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Sawdust Confessions

You just see once if this don't beat all.

My Virg just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got himself elected VP of the consistory, and ever since that day, the things that washed up our way—well, you just wouldn't believe.

Our church here is vacant, too, and thaf s no picnic because Virg's got to line up talent every week or risk having to read something himself from the pulpit. And I know better than anyone how he can bore the shine off a new Ford. I know because I've listened to him read devotions since he came back from the war in Korea.

So last week he lined up the good Rev. Killespaw, a retired preacher who speaks in proverbs instead of paragraphs. People like him because they say hearing Killespaw is like listening to a recording of his own greatest hits. He knows what'll play well after all those years.

But the thing is, Killespaw calls Virg at eight—that's right, eight o'clock Sunday morning is what I'm saying—and Virg says he knows there's trouble the second he hears Killespaw's voice.

"Sounded just like what you hear on a record if the needle doesn't come down just right," he told me when he put down the phone. "His voice is shot."

Now I don't enjoy admitting that what happened was pretty much my fault, but like I say, I been listening to Virg read the Bible after every meal most of my life, and I didn't want to share that kind of pleasure with our congregation, who're already tired of the who's-up-today? show you get whenever you don't have your very own undershepherd.

So I thought of Madalyn, whose daughter Sarah married a man whose name I can't always remember. But I knew this much—the guy is a preacher in some sawdust church someplace halfway to nowhere. Madalyn says that whenever they visit, it takes her nerves a week to settle—thaf s how ashamed she gets of what happens in that barn her son-in-law calls a church.

Brandon, that's his name. Sounds like someone with class, but you can't always tell a book by its cover.

So I figure if s either my Virg or this carnival Brandon. And after all, how small are we if we keep a preacher of the word off our pulpit because he's not of our particular persuasion?

"Call Madalyn," I told him. "Her son-in-law is in town. He'll preach."

Virg looked over at me and started laughing.

"Well," I said, looking down at my watch, "then we'll just have to page through that book and find something for you to read."

Virg would rather tear wood shingles off the county courthouse in one-hundred-degree heat than stand up in front of people. He glanced up at the clock himself, then back at me, and his face went sour. "Whaf s her number?" he asked.

Now this Brandon might be handsome if it weren't for the scrag-gly sideburns and a mole the size and color of a penny right on the corner of his eye. Some people, I'm sure, could even like him some if they were used to him. Takes all kinds.

But last Sunday he came up in our pulpit like it was the one good thing he never had a chance at in a life that was about to close down. He led the first song with his arms pumping, which just isn't done here. But for that we can forgive him.

Then he looked down at the back of the bulletin and said that right now we're supposed to confess our sins. Any ordinary fool knows that means saying the same words all the preachers say and then reading the Ten Commandments. Anyone but Brandon.

"Maybe what we ought to do," he said, "is have each of you turn to the person to your left and tell him or her your iniquities."

Iniquities, he called them.

"Then turn around t' other way. Go on now. I'll give you a few minutes to share your sins with your brothers and sisters in Jesus."

It just isn't done. I don't have to tell you that.

But he looked down at the pulpit Bible and started paging through, looking for the sermon passage. We didn't have a choice. All over the church people turned to their left and looked at folks they'd known, inside and out, for their whole lives. Talk about uncomfortable.

Madalyn said her daughter didn't hesitate. She whirled to her left and faced her mother.

"Mom," she said, "sometimes I get so mad at you I could just about croak."

Now I ask you, what does a decent woman say to that right there in church? Madalyn says she wanted to slap her face or walk out or scream bloody murder, but she did what just about everybody did—she bit her tongue and turned away from her daughter, looked to her left, and stared straight into the eyes of her husband, Bill. There she stood, she said, full of venom, and at first she couldn't even talk.

"What's with you?" he said.

"I think I hate my daughter," she told him.

"Now what'd she do?" Bill asked.

And it went on from there, Madalyn said, and she's not over it yet.

But what happened to me is another story. I turned to Virg right away, and he said to me, "What'd on earth did you get us into here anyway?"

I didn't want the blame, so I changed the subject. "That's no sin," I told him. "You're supposed to confess your sins."

Right then, I think, his tongue slipped backward down his throat because the whole place was chaos, and he figured he was the one in charge of the mess.

But I could see that everyone was talking, and I didn't want to act like some stick-in-the-mud. "Just one," I told Virg. "I won't ask you for any more. Just one."

Virg swallowed, just like he would have if he'd been up front like I should have let him be. "I don't know," he said. "I can't think of one just offhand."

"What about that time you and I were in that supper club in Maurice," I told him. "You remember the dress that lady—"

"That was twelve years ago!" Virg said.

"It'll do," I told him. "Just tell me."

"Why should I tell you? You already know!"

"It's good for the soul," I said.

"Nonsense," he said.

Anyway, by that time, all around me people were turning their backs and switching partners. I knew very well who I was sitting next to— Beamer VerSluis. Lights on but nobody's home—if you know what I mean. I figured I could tell him I was the Hillside Strangler and he'd only smile.

I glanced up at Brother Brandon who looked as if he wasn't about to say another word till tomorrow afternoon. Then I turned to Beamer. He's maybe thirty, and he rides this green moped all over town picking up empty beer cans. He's a simple boy.

"Lloyd," I said, because I figured I should use his real name in church, "you know what's happening here?"

"You're going to tell me your iniquities," he said, with the kind of grin you see at suppertime on a man who hasn't eaten all day.

I figured, what the world. It's like talking to my Kelvinator.

"Lloyd," I said to him, "I think sometimes I talk too much."

He pursed his lips.

"Really," I said, "sometimes I'm not even proud of what I say about people. Not that I'm a gossip really. I mean, people trust me. They tell me things all the time, you know? But sometimes I fight the very words that slip out of my mouth. I can go on and on—"

"That's right," he said, interrupting. "You sure can."

"You're supposed to listen," I said.

"I'm just being nice," he told me.

"It's not like a major sin or anything," I said. "I mean, it's not some—"

"Just try to shutup sometimes," Beamer said.

Can you believe it? I was just playing the game, you know. The truth is, I was wondering what Virg was hearing because he was listening to Phyllis Adderly, and the Lord only knows what that woman does with her Saturday nights.

"Try to be quiet," Beamer said. "Work on it."

That's right. He told me to be quiet—a man with the brains of a cantalope.

"The Lord'll help you," he said. "I know he will. He keeps me from sin. He does."

"Is that right?" I said, and all at once I remembered how the whole town figured it was Beamer behind those strange fires that broke out in abandoned bams—four of them last year in two months. "What's he keep you from, Beamer?" I said.

"From sin," Beamer said.

"I mean, really?" I said.

And right at that moment Brandon breaks it all up, telling us we're bound now to go and sin no more.

I'd almost forgotten we were in church, and here I was, a minute away from getting something really worth hearing. That kid would have let it slip too, I'm sure.

So the whole thing was just an exercise in futility, just so much jabbering. Crazy. Just crazy.

And would you believe that all Virg said when we got home was that he really never knew Phyllis Adderly all that well before.

"What'd she say?" I asked him.

He pulled up his nose. "It doesn't matter anymore," he said, filling his mouth with beets.

"Virg," I said, "you're my husband."

But he wouldn't say a thing.

And would you believe it?— ever since Sunday I've had pain galore in my lower back again. Sure. I'll tell you, it wasn't anything at all but a huge waste of time.

But I know this. People in our church won't forget it right away. No, no, no. That wild-man preacher won't be back in our pulpit, even if his sermon wasn't half bad—at least thaf s what was said. He's dangerous, that man.

And wouldn't you know?— since Sunday, everytime I see Beamer aboard his moped, he gives me a big wicked smile. Doesn't say a word or even peep his horn or wave. Just smiles.

Lord, we need a preacher.