“So you’re Mable Nolan?” Brother Calder asks. He puts out a large pork finger hand and I take it, receiving a vigorous Lighthouse Independent Baptist Church handshake. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” My words are feeble as I try not to wince. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Have you?” He beams. I think I hear my finger bones crack.
Studying him, the barrel body squeezed tight into a powder blue suit the round head sitting fat atop wide slumping shoulders, he looks more like a used car salesman than a preacher. The short, fat tie and black wingtip shoes are just icing on the cake.
He lets my hand slip away and turns to Sunny. “She’s cuter than you said.” Smiling, he gives me a quick wink, “I can see why you like her.”
“I didn’t say that!” Sunny, wearing a stained white dress shirt, clip on black tie and too tight black slacks, laughs at what is perhaps the most absurd thing he’s ever heard. All one hundred and seventy plus pounds of me blush.
“Well, maybe you did or maybe you didn’t, but either way…” Brother Calder tussles Sunny’s hair and turns to me, “So Mable, how do you like Lighthouse Independent? Its not much to look at but we are all heart here.” His eyes are like billiard balls behind his thick glasses.
“It’s nice.” I look around the bare foyer wanting to find something to pull compliments from but only find a water fountain, a nearly full trashcan, and about a dozen screaming kids playing freeze tag. “A good church doesn’t need much besides the Bible and a hymnal.” Both Sunny and Brother Calder seem impressed and I give myself (and the rest of Ravenclaw) ten points for wit. “God only inhabits the plainest vessels.”
Calder asks me a dozen other questions, and I can see the gears turning with every answer, his mind forming an image of me like a old computer printer, dot by precise dot.
“Mable, I just have one more question for you.” Calder swaps from friendly mailman to Baptist preacher mode. “Are you saved?”
“Yes, I’m saved.” The words sound strange coming out of my mouth, like calling my mom by her first name. Hey, Helen, can I have some gas money for the Caravan?
“When? How?” His eyes incline and his bushy eyebrows shift. If this were a Sir Author Conning Doyle novel he’d be wearing a Deerstalker hat and be calling Sunny, Watson.
I tell them about church camp at Lake Onotobie when I was ten, of how Morgan got up during the services invitation and I followed her. We were baptized that night in what looked like a hot tube.
Both Brother Calder and Sunny continue looking at me, the preacher slowly nodding his head. His eyebrows haven’t changed, still inquisitive, but with a dash of something else. Concerned maybe?
“Well, Sister Mable I hope you enjoy the service.” He says finally. “Please play careful attention to the message.”
He turns to Sunny, telling him to find me a good seat in the front pew, then adjusts his fat tie and heads off.
“You’ll have a good time.” Sunny reassures me, it’s something he’s be doing since we passed the church’s arrow marque (the kind you see flashing outside firework tents or used car lots) and parked in Lighthouse’s gravel parking lot. “It’s really fun here. I only wish Oliver could’ve come. Too bad he’s sick.”
“Yeah, that stomach thing has been going around.” I lie, hating Oliver as I avert my eyes from a watercolor of Jesus on the wall. His expression seems pained by my deceit. Or perhaps it’s just the nails in his wrist and ankles and the crown of thorn on his head. Isn’t that a Catholic thing, aren’t Baptist more concerned with the resurrected Christ, all white robes and light? “He’s at home right now on the toilet.”
“He’s really going to miss something.” Sunny says, but as he leads me past a meager selection of party games and a long table covered with small bags of candy, I begin to wonder.
June said it’d be a waste coming, that there’d be no score here. When I’d picked up Sunny at six, she’d already made a run through Oak Ridge Estates wearing a paper fry cook hat and one of her mom’s Waffle House aprons. A Walmart bag of Kit Kats, bit size Snickers and full size waxlips had been her reward. Gringos, she’d said, won’t ask about my age if I start speaking Spanish. Los blancos no quieren problemas. White people don’t want problems.
Sunny leads me though a pair of double doors into Independent’s small auditorium and sits me in the front pew. The place smells like all churchs do, carpet freshener. Behind us other kids (mostly black) filter in. The few adults that arrive are almost all old and white. A few spot Sunny and wave, their ancient faces curling into creased, coffee stained smiles.
Sunny points out everyone, giving a long bio when only a name would’ve sufficed. He tells me that they are a young church and that I shouldn’t listen to June about the black kids.
“They’re pretty cool.” He says, opening his Bible and skimming some notes. Each page flashes with red and green and yellow highlighter and hand written notes fill the margins. “June just doesn’t give anyone a chance.”
After a few minutes Brother Calder enters, walking up the main aisle, tussling hair and shanking hands as he goes. Every so often he pulls a few fun sized candy bars from his pocket and tossing them to the kids. They clamor for sugar like baby birds.
“There’s my boy!” He laughs, walking up to Sunny and slapping him on the back before handing him a full sized Baby Ruth. He tosses me a handful of strawberry Pixie Sticks. “Wife says I’ve got to get rid of this stuff by the end of the tonight, gotta watch my figure.” He pats his round pot belly.
“Thanks.” Sunny smiles.
To hear him tell it, Sunny Rodriguez hasn’t always been in the care of the Lord Jesus Christ, but was once lost in sin and iniquity. Then, one afternoon about a year ago, he walked down the candy aisle of the 8th St. Seven-Eleven in downtown Greenville. The Lord, he says, was waiting there between the Mars Bars and Baby Ruth’s, tucked inside the thin folded sheets of a Gospel track, the words A Gift printed on the front and Light House Independent Church cares for you, stamped on the back.
“First,” Brother Calder says reaching the pulpit at the front of the auditorium, just a few feet from the baptismal pool, a bath tub surrounded by a few plastic shrubs and ficus trees. “let me thank everyone for coming. And I know what you’re thinking. I promise you the sermon will be short. But you will enjoy it.” He pauses for a moment, making an effort to look every visitor in the eye, “Its about how Zombies are real. Some may even be here tonight!”
After the kids calm down Brother Calder begins. While my preacher at 12th Street Baptist takes forever to get to the point, mingling his dry sermons with football scores and bad jokes, Brother Calder goes straight for the jugular. Sunny follows verse by verse, the rainbow pages of his Bible flipping back and forth, becoming a kaleidoscope of color.
“Even when we were dead in sins, the Lord hath quickened us together with Christ…” As he speaks his feet shuffle and his knees bouncing. He points, calling many by name, mentioning Sunny several times, and begins clapping his hands like a windup monkey minus the chimes. He hasn’t even opened his own Bible yet, quoting chapter and verse by heart. “…And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins…”
More clapping, more dancing, his every word is a word from the Bible, from the mouth of God Himself.
“…after Jesus raised up Lazarus he said unto Mary, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live….”
He calms, lowering his large pink hands. He looks at each person for a moment before pausing on me for an uncomfortable amount of time. “Are you alive in Christ? Once dead, but brought to life by the blood of the Lamb? Or are you still a zombie, walking through life cold and alone, dead as a coffin nail.