Mario practically lived at Turtle Island, a small cafe in the heart of suburban Broad Ripple. The cafe was a perfect place for Mario to set down roots, as it was more like a bar from Star Wars than the small Jazz coffee shop it purported to be.
Aaron, the owner of Turtle Island, kept the Cafe packed with the bizarre. Witches, wizards, religious fanatics, warlocks and college students gathered around the small round tables. Jazz bands filled the air with wild riffs, jostling with the tumult of passionate conversation and occasional arguments. It was not uncommon to see Aaron scurrying around from table to table, sharing the intensity of the moment with his guests. One night, I spied Aaron on his knees as he crawled under the packed tables with a mousetrap; chasing a rodent that had wandered into the madness.
Mario was tall, gaunt and dying. The speed freak had contracted tuberculosis, and it had invaded his lymph system. Surgeons had left a large scar on his chest as they searched for a solution, but Mario was allergic to the medication he needed to survive. He drifted around Broad Ripple, bothering people for spare change and spending his nights at the bar in Turtle Island. Although Mario didn’t mind talking, even to strangers, he never seemed to make any sense. No sooner had one thought begun to take form than another unrelated thought would emerge. One thing he was clear about: Mario hated Christians and, therefor, Mario hated me.
I had taken a job as a waiter at the Cafe and, at that time, wore my hair almost down to my waist. Every night, I drank at least ten cups of coffee and be-bopped to the Jazz tunes that filled the air, as I made my way to the patrons who patiently waited for their orders. I usually spent my off-hours at Turtle Island, engaging its guests in long conversations about Jesus: whether they wanted to listen or not.
So, it was not surprising that Mario and I did not get along. He often let me know what an ass he thought I was. On my part, I rarely failed to tell Mario that he was being destroyed by demons and that his life would be hopeless unless he turned to God. I also told him that, if he came to church with me, God would heal him.
Months passed. Watching Mario, it was hard to believe that he was, in reality, brilliant. He had been the speed chess champion of Indiana. As a boy, he had been placed in a facility for the retarded: until they found out he was actually a genius. Mario had moved to Indianapolis from New York to attend a small private college, but had dropped out of school and drifted into drug abuse and insanity. His passionate Italian personality enhanced his manic behavior to the point that one never knew if Mario was serious or not. There was a scent of danger about him; one imagined that Tony might stab you if you pushed him too far.
On Sunday mornings, I would usually stop by Turtle Island and ask the patrons, who were enjoying their breakfasts, if they wanted to go to church with me. The usual response was silence and an irritated look, but I never let that slow me down. One brilliant morning, on the first day of the week, I strode into the coffee shop and announced, in my booming voice, “I’m going to church! Anybody want to come?”
I saw Mario’s long, skinny frame at the counter, his back turned to me. He took a long drink from his cup.
“Mario, you want to come with me? God’ll heal you, if you go.”
I was in a hurry and waited impatiently as Mario shifted in his chair. As he turned towards me, I began to wince at the rebuke that was about to come.
“Sure,” was all he said, as he rose up and headed towards the door.
It was a short two-block walk to the church. Actually, the “church” was an old American Legion Hall, with a fifty calibre machine gun in the lobby. A cross had been placed at the front of, perhaps, a hundred folding chairs. On either side were American flags. Cheap portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hung on the dull grey wall, and a coke machine graced the front lobby.
I was ready for action! I sat in the back row with Mario and some friends. As the room filled, I wondered what the LORD was going to do, as the first chords from the guitars, trumpets and drums filled the air. This was my favorite part of the service and I was eager to see what Mario thought of it.
For the first time in months, the music was terrible. The musicians faltered, everyone sang off key; sounding more like a collection of croaking frogs than a congregation full of triumphant warriors. I looked over at Mario, who was staring impassively at nothing in particular. Our Pastor rose and, after a few irrelevant announcements, began to preach. Where he thought he was going with his sermon, I never did figure out. Drifting through obscure Old Testament scriptures and rather bizarre passages from Revelation, he made absolutely no sense. Didn’t he see Tony in the back, cynically watching everything that was going on? It seemed that as Mario leaned slightly forward, he was daring God to speak to him, as if he were watching some idol, smirking at the thought that it would open its wooden lips and pour out ancient wisdom that could change the course of his life.
Finally, church was over. Nothing had happened. God had not opened his mouth and Mario sat awkwardly in his grey folding chair, dying of tuberculosis. Something about the way he held his body hinted at the madness within him.
“Does anybody need a healing?” The Pastor’s voice boomed over the congregation. My heart lifted. I expected something big, for some unfortunate soul to go up and be healed right in front of Mario’s eyes. Something that would really inspire him. Instead, an elderly woman with white hair and a cane moved towards the front. When she arrived, I had to lean forward to hear her speak.
“I’ve got a bit of a cold,” she started. “I want the elders to pray for me.”
“Really?” I couldn’t believe it. “Is this the best you have, LORD? This is it?” I watched as the elders came up and laid their hands on her. I glanced over at Mario. He was looking at the floor.
“…in Jesus’ name.”
I heard the prayer conclude and watched the elderly woman return to her chair, still sniffling. There was silence, except for the rustle of paper as people began to put away their bibles and notebooks.
“Does anyone else need anything?” The Pastor’s voice echoed in the room.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement. As I looked over at Mario, he arose from his seat and stepped into the aisle. Then he began to walk straight towards the elders who had gathered together in front of the folding chairs. My heart froze. He’s going up! A wave of fear rose over me as I realized he expected God to heal him, that I had told Mario that God would heal him if he came to church. He reached the front and I heard the Preacher ask, “What do you want?”
Mario’s voice wavered for a moment and then strengthened as he simply said, “I want you to heal me.”
“We can’t heal you,” was the only response. Then silence.
“Oh my God, what are they doing?” My thoughts were as disjointed as one of Mario’s mindless conversations.
Out of the silence came the clearest sentence that the Pastor had spoken all night; “But Jesus can.” A few moments of silence.
“I want Jesus to heal me.” was all that Mario said.
My eyes were frozen on Mario, all of a sudden more thin and frail than I had ever seen him. The muscles in his face quivered. He looked at the men before him; like a castaway who, alone and without hope, sees a ship appear on the horizon; his heart trying to comprehend the truth of his impending deliverance, while at the same time expecting his saviors to shift course at the last minute and return over the horizon, leaving him as alone as he had ever been before.
Hands reached out and held Mario, fixing him in his place. I felt the air charge with a presence that came from some other world, invisible and far more powerful than anyone in the room could imagine.
“Repeat after me..” I heard the Pastor speak, and he began to pray “…I believe…”
I heard Mario say, “I forgive all those who have ever hurt or offended me.” His voice was clear and steady.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you spirit of infirmity, come off of him!” the Pastor’s voice thundered, and passion filled the room. “Be healed in the…”
Be healed. Be healed.The words cascaded through my mind.
Mario’s face rose towards the ceiling. Just then, he lifted his arms. “Oh God, help me!” His cry filled the Legion Hall, crashing like a breaking wave at the feet of God.
Prayers and shouts broke out all around me. Hands flew into the air and it seemed that the world had been turned upside down. A tumultuous medley of praise rose louder and louder. Up front, surrounded by men who had never met Mario before, but who had, in an instant, become his brethren, Mario stood with tears streaming down his face, praising the Living God of Israel.
I stared at Mario, and while it was obvious that something had dramatically changed, it wasn’t immediately clear what exactly had happened in that instant. Something more powerful than antibiotics flowed through Mario’s body, destroying and recreating everything in its path. At the very moment he cried out, Mario had been instantly, verifiably healed by God.
Mario was never the same after that. To the astonishment of his doctors, he no longer had tuberculosis. Nor did he ever use drugs again. In time, his thoughts and conversation began to clear, and Mario began to spend less time at Turtle Island. He found a job as a plumber, fell in love, married and had three children; all of whom attended Ivy League schools. After a few years, Mario decided to start his own business and became wealthy. Today, Mario remains happily married and is semi-retired; walking, deep in thought, for miles every day.
I often drive by the building that used to house Turtle Island, and think about the thin, dying man who walked out of that building with me thirty-five years ago and never came back again.