This story is somewhat of a memoir. It happened when I was young. All the various parts of the story are absolutely true. I have chosen to write it as first person narrative, putting myself in Gary’s position. The characters other than Gary and Cindy are composites of people I have known. Gary and Cindy are very true. Gary is a friend and I dated Cindy a few times one summer.
Incident at Sweet Creek
The wind blew through my hair as I cruised through the countryside. My hair now covered the tips of my ears and tickled at the collar. At the end of the school year I was letting my “seminary cut” grow out. Getting shaggy for the summer.
I turned my green ‘69 Impala off I-95 at one of the last exits before the Virginia state line. The exit said Milledgeville, 6 miles. Milledgeville is a failed town. The South is full of them. Two US highways meet there and once there were two thriving truckstops. However, the interstate bypassed it and the truckstops died. The once bustling garage/gas station at the intersection now stands vacant, the roof caving in. There is no business district of any sort. The closest thing is a strip mall of four office fronts which someone has been building slowly over the past decade. It is almost complete. The only other industries in town are a Seven Eleven, a Chicken Palace and Tina’s Hair.
From Milledgeville it’s a fifteen-mile straight shot to Concord. There are no curves, just gentle rise and fall. Milledgeville is where the hilly Piedmont gives way to the Coastal Plain. Instead of the tobacco and pasturage so common in the Piedmont, the Coastal Plain has acres and acres of farmland: cotton, peanuts, soy beans, corn. In all directions, vast fields all the way to the tree line.
Ten miles out of Milledgeville is Sweet Creek. The name comes from the nearby swamp. It is home to a stand of impressive old growth sweet gum trees. People originally called it Sweet Gum Tree Swamp. Somewhere along the way the Gum and Tree got lost and the Swamp turned into Creek. Sweet Creek is not so much a town as a “wide place in the road” as Daddy always called it. We have two streets crossing the state road running between Milledgeville and Concord. Main Street is only paved on the south side of the state road. Church Street is paved on both sides. We have a general store/gas station and a church. That’s it. There used to be a diner at the intersection of the state road and Main Street. The building is still there, but weeds and trees are growing inside it and the roof is mostly gone. Further down Main Street is the pile of rotted wood that used to be the train station. More than fifty years ago the train would stop here. But like I said, that was more than fifty years ago. Across the street from the old diner is the Penney house. It is a large rectangular house with little character except as a refugee from a Haunting of Hill House movie. The kids say it’s haunted, but it’s just an old vacant building. It used to be a boarding house dependent on the diner and train station. A few families live on the unpaved side of Main, near the Penney house.
There are houses only on the west side of Church Street. There are two nice houses – a modern brick ranch and a turn of the century American foursquare house, then Moab Baptist Church and the parsonage. After that are two more turn of the century American foursquare style houses. One is Aunt Viola and Uncle Cleveland’s place, the second and last on the block is ours.
I smiled as I drove the last miles to my old home. It was already the middle of June and the fields were thriving. The cotton was almost knee high and the peanuts were spreading nicely. In most places the corn was at least waist high. It has been a good summer for the farmers so far. As I neared Sweet Creek I passed the old Taylor place. It was a fine example of a Craftsman-style home off to the left with six large oak trees in the front yard. These trees arched over the road and their branches mingled with the sweet gum trees on the far side of the road where the swamp made its closest approach to the town. The effect was a shadowy tunnel at the edge of town. In my mind I called it the Time Tunnel, prompted by a television show a few years ago of that name. I felt that as I passed through the tunnel I was transported back in time and reverted to the boy I was when I left here nearly six years ago. It seems that nothing changes here. Everything is the same as it always was.
Once through the tunnel I turned left onto Church Street. There were all the houses on my left. On my right was the large horse pasture belonging to the Vassor family, local bigwigs. There haven’t been any horses in that pasture in my memory but it was still called the horse pasture.
I pulled into the last driveway before the end of the street. The end was a T intersection with Old Church Street, a hard-packed dirt path farmers used to get to their fields. There was an old cemetery in a nearby stand of trees where the old-timers say the original Moab Church once stood.
My family’s house still stood sturdy, white and foursquare, with its high front porch. There was a separate car shed behind the house and out buildings where Daddy kept his odds and ends. And his bottle of Jack Daniels that Mama pretended not to know about. Mama’s clothesline was strung between the sheds. Behind that was the chicken coop. Further still was Mama’s garden, the envy of all Sweet Creek. The woman could make anything grow.
I pulled in behind Daddy’s Oldsmobile. I saw his rust bucket pick-up was in the car shed. I tooted the horn to let them know I was here, put the car in park and hopped out. I wasn’t halfway to the porch when Mama came bustling out the front door. Hair in a bun, she was dressed in a flower print dress I recognized that brought back a flood of memories. It was covered by an old apron and she was wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“Oh, my Lordy, Gary. I haven’t seen you in ages. Come give your old mama a hug,” she called. She waited while I mounted the porch steps and wrapped her arms around me. I was a full head taller than her. I had been since high school.
“Oh, my boy, my boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she murmured into my shoulder. Then she put her hands on my upper arms and held me at arm’s length. She did this every time I came home and said the same thing.
“Let me look at you. You’re so thin. I’ll bet you haven’t been eating right. Well, we’ll fix that right up.” Turning slightly she called out, “Maitland! Get out here and greet our son!”
My old daddy shuffled out the door. “I’m coming, old woman. I just ain’t as spry as I used to be. Hello, son. Good to see you again.” Then Daddy hugged me, too. He was a little unusual for his generation. Most of the local men didn’t hug their sons, just shook hands. Daddy was a hugger, though. I liked that.
In no time Mama had me in the kitchen with a glass of sweet tea and a large slice of fresh apple pie in front of me.
Mama beamed at me. “Even though we hated that you had to come home late, we were so excited to hear you’re working with the Missions Board. I was the envy of all the old biddies at the Missionary Union meeting when I told them. I’m so proud of you.”
Yes, seminary had ended its semester the last week of May, but I had to stick around for a couple more weeks for meetings with the Board. I had thought being a Missionary was my calling. That was before everything went to hell. I’ll have to break it to them gently. Hell, I haven’t even broken it to myself yet. Not fully. I just need to take it slowly. I’ll eventually work it all out. No need to give Mama ‘the vapors’ as she calls it when she feels faint.
I heard the screen door slam and looked to see Daddy struggling with one of my big suitcases.
“Daddy, I’ll get that. Don’t strain yourself.”
“I ain’t so old I cain’t help my son move back in,” he complained.
“You old fool. You’re gonna bust your hernia,” Mama fussed. Some things never change. It’s good to be back home.
While I finished eating Mama filled me in on all the local gossip. She seemed to know everything and had no trouble telling it and retelling it.
“And I told Brother Crowder you’d be pleased to help with Vacation Bible School,” Mama said. Yes, of course I’ll help. I just wish Mama would let me make the decision. She always jumps the gun, putting me on the spot.
After Mama cleared the plates I moved all my belongings back to my old room. I planned to be here for a couple of months while I figure out what to do. I laid on the bed to rest after carrying everything upstairs. The room was the same it has been since high school. The desk with my boy’s versions of Tarzan, Huckleberry Finn, Jules Verne and a few science fiction books, the tiny trophy from when our debate team won the regional. My Southwest High School pennant was still on the wall. I looked up and noticed for the millionth time the cowboys on horseback riding around the glass cover of my ceiling light. That round up had been going on for at least fifteen years. I was struck by the thought that this was my last summer in this room. Now that I was finished, literally, with seminary it was time to move on. There was nothing for me here in Sweet Creek. Like nearly all the college graduates, I had to move to a city to find a job.
I must have fallen asleep. It seemed like it had only been a moment when I heard Mama tapping lightly on my doorframe.
“Honey, wash up. I got dinner on the table.”
Once Mama washed all the dinner dishes she joined me and Daddy on the back porch. It was broad and screened with a southern view. Mama always said the cooling evening breezes came from the south. We could see Uncle Cleveland’s house next door and the church steeple beyond it. Someone had mowed a lawn and the sweet smell of cut grass hung heavy in the air. I sat with Mama on the glider and Daddy had his old rocker. We watched the lightning bugs flicker their yellow green lights across the yard, looking for love.
“We’re having a welcome home dinner for you tomorrow after church. Just some relatives and the preacher’s family. You don’t mind, do you?” It wasn’t really a question. When Mama wanted to do something she was a force of nature. You just stand back and let it happen.
“Of course, Mama. That’ll be fine.”
“No need to make such a fuss, old woman. You’d think the prodigal son had returned,” Daddy groused.
“He’s no prodigal, but my son has returned. And he knows Mama will always make a fuss over him,” she beamed at me and gently squeezed my cheek. Then Mama continued.
“Margie’s coming down from Portsmouth tomorrow, too. She’s bringing Cindy. She’s staying a couple of weeks and attending Vacation Bible School. She’s the same age as Brother Crowder’s daughter so they ought to get along fine.” Margie is my oldest sister. Cindy would be about thirteen now. What in the world does Mama think she will do with a thirteen-year-old girl for two weeks in this backwoods place?
I sat with Mama and Daddy at church on Sunday. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. Just checking to see if I had turned into a radical hippie now that I had gone to college. I listened attentively to Brother Crowder’s sermon. He came two years ago. Baptist ministers move around a lot. That’s one thing I was not looking forward to. I spent my entire life in the same little town. I like having roots. He was an anomaly for Sweet Creek. He had a college education as well as seminary training. He was probably the most educated man within twenty miles or more.
After all my classes on developing sermons, researching the Bible, apologetics and so forth it was hard not to be a little cynical in assessing the good brother’s sermon. All in all, I think he did a credible job. He’s definitely well spoken. I may need someone like him to keep me sane all summer. I did find a few faults with his message. I don’t think he used the best passages from the Bible to make his point and I don’t think he emphasized the right parts. His message was also a bit too esoteric for this crowd. I saw the eyes glaze over early on. He’ll be fine, though. Just as long as he makes sure to talk about all the bad things happening “out there” and all the decent people among us. Don’t rock the boat and get us all a pass to Heaven. That’s his job.
Once all the hand shaking was done the three of us walked home. Mama immediately put on her “dinner clothes” as she called her wardrobe for cooking while guests were around. Aunt Viola showed up a few minutes later. After giving me a big hug she jumped in helping Mama.
“You boys, relax,” Mama ordered. “Maitland, don’t take off your good shirt. And don’t go out to the barn. I know what you do out there. I won’t stand for none of that foolishness with the preacher in my house.” Daddy managed to look totally innocent of all charges.
It wasn’t long before Margie and Fred drove up. Cindy got out and stood like a princess while her daddy pulled out a large suitcase. Mama went out to greet and kiss everybody and tell Fred where Cindy’s room would be. By that time Brother Crowder and his wife and daughter Renée had also arrived. Daddy did his part by introducing Brother Crowder to Margie, Fred and Cindy. The two girls eyed each other coolly. Renée was a little younger, but the girls were close enough in age that they probably had lots of things in common. The Vinsons showed up also, but Mama had to invite them since they live on the other side of the church. It would have been rude not to. Then I saw Nettie White drive up. Oh, Mama. Can’t you just let it go? Of course, Nettie had her daughter Alice with her. Alice had been a year behind me in school and had a crush on me through most of high school. She was a nice girl, but kind of bland. Not much personality. But Mama thought she was a great match for me. She never missed a chance to push Alice at me.
“Oh Nettie. I’m so glad you could make it. And Alice, don’t you look lovely. Gary come see Alice,” Mama commanded. So I went to see Alice.
“And, Nettie, I don’t think I told you but my Gary is going to be a foreign Missionary. The Missions Board has approved him and he’s going to go to China or Africa or some foreign country and bring the message of Our Lord to all the heathens. Isn’t that just wonderful?”
“Mama. Don’t go on so.” Sometimes she made me so uncomfortable.
“You’re my boy and I’ll brag all I want to. We mothers can do that, can’t we, Nettie? Now Gary, doesn’t Alice look lovely in that dress?”
“Yes, Mama. Hey, Alice.”
“Y’all go talk,” and Mama shoved me so I stumbled forward almost into Alice. We wandered away from the other adults.
“Sorry, Gary. I didn’t want to come, but Mama said I had to.”
“It’s alright. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Yeah, you too. So you really gonna be a Missionary?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a lot up in the air right now. What are you doing?”
“Oh, I got a degree in business. Just an associate degree. From the community college. It got me a job at Weldon Savings and Loan, though. I’m a loan officer.”
“Well, hello Officer Alice,” I smiled at her.
“I moved out of the house, but Mama still drags me places trying to pawn me off on somebody. She’s mortified that I’m 23 and ‘still not married’, as if that’s the worst thing in the world. I guess she’s afraid I’m getting past my ‘use by’ date. It’s maddening.”
“So still nobody special, then?” I liked Alice. I always hoped she’d find someone.
“Wellll, somebody,” she blushed and looked down.
“Come on,” I bumped her. “You can tell me.”
She looked around. “You gotta swear not to tell a soul. I can’t believe I’m telling you but I’m dying to tell somebody. You’re probably the only one who’ll understand.”
“Swear,” I said as I used to when we were kids.
“You remember Phyllis Taylor? She was on the basketball team.”
I had a vague recollection of a mannish looking girl, good athlete, always first string.
“Well, she’s my roommate over at Brooks Manor Apartments. But she’s more than just my roommate.”
“You mean she…. You’re… Oh my gosh, Alice. I’m so happy for you.” I hugged her.
“Now you know why you can’t tell a soul. They’d crucify us. I figured since you’ve been off to college you’re more open-minded now.”
I sidled up closer and said near her ear. “If you need cover, I’m here all summer.”
“Thanks. I just might take you up on that. Get Mama out of my hair.”
The rest of the day went fine. Mama was in her glory having all these people at her table, especially the preacher. It was late afternoon before the last guests left. I had hoped to get a chance to talk to Brother Crowder but he was always in demand. I did say I would see him tomorrow to help sort out the activity equipment for Bible School. We’ll have plenty of time, private time, to talk then.
Monday, I walked over to the church mid-morning. Brother Crowder already had the shed open and was pulling out nets, balls, paddles and various athletic equipment.
“Thanks for coming over. I really need the help,” he said. I immediately got beside him and helped him get it all out.
“First I just need to inventory what we have. I can go buy more if we need it.” We worked for a few hours with little conversation. We didn’t really know each other well. I was already away at seminary when he came here. After a while his wife Patty came out.
“You boys want to take a break? I got some sandwiches and tea.”
“Good idea,” he said. We settled on his patio with the refreshments Patty had laid out. She went back inside.
After we had been eating for a few minutes I broached my subject.
“Brother Crowder,” I began. “You’re an educated man. I respect that. How has that affected your faith? After classes in apologetics, and exegesis and conflicting verses in the Bible and on and on it feels like it doesn’t hold water. It looks like on every front in science, religion is losing. And you’ve got those televangelists like Jim Bakker and such. They are bilking poor people for all their hard-earned money in the name of God. It’s just wrong. Sometimes at the end of the day I begin thinking all this is just a bit farfetched. Maybe we have it wrong. Maybe it’s all a mistake. I just get my head filled with doubt. Am I just wrong? Is that normal?”
“Doubt is what makes our faith strong,” he said with a smile. “We all have moments of doubt. Even the savior did in the garden. God tests us before putting us on the road to what we will be. When you start sweating about your faith it means God is ready to tell you something important. You need to open up your heart and listen.”
“I’ve had my heart open for years now. And all I’ve heard is a lot of nothing. God’s not talking to me. Maybe I’ve picked the wrong field. How can I convert others when I’m still trying to convince myself?”
“Men who wrestle with doubt become some of God’s greatest champions. Look at Paul. He was actually persecuting Christians before God called him. And all the disciples were common men of no great faith. The probably only went to synagogue on high holy days. But once Jesus spoke with them, they knew the glory of God. God speaks to all of us, son. We just have to learn his language. Just give it time. Pray on it. Read your Bible. It will eventually come clear. Just like it’s coming clear to me that we are going to have to buy a new volleyball net.” He smiled and clapped me on the back. “Let’s get back to work.”
I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk with Cindy since she had arrived. I found her Monday afternoon sitting in the TV room looking at a teen magazine.
“How goes it?” I asked.
“I’m stuck here in Hicksville for two whole weeks. This place is so lame. There’s nothing to do.”
“Do you like Renée?”
“She’s okay. She just doesn’t get how deadly dull it is here. It’s like she’s become one of the pod people. How do you manage it?”
“I just smile and think about what I’ll do when I get back to civilization. You can think about all the things you do in Portsmouth. What do you do there?”
“Well, right now my friends are down at the beach checking out the cute guys in their tight bathing trunks.”
“I think I know why Margie sent you here.”
“And there’s the foosball arcade where the cool guys hang out and smoke and the malls. There’s not even a mall around here. How do people live like this?”
“Oh, come on, Cindy. It’s not that bad. Maybe if you play your cards right Granddad will let you milk the cow.”
Cindy screamed and threw her magazine at me as I beat a hasty retreat.
I followed Brother Crowder’s advice and prayed more and read my Bible. It did little to allay my doubts. What I couldn’t bring up with him was my anger at the hypocrisy of the Missions Board. I had recently run afoul of them. I had a big decision to make. I knew which way I was leaning, where my heart wanted to go, but it’s a life-changing decision. How do I know I’m making the right choice?
Brother Crowder asked me to teach a course for Bible School. I told him I was reluctant because I had my own work to do. I was supposed to present four guest sermons at local churches over the summer. I hadn’t even begun to make plans for where to do that.
“Well, it’s a given that you’ll do one here at Moab. I can also speak for Bethel. We’ll have you there one Sunday. I’m sure Concord and Galatia would love to have you come speak. I’ll talk to them.”
“You make it sound so easy. I guess it is easy if I have an insider like you to open the door for me. Thanks.”
“That has nothing to do with it. You’re a home boy. Everybody is waiting to see what you’ll do with your gift. What God has laid on your heart. If you don’t ask them, they’ll be calling you by the end of the summer. And don’t worry about it. I’ll help you with the sermons if you want. I always seem to have a million ideas floating around in my head.”
“Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot. I guess I can teach a course for you in Bible School then.”
Cindy somehow made it through the first week. The second would be easier because she would be busy with Vacation Bible School all week. She and Renée seem to have bonded. They were together every time I saw one of them. They even did a sleep over. I thought the giggling would go on all night.
Early the second week the girls began pestering me about going to see a movie. It seems the new blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure was coming to the local theater this week. I checked the times in the paper and decided we could go on Thursday night. The girls were so excited, until Thursday afternoon when Renée broke out in hives and her temperature shot up.
“I bet she got into some poison ivy. She’s so allergic to it,” Patty said. Although she felt bad for her friend, Cindy said she wanted to see the movie with me anyway. So we had an early dinner and set out for the seven o’clock show.
I thought the movie was great and the special effects were outstanding. It all seemed so real. I said as much to Cindy on the way home. She agreed. She said she was a big fan of the movie. By this time we had just passed through Milledgeville on our way home.
“Why’s it look so orange out here?” she asked suddenly. I realized that the area around the car seemed to be illuminated with orange light.
“I don’t know.” I checked my rearview mirror to see if there was an emergency vehicle approaching. No. We were alone on the highway. “Do you see anything in the sky?” Cindy looked out her window up at the sky.
“Wait a minute.” She leaned forward so she could look directly above us through the windshield. “There’s a big orange light directly over the car.”
“What kind of light?”
“I don’t know. Just a light. It’s so bright I can’t tell if it’s on a plane or something.”
“A plane wouldn’t fly this low or be able to stay over the car. Maybe it’s a helicopter. But why would it be out here at night?” We fell silent. That was when I noticed that whatever the light was, it made no sound. I also noticed the constant night noise of crickets, cicadas and frogs had ceased. All I could hear was the hum of the tires on the pavement. I leaned forward but didn’t see anything. The orange glow was gone.
“It suddenly just shot up in the air,” Cindy said. “Just straight up.”
“Here it comes again,” Cindy said, alarm appearing in her voice. “It’s coming down so fast it’s going to hit us! Go faster! Get us out of here.” I sped up. I noticed the orange illumination was back.
“It’s just following us. What does it want? This isn’t funny. Go faster!”
“I don’t want to go any faster. There are deer out after dark. They get in the road sometimes. If we hit one it could kill us.”
“I don’t care about the goddamn deer. Get us out of here!” She was seriously spooked. Tears were starting to stream down her face.
“I see headlights coming. Maybe they see it, too.” I saw the orange glow disappear.
“It shot up in the sky again,” Cindy said.
The car approached and passed on by.
“Here it comes again,” Cindy screamed. “What do they want with us?”
I was still trying to get a look at it. I held the car as steady as possible and leaned over the steering wheel. I could see part of an orange light. Cindy was right in that it was so bright I couldn’t tell if it was attached to a fuselage or just a free-floating orange ball.
“I’m going to stop and get a better look,’’ I said.
“NO!” Cindy screamed. “We can’t stop. They might get us. Go, go, go!”
The light, whatever it was, bobbed up and down and few more times. I was driving as fast as I dared. I turned on Church Street on two wheels. The orange light disappeared. We roared into the drive and slammed on the brakes. Cindy was in hysterics by now. I ran around to her side of the car, looking up to see if we were followed. I got her door open but she would not be pulled out.
“Cindy. Let go. We’re home. We have to get inside.” She just continued screaming. Daddy and Uncle Cleveland came out on the porch.
“What in tarnation is going on out here?” Daddy demanded.
“Help me with Cindy,” I called. Daddy came down. Uncle Cleveland went inside calling to Mama. Once we got Cindy out of the car she broke from us and dashed toward the house. Mama caught her on the porch and led her inside.
Daddy looked at me and said, “I ask again. What in tarnation is going on?”
I quickly related what we had seen.
“If it was going up and down then it won’t nothing natural. Ball lightning and shooting stars don’t do that. It had to be manmade,” Daddy said, trying to come up with an explanation.
“Let’s go out and see if it comes back,” Uncle Cleveland said. Cindy was in the next room but came running in.
“No. Don’t go out. They’ll get you. Please don’t go.” She pleaded with us.
“Who’s going to get us, honey?” Daddy asked.
“I don’t know. Them.”
Against her advice the three of us went back out anyway. At the end of Church Street we turned toward Concord since that was the last direction I was heading when I last saw the light. We drove half way to Concord but didn’t see a thing.
When we got back Mama said she had Cindy in bed. She was calming down some.
“Maitland. Maybe we ought to call the sheriff,” Mama said.
“Woody? Shoot. He couldn’t find his ass with both hands tied behind him. He ain’t gonna do nothing. Nothing to be done. Whatever it was, is gone.”
“But what was it?” Uncle Cleveland asked.
“Damn if I know. You sure you kids didn’t just imagine it? Maybe you were still excited from the movie?”
“The movie was about a giant wave, not some orange light that chased us home from Milledgeville,” I said testily.
“Now, don’t get riled up. We’re just trying to figure this out.”
“Well, whatever it was, we both saw it and it was enough to scare the daylights out of Cindy.”
“Can’t nothing be done about it now. I’ll call Woody in the morning and ask if anybody else saw strange lights. He’s liable to think we been into the moonshine.”
We agreed that we would not talk about it with anyone else. They’d just think we’re crazy. However, I knew Uncle Cleveland would tell Aunt Viola. That’s all it would take. She is physiologically incapable of keeping her mouth closed.
Cindy refused to sleep alone that night so Mama slept in the bed with her. She refused to leave the house on Friday so she missed the Bible School graduation ceremony. I kept thinking about what we saw. I couldn’t come up with any explanation. I considered UFOs but I never believed in the flying saucer stories and I read in Time magazine that the Air Force’s Project Blue Book proved there was no such thing as flying saucers. Still, what we saw defied all logic. I prayed about it and waited for God to answer. Yeah, you know how that went.
Friday night was hot and I left my windows and door open to hopefully get some air circulation. Just after I lay down a dark form appeared in my doorway. It dashed across the room and dove under my covers. Cindy rolled herself into a fetal ball and pressed herself against my chest. She was not yet ready to sleep alone.
“Did you stop the car?” she asked softly.
“Are you sure?”
“I think so. Why.
“Something touched me.”
I stared at her, stunned.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. But something touched me.”
Had I stopped the car? I honestly couldn’t remember. I was so frantic I don’t remember much about it. The next day I asked Mama what time Cindy and I came in on Thursday night.
“Let me think. McMillan and Wife was just going off, so it was probably about five till ten. I had just mentioned to your daddy that I was getting worried about you two.”
The movie had let out at 9. We were in the car by 9:10 at the latest. It takes exactly 25 minutes to get from town to Sweet Creek. We should have been home by 9:35. How do I account for the extra 20 minutes? Did I stop the car? I don’t remember. I really don’t remember much of that drive. Cindy was frantic and begging me to hurry up. And screaming. I distinctly remember her screaming. But she wasn’t in the car. And now that I thought about it, I never remembered going through the ‘time tunnel’. I always notice that on the way home from town. The harder I thought the farther it got from me. Then something hit my mind so hard it knocked the breath out of me. I cannot figure out what it was, but I’m sure I was outside the car. What the hell happened?
Cindy was still not prepared to leave the house on Sunday. However, she became frantic when she realized she would be alone while we were at church. In the end Mama said she would stay behind with Cindy. I offered to stay instead but Mama said I should go. Nettie White and Alice were supposed to be coming to church today and she had told Nettie that I would sit with Alice so she wouldn’t feel awkward. I just pressed my lips together. I’m twenty-four damn years old and my mama is telling me where to sit in church?
As it turned out, Nettie and Alice didn’t show so I sat with Daddy. The sermon was about faith in things unseen. I could tell Brother Crowder was directing his words at me. In a way, I appreciated his efforts. But his message got me to thinking in other directions. What Cindy and I had seen, we believed in. We had the tangible proof of our eyes, but no one else had seen it and I felt a measure of disbelief from them. I had come to the conclusion that the only explanation was it was a UFO, something from another world. As Paul on the road to Damascus, I have seen the light. Yet the world seemed aligned against me. Flying saucers are a silly figment of my imagination and I shouldn’t believe in them. But I am encouraged, even expected, to believe in things I have not seen. That no one has seen. Walking on water, changing water to wine, bringing back the dead. Why am I to believe stories written down eighteen hundred years ago, and a hundred years after the fact yet not believe what I have seen with my own eyes? It’s about as reliable as the stories of Brer Rabbit I heard as a child. Sitting there, in that pew, I had an epiphany. Religion. It’s all a lie. Every bit of it. I hung my head to hide my tears. I could never build a life on a foundation of such lies.
I wanted to leave the church as soon as the last hymn was sung but the crowd moved slowly. A friend of the family, Loreen, asked after my mama. She was concerned she might be sick. I explained that Cindy wasn’t feeling well and Mama had stayed with her.
“Oh, yes. I heard about the light. I can imagine she is feeling poorly after such a fright.” Yep, it was already gossip. Loreen moved closer and said in a low voice, “Can I tell you a secret?” I lifted my eyebrows but nodded yes.
“I saw it, too.” What? I’m sure my eyes flew open wide.
“I was taking the boys back to their mama’s house on Thursday night.” She was referring to her grandsons. “It was late, already past their bedtimes. Billy was in front with me and said ‘Meemaw, what’s that light over there?’ I looked to where he was pointing and saw this orange light in the distance going up and down. We were riding by Hancock’s farm so there weren’t no trees in the way. We had a good view. It would go way up in the sky, then real quick go down like a falling star till it disappeared behind the treeline. It looked like it was only a few miles away. That would have been near Sweet Creek. I just wanted you to know. You ain’t crazy. Lessen me, Billy and Jay are, too.”
She moved on to talk to other friends, but I was stunned. No matter what anyone said, this was proof that Cindy and I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. It really did happen.
As soon as I got home I threw some clothes in my overnight bag. Down in the living room I told Mama that I had some business in Raleigh to attend to.
“You going to see that woman?” she asked.
“She’s got a name, Mama. You could give her the courtesy of using it.”
“Don’t sass your mama, boy,” Daddy said.
“Her name is Janey. Janey Grant. And yes, I will probably see her while I’m in Raleigh. What’s so wrong about that?”
“I thought you were done with that,” Mama said. “I thought you were moving on. You know she’s no good for you. She can’t ever be the helpmeet you need. She won’t ever be an asset to you.”
“You don’t even know her.”
“I know about her. I know she’s no good Christian. She left her husband over in Concord. Just walked out on him. She’s a married woman. That’s adultery. You can’t be a Missionary and be an adulterer, too.”
“Mama. Get your head out of the sand. This is 1972. People get divorced. At least in Janey’s case there were no children involved.”
“Because she had an abortion! She’s damaged goods. You need to leave her be.”
“That’s a lie! She lost her baby because that son of a bitch beat the crap out of her!” I was close to losing my temper.
“I’m warning you, son. Don’t be using that kind of language to your mama. I ain’t too old to take you down a peg,” Daddy said in a voice that brooked no argument.
“Mama, I have to follow my heart. My heart is with Janey.”
“You’re just a baby. You don’t even know your heart yet.”
“I’m 24. When you were my age you already had Margie and Vernie was on the way. Were you a baby then?”
“Times were different. Let it go, son. This ain’t about your heart. Your soul is at stake. Reverend Stigmon over at Mount Carmel says the adulterers will burn in Hell with the fornicators and homosexuals.”
“Yeah, he says a lot of things that aren’t true. The man is a lunatic.”
“He’s a man of God!” Mama said indignantly.
“Maybe your God, but not mine.” Without giving her a chance to say anything else, I quickly strode out the door and headed to Raleigh.
I was well past Milledgeville before my heart rate settled down and I felt fully in control again. Mama and Daddy have never liked Janey. They believe every bad thing the gossips say about her. They ignore the fact that she ended up married to the meanest drunk in Concord. That she showed up at Reverend Stigmon’s house covered with bruises asking for help and advice. His advice was that her duty was to her husband. His help was to call Jimmy Grant to come get his wife. This precipitated the beating that caused the miscarriage. She was done with Grant. The divorce was final and she had a new life in Raleigh. A life that I wanted to be a part of.
And that was the big stumbling block for the Missions Board. They told me I could not become a Missionary if I continued carrying on my adulterous affair. Jesus disapproved of divorce. That was good enough for the Southern Baptist Convention. Janey’s marriage vow was to keep herself faithful to her husband. If he strayed from the path of righteousness she should be an example to him. How could she help me as a Missionary to bring others to Christ if she couldn’t even bring her own husband, they asked? Their minds were closed on this. So be it.
As the miles clicked past I felt a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I had not even known it was there. An inner voice told me I was doing the right thing. I was following the path my heart was set on. It may not make everyone happy. It certainly wouldn’t make my family happy. But it was right to the only ones who mattered.
told the Missions Board to kiss my ass. Janey said “yes” and whether that night
was adultery or just plain fornication doesn’t matter. It was the joining of
two hearts seeking solace in each other. And it was perfect.