Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Forget That

Sin is winning with six. I’m keeping score on the back of my church bulletin. Including all versions of the word—sin, sinner, sinned, sinning, and sinful—I bet sin will lead the words most spoken during church. Hallelujah may not be too far behind because I’m counting the one the congregation passes around: up up it goes giving glory to God and slowly falls back down, then like a beach ball at a graduation ceremony— Hallelujah!—someone else sends it back up without letting it touch the ground.

The announcements are slow, most words resting in neutral, taking a break from the race. At the podium, Sister Davis reads them through dark plum lips, shifting her weight between baby-oiled legs after each sentence. “Next Sunday there will be a bake sale after church in the fellowship hall.” She rocks one hip up, sleek calf sliding past sleek calf, kissing beneath her pencil skirt; one hip down, red high heels holding their ground. “All proceeds will go toward scholarships for Vacation Bible School.” I’m back in business: a point for church, fellowship, and Bible. That’s five for Bible; Bible gets a cross-slash. “That’s all the announcements I have for you this morning. God bless.” She turns away from the microphone, clears her throat, and turns back, “Yes, God bless you all.” That’s four for bless and six, no, seven for God.

“What’s wrong with her?” Keisha whispers in my ear.

I lie with a shrug. Sister Davis doesn’t need anybody else in her business. I didn’t need to be in her business, but I couldn’t help putting my ear to the closed door after I saw Pastor Hayes take her by the elbow and lead her into his office after Sunday school this morning. Pastor Hayes surely didn’t need to be in her business, but that didn’t stop him from telling her she needed to dress more appropriately if she wanted to continue reading the announcements every Sunday, suggesting looser skirts, lighter lipstick, and panty hose. 

As Sister Davis walks away from the podium and down the red-carpeted aisle, Deacon Boyd stands up in the front row. He’s a short man, standing only a head taller than my daddy sitting down—thank God it’s not my daddy’s turn to pray; we’d be here all day. Deacon Boyd walks to the podium, pulls down the microphone, and says, “Please rise.” That’s three for rise, and I slide my bulletin inside my Bible before I stand up and reach across the aisle for Sister Price’s hand, my left palm up so she knows to put her hand in mine. My hands don’t like to be held; they start to tingle, go dead. Keisha already knows this and gives me her hand. But my left palm is still empty, so I turn toward Sister Price and see Sister Davis in the aisle, trapped behind the hooked hands of the row ahead, holding her clutch purse under her arm, her Bible to her chest.

“Excuse me,” Sister Davis says. The hands release and she squeezes through. 

I lower my arm and step out of the aisle to widen the path, and Sister Davis walks past the last row, smelling lilac sweet. As the trail of purple flowers shrinks, Sister Price extends her hand, and I step back into the aisle to close the gap.

“Let us pray,” Deacon Boyd says. Another point for pray, and the congregation bows its head. But I turn back and look at the flapping double doors—squeaking loudly at their hinges, as if on behalf of Sister Davis, telling Pastor Hayes to go to hell.

Focus, Taja. This will be the hard part: keeping track of words while my hands are tied up in prayer. Good thing Deacon Boyd’s prayers are as short as his legs. Add one to heaven. One to Father. Pray again. Okay, that’s pray, heaven, Father, pray. One more for bless. That’s pray, heaven, Father, pray, bless. One more for forgive. Another for sin. That’s pray, heaven, Father, pray, bless, forgive, sin. Sin again. And again. That’s pray, heaven, Father, pray, bless, forgive, sin, sin, sin. One more for save. Add deliver. Add heal. Add sickness. That’s pray, heaven, Father, pray, bless, forgive, sin, sin, sin, save, deliver, heal, sickness.“Hallelujah!” says someone sitting behind me. “Hallelujah!” shouts someone across the aisle. One more for Jesus. Another for mercy. “Hallelujah!” again and again. One more for pray. Amen. That’s pray, heaven, Father, pray, bless, forgive, sin, sin, sin, save, deliver, heal, sickness, hallelujah, hallelujah, Jesus, mercy, hallelujah, hallelujah, pray, amen. I release the hands in my hands, sit down, and make my marks with a blue felt-tip pen.

“Hallelujah,” I hear again, but I don’t count it because the choir is singing, and I can’t tally during songs, too sacred; that would be wrong. Voices swoop, soar as the choir sways from side to side, clapping their hands in red robes with sleeves like wings. I clap my hands, too, my right elbow tapping Keisha’s left arm on the offbeats. Sister Wallace stands up in front of us, her wide butt jiggling in our face, laughing at us under her maroon dress. Forget that. We stand up, sing along, and two-step—fun except Keisha is off beat, and it’s hard to keep my rhythm beside confused hands and feet.

On the other side of Keisha, Brandy whips forward, laughing in her seat, and almost hits her big forehead on the wooden pew. Dang! That would have been good. Today, Keisha thinks she’s jamming: bobbing her head and rocking her hips; her mind doesn’t have a clue that her body is as in sync with the music as English words are with Bruce Lee’s lips. I think about leaning over and whispering the truth in her ear, the truth that taps me on the shoulder every Sunday and says, A friend would tell. Yes, a friend would tell the truth so no one could ever laugh at her again. No, forget that. Telling the truth would be a sin. And I’d be a sinner every Sunday if I made Keisha think twice about standing up and clapping her hands. So what if she dances like a white girl. At least she likes moving to the rhythm God put in her ear.

The next song is slow, and we sit down. The notes rise higher than hallelujah in the sky and return like sprinkles, soft beats that tingle. I let them sink in.

“Give another round of applause for this magnificent choir,” Pastor Hayes says, walking into the pulpit, clapping his hands, black sleeves flapping. He puts on his serious face. “Are you ready?”

As soon as I hear the first words of Pastor Hayes’s sermon, I know exactly which one it is—the “Unless You’re Saved, You’re Going to Hell” sermon. He preaches it at least twenty times a year. Shuffling the words like cards in a deck. Doesn’t matter how he cuts them. I know them. Can’t shake them. His words ride the waves of questions and doubts that visit me in bed at night. I pray the waves away with the fear that they mean I’m not saved. Fear that if I die in my sleep, God won’t hear my prayers and I will ride my waves straight to hell.

Swish, swish, swish—thin pages are turning to find the scripture. Time to start counting again. Four for evil. Add wrong, that’s one. Die: two. Eleven for Lord. Add desire. Add heart. Another one for Lord. Trust: one. “Hallelujah!” That’s fourteen. One more for Lord. And another. Trust: two. Five for righteous. Wait: eight. Patiently: seven. Add justice. Three for wicked. “Hallelujah!” Add anger. Add wrath. Five for evil. No, six for evil. One more for Lord. One more for wicked. Found: one. Add meek. Add peace. Five for wicked. Righteous: six. Fifteen for Lord. Add laugh. Six for wicked. Coming: one.

Lord came up in the scripture reading, only one away from sin. But sin is just warming up. Did a few lunges during the prayers. A few stretches, high-knees, and laps around the track. But during Pastor Hayes’ bullet points, I bet sin is about to all-out sprint. Sin: seventeen. Die: three. Add lie. Die: four. Add believers. Seven for mercy. Eight for save. “Hallelujah!” That’s sixteen. Add punish. Sin: eighteen. Sin: nineteen. Add surrender. Three for temptation. Add earth. One more for wait. Nine for heaven. “Hallelujah!” Four for deliver. Blood: ten. Jesus: thirteen. “Hallelujah!” Born again. One, no, two more for sin.

Tallying is keeping me busy so I don’t have to listen—add eternity, hell—and makes me look like I’m paying attention. Heaven: ten. Save: nine. Soul: three. Pretty clever if I may say so myself, but it’s not for everybody. Fourteen for Jesus. “Hallelujah!” That’s seventeen. Keisha tried it—another point for God—but it was too much work, so now she’s back to writing Pastor Hayes’s bullet points inside the lined box with “Sermon Notes” printed at the top. Son: three. Sin: twenty. She’s on the last line of her second bullet point: “Don’t be jealous of sinners who flaunt their sins because they will spend eternity in hell while you’re in heaven.”

“Hallelujah!” That’s eighteen. Forget bullet points and writing sermon notes on lines in a box. Patiently: eight. From now on, the first thing I’m going to do every Sunday is write “Church Words” over “Sermon Notes” with thick blue ink. Add brothers. Add sisters. Eleven for heaven. “Hallelujah!” Wait, hallelujah is only one away from sin. Jesus: fifteen. “Hallelujah!” Save: ten. “Hallelujah!” Hallelujah just took the lead! I look down at Keisha’s sermon notes; she’s on the last line of her third bullet point. Hallelujah could win. Jesus again. And again. When Pastor Hayes starts screaming “Jesus,” that means the end is near. Another blue mark for Jesus—that’s nineteen—even Jesus could win!

Pastor Hayes paces the stage while wiping his sweat and breathing heavily into the microphone. After he preaches, he always does this for a few minutes to add drama or maybe to catch his breath from all the screaming—probably both. The whole choir is looking straight at the director playing the organ, waiting for their cue. Come on, choir. When the choir starts singing, the race is over because they don’t stop until the Closing Prayer, which is always the same: Lord, keep us until we meet again. And while that’s an extra point for Lord, Lord only has—let me see—three blue fences. That’s fifteen points, not enough to win.

My bulletin is covered with short lines and cross-slashes—blue picket fences traveling off the page, tallying the church’s words, little blue clues that the words may not be God’s. I wonder if God even has words . . . maybe the high-pitched sound I hear when I get still. But that’s not really a word; it’s more like a one-note song always on repeat. The director starts playing the organ. If I had to give God’s one-note song a word, then I would pick hallelujah or love. Yes, Jesus would love love! But love wasn’t spoken today. The director waves his hand, and the choir stands. “Are you saved?” Pastor Hayes says, panting in the microphone. Uh-oh, here he goes again. That’s one more for saved. “When you lay your head down at night, do you know where you will go if you die before you wake? Do you?” Die: five. The director waves his hand again, and the choir starts to sing. Yes! Hallelujah wins! “Do you want Jesus to forgive you of your sins? If you do, then come.” The choir is singing so I can’t count anymore. But Pastor Hayes holds up his right hand, a signal for the choir to stop singing, and the choir follows his command. He repeats, “Do you want Jesus to forgive you of your sins?” No, forget that. Hallelujah already won. I’m done.    

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