Our family’s involvement with the Church of the Living Word — aka “the Walk” — began with plain white cassettes. At first just a few lay scattered around Mom’s tape player, but they proliferated fast, covering shelves and filling drawers, even spilling from the car’s glove compartment when I opened it.
Mom listened to them all day: sermons by John Robert Stevens, a present-day apostle who’d experienced divine revelations. His message — at least, the one Mom heard — was that death was a mistake, an error, a consequence of these evil times. Moses had lived hundreds of years, and the world had been in decline ever since. To reverse this trend and live forever, as was our natural state, Stevens and his followers were creating the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth. Against them stood the Nephilim, a race of demons who’d survived God’s purifying flood and who now moved among us, agents of Satan disguised as regular people and bent on thwarting the will of the Almighty. The most powerful weapon against these demons was total, unquestioning submission, the surrender of the self. It started in the family — children were to submit to parents, wives to husbands — and moved outward from there: The flock submitted to the Brothers. The Brothers submitted to their Pastor. The Pastors submitted to the Apostolic Company. And everyone, except God and Jesus and something called the Cloud of Witnesses, submitted to John Robert Stevens.
The concept of submission was new to me and my brother, Ole, barefoot little boys who came and went as we pleased. In 1971 we’d moved from the beach in Santa Barbara, California, to ten isolated acres in the Anza-Borrego Desert, an hour south of Palm Springs. I was four when Dad took off and Mom began to devote herself full time to her spiritual strivings. The tapes were just background noise to Ole and me until Mom started to drive us an hour both ways to the nearest “Body,” as the church’s congregations were called. The building that housed the Fallbrook Body didn’t look particularly sacred: one story, flat roof, and no spire, dome, or cross. The men and women inside resembled my mother and father — youngish, long haired, wearing loose dresses or jeans, sandals or hiking boots. The chairs remained folded against the walls, and everyone stood in a circle on the wooden floor, elbow to elbow with the Pastor and the Brothers, each worshiper rocking back and forth and waiting for a turn to step up, throw fists at the air, and shout: “Satan, you bastard! You son of a bitch! Get out of here! God, we love you! John, we love you! We’re ready! We’re ready! Hallelujah!”
The shouting gradually devolved into a kind of moaning. People raised their arms like Superman about to take flight or held them out at the waist as if to receive a load of firewood. Either way, the person’s face was always pointed up with eyes closed. Some swayed. Others stood stock-still. In the background the organist played a free-form jam, mostly mellow but now and again crescendoing as the spirit moved him. Eventually someone would begin babbling like a kid pretending to speak Russian. It didn’t take long before Mom joined in. I got to know her vocabulary of noises and could distinguish them from the others: one was like Jackie Gleason’s signature line from The Honeymooners: Humina, humina, humina.
The Sunday services multiplied to two, three, four a week, until even that wasn’t enough for my mother. If we were going to commit (i.e., submit) to the Walk, we needed to move closer to one of its churches, which was fine in theory — we didn’t have much going on where we were — but we had no money. Mom had given birth to me when she was nineteen. A high-school graduate, she’d never held a job, and her only skills were sewing, painting landscapes, making candles, gardening, and carving faces into apples for freaky doll heads. But she was beautiful. And she was young. The Brothers sent us on a tour of Southern California congregations to see where we might fit. At each Body we visited, Mom would ask my opinion. She listened to my answers carefully, as if she wanted me, a ten-year-old, to tell her what to do. I had one simple criterion for my assessments: the quantity and quality of the girls I saw during the services, and whether or not any of them looked at me, smiled, or said hello. Girls were all I thought about in those days. I’d stay up late dreaming of falling in love and fantasizing about hand-holding, dry kisses, and solemn pledges.
A month into the process we landed in Redlands, where the local Brothers housed us in an apartment attached to Ramah Chapel, a mustard-colored stucco structure in a run-down part of town. The parking lot was dirt, and the surrounding sidewalks were cracked and buckled. Sometimes homeless people wandered in during services, looking for a free meal, but the Walk didn’t give out free lunches. You had to pull your own weight.
Redlands was hot, barren of trees, and unimpressive to look at, but it was home to the Golden Threads factory, where the Church of the Living Word manufactured clothing to sell to believers through a catalog. My mother was put to work there part time, on a trial basis. Of infinitely greater importance to me, a teenage girl named Wendy was commissioned to baby-sit Ole and me while Mom was at the factory. If all parties were ultimately satisfied with the arrangement, Mom would go to work full time at Golden Threads, and the Brothers would see to our family’s needs.
A week later Mom came home exhausted, her hair damp and stringy, her clothes stained with sweat, her face pale and haggard. I paid little mind to her appearance or her weariness. I was too busy carrying on about Wendy, who was the culmination of my fantasies: a pretty, kind sixteen-year-old; blond, tanned, and button nosed. It was her job to pay attention to me and indulge my fancies, and I took full advantage of this. I’d often devise excuses to topple into her lap, nuzzle her sweater, and breathe in her sweet smell.
So you like it here? Mom asked. Maybe she was distractedly tidying the apartment or doing the dishes. Maybe she addressed me from the couch. I can’t picture the setting of the conversation, but I can imagine the words and feel the feelings.
I love it, I answered, my first unambiguously positive review yet.
Are you sure? This is important.
Yes! I’m super sure.
She studied my face in a way that made me want to hide. You know, she said, you can’t decide to stay here just because of Wendy.
I was shocked and felt as if I’d suddenly been stripped naked in the living room.
I know that, I claimed, squirming and hoping to escape without further revelations.
Because she won’t be around forever.
I know, I repeated. But I did not know. I believed Wendy and I would be together always. I’d determined this an hour after meeting her, and it was the only story I was willing to hear. No matter that she was nearly an adult and beautiful, and I was a scrawny, prepubescent boy whose mother cut his hair; a “passive nonachiever,” according to my school counselors. Although I hadn’t watched much television or many movies up to that point, I’d somehow gleaned one vital lesson from pop culture: true love overcomes all obstacles.
We moved from the chapel apartment to a one-bedroom cottage on Sonora Street, two low-rent blocks bordering the leafy, older part of town. The Brothers fixed us up with a roommate, one of my mother’s fellow factory workers, a formerly wayward young woman named Terry. The Brothers helped Mom fill out the paperwork to get us on food stamps. (Golden Threads didn’t pay much, if at all.) The long-term solution to our poverty, however, was a man: a husband and stepfather, someone with a job and a house who could take control of our drifting lives. Attracting a new man wasn’t a daunting task for my mother, a slender hippie in tight-fitting thrift-store jeans, a flowery white blouse, and shining blond hair that fell like water. Her beauty more than balanced the two debits on her account: my brother and me.
The moment we committed to Redlands, Wendy was replaced by a church day care run by an obese woman with four kids of her own, in addition to the dozen Golden Threads refugees in her charge. She kept us busy with chores and forced daily naps, during which I’d lie wide awake on a towel in the living room of her ramshackle Victorian, tormented by restlessness. I’d never before been obligated to nap.
I lived for Sundays, when I would get to see Wendy at church. I’d wet-comb my hair, button my new shirt (thanks, Golden Threads!), and step with Mom and Ole through the chapel doors. The configuration of the worship was different than in Fallbrook. Instead of forming a circle, we all faced the stage, where Pastor Gary addressed us through a microphone. After his sermon he would come down to the floor with the rest of us to sing, worship, pass the unleavened Communion bread and goblet of wine, and collect checks and cash in the offering basket. Wendy preferred the front row, off to one side, where she’d sing with her eyes all too often aimed at the drummer of the church band, a boy her age with curly blond hair that bounced against his shoulders. I’d be stuck fretting beside Mom in the center of the congregation, planning how to approach Wendy once the service had ended. In the meantime I stared at the back of her head and her bare arms, afraid to blink for fear of missing something she might do, some part of herself she’d expose. While the others prayed for the attainment of eternal life, I’d pray for the parishioners between Wendy and me to part like the Red Sea, offering me a glimpse of her legs. Clenching my sweaty fists in anticipation, I would will her to turn around and smile or wave, to acknowledge me and the love we had for each other, but she never did.
After the services, sick with yearning, I’d sidle over to her, but I could never catch her attention or get past the crowd of kids her own age, plus parents, Brothers, Pastor Gary, and musicians. And the moment the throng cleared, she’d leave without so much as a nod in my direction. I told myself she just hadn’t seen me, but I knew. I knew.
Once I’d accepted that Wendy was unattainable, I walked around like a zombie for a few weeks, somehow both numb and hurting — until I managed to redirect my thwarted yearning toward our roommate, Terry, she of the jet-black hair and tight jeans and cropped shirts that showed her white belly; Terry of the nipples protruding through thin cotton; of the thick black eye makeup and contemptuous, snorting laugh. Unlike Wendy, Terry offered me no reason for hope, treating me as she would a talking pet: an amusement or an annoyance, depending upon the situation. But mine was a self-perpetuating adoration. While she watched television, I’d sit beside her on the couch, ready to leap up and change the channel for her or fetch her a drink from the kitchen. I didn’t care if she sneered. I rarely looked at her face, so focused was I on her crotch, where her tight jeans revealed the plump shape of her sex. When she was distracted, I’d stare at that spot in an ecstasy of longing — for what, I didn’t know.
Then Dad showed up one day. It must have been during winter or spring break, because Ole and I were out of school. He took us to Huntington Beach, where he was living in a trailer park with a girlfriend and a three-legged husky named Duke. At some point during the visit I let slip my feelings for Terry. We were sitting in folding lawn chairs on a small concrete patio beside the trailer while Duke slurped down a bowl of wet dog food. Once I started talking about her, I couldn’t stop. Terry this and Terry that. Terry, Terry, Terry. Dad subtly tried to redirect the conversation. When that failed, he asked if I’d fucked her yet.
I assume now that this was his way of teaching me about the difference between dreams and reality, but at the time the question stunned me like a bucket of ice water over my head. I saw myself for what I was: an eleven-year-old boy, out of my depth.
When I was your age, I was getting all kinds of pussy, he went on.
In sixth grade? Chastened, I shut my mouth. It didn’t occur to me then that Mom had likely alerted him to my romantic ambitions, and that this was his best attempt at parenting in such a situation.
When Dad dropped Ole and me off at the apartment on Sonora Street, Terry happened to be sitting on the front steps, smoking. Mom was out. Our house was one of three tiny gnome cottages painted yellow and owned by the same landlord. The rest of the street was home to bikers and Mexicans who’d been trucked in to pick oranges. Empty beer cans littered the patchy front yards.
So you’re the dad, Terry said, tapping her ash.
My father pointed to her T-shirt and said, Thanks, I appreciate that.
She looked at her chest and then back at him quizzically. Between the aforementioned nipple points were the words, Disco Sucks, and, below that, in smaller script, Support Your Local Musician.
I’m your local musician, Dad explained.
Oh, she said. Then she laughed. That’s cool. What do you play?
I went inside with Ole and sat on the couch that folded out into the bed we shared. Mom and Terry slept together on a queen-size mattress in the single bedroom, an arrangement that might have raised eyebrows in those days, though there was nothing to it aside from poverty. I glanced at our collection of LPs and wondered what it meant to be a local musician and how disco was harming them. It was all very mysterious, the world Terry and my father lived in, and I felt a stab of jealousy at the sound of their voices bantering on the stoop. My father’s earlier question still boiled in my stomach, and I hated him for making me think about fucking. And what was so bad about disco? The movie Saturday Night Fever had recently come out, and the soundtrack was my favorite record. I put it on the turntable and turned the volume up: “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk / I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.”
As per the plan, Mom began to date. First in line was Ron, who wore his golden hair feathered back from his face like the wings of a raptor. He sported a fringed vest, bell-bottom jeans, and a belt buckle shaped like a peace sign. I liked him. I liked all my mom’s boyfriends, even the ones who didn’t last.
My final memory of Ron is a scene in the parking lot of the grocery store. He and Mom were bickering quietly as we returned to the car. Then she hissed: I wasn’t the one that got my balls cut off.
He didn’t reply, and that was the last I saw of him. Later I’d learn that Ron had had a vasectomy. Mom wanted another kid, a do-over, a chance to correct the mistakes she’d made with my brother and me. She was like that: willing to give everything she had, but harsh when disappointed.
Handsome men always think they can find someone better, she once explained to me, perhaps after her only date with Jimmy, the second suitor to come along. He was a short-haired, cheerful bachelor who earned a good living as a plumber, one of the few strait-laced types Mom ever dated. Years later he’d make a lot of money as the owner of his own construction company in Los Angeles. But our destinies were not linked to his.
Finally there was Ralph, a slight, bearded man with hair down to his shoulders but thinning on top, where he covered it with baseball caps or a rumpled felt cowboy hat. His nose was long and narrow, his eyes large and soulful. He rode a Harley Sportster — a sensible replacement for the choppers of his youth — and played bass and sang in a local rock band. The first time we met (a preplanned encounter, I now realize), we tossed a baseball on the sidewalk outside the Sonora Street cottage. Unlike my father, a surfer with no interest in team sports, Ralph could throw and catch, though his enormous softball mitt looked suspect to me, as if he were cheating. After our game of catch, he told Mom that I had a good arm. That’s all it took to win me over.
I don’t know what Ralph did to charm Ole, if anything. Perhaps he realized Ole wasn’t old enough to exert any influence over our mother, so why waste the effort? Four years my junior, Ole had always been too young for me to play with or talk to about my complex troubles.
But the Brothers had decided that I was an important factor in Mom and Ralph’s courtship, so I spent a lot of time with Ralph: I rode shotgun in his vintage Dodge van. I lay on a beanbag chair in his dark, wood-paneled living room, listening to Deep Purple, Queen, and Black Sabbath. I drank Coke at Ralph’s local bar, Muscle Mike’s (“It Ain’t No Health Spa”). He showed me pictures of his former motorcycle, a chopper with long forks and blue flames painted on the tank.
Ralph’s house was a bachelor pad on the northern edge of town, bordering the neighborhood where the cholos spray-painted their cryptic graffiti and cruised by slowly in their cars. One day Ralph and I were clearing out a spare bedroom at his place, fitting boxes and old furniture through the back doors of the Dodge van. Cars whizzed by on Orange Street, the main route out of town toward the mountains. By now I considered Ralph a loyal ally in all matters, which is why I asked him about Terry, fishing for either affirmation of my fantasies — I think she digs you — or advice on how to proceed.
I know Terry very well, he said, stuffing a cardboard box into the back of the van. She used to live here.
My breath caught in my throat. In this house? I asked. Like, before it was yours?
No. She lived with me.
I laughed for no reason. You mean, like one of your roommates, right?
Sort of like that.
Where’d she sleep?
In my bed, he said, and he slammed the door.
The van seemed to rock like a boat on high seas. I clutched the bumper so I wouldn’t fall over. Face on fire, I averted my eyes so Ralph wouldn’t see what his words had done to me. I was about to explode, to burst into bits. I denounce you, Jezebel! May the dogs lick your bones! I was Samson, betrayed: Go ahead — cut my hair! Pluck out my eyes! Chain me to pillars! I’ll bring down the whole damn temple! You’ll see!
That night I ran away from home. That is, once Ralph had dropped me back on Sonora Street, I marched directly to the Redlands Mall and hid in the bookstore, where I huddled on the floor and read a fantasy novel, trying to obliterate from my mind images of Ralph and Terry cavorting on the king-size bed that he and my mother would soon share. At ten o’clock I had to leave because the mall was closing. Feeling I’d made my point, I went home. A cop car was parked outside our place. When I walked in as if nothing had happened, Mom and an officer turned to me. Where have you been? she asked, clutching my shoulders so hard it hurt, a series of emotions passing across her face: fear giving way to relief and then anger.
The mall, I said, looking away.
I recognized the cop. It was Gary, the pastor of our church. He said he’d like to talk to me outside. In church he wore Golden Threads beachwear that made him look as if he were on vacation, but now he had on a black uniform with a creaking utility belt. He directed me to sit beside him on the curb in front of his squad car. I wondered if our biker neighbors were watching from their windows.
So you were at the mall, he said.
Your mother was worried.
What were you doing?
Why didn’t you ask your mother first?
I don’t know.
It went on like this: he probed; I played dumb. He was after my motivation, but I couldn’t tell him, or anyone else, that the revelation of Ralph and Terry’s amorous past had been like a dagger in my belly; that I’d run away to punish Ralph and Mom, but mostly Terry. I wanted to punish her, a grown woman, for failing to guess my unexpressed feelings for her. For failing to react to those unexpressed feelings in some way I couldn’t even imagine. For failing to predict, years before we’d met, that a little boy would someday appear on the scene and would not appreciate her past sex life. For failing to break social taboos and the law by falling in love with a child. For failing to be a virgin. No, I was going to have to keep that information to myself.
I stared at the gutter and nodded and shrugged and felt miserable until Gary cautioned me that running away from home was dangerous as well as illegal. I’d be picked up and put in jail — if I was lucky. You may not realize it, he said, but a lot of real scum hangs out at the mall.
Uh-huh, I said. I understand. I smiled weakly, and he got in his car and drove off.
Mom never brought up the subject again, but soon after that, I moved in with Ralph, into the bedroom I’d helped him clear. It was an elegant solution to several problems: it would test Ralph’s resolve and prepare him for the challenge of parenting, and it would afford me the male role model I clearly needed, while separating me from the object of my obsession. So I moved. At the Sonora Street cottage, in my absence, Ole and Mom took the queen-size mattress and Terry got the sleeper sofa to herself.
Ralph was into photography, and my new bedroom had once been his darkroom. The packed closet proved to be a trove of treasures, including several photographic proof sheets covered in tiny black-and-white nudes that Ralph had taken over the years. Later I discovered a stash of Playboys under the sink in the hall bathroom and, finally, the mother lode of Hustler and Club International and Cheri magazines in the master bathroom. I’d creep in there when Ralph was out, lock the door, and thumb through glossy close-ups of spread legs and red slashes like wounds parted by cruel fingers. I could hardly look at the women’s bland faces, their fake lustful expressions. The pictures were both revolting and irresistible. I was almost thirteen, and it was a period of furious and constant masturbation. The song “Cold as Ice,” by the band Foreigner, seemed always to be playing in the background. Even today that song brings me back to that dim room full of longing, shame, and confusion.
Ole and I wore matching Hawaiian-print Golden Threads shirt-and-shorts combos to the wedding, which was presided over by Pastor Gary, the cop. Ralph, looking shaggier than ever, wore white linen. Mom cut her hair to her shoulders and combed it back under a crown of flowers.
The church was changing. Gary used to preach alone from the stage, but now the Brothers sat behind him, grimly nodding at whatever he said, and they didn’t come down into the congregation until the service was over. Ralph had become one of the Brothers up on stage. What most of us didn’t yet know was that John Robert Stevens, who said he would live forever, was dying. The men of the church were bracing for his death the way coastal folk brace for hurricanes. They were also making plans for what would come after, arguing about how to replace the irreplaceable, explain the unexplainable, while the little people like my mother and me went on as we always had, oblivious to the greater workings around us.
We all settled into Ralph’s house on Orange Street, where for a time he continued to host regular parties at which his band would play late into the night. The morning after, I’d tiptoe through the wreckage, the only one awake, fascinated by the empty tequila bottles and cigarette butts in glasses and chairs knocked backward to the floor, the musky smell and tacky linoleum and aura of destruction that I would associate with adulthood for many years to come.