S aturday night. Grace Episcopal Church. A dance sponsored by an organization for young people recovering from alcoholism, a noble group which I am too old to join, although in other ways I am qualified.
There was a table set up in a “fellowship hall,” where three people sat taking up money. I was about to pay when a girl behind me asked, “Will you pay my way in?”
Yes, I will.
Her name was Renee. She was tall and blonde and a bit overweight; there was something odd and attractive about her. Together we walked into the dance area. I got us soft drinks and we finally found seats at the edge of the dance floor, close to the stage area where sat the stereo system and the speakers and the disc jockey.
“I love to dance,” she said.
“Let’s dance,” I said.
“Not to this song. I’ll tell you when a good one comes on.”
We sat there and she lit a cigarette. Around us teenagers crowded and smoked and talked.
“Can I ask you something?” Renee said.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Are you a human?”
This was the first time I had ever been asked that particular question.
“As opposed to what?” I said.
“I thought you might be an angel. The way you just showed up when I needed somebody to pay my way in.”
Her eyes shined. I began thinking, maybe I am an angel. Maybe it takes a really perceptive person, like this Renee here, to notice my angelic nature.
She stood suddenly.
“I’ve got to get some air.”
Outside in the parking lot we talked beside her Ford Pinto. She stared out towards Branierd Road and seemed to be on the verge of crying.
“I just felt so weird in there. I felt the power of evil over the whole place. I don’t know why. Maybe it was where we were sitting.”
I was beginning to suspect she might have some sort of mental trouble. Still, there was something fascinating about her.
“I was moved by the Spirit to witness to you,” she said. “Are you saved by the blood of Jesus?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied, stroking her hair.
She looked confused and about to cry again. “Why are you stroking my hair like that?”
I quit stroking her hair. We stood in the parking lot without talking; a light rain began to fall. At her suggestion, we moved to the front seat of her automobile, where she told me about herself.
She was saved. She had been sober four months. Four months and a few days ago she had been in Moccasin Bend, a psychiatric hospital in the area. She took lithium for her mental illness. Sometimes she worried that it was wrong to take lithium, because lithium was a drug and she didn’t want to take drugs. The lithium made her gain weight. She believed in angels and had thought maybe I was one because she had seen one before, when the power of evil was really strong around her, like it had been in the dance hall. Once before she had felt that way and an angel had appeared, and tonight I had appeared.
She worked as a maid at a motel and she tried to do good work, she really tried. She was so slow sometimes, they made fun of her for being so slow, but if she went fast she got really nervous.
Occasionally she would glance at me and ask if I thought she was strange or if I thought she should quit taking her lithium or if I thought perhaps it was bad that she worked so slow as a maid.
“You won’t be a maid forever,” I told her. “As you get to feeling better you will get better jobs. These maid jobs aren’t important. How good a maid can someone be?”
“My car radio doesn’t work,” she said. “I don’t think Jesus wants me to have a radio in my car.”
“Someday you will have a car with a radio that works.”
“Yes,” she agreed, laughing. “I will have a car with a radio someday.”
We both began to relax. I knew in my heart that if I stuck this out something interesting would happen. She chain’smoked Marlboro Lights as we talked. The rain tapped lightly on the roof of the car.
“Let’s go get some coffee,” she suggested.
“Would you like to go in my car? Would that make you feel uncomfortable?”
She thought for a moment.
“I would like to go in your car.”
We sat in the Waffle House and drank coffee. She told me more about herself. I told her some things about myself.
“I have a little girl,” she said. “She’s four years old. I tell her to love herself. I hold her in my arms and tell her, ‘You’re so pretty, you’re the prettiest little girl ever,’ and she smiles at me. I wish she lived with me but ever since I got sick she lives with my momma.”
She had had an abortion, too, she said, but she would never have another one. She had been married once and she loved her husband but there were two other men she loved so much it hurt her in her stomach kind of like she was sick to her stomach, that’s how much she loved them. Isn’t that strange, she wondered. No, I said, I do not think that is strange, either. I do not think anything is strange.
Renee’s eyes shone gently. She was a Christian. She rebuked demons in the name of Jesus. When she said, “Jesus,” it came out, “Chee-szusss!”
I have mixed emotions about Christianity. I had this dream once where I was surrounded by evil forces, like Renee in the dance hall, I suppose, and these forces lifted me off the ground and held me aloft and I was very frightened. While asleep I shouted out at the top of my lungs, “Jesus Christ help me!” and I woke up and everything was suddenly all right.
I have been to college. I have probably been to college too long. On my last drunk, before I found a program of recovery, I was riding a bus around Nashville, Tennessee, drunk and sick, going I think to either a bar or a library; I had just read a book on Tao magic symbols and even painted one of them on a T-shirt to give me power, to help me stop drinking, to help me get my life together, because at that moment I was falling apart. As the bus pulled up Second Avenue I looked at the Ryman Auditorium and thought about Hank Williams singing there and how he had died drunk and it occurred to me that I would die one day too and at that moment it seemed that I might die real soon, like right away. I asked myself what I would like to see when I woke up dead on the other side; I asked myself if I wanted to see some funky Chinese Buddha standing over me and I told myself, no, I wanted to see Jesus Christ, a Sunday School Jesus Christ with a gentle demeanor saying, “Hey David, come on in, it’s all right,” smiling at me, a strong, bearded human Son of God who loved me. Ever since then I have known that no matter what my intellect says, I am a Christian. In this faith I will live and die. Maybe I’m crazy, like Renee.
In the Bible there is the story of the adulteress. The religious leaders bring her to Jesus, who is in the Temple that day, and set her in the midst. That’s the way the Bible puts it: in the midst.
“Jesus,” they say, “this woman here was caught in the act of adultery and the law is that we should stone her. Kill her by throwing rocks at her. Until she is dead.”
Jesus doesn’t say anything. Instead he kneels down and with his finger, writes on the ground. As if he heard them not, it says.
It doesn’t say what he wrote on the ground.
But they keep on until finally he lifts up himself and says, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
He says that one thing and then he crouches down again and writes on the ground some more. It’s so cool. He just says that one thing and then kneels there and waits, and one by one everybody goes away, beginning with the oldest right down to the youngest. They all leave. Finally there is no one there but Jesus and the woman and then he looks up at her.
“Where are they?” he asks. “Has no one condemned you?”
“Nobody, Lord,” she says. “Nobody.”
Renee and I drank our coffee and talked. She talked about being in the program and her sponsor and about guys. It gradually dawned on me that she had sort of a split opinion on the sex thing. Being a Christian she couldn’t abide lust and sin, but being a twenty-two-year-old woman she had had her share of men and enjoyed sex. This naturally created a problem in her mind.
“This guy asked me to marry him,” she told me. “But we had never slept together. We go to the same church sometimes. What if you get married and then find that you’re not sexually compatible?”
“I know what you mean,” I said.
When certain songs played over the restaurant sound system, Renee sang along. I thought about how mean it was of Jesus not to want Renee to have a working radio in her car.
“I have an idea of something to do,” she said. “You might think it’s crazy.”
“Of course I won’t.”
“I have a friend who dances at the Nighthaven.”
“The strip joint?”
“She’s in the program. Let’s go watch her dance.”
“You want to go to a strip joint? A bar?”
“They don’t sell liquor. I go there sometimes to see some old friends. I used to work there.”
This was it — the cool, very weird thing I had been hoping for. I was about to go to a strip joint with a Pentecostal Christian mentally ill recovering alcoholic young lady. These are the moments I live for.
“I would like to go very much,” I said.
The Nighthaven is located at the foot of a mountain in a run-down section of town. It is in a stone building that looks like it has been through some sort of bombing attack. As Renee and I walked from the gravel parking lot toward the door, she saw someone she knew, an older man in a suit getting into a white Cadillac.
“Big Daddy! Big Daddy!” she yelled. “It’s me! Renee!”
Big Daddy came over and spoke to her.
“How you doing, darling?”
“I’m real good. This is a friend of mine, David.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Ray,” he said, holding out his hand. We shook and he spoke again to Renee.
“Whatcha doing out so late on a Saturday night?” he asked. “Don’t you have to be in church tomorrow?”
“No Big Daddy, I got to work tomorrow.”
“What d’ya reckon God thinks about you working on a Sunday?”
“Seeing as how he got me the job I guess he won’t be too upset about me working it.”
Renee and I walked into the club. We entered through a little glass room filled with plastic potted plants. A single golf shoe lay on some torn indoor-outdoor carpet.
“Four dollars,” said an extremely fat doorman. “Apiece.”
I handed him a twenty.
“Are you paying for both?” he asked, as if it were the strangest thing in the world.
Renee and I got a seat up front, right beneath the stage. To get there we walked across a concrete floor littered with trash, past tables where men were sitting, usually alone, sometimes in groups of two or three; at a few of the tables girls in various stages of undress sat with the men, or danced in front of them for money.
Renee pointed out her friend from the program. She was walking around in a leopard bathing suit, wearing high-heeled shoes. Her name was Cindy.
“I like her hair,” I said.
“It’s a wig.” Renee was wise in the ways of the strip-joint world. She had danced there for two years. At one point she had made fifteen hundred dollars a week. She lived high style; she drove a new car and she gave all her friends money. She was a lot thinner then; she had a beautiful figure. She wished I could have seen her dance back then; of course now she knew it was lustful to dance, but still, she could really dance. Better, she said, than the girl above us on the stage moving bored to some rock song. When the place closed for the night, she used to go out to the Play-Late Club or the Hitching Post or wherever she wanted. She would stay out till dawn and play pool or maybe drink all night, maybe do some cocaine. One time she and a friend and her friend’s sugar daddy drove up to Nashville to see another friend dance at the Classic Cat. They went shopping in Nashville at some big mall.
“Hickory Hollow?” I asked.
“No, not that one.”
“That sounds like it, it was near Conway Twitty’s place. Yeah, that’s right, Twitty City, it was near there.” She had bought the most beautiful clothes.
“A black silk dress that fastened right here,” indicating her breasts, “with red twine, split right here,” her leg, her upper leg actually, her thigh.
She smiled at the memory. As we talked our heads leaned close together, touching.
“I wish you could have seen me dance,” she repeated.
“Maybe I will someday,” I said.
I was having a very nice time. Occasionally a dancer would stop by and talk to Renee and she would introduce me. I felt like a big shot. The girls would sit at the table for a moment and smoke a cigarette and then they would leave and Renee and I would talk some more. She told me what it was like to have a nervous breakdown in a strip joint.
“I did so many drugs, I drank so much, oh man it was terrible. Especially after my first breakdown, when I came back to work here and tried to fit in. I used to get so scared.”
I looked around the dirty, dark room. Men sitting alone drank from liquor bottles they had brought in from the outside; behind the bar the fat doorman and the bartender huddled together, whispering. A young blonde came out on the stage and a song started to play. She looked across the room at Renee and me and looked right through us with glazed eyes.
“She’s on something,” Renee said.
The song began and the girl suddenly started jerking around the stage, not gracefully, not with human or animal energy but with electric drug energy; something was wrong.
“Boy, she’s real sick,” Renee said. The girl climbed one of the two poles on the stage and hung upside down, thrashing, jerking her head. There was nothing erotic about it; it was terrifying. “I used the poles a lot,” Renee said, “but I never attacked one like that.” The girl was doing head-banging motions now, her long hair snapping to the beat of the music.
“Hold my hand,” said Renee. I did. “Oh Jesus, I pray that you bind the evil drug demon that has this young girl, oh Jesus bind it fast and free her from the power of Satan, yes Jesus! Yes Jesus! Thank you Lord. Satan I rebuke thee in the name of Jesus Christ! Yes! Amen.”
“Amen,” I said.
I looked at Renee and she squeezed my hand. The song ended and above us on the stage the girl wandered, dazed, toward the strands of tinfoil that covered the steps to the stage.
Renee and I left the Nighthaven shortly after the prayer. In the crappy glass entranceway the single golf shoe lay lost upon the carpet and Renee stepped gently over it, an angel of God with a little weight on her from taking lithium but nevertheless beautiful to me and Jesus Christ. At the parking lot of Grace Church I asked permission to kiss her goodnight. She blushed.
“I guess that’ll be all right,” she said.
I embraced her and we kissed and there we stood on Branierd Road, all the traffic gone because it was late; it was so late the rain had even stopped. It was so late we were the only people in the whole world, and nobody was left to condemn us. Nobody.