The Quotable

That Damned Street

The older kids are all Jesused up, some high school juniors and seniors, that is. They’ve been hanging out at an apartment across the street, playing songs on the guitar and singing about Him… as if He is their best lover.Plus they’re all squishy and puddly about God, like he’s homecoming king or the centerfold in Tiger Beat. Early evening, they come into the front yard (cordoned off by a dilapidated, chain-link fence) and sit on the grass for hours while one of them strums and the others coo and warble about being born again, which brings to mind a horrible image…. a full-sized adult dropping out of a woman’s body as she walks along, a stretch of unfurling umbilical cord that just won’t quit.

I’m not sure who lives there; I’ve only seen the teenagers come out of the small apartment, sing and leave. Maybe they tunnel back into the place the next day so they can do it all over again: step out into the open to make a scene of their devotion, modern and folk-songy.

My parents don’t want me to go over there. They haven’t said it, but I know my mom thinks that the girls who live in the apartment next to these feeling-groovy-about-themselves Christians are tough and crude and maybe even dangerous. (My mom would never, however, use the word groovy).

“They wear tight shirts and their eyes are always rimmed in black,” Mom often says. “There’s really no reason to cross that damned street.”

It’s not exactly spite that makes me want to defy her. She means well; she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to me. But can anything that bad really be this close?

Many cars park in front of the apartment where the girls live with their mom who yells so loudly her voice gets all the way to our house. It’s a crackly growl, syllables ripping her throat and mouth as they exit her, the same as the demon girl in The Exorcist TV ads (the neighbor woman’s yelling just like the demon thumping on the door). The cars storm off loud, their mufflers dragging behind, a trail of cans on a car of newlyweds. “At all hours of the day,” my mom says to me with such concern I know I’m supposed to be scared. But I’m not… at least not of that.

“Come here, Dammit.” The stripper who lives directly across the street from us has begun calling her cat, a thin tabby, she’s really named Dammit.The stripper is out in front in a hooded sweatshirt and print pajama pants, her voice as gravelly as an alley that separates her building from the house to the west.

She makes her money at the Holiday Stop, a bar/restaurant a few miles south that features strippers Tuesday through Saturday each week.When I walk the alley behind her apartment building, I often spot her costumes pinned to a clothes line with blue plastic clips: a filmy brown chemise with black marabou around the neck with a matching strapless bra and lacy panties, a red jumpsuit made from the same material as my mother’s favorite nightgown, a coral-colored bustier whose stays have captured it in the shape of a vase, long white garters hanging down from it catching a breeze if there ever is one.

Dammit prowls the backyard’s perimeter, his body nearly camouflaged by low growth of cotoneaster and honeysuckle, its soft berries pops of red against his gray coat and the letter M of fur on his forehead. I watched him carry a baby rabbit in his mouth right to the back steps where he dropped it just before it righted itself and ran off, heading for a tear in the chain link fence behind a line of flowering pink and white hollyhocks.

The Kickin’ for Christ kids have left the front yard of the apartment building and are striding in a pack west along the street. The guitar player carries a black guitar-shaped case and a girl carries his guitar. She wears jeans too long for her that drag and fray as she walks and a long-sleeve blouse with an empire waist buttoned all the way to the top.

She is pretty in a prim, makeup-less way, her skin unblemished and pink, her eyes small and blue, mouth merely a line above her chin, a crack almost too small to enter.

What I’m unwilling to say — except here — is these Savior Supporters have infiltrated our confirmation class every other Wednesday night. They come when there’s not much time left in the hour and a half we spend with the dour-faced associate minister, Mark. (He will later die in a motorcycle west of town and become a B-list martyr in our community). Last week they brought pamphlets, legal envelope-sized black and white folded paper with harrowing illustrations and text, stuff you’d imagine had been spun off the presses of cackling Nazis before they rounded up the latest scapegoats threatening Germany.As we got up to leave, several of these self-appointed spreaders of the “Good News” stopped a couple of us and showed us the pamphlets. Mine was about hell…. how hell would be worse than being tied to a chair in a dark room forever. There was a drawing of a man in a straight-backed chair, rope spun around him like he were a spool, a small cartoon thought bubble cloud over his head: “Why didn’t I just tell the truth? Why?” What truth? To whom? The room in which he was permanently sequestered was dark except for light coming in through the bottom of a closed door in the background, beyond which Satan certainly worked overtime to bring down countless evil-doers among us, me, I guess, included.Why me? How have I failed to tell the truth about something? I must be really evil if I cannot remember how I’ve been so deceptive.

“If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you’ll end up there. And it will be much worse than you could imagine,” the guitar-carrier told me in a voice as calm as an empty room.

She doesn’t know what I can imagine, the horror my firing synapses create with each explosion, the big bang of my mind rendering an apocalypse as clear and brilliant as the movies at the Oak Park Theater. I will see the earth split with a crack the size and outline of my sleeping form, like a homicide victim chalk drawing with the center punched out.I will find a chair and tie myself to it every night.

“Oh. Okay.”

“No really. Take this.”

She handed me a couple of pamphlets, one with a phone number on it.

My mom says that when I was little, I figured out how to use the phone on my own. I climbed up onto the white windowsill and stood so that the black rotary phone was at eye level. She’s not sure just what happened but soon I had the receiver to my ear which she immediately took from me to listen. “And if you need to hear someone’s voice sharing with you the word of God, call anytime.” It was the minister at church, his recording for Dial-A-Prayer, a telephone service that provided new recorded prayers each week. I don’t remember how I learned to call the number or any prayer I listened to. But I get a sense of familiarity, a settling in my body, whenever my mom says, “I don’t know how she figured out that Dial-A-Prayer number.”

“Call me if you want to make Jesus Christ your personal savior. All you have to do is knock and the door will be opened,” she said, walked off and then turned and again. “Call me.”


So, as she traipses along across our street, I want to hate her. She’s scared me so much I can’t sleep. I can only imagine myself in a dark room wondering what forever means, my mind racing to build a rendering of it that I can understand and simultaneously fail to understand it as the dark of my bedroom flickers and undulates, itself a consciousness.When I’m exhausted by this, I list my sins, the chief among them that I haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and that I have no idea how anyone would know for sure that he or she had. I’m a horrible sinner, a doubter who’ll end up in that chair forever bound so tight I can still breathe but don’t want to.

I put the pamphlets at the bottom of my sock drawer. But you can’t really hide things from yourself, so I pull them out each morning when I get ready for school. Each day the man in the chair looks a little more garish and familiar until I figure out he’s got nearly the same face as a kid on a sticker on the toilet tank at my mom’s friend’s house. It’s of a kid in a toilet except for his head and it reads “Goodbye cruel world” and you’re forced to read it every time you flush because it’s there, the suicide kid about to enter our sewer system.

By the time we get to lunch at school, I’ve mostly forgotten about the pamphlets, the man in the chair, his weird twin on the toilet and my ongoing quest to figure out what I’ve done wrong in this world. But it all rushes back at night when I get home and later try to sleep and in the morning when I wake up from a flimsy rest.

But I go outside and cross the street to meet up with the kids who’ve stopped and are hanging out at the edge of a retaining wall that separates the neighbor’s yard from the sidewalk.They huddle in clusters: a couple of girls, one boy and a girl, three boys who’ve stepped onto the boulevard. The girl with the guitar case puts it down and says, “Hello. I didn’t know you lived in this neighborhood.”

“Just across the street. In that house with the red shutters and the big bay window.”

“Hey, Mike,” she says. The boy with the guitar sits down on the grass, puts his guitar in playing position and looks off to the west. He puts his head down for a minute and then, as he begins to play, she starts to sing I Don’t Know How to Love Him, her voice so beautiful I can hardly keep from crying. She and Mike exchange glances… of love, of knowing, of serenity, of never worrying about making it into heaven. The others get close and form one cluster, engulfing me, an irritation they will render a pearl perfect enough for God.

Is this it? Is this me accepting Jesus as my personal savior? Is he swooping in on the voice of this young woman and along the arms of those who’ve just embraced me? Will I see him somehow…. right in front of me in a white cloak, his arms outstretched? Or at the end of a hallway in my mind, all of him beseeching me to simply walk to him?And then I think of the chair and the person tied up forever, his sin unnamed though certainly heinous. I don’t want to be like him. I’m too afraid to be like him. But I don’t see Jesus on the lawn and he’s not arrived in my mind, despite how hard I work to conjure him up. I start to feel sick, a revulsion coming up through my throat, and the ground goes slant-wise, just as it does when I put on my dad’s glasses in the morning and the living room immediately cants slightly left. Yelling comes from down the street, immediately followed by tires screeching and a girl sobbing so hard I can’t imagine she can even stay standing. But I hold on…. I don’t throw up; I don’t falter.

“Did you feel Him?” the girl asks. “Because I felt Him and I knew that He came to you and that you took Him as your personal savior.”

“Me, too.” the others say. “We felt it. We really did.”

“Isn’t Jesus Christ terrific, our Lord and Savior?” Mike says. “He loves you and will guide you in all of the days of your life.”

“I know. I really feel him with me now,” I say, a total lie, absent any nuance that could render it even obliquely true.

“What the hell are you kids doing?” A shrill voice carries over everything like an air raid siren. “I gotta sleep you guys. Some people work around here.”

It’s the stripper out on the front porch of her building. She’s got her cat cuddled in one arm and a carton of milk in the other.“Jesus Christ, you kids. I cannot listen to all this voodoo, mumbo jumbo.

“And leave the poor girl alone. She doesn’t need you making her wallow in all that Biblical hell and damnation. Do you sweetie?”

With this she looks right at me, and I try so to remember her name. My parents have said it, I think, when they looked at the ad in the paper for her show. Mary, Catherine, Suzanne or would one of those be her stripper name?

“Leave Rachel alone. She’s just fine the way she is,” she says and goes back inside. Then she stops, turns around, opens the door and adds, “Don’t you kids understand that God is..? Ah, never mind.”

“Rachel. Why don’t you come in?” It’s my mom. “I’ve got your grandma’s chocolate pudding served; she’s waiting to play Crazy Eights.” My mom’s on our front porch, a floral print apron over a blouse and pedal-pushers.My grandma, who brought her pudding over in a small blue and white bowl with a plastic elasticized covering, something like a shower cap, is, no doubt, sitting in a wing-back chair ready for me.

When my grandma holds her cards up in a fan, I love to study the veins in her hands: blue-green, barely covered by her translucent skin which has a delicate pink cast.I even forget to ask for eights or kings because I’m so focused on them. My mom’s hands are starting to look like my grandma’s; I notice it most when we sit on the floor and play double solitaire.

“Okay, Mom. Alright, I’m coming.”You’d think you’d need the jaws of life to pry me from the hold of these kids, but somehow I push through, emerge as myself again, the person I hold dear, love, I think, despite my faults….

That night I sleep soundly; surely someone has called off what’s been pestering me. And in the morning, when I’m nearly dressed for school, I grab a pair of socks and close the drawer quickly because I hear this: “Dammit, get over here. I mean it.Right now. Dammit. Come here.”

 

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Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives. She co-directs the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.

 

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