BY PAUL HEATLEY
Copyright is held by the author.
DADDY WAS always a church-going man, but he was a drinker, too. He usedta always say, Saturday nights are for sinnin, Sunday mornins are for repentin. After momma died in the car crash he wouldn’t ever talk about, he quit the drink. Took to God in a big way then, almost traded in one addiction for another. Of course, addiction to God meant we— that is, my older brother and my younger sister and I — didn’t get cuffed round the ear so much by daddy because without the drink he wasn’t so violent, and instead all he wanted to do was to sit us down and get to talkin about God, and the healing light of God, and the forgiveness and the great power and the all-knowin and ever-lastin presence of God.
He moved us outta town too, shortly after momma’s funeral, and we never asked for a reason why and he never provided one, but I know it was on account a all those accusatory stares folks were givin him. It was a small town and everyone knew each other, and if you weren’t liked then there was no point in hangin round. People didn’t exactly dislike daddy, but they were sure headin that way.
We moved up the side of a mountain, where all the streets and all the roads either ran down or ran up and you had to brace yourself no matter which direction you were goin. We got there in the dead a winter and the trees were all bare but they were so tall they blocked out the sun’s light, and the grass at the base of them was brown and dry and that’s how I always remember the place. Despite all the seasons we spent there, I always picture it so cold and barren, like the whole world has gone and died and that one little town up the side of the mountain is all that’s left, just sat waitin for the end to finally claim it.
There wasn’t a church, so to speak. There was this rickety old wooden hut by the side of the road that doubled as the school on weekdays, and every Sunday morning nice and early every soul in that town crowded inside to give praise. The preacher man was one of those revival types that hollered long and loud and told you all about how he’d been on a bad road, a road beset by demons and false prophets and no account women, until finally the love of God had shone upon him like the warmest ray of sunshine, and his life had found its purpose, and he wanted to share that purpose with every single one of us gathered there in that room.
There was music too, and it was when the music was playin that folks most found themselves taken hold of by the Holy Spirit, their minds and bodies all riled up by the preacher’s fiery words, and they’d throw their arms up over their heads and shake their bodies and kids would run wild up and down the aisles and the outsides of the room and everyone wanted to speak in tongues, that was the main thing, to have the Holy Spirit so deep inside you, to be so totally in control of you, that you started speakin in tongues.
I never spoke in tongues. My daddy did — he was the first of us — and my brother did and my sister did, but I never did. I sat there while everyone else was standin and shoutin and singin and runnin and dancin and I watched them, and I watched the bust of Jesus at the front of the room, behind the makeshift altar, the bust of Jesus with his crown of thorns and he was there during the week, too, watchin all the school kids, always watchin, and there was this girl played the organ, standin right in front of Jesus’ bust. She was about 16 or so, she had a good solid build and blonde hair cut the same way my momma’s had been and she woulda been real pretty were it not for the thick black eyebrow that ran singularly across her face, above her eyes, but the other two women that played the music were old, real old. The organ girl’s momma played the guitar and her grand-momma sang and beat rhythm on a tambourine and so she was as good as it got, so I looked at the girl and I thought thoughts about her that shouldn’t have been inside my head, not while I was in church, but I never saw her outside of church. She never left her home, and whenever I passed it all I could hear comin from inside was that sad organ music.
At home, Daddy sat me down, asked me if I was feelin all right, tried to get to the bottom of why the spirit never took hold of me the way it did for everybody else. “To speak in tongues is a great thing,” he said. “To feel the Holy Ghost take hold of you like that. It worries me, son, that you ain’t had the chance to feel that.”
That wasn’t what worried him. What worried him was that folks all said that anyone didn’t speak the tongues had a little of the Devil in them. My brother told me that. Teased me about it. Said the Devil was in me, and he’d make the sign of the cross with his fingers, but he was laughin while he did it.
Thing was, the way all those folks threw themselves round, spewed that gibberish with their tongues hangin loose outta their mouths like they was thirsty dogs, looked to me like they were the ones should be feared the Devil was inside a them.
I crept outta the house one Sunday night when everyone else was sleepin, the whole town was sleepin, and I went to the church. I picked up the biggest stone I could find and I hurled it threw a window, smashed it, then I went back home. In school none of the teachers said a word to us about it, figured it for some older kids from out of town, lookin to cause some trouble, and no one ever really spoke about it.
When the next Sunday came, I let myself loose and spoke in tongues for the first time, and Daddy was real pleased. Told anyone who’d listen how it took me so hard he and two other men had to hold me down so I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else, I was throwin round so wild. But I was speakin tongues, callin out the word of the Lord in some nothin language, and that was all that mattered.
Daddy stopped worryin about me after that, left me alone. Every other Sunday I’d throw myself round a little and speak in tongues again, but I never went so wild as I did that first time, and no one talked to me about the Devil no more.