"Look, Dee Dee! Danny got his hand on her boob!"
It was my buddy Ray-Ray who was talking. We were laughing really hard at something on the TV when he turned around and saw where my hand had accidentally meandered and just up and blurted it out. Surprised, I looked down and, sure enough, my right hand was resting comfortably on my girlfriend Donna's boob. You'd think I might have taken a second to register just how nice her rack looked in the pink sweater she was wearing, but I didn't. Instead, I was mortified and immediately straightened up and brought my arm back around to the front in support of a two-handed gesture of contrition.
"It was an accident. I was laughing at the TV and didn't even notice what was going on." I looked at my green-eyed, red-headed girlfriend Donna, and saw that she was embarrassed but laughing, and her best friend, a slender blonde named Dee Dee was laughing pretty hard too. "I honestly didn't mean anything by it; I mean wasn't trying to be sneaky or anything like that."
I often wondered about the effect of that last statement. The whole incident blew over pretty quickly, and I spent the last part of the night with my hands securely resting in my lap. We were watching TV at Donna's grandma's house after church, and her grandma was supposedly sleeping behind the closed-door of her bedroom. When Ray-Ray and I were leaving later that night, I turned around and I saw Donna looking out the window with a look that I took for regret. A few weeks later, she broke up with me, and I heard from Dee-Dee in a sort of a roundabout way, that it wasn't because I was making moves on her, but because I wasn't making them fast enough. She started dating another guy pretty much right away, and I always presumed it was because he was making the right moves at a right pace.
I mean, I was pretty much conflicted the whole time I was with her. Number one because she was my first real girl-friend and because I was pretty damn clueless about how all that stuff worked, and number two because she was daughter of the Reverend Baker Jones the preacher of Resurrection Church where my family attended. Reverend. Jones was a square-jawed, straight shooting, ex-marine and a bit of a fire and brimstone spouting crazy man on Sunday. He frightened me quite a bit. That church had lot of preachers while I was there, and I wouldn't give you ten cents on the dollar for most of them, but Baker J. Jones wasn't as hypocritical as most of them. I mean, he walked it like he talked it and put in the good work visiting people in their homes and when they were dying in the hospital.
I don't really know why I thought that Donna was any different from any of the other girls that I was trying to get my paws on back in those early days of my misspent youth. I mean I didn't have nothing against wrestling with a female or trying to cop a feel in general, but I must have thought that her upbringing might have made her a bit more disdainful of such activity. If so, I thought wrong. I've since known quite a few preacher's daughters, and, if anything, they were just as curious about that stuff as most girls and probably more so. There was the idea always lurking in the back of my mind that the good Rev. Jones being a minister and all might be able to summon up a great deal more of the wrath of Jehovah than the average irate father. I didn't really want to find out. My parents went to his church, and that created a whole set of problems in and of itself. I just remember that I thought it was in the best interests of everyone concerned to take things kind of slow.
"Damn it, Ray-Ray, I had my hand on her boob and you pull that shit. What's the hell wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry Danny. I just turned around and saw your hand there and it just came out. Sides, I thought you said it was accidental."
"It was accidental, you dumb ass, but I was still on second base! It doesn’t matter if you hit a double, stole the damn base or got there on a throwing error. You're still sitting on second when the dust clears!"
"I said I was sorry, dude. I didn't mean to do it. Won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't. I brought you with me thinking you'd take care of Dee-Dee, and you hardly talked to her all night."
"Shit, I'd had better luck talking to the cow in that stupid picture on the wall. That girl's way too stuck on herself."
"No she ain't. That's all false bravado, dude. She's putting on with that attitude. All you got to do is come in, act confident and take over. That's what she really wants, someone to tell her how things are."
We stopped at the street light at the intersection of Hill and Lessing; it was where our paths diverged with his heading east on Hill and mine continuing south on Lessing.
"You think so?" He shook his head. "I don't. I think she's got her mind set on Anthony. I've seen her looking at him in church. She sometimes forgets that she's staring at him until your dad hits that loud part of Washed in The Blood, then she wakes up and looks around to see if anybody saw her looking at him."
"In the meanwhile, you forget that you're staring at her."
Ray blushed, then laughed and shook his head, "Yeah. Well, screw you, Danny Wilson. Hey, tell me something. Why don't sit up front with Donna during church?"
"She has to sit up front with her mother and dad. I have my own place in the back. I've been sitting in that pew in the northwest corner ever since I started going to church. If Donna wants to sit with me, she's welcome to come back there anytime."
He laughed again, "Man, if she was my girl, I'd sit up front with her. You're an idiot!"
"Yeah, but I ain't an idiot sitting up front where I ain't got no business. Man got to know his place in the world, Ray-Ray. Even when it comes to where he sits in church." Ray shook his head and waved and then disappeared in the darkness of Hill Street still mumbling something about me being an idiot, and I started the long walk home with the thought of my hand resting on the softness of a pink sweater clouding my mind.
I always sat in the back of church for good reason. For one thing, I wanted some cushion for all the crazy stuff that happened up front. One time, I sat there with my jaw hitting the floor as the deacon and a preacher got in a fist fight over some doctrinal dispute. On another occasion, an alcoholic husband of one of the Sunday school teachers interrupted the services by insisting he be saved. He was pretty drunk and stumbling around, and his wife tried everything she could do to get him to sit down and be quiet, but he wasn't having any of it. He wanted saved and he wanted saved right then! The preacher we had back then decided to appease the drunk man and staged a mock salvation. It didn't go over too good with the rest of the congregation though who took that stuff seriously and didn't want to waste a perfectly good salvation on someone who was appeared to be too drunk to appreciate it.
Mainly, I sat back there though because I inherently knew the value of having an escape route marked out, just in case, you know, if something crazy happened. I don't know how or why I was thinking that church was someplace I needed to be on guard, but that's exactly what I was thinking.
One day, during altar call, the congregation suddenly realized that there were only two people in the whole church who hadn't been saved, that being me and my younger brother Terry. We caught on to it a little late, as we normally shut down our focus on the service and started thinking about what we were going to do once we got out of church about that time. Terry was sitting on the inside of the pew right next to the aisle, and they were on him before he even saw them coming. Before he knew what had happened, they had surrounded him. My mom was up front banging away on the piano pretending she didn't see what was going on. I took advantage of the confusion and slid behind the crowd and acted like I needed to go to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door and hid in there until I heard the people leaving church. When I finally go the nerve to go outside, I spotted Terry standing by himself.
He looked at me kind of shell shocked, "Where the hell were you?"
"They had you surrounded; there was nothing I could do, so I took advantage of the confusion and snuck out and hid in the bathroom. What happened?"
"I reckon I kind of got saved I guess?"
"I didn't have much of a choice. The preacher got me by the hands and kind of dragged me. Brother Bramley was pushing me from behind."
"Did you feel anything?"
"You mean like magic or stuff?"
"Not really. I was just kind of relieved when they let me go and let me go back to sit down. You know they'll come after you next time, don't ya?"
"That's the way I got it figured."
And that's exactly the way that it played out too. When we got ready to leave for church the following Sunday, I told Mom that I wasn't feeling well and thought that I'd stay home. She didn't say anything but went back inside the house and got Pop's belt and stepped out on the front porch holding it in her right hand. She stood there until I went and got in the car and then she tossed the belt inside and shut the door. I was on my toes all through the preaching part. Ray-Ray had been teasing me all through our Sunday School class how they were going to drag me up to the altar. I pretended that I needed to go to the bathroom at the rear of the church, locked the door, and climbed out the window and went and sat on the curb in front of the church and smoked a cigarette I'd pilfered from my mom's pack of Kents to calm my nerves. When I got back to the class, there was a note on my chair from Donna. "What are you planning to do, Danny?" She had drawn a big red heart on the page. I just looked up and smiled at her and shrugged my shoulders.
Everything started out like normal, but as it started getting closer to noon, I started noticing that people kept stealing glances in my direction. Then my mom got up and made her way toward the piano which was the sign that passing the collection plates was about to happen which would be closely followed by the playing of Just as I Am and the altar call. The two deacons passed the plates as usual, but, this time, Brother Geary handed his plate to Brother Bramley and went and stood at the back by the swinging doors that led to the foyer where the outer doors were.
When the plates were handed over the preacher, my mom kicked into the altar call music and suddenly everyone in the church turned in my direction including my brother Terry and Ray-Ray. I hadn't even sat down yet from the offering, and I just waited as everybody began to slowly move toward the back where I was. Terry was laughing at me. I let them all get back almost to the final pew before I made my move. Then I quickly slid around the pew gliding like a halfback back to the rear of the church and started heading toward the door. Brother Greery made like he was going to stop me at first, but I balled up my right fist and he saw it. I guess he didn't want to get in fist fight with a kid, so at the last second, he stepped back and let me pass. I pushed open the swinging doors and was out.
There was a potluck luncheon scheduled after services, so I didn't talk to Terry until later. He told me that after I left, they milled around and looked kind of stupid for a while. They didn't seem to know what else to do, so they made like they were going to try and take him back up there to the front, but he just sat down and dared them to try. Eventually, mom quit playing the song, and they all wandered back to their seats and sat down.
I walked home by myself thinking about things the whole way. When I first got out of that church, I was feeling pretty cocky and a little bit proud of the way I had stood up for myself. As I walked though, a little doubt started to creep in. What if I just missed my opportunity to get right with Jesus? I often wondered why Jesus never talked to me the way them other people said he talked to them. I mentally made a list of all the stuff I'd been doing wrong with a special focus on the things that I had been doing wrong in and around the church. I mean how stupid could I be to fantasize about Donna's pink sweater right there in the house of God? Hell, her daddy was preaching at me while I was doing it! When I reached the time that I spiked the punch at one of the potlucks, I couldn't think of anything of anything else, so I stopped and I apologized to God for me being such a dumb ass. I would've even got down on my knees and prayed too, but I was in the middle of the intersection of Bradshaw and Stratton streets and people out watering their yards and tending to their gardens would have thought I was crazy, so I just asked for forgiveness as I walked along.
My Dad was working that Sunday but was home for lunch and was sitting on the sofa eating off the coffee table and watching TV. I came in the door and slunk over and sat down in his chair.
"Dad. When you got saved, did Jesus actually talk to you?"
"Why? What happened?" I explained everything to him including the thing with hand accidentally falling on Donna's boob.
"Mom's gonna kill me. I decided that I wasn't going up there just because they wanted me too. Jesus ain't told me nothing yet. I mean he's made me feel guilty a time or two, but he ain't talked directly at me yet. I ain't going to pretend that he did just because it makes other people happy. I don't think that's right."
Pop took a drink of this sweet tea and wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. "Well, don't worry about it, Son. When Jesus wants to talk to you, he will. You might be thinking though that he's gonna come at you talking English and all."
"What? Jesus don't talk English?" I was confused this was something I hadn't even thought about.
He laughed. "I mean he talks it, but it ain't his primary tongue. You gotta remember he was from a different time and place. I don't even think English people talked English back then."
"Well, how'd he talk to you?"
Before he answered, he went and put his dishes in the kitchen sink and poured himself another glass of tea, "When I got saved, Danny, I really needed for him to set me on a new course. I was drinking way too much and fighting with your mom all of the time. What it really amounted to was I was worried about money and paying bills, and I wasn't happy at work and came home and took it out on her. I surely needed an adjustment to my way of thinking. One night, your mom and your Aunt Lola went out hunting for me and your Uncle Andy. They found us playing cards at the Four Roses and came in there like their damn tails were on fire and started making a big scene. Hell, your mama was hitting me on the back of my head while I was trying to bet. Me and Andy got up and were coming out the back to the alley where your aunt's car was parked. I'll tell ya, I was mad enough to do your mama some serious harm. All the frustration and resentment that was building up in me just came pouring out, and I was going out there to put this woman in her damned place." He paused at that moment, and I could see his eyes start drifting back in time.
"What happened then, Pop?"
The question brought him back. "We get out there in the back of the place, and I'm really pissed by this time. Your Aunt Lola and your Uncle Andy are off on the side arguing, and your mama is standing there in the middle of the alley with her hands on her hip snapping her head back and forth like a crazy damn chicken. I'm fixing to light into her ass when I looked over toward the car and in the back window, I see you and your brother Glenn looking scared as hell in the back seat. Suddenly, this strong electrical like feeling came over me and a voice on the inside of me told me that instead of making a fool out of myself, I should count all my blessings and be happy. I can't explain how it felt other than that it was like a rush of electricity and I really felt changed. Nothing phony about it. I mean from the inside out."
"Nothing like that's ever happened to me. I'm supposed to fake it what?
He kind of chuckled and grinned at me, "Naw, nothing like that, son. I guess it depends a lot on what you really want out of life."
That statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never in my life one time had ever asked myself what I really wanted out of being alive. I didn't know what to say. I thought about it a bit, tried to answer but my mouth wasn't working real well, then I'd stop and think a bit some more, and then I'd try again. Finally, I just said the first thing that I could think of, "I think I just want to know as much of what is true as I can without going crazy."
Pop looked puzzled, "True? Crazy? What makes you think of something like that?"
"You know like them Hitler people killing all them other people. That's part of what truth is, the good with the bad, stuff like that."
"Damn, Boy. That's pretty deep. I never really put much thought into truth having a bad side too. I just figured that what was true was true and lies were lies and that way of thinking about it. You gave me something to think about. I got to get back to work. You gonna be okay? Your mama'll be home directly."
"Pop, can you help me with Mom? You know put a good word in for me? Tell her what I said?" I smiled shamelessly but it didn't work. He just shrugged.
"No, I told her I'd let her take care of this church going business." The thought of what he was telling me made him think back on something that happened before, and he added, "We was fighting bout something at the time. Kept her from yelling at me. I said I wouldn't interfere unless she really started screwing things up."
I looked at him incredulously. It must have made him nervous because after a while, he shrugged his shoulders and added, "Hell, boy, I didn't know I was going to start going to church at the time."
I kept looking at him for a while before asking, "What am I supposed to do about them mobbing up on me?"
What he said then surprised me, "Well, son, I think I'd keep sitting in the back row next to the door. I mean at least until I got big enough to punch Baker Jones on the nose." When I looked stunned by the answer, he continued, "When you're getting bullied by a crowd, always take out the leader first. Most people got no heart for fighting. They just go along for the excitement."
"But it's in Church."
"Churches are a good thing, no, make that a great thing, Son, but never go around thinking that they ain't people in them that don't need punched in the nose from time to time."
I thought about what he said and then confessed, "Dad, I'm doing a lot of stupid stuff, and I don't even know why. Jesus's silence on the matter has me more than a little bit worried about if I'm destined for a roasting."
Pop just laughed and reached out and rubbed my head just as Terry and my mom pulled up into our driveway coming in from church.
Terry burst out of car almost before it came to a complete stop. "Danny, you should have seen it. Brother Bramley was getting on Brother Greery about not stopping you from going out the door, and, all of a sudden, they start fighting out in front of the church. Next thing you know, their wives are kicking each other and pulling each other's hair, and Sister Geary snatched the wig off of Sister Bramley and was waving it up in the air. Then Ray-Ray said something smart about you being the cause of the whole mess and Donna hauled off and kicked him right square in his nuts. He was rolling around on the sidewalk crying like a baby. I'm telling you should have seen it!"
I looked over at Mom as she came around the car. She stopped for moment and took her white gloves off and placed them in her purse. Then she came over to where I was sitting. I'd tensed up thinking she'd be mad, and was very relieved when she wasn't. She gently pulled me up and put her arms around me and asked me if I was okay. When I said I was, she whispered in my ear, "I talked to Reverend Jones. They won't be doing that anymore."
Later that night, I pulled the covers over my head and talked to Jesus, man to man like and explained that I really wasn't trying to be mean; it just came out that way. I said that I would promise I would change, but I knew that I was just getting the hang of this puberty thing and figured that I would probably be crossing some lines, so that I thought I'd better hold off on the promising. I did say though that I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I told him that I'd seriously try to do better.
I waited for an answer for a while but fell asleep before it came.
It’s been more than fifty years since I fell asleep that night, slightly disappointed in that he hadn’t answered my prayer, but at the same time kind of relieved that I didn’t wake-up and find him hovering over me and showing me the scars from the scourging and the holes in the palms of his hand. The constant feeling that I was missing something has never left me though, not for one second of my entire life. I must admit that I understand the sense of defiance and grievance that Cain must have felt when he stood on the road outside the gates of Eden with a knapsack on his back and his thumb up in the air. “I have to find myself,” he must have muttered to the crows circling overhead. All of my life, I’ve tried my best to cover up that gigantic acne flair-up in the middle of my forehead that I discovered shortly after the onset of puberty.
Carl Jung wrote about his inability, while down on his knees, to lower his head the final inch and place it upon the floor into a position of total obeisance. I understand what he was saying. It is the same feeling often expressed in literature where the young protagonist is left to his own devices to deal with the threats of extinction and existence while his father is gallivanting around on a cattle drive, off saving conquering Troy, or fighting his way across a war ravish Europe. That final inch that turns into a stiff-necked pride is mankind’s lot in life, we can’t help but blame God for suffering of our loved ones and because of that, our own suffering.
I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s sentiments on arriving in Heaven only to discover that every pompous asshole you hated in life was in the welcoming party while all your friends are smoking cigars and playing poker with water-proof cards down in the cauldrons of hell. I know that that’s a simplistic notion, but one that I developed honestly from the people whom I trusted placing simplistic people in charge of my religious development. I wouldn’t last two days in place like the concept of heaven that those people held, a place of golden streets with mansions with white picket fences; it wouldn’t take two days in place like that before I was out looking for a bottle of Glenlivet, or trying to find Wolfman Jack on the radio.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of infinity lately. It seems to me that all of our problems are caused by humanity’s failure to understand that at some point in our life we have to come to grips with our fundamental relationship with that paradigm busting concept. It’s opened up my eyes to a lot of things including how well Jesus’s words seem to be saying that same thing.
I went through a great deal of suffering when my ex-wife died within six months of my father’s passing, and I also developed a bad case of Tinnitus the night she passed away. I was severely depressed, a depression made worse by the lack of sleep and the fact I also was blessed at that time with that one situation that every teacher ultimately fears, a classroom full of unmanageable kids and the arbitration of people with the emotional intelligence of Pontius Pilate.
I got up this morning and Jesus was waiting downstairs making coffee. He handed me a cup with the Hazelnut creamer mixed just the way I liked it.
“You look like you need this.”
“Thanks,” I took a sip before I sat down on the couch. I relaxed my shoulders and took a centering breath, “Why? Why now?”
It was his turn to take a sip, “You remember how Andy took Opie out on the porch and talked to him, or how Mr. Cleaver would always sit Beaver down in the living room, how Robert Young talked to Buddy, or even how Mr. Coates showed up right when Travis was burying Old Yeller and told Travis that he shouldn’t let his sadness dominate his world view?”
“Well, that was me.”
“Not to be disrespectful or nothing, but... well, you ain’t ever made me coffee before. Like I said, why now?”
“Your Jennie used to make the coffee in the morning, didn’t she?” He waited till I nodded before continuing, “Well, that was me too.”
He sat down his cup on the coffee table and I saw the obvious hole in his left hand. The skin around it was still angry red like it had been made earlier that morning. “I still don’t understand. I been waiting for this moment since I was… well, since that night after I ran out of the church.”
He smiled slightly before he answered, “What did them fathers always do?”
I didn’t hesitate a moment before I answered, “Well, nothing really. They would just calm the kid down and give him some advice in such a way so that he could figure out himself which way to go.”
“I’ve been there all along, Danny. You remember when you suddenly grasped the meaning of Moses parting the Red Sea? You were at work digging a ditch with a dragline when it happened.”
The statement surprised me. “I will never forget that day! It changed my life. I felt an actual electrical current running through my body when I grasped the meaning. I couldn’t sit still; I walked around that machine for a better part of an hour! That moment led me into going back to school and becoming a teacher.”
“That particular truth has been around since before the beginning of time. You, on the other hand, had just reached the point in your life of where you could understand it.”
The realization of what he was saying took the wind out of me. “You?”
He didn’t answer this time, just smiled and took another drink of coffee. “Man, I love the taste of Hazelnut creamer. You’ve looked a little lost lately, Danny. More so than usual.”