You never saw Apostle Bret Channing again after that one evening but he left you and your mother and every other person that was in attendance at Mrs Preston’s that evening with audio cassette tapes of that night. For seven dollars a piece each of you could relive the experience of feeling God’s presence so closely, so intimately. Only seven dollars for that? Who was going to say no to that? Yours was white and written on in red marker. It was a 90 minute tape, 45 minutes on each side. Apostle Bret Channing’s prophecy over your life (that is what your mother decided to call it and therefore so did you) was near the end of Side B. You played it and replayed it back to yourself over and over again as a reminder of God’s plan for your life. With plans not to hurt but to prosper. Especially when things were hard and looked as if God didn’t care at all. That cassette tape was a beacon of light in the darkest of nights, a life raft in the icy waters of the antarctic, a morsel of food when on the brink of starvation. But as much as it helped, it also hurt. It was boon and bane both.
For years afterwards you felt like your life was a series of failed attempts to chase down the very same prophecies that had kept your faith afloat for such a long time. Once the inertia of simply waiting finally severed your patience clean through you tried all sorts of things. You tried sneaking up on them and putting them in a choke hold and suffocating them into submission with the sheer brute strength of will and action and you tried pulling a gun on them and threatening them with killing them dead and blood splattered walls but for some reason or another they always seemed to elude you. And so you decided to try something else; completely ignoring them, scrubbing them from the surface of your consciousness like a blood stain on a white carpet but even when you weren’t thinking about them, you were still thinking about them. They sat at the back of your mind like a teacher at the back of a classroom while their worst student read out an assignment to the rest of the class, outwardly supportive but silently mocking.
With his prayer Apostle Bret Channing had pointed out constellations of twinkling stars for you to silently wish upon but one by one they began to blink out and disappear into the inky night sky of your life until almost none remained. Very few of the threads that he said God would weave into the quilt of your future ever came to pass. Your faith was never anything to envy but came in fits and starts, farting along like an old jalopy on its very last wheel, a great man of God you were not. As for father figures, pah, that was almost laughable. If God ever really sent you any they must have gotten lost or detoured along the way. Maybe they got married or knocked up some poor woman enroute and so no longer had any need to fill some ambiguously son-shaped hole in their heart. Whatever it was, they never made their way to you. And even those men that were around and could have been of some use to you in that regard (uncles and such like) never really seemed all that interested in you. They were either still chasing big butts in little skirts or busy raising their own disappointing sons.
And then there was school. Nobody ever thought to tell you back then that the boys in your family (cousins, uncles and the half brothers you didn’t even know you had until almost a lifetime later) had a truly atrocious track record with finishing school. Not that you were really old enough to hold onto such information at the time. And back then it was really just you and your mother, even if she had told you there were not any living examples she could point out to you to illustrate her point poignantly. Some of the women in your family called it a ‘spirit’, others even a ‘curse’ but you came to recognise it for the thing that you really thought it was: temperament. You belonged to a family of big dreamers, great thinkers and outliers but the educational system that they were all thrown into, coupled with the familial pressure to become one thing while they wanted to become another, plus their refusal to bend to any will but their own often derailed their education and often times they never got back on track. You were no different.
You managed to finish high school with no problems except for being pulled out a couple of times because there was no money to pay the school fees (you were back in Uganda by that time which meant boarding schools where you had to pay school fees) but university was another matter altogether. You think the fact that your mom wasn’t working by the time university rolled around and that she couldn’t pay tuition and that you had to instead get a job while you waited for things to fix themselves into something better killed the momentum you had and once school finally was a viable option again, you didn’t want it as one. And so just like your faith, your university education came in fits and starts and you tried out three different majors before you finally found one that stuck. And even then it didn’t stick because you liked it but because you were tired of your family being on your back about it, how important it was, how it was going and when you were finishing (being back in Uganda had meant that you and your mother were no longer isolated but were surrounded by her brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles which meant that you virtually had an entire village of people up in your business virtually all the time). All the major points and clauses in Apostle Bret Channing’s memorandum turned out to be nothing but puffs of white smoke used to screen you from the truth; that he was nothing more than another door-to-door salesman peddling the world’s oldest wonder drug- God.
You realised that it was like getting a peak behind Oz’s curtain. Bret Channing was no apostle, he was a gypsy who sang and danced and put one hell of a show in hopes of rousting a few coins out of the pockets of some well meaning strangers that could get him a hot meal and maybe a soft surface for the night. God didn’t speak to him, Bret Channing saw a black pre-teen boy with a single mother and deduced just what they would likely want to hear. Adding in a few choice Apostolic phrases and he had you, both of you; hook, line and sinker.
Prophecies of any sort didn’t mean all that much to you after that. In fact, you remember the very day it happened, the very hour. The day was baking hot, the kind of hot day that only the dry season can produce. It was about a week before your twenty fourth birthday. You were on the phone with your mother on one of those rare occasions where you actually picked up. By this time, life had clearly not turned out according to Apostle Bret Channing’s gospel but for some reason your mother still felt the need to bring him up, telling you to remember all the blessings he had prayed over your life, the plans that God had revealed to you through him. The truth was, you hadn’t thought about him in years. You had no reason to. Sure, you still believed in God’s promises for the most part but you preferred getting them straight from the Bible and not some guy who was looking to make a quick buck. God still spoke through people and circumstances of course, you were pretty sure of that, but they were a lot rarer than people made them out to be.
The realisation was sudden and jolting, and like ripping off of a band-aid it hurt for a smidgen of a second but after that moment passed, it was all you could do not to laugh. You and your mother had been conned and as smart a woman as she was, maybe the smartest woman you knew, she was still letting herself get conned. You sobered up pretty quick though. Maybe it was deliberate. Maybe she knew better but preferred the con. Liked the idea of this phantom son she had been promised rather than the one she eventually got. Maybe she was still holding out hope that God would work some miracle and that you would shed the skin you currently wore and reveal to her her real son. Not some disappointment masquerading as hers. The sole carrier of her DNA was not meant to be as mediocre as this creature before her had turned out to be. No, she had expected, had been promised better. Maybe that was the place where she was coming from. Maybe. You didn’t really know. But then, you didn’t really care either. Death by apathy was just around the corner but you didn’t really care about that either. If you didn’t really care about anything, if you didn’t expect anything of anyone, especially yourself, then there was no way to get disappointed. Heck, considering where you were, that sounded pretty damn good. It worked for a while too. Ultimately though, it only worked for so long.
L.A. Lutara is a Ugandan writer who is a journalist by profession. His fiction has been published in The East African, Kalahari Review, Uganda Modern Literary Digest, Daily Monitor & Reader’s Cafe Africa as well as several other online magazines. He has penned a number of short films with one being turned into a student film at The New York Film Academy. He is currently working on a television sitcom and his first novel.
A breathtaking story.
Thanks for reading, Stella!