I was 8 when my mom, older brother and I rode on the maiden voyage of the California Zephyr Dome-line train from our hometown in San Francisco to Los Angeles to start our new life. And, with the exception of a few years in Paris, France, I’ve lived here ever since.
One select memory has lingered from that trip: My brother and I sneaking up to the scenic “dome” in the middle of the night to churn fantasies about our unseen promise of better times ahead. We had to go with the unseen because what we’d already been through was not good: Dad abandoning us, me almost drowning, finding out Dad was dead, and Mom growing more and more unpredictable. As we gazed at the passing swatches of brown and green brush on the mountainsides, lit by the interior lights of our Dome car, we were able to forget our troubles that lay sleeping in the cabin below.
During the following years and in each of the many L.A. homes we lived in, I’d go to bed conjuring the youthful hope of that train ride so that my dreams could make it so. Then, I grew up, got married and divorced.
The Zephyr was near full-stop in 1969, the year L.A. had stagnated in the afterbirth of the Manson murders, and the year I, too, was stuck in the mire. At 25, I was sole parent and single working mom of three and had lost an imagination for a good life when whoever was doling it out passed my twin son by. Born with a hole in his heart, he suffered a debilitating stroke that summer while undergoing open-heart surgery. To put it plainly, I’d lost hope and thought if I could just connect to a shred, I might be able to make it through, so I sought guidance from some of the many unconventional sources L.A. is known for.
I consulted a well-known Hollywood astrologer-seer who purportedly gave you a method to realign your misaligned stars. What he told me was that I alone could heal my son. All I had to do was to get in touch with the disparate parts of me by meditating on certain tarot cards for 10 minutes, twice a day. I couldn’t sit quietly for 30 seconds. I left the astrologer-seer even more guilt-ridden and feeling doomed.
A friend, after hearing that story, assured me the Hollywood guy was no seer and took me to a minister’s lecture in Echo Park. We drove down Sunset, turned onto a side street lined with tiny houses and stopped in front of one. It was dark, but we found our way to the backyard of the minister’s house. We entered a candlelit, cement patio and saw her on a platform, dressed in a beige khaki skirt and a tie-dyed blouse. We sat on folding chairs, and she talked of mystics and myths. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the friend who had brought me, so I didn’t say anything, but as soon as the minister mentioned the tarot, I stopped listening.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. My son’s pediatrician said that the best thing for him would be to put him in a home where he could get around-the-clock care.
As a child who’d been abandoned, I couldn’t bear the thought of doing the same to my own.
At the time, rumors about a healer at a Southern Baptist church in South Central L.A. who could give sermons better than a James Brown concert were floated among my friends. But the powerful black-and-white images of the TV footage showing the community’s rage and destruction in the Watts riots four years earlier had been seared into our minds’ eyes like it was yesterday, and no one had the guts to drive there, let alone get out of a car.
My best friend, Suzanne, was the exception. She was a petite beauty married to a well-known musician with young kids of her own, and she possessed innate qualities I didn’t. She said if I weren’t too chickenshit, she’d drive me.
On a late September night, she pulled her sleek white XKE in front of a beige building on Florence Boulevard and parked behind a two-tone Pontiac. We got out of her car and entered through a door by a cross. Inside was cool. I mean, it felt safe. The pews were packed with men in suits and women in hats and one white couple who looked like they’d come straight from the Whisky.
Suzanne and I found aisle seats near the stage and stared at the red velvet curtain drawn across it, waiting for something to happen.
Soon, a short, compact man appeared through the curtains wearing a gold satin cape and an oversized, emerald-green cross that swayed from his neck as he strutted to the edge of the stage. He recited verses so fast I couldn’t follow, called off numbers I couldn’t attach meaning to and waved his arms around the room as if conducting an orchestra. Whenever he said Jesus he’d hesitate, ear turned up slightly, as if listening for a horn section. His voice would soften to a whisper so that when he shouted Mary, Blood, Satan, Heaven and Hell, you’d hear their names, loud and clear. He bent and knelt and began calling out people in the pews. The woman with a tumor in her stomach, did she want to be healed? The man trying to locate a missing loved one did he want to know why she left?
Uh oh, I thought. He senses truth, He’ll know I don’t believe.
“There’s someone here tonight hurting over a child, a sick child,” he said. “Raise your hand.”
I wanted to leave, but Suzanne pushed my arm up, and that’s when I noticed a woman in front of us with her hand up, too.
“You,” the healer pointed to me. “Do you want your child healed?” Before I could answer, he asked the other woman the same question. “Yes,” we answered in unison.
“Do you believe?” the healer asked.
“Not really,” I said over the other woman’s answer, calling myself out before he could.
Next thing I knew, I was walking down the aisle toward the healer; people were saying things under their breaths as I passed. I stepped up to the stage and saw his face sweaty and severely pockmarked. He indicated I should stand to his right, facing him, and told me to get on my knees. As I did, I thought he must’ve had pretty bad acne as a kid.
“In order for your child to be healed,” he said, “belief must live in your house. Must be alive,” he said. “A living, breathing belief.”
“Amen,” people shouted.
He lifted his arm and put his hand over the top of my head. He didn’t touch it; it just hovered there, heat radiating down.
“Lord,” he said, his voice boomed. “Heal this poor woman of doubt. Have mercy, Lord, and give her belief. Now.”
He threw his hand up and away from me. Psalm and palm blended together in my mind and, unfamiliar with the difference in their pronunciation, I wanted to know if one meant the other or vice versa, but when I opened my mouth to ask, the healer had already turned back toward the pews, speaking in verse.
I stood up and started laughing. Not because anything was funny. It just came out. I, the nonbeliever with a sick child, was laughing? The more I tried to suppress it, the more uncontrollable it became. I stepped off the stage and walked down the aisle, bent over as if I had a stomach ache, and looked up briefly to see Suzanne standing by the door holding both our purses.
I ran to her and we ran out to the street, jumped in her car she turned on the engine, made a U-turn on Florence, and took off with me seized and slouched down in the passenger seat.
“I’m not taking the freeway,” Suzanne said.
When my laughter subsided, I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out to catch the summer air. I felt free. Something had been released. The lid had been lifted off my cage so that a strange, vibrant and pockmarked healer could do his bit on me.
I glanced over at Suzanne, serene and gratified. She thrived on driving around the streets of L.A.
And as her car, shaped like a bullet, a white bullet, sped up Normandie toward Sunset, past neighborhood corners and liquor stores, I felt the hope I’d had as a kid in the Dome of the Zephyr — hope in an unseen promise — and began to believe that, as long as I was moving, I wasn’t lost. I was sure it wasn’t the brand of belief the healer intended to drop in my spirit that night, but it was belief enough to carry me through all that lay ahead for my son and my two other kids.
Terry K Carr completed UCLA’s Screenwriter’s Program after working in Hollywood’s film and television industry. Previously a singer and songwriter, she also performed sketch comedy at The Comedy Store. Since a piece she wrote about her family for Huffington Post went viral, she’s been working on a memoir about living in Paris in 1970 with her children.