Ask Him If He Knows Jesus


 Clarence Smith, Fiction

 

A pair of snakes coiled up the shaft of a cross. This image appeared on a flyer in the student lounge—an advertisement for a medical clinic in Venezuela. "Volunteers needed for a rewarding experience in international health." I kept it folded in my pocket and a few days later, while studying pharmacology, used the back side to list the adverse effects of aspirin—thrombocytopenia, ulcers, hepatitis.

It wasn't clear to me why I called the phone number on the flyer. Since the death of my grandmother earlier that year, I'd begun to feel a kind of detachment. At times in the pathology lab, I had the somber but not unpleasant notion that the hands inside my latex gloves belonged to someone else. The two years of facts I'd learned so far in medical school had swelled into a leaking abscess.

The clinic in Venezuela, having received donations from a wealthy American church, would provide airfare and lodging for volunteers. I had to fill out an application which asked me to sign a statement affirming my belief in the infallibility of scripture. I signed because my grandmother had been a beach-lover and a Baptist, and I wanted her in Heaven searching for seashells. But in the margin beneath my signature I wrote an addendum explaining that contradictions precluded infallibility. The religious nature of the application attracted and repelled me at the same time. For years I'd been making occasional visits to various churches. I was beginning to realize that I enjoyed being ankle-deep in religion.

My application apparently found favor among the missionaries, and they sent a letter inviting me for the month of July, all expenses paid. As much as I'd hoped for some kind of rebuttal, the letter included no mention of my stance on the infallibility of scripture. It occurred to me that these missionaries might be more interested in practicing religion than discussing it. For a while I was almost embarrassed for having written the note.

After two planes and a three-hour cab, I arrived in the city of Merida, where the roads were clogged with decrepit American cars. Standing in the hotel parking lot, I had my first view of the Andes Mountains. I turned in a full circle, my head tilted back. In a nearby tree was an exotic bird with fiery colors. Uniformed gardeners were trimming foliage at the edge of the parking lot, some of them strapped with sawed-off shotguns.

There were twenty of us—physicians, medical students, nurses, dentists, and an optometrist. We boarded a red and white school bus that resembled a crumpled aluminum can that had been painstakingly straightened back out. The clinic itself was in a small mountain town half an hour away, and as we drove, encroaching verdure scraped the sides of the bus. We passed a settlement with dirty children in the shade of banana leaves, and huts made of corrugated steel, cinder block, and chicken wire. I saw a boulder that had been painted to look like a giant frog with purple and green spots.

I looked at the white-haired man sitting beside me. His nametag read "George Mitchell, MD." He looked to be in his fifties, had blue eyes and a face sunned to the color of a grocery bag. When he gripped the seat-back in front of us, the sleeves of his scrubs tightened around his bulbous, vein-wrapped biceps. He had a leg stretched across the aisle.

"David Price," he said, reading my nametag, and I realized I should have introduced myself earlier. And then, as if resuming a long conversation, he said, "Only five percent of the people here are Christian."

"I thought this was a Catholic country."

"I'm not saying a devout Catholic can't be a Christian, but when you get to know these people, you'll understand they have no concept of God's love." He drew a penlight from his shirt pocket and flashed yellow circles on his palm. "For a lot of them, Jesus is just another statue."

Our bus heaved itself up an uneven road, past a motorcycle repair store, a grimy cafe, and an elementary school where the kids wore white shirts and blue pants. This road was like a cable keeping the town from sliding into the river. Stray dogs ran alongside our slow-moving wheels.

"Have you been here before?" I asked.

"No, but I went to Mexico last summer." After a pause he said, "When did you become a Christian?"

The question made me uncomfortable. "My dad was a serious believer, and my grandmother—my mom's mother—she was a Baptist."

"Tell me about your father."

"He took off when I was eight." I laughed before he could tell me how hard that must have been. "I see him now and then, and he's really happy I'm in med school."

The bus came to a stop, and across the street a crowd of maybe fifty waited outside what appeared to be our clinic. The older members of the crowd sat on a low, crumbling wall, and the rest formed something akin to a line on the narrow pathway running alongside the road. A group of children gazed curiously at our white faces in the bus's windows.

I watched as the first physician off our bus, his stethoscope around his neck, smiled his way into the crowd. A little girl reached out and touched his pants, as if there were communicable power in the blue scrubs.

The clinic was a converted church. The pews had been replaced with semi-private stalls. I worked with Dr. Mitchell who, it turned out, was a nephrologist. He insisted on praying aloud with each patient. He seemed to believe that God shared his interest in the kidney.

Late in the afternoon, he let me conduct an interview. The patient, Miguel, was an older man with a flannel shirt stretched tight over his paunch belly. A depiction of horses adorned his large belt buckle. He often felt thirsty and had to wake up at all hours to urinate. We didn't have the equipment to test his blood sugar, but I guessed he had diabetes, and Dr. Mitchell agreed.

"Can we pray for you?" Dr. Mitchell said as he balled his stethoscope between his hands.

The patient listened to the translation and said, "Si."

"David," he said to me, "why don't you pray for Miguel." He sounded like an anatomy instructor challenging me to make the first incision.

"All right," I said. I'd listened to Dr. Mitchell pray with four patients since morning, but I wasn't sure I knew how to do it. I had a distant memory of recitations at the dinner table when I was little. My father, before absconding with the preacher's wife, used to have me and my two brothers on our knees every night while he begged God—whom he called Daddy—to electrocute our family with the idea of eternity. After he left, my mother married a martial arts instructor.

Dr. Mitchell closed his eyes, waiting for me to pray. I stared at the top of his head. The sparse, evenly spaced strands of white hair reminded me of soil furrows after a light snow. I was nervous but, when I thought about it, the format of Dr. Mitchell's prayers seemed fairly straightforward. Thank God for something, apologize to God for a sin, and then ask God for something pragmatic.

Miguel wore a blank expression, and his calloused hands were folded between his thighs. His back straight, he sat in a cheap plastic chair. Our eyes met, and I quickly looked down at my sweating palms. I remembered learning all about the sympathetic nervous system. I recalled the biochemical pathways involved in sweating glands, dilating pupils, and various other features of anxiety.

"Lord," I said.

"Dios," muttered the translator.

"Thank you for Miguel. Please forgive us for-" I paused, cudgeling my brain for a sin, and said, "Forgive us our great pride in medicine. And please lighten the burden of Miguel's polyuria."

"Excuse me," said the translator. "I will need a dictionary to translate that."

"Amen," I said. When I opened my eyes, Miguel was watching me. I'd made a fool of myself; Dr. Mitchell would give me a failing grade in prayer.

Miguel stood and hooked his thumbs through his belt. He told us about a man in town who needed to see the American doctors.

"He should come to the clinic," Dr. Mitchell said.

"But this man cannot walk," Miguel said through the translator. "He has no one to carry him."

"He needs to come to the clinic like everyone else." The nephrologist leaned back. The legs of his plastic chair bowed and scraped against the floor, on the verge of collapsing.

"The man's legs do not work. He was in a car wreck two years ago."

"We can't play favorites," Dr. Mitchell said, draping his stethoscope around his neck. "You saw the people out there." He gestured toward the front of the clinic. The crowd outside had grown since morning.

"He lives with his sister, but she works all day. She is..." The translator and Miguel discussed the meaning of a word. "The sister is a witch."

"He can ride to the clinic on her broomstick." Dr. Mitchell said this with a straight face, but then seemed relieved when the translator didn't understand. The doctor put his elbows on his knees, and his spine curved like a coastline.

Dr. Mitchell was the chief of medicine at a hospital in Atlanta. I could tell he was frustrated by the clinic's primitive methods of diagnosis. He was an expert in electrolyte physiology, but we lacked the technology to consider such things. There was no laboratory for analysis of blood and urine. His only sources of information were a translated interview and a physical exam. He caressed skin, palpated masses, and listened to organs through his stethoscope. He scrutinized every patient's fingernails. Our first day I watched him diagnose, with varying degrees of certainty, plantar fasciitis, diabetes, renal cell carcinoma, Goodpasture's syndrome, and four urinary tract infections. Urinary tract infections gave us a sense of accomplishment, because our meager pharmacy at least contained antibiotics. When a patient came in with bone pain, Dr. Mitchell asked questions about urine.

A few days later we saw a seven year-old boy without legs or testicles. When he sat in your lap, he wrapped his arms around your neck. His sun-wrinkled grandmother watched him with almond eyes while he walked around on his hands. We took pictures of him, and he smiled for all our cameras. He was a fraction of a person but he made legs seem cumbersome.

That afternoon, when the clinic closed for lunch, Dr. Mitchell and I sat in our cubicle. He told me we were going to visit the paralyzed man Miguel had mentioned.

I remembered how Dr. Mitchell had scoffed at the notion of a house call. "What made you change your mind?" I said.

"I'm happy to visit the man in my own spare time," he said, almost defensively, and I decided not to press the issue.

"If he's paraplegic, he'll probably have an indwelling catheter," Dr. Mitchell continued. He gazed at the pharmacy on the far side of the waiting area. He leaned forward in his chair and squinted, as if, from this distance, trying to read the label on a vial of pills. "We might need some Bactrim." He yawned, a fist covering his distended mouth, and I had the fleeting impression of a man hoping to mitigate his boredom with an afternoon adventure.

Dr. Mitchell didn't seem to mind when another physician and medical student joined us for the house call, but I found myself vaguely resentful of the extra company. The four of us followed our translator up the steep hill. This translator was Raul, a thin man with mirror sunglasses and hair that went from widow's peak to pony tail. His black boots were adorned with jangling spurs. He'd been converted by a previous group of medical missionaries, and now carried a small Bible in each back pocket. He looked back every so often to make sure we were keeping up. The climb was nothing to him.

Dr. Silas, a resident in dermatology, liked talking about the latest research. He said, "You can induce nerve tissue regeneration in adult lampreys."

"The lamprey's a good animal," Dr. Mitchell said. There were patches of sweat under his arms and down the middle of his back. He'd changed his nametag from "George" to "Jorge."

"And they've done it with rats at Johns Hopkins," Dr. Silas said.

"Amazing things are being done there." This was Todd, a medical student from Emory. Last night he'd shared his testimony with the staff, describing how he converted during his first year of medical school. He realized, while dissecting a cadaver, that he knew everything about his anatomy but nothing about his soul. When he began preaching to his classmates, the dean insisted on a psychiatric evaluation.

Some Mormons were walking in the opposite direction, and we exchanged tense greetings. They in their ties, and we in our scrubs—all of us fighting for the souls of Catholics.

"Forty-two people came to Christ yesterday," Todd said when the Mormons had passed. "The angels are celebrating in Heaven."

"It seems like they'd be sad," I said, "about all the people who didn't come to Christ."

The paralyzed man lived in a cinder-block hut at the end of a dirt trail. There were no buildings beyond it. A garbage heap seemed ready to subsume the small, dilapidated structure. It reminded me of phagocytosis, the process by which a cell engulfs surrounding debris.

Raul kicked a sun-bleached aluminum can and said, "You are a long way from laptop computers and that snake-charmer Marilyn Monroe." He gripped the bars of the hut's single window in which a bedsheet had been hung with duct tape and called, "Señor Camilo."

We could hear muffled words from within. The sheet fluttered—a flaccid sail briefly animated. Then a hand appeared and deposited a key on the windowsill. Raul took it and, before opening the door, peered around the side of the hut.

"I sense witchcraft," he whispered. He grabbed me by the wrist and flattened my hand against his chest.

"I have a gift," he added, "for detecting evil." I felt his racing pulse and almost believed him. He released my hand, just as the reflection of a mangy dog slithered over the silvery lenses of his sunglasses.

Inside, Camilo lay shirtless, his legs shrouded in bedsheets. He had acne scars and a dainty, well-trimmed mustache. His slack lips neglected a bead of saliva rolling toward his chin. Hanging from one of the bedposts was a plastic receptacle half-filled with watery urine. The catheter tube snaked down the bedpost and disappeared between the mattress and wall.

"Hola," said Dr. Mitchell. "We're doctors from the United States. It's nice to meet you."

Camilo nodded without making eye contact with any us. There were damp spots and crushed insects on the cement floor. His wheelchair was parked in the corner, but there was a step in the door and the terrain outside was rocky and overgrown. In an adjoining room was an unmade bed where his sister apparently slept. Raul said she worked all day and cared for her brother in the evening.

Dr. Silas looked at Raul and asked if Camilo had bedsores. I remembered my grandmother's bedsore, as deep as the nurse's finger.

"No," said Raul. He took off his sunglasses and slipped them into a breast pocket.

Dr. Mitchell asked if the catheter had caused an infection.

"No."

"Is he Catholic?" Todd asked.

"He has not gone to church in many years."

"These guys at Johns Hopkins," Dr. Silas said, looking at me and Todd, "their idea was that myelin induced regeneration, so they took this rat and cut its optic nerve."

Raul stepped into the sister's room, his nose twitching like an electrified frog-leg in a science experiment. I watched him through the doorway while Dr. Silas talked about the regeneration of a nerve at Johns Hopkins. Raul dropped to a knee and looked under the sister's bed. Closing his eyes, he mouthed a silent prayer.

"They wrapped it in the myelin of a sciatic nerve," Dr. Silas said, "and it grew back into the brain." He used his fist and index finger to illustrate the rat's nervous system.

At the end of the bed, Camilo's toes were curled and his feet were pointed downward like a ballerina's. With a slight jerking motion, one of them rotated outward.

"His foot moved," I said.

"It's normal to have muscle spasms," Dr. Mitchell said.

He scraped the tip of his penlight along the outer edge of Camilo's foot, which prompted the tendons to tighten reflexively, pulling the toes upward. Then he looked Camilo in the face and asked, "Does it hurt when your foot moves?" He repeated the question for Raul, who had just returned from the sister's bedroom.

"Si," Camilo said.

Dr. Mitchell placed his fingers on Camilo's wrist and, after feeling the pulse, stood beside the bed with his hands on his hips. There was a period of silence. I wanted him to give Camilo a thorough examination. He represented the best of modern medicine, and I believed he would somehow make Camilo's life better.

Camilo reached for an envelope on his bedside table. He held it in a trembling hand and spoke briefly to Raul.

"He's saving money for a trip to Cuba," Raul said. "The surgeons there will cure him."

In the envelope was a passport substantiating Camilo's plans.

"Many great doctors are in Cuba," Raul said with a hint of pride. "You heard about the Americans putting razor blades in Castro's breakfast? The surgeons stitched up his tongue with silk thread."

"I don't know of any research coming out of Cuba," Dr. Silas said.

"They do all kinds of research," Dr. Mitchell said, "and ethics are a top priority, I'm sure." He cleared his throat, coughing up the residue of his sarcasm.

Camilo nudged me with his passport. He wanted me to look at it. It was brand new, and probably the only object here that he valued. Someone was going to stamp a cure onto one of its pages. I passed it to Dr. Mitchell, who bent it by its edges until the pages fluttered back into place.

Looking at Raul, Dr. Mitchell said, "Ask him if he knows Jesus."

Raul explained that some Jehovah's witnesses had come just last week.

"He needs to stay away from Jehovah's witnesses," Dr. Mitchell said. "They're morons."

Raul said, "Is a moron the same as a son of a bitch?"

"No," said Dr. Mitchell.

Todd told Camilo a story from the Bible. A group of believers brought a paralytic to see Jesus. A crowd blocked the doorway, so they lowered the man with ropes through an opening in the roof. After Jesus healed him, the man triumphantly carried his mat into the street. Some day, Camilo might carry his wheelchair.

Raul paused in his translation, looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, "Wheelchairs are very heavy."

"Just tell him," Todd said, annoyed.

I wished Todd had chosen a different Bible story, something more ambiguous, like the part where Abraham nearly murdered his own son. For some reason, I was embarrassed to hear about Christ healing a paralytic.

"You'll walk in Heaven one day if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior," Todd said. "Would you like to do that?"

"Si."

Todd seemed like he would preach for hours, promising Camilo an alternative to Cuban surgery. It was easy for him to evangelize, being insulated by language. While Raul translated, Todd stood there mapping out his next sentence. I remembered how, when I was young and going to church with my family, religion had suggested a comforting mystery. Now the words were worn out, as if they meant something different to everyone who used them.

"Streets paved with gold," Todd intoned, "and you walking around."

"Si."

Dr. Mitchell checked the time. His watch glinted in a beam of sunlight coming through a small hole in the roof. On the wall a broken clock was illustrated with a nativity scene. The paralyzed second hand divided Mary's head and nimbus.

Todd moved closer to the bed. "Would you like to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?"

"Si."

"He's just telling you what you want to hear," I said. My voice echoed strangely, as if it was searching the room for a place to lie down. "Can't you see that? He'd commit his soul to Notre Dame football if you asked him to."

"Camilo," Todd said, ignoring me, "do you acknowledge that you're a sinner?"

"Maybe we should pray," Dr. Mitchell said sharply, laying a hand on Todd's shoulder.

Stepping back from the bed, Todd had a look of despair, as if suddenly realizing, after countless chest compressions, that his patient was long dead.

Dr. Mitchell stared at me, and I feared he would request another of my untranslatable prayers. But instead he said, "Is there anything you'd like to tell Camilo before we pray?"

I looked at Camilo, whose gaze was directed somewhere safe. After a moment I said, "No."

Dr. Mitchell's eyes swiveled over each of us before targeting Camilo. "What we're going to do is lay our hands on this poor man's legs."

His nostrils flared, as if relishing the scent of Christ's blood on Camilo.

We knelt around the bed. The stone floor was cold against my knees.

Dr. Mitchell began, "Gracious, almighty, heavenly Father."

"Dios," said Raul.

"Thank you for our brother Camilo. He has shown us our limitations. If we had one iota of faith..."

"I'm having trouble translating that."

"It's something really small."

"I will say the faith of a mustard seed." He said it.

"I just want Camilo to know that even a small amount of faith is enough to make him walk."

"I see," Raul said. "Perhaps I should pray as well?"

Our hands were draped over Camilo's dead legs. The patient looked me in the eyes for the first time.

As Raul prayed, he squeezed his eyes shut, perhaps to see God better. I didn't understand anything he said, but I felt as though his prayer contained something more than the meaning of its words. I became uncomfortable and shifted my weight from one knee to the other.

Camilo's leg twitched beneath my hand. I hoped he would stand up, but then, after the prayer, I was actually relieved to see him still paralyzed, to see that things were still the same even though we had prayed. We left one of Raul's Bibles on the bedside table, amid canisters of antiseptic.

On the way back to the clinic I caught up to Raul and asked him what he'd seen in the sister's bedroom. He said a pentagram was painted under the bed, sprinkled with blood, probably that of a chicken. "You see," he said, "there are demons everywhere."

That night I went to fill my canteen with potable water from an outdoor dispenser, and as I strolled back to my room, I saw a pair of Catholic priests, heads bowed, pacing the lawn. The one closest to me fingered a loop of rosary beads. I passed a rusty swing set which, incongruously, had been built in the hotel's parking lot. The slide ran directly into the grill of an old Ford. Dr. Mitchell sat in one of the swings, its chains squeaking. His slight motion suggested a settling pendulum, but his bare feet kept him moving.

"How did you feel about Camilo today?" he asked.

"I wish he'd gotten up and walked." Sitting in the next swing, I felt the chains tighten in my hands.

"What would you have done?" Dr. Mitchell said. A hotel employee slouched across the parking lot with a shotgun. "If he'd walked, it would have been a miracle. You can't just ignore a miracle."

"That's not something I'd ignore." I nodded toward the priests on the nearby lawn and said, "Maybe I'd become one of them."

"A real miracle destroys your faith," the doctor said, "because when you see one, you have no choice but to believe."

"I'm not sure I even know what a miracle is."

"A miracle is a club to the back of the knees."

One of the priests, having finished praying, walked into the well-lit hotel entrance. Though I couldn't see his face, something about him told me he was smiling.

The next morning, Camilo's sister, the witch, came to the clinic to thank us for the modern medical treatment that had restored her brother's legs. She said he wriggled his toes not long after waking. He slid one foot to the floor, and then the other. He tried to stand, but his atrophied legs weren't strong enough to carry him. When we explained we'd done nothing but pray, she crossed herself and announced a miracle.

We didn't believe her. But then Camilo himself arrived with two neighbors supporting him under the arms. Todd dropped to his knees shouting praises to God. Tears began spilling out of his eyes. He crawled across the cement floor, gripped Camilo by the ankles, and kissed his feet. Apathy had been chiseled into the smooth granite of Camilo's face, but I could discern the beginnings of a smile. The smile came in parts, as if each facial muscle had to remember its role.

Dr. Mitchell and I had been interviewing a teenager one month pregnant when Camilo arrived. The three of us stopped to watch Todd embrace his way up Camilo's body. It seemed as though he wept from desire, from wanting more than anything for the miracle to be real. I could tell that Todd was trying desperately to incorporate the miracle into his personal Venezuela story.

After releasing Camilo, he stood up straight, wiped his tears, and then, in a courteous fashion, shook Camilo's hand as if to welcome him back into the ambulatory world. The two turned and presented broad smiles to their audience.

Dragging a chair from our cubicle, Dr. Mitchell invited Camilo to sit down. He rapped Camilo's legs with the bell of his stethoscope, eliciting normal patellar and ankle reflexes. Then he removed Camilo's shoes and socks to inspect his bare feet. Dr. Mitchell concluded his exam with a shrug. This man's legs are normal, his expression seemed to say, just withered by inactivity.

One of the nurses pulled out her guitar and began singing "Hark the Herald." Other members of the staff joined in. I saw Dr. Silas place his arm around the optometrist's shoulders and, swaying side to side, the two of them poured their voices into the mix. The Venezuelans who couldn't sing in English hummed along with the tune. The staff aggregated around Camilo, who smiled and said nothing. I saw Raul leaning into the music, his hands in his back pockets. His mouth was clenched shut, as if resisting an urge that threatened to overwhelm him.

I slipped out the back door. There was an enclosed space behind the church, where some dogs were nosing through a pile of garbage. I wanted to believe the miracle had been a hoax. I could hear the celebration building inside. After a while the door opened, disgorging Dr. Mitchell with a surge of music. We stood there and watched a dog jam its snout into a greasy paper bag. Dr. Mitchell's stethoscope was clamped to his neck, the bell dangling over his belly. "It's a miracle," he said, and I wondered if God was mocking us.