Ten-Dollar Word

by Steve Garrison


Transcendence? That’s a ten-dollar word, Delbert. But yeah, I’ve got one for you. This happened the summer I was eight. We lived in Hobart, down in the southwest part of the state. It was mid-June. My parents’ church was running its Vacation Bible School week, and we’d go from eight o’clock in the morning to—I’ve told you I was a churchgoer, you sons of bitches. My daddy was a deacon, for God’s sake. Baptist, Delbert. That’s right. You going to let me finish?

Okay. We lived in this dried out block of tiny houses with an apricot orchard in our backyard. We never picked the apricots—my daddy was a lazy bastard—and they just fell off the trees and rotted on the ground and stank so badly we couldn’t play back there. My sister and I played out in our front yard and at the side of the house, next to the McKelveys’ house. They were an old couple, must have been retired, because old man McKelvey was always around in the day, always working on this little garden just behind their carport. Flowers, especially geraniums, purple geraniums. And vines of some sort. They were trying to train vines of morning glories to go up this little trellis next to their back door. I don’t know, Delbert. Yeah, I think it’s important to the story.

So, one night some of us kids in the neighborhood were outside playing this game. It was like tag. My sister Lucy, she’s a couple years younger, she had this old Halloween mask, plastic mask, of a witch’s face. We’d strap it on her head and run from her, and she’d chase us. It was just a game of tag, I guess, except that she never caught us. Seeing through the mask slowed her down, I suppose. And, hell, she was only six.

It was a dark night, and we were all feeling a little wild, you know how kids feel when they’ve been running up and down the neighborhood on a cool night after a hot day. And half that day we’d been cooped up in Vacation Bible School, listening to this crazy evangelist youth leader trying to work us up into a frenzy of repentance. So we get Lucy to put on the mask, and she roars, and we take off again, but this time we head around the side of the house toward the McKelveys’. Did I say it was dark? A dark night, with only a street lamp and a couple of porch lights down the block. No lights on in the McKelveys’ house. Their car wasn’t in the carport.

We come around the back of the McKelveys’ house, hollering and laughing, and my little sister behind us roaring like a tiny monster. I’m off to one side of the group, and I decide to head back out to the street, right through the McKelveys’ carport. Something I’d done a hundred times. But this time, as I jump over this little plot of flowers, something grabs me in mid-air, something invisible. It catches me from my head to my feet. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt sort of cupped, like in a giant invisible hand, like I was a high pop fly and had just come down into the centerfielder’s mitt. It was a very gentle feeling. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I hung in the air for maybe half a second, a nanosecond, just sort of hovering in the dark, and then the mitt or the hand or whatever it was dumped me gently back the way I’d come, right on top of Mrs. McKelvey’s geraniums. I wasn’t hurt, but I was, you might say, amazed.

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You’ve got to try to imagine what it would be like to be picked up out of the air, just scooped up, by nothing you could see, and held for an instant, and then spilled back out on the ground. Maybe it wouldn’t have had such an effect on me if it hadn’t been for that youth evangelist at Vacation Bible School. He was a scrawny young guy in a suit, jumping around on the podium with this Bible flopping in his hand, hollering about what all was going to happen to us when we died. He told us awful stories about kids our own age who’d had a chance to repent their sins and accept Jesus into their hearts but hadn’t done it; they’d decided to wait, and then, before they could get around to it, they were struck down by some terrible accident—they got hit by an eighteen-wheeler or their daddy’s rifle went off while he was cleaning it. That sort of thing. Those kids went straight to hell, the evangelist said, and then he told us what that would be like. Seventy-times-seven-thousand caves, each with seventy-times-seven-thousand streams of poisoned water, each of them lined with seventy-times-seven-thousand scorpions with seventy-times-seven-thousand stingers apiece, all shooting venom into those streams. Those streams were going to be our home. We were going to have to wade around in them for all eternity. I am not making this up.

I was watching the kids in the pews in front of me. Their heads just kept snapping back, like that guy’s hell was crashing into their faces, over and over. Waves and waves of hell. Some of the kids started crying, and when the evangelist finally stopped talking and asked us all to repent, a whole lot of kids got up and went down the aisle.

That’s what the guy wanted, of course. A good head count. No, Delbert, sorry to burst your bubble, I didn’t go down. I was a hard case even then.

But I thought about those stories the whole rest of the day. They lay like a dead weight on the back of my neck. And that night, when I got caught up over Mrs. McKelvey’s geraniums, it just seemed like an answer to all that damnation we’d been fed that morning. It was like someone, something, picked me up to put a word in my ear: Hey, buddy, all that hellfire stuff? It’s not going to be like that. It’s going to be like this. Like getting caught in the softest outfielder’s mitt you can imagine and let down gently, back to earth.

I thought that all out afterwards, of course. There was no time to think, hanging in the air.

So that’s it. My moment of transcendence. It’s the only one I’ve got, and if you don’t think it fills the bill, then to hell with you.

What? Oh, yeah. Chicken wire. Old man McKelvey had nailed a sheet of chicken wire up over the back end of his carport that afternoon. We hadn’t seen him do it, didn’t know it was there. They were going to trail some morning glories up it.

Well, what the hell do you want, Delbert, you piece of shit? It’s what passes around here.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 16, August 15, 2014. Click here to subscribe to This Land.