Nonfiction by Debra Coleman

December 15, 2023

Soul, Unholy

I walked in the front door to silence. And not the good kind. The kind moss exhales, the kind a faint blue wall frowns.

This must be the silence of the rapture.

I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew. My family was gone.

* * *

My father, a minister, didn’t preach prophecies about the rapture at his church. Divorced from him, my mother found a new church, where services were conducted in a cavernous white circus tent with a rollick of chatter about the rapture. Sunday evenings and midweek Bible studies were just for her, but on Sunday mornings, she lugged her children, all four of us sourpusses, to a stretch of three services. At fifteen, I hid away for two of them as a devout volunteer in the church nursery.

Hard as I tried to tune it out, rapture talk was dialed up to ear-suffocating levels. Since no guarantees came with being a preacher’s daughter, I brooded about being marooned on earth with the other wickeds, doomed to endure a great tribulation, a predicted time of plagues, starvation, and wars.

Or worse.

My mother had taken me to a church-sanctioned screening of the movie A Thief in the Night. In this all-out Christian horror film, a frizzy radio-voice announces worldwide reports about harrowing simultaneous disasters. My imagination rippled, and I pictured every other car on the highway driverless, colliding and fishtailing in chaos. Buildings flaming. Planes without pilots ramming their noses into the earth. When the auditorium lights came on, sermon-talk began— oceans turning to blood, stars dropping from the sky, locusts the size of horses.

Jesus was returning any day to snatch up His believers, a miraculous and massive blast-off of people, right past flummoxed air traffic controllers and through Southern California’s forever haze.

* * *

Now in the stillness of the house, my heart boomed. I darted in and out of every room searching for my siblings. Halting, I listened for lifeless sounds. Our deserted television beamed Sesame Street’s merry chirps, the Muppets unaware that half the people of the world might just have been summoned to Heaven. My ears grogged toward the kitchen where our unattended mixer’s two spindly legs rattled against the inside of a large faded pink bowl, churning a brownie mix round and round. An unwatched television could be explained. A twirling mixer in an uninhabited house was inconceivable. And dire.

I flurried through memories, trying to fathom what made me such an unholy soul. When I was three with blurry eyes and a full bladder, my mother would spank me—a truth test—and then allow me to use the bathroom. Almost anything could be a sin in her eyes: a fingerprint on her piano, a lonely orange peel in the sink, a look on my face. If I smart-mouthed her, my lips were sealed by the palm of her hand. Except once. I sassed, “You’re a witch.” She laughed and walked away.

At twelve, I was conscripted as babysitter, and whatever happened while she was out was entirely my fault. We four often behaved, eating and cleaning up, then singing together with television Glenn Campbell. Other times we fractured into squabbles, get-you-backs, knuckles, and yanks. My mother disciplined me more than once for pinning siblings down and drooling above their faces, sucking in my spit just before it dribbled on them. And she drenched my tongue in Tabasco sauce after I dipped a toothpick in it, pricked a jellybean, and offered it to my trusting brother. I felt ashamed about the drooling and trick candy, and deserved to be reprimanded. But had I done something else more damnable? I must have, though I couldn’t recall what.

I paced. Hunched on the sofa. Stood up again, hands gripping hips. My mind wheeled, then clicked on one standout scolding. As she usually did when returning home, she’d corralled us, scanned for mischief, then unburdened herself. My mother spun to me and snarled, “You aren’t one of my children.”

I trembled. What if Jesus didn’t want me either?

From the center of the living room my eyes lazy Susaned for some sign of redemption. Then I saw it, His portrait, which I’d always thought was a real-life photo. It was still hanging above the wall heater. I wondered with a fervor I’d never felt at church, Shouldn’t that have disappeared too?

The house, empty and bored, wasn’t silent. The house was never truly silent, quarrels and vengeance its mother tongue. Every night the house whined about small-handed kitchen scrubbings. And it crabbed about its tattered aquamarine curtains at the glass slider-door to the backyard. “I feel like a harlot,” it would say, as it jabbed me in the ribs with the sharp corner of its high-bar counter. The house carped on about the torn wall-to-wall carpet. “My feet are chafed,” the house would moan, “and the top of my head is a sieve.” On and on and on the house would go.

The roof hole leaks begat…
Stains on the sand-bumpy ceilings begat…

“Oh, shut up already,” I would snap. But not today, not on the day of the rapture. The house was all I had left. We were alone. Together.

I stood in the living room asking the house for the ninth time, “Where is everyone? Were they all sucked to Heaven?” The sprinkler in the back yard splattered, “Don’t ask us. Jesus didn’t come to save the grass or the junker car in the driveway or even the brownies being murdered by that mixer.”

Distraught, I didn’t know how to take care of the house. Or myself. I was too young to drive or have a checkbook, and half my babysitting jobs just disappeared into the sky. And I had no idea how to defend against horse-sized locusts.

A rattle. The crusty screen at the front door. I knew in that instant I wasn’t all alone with the house. Since I had faith my mother floated away with other believers of her ilk, it must have been one of my siblings who had come through the door. We might be swallowed by an earthquake but we’d have each other. I knew it was hardly a thing to revel in, blood oceans and all, but my alarm mixed with faint relief. If I was going to spit-roast for eternity, I wouldn’t be alone. We’d burn together.

We’d burn together.

About Debra Coleman

Debra Coleman’s work appears or is forthcoming in Under the Sun and Typehouse. She is an editorial assistant for Under the Gum Tree and co-editor of Architecture and Feminism. Debra enjoys shunpiking on cross-country road trips between California, where she was raised, and Connecticut, where she puts her disability to use advocating in her community for access and inclusion.