I waited in my car for 20 minutes. No last name, precise instructions: “Meet me at the truck stop at the corner of 259 and 144 and I’ll take you on from there. You should write it down because you won’t have cell service.” I found a truck stop but there wasn’t a sign for Highway 144; a man pulled up in a black pickup with a Pomeranian in his lap; you could see the Choctaw in the man’s kind face. I climbed into his passenger seat and he drove the rest of the way, talking, laughing like a school kid, like a 53-year-old man, like a grown man who’d never told any of these adult stories to anyone. “Few years ago, well, I was blowin’ this guy and I felt like I’d been kicked in the back of the head. Well, I had to stop, of course, and I looked at the feller and I said, ‘Something’s wrong, I dunno what, but you’ve got to take me to the hospital.’ So we go to the emergency room and finally I go up to the counter and I say ‘Ma’am, I need somebody to see me quick, I think I had a stroke.’ Well, they jumped up and they was lookin’ at me soon after, said there was a blood clot ’cause I’d had an aneurysm. So that was what happened the first time I ever give head.”
The highway was tight now; there were no road signs at the turns. David said it used to be dirt but the Choctaw Nation had it paved because it was the way most people drove up to Talihina to see the doctor. Finally we slowed down and turned off the road, his truck headlights facing a white church with no sign.
“My life story is quite complicated yet very simplistic in nature when it comes to my faith. The disconnect comes in when I start asking why! Why has all these trials come, with seeming no answers, yet the core of my confidence is still in place? Is what I feel inside from God? Or is the condemnation I would experience from his followers an extension of his righteousness? I know I’m hard to follow at times. I have so many questions that human nature cannot answer.”
Road signs: “Honor What Is Sacred / Quit Commercial Tobacco / Kai and Sandra Stroud Choctaw Nation”; “4C Cowboy Church / Sun 8:45 / Thurs 6:30”; “Choctaw Chickasaw Trail of Tears Memorial Highway”; “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves.” I’d crossed from Oklahoma into Arkansas and back, then across the Red River into Texas, my Ford whining on low mountain inclines, following pickup trucks going 70 around pitched curves on shaky blacktop. The radio was full of Jesus, and the landscape, too, homemade signs: “Prayer is America’s only hope”; “Christ is the beginning of Christmas”; “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” next to two empty fiberglass pools.
“My great-granddaddy built this church back in the ’30s when we broke off from the Assemblies of God across the way,” said David. “We’re Free Holiness now. A preacher’d come through teaching tithes and we don’t believe that’s biblical so we broke off, that’s why we’re ‘free.’” David’s ring finger is crooked, the knuckle bigger than its mates. “It’s just a constant reminder from a couple years ago, Daddy had me on the ground, his hands across my neck. ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out!’ But really, all I come away with was this bum finger.”
He hadn’t been back to this church since 2005, when he’d left his wife. “She was mean. She was spreading rumors, I don’t even know. She’d walk through church saying ‘mmmhmm, that one’s homosexual, yup, that one too.’ Because of how they talked. And you know sometimes you can tell but sometimes you can’t, not exactly.”
David told more of the story as we drove back towards his land. I was to spend the night with all his other strays: 19 dogs (eight Australian shepherds outside, six Pomeranians, one Prince Charles, and four shepherd pups he was selling in the laundry room); at least seven cats, only counting the ones inside; a sun conure bird in a cage covered in shit; Jim, a boyfriend of six years he said he’d never marry; and Jason, the newest addition, a 20-something kid whose mom had kicked him out recently. “He’s not really living,” said David. “He’s up all night singing, watching movies, sleeps all day, that’s not living, but who wouldn’t be depressed, you know? But damn if he isn’t a good lover. Jim and me, you know, Jim makes me still sleep in our bed, but, well, we have a lot of fun the three of us.”
I got out of the car and eight dogs crowded around. You see dogs around a house in the country and you keep your distance, expecting snarls. These dogs: silent: 16 eyes looking half-worried at the new man Daddy’d brought home.
“My ex had to try me on for size, as she put it, right before the wedding—advice from her sister. It made me feel raped in one aspect, because she didn’t ask. I thought she was just enjoying some heavy petting, then it turned into sitting down on my erection. What do you say, ‘Oops’? It wasn’t good for me. She was very frigid and made me do everything the few times we even had sex. Looking back, I see that if I had not waited till I got married to have sex, then I probably wouldn’t have been so desperate to find a mate. Sex is such a small word to distribute such a complex subject.”
On his 80 acres he has 30 horses, chickens. Turkeys. Peacocks. A mule. A well house he built himself. He’d told me I couldn’t take pictures of his house because it was under construction. I’d promised: I’d keep the frame tight. No faces. No construction.
One of the Pomeranians, Wally, looked at me suspiciously and roared—a pint-sized lion—at the other dogs if they came near. The sharp tang of piss pervading the whole house wouldn’t leave my nostrils at peace.
“I will tell you,” said David, “I was so full of sexual pent-up frustration that one night I dreamed that I stole a pornographic magazine. I thought if this bothered me so bad that I’m gonna dream this, I’m gonna go buy the stupid thing! And see what this is all about, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about sex! So I went and bought one and, well, it wasn’t nearly what I thought it was gonna be. But anyway, still, I uh, when I tell you that if I was stealing something I know I’d feel guilt, you know, I would expect my conscience to smite me. But either I’m seared over or whatever, but I just don’t at this point feel that condemnation. I still feel God’s tug.” David was crying. I was, too. “Another time I was here on the bed and my ex-wife come and demanded I write a check and I said, ‘Well, I haven’t got the money right now.’ So she took my belt and she proceeded to give me a whoopin’ with my belt. Well, I took it away from her and so she called the law, said I was abusin’ her. So they took me out on the porch, looking at me like ‘Yeah, you’re just lyin’.’ I just pulled my pants down and here I had a big old red slash across my leg. Officer went right back in the house, said, ‘This is not what we thought it was.’ The officers just left. But—why did the Lord let me go through all that? I’m still a good Christian boy. I still live by the same principles, it’s just a part I have trouble with. The Bible says it’s a sin to have sexual relationships outside of matrimony, but—we is!” He laughed, hysterically, slapping his knee. “You know, yes the Bible has a lot of good teachings, but in all situations it’s not”—he paused, looking around the room—“perfect.” He started to laugh, playfully looking for a blow from above.
Sounds: Pomeranians barking the alarm. Jason singing Katy Perry and Guns N’ Roses. Jim, now and then, coming into the bedroom: “I need to know, you want your slices kept warm like always, right? Supreme?” David sat next to me, our knees touching, his eyes wet with the tears of a true Pentecostal: You can’t know the Lord until you’ve felt his spirit. The first time David felt it: “I said ‘Lord, here I am.’ And I felt like raisin’ my hands and so I did, and I dunno how long I had my hands raised but all of a sudden the best I can describe it was a tinglin’, and it started in the tip of my fingers and it worked all the way down through my body and went out my feet. And when it went out my feet it felt like somebody’d grabbed me and just started shakin’ me. And that was about 9 o’clock. The next time I come to myself it was 12 o’clock. I had been in the holy spirit for all that time. That’s why I know that there is a reality in it because I felt it, but when I felt it there was a joy come with it and there was fear, just a real deep fear, of the Lord. And, I, I can’t, I don’t know why things happen the way they do but I know I had developed grudges against people that was in the church because of things that they had said against me and done against me and when that occurred all of that stuff just left and I have never been hindered with that since then.”
The next morning, I made my own coffee. He said he’d never been drunk, didn’t touch coffee, had hardly had anything but milk and juice and water in his life. Certainly had never been inside a gay bar. But he’d been to the strip in Dallas four different times. Scared as all get out. Sat in his car for hours one night in front of the cowboy bar and didn’t see even one guy go in with boots or a hat. Convinced it was a sham; but a friend told him if he hadn’t been fool enough to sit out there at 8 PM he might’ve actually seen a few hats.
It was Saturday morning, 7:30. David had four sausage patties sizzling on the stovetop to make grease for the gravy. Jason was rolling out his grandmother’s biscuits. Jim watched, hands in his pockets, giving advice.
This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.