birds chirp melodically in the bright afternoon sun. He sits there for a long moment, looking at the teak-framed front door made out of stained glass, the four stories of windows culminating in the master bedroom’s balcony, his hands feeling the sanding block and the plane and the pounding hammer putting together all the pieces of this modern mansion where he now sits outside waiting to deliver a bagful of greasy sandwiches.
In that moment I really cared about Dad. He was a hard working guy; I really saw everything about him in that moment. He was hopeful, he was proud; I could see how he must have been before I was born, when he was the bread winner of the family. I forgot all about his hateful vengeance toward me and felt only a simple, sympathetic love.
The wedding was happening the following Tuesday, at the Manhattan Penthouse on Fifth Avenue. I didn’t even know places like that existed. It was at the top of an awesome skyscraper which was made of stone like a castle. We drove our beat-up catering truck down a driveway that went under the street, and parked at the service entrance in the underground garage. After we were done unloading our containers of food onto wheeled carts, then Dad handed the keys to a valet. The man looked at them like my Dad had just produced a turd and asked him to touch it.
When the elevator doors opened, I thought we were stepping into another world. Everything was made of shining polished wood, and the windows looked out over the city like a God’s eye view. We were greeted by the master of the banquet and shown to the kitchen area. Well, I guess greeted isn’t really the right word. Collected is the right word.
My Dad went off immediately to schmooze it up with the people he knew. I wonder if could imagine how silly he looked, in his faded Men’s Warehouse suit, standing next to people who were head to toe in silk. I caught a glimpse of him awkwardly holding a glass of wine in one hand, laughing too loud at someone’s joke. The bottle that came from would probably pay our rent for a month.
Before the ceremony, there were people moving all around, mingling and lightly dancing to the music of a jazz band set up in a far corner. But I had noticed one thing. There was one table where three men just sat there the whole time, surveying the room and occasionally leaning in close to talk to each other. It was one really old guy, one old guy, and a guy maybe in his early forties. I got the impression that they were the patriarchs of the family. You could see it in their faces: Great-grandfather, grandfather, father. They never got up to get anything. Everything was brought to them.
I don’t know who the Balistrieri’s were, but it was obvious they were a very wealthy family. Everything in the place looked like they were pushing to waste money on it. We just scuttled meekly around the rooms, trying to be invisible and make sure no one ran out of anything. Which is how you’re supposed to be as a caterer anyway…anticipate what the customers are going to want next, and do your best to blend into the background. Which was really hard for me. I felt like we stood out like a sore thumb amongst all the rich people, and we probably did. They laughed so carelessly and possessed an attitude of disdain which they reserved solely for servants. Even the venue’s regular staff hated us. My mom told me that usually, the Penthouse doesn’t allow outside catering, but someone in the Balistrieri family had pulled some strings and gotten us in. So we had knocked some people out of their jobs.
The ceremony was beautiful, what I saw of it anyways. We were really busy preparing for the reception, which was to be held in the large banquet room. Even Dad stopped his ridiculous glad-handing and came back into the kitchen to help out. Obviously this was a time for the family alone.
We ran out of wine. We hadn’t prepared enough for all these people. We were so embarrassed. We heard the wait staff of the place talking about it first, saying “do they have more wine?” and looking at us witheringly. We shrank before their tut-tut professional scorn. Manuel Martinez, the Head Receptionist, walked over to us and asked us plainly if we had brought enough wine for the wedding. You see, at a Jewish wedding the wine represents joy. It is the joy of the party, and if it ran out then the joy runs out of the party. It was a bad moment.
My mother looked to suddenly. I looked up at her. She seemed to be expecting something, almost accusing me . I responded with a shrug like “what does this have to do with me?” It wasn’t my fault.
And that’s when it happened. Manuel grabbed a large glass pitcher of water and held it out to my mother, asking her sarcastically if she would like to serve this to the guests instead of wine.
My mother took it. She had turned her face away from Manuel ashamedly in total servitude. I hated that. I hated seeing her so meek.
Seized by a sudden compulsion I grabbed the sloshing pitcher and held it close to my chest feeling the burning of my anger and want flow out of me and a tingle started in my hands transferring to the water and when I opened by eyes as if after an orgasmic expulsion of bodily fluids the water was read.
Looks of astonishment held the faces of the men in the kitchen. I turned my eyes fearfully up to my mother’s and she was beaming down at my, as if to say “See, I knew you could save the day.”
The Head Receptionist gingerly removed the pitcher of now obviously wine from my hands, as if he had been solemnly entrusted with a sacred object. He brought it up and inhaled it’s aroma. An expression of pleasure and bliss resettled his features. I was scared. What had I done?
Manuel disappeared around the corner into the banquet room . I peeped out to see him presenting the wine to the table of the patriarchs. He appeared to be gushing about it’s quality. He poured; they tasted; smiles of surprise and approval blossomed. They appeared to be inquiring as to it’s label. The Head Receptionist hesitated. He looked toward the kitchen. Then he leaned down and whispered in the oldest man’s ear. That man’s eyes held perplexity, then doubt, then resolved into a hard coldness. His eyes found mine. I was afraid. I know now that I could have read the next ten years of my life in that moment, in that man’s eyes.
The following night I was woken up with a hand over my mouth. It covered almost my whole face and was rough with calluses and I was absolutely petrified. Then a flashlight shone in my face, blinding me.
“It’s him,” I heard a gruff voice say. Those large hands stuffed one of my own dirty socks into my mouth and wrapped my head with tape. My hands were pulled behind my back and I heard the clicking of zip ties and felt their pinch as they bound my hands together.
Two huge men were in my room and they were pulling me toward the door. The scene of my toys and little writing desk lit by a crazily swinging flashlight beam. The paralyzation of fear as I was led to an unknown fate..
We were outside in the hallway and suddenly the lights clicked on and my mother was standing there in her white dressing gown. She screamed and one of the men, the one not holding me, just punched her in the face. She was knocked back against the wall and her body slid down to a sitting position, nose bleeding, lip cut, and her eyes fluttering in shock and pain. The guy had just hit her, casually, like he did that thing twenty times a day. I choked and slobbered on the smelly sock, yelling uselessly and crying now. They dragged me down the hallway past my brothers’ rooms. Their doors were shut. Then my sister’s: her door was cracked opened, and her dark eyes were peering out at me. They followed me with a look of absolutely heartbreaking impotent horror and I past and then was out of the apartment and gone.
A black SUV. Pushed into the back seat, my face held tightly in the crook of a muscular elbow. So tight not even the tears squeezed from my eyes. And I couldn’t see, fabric of the man’s suit pressing against my eyes. I wondered in that shockful moment how much he had paid for that suit. And what he had intended it for.
A turn, then a bump. That was my road, and I knew where we were for awhile. Then we passed over a bridge, tires bump-bump-bumping over metal slats, and then a steep dip down into some forgotten underpass, and then we were alone. I felt no other cars around us. And I knew not the way from then on.
The sounds of the city became sparse and distant and eventually ceased altogether, and we hadn’t stopped at a traffic light for a long time.
At last the car came to a gentle stop, still idling, and I heard an electric gate slowly opening.
Another spurt of gas and we stopped and the motor switched off. We got out.
Now I was truly afraid.
The squeaking of a metal garage door opening.
I was pushed forward, tripped on a threshold, grabbed roughly by the scruff of my nightshirt and slammed down hard into a chair.
My bonds and blindfold were removed.
Fluorescent light hit my eyes.
I looked around the small warehouse that has been my prison for these past long years.
The two men, I have taken to calling “Guido” and "Vinnie.” Guido pointed to a small cot in the corner draped with a blanket. “Go to sleep,” he said. I tottered meekly to that place and curled up into the stretched creaking canvas and pulled the blanket up over my head until only my nostrils poked out and I whimpered myself into a dark nightmare. I re-lived that terrible moment of abduction, over and over, wondering if my mother was looking for me, wishing her to this place, and knowing–even though I avoided accepting it at first–knowing, at last, that while I was being kidnapped, my father had not been home.
When I woke up in the morning, a table had been set up in the warehouse. I was sat down there and a glass pitcher of water was set before me. Guido pulled a gun out from under his jacket and said “Do it.” When I hesitated, he cruelly swiped the gun across my face, hard. Pain stung in my head and I recoiled, and he grabbed my hair and pulled my face close into his and I smelled garlic there and felt his rough stubble against my boy’s skin and he said again “Do it.” I trembled back and he stood up, selected something from within the pocket of his jacket where men usually carry their wallets or business cards, and he took out a photograph and laid it before me. It was a picture of my mother. He turned away, walking casually for a few steps then turning back to look me in the eyes and say quietly: “Do it.”
I did it. I performed the miracle and it felt like a gross violation, like a rape. But I did it.
Guido and Vinnie smirked at each other, laughed, and Guido said “I fuckin’ knew it!” And Vinnie dragged a large yellow plastic oil drum from a corner. He unsealed the top of it, and I smelled the pristine scent of brand-newness. He took up the pitcher in one hand, inhaled deeply, drawing back as if in a moment of self-control, then dumped the wine into the barrel.
He handed the pitcher to Vinnie, who went to a sink jutting from a corner of the room, obviously installed as an afterthought. The pitcher full of water was returned to me.
“Now do it again.”
And it is here that I have spent these long years, making wine for the mafia, for that is what they surely are. Every day I am brought a large pepperoni pizza to eat and sodas to drink. When the barrel is full, they cap it and bring in a new one. I guess they are getting rich off me, I imagine the miracle wine being poured carefully into fine bottles and slapped with some decorative label–perhaps a picture of a young boy sitting at a table with a gun held to his head? Probably not.
Once a week a matronly Latino maid comes in to change my bedding. She brings fresh linen and clothes and she never looks me in the eye.
Well, once she did.
A few years after they locked me up here I had my first nocturnal emission. When she saw the dry crusted glob texturing the sheet her eyes darted up and locked onto mine. Those eyes were soft dark brown and tired and spoke of a lifetime of thankless labor. Her nose crinkled in disgust.
I had never felt so humiliated in all my life, and in that moment I nearly went mad with the desperate desire for suicide. But they would never let me do that. I am too valuable to them.
Today was the worst day of my life.
You want to know what happened to me today?
I’ll tell you.
I was performing the miracle for perhaps the one millionth time when there came a knock at the door.
I looked up, startled. It was off time.
No one had ever knocked at the door at this time. Was it the police? Two detectives in matching black-and white suits with thin ties at the head of a heavily armed paramilitary team of hostage rescuers come to save me from my prison? Had they finally solved that cold case of the years-distant Manhattan kidnapping? No.
A girl’s voice sounded through the door.
Guido looked to me. He glanced quickly at Vinnie and moved to open the door. Vinnie stepped in beside him, leveling his gun at the point at the thin drywall where an adult’s body would be standing at the door beyond. His dumb animal eyes looked directly into mine as he held a warning finger up to his lips.
Guido cracked the door.
“What.” His flat dead voice scratched the air.
“I’m looking for my brother,” the girl said, a shuffle and a bump indicating she had tried to poke her head through the open crack.
Guido closed it to a fraction of an inch.
'My…brother? Salome!' My heart surged within my chest, and my blood started pumping fervidly through my veins. My sister! My beautiful little sister, she had found me! After all these years, she had never given up. In a flash I imagined her journey to this day–traumatized at a young age, led by love to pursue the scant traces of second-hand clues and asking scary people dangerous questions, until at last she had found my door.
“Your Brother?” Guido was skeptical.
“Yes.” Oh, God bless her.
“What’s his name?”
“Jesus.” Her voice was firm, and full of the expected justice of the world.
“Never heard of him,” he said , and slammed the door in her face.