I published this first in the Dead Mule School of Southern Fiction. They told me it’s unusual for them to publish rants about church – and they get lots – but they felt I spoke with ‘evenhanded gentleness.’ This is exactly what I hoped to accomplish, but was not what I felt at the time.
One by One, Each in Turn, Sans One
I was a Christian and an ex-pat, too. I moved from Seattle to the heart of middle Georgia for work. People were weird here: they drank cold, sweet tea and waved at every car passing them on the road. They ate grits. They said ‘y’all.’ In conversation, they liked my accent. Odd because I don’t have one. Everyone, everywhere I went, was hospitable, and I soaked it in. Friends from church and work invited me over Tuesday nights to drink coffee, eat cake, sing a couple of songs, and talk about the week. Prayers would ascend, and shoulders were hugged: good feelings glowed. It was nice.
But this Tuesday was different. I could tell by the number of Hondas and Toyotas lining the street. I parked between cars under an arching sweet gum tree, and the spiky fruit cracked under my feet as I walked a block to the house. The driveway looked just like the road.
The owners went to Florida on most weekends. There was a revival somewhere, and they didn’t want to miss it. Along the way, they met Jimmy or Johnny or whatever his name was and invited him to host our neighborhood get-together.
Jimmy’s – I’ll call him that – van and trailer filled the driveway. Duct tape covered the van and there were so many Jesus Saves! bumper stickers that I wasn’t sure it had doors or a metal body. Clinging for dear life onto the rear bumper of peeling chrome was a trailer, tilting to the side like a drunkard. The rear door hung open, and a squirrel’s nest of pamphlets and paperbacks filled the back. If cleanliness is godliness, then whoever owned this wreck was on the wrong side of the coin.
I wove between cars in the driveway and made my way through the open door into the foyer. A card table greeted me, covered like a game of solitaire, with the same pamphlets and books and cassettes I saw in the trailer. I picked through a book: the type was a quarter inch tall, and I spotted grammatical errors on the first page. Everything was self-published and tawdry. I rebuked myself for being judgmental. I still rebuke myself for being judgmental. The owners had rearranged the living room, pushing the comfortable Scandinavian furniture to the walls and replacing it with two rows of cushioned folding chairs borrowed from church. The piano was moved out of the way, and a battered plywood podium stood there, tall next to an electric piano.
The host caught my eye, and with a toothy grin marched over to me like the prodigal come home. With glowing glee, he steered my elbow to the kitchen. “Ooooo brother! Have I got a treat for you,” he said. In the kitchen, we saw several folks from church sipping coffee and chatting. He pulled me to the corner table where I met the Great Man, Mr. Jimmy. Every prejudice about smarmy, sweaty, obese backwoods televangelists roiled inside me. He oozed out of the wooden chair, and I feared for him, sure the chair would impale him on a broken rung when it collapsed under his weight. He shook my hand with a sweaty palm as large and thick as a first baseman’s mitt. His hair was slick and thin and oiled back over the top of his pasty head. He was a cartoon. His tone said that he saw straight through me. Maybe my ‘Hello’ told him I was a foreigner. I don’t know, but his welcome wasn’t welcoming.
His wife was a sensible backdrop. She appeared sweet and cowed and entirely without age. Her long dress covered any hint of flesh and smothered any curves she may have had. Her hair – I am not joking – rose into a climbing beehive monstrosity, reminding me of the Tower of Babel. She sported pinkish cat-eye glasses. If she told me she was the preacher’s mother and maintained her semblance of youth by drinking the blood of nubile girls, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It astounded me that my friends held this man – so oily and odious – in such high regard. I was surprised, too, and bothered by my prejudice of him, having said nothing to him but hello.
The host clapped, and we moved to the dining room. I sat close to the front door in case an escape was necessary. Who knew if snakes were hiding inside the plywood podium? The show started with the wife playing an old hymn on the electric piano. The Great Man joined, and they sang a couple of old standards and then some newer songs. She moved easily around the keyboard, and they both had fine voices. Though not to my taste, their obvious talent surprised me.
They shilled their cassettes and books for a moment, which is fine in my humble estimation: the worker is worthy of his wages. He mentioned his church in Florida, a rented double-wide in the woods, and invited everyone to visit. But tonight? He was here to pray for anyone who asked. That was it. He hoped to encourage everyone and help them on their way with G.
Maybe there was a secret script, but each person, one by one, one after the other, made their way up front. These were people whom I worked with and went to church with: many ran the local nuclear plant with me. Each one tiptoed to the front and waited for the Great Man to ask the same question. “What is your need today, Brother?” “Sister? What are you asking G for today?” Each person whispered into the microphone. A woman said, “I need help in my marriage. I want to be closer to my husband.” Another said that she struggled every day. “I wake up early to pray, and by the time I’ve got three kids ready for school, I’ve screamed over breakfast, lost shoes, and there’s homework left undone. Why can’t I be better?” In each case, the Great Man focused and listened without judgment. He would nod and then say a heartfelt prayer for each person. I didn’t expect this gentleness and caring.
The first person went up front – a woman – and after the man finished his prayer, he put his meaty glove on the woman’s forehead and prayed again. “Lord? Be with this woman and fill her with your love.” All at once, the woman melted. If it surprised anyone, no one showed it. She didn’t fall or topple, but collapsed in on herself as if vaporized. Without a body a hang on, her clothes fell to the floor, and I looked for a bloody stain on the green carpet. A couple of men went up to lift her. She looked confused and beatific and floated back to her chair.
One by one, everyone went forward for their turn. Except for me.
Maybe he saw it in me from the start: a doubter threatening the show. Close to done now, he paced the living room floor, praying into the microphone. He stopped and spoke, raising his hand. “There is one person who hasn’t come to the front to receive their blessing,” he said. His words hung for a moment, and I didn’t move. With no result from his tacit finger-pointing, it was time to up the game.
“A brother here has a drug problem. A word from G will help heal that pain.”
I swore my first oath of the night. “Crap-o-moly.” I was the youngest there and the only man with long hair. I had stereotyped him, and now he stereotyped me. I stewed in my seat, thinking that I haven’t used a drug since I smoked pot at about sixteen. I prayed again. It was not the loftiest of prayers: “Lord? If You want me up there, then pick me up like a chess piece. I am not going up because that fat ass wants me to.”
The Fat Man was having none of this. He set the microphone down and walked over. In front of me now, he touched my shoulder, inviting me up. Time slowed, and within the briefest moment, I talked it over with myself. I could leave, or say no, or I could say he was a fraud and an embarrassment to everything good. But I didn’t. I went up front, and he grabbed the microphone.
“Brother? What is your need?”
“I don’t know,” I said it into the microphone. “I was sitting down praying. You must know something I don’t?”
Kindness fell from his face like scales from St. Paul’s eyes. His flabby cheeks reddened and twisted. I refused to answer anything, and he groaned a prayer. With one movement, he widened his right palm and, in a great swooping windmill, like Michael Jordan slamming a dunk, he arced his hand around and crashed it on my forehead. Broadening his stance, he pushed down with all of his four hundred pounds. This was his show and damned if he was going to let some long-haired rebellious Yankee ruin it. I don’t know if anyone could hear, but I stared straight at him and said that if G wanted to knock me over, then he could very well do it, but I wasn’t going down just because he was pushing me.
And I didn’t. He backed off and let go of my forehead. The men on either side of me, ready for my fall, slinked back to their seats, looking at the carpet as they walked. I thought of walking straight out the front door but wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. Instead, I went to my seat by the door and sat straight as he closed.
The meeting was over now, and people moved to talk to him, but he snaked back to the cloister of the kitchen. I spoke with a few friends about banalities. No one ever spoke of this to me, nor did I ever bring it up. I have no idea what happened to this man and his wife. I never went back to the prayer group, which disbanded over the next couple of months. In retrospect, I hope everyone went home blessed, and that the Great Man and his beehive wife continued to serve G.
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