The Sunday in 1968 when a singing group from Pinewood Bible Institute came, before Berna even got to church she felt like something was different. For one thing, her brother Billy had invited himself along. She was trying to tightrope the edge of the road between the mud puddles and the long wet grass, and he just ran up beside her, stinking and dirty, and said, “Think I’ll go to church with you this morning.”
He was just bored was all, and cold from sleeping in his crash pad out back—but not cold enough to go inside Gerald’s house. He stepped his muddy boots right into the puddles as they walked, like he didn’t even know they were there. He kept scratching in his beard, like he had lice. It made Berna’s head itch, being that close to him. His animal stink made her need to vomit.
She quickened her pace and said, “It’s a free country.” Up ahead, in front of the church, she could see a baby blue van with writing on the side and an orange trailer hitched to the back. Something special was going on this morning. She picked up her pace; she wanted a good seat.
Bible Baptist Church on weekends and school during the week—the only two places her mom allowed her to go when she left the house. Not a single place else. “I’m not going to have a slut in my house,” her mom would say to her. “I see what you are, but you won’t whore around while you live under my roof.”
So Berna went to church every chance she got. It got her out of that house. It was better than school.
Berna loved the music at the church, loved to sing. She never paid much attention to the sermons. The people there knew her, greeted her by her name.
She had lived in the old clapboard house down the street from the church in Ironton since she was nine years old. They’d moved there from Mount Gay when her mom married Gerald. She remembered very little about Mount Gay; she couldn’t remember her real dad at all, except that he’d been shot to death by his best drinking buddy in the parking lot of their favorite watering hole, according to her mom. She couldn’t bring up his face in her memory; it was gone.
Berna had two brothers. The oldest, Bobby, was going to Vietnam very soon, if he wasn’t already there. Then Billy, who lived with two friends in that crash pad they’d built out of scrap lumber and corrugated tin on the back of Gerald’s property, down by the creek. Billy and Gerald hated each other, were one tight word from a fistfight whenever they got within twenty feet of one another. Billy didn’t do anything personal-hygiene wise, and he smelled like one of Gerald’s pigs. His main problem was he was freaked out on acid and grass.
At seventeen, Berna looked more like thirteen in the mirror—pale and freckled, only little bumps for titties. She was small because she made herself vomit after meals, reached right in with two fingers and touched the back side of her uvula and it worked every time. She’d gotten to where she could do it without making much noise. She was determined she would not be a stinking sow like her mommy.
Her bedroom window looked out onto the pig yard in back. The stink of pig shit and creosote filled her sleep. Past the pig yard was a stand of trees—scraggly little cedars and big oaks and maples, and along the creek bank a bunch of mangy locust trees with those light green clusters of leaves that always looked dry and rusty around the edges, even with all that creek water for them to drink—where Billy had his crash pad. Past the creek was somebody’s pasture with three cows and a bull that stayed way off by itself like it was always pissed off about something.
Billy’s pad was in a stupid place because the creek overflowed its banks at least once a year and rose up around the tree trunks. Once it had spilled all the way into the pig yard. Berna remembered looking out at those hogs, standing motionless except for the muck and snot they blew out of their hairy snouts. It made glistening strings from their snouts all the way to the stinking shit water.
But then, Billy was a stupid boy. Even before he’d started freaking out on drugs. The creek would eventually flood his crash pad, and she would laugh.
Gerald’s pig yard was fenced with doubled-up chicken wire nailed to fence posts. Inside was trampled and chopped up mud. Berna’s brothers used to like to hock loogies through the fence at the hogs as they walked by. Once she saw them pissing on the hogs, and the hogs were so lazy and stupid they just lay there flapping their wide ears, not caring a bit as piss splashed all over them. Her brother’s dicks looked weird, like raw German army helmets—not at all like her step dad Gerald’s, which had a sloping hang to it like the length of water hose he used to swat the hogs, but slid out of folded skin in a way that made her think of creatures that live at the bottom of the sea.
Once, when she was eleven, her brothers had gotten her trapped between the house and the pig yard and pulled down her pants and panties, and stood there pointing at her hairless diddy and laughing. Billy had reached and tried to hook his finger up into her, but she’d folded herself away from him. The two of them tripped her to the ground with her pants and panties around her knees, and Billy said to Bobby, “Let’s corn hole her in the front.” Bobbie reached down and pulled out his dick. He was going to do it, “corn hole” her diddy right there in the yard. Gerald saw from her bedroom window and hollered out, “Hey, you boys,” and they jumped up and ran for the creek.
Gerald got them later. Made sure it was where she could see it too. He took off his belt and made them pull down their own pants and underwear, and then he told her to watch and he beat their bare asses and good. He tanned their hides, and them standing there using all the strength and anger they had to shut down their faces so they wouldn’t bust out crying like baby girls. They didn’t try anything on her again after that.
Where was her mom when all that was happening? Berna honestly couldn’t say. So damn careful to keep her home from anywhere she might turn into a slut, and nowhere in sight when Berna could have used her.
But every time Berna came home from school or church, there she was, fat and mean as one of Gerald’s hogs, on the porch in her flower print house dress, even in cold weather, smoking cigarettes and watching cars and waiting for Berna, unless she had to go inside and slice some boloney off the slab or make biscuits or something because Gerald was hungry. She always had something mean to say and one time even slapped Berna across the face and called her a whore just because she was late coming home from church, and she’d just stayed to help the janitor stack away all the basement classroom chairs for a wedding reception.
Berna didn’t know why her mom hated her so much. She would have sneaked around and gone in the back door to avoid her, but that would have made it worse when her mom found out she was there. One day, out of the blue, her mom said, “If you come home knocked up, I will throw you out of this house. We can’t feed another mouth.” Berna had stopped protesting that she was being falsely accused. A fight is what her mom always seemed to want. She just let her mom say her piece so she could get on into the house. She told herself that her mom was crazy. Berna was about the farthest thing you could be from a whore.
Gerald kept coming into her room at night though. For three more years. Then one day he stopped, just like that. Berna was sure her mom had known about it all along—how could she not in that little house—but she never said anything if she did. She just sat out on the front porch, in that metal glider, watching to make sure Berna wasn’t sneaking off anywhere after school or church to be the dirty whore her mom knew she was bent on becoming.
Once Berna said to her mom, “I wish you never married Gerald.”
Her mom sat at the table slicing tomatoes to put on their breakfast plates with biscuits and squirrel gravy. She said, “He’s a good provider.” Then she said, “He’s a good man. You don’t know anything. You’re too young to know.”
Berna said, “You better believe I know plenty.”
Her mom took so long standing up to slap her that she ran from the kitchen to her bedroom. Her mom yelled, “Come back here, you dirty little piece of trash.”
She didn’t go back out. Fuck that fat bitch.
Her mom sat back down into the creaking glider.
One day Berna stole a hook lock from the True Value and put it on her bedroom door, so Gerald couldn’t get into her room, even though he hadn’t come in for a long time. He was walking down the hallway in his green shirt and pants for second shift at the plant, the floorboards creaking with his steps. He stopped and looked puzzled at her as she worked the pliers, turning the latch loop screw into the door facing.
He said, “”What the hell you think you’re doing?”
“Putting on a lock.”
“I don’t remember anybody asking if that’d be okay.”
“Ask who?” She looked hard at him. “Ask you?”
He stepped toward her and said, “It’d do you to remember whose house you’re living in.” He smelled like soap. He’d shaved, but missed a spot, so there was a small triangle of gray and brown whiskers on his chin. It made her laugh at him.
She said, “I’m keeping people out of my room who I don’t want in.” She was going to decide who got to fuck her and who didn’t, and it wasn’t ever going to be him again.
He laughed then, and shrugged like he didn’t give two shits one way or the other.
Her mom looked in the front door, through the living room, and said, “What’s going on in here?”
They’d raised their voices at each other.
“Nothing,” Gerald said. “I’m going to work.”
Like usual, the fat bitch played dumb.
At the church they were nice to Berna. They were clean. A man gave her peanuts and chewing gum every Sunday. He was an old man, and she could tell he wasn’t trying to get at her. He was too old for that. Too nice besides. Everyone liked her, and she felt safe there; she never missed a service.
She walked along to church that morning with Billy beside her. To rib him a little, she said, “Maybe you’ll get saved.”
He said, “Nobody’s going to lay that Jesus trip on me.”
When they got there, people said hello to her, and greeted the stinking hippie beside her as if he were any good clean boy.
The singing group mesmerized Berna. The girls were so pretty and clean and all wearing matching new dresses. Their voices were sweet and high—they were like angels. The boys were pretty too, and she could tell they would treat a girl right.
Then the man got up and preached that you could be crucified with Christ, that Jesus would take away your old ugly life and give you a shiny new one. All you had to do was invite him into your heart.
Berna decided before Preacher Minor gave the invitation that she was taking Jesus up on his offer, trading in her old ugly life for a shiny new one. She went forward before the organist had finished the intro to the invitational hymn. Billy followed her, but she didn’t pay any attention to him. One of the beautiful singing angels took her to a downstairs classroom and showed her Bible verses in Romans, and led her in a prayer asking Jesus to come into her heart and be her lord and savior. Then the girl hugged her and gave her a red New Testament that smelled like clean fresh leather.
“Start by reading the book of John,” the girl said.
This was perfect. Berna leaned out to get another hug. The girl patted and rubbed her back and told her, “Now you’re a child of the King.”
On her way out, Berna picked up a Pinewood Bible Institute pamphlet of the tract table in the entryway. She looked it over as she walked home. The day had gotten bright and warm and sun flashed up from the puddles. Billy loped along beside her, still tromping through mud and water. His boots went splash-suck-clomp-clomp-splash. One big puddle had slimy strings of frog eggs along the edge. Some tiny black tadpoles were wriggling around in it too, stirring up little puffs of silt.
Billy said, “I feel all clean inside. Jesus is real.” He said, “I’m so tripped out on Jesus that I’m not even craving a cigarette—he just took that addiction right from me—and I should be going crazy for a smoke right now.” He swung his New Testament out in front of him as he walked, and whipped his stringy hair from in front of his face with a violence that made Berna wonder how he wasn’t damaging his neck.
The pamphlet had a charcoal drawing of a pine forest printed on the front, and it said, “Go Ye Into All The World.” Inside was information about the institute, where you could train to be in full-time Christian service. There was a phone number.
“I’m going to go to this school,” she said.
Billy yanked the brochure from her hands. Jesus might have taken away his urge to smoke, but he hadn’t taught him any manners yet. He looked at it front and back, and handed it back to her. He said, “That’s good. If it’s your scene.” He looked up and the sky and said, “I’m just going to roll with Jesus.”
At home, Berna called the number, even though it was long distance, and let it ring seventeen times. It was Sunday. Of course they weren’t open. She went to her room and locked the door and started taking inventory of everything she was going to take with her.
Jesus was offering her a new life. This was her chance and goddamned if she wasn’t going to take it.