The Summer I Tried To Save Memphis

My grandmother and I still haven’t spoken about why the summer of 1999 was the last time I visited her alone.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

Ghosts are just memories we avoid looking in the eye. Two years ago, my mother’s funeral opened with a Nichiren Buddhist prayer, the same one she taught me to do on my own in third grade, the same one our family was convinced would damn her to hell.

With prayer beads wrapped around my slightly trembling hands, I chanted “nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” Devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect through sound. A few seats away, my grandmother sat with her head bowed throughout the Buddhist part of the funeral service. She was praying to herself, I’m sure — but even in the fog of my grief I knew she could feel the ghost staring at her too.

My grandmother and I still haven’t spoken about what happened during the summer of 1999, or why it was the last time I visited her by myself, and how it came to be that she watched a pastor put a curse on her youngest daughter.

Mom, a single parent working two jobs in Lewisville, Texas, sent me to Memphis each year because she couldn’t afford to take care of me when I was out of school. During these summer visits, my grandmother took me to Ebenezer Baptist Church every Sunday. She introduced me to people as “Saeed, my grandbaby visiting from Texas.” Her friends would lean down with one hand holding up their extravagant church hats and slip me a strawberry hard candy. I didn’t miss those candies or church introductions until they were suddenly replaced with a new introduction the summer I was 13: “This is my grandson, Saeed. His mother is Buddhist.” She said it like she didn’t know a sentence like that could electrify the air in any Southern church.

Mom had been practicing Buddhism since her twenties, so it’s difficult to explain why everything changed that summer. It’s possible my grandmother interpreted my perpetually crossed arms and rolled eyes as proof of spiritual waywardness, instead of typical adolescent posturing. I was becoming “worldly,” a word that sat on her tongue like a drop of acid.

Until then, I hadn’t been a part of the tension over religion between my mom and the rest of our family. Mom was Buddhist; I was simply her son. At home with her, I went to Buddhist activities and did the morning and evening prayers when and if she told me to. I didn’t mind being Buddhist as long as I didn’t have to tell anyone at school about it. Back in Memphis, though, there was an expectation that it was time for me to take a stand for God. But I wasn’t really interested in taking a stand for anyone. I wasn’t worldly; I was a teenager.

Unfortunately for me, this was also the summer my grandmother started going to a new church, one with an especially fervent emphasis on evangelism. It was also a predominantly white church in the suburbs, which confounded me at every turn. An evangelist preacher was visiting the church and gave regular sermons for most of his stay in Memphis.

Instead of going to church only on Sundays, my grandmother and I would go three or four days a week. And all the preacher ever talked about was how we — we? — had to save as many people as possible from the fires of hell.

I sat through the sermon and hated everyone. I hated them for their intensity. I hated them for the way their white skin took on a faintly greenish tint under the fluorescent lights of the converted gymnasium. And I saved a special kind of hate for my grandmother: a confused, hurt kind of hate that wanted to know what love she could see in this place. I couldn’t really hate her, though. She was the closest I could come to love in that place. She would have to do.

Following a service a few weeks after I got to Memphis, a tall boy with bleached blond hair made his way toward me through a crowd of churchgoers. I’d seen him playing backup guitar during some of the praise songs. He must have been 15 or 16.

“Saeed, right?”

The hand he extended to shake my own had five WWJD bracelets — green, blue, red, and two yellows.

I was trying to figure out how he knew my name. I hadn’t spoken to any of the other kids there, and I didn’t think anyone knew me, but he said my name. I wondered if this meant he knew about my mom too.

“Um, yeah. I’m Saeed.”

“I’m Billy.” He paused for a moment and the awkwardness was fluorescent lit. “Well, look. I work with the youth group here. And I was wondering if you’d like to go on a field trip with us tomorrow afternoon?”

I stared at his pink lips as they moved to form each word of his question. Just like with Cody, a boy back in Lewisville I had a crush on, the fear that I would step forward and try to kiss him made me take a small step backward. It was like walking across a bridge and staying away from the railing not because you want to jump but because you’re afraid you might jump in spite of yourself.

After church that night, it was just too perfect when Jennifer Paige’s “Crush” came on the little FM radio Grandma let me keep in my room. I’d already started shaking my hips when I stuck my head into the hallway to make sure Grandma was getting ready for bed and closed the door. See ya blowing me a kiss / It doesn’t take a scientist to understand what’s going on, baby. Slowly taking off the orange polo shirt I wore to church, I kept my eyes locked on my body in the mirror above the dresser and tried to move like a snake. At the peril of getting behind in the song’s words, I practiced saying “baby” just like Jennifer. It’s a breathier version of the word that turns it into “bay-bay,” and I whispered it until I could look like I was blowing a kiss while doing it.

It’s just a little crush / Not like a thing every time we touch. I danced my way out of my khakis, and when I had on nothing but my boxer shorts, I dug down under the clothes in my suitcase and pulled out a Calvin Klein ad from one of Mom’s old Vogue magazines. I knew it would be a long summer in Memphis, so I had cut out the picture before I finished packing my bags. You couldn’t even see the model’s face, just his abs on down to the perfect bulge in his white briefs. The clipping was already wrinkled from being held so often. With Jennifer still going, I climbed onto my bed and sang to the magazine clipping while swaying my hips and moving like something black, shiny, and scaled.

When I fell asleep, I dreamed Billy and I were swimming alone in the pool in the middle of Grandma’s apartment complex. It’s night, and the pool lights keep flickering like there’s a broken circuit. Every so often, in rhythm with the flickering, Billy’s face turns into Cody’s face and back again.

Above the surface of the water, Billy and Cody mouth the lyrics of “Crush” but the words don’t come out. They smile and keep lip-synching as they tread water. Whenever I go under the surface, though, I can hear the words to the song perfectly — and as Billy and Cody swim toward me, I realize that I have a woman’s body down here. I keep having to brush my hair out of my eyes, as Billy and Cody swim closer, lips pursed and on the edge of the word “baby.”

A few weeks later, the next “field trip” involved walking around the neighborhood surrounding the church. We broke off into pairs. I was with Billy. He had a sunburn on his neck and arms. I thought it was cute. As we walked down our first street together, he handed me some pamphlets.

“Basically, we’re going door to door, taking the Word of God to people at home. It should be a pretty good day. People out here are nice.” He spoke with such assurance, I almost believed him. He had the kind of charisma that made me forget how insane all of this was.

“Oh, and I thought you might like to have one of these.” He took off one of his WWJD bracelets and handed it to me.

“Thank you.”

I broke into a smile before I could hide it. This was a disaster. Even then, I had to know how terribly it would end, but I couldn’t help it. In spite of myself, I noticed things like the red skin on the back of his neck, the waistband of his boxer shorts. I noticed that he gave me one of his two yellow WWJD bracelets and wondered, silently and desperately, if he gave it to me because he thought wearing two bracelets of the same color was stupid, or maybe because he wanted us to have matching bracelets.

When we approached the first door, Billy said, “Knock hard enough for them to hear you over the TV, but not so hard they think we’re the cops.”

I started to giggle, but he looked pretty serious. This is important to him, I told myself. We’re doing God’s work.

“We’re saving Memphis.” I said it out loud just because it felt cool. It was the same impulse I have when I think of a line for a poem. The words just leave my mouth because they feel right.

His face lit up. It was like I had turned a key.

“I really like the sound of that, Saeed. Saving Memphis.”

He took a moment to fix his hair. I wanted to tell him that his hair looked fine. He gave me a nod, and I knocked on the door. My heart was louder than my fist.

Nothing. I knocked again, harder this time. I was actually disappointed. I wanted someone to come to the door so I could show Billy that I could do this. I could spread the Word or whatever, but no one came. He patted my shoulder, and the touch sent a little jolt through my body.

“It’s cool. Look at all of these houses.”

I looked down the street like I was surprised to see one house after another. I was pretending to be naïve, but after watching those kids put on in the van the other day, I figured I wasn’t the only one. And hey, I had a yellow WWJD bracelet to show for it.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

I’d been tricked. I was standing in the middle of Wolfchase Galleria Mall with Billy and about 20 other kids handing out pamphlets about the Word. At school, “field trip” meant a trip to the Sixth Floor Museum or Dallas Aquarium. At Christ the Rock, though, “field trip” meant going out into the city to save people. This had to have been one of my first lessons in learning to read the fine print.

Before we got out of the van, Billy explained that we were Pentecostal evangelists and that saving people was our life’s work. Other kids in the van ate it up, shouting, “Amen!” and “Let’s do it!” while pumping their fists and damn near shoving me out of the way so they could get out of the van first.

We wore matching T-shirts. “Christ the Rock” was in block letters across our chests. We divided ourselves into groups. Some of us went to the food court and others dispersed throughout the rest of the mall. My group settled on a spot outside of Abercrombie & Fitch. We were supposed to walk up to people who looked like they needed to hear about God. It was surreal. The T-shirts; the serious consideration of whether that woman pushing a stroller was a single mother, in which case she definitely needed God; the pamphlets in my sweaty palms that were supposed to save people from hell.

The store’s main entrance was guarded by a giant poster of a tanned guy with nothing on but Abercrombie swim trunks. He had a six-pack and grinned like he was making fun of us. I stared at him a little longer than I was supposed to, and a pudgy girl with braces elbowed me and reminded me that I hadn’t handed out a single pamphlet yet. Without a word, I walked up to an old Latino man, all but shoved a pamphlet into his hand, and walked back to the Abercrombie poster.

“That’s one,” I said to her.

I’m sure we looked like we were in a cult. I guess for all intents and purposes, we were in a cult.

After an hour or so, Billy had us gather by the vans and report on our success. Kids from the different groups shared stories of strangers who had promised to come to service tonight. They rattled off numbers of people they had saved. I didn’t believe any of them. I thought they were lying to impress Billy. One kid got choked up while talking about how amazing the Word of God is and how sad it was that some people “weren’t ready” to hear it.

Billy nodded his head and reminded us that though it was difficult, we had to do everything we could to save people from hell. Of course, I started thinking about my mother when I heard this.

I was paired with Billy again on the next youth group outing. As far as saving goes, it was a decent afternoon. We covered every house along one side of our designated street. One woman wouldn’t open her door but politely asked us to leave a pamphlet on the doorstep. As we walked back to the church, Billy asked me about girls.

“What about them?” I said with more irritation in my voice than I intended. We’d been talking about Jesus and the Word for so long, I hadn’t expected this kind of question. I was just starting to figure out who I was supposed to be around Billy.

“Well, do you have a girlfriend? Or a girl you like — in that way?” He stopped walking for moment. We were only a few yards from the church parking lot.

“No. Not really.”

“Not really?” A grinned appeared on his face, then vanished. “Hmm.”

For the first time since I’d met Billy, I didn’t like him. I wanted to give him his stupid fucking bracelet back. Why did he want to know? What did girls have to do with anything?

“I’m 13. Why should I be thinking about girls?” It was the best defense I could come up with. I just wanted him to change the subject. For once, why couldn’t we just talk about the Word? Billy looked up at the church ahead of us, and when he looked back at me, he might as well have been miles away.

“We should be getting back,” he said, walking again without noticing that I still hadn’t moved. He didn’t seem to care that I was so far behind.

After church, I went for a swim. The sun had already set, so there weren’t any little kids splashing around and making noise. Except for some adults drinking beer over by the patio tables, I had the pool to myself.

Mostly, I just held onto the edge of the deep end while stretching out and slowly paddling my legs. It made me feel long. Once the sun set, I did the same thing, but on my back so I could look up at the stars.

My head was full of everything and nothing when my grandmother called my name. At first, I thought it was dinnertime, but when I heard her say my full name — first, last, and middle — I pulled myself out of the water in one movement. She was walking, stomping actually, toward the pool area from her apartment.

“Sedrick Saeed Jones,” she shouted again, stretching the syllables into something that only to my ears could possibly sound like my name. She was panting when she finally reached the fence. “Get out of that pool and in this house. Now.”

The adults drinking on the patio were snickering. As I put on my towel and walked toward the gate, my mind spun like the cogs of a mad clock, trying to figure out what I was in trouble for and what I needed to say to get out of it.

I stepped into the apartment and closed the door behind me. When I turned back, she was standing in the hallway with the Calvin Klein clipping in her trembling fist.

“This?” she said, and it was a question I knew better than to answer. Then, “No. No. NO.” The words came from a deep part of herself. Each more of a bellow than a word. “No. No. No. No.”

I followed her “no”s into the kitchen and watched her throw the balled-up picture into the trash. Not pausing to say anything but “no,” she stomped into the living room, stopped in front of the coffee table, grabbed my hand, and pulled me down to the floor beside her.

“No. Not in this house. We are praying NOW.”

I knelt beside her, put my wet and wrinkled palms together, and slammed my eyes shut. My head was full of everything but apology.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

Any minute now, my grandmother would be knocking on the door to tell me it was time to get ready for church. The Wednesday night service started at 6:30 and she would want to avoid getting stuck in rush-hour traffic. That’s why she was about to wake me up from my nap. I was already awake, but had turned onto my side, away from the door, in the hope that she’d think I was still asleep and leave me alone.

A kid at school told me that people breathe more slowly when they’re asleep, so I held my breath, trying to control it. The concentration made blood rush to my ears. I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everything: robins in the poplar tree outside my window, kids splashing in the pool, my grandmother washing dishes, my grandmother putting the dishes away, my grandmother turning off the TV, my grandmother walking toward the guest bedroom where I was pretending to be asleep.

She opened the door without knocking.

“Saeed, time to get up.” There was a slight song in her words. I could feel her standing in the doorway, watching me. She knew I was pretending. “Saeed. Get up.” The song wasn’t there anymore.

Without turning to face her, without taking my eyes off the window, I said, “I’m not going.” I thought this through. “I don’t want to go” would sound like whining. “Don’t make me go” would sound like begging. I wasn’t whining or begging, so I said the words as slowly and deeply as possible. I wanted her to know that I was serious. I never wanted to set foot in that church again.

I heard her shift from one foot to the other. Her hand was probably on her hip. I was nervous. I couldn’t remember if I had actually said the words out loud or in my head, so I repeated myself: “I’m not going.”

She walked over to the bed and stood over me. “Get out of that bed.”

I began to doubt that there was ever a song in her words. Her voice was cold and distant.

“No.” I tried my best to say it without my voice cracking, without a hint of a whine. Without warning, my grandmother grabbed the sheets and yanked them off the bed. It was like a magician removing a tablecloth while keeping the dishes and candles on the table. I turned over to look at her. We both had the same look on our faces.

I knew that it was over. I would go to church. I would sit next to her. We wouldn’t look at each other. I wasn’t visiting my grandmother; I was surviving her. This would be my last summer in Memphis. She watched me scoot out of bed and walk to the dresser. I dressed in silence. My grandmother didn’t leave the room until I had my shoes on.

At the end of the service that night, the preacher stepped out from behind the podium and spread his arms. The pose was supposed to make us think of Jesus telling the little children to come onto him, but it just made me think of Jesus writhing on the cross. I didn’t see the preacher’s smile. I saw the oil on his nose and the beads of sweat on his neck. He always did this. He would stand with his arms spread wide open until someone walked to the front of the room, sobbing audibly.

“Come to the pulpit and let us pray together.”

He said it with the same tone he’d had for the last two months, three nights a week. He tried to sound like this was spontaneous and happening for the very first time, like he was just standing there and could feel us asking for prayer.

I was usually relieved, because this meant that the night was almost over. Soon, my grandmother and I would be driving back home. I looked over at her to see if she was ready to go, too. She caught my eyes. And I noticed that her eyes were shining, like she was about to cry. Her hand was on my hand. She was holding my hand. I thought she was about to apologize. I smiled.

Before I realized what was happening, she pulled me to my feet. We were moving toward the front of the room. People were craning their necks to watch us as we passed them. They were applauding and saying “amen.” I tried pulling away, but my grandmother wouldn’t let go of my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Billy watching me. I couldn’t read the look on his face.

When we got to the pulpit, the preacher was wiping sweat from his face with a handkerchief. He got on his knees and we did the same. Actually, my grandmother pulled me down to my knees. I wanted to turn and look at Billy. I wanted to spit at him. He and my grandmother had melded into one person. Everyone in the room was one person. I could have set that room on fire.

“This is my grandson Saeed. His mother is Buddhist.”

The preacher nodded his head like it was all he would ever need to know about me. He started to pray out loud for the entire church to hear. “Dear God, hear me, praying for one of your lambs. His mother has chosen the path of Satan and decided to pull him down too.”

I was dizzy. It felt like all of the lights in the room were on me. I wondered what my back looked like to the people in the pews. My head was bowed. I probably looked like I was crying. Billy was sitting off to the side of the pulpit. He could see my face. He could tell I wasn’t crying.

“Fight back, God. Make her suffer.”

The word “her” yanked me back into attention. For a moment, I wondered who the preacher was talking about. When I realized he was talking about my mother, I felt my knees wobble. I wanted to fall onto my side. My mother had a heart condition. When I was 5, she had been on the list for a heart transplant. My grandmother knew all of this. She knew her daughter’s heart.

“Put every ailment, every disease on her until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit.”

I turned my head slightly and looked at my grandmother. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed. She was frowning, but I couldn’t tell if it was because she was upset, like me, or simply concentrating on the prayer. This man was cursing her daughter. Her daughter. The body that linked our bodies. “Show her your plagues and save this child. Amen. Amen.”

As soon as the preacher finished, I turned back to my grandmother. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I just stared at her. My mouth was open and my eyes were wide, bewildered, stinging. She quietly thanked the preacher, patted my hand, and rose to her feet. I waited for her to say something. She wouldn’t look at me. She dug around in her purse, found her keys, and stepped down from the pulpit without looking at me.

I don’t remember walking off the pulpit. I don’t remember the ride home. The memory begins to flicker like a broken film reel here. It burns itself blank.

That summer wrecked me. When I got back home, I started having panic attacks. Sometimes, the slightest mistake or error would send me spinning into a fit of gasping, short breaths. One day, I came home after failing a math test, walked into my bedroom, and fell to my knees. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whispered over and over again, as I cried and rocked back and forth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The panic attacks went on for months before I told my mother about them. One attack was so bad, she rushed into my bedroom, wrapped her arms around me and held on until it was over. I never spoke to her about Christ the Rock except to say that I was never going back to Memphis by myself again. And I didn’t for over a decade.

My mother’s heart stopped just a few hours before Mother’s Day in 2011. She had just taken my grandmother out to dinner. The timing was, of course, a tragic coincidence, but locked in our separate silences at the funeral — sitting on the same row but with a few seats between us — my grandmother looked as terrible as I felt. And no one could save us.

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