Waiting for Word

As we slid into our chairs for our first confirmation class that spring day of 1959, I counted around the table in the church library. Ten, eleven, twelve, half boys and half girls, all of us in our good clothes from the regular church service earlier that morning. It wasn’t nearly as many as in my sixth-grade class at school, but some of them, like my friend Amy, were noisy, and I crossed my fingers that the teacher, Mr. Irwin, wouldn’t notice or call on me.

“Remember,” Amy whispered as Mr. Irwin brought us to order, “if there are any tests, be sure to slide your paper so I can see.”

I pretended to nod. I had been attending church with Amy and her family for almost a year, and the church itself was very pretty, a white frame building with a slender steeple, pale pink walls, a high white ceiling, and clear arched windows through which the sunlight streamed. The wooden pews were so glossy you nearly slipped right out of them. But I had yet to pin down exactly what Congregationalists were supposed to believe. The sermons were soft and disappointing, like vanilla pudding. They never quite told me who was I and where I fit in. So on my own, I read Genesis and Exodus, struggling through the “begats” and experiencing a private eye-opener when the dictionary yielded the meaning of “circumcision.”

“Before we begin, I want to give you all a little gift,” said Mr. Irwin, and opening a manila envelope, he passed out to each of us a bookmark of ten linked metal disks on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. “You can use them with your Bible.”

We thanked him enthusiastically. Class had only just started and already we had a free gift—might there be more to come? Mr. Irwin was a deacon, a small man with a bald head that domed on top like a light bulb and a nose that bulged at the tip, and the most fascinating thing about him was that he had been born in China. His parents were missionaries, he told us, and because his mother couldn’t feed him, he had had a Chinese wet nurse.

“What’s a wet nurse?” one boy asked. None of the rest of us knew either, but this boy was the only one bold enough to ask.

“A wet nurse is a woman hired to suckle another woman’s baby,” Mr. Irwin explained. “My own mother didn’t have enough milk to feed me, so I was breast-fed by a Chinese woman.”

For a minute, nobody spoke. We were all assimilating. All the babies we’d ever seen were bottle fed, and breast feeding was, well, odd, to say the least. Nobody even said that word aloud, though apparently it was all right for a deacon. I tried to picture Mr. Irwin being suckled by a Chinese wet nurse, and there he was, peeking out of a blanket in a peasant woman’s arms, a sixty-year-old infant with a bald head and bulging nose. Mr. Irwin spent most of the class talking about being kind to thy neighbor, and it turned out there would be no tests and the only homework was a little Bible reading.

“Whew!” Amy whispered, and I silently agreed. One of our Lutheran friends was attending her confirmation classes, and she’d told us she had to memorize all the books in the Bible. At first I thought she meant they had to memorize everything—the whole text!—and I was worried sick. How could anyone do that? Then I found out it was only the names of the books the Lutheran kids had to learn by heart. Still, their confirmation classes were twice a week for two full years. Our class met on Sunday for just eight weeks.

“Be sure to share what we’ve learned today with your parents,” said Mr. Irwin, as the hour ended. “I’m sure they’ll be interested.”

I pretended to nod again. What if Mr. Irwin found out my parents never went to church at all, preferring to spend their Sunday mornings reading the newspaper? Nevertheless, they saw no harm in letting me go with Amy. “Have a good time!” they would call, waving me out to the Winstons’ station wagon. Amy’s family were our down-the-street neighbors, and Amy had thick brown ringlets and wore red T-strap shoes. Boys called her on the telephone. While she talked and giggled, I sat on the sofa and read her parents’ Life magazines. I went to church because Amy went, and Amy went because her whole family went, and we both went because the church organist, who we had decided was twenty-six, had wavy blond hair and was handsome.

The second week of confirmation class we discovered the gas station. It was a Texaco station, a few blocks up the street from the church, and the red star on its sign made me think of the Christmas star that had once guided the Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem. Since there was a forty-five minute gap between the regular service and the start of confirmation class, and since Amy’s parents took her two younger brothers home and came back later to collect us, we were on our own. We could hang out in the church library or basement, but the April weather being fine, we set off to find someplace to buy candy instead. We passed a corner grocery, but it wasn’t open on Sundays. The gas station was in the middle of the next block, a small white building with three pumps on a cement island, and at first sight it looked to be shut also. Amy tapped on the door, and we went in.

“Hello,” said the man behind the counter. He had dark brown hair and a friendly face, though his smile seemed tired. On his shirt pocket I saw another red star, confirming his status from the TV jingle as the man you could trust your car to. “How are you girls today? You both look very nice.”

“Thank you,” said Amy. We were wearing our good spring dresses, garter belts and real nylons, and we felt very grown-up. Amy’s mother had given us each a squirt of eau de cologne from the tiny bottle she carried in her purse. “We’ve been to church, and now we’re waiting for our confirmation class to start. We’d like to buy some candy.”

“Well,” said the man, “that gives you two choices. You can get it from the machine there,” he nodded to a vending machine with candy bars and cellophane-wrapped crackers displayed in the slots, “or you can pick from the counter.” He indicated a rack beside the cash register. “I’d take the counter stuff myself. It’s fresher.”

“Thank you,” said Amy.

We loaded our purses with goodies: Junior Mints, Baby Ruth, Three Musketeers, Raisinets. At a nickel apiece, a quarter’s allowance would buy a lot of sweets. The man dropped our coins into the cash register where they sounded with a hollow plunk.

“We’ll probably be back next week,” Amy promised as we left.

“Sure,” said the man. “You girls come any time.”

That week Mr. Irwin talked about faith and how it had taken his parents all the way to China, and I settled in for the story. It took away some of the sting from when my teacher had lectured my parents about my shyness at our school open house on Thursday night.

“I don’t understand why, when Lizzie’s homework and tests clearly show she understands the material, she won’t speak up in class,” Mrs. Banner complained. “It’s going to affect her grade.”

My parents exchanged the calm look that meant they were deciding which one of them would reply.

“That’s because words are very important to Lizzie,” said my father. “She values them highly, and she likes to think before she speaks so she can get them exactly right. Perhaps, instead of marking her down for not speaking, you could give her credit for listening.”

“Well, I never!” said Mrs. Banner.

So far, Mr. Irwin hadn’t called on any of us to answer anything. He simply talked and let the boys and girls ask questions if they wanted.

“Sooner or later,” he said, as his China story came to a close, “everyone comes to know God in their own way. You don’t even have to join a church to do it. God is in all churches and anywhere you look for Him.”

“I visited my friend’s church a few times, and he’s Catholic,” said Wayne, a skinny kid with white-blond hair. Amy and I had decided he was the cutest boy in the confirmation class. “What if I wanted to join the Catholic Church?”

“God will be there, wherever you go to seek him,” Mr. Irwin replied. “But you shouldn’t join a church unless you feel sure you can live by its teachings. That’s what confirmation means: to give you an understanding of your church so you can confirm your belief in it and confirm yourself as a member.”

The next two weeks Amy and I went directly to the gas station after the morning service. While Amy chatted with the man and picked out her candy, I looked around the office. It was clean and neat, a cigarette rack behind the counter, shelves stacked with cans of motor oil and spare parts, newspapers and road maps for sale. Outside, the three gas pumps on the cement island reminded me of robots, waiting to serve the next customer, the black rubber hoses and nozzles hooked on their sides like loopy, alien arms. But traffic was light and no cars pulled in, and my gaze turned back to a framed photograph on the wall. It had been faded unevenly by the sun, but it showed the man standing proudly in front of the station in his Texaco uniform and beside him a smiling woman and two little boys. A red, white and blue banner over the doorway proclaimed “GRAND OPENING.”

“What are you girls learning in your confirmation class?” the man asked, as Amy completed her selection and paid her quarter.

As usual, I let Amy answer, though already the routine of coming to the gas station, the trusty red star and the photograph made the man seem less a stranger and more a friend.

“We’re studying about Paul,” said Amy. “He had a revelation, you know.”

“Did he?”

“Uh-huh, a big one. God struck him with a lightning bolt and put scales on his eyes so he couldn’t see. Do you think that means fish scales? Ick! I sure hope that never happens to me.”

The hint of a smile crossed the man’s face. “Somehow I don’t think it will.”

“I want a revelation,” I blurted, then flinched at how dumb the words sounded. Maybe that was the problem: I always stored up too much in my head, and then when I opened my mouth everything plopped out in an uncooked lump like condensed soup from a can. Whereas, if I talked more and thought less, like Amy, the sentences might bubble out like soda pop, sweet and easy.

“Are you crazy?” Amy demanded. “Do you want to go blind?”

“No, of course not.” I swallowed and looked to the man for help, for a sign that someone understood. His face grew serious, and he nodded at me to go on. “I just want…I want God to speak to me…so I’ll know for sure.”

“Well, you’ll know in June when we get confirmed,” said Amy, solving the problem and reclaiming the conversation in one swoop. “Confirmation is at a special service in front of the whole church,” she informed the man. “But I really haven’t decided yet if I’m going to join. I have to think about it.” Encouraged by Mr. Irwin’s open-mindedness, several of the kids were talking like this, testing their independence. Wayne had been to the Catholic church again, and one of the girls had visited a friend’s church where they baptized people in a big swimming pool. “Anyway,” Amy concluded, “my mom says if I do get confirmed, I’ll get a new dress for the service, so maybe I will.”

The man was still looking at me. He gestured to the Bible I carried under my arm, marked at Leviticus by the Ten Commandments bookmark. “I bet you read that, don’t you? And you have another book today?”

Wordlessly, I offered up the second volume. Mr. Irwin had invited us to borrow books from the church library, and I had taken out a biography of Anne Boleyn. The text was very dry, but I persevered to the last page. I wanted, at the end, to read what it felt like to die, and if anybody knew, Anne Boleyn did. But poor Anne just went bravely to the block, and the author didn’t even hazard a guess how it felt to have your head go rolling in the straw.

The man paused over the pages. “I bet you study hard in school, too.”

“Yes.”

“That’s good, keep it up. You’ll make something of yourself that way.” He handed Anne back. “Well, I hope you girls enjoy your candy.”

I thought about the man on the walk back to church. We’d never asked him his name or how old he was—older than the handsome church organist with the wavy blond hair, I guessed, but not quite as old as our fathers. In most ways, he was a “neither” person—neither short nor tall, handsome nor ugly, skinny nor fat—a nice man, though he never really laughed. Maybe he wished that instead of working on Sunday he could be at church with his family. Then I realized that in the three weeks we had been coming to the gas station, not once had a car pulled in to the pumps. I turned to mention this to Amy, but she was chewing a wad of jujubes, and I knew it would take a long time for her to get her mouth empty to answer.

The fifth Sunday of confirmation class, it rained. We stayed in the church, and Amy played the piano in the basement, alternating between the hymn book and “Heart and Soul.” She hoped the organist would hear her and come compliment her on her playing, but no one showed up.

“All that practicing for nothing,” she grumbled.

Next week was sunny again. We were into May now, and the weather was warm, the grass green, the flowers around the church blooming purple and pink. I longed to be done with confirmation classes and run outside. I wondered why I was going to church at all. My parents didn’t care. God didn’t seem to care. I only went because Amy went.

We walked to the gas station, and as usual there was the man.

“What’ll you have today, girls?” he asked. Dark circles lay under his eyes, and his smile barely lifted the corners of his mouth.

We made our selection and paid our coins.

“Here.” He handed us each an extra candy bar.

“Gee, thanks.” Amy accepted hers eagerly.

I looked up, surprised.

“I’m just clearing out a few things,” he explained, and as I glanced around the small office, I noticed it was barer than before, the shelves less full, the photograph gone. The man caught my glance to the empty space on the wall, and when our eyes met, I gave him the same little nod he had given me, a signal to speak.

“I don’t know if the station’s going to be open much longer,” he said.

“Are you going away somewhere?” Amy asked.

“No, but I think I’m going to have to close this place.”

“Why?”

“Not enough business.”

I didn’t know what to say, and before a silence could develop, Amy went on.

“Are you going to have another gas station?”

“Probably not.”

“Then where will you work?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you have to have a job. Maybe you could be an insurance salesman like my father.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Or you could be a teacher or an airplane pilot or a policeman.”

“You could be a writer,” I blurted, not caring how lumpy the words sounded in my eagerness to help. “You could still keep your gas station open, and while you were waiting for cars to come, you could write books.”

The man shook his head. “I’m sorry, girls. It isn’t quite that easy.”

“You could be a singer, la-la-la. Or a dancer.” Amy pirouetted on her toes. “I know! Do you play any musical instruments?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Well, what about…”

Amy chattered on and I watched the man’s face tighten, and I knew suddenly that I was smarter, much smarter, than she would ever be. It wasn’t just that she cheated off me at school or let boys peek up her dress. It was that she didn’t understand. She went chattering on, and the man and I stared at each other, and in a blinding flash, like Paul on the road to Damascus, my revelation came. My head spun, my eyes dimmed. In a Texaco station beneath a red star, I saw that heaven was empty and life could be bleak and hope was like candy, sweet and bad for you at the same time. The man’s eyes shone as he fought back tears, and while I ached at my knowledge, Amy began another pirouette.

“Stop it!” I grabbed her wrist. “Stop it! We’ll be late.”

“Oww! Let go, you’re hurting me!”

She yanked her arm free and glared at me, but I elbowed her to the door.

“Goodbye,” I said to the man. “Goodbye and thank you.”

“Goodbye, girls.” He started to wave, then left the gesture unfinished, his hand lingering without motion in the air.

That day in confirmation class, Mr. Irwin talked about God’s presence in our daily lives. For the first time, I raised my hand.

“Mr. Irwin…?”

“Yes?”

“How would God help a person in their daily life if, for example, they lost their job and didn’t know what to do?”

“That’s a good question,” said Mr. Irwin. “And God is there to help. He gives you friends and family to support you in times of trouble and worry. He offers you peace of mind to think through your difficulties and plan how to put them right. He puts a beautiful flower in your path or a bird singing outside your window for inspiration. God is always ready to help. You have only to turn to Him.”

“Why can’t he just give you a job?”

For an instant, Mr. Irwin’s eyes widened. Then in a soothing voice he began another China story. But while the rest of the class leaned forward, the words only floated like clouds in my head. I wasn’t listening anymore.

The following week when Amy and I went to the gas station it was closed.

In June Amy was confirmed. I sat with her parents and two brothers in the pew and watched. The church sparkled with sunlight, the blond organist played. As promised, Amy had a new dress for the occasion, pink trimmed with appliqued daisies and white lace, and new white shoes with tiny high heels. From time to time I glanced down at my Bible, still marked to Leviticus, an empty weight in my hands. In the end, I was the only member of the class, the Judas among the twelve, who decided not to join. All the others were up there, including Wayne, who had thought of becoming a Catholic, and the girl whose friend had been baptized in a swimming pool.

“Suit yourself,” Amy had sniffed when I revealed my decision. “But in the fall I’m going to try out for choir, and that means I’ll get to meet you-know-who.”

I thought of all the replies I might make, but the only one that popped out was, “You can’t sing.”

I stopped going to church with Amy after that and took to reading the newspaper with my parents instead. No one tried to coax me back to the fold. Perhaps I ought to have thanked Mr. Irwin for not shepherding me into something against my will, but other times I wonder how my life might be different had anyone gone looking for the stray lamb.

Amy got pregnant and had to get married at seventeen. She has four children now. She smokes a lot and leaves the TV on most of the day. Her husband cheats on her. I don’t know if they go to church. I’m a poet, or at least I pretend to be. Often I envy Anne Boleyn the swiftness of her fate. Mine drags on, polite rejection slips in an otherwise empty box, and each one saws delicately across my neck like a sword. I still have my old Bible, and now and then I dip in on a whim. The Ten Commandments bookmark has grown dull and tarnished with time.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1991)

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