The Holy Roller: Pontiff of the Reprobate Mind by N. Aneira Warburton

Aunt Wanda, with the authority of the Feast of Weeks, planted her palms firmly on my hips and announced that she had straightened my crooked spine in the name of the Lord. The vertebrae cracked, maybe dislodged from the rods—stainless steel dykes that held back the progress of the S curve.

My spine twisted like a curling ribbon that you just keep trying to lay straight. The airy detachment of my soul from the spine created a diaphanous space—as if I were watching from somewhere a few feet above—merely curious about the way the scapula jarred out of place next to the long, furrowed scar. What might grow from that furrow? Maybe a personality as inflexible as the brace that held chips of hip bone in place between the vertebrae. Maybe something solid and hard could grow there, rooting in that row. The rods were affixed by ratchets, hooked into my vertebrae at each end. The hooks snagged so snugly into those bones, yet my posture remained as fragile as a bone china.

“And don’t be surprised when you take her to the orthopedic doctor and learn that her spine is no longer deformed,” said Aunt Wanda, grasping mother by the shoulder in a bony claw.

I looked in the mirror at the hump on the right side of my back—at the abnormally flat left side that Dr. Davis just couldn’t straighten.

“Leilani! Maybe you’re cured,” said mom, her eyes glistening like silver-blue pearls—opaque marbles that blinked and blinked, pools of salt water. Her voice sighed the song of a forest harp, or maybe it gurgled like an alpine brook.

I looked again at the hump in the mirror. Was it that big before? Did my hump grow? Or maybe it was shrinking. It might shrink over the coming days and weeks, just like a wart would diminish and disappear with Compound W. Then I could wear a backless dress to prom.

“It is important to use your prayer language every day. The Spirit makes groanings in utterances never known to man,” said Aunt Wanda, gesturing broadly for us to sit down with her in a circle on the carpet. My bare legs itched where the shorts met the carpet fibers. “The enemy lies in wait to devour you. But if you are born again, you will be anointed with an incorruptible oil, and the Lucifer’s hands will no longer twist that spine.”

“We haven’t ever done this before,” said mom, hands fluttering around her mouth, nails of clean, painted coral, hands soft with Mary Kay creams.

“Oh! Then you haven’t been baptized in the spirit! I can teach you. Free your tongue. Just let it go slack, like this... ba, babba, baaaah. Waa maa paa tah. Wacala talkala puta mico-sho-faka. Shoa— la. Shoa— lutata fukina.”

And then it happened. First the tingle quivered inside, like a freezing sting that began in my scalp and branched to the periphery like ten million centipedes. I heard the eruption, the “lamala chuuka fa pee-ya-tokala.” It rolled out of me—burbling from the ratchets hooked to the vertebrae, to the groin, to the heart that pumped like a rabbit. Shivering, the gooseflesh pricked up through the freckles. “Foota ya meek ay, ootala.” Stop. But what if this is evil?

“Thank you, Lord. Thank you for bestowing the gift of tongues on your servants. Now, Leilani, you must use your prayer language every day. You never know the hour or the day. The Lord’s return is imminent. We are the virgins lying in wait with our lamps—lamps of purity and the word,” said Aunt Wanda. I knew I wasn’t pure, however.

“Leilani, have you ever seen someone slain in the spirit? You know, Great Uncle Charles used to do it. He traveled all over South America. Great Aunt Francis told him to find the headwaters of the River Jordan. It came to her when she opened the Bible with closed eyes and pointed. They found the River Jordan south of Abilene, Texas. Uncle Charles led the Holy Laughter. He said to just let it bubble from your belly,” whispered mom, and she giggled, covering her little mouth, which was neatly lined with a sable lipliner, surprised as a little bow in the center of her face.

“No, I…”

“Here, Annie. Just stand over here by the great organ. Leilani, you stand behind her and prepare to catch her when she falls,” said Aunt Wanda. And then, in a deep, definitive, contralto voice she announced, “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit.” Wanda fixed her palm on mom’s forehead and pressed the spirit’s weight or the lightness of being, or maybe didn’t touch at all. Mom fell into my hands, body so weightless, eyelids fluttering, holding her breath. I thought she was like a little sparrow—so slight—to be pushed over so easily.

And Wanda had never even met Layleen Ida Clementine.

She waited until I was middle-aged, but Layleen came to meet me in the Rocky Mountains. She was a pilgrim to the abandoned mine shafts—the only thing left over from the gold rush. Breakfast at the biker joint, before the aspens turned to gold—this was the time for it.

“My son has the most beautiful sounding prayer language. It sounds Hebrew. Mine sounds Portuguese. Let me hear yours,” Layleen Ida Clementine said, taking a bite of toast. Five Soldiers for Jesus huddled up to the bar at Pete’s in their leathers and crests, drinking ginger ale. Or maybe they were Hell’s Angels and that was scotch with soda.

I paused first, glanced around the room. My voice was like a rumble from the Bobtail gold mine. It traveled through the brackish waters underground. “Wah-kuh luh, shoo-kuh-luh, beek-uh, hoola sheen-gan-tuh voo kah shaw show me kah lah lah.” A baby wailed by the billiards table, protesting the pool of urine that hotly ran between his legs.

“That sounds Oriental. My husband’s prayer language was a lot like that before he was given over to Satan,” said Layleen Ida Clementine.

I sliced my pancakes carefully with the fork, and chewed slowly, masticating every bite, cud-like.

“Well, you know that he was a closet homosexual,” she added.

I swallowed a wad of pancakes that was a little too big.

“Yeah, I remember that story. So did he have a long term relationship with one man?” I asked, brushing powdered sugar from my skirt. My ankles were so cold.

“I’ll tell you the whole story,” said Layleen Ida Clementine, leaning back in her chair and stroking her blonde hair, which singed to slate at the roots. “Vernon Judson Boudreau was married once before. I don’t know if I told you that. He married a girl who wore lipstick as red as a chokecherry. He told her that he would never date her if she went out with Tyrel Rufus Pennyfield, on account of the fact that Tyrel slept with every girl he ever took on a date. He wanted someone pure, you know—shimmering like the seraphim and cherubim at the second coming of the Lord. Anyways, on their wedding day, Henrietta-Lou told him, ‘When I get married again, I’ll carry a white, satin Bible.’ Well, one day he came home from Fort Bragg, and there was that white, satin Bible, just sitting there on the mantel. Come to find out, she was a bigamist. So he had the marriage annulled, but she pretended she was pregnant. She just kept getting fatter and fatter. And then the due date came, and, no baby! She was just pretending! Her bosom grew like it was exploding with milk! So, I met Vernon Jud a few weeks later at a church dance. I was only seventeen. When I saw him saunter over in a black cowboy hat, I heard a message from the Lord that said, “So, this is your new husband.” I was obedient to that message from the Lord. We were married two weeks later. We marry early in my family. My sister married a much older man when she was fourteen and pregnant. All we ever wanted was to get married and have children. They are the blessing from the Lord, you know. Blessings of Abraham. Be fruitful and multiply, thus saith the Lord.”

I leaned forward, opening and closing my hand into a fist, almost hearing the punitive Father from El Centro recite the Old Testament quote, “like a dog, you return to your own vomit.” My hands were so sweaty. The ice was all melted in my drink.

I wiped the lipstick from the rim of my coffee cup, folding the napkin like origami. “So how did Vernon get interested in men? I mean, he seemed to like girls at first, anyway.”

“Vernon Judson Boudreau was very creative. He was a good cook. He conned his way into a florist job. His first casket arrangement was way too small, just with carnations and baby’s breath, but they trained him. We lived in Palm Springs, and we did flowers for all kinds of famous people in the fifties. I’ve been inside Frank Sinatra’s home. I had no idea that Vernon Jud was gay, until a woman in our church received a word of knowledge from the Lord. It came out in a prayer meeting. Nobody believed it at first because the holy brother, Vernon Judson Boudreau, was a respected pastor. Then we got invited to a party put on by one of the other florists. It was a pool party, and we were the only straight people there. I took the kids to the pool next door, while Vernon socialized. There was one girl at the party who was in high school, and my son had a crush on her. When we told the host about it, he said, “My daughter isn’t interested in your son, but my son is!” Right then and there, I received a message from the Lord that told me, “My daughter of Zion, this is Sodom and Gomorrah. Get your family out of there.” We packed up the next day for San Simeon. Bobby Elizabeth, a woman’s elder from church, received the exact same message from the Lord. She told me, “You are living in Sodom and Gomorrah, Layleen. The Lord will not bless the fruit of your loins.”

“But God didn’t destroy Palm Springs. It just got filled with huge windmills and an eight-lane freeway.” I said, drinking deeply from my coffee, staring at Layleen’s amber eyes until mine smarted with water as bitter as mine shaft run-off.

Layleen sat bolt upright and shook her head. “He has given them over to a reprobate mind—to their own lusts. We left Gomorrah. We moved around a lot. Every time Vernon Judson Boudreau would get a new lover, he would try to break it off by moving out of town. One day, I wrote him an eight page letter about his struggles with sin, and his need for repentance. I hid that letter inside the stereo speaker. You see, the Bible teaches that homosexuals are given over to a reprobate mind. I looked up reprobate and it means damned. That is why I don’t believe that homosexuals will go to heaven. But anyways, the pastor of our church wrote the exact same letter as me and sent it to Vernon Judson Boudreau one day! I pulled that letter out of the speaker, and it was exactly the same as the pastor’s!”

“I’ve never heard reprobate defined as damned,” I said, knitting my eyebrows together, corners of my mouth tightening and pulling downward. A wasp sang angrily near the windowpane.

“Well, being gay is described as an abomination before the Lord. That is why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed—because men lay with other men.”

I shifted in my seat, legs sticking to the hot vinyl in the booth. I pulled at my collar. The boxer on television delivered a knockout punch. “You know, Lot gave his own daughter over to be raped by a mob of crazed lunatics. I wonder why we never talk about that part of the story. What kind of father was he?” I said.

Layleen Ida Clementine bit into a greasy hunk of bacon. “I was like Cinderella. You see, my father married seven women. He looked like an old Indian on a coin. He had this coal-black hair that stuck up straight on his head, really thick. He would slick it back with a ton of hair oil. His face and neck were so dark from the sun that they looked red. He was wrinkled all over from the sun, and he had no teeth. They pulled his teeth when he was thirty on account of a sinus infection. Anyways, dad would go to the thrift store and buy himself seven pin striped suits. He got some dentures. And then he would go down to the dance, and flirt with all of the church widows. He would dance two dances with the woman, ask her to marry him, and she would agree. Then they would drive to Las Vegas and get married, but he would also be getting his previous marriage annulled at the same time. His shortest marriage was one week. But his longest marriage was to the drill sergeant. She’s the one who taught me how to clean—with steel wool, bleach, and scouring powder. I had to clean the shelf paper in the cabinets once a week. My dad used to quote that verse in the Old Testament that says, 'Do not paint your face as the harlot.' He never wanted for me to wear make-up.”

“But you do now. And you bleach your hair.”

“It’s because I identify with Esther. I always knew my husband would find me with my yellow hair. Men are drawn to it—especially black men and Mexicans. You know, my sister always dated colored boys. I think it’s wrong. There are all of those Old Testament verses about not intermarrying with foreign women, and you know they are the descendants of Ham, who was cursed among the twelve tribes of Israel.”

I kept my face still and stared at the feathering lipstick around Layleen Ida Clementine’s mouth. The muscles around my eyes tightened. I felt something expand inside of my bowels—something rising up like a hot ache that you just can’t release. “Layleen. Oh, Layleen. You sound awful. The New Testament says that there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free, but all are one under Christ. This is the whole message of Acts—inclusion of Gentiles like you,” I said, and my voice shook just a little. Words, words spoken too quietly and tentatively, those words escaped like carbon monoxide from somewhere deep inside the mine. If you stay in those gasses too long without fresh air, the black damp seeps into your skin—it will clog your breathing. “The civil rights movement—the abolition of slavery—Christians contributed to these too. Even the women’s liberation movement—”

“Do you know why the house of Israel was commanded to go into Macedonia and destroy every animal, every woman and child? It was because they were given over to a reprobate mind. The Lord knew that the foreign wives would corrupt the Israelites. We are told not be “unequally yoked.” But something is coming to me from the Lord. I get a sense that you are having some struggles with your husband,” said Layleen Ida Clementine. I straightened in my seat, glanced around for the wasp. He was still battling against the pane. He couldn’t see it. “You know, when a woman’s house is out of order, everything makes her want to run away. About once a week, with Vernon Judson Boudreau, I would drive to the Carl’s Junior. and park my car in the parking lot and sleep there all night. He would scream that he wanted a divorce, but I knew I had to be faithful to the Lord. But you need to be a good example of a Christian woman to everyone who is watching you. “I do not permit a woman to teach over a man. The woman is a weaker vessel, for Eve sinned first, bringing condemnation into the world.”

A long-haired man glanced over from the bar, tapped out his cigarette butt, and then looked back to the boxing match on the suspended television set.

I swallowed again, but the pancakes were trapped now, lodged somewhere above my heart. “Want to play some pool?” I asked.

“Pool is a form of gambling. When I heard that message in the Carl’s Junior parking lot—I knew it was meant to be. “Country Gentleman seeks lover of horses.” That was his personal ad. I am to submit to this man. We are told to “render under Cesar what is Cesar’s.”

And give the white-washed sepulchers and the pit of vipers over to their self-righteousness. Let the herd of sanctimonious swine cast themselves into the ravine.

Rendering. That was what the language did—words of the Pharisees and pontiffs of the holiness movement—words like punishing nuns with long, serpentine fingers. Prophecies, tongues, interpretations, and discernment of spirits—these I heard from Aunt Wanda, too. But like all tongues, words of hatred could also be silenced. Aunt Wanda’s touch was hard and capable, just as Layleen’s words were as acidic as bleach on a twisted bone. Scouring powders and steel wool scrub it all away. Aunt Wanda offered a promise. Layleen offered a script. Twisted things forced themselves to be right again, and in the durability of protest, I knew that the hump on my back had almost disappeared. I wasn’t straight, but I could stand fully erect, bones fused into an oracle of a gift—the healing of the tongues—the healing of the Rivers of Jordan.

N. Aneira Warburton is a clinical psychologist and works as a psychology professor. She is interested in the intersection between psychological and religious phenomena, as well as forms of health and pathology in religion. Her works have also appeared in Pithead Chapel and Animal Literary Review. Aneira lives in the Rocky Mountains.