The boy was still in his pajamas, downstairs watching TV while his mother got dressed upstairs. The country girl was coming to babysit while his mother went to the doctor—he didn’t have to go to school because it was Saturday.
He had brought his cereal into the living room with him on a tray, which he placed on the floor in front of the TV. He flipped through the cartoon shows until he found the one he wanted, then started to eat before his cereal got soggy.
His mother called downstairs to say “If Wanda comes, let her in, I’m almost ready.” He took a bite and watched Heckle or Jeckle, he wasn’t sure which was which, hit a cat over the head with a big hammer.
The cartoon came to an end and he turned the dial to see what else was on. His mother came downstairs and scurried off into the kitchen. He turned past Captain Kangaroo and an old Home Run Derby and stopped on a channel that had a man holding a woman by the head, his eyes closed. The woman was crying and the man was saying something, rocking back and forth.
There was a line of people behind the woman, some with crutches like her. They were waiting for a turn with the man who didn’t seem to notice them, he was concentrating so hard on the woman whose head was in his hands.
His mother came into the living room, putting an earring in as if she was going to bridge club.
“No sign of Wanda?” she asked.
“Nope,” the boy said without taking his eyes off the television.
The man in the tube continued to mumble until he shouted out “Heal!” at the same time that he made a sharp movement of the woman’s head, as if he had snagged a fish and was jerking his line back to set the hook.
“What are you watching?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know, I was just changing channels.”
His mother came around behind him from where she stood to watch. The woman whose head the man had been holding had raised her arms and was walking away from him into the audience. She was smiling now but still crying. “She’s healed, praise the Lord, she’s healed!” the man said as the crowd applauded.
“Sweetie, we don’t watch shows like that,” his mother said.
“Because it’s not real.”
“What’s not real?”
“That the man can make a crippled person walk again.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it just isn’t.”
“They told us a story in Sunday school that Jesus did it.”
“Honey, that happened a long time ago. And the man on TV isn’t Jesus, he’s just a tacky country preacher.”
“Why could they do it a long time ago and not now?”
His mother took a breath, then exhaled. “Because back then they didn’t have hospitals—all they had was Jesus and maybe some of his disciples to help sick people.”
“What if you lived someplace that didn’t have a hospital, like Africa?”
“Well, maybe magic would work there, I don’t know.”
She stepped forward and turned off the TV. “Why don’t you go out in the kitchen and finish your cereal, I think you’ve watched enough for this morning.”
He said nothing, didn’t complain. She was leaving, and unless she told the country girl he couldn’t watch television, he could turn it on again when she left.
The doorbell rang and his mother went to answer it while he went out to the kitchen. He read the back of the cereal box, which had an offer for a bathtub submarine that would move around if you put baking soda in it. He thought his mother might throw the box away when it was empty, so he decided to tear the box top off now.
“You remember Wanda, don’t you?” his mother said as she came into the kitchen with the country girl.
“Hi,” the girl said shyly, and he said “hi” back. She had bobbed hair and wore jeans in case she had to work in addition to babysitting.
“He’s all set with breakfast, and I should be home in time to make him lunch, but if not there’s peanut butter and baloney, whatever he wants.”
“Okay,” the girl said. She didn’t talk much, only when you asked her a question. She was nicer than Augusta, the woman she replaced, who looked like the Old Maid in the card game and who snapped at him if he spilled something.
“Well, you be a good boy, all right?” his mother said and kissed him on the cheek.
“I will,” he said without taking his eyes off the submarine.
His mother left and the girl went to the sink to clean up the dishes. “Are you done?” she asked him over her shoulder as she ran the water.
“Yes,” he said, and she cleared his bowl and spoon and cup.
He went back into the living room and turned on the TV. The man who had healed the woman was preaching now, his fists clenched as he spoke into a big microphone, his eyes closed, tears on his cheeks. He could hear the country girl in the kitchen putting away the dishes, banging the cupboard doors.
He watched as the man spoke for awhile, then changed the channel because it looked like he wasn’t going to heal anyone else. He turned to a cartoon station where Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley were stacking up boxes to get closer to a light bulb so they could read the newspaper.
“Are you going to stay indoors or go out and play?” the country girl said as she came around the corner.
“I want to watch TV some more.”
“I was just checkin’. I’ll be doin’ laundry.”
“Okay.” He changed the channel back to watch the healer, who was now telling people to send in money to help him afford the work that he did. A postcard appeared on the screen with the man’s address; he took a pen out of the drawer of the table where his parents kept their playing cards and wrote it on the back of the boxtop.
The country girl came in with a plastic laundry basket and put it down on the floor, where she sat and began to fold the clothes. “Whatcha watchin?” she asked.
“This man who heals people.”
“Do you watch him?” he asked.
“My momma does.”
“Is he real?”
“Sure he’s real. He ain’t no actor, he’s just on the TV.”
The boy was quiet for a moment. “No, I mean does he really make people better?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. “If he dudn’t, why would he be on TV for so long?”
The boy considered this, and thought it was a good answer to his mother’s objections; if the man was a liar and wasn’t really healing people, they would take him off TV.
“You folks sure have got a lot of clothes for just three people,” the girl said to him, holding out two mismatched socks. She put the folded clothes in the basket and stood up. “I’ll be outside warshing the windows on the storm doors if you need me.”
“Okay,” he said and turned to watch her go.
The program came to an end with everyone singing a hymn and the boy got up and turned off the set. He went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror at the purple mark on his upper lip that his mother said made him special and unique, and would never go away. He figured that if the man on TV could make a cripple walk, he could fix it.