Sweat trickled down his brow, stopping hesitantly in his thick sideburns before rolling down underneath his plain white undershirt. “One more time?” the little boy said earnestly. One. More. Time. The words stuck with him like glue, transporting him back to the sultry afternoon in a backwoods church in southwest Alabama.
St. Stephens Pentecostal church sits about a mile down County Road 15 just outside of Melvin. Not a town, just a place close to a place filled with God-fearing folk. Yellow pine stands so thick down there that light can’t crack the canopy resulting in an undergrowth of brush so thick it’s impassable. Smothering to some folks.
Most never saw the Holy Ghost, but some of us were lucky enough to have felt Him. The older ones especially. They still go to the church three times a week, twice on Sunday. As their fathers did, so do they. Family Bible in one hand, covered dish in the other.
Down behind the church past the canebrake through the briars and thick Alabama woods an old pond stretches down about an acre before it backs into beaver dams and sloughs. That’s where I first found God. She straddled me and for the first time I knew salvation.
Bethany Jo Charlotte came to live at Mattie’s Manor in the summer of ’67. She liked to be called Bet. Rumor was she was a distant relative, a niece, to Ms. Mattie. People said her mama was doing a stint in Wetumpka and Bet had to come stay, as Ms. Mattie was the only relative dependable enough to pawn the girl off on. Rumor was that her daddy run off before she was born. Had nowhere else to go but a children’s home in Slidell. Ms. Mattie couldn’t let family down. She ran the old boarding house, a Victorian left to her by her father years ago. Some said Ms. Mattie was too educated for a husband. But she still came to church three times a week. Can’t be too educated for God if you plan on staying in business in Choctaw County.
My old man hauled hay in the summer and at sixteen I was free labor. The only relief from the heat were frozen plastic milk jugs filled with water from the overflow well down the road. After a few hours of bailing, we would make our rounds to drop off orders and that’s when I first saw her.
“Unload them bails for Ms. Mattie. I’ll be back as soon as I get a drink & the money,” he said gruffly.
Half a dozen bails into stacking, she came around to the barn.
“Ain’t thirsty are ya?”
“Naw, I don’t reckon so. Got a jug in the back of the truck.”
“Mattie told me to come ask anyway.”
And she was gone just as soon as she had appeared. I unloaded bails as fast as I could and went in to find my old man. He was walking down the front steps before I could catch another glimpse of her.
“Get in the truck, boy. Got a dozen more stops before the days done. Gotta make hay while the sun’s up.”
That Sunday, Bet came to church with Ms. Mattie. She sat in the front row, and I burned holes into the back of her curly head before getting up to play guitar in the choir. I listened close through the hymnals trying to single out her voice. When the service was over, I tried my best to get close to her and speak to her before she left but to no avail. I prayed she would be back next Sunday.
The next Thursday we made our weekly drop at Mattie’s Manor and Bet came out again to ask me if I’d like some water. This time I made sure to accept the offering. It revived my spirit.
“Seen you at church Sunday.”
“That right? I saw you too. You play guitar pretty good for a hick country boy.”
“Thank ya, um, I guess. I’ve been playing for as long as I could walk.”
“Probably been bailing hay that long too, huh? Probably still be doing it the day you die.”
“Maybe. Don’t mean I ain’t got plans of my own.”
“I thought all you country boys wanted was to get married and have a house fulla young’uns.”
“One day. But I want to see things first. Too much out there. Did you know they got trees out west big enough to drive a car through?”
“I’ve heard about ‘em. We’ve got trees back in Slidell that are just as pretty though. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll see ‘em one day.”
“Maybe if I’m lucky you’ll show ‘em to me,” I said with a wink.
She smiled as she walked back to the porch. Daddy cranked up the old truck and told me to hurry. Before slamming the heavy door to the cab I hollered, “See you at church Sunday. It’s revival!”
On the days leading up to it, I practiced playing harder than ever. Every spare minute I had dedicated to craft. When I played, I kept looking up gauging her reaction. I’d never played with more focus and energy. She never took her eyes off me.
“Are you washed/in the blood?/In the soul cleansing blood of the lamb…” the choir sang fervently.
After church while everyone was prepping the meal and fellowshipping, I asked her, “What’d ya think?”
“Surprisingly pretty good for a country boy. I mean it ain’t the zydeco music back home, but I liked it. Meet me out back, down the hill by the pond when dinner starts.”
I slipped out with my guitar case across my back and headed down the hill. They used the old pond to baptize people. On days we ate lunch, I knew we would have plenty of time to get away from all the deacons and elders. She was sitting on the bank waiting for me when I got down to the water. Nervously, I started humming a hymn I had been practicing. On the far side of the pond a moccasin weaved his head through the water and weaved up the bank. We sat silent for what seemed like an eternity listening to the cicadas buzz.
“Bet you play for all the girls, don’tcha?”
“Naw. Only in church and for family.”
“Sure does stink.”
“Huh? Whatcha mean?”
“Not you, silly. What’s that smell? It’s terrible.”
“Just the old Indian baths down by the dam. That little spring fills them up after a good rain. They call it egg-water. Say it has healing power.”
“How long you been pickin’?”
“Since I was old enough to pick it up I guess. Mama used to sing in the kitchen and said I’d pinch the strings one by one and let them go. Used to drive her crazy.”
“You’re lucky to have family. Mattie’s all I got for the time bein’. So, you ever play anything besides those hymnals? Somethin’ about fast music makes me feel excited. Makes me forget my worries for a little bit. Is it like that for you too?”
“Sometimes, if I can feel the moment I guess. It takes hold of ya, you know? The light. Kinda like when some folks get in the spirit and ramble in tongues.”
She leaned in putting her tongue in my mouth. A fever burned in her lips sweeter than muscadines. Rolling in the pine straw, eventually she landed on top of me in the edge of the water. She stole my breath. She took her shirt off and unbuttoned mine as well. Spanish moss-like hair tickled my neck. Passion took over.
The rhythm grew faster and faster. My skin was slick, covered in pond water and wisteria petals, but I was cleansed. Her embrace took control of me, mind, body and soul. Consumed by her, I focused into her kaleidoscope eyes. Above her, the sun split between two clouds and an egret glided above in the muggy sky. That’s when we heard the little Sunday school kids oohing and giggling.
“Go on! Get out of here!” she shouted back to the handful of children. They kept looking back as they ran up the hill to the sanctuary yelling and pointing.
And it was over. She grabbed her clothes and told me to hurry up. Before I could get a word out, Ms. Mattie was coming down the hill with fire in her eyes. She didn’t say a word as Bet tried her best to cover it all up; she grabbed her by the arm and gave me a look I’ll never forget.
“It’s not what it looks like. We were just—“
“You’re just about to get your hide tore up. Now, come on. Gonna fix you good when we get home,” Ms. Mattie snarled.
Struggling to pull the wet pants back up while trying to button my shirt at the same time, I stumbled after her. By the time I reached the parking lot there was nothing but dust. I turned around and looked back to the entrance in time to see my mother coming out. She was crying. My ass was striped black for a week after Daddy got ahold of me. An embarrassment to my whole family they said. When we had to make our weekly drop at the Manor, I was left in the field to bail. It took weeks before they let me go back to the church.
When I came back, I was met with stares and whispers. Eyes harrowed with shame and disappointment. I craned my neck back to the entrance each time I heard the door open, longing to see her face but it never happened. As we were setting up for choir, one of my cousins told me the news.
“I heard Ms. Mattie say she sent her back to Slidell. Said she was too much trouble.”
I was crushed. At first, sorrow flooded my heart. I was lost.
“You gonna plug in? Service is about to start.”
I don’t remember taking my ’57 Les Paul out of the case, but the organ began and I found myself standing on stage. Everything slowed down sounding like a macabre carnival. When it came to my part, I was in a daze. Everyone on stage was looking at me and I began to strum, slowly slipping into darkness, welcoming it to wash over me in place of the light. Anything just to see her again. Anything? Anything. Strumming as strings hit the fret, the buzzing leading me down. With sound and fury, notes cried into the wilderness with an electric wrath as I connected to something primal. Instinctual. I found myself back at that pond chasing her down the bank under the faint beams of a fingernail moon. Falling down, I glance in the water and there stands the reflected beauty over my shoulder. With a ripple, the face is gone and I’m all alone in the dark. The only thing to do is run. Harder. Faster. Exhausted in the passion.
When I came to, my guitar lay broken into two pieces in front of me; the neck splintered halfway down. The smell of rotten eggs lingered in my nostrils. The congregation was silent. I fell to my knees sobbing. Deacon Semmes put his hand on my shoulder, and I stood and braced myself on the pulpit. “This Do in Remembrance of Me” etched and grooved into the front walnut-stained panel made by my ancestors. I slithered out never to come back again. Probably been thirty-something years since then, maybe more. Even now, whenever I catch a wiry-haired woman out of the corner of my eye, even if I’m lost in my music, I remember and have to do my best not to speak in tongues.
Son of Alabama’s Black Belt. English/Literature/Writing Instructor. Lover of black cats, good bourbon & better storytelling.