desert hallelujah

My brother John remembers our father as a booming, fire-eyed prophet; hands and arms wide with the glory of God, hair thinning on the top. Mark and I try not to dwell on our father at all.

I was six when my father tugged us out to his spot in the desert to prove our love for Jesus. Mark was almost five and John was three. We waited a long time for the devil to tempt us while my dad crooned hosannas in his tremendous baritone.

“Kids, don’t worry, the Lord will protect us.” Still, I kept a watchful eye out for scorpions.

Dad had offered to make breakfast while Mom slept in, but the unusual silence laid a hand on her shoulder and shook her awake. She came for us, just before lunch, seething in the Sheriff’s old Bronco. Sheriff Collins gave us water bottles and my mom clutched at our hands  in the back seat. Dad sat in the front, humming fragments of songs from worship, as if there hadn’t been a need to wrestle him into the truck.

“You can’t do stuff like this, Pastor James,” Collins murmured.

Once home, Mom refused to let my dad in the house. She set her sunburned shoulders back, locked the door, and carried on making sandwiches.

“Rachel, let me in! Let me in the house! I was doing the Lord’s work! Let me in!” I remember hearing him pound on the thin door until after dark. We were in bed when Mom relented. He didn’t apologize, just sank into fevered sleep without mentioning the snake bite provoked during his keening outside.

In the morning, following a hushed argument between my parents, prayerful elders from the church arrived tend my father’s injury. My brothers and I were used to the hysterical pleading and howling that accompanied faith healing. We played in the front yard while the heat swelled around us, shimmered in waves off of the metal siding on our trailer.

“Holy God, Heavenly Father, heal your son, heal James of this devil’s wound! In the name of your son, we ask that you heal him!” Frenzied voices poured through the open living room windows into the yard where dust swirled and swept in the scorching wind.

Dad stumbled out and proclaimed, voice wavering a bit, “I have been healed! The devil’s beast cannot claim the Lord’s servants!” John ran and hugged him. Mark and I hung back. Dad was wild-eyed and shivering.

The wound swelled and seeped, but he lived.

He was back preaching the following Sunday, wavy hair unbound, top button undone, suit jacket abandoned for the first time I can remember.

“This is the glory of love! This is the miracle of faith!” Spit rained on us in the front row of pews while he paced back and forth, struggling with all of the hallelujahs trying to escape at once. A chorus of amens roared up in answer. Surviving the devil’s bite was proof that my father was chosen, chosen above others. Our southern, old-testament God put his righteous hands on my father and filled him with ecstatic hymns. They sounded a lot like madness, but our congregation sang along.

At the end of summer he tried to baptize us in the beige bathtub. He held Mark under too long and my mother came running when she heard John and I holler. “Daddy! Stop!”

Mark was thrashing under his hands as he intoned his prayer but still he carried on. My mother struck him with both fists, over and over until she pulled Mark out of the water, sputtering and afraid.

That night my mother tucked us into the battered maroon AstroVan and set out for Michigan. She left her bible, her ladylike skirts, and my father trembling while he shouted out lamentations for future sins of his children.

“The Lord God will not abide this!” he bellowed, panting as he tried to follow us down the driveway. “Praise him! Praise him!” he shrieked at us.

God kept him too busy for visits, or newly celebrated birthdays and holidays. I pictured him out in the desert, alone, waiting for the devil to come bearing golden fruit or shapely desire. Perhaps he wanted to taste the sharp tang of temptation and spit it from his mouth like the venom that should have been sucked from his wound.

I grew up to prefer temptation: the holy whispers of the one night stand, the sacred taste of bourbon.

John called just after I turned thirty, voice raspy and choked like our father’s when the Spirit flooded him. “Dad’s sick. Really sick. You should come.” He was the only one of us who’d stayed in touch.

Tonight I’m meant to be in Detroit at my father’s funeral. Instead I get whisky-drunk and sloppy-sad and try to tell the bartender what it was like to ride up front in the AstroVan with my dad, head nodding to Keith Green, while my hair whipped like streamers in the wind. I try to tell the blurring face before me about how we used to raise our hands, wail and sing like wild things, before the desert.

The Holy Spirit would come to us, run us through with invisible swords, make us shake and cry in joyful rapture. I dissolve into a similar state when the long-haired bartender takes me back into the office, peels my jeans off and speaks in a different sort of tongues.

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