Sarah is lying on her back on the hot pavement, her spine stretched along the double yellow lines of the road in front of her house. We are both silent, listening for the sound of cars. The heat hums. Grasshoppers click from stem to stem. In a few days, a tractor will cut and bale hay in the distance, its engine drowning out any oncoming cars, but today it is silent and private, the two of us alone on the road. The timing is perfect for putting our trust in God.
Sarah knows more about this type of thing than I do, so I am the one keeping watch. I promised to look out for cars or other people, but mostly I’m delaying the turn I’ll have to take at lying like roadkill on the blacktop. I’ll do it in spite of my better judgment, because I’m ten years old, and having a best friend when you’re ten means holding up your end of the bargain. Breaking a promise or avoiding a pact is the same as walking away from the friendship altogether, which is the same as death.
Sarah understands that faith matters more than danger. That if you pray and you’re saved – if you’re good and you believe – then you don’t have to be afraid to die. All I know is how to be afraid and not show it.
But today I’ve run out of excuses as to why I don’t want to watch a horror movie in the middle of the afternoon, as Sarah had coerced me to do. I had come near to embarrassing myself when I insisted she turn off The Children of the Corn after the first few opening frames – the empty cornfield reflecting every shade of blue under the moonlight on the television screen – and threatened to go home if she didn’t comply. My offer to play outside, instead, has landed me here under the sun, attempting to prove that I’m not no fun at all.
‘I’m bored,’ I say, looking down at some interesting spot of nothingness near the toe of my tennis shoe, and she raises up, sheepishly.
‘Yeah…seems like nothing is coming, huh?’
I shrug. She scrambles over to my side of the road, and we walk together back up the long driveway to her house, where the shades are drawn and her elderly parents are sitting in the cool air, disinclined to look out the window to see what we’re up to. We spend the rest of the afternoon playing make believe in the woods behind her house, talking about the boys we like, until my mom comes to take me home. I’ve made it through another day of our friendship without having to confess that I don’t believe in God and, what’s worse, I don’t like to be afraid.
My family were poor. My feet were bare when it was not wintertime, and their bottoms were yellow with callouses. By the end of Spring, I could walk up and down the gravel road without wincing. Sometimes I poked at the thick pad of skin beneath my big toe with a briar I had found in the woods and marveled at the curious, disembodied sensation it made, like I was encountering a mutant version of myself: the girl warrior of summertime.
There came a time when the weather was still warm and I had to put on shoes anyway, and this was called Going to School. Our farm at the end of the road had been my only world up to that point, narrow but full of everything I knew. My older brother was the only child I spent a significant amount of time with. When I try to think of what he might have shared about what was next for me in that long, low red brick building, filled with kids from Kindergarten all the way up through the seventh grade because our county wasn't populated enough to warrant its own Middle School, all I hear is quiet. Somehow, I intuited that school was to be my second world, and though its rules and customs were a shock, they were also inescapable – the only way I had ever known school to be.
Our town was a piece of county highway between two gas stations, one on the north end of town, and one on the south end. The gas stations distinguished themselves by what was sold inside their attached convenience stores: hot, boneless fried chicken and ice cream, or candy bars and deli sandwiches. People had their loyalties to one or the other, and ours was to the Kountry Mart on the north end, at the intersection of Route 728, because it was easier to stop there on our way home and because our neighbors owned it.
Mom would buy Bugler tobacco, loose in its crinkly, turquoise pouch, and rolling papers. My brother and I were allowed to choose a candy bar. Sometimes I went for a Little Debbie instead, lured in by the thin, clear plastic that stuck up against the frosting inside. I was always disappointed by how quickly I ate it, though. How the cream filling disappeared down my throat like air and the white chocolatey coating was too well-preserved to come off on my fingers and give me something to lick clean.
We were never allowed to buy the white candy cigarettes that sent out a puff of powdered sugar ‘smoke’ when you blew on them, nor the pouches of shredded pink bubblegum that was packed to resemble chewing tobacco. I could only stare at the cartoon faces of baseball players blowing bubbles and envy how being a little bit rude and dirty-looking could still be admired. Those were the parts of our world that my mother seemed to want to shield me from, the parts that didn’t align with her values. It was the early 1980s and my parents had come down south like thirsty people in search of the oasis, desperate for a way out of their own childhoods and a little crazed by how quickly the world – the planet, politics – seemed to be dying and blowing wide open at the same time. But even as they made themselves at home, they managed to maintain a separation. Maybe it was just by virtue of my father’s long, curly hair and my mother’s refusal to wear makeup, or a bra that this boundary existed between us and everyone else. Just as the gum was off-limits to me, I could not get away from the distinction between myself and the place where I lived. Even as Kentucky was imprinting itself as ‘home’ on the backs of my eyelids, with its wide open fields and telephone poles stretching to the horizon where trees shimmered in the heat, it was not enough to make me a part of my community. Even before I left, I seemed always to have come from someplace else.
‘I feel sorry for you,’ the girl said. We were standing in a line in the hall, where I liked to rest my fingers in the painted grout lines of the concrete block walls, running them over the little messages that had been scrawled there in ink, or the long, unbroken line of a pencil dragged as far as it could go before a teacher noticed. I turned to look at her, bewildered by the kind voice beneath her frank statement. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she went on to explain, filling the silence between us. ‘So I’m going to be your friend.’
Sarah was one of those girls whose hair was always long and shiny, brushed smooth and shaped by curlers. She was pretty and had nice clothes and a distinctly Christian brand of sweetness that made her not fit in but belong. Her legs were a peach-colored tan and her sneakers always seemed to be white. Beside her, I was gray from top to bottom. My scuffed shoes led upward to knobby knees and a homemade haircut that smelled of the all-natural shampoo we got from the organic food cooperative. At school, good looks could redeem poverty, and wealth buoyed genetic bad luck. There were a few boys who were the object of many crushes, and could wear the same shirt and pants, day after day, and everyone pretended not to notice. This was especially true if they had the courage to beat the shit out of anyone who dared to shine a light on their misfortune. Since neither option was available to me, my survival relied on my ability to recognize that hostility in others, particularly those children for whom it was wound so tight that it radiated outward. I got along by avoiding eye contact, avoiding sitting next to or touching them, bumping into them, being noticed by them at any cost. Still, it was a small place, and I got noticed all the same.
Once I got to know Sarah, to understand the quality of her good Christian inability to ignore the suffering of those less fortunate than her, I realized there wasn’t anything special about the day she chose me for her friend, it was just that she couldn’t stand my hopelessness any longer. She was always giving away pieces of candy to the kids who got the free cafeteria lunch, or sharing her snack money with those who claimed to have forgotten theirs, to cover for the fact that their parents could not afford to give them two quarters each day. I held tightly to the fifty cents my mother gave me in the morning, knowing that if I lost them, there would be no replacement. It was enough to buy one snack from the machines at the end of the hall. Sarah got a dollar, and sometimes more, so she could have a Pepsi to wash down the salt of potato chips, or the syrupy aftertaste of a candy bar.
Across from the snack machines, in a narrow corridor lined with benches, with a door at the end leading out onto the blacktop, we sat swinging our legs and dipping oily fingers into bags of chips until snack time was over. I was far too grateful for Sarah’s friendship to acknowledge the insult concealed in her charity. I accepted the imbalance of power between us. We both felt better, calling one another friends, and it didn’t matter much to me that we had different reasons for doing so. Over the next handful of years, she came to love me in the tortured way of one who trespasses on a territory that she has known all along to be beneath her; she liked me, in spite of herself. But perhaps the best and easiest thing about our arrangement was that she never asked me why I didn’t go to church.
We lived in a section of the country called the Bible Belt, a loosely defined region of the south eastern United States that translated, in my own county, as having more churches than black people. In our small town of knowing everyone else’s comings and goings, it was acceptable to be any kind of Christian – Lutheran or Evangelical or even, when you got a little closer to the nearest city, non-denominational. But Southern Baptists got the most respect, and Catholics were going to Hell, so best not to mention it if that were your situation.
My parents were not shy about their lack of interest in Sunday churchgoing routines. I was a creature of instinct. Unbaptized, unchristened, unschooled in even the most basic of Bible stories, I was a student of Mother Goose and Aesop’s Fables. In the eyes of my neighbors, though, I was still a child, something close to an angel, and therefore God was presented to me by other adults as a warm, beneficent presence, wise and trustworthy, possessed of the knowledge of right and wrong in any given situation.
But the fact that my mother didn’t take us to church remained a problem. It was more respectable to be just too darn poor to go to – to not have the clothes or the ride or the sense enough to get there on time – than it was not to believe in anything at all. I learned to keep my mouth shut, to deflect or remain silent, or – when it was unavoidable – make up vague stories, told with feigned casualness, about my unspecific Christian background. I lied that I believed in God, and prayed on my knees before bed every night, and then I tried never to bring it up again. The real truth – that my parents worshipped Mother Nature over any deity, and believed the fate of our planet to be in the hands of humans, rather than God – was so unthinkable that silence became an asset to me, because in my silence I could be given the benefit of the doubt. Silence could be interpreted as consent to believing, consent to having faith.
In this regard, Sarah was both the same as me, and different. She was sheepish about the fact that her parents didn’t take her to church each week, yet she was also a steadfast believer. She did go to church once a year, on Easter, and that fact, combined with her faith, was enough to give her a kind of security I could only yearn for. But my yearning came up against a new obstacle when, in the fifth or sixth grade, Sarah surprised me with the knowledge that on my twelfth birthday, I would no longer be a child in the eyes of God, and I would go to Hell if I wasn’t saved. The embarrassingly brown bread of my peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich went dead on the back of my tongue. ‘God don’t send babies to Hell,’ she went on, ‘So if you die before then, you git to go to Heaven.’ I swallowed my sandwich and tried to nod in a solemn way without betraying my panic at this news. Sarah was equally stoic, chewing on the chicken fingers that her mother bought, hot and fresh, from the corner store every day at lunchtime, waiting at the cafeteria’s emergency exit door until the lunch period for Sarah to retrieve them so that she would not have to eat a lukewarm, packaged lunch or – God forbid – the cafeteria food.
For the rest of our days in elementary school, Sarah drew me into her obsession with death. We talked regularly about the fate that neared us – she herself had not been saved yet, but the danger was more thrilling for her because she had a safety net; when she did eventually go to church again, she would surely be called to the altar – it was only a matter of waiting until Spring. I, on the other hand, approached our conversations with sickening dread, attempting to gather insight without dwelling too long in the landscape of doom that the topic never failed to plunge me into. Afterward, I would go home and sit quietly, inches from my mother’s hands and arms, while I made things out of plastic beads, or watched her mix cookie dough, desperate to open my mouth and confess the secret of my eternal damnation. But I could never gather up the courage to say it, afraid that she would call Sarah’s mother, or worse: dismiss me with the same ease that she used to buck every other conventionality of our life in the rural South.
Driving around the county one weekend on some country errand, my mother slowed the car on a stretch of gravel road that wound through the trees. Cars were parked all along the shoulder in a line and under the shade, a group of people all ages – elderly, children, young mothers and fathers – were crossing the road with solemn faces. There was a stillness in the air and in their movements that made the hair stand up on my arms as I gazed out the window at them. On the other side of the road was a wider section of the Bacon creek, which ran through our town and on into others.
In the shallow water, several feet from its edge, stood a preacher. A young boy, arms crossed over his chest, was resting – with trust or with helplessness – in the preacher’s splayed hand. The water was sucking its way up their waists, spreading from their pants to their buttoned shirts, and the people on the shore had begun to sing.
I held my breath as we drove out of sight and the boy was dropped backward into the water. I wondered what it felt like to believe that there was something worth reaching on the other side of fear.
Author bio: Dorothy Neagle lives and writes in New York, and has studied writing most recently at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College and the Unterberg Poetry Center. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Modern Loss, The Nasiona, Mythos Magazine, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Tilde, Semicolon, the tiny journal, and The Write Launch. You can find her on instagram @sentencesaremyfave.