The Baptist church was the biggest building in my home town, except for the rice dryers out on the highway. People said the church had been an impressive building years ago, before they'd renovated it. Now the brick was covered with a gaudy white layer that looked like a bunch of pebbles cemented together; four stories of this that seemed to swell at the top, leaning over the elementary school next door like a wedge of brie standing on its point.
My father was an atheist who lectured us about how NASA had sent rockets into space and never seen heaven. Though it didn't seem so at the time, his rants were more directed at making us think for ourselves and not be bogged down in the fear and ignorance he saw around us. He associated Christians with the lowest common denominator; the people who feared black cats as minions of Satan, and lived in a sort of expectant fear that any day now, the world would crumble into ruin and everyone but them would be lost.
But my mother was a devout Christian and insisted that we attend church. My father's only victory was that he refused to go himself. So, thanks to her fear for our souls, every Wednesday night my sister and I went for service, and every Sunday morning I was lumped in with just under a dozen children of the richest and most affluent people in town and forced to go to Sunday School.
One of my earliest memories of Sunday School is of the collection envelopes. Every week we had to bring one, a thin little envelope printed with heavy black lines on which our parents could print their names, address, and the amount they were donating. A box sat in the corner with a slit in the top, and at the beginning of class, we all lined up under the hard eyes of the two preachers’ wives who ran the class.
“Very good,” they would say as we dropped in our envelopes. “Now go take your seat.”
And we went and sat in the chairs in the center of the room, the girls with their dresses flattened neatly over their legs, the boys fidgeting in their khakis.
Once, I was running late and forgot my donation. Being so used to the ritual, I automatically lined up with the other children and approached the donation box.
“I don’t have a donation envelope,” I said, realizing suddenly what had happened. “My mom forgot.”
“Are you sure?" One of the wives said. "I know for a fact that you were told to take home donation envelopes. Well, you can use a new one. Fill it out yourself. I can’t believe you’d waste church money like that.”
I was confused and ashamed. "I don't have any money," I said.
She glared at me. “So you just decided to spend it on candy? Did you stop by the store on the way here today?”
“No,” I said.
“Turn out your pockets,” she said.
The room stopped en masse to stare at me. She searched my pockets and found nothing.
“Well,” she said. “You must’ve already eaten it.”
I sat quietly in a chair, a little away from the other kids. None of them looked at me for the rest of the class, and I was glad of it.
I tried from then on to always remember my donation. Once, some months later, a similar situation occurred, but I had fifty cents that my father had given me to buy supplies at school. So I quickly grabbed an envelope, filled it out, stuck the change in, and took it to the box, aware the whole time of how much heavier it was than usual, since it had change instead of paper bills, of the way it clinked when I dropped it in. I sat through the rest of class terrified that they would call me out but nothing was said.
Class was often conducted in the form of a question and answer session in which the preachers' wives asked questions and watched us struggle for a while until they stepped in and answered. The questions were about Bible readings that I was too lazy to do. I didn't read the Bible at all until many years later.
“Cortney," they might ask, "why were Adam and Eve banished from the Garden?”
To which I might reply, “Because they were naked?”
“And how did they come to know that they were naked?”
I paused. “Because they were cold?”
I would then be sent to sit in the corner, no longer participating with the class. That would have been a fine reward if it weren’t for the lecture that preceded it.
“Really, Cortney, I don’t see how you can think this is funny,” they would say.
“I don't.” Which was true. Nothing could've been less amusing.
“You mean you don’t know? You really don’t know why Adam and Eve were forced to leave the garden? How can you not know that?”
I didn’t dislike sitting in the dunce chair. Being forbidden from participating in class meant that I could relax. Staring at the rest of the class from outside was supposed to be a punishment, but I enjoyed it. It was more interesting to watch the preachers' wives yelling at kids than it was to be yelled at. The children of the richest parents, for example, were never yelled at. They were rarely asked questions, either. Occasionally, one of them raised a thin arm and volunteered an answer and that was enough. It was the poorer kids who were singled out, though of these, even the poorest wasn’t wearing the dark blue Wrangler jeans from Wal-Mart that were all my family could afford. The rest of the families at least made the effort to look well-off, which meant getting their clothes from the mall in Jonesboro, a forty-five minute drive. Mine was considered doomed and damned; too lazy to make the effort.
Once, while exiled to the dunce chair, I found myself staring at the wood grain door. It was a simple, old hollow door that had weathered many grubby children’s hands. It would’ve looked fine in a home, but in the austere setting of the church, it was out of place. I was bored, and my eyes kept coming back to it until I realized that within the grain, I could see the vague outline of a man’s head. He wore an expression of sadness, and I felt suddenly uncomfortable, thinking this. I stared at the face for a long time, tracing the details of the eyes and mouth with my eyes, and tuning out the noise of the class. It was calming, and for once, when Sunday School was over, I felt glad. It was a kind of art, making a face out of the patterns of lines. I had seen faces in doors before. I started doing it everywhere, looking for images and patterns within things; trying to see the world around me differently.
I considered telling the preachers’ wives about the face, but I didn’t know how to explain it to them. They might not see it, and they would probably accuse me of not paying attention. Or worse, they might see it as a sign. There was a house on the other side of town in which someone claimed to have seen three crosses through the frosted glass of a door. Cars lined up for blocks for the next few weeks as people came from every state to witness what they considered to be a miracle. My father said that he'd talked to the man who installed the door, and he had said that you could see all sorts of things in those kind of windows because of the way the glass was frosted.
"One woman thought she could see her dead cat in her door," he'd said.
* * *
During the summers, my aunt volunteered me to go with her two sons to Baptist youth camp and to the youth group. I don’t remember much about the camp except that most of the time seems to have been spent in a swimming pool. I couldn’t swim, which left me stranded in the shallow end alone because all of the other kids could demonstrate their prowess well enough to be allowed in the deep water.
I remember the youth group as being a sort of Sunday School for older kids. We were led by teenagers, who arranged games and mostly just killed time. As soon as we left the car, my cousins lost interest in me and I was left to myself. Soon after I started going, it was decided that we would have a water balloon fight. To do this, we all had to bring balloons, and we all had to wear shorts. I didn’t own a pair of shorts. My father wasn’t particularly thrilled about this whole church thing, and dishing out money to buy shorts I would wear one time was more than he was willing to do.
“Where are your shorts?” they asked when I showed up in jeans.
“I don’t have shorts.”
“Everyone has shorts,” they said.
“I’ll just wear pants.”
“No, you can’t wear pants. You’ll ruin them.”
“It’s just water,” I said.
“And it wouldn’t be fair to let you throw balloons at the other kids when they
can’t throw balloons at you. I guess you just won’t be able to participate. I’m sorry, but we did say to wear shorts.”
And so I sat inside the air-conditioned church and watched the other children being pummeled by the older kids, out in the summer heat. There was an old refrigerator inside, and I found some sodas and drank one.
* * *
It was understood that when one reached a mature age, around ten, one could leave Sunday school and begin attending regular church sessions. This required a baptism, as I had never had one.
I was terrified of baptism. The elder preacher was a thin, fading old man, his heavy white head was large and round as he leaned out over the parishioners and mumbled damnation. I knew that he would drop me. I would drown in the baptismal pool. This was a common fear. My sister waited until well into her teens to be baptized. She wouldn't admit it, but I was certain this was because she was afraid.
Perhaps you’ve seen Baptist churches in movies or on TV. In those churches, the preachers sway, choirs sing, old ladies get up and run around, dancing with the spirit. Baptisms happen in rivers. The preacher stands, holding against the tide, while the faithful wade out and are dunked, cleansed of their sins, and everyone sings. There was none of that here. We used a tub beside the pulpit. Rivers are dirty and there are never enough places to park.
On her day, my sister, draped in a white robe, was led out before the audience. She was fourteen and nearly as tall as the preacher. He asked her if she renounced all sin. She said yes, and then he grabbed her and dunked her backwards into the water. His arms shook and she went down fast. He struggled to lift her out of the water, but he was having problems. The tub was narrow enough that she could grab the sides, and she was able to push herself up and out. He stared at her, and the congregation started singing while someone handed her a towel. That was enough for me. Regardless of the fear for my soul, I remained unbaptized.