by Terry Hargrove
My parents were big on church attendance. Not theirs, ours. I went to Sunday School and church services on Sunday mornings, choir practice and more services on Sunday night, Bible study and still more services on Wednesday evenings, and Vacation Bible School for most of June. Then there was the occasional revival, a week of night services where we were warned of the eternal consequences of dancing, women, rock and roll music, and the Communist Party. To all this, add after-school Bible readings held in Mrs. Holloway’s house whenever she returned from Memphis. Whatever sins Mrs. Holloway enjoyed in Memphis that required such absolution, I never discovered, but it was a source of much giggling and speculation among my sisters and their friends. I think it involved Elvis.
One morning between Sunday School and church services, I looked for my older brother Glenn but couldn’t find him. That was serious. I was 11, and no longer cute enough for the church ladies to fawn over, but still too young to sit with the older kids. The last time I’d lost Glenn in church, he’d wandered to the front looking for a bathroom and ended up getting baptized. The unexpected consequence was that he was a decent sort for a while, but I pestered him like the serpent until he resumed his accustomed ways, thrashing me whether I needed it or not.
Eventually, I took a seat in the back pew between our neighbor Mrs. Alderdice and 6-year-old Hi Boys. For years we suspected Mrs. Alderdice was a spy, reporting to our parents whenever we misbehaved. Ah, the foolishness of youth, to think that our neighbor was a church spy. Our sisters were the spies, and they turned us in whenever they could, whether we were guilty or not. But I didn’t know that in 1966.
“Hi, boy,” said Hi Boys. That was nearly his entire vocabulary. He always greeted us the same way and his face was cloaked in a perpetual grin.
“Huh? Yeah, hey, Hi Boys. Have you seen my brother anywhere?”
“No, boy. Hi Boy.”
The singing began, then there were some announcements, prayers, more singing, a sermon, the hymn “Almost Persuaded,” (a plea to the fallen), another song, passing the collection plate, communion, a final prayer, and we were free. For 6 hours. I looked over the entire congregation, but never saw Glenn. When I began the three-block walk home, he miraculously appeared right beside me, and he wasn’t alone.
“What did the preacher talk about?” asked Glenn.
“I wasn’t listening,” I replied. “What’s he doing here?”
He was Eastep, a ne’er-do-well friend of my brother’s. Eastep, who read novels, listened to strange music, had long hair and wore Earth Shoes. Eastep, who scoffed at my Mad magazines and handed me the first Playboy I ever saw. Eastep, exotic representative of a world I knew nothing about, but would soon have to travel through. Worldly Eastep wearing wire frame glasses, who read Richard Brautigan and didn’t belong to any church. Neither did his parents. He was the first agnostic I ever knew, and was surely going straight to hell, and who would, just as surely, drag some of us with him.
“I’m walking down this sidewalk,” said Eastep. He had a way of talking to me that sounded insulting, even when there was no insult in his words. He could insult me without using any words at all.
“Did you go to church?” I asked Eastep. He just stared at me and smiled.
“You don’t know what the sermon was?” asked Glenn. “You need to pay better attention.”
“I sat between Mrs. Alderdice and Hi Boys,” I said. “I looked for you for the whole hour.”
“Mrs. Alderdice will turn me in for sure,” said Glenn. “Ah, well. What can you do?”
“Maybe she won‘t,” I replied. “I didn‘t talk to her, only Hi Boys, and never… make him stop!”
“Stop what?” asked Glenn.
“I can’t stand it when he looks at me like that. Stop it, Eastep.”
“I’m just walking here,” he said. “You need to lighten up.”
“What does that mean?” I demanded. “He’s using hippy talk. I don’t know what that means.”
“Calm down,” said Glenn. “Here, have some gum.”
Gum? Where did Glenn get the money to buy gum? In the miserable financial times of my youth, every penny had to be accounted for. We never received an allowance, weren’t allowed to work, and the only money ever entrusted to us was…no, surely he wouldn’t spend that!
“I spent the money I was supposed to put in the collection plate,” Glenn said calmly. “After Sunday School, I met Eastep and we went to Talley’s market on Second Avenue for an hour. I spent it all on gum, French fires and the pinball machine. The whole 50 cents. And I don’t care.”
And in that instant, everything changed. Glenn was not reduced to a pillow of salt, (I never understood that story), was not cringing in shame, was no longer, and I could scarcely make myself think it, a good boy. And he had gum. Why had he confessed this to me, his mortal enemy? Obviously, Eastep told him to, and I was already making a shopping list of things I would buy in a week with my 50 cents. At my shoulder, Estep smiled and maintained his insulting silence.
All we had to do was hope that Mrs. Alderdice didn’t turn Glenn in.
Oh yeah, and that God wouldn’t notice.
Next post: We challenge the Hargrove Family Mandatory Church Attendance Policy, and a movement is born–but at what cost?