It’s Only a Second You’re Down
Jamey Chu got baptized on a Thursday night. It just worked out that way. Pastor Dorking said he had already planned a special service with lunch the coming Sunday, and he said couldn’t really have the pool open, not with lunch. Jamey accepted he do a Thursday baptism. “Prayer service is a good time to get baptized,” Pastor Dorking had assured her, enveloping his large, thick hands around hers.
Thursday evening Leanne brought Jamey to a little room in the basement of the small gospel church. It contained only an old, metal-frame bed. Jamey had seen the room before, but had never been in it. The baptismal pool lay to their left, nestled almost as an afterthought just off the hallway. Leanne brought a set of old white cotton clothes on her arm.
“Just change, and wait here.” Leanne’s voice floated light and airy, unattached to anything, the way people’s voices are when dealing with delicate topics. “We’ll let you know when it’s time to come out.” She placed the baptismal clothes the bed and shut the door behind her.
Through the ceiling, Jamie could hear the congregation singing in the prayer service. She couldn’t recognize the song. It might have been something they sang only before baptisms. Or it might just have been the way the ceiling muffled and distorted everything that passed through it.
The light bulb overhead had an old frosted shade. The ceiling itself was dotted with mold stains. The wooden panels down the wall opposite her had started to peel at the joints. Someone had tried to hold back the decay by putting up rails of plastic strip. Jamey wondered who normally used this room. Was it reserved for baptisms? Or for the elderly members to rest?
She flipped through the clothes Leanne had left. She no longer felt as confident about her decision as she had when talking to Pastor Dorking. Too much had happened in between. Her boyfriend Alex had acted very strangely about the whole event. Her mother’s last words, just before Jamey slammed the front door of the house, still rattled in her brain. The cursing had all been in Cantonese, and the Cantonese part of her brain spit back. But its words were as muffled and distorted as the sounds of the congregation above.
Jamey started to unbutton her blouse. “I’ve made my choice forever,…” The lyrics to the old hymn dribbled off her lips as buttery as lies. Fear of losing face was now what kept her from running away.
“Lord, come help me here,” she whispered. “Ma says I’m disgracing my ancestors, Alex doesn’t care. I don’t know why I told him I was ready.” She began unzipping her long blue skirt. “You know I gave my heart to You, and I confess You as my Lord. I confess with my mouth. You are my Lord. Jyun gau ngor…”
Words faded into motions of her mouth, neither English nor Cantonese. Jamey had now stripped to her underclothes. She folded her cream blouse and blue skirt carefully and laid them on the stained mattress beside her. She still felt as if she were only trying to save face with God, telling him what she thought he wanted to hear. She could not make her words penetrate the catacomb of feelings that lay underneath. She didn’t know how to roll away the stone, to lift out those doubts that didn’t have any form or word, to box each one in a prayer language God could hear.
When she saw the baptismal clothes draped on Leanne’s arms, she had worried they would be less than decent. But, on her, they hung loosely and chastely. They seemed content in their own chunky form, hiding both the form of her body and the conflict within.
Only her feet where naked. She had not planned ahead: the nail on the third toe of her left foot needed clipping. Her baby toes splayed embarrassingly wide and flat from a childhood of flip-flops.
She could hear Deputy Pastor Cawley run water in the pool next door. “He’ll be doing the baptism,” Leanne had told her, “him and Sister Doak’s daughter. Remember to hold your nose when he dips you backwards. And don’t breathe ’til you’re up. Don’t worry, dear. It’s only a second or two you’re down.”
Jamey sat at the edge of the bed. She placed her hands in her lap, the fingers of one hand wrapping the fingers of the other, and her two thumbs side by side, ready to hold her nose. She was vaguely aware that the gesture demanded joss sticks sticking up from between those thumbs and the sweet, oily smell of incense rising from the sticks.
A sudden memory overwhelmed her, one of being much smaller, kneeling in front of the altar at her parent’s temple in Hok Yuen. She remembered reciting prayers for her ancestors. The edge of the altar, with its gold railing, would have been just the distance to the far wall: perhaps that was what made it so vivid. She would have joss sticks in her hands, and would be waving them.
Jamey lifted her hands to slide the bangs of her hair behind her ears. The simple, unconscious action broke the image’s spell. She thought about invoking a prayer, but she could not find the will to say anything. The image was so much more a part of her than the Christian imagery she had been lathing over her psyche, like white American icing, for the last year.
“I’m lost,” she said, not to God or to anyone in particular.
Leanne tapped on the door. The congregation was now outside, crooning a quiet, sad song, a capella. She found the dirge, in its own curious way, very welcoming.
Leanne tapped on the door. “Jamey. Are you ready?”
Jamey stood up. After one last glance at the peeling wall where the altar had been, she turned to the door.
“I’m ready,” she said.
DT Richards is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and programming. He’s been published in several Christian anthologies, and has had his work praised in many secular journals. You can read some of his fiction for free at dtrichards.wordpress.com.
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