The Dunking Booth
My grandfather once told me a story about a relative whose minister told her she had to be baptized twice. It seems that as the minister placed her under water, she lifted up an arm. Since the arm never got wet, the minister said that she needed to redo the baptism. My grandfather suggested she go to the bathroom, fill up the tub, and submerge the arm in water. He laughed as he told me this, placing his head in his right hand, shaking from side to side.
The church was in sharp blues and greys as if the Civil War had thrown up all over it. Nowhere but in the south would I have come to church with my English teacher because I wanted to see what a baptism was like. “There’s not much to see, I’m afraid,” she had told me. I looked to the front of the church where the previous week’s hymn numbers appeared on a board over the piano. At the center sat a baptismal font roughly the same shape as a coffin. Years later, a friend would tell me about being in church for a baptism that had to be postponed because someone forgot the water. This time, no one forgot.
I missed school the day a friend gathered some of my classmates in the school library with Leo Rosten’s Religions of America. She went to what she thought was the appropriate page, and she held court over the shelves, telling several friends that she thought I was going to hell because the description indicated I wasn’t saved. This was the same library where I read poems, looked up Charles Darwin’s research, and found an article in the Arkansas Times by my favorite teacher.
“Maggie’s getting baptized! Thank God. It was touch and go for a while.” Maggie sat beaming off to the side, not looking like she thought at all about how she had just been insulted for taking her time. Her barrettes held back her dark stringy hair, and she had a perfectly cut sandwich in front of her alongside a small carton of milk. Ours was one of the tables closest to school hallways—we were all at lunch, and not quite at lunch, at the same time. We weren’t popular, but most of us did well in school. Maggie didn’t, really, but today she got attention. Jesus got her there, or maybe her mother.
“Everyone’s been trying to get her to go down to the front of the church for the longest time,” someone told me later, possibly when Maggie wasn’t listening. How could anyone know she wanted to go, I wondered?
Later I asked my favorite teacher, the one who would drive to my home and pick me up to see the baptism. “Well, the thing is. . . Hardly anyone really gets baptized on their own. Someone—usually a mother—talks them into it,” she said. This didn’t make any sense to me.
I was sixteen, wondering what college would be like. Maggie gave everyone but me a sigh of relief that day. I watched her push her hair back, smiling. This was the most popular she would ever be.
In eighth grade, we kept journals for Advanced English. Mine was royal blue, with pockets and brads. I lined it thoughtfully with pages and pages of scrawling. My teacher thought I should be a writer, not the scientist I had planned to be.
Another girl and I exchanged journals, reading each other’s private thoughts. We didn’t have to do this. In fact, my guess would be that the teacher might have advised against it.
There was one page the other girl said she didn’t want me to read, so naturally, that’s the one I flipped back to, reading it again and again. In that page, she told our teacher that she worried for my salvation. I wasn’t sure why our teacher needed to be involved in the quest to make me a Baptist. I wrote about dinner with Grandpa Carl and what I read for a class and what I wanted to be, someday. I didn’t want to be a Baptist and I didn’t want the other girl to be whatever I was. As such, I hadn’t mentioned God. I hadn’t needed to.
In church, my turquoise sweater and long black skirt clashed with the darker blue and lighter gray of the walls. I sat with my short legs stretched out in front of me, dwarfed next to a teacher with a stylish bob and a matching blazer and skirt, her silky blouse peeking through and her heels keeping her grounded in air. I was conspicuous because I had only been in this church for piano recitals, having never cracked its hymnals for “Ten Thousand Angels” or anything else that spoke of salvation.
Later, we had to walk to the front of the church and loop back through the center aisle, shaking the hands of the three shivering young people whose wet hair reminded us who was center stage—or sanctuary—that evening. Before we reached them, a tall clay minister shook my hand, nodding to the teacher who had obviously chauffeured me to the service. He looked at me, winking. “You don’t care what kind of company you keep, do you?” I let out the obligatory chuckle, but I knew better than that. She could have been embarrassed to keep my company, even as I shook his firm hand respectfully and turned my attention to the people who had formally joined his church.
I don’t remember leaving that day, only standing with my hand outstretched, waiting for the person before Maggie to take it in her hand. She was all of eight, half our age and clear about where she was. I was only visiting.
I am forty-two, and I sit on the couch with Jen on one side and my mother on the other. My father is on the other side of my mother, and I wonder where my grandmother is. We are in my hometown, where I haven’t lived for years. My whole life has changed.
My grandfather’s casket is off to the side, and he looks like a very small version of the man who did the walking tour of Scotland, stood in front of classes with William Faulkner and Mark Twain works, and sat at the end of the dining room table, adjusting his hearing aids. I look up to find two favorite high school teachers, one from the baptism and another, walking toward us.
Baptism teacher hugs me and says, “I’m so sorry sweetheart,” and the other teacher introduces himself. I say, “I know.” He looks the same as he always did, only with a graying beard. I introduce my wife Jen, wondering what the two of them will do with this information. They shake hands. They are friendly and remorseful.
In the course of two family funerals over some months, it isn’t always this normal. Two different people offer their brand of comfort by altering “spouse” or “wife” and making it “friend” when they introduce Jen to someone else. One of them does this so that even I don’t quite hear it. Then, when it hits me, I glance across the room at a colleague of my grandmother who I feel most definitely would know better. I wish that I hadn’t waved and that I had gone across the room instead.
Funerals aren’t public places, not really. They are paid for by family, life insurance, and savings accounts that are emptied for heirs. I have trouble with the idea that someone can only comfort me on their own terms. I am married. I have been married for years. Why must people come to funerals if they are not prepared to meet the family as it is, and not as the attendee would like for it to be?
I read the First Baptist Church bulletin on the toilet at my grandparents’ house for years, noting the news of people I knew who went there. “I really wish I could get off their mailing list,” my grandmother said to me on more than one occasion. She had fallen out with them over an assortment of things, to include their lack of support when she took her daughters to the black Baptist church after Martin Luther King, Jr. died.
I’m an adult. My grandparents are dying, and neither of my parents likes to go over every day to check on them. Those of us who are at a distance don’t know what to say about this. Is it hard for my parents to see them like this? Is it better to let the professionals step in? Or should someone from the family be there? And can we criticize, when we’re not there?
Someone enrolls my grandparents in Meals on Wheels because everyone is afraid that my grandmother will leave the oven on, or that she will only feed my grandfather breakfast for dinner or the little round pizzas that the delivery guy brings. My grandfather sits in a recliner by the back glass door, robe over his pajamas, with a quantum physics book shaking in his hands. My grandmother has quilting squares and a glass of rosé that may not have been her first.
Someone else who is visiting wants to know who made them dinner, where it came from, and if it was any good. And that’s when I learn that several women from First Baptist Church brought it and that they bring food many days to the aging professors who sit waiting for death in their family room, surrounded by the magazines they inadvertently subscribed to.
It is impossible to deny that the church is here, that its members are among the people who check to see if things are okay.
Jen and I are on I-30 in Arkansas, traveling southwest toward Arkadelphia, Arkansas. The water tower there says, “A Place to Call Home.” I imagine someone with a telephone, calling there from some great distance, or someone there, calling far, far away.
I am not driving, and a Baptist friend I know back in the D.C. area is texting with me about something Obama said in support of the gay community. I am married in a way that no one within easy driving distance might recognize.
A moment later, I find myself telling the friend that I never imagined I’d be on a highway in Arkansas, on my way to my hometown, talking to a Baptist about gay marriage. I am glad that she knows what I mean, that she isn’t horribly offended.
It’s 2002. I have lived in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 1998, and someone, somewhere, is planning my high school reunion. This is several years after I talked to a girl I once knew in high school, one who wanted to ask me if I “had a feller.” Did Jane Austen move to the south, I wondered? Years later, after marrying a woman who thinks Jane Austen might have been a lesbian with a sense of irony, I can’t understand this absorption with finding a man. In 2002, I am in my second graduate degree program, not counting the law school I dropped out of, the one where Bill and Hillary Clinton both once taught.
I am close to finishing graduate school, or two years away, at least. That same girl is a woman who seems badly to want me to confess that I’m a lesbian. And I tell her, not because she wants me to, but because it is the truth.
At the time, the woman I am involved with has a name that could be a man’s name or a woman’s name. In fact, in America, it is more often a man’s name. When I tell this high school girl that I’m seeing a woman, she says that I didn’t have to tell her—I could have mentioned the name and not said anything. She wanted me to lie. She was a Baptist, so Baptist that she was baptized in a river.
Spring, 2017. My wife Jen and I are holding hands with a bunch of other people in Virginia, making a chain around a church we don’t attend. We’re singing “We Shall Overcome.” We’ve watched a journalist intercept people wildly different from herself, struggling to find some news from people who mostly don’t want to talk to her. Another time that night, someone starts a rousing chorus of “This Little Light of Mine.” “The Unitarians must be here,” Jen says, laughing. I watch the wax go down my white candle, melting into a new form right above my hand.
Inside we heard Jewish, Church of Christ, Methodist, Sikh, Unitarians, Buddhists, and Ba’hai, and maybe some others I’m leaving out. Everyone calls up strikingly similar lines about peace, from whatever scripture they are reading.
I’ve been in a church like this one before, once, maybe twice. Its wood rafters reach up to a point, with windows holding up the sides. Trees are everywhere, all around, making this a treehouse paradoxically anchored to the ground. There is a labyrinth I can’t see from where I’m standing, but that I know is there. There is one entry and one exit, but there are multiple directions to go inside.
Inside, some public figures stand up to talk. I test myself to see how I feel about this, looking at people standing up all around the sanctuary, shuffling their feet because all the seats are occupied.
Nobody says, “Yay, you, Church of Christ people and Jews!” But they do say they won’t put up with hate speech against anyone. That makes sense to me. This, to me, is an intersection of church and state that seems productive. A few days before, a Muslim equality banner was defaced, along with the church for having it. Anti-Semitic graffiti was outside the Jewish Community Center down the street. And some bigoted flyers were placed up and taken down briskly at the local college.
I had often sat in traffic outside the church, watching its rainbow gay equality sign, and its signs in support of other disenfranchised groups. And a swastika on a Jewish Community Center or outside a school was alarming in a manner no one could articulate in an original way.
This is church like I have never seen it before. Everyone is here, and everyone is welcome to believe something else or nothing at all. I imagine the labyrinths I have lost myself in and the labyrinth in the dark. We go home in a line of cars with the lights illuminating everyone’s way home. This is the most unusual church experience I’ve ever had.
Once my fifth-grade homeroom teacher was enclosed in glass just inside the doors of Wal-Mart. A large tank of water lay dormant underneath the black bench where she sat, and something at her side was rigged to dump her into the water if a ball hit it just so.
Maybe this was for the schools, or for charity. All I remember is my tall red-haired teacher, her hair in perfect curls. She was poised above the water, and probably bored out of her mind. She encouraged me — “Hit me,” she seemed to say with her gestures, maybe ready to have this be over already.
I do not remember whether I threw the ball or not. I only recall that I couldn’t land her in the water. Although submerging her was the point, and even she was egging me on, I couldn’t bring myself to try, or to be responsible for her inevitable dunking. It seemed cruel, or maybe stupid. If she wanted to jump into that water, she was going to need to jump in herself or find someone with an ax to grind. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to tell me when I had to land in a basin of water. I had to leave her in the tank to figure it out for herself. I walked away, somewhere far away where I could also figure things out. Maybe that is what I have done ever since.
Christina M. Wells is a Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College who teaches creative writing, composition, and literature. She holds a doctorate from University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s from University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She is also a certified life coach. She has published in Rough Copy, Story Circle Network Journal, the Northern Virginia Review, and the blog of New Ventures West. An alumni of Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she is currently submitting her novel to agents and literary presses.