From WTP Vol. VI #4
Jesus in the Form of a Goat
By Eric J. Smith
QuikStop wall clock says 9:23. I ask Dolores for the bathroom key, and she hands it over without saying nothing about paying customers. I walk across the lot. Someone pulls in for gas, taking the turn heavy. Nearly hits me. The car wash ain’t going. It’s too cold. Snow piled up on the far end of the lot.
I try the key. It sticks and then goes in. I twist my wrist just right. The door creaks open. Lemon cleaner, mold, standing water, and drip, drip, drip. I hit the light. I’d fix the sink for her, but she’d never ask. I’m in the mirror. Strikes me every time. You get to an age, you don’t see yourself no more. But I was drunk once. Must’ve been a kid. Thirty or so. And the light bounced funny, me standing there, a cartoon of myself, wild colors and really real. The “Hey, I know you,” kinda feeling. The same mirror. Same QuikStop except cleaner then, the lights brighter. And here I am now. A lightbulb out. Mustache, grey. This old canvas vest. Hat covering the bald spot. Long hair, grey. Paint and joint compound on the sleeves of my sweatshirt, grey.
Back in the parking lot, I search the seat crevices. There’s three nickels and a dime. Jesus in the form of a goat sits in the passenger seat. With big square teeth jutting out, he’s bleating at me to go inside. He nudges yesterday’s coffee cup and cries out louder than ever. I slam the door but can still hear him as the QuikStop bell rings, ding-a-ling-a-ling. Door closes and Dolores is staring.
“Coffee?” Dolores asks.
“I got a job today.”
“It’s been a while?”
“It’s been a while. It’s the cold. No one’s contracting when it’s cold.”
“You’re good for it. Take it, CJ.”
She grinds her jaw like she does, and I can see the muscles twitch beneath the scalp of her bald head.
“I’ll pay tomorrow.”
“It’s ok. We throw out the extra.”
I put the sugar in first. Then the cream. Then I fill it to the top.
“I’ll pay tomorrow.” A line you’d hear in a movie. But real. Me. I hand her the key.
She doesn’t move from her stool, her arms crossed and her teeth grinding away.
The bell rings, ding-a-ling-a-ling. Jesus in the form of a goat chews his cud, his head just above the dashboard with his eyes staring off to some prophetic future; miracles and resurrections and forgiveness and hell, the shit they mouth off about in church.
Snow’s been pushed off both sides of Cherry Run, the banks two feet high and the road narrow. I call the homeowner. Dolan Mallory is his name and he lives in one of those named communities. Barrel Creek Homes. A tree fell on his house and he doesn’t know what to do. That’s what I’ve been told. I’m a sub-contractor. Called in for small jobs. Patching holes for old ladies whose husbands are either too old or too dead to climb a ladder. They’ve already re-shingled the roof. The tree bounced off and the old man either cut it up himself or had his son do it.
The phone rings once and he picks up.
“Yeah, this is CJ. I’m the mud guy. Gonna patch your hole.”
“Oh, yes, hi.”
“Well, I’m calling because I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s great. Good. Well—”
“Ok. I’ll call you if I can’t find the place,” I say, hanging up before he can say something else.
When I reach the gates for the community, I’m surprised to find a gravel road. The snow has been cleared, but there’s about half an inch still on the ground. Good plow guy, I think. It’s been too cold for it to melt. Up ahead, the naked trees are swaying. Oaks, I’d guess. Houses on either side of the road. But they’re spaced out. All different types too. Cabins, modular, craftsman, a-frame, split-level. I go down a steep hill and then up a steeper hill. It’s a work truck, so I could care less about skidding on the snow. Jesus spins around in a circle and then settles his hoofs beneath his chin. I’m at the top of the hill when I see the biggest damn house in the community. Must’ve cost two-hundred. Maybe two-fifty. The yard is clear and the oaks are far back from the house, all except the uprooted trunk, chainsaw-cut clean.
The driveway is paved and the snow has been shoveled. There’s a truck parked in front of a detached, three-car garage. The house is a cape cod with a deep porch. There’s a back deck and Carolina Bead siding. The good stuff. I ring the bell, expecting to find the bent old man. The man who opens the door ain’t old at all. Twenty-five, maybe.
“Is your dad at home?”
“I’m the owner,” he says, a solid-color coffee mug in his hand, wearing flannel like he chops wood for a living—but not a real living—a TV lumberjack. He ain’t half my age. Owning a house. Rich parents, I suppose.
“Can I come in?” I ask.
“Uh, yeah. CJ, right? They told me about you. Crazy thing. The tree falling on the house. My wife and I—we were sitting right there.” He points to one of those wrap-around couch-things. “And then bang. Shakes the whole house. And we knew. We knew it right away. That tree had been leaning. And then bang. But I’ll show you. I’ll show you. They already patched the roof. ‘Nothing to it,’ they said. And they took the branch out. But there’s still a giant hole in the drywall. And—”
“Well show it to me.” I couldn’t help but interrupt. These rich folks. They’re all the same. They’ll talk all day if you let them. If Jesus were here, he’d of crapped the floor by now. He’d of run circles. He’d bleat bloody murder to hear this boy talk.
He leads me upstairs. He doesn’t mention my boots, so I don’t offer. They’re clean anyway.
“Right here,” he says. He points to a hole in the ceiling. It’s a cape cod, so the wall goes up about six feet and then it turns into a forty-five degree angle. The hole is in the angled part of the ceiling.
“Ok. Not too bad. I’ll cut it out square. Fit a patch. I use wire mesh around the seams. And then fill it with mud. And that’s it. They said you’d do the painting.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I can paint over it. I was mostly worried about water damage. I wasn’t sure if—”
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about. They fixed the roof. Now I’ll go down for my tools. Is there a sink up here?”
“Uh, yeah. Right over here. Here in the bathroom.”
“Alright. I’m going down to the truck and I’ll get started.”
I’m alone mudding the hole. It’s a nursery. Light yellow walls, a crib, fake balloon decorations with letters for the baby’s name: FAITH. I’m on the third floor and I can see out the window from where I’m standing. Jesus is down there. He let himself out of the truck and he’s standing in the middle of the driveway. He’s bleating up at me and I hear him through the glass.
Hundred dollar job. I’m eating but it don’t go far. Hundred dollar job. He gets louder. And I’m itching for the adjustable wrench stuffed in my back pocket.
“I could do it,” I say as I move to the window. “You’re all the way down there. You couldn’t stop me—doesn’t matter how loud you get. I could do it.”
I tap, tap, tap the adjustable wrench against glass to the sound of footsteps down below. The homeowner is in the kitchen.
“It takes thirty seconds. I’ll close the door behind. He’ll think I’m pissing.”
Jesus spins a full circle. He can hear me tapping glass, and his screams grow louder as I return to my work.
With my mud knife, I finish the job, feathering out the sides to make for a seamless transition. I’m done, and if I don’t clean the blade of my mud knife, it’ll set up and I’ll never get it off. I have no choice. A mudman needs a clean knife. That’s what dad always told me. So I’ll use the sink in the bathroom. And while I’m there, I’ll shut the door.
Jesus in the form of a goat knows it’s happening. He’d knock the door down, but he can’t manage stairs. I clean the knife. And then I open up the cabinet door beneath the sink. Jesus knows what I’m doing with the wrench and the plastic connection between the water line and the sink. Hand-tighten only. But he can’t stop it. I’m a good man. A good man needs to eat.
When I’m finished in the bathroom, I flush the toilet for effect. My back pocket feels heavy. The wrench might’ve gained thirty or fifty pounds when I put it back and I’m surprised my belt can hold it up.
“Mr. Mallory,” I say, calling downstairs. I hear him pop up and then he’s there with his hand on the lower railing. I turn towards the room and away from the bathroom saying, “I’ll show you what I did.” But I’m not showing what I really did. Outside I hear bleating. I can’t believe he doesn’t hear it. Rich folks don’t hear nothing but their own voices.
He follows me into the nursery. I’m holding the mud knife, a semicircle six inches across. I flex it. “See that?” I ask. “They don’t make them flexible no more. Not like this one. This one, I’ve been using for seventeen years. It’s got the wood handle. And the metal—it’s thin so it flexes. See here—it’s what I did.” I show him the hole and I don’t look back to see him nodding politely, the ten-gallon bucket of mud between us. “I put it on thick and then I fanned it out. You see that? Don’t need much sanding. Not much at all. And it’s all on account of flex. When you fan it out, you flex the blade just right. And then you don’t need much sanding. Just sand around the edges. Paint it. And that tree branch that came through. It’s like it never came through at all.”
That’s when I turn towards him. He’s smiling so big, I see shit between his teeth. Real, goddamn shit. Must’ve been eating shit to go with his coffee. He doesn’t look dissimilar from Jesus in the form of a goat. Same black eyes. Deep.
“How much?” He asks. “They said one-hundred.”
I can see the bills in his hand. “Yeah. One-hundred.”
He hands it over.
“Bless you,” I say reaching down for the ten-gallon bucket of mud. I hold it out in front as I walk down stairs—a counterweight to the fifty-pound wrench in my back pocket.
I wait for the call. It’ll happen between now and next week. It’s hard to predict. It’s better if it takes longer, and it’s best when they’re not home when it starts. Jesus hasn’t shut up since I did it. “What can I do?” I ask him as he sits beside the stove, flames dancing above the bed of embers, four solid logs to last the night.
Five days pass. No call. It’s Sunday, so Jesus and I drive out to The Living Room, an evangelical church housed within the warehouse of an old furniture store. When it was a furniture store, it was also called The Living Room. They never changed the sign. “God’s will,” they say. “Meant to be,” they say. And that’s what it’s like for most of us. Born again. Like the building. A place for selling manifestations of the material world. Like how I was selling myself. “To the devil,” they say. But not anymore. It’s a house of God. And me, I’m housing God, not the devil. And I see his son, Christ, in the form of a goat.
I push through the front door and hear the rock music from the stage in the corner, a five-piece set with the volume cranked up. Women are in the aisles speaking tongues, and the minister in a white suit with a microphone is calling out to lost souls who haven’t found Him yet, “God have mercy! Jesus be praised! God have mercy!” Alcoholics. Users. Woman beaters. Bad fathers. Bad sons. Sluts. Whores. The unemployed and not looking. Criminals without rap sheets. Some with rap sheets. Crooks. Beggars. The abused. The mishandled. The dropouts. The fired. The broke-down with nothing to lose. Lives not worth a shit. Not to themselves at least. Ourselves, I should say. Not to ourselves. But to Him. That’s what the preacher teaches us. To Him, we’re worth something. And that’s why He provides such a beautiful church with a real rock band. Before I reach the aisle, I stop at the donation bin. I drop a ten dollar bill through the slot and find my usual seat in the fifth row at the end of the aisle.
I get the call Tuesday afternoon. Jesus in the form of a goat stands up. His ears are pricked listening. I keep the phone tight against my ear to keep him from hearing Sam, the contractor I work for. Here’s what Jesus hears:
“Well ain’t that something. I was over there last week. Leaking sink, you say. Already fixed. But there’s holes in the ceiling.”…
“Oh, come on.”…
“It’s coincidence is all. Like I had something to do with it. Come on, man. Come on.”…
“Yeah. I’m free today. I’ll stop over for the truck and mud.”…
I skip the QuikStop. Too much judgement there. It’s bad enough having to ride over with Jesus, who won’t sit down. He’s standing the whole damn ride, and no matter how many times I say, “If we crash you’re flying straight through the window,” he doesn’t sit down. Doesn’t take the hint. He stares at me with big black eyes, chewing cud. Except it isn’t his cud because blood drips down his chin so heavy it soaks his goatee.
We pass the place where I threw the wrench. I threw it after the mudding job last week because it weighed so much. Fifty pounds is far too heavy for a wrench. And besides, it’s Sam’s anyway, and he didn’t notice it missing from the toolbox in the back of the pickup.
We get there and Jesus hops out the truck, acting as if he’ll follow me inside.
“Get,” I say. “Get back. Don’t you follow me!”
But there’s nothing I can do. I’m knocking on the door and Mr. Mallory is standing there in the same damn flannel from last week. (More or less. The color is different.)
“Come on in,” he says without noticing Jesus, whose hooves click with every step on the hardwood floor.
“It didn’t buckle—the floor?” I ask. That’s what I’d been hoping for. Ripping out a floor and laying down a new one—that’s good money.
“We were sitting right there,” he says pointing to the kitchen table. “Having dinner. And then something drips from the ceiling. At first, I don’t know what—what it is. But then it drips again from the light fixture and I figure it’s the toilet or the sink upstairs. I’d seen water under the sink a few days before. I caulked it up. But this was more. So I run upstairs to the sink and sure enough, it’s dripping. I shut the water off and run back down. We can see where it’s pooled up. So I punch little holes and it drips down. Not too bad. I’m mostly worried about mold forming. Should I worry about mold?”
He looks at me real serious and I want to tell him a lie—tell him to rip down the drywall. Replace the ceiling. But Jesus won’t stop staring from his place on the couch, blood dripping heavy now. Blood dripping all over the couch and all over the floor. And it’s pooling up—the blood, and black mold grows all over it expanding out to the furniture and the standing lamp. All of it covered. And—
“No. It’s right of you to poke the holes. It’s standing water you don’t want. And you drained it out, so it’s fine to patch them up. I’ll—”
“That’s what the plumber said. And something about pipes—something about the connection between the water pipes and the sink. They get screwed in. But you’re supposed to hand-tighten. Someone used a wrench. That’s what he said. Someone—it must’ve been the previous homeowner, he tightened it with a wrench and the plastic threads cracked.”
Jesus stands up on the couch. He’s bleating loud as he can. Screaming.
“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Never done plumbing.”
His hooves stamp the couch cushions. If I were any closer, he’d bite my fingers and crack them like carrots.
“Me neither,” he says. “But he’s a good plumber. He replaced the plastic fittings with copper. ‘Won’t crack,’ he said.”
My hand is on the door knob. I motion to Jesus to follow me outside.
“What are you waving at?”
“The tools. In the truck. I’ll be right up. And the ladder. I’ll need the ladder.”
“You weren’t waving—”
“And cloths. I’ll lay out drop cloths. And we’ll need to move the table. Over there. We’ll just push it into the corner.”
“Yeah, ok. I’ll take one side and—”
Jesus hops up on the top part of the couch. Cushions squish down beneath his hooves. He’s butting his head up against the lamp and screaming louder than ever.
“No, not now. When I come back up we’ll—”
“Who are you waving at?”
“I’ll be right back, I—”
I slam the door hard behind me.. There’s blood everywhere growing mold. And this guy—Dolan Mallory—he’s worried about mold in the ceiling. Mold—it’s everywhere. Wants me patching his holes for fifty bucks. Fifty bucks! I should be ripping out the floor with all the trouble I took—Jesus not talking to me. Sitting on the other side of the room staring for a whole week while I load the woodstove and shovel snow and cook us meals.
I’m pulling the ladder down from the truck when chance has me looking up to the living room window. Jesus in the form of a goat has grown in size and he’s standing on his back legs. Wings—moth wings—extend above his head, fire pluming from his nostrils, neon-piss green.
I go up with the first load, the ladder and drop cloths, the cheap plastic type. Dolan’s sitting in an arm chair with Jesus at his feet, his eyes all pupils.
Out of the corner of my own eyes, I see him petting Jesus beneath the chin. I look, but he’s too quick. He’s sitting there with a leather-bound, black book, and I swear he’s holding it upside down, the red ribbon bookmark dangling. Jesus nibbles at it.
I go back down, and again, I see petting from the corner of my eye. I don’t look. “I’ll need help with the table,” I say. Jesus lets out a shriek and I hear click-ticking on the hardwood floor.
Mr. Mallory drops the book with a thud. He picks up his end before I’m ready. With his pinky finger and nothing else, he lifts the entire table like a cartoon strong man and places it in the corner. Jesus is standing on the table. From there he looks down on me and then turns towards the refrigerator where he rips down the calendar and eats it whole. He finds a muffin tin on the top of the refrigerator. He eats that too, the metal bending and grinding in his jaw.
“What’re you looking at?” Mr. Mallory asks.
“You need something to drink? Soda in the fridge. Cup of coffee? I made extra. And I’ve had enough. I throw away the extra. Have some. Have a cup. I’ll make it for you. Sugar? Cream? How do you take it?”
“You could use some.”
He pours coffee from a glass carafe, steam fogging up the window, cream and sugar premixed at the bottom of the mug. He turns, a sharp goatee thick with blood. “It’s strong,” he says.
Tastes like rust and motor oil. “Thank—”
But he’s already left the room. I’m standing there with the mug in my hand, the drop cloths already spread beneath my feet. Jesus in the form of a goat sits on his lap, small now. Beagle size. And both have horns with the right one clipped sitting in the armchair, faces turned, red flannel collars buttoned up—the top button stretched tight against skin.
I look up and the ceiling isn’t more than a foot from my face, the ladder groaning as I shift my weight, the mud knife flexing, feathering the edges. “Won’t need much sanding,” I say. “Won’t need much sanding. Won’t need much sanding. Wont…”
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good…” Supernatural high-pitch broken record set to repeat, scratched across both faces no matter how you flip them. Pupils spin. Both sets of eye sockets. And the clock—the minute hand flies. I can’t stop it. Won’t stop. Jesus in the form of a goat nuzzling grizzly beard to beard, the young man holding fire in the form of a book daring me to say it—no, that’s not right. Daring me NOT to say it. Say it about the wrench and the plastic fittings and overtightening till I hear the crack. No drip, drip, drip. Not yet. Takes a week. Maybe three days. Maybe more. Drip down through the ceiling. Buckles the floor. Nice hardwood too. A giant wave engulfing the kitchen table, the counters, the refrigerator, and Jesus in the form of a goat rising up above the water—walking on water and lapping up blood—tastes of rust and motor oil—mold multiplying bacteria up the walls, around windows, stifling cabinets in death’s choking grasp, crossing the ninety-degree crack from wall to ceiling, racing towards mud knife wielding knuckles. Doing this to a man. What I felt. What I am. Doing this to a man. Another man. And things he loves. Future. Hope. Untimely ripped. Ripped, for he’s no better than me. He’s no smarter. Not worth more. A man’s a man. And that’s all. And—
“The crazy shit I’d pull,” I croak. The floor now—it’s a floor. No blood. No black mold. Jesus in the form of a goat—he’s still there, but he looks away. “When I was young, I tell you.” I’m still mudding, but when I look down the goatee is gone. “Drugs. Alcohol. And that wasn’t half of it. Too much money. That’s it. Young guy. Just like you. Making too much money.”
I can see the book in his hand. “What’s that—you’re reading.”
“Ah, it’s Nietzsche. The Anti-Christ.”
“Wild. Wild. That’s what did it for me. Finding Christ. But the Anti-Christ—that’s something.”
“Yeah, well. Too much money. Had this job fitting bathtubs. It’s the stuff that’s goes over top—over the old bathtub. Just put it down. Caulk it up. That’s a day’s work. Can do five in a day. Too much money.”
I look down again from my place on the ladder. The clock—it stops spinning. Not just the minute hand either. The second hand. And Jesus in the form of a goat—he’s standing by the door.
“They wouldn’t know better. I’d charge double or triple and they’d pay. They’d pay without a word.”
He’s not listening anymore, his face in the book.
“But I found Jesus, now. And I’m not taking advantage. Not no more.”
Jesus bleats. Dolan Mallory, still sitting in his chair, regrows his goatee. The horns are back and the second hand is flying.
“The water,” I say.
“Yes, yes, the water,” he says past sharpened canines. “Yes. Tell me about water. Where’d it come from? The sink? Upstairs? Yes, yes. I know. I know already. But why’s it leaking? Why? Why? Why? Why’s it leaking? Who did it? How? Why? Previous owner? Unlikely to be—”
“We’d do bathrooms,” I say. “Cut my teeth doing bathrooms. Plumbing.”
“Plumbing you say? Yes. But no. You said you don’t know plumbing. But bathrooms is plumbing, man. Isn’t it, man?”
Jesus has grown ten times his size, his head scraping the ceiling. The drop cloths, they’re folded up. Ten-gallon bucket of mud—closed. But there’s mud on my knife and I can’t clean it. Not all the water in the world will clean it.
“I’ll tell him!” I say to Jesus in the form of a goat. “I will. I’ll do it. Just stop it. No more No more. And the blood. And the mold! And all the blood, it’s red.”
And then he’s standing in front of me, Jesus’ silhouette filling the back wall.
“Fifty this time?”
It’s me. It’s me. Cracked the fitting. ME, ME, ME!
But I don’t say it. Jesus might appreciate it, but the words on my tongue—they won’t take the plunge.
“Yeah,” I say. The room returns to normal. Jesus in the form of a goat bleats loud, but his size doesn’t account for shit. “Take this. The extra mud. It’s no good for me. After it’s open. I don’t reuse it. You take it. And next time, do as I showed you. Feather it. Feather it out.”
Outside with the mud left behind, thirty-dollar bucket, I don’t feel it. Not like I did inside. With the cash, I’ll buy coffee. Real coffee from the QuikStop. Jesus in the form of a goat—he walks beside, but he won’t look me in the eye. Not for a week. But then I’ll go to The Living Room come Sunday, women speaking tongues and the rock band turned up loud, “Beg Forgiveness. Beg His forgiveness…” And in my heart I’ll beg, and Jesus in the form of a goat, he’ll bow his head and I’ll pet him right between the horns.
Eric J. Smith is an English teacher and MFA student. His work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Press and has been published or is forthcoming in Welter, HCE Review, The Cossack Review as well as a few others.