When I was a teenager, I worked at a Pizza Hut. My last manager there told me I was going to go to hell. I was a senior at a Catholic high school. He was very solemn when he told me this. He was the deacon at a fundamentalist church. I asked him how I might prevent my going to hell and he told me that I needed to be saved by the Lord Jesus God. He invited me to come to his church one Sunday and meet people like him who weren’t going to be going to hell.
I said, “As long as you give me a ride down there, we’re golden.”
So he drove me down to his church — the Church of the Redeemer With Angels and Glory — one Sunday. The church building itself was conventional: pretty, white-steepled church and in a clearing in the middle of the woods near this little town north of Bradenton named Oneco.
Oneco is where the body of John Ringling resides, pickled in formaldehyde. If you pay three dollars and fifty cents you can go inside the crypt and take a look at the dead circus man. Outside you can buy a pretty good miniaturized likeness of him floating for all eternity inside his big glass coffin.
Inside the picturesque church, people were singing and dancing in the aisles. At the Incarnation Catholic Church, where my family attended mass most Sundays, nobody got riled up. Church for Catholics is a solemn affair consisting of the same reenactment of the Last Supper every weekend of the year except Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, we go ahead and reenact Christ’s lynching, too.
In this church, the Holy Spirit came down in a beam of light and made people speak in tongues. I didn’t see Him, but a lady to my left did and shouted out, “Ay-yee! Goomba, goomba!”
“Shazah! Shazah!” went another lady.
Then the minister asked people to come up and testify. Their stories have run together in my head like gooey strands of sparkling toothpaste squished together on a bathroom sink. What those strands tell me is that Pentecostal people usually waste the beginnings of their lives drinking whiskey, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, driving long haul trucks full of dope, and having strange sex with people of the opposite sex (and sometimes the same sex). At some point, God shows up in their lives, like a parent coming home and finding his house trashed after an adolescent weekend party. God tells these people that they’d better straighten out or they will go to hell. At least in one case, God showed the person exactly what hell was like. He showed her a place with rivers of steaming blood pouring over sharp rocks with all the dry land shooting flames and the hot, sulfurous air full of the screams of the damned.
The church had no air conditioning and it was the middle of a long, wet summer. I could feel the steam pouring off my skin and rivulets of sweat dripping from my moist underarms. The church doors were wide open. A gentle, heated, wet breeze blew through. No ornaments adorned this church; it was almost like a barn inside. The rafters above were filled with mockingbirds and they screeched and hollered in a thousand different languages learned secondhand from the Holy Spirit. The pews were carved out of cypress. The floorboards bowed up toward us.
The minister introduced my manager. He stepped up to the podium at the front of the church. He was comb-over bald and his hair was dyed jet-black. He mopped his forehead with a stained handkerchief. His armpits were soaked like everybody else’s. His tie was shiny, reflecting the shimmers of light coming in through the beat-up roof. He said something. His body language suggested he was enraged. Amen! said the people of the church, equally enraged. He said something else. His voice ricocheted off the wooden walls, tripping here, going there. Thank Jesus! said the church people. Then the manager was pointing at me. His arm and index finger were fully extended and shaking. His marriage ring gleamed in the musty church light. Hands pushed me, grabbed me, yanked me forward, out of my seat and up toward the movie manager up front.
My job may depend on this, I thought.
I stumbled up the steps and tripped in front of my boss, banging my forearm on the podium. And it tipped over. I was on my hands and knees. His hands wrapped around the top of my skull, his thumbs touching my eyebrows and his fingers caressing my wet hair. He had a gentle grip on me. I felt my face flush and the blood run out of my brain. It shamed me to have him touch me that way, I think. I made it up to my knees before he yelled, “Out demon!” The stage we were on turned bright white and cool, and the holes in the roof overhead blazed like a thousand klieg lights. I waited for something to happen, for God to make Himself known to me. He did not. But still, it was something else kneeling in front of so many people with a grown man’s hands wrapped around my forehead.
I stood up and said, “Thanks everybody!” The whole frenzied gathering seemed to peter out after that. There wasn’t a formal ending of the service. Like a magic act, they disappeared. People wandered outside where they set up a nice picnic, complete with fried chicken, potato salad and greasy potato chips. I had a real Coke, and then decided to walk home.
I hiked down the muddy road away from the church with my hands in my pockets, thinking. I thought I understood why so many people turned away from drugs and cheap sex, and to God. It’s a thrilling and heady experience getting saved and I felt like I could get addicted, much like my addiction at that time to prescription drugs that I stole out of other people’s medicine cabinets.
After I tromped up to the Tamiami Trail, I managed to thumb a ride with a guy who’d just returned from Alaska, from working in the oilfields. He was the hairiest man I’d ever seen in my life, hair poured off him, floated around him, gushed from his ears and nose and knuckles — and he smelled like baby shampoo and clove cigarettes. He said, “I’m so glad to be in Florida I could shit.” He asked me where the best place to pick up a prostitute was and I had to tell him that I had no idea. The only thing he would tell me about Alaska was that it was colder than a witch’s tit. He dropped me off at the Pizza Hut and I pointed him toward what I thought might be a prostitute-enriched part of town. I waved goodbye and watched as the hairy man drove off.
I’d stolen a pen from him that he’d stolen from a Denny’s in Austin, Texas. I wrote my resignation on a handbill that I found in a nearby trash can and shoved it through the mail slot on the Pizza Hut door and walked the rest of the distance home. I didn’t want to see that manager/deacon man again. I didn’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to feel like I have to believe in God in order to keep a job.