Supper with the Exorcist
A skittish clutch.
After forty-some years of ho-hum, every-other-Sunday churchgoing, my father decided one morning—after he accidentally knocked the Oldsmobile into reverse and collided with a cypress tree near the driveway, pulling his eventual death into sudden focus—to devote his life to God. He became a deacon at our Lutheran church, which meant he could assist the pastor by giving sermons, presiding at weddings and funerals, and preparing the altar for sacraments.
I called my father by his first name, Gary, because I was sixteen and all bets were off.
… or the time he took all those nude photos of my mom and mailed them to art galleries.
Gary acted like my mom and I would never understand his sacred duties—the weekly visits to the sick, the evening naps with a Bible on his lap—when in fact we understood him all too well. He was growing a beard and reading the early Roman theologians as if he had found the key to a happier existence. It was just like the time Gary built a greenhouse and said we would grow our own vegetables from now on. Or the time he took all those nude photos of my mom and mailed them to art galleries.
The greenhouse didn’t pan out.
Five minutes into a supper of beef lasagna and canned vegetables, the phone rang. “It’s Louise,” my mom said, “from the pastor’s office. She says you need to get down there right away.”
“Something is wrong with Ray Stoudamire.”
A chair squealed as Gary pushed away from the table. Car keys flashed in his hand. I was desperate to drive the Oldsmobile. As soon as Gary poked his arm through his coat sleeve, I snatched the keys. He spun around, fists clenched, as if he intended to fight me. But when he saw my mother, he relaxed his jaw, and his shoulders rolled back.
“Tell Louise we’ll be there in ten minutes.”
We almost crash.
I was cruising through a perfectly legal, yellow stoplight, when a Dodge pickup jumped out of the intersection to my right. An instant later I braked, but I had already swerved into the oncoming lane. For a second I locked eyes with an elderly woman behind the wheel of a black Honda. Our fenders almost kissed. There was no crash, but I felt a phantom impact in the soles of my feet. It rippled through my body and collapsed my lungs like a deck of shuffled cards.
Gary was so busy reading his deacon’s manual that he barely noticed. He just gripped the door handle and leaned slightly to the right.
I drove on to the church.
The only light came from the belltower. Pigeons used to roost up there until the crows came and scared them off. Then we laid spikes on all the ridges and archways to drive the crows away. We could abide the pigeons but not the crows. That always bothered me. Actually, there was a second light coming from the church—I saw a candle flickering in the sanctuary. The church was guarded by thick wooden doors, but Gary had keys to a side entrance.
Gary entered the church.
I pulled over and let the engine run.
Ghosts in outer space.
The sky overhead was cloudless and black. I watched it through my windshield as if it were moving.
Constellations and visible planets used to be a source of wonder and comfort for me, until my father, on a kick about space exploration, explained why the stars appear to blink. He said a million gaseous particles are drifting before our eyes, totally invisible, and when they pass in front of the stars they obscure our vision for a moment. He said I should think of these particles as ghosts in outer space. And then he gave a low, hideous laugh.
Since then, I have tried my hardest not to believe in ghosts. Even now, I prefer my night skies cloudy.
St. Thomas was a doubter.
Gary came out and stood by the driver’s side window. “Okay,” he said. “It’s an exorcism.” He was tugging the sharp bristles of his beard so hard I thought his face might come off. I wanted him to rip it away, like a mask, toss it on the seat beside me, and say, “Fuck it, let’s get the hell out of here.” And I would throw his door open and we would peel away like bank robbers. But he just stood there and stroked his beard.
“Stars are out,” he said.
And then we heard a sickening scream. The lights behind a stained glass of St. Thomas flared out, briefly, and snapped back on. I may have been old enough to drive, but I was still young enough to feel my ribcage seize up when I was afraid.
The lights behind a stained glass of St. Thomas flared out, briefly, and snapped back on.
“What’s going on?”
Gary said, “Ray Stoudamire came to the pastor’s office this morning, and I guess he just lost control. Freaked out. Pastor Evan is in there right now, trying to calm him down. I’m supposed to sit with them and pray. That’s supposed to help.” Gary looked pale. “Do me a favor. Circle the block if you want, but stay close. I’ll come back if I need you.”
“Need me for what?” I started to say, but I couldn’t find the breath.
Gary disappeared into the church. I rolled forward and parked beside a chain link fence. As soon as I killed the engine, I felt something in my chest throw a little fit, and I dropped my forehead on the steering wheel.
Who is Ray Stoudamire?
He belonged to our church, but I never would have known him if my father wasn’t a deacon. Ray lived in a homeless shelter, and he came to Sunday services with the fervor of the newly converted. He served coffee, shook hands with all the ladies, and made the sign of the cross before touching the collection plate. I, on the other hand, was born into the church, so there was no cause for excitement. In a ten-block radius of the steeple I had my school, a baseball diamond, a comic book store, and a lonely stretch of road where the older kids raced their cars at night. That was my whole life.
I pictured Ray Stoudamire strapped to the altar while Gary and Pastor Evan sliced his chest open with a blessed knife, and all the demons, or whatever, came flying out. I thought of sharp fangs and secret incantations and chamber pots swirling with blood. I knew my head would explode at the sight of such unfathomable gore. Somehow it was even worse being on my own, in the Oldsmobile, under a night sky.
So I entered the church.
Ray Stoudamire was slumped beneath the baptismal font, a mixture of anger and confusion streaked across his face like tracks in the mud. The sanctuary was quiet except for the brush of Pastor Evan’s loafers on the carpet. He wore a gray sweatshirt from his alma mater as he paced the central aisle. I wasn’t scared like I thought I would be.
But the screaming, when it came again, was like the cry of a cornered dog. It leaped from Ray Stoudamire’s throat in staccato bursts that broke and re-broke the silence of the wooden rafters. His body wrenched into action and he climbed to his feet. That’s when Pastor Evan stepped forward and pinned him down. Shaking and shuddering, he brought Ray back to earth. It seemed like such an arbitrary struggle—one man goes up, the other goes down—but it felt like all hell would break loose if Ray ever made it to his feet.
Ray Stoudamire was slumped beneath the baptismal font, a mixture of anger and confusion streaked across his face …
I recognized my father in the first pew, his shoulders locked in concentration, his head bowed in prayer. When he saw me running toward him, his eyes melted like candles, and I saw his surprise, fear and determination dripping down. With his cheeks breaking out in something like a sweat, he hustled us both outside, to the Oldsmobile, and we got back on the road.
How the demons came to possess Ray Stoudamire.
Apparently Ray went to a free clothing drive at the homeless shelter, and they gave him a new coat. He said the demons were in the coat. As soon as he pulled it on, they entered his body.
I said I didn’t believe it. Gary said neither did he, but the important thing was that Ray believed it.
A cold lasagna supper with the exorcist.
The road home was slick and dazzled by street lamps.
“Use your turn signal,” Gary said. “Go a little further before you start the turn. Right here is good.” Each time he opened his mouth I knew exactly what he was going to say, but I didn’t stop him.
Gary said, “Did you get enough to eat before we left?”
I shook my head.
“We’ll fix you something.”