Dennis Mitton: One By One. Each In Turn. Sans One. (essay/memoir) Nov. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m an ex-pat from Seattle and still miss the mind-your-own-business culture of my home and never, ever get used to waving to strangers or to tucking in my polo. But there is an honor and a history and a courtesy in the South that is noble and heartwarming. There is much to dislike but where is that not true? There is much more to like. In fact, we wave at strangers because there really are no strangers. Even with the history of strife and pain, the South remains a family. Some cousins are more distant than others but all are related and all are welcome. I am a working scientist interested in superbly crafted non-fiction and fascinated with fiction as a truth telling tool.

One By One. Each In Turn. Sans One.

I was a Christian then, and an expat, too. I moved from Seattle to the heart of middle-Georgia where people did odd things like drink gallons of cold, sweet tea and waved at every single car that passed them on the road. They ate grits. They said ‘y’all.’ They told me that they liked my accent. The people were hospitable, famously so, and I enjoyed this. Friends from church and work invited me to a home on Tuesday nights to drink coffee and eat cake and sing a couple of songs and talk about the week. Prayers would ascend, shoulders were hugged, and good feelings glowed. It was nice.

But this Tuesday was different. I could tell by the rows of Hondas and Toyotas lining the street. I squeezed in between cars under an arching sweetgum and the spiky fruit cracked under my feet as I walked a block to the house. The driveway was as packed as the road.

Taking up half the driveway was a van and trailer. I think it was a van. It was long and had four wheels and was shaped like a loaf of bread. It was so entirely covered with duct tape and Jesus Saves! bumper stickers that I wasn’t sure that it had doors or even a metal body. There was supposed to be a special speaker from Florida at the house that night and I couldn’t believe that this thing drove. Behind it was a shoddy trailer that tilted a bit to one side. The rear door was open and inside was a squirrel’s nest of pamphlets and paperbacks and music stuff and, well, if cleanliness were godliness then whoever owned this wreck was on the wrong side of the coin.

I made my way up the front steps and through the open door into the foyer. A card-table was set up there and was covered like a game of solitaire with the same pamphlets and books and cassettes that were in the trailer. I picked up one of the books and thumbed through the first pages. The type was about a quarter of an inch tall and I spotted grammatical errors on the first page. Everything was self-published or recorded and tawdry. I rebuked myself for being judgmental. The home’s host had been traveling to this preacher’s church in Florida for a couple of months and invited him up to our little get together. I wasn’t sure that anything good came from Florida but should give the man a chance.

The living room was rearranged and the comfortable Scandinavian furniture was all pushed to the walls and replaced with two rows of cushioned metal folding-chairs borrowed from the church. The family piano was moved to what was now the front of the room and a battered plywood podium with a microphone resting on the top was next to the piano.

The host caught my eye, showed a toothy grin, and marched over to me like a lost brother. He grabbed my elbow and steered me with a glowing glee toward the kitchen. “Ooooo brother! Have I got a treat for you,” he said. He was so excited that I checked my growing unease. We went into the kitchen where several folks were catching up and chatting. He pulled me to the corner table where I met the Great Man. Every prejudice about smarmy, sweaty, obese backwoods televangelists rolled up and hit me square on. This man oozed out of the dining chair. I feared that it 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 pasted back over the top of his pasty head. He was a cartoon. 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, was pinned and quaffed into a climbing beehive monstrosity that reminded me of the Tower of Babel. She sported pinkish cat-eye glasses. If she told me that she was the preacher’s mother and maintained her youth by drinking the blood of nubile girls, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I was astounded that this man, who was so oily and odious, was held in such regard by my friends.

With a clap from the host, we moved to the living room and the ‘service’ began. I found the chair closest to the front door in case I had to make an escape. Who knew if snakes were hiding inside the podium? The show started and the wife played the piano and sang an old hymn. The Great Man joined in and they sang a couple of the old standards and then some newer songs. Though not to my taste, I was surprised at their talent. She moved easily around the keyboard and they both had fine voices. They shilled their cassettes and books for a moment which was fine: the worker is worthy of his wages. He mentioned his church in Florida, a rented double-wide in the woods. He said that tonight, he was here to pray for anyone who asked. That was it. He hoped that he could encourage everyone and help them on their way with god.

Maybe there was a secret script. Each person, one after the other, made their way up front. These were all folks that I worked with and ate with and argued about football with. These were folks who ran the local nuclear plant. Each one, in turn, tiptoed to the front of the room and waited for the Great Man to ask the same question. “What is your need today, Brother?” “Sister? What are you looking for from God today?” Each person, in turn, 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 the three kids ready for school I’ve screamed over breakfast, lost shoes, and 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 to see this gentleness and caring.

When the first person went to the front and after the man finished his first prayer, he put his meaty glove on the forehead of the woman and prayed again. “Lord? Be with this woman and fill her with your love.” All at once, and if anyone was surprised they didn’t act like it, the woman just melted. She didn’t fall over or topple. She just collapsed in on herself. It looked like she vaporized and her clothes, without a body to hang on, fell to the floor in a pile. I looked for a bloody stain on the floor. A couple of men in the group went up to where her clothes were and lifted her. She looked confused and beatific and she walked back to her chair as if floating on music.

One by one, each, in turn, everyone went forward. Except for me.

There was a turn. A prodigal threatened the show. The Great Man took the microphone and paced as much as he could in the tiny living room. He stopped and spoke. “There is one person who hasn’t come to the front to receive their blessing,” he said. Heads popped up from prayer and swiveled to see who was left. His words hung for a moment before he elevated his game.

“There is a brother here with a drug problem. A word from God will help to heal that pain.”

I said my first oath of the night. “Crap-o-moly.” I was the youngest one there and the only man with long hair. Was he just making this up? I was stumped. Any kind thoughts I had toward the man evaporated. I stewed in my seat thinking that I haven’t used a drug since I smoked pot at about sixteen. I prayed again, not the loftiest of prayers: “If you want me up there then pick me up like a chess piece. But I am not going up because that fat ass wants me up front for his show.”

The Fat Man was having none of this. He put down his microphone and walked over to me. He stepped in front of me and touched my shoulder, waving me up front. Time stopped. Within a second, I had a conversation with myself about what to do. I could have left. I could have said no. I could have told him that he was a fat fraud and an embarrassment to everything good. But I went up front. He grabbed the microphone.  

“Brother? What is your need?”

“I was just sitting down and you pulled me up here. Why?”

Kindness fell from his face like scales from St. Paul’s eyes. His flabby face reddened and twisted. I refused to answer anything and he said some prayer that I don’t remember. At the same time he widened his right palm and, in a great swooping circle, as if Micheal Jordan was going to slam that dunk as god-damned hard as he possibly could, he brought his hand around in a roundabout and crashed it on my forehead. He broadened his stance and pushed down with his full four-hundred pounds. This was his show and god-damned if he was going to let some little long-haired rebellious Yankee ruin it. I don’t know if anyone could hear me but I stared straight at him and said that if God wanted to knock me over then he could very well do it but I wasn’t going down just because this fat ass was pushing me.

And I didn’t. He let up and let go of my forehead. The men on either side of me, ready for the fall, slinked backward to their seats, looking at the carpet as they walked. I thought of walking straight out the front door but no, that would give him a satisfaction I wasn’t prepared to give. “See? He left. The weight of his sin is too heavy.” Who knows what stupid shit he would have made up to save face. No. I went back to my seat and sat straight as he closed with a final prayer.

The meeting now over, a few people moved up front to talk to him but he made his way back to the protection of the kitchen. I spoke with a few people about banalities. No one ever spoke of this to me a single time. Nor did I ever bring it up. I have no idea whatsoever what happened to this man and his wife. I never went back to the prayer group which disbanded over the next couple of months.