Chapter 9: Healing
Tabitha Xuba, head of the God in Christ church. Not her real name, her real name is Wendy Smith, but a good pastor needs a good name. And that goes double for a faith-healer.
A woman named Tabitha is described in the Book of Acts as a disciple of the City of Joppa and full of good works. Poor good Tabitha fell ill and died. The townsfolk washed her body and mourned. But Apostle Peter happened by and the people asked him for help. Peter obliged them and sat with Tabitha and prayed for a time and lo, Tabitha was healed and she woke from the dead. Why is Lazarus the famous one? Peter never did get enough credit.
Xuba, Tabitha’s surname, after the sky God of African bush men. !Xuba, or !Xu, invoked by tribesmen when ill, Xuba, who summons the magicians and gives them power, Xuba, who welcomes the dead to his home. Tabitha and Xuba, both bullshit. Both useful to the ministry.
Tabitha to fertilize the crop; Xuba to clear the weeds. No one attending today has asked Tabitha the origin of her last name. Those who have, had the good sense to leave the church and so are neither a loss nor a benefit. Those who don’t ask, stay, and Tabitha harvests their dollar bills.
From behind a Calvinism-inspired pulpit, Tabitha delivers the message. She is a slight woman, almost unhealthily so, and she wears a plain gray dress every Sunday with no jewelry save a silver crucifix around her neck. Her hair is grown long and she keeps it swept back. This reminds most in the audience of a nun’s veil.
Wooden Jesus hangs bleeding behind her as she speaks. She purchased the most violent version she could find. The crowd spends her sermon uncomfortable, constantly shifting on stiff-backed oak pews. Discomfort seems to loosen the wallet. The only expensive item in Tabitha’s sanctuary is the professional video camera array set up throughout.
Tabitha’s successful ministry stands on the shoulders of giants. In the sixties, Oral Roberts claimed to heal the sick. He wasn’t a pioneer in peddling faith healing, but he was a pioneer in the method: he brought his ministry to a broader audience through television.
Oral’s congregation enjoyed pink cushioned pews arranged under gold chandeliers hung by gold chains as they listened to the man promise blessings in exchange for cash. A great gig, it afforded him a private jet and an entire college campus, complete with giant praying hands and scattered buildings apparently designed with some version of a pious Jetsons family in mind, and all of it overlaid in paint colored something like gold. Tabitha thinks the paint has faded so far by now that the entire campus looks to have been color-matched with cloudy piss. Besides the college and the jet, the generous faithful have afforded Oral’s offspring with two skyscrapers, one of which is the tallest in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is itself like winning an odd pissing contest.
The majority of the surrounding citizenry, including the more moderate believers, take the gold imitations as tackiness at best, as snobbery at worst.
Tabitha knows the truth: the adornments chosen by Oral were not a result of bad taste or pride, but were the products of careful calculation. If a man eats a steak on prized ancient china, if he takes each bite to his mouth with polished silverware in his palm while his ass is seated in leather and surrounded by fine wood and glass accents, then he will not notice that the steak majorly sucks. He’ll finish the thing, gristle and all, and empty his wallet with a smile, and what’s more he’ll go out into the world and tell others of the finest steak he ever ate.
Oral understood this concept and applied it with great success, he served hollow promises wrapped in gold foil and the customers happily paid ten percent of whatever they had at the Place of Miracles for an Abundant Life and Other Such Flub.
Tabitha plays the same game, but she attacks her opponent from a different angle. She feigns poverty because worshipers take it for piety, she never asks for a tithe—only that those who are called to give do so—which is a huge deviation from the evangelical playbook. The tactic has proved to be her greatest asset.
And Tabitha’s ministry is set apart in another way as well, because there is at least a chance the parishioners will actually receive a benefit from worshiping at her church.
Tabitha characterizes her approach as an altered version of Mother Theresa’s mission. Mother Theresa actually believed whatever it was she believed in: primarily suffering (and, interestingly, exorcism). And though Theresa’s mission home had a bank account roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island, she lived and died among the poor.
Tabitha simply cut out the conviction part. No one pays much attention to sincerity in the message anyway, so long as it carries some attending promise for the betterment of one’s existence. Tabitha obliges them with the promise of healing, and for some the promise is actualized. In this, she is unique among the spiritual shepherds.
Addressing her flock in a low voice, Tabitha says “Keep my words within your heart, for they are life to those who find them and health to a whole man’s body, praise be his name.”
Always end with ‘praise be his name,’ or ‘so sayeth the Lord’ or somesuch to ensure the crowd doesn’t get mixed up as to who is claiming to be the messiah.
“Now the time has come in this house for miracles. I claim them not, for I am but a vessel, praise God. By his wounds we are healed, amen.”
A dozen or so shuffle from the parallel pews toward the altar set at the front of the church. Tabitha greets them as they go by. She never bothers to count, for she can only handle three, four maximum depending on the ailment.
In 2002, the Catholic Church recognized a miracle on behalf of Mother Theresa. Though the Mother’s body lay rotting in India, the Vatican decided that a photograph of her contained in a locket shot a beam of light from itself and healed some Indian woman’s cancerous tumor. Bam! A divine miracle; never mind the intensive medical care the woman had been receiving in the previous year; never mind that the woman’s primary physician informed the Vatican that the growth in her body was a cyst, not tumorous or even cancerous; never mind that the Vatican, to this day, refuses to release the woman’s medical records to investigative third parties. No, Jesus did it with the help of Mother Theresa and some poor gal’s sterling silver locket. And so now the Mother is blessed, but to become a Saint she’ll need a second miracle, the Vatican would appreciate if church members examine their breakfast toast carefully.
Though Tabitha finds the Mother’s miracle an obvious fabrication, the aspect of the whole thing she finds to be—almost—equally unbelievable is that the members of the church ate it up.
The Pope should’ve given Tabitha a call, she’d have healed the woman within the day, no bullshit required. And she wouldn’t have asked for a dime, though Tabitha is sure Catholics worldwide would’ve paid her until their very end.
This never-ending gratuity is proven in practice. The believers arrange in a shabby line like broken troops after a march too long for any person to endure. Every one holds their head low, they are all exhausted. But through the exhaustion, a glint of hope still shines in these eyes, flaunting the desperate sadness which rules the other hours of these lives. In these moments every Sunday, Tabitha wishes she could heal them all. But to do it would kill her. She severely wants a God to exist for these believers, but she knows the truth of his absence.
The first of them has no arm. Surely he cannot be serious. Tabitha approaches him and smiles. She needs to dispose of him quickly. Too much screen time and viewers might wonder where her gift for miracles could be limited. In this age of recordings, miracles are limited by visual evidence, and if the audience starts to wonder about limits, they may wonder about turning the channel.
Could she actually regrow the man’s arm? She thought she might swing it, so to speak. But it might take too much from her to do it. She’d never tried anything like limb regeneration, and besides, actually re-growing a body part on television tends to bring unwanted attention. Draws the eyes of those other than the dopey-type currently tuned in.
“My child,” she says to the man and looks down to where his arm should be.
“No, not the arm,” he says. “It’s been gone a long time—by now I figure my disfigurement is written down right there next to my name in the scroll up yonder.”
“If you desire so, in his kingdom you will regain your arm and so much more.”
“Well, I never actually lost it. Never had it to begin with, but I suppose you had no way of knowing that.”
“True,” Tabitha answers and it is true. A close viewer would have seen a pause in that moment as Tabitha loses character for only a second and wonders in a string yet all at once: how can he believe in a God of healing and not one of mind-reading? What sort of God does he believe in? And then, what if a telepath is out there?
She shakes the thought and continues, “now, faithful one, what blessing would you ask of Him today?”
“I’m an alchy, I mean an alcoholic, ma’am. Can’t shake it on my own. None of the A A, none of the doctors can help me either”
Tabitha can smell the bourbon on the man’s breath as he draws nearer. She fights the urge to recoil from the smell of it, forces herself to keep smiling at him. She should have seen it before. The man’s skin is sick-yellow, his face somehow puffed and sunken in simultaneously.
Alcoholics are interesting. Oh, she could patch his mind up alright and at least the cravings would go away. The disposition to addictive, compulsive behavior is hard-coded though. The same genetic disposition can make some great but has broken this man. She can’t change the code any more than she can turn his brown eyes green. But she can heal the wounds the coding had caused the man to create. A start for him, but nothing more.
In short, Tabitha thinks alcoholics are a risky investment. But she figures the lack of an arm is cruel fate enough, she’ll take the bet.
“Do you believe?” Tabitha asks.
The man’s too emotional now to speak, he nods and tears start to fall.
“None of us must act alone,” Tabitha says, “Jesus walks with us every day.”
She takes him by his lonely arm, closes her eyes, “dear Jesus if you find it in your everlasting mercy to heal this poor man of his affliction I beg that you in your eternal glory heal him this instant, in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost, amen.”
Tabitha’s church isn’t Catholic, isn’t part of any official denomination at all, but she finds the ending rhythmic. It seems to ring through the audience like a kind of holy catchphrase, soothing the believers like Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home.’
After her prayer, Tabitha holds the man’s arm for a moment longer and does her actual work.
They never notice her reach inside. They never notice as she scans their ailments. To Tabitha these appear in her mind as constantly flowing color-wave Rorschach drawings, shifting images on an otherwise white cloth. This man has a slight arrhythmia, so Tabitha sees the red of his heart vibrate rather than beat in relief above the white. She moves past it.
His addiction presents itself in a series: chemicals like power drills or jackhammers working on receptors which are like keyholes; mineral deficiencies; liver all torn to hell; inflammation throbbing over everything. To each of these she applies her special salve, the ingredients of which are secret even to her. If only she could change the damn code.
She exhales and his ailments are gone, leaving a few less stains on the man’s tapestry.
To do it feels like giving blood. Her heartbeat seems to be all over her and she’s connected to some foreign device which takes from her. She connects to the device and gives to the person on the other end. Then their ailment is gone and then the device is gone and she’s left lightheaded and tired and very hungry.
It hurt to do it, every time. Seems to take or transcribe or do something, to a bit of her cells or her own genetic instructions or all of her, and imprint on the subject. Tabitha has become so frail because of it. She eats near ten thousand calories a day yet can’t keep the weight on. It always takes more from her than seems necessary. But the pay is more than good, especially considering Tabitha has no employable skills, and though Tabitha hates organized religion she believes this faux ministry is her best chance to heal the most people, and it is for this reason—above even the stacks of cash—she continues on.
Tabitha opens her eyes and the man is healed, though he hasn’t realized it yet. Benny Hinn had liked to hit folks when he did his faith-healing, hell he’d knock down (the paid portion of) his congregation like a human tectonic pile driver. Benny had the good luck to have come to prominence prior to the internet age, so he could get away with that sort of thing.
For Tabitha though, temperance in the visual aspect of healing proved the best strategy. So, the alcoholic, newly healed, has no physical reaction other than his tears, these are seen through the cameras only by the most intent of viewers.
Tabitha chooses two more believers to heal. Next, a man in a custom suit with a gold silk tie who is busy growing a tumor the size of a fist in the rear of his brain. The tumor’s wrapped around all the nerves and vessels back there like a suffocating hug, and is impossible for doctors to remove as a result. Tabitha sends it away in an instant.
Last up, a thin, wrinkled woman clutching what looks to be an authentic Louis Vitton handbag. Her name is Viola, nice to meet you, Ms. Xuba. Viola suffers from migraines caused by an unsheathed nerve stem running from her lower neck all the way to the top of her head. Not even luxury handbags can heal the pain. The woman claims she’d have committed suicide by now if it wasn’t a mortal sin to do so. Tabitha takes the woman by the shoulder and re-sheathes the nerve stem with a breath. The pain of the act nearly drops Tabitha to her knees.
Tabitha forces herself to remain steadfast through the pain and tells the woman to prosper—a bit of Star Trek lingo she’d appropriated for her own—then turns to the camera facing caddy-corner to the altar.
She manages a weak smile and says “Won’t you join us next week, Jesus is waiting.”
“We’re clear,” the cameraman says. Tabitha doesn’t bother with any further pleasantries; instead she retreats to her back office with her head held low as those who had come to her altar only minutes before.
She’s tired, starving. She turns the office lights off, locks the door to her office and in the relieving dark starts working on a three layer chocolate cake and a quart of whole milk.
Tabitha hadn’t always been a non-believer. Her current status as a closet apostate started a little over fifteen years ago. She can’t nail down the moment she became a full-fledged atheist, but the day she first posed the real interrogatory to her belief set—not one of those let’s play a thought experiment game with the other believers where the answer will inevitably come up Christ— but a true, cutting question, had occurred to her, fittingly, on a Sunday.
The question scored her to the bone. She remembers not being able to sleep for days after because closing her eyes brought on visions of flame and the inescapable fiery question: had she let Satan in?
It was her sophomore year in high school. She sang in the choir for her church. Services held every Sunday inside a tiny steeple-topped one room building at the side of an east Texas county road. No more than twenty in the congregation. A crucifix not unlike the one currently in Tabitha’s sanctuary hung behind the choir. Tabitha watched the happy faces of the attendees as she sang.
After the song was sung, the music pastor said “our music is joyful noise to the Lord,” and the question slammed her: Why does God need this from us? Why us to sing His name every Sunday, and more? Why us to praise Him in every waking moment? Why does He need us to make any noise for him? Why does He want any of this at all?
The faces of her fellow churchgoers were suddenly foreign. Had any of them been struck with the same wondering?
Tabitha went through the rest of the day in silence. As the family gathered for supper that afternoon, her father asked her to say the blessing and she refused the honor. He pursed his lips and looked over to Tabitha and in his eyes she saw that the man had asked the same question she had—not the exact phraseology but the exact nature.
When was the last time her father had recited the Sunday prayer? Tabitha could not recall it.
“Mom,” her father said, “would you bless the table?”
Mom smiled, yes, she’d bless our table. Father never asked Tabitha to say the blessing again, and they never discussed the nature of God or his questions. In silence, Tabitha struggled alone.
Alone, she never found a sufficient answer to the question. Why? She’d ask and she’d answer, God loves us and wants us to reach up to him so he can reach down to us. Why does God need us to reach anything? He’s omnipotent. So why? God doesn’t need us to worship him, but he is the only being that deserves worship, and he wants us to acknowledge this fact. Why is God so vain? Mom says we should be humble in all things, is God not humble too? Like, didn’t the Pharaohs also demand praise? Why is it okay if God does it? Pharaohs weren’t Gods, and isn’t it enough that if God likes us to do it then we should do it? Who are you to question God’s will? Or is it Satan asking the questions? Is it Satan inside you? Not to mention, you know where unbelievers go.
Young Tabitha couldn’t argue with that last bit. She told Satan to get out. She prayed God please cast Satan out of me. She didn’t want to go to hell with the unbelievers.
Fear of the flame is as forgotten to Tabitha as the boogeyman under the bed these days. Tabitha takes another bite of her cake and chases it with a long draw of milk. What does she fear these days? Loneliness more than anything. Her father had died lonely. Mom couldn’t stay with him after he finally revealed his lack of faith. She wanted an eternity with him, how could they share it if he didn’t believe and therefore couldn’t receive?
Theirs was an odd divorce.
Her mother had been delighted to hear her daughter had taken up the cloth, even if under a moniker (that’s what she called the alias, not a lie, a moniker), but Tabitha won’t let her attend any services to this day. Tabitha won’t visit her either, not ever. Not after what she did to dad. Not the way of a good Christian to leave him like that, not the way of a good anyone.
No one discovered his body until a month after he’d gone. Tabitha blames herself for this last injustice. She should have visited more often. When Tabitha dies, she thinks it may be some time until her remains are discovered. Like father like daughter.
Not that she figures that part matters much, she just wants someone to talk to while she can, not to sermonize but to have an actual conversation. Tough to get to know someone with a secret like hers. Doubly so as a closet-atheist TV preacher. At least she’d kept a petite figure—wouldn’t all the schoolgirls be jealous? Tabitha finishes her milk and pours another glass, this time she adds chocolate malt and a healthy spoonful of salt. She can never seem to get her fill of the stuff.
A knock at the door.
Dave should’ve gone home by now. He’d edit the footage for the station and send it out Tuesday. Sermons were always broadcast a week after the actual performance, this way guaranteed the show went smoothly.
Tabitha removes the half-eaten cake from the table and hides it in a waist high cabinet along with the pitcher of milk.
Through the door she asks, “Why are you still here Dave?”
“I’m not Dave,” an unfamiliar voice responds.
“Who are you then?”
“Two of us. A true believer and a…less adamant believer.”
“The services are over. You’re more than welcome to attend next week.”
A second voice from behind the door, softer than the other, “Please, I need your help.”
The other voice: “That’s the true believer. Look, we’ll gladly pay you for your time.”
Tabitha won’t argue with that. She unlocks the door. In walks a large man, he’s got a pitted face and he smells of old cigars. He looks every bit as tired as any of her parishioners. He’s keeping his eyes to the floor, but steals a glance at her hips for a moment before turning away. A man trying not to lust for her, but obviously failing. Tabitha finds it refreshing.
The other one is younger and good looking but limping badly and truly averting his eyes like Tabitha’s some sort of demigod. So this is the believer.
The older one sticks his hand out and Tabitha softly shakes it. “I’m Howard Jacobson. And my compadre’s name is Calvin Nelson.”
She takes Calvin by his hand. “Nice to meet you Calvin,” she says.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Xuba. I love your program.”
Oh yeah. That. Shit. It’s a good way to find the dullards, at least.
“Glad you enjoy it,” she answers flatly. “Well, what can I do for you two?”
“Help us settle a little wager,” Howard says. Howard speaks for Calvin. This much is clear.
“Wagering is a sin against the Lord,” Tabitha says.
“That’s what Calvin said you’d say. But here’s the thing. This is a chance to open my questioning eyes to the Almighty. And you make some cash in the process. Surely the Lord wouldn’t mind you using a sinful game to gain another, uh, servant?”
She wants to ask Howard, what’s your story? Why so tired? Why are you still even considering the existence of a god?
Instead she asks “What’s the wager?”
“Okay. So me and Calvin had a little run-in with some bad folks. And you can see the results.”
Howard nods to Calvin and Calvin undoes his pants, revealing a bloodied tourniquet around his thigh.
“Calvin thinks you can heal that bum leg of his,” Howard continues. “I tend to disagree. So here’s the deal: if you do heal him, then I have to pay you five grand. If you don’t heal him, then he has to pay you five grand. It’s a win-win for you. And I’m damn, sorry, I mean I’m darn sure if you manage to heal him you’ll have two lifelong tithers. Isn’t this what the whole thing is about after all? The tithing?”
This man cuts straight to it. Calvin’s looking at him with disgust for speaking in such a way to a preacher. He starts to say something but Tabitha takes him by the arms.
“I’ll do it,” she says.
No way is she healing this guy. This is too close, that limp of his too noticeable. Howard isn’t going to suddenly start believing in the healing power of the good Lord because some skinny lady healed his buddy. But he will want answers. Tabitha has no interest in answering the types of questions this man might pose. Because they are the very same difficult questions Tabitha herself asks, the main of these being: how?
If someone knows the truth, well Tabitha guesses that might lead to cement walled holding cells. She’ll put on the show, get paid, and Calvin will limp his ass out of her office. She’ll lose a viewer, for certain, but she’s got many viewers and only two very important secrets.
“Face me Calvin,”
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
Now she notices the pendant cross necklace around Calvin’s neck. She reaches out and touches it. “I have the same one,” she says. Funny that. “Mine is from my father. Who gave you yours?”
“Bought it actually. You know, to shine a light.”
The faith-totem industry is a profitable one alright. Tabitha smiles at the dumb kid and puts her hands on his shoulders.
Tabitha closes her eyes and says “Dear Lord…” let’s take a look at that leg. As she starts to look inside Calvin, she stops mid-prayer. Opens her eyes in shock.
What was that?
Calvin is still looking at her hopefully. Howard is smirking, like he knows something that she doesn’t. Is it respect or fear she should feel for this man? She decides to speed this process up, no need to look at this strange Calvin again.
“Sorry,” Tabitha says. “Lost my train of thought.”
She shuts her eyes, “Dear Lord…” and, she can’t resist the urge to take a look again.
This, this Calvin is unlike anyone she’s touched. The color wave tapestry, the Rorschach-like patterns, are gone. In their place is fog. There is no bottom, no floor to any of him. Like peering over the edge of a skyscraper on a foggy morning. But, there is the bullet wound. Like a sunbeam bright and solid shining through the constant misty swirl of the rest of him. And there is the bullet. Tabitha lets go of Calvin, overwhelmed. She sits and tries to compose herself.
Calvin’s eyes aren’t as hopeful anymore. Have they, have they changed? Howard seems to have noticed something he wanted to see, for he’s gone from smirking to smiling now.
“I’ve got to admit,” Howard says, “Calvin was right.”
“I should show her,” Calvin says.
“I’m not stopping you. I think she might already have an idea something’s not quite normal here,” Howard says.
“I don’t know what you mean…look if this is…”
And then Calvin morphs, he reorganizes, before her is no longer a good looking young man but a redhead woman with a scrunched-up face.
After a few seconds, Calvin morphs back to the man she first met. It’s the sort of thing that makes a person question their system, makes them think maybe God is somewhere after all, somewhere much too close.
What’s happening here? She’s too small to ward any of these guys off. Someone who could do this could hurt her. Are these government men? Finally they figured it out, the pricks.
“Is this some sort of threat?” she asks.
“No threat,” Calvin says. “I really do need your help, or your prayers.”
From her seat, Tabitha can see from Calvin’s eyes that he tells the truth. In Howard she sees something as well, he no longer looks so tired. His expression is reminiscent of the believers after she healed them.
Tabitha shakes her head at Calvin. “It isn’t the prayers,” she says. “It’s me.”
Tabitha’s battle with her faith had led to her decision as to which college to attend. After her senior year of high school she enrolled in a Baptist university, much to the delight of her family and her tiny community. Her faith was strong, they all said. But the truth was, she hoped to find an answer for her lack of it.
But the temple kept on falling, kept on succumbing to Tabitha’s gravity well of rationality. At college, she found herself surrounded by lush landscaping and arid theological questions from believers such as whether Saddam Hussein’s salvaging of Babylon was a sign of the end times, whether God created the earth in six literal days or six figurative ones, whether hell actually had a lake of fire or only darkness, where Jesus went while he was dead those three days, why men were so proud to believe they could affect a global climate, why men were so obviously foiled by Satan who had planted dinosaur bones under the earth. Or, class, was it God who placed them there to test us? So, on an unusually warm spring day, an hour of class was spent discussing whether God or Satan buried the dinosaur bones.
Why wasn’t anyone asking real questions? She asked: what about the nature of God? The nature of will? What of the contradiction between omnipotence and a loving God who kills some of his creation for eating the wrong sorts of his own creation? No one took her seriously.
Yet Tabitha clung to her faith, more out of habit than fear by then. Not until she asked a goofy question halfway through the semester, one she asked half-jokingly, was her faith completely decoupled from her. She raised her hand, the professor sighed and acknowledged her and Tabitha asked, “Could God create a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it?” A sophomoric version of the age-old question, a version she’d cribbed from Homer Simpson. She thought maybe the dumbed down adage would spark something real at best, get a laugh from the others at worst, who’d flung her off as one of the ‘pretend Christians.’
The professor pushed his glasses up his nose, “anyone want to take this one?” he asked.
A blonde with her hair cut short—wasn’t that a sin? First Corinthians eleven. They’d debated it for a week and came to the conclusion that the Apostle Paul wasn’t railing against cut hair at all, but against Christians who take part in the counterculture and women who do not submit to their husbands. No, the blonde girl had been delighted to find, she could keep the look. She volunteered an answer to the question: “I don’t think God gets hungry.”
To this, the Professor echoed, “And surely not for Mexican food,” which was met with riotous laughter throughout the hall. Tabitha put her head in her hands to hide her blushed cheeks and her suddenly red eyes.
And in that moment her belief fell from her like an old scab. Tabitha knew then it had never been part of her, it had only been hiding all the fresh skin underneath.
Tabitha didn’t care that the class had not found a serviceable answer to the question—many questions are like that—what bothered her and what shook her faith from her, was their outright rejection of her, their laughter and derision directed at her. God was supposed to be love, and if these were the true believers, the ones who carried His love in their hearts, then God was a lie.
For the remainder of her college career, Tabitha was treated as a sort of pariah. She found solace with other pariahs like herself, and she hung around with the tight knit group of doubters. After graduation, Tabitha went home to find a job and ended up waitressing.
Not much use for a psychology degree in rural Texas, it turns out. But, the cost of living was next to nothing, so along with a roommate, she made enough to rent a two bedroom house tinted red by the dirt road next to which it sat.
Her roommate was not a college graduate, not a high school graduate, she wasn’t even an American. Lupe waitressed at the same restaurant as Tabitha. She was a tatted up girl from Chihuahua, Mexico. She could have been beautiful, and Tabitha was jealous of the way men looked at her body, but Lupe had a scar which ran down the left side of her face and through her lips, giving her a drooped look on that side which reminded Tabitha of the way her uncle’s face had looked after a surprise stroke wiped out clusters of the man’s nerves. Lupe wasn’t as dramatically altered as Tabitha’s uncle, but her face had the same tinge to it.
Lupe wore her hair up and dyed it bright red, to draw the eyes away from her face. She claimed she’d gotten the scar on the way north from Mexico. She’d ridden in the back of a passenger van on her trip, all the seats and other accoutrements ripped out to pack as many bodies inside as possible. The van hit a bump and the remains of what had once been a seatbelt casing sliced through her. She told the driver to keep going, she wanted to live in America after all, and stopping for medical treatment this close to the border would result in deportation. By the time a doctor looked at it, there wasn’t much that could be done.
Tabitha asked Lupe how a jagged shard of metal could make a scar like that, clean and straight, to which Lupe laughed and answered the world’s a bitch like that.
She said the scar was a good thing, she could get all the tattoos and piercings she wanted and never be afraid if any of them were ugly, for none could top that scar.
So Lupe ran away for work, got a scar, dyed her hair, got tattoos and piercings, and got terrifically drunk every evening—her drinking sessions started during shift—on the restaurant’s never ending, poorly-inventoried supply of booze.
The late shifts, the drinking, the total lack of things to do, all precipitated late nights in front of the television where they half-watched, half-snoozed through late night evangelical programming. Of particular interest to Lupe were the faith-healers.
One of these nights Lupe drunkenly drowsed on the floor, eyes mostly shut and her scar reflecting the changing lights of the television. From the couch, Tabitha watched with a wide smile of the sort only understood by apostates.
“Do you think he could heal me?” Lupe said.
“Heal what? You sick or something?”
“Cut the bullshit, you know what I mean. I see the way you look at it.”
“You do. Everyone does. I’m not angry at you, but I wonder, what if he could, you know?”
“The thing about these guys is, they only heal what can’t be seen. That’s key. The faithful are funny that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“That way they treat evidence of anything, it’s backwards. They see what they can’t see, they hear what can’t be heard. So this guy heals shit you can’t even prove exists—well we can’t anyway because we can’t really see any of it through TV—and all the believers start thinking he’s got some power of Christ or something, and they empty out their pockets for the guy. Why don’t you just pay a doctor.”
“Doctor, magician, faith healer, all about the same for me at this point.”
“So, what? You gonna go see him?”
“No, I don’t believe the shit any more than you do, but I guess you won’t understand unless you got something like this, something like this scar. Makes you desperate.”
“Hey, I wish I could heal you. If I could heal you, God or no, you damn sure better believe I would. And I wouldn’t ask for a fuckin’ dime in return.”
“You white bitches are crazy,” Lupe said.
Tabitha laughed at this and held her hand out toward Lupe’s scar which seemed to glow as it reflected the television’s light, and for the first time touched it. And in her drunkenness Tabitha healed the thing.
“Chupacabra,” Lupe whispered.
“Chupawhats-it? I mean, Chupa…chup…” Tabitha felt too tired to speak. She wanted to ask Lupe what had just happened, but her lips didn’t want to move. Her eyes didn’t want to open. Like she had been encased in lead. Tabitha slept for fifteen hours.
She had this dream, it recurs to her but on that night it seemed so vivid, so real she still remembers it best of all the others. It comes in different forms but has the same basic structure. She was in the desert, way back in biblical times. There was a man hung on a cross and the sky was black overhead. There should have been Romans and a crowd of onlookers, but Tabitha seemed alone watching this cross. The man, he wasn’t Jesus but one of the thieves who died that day. Whether the impenitent thief who joined the others in mocking the son of God in his final moments, or the penitent thief who asked to be remembered, she couldn’t tell. For the man’s head was down and silent. The sky cracked (in some versions it was the ground which broke) and all went white and then there was great pain for Tabitha, and then she awoke.
When she did, Lupe was packed and gone. Tabitha hasn’t seen her since. She can’t picture her old friend without that scar, though she knows it’s been gone for years.
Calvin looks down at Tabitha.
“Please,” he says, “help me. I can’t get rid of the limp. I can’t seem to push the bullet out, even when I do that thing I showed you.”
Tabitha stands and takes Calvin by his shoulders. It has been no blessing for him, she knows because she’s experienced the same loneliness he has all these years. Too lonely being this way. Maybe, today, the isolation could end for them both.
Tabitha reaches inside Calvin and heals his leg. The deformed, bloody bullet falls to the floor and rolls to Howard’s feet. The pain of the act causes her knees to buckle. Calvin catches her and helps her to her seat.
“Thanks,” she says.
“Well,” Howard says. “Looks like you won the bet, eh Calvin?”
“How did you find me?”
“See how Calvin is like you, in a way? We need you to help my sister. She’s in a sort of facility. They think she’s got a genetic disorder, you see. I think she….Well, shit I’ll just say it. I think she can see the future. Mind if I smoke?”
Tabitha shakes her head, says “go ahead.
“All the future?” she asks.
“Why the hell not?” Howard says.
Tabitha thinks maybe he’s lying about that part, probably exaggerating to get her on board. If he’d have answered, my sister can predict what happens every Tuesday, would Tabitha’s reaction be any different? She feels so weak. She needs to eat, no use in hiding it now. She puts her cake and milk at the table and digs in.
“Have some,” she says to Calvin, who sits at the table with her.
See the future. Either next Tuesday or every next day, that’s pretty goddamn close to godhood. How many possible futures are there? Only the one, two, more? How many can she see? Can she see my death, tell me whether I’ll die alone like dad? Maybe she’s a liar, like me.
Only one way to find out. Go with them, maybe it works out. Maybe you won’t have to die alone. Maybe it doesn’t. Die alone, but know I tried. And if she didn’t want to go, well, these two know her secret. She’s tethered to them, like it or not.
“I’ll go,” Tabitha says.
“Good,” Howard answers. “But there’s the matter of transportation. You see, we may have tried to steal enough money to bribe my sister out of this clinic, and long-story short, our vehicle is hitting the police scanners.”
“Hence the bullet wound. You know, that information might have been pertinent before I agreed to leave.” Tabitha says.
“Yeah,” Calvin nods and swallows a bite. “But we’re the good guys. You’re not going to back out, right?”
Tabitha leans back in her chair, not deciding whether to join these two, she’s already made up her mind on that, but deciding whether her ministry had come to an end.
Burn the thing down. Start over with honesty. Start over with companionship.
“I think I’ve got a solution,” Tabitha says.
At nightfall, the three of them stand outside the church. Howard has parked his Bronco right to the side of it. Tabitha’s holding an empty red gas can. Five more are scattered throughout the church and one in the truck. Howard had done most of the work; he’d ensured her that nothing would be left but ash. Tabitha thinks he has a talent for that sort of thing. She left everything in there to burn, save the cash.
In the moonlight, she can make out the steeple, and she’s reminded of a game her father played when he pretended to be a Christian. He’d knit his hands so they looked a little like a church, with his forefingers pointed up to mimic a steeple and he’d say ‘here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people,’ and then he’d open his palms and wiggle his other fingers—those were the people. A cute game for a little kid. Well her father’s finger-steeple was long dead and now Tabitha’s own wooden steeple had run out of time. Tabitha drops the match at the steps. As she watches the flames grow she wonders if her father’s church might have been the real one all along. The flames grow and the crows light from their roosts atop the structure, angry and squawking.