Samson by Shelly Ayers

Judge's Choice, 2019 Creative Nonfiction Contest

A hot pink, black-bristled brush was the only brush that could tame my mane. When I showered, the weight of my locks popped my neck and when I played point guard for the Lady Bulldogs basketball team, it took at least three ponytail holders to keep it off my shoulders. Sometimes my mother decided that what my sister and I needed were perms and we emerged from the beauty shop looking like petrified poodles, bangs touching the throne of God. 

I dreaded hair washing because it cut into my time for Dead Man Rise. Dead Man Rise was a mixture of Duck-Duck Goose and Marco Polo that, like everything else in my life, was derived from biblical roots. Lazarus came forth again and again on Sugar Creek. As long as it took to tame my mane, I had nothing on my Aunt Mae.

Aunt Mae’s hair was crow black and dragged the ground behind her unless she twisted it into a donut shaped bun on top of her head. If the apostle Paul was right when he wrote that a woman’s hair is her glory, Aunt Mae was a star. When it was time to wash, Mae planted her knees beside the white porcelain bathtub and scrubbed every strand. To dry, she took a hair dryer from crown to floor while I sat down the hallway and used a second hair dryer to work from the bottom up. We met in the middle like a pair of line dancers. 

Almost every Sunday, the Spirit ran up and down the aisles of Sugar Creek Church of God like liquid fire, lighting everything in its path, especially Mae. Her arms flapped behind her back and her size six feet stomped in rhythm with the bass guitar. Her head snapped back and forth with such a force that her bun loosened with the first toss and bobby pins flew like water from a sprinkler. I danced in the back row, eyes on the action. I was thrilled because I knew I would be allowed to crawl under pews after the service, to collect Mae’s bobby pins. Crawling under pews under any other circumstance would’ve resulted in a thrashing from my dad’s black leather belt and my mother’s tongue which, like the word of God, is sharper than any two-edged sword. 

            The higher the hair, the closer to Jesus, honey. 

Of all the vivid Bible characters I learned about in Sunday School, Samson was one I knew best. Not only did he have heavy, holy, hair, he was a fool for love and it came with a cost. I remember reading, “ …he told her all his heart, and said unto her, there hath not come a razor upon my head; for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother’s womb” and instantly understanding why all the women at church rocked their towers of power. The higher the hair, the closer to Jesus, honey. 

I first stood in front of a crowd and spoke of God and goodness when I was a freshman in high school. My heart just about lept from my throat into the lap of the student closest to me in the front row. I was President of the Christian Athletes. These early morning devotions led to teaching Sunday School at Sugar Creek and singing in the choir. Teaching Sunday School led to speaking at Tuesday night prayer service, to Wednesday night services, to Sunday morning services, and pretty soon, a week-long youth revival.  I viewed myself as a kind of human instrument, meant to live my days under the skillful hand of a master musician. I fasted for days, prayed in isolation, and refused phone calls before I spoke to the crowds. I anointed my own head with oil to remind myself that it was God who had put me behind a pulpit.

And then, I fell in love with a woman. Her hair wasn’t long but it was as red hot as the sermons she spewed while she paced the aisles in her black high heels. The pastor, his wife, and everyone else at Sugar Creek had pushed us to get to know one another because they said we were of the same heart, and they were right.  I chose her company over anyone, anytime, and most of that time we were talking about the mystery of the divine; how the divine is within us, though we look everywhere else. Deep had called unto deep and our souls attached. 

I had never believed that this kind of love song passion was real until her, so while everything about our relationship was holy to me, I understood that my church family would see us as an abomination. To keep my positions of leadership within the church felt disrespectful to them and to myself. I pulled away from the choir, then my Sunday school class, children’s church leader, and, finally I stopped attending. My family and church were devastated and showed their devastation in a variety of ways, all of which were full of tears and meant to inspire guilt, with harsh assurances that I was Hellbound. 

With every slap of the Bible belt against my back, I became shorn, a blinded Samson, fallen from grace and sent to grind mill for his tormentors. I was afraid all the time and rarely slept without dreams of demon possession. I never went to bed at night without pushing kitchen chairs under the doorknobs at my house, in case my parents burst in while I slept beside my love, to harm her. We only had each other but we were desperate and scared. Hiding her car behind abandoned buildings and riding through town with our seats laid back became a normal part of life for us.

Our love was the most authentic thing I had ever known but the stress of hiding took its toll and tore us apart. Regardless, I had started to know who I am and I knew I could not and would not continue to deny happiness in my life. Weeks, months, and years of searching for God and looking inside myself to see her there already built the defiance that I needed to fight back. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, I remembered Samson. I stood between the pillars of an arena designed to shame me and God gave me the strength to bring it all crashing down, letting the pieces fall where they may. 

Shelly Ayers is an English teacher for Campbell County (Tennessee) Public Schools, adjunct professor at Roane State Community College and Lincoln Memorial University, and a current MFA student at Spalding University.

return to creative nonfiction              home