Stories

Blank Engines of the Spirit – Theresa Smith

These things are not good or bad in themselves, despite what I was taught on interminable Sunday mornings as the crazed sun beat through the ecumenical drapery and filled the aisles, where flies rolled and drowsed in the painful brilliance. Neither sun nor flies seemed to care much for the virtues of tolerance, temperance and kindness extolled from the white-shrouded pulpit by Pastor T—-, who breathlessly imparted the gospel in the manner of an avuncular F. Lee Majors, wheezing with conviction as divine truth suplexed him from the rafters.

As he unburdened himself of these rich visions, his carefully-pained expression and gestural rictus suggested the mid-career form of an artist who’d encountered his muse too early, coming upon her awkwardly and unexpectedly in the rocky passes of her Boeotian habitat, never admitting how he’d been shaken by her ugliness and profanity. Or, in his cockier moments, the cavalier attitude of young boy unimpressed with his first lay, shambling out from the loin-baked torpor through leering uncles and laughing girls, unseduced by the transparent ministrations of his companion, wondering what the hell all the fuss was about.

The ceiling of the sanctuary rose impressively, tapering to a small square of roof high above the congregation. In addition to the heathen sun, the sanctuary was lit by a number of rectangular lamps hung by long chains from the sloping ceiling. The lamps had translucent brown shades, and laid across the front of each was a cross made from two projecting metal ribbons. From below, deep shadows like those of sleepless, hooded eyes diffused underneath the horizontal arm of the cross, and at the bottom of the longer vertical arm was a dimly-folded inverted V, like a small prim mouth. This arrangement gave each massive lamp the aspect of a glaring, long-faced baboon, dour and impassive and immune to the supplications of men as the ancient monoliths scowling astride their stone plinths.

I’d imagine the sun as Satan and the slatted blinds as God, erecting a well-meaning but easily penetrated barrier between wheedling snake and susceptible congregants. The flies were the passive spectators to this contest; corpulent, self-satisfied souls, content in the drowsy lay of their sun-baked orbit. Or the sun as God, desperately, mercilessly beating through the half-drawn shade of the sensitive Christian soul, seeking blindly to illuminate him in his travails, while he performs acts of desperation for which he would rather not be recognized.

The flies were deadly sins, floating lazily just beyond the reach of the congregants, manifestations of the abstract evils sculpted by Pastor T—- into ready-at-hand forms fitted with gruesome, bright-veined wings, corpulent black bodies and thin jointed needlelike legs folded against bloated carriages, all rendered in nauseating, microscopic detail. Flies as the niggling temptations, hovering just above the heads of the flock, pestering, distracting, attracting attention precisely because they do not solicit, but drift impassively in silent menace to the soul, and as such legendarily spurning bitches, are wholly irresistible. Or perhaps they represented the animal urges of the defeated body, snatched from holy aspiration on beams of pale sunlight by a red-breasted, golden-thighed demon and exhausted in the long infernal contractions of gratuitous fucking, as death and the rimless void crawled ever closer to the electric slab of dribbling meat that pumped and squalled desperately in its lee.

Engaged in these reveries, I entertained doubts about my salvation that I hoped would depart as suddenly as they’d come, with their terrible row still echoing inside the thin walls of my young brain, passing over in fever and sweat and darkness like the warm horrid hours of a sleepless night I’d recently spent, convinced I was a dyke because I was hot for a beautiful titless older girl named Adrienne.

I was devout, or at least I had been. Often my devotion took the form of an embarrassing compulsion to outdo the small and sincere gestures made by other people in blissful and perfect reverence to the God that refused to grant me even a modicum of the incendiary inward passion promised to his adherents, in the form of the flame-winged bird known as the Holy Spirit who comes upon the new convert and tears a hole in his very heart, and lives and burns there. Not a trace of this little screwball. I was as dry and passionless as the day was long. I attended youth prayers and summer camps and wore Christian t-shirts emblazoned with religious slogans. On youth retreats, I’d squeeze my eyes shut during the time allotted for personal prayer, silently mouthing strings of syllables to myself as the first heat of prayer ebbed away from me and the workings of my mind became colder and more methodical, until I sensed that everyone else had left the altar or was shifting in discomfort around me.

I tried to make myself cry. It worked, sometimes: after 20 minutes of carefully measured, ragged breathing and a tedious mental crawl through the dung heaps of my subconscious – from whose raw materials I wrought masterful tableaux of death, dying, insanity and frailty – I’d sometimes succeed in extracting a small, grudging tear from the dry, unsympathetic duct that labored bitterly to explain its needs to an array of nonplussed corneal nerves. I probably wrecked my endocrine system for life. To this day, it refuses to cooperate fully. Which I suppose does more good than bad, all things considered.

My devotion was a sham that even I succeeded in believing, at long last, when the desperate and methodical origins of my religious passion had been forgotten. It was the ache for salvation that brought me there. Salvation is sold to the initiate like fucking is pushed to the high-hipped virgin. I waited brazenly for my savior like an unspoiled maid.  Salvation awaits, and it’s indescribable. But the Lord helps those who help themselves, natch – so you’ve gotta do a little rotary dialing yourself.

After the first few fumbling and awkward self-ministrations of the spiritual balm, you begin to feel something a little like what you are supposed to feel. But just as you slip beneath yourself, doubts and distractions begin to filter in, displacing the arc of salvation and crudely vectoring the trajectory of this private and holy task. But keep pushing; banish these hideous things from your mind, keep twisting this way and that, pinching and slapping and massaging, savoring the images and joining them to the rhythms of the blood and the keen and vulgar spirit, until you begin to feel something very much like the big one, coming in shuddering waves, which pushes everything else out of your mind and drives you gasping and brimming with tears to that final contest, where after lingering on the cusp of release, you’re finally able to break the skeptic’s hold over your faculties and descend spinning and sliding into the grand void of yourself, with walls thrumming in infinite darkness, beating in waves of electrical harmony. You lie in wonder for a moment, blinded by sensation, then you realize slowly and horribly that the paralyzing warmth that surged through the vein of your deepest self at the crucial moment is not the mysterious and holy essence of life.

You’ve just pissed the fucking bed. Spiritually, of course.

But even as this realization inflicts its first violent spasm of disgust upon your sharpened faculties, Jesus is suddenly and unaccountably there, stretching a hand through the soiled bedsheets and grinning like he knows. “Remove thy hand, child. From now on, this task is mine.” What? Does he care? Does he like it? But now it’s too late, you’re His, and those are not the kinds of questions you are supposed to ask Him. Thus begins a journey of confusion, hopelessness and self-discovery that, if you’re lucky, will end sooner than later, and leave you somewhere beyond the urine-soaked virginal bier on which it began.

I was 15 when I stopped going to church. It’d been years since I’d been personally invested in the rituals and the social life of K—- United Methodist Church, and I’d been attending out of obligation to my mother’s sensitivity about my admission into the Kingdom. Sunday mornings at our house had lately become a loud, boring contest of wills that would culminate, via threats of  indefinite grounding, in my miserable installation in the backseat of the Bonneville as it rumbled in the driveway. My father had been drafted into the Sunday wars against his better judgment, but he performed his role with relish. Nominally a believer, he’d previously shown toward the whole Methodist anti-spectacle what I thought was a remarkably judicious attitude.

As quiet as my father had been about the true nature of his religious commitment, he became an honorary tome-thumper when I began to profess a variety of vague uncertainties regarding the primacy of God and Church, and the breed of moral rectitude they encouraged. My initial resistance, of course, took the form of whining.

“I just don’t think I should have to go,” I’d protest, assigning the blame for my unhappiness in equal measures to the various forces prevailing over me: my parents, God himself, his son Jesus, the host of dead relatives in Heaven who shook their heads sorrowfully at the pitiful fact of my defection, and the crop of busy, organized church ladies who took it upon themselves to militate against the massed threats of procrastination, infelicity, wallet palsy and quiet attrition that set upon the Flock like worldly wolves. Against my humble stand, my mother howled, my father howled, the church ladies howled. It was an honest-to-God three-ring shit show.

As I contemplated this volatile reaction to what I thought was a fairly inoffensive expression of rational doubt, I realized my victim’s stance was provoking them. In presenting myself as the weak Christian buffeted by the world’s evils, my moral sensitivity dulled by the painful canker of self-doubt, lame and terrified, I was prey. No wonder they foamed at the mouth.

Vacillation was the bread and butter of the manicured lasagna brigade who ran the church like a food pantry for the morally indigent. At the time, I may have even thought myself afflicted with that illness, bound as I was to a full-scale illusion concerning the weakness of my fundamental stuff. More than once, I sobbed unashamedly as my tormented ego received the soothing ministrations of these spiritual lunchladies.

There was more to it than spaghetti and hand-holding, though. They smelled a mercenary, and they attacked subtly and indirectly, but with all the massed viciousness of an outfit betrayed. Stunned by the passive fury of their responses, I’d falter, and my initial assertion of independence – weak as it was – would be pathetically buttressed by another equally tentative claim of sovereignty, and the two would lean into each other sag-lipped and frail like a pair of geriatrics stumbling in a stiff wind. My vague, desperate assertions became increasingly vague and desperate until I broke down in tears under the burden of what I believed, having defended it to the hilt, was my own wholesale victimization. I’d blubber and accept the consequences of my little insurrection. It was sickening.

Crying had been my customary defense, keeping bullies at bay and sharp-tongued teachers from warming to their diatribes. In the wake of the backlash, I became conscious that the soggy stuff would no longer cut the mustard. To win this battle, I’d need conviction and confidence, neither of which I could acquire overnight. I had to create the illusion of self-possession and certitude. Of course, this carpentry of aspect was hardly a natural aptitude of mine, so I’d have to scare up something quickly, or be stuck with a child’s soft and unfused armor.

Thus I pitched myself for the final contest, the terminal meeting of the wills, me against the Flock. It never came. I was allowed to slip out into the world alone and drift unmoored, apart from God’s love. Which suited me just fine, because God’s love seemed like more trouble than it was worth. The love of a Methodist God, at least.

I still bear the unfortunate marks of an identity cobbled together under duress: patterns of action evolved from largely arbitrary collections of facts and beliefs; phantom forms of convictions never truly held but argued passionately to the preposterous end of reclaiming a few hours from my week. “I”, or what I think of as “I”, was assembled in a matter of weeks: a rush job, with no thought to the sustainability of the strange new individuality that I casually fashioned out of salient scraps of information retained from books, movies, TV, and a lifetime of silent observation. Now I’m a goddamned mess. I’m falling apart. This identity expired about 5 years ago and now I’m fucking garbage, and I feel like it too. I’m this close to losing my shit forever, all because I cut myself out of a bunch of goddamn magazines instead of doing it the right way, and now I’m paying for it. My seams aren’t just showing; they’re splitting.

But do I regret it? Hell, no. Methodism was a death sentence. Among denominations, it was the dour virgin aunt who confined herself to a few small apartments in a grand house, isolated and preening, austere to the point of real masochism, flaunting her wealth by way of her conspicuous parsimony. I could feel the rank heat of her breath on the back of my neck, a warm fetor of violet lozenges and rotting enamel under porcelain veneers, and hid my disgust, as one does in the presence of an ancient relative. I stood aloof from her proud and trembling frame and wished oblivion upon her, she who was so close to death.