Tongues of Fire

It’s Tuesday of Thanksgiving break. I am hung-over and congested. I recently received my first acceptance letter for a poem I wrote: a few lines of verse about my post-Bible-college punk band. Not my favorite piece, but it says “fuck” three times, so the editors decided the work was controversial enough to be good.

The submissions went out on Friday, the e-mail came on Sunday, and this led to a Monday night of drinking and smoking. The celebration continued for most of the week with the exception of work nights.

One recent addition to my ungodly streak of failed seduction attempts may lead to another 4.5 evenings draining 8 oz. glasses of Long Island iced tea. One part vodka, one part rum, one part tequila, the other parts…oh, I’ve forgotten. I don’t even want to think about the number at the bottom of my receipt last night. That waitress’s skirt was a finger’s-length too short and she smiled at me one too many times. Dark skin. Black hair. Mi dinero es su dinero.

Outside of the college library, a million mad screeches pierce my eardrums. The first snow of the season has come, and the birds are frantically planning their escape from the Northwest. The wind blows down my fake-leather jacket, and I feel a subtle fever chill crawl under my skin. It makes me dizzy and I stumble towards the building in search of warmth and a quiet place to focus.



            This is how we overcome!
            This is how we overcome!
            This is how we overcome!
            This is how we overcome!

The paint chips cling to the outside walls like a frightened child to his mother’s skirt as the snare drum rolls and cymbals crash. Feet pound against floorboards in staggered rhythm to a martial beat and a choir of men in a blue-collar uniform of holey Carhaarts and oil and sweat stained t-shirts chant with the big-haired blonde woman on stage. “This is how we overcome!” I sit in the pew and swing my Keds.

I remember I thought you were a girl the first time I saw you at school. You had kind of long hair and you always used to wear that purple sweater. Remember?

Even inside of a sanctuary that will smell like a locker room by the end of the night, it’s too cold for a boy from Florida to stay warm in anything less than an Eskimo coat. I pull my arms inside the sleeves of my purple Gap hoodie and cross them. A few rows up I see a blue-eyed-girl with brazen curls. Her fashionable red plaid button-down shirt sets her in contrast to the other Idaho girls I’ve met who smell like cows and don’t brush their teeth. Blue-eyes passes a note to the boy sitting next to her and giggles.

Don’t tell anyone, okay, Grace?

We drove stick this afternoon and J totally killed it three times on the hill on Main Street—


—and then Mr. Alvin had to use the brake on him at the stop sign on Tomer Road! Didn’t you see that stop sign?


Mom sent me off to church alone with Danny’s family. All they know about me is that I’m a new kid and I’m not “saved.” They’ve probably heard the rumors that my mom is a lesbian. This story began as a result of our moving in with woman who happened to need a roommate around the same time we were looking for a place to live. Mom also had a rainbow sticker on the back bumper of her minivan, and we were from a big city in Florida. I guess the pieces just fit together.

Danny and I are in the same grade, but he’s in Mrs. Wiggin’s class, and I’m in Mrs. Wood’s. All I know about him is that he is a nail biter, he has a blonde bowl cut, he lives on a farm, and his sister plays soccer. He sometimes shapes his hands like a gun and pretends to shoot me on the playground.

If you could have sex all night with any girl in youth group and God said it was okay, who would it be?

But God wouldn’t say that, Danny—

—Hand me the socket wrench. Just pretend, J. What about Grace? Did you know I’m secretly dating her? I saw you sitting next to her on Wednesday night. You like her, don’t you?

The woman at the piano leans back on the bench and yells in another language. I wonder if she is deaf or foreign or something. No one seems to mind that she is speaking out, and they cheer when she is through. I figure they are being polite.

God didn’t say ‘Let babies make babies.’ We can’t have our young people at public schools rubbing up against each other and listening to that devil music. No dating. No dancing. No secular music.


I wonder if the blue-eyed girl will be in youth group with us. She seems pre-occupied with the other boy. I want to drink soda and eat candy and play games with the other kids. Mom wants me to make friends. I rub the bump on the back of my head. At my school, they greet newcomers with a blindsided backhand.

Pastor Ray said no one else can go over. You know they don’t like their daughters alone with boys. It’s different with Grace and Miles because they’ve been best friends forever, but they like me, so I think I’ll stop by.

Can I walk with you, Billy?

You probably shouldn’t come, but I guess we can walk together.


The service ends. I wonder about when I will get to play with the other kids or meet that pretty little girl, but soon the lights are out in the sanctuary, and only Danny, his parents, and I are left in the foyer. Danny’s parents talk about something with the man in the shiny brown suit. He has a crocodile smile, chameleon eyes, and the build of an ex-football player. The lights reflect off the pomade in his hair and make a halo around his head. He comes up to me and asks me to say a prayer with him. I don’t know whether or not to do it, but Danny’s family politely refuses to take no for an answer.



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