Jesus Christ is dropping f-bombs again.
I’m in my auto, grubbing on a freshly-printed pecan waffle when I get word from Asterisk Management. The victim this time is Lyla Fisher, sixty-five-plus, Baptist, widow, in a renovated bungalow in Atlanta’s West End.
“Where’s Saul?” I ask the intelligent dispatch. “Thought that was his zone.”
The computer responds: “Mr. Saul Sims is no longer employed with this company. Do you accept or decline this assignment?”
I accept. My auto downloads the address and starts gliding down Peachtree Street NW. It’s late now, past midnight. The devil’s overtime shift. This be the time when Halograms get the most play. Technical difficulties mean more bread for me so, personally, I appreciate these witching hours when “ain’t nothing open ’cept wicked legs and the Waffle House,” as Uncle James, my mama’s brother, used to say.
Speaking of, they got a printable menu now, Waffle House does. It’s verified, I checked. Heard too many horror stories of people printing out food from bootleg sources. Yeah, that’ll fuck your mind up real quick. And I’m no fan of mindfuckery. Not a fan of crowds either, random-ass strangers pushing all up against me as I’m trying to get by. Which is why I always order out these days, from inside the comfort of my auto with the next-gen, silent 3D printer built into the dash.
I’m done snacking by the time I reach Lyla Fisher’s house. Looks vacant from the outside. But as I approach, the door cracks open, the porch light cuts on, then I hear a voice, growling and gravelly, like the lady swallowed a guard dog: “What’s your business?”
“Ma’am, I’m with Asterisk.” I tap my palm twice, hold up my v-card for her to verify. “Here to see about your malfunctioning Halogram.”
She looks me up and down and, for a second, I wonder if my auto got the address wrong. But then she opens the door, flapping her hand for me to hurry on in like Satan himself is out in the streets, on the prowl.
The cold night air gives way to a warmth inside as Mrs. Fisher, wrapped in a burgundy shawl, lights candles around the living room. The space looks nothing like I’d expected, either. No floating sofa sheathed in plastic. No family slideshows on the walls. No roaming robo health monitors. Only two old-fashioned rocking chairs, both empty, one of them slightly rocking.
“Lived here long?” I’m still by the door, waiting for further instructions ’cause I know better than to go waltzing into people’s homes without the right clearance.
“Oh no, no, no. I’m new here,” she says. “To the neighborhood, I mean, not to Atlanta. Been heremy whole life. Come on in, come in. You want a Coke or anything?”
“I’m good, thanks.” I follow her into the living room, to the Halogram system, an adjustable steel ring twenty-five inches in diameter, hanging from the ceiling. “So, this is it, huh?”
She sighs, putting her fist on her hip. “Mmhmm, this it,” she says and keeps shaking her head at the thing, like it’s a housecat gone feral. “Started acting up last night after I got back from my prayer group. I was sitting right here, doing my evening devotion, and that’s when I heard my Lord say a word that didn’t sound all that Christ-like. Thought it was just a hiccup, so I turned the system off and on, like I was told. But that didn’t work, so here you are.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said …” She pauses, I’m guessing, to consider whether repeating said word would jeopardize her place in the kingdom. “How ’bout I just let you hear it for yourself.”
Mrs. Fisher taps a remote. The machine hums. The ring glows golden. And a cascade of pixels pours from above, forming a hologram of Jesus, bearded, brown-skinned with dreadlocks down to his broad shoulders. I remember when the customization option was first announced. Controversial, to say the least. But the company couldn’t deny demand. Or the very real threat of a consumer boycott for “whitewashing the Son of Man.” And look, I’m not here to judge, but I can’t help but notice that certain customers go overboard with the imagery, blurring that line between the sacred and the sexual. But people do what they do. If that means redefining what a “come to Jesus moment” is, so be it.
“Okay,” Mrs. Fisher says, “here we go right here.” Then she cups her ears.
The voice of Jesus thunders as he recites scripture from Matthew 22: “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked me a question, tempting me, and saying, ‘Master, which is the great commandment in the law?’ I said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt fuckthy neighbour as thyself—’”
Mrs. Fisher stops the sermon, freezing Jesus as he’s pointing right at me. “You hear that blasphemy? Uh-uh. Just pure heathenism is what that is.”
The words “it’s not that bad” almost stumble out my mouth, but I catch them quick. Reminding myself that “bad” is relative. Never mind Jesus cursing that fig tree for being barren. Or that whole table-flipping “brood of vipers” incident. Most believers give him a pass for that. But this? This, to them, is where the line is crossed. “You mind shutting that off for me?”
She taps the remote. The Halogram flashes off. “Girlfriend of mine said these hackers are really undercover preachers, mad they getting displaced and what-have-you. What you think?”
“Who knows,” I tell her because I don’t know and, to be honest, I really don’t care. Long as these machines keep getting hacked, I’ll be here, getting paid to fix them.
As I open my bag to get my tools out, I’m hoping she’ll change the subject. We’re not allowed to engage in religious discussions with customers. That’s company policy. And for good reason. No religion, no politics. Both roads lead to dead ends and, since I’m trying to make ends meet, I make sure to steer clear.
She hovers over me, watching me as I use my tablet to do a prelim scan of the system. Most cases I can fix Halogram systems remotely, right from my auto. But if a customer does request a house call, we have to go and do the whole in-person thing. These customers tend to be long in tooth and short on patience, traditional seniors of the cyber-challenged persuasion.
“Bet you seen a lot of foolishness in your line of work, huh?” she asks, close enough for me to smell grape juice on her breath.
“Not so much,” I tell her, which, of course, is a lie.
Been working for Asterisk for a good three years now and I’ve seen all kinds of shit: Gandhi jacking off. Einstein doing a Nazi salute. Maya Angelou ad libbing her “Phenomenal Woman” poem with “niggas ain’t shit.” I’m talking gutter-level trolling, far beyond slander. Hackers with nothing better to do than break into Halogram systems to manipulate code.
My first assignment was at an elementary school in Bankhead. Martin Luther King Jr., in the middle of his “I Have a Dream” speech, started glitching, then turned into a raging Bull Connor, holding a hose, spraying those kids with holographic water. Me being from Birmingham, that hit me hard. Real hard. But at the same time, breaches like these help me pay my bills, so how salty can I be?
Pixel manipulation is less common now, after the flood of Halogram security patches. But hackers these days be slick. They find a way in, tweaking lines in the slightest, obscene ways that slip right on by your average customer, or make them wonder if the quote maybe, possibly, could be legit:
“There is no charm equal to tenderness of pussy.” – Jane Austen
“Believe you’re fucked and you’re halfway there.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“Whoever is shitty will make others shitty too.” – Anne Frank
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know dick.” – Socrates
It’s like a game to see who can slide a misquote into the mouth of a historical figure without getting flagged by a user.
“What are you?” Mrs. Fisher asks.
It catches me off guard, her question. Most customers can tell I’m not one for small talk. They let me do my thing, fix the glitch, and go about my business. But Mrs. Fisher seems intent on monitoring my every move. Maybe this neighborhood is just full of yap-happy customers. Maybe that’s why Saul Sims quit.
I turn to Mrs. Fisher. “Huh?”
“‘Huh?’” she mocks me. “What are you? Baptist? Methodist? Muslim?”
“Oh. Um … nah.”
“Nah? What that mean, nah?”
This is exactly the wrong direction to be heading in. “Hold on.” I frown at the screen, pretending like I’m seeing something unusual, even though the scan’s not finished.
“You found the virus?” she asks.
“Not sure yet, but something’s up. Let me see here …”
She peeks over my shoulder, trying to make sense of the data scrolling on the screen. Then gives up. “Okay then, I’ma make me some popcorn. You hungry?”
“No, thank you.”
She pauses a second, then walks to the kitchen. My lungs deflate.
People don’t play when it comes to matters of the spirit. Not at all. Moses. Muhammad. The Buddha. Eighty percent of the calls I get come from people complaining about holograms of religious icons gone wild. Which doesn’t surprise me. I mean, it’s vulgar and misogynistic and unpatriotic for JFK, in his inaugural address, to be like, “Ask not what your cunt can do for you, ask what you can do for your cunt.” But it’s straight-up, lightning-strike-type sacrilege for Jesus to say, “I am the way, the truth, and the motherfucker with the keys.”
Down here in the South, Christ is still king.
“You never answered my question,” Mrs. Fisher says, coming back in with a mug and a bowl of steaming popcorn, which she sets on the table and motions that I’m free to have some.
“What question?” She cocks her head, looking at me like I know damn well the question, so I better quit playing dumb. “Oh. What am I? I’m just a black man trying to get by.”
“I know you’re not one of those,” she says. “Talking ’bout it’s ‘the white man’s religion.’”
I shrug. “Well …”
“I never understood that there. Christianity is all about a connection to higher power.” She puts the mug on the coffee table to free her hands for emphasis. “That’s like you saying, ‘Oh, I don’t use electricity ’cause Thomas Edison invented it and da white man’s da devil.’”
“Edison didn’t invent electricity, though.”
“Exactly. Amen. You proving my point. It ain’t about who made electricity, but it’s how youmake it work for you, see what I’m saying?”
“Ma’am, no disrespect, but I’m not supposed to engage in religious discussion—”
“Whoa, whoa, ain’t no discussion happening here. We just talking. Is that alright?”
Not really. I came in here thinking it’d be a quick trip. Get in, get out. Wait for dispatch to hit me up with another assignment. But Mrs. Lyla Fisher, despite the lateness of the hour, seems to have her own agenda going on. Her profile said she’s a widow. Maybe she’s lonely. Maybe she’s thinking I’m the one she has a friend in since Jesus is currently unavailable.
“What’s your name again, young man?” she asks, sitting down in the rocking chair.
“Junior,” I tell her as the scan completes. My screen shows a map of infected spots, which I’ll patch up once I handle the rootkits. That’s where the malware likes to hide in plain sight.
“You a mechanic, right?”
“Tomato, potato. You go ’round fixing things that done broke, true or false?”
“Now how’s that any different from what Jesus was doing?”
“If your God is so powerful, there wouldn’t be nothing broke to fix.”
A split-second later, I realize I just said those words out loud. I definitely didn’t mean to, but she pushed me, comparing me to Jesus. We are not the same. I actually exist. He doesn’t.
Mrs. Fisher scoffs. “Boy, who lied to you? Don’t nothing last forever.”
I wish I could erase what I said. But I’m already knowing this old greasy can of worms doesn’t come with a replaceable top. “Building something that ain’t meant to last, that’s called planned obsolescence.”
“Lookie here, I don’t know nothing ’bout no planned obso-whatever, but what I do know in my seventy-seven years of living on this here Earth is that things break down over time, yes they do. That’s just how the world works.”
“That’s the opposite of working. That’s like …” I scan the room for an example to use. “That’s like if I built your Halogram here, then left you high and dry without no customer service number, right? Then it crashes the first week. Done. And yeeeeaars later, I send somebody to your great-great-great-great-grandchildren’s grandchildren with a message that they gotta pay me if they want it repaired. What you say to that?”
“I say that’s one sweet hustle right there, boy.”
“Well, I prefer to have the fate of my soul without a side of hustle, thank you very much.”
“Don’t be thanking me, you the one on that MARTA train to hell.”
I can’t help but smile. I remember when I first told my mama about my new beliefs—that is, non-beliefs—she broke down, started crying and praying right in the middle of my favorite barbecue spot, terrified that I’d end up getting flame-grilled for all eternity.
“And besides,” Mrs. Fisher goes on, “your whole analogy is all kinds of wobbly. Jesus didn’t ask us to pay him. He paid the price. If you took your behind to Sunday School, you’d know that’s the whole point of the Gospel.”
“He musta paid with Monopoly money ’cause the world ain’t changed.”
“That ain’t on him, that’s on us. We the ones breaking everything.”
“I ain’t break nothing.”
“Hmph.” She chuckles, rocking back and forth while sipping on whatever’s in that mug. “We ain’t nothing but toddlers. Down here playing with toys for ages five and up, and we two.”
“That’s called bad parenting.”
“Take it from me, parents make mistakes. I made plenty in my day and, see, you young, so you can’t comprehend that, but I’m here to tell you, it happens.”
“So you’re saying the ‘Creator of the Universe’ made a mistake?”
“No. No. What I’m saying is, from this point of view, ain’t no telling what a mistake is. When you got your face in the paint, you can’t see the big picture.”
“Which is why it’s no point believing in anything. Hell, this all could be one goddamn hologram, for all we know!”
Mrs. Fisher stops rocking. Hazel eyes turn to daggers. And I know I’m dead.
She gets up from the chair, approaching me with careful, methodical steps.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Fisher,” I tell her. “I—I didn’t mean for that to come out like that.”
She stands in front of me now, glaring but tilting her head back slightly like she can’t get too close or she might mess around and get infected by my … what word did she use? Heathenism. My aura of heathenism. And the flickering candles do absolutely nothing to ease my state of mind in this moment. I’m convinced she’s two seconds away from sticking her hand down my throat to try and grab the devil by the horns.
But then she grins and says: “You think we’re simple people?”
I don’t know who “we” is, but I don’t even get to respond before she turns and leaves me alone in the room. And I know it’s over. I’m dead. I crossed the line. She’s gonna report me, send me right back to unemployment. Goddammit. No, no, I refuse to go back to Birmingham. Why did I engage? I had one job. One fucking job. All I had to do was fix this piece of—
“But I say unto you,” booms a voice, scaring the shit out of me.
I turn around and see Jesus.
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you—”
“Mrs. Fisher, come in here,” I call out, but as soon as I do, Jesus vanishes.
Mrs. Fisher rushes in, looking anxious. “What’s up? You find the virus?”
“No, I …” How do I even explain what just happened? “The Halogram, it just came on by itself and Jesus was talking, but he was …”
“Cussing up a storm, wasn’t he?”
“No, no, nothing like that—he …” I pinch the bridge of my nose, trying to squeeze out the confusion. “It seemed like he was talking to me. I mean, directly.”
Mrs. Fisher ushers me to the other rocking chair. “Here, come here, sit yourself down.” Sets the popcorn in my lap. “You looking all faint. Lemme fetch you some water.” She leaves.
I stuff a handful of popcorn in my mouth, trying to process what the hell just happened. Am I bugging? Was I seeing things? Are all these witching-hour shifts finally catching up to me? I don’t know. This popcorn tastes good, though. Maybe I’m hungry. Yeah, that must be it. All I ate today was some chicken wings and that pecan waffle, due to my strict financial diet. But I’m chowing down on this popcorn and I don’t hear Mrs. Fisher. I look behind me and see her, standing there, staring at me.
“This popcorn is the truth,” I tell her, grasping for her good graces.
Finally, she walks over and takes the opposite rocking chair, and it dawns on me then that I must be sitting in the chair that belonged to her dead husband.
“You was raised in the church, I can tell,” she says, her eyes looking ahead, not at me, catching flickers of candlelight as she rocks. “But something happened. What happened?”
I don’t answer. My whole body feels icy cold all of a sudden.
“Something turned you off. Or somebody.” She turns to me. I’m trying to keep my face straight as possible, but I feel her gaze, scanning me for clues. “Your daddy touched you.”
I shake my head, but obviously not hard enough.
“Somebody in the church, though. The preacher?”
My father was a big-time pastor in Alabama, but she doesn’t need to know all that.
“Or a deacon,” she says, leaning in. “Or one of the ushers. One of them, am I right?”
I don’t answer, and she sighs, sitting back, as if realizing my no answer is the answer. Rocking back and forth, staring at the wall, we soak in wounded silence. I wanna leave. I wanna leave right the fuck now. But for whatever reason, I’m not getting up and walking.
“I feel your pain,” she says. “Don’t let this flawless skin and perfect frame fool you now. I know Rock Bottom on a first-name basis. Got knocked up when I was fourteen years old. Fourteen. By the time I found out, it was too late to do anything. Not that I could’ve even if I wanted to. So with no other place to turn, I took to the stage. I know, I know. A walking cliché—or dancing cliché, rather. Didn’t much care for it, the dancing. Or the other stuff. But when you tryna get bills paid, care don’t make the priority list, you know what I’m saying?”
“So anyway, one of these nights, I’m seventeen now, and I’m up there, doing what I do, but then suddenly, when I look over, I see Jesus.”
“You saw Jesus in the strip club.”
“If I’s a swearing woman, I’d swear on my grandmama’s grave, but there he was, flesh and blood, in the mirror to my right. I seent him, but I saw me, too. It’s hard to explain, but the cross he was on was the pole I was on. All those dirty hands reaching for him was the same ones reaching for me. And look, I ain’t saying I’m Jesus or nothing like that, but in that moment, in the midst of all that hooting and hollering, I felt like a, um …” She snaps her fingers, recalling the right word. “A martyr! I felt like a martyr. Do that make sense? Like, here I am, all butt-naked and beaten-up, sacrificing my body for the sins of man. And I don’t know how I knew, but I felt it. Way down deep in my bones, I felt that if I didn’t run away right then and there, I was gonna die. So I leaped off that stage, lemme tell you, stilettos and all; I ran outta there like a lightning bolt, never once looking back.”
I don’t say a word. Growing up in the church, I’d heard stories like this one all the time. Tales of the downtrodden, groping their way to hope. Hurt people need to believe in something. I’m one, so I get that. But me, personally, I have a hard time putting faith in anything that can be manipulated, tampered with, or abused. That includes people, pulpits, and happy endings.
“Um, where’s your bathroom?” I wonder out loud, suddenly feeling real dizzy.
“Ever since then,” she goes on, “I made me a vow that I’d use the gifts God gave me for good, not greed. To step up my public relations skills, get me some technological know-how—” She holds up the remote, clicks, and Jesus rains down once again, pointing at me and saying: “Thou shalt fuckthy neighbour as thyself.” She clicks. Jesus disappears. Then she continues: “I accepted the call to combine these gifts to do something more … ecclesiastical, if you will.”
The room is spinning, candle flames stretching out like ribbons, trying to hypnotize me.
“You know,” she says, paying me no mind, “it’s interesting that both you and Mr. Sims had a traumatic church experience and, yet and still, you choose this profession.”
“What is …?” I try to get up, but fall forward, landing on my knees. “How do you …?”
“Saul Sims? Oh, he came to quote-unquote fix my Halogram last week.” She stands to help me up and ushers me to the front door. “But he’s much better now, serving the Lord like a good Christian ought to, remembering nothing about me. You won’t either, glory to God.” Mrs. Fisher opens the door, and I stagger outside into the cold. “And don’t you worry yourself none about money, y’hear? It’s all been paid for.”
I can damn near feel my brain rebooting, reconfiguring my whole belief system at the source, ordering every step I take. And as I climb into my auto, I’m realizing I never heard that popcorn actually popping.
What’s-her-name didn’t pop that corn, she printed it.
She hacked me. I’ve been hacked. I’ve been hacked, and oh, how I love Jesus.
“Holy shit,” I say as my auto carries me into the night, looking for a new church to call home.