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In the Louisiana neighborhood where I grew up, we were always looking for ways to get out.
Barry Shinder found a way out when he was just seven, by jumping off a pier into way too shallow water off the Williams Bridge and paralyzing himself from the waist down. Chrissy Shaw found a way out by getting in a car with strangers when she was just twelve years old never to be heard from again. And there were countless others, including Jason Fillmore and Thomas Edgars who managed get behind the steering wheels of cars long before they were old enough for licenses and wrapped themselves around trees and telephone poles.
Later on, many of the people found their ways out by selling drugs and committing crimes that people would later make famous movies about. It seemed as if they would do anything to end up in prison. In fact, where I grew up they talked about “how this one went to Angola” and “that one’s gonna wind up in Angola” the way other families talk about getting into a good college.
Also later on, many of us found our way out by drinking Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle, taking blue Valium, shooting cocaine. We weren’t all brave enough to do it all at once, so we found our own slow ways to creep out of the neighborhood.
But when I was seven and eight years old, before I discovered the typewriter as an automobile to anywhere, before I discovered the various sizes and shapes of pill and liquor bottles, I found another way out.
I would like to tell you that it was all hellfire and brimstone, and terrifying, full of snake-handling and scary preachers, but that would be a lie. It would also be a lie to tell you that I ever saw the light or that I really accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I’d like to be able to say that the preachers, including my grandfather and my uncle were perfect men who showed us the way to salvation by being the role models that so many of the boys in the neighborhood needed. But none of it would be true.
The Pentecostal Church on the edge of my neighborhood was an escape. And considering the crime and danger that was going on in every other house in the neighborhood, the Pentecostal Church was one of the few places our parents would let us go. And there was a time in my youth, when I loved it.
My grandfather whom I never met was a Pentecostal preacher and a sharecropper. He was the pastor of his own church far north from the neighborhood where I grew up, way up in a Parish even we hicks referred to as “the country.” I don’t know how much of a drinker he actually was, but I do know that in my family when they say things like, “he used to drink” that usually means “he used to drink most of the time.” But I never knew him, and all accounts I’ve heard were that when he sobered up, he was a fine, non-judgmental man, not like the preachers who later on would exist solely to tell us that the Pope was the anti-Christ. But like so many people in my family, he didn’t last long. When he was forty-eight, he had a spell of some sort in the pulpit, got dizzy, passed out, depending on who you ask. People do get dizzy. People do pass out. People also get brain tumors, which is what was going on with him. He was dead within a year, leaving my grandmother to raise a crop of children in the Pentecostal tradition. They grew up to be lovely and flawed, the way that all people are. But none of them stayed in the church.
But my father had a brother, Uncle Wilson, who also “used to drink” and he became a pastor of the church in our neighborhood. We loved him. He had an auto shop behind our house, had a great presence, and was always on like electricity. And when Brother Lambert wasn’t delivering the sermons at the church, my Uncle Wilson did. And yes, he used to see the devil in everything. I used to just listen. Over coffee in the morning, he would tell us that the Iran hostage situation was a sign of the end, and that barcodes were what were going to be put on everyone’s forehead as the mark of the beast. Cousin Frank, a Baptist in New Orleans, told me the same thing a few years later. He also told me that the video games I played were going to send me straight to Hell. Anything electronic meant I was touching the devil. If I was, then I liked the way the devil felt. He felt totally alive to me.
They warned me when I was eight that KISS stood for Kings In Satan’s Service and that idolizing Gene Simmons was like worshipping the devil. I listened to Revolver more and more. Not to be rebellious, but because I knew they were wrong.
My older, New Orleans Baptist cousins really used to get to me. They were the new fundamentalists, terrifying in a way that the Pentecostals were not. I wasn’t sure why, but they seemed dangerous whereas the Pentecostals seemed kind of harmless. They told me that Hotel California was going to send me to Hell. And when I was eleven and they sensed something about me that wasn’t exactly what they wanted to sense, my New Orleans Baptist cousins took me to church and showed me a passage that said something about men lying with men instead of women. I knew what it meant. It meant that I was doomed. But they had been telling me that there was something wrong with me and that there was a fire waiting for me ever since I could remember. The images sometimes scared me, the refusal to be like them alienated me, they added to my already deeply rooted shame. They were pouring more gasoline on this boy almost on fire, and I was always waiting for someone to toss a lit cigarette or torch my way.
When you are burning up, and you know it, and you aren’t asking for water you feel free. That was one way I learned to get out. To get away from the crime-ridden world I was growing up in. To burn.
My parents never re-enforced any of this. In fact, they’d stopped going to the Pentecostal church years earlier when Brother Lambert had nearly gotten arrested for stealing some meat from the local A&P. It was also around the same time, when my cerebral-palsied brother wouldn’t stop crying in church and Brother Lambert got mad. That’s all it took for my parents to become backsliders for life.
Still, they liked it when my sister and I went to church. By the time I really started going on a regular basis, there were only a handful of regular members. Maybe fifteen. There was a strict dress code, women with their long skirts, not allowed to cut their hair; men with short hair, clean-shaven. Anything that didn’t look like Little House on the Prairie was pushing it. In fact, Michael Landon’s hair would have been enough of a sin to get him into serious trouble with Uncle Wilson.
Sometimes, even today, at six o’clock on Wednesdays and Sundays, I feel like I’m supposed to be somewhere. Like I’m missing an important meeting. Those are the times when, as a kid, I was in church. So my sister and I would go with some of Uncle Wilson’s nieces from his wife’s side of the family. And we would show up in that cool, brick church, which smelled brand-new and ancient all at once. It wasn’t a fancy church, but it was well kept, even the scratchy carpet had a welcoming feel to it. It was our home during the time we were there.
People think you speak in tongues, or that you get the Holy Ghost because you are so devout. I never was. After all, I had already been doomed according to the way they said I should be living my life. I knew that something as innocent as watching Battle of the Network Stars earlier in the week and staring too long at both Jimmy and Kristy McNichol was enough to disqualify me from me being saved.
But when the music would start, Cousin Hester, who wasn’t as messed up as my brother, but was never like an adult even as an adult would start waving her hands in the air. And someone would have the tambourine. And my uncle, would be working us up into a frenzy, every word, whether it was “praise”, “Jesus” or “hallelujah” was said at a decibel that would make me think some of the church bricks must be tumbling onto the grass outside.
And I’d watch it all. Like a concert, or like a show where I knew the actors. Except they weren’t acting, they meant it. And because I loved them. And because I could see them being carried some place far away, I wanted to go with them. So I would begin chanting, “Dear Jesus, save me from my sins,” “Bless you Jesus, reach down and touch me,” and this would go on for minutes, this chant. And it felt great. It felt like I wasn’t even there. And then my uncle would come over and place his hand on my head, “God, bless this child, reach down and touch this child!” A shot of electricity would go through me like I had been touched by Jesus himself. I would find myself dancing what probably looked to be a ridiculous dance, or sometimes I’d wander around with my eyes closed, blinded by the energy. Sometimes, I would wake up in the front of the church even if I started at the back. Sometimes I would find myself near the pulpit.
And for those moments, which seemed to go on forever, I was not there, not in that neighborhood, not in that town, not in this world. This, I learned was my escape. And I didn’t have to believe anything they said, didn’t have take the sermons to heart, all I had to do was repeat after them, and feed on their energy, and I could suddenly not exist.
And unlike Barry Shinder, or Chrissy, or Jason, or Thomas, my escape would not make my mama cry. Wouldn’t get my dad upset. Wouldn’t be in the papers. If it was sensational, it was my own private scandal.
Years later, after Uncle Wilson got thrown out of the church for having an affair with a sixteen-year old church member the church would stand empty. Brother Lampert had died by then. His wife and kids were far away. Weeds grew around the church. And when I’d go back home to visit, I’d wonder what was going on inside. Maybe the ghosts of Jesus and Satan were having wrestling matches, maybe it smelled even newer; maybe the hymnbooks were still in their perfect wooden places behind the pews.
Later, after the church was no longer the church, I’d find other places, other people in the neighborhood to escape with, other ways to get out. Sometimes it would be on a Greyhound bus for a run of the streets of Los Angeles, sometimes it would be a bottle of whiskey, a needle in the arm, several intentionally skipped meals. But I never found a way out as safe and pure and simple as speaking in tongues and getting the Holy Ghost.
I was never a believer, and yet I believed in the believers. I believed that they could take me away. And when I was just a kid seeking escape, they did.
– Martin Hyatt was born just outside of New Orleans. His novel, A Scarecrow’s Bible, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association. In addition, he has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, The Ferro-Grumley, and The Violet Quill Award. NY Magazine named him a “star of tomorrow” in their Literary Idol feature. He is the recipient of an Edward F. Albee Writing Fellowship and The New School Chapbook Award for fiction. He has taught writing at such places at Hofstra, Yeshiva, The New School, and St. Francis College. He is the Founding Coordinator of a Writing Center in New York City where he currently resides. He has just completed a new novel entitled Beautiful Gravity.