This Great Society - Writing

 


Illustration: Joel Bentley

Kyle Irion: Hard Water
Illustration: Joel Bentley

 
 
 

          “Are you excited?” your mother asks you. She’s putting earrings on and her vision is shifting from her reflection in the bathroom mirror back to you and then back to the mirror.
          You’re standing in the doorway to your parents’ bathroom. You’re leaning against the door jamb. The air in the bathroom is hot and thick with steam and you’re ready to leave because you might be sweating. You can’t tell if you’re sweating or if the steam is just accumulating on your forehead. You tell your mother that you’re excited and she says good, but then it’s quiet and you’re waiting for more. You figure out pretty quick that your mother had only called you in to ask you that question and that was it. You huff a little to yourself, then push off of the door jamb you were leaning on. You turn to leave. The air outside the bathroom is cool and feels good against your skin.
          As you enter the hallway, your little brother brushes by, almost colliding with you.
          “Watch out!” he says, like it was your fault. There’s no way to really tell whose fault it was. Right-of-way in domestic hallway situations is kind of a tricky thing.
          “You watch out!” you call back. You’re hot all over now. Your brother, Ricky, continues down the hallway and into the living room. You go to your room. You’re in your shirt, underwear and socks. You still need pants and stuff.
          Your outfit was laid out by your mother the night before, so there’s no choosing. Getting ready doesn’t take as long as it usually does, so you have an extra few minutes you didn’t plan on—an extra few minutes that you never have on Sunday mornings—and you’re not sure what to do with yourself. You sit on your bed for a second. You breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You overhear your mother and your father talking. From where you sit, it is little more than an exchange between higher-pitch, soprano tones and lower, more resonating, baritone tones. The exchange ends and you hear heavy footfalls on carpet, then hard wood, then you turn and your father is in your doorway. He’s suspending himself there, standing on one foot, his palms on the doorjamb. It’s a slightly athletic pose and you admire how muscular your father is, unlike all your friends’ dads, who are all dumpy and sallow.
          “Mom says you’re excited,” he says.
          “Yeah,” you say.
          “Well, ten minutes to show time,” he says, then offers a half smile (no teeth), pats the door jamb lightly, and walks down the hall. You hear him admonishing your brother for something.
          You scratch your hand because it itches. You feel a little sick. You’re not nervous about what you’re about to do. You’re not so much nervous as much as expectant of a terrible letdown and you don’t know why.
          In ten minutes, your mother comes by your room and tells you it’s time to go. You’ve been ready for ten minutes. You stand up and walk with your parents and your brother out to your car and leave. You and your brother hardly speak on the drive. Your father listens to your mother tell a story about one of the women she works with on the PTA.
          Apparently, Susan O’Tierry’s daughter was caught in a parked car in front of her house doing certain things that your mother never says at full volume and your father has to turn his head to see what she’s mouthing. More than once you see him pull the corners of his mouth back in a kind of “Yeesh” expression. He even says the word “Yeesh” once or twice. Anyway, so the mother—Susan—goes out there and taps on the glass but, in typical fashion, the glass is foggy and she can’t see inside too clearly, but she can see a lot more flesh-toned blurs than she’s happy about and she starts knocking harder on the window and there seems to be some sort of mad scramble inside the vehicle and Susan’s daughter is telling her mom to hold on, but Susan doesn’t want to hold on.
          “Personally,” your mother says, “I’d want to give them time—I’d want to hold on. If they’re doing what she thinks they’re doing.” Your mother leans to your father slightly. “What we all know they were doing,” she leans back. “Why would you want to see that? Seeing all that—” Your father turns to her and lets her know that he catches her drift and she can stop there.
          So the mom—Susan, once again—keeps telling her daughter—Teri—to open the “D door” (your mom says “d” instead of “damn.” You know what she means, but pretend you don’t so she feels free to say stories like this in front of you; you grasp full well what’s being depicted and take a small, quiet, guilty pleasure in listening and understanding when your parents think you don’t) or she’s going to break the window. But come on, she’s not going to break the window. Susan says she can hear arguing in the car and that it sounds like Teri is talking to herself the whole time.
          By now Susan is less angry and just flat out confused and a little concerned for the well-being of her daughter if she’s in a car with someone with her clothes off and talking to herself so loudly. So Susan starts really freaking out and gets her phone out and shines the screen’s light into the window and then the window comes down and she’s looking at a girl’s face who is not her daughter and her daughter is in the passenger seat and they’re breathing heavily and the two girls in the car are sweating and their makeup is smeared and the girl in the driver seat’s hair is a mess and she looks like the cat that ate the canary—they both do. Susan just nodded like she understood then turned into the house.
          “Can you believe that?” your mother asks your father.
          “God. Well, at least it’s all out in the open now,” your father responds.
          “Yes, but—I mean—if I know, who else knows? I wonder if any of them will come to church anymore—the O’Tierrys. People think things about you when something like that comes out.”
          “Mhm,” your dad responds.
          The rest of the ride is relatively silent. You have a brief conversation with your brother about your favourite professional wrestlers. You’re pretty sure he makes up at least two, because your brother’s descriptions of their finishing moves defies physics as well as basic physiology and also your brother isn’t allowed to stay up past nine, so how would he watch wrestling anyway? You start to call him out on this, but something in you is tired and you let it go instead.
          Your father pulls into the church parking lot. The church is old, but not old enough to appear classic. It’s old enough to look used-up and tired. Your mother’s car gets stolen in this parking lot exactly six weeks from this day.
          A strip of bright sunlight stretches across your thigh, making it hot. You move your hand into the strip and out, feeling the heat come and go with your motions. Your father parks the car and gets out. There’s the familiar dinging that is the car telling your father not to forget the keys in the car. Everyone gets out and you sit for two or three seconds in the car by yourself. You allow yourself a brief moment alone. You don’t want it to look like you want the time alone, though. You don’t want to seem dramatic or emotional, so you only allow yourself the two or three seconds that would appear, to those outside the car, inconspicuous at best and at worst only slightly conspicuous (not meriting comment). After these seconds are up, you open your door and slip off your seat to the ground. The vehicle is higher off the ground than your feet can reach. Through the thin sole of your dress shoe, you’re struck by a stab of pain at the ball of your left foot as you land on a sharp stone. You mutter something about stupid rocks and catch up to the rest of your family. Your mother is carrying a beige plastic bag with some clothes in it. Gym shorts and a white t-shirt.
          “Well, how are you today?” the preacher asks as you walk into his office with your mother. Your father has taken your little brother to sit down in the sanctuary. Usually, you and your brother would be in a Sunday school class right now, but not today. Today is special.
          “I’m good,” you say back. You feel very far away from all this right now. You feel like you have as much choice in the direction of your day as a man does the direction of a train.
          “This is a very special event in a young man’s life,” the preacher says. “Or a young woman’s,” he adds, looking at your mother and smiling sheepishly. She exhales sharply through her nose and smiles in that way that passes for a laugh, but is really just an acknowledgment that one accepts that a joke has been made.
          Two nights ago, you rehearsed with the preacher. He stood in the empty baptistery that would in two day’s time hold the (holy) water that would cleanse and save your soul. The preacher held his hand out to you, and you didn’t need to take it, but you took it anyway because you didn’t want to hurt his feelings. His hand was surprisingly rough for a preacher. You had assumed it would be soft from lack of physical labor. Your father’s hands are rough as well, but he works outside for a living. Your mother’s hands are soft. Your brother’s hands are soft. Your hands are starting to harden and it makes you very proud.
          “Are you ready to accept Christ into your heart?” the preacher asks you now.
          You’re not sure if you’re ready or not, though. You’re not sure if you know Christ well enough. You’re only ten years old. Four years ago, you could pee the bed without anyone looking crossways at you. You wonder if you want Christ in your heart and you wonder if once he’s in, he can get back out if you decide you don’t love him anymore. If you can’t get Christ back out even if you don’t love him anymore—if he refuses to leave—does that mean Jesus loves you more or less? You wonder all this in the few seconds it takes to answer, a blast of cold sweat breaking under your arms.
          “Yes sir, I am,” you answer, unsmiling. The preacher laughs quietly and in a proud way. You think he’s going to lean over and tousle your hair, but he doesn’t. Your mother puts her hand on your shoulder and its coldness startles you.
          “Well, if you all want to go sit down, your seats are already marked off on the front row. Now, remember,” he’s looking at you now, “during the first hymn, you need to go through the door on stage left—” he preacher realizes he’s talking to a ten-year-old. “The door on the right when you’re looking at the stage. The door you went in through when we rehearsed.”
          You nod and your mother leads you out of the room. You’re still nervous but not excited and this feeling has only swelled since this morning when you woke up with it. You’re wondering if you’ve made the right decision and if this decision will ever stop affecting you—as in, if you decide later that this was a bad decision, can you just wait out its consequences? Will they just fade out over time if you stop putting effort into your relationship with Christ? You hope so, but somehow this seems like the kind of thing where regular logic doesn’t apply.
          You sit down by your mother in the sanctuary. The sermon starts and it seems very cold in the room—like they turned on the air just for this special event that would undoubtedly raise the congregation’s cumulative body temperature by at least a few degrees. You hold a hardback Bible in your hands that you took off the seat next to you. You decide to look into the Bible, seeking comfort. You open it and then realize that you don’t know any good verses for stuff like this—scary stuff. Well, you know that there are comforting verses in the Bible, but Jesus says them all, and it’s Jesus you’re scared of.
          Your stomach flutters.
          The first hymn ends and your mother pushes you to your feet. You walk and open the door and you feel like the eyes of the entire right side of the congregation are staring at you, although in actuality only a few people glanced over and then back to the preacher. He’s a good preacher. You can’t miss a word.
          You walk into the room and close the door. The sound of the preacher’s voice is immediately muted to a dull rumble. The room feels colder than the sanctuary had felt. There are two pairs of galoshes on the ground and two white robes. One galosh/robe set is much larger than the other. You swallow hard. You realize you’ve forgotten your other clothes—the clothes you’re going to get wet—the clothes in the beige plastic bag your mother was carrying. You get a little sick and then are washed in a feeling much like homesickness. You turn to go back out, but at that moment the door opens and it’s your mother and you just want her to take you home; you’re not ready. You walk up to her to tell her this, but she just holds the bag through the small opening she’s created with the door. You reach out and take it and, looking at your mother’s face as she shuts the door, you want very badly to cry.
          You’re all of a sudden angry at your mother and father. You’re angry at your preacher. You don’t want to be here. Your parents should know that. They shouldn’t be making you do this. Are they making you do this? They never forced you. They never took your hand and made you sign a pledge. They never took your heart and rendered it unto Him. You made this decision, but it sure doesn’t feel like you did. You wonder if it’s possible to force someone to do something without actively forcing them at all.
          The first hymn begins and the stage door opens. The preacher smiles at you and steps down from the elevated place where the stage door opens from. You look from that door to the door you came in through.
          “Hey, you need to change!” the preacher says with urgency but not anger. He points to a screen that you just now notice is there.
          You get behind the screen and change into your gym shorts and white t-shirt. You’re about to wad the bag up when you notice a small piece of paper in it, stuck to one of the sides. You take out the note. “Good luck, buddy!” it says. “Love, Mom.” There’s a heart drawn in the lower corner. You put the note in your pocket, fully aware that it’s going to be ruined in the water. You don’t care, though. The note reminds you that your mother is close by and this puts you at ease some and you need it, because now your hands are cold and sweaty and you feel like you might throw up.
          At the rear of the room is another set of stairs that goes to a place higher than the stage. It is behind this door that, after a short walk down a corridor with a high ceiling, you reach the baptistery. The preacher turns and makes his way up the stairs. You’re struggling to put on your galoshes. You had put your robe on first and now it keeps getting in the way when you try to pull the long, rubbery boots to their proper place on your legs. As you pull the boots on, you notice—for the first time—a dusting of black hairs among the blonde ones on your left leg. You smile a little and you put your hand on your leg as if to tell it good job. Your preacher clears his throat and you know he isn’t trying to clear his throat. You get up and climb the stairs. You’re now standing behind him and you can smell his cologne through the robe. He opens the door and walks through, gesturing for you to come with him. The corridor smells dank and it’s difficult to see. The ground is dusty.
          Years from now, you will admit to yourself that you do not believe in God. You will surrender to doubt while standing in a crowded auditorium full of people your age who are all weeping and lamenting their young sins while a singer with a guitar commands a line of ushers in the back of the room to begin collecting the offering. You will lose someone very near to you and Jesus won’t help you, because why would he help you when he didn’t help your friend? You will begin to feel false at family gatherings and when everyone’s eyes fall to pray you will feel embarrassed for them and then you’ll close your eyes too because the look on everyone’s faces makes your stomach hurt and you can’t stop thinking of Hell.
          You reach the baptistery and the preacher steps in and wades to its center. The hymn closes in that abrupt, applause-less way that all hymns end. The room is totally quiet except for the beat of your heart. You can’t see your parents. You may be able to see them when you’re in the water. You feel like you’re up against something hot. Something is at your back and it feels immovable and alive. You turn around and look. There is a small blade of light coming from the under the door of the room you were just in. You don’t remember closing that door, but the door is closed. You look to the preacher. As he speaks, he gesticulates with his arms in wide motions. Finally, he pauses for a long time and looks out over the congregation. He turns to you and reaches out his hand.
          You think that this isn’t how you wanted this to be and you don’t feel any better and you wonder if Jesus wanted this for you and you think that if He did He isn’t any kind of friend and you’re so scared because now He’s going to live inside you and everything depends on it.

 

 

 
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