One Last Winter’s Tale

DSCN3433Stabbed selling crack on a side street in Nassau County, Jake told us he couldn’t lift his arm over his shoulder and then raised that arm straight up to expose a line of scars dotting his ribcage and trailing off around his back. Turning slowly and deliberately like a model, clutching his shirt to keep it raised above the old wounds, Jake allowed us the time and angle to take in all the damage before he took a deep breath and began his litany.

“I was dead for eleven minutes. Eleven whole minutes. Christmas Eve, 2002. I didn’t see the knife, and he got me here in the lung. I bled out. Woke up in the refrigerator. I was banging on that door, yelling ‘I ain’t dead! I ain’t dead’! “

Jake let a chuckle escape his lips and shook is head up and down. Unless he’s upset or hasn’t taken his medication, Jake has a very cool and understated way about him; but at this point in the story, and in all his years of telling it, Jake couldn’t resist grinning at the idea of waking up in the refrigerator at the morgue.

“Yup. Woke up in the morgue! Can you believe it?! In the morgue!”

He laughed the words out, louder the second time, so his voice echoed lightly down the hall. Then his eyes narrowed, and his voice dropped. “Never did find the guy who stabbed me.”

Three souls stand in the back of the dim church in the dead of winter: Mr. Murphy, the church sexton, always there to open the church hall to the homeless when the temperatures drop, the pastor and Jake, the first guest of the evening. Jake and the pastor pull a cot out of the storage closet and set it up against the wall then Jake stops in the middle of spreading out the blanket to softly state, “You know I died and met the devil once, pastor.”

At first, the pastor wasn’t certain she’d heard the words correctly, so she leaned in and turned her head slightly in that universal movement that communicates, “Pardon, what did you say?”

Jake’s reply was simple. He took a deep breath and lifted his shirt to show her the row of scars. “I was dead for eleven minutes. Eleven whole minutes. Got stabbed, died and met the devil on Christmas Eve. Back in 2002.” Then, as if hearing his own story for the first time, Jake sighs a wistful sigh. “The years can get by ya’, can’t they?”

The pastor and Mr. Murphy look, first at one another, and then back at Jake. Jake’s story has them stuck. It wasn’t the kind of admission you wanted to shrug off, but it was the type that left you uncertain; so they both stood still and silent, waiting patiently for Jake’s next words.

“Yup. That’s why I lost some of the motion in this arm. That son of a gun got me pretty good. Pardon my language pastor, but I was dead. Dead eleven minutes. So you might say I was stabbed to death, really. Didn’t see the knife comin’. I had my head down counting out seven rocks of crack. That’s what he asked for, and that’s what I did back then. Funny how I can remember how it was seven rocks, but I can’t remember his face. That’s a lot, maybe too much. Maybe enough to keep me busy while he’s pulling out his knife.”

Jake turned back to the blanket, smoothing the edges and making a measured fold across the top before he continued. “I was young and stupid back then.” Jake laughed and then listened for the sound of his own voice reverberating down the hall. “They thought I was gone, but I met the devil and came back to tell about it.” Jake threw back his head and laughed again. “He came close, but he didn’t get me.” The pastor thought Jake winked but wasn’t sure.

“You know, pastor” Jake lowered his voice, and this time the pastor and Mr. Murphy both leaned in, “the devil was wearing a real nice suit and a red tie. Bright red.” Jake whistled a bit through his front teeth, and the pastor’s heart beat faster. The red tie was a wonderful detail; she’d always pictured the devil as a snappy dresser. It just made sense. Hadn’t there even been a movie?

“It makes me upset when I think of the opportunity I missed” Jake continued, and the pastor and Mr. Murphy both circled around him in a combination of comfort and curiosity. “I could have been in heaven” Jake’s voice rose against the dark, “but I took too long to decide”.

“Decide what?” the pastor blurted out, her voice sounding much louder than she’d intended. She was still thinking about that red tie. Certain she’d missed something important, she was immediately disappointed in herself.

“My guardian angel told me I took too long to decide to stay in the land of milk and honey” Jake replied, and the pastor forgot about the tie, taken aback now by Jake’s use of the phrase, “milk and honey.” She wasn’t sure if it detracted or added authenticity to the story.

“Plus, I took a swing at him. I think that pissed God off. Sorry again, pastor, but I’m pretty sure they don’t like it when you try to hit your guardian angel. But it wasn’t my fault really. I’d been fightin’ that guy who was stabbing me. Fighting for my life, you might say, and so at first when my guardian angel was there, I thought I was still fightin’ the guy, and that’s how I wound up takin’ a swing at my own guardian angel. At first, I thought he was the guy who was stabbing me.”

The three stood silently, absorbing the story. “Wow!” was the only word that broke the silence as it slipped from the pastor’s lips. She really wasn’t responding the way she would have liked, but “Wow” was the only word circling her brain or her mouth.

“My guardian angel looked just like me,” Jake continued. “ That’s how I knew he was my guardian angel. Looked just like me, but bigger, bigger and stronger. A whole lot stronger. I didn’t fight him for long. But I guess you could say I had a pretty bad attitude coming into the whole thing.”

“Coming into the whole thing?” the pastor repeated in expectation. When was she going to get her curiosity under control?

“Death.” Jake seemed to understand her question perfectly. “My attitude during those first few minutes of death was pretty bad, pastor” Jake expounded. “I didn’t really know I was dead, and I kept fighting. I think that worked against me.”

“I can see that it might” the pastor replied. Now she really didn’t know what to say. She turned to Mr. Murphy, as though searching for back up, and Mr. Murphy didn’t miss a beat.

“Yes, yes” he chimed in, “my sister Mildred thought she saw an angel once that looked like our grandmother. She spit at her. Our grandmother was as mean as a snake”. Now Mr. Murphy was disappointed in himself, instantly embarrassed he mentioned such an intimate story about his own family.

“She spit at her, did she?” Jake asked. “I didn’t spit at my guardian angel, but I did throw a few punches his way. I didn’t hurt him any I don’t think. My grandmother was pretty nice though” Jake recalled. “She tried to make me feel better by readin’ me the story about how Jacob wrestled with an angel. She read it to me right there in the hospital. But I didn’t need no broken hip” Jake explained, “I got me these scars” and he lifted his shirt again and looked Mr. Murphy straight in the eyes then they both looked at the pastor who simply nodded and grinned.

The lights flickered and the wind slapped at the windows, and all three of the humans contemplating life and death and guardian angels stood in a lopsided circle around an old cot in a church basement and waited for the spell to break. Then the night settled and stillness returned.

“I’m so sorry you were stabbed Jake, but I’m glad you’re alive and with us on such a cold night”.

“Me too, pastor” Jake smiled. “Maybe I coulda been in heaven, but on a night as cold as this one—a warm church basement is as close as I wanna get.”


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