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The Holy of Holies Man

“An obeah-man never dies, sir — the Devil
looks after him.”
                          –Eden Phillpotts

for A.R., Harlem, 1985

Somehow, you knew you were naked, in trouble.
Something was wrong, because you didn’t feel sacred
but tired. Knowing that brain neutrons were going
hay-wire wasn’t fun. After the herbal sponge bath, you’d
stand in the tub again, tasting (he said) like Devil’s Food
Cake. He had to be hungry. It was “a cleansing.”

I’m the Obeah-man, the Most Holy of Holies, he said.
You couldn’t stop anything. He dressed you in
petti-skirts and bobby socks, but wouldn’t take you
to grade school. One night, he lathered you up,
took off your wig, shaved you down there, used
Johnson’s Baby powder. You didn’t remember how,

years ago, you did catwalks in bare-belly bolero jackets,
left fairy dust in Jet’s centerfold. At thirty-eight,
you began to babble at work, count sheep over your
keyboard. He found you sleep-walking in mid-town
before he took you home. On the subway, he told you
anteaters, warthogs, and muskrats were following.

You were a goner, doe-eyed, unsteady as a pallbearer.
After a few days, he taped Ben Franklins to your body–
fit a fantasy bra, cheek-huggers, gave you a horse’s head-
blinders. You were a sweet thing. The Obeah-man recited
serial numbers, passwords, praised your friendly ATMs.
It was the cruelest winter, you’d later say. When you

returned to your very busy desk in Manhattan, he sang
into your ears. Hallelujah, Godspeed. But you’d never
walk on water, he said. He’d keep the brightest lights on.
Getting home, you’d look under your bed, into the darkest
creases of every closet. Since your place wasn’t big enough
for elephants or orangutans, the Obeah Man had to go.


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