In the church that you grew up in, men who hated liberals and queers spoke in God’s voice. They taught you about the world, scaring holiness into your bones and stuffing your dreams with sulfur. You imagined your friends on fire and wondered what eternity was like. They screamed down the truth in King James English and asked for your Amen. You gave it to them.
The Sunday before you left for college, you knelt beside their pulpit and they covered you with hands and heavy breathing, asking God to go before you. Your aunt called you Jonah and said to show the pagans some true religion. It’s not something you’re ashamed of: you grew up believing.
College was two states east. The people there heard you speak and asked where you were from. You told them and they shook their heads. They said they had never heard of it. There were plenty of things you could have shared that they had never heard of. Tongues. Prophecy. Snake handling. At college, you learned to keep quiet about the things you had seen. You learned to forget.
The first time you got drunk you fell facedown in a field and begged Him not to smite you. You woke up the next morning with throbbing in your head and dirt caked on your knuckles. A friend said he saw you throwing rocks at the sky. You laughed and shrugged your shoulders. How could you have told him that, for you, the drinking was forgetting? And how you forgot that first semester. Damn near every night.
When you came home for Christmas, they asked you to stand up and share. They asked you how God was using you to advance the kingdom. You said something about sharing your faith with your roommate, the unbeliever. They called you a light on a hill and asked for prayer requests. Temptation was all you said. They laid their hands on you and asked Jesus to keep you on the narrow path. You gave them your Amen. You went back after New Year’s and swore you’d write this time.
Just before Easter you met a girl. You saw a Bible at her place and she said that she believed. You drank together down by the reservoir and gave it all away in the backseat of her Accord. You didn’t fall facedown in any fields. In fact, afterwards, you felt about the same.
Summers you pretended. It was easier than you imagined. For one, you were good with words.
Junior year a boy from your church got accepted into the agricultural program. You would see him in the student union, handing out tracts and asking people about Heaven. Most days you got your food and slipped right by. But the times he saw you first and embraced you with a hug and called you Brother Bill, you said that you’d been busy. He said something about lunch. You called him Brother Isaac and promised to do coffee soon.
Later that semester, to prove a point, a lit theory professor ripped a page out of the Bible and ground it beneath his heel. Several students applauded. One got up and left. You sat there and wondered what it was you were supposed to feel.
The Bible was with some magazines in your bathroom. You still read it every once in a while. In reading it, He became distinguishable from them. You realized they were wrong about so many important things. But you realized they were right, too, on some other important things. You read it for yourself, though and made sense of it without the help of their voices.
The hymns you kept. Nights your roommates left you would take your guitar out on the porch and without trying your fingers would find the chords. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, you would hum but never sing. That saved a wretch like me, you would think but never hum.
After graduation you took a job in Michigan. You bought a house in a town where no one asked any questions. You met a woman there and after a couple years together you asked her to be your wife. Weeknights you stop at two beers and watch some television before going to bed. Sundays you lie in bed and hold each other and watch the sunlight spilling through the trees. Most times that’s enough. But some mornings you hear those voices. They remind you. They insist. That’s when you pull her close and smell her hair and try to forget again. That’s when you watch the sunlight and wonder if they will ever stop, or even should.