From Heaven’s Crooked Finger (in bookstores November 2017)
My first realization that heaven—at least my father’s version of it—didn’t hold anything for me came thirty-three years ago when I was still a kid, barely seventeen, the day I picked up my first venomous snake with my bare hands in front of Daddy’s church. It was a moment I’d imagined and dreaded since I could see over the church pew and watch my father stalking from the pulpit to the front row, wearing the old brown carpet thin, shouting so fervently, with such conviction, that I became certain I must feel that conviction too, and if I only could, the world would fall into place and my father would love me once and for all. When I was a child and I watched him holding those serpents, I was sold. The words no longer mattered. It was a visceral thing, a tingle deep inside me; an itch, a fiery rash swelling across the hidden skin of my heart. It would drive me insane unless I scratched it. The year prior, I’d watched my older brother, Lester, shaking as he lifted the copperhead high over his head. Eventually he relaxed, even grinned, as the snake remained passive, its wickedness calmed by my brother’s apparent faith. He was saved, a child of God, but maybe more importantly in the patriarchal world of North Georgia, he was a man of God. He changed. The distance that existed between him and my father diminished, and I was left alone, isolated with an odd mix of longing and dread.
My father lived his entire life in preparation for his death, a North Georgia mountain preacher who believed in the almighty power of God and the strictest interpretations of good and evil. If he ever found a gray area in all his days, I wasn’t privy to it; there was the Holy Scripture and there was everything else. There was this world and there was the next, and everything in this world was simply a test for the one that followed. If you passed the tests, you made it to heaven and everlasting peace. If you failed even one of the tests and didn’t get right with God, if you didn’t fall on your hands and knees and ask for his forgiveness, you were damned to a hell worse than the one Dante described. In Daddy’s hell there was nothing but constant torture and acute pain. I remember falling once as a small boy, cracking my chin open on a rusted edge of a shovel left carelessly on the ground by my brother. Daddy picked me up, holding me high like he always did as if somehow trying to remind God that he worried for me, that he prayed for me daily and he’d yet to see any of the fruits of those ministrations.
“Feel that?” he said, his voice a low and rough rumble that always sounded like the purr of a muscle car just before you really made the engine work. He only let his voice fly in front of his congregation, and then that low rumble stretched out sonorously over us and settled in the spaces between our thoughts and the ceiling of the little country church on the side of Ghost Creek Mountain, a comfort and a threat, all tangled together.
I nodded furiously at him. I felt it.
“That’s hell, boy. Except hell is 1,000 times worse, and there won’t be nobody to pick you up and dust you off and tell you it’ll get better. It won’t get better. Not in hell. There’s no end to it.”