I grew up with this guy named Ray Zombroski. He was a skinny guy—skinny ankles, skinny legs like a chicken, bony and knobby and hairless, legs that just went up and up seemingly forever into those baggy, droopy shorts he always wore. His head looked like the head of a praying mantis, a large triangular thing that sprouted a tuft of hair, a strange island of hair that somehow did not prematurely recede like the rest of it. I kept telling him to shave it, but I think he forgot—he always forgot.
When we were growing up as kids, he used to tie strings around his fingers.
“What’s that string around your finger?” I said one morning when we were waiting for the bus.
“That’s so I remember,” he said with that goofy grin of his, thin hair blowing in the wind.
“Remember what?” I said.
He looked at me and the goofy smile left him, his praying mantis face suddenly serious, those uneven, yellowish teeth disappearing behind the pursed lips. He fingered the strings.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “You’ve forgotten what the strings were for?”
“Um,” Ray said, pushing back his hair so that the premature baldness was more prevalent. It was thinning even in high school—probably started thinning when he was in kindergarten.
“Something you had to bring home? Ask someone something perhaps? Library book overdue?”
Then Ray’s eyes suddenly popped wide like I had stepped on his foot. He started ramming his hands into those big, baggy pockets of his, and he pulled out a note.
“I’m not stupid,” he said with that toothy grin. “I wrote a note.” He gave me the note.
I looked at it and then looked at Ray. The note said:
REMEMBER THE STRINGS ON YOUR FINGERS
I never did know what the strings were for, but I suspect his parents wanted his grade card. Ray wasn’t too good of a student.
Later, during my college years, during a visit home to the small town where I lived, I saw Ray in the local diner. He had heard I was in town and invited me to have breakfast. I had heard he had found religion, something about having Jesus inside him now. I didn’t really care for that, but it was good to see him. The baldness had become an island, a clump in an ocean of scalp, a long wispy thing, long and greasy, falling flat against his sunburned scalp like forgotten grass. By this time Ray had grown a kind of mustache, stringy like that clump on his head. He was working at Joe’s Auto Body. His blue shirt embroidered with “Ray” was streaked with black grease, noticeable finger swipes from his hands. As he walked up to our table, he was having trouble with his plate and cup of coffee. It wasn’t that the breakfast was the trouble, more like what else he had in his hand. He made his way to our booth and nearly scattered our eggs and toast and coffee all over the place.
He smiled at me and then awkwardly pushed the coffee and my plate of eggs over to me.
“What’s in the hands?” I said, trying not to make him feel awkward.
“Rocks,” he said.
“Rocks,” I said.
“Yeah. Just rocks.” He laid all four of them on the table, small rounded things, polished to a sheen. “You want ketchup or salt?”
“No, thanks. So, you’re into rocks these days? Studying about them or something?”
“No,” Ray said.
“Hmm,” I said and forked my eggs around.
Ray gulped some coffee and looked at me with that toothy grin. “Mind if I pray for us?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Ray clasped his hands together and prayed, eyes shut tight, voice escalating with the urgency:
“Forgive us, Lord, for all the bad things we’ve done today. Have mercy on us. Thanks for the eggs. . . .”
I didn’t hear anything else so I took a quick peek to see if Ray was finished. There he was, eyes still tight, hands pressed together so that his palms were almost white, furrowed brow, clump of hair waving in the breeze of the fan like an antenna to heaven.
He said, “Amen.”
I closed my eyes real fast so he didn’t think I had peeked, then opened them.
Ray was looking at me. “Thanks for letting me pray over breakfast,” he said. And he took one of the stones from the table and put it in his pocket.
I was halfway through my eggs when I asked, “What’s with the rocks?”
“So, I remember things.”
“I carry the rocks around in my hand so I don’t forget things.”
“Work better than the strings?”
“So, like, what’s that rock for?” I asked pointing to one of the three remaining, a brown and black thing.
“Oh, that one. That’s easy,” Ray said. “That’s to remember to invite you to church.”
“And that one?” I said, not interested in the church thing.
“Oh, yeah, that one’s to remind me to pray for you today.”
“And that one?” I said, now thinking that Ray had become quite a religious nutcase.
“Yeah, that one. That’s umm . . .” He pointed at it for effect, tapped it, picked it up, and weighed it as if by doing so it would somehow release its hidden secret. He put it down and sipped his coffee. “I guess I’ll find out when I get back home tonight.” He smiled that toothy grin again. His wife Jenny was not going to be pleased. He took another sip of coffee.
“So, you want to go?” he said.
“To church with me.” He stared at me, eyes wide open, intense and serious.
“Sure, what the heck,” I said.
“That’s good,” Ray said, and he pulled one of the rocks from the table and put it in his pocket. “That’s real good.”
Years passed and Ray and I grew apart. I lost track of him. I finished college and started writing. Ray had a family, stayed at Joe’s Auto Body, and got liver cancer. When he died, I came to his funeral. There were a lot of people there. Jenny, his wife, was calm, but you could tell she was wrecked by his leaving. I remember going up to the coffin and the shock I felt when I saw his body stretched out there. It wasn’t because that tuft of hair was now smoothed back so unnaturally against his scalp. It wasn’t the praying mantis head with the toothy grin, now only thin lips reminding everyone who knew him that he had already gone.
No, what really took me by surprise was Ray’s body! He had no shirt on! There he was with tux pants and tuxedo shoes polished to a black sheen, even a bowtie around his neck, but he wore no shirt, his skeleton body, emaciated from the cancer, was sunken in, ribs rounding under the skin like surfacing eels. And then I saw them, saw the purpose for the open casket, the shirtless Ray. There, layered one under the other were four tattoos, small black sentences:
1. Pray for forgiveness
2. Pray for Jenny
3. Pray for the hurting
4. Pray for the helpless
I started going to church after that. I started praying for others after that. I copied those sentences down and memorized them forever, replacing Jenny’s name with my own wife and kids. And sometimes when I’m all alone and thinking too much of earth, I think of Ray. I wonder if the new Ray in heaven will remember me when I get there. And I wonder if that new Ray will still have those tattoos.
Cover image by Logan Popoff.