The faded old Georgia-Pacific boxcars clacked and groaned their way down the tracks, singing the same song as me, one with no words. The air smelled of crop dust and the bobwhite quail Mr. Fordyce raised in backyard coops next door. I was eleven, and for as long as I could remember, I’d dreaded this time of day. Dust-dark, we called it in the delta.
Twilight, the air humid with loneliness and unbearable yearning for something I couldn’t name. An atomic fireball like the ones I bought for a dime each at Pang’s Grocery on the Tallahatchie County courthouse square formed in my throat. Like always, I swallowed it down to my heart of hearts, that spot somewhere between my throat and ribcage that would never show up on any x-ray but was there all the same, heavy as a brick-bat, malignant as any cancer you could name. It was in that place, in my heart of hearts, that I knew beyond the shadow of any doubt I had never been saved. Jesus was coming back like a thief in the night, and I wasn’t ready for the rapture.
The caboose rumbled past the parsonage driveway, next door to the Church of God where Daddy pastored. It vanished from my sight, past the courthouse square with its monument to the southern soldier, past the crumbling old hotel on the corner where two elderly sisters lived. From their spot on the second pew, they gazed up at Daddy in adoration each Sunday as he closed his eyes to plead for the anointing, then laid the spine of his highlighted Dake’s Bible on the pulpit, its cover falling open to First Thessalonians: And the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds.
I sat on the car bumper and listened to the courthouse clock chime seven, and even
before the final stroke, I knew what was coming.
“Not again,” I whispered to myself, my insides lurching and my heart galloping. But resistance was pointless. One way or the other, I had to know. My legs in denim culottes were moving whether I liked it or not, my bare feet scattering gravel as I rushed towards the parsonage and the light in the kitchen window.
“Please be there, please be there.”
And then I heard it. Mama’s voice singing out through the open window, everything around me slowing down, exhaling, unwinding. Sweet relief flooded each cell in my body. There’d been no blast from Gabriel’s trumpet. Jesus hadn’t raptured her and Daddy away, not yet. I ached to fling open the screen door, rush into the kitchen and anchor Mama to the floor, bury myself in her housedress and keep her here with me. Instead, I sat on the concrete step and shut my eyes, breathing in all the mingled scents of Mama and her flowerbed: marigolds, roses, four o’clocks, Jergens hand lotion. In, out, in, out, I breathed.
Ain’t no graaaaaave gonna hold my body down, Mama sang, but softly.
Later that evening I lay on my quilt with my bedroom window open, resting my head on my forearm. The courthouse clock struck the half-hour, and a lawnmower buzzed from somewhere down towards the cotton gin. Through the paneled wall between our bedrooms, I could hear Mama all alone, kneeling beside her bed and praying softly in the unknown tongue. I listened to her weep. Shondai, shondai. Sheela ma conda lai. I couldn’t interpret, of course, but I imagined I understood the heavenly words for daughter, lost soul, left behind, pride, and eternity. I suddenly felt that if I didn’t give up and pray for salvation that very second, I’d never have another chance.
Come into my heart, Jesus. I want to be saved. I don’t want to miss the rapture. It seemed so simple. Say the words, and your ticket was punched. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make myself utter them. I was beginning to understand. Salvation was more than words.
It was nothing like the picture that had hung in the parsonage living room as long as I could remember, of Jesus in a starlit garden with the hills and white villages of Judea in the background. His precious head haloed by a pale, soft moon, a shepherd’s crook in one hand while the other rapped politely with one knuckle at the heart’s door. Eyes deeper than the deepest part of the ocean, more loving than the mind could conceive. That gentle Jesus was a beautiful lie.
Being saved always brought tears and pain. The hands of grown men, so hard and callused they snagged on fabric, gripped the pews to keep from trembling when Daddy made the altar call. They stepped forward to accept Jesus with quivering chins, and faces tender and naked as new purple hull peas popped from the dry shell. They lifted their arms and wept, crying out in anguish to be washed clean, a stream of words they’d never meant to speak to another soul tumbling from their lips. Every secret thing inside, everything that made them who they were spilling out to make room for Jesus, and none of it theirs anymore. Sometimes Daddy touched their foreheads, and a bolt of white-hot power snapped their heads back, jolted their bodies as they fell slain in the Spirit and lay senseless on the church floor. Their hearts split open. Rent in twain, like the veil of the temple.
Salvation meant the old you burned away, consumed until there was nothing left. A new creature in Christ Jesus. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. I didn’t think I could bear it.
Mama’s voice faded to a soft murmur, then fell silent. I knew she had finished praying. She was wiping her eyes, standing up and smoothing her dress, picking up her bifocals from where she’d lain them on the bedspread. A great gulf yawned between us.
It would be dark soon. I flipped my pillow to the cool side and lay still, breathing in the old paper and vanilla smell of the parsonage, the corners musty with spiders and silverfish. From behind the boarded-up fireplace came a panicked fluttering of wings. I closed my eyes and let the awful truth wash over me. I didn’t want to be saved. I wanted to be lost forever, even if I missed the rapture. Whatever the cost, my heart would be mine alone. It was such a small price to pay.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jimmy Emerson DVM