the lobby of evylen hotel on 27th, east of madison: art deco decor, a small coffee shop/focacceria in the front, michelin starred restaurant in the back. i’ve settled on a stiff, supportive sofa with my macbook and a decaf, a middle-aged frenchman--allbirds, white turtleneck, glistening bronzed dome--to my left and an eastern european model--zip-up white sweater, upright-wheeling carry-on, knee-high orange leather boots--to my right, both of them on calls.
i feel out of place, but i fit in well enough. i’ve got a commercial audition around the corner in a couple of hours; the breakdown required i wear a suit.
i decided to come into the city early to write to you. the evylen? sarah asked me on my way out the door. yup, i said.
you know what you’re gonna write about? / well, hoke asked about my upbringing in the church, so / oh lord, here we go / i know. i figured i’d start with, this what you want, hoke? you want to hear about how i was speaking in tongues and getting slain in the spirit in the second grade? about how in elementary school i brought my bible to class for daily reading? and that, yes, by the age of eight, i’d read it through twice! this the stuff you want, hoke? this the good shit for you? / wait, you read the bible twice before you were eight? <quote-01>the fuck was wrong with you?<quote-01>
speaking in tongues? check. slain in the spirit? check. all that spiritual warfare stuff? check. because, like, satan is everywhere? double check. stussy symbol spells s-a-t-a-n? obvious check. trinity broadcasting network on every night? check. <quote-02>jeff fenholt<quote-02> t-shirt? check. praying the sinner’s prayer with kids on the playground? check. taking prayer out of school’s a violation of our first amendment rights? check. abortion the american holocaust? check.
the <quote-03>power team<quote-03>? oh, hell yes check! like, you’d try and bend steel bars in jesus name as a little kid and shit? you asking if when no one was around i’d scream out the name of the lord and try to rip the phone book in half?
our church was the word of life, church of god on 6th street between mountain and benson. on sunday mornings there’d usually be a couple other kids my age and a class for us to go to, but attendance was scarce on sunday and wednesday nights. i’d sit in the back of the sanctuary during the adult worship service; i always loved listening to the music. but when the evening’s teacher failed to show up, as she so often did, i was left to wander the building alone: white stuccoed hallways with rows of white doors, each one opening on an empty white room. i sat in each of them, knew them in great detail, perhaps better than anyone. just me--sitting alone in those empty spaces with my thoughts, praying over the stacked folding chairs for the souls of those who’d later occupy them, i wouldn’t wonder.
having not grown up in the church, sarah is always eager to hear about my experiences. <quote-05>the image of this little boy roaming the empty church halls, however, is too much for her<quote-05>. my mother too always regretted that there weren’t more children my age at our church, at times even going so far as to say she wishes we’d sought out another.
what i really wanted was to be a part of the youth group, but they didn’t want rebecca’s little brother around. she managed to fit in well enough, but even she--four years my senior--was a little young for the group.
the youth pastor, jim lassiter, was like an evangelical tim taylor from home improvement. he’d show off his homemade potato cannons and water balloon launchers in the church parking lot. i remember one sunday night, i enthusiastically offered myself up as a target, sprinting to the opposite end of the asphalt, thrilled that folks were showing me attention.
adults like jim started to take notice of me when my skill at the piano began to reveal itself. i’d provide the accompaniment for praise and worship, and jim would return the favor by giving me small parts in the plays he wrote for the youth group, those we’d perform in front of the big church. i began to enjoy my role as the kid of the group.
as i got a little older, jim started to hire me on weekends to assist him with construction work. these were mostly finish carpentry gigs, but we did all sorts of stuff: i helped jim re-roof houses, replace electrical (he’d send me into the crawl space under the house to run wires for him; i’d never been so dirty!), build room additions, redo bathrooms and kitchens, anything and everything.
he became a very important figure in my life. i could go to him with stuff i couldn’t bring to my dad. once when i was upset about not having a girlfriend, he pulled the truck over down the block from my house, allowing me time to settle my emotions before going home. you just wait until you’re older, man, chicks are gonna dig you, jim assured me. girls at your age are only interested in the funny dudes, the goofballs, the ones that don’t take anything seriously. you just wait, you’ve got qualities that are gonna prove <quote-06>valuable<quote-06> later on. you’re gonna get so many chicks, you won’t know what to do with them all!
my family left word of life when the head pastor moved on to lead another congregation. i was in the sixth grade. jim left as well. while we looked for another church, i asked my parents to not tell anyone i played piano. not only was i frustrated with adults using me for my abilities, i was beginning to question the narrative of my indoctrination.
i’d stopped attending church entirely when, years later, jim asked if i could come lead a worship service for a youth group he’d started in chino or thereabouts. it was the last thing i wanted to do, but it was for jim; i couldn’t say no. i’d been playing some music with a buddy at the time, and i asked him to come with me. he was active in his youth group; perhaps i could hide behind his sincerity. we loaded our gear in my <quote-07>red ford ranger<quote-07> and drove south.
the lobby at the evylen is starting to fill up for happy hour. the audition went well enough by the way--thanks for asking. i’ve ordered a personal pie with pepperoni. seeing my pie--a puffy, naan-style bread with big circles of meat--hit the table, an elderly couple across from me--she in fur, he with a shock of white hair--playfully asks, you got any friends? they look like they could buy this hotel if they wanted.
the kids at jim’s new church were a disappointment. <quote-08>they were bored, unshowered, and unshorn<quote-08>. they had exactly none of the lustre of the group i idolized at word of life. i felt bad for jim.
i did my best to feign inspiration, leading the group in a handful of worship tunes at the start of the night, but evidently i didn’t do a good enough job, because at the end of the night, when jim invited folks to recommit their lives to the lord, he came straight for me, requesting the lackluster group surround me with their love--with the laying on of their soiled hands--and before long he was speaking in tongues, pleading for the lord to soften my heart.
this was the end of my relationship with jim lassiter. i saw him again at my sister’s first wedding when i was home from college. we tried to talk, but the conversation went nowhere. i just wasn’t who he wanted me to be, not anymore.
man, this pizza is excellent; the pepperoni has a wonderful kick to it. i think i’ll further indulge and order myself a manhattan; i am, after all, sporting a suit. but before i do--you said something over the recent holiday that has stuck with me, hoke; you were holding koontz’s baby outside the in-and-out by murph’s house as we waited for our order. hey konnor, that’s a <quote-09>wuck<quote-09>, you said. you ever seen a wuck before? get a good look, there’s not many of them!
as we drove out to paul’s ranch a few days later, i described to sarah the profundity of your haphazard phrasing, how it unwittingly signaled a self-worth i’d never dreamed i’d have.
my group of friends has lovingly distilled my essence into the squawk of a single syllable. a wuck? this i can be. what a wonderful thing it is to feel seen.