A Storyby T. Coraghessan Boyle
In the first panel of the very first issue you see Him striding across the desert with maybe nothing in the landscape around Him but sand and the ruins of a shattered village in the distance. He’s not wearing a robe and sandals but bike shorts and black lace-up combat boots and a tight black tee, and He’s not the skinny hippie all the paintings make Him out to be, but buff, as if He’s been doing weight training, but of course, like Wolverine or the Hulk, He doesn’t really have to sweat anything to be built like that. He just is. And His hair—it isn’t that long, actually, just long enough to give Him a topknot like a samurai, and His beard isn’t shaggy like some biker’s beard, but trimmed close to His rock-hard jawline. His eyes—at first—are calm, and they’re not blue like in the paintings either, but green like Asia’s (she’s my girlfriend). What you see, right off, is that this isn’t the sort of hero who’ll turn the other cheek or out of some misguided notion of fairness or love or whatever won’t use His powers to the very fullest degree. No, just the opposite. Warrior Jesus is the scourge and the whip—the Cleanser—and He’s come to wipe up all the slime of the world, the al-Qaedas and Boko Harams, ISIS, the Mexican Mafia, and all the rapists and slavers and drug dealers out there, dog abusers, wife beaters, anybody evil who seeks to inflict pain on the weak—they’re going to be dust. All of them. Just like what He’s walking over in that first panel, the sand grains symbolic of what He’s going to reduce them to. No hell, no trial, no punishment: just dust. Or sand. Or whatever.
Saturday night, the place mobbed, and I’ve got my head down pretty much the whole shift, just trying to keep up with the orders. Stressed isn’t really the word for it, just busy, so busy I’m startled when one of the customers—an older woman who comes in on a regular basis—asks me how my drawing’s going, and the best I can do is rotate the upper half of my body away from the grill, show her some teeth, and say, “Great, just great.” There must be twenty steaks up and I’m working my tongs like a master conductor waving his baton, only the stage here is a ten-by-three-foot space between the grill and the salad bar, and the audience is a snaking line of semidrunk people with big oval salad-bar plates in their hands, but I’m the main attraction, make no mistake about it. And the meat, of course, sizzling there over the tiny yellow fingers of flame and sending up that authentic mesquite-seared aroma that has them all choking back saliva as they lean over the sneeze guard and fish out cherry tomatoes or avocado slices with the salad tongs. The truth is, on this particular night, I all but blanked on the public-relations aspect of the job until the woman brought me out of my reverie, and that isn’t good, because my boss, Mike Twombley, always makes a huge deal of it. You are representing Brennan’s every minute you’re standing there at the grill, never forget it. People like to see their steaks go up and they like to see somebody cool, somebody friendly, flipping them, right? Well, yeah, I get that. But they also like rare rare and medium rare medium rare, and if the grillman’s busy bending over backward for everybody—especially on a night like this—then there are going to be fuckups, and what would you rather have, dinners sent back or a grillman who’s focused on the task at hand?
Toward the end of my shift, after I’ve already dumped the grease and taken the wire brush to the grill, Mercy, the cutest waitress, who just happens to drive all the old men at the bar gaga because she’s older (thirty-two, divorced, one kid), brings me a late order, party of two, a New York well for the guy, prawn-and-scallop kebab for the girl. Normally the kitchen closes at nine-thirty, after which it’s burgers only, flipped in a pan in the kitchen and served at the bar, and it’s nine-forty now, but I’m in a good place, really riding high on Warrior Jesus and seeing the panels unfolding in my head as if I’ve already drawn them, and it’s nothing to throw one more dinner on the grill, which will have to be scraped again, but it’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. The restaurant is in the business of making money and I’m a good employee, a model employee, really, as I try to remind Mike every chance I get, and if it costs me an extra twenty minutes, so what? I’m only going to sit at the bar anyway. Asia’s out with her girlfriends—a movie, she said, then barhopping—and there’s nothing for me at home except staring at the walls, unless I want to play video games (I don’t) or watch TV (I doubly don’t).
“I can’t see them,” I say, “where are they?” My eyesight isn’t the best and I don’t like to wear my glasses at the grill because they tend to steam up, which means everything out there in the dining room is just a blur.
“Around the corner? Table thirteen?”
“Okay,” I say, “okay, great,” and why do I always feel so stupid—or awkward, I guess—around Mercy when I’ve got my own girlfriend and Mercy’s too old for me anyway? It’s the eternal urge, the mating urge, common to us all, though not Warrior Jesus. He’s beyond all that—He doesn’t have the time, for one thing. And this isn’t Greek mythology, with gods pulling the wires behind the scenes or bickering with each other or coming down to have sex with mortals—this is the One God, the Only God, and He’s here for vengeance. “Just tell them we’re about to take the salad bar down any minute, so they need to get to it ASAP, okay?”
“I just want to get out of here,” she says, giving me a tired grin, and I watch her glide off in her black miniskirt and the low-cut top that adds an extra five dollars to her tip when it’s a male paying the bill, which is about 90 percent of the time.
So here they come, the late diners I’ve gone out of my way to stay open for, a guy and a girl, and the guy’s wearing some sort of headgear that flashes white all the way across the restaurant so even I can see it in my semiblind state. And what is it? A turban? The term raghead shoots in and out of my mind, a term I don’t think I’ve ever used because it’s not PC and Asia’s always on me if I make any kind of ethnic reference to anybody, whether in my comics or in person, and then he’s there at the salad bar and the girl right beside him (she’s midtwenties, cute, dyed red hair with black roots showing and a sleeve of tattoos running up her left arm). I can tell they’ve been dating for a while because he goes ahead of her, flipping a plate off the pile as if he’s going to start juggling with it and bending low to dig into the bowl of romaine and pick out the crispest pieces—and he has to bend low, I realize, because he’s tall, as tall as me at least, and that doesn’t seem right somehow, as if people like him, from wherever he’s from, should be shorter than that. He’s got a beard, of course, a full beard that just about touches the cracked ice cooling the stainless-steel serving trays, and his skin’s not much darker than mine used to get in the summers when I was a lifeguard at the lake. And what is he, a Paki or a Hindu or something? I don’t know much about it, one way or the other, though the guy that delivers produce in the mornings is some sort of Arab, and there’s a Hindu, definitely a Hindu, running the Conoco station. Plus, what do I care? He’s just another customer and I probably wouldn’t have noticed him at all if he’d come in during the rush.
It’s just then that he glances up and gives a little start as if he didn’t expect to see anybody there, though even first-time customers seem to get the drill—suck down your cocktail, put in your order, troop up to the salad bar, and let the grillman provide the entertainment till you’ve heaped up your plate and trooped back to your table again. As I say, he was bent at the waist, picking out his toppings, and now suddenly he straightens up and gives me a look. “Oh, hi,” he says. “I guess you’re our chef, huh?”
“Right,” I say, and I’m looking at her too, wondering if I know her from someplace—high school? Pratt?—and what she’s doing with him. “You’re the New York well.”
He lets out a laugh then, which is meant to be all urbane and above it all, and says, “Well, I hope I’m more than that”—and here he gives the girl a sly look—“though for our purposes, that designation suits me just fine.” He’s got a trace of an accent, which I’m just now picking up—British or something, or maybe Indian. From India.
“It’s a crime,” I say and watch his grin waver, which gives me just the faintest little tick of satisfaction. He thinks a lot of himself, this guy, this dude, and maybe I don’t, maybe I take an instant dislike to him.
“What do you mean? What’s a crime?”
I glance at the girl and back at him, then turn away to toss his steak on the grill, where it lands with a hiss and sends up a puff of smoke. “Oh,” I say, turning back to him now and letting my eyes run first to her, then to him, “the steak. I mean, well-done is kind of like sacrilege. The other grillman—Bobby Reyes?—I’ve seen him refuse to do well-done.” (And once, when he had a buzz on, actually go into the dining room and stand over a party of four, pleading with this woman to at least let him do hers medium.)
The guy in the turban bends down to dig into the artichoke hearts, but when he comes up he’s grinning again. “Don’t I know it,” he says and puts his free arm around the girl. “Jenny’s telling me the same thing all the time, right, babe?”
That’s when I let my mouth get ahead of me, and I have to attribute it to just being tired at this juncture, that and dehydrated because the heat of the grill really does wring the sweat out of you, no different than if you were sitting in a sauna all day. “I thought Hindus didn’t eat meat.”
I watch the smile fade and then come up strong again, and he takes his time with me, dipping the ladle for the Roquefort dressing and pouring a half ton of it over everything on his plate. “I’m not Hindu,” he says, and then he and the girl are turning their backs on me and heading back to their table.
That’s all. That’s all there is. Just that little exchange. And I am not prejudiced, or not any more than anybody else, and if you want to know the truth I hardly knew my cousin Bruce—Bruce Tuttle? That ring a bell?—because his family moved out to California when we were still kids and if I saw him more than two or three times over the years that was it. And yes, I did know he was some sort of minor journalist for CBS News—could my mother ever let me forget it?—and I knew he was covering the Middle East and all of that, but I don’t know if I felt personally violated when they took him prisoner and then, without even negotiating, went out and beheaded him six days later, and I only watched the video once, on YouTube, but I felt something, let me tell you. I felt sick, sad, shocked, confused, angry, of course I did—who wouldn’t? It didn’t matter who they were doing this to—that video is the purest expression of evil that’s ever come into my life. But that doesn’t excuse what happens next, once the guy in the turban and his girlfriend disappear around the corner, and I don’t feel good about it, but you have to understand how I was feeling that night, not only because of Asia, who might or might not have been lying to me about who she was going out with, but because I was tired and maybe a little fed up and I’d been listening to my mother go on about Bruce over and over for the past six months till I was either going to have to build a shrine to him in the backyard or go out and shoot myself in the head.
I flip the steak. Press down hard with the tongs till the juices sizzle and the flames jump up, then I put the girlfriend’s kebab on, and all the while I’m working this ball of phlegm in my throat—I’ve got the cold to end all colds and the Dristan I took at four is wearing off. So he gets his steak, cooked through till it could have come right from the tannery, and if it has a nice translucent glaze on it, I just feel it’s the least I can do for him.
The second panel shows Him coming into this burned-out village, which is still maybe a hundred yards off, and you can see figures there now, shadowy, wreathed in smoke, and in the third panel He’s there, and the people—civilians, victims, little kids, old women in head scarves—are all looking flabbergasted at Him as if they’re wondering what next, expecting the worst, only the worst. That’s when your eye jumps to panel four and you see the bad guys, all dressed in black with black ski masks and AK-47s and grenade launchers slung over their shoulders. One of them has a knife, and not one of those seven-inch KA-BAR things like they used in the video, but a huge blade, curved like a scimitar—do they still use scimitars?—and it shines against his all-black clothes, or maybe it’s a robe he’s wearing, a black robe, till it definitely focuses your eye. Panel five is the knife, foregrounded, and just beyond it are the victims, a skinny kid and his father, kneeling in the sand with hoods over their heads. You wonder, What have they done to deserve this?, and the answer is nothing, they just had the bad luck to live in a godforsaken place where the bad guys have sway over everything, stealing their cars, their houses, their food, their wives and daughters and mothers. Maybe the father’s the village mechanic, maybe he owned the burned-out service station you can see in the distance, maybe he tried to stop them when they dragged his twelve-year-old daughter into the back room and shut the door. No matter. The knife’s already in the air, already coming down, and we cut away to just the head, the father’s head, in the sand.
That’s when Warrior Jesus comes on the scene, just striding ahead, taking His time. The guards see Him coming and they give Him a curious/hostile look, but He’s got nothing in His hands, and His shorts and tee are so tight He couldn’t be concealing anything, like a suicide vest or a gun or even a box cutter, so though they level their AK-47s on Him, they’re hardly worried. At worst—or best, depending on how you look at it—He’ll be the next victim, once they get done with the boy. Warrior Jesus doesn’t say a word. And this is something that separates Him from the other superheroes out there—He doesn’t need to talk, only act. Plus, another thing about this character is that His power is absolute. He doesn’t have a nemesis, no Lex Luthor or Professor Zoom or Red Skull, and He doesn’t rocket around like Neo or Superman or the Flash. He doesn’t need any of that: He just is. He has immanence. And no one can threaten Him.
The executioner is raising the blade over the boy’s head when Warrior Jesus lifts His finger, just one finger—His index finger—and points it. In that instant the scimitar clatters to the ground because there’s no one holding onto it, no one there, in fact: the executioner is gone, converted, as you see in close-up, into a knee-high pyramid of dust. The others, the henchmen, that is, open up with their rifles, and the bullets are depicted hanging there in the air (think The Matrix) but they never reach their destination because they dissolve like vapor, and the weapons themselves vanish too, along with the henchmen, who form their own piles of dust, even as Warrior Jesus frees the boy and restores the father’s head, perfectly, just as it was before (which is tricky, but if the old Jesus could raise the dead, why not?). No sutures, no scars, no operating room, just a dip into the immediate past, a time warp that fixes everything. Except for the executioner and the henchmen, that is. They are dust forever.
One more thing, because this is just the introductory episode and the readers won’t really know what they’re getting into yet, what the rules are, I mean—the village springs back up around the astonished onlookers as if it’s a stage set, every building, every storefront, even the burned-out service station instantly re-created, only better than before, with trees, lawns, a glittering freshwater stream emerging from the place where the father’s blood saturated the sand, maybe a KFC franchise—or no, Subway, which is way healthier. The people look around them—and they’re all wearing new clothes and their wounds are healed, even their dogs are back—and they’re wondering who this savior is. Or where he is. Because the next panel shows the village from afar, over the squared-up shoulders of Warrior Jesus, who, we see, is already on to His next adventure. Or not adventure, that’s not the right word, though there’s plenty of adventure in the book—call it correction, His next correction. What’s changed? Word is out now, and all the psychopaths and murderers and dictators are in for a rude surprise.
And cheats, cheats too.
The next day’s my day off and I wind up sleeping in, which means I blow off my date with Asia for late breakfast at the brioche place before she goes into work at noon (irony of irony, she’s the hostess at Cedric’s, our rival steak house on the other side of town, a place that’s pricier than ours and a whole lot less fun, the waiters strictly in jacket and tie—no waitresses—and a bar scene that’s pretty well dead no matter the hour; plus, if you want a salad, the waiter’s going to go into the kitchen and bring it out to you). The minute my eyes open I reach for my phone and text her, but she doesn’t text back and I figure I’ll try again later, when she’s at work and so bored she’s going to be checking her messages every ten seconds. Her job, like any hostess’s, is to look great, open up her megawatt smile, and lead diners to their tables, which doesn’t leave much room for creativity or job satisfaction, but like me she’s two years out of college (with a degree in art history) and trying to make ends meet any way she can.
There’s not a whole lot in the refrigerator beyond a couple of bagels as hard as horseshoes and a takeout box of mistakes from the night before (you might think it sounds cool having all the filets, New Yorks, and lamb chops you want, but that gets old fast), and so I just pour myself a glass of orange juice and sit at the window awhile, looking out on a bleak February day with a crust of grimy snow on the lawn and a cold drizzle fuzzing the windows. The place I’m renting is a spare room, with full bath and private entrance, in a tract house like the one I grew up in, but it’s my own to do anything I want with and it has a big picture window with a southern exposure, which gives me the kind of afternoon light I like for my work. Am I hungry? Not really. I’m still dogged by the cold, stuffed up when I get out of bed and then sniffling to the point where I’m going to have to go out and buy more toilet paper at some point, and maybe that has something to do with why I overslept and why I’m not hungry, or at least not hungry enough to get in the car and go out and pick something up. At any rate, before I can think about it, I’m at my desk (a Martin drawing table, actually, which my mother got for me two birthdays ago) and I’m deep into Warrior Jesus, inking the first couple of panels and letting the story come to me, no speech bubbles yet, but a couple of captions running through my head just to set things up so people aren’t confused. (Is this Syria, or what? He can replace a severed head? Really? What about donor heads? What about all the heads already lopped off in all the other villages?) It doesn’t take much. The way I see it, if the drawings don’t tell the story, or 99 percent of it anyway, you’re dead in the water.
It’s two-thirty on the dot when she calls, off work now till they reopen for dinner at five, and finally remembering she has a boyfriend, me, that is, who got shut out the night before and must have called her a dozen times and even, at 1:00 a.m., tried her at her parents’, though admittedly he—I—hung up after the third ring because the last thing I wanted was for her mother to see the caller ID and answer in that spooky accusatory voice she has.
“Hey,” I say.
“Sorry I missed you this morning. I guess I overslept. This cold’s a real bitch, you know?”
She doesn’t say anything, or if she does—my ears seem to be stuffed up too—it’s “Yeah,” which isn’t much more than a space filler. (Yeah, she knows? or Yeah, it’s too bad? or Yeah, I’m at the dentist having my teeth drilled?)
“How was the movie?”
“You know, the movie you guys saw—Stephanie and who all? What was it again?”
“Oh, that,” she says, her voice dropped low and clogged up, as if she’s the one with the cold. “We wound up not going. It was Steph’s birthday, did I tell you?”
“No, you didn’t mention it. And you didn’t answer your phone or your messages either. I even tried your parents’ at like one—”
“What can I say, Devon—girls’ night out, okay? I guess I just didn’t feel like checking my phone—I mean, it’s not like we’re Siamese twins.”
I let that hang a minute, then I’m irate, and I’m sorry, because this isn’t the first time and I know something’s going on, I know it. “Shit, you don’t have to jump down my throat—I’m not the one that didn’t call. I’m the one that had to sit at the bar and get shit-faced till Tonio shut out the lights and locked the door, and still you wouldn’t answer.”
“I’m not going to argue,” she says.
“No,” I say, “me neither. If you want to know the truth I’m working, really working for the first time in, like, months, and you—this call?—you’re interrupting me, you’re distracting me, okay?”
Another pause. And then, her voice dwindled down to practically nothing, she says, “What is it—Warrior Jesus?”
For some reason, this sets me off even more, and yes, I’ve told her all about the concept, talked it up for weeks, but right now, in the mood I’m in, I can’t abide the idea of her horning in on it, of getting between me and my character, which is a kind of intimacy I never asked for. I don’t know what comes over me, but I shout into the phone as if I’m shouting across the street at her. “Fucking A!” I yell. And then repeat myself, even louder: “Fucking A!”
The next scene He enters isn’t all that much different from the first, though it’s a matter of degree. We’re in a city now, not a village, a big city like Ramadi, which is where they think Bruce was killed, though the backdrop of the video was so generic—dirt, rocks, rubble—nobody could really be sure. I’ve downloaded a ton of pictures to give me an idea of what it’s supposed to look like, which is no different, really, from what you see in photos of World War II or Vietnam and, it goes without saying, in all the apocalyptic comics and graphic novels, as if it’s a genre, Shell Cities. I do try to make it my own, give it a little originality, but you don’t want to go overboard—it’s a bombed-out city, that’s all you need to know. Anyway, there’s a whole lot more of it than what you got of the village, so in the splash you see Warrior Jesus’s head in profile and the city, with all the rubble and one-sided storefronts rolling out to the gutter on all four sides. Where is He? You see that in the next panel, when He walks up to a towering mosque-like edifice decorated with all these wedding-cake curlicues around a pair of big reinforced double doors, which can only mean He’s heading up the stairs of the palace where the big guy, the caliph himself—al-Baghdadi—is holding court. Or hiding. Or whatever.
There are guards, of course, hundreds of them, ranged all up and down the street and perched on the roofs of the buildings that are still standing, but Warrior Jesus never even bothers to give them a glance—He’s after bigger game. Up the steps He goes, completely ignoring the shitstorm of bullets and rockets and grenades blasting all around Him, which even if they’re direct hits, just fall harmlessly to the ground. He doesn’t have to open the doors: they swing open automatically and in He steps, which is when we cut away to the deepest hold in the deepest subbasement of the place, where all the drone strikes in the world couldn’t even begin to penetrate, and here’s the big guy, looking scared—he’s heard the rumors—and his minions are strapping suicide vests on two little girls, retarded girls (all right, Asia—mentally challenged), which are his last line of defense. Then back to Warrior Jesus, inside this big glittering palace-like place with maybe a few shell holes in the roof and the far wall, and here come the girls, hurrying up the steps to take Him out, whether they know what they’re doing or not.
But that doesn’t happen. That’s the point: it can’t happen. There’s no kryptonite in this universe, no Mist or Magneto or Doctor Polaris: Warrior Jesus is all-powerful. And, as we see now, merciful too. He doesn’t lift His finger to annihilate the girls but just winks one eye and the suicide vests are gone—and better, the girls are instantly cured, which you can see in their smiles and the way their eyes radiate intelligence. Then it’s al-Baghdadi’s turn. He’s cowering in the subbasement with its bombproof walls and three-foot-thick tungsten-steel doors and all the rest, but it’s not going to do him any good. Warrior Jesus just steps right through the steel door as if it’s made of paper like in Manga or the old samurai movies. And then He lifts His finger, and the big guy is dust.
I wind up working all day, just on fire, really, and the funny thing is I keep seeing Bruce in flashes, as if there’s something in this that’s for him, as if I’m doing it for him, when really, as I say, he was nothing to me. To my mother, maybe—he was her sister’s only child, taken from her in this incredibly senseless, barbaric way, and how could people be like that, et cetera—but I wouldn’t even know what he looked like if my mother hadn’t taped him every time he did a story from one dusty outpost or another. To me he was like any other reporter or TV personality, completely disembodied, as unreal as the image itself flickering there in a haze of pixels, and if I felt any emotion at all it was disgust, especially with the bland smugness of his face as he mouthed the words nobody was listening to and nobody cared about, palm trees waving in the background and him going through the whole battery of facial tics they taught him in broadcast-journalism school. But still, as the day wears on and the light goes bad and I’m working under my lamps, I keep seeing him, scenes from ancient times shuffling in a loop over and over in my brain. An example, a thing I hadn’t thought of in years, is the time his mother, my Aunt Marie, took him and me to the Central Park Zoo when I must have been five or six, I guess, and we both broke away from her and ran up to the leopard’s cage. It was summer. Or no, spring. I remember I had a jacket on, and the colors, I remember the colors, everything concrete gray and the black bars of the cage cutting the backdrop in neat rectilinear sections and then this cat, this huge muscle-rippling cat, that stood out as if he’d been dipped in Day-Glo. Bruce was older than me, faster and taller, and he got there first, so I arrived at the moment the leopard let loose with a sudden soul-stripping roar that scared the living shit out of us because this thing wasn’t a stuffed toy and we both knew it could hurt us beyond repair, that it wanted to hurt us. One of us cried, I remember that too.
Anyway, though I never did get hold of Asia, which really irritates me (did that earlier conversation qualify as a fight, in her mind, anyway?), I nonetheless get in the car come nine and go to pick her up at work, which is what I usually do on my day off. She’s got her own car, but over the past couple of months, it’s become a ritual for us to meet at the bar at Cedric’s, which might be a mortuary, but it’s convenient and they pour a killer drink. We have maybe two, on her employee discount, and then go out to get something to eat or hit a late movie or just go back to my place, where the most essential thing is—the bed—because with her living at home it’s pointless to go to her place. Unless her parents take off on a cruise, which they did last month and we had the whole house to ourselves, with the bed the size of a life raft, the Jacuzzi and the Samsung forty-inch TV and a freezer full of frozen entrées like Stouffer’s lasagna and Bistro sesame-ginger salmon bowl.
The bar is separate from the dining room at Cedric’s, unlike at Brennan’s, where you can sit at the bar while you’re waiting for your table and see people eating, which, in theory, gets you to drink more. At Cedric’s, you come into a vestibule where you can stomp the snow off your boots and hang up your coat. The swinging doors straight ahead lead into the dining room, and the ones to your right open directly on the bar. On this night—it’s starting to freeze up outside, the drizzle whitening under the headlights until it’s suspended there like in a Japanese print—I don’t bother with my coat and just push through the doors and step into the bar, which isn’t as dead as usual, three or four older couples getting raucous at the bar and a scatter of people at the tables, and I don’t at first see Asia, which isn’t unusual, because sometimes she’s in the kitchen or still out in the dining room, depending on the dinner crowd. But then—and this is the strangest thing, like something out of the Believe-It-or-Not strip—I spot the white turban floating there in the candle gloom like a seagull, and it’s the non-Hindu from last night and his girlfriend right beside him, and I’m thinking he’s either a restaurant critic or he must really like steak. I hear Asia before I see her, this distinctive machine-gun laugh she’s got—ack, ack, ack—and now I’m really confused because she’s sitting right next to the guy in the turban and laughing at something he obviously just said.
There’s no room at the bar—some guy I’ve never seen before has his stool pushed right up against hers and he’s laughing too, all of them part of some joke or routine and all of them, I realize, smashed. So what is going on here? I don’t have a clue. But I push my way in and slip my arm around Asia’s waist, which causes the guy next to her (weasel face, long black hair) to practically jump out of his seat, and I say, “What’s up?” and Asia turns around and gives me a look like she doesn’t even recognize me.
“Oh, hi,” she says, after a minute, and the turban guy turns his head too, like this has anything to do with him. She pauses, everybody does, as if in freeze-frame, then says, “I didn’t think you were coming. I mean, after—”
“When I called? And you yelled at me?”
The new guy—he’s so close I can smell the old-fashioned limy aftershave he’s got on—is just looking at her now, studying her, as if she’s some kind of experiment he’s been working on, and then the turban guy, in his fruity tones, says, “Hey, don’t I know you?” And all of a sudden he slaps his head and comes on with a big lemon-sucking grin. “From last night, right—you’re the chef.” The grin goes wider. “So what’s this, a busman’s holiday?’
I am full of Warrior Jesus, the whole dividing line between how intense work was and this moment here as confusing as if I’m just now waking up from a dream, and I don’t know what to say—don’t, in fact, want to say anything. These people are nothing to me. And they’re drunk, way ahead of me, and even if I started throwing down shots I’d never catch up to them. What I say, and I don’t even glance at anybody but Asia, is, “Time to go.” And because that might sound maybe too abrupt or harsh, I add, lamely, “I’ve got a cold? And I’m really wiped from working all day.”
Asia gives me a steady look. “I’m not ready,” she says. There’s half a drink in front of her and a full one backing it up, which somebody obviously bought her—a mai tai, which she only drinks when she’s in interplanetary space, which is where she is now.
“Yeah,” I say, and both guys are watching me, one from the left, one from the right, and the tattooed girlfriend too, “but maybe you didn’t hear me. I said, it’s time to go.”
Asia doesn’t like to be told what to do, nobody does, really, but I have certain rights here—she’s my girlfriend, not theirs—and when she says, for the second time, “I’m not ready,” something just goes loose in me and I say, “The fuck you’re not,” and the Turban starts in with, “Hey, hey, now, no need for that,” but there is a need, every need in the world, my need, and before I know what I’m doing, I’m stalking out the door and into the cold, cold night.
Which is where I see the Mercedes parked at the curb, two cars down. It’s an older model, a classic, I guess, the sort of thing your parents might hand down to you once you get your license and they go for an upgrade. It’s a mustard yellow, more gold where the streetlight hits it, and everything else bordered in the black of the night so it stands out as if it’s the only car on the street. And didn’t I see this very car in the lot at Brennan’s just last night? One of the last cars there and the Turban and his girlfriend lingering at their table over after-dinner drinks? Maybe. Maybe so. It doesn’t really matter at this point—and it only takes me a minute to extract what I need from the trunk of my car, and yes, I do occasionally tag around town, very distinctive, eyeless faces usually, with my own DD insignia underneath, and I will not apologize for it because it’s public art, at least the way I do it. Nothing so exacting as that tonight though. Tonight it’s just one word, in black, dripping right down the driver’s-side door. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a hint: seven letters, starting with R.
The scene changes for Warrior Jesus, no more desert, no more ISIS and al Qaeda. He’s in the tropics now, palm fronds stirred by a gentle breeze, butterflies hanging like mobiles in the air, and the place He’s approaching is in a block of storefronts, a glitter of windowpanes, white stucco, red tile roofs gone dark with night. Out front a sign that says Cantina. Who’s in there? The narcos and their minions, some of them out-of-uniform federales, even, everybody bought and sold and every business on the street—in the whole city—paying the extortion tax. We see them partying in a tier running down the right side of the page, tequila bottles, cocaine, video games, and their whores hanging all over them, women they’ve forced into prostitution because it’s either that or die, and some of them girls as young as thirteen, though obviously I can’t show all of that without getting into some serious backstory. Just let the drawings give you the picture and you can fill in the rest from general knowledge. The point is, these are bad guys, very bad guys, and at the center of the action, just like in Ramadi, is their kingpin, a kind of El Chapo figure, only bigger, the way El Chapo would be if he was younger and pumped iron. They look menacing, armed to the teeth, and yet for all that they don’t stand a chance—we’ve already seen Warrior Jesus in action and they are half a beat from being reduced to dust. Or at least that’s what you think.
But—and I had to backtrack here, trying to dredge something up from all those years I went to church with my mother as a little kid—a new element enters the picture, and it’s so obvious I have to slap myself for not having thought of it earlier. Of course there’s a nemesis—what was I thinking? It’s Lucifer, the devil himself, Satan, the original nemesis, the one that ruined Adam and Eve and tempted the old Jesus in the desert. All this evil, what they did to Bruce, the mass killings, all of it—it’s got to be coming from someplace, and here it is, evil incarnate. Anyway, he’s lounging in back, just behind the kingpin, and he doesn’t have horns or a pointed tail or anything like that, but you can see from the way he’s built and from his eyes—slit yellow eyes, like a goat’s—just who he is and what he thinks of himself.
That’s when Warrior Jesus comes through the door and the whole room freezes. We see Him run His eyes over the narcos and corrupt cops and the whores and then the kingpin before coming to rest on Satan, who you see in close-up in the next panel is sporting a mercury tattoo that reads El Ángel Caido, just in case you’re not getting it. Right. And though this part isn’t really worked out yet, you see Warrior Jesus raise His finger and point it right at Satan and nothing happens. The whole room is one big smirk, the joke’s on Him. What comes next is the fight scene, the two antagonists, with all their powers, locked together in a Manichaean struggle as if the forces of good and evil were neutralizing each other all the way down the line. You see fire, radiation, suns exploding, and they wrestle over the oceans and the continents and all the way out into deep space, way beyond the glittering satellites and even the spacecraft of aliens we haven’t even dreamed of to this point, and then the panel goes black, as if we’re in a black hole and all the energy’s been sucked out of the universe.
The next day I’m at work, the lunch crowd heavier than usual, and more demanding too—one clown even wants me to Pitts a steak for him (cover a filet in fat, prop it three inches above the grill on kebab skewers, and incinerate the outside while leaving the middle all but raw). The meat goes on the grill. The exhaust fans suck back the smoke. I’m sweating, dehydrated, I still have a cold. And I’m upset about the night before, my second night in a row back at home with nothing to do but draw, and she hasn’t texted or called so I have no idea what the resolution of that little gathering at the bar turned out to be, whether she’s fucking one of them or both of them or if she’s going to start wearing a turban now or what. So I put my head down and lose myself in work, and when I look up it’s two-thirty and time for my break, at which point I make myself a burger and a salad, sit down at one of the tables in back, and dial her number.
I count four rings, five, and just when I think she’s not going to pick up, she’s there saying, “What do you want?”
“What do you mean, what do I want? I want to talk to you.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Don’t give me that shit, because I want to talk to you, hear me?”
She doesn’t answer.
“All right, fine—I don’t want to talk to you either,” I say, but still she doesn’t say anything and it takes me a minute to realize the phone’s gone dead.
A spread now. You see Him way in the distance with all the turmoil and quasars and all the rest diminishing behind Him till He’s back in the scene out front of the cantina and stepping through the doors all over again, and for a minute you think nothing’s changed, the panel almost identical to the one two pages back, until you realize Satan, with his goat’s eyes and mercury tattoo, is gone. And then you realize that the rest of them, everybody in the room, though they draw their weapons and start blazing away, are doomed, just like bad guys everywhere. Warrior Jesus points His finger, the narcos vanish, and their weapons clatter to the floor. There’s nobody left in the room now but a bartender, a couple of waitresses, and the whores, maybe fifteen or twenty of them. These are innocents, the whores, that’s what we’re thinking—forced into the trade, sold into it—and He will free them from their chains and restore them to what they once were, sisters, daughters, mothers, just like He took the burden of retardation off the two Syrian girls.
We’re wrong, though. The whores are beyond redemption, we can see that in their faces, cheaters, sinners, betrayers, riddled with every kind of STD known to man, and we linger on them in a panel that takes in the whole scene. The one in the middle, the prettiest one, I give her Asia’s face, and I don’t need a photograph to work from, just the implant in my memory, and I give her Asia’s green eyes too, though I shade them more toward olive so as to take nothing away from His eyes. It’s a moment of tension. He lifts His finger, but the whores don’t turn to dust—no, that would be too easy. What happens is they begin to melt, like wax, and we see the one in the middle screaming out her pain with every waxy drop of her flesh that sizzles on the floor beneath her. Then a full-page spread: Warrior Jesus’s face in close-up, so huge it runs beyond the gutter on either side, and for the first time since He’s come on the scene, He’s smiling. It’s not a happy smile, that wouldn’t work, not at all—He’s still got a job to do—but more rueful, as if He’s just about to shake His head in a go-figure kind of way. And then the final image, and I’m still not sure about this, though it could work as a branding icon and I could see it on a line of tees, easily, you get a close-up of His finger, just His finger, pointed right at you.
So what do you think? Is it a go?