I’ve decided to share, as a first post, something that I cut from my book. Online literary outtakes, ladies and gentlemen–read it here first.
“I think about this often, whenever I need a reminder of my futility as a Christian. I must have been in fifth grade or thereabouts, which means I was ten years old and a student at the Christ Episcopal Day School in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. “Christ,” as we called to it, was a smallish red-brick affair, no air-conditioning, situated on a grassy rise across from the brackish waters of the Mississippi Sound. A crushed-shell driveway twisted away from the beach road toward the school, running past the campus church, a small cemetery, and a large soccer field flanked by southern oaks and pecan trees.
It had to be a Wednesday, I suppose, because shortly after morning muster outside the school (a hundred youngsters dressed in blue polyester uniform pants or skirts, white button-downs, and penny loafers or topsiders, standing at attention and, with mumbling indifference, pledging allegiance to the flag and reciting the Lord’s Prayer) we marched together to the church for Reverend Johnson’s weekly school mass.
First evidence of my Nazarene insufficiencies: it was a holiday of some sort, only which one escapes me. Regardless, as reward for some minor bit of good behavior I was afforded the special responsibility of lighting candles in front of the congregation in honor of the forgotten observance. The drill, as I recall, had me seated in the very front-most pew, dressed in white robes; at the proper moment the right Reverend would summon me—with due dignity, I imagine—to a large silver candelabra where I would light six pearl white candles thicker than my wrist. A prayer of some sort would be intoned as I performed my ritualistic duties. For this purpose I had been given a book of matches from the Pirate’s Cove, a local Po-boy shop from which students with a signed permission slip could order-in once per week (not me: I packed my own lunch each day, an act of what I still consider misguided character-building on my mother’s part.)
Christ’s church was an unassuming place—wooden pews and brown carpeting throughout, stained glass windows, room for no more than two hundred souls. The Wednesday congregants, oldsters with the leisure and spiritual inclination for mid-week prayer, had little patience for children. They would stare daggers at our itchy and quivering and pinching mob, infuriated, unreasonably, I think, that we couldn’t keep still for God’s endless hour and a half. As concession to the senior citizens, our principle, Mrs. Jordan, an acerbic, tough-love Cajun with a charming smile and a powerful two-fisted paddle stroke, would select a single, unfortunate youth as her ecclesiastical example and deliver unto him a minor backhand to the head.
I should relate how excited I was to be chosen for the candle rite: a special seat away from my schoolfellows, splendidly dressed (by my lights), armed with the power to bring fire—even now I can recall the thrill. Besides, unlike most of the other students I actually liked going to church. I enjoyed the Biblical stories, sang with gusto in the choir; each week, I shuddered with envy at the children privileged to take their place at the communion rail and accept Reverend Johnson’s offer of wafer and wine (by the end of that school year I would join them).
Reverend Johnson, who was in his sixties and had at some point suffered a stroke that had left him with noticeable verbal deficits, commenced with the service. His remonstrations from the pulpit—the half-intelligible depredations of the King James, the Shakespearean syntax verily marred by his slurred speech and southern drawl—were, even for one predisposed to enjoy it, brutally boring. Thankfully, there were at appropriate intervals the group amens, the dropping to one’s knees, the rising again, the singing of songs, and the like, to keep my attention fixed.
I found myself growing increasingly nervous as the mass proceeded. Opportunities to create fire were sharply limited in my household—the pilot lights on the stove worked, we didn’t camp—and what few there were (July 4th sparklers) my older brother claimed as his own. Plus, what if I tripped over my robes? Or set them on fire? (I’d had enough lab science at that age to develop a healthy fear of polyester) What if I couldn’t make sense of Johnson’s guttural nonsense and missed my signal? Would the service grind to a halt? Would Mrs. Jordan hustle me back to her office for a good, stout, going-over with her whupping stick? My knees started bopping up and down in anxious anticipation. I stopped when Mrs. Jordan cut me a warning look and took to drumming my fingers on the pew.
When the time came, however, I caught Johnson’s signal without too much effort. I carefully walked to the candelabra and addressed the six candles. After a fit of spastic fit of panic as I searched for pockets in my robes—there were none—I hiked the garment up to my waist and produced the matchbook from the back of my uniform pants. I removed a single paper matchstick, dismissing a mental picture of a Pirate’s Cove shrimp Po-boy, lavishly dressed, took a deep breath, ran the stick along the striker…and nothing. I frowned and surveyed the match—the head still intact, so I turned it over struck the other side. Nothing.
People like to refer to “flop sweat” in such circumstances, as if it were a real phenomenon. One hears much of the breaking out in nervous perspiration, the supposedly instantaneous drenching, the cinematic mopping of the soaked brow. Perhaps I have a slow metabolism, but I remained largely dry; a slight dampness about the underarms, perhaps, but no more. I looked up at the congregation, smiling nervously, and gestured weakly at the matches. I received a blank response.
I accidentally dropped the spent matchstick to the ground, started to bend over to retrieve it, thought better of it, and returned to my task, freeing a fresh matchstick from the book.
Again with the match…again nothing.
I still refuse to admit to any flop sweat. If I must employ a cliché to describe my level of diaphoresis, I’ll go with “lather,” which I admit sounds too athletic, but seems most accurate in my memory. Rushing now, I dropped the second matchstick to the ground without a thought, removed another, struck it—nothing—struck the opposite side; again nothing.
A first nervous stirring from the congregation began, augmented by a barely-audible titter from my schoolmates, who were beginning to suspect that my failures might free them ever-so-slightly from the standard Christ rules of silent churchly decorum. Mrs. Jordan’s heavy eyes narrowed to wary slits, quieting the mutinous throng. Reverend Johnson remained in his stroke-stupor, stone-down-a-well, aloof, the picture of spiritual repose.
I hardly noticed. The task of lighting the match had excised all irrelevant details and distractions. There was nothing but candle and match, the blue tip of the stick, the silver candelabra, the white candles, and nothing else.
The match, the match, the match! And nothing.
Finally, mercifully, a bald old man materialized from the blackness of my crippled peripheral vision bearing a bronze Zippo. He successfully lit my fifth—sixth? eighth?—match, and I laughed with relief, the congregation laughed with me, I held up the match for their joyful inspection.
The first candle went up without problem. The second didn’t catch immediately, flaming for a second and then extinguishing itself, and I had to come back to it with the matchstick, but it caught on the second try. The third seemed to take an interminable time to go up, but eventually it did, bursting into first flame and then flickering down as it consumed the ambient oxygen; it returned to life as a small breeze pushed through the church. My limbs went loose and tingly; my heart pumped with radiant blood; my head swam beneath rivers of palliated adrenaline. There would be no stopping me now.
Somewhere in a distant corner of my consciousness a clock began to tick. A single matchstick, no matter how thick or sturdy, can last but so long. Yet the thought of stopping to ignite a fresh one—the risks, the potential for failure—was too ridiculous even to consider. I would soldier on with this one; together we would bring fire to the candles, we would fulfill our flaming destinies, and when we were done, I would blow her out with gratitude; I would retreat to my bench; embarrassed, yes; slightly ashamed, perhaps; most certainly by now, and in all honesty, covered in flop sweat; but no, not defeated, not destroyed.
The match died before I could get anywhere with the fourth candle.
I went back to the book, grabbing matchsticks two at a time now, striking and failing, dropping the wasted ones to the ground. Again the old man came to my rescue, although it should be said, not by giving me the lighter—I suppose one doesn’t share a Zippo—but only to start a new match for me.
Candles four and five went up with relative ease. That left only the sixth, the final flame, the last lighting, and what, it might be asked, would I have given for a match of greater length than one with which I had been equipped? Alas, we must go to war with the matches we have, not the long fireplace ones we might want or wish to have at a later time. Before I could address the problem of the last candle it burned to my fingers and singed me. Dropping it to the ground, I accidentally lit the carpet, and then instinctively stamped out the fire, charring the Lord’s cheap flooring. I stamped about the church in pain, shaking my fingers and shouting, Goddamn! Jesus Christ!
Things like this happened to me all the time.