Curtis wouldn’t eat the Pop-Tart he stole once he saw Jesus in the icing. Whenever we went to Kroger after school, Curtis never paid for food. His older brother, Vonn, drove a Kroger delivery truck to the old West County ladies at night. Vonn told Curtis that the store only had two working cameras and neither one reached the middle where they kept the Pop-Tarts and the Frosted Flakes and the dusty oats that nobody bought but the grannies.
“Can’t you see his beard and his hands?” Curtis asked. “I think he’s praying.”
All I saw was a dark line of cinnamon that skidded across the pastry crust in jagged shades of brown.
“Whatever, Curt,” I said. Curtis hated when I called him “Curt” because he said it sounded uppity, but I knew it was because his dad went by Curt and Curtis hated his dad.
“He can’t help you if you’re not a believer,” Curtis said.
Then Curtis shook his head and clicked his tongue like Mrs. Becker did whenever she caught us skipping.
“How come you’ve seen Jesus in a hotdog bun, a pie crust, and a Pop-Tart?”
“I got the gift,” Curtis answered. He cradled the Pop-Tart like he was holding a relic. “Maybe Jesus doesn’t want you to steal,” I said. “Maybe that’s the message.”
Curtis wrapped paper towels around the Pop-Tart and elbowed me hard. “Look who’s here,” he whispered. “Mrs. Rhonda.”
Mrs. Rhonda tapped her baby’s legs against a green ring of Mountain Dew bottles in a display tower. She was a slow-thinking, slow-moving, thick-in-the-middle kind of woman who wore her dresses so short it made you feel bad for looking.
Curtis stepped in Mrs. Rhonda’s direction. I grabbed his shoulder, but he kept walking and flashed me a grin that was real devilish for a thirteen-year-old kid clutching a Jesus Pop-Tart.
“One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three,” Rhonda counted twice on her baby’s left foot and once on her right. Her hips swayed to an uneven rhythm that Curtis mimicked. He hovered two steps behind her and thrust his arms out like they were dancing in some big city nightclub except the lights above them were florescent and Curtis kept his right-hand flat so the Jesus Pop Tart was safe. Rhonda burst into a giggle fit and twirled her baby in the air by the collar of her polyester sundress. She knocked one of the Mountain Dew bottles loose. The others tumbled after like green bowling pins.
“Get away from the display case,” a disembodied voice came over a loudspeaker. I pulled Curtis away from Mrs. Rhonda and told him he’d get Vonn in trouble.
Curtis didn’t care.
“Where’s your husband, Mrs. Rhonda?” Curtis asked. Rhonda didn’t answer.
Everybody knew that Rhonda wasn’t a missus or a mama. Vonn first spotted her on the 91 down Olive Street last summer when his engine blew out and he had to take the bus. Rhonda wore the same raggedy too-short dress every day and clutched a baby to her chest. Only Rhonda’s baby didn’t cry or squirm. Her face was a plastic mold of permanently bright eyes and cherry-lipped cheer.
“That’s mama’s girl,” Rhonda shouted.
She high-stepped over the rolling two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew and tossed her baby in the air so high she crested the top of the freezer case and parachuted back down in a canopy of purple polyester—the girl’s dingy bloomers visible to anyone standing near the frozen pizzas and breakfast burritos.
“That’s no way to treat a baby, lady,” an old woman in a hair net said.
Rhonda plopped her girl in the child seat of a grocery cart and steered towards an end cap with boxes of discount Rice-A-Roni.
“Where you going, Mrs. Rhonda?” Curtis called. He tucked the Pop-Tart in the front fold of his t-shirt and hustled to keep pace. Curtis liked to wear his shirts long and baggy. The Pop-Tart weighed down the center like a body in a hammock.
Mrs. Rhonda stopped at a table with tomato sauce in oversized glass jars.
She pried the lid off the closest one and shoved her whole fist inside. Her arm came out red and clotted with pulp.
“Is baby girl hungry?” Rhonda asked.
She pawed the doll’s head and rubbed tomato sauce across her face until they both looked like murder victims.
“Security. Aisle 10,” a disembodied voice ordered. We needed to get.
Two men with potbellies stuffed inside Kroger pullovers rushed up behind Mrs. Rhonda and grabbed her by her sticky arms. She bucked and shouted for her baby, but she couldn’t keep them from dragging her out the side exit.
Curtis snatched Mrs. Rhonda’s girl from the cart and followed the guards. Clumps of tomato sauce slid off the doll-like the newborn in the sex-ed video we had to watch the year before.
He pushed the door open and found Mrs. Rhonda on her backside in the parking lot moaning for her girl. Both of the guards hovered over her and called her a thief and banned her from this Kroger and all the Krogers that ever were or would be.
Curtis took his shirt off and swaddled Mrs. Rhonda’s baby and placed her beside her mama. The Jesus Pop-Tart fell to the ground like sacred contraband. We bolted.
We ran a mile before stopping to catch our breath in the twilight. For the first time, I saw Curtis’s bare chest. He had the wiry build of a hairless cat, but his backside was a canvas of yellowing and purpling bruises the size of a grown man’s fist. On the way home, I stole glances at the history of breaking and healing stretched across Curtis’s skin. His shoulder blades pushed against his skin when he snuck through his back door. For a moment, a pale blue moonlight shined down on him and cradled him in an unearthly glow before he slipped into the darkness.
The next time Curtis asked me if I saw the Holy Spirit in an oil slick I told him I did. I told him I saw Jesus in the bare branches that clawed the sky outside our schoolyard. I told him I saw Jesus in the chalk dust on Mrs. Becker’s board. I told him I saw Jesus every time he asked just so he’d keep looking. Like Curtis says, He can’t help you if you’re not looking. He can’t help if you’re not a believer.
[Check out Martha Keller's back porch interview]