Instead of confessing my sins at church, I found salvation in my bedroom. Like my father, I wasn’t a fan of altar calls or public confessions, though some kids reveled in the extra attention they got from adults when they participated in the praise and worship service. I felt like an imposter, and the attention made me uneasy. I felt closer to God when I was away from everyone else, alone in the woods or in my tree house. One of our Sunday school lessons was about how God was everywhere, and we could call out to him to forgive us anytime. That was all I needed to hear. If I had direct access to God anytime, anywhere, then I’d talk to him privately from my own home, with my stuffed animals looking on from overfilled nets that hung high in the corners and Macaulay Culkin smirking from a Home Alone poster carefully angled above my desk. I’d get saved wearing my comfortable pajamas, free from cheek-pinching old ladies and dancing, shouting old men. I didn’t need an altar, I just needed God to hear me.
When I first decided that I needed salvation, I wasn’t sure what sins I’d committed in my eight, short years, but I knew I must have done something awful because I was taught we are all born sinners, and we must be washed clean, or we’d go to hell. While I didn’t feel like a sinner for any specific reason, I felt guilty all the time. When I listened to rock music on the radio, guilty. When I watched a PG-13 rated movie, guilty. When I fell in the driveway, scraped my knee, and said shit, very guilty. The guilt was overwhelming for my eight-year-old self; I could only imagine how I’d feel at fifteen or sixteen if I didn’t do something about it soon. So, one night, unable to sleep from retracing all the possible sins I’d committed that day, I crawled out of bed, stared into the dark ceiling, and asked God to forgive me and let me go to heaven when I died. I was serious. I couldn’t take anymore guilt. And I admit I felt immediately better after confessing my sins. It was so simple. The next day, I told my mother about it, and she said I should get baptized. My older sister was excited for me. My father agreed to come watch the ceremony, which was a big deal, since he never came to church and avoided special occasions.
Our church didn’t have a baptismal. We’d drive a mile or so to a nearby creek, where we’d step sideways down the same trail fishermen used and then line up along the water’s edge to watch the big event. On the day I was baptized, our pastor, Sister Jane, led me out into the cold, muddy creek, said the usual words about being cleansed and made new, and dunked me. I was a little worried about how the whole thing would go down. What if she let me go and I drowned? What if my dress floated up around my neck and everyone saw my underwear? From underneath the water, I could hear the congregation singing; the hymn sounded muffled and strange and beautiful. Sister Jane pulled me back into the sunlight, and I felt dizzy with emotion. Everyone stood on the creek bank, singing, praising, crying. I waded through the brown water, picking at the leaves and muddy clumps that clung to my white dress. My mother helped me onto the rocky bank. Smiling and singing, she wrapped a towel around my shoulders.
I’d done it. I was on the path to salvation, one step closer to heaven. Everyone from the church gathered around, shaking my hand and patting me on the head. I craned my neck around the bodies hunched over me and searched for my father’s face in the crowd. Finally, I looked up at my mother, and she shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears.
“He didn’t make it.” She hugged me tighter. “But this is a happy day. Don’t be upset.”
We walked back up the hillside from the creek. People asked me if I felt different. “I think so,” I replied, and they laughed and patted me on the back. I wasn’t sure how to feel. Changed? New? Relieved? It didn’t matter; any good feelings I might have had disappeared when I realized my father wasn’t there. He had promised he’d be there, and even though I was used to his broken promises, I had told myself this time would be different.
We were all standing along the roadside, talking about the glory of God, when I saw my father’s blue sedan dip around the bend. He had the windows down; he obviously didn’t realize he was too late—I could tell by the way he leaned back in the seat, the wind blowing his curls from underneath his baseball cap. When he saw me standing there, dripping with muddy water, he threw his hands up and shook his head. Our eyes locked for a moment, but he looked away. He didn’t stop the car. He just straightened up in his seat and slowed down a little, searching for a place to turn around. And when he drove by us again, this time toward home, he didn’t look over at me, not even when I called out, “Daddy, wait!”
My father had missed every important event in all three of his children’s lives. Award ceremonies. Academic banquets. Most of my older brother’s basketball games and my older sister’s piano recitals. Both of their high school graduations. And now, he’d missed my baptism.
As my father sped by in his large rectangle of a car, I heard a few people from the church whispering.
“Was that Max?”
“I think it was. Bless his heart.”
“He missed it. Bless little Joanna’s heart.”
I sobbed into my white bath towel all the way home.
“Why didn’t we wait for him?” I asked my mother. “He said he would come.” I thought about my father driving home alone, wishing he’d been ten minutes earlier, and I cried harder. More guilt. I told myself I should have made them wait. I also feared my father’s reaction, and I worried he’d be drunk and ready to fight with my mother by the time we got home. He didn’t like to be humiliated, and it didn’t take much to bruise his ego. My father, too, was plagued by feelings of guilt. He stayed drunk most of the time to dull those feelings, or, I guess, to feel something else.
When we pulled into the driveway, I folded my arms across my chest, and announced that I would remain in the car. I sometimes sat in the car for hours. We’d return from grocery shopping, and I’d stay in the car, daydreaming and watching the trees sway. I liked the quiet and stillness and how all the outside sounds were distant and softened, while the sun beamed through the windows, warming me like an invisible blanket. My mother would wait a while and then wave me inside from the kitchen, snapping me out of that quiet daze. The car felt safe, protected, as if time didn’t move if I didn’t move.
My mother knew why I didn’t want to get out of the car, but she tried to convince me anyway. “I’m making your favorites for lunch,” she said, but I sat there, shaking my head. “Joanna Lee, you’re going to get the seats soaking wet. Come inside and change.”
“I’m not going inside.”
She left me—wet from blessed creek water and my tears—and I thought for a long time about what I could do to make it all better. Why couldn’t I get re-baptized next Sunday? We could have a do-over and my father could come and everything would be fine. Surely, God wouldn’t mind. Two baptisms? That would just make me doubly forgiven.
After a while, I saw my father step out of the shadowy basement, smoking a cigarette and staring into the sunny sky. From the car, I watched him shuffle around the patio, scratch his scruffy chin, pull a handful of weeds from the flower garden and toss them into the yard. He shook his head and frowned. He poked around at the stone barbeque pit he was building, his cigarette bouncing between his lips as he mumbled to himself. I watched him make L-shaped angles with his fingers and scribble notes onto a small pad. He pulled out a measuring tape and snapped it tight. He stacked a few stones here and there and nodded.
He looked sober, so I took a deep breath and got out of the car. I had to face him, and waiting only made me more nervous. When I reached the sidewalk, I cleared my throat, but my father didn’t look up from the notepad. I walked slowly toward the basement door and thought about my idea to get re-baptized next week, but I knew it wouldn’t work. It was too late to fix anything now.
“Sorry, Daddy,” my voice cracked at the quiet apology. I watched his shirtless back bend over the pile of stones.
“I’m sorry too, kid,” he said, without turning around. “I tried.” He wouldn’t look at me.
“I know,” I said, and I waited for a moment, unsure if my father would offer an excuse. Then, I stepped into the basement and let the screen door smack shut.
Later that afternoon, while I watched TV in the living room, I overheard my parents fighting.
“I thought it was going to start at 12:00.” He sounded more confused than angry.
“Well, we got out of church early, so it started early.” I could hear water running and the sound of dishes clinking as my mother stacked them in the drainer. And I could hear in my mother’s voice that she wasn’t interested in my father’s excuses.
“You knew I was coming. Why didn’t you tell them to wait?” I heard the rattling of pill bottles, and the familiar sound of my father tapping aspirin into his hand.
“I never know if you’re really coming. Anyway, you should have been at church,” my mother said, her voice loud and strained, “then you wouldn’t have missed it.”
My father stormed out of the kitchen. “This is bullshit,” he shouted, just as he reached the basement door, slamming it behind him.
I sat frozen on the sofa, stared a hole into the wall above the TV, and wondered who I should be mad at—myself, my father, my mother. God.
That evening, I found my father sitting on the patio outside the basement. I watched him through the screen door. He sat in a white plastic chair, petting the dog, and staring at the nearly finished barbeque pit.
I creaked the door open and said hello. I waited for him to give me a cue, to let me know it was okay to come outside.
“Hey, kid.” He lit a cigarette and stretched his legs out.
“Your barbeque pit is looking good, Daddy.”
“Thanks, kiddo. I think it looks pretty damn good myself.”
“How do you know where to put the stones?” I asked.
He said it was like a puzzle. “Sometimes you have to try a few before you find the right fit, but you find it. There’s too many rocks not to find the right one.”
“Oh,” I said, searching for the right words to let him know I wasn’t mad at him. “Daddy, I’m sorry you missed seeing me get baptized. I should have made them wait.” I felt a lump in my throat.
“It’s not your fault, kid,” he said. “I should’ve left the house earlier, I guess. Doesn’t matter. Everybody likes making ol’ Max look like an asshole.”
“No, Daddy. I know you tried this time.” I wondered if I shouldn’t have said this time.
My father chuckled. “Well, I out to try all the time I guess, but it’s harder than you know, kid.”
“What’s hard?” I sat on the rock wall beside his chair, dangling my legs off the sides.
“Everything. Life.” He shook his head. “But I make it hard on myself.”
We sat in silence for a while, watching the sky shine, then darken.
“Where did you get baptized, Daddy?” I hopped off the wall and moved into a chair across from him.
I couldn’t believe my father had never been baptized; his mother was a Pentecostal preacher. He had grown up in church just like my mother. Just like me.
“How come?” I asked. “Didn’t Grandmama make you?”
“That old bitch can’t make me do shit. She’s always been too busy thinking of her damn self.” My father ran his hand through his hair and tapped his cigarette.
I thought about a Sunday school lesson when we learned about the steps to heaven: repent, get saved and baptized, become sanctified, and get filled with the Holy Spirit. The teacher told us there was only one path to heaven, and we had to follow all the steps or we’d go to hell. I’d seen my father pray, heard him talk to God. But if he wasn’t saved, if he hadn’t been baptized, then did God even hear him?
“Are you going to hell, Daddy?” My felt face tight and hot. The lump was back in my throat.
“Well, kid.” My father looked me right in the eye for the first time that day—for the first time in a long time—and said, “I guess I am. I guess I am going to hell.” He straightened his back and closed his eyes.
I stood up in a panic, frantically looking around the patio, at the house, at my father. “Why don’t you just get baptized now? Tonight. We could call Sister Jane. Or next week? We could go to the creek after church next week.”
“It’s too late, kid. There ain’t no place for a son of a bitch like me in heaven.” My father stood and smoothed my hair. He must have seen the tears in my eyes. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine.” He walked down the sidewalk and disappeared into the shadows where the dog sniffed at some bushes.
I stood for a while longer on the patio and stared into the darkness after my father. I knew he was over by the fence—just out of sight, not so far away. The night air cooled my face; the moon frowned above me, and the light from the kitchen window shined bright like a star calling me away from the patio, from my father. As I turned toward the light of the house, leaving him somewhere outside in the night, I wondered how I could save him.