When I posted yesterday’s blog, I promised a bonus today – that I would post the short story mentioned in the blog. It’s called Shiny Wet, and it was written in 1997, just about 22 years ago! It was my first attempt at a second person (you-narrator) story and it was inspired by my experience of receiving colorful postcards in the mail, inviting me to attend a new church. When I began to submit the story, it was accepted almost immediately in a teeny newsletter-type magazine called Standard, which is no longer around. Then in 2006, it appeared again in a literary magazine called Bellowing Ark.
So here it is. By me, but at 22 years younger.
A Short Story by
You circled around it for a while. The postcards started coming. The first one showed up in your mailbox soon after the new year, and you were attracted by its soft green color, the color of spring. It reminded you, in the middle of whitest winter, of grass and moss on the trees and the lake on overcast days. You held the postcard, trembled in warmth, and then read the words Real Life scrolled across the front. In a pale gray, a lacy gray, a soft doily of words.
It was from a church. A new church.
And what, you thought, dropping the postcard on your counter, does church have to do with Real Life?
It was cold and it was winter. Snow and icicles. The postcard ended up in your trash can and you forgot about it.
Until the next week. And another postcard. Soft lavender this time, and as you held it, you thought of lilacs and daffodils, gladiolus and tulips. You read the gray doily again.
In business print, but even there, the black was muted and the letters had no edges, the postcard told you about a church with Real People. Facing Real Issues. Real Problems. The letters seemed to darken as they spelled out Divorce. Bankruptcy. Illness. Depression. And then they lightened, and you read Real Solutions. Real Support.
Huh, you thought.
There was no church in your life. No house of God, no retreat, no place you could call truly peaceful. There was only your apartment and your office. Not even your own office, really, but a big room shared with other workers, tapping on computers and half-smiling at you from time to time over their terminals. And there were all the little stores and stops in between. The grocery store. The library, the laundromat. And friends’ homes as well.
You talked with Real People. You smiled and nodded at them every day in the aisles of the grocery store, and over the churning of washing machines and dryers. You talked with friends on the telephone, telling them about your day, your week, your weekend. Sometimes you joined them at the movies, and other times, you stayed at home and watched television.
Your home was your sanctuary. You could walk naked there. There was only you and the television and the refrigerator and the coffeemaker.
Setting down the postcard, you thought of a sanctuary with Real People. The croon of conversation, the shared air breathed in and out in sighs and exclamations and laughs. The easy churning of Real People’s brains as they stopped and thought, paused and spoke.
You didn’t throw away that postcard. You put it on your dresser. And you noted the opening date. The first Sunday in March.
The postcards kept coming. Scattered on your dresser, they threw sunshine and blue skies, bird calls and fresh rain. You began to gather them in the morning before work, stack and shuffle them, and then spread them across the dresser again. Different patterns of pastels each day, and each day, they reminded you of spring. You looked out your window at the snow and ice and bare trees and you smiled.
Driving by churches on your way to work, you slowed and looked at them. Large buildings, concrete and brick, crosses slapped against the sides, or teetering on the roof like a stick figure about to jump. The last church you attended was like these. You remembered the giant crucifix, the figure of Christ, hanging ten times human size above the altar. The dark beige of suffering, the half-closed eyes, lips turned down, hair straggling over shoulders. The only color the red spots of blood on the palms, the crossed ankles. Other statues stood by, eyes downcast, mouths pouting, hands outstretched. The shadows of stained glass bled onto the floor, and you sat quietly in a pew between your mother and father. The priest talked above you, and you could feel the words flying over your head, down the long aisle, and smacking up against the closed wooden doors. If you slipped into a nap, lulled by the muted voices, your father would pinch your arm. If you began playing with your fingers, or the hem of your skirt, or if you swung your heels, your mother would swat your knee with her missal. You tried to join in with the words spoken by the congregation, but they slurred and muttered, and even when you read them in black and white, they blurred together until you didn’t know how to pronounce them. You just opened your mouth and let the sounds come out, blending with other voices, muffled voices that rose in a cloud to the crucifix.
You left as soon as you could, and then only returned on weekend visits to your parents when they would press you again between them. Your thighs would touch theirs and your heads would line up, and you would listen, trying to discern your voice from your parents’, your parents’ from anybody else’s. Until you stopped going home on Sundays.
On the first Sunday in March, you walked into the new church, carrying a pink postcard. You were surprised at the number of people, the crowd as they walked slowly through the doors, looking around, talking softly. The church was held in a high school, in an auditorium, and you smiled as you remembered chorus concerts on a stage, forgotten, then blurted lines during the freshman play. There were doughnuts and coffee, and you smiled again, thinking how you always considered the consumption of sugar and caffeine a fun sin. Choosing an aisle seat, you ate a chocolate doughnut and sipped hot coffee.
When the music started, you stood with the others. The music was light and upbeat, and you were startled when people joined in, apparently recognizing the melody. The words were displayed on a large overhead screen, and you followed along, and suddenly found yourself singing as well. You wondered where that came from, at how easily the words worked their way from your eyes into your throat, and back out again in a voice you hadn’t heard for a long time.
And then you sat down, and the minister began to speak. He was talking about unconditional love, and you half-listened, looking around at the other people, their faces upraised and rapt.
Rapt, you thought. This is what rapt means.
And then the minister said that maybe your father hadn’t been the best. Maybe your mother sometimes turned away. And you sat straight up in your chair.
You remembered words. Endless sentences that began with You always or You never. Questions about Why can’t you ever. And Don’t you ever think. Scowled words, harsh voices, lowered eyebrows.
And you began to cry. Quietly. Tears sliding over the curves of your face to land with soft pats on your shirt. Behind you, someone leaned forward and wrapped her arms around your shoulders. You pressed back against her, and raised your face to the ceiling, letting the tears fall faster, feeling the arms of the stranger rock you, and hearing the minister speak and speak and speak.
When you got home, you gathered all your postcards into a pile and held them to your chest. Then you spread them throughout the apartment, lavender in your bathroom, green in the hallway, pink and yellow in the kitchen, a full bouquet in the living room. Spring was everywhere, and everywhere you looked, you could see the warmth. And you looked, that day and the next, and for many days after, at the spots of color and you were rapt.
The day of your baptism, you traveled to another church, a church established outside of a high school, with your minister. Together, you stepped into a small pool of water. It was cold and you shivered, but the minister steadied you with a warm hand on your shoulder. You felt the water seeping into your clothes.
The minister talked to you quietly, saying he appreciated the time you took to make your decision, and he rejoiced with you in that decision now. He read some passages, and then asked you if you believed. If you accepted.
Yes, you said.
Cupping your hands over your nose and mouth, the minister bent you backwards into the pool. The water lapped by your eyes, and then you felt it close over your head. Everything became a shimmering green and white and you held your breath and listened to the water rush by your ears, press against your body. Noise was gone, everything was gone, there was only the green and white and the whisper of the water. It lasted for long moments. Then you felt the minister’s arm tense around you, and he drew you up, breaking through the water, and you gasped and brought warm air into your lungs. And you felt the warmth spread, flow through your body like blood.
You stood there, and you felt wet. Streams rolled down your face, your shoulders, your chest, over your hips and down your legs into the pool. You were shiny wet. You were all new. The minister applauded.
Hugging yourself, you smiled.