Sins in the South
© 2012, C. D. Bonner
Thrice I tempted God to strike me down for my own misdeeds and for laughing at the sins of others—all in the presence of our preacher Brother Lee or within sight of the sanctuary of a converted grocery store where our tarnished souls were polished like Granny’s silver every Sunday. Temptation was great in the South, where your poverty was overlooked if you were “raised right” and you kept your ragged clothes clean. Faith brought admiration, and the resulting exaggerated sense of propriety tempted us to sin in private and relish the revelation of others’ sins.
We Get Religion
Brother Lee’s church sat almost on the worn edge of the playground of my second grade school. It was a low white building that was Adams’ Grocery before the old man retired. Every Saturday, we endured an Octagon soap bath in the Number Three galvanized washtub to be ready for God on Sunday. Mother would heat the water on the wood stove and we’d take turns bathing in the same tub of lukewarm water. Granny pronounced it “oxygen” soap and she liked it because it was the closest substitute to the lye soap she had made in her outdoor cauldron back in Alabama. It was strong enough to remove dirt, skin, and minor sins.
Sundays, our parents dressed me and my brother Jake in our little suits: his in blue, mine in green. Doris had a girly dress appropriate to representing the family to the Lord, or at least to the congregation. Granny had bought us those suits for Easter the previous year, and they were nice.
Brother Lee was a down to earth minister, the kind who held an outside job and preached on Sunday. He asked for no material support from our little church, just our spiritual support. He gave thought-provoking sermons, building from a slow plowman’s walk to a marching cadence to a full trot like a coon dog on a fresh scent. What I remember best about him was his sincerity and passion.
I didn’t mind listening to him preach, but kids can get fidgety, especially on a late Spring morning when it’s too warm for a suit jacket that you aren’t allowed to remove. As we listened to Brother Lee’s wind-up, we looked around at the other members until Granny silently twisted my ear half off. We moved back a row and shifted around in our seats, looking out at the willow limbs swaying back and forth in the bright sun. The windows were flung wide, and the big cargo door behind the pulpit stood wide open to keep the fiery preacher cool. We slid around quietly on the pew and fingered through the hymnals. We read both sides of every colorful fan in the book tray in front of us. There were a few mixed in from used car lots and other businesses, but most were given to churches by the local funeral homes. The trussed-up ladies made liberal use of the cardboard and stick fans.
After the third song, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” we took advantage of everyone standing to ease out the front door. We ducked a couple of carpenter bees as we walked around the cars and studied how oddly soft the mossy ground felt under our leather Sunday shoes. I wondered aloud whether the soft ground covered unmarked graves in the dirt parking lot, but Jake didn’t think so. We walked down the side of the church to the back, right behind the preacher. The floor was just the right height to stand comfortably, resting our chins and arms on the cargo door threshold. We were still interested in how to treat our fellow man and act honestly, and we listened attentively.
As he shifted into third gear, Brother Lee let out a whoop and pointed at the sky, nearly leaping out of his penny loafers. He continued a little longer, and when he suddenly kicked his foot backward as he slammed the pulpit, his shoe went flying and grazed the side of my head. Before I could react, he jumped into the air and flung the other shoe just over Jake’s scalp.
It was pure reflex, and we didn’t mean to do it. We both let out a profanity that echoed against the front door of the church. We ducked down, awaiting a lightning strike, or at least the arm of the preacher dragging us up through the cargo door. We got neither. A thick silence hung in the air like a punted football before it was broken by sidesplitting laughter. The youngest didn’t laugh–they just stared wide-eyed at us. But the parents and old folks held their bellies and roared. Brother Lee turned and cracked a smile at us, then he laughed aloud too before he turned back to his sermon.
Still, we wandered the churchyard for another twenty minutes before we dared set foot in God’s house. We slipped in even more quietly than we had eased out, and took seats near the door.
Oddly, we were never even chastised for the outburst. I guess they understood it was accidental and they had seen the horror on our faces. Pawpaw, an old mule-driving farmer himself, ribbed Brother Lee about needing a blacksmith around if he continued to throw shoes.
We learned not to stand behind a shoe-throwing preacher ever again.
Brother Lee was a traditional Baptist minister. Late one May, he announced that the church would have an old-fashioned baptism on the river the following week. To our surprise, among those who stood when the preacher asked who was ready to be baptized was Mike, my second cousin (twice forcibly removed). Mike had never been in serious trouble, but he was hardheaded, even with adults, and would go out of his way to do everything he was told not to do. He was quick and sinewy, and he liked to show off to prove himself. He repeatedly proved that he was strong as a rock (and twice as smart). Besides being loud and argumentative, he had a mouth that would make a Navy Master Chief blush.
We all drove down to the low bank of the muddy river armed with Polaroid cameras to capture the memories. My parents piled all four kids into the pink 55 Chevy with a picnic lunch. I took a place in line behind two middle-aged ladies in long modest dresses. The crowd sang “Shall We Gather at the River” before the real work began.
The preacher stood chest deep in the river, too far out to clearly hear his words to those about to go under. He said a few words to them, then tilted them backward and down into the water. He said a few more words while the river washed over them before he tilted them back up again. The ladies beamed as they made their way barefoot to family members waiting with blankets and dry clothes.
I was third in line. I laid my shoes and socks carefully aside and waded in. I wasn’t too nervous, despite not being able to swim. I trusted Brother Lee. The river was about 75 feet wide, but shallow. At least the preacher had found a sandbar for the festivities. Brother Lee had to wade closer to shore to match my four-foot height.
Brother Lee asked, “Do you believe?” and when I said, “Yes,” he said, “Bend your knees,” and under I went, eyes closed against the muddy water. Five seconds, ten seconds, then I was pushed up toward the sunlight and gasped a big breath. He patted my back and I trudged toward shore in my heavy clothes.
An older man went, then two more ladies, then several teenaged girls. Mike was up. We were morbidly curious about Mike being baptized. He wasn’t much of a churchgoer, and we made bets on whether he would do it.
Mike peeled off his shoes and socks and waded rather gingerly into the tepid water. He was lanky, and stood nearly as tall as the preacher who had waited to baptize Mike for years. Mike’s bevy of sisters cheered him on from beneath a cottonwood tree. We heard the preacher speak to Mike, who took a position to one side of the preacher. Brother Lee shifted positions to catch Mike, and we saw Mike nod just as the preacher leaned him way back. It didn’t look like Mike bent his knees, and he’d arched his back.
Mike’s hand stuck up from the water like the Lady of the Lake without Excalibur. Brother Lee lifted him up quickly, and Mike sputtered and gasped. He gave the preacher a dirty look and wiped out his eyes. Brother Lee made a somewhat longer speech, but the only word we could distinguish was “sinner.” Mike went under again, but it looked like Brother Lee was pushing his chest down instead of supporting his back. The preacher launched into a sermon about saving the worst of the sinners, and went on for quite some time. The preacher had one arm raised to the sky, the other immersed in the muddy river. There was a swirl next to the preacher that the river didn’t make, like a big bass taking the bait. Mike’s leg broke the surface this time. Mike burst forth, throwing droplets of water far and wide. He scowled at the preacher and whatever Mike said to him was in an irritated tone.
The preacher nodded and rested his hand on Mike’s shoulder. He moved Mike out into deeper water to ensure that he would remain covered this time. Mike calmed, and took a better position between the preacher and the shore. We giggled. Mike went down for the third time.
Brother Lee got loud this time, going on for a full minute. Mike tried to rise, but Brother Lee held him firmly beneath the water. Some began to count. Others looked at their watches. Five minutes past noon. Seven minutes after. It was a long, long time before Brother Lee looked startled and reached down to raise up Mike with both hands. We still don’t know if he was startled because he’d forgotten Mike, or if Mike bit his leg.
Mike shook his hair like a dog and scooped his hand into the river to splash water at the preacher. Mike cussed, “Are you stupid, or are you trying to kill me?” “You ignorant s********! Trying to drown me! I knew he didn’t like me!” All the while, Mike was stripping off his wet clothes.
In trying to stomp his feet on the river bottom, Mike hit a slick spot, and went down face-first. He got madder each time he slipped and fell, his colorful language adding additional hues to an already colorful spring afternoon. He finally gained the shore near his sisters, whose titters had triggered a rumble of laughter that spread through the crowd like waves from a pebble. Several people laughed so hard they had to step behind cars to relieve themselves.
We never saw Mike at church again.
A Fine Bordelleaux
Adams had moved out of his house adjacent to his store when he retired from the grocery business. The Craftsman house that was sandwiched between the church and the playground of my elementary school sat vacant for a while, until the ladies moved in.
We didn’t see them during church services. But we saw them at recess and we would wander to the edge of the playground. Six or eight college-aged ladies would hang out and smoke on the back porch and talk, and scurry back inside when one of the frequent cars pulled into the front driveway. I didn’t know women had that much skin—it was normally covered up. I thought it was peculiar that they sat around during the day in their nightclothes. Maybe they worked at night and slept during the day, as my Dad sometimes did at the trucking outfit.
When the teachers caught us looking, they sent dirty looks over to the house. Eventually, one of the teachers waved at them to go inside, but the ladies just jeered at her. My teacher finally walked over to talk to them on the porch. She came back red-faced and flustered.
The ladies caught on that we were watching, and apparently didn’t like the extra attention we caused. They began wearing witch costumes to scare us–pointy hats and all. If we ventured too close or lingered at the low chain-link fence separating the playground from their house, they cackled at us until we ran away. They chased a classmate with a broom when he was brave enough to step over the fence and approach the house. We sure kept our distance after that, but we still watched from a distance. The teachers steered us further down the playground to play.
Uncle Bert, who was a few years older, heard us talking about the witches living next to the school. “It’s a cat-house,” he said with authority, and explained what it meant. We stared in stunned disbelief. Hussies, next to our school? Right next to where we went to church? Impossible!
Bert said he would prove it. We collected bottles and pooled our deposit money with his allowance money. After about a month we had five dollars. We stood on the shoulder of the road across from the house to see if he would really do it. We wagered our future allowances on it while we watched. The place was already having a detrimental affect on us.
Bert knocked on the door and talked to the lady. He never would reveal what she said, but he returned with a beet-red face and all his money.
Not long afterward, we watched from the playground as the ladies were loaded into patrol cars. They didn’t look happy, but my teacher smirked and snickered. She was the last one to get any satisfaction out of the situation.
I learned not to gloat over the foibles of others, and to tolerate their imperfections as I tolerate my own. Whatever the wages of my sins, I surely hope they are tax-exempt.