You are reading Fiddleblack #16
On the last stop of his North American exorcism deliverance ministry tour, Reverend Jay Bailey occupied the basement of the Holiday Inn Express for two days. Grace and I had found his conference room on our way to the pool, by which, there was already a small crowd forming at the door. From the door, we could look in at the windowless room and find strange humor in the harsh light and the reverend’s stageleft table—a display sporting a few piles of paperback books wrinkled from moisture or age, a pyramid-style stockpile of Welch’s purple grape juice, and the big blue words THE WONDER OF NUMBERS stitched into the white tablecloth. A few guests entered and lined the back wall. I thought the novelty of the thing might cheer her up.
Grace looked at me and I should have paid more attention. She gave me this look; that she would go, but would only do so begrudgingly. And, for a moment, I lost sight of her, winking at my own reflection. I gave us both the once over and decided we should run up to the room first. The bathing suits were still dry, but maybe something less casual. Maybe a new shirt and shorts too? I looked at my old bathing suit. I hesitated to untie the strings and asked “Do you think these Hawaiian guys are fine?”
Grace came out of the bathroom. “The suit?”
“The flowers on them?”
“It’s not church.”
“In a conference room though?”
“It’s not a business either.”
Grace and I fitted in with the likes of other tentative guests; feigning casual curiosity, wandering the backdrop, receiving pamphlets from the eager greeter, but finally differing in that we chose to take a seat. We sat in the back corner next to a woman with this set of sunken, pitted eyes–eyes whose lids I thought seemed heavy and prone to trembling not because the world was too much, but maybe because that was their nature from the very beginning. I held Grace’s hand and pinched a web of skin between my thumb and forefinger. I tried to be gentle. I tried not to probe at the point of pain.
“What time do we need to leave tomorrow?” I said.
“The visitation is at 3.”
“Have we decided about lunch?”
“I don’t think I can go.” She said.
“We won’t say anything.”
“We’ll tell them we just arrived.”
I didn’t need to look to take in my surroundings—I had already been in this room a million times before. I could remember the ubiquitous scent of every hotel pool; a smell which rose from the chlorine footprints of children stamped into hallway carpets, the smell which was probably saturated into every seam of the hotel lobby’s furniture by now. And that faint, sweaty musk from the two treadmill, fitness center—I knew its twin room was nearby from the stink and the stunk, and the small sounds of a television left on The Learning Channel. The only existing changes in Detroit’s Holiday Inn Express were the people who filled it. I sat closest to the woman while the reverend began.
“You think you have freedom, but this is an illusion. You will lose what you have willed to keep. These are the first truths—that everything is outside of us, which is something we all relatively know. Yes, we know that we can’t make the trees shake—that we can’t make dead leaves fall from their branches—but this still doesn’t take us far enough. Why is it that we assume the words of our mouths are our own possessions? Why are your thoughts any different than dead leaves?”
I felt bad interrupting, but also obliged to whisper introductions to my neighbor. “My name is Sal.” I said. Grace peaked around me and offered her hand, also giving her name.
“Chakrika,” she said with a bobbing head and the slight double-over. At her chest, she held a red book.
Chakrika looked forward—play-miming at laying down the book. The slow and perpetual motion, its uneasy sway from chest to lap, all of this possessed an imitation of release. She paused and I read its title—a book called The Significance of Identification and of the Reconstitution of Will: The Search for New Names.
“What made you decide to come in?” said Chakrika as she now doubled over again and in my direction. And though she approached me, her apprehension, I thought, was obvious. Her lip quivered, her eyes watery. She cast a furtive glance toward the speaker as he continued. I doubt she knew how she looked.
“The first truths are that we retain no jurisdiction over the movements of our souls. You are moved to love, but find that you cannot finish the act. You commit yourself to hope, but never realize how much of this force is something both alien and beyond repetition. You find that what moves your painfully, hopeful steps is a force beyond your person. And this is not an oversight. You have been given an false understanding. Look at your names and titles and you will see a false writing. You have been given a substitute—the epitaph of men in place of true names.”
“Luck really. We’re staying here and passed by on our way to the pool. This is actually our first time coming to something like this.”
“And you were compelled enough to come?”
“Yeah, it’s definitely something new. We heard there is supposed to be an exorcism.”
“Oh yes. Your life force can be opened up in so many little ways.”
I nodded, looking forward.
“I am talking about your life force.”
“I think you’ll like the talk tonight.” Leaning in.” “Your energy is really wonderful. I see something in you.”
“What about me?” Grace said. “Can you see something in me?”
A pause. “No.”
For Chakrika, I smiled— trying to give a good impression despite the strangeness of the situation. When I turned to the preacher, I imagined the world silent. I watched him speak with his serious faces and wide gestures.
“In the realm of true names, there is also the subset of familial inheritance—that of generational curses or blessings. In your first name, your Christian name, you are given the ability to change your vibration if you choose to do so. With your last name, the words are stickier. What you have is shared memory; a shared trajectory towards paths which do not lend themselves to easy derailment. Take my friend David here.”
A middle aged man resembling my overweight middle school youth pastor waved to the crowd.
“My friend David is his own man. Paying for college himself, starting and running his own successful business, David has always been a man of independence. But still, he felt trapped in many ways. One day I get a call from him—having not met him before this call. He’s been listening to my tapes for some time. He calls and tells me, ‘I shouldn’t need a new name. I should be able to change my ways without changing my name.’ And now, I’m realizing something. He isn’t telling me he’s alright. He’s asking me a question. He’s asking me why he can’t shake these habits. He feels the need for a new name, but doesn’t understand why yet. And indeed, why does he feel this need?”
David stood up. “It was because of a generational curse.”
“David had a generational curse bearing down on him. Despite his independence, his wealth, his strong network of friends, David comes from a family of drinkers and promiscuous people.”
“David does not want these thoughts, these temptations constantly arriving at the foot of the door, but what can he help it? He is a Harding. It’s in his blood.”
“What could I do?”
“What could he do? To a certain extent, David cannot change. He is the product of vibrational environment which has been and is static. We would like to believe that it is a change of will that acts as a catalysis into new being, but we also know we don’t have option to its fullest extent. What I can give David is a new name, which helps, but does not entirely change him. He is still subject to the same temptations of his father and his father’s father. Nothing changes, not for David, not for the rest of us.”
In these next moments, I am not sure what happened exactly.
If my vision was shot—if I squinted them into blurry worlds—I could imagine the hands laid on Grace were those of blessing. Perhaps I could have seen compassion in the vague signs of benediction. Perhaps I could hope for benevolent ticks of absolution in faces I still could not see. I looked down and away. I didn’t need to look to know she was crying.
I could only assume that Jay saw her crying as a sign—a spirit on the move.
I pulled at Grace’s coat and moved to leave, but the reverend was already at Grace’s feet. He turned to address me and held up his hand in hesitation. Expression serene. He told me to wait. He looked toward the gathering.
“My brothers and sisters in Christ, what we have here is a spirit in need of deliverance. She has let the spirit in through sexual perversion and the Ouija board. You’ve seen it too. Haven’t you Esther?”
“Oh Lord! Mercy!” called a woman from the front.
“Indeed, I’ve seen it, and what I’ve seen is the spirit of Jezebel. Even now I can see the damned thing staring back at me. This is her. The spirit. Sitting on the back of the poor girl. Now is the time of deliverance. Yes, here we can give you a new name.”
A moan from the same voice.“Yes, yes, Holy Ghost, yes!”
The reverend leaned closer towards Grace and, with more lightness than I expected, does an impish hop to his other knee—the dance and its steps betraying giddiness. And I could see him fully then—a new kind of sight brought into realization by the blackness of the pores of his fat nose. This new vision validated by the sight of gristle lodged between his blunt canine and the other tooth. I was disgusted by him and yet, I did not believe he was an ugly man. It is only now, his face re-imagined, that I have found its right representation; his face as the standard of jokers.
I moved out of my seat. “Grace, I am so sorry. We need to go.”
“Brother, at least let us give her a name,” said Jay.
“I really think we should go.”
“Wait a moment. Please. Tell me your name.”
And we left.
For Grace, I imagine our room was a portable memory. I could project her memory, her past, her whatever onto the single use soaps and shampoos, the two beds—their sheets tucked inhumanly tight—this void-space duplicated along the side of highways all throughout America. I remember her telling me about the place behind motel window curtains—her parents watching, but only able to see the bottom of her feet. It was winter then, the sun silver and quiet and cold—the serene light bouncing back from the snow and into her new space—into her own fissure of light. Her father slid the curtain enough and the light glanced his face. Even then, his face made her anxious. Even then, it was a sad thing.
Grace has never been sure if her father had actually killed himself—if what he did was intentional. He only fell, which would not have been a problem if he wasn’t alone and on a thin lake in the thawing of spring. Grace tells me about his ambiguity—that maybe if he was a different man—she wouldn’t feel the need to guess. Maybe if he smiled more—maybe if he gave a reason why he feigned sadness. Grace tells me that, God, she accuses her father with his sadness—that he is not a sad man, but a pathetic one for his inability to offer, even regurgitate, some lame reason for his pitiful expression. “And why the hell was he on the ice?” she would ask. And I am not too different. I want to attach meaning. I want answers to her questions.
I didn’t remember the rooms being this white. I let Grace in the door first and she flopped onto the bed; face into the pillow. Doubting that she wanted to speak, I sat at the foot of the bed. I took one of the two pillow chocolates and pushed the other towards her.
“Stop it,” she says.
I knew Grace wasn’t in a crisis. I could guess what set her off. Of course I wanted to talk, I want to understand her, but I know that I get in these moods where I can’t help her. I would either have cried or made bad attempts at lightheartedness. I knew this and I let her leave. From the bed, I only saw the back of her black coat at the door as she patted herself down looking for cigarettes.
If Grace was scared, I would have known. I thought I would, so I let her go. I was also bored. I was alone in our room, nothing to do, leafing through the small pockets of the place—finding nothing but a Gideon Bible and religious track I took from Jay’s table. Printed on the track was a maze titled Paths to Heaven. It only took a moment to recognize that there was no possible end or completion to the maze—the center being an unbroken square and all. I flipped the card over for its kitsch delivery, but found nothing. No sermon, no message, just his number (214)-928-####, Jay’s name, and his toned-down, professional title. On his card he’s a spiritual trainer, which I can understand looks better than exorcist.
When Grace came back, I wiped hints of ash from her coat . She closed the door and almost laughed, which helped me. She threw her coat into the corner and landed face first into the bed again—this same action repeated, but with new meaning—something like a joke. Face down, smiling into the pillow, she patted the bed for me to come over and sit. When she turned over, I could see her smirk—that smirk she gives when she is about to tell a story—something she suspects I might find funny. Sometimes I forget how much I need these stories.
Grace tells the story like this: she’s smoking outside the lobby, just now realizing that she should have put something else over her running shorts besides her filmy coat. Making due, she stands close to the sliding glass doors to get these sparse bursts of heat. She is standing there, on her last cigarette and about to go, when a bundled up Chakrika walks out of the building and sees Grace. Hesitating for a moment, but only a moment, Chakrika turns and says hello.
“I’m sorry about what happened. I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Chakrika.
“Please,” said Grace. “You don’t need to—“
“Sometimes we make mistakes.”
“It’s fine. But,”
“We want healing. I hope you know that. It’s natural, I think, to want things to happen to us. Don’t you think so?”
“Yeah. I don’t know.”
Chakrika and her bobbing head said, “If you want the light to come, open yourself. That’s the truth. I remember when I first understood what that meant. It meant that I cannot change without changing myself. You know what I mean? I wasn’t happy because I was trying to be happy. I wanted it so badly.”
Grace held her cigarette away from her mouth. “I know what that—“
“I changed though—my energy that is.” She pointed to her right nostril, almost stuck her finger up it. “It was all because of this guy—this harbor of my negative energy. Thank God for Jay. I remember when he first explained how my life force flows through me—that I have the right vibrations, but that they are not flowing through me correctly.” She pointed to her nose again. “All because of this guy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I used to be depressed because I didn’t have a continuous intake of the right energy. It used to be that, at certain times of the day, my right nostril would close up. It wasn’t until I heard Jay speak that I understood that my right nostril receive my most vital life energy. The left is important too, but it’s for the physical energy of life—running and being outdoors and stuff. It was in my right nostril that my life was backed up—my energy stuffed up to the point that I was dying spiritually of the plugged nose.”
“You didn’t have Sudafed?” said Grace.
“It was a spiritual congestion.”
Grace said she had not meant to laugh.
Chakrika moved to leave, “Anyway, I am sorry that we scared you. If you ever want to come visit us again—” she handed Grace a card.
Grace shoved the card deep into her coat pocket. “Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t scared.”
And this is where I begin to doubt her story.
Grace says, “I wasn’t scared. I was thinking.”
“About what?” says Chakrika.
“About how I lie to myself—that sometimes I recognize how much I want the lie that I’m not defined by those I love to be true. Hearing what Jay said triggered something in me. Maybe there is this continuity between people, but I don’t always want to believe that. I don’t want to believe that I am tied to anyone in that way.”
“And you don’t have to be.”
I stop her here. I have to ask her what it is she thinks about all of this—while knowing of course that she’ll tell me it’s shit. And when I do push it, she does laugh. These possessions are a joke and their mystic healings are absurd she’ll say, but the power of names is a different force altogether. There are no spirits or spooks— just a mystery in our ways of naming.
And soon enough, I’m laughing with her—swept away in a momentum of jokes. And it wasn’t until this moment that we realize that everything is ridiculous—the reverend, the room, the devil sitting on our backs—and that our laughter now comes to us naturally. We have not made a joke of healing, but only realize that it has been both a joke and not this whole time. Our laughter comes as a release and we let things be what they are meant to be. I am feeling weak—incapable of description—and, for a moment, I am content. I am speechless.
Maxwell Howard is a writer and podcast journalist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He produces Small Wonder, a narrative based podcast focusing on religious history and culture of Michigan