The beat booms and thumps like a U-Haul trailer. The basement is crowded and wild. There are quick hands and feet, sudden wails, like the sirens and gang kids at my old apartment.
Marietta and Joe stand and clap next to me. The music hushes and slides in a pool of black oil. The ceiling is low, white, and stubbly with popcorn glitter. Up front is a white-haired man with a face younger than his hair. “Let it happen,” he says, “Let the Holy Ghost take over.”
People close their eyes, hold their heads, shake and moan. There’s a whisper of nonsense language. My stomach is quivering, my knees won’t straighten. How does all of this happen on purpose? They’re acting like Mother when she went crazy.
My new parents have a sit-down dinner every night. Marietta sets the table with blue-checkered napkins and a centerpiece with brown-eyed daisies. Marietta makes the best mashed potatoes. Not from a box.
People behind and next to me are waving their hands in the air. “You can be filled,” says the white-haired man.
Marietta is bowing her head, gripping the back of a penny-brown folding chair. She’s whispering. The white-haired man says, “If the Holy Ghost is calling you, tonight’s your night.” Joe steps out of the row and starts for the front, so tall the stiff black hairs of his crewcut brush the popcorn glitter.
The white-haired man smiles and nods. People stream from their seats. The seat on my right is empty.
My stomach is empty, too, and tight and wrong and doesn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do the night Mother went crazy.
Marietta is bobbing her head. There’s more clapping and lacy words like, “Hallelujah!” and “Glory!”
I close my eyes, open them. Marietta’s seat is empty.
I’m alone, like when Rosie let go my hand in the pitch-black haunted house. A best friend of tricks in a house of tricks. Back when I had a best friend.
Marietta and Joe are next in line and the man places hands on Joe’s thrown-back head. Joe raises shaky wrists above his crew cut. Tears squeeze out of his closed eyes and down his cheeks. I haven’t lived with Marietta and Joe very long. I don’t think I’m supposed to watch.
I stare hard at the white light of the overhead projector.
The first time with Mother, she trembled and shrieked. Her eyes went wide, each eye a sea of white. She said the same things over and over, “This is an emergency. It’s an emergency!” I called the police, and they took her in their car. I didn’t know they would do that. I didn’t know that all the days we ate TV dinners and stayed up until two a.m. on school nights that something was wrong. None of it happened on purpose.
Then I stayed with Aunt Miriam and she took me to the Lutheran church and held the hymnbook for me. Now and then she would blow her nose. Her handkerchief was white linen with tight red French knots.
At the Lutheran church, people didn’t move their faces. Arms stayed to the sides. Bodies faced front; mouths snapped shut like the metal lips of Aunt Miriam’s change purse. People didn’t move except to turn pages in the hymnbook or hand a pew pencil to a kid. Hardly anyone sang. Nobody whispered, except to tell the kid to quit scribbling on the hymnbook.
“It’s the Holy Ghost!” says the white-haired man. He puts his hands on the head of the next person in line, a round lady in a pink pantsuit. She bows, sends plump palms into the air, holds still. Starts shaking her palms.
A ghost touched me once. It was my dead great uncle. I was almost asleep in his old bed at Aunt Miriam’s when I felt the ice-cold hand on my shoulder. I screamed and pulled up the sheets.
The world is a place of change, and terror, and ghosts doing things you can never predict. The social worker and Aunt Miriam worked out my new life with Joe and Marietta. I get apples and cheese sandwiches in brown paper sacks that aren’t even crumpled. I get to buy new shoes, clogs even, brown and shiny with almost-high heels. Now I never have to stand in the free lunch line.
There’s a lady across from my row. Glasses blur her eyes and she trails a long dress with rosebuds. On her feet are white Keds, and her hair wisps out like Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me. Everyone is singing. Their faces and arms turn to the sky like flowers.
I make fists, hold them still. I have a face for church, and a face for Mother, and a face for foster parents, but I don’t have a face for the sky.
Something happens when I squint at the popcorn ceiling.
My eyes fill with spangles, my ears with singing. It’s the singing that moves the bodies, moves my body. It’s the smiles and the laughing nonsense words. It’s the people crying and caring about everything. No pew pencils. Nothing from a box, and it feels like I’m standing here a long time when it doesn’t feel like an emergency anymore.
It’s hot, like Rosie’s attic room. The Granny in Keds looks over, reaches over, pats my hands, smiles with so much smile, it’s like she’s going to pop.
I am singing. My knees bounce under me, and my feet tap, and this isn’t an emergency.
“The Holy Ghost is moving,” says the man up front, stepping away from Joe. He says the same thing over and over.
My arms. They tingle, as if I’m near electricity, or a high fast wind. I’m not cold.
Melt me, mold me. I swallowed a sky full of stars.
The Granny in Keds sets two fingers on my elbow. Her voice is a satin ribbon. "Would you like to go up?"
I have always sat in church the way I’m supposed to. I’ve always done what Mother told me, and Rosie, and the social worker.
But I'm not one to say yes to things I don’t understand.
“Yes,” I say.
She puts her small bird hand on my shoulder blade, her Keds pad alongside me, and I follow the ghost.
The man’s warm old hands, and Granny’s too, are light on my green headband. “Say something,” they coax. “Just speak some words.” I whisper. I mumble. I don’t know what they want. I love the feeling, the heat, the moving, the happiness. I am not afraid but then I start to worry about doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, making a call I never should’ve made if I’d known what it was for.
“That’s it,” says Granny. “You’ve been filled with the Holy Ghost.”
On the drive home—we have a car, and we never have to take the bus—Joe pulls one hand from the black-taped steering wheel, runs it through wet hair. He takes a trembly breath. “I thought I was going to fall over at the altar.”
Marietta rubs Joe’s shoulder. Her perfume smells sparkly and white, like Wint-O-Green Lifesavers.
“I got the Holy Ghost,” says Joe, “I got the baptism.”
And then everything I think to say sounds wrong, too many of the same things over and over, and all the things I never knew.
I don’t say a word.
“When Reverend Harris prayed for me,” Joe says, “I felt electricity coursing through my whole body.”
Marietta turns around to the back seat. “And you, Jo,” she says, “You were baptized in the Spirit, too?”
I nod, drained, sure I’m white as a ghost. When I whispered and mumbled, I didn’t feel electricity. What I felt was a fizzing of stars. Or maybe I didn’t.
I’m tired of never knowing where or what or how I am. My stomach is white linen with tight red French knots.
Next Sunday, back in the basement again. The music booms and swishes. Reverend Harris says, “Greet one another with the joy of the Lord,” and there’s handshaking and hugging. They point me to the Sunday school room.
And there’s my teacher in Keds.
Granny touches my hand with two fingers. In front of everyone she says, “Would you like to tell us your testimony?”
A boy in the middle row jumps up and screams, “Aaak! I poked myself with my pencil!”
At dinner, I don’t say anything. Joe stops in the middle of a bite of mashed potatoes, his fork in the air. His eyes are sparkly with ceiling glitter. He sighs, “Can you, can you even believe, last Sunday night?”
I open my mouth, close it.
My brain is complicated as the lines and squiggles and words of an old hymnbook. There’s no one to hold it for me.
But I feel a lightness in my face. My mouth—it smiles by itself. Some things you understand with your body alone. Sometimes you know the songs even when you’ve never heard the words before.
“Isn’t the Holy Ghost wonderful?” Joe smiles at me. “I can see him shining all over you.”
And maybe you don’t have to know everything to feel good. Maybe even Mother will end up where she belongs.
“Amen,” I say, straightening up. I feel my smooth tall clogs holding my feet in place on the floor. I keep smiling; that’s all there is to do. I love Marietta’s mashed potatoes.
* * *
Christi Krug explores the interplay of creativity and embodied spiritual experience in Portland, Oregon. She teaches writing and meditation, independently and for Clark College; she is the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough. christikrug.com