Lord, Make Me a Sheep



Brother Langston’s sermon over, we all stood.
Every head bowed, every eye closed.
A flannel-shirted lumberjack of a deacon named Joe Paul James
was bawling and squalling as usual:
O Lowered, Jayzus, Lowered, move in our midst, Lowered.

Brother Langston said, I don’t keer
if you’re a sinner man or woman or a holy saint of God,
we all need to get in the Spirit! Come on, people!
Get in under the spout where the glow-ree’s coming out!
I want to see a hundred percent in this altar.

My older brother Eric figured the roving elders
had him on their Holy Ghost Hit List
and he didn’t want a thirty-minute Attack of the Prayer Warriors.
Still, it might have caused a scene
had he not made a show of prayer, and he knew it.

(One time a fifteen-year-old boy ignored an altar call
and an elder called him out by name,
said he had committed The Unpardonable Sin.
He could pull his hair out in the altar from
“now till Doomsday” but God
would never have him, never save him.)

So Eric eased up front and knelt
on a pew of knotty pine in the second row,
hoping to go unnoticed—a foolish move
that made him all the more conspicuous,
a timid sinner boy running from the Lord.
He bowed his head on folded forearms, and could smell
the Strawberry-Watermelon Hubba Bubba on his trapped breath.
The voice of Sister Lou, our piano player,
floated across the church—Swing low, sweet chariot . . .

Then a firm, vibrating hand
gripped the back of Eric’s head as if it were a gearshift.

It was Joe Paul James.
He bawled in a creepy, weepy falsetto,
Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep.
On sheeeeeeeep, Joe Paul hit a spooky minor note
like stormy winds that rattle windows, open and slam doors.

Eric, not a Bible buff, had no clue
what the goal of Joe Paul’s prayer could be
but the desire to turn him into a sheep.


While Joe Paul was slobbering
through the same prayer over and over,
Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep.
Eric lifted up his head and cried out,

The church fell gravely quiet,
and Joe Paul withdrew his hands and backed away
as if Eric were a holdup artist or a wolf,
anything but a sheep.
Eric stood up and sauntered back to his pew,
sat down beside me and whispered,
There’s some world-class kooks in this church, I’m here to tell you.
A few folks flashed Eric V-browed frowns,
but most people, our parents among them,
tried to act as though nothing had happened.

Soon, Brother Langston asked everyone to stand.
After making a few announcements, he said, as always,
Let’s love the Lord and be dismissed,
as if the alternative were to love Satan and stick around.


Sister Lou played piano
like a crazed novelist
at a magic typewriter.

She was a first-rate shouter.
When she sang, the Spirit blessed
the church, falling like manna

from heaven, sweet to the tongue.
One Sunday evening, Lou
broke out in the holy cackle.

(She must have been half-grackle—
that caw, those shimmers of blue
in her black hair.) As her song:

They that wait upon the Lord
Shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings
. . .

melted to blissful moaning,
my coat a quilt beneath
the pews, I rubbed the hard

swirls of gum stuck above me.
As if caressing nipples,
tuning in wild she-cries,

I closed my dreaming eyes:
Bathsheba came in ripples
to ride me, rev me, love me.


We found cold breakfast under Reynolds Wrap
and sat down in the kitchen by ourselves.
Upstairs, a vacuum’s dying fall, and then
the ever louder plunks of Mama’s feet.

Eric had smoked kind bud the night before
and left some evidence, an orange package,
in the fifth pocket of his jeans. That morning,
prepping the laundry, she’d discovered it.
She came into the room and slapped that pack
of Zig-Zag rolling papers on the table.

You got some tall explaining to do, son.
Oh yeah, he chewed, I’m glad you found that thing.
What is it anyway?

               Don’t give me that, she said.
You know exactly what it is.

Spreading mayhaw jelly on yellow toast,
he said, I saw it laying in the street
last night at the blues fest and thought it was
a pack of Chinese chewing gum. I picked
it up to take a look and didn’t want
to litter, so I stuck it in my pocket.

The lie seemed too smooth in the telling,
too quirky to be anything but the truth.
Or maybe Mama needed to believe.
Months later, she found a box of Eric’s ganja
paraphernalia in his closet.

That day, he smiled and said, Greg, I get all
the righteous disapproval around here
cause my sins are the kind you find in boxes.
But, truth be known, you’re further gone than I am.

He was right. Next to my apostasies,
his beery Friday nights, boys being boys,
would have seemed harmless, almost cute. Those years
he spent flashing a fake id and guzzling
till he was fucked up like a snake in a lawnmower,
bumbling with bra straps on a grass-stained quilt—

I waded the wild switch-cane with Voodoo men
and drummed or chanted prayers to Papa Legba.
I tried to learn to shape-shift, mixing roots
with buzzard-beaks, graveyard dirt, and wood
from an oak struck leprous with zigzag lightning.
It never worked but Old Man Fullilove,
swear to God, made a deck of playing cards
scatter out of his hands like butterflies
and light on walls, a homemade mobile, and me.
Crawdead taught me the mind within the mind.
Some of the Voodoo shacks had cool dirt floors.
My feet loved them and my soul loved the men,
their quiet faces—lamp-lit, sad with history—
those onyx eyes, those cotton crops of hair.


(Under a chinaberry tree in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Ancel Fullilove
and I sit on upturned buckets and share a bottle of malt liquor.)

     Mr. Fullilove. You hear Crawdead telling bout what happened to him down there at Ash Grove Cemetery?
     Me. Naw. What happened?
     Mr. Fullilove. Crawdead stay right by the graveyard now, you know.
     Me. Yeah, his mama told me he moved out there.
     Mr. Fullilove. Well, he say he out there in the graveyard one night and heard somebody say, I better not catch you out here no more. He thought it was some woman flirting. She had a soft, high voice. Said, Come here, big boy.
     Ole Crawdead got happy then. He thought he finna luck out and get him some strange.
     Me. Ha! That’s Crawdead for you.
     Mr. Fullilove. Yep, always after the pussy. So he say, Where you at?
     High, soft voice say, Over here.
     He got a little closer and seen it was a black panna with a big ole bushy tail.
     Me. Do what now? The panther was talking?
     Mr. Fullilove. Yep. He told her, say, I tell you what: I’m on go home right quick, but I’ll be back directly.
     That panna look at him, say, HAYell naw! You finna go get a gun!
     And Crawdead say, I don’t know how she knowed it neither, but that sho what I finna do!
     Now when Crawdead tell that, he don’t laugh, he don’t smile.


     Welcome back to Word Aflame Ministries, the most anointed, Spirit-led show on Christian talk radio. I’m your host, Terry Tightwater, and we’re talking to Jim Sprig, who has a new product your church needs to know about. Tell us about your incredible new invention, Jim.
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We always called that house the Castle,
where the Voodoo woman stayed.
Long about fifteen year ago
I went there with my friendboy Wade.
He knowed she did Voodoo, I didn’t.
We’s clowning and my noggin scuffed
the ceiling fan. He scooped my hair
off the blade, afraid it was enough
for the Mojo Queen to hex me with.

The Castle—I seen this myself—
it would blush colors overnight.
It’d be sky-blue, yellow, or pink
one night and pea-green, say, by sunup.
Folks mighty strange, but I don’t think
nobody paint they house at night.

That woman’s poodle was a fright.
Thing stayed out in the road all time
and never got hit. Always hassle
pedestrians. One night, when Wade
come walking home, he pass the Castle
and that dog stands on its hind legs
like a man. All at once, it nightmares
into a monster with a bat-face,
a pouch of possums, and deer antlers.


(Blues band sitting around in the practice space.)

Trent (sorting weed on a phonebook) . You got the Chinese chewing gum?

(Eric passes him some Zig-Zag rolling papers.)

Trent. One of these days, we’re fixing to smoke you out, Greg.

Me. Maybe so.

Trent. You’re missing out’s all I got to say.

Eric. What’s the funnest thing you ever did high, Trent?

Trent. Barged in on a holy-roller church service. I shit you not, folks were flying around the room like birds. I stood there for about two minutes staring like a treeful of owls. I was freaked out for days.

Eric. Go to hell. I grew up in a holy-roller church. You’re the lyingest son of a bitch I ever seen.

Trent. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s true.

Eric. Sounds like shrooms to me.

Me. How high were they flying?


Lord, make me a flying squirrel
or a flying holy-roller.
No, if I’m going to fly, make me a painted bunting, Lord.
Make me Sister Lou’s grackle cackle and hair weirdly beautiful.
Lord, make me a fat pocketbook pearly in the St. Francis River
or an alligator gar in the Cache, Lord, and name me Black Blade.
Come on, I dare you, make me an Ozark hell bender.
Make me the fragrance of a witch hazel blooming in gelid January
or a sunset changing colors like a bruise half-healed
while a man staggers out of the rain
like a ghost through prison bars.
Lord, there’s a bunch of things I want to be.
The other day I found a pad I scribbled in when I was ten or twelve.
One page said, Greg Alan Brownderville is a boy who is:
and then it listed words I loved.
So, Lord, all these years later, I beseech you,
make me a boy who is coal, swiss, cream, spearmint,
product, capitol, bar, marl,
quo, tap, bot, doll, roll, mat, solicitous, ma’am,
pie, toy, mellifluous, immitigable, Lord.
Make me the Choctaw hunters on the Alabama River, eating maize
granted by Unknown Woman, Daughter of the Great Spirit.
Turn me into a spearmint done by top-notch scientists.
Make me a dastardly bastardly son of a bitch, Lord,
or, better yet, a rainbow roll at the sushi bar.
Make me the nutmeat patterning inside a scaly-bark hickory nut
resembling a white oak leaf or cartoon holy-roller hands
or cartoon moose antlers, pick your image,
and feed me to rambunctious boys in the woods.
Make me a shoulder-pad popping out of a football player’s jersey,
flapping like a wounded wing when he’s hit.
Make me the sound of Mama Windexing the tabletop—like a dog whimpering.
Make me a team of sundogs
and a mojo in Crawdead’s pocket.
Lord, I want to play Papa Legba opening the gates.
I want to see what it’s like
to be a pouch of possums, dear Lord, Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
Make me a swallow of Dr. Pepper in a sexy woman’s mouth.
Lord, I beg of you, make me a cell phone tower a little girl dreams the Eiffel.
I want to be a wolf, Lord, or a sentence
uttered by a beautiful exchange student from the Czech Republic:
Greg, you never seen girl more messy like me.
Make me a swirl of actual Chinese chewing gum
hard on a pew’s underside in a church meeting illegally.
Convert the gum that is me to a nipple in the lustful mind-bed of a boy
after a preacher describes Bathsheba’s famous rooftop bath
a little better than a boy can stand.
Make me Sister Lou’s voice becoming Bathsheba’s
in the imagination.
The magic nation.
I’ll be David sinning and singing tragically.
Make me the silence the Devil’s wreaking havoc in,
and the havoc. If you please, Lord,
make me a sheep.