A Beating, A Prayer
After they took the body of my friend away, I lost my ability to move. They'd left the twisted sheet he hung himself with, still tied to the curtain rod. The noose taunted me, its wide mouth ready to claim another black body.
My father thought the Word would save us. It would save me from the uncertainty and panic that kept my knees buckled. “Real men stand up straight, son. Real men hold themselves with the confidence of the Lord.” It would save Satchel, my best friend, from his sweetness, his lilting voice, his soft, piano-player fingers that reached for your arm when he spoke. He believed if we left what we knew and traveled, if we focused on memorizing the Word, repeating it over and over to those sinner-bent strangers with outstretched hands, we would find salvation. We would find our manhood.
Satchel’s reclamation of his body weighed the air in the already stuffy room. I knew that what he did was supposed to be a sin, but in a way it was also an assertion. Even though I wasn’t all the way grown yet, I knew that Satchel had given in to his heart and couldn't bear a world filled with men like my father: brutal, unwilling to change.
I closed my eyes and I could see him. Satchel’s face heavy, all his featured pulled down. His eyes were nervous – his pupils jumping like skipping stones across the room. A deep breath steadied him and he said, “Theo, I love you. For real.” He grabbed my hand and held it. I swear I could feel his heartbeat through the pad of his thumb. This moment, just a day ago, Satchel had just come back from the store. He didn’t know my father was in the bathroom. He didn’t know how quickly my father would appear, almost swinging the door off its hinges. Or the calls that would be made: to his family, to the church. Or how he would be told by his own momma not to speak to her until we came home. That she would only say to him that Deacon, my father, would help him be right again. How he would be trapped, in this room, on this journey, until other people decided he was a true and right man of the Word.
I didn’t have a chance to respond to him. I didn’t try to.
My father was ready to leave; to move from this motel and continue our Evangelical trek across California. I looked at my father, unable to understand how he could so easily breathe this air and speak. “I called the church, his momma. Things’ll get taken care of. We need to go.”
Our eyes matched, and I spoke the plainest truth I knew: "I love him." Then caught myself: "I loved him." I felt that tight in my chest that I sometimes did, that dizzy pull outside of myself that separated my thinking-self from my body. Except right now it didn’t feel like floating like usual. Right now it felt like choking.
“Move,” he said to me. His words were so plain. Like a kick up of dust. “Let's go.”
He didn't understand I no longer had bones. My joints had melted. My body was the aftermath of a tornado: a stack of limbs that couldn't have fit together before.
“Theo, get the hell up. We've got to get moving. It's a long drive.”
He thought I would just go with him. He thought I could erase Satchel, disown him like a good Christian Boy. I didn't want to be like my father. I couldn’t have his scrubbed clean, sterile heart. My eyes found a drop of blood left on the hotel bathroom floor. The deep red still seemed urgent. I couldn’t leave. I still felt him here.
My father grabbed me by the arm and dragged me from the bathroom to the bed. I made my body as heavy as possible but he was determined. He walked to the closet, pulled out my shoes and threw them at my feet.
I only had three words. Again, because he didn't hear me before, because I knew the reason I couldn't move: "I loved him."
This time my father's face twisted. He froze with his brow clenched tight as a fist and his mouth popped open. Moments of silence passed like this, a pause button. I held my breath.
And then, in a movement of both violence and grace, he struck me across the face with his open palm, quick as a cymbal clash. I didn't move. I let the sting sing its chorus across my cheek. He came at me again. Then again, with his fist. He lifted me under the shoulder so he could punch me in the chest. His face was a cloud of his fury; he felt me slipping away.
I let it happen, each blow a bee sting to my numbed body. I wanted to feel the pain Satchel felt. Each insult, each hurt, each abandoned moment. My father dropped me to the ground and clasped my neck; I wanted my vocal cords to rip apart, to be his silence. My father kicked my knees, my shins. I wanted to be forced to crawl before our faulty god begging for mercy.
I began to silently pray:
He hit my chest again; Heavenly Father, let my heart seize from this betrayal.
My ribs; Father, let these bones crack, puncture my lungs, leave me as breathless as loneliness.
My back; Father, curve this spine from the load, make me unfit for carrying any burden.
My stomach; Father, burst my appendix and let me flood with the poison of hate.
My face; Father, bloat these features in a way unlovable by any woman or man.
The man bent over me, my blood father, couldn't hit me hard enough.
I spoke "I loved him, I loved him," with what I had left. I spat blood on his shoes. My father refused a son weaker than the one he thought was already cursed with. As he pulled back his arm again, I knew the word that my father’s heart had replaced for “love.” Control.
He yelled, “Do you want to end up like him? Keep saying that and you are dead too. You will not be this way. Do you hear me?” He had winded just enough to slow down. He suddenly used his softest voice, which was still as sharp as the crunch of fall leaves. “You’ve got to believe things happen for a reason, son. God will take care of it. He’ll take care you if you let him. Satchel didn’t.”
He reached for my arm to yank me up, but I slapped his hand away. I didn’t realize until that moment that I had had the strength to stop him. I had grown enough to almost equal him in size. But father always seemed bigger, looming. I was no longer just his shadow. I could cast my own.
A lady came to me today. Right after the sermon. She didn’t wait for the main guy to go on. She wanted me. She held out both her hands, trembling, asking for a prayer. I thought I had no energy left, I thought there was nothing I could do for her because all of my feelings are for Satchel. I wanted to tell her that’s it’s just a performance; I don’t got no miracles today or tomorrow. But her face. Slight wrinkles like ditches dug along the sides of her mouth. Her eyes a plea. And when I asked what was on her heart, she said that was exactly it; that she was afraid it was empty and would always be. That her heart gnawed at her always, that it didn’t beat, it only ached. My breath came quicker. It was the same feeling I’ve had since Satchel died. Hollow, hollow. Dragging. Pain; the whole chest strumming like a chord no one wanted to hear. How was I supposed to help her?
I placed my hands atop her open palms, watched her close her eyes and breathe in with anticipation. I hadn’t even tried an honest prayer in so long, I’d forgotten where to start. I couldn’t leave my body like normal; there was no dizziness, no pull. I was so grounded I could feel the sweat between my toes. I had to real pray, for this woman, for me.
She waited through my silence, kept her head bowed, let the wisps of her pressed hair dance around her face. I saw the shine of skin at her collarbone, the concave V between the shouders of her blue, cotton dress. The only skin beside her hands that was visible. If I stayed still longer, if I didn’t speak, I could see the pulse of skin there, that ache. That little movement that gave shape and name to my own pain.
Her fingertips pressed up gently against my palms. She was ready to receive that healing I couldn’t give to her. To place faith that I could reach a light that could reach back down to her and make her glow again. I don’t know how or why, but I opened my mouth and began.
“Dear Lord, we pray you let this woman see and know the source of her heart ache. We know you use our bodies to tell us the deepest parts of ourselves. To say what we can’t say aloud. Let her know this pain, Lord. Let her name it, sit with it and let it leave. For we know a pure and light body brings us closer to you. Amen.”
Pop and I had found ways to mostly get by without talking. He pointed, I nodded. Our bodies kept clear distances, finding ways around so we wouldn’t have to directly cross each other. I couldn’t help but notice the way he seemed smaller to me. His shoulders hitched forward now, a protective reflex, as he creeped by me. There was a shift in power. He knew I had realized myself in a different way. That I understood I could leave. That in a way, as my manager, and even as my father, he could be rendered useless.
The only things we talked about were home and money. Those two that wouldn’t be disconnected. Pop spoke to me more quietly, with more intention now, as if to remind me that beyond us, I had a responsibility. To run from it meant abandoning the people I was supposed to love.
Jamie L. Moore is the author of the novella, Our Small Faces, and received her MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is an English Professor and the Literary and Workshops Director for the Mixed Remixed Festival. When there is leftover time, she writes for Book Riot, her blog Mixed Reader, and works at being a big sister to six younger siblings. She is currently at work on a novel.
Photo credit: CameraRAW Photography