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Fiction Comparative Religion
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

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

by Lynna Williams

(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.
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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.

WHEN I ran down Fitzgerald Street, the trees and the other houses seemed not to be there. All I could see was my mother's face inside the car. I ran harder, but she had seen me and was already pulling out of the driveway to come meet me. I stepped off the curb into the street, and my mother leaned over to throw open the passenger door. "Come on," she said, "I've been waiting," which was what she always said, as if I had deliberately held us up by going to grade school.

I threw my book bag into the back seat, and my mother took off before my right leg was all the way in the car. I didn't tell her how that felt, the sensation of my best penny loafer pulling along the street. I just lifted my foot into the car as fast as I could and tugged the door shut.

"Safest place to be is in a car," my mother said, and I nodded, because I knew she believed it. She drove slowly and carefully on the city streets, where someone my father knew might see us, but then we were out of Abilene and on the highway. I pushed myself up until I could see the buildings downtown shimmying in the rearview mirror, like a cartoon mirage. Just then my mother hit the brake, hard, to get off at the exit to Sweetwater, and I had to stretch my legs out to keep from falling. I knew we weren't going to Sweetwater. We weren't going anywhere; we were just driving around.

Sometimes when we were in the car together, my mother talked the whole time, not to me exactly but out loud. She usually talked about something she saw: a house with a fluttery windmill reminded her of flying in a plane; little kids stepping off a school bus made her wonder if the road was safe to cross. Other times she was quiet, and if I tried to talk, she shook her head no. This time she didn't say a word for hours. I didn't look at the clock -- she didn't like that -- but once or twice I saw the odometer turn over. We were going in a circle, I thought, and I was trying to imagine how Mrs. Richards could make this a story problem in math: Mrs. Whitmore leaves her house at 3:00 P.M. and drives a million miles. Why doesn't she just go home?

Then we turned off on a farm-to-market road, which looked like a skinny black line drawn through acres and acres of dried-out ranchland. On both sides of the road cattle bunched together at stock tanks, waiting their turn to drink. I was wishing I could draw a cow that didn't look like Lassie when my mother said, "Cattle." She did that sometimes, said what I was thinking, but I still jumped a little when it happened.

She slowed the car almost to a stop and watched the cows on her side of the road. "Look how close they are to each other," she said. "They don't like being alone; sometimes, in a storm, they crowd together so tight that one of them suffocates."

I must have made a sound, because my mother looked over at me. "We're safe, Ellen. We have room, and we can breathe, and nobody can get in unless we let them. And if they try, we'll just drive away."

Nobody had ever tried to get in the car, and we were still driving away. I didn't say that out loud, though; this wasn't school. At school, if I thought Columbus was crazy to get in that dinky little ship, I said so to the whole class, and all that happened was that Mrs. Richards said, "What does the book say about your question, Ellen?"

My mother pressed down on the accelerator, and in a minute the cattle were behind us. After another mile she started to beat on the steering wheel rhythmically with the flat of her hand; she kept looking over at me, as if somehow I wasn't doing my part. As far as I knew, my part was to sit in the front seat and hope that my mother wouldn't drive us to the edge of the world. But things changed with her; that was the point. So I opened my mouth. What came out was how I'd missed "indefatigable" in the practice spelling bee, and about "Moira, My Darling," an Irish ballad that Mr. Pitts was teaching us in chorus.

It was almost dark, and I didn't know where we were anymore. My mother was still thumping the steering wheel, and I tried to think of something else. "We have a new girl in our class. Her father's the minister of a little church; it could be somewhere out here." I drew in my breath and let it out slowly. "It's called Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community." My eleventh birthday was four months away, but I'd started sixth grade that fall with kids who were already twelve. I was in the best reading group, the one named for a bird of prey. But "apostolic" still sounded wrong, not the way Hester Sarah had said it.

I said the church name again, but I didn't stop there. I knew I could tell my mother the rest of it, what Hester Sarah had said to Patty, and not just because "whore of Babylon" came from the Bible. Most of my friends' mothers had baby names for anything to do with people's bodies. Patty's mother was the worst: on our last choir trip Mrs. Bailey had gone up and down the line asking the girls if anyone needed to wee-wee before we left. At least when my mother talked to me, she called things by their right names. "Patty made fun of her," I said, "and the new girl called her a whore of Babylon."

My mother was so still that I looked to see if the car was moving in a straight line, afraid that somehow she had fallen asleep. I was half reaching for the wheel when she said, "Christ on the cross." I pulled my hand back and closed my eyes. Nobody's mother talked like that. The car filled up with the words, like a birthday balloon on a bicycle pump, and my mother's face expanded. She was looking at the road, but her right hand came off the wheel and floated near her mouth. "Gates of Grace," she said through her fingers. "Gates of Goddamned Grace."

The car skidded a little, and the driver of a pickup truck coming the other way leaned on his horn. My mother blew out her breath, and just as the pickup passed us, she jerked the Lincoln over to the shoulder and then straightened it again. I didn't try to stop myself from sliding off the seat. The dashboard was right there, and I pushed my forehead into it. I closed my eyes and thought of Tweety Bird tricking Sylvester the Cat. Something else I'd learned about riding with my mother was that if I hurt myself, even a little, she'd stop the car.

She said "Ellen" once, and then again, and then "Jesus." But she wasn't saying a prayer. She pulled onto the shoulder, and when the car stopped, she jumped out and ran around to my door. I stayed where I was, not moving, and my mother opened the door. She sat sideways on the seat, her feet spraying gravel underneath, and pulled me up into her arms.

I let her push back my bangs and feel my forehead. After a minute she stopped saying my name, which worried me a little, and I opened one eye. I had to be careful: the point was to get us home, not to a hospital. At a hospital they'd see I wasn't hurt; I couldn't be sure what they'd see about my mother.

"Mama, what happened?" I tried to make my voice all puzzled and sweet.

"You threw yourself on the floor, that's what happened," my mother said, and she let go of me. She left the car and began to slide down the embankment. I waited for a minute, pinching my forehead a little because I wanted to, not because crying was going to get me anywhere. When my mother didn't come back, I got out of the car and started toward her. I kept one foot turned out, so I could run if I needed to.

I had almost reached her when she said, "You stay there, Ellen Ann. Stay there and think about what you did."

I said I was sorry, and I was. I was sorry that my father was in San Antonio. I was sorry that cars had been invented.

"You're all alike, you know that? You and your father and your little friend who calls people names. You won't let anyone alone. You won't let them be." She spoke breathlessly.

I moved my head, just a little, in case a nod was what she wanted.

"You could have told me you wanted to go home," she said. "But you didn't do that, did you? You pretended you were hurt to get your way, and you didn't care how you made me feel."

If I had said "I want to go home," we'd be in Mexico by now, but I didn't say so. Maybe she'd forgotten, but once she drove so far that we had to spend the night in Arkansas in a motel with a giant horse on the roof. I hadn't cried then, and I wasn't going to now. All I did was wait. The light was gone, and our bodies blended in the dark, ran together, until all our edges were gone. "We were having a nice drive, and you ruined it," my mother said. "Next time you can just stay home; what do you think about that?"

Now was the time to cry, to say how sorry I was, to swear that we could drive a million miles, a trillion, and go home only when she wanted. I was getting ready to, but a car passed by, and the headlights threw me off, pulled my eyes to the road. I wondered who was in that car, and then, even though she was one good reason I was standing in weeds, I thought of Hester Sarah Solomon. Hester Sarah's family would be singing, I thought, an old hymn like "Just As I Am" or "Abide With Me." Or maybe she and her brothers were counting stars, while her father told them about God's holy firmament. Maybe they were coming home from getting ice cream to celebrate Hester Sarah's first day in a new school. I almost smiled, but then my mother passed me on the way to the Lincoln. She was inside before I could climb up the embankment, and when I got to the top, the car was already rolling. I waited, counting the heartbeats under my hand, and when I got to five, I started to run.

Continued...

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


Lynna Williams is an associate professor of English at Emory University, where she directs the creative-writing program. She is the author of Things Not Seen and Other Stories (1992).

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Comparative Religion - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 69-78.