The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…
“Somebody Loves Me”
(In which a puny, poverty-stricken child is sent out into a raging storm, and forced to beg for money. Returning home with a miserly amount, the drunken father savagely beats the boy. Managing to escape further violence, the child then crawls back out into the storm, shelters himself inside an empty wooden crate, dies, and is carried home by an angel into the arms of Jesus.)
“The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…” That’s what it said on the backs of every single bible tract we handed out on that blisteringly hot, cruel day in downtown Los Angeles. The name always sounded shady to me and every time I read it, it gave me the creeps! The World Evangelical Syndicate, The W.E.S., sounded more like some dark, nefarious underworld populated with preachers in pin-striped suits squandering ill-gotten cash in secret bank accounts, clandestine capital investors of back alley abortions, whorish entrepreneurs with purple fingers, heroine habits and thick foreheads…not distributors of God’s holy word.
I don’t think my father, or anyone else associated with my church ever knew who they actually were. For all they knew, it could have been the very hand of the devil, or some stingy tax-evading outfit put together and made up of pornographers and dope dealers alike. Their headquarters were in New York City after all. What more sinful place on the scared face of God’s pock marked earth could possibly have been any worse? Save L.A.? Which is exactly where my father brought us, my three brothers and I, on that horrible, unforgettably piss stained day, Summer’s bitter and unrelenting rage, burning our brains, cauterized with twisted paternal regret never spoken.
The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…
“ Tale of a Sad Soldier”
(The story of a young soldier, who prayed for everyone else’s soul but his own, and in the end, goes to the eternal lake of fire.)
By the time we finally got into L.A. my father’s ears were as red as hothouse tomatoes. They got that way whenever he was miffed, which was most of the time come to think of it. He’d missed the downtown exit several times and we wound up in Beverly Hills, twice! We drove around looking for freeway entrances for at least an hour, not able to resist rubbernecking and staring at the giant buildings and all the sparkling blue glass. It all looked so fake, like a Hollywood movie set made of spun sugar and cement. Candy doorknobs, taffy windows and all those shining black streets, mile after mile of hard licorice. I stuck my tongue into a tiny cavity in a back tooth and thought for a moment it was getting bigger. My father started in with one of his, “Jews own the whole world,” speeches, and wouldn’t stop until we finally found a new freeway entrance. He said he could spot one, a Jew, a mile away, and that their names, he warned us in the event of future entanglements, almost always ended with the word, “man.” If not, then they favored the names of wild animals. But those were only the ones who were ashamed of being Jews. He would go off on a tirade and start screaming, “What in the world have they got to be ashamed of? They own the whole wide world!” When we were driving through Beverly Hills, I asked him why all the names were Italian or French, names like Armani, Dior or Cartier. He thought I was being snide and told me to sit back and be quiet. Then he said that the Jews could never be happy enough being God’s chosen people and that they could only be satisfied if they owned the whole world. He would get blood red in the face but then he would eventually calm down and tell us that we should just pray for the Jews.
The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…
(Great news! It’s all not worth nothin’!)
I remember this massive Mexican Market. It seemed like all it sold was a bunch of Mexican stuff: Ponchos, little girl’s lacy socks, candles with green and black Virgin Mary’s and tons of crappy plastic toys made in Taiwan. My dad refused to even buy us something to drink, i think on account of the black Jesus candles and all the imported merchandise. There was this little store across the street from where we set up that sold juices. It had this hand written, big blue and white overhead sign that read, “Orange, Tomato, Grape or Carrot Juice! 100 per cent natural!” But it was only in English. I guess it was intended for all the downtown businessmen and women. As if Mexicans don’t get thirsty? According to some people, like my father, they don’t! He refused to buy us anything to drink.
Outside the front of the store stood this young boy around my age, probably nine. He stood in front of this metal and wood cart with rickety wheels, selling fresh papayas, which he would scornfully stab with sharp wooden sticks, fashioning them like corn dogs or ice cream bars, squeeze practically a whole lemon over them, then finally sprinkle them with some strange red pepper. I stared at those things and that kid all day long. I was hypnotized by the way the kid effortless cut the rubbery skins off of the papayas with this long, very sharp knife. My mouth would water profusely each time I saw him squeeze those lemons. Still peeved and blaming us for having gotten so lost on the freeway, my father refused to buy us anything to drink. We brought along a gallon of water, which tasted like a rubber hose, but it was gone long before we even found a parking place or set up for what was to be our day long ministry in the burning California sun.
The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…
“ The Last Days”
(Same Sex Marriage, The Killing of Babies, The Arabs and The Jews)
What my father neglected to tell my brothers and I that day, that is, one of the things he neglected to tell us, was that he’d decided that this day would be the perfect day, to not only work and to minister for the lord, but to starve for him as well.
My mother told him to stop off along the way; she made him promise to get us something to eat. What she did not know, what none of us knew until we were at least a mile down the road and far away from the house, was that he’d started, not just for himself, but for all of us, a day long fast for the lord.
Before we got off of our block, my stomach was raging, and I just knew something was up, when he started quoting scripture before we even left town.
“In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…”
It had been my father’s idea. The church had absolutely no idea that we were even doing it. We got up very early that morning, probably around four a.m. At first, not even my mother was awake, she always being the earliest riser. But of course, my father, the original mouth that roared, eventually woke my mother up, and she staggered into the kitchen to watch blurry-eyed, the early morning proceedings.
My father stuffed us all, my discombobulated brothers and me, into the back of his cold and rusted old Willy’s Jeep, along with eight cardboard boxes, full of the aforementioned, "World Evangelical Syndicate Presents…, as we all sat crammed into the back, the cold steel floor below us, waiting for the engine to warm. How many early mornings I’ve waited, listening to the croupy sound of that old engine, with my father behind its wheel. I don’t recall a more depressing sound. Right up there with all-night parental fights and the sound of my first broken bone.
I had never ever been to L.A. Strange, considering we lived only an hour or so away. I was going to get to see the big city, and for this, I was grateful. I’d only ever seen pictures of it, but I’d always wanted to go.
From far off, or in postcards maybe, it’s as sparkling as any city, probably more so. From above, it’s as if strewn with beautiful sparkling jewels, a whore stretched out on a bed of broken glass . But once you’re inside of it, once you get closer, deep down in the guts of it, coursing through its endless miles of neon veins...there are things there, things not so nice or shining. There is sadness. There is blood pumping...sores, oozing.
There is nothing like L.A.’s Skid row. My father used to talk about it like it was some fabled land, caught up in the nostalgic re-telling of stories, as if romantic tunes pouring out of an old wooden spinet. Staring out the window, slowly driving by, now and then I would catch the glimpse of some recognizable face, or at least a face I thought I recognized. I looked at my father and couldn’t help notice the likeness. I shook it off. Block after block, bony and rarely fat, sleeping, pock marked winos slumped up and pinned against slanted brick buildings, angled there like lazy, hump-backed gargoyles, their faces a burning, sullen fire, their faces downward, greeting and presenting the not so innocent passersby bitterly, a mangled melody, with smiling, big red gin blossoms that no one stops to smell on purpose, taking in the stinging stench nonetheless. Swinging, tattered, windblown scarecrows dancing to degenerate songs about good Irish girls gone wrong, suckling on sweet tits in brown paper bags, their lips red and waxy from sucking so hard.
And this was our primary objective of the most military order. It was kind of like when we picked up the remains of bombs out on the desert, but this time, we were doing it in the name of the lord and not for the going price of scrap aluminum. We were, by my father's forthrightness and determination, to hand out these small, pocket-sized bible tracts to everyone we saw that day. That was it, and nothing more. Nothing grandiose or melodramatic, we weren’t manic street preachers or anything like that, that wasn’t my father’s style. Nonetheless, as we all stood there, at what seemed to be one of the busiest intersections in downtown Los Angeles, we weren’t exact…subtle.
Picture it! My father, with his slicked back, black crow’s hair and ravishing looks, holding his bible, and his four grotesque kids by his side, standing in the middle of downtown scorching hot Skid row.
My oldest brother Roy Leon, with his long black hair, more like a member of the Manson family, stood, strangely enough, that very morning with the rest of us, a mere two blocks away from the L. A. County Courthouse, where Manson’s trial actually took place. I couldn’t stop thinking about those three girls with their shaved heads and fish eyes, sitting on the court steps, screaming into the TV cameras, “Charlie is Jesus!” The only reason my father allowed Roy Leon to grow his hair long was because he said Roy Leon “cried like a little girl,” when he took him to the barbershop, disgracing himself and the entire family into a most regretful infamy and shame. If I, or any of my other brothers knew that that’s all it would have taken to avoid the buzz of the barber's clippers, turning us out like Hitler youths with our monthly flattops, we would have worn hot pink lipstick and rhinestone tiaras to Sunday School, howling like hounds, and not thought twice about it. My brother Virgle, not named for the blind Roman poet, but for my Aunt Virgie of Marble Falls, Texas, swore the next time he had to get a “regular boy’s” haircut, he was going to break out the water works and hope for the same degrading results. My father was hard-core with our haircuts. If our hair so much as touched our ears, he’d freak out and rush us down to our local pervert barber. He would leave us there then go to the hardware store for a couple hours. Whereupon Ed the barber, perv of all pervs, with mutton chops the size and shape of Florida, would show us dirty magazines and shit talk my father’s staunch Republican leanings. We never told my father any of this, as we liked the dirty magazines and once heard Ed call my father Richard Nixon’s secret turd boy. Virgle used to get particularly bent out of joint whenever haircut day arrived. Sometimes he would hide in holes he dug out in our back yard. The girls used to tell him he looked like Peter Brady from The Brady Bunch when his hair grew in, but by the time we got back from the barber’s buzz and bad breath, the girls teased him into a frenzy saying he looked more like Golmer Pile.
But that day in downtown L.A., indeed Virgle, was in rare form. He’d stayed with our cousins the previous weekend, and as usual, came back a liberated man, full of dissension, doubt and a few new curse words. Shifting his weight, left and right, leering at the pretty senoritas passing by, going on about...the scent of a woman. He was ten.
Then there was the fat one. Me, with my stubby hands and purple sausage link fingers, turning pink as a Virginia ham. I thought I was going to pass out from heat stroke every other ten minutes or so, that entire day. The sun was getting to me so bad, that at one point, I couldn’t stop staring at the kid with the peppered papayas across the street. I glared at him so intensely I started to hallucinate. At one point, I swore the kid was motioning for me with his finger to cross the street, holding up the bright orange papayas, licking his lips. I started out for the street, but Virgle had me by my shirt collar just in time, pulling me out of the way of a speeding taxicab. I didn’t really come to until I realized it wasn’t my brother Virgle holding onto me, but my father who had me by the ear, shaking me, screaming, “do ya wanta die or are ya jist plain stupid?” I sort of figured both.
My youngest brother Aubrey Lyndon...yes, as a matter of fact, named after L.B.J., at the age of six, for some pseudo-loyalist reason or other, worshiped my brother Virgle, and wanted to be just like him. So if Virgle spit at a passing car, Aubrey Lyndon spit at a passing car. If Virgle winked at a pretty young senorita, likewise did Aubrey Lyndon. My father saw him, Aubrey Lyndon, make an attempt with one pretty lady in a pink skirt, clumsily fluttering his eyes, looking more like he was seizuring or maybe had a mosquito shitting on his eyelids, and you could see it just embarrassed him, my father, mocking coquettish and looking away from the young lady in question.
That morning, before we left, we'd discovered that the printers had made a mistake with the bible tracts we were handing out. Each individual title, of which there were four, was supposed to be printed with four different color covers;blue, green, red and yellow. But instead, all of the titles, every last one of them was printed blood red. My father's frustration building, he tore open the first box. Expecting to see a lovely, soothing shade of blue, I can still see his eyes turn aflame when he saw instead that they were all misprinted a uniform and brazen red. He immediately tore into the other seven boxes, his face turning scarlet, flailing his long white arms into the air, cursing Satan, cursing mediocrity. He ran into the house and tried calling the eight hundred number printed on the backs of the pamphlets, but just kept getting some strangely ominous recording with weird music in the background that kept repeating how we were all living in The Last Days. I figured probably the bigwigs at the W.E.S. were out busting kneecaps, running dope and whores. Of course, I kept that to myself, as my father was by then, at wit’s undeniable end. So, we just made due with what we had, my father hanging up the phone, no one ever picking up at the World Evangelical Syndicate.
The sun got bigger and hotter as the day went on, reflecting off the tall glass buildings, magnifying its intensity to the point of torture. My father and Virgle took an immediate military approach to matters. They decided we should flank the sidewalk corners, and to best serve our purposes, position ourselves on both sides of the street. Each side was given their alloted boxes , and it was our jobs to distribute the pamphlets for as long as the sun was up, which was at that very moment, blistering, smug, and showing no sign of relenting.
At first, no one was taking any of the tracts. They would walk right past us. Some were kind enough to reach out to the sweaty red-faced tramps and their odd father, patronizing, pitying, but we knew, pity or not, that we would be out there for as long as the bible tracts lasted. I caught Roy Leon dumping some of his into a trashcan when my father was looking away and for a moment, considered doing it myself. But then, I’d look up and I’d see my father across the street, his black hair flying in his face, an occasional gust and blessing rolling in off of the Santa Anna’s, and I’d feel like a real heel and not like much of a soldier in Christ’s Army. I would watch him and wonder to myself, what it was that kept him going. Then I'd see my brother Virgle standing right next to me, striking an unmistakable pose, and i knew exactly what it was that inspired him. He would pretend to be one of Hitler’s young Brown shirts, handing out anti-Semitic literature and/or war propaganda in pre-Nazi Germany, his nose looking down on the Wiemar Republic. He and I stood side by side. He kept telling me to watch out for people coming in the opposite direction. Always the military strategist, I never questioned him for fear of a pending fist to the face.
Then something unusual caught my eye. I saw this man, or at least what appeared to be the remains of what once was a man. He stood perfectly erect on one leg, while the other appeared to be cut off at the knee, his pant leg folded forward and pinned over his stump. But then I inspected him more closely, realizing finally, that he was quite the illusionist. He wore baggy pants, and I’m not completely sure how he did it, but somehow the man had his left leg pulled backward and tied to his back thigh. He used crutches with American flags tied around them, and held desperately to a cardboard sign that read, “I am The Nam, and The Nam...needs your help.” Then I looked closer, and I swear I saw the man’s foot sticking out of a hole in the back of his pants, his toes strategically and quite expertly scratching his ass. I was truly amazed, but then, the man began doing something that perplexed me even more. He had, stuffed into the pockets of the extra large army fatigues, several, very large carrots. He would stand on the street corner, balancing himself with his patriotic crutches, and every now and then, whenever a person, innocently and quite specifically of Asian descent would walk by, be they man or woman, boy or girl, he would quickly reach into his pockets, grab the carrots, and pretend to be some quick drawl cowboy and shoot at them.
And then there was this other. He propped himself up against the wall of an old Crocker bank right near a sewer grating. He sat Indian-style on top of an old army duffel bag, and on his lap was a full bag of what appeared to be stale pita bread. He had this sad, stray mutt with him, coiled up looking more like a weed than a dog. The scroungy kerr kept his face on the sewer gratings and his ribs stuck out and gave him the appearance of a gray haired scrubbing board. His owner, the grizzly derelict on the duffel bag, just sat there holding onto the bag of pita bread like it was the last scrap of food on earth. Whenever anyone would walk by him, he’d hug the bag like it was some cherished thing and not day old bread.
Suddenly, the other man, the one with the “missing” leg and imposing vegetables walked up to the man with the pita bread, reached into his pockets and with a flourish of great theatricality, offered the man sitting down one of his magnificent carrots. Then the man sitting down, shirked and pulled the bag of bread into him like a dying baby, acting as if the other, dangling his giant carrots less than two inches away from him, did not exist. Unfazed, the man with the carrots and crutches simply winked at the dog, took two steps back and disappeared around the corner.
But I kept my eye on the man with the dog. I saw him lift his head up, looking around, an apprehensive turtle of a man, beginning to smile. Grinning, as if he’d somehow managed to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, I saw that his teeth were all gone, as his dog looked up at him, lowering his distended belly back onto the warm pavement.
Then, all of a sudden, the man did something that I will never ever forget. He slowly began taking the pieces of old bread out of the plastic bag and one by one, placed them flat onto his lap. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the man and his dog. He then took one of the pita breads and slowly, methodically, opened it. Suddenly I remembered that it was rude to watch people eat, just as the man took the piece he’d torn off and put it into his mouth. I could tell that he was having quite a hard time with it, no one’s gums could be that strong, and this particular bread was putting up quite a fight. Then, while struggling to chew the stubborn bread, the man reached for another piece, opened it up like a clam shell, put it daintily to his lips, opened his mouth and spat into it, the chewed bread. What I saw next made me nearly puke right there on the street. He then took the opened bread containing the regurgitated matter, and rather matter of factly put it up to his giant red nose and preceded to blow what appeared to be a week’s worth of snot and green gore into it. And then the man, not altogether unceremoniously, proceeded to eat it. After he had finished, he dragged his duffel bag around the corner and disappeared like the first man, his mangy dog in tow.
I thought the day would never be over, it went on and on, getting hotter and hotter. I looked across the street and I saw my father with my brothers Roy Leon and Aubrey Lyndon. Even from a distance I could see they were starting to get pretty sunburned. Then another hour went by and I was beginning to get exhausted and fed up, bitterly eye balling the trash can, then the pamphlets. No one wanted to take the bible tracts. They would just look at us as they passed by, tighten their lips against their teeth, lift their noses into the air, sucking in the bus exhaust. Again, I looked across the street to my father and brothers. But this time, I thought I was seeing things when suddenly the three of them, rubbing my eyes, trying to focus, appeared to be even redder. I thought the sun was starting to play tricks on me again so I tried to focus harder. But it was the same, all three of them seemed to be turning bright red, as red as chili peppers! Then I looked down at my own hands and suddenly realized that I too was changing color. I looked over at Virgle, who was now stuffing bible tracts into the trash and saw that he too was turning scarlet. Somehow, the ink from the bible tracks had mixed with our sweat and was turning us all a shocking shade of crimson.
Then I heard my father from across the street screaming. He was desperately trying to get our attention so as to inform us what he too had just discovered. He looked like a complete side-show freak, pointing and grabbing his face, motioning to Virgle and me, looking as if he was in pain, jumping up and down like Beelzebub himself. My father was the reddest of all, his embarrassment and pure mortification shining through his skin brighter than the ink itself.
Then in a mad dash, my father grabbed what was left of The World Evangelical Syndicate Presents… threw them back into their boxes, grabbed Aubrey Lyndon and made for the Willy’s jeep. Virgle and I left what was left of ours behind and hoofed it for the jeep as well. Roy Leon, with his bright red streaked skin and long black hair, walked as slowly as possible, looking like Geronimo walking the streets of L.A.
Suffice to say, my father got us out of downtown L.A. much faster than he got us in. Once we were headed east and towards home, my father suddenly became very quiet. He just sat and drove. He did not say a word to any of us. He angrily held onto the steering wheel, his knuckles red, then white, then red again. I sat in one dark corner in the back of the jeep, Virgle just across from me. No one dared say anything.
We drove in complete darkness staring at the green-yellow glow of the freeway lamps above. One after another, the ghoulish green lights would enter the stillness of the jeep, illuminating our red, striped faces. Virgle looked at me and started flickering his tongue in and out like a lizard’s, repeatedly making the motions in the darkened silence. Then I, attempting to one-up, made like a bullfrog, bloated, burping, quietly. We stifled our giggles until finally he and I both fell asleep. Roy Leon and Aubrey Lyndon were sawing logs in the front seat, sitting next to my father. My father continued driving and did not say another single word. He just drove, and drove, and drove, and drove.