BY AIDAN FORSTER
Finalist for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Prose
Every Sunday, my mother powders the region between her breasts, smooths our cowlicks with the palm of her hand, and drives my brother and I to Reverend Stone’s 10:30 service at The Eternal Fire, He Is Risen Pentecostal Church. My brother, dawdling in the pious phase of his tweendom, eagerly totes the emerald, leather-bound pocket Bible he unearthed from our grandfather’s basement study after his funeral, fuchsia sticky-notes marking his favorite verses. Tammy Wynette purling from the radio, my mother and brother trawl the same waters every week: which Church or Forster has a birthday on Tuesday, which choir solo my brother’s charged with learning from one of the church’s heirloom hymnals, which low Appalachian house sports the best seasonal decorations. Every so often, I catch my mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror, lids laden with turquoise shadow, and feel our invisible tether, our little history of Band-Aids and bedtime stories, rattle and shake, and I can sense that neither of us knows what to do about it. The secret of my desire—a word we know but won’t say, laced with the evil naming power of a devil from another religion—stretches between us, something we both choose not to believe in. Instead, we stare out of our respective windows at the tongues of sweetgrass and crabgrass and ryegrass brushing the sky, the words to “No One Else in the World” thick and sticky in the small Toyota, trumping the hum of the highway. In truth, my mother, Tammy Wynette, and Trent Stone, the preacher’s son, three-way arm-wrestle for my psychic attention, every week. The thought of Trent’s muscled neck in his church polo or his gruff lope through the halls of West Wilkes whisks me somewhere other than the inside of my mother’s Siena, an unnamable copse in the atlas of divine intervention, a place where fags can love God, too.
As we approach the heavy wooden doors of The Eternal Fire, He Is Risen Pentecostal Church, my mother slips a Milk-Bone from her purse to the mangey border collie loitering near the mossy threshold of the church graveyard.
“Why do you always do that?” I stare at the dog, its teeth latched over the bone, burrs and yellowed beads of grass matted in its off-white fur. Something about the animal’s spirit unnerves me, its trust in the bounty of my mother’s palm, its faith in the weekly inevitability of her tithe.
My mother furrows her brow at me, her lavender church hat already wilting over her forehead. “The kindness of strangers goes a long way, honey.”
I fiddle with my belt buckle, the brass insignia warped beneath my thumb, and say nothing.
My mother, brother, and I sidle past Mr. and Mrs. Dancy into the cool drawl of the air-conditioned transept. A coterie of God-fearing folk idle before the service, the same women who embroidered pillows with paramount Bible verses for my Baptism, the same men who sold my grandfather chickens and doves at the cattle sale by the old Nascar racetrack before he died. My mother and Mrs. Dancy exchange a French-tipped wave, and I think of the Dancy’s son, Shep, metering mail at the package store off I-95, the slow passage of his tongue over the petite back of a forever stamp, and I shiver, and I imagine the gloved Lottie Moon ladies around me discern my shiver as a sign of the spirit, and I let them. Here, my checkered church button-down, fervently tucked to prevent wrinkles, becomes an unassuming shroud of spirituality.
We move, a cloud of Aqua Net and Royal Musk, into the chapel, and find our places in the green velvet pews, my mother’s hands on the smalls of my and my brother’s backs, guiding us toward our usual position in the third row from the front. Mrs. Gaynell, the church’s pianist, plinks her uneasy way through “Glory to His Name.” As the congregation trickles into the chapel, I imagine myself as a Biblical maiden’s shadow, an errant sharp or flat dowsing the air, the vanishing point of a spirit that everyone else turns toward, a leaning-out to their leaning-in. My brother plucks the laminated prayer insert from the small divot in the back of the pew and unfolds it between us, and my mother clicks her magenta reading glasses against the powdered hill of skin between her brows, and Reverend Stone emerges from behind the poorly-shaded mural of Galilean pastures blurred onto the church’s back wall. Trent Stone drums a withered hymnal against his thigh in the front pew, and I want, suddenly, to be faithful for him, a dogmatic wind-up doll, and I question the intensity of this fantasy, but I straighten my spine, and smile, and turn my knees and shoulders toward the Reverend. He solicits an amen from the congregation, and we give it.
Reverend Stone begins a sermon on the theological implications of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, his wrinkled hands larking that saccharine place in the air where, my grandmother always assures me, kneading biscuits from the popped husk of a Pillsbury can after service, the spirit lives. I could care less about Paul, but I mimic my mother’s iron attention, nodding when the Reverend pauses, listening for what my mother calls the salt of the sermon, a message small enough to fill a bottle but big enough to fill a heart, at least until next Sunday. I can’t find it, and I know she’ll pinch the purse-fold of my ear if she even catches a whiff of the possibility of boredom, so I nod, and nod again. We stand for a call-and-response—Peace be with you, and also with you—and we sing a fine suite of hymns, the notes of “My soul in sad exile was out on life’s sea” and “There’s a wildness in God’s mercy” blooming to the church’s top corners, then slipping, somehow, into the sky, and elsewhere. As we trill hymn after hymn, Mrs. Gaynell tepidly plodding her way through the melodies, my brother’s boy soprano filling my left ear, my mother’s bosoms straining with her falsetto for a fast pass to heaven, I come back, again and again, to Trent. Clutching my hymnal in the third row, I study the broad slope of his back, a navy plateau I’d like to press my ear against, to search for the whirrings of the spirit. I can’t tell if he sings or mouths the words, if he studies the hymnal or if the notes pour out of him like the slow and gentle waters of the Yadkin in the springtime, after a thaw. We sing, and someone thwacks a tambourine against the heel of their hand, and Mr. Koon plugs his electric fiddle into the amp the Reverend bought from the pawn shop off the highway and ribbons a rough squeal of sound into the air, and Trent shifts from foot to foot, now left, now right, and I wonder what he wants. Will he marry some girl from West Wilkes, a buxom future vet tech with a slight overbite? Will he skip town for Tennessee, mix chemicals in the pendulous steel vats at DuPont? Will he touch a man, and throw that touch into the sea of himself, and wish, sometimes, he could have it back? I can’t decide, and I want to know, but soon Mr. Paul Absher opens the mahogany box by the pulpit and extracts the snake, an animal with no name, according to my mother, and my brother gasps, and Mr. Absher garlands the snake over his shoulders, and someone buckles against their pew, and the Reverend asks if we can feel the spirit, and I say Yes! with all the rest of them, my Yes mingling with Trent’s Yes in the church’s small sky. The terrible triangle of the snake’s head creeps down Mr. Absher’s right arm, its little pink tongue pitchforking the soft center of his elbow, and I know in my stomach that it will bite him, but I keep watching. I watch because Trent watches, too, our spectatorship a form of togetherness, but the snake doesn’t bite him, and I can’t really be sure if Trent watches, and Mr. Absher slips the cottonmouth back into its box, and the sermon ends.
Afterwards, my mother gabs with Mrs. Shepherd, the waifish matroness of the local meat-and-three who pins a hairnet to her powdered curls with a topaz elephant brooch every day but Sunday, and my brother weasels a crumpled dollar bill from my mother’s purse and stuffs it in the vertical mouth of the collection bin, and I excuse myself for the restroom, the noonblue silhouettes of prophets and tax collectors jeweling over me from the stained glass windows. As I exit the chapel—the same chapel, I realize, Trent and I have crisscrossed for a thousand Sundays—something bucks in my chest, just right of my heart, and I know it’s Trent, the small and sibilant word of him, the apricot drone of him, his chin, his calf, his triceps now a votive, now a charm, now an ache. In the transept, Cynthia Haswell, the daughter of my brother’s grade school librarian, whom my grandmother calls troubled, chews the soft end of a prayer request pencil, a pinkish silt bibbing the front of her church dress, and I shudder. What a sad way to be a girl. The soft star of Trent’s possible love vanishes, and I walk into the men’s room.
Under the weak gauze of the bathroom’s single fluorescent light, pocked here and there with the blackened shells of palmetto bugs, Trent leans against the sink, a dead ringer for the cartooned antagonists of Ranger Joe or Hardy Boys vignettes, one thumb hooked through an anterior belt loop of his Belk church pants, the other hand flipping a pocket knife, the kind local contractors and milkmen and backhoe operators crown their sons with when they become Boy Scouts. The knife tumbles through the air like the shorter hand of the most horrible clock in the world. I balk, and Trent stares at me staring at him for what couldn’t have been longer than one curdled second, but for what feels, hand to God, like forever. He knocks his chin against the air, once, the knife still flipping, and I lower my eyes and scuttle to the urinal. I unfasten the faux-pearl buttons of my khakis and let my cock wilt into the palm of my hand, but I can’t piss, not with the peachy thwack of the knife in Trent’s palm, not with Trent so close, the skin of his myth practically in my teeth. I almost pray that I’ll piss, a roaring golden cascade, my own private loud, and right as I feel myself relax, Trent saunters to the urinal beside me, his chestnut boat shoes inches from mine, and fiddles with his pants, and leans his head back, and pisses. I’ve never heard something so monumental, and I want to fold myself into the space behind the sound. From the corner of my eye, I watch him, nose steepled toward the foam-tiled ceiling, the spindly aftermath of a few shaveless days on his chin, and I feel like a Catholic from the venomous yarns my grandmother tells, some poor Yankee woman knelt before a tertiary relic, a tattered shroud or shawl worn in a room Christ once blessed, but this time, I know it’s real, I know what I’m seeing.
I don’t see his palm coming, but I feel it, oak-sturdy and surprisingly soft, against my shoulder. I don’t have time to wonder if he zipped his cock away before my back’s against the wall. I gasp, and I give myself a psychic kick for looking, or for getting caught, I can’t be sure. Trent’s palm fills my shoulder the way a heavy bolt of moonlight fills a clearing in the deep mountains, but I’m too scared to truly appreciate his touch, the first we’ve ever shared. We breathe, for a few seconds, and stew in our separate temperatures, and when he opens his mouth, I know I’ll never forget what he says.
“You think I’m a fucking faggot?” He scrunches the fabric of my button-down in his fist, and he looks at me with what my mother might call the evil eye, but what I’ll one day know as the viper-quick stare of a boy who sees a self he might despise.
“No.” I stare at the soft hill of his Adam’s apple. “Not entirely.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
I don’t know how to tell him that I want him to be. I opt for what I imagine a filmic heroine might say, the buckshot tremble of her lacquered lip a sign of strength under pressure. “That some people are.”
He releases my shoulder and squints at me. I can’t tell what about me he appraises—gait, pitch, Psalm recitation in Sunday school—but he arrives at some conclusion, or seems to, because he steps back and buttons his fly.
“You mean you’re a fag? You suck cock by the freeway and shit?”
“No. I didn’t say that.” I try to concoct the most unassuming arrangement of my facial features, a mesa of believability.
“Then say something.”
I don’t know what will happen if he knows who I want to love, but I don’t want to find out, and I feel the two of us hurtling toward an admission, and before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I’ll prove it.”
“I’ll prove it. That I’m not a faggot.”
The words gather around me, like crinoline, or pond scum, or the sticky nectar of a fly trap, and I realize how quickly and easily I’ve walked out of my life and into some adjacent pasture, the soil sweeter and more unbelievable than any I’ve ever palmed, Trent the Italianesque weed in its center, no sun or moon in sight, but light, like a scrim of pollen in the air, which I realize is power, power over Trent, power over what I’m allowed to become to him. A carnival of Herculean feats enters my mind—keg-stands, field-dressing, hawking a perfect glob of spit into a crushed Coors can balanced on a cedar stump—and something tells me the storm of his hurt has passed, and suddenly, I know exactly what to say, the truth of it lanterned over me, my tongue of flame.
“I’ll touch the snake.”
He startles, the rubber tip of his shoe catching in the bathroom’s ancient grout, and lassos one brow higher onto his forehead. “How do you expect you’ll do that?”
I pause, the tickertape of my bravado disappearing. I think of the dame of devotion Trent might one day marry, a thimble-thumbed, God-fearing girl, and I swallow. “You’ll show me.”
“Like hell I’ll show you.”
“The Reverend doesn’t keep a key under the mat?”
“The Reverend.” Trent spits onto the tile between us. “He doesn’t even lock the fucking door.”
Trent opens his mouth as if to speak, and, in the darling pocket of his hesitation, beyond the small pink slip of his tongue, I almost detect something of Trent’s internal world, the cathedral of concern built inside all of us, a collection of little magnets, now pushing, now pulling, the fine points of his worries and his hopes a-lush in the O of his mouth, before he closes it, and the feeling vanishes, and I’m faced, again, with the idea of him, an idea the exact shape and size of my desire.
“I’ll pick you up at midnight. Leave the kid brother at home.”
Of all the things I expect him to say, this is not one of them, and I realize that I’ve corralled him into some boyish corner, that I’m no longer the only one with something to prove. The idea of riding shotgun in Trent’s truck, his midnight country heroine, knocks against my brain like a tiny crystal hammer.
“Where else? Your house, dip.” When I furrow my brow, he rolls his eyes and says, “Dad used to buy millet from your Paw, before he died. I know where you live.” I nod, too flustered to say anything, my brief opera over, and Trent nods back, and ducks out of the bathroom, the door swinging twice behind him.
On the way home, my brother waxes about the snake, how sure he’d felt it would bite Mr. Absher right on the tip of his elbow, and how we’d have to call an ambulance, which he pronounces amb-a-lance. My mother unclips her hair and queues Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” and I tell her that she looks pretty. She stares at me for two seconds, thick as clotting cream, as if she might scry some trinket-tiny truth from my face, and says her roots need retouching, and turns back to the road. The Carolina hills polyp the horizon, and the sun tickles the strips of yellowing grass strung low in the gulch. Trent’s last words, I know where you live, fill me like a zephyr, an unnamable wind curling, even, around my smallest knuckle, feathering through the soft black down of my leg hair, and spooling back out over the ancient face of the mountain, Trent’s possibility always just beyond the parkway’s slow crescent, always one hill away.
We pull into the driveway, white pebbles skittering beneath our tires, and my mother sidles the Toyota into the rickety carport. I swing out of my perch on the shotgun side and look down the road, an ivory sickle whose curve dazzles me back into memory. How many times did Trent and the Reverend follow this drive to my grandfather’s scarlet feed shed, Trent dolled on an old edition of the Yellow Pages in the passenger seat, a ghost’s breath from my brother and I and our phalanx of Lincoln Logs stacked in the living room, no strands of our future twining us together, no golden rattle yet between us, just air? My mother and my brother and I walk up the steps onto the porch, and I tap on the small doors of my memories before my grandfather’s death, listening for the echo of Trent in any of them. Did he come into my house and sneak honey with me from my grandmother’s jar with the crooked heirloom spoon in the drawer? Did we tumble into some cowboy fantasy game, crude Lone Ranger masks fashioned from Dixie plates and craft scissors, and wish bullets from the impossible muzzles of finger guns into each other’s backs, one of us dying in the other’s arms, the game our brief cradle of touch, before straightening up, and guffawing, and starting again? The more I reach toward a memory, the more it minnows away, and I know that Trent will never confirm this fantasy, even if he does remember, and I follow my mother and my brother into the house.
For the rest of the day, the minutes clink together like junked charms of old time on a terrible string, hollow and useless but for the promise of Trent. My brother and my grandmother screen The Mighty Ducks in the living room, and I help my mother prepare Sunday dinner, peppering paprika over her flotilla of deviled eggs, shucking the fat from a hock of country ham, stirring a sea of elbow macaroni. We split the smallest labors between us, and though we hardly speak, I feel a question hooked in her knuckles as she thrums the biscuit dough, the same question that glints in her hazel eyes on our church commutes. She probes for the delicate rhinestoned key to my inner life, to what I’m sure she imagines as the silky floating planet where God or Paul or Peter roll tubes of paper lettered with my deepest fears, and stuff them into varnished boxes, and shuffle them, and open them again, and read them, and close them, and so on. I sprinkle pepper into the macaroni pot, and my mother reaches over me and sprinkles a little extra, and I know there are things we will never tell each other, but that some of these things we will learn anyways, like the perfect spice blend for an Appalachian five-cheese macaroni melt, or the elsewheres we each harbor. I strain the little elbows through a red sieve, a flurry of beige bounces on plastic, and think of Connie Francis’ “Where the Boys Are,” that future vista resplendent with men, Trent or his doppelganger teething a stainless-steel comb through his dark crest of hair, and know this is a place God will never visit, and I flatten the macaroni into a glass dish, and coat it with five kinds of shredded cheese, and slip it into the oven.
Ten minutes before midnight, with my mother and my grandmother talcumed into their four-poster, my brother asleep in our shared room, I tease open the heavy oak door in the kitchen and tease it shut just as gently, the small click of the lock’s tumbler harpooning into the night, and I curse under my breath, and think of my grandfather’s shotgun, still perched against the thin back wall of his closet, and the ivory cigarette box with its twin shells in my grandmother’s jewelry drawer, but when no gun-toting gorgon emerges from the house, I relax, and tip-toe off the porch and down the driveway. Dark clouds bouquet the moon’s milky stamen, and the distant rustle of a lonely animal tinkles through the eaves. At the bottom of the driveway, hands in my pockets, the utter implausibility of the situation froths around me, and my heart leaps in my chest. When I look back at the house, I feel the briny panic of Lot’s wife, and I can’t help but imagine myself fleeing this home, this life, made entirely for me, but then the soft burn of Trent’s low beams shoots around the corner, and a more comfortable fear ushers itself into my stomach. Trent eases his truck into the pebbled strip of earth between the road and the yard, and I want to guzzle the safety of him. I open the passenger-side door and step inside.
“All quiet?” Trent’s right hand lolls on the wheel, an Appalachian State cap snug on his head. Still in my costume of unbelief, I say nothing until he clears his throat.
“Not a peep.” I offer a weak smile and buckle my seatbelt, and he nods, and adjusts the rearview mirror, a pair of velour golf balls hanging from its neck by a black thread, and pulls back onto the road.
Trent glides the truck past the same houses and hills and heaps of yellow jasmine we’ve each passed, every Sunday, for years, dark daguerreotypes of their daytime selves. Neither of us speak, but every so often Trent switches hands, the other supine on his lap, and I marvel at the possibility of him, somehow always on the verge of arriving and always already disappearing. Our silence, fleshy and thick, yokes us in the truck’s small interior, and mingles with the faint smell of chewing tobacco. I nearly ask a question more times than I can count, but I stop, again and again, because I realize I know nothing about Trent, nothing but the brusque proxy of him pearled into my mind. I study his face from the corner of my eye, more careful than in the bathroom at church. I don’t know where he wants to go to college, or his favorite Thanksgiving fixing, or the size of his nipples, or what he wishes for when he finds a wheat penny face-up in the cracked lot behind West Wilkes, or if a blue jay pecks at the latticework of his windowsill in the mornings, or if he loves his mother, or the most ticklish point on his body, or how often he trims his nails. His face doesn’t change. We oxbow past the Salvation Army thrift store, a few hundred feet from the church, and I know more than I’ve ever known that Trent is not real to me, not even so close to me in the truck, and has never been real, and might never be real.
Trent parks across two spaces, and we hop out of the truck and stare at the empty church. From our vantage point, the steeple impales the moon, its light a slick and terrible wet spilling over the lot.
“Well,” Trent says, locking the car.
“Your dad, your church. After you.”
He grunts but makes for the church’s heavy door. I lag behind, a gangly haint in his shadow. I look for the border collie, but don’t see her, and I know we are alone. Trent heaves the door open and props it in place with three mossed bricks, stacked one atop the next. He walks into the church, and I hesitate, but when he beckons me into the murky transept, I follow.
Standing in the church so late at night, it feels like we’ve stepped into what my grandmother calls the witching hour, the lunar warble of time brimming with banshees and water witches and brown spiders the size of your two biggest toes. At night, The Eternal Fire, He Is Risen Pentecostal Church displays the sort of beauty that collapses after more than a few seconds of staring, like a poorly pitched tent or an orgasm. I watch Trent as we move up the pews toward the pulpit, expecting his spine to straighten, the small patter of his steps to morph into his trademark lope, but it doesn’t, and I think he must carry his own flavor of fear, that maybe, in the coils of dust and dark, he only sees his father. He stops in front of the pulpit, and I almost bump into him, but pause just in time.
“Where’s the box?”
He turns around, his lips pressed into a thin white fault. “I don’t know.”
“The fuck?” I can’t stop myself from cursing. “What’s this for? No box, no snake.”
“Shut up, fag.”
I wince, and the quick venom of his retort seems to jar him, too, because he coughs, as if that might reverse the slur into an incidental release. “He’s never shown me. But I have an idea.”
I worry that we won’t find the box, that my brief prophecy with Trent will end before it’s started, and I don’t know what will happen to me then. Trent ducks behind the pulpit and I hear the sibilant grind of wood on wood. After a long minute, he sticks his arm into the air and waves—a moneyshot arm, dappled in moonlight—and I join him behind the pulpit.
Trent opens a drawer low in the base of the pulpit, and under a litter of old prayer request leaflets, I spot a small mahogany lockbox, just big enough for a pie. I crouch beside Trent, his thighs quivering inches from mine, as if he’s not sure how to proceed, as if he’s finally surpassed an unbeatable level in a video game only to find himself somewhere entirely unfamiliar, no magic or reason to guide him.
“How does it eat?” I feel slow, ambered in my intrigue.
“I think he pops a frozen mouse in there every week or so. Like a fish stick.”
I picture a small bramble of icy fur in Reverend Church’s palm. If he closes his hand, it will shatter, but my mother always says the Reverend is in the business of unwilding things, and she reckons that process looks different for everyone.
“Does the spirit move better when the snake’s hungry like that?” I’ve never felt the spirit’s glow within me, but I want to know what Trent will say.
“Drop that spirit shit. We both know it’s a load of crap.”
He stands up, takes two steps backward, and I wince at this double blow, that the Trent behind me and the Trent I so fastidiously adored from afar scrimmaged their way through their Sundays, too, and that Trent knows something about me that I didn’t know about him.
“Pick it up.”
His voice slings through the empty chapel, decadent and dark, like the voices of the forest cruisers in the porn videos I covet, men who can beguile any place into loving them, and I know I’ve altered our weather, that my proverbial trial begins now. I swallow, suddenly unsure.
“Do you have a key?”
“There’s no key. Only Dad and Absher open it.”
I lift the box from its place in the drawer. The wood whorls and loops under my hands, and I can picture a bearded mountain man carefully hewing the pattern out of itself, the clasp tight and dense as a star. I shake the box, gently, and feel the curled heft of the snake, its monstrous gravity, and my heart jockeys, and my palms sweat, everything all too earthly. I stand up and position the box on the pulpit, a shimmering film of light flanking its edges. After a few seconds, Trent nudges my shoulder.
“Go on. Open it.”
“What if we shouldn’t?” The second the words escape my mouth, Trent grabs the back of my shirt and tugs.
“You’re gonna open that box. You, or Mary fucking Magdalene.”
I know Trent’s right, that, silly as it sounds, there’s no going back, that we’ve crossed some line in the spiritual sand. The moment’s stakes flare in my mind. I have to prove that I’m not a faggot, or that a faggot is something other than what Trent believes it to be.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll open it.” I pinch the wooden clasp between my finger and thumb and flip it up, and my hands tremble the lid open, as far back as the golden seam of its hinge will go.
The snake—the cottonmouth, the water moccasin, the slick devil himself—rests in the bottom of the box, a mauve coil of glamour, more beautiful and terrible than I’d ever noticed in the sermons, made for more than Mr. Absher’s pimpled shoulders, made, maybe, for me. Its scales, one quilted into the next, thicken and eddy with moonlight, and Trent sucks air through his teeth, and I try so hard to keep my hands from shaking, and the snake sleeps. Trent makes a small sound, and I imagine the snake stretching all the way to fag heaven, its tongue my posh pink carpet. I’m so close, I think, to what I want, but I can’t make myself touch it. Trent taps his foot on the stone floor and pinches my shoulder, and I lift the box a few inches into the air, all the better to appraise the snake’s impossibility, an heiress’ bijoux of danger, and that’s when it all goes to shit.
Trent pinches my shoulder again, harder, and I jolt, and the snake raises its head, and flicks its tongue, once, twice, and I shriek, and drop the box, and Trent shouts and tumbles backward over the banister of the choir pew, and I fall onto the floor beneath the pulpit, and the snake unfurls through the air, a furious, gleaming comma, and lands a few feet from me, and the box clatters on the other side of the pulpit, and I whimper, and prepare to die.
As a kid, my mother packaged death for me as a farm, a cosmic prairie where my grandfather’s feed hens and runt calves and bungled soy crops frolicked till the end of days, separated from our house by a wall of perpetual light. Death, then, was always punctuated by men, gruff correspondents from the cattle sale or hefty Bible study regulars or my grandfather himself, and although I don’t believe in the farm, I do believe in men, and I know this one, this boy, spells the death of me. The snake, stupefied by its brief flight, drools across the floor. Trent climbs back over the banister, and you’d think the snake plunged its fangs right into his left ass cheek, he won’t stop shouting fuck, each curse hiving into the next, and he wobbles on the edge of the pew, and his hands swim up to his hair and back down to his knees, but he just keeps shouting fuck to the ceiling, to the snake, to me. I will myself to hold completely still, face up on the cold stone. My legs twist around each other, and the muscles of my left shoulder bungee into a cramp, but I refuse to move, afraid even a stray shiver will draw the snake closer to me. I can’t say I didn’t imagine, in the moments before my fall, a shadowed version of this vignette, my body venom-prone in Trent’s arms, Trent maybe kissing my ashen forehead, maybe siphoning the venom from my wound with his lips. I’d die consummated in my faggotry and zoom straight to heaven, and I wouldn’t even visit my possible fate as a lingering ghost, doomed to haunt Trent’s duplex in Boone or Lexington, I’d just kick it in an astral Golden Corral forever, and Trent would never forget my name, he’d keep a picture of me in his wallet until the day he died.
But now, the snake inches toward me, and Trent toggles between fuck and shit and what, questions he never answers, and I start to shake, and I stare the snake right in its beetled black eyes, and it nestles the awful wedge of its head onto my inner elbow, and I gasp, and Trent goes quiet, and I think, This is it, this is really it, game over, I’m gone.
The snake creeps over my elbow and up my arm, the aqueous clench of its scales on my skin the refrain to the world’s least favorite song, and I start to understand the near-death montages I always derided in video games and classic novels and Lifetime movies, the film reel of the heroine’s life ratcheting through her head. I think of my brother, and my mother, and my grandmother, and the snake earths its skull into my shoulder, the sinister sonar of its tongue sweeping over my shirt, and what my mother told me about belief sirens back to me, and the most horrible truth I’ve ever known plunders through every cell in my body: that I don’t believe in anything, and that nothing believes in me. The snake loops over the dip in my collarbone, and I nearly stop breathing, and I know that nothing will save me now, not Trent, not the Trinity, no spirit or magic or prayer or curse, and I realize that the supreme bastion of my non-faith, the Godless zone anchored inside of me, the miniature garden I created to protect myself from the wounding power of the divine, was built on an amoeba of belief, on the hope that the celestial whip of the Lord would, one day, curl sweetly around me, and He’d whisper, in my luckier ear, the truth of His teachings, that everything I’d ever learned was wrong, that He loved fags, loved them even more than any of His other creations, and I know that the black and buried seed of this deception, a deception as big as my own life, reflected itself in all of my desires, my desire for Trent, which I’d always considered a love in disrepair, derelict and impossible, but which harbored the pink script of a promise I made to myself, that he did love me back, or that he would, or that he could, an ability I never believed he would not have, an ability I believed might surface in the most obscure milieu—the post office, a college dorm room, a themed bar in a city on the West Coast—and that would sign, seal, and deliver the promise of my own love, that would illuminate my ability to be loved, that might garland my body in the neon chiffon of a man’s desire, something I could only imagine for myself in the dream house of my own belief in non-belief, and I realized I’d been waiting on the whole world to prove itself to me, and I’m still waiting, even now.
But instead, the world spits out silence, silence from Trent in the choir pew, silence from the snake as it probes the sweet lump of my neck, my blood’s red current churning just on the other side of my skin, just on the other side of my belief, and I almost want it to bite me, I funnel the last dregs of my putrid faith into the glint of its fangs, and I let go, I let go, I let go.
But it doesn’t bite me, the most thunderous non-thing to ever happen, the most raucous thing to ever not-happen, on God, or the corner of the sky I once gave him. I close my eyes, ready for the bite, but Trent shouts, and suddenly I don’t feel the snake on my skin, and I open my eyes, and Trent’s grabbed the snake by the tail and thrown it, with all his might, against the chapel’s back wall, where it lands with a wet thump, and before I can revel in the fact of my own life, still here, he’s scooping me up, taking my arm over his shoulder, and we’re running out of the church into the night.
The moon bulges in the sky over the parking lot, and all I can think is Fuck the moon, I love that son of a bitch, and we lean against the wall and breathe, hard, and I don’t wonder if Trent killed the snake, and I don’t wonder what the far side of death looks like, for once I don’t wonder a damn thing. I just breathe, hand on my own chest, cold brick flush against my back.
Trent puts both hands on my shoulders, and I startle, ready for his fist to break my jaw, a small blemish on the surface of my life, but he doesn’t punch me. Instead, he looks at me, the deepest and darkest pond of a look I’ve ever seen, and brings one shaking hand up to my face, and buoys a lock of hair back from my forehead, and for a moment, I think he might kiss me, and the siloed safeties inside me, all the places I could ever hide, collapse, and I know we both feel that something has been proven, that we’ve cracked some primal code between us and learned all we need to know about each other, and somehow this is everything I’d ever wanted and worse than the snake at the same time, but I don’t move, and he doesn’t move either, just pulls me to his chest and holds me. And I let him, I let him, I let him.
“What will you tell your dad?” I murmur into the ridge of his breastbone, his chin against my temple.
“Nothing. And you won’t either.” He pulls back, and we stare at each other, the command back in his face, but softened, a little, in the center, and I nod, another unspoken understanding, that this night will never be more than one night, years ago, before, and I nod again, as if to say, I’ll never tell, I won’t tell a soul, and he nods back, and almost smiles, but doesn’t, and lets go, and walks to the car, into his elsewhere, his nowhere but here, now and forever, amen.