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BEST OF THE SOUTH ESSAY: Church Is Wherever You Are

"The Next Voice You Hear" (2011) by Pat Rocha. Courtesy of 101/exhibit.

Looking for God—and my mother—on the television.

The Trinity Broadcast Network is the largest religious-programming channel on American television. It was founded by Paul and Jan Crouch with the help of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. By the time Daddy started watching it, mid-summer 1995, Jim and Tammy Faye had long since fallen to scandal of both a sexual and financial variety, but Paul and Jan carried on. Jan looked like Tammy Faye's sister, down to the mascara that turned to black rivulets when she cried on camera, which she did often. Her hair was a sprawling mess, sometimes tinted pink, sometimes purple. Paul was a silver-haired, unexceptional-looking man with an outdated mustache, who spoke of his growing number of broadcast satellites as if they were his warrior-angels in hand-to-hand combat against the Devil.

The day Daddy introduced me to Trinity, I was in the computer room, typing my little rhyming poems, which were as angry as death-metal lyrics. I was fifteen years old. He hollered, "Come in here and look at this!" with a lilt in his voice as if he'd seen something too funny to be missed. When I stepped into the recessed living room—an extension to the original trailer—he told me to sit down.

"You need to watch this man."

I'd seen preaching on television before, of course. One time, my mother had found me watching Kenneth Copeland's show. "Why are you watching this?" she had asked in her patient way, curious about the whims of her only son. I told her I felt I couldn't change it; it was church, after all. "That isn't church," she said. "That's a TV show. Church is wherever you are when you're thinking about God."

When Daddy called me into the living room, though, I hadn't seen my mother in almost a year. She was a missing person, officially registered as such. If someone dialed 1-800-505-LORI, the telephone beside my water bed rang.

"Looks like an idiot," Daddy said, pointing at the screen with his cigarette. "Don't he?"

The preacher's name was T.D. Jakes. As he preached, he wiped at his forehead and the back of his neck—which had rolls of fat—with a handkerchief. He lisped. As he worked toward the crux of his lesson, he quickened his pace across the stage; his bald head trembled as if convulsed by his words. When he landed on a phrase he liked, he began repeating it with small variations, each repetition louder than the previous, stomping his feet like a carpenter testing out weak spots in the floor. As he reached the climax, many in the audience stood and lifted their hands, shouting, "Yes! Praise God!" until the entire congregation was leaping and swirling along. The next time he spoke, he was whispering, "Nothing that you been through will deter what God has spoken in you." He was captivating.

"Yup," Daddy said, "a total idiot."



Before my mother's disappearance, Daddy had not been the kind of man to take TV church seriously. A member of Christiana Baptist—a red-brick building by a long stretch of blacktop—he'd been baptized in Mad Indian Creek, beneath a canopy of hardwoods where the spring-fed current smelled of stones and rotten leaves. For a time in his early twenties, he'd struggled with the feeling that maybe he was himself called to preach, but decided that no, as much as he loved the Book—he even loved the heft of it in his hand; it felt like a weapon—he wasn't meant to share this love with neighbors. He was too shy for public speaking, too quick to grow angry at what he considered the ignorance and hypocrisy of the churchgoing crowd. When I was around six, he stopped going to church altogether. Faith for him, throughout most of my life, had been a private affair; he read the Bible alone.

But since the day my mother had driven south out of our red-clay driveway on Shiloh Church Road, never to be seen or heard from again, Daddy had changed. And one way the change announced itself to me—slowly unfolding over time—was his newfound interest in TV preachers.

With my mother gone, we watched TV together every day. During the evenings, after Daddy had returned from work at the rubber plant, we watched CNN first—"To make sure the world didn't catch fire"—eventually turning to Trinity sometime around seven o'clock after returning from supper with Daddy's parents (Daddy couldn't cook much more than a can of chili).

We came to know the televangelists as if they belonged to our circle of friends. Daddy's favorite was Creflo A. Dollar, a black preacher and academic type. Mine was Jack Van Impe, whose weekly show, Jack Van Impe Presents, was almost as concerned with darkness and evil as the "imp" in his name would suggest. During the show, he and his wife (Rexella) sat behind a studio desk like two news anchors. Looking into the camera, Rexella read the headlines and then Van Impe pounced on them, tossing out Biblical quotes as excitedly as a prophet fresh in from epiphany, relating the events of the news day to the impending Apocalypse—part-Tom Brokaw, part-Nostradamus, celebrating the world's fiery end.

But more than anything else what drew us to watch was Trinity's promotion of the "prosperity gospel," the notion that God doesn't want us to suffer—that, in fact, He wants us to prosper, even materially—and that if you put faith into action (hint: make the sacrifice of donating to Trinity), God will reward you. We clung to Trinity's fundamental message that God cares not only about the state of our souls in the afterlife but also about the state of our minds and bodies in this life.

It isn't hard to see how this eased the pain of my mother's disappearance. As her only son, all instinct told me she was dead. How else could she stay away from me without calling, without sending word? Our fear of her death forced Daddy and me to delude ourselves with slightly less terrible "hopes" about what had happened to her. Maybe, somehow, she remained alive. Maybe she'd met another man. Maybe she'd started a new life. Maybe she was being held captive. Anything was better than thinking our separation permanent.

Our only weapon against this suffering was the possibility—which I wasn't quite sure I believed in—of faith's mountain-moving power: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed," says Jesus in Matthew 17:20, a verse the folks at Trinity were damned fond of quoting, "ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."

Daddy and I had a mountain that needed moving.

"Is it literal, though?" I asked him one afternoon as we drove the lonesome river roads near the Clay County line. "Or is it just symbolic of something, moving a mountain?"

Every week we searched for the white Cutlass Ciera my mother had driven away in. We looked for it in brush thickets, in trailer parks, down the few dirt roads we'd yet to travel. It was an exercise in something crueler than futility. "If we parked the car right now and got out and really convinced ourselves that we could tell that hilltop to crumble and fall into the river, would it happen?" I asked.

"If we really believed it," Daddy said, "then yeah." He drove leaning to the left, his right hand hanging across the top of the wheel. When in a decent mood, like now, he tapped the dash with his fingernails to a rhythm he carried in his head. The sound was so steady and faint you wouldn't notice it unless you were studying him, trying to figure out what he was thinking.

"Why hasn't it ever happened then?" I said.

"How do you know it hasn't?"

"I reckon we'd a heard about a mountain getting thrown in a river."

"Mudslides," he said, "happen all the time. Mount Saint Helens happened."

"Do you really believe she's alive then?"

"I'm trying to."



I prayed several times a day for her return. Ah, but maybe the greed of such prayer interfered with the selflessness God demands of his supplicants. So one day on the grassy bank beside my grandfather's catfish pond, I submitted, down on my knees, face in my hands. The water from the upper pond poured through the dam and exited a metal pipe, crashing into the lower pond, and as I listened to that gentle motion and felt the sun bearing down on my neck, I tried to rid myself of want, to become an empty vessel. After an hour of this, I walked home, despairing at the sight of our driveway without my mother's car parked in it. Another day, beside the Little Ketchepadrakee Creek, I curled up in a bed of pine straw and spoke into the evening, "I surrender," but almost immediately listened for the sound of her car crunching gravel atop the hill behind me. And when I heard nothing, I couldn't help thinking, "Bullshit—this is all bullshit," feeling instantly ashamed and afraid for thinking it.

I was beginning to blame myself for my mother's absence, as if the only thing keeping her away was my failure of faith.



Then, one day, Trinity was gone.

We'd been watching Praise the Lord, the channel's flagship show, when the screen went black. "Acquiring signal," the gray box at the bottom of the frame told us, just like it did whenever a thunderstorm blew through, though this time I heard no thunder, no pattering of rain against the windows. Minutes passed. Daddy turned the receiver off and on without effect. He climbed down on his hands and knees and pressed buttons, crawled around behind the TV and jiggled cables. I retrieved the flashlight from atop the refrigerator and lit up the back of the TV where an indecipherable mess of cables hung midair. Daddy found no problem and gave up, returned to the sofa, and lit a cigarette. We both sat staring at the silent screen.

"We've had that goddamn satellite for two years," he said, "and I ain't never found nothing to watch on it. Finally found something to watch and the goddamn thing goes out."

Before my mother went missing, I'd heard Daddy say goddamn once, twice. He said it all the time now, and meant it.

I said, "Maybe it just got cloudy."

"Yeah, right," he said with a menace in his voice that frightened me. His tone reminded me of the night almost a year earlier, a couple of weeks after my mother disappeared, when he'd caught me scouring the King James she'd given me for my twelfth birthday. "Might as well put that thing away," he'd said. "It's a lie."

I tried to reassure him that the show would return tomorrow.

"Somebody needs to be shot" was his reply.

If the TV was broken, I feared we didn't have enough money to fix it, not after all Daddy had poured into looking for my mother: the Missing Person fliers, the toll-free number, the private investigators, the driving. Sitting there in the rocking recliner, I closed my eyes and prayed to God to please turn our satellite back on. Not asking much here. Not asking for riches. Not happiness. Not even for my mother back. All I really want you to do, God, is just please, please turn on the satellite so we can watch the Trinity Broadcast Network. I really, truly, don't think I'm asking a lot here.



After a half hour's silence, when Daddy went to bed, the screen remained blank. I put a movie into the VCR and made my pallet on the floor (I hadn't slept in my bedroom since the night my mother left; I needed sounds and flashing lights) and began wondering if maybe God had decided to teach me a lesson, if maybe the reason the device had gone silent was to warn me against the dangers of television idolatry. Was I relying too heavily on Trinity when really I should've been relying on God and God alone? After I'd fallen asleep, I jerked awake several times, certain I heard Daddy crying down the hall. He wasn't, though. He was in his room, silent—sleeping, I presume.  

The next morning, the sound of the TV faith healer Benny Hinn, leading his choir in the gentlest of songs, woke me. I sat up with the blanket draped over my legs and pushed myself back against the sofa cushions, just a few feet from where Daddy sat, smoking, sipping at his Pepsi. "How'd you get it to come back on?" I asked.

He told me he hadn't been able to sleep, pissed off as he was, so he'd lain there pondering the problem until the solution occurred to him: "I knew it was the kudzu before I even went outside this morning."



Hinn was bringing to his stage those audience members claiming to be healed of various ailments, deformities, and addictions. Hinn was then the most famous televangelist in the world, and Daddy watched his show every morning. Over the past couple months, his sermons had become as much a part of Daddy's pre-work regimen as the cigarettes and Pepsi were. Now, Hinn was "laying hands" on a white-haired woman who looked healthy and sane enough, causing her to fall out like an epileptic. She remained prone, twitching and flopping, until one of Hinn's stagehands came along and helped her up.

"Sad thing is," Daddy said, "how much it bothered me—the thought that I wouldn't be able to watch this fool before going to work." He dropped his cigarette into the dregs of his Pepsi can. The cigarette hissed.

"What's sad about it?" I said.

"It just is."



I didn't let go of the notion that maybe God was trying to tell me something by turning off the satellite dish. I even suggested to Daddy that perhaps we were cheating by sitting at home, watching the preachers only on TV. Sure, he paid his monthly tithe to Trinity, but shouldn't we do more? So when he heard that Rod Parsley, one of Trinity's most dynamic preachers, was coming to Atlanta, two hours east, he proposed we go. "Faith in action," Daddy called it, with a half-smile and roll of his eyes.

In Atlanta, we parked in one of those city parking garages that cost as much as a trip to the movies. By the time we'd reached our seats, the bright space of the Atlanta Convention Center was already crowded, though we were almost an hour early. Daddy was always early. He hated the stress of being late, of drawing attention. On the carpeted stage stood a glass podium and a few cheerful potted plants. Gospel music filled the room, though not so loud we couldn't talk. Most of the audience members, nicely dressed, smelling of perfume as we passed them, were sitting but some were already dancing, hands waving in the air, bracelets jingling and sparkling.

I'd begun to think it might've been a mistake, coming to see a Trinity preacher live. The very reason that TV religion worked for Daddy and me was the fact that a screen protected us from having to interact with anyone. Over a decade earlier, interaction had soured Daddy to organized religion when he'd heard the members of Christiana Baptist outside of church bad-mouthing those who weren't there to defend themselves. When I was twelve, a friend of mine had invited me to accompany him to Delta Baptist, and I'd had a similar experience. I chose to speak to God when I was alone, when I had a better chance of being sincere.

Watching Trinity allowed Daddy and me to stay exactly as we were: At night, he smoked Reds and drank Old Milwaukee as I sat comfortably in socks and shorts, rocking in my chair. We only knew the preachers on Trinity as preachers. We knew little or nothing of their private lives. The same went for the audience. When we clicked off the tube, they ceased to exist.

But here we were: at church, surrounded by churchgoers. By the look of it, there were ten thousand of them, most in their Sunday best, though this was a Friday night. The atmosphere was as electric as a Friday night, too—as if we were waiting for a rock concert or a football game. Wearing a pair of gray corduroy pants with the bottom cuffs ripped off and a soccer jersey I'd bought at the Salvation Army that read REBELS, I felt out of place and intimidated. I was so self-conscious my face began to itch. I didn't see many in the audience who appeared to have come for a miracle the way we had. There were no wheelchairs, no missing limbs. They were dressed too well, their expressions too eager. It seemed a show to them, an occasion.

Daddy wore his black T-shirt and blue jeans and falling-apart black shoes that left smudges from all the oil and tar he'd walked through at work. His only concession had been leaving his hat in the van. Grandma and Aunt Jayne had come with us, though they'd talked themselves into dressing up. I'm certain it was the first time they'd dressed up for anything since my mother had left. Daddy must've invited them along. I would've preferred it to have just been him and me.

Once Rod Parsley appeared and that organ started to blow, I finally stopped feeling watched and started watching. He was dark-haired, thick-chested, still youthful. His preaching style was a blend of ecstatic Pentecostal ranting, soulful Afro-American freestyle (he preached over improvised organ), and red-faced Baptist fire and brimstone. Nowadays, Parsley is known more for his comments regarding Islam than anything else. "America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed," he said in 2008, a comment only reported as widely as it was because then-presidential candidate John McCain made the mistake of calling him a spiritual guide. That night in Atlanta, though, I didn't care about Parsley's politics. He had only strutted to and fro across the stage for a quarter of an hour, preaching in that smooth voice of his, but already he had me believing that miracles come to those with faith—I was sure of it.

At one point, Parsley stomped to the edge of the stage with wobbly knees, like a drunk seeking the toilet. He paused mid-stride, turned slowly to the audience, and said with words that sounded wet and furred and possessed by a spirit of abandon, that if we needed a blessing, to stand to our feet and shout. The audience flipped.

"Shout!" yelled Parsley over the organ, a call-and-response reminiscent of the Isley Brothers' hit song. Daddy and Grandma and Aunt Jayne and I stood, politely, but couldn't see through the bodies before us that were jumping and reaching skyward. It wasn't in us, whatever makes a person act like that. The Holy Spirit, perhaps? A woman in the aisle beside me spun in circles like a gypsy dancer, her skirt billowing. Gibberish poured from her mouth, a potpourri of tongue rolls and vaguely Arabic-sounding syllables and guttural exclamations. Was this the voice of the Holy Ghost, come to dwell in her body and have its heavenly words be heard? Like a kid at a Grateful Dead show with no drugs to take, I was jealous. I wanted to feel what she was feeling.



I got my chance when, toward the end of the sermon, Parsley began a story. Someone had been driving home one night, he said, and died in a car accident. As soon as he began the narrative, I recognized the moment for what it was: an altar call (when those in need are summoned to the pulpit). Death comes sudden. Death has no warning. For those of us who weren't saved, now was our opportunity to confess our sins before God. Now was the time to reserve our tickets to Heaven.

When Parsley called for the lost souls needing Jesus to approach the stage, I lingered in my seat, heart thumping, before I stepped into the midst of the moving crowd—there were probably a hundred people moving down the center aisle—and followed them toward the standing space directly below the podium where I bowed my head and prayed: I know I've sinned, wash me clean, et cetera. I mumbled at first, but soon found courage to speak up. As I settled into those words, I lost awareness of the bodies around me and the blinding globes of fluorescent light that had caused me to feel so exposed, so naked, upon first entering. Self-consciousness fell away. I became a supplicant.

I opened my eyes and saw Parsley's sweaty face smiling down and almost gasped—it seemed he was looking directly at me. Then, as I turned to find my way back to my seat, I saw Aunt Jayne. She'd been standing just behind me the entire time. She swayed a little on her feet with a blushing face and bright, wet eyes, smiling. She'd answered the call as well.

I was ashamed someone I knew had seen me praying.



As if upping the ante in our poker game with God, the next event we attended was held at Trinity Music City itself, a sort of Disneyland for televangelism just outside Nashville. It was here, in November 1994, that the network held the grand opening for their big-budget film about Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, The Revolutionary. Daddy and I drove the five hours north to see the film and to sit in the audience during the live broadcast of Praise the Lord, the network's main event, aired each week at prime time. I don't remember much about the place other than that the sky was gray, the air chilled, and the film disappointing. That evening, we entered the church auditorium for the live broadcast, of which I remember even less.

Back home, though, Daddy had programmed the VCR to record it.

I still have the tape, and when I watch it now—I'm thirty, almost the age my father was when my mother disappeared—it isn't hard to see why lots of people probably think televangelists are clowns. Jan Crouch, wife of network owner Paul Crouch, dressed in a doll's pink dress, with a doll's hairdo, pink lipstick, and a ribbon wrapped around her waist, looks more ridiculous than I remembered. Everyone wears outfits with gold lacing and glitter. Most of the male Trinity singers have permed mullets. Hell, as an adult I've spent my share of late nights, a head full of dope and a belly full of booze, flipping through infomercials and reruns of Cops, only to stop on the Trinity Broadcast Network, just because it's good for a laugh. At my worst, I've laughed not only at the performers but also at those in the world who watch: Trinity's demographic consists of the bottomed-out, the hopeless. I've laughed at their gullibility.

Now, watching the tape of my and Daddy's visit to Trinity Music City, I fast-forward through most of the songs. But I stop when the guest preacher John Hagee approaches the podium, Bible in hand. He's a short, pudgy, bespectacled man wearing a dark, simple suit, who says on the recording:


Many of you in this room, and many of you watching around the nation, are weary in your spiritual warfare. You are looking for the glorious hope of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of you are hurting. Some of you are discouraged. Some of you are depressed. Some of you are frustrated. For some of you, "quit" looks good. Don't do it! The race is almost over.
Go home, muster up all the light that you have, and shine! Shine! Shine! Turn on the light! Turn on the light! The sun in your life will shine again. You will smile again. God will return what you've lost. He is too wise to make a mistake. And He's too loving to be unkind.


At this point, the screen all but centers on Daddy. He stands beside the aisle. I'm on his other side so he wouldn't have to sit beside a stranger; this was an unspoken agreement we had, whenever situations required proximity with crowds. My face isn't visible, but my outstretched hands are, reaching skyward. Instead of lifting them the way John Hagee had asked, Daddy keeps his hands clasped behind his back. His expression is one of humility and patience and sadness. With his long, brown, wavy hair, with his scraggly goatee and mustache, he resembles the portraits of Jesus found inside the homes of many a Southern Protestant. As the audience begins to applaud, Daddy slowly lifts his face like a man who has been staring into a grave.

The shot lasts only a second, but I watch it over and over. I'm his only son: I hear his thoughts. All right, God, I've come and acted every bit as foolish as the rest of these yahoos. Whatever comes of it, you'll get the credit, the good and the bad. It's your move. Amen.



Early the following summer—and I'm getting now to the part where we found out what happened to my mother—Daddy caught word that Benny Hinn, the faith healer, was planning a visit to Clay County Farmers' Market on Highway 9, halfway between Lineville and Ashland, just a couple of miles from my high school in Lineville.

That spring, I'd earned admission to a prestigious prep school four hours south in Mobile. Soon I'd be leaving our trailer out on Shiloh Church Road. With this upcoming departure, and a new girlfriend with whom I'd already begun imagining old age, those months were the first joyful time I'd experienced in over a year. I still wrestled with questions of where my mother might be and if she still breathed, still worried my faith had failed to please God or that maybe there wasn't a God at all. But I spent more of my time doing what boys do when they're in the deep end of love, when they're at the edge of big change: not thinking about my mother.

Televangelism was beginning to fade into my past, too. But the news of Benny Hinn's visit to my home county (population fourteen thousand) was too remarkable to be ignored.

The Clay County Farmers' Market was a metal-framed building the size of a football field with a tall ceiling, concrete floor, and green garage doors where traders parked their trucks on market days. The afternoon Daddy and I went to see Hinn, the light angled in through the open doors, catching the drifting dust. The voices of the small crowd gathered in front of a wooden stage echoed off the metal walls and ceiling. Daddy and I lingered at the margins, afraid we might see someone we knew.

Ten yards to my right, I noticed a girl in a wheelchair, her hands folded in her lap. Except for an older woman who appeared to be her mother or caretaker, she kept herself as apart from the crowd as Daddy and I did. I kept glancing at her—dodgy, shameful looks—trying to determine by her expression if she actually expected to be healed.

Fortunately, that afternoon, we recognized no one in the crowd. I'd expected the audience to grow in number until we covered the concrete floor and poured out the garage doors, but only a handful of people arrived after us. For a Benny Hinn event, this showing was shockingly small.

Hinn has been at the center of several scandals, most concerning the extreme amounts of wealth he draws in from his shows. And yet here he was, entering the farmers' market, his appearance a miracle itself, as if God had sent him there in direct response to my prayers. I can still scarcely believe it. Why would a man of such stature visit that part of Alabama to address the couple dozen of us desperate or loony or curious enough to attend? I would've been less impressed had President Bill Clinton visited my high school.

For a moment, I was positive Hinn must've been the real thing, a saint, a healer, a chosen one. Neither at Rod Parsley's event in Atlanta nor at Trinity Music City had I noticed anyone so obviously ill or handicapped that a healing would've been immediately and indisputably evident. I'm sure such people had been there, but I hadn't paid any mind, wrapped up as I'd been in my own troubles.

Hinn wasn't wearing one of his trademark white suits with the emblem of a dove in gold stitching—I recall rolled-up shirtsleeves—but he had his graying hair sculpted in typical fashion, parted down the side, bangs pressed into the shape of a visor. At one point, toward the close of the event, he asked the crowd to donate money so that one of the audience members, a perfectly healthy woman by the looks of it, could travel to a faith-healing service in North Carolina. Baskets were passed. Hinn also brought a young man onstage who claimed to have been healed. Before that afternoon, he hadn't been able to hear in his right ear; now he could.

Again, I looked at the girl to my right. Here, at the edge of our small crowd in the farmers' market—a venue much more reminiscent of the Bible's healing scenes than the convention center in Atlanta or the gaudy auditorium in Nashville—was someone whose demon was apparent enough to challenge the faith healer's claims. But nothing happened. Hinn didn't so much as glance at her, though in a crowd so small, he had to have noticed her sitting there, looking at him indifferently from her wheelchair.

Half an hour after he'd started, Hinn left. The audience shuffled about, talking, glancing at the exits. It was embarrassing, like the moment in a bar, after last call, when the lights cut on. Daddy and I were among the first to leave.

As we approached the car, I studied the others who were filing out. Why had they come? Most seemed like typical churchgoers. Some, though, had that underdressed, out-of-place look—like Daddy and me—indicating they'd come in search of a solution to some deep hurt. I saw the old woman pushing the girl in her chair through one of the garage doors and across the pitted parking lot. I opened the passenger's side door to Daddy's Oldsmobile. I waited until we'd turned onto Highway 9 before asking if he'd noticed the girl in the wheelchair. He told me he had. "She was still in that wheelchair when we left," I said.

"I know it."



Toward the end of that summer, they found my mother's body in the bottom of Lake Wedowee. She'd accidentally driven her car off an embankment beside Foster's Bridge and drowned in the slow-moving backwater. But when I learned the truth—when the mystery's stranglehold on my life was finally broken—I was more exhausted than devastated. Learning of her death didn't extinguish my hopes; Benny Hinn had already done so.

That day in the car with Daddy, I wasn't aware of it—only now, fifteen years after the fact, have I come to recognize it—but Hinn's failure to lift that girl up from her wheelchair was a sign—not a sign from Heaven but from the uncaring earth—that my mother was dead. Unchangeably dead. Gone from me forever. There wasn't a damn thing in this world I could do to change whether she was alive or not, whether she was coming home or not. Thinking otherwise had been the illness for which Benny Hinn served as cure.

Before summer ended, what was left of my mother's body was examined and then cremated. Instead of a funeral, we shut down Foster's Bridge and held a memorial service there, Daddy and I sitting in folding chairs on the black asphalt, the wind chopping the surface of the water into fragments of twirling light. A local Baptist preacher spoke of the reuniting of souls in Heaven, and his words had as little effect on me as a weather forecast for Malibu.

Sometimes now I still think back to what Daddy said on the drive home from Hinn's visit. "It's a joke," he admitted. "We knew it all along." He wasn't tapping the dash as usual. He drove with both hands on his knees, lightly gripping the wheel from below. He is a small man but looked pitifully smaller in the large cloth seat.

"I didn't know it was a joke," I said. "I believed it."


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