a short story by
MARY BERGIDA-DeLUCA | Professor + Story-Teller
Photo by James Garcia
THE TRANSFORMATION all began so easily: Doddering his flubby legs to Bible study. Meeting Jesus in his vast imaginations. The fat dissolving. The fraternities bidding. The girls flocking. And professing words that guaranteed a fool-proof salvation. Then finally, his dream, albeit an odd one, coming true—a service trip to the Lost Lepers of India. The only thing that never changed was the sweating.
He had always had a sweating problem. Even when he was a toddler, he’d sweat through his coat on frosty Ohio days. And that sweat became like a sprinkler system whenever he’d visit his grammy down in Georgia. Once when he was four, grammy had taken him along to Easter service. Afterward in the social hall, his face glistening with perspiration, he’d scooped a handful of jelly beans and a glob of peach cobbler onto a paper plate. Slowly, felt his teeth and chin crust with sugar. This had been the totality of his churching, until his first bible study.
Known as “Rolley Polley Joey” through primary, middle, and high school, the greatest friendliness he ever received was being the butt of jokes, as he tramped through the halls from one period to the next. In an attempt to ease the predicament, mom hid the potato chips and Oreos normally stocked in the pantry. This only made Rolley Polley Joey hate going home before dinner, the time when mom would finally feed him. So, in the autumn of his sophomore year, on a late afternoon, blurred to purples and greys, he’d decided to visit the Youth Bible Study at New Faith church, whose parking lot adjoined Eastside High’s campus. Maybe there would be cookies?
However, there was only tropical cool-aide served in dixie cups. But Rolley Polley Joey — or Josiah, his real name — decided to wait and see what might be revealed at the end of the study. The scripture reading that evening told of a leper who’d come at Jesus wailing, “Son of David, have pity on me.” The writer had described the man as full of leprosy. Josiah imagined this leper-man full of oozy wounds. And in his mind he saw the leper had been a determined one. Just in case Jesus hadn’t quite gotten the point, leper-man had fallen on his face at Jesus’ feet. Dramatic, thought Josiah.
Through lips nearly touching the dust, the leper told Jesus that “you (Jesus) could make me (leper-man) clean, if you want.” Jesus put out his hand; touched him.
“I do will it.” And BAM, the leper was clean.
The bible study leader, a South Carolina boy on a tennis scholarship at Ohio State, sat crossing his Sperrys at the ankles and remarked how that this behavior was shocking. In bible times, nobody touched lepers or even came close to them. He added that lepers were required to ring a bell and shout, “unclean,” if they came out of their caves. “How would you act if you met a leper?” the leader queried.
Josiah raised his sweaty palm; stated, “Yeah, but we all know there aren’t lepers anymore.” The leader corrected him, asserting that not only did leprosy still exist, but that he himself had visited a “Leper Colony” during a service trip to India.
“Then I could heal a leper someday, too,” blurted Josiah, not knowing what compelled him.
“Sometimes Jesus healed people by putting mud and spit on them,” added a girl with big glasses.
“Interesting,” said the leader. “He would’ve been more hygienic if he’d lived today. Now back to this bible story…”
That night, tucked in his Star Wars blankets and sheets, Josiah imagined meeting Jesus in PE class. Jesus was dressed in a stiff robe of bed sheets, a red scarf, worn like a sash, perfectly curled locks fell to his buff shoulders. In Josiah’s vision, it was a typical Wednesday at PE. They were playing volley ball. The other students on the team were making eyes that yelled: We’re gunna lose; we got Rolley Polley Joey. Then he imagined Jesus walking straight up to him and Jesus laying his hand on his blubbery and sweaty arm. Right on Joey, who was full of fatness. And Jesus said, “I will it. Be clean.” And Josiah’s flubber had melted off of him, muscles bulged, and a tan settled in.
The sheet-swathed Jesus with spindles of curls was the image that Josiah retained of his savior, even into college. Perhaps, this was because gradually Josiah’s imaginative healing became real. In the following months, he continued attending bible study, but on the other four afternoons after classes, he also started stopping by Eastside High’s weight room. Guided by the posters on the gym walls, which he studied while working the bench press or huffing on the treadmill, he discovered vegetables, calorie counting, and protein powder. And slowly his body remolded. By senior year, he hadn’t gotten too tall, but he was toned, and his blue eyes glistened under wavy hair. The only recognition his classmates afforded the transformation was calling, “Yo, Joe! Where did you go?” behind him in the cinderblock halls of Eastside High.
Orientation weekend at a mid-sized university in Tennessee was a different story. No one knew him as “Rolley Polley Joey.” He’d chosen a school within the Bible Belt purposely, and at least Tennessee had some cool winter days to help with the sweating. On his third day, as he strolled through the student activities fair, a Phi Gamma Delta hurried up to him and strongly recommended that Josiah rush. Fraternity life for him? Josiah was astounded.
He earned several bids, but settled on a Christian fraternity, Alpha Nu Omega. After all, it was only fitting. Before his bible study days, he had been awkward and a flub. Now people seemed to like him. He imagined himself high-fiving his Jesus with long curls.
And the fraternity life—that Christianity had earned him—had other magical benefits. The girls. He never found himself sitting alone in class or the cafeteria. Not only did they come up to ask him for the time, directions, notes from the past month of psychology class, but in turn, Josiah also discovered he could flirt. It was like the disappearing-card-trick he had learned in third grade. He’d performed it thirty times each for mom, dad, the next door neighbor. Every time he himself was astonished that the card actually vanished. Flirting had the same thrill.
The only thing that made him nervous about asking out girls for ice cream, or to play pool in the Alpha Nu den, was the sweat. For no apparent reason his face would bead and his pits turn dark.
He tried to comfort himself by remembering that he wasn’t fat anymore. When he gave his testimony at bible study or worship, he would say that, indeed, he had been “full of fatness,” before Jesus had healed him. One night Josiah’s pledge brother asked him,
“Have you been saved, man?”
“I dunno,” said Josiah. Saved from fatness and friendlessness, he thought.
“Once you’re saved, man, you’ll always do the right thing. You’ll be God’s superstar and sure of heaven.”
Josiah couldn’t see what there was to lose by claiming salvation. After all, Jesus had touched him (back when he was “Rolley Polley Joey”). Had made him cool. Had given him “skills.” So Josiah said the Sinner’s Prayer. Was saved.
Contact with Jesus had changed everything, he mused as he he joined the shuffle of polo-shirted Alpha Nu’s propelling from honor’s class to the gym and then to bible study. There were ski trips, Spring Break in Europe, a beach house in July, all with his fraternity brothers. But something seemed to be missing.
One day during sophomore year, as he meandered to the frat house after a particularly confusing anthropology class, Josiah thought back to his first bible study, and began daydreaming about changing the bandages of a leper. He saw himself, kneeling, unwinding rolls of wet and slimy bandages. Touching the leper gently on the shoulder. Smiling. Rolling the leper up in clean gauze.
The next month he saw a poster with the heading, “Serve the Lost Lepers of India.” The Campus Christian Outreach was sponsoring a Summer Service Trip to Kolkata, India. That evening, Josiah met up with Pastor Joe, who’d be leading the trip. Josiah applied, was accepted, and participated in a marathon of fundraisers.
A few weeks before the trip was to leave Nashville for India, he visited the doctor for a slew of shots and a physical. He also brought up the sweating.
“Well,” the doctor started, studying his clipboard, “Were you ever… really overweight?” The doctor then suggested that his body’s cooling system must have never re-adjusted to being fit.
“Come’on Jesus. You could’ve healed me all the way! I know you could’ve,” thought Joisiah.
The service trip team consisted of himself, a dozen other students, and Pastor Joe. As they headed to Nashville International Airport, Josiah’s anticipation mounted each moment. They flew into Mubai and from there took a shaky plane to Kolkata. Pastor Joe allowed the group take a few days to acclimate to Kolkata: the potent smells of incense and trash. The streets filled with tangles of cabs and rickshaws, all laying on their squawking horns. Josiah tried to fill up on Clif Bars between strange meals of curry and naan. And as his body drenched out sweat in the hundred and twenty-degree smog, he could smell the curry leaking from his pores.
Once his crew was acclimated, Pastor Joe led them to the spot where they would register to volunteer. “Josiah, are you ready for your lepers?” Marcy, a girl with a dimple, nudged Josiah.
The woman signing in volunteers was dressed like Mother Teresa.
“These are Mother Teresa’s nuns,” whispered Pastor Joe. “Pay no mind to all the statues they have scattered about.” Josiah nodded, noticing some on pedestals: big eyed and sad faced. Pastor Joe had reminded them that God wasn’t found in “graven images.”
Finally it was Josiah’s turn to walk up to the nun’s desk to register. “Sign me up for the lepers,” he grinned.
“Lepers?” asked the nun. She was fair with a European accent. “You refer to, perhaps, Shanti Nagar? The colony for the lepers.”
“That sounds right!”
“No, no, no, I’m sorry. We only allow special volunteers to care for our lepers.”
She observed the falling face. Observed that he would try to argue. She cut him off, stating that if his group leader wished, they could participate in the next visiting day at the leper colony, Shanti Nagar. The smog of the city seemed to come in and suffocate his understanding of the what was happening. Could not be happening. Josiah heard her offer him their other “homes” where he could volunteer over the next few weeks: homes for the orphans, the dying, or the mentally unstable. He said limply that he’d do whatever they needed him to. She wrote him out a work card, telling him which home he would be sent to the next day.
That night Josiah, lying on the bunk in their hostel, felt he was going to cry… but he didn’t. Why had he come all this way? If he couldn’t spend time with the lepers? That’s what Jesus, his Jesus, had done.
The next morning Josiah found out what was most needed: doing the orphan’s laundry. Though Josiah literally the orphan’s “washing machine,” he himself felt filthy. He was sure he reeked of curry too. He reached up to swipe away a slug of sweat, before it slid over the attempts at facial hair sprouting around his lips. He looked down at his bare feet. They were submerged in a cement tub of water swimming with pink-and-white-checked cloth diapers. His instructions had been minimal: Dance on the laundry. This was supposed to agitate and clean it.
He forced a smile to his cheeks as he spent Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday doing laundry. After only a few moments of this task each day, his t-shirt was like a wash cloth, his head and face swathed in perspiration. Saturday, as he finished dancing on the pink-and-white- checked clothes, he looked down, and the water had turned yellow grey. A woman wound in a sari, an employee of the orphanage, grinned at him. “You are very handsome,” she pronounced in choppy English, her head bobbling side to side. She was probably forty, but her fine features and huge eyes, made her look barely older than he. Josiah pinked, thinking that a few years ago this never happened. His thoughts went to Marcy, the girl of choice on this trip.
The morning of the visit to the leper colony, Shanti Nagar, the sky was the color of baby pee. Like always, the group went to breakfast at The Motherhouse. Motherhouse, Josiah thought it an odd name for the place the nuns lived and where the daily volunteers gathered. “Breakfast” was always chai, poured into small plastic cups from an enormous aluminum kettle. Sometimes there were slices of white bread and two-inch bananas to go with the chai. After breakfast, a nun would lead a sing-along:
“We have our hope in Jesus, that all things will be well. All things will be well…”
“They won’t just be well, they’ll be awesome,” thought Josiah, because today he would finally touch a leper.
The bus to Shanti Nagar still hadn’t arrived after all the other volunteers had left for their day’s work. “It is late. It is late,” said a nun referring to the bus.
Josiah started pacing. Balling his fists, which made them sweat.
“A tour of our Motherhouse?” asked the nun, observing him. She looked like an Indian version of Mother Teresa. Josiah got Marcy and a few others to join him as the nun led them to Mother Teresa’s tomb, a marble casket on the floor of a bare room. On top of the casket, marigold petals had been heaped and arranged into the words, “Secret Fire of Love.” Next to the words, also of marigolds, was sculpted a heart with a flame whipping out of the top of it.
“These are Mother’s words. She still speaks to us,” said the nun. “Now, I will show you our chapel.” She led them up a staircase. Half way up, a life-size crucifix was hung on the wall: a purple gash at the heart. It was lacerated and nearly lost in cuts and globs of blood.
“Jesus is alive,” Josiah pointed at the mauled figure on the cross. He thought of his Jesus with the white robe and curly locks.
The nun nodded her head at the crucifix, and winked as if it was a trick, “This is his disguise in India.”
Josiah rolled his eyes so that Marcy could see. Catholics.
Last Spring break, while touring Italy and Spain with a few Alpha Nu Omega brothers, he remembered seeing what he took to be a statue in a Roman Church. It looked like a clothed body at a wake, there beneath the glass case. Then he’d realized it was an actual body as he studied the skin, horrific skin, that was flaking off the fingers and feet. The tour guide said the body was an incorruptible miracle. Josiah had gone out to the street and retched pasta carbonara.
Now in Kolkata, his stomach soured at the memory. There was a honking in the street below. Looking through the barred windows that overlooked the noisome thoroughfare, rickshaw drivers were hollering at the bus.
“Your autobus,” said the nun and they hurried downstairs and outside. It looked more or less like an American charter bus, except that it had a brocade ceiling and an altar to a silver god who squatted next to the driver’s seat. The Hindu deity sat on a crimson pillow, sported muscled biceps and a bulging belly. Josiah shook his head, just as he knew Pastor Joe would. Joining their group, were a gaggle of Spaniards, a few French girls, a Chinese college student, and Welsh Rastafarians.
Shanti Nagar should have been just an hour and a half drive outside of Kolkata. As the bus came to the edge of the city, flocks of animals loitered on throughout the street: Goats and sacred cows urinating great puddles on the crumbling sidewalks. All of a sudden the bus let out a resounding WHOOOOOOSH. It stopped.
The driver hurriedly swung out of the bus, down to the street.
“You have got to be kidding me,” thought Josiah.
Whatever the problem, the hood, literally the face, of the bus was lifted. The engine, poked and prodded. The group decided to stay in the bus, when the driver’s only response to their questions was, “Soon, soon.”
The other students from Tennessee got the Spaniards to join them for a game of Heads Up, Seven Up. Josiah sat alone and clenched and unclenched his jaw.
Two hours later, the driver started the bus again.
Pastor Joe said they would have to shorten the trip once they arrived. They probably would only get to spend a half hour there. What?! thought Josiah, I need this day. This is all about how I met Jesus. This is all about showing who I’ve become. God’s superhero. He would find ways to delay them. To convince Pastor Joe.
An hour later, the bus parked in a small town: A cluster of stained white-washed buildings, with rusted corrugated roofs. They wearily got out and walked down the main street and through the gate in a wall, by a sign painted with the title, “Shanti Nagar”. Once inside, they were ushered into a small house, and from there, into a square room. The cement floor was lined with wooden benches and the walls hung with posters describing leprosy. The room was the size of Josiah’s high school weight room.
At the front of the room, an Indian monk in a white robe conducted the orientation. Amid his broken words, Josiah made out the phrase, “Not contagious.” He took in the posters. Read that the disease was airborne and that some animals, such as armadillos, could be carriers.
“No, but it is contagious,” thought Josiah. “That’s what made Jesus a bad ass.” He thought of a story the nun had told him, the day he’d been informed he couldn’t volunteer at the leper colony. She’d said that when the famous St. Francis had met a leper, he’d reached out his hand, wiped pus from the leper’s wound onto his fingers, returned it to his mouth, and swallowed.
Josiah had thought: “How gross.” But he WAS going to love on a leper today.
He knew it.
Then the monk led them to the actual leper colony. They left the building by the back door and crossed over a set of railroad tracks. The tracks were strewn with litter left to be flattened by oncoming trains. The tracks were, apparently, also a toilet. Excrement, perhaps human or animal, spotted the rails. A mother was helping her son pull down his shorts and urinate on the railroad ties.
The compound was surrounded by a six-foot-high, cream-colored wall. Once inside the gate, Josiah surmised that the colony was probably about the size of two soccer fields, lined up head to toe. The entrance would have been right where the fields joined. One-story buildings lined the compound perimeter. Rectangular ponds and gardens filled the center. Josiah was a little disappointed that the ponds and gardens looked like a few acres of land outside the botany club, back at campus.
He noted the monk’s robe hung limply about his body, as he led them into a long building to the left of the entrance. The building was not even twenty-five feet wide, but proved to be nearly a city block long. It’s walls were lined with looms. Clicking and whirring pulsed the air. Indian men and woman worked the looms. “These lepers are healed. They have a job here.” Josiah ran his eyes over them. They seemed to have intact bodies. He smiled. But he was not here for them. As the visitors walked the long building, smiling and nodding, he noted that the material the healed lepers wove was pink and white checked. The fabric of the bibs and diapers he had been washing all week at the orphanage.
As they made their way out of the textile mini-factory, they stopped at a one-room school house. Here the leper’s kids were educated. A few children with skinny arms and distended bellies waved and smiled.
“Come, come,” directed the monk.
“They vegee-tate their own food,” he explained the neatly rowed vegetable gardens. Next to the vegetable beds, glinted three rectangular ponds.
“And feesh,” said the monk. Marcy was peering over the cement edge of the pond. Josiah joined her. A gray fish was opening and closing its mouth beneath the surface. Its eyes rough with scaly growths.
“Ugh,” recoiled Josiah. They walked around the garden ponds, toward more long buildings lining the other side of the compound. Inside, along the walls were rows of cots. On them, patients sat or lied. As the group passed, the patients pressed their palms together and bowed, murmuring, “Namaste.”
Here and there, a patient had a bandaged leg or arm. One man’s leg had been amputated at the knee. This feels a little like looking at a museum exhibit, thought Josiah uncomfortably. He hoped that soon he would feel like God’s superhero.
Next, still along the lengthy back wall of the compound, they were led away from the staring eyes, into a square building that looked like a simple house. Work benches along the walls proved it to be a workshop. Josiah looked about and saw lines of shelves filled with wooden legs and arms.
The monk was gathering the group around one of the work benches. Marcy had her back to Josiah. He reached up to the shelf and slid off a wooden arm prosthetic, complete with a jointed hand. It was heftier than it appeared. He crept up behind her. Smirking, he tickled her blond ponytail with the hand and pulled it back. She whirled. He was busy holding the hand close to his face, innocently inspecting it. A few girls tittered. Marcy pinked. Pastor Joe looked over his shoulder, and glowered at Josiah. Once Pastor Joe had turned back to the monk, Josiah rolled his eyes and returned the arm to the shelf.
The monk had seen him, and made his way through the visitors toward Josiah.
“You like to work out?” he tapped Josiah’s bicep with two fingers. Josiah flexed and winked at Marcy. “In this next hall, we have exercise room. You will see.”
Josiah thought about how he hadn’t worked out in a week. Not being able to go the gym on this trip made him nervous. He didn’t want to lose muscle mass.
“Did you see that prosthetic that was supposed to replace a butt?” snickered Marcy, as they walked toward the next building, which looked much like the last.
“Nobody looks that bad. I don’t really see why leprosy was so horrific, actually,” said Josiah, a little disappointed.
They were walking in the door of a house-like building at the far right end of the compound. Josiah’s eyes tried to adjust to the dimness and the shadowy figures.
A stench like rotting meat jolted his nostrils. As his eyes refocused and the figures become clearer, the sensation that this place was a museum, increased. Shuffling past or squatting on cots were incorrupt bodies, like those he’d seen in Rome. No, it was as if he’d entered a nightmare, was surrounded by a pack of Lord of the Rings’ Golems. His eyes flashed about the room and met no one’s. These leper’s eyes were scaled over. He felt unable to move. Then something snagged his boyish beard. He flinched and stepped back, straight into a pool. He felt something warm and sticky absorb into his Sperrys. He saw who had reached out, touched him: a creature with one finger on a lump of flesh, a lump where there should have been a hand. The creature could see him out of one half-cataracted eye. Josiah looked down into the pool of the creature’s urine. It was barely yellow where it had darkened the cement. The stiff sheet wrapped about the man’s groin was damp.
Josiah looked up at the shriveled and flaking face of the leper. Dots of mushed rice and curry falling down the misshapen chin. Nubby limbs seemed to continue flaking off as Josiah gawked.
Then he noticed that another bald creature, barley more intact, was placidly spooning the mush into the gaping hole of the leper’s face.
“Here are spee-cial volunteers. They care for each other,” it was the monk’s voice.
Josiah’s eyes moved to the far end of the room. If his group was around him, they seemed as visible as wraiths. All he noticed now was a rusted stationary bicycle the end of the room. The monk caught Josiah’s eye.
“Our lepers have work out,” he beamed, motioning to the machine.
The words, “Namaste. Namaste,” touched his ears. It was spoken by the Chinese student, holding a leper’s nubs at the ends of its arms, while smiling, bowing.
He heard a raspy coughing. Thought he felt water droplets on his skin. In his mind he saw the words from the orientation poster: the disease is airborne.
He felt his heart patter and, suddenly, his feet beat their way through the door and down the gravel path outside. Past the prosthetics shop. Past the vegetable garden. Past the three rectangular pools with grey water and scaly fish. He reached the railroad track and retched chai, with gobs of white bread and mashed banana.
That night, at circle sharing, he vaguely heard what “graced” experiences everyone had had at Shanti Nagar. When sharing came ‘round to him, his mouth moved, and he heard himself say: “It was, well. . . incredible. It’s too bad I caught the stomach bug today.” Then he excused himself and went straight to his bunk bed.
The next week, the group was leaving Kolkata, and traveling south, to Kerala. Josiah put a ball of Alpha Nu Omega event t-shirts, stiff from bucket washings, into the donation pile they were leaving for street kids. He left with only the dry-fit shirt he was wearing.
Pastor Joe noted what Josiah was doing, and smacked him on the shoulder, “Take only one shirt for the journey? Yes, my brother.”
“What?” Josiah glanced at him, dazed.
Josiah hadn’t actually thought at all about the lepers at Shanti Nagar, since he had boarded the bus and headed back that day. Though, one night, he had dreamt he was at a haunted house. A blue-faced man was chasing him with an ax, intent on chopping off his arms.
His thoughts had cycled a spool of questions. What would he tell classmates, his family, sponsors when he got back home? I went to Kolkata and washed some baby diapers? Over the past week, every time Pastor Joe had led worship, Josiah came down with “a stomach bug.” One day at lunch when Marcy told the group how she’d asked one of the Spanish girls from the bus trip to Shanti Nagar to accept Jesus, Josiah stood up and excused himself.
Yo, buff Jesus, where did you go?
What he did mull over, briefly, was Marcy. Decided he wouldn’t ask her out after the trip.
All he could hollowly think was: I don’t feel sorry for walking out of there… I don’t know what I feel.
They traveled by train down to Kerala. Before it was dark, the group elbowed their way into a sleeper car. The sleeping chambers were narrow cubicles, stacked two high along the walls. They were roughly the size of a coffin and lined with crimson brocade. Josiah thought of the Hindu god on the cushion squatting at the front of the bus last week. Josiah wedged into his cubicle, but his biceps made it feel like a bit of a straight jacket. Between the smells and noises, rest seemed impossible.
Finally the static-riddled blare of Bollywood music snapped off. Josiah lulled into a fitful sleep.
Several hours later, he awoke with a spasm. When he tried to sit up, his head hit the top of the shallow sleeping box. His heart was flapping its way up his throat. Had he left his passport? Was the train being highjacked? In the haze, he felt the nub of an index finger snagging his beard. The chamber reeked of body odor and curry. He knew he wasn’t remorseful. Or guilty. Or a hero. He strained to know what he was thinking or feeling. But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing was.
He wasn’t sweating at all. He wondered if the liquid in his blood had turned to sludge or was even drying, scabbing, within his veins. The last of his moisture squeezed out of his eyes. Ran down his cheeks, caught in the facial hair about his mouth. He licked, like a parched animal.
Josiah’s thoughts, feelings, were in disguise. He could not recognize them, he realized as he rolled over onto stomach. He laid his face in his fleshy palms. He felt the tears that had seeped between his lips. Reached out his tongue to their bitter taste. Allowed it to mingle with his saliva. And slowly, he swallowed.