Licton Springs Review

A Striking Resemblance By Matthew Misselbeck

For someone who disliked the town, and who offered it no allegiance whatsoever, it certainly was strange for me to watch it pass by while I rode on a float, part of the annual Civic Pride Parade as it headed straight down Main Street. The Buzzard Chamber of Commerce held the parade every Memorial Day as an official kick-off to summer, and the affair always drew a crowd from miles around. Despite hints of rain in the twilight sky, both sides of the street were packed three rows deep, as boys and girls scrambled in excitement to grab the Tootsie Rolls and Smarties being thrown into the crowd. The lamp posts were covered in blue and red shiny ribbon, and sidewalk vendors selling hotdogs and cotton candy gave the air the smell of a county fair or a baseball game, the kind of smell that belonged to summer and all the leisure and fun that came with it. Ever since the last World War II veteran passed away, the planners in Buzzard have favored this light approach rather than the obligatory war remembrance ceremony. Since then, Memorial Day has been a hoot for the people of this town, and today was no exception.

The master of ceremonies for the party was Franklin Wimbers, the town commissioner, who rode in the float just ahead of me. He waved to the cheering crowd with his left hand and held a small megaphone with his right, which he used to shout personalized greetings to the faces familiar to him, which was just about everyone. He wore a tall, black top hat and a three-piece tuxedo with tails, complete with a pocket watch chain that hung low on his short, round frame. This was the same gaudy outfit he wore every year and every other public opportunity at that, which meant the Harvest Moon festival, Christmas Tree Lighting, and even, I heard, to the prom of his oldest daughter where he acted as a parent chaperone.

I, oddly enough, also rode on one of the popular floats in the parade—proudly sponsored and manned by the generous members of the Agape Community Church, a non-denominational fellowship in Buzzard, whose official motto was “Right with God. Right with man.” The church had started about five years ago, and already it counted a good deal of the citizens of Buzzard and the surrounding communities as members. The church had won the prize for best float in the parade for three years running, and although I was not a member, I was specifically courted in the grand effort to keep the streak intact.

Jim Parks, the pastor of the church, worked hard to recruit me. I saw him all the time at the Kimberly County Foster Care Center where I worked. He liked to come and spend time with the kids and showed up every other Thursday morning, rain or shine. Every time was pretty much the same thing. He’d read a Bible story and then hand out a little trinket with a scripture verse on it like a ruler or a bookmark. What the kids loved best, though, was when he’d join them in a game like Duck-Duck-Goose. Jim was a tall, skinny, balding man with clunky glasses, usually wearing a thrift-shop shirt and tie. And he looked pretty funny chasing a four-year old around a clapping circle.

He tried hard, and I, for one, appreciated the effort. His sterling attendance and gentle demeanor went a long way. The kids had few constants in their lives. Growing up a foster kid myself, constantly in and out of homes, I knew what it was like to live with a revolving door of new faces. Faces that smiled when the right people were around, but inevitably would turn and bear down on you with a vicious scowl when the door closed. You never knew what you were going to get, so you learned to keep your guard up.

The kids were different with Jim, though. He couldn’t get out the door without doing silly, secret handshakes with the boys and graceful, twirly dances with the girls. Even on the occasional day when he came in tired, and the whole thing was obviously a chore done out of obligation, he still managed to generate real warmth. The kids would cling to him like he was a space heater in a freezing room.

Jim also made it a point, when he had the time, to mingle with us workers. I always made myself look busy as he made his rounds, trying to avoid his friendly but penetrating stare and subtle but probing questions. Direct and open-ended, he’d come right out and ask about your struggles, fears or failures. Jim was the kind of guy that wanted to know everything about you, good and bad, it seemed, and had no problem asking. He could make me squirm if I didn’t handle him right. He would float just the right question in just the right way that would find even the smallest patch of vulnerability.

“I bet you see a lot of sad stories working with these kids, Theo,” Jim commented as he casually leaned against my desk. “There’s not much distraction from life’s realities in your line of work. I imagine that can be tough after a while.” He panned the room, quietly surveying the children, and then turned back to me. “Does it ever stir up dirt from the dark corners of your own life?” he asked, studying my face.

His steady, patient gaze could get most to cave-in and spill their guts. But with me, he was dealing with a pro. I evade. It’s just my way. I side-step, redirect, avert, and deflect. Sometimes I just outright lie. I find myself doing it even when I don’t want to.

There’s been plenty of times, like with a girl, when I’ve wanted to talk, to say something meaningful. To be known. But I get paranoid, I guess, because I’m convinced most people are just out to get something. The girls, at least the ones I’ve met, are just looking for something or someone to distract their boredom. They’re not interested in me. They just want their cell phone to ring, preferably with their friends around to hear it. And if it’s a neighbor, they try to pry only so they can have something to talk about with the next guy on the block. Everyone is looking for a nice piece of working capital to boost their own standing. I’m not very good at that game. That’s why I don’t have much love for this little town.

So I built a solid defense through controlled, sometimes fabricated details. I’ve often resorted to this kind of fiction with Jim, necessary, I believed, to maintain that precarious balance of goodwill and privacy. I told Jim my parents were missionaries at one time. He being a pastor, I thought this might excite him. I told him they started out by doing scripture translation for jungle Indians, and during the heyday of communism, they moved into smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

“My parents,” I said, dropping my head, “never made it back alive.” I looked at the children and sighed. “I know what it’s like to grow up without a mom and dad.” At least that part was true.

Jim always remembered every detail of what I told him. So whenever he’d corner me, he’d bring up more questions, and I’d have to keep adding a little more to the story, like mentioning my work study in an orphanage in Africa or a year of Bible college I took. It was hard to tell if Jim believed these tall tales even though I’m sure I sounded convincing. Lies gave me a way to rewrite my history, and mine was a well-practiced deceit. Even so, if Jim didn’t buy it, he never let on. Too polite, perhaps, or maybe, I like to think, that he just understood.

Jim saw something in me. That much was clear. Over the time I’d known him, he repeatedly invited me to church, to his house for dinner with his family, and offered to pay my way on any of the bus trips on his congregation’s social schedule. I never took him up on any of these things. But the parade turned out to be a different matter.

Jim excitedly told me his plan. There was a resolve in his pursuit, a determination I hadn’t seen in him before that I admired. He said the church’s float was going to be a dramatic telling of the gospel message. Characters would be in full costume from Bible times, and the set would be built to look authentic complete with real sheep and goats. They were going to rent a sound system and hide the speakers in the set and have colored spotlights that are mounted to poles on the corners. And just when the float reached the judges table in the main square where the majority of the crowd would be watching, the sound and lights would come alive, and the people on the float would assemble to do a fifteen-minute stage play of the crucifixion.

Jim wiped the sweat off his balding head with a yellowed handkerchief. “We’ve put a lot of thought into this, Theodore,” he appealed, “and you’re our man. We need you.” He pored over the features of my face and then shook his head. “The resemblance is uncanny.”

I told him I’d think about it. After he left, I got up from my desk and headed straight to the bathroom. I had to see for myself. I leaned over the sink into the small mirror. I looked at my reflection, straight on, profile left, profile right. I couldn’t see any resemblance. I could only see the same face I’ve had since I was a boy, clean and pale. It was a face of a young man seasoned before his time. Maybe a face that revealed enough blank spots to be an interesting mystery. But it was not the face of the Son of God. I stepped back from the mirror, taking a second look to make sure. Whether I resembled my dad or mom is something I’ll never know. But I do know that Jim was mistaken. I definitely did not look like Jesus.

That would have been the end of it, had I not learned of a juicy little story that helped change my mind. I heard from a co-worker, Jenny Rosewood, who heard from Elizabeth Smith, a member of Agape, that the real reason behind this big push for an awesome float had less to do with saving souls than it had to do with a good, old-fashioned rivalry. The whole congregation knew that they had to win best float, so Jim Parks could show-up commissioner Franklin Wimbers at his own game.

I had thought Franklin was a member of Agape, but Jenny told me about the falling out. It started last September, during his re-election campaign when Franklin set up a small table in the foyer of the church with voter registration materials. Then he started slipping in campaign slogans while giving the announcements from the pulpit. The last straw was when he staked his own campaign signs on the church’s front lawn, which sat on a prominent stretch of Maple Avenue, the town’s main road. Jim talked to him about it, assured him privately that he had his vote, but asked him to keep the politics to the town hall. Franklin took offense at the confrontation, and after Jim reiterated his stance during a sermon that the church would not endorse political candidates, Wimbers left the congregation.

Personally, I loathed the man. He had these calculated manipulations that drove me nuts like the way he coughed as he entered a room, for instance, or the way he slithered himself into a prominent position in a crowd, skillfully able to become the focal point of any group conversation. His laugh, hearty and loud, was unmistakable. Combined with that bouncing belly and a hard swat on the back, Franklin Wimbers could get what he wanted out of just about anyone. I’m completely convinced that breathy cackle is merely a stage act, worked up for these theatrical purposes, practiced, even, when no one is around, just to nail that perfect pitch of mild hysteria used to entice his prey. It can’t be real. Nothing can be that funny.

Franklin easily won re-election. And the rumor was that his next priority was to make sure that the Agape Community Church did not win the award for the best parade float. He planned that honor to go to himself. Jenny claimed that he spent a considerable amount of his own money, and some of the town’s, to build the most fantastic float that Buzzard had ever seen.

I couldn’t miss that showdown, for sure. But I think what really pulled me in was a new, strange awareness of my features since Jim brought it up. I lingered at the mirror after washing my face in the morning. I’d find myself slowing down to watch my reflection pass by in the windows of storefronts and parked cars. For two weeks straight I saw myself everywhere, and I couldn’t help but stare. I even stopped shaving and let the stubble grow into a full beard for the first time in my life. One day, almost without thinking, I called Jim and told him I would be his Christ.

I arrived at the church, late. The parking lot was full of people hurrying to finish their last minute preparations. A red Ford pickup truck was already in place at the end of the drive, towing a long flatbed trailer that had been magically transformed into a little village straight out of the Bible. Papier-mâché rocks and potted trees sat in front of walls with detailed sets painted on them, giving a three-dimensional feel. Characters in period costumes started to pile on. Three men in robes that looked like potato sacks crouched in a circle as one of them attempted to start a fire in a small metal pit. On the other side, a shepherd coaxed two sheep up a ramp with one hand and pulled on a small goat with the other. A small boy pushed some hay at the animals’ faces. In the center of the set, placed prominently, was a tall, wooden cross.

I stared at it for a moment until I heard Jim calling me from behind.

“Theodore. Hurry, we’re waiting for you,” he said. He was standing in a circle with about five other people. They were all holding hands, and they had opened it up to make a spot for me to join them. I sheepishly grabbed the hands offered to me and looked down at my feet. An older man with a deep voice began to pray. He asked God to bless their night and touch people’s hearts. The prayers continued in order around the circle, everyone more or less praying the same thing, and then it got to me. I closed my eyes mostly to avoid any uncomfortable eye contact, because I was not really sure what to say. I just stayed quiet. I heard some shuffling feet and a few coughs until, thankfully, Jim stepped in to fill the silence with a prayer of his own.

I had never heard a man pray like Jim prayed that night. He started out slow and quiet, thanking God for the opportunity to share the good news and all that, and soon he grew louder and louder as he started pleading for the souls of the lost. I peeked over to see him. He swayed back and forth and rocked up and down on his toes, his eyes clenched tight. He begged God for mercy and forgiveness, for the captives to be set free, and for sins to be washed away. As his intensity increased, the entire group got louder as they vocalized their agreement. Jim finished making his case with a flurry that came straight from his gut. The group then erupted in a hearty amen, as they broke the circle and quickly headed for their posts. I stood there, a bit lost, thinking about Jim’s words and realized that for him this was about much more than Franklin Wimbers.

Jim barked out a few last minute orders and then came and put his arm around me, leading me up the ramp onto the float. I could still hear some emotion in his voice. “You missed rehearsal,” he said, hurrying me into position.

“Yeah, sorry about that, Jim,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. I gave him some made-up excuse about a work project, but I could see that it didn’t go over too well. “You’re right,” I finally said. “I should have been there.”

He handed me a white robe and a pair of flip-flops. “Well, you’ll just have to be a quick study.”

He broke a smile that brought me some relief. He then went over the plan. It was pretty simple, just as I imagined it. The lights would go on, the music would start, and then two Roman soldiers, played by a couple of construction workers in the church, would manhandle me. One would rip off a piece of my robe, and then the other would pretend to crack me with a whip a few times. We would do this on both sides of the float, and then I would be put up on the cross. Jim said all I needed to do was act like I was taking a beating. I told him I’d be a natural.

“One last thing,” Jim said, putting his hands on my shoulders. He looked into my eyes to make sure I was tracking. “After you’re nailed to the cross, just before you die, there will be a pause on the soundtrack. This is the most important part of the entire play. You will look out into the crowd and recite John 3:16. Got it?”

He didn’t give me a chance to answer. He gave me a pat on the back and then jumped off the float and into the passenger side of the red Ford truck. Before I knew it the whole set shook as we took off down Maple Avenue.

I immediately scrambled up and down the float. My heavy steps echoed off the thin metal floor as I looked desperately for a Bible, but there was none to be found. We had barely joined the procession on Main Street, and already my stomach felt sick. The crowd grew thicker and the cheers grew louder as we moved along. My month-old beard and shaggy neckline must have been somewhat convincing, at least from the distance. I nervously waved as instructed, my hand barely reaching out of the sleeve of the white robe. As I did, I tried asking the shepherd about John 3:16, but he just laughed. He thought it was a joke. I knew then it would only be a matter of time before I would be exposed as a complete fraud.

I stumbled as the float jerked to a stop. The whole parade came to a halt as, up ahead, Franklin Wimbers and his flashy display pulled into the main square.

The theme of Franklin’s float was the Buzzard Blossom. He had it decorated ornately in all manner of live cut flowers, sponsored apparently by Arnie’s Florist. Different colors of flowers were arranged to make different patterns all along its length. Mechanical bees flew in and out of the larger bulbs. The people on his float were dressed like gardeners, and they carried oversized watering cans filled with shiny, glow-in-the-dark confetti, which they poured out onto the crowd to much vocal delight.

The lights went out and the whole float was lit up by tiny fiber optics hidden in the foliage, turning white, then blue, then green. A spotlight hit the center, and Franklin sang a portion of “Summer Love” as backup dancers in fairy costumes flitted about gingerly.

It was pretty ridiculous, but the crowd sure loved it. The applause lasted a good fifteen seconds by my estimate. The judges smiled and whispered to each other. Wimbers took one too many bows before the float started moving forward again and out through the end of the parade route.

Then, it was our turn. The driver of the red Ford pickup positioned the float and cut the engine. Jim got out and stood about where center-stage would be and turned and scanned the crowd. He seemed distracted, as if he were looking for someone he knew, like a relative or a lost child.

The colored lights hit the stage and the music began. I wanted to just walk off, to take off the white robe and disappear into the crowd never to be heard from again. I could have. I didn’t have to be there. It was not my campaign to wage, not for popularity, and certainly not for lost souls.

Looking down, I caught my distorted reflection in the dull metal. I wanted desperately to be seen for what I was, the real me, a liar and a sham. I wanted to be caught in the burning fire of shame as if my entire past could be purged through the harsh glare of the spotlight and dealt with once and for all.

The music rumbled as the soldiers grabbed me forcefully. They moved me about the stage, mocking me to the crowd. I could see faces growing serious. Children stopped chewing their candy as moms and dads pulled them closer. The soldier ripped off the tear-away fabric on the bottom of my robe. It was a small piece, more for the sound effect than anything, but I felt the nakedness, the exposure. I understood.

I understood the crack of the whip though it was just a hand in the air. I understood the hammer and the nails though they were just cues on a tape. They were piercing chastisements that came down with the full force of man’s depravity. Each strike measured out punishment for my lack, my failures, and for my futility. I deserved the pain of every blow. But I did not feel them. They had already been taken.

The music reached the crescendo and then paused. The spotlight hit me, and burned into my squinting eyes. I leaned my back against the wooden cross, arms outstretched. A stagehand, hidden behind a bush, slowly lifted a boom mic up to my dry lips. There was a long, uneasy silence. Feeling the stares, I swallowed hard and said the only thing I could get out.

“He did it for me,” I mumbled. “He did it for me.”

The stage lights pulled back allowing me to see into the crowd. A few people were moved, some were disgusted, and most were just confused. The judges at the table looked down and shuffled their papers, awkward and uncomfortable. Somewhere out there I could hear Franklin’s laugh—low, muffled, but unmistakable. And then, knowing I had failed him, I sadly turned to Jim, expecting a scowl, or at least a look of disappointment. But he looked at me with a quiet, peaceful approval, too much to bear at once that made my eyes water. He saw Jesus in my face, and now was no different. It was all I could do to close my eyes, hang my head, and pretend to die.