Sunday morning. Lighthouse Full Gospel Tabernacle, located in the old furniture store right next to the water tower downtown. Harsh fluorescent lights and rows of folding chairs. Butcher paper taped over the showroom windows. A fat orange stripe cuts across the off-white walls, and stenciled through the faded logo for La-Z-Boy are the words JESUS IS LORD. Heads are bowed, eyes closed.
“If this message spoke to you today,” Pastor Durkee says, “I want you to raise your hand.”
The a/c unit rattles to life. Somebody blows her nose. There’s a leak in the ceiling and it drips to the tile floor.
“No one looking around,” he says. “Just between you and the Lord.”
Throats clear as the preacher paces the space between the altar and the pews.
“Come on, church,” Durkee pleads. “Come on….”
Pastor Durkee had just preached a pretty good message about man’s weakness and need for God. About how we try and try and still don’t get it right. I try and don’t get it right. What the heck. I raise my hand.
“Yes. Yes,” he says, “I see those hands.” The piano sways us, soft and slow. From across the way a woman’s voice utters, move, Lord. I lower my hand.
The praise band joins in and the choir sings softly about walking that Jericho road. Durkee’s voice rises above. “If you had your hand lifted this morning,” he says with a melodious lilt. “I want you to come down front…and meet Jesus.”
Durkee paces harder, his voice on edge. “Brother,” he implores. “Come on.”
I open my eyes. Half the church is staring and I feel a little tricked. Part of me is tempted to step to the end of the row, turn, and run out the back door. But instead, I walk down front and meet the pastor there. He pulls me close. “Bless you, brother,” he says, smiling like an angler with a five-pound bass. “Bless your heart.”
“Where’s everybody else?” I whisper.
“Shh,” he says, placing his hand on the back of my neck. “It was just you.”
Jules’ house. Sunday afternoon. She’s on the back porch, propped sideways on a ratty old couch, painting her toenails purple and army green.
“You did what?” she asks.
“At church this morning,” I explain, shading my eyes from the sun. “I went down front for prayer because I’m flunking math and I guess they thought I was getting saved.”
“That’s effin’ nuts,” she says.
Jules has a jet-black buzzcut and a tattoo of a dove and a rainbow on her wrist. She’s fond of Captain Morgan and drops the f-bomb a lot but says she wants to do better, so on her days off from the bar, she drives the old couple next door to the grocery store. Jules is a good listener, my very best friend and the most Christian-hearted person I know.
I climb the steps and flop down beside her. “You ever been baptized?” I ask.
“Sure,” she says, back to her toes. “When I was a kid. At least I think I was. Why?”
“Preacher says I have to come back tonight and get baptized.”
“You didn’t tell him it was just for math?”
“There wasn’t really any way to say it,” I tell her. “Besides, you know. Math and other stuff too, I guess.”
“Can’t hurt to get baptized,” she says. “Right?”
“Guess not,” I reply. “Preacher said you have to or it doesn’t count.”
“That’s what the preacher said.”
Jules twists her lips and rolls her eyes up and to the right, like she does when she’s thinking deep. “Maybe I oughta go with you,” she suggests. “Just in case I need to get baptized, too.”
Pastor Durkee preaches about how all of heaven rejoices when just one sinner comes clean, about the fruit of outreach and the power of God to change broken lives.
Jules elbows my side, talking behind her hand. “Even if you’re just flunking jackass math and stuff.”
Then the pastor points and says that I came forth this morning, made a public proclamation, and asked to be baptized tonight.
“That’s not the way you told it,” Jules says.
“Brother Blaine,” Durkee says, extending his hand to me, “if you’ll go to the back, we’ll help you get ready now.”
“You coming?” I ask Jules.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m with you.”
We slip around back and into the choir room from the side. Deacon Johnny is holding a mop Grim Reaper style, and there’s a large woman with mean eyebrows carrying a robe with a rainbow yoke and doves down the sleeve.
“Hey, y’all,” I say.
Jules lifts her hand. “Hey.”
“Let’s go, mister,” the woman urges. “Come on, now.”
“Check it out,” I tell Jules, pointing to the robe. “Rainbow.”
“And who might you be?” the woman asks.
“Julie,” Jules says. “Jamie’s friend.”
“Your friend needs to wait out front,” the woman says, polite with ice, quotations around the word ‘friend.’
“If it’s, uh, okay, I’d like for her to stay.”
The woman cocks her carved brow, turns without a word and walks away. Jules shoots me a nervous look. I shrug.
“A lot of people get the spirit when they come back up,” Deacon Johnny offers, in his slow Arkansas drawl. “You’ll feel cleaner and lighter. Closer, too.”
“Thanks,” I say, because I don’t really know what else to say.
He leans his mop in the doorjamb and goes to the far side of the room to fetch towels. The robe is lying across a chair. I pick it up as the praise band begins to play “Love Lifted Me.”
“Well,” I say. “Here goes.”
“Jamie,” Jules says, taking my hand, “Do you trust me?”
“Sure, uh –”
Before I can finish the sentence, she grabs my wrist and pulls me through the back door. We dash like thieves to her car. She burns tires out of the lot and into the fading sun. At first we are quiet. Then we laugh. Then we are quiet again.
Jules pilots over the levee and turns onto the dirt road that runs by the river’s shore. She parks in the bushes before the bend, throws her shoes in the floorboard, and runs towards the water.
“Come on!” she shouts.
I shuck off my boots, stash my wallet in the glove box, and follow her in.
We’re knee deep in the river, 6:30 summer sun, the long dusk with night rising through the trees. The water is warm around us, cooler in the deep.
Absolute silence for five minutes or so, neither of us saying a word. Then, the sound of music.
“Hey,” says Jules, eyes up and to the right. “I think I know that song….”
“Yeah,” I tell her, “but where’s it comin’ from?”
Like some sweet epiphany movie scene, the bow of the Dixie Queen slips around the bend. We wade out further as it drifts by and the music grows louder. There’s a masquerade ball on the back deck, streamers and Christmas lights twined through the rails. A three-piece band is playing “Brown-Eyed Girl” and people are dancing in glittery masks.
They spot us and rush to the rail, shouting and waving and we wave and shout back. A woman in black throws us her mask. I jump to catch it and miss, but it floats nearby, silver against the muddy brown. I snatch it up and give it to Jules. Just as she pulls it over her head, the wake from the paddlewheel knocks us flat. We straggle back up, neck-deep now, and all the party people cheer.
Treading water, near the middle of the stream, watching as the riverboat fades from sight. “Dang,” Jules says, laughing and shaking her head. “You can’t make up stuff like this.”
We lie on the bank for a long time, waiting for our clothes to dry.
“Hey Jamie,” Jules says low. “I feel cleaner.”
The city lights shine silver in the clouds and the moon sits high above. A long pause passes before I reply. “Lighter,” I tell her. “Closer, too.”
Image via Shutterstock.