turn to your neighbor and say, “visit the archives.”
– Chapter 10 –
In his dream, he was dead and meandering through an emptiness he assumed was heaven, in the absence of flame-melted flesh and the gnashing of teeth. Every minute, his chest swelled with a tidal wave of relief and gratitude. Every minute, that wave receded into a chasm of loneliness too certain and unchangeable to bear.
He woke, back home, gutted and hungry. The sunlight in his old room seemed dingy. The sounds he heard, his parents milling about, already hours into their day, were tinny and muffled but swift and efficient.
Being here reminded him of how he used to feel on Saturday mornings, when he’d wake to find the massive house creepily still and his heartbeat would quicken as he threw back his bedsheets and rushed through the halls. The longer it took him to find one of his parents, the more sure he became that the rapture had taken place in the middle of the night and he’d been left behind.
He’d check the bathrooms first, looking as much for his parents as for their pajamas in a pile on the floor. Then he’d run down the winding staircase and head to the kitchen. Then his father’s study. Then the sunken family room.
All the while, he’d hearken back to the movies he’d watched when he was little, with the bloodcurdling screams of a wife upon finding her husband missing and the multi-car highway pileups that began with the disappearance of one driver. He’d think of the scriptures that’d been drilled into him: Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
He’d freak out about the candy he stole at Giant and the lie he told about being sick in the men’s room, when he’d really ditched Sunday school for an Egg McMuffin from the McDonald’s up the street of the church. He’d mutter to himself, “Lord, I’m sorry! I repent! Please forgive me!” even though it was becoming increasingly clear that his pleas were too little, too late.
Then he would shudder at the thought of a microchip under his skin or a barcode branded on his forehead or the back of his hand or his neck: the Mark of the Beast. He’d imagine scorpions with the heads of women and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And what about when things became so bad that he tried to kill himself—again and again and again—only to find that he couldn’t, that he was doomed to remain alive until Armageddon? And what if his head was shoved into a guillotine and he was asked to deny Christ to spare himself? Would he do it?
And then he’d double back to the kitchen, his shoulders slumped as he resigned himself to his fate as a kid left behind to manage post-apocalyptic life all alone. He might as well toast himself some Eggos before food became unattainable, without the Mark of the Beast.
Usually, that’s when he’d see it: the red blinking light on the telephone or the hastily scribbled note on the kitchen island. His dad had gone to his office at the church; his mother had gone to speak at a women’s luncheon.
He had been left behind, but not in the way he most feared.
The older he got, the less waking up and finding himself alone sent him streaking through the house on a paranoid tear. But he’d never entirely shaken the eeriness. Even now, he felt a residual twinge of panic when the streets outside his own home seemed too still in the high sun of summer or in the dark of the third watch of night.
He found his mother downstairs in the kitchen, dressed to the nines as usual. Gideon couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her bare face, lips without their typical berry-tinted paste and cheeks unrouged. He hadn’t seen her in curlers since six Christmases ago. He remembered that day, the way she luxuriated in her white terrycloth robe, pulling the collar up and nuzzling it against her chin. For just a moment, he’d felt like a kid again, like the wrapped boxes he’d open would hold an Atari instead of a leather attaché. He missed those unguarded moments when Barbara looked and felt like a mother, rather than one of the best known preacher’s wives in the state.
She handed him a mug filled to the brim with a European roast she always served with cinnamon. He tasted it, strong and spicy but not bitter.
“This is good, Mother.”
Her lips twitched, but he couldn’t be sure there was a grin.
“How long do you intend to stay?” she said wiping stray grounds from the base of the coffeemaker.
He hadn’t really decided. He’d purchased a one-way plane ticket, made arrangements with his job to telecommute for a while. Nothing felt definite anymore.
“A few weeks, at most.”
With his mother, Gideon needed to speak in timeframes, even when they weren’t firm. Barbara didn’t tolerate too much vagary. “Uncertainty is such an undesirable trait in a man,” she always said. “Makes women think you’re trifling.”
“I hope you don’t think you’ll be able to stick your toe into this lawsuit and be done with it in just a few weeks. The way they’re talking, that thing could take years.”
“I know how long class action lawsuits can run, Mother.”
The fact was, it wasn’t the lawsuit that’d compelled him to come home. It was the other, offhanded news in one of his mother’s letters: Your grandmother has taken a turn.
Mama Theda, his father’s mother, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. She’d been living with his parents at the time, in the part of the finished basement Barbara designated as a mother-in-law apartment.
It wasn’t the first time she’d lived with them. In the early days of the Agees’ ministry, when they were trying to get their fledgling church off the ground and Gideon was around ten, they’d called Mama Theda to come take care of him because they were rarely home. She stayed for six years. Gideon grew deeply attached to her. But Mama Theda and Barbara had never really gotten along and, after she provoked a row about how little time James and Barbara were spending with their son, Mama Theda moved out.
She didn’t return until James insisted she give up her senior apartment and stay with them, following a mild heart attack. By then, Gideon was in grad school and too preoccupied with curvaceous, bespectacled, pole-dancing academics to visit Mama Theda much at all.
He hadn’t come back after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, either. He’d known someone with Alzheimer’s once, one of his college’s most esteemed professors. His decline was so rapid he had to resign mid-term, after mistaking his classroom for army barracks and his students for privates under his command. Gideon wasn’t in his class then, but the story, which circulated rapidly and grew more sensational every time he heard it, had haunted him.
Naively, he could only imagine Alzheimer’s in terms of suddenness. For him, it was a sudden burst of light bulb filament. He didn’t want to be standing there the moment Mama Theda’s loving gaze of recognition filmed over with blankness. He couldn’t take being, one minute, a grandson and the next, a stranger or worse, a threat, an enemy.
But by all accounts, Mama Theda’s condition wasn’t marked by immediate decline. Daily doses of Aricept kept her stable and functional. Once, during a phone call, James told Gideon he “hadn’t even had to announced her condition at church,” because at worst, she just appeared to be occasionally absent-minded. Gideon wondered why a church announcement would ever be necessary. It wasn’t their business and Mama Theda would’ve been mortified. Still, he never raised opposing viewpoints with his father. And he kept away from home as much as he possibly could.
That Barbara had mentioned Mama Theda at all, in her letters, meant that something must’ve drastically changed in her condition. It was late when he’d gotten in from the airport the night before. His parents were already asleep. He couldn’t have asked what exactly was wrong right then. But now, as he watched his mother find things to tidy and polish in their already spotless kitchen, he knew he wouldn’t have asked them about Mama Theda, even if they’d been waiting up for him last night.
He couldn’t ask about her right now. His mother was never the person he wanted to deliver any bad news. He’d drive over himself, after he dressed, and prepare himself to be an erasure.
“Mother,” he said, because he felt it was necessary, “I won’t embarrass you here.”
Barbara froze. Then she turned and walked over to him, brushing her lips against his cheek. “We’ll see.”
As Alzheimer’s units at assisting living facilities went, Seminole Shores wasn’t bad. The flowers on the low coffee tables in the lobby were fresh cut. The sofas and loveseats were worn but not shabby.
When he approached the front desk and gave his name, the girl in blue scrubs who signed him in brightened and clasped her chubby hands. “You’re Gideon!” Her voice rang with cheery relief. “Theda talks about you all the time!”
“She does?” He smiled.
“I always wondered if you were still a boy or someone who’d been a boy ages ago.”
Something inside him sank.
“It’s so hard to tell…. But it’s very nice to meet you.”
“How… how is she?”
“She’s still good, most days.”
He was afraid to ask what exactly constituted good at Seminole Shores.
“I’m her grandson.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll be very glad to see you.”
The girl, whose name was Jill, led him down a wide, carpeted hall. Gideon glanced into all the open doors. The residents seemed to function at various degrees of clarity, some alert and engaging with family, others dressed in suits, ties, and trench coats pacing the floors of the rooms like they’d just arrived at the office. A startling series of bleats filtered out from a room they were approaching and he desperately hoped it wouldn’t be Mama Theda’s.
When Gideon saw his grandmother, she was stretched on a chaise lounge, quietly watching The Young and the Restless. She was much thinner than he remembered, her shoulders sharply curved forward, her spine a parenthesis now. But her skin was still smooth and dark, the deep brown of her hair still stricken with just three, distinct lightning bolts of white.
It took her several minutes to look up and notice him standing there. Jill didn’t leave until she did.
“Don’t worry, Mama’s Man. I told them you were a good boy.”
He couldn’t move. She hadn’t called him Mama’s Man since that growth spurt, when he was fourteen. He couldn’t budge. If he did, he’d crumble.
“Thank you, Mama.” The smile he mustered felt heavy on his lips.
“Don’t just stand there, lookin’ crazy. Get mama’s coat; we gon’ go up yonder to the market.” She started to pull herself up, digging her elbows into chaise cushions. Then she stopped and sank back, the determination of seconds earlier already sapped.
Gideon pushed his legs forward, till he made it to the edge of her bed and sat. “Are you hungry?”
“I never go hungry. You the one I’m worried about, runnin’ around here all hours lookin po’ about the shoulders.”
He laughed a little, even though he didn’t know what she meant. “I’m not staying for dinner, Mama. I stopped by because I wanted to see you.”
She looked down at her hands as though they perplexed her, folding and unfolding the fingers and pinching at the loose skin on the backs of her hands. He wanted to tell her everything—years and years of sordid back story, layer upon layer of betrayal, a staircase of missteps.
He wanted to ask her if he should join the lawsuit. The case was gaining legs. There were only a few days left to sign on as a plaintiff. A lawyer had contacted him days ago. Twenty-two current and former students had already come forward, each with his or her own story of emotional damage or spiritual abuse. There was talk of seeking damages well over $100 million. Part of him felt he deserved to collect. He was screwed up enough.
Mama Theda would’ve remembered. She knew so many things his parents didn’t know. If not for the Alzheimer’s she would’ve been able to tell him if it was worth it to root around in his past and publicly splay his memories on the pages of court documents. She’d tell him it was really the money that mattered. The point was whether exposing Holy Pentecost Academy as the torture cell it’d always been to him would somehow aid in making him a better man.
He had no idea.
She hadn’t looked up from her hands. He felt too alone, now that she’d forgotten he was there. Sliding off the edge of the bed and dropping to his knees at her feet, he leaned his head on her knee, his right temple baring down on the bone. He remembered her legs being fattier. When he was a boy, Mama Theda seemed pillowy and mammoth. Now she was a wisp of herself and it ached to be with her.
After a while, he felt her fingers rubbing against the grain of his hair, like he was a pet.