I’ve met two (self proclaimed) heathens in the past few weeks, and talking with them has got me thinking about where I come from and how I came to claim atheism as my “religion.” I’ve found myself telling the stories from my church days when I was a kid, and when I was 18, and again when I was 20. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a certain church my family started going to when I was probably 9, and how I was baptized when I was 10 or 11.
And, of course, this has me thinking about June, and about “Two Lambs,” a story that remains unfinished. So I cobbled together this little freewrite, trying to find the hook, the thing that makes the story worth telling, worth reading.
In a couple of days I’ll start an 11 day vacation, and in that time I want to polish three stories and get them ready to send out. There’s still a little work to be done on “Through Parted Curtains” and “It’ll Do You Some Good,” but they’re close. They’ve both been rejected several times from different lit journals. With each rejection came a certain sting that would make me want to shelve the stories.
So I did, but now that I’ve done some revisions, I’ve found that letting them marinate for a couple years has actually helped me find my flaws more easily. With a little more work they’ll be at less risk of rejection. I hope.
Anyway, here’s the freewrite. In hopes of letting the story’s truth rise to the top, I let my writing amble between fact and fiction. After reading it, I see that I have a lot of work to do on “Two Lambs”—much more than on the other two stories. The freewrite begins with what is, for now anyway, the first line of the story.
It was the third Sunday of the month, time for sinners to repent. That’s how it went in our church, anyway, a shrunken Southern Baptist congregation who vowed to stick together, to follow Virgil Bedenbaugh’s interpretation of the Bible—the most literal interpretation we could agree on. The way of the Lord just as He dictated. Thinking back on it, I can’t remember anywhere in the Bible where it says sinners should repent once a month, but then I haven’t read the Bible in twenty years. My parents were determined to follow the way of the Lord, and Virgil promised we were doing it right. The other sixty or so folks in our congregation agreed. If we went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, prayed every day, avoided temptation, greed, sin and blasphemy and listened carefully to what Virgil told us, we were guaranteed to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Only, I was eleven, and I wasn’t so sure that’s what I wanted. Heaven seemed a long ways off. I figured I had sixty or seventy years to go before I faced the Heaven or Hell dilemma, and who was I to care which way I pointed myself in the meantime? All I wanted was to have fun, to screw around and be a kid (whatever that meant) and do my best to avoid the things I hated. Wearing dresses was at the top of that list, and it was mandatory for women to wear dresses in church. Outside of church we were to dress modestly. Shorts must be no more than two inches above the knee and so on. Since all of this was low priority for me, so was church.
All that talk of fire and brimstone scared the crap out of everyone but me. I felt somewhat immune to it, though my mother and father did their best to scare me into believing they were right; Virgil was right; the Bible was the most accurate source there was, and therefore we were destined for hell if we didn’t repent.
On that particular Sunday, we all expected Randy to show up. His attendance at church was sporadic, and in spite of his drunkenness, he managed to remember which Sunday was the third of the month. And, of all those to approach the alter, he was the most regular.
I guess he had the most to repent about, at least in the eyes of the church. As for me, I didn’t think he was ever going to be pure. (Of course, I didn’t’ think purity existed, so what difference did it make if he was washed clean?)
I don’t know what made me feel exempt from all those beliefs. Maybe it was because I didn’t do any of the usual things that were considered sinful. I didn’t drink, didn’t know what adultery was (and assumed I didn’t do it), I rarely lied, and I was nice to as many people as I could be.
Now Randy was a different story. He was the resident drunk; he squatted in parks and behind grocery stores; he peed on the sidewalks (usually only when Binky Chastain and I dared him to, but still). Those things were minor, I suppose, to what came out of the rumor mill. I’d heard—I guess we’d all heard—that he’d killed someone. He was never convicted, and as far as I know he wasn’t even tried. It was a fact, though, that in the eyes of our community, in tiny prosperity SC, he’d killed a woman and would go to hell.
Randy was in his thirties then—about the age I am now. I don’t know where he is now. I’ve since moved away and all the people of Prosperity are out of my periphery. I think of them time to time. I think of my upbringing and of hanging with Binky and Steven Harbin, the only kids my age in my neighborhood. I think of Buddy’s on Main and the penny candy we shoved into our pockets, the orange sodas we bought for thirty five cents, popsicles that dripped down our chins, melting before we had time to finish them. I think of the old church ladies, who sat straight-backed in the pews throughout the entire sermon. I think of the way the town itself was arranged. Whites on one side; blacks and the poor on the other, in run down mill houses infested with cockroaches.
I think of the rumor mill and how it grew faster and thicker than kudzu. I think of folks accused for stealing, for alcoholism, for thievery, and I think of a town infested with sin, or rumors of sin. And I think again of the old ladies who sat prim and proper with their bibles open to the right page and their minds set on Heaven. I think of front porches and feeling as though I was being watched when I rode by on my bike. I remember the way people would bow their heads in shame when they used food stamps at the Winn-Dixie or when their credit cards were declined at Wal-Mart.
I remember my sister, Donna Mae, and the way she smelled thick with perfume before she went out on her dates. And I remember my mother giving her that perfume for her birthday. I remember my grandfather using the N word without any thought or apology. I remember it being a part of his vocabulary; he said it just as often as he said fried chicken or might could.
These memories all inform what I am about to tell you. I cannot say for sure that my memories are true, or that they are uninfluenced by my present world view. I can only tell you what is my truth, and what it looks like now when I am thinking back on where I was and how innocent the world seemed in spite of it all.