The car dips beneath a pigeon-clogged underpass, then strains uphill.
“They will help us, Ernesto,” his mother says. By us she means you.
Because he is the one who needs help, troubled by a demon that makes him unable to finish his homework or listen to the pastor’s sermons as he jiggles his knee and wonders about the grip strength of chimpanzees; or has a vision of everyone on the sanctuary stage—assistant pastor, music pastor, youth pastor, assistant youth pastor—falling from their chairs to tear off each other’s pressed shirts and blouses.
“The pastor’s invitation is an answer to prayer,” his mother says. “Yes it is, praise you Jesus.” Whenever Ernesto doesn’t answer, his mother talks to Jesus.
It is prayer or meds. At the doctor’s, his mother asked about side effects. Her friend’s son was on meds and couldn’t sleep. During the day he did what he was told and at night he did what he wanted, online.
Ernesto is allowed 40 minutes of screen time after he finishes his homework, which is not often. Most days he gives up on homework and just draws.
For a while it was sneakers. Drawing sneakers steadied his mind; the smooth graduated curve of the toe, the intricacy of the laces. Sneakers were powerful and serene. After the diagnosis, he started to draw human figures, except they weren’t really human, eyes bulging, pupils leaping in opposite directions, neck scrawny and gulping, Adam’s apple tumorous. Below the narrow shoulders, ribs like a dead ox’s and a tiny drooping dick. On the head, scared hair and horns. The ADD demon. He recognized it the first time he drew it, and it became something he drew without thinking, without looking even, something his hand just did.
During a sermon on how to open yourself to God’s blessings, he traced it on the back page of his Bible before realizing what he’d done. He closed the Bible fast. Beside him his mother was taking notes, double underlining the scrawled words ABUNDANCE EVERLASTING!!! Fortunately he’d used pencil. He would erase it later.
Next Sunday the pastor bid the congregation turn to Revelations. Ernesto flipped open his Bible, which his mother seized.
“Ernesto, what is this?” she hissed.
“Nothing.” A coral fingernail dug into his hand as he held onto the Bible and she whimpered, “Oh Lord Jesus,” while the pastor read about John’s vision of the lamb with seven eyes.
That Sunday she didn’t take notes. When the pastor called the weary and heavy-laden to the front of the church for prayer, his mother stood and walked forward. The pastor’s wife slid an arm around his mother, and the two heads—one black, one gold—stayed bowed for a long time.
That’s when Ernesto’s mother must have told the pastor’s wife about the demon, and now they’re heading to the pastor’s house for supper and fellowship.
At the old, small church, the pastor would have talked openly about casting out demons, but at the new, big church people use nicer words. They talk less about human sin and wretchedness, and more about God’s blessings and purpose for your life. “They are truly blessed people,” his mother likes to say. By which she means that they smile a lot and judge less and their cars are mostly new, though when they smile they seem to ask, Why aren’t you smiling too? Don’t you feel blessed?
“At dinner, Ernesto, pay attention to the conversation. Concéntrese, ok?” The engine hiccups as she slows to turn left. “Please answer me.”
She doesn’t trust him, or she doesn’t trust his demon, same thing. She would say they’re not the same thing, that Ernesto is pure and sweet, but the demon has scrambled his soul. “That is the spirit of distraction in you,” she says when he takes too long to realize she’s talking to him. “That is not you, Ernesto. I remember you as a little boy, how sweet you were. That is not you.”
But people do things unlike themselves all the time. At the old, small church, the youth pastor was fucking a fifteen-year-old named Beth, who got pregnant. She was sent to a farm near Oshawa to have the baby, and the pastor resigned. Was the youth pastor unlike or like himself when he fucked Beth?
The new pastor’s house has a three-car garage at the end of a long driveway that is at the end of a cul-de-sac that looks like a village for millionaires. Three cars, two kids, one big house.
It is strange to see the pastor not in a suit. (“I am sure he has a tailor,” Ernesto’s mother has remarked more than once.) In his khakis and polo he could be a sales guy at Sports Experts. His son Aaron, the assistant youth pastor for the new, big church, looks like he works at Abercrombie.
“Good timing, Ernesto,” Aaron says as they walk from the vaulting foyer to the kitchen. “Tonight is pizza night.” The kitchen lights have a crystalline brightness that makes the stone counters blinding. On the island are small bowls of toppings, and the pastor’s wife and daughter each press a rolling pin onto pale dough.
His mother gushes admiration at the foyer, living room, kitchen, and concludes, “The Lord must have told you that pizza is Ernesto’s favorite.”
“Pizza is the best,” Aaron says with a smile. “The secret is Mom’s sauce.”
“Secret sauce!” sings the daughter.
The pastor’s wife holds out a small tray of rolled-out dough to Ernesto. “We’ll put it in the oven when you’re done.”
Their oven is huge, like the witch’s in Hansel and Gretel, a story his favorite teacher from years ago assigned until his mother asked that he be given more wholesome reading material, preferably factual; so he and the Jehovah’s Witness kid read about animals of the Canadian prairies. When the class read Rumpelstiltskin, he and the Jehovah’s Witness kid read about muskrats and voles.
The crust before him is a canvas. A face is the obvious choice, so he tries a sneaker. A pepperoni sneaker with mozzarella laces and green pepper soles.
“Wow, a shoe,” says Aaron. “Awesome.”
The pastor’s wife leans over. “I see you drawing all the time in church, Ernesto.” It is hard to tell if she’s reproaching or complimenting him, because she doesn’t smile like the others. When she does, it’s brief, almost a grimace, like she stepped on something sharp.
“Yes, drawing is a hobby he has,” his mother says quickly. “I pray it is for God’s glory.”
The pastor’s wife picks up the tray and puts it in the oven. When she turns back to him, she says, “You’re an artist, Ernesto.”
She says it as though it is a fact, as though Ernesto has already had a gallery show, like he is John in Revelations, a man with visions people cannot help but take seriously.
“God needs artists,” says the pastor, with a smile.
“So do people,” says his wife.
“We sure do,” enthuses the pastor.
It takes Ernesto some effort to remember why he is here: how, after the pizza and ice cream—because there will be ice cream, any treat to relax him—the exorcism will be performed.
Ever since his diagnosis, his mother has been saying, “Watch out for unclean spirits, Ernesto. They cheat and seduce.” But really it’s the pastor who does that. He feels a secret pressure in the way the pastor and Aaron pay him such kind attention, the way they are so nice in order to make a point about Jesus and how good He was. They want Ernesto to relax, because they want something from him, or for him. So nice, the blessed people, they almost can’t help it.
It has been a year since his mother joined the new church. After the old church, Elohim Tabernacle, fell apart, his mother left, but now she is convinced that something from Elohim stuck to him, got inside him, and is turning him rotten. “We should never have stayed there,” she has said more than once, before apologizing again. “The moment I heard the first rumor we should have left.” When he tells her it doesn’t matter, that she doesn’t need to apologize, she says, “Yes, it does matter. I was wrong.” At night, with clasped palms, she beseeches Jesus, “Keep us clean, keep us holy, for Your glory.”
Sometimes it’s “Keep us fo-cused on Your glory.” She’ll say this when he jiggles his knee too long or doesn’t realize she’s talking to him.
She doesn’t know that he knows about Beth’s pregnancy. The youth pastor at Elohim was also the son of the senior pastor, like Aaron. But Aaron is engaged to a smiling girl named Grace Kim who has a slender undulating torso that rivals some of the girls’ in homeroom. Aaron and Grace must come close to fucking sometimes, until Jesus reminds them to focus on God’s glory.
Everybody holds hands and the pastor thanks Jesus for the pizzas, giving Ernesto’s hand a long squeeze. His mother’s pizza is loaded with vegetables. “I love my veggies,” she says, picking up a fork and knife. Lately his mother has been making green smoothies and insisting Ernesto have a sip. “So much better than coffee,” she says. “So much good energy.”
His mother started talking about veggies and smoothies after she began complaining about the wrinkles around her eyes, but the pastor’s wife doesn’t have any wrinkles on her face at all. She is a prettier version of her daughter, features sharper. She doesn’t look like she has kids who are adults or almost. Even the pastor looks good for an older guy, like every winter he goes somewhere warm to surf.
Ernesto’s father must have looked good, once, good enough to squirt himself inside Ernesto’s mother. That reckless unthinking time that brought Ernesto into the world, and his demon too. “Back then I was Catholic,” his mother once tried to explain.
The last time Ernesto saw his father, he was four. Soon after that his mother found God—the real, non-Catholic God, the personal one who talks to you directly and keeps you pure and holy for His glory. Sometimes his mother says, “Jesus is your real daddy.”
The pastor’s daughter invites his mother to a Bible study, and she responds, “But I like reading with Ernesto.”
“Family Bible study is essential,” says the pastor.
At Elohim there was a room called the Study. It had a circle of mismatched couches and chairs on linoleum, and a bookcase of Bible concordances and sermons on CD.
One evening when a service went late, Ernesto left the sanctuary, where his mother was rocking on her knees. He had to shit, so he walked towards the private washroom at the far end of the building, next to the Study. The Study’s door was ajar, light and murmurs leaking from it.
“Say you love your husband,” a man intoned.
A second man said, “We praise you, Lord, in the name of Jesus.”
“Say it: I love my husband, I love my husband,” said the first man, as the other man crooned, “Jesus Jesus Jesus.”
On a couch, a man straddled a woman lying across it, still as if sleeping. Ernesto couldn’t see her face because the other man sat by her head, on a chair, hand on her shoulder. She wore a fitted t-shirt, and her arms were long and pale, ethereally limp.
“We bind the spirit of temptation and infidelity, in the name of Jesus,” said the straddling man. He sat down more forcefully on her thighs, and it looked like her knees might snap.
The woman never moved, never trembled, never spoke.
Outside the evening had cooled and the grass was spongy. Crickets sang from deep inside the bushes along one wall of the church. Ernesto squeezed between two bushes and leaned against the brick, crickets throbbing in his ears. Overhead a few stars were visible despite the street lights of Scarborough. He tried to imagine what God saw from way up there, and how it made Him feel.
Ernesto lowered his pants. It was just something he had to do. With the rasp of brick against his bare sacrum came the quick, physical relief.
The next week he checked on it and found a slight elevation of soil against the wall. He decided that shitting against the church wall marked his secret break from it.
“Please, Ernesto. Concéntrese,” his mother says. The pastor’s wife is offering him more pizza.
“May I use the washroom?”
The washroom floor is glossy dark stone and the toilet seat is unsticky, unlike at home where a film of his mother’s hairspray dusts it. He leans forward and waits.
By the second week, his shit on the church was gone, absorbed by the bushes and earthworms. In church sometimes, he’d think about how the building was pocked with secret holes where people shat. While someone was in the sanctuary saying “We glorify you Jesus!” someone else was taking a dump. It came as a revelation to think that the holy shat too, when they weren’t praising, or maybe even when they were, sometimes. Maybe they praised Jesus for healing their constipation or hemorrhoids. Or maybe they just praised out of habit, crouched half naked, their assholes exclaiming, “Glory! Glory!”
The pastor’s washroom is pristine, like something from a tv show. He imagines the pastor’s wife wiping down the granite counter, but probably she doesn’t do the cleaning. Probably she employs someone like his mother when she first came to Toronto, before she began working in the Accounts department.
Beside the toilet is a magazine rack, so full that one magazine sticks up, wavy paged and lumpy. Inside, a pen bookmarks an article, “Radical Christian Manhood.” Someone has underlined the sentence Even Jesus needed me-time. The pen is one of those fancy gel grips that cradle your knuckles. In the margin Ernesto sketches out shoulders, ribs, then a neck and horns, except this demon is crouched, on a prone woman with long arms, her face turned away.
His mother told him that the pastor’s wife was sick just before they joined the new church. Someone said that she didn’t go to church all spring and slept for days in the basement. But the pastor’s wife must have gone to church sometimes, because one time the whole church prayed for her as she stood at the front.
“What did she have?” Ernesto asked.
“She was sick in her heart,” said his mother, and when he asked if she’d had an operation his mother said, “I mean her spiritual heart.” Ernesto imagined the pastor’s wife going to the doctor and refusing pills, then going home to lie down sick and sad in the basement of her beautiful house.
In the kitchen his mother is talking a lot, in that quick way she has when she’s stressed. “Sometimes I think, what do I know about raising a boy alone? I know how to balance accounts, that’s what I know.”
“You know more than you think,” says the pastor’s wife.
“And you can bet that Jesus knows,” says the pastor.
The pastor’s daughter sees him first. “Ice cream, Ernesto?”
Ten eyes are on him, like the holy lamb in Revelations.
The daughter gives him a full bowl, and as he eats, his mother talks about how she wants to do right by Ernesto, how she feels bad that he doesn’t have a father in his life, especially at this crucial time.
“It’s fine,” he mumbles, ice cream numbing his tongue, but nobody seems to hear him and before he knows it, everybody’s hands are on his mother. Somehow everybody has finished their ice cream and they are praying for her, a transition so smooth it’s like something from that ballet he had to watch in Arts and Personal Expression.
So the fellowship was for his mother. As the pastor tells Jesus to guide and comfort her, and Aaron punctuates the prayer with baritone thanks to Jesus, the pastor’s daughter coos softly.
His mother is crying. She cries every Sunday morning—“healing tears” she calls them—and in church he is ready for it, dazed by the booming pulse of the worship orchestra. But now in the pastor’s silent kitchen, his mother is a crumpling, red defeat.
“It’s ok, mom,” he says, even though he is not supposed to say that, because God is working on her heart, which is soft, like it should be, like his should be.
A hand touches his shoulder. The voice of the pastor says, “Guide Ernesto, Lord.”
Another hand joins. Ernesto’s head bows, as if protecting his face from a punch. There is nothing to do but ride it out. More hands are on him now, and murmurs surround him. “Give him Your peace which passes all understanding, Lord,” says the pastor. So much attention on one person, so much focus for one soul to bear. He imagines a helium balloon escaping a child’s grasp to bob against the kitchen’s high ceiling.
“Lord Jesus,” says the pastor, “we bind the spirit of inattention that hinders Ernesto from realizing Your Purpose for his life.” The pastor’s voice is firm but nice, like the demon is a hyper puppy. His son’s voice joins, and for a while the men rebuke the puppy.
In the name of Jesus. Let this young man glorify you, Lord. A yawn stretches up into Ernesto’s throat and almost gags him with surprise. But if church is boring, why couldn’t an exorcism be boring too?
Sweet, cloudy perfume envelops him. When the pastor’s wife speaks, she says, “Give
Ernesto his heart’s desire, Lord.” With these words comes a roar in his ears like rushing waters. He sees not a balloon against the ceiling but himself on the kitchen’s gleaming wood floor, the pastor’s wife straddling him. She presses him down with her strong thighs, neck erect, queenly, and when her mouth opens she commands, “Say you love Jesus.”
“I love you, Jesus.” He must have spoken aloud, because he can hear his mother sobbing thanks to Jesus for her son’s soft heart. In that other world inside him, the pastor’s wife gazes down at Ernesto, unsmiling.
Sitting any longer is impossible. Ernesto pushes up against the hands heavy on his shoulders and stands. “Excuse me,” he says.
As he hurries out, the pastor’s wife says, “Let him go. Who can tell how the Lord is working?”
Out of the kitchen, past the washroom, he heads to the foyer and staircase.
The stairs going down are dark. In the basement he closes the door and switches on one light. The room is huge and miscellaneous, with a treadmill and ping-pong table, and beyond, an L-shaped couch near a door to the backyard. There is an alcove with panels of buttons and green lights that flicker as if shivering.
Beside the alcove, a narrow futon on the floor. Covered by a chenille blanket, it is surrounded by mugs, a tissue box, some books. Among the books, a Bible and something called In the Valley of Shadows, and something else called To the Lighthouse. On the back of Shadows, a woman with poofy hair grins; on the back of Lighthouse, a younger woman in profile looks down at something, face spacey and sad.
Out of habit he glances around for a pen. But what would he draw for the pastor’s wife? He presses a hand onto the futon, against the slithery softness of the chenille, and rolls himself out across it. He wonders what the pastor’s wife thinks about when she lies there. Does she remember standing at the front of the church as the congregation prayed for her, when they rebuked her demon of sadness? When they told her to stop being broken.
He feels relaxed on the pastor’s wife’s futon. Maybe it is because the exorcism is over, or maybe it is thanks to the nice exorcism.
Upstairs the floor creaks.
He tries to rearrange the blanket the way it was before, tries to reconstruct the creases, but gives up and heads to the door to the backyard. Beside it is a keypad. “Please Jesus,” he breathes and decides that if the alarm goes off, he will run. He will just run.
When he leans into the door, it makes a sucking sound and that’s all. Into the darkness, he follows the trickling waters of some artificial brook. The area feels desert-like in its openness, with few trees, none of them big. The biggest is some kind of evergreen with wilting pointy limbs and a sharp peak like a wizard. He heads to the wizard tree and crouches behind it.
The crickets are out, even in fall. The pastor’s backyard is beside a forest or golf course, away from city lights, and the stars burn sharp, brighter than what he saw from the bushes of Elohim.
After the woman at Elohim got her exorcism, did she go home with her husband that night? Did they drive home together—he at the wheel, she in the passenger seat—as she thought about the rest of her life with the man some stranger said she’d better love?
One day he will paint her, even if he never saw her face. It’s like God’s that way.
He’ll paint the pastor’s wife too, though he’s not sure how.
Across the lawn, the basement’s windows brighten. By the ping pong table stands the pastor’s wife. She must be looking for him, except that she stays put. She leans against the ping pong table, settles against it. No, she’s not looking for him. She is looking for something else.