Organic Salvation by Melody Conrads
Mavis and I arrived early for our weekly Brownies meeting. We were looking the picture of good Girl Scouts –berets covering our golden halos of hair and sashes sitting neatly across our flat chests. Instead of carrying boxes of cookies we were clenching orange cans of bug killer, ready to pass judgment on the insects inside the Church’s window wells. We nicknamed the window wells Sodom and Gomorrah because those Walking Sticks deserved to die. One glance through the dirty glass and shadow spilled onto your soul. I could feel the bug’s black Evil freeze my lungs and their ungodly intentions coat my throat during the Girl Scout Pledge.
I was haunted with nightmares of their stumpy arms and thick heavy bodies, dragging against my skin. Every week the Walking Sticks grew larger in number and size. There were hundreds that were as large as my forearm and ranged in color from green to blood red. I wondered what they ate. Likely, the dark army feasted on the sins shed by the congregation each Sunday. The troop had attempted to send a lake of fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah once before. We were on the Church lawn learning about campfire safety. Access to matches in the vicinity of evil Walking Sticks proved irresistible. Our troop leader, Joi, was a trucker on furlough who liked Walking Sticks more than a bunch of bratty girls. We were banned from open flame, ordered to leave the “little bugs” alone and sent home early. Mavis and I knew we had to kill quickly this time –Joi could barrel in at any moment. The poison rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah like brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven. He wanted us to overthrow those cities, all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. Back in the basement before our Brownie meeting, a strange look twisted Mavis’s face. Dark and beautiful, she said “don’t look back at the windows and don’t stand near them…the poison could consume you”.
Then I knew; she’d done this before. I heard rustling and dull thumps come from Sodom and Gomorrah. I turned around and became Lot’s Wife, frozen as a pillar of salt. Thousands of Walking Sticks scrambled up from the floor of the window well, crawling over each other as they jerked and writhed in pain. I could feel their silent screams, their questions, and their agony. After completing the horrid death dance some convulsed suddenly and fell down hard while others held on, suffering and fading slowly. I stood frozen, as the mass murder delivered me an epiphany. Mavis never looked back. She sat at the table, agent of Divine Wrath, leafing through her Girl Scout manual.
Part II: What a Friend We Have in Jesus
My Mom whispered to the sweet baby Jesus on her way out of Church, “Save my family, please”. The infant Mom whispered to was part of a nativity scene that someone forgot to pack away after Christmas, three years ago.
The fact that her family didn’t attend Church was more troubling to Mom than her new conversations with a dusty plastic doll. Most days he just lay there unblinking, probably wondering why his diaper hadn’t been changed in 50 years and why Made in China was stamped on his foot. One day, the creepy baby answered Mom. While whispering to him, she noticed a leaflet that had fallen from her Sunday bulletin. It was a call for volunteers. Crafty Jesus had finally presented a plan for saving Dad’s soul. I bet baby Jesus would have liked Mom to wipe the black moustache off his face in exchange –the vandals from Children’s Church got into the finger paints again. Instead, she rushed home to tell us about our new volunteer jobs. At first glance Dad seemed an unlikely candidate for Sunday School Teacher. Jesus loves the little children, but could an almost 7-foot, ex-military prison guard with a history of anger management issues deliver that message with any compassion? Much like a stained glass window, we all knew a side of Dad that was heartbreakingly beautiful if you were looking from the inside out.
We knew a man that grew up in a devout Catholic family and struggled with questions to a point that enabled him to see past the trivial arguments of one religion and become Spiritual –a gift so few are able to savor. His Bible bore the notes of lifelong study –it was a diary of his journey. Dad was big, but so was his heart. He cried with me when I didn’t make the cheerleading squad. He would hold my brother in his lap, kiss him and say “I love you” well into the teen years when most Fathers would only chance a handshake and a curt nod to their sons. He rubbed Mom’s feet, called her Sugars, and obeyed every command issued from her small body. Despite his rough exterior Dad had the spirit of a gentle teacher. He made mistakes but he owned up to his faults. Most importantly, he recognized the transformative power of forgiveness and pure love. We knew he could do better than the beak-faced nun who robbed a beautiful boy’s curiosity and replaced it with fear. “What happens if you open your eyes when you pray?” my 5-year-old Dad asked the nun. “You’ll see Jesus. He’ll be so bright that it will burn out your pupils and you’ll be blind for the rest of your life,” barked the nun. “Why would he hurt me? I love him,” said Dad softly. “Because boys like you make Jesus cry.
No more questions!” said the nun, rapping Dad’s knuckles with her ruler. Each Sunday Dad arrived early and folded himself into the teacher’s chair. Washed by the morning sun, his face seemed to glow with excitement about God’s message. But even a large prison guard proved no match for an out-of-control adolescent boy. Dad worked with rapists, murderers, and child molesters during the week, but called this kid from Sunday school the Devil. One Sunday the Devil stole Dad’s Bible. They were in a Church, Bibles were everywhere, but Dad’s Bible was so much more than a book. It was his decades of study, his diary, his photo album, his only possession that kept him grounded and guided. The Devil found a weakness. After searching the Devil and finding his Bible, Dad quit. “I’m out of here,” Dad said. “Good. You made Jesus seem like a pussy anyway. I think he was more like an action hero. I bet he carried swords and wore that crown of thorns all the time just to scare people and show how much he kicked ass, eye-for-an-eye style,” said the Devil, punching at imaginary attackers in the air. Dad paused, summoning the ghost from the past. “Boys like you make Jesus cry,” he said.
Part III: Fire and Brimstone
Seeing Mom set fire to the Church was like watching the Pope scratch lottery tickets with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
Her arson was accidental but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. I was being forced to help decorate the Sanctuary for Christmas. As a High School student, I had little free time –there were boys to kiss, beers to bong, gossip to spread…decorating for Jesus was a sentence worse than death. Church service was over and the smoke from extinguished candles tickled my nose. That was supposed to be the smell of freedom yet there I was, digging though an impossibly dark closet. After I broke a few bulbs and cracked some candles, Mom told me to move, she’d find the Nativity scene without doing damage. Mom pulled out the plastic two foot Virgin Mary. We stood for a moment looking into her painted eyes. No way she’s a virgin, I thought. Suddenly darkness, leathery wings and screeches were tangled in my hair. I screamed and pawed frantically at my head.
A bat the size of a black cat had risen out of the darkness and attacked me. Apparently he didn’t concur with my thoughts about the virgin. Mom grabbed Virgin Mary by her sandals and swung her at me, head first. Our noggins collided and her hollow head cracked against mine. “What the hell Mom?” I yelled. “Sorry, there’s a bat! There’s a bat!” Mom shouted between ragged breaths. “He landed on the Altar –I’m gonna get him,” Mom panted. “Mom no, let’s just call someone to help,” I said. “No, I’ve got him,” she said, strutting toward the Altar. This would have been a job more suited to the Crocodile Hunter than Mom. But there she was in her floral dress and pearls, wielding the Virgin Mary like some kind of a divine club. She slammed Mary down on the Altar and there was a sickening screech. The bat rose and flew erratically around Mom’s face. Mom swiped at the vampire but the Virgin Mary only caught air and toppled a few of the still smoldering candelabras. Mom and Mary finally made contact. There was a loud thud as the bat was stunned mid-frenzy. I sat in a pew and watched Mom with a new fascination. She was stronger, braver and faster than she looked. In one quick swoop Mom scooped up the bat with the abused Virgin Mary and ran it down the hall to a trash can.
I went to the restroom to regroup. When I returned to the sanctuary Mom was in the back pew with her eyes closed. An ethereal glow lit her cheeks. Had she enjoyed the slaughter that much? Then I heard a crackle and looked up at the Altar. “Jesus Christ Mom, the goddamned carpet’s on fire!” I yelled. Mom’s eyes popped open. We both froze and watched the flames spread, lick the prayer benches and consume some dried flowers. Arsonists know the secret to happiness, I thought, hypnotized as the carpet melted before my eyes. When I turned Mom was gone, probably calling the fire department, but maybe trying to see if Joseph from the Nativity scene was available to help her with the fire problem.
Part IV: Palm Sundays
Early Christians used the palm branch to symbolize the victory of the faithful over enemies of the soul. Maybe that’s why my parents named the old Church “The Palm”.
It was a little prayer sent up for the victory of the Denver Broncos over their enemies, all played out on the big screen TV sitting where the faithful used to worship. That was a fun prayer. The more serious prayer had gone on unanswered. When Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer we all learned to live in the moment. Sometimes the present moment wasn’t dressed in Church clothes but instead came hanging heavy with the stench of anxiety, anger and sadness. That’s what The Palm was for. It was a way for Mom to be at Church without being at Church. It was a retreat that let us tip our hats to her God and enjoy each other for the short time that was left. The Palm was large enough to receive Dad’s congregation. Family, old friends, co-workers and neighbors made the pilgrimage. We hung their coats in the confessionals, ate, cried and laughed. Meeting each visitor added a new thread to the tapestry that was Dad’s story. Like most children, I didn’t realize my parents had life before me.
What an interesting thing to meet these people from ancient times who knew Dad from another world. Elderly women often didn’t realize that their Church had been sold and converted into a family rec center. They’d wander in, clutching Bibles, hankies and hard candy. Confused as to where their regular pew went, they’d look to the Altar-turned-kitchenette and ask my Mom what time services started. Luckily my Mom was compassionate. Had they asked Dad they might have received an answer such as “after we are done sacrificing the cow” (cooking hamburgers) or “please join us for holey communion first” (with mouth on spout, punch a hole in a box of wine and swallow as fast as you can –imagine a slightly more sophisticated keg stand). Or, if Dad was chatty, they’d get one of his jokes, “A priest, a rabbi and a duck go into a bar…” When The Palm was a Church, abstract sermons about a distant deity fell from the pulpit like dead moths. Of all the emotion that dark cool building could have absorbed over its years as a Church, I believe it most freely welcomed those from a dying man. As Dad’s energy faded, The Palm took on the spent emotion of moments that happened inside. Now we go to our Church to remember him –a father, a son, and a crazy spirit.