Glossolalia (Or: The First Short Story Of My Adult Life.)
“Now, Doctor,” Kelly Ann began, nervously picking at a crack in the leather sofa, “I don’t know how you expect me to remember that far back.” She stared around the room, refusing to meet his eyes. It was a bad habit of hers, but she could hardly stand to really look at people when she was talking to them – it left her with a swooping in her stomach, a sensation of free-falling. “I’d really like you to try,” Doctor Adams said, in that gentle sort of way certain doctors have, a honeying of the words that sweetens the blow. He was a fireplug of a man, his kind face cratered like the surface of the moon by old acne scars, and he had a terrible tendency to wear too much cologne, but Kelly Ann liked him. She didn’t like many people.
“Well, it’s just that I’ve told you how awful my memory is. Swiss cheese. Half my life is just…smoke. Smoke in my mind. Nothing I can catch. So, I don’t see how…..” She frowned. She hated having to explain this, having to explain herself. “I know you think those years mean something, but I…” She flapped her hand dismissively, and rolled her eyes. She didn’t put a lot of stock in the meaning of things: dreams, omens, superstitions. Memories. Her world was as clear-cut as a diamond chip, all sharp angles and harsh reflection; she considered herself both practical and present, no wooly symbolism weighing her down like wet clothes underwater. She existed in the here and now, and no matter much she liked Doctor Adams, she resented this intrusion.
“Listen, Kelly Ann. We’ve made a lot of progress, haven’t we?” She reluctantly nodded. “And you’ve come to trust me, haven’t you?” She nodded again. “Okay. Then trust me on this. You don’t need to go too deep. I just want you to try to get there. Just open the door. Alright?” She continued to look at the crack she was picking at with fingers that didn’t know what else to do, eyes on her lap, contemplating. She really did like Doctor Adams. She guessed it wouldn’t hurt much to try, if for no other reason than him asking. The air hung close around her head, the scent of lemon and moss so thick she could feel it on her tongue. She sighed. “Fine. Fine. I’ll try it, but I’m telling you now this will never work. Swiss cheese, Doctor. Swiss cheese.” She glanced up to find him smiling at her.
“Excellent. Let’s begin.”
The pocket watch was old, probably his father’s or grandfather’s. It swung in a slow arc in front of her eyes, back and forth, back and forth, a steady swiiiiiiiish that made her ears feel sleepy. There was a vertical slash of late afternoon sunlight coming in through the blinds, and the mottled bronze glinted in a lazy, soupy way every time it swung back towards the window. She could hear a dove cooing from the ledge, a sweet sound that always made her think of home, of old blacktop cracked open, of water towers turning golden in the last light of day. It had been a long time since she’d been home. Christmas, five years ago, a family dinner that self-destructed before dessert was served; she had barely spoken to any of them since then, the words still stuck under her skin, burning like the alcohol they’d been drenched in when they’d spit them from their mouths. “Close your eyes, Kelly Ann,” Doctor Adams was saying, in that slow honey way, “Close your eyes, and relax. Catch the first memory that comes to you, hold on to it, feel it in your hand. Look down at it…..what do you see?”
At first, she saw nothing but the black night of the backs of her eyelids, broken up here and there by a fuzzy orange from the fluorescent light hanging over her head. She could hear the doctor’s voice, but it sounded small, as though he was whispering to her through walls,“Can you tell me what you see, what’s in your hand?” In her mind’s eye, she summoned an image of her hand, floating through the space in front of her. “Oh!” A weak exclamation, she didn’t even know if she’d spoken out loud, but the fluttering she felt in her palm had surprised her. Still in that nowhere-land of half-consciousness, she opened her hand and looked down. A tiny slip of paper lay there, moving like a butterfly wing propelled by a puff of breath. She squinted and could just make out the words imprinted on it: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. Acts 11:15.”
“Kelly Ann? Do you see anything? What can you see?” She struggled to speak – her mouth felt full of mothballs, endlessly dry and cottony. “I see something,” she thought she managed that much. “I see…”
my hands folded on my lap, on top of a small illustrated copy of the New Testament. The inside cover welcomes me to Bellhaven Assembly of God church, and is signed by Pastor Gary. The chairs are brightly colored plastic and smell like melted crayons; the air conditioner is blasting cold air down on my shoulders, but my legs are still sweaty and stuck to my seat and each other. When Christine had invited me here – earlier today, after swimming, her long blonde hair slightly green from the chlorine, smacking grape bubble gum into large, sticky bubbles – she’d made it sound fun, and I suppose it had been at first, but we’d come to the close of the service, and the very air around us had seemed to change, to grow fat with expectation. Pastor Gary is at the front of the room, standing beside the puppet stage with a line of grown ups; they are all dressed in at least one piece of acid washed denim, and they are all peering at us with the kind of forced gravity adults use when they are working with children but know nothing about the way children actually work. It’s very quiet, and when I shift in my seat, my sticky legs come apart with a loud noise, an inverted kiss that carries around the room.
Pastor Gary clears his throat. He is a large man, and he reminds me of a hungry bear I’d once seen in a magazine; scruffy layers of fat and muscle, long arms ending in angry paws, eyes that turn mean right behind the iris. He is overly friendly and overly familiar and he has a spaghetti stain on his sharply pressed shirt. He hugs every kid that comes in the door. I don’t like him.
He clears his throat again. “Boys and girls,” he begins, “Jesus is in this room with us tonight. I want you to know that. He is in this room because he loves you. He loves you SO MUCH that he died for you. Did you know that?” Twenty small heads nodding up and down. Everyone is so solemn. “Did you ALSO know that he left us a special gift? A way for us to talk to him that only he can understand? A way to pray so that the Devil can’t understand a single word you’re saying?” Some nods, but not nearly as many this time. My left leg starts jumping up and down, a thing I only do when I’m nervous. There’s a lady at the end of the line up front who has beautiful curly brown hair held back by a sparkling sequined headband; when she moves her head a certain way, it catches the lights overhead and spills a rainbow down one side of her face.
“It’s true,” says Pastor Gary, staring at each of us in turn. His eyes land on me like spiders on my skin, and I look away quickly, my heart beating in my throat, my breath knocking the back of my teeth. “Now,” he continues, “I would like each of you to come stand here in the front. We are all here to pray with you, and help you accept this gift, and learn how to use it. Come on now. Come down here to the front.” Obviously, I’m not going to do it. I’m not getting out of this chair, and I dig my sandals into the carpet to prove it to myself. The other children are shuffling up towards the stage in ones and twos, into waiting hands and praying mouths. I’m not going to do it. Then Christine stands up beside me and tugs at my hand, and it’s like the nightmare I’m always having, where I’m falling off the top of a mountain and right before I hit the ground, I startle awake, except this time I’m just going to keep falling.
Christine and I end up standing with the man beside Pastor Gary. He is small and thin and has teeth like a rabbit. I can see a distorted reflection of my face in his thick glasses; his name tag says HELLO MY NAME IS ED. Ed beams down at us, and asks if we’re ready. We both nod, and he takes our hands into his own. He begins to pray in a wheezing sort of whisper, and I close my eyes as tight as I can, remembering the pool this afternoon, the way we pretended to be mermaids, how I held my breath for what felt like forever as the crisscrossed sunshine lay across the water. I try holding my breath now. I’m counting six-one-thousand, seven-one-thousand when I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder. A sharp inhalation cuts off the count, and I drag my eyes up to Pastor Gary’s. He smiles at me and I cross my legs, my bladder suddenly full of a frozen heat. I lower my head; the spaghetti stain is right in front of me. It’s shaped like a half-sunken ship.
“Oh, child. Praise Jesus!” He raises his hand and waves two other adults over. “Oh, little girl. We’re so happy you’re here. Christine, what a good girl you are, bringing your friend here tonight. And now both of you can accept this gift of the spirit side by side! How precious that is.” He has one hand on me, and one on Christine. He bows his head and closes his eyes, and all at once, there are hands all over me – Pastor Gary, Ed, a man and a woman I don’t know. A meaty palm cups one shoulder blade, delicate long fingers press into my collarbone, a nondescript hand in the small of my back. Pastor Gary spits when he prays; I can feel it falling on my eyelashes. They’re all speaking in words I can’t understand. I think of the stroke my grandma had in our spare bedroom, the way her eyes rolled around in her head, the way she tried to talk to me and how it only came out in guttural vowels and garbled consonants. I never heard her normal voice again.
Time stops and nothing exists except Christine’s hand in mine, the increasingly loud prayers filling up the small space we stand in, my shrinking breath. I don’t know how long we’ve been there, but one of my feet is beginning to fall asleep. All around us, children are beginning to imitate the strange nothing-language being prayed out into the air above them. I stand so still, my thighs set like concrete. Beside me, Christine stirs, turns her face up, whisper-shouts a string of noises that want to be words. My rib cage begins to turn in on itself. I know what’s expected of me; it hangs in front of my face, indifferent to my passive resistance. I roll my tongue around inside my mouth, wondering what will happen when I loosen my lips. How is this a gift? Once, when I was passing him in the hallway, my brother punched me in the stomach; this is that same sort of surprised disbelief, the wind knocked out of you by the random nature of the thing as much as the blow.
Hands everywhere, prayers everywhere. Everyone has their eyes closed, but I can feel them looking at me. I wish I hadn’t eaten a second piece of pie for dessert. I wish I hadn’t stolen a spritz of my mother’s lilac perfume after my bath. All that sweetness is sweating out of me, sitting on my skin like a lie, like a fever. Pastor Gary drops to one knee in front of me, places an angry paw on my forehead, pushing less gently than he thinks he is. My recoil is stopped short by a body behind me; the room has shrunk down to this, a four person wall closing in on me. I’m a smart girl, I can see the shape of my escape, but I have no idea how to make myself fit through it. I need to be like a cloud in a keyhole, but I feel like I’m at least as big as the moon, and just as immovable. I open my mouth, and I can hear everyone hold their breath in my direction. My hair tingles at the roots, and my lungs are pushing an ocean up into my esophagus; I open my eyes and
Kelly Ann stopped in the first floor restroom before leaving the building. She stood at the sinks and washed her hands with the apple scented soap she carried in her purse; there were no paper towels, so she dried them on her jeans. The lighting was unflattering; when she looked in the mirror, she saw the way her dark eyes stood out in her pale face, stones set in melting snow. She pinched her cheeks for color, and noticed that her hands were shaking only slightly. Outside, an October wind lifted her sweaty hair from her neck, and she stood for a moment in the steady shadow of the awning. She heard the dove again, a soft murmur above her, and she remembered the way her dad could imitate it perfectly, the way she’d sit on his lap and watch how his mouth moved like magic. Beneath the first fall of starlight, she turned towards home.