FICTION September 8, 2017

Altar Call at Possum Trot

Fiction by Jessica Walker

There’s no comfortable way to sit in a pew, but at fifteen I hadn’t learned that yet. I shifted my weight from haunch to haunch, crossed one leg over the other in search of a position that would make life bearable. Our pastor was in the middle of a screed on Sodom and Gomorrah. I already knew how the story would end. Lot’s family would be warned not to look at the burning cities. Lot’s wife wouldn’t be able to resist a backward glance. She’d turn into a pillar of salt. I wondered why Lot’s wife didn’t have a name. I wondered what held the woman’s gaze as her body changed to stone.

At age forty-five, I would tour Israel as a musician. On a day off, I’d ask to see Lot’s wife, and a guide would show me a column of salt near the Dead Sea. I’d cast my one-eyed gaze on the pillar as a wisp of wind lifted the hair from my face. I’d kiss its base and give it a name. I’d whisper that I had done the same—looked back at the things that formed me, even as they destroyed me.

As the pastor bellowed, my mother rocked in her seat, her violet-veined eyelids closed, her arms uplifted, her lips fluttering against each other. The low tones of an unknowable language came from her mouth.

Speaking in tongues was considered a gift at Possum Trot Holiness Church, but it embarrassed me when my mother lost control. At age thirty-three, backstage in a big city, my top left incisor would crumble and I’d lose control. I’d cry, but I’d play through the pain, and the crowd would weep along to my improvised sax solo. But at age fifteen, I hadn’t yet learned that sound without sense can have meaning. So as my mother prayed, I slumped in my pew and blushed at her foolishness.

I wished my sister Wendy were there. We’d pass notes or underline the dirty passages of the Bible, like the one that never made it into sermons where Lot got drunk in a cave, passed out, and got mounted by his daughters. But Wendy was volunteering in the nursery that day.

Wendy and I were Irish twins—both wheat-blond and hazel-eyed. She was breezing through school with the fawn-like grace of a creature who knew life would always be effortless. I had a lazy eye. The kids called me Quasimodo. I knew they meant Cyclops, but I never bothered to set them straight. I kept myself inside myself and everyone else out. Except for Wendy. She was the only one who ever looked me straight in the eye—cocking her head sideways, squinting her left eye, mirroring my gape. On anyone else, the expression would have been mocking. But I trusted Wendy. Each night she crept to my bed, where we shared secrets until falling mute with sleep.

In the pew, I wrote on the back of an offering envelope, alternating between my name and the name of the pastor’s son—Jeremiah. I wrote in pencil, in faint letters so I could erase the words, so no one would know I dared to imagine myself with a boyfriend. I did not know I was pretty, and I never would. But I’d learn I was fuckable in vans, in alleys behind bars, and sometimes on sheets.

 It was almost time for the altar call. The pianist slid onto the bench and tinkled out “Open My Eyes That I May See.” Two kids in the front row turned to look at me. I covered my bad eye with my hand.  

From age eighteen to twenty-seven I would wash dishes, wait tables, and play hymns and whorehouse blues on subway platforms to earn money for corrective surgery on my eye. The surgeon would make a mistake that could not be undone and leave a hole that I’d cover with an eye patch.

As the congregation trickled to the front, I scanned the room. Jeremiah was not in his usual spot on the back pew. Nor was he huddled at the altar, where his father was anointing bowed heads. There was a covered-dish supper after the service, and Jeremiah was known to ravage his favorite dishes before the meal. I sidled out of the sanctuary. In an empty corridor I heard the timbre of Jeremiah’s voice. I stopped in front of a wall of Crayola renderings of the Garden of Eden and opened a classroom door.

Wendy’s back was against a chalkboard. Her blouse was unbuttoned. Jeremiah was leaning into Wendy, his right arm snaking under her shirt. His pants were down around his ankles, offering me a view of very hairy, very bony buttocks atop stalk-like legs. Jeremiah remained oblivious to me. Wendy broke into a smile over his shoulder and winked.

I stumbled away to the kitchen. A plate of deviled eggs was on the counter. I stuffed an egg into my mouth. I didn’t stop until the plate was gone.

At age thirty-nine I would want a child and rescue a beagle mix instead. I’d take it to the vet for shots, and he’d keep a plate of food on hand for when the injections caused my dog to tremble. “Because you can’t be anxious and eating at the same time,” he’d explain. But I’d have already known that trick for a very long time.

I fled the kitchen. In the bathroom, I stood over the sink, washing my face and scrubbing smears of yolk off my clothing. Soon I was damp but presentable. But the eggs were still agitating me, pushing and straining in my belly.

I stepped into a stall, locked the door, and lowered my face over the water. I shoved my right hand down my throat. I gagged. I forced it deeper. Constriction, movement, evacuation. My insides were outside—yellow amoebic masses floating and sinking in the porcelain bowl. I flushed them away.

I would repeat this gesture again and again. It’d give me the sensation of having everything and nothing inside myself. The acid of my stomach would erode the enamel of my teeth until my incisor crumbled away. I’d become convinced that the hollow space where the tooth used to be was essential to my embouchure—the way my lips met the mouthpiece of my saxophone. An artist’s superstition, everyone claimed. But to me, it was something more—the realest part of my body, the only part I needed to make music.

Back in the sanctuary, the altar call was in full swing, its momentum ascending toward an inevitable climax. The pianist’s hands climbed up and down the keyboard, slapping out “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Kneeling worshippers wept before the altar. Jeremiah and Wendy were in the front row, shoulders touching. She met my eye, winked, and lifted her finger to her lips. And as her eye opened—fully, perfectly—the wink shifted from a secret sign between sisters to something mocking and cruel, like a door locked to me but no one else.

I walked through the scrum and climbed up the steps to the altar. My mother and Wendy blinked in confusion. I had never testified at altar call before.

“Brothers and sisters, I have seen a vision,” I said.

A chorus of “Amens” and “Tell it, little sisters” broke out. I felt the power of a stage. Air rushed into my frame. My spine unfurled from its perpetual slouch.

“I had a vision, direct from God himself . . . that we have a pair of fornicators among us.”

The congregation fell silent. Not a single amen volleyed through the air. The pianist kept playing but modulated to a minor key. I grabbed the sides of the pulpit and continued.

 “It’s not right for the soul to carry such darkness inside. It’ll rot you from the inside out. It’s my Christian duty to bring these sinners into the light. And they are . . .”

I fixed my good eye on my sister, bared my teeth, and drew breath through them.

“Wwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .”

I would never make it past the first syllable of my sister’s name. My diaphragm pushed air from my lungs, through my vocal cords, out of my lips. I listened to the sound I was releasing. It was an F sharp above middle C. I shifted to a D, then a B flat. I realized I had perfect pitch. My lungs were limitless. The note kept going and going, streaming from my mouth into the air.

My sister ran up to the altar, slammed her hand across my face, then fled the sanctuary. I shut my mouth. My mother’s lips formed a perfect “O” of shock. The crowd rumbled, quietly at first, then rising in jagged increments to a roar. I descended from the altar, my shoulders high. I walked to my family’s battered station wagon and waited in the back seat.

At age twenty-seven, I would emerge from anesthesia to see the world through one eye. I’d consider it the loss of something I never fully had. I’d find comfort in knowing the damage was not by my own hand. I would never stop missing my top left incisor.

In the car, I ground my molars and scratched a bleeding mosquito bite on my inner thigh until my mother and Wendy arrived. We rode home without speaking. My mother switched off the radio. The only sounds were the uneven rumble of the motor and the high-pitched squeak of straining brakes. The next day, the silence would remain and I’d need to erase it. I’d use my savings to buy an alto sax.

That night, after several restless hours, I knocked three times on the wall we shared. That was our signal, the nightly invitation for Wendy to join me in my bed. Nothing. I tried again, three knocks. Still nothing. Wendy would never come to my bed. Not that night. Not ever again.

I would name all my saxophones Wendy. I’d claim it was because the sax is a wind instrument. At night, I’d whisper my secrets into the bell of the sax, the air from my lips reaching backward through the body of the horn.

Jessica Walker has short stories published or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Bayou, Ninth Letter Online, Word Riot, Grist, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia and the winner of Bayou's James Knudsen Prize for Short Fiction.
Jessica Walker has short stories published or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Bayou, Ninth Letter Online, Word Riot, Grist, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia and the winner of Bayou‘s James Knudsen Prize for Short Fiction.