Mississippi, Part 3, a short story

South Fork Church of Christ baptistry mural

There was nothing on TV that late. Preaching on one channel and a satellite weather pattern on the other channel, but Caleb went back to the den and turned on the set anyway, sat in the La-Z-Boy and watched the gray shadows solidify into a television preacher sitting in a rocking chair. He had an open bible on his lap, although it seemed to be more for decoration than anything else since he never looked at it when he spoke. His gray eyes bored right into his imagined audience.

A river mural had been painted on the set behind the man, like the scene that country churches used above the baptistery: the river Jordan inviting the lost to wash away their sins in baptism. It was almost the same mural Caleb had spent countless hours of his boyhood wishing himself into, as he sat straight-backed against the bare oak pew, dressed in black suit and white shirt with a clip-on tie digging into his throat, afraid to squirm or even pull the too tight collar away for fear of Hubert dragging him up the aisle to the front steps for a whipping. From the earliest Caleb could remember, Hubert and his mother went to church every Sunday morning and evening for worship and preaching, and every Wednesday night for Bible study and singing. Twice a year they held gospel meetings that began Sunday morning and stretched the week, every night through Friday night. Hubert tolerated no foolishness in church, and while other kids usually got to draw stick men on paper or even sprawl along the pew with their heads in their mother’s lap, Caleb feigned perfect attention to the preacher sweating in the pulpit. The only salvation had been that mural and the cooling water it promised. Caleb had spent countless sermons scanning every inch of that tree-lined river. He hung a rope on a tree that leaned out over the river, and he imagined giant catfish lurking in the deep pools. Jesus had been baptized in that water and the spirit of God descended on him in the form of a dove. It was only years later, as an adult, that it occurred to Caleb that the mural featured a white-tail deer drinking at the foot of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, a lovely, delicate, parasitic plant better suited to Mississippi than to Israel, All those Sunday sermons seemed even more of a lie than ever before.

Still, there was something comforting about listening to the rhythm of the preacher’s voice rolling out those worn out phrases when the house was so dark and still. Caleb never would have admitted it to Jessica, and if he heard her footsteps on the stairs he would switch channels, but he missed going to church. It wasn’t the people he missed—he had seen too many examples of bad religion to ever want that again—it was the comfort that came from believing in something absolutely. Hubert never questioned his beliefs, and with that confidence came the strength to look down on every other walking creature in the world. Hubert slept the deep contented sleep of the justified, never feeling lonely or unsure of himself, or feeling anything other than contempt, masked as pity, for anyone who didn’t accept Jesus as their savior. For Hubert, any non-believer was either hopelessly ignorant or embraced in a conspiracy to destroy the world. Caleb had once been that sure himself, before the questions began, the ones he couldn’t answer.

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