IN SUTTON, WE’D LIVED in a real parsonage, at least. Sure, it belonged to the church, not us. So what? It was a house. Here at the Port Haney Church of God, their idea of a parsonage was a single-wide trailer parked thirty feet from the church’s back door. The day after we moved in, Brother Sid, the Sunday school superintendent, stopped by with a roll of brown aluminum skirting for the bottom of the trailer, to hide the cinder blocks and wheels. I never forgot we were on wheels, though, never let myself pretend it was anything other than a trailer. Not a trailer house, a house doesn’t have wheels. Not a mobile home, a home doesn’t travel.
Other than two clothesline poles cemented into the ground, the backyard was bare and empty. Past the ditch that ran behind the property, nothing but knee-high, marshy grass as far as I could see, and now and then a pitiful, skinny pine tree leaking sap. They were the ugliest trees I’d ever seen.
I tried not to blame Daddy for bringing us here, but it was hard not to.
When Timothy and I caught the junior high bus, we crossed the highway in front of the church twenty minutes before the bus arrived, then waited on the opposite side—the Lake of Pines side, by the subdivision where we pretended to live. We kept to ourselves on the bus, which is probably why nobody ever asked where, exactly, we lived in Lake of Pines.
“Over here, Becca,” Timothy said to me the first day, and patted the empty space next to him. So I sat, and after that we always sat together.
After school, we were dropped off on the Lake of Pines side and took our time walking down Pine Parkway a few blocks, until the rest of the kids were too far ahead to notice us turning around and heading back across the highway and cutting through the church’s oyster-shell parking lot.
To one side of the lot sat a rusty maroon and white bus with flat tires and the words Port Haney Church of God stenciled on the sides and Follow Me to Church! hand painted just above the back bumper. At one time, somebody had driven it around picking up kids for Sunday school, but whoever it was had long since left the church.
On the last day of school, ninth grade for me and seventh for Timothy, the bus driver stopped the two of us before we stepped off. She’d seen us crossing the highway and figured out where we lived. If anybody reported her dropping us off on the wrong side for no good reason, she’d be written up for it. Not to mention, it was dangerous. If we ever got run over, she’d be in even more trouble. Next year, she’d be driving into the church parking lot to pick us up. We’d be the last stop every morning, after Forest Hill, Bluff Forest, and Lake of Pines.
“Ol’ bitch!” Timothy griped as she pulled away. He hated anybody knowing a) he was a preacher’s kid and b) he lived in a trailer, even more than I did. He went straight to his room to study the karate books he’d checked out of the library. It was the only thing he wanted to read these days. He never even touched the set of encyclopedias he’d asked for, the ones Mama bought week by week from Winn-Dixie.
We all dreamed of living in a house again one day, now that we’d given up on Daddy patching up the church fuss and moving us back to the church in Sutton. Every now and then Daddy brought home a brochure from Don Walter Home Builders. The houses all had white siding, black shutters, bright green lawns, and covered concrete patios with barbeque grills. It always drifted from room to room for a couple of weeks before it ended up in the trash, covered with eggshells and coffee grounds.
Port Haney had sounded like a dream, at first. Twelve miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Porpoises and lighthouses, sailboats and shrimp gumbo. We couldn’t wait to see the longest man-made beach in the world. We rolled down the windows of the U-Haul as soon as we reached Hattiesburg because Daddy told us you could smell the ocean fifty miles away, but I didn’t smell anything except a paper mill, which happens to smell a lot like a toilet.
Almost as soon as we arrived, four families left the church. They weren’t used to real holiness preaching, didn’t like Daddy yelling at them from the pulpit. Not long after, layoffs started at the shipyard, where at least half of Port Haney worked building battleships and cruisers for the navy. It didn’t take long for tithes and offerings to dry up. I caught a peek at the offering plate when Brother Sid took it back to the church office one Sunday night. It was empty. Not a single dollar.
The smaller the congregation and offerings, the shorter and more discouraged Daddy’s sermons became. He started calling them “sermonettes,” a word I’d never heard him use before, and stopping in the middle of a prayer or scripture reading to let out a slow groan that seemed to drag on forever. Altar calls to come forward and accept Jesus were short and no longer made me or anybody else sweat. He stopped preaching on hell and the rapture completely. No stories of people ushered out into eternity after head-on car crashes, thinking they had all the time in the world to get saved. Nobody ever shouted, much less spoke in tongues. He was lucky to get an “amen” every now and then.
The first few services, back when he was still hoping for the best and trusting the Lord about it, he’d pause and wipe his face with his handkerchief midway through a sermon, lean toward us with his hand cupped to one ear.
“Come on, church!”
Complete silence. They all just looked confused.
“We’re not on fire for God, saints! We’re lukewarm! Colossians chapter 2 says, because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth!”
The problem was, nobody at Port Haney seemed to mind belonging to a lukewarm church. And it didn’t take long for even Mama and Daddy to start cooling off and backsliding a little, too. Mama didn’t say a word the day I forgot to wash off the eyeliner I’d borrowed at school. It was a hot day and my face was sweaty, so she couldn’t exactly miss it. Daddy started listening to country music on the kitchen radio, which had never played anything but gospel up until now. When he sang along with George Jones or Conway Twitty, Mama didn’t even roll her eyes. Most of the time, she was frowning down at the calculator and coupons through her bifocals, trying to figure out how to stretch twenty-five dollars far enough to cover a week’s worth of groceries for the four of us.
One afternoon in July, Chuck and Debbie, the church musicians, stopped by with a big block of welfare cheese. They knew how tight things had been lately, Debbie told Mama. They had two more blocks of cheese at home, more than enough for the three of them. Amber, the baby, was still on formula.
“It’s not really welfare, Bobby,” Mama explained to Daddy after she brought in the cheese and butter. “It’s AFDC. The government program for unwed mothers.”
“But Chuck and Debbie are married,” I interrupted.
They both ignored what I’d said. Daddy just grunted at Mama and refused to touch any of it. For the next week, while the rest of us ate cheese sandwiches, cheese toast, and cheese biscuits, he ate mayonnaise sandwiches, mayonnaise on biscuits, mayonnaise on cornbread. Still, it might have all blown over if Mama hadn’t said what she’d said at breakfast a few days later. Timothy had just finished the last of the Raisin Bran and was shaking the empty box.
“Well, I reckon we just need to go ahead and get on food stamps,” she’d tossed out. “But I don’t even know where to go to get signed up.”
We all froze. Daddy, too. Then he shot up out of his chair so fast it toppled over as he slammed out of the trailer without saying a word.
“What are we supposed to live on, Bobby? Air?” Mama called out after him, even though he was already out the door. He spent the rest of the day in his study at church with the lights out and air conditioning off. We didn’t know what he was doing over there.
By August, though, things began to look up. The elementary school cafeteria manager finally called Mama to offer her the job she’d applied for, and though Daddy wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her working, he didn’t fight her on it. Now we just had to make it until her first paycheck, but that was over a month away, and we were tired of peas and cornbread already.
This would be the first year I’d started school, high school, actually, with no new clothes. Not even a pair of socks. At least everything I had from last year still fit, though. Timothy was in high-waters way above his ankles, and I knew they’d pick on him in PE until he lost his temper and was sent to in-school suspension for fighting, just like last year.
Mama kept informing us that the Lord would provide if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, but Timothy and I pretended not to hear. With every year that went by, we had a little less patience for Mama quoting the Bible at us. At least with Daddy it was only in church.
Nobody was more surprised than me when Mama turned out to be right. One morning, a couple of weeks before school registration, Sister Judy knocked on the trailer door holding Lance, her two-year-old, on her hip. Her daughter, Stacy, was my only friend so far in Port Haney, and her son Michael was Timothy’s. Her husband, Brother Larry, was a welder at the shipyard. Lance was holding something in his hand, and as soon as Mama opened the door, he grinned and squealed, yelled, “Yaa Yaa!” and held out a one hundred dollar bill in his fat, slobbery little fist.
“The Lord’s been dealing with my heart about this all night, Sister Brenda. I couldn’t sleep. Take this and buy some school clothes for the kids.”
“But what about…?” Mama began.
“Michael and Stacy will be provided for,” Sister Judy cut her off. “You don’t worry about them. I just wish we could do more. You and Brother Bobby didn’t exactly walk into a bed of roses down here.”
Sister Judy’s permed, bleached-blonde hair tumbled into her eyes when Lance tore loose one of the barrettes tucked behind her ear. She threw her head back, laughed, and kissed him right on the mouth. According to Stacy, Sister Judy had been an actual hippie back when she was young and living somewhere up north, before she got saved and met Brother Larry. She still listened to rock music from the sixties, though, wore shorts and painted her nails. She let Stacy and Michael listen to rock, too, and for their fifteenth birthday, because they were twins, she bought them tickets to see Journey at the Coast Coliseum.
Daddy called her a Jezebel behind her back and said he didn’t want her influencing me, but Mama said she was saved anyway and the Lord knew her heart, even if she didn’t follow church teachings. Besides, they paid their tithe to the penny every month, and Daddy couldn’t argue with that.
“Well, praise the Lord! Didn’t I tell you, Becca? You see, the Lord always provides.” Mama beamed at me, gloating, when Sister Judy left, and for once I didn’t mind. She closed her eyes and raised her hands, giving God the glory.
The next morning she woke us up and told us to get dressed right away. We were going shopping.
I chose three pairs of jeans and four polo shirts at K-Mart and a pair of Topsiders from Payless. We bought four pairs of jeans at Bargain City for Timothy, two pairs of tennis shoes, four T-shirts, socks and underwear for both of us.
Pulling out of the Payless parking lot, Mama’s face looked rosier and happier than I’d seen it in months, and I remembered how pretty she was. The air in the Pinto seemed so light and hopeful that I wasn’t surprised when she let us listen to 99 Rock and even tapped the beat on the steering wheel until they played a Van Halen song. Then she switched back to WTMS, “The Gospel Giant on Your AM Dial.”
We groaned and complained—“Gag me with a spoon!”—until she pulled into the mall parking lot and said we could stay in the car and grumble if we wanted, but she was in the mood for a chocolate dip cone.
She paused and turned to us just before I opened the car door to step out. “I know it’s been hard on y’all lately, too, the money situation and all. But the Lord makes a way when there’s no way. I’ve seen it too many times to start doubting him now. Y’all need to hold your Daddy up in prayer, though. He’s been real discouraged.”
I didn’t want to think about Daddy’s discouragement today. None of us did. After we ate our ice cream, Mama gave Timothy fifty cents to spend at the game room, and we watched him play Tron, his favorite game, and enter his initials for the third-highest score. Ordinarily, Timothy wouldn’t have wanted to be seen in the game room with Mama, but today he even tried explaining the game to her a little.
All the way home, I dreamed of possibilities. Next year, I’d be old enough to work after school, maybe even in the mall. Christmas morning would be different, for sure. I’d buy a new pair of nunchucks for Timothy and some strap-on wrist weights to replace the ones that had ripped apart and spilled sand all over the place. Maybe a book on hurricanes, too, which he used to be interested in before he started reading about nothing but martial arts. A pair of white, cushiony nurse’s shoes for Mama to keep her varicose veins from getting any worse with all her standing on the school cafeteria floor. I’d wear Izod shirts to school like the other kids, straight-leg Levi’s, and Nikes. I’d ask Mama to drive me down to First State Bank and open a college fund, the kind you contribute to every month and watch it all add up.
When we opened the door and walked into the trailer carrying the shopping bags, the first thing I noticed was the open window and the curtain blowing out through it. The next was the empty space on top of the old wooden-encased TV set that didn’t work anymore, except as a stand for the newer, smaller black-and-white.
“Where’s the TV?” asked Timothy and took a step towards the open window.
“Lord, have mercy!” Mama whispered, snatching him back by the arm.
The three of us crossed the highway, and Mama used the phone at Roy’s Qwik Stop to call the sheriff, then we stood around in the parking lot waiting for him to show up. Daddy was thirty-five miles away, visiting Brother Ely’s son in the VA hospital at Gulfport. When I glanced into the store window, over cigarette posters and a handwritten sign about somebody’s lost dog, my eyes met Mr. Roy’s for a second, then I looked away.
After a minute or two, he stepped outside, pulled off his cap, and motioned us into the store. “Y’all come on and get you a Co-Cola. No charge.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer and made Mama take a Dr Pepper when we told him it was her favorite.
When the sheriff pulled into the Qwik Stop, he told us he’d been to the trailer already and confirmed what we’d guessed. The burglars had taken Daddy’s guns and ammo, along with the radio-cassette player and Timothy’s Walkman, which was actually borrowed from Michael. I knew Timothy was worrying already about how to break the news to Michael and probably wondering, too, about the AC/DC and Judas Priest tapes he kept hidden under his mattress. Not that it mattered anymore, with nothing to play them on. He had a pentagram necklace hidden there, too.
I didn’t think, at least not right away, to be grateful that none of us had been shot or killed, or that they hadn’t smashed up our furniture and dishes. I stood there watching people come and go for beer and cigarettes and wondered what we’d all do during prime time now, with no television. I didn’t want to imagine our Thursday nights without the Keatons from Family Ties.
Sheriff Saucier drove us back to the trailer in his patrol car and waited outside with us until Daddy drove up. Until the deputy finished dusting for fingerprints, nobody was allowed inside. Most of the time, he talked to Mama about being raised Catholic and going to mass at Our Lady of Sorrows.
When Daddy finally turned up and stepped out of the car, Sheriff Saucier told Timothy and me to stay where we were and let the grownups talk for a minute. He cupped his hand under Mama’s elbow and walked quickly with her over to meet Daddy.
The sheriff did most of the talking while Daddy stared at the ground, nodded his head and jangled the keys in his pocket, one of his nervous habits. Mama tried to hug him, but he eased her away. We heard her tell him it wasn’t his fault and to quit it. If a thief wants to get in, he’ll break in, lock or no lock.
Daddy walked past Timothy and me on his way to the trailer door without seeming to notice our presence. Just before his hand touched the doorknob, the deputy came out holding a Ziploc bag of evidence. He shook Daddy’s hand and told him they’d stop by every few days for the next couple of weeks to put our minds at ease, and that they could be here in four minutes from anywhere in town. “Just punk hoodlum kids, most likely,” he said, stealing for dope money. A couple of Lake of Pines houses had been hit last weekend. We promised to call if we saw anybody hanging around, and he said he’d be in touch about the stolen property. With no serial numbers, though, he couldn’t promise anything.
“I know this seems like the worst thing in the world to you right now, Reverend,” said Sheriff Saucier as he and the deputy prepared to leave. He stood with the driver’s-side door open and one leg inside the patrol car, holding his cowboy hat in his hands. “But they’s a whole lot of things worse than being broke into. All your stuff can be replaced, but your family can’t.”
He paused for a moment.
“You hear me, Reverend?”
“God’s still on the job,” Daddy finally responded in a tight, flat voice. “I guess.”
“You know he is, Bobby,” said Mama. “He’s our rock and our redeemer.”
Mama kept their bedroom door closed while she and Daddy sorted through the contents of their dresser drawers, which had been emptied out onto their bed. I checked my dresser, but it hadn’t been touched. I could hear the swivels on Timothy’s old nunchucks as he twirled them in his bedroom, slamming one into his wall every couple of minutes. For once nobody told him to stop or to take those things outside. I was glad they’d left his nunchucks. They left his throwing stars, too.
Later that afternoon, I walked out to Daddy’s pickup. I was digging around for change, hoping for enough to buy a bag of Doritos from the Qwik Stop. I don’t know what made me pick up the wadded piece of paper at the bottom of the driver’s-side pocket. Something made me take it out and smooth it flat on the seat. It was a receipt with a perforated edge, torn from a receipt book. Stamped across the top in purple ink was Quality Pawn and Gun, Grand Bay, AL. At the bottom, Daddy’s signature, the day’s date, and the words cash paid. 227 dollars, 32 cents.
I sat there in the driver’s seat for a long time, wondering what I was supposed to do now. I decided I should pray, but the words wouldn’t come. I stared out past the trailer through the pines. A least tern flew low over the pickup, hovered, then landed on the hood. The terns were small gray and white birds, and they’d always seemed like nothing special to me. But one day a park ranger stopped by and told us they were an endangered species. And all those ugly pines and marsh grass were their nesting refuge. The wind ruffled its feathers. It flapped its wings a few times but didn’t fly away.
I looked at daddy’s signature again and the line below it where he’d printed his name. I could tell the ink was running out, that he’d had to sign over it a second time with a fresh pen. When I was younger and we still lived in Sutton, he sometimes gave me scrap paper from his study when I was bored. I’d sit at his huge glass-topped desk and copy that loopy, unreadable signature over and over, trying to impress him with my skill.
It wasn’t the peace that passeth all understanding, like mama always talks about. Nothing like that. But after a while, the strangest feeling of calm came down and settled over me. It seemed to fill the air in the pickup.
The least tern flew away, the trailer door opened, and Timothy came down the steps and motioned me inside. It was my turn to help mama with supper. She would be waiting. I opened the pickup door and yelled that I was coming. He was walking over to me now with his head down and hands stuffed into his pockets, his feet kicking at the gravel.
I crumpled the receipt, rolled it between my palms until it was no larger than a marble, and dropped it into the side door pocket where I’d found it. I locked the door behind me, then stepped out into the parking lot to meet Timothy halfway.
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