Brunell Hair lived in a lopsided mill house with her mama and her uncle and her little withered-up critter of a grandmaw. In honor of her eleventh birthday, she was having a slumber party, but so far, only my best friend Bonnie and I had showed. Our mothers had had some kind of powwow, during which they’d smoked cigarettes and worked themselves into a tizzy over how vain and selfish we were getting, finally declaring that sleeping over at Brunell’s house would be just the thing to “teach us a lesson” about how fortunate and spoiled we were. Truth told, we wanted to see Brunell in her natural habitat. We wanted to see the creepy troll-child’s lair, witness the antics of her Jesus-freak mother, spy on her uncle who’d appeared in several television commercials, and see her Meemaw speak in tongues.
Brunell’s mother, who wore hideous dresses and sported an old-fashioned poof of crunchy hair, was making hamburger patties. The other two family members were holed up in their rooms, Meemaw praying for the soul of her gay son, the uncle just sitting up there enduring the prayers she threw at him, sighing every five minutes over the man in California who’d broken his heart. According to Brunell, ever since Meemaw’s husband died the woman did nothing but pray and eat candy and watch the TV she’d won at the church raffle. Though Brunell’s mother could spit her share of prayers at the sins of the world, she stayed busy while doing it. She kept a spotless house, vacuuming their pink wall-to-wall carpet three times a week and scrubbing their kitchen until it gleamed.
Huddled out back behind a clapboard shed, smoking the cigarette butts that Bonnie and I had stolen from our mothers, we tried to teach Brunell to French inhale. Scrunching her angelic frog-face, Brunell blew out a smoke cloud that’d definitely not laced her lungs.
“You’re not really smoking,” said Bonnie.
“Smoking is a sin.” Brunell tried another puff.
“Whatever,” said Bonnie. “Where’s your uncle?”
“He’s in Mama’s room. Mama’s bunking with Meemaw. I can’t take her sleep talk; gives me nightmares.”
“What does she talk about?” asked Bonnie.
“The Rapture,” said Brunell.
“The Blondie song?” I said.
“The end of the world, stupid.”
Though I knew about the book of Revelation, I’d never heard the end times referred to as the Rapture before. Now I couldn’t help but picture Jesus cruising down to Earth on a glittery gold escalator, his white robes spattered with disco light. Two angels hovered above him, twirling a mirrored ball. Down in the pulsing city, Debbie Harry waited in a red convertible Corvette. All decked out in ruby spandex, she winked and blew Jesus a kiss. The Son of God hopped into her car and they drove off toward the beach, the wind mussing his hippie hair into a wild, Mötley Crüe mane.
While her mother slaved over a skillet of French fries, Brunell played her uncle’s commercials on the VCR he’d brought back from California. We watched Uncle Mike, named for the Archangel Michael, make out with a cheerleader in a Big Red commercial. We watched him carve into a bar of Irish Spring Soap while perched on the back of a black stallion. We sighed as Brunell’s handsome uncle portrayed the dangerously masculine essence of Oleg Cassini cologne: he drove a Rolls Royce, played polo, flew his private jet to an exotic beach where he dallied on a yacht with a chick in a French-cut bikini.
“Goddamn,” said Bonnie, who liked to make Brunell cringe. “He’s fine as all get out.”
“He’s gay, so he wouldn’t look twice at you.”
“Maybe he hasn’t met the right woman.” Bonnie tossed her hair.
“First of all,” I said, “a training bra doesn’t make you a woman. Secondly, when you’re gay, you’re gay.”
“He might be bi,” said Bonnie.
“Brunell,” I said, “is he gay or bi?”
“He’s gay, but Meemaw’s been praying for that to change. She’s been praying for a good Christian woman to come along and lead him down the path to holy matrimony. If her prayers worked only halfway, I reckon they’d turn him into a bisexual.”
“I do hope the Lord has answered her prayers,” said Bonnie. And she solemnly walked over to the picture of Jesus that hung over their TV. She knelt before the handsome, blond messiah and pretended to speak in tongues.
There he was, Uncle Mike, the epitome of male hotness and urbane stealth, curled on his bed like a panther in repose. We crowded around the keyhole, fighting each other for a decent look. Whereas Brunell was a sickly little bug-eyed thing with splotched skin and crazed blond frizz, Uncle Mike was dark and piratical, his hair a fountain of black silkiness, his lips pouty yet strong. How was this creature sibling to Brunell’s homely mama? What was he doing in this podunk town? He was God’s Gift to Women, yet queer as a two-dollar bill. And now the demigod had risen from his bed to pace around the room in tight black jeans and a flowing shirt. He sneered at himself in the mirror. He plucked a magazine from a stack and then tossed it haughtily onto the floor. Rummaging through his suitcase, he pulled forth a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
Bonnie giggled, and Brunell pinched her. Through the open hall window I could hear a mockingbird going to town in a pink dogwood. Every year spring came to Whitmire, SC, with its riot of flowers and bees, promising a larger world. For a while, summer would live up to this promise. But soon the dog days would descend and trap you in a bubble of gaseous heat. Amnesia would set in, wiping out all dreams of escape until autumn pricked you out of your stupor.
We sat before our hamburgers, awaiting the appearance of Meemaw and Uncle Mike. A Garfield cake, positioned center-table, depicted our favorite obese feline reclining pasha-style on a sofa, a thought-bubble betraying his cynicism: So it’s your birthday? Big deal.
Brunell kept glancing at the presents stacked atop the refrigerator. We sneaked French fries every time her mother turned her back, even though the food had not been blessed by the sanctimonious Meemaw, who, Brunell had informed us, possessed mysterious powers. Meemaw could, for example, “talk off a wart.” When a pea-sized growth had sprouted on Brunell’s thumb, her Meemaw had cut a potato in two and set the pieces down on her Bible. She’d mumbled some holy gibberish over the spuds, rubbed her grandchild’s wart with one of them, and then buried the untainted half in their backyard. Two days later, Brunell’s wart turned black and fell off.
According to Brunell, her grandmother’s powers had grown stronger after her husband died. Meemaw could stop bleeding and scare the fire out of burns. Meemaw had put a hex on Uncle Mike’s boyfriend just last month, causing him to run astray. Because the faith-healing power passed from mother to son, Meemaw had summoned her male child to her bosom. And there he was now, Uncle Mike, strolling into the kitchen in a black dress shirt that probably cost a hundred dollars. It was like some sexy nocturnal creature from a Night Flight video had crawled out of the TV into Brunell’s humble abode.
“The birthday girl,” he said, tousling Brunell’s weird hair. “And who are these lovely ladies?”
“Lil and Bonnie,” Brunell said, casting a sour look at our beaming faces.
Uncle Mike acknowledged our sophisticated maturity with a nod. Then he sat down at his place and removed the meat from his bun.
“Trying to lay off the red meat,” he said to Brunell’s mother.
“It won’t hurt you,” she said.
“I’ll just have some lettuce and tomato on mine.”
“That don’t make sense. Mama said you look too skinny. Mama said you might be sick.”
“Mama hasn’t been reasonable since Daddy died,” said Mike, “and you know it.”
According to Brunell, Meemaw’s husband had been a gambler and a drinker, a handsome man who’d doted on her. According to Brunell, he was clever with his hands, built sweet little bird houses and hand-carved chests, planted five-acre vegetable gardens and raised bees. Meemaw had kept his corpse in her house for three days before they discovered what was up and called the hospital.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Mike said.
There she was, the infamous Meemaw, a scrunched piece of woman in a tangerine pantsuit of stretch polyester, a gleaming black brooch pinned amidst the ruffles of her pink blouse. She sported a Washingtonian cap of white hair, which gave her tobacco-cured face a stately quality. A few gray whiskers twitched around her fuchsia lips as she smiled.
“Happy birfday Brunell,” she said.
“We were waiting for you to say grace.” Brunell’s mama eyed the food. “The fries are getting soggy.”
Meemaw gazed heavenward and swayed on her black Reeboks. Then she closed her eyes in prayer.
“Heavenly Father, bless this child on her eleventh birfday. Give her the strength to resist the loins of Satan. Lead her not into the snarls of temptation, to citified evils, the stink of cigarettes, booze, and fornication . . .”
“The food, Mama,” said Brunell’s mother.
“Thank you Jesus for sending my son back to my bosom. Thank you Lamb for washing away his vile, polluted sins with your blood. Thank you for cleaning the stinking sulfurous slime from his nasty . . .”
“And thank you for these victuals. We thank your heavenly self for these hamburgers and French fries, ketchup and mustard, lettuce, tomatoes and buns. We thank you for the sweet tea and Mr. Pig. We thank you for all the . . .”
“In the name of Christ’s ruby wounds, amen.”
Meemaw sat glaring at her hamburger, took a rodent-sized bite off a French fry, and placed the rest of the morsel on the edge of her plate.
“You got to eat more than that,” said Brunell’s mother.
“Not too hungry. Just came down for the fellowship of loved ones. Don’t know how much longer I’ve got on this earth.”
“Really, Mama,” hissed Uncle Mike. “Cut the melodrama. I saw the candy wrappers in your trash can.” Turning to Bonnie, he said, “She gorges on sweets all day and spoils her appetite.”
“Candy’s about the only thing I can keep down.”
“You ain’t go die, Meemaw,” said Brunell.
“Everybody’s go die, sweetheart,” said Meemaw. “And I will rejoice to join my dear departed husband before our Messiah’s golden throne.”
They went on like this the whole supper. Uncle Mike rolled his eyes while Meemaw described obscure aches in her heart, intestines, and joints. Uncle Mike snorted when she suggested that he join her adult study group at the Greater Zion Tabernacle. Uncle Mike fumed as she rhapsodized over the godly beauty of Tonda Hutto, an unmarried woman at their church who craved the firm, guiding spirit of a man’s Christian love. When Meemaw whipped out her pocket Bible and read—thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination—Mike threw down the wadded-up ball of his napkin and fled the kitchen.
While “Love is a Battlefield” blared from Bonnie’s boom box, I flew across Brunell’s carport on wheels of fire. Uncle Mike had moved the cars to the road so we’d have a place to skate, and the gorgeous man stood under the dogwood looking sad. He toked on a Benson and Hedges, took sips from a flask when he thought we weren’t looking. He brooded and sighed as the wind had its way with his dark mane. Though the angle of the sinking sun brought out his crow’s feet and made it obvious that his hair was dyed, Uncle Mike resembled an ageless warlock, and I wondered if it was true that he was heir to Meemaw’s powers.
“How old is your uncle?” we asked Brunell for the hundredth time.
“Older than he looks.”
She smiled like a possum and told us about her great-granddaddy, the hex-meister from Dutch Fork who’d worn a badger-tooth talisman and could control the wind and rain. His fruit trees had buckled from the weight of their yield. His hens had laid two eggs a day. The hex-meister had died at age 106 with a scalpful of raven black hair.
Brunell whipped around on the new roller skates Uncle Mike had bought her in California, bragging about her great-granddaddy. Her old skates were these strap-on thrift-shop doohickeys from the 1960s, and her new ones were nicer than ours. But Bonnie and I strutted our stuff in Gloria Vanderbilt jeans while Brunell sported Kmart Wranglers, and whereas we wore authentic Izods, Brunell donned the sad dragon insignia from Sears. We flipped our stylish home perms, sculpted with electric rollers and frozen to perfection by generous gusts of Aqua Net, well aware that Brunell could barely run a brush through the clumpy flaxen afro she called hair.
Poor Brunell. When she’d unwrapped those skates, she’d nearly gone into a conniption, emitting a series of demented rodent squeals. She ignored her mama’s gift (a butt-ugly corduroy jumper) and didn’t look twice at Meemaw’s (the Rainbow Study Bible, its passages color-coded to highlight specific themes, and every spoken word of God underlined in gold). I’d gotten her the “Sweet Dreams” single by the Eurythmics, which had shot to the top of the charts that year, but the girl had no record player. She did, however, spritz herself all over with the Love’s Baby Soft perfume Bonnie’d bought.
And then she slipped on her new skates and rolled out into the spring air, the sky a pink mess of ruptured clouds, two beams of light reaching down to Earth like the headlights of God’s Cadillac.
“Meemaw can see into the future,” said Brunell. “She claimed Mike would arrive home on a Thursday, and he did. She said two young harlots would come to my slumber party, one redheaded and one brunette, and here you are. On a rainy Sunday morning three years ago, she dreamed that a flaming arrow pierced my pawpaw in the heart. That night he died of cardiac arrest.”
We’d rolled our sleeping bags out in the living room, even though it was only 8:36 pm, and we planned to stay up all night. We’d turned off all the lights except one lamp, which enveloped Brunell in an angelic glow. In dim lighting she looked almost pretty, like some big-eyed elfin princess that lived in a cave. We were girls, without breasts or blood, huddled in a cloud of Love’s Baby Soft. Hyped up from too much sweet tea, we whispered of supernatural mysteries, hoping to spook ourselves into an exalted state of fright.
“Meemaw’s got Mike trapped in a spell,” Brunell rasped.
She looked oracular, kneeling on her Holly Hobby sleeping bag in a white nylon nightgown, and we wanted to believe her.
“How?” we breathed in unison.
“I’ll show you,” she said. “At nine o’clock, Meemaw’ll go to the bathroom to do her thing: take out her teeth, wrap her hairdo in toilet paper, clean off her makeup with cold cream. We can sneak into her room, but we’ll have to be super quiet.”
“What about your mama?” said Bonnie.
“She’ll be in the kitchen, working a Bible crossword.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
Brunell flashed her cryptic possum smirk and then she looked solemn. We watched the clock in silence, listening to the house creak as Uncle Mike paced upstairs. On the stroke of nine, we heard Meemaw get up and walk to the bathroom.
We tiptoed up the narrow stairs.
In the eerie silence of Meemaw’s room, which smelled of White Shoulders dusting powder and seemed to belong to another century, we stood before a kind of shrine. On a small carved-wood table tucked behind a chest of drawers, Meemaw had placed Mike’s high school picture dead center, encircling it with black chicken feathers and painted bones. In the photo, a pimpled young hippie who refused to meet the camera’s eye appeared to be gazing down in bewilderment at the withered alligator foot that Meemaw had positioned just beneath the silver picture frame. The old woman had sprinkled salt and dried basil around the edge of the table. She’d glued various magazine shots of Mike onto a piece of notebook paper and taped the collage to the wall. Two bowls of pink water stood on either side of the gator claw, a mysterious tidbit of flesh afloat in the middle of each.
“Chicken hearts,” Brunell whispered. “The most magic of the giblets.”
Bonnie, standing there in her Garfield nightshirt, couldn’t help but giggle, even though she was scared shitless.
“What’s up, ladies?” a deep voice asked.
It was Mike, leaning against the door frame in a black bathrobe, his hair slicked wet and glowing in the light. From where he stood, he couldn’t see Meemaw’s freaky shrine.
“Nothing,” said Brunell. “We were gonna say good night to Meemaw.”
“Ah, youth,” said Mike, looking us over, “so effortlessly ethereal. When you reach middle age, you try to look nubile. When you get old, you struggle to pass as human.”
“What the hell does that mean?” said Brunell.
“Nothing, Tinkerbell. Don’t pay attention to your uncle’s depressive rambling.”
“Are you drunk?”
“A mite tipsy. Now really, what’re you girls up to?”
“Tell him,” Bonnie whispered.
“Shhh,” hissed Brunell.
“Don’t worry.” Mike sneered. “I know all about Mama’s little art project.”
“Aren’t you scared?” said Brunell.
“I’m terrified, actually, but not of her.”
Mike tittered and walked over to the shrine. He pulled something from his robe pocket and waved it in front of our eyes like a magician: it was a Smurf pencil eraser. He placed the object smack dab in the center of the magical objects, right between the gator claw and the picture frame.
“Ogligattavato gucci Smurf,” Mike chanted.
Sniggering, he regarded us with his beautiful, exhausted eyes.
“See, girls, the spell has been broken. Now don’t worry about me. Go back downstairs and have your slumber party. Gorge yourselves on cake while you still can. Stay up giggling until your abs ache.”
“We will,” said Brunell, “but . . .”
“Shhh,” whispered Mike. “I hear the matriarch gargling her Listerine, which means we have exactly three minutes to make our escape.”
It was 10:10 pm—at least eight hours to go until the sun came up. We were cocooned in our sleeping bags, Brunell scanning the Rainbow Study Bible for the juiciest passages, namely those highlighted in gray (Sin) and brown (Evil). In her croaky voice, Brunell read choice bits aloud.
“Leviticus 20:16,” said Brunell. “ ‘And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast.’ ”
Then, “Deuteronomy 25:11: ‘When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand.’ ”
Next, “Ezekiel 23:19: ‘Yet she multiplied her whoredoms, in calling to remembrance the days of her youth, wherein she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt. For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.’ ”
“Excuse me?” said Bonnie.
“This is boring,” said Brunell, snapping the Good Book shut. “Let’s watch a movie on Mike’s VCR.”
Mike had a stack of videotapes we’d never heard of. We narrowed it down to the three most titillating titles—Blade Runner, Liquid Sky, and The Elephant Man—and after debating the potential of each, finally settled on The Elephant Man.
“Great,” said Bonnie when the film started up, “it’s black and white. Was this shit made in the 1950s?”
“Shut up,” I said. “Just watch the movie.”
And we did, remaining speechless from then on as the gut-wrenching tragedy of John Merrick unfolded. Because he had a weird disease that made his head look like a giant piece of cauliflower, the world treated him like a freak and an idiot even though he was a regular nice guy inside. Underneath that cloth sack he wore over his head, underneath the deformed skull and the huge bunions that grew upon it, John Merrick was a poetry-reciting sophisticate, sensitive and gentle. Just like the rest of us, all he needed was love.
By the time he exclaimed “I am not an animal” to the homicidal mob that had unmasked him at the train station, we were all sniveling. When he collapsed in exhaustion and was carried back to his room at the hospital, we cried harder. When his best friends took him to the opera and the poor, dying man stood in the Royal Box to receive a standing ovation, we wept with our whole bodies. Even after the Elephant Man had died, and his soul had soared up into the starry heavens, where a woman’s floating face informed him that he would live forever, we wept. We sobbed as the credits rolled on a black background and eerie space music played. We cried after the tape had ended and the screen had turned to gray fuzz.
Burrowed deep in our sleeping bags, we lay in the half-dark, nestled in the exquisite sadness the movie had summoned, a kind of moist emanation that hovered in the room. No one spoke. We didn’t need to: our minds had fused into a single entity.
My tears were just starting to dry when I spotted something moving in a dark corner, a small figure in fluttery clothes. I thought our strange mood had summoned some supernatural creature, and I was scared. As much as I pitied the poor Elephant Man, as much as I loved him, I wasn’t ready to look into the face of whatever being rustled in the darkness. It stood there, making a sound like crackling cellophane, which blended with the TV static. And then the creature stepped into the gray light of the television—hunched, clad in flowing nylon, lumpy-headed, its mouth open in toothless snarl.
It was Meemaw in her nightwear, her skull mummy-wrapped in toilet paper she’d secured with a hair net to protect her wash-and-set. Meemaw, her face shiny with cleansing grease and spotted from countless cruel summers. Meemaw, right fist lifted in wrath, clutching a rubber Smurf.
She sat down on the couch and placed the Smurf beside her on the cushion.
“Harlots,” she hissed.
Her small frame shook. She reached into the pocket of her housecoat and pulled out a penny candy, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. She frowned as though butterscotch were bile.
“You don’t know what you’re messin’ in,” she said. “Powers bigger than you.”
“We didn’t do nothin’,” Brunell rasped, but Meemaw didn’t seem to hear her.
“Twelve generations,” she said. “Twelve generations brought over the sea. My daddy gave it to me and now it’s time to give it to Michael. I ain’t got long.”
“You ain’t go die,” said Brunell.
“Shush, child. Your flesh will melt like dirty snow.”
“But we didn’t do nothin’. ” Brunell sat up in her sleeping bag and crossed her arms.
Meemaw groaned. She clutched her bosom and gazed up at the ceiling fan. A great shudder contorted her body. Her little feet kicked, sending one of her hot-pink bedroom slippers flying.
“Aw, crap,” said Brunell. “She’s got the Holy Ghost on her. We’ll never hear the end of it now.”
From the depths of Meemaw, a strange voice came bubbling up: the voice of a primordial masculine spirit, the voice of Darth Vader.
“Roboto bulch,” said Meemaw. “Booboo kakopygian bog.”
The TV cast Meemaw in a ghoulish glow. Eyeballs rolled back, she swayed and twitched and vomited her guttural language, words scraped up from her ancient guts. Dark fumes spurted from her. She seemed to be summoning things. I glanced around the room, thought I saw bats fluttering in corners. My sleeping bag was slick with sweat and I couldn’t move.
Meemaw stopped babbling on the stroke of one, just as the clock on the shelf above their space heater emitted a single moan. Her eyeballs resumed their customary position. She sat on the plaid couch panting, wiped a strand of brown dribble from her chin. She reached into her pocket, pulled forth a Tootsie Roll, opened the sweet, and set it on her tongue to melt.
Sucking her candy, Meemaw grunted softly. She smoothed her housecoat and patted her hairnet. She looked us over as though she’d forgotten we were there.
“Jezebels,” she mumbled.
Her voice sounded normal now, albeit scratchy and faint, worn down from whatever thing had rocked through her, scaly and slimy, born through her prehistoric throat.
“And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet,” said Meemaw, “decked with gold and precious stones and pearls.”
Meemaw ate another Tootsie Roll and told us about the Whore of Babylon, who laughed like a monkey and slurped fornications from a golden cup. The Whore rode a seven-headed dragon barebacked and caressed the beast’s spine with her private parts.
Meemaw leaned into the TV light. She told us she had a secret that was about to bust her heart wide open. She grinned.
“I’m a prophet,” she whispered. “And every single night Jesus gives me dreams.”
She told us the Messiah would arrive this December in a spaceship so big its shadow would darken the entire state of South Carolina. He’d land in the Blue Ridge Mountains and set up his golden scales on top of Caesars Head. He’d take away the righteous, leave the sinners to wallow in the dung heap they’d made of planet Earth.
Meemaw leaned back on the couch, tucked her legs up under her bottom like a little girl.
“Covered in festering sores,” she said, “the sinners will suffer one thousand plagues.”
According to Meemaw, locusts would devour all crops. The sea would turn to blood, a trillion dead fish afloat on its surface. And the great Beast of the Apocalypse, a kind of Tyrannosaurus rex with thirty-six heads and three hundred horns, would roam the earth, blasting fiery halitosis at every sinner he happened across, scorching their bodies with third degree burns. Flesh would fall from their bones. Skeleton people would run howling across the ashen fields.
“People will eat each other,” Meemaw said. “Mothers will eat fathers and fathers will eat mothers; children will gnaw upon the rancid hides of their parents; and parents will eat the sweet fat boiled from their babies’ bones.”
Meemaw teetered forward and her whiskers caught the light. Her eyes were bright, swimming with fevers.
“Dragons,” she croaked, “will burrow in the poisoned seas.”
Meemaw went on and on, prophesying until she was hoarse. She filled the room with horrific visions that left us deeply freaked, though we didn’t want her to stop. Drunk on sweet terror, shivering in our sleeping bags, we followed her every word, delighting as the tales grew stranger.
She described the filthy, outsized lusts of the Beast, who had a member like an oak trunk and who copulated with his harem of stinking she-dragons. Though the dragons were vile reptiles, they possessed the fatty teats of sows. Their young sucked blood from their mothers. They smacked their lips and had incestuous intercourse with each other until the world was full of dragons, so many dragons that swarms of flying serpents blotted out the sun.
Eyes squinted in the dim light, we saw them—the pterodactyl flocks darkening the sky, the hordes of naked people running helter-skelter upon the barren earth, their scorched hides festering with open sores. We smelled the sad acrid scent of burnt hair, the turnip green stench of unwashed bodies, the blunt black reek of smoldering tires, for there was no wood left upon the planet, and the sinners sat around fires of trash, roasting the radioactive carcasses of dogs.
“Meanwhile,” said Meemaw, “the chosen will walk in robes of flowing satin, rose petals strewn upon the pure diamond floor of Christ’s spaceship. Their beds will be stuffed with doves’ feathers and covered in satin quilts. Upon each bed, a snow-white baby lamb will rest, its eyes as blue as summer skies. And angels will bring the chosen little cakes to eat and nectar in golden cups.”
Meemaw smacked her lips. She could taste the nectar, she said. Sweeter than all the best drinks put together—Dr Pepper and Pepsi-Cola, Mellow Yellow and Mountain Dew, Grape Kool-Aid with five cups of Dixie Crystals sugar. Each room on the spaceship would be equipped with a whirlpool Jacuzzi. And behold, when the aged and infirm dipped their withered limbs into these fragrant holy waters, washing them clean with the Lamb’s blood, they’d pull those limbs out, young and radiant again.
Meemaw retrieved a Hershey’s Kiss from the pocket of her robe and held the twinkling sweet up to the light of the television.
“Lovers will be reunited,” she said, peeling foil to reveal the fat droplet of chocolate. “They’ll revel in their rosy pink flesh. Amen.”
She popped the candy into her toothless mouth, closed her eyes in reverie as the morsel dissolved upon her aged tongue. Meemaw moaned and swayed, and then, in the faintest of whispers, just a scratch of voice that floated like a dandelion seed upon the air, Meemaw described heaven, a warm green planet wrapped up like a birthday present in pink mist. The streams were clear and sweet as Sprite, with goldfish flapping in the bubbly waters. Lush trees grew, velvet-leaved and heavy with glowing fruit. A zillion colorful birds darted in the fragrant air. Soft fluffy animals tussled in dappled shade. The lion lay down with the lamb. And shining insects buzzed in the air, no mosquitoes among them, no wasps nor hornets nor other stinging pests. The bees had no poison in their bodies, freely offering up their honey to man. And the cows and nannies and mares gave suck, sweet flowing milk that tasted like melted ice cream.
Her toothless mouth wrenched open in a beatific grin, Meemaw rocked on her haunches. She said Christ’s spaceship would land in a flowering field. The angelic bodies of the chosen would be beamed down to paradise where there was no sickness, no aging or bodily wounds. If you cut yourself, the flesh mended in seconds, no scabs or scars left behind. You could chop off your head one hundred times with a machete and it would always grow back, more beautiful than before. There would be no hunger, no thirst, no wrath, no jealousy. There would be no lust, for each would have his perfect mate, a beautiful fair creature shining with celestial light. Meemaw’s husband would be there, of course, looking like he did at age nineteen, his hair thick as a stallion’s mane, his lips sweet as summer plums.
“Naked like Adam and Eve,” rasped Meemaw. “Wives with husbands young again, in the pleasant afternoon shade.”
She closed her eyes and sat there smiling. Her cragged hand once again skittered like a crab to the pocket of her housecoat to pluck a sweet—a piece of strawberry hard candy. Meemaw pulled forth Starburst Fruit Chews, Rascals and Pop Drops, Sparkies and Skittles and Dots. She smacked and she smiled and she beamed. And then, as dawn broke and pink light came gushing through the polyester sheers, Meemaw’s skin glowed through her nylon nightwear. For about ten seconds she floated, her harrowed buttocks hovering one inch above the stained sofa cushion.
And then the old woman fell to Earth. She sank into the couch. Her head wobbled on her neck as she fell asleep.
The sun was coming up. We could see the brass-framed portrait of Jesus. We could see the pink wall-to-wall carpet and Brunell’s mother’s collection of Care Bears lined up on a mounted shelf. We could see Meemaw, by all appearances an ordinary grandmother, innocently napping on the plaid couch, and it was hard to believe that this tiny little woman in a housecoat and bedroom slippers had just described the end of the world.
Still drunk from her visions, we left Meemaw crumpled on the couch, for we could hear Brunell’s mother clattering pots and pans. We drifted toward the primal sweetness of frying bacon, toward the bright kitchen, where Uncle Mike sat weeping at the Formica table. Our first impulse was to rush in and pet him all over with our small, silken hands. We wanted nothing more than to kiss him on his wrinkled brow and stroke his hair, the gray roots of which were clearly visible in the morning light. But we hung back in the darkness of the dining room to watch and listen.
“What most disappointed me,” said Uncle Mike, wiping his eyes with a dish towel, “was that he ran off with that rich asshole, that he wasn’t the boy I thought he was.”
“You’re better off without him,” said Brunell’s mama, hunching over the stove.
“And to come home to find Mama off her rocker,” said Mike, “after not sleeping for a week. That was just too much.”
“It might be that Alzheimer’s.”
“It’s not Alzheimer’s. Just old-fashioned craziness, aka mental illness. Whether it’s biological or cultural, I don’t know, but either way . . .”
“She’s had a hard time lately, what with Daddy gone and all. Plus, Reverend Dewlap took away her Sunday school class. He never would let a woman preach, and that’s what she’s always wanted to do.”
“And you’re baffled by the patriarchal oppression of the church?”
“Reverend Dewlap’s a good man. You should come to church with us today. He might be able to help you.”
“Make life a lot easier for you.”
“If you’re implying what I think you’re implying, then I’m disgusted with you.”
“Don’t take it personal.” Brunell’s mother turned from the stove, waved her spatula in the air fairy-wand style. “We all have our crosses.”
“My sexuality is not a cross,” said Mike. “And if you don’t want me to lose my shit, I suggest that you drop the subject.”
“You’re the one who was talking about your friend.”
“Boyfriend,” said Mike. “Boyfriend, OK? And I would think that I could discuss my relationships with my own sister. We used to talk a lot in high school, remember? When you used to sneak out with Bill and come home wasted and Mama lashed out at you. You would come to my room crying, remember? Of course, I’m a fool to try to talk to you now that you’ve been brainwashed by snake handlers.”
“We don’t handle snakes.”
“Whatever. Brunell’s the most reasonable person in this house.”
“She’s just a child. And speaking of children, we ought to keep it down. We got kids in the house. Nice girls.”
“By which you mean middle class.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Dear god.” Mike sighed. “Let’s just drop it.”
“Girls!” Brunell’s mama yelped.
When we strolled into the kitchen with our smiles of fake innocence, both adults greeted us with fierce, clenched grins. We reveled in the exquisite alchemy of bacon coated in the artificial maple run-off from Bisquick pancakes. We drank glass after glass of Mr. Pig. We devoured the remnants of the Garfield birthday cake and ate every last Pop-Tart in the house.
Uncle Mike, pretending to recover his spirits, tucked his sadness into a corner of his heart and chatted with us about Duran Duran. When he started up on California, Brunell’s mama went upstairs to get ready for church. Mike said we’d love the Venice Beach boardwalk, where fine ladies like ourselves roller-skated in string bikinis as palm trees swayed in the warm wind. There were break-dancers and snake charmers, mimes and jugglers, ancient movie stars with Latin gigolos and beribboned poodles that smelled of death. As Uncle Mike described the ecstasy of sipping a tropical cocktail on a beachfront cabana while sea winds tousled his hair, he reminded us of Meemaw, his grin crooked, his face lit up like a jack-o’-lantern. He, too, seemed to float in his chair for a minute as visions of paradise spewed from him—the swarming stars, the crashing waves, the tan men in white shorts who smelled of cocoa butter. A boy whisked by on a glittering ten-speed. A bodybuilder the color of roasted liver flexed his rippling pecs. An escaped pet parrot swooped down from a coffee-shop awning, landed on Mike’s shoulder, and said, “I love you.”
As Uncle Mike imitated the mechanical croak of the parrot, a light beam bounced off the refrigerator and shot directly into his forehead where it left a small, red welt. A great twitch shook him. His pale skin glowed like the moon.
And Brunell’s mother shrieked.
Meemaw sat scrunched on the sofa, dead, her eyes jacked open wide, her hands crimped up like bird claws. Her skin looked dark and moist, vaguely congealed like liver pudding. Just as Brunell splashed a glass of water in her mama’s face to rouse her from her fainting fit, just as Uncle Mike came to from the sudden seizure that had sent him collapsing into a La-Z-Boy recliner, Bonnie and I caught sight of our mothers cruising up the driveway in a white convertible LeBaron. They looked two-dimensional, light and unencumbered like magazine women. Bonnie’s mother wore tight Calvin Kleins with a cotton sweater draped over her back like a cape. Her hair was honey blond, colored by Tina at Cut-ups and styled to look wind-blown and free. My own mother wore hers in a sleek wedge, not a speck of lipstick on her mouth, though she did accessorize her linen tunic with a string of wooden beads. They traipsed up the stepping-stones that led to Brunell’s front door with its bless this home knocker. Through the window we could see them—laughing like heathens, reveling in harlotries as they prepared themselves for the sight of Brunell’s poor mama in her sad polyester dress.
Brunell’s mother sat up and picked at her ruined hairdo. Her jaw muscles jerked her mouth into a snarling grin. She stood erect, smoothed her Sunday frock, and answered the door.
“Hi,” said my mom chirpily, perhaps sarcastically, and I wanted to slap her in the face.
“I hope the girls behaved themselves,” said Bonnie’s mother, winking wryly, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of the pink living room.
“Like little angels,” said Brunell’s mother. “Do come in. You’ll have to excuse my mama, she just . . .”
And then the taut musculature of her smile went slack. Her lips writhed as she unleashed a primal howl.
“No need to make excuses,” Mike pulled himself up from his chair and wiped a tear from his cheek. “Our mother just passed away.”
“My god,” said my mom, who now looked terrified. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
Mike tittered darkly. “I know. Sympathetic platitudes never cut it, do they?”
“I hope the girls weren’t in your way,” said Bonnie’s mother.
“They’re fine.” Mike took hold of my shoulder and pushed me toward the door. “Wonderful girls.”
“Yes,” Mom piped. “Let’s be going.”
As we stumbled out into the sunny day, I felt a tug in my gut, a visceral longing for the magical dusk of Brunell’s living room, which smelled of cherry air freshener and the dark, turbulent vapors of the Holy Ghost. Just before the door closed on its own like a haunted house prop, I caught sight of Brunell, hunched and sniveling, falling into her uncle’s manly embrace. Mike’s hair, popped free of its ponytail, cascaded over his shoulders.
To take our minds off death, Bonnie’s mother suggested a shopping trip to Columbia. As we drove out to Dixie City Fashion Mall, our mothers kept glancing back at us, scoping our faces for signs of trauma. Bonnie and I exchanged looks but said nothing. We kept the rich darkness fermenting inside us, like wine to savor in illicit sips. We sprawled in the back seat, staring up at the cryptic convolutions of clouds, our eyes awash with mystic light. The clouds were thick, the color of smoke, as though the whole world were on fire. I could see hosts of dragons slithering in the froth, their damp gray scales blending with the mist. I could see sparks of light like silver flashes of wings. I could see angelic multitudes, their faces crumpled in wrath, gearing up for the final battle. I could see a near-naked Jesus nailed to a cross, his long hair fluttering in the wind. Skinny and ripped like Tommy Lee, he wore nothing but a loincloth, and his eyes gazed right into my heart.
When a drop of rain hit my cheek, I imagined that it was a drop of blood. I stuck my tongue out to taste the holy wine. But then, with the pressing of a button, Bonnie’s mother eased the LeBaron’s top back up. She shut us up in the sterile air conditioning, Neil Diamond whining on the radio. When the DJ decided to torment us with a double-shot and “Sweet Caroline” came on, we couldn’t take it anymore. Smirking knowingly at each other, Bonnie and I sang “Rapture.” Trying to warble like Debbie Harry, we belted out her visionary lyrics, reveling in the thought of strange funky beings sweeping down from space to wreak havoc on planet Earth.
The men from Mars would startle disco dancers out of their comatose trances. They’d stomp around the crowded cities, terrifying twenty-four-hour shoppers and devouring cars. They’d fill our tired old world with blissful panic. Businessmen would cast off their suits like werewolves and flaunt their hairy bodies. Housewives would hop astride their brooms and fly laughing through the electric air. Schoolchildren would turn into ferocious wild animals and romp ecstatically in patches of forest behind their suburban homes.
But then, growing bored with human beings, the space men would fly back out to their cold red planet. Things would return to normal: the men marching to work in their suits, the housewives furiously sweeping, the schoolchildren squirming at their cold, metal desks.
The space men would leave us earthbound and restless, dissatisfied with everything, watching the sky for glints of ominous light.