The Conditions of Deliverance

“Nothing was better than aligning with one of Vern’s messages from God.”

Photo: Uwa Scholz / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm
Photo: Uwa Scholz / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm
Photo: Uwa Scholz / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

By the time I arrived at Gifts of the Spirit, my mother’s dress was wet against my back. The pad in my briefs felt heavy and I wanted it off. A thicker heat swept over me. There had never been air-conditioning, never even a swamp cooler. If God brought the heat we were meant to be hot.

In the emptiness, the space seemed smaller. By some impossible magic the whole Body fit here every Sunday. In the center of the groaning floor the tired wood drooped and made the church a shallow bowl. There was a fine layer of God glitter permanently on it like a varnish for there was no need to sweep away a physical wonder of the spirit. The pews were built by the hands of men when Vern’s father was a young pastor. The ceiling was high with rafters surrounding it, and a single stained-glass window loomed behind the pulpit, featuring a pack of fearful flying cherubs. The light filtered orange through the stained glass and below it, on the wall, hung a portrait of Jesus with a bloody and beaten face, a reminder of the horrors He’d gone through. Next to it was a portrait of Vern in imitation of Jesus, his own face woeful, smeared with what I assumed was fake blood and makeup, but it looked so real I didn’t know for sure. Vern wanted us to be reminded that our sin hurt our pastor in the same way it had hurt Jesus and God—likely more.

Vern was always here throughout the week, preparing sermons in his small office in the loft like a full-time job, sometimes rehearsing them on the stage, I’d been told, but had never seen myself. We weren’t to disrupt him unless it was an emergency, and now here, the confidence I had felt on my walk over faltered. I could still leave, I considered. I could go back home, maybe talk it over with my mother again when she returned from her assignment, when she would be a little tired, heat-beaten to a sweetness and willing to agree to anything to stop my badgering. I stepped back toward the doorway.

But then a voice from above. “You have something for me,” Vern said from the top of the stairwell, a blue shiny cape fastened around his neck. His hair shone and his cheeks were covered in gold sparkling God glitter. It was a sign he had been with the Father transcribing a message. I’d interrupted.

He held his arms out and his face broke into a smile. I felt myself exhale. I ran up the narrow stairs and he folded me into a hug. I thought for the slightest moment I smelled cigarette smoke on his cape, but he would never smoke. He was above humanly desires, he told us, and smoking was just a way to fill a God-sized hole. “I knew I’d have a visitor today,” he said, ushering me into the small office. My worry fell away then. Nothing was better than aligning with one of Vern’s messages from God.

The wall behind his wooden desk was covered in crosses but no crucifix. Christ didn’t stay on the cross, he always told us, just as Vern himself also would not have tolerated hanging there, bleeding out. Vern likened himself to Jesus often, saw himself as an equal or even a superior to Him, so we didn’t really worship Jesus because Vern was also God’s chosen son, just in current times. Every so often when the need was great, God would decide on a son, and Vern was it now, and Jesus was like Vern’s retired spirit brother, and was mostly left out of things. “Let Him rest,” Vern had told us from the first sermon I had ever heard him preach. “He is tired, but I am powerful.”

We sat across from each other and he looked at his hands, eyes closed. I could see the shaved Spirit Hole on top of his head, the little spiky regrowth. I closed my eyes, too, and imagined my assignment. I secretly hoped it would be something people could see me doing. I wanted to be stationed somewhere, in the Pac N’ Save maybe, bringing people to faith in the soap aisle. I would summon the God glitter and even Quince would not be able to resist my good news.

I looked up and Vern was staring at me, face a calm pool. I realized I mostly saw him in motion, whirring across the stage of the church. But here, in the silence, so up close to him, he could have passed for one of my mother’s men, sort of ruddy-faced, a bit dark under the eyes. He had blackheads on his nose and I felt my breath catch a little. I wondered why he didn’t get rid of them, or ask God to. Then I felt ridiculous for my vain fixations. Vern was dealing with more important things than blackheads. “What brings you?” he said.

I had wanted him to pull the truth from me on his own so I could remain innocent—not having betrayed my mother, and not having betrayed him. But I knew in a true faith there was no such thing as both, so I chose.

I pulled out a piece of bloodied toilet paper I’d carried with me in my purse. I set it on the desk between us. Here was the proof, and it would talk for me. I could even get creative and tell my mother that Vern saw me walking through town, blood on the back of her white dress.

He pressed the stained toilet paper between his fingers, lifted it close to his eye. I prepared for him to jump up from his seat, maybe enclose me in another hug. But he straightened his shoulders. Let the red paper flutter to the floor. “This could have come from anything,” he said. He picked up a pencil and began to write something in his sermon notes as if I wasn’t even there.

I scooted back in the chair. I just had to get through this part and then I could have my assignment. But how did he want me to do it? I pulled my mother’s dress up a little. I started to raise a foot to his desk.

“Please.” He tapped my foot with the pencil and I put it down. “We’ve been waiting on your blood for a while now. Forgive me for taking this seriously.”

The way he was talking tripped me up. Was he implying I wasn’t taking it seriously? Nothing could be more serious to me. It was like he was scolding and praising at the same time, and suddenly the office felt too hot, too small.

I thought of my mother, how I’d been annoyed with her but perhaps I’d missed something. Now it was too late.

“My mother didn’t want me to tell you.” These words came from my mouth easily.

He leaned back in his chair, let his head fall to one side. This was the soft Vern, the hugging sort, back again. “You’re lucky coming to me so early in your life. Your mother sinned for a long time and I’ve washed the marks of her sin but I can still see the scars.”

My mother never liked to talk about how she was before her transformation. After my father left, her drinking had taken her over like flames through a house. I remembered feeling scared for us sometimes, when she drove down the road swerving and braking late. When she would close herself in our room for days, silent, and I’d sleep on the couch watching television late into the night, M.A.S.H. and I Love Lucy. For a while she’d had a boyfriend who didn’t wear pants around our apartment and I could see his flesh poking out from under his T-shirts. His eyes were always bleary, and he gave me sapphire earrings one night while my mother was passed out. He had pulled me close to him so he could put them on me, only to find I didn’t have pierced ears.

He bent me over his lap that night. He pierced them with the dull poke of the earrings themselves while I called out for my mother and she never came. What a pretty little girl I was, he said, when it was over. And now, looking at Pastor Vern, my heart surged with affection thinking of that time, for it was he who had delivered us out of it.

The conditions of deliverance were these: one, that my mother never drink again; two, that she remain chaste, a bride to the church. Vern had held her to his chest and my mother got starry-eyed. Yearning for something good, she agreed.

“So what do I do?” I asked him now. He put his hand on top of mine, and in a rush, the pounding heat, the sweat on my skin, seemed to cool like a broken fever.

“Each member of the Body needs to be in a place of trust with their fellow brother. The men of this church have been appointed to lead. It’s the holy structure …” He released my hand and wiped his nose, which had begun to drip. “Hay fever,” he said. “No trees blooming, no grass, but still, allergies.”

I wanted to ask why God hadn’t healed his allergies but he kept talking. “I’ll ask that you trust this structure with every piece of yourself.”

But my mother wasn’t just waiting around and trusting. She was going somewhere every day like a job.

“Everyone’s assignment will look different,” Vern went on. “Each person has their own gifts within God’s army.” He leaned forward and kissed my forehead with dry lips. I smelled the sun on his skin, intoxicating. Tears welled in my eyes. This wasn’t what I’d expected. I’d wanted to leave with a notebook full of instructions.

“How is your mother?” he asked.

I couldn’t tell him that along with spring’s arrival, beers had appeared in strange places around the apartment, in the back of the nightstand drawer, behind our collection of canned beans. That she kept them in brown paper bags, drank several each evening standing before our sliding glass window looking out at the parking lot filled with half-broke-down Fifth Avenues and Novas. That her eyes had changed from ambitious to roving. Toward what I still didn’t know.

Excerpted from GODSHOT by Chelsea Bieker. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2020 by Chelsea Bieker.

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The Conditions of Deliverance