In November of 1997 Corinthia Davidson got a letter from the Welfare telling her she had to come down and see them. She got up early on her scheduled day, and walked down the boulevard. The air was cold as the side of a metal shed. She walked through North Charleston, past the roller skating place with the sign out front of a big pair of lace-up skates, past the Goodwill. Wind thumped against her back as cars and trucks clipped past her. At the Cold Spot convenience store, she turned right and walked out that winding old road till she got to the Welfare. The walk took her five hours and seventeen minutes.
It was so damn hot inside Corinthia thought she might just pass out. The waiting room was crowded, she was smushed in a row with four other women, all with young kids. She told them about her Harley, how he was getting himself in trouble again.
After two hours, she was called to the interview room. It was even hotter in there, small as an elevator-smelled like dirty armpit. Felt like she and the worker were two bullfrogs in a baby food jar. She fanned herself with her food stamp review and prayed, help me Jesus, Lord almighty help me. She put her purse on the floor beside her chair, picked it back up and put it on her lap.
The Welfare worker tried to calm her: “Ma’am, the President signed it into law back in 96, but we’re just implementing it here. You’ve got almost a full year of cash assistance that legally you shouldn’t have had. Plus–”
“Lord Jesus,” Corinthia said, “what am I gonna do?” She sighed heavily and looked at the ceiling. A brown water stain on the corner tile was shaped like Virginia, the bottom of the state flat against the wall. She should have stayed there–the eligibility worker said President so it was the law everywhere. Nowhere else to go. That woman was breathing up all the air in the room. I’ll be back at the shelter, she thought. Lord, she’d rather die than go back there.
“Miss Davidson,” her worker said, “there are community resource agencies you can go to for assistance. And your food stamps will go up because of the loss of income, so it will almost even out.”
“Jesus,” Corinthia said. “I got no money to pay bills or nothing.”
“You have your son’s SSI, Miss Davidson. That’s why you’re losing the AFDC, or TANF it’s called now–temporary assistance to needy families. AFDC is no more.”
“You don’t understand. He don’t give me none of that.”
The lady shrugged. She was old and creaky, didn’t have shoulders. Boobs like two sacks of brown beans.
Corinthia said, “He don’t give me none of that SSI.” She kept fanning herself with the written food stamp review–the one she’d spent forty-five minutes on to come in here and find out her worker didn’t need it because they did it all by computers anymore.
“Does he live with you?” the worker asked.
“Yeah.” Corinthia wiped tears with her thumb. The DHHR sign on the wall said, WEST VIRGINIA WORKS.
“I suggest you start making him pay rent to you.” The worker moved her head toward the computer screen and scowled. Two long neck wattles hung from her chin. “Is the child out of the home?”
“Lord yes,” Corinthia said. “Her mommy took her way back.”
“Oh. Then there’ll be repayment forms you have to sign. You weren’t eligible for the cash assistance at all.”
Corinthia laughed. “Pay back? With what? I told you he don’t let me have none of his money. He ain’t exactly right.”
“I understand, Miss Davidson, believe me. I’ve been a caseworker for sixteen years now. The laws are changed and there’s nothing you or me either one can do about it.”
Corinthia shaded her eyes with the food stamp review.
“I could write you a referral to the Salvation Army.”
Waving her off, Corinthia let the review flutter to the floor. She rose, hooked her arm through her purse strap and walked out of the interview booth.
“Suit yourself,” the old worker said to Corinthia’s back. She was clacking away at her keyboard.
Down the long hallway called interview row she walked, a door on each side every three steps, square windows with wire grids inside the glass. Every room had somebody in it, somebody finding out about welfare reform. She stepped out into loud and crowded waiting room. In front of her a toddler hit his sister in the head with a green plastic car. The girl started screaming and the mother appeared and grabbed the car from the boy and swatted his tail end and yanked him by his arm back to where she was sitting.
“Dear Jesus,” Corinthia whispered in prayer, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I got bills, and I got rent, dear Lord, and my med’s–and Harley’s, Lord, you know how he gets. And his habit.” She put her hands to her face. It was hot. “I need a miracle,” she said. “I got to believe you for a miracle.”
She started hyperventilating as she walked between the white and black sides toward the exit. She swooned and found herself sitting on the floor. A woman glanced at her and looked back down at her own food stamp review. Corinthia’s denim skirt cut into her middle so hard it would have cut her in two if it could have broken through her skin. Faces started to gather around her, staring down curiously at her.
“I got to have a cigarette,” she said. “Somebody, please let me have a cigarette.”
A bald man in camouflage pants, white t-shirt and red suspenders said, “Here lady.” He handed her a pack of generic menthols–she smoked menthols–about half-full. “Keep them,” he said. And just as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone, like an angel entertained unawares, disappeared into the sweaty bodies surrounding her.
“Code blue. Code blue in the waiting room, “a whining woman’s voice called over the speakers. “Code blue in the waiting room.”
The other clients–customers they were calling them now, not clients, customers–started parting and moving away from her. Men in shirt sleeves and ties were waving them away, saying give her air, back away and give her air. One man kneeled down and asked her if she was okay. His shirt was wrinkled. He smelled like soap.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just had a spell.”
The men reached into her armpits and pulled her to her feet. “You sure you’re okay?” the one who smelled like soap asked her. He was shorter than she was, had a sharp little squirrel face.
Squirrelly man took her to the receptionist and got her a bus pass to the transit mall downtown. She turned around and nobody in the waiting room was paying any more attention to her; they were back about their business, filling out forms, fussing at kids.
On the bus to the transit mall Corinthia prayed. “Lord Jesus,” she said, “help me get money. Change Harley’s heart so he’ll give me some of his SSI.” From the transit mall she caught a bus to Orchard Manor, the projects where she and Harley lived, praying, “Lord, change Harley’s heart.” She walked across the bridge that ran over the stinking creek. Someone had thrown one of the Food Lion shopping carts off the bridge; it was upside-down in the muck. She walked down the sidewalk parallel to the creek, past row after row of project buildings in the manor. In the front yard of one building a small black dog was rolling on his back, rubbing his head on a half-rotten bird. On his hind end the fur was matted and gray and there was a stick tangled in it. The dog sat up and looked at her and panted a toothy smile. The smell of rotten bird overtook the creek stink.
She put the cigarettes into her purse and felt the anointing oil she’d bought from the Lonnie Khan Crusade. At her front door she said a final prayer: Use this holy oil, Lord. Use this holy oil to drive the demon of pornography from this place. I’m believing you for a miracle, Lord. Amen.” She unlocked the door and went into the dark apartment.
Right inside the door was the living room: worn out carpet, a blue couch with the spring under the far left cushion broke, Corinthia’s easy chair and her wide screen TV. Four short steps from the front door there was a metal strip where the carpet stopped and linoleum started. On the right was the small dining room, and on the left a kitchen narrow as a hallway with a mini-stove. The hallway to their two rooms and the bathroom was straight ahead from there. She paid sixty-seven dollars a month for this place to the Charleston Housing Authority, but that would go down since her income stopped. Her cable bill was past due, and her utilities were about to get cut off. At least she kept the place spotless. She didn’t live like most of the pigs in the manor.
Except for Harley’s room. She wouldn’t even go in there because it was a den of iniquity, a demon’s lair. She tapped on his door, then knocked louder. She opened the door and flipped on the light and peeked in. Pictures on his walls of centerfolds, not just soft stuff, but women on their backs with their knees hanging open, pulling at themselves with their fingers; women from behind on their elbows and knees, tails in the air like cats. Magazines and videos strewn all over the floor with people doing it every which way. The worst kind of nastiness right on the front covers.
She flipped off the light and stumbled to the living room holding onto her chest. Running to the TV she grabbed her purse and whispered a prayer, “Jesus help me,” as she dug for her cigarettes. She again felt the plastic bottle of anointing oil. She steeled herself and walked resolutely back to Harley’s door. She dabbed the oil on her fingers and rubbed it around the door facing, praying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, demon of pornography, I command you to depart from here.”
As she got back to the TV, Harley came in the front door. He walked silently to his bedroom with a brown paper package. Corinthia stood at the TV and tried to hear his movements.
He came back out of his room and loped into the kitchen, continuing a conversation he was having in his own head. He said, “That house across the street, the one that burnt, man told me that house was built in 1946.”
“Is that right?” Corinthia sat in her recliner, but stayed on the edge, ready to jump up. She cupped the oil bottle in her hand.
“Says that house beside it was built a year later by the same person.”
If Harley stood straight he would be six feet tall, like his daddy was, but his shoulders hunched over and his arms hung down like he was always carrying heavy invisible suitcases. His gut stuck out like he was pregnant. He didn’t shower but about once every two weeks; he had greasy hair and clusters of blackheads on his nose and forehead. He could have been a good looking man. His daddy had been.
He said, “That man built some other houses too. Over in South Charleston. He’s dead now.”
“Really?” She watched him move around in the kitchen. He slapped mayonnaise on bread flat on the counter. He got out bologna, pinched the red peel from around two slices and pulled the strands between his teeth to get the extra bologna off.
“Harley,” she said. “I got to tell you something.”
He just sat down and shoved the sandwich into his mouth.
“Harley, can we talk for a minute?”
“What the hell are we doing?” he asked through a mouthful of bread and bologna. “Man says those houses over there, none of them built after 1950. He lived here all his life. He knows.”
“Harley, they cut off my welfare.”
Harley looked at her with a blank stare. He had mayonnaise at the corner of his mouth. He licked at it with his food-covered tongue and kept chewing.
“I don’t have no money coming in anymore.” Corinthia kneaded the hand she held the oil in and sipped the air. It reeked of Harley. “I hate to do it, son, but I got to ask you for some of your SSI.”
“Like hell.” He swiped at the mayonnaise left on his mouth with his thumb and wiped it on Corinthia’s table cloth.
“Just to pay bills,” she said.
“Goddamnit, I barely got enough to get by the way it is, old woman.”
“You live here too. I never made you pay rent or anything. I know you don’t got a lot.”
He took another bite–two bites–three, shoving it in. He chewed.
“We’re in a spot.”
“”You’re in a spot.” He jumped up.
Corinthia flinched; she leaned and got ready to leap from the chair.
He just paced to the TV and back to the table.
“We’ll end up at the shelter again,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears. She popped the lid off the oil and let some run onto her fingers. “I can’t go back there Harley. Not again. I’ll kill myself first.” She got up and walked to him. She started crying hysterically. She hugged him and wiped the anointing oil on his shoulder. She ran her hand down his arm to his hand, anointing him with oil the whole way. She kept crying.
He leaned back and watched her cry for a few long seconds, then said, “Kill yourself. I don’t give a good shit.” He backed into his room and slammed the door.
Corinthia went back to her recliner and cried out. She wailed and wailed. She thought she was going to have to stop because little glowing flecks were starting to float around the edges of her vision. But then he came out of his room. He had a wad of money.
“Here,” he said, and shoved some of the bills at her. “Don’t come asking for no more.”
She wiped more anointing oil on his hand in the exchange.
Harley stuffed the rest of the money into his front pocket, and while there adjusted his private parts with the anointed hand while scratching his nose with the other hand. “I’m going out for a while.”
“Don’t go over to Summers Street. And please don’t get picked up by the law.”
He said, “I won’t.”
“I got no money to get you out–”
“Shit,” he yelled. “Leave me alone, you old lard-titty bitch.” He went out and slammed the door.
Corinthia counted the bills: one five and fifteen singles. Twenty dollars he gave her. Exactly what she’d sent Lonnie Khan for the oil. It was a sign. The Holy Ghost was moving.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she said as she pressed the bills out flat and folded them. She worked them into the pocket of her denim skirt. It was tight but she managed to get the money almost all the way in. She pulled her hair down and started unbraiding it, working her fingers gently through the snags, the way Harley’s daddy used to do–he used to run his fingers through her hair because she liked it.
Back at the TV she found her favorite channel: Triune God Broadcasting Network. She took her hairbrush from on top of the set and brushed her hair as she watched.
“Welcome to TGBN,” a man’s smooth voice said. The TGBN logo, a golden cross wearing a purple crown, swept from the top left corner and got bigger and bigger and moved to the center of the screen, across a gentle pastel landscape and stopped in a bright flash at the center and turned into a dove wearing the same crown and a purple robe to go with it. The crown was covered in jewels that sparkled and twinkled.
Peter and Lynne came on. They took their talk show on the road. They were in some other country giving out toys, some dark-skinned, sewer-street place. A song played in the background about who will feed the children.
Corinthia was about to change the TV to the Inspiration Network when the show cut to a commercial about a Lonnie Khan crusade that they were going to play next as a special.
Corinthia brushed her hair and waited.
When Lonnie Khan came on, he said, “Good evening brethren.” He laughed. He was sitting in an office with a window behind him looking over a well-groomed lawn that led to a lake and woods. It was a picture behind the window, she could tell, not a real lake.
Corinthia pulled her hairbrush through her hair and watched.
“God told me this morning that I had a special message for you today, you who are having financial difficulty.” He pointed at Corinthia. “You, lady, who don’t know how you’re going to get by, and you’re praying so hard, and you have faith, and you’re trying to bring your children into the foldâ€¦”
Corinthia stopped brushing.
“God has a message for you today, dear lady. I will give it to you after the spirit-anointed message today. The message is called, â€˜Jesus, Lover of my Soul.’”
Corinthia cupped her hairbrush in both hands between her breasts as she stared at Lonnie. The TV show cut straight to a service Lonnie had conducted, already in progress.
He was a good-looking man. A little short–she usually liked them tall–and his toupee was a funny big swoop over his skull. Harley’s daddy had been bald. He’d worn it proud though, shaved smooth. And a thick beard under it. Corinthia loved herself a beard on a man. Lonnie would look better if he’d let his bald head show and grow a beard.
He wore a white suit with cufflinks that flashed. He waved his arms and the crusade came on. A band played–guitars, heavy driving bass, electric piano, three men with trumpets–and a man and woman in the middle of the stage led the congregation in singing. Lights flashed and twirled, the bass throbbed, the crowd swayed back and forth, clapped their hands, raised them into the air to receive the blessing. Already people were crying. Corinthia felt the Holy Ghost descending. “Yes, Jesus,” she repeated over and over again. She started rocking from one foot to the other. “Jesus, lover of my soul,” she said.
Lonnie Khan had a fat Bible on a clear plastic lectern. He strutted back and forth. The band kept playing; people cried and waved. He said, “I’m going to take you to the Song of Solomon today and you are going to meet the ultimate lover.”
“People clapped and yelled amen and hallelujah and praise Jesus. “Praise Jesus,” Corinthia said.
“Did you hear me, church?”
Shouts and waves.
“I said, today you are going to meet the ultimate lover.”
Lonnie preached about Jesus, the lover of your soul, and how he always just waits at the door, knocking, wanting to come in and be your lover.
“Yes,” Corinthia said along with the congregation. “Yes.”
Lonnie jumped around the stage. He was getting sweaty. He shouted, “Woman,” and pointed through the screen at Corinthia. “Woman, do you need a man who won’t run off?”
“Yes,” she said out loud, “yes.”
Lonnie preached on. He strutted. The music rose and fell in intensity. Lonnie ordered people up onto the stage and they obeyed him. They walked and ran and fell on the floor. Corinthia started breathing in rhythm with the music. Lonnie’s head glistened under the high sweep of toupee. He touched people and they fell down. Some flopped like fish.
“You wonder how I can just step into Holy Ghost anointing on stage like this?” he said into the camera. “It’s because I’m totally surrendered. You at home. Right now surrender to the Holy Ghost.” He pointed at Corinthia and shouted, “Surrender now. Do it.”
Corinthia sat flat down on her tailbone. She rocked back and forth and squeezed the hairbrush tighter between her breasts. Her throat kept clicking shut as she prayed, “Dear Jesus, lover of my soul, Holy Ghost, Jesus, I surrender.” She panted and fanned herself. “I surrender.”
“He’s a lover who won’t beat you,” Lonnie yelled. “He won’t run around on you. He won’t stay out all night.”
“Yes, yes,” Corinthia said, her breathing more jerky, her throat clicking. Sweat rolled down her face and between her breasts, her legs slid against one another. She undid the snap and unzipped her skirt and it gave her another burst, a feeling of new freedom.
Lonnie started speaking in the divine language, and that did it–Corinthia broke through. She fell over and rolled, kicking her legs until her skirt was gathered like a big belt around her waist.
“Come Holy Ghost,” she panted. She rolled and kicked. Her body tingled; she felt lifted by the Spirit right off the worn out carpet till she couldn’t feel the floor. She thought her head might explode. She moaned and laughed and rolled on the floor in front of the TV.
Then it was over. The Spirit ascended again and Corinthia sat up to her knees. Her breathing started returning to normal, dots sparkled around the edge of her vision.
The scene on TV cut to Lonnie in his office again, sitting calmly at his desk. “God says in his word that we are to support the ministry of prophets and evangelists,” he said.
Corinthia tugged and yanked at her skirt until it was partially straight. She zipped it up and snapped it at her waist. She struggled to her feet and dug the money out of her pocket as she went to the kitchen for an envelope. She wrote on a piece of paper, Lonnie please pray that the demon of pornography will depart from my house. She put her name and address on the envelope. She put the money inside.
Corinthia raised her eyebrows and looked around. Her smell filled the room.
“In reward for supporting this ministry,” Lonnie said, “God has promised to prosper you. Do it now.”
Corinthia took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and it pulsed out of her throat with the heartbeat in her neck.
She looked at Harley’s door. It was closed with all those dirty pictures and videos behind it, and him out spending his money on more.
“You can unleash Holy Ghost power,” Lonnie said. “Send that gift and see how good it can be.”
Corinthia looked at him on the TV.
He was smiling, holding his hands together in the prayerful way, his cuff links and wristwatch flashing beneath the lights. “Send that gift today, along with your prayer request, and watch how God can bless you,”
She put the envelope with her request in the mailbox by her door, addressed to Lonnie’s ministry.
The money. She stuffed that money back into her tight skirt pocket.
She walked over to the TV and turned it off. In the new silence the heater kicked on and warm air wheezed through the vents. Corinthia jabbed around in her purse for the cigarettes that man–or angel–at the DHHR had given her. She couldn’t find matches. She got a burner at her little stovetop orange hot and lit up on that. She swiped out and threw away the red strands of bologna peel Harley had flung into the sink, and went to her recliner. She ground down into the chair and sucked in the smoke with her cheeks and inhaled, deep. She pursed her lips and blew smoke into the sweat-musky air and smiled. She again undid the snap of her skirt and it unzipped by itself.