Sunday, October 13, 2013

Choose Joy by Sarah Osman

Sarah Osman's boisterously blasphemous story of pothead Jacob, who hates his life playing Jesus at Jesus Land.

I play Jesus at Jesus Land. It's a shitty job because I'm atheist and I only do it because the Jewish guy from Brooklyn got the Mickey Mouse role at Disneyland. I have no college education, no formal training as an actor and my employability is probably around that of an illegal alien's. I have to pay for my crappy apartment that smells like tacos, the payments on my crappy car and for copious amounts of pot so that I can at least feel something (hurray for California and their lax medical marijuana laws. We have more marijuana dispensaries than McDonalds.) And so, as you can imagine, I have lost all faith in humanity. (Okay, maybe not all faith... but definitely the faith I had to live out the American dream.)

I tell my friend Phillip this during our measly half-hour lunch in the break room. The break room is as bleak as the cell of a criminally insane convict. To make it worse, our boss has taped up passages from the Bible - like John 3:16 - to inspire us. Behind the cracked torn pages from the word of God lies dull white walls with cracks in the middle of them. You know how Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth? Yeah. This is the most depressing.

Phillip stares at me, as though I am a three eyed fish, as I take long sips of my Coke. I wish I had spiked it with rum like I did last week. His mouth drops open when I finish with, "And that's how I've decided to introduce myself to new people."

"God, Jacob..." I can always tell when Phillip doesn't know what to say because he starts to play with the red shoestrings dangling from his Converse. "Why don't you try to... I don't know get medical help or something?"

Phillip pushes a few of his brown curls out of his face. He has one of the biggest Jew 'fros I've ever seen. "I mean, I hate this job too, but damn, I don't introduce myself like that. Is that how you plan to introduce yourself to women? Because you'll never get laid again." He takes a sip of his Mountain Dew and belches loudly. "At least you don't play dancing Platypus #5 in the Jesus Loves You! Parade."

"Yeah." I don't tell him he got stuck playing that role because he's a bit on the bigger side. "But seriously, that's how I am going to introduce myself from now on." I rip a bite out of my chocolate bar, hoping my boss, Lucy, doesn't catch me. She thinks chocolate makes you fat, and Jesus can't be fat, unlike the dancing platypi. "I just don't give a shit anymore. Hey, you want to get high in the back of the manger today?"

Phillip shakes his head. "Can't. We have to do an extra parade. Some super Evangelists from Irvine came into the park today, and Lucy thinks if there's an extra parade they'll spend more money."

"Lucy's a dipshit."

"Yeah, but it's true, they blow loads at the gift shop." Phillip checks his watch. "Urgh. We gotta go. We're due in Noah's Ark to greet guests."

"Ooh, can't we get high in the bathroom first? I got some great Afghan Kush from my dealer last night."

"You're carrying it with you?" Phillip smacks my arm. I wince and shoot him my signature "what the fuck?" look. "Why isn't it under the seats in your van with your bong? Like it normally is?"

"I decided to stuff it in my robes today."

"The bong too?" Phillip's eyebrows shoot up to the top of his Jew 'fro.

"Yep. It's not that big you know."

Phillip eyes my pristine white robes, firmly tied with a long piece of rope. I glance down at my feet to avoid his eyes. I need to clip my toenails. My toes are getting grimy. Like hobbit grimy. I swear I think they're starting to grow fur.

"Ok... well don't get busted, man." Phillip tosses his can of Mountain Dew into a nearby trash can. "Come on we gotta go."

We step out of the glaring fluorescent lights of the break room into the bright California sun. I moved to California from Georgia about three years ago to try to make it as an actor. (Everyone out here is always so surprised that I don't have a Southern accent - it's so damn annoying. Seriously, we're not all rednecks running around yelling "Git 'er done!") Three years have gone by with no movie deals, no agent offers, no fabulous mansion in the hills... I now live in Buena Park, a miserable city an hour outside of Los Angeles itself, in a dumpy apartment with that smells like chimichangas. The park itself is located off of Beach Blvd, tucked between a wax movie museum and a cowboy-themed dinner show. There is constant traffic and noise; you never feel like you are being transported into another world like in other theme parks - you just feel like you are surrounded by freaks in robes waving the Bible at you on the side of the road.

We pass a pack of teenage Jesus freaks. One is wearing a shirt that says: "I get down with Jesus," (Phillip stifles a giggle) and another shirt which reads: "I know where I'll be when the world ends... do you?" I fake a wave and a grin that hurts my jaw as they frantically call out to me.

"Little pricks," Phillip grunts. "I bet they're wearing purity rings."

We stride through the giant, tacky wooden doors of Noah's Ark. Phillip grits through his teeth, "Now entering Dante's fourth layer of hell."

We like to compare the park to various layers of Dante's hell. The first layer we have decided is the break room, and the last layer is the parade route. We feel that Noah's Ark falls somewhere in the middle, for the following reasons: 1. The petting zoo is located in Noah's Ark, so the place always smells of horse shit and those disgusting squishy-squashy pellets that feel like Play-doh that kids feed to the animals. 2. There are supposed to be two of every animal, yet all we have is traditional farm animals, and a llama. (The other llama died last year of boredom.) 3. Kids squawk at the animals, swinging off their mother's arms, the kind of mothers who home-school their children to believe that Catholics burn in hell and sex before marriage feels like poison needles puncturing you from the inside.

I walk onto the tiny stage that is set in the center of the ark; Phillip is on my left. Phillip's job, when he's not a dancing platypus, is to follow me around and make sure no one attacks me. I think in some theme parks, this is known as a "lead," but here at Jesus Land, he's my "savior." Phillip's job typically consists of him standing in the background snickering to himself and yelling out "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY!"

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls!" Phillip hollers, his voice sounding like a sleazy barker standing outside of a strip club yelling "LIVE NUDE GIRLS!" "I give you, JESUS CHRIST!"

He punches a red button on the side of the wall and a faint bit of smoke creeps through the stage. A loud 'pop' cackles through the Ark and I begin my "hello, my name is Fabulous" wave (popular among drag queens and beauty pageant contestants.)

A storm of hands erupt around me. Pens and paper are shoved at me, cameras flash so brightly it hurts my eyes and shrieks of "We Love You!" pierce my ears. I grab a pen and a piece of paper and begin to scratch out autographs. I have perfected Christ's signature to look something like this:

Jesus Christ!!! ****

I figure Jesus would include stars and crosses. It just seems flashy, and Jesus was a show-man. I sigh as I start to sign people's bibles, and plaster a grin on my face. (I've always felt that my fake-Jesus grin resembles Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight.) Then the fun starts. The fun usually occurs about three times a day (kind of like meals - in fact it tends to coordinate with breakfast, lunch and dinner) and is often completely ridiculous.

"Jesus," a woman wearing a shirt that says "Neurosis Rules!" barks, "Where's Mary Magdalene?"

"Jesus has already gotten laid today. She went back into the kitchen to make me a sandwich, bitch."

No. I didn't actually say that, though I wish I had.

"She's not here today. She's out helping the poor."

That should do it.

"Oh I see..." She puffs out her chest. "So you can be out, signing autographs, representing a patriarchal society and fascist religion yet no women can be represented?"

"Um... the Virgin Mary is singing in the manger at three."

"Mary Magdalene was a whore!" a mother shrieks out. Her children look ready to crawl into a hole and die. Particularly the one who is wearing a "Jesus is my homeboy!" hat.

"Shut up you freak!" Neurosis retorts.

"Why, how dare you -"

I nod at Phillip, who pulls out his walkie-talkie and calls in the Roman Soldiers. They stride in, fully clothed with fake plastic hats topped with red feathers and golden plastic armor and politely escort the squabblers out.

"JESUS! LORD AND SAVIOR!" a man with arms hairier than a gorilla's barks out. "Water into wine!"

There is a murmur of agreement. A few children squeal as their mother's eyes light up like Christmas trees. Not again...

"Um... later, I uh...." I glance at Phillip. This happens on a regular basis. We try to be creative with our excuses, such as "Jesus needs a break from miracles today... but you can create your own miracles!" to "Alcohol is not permitted in the park."

"The Jesus Loves You! Parade will begin in a half hour!" Phillip proclaims. The parade won't start for another three hours. "Our Lord and Savior needs to prepare in order to shine - Wave bye-bye!"

"Bye! We love you!"

"Water into wine!" Gorilla arms is pissed off.

"Love you guys too."



I hide in the manger during the Jesus Loves You! Parade. There is another Jesus, played by Mark, the world's biggest tool, who stars in the parade. He's a total kiss ass; brought in a tacky tin Christmas tree for the break room during the holidays. He's also one of those church leaders, the ones who take kids out into the woods and you can't help but wonder if he touches them. (In fact you're pretty positive that he does.) Anyway this is my time to get as high as a fucking kite. The manger is the only safe place in Dante's layers of hell. It is my sanctuary.

I take a long hit and kick my feet up. I cough, the hit was strong - the kind that tickles the back of your throat and you know you'll be high but it still pains the chest. I wonder about the contents of my fridge. I think there had been bacon, swiss cheese and beer. It had been one of the most depressing sights that I had laid eyes on. I guess it'll be another Taco Bell night.

California is truly a terrible place to live. Especially Orange County. Everything in Orange County is new - and if it's not new, they re-paint it to try to make it look new. Everyone wants to have the newest crap, the fanciest crap, despite the fact that most of them can't afford it - so they charge it all on credit. It feels to me that all the races hate each other - the white Christians will only talk to other white Christians, the Korean Christians will only talk to other Korean Christians, etc. All the somewhat bearable people live in LA - and even then they're all in competition with each other for the next part, the next job, the next apartment. Living in California is like a running in a marathon that you can never win.

Granted, there wasn't a whole lot for me back in Georgia either. I'm from a backwoods town called Harpsburg that's about an hour outside of Atlanta. My dad left my mom and I when I was five. I'm not really sure if he ever paid her child support or if they ever got a divorce (I don't think so, because I was poor growing up). My mom worked as an angry Kindergarten teacher to pay the bills and has never really looked at me with love. I think she sees too much of my dad in me: from my squinty brown eyes to my scraggly brown hair to my bony ass (I just can't seem to gain weight. Seriously. I'm so skinny I look like a concentration camp victim). I didn't play any little league sports growing up; I just parked myself in front of the TV and watched old re-runs of sitcoms (my personal favorite: The Cosby Show). I didn't realize I actually had any sort of talents or could actually enjoy anything until I was cast as the lead in my sixth grade play, Into the Woods (I was the Baker). That was the first time I had a whole room of applause, a whole room wanting more of me, a whole room giving me the attention that I so sorely needed - the kind of attention I should have been getting at home but wasn't. It was at that moment I decided to become an actor.

I smoked my way through high school while I acted in plays and in friends' movies. I started working at a Subway when I was sixteen. I always worked the night shift - so my friend Joe and I would take a few hits in the bathroom after which we would make epic sandwiches, listen to The Doors and debate which Beatle was the best. (I've always had a soft spot for Ringo.)

I didn't go to College - instead I was made manager of Subway and I acted in a few community theater plays. By twenty-three I had enough money to move out of Harpsburg, away from my mom, away from Subway, to the land where all your dreams come true: Los Angeles.

I moved into an apartment in Koreatown above a Korean restaurant so that my apartment consistently smelled of kimchi. My next door neighbor was a weirdly pale looking dude in his twenties who I'm pretty sure was a vampire. I worked at another Subway while I went on cattle-call auditions, never securing a damn thing. I got to work as an extra for only two films. I got the Jesus gig about a year ago when I could no longer afford the rent on my Koreatown apartment and I realized that living in Buena Park would be cheaper than Koreatown. The Jesus gig also offered me benefits and was my first bonafide acting gig. I decided to take the gig as a hoot - how bad could entertaining these weirdos be? Only to discover that I had made the worst possible mistake of my life. Worse than deciding to become an actor, worse than moving to California, worse than living in a kimchi-smelling apartment.

I have always been an atheist - my mom and I never went to church and she refused to let any other kids take me to their place of worship - but it was at that moment I realized how much of an atheist I truly was. There was no God. If there was a God, he sure as hell would not have let a Jesus-freak billionaire who had made his millions peddling stupid self-help books and movies build a giant Jesus-themed park in the middle of Southern California, a land already so plastic it's no surprise it cracks when there's an earthquake. If there was a God, he would not have created a creature as horrible as Mark who tries to make you come to his church sing-a-long every Friday night where they eat s'mores and bask in their holiness while attempting to serenade one another on acoustic guitars. If there was a God, he would not have created mothers with fake blonde hair, fake tits, fake smiles and fake souls who married the first rich schmuck they could find and were now the head baking lady in their church circle of fake baking ladies. If there was a God, he would not have let me end up where I am today. Unless this was all the work of Satan. Though that seems far-fetched. No, I believe that when we die there is no heaven or hell, there is no reincarnation, there is no crazy after-life where you will need all your precious belongings with you, there is only your decomposing body that is best thrown in a nearby dumpster smelling of kimchi.



I fall asleep after smoking three bowls. (On average, I smoke about seventeen bowls a day. It's kind of a miracle my thoughts are still so coherent.) The first dream I have involves a manatee of some sort singing opera. I wake up from that dream and slip into another.

I'm smoking from my crystal blue bong - it's about a foot long, six inches around (that's what she said!) and it's fantastic, it's got all these swirls around it and is totally psychedelic. I'm watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force when the real Jesus Christ appears next to me.

"Hey lemme get a hit o' that."

"You smoke?"

He glowers at me. "Sure I do. Weed is fantastic." He takes a nice long hit. He doesn't cough afterwards. "Fuck the damn Republicans for making it illegal."

I gape at Jesus. He swears? And doesn't like Republicans? "Uh... aren't you supposed to love everybody?"

Jesus ignores me, his eyes glued to the TV. He is much shorter than I had imagined, only about five foot four, and darker too. He has a slight uni-brow and a beard that looks like a small, fuzzy cocker-spaniel. A mop of greasy chocolate hair wraps around his head. Thousands of wrinkles are etched onto every inch of his face. He's wearing a wrinkled white t-shirt with dozens of stains on it, and tattered jeans. He is not wearing shoes.

"You're dark..." I murmur, as I grab my bong to take another hit.

"Of course I'm dark. I'm from the Middle East!" Jesus sighs. "I'm sorry. That was rude. You got any munchies?"

I shake my head. "There's some cheese and beer in the fridge."

Jesus grumbles. "Never mind then."

I take a massive hit and nearly hack up my lung. Jesus stares at my dead plant in the corner. It had once been a beautiful green fern, with leaves that draped over its pot which would sometimes shimmer when the sun hit it.

I used to love that plant, as I happily got stoned and asked it if it was hungry as I bent down to give it water. Those were the early days of Jesus Land. The first week - before I knew I'd be stuck here because there were no other options. About six months into the job I became so depressed that I completely forgot about my precious fern. I glance away from the fern down to Jesus' toe nails, which seem to have a millennium's worth of grime tucked in between them.

"Your plant is dead," Jesus tells me. Thank you Captain Obvious.

I nod. "I know. It's been dead for months."

He stands up and stretches. He walks straight to the plant and bends down next to it. "It's a shame you let it die." He flicks the top of the fern. The color of the leaves begins to transform into a bright emerald. The branches spring from a dull brown into a completely fresh plant. The leaves wrap themselves around the pot, firm and upright. He smiles at his own mini-miracle that he just performed in my living room.

"Wow, uh thanks."

Jesus turns his smile to me. It is a smile that has seen nothing other than centuries of sorrow and madness. It makes me want to hug him. He sits down next to me and wrinkles his nose. "Smells like chimichangas in here."

I sigh. "I know. This is the only place I could afford."

"That's okay. I like chimichangas." Jesus stretches his toes so that I have a clear shot of the sticky grime in between them. "So..." He eyes the grime as though he is trying to decide if he needs a pedicure. "How do you like being me?"

"Well I'm not actually you I just sort of play you..."

He waves his hand in the air as though batting away a fly. "I know that. It's just that you, Jacob, as an actor, probably get the closest impression as to what it's like being me."

I didn't ask how he knew my name. I figure that he must know everything or some bullshit like that. And also he is a figment of my imagination. Jesus doesn't actually exist - just like the Easter Bunny or good daytime television. "Um... I guess." He bores his eyes into me. His stare creeps me out. I set the bong down. "Why would you ask me that though? Mark plays you too. I think he actually enjoys it. And he actually believes you're real."

Jesus resumes staring at his toenails. I can't help but notice that they look a lot like my own toenails. "It kind of sucks, doesn't it? Mark's a tool - he doesn't really believe in me. If he did, he wouldn't have stopped talking to his brother once he found out he was gay. He misrepresents me." He picks up the bong and prepares himself to take a long hit.

"You really think it actually sucks to be you?" How is this possible? This man can do whatever he wants. He's the son of God! And why am I having a vision of Jesus - who doesn't exist - that wants to discuss my job. I think I've reached a new all-time low. (And Mark has a gay brother?)

Jesus takes a hit that seems to go on for a good ten minutes. Once again, he does not cough. He gently sets the bong down on the table.

He folds his arms into his chest and places his feet next to the bong. "Yeah. I think it sucks to be me, no matter how selfish that sounds. There's always so much pressure on me to consistently do the right thing. Then, when I screw up, everyone's in shock because you're their Lord and Savior, and you're supposed to be perfect all the time. And you're blamed for all of the world's problems, all the despair, when all you want to do is just bring a little hope." He buries his face into his hands. They are long and knobbly and there seems to be fur growing on the knuckles. He reminds me of a fallen soldier.

"But... aren't you supposed to be perfect?"

"Nobody's perfect, Jacob," he whispers from between his fingers. "Not even God."

He moves next to me on the couch. I open my mouth, then close it. I have no idea what to say. What do you say to comfort the Easter Bunny? What do you say to something that you don't believe exists, yet is pouring out their heart to you?

I try to ignore this thought and focus on what he just said. Every day, I deal with hypocrites - striding through the park as though they own it, as though their shit don't stink, as though they have never sinned. Yet behind their eyes they are cheaters, alcoholics, loners - the miserable scum of Orange County. They are human beings, attempting to cling onto a bit of false faith to make themselves perfect. And I detest them for that. They don't really believe - if they did, why the hell would they come to a theme park, to worship me, a false idol? A false idol that doesn't even believe in the idol he's representing?

Jesus doesn't seem to notice that I've fallen silent. His eyes are glued to the screen, watching the array of cartoons that Adult Swim airs for lonely stoners like myself at one o'clock in the morning. He watches as the cartoons get dumber, the sketches of the cartoons duller, the color brighter. We sit that way for what feels like a good hour, watching the cartoons without speaking.

"Jesus," I finally break it. "Why did you come to bitch to me? No offense man, but I don't even believe in you. I'm an atheist."

He hangs his head. "I didn't mean to bitch to you." I notice that he has dark circles under his eyes. It looks as though someone has smeared charcoal on his face. "I don't mean to come off as negative. I'm just supposed to be this great, powerful being all the time. I figure since you're supposed to be me, you may be the closest human being to understanding what that is like." Jesus straightens himself up.

I nod. I figure that's what I'm supposed to do. I have no idea what it's like to be great or powerful, or to be a being that people invest all their faith in, but I do know what it's like when life sucks. You just sort of need someone to bitch to. And even though I don't believe in Jesus - he's just a figment of my imagination - this figment just needed someone to listen to.

"You're not intimidated by me," he notes.

"Nope."

"That's good." Jesus continues to stare at the TV. "These shows are ridiculous."

"I know."

"Why do you watch them?" He shoots me what I figure is his signature "what the fuck?" look.

"I don't know. Because I'm stoned."

"Fair enough." He turns to face me. "So what are you going to do about your predicament?"

"Huh?"

Jesus frowns. "Your job. Your life. You hate it. So why not quit? You moved here to be an actor. Why did you stop pursuing that?"

I shrug. "It pays the bills, I get health insurance, Phillip's alright -"

"You're miserable," Jesus concludes. "Why live your life in misery when you can choose joy?"

I look up at Jesus, expecting to see a smile that would blast my world. That would make me, as they say, a believer. But I'm greeted with the most devastated face that I had ever seen. There is no hope. No signs of a miracle worker. Just desolation. The kind of desolation that stretches out over the ocean, late at night, when not even the seagulls cry.

"I've never thought of that," I murmur. I cradle the bong to my chest. "I just figured I'd play you until I got too old and they'd kick me out." I didn't want to say that I never thought I had the option of choosing joy. That I had been miserable most of my life and that that was what I felt was the best way to go.

"There must be something holding you back," Jesus says. I wonder if he even heard me.

"I don't know...I guess I took the job because there were no other options...because I felt kinda helpless. It's not easy being an actor, you know?"

Jesus nods. "There probably is something holding you back. You're probably just not sure what it is yet." He gets up from my couch. "Well, thank you for your hospitality."

"Hey Jesus!" I call, but he has vanished into thin air. The hum of the TV buzzes. I turn it off and sigh. The fern in the corner twinkles slightly. I glance over at it, confused. There is no sunlight hitting it. There's no light in the room. And yet there it sits, a slight shimmer that hits the leaves and bounces around the corners of my dank living room.



"Dude, wake up. Seriously, wake the fuck up!" A hand smacks me across my face. I'm covered in hay. A little drool has dribbled down my chin. Phillip is standing above me; looming over me like a disapproving teacher who found a student asleep in his class.

"We gotta go, the park's closing." He yanks me up by my arm. I bend down to pick up my bong.

"No one knows I was here, right?" I brush off the hay from my robes. "Everyone was at the parade?"

Phillip grunts. "Yeah, Mary sang earlier, remember?" He stumbles out of the manger. I follow suit.

"Dude I had the craziest dream..."

"Yeah, what about? I had some brat kick me in the butt today. Fucking mom encouraged him to kick me harder."

"That sucks. Yeah I got high with Jesus."

"In your dream?"

"Yeah."

"Huh." Phillip is staring down at his shoelaces. "That's cool, I guess. He tell you anything?"

"Yeah, quit my job."

"Huh. I don't think it takes a miracle worker to tell you that." Phillip and I walk past Noah's Ark. The fourth layer. We stroll past the giant cross upon which either Mark or I are crucified three times a day. The sixth layer. We walk past the recreated town of Babylon. The second layer. We cut through the Garden of Eden. The third layer.

"So you're gonna quit, leave me alone with these freaks?" Phillip smirks at me.

I pause, gazing at a fully clothed statue of Eve. She's wearing what looks like a cheap man's imitation of what an Amish woman should wear. Her long black dress goes all the way down to her feet and I can only catch a glimpse of her wrist. Shocking. "Maybe. It's probably not a bad idea. But I need to get some more money so I can move back to LA. Pursue acting for real this time."

Phillip gapes at me. "But where else are you gonna find a job? You have absolutely nothing to offer - plus the economy sucks. Even the people with real skills don't have jobs. And let's face it - you're not the best actor."

I avert my eyes to the statue of Adam, who has one of the fakest grins I've ever seen plastered across his face. Faker than my Jesus face. "I could find something..."

"Yeah, at McDonald's," Phillip scoffs. "Face it. You're gonna be stuck here forever. Just like me." We continue walking towards the exit. Towards freedom.

"My life could be worse, I guess."

"It's definitely not great." Phillip points out.

"Yeah, but it could be worse. We could be working at Knott's Berry Farm."

Phillip sighs. "I guess you're right."

We have reached both of our cars. We tend to have a weird habit of parking right next to each other. Phillip climbs into his crappy Volvo that is so dense we dubbed it "the Tank," and I get into my VW bug that smells of so much pot we dubbed it "the Doobie."

"Good Night, Phillip."

"Night Jacob. Please don't quit. I may off myself if you do."

I smile. "Not sure what I'll do yet. But I'm not sure that I can keep living in misery."

Phillip grunts and starts his engine. I glance at the gardens outside of the Park Entrance. A single fern stands out to me. It shivers slightly as the breeze hits it. When the sun hits its leaves, it looks as though it twinkles.

5 comments:

  1. Loved the voice and the smells– wonder if Jacob will get to follow Jesus's advice

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  2. I have to admit, it took me a moment to warm up to this story, but, at the same time, for some reason I couldn't put it down (okay, not literally ;-) Nicely done and really brings you into Jacob's head. As with Annecdotist, the smells were great. Definitely leaves you hanging, wondering, "What would Jesus do?" Nice job.

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  3. Great voice, great story, great humor. I dig.

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  4. I loved Choose Joy, in part because it’s about a world I know well.

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  5. Unexpectedly compelling story. I was off-put by the depiction of stoners, but the character was true in a way that kept me reading. Overall though provoking, though.

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