The Gerasene Demoniac
Before I was born, my grandfather Ibrahim put his wedding ring on a chain and held it over my mother’s stomach. “If it goes back and forth, it is a boy,” he said triumphantly when the ring swung like a pendulum. He was wrong, but maybe the trick had to be performed with the ring of the baby’s parents in order to work. My father did not want to marry my mother, so there was only my grandfather’s ring to use.
Later, four weeks before I was born, when my grandfather was dying on the kitchen floor with my mother crouched beside him, willing the ambulance to come faster, he made his final pronouncement: “He will be a priest.” My mother thought sacreligiously that Jesus had been born out of wedlock, too, so anything was possible.
When I turned out to be a girl, everyone forgot about my grandfather’s deathbed pronouncement of my certain ascension to the clergy, and my mother and I moved into my grandfather’s house. My aunt Joan babysat me in the evenings while my mother went to nursing classes. I was three years old when she graduated, and there’s a photo of her in her white uniform, holding me and her diploma, both of us a little bent. I had a cherry sucker in my mouth.
My mother worked nights in the emergency room, and Aunt Joan taught me how to cook. By the time I was eight, I could make spaghetti Bolognese, pan-fried hamburgers, and cherry pie. It was all very American, even though Aunt Joan had been raised by grandfather Ibrahim and had the vestiges of his lilting Swedish accent.
I sat between Mom and Aunt Joan on Sundays at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on Eden Street. They always made me wear lacy socks, and they swatted my leg when I tried to use my foot to pull the kneeling bench up and down, up and down. The priest was Father McGilvary, and his sermons were always on the Old Testament.
“The book of Job,” Father McGilvary said once, looking up from his notes and around at us with his spooky silvery eyes, “is about God making a deal with the devil and using us as his bargaining chips.”
I don’t remember the rest of the sermon, but I remember that I felt very like a bargaining chip.
When I was seventeen, Father McGilvary called me over to the side at the church picnic. He was an old man now. There were whispers about us getting a new rector because he couldn’t manage, but his sermons were still fine and he still prayed with the sick and dying, so what could you do?
“None of my congregants have ever become a priest,” he said. His shoulders were stooped, and his silvery eyes were clouded now, veiled by cataracts. “I’ve been doing this a very long time.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond: was he proud or disappointed that the generations of poor immigrants who attended St. Joseph’s had found vocations out in the world? Had he expected any different?
“You will be the first.”
I remembered, suddenly, grandfather Ibrahim’s pronouncement. I thought, too, about my long walks where God spoke to me and I tried not to listen and about my dreams that smelled like the candles they burned behind the altar.
“I’m going to a state school, Father,” I said uncomfortably, and he smiled.
“I know,” he responded. “We all must run from God before we bow to him.”
Father McGilvary died eight days later, and the new priest never made any pronouncements about me at all.
I was in my third semester of law school when I quit to go to seminary. It was 1985, and I had on leather pants when I went into the academic offices to withdraw.
“You’re halfway to graduation,” one of the office workers said, looking distressed. She smelled like Aquanet and Anais Anais, and it burned my nose.
“I’m going to be a priest,” I told her, and her look of surprise almost annoyed me.
The seminary was all too happy to accept me coming off a 4.0 in law school, and they even gave me a campus job as the chaplain to the tennis team.
I prayed for them before their matches, but mostly, I sat in the stands and cheered, which seemed to do as much for their spiritual life as anything else. The next year, they gave me the football team, and the players liked the Nicene Creed because of how much it sounded like a locker room chant. One time, I did hear them, atheists and Buddhists and agnostics and Catholics alike, all saying it as they jumped around their lockers before a game: “Light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”
They lost by a humiliating three touchdowns, and when I heard them say it again, later, it was quiet and almost demure: “And of his kingdom there is no end.”
My first parish was in southern Iowa, in a town called Gerasene. Instead of the sea of Galilee, I had to cross one of the famous covered bridges to make it from the rectory on Third Avenue (there were no first, second, or fourth avenues) to the church. At my first meeting with the parish council, I met Sharon, David, Mike, Agnes, and Linda. I noticed that women outnumbered the men, but I didn’t comment on it. It’s hard enough to be a woman priest without people thinking you’re proud of it.
“We’ve never had a female rector before,” Sharon said, looking at me over the tops of her square-framed glasses. Sharon worked as an accountant and wore heavy rings on every finger.
“Yes,” I said. “There are more men in the vocation.”
Thou shalt not share intimacies with thy parishioners. This is the law and the prophets.
It was the advice my ethics professor had given us on the first day of class. We had all laughed, but he had looked at us solemnly, like he already knew one of us would be dumb enough to do it.
I had smiled smugly. The advice was for men. Women would never stoop so low.
And then, and then, and then. I took women in the middle of their divorce to lunch while my aunt Joan was dying in another state. I taught confirmation classes to sixth graders while I waited on the results of an abnormal mammogram. I preached about the communion of the saints and thought about how endlessly lonely I was.
I called a priest friend in Idaho, one that I wouldn’t have to look in the face for a few years after making such a confession and told her that I thought I might suffocate if I went much longer without it. I didn’t say what it was, but she knew and yet did not know at all. She had been married for eleven years, and there were three other priests in her mid-sized city.
“That is very difficult,” she said, unhelpfully.
Mike Conway was the custodian for all five churches in the town. He cleaned the Baptist church on Monday, the Presbyterian church on Tuesday, the Catholic church on Wednesday, the Methodist church on Thursday, and ours on Friday.
The local newspaper had run a story about him the month I moved there, had given it some smug title like, “Doing the Lord’s Work.” In truth, Mike had come back from Vietnam with a right leg full of shrapnel and a fear of crowds. Churches on weekdays were empty except for pastors and secretaries and the occasional ladies’ fellowship group, and church people were too polite to complain about how long it took him to sweep. It was done and clean by Sunday, so who cared?
Mike never came to church at all, which was a source of great consternation to everyone, especially the Baptists.
It was cold the week before Advent in 2000, and we still didn’t know who the President was. I wore jeans and a sweatshirt to the church on a Friday morning, my arms laden with purple liturgical cloths. Purple is the color for seasons of waiting, which seemed almost too trite to believe.
Mike was sweeping the center aisle when I came in.
“Oh, Mike, I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, and he shrugged.
“‘S your church. You got more of a right to be here than I do.”
“Oh, now that’s not true,” I said. I believed what I said. I really did have some open-hearted notion about the church being God’s and all of ours, but I did not know how to say it to this man, who had no reason to believe it.
The train tracks ran east and west, and I imagined every time a train shook me awake at 11:45, 3:30, and 5:10 that the train was going from California to Carolina, and it somehow comforted me and disquieted me all at once, that we were a daily blip in the vision of some train conductor whose family lay at the other end of the line.
Family. I missed my mother and my aunt Joan. Joan had been dead for five years and my mother had been dead for eight, both felled by the kind of sudden, middle-aged heart attack that killed grandfather Ibrahim. I could be dead in ten years, too, I thought, even though the cardiologist that Joan and Mom had been too proud to visit had insisted that nothing was wrong with my heart.
I shrugged on a bathrobe, stepped out onto the back porch. I glanced at the train tracks and then at my watch. 3:27. The 3:30 train would be coming soon.
There was a dark blur, suddenly, on the train tracks. I squinted into the night, and I recognized the lopsided gait even at a hundred paces: Mike Conway.
I yelled his name, tearing my throat, and I remembered how deaf he was from the bombs, and fear pooled like cold water at the base of my spine.
I started running.
I heard the train whistle, long and loud in the distance, and I ran faster. I could see the train’s headlights in the distance when I made it to the railroad ties, and I plowed into Mike, knocking him into the loamy soil on the other side of the tracks.
The train roared closer in its approach, rattling the ground and my teeth in my skull.
“I get so lonely,” he said, tears streaming from his silvery eyes and mingling with the fresh dirt on his face.
“That is very difficult,” I replied.
Taylor McKay Hathorn is a Mississippian by birth and a Jacksonian by choice, even though she can’t always drink the tap-water.