By Josiah Berger
My father taught me how to hold my breath. That is, he taught me the right way to do it, with my hand over my nose and the other hand at a right angle with my elbow. We practiced in the backyard in our above-ground pool that we cleaned only a few times a year. The floating leaves and moss would bob against my head like miniature buoys, and the echoes of my father’s underwater movements would wave against my ears. Dad would hold me under for a few seconds, and I would look at him from below, the chlorine burning my eyes. Then I would come up.
This was the only time he and I practiced, just to make sure I wouldn’t sink or drown; my father said anything more would be overkill. “We’re not electin’ the pope here,” he said after I dried off. “Don’t overthink it.” He stared up at the clouds merging in the sky, and the blue began to morph into dark grey. “Are you looking forward to it?” I asked, unsure whether my father’s staring off was rooted in something I’d done. After a moment, he laid my head on his shoulder and I knew he wanted a minute to think about something, a minute where I wouldn’t talk. A mosquito landed on the back of my neck as the humidity began to take over our backyard. The rainfall that ensued poured down our heads, collecting in the ground, and the dirt below us formed into muddy paste. We headed inside.
Performing a baptism was a patriarchal role in the eyes of the church, and the mothers in our congregation were told to understand. When my dad left two weeks before the scheduled day, I had no immediate knowledge of his absence. It happened in the middle of the night when he and my mother had another fight, but this time they each made sure not to wake me up. I’ve heard her version of events; he never gave me his. I remember the morning I woke up and my mother’s face was pink in the way it was on a rare cold morning, only it was summer, and her complexion was blemished with tear stains.
“It’ll be okay,” she said after she explained things. I remember believing her. I don’t remember much from the rest of that day, only the look on my mother’s face that remained constant for several hours, the blank expression she wore whenever she anticipated something horrible was bound to occur. She went up in her room and played music on her tape player; the sounds of her sobs carried nonetheless through the closed door. I don’t remember the music she played.
Two weeks later nothing changed in terms of scheduling, and my mother refused to cancel the ceremony on behalf of the absence of my father. The church was small and quaint, the culmination of a long drive down gravel road. We pulled up in our ’97 Chevette, smoke ceasing to spew from the back once my mother moved it into park. The paint on the building bore the shade of expired eggshell, suffering the chipping of time. I was informed it had one time been ivory, the symbol of purity, chastity. The structure was sturdy if simple, and the steeple peaked over the rest. We parked in the front lot of the church, in the dirt that ran tobacco brown, with the patches of monkey grass scattered throughout. The air carried an aroma of southern sweetness and rustic abandon, and I opened my door and breathed in. The azaleas blossomed around the perimeter of the lot, and the petals whispered gently in the breeze.
Adjacent to the church was an old neighborhood that never got torn down, and the inhabitants were those that had no better place in which to inhabit. There was a hole in the fence across from us, and there we would saw a man wearing a wife-beater, cleaning his pick-up with the dreary demeanor that accompanies eight in the morning. I saw him every week, and his truck always had an appearance of filth, as if the man would periodically spread mud over it after he was finished. The sun slowly melted away at him, and we could see the sweat drip down his back into the crevices of his lower body.
Greeting the church patrons that waited outside was the opening ceremony of every churchgoing experience. A child had to grow used to one’s hair being tussled by seedy hands, as well as the smell of coppery breath with each new encounter. Miss Valerie, into her late seventies by this point, walked up to my mother. She carried the stain of discount lipstick on her teeth, but nobody seemed to have notified her. “Why, Hannah, your boy’s growing up to look just like…” she stopped herself, looking at my mother and then me. “Just like you.” I looked nothing like my mother, I never did. But I looked enough like my old man to where nobody could accuse the woman of infidelity. “Have I told you have the prettiest eyes? Have I told you that?” She directed this line of questioning at my mother, but Valerie’s gaze was still locked on me.
“Thank you, it means a lot.” My mother had an air of politeness with the older generation. She and I always moved to the front row of the sanctuary when done with the social pleasantries. We were made to stand for the worship service, but this bothered neither her nor me. Opening worship service was the closest I got to her during this time. She would let me hold the hymn book for us to share, as numbers were limited for the congregation. The pages grew yellow with time, and they had the musky smell that accompanied a hardback’s senior years.
There was an older organ that remained on stage from the Catholic days of this building. It was Miss Valerie’s duty to play the instrument every Sunday; she made it well known that the Lord had called her to this role, and she did it not for the attention that came with such a position. Once worship was over, I would sit hands on lap, head rested on my mother’s shoulder. Her hair was warm and soft, and the summer light shone through the stained glass of the sanctuary. The pastor’s two-piece was the nicest thing about him, and the level of extravagance it displayed never fit the rest of his demeanor, like a child being dressed by his parents for picture day.
Pastor Edwards stood behind the pulpit, speaking in the poetic rhythm the congregation had come to expect. “It’s better in here,” he said, “than it is out there.” This was the opening to every Sunday morning sermon, the closest the man had to a catchphrase. I knew that there was the outside world, the place of sinners, and the temporary home of God’s children. “Out there the Enemy has control. In here… only one Man has control.” His leather-bound King James surely carried a weight, but he never gave his arm a rest from waving. “Preach!” shouted a couple patrons in near unison.
Proclamations made more sense when done simultaneously with someone. Edwards put his Bible down for a moment, and leaned his head downward, eyes closed. “We must bear the sins of our fathers; that is our inheritance. The sins of our fathers have determined our place in this life,” he said. There was a silence that lingered in the room. “But we also received the grace of the Son. And the Son’s actions determined our place in the next.”
I moved my head off my mother’s shoulder; she adjusted to look at me as I hunched over in nausea. Edwards’ words drained on, but my absent mind paid no attention. The sermon was drawing to a close, and I knew the ceremony was next. I suddenly felt lightheaded at the thought of this man performing my baptism. Pastor Edwards, the last-minute replacement for a missing father…
Miss Valerie got up and played the organ; it always sounded much more somber after the sermons than during worship. The men of the church moved their way up to the steps of the stage. When the organ played the more upbeat melodies, we knew it was the time for our closing worship. It had already been arranged for me to walk to the backroom during closing worship.
"Are you ready?” my mother asked me.
“Yes.” I wasn’t. I slid the bag of clothes I packed out from under my seat; my mother made sure I brought it with me that morning. It contained a t-shirt with a faded Pepsi logo and a pair of my swim trunks, the older ones that didn’t fit me well but my mother wanted me to wear nonetheless. She would buy me a new pair when those became absolutely unbearable; that was her usual policy on clothing purchases. These would complement well the church clothes she made me wear that also didn’t fit me, my only pair of years-old slacks and a button-up.
I moved slowly from my seat to the foyer. The room grew bright as the dim nature of early morning subsided and the glow of mid-afternoon entered. There was a narrow hallway on the side that led to the backroom, the space directly behind the church stage. Once inside the backroom, I sat on the loveseat, one of those couches that were uncomfortable to sit in no matter which body position the sitter was in. There was a coiled spring that shot out the side of it, not unlike the couch from home that my father ruined three pairs of scissors attempting to fix. Springs that shot out the side of furniture tended to stay put. The backroom was crammed with children’s Bibles and Jesus posters, tokens of a market aimed at young believers.
There was an edition of Highlights in front of me from the early nineties, and all the puzzles were filled in, mostly incorrectly, doubtlessly completed by a child who himself had to wait back here for his own baptism. The cover to the magazine consisted of a crudely drawn family skiing along a snowy landscape, perhaps the Alps or another location the artist never actually visited. I had never seen snow at that point in my life, not the real kind from the north, only the slushy variety that sometimes arrived around Christmas and made your face freeze when it hit you in the wind. Our pool wouldn't freeze over in winter, but little droplets of ice stuck to the sides, clinging for life. My father used his bare hand to collect slush from around the edges of the pool, but whatever he intended to throw at me would break apart in midair. That was six months earlier, when relationships were simple and troubles were never too difficult to fix.
I moved into the side bathroom to change clothes. It was tighter than I’d expected, like the closet from a shotgun house, and there was no way for me to extend my arms out. The mirror was slim and cracked, and the sink only exuded cold water in an uneven gush. Once I’d changed, I stared at myself, unmoving. There was a knock on the door, gentle and slow enough to signal that it came from someone not looking to enter but to question the room’s occupant. “Yes?” I said.
“It’s me,” the pastor said, in a voice far less melodic than his stage presence. The sudden urge to vomit came over me, and I clumsily scuffled around to position myself in front of the toilet, but the urge left just as soon as it came.
“I’ll be out.” I purposely didn’t specify when, thinking I could remain a moment longer. Everyone out there could wait a little, not even for an extended period of time, but only a moment longer. Just a moment more of their time. I could gather my thoughts and postpone the ceremony until I was ready. Edwards’ consecutive knocks informed me this was not an option.
“You wearing that?” he added once I’d exited, without any of the noticeable judgment that might accompany such a question. I nodded.
The congregation sat in silence for once. There was movement once I made my way out on the stage. Pastor Edwards kept smiling at me like the star of an infomercial, his gawk relentless and unnerving. “Make sure not to touch the microphone when you come up, or you’ll be in for a real shock.” He elbowed me lightly and gave a smirk.
The water sat in what appeared to be a horse trough (though I suppose this not to be the case), and they filled it halfway so it wouldn’t overflow once I stepped inside. Edwards signaled for me to put my right hand on my nose and my left hand on my elbow. I was frozen in place, and the man had to move my rigid hands and arms into the breath-holding position. “Good job,” he said with the same smirk. I looked over to see my mother’s face, which was blank with the nervous dread she had two weeks before, as if anticipating my own drowning. There was nothing bad that could happen to me now though; what’s done was done. The lights were shining directly above me, their luster heavy and relentless, and I imagine the beads of perspiration on my forehead were visible to everyone in the front row.
The crowd remained still as I stepped inside. I could see my feet on the bottom, my vision of them diagonally distorted in the way that water has its effect. I stood there alone for a moment, the pastor keeping his distance for a while before he stood next to my side. The water was cold, like the snow my dad would throw at me during winter.
There were whispers amongst the crowd, ones I assume were hushed undertones of condescension. I heard Miss Valerie’s sigh, and I could see her future conversation with my mother, one where Valerie would bring my name up and ask if I was handling my father’s departure well. And my mom wouldn’t know how to respond, but she’d respond anyway, and they’d think I couldn’t hear them but I’d be listening within earshot. And my mother would confide in Valerie and tell her I was initially disappointed in the pastor baptizing me, and maybe other church members could talk to me and try to make me feel better. And other conversations from other members of the church would soon follow, ones where they’d ask me how it was to have Pastor Edwards baptize me, and how much of an honor it must have been. And I’d have to adopt my mother’s social politeness, and I’d nod and answer in the affirmative. Of course it was an honor, thank you for asking. Of course it meant so much to me.
So Edwards put me under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The water was much cleaner than the pool’s from my home, and there was no chlorine to burn my eyes or tree moss to clog my ears. I was only under for a couple seconds, much quicker than how my father practiced with me. But it was better this way, easier to get through. And for that brief moment under, everything was still, everything was sound. And my father was gone and my mother’s face was blank and the water was cold and the voices were quiet.