Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— I keep it, staying at Home— With a bobolink for a Chorister— And an Orchard, for a Dome. . . .
— Emily Dickinson
I stopped going to church the night Diane Pearson announced God filled her cavities. That same night, in the spring of 1973, the police arrested my sister, Sheila. They said she put a pipe bomb under the bleachers where the cheerleaders sat during basketball games. It struck me as odd that God would plug the holes in Diane Pearson’s teeth and let the cops take Sheila, who, through no fault of her own, didn’t quite have a grip on things.
That night, Diane got to church late. Fifteen minutes into the testimonials, she hurried in, clutching her Indian-bedspread skirt so she wouldn’t trip and carrying her Martin guitar the way most girls carry a shoulder bag. From where I sat in the last pew, there was no ignoring her. She yanked the guitar strap from her shoulder and dropped the Martin against the cinder-block wall. It fell hard. She flipped her hair and clasped her hands together under her chin. “Praise the Lord!” she called.
A hush fell. Diane drew a breath, her eyes glistening. “He filled my cavities,” she said. “God did. God filled my cavities.”
The church was silent. Then voices chimed, “Praise God!” and “Alleluia!” Diane started down the aisle with a swift glance at her boyfriend, Winn, who sat across from me. He beamed with pride and blew her a kiss.
Pastor Mike rushed up the aisle to meet Diane. He grasped her hand and raised it high overhead. “Praise God!” he boomed. “He filled your cavities!”
We all poured out of the pews and crowded around Diane. Everyone wanted to lay hands on her. I pushed and shoved and managed a tenuous grip on her elbow. Winn was right next to me. The crowd surged and threw me against his chest, but his eyes were shut as he murmured a prayer, so he didn’t notice. Pressed against him, I closed my eyes and listened to his heartbeat.
Winn was a senior, a year ahead of me. He was big and square, like a linebacker, but he didn’t bother with football. Instead, he worked after school in his father’s construction business. He was a fixture in my fantasies, but in real life he and Diane walked the school hip to hip, reading their Bibles aloud and cutting classes with impunity, since none of the teachers wanted to mess with religious freedom.
Old Mrs. Gill wedged herself between Winn and me to grab a handful of Diane’s hair. She clutched it like a lifeline, waving her free hand at God. At once I saw I’d let worldly matters distract me. God had given us a miracle, and the church fairly shook with rapture. Here was my chance. If I was ever going to be blessed with the Spirit, surely it would be now. I shaded my eyes against distractions and prayed hard.
I was the only one in Winn’s prayer group who hadn’t received the gift of tongues. Winn and Diane even had the gift of prophecy, which, like interpretation, comes with spiritual seniority. Once, they had placed me in the middle of our circle and laid hands on me, sure they could get the Spirit to come. They prayed over me for nearly twenty minutes before something took hold of my tongue and gave it a shake. I held my breath and waited for more, but nothing came. I had two thoughts in quick succession: first, that Winn and the others were waiting, and I should fake it; second, that God was testing me, and I should wait for the real thing.
I knew my Bible and I had faith. I went with my second impulse.
It was just a matter of time. I couldn’t remember when God’s word had seemed anything less than logical. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Who could argue with that?
Then there was the other evidence, night-blooming jasmine and pewter cloudscapes, the sturdy silhouettes of oaks against a golden dawn and the late day cobalt of the mountains behind our house.
I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. I used to hang out with a group of popular girls, but they’d turned to cheerleading, boys, and their parents’ Chablis. I dropped them. I had to. For a while, I gravitated toward the drama group, but Stanislavsky technique just didn’t do it for me.
I steeled myself to being lonely. Then one day, Winn handed me a tract and coaxed me out to a prayer meeting. Five minutes into it, I knew I’d found my place. Sure, my new friends were reformed druggies and kids who’d been held back, but so what? Hadn’t Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well? Didn’t he dine with tax collectors? Every now and then, someone backslid and smoked a joint or dropped mescaline, and then the group rallied around and prayed for the sinner’s salvation. I admired their loyalty to the Christian ethic. I wanted to be one of them, but so far they treated me like a tourist.
Now, in church, I gripped Diane and prayed with everything I had. But after a while, I had to face it. Once again, it wasn’t going to happen. My thoughts kept drifting in the wrong direction. My concentration faltered. Everyone around me was having a loud conversation with God, and the noise was distracting. I loosened my grip on Diane’s elbow and looked at her peasant blouse.
It should have been mine. I’d seen it first, on the rack at Milo’s Thrift Mart. But there was a yellow stain on the front, and the lace on the neck hung limp and gray, so I put it back. Then Diane went in and bought it. She fixed it up, and now it looked great on her. Her fashion instincts were better than mine. I kept hoping she’d take me under her wing and help me improve my look (as well as my piety), but she hardly noticed me.
I let go of Diane and moved around in front of her to check out God’s dental work. She stood with her mouth held open so everyone could see. Sure enough, two back molars boasted shiny new fillings. At prayer group that day, she’d asked us to pray for just this miracle. She said she hated the dentist and cried at the thought of going.
I saw Diane’s fillings and doubt slithered into my mind, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden. The fillings were silver and ordinary. Wouldn’t God have made her teeth whole again? Or used some exotic filling, some heavenly substance? As miracles went, this one seemed suspect.
I backed away from the crowd around Diane and leaned against a pew. No one looked at me. I scuffed the carpet, picked at a thread on my skirt. Then I retrieved my own guitar — a no-name budget model — and slipped out the door and walked home.
We lived just minutes away, in a pink stucco ranch with a neat green lawn framed by junipers. One side of the two-car driveway was reserved for Dad’s twin kayaks, perched side by side on a homemade stand. He built them himself, stretching the canvas over a cedar skeleton. Sheila and I painted them yellow. Our Country Squire was parked behind the kayaks, obscuring my view of the rest of the driveway. It wasn’t until I got close that I saw the police car.
The street was empty. No one had come outside to stare and speculate. The neighbors probably thought the cops were there to collect a donation or offer a medal. We were that wholesome. But I knew better: they’d come for Sheila.
Two days before, the janitor at our high school had found a bomb under the bleachers where the cheerleaders sat. Word spread that it had a radio-controlled detonator. My first thought was that Sheila could have rigged it. She was slow in a lot of ways, a permanent member of the class for special kids, but somehow she learned to connect wires and pieces of metal to make a radio. Dad, with his infinite store of do-it-yourself wisdom, showed her the basics. She took it from there. On top of that, Sheila’s friend Carla had been playing around with explosives. Carla hated the cheerleaders. Sheila worshiped Carla.
When I’d asked Sheila whether she knew anything about the bomb, she’d said no. But when I saw the police car, I realized I was right all along.
Mom and two cops stood in shadow on the wide front steps. Sheila was off to the side, toeing the red and white pebbles that lined the walk.
“They’re arresting me,” she said as I sidled up to her. “Mom’s telling them it’s a big mistake.”
I pressed my fingertips hard against the nylon strings of my guitar. “Was it that bomb?” I whispered.
She nodded and leaned closer. “Carla told me it couldn’t hurt anyone. We just wanted to make a big bang.”
“Did you tell them Carla put you up to it?”
She shook her head, alarmed and emphatic.
Carla hung out with the kids who smoked pot in the bathroom and drank Boone’s Farm in the parking lot — Winn and Diane’s crowd before they got saved. Sheila had fallen in with a bad element. My parents believed she’d outgrow it, just as they probably thought I’d outgrow being a hippie Jesus freak and going to a different church every day of the week.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“Mom called him. He’s meeting us at juvie.”
I took her hand. “It’ll be all right, Sheil,” I said, and I believed it. I trusted God and my parents and everyone else to see that justice was done. Sheila had made a mistake, but no one had gotten hurt, and there were extenuating circumstances. “Don’t worry about a thing,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Jamie,” she said. “I won’t.”
The cops took Sheila to juvenile hall. Mom followed them in the station wagon. “You stay here,” she said to me. “We’ll be back soon.”
Hours later, Mom and Dad returned — without Sheila. I was sitting cross-legged on the gold shag in the family room, watching TV. I switched off the sound and slid onto the couch.
“They’re keeping her overnight,” Mom said wearily, sinking into the child-sized rocking chair that Sheila and I had outgrown, but no one had put away. She raked her fingers through her coppery hair. “Larry says they’ll let her come home tomorrow,” she said.
Larry Sloan was the family lawyer, a former business associate of Dad’s who’d earned his law degree in night school.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Dad said. He yanked at the knot on his tie and then fingered the tack, a miniature gold California bear with a trout in its mouth. Sheila and I had pooled our funds to buy it for him one Father’s Day. Dad loved to fish and always packed two poles when the family went backpacking — one for himself and one for Sheila or me. (He’d given up on Mom long ago.) But Sheila and I hated fishing. The tie tack was a consolation prize. He wore it almost every day, along with his plastic pocket protector and Buzz Aldrin haircut.
“You should have told them about Carla,” I said, indignant. “She’s the one who should be arrested.”
Mom looked at me then. She reached over and took my hand, holding it palm up. With her index finger she traced the fat blue vein that ran up my wrist. It tickled, and I tried to pull away, but she held fast. She turned my hand and narrowed her eyes.
“Why do you bite your nails like that?” she asked.
“Can’t play guitar with long fingernails,” I said.
Mom dropped my hand. My Bible sat on the coffee table, worn and fat with the tracts stuck inside it. Usually, she ignored it. Now she picked it up and stroked its cover. “How was church?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. I hesitated. “God filled Diane Pearson’s cavities.”
Mom replaced the Bible on the coffee table and started to rock. Dad let go of his tie and left the room.
“It’s possible,” I said.
Mom closed her eyes. “All right,” she said. “All right.”
The next day at lunch, I lingered in the shade of the school building and watched Winn and Diane and the others head out toward the tennis courts for the daily prayer meeting. They trooped across the lawn with arms around each other’s shoulders and waists, stopping at the far edge of the school grounds, where they began the meeting with hugs and kisses. I was glad to miss that part. The girls’ embraces were quick, but the boys hung on for a while.
I thought I might skip the meeting altogether and find a quiet bench for solitary contemplation. But when they formed a circle and bowed their heads, I started across the lawn.
I walked as fast as I could without running, holding up the hem of my long patchwork skirt. I’d made it out of scraps left over from home-economics projects. It had a drawstring waist. I got the idea from Diane, who looked like Carole King in hers. I looked more like someone wearing a fancy laundry bag, but the skirt delighted Mom, who thought it was clever. I’d put it on that morning to coax a smile.
I was nearly there when the prayer ended and Winn raised his head and saw me coming. He jumped up and spread his arms. I dropped my ridiculous skirt and froze. Over Winn’s shoulder, I fixed on Diane, with her frizz of honey blond hair and her denim vest with the tiny flowers she embroidered herself. I sent her a smile that begged forgiveness for Winn’s sudden attention. She turned and whispered to the girl on her left. Winn stood grinning at me, arms wide. I forced myself to walk into his crushing hug. Then he released me and gripped my shoulders at arm’s length.
“Sister Jamie,” he said. “We love you. We really love you. We all do, don’t we?”
Heads bobbed. I had to blush.
“Let us pray for your troubles,” he said, taking my hand and tugging me down beside him. Diane reluctantly edged over to make room for me. What could I do? I sat down between them.
“Everyone join hands,” Winn said, and bowed his head. His palm in mine was rough and powdery. Diane gave me her fingertips. I tried to get a better grip, but she eluded me.
Winn’s prayer ended, and Diane’s fingers slithered out of my grasp.
“Did you know they took Carla Moncrief to juvie this morning?” she asked me, loud enough for everyone to hear.
I hadn’t heard. “No,” I said. Mom must have told. Or Sheila. Good. I smiled.
“How can you smile?” Diane demanded.
My smile disappeared.
Diane shook her hair and spoke to the group. “Someone told the police Carla was in on the bomb with Jamie’s sister. She’s a repeater. She’ll go to YA this time.”
YA was the Youth Authority, the place where they sent kids who couldn’t stay out of trouble. Winn and Diane — and, for that matter, most of the others — had friends or siblings at YA. I twisted my lip. I hadn’t known Carla was a repeater.
“Let’s pray for Carla,” Diane said.
Let’s pray for Sheila, I thought, but I bowed my head while Diane said her prayer.
“Good News,” Winn said when she had finished, holding up his worn copy of Good News for Modern Man.
We each carried two books, a Bible and this paperback version of the New Testament in modern English. Diane had crossed out “Man” on the cover of hers and inked in “People.”
“Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians,” Winn continued. “Chapter twelve, verse one.”
I rummaged through my handbag for a colored pencil to highlight the verses.
“ ‘Now, the matter of the gifts from the Holy Spirit,’ ” Winn read. He paused and reached across me to grab Diane’s hand. Startled, I fell back and my Good News flopped closed.
“He filled your cavities,” Winn said to her.
Holding hands across me, Diane and Winn gazed at each other for a long minute. Then Winn let go and returned to the reading. I found my place again and noted that I’d already highlighted most of chapter twelve in green. Winn liked First Corinthians.
“ ‘There are different kinds of spiritual gifts,’ ” he read.
It was possible that God had filled Diane’s cavities.
“ ‘Each one is given some proof of the Spirit’s presence for the good of all.’ ”
No one else seemed to doubt it.
“ ‘The Spirit gives one man the power to work miracles.’ ”
Next to me, Diane underlined assiduously.
“ ‘To yet another, the ability to tell the difference between gifts that come from the Spirit and those that do not.’ ”
I ran the tip of my tongue over my front teeth. One was capped and didn’t match the others. I’d chipped it on a carnival ride. To make the cap fit, the dentist drilled what was left of my tooth down to a stump. I remembered the hot-bone smell of tooth dust as he worked. Up until then, my teeth were perfect, even and white. I’d cried over losing my perfect tooth. I still felt a pang when I thought about it.
“ ‘For Christ is like a single body, which has many parts.’ ”
I went back to the beginning and double-underlined chapter twelve in orange.
“ ‘Not all have the power to work miracles, or to heal diseases, or to speak with strange sounds, or to explain what those sounds mean.’ ” Winn concluded. “ ‘Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts.’ ”
It would never have occurred to me to ask God to fix my teeth.
Winn closed his book, and Diane reached for her guitar. She led us in “Amazing Grace,” tipping her chin on the long vowels so that her fillings showed. When the song ended, Diane laid the Martin on the grass and fished out a shallow basket from her fringed bag.
“We’re collecting for the prisoners at YA today,” Winn said. He patted my thigh. “Don’t worry, Jamie. Sheila will never go there.”
I tried to look reassured.
Diane carried the basket around the circle. When she got back to me, she accepted my quarter and motioned for me to relinquish my seat next to Winn. I scooted over, and Diane sat down, the basket of coins clinking in her lap. Winn put an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. Diane pressed up against him, a mean, triumphant tilt to her chin.
What had I ever done to her? Until that moment, I’d kept my composure. I’d acknowledged self-pity and sinful urges and given Diane the benefit of the doubt. But now I was angry.
“Congratulations,” I heard myself say.
She looked suspicious. “What?”
“Congratulations on your teeth.”
Deciding I was sincere, she gave me a genuine smile — the first since I’d known her. “Praise God! What a miracle!”
“How did he do it?”
“How did he fill your teeth? God, I mean.”
She was ready — she’d probably rehearsed. She ran her fingertips reverently over her cheek. “I was asleep. I don’t know how he did it. I woke up and my teeth were filled.”
“Who put you to sleep?”
She cocked her head and gave me a look of extreme pity.
I went on: “Maybe the dentist put you to sleep. Maybe he gave you a little too much gas and it’s affected your memory.”
“I don’t think so, Jamie,” she said. She spoke softly, and an ecstatic murmur from the others followed her words. A soft “Praise God.” A barely audible “Amen.”
At that point, I think I could have redeemed myself. I could have accepted Diane’s word and asked for forgiveness. I could have kept my membership in the prayer group.
Instead, I stood up and faced her. I tried to smooth my skirt, but my hand was shaking. I licked my lips. “I’m sorry, Diane,” I said. “I’m just not sure I believe you.” Then I clutched my books to my chest and turned away.
As I walked back to the school building, I heard Winn say, “Poor Jamie. This has been hard on her. Let’s pray for Jamie.”
I remembered Lot’s wife and did what she should have done. I kept on walking and didn’t look back.
Mr. Sloan kept telling us Sheila would come home. He filed motions, sent Sheila to a court-appointed psychologist, and made sure she was dressed appropriately and duly penitent. The bomb was Sheila’s first offense. She came from a good home, and her doctor swore to her mental deficiency. Still, she stayed on at juvenile hall.
There was a series of hearings. After the third, Mom came home, sat down at the kitchen table, and put her head in her hands.
“Maybe we should find someone to help Larry,” she said.
“You should fire him,” I said. “Get somebody who knows what he’s doing.”
“Did you know they can put her away for as long as they want?” Mom said. “ ‘Indeterminate sentencing,’ it’s called.”
Dad stood behind her, kneading her shoulders. “It’ll work out,” he said. “Larry knows what he’s doing.” His voice was soothing, but with a worried edge.
Mr. Sloan suggested we ask Sheila’s friends and teachers to write supportive letters to the judge. We jumped at the opportunity to do something useful. I offered to canvass Sheila’s teachers.
Sitting on the rug in my parents’ bedroom, I called Sheila’s English teacher. She wore a tiny silver peace sign on a leather thong and assigned books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. She said she’d be glad to help.
I dialed Mr. Evans, Sheila’s metal-shop teacher. Sheila always got As in metal shop.
“Sure, Jamie. I’ll do it right now,” he said.
I hadn’t anticipated such quick agreement. My confidence rising, I called Miss Baker, one of the gym teachers. She had short iron-gray hair and was always hugging the klutzy kids.
Miss Baker cleared her throat. “Miss Kyle,” she said, “your sister committed a serious crime. She made a bomb — an actual bomb — and put it where people could get hurt.”
I gripped the receiver and whispered, “But you know Sheila. It’s not her fault.”
“We are each responsible for our own actions, Miss Kyle,” Miss Baker said. “Your sister, too. I’m sorry for you and your family, and I’m sorry for your sister, but I can’t write a letter for you.” She stopped. “Frankly, I think she deserves some time in jail.”
“All right,” I said. My voice fractured. “Thank you.” I hung up.
I sat with my hand on the phone as words came to me: For God so loved the world. He loved the world selectively. He gave his love to some of the people some of the time, but not to me. Not to my parents. Not to Sheila. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. He giveth Diane Pearson silver fillings. He taketh away Sheila.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I pulled my knees into my chest and tilted onto the rug. It was brown and beige, with accent strands of royal blue. I pressed my cheek into the nap — hard, so it would hurt. Curled up like this, I began to pick at the blue yarns, pulling them out until a small patch of rug was visibly free of blue. My parents were in court with Sheila. I imagined them coming home and screaming with rage at my willful destruction. I didn’t want to hear them scream. I squeezed my handful of blue yams and shook. Finally, I cried.
I didn’t make any more calls, and I didn’t get up until the room had begun to darken and the bare spot on the rug was no longer visible.
The judge sent Sheila to the girls’ ranch near Coyote, in the sun-scorched Diablo Mountains, forty-five minutes to the south. As Diane had predicted, Carla went to the Youth Authority. Both sentences were indeterminate. I prayed Sheila’s would be short, and Carla would rot forever. I no longer cared this was not a Christian sentiment.
We went to see Sheila as often as we could. Sometimes she got a day pass, and we took her out for a picnic at the nearby reservoir. In good weather, we brought the yellow kayaks. Sheila and I would slide them into the water and race back and forth across the sheltered inlet. Our parents looked on, sitting shoulder to shoulder at one of the scarred picnic tables near the water’s edge.
On one of these occasions, when Sheila had been gone four months, we took the kayaks out past the inlet, to where the water was murky and rough. It was late September, but a hot wind sluiced off the scrubby western slopes of the Diablos, raising whitecaps. Kayaking through the chop was hard, and we soon gave up. We aimed our prows into the wind, letting ourselves drift backward.
“Why don’t you carry your Bible anymore?” Sheila asked.
I just shrugged.
“Do you still go to church?”
“Not since God filled Diane Pearson’s cavities.”
“Wow! God did that?”
“I don’t think God does dental work, Sheil.”
“Oh,” said Sheila. “She lied, then.”
“Yes, she lied. And ever since then, and ever since what happened to you, I haven’t been able to go to church.”
“They make me go here, but I don’t mind. I like it. I think about you.”
We’d drifted out toward the center of the lake. The dry wind scalded my eyes. We sculled the kayaks around.
“I think I’m going to get out soon,” Sheila said. She was in front of me, so I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear the happiness in her voice. I hoped she wasn’t setting herself up for disappointment. I knew she wasn’t lonely. She’d made lots of new friends. One had taught her how to pick locks. Another had explained how to remove a store’s inventory-control tags. So much for rehabilitation.
“I hope you’re right,” I said.
“I am right,” she said and back-paddled, dousing me with water.
From the shore, our parents began to yell and gesture, waving us in.
Sheila came home a month later. She wasn’t allowed to return to our high school, so she attended a different one farther away. I missed seeing her in the halls.
Diane and Winn had graduated the previous June, and, since I’d stopped going to church, I no longer saw them. Someone told me they’d gotten married. Once, I glimpsed Winn in his father’s dusty truck, a huge crucifix swinging from the mirror. Then I heard that Winn and Diane hadn’t married after all, that they’d split up and Diane had joined a commune up in Oregon.
That year, I went about stunned and solitary. On Sundays, I studied or slept late while Mom, Dad, and Sheila went to church. My parents had never questioned my zealotry; now they didn’t question my godlessness.
The following spring, I graduated. I’d won a small scholarship to San Jose State. I planned to enroll in the juvenile-justice program: I was going to fix the system.
That summer, my parents took us backpacking. We drove to Tuolomne Meadows and hiked my favorite trail: up Glen Aulen, past the falls. It was sunny and the sky was a deep lapis blue, but a raw breeze sliced the air. The icy river swelled with the spring melt, flinging itself down ancient granite chutes, crashing through lingering snowbanks.
We walked in silence, single file, stopping often to take in the scenery. Finally, as the sun teetered on the ragged western ridge, we made camp alongside the river.
That night, we climbed the rocky slope behind our camp and sat on a granite dome well above the tree line. The last rays of sun glittered on the highest rock. Downstream, a wedge of luminous sky split rising cliffs.
A hollow tapping began, echoing out over the valley.
“Woodpecker,” Sheila said.
The tapping stopped. We hugged our knees and sat in silence.
There was a flash of orange on the cliff face opposite us. It flickered and flared, then burned steadily.
“Oh, look,” Sheila said, scrambling to her feet. “Rock climbers.”
She made a megaphone with her hands and yodeled. Her voice soared and reverberated. A hush followed. Then came an answering call from the cliff, distant and joyful.
“Are they going to spend the night there?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes,” Dad said. “They rig hammocks on pitons, and that’s how they sleep, hanging out over oblivion.”
“That’s crazy,” Mom said.
Inwardly, I agreed. They were fools, those rock climbers. What if a piton gave? What if the rock cracked and sent them tumbling to their deaths? What would it feel like, that moment of falling, knowing you’d smash on the rocks below? It seemed to me the worst kind of death, a stupid death, almost chosen.
Once, when I was ten, I’d told God I was going to close my eyes and ride my bike across heavy traffic on Blossom Ridge Road. “I believe in you,” I said. “I know you’ll get me safely across.” My Sunday-school class had been studying Elijah, who built an altar, doused it with water, and challenged God to set it afire so that the doubting Israelites would believe in God again. I wanted my own miracle — why not?
Blossom Ridge Road was a busy four-lane. I didn’t look. I shot out of a side street and didn’t stop pumping until I got to the other side. I was shocked at how stupid I’d been. I could have been killed! I vowed I’d never do anything like it again.
It didn’t escape me, though, that I’d made it to the other side.
We sat until the light was gone and then Dad touched the puffy ripstop of my jacket sleeve.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We started down the granite slope toward camp, airplaning our arms for balance. I let my family move ahead and turned for one last look.
Downstream, the sky was black as obsidian, the flanking cliffs two dark hulking masses. I had something to say, but it was a private message, just between God and me. I guess you could call it a prayer.
I said what I had to say and started again across the rock. Stars pierced the inky sky, chilly and bright. There was no moon.