My stepfather’s job had brought us to Decatur, Mississippi this time. Regardless of what state we moved to, we always settled in a trailer park, nestled into the ugliest pleat of the outskirts of a small town. There were no trees, but plenty of half naked, dirty toddlers running around, and a church about a half mile or so down the road. Inevitably, my little brother, Jack, and I would be invited to church, typically by a neighbor kid who wanted to be able to say he discovered the new kids first; sometimes by a well-meaning elder who couldn’t abide the thought of our parents not bringing us. Besides, converting a couple of heathen children from Somewhere Else was a thrilling endeavor for the folks at First Baptist Church of The Middle of Nowhere.
“Honey, have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart, as your lord and savior?” I wore the prettiest dress I owned, with my long black hair in braids that I did myself. I sat criss cross applesauce on the forest green carpet that seems standard in Baptist churches across the south, in a circle of other fourth and fifth graders in their Sunday best. I looked down meekly, “No, ma’am.” Every face in Sunday school turned to me, including Jack’s. He uttered, “But…” I promptly shot him the kind of look that only a big sister can give, the kind that means the hell you’ll have to pay isn’t worth what you have to say.
“Oh, sweetpea!” the big bosomed, big haired Sunday school teacher said, her words dripping with equal parts alarm and pity. “We’re just gonna have to fix that then, ain’t we?” The following Sunday would be my big day!
On the way home, in the backseat of our neighbor’s car, Jack whisper-yelled at me, “You done got baptised. Twice. Why you gonna do it again? And what are you gonna tell Mama?” I rolled my eyes at him. “First of all, I ‘already’ got baptised, not ‘done’ got baptised.” I was on a mission to rid us both of our bad grammar and southern accent after we were teased relentlessly two towns ago. “Secondly, Mama doesn’t come to church anyway. She doesn’t even know we got baptised when we were in Texas! Thirdly, I’m going to do it again because I like it. It’s fun. You wanna do it again with me?”
Jack was baptised in the last town we lived in, and he did not think it was fun. He was that kid that hated the possibility of getting water in his eyes. When Mama washed his hair, she had to put a dry washcloth over his eyes. Then she’d slowly, slowly lean his head back, until his hairline was just under the water, his eyes shut so tight under that washcloth that his upper lip stretched all the way to his nostrils. If even a drop of water dared to land on his face, he would thrash around, water going everywhere, putting Mama in a bad mood.
“It ain’t right. You lied.” Seatbelts weren’t really a thing back then, so he was on his knees, the front of his body pressed into the back of the seat, with his arms folded under his chin as he stared out of the rear window of the car. His black curls fell so that I couldn’t see his eyes. “It ‘isn’t’ right,” I said, “And you lied three times last week when Mama asked if you brushed your teeth before bed. Listen, you know we’re only going to be living here until Christmas. I just want to make some friends first, maybe even some that will write to me after we move away. Getting baptised makes everyone so happy for you! Remember how it was last time?” He was still pouting. “Hey, how about I try to make friends with that girl who was sitting beside me in Sunday school – Charlene? She has a little brother, too. Maybe he has Hot Wheels and GI Joe.” He looked at me for a split second, then turned back to looking out of the rear window. “You think he has Transformers? ‘Cause I don’t have any Transformers.” he said, while drawing circles on the window with his finger. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. “We’ll have to be their friends to find out.”
When we got home, Ms. Nancy, the neighbor who had taken us to church, invited herself in. Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking while reading a Dean R Koontz novel. Ms. Nancy told her the great news. From her chair, Mama thanked her for taking us and bringing us home, took a drag off her cigarette, and went back to reading. Jack and I were already making ourselves sandwiches. I was spreading peanut butter on generic brand white bread, and he had the refrigerator open, looking for jelly. Ms. Nancy stood there, just inside the front door of the mobile home, for a long quiet moment before she managed to get the words out, “Should I pick up the children again next Sunday, or will you be joining us for your daughter’s baptism?” The word “baptism” was a thing in the room with us. It might as well have pulled a chair up to the table and sat down. Without looking up from her book, Mama said, “You can pick ‘em up. I ain’t been feelin’ too good lately. It’d be best if I stayed home.” She turned the page and took another long, slow drag. Jack handed me the jelly. Ms. Nancy let herself out.