31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 2: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” by Gloria Sawai

May 2, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From A Song for Nettie Johnson

When Gloria Sawai won the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for her only published book, the story collection A Song for Nettie Johnson (beating out Carol Shields’ Unless and Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York), she was seventy years old. When she died last year at the age of seventy-eight, her literary reputation continued to rest on this one, extraordinary collection of short fiction and, in particular, its most-anthologized story.

“The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sun Deck” has of course been called blasphemous; its title alone is enough to give evangelicals conniptions. What is remarkable about the story, however, is the extent to which it recaptures the humanity of Jesus, something that Catholic dogma insists on. (There is even an historical heresy, Apollinarianism, based around a disavowal of Christ’s complete humanity.)

And the Jesus of Sawai’s story is nothing if not recognizably human. When he approaches the story’s narrator, Gloria Johnson, sitting on the sun deck of her Moose Jaw home one sunny September morning, he could not be more ordinary. ” ‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘My name is Jesus.’ ” This throwaway introduction is actually quite amusing in context, particularly coming on the heels of Gloria’s rumination about how to address the Son of God when he appears on one’s prairie doorstep: “What do you say to Jesus when he comes? How do you address him? Do you call him Jesus? I suppose that was his first name. Or Christ? I remembered the woman at the well, the one living in adultery who’d called him Sir. Perhaps I could try that.”

The trajectory of the story is more or less encapsulated in the title. Jesus appears from a rock quarry, joins Gloria on her sun deck where he drinks two glasses of wine and a cup of tea, which he spills on himself. During their chat, a gust of wind blows open Gloria’s kimono, and Jesus gazes at her breasts. “You have nice breasts,” he says to her. “Nice” is a word that Jesus has previously used to describe the view from Gloria’s deck. “Nice view,” Gloria thinks. “Those were his very words. Everyone who comes to our house and stands on the deck says that. Everyone.”

Jesus is compared to a common interloper: he reacts to the view from Gloria’s sun deck with no more originality or élan than anyone else. This conflation of the supernatural and the quotidian is at the heart of Sawai’s method in the story, which at its core – and far from being blasphemous – is actually about grace.

When Gloria first spies Jesus approaching from the quarry in the distance, she recalls all the “terrible questions” from her childhood Sunday School classes:

Do you love the Lord? Are you saved by grace alone through faith? Are you awaiting eagerly the glorious day of his Second Coming? And will you be ready on that Great Day? I’d sometimes hidden under the bed when I was a child, wondering if I really had been saved by grace alone, or, without realizing it, I’d been trying some other method, like the Catholics, who were saved by their good works and would land in hell. Except for a few who knew in their hearts it was really grace, but they didn’t want to leave the church because of their relatives. And was this it? Would the trumpet sound tonight and split the sky in two? Would the great Lord and King, Alpha and Omega, holding aloft the seven candlesticks, accompanied by a heavenly host that no man could number, descend from heaven with a mighty shout? And was I ready?

Gloria decides she is not ready to greet Christ’s second coming, because there is dirty laundry scattered around the house and she is clad in a ratty old kimono.

This is only the first instance of the collision between the naturalism that characterizes Gloria’s prairie life and the extraordinary circumstances that surround her encounter with Jesus on the sun deck. Michael Trussler speaks of this dichotomy when he writes that the “lack of self-consciousness in blending the numinous with the mundane suggests that one could categorize [the story] as a Canadian instance of ‘magic realism.’ ”

A Song for Nettie Johnson includes two epigraphs. The first is from Isaiah 51:1: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug.” In this story, Jesus is explicitly connected to the idea of rock, emerging on the horizon from the rock quarry in the distance. While he is sitting with Gloria on the sun deck, she imagines she sees a rock levitating above him, only to get absorbed into his chest. In the context of its prairie setting, “the quarry from which you were dug” could easily be the land on which Gloria exists, or the literal quarry that lies in the distance. When one considers the nature of her memories from Sunday School, however, or the hymns she recalls throughout the story, it is also possible to suggest that “the quarry from which [she was] dug” is a bedrock of spirituality inculcated in her childhood, which she has been unable to divest herself of these many years later.

The collection’s second epigraph is from The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos: “Grace is everywhere.” Jesus departs with the same lack of grandeur as he arrived: ” ‘Goodbye, Gloria Johnson,’ he said rising from his chair, ‘Thanks for the hospitality.’ ” Before he leaves, he kisses Gloria on the mouth and flicks her nipple with his fingers. More sexually charged imagery to stoke accusations of blasphemy, but these accusations miss the essential operation of grace here, in the sense that Flannery O’Connor meant it: a moment in which the spirit enters into a human and that person is essentially changed as a result. Sawai’s story ends with Gloria returning inside her house to deal with the dirty laundry, but the final sentences, so deceptive in their simplicity, tilt toward a degree of meaning that extends outward from the action of the story to indicate that something fundamental has shifted within Gloria. “That’s what happened to me in Moose Jaw in 1972,” Sawai writes. “It was the main thing that happened to me that year.”


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 2: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” by Gloria Sawai”
  1. August says:

    Looks like I just found another book to add to my hold list at the library.