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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal Chapter 9

Part II

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Jesus was a good guy, he didn’t need this shit.

JOHN PRINE

Chapter 9

I should have had a plan before I tried to escape from the hotel room, I see that now.At the time, dashing out the door and into the arms of sweet freedom seemed like plan enough.I got as far as the lobby.

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It is a fine lobby, as grand as any palace, but in the way of freedom, I need more. I noticed before Raziel dragged me back into the elevator, nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process, that there were an inordinate number of old people in the lobby. In fact, compared to my time, there are inordinate numbers of old people everywhere – well, not on TV, but everywhere else. Have you people forgotten how to die? Or have you used up all of the young people on television so there’s nothing left but gray hair and wrinkled flesh? In my time, if you had seen forty summers it was time to start thinking about moving on, making room for the youngsters. If you lasted to fifty the mourners would give you dirty looks when they passed, as if you were purposely trying to put them out of business. The Torah says that Moses lived to be 120 years old. I’m guessing that the children of Israel were following him just to see when he would drop. There was probably betting.

If I do manage to escape the angel, I’m not going to be able to make my living as a professional mourner, not if you people don’t have the courtesy to die. Just as well, I suppose, I’d have to learn all new dirges. I’ve tried to get the angel to watch MTV so I can learn the vocabulary of your music, but even with the gift of tongues, I’m having trouble learning to speak hip-hop. Why is it that one can busta rhyme or busta move anywhere but you must busta cap in someone’s ass? Is “ho” always feminine, and “muthafucka” always masculine, while “bitch” can be either? How many peeps in a posse, how much booty before baby got back, do you have to be all that to get all up in that, and do I need to be dope and phat to be da bomb or can I just be “stupid”? I’ll not be singing over any dead mothers until I understand.

The journey. The quest. The search for the Magi.

We traveled first to the coast. Neither Joshua nor I had ever seen the sea before, so as we topped a hill near the city of Ptolomais, and the endless aquamarine of the Mediterranean stretched before us, Joshua fell to his knees and gave thanks to his father.

“You can almost see the edge of the world,” Joshua said.

I squinted into the dazzling sun, really looking for the edge of the world. “It looks sort of curved,” I said.

“What?” Joshua scanned the horizon, but evidently he didn’t see the curve.

“The edge of the world looks curved. I think it’s round.”

“What’s round?”

“The world. I think it’s round.”

“Of course it’s round, like a plate. If you go to the edge you fall off. Every sailor knows that,” Joshua said with great authority.

“Not round like a plate, round like a ball.”

“Don’t be silly,” Joshua said. “If the world was round like a ball then we would slide off of it.”

“Not if it’s sticky,” I said.

Joshua lifted his foot and looked at the bottom of his sandal, then at me, then at the ground. “Sticky?”

I looked at the bottom of my own shoe, hoping to perhaps see strands of stickiness there, like melted cheese tethering me to the ground. When your best friend is the son of God, you get tired of losing every argument. “Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean the world is not sticky.”

Joshua rolled his eyes. “Let’s go swimming.” He took off down the hill.

“What about the God?” I asked. “You can’t see him.”

Joshua stopped halfway down the hill and held his arms out to the shining, aquamarine sea. “You can’t?”

“That’s a crappy argument, Josh.” I followed him down the hill, shouting as I went. “If you’re not going to try, I’m not going to argue with you anymore. So, what if stickiness is like God? You know, how He abandons our people and leads them into slavery whenever we stop believing in Him. Stickiness could be like that. You could float off into the sky any time now because you don’t believe in stickiness.”

“It’s good that you have something to believe in, Biff. I’m going in the water.” He ran down the beach, shedding his clothes as he went, then dove into the surf, naked.

Later, after we’d both swallowed enough salt water to make us sick, we headed up the coast to the city of Ptolemais.

“I didn’t think it would be so salty,” Joshua said.

“Yeah,” I said, “you’d never know it by looking at it.”

“Are you still angry about your round-earth-stickiness theory?”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” I said, sounding very mature, I thought. “You being a virgin and all.”

Joshua stopped and grabbed my shoulder, forcing me to wheel around and face him. “The night you spent with Maggie I spent praying to my father to take away the thoughts of you two. He didn’t answer me. It was like trying to sleep on a bed of thorns. Since we left I was beginning to forget, or at least leave it behind, but you keep throwing it in my face.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I forgot how sensitive you virgins can be.”

Then, once again, and not for the last time, the Prince of Peace coldcocked me. A bony, stonecutter’s fist just over my right eye. He hit harder than I remembered. I remember white seabirds in the sky above me, and just a wisp of clouds across the sky. I remember the frothy surf sloshing over my face, leaving sand in my ears. I remember thinking that I should get up and smite Josh upside the head. I remember thinking then that if I got up, Josh might hit me again, so I lay there for a moment, just thinking.

“So, what do you want?” I said, finally, from my wet and sandy supinity.

He stood over me with his fists balled. “If you’re going to keep bringing it up, you have to tell me the details.”

“I can do that.”

“And don’t leave anything out.”

“Nothing?”

“I’ve got to know if I’m going to understand sin.”

“Okay, can I get up? My ears are filling with sand.”

He helped me to my feet and as we entered the seaside city of Ptolomais, I taught Josh about sex.

Down narrow stone streets between high stone walls.

“Well, most of what we learned from the rabbis was not exactly accurate.”

Past men sitting outside their houses, mending their nets. Children selling cups of pomegranate juice, women hanging strings of fish from window to window to dry.

“For instance, you know that part right after Lot’s wife gets turned to stone and then his daughters get drunk and fornicate with him?”

“Right, after Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.”

“Well, that’s not as bad as it sounds,” I said.

We passed Phoenician women who sang as they pounded dried fish into meal. We passed evaporation pools where children scraped the encrusted salt from the rocks and put it into bags.

“But fornication is a sin, and fornication with your daughters, well, that’s a, I don’t know, that’s a double-dog sin.”

“Yeah, but if you put that aside for a second, and you just focus on the two young girls aspect of it, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds initially.”

“Oh.”

We passed merchants selling fruit and bread and oil, spices and incense, calling out claims of quality and magic in their wares. There was a lot of magic for sale in those days.

“And the Song of Solomon, that’s a lot closer, and you can sort of understand Solomon having a thousand wives. In fact, with you being the Son of God and all, I don’t think you’d have any problem getting that many girls. I mean, after you figure out what you’re doing.”

“And a lot of girls is a good thing?”

“You’re a ninny, aren’t you?”

“I thought you’d be more specific. What does Maggie have to do with Lot and Solomon?”

“I can’t tell you about me and Maggie, Josh. I just can’t.”

We were passing a lick of prostitutes gathered outside the door of an inn. Their faces were painted, their skirts slit up the side to show their legs glistening with oil, and they called to us in foreign languages and made tiny dances with their hands as we passed.

“What the hell are they saying?” I asked Joshua. He was better with languages. I think they were speaking Greek.

“They said something about how they like Hebrew boys because we can feel a woman’s tongue better without our foreskins.” He looked at me as if I might confirm or deny this.

“How much money do we have?” I asked.

The inn rented rooms, stalls, and space under the eave to sleep. We rented two adjacent stalls, which was a bit of a luxury for us, but an important one for Joshua’s education. After all, weren’t we on this journey so he could learn to take his rightful place as the Messiah?

“I’m not sure if I should watch,” Joshua said. “Remember David was running over the roofs and happened onto Bathsheba in her bath. That set a whole chain of sin in motion.”

“But listening won’t be a problem.”

“I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

“Are you sure that you don’t want to try this yourself, Josh? I mean, the angel was never clear about your being with a woman.” To be honest, I was a little frightened myself. My experience with Maggie hardly qualified me to be with a harlot.

“No, you go ahead. Just describe what’s happening and what you’re feeling. I have to understand sin.”

“Okay, if you insist.”

“Thank you for doing this for me, Biff.”

“Not just for you, Josh, for our people.”

So that’s how we ended up with the two stalls. Josh would be in one while I, along with the harlot of my choice, instructed him from the other in the fine art of fornication.

Back out at the front of the inn I shopped for my teaching assistant. It was an eight-harlot inn, if that’s how you measure an inn. (I understand that now they measure inns in stars. We are in a four-star inn right now. I don’t know what the conversion from harlots to stars is.) Anyway, there were eight harlots outside the inn that day. They ranged in age from only a few years older than us to older than our mothers. And they ran the gamut of shapes and sizes, having in common only that they were all highly painted and well oiled.

“They’re all so…so nasty-looking.”

“They’re harlots, Biff. They’re supposed to be nasty-looking. Pick one.”

“Let’s go look at some different harlots.” We had been standing a few doors down from the harlots, but they knew we were watching. I walked over and stopped close to a particularly tall harlot and said, “Excuse me, do you know where we might find a different selection of harlots? No offense, it’s just that my friend and I…”

And she pulled open her blouse, exposing full breasts that were glistening with oil and flecks of mica, and she threw her skirt aside and stepped up so a long leg slid behind me and I could feel the rough hair between her legs grinding against my hip and her rouged nipples brushed my cheek and in that instant profound wood did from my person protrude.

“This one will be fine, Josh.”

The other harlots let loose with an exaltation of ululation as we led my harlot away. (You know ululation as the sound an ambulance makes. That I get an erection every time one passes the hotel would seem morbid if you didn’t know this story of how Biff Hires a Harlot.) The harlot’s name was Set. She was a head and a half taller than me, with skin the color of a ripe date, wide brown eyes flecked with gold, and hair so black that it reflected blue in the dim light of the stable. She was the perfect harlot design, wide where a harlot should be wide, narrow where a harlot should be narrow, delicate of ankle and neck, sturdy of conscience, intrepid and single-minded of goal once she was paid. She was an Egyptian, but she had learned Greek and a little Latin to help lubricate the discourse of her trade. Our situation required more creativity than she seemed accustomed to, but after a heavy sigh she mumbled something about “if you fuck a Hebrew, make room in the bed for his guilt,” then pulled me into my stall and closed the gate. (Yes, the stalls were used for animals. There was a donkey in the stall opposite Josh’s.)

“So what’s she doing?” Josh asked.

“She’s taking off my clothes.”

“What now.”

“She’s taking off her clothes. Oh jeez. Ouch.”

“What? Are you fornicating?”

“No. She’s rubbing her whole body over mine, sort of lightly. When I try to move she smacks me in the face.”

“How does it feel?”

“How do you think? It feels like someone smacking you, you twit.”

“I mean how does her body feel? Do you feel sinful? Is it like Satan rubbing against you? Does it burn like fire?”

“Yeah, you got it. That pretty much has it.”

“You’re lying.”

“Oh wow.”

Then Josh said something in Greek that I didn’t catch all of and the harlot answered, sort of.

“What did she say?” Josh asked.

“I don’t know, you know my Greek is bad.”

“Mine isn’t, I couldn’t understand what she said.”

“Her mouth is full.”

Set raised up. “Not full,” she said in Greek.

“Hey, I understood that!”

“She has you in her mouth?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s heinous.”

“It doesn’t feel heinous.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, Josh, I gotta tell you, this really is – oh my God!”

“What? What’s happening?”

“She’s getting dressed.”

“Are you done sinning? That’s it?”

The harlot said something in Greek that I didn’t understand.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“She said that for the amount of money we gave her, you’re finished.”

“Do you think you understand fornication now?”

“Not really.”

“Well then, give her some more money, Joshua. We’re going to stay here until you learn what you need to know.”

“You’re a good friend to suffer this for me.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“No, really,” Joshua said. “Greater love hath no man, than he lay down for his friend.”

“That’s a good one, Josh. You should remember that one for later.”

The harlot then spoke at length. “You want to know what this is like for me, kid? This is like a job. Which means that if you want it done, you need to pay for it. That’s what it’s like.” (Joshua would translate for me later.)

“What’d she say?” I asked.

“She wants the wages of sin.”

“Which are?”

“In this case, three shekels.”

“That’s a bargain. Pay her.”

Much as I tried – and I did try – I didn’t seem able to convey to Joshua what it was he wanted to know. I went through a half-dozen more harlots and a large portion of our traveling money over the next week, but he still didn’t understand. I suggested that perhaps this was one of the things that the magician Balthasar was supposed to teach Joshua. Truth be told, I’d developed a burning sensation when I peed and I was ready for a break from tutoring my friend in the fine art of sinning.

It’s a week or less by sea if we go to Selucia, then it’s less than a day’s walk inland to Antioch,” Joshua said, after he had been talking to some sailors who were drinking at the inn. “Overland it’s two to three weeks.”

“By sea, then,” I said. Pretty brave, I thought, considering I’d never set foot in a boat in my life.

We found a wide-beamed, raised-stern Roman cargo ship bound for Tarsus that would stop at all the ports along the way, including Selucia. The ship’s master was a wiry, hatchet-faced Phoenician named Titus Inventius, who claimed to have gone to sea when he was four and sailed to the edge of the world twice before his balls dropped, although what one had to do with the other I never figured out.

“What can you do? What’s your trade?” Titus asked, from under a great straw hat he wore while watching the slaves load jars of wine and oil onto the ship. His eyes were black beads set back in caves of wrinkles formed by a lifetime of squinting into the sun.

“Well, I’m a stonemason and he’s the Son of God.” I grinned. I thought that would give us more diversity than just saying we were two stonemasons.

Titus pushed the straw hat back on his head and looked Joshua up and down. “Son of God, huh? How’s that pay?”

Joshua scowled at me. “I know stone work and carpentry, and we both have strong backs.”

“There’s not a lot of call for stone work aboard a ship. Have you been to sea before?”

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” Joshua said.

“He was sick that day,” I said. “I’ve been to sea.”

Titus laughed. “Fine, you go help get those jars on board. I’m taking a load of pigs as far as Sidon, you two keep them calm and keep them alive in the heat and by that time maybe you’ll be something of use to me. But it costs you as well.”

“How much?” Joshua asked.

“How much do you have?”

“Five shekels,” I said.

“Twenty shekels,” Joshua said.

I elbowed the Messiah in the ribs hard enough to bend him over. “Ten shekels,” I said. “Five each, I meant before when I said five.” I felt as if I was negotiating with myself, and not doing that well.

“Then ten shekels plus any work I can find for you. But if you puke on my ship, you’re over the side, you hear me? Ten shekels or not.”

“Absolutely,” I said, pulling Joshua down the dock to where the slaves were loading jars.

When we were out of earshot of Captain Titus, Joshua said, “You have to tell him that we’re Jews, we can’t tend pigs.”

I grabbed one of the huge wine jars by the ears and started to drag it toward the ship. “It’s okay, they’re Roman pigs. They don’t care.”

“Oh, all right,” Joshua said, latching onto a jar of his own and hoisting it onto his back. Then it hit him and he set the jar down again. “Hey, wait, that’s not right.”

The next morning we sailed with the tide. Joshua, me, a crew of thirty, Titus, and fifty allegedly Roman pigs.

Until we cast off from the dock – Josh and I manning one of the long oars – and we were well out of the harbor; until we had shipped the oars and the great square sail was ballooned over the deck like the belly of a gluttonous genie; until Joshua and I climbed to the rear of the ship where Titus stood on the raised deck manning one of the two long steering oars and I looked back toward land, and could see not a city but a speck on the horizon; until then, I had no idea that I had a deep-seated fear of sailing.

“We are way too far away from land,” I said. “Way too far. You really need to steer closer to the land, Titus.” I pointed to land, in case Titus was unsure as to which way he should go.

It makes sense, don’t you think? I mean, I grew up in an arid country, inland, where even the rivers are little more than damp ditches. My people come from the desert. The one time we actually had to cross a sea, we walked. Sailing seemed, well, unnatural.

“If the Lord had meant us to sail we would have been born with, uh, masts,” I said.

“That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said,” said Joshua.

“Can you swim?” asked Titus.

“No,” I said.

“Yes he can,” Joshua said.

Titus grabbed me by the back of the neck and threw me over the stern of the ship.

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