Evelyn remembered her grandmother this way when she worked up the courage to try remembering: They were sitting together at church, Evelyn stiff and attentive while her grandmother drifted in and out of sleep. Evelyn had dropped out of high school and was working doubles as a carhop to pay off the loan interest from the stitches in her wrist. The pews weren’t cushioned, and the split plank beneath her would have pinched through to her skin if she’d been wearing something so delicate as the expected dress. She’d grown to know better than to take that kind of risk in a room so full of cracking pews, or perhaps someone like her grandmother had warned her as much.
The visiting missionary in Evelyn’s memory spoke on demonology. He and the church’s piano both cast long shadows on the tabernacle carpet. The congregation had lively considered his sermon for most of the late morning, and even as the room sunk into the lunchtime hour, Evelyn bobbed along with the missionary’s silvering beard, his silk shirt, the Cuban links that filled the fabric gap at the top of his chest—milk and honey, a sign, more money than she’d ever have.
“Young people,” he was saying, raising a hand toward the youth group, the church’s more popular teenagers, who sat together with bowed heads and back-and-forth notes on pink offering slips, “that ain’t depression keeping you down, that ain’t A.D.D., that’s Satan, the devil, trying to pluck you from the hand of God.”
“Amen,” someone said. The sudden voice woke up Evelyn’s grandmother. Neither she nor Evelyn had been sleeping well in those weeks, and the darting eyes of the other congregants suggested that they didn’t hide it well. Still, they were there in their pew, where Evelyn’s grandmother mostly slept. They couldn’t leave the box unchecked.
“I’ve seen a lot of people,” the missionary said, “young people, struggling with this battle of the mind, and let me tell you, they’re giving these demons a place to rest. Do you hear me? Would you let the enemy of our nation stay in your house, with your children, your wives, knowing we’re at war? And you let these demons make camp inside your heads.”
His voice climbed like smoked, found a place it hadn’t been before. He shouted indistinguishable, forgotten words as if from unknown tongues, and the words curled up along the dirty ceiling toward pearly gates. When the missionary was done speaking, the sanctuary echo was to Evelyn the Holy Spirit that confirmed his authority. Evelyn could feel the precious words of scripture jumping through her stomach and batting at the darkness she imagined there. The congregation joined in under the echoing wings of the Holy Spirit, their own voices losing their words against one another as they billowed upward. The missionary raised his arms and motioned for the congregants to stand. He hopped and twirled. Townspeople in skirts and jeans and pressed khaki pants joined him, one by one and then all at once. Evelyn watched them shake their open palms at the ceiling, clearly awake after the long sermon, something like ecstasy loose in their chests amid the howling. Then quiet.
“Now,” the missionary said, panting over the microphone, “I want that young lady to come back up here and play us a song, and those of you battling these demons of the mind, come on down and repent. Let the Holy Ghost sort it out.”
A woman in a cardigan went to the piano on the stage. She pawed at the keys, Sisyphean chords rising and falling and rising again. Her stretched-out sleeves fell down over her hands as she played, and she pushed them back up between jagged notes, wobbling. Two men were already singing and whispering prayers in the open space between the pews and the stage as Evelyn made her way up the aisle. One of the men closed his eyes so tight it caused his nose to wrinkle. His glasses frames were cocked and ready to fall off his face. The other man stroked his beard and muttered to God. Evelyn tiptoed to the side of the stage and stood quietly away from the men, her arms at her sides and her head still bobbing. The other teens were still in their pews with their heads bowed.
“God’s working a miracle in you already,” the missionary said to no one in particular.
He grabbed the man with glasses by the shoulder, which stirred the man into more tight-eyed prayers, visible spit.
“Pray with me, church,” the missionary said into the microphone. “Let’s bring the Spirit down here and push the darkness back to where it belongs!”
Over all the cracking pews, voices tripped and stood and tripped again as the woman at the front pounded now the piano. Her melody lapped at the desperate congregants, the old women with curled hair like Evelyn’s grandmother, the young couples who held their children between them and swayed with the piano strikes, the other teenagers now crying for their lost friends who didn’t make it to the service or who didn’t respond to their offering slip notes, likely not for Evelyn. The missionary poked at the men’s chests and shouted into them. His prayer blared through the speakers, and the men burst into wild laughter, bubbling holiness. Evelyn, at the side of the stage, pinched her eyes closed as she had seen the man with the glasses pinch his eyes closed, hoping to draw over the missionary and the Holy Spirit and whoever else could have brought on the men’s laughter. The missionary still howled with the men. The woman at the piano and all the scattered congregants sang. Evelyn wrinkled her nose like the man in the glasses had done. She didn’t raise her hands as others did for fear of exposing the scar that wound across her arm, as she had done ever since the scar was a centipede of spiny, expensive stitches. She later remembered opening her eyes to see the missionary coming over to her. She remembered that he stopped laughing.
“Do you want what they have?” he asked her.
Evelyn did not know what exactly to call what he was offering, only that it was mystical and full of laughter and singing and Jesus Christ. She nodded to the missionary.
“Lift up those hands and receive what the Lord has for you.”
She lifted her arms at her elbows in a modest gesture of praise. Her shirt sleeve mostly obscured the scar. The missionary put his hand on her forehead, and she could feel anointing oil run into her eyebrows, warm like blood. The music was loud again, chaos and voices whenever she closed her eyes as if to pray. The woman at the piano, the congregant voices chugging toward the heavens. At the heart of the roaring, Evelyn only felt the dripping oil and a new awareness of her separateness, a curtain that hid her from all that noise, that also kept her from laughing as the men had done. The missionary’s fingertips dug into the top of her head as if trying to tear through to her. His hands worked her backward past the point of equilibrium, to push her from her curtained nest of vipers and into the hands of the waiting Holy Spirit, but she did not fall down in ecstasy as she’d seen others do for visiting missionaries. She remembered stepping backward, a nervous step, like the start of a pace interrupted, more a reactive resistance than a realized one. The missionary pushed harder against her. Her forehead only itched where it met his fingers. When his voice again sounded unknown combinations of vowels and consonants, the cloud of noise only covered her and made for her within the curtain a throne room for a lonely God, a king of ceiling tiles and thick white clouds. She remained mute, because she could find no one there to hear her. When she closed her eyes, she only saw holes, blank spaces without words to fill them.
The church noise hung in tatters about Evelyn. The visiting missionary continued to prod at her and to push against her head until something happened. Nothing ever happened, though. Her body grew more tired. Her legs ached at her calves and at again where they joined with her trunk, though this was much more likely due to her double shifts as a carhop than the missionary’s persistent, prayer-casting hands. She feared the singing congregants would outlast her. While she faded away beneath the prayers and the noise, she found they were all the more clear-eyed and excited and waiting for something to happen. The missionary appeared to notice this too, pressing harder against her with the passage of time, growing louder with his denunciations of whatever demons were left plaguing her.
Evelyn remembered choosing to perform when God would not, remembered choosing to create laughs similar to those that the men had laughed. In short, airhorn bursts, she laughed: Ha. Ha. Ha. Surely even the most expectant prayer warrior found pleasure in the forced laughter. The missionary moved from her as if he thought she were heaving. She continued laughing with her hands at her side, hunched, uncomfortable, for the remainder of the service. The missionary did not bring her over to the men for a second giggling huddle. When the music stopped, the end of the song, she made her way back to her grandmother in her split pew. It seemed like everyone else—even the prayers whose eyes were left wet with fire baptism—was smiling down on her then, smiling approval smiles, earned smiles. Evelyn remembered her grandmother holding her close as the missionary closed out the service at the front of the room. She remembered that the old woman didn’t smile down at her or make her talk much about the way she faked laughing, about the way it ended up having so little to do with Jesus. She remembered wanting to recline in her grandmother’s unsmiling face.
Greg Brown's debut novel, SINNERS PLUNGED BENEATH THAT FLOOD, is now available: https://linktr.ee/GDBrown