Queens, New York, 1980
Below a painted ceiling looming high overhead, they sit and they wait. The ceiling yawns, stretching like one vast wing warming oh so many eggs.
See the stars, the affixed points of light, the glowing striated mists of silvery cloud. See the night clouds lolling, drifting above their heads across an expanse of blue plaster sky. Like vapors released, dust climbs blue-gray and upward like prayers.
Now, see the ceiling stretch outward and above the seated people, this for all of one hundred feet, over and above the lettered rows A through Z, double-A and onward—on and above, across the grand room of ceramic, marble, and wood. Heels click and rubber soles pat, the sounds bouncing off here, and there, up through open space like swimmers ascending for air. And above every head, the sky stretches on toward brassy balcony railings, sloping down from the armpit arch of the ceiling's rounded center. Steeping downward, over the balcony railing—not even one foot resting there—then, just as you'd expect, the tiered seating rises even higher. Their heads are closer to the ceiling up there, with hair well combed and slicked.
Clip-on ties by the hundreds, a few full Windsor knots and occasional spit-shined wingtips on the congregation elders, the men who drove their families. No buses, no trains, not ever. They are in the aisle seats, more leg room. The wives ask their husbands, "Are you comfortable?"
In the central seats, see the suit jackets and ill-fitting corduroy, all very tasteful and clean, but not new, not even close. There's no small amount of pride in their faces, and their hand-me-down clothing. The black kids from Jackson Heights, the Hispanic kids from Ozone Park, and the pink-faced Irish from Astoria will rush the aisles come intermission, and they'll say, "Excuse me," stepping on the elders' fancy shoes. They will parade the building halls and call to each other, cruising, and flirting, asking which church the cute boy goes to. And the Indian girls from Richmond Hill, the Korean boys from Flushing. Their parents will gather for lunch and then approach the elder men, and pay them proper respect. Mothers wear skirts that reach below their knees. Any shorter and they risk a talking-to.
But first they sit. They face the empty stage, awaiting the opening song and prayer, the first speaker of the day to take the stage.
Not just any stage beneath any painted sky. Up there, you'll find no less than the heavens of Venice. You want proof—the famed Rialto Bridge, one tenth of its original size, a reconstruction, spans the top width of the stage. The favorite bridge in a City of Bridges, burned once, twice fallen, and both times a crowd collapsed with it. Down they fell under the waters of Venice. Which means the audience, here, in the grand Queens Howard Theater, tucked on a wide city street between a mechanic's garage and a Mexican takeout, are assembled in something like a dry canal. More than four thousand worshippers sitting, and anxiously waiting for the day's first prayer for His Kingdom Come on Earth as It Will Be in Heaven, and the long falling rain of salvation, falling stars, blackened sun, and fiery burning rain, for the coming of His Holy War and Christ. They pray for Armageddon, End of Ends, Great Bringer of all meaning in Death. And the worshippers are both a sum and parts, a throng, a sea of people beneath a decorative replica of the real-world Rialto. But, sure as any day, you can walk this bridge spanning the Howard's stage, and some actually do, mostly maintenance men tending to the delicate bridge's woodwork. Like a painted crown it spans the stage beneath the stars of Venice, City of Bridges, of Water, of Light.
Howard Theater, Theater of Lights, every heavenly star is here.
What does all this say about us sitters? There is a kinship with the city itself, its ever-reconfigured paths, boatways, and alleyways, all searching out new ways of seeking, just the right place for New Venetians. Heirs of the city's favorite son, Marco Polo, poster boy for journeyers, brave and faithful seeker of unknown truths, seer of this world, and carrier of Holy Oil, gift giver of Christ to the yellow men. More than four thousand of his heirs, sitting here, beneath a faux Rialto, awaiting a description of this world. And the next.
Backstage, behind the hanging curtain, the boy is clearly nervous. Hungry and nervous. He can't keep still. He's done nothing like this before, and certainly not here. Worse, he needs to go to the restroom. Feet shuffling in place, had way too much orange juice, he tries to sneak a look toward the front rows where he saw his parents seated earlier this morning. They always sit up front at church, something Dad practically can't not do. Up front, as close as they can, Dad on the aisle, Mom beside. A pale vessel. Dad has even asked people to move before, said he can't concentrate sitting anywhere else. Sometimes lately he's been sitting, and then standing again, and then sitting. Standing. Like he can't help himself, trying to get his place relative to the stage just right. There they are: Mom with her long red curls, and Dad wearing a stern face, looking like he's in charge. But who's in charge anymore? Just this morning they had a fight and told Josiah to please leave the kitchen.
From the stage, the great room seems even bigger than it was this morning, how many stories tall, and the ceiling feels like a window into dark and never-ending space. How spaceships look from the inside, he figures. When he first walked in and his parents looked for their seats, and he stood there, looking up, the great sky opened above him. He imagined two suns, just like in Star Wars, and a butter-yellow moon between them. A rocket shooting like a star. But now the room is bigger, much bigger than what his brain can comprehend, because the place is full of people. The people make the ceiling seem higher. The lamp bulbs looming, glowing and alive with light, hot and actual. Like the roof has been blown, and here is this place filled with—Dad said the unthinkable number this morning, in the station wagon, on the way here. "Say it with me slowly, son: four thousand people." Of course, he's heard the number before, but not in any way like this, not seeing it made real, four thousand bodies. He's certainly never spoken to so many before. He goes cold as he peeks through the curtains. He sees the pastor, Elder Brother Kizowski, approach the microphone and check his wristwatch as he walks. The stragglers are taking to their seats.
Josiah remembers a blueberry muffin, is sure he saw a tray of them this morning, out there, somewhere, maybe by the food tables.
A quick run to the restroom, and maybe he can find that tray of muffins. Feet shuffling, he needs to get his father's attention. He needs permission to leave the stage, so he can go to the bathroom. He can never seem to hold his father's attention, not for very long anyway, and especially when it's not about worship. Even when his father does talk with Josiah about God, it's almost like the boy isn't there. At least this is how he feels, like his father is looking right through him, to some other place and some other time, like he's seeing someone else entirely. Josiah wants his father to see him. Twelve years old, light as twigs, he spreads the curtains and eases his head forward, onstage, the cloth falling around him like a robe. Josiah, the size of a full-breasted bird, of a sapling elm, made small by the height of the hanging curtains, fire tongues reaching up to darkness.
Brother Bob Pullsey approaches him.
Bob Pullsey is a tall man, tall as two Josiahs stacked. He has the face of the men Josiah has seen sitting alone on Forest Park benches. In his sixties, Pullsey is old for an assistant servant, not yet an elder, not one of the older men of distinction, the elder shepherds of this great fleshly flock. Today he's in charge of the onstage amplified sound.
"Brother Pullsey," Josiah says, a little bit loud.
He's seen before how this older man is set apart from the other older men. He's one of them, but also not one of them, and Josiah thinks he likes that. But Pullsey makes him uneasy, too. Josiah gets a queasy feeling in his stomach sometimes when he sees men not like the others. If God rewards those who worship him, why is the old man still handling microphones and helping elder brothers half his age? Josiah doesn't like math, but this seems like a bad equation, something doesn't add up. He knows that God is supposed to reward.
He calls to Brother Pullsey again. But Pullsey puts a finger to his lips—Shhh, I'll be right back—as he walks toward the pastor onstage.
The pastor, Elder Brother Thad Kizowski, is locally famous for his mid-sermon animated gestures. But his aren't the wild gesticulations you see on Sunday morning TV. He's not your televangelist preacher who cries and wails in an Easter-colored suit, the kind that reasons with the camera, a salesman for the divine. A serious man, Brother Kizowski is especially serious today. This is the inaugural morning worship of a half week's convention here in a newly purchased theater. Every New York congregation, even some from out of state, friends in Christ from across the great ministerial map who have thicker wallets have focused their prayers and financial efforts on this for going on five years now. They have filled up donation boxes with children's change, quarters, nickels, dimes, and spare adult dollar bills, and sometimes paychecks Pay to the Order of . . . The Lord has seen fit this year to provide them, for the first time, a place of their own for large conventions. A place to congregate, and feel as one. A new home.
Kizowski is a gray-haired Polish man who buried his father not two weeks ago, a camp survivor undone by a bathtub slip and fall. Kizowski's hands remain motionless and at his sides for much of the time, except for when, like in karate, they cut the air to punctuate a special point or phrase. Slice upward when you speak of Heaven, to the side when you speak of Earth. Brother Kizowski, in his dog-brown suit, straightens his back and lapel, and waits for the bustle in the great room to settle. He welcomes the crowd as Bob Pullsey walks onstage.
"Good morning, brothers and sisters!"
Kizowski waves to the audience with both hands and nods at approaching Brother Pullsey. And at first they're all of them out there wondering, even Josiah, what's this, why is Brother Pullsey onstage with the pastor? Pullsey whispers something into the pastor's ear . . .
Kizowski booms: "What a special day on God's good Earth! Is it not?"
But now it's clear, even kind of comic, why Pullsey is interrupting the speaker. It's the microphone—the threaded grip has loosened, and the mic is slowly shrinking down inside its metal sleeve. With Kizowski's hands slicing out, the way he does, and with the mic stand lowering, Kizowski appears to be growing in stature, like he's levitating just above the floor. The mic continues to slide slowly down. A staggered laugh moves through the crowd, slightly checked but growing steadily. You never really know when to laugh in church. Especially when Kizowski's onstage.
He steps back from the microphone to let Pullsey have his way with the stand, and he gives the audience a cold sneer. Accidental maybe, annoyed at the timing, he's just gotten started for goodness' sake. He pulls exaggeratedly at his collar. "Really, I mean I'm standing here telling the truth, brothers and sisters, the life-giving waters are flowing. And maybe, just maybe I'm getting carried away." He looks up. "Is my time up already, Heavenly Father? Is this a message, the vaudeville hook? We haven't even had the morning song and prayer yet!" And the entire theater breaks into laughter, a hearty family-table peal of laughter, laughter of relief. Kizowski's just like us.
"But seriously, brothers and sisters. This is a very special day. Our first day in this new House of God." He's backed up considerably from the microphone now, hardly within its reach. Test those lungs, and talk to the cheap seats: "Can you all hear me out there?"
A throaty and high-pitched "Yes!" from the back row answers for all.
"Good," Kizowski says. "Because I just might save your life!" Some more hesitant laughter from the crowd as Bob Pullsey continues to wrestle with the mic stand. He takes a step back and stares at the mic as if willing it to stay put. It finally does.
"Thank you, Brother Pullsey. Do all of you know Brother Pullsey? No, I'm sure you don't. We have how many here? More than four thousand, I'm told, from all five New York boroughs. Even Kansas City! I met a sister who came all the way here from Kansas City! But state and borough lines don't matter in here, not even your ballot! Because we've cast our vote for Christ, for the one true God and His Heavenly Kingdom. Let it rule from Heaven over Earth, and over His ever faithful subjects. And are we not faithful? Are we not proud of our Lord God who has paved the way for an authentic service, a fine, clean worship just like our first-century brothers and sisters? And is our God not so generous to provide for us this beautiful house to congregate and have fellowship in these Last Days? A place for us to meet, and associate, and encourage. For today we sit within the House of God!" In a stretched, extended position, he appears to be mid-dive. His pants cuffs lift, revealing three inches of hairless pink ankle. "Are we not a cared-for people? A curious people in search of the unbound soul? Are we not explorers of a true metaphysic? And who else could lead this great expedition but our one true Heavenly Father? Now let us show an appreciation for the brothers and sisters who have worked so hard to get his house ready, brothers like our Brother Pullsey. Welcome to this year's convention, this year's New York chapter of Brothers and Sisters in the Lord!"
There is a thundering of applause, and Kizowski himself is clapping as Bob Pullsey bows to the crowd.
Up there, in the balcony, claps Sister Hilda Famosa. She claps for the pastor, and for his speech, but looking everywhere except the stage. She's looking around for her family. Where are her boys? The service is starting and her family is nowhere in sight. She doesn't need this kind of aggravation. Not to mention her vertigo. The seats are so high it's making her flushed.
No seats left on the main floor, so they had to sit in the balcony. Should've left the house at least an hour earlier, but nobody listens. And when you have to get two boys—no, wait, make it three because Havi brought his mejor amigo, little Issy, because his mother's all high again, who knows where his father is, and all of them fighting for the shower this morning, plus a husband who keeps giving her trouble. Like she doesn't have enough since Carlo Junior got his driver's license. She's never on time anymore. Why am I without my family? Havi and Issy said they were going to the bathroom, and that was twenty minutes ago. And so Carlo Senior went looking. You better go find mi revoltosos. And who knows where Carlo Junior is, lately chasing any rump that walks. And so their Bibles, and their jackets, and her snake-plastic purse all on the chairs beside her, so nobody tries to sit. She mumbles a prayer to herself, and wonders if this long suffering will make her a better bride for Christ.
And everyone here, in different ways, wonders the very same thing. Will they make a good partner for Christ? But not in one way or in one voice, because this is not a collective power, the funneled strength of a crowd. No, it's personal, a singular power, within each and every one where lives a now-blooming question: Does God know my name, and does He love me? Am I so lucky?
My name is Hilda, and I scrub the grout and bathroom tiles of accountants and lawyers and their wives. She mouths these words: You love me, I know You love me. But where are my boys? The pitch is pretty steep and getting steeper with each stair and the red velvet chairs feel like bird perches, this high up. Her vertigo is getting even worse. The stars above a long ladder's reach away. Her hands going pale as she grips the soft red armrest, the kind you find in old movie theaters. Well, that's what she heard some people say anyway, that this place used to be a movie theater. Tiene sentido, but here? Why sit up here? Why not come early and sit down front? Nobody listens. And a little boy sitting by himself right in front of me. ¿Dónde está tu madre? If I'm not careful, and he turns, the boy will see up my skirt.
The ceiling presses closer on the rows behind her, close, and coming down like a sandwich press meeting the way-back wall, stars and all, of the Queens Howard Theater. In any other theater in this world, a ticket taker dressed in cardinal red would stand up here with a handful of Playbills. But not here. Hilda has climbed to where the stairs stop, as far as you can go, where the ceiling becomes the wall. Where one of the maintenance men, Harold, from Brooklyn, fifty-six and round-faced, came all the way on the N train and walked how many blocks, has already lugged a gallon of paint from the first floor early this morning because some kid, probably not ten or twelve, a boy no doubt, stood up on his tiptoes and scratched away a star above BZ5. Where his father was forced to stoop, because like it or not the sky rushes down like a plaster-cast waterfall of stars. Be careful, or you just might crack your head.
From up here, the highest seat in his house, you can see it all, a crazy mixed perspective, where the clouds crawl high over the heads of husbands, wives, and children now settled in their seats. The applause has stopped. What sermon first? What song? Will there be talk of a new date? Because there's been rumor of a brand-new date. . . . These are End Days, the Last Days, and the signs of the times are real, everywhere, and it's so obvious. The earthquakes on the news. Russia killing all the God-fearing good men and women. Armageddon must be right around the corner. There has been talk among the congregations of a possible announcement, a date of divine prophecy revealed. The hour and the day made known, in honor of this new house of His worship. Since '75—five years ago, but feels like yesterday—when so many prayed for Armageddon, and the Holy Ghost spoke through the pages of Ezekiel, Daniel, and the ancient dreamer John of Revelation. All their numerical reckonings had been pointing toward a date just right around the corner: Come 1975, the End will be here! The date was wrong. How many subsequent defections from how many ministries? Some got lucky and found a family with these new Brothers in the Lord. Hilda wasn't around for all that drama, but she heard about it. She was new, and only started coming when someone gave her a pamphlet, "Don't Be Afraid of Death," two years ago on a subway. But of course the End didn't come in 1975, it wasn't time. But have you seen the TV news lately? The world is falling apart, with volcanoes, and they keep on talking about the Cold War, and how is war ever cold anyway? And the snatching up of the kids. Crack sold on street corners. Ay dios mio, what happens after Armageddon, then? Will the Holy Spirit talk to us today?
Hilda spots little Josiah opening a door by the stairs to the stage. Or maybe he's not so little after all. Almost the same age as Havi, but he's so much more mature. Josiah Laudermilk is special and Hilda knows it, too: special like her Havi can't ever be. He seems a little bit lost, and looking maybe for someone in the audience. Right there, in the front row, a man stands up and motions back to Josiah. It's the boy's father, Brother Gill Laudermilk. She doesn't talk with him too much at church, because he makes her uncomfortable. Muy intenso. Now he's waving at the boy, and excusing himself, making his way toward Josiah.
Kizowski is saying: "Let's open our songbooks to page number . . ."
Josiah walks toward his father, the door closing behind him.
The boy's father takes him by the shoulder and pushes him along and away toward the back of the hall, under the balcony, where Hilda can't see him no more. There is a yearning energy filling this place, a spirit she can't help but receive even as she's still feeling dizzy. It calms her even as it rises. She reaches one hand toward the stage, as if she expects to be taken, and lifted. But where are her boys?
Just like in junior high school, it's in the stairwells you find the kids. In the halls and every darkened corner. They ditch parents first chance they get, and the parents don't mind because inside is not the world outside. No crime, here, not in his house. No borough factions, or fights. Queens, Brooklyn, or Bronx. Best of all, no unbelievers. We're a clean people, have a good time with your brothers and sisters. But be in your seats before the service begins.
Havi and Issy stand by the water fountain and the restrooms at the top of the stairs. The doors to the balcony are closed, but Kizowski's voice booms through the walls. You can't get away from Kizowski. But with enough practice—and boy, do they have practice, church twice a week, sometimes more, for as long as they can remember—with enough practice you tune out the voices. Doesn't mean you don't get the message. These boys, thirteen and fourteen, they know it all by heart.
"Look at that," Havi says.
Issy looks. The girl is maybe thirteen, and coming out of the ladies' room, Dominican or maybe Puerto Rican, but it's also, like, she's a young woman. Not bodily—she weighs no more than what little girls weigh, it's like she weighs so perfect—but would you look at the way she walks. No time anymore for play dolls or boy crush magazines, she wears a yellow dress with a white stripe around her knees like icing. Issy feels a little dizzy, and he knows a soda will make him feel better, but he also likes the buzzy feeling when his body wants sweets. Right now he wants nothing more in the world than to know her name.
"Girl is fresh," Havi says.
Issy shoots him a look. Havi always gets the girls, but not this time. No way.
Havi says, "What I say?"
Issy watches the girl walk over to a man, probably her father, who talks with a fat Chinese brother sitting in a foldout chair. The Chinese brother is collecting donations in a tall wooden box with a handwritten sign taped to it: "Contributions for Furthering God's Good Work."
Havi whispers, "Bet his chair busts in like five minutes."
Is she looking? Issy's small heart hiccups. Nah, she's not looking . . .
Brother Laudermilk, Josiah's father, stands by the door. The door opens again, and hot moist air comes wafting out. The restrooms are enormous. "Like a house in there," says Havi. Urinals line the wall, each one with a blue flush cake. The air in there can't be helped, though. The Argentines, Dominicans, Filipinos, Dutch. The Japanese, Ukrainians, Indians, Egyptians. The northern blacks, the southern blacks. Then every kind of white there is. They all come to worship and they bring their neighborhood smells, an invisible map of the world.
Havi says, "Jesus."
"Don't cuss," says Issy, looking away to the girl.
Then Issy looks at Brother Laudermilk, who now glances back toward the boys, flattens his left lapel. Issy half waves, and says, "Thas Josiah's father. You see Josiah around?"
Havi says, "Nah, I bet he's in the pisser."
Issy says, "Looks like he's waiting for Josiah."
"C'mon, les' go, b'."
"Hey, thas Josiah," says Issy. "Just look it."
The door closes behind the boy as he leaves the bathroom, blowing his nose into a stiff paper towel.
Issy waves him over.
Josiah looks at the two boys. His father is chatting with the large man, and with the father of the girl in the yellow dress, and the girl, too. On the way to the restroom, Josiah and father passed a lunch table stacked with heros. He showed his father, and asked for one, please. But his father said, No, wait for lunch. Food weighs you down. A spirit hungry for God is never satisfied. Concentrate on your sermon, son.
Josiah throws away the paper towel and heads over to where the boys are standing, but then hesitates. Should he talk to them? Talk to Havi? He realizes he hasn't really talked to anyone his age all day. He walks over.
Issy says, "Wassup, what you doing?"
Havi acts like he doesn't see Josiah.
Josiah nods his head, his father still busy talking. "I don't know. I'm supposed to be somewhere. I have something to do." Figures he better not mention his sermon because every time he gives one at church, Havi makes fun of him after. Issy never does, though. Josiah used to think it was because of their parents, that he had two parents and they both went to church. Except then Havi's father started going to church, too, like his mother, and still he acts like a jerk. Issy's father's hardly ever around. His mom was, but not so much anymore. He's practically living at Havi's. One time, at church, when Issy's mother was there, she pushed Issy's head against a wall. Josiah was on his way to the restroom, saw it, and didn't know what to do. Issy's mom looked so mad, and she tried to keep her voice low as she smacked at Issy's head. Josiah went over and took Issy's hand. He had lied and said, My father wants to see you.
"You so weird, Josiah," Havi says, shaking his head.
"Shut up, Havi," says Issy.
"Why? He your boyfriend now? Yo, we should go get Shastas. Josiah, hey, you got fifty cents?" Havi pats at his pockets, like he swears he's got money somewhere.
Josiah shakes his head, no. "I like Royal Crown anyway."
"Your boyfriend doesn't even like Shasta. You know that girl, Josiah?" Havi likes talking at girls. He learned it from his older brother Carlo. Issy's more shy, and the girls like that about him, they like that he doesn't know he's handsome. Havi knows Issy's good-looking, but he'll never say it. Havi's in charge anyway.
Josiah says, "I don't know."
"You don't know nothing, man." Havi sucks at his teeth. "She's looking at me." Havi with his small chest pushed out, always ready, pre-confrontation. He learned this from his big brother, too, all five feet and five inches of bulldog Carlo. He checks himself in the silver backsplash of the water fountain.
Josiah surprises himself, and says, "Oh, yeah? Then why don't you go talk to her?"
Havi straightens up. "Say what?"
"Yeah," snaps Issy, laughing, a little bit anxious. "Thas a nice one!" He puts up his hand for a high five. Josiah looks at the hand, and then he looks at his own. Then he presses his hand against Issy's. He realizes he's never seen them outside of church before.
Havi says, "You two stupid." His face goes a little pale. "Why don't you go talk to her? Tell her how smart you are? Faggot."
Josiah wants to tell Havi to stop it already, teasing him hard for over a year. It's not like they were best friends ever, but Havi used to leave him alone. Until last summer, when Havi started dressing like his brother and wearing a thick gold necklace. The new clothes make him act like the biggest jerk Josiah's ever met. But sometimes the teasing is better than not talking with anyone at all.
Issy says, "I told you to leave him alone. Nobody's going to talk to her."
It's not like Josiah's timid, not at all. Sometimes he has a problem of saying too much. And face it, he knows it, he is more comfortable around adults. Other kids usually make him nervous. But who doesn't want friends? And Issy has always been good. Look how he's looking at the girl. Issy is in love. Josiah sees it, and it makes him smile. He draws a long breath and says: "Yeah, she's not for you anyway." He's nodding at Issy.
"Excuse me?" Havi scratches at his ear, puffs up.
Issy puts up his hand for another high five. "Havi got schooled," he sings.
Havi sucks at his teeth again. "Please." He flicks Josiah's ear.
"You gonna tell your daddy?"
Josiah turns and looks at his father, who is still talking with the others.
"Huh?" says Havi. "You looking for your mommy, too?"
Maybe his father has forgotten he's here. He looks back at Havi, and suddenly wants to punch him in the face. He's never hit anyone before, and definitely not with a punch in the face. How would it feel? Would it hurt his hand? He thinks about this morning, in the kitchen, when his parents were yelling again. His father had said this time it was different. The Holy Spirit had spoken directly to him. Josiah walked into the kitchen, and he asked how it sounded. His father said, almost yelling, Would you please leave the room while your mother and I . . . Josiah wondered, Why tell Mom? Not me? I'm the one giving a sermon . . . He didn't like it when his father raised his voice to his mother. Josiah's mind was racing. Did the Holy Spirit say, Not Josiah? Anybody but him? Can the Spirit talk to anyone it wants?
In 1975, Josiah was only seven. Too young to remember, really, but here his father was talking about 1975 again. About Armageddon. His father talked so much about Armageddon. Josiah knew the scriptures, what the End was supposed to look like. Fire in the sky, like a war. His father said it would happen maybe in 1980, maybe now. But he couldn't be sure, only that we have to stay faithful. Look for signs. He heard his father say there was a rumor an announcement would be made. Today. When Josiah thinks of Armageddon, it makes him feel older, and bigger, stronger like his father.
Havi says, "You just gonna stand there?"
He steps up to Havi—right up. Makes a fist.
"Oh, shoot," says Havi. "Look it, stepping up like he's gonna go ballistic. Please."
Josiah says a quick prayer and asks for the Lord God's blessing. And then, surprisingly, he relaxes his fist, but lifts his foot up above Havi's sneaker. Because he wants to hurt Havi. He wants to smash Havi's toes with the hard heel of his own dress shoe.
Issy shakes his head: Don't do it.
But they can't tune the voice out forever, and Kizowski is coming on strong. His father crooks a finger—Get over here. We have to get backstage.
The amplified voice speaks out: "You pretend to know the mind of God? The hour? The day? There will come God's great war, Armageddon!" And this word is like a wooden chair thrown against a concrete wall.
Issy says, "We should get back to our seats."
The voice surges through the halls like rushing dark water: "That Last Day will come like a thief in the night! Hear the psalmist! Who is there knowing the strength of His anger? His fury? You think His anger is like our Mount St. Helens?" A long pause . . . then, percussive, his lips closer to the mic, touching mesh: "Bah! A bee sting! A headache! For our God has come to prove to you that His fear will be before your faces." A laugh, expelling his breath: "The Lord God has shaped every mountain with His hands, and the heavens themselves. Little lady Helen is no different!"
Josiah unfreezes. Lets down his foot, away from Havi's. His brain swirls with the TV footage. The bursting of Mount St. Helens's rock face, the hellish smoke and flame spewing from the hole, the shower of black ash rain. He looks at his father, who looks back at him, tapping on his wristwatch. What was his father talking about with those brothers?
Josiah says, "I gotta go."
Havi says, "You so weird."
The speaker box says: "The insistence of this world is on hurtful things, on evil things. But our Lord God has no fear. You think God is only love? Don't you cherry-pick your scripture! Our Lord God is love, but also power! And fury! And that Last Day will be like none since the Flood. And God's army will come riding forth on horses, and the sinners' blood will run in the streets, thick and deep, high as a horse's bridle, and just as fast."
Issy says, "Nah, man, Josiah's cool." Issy swallows a gulp of air, his eyes still on the girl.
Josiah waves goodbye. He walks over to his father as the boys leave off. He sees Issy looking back as he runs, tripping on his way to the stairs. He nods hello to the girl in the yellow dress. But she looks through him, right past him, over and around, behind him. With every sense she follows Issy. Josiah wants to shout, "Hey Issy! She likes you, too!" But they're gone, the boys, like animals let off their leashes.
His father walks him down the aisle toward the stage, and alongside the audience. They enter the doorway that leads backstage. Soon they are alone. Josiah stops before going any farther, the muffled echo of sermon behind the concrete walls. "What were you and those brothers talking about?" he asks.
"Don't you worry," his father says. "You're young yet."
Josiah considers this, and does not like it.
Whenever his father doesn't want to involve him in a conversation at church, and sometimes it seems important, he says it's only for the older brothers. But Josiah knows so much scripture by heart, even more than some of the elders. He has displayed this scriptural knowledge in the past. As he gets older, the more he displays, the stronger he feels—at least here he does, in church, among believers. Even though he is powerless in school. Or around the block. Or in his neighborhood. Last week his father stopped a bully from stealing Josiah's bike.
"Were you talking about Armageddon?" he asks.
His father looks him up and down, smooths the face of Josiah's tie with his hand. "You're becoming a real young man. And you will get taller, I promise. But not today." It's an old joke between them. But Josiah doesn't smile.
He asks the question again. "Were you talking about Armageddon?"
His father touches the boy's cheek and says, "The first book of Corinthians, you remember? The faithful ask the Apostle Paul lots of questions. What about this, and what about that? But he doesn't answer them all. And why? Because not everyone was ready. Even to the faithful I give milk, he said, and not solid food, because you are not yet ready."
Josiah considers this.
"Isaiah, chapter three, verse four," he says. "And I will make the boys their leaders, and the children shall govern over them." He does not look away from his father.
Gill is silent.
What is a boy like this?
Can a father love his son and release him? Sacrifice him, and still love him? Is this not what God the Father did for the Christ? Jesus taught the Temple fathers when he was only twelve . . . And it seems like this has been the case ever since Josiah's third birthday, when he dropped his Dr. Seuss and picked up Genesis. Maybe even before, since his mother went underwater in a long white T-shirt and a modest black one-piece swimsuit. Baptized at thirty-five, her stomach was so swollen with Josiah, it took two men to get her underwater and rebirth her to the Lord. You were there, Josiah, she always says, my miracle boy inside me, and when I finally went under you dragged me down, so every last inch of my belly got saved. My belly button bobbed till you pulled me down, you keep my faith from drifting. I was thinking of 2 Kings, Gill always says, when you came up from the water. And I knew it then, this special boy would be nothing less than kingly. Born with a breath of God's power in his infant lungs. And your name would be Josiah, like the anointed boy-king of old. Only a child, but touched by God's great hands, the very thing we needed, the answer to our every prayer.
Josiah, Josiah, Josiah, hang on the boy's every word . . .
He kisses Josiah's head. "I'm proud of you," he says. "I love you. Your mother and I are very proud. You come from a long line of godly men. Got your notes?"
Satisfied, Josiah taps his jacket pocket, turns away, and heads for the backstage door.
His father never answered the question—and that kiss, what was that kiss? He could have picked so many scriptures to show his father he wasn't a kid anymore. He turns back, and sees him. He takes the notes from his pocket, and raises them. He waves them and can't keep from smiling. Neither of them can. He opens the door to the stage. Takes two stairs at a time.
Josiah calls out, as Bob Pullsey walks right by him. The sound man rounds a temporary wall backstage. Puts up a finger, Just a minute.
By now Josiah is starving. Kizowski's been at it for nearly twenty-five minutes. It seems like he's finishing up, stopping for consenting applause after almost every line. That's the way to do it, but Josiah can't imagine being onstage for twenty-five minutes. Thank goodness he has only ten. He shouldn't have listened to his father, should've taken one of those heroes with him! Can't stand still; he walks over to Pullsey's wall. He looks up for the stars and the projected clouds, the night sky and ceiling lights, but he sees there instead the hanging ropes, the electrical cords, cabling, and catwalks that hang from the backstage ceiling.
He walks around the temporary wall, taking Brother Pullsey by surprise.
"What'd I say?" Pullsey raises his left hand, and it looks like he's actually going to swing at the boy, but he brings the butt of his fist down on a rusted pair of pliers. Tries to turn a stubborn nut, and says, "Nothing works like it should."
Josiah stops. He doesn't know how to react to this. Pullsey says, "I told you a minute. Now get back where you were until I say so." Pullsey keeps fiddling with the pliers.
Not Josiah's father, not his mother, not one person in his congregation, not even the elders talk to him like this. And Pullsey knows exactly who Josiah is, and why he's here—not sitting with his parents, but backstage, all on his own.
"Now," Pullsey says. The boy obeys, slowly walking back to the curtains. He peeks between the curtains, to see if he might spot his mother.
There she is, in the front row, Ida, just like she promised. He needs her to see him.
But she doesn't see him, not yet.
Josiah's father, now returned to his seat, is nodding along with Kizowski's cadence. Ida Laudermilk scratches her head, looking from side to side, almost like she's bored. She looks his way—Josiah! She mouths his name, and her face blooms like a late morning glory. Josiah waves, his soul is enlivened, and this catches his father's attention. Gill Laudermilk squeezes Ida's right leg: None of that. Keeps a light, corrective grip on her thigh. He looks Josiah's way, nods approval, and then turns back to the pastor.
But Josiah keeps staring at his mother, and as he stares her face becomes suddenly estranged, the way a familiar word turns alien if you say it enough. A frightening vision forms there and grips him entirely: his mother sitting hairless, stifling a smile, her pale skull like a bulbous root pulled from the earth. He shakes his head, shudders, and she takes again the form of her old self. He is chilled from it, and watches her mouth move. She's saying, "Stop it, silly, you're getting me in trouble."
He looks at his father, who squeezes her leg again, and the shake of his father's shoulder tells Josiah this time the squeeze is more vigorous. Maybe even painful. He wonders whether his hands are large enough to squeeze his father's leg. Arm? Neck?
Gill looks at his boy, and then immediately away. Then he looks back just as fast. He cannot take his eyes from his son. Who is this boy? So unlike other boys his age. What does he know? What is he thinking? There is strength inside him, and Gill wonders where it comes from. Maybe Ida.
"So tell me, then." Pullsey's now behind the boy, arms at his sides like triangles. His face wears an expression of impatience, bottom lip over top, his mouth eating itself up.
Josiah says, "I thought you were over there."
"And now I'm here."
"I need something to eat. Is that part of your job? You know why I'm here."
"So you're hungry, wait until lunch."
A wave of applause echoes from beyond the curtains.
Pullsey lightly claps. "Brother Kizowski is a fine man, and a very good speaker. Big shoes, buster," he says.
"To fill. Big shoes to fill. You're on in how many minutes?"
Josiah bites at a fingernail.
"Okay, okay, c'mere." Pullsey sits on a stool and waves the boy over like, Right here, kiddo, relax.
"You're hungry, right?" He reaches under the stool and grabs hold of a gray metal lunchbox.
"Lunch," Pullsey says, and hands him one of three sandwiches carefully wrapped in foil.
"My mother wraps them like this," Josiah says, biting into ham and yellow cheese. "Hey, what happened to your hands?"
"Chicken pox," Pullsey says. Rubs them together, cracking a knuckle. He puts the left hand in a pocket, the right behind his neck.
"I never noticed. Why'd you get chicken pox?"
"I was a kid. And kids get chicken pox."
Josiah wipes his mouth with the cuff of his jacket. "I didn't."
Josiah chews. "Maybe God punished you with chicken pox."
Kizowski is booming, but it's muted some by the curtains. Pullsey and Josiah are surrounded by the lush cloth, a fiery red-orange. Ropes and sashes dangle from the backstage spotlights.
"Seventy years we live, brothers and sisters," Kizowski says. "In the case of special power, eighty. And the scriptures tell us it is this generation—not that generation, or any other generation, understand—but this generation will by no means pass away until the Day of the Coming of the Lord."
Clapping, clapping, and then it's quieter.
"Amen," says Brother Pullsey, offering a single quiet slap at his chest. He looks back at Josiah, and says, "Okay, that's enough." He brushes the boy off the stool.
"You hit me," Josiah says, not really believing it even as he says it.
"I didn't hit you. I just need my seat. And I'm sure you know what it is to be hit. Or maybe you don't, and you should." He looks to the stage. "Shh, he's almost done."
Pullsey walks back toward the curtains. Kizowski points two fingers at the crowd, then heavenward, raised above his head like goalposts.
"Are you an electrician? My uncle's an electrician," Josiah says from behind. "But I don't think he can do this kind of stuff. You must be a genius."
Pullsey turns, and boy is this guy grinning. "I know you since you're this big." He thumbs the top of his kneecap. "They've been spoon-feeding you forever." He turns away, and Josiah hears him mumble something about his mother's breasts—that she still feeds Josiah her breasts?
Josiah says, "I heard you cuss. What did you say?"
"I did not cuss," Pullsey says, and faces Josiah squarely. " ‘Your breasts are like two young ones, like the twins of a female gazelle.' Read your Song of Solomon. The Bible's full of boobs. And," he leans forward, "I didn't hit you."
Josiah pulls back, not in fear, but in surprise. He walks back to the stool and he claims it. "So how come you're not an elder yet? Most of the old men are elders." He takes a bite of the sandwich and pushes at the temporary wall.
Pullsey almost takes the bait, but says a brief prayer instead. For patience. And a small prayer for Josiah, the twelve-year-old whiz kid from Richmond Hill who they say knows the Bible by heart. Exaggeration. "We all have our parts to play," he says. "And today, mine is making sure every word gets heard. You about ready?" He motions Josiah to please get off the stool, but the kid just doesn't give.
"Off the stool," Pullsey barks. "Now."
The boy drops his head like a corrected pup, and he moves.
"It's almost time," Pullsey says. "I'll walk you out there, buddy, and we'll get that mic just right."
Josiah looks up, defeated, but also half-smiling. Not so bad a feeling to be told what to do. He puts his hand in his right jacket pocket.
"What have you got?" Pullsey asks, not really interested.
Josiah turns away and takes out a Star Wars figure from inside his jacket. He carries one everywhere he goes. If his father knew, he'd be in big trouble. He likes how, with an action figure in his hand, the world around him becomes another world, a bigger world. Stones become mountains. Holes become bottomless pits. He makes like the figure is climbing his tie, swinging from a rope, and then he puts it back in his jacket.
"You're gonna be fine," Pullsey says. He squeezes the boy's shoulder, massages his bones. "Break a leg." He rubs at the boy's slender blades, and hears Kizowski declare from the stage: "Yes, brothers and sisters, please join me in welcoming our next and very special speaker."
"That's your cue," Pullsey says. And Josiah makes like he's ready, but Pullsey does not let go.
"Brothers and sisters, our young and gifted Brother Josiah Laudermilk."
The applause is especially long, as if the crowd is trying to coax the boy out from backstage where Pullsey holds on to his lamb-white neck. And Josiah can hear his father clapping. It's gotta be him, a deliberate, hard and hollow cupping of the palms. Loud, loud, loud. Clap, clap, clap. Not fifty feet from where he stands. This gives him strength. The boy looks up at the sound man, who now looks down at the boy. He's just a boy. Their eyes meet.
If you stay backstage, you'll stay a boy forever.
He steps out onto the stage.
"Be careful out there, big man. Knock 'em dead."
Carlo Senior tells them to shush it.
Issy whispers, "You hear that? You hear they said Josiah?"
Always angry before he got in the Lord, but now with church on the weekends and the family Bible study, Carlo Senior acts like a real man, and sometimes he's even so kind, never so pissed anymore. They call him Brother Famosa. Got church privileges, too. Brother Famosa's a greeter on Sundays, and maybe one day he'll be a servant brother like the other men who help out the church with their business. The microphone handling, the money boxes. Oh, and Sister Hilda Famosa just balloons when she sees him opening the door, and welcoming the congregation every Sunday morning. She wishes Carlo Junior would follow his lead, but his head is only in one place, all the chicas bonitas. And Havi—she's worried about Havi, how he looks up to his big brother. Issy does, too. She hands the boys thin spiral notebooks and five-color push pens, tells to them to write down a check mark whenever they hear the name Jesus.
Oh my God, here he goes.
Carlo Senior reaches across the empty seat beside him, and presses his finger to Havi's mouth like "Shhhhh." Smacks him on the back of the head. Issy inches forward and away, because he knows Havi's father will hit him, too. "You two be quiet," he says. "People are looking."
"Thas Josiah, Papi," says Havi.
"Like I don't know? Who you think watch the door when the elders had a meeting, stupid?" Carlo looks at his son like he's daring the boy to get this wrong. He lifts his chin like he's looking down his nose. "They even ask me to shake his hand. Because they know he needs to act like a man. You should be like Josiah, inmaduros."
Carlo leans straight as his wife rubs his back, Okay, okay, thas enough.
"Thas Josiah!" Issy whispers to Havi.
"I know, stupid. Thas why my father hit me."
Sister Hilda Famosa says, "Shhh."
So Issy pushes the red tab on his push pen, opens his spiral, and writes: "We should make him see us"
Havi takes the pen and writes: "Josiah's so weird"
Issy writes: "We should make him see us"
He looks at Sister Famosa, and waves at Josiah again. She puts out her hand, You gimme that. She gives Issy a look that does more than any kind of slapping from her husband.
Gill watches his son step out from behind the curtains and slowly walk across the stage toward the podium. Kizowski waits with an open hand. Gill crosses his fingers, and then hides this small superstitious gesture beneath his legs. Earlier this morning, he told Josiah his best chance for success is to fast get the audience's attention, maybe start with a joke. Maybe start with a knock-knock joke. Up there you're a salesman! And so you have to sell yourself to the crowd. Gill should know, he's sold everything from aluminum siding to Simoniz. Advertise, Advertise the King and His Kingdom, born a Jehovah's Witness, he preached from door to door until the day he finally up and quit. They sang and they recited: "Stay Alive till '75." But they were wrong. So he took his wife and boy and he joined with the Brothers in the Lord. Look how lovingly Kizowski takes Josiah's hand, how he bends and whispers in the boy's ear. Five years now with this new family.
Gill thinks of family Bible studies at the dining room table, with warm bowls of popcorn on special nights when Mom's in a shiny good mood, Who wants butter on their popcorn? I'll melt it on the stove. Bible-study magazines spread on the table like treasure maps. My father, too, Gill has told them, and his father before him, how long we have waited! Four of the Laudermilk men, generations awaiting His return, and all in the blink of our Heavenly Father's eye. Who could've hoped for a son like this? Just look at him! So much more than his only child, as if Gill is ever lifting his son skyward, toward a burning sun going dark on the coming Great Day. The boy holds a promise of something extraordinary, a genuine love for the Lord, somehow an echo of authentic worship. Born with a belly full of Holy Spirit language, Josiah is their ticket home, a taste of the early time before the world forgot about the Good Book. Look at him! Up there! Onstage! So proud! My boy, clearing his throat! Gill's never been one for stages, that kind of pressure, never given sermons outside his home. But this? His boy onstage in front of thousands and delivering God's Good News? It's sort of like he's up there with him. Beside his son. The sermons are partly his. . . . Sometimes he forgets how young the boy is—"You can't spell ‘theocracy'? Here, let me show you"—and then sometimes, oh boy, how his young son gets too big for his britches—his own father used to say it about Gill . . . —But this look, why this look? Why is Josiah just standing there, and not yet saying a word? Gill looks at Ida, who looks straight ahead and takes his hand (he uncrosses his fingers). She squeezes. But the Laudermilk calling is a prophetic one. No matter how close to fulfillment. Their calling is the searching itself. Dig out meaning from the pages.
Dig, boy, dig! And speak!
There is an air of apprehension in the hall, a buzz and mumble of concern as the audience sits and waits. But all the boy can do is look out at the smear of faces.
He's nervous and feels alone. He can no longer find his mother's face in the crowd.
So he offers up a small and unexpected prayer, a strange silent prayer, asking the Lord for his help and good guidance. He cups his hands together as if he were holding a scoop of river water, and blows lightly into his palms; this is his prayer. He tosses this prayer out into the wide space in front of him, beyond the microphone, off the stage, and into the sea of people. It's a gesture charged with an almost innocent significance, a naive grace. The audience is taken with this slow movement, reading in it all kinds of story. Some see Noah toss a dove above the tops of flood-buried trees, and others catch sight of John the Baptist, hands upturned, offering a life-giving dunk. Josiah sees only his own small hands, and then unexpectedly, and maybe not accidentally at all (because maybe this is, in fact, how prayers are answered), his mother's face in the void between his separating fingers.
Josiah turns slowly to his left, and then slowly to his right, like Kizowski does, both good moves to buy time. Then he turns back to his mother.
The boy says into the microphone: "Knock, knock."
Is this a joke? Is Josiah telling a joke? Issy can't look away. Havi is not paying attention, but something is going to happen, Issy knows it.
Josiah looks slowly from side to side, scanning the audience. And now Josiah is staring. Issy tries to see who he's looking at because the boy has stopped, is looking out straight ahead. At his family? Or maybe he's just scared shitless—if Carlo Senior caught Issy just thinking a word like "shitless," he'd definitely get smacked on the back of his head. Josiah's scared, and Issy sees it, but something is now on the verge. Issy senses it, even though he doesn't have the words, something like great years of light are coming from the boy onstage. Not real rays but something like a vision of what great light waits for Josiah. This is what a good future looks like, a mother, a father, and probably college, girlfriends and money and blessings from God because not everyone can be special. He knows Havi is jealous, always jealous of anyone who has more than him. But Issy is happy to not be jealous. So, again, he waves to his friend at church.
Hey, Josiah, look over here.
And the two boys have their moment. It's quick and definitive, like two cars passing, a flash of recognition. Or maybe like that ribbon flash of a setting sun that erases every last bit of foreground, like when your eyes adjust and the sun becomes a backlight, and the world is made knowable, and real—this is how Josiah comes to see his friend Issy, and how he comes to see the great crowd. Where's Issy's girlfriend in the yellow dress? His mother? There she is, and she beams like a momentary flash, a beacon. No more a color mass of pinks, and browns, yellows, and reds, and every fleshy color there is. No more a haze of many faces. This is how he sees Issy—and Issy's waving?
For a few stretched seconds Josiah is filled with a rushing desire to run, to run with Issy and all the other boys, off to who knows where. He rubs the toy figure in his pocket, and suddenly he is no longer hungry, like he'll never be hungry again. His mind settles. It slows. And he sees out there, all the faces, each one, every face, everyone a guest in His great house. He fills up inside with heat and with light. Puts a hand to his ear, miming to the crowd, and he actually says: "I can't hear you. I said, Knock, knock."
Feels pretty good, turns out.
Issy shouts back: "Who's there?"
Hilda lets it slide.
The boy is now abandoning his script: he has become an inspired riff, divinely played, and off the top of his head comes a loud and prophetic voice—because of growing talk among the Brothers and Wives in the Lord, his father sometimes talking on the phone. The talk between his parents just this morning—there's been a whisper, slow-spreading like a fever, feels like all summer long. He hears the brothers talking here and there. The New Millennium is not so far away, a nice round number, and my God, wouldn't that make sense?
"Look!" Josiah yells, he can't help himself, a voice speaks through him: "For the Lord and His army come knocking!"
Excited, he lets his sermon notes slip and fall to the floor.
He looks down, pauses for what feels like minutes—and then he looks away to the back of the hall. He puts his hand to his brow as if saluting a brother in the way back row, as if guarding his eyes from the sun. "And there in the heavens, a door has opened!" Josiah's thin voice careens throughout the hall, even his mother is startled by its power. Kizowski stands from his chair backstage, and stumbles over to the curtain. Call him crazy, but he actually looks for a heavenly door. The kid's got something, all right. Without realizing, Kizowski, now side-stage, is resting his arm on Pullsey's shoulder. Trading glances, how old is the boy, again?
But Josiah is well beyond all this now. He sees every heavenly star within reach.
He sees every dream he will ever have, every way he will become, what he certainly must become: a receptacle, an empty bowl, a deep and lucky cup of God.
"The first voice!" he shouts out. "See the returning Christ riding on a great white horse, and here even now He comes riding!" He straightens his back, shouting, and believing every word as it comes to him: "The Lord God has said every star will fall, and the sun will turn black in the sky. And His voice speaks out like a trumpet!" Josiah sees the crowd see him, and their vision of him infuses him, informing him with a wholly new spirit. "And look!" He points to the ceiling. "The Lord God said, Come up here. And I will show you what waits for this world!"
Hundreds of heads, adoring and reverent, bent back now, looking upward.
Sister Hilda Famosa is swooning in her seat.
"And know this, while sitting in the house of Heaven." Arms spread wide, embracing every last hungry spirit in the audience, he says: "The Lord God said two thousand years must pass since the birth of the Son of Man. And then I will come, in the year two thousand, at the dawning of God's New Millennium! And in that last year the Messiah, our Lord Christ, will return!" His hands now reach, grabbing for invisible rungs. "And there I see myself standing as an elder before you! And then—only then—on that day—in that hour, a divine vindication, a great rain of tribulation and destruction, and the End will finally be here!
"At once," he shouts. "I am in the spirit!"
Overwhelmed, the crowd inhales, each one a child of God.
Lay focus on this boy, lay focus on me—O, look at me filling up with breath and divine voice, and seeing with the eyes of Heaven, because my Lord God opens a heavenly door, one that no man can ever shut. And He himself will enter. And He will sup with me, and I with Him, and He will set me on His throne until the End of Days. And He will write on me a brand-new name, and every soul, I swear, will hear it.
Copyright © 2014 by Scott Cheshire