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

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

FIRST Baptist, my father's church, had a smooth green lawn, nineteen steps up to the sanctuary, eight ivory columns, and a stained-glass window for every disciple but Judas. Andrew fished from a little wooden boat, bobbing on a slash of blue; James and John mended their nets between two fig trees; Simon Peter, who was my favorite, had a two-part window, like an episode of Bonanza that began one week and ended the next. On top he sat at the Last Supper, elbows on the table, promising Jesus that he would never, ever betray him; below he denied to a mob of red and yellow dots that he had been a disciple at all. Bartholomew had a window, and Philip, and Thomas, and Matthew, and the other James, the other Simon, and Thaddaeus. Where Judas would have been, a lamb grazed at the foot of a cross. The cross was empty, because we were Southern Baptists, and our idea was that Jesus was up in heaven looking down. Never a moment passed when he wasn't watching over us, my father said every Sunday; the closeness of his watch was a measure of how much he loved us.

But inside our house on Fitzgerald Street, for every "In Jesus' name we pray, amen" that my father said out loud at meals, for every Bible verse, for every sermonette on God's love and God's law, exactly two commandments really mattered. The first, "Don't hurt your mother," was my father's. The second was "Don't tell on her," and that one was mine.

WHEN I was little, my mother was crazy. She went into the hospital when I was three, and came out, and went back in. When she was out, she lived with my grandparents up in Kansas City. I was five and a half when she came home to Abilene. She had a special brass case for pill bottles, and an address book with nothing in it but doctors' names, and -- I remembered this on my own -- some missing hair in back, because apparently my grandmother's beautician had problems of her own. In all that time my father had prayed maybe a million prayers for her, and the Sunday after her return he told a packed church that Anna Starr Whitmore had been restored to us by the loving hand of God.

When my mother came home, the clean and quiet of her own house made her smile, and every day after breakfast she lingered in a different room, relearning it, relearning us. She memorized my dolls' names, and brewed real tea for my tea parties on the screen porch. She came to every one of them dressed in her Sunday clothes. And she played with my father, too. Once, when the three of us sat down to breakfast, she looked right at me and said, "Herbert, pass Daddy the butter, please. You need a haircut, Herbert -- how can you see with all that hair in your eyes?"

Across the table, my father began to fold his toast in half.

"I'm a girl," I said, because that was my only line.

"Herbert Ann, then; pass Daddy the butter," my mother said, and when my father raised his head, she started to laugh. He sailed the toast high over the table, and it touched down in her open hands.

AFTER she came home, my mother was fine for a long time. If anybody wanted to ask me, she was still fine. The driving around had started in the summer, but I hadn't said a word to my father. I had thought and thought about it: I couldn't tell my father without hurting my mother. So when he left town, I ran all the way home after school, and when my mother pulled out of the driveway, I got into the car.

When my father was home, my mother did her best: she never missed a beauty-shop appointment or a Women's Missionary Union meeting at church, and when he held the passenger door open for her, she hopped right in. She wore hats on Sundays, pastel ovals outlined with lace, and as my father drove, she listened carefully to the sermon he was about to give. "Grace is never earned," he had said the week before, and my mother had said right back, "Then grace shouldn't work." He laughed and told her he'd change it to "A state of grace is never earned." My mother smiled, and for just that long I saw what my father saw.

But it wasn't always Sunday morning. And then one day I thought about my mother all the time. One day in school we did an experiment in science class. Mrs. Richards pumped air into a plastic bag, a little at a time, and we watched it swell and swell until finally the bag popped. Even though I'd known it was coming, I still jumped -- and that was when I pictured my mother living in a see-through bag, watched by my father, and the choir, and the Dorcas Ladies Bible Class. The thing was, the car was bigger than a plastic bag. And in the car I was the only one watching her.

At times, when my father was home, when my mother was trying hard to be well, I thought it would all work out. My mother could stay with us, and my father could keep his miracle, and all I had to do was get in the car. But when I told my mother about Hester Sarah Solomon and the Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community, I saw her face. I heard what she said. And I knew why my father's prayers for my mother had stopped working. My mother didn't believe in God. I had thought I was the only one.

MY report cards, every one of them all the way back to kindergarten, said I wasn't working up to my potential. But I had worked to believe in God. I tried much harder than I ever tried with fractions. When I was little, still expecting that one morning I'd wake up and be a Christian like everyone else, I was sure that believing was just a matter of time and effort. I mean, I took swimming lessons for years, and all that ever happened was I got wet. But one day I put my head under the water, I kicked out, and I could swim. Sooner or later, I believed, I'd bow my head one Sunday morning and be touched by the Holy Spirit, as my father always described it happening for him. I could close my eyes and, maybe, see Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that was it. I didn't stop trying, though. I never sat where I wanted to in church -- in the last pew in the sanctuary, with the kids who chewed gum and wrote notes. I stayed up front, next to my mother, and I prayed. I gave my allowance to missionaries. I went to church camp. I sang hymns. Nothing happened.

So when I was eight, I went down the aisle one day at the close of the service and told my father I had accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. He kissed the top of my head, right there in church, and a week later he baptized me. I was sure that saying I believed, out loud in front of everyone, would somehow make it true. But all that happened was that I wasn't just a nonbeliever anymore. I was a nonbeliever and a big fat liar.

Hester Sarah Solomon believed. All you had to do was look at her to know that. And watching her, just for that minute when she said the name of her father's church in front of the class, I began to think about the possibility that nothing was wrong with my mother and me. Maybe something was wrong with our religion.

THE morning after I bumped my head, the house was quiet when I got up for school. My mother wasn't downstairs, and I didn't know whether she was awake or not. I knew she had been up late after we got home, because she'd cooked a stack of waffles for me to warm up. They were in the refrigerator, with a note on church stationery that said she loved me, and that she'd see me later. The note was an old one; she kept it in the junk drawer to use after our drives.

I walked backward most of the way up Fitzgerald Street, watching the house, half expecting to see my mother come outside to get an early start on sitting in the car. For the first time, I wondered if part of what made her do it was how many Bibles my father owned, the framed pictures of his seminary classmates, the watercolor of the hills above Jerusalem that hung over the fireplace.

I was on the school's front steps when I heard the first bell ring, and I cut across the main hallway to get to class. As I passed the principal's office, I saw Hester Sarah Solomon with a man I was sure was her father. They were in the outer office, and I watched Mr. Shipp come out to take them inside. Hester Sarah's dress, the color of tuna salad, was worse than the one the day before, and the Reverend Solomon was turning a gray felt hat over and over in his hands. With every rotation, the shiny sleeves of his sport coat snaked above his wrists. I could see he was a preacher from Hester Sarah's face. The whole time he talked to Mr. Shipp, her eyes were fixed on his mouth, as if she could see every word, in capital letters, as it came out.

The tardy bell rang, and I had to get past the glass wall of the office before I could run. All through first period I waited for Hester Sarah to come back. Finally the door opened, and there she was, with Mr. Shipp, exactly like the day before. But this time, when she came to the blackboard, she looked out at the class.

She toed the tile with her right sneaker, and I heard Patty whisper, "Woolworth's. Two pair for two dollars." But she said it really low, and when Hester Sarah looked our way, Patty sucked in her breath so hard she whistled.

"I have to say I'm sorry," Hester Sarah said, and closed her mouth. Mrs. Richards sighed, a tiny sound like a dollhouse door shutting, and asked if Hester Sarah didn't have something more to say.

"I was wrong," Hester Sarah said, and as Mrs. Richards nodded, she added, "It's not up to me to say who's a whore of Babylon and who's not. That's up to God."

Hester Sarah lingered a little on "whore," but all Mrs. Richards did was flutter her hands. From the choked-off sounds behind me, I knew that Patty was about to cry, but she was quiet when Hester Sarah came down our row. The boys drew in their feet as she passed.

Mrs. Richards told us to get into our reading groups, and she put Hester Sarah in the lowest group, the one named for the state flower of Texas. I skipped my turn to read with the other Eagles so that I could listen to Hester Sarah, two rows over. She sounded out even baby words, like "farmer" and "weather." But I knew that the Ten Commandments were real to her. I knew that if I went up to her on the playground and said "Number eight," just like that the answer would come back: "Thou shalt not steal." I thought of her face when she looked at her father, and I thought that 99 percent of the Reverend Solomon's sermons were not about God's love, God's mercy, or God's eternal forgiveness. The Reverend Solomon would preach about sin, I thought -- about casting out sin and demons, about escaping the flames of hell. The Reverend Solomon would preach about saving people, whether or not they wanted to be saved.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one 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 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 2; page 69-78.