I was eighteen and living in a basement suite in North Vancouver. I was in my second rental and living with my second room-mate. The suite was the bottom floor of a house owned by a South American lady who was a single Mom of three children ranging in age from about nine to twelve. The daughter was the eldest by a couple of years and the boys were a year apart. The lady was about thirty-eight years old and originally came from Ecuador. She had one of those names that took a paragraph to write down.
My friend and room-mate was doing a lot of traveling in those days, usually on book buying forays to San Francisco, Portland or Los Angeles. I was cooking in a restaurant and my hours were from four PM til closing and I usually got wound down enough to sleep by 3 or 4 AM. Once the woman knocked on the basement door around five o clock on my day off and asked me if I would like to have supper with her and her brood.
I had been smelling intoxicating aromas and happily acquiesced. I gussied up a bit and went up the wooden stairs into the kitchen of the big house. We had a lovely meal of rice, beans and eye of the round, sliced thin and rubbed with cumin, black pepper and chili. After being soaked in lime juice for awhile, the meat was quickly seared in a cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil. There was a jar of paper-thin sliced purple onions which had been soaked in salt and lime juice to spoon over the rice along with the pot likker from the skillet. It was sublime!
The phone rang and the lady curled up in her chair and chattered away in Spanish, which I understood about three-quarters of. There was lots of talk about their church, some gossip about other relatives and I was able to discern that she was speaking to her cousin who lived in another part of town. I went to see all the many things that children like to show to visitors. The boys had heard me playing my guitar and had asked me if I could teach them some. The little girl showed off her room and her stuffed animal collection. Presently the Mum called us all in for dessert of Popsicles.
While we sipped coffee later and the children were watching TV in the living room, The Senora noticed my jeans had two holes, one in each knee. She asked me if she could fix them. I said sure and went downstairs to change. When I returned, she poured herself a beer, lit a cigarette and began making the finest patch I had ever seen in my life.
When I was a child in Louisiana, my father bought my allotment of clothes for the year at the end of Summer. I wasn't allowed to choose any part of it. I was an outdoor boy and usually ruined pants and shoes within days. To teach me a lesson in clothes conservation when a hole appeared in the knee of my jeans, my father had my mother iron on bright red oversize round patches which he cut all zig-zaggy with pinking shears so they looked like blazing suns on a clown's outfit. This usually led to a fight at school wherein I would come home that day with half a shirt ripped away.
The sight of the professionally done patches really warmed my heart. They were made of jean material the same degree of faded as the cloth they were sewn onto and were as small as could be. The ends all around were tucked under exactly three millimeters and the corners were reinforced with turquoise colored thread. I couldn't wait to get more holes in them!
Over time, I was invited to join them for supper a few more times and I started to spend my time off with the two boys catching garter snakes and playing guitar. I was called upon to do little repairs in the big house and gladly did so. I was warned by my room-mate whose parents had warned him that this lady was not nice at all. I have never allowed other people to make my own mind up and I learned very early in life not to judge a book by its cover. These warnings went unheeded and the more time I spent with the family, the more I liked them.
I was told by the woman that her ex-husband was a Pastor or Elder in some big Christian Church denomination down in Washington and that although they were apart, that she still attended the Vancouver chapter of that Church. One evening, I was asked to accompany her to Church. It was a vibrant and dynamic service with people prophesying, speaking in tongues and praising the Lord til his ears surely turned red.
I had been Baptized as a child in Texas and had attended Unitarian Church in Louisiana where I learned about Jesus in study courses taught by my Mom. I went to vacation Bible School in Houston, Texas and learned some stuff there. I went to baptist Church with my Grandma in Beaumont, Texas when ever I was staying with her. She always sat in the front pew, sang the loudest and off key. After the service she went back to her porch where her girlfriends would appear as soon as they changed out of their Church clothes. Then they would drink beer and gossip. I played guitar for them and kept watch for the Priest. He was always trying to catch them having fun and was never successful. I would give the sign, the beers would disappear and a jug of iced tea would appear. He would be given a glass and entertained til he left of his own accord.
My Grandfather, when he was ashore from the sea, used to lecture me for hours on end about his understanding of the Bible. He read and meditated on it for many hours a day and had been doing so for many decades of his life. He attended no Church but I never met a more devout reader and ponderer of the Bible up to this day. He “quit” drinking and smoking when he was in his forties. He kept, instead, a jug of Bourbon whiskey in a brown paper bag under the sink and poured a big shot into his coffee each morning before taking a handful of natural Swiss vitamin supplements. He got by on Grandma's second hand smoke for his nicotine. Under his big Bible, there was a magazine from his native Sweden with a home-made brown paper cover that showed some buxom nurses doing things beyond the call of duty.
When I was still about twelve years old, my elder sister heard about a revival tent meeting in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver. We had just moved there from Louisiana and had no friends yet to play with, so we went. The preacher was from Texas and the combined sound of his honey sweet twang and thundering brimstone baritone, shook something loose in me. I welled up with awful shame as if I had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, coached Hitler, instructed Genghis Khan, woven the crown of thorns, dropped the atom bomb, handed Lizzy Borden her ax and robbed the Wells Fargo Stage Coach.
I cried so hard I nearly choked to death. The man asked if anybody felt like they had been “touched by the Hand.” I went up front of the tent and said I had been slapped silly by the Hand and I was sorry for every rotten horrible underhanded disgusting evil thing I had done. It never occurred to me that in my twelve years I had done little more than whatever I was told to do by the adults in my life. The man put his hand on me and smacked me and told me I was Born Again and that I was now forgiven. Then we learned a little Eskimo kayak rowing song in a little room they had set up for kids. I still remember that song til today.
By the second service I attended at the landlady's church, I found myself walking up front. I was filled with the same burden of unspeakable horrors as when I was twelve in the Revival tent. I placed my cigarettes on the alter and gave them to Jesus. I was smacked on the forehead and told by the Priest that I was Born Again. I didn't tell him this was my second spiritual birth.
I began to go three times a week to the woman's church and in between those attendances, we went to Bible Study meetings in private homes. Within a short time, my whole world was 24 hours a day of praising the Lord. I went to a local bookstore. I bought myself a good big Bible with an exhaustive concordance. I read that puppy from cover to cover twice, carefully. Most of my acquaintances dropped away from me pretty quick, like I had leprosy. I took it as a “sign” and confirmation that I was right and they were wrong. Within a few weeks, I was leading the Bible study groups, for no one else had read and pondered it as a whole. They could flap through and grab a quote out of context to win an argument much like a lawyer can article over old cases to find a precedent to win a case that shouldn't be won.
Over seven intense weeks this went on. So much time was spent seeking signs and confirmations and endlessly discussing the intentions of God, that we began to neglect both our nourishment and sleep. This deprivation had us crazy as squirrels in a short while. I couldn't see it because all the congregation were doing the same. I was introduced to the elders and to the ex-husband of the woman who told me I was very spiritual and that he could feel it in my presence. He said that I should await a sign soon and that God would tell me where in the world I was to go and what I was to do.
At the time, I was quite impressed by this praise from a real priest. Around the seventh week, the lady told me she didn't think Jesus would mind if we smoked. Jesus duly gave back the habit I had given him only weeks before. She next told me that she didn't think that Jesus would mind if we had a beer from time to time. Our eyes started to take on a hollow glow from lack of sleep and nourishment.
One evening we were listening to records in her living room and she told me that Jesus wouldn't mind if we went into her bedroom, being as how we were so spiritually evolved and all. We did so and nature took the same course it was programmed to by the Creator. During the short, awkward liaison, our emotions were heightened to the same degree opposite of the abyss of self-induced shame driven by the concept of Biblical sin.
As we were getting dressed, her children, who had been all asleep in their own beds before began pounding on their Mother's locked door wailing and shrieking, “Not again, Mommy! Not, again!”
The woman, didn't bat an eyelash and I felt lower than a snakes belly in a wagon rut. Within a few days more of sleep deprivation, she told me that God had indeed spoken clearly to her. We were to get married forthwith and proceed to South America and await further instructions. My room-mate had planned and cooked a great Thanksgiving Day Feast for all our combined families and closest friends. The landlady and I decided to announce our upcoming wedding at this gathering. We did so and everyone cleared out of the room, food untouched.
My room-mate called us names and my family pleaded and threatened the lady and me to no avail. It was God's will and the fact that they couldn't abide by it was proof of it's correctness. Once wearied to the point of exhaustion, everyone went to their homes. I went upstairs with the landlady and she began to pace back and forth in a disturbing way. By three in the morning she had been told by God, she said, to take the title to her house, give it to a neighbor, purchase two tickets to Ecuador and leave immediately.
I had just started to come out of the evil spell a few hours before and when I asked her what God had said about her children, she looked at me and I saw something that wasn't human looking back. The hollow thing said that God would take care of them and that we must leave immediately. I was hurtled right back into normal reality at the speed of sound. I took her hand and did not let on that anything was wrong. I locked the house and told her God had just told me clearly that we must stop at some Ecuadorian friends house and give them the keys and the title.
She complied and I rang the bell and woke this family up. I knew the woman of this household was a real practical and practicing Christian and I had to communicate everything to her without a word. The landlady was possessed of something terrible and was ready to mentally snap asunder at any moment. The clever woman told me to go outside and await a sign from God as to whether or not I was to marry the woman and go to Guayaquil. She pulled down a huge Spanish Bible and began flipping through it. I came back in after a half hour and reported the “sign” that I had seen which told me that we were not to marry and not to go away either.
After a heated discourse in Spanish, the landlady, crestfallen and crumpled shrugged her shoulders, took her house title and keys back and drove us home. We didn't speak much. Some other relative phoned her ex-husband who came and took the poor children and I moved away. I remained friends to the other Ecuadorian family and heard bits of news from time to time. Turns out the church took everyones money to run a large compound and fund adventures all over the world. The congregation were sent hither and thither to do the bidding of shadowy “Elders.”
I lay in my room listening to my room-mate talking with some friends. I became aware of a wind like a tornado. I was sucked away and seemingly attached to some kind of cord. When I reached the end of the tether, I was jerked to an abrupt halt like a calf that has been roped on the run and hitched off to the pommel of a saddle on a stopped horse.
An awful pain gripped my heart. I can only describe it by saying it was as if a silver cord was attached to the root of my heart and if it broke, I would be swept away into the wind to fetch up on some distant place. I gripped the cord with both fists and wrapped it around my hands like Spencer Tracey in the Old Man and The Sea when he hooks the marlin on a hand line. The cord bit into the flesh and I gripped tighter. The pressure on my heart was relieved and I began slowly to reel myself in. The wind abated. My decision had been made for life and the taking of responsibility and I knew it.
I rose up and apologized to every single person who had attended the Thanksgiving Party that I had ruined. It took me two full days to do this. I told each person what I had learned from the experience of the past seven weeks. I started to eat like a man and sleep like a man again. After some time I was good as gold and after some years I was working as a gas-fitter installing furnaces and water heaters and such.
One morning I was dispatched to install some new appliances at a house in a posh part of North Vancouver. I arrived and measured up the job after setting up my pipe-cutting equipment and removing the appliances from their crates. I met the woman of the house and she looked vaguely familiar. She led me to another room which stood out in my memory for its blatant Masonic décor. It was inhabited by her husband who sat at a little table hand-painting little pewter soldiers using a large book of illustrations to assure historical accuracy down to the color of their clayed puttees and suspenders.
The floor was black and white hard linoleum squares laid perfectly square so there was no trimmed off row at the ends. The walls were painted plaster and the windows exceedingly small and barred with heavy iron. The man looked to me like a child happily working on a coloring book. His table and chair had been placed in a small pool of natural light for his work. He looked up and acknowledged me and bent again to his task. It was like a chessboard where the Bishop was re-painting the Pawns.
I was shown where to install the new items and the woman disappeared. I worked away probably singing in Spanish to myself. After I was starting to put away my pipe vise and cutting oil, the woman appeared at the doorway and asked me if I could come inside her kitchen. I figured she was going to give me a coffee or a biscuit. I cleaned my boots, dusted off my boiler suit and walked in and sat down.
She said that she wanted to talk to me and asked if I wanted a sandwich. I said yes, if it was no trouble. To my amazement, she whipped up a gourmet tuna fish sandwich on good bread and poured me a big glass of cold milk. It was really a treat. She sat down and studied my face for a moment.
“I have seen you around for quite awhile. I know who you are.”
“Yes, I have seen you frequently in my bookstore and I know that you went to high school with my son and his friends.”
“Oh, yeah? Which bookstore, Ma'am?”
“On Lonsdale. I am the owner. You bought that Kenneth Copeland Bible and some other materials.”
“Oh wow! Now I remember you too. We had some good talks. I thought you looked familiar when I got here but I couldn't place you.”
She smiled a lovely smile, blessed me and then I asked her who her son was to make sure it matched who I thought he was. She confirmed this and she waited for me to finish my sandwich. I didn't care much for her son and saw no point in telling her that. My reason was that he and I never socialized anyway although we knew many people in common. It was only a difference of personality, there was no bad blood between us, we just didn't cotton to each other. And for one other reason, which was more recent.
She gave a short speech about how I was very different from the others of my generation and that the world was going to Hell in a hand basket. She soon worked her way up to asking me if I could try to speak with her son and his friends. Maybe, she said, that they would take spiritual instruction more readily from a long-haired like myself than from stuffy old parents and preachers.
It was touching to me to see her concern for her son and his friends. It also impressed me to see her determination in broaching the subject in the manner which she did. I told her that assuredly, if the opportunity ever came up in a natural way and I was solicited for my thoughts on matters spiritual by her son that I would be happy to speak my heart to him or anyone else. I made it clear that I was not a proselytizer, recruiter of souls nor was I possessed of any greater understanding of the reality of the unseen than her or anyone else. It is a permanent work in progress, I told her.
She looked like a realtor who was satisfied with the direction of negotiations but far from being satisfied with the final outcome. It was a toe in the door to her and she was happy I could tell. After she cleared my dish and got us some coffee, she sat back down. She told me that there was one more matter she wanted to address and it was of great importance.
I listened as she related to me the news that her son had recently taken to dating a certain girl. This girl she said was far beneath the caliber of person her son should be mixing with and it greatly worried her. She said that really this matter took precedence over what she had discussed earlier. She continued as if to underscore the severity of the problem by informing me that the girl was from a terrible broken family of lost souls and misfits wholly given over to every type of sin, vice and corruption. They are not like us, not Christian like you and me. She nearly came to tears while writing out a check for my boss for the work I had done after loudly blowing her nose and adjusting her hair.
I thanked her for the check and for the sandwich. I rose to leave and shook her hand. I told her that I would be able to help out on the second item of her concern, for the girl was my own very much beloved baby sister. You could have landed a plane in a fog using her expression as a beacon.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.