I was sitting on the bus next to my niece, telling her the story of my infection. I told her how my hand swelled up like a balloon – how it turned bright red and burned – after I got stung by a catfish and how I got a terrible fever so I finally went to the emergency room.
“How’s a catfish sting?” she asked.
“Not like a bee,” I explained. “They’ve got fins on the side that are really sharp and it hurts like crazy if you get poked. So you’ve got to be careful with catfish.”
“It’s not the whiskers?”
“No. It’s the fins. Don’t worry about the whiskers. It’s the fins.”
She looked down at my hand. She could see it was still there and normal.
“So then what happened?”
I told her how the nurses and doctors checked me out and looked at my hand and drew blood. I told her how they came back and said I was infected and that I needed medicine and I needed to stay in the hospital and, worst case scenario, I might lose some fingers if not my whole hand.
My niece asked if I was frightened and I said, “Yes.”
I told her it took a few days for the swelling and fever to go down. Then I got discharged and everything was okay.
The woman sitting behind us must have been listening.
We heard her say, “Excuse me.”
My niece and I turned around.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you mind if I pray for you?”
I figured there wasn’t much harm in that.
“Okay,” I said.
The woman put her hand on my shoulder.
“In my distress I prayed to the lord, and the lord answered me and set me free.”
Winking at my niece, I thanked the woman for her prayer.
“You do believe in the Lord?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But thank you.”
“Then why did you accept my prayer?” she asked.
“Figured it couldn’t hurt.”
“Prayers and blessing go to believers,” the woman said. “Otherwise they’re wasted.”
“Why not to everybody?” I asked. “Anyway, you offered. I accepted. You didn’t say anything about conditions.”
“You’re a heathen,” she said.
“Then fuck off,” I said.
The woman got up to move to the front of the bus.
“Such language and blasphemy in front of a child is wretched,” she said in passing.
“Just go on,” I said.
She took a seat at the front of the bus, turning around to see if I’d sprouted horns or burst into flame.
“What’s wrong with her?” my niece asked.
“She’s just butthurt that I didn’t wanna play pat-a-cake.”
“What’s a heathen?” my niece asked.
I wanted to be careful in how I explained.
“Generally, someone who doesn’t believe in something like God,” I said. “But you can also be a heathen or heretic toward reason.”
I could tell my niece was feeling edgy after the exchange.
“Why was she so upset? It was more than pat-a-cake.”
“She didn’t wanna believe it was the doctors or the medicine that saved my hand,” I said.
“So what did save it?”
“The doctors and the medicine,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” my niece said.
It pissed me off that my poor little niece was questioning something so simple – not because she was stupid, but because of other people like that righteous nitwit.
“Neither does she,” I said. “So let’s make it clear. It was the doctors and the medicine. And the sad thing is, she knows it too.”
The bus bounced along to the next stop.
“But what’s wrong with God?” my niece asked.
“It confuses you,” I said. “And things are confusing enough without it.”
“Confuses you how?”
“You have boyfriend?” I asked. “Or a boy you like?”
“One I like,” she said.
“You ever heard of Aphrodite? The Greek goddess of love?”
“Then pretend like you never did, unless you’re curious when you’re older. But don’t go praying to her or burning incense or offering sacrifices to her if you want a boyfriend. That’s the wrong way to go.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s between you and him, mostly. And it’s got nothing to do with her. Nothing at all. She’s not going to help and it makes you question whether it’s anything besides the doctors and the medicine that cure you,” I said. “It’s really that simple.”
I imagined it was too simple for her young mind to comprehend. I hoped that when she got older, maybe she’d grow into it. I hoped she’d make that full journey around the track. And if I was a different person, I’d have prayed for that. But instead, I just hoped – I hoped really, really hard.
“See, by that lady’s logic, God mighta been the catfish. And it stung me to get me closer to him, ultimately. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the catfish was just the catfish and I got stung because I was careless. Be more careful is the lesson. Nothing else.”
“So God’s not a catfish?”
“No. And always, always remember that. Not a blue. Not a channel. Not a bullhead. None of it.”
I wanted to add that it wasn’t only the religious freaks she needed to watch out for, but there are freaks and zealots and goofballs off all different stripes out there just waiting to sting and infect too.
“I would never believe God is a catfish,” my niece said.
“Good,” I said. “You’ve got a head start. But other people will.”
“Well, take you, for example – you’re mind’s not ready for algebra yet. But someday it will be.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Not everybody’s mind grows into algebra,” I said. “You’ll think it will but they just don’t. But don’t worry. You’ll get there. You’re not even out of grade school yet.”
The evangelical turned around again. To her dismay, I hadn’t turned to smoldering ash just yet.
“Bitch,” my niece said.
“They’re not all like that,” I said. “Keep that in mind. Please, keep that in mind. We can have mercy too. We can take pity on them too.”
“He’s in my class. He’s special.”
“Yes. Have mercy on them,” I said. “Just like Rickey.”
“But Rickey disrupts a lot. He has a hard time controlling himself.”
“Yes. They all do. They can make a mess of things. And dumb-down everything,” I said. “But it’s not Rickey’s fault so maybe it’s not hers either.”
At the next stop, the woman got off.
“Good riddance,” my niece said.
“I guess so,” I said, knowing there’s no easy answers after you’ve come full circle.