When I parked in the church lot I didn't turn off the air conditioning or even dare open the door. It was too damn hot for that. I wasn't going to get out for anything anyway, since it was a Thursday afternoon and there was nothing going on at the church, no one around I wanted to see or anything inside that would be of any interest to me now. I remembered everything good enough without having to take a look around to refresh my memory, so I was fine inside the car with the cool air blowing on me while I took everything in one more time.
They'd torn down the old social building where dinners used to be served on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights, where on Sunday mornings before they built the new addition to the auditorium partitions got arranged with chairs so there could be Sunday School classes. Everyone would park and walk down a short gravel path and cross the makeshift bridge over the creek that sometimes had running water in it if it had rained and then go inside to their class. I remember how the windows got propped open and the doors were left ajar in the summertime because it got so hot, but that was all they could do back then because they were a small church just starting out and they couldn't afford to buy air conditioners for the windows yet. The kids would always get through before the adults and run outside to play before worship service, standing on the bridge throwing rocks into the creek if there was water or running around the bases on the ball diamond the men in the church had grated off one Saturday or trying to climb the wire on the backstop that sat behind home plate.
Now there was a new building in the place of the old social hall, and another new addition by the old auditorium, and the gravel path was gone and replaced by an asphalt lane, the creek had been filled in, and the bridge and the backstop were nowhere to be seen. The ball field was adapted for soccer these days, goalposts and yard markers and a locked shed in place to store balls and nets and whatever else was needed for kids to play. There were swing sets and picnic tables and a couple of basketball goals off to the side to keep the children of the church busy at any particular juncture of the week. Over at the back of the auditorium is a new central air unit, and I wonder if such a thing had even been invented back when I went to church here. Probably not. There are a lot of things in use today that weren't even thought of when I was a kid. If I started in making a list I could probably go on until a week from next Tuesday and still not be through.
It was an August afternoon. I'd just come from a funeral and still had to drive eighty miles to get back home, but I'd stopped by here at my old church for just a minute, just to take a quick look. I hadn't been by in a long time.
It was humid like it was going out of style, the way it had always been when I was growing up. When the sun went down I knew it wouldn't help much. It might get dark, but it would still be hot.
I sat in the car thinking about those hot summer nights and how it had been back then.
My mother was to be avoided at church services. I had at last arrived at the age where I wasn't forced to sit with her anymore; now I could sit somewhere else as long as I behaved, finally granted that freedom my older sister and brother had been given before me. The church was only a small chapel then, and there weren't any eleven-year-old boys in the church for me to sit with, so most times I sat by myself in a far corner on the last row or somewhere I wouldn't be on display, getting through the ordeal by reading comic books I'd camouflage inside the Broadman Hymnal or drawing pictures of dinosaurs on the guest envelopes from the pews.
Since there were no boys my age I was given the choice of being in a Sunday School class with four eleven- and twelve-year-old girls or joining a class with my brother and four other junior high boys, aged fourteen and fifteen. I chose to go with the older boys, even though this irritated my brother to no end and I was constantly subjected to my brother and his buddies teasing me and frogging me on the arm before and after class and sometimes during if the teacher wasn't looking.
The church wasn't far from my house, so most of the time I would walk on Sunday mornings and nights and to Wednesday Prayer Meetings rather than ride in the car with my parents. I liked hiking through back yards and rolling hedge apples down a steep driveway on the way, watching them travel down the hill gathering speed and cross the road and smash into pieces against a guardrail. One time a car came along and a hedge apple hit it squarely in the side, and I had to run like hell to get away. Sometimes I'd sit in yards and be purposely late for church, just sit there and pat my dog Joe, making myself late enough so I wouldn't get frogged or pushed around or get spotted by my mother doing something untoward and given a quick lesson on how to behave.
I had my routine down for Sunday mornings and nights and Wednesdays pretty good, but what threw a kink in my plan was when the church decided it was time for the annual summer revival. Some visiting evangelist would always come in on Sunday and hold services all the way up to Friday night, and there was no missing out on any of them in our household. Nobody wanted to go to services six nights in a row, not even my dad, but my mother, as she always had, insisted that if the doors were open, her family would be there. There was no getting around it. You could be dead and you'd still get wheeled in inside your casket so they could count you present.
After the first two Sunday services of the revival, morning and night, sitting in that auditorium in my shirt and tie and sweating like I was inside some wicked witch's oven, I began seriously dreading the next five nights in front of me. It was summer, and I was fine with the temperature being way up there as long as I was out somewhere playing ball or riding a bike or something like that, but I was not good with sitting in a hard pew with fans blowing and sweat dripping down my neck while Dr. Carl Garrison from this huge church in Corinth, Mississippi, screamed and threatened from the pulpit how sinners like me almost always end up burning eternally unless they get wise and see the light and change their errant ways for good. I started trying to figure out a way I could sneak out of the sanctuary and act like I'd been there later on, but though the back doors were open there were always deacons standing there -- my dad included -- greeting visitors and finding a seat for them, and the men never left the entire time except maybe to step outside and have a quick cigarette while the choir was singing the special music before the sermon.
Anyway, I knew it was pretty much impossible to escape, because my mother was always looking around about a dozen times each service to see where my brother and sister and I were. She didn't have to worry about my sister, because Frances was nothing but a goody two shoes and always had been and was going to be right up front and sitting up straight, and all my mother had to do to find my brother was stare down the whole row of laughing boys in the next to last row on her left, but I was harder to find after a while, moving like I did from one row to another to make it harder for her to find me. I thought if somehow I did manage to sneak out one time I could say I was in a different seat and she just hadn't seen me, and if she got used to me moving around all the time she might even halfway believe me.
The truth was I was getting tired of sitting in church for practically all my life and I was starting to get desperate.
I suffered through those first four nights.
Services began at 7:30 each night, which gave anyone who wanted to come get revived plenty of time to have dinner and then clean up and don their Sunday clothes. My dad finally talked my mother into allowing me and my brother to not have to put on our suit or sports jackets for the nightly revivals and to simply wear a dress shirt with a tie, which was a real concession for her back then. Daddy even took to leaving his suit coat at home because of the heat, although he was sort of in the minority with the other men of the church, since most of them had never gone to church without a coat on. Even Dr. Garrison got to the point where about halfway into his nightly tirade about the wages of sin he'd have to stop and take off his coat and drape it over one of the pulpit chairs, otherwise he was possibly going to fall out up there before he got to the part about how hot hell really is and how none of us out there in the pews fanning ourselves had any idea what kind of heat was fixing to come our way.
The main door and the windows were open, and three or four big industrial fans blew the air around, but it didn't help much. We all just sat there scorched and miserable with sweat on our foreheads and our underwear damp, fanning and fidgeting in our seats. For four consecutive nights we cooked and sizzled.
Thoughts of rebellion rose in my mind. I was eleven years old, it was summer, and it seemed cruel and unfair to have to be imprisoned in a hot church and reminded night after night how, sooner or later, I was going to broil forever unless I got wise and changed my ways. Every night Dr. Garrison would reiterate our dour fates, and then the Hymn of Invitation would be sung -- "Just As I Am," "Lord, I'm Coming Home," "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," "I Surrender All" -- and when all the verses had been sung, Dr. Garrison would stop and pray and intone and say let's sing just one final verse and give the lost sinners out there one last chance to let Jesus come into their heart. The verses would all get sung, but it never mattered a thing in the revival scheme of things. The hymn would just go back to the first verse and start repeating all over again. It was like something tortuous that would never end, and I tried to think of some way I could get out of it.
Hot as it was, I still walked to church every night that week, me and Joe, and we'd sit on the hill overlooking the church and the bridge and the piddling creek and the social building that needed paint and was already starting to look like it was falling apart. I kept wanting it to rain, to come up a big thunderstorm and maybe knock all the power out so nobody could see or the lights wouldn't come on, but all it did was keep getting hotter. By Friday night it was so muggy and uncomfortable I almost broke down and rode to the service in the family car, but then I'd have been in there with my mother, having to listen to her tell me how to behave during church and not embarrass the family, tell me over and over how God was watching every little thing all us children did. This was all fine and good with my sister, who was on her way to Heaven already anyway, and for my brother, who'd learned by then to agree with everything Mama said and then tune her out, but mostly I knew her speech would mostly be directed at me, since I was eleven and unable to get completely beyond her control just yet.
On that Friday night Joe and I sat on the hill doing everything in our power not to walk down and cross the road and go inside that holy furnace of an auditorium. Every night the services had grown longer -- more brandishing, more doomsday threats, more prolonged prayers and unending invitations -- and even as young as I was I still had sense enough to know that the last and final service on this Friday night was going to be a humdinger no matter how it got sliced. I would have rather gone and laid down in the middle of the road by the church and let a car come by and run over me than go inside that fiery pit one more time.
But I knew there was no way to get out of it.
I started down the hill with Joe walking along beside me like he was escorting me on my way to the electric chair. We'd always walk together to the front door of the church, and then I'd trudge inside and Joe would go off to a corner of the building where there was shade from the setting sun and wait there for me to come out. Then we'd take the long way home through the neighborhood, he and I free at last on a summer night under the stars.
I was right about Friday's service being the longest one of the week. Not only was the sermon long but everybody who'd come to Jesus throughout the week had to get baptized first in the pool up front, so there was more praying and crying and people thanking God than there'd been on all the other nights. The sermon was about twice as long too, and by the time the Hymn of Invitation got started I was so toasty in my shirt and clip-on tie that I wanted to run up front and jump over that baptismal glass and take a swim to cool off, but I knew they'd probably pulled the plug on it by then, and I'd be diving into an empty pool.
"Softly and Tenderly" went on for probably nineteen verses, starting from the first and going to the last and then winding back through the whole song again. Everybody who hadn't seen fit to get saved earlier in the week either went forward to accept Christ then or rededicate their lives for the third or fourth time or just to go up and start hugging people and hold their hands and stand there with them crying as a unit. There was my sister up there, of course, and my mother, as usual, and to my big shock my brother too, standing there bawling like a baby promising he was never going to do whatever he'd been doing ever again. Me, I was hoping they'd all become missionaries and go off to Africa and save all the natives and cannibals and leave me and Joe behind. In the middle of all this I had an old woman named Mrs. Greer who was about ninety-five turn around in the pew in front of me and ask me if didn't I maybe want to go up and let Jesus save me too. I just nodded my head but didn't move and kept on standing there like a heathen until the music stopped and Dr. Garrison began to talk again.
"We're going to stop for just one more minute," Dr. Garrison said, "and then we're going to sing one final verse. I want to give one more opportunity to whoever is out there wavering, trying to decide in their heart if today is the day they decide to follow Jesus. Maybe it's you and you're thinking it might be better to think about it a little more, to go home and sleep on it and perhaps do something tomorrow, or next week, or next month, but not tonight. Well, all I have to say to whoever is out there thinking all this -- and you know who you are -- is you have never been promised tomorrow. That is not the way the Kingdom of Heaven works."
He paused for a moment to wipe his brow with his handkerchief. He was sweating so much I wondered if he was going to have to stop and wring it out.
"Let me tell you a story," he began. "I had a young man in my congregation a few years back. This young man was struggling with perhaps the same thing you might be struggling with tonight -- he was trying to decide if he should give his life over to God. He'd been thinking about it for quite a while and had even come to my study a few times to discuss it with me. On the night of a revival, in a service much like this one tonight, he stood in the audience trying to decide if he should walk down the aisle. The last verse came and he decided not to. He told himself he'd wait until the next time God called to him and do it then. That night this young man got in his car to drive home to his pretty wife and newborn daughter, and on the way another car ran a stop sign and hit him head-on. He was killed instantly. There was no next time for this young man, no next week or next month. He was dead and gone and his opportunity for eternity was beyond his grasp forever."
The words hung in the air. The only sounds that could be heard were the soft sobs of the saved and redeemed and the fans whirling the hot air around.
"We're going to sing one last verse," Dr. Garrison said, "and give you the opportunity to come down to your savior right now, tonight, for there may be a chance that tomorrow will never come."
"Softly and Tenderly" was halfway through its final verse and imploring all the sinners still out there to come home. I was expecting any instant for old Mrs. Greer to turn around and give me another imploring look and try to make me feel guilty again. I was so hot I thought I was fixing to bubble over, and I wanted to rip off my tie and unbutton my shirt so my scalded stomach could get a little air.
It was right then I saw Joe walking down the center aisle toward Dr. Garrison and everybody up front who was saved and weeping their heads off about it. Joe walked slowly straight ahead and looked from one side to the other at the people in the pews, and I knew he was looking for me and thinking I'd maybe been saved too and was up front there too with all the other folks who were now assured of going to Heaven. The song went on but a lot of people stopped singing and were looking at Joe, and I wondered if they thought Joe might be going up to rededicate his life and earn a spot in Dog Heaven. I thought this was pretty funny and started laughing. Then I looked up front and saw a lot of people frowning and my mother shaking her head looking like the world was ending, and I saw some of the men coming up from the back trying to grab Joe by the collar to throw him outside. That's when I moved from the back row and said "Hey, Joe!" and clapped my hands, and Joe turned around and saw me and wagged his tail and skittered by the hands of those ushers trying to grab him.
He came over to me and I patted him on the head and the music sort of petered out and everyone was looking at us.
So I waved to them and said, "Come on, Joe," and we just walked over and went out the open door into the night.
The stars were out and the moon looked like a banana somebody had peeled. I decided Joe and I would take our usual long way home, since when we did get back to my house my mother was going to light into me about what Joe had done and how I had left before the service was over and how I'd not accepted Jesus and how she was so ashamed and the possibility existed she might never get over it.
The thing was I already knew what was going to happen, how nobody much thought that Joe walking down the aisle during the Hymn of Invitation was funny in the way I thought it was, and I knew that it was stuff like that that meant I was going to be different from them and most everybody else the rest of my life, and there wasn't much that could ever be done about it.