There were strange hands on me. Some were small and cold; others seemed large and rough and smelled of sawdust and cinnamon. It was my third time at the new church, but I’d seen nothing like this before. The hands belonged to male church elders, who were encircling me in front of the entire congregation. Some of the men prayed aloud while others stood silent, their heads bowed. Dan Derkin was leading them. I knew Dan because he had visited my house several times to pray with my dad. He was now squeezing my head and neck, sputtering nonsense words as I helplessly tried to make eye contact with my parents. I was eight years old.
“Your son stutters because he is possessed by demons,” Dan had coolly informed my mother and father before the service began, as if he were reading from my medical chart. He’d leveled his eyes at my father and said, “We must cast them from his body.”
Other exorcisms were happening simultaneously throughout the cavernous sanctuary; I could hear wailing and the soft thuds of bodies hitting the floor. I called out for my father, and the men tightened their grip. My vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. “Be gone!” Dan shouted. The other men hummed softly as one said, “Praise the Lord.”
Then, just like that, it was over. Hands released their grip, and the men moved away like one body. Still dizzy, I reached out. One of the men grabbed my shirt sleeve to steady me, laughing softly. “Easy, Chris,” he said. “It’s OK.”
Dan guided me back to my family, his palm pressed gently between my shoulder blades. I stepped into the pew, embarrassed that this had happened in front of so many people. My father smiled down at me and stroked my hair while my mother shifted uncomfortably, saying nothing. I looked over at another group of church elders in a nearby corner, huddled around a man’s twisted frame like hunters around a steaming buck.
Later, on the ride home, my father asked what I wanted for dinner, and I discovered I could answer him in uninterrupted sentences, my stuttering all but gone.
A month later — my mother pregnant and due any day — I spent a week with a family who were also members of our church. I knew their son Jim from the church-run elementary school we both attended. Jim had recently had casts removed from both arms, which he’d broken falling upside down from a jungle gym. In two months he would find himself back in the emergency room with shards of green glass embedded in his thighs and buttocks: after rolling down a grassy hill, he’d landed atop broken Coke bottles that were obscured by the tall grass. As doctors removed pieces of glass from his skin, the church elders would meet to discuss what Jim had done to displease the Lord so.
During my stay at Jim’s house, I noticed how much time his family members spent together. They congregated at the kitchen table for meals and sang songs after dessert; they watched The Muppet Show together and laughed at the same parts. I was lonesome for a family like theirs. My father was a local disc jockey, and I heard his voice more than I saw him. My mother was a mystery, too. Raised Irish Catholic and physically abused by her parents, she’d gotten pregnant by my father at age seventeen. Family life seemed to have trapped her in a deep depression. She’d nap daily with me wide awake beside her. I’d listen to the slow draw of her breath as I planned my escape downstairs to watch Creature Double Feature on Channel 56. Eventually she’d wake from her afternoon nap, hair mussed, and I’d turn off the TV and help her prepare cube steak and French fries for dinner. Afterward, waiting for my father to return home, we’d dance to her Don McLean album, singing, “The earth, the earth, the earth is my grave.”
On my third night with my friend’s family, Jim’s father thanked the Lord for having me be their guest. Everyone nodded and smiled around the dinner table, then held hands and recited a prayer, blessing the meal we were about to eat. At bedtime, I slipped into my fire-retardant pajamas and pulled back the covers of the makeshift bed set up next to Jim’s. Then Jim got real close to me. I could feel his right arm firm against my left. His breathing quickened.
“Do you want to feel good?” he asked.
As he wrapped his hand around my small penis, I never knew I had a choice.
Afterward Jim crawled into his bed without a word and fell asleep. I felt alien and detached in the darkness, sitting on the edge of my bed.
We went to school the next morning, and I found out that my mother had had a baby girl; she’d had a C-section, and my mother and new sister would be in the hospital for a few more days. I was excitedly telling this to my friend Danny when my second-grade teacher slapped me on the back of the head and ordered me to continue coloring in my Bible workbook. I lowered my head and pressed my crayon to a picture of a camel and the betrayed Joseph, his treacherous brothers looming in the background.
That night, Jim was more demanding. He had me pull my pajamas down to my ankles, and we rubbed our penises together as if starting a fire. All the while, it seemed that I was falling, that the world was turning to dust beneath my trembling feet. I closed my eyes and tried to think about home. I conjured up memories of Saturday mornings watching cartoons with my father. He’d place his hand on my neck and rest it there, and I’d be happy to feel its weight. I’m going home soon, I thought, and then Jim brought me back, gripping my shoulder to steady himself.
The first night back home, I was wakened by thick screams. My brother Brian and I crept to the stairs and peeked between the banister rails. A man we knew from church lay on the hardwood floor, sputtering and convulsing, his lips shiny with spit and his eyes rolled back in his head. My father and several other men closed in on him, shouting incantations, their arms extended as if pushing at a great, invisible force. They rebuked the evil spirit and demanded that it leave his body. The man screamed louder while Brian and I looked on, frozen by the need to watch, paralyzed by our fear of leaving.
The next day my father asked me to go into the bathroom with him. Usually this meant a swift and merciless spanking, but as I lagged nervously behind, I noticed he wasn’t gripping a hairbrush or spatula. He closed the door, sighed, and ran his arthritic hand down his thick, reddish beard. My father looked more tired than I’d ever seen him.
“You know why we’re talking, don’t you, Chris?”
“No,” I said. The small window behind his head framed the deep June sun and made my father’s hair look as if it were on fire.
“I spoke with Jim’s parents.”
I stared at him blankly, not sure what more he would say.
“Jim told his folks what you made him do. Chris, what you did was a sin.”
“You see, in situations like this, the Lord is liable to take his hand off you for a while and allow bad things to happen to you. Do you understand?”
My dad stared at me, and a deep silence fell between us. He seemed lost and unsure of what to say next. Finally he offered, “I don’t want to talk about this again, OK? Now go outside and play.”
Down the street I found Brian on a neighbor’s bike, riding over a makeshift jump and popping wheelies in the dust. As I watched, I thought about what my dad had said. He’s right, I thought. It’s all my fault.
My parents stayed with the church for a few more years, then we moved to another town. One night soon afterward, they told us over bowls of spaghetti that they were getting divorced. Even so, we went back to the church for a couple of Sundays; my father drove us the hour and a half in our green Volare station wagon with the windows up, my mom’s perfume choking us. But after some of the church elders told my mother that she should stay married to my father, sell the new house, and move back to the area, my mother knew she could never come back. Infuriated by her stubbornness, Dan Derkin told her, “Well, it’s a long drive back, Pat. Let’s hope the Lord doesn’t decide to have your brakes go out.”
As the weeks of divorce proceedings dragged on, my father grew increasingly agitated, shaking his fist and exalting the Lord as he walked through each room of the new house. He later told Brian and me that the house was “unclean,” that demons hid in every corner. I sat up most nights and listened for these demons, wondering what they looked like and if I could hear their claws scuttling across the floor. In the dark, I became convinced that the pipes banging in the cellar were a whole legion of them, teeth-gnashing and horrible, waiting to devour me.
After about a week of this, each night progressively worse, I woke up one morning feeling sick and having wet the bed. I don’t remember much, but I do recall walking around the house shaking and mumbling, saying things like “I know they’re coming; they’re coming, aren’t they?” When my father couldn’t snap me out of my stupor, he took me back to my room, sat me on his lap, and began to pray. As he did, I realized that I was breathing in short, ragged gasps. I also realized that my father was saying things like “Leave his body” and “Release him.” That’s when I understood that he believed I was possessed, that my soul was engulfed by a dark and dreadful thing.
I was beginning to wonder if I was, in fact, filled with demons when my father raised his voice and commanded the spirits to leave me in the name of God. At that point, my own voice separated from my body, as if someone had turned up the volume in my chest and I had no control over it. My throat released a horrifying scream, rasping and ugly, and I knew that it was not my voice. After all these years of watching people flail about in my church, writhing and foaming in a crushed heap, at last it was happening to me.
My monstrous scream surprised and terrified me so much that I lurched toward my father’s body and dug my fingers into his soft flannel shirt. I felt weak and weightless across his legs, and I began sobbing. My father held me close and assured me that I was OK. The Lord had saved me, he said, and the next breath I’d take would again be my own.
It was one of the last times my father and I would hold each other so closely.
The final week he lived with us, my father completely secluded himself. He had taken a part-time job at a pizza shop in town, and when he came home from work, he would go into his room without a word and lock the door. Brian and I saw him only when he emerged for more beer. I wondered if he was writing, or maybe drawing cartoons the way he had when I was younger. He had always told my mother that he had the “soul of an artist” and, because of that, found it impossible to perform menial tasks around the house or work at a job that required extended commitment or responsibility.
Months later Brian and I searched our father’s old room. Instead of finding stories or drawings, we discovered a couple of audio cassettes stuffed into a shoe box. Dates were scribbled across each cassette; Dad had made the bulk of the recordings during the last week he’d been home. We sat at the kitchen table, slid one of the tapes into our mother’s cassette recorder, and pressed PLAY.
At first it sounded as if our father were telling the story of King Arthur, but eventually my brother and I realized he was trying to imagine a better life for himself. I was confused by how happy he sounded. In a drunken voice, he said that if he lived in a different time, he’d like to have a brigade of long bowmen at his disposal, versus “lowly” crossbowmen, or perhaps a magnificent, shimmering troop of armored knights to protect him, if he were the feared yet benevolent king of a medieval fiefdom. My brother and I listened for a couple of hours, then finally gave up and stopped the tape.
After the divorce was finalized, my father moved into an all-male boardinghouse in town. Among other things, he took the black-and-white TV he’d kept on the back porch, which had been his retreat when he and my mother had been fighting. One night Brian and I went to visit him at the boardinghouse and watched a Celtics game on TV. We looked on as Celtics star Larry Bird performed athletic feats we could only dream of. “God, he’s good,” Dad said. Brian and I agreed, nodding silently as we watched Bird run up and down the court, putting the other team to shame. “When’s your mother coming to get you?” he asked.
“You already asked that,” I said.
As my father rummaged for more beef jerky in an empty plastic bag, I gazed blindly at the TV and knew I would never come back to this place, with its lonely wooden hallways, its strange shadows, its recently divorced fathers all living under one sad roof.
Toward the end of the basketball game, we heard a car horn outside. Brian and I peered out the third-floor window and saw the green Volare idling in the street. We said goodbye to our father. As I hugged him, I could hear small noises in his throat as if he were trying to say my name. I hugged him tighter, pressed my ear to his chest, and listened to him breathe.