The Jesus Monkey
    Priscilla Rhoades
If you woke up one morning with a monkey on your back, not a junk monkey, a meth monkey, not the sharp white-winged monkey of cocaine; not the furry yellow monkey of Valium; not the wet-lipped monkey of Quaalude - but if you woke up one morning with a wine monkey on your back, with a stranger beside you and vomit on your pillow and a blood-eyed wine monkey stretching your spine, then you might sit as she sits on the edge of the Murphy bed with your head in your one good hand and you too might moan for your life, your life, your small sorry life.

By noon she is on the street, past the Christian Center oh Lord deliver me and down at the corner of Carl and Cole where the streetcar comes grumbling over the hill and stops to swallow her up. Like Jonah, she thinks, in the belly of the whale: I am Christine in the belly of the N-Judah.

Inside it smells like the inside of a clock as the N starts up and goes singing its burnt-out electric song through the tunnel under Masonic and out into the hot brown heart of the lower Castro.

Where she walks, past the dog shit and city dirt, down to Market Street and Schell's: a small brick Victorian between a leather bar and a laundry. Out front, a green neon sign advertises "Schell's Swedish Bath," but inside, behind the desk, a black woman in a white robe says, "You wanna sauna honey or do you want a massage?"

Christine holds her head and says, "Both."

The towel is white, the soap is white, and the locker key shines up silver in the white light.

"Awright, you can sauna 'til one, then a girl'll come get ya."

"Is Marie still here?"

"Say what? You've been here before. You want Marie, huh? I'll send Marie."

Christine sits in the sauna and her head hurts as the steam rises up off the heating rocks and collects in big drops on the ceiling. Like stalactites, like hot icicles - one falls in her eyes: close them, and she breathes in the wet air until her lungs fill up and ache with the heat. Then she showers off and sits on a cool bench to wait. I smell like wine, I'm sweating out wine, I smell spices and lemons as across the room a woman unbraids her black hair, singing a low Spanish song to herself. Another, a blonde, masturbates silently in the corner. Embarrassed, Christine looks away to a pile of stones by the sauna door.

Wine. A bad day, you deserve a glass of wine. Stopping after work at the bar. One glass. Red, from a green bottle with the label removed. But it's Jessie's birthday and she orders a round for the house. All right, a second glass but that's all. Then that girl down the bar buys you a drink. Who's that? To Shelly, who's working tonight. Dunno, she's a stranger, maybe she's lonely. And you think, so who isn't. But all right, this third and final drink. And just as you take the last sip she walks in with her new girlfriend; oh great. But you smile, hello Kerry, isn't it funny? Only five women's bars in the city and you have to pick this one. Her new girlfriend is short and pig-faced with puffed-up pink cheeks. She grins at you, testing - steady now, no dyke fights for you. Hello new girlfriend, how could she have left me for you? So you order another and take it down to the girl who is, yes, new to the city, doesn't know a soul; she has blonde curly hair and after the fourth drink she looks like an angel and there's a halo around your head, fuzzy. And then -

You can't remember. Remember. You remember reciting John Berryman, "There is nothing to be solved/and no way to solve it." Then what? Going home; she drove, to your studio in the Sunset and then a shower, hot, together; your head still thick and then kissing her face, all wet, and not bothering to dry off completely but into the clean white sheets.

And then later you were sick. You remember now, throwing up in the toilet, all that bad red wine, coming up like blood. And then this morning -

And Marie says only, "Relax."

From the sauna door Marie carries the cool rocks, the bigger flat stone and the small round one. The round one she cups in her right hand; the flat stone she places carefully, gently, under Christine's left hand. Lightly, she separates Christine's misshapen fingers and traces the air between them, following an imaginary line over the tiny scars and down to a perfect white cross on the underside of her wrist.

"Relax," she whispers, "let go," as she raises her right hand high above her head. And the monkey is sprouting wings on Christine's back; he is pushing up through the gristle and nerves and skin, off of her shoulders and out into the crackling white air like an angel floating overhead, with a monkey's body and a Jesus face, praying holy holy holy and saying in a whisper as hoarse as a cat's, "You are delivered."

The first bone snaps as easily as a sparrow's.

Priscilla Rhoades is a freelance feature writer and poet whose work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and other publications.


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