My favorite anecdote about this piece is that I was in a writing workshop with this witty, funny, worldly guy. I forget his name, but I liked his fiction, which matters more than anything. When this piece was in critique, he wrote on the back, “Slapping and sucking, Ms. Line? You better write some good Hallmark Movies,” which kind of insulted me at the time. Now I see–or choose to believe–that it was flattery in the utmost.
Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam
My dad takes me outside to learn to use the push mower. He says, “Be careful of your feet, they might get cut off; and there’d be no puttin’ ‘em back.” He is trying to frighten me to safety, but I run in the house, the whole time imagining my feet as bloody stumps. They even hurt. I feel the slimy friction against the grass, like stepping on a thousand slugs. When I get in, I bury my face in my mom’s stomach. She says, “What’s wrong?” Then I say, “The mower cut my feet off.” I feel the inflation of her belly’s sigh under my ear. It tenses as she yells out the screen door, “What the hell’d you tell her that for?”
I come home from school on a Wednesday. The green-rugged living room is gray. The dust in the air swirls in beams of light that cut through slits in the blinds. My dad sits on the couch with my mom’s head in his lap. She’s been crying, and I hug her. She squeezes me so hard I can’t breathe, and my dad tells her to relax a little bit because I whimper. My mom lets go and says, “C’mon. We’re going to church.” She grabs my hand and nudges my dad. She gets the keys to her car, and Dad follows in his truck. I don’t understand why we go in separate vehicles.
At church, my mom stands in front of the hard-backed pew and sways with the music. She holds my hand, and Dad rests his on my shoulder. He hums “You Are My Sunshine” when he thinks Mom isn’t listening. The man in front of me wears a tucked-in flannel shirt, and has a receding hairline. He holds his hands palms-up in front of him and sways in the opposite direction as my mom. If I watch them both, I get sea-sick. I stand still and focus on the strobing image of the preacher: the one I can see between sways of the flannel man. I have a hard time telling the difference between when he is praying and when he is reading or speaking, because he orates in the same booming, inflection-exaggerated voice all the time. He punctuates each sentence – or even half sentence – with “Yes, Lord.”
Then the Pastor starts talking about salvation and my dad clutches my shoulder. My mom stands rigid, staring at the Pastor. I feel tingly all over, and everyone around me starts whispering. My mom peels herself away from the crowd and goes to the altar, buries her head in the short-carpet-covered knee pads and weeps. I think how rubbery that must smell. My dad slides his hand down my arm and grabs my hand. We leave. On the way home, I watch his eyes tear and he says, “Honey, your mom and I have been having some problems.”
My stomach sinks fast, and I start to cry. I say, “Are you getting a divorce?”
My dad pulls over and stops. He says, “No. At least, I don’t think so. We’re going to work things out.”
I can’t stop crying, so I choke, “O-kay.”
He doesn’t seem to know what else to say, so he lets the truck idle for a few minutes and holds my hand, then drives us the rest of the way home.
Dad and I watch TV until my mom comes home, much later. She sends me to bed. I cry and slam angry fists into my pillow. I squeal agony into the sheets. I hear her and dad yelling until I cry myself to sleep. I wake next morning with a tremendous headache. I miss school by three hours. I smell waffles. I go downstairs into the kitchen, and Mom beams at me. She says, “I’m sorry your dad made you leave church last night.”
“That’s okay, Mom.” I start to tell her that I didn’t want to be there anyway, but decide against it. She seems shaky. Cheerful and sad at the same time.
“Your dad and I have decided to start going to church regularly. What do you think of that?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“You’ll get to like it, I’m sure.” Mom busies herself pouring me a glass of orange juice and fixing a plate of waffles.
“Do I have to go to school?”
“ thought you might like the day off. Yesterday was kind of hard,” her voice shakes. I can see that her cheeks are flushed and she faces away from me and keeps bowing her head.
“Are you okay?” She starts to cry. She sits down next to me at the table and sobs. She rolls her head side-to-side, I put my arm around her, and try not to cry myself. I am helpless, but I think I shouldn’t cry, that I should be strong for my mom.
She gets hold of herself and says, “I’ll be fine, sweetie. Have some waffles.”
I have some waffles and Mom and I spend the day running errands and giggling together over the cosmetics counter at Bon Ton. She takes me to an R-rated movie, and asks me not to tell Dad.
Things between Mom and Dad don’t get better. I’m 17. There’s a picture of them at their senior prom. Mom wears a gold-embroidered gown that touches the floor, her hair is straight and thick and hangs to her waist. Dad’s wavy hair falls to his chin. He is trim, and his suit is light blue. He wears a bolo instead of a tie. Mom leans her head on his square shoulder and they look like they were made to be together.
Mom has taken up Twinkies and gained fifty pounds. I get the feeling that she’s waiting to die. I try to talk to her about it, but she always interrupts me and asks me questions about scripture. She knows the answers to the questions, but it’s her way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about it.” She spends her days answering Candy Cane Club mail-order Sunday school lessons. Maybe she’s trying to rescue those little kids. I wish she’d get her act together and rescue me. She has stopped cooking and cleaning and getting dressed in the morning.
I wish I could guess that my dad has an alcohol problem, but I know that’s not it. She and dad don’t use the same bed anymore. Mom sleeps on the recliner in front of her hutch full of stuffed bears. During the day, she pulls the recliner close and uses its flat part for a desk. I want to leave, but I can’t. Dad asks me on a weekly basis not to leave. I say, “Can I get a job, then?” He says, “No.” Exodus 20:12, Honor your father and your mother.
I graduate from high school, and I take care of Mom and the house. Dad seems grateful, and I try not to think about what he’s doing to mom. I try not to remember the vows that came before me. I try not to remember the promise they made to me by having me. I try not to remember that Dad’s probably going to Hell, because I know now that he went to church with us all those years to keep Mom pacified. I know he got saved, he even cried, but it’s easy to cry when everybody else is crying, too. You can’t just say the words. You have to mean them.
I go to the grocery store for Mom one day. I see a couple about my age. She is slender and perky, he is tall and firm. They are dark haired. They walk behind the cart arm-in-arm. They buy diapers and baby food. It makes me cry. I can’t help myself. I snot all over the carrots I’m choosing.
I start going to a different church from Mom. At first she asks me not to, and then she must feel guilty because she knows that I’m not doing anything other people my age are doing. The church I go to is for young people. It’s calledYoungLifeChurch. I have a hard time making friends, though. I am out of practice: a liability of being the only child in a family that falls apart. At least I’m around people my age. I don’t have to be talking to them. I don’t really have anything to say. I’m not overly attractive. My parents are stunning, you would think a little bit of that would have shook its way down the genes. Instead, I got the nose that skips a generation. My mom’s Mom has it. It’s almost two-dimensional and pointed and crooked, like the line a river makes on a map, and there it is, cutting through my face. I don’t even notice it anymore, but I know other people do. Maybe it’s why Dad won’t let me get a job. Maybe he’s trying to save me from my nose like he tried to save me from the lawn mower all those years ago.
It is Sunday, and I wake up to go to church. Mom doesn’t go anymore. Dad’s truck is not in the driveway, so he didn’t come home last night. Mom sleeps with the cordless phone on the arm of the recliner, in case Dad calls. I push Mom’s bangs out of her face, and she stirs but does not wake. I lean over and kiss her cheek. The lawn is dewey, and outside, it smells like spring.
At church, Pastor Dave gives a sermon on sin. He says that we need more guard than ever against Satan. He is not kidding. He reads from John 3:19-21, ”This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
I think of my dad, and I wonder where he is. I know there is another woman, he is not “living by the truth.” I want to find him and her. I want to sneak in on them and bite them. I want to suck the lust out of their bodies and spit it into the river. Luke 6:27 Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.
People start to sing around me and I jump to my feet and join in. It’s a chorus I know well, one that sounds like a caffeinated waltz, “Love the Lord Your God.” I leave in the middle of the song and drive furiously on the windy local roads looking for Dad’s truck. I want to know where he is, who he’s with, and how he feels about destroying his family. I am onScottsdale Road, halfway to the edge of our county, and negotiating an S curve that is hard. A flash of sliver catches my eye, and I jerk my head to the left and slam on the brakes. Dad’s truck is parked at a one-level brick house with white trim, and the shades are all drawn. I would think it is a lovely house if my father weren’t in it committing adultery.
I pull into the driveway and mutter, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. Like it says in I Corinthians, Dad. Not two women, Dad. Just the one, Dad. The one you’re married to. We’re not Mormons.” I storm around to the side of the house, and notice the window to the bathroom is open. I know it is the bathroom because I can hear the shower. I can see the walls are light yellow like daisies. I stop. Do I really want to know? And then I hear a groan that sounds like my dad, and I am livid. At the window, I look in. My dad’s underwear are lying on the floor next to some very lacy black ones. His tie hangs from the door knob. I know they’re my dad’s underwear because I washed them last week, I know it is his tie because I bought it for him for Father’s Day, and because that is his truck: in the driveway. I hear slapping and sucking under the shower water, and it is enough.
I can’t go home, so I drive around and pray. I think about God and my mom at home on the velour recliner and her face while she sleeps, and her wardrobe of sweatpants, and the lacy black panties she probably had before we all got saved.
Later, my dad’s truck is in the driveway. Mom sits at the kitchen table, and the house feels like it did that Wednesday ten years ago. Mom stares into space and the bags around her eyes look bigger than normal. Dad runs his hands under water at the kitchen sink. Everything feels like it has been paused, and I creep into the kitchen. I feel like an invader because of what I saw. My shoes click against the linoleum and Mom jumps. Dad looks haggard.
Mom looks at me and says, “Your father is leaving.” She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t even look frustrated.
I squint at him and say, “Then go.” I notice his shoulders point in toward each other and he’s got more gray at his temples than I remember. I realize that I haven’t looked at my dad in years. I haven’t talked to him deeply since he stopped coming to church. I allow myself to feel betrayal for the first time. “GO!” I yell. “You don’t love us. You don’t want us anymore. Get OUT!” I feel my face redden. Dad has been running the water so long the air smells like sulfur from our well.
He turns off the water and dries his hands on the kitchen towel that hangs under the sink. He walks to me and faces the door, away from my mother. He lays his hand on my shoulder and says, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.” I push him off me and slap him hard on his unshaven jaw. I want to say, “Why? Because you’re doing something better?” I don’t because of Mom. I just glare at him. His eyes get shiny, and he nods his head as if he heard my thought.
I whisper, “Fine. Go.” He walks out the door and shuts it quietly behind him. Mom gets up and walks to her bedroom. She does not come back out. I want to go to her, but I am suddenly angry at her, too. It takes two to fracture a family. I want to tell her that he’ll be back, and that he loves her, because I know it’s not true and I know it would hurt her. He hasn’t loved her in a long time. I look around the house and I can’t decide whether to breathe or to stop breathing.