~ from the short story "I Am the Voice Calling in the Desert"
“What on earth are you playing?” my mother asked one afternoon when she stepped out into the yard to hang up the wash. I was barefoot, streaked with dirt, and I’d torn my shirt.
“John the Baptist,” I said.
I must have been quite an affront to my mother in that moment. It broke her heart that I could never manage to keep bobby socks from slipping down and getting sweaty and crumpled in my shoes, and here I was, looking for all the world like a mental patient.
“John the Baptist wasn’t a girl,” she said, reasonably. “If you set your dolls up on the patio you could play school.”
I shrieked and ran around behind the garage where I could kick up dust and preach my sermons in peace.
“Don’t come into my house dirty, Helen,” my mother called after me. “Wash up at the hose and put on something clean before dinner.”
That evening I arrived at the table as she’d asked, clean and in a fresh skirt and blouse, but my mother made her displeasure with me known over supper. She regaled my father with my outlandish behavior as she passed around the stewed beef and mashed potatoes.
“Would you please speak to her, Wallace?” she asked. “Helen is absolutely out of her wits.”
“She’s fine, Joyce,” my father said. It was not uncommon for my parents to discuss me over dinner. I listened with excitement and curiosity—what would they make of me?! I turned my head as if I were at a tennis match. “The girl is fine. You’re just encouraging her.”
“No one’s encouraging me,” I piped up.
“Please be quiet, Helen,” my father said, and we all ate our dinner in tranquility.
As my imaginary life took on more and more significance, my parents grew further and further away from me. It was as if I were in a fish tank and we were watching each other through the glass. They thought they could see all of me, but they couldn’t.
I lived breathlessly in the backyard, baptizing everything I could get my hands on. I splashed furiously in buckets of water and went wild with the garden hose. I called endlessly for my dolls to repent. I made straight the path for the coming of the Lord. The wonderful and terrible thing about preparing for the Second Coming is that it brings with it the Day of Reckoning. I began spending more time than a child should thinking about hell. I looked at strangers in the supermarket with a deep sense of curiosity. Whose name would we find recorded in the Book of Life and who would be cast into the Lake of Fire? On the last day, we are told, all will be made known. Judgment is thrilling but also enough to chill you to the marrow. I began to fear for my parents. I called to them, but they could not hear. One evening, as I played long into the gathering dusk in the backyard, my mother stood in the open door of the laundry porch, framed in light from the kitchen behind her, calling my name. The sight of her pulled me out of what must have looked like a snarling rant of gibberish. I was holding a soaking wet Barbie doll in each fist.
“Mama,” I said.
“Come here, Helen,” my mother said.
She sat on the stoop and held her arms out to me. I went to her like someone in a trance, those outstretched mother’s arms calling to me. She hugged me and pulled me onto her lap. She pushed my matted head against her breast.
“Helen,” my mother said, and I could hear the way her voice echoed in her hollow chest, “what’s happening to you?”
“It’s the end of the age, Mama,” I said.
Her arms went slack around me. Her dress smelled like laundry soap. Her skin smelled of powder and of makeup—wax and animal fat.
“What age, Helen?”
“He comes like a thief in the night,” I said. I could feel hot tears in my eyes, and I knew how they would look, cutting a pink path through the dirt on my face.
“You need a bath,” my mother said. I tried to slip free of her as she stood, but she hefted me into her arms. She was still strong enough to pick me up if she had to.
“No,” I howled, struggling. “Helen, stop it,” she said, her arms like a vice around me. I kicked and screamed and twisted. “Wallace!” my mother shouted. “Please fill the tub. Helen needs a bath.”
My father leapt from his chair in the living room when he saw us. He reached out to take me from my mother’s arms, but she turned us away from him.
“I have her, Wallace,” she said. “Please draw a bath. The girl is filthy.”
In my memory, I fought her valiantly as she struggled me upstairs, stripped me naked, and plopped me into the steaming water my father had readied in the tub. I think, though, I probably flailed and sobbed pathetically. We are rarely as heroic or strong as we fancy ourselves to be. My mother didn’t cry or shout or argue. She held my arm firmly in her right hand and a bar of soap in her left. She scrubbed and splashed until I was clean and so worn out that I sat meekly in the gray, cooling water and let her wash my hair. She was nearly as wet as me by the time she helped me out of the tub and rubbed me down with a towel.
“You have to snap out of this, Helen,” she said as she dried me. “You have to pull yourself together. You’re acting like a baby with this ridiculous business, and I won’t have it anymore.”
She shook me by the shoulders when I wouldn’t look at her. She thought I was being sullen, but I was actually mourning the great gulf that had opened between us, our inability to reach each other across such a perilous divided. How could I feel otherwise when I thought she might soon be lost to me forever? I could imagine her, cowering and small, being cast into the Lake of Fire.
“Do you hear me, Helen?” she asked, holding my wet head in both of her hands.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Now go to bed.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked out of the bathroom and down the hall toward my room, the carpet soft and springy under my bare, wrinkled feet.