We lived in a duplex on Ashley Circle, in the not-quite-as-nice neighborhood then, Mama managing the trailers up the road. I walked past the circle of them on my way to the bus stop every morning, the cache of less-than-we-were tucked in behind the pine trees. In the summertime, my sister rode her Big Wheel in our driveway, pulling the emergency brake, fishtailing, gravel arching into the air, heat shimmying over the asphalt. We spent some weekends with Daddy at his second wife’s house, with the pool table in the basement and the chest freezer where I threw up that time I got sick, and he’d bring us back home on Sundays. The man who lived in the other half of our duplex, named Ron, worked at IBM and seemed rich, gave us presumptuous Christmas gifts.
Across the road, in a real house, with an upstairs and downstairs, the parents were “going through a divorce,” as if it were the end of the world, the way it was the end, back then, when the world first began to come apart. When I spent the night at that house, we ate sophisticated, foreign things–pasta, not spaghetti, and bagels–the parents shadowy and cross, having mixed drinks. We camped outside in a tent one night, in the backyard, when I first thought of a boy kissing me, touching my hand.
Kenny the Preacher leaned forward from the couch, over the shaggy carpet, his face as honest and open and sincere as it could be, a true believer, earnestly worried about my eternity. He’d explained it like sitting down in a chair, the moment of surrender, when sitting became inevitable. “Do you accept him, Traci? Do you accept Jesus as your personal savior?”
I wanted to say, “No, thanks. I’m good.” Because I was good. I was good. Didn’t need saving, much less my own personal savior. Surely, I wasn’t bad enough at ten years old to need a whole person all to myself, dedicated to saving me.
And from what? I lived in lower-middle class white America in 1980, the dawn of another Age of Greed. Reagan got elected, for God’s sake. In any other time, including first-century Palestine, I already lived in paradise, with indoor plumbing, transfusions and anesthesia, a refrigerator, white sugar in a five-pound bag, public education. Clearly, clearly, I was good.
My mother’s earnest face, and Kenny’s. Their earnestness about my soul, about an even-better heaven and of course also the prospect of hell. How could I resist the threat of hell, its lurking, unpredictable dangers? Mama, hopeful and concerned and doing her duty, being good herself, a good mama. Kenny assured her about my illusion–delusion–of goodness, about my blithe sinfulness, my lack of contrition about sins I didn’t even know existed. About my mistake about life being good.
I could feel my goodness, the goodness of my arms and legs, the air and nighttime sky where I already could find Orion, the weight of blankets piled on my warm bed, peach ice cream in the churn, the maple-red leaves. I couldn’t feel those other, senseless things.
I could feel their goodness, though. My mama’s love for me and doing the best she could and Kenny’s belief in the system, the father who killed his own son just for me. A linear system that made sense if you held your head a certain way and believed, tried hard enough, like Kenny did. Blood and agony millennia ago, to redeem my sinfulness. All to save one little white girl in 1980. Atonement–substitutionary, transactional.
What harm was there in it, letting them think that? Her face lit up. She was so proud when I said yes. What did it cost me, seconds under the warm water in Kenny’s arms, like rinsing my hair in the bathtub, down and back up, amens and hallelujahs from the crowded congregation, and then walking out of the pool, the font, with its plexiglass front, my clothes clinging to me, climbing the stairs as someone else stepped down into the water with the preacher? How much more I would’ve paid, would happily have paid, for Mama’s smiling face from the first pew, so proud of me, so good.
That first moment, my first lie about Jesus, formed a fulcrum. And then the plunge, taken without commitment, without sincerity. No going back now.
Believe, they said. Have faith. Believe. Make yourself believe. That’s what faith is, believing even when you don’t. Look at this person or that one, these foundations of the church. Look at how their faith has kept them strong. We mean well, there’s heaven in store, and hell is always at the door, waiting to swallow us up. Be a good girl and have faith, believe.
Evolution and biology, beautiful things with long, flowing tendrils of connection and love, life woven into inexplicable and unimaginable variations, inscrutable, ineffable. Kinship with my cat, with my dog, with the little blue bird I shot with my BB gun and then cried over. Not just empathy but blood, commonality, family. The low pull in my tendons toward the hills and the grass, belonging to it, being and longing, joined together, my face against the rough bark of the tree, my bare feet on the slime-creek rock.
We own the land and all the things. They are things; we buy and sell them. The body, the things, are sinful. Being is sinful. Longing is especially sinful. The very things you think are good. Believe. Make yourself believe–that’s faith. Pry yourself loose from your experience, your delusion.
The headline from my first day of school, Mama laminated and kept in a scrapbook because she knew history as it happened to us. Parents picketing outside elementary schools, not mine but across town, against the desegregation they hadn’t been able to stop. It sat in the scrapbook, without comment, while we waited for a verdict, to see how it would all turn out. Nothing for us to do but wait and see. In classrooms together, still separated. Wait and see.
What kind of girl do you see with the black boys? Trashy! Trashy white girls are who you see with them. I don’t care how much money his father makes or how good he is to you. You’re better than that. You save your virtue, your value, your treasure for someone who deserves you, someone with pasta and a chest freezer and two stories. You keep that in the bank until it’s time to bargain with it, that spot of blood on the sheet, your wedding night. You leverage it for a good life you deserve. You be good and faithful and right.
What about Jesus and the poor people? What about that man on the corner and the scary things he says, the way he smells? I like Tamika, why can’t I go to her house and what does “the projects” mean? How does that hurt anyone, the way he is, the way they are together? Why are you so angry? Is Jesus always angry, always against the welfare queens? How do you tell which poor people want to work and which want to work the system? How do we know who deserves our love? What does compassion mean? Why can’t he keep up?
That’s just the way it is. For God’s sake stop thinking about it, stop looking at it, stop talking about it. Can’t you just be satisfied? It’s just how things are, and that’s that. God doesn’t like girls who ask those kinds of questions, and remember you’re starting with a handicap with God, anyway, with Eve and that mess every month, the curse. You need to have faith. Faith and belief. Faith means you believe even when you don’t believe, and look, it’s in fancy letters on the back of my SUV and across the breasts of my t-shirt. Bring your kids to church with us and someone like Kenny will help you build your faith.
The miracles of my own boys, their quickenings, their pulses and love and the connection of them. My mother and me, dreaming parallel dreams each night, connected still. Bloody intimacy, umbilical, mitochondrial.
Feedlot cattle, chickens caged on the back of a truck, going to be slaughtered, perhaps the best day of their short lives. Prodding the cattle toward the stun of the sledgehammer, toward death, blood on the floor. “Pigs are smart, they don’t want to get in the trailer. You got to drive them hard. They know what’s coming.” Turkeys with their genetics turned against them, corporate priorities over their own, reduced to enormous breasts who can’t breed or fly. Farmers’ children picking up the dead chicks from the floor of the chicken house, throwing them into a bucket, growing meat.
Blood and agony, misery and terror, caught in the flesh. Where else would it go? Does Jesus want that? Is that his way? “This is my body,” he said. “This is my blood.” I can’t eat that.
Why do you have to talk about that? Can’t you see I’m eating? You’re ruining Thanksgiving. Aren’t you thankful? We should all be grateful we’re not homeless. Should remember to pity those others. And why can’t you get along with people? You know half the time people don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about. That’s just how things are, never mind.
What will happen, after all, if you don’t believe, if you don’t say yes? That’s what death is, and death is bad.
But Death is the harvest, y’all, is the seed going into the ground, Jesus into the tomb. I believe as much as you do, the eternal message of circular time, kairos, tomb becomes womb and it never ends and death is a gateway to true generosity, nutrients we’re made of into elements and matter and energy, all throbbing together to create both space and time, connected by mycelium and neurons and capillaries and the world wide web and tendrils of galaxies. I believe, I believe, help thou my unbelief.
No, no, you misunderstand. Seven days, Adam first and then Eve, and then her sin. Dominion and ownership, sin and separation, chosen and unchosen. Literal. The word of God. The literal Word of God. The WORD of GOD.
No one will like you, ask you to the prom, marry you, want to talk to you, hold your hand.
Make yourself believe. That’s all you have to do.
No one would hold my hand. I pried myself loose, asked for the divorce, pulled on the lever, let the world end. Mostly. Eventually. Returned to my senses, my good sense. My goodness.
Wordless connection deeper than thought, fonts of knowing, mother child lover, mother child lover. Blood and being flow and stand and seep down, into the ground beneath us, around us, savage and vital, weaving us together, endlessly making-longing-devouring-re-creating, indifferent to our beliefs.
About the Author
Traci Elliott‘s fiction has appeared in NC Conversations, her literary criticism in More Lights Than One, and her poetry at The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. She lives in central North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer and ghostwriter.