My tooth has gone black. My mother said it died from sugar and my forgetful brushing and now I must suffer the consequences. She says it kindly, but it lands hot as the truth, because there’s nothing she can do. We don’t have health insurance and even if we did, dental is never included. So, here I am sucking on a popsicle—the only thing that soothes it—in the God-awful August sun and watching Duris and waiting for Curly to come take us to the healer.
Watermelon Road is peaceful this morning. Television comes through the neighbors’ trailers, all rattle and hum. Surrounding the Estates is a high blue sky and a clump of skinny dogwood trees and a field of brown grass. When the wind hits the grass, sometimes I smell sugar. Other times I smell clay, all slick and mineral. The fence that separates our homes from the thirsty pasture behind us is sun-rotted and bug-eaten. It wouldn’t keep a thing in or a thing out.
Duris gallops the yard in front of our homes slathering sunscreen on her skin even though it doesn’t matter because she’s burned crawdad-red already from a weekend spent at Lake Lurleen. Her legs are all muscle and kick. She does the robot across the raw dirt driveway, dances to the music in her own mind. Her hair is smooth and butter-colored, and she is a beauty even when she is bored. Especially when she is bored.
“He’s fixing to be here any minute. My M-A-N,” Duris spells it out like it’s a bad word.
“I’m waiting,” I say.
I hold the portable electric fan to my face and close my eyes. The air is thick and yeasty. You could fry an egg on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t dare walk my bare feet across the pavement. I spit and it sizzles pink with blood. My toes are painted the same shimmering sad color as my popsicle and I am just admiring them when I hear Curly’s truck. My tooth buzzes in my gum. I’ve seen Curly at a distance—greasy black hair and eyes yellow as cat fur. Now I’m going to meet him in real life, because here he comes up the drive past the line of post boxes. I lick soft sugar from the blue-stained popsicle stick and watch his truck fart out black clouds of pollution.
Duris hoots when she sees Curly and smacks her own thigh in glee. He hoists her into his thick arms and they perform a scene of spinning around and making noises. Her braid comes undone and spills like hay onto her skinny red shoulders. He carries her toward me. Her legs are wrapped around his core and she screams with a joy I’ve never known.
I hand Curly a bag of turnips, deep mean green, for his help, and he chunks it in the back of the trunk and thanks me. I’m bringing a bag for the healer.
Curly is unlike the other boys we know, in age, yes, but also in life experience. The Air Force took him to the desert where he jumped out of fighter planes and saved babies from tragic deaths and killed terrorists. He was shot three times in the neck and never did die, and people say he’s a hero. He’s alive now because of the blessing he got from the healer. The healer might be a prophet. The healer might also have a direct line to god.
Curly’s truck is spotless inside and out. That’s proof of his purity. He opens the door like a gentleman and picks me up with big calloused hands and sets me down right on the backseat. The red stripe on Curly’s neck is puckered and pink at the edges and swollen to the size of an earthworm. Under the stripe once lived three bullets.
I hold my hand in front of my mouth when I talk to hide my black fang, which is in the front of my mouth.
“Go on and let me see it.”
I shake my head. I don’t want to show him my plum-colored teeth.
“If I’m fixing to take you to heal it, I need to get a good, long look.”
I’ve run out of home remedies. Duris’s maw brewed a tea of egg yolk and chopped mint leaves that she swore would fix the sting. She had me swirl safflower oil around my mouth for twenty minutes first thing each morning then spit it out in the toilet. She grew turmeric bulbs in a smelly plot of dirt near the radiator out back and ground them into a salve, but nothing helped it. I still wake every morning with blood stains on my pillowcase. I think of my mother, toothless as a chicken and so lonely, and I think I’ll do anything to end up different.
I remove my hand and Curly levels his eyes into mine and drags his gaze down to my mouth. Five more are turning grey in the back. He nods solemnly and leans in to get a better look. He assures me the healer can fix it no problem. His face, structurally speaking, is beautiful. It is a face that reveals the skull beneath it. Skin pulled tight to show the sunken eye sockets. It is a face that says bone and mandible and chin. There is the tiniest wing tattooed on his temple. I almost think he’s wearing eyeliner, but he’s not. He’s so good looking it scares the shit out of me.
Curly grips my chin so he can study the inside of my mouth. I close my eyes and imagine that he is taking me to Lake Lurleen with him and not to the healer. I’ve never been to a dock like the one he took Duris to, but I have stood on the tan necks of the cliffs that line the green lake and jumped into the swirling warmth below. Curly’s friend owns a summer home out there, and when his friend was out of town he brought Duris. The house was doll-like and haunted and covered in clean carpet and giant beach towels hung from the back of every door. They pretended they lived there, ate cocktail shrimp from a bucket and drank tomato juice and sucked the guts from limes. They sat in a rowboat tied to the mooring and emptied airplane-sized vodka bottles into their throats and dreamed they could fly away or sail away or anything away. Duris explained how they pulled the American flag down from its pole on the front porch and laid it on the grass and went all the way. Duris said: It must be how the rich live. That’s when Curly told her he knew how to find the God Hospital and that he’d been there himself.
I imagine myself lying on the flag with Curly. I imagine him rolling over onto his back, his heart beating fast under his raw, sunburned ribs and winking at me and saying: Yeah, baby, I’ll take you to the healer. I imagine him right now, leaning in, kissing me and my nasty mouth and liking every second of it. Though I guess at thirteen, I’m too young for that.
Reads the sign right in front of our driveway. My mother nailed it to a tree, so you can see it from the main road. Mother and I keep a garden where collard heads and kale stalks reach toward the power lines and tomatoes grow fat and leak their innards out. Mother’s hands are slow with the watering can and slow with the picking, so she needs me. We’re passing the garden now in Curly’s truck. No one’s there and it looks deserted. Sometimes I find my mother in the garden moving her mouth likes she’s talking to someone I can’t see. When she notices me, she looks startled, like she needs to find a place for my face and when she does find it, where I fit in her life, her whole memory comes crumbling back, and she looks sad.
I yank the greens fresh for each of our customers and hand them over in used Piggly Wiggly plastic bags. One day, I think, we could expand our greens-selling business and move to a store in town or purchase a stall at the farmer’s market on the college campus. The college people like getting greens with soil still on the stems. It makes them feel real in a world made mostly of plastic and propane and red number thirty-five. If they knew we were out here growing them and picking them ourselves, I bet we’d have a line to the Florida border.
Curly’s truck smells like gas. I have been reading about pollution, the receding glaciers in Greenland, the mass deaths of penguins on beaches in Alaska, the graves of one hundred wolves in Alaska, and I know that these sick and sputtering engines are part of the problem. I know that everything is connected. Driving cars that purr like deranged cats and cough out foul smells is causing our planet to get hot as a hellfire. But you can’t get around driving in Alabama. You need a car to go anywhere. Walking would take hours and buses do not exist. Duris does not want to understand the pollution situation. I’ve tried to explain it. She refuses to see a connection. Spraying hair through an aerosol nozzle inside a sealed room couldn’t possibly affect a country far away whose name she can’t remember. Mud-riding through a dry creek bed couldn’t remove snow from the top of a mountain or fatten the surface of the sea so that it spills onto shores where it shouldn’t.
But I believe it can, even if I can’t explain it in proper scientific terms. I believe we are part of something bigger than what we can see.
Curly grabs himself a lump of chew and sticks it beneath his lip. He starts to rant about how in the military everyone has health insurance, but civilians shouldn’t expect a handout like that. People need to be resourceful or get a goddamn job.
“You don’t deserve nothing,” he says, training that chilly gaze onto me in the backseat. “Not you as in you but you as in all of us. Problem is that people don’t work anymore. They just expect handouts.”
I think of my mother’s trembling hands, the mind that reaches for memories in a fog so dense she’s not sure what’s there. The house she grew up in had asbestos in the ceiling boards and black mold under the floor, but her brain mostly survived that. She went crazy after my daddy disappeared, a Puerto Rican farmer who I’ve seen in exactly one picture, and began to eat long strips of lead-laced paint from the walls until her eyes crossed and she was never quite the same. People say he was kidnapped but no one tells me the whole story. She can’t have a real job, but she loves to work a garden. We had to move next to Duris and her mother when I was just a babe. We get checks in the mail each month, but they’re so small we have to stretch and stretch and stretch them.
“Well that’s not Christian,” says Duris. I know she says it because she would like to go to the doctor and have her athlete’s foot investigated, but she doesn’t have insurance either. “God’s supposed to give. Doesn’t he think we should all have enough to eat and stuff like that? I am not Christian or nothing. I’m just saying.”
A sour straw dangles from her glossed mouth and Curly looks at her and laughs and yanks the straw from her perfect white teeth and swallows the thing whole. His laugh is an explosion. He flings his whole head back, showing us the black hair on his neck and the fresh pimples around the scar.
“God helps those that help themselves,” says Curly.
Duris thinks this is hilarious and ruffles through her bag for more candy. She barely eats real food. She takes down Sour Patch Kids and sour patch rings and off-brand gummy bears. She never gets cavities because her genes are superior. She offers me a pink ring crusted in sugar.
That much sugar sizzles the tooth root.
I can see Duris’s reflection in the side mirror and it makes me jealous. I look away. Duris is the kind of beauty that would be beautiful anywhere, even in New York City. She’s the kind of beauty that will one day attract the attention of one of the modeling agents to whom she sends dozens of Wal-Mart portraits with the words YOURS written in cursive purple marker across the bottom and sprayed with a puff of Wild GRRL No. 7. The agent will consider her strong jawline, the wide mouth, the cold marble eyes placed almost too close together. He will swoop her up for his own fortunes. He will take her to Paris where she will model with Europeans, get felt up in back rooms by debauched French men, eat expensive cheese, smile on the cover of big magazines. He will scrub the r-dropping Southern accent from her tongue. I will pick up the magazines in line at Winn-Dixie and point to her upturned nose, say: That’s my cousin!
At least that is how it goes in our visualizing. Our visualizing is an important part of how we manifest the lives we want. Duris visualizes for fifteen minutes each morning, and she has me visualize for her, too. We don’t focus on what could happen to me in our visualizing, because we are attending to her first, and I don’t mind. My dreams aren’t as big as Duris’s. I just want my tooth fixed. She wants shimmer and fame and one-hundred-dollar sunglasses. She wants people to approach her with trays of twinkling drinks and give her small, exquisite boxes and ask for her autograph.
I would be happy to stay here at the Eutaw Mobile Home Estates and take care of my mother and read every book in the county library and help tend to the modest ring of trailer homes and scatter seeds in my garden. So, we’re different.
Duris is my second cousin. Blood related, but barely. Her maw appreciates my influence. She watches me iron bed sheets on the porch, walk the grass cutter through the weeds that live between our houses, read books that the high school assigns and even books it doesn’t. Books. All those stories. So many stories. They take me to places far away that I won’t ever go.
Curly continues to tell us how God Hospitals like the one we’re going to will soon be an alternative to conventional health care. He tells us that people have only had access to health care as we know it for the last couple of years. It’s spoiling us. His granddaddy lived to be ninety-eight and was quick as a whip and strong as a bull until the day he died and never, not even one time, stepped foot inside a doctor’s office. Curly drives slowly, signals before he turns, signals before he overtakes cars in front of him.
I wonder what Curly means by healthcare as we know it? I’ve been to the doctor on a few occasions. I can count them all on one hand: dog bite, strep throat, blood in the ear. Each time my mother and I had to curl up and sleep in the sticky ER seats and wait for ten hours to be seen by a man who looked at me with absent eyes and touched me with gloved hands for fifteen minutes before handing my mother a piece of yellow paper and a $700 bill for facility fees.
I don’t ask Duris or Curly why this man would agree to heal me for nothing at all in return except a bag of fresh turnips. Maybe part of me hasn’t asked on purpose.
The windows are down, and I smell cow dung and summer rain as we push deeper into the woods. Curly turns up the radio and the syrupy voice of Tammy Wynette is among us.
The drive is bumpy, and the road is unpaved and the trees we pass are crooked and half-dead. I don’t know what’s killing the trees, but they’ve gone dark as oil at the roots and their bark pulls off in long sheets and their limbs are without leaf.
The healer is almost famous. Even the college kids who ride around on bicycles and have telephones on their wrists know about him. In the rumors I’ve heard, his hair is long and tangled and feral. He lives in a trailer that’s spray-painted with the word JESUS in all capital letters in red paint on the side. One rumor: not paint, but blood.
One rumor: sleeps on the roof at night and makes love to God on the full moon.
One rumor: bathes in chicken guts in a tub in his front yard.
One rumor: killed his twin brother and buried him beneath his trailer.
One rumor: is sweet and kind and after he lays his hands on you, you will never get sick again, never be sad, never, never.
One rumor: was once a tax accountant and now is simply crazy with no magic to speak of and don’t go near him.
Part of me wants to ask Curly how he knows where to find the healer. Part of me wonders why Curly is taking me at all. Probably it has to do with Duris and her beauty. Duris and her beauty have opened many doors for her, and on account of our blood relation, they will now open a door for me. For a long time, I did not understand why Duris spent time with me. I thought, she’s bored or has nothing better to do. I thought, we are the only girls of similar age that live at Eutaw Mobile Homes estate. I thought, that’s how family does it. I thought, she is lonely.
We pass a garden of white crosses written on with black paint. White crosses are suddenly everywhere I look. They are stuck deep into the soil and covered in apocalyptic sayings like: HELL WILL BURN BURN BURN YOU.
Curly says, “Here we go now. Getting close.”
READ THE BIBLE
TOO LATE IN HELL FIRE WATER
The water in hell to DRINK is HOT HOT HOT
JESUS GOD SEX SINNERS
Sex Pit Help Me Jesus
Crosses are painted on tree trunks and on broken fence boards and on weather-worn flags and rotting planks that have been nailed to the side of anything or held in place with rusted barbed wire. Crosses grew out of the green bushes. Crosses come out of the green grass and the green weeds and the green ivy that grows over it all. So many crosses. In my eyes, there are only crosses.
“Well goddamn,” whispers Duris, solemn like she’s just entered church.
“Now, now,” says Curly. “Don’t let it scare you.”
When we pull up to the trailer, the sky is burnt orange and too bright to look at straight on. The healer’s home is a genuine trailer and sure as shit there’s the letters J-E-S-U-S graffiti-ed in red right across it. The JESUS paint dripped, and I can see where it ran toward the ground before the sun baked the word into place. This word is not alone. The entire trailer is covered in Biblical scrawl just like the crosses we saw on the road. Crosses dominate his yard, too, as do bike tires and lawn furniture and old freezers and antique lamps and broken dollhouses. Sculptures. Whatever he could find. Busted television sets. Transistor radios. Stereo systems. Garden hoses. Motorcycles. Dead cars. Mattresses. Everything. There is a white leather armchair with a slit down the center gushing out yellow innards and jesusjesusjesusjesus is scribbled across it in black marker. The biggest sign says:
WELCOME TO GOD’S HOSPITAL. ALL Y’ALL WELCOME.
The healer’s got a different kind of trailer than our homes, which could pass as real houses with their well-made front porches and plastic paneling that smells like wood. The carpet inside our homes is chemical clean and the windows are large and have shutters painted a deep dark blue. But there is something sharp and sinister about the healer’s place, like glass that catches the light and glints.
The healer, or at least it must be the healer, steps onto the porch and folds his arms over a long white dress, leans against the doorframe and tips the brim of a broad straw hat. Duris wants to come into the trailer with us, but Curly tells her to stay put. Maybe he thinks Duris isn’t brave enough to handle this. Maybe he wants it to be just the two of us having this experience. Either way, Duris sits in the car as Curly leads me to the stairs. I look back a few times at Duris, her mouth frowns just a touch and her wild eyes are quiet. I’m terrified and close to saying let’s go back, but I feel it’s too late already and my mouth won’t form the request. Duris makes herself smile and I know she doesn’t know what to do. I squeeze my eyes tight. Curly’s hand is on my back, and he applies a little pressure, telling me, without telling me, to go forth.
A pipe snakes through the dead grass and dribbles water from its mouth into a smelly puddle of mud. We walk through a swarm of fuck bugs, through a wall of wet heat, through the prophetic damning sculpture garden. The healer holds us in his gaze the entire time. We step onto the first stair, and I’m not scared anymore. Long, greasy hair runs down the healer’s neck and mixes with the coiled hair on his chest. He smiles at me with rows of perfect teeth. His teeth are pure and good. I wonder if Duris is visualizing. What is she visualizing? What future does she see for me?
Curly and the healer hug each other like brothers. What I’m saying is they embrace in a real way, not a slap of the back and a no homo man. It can’t be true, but I think Curly kisses the healer right on his dry pink lips. Curly says Duris will wait in the truck, but that he’s going come in with me. I try to hide my smile. He wants it to be just us. He doesn’t want me to be afraid.
“She look like a prophet,” says the healer.
I think he means my shaved head, which Mother sheared to peach fuzz after I got lice. I like it so much I want to keep it short like this, even though people at school have been calling me a monk.
In front of his altar to Jesus and other saints inside, the healer asks me if I want coffee. I hate coffee and say so, but I do it politely and the healer has tea. Curly admires the Jesus Altar, which is decorated with golden chimes and copper crosses and framed pictures of Paul the Apostle and Christ. Rosaries dangle from every hook or edge. There are framed pictures of other people, too. Strangers to me, but not to the healer. The altar takes up an entire wall and there is the same scriptural scrawl of GOD HOSPITAL written above the altar on a piece of river wood. I should be scared. I do know this. I know it in my brain, but my heart is on a different path. My heart wants to trust just one thing, and this might be it. The healer stirs sugar into a teacup of black liquid and smiles at me.
The healer, who introduces himself as Dove, walks me out the back door and I hear an engine start up and my blood runs backward and cold. Is Duris driving away? She might try to start a scene and make Curly leave to check on her. No. It idles. Music starts in the truck again. Duris only wanted to play music. There’s Tammy W. again and the sad-sadness comes radiating toward us in the backyard and even Dove stops and closes his eyes in reverence of “Stand By Your Man.” He begins singing under his breath.
The light is soft and spilling through the trees around us. It’s the thin, magic afternoon color that turns everything yellow. Golden hour. We step into that golden light and move toward what looks like a metal intake table with two chairs on either side. Dove pulls his mouth into a smile and gestures for me to sit. I give him the bag of greens and he looks pleased. He puts them on the ground.
A river runs close to here. I picture it winding its way through the thick forest, people I know stuck into fat rubber inner tubes, popping open beers and letting their mutts run along the river’s edge beside them. I can almost hear them laughing though I know that’s impossible.
“You come here for the healing,” Dove says kindly.
We are sitting on lawn chairs pulled right up to the edge of the table. I have taken a cup of tea though I don’t drink it. I just hold it between my thighs. Curly is wandering around the yard kind of nervous with his hands in his pockets and his eyes shifting over all the Jesus junk like he’s looking for something. I don’t even know Curly. His beauty could be one of those tricks the maw warns about.
“Tell me about your symptoms. What’s ailing you?”
I tell him about the screaming pain that won’t relent. It keeps waking me at night. I tell how I don’t want to eat and how I’m afraid to smile because of the way it looks. I tell him there’s a smell, too, like greens that’ve gone to rot.
Dove stirs his cup with a tiny spoon and listens. Mmmmmhmmmm goes his mouth. He nods like he understands and knows just what is wrong. He tells me how God healed him from a calloused cluster of ear cysts that made him deaf as a dog. He tells me how ever since the healing he’s been blessed with an ability to mend others and a willingness to do the dirty work of medicine that others are afraid of doing. He says he does it for free. It’s what the Lord wants.
“Like pulling teeth?” I ask.
“For instance,” says Dove.“Don’t be afraid, baby. The Lord is here.”
Dove crosses his legs in his dress, which might not be a dress but a primitive tunic. There is something feminine about the gangly hand he brings to his mouth each time he sips his coffee. There’s something feral about the smooth muscles that run through his limbs. I trust him. I don’t know why.
Dove begins to tell me how he was given a vision from the Lord that he needed to start his own God Hospital right here where people could get healed for free. He has patients come each week. Most are successful, and they depart happy and smiling and alive. He blesses them before they go with special God water that bubbles up naturally from the ground right beneath our feet. When he says most leave alive, I feel a coolness rise up on my arms.
Dove stands from the intake table and gestures for me to follow him. He takes me further into his property into a clearing. He asks me to lay on what looks like a dental chair. Curly stands beside us, almost like one of those nurses you see on television. The tarp under the chair is flecked with dried brown material. Dove gives me a small Jesus figure to hold during the process.
“In case it gets to hurting,” he says.
Dove pulls up a bucket of wrenches sitting in a teal liquid. It smells like bleach. Crows flap their wings through the sky. I close my eyes and visualize Duris wondering if she should come check on me. I visualize her hand in mine, and I wonder how bad a row of black teeth really is. I ask the God inside of my mind if this is okay and then listen for an answer.
“I’m going to let you be,” says Curly. “Like. Give you some privacy. I’ll check on Duris. She’s using up too much gas running the engine like that. Going to kill the car and then we’ll never be able to leave.”
He makes a nervous laughing sound and waves his arms around like a bird caught in a fight with the wind.
“Five more minutes,” I say, like a question. “Five more minutes then we’ll go together.”
I want to ask Curly if I can hold his hand or if he can sit down with me while Dove operates, but he’s walking away already. He never even looks to make sure the tools aren’t rusted, and that everything is okay. I close my eyes again and I think I hear a voice say: leave.
Dove says all he has to do is pull a few of the bad molars out and then he has a tea he’s going to give me to drink. New teeth will grow in pure and white and never rotten. He smiles his pearly, perfect fangs and he says: “I used to have rows of cavities, man. You can trust me. Trust me, baby doll.”
I grab the Jesus doll’s head and squeeze, preparing for the pain. I wonder if I should tell Dove I have to go to the bathroom, but then what? I imagine myself anywhere different which helps calm a person when they’re about to experience a traumatic event. I think of the soil between my fingers when I dig in the garden at the Eutaw Mobile Homes Estate. I picture pulling the green, fibrous spines of collards from the dirt and how they smell of sulfur and stink in a way that’s noble. I imagine the sun on my neck and my back bent over the little patch of earth I love.
When I look up at Dove, he’s eclipsed the sun. His face is blocking out its perfect circle of light. It glows behind him like a gloriole. When I study his eyes, I see a single wet drop run his cheek. His tear hits me right in the chest. I visualize Duris again. I try to manifest her help, and then I hear her voice call my name. It is singsong, like she isn’t even scared, like I shouldn’t be either.
“Wait,” she says. She’s on the back porch, and Dove looks up, and so do I. She looks younger than I’ve ever seen her look. “Get on up, Rae,” she says. “Get on up, girl.”
But I’m already standing. My legs are beneath me. My bare feet brace into wet soil. The chair is no place for my body. I hear Curly rev the engine of his truck, but it doesn’t even matter. Duris squares her shoulders. She flips her hair back like some kind of splendid horse. She is filled with light, all the light the sun can give has flooded her. Her skin is stitched in gold. She reaches out her hand, and it’s not far now.