Work of the Week – Featuring Luke Williams

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Work of the Week – Featuring Luke Williams

Luke is a rising junior and Oklahoma City native who lives in Currier House studying Social Studies with a focus on Economics and Sociology. He works at the Boston Municipal Court Service Center, writes for The Crimson newsboard, and covered Czechia, Poland, and Hungary in Let’s Go 2020. A long time fiction fan, Luke recently discovered that his real writing interests might lie in creative nonfiction, so now he spends way too much time trying to sound like David Foster Wallace—you might even catch him asking you to “Consider the Lobster.” 

“The Four Sights” is a creative nonfiction essay critically concerned with the process of leaving home, and if such an exit is even possible or desirable. The piece explores four different universe’s each characterizing the author’s home, confronting the author’s religious upbringing, coming of age in high school sports, and even finding (and losing) his first love. While the author can tell you that everything in this essay did happen, per se, while he can guarantee that he did see with his own four sights, he can’t in good conscience tell you that everything in this essay happened as written. Perhaps two or three or four events were mashed together for narrative effect and efficiency. Perhaps dialogue that was spoken years ago was resurrected by and filtered through an imperfect (and perhaps even untrustworthy) mind. Perhaps details were exaggerated, or kept secret, or fabricated on the whole, just to evoke a true feeling, rather than any kind of factual truth. What’s important is that everything the author felt while writing this piece is true and born of true circumstances, true events, and true consequences in his life. Fact or fiction, “The Four Sights” argues that what matters most is feeling.

The Four Sights

There I was, in the midst of Oklahoma, in the Chapel, the Garden of Love. The preacher rattled on, the same-old message, subject to only unnoticeable variations week to week, about Jesus — He loves you, He died for you, He lives on in you, Or so you hope — you know the rap. I was religious, had been raised Southern Baptist, and for some reason the story which had always screwed to my sticking place was Jonah’s. How after Jonah escaped the whale’s stomach, how after he had failed Him and wondered the desert hungry, alone, he had finally come upon a tree, sprouted in the midst of sand dunes and desolation, a tree bearing fruit which He had sprouted for him, under which Jonah rested, found shade to lie in, found sustenance and space. The Lord would provide, I learned. I took consolation from this lesson, that is until I turned 16, or so. Only then, as Baldwin would write, would I learn that He was white, that the tree only sprouted for the saved and the saved were the white. 

Looking back, I don’t know what it was about that day, whatever day it might have been, that fostered in my me the courage to look honestly upon my congregation’s color. To realize that of all the white, upper-middle-class Oklahomans which filled my church’s pews there was, in fact, in spite of fact, perhaps, one black man in our congregation. And when the saved raised their hands in song, grasping toward something I felt I could not yet grasp, so did the black man, raise his hand, only after the saved to his left, right, behind and in-front, raised their hands tightly together and shouted to a barely-discernible tune: “Though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” 

I could only see him from behind — I was high up in our stadium-style seating, he was down below, near the stage, inching closer and closer with his outraised hand toward the elevated pastor. Years before, our church decided to become a concert hall, following the path of Life Church, which was overtaking the mom and pop churches of the time. I could only see his back, a white button-down shirt with olive-gray slacks, hiding the outline of his body — muscles rippling through the fabric, wings sprouting from the cloth hanging loose at his arms. And his skin, his black skin, erupting onto the scene with all the grace of Job’s boils. From my seat I saw him as Blake’s Great Red Dragon come to ensure Tribulation upon the masses, or, perhaps, just upon me. 

*

Oklahoma City used to be the largest city on the planet by square area, only losing its top spot to Chongqing earlier this year. You’d never know it, traversing the city. OKC’s downtown is miniscule in reality — but in the imagination of its inhabitants it looms large. It took a foreigner to finally reveal to me that what makes Oklahoma special is a complete horizon; you can practically stand in any spot in the state, turn in a full circle, and see the fine line dividing earth and heavens everywhere you look. To the foreigner, this was miraculous, literally a miracle. “I’ll stand and turn and turn and turn,” she mused, dizzying herself with the wonder of her vision, of its reach. Only in Oklahoma does sight mean anything, have any real, grave, importance — its infinity is taken for granted by its natives. Abandon any Oklahoman in a real city, and they will inevitably succumb to shortsightedness, blinded by the sudden loss of radius.

I was twelve the first time I  flew into Oklahoma City. My dad was a hardened small-town steel-worker turned small business CEO, that is, the only language he spoke besides southern was frugality. He was Burt Reynold’s Bandit all the way. As long as the beer in the ice-chest behind his driver’s seat stayed cold for the duration of the drive, there was no other choice when traveling but good old pedal and metal. In some sense, my childhood was nothing but a metronome, swinging back and forth between different twenty-hour car rides whose length and route were meticulously calculated and always planned at the same regular intervals — winter break, spring break, the first week in August. By fifteen, I had travelled much of the western United States (my dad disdained the east with an Okie’s special delight — only in Oklahoma and perhaps southern Texas is it commonplace to come across Save the Planet, Shoot a Yank bumper stickers), but we never stayed anywhere long enough to peer into a place’s root system, to study the belowground twisting and branching of people, place, and belief. My early travels were nothing but promiscuous, promising flashes, my IPhone capturing image after image, each new picture compiling upon the last, slowly revealing an earnest desire developing within me, something remote, but measurable: the desire to leave, for good. In Oklahoma, you learn from an early age that your home is uninteresting, that the only defining movement you can make is escape. And so there is a cult of car rides in Oklahoma; even the well-off families drive, not fly, to their vacation spots. We drive to feel our escape, mile marker by mile marker, to imagine, even for a moment, that we won’t have to buy another twelve pack soon and turn our headlights home. 

I expected trading the road for the sky to be exhilarating, but upon flying into Oklahoma City for the first time I felt no special pleasure. No sense of ownership, of wear, of lived-in-ness. The map of my city was splayed out before me like a tattoo, and I turned my stare away quickly, suddenly overcome with fright. If I looked too long, the city would burn my eyes, would carve itself into my corneas, creating a scar I’d forever bare and reluctantly brandish. I’d seen my city, fixed my eyes on the far-away blur that was my house, and for now, that was enough. Later on, visiting potential colleges on the east coast required my flying more frequently. I learned to religiously shut my window’s visor as soon as the pilot announced our approach, symbolically crossing myself while silently invoking the trinity of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

Most flights leaving Will Rogers World Airport land in Dallas. One or two go east, three or four go west. The others fly thirty minutes south day-in and day-out, ferrying people to their connections. The airport is located around ten miles southwest of Oklahoma City’s downtown. The most exciting stop in its one long hallway is a habitually well-attended Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop. People cling to their pretzel buckets and cinnamon sugar nuggets reverently, silently waiting for someone to pass by and then turn around in surprise, to look them in the eyes and say, “You son of a bitch! You know how long it’s been?” In Oklahoma, we are our brothers’ keepers. If we aren’t there to catch you at the airport, just about to board your plane, to talk your ears off about Classen Charter closing its doors or that new ramen place on 16th, who else will keep you anchored? Who else will see you home? In Oklahoma, there is an abiding sense of love for our fellow man, an aggressive, terrifying, communal, guilty love.

My first deplaning delivered me to a restless line of travelers, assorted one next to the other, neck-pillows and yoga pants marking each person a grim postmodern reflection of one apostle, together a huddled mass without a Christ. One woman dressed in a wrinkled pink blazer made brief eye-contact with me in the terminal, waiting for her plane. She had frilled, brittle, blonde hair that looked dead, pathetically curling above her shoulders. She looked me up and down, grasping her neck with a crinkled right hand, and her faded azure eyes settled on mine. “Welcome back,” she rasped. “Howdy,” a bloated man in a t-shirt reading Da Boss chanted to each passenger emerging from the tunnel. “No place like home,” a mother in sweatpants and hoodie said to her husband while holding her child to her breast, gently swaying side to side. A whole array of people stood sentinel to our exodus, crushing our path inward, reminding us where we were, hammering in with all the intensity and sincerity they could afford that we were home.

*

Driving back to our house from the airport always took about thirty-five minutes, just fifteen minutes longer than your average Oklahoma City car ride. My dad at the wheel, we’d take a short drive down Portland Avenue to I-44 (which turned into State Highway 74, or “Hefner Parkway”), then ride the interstate north all the way home, keeping downtown at a healthy distance to our east. 

What is a city? Is it still a city if there are no people there? My childhood Oklahoma City is just that — a vacant, desolate city of stunted gray skyscrapers and barely-visited streets. The OKC of my youth was defined by the outskirts, specifically the northern suburbs and the surrounding grasslands and dust. Making our way up I-44 in my dad’s F-150, I never recognized anything south of 44th Street, and when I saw the downtown’s outline against the sky it was only to watch it fall away at 70mph, like a drop of rain falling horizontally, blurring the city against the backdrop of the perennially cloudless sky. In truth, my youthful impression of Oklahoma City is nothing more than a ruin decaying at the site of some old, forgotten story.

And so my earliest experiences of home are defined by and restricted to where my parents would drive me, which, admittedly, was an area tightly squeezed into, roughly, ten city blocks by thirty city blocks. The north was held in line by 150th Street and the south by Hefner Road. MacArthur Boulevard and Western Avenue delineated the western and eastern borders, respectively. It was a fishbowl existence; the thrums of my entire early life were captured and held in captivity, with each passing year vibrating more and more loudly against the glass walls of this rich white existence. Between Boomerang Car Wash and New York Bagel Café, Tana-Thai and OnCue Express, Tucker’s Onion Burgers and Crossings Christain School, my entire life emerged between the crowded corners of these roadside locations. 

I lived in a stainless suburbian Babylon, surrounded by manned gates, boasting three fishing ponds, an 18-hole golf course, a country club, and too many indistinct two-story houses to count. This was the aristocrat’s hideaway, where old oil tycoons retired in luxury and up-and-coming doctors, lawyers, and businessmen took out loans to buy houses that would sufficiently impress their prospective clientele. It was home to the Oklahoma intelligentsia, a rather empty title, and it was defined by guileful boredom. 

This, of course, is the kind of neighborhood which owns and operates its own quarterly magazine. And with each new issue, one distinctly gorgeous, wealthy, and plastic Neighborhood family is chosen to participate in a glamor shoot that will serve as this quarter’s centerpiece feature. The Neighborhood hires a professional photographer and a whole Saturday is agreed upon by father and photographer during which the family will pose around its house and the Neighborhood’s various ponds. When the magazine is released a few weeks later, all the other Neighborhood families will compare their lives to the featured photographs, comparing curtain fabric and color, sizing up wedding ring to wedding ring, judging the handsomeness of each child’s smile, determining status by the whiteness of the family dog’s teeth. By Neighborhood commandment there will always be a picture of mother and daughter cheek-to-cheek, holding each others’ elbows and stretching their grins to grotesque proportions. The mother will hold her little reproduction close to her chest, imprinting wrinkled cheek into smooth, tightly tying cubed knuckles around slim, spotless arms. Veins rise from the mother’s hands like blueberry filling bursting from the seams of a flaky white pie, a hint of panic swirls like the laundry in the white of the mother’s eye.

Things are different with fathers and sons. The traditional masculine pose is more regal, less contemporary; regal, of course, in the sense of Cassatt’s portrait of her brother and his son, and very much not in the sense of Louis XIII. The son is shorter, he disappears in the father’s crevice between arm and torso. The father’s hands will rest on the top of his son’s shoulders, lightly, fingertips barely hovering above fabric and skin. The fingers will be curled, poised, taut like a bridle. Together, father and son look toward the empty camera lens and submit manhood’s required subtle smiles, their faces muddled on the camera lens with the houses and grasses behind them. 

*

Karl Marx writes in Capital, “Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence the manifold uses of things is the work of history.” When telling you about my childhood in Oklahoma I could speak of high school, of learning piano, of finding first love, of joining drama, of so many various things. But no matter what I tell you, I’d be lying to some extent, that is, of course, if we consider incompletion a form of untruth. So, with the truth in mind, I’m afraid I have to talk about football. I’m afraid that’s the only way for me to tell you everything. 

My dad’s directive hung like a chain around my neck for over ten years: PRIVATE SCHOOL AND FOOTBALL, OR PUBLIC SCHOOL. 

*

There I was, Thanksgiving, on a football practice field just a few minutes’ walk from my house. It was 6:30 in the morning, we were practicing until 10:00. When your football team won three state championships in four years, practices on Thanksgiving were germane to the territory. Our fathers would drive us out there, we would sit in passenger seats suited in shoulder pads, holding helmets in our laps. A caravan of trucks would form outside the practice field, white and black and crimson F-150’s humming together in some loud ritualistic song, the vehicles revving like drums, signalling another year to give thanks, another year we’d made it to the semi-finals. We’d hurry over to the personal trainer, Joe, and we’d wait patiently in line for him to wrap our wrists and ankles — we must take every precaution, we were told, to avoid having more than three broken bones and six concussions, each, or else our small team would get even smaller. At this ripe moment in the season we were always dangerously close to our quotas, so coaches allotted ample time for us to get ice packs, to put on our knee braces and tighten our protective corsets. Meanwhile, our fathers would lounge on the sidelines, eager to spend Thanksgiving morning drinking coffee and hounding Krispy Kreme, joking to each other that these were the non-fattening Krispy Kreme donuts, after all, go ahead and hand Jim another. At 7:00 the head coach would whistle and his fourteen-man coaching staff would assemble at midfield, we would come and kneel before them, our fathers standing behind us. Those of us feeling especially excited for practice — there are, always, a few who are excited — would raise their hands to eye-level, like they were swearing, like their other hand was on the Bible and they were ready to take an oath. The coach, Brett, would say a few words. It had been a good season, we had worked hard, but there were still two games left, and even though it’s a holiday he was extremely thankful for us, for our talent, for our sacrifice. It wasn’t easy being a football player, we gave up countless hours every night, we came home with bruises, bloodied, sometimes unconscious, but it’s really all worth it, when you take home that gold ball. And that’s why we’re out here on Thanksgiving, boys, to take home that gold ball. Now, his benediction: I know your works, Father, your charity and patience. Let us receive them. Let us overcome adversity and inherit your grace. There is salvation in none other but thee, O Lord, you are alive forevermore, amen. A moment of silence endured on the field before we all repeated “amen.” With that, Brett mechanically blew his whistle and with the feigned spontaneity of an amusement park sea lion announced that, being Thanksgiving as it is, practice would be a little unorthodox today: We’d be starting with the Oklahoma Drill. Our fathers would shudder with anticipation and begin ferociously eyeing each other; they all knew the moment was coming, they looked forward to it every year. Eye contact excavated old, forgotten rivalries, it brought them right back to the surface. Mr. Marion remembered that Mr. Wilson had blown out his knee in college ball, the OBU game back in ‘84. Dr. Ryan looked dirty at Mr. Cobb and Mr. Cobb shot it back — Ryan had charged more than normal for Cobb’s third wife’s most recent botox treatment and Cobb refused to pay illegal arrears. They’d let the debt slide by unnoticed, unspoken, for the past year, but now their sons were freshmen, they were on the team and would be in the Drill. Everyone knew that Mr. Milner let the boys smoke pot at his house, and plenty of eyes turned toward him too. Once the battlelines had been drawn, they would line us up across from each other, son against son, gladiator against gladiator. The Oklahoma Drill calls for two lineman facing one another inches apart, and then for a runningback behind the offensive lineman and a linebacker behind the defensive lineman. Cones are placed to the right and left to keep all four in a tight line. When the whistle is blown, the ball-carrying runningback counts on his O-lineman to keep the D-lineman out of the way, and if he can make it past the linebacker, the offense wins and vice versa. And while this may sound rather mundane on paper, the Oklahoma Drill is notorious nationwide as one of the most brutal, demanding, and dangerous football drills a team can run — usually it’s specifically reserved for the first day of padded practice each new season to persuade all of the weak new recruits who can’t handle impact-athletics that they were better suited for the track team all along. And so Brett watched our fathers’ eyes carefully, measuring up conflicts, deigning who would line up against Mr. Milner’s boy this time, if a second and third match would be necessary. With their eyes, our fathers directed each and every one of us toward the center, toward Mr. Milner’s boy, who, for his part, kept looking around, desperately pleading with the coaches to call quits, to let him rejoin the ring. Even after Mr. Milner’s boy had been tackled, clothes-lined, jabbed, stomped on, punched, and slammed against the ground time and time again, Mr. Milner continued to eye his son with an empty, unsatisfied stare. When his boy finally crumpled to the ground, with his leg slightly pointing in the wrong direction and his breath’s vapor curling upward from his helmet, all of the fathers huddled together around us in an ever-tighter circle, swallowing us in their mass. Someone must’ve walked by as we helped Mr. Milner’s boy stand up, as we gripped under his armpits and elbowed our way past our immovable fathers, as Mr. Milner’s boy paused to throw up on the field, as steam from his flaxen vomit floated above our heads, the reeking puddle empty of all but a few decaying carrots, maybe some bread. Someone must have seen the way the ring of coaches and fathers danced their way closer toward the three remaining boys, toward the boiling vomit, away from those of us carrying Mr. Milner’s boy outside the circle, stumbling away, toward the benches. Our fathers took turns casting disdainful glares toward those of us who left the Drill, each in our turn, and once Mr. Milner’s boy caught his breath we collectively agreed to rejoin the ring, we were one subordinated mind left with nothing but tender, unspeakable hope. It must’ve been unnerving from a distance. I wouldn’t know. At the end, our fathers calmed down and went back to domestic chatter and coffee. Some even left. Two hours later, Brett declared another successful Thanksgiving practice was in the books and reminded us all to watch what we eat until tomorrow. 

*

In Bill Hader’s only interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, the third sentence he says is “I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma.” When two people cheer in the audience he looks up at them with wide eyes and a massive smile that hardly fits on his face. “No way, you got out!,” he shouts. “You guys got out.” Then he stops himself, and for a moment, he almost looks guilty. 

*

And so I played football for ten years to secure attendance at one of Oklahoma City’s three serious private schools. Being a rare private school in a stubbornly racially divided metropolitan area, our student body was almost entirely white. The minute numbers of black students we admitted year to year made up very little of our school population, and yet, almost half of our football team was black. It may have been my first experiences mixing those blue, gold, and white uniforms among both black and white skins that awakened in me any kind of color-consciousness. But that didn’t mean much — if the black boys didn’t soon start acting like white boys they weren’t long for this north suburban world. There was always some part of themselves, I think, they had to submit, some part of them that could never be handed back. I only say that because I feel that way too, now, and because those who never changed are now lost to my history.

Two Thanksgivings passed with me on the field running plays under my dad’s unerring eye. On the last Thanksgiving, though, he had to leave early, I can’t remember why, and I was left to practice without his supervision. 

Just as my dad’s truck was pulling out of the parking lot, a plane flew south overhead, carrying behind it a magnificent roar, reducing the quarterback’s calls to humble silence. My eyes followed the plane through the sky, rapt, glued to its arc. As the plane receded from my field of vision, I imagined myself a passenger on that plane: a middle-aged Ph.D. coming home from OxBridge, shaken by the sudden lack of British accents and picking away at the dried yellow mucus I’d coughed onto my sleeve in Dallas. Then I looked down from the plane window, and I saw a Hummer driving north from downtown, and suddenly I was driving that yellow Hummer toward the corner of 122nd and Corjil, where I would get home and give my mom a kiss on the cheek, help her take the Tofurky out of the oven and prepare the vegan stuffing. But first, I drove past an ancient homeless man, haggard, diseased, desperately holding onto life as winter set in, seven stars tattooed on his hand and a sword on his tongue; and there I was, begging on the side of Pennsylvania Avenue and Memorial Road, holding a sign reading The Time Is At Hand

It was an old habit; ever since fourth grade I would begin imagining myself as someone else as soon as practice wore long, someone in a car driving past, someone jogging through the early morning, and then I’d continue the chain, letting my consciousness leap from person to person, pretending that I could extend myself over the face of the earth without ever having to move. Football required only my vicarious presence. I was always one passerby away from being somewhere else. 

*

In Oklahoma we must love each other with unmitigated strength. No Oklahoman ever loves himself. Almost one in five Oklahomans live below the poverty line and we collectively clamor that we are the caretakers of our people, that we are born southern and hospitable. We have some of the highest national rates for tobacco use, obesity, teen pregnancy, urban homeslessness, and mental health disease diagnosis per capita while we insist on teaching abstinence and the power of self-control, personal responsibility, and predetermination. Our public schools are likened to prisons, and our prisons are likened to hell. We are the only state who actively forgets that it produced national heroes, unless that national hero is Will Rogers. Elizabeth Warren is too communist, Ralph Ellison and Clara Luper too black. Oklahoma, above all, is an irresolvable, illogical enigma. Like our state, Oklahomans are ancient, incoherent, barren people always susceptible to being caught in ageless dust bowls. We are elected to live the drifter’s life, cast from one place while casting our lot to the next, never arriving, blowing further and further alongside the wind and dust toward an impossible horizon. 

It is enough, perhaps, to say that Oklahoma’s geography was first an ocean floor and whales once swam beside the morning stars. 

*

I continued playing my imagination game until Brett gathered us all together and gave us one more benediction before dismissing us. I checked my phone after removing my pads and saw that my dad wasn’t able to make it back in time; I’d be walking home. I swallowed a coffee and without saying goodbye to anyone, started west down 150th. 

Seeing as I was black with mud and soaked with morning dew and family wouldn’t start arriving at my house for a few hours, I decided to veer north as soon as I crossed Portland Avenue, electing to take my time in the plains, to take the long way home and enjoy the morning. 

Neighborhoods gave way to spare houses and spare houses to sparse trees and sparse trees to wide, engulfing, blurry boundaries of grass and sky. In the summer and fall the grasses just north of my house would grow vermillion, three feet or four feet high, scratching the sky’s surface like a clock’s pendulum, swinging from one extrema to the next, gently bending with a ballet dancer’s graceful frame. On summer days now lost to memory I’d wander the plains voraciously, seeking new paths through the grass, wanting to know, more than anything, what the weeds felt like on my skin, come to life and breathing as they were. In the fall, things were messier, wetter, but the bugs were fewer, the surroundings quieter — nothing buzzed or chirped and I could close my eyes and know my land’s expanse, could hear God’s symphony: grass against grass, wind against leaf. Psalm 147 remarks that God made grass to grow on the mountains, but we may rest assured that King David never visited the Great Plains. 

Before the semi-finals game the next day, I submitted my applications to both the University of Oklahoma and, without any concrete expectation, to Harvard. 

*

Sundays would bring me to church, where I would hear the pastor go on and on, where abortion would be lambasted as the devil’s work, where Senator James Lankford would take the stage and implore our congregation to vote for Mr. Trump, our only hope for a Christain state. I’d go to Sunday school where my peers placed bets on NFL games and I was taught that, alongside being a carpenter, Jesus reportedly invented football. I’d listen as the youth pastor implored me not to drink, not to have sex, not to party — “After having sex, you’ll never be able to let go. Remember from whence thou art fallen.” I was taught the prosperity gospel and told that the poor chose to be poor and that God foreordained their poverty. I was told to love the homeless, but not to give them anything, not even a greeting, eye-contact, or any other form of endorsement. I was mandated to be a good Christian and to love Jesus and my neighbor and myself. “We live in a world of love,” the pastor would frequently remind us. “So we all just need to love one another a little bit harder.” 

And all the while Aaron Sapronis kept sitting in the same seat. The middle section of our stadium, just close enough to the stage to render the jumbotron hanging above his head meaningless. He’d reach out his hand toward the pastor, close his eyes, and sing at the top of his lungs. I stood motionless and voiceless above him, trapped in a quivering sea of the devout, and I couldn’t help but question what made him reach out, what made him sing week to week. It doesn’t matter when or why it happened, but it does matter how: The moment I noticed Aaron Sapronis’ singularity I lost my grip on Christianity, I tenderly, and then passionately flirted with atheism. 

The only refuge from the endless onslaught of my tedious upbringing was in my room, in my library. I would read and read and read, I’d unsteady myself with the beguiling taste of other worlds and other lives. And near the end, just a year before I left, I’d meet a girl with thick black hair. We’d lay out on the trampoline in my quaint backyard at night, swallowed by darkness, suspended in an old Oklahoma sea of the deepest pitch. We’d cuddle closely together, her warmth mingling with mine, and as Oklahoma City’s downtown grew with Kevin Durant and his Thunder, the stars faded from our sky until only the blinding light of the moon was left, until the only light I could see at the bottom of the night’s endless ocean was the moonlight that reflected off of Teighanne’s pale white skin, as I kissed her with my eyes open, her eyes closed, and the night knitted a mask over my face to protect me from the Oklahoman moonlight reflecting off of her, too bright to look at directly, that is, until the night covered my eyes completely. And even then, in the midst of her kiss, all I could do was grasp at her neck and wish to leave. 

And after it all, I would escape to Boston. Most Oklahomans never get the chance to leave for good — their out-of-state college applications are rejected, they don’t bag their dream-job, they start a family and buy a house. While we are taught to leave, most of the time our attempts to make good on that lesson are crushed. As for me, I just got lucky. 

*

In her essay Ecstasy, Jia Tolentino writes, “I have been walking away from institutional religion for a long time now — half my life, at this point, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built.” For those of us raised in the jumbotron-church, reading this must fill us with innocent excitement. Whatever man maketh, he may unmaketh too, or so we hope, and so we pray.

But that innocent excitement must reveal itself for the fantasy it inescapably is. Tolentino seems to suggest that she is successfully moving past Institutional Religion and her religious upbringing at the same time, as if they are the same thing and overcoming one necessarily means overcoming the other. She couldn’t be more wrong — The idea that abandoning faith is as easy as ditching the pews is one insidious, disillusioned, disastrous thought. To be fair, Tolentino realizes this. “You don’t have to believe a revelation to hold onto it,” she writes. 

We may walk away from Institutional Religion all we want, but we have been branded. To think otherwise is nothing but foolish. Those of us whose parents offered us up to the god of rich white Christianity to be chewed, swallowed, and spat back out perfect evangelicals may never escape from religion. From God, perhaps. From Christianity, definitely. From religion, no sir.

*

Here I am, in the belly of the church, standing out of the way under an artificial tree as countless children swarm past me into the Kid’s Ministry’s honeycombed hallways. Their teacher takes up the rear, disappearing with the river of children past a painted sunflower marking the direction of their Sunday school classroom. When the board decided to rebuild the children’s facilities a decade ago, it determined a generally outdoors-related theme would be best. So painted and potted plants spot the ministry’s halls and welcome room, the largest being a to-scale cypress tree erected before the front desk, complete with plastic leaves and nearly paper-mâché bark. Further inside, the children play in an indoor playground with monkeys painted on the walls and in a jungle gym made to look like a rainforest hideaway, constructed almost entirely from whole wooden timbers smoothed down to industry-grade textures held together by faux rubber vines twisted into needlessly complex decorative knots. 

As soon I can’t hear the children’s march, I leave the tree behind and follow after them, past the painted sunflower and into rows upon rows of classrooms. It’s been years since I’ve had to navigate these halls; I follow memory’s dull scent alongside blind intuition, peeking into each door’s square glass panel, offering previews of what’s inside. In one there’s an old woman, perhaps Mrs. Jones, reading a picture-book to nine preschoolers in a crescent before her, but I can only see the backs of their heads. One of the children is sucking his thumb and his eyes wander around the room until they land on mine. I walk past this door to another. Third graders are rushing around short tables, reaching for purple glue sticks and safety scissors, for thick crafting paper and crayons, bringing their supplies back to their seats, where each of them has a white shoebox reading My Christain Memory Box in large black lettering on the lid. One kid is cutting out a seven-headed dragon from red paper and gluing it to his box, another crayons in a yellow woman standing on a blue moon with stars for eyes and a crown atop her head. Further down the hall I stand outside a room with twenty-four children dressed in white choir robes, standing one behind another on three rows of risers, and their voices escape through the crack between door and floor, barely a whisper: For Thy pleasure are we created

My sister’s classroom is the next room over. Through the glass panel I see the lights inside are dimmed. My sister is sitting quietly on the ground in criss-cross-applesauce beside four other girls, all of them reading their Bibles with the utmost solemnity. One of them holds a pen and is underlining as she reads, another follows with her finger. While I’m following her finger across the page, a dark shape blots out my vision and interrupts my eyes’ path. The door cracks open, spitting out a man, a black man, their teacher, right in front of me. 

*

When I was in sixth grade, my mom had me read Left Behind, a commercial masterwork of Christain fiction that interprets and repackages the book of Revelation into a modern action-thriller. The book is a “novel of the Earth’s last days” that follows former commercial pilot Rayford Steele after every Christain simultaneously disappears (“the rapture”) and is taken to heaven. Throughout the sixteen book series, Rayford assembles a “Tribulation Force” of newly made converts to oppose the rise of the antichrist in global politics and to ensure the settlement of New Jerusalem, God’s promised kingdom on Earth. As soon as I could drive, I would spend entire Saturday’s scouring Oklahoma estate sales for rare books. Every now and then I’d find some first edition Stephen King’s or perhaps even some leather-bound editions of Thomas Jefferson’s letters, but more than anything, I’d find collection upon collection of the Left Behind series. The Greatest Generation didn’t allow even one of its members to bite the dust before collecting all sixteen hardback editions, J.K. Rowling and her witchcraft be damned. Oklahoma is not an incredibly literary state, but estate sales proved to me there are exceptions, two, namely: Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, God’s hand-picked prophets for the Year of Our Lord 1995.

Even though my mom urged me to continue, I never read past the second book. The first one scarred me — any time I was left home alone, I would be seized with fright that the rapture had suddenly stolen away everyone I knew and I was left on Earth alone to face the antichrist. I never even entertained the idea I would be included in the rapture with all the virtuous Protestants (Catholics were as good as nonbelievers) — I always felt somewhat outside of Christianity, and besides, I regularly masturbated and didn’t pray afterwards, so I had already squared myself with condemnation. But no matter how much I felt like an exile from Christianity, I always operated within its boundaries. I was never included in the rapture, but if home started to feel peculiarly empty, I’d run as fast as I could through the house calling out my family members’ names. I’d check the front and back yards, the garage, the bathrooms and closets, and if I still couldn’t find anybody I’d call my mom’s phone twice, then my sister, then my dad, and if none of them answered me, I’d feverishly google are people disappearing right now and only reluctantly take solace in the conspicuous lack of world-shattering results. For almost two years, I sincerely believed that every moment I shared with my family was nothing but the grace of Jesus generously delaying the rapture for me. Even now, emptiness scares the shit out of me, always carrying about it the persuasion that it must precede the end of the world.

*

My sister’s teacher introduces himself as Aaron Sapronis and extends his hand toward me. I shake it and explain that I’m not just standing outside of his classroom like a creep, I’m actually here to pick up my sister, Taylor, to get her out of class. He asks if we’ve met before, I tell him no. He asks if I’m from Oklahoma City, I tell him yes. He’s never seen me in church, he explains, how could that be if I’ve gone here for eighteen years? I’m honest with him, but not too honest, so I tell him I started skipping Sunday School and service pretty regularly when I was fifteen or so. He looks a little puzzled at this, his thick eyebrows pushing in on his eyes, his frame retreating ever so slightly toward the door. I’m used to Christians wanting to know why I stopped calling myself that, to my fellow churchgoers feeling put-off by my irregular absence from worship and class. It feels like disrespect, so normally I uncomfortably smile, and give some one-off excuse that amounts to “I’m busy.” But this time, in front of Aaron, the truth begs to come out. It shoves against my lips and I think he sees the effort I’m putting in to keep it inside. How can I very well tell him, Aaron Sapronis, in your name I became atheist. Probably by accident, Aaron, you as a person really had very little to do with the whole mess, but nonetheless, it was my seeing you and my continually seeing you that thrusted me out of the church and onto the proverbial Godless curb. So I say that my family moved farther away, that’s why he hasn’t seen me as often, it’s a much longer drive now. And now I don’t even live here. 

He asks if I’m at the University of Oklahoma, and I tell him I’m in Boston, home for winter break. He smiles and says I’m always welcome, that he’ll go get my sister, and turns toward the door.

My speech stops him in the threshold. I’m compelled to speak. My questions to him have been lingering for far too long. Aaron turns back toward me, standing halfway in the classroom and halfway in the hallway. He lowers his voice to answer my question, so as to not disturb the devotion time happening inside. He tells me yes, he’s from Oklahoma City, in fact. He’s lived on the same one block a mile or so south of 44th Street his whole life. I uncomfortably smile and tell him I’ve never really been south of 44th; he says he’s not surprised. I ask how he started coming all the way up here for church. A natural question, he says, but a forty minute drive north pales in comparison to how much this place means to me. I grew up here, my father started coming here to worship, God Himself knows why, before I was born. He was here when this was nothing but an empty building, when the stadium we have now was just an empty dream. This is my father’s church and my mother’s faith, and I just never stopped coming back. Lord knows I tried, Aaron says, but something always pulls you back, doesn’t it? 

He asks me if I’ve found a church up in Boston. I have the courage now to tell him that I’m struggling with my faith, that I have been for a while, that I was atheist for a year or so and now it’s all a bit more blurry than that. Aaron sighs, but without a hint of disappointment, and he tells me that too is only natural. In Oklahoma it’s impossible to be irreligious, he says. It’s something about the land, or the people, or our faith itself, but it makes sense, he says, that my moving to Boston made everything muddier. Now that you can finally say goodbye to God, you’re finding you can’t, he says. It’s as it should be. He tells me he was atheist for a few years, back in the 80’s, when northern Oklahoma City was the final destination for all of the state’s white flight. He pauses, looks down, kicks his brown leather shoe back and forth. His grey slacks are wrinkled and his blue shirt’s bottom button hangs loose. His breath carries notes of nuts and chocolate. 

I just couldn’t hold on, he finally says. This is my father’s house. And it’s not blind faith or anything, don’t think that. I know this church. I know what it means. That’s why I left with everyone else. Sooner or later, though, I had to come back. They weren’t raised here like me, it was easier for them just to up and go. And you know, I realized, leaving allowed me to finally see this place. It wasn’t just my father’s anymore, it was mine, it meant more to me now. But it’s also his. If that makes sense. And it wasn’t something forced on me or something forcing me out. I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess I only understand it in odd-fitting pieces. Besides, Aaron says, it’s not like leaving would do any good. 

This, of course, is what I hear. He could have said, I suppose, my Father’s house. 

With that, he turns himself away from me and toward the classroom. He softly approaches my sister, taps her shoulder, and points toward me. She runs to me, her feet on the tile sounding out a rhythm, and she lunges into a hug leveled at my waist. I shut the door behind her and Aaron briefly stands in the window, waves goodbye, then fades away. 

*

18th century linguists argued “nostalgia” combined the Greek words nostos (“homecoming”) and algos (“pain,” “grief,” “distress”). During the first century, or so, of the word’s common use, nostalgia described what was thought to be a literal disease most commonly contracted by sailors, convicts on the lam, and African slaves. The disease entered the American lexicon during the Civil War — The first two years of the war saw 2,588 northern soldiers catch nostalgia while visiting the south. Battlefield doctors recorded that 13 of the afflicted died from it.

Etymological studies of “nostalgia” in the 20th century revealed that the phrase could find its origins in some unpredictable conglomeration of a few previously overlooked words. For one, there’s Old Norse’s nest (“food,” specifically for a journey), Sanskrit’s nasate (to “join” or “approach”), and Old English’s and German’s genesen (“to recover”). Later research suggested another possibly influential Greek term: neomai, at once connoting “escape from” and “return to” one’s home. 

*

Travelling by car means traveling in a circle; the journey to and journey from are one and the same. Flying is more linear — flying to and flying from require separate tickets, different travel times, layovers, time changes, cancellations, delays, different airports, different seats and different travelling companions. You may drive a car, but flying happens to you. And unlike driving, nothing about flying requests your return. 

Nonetheless, after three months living in Boston, I return. Gog and Magog, I’m cast forth through a gate of clouds to inherit my earth: a sea of crystal glass, waves of stunted skyscrapers leaping from the ground, doomed to fall back and live nearer to the earth. The Devon Tower triumphs at the city’s center, leaping higher than all the others, a monument to oil, the world’s largest glittering prehistoric skeleton, visible for almost one hundred miles in any direction. Surely, I come quickly, looking down upon Wildewood, Chisholm Creek, and Camelot. Midtown, Plaza, and Paseo crumble like relics to dust below, and even so, I come.

Will Rogers is unbelievably empty compared to Boston Logan and I make it out of baggage claim with time to spare. I sit down in one of the black leather waiting chairs and read in the silent airport, a family of four across from me, the children selfishly whining away hunger. 

Teighanne drives me home. I can’t keep my hands off her. My fingers brush over a tear in her jeans as she shoots me sideways glances and half-heartedly shouts empty threats, reminding me who’s driving and who’s ticklish. We take I-40 to I-44 and turn onto Western as soon as possible, turning left onto Classen once we pass Braum’s. I ask if she wants to stop for iced tea and she says she doesn’t even drink iced tea anymore. I explain that Boston is critically short of iced tea and it would be a real treat to stop for a stout Braum’s special. She only orders one 40-ounce unsweet iced tea with seven Splendas at the drive-through, and when she hands it to me with a kiss I want to pull her gaze toward mine and plead, sincerely, to order one more. 

We pass Café Antigua, where I once convinced her to eat a cheese and sausage filled South American breakfast burrito. We never returned. Heading north, the Hummer swiftly falls into the right lane closest to the gold-dome bank. It’s all shut up with fencing now, you can barely see the inside through the ground-level windows; only the gold-plated shell atop the building peeks out from above. Teighanne keeps her eyes forward, waiting for the light to turn green. The dome has me transfixed. I don’t see anything along the chain-wire fence that says it’s scheduled for demolition, but maybe that’s something that demolition companies prefer not to make public. 

Teapioca Lounge and Craig’s Curious Emporium fall behind us. I ask Tei if she’s tried La Brasa yet and she says no, but she ate at Grand House the other day and the spicy bean curd is still stellar. We park outside of Super Cao Nguyen Supermarket and go inside to buy panang curry paste and fish sauce, but while I’m searching for paste I throw quail eggs into the basket. At checkout, Tei asks why I’m getting quail eggs. “Because they have quail eggs!” I tell her. “Did you know they had quail eggs?”

Past Kung Fu Tea and Hubbly Bubbly, north of Pho Cuong and Lee’s Sandwiches, near Memorial Park but before reaching Penn Square, she turns down the music — I was playing Les Miserablés, Marius was mourning Eponine — and asks, solemnly, “If we broke up, what qualities would you look for in someone else? Like what’s most important to you in another person?” I feel like that’s a weird question to be asking, Tei, we’re doing well, we’re doing great. Look, look, they’ve opened another Edna’s on Classen! “Just hypothetically,” she qualifies. 

Do you see that? The trees in Brookhaven are growing again! It’s November and there’s leaves! Can you believe it? You know, I did community service with the Junior League one time, right in that building right there. The building next to it is the Juvenile Courts. They wouldn’t let me in there. Shit! Is that a Trader Joes? In Oklahoma? Is that the McGuiness football team this year? They’re still practicing? Holy shit, good for them. Hey, do me a favor and turn down 15th, I want to see how St. Luke’s is doing. And Reverend Ladislau. And Wheeler Park. Do you want to see a Thunder game while I’m here? How about a movie downtown? We should explore the botanical gardens, go ice skating at the Devon rink. C’mon, it’ll be fun. Maybe we could even go to a service at Rissho Kosei, since you’ve been reading more about Buddhism. We really need to eat at Waffle Champion you know, Boston may know seafood, but it wouldn’t know breakfast if it got slapped with a triple stack in the jaw. Are they still begging on Penn? My mom said the bus line’s getting extended so I’m just wondering. When I get back for winter break we should go hike the Wichita Mountains, or bike Draper Hills at least. I know you’re not in shape, me neither, but we’ll get that sorted out. Won’t we?

“I guess I don’t like the question.” I would try to break up with her almost one month later, I’d successfully break up with her seven months later. “But I guess the ability to change,” I say. “The will to grow.” 

“Me too,” she says.

I softly lay my hand on top of hers, manning the gearshift between us. I ask her if she remembers the time she drove to Jones, a small town an hour outside of the city, rather than Jones Assembly, a restaurant downtown, just twenty minutes south of our houses. She says she does, and punches me lightly in the shoulder, reminding me to be nice to girlfriend. I ask her if she’s missed me, and she says she does. I ask her if she’s stopped going home on weekends, and she says she hasn’t. I ask her if she has an idea on a major yet, and she says no. Extracurriculars? Any new paintings? Any new restaurants? How about new vegan food? 

For a few minutes, we’re just silent. Quiet is a form of emptiness, I tell her, and one of my new friends, a Lutheran for the Lutherans, likes to always say that as emptiness, quiet is made to be experienced, to be endured, not to be overcome. I try to joke that I’d love to experience more quiet, what with the streets outside of Pennypacker Hall and all. Cambridge never sleeps, I say, the street cleaners come out at three in the morning. What else is there to do, I say, when the buildings grow so closely together? At least, I say, in Oklahoma City things are more open, there’s a horizon, and plains, and prairie, and grasslands. Our downtown looks like a perfectly-sized field. 

Besides, I say, the water in Oklahoma tastes like dirt. Everything’s too clean in Boston. I tell her how at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City there are these brass-plated water fountains that require you to look your reflection in the eye when you go in for a drink. “There’s no escaping it,” I say, “As soon as your mouth hits the stream, you’re looking yourself right in the eye, in a kinda golden mirror.” 

When we get back to her house she shows me a shrub, the only new addition to her room. Short, stubborn, with thick-skinned roots pressing up from the dirt like bulbous little fingers. The roots, she tells me, grow just far enough into the ground to withstand only light wind. That’s why she potted it. It was dying outside. 

Well, if the heat doesn’t kill it, if it finds shade or rain and worms keep away from the roots, if it survives the nights and its spores fly far on the breeze’s back, soon and sure enough, you’ll have yourself a garden, I say. 

Silly, she says, there’s no sun or wind or rain or worms in my room, she says. 

We have sex and shower together. I half-jokingly ask her to make sure to get my back and ass. I haven’t been able to reach since I left you, I say. 

*

Being from Oklahoma is a mark I will never be able to scrub away, even though
Oklahoma will wash me away in a heartbeat. Being Oklahoman is a disappearing act. The question is what, exactly, disappears. 

*

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk writes, “To someone from nowhere, every movement turns into a return, since nothing exerts such a draw as emptiness.” She’s from Poland. Sulechow, to be exact. In Sulechow you can stay at the Hotel Texicana for $53 a night. 

“By no means is it possible to ever actually attain a given destination, nor, in so doing, appease desire. This process of striving is best encapsulated in the preposition ‘toward.’ Toward what?” Tokarczuk is lucky she’s writing fiction, where we can pose empty questions to ourselves. She knows as well as I that all of her writing, all of her movement, is just one grand arc bending toward Sulechow. Right this instant, it’s thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit in the Sulechow town square. The Winnica Cantina is empty of tourists, odd Opels and Fiats drive west over the Cigacicach Bridge from Warsaw, 16,925 people stumble out of bed toward a predetermined breakfast. 

*

The Great Salt Plains Lake takes up a selfish swath of land about three hours northwest of Oklahoma City. The area around the lake is completely empty but for the crystal white salt deposits littering the west bank for miles. Millions of years ago, the whole area was covered by a shallow ocean, and as millions of miniscule sea-level changes brought the water up and back down, salt was so continuously left resting atop the sand floor that even today a saline reservoir runs under the entire lake, fueling the lake’s salt content and refreshing the layer of salt that collects on the sand, creating an entire landscape of white in the middle of summer, a July Antarctica. 

Besides boating, camping, biking, and swimming, visitors come to the lake to dig for salt crystals. They arrive in their trucks and unpack shovels and blankets and get to work digging hole upon hole in an area slightly smaller than one square mile. The trick is to dig a one foot by one foot hole, and then to gradually expand it deeper and wider until you hit water. As soon as the underground streams start flowing in, you sift through the water and sand with your hands, feeling for selenite crystals, the product of eons of Oklahoma dirt and water pushing salt closer and closer together underground. The crystals are either clear like diamonds or clouded brown like garnets, and sometimes they’re both at once. 

Before I left, Teighanne and I brought our shovels and blankets to the plains. We walked for half a mile from the parking lot until we found a spot sufficiently away from other diggers to throw our blankets flat and set up camp. Teighanne immediately began to dig as I turned in circles, stretching my vision as far as I could. To the south lay the small town of Jet, Oklahoma. To the north and west a wildlife reservoir semi-famous for rare-bird sightings. The east glittered in the distance — the pearl sky and far-off swarthy water mingled and blurred in the air, like the shimmer above fire. I thought the heat was scrambling my vision, so I wiped my forehead of sweat and took a long drink from one of our water bottles.

“It looks like there’s water pretty close that way,” I told Teighanne. 

“Don’t even think about it. It’s too hot.” 

“I’ll just be a minute.”

“There are fences, Luke. You’re not supposed to leave this area. You don’t know how far away it is.”

“It looks close. And I can hop the fence.”

“You should help me dig. C’mon. It’ll be fun. We can eat lunch together soon, have a little picnic. I just want to spend time with you, you know.” 

“I’ll just be a minute.” I dropped the water bottle, walked five minutes to the fence, and set off toward the water. 

Forty-five minutes later I paused to sit down and shade my eyes from the sun. I looked down at my lap and checked my phone. Tei was asking where the hell I was, if I was okay. I texted her and told her I was almost there, that the heat had tricked me and the shore was farther away than I thought. I told her to go ahead and eat. She told me to come back now, I needed water. I told her I was fine. I put my phone up, and pushed a cracked white stick that had been resting nearby against the ground, leveraging myself to my feet. Peering into the distance, I thought the lake must be getting closer. It couldn’t keep running away from me for this long. 

I made it to the water in fifteen minutes. I couldn’t see my truck anymore, or the campsite, or even the shoreline. If I fell over from heat exhaustion nobody would know where I was. My phone was running on low battery and the day was getting warmer. I lapped up some of the muddy water in my hands and drank it down, my reflection shaking between my fingers. The water was tepid and salty, I sucked in air through my dried lips and shot it back out with a whoosh. My phone buzzed. “I’ve collected all the crystals I want,” Tei said. “I’m going back to the car.” 

I began to run. I ran harder than I’d run since football had ended just a few months before. I wasn’t entirely sure which way the campsite was and Google Maps wouldn’t load, so I used oddly-shaped sticks and colorful rocks that I remembered passing on my way to the water as landmarks on the path back. A number of times I didn’t see anything familiar for a few continuous minutes and would double back, only getting more lost. I sat down again and took a moment to calm myself. I breathed in, and breathed out, swished some brave spit around my mouth, and set off again. It took me almost half an hour to make it back to the fence, to viciously scrape up the water bottle and sandwich Tei left me, and to suck the water bottle dry. 

I wolfed down the sandwich, melted cheese and all, and once I had gathered my wits and breath about me I set about digging my own crystal hole next to the very sizable one Tei had dug while I was gone. Soon enough, she appeared at my side and sat down silently. I apologized for leaving. I told her I had been stupid, arrogant, a complete asshole who thought he knew everything and was invincible and all-powerful and selfish. I told her I loved her, and held her hands, and told her I wouldn’t do it again. I told her I’d stay with her from now on. 

“But you won’t,” she reluctantly cried, sparing as few saltwater tears as she could amidst a whole world of salt. “You’re leaving in three weeks. You’re gone, Luke. You’ve always been gone. You’ve never even given me a chance. You never believed in me.” 

I held her to my chest. I saw a house in Nichols Hills. I saw a family of four. I saw football practice ending late, walking through the front door with my son, giving Teighanne a kiss and thanking her for the beautiful dinner on the beautiful dinner table. I saw books before bedtime. I saw weekend trips to the dinosaur museum. I saw sledding in the streets of Quail Creek and splitting one chicken nikuman between two children, sitting side-by-side at Goro Ramen. I saw date nights to Tinseltown and trivia nights at Picasso Café. I saw a modest domestic life, and for better or worse, I let go.

I turned back to my hole and continued digging. When brown water like the water I had chased after started flooding in, I sifted for crystals with my hands. When I had filled a glass jar with my own jagged brown rocks, I noticed that my hands were cut up and bloodied. Tags of skin hung limply from my fingers and palms, blood dripped into the water and was lost to the brown. I put the lid on my jar and held it out to Teighanne, bleeding hands and all, and she held out hers. I took it in my hands and turned it round; the crystals inside were mostly clear. Oh sure, a few were muddied, but they were glossy and white. I returned it to her and apologized softly for the blood I left on the sides of her jar. No apology was necessary from her. Teighanne’s hands were uncut. 

Almost two years later, in my dorm room in Currier House, my jar of crystals would sit on my desk. In fact, it’s beside me now, as I write this sentence. In fact, the lid, which was once silver until Tei and I painted it black, has been breaking all year — the crystal we glued to the top of the jar is coming unstuck. Every now and then, I have to glue the crystal into place again.

*

A few days after my second Thanksgiving in five years without the Oklahoma Drill, the preacher assumed the pulpit and began to preach. I sat up high, once again finding a perfect view of Aaron Sapronis. Together, we listened as the preacher said, “And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, come and see. And I beheld, and lo, a black horse. And he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.”

Aaron seemed lulled into the pastor’s speech. His head would ebb and flow with the vivacity of the sermon, tugging forward in moments of anger and aggression and back in quieter, reflective moments. I caught myself following the same patterns, consumed by the hypnotic rhythm of spoken word scripture. “We must all love one another!” the pastor seized, “We are our brothers’ keepers!” 

At the end, we sang a song. Aaron’s mouth moved, his hand raised, and so did mine: “This is the air I breathe. This is the air I breathe. Your holy presence living in me. This is my daily bread.” We burst into song as if we were combustible. Something, even empty, unrooted words, must be spoken in the midst of a kingdom of wonder, must be sung at the center of a new creation. 

*

In the beginning, you were lied to. When God sprouts a tree in the desert for Jonah to find sleep and space and sustenance under, he sends a worm hours later to kill the same tree, to eat away at its roots overnight. When Jonah awakens, his skin is boiling on scalding sand. He asks God to kill him, and God says no. Thus ends the Book of Jonah. 

Perhaps, when I now imagine Jonah’s end, I envision a man stumbling his way out of the desert and into the sea, floundering among seismic waves, shouting desperately, calling, in spite of God, for a whale to swallow him just one more time, one last time, before the next.