Sarah Beth Childers
Good news! chariot’s a-comin’! Good news! chariot’s a-comin’!
For twelve years after my mother heard my high school choir belt out this spiritual, she crooned the chorus whenever her news was good. My dad got a bonus of a thousand dollars. The firefighters were selling five-buck plates of spaghetti. My little brother’s high school English teacher granted him an extension on his Romeo and Juliet paper. Joshua’s extensions weren’t unusual: he rarely finished a paper without them, preferring to stuff his book bag with unfinished assignments until a teacher sent his mother an email. But the news was nevertheless songworthy. My mom burst through the back door, hurled her heavy leather purse onto a kitchen chair, and started to sing.
Good news! Chariot’s a-comin’! And it ain’t gonna leave-a-me behind!
When my mother sang about those coming chariots, I didn’t picture Black slaves stamping the dirt floor at a midnight cabin prayer meeting, dreaming of an escape to Heaven, or better, the North. And I didn’t imagine my all-white high school choir, standing motionless except for our mouths, eyebrows, and swelling chests, sweating through our black polyester uniforms. Instead, I felt a ray of June sunlight. When my mother put her head down, tapped across the unswept Pergo flooring, and kept time with her swaying arms, she transformed. She was no longer a middle-aged woman in mom jeans and a stained blouse, with long brown curls in need of a trim. She was pure and radiant joy.
My mother saw Heaven’s pearly gates on a Styrofoam plate of pasta. When our family found the money to make the mortgage payment and order a pizza to boot, she strode down streets of gold and waved at Apostles through their mansion windows.
Then my parents ran out of money again, and my mother had to wait for her husband’s payday to buy cereal. Joshua missed another assignment deadline, and his teacher threatened he’d fail his junior year. My mom and brother trudged through the dust like sad Old Testament prophets, a modern-day Elisha and Elijah. Suddenly, the teacher’s mercy arrived like a chariot of fire: a twenty-four hour extension! The chariot carried Elijah, my lazy brother, up by a whirlwind into Heaven.
So for the next twenty-four hours, my mother, my sisters, and I assembled into a paper-writing army. Two hundred miles away, I researched Shakespeare and emailed home article after article. Rebecca stretched out next to Joshua’s scrawny body on his musty twin bed, begging him to scrawl something into a notebook. Jennifer microwaved him a hotdog.
My mother sat in a scuffed wooden chair at the family computer, ready to type up anything he scrawled.
“Good news!” my mother hummed as she waited. The chariot was coming again.
The chariot actually took Joshua.
It didn’t bring us money or spaghetti. It didn’t give us twenty-four frantic hours to ghostwrite a paper under the name Joshua David Childers. It snatched Joshua’s spirit through his closet ceiling, leaving his parents and sisters to stare at the sky.
When the chariot took Elijah, his younger prophet friend stared after that fiery cart and screamed. “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!” Elisha tore hairs from his bald head. He took his clothes off and ripped them in two.
I didn’t see Joshua’s chariot. I heard about it on the phone, so maybe that’s why I didn’t bother screaming. I ran down the street in pajamas and socks and collapsed on a friend’s front porch.
Elijah left behind a cloak with the power to part water, letting a man cross a river on dry land. Elisha screamed again when he picked the cloak up. “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” But he slapped the Jordan River with the cloak and walked across, and he wore that damp thing home.
Joshua left behind schoolbooks, comic books, pretentious DVDs, animal puppets, grandpa puppets, ventriloquist dummies, a broken CD player, a laptop choked with viruses, twenty laundry-loads worth of hipster clothes, and a mysterious smell that disappeared after he died.
Nearly three years later, most of that crap is still where Joshua left it. Like he might come home tomorrow, put on his Tasmanian Devil boxers, and forget to set his alarm clock.
Maybe if Joshua’s hoodies had Elijah’s water-parting power, my mother would clean out his room.
The firefighters still sell five-dollar plates of spaghetti, but when they do, my mother doesn’t sing about it. She says, “Why don’t we get some of that spaghetti for dinner?” And she hands one of her daughters a twenty-dollar bill.
When my dad gets a bonus, she yells “Thank God!” She heaves giant sighs of relief at the kitchen table when she sits down and pays the bills. But she no longer imagines herself riding to Heaven in a chariot, planning a four-page grocery list while she strolls the golden streets. Her explosions of joy flew away with her son’s spirit.
Now that he’s gone, my mother doesn’t take the chariot lightly. It’s not a vehicle that shows up when the spaghetti is cheap.
The chariot will take her to see Joshua again.
About the author:
Sarah Beth Childers is the author of the memoir-in-essays Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories from an Appalachian Family (Ohio University Press, 2013). Her essays have also appeared in such places as Brevity, The Tusculum Review, and Wigleaf. She teaches and writes in Richmond, Indiana, with her Boston Terrier and her cat.