Specifics of HellKayla Rae Whitaker
We were called the United Church for Steady Faith in Jesus Christ. Our minister was Ralph Tolliver, three-term mayor, farmer, and patriarch of a family that spread into the next county. He had a big belly, round and hard. His grandkids ran around the yard after service, bumping off of his gut. When our dads gave him their attention, they gave him all of their attention. At church suppers, he liked fresh buttered corn the best and ate it right off the cob, salt and juice running down his chin.
That our church used the word for and not of was a point of contention among the organized. “We’re finally gonna stand for something,” Mr. Tolliver explained to us in sermon in our newly constructed church, built after our split from United Baptist concerning a small vagary relative to original sin. At United, Halloween was banned and the church hosted “Saints Night” for kids instead. When James Mark bobbed for apples, I kicked him in the butt. It was the first time I smiled all night.
This was during the Gulf War. In school, they gave us pencils that read, “Peace in the Middle East.” There were maps of green and brown detailing Iraq, troop deployment patterns in red, white, and blue. Our television had twenty-five channels. We switched back and forth between them with a dial knob on the panel. When turned, it made a popping sound, a line creeping up the screen, taking the picture away and leaving another in its place with a tik tik tik.
We were in Sunday school in the room behind the sanctuary. It was low-roofed and flush with thick, red carpeting, a very pious rec room. The boards were new and yellow. We breathed woodchips and fresh plastic while we sat on folding chairs.
“God is everywhere,” Reverend Tolliver said. “He can see everything you do. Anything nasty can’t ever be kept secret.”
We didn’t need to hear it from him. Aron gave us the rundown during snack hour, reciting everything his papaw, the Rev, mentioned at home: if we stole quarters from our moms' purses to play Street Fighter on the Walmart console, God could see it. If we cussed on the bus, He could see it. If we made fun of Alvin Back, who was born with one leg shorter than the other and walked with a limp, He could see it. And if you played with yourself, God saw that, especially. Evidently one of Aron’s older brothers tried to sneak a Penthouse up to his room, and the Rev intercepted, taking the opportunity to inform them all that touching your wiener was a one-way pass to ultimate damnation.
I hit my growth spurt first and shot up a full two heads above Aron and James Mark, making me the tallest in class. I assumed this was why the Rev always seemed to end up staring at me. When I complained about this to my parents, they told me I was imagining it. My brother Bryce whispered to me that it was because I had a face like a butt. I pinched him until he screamed.
The Reverend walked around when he taught Sunday school, drawing stuff on the board. He held the chalk between his fore and middle fingers like a cigarette. That day, he’d drawn a big, squiggly planet Earth. A stick man and lady held hands beside it. Aron drew, too: a stick man, then a cloud behind him that read FERT. He elbowed me.
The Rev propped his cowboy boot up on a chair. “Boys.”
“Now’d be the right time to remind y’all,” he said, “that God sees all.” He stopped, looked around us. “Yes, he does. Absolutely he does. I can say it twice, 'cause it’s so true.” We could hear him breathing through his nostrils. His belt buckle, a large cross mosaic of silver and turquoise, winked under the lights. “He watches each one of y’all to protect y’all, but to see if you’re following His word, too. He won’t ever miss you.”
He turned his head and gazed straight at me. I tried hard not to look down at my hands, but I did anyway.
Sermon was at eleven. We sang songs, then Reverend Tolliver got up for the sermon. I had never seen him wear a robe. “I feel closer to the Lord God in my shirtsleeves,” he always said. “I feel closer to the living God as I am, without ornament. Makes my heart grow closer to be so plain.”
The Rev always began quietly, with a point—kindness, or forgiveness, or a parable. Then he got louder and things just sort of diddled out and he began to get angry at everything. Started talking about the president—once, he ranted about Dan Quayle for an hour. He talked about fornication and taxes and homosexuality and beef prices bringing on the end times. Once, he picked up someone’s baby and held it high above his head, shaking it gently and yelling, “You’re killing this. You’re killing this.” The baby whined a bit and hung, its legs dangling over the comb tracks in the Rev’s hair.
Church was the worst part of my week.
That month’s parishioner meeting was after sermon. We were all let out into the yard to play. Girls played patty-cake: Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black.
Aron led us to a secret pack of Chips Ahoy in the kitchen. He smacked the cookies down. “Boom,” he said. Aron was all right sometimes. A little gross, maybe. He liked to pick his nose. It was hard to keep his forefinger out of his nostril, his safety zone; for all lack of boogerage, it appeared he just liked keeping his finger warm. But he didn’t tattle, and he didn’t try to boss you around because he was the preacher’s grandson.
“Is it true what your papaw said?”
“About what.” Aron struggled to look at the Gameboy over James Mark’s shoulder, his mouth full. James Mark grimaced and brushed the crumbs from his shirt. His mother dressed him in suspenders and jackets. He bunched the jacket up in his lap and used it to block his Gameboy from view during sermon. When he put the Gameboy in his back pocket, his pants sagged.
“About people. Like. Touching themselves and God watching.”
“Why, do you touch yourself?” Aron leaned further. James Mark shoved him away.
“No. Definitely not. I just—”
“He likes to touch himself,” James Mark sang.
“Shut up, buttmunch.”
“Call me a buttmunch again and I won’t let you play.”
Aron scratched himself, crammed another cookie in his mouth. “I guess.” My stomach sank. “Papaw says lots of stuff. Our other pawpaw’s awesome. He keeps Werther's in his pockets for us.” Zelda chirped from the Gameboy. “But you have to touch it to wash it. It can fall off if you don’t wash it. So I think that’s okay.”
“Your peter’s not gonna fall off, stupid,” James Mark said.
“Yuh huh.” Aron raised his eyebrows, taking on a superior look. “My cousin showed me pictures. Soldiers get it. Pee has acid in it and you have to pee it out quick or it’ll burn your wiener off.”
James Mark rolled his eyes. Aron had a thing for details. But we goaded him. We milked him on a regular basis for specifics of Hell: what it was like, what happened to you when you got there. Aron rarely failed to disappoint: your limbs were ripped apart by bulls with scales, devils took little pins and stuck them into your eyeballs one by one until your eyes were big, watery pin sunflowers. Then he started to make up stupid stuff: you were forced to eat Hitler’s snot, monsters shoved pool cues and bananas up your butt.
“He didn’t say that.”
“Yeah he did. Don’t go callin' me a liar.”
The idea of Hell didn’t bother Aron much. For a preacher’s grandkid, he agonized very little over damnation before he went to sleep at night. He was comfortable with the unseen. He had, for example, a penchant for playing roly-poly down the hill at recess without checking for rocks or brambles or cows first. He would just lie on his back and fold his arms over his chest, closing his eyes for the launch. To him, his papaw’s sermons were awesome stories relegated to the part of his mind that stored back episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and Joe Bob Briggs Monstervision. Aron’s God and Aron’s Bible were precisely that: one big, elaborate episode of Monstervision. He told Bryce and me stories about the haints who walked the train tracks below our house, zombie miners mad about getting buried alive, hungry for brains. Aron claimed being underground for so long had zombiefied them.
We tried to laugh it off. James Mark said that Aron was so full of shit he could sneeze skid marks. But Bryce and I fought over whose turn it was to take the trashcans down the hill, both afraid to be the one to go into the dark.
Aron jumped up. “Let’s roll down the hill.”
James Mark made a face. “You go.”
I shook my head.
“Screw you girls,” he said, and ran for the slope. This was in the mountains: medians and road sides lined with rock walls that gushed in wet seasons and froze in the winters, pretty January rivulets caught in mid-flow. Half of us lived on a mountaintop. Our church sat at the head of a very large incline, at the top of which Aron laid down, tucked his hands to his sides, and kicked off. His body became a pale blur as he spun down, the incline going steeper, steeper. It seemed to take him forever to roll to a stop.
One of the old ladies emerged from the parishioners meeting and began herding us back inside. “Aron,” she screeched, “you get up right now 'fore you break your neck.”
James Mark crammed the Gameboy into his back pocket and hitched up his pants. “You need to relax,” he told me. “You’re always talking about Hell. They’re just trying to scare us.”
“But why would someone do that?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Look at Aron.” He nodded to where Aron was limping up the hill, smeared with grass stains. He grabbed the last cookie and stomped the tray into the garbage, laugh-spraying crumbs all over himself. “He listens to that stuff all the time at home. Does he look worried?”
Aron looked up, saw us. Gave us the finger.
“You worry too much,” James Mark said.
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