By Jay Livingston
Popcorn sniffles were shared between thirteen old women as Jim Caviezel died on the cross for our sins. The low hum of the church’s old Zenith television, a fat contraption with a bulging sixteen-inch screen, provided an undercurrent for the little whimpers puffing out of all those grandmas’ lips. The church pews—all fifty of them—were lit by the dim glow of the television. Behind the television, streetlights cast faint rays of orange light through the stained glass just over the small tub on the altar where they had baptized me the summer before. It was the centerpiece of the pulpit, which was where Pastor Don had wheeled in the television and started the VHS tape. Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Easter Sunday, 2004. I was seven, with my copper hair and ruddy face, looking up at my grandma from my position, sunken down into the seat, bored. Her eyeliner was smudged, she was wiping away tears, and she had licked most of the lipstick off her bottom lip from sucking it in like she always did when she faked tears. Her gut rested on her thighs, and her breasts were cushions for her liver-spotted arms. Grandpa was on her other side, head hanging back, asleep, snoring.
“Charlie!” Grandma hissed, nudging him with her elbow.
His entire body jolted. “Hu-what?” he said over the television.
Our congregation had shrunken, noticeably, in the five years that I could remember getting up every Sunday morning to drive out of town with Grandma and Grandpa for church. You couldn’t blame people for going elsewhere, though. On the corner where the church—a renovated warehouse painted white some-twenty years before I was born—stood was also a Catholic church across the street, a single-garage fire station adjacent to that, and a biker bar in the church’s backyard. The Village People, as my townie-friend Sinead would say, had sloppily emptied out trailers full of gravel to suffice for a road, so as soon as you pulled onto it, you were caught in a long line of drivers fifty to eighty years old, rolling along with their speedometer needle below the bottom line. I’ll give it credit, though: you could chat with the people driving the other direction, waiting to move, and sometimes long enough to tell them all about who was in the hospital, who had gotten a new camper, or how great Jesus was.
You had to mention how great Jesus was.
The fifty pews that had been installed when the church had been bought and renovated had started gathering dust lately, so April the Sunday School Teacher would have us Sunday School Kids wipe them down before the main service every morning, even though the only pews people ever sat in were the first three up front. They’d give us life-saver mints as payment, but if you were smart, you knew that the bathrooms had a bowl full of the things just sitting there on the sink. At the time, none of us was tall enough to reach it, so we used a little hand-sanitizer dispenser placed lower on the wall to climb, but I realized—had the revelation one day during the men’s choir’s special performance of “Amazing Grace”—there was a stool in front of the water fountain that I could easily move into the bathroom, climb on top of, and snatch up all the mints I could fit inconspicuously into my pockets. I don’t know if anyone ever noticed, either. If you were going to the corner where the water fountain was, you were usually occupied with thoughts of how the water tasted like pencil shavings.
The evening of Easter Sunday 2004 was a special one. Pastor Don was leaving, it was his last service, and he wanted to go out with a bang, so he gave a whole spiel during the morning service about “keeping with the times” and trying new methods of teaching God’s word. What came of that was, in its innovative glory, a viewing of The Passion of the Christ later that night, followed by a potluck. It was to become a tradition. Pastor Don, a surly man with wide-framed glasses and a collection of yellow-spotted ties, took a good few minutes to figure out how to change the channel on the television to auxiliary, then rewind the tape—which, by the way, totally ruined the plot twist—and adjust the volume, which was another five-minute process delayed by the necessary accommodation of Mr. Walter’s lack of hearing and Opal Schnidey’s sensitive ears. The solution was that Opal would sit a couple rows back and Mr. Walter would sit closer, but he complained about it being too bright for his eyes, so Pastor Don had to move the television further away from the pews.
Once everything was settled and the film began, the only sound you’d hear out of the mouths of the congregation were little hushes from grandmas to grandkids, my grandpa’s snoring, and the collective effort of all the overweight old folks trying to breathe. My grandma had one of the worst breathing problems. She would inhale through her nose, catching phlegm in her throat, and let out this tiny hmm through her mouth.
By the point in the film where Jesus was crucified, I had already expended my imaginative efforts to see anime characters battling above me in the blank canvas of the ceiling and had been hushed after making explosive and punching sounds with my lips and cheeks. I had resolved to stare at the carpet, a brick-red color flecked with dark browns, lit by a small shore of television light that divided the pews down the center of the sanctuary, imagining the bumps in the material as the heads of armored knights—a host of them—marching against the dark creatures hidden in the shadowed carpet.
I leaned over to Grandma, pressing my forehead gently against her left side, like a body pillow soaked in the odor of department store perfume. “Nanan, I have to use the restroom.”
She turned her head and looked down at me, holding a tissue between her clawed, pruned fingers. “Okay, honey.”
Sliding out of my seat, I held on to the back of the pew in front of us and glanced at the people on the other side. The only other kids were the Carls: Hannah, Tiffany, and Jason. Hannah was my age, Tiffany was an infant, and Jason was eighteen. They were everyone’s favorite siblings, all farm kids, eager singers during worship. As a newborn, Tiffany had lain over her mother’s shoulder and stared at April Schnidey’s newborn boy, Stevie, and everyone had gawked and speculated about their budding romance.
Stevie had died of meningitis a few months after he was born, though. Grandma taught me that the difference between us and the Catholics were that unbaptized babies still went to Heaven. Since then, I’d always felt comfortable with dying unbaptized, but during Vacation Bible School, China-themed, Grandma and her best friend Carol were had been moved by my recitation of Galatians 5: 22-23, crying in their seats, that I’d seized the opportunity to impress them and, in front of the entire congregation, had walked up to Pastor Don and told him I had accepted the Lord into my heart.
It was so easy to make them proud.
Carol was sitting on the other side with the Carls, a mirror image of my grandma, and she gave me a wide smile as I passed by. I smiled back and stepped into the aisle. Mary, Jesus’ mother, cried behind me as I walked toward the back of the sanctuary and out the left side into a long, dark corridor lit by the red letters of an EXIT sign. Then it was down the corridor past the closed door to Pastor Don’s office and the Sunday School room, and then to the corner with the water fountain. I glanced behind me, saw no one, and picked up the stool. Turning right into the foyer, I glanced out the doors to the outside where everyone was parked. In the other direction were the bathrooms and the staircase to the basement, where the kitchen and the plastic dining tables were, where upon them sat the simmering roasts in crockpots, the trays of creamy deviled eggs, the oozing double fudge brownies. Those were for after the movie, though, to celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice, or something like that.
The movie echoed through the hall, a faint sound giving way to the rattling of the old vents. There was always a static buzzing somewhere in the distance, with screw-driving intensity, like the anxious tone of a pack of wasps hiding behind the corner. It came from below, I gathered. I knew there were mice in the basement—I knew that they were the only creatures down there—but it was hard not to imagine something else beckoning me.
You ever feel fear in your buttocks, just under the cheek, like a pinprick tingle that electrifies your legs and urges you forward?
Into the bathroom, flicking the light switch and letting the door swing closed, I crossed to the double sink and set the stool down, then turned to the stall and stepped in. While I was pooping, I stared at the tile, little three-inch squares, seeing the lines between them as rundown streets in an abandoned city where warriors fought dragons and searched for the drain, a deep cavern where their quest was to lead them. I wiped, flushed, made sure to flip the lever back up because everyone knew how it would stick, then left the stall and stepped up onto the stool to wash my hands, looking in the mirror and practicing new smiles and straight faces, made myself look angry, excited. Next to the sink was the little glass bowl, a cheap piece with the price tag half-ripped off, the WAL-M of Wal-Mart remaining. I buried my hand in the mints and snatched a handful, then stuffed them in the pocket of my cargo shorts. I looked back up to the mirror and fixed the collar of my yellow polo, wet my hand and ran it up the spikes Grandma had gelled into my hair.
The door opened, startling me, and Jason Carl stepped in, seemingly unsurprised that I was in the bathroom. His black hair was buzzed, like his dad’s, and he had deep acne scars under his cheekbones. A tall boy, always wearing his Farmer’s Club jacket with the yellow chapter patch.
“Hey, Kenny,” he said. “Whatcha doing in here?” He stood in front of the door with his hands in his pockets.
I looked down at his shoes, shy. I suppose I had started picking up on what attracted me sexually by age seven, enough to feel warm inside when an older boy was around. And Jason, he was a farmer’s son, and he wore it in every aspect of his personality, his demeanor. He was lean. He was going into the army. Everyone in the church was proud of him.
“Just using the bathroom.” I hadn’t moved from the stool.
“Well, duh,” he said, stepping away from the door and over to the urinal.
He unzipped his pants and started to pee. I remained where I was with my head down, just listening. He looked over his shoulder. “Are you tall enough for the urinal yet?”
He laughed, too animated. “You’ll get there,” he said, zipping up his pants and turning around.
I turned back toward the sink and took a Lifesaver mint out of my pocket, ripped open the packet, and put it in my mouth. I learned to savor them by sucking on them between my gums and cheeks before breaking them between my teeth. If you bit into them too early, the mint would burn.
Jason came and stood at the other sink, a few inches away from me, and started washing his hands.
“So, you’re the culprit behind all the mints being stolen, huh?” he asked.
I was caught, but I hoped he would think it was cool. “No one cares,” I said nervously.
He dried his right hand on his pants and took me by the shoulder. “It’s all right. I won’t tell.”
I looked up at him. “Thanks,” I said, anxious. “Do you think it’s cool?”
He smiled, keeping his hand on my shoulder. “Do I think it’s cool? Hmm.” He looked up and away from me; I was entranced by the movements of his face. “I guess, yeah. Depends on what you think is cool.”
“Yeah,” I said.
He dropped his hand and leaned against the sink. “You know what’s really cool?”
“What?” I asked. My arms were resting against my side; my legs were wobbling.
“When you get older like me, girls start thinking you’re cute. Do you like girls yet?” I blushed, and he continued. “I bet you do. I bet you like my sister, huh?”
“Not like that,” I said, clutching at my shorts.
He laughed. “It’s okay to like girls, dude. You’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hey, you know what girls like that I think is weird?” He turned toward me.
“What?” I asked, looking up at him.
“I’ll show you,” He put his hands around his belt buckle and started undoing it. “When you get older, you get hair everywhere.” He unzipped his pants and pulled down the front of them, with his underwear, exposing a thick patch of black pubic hair that rose up toward his bellybutton and down toward the base of his penis. “You see?” he asked.
I nodded my head, shaking with nerves. “Yeah.”
“It gets bigger, too, but you’ll find that out.” He was looking directly at me, but my eyes were fixed on his crotch. “You probably haven’t started getting hair down there, have you?”
I stuttered, “No.”
“Hmm, well, maybe soon.” He pulled his pants up and buttoned them, then fixed his belt buckle. “You’re a cool kid, Kenny,” he told me.
“Thanks,” I said.
He knelt, his face about a foot away from my crotch. I felt something in my pants, a warmness, poking out. He drew a hand up the side of my leg toward my waistline. “You’re so short, though,” he said curtly, subsequently shoving his hand into my pocket, fumbling around, making me lose my balance, and pulling out a mint. He tore the package open and put the mint in his mouth, stood up and passed by me, then left the bathroom.
I was still shivering after he walked out, staccato breaths, hands gripping my shorts. After a while had passed, I looked into the mirror. My eyes were wide, and I had started sweating. I wiped the sweat off my forehead with a paper towel, grabbed the stool, and left the bathroom, leaving the light on. I walked with purpose through the foyer and down the hall, dropping the stool in front of the water fountain so hastily that it fell over to the side, but I kept moving, somewhere between a walk and a run, back into the sanctuary.
The movie had ended and Pastor Don was fiddling with the television while his wife, Ruth with the eighties perm, walked over to switch the lights on. I took my seat next to Grandma and looked over toward the Carls. Jason was sitting next to Hannah, whispering to his dad, maybe something about me, but maybe not.
The lights flicked on, and I looked up at the ceiling to the chandeliers, cheap, with four arms and wreaths intertwined in them. Pastor Don stood in front of the television and spoke, “Please join me in prayer. Let us bow our heads.”
I looked back at Jason, who was holding his head down with everybody. Grandma nudged me to follow suit, and I did, for a moment.
Pastor Don began, “Dear Lord, we thank you for bringing us together tonight to worship and praise you, and for giving your son, Jesus, to a world full of sin, to die on the cross for us, to bring us closer to you, God.” I glanced over toward Jason; he was looking back at me, smirking. I turned my head toward my grandma and let my whole torso lay into her side, pressing through her skin and fat, static to the bones in her arm. “Please bless this food we are about to eat, so that it may nourish our bodies and make us whole, Lord. We thank you for showing us your divine love and wisdom in all things, and praise your name until the day our lives on Earth end and we return to your eternal comfort. Amen.”
Jay Livingston bags groceries in Carbondale, Illinois. He has no prior publications.
“Hair in weird places” was published in the first issue of Whatever Our Souls with Team Pollux. Editor Engelmeier fell in love with the piece when she read it. Some of her critique to the author follows:
This story makes me feel threatened as a writer just as strongly as it drives me to emulation. That is such a fantastic thing. It is so strong. So professional. I can’t begin to praise the work. The dialogue is realistic. The level of detail is unerring. I can see this church. I feel like I’ve gone to this church. It is so similar and so different to my own experiences that I did not doubt for a moment these people and this place existed. Kenny’s family was my family. I knew them the second they were introduced. I love how the descriptions are slightly grotesque/less than perfect, too. The people are fat, flawed, out of style. I also love the inclusion of diversity. As a member of the LGBT+ community, I adore having the privilege to read diverse works and especially to publish them. It doesn’t happen often. I also love the darker, practically taboo edge to the story. I write in that vein a lot, but you have mastered the ability to pull back and create an appetite in a way I have not. In all, I can’t sum up everything I adore about this story. It is well written. It piqued my interest. It took up residence inside me.