Comparative Religion

When I was eight, I went down the aisle one day and told my father I had accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I was sure that saying I believed, out loud in front of everyone, would somehow make it true.

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts two and three.)

WHEN my father was away, what my mother did was drive. He was in San Antonio, preaching a three-day revival, and all day in Mrs. Richards's class I'd been picturing my mother closed up tight in our house, waiting until something told her to go get into the Lincoln. In world history, an hour before the last bell, I could feel my mother opening the car door in her navy-silk shirtwaist and spectator pumps, her dark hair feathering her ears. Wait for me, I thought. I didn't know I'd said it out loud until Patty Bailey leaned over her desk behind me. She said, "It's too late, Ellen. Columbus already sailed." I wanted to tell her to shut up -- that her mother was safe inside their house, watching The Price Is Right on TV. I tried to imagine what I'd do if this time my mother didn't wait for me -- if this time I went home and the car wasn't there.
I put my head down on the cool of the desktop, just for a second. Then I heard the stabbing sound Mrs. Richards's little heels made on the tile floor. I sat up, sure that she was coming to ask me what was wrong, but she was headed the other way, toward the door, where the principal stood with a girl I'd never seen before. The three of them talked, and then Mrs. Richards did her duck walk to the blackboard, bumping the girl along in front of her.

"Class, this is Hester Sarah Solomon," she said, and then waited for us to do our part, which was a big, phony "Hello, Hester Sarah." Half the class gave up in the middle, though, because the new girl so clearly didn't care. She had turned halfway to the window and was staring out at the empty playground as if it were the big screen at the Starlite Drive-In. The dress she had on was the color of applesauce, and so big that she had bunched the skirt in her fists to keep from tripping on the hem. Her hair was baby-fine and blonde, done up in an old-lady bun at the top of her head, and someone had jerked the hair back from her temples so tightly that her eyes looked almost Chinese.

Mrs. Richards wanted to get back to Christopher Columbus. She reached out to touch the new girl's shoulder, to make her face the class, and Hester Sarah swiveled her head around. When I saw her face, I forgot about the Starlite Drive-In; Hester Sarah looked as if she'd been startled awake and didn't like it, not one bit. That was how my mother looked when we had been driving a long time and a car coming at us honked because our lights weren't on. When my mother finally saw the nighttime, she always said, "I am the light of the world" as she felt for the switch at the side of the wheel. That was a Bible verse, but it sounded more like one when my father said it.

"Hester Sarah's family came to Abilene from Oklahoma City," Mrs. Richards said. "She has one brother in junior high and another in kindergarten, and her father is the new pastor of -- " Mrs. Richards skittered to a stop.

"Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community," Hester Sarah said. She rolled the words out like a banner, and I knew exactly how she would sound quoting Scripture.

Mrs. Richards chipped in an "Oh, yes," but without conviction. Like me, she was used to churches with "First" in their names -- churches like my father's, where she sang soprano in the choir. I said the name of the Reverend Solomon's church in my head; I knew that apostles were disciples, and that the gates of grace must be the way into heaven. But "Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community" used up too many words, the way Patty Bailey did when she brownnosed my father on Sunday mornings: "Oh, Reverend Whitmore, your sermon was just so holy, and righteous, and beautiful."

The other girls in the room were making little cawing sounds over Hester Sarah's dress, led by Patty, who now swung one leg out from under her desk and caught mine. "You can go to each other's church," she said, and snorted through her fingers. "Maybe she'll lend you something to wear." Patty said it loud enough for Mrs. Richards to hear, and Mrs. Richards charged halfway down the row to threaten her with study hall. Hester Sarah had heard too, but she went back to watching the playground. I'd gone a whole ten minutes without thinking about my mother, but suddenly I was sure she was still in our driveway. She'd have the nose of the Lincoln pointed toward Fitzgerald Street so that she could see me cut the corner at the top of the block.

Mrs. Richards finished with Patty and went back to the front of the class. She asked Hester Sarah to take a seat, and pointed to a desk at the end of my row. Hester Sarah started toward it, but when she was even with Patty Bailey's desk, she stopped. Just like that, she leaned over and put her face next to Patty's. She was staring at Patty's cheeks, which every girl in the room knew had been dabbed with Tangee Junior blush before the eight-thirty bell. "Whore of Babylon," Hester Sarah said, as if it were the answer to a question. Before Mrs. Richards could get to her, she said it again.

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