By R. Scot Miller
His eyes moved from the cracked sidewalk block beneath his feet to the cracked window of the upper flat. There was a sleepy eyelid of space between the window frame and the dingy bedspread that covered the rest of it. A flickering blue light, emanated from a television, and radiated through the eyelid in contrast to the depressing gray of the Detroit neighborhood. That light, the blue light, promised that someone would be home.
He walked quickly, trying not to betray his anxiety or his intentions. Still, the look on his face, his purposeful walk, and of course, his skeletal frame, would have easily telegraphed those intentions. It was getting dark, but a basketball game continued as players moved easily under the glow of a street light, giving more attention to gambling on the next shot and game-points than to the familiar sight of yet another nobody on their way to the second-floor flat. He walked past them, thinking of his own gambles, and guided himself into the shadows of the house.
He pushed open a heavy door and stepped into a darkness that was managed from memory. A step up, then another, 24 steps to the top he remembered - as if it were a password to the second floor. He could hear the sounds of the TV now. The laughter of a game show filtered through a gap between the door and the floor. He knocked loud enough to be heard over the blaring box.
“Who is it?” demanded a voice inside.
“It’s me - like every other night.”
“You think you are the only one that comes knockin?” said the voice of the man inside as he opened the door. A familiar figure wearing thick black-rimmed glasses and a baby-blue golf hat waved him in. There were several teeth missing from his smile, and it would have affected the doorman’s speech further if he were prone to talk more than he did.
His first step into the room brought palpable change with it.. The air was heavy - burdensome to an interior that could have served only to improve first impressions of the rough exterior. It had the properties of a building being slowly demolished by neglect. The space was full of dancing shadows begotten by the only light in the room, the TV, and it made him feel as though he was in some kind of B-grad film. “I’ve become a damned stereotype,” he thought, and it hadn’t taken him long to reach this point.
After promising that he would never find himself in a place like this, he was now a regular visitor. Every night, beginning at first with the allure of a woman made attractive by whiskey and the fact she would say yes, he continued to climb the stairway in the darkness to do business with the man enthralled with game shows. The woman was, incidentally, gone weeks ago.
“You got three?” he mumbled as he pulled crumpled tip money he had earned bussing tables from his pocket. “And I wanna do one of ‘em here.”
“Yeah, you can sit right here nexta me - I likes your company. I like that extra five dollars too.”
He handed the TV man 65 dollars and sat, if not sank, into the mismatched cushion of a second or third-hand couch. He was acutely aware of his hand, shaking as though it belonged to an eighty year-old. The strange idea of sacrament passed through his mind, and he unintentionally muttered a word or two about “communion.” The TV man laughed at this, and dropped three yellow-ivory nuggets into his hand. Next he passed along a short piece of hollow metal snipped from the rabbit-ear antennae that had once served the television. In a few moments, he though, his day would change. It would suddenly seem at once vastly better, depressingly worse, and extraordinarily intense - like some sort of perverse Trinity of reality that would never be easily explained.
He grabbed a lighter from the coffee table in front of the couch. The metal top had been removed and when he lit it, the flame leapt out like a finger, beckoning him to tilt his head closer. Just as he tried to steady himself to take advantage of the flame - it flickered out. The TV man chuckled.
“That’s the last one in the house. I’ve been to busy to walk to the gas station to get another.”
He quietly considered his options. He begrudgingly accepted the fact that that he would have to wait before he went through his evening metamorphosis. He sighed to himself, but said nothing. He simply shoved the nuggets into his pocket, stood up, and walked toward the door.
“We’ll get that light for you tomorrow,” the TV man jibed. “I’m sure we’ll be seein’ you tomorrow.”
He paused for a moment, wanting to answer, but he was unable to manufacture any response. The TV man stood, holding the door to the stairwell open. “See ya,” he said, and almost seemed as though he was empathizing with his customer.
He made his way down the stairs, from memory, and stepped through the entrance onto the sidewalk. It was dark now. The basketball game continued under the street light, but there was little other activity. He remembered a time when the evenings held so much promise. He recalled with a vivid picture in his mind’s eye the intimate times he used to enjoy with friends, with women who loved him.
Everything and everybody had been used up, emotionally drained and abused. Those who hadn’t left him he rejected out of his own sense of shame. All he had left were the three rocks in his pocket. He saw nothing more in his future. In fact - he no longer cared. He no longer had a place to go. An epiphany of paralysis occurred. Immobility struck. A hyper-anxiety erupted out of the self- realization of who he had become. Self-awareness can be a vicious enemy, he thought, and along with his loss of hope he now had to deal with an expanding knowledge of his own culpability. The end was presenting itself to him, and it awaited his authorship. He drew the rocks from his pocket, and released them into the gutter grate. He started home without buying vodka, and he knew, of course, that he had just made everything worse.
He had been squatting at a vacant four apartment building on Fourth Street, a place that none of the other of the neighborhood’s tramps had yet discovered. He felt safe enough when he walked in, hoping he would still think as much when the inevitable suffering began. Throwing away the crack was insane, but it presented him with a reasonable battle. The liquor would be noticeably absent from his system in a few hours, and liquor made demands of its own that would require him to suspend reason, whether he forged ahead or surrendered. “All at once,” he muttered, “I’ll do it all at once.”
Hours into the early morning, he sat up reading by flashlight. The shakes were uncontrollable, he could no longer focus on the book he had stolen from a college student’s backpack. He had been “self-educating” himself for a few years, though it seemed like a pointless endeavor. It had never occurred to him that he might get a formal college education. His thoughts were beginning to race, and strobe-like, his mind flashed images form the text he was reading, and the text itself seemed as though to be speaking. He heard the voices of visitors, yet still, at this point, knew those visitors were the product of the liquor void he was suffering through. Talking textbooks and ghostly visitors gave way to full blown crisis. He perceived himself as trapped, feeling the presences of unwanted authorities and onlookers, of television news-copters, and of the demons who were struggling against exorcism. Terrified, he walked into the next room of the apartment.
His context changed abruptly, as though he had fallen headlong into a dream without the gist of sleep. He found himself in a room, though certainly not the room he had intended to walk into. It occurred to him that he should pay special attention. There were odds and ends of furniture. A chair salvaged from his grandmother’s house. The ever-present picture of the gray haired man praying over his bread was hanging on the wall. A recliner was sitting against another wall, and without testing to make sure, he knew there was a broken spring laying in wait for an unexpecting ass to grab. A braided rug, snagged and snared and coming apart at various seams, lay in the center of the room. It acted magnetically to attract every beige and brown and off-white that stained the walls and mix them into a puddle that resided upon the floor. A sofa, probably two decades old and probably commandeered from some bachelor uncle’s basement, drifted atop of the puddle rug. Phone books may have propped up the couch where a leg was missing. He really didn’t have to look. It was that familiar.
Two men entered the room, and he sat on the couch with them. He could sense that, even though there was a young man on either side of him, one white and the other black, they were somehow one. His experience of them together can only be expressed in terms of him. He was college-aged, and in both embodiments he looked relaxed in blue-jeans and sweatshirts. His gym shoes were canvass, dirty and worn. He thought somehow like there should be music in the background, but there was none. Just the three of them, and this sense of utter familiarity that put an end to his previous sense of urgency.
“Your on the right road,” said the presence on his right. The presence on his left put a hand on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He relaxed, breathing like he knew hope again. He then drifted off, into a state of promise that momentarily assured him of salvation.
Morning came, and afternoon had almost passed before he awoke. The miracle of sleep had ushered him through what should have been the most demanding period of his regeneration. Still, his shaking hands and pounding heart, his aching head and crippled extremities, betrayed the weight of the remaining burden. Working was out of the question, and he really didn’t believe that having money in his pocket would have fit into his plans for the next few days. It’s just like last night, he thought, I still have no place to go. The prospect of being alone, however, terrorized him. He closed his eyes and tried to muster a destination.
There was a church building he knew of. Actually, the neighborhood was filled with churches of all types. It had seemed to him that many of the older churches phallically represented the god of past generations the same way that missiles and skyscrapers served the phallic subconscious of wealthy males. The neighborhood was home to massive Catholic monuments and Presbyterian edifices, magnificent Lutheran complexes that were expanding into a collection of annexes, and an Anglican Church that was even whiter than the rest. He hated the god represented by these buildings, whose white suburban congregations drove into the neighborhood to worship the god of their youth in the churches of their childhoods. The buildings intended to reflect the omnipotence, omniscience, and majesty of their god as they required the space of an entire city block or more. Yet, while these white folks kept coming from twenty miles away to worship in the churches of their fathers, they were oblivious to the obvious – god had left this neighborhood. Shekinah was the lie of the city, yet the white folks insisted upon believing it.
There were the other churches, though - the ones where people were shoehorned into spaces smaller than most of the neighborhood’s liquor stores. On any given Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday night, shouts and singing and preaching and invitation were all present in the air that was drawn into the gravity of worship. Most of these churches were in disrepair. He remembered one night when he was walking through the neighborhood (in his boxer shorts, nothing else) and one of these storefront churches was having a revival. As he walked passed, he asked two doormen if the place was a cover for a blind pig. “This is after-hours for Jesus,” said one of the men. The other was more appropriately disgusted. For whatever reason, he began walking toward that same storefront. He didn’t exactly expect any god to be present, but perhaps hope might still reside there. He reflected for a moment that resources were in short supply in his neighborhood. The storefronts of God seemed to have been emptied of product, looted by the tax-base that believed the Exodus led to the suburbs.
He arrived at his destination. There was no one there, and the doors were locked. He didn’t know if anyone would come by on this Saturday. He really didn’t know if anyone still met there. He felt compelled, however, to wait there, half hoping that a savior would really could arrive and liberate him from his own bondage to self-destruction and self-hatred. He thought of the Exodus story, and he thought of Jesse Jackson. The irony of his source of biblical knowledge was lost upon him. The cry, “Let my people go” was to him the cry of an activist turned presidential candidate. But he knew the slavery story, and he knew the stories of liberation in the context of the twelve-step meetings he had been court-order to attend, and put the two together. Moses would perhaps come to this place. He had a feeling of this, though it was more a feeling of urgency than of hope.
His broken body somehow recalled the necessity of food as he sat waiting by the church doors. There was a gas station across the street on the corner, and he walked over to the two-inch thick window and asked if he could sweep the parking lot in exchange for some food. The cashier, who was working alone and didn’t like the prospect of going outdoors in the expanding darkness to sweep or do anything else, agreed. He received a broom, and a bucket of window wash to do windows and gas tanks. He set about his work, shaking as though he might rattle apart like a ’78 Chevette on the freeway. While he was working, he saw a man unlock the doors of the church, and noticed that several others followed over the time he was sweeping.
He finished his work, though the station hardly looked improved upon. He asked for a large bag of Doritos and a Hostess Apple Pie, and the clerk gave him a Lil’ Hug drink to wash it down. He thought of the Lil’ Hug drink. There were empty miniature clear plastic barrels that littered almost every street of the neighborhood. They cost ten cents apiece, and the kids would by them by the dozen, as would the drunks who chased vodka shots with them. He thought of the vodka, yearned for it for a moment, and then headed for the church across the street.
When he approached the doors, he hesitated to go in. He still didn’t really know why he was there, or what he expected to happen as a result of his visit. He forced himself through the doors. He was driven more by the fear that he would be drinking again in an hour if he didn’t do something, anything, to step into the unknown that held hope for a light at the end of it all. He was walking toward the light so to speak, upon the promise it would be ahead despite the utter despair that was swallowing it.
When he waked in, there was a circle of people sitting in the middle of a room filled with folding chairs. At the head of a room was a folding table covered with a dingy and yellowed cloth, and a wooden cross standing in the center. Behind the table on the wall was another cross, and somewhat startlingly, there were two pictures of Jesus. On the left of the cross was the “traditional” type of paining that presented Jesus as a dirty blond white boy with blue eyes and a crown of thorns. There were drops of blood streaming form the crowned head.
Hanging to the right of the cross was a picture of Jesus, but in this portrait he was black. It was Jesus alright, because he was wearing the robe and had been nailed to crude cross. There was another picture cut from a book or magazine stuck into the bottom corner of the picture frame. It was a photo of a man who was hanging from a tree, the victim of a mid-century southern lynching.
That picture cut his heart, and he silently cursed the fucked-up notion that suffering and death rescued anybody. All these Jesus folks were killing black folks left and right back in the day, at the same time they were praising the god of white supremacy. The cut-out picture showed evidence that at least one person at this church wasn’t buying into that god, who now resided in the suburbs and visited the neighborhood during holidays and weekend service-learning trips. Someone then broke into his thoughts. “Hello young man,” said a graying man, maybe in his fifties. For whatever reason, he guessed this man was a deacon or something, though he didn’t really know what a deacon was. He felt a response welling up within him.
And so he confessed. He accepted an invitation to joins the group sitting in tacircle of ten people, a prayer group that met on Saturday evenings in preparation for Sunday worship services. He was shaking, and felt ill, and was ashamed because he was smelling of sweat. He was covered by the dust of the gas station parking lot, yearning for vodka, distracted by thoughts of crack rocks and prostitutes. He was ashamed because he was sure that if there was a god left in the city, that god would have frowned upon his life,And he confessed.
His words poured out to the prayer group. He talked about his alcoholism and drug addiction. He talked about the family he had driven away. He talked about hating god and God and churches and the Church. Mostly, though, he talked about sin, his own sin, aware of the irony that stemmed from the recently held knowledge that their was no such thing as sin. A night of abstinence proved him wrong bout that. So did the pictures on the wall, who convinced him of his own complicity in sin at a depth he had never realized. He continued confessing. He confessed that he was lonely, and crazy, and wanting to drink now even more than he did an hour ago, or two hours ago, or five hours ago. He was dying for a drink, and he confessed as much. He was hoping for forgiveness, though he wasn’t sure what forgiveness looked like, and wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself.
An elderly woman rose for her seat in the circle and sat next to him. She placed her hand on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He relaxed, breathing like he knew hope again. The woman offered that the man who looked like a deacon could make a few phone calls, and they could find him a place to stay so that he might not have to drink, and he might not have to be alone. “You need to go to the mission,” she said, “and we can get you in there.” He dreaded the mission. He dreaded the fundamentalism, and the baptisms, and the altar calls. Mostly, he dreaded the rules. He knew, though, that he had to do something.
The woman and the deacon drove him to the mission on Third Avenue. If there was a god, god had a sickening sense of humor. The mission, with its neon sign that brightly suggested that ”Jesus Saves,” was located next door to a pool hall. “oh no,” he thought. He know all about what went on there. “How am I gonna live next to this crap”” he asked the deacon, who replied something to the effect that he had been that crap for the past few years. “A day not drinking don’t make you better than them,” said the deacon, “And a year of not drinking might make you worse to be around.” The man laughed at his own joke, and his passenger who was crap thought to himself that the deacon knew more than he was letting on.
He stepped out of the back seat of the K-car, onto the sidewalk and toward the mission doors. The deacon grabbed his arm and guided him - not gently, but not to aggressively – into the building. There were catcalls from the pool hall next door, and he was sure he knew one of the women who was lingering outside and waved at him. He remembered the Exodus story, and how this did not seem anything like a liberation from bondage. He asked the deacon about the Exodus as they waited for someone to check him into the mission rehab program.
“Well,” started the deacon, “Remember, even after the Hebrew slaves were brought out of the House of Egypt, they kept on a-cryin’ to go back to slavery. Riskin’ the unknown of freedom made bondage seem a lil’ better lookin’. Followin’ the God of the Exodus is risky business man…he sends you everywhere and demands a lot but loves you even more.” He thought about crying to go back. He knew what was next when he took a drink or bought a rock. And if something went wrong, he would just be dead. But a life without such bondage, a life that demanded some semblance of maturity or responsibility, seemed to much of an impossibility in the shadows of getting stoned. Still, he sat, waiting for someone to make another decision for him.
A young man came through a door behind the intake area, which was bounded by an L-shaped remnant of an old bar that once stood in the pool hall next door. He sat down in the chair next to his new client. He did not smile, but looked serious. “We can medically detox you for three days,” said the young man, “You will have your own tiny room, and our nurse will check on you after the doctor checks you out. You have to eat with the rest of the men, and attend Bible study and groups. After you make it through detox, we can talk more about your future over the next few months. My name is Antohony. You’ll be welcomed to stay.” Anthony reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go up to your room,” he said.
As an afterthought, on the way up the stairs toward his room, he asked Anthony a question. “Do live in the suburbs?” he asked. “No, I live in an apartment upstairs in this building, why do you ask?”
“ I was just wondering where you went to church at,” he said. “I have an interest in learning about the Exodus, and I wondered which kind of exodus you were a participant in.
“We’re all part of an exodus,” said Anthony, “and too many of us turn back.
“What’s the point then,” he asked.”
“That God gives us second and third and fourth chances,” said Anthony. “Salvation happens where there’s hope. Hope happens when you trust God to do right by you. If you can’t trust God to guide you into and through the unknown, then there is no salvation. You walk back to Egypt, and bitch about being a slave again, blaming God the whole time. You gotta sacrifice if you want to be liberated, and sacrificing yourself is an act of trust that God is righteous.”
Anthony opened a door to a tiny room that contained a mattress and pillow with blankets folded at the foot of it. There was also chest of drawers with a Bible laying on top, and a cross hanging on the wall. “Do you think Jesus was a white guy or a black guy?” he asked Anthony.
“Jesus is evident in any person who sacrifices for the well-being of another person,” said Anthony. “Jesus is anybody and everybody. Here’s your room, someone will be up to check on you, and then you see the doctor. Until then, get some rest.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed after the door closed behind Anthony. He wanted a drink. He then wanted to be assured that tomorrow would promise relief - liberation from the desire to drink. And then he wanted a drink. And then, for the first time, he prayed. He closed his eyes, and prayed to Jesus, whoever Jesus was. He prayed to Jesus, and he prayed to God. “Please, don’t guide me toward the suburbs,” he thought. “I’m crying out – give me faith so that I can trust somebody,” he prayed. “I don’t want to turn back.