Hubert stood up from his hands and knees and sat, exhausted, on the church pew. The seat beside him was littered with gum wrappers and church attendance cards pulled from the sleeves on the back of the pews and covered with scribbling. He had been trying to vacuum the auditorium, but the machine didn’t have enough power to pick up the mess left behind by the high school kids in their little corner of the church, close to the front where, supposedly, their parents could watch them during the service and keep them out of trouble.
It didn’t work, at least to Hubert it didn’t seem to work. The kids didn’t respect anything anymore. There were enough attendance cards to supply the church for a month, wasted, covered with pound signs followed by messages like “lame,” “pissed off,” and “Jesus ain’t playing.” A lot of the words seemed to be misspelled or nonsensical. There were scrawled initials, drawings of cars and flowers and trees and cats, and of a naked woman with breasts the size of watermelons, which Hubert studied for a while before dropping in the trash can.
Caleb had tried to get away with this crap when he was a boy. During the services Hubert always stood in the back of the auditorium next to the double doors, his hands folded before him respectfully, his eyes watching the young people who always sat in the front left pews. There always seemed to be seven or eight kids whose parents allowed them enough freedom to sit as a group during Sunday preaching, and for the most part they were well behaved. But sooner or later Hubert would see one boy’s elbow go into the ribs of the boy beside him, then it would spread down the pew like a chain reaction before working back to the boy who had started it. That’s when Hubert would make his way to the front of the building and quietly take a seat behind the boys. Immediately, the foolishness would stop, but as soon as the invitation song was sung and the last prayer uttered, Hubert would take Caleb by the arm and squeeze it and tell him to go wait outside in the pickup.
Hubert didn’t like this business of discipline, but he knew it was important. Kids needed to be shown how they should act, and he had never backed down from settling Caleb back on the straight and narrow. It was only too obvious to Hubert that parents didn’t care enough about their kids to bother to give them a slap on the cheek or a switch across the legs, or else they were too scared. These people were too soft, they were letting things get out of hand. Letting these little hellions disrespect God’s church by scattering cookie crumbs and wrappers and sticking their gum under the pew to dry, and all the time the parents moaning about how the schools weren’t doing their jobs anymore and their kids didn’t have any morals and were so concerned about playing their Gameboys and wearing Tommy Hilfiger jeans that the kids were spending them out of house and home. These people didn’t know how good they had it.
The first time Hubert remembered going to church there wasn’t a building. He didn’t remember his father going to church before the logging accident that killed him. But from the beginning of memory his mother would wake him and his brothers and sisters early in the morning, wash them and threaten to beat them if they got their clothes dirty, and then walk to Uncle Henry’s house, where Old man Stevenson would preach, sometimes for three hours before his voice gave out on him. The women always made a pot of stew or fried a chicken if it was a special occasion, and after all the men had filled their plates, the kids got to eat.They met in somebody’s house for what seemed like forever, until the congregation put together a little money and bought an acre in thick woods that they cleared out and made into a church, which they came to call the Bush Arbor. On Saturday some men and boys would go down to the arbor and cut trees, leaving the stumps at knee height. They ripped planks out of the logs by hand and nailed the planks across the stumps to make pews. To cover the pews they erected posts and strung ropes and wire and wove the leaf and needle covered branches through the ropes to make an awning.
Because of the weather, they didn’t meet every Sunday, especially during winter. But the church made up for it in the summer—after the farmers had planted—when they’d have meetings where the preaching went on every day for two weeks. Preaching would start in the morning and go until lunch, when they’d spread blankets on the ground and eat a picnic. Then preaching would start back up and go on until everyone was hungry again, or dark was coming on.
Hubert remembered the way those long Sundays felt in the Brush Arbor, and he still dreamed about them clearly. The smell of fresh cut pine planks was so sharp it sometimes woke him at night. His mother would spread burlap bags so the pitch wouldn’t stick to their clothes. Just as clear was the sound of flies and other insects buzzing the food packed away in baskets, covered by towels. The rolling thunderous voices of the preachers with the big bellies and long beards who stood on the stump platform at the head of the arbor and condemned and shouted and prayed and sweated until their clothes were so soaked it didn’t matter when they waded into the creek to baptize a new believer. The smell of the dark, tannin stained water when he was himself baptized and raised back into the air of the world redeemed, the current flowing his sins south toward the Gulf of Mexico, diluting them until they were harmless, filtering them through the cleansing gravel and sand shoals. The sound of a light breeze rolling through the arbor, whispering through the leaves like the angels ministering to Jesus after forty days of fasting and praying and resisting the devil’s temptations in the desert. God had never seemed so close to Hubert as he had on those days, and sometimes he worried that God would never seem that close again.
Sometimes Hubert wondered what it would have been like if his own father had lived long enough for Hubert to know him. His mother had always told him that his father was a good man, a good Christian, even though he refused to miss a summer day’s logging to go hear preaching. The man had all winter to worry about his soul. And Hubert remembered the way his father could work a team of horses. With just two small draft horses, his father could skid logs out of the woods almost as quick as any diesel skidder Caterpillar ever rolled out of Peoria, and without tearing up the forest nearly as badly. Sometimes Hubert dreamed about embracing his father, a touch so palpable it lingered with him throughout the day, hours after the rest of the dream had faded.
But Hubert’s mother never had any luck with men after his father died. Hubert’s stepfather was a man who seemed to do little more than drink whiskey and beat up his mother. He didn’t start out so bad when she first married him. He probably even had good intentions. It was just that he was too lazy and didn’t have the balls to see anything through. The man, Victor Walton, farmed a little, or logged a little, and once even ran a store and sold whiskey out the back door, but mostly he worked as little as possible. That was what Hubert was for.