“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” —Acts 16:31
The dollars Daddy gave us for the gold plate were often crinkled: folded flowers filled the flats of our palms, like payments on some past-due debt recurring every Sunday between worship and sermon. The windows in that old Baptist church would amaze me, make even the mundane hours of eleven and twelve look magical as gold-white light poured through the faces of Christ, soft in a way back then I hadn’t words for. My uncle Roy was chief deacon, a large stout man with a belly like a barrel and the deepest voice in the choir. It was his job to help Pastor Hezekiah baptize new believers, to dress up in white robes and place a hand on the small of their backs while the pastor dunked them. As Daddy handed me my offering that morning, I looked at Uncle Roy up there in the choir, clothed in that soft light, excited, because today was the day I’d go under.
As we filed through the carpeted blue tongue of a center aisle to deliver our dollars, my sisters and I got stuck behind Sister Sharita, whose wide hips and wide hat seemed the reason folks skittered back to their seats down the side aisles instead of returning the way they had come. Her dress was Kool-Aid purple, the silky back wrinkled, and being so close to her made me dizzy with perfume. Like the rest of the saints, she sang a song I no longer remember, though the soulful hum is still stuck in my throat.
My sister Kayla tapped me on the shoulder and tried to mime that Sister Sharita looked like the Kool-Aid man, but my arm accidentally brushed the woman’s butt when I turned to look, and Sister Sharita glanced back. When she saw me, she wrapped me under her arm and into her happy bosom, singing loudly over my head. I was a good one, you see, speaking up in Sunday School, helping clean after service, and even one time, leading a lesson. Not like those other boys, heathens, whose grandmothers forced them to church for years until they faded into the streets and became as recognizable as telephone poles or potholes in their black hoodies and scuffed boots. I was special. From where my cheek rested against Sister Sharita’s squishy side-boob, I could feel the older boys staring and stifling snickers.
“God’s gone bless you good today,” she whispered into my hair. “What a nice young man.”
The offering plates sat on a tall, regal wooden table that had carved in its ledge Do This in Remembrance of Me. Behind the table rose the altar, carpeted in the same blue as the center aisle; the big podium Pastor preached from; the choir steps; and then, beyond the little wall of the last row, the pool. Sometimes, if we came early enough, Uncle Roy would let me help him fill it if there was to be a baptism. All I did was turn a knob, really, while he stuck his hand in the water to make sure it wasn’t too hot or too cold. Then, when the temperature was perfect, I would lean cheek-in-hand on the ledge and watch the water rise, marveling at how what looked like a big hot tub could kill a man and then bring him back to life a new creation.
“You know, lukewarm is how this water should be,” Uncle Roy told me once, watching me watch him with a thoughtful expression on his face. “So folks don’t burn one way and women don’t get too cold the other. That’s how you know God got a sense of humor.”
“Why come only women get cold?” I had asked.
“That,” he said, with a baritone chuckle, “is something you should ask your father.”
After we pitched in our money, Sister Sharita let me go and I peeled myself from her like a scab. I veered right, past the front row where the First Lady, in her bleach-white dress suit, sat next to some deacons and deaconesses who all beamed at me in turn. The fact that I was wearing the same silvery vest I had worn to walk my mother down the aisle in this very church didn’t help, a little round valet with summer-brown skin and looping, sandy curls ready to usher us all into the Kingdom. As Kayla and Jasmine caught up to me, I looked toward my mother, where she sat next to my father in the narrow wooden pew. And she was looking at me too.
Ma was the only white woman in the church, and one of two white people total. (The other was an old man named Mr. Bill who hung out in the alley behind Burger King and clapped at everything Pastor said.) Even before she got religious, Ma would come sometimes, but mostly her and Daddy would drop off my sisters and me for Sunday school and Uncle Roy would take us home later. But when Daddy checked himself into rehab and it was just me, Ma, and the girls, Uncle Roy convinced her to start sticking around for service. Only God, he said, could help with her depression and anxiety and raising three kids by herself. Three months later Ma got baptized. Daddy, taking this as a sign from God that they really could change, that drugs and fistfights had no more place in his home, left rehab early. They married within weeks.
It was a small wedding—a few of Ma’s friends, Uncle Roy as the best man, my Italian grandmother to look after us a few days while our parents spent the weekend in a hotel near Pittsburgh—but I don’t think I’d ever been so happy in my short, fat life. Something about seeing her in that dress, cream-colored but white to me, and Daddy’s smile, and the officialness of signing the marriage license, and the piano that played such a beautiful march, all gestured toward a promise that things would be different now, that we could never go back to the shelter or CYS lady or that one night we all slept together in the car. As I walked toward my mother on the day I got baptized, it was her wedding day I imagined. Today was my opportunity to add some honey to all this Jesus that had stuck us together.
“Boob-face,” Kayla whispered into my ear. But I was a changed man. I didn’t have time for her petty kid stuff. Not even boobs and butts could break me.
We scooted in among our parents, me next to Ma, and the girls between her and Daddy, Jasmine’s head resting on the pastel-blue jacket that padded his expansive chest. Ma placed her hand on my leg, and my eyes were drawn to the blue veins river-winding toward knuckles, the life in her, the tiny hair-sprouting freckles dotting her skin.
After the weekly minutes and prayer requests and new time for the Wednesday revival meeting, Pastor Hezekiah preached a sermon about God being like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine for the one. He wasn’t the shouting kind of preacher, but his voice still had that old Southern black drawl, salted with rasp, that only made his quieter style more engaging. His sentences often bargained with themselves, as if settling on syntax, and when the word that would get the emphasis was decided, you had to catch it before he trailed off to a whisper, before the most important phrase ended in a cascade of gravel being poured very far away. In those days, it was my dream to lead a congregation. Every time he spoke I caught glimpses of myself in the black robes and velvet panels, gold trimmed with little crosses sewn into the front. Only that day—that most important day—I couldn’t focus, because Jasmine and Kayla started fighting over a crayon.
Daddy had fingers of stone. When he pinched, perhaps the fat beneath your arm or the lobe of an ear, those fingers filled you with a pitiful pain and left marks the color of Sister Sharita’s dress. So naturally Jasmine would scream out—she was only six. Kayla sat there with that frog-faced frown, sullen and bitter as she rubbed her arm, but Jasmine started weeping and wailing the way she did when somebody was braiding her hair. Pastor kept on at first, a tarrying man, but it soon became clear she distracted him. Daddy took her by the wrist, a toy thing in that bricklayer’s palm, and led her straight down the center aisle and out to the car.
I felt so embarrassed. Daddy always talked about how, when he was a child growing up “in the country,” the old church mothers would whoop their kids right there in the pews. He was the type of man to compare life to country miles and wood ticks and june bugs and say it all with an exaggerated accent and goofy smile. He said we had things easy.
“Sometimes the ninety-nine get left so the one can get dealt with,” Pastor Hezekiah joked.
He continued his sermon, but I could hardly focus because my stomach began to jiggle with fear. Recently I had learned that the sins of the father fall back on the sons to so many generations, but that once I got baptized all that would be taken care of. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household. But what if your household didn’t want to be saved? Could one person trap us all back in hell? Things had been different since the wedding—Ma and Daddy rarely yelled, and I hadn’t caught one of them locked in the bedroom while the other kept us at bay in months—but there were cracks, too. Like the night Daddy didn’t come home before we went to bed. Or a couple weeks ago when I heard Ma crying in the kitchen. Things had been different since the wedding, but my stomach began to jiggle because I didn’t want them to go back to the way they were.
Ma squeezed my hand, as if she knew exactly what I’d been thinking. The day she got baptized had been flawless. The girls and I sat in the front row next to the First Lady while Uncle Roy helped Ma into the pool. The train of her white robe settled on the water’s surface like dozens of lilies. I don’t think I had ever smiled so big. When Pastor Hezekiah asked her if she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior and believed He died for her sins and was coming back to love her, she practically shouted yes, and then Unc dunked her and the light got softer and we went to Taco Bell. That night, before she tucked me in, she said, “Baby I’m so sorry for all the bad things, but there are new things and I love you like nobody ever will.” And what have I ever been but gullible and a sucker for a woman’s love? The next day, I got into an argument with a boy at the bus stop, and he said, “That’s why your parents smoke crack,” and instead of hitting him with a rock, I was going to pray for him, say not no more, but then Kayla hit him, and he hit her, and so I had to hit him, too, or else when Daddy found out baptism wouldn’t matter at all, or Jesus; he’d kill me. Ma understood, though, and when she saw us fighting from the door she rushed out and pulled me off him. That day, she let me and Kayla stay home.
“I’m so proud of you,” Ma whispered now, out of nowhere. “You should be proud of you too.”
Daddy led Jasmine back inside a few minutes later without even a sniffle. She looked very somber for a six-year-old. They regained their seats, only this time Daddy sat between her and Kayla. When I look at pictures now, I see my face in his—thick cheekbones, long jawline, brow born to furrow—but even back then I could discern the moods on him. Happy, and the room lit up with a toothy smile and excited talk; mad, his nostrils flared, his eyes narrowed like winnowing forks, and your life was in danger. Just then, however, he looked peaceful: lips pressed together but not turned up or down, eyebrows slightly arched, chin held high like a president. As if he’d be humming, if humming were appropriate.
He caught me staring at him and winked. I blushed. Just like that, all he had ever done was forgiven.
The rest of the sermon went on without incident, Pastor Hezekiah driving home his point with quiet rhapsody. Uncle Roy’s wife, Aunt Gina, was the choir director. She got up to lead us in praise and when we stood, Uncle Roy came down the side aisle and motioned for me to follow so I could change into my baptismal robes. Ma kissed me on the forehead, and Daddy was long enough to reach over and squeeze my shoulder. Charlotte and Mr. Bill were getting baptized today, too, and so I fell in with them behind my uncle on our way to the basement.
The walls of the foyer were white stucco and covered in thinly framed photos of community outreach events, tent meetings, and church picnics. Through the small, square windows of the church doors, the bright summer midmorning glared, hot-like. Once my eyes adjusted, I glimpsed the empty, gravelly road and locksmith shop across it. We turned through the glass door that led down the cold stone steps to the basement and walked through a narrow hallway into the large, linoleum-floored dining room, which had a small kitchen attached.
The dining room was used for after-service meals, men’s fellowship meetings, and rehearsal for church plays or miming practice. Charlotte was Sister Sharita’s only child and often starred in these performances, playing Mother Mary around Christmas or the lead dancer in a youth production—which caused some of the other Sisters to whisper, seeing as how she was only just getting baptized. Such a good girl, they said, but only the water could separate one from the rest.
Fourteen, small, dark, Charlotte had little in common with her mother. All the older boys wanted to be around her, for one, whereas boys of all ages seemed to steer clear of Sister Sharita. Charlotte was no-makeup pretty (Sister Sharita wouldn’t allow it), and thin, with long, long curly hair and kind eyes. The only problem was she sometimes smelled like her mother’s perfume, which is why, she once told me, she and those older boys had been burning that special incense in the church van. I was twelve now, however. I knew the difference between incense and marijuana.
“Alright,” Uncle Roy said, grabbing three plastic packages off one of the folding wooden tables. He checked the sizes on the labels and began parceling them out. “This one’s for you, Bill. Miss Charlotte. And you, nephew.”
Uncle Roy handed me my robe. The packaging crinkled in my hands like the cellophane on the outside of a pack of cigarettes.
“Women’s bathroom still flooded, so you’ll have to go in the men’s one at time.”
“Well, I got to pee anyway,” Mr. Bill said. “Got the jitters.”
“That’s OK,” said Uncle Roy, fiddling for something in his pockets. “I was nervous too.”
Like my father, Uncle Roy had led a wild youth. The stories they told of the seventies, of wartime and bar fights, were enough to captivate any boy growing into himself. He might have had fun sowing his wild oats in Saigon and Las Vegas and Dallas, but he regretted not giving his life to God till his thirties. Had two kids he rarely saw down south. Called that paying back taxes.
As Mr. Bill took his robe into the bathroom and locked the door behind him, Uncle Roy told us to make sure the sizes looked good while he ran out to his car to grab his own baptismal robes. I removed mine from the package and pressed the fabric against my chest, the folds tumbling down till they reached my feet. It felt soft, smelled new, and shocked me as I slid my hand across.
“Looks good,” Charlotte said.
She sat at the nearest table in one of those off-gray metal folding chairs, her robe tossed aside, still in the wrapper. She crossed one leg overtop of the other, as if she were a talk show host, revealing slender, bony ankles. Her fingers were busy drilling into her cellphone.
“Ain’t you gone check yours?” I asked.
In the weeks leading up to baptism, we had baptism class, in which we learned words like regeneration and repentance. One part of repentance was asking Jesus to help you stop doing the bad things you were prone to do, and asking His forgiveness when you did them. A bad thing I had recently discovered I was prone to do was masturbate. Sometimes, when I did that bad thing, I thought about Charlotte. When I had committed to get baptized I confessed to Uncle Roy (I didn’t mention Charlotte) and he patted me on the back with his big, meaty hand and said, smiling, “If the Lord ain’t want you to touch it, He would’ve put it between your shoulder blades.” Afterward we prayed and I had a vision of my whole family gathered around the TV eating dinner, like a TV family, like Boy Meets World. I hadn’t touched my penis since. Still, I had to push down the feelings of what it would be like to watch Charlotte undress.
Once she heard the stairwell door thud shut, Charlotte made her way to the kitchen. It was small, with two old ovens, a deep sink, and a few cheap wooden cabinets. Standing on her tiptoes, Charlotte dug around above where the dishes were kept, and her blouse came up a bit. I saw, for the first time, a tattoo in the form of angel wings on her lower back. She came down with a baggie of pills, popped one onto her tongue, and tucked the rest back atop the cabinet, out of sight.
When Charlotte returned to the table and saw me staring, her eyes remained kind, calm, but held—or perhaps hid—a furtive challenge, a dare, a protestation.
“Want to know something?” she asked.
I stood dumbstruck, but I must’ve nodded.
Charlotte walked over, quiet as a cat, and stood before me. We were the same height, despite our age difference, but I was twice as wide. I felt like my fat could envelop her. Like my body might swallow her whole.
“Don’t move,” she commanded.
She brought her face close to my face. Each eyelash was a sepal, each iris a pure black bud. The hint of her mother’s perfume made me dizzy again. Then she got closer, so that we touched at knee, nipple, nose. I grew an erection. Charlotte was close enough that the tip touched her thigh. Her pants were thin enough that she must’ve felt it. She didn’t move.
“See,” she said, her lips but a breath from my lips. “We all want something we can’t have.”
Before my lust transcended mere biology and became shame, I saw something in her eyes, in her staring. Something that took me beyond wanting to do what we all knew grownups do, and what Charlotte, I later found out, knew well. What I saw made me want to hug her. I think what Charlotte really wanted was a hug. But I was only a boy.
I stepped back, awake in new ways and embarrassed. Charlotte remained stock still, like a gun on a shelf. Then Mr. Bill came out of the bathroom in all white, the cleanest I’d ever seen him, and kind of held his arms out in a bashful way before giving his thighs a little pat, as if to say how do I look?
“Like an angel,” Charlotte answered.
Mr. Bill blushed. Then the stairwell door shuddered open to announce Uncle Roy, and it was my turn to get dressed in the bathroom.
Daddy had told me to take off my vest and shirt and pants and to fold them, that it would be fine if all I had on underneath my robes were boxers and a wife beater. I folded each article of clothing along the creases, setting them carefully on the back of the commode in a neat stack. The soles of my bare feet grew cold against the tile and sent goosebumps up my legs and around my belly. I soaked in the draft, let the chill cool my blood. The whole time I avoided the mirror, aware of myself in the corner of my eye but averting my gaze as you would a crush. Then, once everything was folded, I faced myself full-on and took a moment to stare.
Not naked, but close. The verses that Brother James had taught the baptism class last Sunday were out of John chapter three, when a man named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came up to Jesus asking about the kingdom of heaven. Not unless a man gets born again, Jesus said, can he see it. Nicodemus was confused. When Brother James told me, however, I knew he was exactly right. Ma got baptized and our life started over. Daddy came home and they got married. What I wanted? I think for the first time I had it all—my family, photograph whole. I thought that somehow my baptism might keep us that way. Yet my desire wasn’t selfless. It was selfish, but in a different direction. I didn’t want to be an orphan in a house with two parents anymore. I didn’t want to feel so much weight. That’s why I passed my final test in that bathroom in the church basement, why I refused to finish what Charlotte had started and overcame my flesh: I had thought, foolishly, that I could make a deal with God.
As I slid into my robe, that thick comfort, I said a prayer for Charlotte and asked God to forgive me for getting a hard on. I would never look at another girl again, I promised, so long as He stayed true to His word. Because the other thing Brother James had taught us was in Acts. Chapter sixteen, verse thirty-one: Believe in the name of the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved, you and your household. And what choice did I have but to believe?
Uncle Roy knocked on the door. I took a moment to bask in the soft fabric, stealing one last glance at the mirror. Like an angel. Then Uncle Roy knocked again. Charlotte changed. We were on our way to the altar.
When someone got baptized at Greater Love Baptist Church, Uncle Roy led them in procession up the center aisle in a very somber, rhythmic march while those in the pews stood and belted out “Wade in the Water” or “Blessed Redeemer.” Today it was “Wade in the Water” and they were already on the part about the band all dressed in red by the time we walked through the doors, me behind Charlotte but in front of Mr. Bill, Uncle Roy ahead of us all. I couldn’t help but think that we were dressed in red, despite Charlotte’s white train on which I was careful not to step or my own snowy robe that collected the sweat from my rolls with slight, ticklish swishes.
People clapped when they saw us coming, especially the old church mothers. What made the moment monumental was not the baptism itself, but that two young people were saying yes to the Lord, in days when it was hard to get more than a handful to church even with the church van. We were the hope of a nation to these folks, a glimmer that the era of drugs and deadbeat daddies hadn’t broken us completely, hadn’t shattered the very fabric of the Black community. And even though I didn’t know this yet, I couldn’t get Charlotte’s pill out of my throat, her poorly inked angel wings off my mind.
Charlotte. Sister Sharita beamed at her from the second row, hands clasped, eyes watery. I had no idea if she returned the gesture. The round backs of her shoulders were poised, very stoic indeed, and all that attention I was giving her made me weary. I should be joyful, like Mr. Bill, whose smile burned the back of my neck. He was already having trouble keeping his feet.
See, Pastor Hezekiah was a Pentecostal at heart, and when he came to Greater Love Baptist Church a few years back he had brought the Holy Ghost with him. And Mr. Bill, he needed the Holy Ghost, needed some fire to burn up all that booze he’d been lost in since his wife left and whatever else drove him to that gritty gutter behind the Burger King. And my mother? Or Charlotte? Their stories were not singular in those glossy wooden pews. Pastor Hezekiah often said the devil loves to kill a Black man, and when he noticed my mom, or some mulatto like me, he’d add, he’ll sink the whole damn ship if we let him. At Greater Love Baptist Church, we were each acquainted with drowning. We all had cause to be baptized, and then baptized again. At Greater Love Baptist Church, the Holy Ghost was vital as a lifeboat.
“Bless God,” Pastor Hezekiah said, during a gap in the lyrics. The atmosphere thickened with little outbursts like that, Sister Harmack escalating into louder and quicker steps on the piano as the choir filled the place with praise.
If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Just follow me down to the Jordan’s stream
God’s a-going to trouble the water
I looked to my family. They all stood, even the girls. Daddy had one hand on Ma’s back, the other gripping the pew-back before him so that his knuckles bulged. The same man who invited the homeless to table, the same man who sold my PlayStation for crack. And Ma, who in a sudden glare of the sun had become encased in corona, both the newly bloomed flower and the crumpled thing who woke up next to strange men whenever Daddy went to jail. Kayla looked uncomfortable in the increasingly excited atmosphere, like cabin pressure was compressing her ears and she couldn’t yawn, but Jasmine had awful eyes, in the archaic sense. She could be next. I wanted us all to get baptized—Daddy again, too—so that maybe we’d stay like one of those stained windows, light shining through our transfixed faces outside of time, eternal. Because you know how the story ends. They don’t stay clean. Or married. And those little girls grow up to stay stuck in the same stuck town doing the same stuck things as the rest of the stuck people, looking nothing like stained glass at all.
And me? Well, that day I got baptized, right after Charlotte, who, when asked if she believed Jesus Christ was her Lord and Savior and died for her sins and was coming back to love her, said yes with a silly giggle and went under and came up and ten years later was no more.
Uncle Roy held out his hand for me. I grabbed it and stepped into the cool water, robe instantly weighing me down until I waded chest deep, and then the train floated. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?
“Nephew,” my uncle said, claiming this special, familial privilege for himself. “Do you believe?”
I didn’t look at my father, or my mother, or Charlotte, or even Uncle Roy. Just straight up at the Christ on the cross, skin brown like mine, face pitiful with sadness.