Mom always claimed that Nanda rolled out the red carpet for Uncle Joe. Thirteen years her senior, Ernie Joe was a successful businessman in the oil field and had managed a stable, long-term marriage. Nanda thought he could do no wrong. He was her golden boy, whereas single mother and thrice-divorced (and counting) Dell Rose was the red-headed step-child as she liked to call herself. So when Ernie made the four-hour trek to Kilgore from southern Louisiana every other year, it was a battle royale as the two siblings tried to outdo one another for their mother’s affection.
Nanda relished the attention. She’d even play them against one another and then watch with a raised eyebrow peeking above those green tinted glasses to see if they’d take the bait. They always bit. And a contagion of attacks involving all parties ensued. Sometimes this resulted in Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary packing their car after one day (or even a few hours) into a three-day stay. Nanda would clutch at her ample bosom feigning mortal injury over my two babies not gettin’ along. It just kills me. It just kills me!
She was never more alive.
Whereas Ernie Joe set up house in far-enough-away Lafayette, Dell Rose had taken a strings-attached refuge in the same town as her parents for the occasional help needed in raising two young boys. But this meant being under their thumb, taking their calls at all times, and enduring Nanda’s tirades and tears. It was expected that Dell Rose would drop everything and come sailing over whenever there was any need or crisis. And there were plenty of both—doctor’s appointments, hair appointments, grocery store runs, covert beer and cigarette runs for Nanda, Nanda’s-been-into-the-vodka (she could handle her daily dose of Bud but the liquor was another story); Papaw’s-been-into-the-vodka, which meant that he was bullying Nanda, calling her names, or “tearing up the house” looking for her stash of beer and cigarettes.
In most if not all of these emergencies, I rode shotgun with Mom to the other side of town to the last house on Laura Lee Lane. One afternoon we found both of them drunk, Papaw accusing Nanda of being a GOT-DAMN LIE when he asked how much she’d had to drink. The no-win game they’d play and finger-pointing could go on indefinitely. This one reached its height when Papaw walked over to Nanda’s customary seat at the kitchen table, snatched the plastic tumbler out of her hand, and poured its contents onto her head ranting, You a got-damn lie, momma! A got-damn lie! Nanda just sat there a minute patting her face and head with a cup towel. Then lit another cigarette.
Uncle Joe alternated between religious-zealot-teetotaling Uncle Joe and bawdy-sloppy-drunk Uncle Joe. Either he was shouting Praise Jesus! Thanks be to God! after any comment from I got a new job to I found your pen or he was swilling down scotch and singing I stuck my finger in a woodpecker’s hole… Turn it about, turn it about… OH! I stuck my finger in a woodpecker’s hole! I preferred the drunk Uncle Joe. His face and drinker’s nose would turn a bright red, his pot belly straining against his suspenders, and he’d dole out twenty dollar bills like it was gum. I couldn’t wait to share the loot with Michael D. And no matter which Uncle Joe showed up, he’d bring gifts for everyone. Our very own Santa of the South. Perhaps as an attempt to impress his mama and soothe the guilt for his deliberate estrangement, he always came bearing the latest electronic gadgets, the latest luxury car, the next get-rich-scheme, or even the latest recommitment to Christ.
Even though he was older than us, Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary’s only child seemed to epitomize “spoiled brat.” Cousin Jay held a permanent cheshire grin and delivered a know-it-all harrumph at everything anyone said. He was the cousin who’d dare us to do something outlandish or against the rules but be the first to tattle, a male version of Nellie from Little House on the Prairie. He once dared us to climb to the top of the thirty-foot stately pines in Nanda and Papaw’s backyard knowing full well that previous attempts were aborted when Papaw had warned stay outta them trees got-damn it! The race between brothers was on while cousin Jay played referee. Older and more agile, it was an easy victory for my brother. He’d already shimmied back down while I had climbed just high enough to be frozen in fear. Danny had to risk a second attempt by carefully guiding me down to solid ground. As soon as we got back in the house, ole Nellie with that sneery grin and those flushed red cheeks told Nanda and Papaw he’d warned us not to climb those trees but that we wouldn’t listen. Nanda saw through the charade, but couldn’t help favoring a new audience member and gleefully waited for the next round of conflict.
Ironically enough it was Jay who inspired Uncle Joe’s born-again Christian episodes. After being handed pretty much anything he wanted, Jay came to expect and look for more, even to the point of getting it at all costs including a few brushes with the law and a rash of stealing from his own parents. In his early twenties he confessed to us about his joining a bonafide Satanic cult, saying that he’d reveled in being—in his own words—“one of Satan’s children.” We weren’t surprised. But that was all in the past for He once was lost, but now he was found. The details of transformation were sketchy but entailed his hearing the voice of God much like Moses and the Burning Bush, then returning to the church where he’d been saved to recommit his life to Christ. Afterward, he began preaching the Word to help save other lost sinners. When Jay eventually married, he and his wife, Sally, became traveling evangelical preachers and often punctuated our own family gatherings by leading us in prayer with hands stretched heavenward, swaying side to side, and shouting Hallelujahs! Nanda literally leapt at the performance opportunity while the rest of us played nice and just rolled our eyes at one another. Eventually one of them would slip into speaking a gobbledygook of foreign-sounding words, falling to their knees in spellbound worship. We were later informed they were speaking the language of the higher power, the language of the holy ghost. They were speaking in tongues.
One night during my junior year of high school, Jay and Sally paid an impromptu visit to our apartment. They were in town visiting Nanda and Papaw and had called mom to say they were on their way. Mom just acted all enthusiastic over the phone saying, Fantastic! Come on over! Then hung up with an exasperated look of How long we gonna have to put up with them two?
I was busy getting ready for a date with one of the Bearden twins when Jay and Sally arrived. After a few minutes of painfully awkward small talk, Jay asked Mom if he could pray for me. At least he asked. Uh, sure. Why not? Mom agreed. She never would have said no, despite leaving the church a long time ago and having her own doubts about her mercurial nephew’s fanaticism. Sally made a quick trip to their car and returned with an acoustic guitar. The Big Tent revival had begun. Sally played guitar and sang Jesus songs slightly off key while mom and I stared at one another in wide-eyed disbelief. Though no stranger to impromptu sing-a-longs and serenades, this definitely wasn’t Mom’s scene.
Sally continued singing her pitchy Hallelujahs while Jay fell to his knees, raised his hands into the air, and began speaking “in tongues.” Bringing me off the sidelines and into the game, both Jay and Sally took each arm and pulled me off the couch and to the living room floor. Over my shoulder and on my way down, I gave a quick nonverbal plea for help toward Mom. But I was on my own. At this point, Jay reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a tiny vial of what looked to be expensive perfume. But it was just holy oil. They both fell into a mumbling gibberish, first one then the other, which ended up sounding like dueling auctioneers from a foreign country. Then Jay rubbed holy oil on my forehead and officially anointed me a Child uh Christ.
Jay and Sally closed the prayer with a call and response,
Glory be to God!
“Glory be to God!”
“Uh, thank you. Guess I’ll be going now,” I managed.
“Yes, brother Michael, go and be blessed!”
“Y’all too!” I gave an enthusiastic shout, knowing that I was free at last.
And it was out the door and off to my date where I swore that this time I’d work up the courage to get to second base.
When she was in high school, mom sang traditional Baptist hymns on a local radio program with Nanda. Though in my lifetime I never saw either one of them cross the threshold of any place of worship. Papaw, as he so delicately put it, didn’t buh-leeve in all that shit! Out of the blue from her post at the kitchen table, Nanda sometimes launched into singing a favorite hymn with a cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth and Budweiser in that red Solo cup, I come to the garden alone/While the dew is still on the roses… If Mom was around she’d join in for a tender moment of sweet old fashion harmony and they’d close the song leaning into one another, heads just touching like Archie and Edith in the opening credits of All in the Family… Those were the days…
Though Mom didn’t attend church when we were kids, she made damn sure we did. She wanted us to have our own opportunity to learn about Jesus and “Get Saved.” She’d drop Danny and me and sometimes Michael D. off at Bethel Baptist Church where the preacher had greased-back Elvis hair and wore a canary yellow leisure suit with matching patent leather shoes. In the midst of a Sunday morning or Wednesday night sermon, Pastor Nations would shift up his pants with his wrists and squat down low on his haunches, leaning into the hand-held microphone: Are you ready? Do you know, people? Do you know the state of your spurit-chal well-bein’? And pointing to individuals in the congregation for dramatic effect: If you died tuh-night… or you!… or you! …if you died this vurry night on your way home in a car crash, do you know where your soul would end up? Do you? How about you? Or you? DO YOU KNOW THE STATE OF YOUR SOUL, PEOPLE?
Recovering from this dramatic crescendo, his voice became a hushed whisper. The choice is easy and the choice yours. Matthew 12, verse 30, ‘He that is not with me is against me…’ You can either accept Gawd’s grace and enter the kingdom of everlastin’ life or (now raising his voice again until the veins in his neck bulged out) turn your back on Him, turn your back on GAWD and be THOWN into the GATES OF HELL where thirsts are NEVER quenched and hunger NEVER sated. The choice is YOURS! The rabid look in the preacher’s eyes. His booming and tremulous voice. It reminded me of Donny when he was angry and yelling at Mom. It reminded of Mom when she drank and turned mean-spirited. Then, almost imperceptibly, the organ would begin. All you have to do is heed his call. Come forward and accept Christ as your pers’nal savior. Take that step. Won’t you come?
Now at full volume and weepy wide vibrato, the organ beckoned the congregation to stand and sing softly,
Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
This would go on for the full six verses. Pastor Nations would interject the occasional, Jesus loves and waits for you… Won’t you make that commitment today for everlastin’ life? and Leave here tonight knowin’ that if that car crashes you’ll end up in the lovin’ arms of Jesus… There was always a big rush to the altar during the first verse. Pastor Nations would approach each sinner who knelt at the altar, place his hands on the back of their heads, then lean in to hear their confessions and offer first-time or renewed salvation. A faint trickle down the aisle followed the middle verses. But, for me, it was around verse six that things got dicey. It felt unbearably hot and my shirt collar scratched at the back of my neck. I hadn’t made my way down yet and I was scared and racked with guilt. I thought about hating my mother when she drank and played guitar. I thought about the Brachs butterscotch candy I had lifted at Piggly Wiggly’s. I thought about the things I had done with Michael D’s older brother, Kevin. Just as I am, thy love unknown, continued the congregation’s hushed singing. Some wept softly, tissues crumpled in fists resting gently against the pew. Some patted at their perspiring faces. Some raised their hands, palms to the ceiling and declared, Praise Jesus! I just wanted to be a good boy. If that meant believing in Jesus and confessing your sins, so be it. Even if I wasn’t sure about God and Heaven. But I was too scared to come forward. Ultimately, I just gripped the back of that pew, eyes shut tight and held on for dear life.
I did finally get saved, though. It was during Vacation Bible School at Bethel Baptist when Michael D. and I were in the grades 5–6 class together. After singing the likes of Yes, Jesus Loves Me and I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart (Where?) down in my heart (Where?) down in my heart! the teacher asked the class: “How many of you want to get saved today?” It might as well have been, “How many of you need to go to the bathroom?” or “How many of you have pets?” The matter-of-fact question was asked, hands shot up in the air, and Michael D. and I followed suit. We were led outside to the church parking lot where Pastor Nations stood grinning at the folding door of a powder blue school bus. He shook each student’s hand as we boarded. Michael D. and I were giddy at the thought of a field trip as reward for “getting saved.” But the first thing we’re told is that we’re not going anywhere. At least not literally. We had just boarded the One-way bus tuh Heaven. But that bus was hotter-n-hell as we sat there in the stifling mid-summer heat. Pastor Nations had taken off his jacket, wiped his dripping forehead, and told us to bow our heads in prayer:
For Gawd so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever buh-leeveth in him should not perish, but have everlastin’ life. Do you buh-leeve in Jesus Christ as your pers’nal savior? If you say yes, no matter what happens to you, no matter what you do, even if you killed a hunnerd people, you’ll always be saved. Always.
Sounded good to us. The sooner we consented, the sooner we’d be back inside the cool air-conditioned classroom. So we said I do in choral unison and were congratulated with high-fives as we made our way off the bus and across the pavement that shimmered in dizzying waves from the Texas heat.
I stopped going to church a few years later and mom didn’t protest. She felt she’d done her job. As far as she was concerned we were covered, both Danny and I having taken the short trek to the powder blue school bus at Bethel Baptist for our ticket to everlastin’ life.
But I made a concerted effort to return to church in tenth grade. My friends were talking about how much fun they were having in Youth Group at another Baptist church in a neighboring town, so I thought it was worth a try if only to raise my social status. The preacher’s daughters were the most popular. They were two brown haired blue eyed vixens who got caught making out in the sacristy with some older boys and later busted for smoking pot in the back parking lot. Since they were out of my league I ended up dating Cheryl, a shy overweight girl from Youth Choir. I wasn’t attracted to her, but her brother was a handsome football player who sometimes hung out with us at her house on Sundays after the service.
Like my dating Cheryl, the back-to-church thing didn’t last long. It was Pastor Nations all over again. Terrorizing sermons about the fiery pits of Hell awaiting the adulterers, prostitutes, fornicators, and homosexuals of the world. The sweeping condemnation of all other religions. The smug self-righteousness. I grew both weary and wary of the message, somehow knowing that I was one of its targets.
Pastor Nations had said once saved always saved. But it wasn’t the afterlife that I was worried about. It was the here and now.