“Samantha Jane, get in the car. We are going to find God.”
“But—” I bit my tongue before any more words could come out. Mama stood at the bed, packing Bibles into a brown grocery bag. Even though it was Saturday afternoon, she wore her Sunday red dress, matching lipstick and sling-back high heels. Her face had that cheerful look like when we were sick and she’d corner us with a spoonful of bad-tasting medicine and say brightly, “Now you know this is for your own good.” Yuck! I made a face and twisted my tongue inside my mouth at the memory. But more than anything, it was the Bibles that spelled trouble. It was always a bad sign at our house when the Good Book appeared.
“But, Mama,” I made my voice light and easy, “I only came home from Ronnie’s to get my knapsack, and I’m going right back. We’re playing Wilderness Rangers up in his tree house.”
Mama stopped packing and frowned, not at me but at the heaps of books still on the bed. “Now where is that white one?” she murmured.
Automatically, my eyes went to the pile and searched with her. It looked like she’d pulled the whole collection out of the closet this time, and the stacks had slid over on the bedspread, this way and that, like a game of toppled dominoes. All the usual ones were there: faithful black leather volumes lettered in gold, the navy blue large-print hardcover, half a dozen red ones, paperback New Testaments, the picture versions for me and Jake. At least four white covers showed among the piles, so I couldn’t figure which one Mama thought was missing. But suddenly her hand shot out—“Gotcha!” she said—and she snatched up an ivory-colored Bible and laid it carefully in the bag. There seemed to be some order, at least to her, in what she was doing.
“And I could take Jakey with me,” I continued, not sure if she’d heard me the first time, “so he wouldn’t get in your way.”
Mama turned to face me, and I knew by her expression I’d said something wrong. What? What? I thought it was rather generous of me to offer to babysit Jake, though in fact he was a good little kid and it occurred to me he might come in handy for our game, like maybe he could be a lost bear.
Mama smoothed her pretty face, banishing the irritated look that had crossed it a moment before. “You know you children never get in my way,” she said in the sweet voice she put on when showing off Jakey and me to relatives or friends. “And you really should call your brother by his proper name.”
“Also, Samantha Jane, at ten years old you are getting to be a young lady, and playing with boys in tree houses is no longer appropriate. Now go get in the car. Daddy has had a vision, and we mustn’t delay.”
My heart sank. Oh no, I hated it when Daddy had visions. It was bad enough when he tried to make us see God in everything from a loaf of bread on the table to the worldwide fall of Communism. But when Daddy had a vision and the Bibles came out I knew we were in for a long afternoon.
I went to the kitchen where Jakey sat on a stool sucking a frozen Kool-Aid cube and helped myself to one from the freezer. In summer we were allowed to make these whenever we wanted, and I’d discovered that if you didn’t bother to wash out the tray between batches you could get mixed flavors. This batch was cherry-lime—not bad—and who knew how good it might get if we kept on leaving the sticky stuff in the bottom of the tray.
“We’re going to find God, Sammie,” Jake informed me, hazel eyes wide beneath his pale blond bangs. He wore shorts, a tank top and flip flops, and red juice from the Kool-Aid dribbled down his chin. “What do you think He looks like?”
“I don’t know. Like Jesus, I guess.” I tried to remember our Sunday School stories, but the only other idea that came to mind was a burning bush. My eyes fell on our wicker picnic basket sitting on the counter, and I opened it and rummaged inside. Cold fried chicken, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, chocolate cookies, a pitcher of lemonade. Were we going to meet God before or after dinner?
“I’m going to ask Him if Rusty likes heaven,” said Jake.
I closed the basket, an uneasy feeling nibbling at my stomach. Some days God wasn’t in our lives at all, and we behaved like a normal family. Daddy went to the office, cut the grass, cursed the government and his job. Mama fed us Spaghettios and slapped us around when we frazzled her nerves. On those days they called us Sammie and Jake. But on God days everything got different, formal and too nice, and I felt trapped like when a dress gets caught going on over your head and you’re stuck in the bodice struggling to find a way out. And I didn’t like them dragging Jakey into it when he was only five and hadn’t even started kindergarten.
I sat on the stool beside him and pulled him onto my lap. We sucked our Kool-Aid cubes together. His bare skin against mine smelled like warm honey pudding, and I hugged him and wiped his dribbly chin. One day when I had babies I’d take good care of them like I did with Jake.
“I don’t know if we’ll exactly see God,” I said, wondering what Daddy had planned. “But if we do, I’m sure He’ll tell you Rusty is very happy in heaven playing with all the other dogs.”
“When I go to heaven, can I play with Rusty again?”
“Sure you can. It’s a great place.”
My eyes went back to the picnic basket, and the queer feeling grew. Usually when Daddy had a vision we had to kneel on the living room rug and open our hearts while he prayed aloud for our redemption. Sometimes he’d light candles or put bread in our mouths. And sometimes he’d order us into the car to go see God’s works. That was all right when we went somewhere nice like a lake or a park. But sometimes my father drove us to dirty, evil-looking places, and my skin rose in goose bumps when he warned us Satan lurked inside. Still, nothing ever happened, and most of our trips ended with buying another Bible, as if by discovering the right size or color we’d be assured of heaven at last. But now it seemed we were going to find God Himself, packing Bibles, food—we’d never done that before. What if this time the vision was real?
“You stay here, Jake.” I patted him on the head and went out to the driveway where my father was lifting a can of gasoline into the trunk of the car. The can landed with a heavy thump, but otherwise the trunk was empty. Before I could speak, my father turned toward me. He wore his good gray suit, a white shirt and blue tie. His eyes had a strange shine, as if light were reflecting off their surface but not penetrating within.
“You’re here.” He nodded, as if my appearance at that moment was exactly what he’d expected. “Get your brother and get in the car.”
“Uh, Daddy.” I stopped. The more my father looked at me, the less of me he seemed to see. “Mama’s packed a picnic basket,” I blurted.
My father sighed and let his chin drop toward his chest. His dark hair was combed with water, and the strands swept back from his temples in neat lines. Slowly, he shook his head at the ground, then lifted it to the sky. “Does she think we require food for this greatest of journeys? Is not thy glorious light the only sustenance we need? I tell her to make ready, and a picnic basket is all she comprehends. What is food for the body but a falsehood? It is not this flesh we must preserve but the spirit, the spirit within. Oh, Lord!” he raised his voice and his hands, “You see how it is with women. How can one expect them to understand? They are weak creatures, vessels of sin that cannot be trusted to know thy holy will.”
He went on talking to the sky, and I cringed. What if the neighbors heard and thought he’d gone crazy? Already they skirted our house when they walked up the street. And why didn’t Mama ever stop him when he got like this? Most of the time she gossiped with her friends about how men didn’t know anything, not how to shop or mind children or keep out of trouble in bars. “I swear they are just little boys with big dinkies,” she’d laugh, wiggling her finger at her crotch to show what she meant. But when my father got religious, she dropped everything and went along with whatever he said. It was like religion was Daddy’s special hobby, and we owed it to him not to interrupt or disbelieve.
“Well, here we are,” Mama’s voice chirped behind me, and I turned to see her carrying a bag of Bibles and leading Jakey by the hand. She motioned him toward me, then returned to the house twice more, each time reappearing with a loaded sack. A final trip brought the picnic basket. Daddy put the basket and bags in the trunk, bracing them around the can of gasoline.
“Now I’ve set the phone machine, closed the downstairs windows, locked the doors.” Mama ticked off her efficiency on her red-nailed fingers. “Oh dear, the children aren’t dressed.” Her face fell as she took in our play clothes. “Well, you’ll just have to come with me and—”
“Never mind!” Daddy roared, as Mama started to herd us back toward the house. “Get in the car!”
Jakey and I scrambled into the back seat. My heart was pounding, and Jakey’s face was white. Mama pouted and muttered something about how she was only trying to do her best. Daddy didn’t say anything more, but when he turned in his seat to back the car down the driveway, the shine in his eyes had hardened to a white gleam.
We drove out of our neighborhood. In mounting anger, I watched the small, neat houses slip by. Oh, why couldn’t we be like a normal family? Look at them, look! I stared miserably at the backs of my parents’ heads. Mama had tied a print scarf around her hair, and the brown curls hung richly down her back. Daddy’s hair was trimmed straight across the bottom, and his clean-shaven neck smelled of soap and aftershave. I’d heard people say my parents were a good-looking couple, and so young, too, they always added, glancing my way. That puzzled me, until I found out for sure how babies got started. Then Ronnie and I did some calculations in the tree house, and we discovered my parents had had to get married on my account. Though that didn’t seem like my fault, maybe it was God’s punishment on me to be plain, while Jakey, who came after, was beautiful.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered in his ear, seeing he still looked upset. I reached for the coloring books and tin of crayons we kept on the rear shelf and pried open the tin for him. The metal was hot from the sunshine beating through the window, and the crayons had a cooked feel. Jake set to work on a Bugs Bunny picture, and I glanced out the window, not caring where we went. Were we supposed to find God out shopping or hitchhiking beside the road? Then thinking we might get this over sooner if I joined in the search, I narrowed my eyes and scrutinized the passing scene. “I’m looking for you, God, I’m looking for you,” I chanted under my breath. I decided not to exclude anyone from consideration. After all, if God were to appear in a long robe and a heavenly light he’d be spotted instantly and we’d hear about it on TV. So he must be in disguise, like maybe that postman in the blue shorts and knee socks or the hairy man in chains and leather riding a spitting motorcycle. Maybe God was the president—I sat up straighter, it seemed a good possibility—or the Queen of England. Beside me, Jakey kept coloring, doing his best to stay within the lines despite the motion of the car.
“Every day I see disasters,” my father said, and I picked up my ears. “Fire, flood, tornados, disease, accidents, death.” I nodded. Daddy was an insurance salesman, and we heard a lot at the dinner table about the terrible tragedies that had befallen people. “I see fearful conflagrations throughout the land, sinners called to reckoning, while over the flames hovers the Angel of the Lord.” His voice lifted prayerfully, and now I wasn’t sure if he was talking about real flesh-and-blood destruction or describing his latest vision. “Yes, Lord, this evil comes upon us as thy divine judgment for our many sins. And of all sinners, I am the greatest, a base man not fit to touch the hem of thy robe.”
“Amen,” said my mother, and my thoughts shifted angrily to her. She was busy crocheting a square of pink and yellow yarn, and as she said “Amen,” she held it up and squinted at it as if not quite sure she liked the pattern. Mama worked in a knitting shop two mornings a week, and she always carried yarn in her purse. But it was that “Amen” that riled me. All right, maybe I wasn’t a good Christian. I fibbed if it would get me out of trouble, and one whole summer I’d palmed quarters from the collection plate at church. But at least I only prayed when I truly meant it—like when Rusty died—and not to please anyone else. Mama just echoed Daddy as if she had no brain of her own, and since he’d been having visions more and more lately the “Amens” were coming thicker than mosquitos on a summer night.
“Yea, Lord, I am a sinner! Strong drink—”
I buried my head in my hands and blocked my ears. I wished I was anywhere but in this car. We drove and drove while my parents prayed in the front seat. I prayed, too. Please, God, I want to go home. Please show up or send us a sign. Just a small miracle, not like when we asked you to bring Rusty back. I bit my lip at the guilty memory. When Rusty died that spring, Ronnie, Jake and I had held a private ceremony in the tree house. I sneaked over the best Bibles from my parents’ closet, and we prayed God to return Rusty to life. We prayed aloud until our throats were tired, and then we prayed silent like in church, and we even had Jakey ask God special because when he was little he’d ridden on Rusty like a pony. When it was done, we asked each other if we’d felt God’s presence, and we really thought we had. But no drooling, panting red setter came bounding back to greet us, so I knew we’d asked too much. I told Jakey that Rusty was probably so happy in heaven he wouldn’t want to return to earth.
I looked out the window again. We were somewhere in the country, half-grown corn fields stretching as far as I could see. A truck rumbled past in the opposite direction, a few cars. My stomach growled, and I thought longingly of the fried chicken and chocolate cookies packed in the trunk. There seemed little chance of finding God or anyone else of interest along this empty road.
“I want to go home.” My hand flew to my mouth. Too late—the words were out. I braced for the worst as the car slowed and pulled off the road. Daddy shut off the engine and turned in his seat. His face was hard and frightening.
I forced speech from my dry throat. “Please, Daddy, we’ve been driving a long time, and we haven’t found God. And we’re probably all getting hungry, and Jakey might have to pee.”
Jake looked up at his name, then down at his shorts as if expecting them to provide further information. If only I’d thought to whisper to him first, convince him to request a stop. Now I could only hope the idea planted in his head would produce a physical reaction.
“Jacob,” Daddy’s tone was level, “do you need a toilet?”
Jakey glanced from Daddy to Mama to me. He seemed to sense it was a trick question, and his forehead furrowed in a search for the right answer.
“I want to find Rusty,” he said.
“And you shall,” my father nodded approval, “but only if you open your heart and surrender yourself to God.” His eyes swerved back to me, two cold lights fixing me in their beam. “What do you have to say for yourself, Samantha Jane?”
I wanted to crawl out the window, anywhere to get away. “Please, Daddy, it’s late, Ronnie’s waiting for me, there might be burglars at the house, maybe there’s a baseball game on TV.” I blabbed all the arguments I could think of, but my father’s face didn’t change.
“Do you know what it means to have a vision, Samantha Jane?”
“No,” I whispered.
Daddy’s voice crashed like thunder. “It is God Himself speaking to you! It is Our Lord’s holy message delivered straight to your soul! Today he has shown me a great conflagration of which we must all be part. I will pour out my indignation upon you, sayeth the Lord. I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath!”
I struggled not to cry. I didn’t want to be a sinner. I’d gone to Sunday School, sung the hymns, tried to believe. If God wanted to tell me something, why couldn’t he just say it? I’d listen, I’d be good. I cast an appealing look to my mother, but though she’d paused in her crocheting, she only shook her head and raised her eyebrows at me as if to say I should know better than to interrupt when my father was in the middle of a vision.
“Please, Daddy. Maybe God’s right at home in our backyard.”
“It is an abode of sinners!”
“No, it’s our house. We live there.”
“Daddy, please!” I put my hands together in a prayer and held them toward him. “Please, please, please, let’s go home.”
Daddy’s head turned slowly toward Mama. “Do you know what I think? I believe this child has been possessed by Satan.”
I gasped, and all three of them stared at me, Daddy and Mama in growing suspicion, Jake in open-mouthed surprise. I wanted to shrink into nothing under their gaze. It felt worse than being naked, like all the bad things I’d ever done but thought I’d gotten away with were clear as writing on my face.
“Oh ye of little faith!” My father’s anger blasted over me like a furnace, and his finger pointed at my heart. “You are evil in the sight of the Lord!”
I buried my head in shame. Oh, how could I be such a wicked girl that Satan had picked me for his own? Horns would grow on my head, cloven hooves on my feet, and a long tufted tail sprout from my behind. I’d be cast into hell and poked with pitchforks and banished from God’s love forever.
“Samantha Jane!” my father roared. “We are going to meet God. Are you coming?”
“No!” A sudden strength surged up in me, a cry of rebellion and defiance. Maybe I wasn’t good or beautiful, but if all was lost, it was God’s fault, too. I tried to find Him, in church and kneeling on the living room rug and praying for Rusty in the tree house. No more of this! If I was doomed, so be it. “No! I’m not coming!” I cried. “Let God’s will on me be done!”
Jakey’s eyes went wide. Mama sucked in her breath. Daddy’s voice grew deadly quiet. “Samantha Jane, get out of the car.”
I obeyed. A licking was coming for sure, but I vowed not to cry. Daddy, Mama, and Jake got out after me, and we stood beside the corn. My father shaded his eyes and looked up at the sky. “Not much farther,” he said with satisfaction. Then to me, “You are to remain here, Samantha Jane.”
The words took me by surprise. I waited, still expecting some blow to fall. Daddy went to the trunk and opened it, saying to Mama, “She must have a Bible. Which one, do you think?”
For a moment Mama hesitated, glancing along the deserted road. “Oh, well, I don’t suppose we’ll be gone long,” she said cheerfully. She went to the trunk to help Daddy pick through the bags. “How about a children’s version? Or a red one?”
“No, white for innocence.” Daddy lifted out the ivory volume and gave it to me. “She is young, and there is still hope she may repent and join us in the bosom of God.”
“She’ll need something to eat.” Mama opened the picnic basket and wrapped a chicken leg and three cookies in a napkin. She pressed the package into my hand.
“Now make this child a sign,” Daddy ordered. “A sign for the world to know she has tripped and fallen on the path to God.”
Mama chewed her red lip. Then she shrugged, went back to the car, and began writing in Jakey’s coloring book with a crayon.
I stared miserably as my father rearranged the grocery bags and gasoline and shut the trunk. This was the worst it had ever been, and I was the one who’d messed it up. I could almost feel disaster coming, as if I were having a vision, too.
“Let Jakey stay with me,” I begged. “I’ll keep him safe, please.”
My father’s eyebrows closed in a dark frown. “Jacob, we are going to meet God. Are you coming?”
Jakey looked between us. His face wavered. I thought of the times I’d teased him or conned him into eating my peas, and I swore I’d never do it again if only he would listen to me now. I dropped to my knees before him, not caring what Daddy might say or do.
“Jakey, please, you don’t want to visit God today, do you?”
“You said I could ask Him about Rusty.”
“But we already know Rusty’s gone to heaven.”
“I want to see him.”
“You can’t, Jake. Rusty’s dead, and once you’re dead, you can’t come back.”
“But God can do anything. You said he’d let me ride on Rusty again.”
“Please, Jakey. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that. I—”
“Here we are!” Mama came toward us waving the front cover of the coloring book, ripped off and threaded with a long loop of crochet yarn. On the white side some words were printed in purple crayon. She hung the sign around my neck and kissed my forehead. “Be a good girl, Samantha Jane. We’ll be back soon.”
Daddy stretched his hand over my head. “Oh, Lord, you see this wayward girl and know her plight. Let her learn to love thee and find her way back to thy mercy.”
He picked up Jakey, and the three of them got in the car. The doors closed, the engine started, then they were gone. I couldn’t even get a last glimpse of Jake, sitting low in the rear seat. But through the window I saw the backs of my parents’ heads, and they looked as normal as any family out for an afternoon drive. I glanced down at the Bible in my right hand, the wrapped chicken leg in my left. From upside down I made out the words on my mother’s sign: Smile—God Loves You.
I was still standing there several minutes later when a station wagon and a truck passed, then slowed and reversed. The people got out and approached. They looked friendly, a black couple with a small girl about Jakey’s age and a stocky, gray-haired man in a plaid shirt, and I felt grateful to see them.
“Dear, can you talk?” the woman asked, and her husband lifted the sign from my neck, saying, “Do you suppose this is some kind of joke?”
The stocky man thumbed toward his truck. “I’ll call the state police on my remote.”
When the officer came, I told him everything. Like a good Wilderness Ranger, I even remembered the license plate number of my parents’ car. The officer took statements from the black couple and the truck driver, called his superiors on the radio, let me sit in the cruiser’s front seat. It was exactly like Ronnie and I had played, and I wished Jakey could be there to see.
“Jakey,” I said aloud, thinking I’d see him soon. But for some reason the name didn’t sound right. “Jakey,” I tried again, a hollow noise in my throat. A burning ran over my skin, and I tried to rub it away. “Jake, Jake.” Fear rose in me, and I got shaky and began to weep.
“I have to find my brother,” I cried to the officer as he got back in the car. The memory of Jakey’s warm skin against mine as we’d sat in the kitchen just a few hours before was like the best thing I’d ever known.
The officer patted my knee and indicated his crackling radio. “Don’t you worry, sweetheart. Your parents’ car was spotted not five minutes ago, and we’re headed that way.”
He pulled onto the road, and I stared at the horizon of corn and blue sky. It shimmered like a heat wave, quivering before my eyes. And then I saw it, the vision, the great conflagration rising like a burning sun. Up and up to heaven it roared, flaming above the corn field in a hellish fury and wrath. A great heat enveloped me, and I moaned and twisted in the blaze.
“Jakey!” I sobbed, burning, melting, writhing. “Jake!”
The officer grabbed my arm. “Cut that out! What’s the matter with you, kid?” Then he let go and I heard him whisper, “Jesus Christ.”
The cruiser sped up, then screeched to a halt in a bare field. Half a dozen cars were gathered there, people shouting and running around a car full of leaping flames. The officer barked into his radio, jumped out and yelled at the crowd to get back. As the blaze licked skyward, yellow and orange, I saw above it angels and demons in a shrieking dance. “Jakey,” I whispered, as the fire turned inward and began to die.
Outside, people continued to run back and forth. I sat alone in the cruiser, gazing blankly at the scene.Mama’s sign still lay on the dashboard where the officer had left it, and I fingered the corner, waiting for my head to clear and tell me what to do. The glow of the fire faded, smoldering down to black ruin, and the core of my heart curled into quiet ash.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)
Santa Clara Review, Volume 82, Number 1, Fall/Winter 1994-95