Charlotte, North Carolina
September 1977: I am being baptized in the PTL swimming pool while Mom is fucking a cop in the Shoney’s bathroom. The giant Big Boy in front of the restaurant smiles, holds his hamburger up high into the clouds. Pastor Tom talks about how they will soon be breaking ground for the new studio site. My mother is already cracked open, body backed up against the wall, legs bent and twisted around some thick-waisted uniform, her glasses placed on the hand dryer so they won’t fall off. Without them she’s blind, can know the world only if it’s inside her. Pastor Tom tells Dad how big PTL will be someday, going forth to baptize the nations. I feel no different after being baptized, but Tom’s wife bends down to say hello and praise Jesus, aren’t you glad your dad works for the Lord? Her eyelashes are thick like Tammy Faye’s, big blinking spiders.
July 1978: The staff of PTL is having a retreat up in the mountains. Cabins painted in darkened orange. Dimly lit and made for sex. Dad takes Mom and me along, asks if we feel closer to God. Mom meets John Watson here. He’s from Dallas, has a slow drawl that drips into my mother’s mouth. They talk deep into the night while Dad sits and listens, watches as John puts his hands over Mom’s eyes, traces the arch of her brow and says she is healed from all blindness. Scales fall from her lashes. Dad’s eyes blur into sleep.
June 1979: And did you see what was in the paper today? Mom asks but doesn’t look up as she crumbles cheese for the eggs, stirring them to a cream. What paper? asks dad, even though they both know there is only one that concerns them. They say PTL diverted more than $337,000 meant for their missionaries in Korea and Cyprus. Changed lanes so the money flowed into banks instead of feeding mouths hungry for the bread of life. How much money are they in debt? And Dad answers, How should I know?
At least we’re on page three instead of page one. Money lines the wrong pockets. My father asks Mom where she has been for the last four hours and she says she was praising God, had seen his light come through the windshield like a cracked sun. Her neck is sweaty, lips wet. Dad lifts his hands up to the sky and asks God to protect him from the devil dressed in newsprint, from government officials who don’t know squat about missionary funding. Mom hates missionary positions of all kinds, to have others thrust the weight of God upon you when you can find it all on your own.
1980-1982: Whispers at the kitchen table when they think I’m asleep. The FCC caught a discrepancy , Mom says.What will you do? Dad says, Don’t know,God will provide a way, just watch. Silence. Then Mom’s voice, even lower: God always gets sinners, even if they’re hiding under a rock. Flips them on their back so they’ll look up, straight into his face and die.
Later: Dad finds hundreds of dollars’ worth of unaccounted telephone bills to Dallas, Texas. Mom’s calls to John, the honey-voiced man.
To Texas, to John….
What about them?
You talked for hours…
We were talking about God.
For three hours?
Just because you can’t discuss the Bible for three minutes…
What do you talk about?
Scripture. Lust and sin. Holy fire that’ll lick you clean.
Dad swallows up his judgment. Says to himself that God will find a way to settle all accounts.
July 25, 1982: We leave Egypt. God tells Mom that he has a special plan for her life and to pack up her things. We’re going to the Promised Land, which turns out to be Texas. No milk and honey, but plenty of Dairy Queens.
Dad stays behind, slack-jawed in the doorway as we wave goodbye. We sing gospel songs all the way down the Bible Belt, until Mom meets up with John, undoes his pants the first night in town, and thanks Jesus he is so good.
There is Halloween and Thanksgiving—easy holidays, full of tension, but all hidden. Come Christmas Eve, John’s wife realizes my mother’s the whore of Babylon, comes over while we’re singing carols and shouts to John never to come home again. Then there is January, February, and March. Madness marches in like a lion and eats all the lambs it can find, including my momma’s mind. She keeps me up late at night, asking questions that make no sense, demanding answers that are only lies. My mouth keeps moving and says words that can’t be remembered. There are weeks that can’t be remembered either.
1983-1984: The Prodigal’s Return: Mom’s face disappears from my life. With one big push, she sends me on an airplane back to Dad, her voice telling me to forget who I am. Dad holds his arms open wide to hug me while another voice tells me it’s time for school and that I have a new mommy now. She thinks me a dark child, and so drags me to Disneyland where we cram ourselves into sweaty rides and “get to know each other.” By the end of the day she’s yelling becayse I’ve withdrawn into every teenager’s silent protective shell. Meanwhile Dad is still at PTL. They just built a school and a new set of condominiums. In the fall the Heritage Grand Hotel opens with its 500 rooms, piano player, and mini-mall. We're disappointed to find no rides. They say, Just you wait.
Did you know that Canaan was the Candyland of the Bible? Full of large farms and sprawling ranches. Lots of kids running around playing ball. Everyone living there was having a grand time until they were massacred.
Spring Break and I am ferried across the river to go stay with a family in one of the condos at PTL. They have a free night’s stay at the Heritage Grand, and so we walk into the palatial hotel complete with Liberace-like piano player and short bellhops in gaudy uniforms. Gold-painted accents everywhere. We walk down Main Street and see Tammy Faye wannabes, pastel shirts with matching bows in the hair, complete with Max Factor mascara and bright pink lipstick. Christian Barbies in drag.
This summer, my stepmother and I will be on speaking terms again, working at PTL and stuffed together in the hot-dog trolley car which sits in the middle of the mall. We’ll be slinging out relish to the customers while Jim Bakker spreads on the grace, makes everyone hungry for the Word. There’s talk of a water park to be built next summer. It will include a special New Life Slide that ends in a baptismal pool with a pastor/lifeguard waiting to welcome you into the kingdom. The reporters keep flashing pictures, asking where the money’s coming from. From God of course, manna from heaven and all of that.
1986: Leaving Egypt (attempt #2): Dad decides to make his exodus before the plagues descend on Pharaoh and turn the water park into blood. He quits the business and takes us to Colorado where we can look to the hills, from whence cometh our help. My father isn’t quite sure which hill, so we keep moving from house to house for two years straight.
August 17th, 1987:Judgment Day: A twenty-three-member federal grand jury swoops down on PTL, following bread-crumb trails that end at six mansions and a heated dog house. My stepmother doesn’t want me home more than necessary, says my mom was right and that demon children destroy what’s around them. Better take me to a place where I can do no harm, can be fenced in by holiness. So dad drags me to the Trinity Broadcasting Network studio, where he makes TV for Jesus. Paul and Jan Crouch are second in command. They used to be partners with Jim and Tammy Bakker, but had some difference of opinion on just how to create a Christian kingdom. Jan and Tammy are inverted mirrors of each other with their cotton-candy hair (one dyed blond, the other white so you can tell them apart) and their fudgy eyelashes. At some point we run into New Year’s Eve. My stepmother yells, Get her out! She’s doing it again.
Doing what? Dad asks, and there are only angry whispers after that. By February, I’ve made a list of friends who will let me stay with them for a few days when I need to disappear. By mid-spring, I’ve found a loft at Dad’s workplace, carpeted in plush maroon where I can scratch my wrists. In public, my smile is as wide as Tammy Faye’s, stretched to clown-like proportions. Two years from now, Jim will be put in prison for defrauding millions of viewers out of their pensions while in less than five months, I’ll be kicked out with a suitcase of clothes and exactly ten dollars in my pocket.
It might be just enough to buy some redemption.
Nancy Hightower has had work published in storySouth, The New York Quarterly, Word Riot, Up the Staircase Quartely, The Cresset, and Big Muddy, among others. She lectures nationally and internationally on how the rhetorics of the grotesque and fantastic play out in art and literature. Museums, artists, and galleries also commission her to write short stories for various publications.