Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Step of Faith

We’d all gathered on the sandy bank, standing where the pebbles and grass gave way to soft, damp sand and mud. Leaves had been changing for over a month, many now strewn along the bank and floating up and down the wide creek. In the summer months, we’d all play in the water, sunup to sundown, swimming, wrestling. At its deepest, it’d come up to our chests, and that made it ideal for such things. The other purpose, of course, the one we’d watched all our lives but to this point avoided, was baptism, which was fine in the blazing hot months of summer, but summer had waned, and now we all stood watching Reverend Payton wading out into the water, and we couldn’t help but wonder how we’d gotten there and who’d have to go first. If we were honest, as sometimes we were, we’d have to say that we were all there for different reasons. Tommy’s parents had dragged him to the altar after they’d caught him smoking a cigarette out behind their barn, and he hadn’t put up much a fight on the way after they’d threatened to send him to live with his grandparents, who lived in an even smaller town than us. Little Mitchy Tyler—Bitchy Mitchy, we called him—had gone because we had. Mitchy was a couple years younger than the rest of us and scrawny, but we let him hang around us on occasion, even if was just for our amusement at times. We always made sure he got the ball the most during Smear the Queer, at least until he complained too much of getting hurt. And I had gone because Becky Reynolds had gone, and at that point in my life, I’d have done anything to be around her. Even if it meant kneeling at the altar in front of the whole congregation, leading them to believe whatever they wanted about what I did up there.
            We’d all sat through the weeklong revival, each night seemingly dragging longer than the one before. We sat and paid attention as best we could as the Reverend Randall Sawyer railed against the evils of drinking, smoking, dancing, and sex—the youthful joys we’d just discovered in the first years of our adolescence. Some us were impressed by the fact that he hailed from New York City, a place we had all heard of but never been, except Benny Henderson, who had visited with some cousins a couple years before, and returned with lascivious tales; we doubted most of what he said, but we had to strategically place our hands to hide our piqued interests as he told us of hookers and peepshows, of girls walking around half-naked in the summer heat.
            Ours was the fourth town Sawyer had preached through on this particular mission through our area, though he was no stranger to the south. He’d driven down south every summer for the past several years, his stints stretching into mid-autumn, making his way through the revival circuit, spreading God’s word through small towns, under large tents pitched in fields. Between the large, often multi-denominational ten revivals that would sweep the town into a charismatic fervor—one of the rare occasions in which all the small churches could put aside their denominational differences—he would hold revivals at whichever church would have him. There were always stories, of course, that preceded his arrival—rumors that he was known to sneak off with a flask of whiskey after sermons; rumors that he left a girlfriend in each town and that was why he was never invited back to any particular church for a second visit—we as teens had no idea whether this was true or not, but I knew this was the first time he’d been to our church. These rumors were part of the reason we didn’t mind going on the first night of meetings, part of the reason we didn’t struggle or protest as much as in years past as our parents loaded us into cars. But as the week wore on and no signs of promiscuity showed themselves concerning the stranger, we largely lost interest and had to rely of feigning interest as best we could to keep our parents off our backs; though my father had purported to have seen the reverend drinking in a darkened bar a couple towns over the weekend before the meetings started. I listened, hidden on the stairs, as he told momma about it. When I asked her about it the next day, she said not to blaspheme, and that we should pray for my father. In those years, Daddy was out of church, so momma said we didn’t have to listen to him, especially when he’d been drinking. Just the same, we’d sniff really hard like we were about to sneeze whenever we’d shake hands with the preacher each night, just to get a big whiff of his breath. Some of us claimed to smell whiskey wafting from him, but I never smelled anything on him. It was funny—those who swore the most that the reverend was breaking his own rules, those that said they’d smelled the proof coming off of him, were those who’d never drunk themselves, and didn’t even have dads at home who drank.
            If the adults had heard the rumors we teens talked about so incessantly leading up to Sawyer’s arrival, they didn’t let on. It was though they’d outgrown the near-skepticism to which we were relegated, having adopted a full faith or full cynicism by the time they’d reached middle age. Those on whom cynicism had settled were not the type to frequent revival meetings, it seemed, but maybe if they had, they’d have shared our interest in wanting to catch the holy man slipping.
            Sawyer had left town after the dinner after the morning’s service, so he wasn’t there to watch the jubilation of the adults rekindled by the spirit as they were re-baptized, an outward sign many of the most fervent of believers showed after each revival, an action for which no one had ever provided Biblical grounds and some had even preached against, meaning that most of us who’d answered the call under Sawyer’s oratory would be doing this for the first and only time on that cool October day. But Sawyer, of course, was on to the next town, and not there to watch our tepid steps toward the creek amidst the hallelujahs and amens of the adults around us.
            We stood segregated by sex, casting furtive glances at the group to which we did not belong. Our summer clothes had been swapped for lettermen jackets and sweaters with the changing of the leaves, but on that day, in a slight return of Indian summer, an unusually warm day, we’d been tricked into imagining the water would match the temperature of the air around us, but we realized as we watched Reverend Peyton and the adults plunge into and under that sparkly flood that we were wrong. The adults shivered as they made their way out to the reverend, and as the reverend held them, one hand on the small of their back, their shirts pressed tight against wet skin, his other hand cupped against theirs as they covered their mouths and noses, anything to keep from swallowing creek water; and gasped as they rose anew from their symbolic graves, the cold having washed over them, taking their breaths with their sins. We watched as the adults rekindling their faith gave way to new converts. The first of us to go, after a succession of adults who’d managed to avoid getting salvation during their younger years, was Mitchy Tyler. We all whispered and snickered as he shuffled forward, going first, we knew, just to impress us all. He walked out into the water on scrawny, shaking legs. A ripple passed through his body as the reverend pronounced, “I baptize this my brother in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” his voice bold and profound and like a broken record, and then dunked him under the water. Bitchy Mitchy ran out onto dry land, rubbing the goose pimples that had sprouted on his arms. He was running and whooping like the Sprit had a hold of him, and the adults cheered his outward sign of conversion, but we all knew he was just a pussy who couldn’t handle the cold.
            We stood watching the baptisms, each of us thinking about the sins we’d vowed to give up just days before—sex; the newly acquired taste for purloined alcohol, lifted from our fathers’ cabinets when they weren’t looking; our fathers’ dirty magazines hidden as we snuck off into the isolated  nooks and crannies of our houses and out into the woods—we kept looking around town for women like the ones we saw in the pictures, but the closest we came was Lucinda May, who legend had it, had slept with almost every man in town; she was tall, buxom, and blond, with a toned stomach; she wore short cut-off denim shorts with the stray strands coming down to the top of her thigh; and it was rumored that what she could do to a man was well worth the two-hundred dollar price tag that supposedly came with her company. We came close a couple nights, mostly drunken nights, to pooling our meager resources to see if she was worth it, but we never got the nerve, wondering, though, if any of our fathers had. The thought of following in their footsteps in that regard was too uncomfortable to garner much attention. 
            We had vowed to give up much, too much, perhaps, we would conclude in years’ time, of what we’d just begun to enjoy. Looking around the people I’d known most of my life, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would follow the straight and narrow, however wide it was becoming in other parts of society; based on experience and watching those whose paths we now followed, I doubted today would last with many.
            The numbers of us still dry were dwindling, and I knew I’d have to go soon. Those who’d already gone through it stood, warming in the afternoon sun, a welcome relief from the chilly creek water. Reverend Peyton had been out there for some time now, and we thought surely the old man’s legs and feet, everything from his bellybutton down, must be numb. We questioned among ourselves why he did it. In the coming years those of us who took our transformation seriously would grow to admire the old man, to have a deep and honest respect for him, but many of us, those whose going to the altar, those whose baptism on this October day would become nothing but a memory, would find the old man’s to be a sad existence. He didn’t drink or smoke. He didn’t dance, and he preached against the places we went, the music we listened to, and the films we saw when we drove to the next town over. He and his wife were quiet people who didn’t go out much. They could be seen sitting on their front porch listening to the local high school football and basketball games while we all drove and walked by to see them played in person. Whenever new restaurants opened in the next towns over, we all went as often as our meager wages, and our parents’ meager wages, would allow. But not the reverend and his wife. They could be found at the local diner a few evenings per week, but other than those few occasions, Mrs. Peyton cooked. Church on Wednesday, twice on Sunday. Board meetings and revivals. Visitation to the sick or shut-in. That was their life. We’d often wonder what in his life had led him to where he was.
            Throughout the baptisms, the adults sang and testified, their voices raised. The men stood in their Sunday best, suit coats over overalls on many. Suits and ties—Sunday for some the only day they peeled off their work clothes caked in grime and sweat, and scraped away the grease and dirt that were ever-present throughout the week. They were good people. Hardworking people, many of whom had gotten onto us over the years for our youthful mischief.
            Many of the new converts came up singing, their voices blending with the old. The longer we were there, the more people stopped along the road to watch. Some left their pickups and cars parked along the gravel skirt, some in the grass, and walked down the embankment to where we were. A few dropped their sins on the way and waded out to where the minister still stood, beckoning to all who were willing to come.
            The group of us boys had dwindled to Tyler Fitch and me. Those who had gone into the water had come out and stood with their parents. Mark, Benny, Lewis—all with washed away sins. No more busting out streetlights on Saturday nights or throwing rocks through the darkened windows of the elementary school that closed a few years earlier and never reopened, the students sent to schools in surrounding towns. Most of the girls had gone into the creek, and we boys watched as the water washed over their young bodies. Our minds were filled with the images we’d vowed to abstain from, carnal thoughts of budding promiscuity, and we knew that no amount of dirty holy water would wash those away. I had to try to cross my legs where they met as I watched Becky Reynolds make her way to the minister. She slipped out of her sandals, leaving them in the grass, and padded barefoot into the creek, the water lapping at her feet, and slowly rising up her still-tan legs. Her dress clung to her thighs, illuminating everything that had burned in my teenaged mind, the water cresting at the small of her back.
            I had never wanted to be a preacher, though my grandmother swore that I had the gift down deep just burning to get out, but I was jealous of the minister’s hands as they held Becky’s wet body, one hand on the small of her back, the other cupped around her nose and plump, pink lips. Her fingers held onto his upraised arm as he slowly lowered her, the water giving way, swelling around her, washing over her. She came up, rubbing the water out of her eyes, her blond hair dripping as she ran her fingers through it, fastening a ponytail with a black hair band that had adorned her wrist. She made her way out of the creek, smiling the smile of those for whom that day was a turning point, the first markings of a new chapter. I smiled at her as she passed me and made her way to her parents. She walked by, not even acknowledging my presence, and my smile slowly faded. Someday I’d get her attention and have the nerve to talk to her. I’d watched her from a distance for the two years she and her family had been in town, but I would guarantee she didn’t know I existed outside of being someone she saw around school. I had thought that maybe this would be the day I spoke, but my voice dried up in my throat as she passed; I found I couldn’t swallow, much less speak.
            I felt my mother’s hands fall on my shoulders, her fingers squeezing me. She’d kept her distance until then, just watching to see if I’d go without some degree of goading. I hadn’t. Instead, I had watched everyone else follow through with their commitments. “Go on, sweetheart,” she said. “We’re all so proud of you.” Her voice was full of the heartfelt sweetness of a mother watching her only child affirming the most important decision of his short life, and all I could feel was the twinge of guilt gnawing at my stomach as I stood there feeling like an imposter. What had I been saved from? White lies? Not cleaning my room? Cheating on spelling tests? I was still a virgin who’d only seen a real naked woman once, and that was only when my neighbors had accidentally left their curtains open one summer night several years ago. So much of life’s sins and discoveries lay ahead of me, newly acquired tastes just waiting to be developed and explored.
            I kicked off my shoes and waded out into the water. Tyler Fitch had gone before me and he was right—the water was awfully damned cold, a rush surging up my legs. I shivered, my legs stunned with the dull shock. My feet sank into the muddy bed, the slimy earth squishing between my toes. With each step, the water rising, a new part of my body grew cold, and by the time it reached my groin, shrinking what little manhood I had, I was ready to turn back, to fight my way back to the safety of the shore, back to where my friends and family stood singing, many with their arms uplifted, but I knew I’d face the disapproval of everyone watching if I did. Peyton’s outstretched hands—and maybe something deeper—drew me forward. As he held me, pulled me into him, his hands moving mine up to cover my nose and mouth, I felt something like belonging, a warmth of love spreading through me, enveloping me as the reverend tilted me back into the water, murkier than it had appeared from the shore, and the growing warmth was washed away by the cold that flowered over my submerged body. Everything sounded distant, distorted, the songs of praise jumbled and unrecognizable over the rumble of the quiet water.
            I rose, shaking to dry myself, and pushed aside the hair that hung in my eyes. I looked around, expecting, just maybe, to perceive things differently, that everything would make sense, would be bathed in a heavenly glow. But nothing had changed.
            The reverend patted me on the back, and I trudged toward the crowded shore, my legs heavy in the water and mud. My mother was standing by the water’s edge, her hands clasped together against her chest as if praying, pure joy beaming from her smiling face, and had a newcomer to the gathering not caught my eye, I would have broken down and cried, hot tears stinging my cheeks from the summersault my insides were doing, all bunched up and twisted.
            The newcomer was Cecil Arthur Fitch, and he was making his way down the embankment toward all of us. Fitch staggered, still reeling and stinking from the night before. I spotted Tyler’s crimson cheeks, working his way toward the outskirts of the congregants. His mother, Missy, just hung her head while several of the other women consoled her. As I watched her, it was as though she were trying to squeeze tight into herself, as if she could disappear from our midst before it was too late.
            The reverend was still standing in the water; his arms were lifted over his head, and he was calling, “Will you come, folks? Will any others come and plunge beneath that crimson flood?” His voice was pleading, his eyes searching the crowd, most of whom, in truth, were saved and had been for longer than I had been alive. But still, as he did every Sunday behind the pulpit, he stood and made the same pleas. “You who are backslidden, you who once walked in the light but have allowed the darkness of the world to lure you back into Satan’s grasp, come, come and let Jesus wipe away the filth of sin from your soul. Your precious, precious soul. It’s not too late, oh sinner. You can still come and be made new.”
            Those in the crowd were looking around at each other, wondering who, if anyone, would go next. Many were praying, their arms up over their bowed heads, eyes closed tight, soft utterances coming from their barely moving lips. My mother put her arms around me and pulled me against her. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she told me that she was proud of me and that she loved me. I could only hang my head; she thought I was praying.
            “I’m coming. I’ll come,” called a voice from behind us. I could see Tyler’s cheeks burning brighter, the tips of his ears turning pink, as his father pushed his way through the crowd. I felt sorry for Tyler, imagining the humiliation he must be feeling, but I was thankful for the distraction, anything to displace my guilt. His old man was making his way through the crowd, loosening his stained tie, filthy from whatever he’d dripped on it the day before. Cecil—Mr. Fitch we were told to call him—tore at the top buttons on his yellowed shirt, fumbling as he tried to slip it off. Some of the younger children snickered as they watched the embarrassing scene; parents covered their innocent eyes out of fear of what the man would do next. Mostly the men were laughing, the women looking away in pious indignation. I had lost sight of Mrs. Fitch, but deep down I was glad for the spectacle: it distracted me from the tumultuous feelings still lingering in my stomach. I watched Tyler’s face burning as he pushed backward through the crowd.
            I never understood why we had to call Cecil Fitch Mister Fitch. That title was often assigned only to those of good repute, those whom our parents saw as equals and productive members of society, those pillars of both church and community without whom our town, it was believed, would fall apart and be taken over by the likes of Cecil Fitch. He was often the subject of gossip behind closed doors and over dinner tables, with mainly the women showing some compassion as they talked about how sorry they felt for Tyler and Missy and how important it was to extend to them the Christian compassion that dictated so many of their thoughts and deeds. There was always talk of a special offering for the Fitches, who were always in need of extra money given the state of Cecil’s work habits: he worked for himself, claiming to be a master carpenter and homebuilder, though his work was often shoddy at best when he would infrequently be hired on jobs. Though Tyler would never admit it, we all knew that they were dependent on the state for much of what they had, which wasn’t much. The special offerings were often smaller than one would expect, with many of the parishioners of town claiming they couldn’t justify their money going to a drunk like Cecil Fitch. When reminded that the money was for Missy and the boy, who couldn’t be faulted for the old man’s actions, the withholders would claim that there was no way to ensure that Cecil wouldn’t get his hands on it and drink it all away. But that was the good Christian charity of the people I knew: God helped those who helped themselves, and Cecil Fitch didn’t help himself that wasn’t made of sour mash. God wouldn’t give him money—the church folk were just following in His footsteps.
            “Do you, sinner, repent of your worldly sins and command that the devil loosen his grip on your soul?” Reverend Payton asked, cradling the larger man in his arms. Fitch had stripped to his undershirt and boxers, both covered in sweat and other stains that we couldn’t decently consider, his feet still glad in socks as he trudged into the creek. He’d plunged into that cold water without a second thought—no hesitation at the shock that awaited him—and now his swollen eyes were looking up at the sky as though Christ himself were coming down to land as a dove on his forehead. I’d quit looking for Tyler or his mother. God and everyone knew he’d hear about it at school the next day. His father’s baptism, which the old man would likely not remember, would be the talk of the town—and that include the school. Anything the old man said before or after being submerged would be used against Tyler into the foreseeable future. And the adults wouldn’t be much better, but at least they’d have the tact not to talk about it in front of Tyler—not much, anyway. But for now, all eyes that weren’t looking away in embarrassment were locked on the preacher and the drunk.
            “Oh, yes, yes. I repent! I repent!” bellowed Fitch. “Save me, sweet Jesus!”
            “Then I baptize you, Cecil Arthur Fitch, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
            With that, the reverend dipped Cecil under the water and pulled him back up. Fitch came back up gasping and sputtering, coughing out mouthfuls of creek water. The coldness of the water had finally been felt, all the way down his throat and into his chest. The reverend patted him on the back, asking if he was ok. It was probably the first time Cecil had had anything to drink that didn’t burn since Thursday night. The reverend led him out of the water as the gathered crowd clapped and amened. Payton was calling it a day—after baptizing Cecil Fitch, any other redemptions would just be a gaudy display of one-upmanship. His being saved had made the day—many of those who’d refused to send money they Fitches’ way were the same who fervently prayed for the man’s salvation, asking God to send whatever He needed to to get Cecil’s attention: ailments, jail time. Whatever He deemed necessary to use against the drunkard.
            Peyton and Cecil were met at the shore as hands were shaken and arms thrown around the new Cecil who only moments ago had been deemed little more than a drunkard. Missy and Tyler begrudgingly made their way forward and were among the first to greet him, both with grins painfully spread across their faces. Mrs. Fitch wiped at her red cheeks and puffy eyes as older women hugged her, many sharing in her assumed tears of joy. Now that Cecil was right with the Lord, everything would get better: he’d secure a job with good wages, make life better for his family, save. Maybe even work his way up to serving on church boards and committees before too long. Who knew what God had in store for Cecil now! Everyone was sure whatever it was it would be big. Life was going to turn around for the Fitches and the hankering for firewater that had haunted Cecil for years was now under God’s thumb, and there it would stay. But even those of us who thought it knew it was a dream. Next weekend, Cecil Fitch would be staggering innocently through town, singing off key and at the top of his longs, moaning out some lovesick tune, until he headed home for the night to pass out. If he made it home and didn’t sleep at the train station at the other end of town, where he would often sit and ramble about waiting on his train to come in, a train that would carry him away—amusing ramblings that always made those passing through town who happened to encounter him leery, but amusing enough to those of us who knew he wasn’t crazy. They’d watch from sideways glances as train after train left and Cecil was never on them.
            We made our way back to the church for the dinner that waiting on us. Long tables of fried chicken and potato salad, of baked beans with molasses, that had been prepared by the Women’s Auxiliary were now waiting for us, had been waiting for us since about midway through the baptism, a few select women leaving the creek to heat up the food. Now we made our way back in a happy parade, all singing at welcoming the new followers into our midst. Tyler was walking with his parents, and when we made eye contact, he smiled. I diverted my gaze to stare at my feet as I walked. Something about watching his father baptized made me feel guilty, likely because it allowed me to think of something other than my own baptism, about which I was still uncertain. Everyone was jovial, enraptured with the Spirit and each other. Many of us were already thinking, though, of our next sins, envisioning what we’d need to repent of by the time the next revival rolled around in the spring. I was lost in this train of thought when I felt something warm brush against my hand. I looked up in time to see Becky passing me, hurrying to catch up to her mother and father. “Sorry,” she said. She was fixing her flaxen hair and had incidentally brushed her hand against mine in the process. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t care. An electric surge coursed through my body and my limbs turned numb as I watched her walk away.

            “It’s ok,” I muttered, barely audible even to myself. My mouth was dry as I tried to think of something else to call after her, something—anything—to get her attention, to tell her that I loved her. I didn’t know what new sins I’d commit between then and the revival in the spring, but as I watched Becky Reynolds walk away, her still bare feet sliding through the grass, her tan legs extending from below the short, cream-colored skirt that still clung to her wet skin, I knew where I wanted my sinning to start. 

No comments:

Post a Comment