The Church of Stooge

Sometimes people requested a laying on of hands for healing or, even more time consuming, the casting out of a demon. This could add at least an hour to the evening.

Tonight we had a church meeting, so we were rushing through supper because we had to pick up Brother Larry and take him with us. He was staying with the Trotters, which was a little out of our way. The Trotters were a fascinating bunch. They had at least 15 dogs, all of which lived in their house. I’d been in the house just one time, and it had been shocking in a way that only utter filth can be shocking. There were dogs on the counters, on the floors, on the chairs, even one on the coffee table in front of the TV. They were everywhere. Dog food — the same cheap kind that we fed our dogs that often contained unfortunate flies baked right into the nuggets — crunched underfoot. And the smell. Now, I liked the smell of puppy breath. I liked the smell of dog’s ear. I even liked the smell of a wet dog. But all of those put together, contained and brewing in a small house, yielded a smell potent enough to gag you. I tried breathing though my mouth but then imagined that I could taste the smell, that the smell was coating my tongue like thick paint. My sisters made no pretense about the awfulness and simply tucked their noses and mouths into the collar of their shirts.

Larry wasn’t our brother, actually. That’s just what we called fellow members of our church. And it wasn’t a proper church. We met in the basement of a pizza place called Stooge’s. (I’d secretly dubbed this meeting place “The Church of Stooge,” which gave me a little blasphemous kick.)

Mom had gotten bit by a religious bug, and this had been going on for a few years at this point. I’m not even sure how it got started. We didn’t go to a “real” church, and we didn’t have a “real” religion, meaning we weren’t Baptist or Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness. We were just our own little bunch of fanatically and cult-like religious people — “non-denominational” Mom called us. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like them. It all scared me a bit.

Mom turned into the Trotters’ driveway. As the car came to a stop, we could hear the dogs start up a deafening ruckus from inside the house. Curtains yanked and pulled as dogs jumped at the front windows, trying to see over one another. Mom looked at us. We looked at each other. “We’ll just wait out here, Mom,” I said, speaking for all three of us.

Mom went to the front door and knocked; Brother Larry came out, heavyset and wearing a black leather jacket with chains, his dirty hair glistening with smelly pomade. He was in the midst of conversion, Mom had told us, and she was witnessing to him and trying to lead him to the flock. In other words, she was trying to get him to join our little non-denominational group.

We headed into town, where Stooge’s was located. We arrived at the same time as everyone else, and as we pulled up, I watched from the car window as the ladies wrestled with the babies, the men stood around nodding and occasionally glancing skyward, and the kids ran around, soaking up their last few minutes of movement and freedom. The sun was going down, and the rich smell of spring saturated the air. I could hear the sounds of a carnival across the street and everyone else’s life going on outside of that parking lot. It filled me with melancholy and longing.

Mom handed us our head coverings and bobby pins as we made our way to the door. Women weren’t allowed to speak in church without a head covering of some sort, be it a doily or napkin or even a baby’s stained burp cloth. We fastened up and went downstairs. Mom immediately ran off to swoop and sway and “praise God” with the other ladies until the meeting started. My sisters and I stuck very close together — we always did when we were at church. We didn’t really move from the entrance until Mom retrieved us, and then we headed to our row of metal folding chairs.

Brother Bardell went to the front and started the song worship, leading us with his guitar. Everyone else joined in with tambourines, maracas, hand clapping. We didn’t have hymnals; the songs were learned and passed on. This was the best part of the whole, long church meeting, in my opinion. I enjoyed singing, and some of the songs were really pretty, even if I didn’t pay any attention to the message in the lyrics.

We’d just finished one of my favorites, and in the pause between that one and the next, Sister Bonnie spoke out in “tongues,” meaning that she’d been baptized in the Holy Spirit at some point and now could speak this magical language from God. From what I’d been told, the Lord would occasionally select someone from the audience — someone obviously pretty darn special — to speak in tongues. The person would stand there rocking side to side, eyes closed, hands reaching up to his/her Love, and out would come God’s message in a language no one knew. (That was the mystery of “speaking in tongues” and being “anointed in the Holy Spirit” — the genuine article, the bona fide gift of tongues, meant that it was a language that no one else knew. This always puzzled me. How did you know it was real if no one could verify that it was an actual language?)

So Bonnie delivered her special, encoded message, her tight-curled head lifted to the heavens, her sky-blue church dress rustling as her ample hips moved in that rhythmic, universal way that signals religious rapture.

The tense waiting period began. Now God — who knew all languages — was supposed to pick someone else to decipher the message. It was all about teamwork in this church. I found this nerve-wracking. If the tongue-speaking chosen one had delivered a bum message, no interpretation would come. Nine times out of ten it went off without a hitch and everyone was happy, relieved, and enlightened, but never when it was Bonnie. Poor Sister Bonnie. Every single time, she gibbered the same exact sounds from her fraud of a tongue and never once — not once — had anyone ever been God-compelled to speak. This time was no different. Her verbal stuff just hung there in the air, like a cloud of biting mosquitoes ... tick-tock tick-tock ... until Brother Bardell mercifully started a new song. I felt irritated with Bonnie because I thought she did it for attention. Or maybe she was just confused.

We were done with the song worship now, and the main man, Brother Martin, made his way up the aisle. Rather than charisma, he gave off holiness in waves. He wore a suit, which seemed very classy, and had white hair and a gray beard. He had an air of authority, so I made sure to stand extra straight whenever he passed by me. Brother Martin held his marked-up, leather-covered Bible in the crook of his right arm. In his left hand, he carried a handkerchief to wipe away the perspiration that came from preaching and pacing for two to three hours. I just sat there hoping that this would be a nice, easy, uncomplicated meeting. Sometimes people requested a laying on of hands for healing or, even more time consuming, the casting out of a demon. This could add at least an hour to the evening. When I was younger, Mom used to let me sleep on the floor, something I took advantage of even when I wasn’t tired. But I was too big now and had to stay up with the adults. Kara was on the cusp and could sometimes do it if Mom was distracted. Jackie, being the little one, would wrap up all cozy on the wooden floor, using her Bible as a pillow, eyes mostly closed, with a sly little smile on her lips whenever we happened to glance at her (which was often). Larry just slept in his chair. His conversion did not seem to be going well.

Brother Martin started preaching, and I started doodling. I had stock doodles that I never tired of. One of my very favorites was a swan swimming in a pond that was bordered by a hill with an apple tree. The swan was a trick I’d learned in school — you could draw the whole thing in one fluid line without ever lifting your pencil from the paper. I could never do the curve of the head into the beak right, though, so I was challenged each time I drew it. I knew a trick to draw a house in one line, too, without lifting the pencil and without crossing any of the lines. It was a brainteaser I’d mastered a long time ago. And then I had my candlestick with the flame and dripping wax, and my assortment of flowers, mainly daisies, roses, and tulips. In the right margin of my paper, I always drew two clock faces (three if the meeting went especially long), on which I’d mark off fifteen-minute increments as a way of counting down until the evening was over. I’d carefully steal glances at people’s watches every couple minutes to keep track. Halfway into the second clock, and I’d really begin to squirm. My bottom half would be completely numb by this point.

But we were three-quarters there, now, and I was beginning to feel that hopeful exhilaration people feel when they’re near the end of something unendurable, when the dues are paid for the week. Finally, the sermon came to a close. Brother Martin asked if there were any prayer requests. I held my breath. Please let us just be done. And we were. People stood up. Children stretched and roused themselves.

I turned and headed for the staircase that led out of the basement, steeling myself to face the gawking and extremely lucky pizza patrons as they chewed their way through some pepperoni. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I’d left my doily under my chair. I turned to go back down and spotted my so-called friend, Lisa, standing at the bottom. Lisa actually kept me around to show herself and others how much better, primmer, and holier she was than I. We seemed to be in competition, though it wasn’t a game I wanted to play — I always lost. She was a slippery one. I nodded and fake smiled at her. She cocked her head to the side and asked, “Where are you going?”

I kind of shrugged and said, “Oh, I’m heading down to get something I forgot.”

Her eyes lit up as she gleefully announced, “Well, not me! I’m going UP!” She looked around at everyone, pleased at having nabbed me as I unwittingly told everyone I was going down to Hell. I hated her. I slipped past her, face burning. I grabbed my doily and then loitered so I wouldn’t have to interact with her again. When I felt it safe, I went upstairs and outside.
You’d think our night was over, that it had peaked, but the moment that my sisters and I waited for every week was upon us: the possibility of a stop at McDonald’s. Oh please, please God. Please let us stop at McDonald’s and get some fries. Please. We were very fervent when it came to the worship of fast food. Most times we’d drive right by, our hearts and stomachs sinking with disappointment. But every now and then ... every now and then, we’d swing into the parking lot and head for the drive-thru.

Tonight, God was on our side. “I have enough change, girls!” Mom gaily declared as we made a surprise turn toward the Golden Arches. Because Brother Larry’s sullen bulk intimidated us, we retained our decorum and silently bounced in our seats and air clapped. Mom ordered a large french fry and three ice waters, and then Brother Larry suddenly came to life at the smell of food. In a not very meek or modest manner, he had the audacity to order not only fries but a cheeseburger as well. And then eat it in front of us. He paid for it, but still. Couldn’t he sense our yearning for beef and cheese from the backseat? Didn’t he owe us a little something for the ride? We collectively glared at the back of his big, oily head until we got our fries and ketchup packets.

We ate in our accustomed pattern: I sat on the left side of the backseat, Jackie in the middle, Kara on the right. We took turns for who got to go first; this time it was Jackie. She took one french fry — and you just had to grab a fry, no looking or moving them around to find a long one — and squeezed out the perfect amount of ketchup onto her skinny little piece of fried heaven. Then it was Kara’s turn, and then mine. We ate the entire order of fries in this assembly-line fashion. We were nothing if not fair.

The drive straight home took 30 minutes, but it was closer to 45 tonight because of Larry. We finally made it home after midnight. I took the cushions off my loveseat, pulled out my bed, and laid down, still wearing my wrap-around skirt. We had to get up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the bus. On church nights, Mom didn’t enforce the whole bedtime routine and let us go straight to bed. Kara climbed to the top bunk using Jackie’s mattress as the step instead of the bunk bed’s built-in ladder, stepping on and pinching Jackie’s leg in the process. Jackie yowled and gave Kara a quick swipe. I told them to shut up. Mom shushed us then, and we all quieted and went to sleep, dried ketchup under our nails like the blood of Christ.

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