Laurie Ann Doyle
Just This Once
The minister in the big dome of my Aunt Flo’s church was waving his arms and shouting “Who among us does not want to be cleansed? Open your heart and let Him in. Let the Lord Jesus Christ lead you from your wilderness of wrong.” I sank in the pew, pushed down by all my sins: hiding my brother’s Roger Maris card under the bedsprings because he’d refused to switch to Wagon Train, riding Janey Ann’s bike around the block without permission, the big wad of Juicy Fruit stuck under my desk at school. I’d even held up my hand once to hit my mother back. My father was right: it had hurt to sit down for a week straight. The minister was yelling, “Come up right here, right now. Take the first step in a new life. A life leading straight up the silver stairway to heaven.”
Aunt Flo sat on the far end of the pew, her eyes wrinkled in prayer. I stared and the bobby pins in her red hair blurred to wavy crosses. We didn’t visit much because when we did she wanted us go to church: Good News Gospel on Wednesdays, Prayer Circle on Thursdays, and the glories of Sunday service. Three times a week every week she’d been attending since her husband was killed at the beet factory, drowning in a vat of fine, white sugar. Sugar I imagined as the sweet clouds she said Uncle Lloyd now walked among.
Heaven, I decided, was like looking in the sun too long: light so bright it hurt, only when you took your eyes away instead of darkness, beautiful things appeared: Big Rock Candy Mountain all with lemonade springs and bluebirds, a white house with a black brick chimney like ours except nobody fought, a baby doll that drank and wet.
My father’s big fingers turned the pages of the hymnal and passed the open book to my mother. She took it without looking. Under one of her eyes, I noticed a black smudge of mascara. My brother chewed on his thumbnail, smiled, then jabbed me in the ribs. My father shook his head. The whole while the minister kept asking if we wanted to go heaven. Behind him, the purple arms of flowers pointed skyward.
Then, as if I had nothing to do with it, my seven-year-old body was moving down the center aisle toward the front of the church. “Right here, this very minute,” the minister was yelling, “erase the soil of your sin.” The carpet was blue and soft under my feet and the wooden ends of the pews shone as I passed. Soon I was standing next to the minister, my patent leather shoes facing the same direction as his. “Are you willing,” he shouted, “are you ready to come forward and be born yet again?” Sound burst out of him. He flung his arms, he begged, he groaned. My eyes watched all the eyes watching him. Him, not me. It was like I wasn’t there. I’d hoped for a little clapping, maybe. A “Praise the Lord.”
Without looking at me, minister bent down and whispered to a woman in the front row. “Sister, could you help us?” he said, nodding in my direction. The woman came forward and opened a door and I walked in.
The room was big and smelled a little like coffee. At the far end stood a long, brown table; along the walls were stacks of metal folding chairs. The woman opened one, tucked her skirt around her knees, and knelt before it. I did the same. That I’d never seen this room or met this woman before seemed right; being saved meant everything was new. On the wall hung a picture of so glowing a Jesus Christ he looked silver. I propped my elbows on the cold chair seat. A pot somewhere began to churn.
The woman smiled and asked my name. “Do you pray, Annie?” she said.
“I think so,” I mumbled.
Before this woman with pale skin and wavy brown hair, my prayers seemed wrong. They were words and pieces of words I chopped and rearranged from those I’d heard from Aunt Flo and my mother—for sometimes she went to church—so they’d sound good to God’s cloud-shaped ears. Thanks be. O. Glorious. Art. My own prayers, the ones I didn’t change or steal, were worse. Breathless bits of sound that raced across my head, into my fingers, down my legs. God, oh please oh please oh please. Just this one little game of four-square. Just this once. Don’t let Tommy Tompkins win. I’ll be good. Really Forever ever. Really good.
Being good meant tucking in all four corners of your plaid bedspread. Good meant picking up every single candy wrapper. And if you didn’t, not being a cry baby about getting the slap you deserved. Good meant not listening to your parents fight downstairs, your father saying that he’d like to kill your mother. Good meant closing your eyes and going to sleep instead.
My mother kept asking “Why can’t you be good, Annie? Why is it so hard?”
“Then let us pray,” the woman said.
I pressed my fingers together and pointed them up. The air that smelled strongly of coffee now came in my nose, filled my lungs, and let itself out again. I moved words around in my head. Better words. Words of the two prayers my mother had taught me. Our father who. Down to sleep. And if I die. Heaven. Before I wake. My soul. Forever and ever. Though I’d never known a child who died, it seemed we could. Children could go to bed just fine and never wake up. I hated closing my eyes in bed for all the never-talked-about and terrible things that might happen while I was asleep. Would heaven be waiting with its clouds and silver stairs? I squinted one eye open. The woman smiled down at me. I smiled back.
“Were you praying for something special?” she asked.
“Heaven,” I said.
“We all want to go to heaven,” she said, nodding.
“But what if God knows,” I said.
“Knows?” she frowned.
“That—” God was like the wind, my mother said. He was everywhere and saw everything. He touched all things high and low. The wind could knock you flat or cool the sweat off your skin. “What if you tell your parents you’ll be good and then you aren’t and then they get mad only it’s not their fault because it was really you in the first place? What if you say things just to sound good? What if you’re praying just so you’ll get into heaven?”
The woman’s dark eyes looked at me. “Is that what you do, Annie?”
“Let’s pray for God’s forgiveness.”We both bowed our heads again but this time inside me no words rose up. Not even a please.
My eyelids flickered and I saw my fingertips. Inside one thumbnail was a thick line of black dirt. I longed to dig it out. But then the woman would see. I kept still. Is this what it’s like being saved? I thought. My knees itched.
A door opened and I heard footsteps. Then came the clicking of china cups, the sound of spoons being set out. A refrigerator door sucked open and shut. I pushed my elbows into the chair seat until they hurt. I did it again. Finally I let my eyes open. The woman was sitting back on her heels, looking up. “Is it time?” she said not to me but to someone in the back of the room. To me, she said, “Annie, say your amens.”
Before I could speak, an older woman in a blue apron came forward. “They’re almost done,” she said, pointing to the big room next door. She held out a yellow apron embroidered with birds. The younger woman tied it with a bow and walked me to the door. The older one called, “Didn’t you come with Flo?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Down for a visit, I heard.” The older one nodded at the younger one and both of them looked at me in a way I didn’t understand. For the first time, I wondered where my mother and father and brother were.
When I walked back into the church, people were still crowded in the pews. Slowly my parents appeared: the black line of my father’s smooth hair, my mother’s wiry curls. My father slid over and left a big space for me to sit, as if he didn’t want our bodies to touch. My Aunt Flo kept her head down as I squeezed past. The bobby pins in her hair looked more like Xs now, not crosses. I felt for the ones holding my own hair in place. I sat down and wished for something to press up against me. My mother put her hands deep in the folds of her dress. I waited for something to happen, for Jesus to walk in in his dusty sandals and touch my forehead, for the red hymn book to burst into flames, for my father to say he never meant it. I sat as still as I could. My brother leaned towards me. “God,” he said in a loud whisper. “Don’t you know they weren’t talking about you?”