Tristan Marajh

Saint Elena of Johnny's Hamburgers

Elena worked cash at Johnny's Hamburgers, having declined high school for the time being. She took orders, replaced condiments, cleared tables. One slow Saturday night, in the walk-in freezer, her ambiguous dynamic with Brandon the cook resulted in an ambiguous pregnancy: the father didn't have to be Brandon, it might have been Caesar the burger-flipper, who, to his merit, lasted longer at Johnny's than Brandon after she told them about her pregnancy.

Elena had that job for three years. She was nineteen now. People gave her pitiful, patronizing looks as her protruding tummy could no longer be concealed by her work apron. Never mind those people's tummies protruded because of deep-fried food and fatty-burger consumption - at least hers was nurturing life instead of destroying it. At nights, though, she did feel that that life was destroying her: she'd be hunched over the toilet bowl, retching but bringing up nothing. In the shower - that moment that had changed it all - she had curled up into herself as water rained down on her and pain wracked her insides. Her life and how she saw herself broiled in her mind: minimum-wage worker, pregnant, uneducated, unmarried, on welfare; all the signs of a life ruined before it even began.

Lying on the shower floor, Elena felt no escape. She'd always been impulsive: disdain for high school, eagerness instead to earn money and a lazy laidback-ness that the wrong people found seducible. For the first forced time, Elena faced who she was. That realization, at first a sliver of a thought, immediately roused a raging tsunami of understanding from a submerged lake of wisdom within; entering and filling every crack and corner of her broken body and spirit, rendering her just able to turn off the faucet before falling into a profound sleep, wet and naked, right there on the shower floor.

***

When Elena woke up, everything in her tiny bathroom seemed to be brimming with a pristine, holy light: the soap dish, her toothbrush and lotion bottles, the very rust on the sink. Sunlight streamed through the tiny window; it felt like love, purity, the Holy Spirit itself. It was her life's first certainty: that the only feeling she now felt wholeheartedly at peace with was an out-of-body one. She'd previously planned errands to run that day, but instead remained in her apartment the entire weekend in a state of deep peace and joy as everything around her sang the song of Life.

At work, Elena's Manager commented she was "graceful" and so at ease, unlike he'd ever seen before. Their hippie customer who got vegetarian burgers said Elena was the embodiment of Presence, of Zen. That's what it was, Elena knew, remembering her experience after awakening from the shower floor. She perceived her surroundings as she did then because all the thoughts that occupied her identity before were then known for exactly what they were and when they fell away, she was left with the present moment, the holy, pristine Now. It's what Hindus and Buddhists refer to as enlightenment; what Jesus refers to as the kingdom of Heaven, or salvation and indeed, Elena was now intrinsically aware of exactly what was meant. There was no better descriptor than the experience Itself. Those religious paths were different but they led to the same place, not one in the sky but within the spirit.

Unaware of the impact her transformation would have on her wider community, Elena remained focussed on maintaining her enlightened perspective throughout the day. She was still human, after all, prone to the same falterings that led her astray before. Pregnancy progressed, delivery succeeded, and Elena's son bore witness to the sort of prophetess his mother eventually became. Elena gave lectures at new-mother groups, daycare centers, play-dates, PTA meetings, community center gatherings, little-league sport events, library Storytimes. Attendees were mothers themselves like Elena: struggling with parenthood, isolation, stress and financial difficulties and poor decisions. The women longed for peace and transcendence and Elena through her wisdom taught them how to achieve those states, the essential lesson being that one is no longer one's past or current circumstances, not even their thoughts (the hardest to disbelieve). In a sense, Elena was a new kind of prophet; a prophetess, neither male nor virgin, not even the channel through which a Higher Power sent Its son into the world. Her wisdom empowered women to in turn empower their own children to become little gods themselves: their own source of power, peace and strength, an immaculate conception of how life should be lived on the Earth. And at the end of the day, there will still be chores to do, homework to help with, errands to run. Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

ABOUT THE WRITER

With a childhood spent in Trinidad & Tobago, Tristan Marajh resides in Toronto. His prize-winning The Complete Works of Min-Ju Kim, a tale about trial through and triumph over depression, can be found here.