Keenan Norris

Sharone heard a preacher’s holler fading out and then saw another evangelist come into focus. This infomercial holy man sermonized about the evil of promiscuity, how the wanton were asking for it, AIDS, TB, insufficient funds. Meanwhile, a heavenly scroll with his “checks payable” address ran ticker-tape style at the bottom of the screen. 

Sharone was always telling people how the only things BET televised were booty-shaking videos and praise and worship. It was like Fat Tuesday and then Ash Wednesday and back to Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday on and on in everlasting paradox. The commercials came to a close and yet another lights-camera-action preacher came into view, in media res, testifying on Revelation, on Jesus burnished bronze and burning bright, the pale horse, on how won’t but 144,000 gon’ get home, and a slain lamb. (The entirety of the sermon notwithstanding) lambs, Sharone figured, had been slain on the daily since the beginning of time and in countless number. Lamb's blood coated soil the world over and seeped under cement in every ghetto. This was the hard world that scripture but suggested. It was the world Sharone was trying to escape in mind and soul more than in body. His body could wither to dust any moment now. He could drop dead this very second. He had almost died before; what of it? His living body was only good for lifting and carrying and rising with the sun and falling with the moon. If the body could live eternal then there would be no real threat not only to existence but to the sins that animated society. Why would anybody leave off sinning this moment if they knew they would have forever to redeem themselves? 

Cane, he reflected, was an innocent, knowing nothing of murder until he had committed it and stood in the sunlit field above his brother’s dead body. The first murder only mattered because it brought death into the world. And from then on, nothing could be as it had been. The body could die. The sharp end of things was the reason for redemption.

Sharone sank further into the couch, dreading the pain in the small of the left side of his back that would come later. But he was too tired to do anything but sink and think. He had a large, strong body, but he had been close enough to death—it was no imaginative, starlit leap to contemplate a thief with the drop on him, Sharone on the wrong side of a revolver, made to kneel and beg with a gun to his head, made to come up out of his shoes and socks, made to strip naked in the dark under a freeway overpass, made to hand over his unsold wet weight like a burnt offering in exchange for his life. Such things were more than imaginings and more than memories, too. They were a mirror and even now he saw himself in that broken moment, all his strength dissolved, disappeared. He saw his final silence there. It was his best reason behind not trusting the Bible or the al-Qu’ran. He read them books alright, but always with a certain reserve; for a book was still just a thing. Whole religions had died in fire, all their books piled and burned to ashes. As far as he was concerned, redemption could only come from without the world of things, in the invisible world of the mind.

Slowly, piecemeal, moment by moment, hour by hour, and with each sunrise and set, Sharone had resurrected his mind. He read, yes, and he explored. First, he went to the only place he already knew: Reverend Sherwood’s Baptist church close to home. His grand-dad had taken him there in the first years after his orphaning. There had been a time when he had belonged to its well-structured society. Only his return to Los Angeles ten years ago now stopped his attendance. But upon his return to this home within a home, he now found the church’s ways were worrisome and strange: How the ushers passed the hat every fifteen minutes and how Sherwood returned almost spasmodically to the theme that thinking was not so important, really, but simply a vessel for haughty pride and intellectual agnosticism. How thought could trap you up so it needed to be put down before one could get raptured away. All Sherwood counseled the parishioners to do was to pray and be and be and pray, and to go goddamn fishing for men like the stalker-ass Jehovah’s witnesses on the weekends. It was the absence of thought that had gotten Sharone caught up and messed up in the first place. He didn’t need Sherwood’s preaching on how not to think.

So he found his way to a Buddhist temple in a suburb a few towns over and on a mundane, hot, arid Wednesday night he sat down in a too-small-for-his-size, hard-backed chair amongst a congregation (he knew no other word for a religious gathering) of white people with their hair bees-waxed, summoned into dreadlocks, and there he meditated for thirty-five minutes. Outside he could hear the hum of traffic from the freeway and an occasional honking horn. The meditation leader tolled a bell that began the meditation and from time to time the man would tell them not to think, simply to breathe: In-breath; out-breath; no thought. Sharone had identified a trend, but he complied as well as he could. He actually did try to still his mind. But it kept working and wandering—Sharone had too much on his mind just to be, in-breath, out-breath. When he tried to exist simply, floating on the depthless, transient plane of each escape and return of air, he found himself descending into caves and black downward shoots of memory and feeling and pain. When the meditation teacher finally tolled the bell to end session, he felt exhausted and mellowed, but still nowhere near thoughtlessness. The teacher explained that next there would be a ten-minute break for light refreshments, pastries and tea, in the adjoining room. Then the “tsonga” would conclude with a talk about a specific teaching derived from the story of the Buddha’s transcendence of the power, wealth and self that he was born into. Gotta have wealth to transcend it, Sharone thought to himself. He doubted he would see himself in the Buddha’s story. He had only enough wealth for his rent, his food, his bus tickets and his community college class. He selfishly nabbed a cinnamon shortcake from the platter in the adjoining room then left before the talking began.

But he did begin to meditate on his own time. Sharone didn’t enjoy the stillness or how terrifyingly acute all his thoughts became as he sat alone in his room on the floor, but he liked the way he felt after it was over, so relieved in those last minutes before bed. He heard tale that the Ethiopians meditated for four hours straight through without a meditation teacher to ring any bell, or point them to the refreshments. There was an Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Christian church on the East Side of San Suerte across the street from a popular check-cash outlet. He recalled, even as a child, being struck by how calm, serene, untroubled and beautiful the parishioners—that was a second word that he could use if anybody ever asked him about his religious searching— were as they filed in neat rows from off the squalid street into their place of holiness. They were just so many smartly dressed children, no older than him but so much more dignified in dress and demeanor and every-other way, too; so many head-wrapped women; so many decoratively robed, stone-serious men. He remembered the colors, the red, the black, the green and yellow of the church front. But he could not recall ever wanting to attend service or even wanting to steal a glance inside the church. 

Now, he decided to attend: He asked around and eventually found an Ethi girl who didn’t seem too wary of him. She had big, doe eyes and a round, moon-like face that belied her thin, small stature. She told Sharone that she could not sit beside him, but she could tell him how to dress properly and how to enter the church in such a way that people would either assume he was a newly arrived immigrant—or perhaps a single man come down from Oakland or west from Phoenix—or that he was a black American disillusioned by the white man’s Christianity, now in search of the true Word of God. 

Inside, he sat in the very last row, where small, hard-back chairs took the place of pews. The crowd had overwhelmed the pews. With his height, he was able to sit still and look out upon several hundred Ethiopian Tewahedo Christians. There was a choir and singing, which reminded him of the black church, except the language and rhythm of the songs was completely different, high and wholly melodic, rocking him into a trance-state. Incense burned, filling the entire church like a syrup lifted and settled, thick-sweet and still upon him, submerging him in its clouds. The only reason he wasn’t wholly hypnotized was that the choir director repeatedly interrupted the song, calling things to a halt when even one singer fell off key.

The first hour of meditation was no different from the scatter-brained session Sharone had experienced at the Buddhist temple, no different from the welter of ideas that characterized his late-night, pre-bed ritual. The second hour he began to think about why he was thinking so much and this line of thought, which was longer and deeper than he’d expected, carried him well into the third hour. He fell into a welter of questions that had never occurred to him before. What if the Ethiopians sold their religion like the American Christians did, putting it in politicians’ mouths and on talk radio? What then? What if this incense cloud was a floating potion or the body of Christ or the aura of the Holy Ghost? What then? And what if Des went and fell in love with him when he still couldn’t stand himself? What then? By the fourth hour, his mind and body had stilled. The future exhausted, there was nothing left but to remind himself to breathe, to circulate the one thing that would keep this completely used-up shell that was his body alive. 

The clothes he had worn that day smelled like the Ethiopians’ incense for weeks afterward. His whole experience of the Tewahedo Church was like that: Engulfing, unrelenting. Its effect didn’t dissipate. And he was not sure that he could go back until the shock of actually being rendered mindless, bodiless, a flawlessly opened vessel, finally wore off.

He kept making plans to return and worship with the Ethiopians. The girl, Addis, seemed disappointed in him when he did not come back. She stopped talking to him. Meanwhile, word must have gotten around amongst the Africans and the appropriative black Americans that he was searching for his spiritual salvation. Some Santeria mystics from Oakland got ahold of him for a week and put him through their paces. Orisha rites was how he would think of it later. That was the wrong name for what he witnessed, but that was the only language he had for such things. A consecrated cast iron pot filled with ash, sticks, earth and items Sharone had no interest in investigating became the centerpiece object, held aloft, prayed to and entreated. At one point the stone vessel was set alight by fire and its smoldering contents suffused the air of the windowless downtown warehouse. Time and logic blurred. He wasn’t sure how long the ceremonies lasted or even what each ritual was purposed toward. On the third or fourth day in their city-condemned space, the mystics went in deep: He thought he was hallucinating when a live chicken was brought forth and he witnessed, by the light of a few cell phones held aloft, the spiritual leader produce the animal from out of a box and hold it in his cupped hands like a sacrament. A prayer rose amongst the congregants; a woman began to trill ecstatically. The cell phones went black. The dark priest set the chicken on the ground and another man held it still, and then the priest produced a long blade and swiftly beheaded the bird. Its blood gushed out like a broken sprinkler head, spattering Sharone’s legs and feet, and then the damned thing started to scuttle around on the dank steel floor, dead but unreconciled. And Sharone felt one with the animal, saw his own head severed, his own body forcibly transitioned into a place after life and unclaimed by death.

There were endless prayers to the ancestors in Africa and lost in the waves in the transatlantic passage to the Americas. There was drumming and screaming and singing and ecstatic lulls that took him deeper into the dead, exhausted pits of his despair than even the Ethiopians had. Suddenly, he was back in his bunk in the County jail and his bedsheet had become a woman and he was ashamed. If he had been fucking her, cumming in the filthy cloth, that would be one thing; but instead she was holding him, rocking him in her embrace like she would a child, and he knew that he was nothing more than a child and very frightened. He knew he was definitely not built for a long stay here, in jail, let alone prison. He was nineteen then.

The Orishas wanted him. They were calling him on. They laid claim to his soul, each prayer a grasping mirror that reflected, seized and sequestered his deepest despair within its primeval frame. But before they could take him back to the Bay Area or Africa or into those ocean waves, whatever their final intention, his homegrown black Baptist churchiness just simply rose up. His hesitation and then refusal had perishing little to do with Christianity, or with any minister or congregation, nor with a book that he had concluded was just another book, full of wisdom and teachings, but just another book with no final truth; no, it was just his blackness that kept him from going off with the mystics, it was just his need for his own native black American churchy equilibrium, passing the hat and all that crap, that was familiar to him, that would not allow him, after all that searching, to be swept up in fuck and starlight and righteous animism.