Last Year's Jesus: A Novella and Nine Stories
By Ellen Slezak
Published by Hyperion 
April 2002; ISBN: 0786886382; 224 pages

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Last Year's Jesus by Ellen SlezakLast Year's Jesus (or Passion Play)

I caught up with the Passion Play just as two horses draped in purple bathroom rugs left the corner of Pulaski and Campau. The Romans and almost everybody else in the play and in the audience were Mexicans. They'd come from their home parish, Holy Trinity, about five miles south, near Tiger Stadium. The Romans brandished broomstick spears and wore helmets that might have been mistaken for wash buckets spray-painted gold. Jesus followed, his white bedsheet tunic flapping in a breeze too cruel for April. He wore a weave of broken twigs atop his head. He really needed earmuffs. Though the pageant had just begun, his bare, sandaled feet already dragged under the weight of an eight-foot-tall wood cross he'd carry on his back for the next two miles as we followed him south down Campau and then back along the Grand Trunk Western tracks to Veterans Memorial Park, where he would be crucified, die, and be buried.

Mary should have been weeping at the fate of her son, but instead she scowled, preoccupied with keeping her blue pillowcase veil from blowing off her head. Simon wore thick wool socks inside his sandals. How loyal was that? A dozen other Israelite mourners, men and women hugging their arms in the cold, followed a troop of Roman foot soldiers who cracked whips of frayed rope at Jesus's feet and back, urging him to get a move on.

The cold morning had started out sunny, but then a dense pack of clouds rolled into Hamtramck from the west and covered the Passion Play like a lid. We trudged under it, sad and silent and sorry for Jesus.

Just as I congratulated myself for snagging a spot up front a few feet from Jesus, a troop of pageant volunteers marched over and began organizing us, the observers. The volunteers wore white gloves and purple sashes. Most appeared to be apathetic high school kids, but a few wore the tranquilized look of the saved. The young guy and the middle-aged woman who led them held walkie-talkies. The woman quick-stepped toward me. Her bristly gray hair didn't budge in the breeze. She wore a navy blue polyester coat and brown platter-shaped shoes. She had to be a nun. I turned away instinctively, but she came at me, pushing me back. The volunteers paced themselves evenly around the passion players, forming a human barrier that kept us, the mere people, back twenty feet. I was farther from Jesus than before, but I still had an unobstructed view.

 

Then, on a mission, the nun-woman descended again and pushed me farther back. She spoke as she did this, her voice low and quiet, carrying the arrogant assumption that we'd all shut up and listen. And, of course, we did, leaning in to hear. "People, let's have some consideration here - quit pushing and give the players room. The next station starts in a minute." She looked pleased with herself, like she was a saint because she hadn't raised her voice.

Her rebuke was uncalled for. As a crowd we were quiet, polite, respectful, even a little depressed, in keeping with the theme and the weather.

I almost left at that point. I wasn't even supposed to be there. Not that I was skipping class or anything - Mercy College shut down for the Easter holidays. But I was on Camau running errands for my grandmother, while she knelt at home, making her way around the rosary in preparation for more praying at church that afternoon. She always prayed in the living room, kneeling next to her spindled rocker, leaning on it to get up or down. The light was murky there as she kept the thick, rose-colored drapes closed against the sun, so worried was she that it would leech the green from her slipcovered sofa. "Our people pray," she often said. According to my grandmother, our people also give cash at weddings and work harder than anybody else.

I didn't begrudge my grandmother her prayers. She had raised me since my mother died when I was five. I never met my father. But I did wonder at the scope of her prayers, which seemed only large enough to include those just like her: Healthy Poses who knew better than to move away from home and who ate meat there three times a day.

The Free Press that morning said the Latino community needed a place to hold its procession because Mayor Archer was redoing all the streets around Holy Trinity, a neighborhood so close to downtown Detroit that people with money and jobs were beginning to claim it. "Bah," my grandmother said, "they'll make a loft out of a tenement and shoo all of the rats and deadbeats here." My grandmother must have suspected I was curious about the Passion Play because as I left to run her errands, she said, "Get the rye from New Palace and the fresh kielbasa from Srodek's." She said, "Now don't you go to that parade Theresa Jagielski." She said, "It's bad enough the czarnes live here, now we'll get the wetbacks too." She said, "Don't look at me like that Miss-I-go-to-college. What do you know of anything? You didn't cross the ocean." My grandmother did not approve of the Mexicans from Holy Trinity because they did not belong to her one holy Catholic and apostolic church.

Or maybe it was because she believed they took the GM factory jobs that paid twenty dollars an hour. Stole them away from guys like our neighbor Pauley Nowicki, who got laid off from Cadillac Assembly a year ago and now sits home drinking all day and yelling at the TV. But it seemed to me that the Mexicans in Detroit struggled to find good-paying work just like everybody else. They lived in their barrio near the Ambassador Bridge that spanned the river to Canada, as if they knew they might need an escape route- a way to flee farther north, where life might be colder, but surely couldn't be harder.

The old ladies gossiping outside St. Florian's last Sunday after Mass said the mayor of Hamtramck only said yes to the Passion Play because his son got a Mexican girl pregnant at prom the year before and he felt guilty. "That's what the Mayor gets for sending his son to Cass Tech instead of a good Catholic school like St. Cyril's or St. Ladislaw's or St. Florian's right here in Hamtramck," they said. Never mind that each of those high schools had closed. The old ladies put their arms around my waist and rested their old lady heads on my chest after they said this. All of them widowed or alone in other ways, they hugged me so tight the smell of them - of the food they cooked, or needing more than two baths a week, of their dead husband's cigarettes from his old sweater they wore- stuck to my skin.

They like me. Or at least, what I let them know of me. "Our Theresa went to good Catholic schools," the old ladies said. "Our Theresa got a scholarship to Mercy College," they said. "It doesn't matter that she's not pretty," they said. "Our Theresa is a good girl," they said.

You are mean and ignorant is what I said right back. But only to myself. On the outside, on the steps of St. Florian's, I just smiled at Mrs. Pachota, Mrs. Oczadlo, Mrs. Makowski, and at my grandmother and then I said, "Come on, Grandma, Let's go home. I have to study for a chem test." I took my grandmother's arm. I helped her down the steps.

You can see that when the nun pushed me around at the Passion Play, it was nothing I wasn't used to, but I saw no reason to stick around and endure it. I turned to leave, but as I did, the other organizer, a young guy, Mexican, twenty-five or so, came by. He mentioned us all to move in closer, "Come on," he said, "it's okay. There's plenty of room." His gentle voice could have soothed a colicky baby. He smiled, especially at me, and then he even spoke to me. "You're not from Holy Trinity, are you?"

"No. I just came out for kielbasa." I winced at my clumsy response, but I guess he heard poetry.

"Well, we hope you like our play. You're very welcome here." He reached out and put his bare hand over my mittened one and squeezed it, a gesture so friendly I warned myself not to imagine it as being anything more. I did not typically take such precaution. Instead, I charge, then blundered almost everywhere, making mistakes in conversation, in judgment, in bed.

The teenage girls behind me giggled as he walked away. I heard one of them ask the other who he was. "His name is Felipe or Migues," she stopped and thought, "or maybe it's Bob. I don't know. He was last year's Jesus."

Copyright 2002 Ellen Slezak
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

A first collection of interconnected stories by an award-winning writer with a distinctive voice and an unerring sense of place.

The stories in this affecting debut collection are populated by the sober, self effacing members of Detroit’s Polish-Catholic working class. Linked by place and characters, the stories create a world that feels both familiar and strange, where religion is a way of life, and traditions are carried down through the generations. But even this isolated community cannot remain immutable. In these wonderfully poignant and witty stories based on people and places she knows well, Ellen Slezak documents the colorful clash of young and old, of religious and secular, of traditional values and the temptations of the flesh. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Last Year’s Jesus creates a fully realized world teetering on the brink of change. Writing with tremendous empathy, warmth, and humor, Slezak brings to life the sights and sounds of a place she calls home -- a place readers won’t soon forget.

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Author

Ellen Slezak's short fiction has been published in more than a dozen literary journals, including American Literary Review, ZYZZYVA, Crab Orchard Review, and Green Mountains Review. She was a finalist in the Iowa Short Fiction Awards, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has twice been awarded Illinois Arts Council grants for fiction writing. Born and raised in Detroit, she now lives in Los Angeles.

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