An Apothecary of Errors
The smell of First Baptist is quite a cocktail…something sweet and something else. Aerosol hairspray and clove gum drops. Vanilla body spray and the inside of a cardboard box. Butterscotch and bleach? Burnt coffee and fabric softener? Jason said his church smells like the inside of a hat. I’d have rather gone to his church, the AOE church, any day, even knowing that. Very old chocolate and Pastor Pete’s aftershave. Lily of the Valley and the inside of a baggie filled with magic mushrooms. Poison smells.
I was weirdly into poisons way before Pete barged into my life. Momma told me that when I was very little, I ate rat poison and they had to induce vomiting. I don’t remember that, but maybe that explains it. It was before my dad left, and I don’t remember a thing about him either. It seems like I can’t forget anything when I want to, and I remember things I don’t want to, all the time. I never thought I would have the Doxology memorized. Or the Lord’s Prayer. But here we were, Momma and me, in the front row, Momma’s face blue from the light shining through the narrow stained glass windows. I thought about the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka after she chews the secret gum. That candy factory was full of poisons.
Pete’s sermon was out of Matthew…the part just before Jesus is arrested, when he is praying in Gethsemane. He focused mainly on the cup…the one Jesus keeps praying God will take from him so he doesn’t have to drink it. I had slipped a triple dose of laxative into his coffee that morning, so naturally I started to sweat right along with him because of the coincidence. My shirt collar was fertilizing zits on the shaved part of my neck, and my balls stuck to my thigh. I tried thinking of what it would be like to know you were going to die and have just one night left, when no one else knew but you. Sad to think that even up to the end, Jesus was still trying to bargain. Still asking are you absolutely sure?
We learned about the active ingredient in laxatives in chemistry when we were doing acid compounds. It turns a clear solution pink or orange. It turns your colon into a tweaked out Cthulu tentacle. Caffeine is a stimulant too, and Momma swears by it to get things moving. I think when it’s just you and one parent, you get to know a lot of things about them you’d rather not know. When the coffee doesn’t work, she calls me over to the closed bathroom door and makes me talk to her. She says it helps. She asks me to tell her what I’m studying in school that I like. Chemistry. English. Creative writing. How track is going and what time I’m at. (I say 19:30, and sometimes less. Most often I lie.) How my friends are doing. (I don’t say I only have one left since her new husband made a jerk out of me.) What girls I like. Just Heather, I keep saying. Also a lie. There are things you talk about with your mother while she is trying to move her bowels and things you don’t. This school year I felt bathroom doors closing between me and Momma more and more in my mind. Now that Momma is doing the Twelve Steps, I can’t tell her I’ve been getting high.
Not long before he finally got to the point, that Jesus knew that he was going to die, that his friends would betray him, and while his buddies slept, he stayed awake and faced it, Pete started to pace back and forth on the stage faster and faster. All the while, he kept bending slightly at the waist, so that he looked a little bit like he was doing an imitation of a chicken, or like somebody who’s been hypnotized and thinks they are a chicken. When Pete used to go on revival tours with his son Paul, they did an act that was a little like that. Only instead of a hypnotist saying you are now a chicken, it’s a scam artist preacher saying you are now possessed by the Holy Spirit.
In your cup you may find chastity. You may find temperance. You may find love of your fellow MAN…
Pete began to raise his voice at certain places, to cover up the sound coming from his other end. At the back, it might have been working, but we in the front weren’t fooled. He stopped and started in strange places, too. I tried so hard not to look at Momma. If I saw the look on her face, I would definitely laugh. But when Pete released a particularly loud one, she pinched me in the arm, and I could feel her body shaking with silent laughter. I ignored her as best I could. I bent down and buried my face, first in my hands, and then in my knees.
Just as the CUP of our LORD Jesus. Saved the WORLD. So your CUP. Maysaveyou from ETERNAL DAMNATION…
When the smell hit, there was nothing Pete could do. Even with my head down, there was no escaping it. Once I got my laughter impulse under control, or thought I did, I sat up and worked at loosening my tie. The son of a bitch was in a Windsor knot, which Pete insisted on, just like he insists on every damn thing. Go to church on both Wednesday and Sunday. Don’t curse. Don’t watch scary movies. Don’t listen to rock music. Don’t drink alcohol… even a little. Pray at every meal, including breakfast, even when it’s just cereal. Since when, I asked Momma a dozen times. Since when? Since when do I have to make a point of being thankful to God for Froot Loops? Shouldn’t I be thanking Dr. Kellogg? It makes more sense to thank Toucan Sam than God in my mind.
Do not TURNAWAY. Do NOT sleep brothersandsisters. To give in. To temptation. And SIN will NOT. Relieve. YOUR PAIN.
When I finally got that bastard tie loose enough, I unbuttoned the top of my shirt and pulled the collar up over my nose. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing around and seeing others doing the same thing. Fat Mrs. Appleby was pulling her cardigan over her face like a vampire shielding itself from the sun. Even her B.O. would surely smell better. Amanda Crandall, the only girl at that church who also goes to my school, was crying. For a second, I felt sorry for her. I had other brief thoughts about her, like what was under that long white skirt she wore. Was I grateful that the stink was even more distracting than her dark brown hair and her ankles. A boner in school is bad enough.
If pain would. FILL YOU with fear. Let PRAYER guide you towherever the LORD’S…pathleads.
Pete always wears his best suits for his Sunday sermon. (For his revivals, he wears Kmart because the audience is usually really poor.) They are custom-fitted, and when he wears them, he looks a little like a movie star. I think that’s why Momma married him. His walk and his big dark eyes. She says he saved her from the bottle, but that’s not it. It’s the suits and the way he wears them. His perfect white teeth with just a tiny overbite. Not to mention he played football in high school and has the frame for it. Momma and I aren’t very different. We know what we like when we see it. His suit that morning was brown, luckily! He has one in every color suits come in. This one was dark brown but also gray, and in some lights, kind of golden. The material was just slightly shiny. So when it started coming out, running down his leg and into his shoes, which were also very expensive, and which he spent twenty minutes polishing that morning while he drank his poisoned coffee, only I knew for sure.
Pete’s sermons are usually almost an hour…or at least that’s what it feels like. Long enough that I fight with myself about whether to escape into my own head…a place I don’t like to stay for a lot of reasons. Ankles like Amanda Crandall’s being one. But he cut this one short.
Now I want you ALL to BOW YOUR HEADS AND. Pray. Pray silently and ALONE. Like Jesus at Gethsemane…PRAY. About how you will stay strong in the FACE OF. Temptation.
Pete ran off to the side of the stage then, and the church fell totally quiet. Of course, that’s when I started laughing. Loudly.
Did you know that the most dangerous poison of all can come from just leaving deviled eggs out in the sun? I would’ve thought nightshade was more deadly. Or strychnine, which they used to kill rats with before they just started using blood thinner. Or rattlesnake venom. One time I ate magic mushrooms, and I couldn’t stop thinking about rattlers. And Momma. It’s hard to describe in a story. A poem maybe. I would like to write a poem about poison and put it in my therapy notebook…the kind of poison you avoid and the kind you don’t, and the kind you can’t help not avoiding.
The laxative affected Pete for a few hours, but then he just drank electrolytes and slept for a day, and he was fine. He acted like he was satisfied with the consequences for my actions. The worst had been the looks that those good church-going folk gave me after that service was prematurely over. Mrs. Appleby had put her face very close to Momma’s and hissed something. Amanda had walked past and looked at me like I was a rat of unusual size from Princess Bride. I smiled at her, and she started crying again. Tell me you didn’t, Momma said to me when old Appleby had finished breathing on her. When I said nothing, she gave me the worst look of all. Then she went back to find Pete along with some other concerned members of the congregation. I bolted…ran out the door and halfway home before Momma picked me up. Her car smelled like shit. My tie was ruined.
As much as Pete’s loyal followers would have liked me to never step foot in that church again, that would not have been a punishment. That would have been a reward. Instead, I was grounded for six weeks, during which I was going to help the church with their spring cleaning: shampooing the carpets, washing windows, cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom. That wasn’t so bad, because I hardly have any friends left to go out with. Plus I love the smell of Lysol. But on top of that, I would be forced to see a therapist every week. As if it wasn’t mortifying enough to be living in Jesus camp, now I was going to be sent to some shrink like a crazy person. Word of something like that gets around.
Of course I know now that lots of people, like famous people, have therapists and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just me talking and you listening. I haven’t hated it, and it’s kind of been helpful. The notebook has definitely been helpful, and I write in it a lot. Mostly instead of doing my homework. I was paranoid at first about someone finding it and reading it, because there are secrets in there. But I realize now that I’m proud of a lot of it. If you wanted to read it, I’d let you. Maybe you’d learn something, and maybe you wouldn’t.
By Tuesday at school, I was the basket case who tried to murder my stepfather. Therapy hadn’t even started, and I was already the subject of some serious whispering, thanks probably to Amanda Crandall, and not helped by my girlfriend. Heather laughed when I told her. I threw in some impressions of Pete shitting his pants while preaching. I love the way Heather laughs. She makes no sound at all until she loses her breath and has to suck in. Then she makes a rat-like squeak. She also loves to exaggerate a second-hand story with her own added details. Jason told me the version that got back to him, and that version made me sound like a homicidal maniac. People saying you got a multiple personality and shit, he said. I do a lot of impressions and voices, and I always thought people found it funny, but I see now it just makes me look insane.
By the time lunch was over that day I didn’t want to be at school anymore. Jason and I snuck out and smoked part of a joint in his car on the way to his house. I watched him work on his mural for a while, the one on his bedroom walls. It’s a picture of Jesus lying down in a maze of thorns, but he used the profile of Sammie’s face for Jesus’s face. Sammie was a good friend, a neighbor girl who moved away, and looking at her profile made me feel calm. Sometimes talking to Jason while he’s painting is a little like therapy.
Pete didn’t even act mad. He said boys will be boys. Says Paul did stuff like that a lot.
Sounds like something people say when they’re mad but have the shits and can’t talk much…
Well thanks to Heather I didn’t get away with it did I. Officially I’m a pariah.
If you don’t want people to talk, don’t tell shit to Heather. And don’t poison people.
Why do people say “pariah”? Is it from the bible? Maybe I’ll ask Pete.
It’s Indian. From India. Man you better apologize to that motherfucker.
So wait. I have to clean the church toilets and go to a shrink and now I have to say sorry too? God. Damn.
When it was time for school to let out, Jason dropped me off at home. I figured Momma was still at work and Pete was resting, so I went to the shed to smoke the rest of the joint. Not long after he and Momma got engaged, Pete cleaned out the fiberglass shed in our backyard, which had been full of old junk left behind. Old broken flower pots. A deep freeze that never worked. Lots of pans and dishes covered with cobwebs. A rusty old stove even. Sammie and I used to play house in there. Heather and I had a lot of romantic times in there, most of which got interrupted by wasps who flew out of their paper nests in the corners. Pete cleared out the wasps and everything else (except the mower) and set up a little woodworking shop. He makes toys and gifts out of wood for kids he meets in church and at revivals. He made a pinewood derby car for his son, he told me. But he also makes furniture, and he’s pretty damn good… as much as I hate to say it. Before Pete, our house had just a couch, a TV that sat on a tray table, a couple of old chairs left by my grandparents, and a mattress each for me and Momma. Our house is one of the nicest in the neighborhood, but we never could afford to furnish it. We ate at a card table with folding chairs in the kitchen. My books and games were just stacked against the wall in my room. Pete made our kitchen table and our chairs out of maple, and our coffee table out of oak…built them, carved them and stained them.
When I went to the shed, Pete was in there, sanding big pieces for a couple of headboards. He had on goggles and a paper mask over his nose and mouth, and with the noise from the belt sander, I suspected I could sneak right back out of there. But I only got a couple of feet before I heard the belt sander whirr to a stop.
Samuel…why don’t you come speak to me for a moment, son…
No one calls me Samuel or son except him, and I prefer no one. But I thought Jason was right. I should at least say sorry. So I slunk back into the shed. It smelled like wood dust and Pete’s sweat. He took the last gulps from a bottle of blue Gatorade and put the empty bottle back on the bench.
Want me to go get you another one? I asked.
No just stay here and speak to me a moment, Pete said. He took off his goggles and gloves and wiped off his face with a rag he took from the back pocket of his work pants.
Hey listen. I’m um. I’m sorry. About the laxative. I won’t do it again I promise.
Pete looked down and actually laughed a little, which made me laugh a little, even though my heart was beating very fast, and I could feel the sweat gathering along my spine.
Well there’s no real harm done, is there? Pete said.
I guess not. But I mean. Never did get around to passing that collection plate did you?
I thought that was pretty funny, and for a second it looked like Pete did too. But then he took a giant step forward and took my shirt by the collar. He yanked me over to him, grabbed me by the hair, and bent me over so my face smashed down hard on the bench, so hard that one of my teeth pierced the inside of my lip, and my mouth filled up with blood. The empty Gatorade bottle fell to the floor.
I screamed. Jesus!
Pete tightened his grip on my hair and pressed me down harder. What have I said about saying the Lord’s name in vain now?
He switched on the belt sander and picked it up with his free hand, then brought it very close to my face. I pushed against the bench with my hands and dug my boots into the floor with all my might, but I couldn’t get loose. Pete was stronger than I thought.
Keep moving around and I might make a mistake kiddo. You don’t want that now do you? You want your face to look like that board over there?
I think I said what are you doing. Or please don’t. But mainly I was just screaming. The belt sander was deafening, and I could feel the vibration of it on my skin as it came closer.
Finally, Pete turned it off and slammed it back down on the bench. My ears were ringing. He didn’t let me up, but kept talking while I gripped the side of the bench, hyperventilating. He told me he heard I imbibed the Holy Spirit at Jason’s house. Jason’s mother told him it was the dangedest thing. I started crying, because of course I had just done that for fun and never thought Shonda would believe it was real. I didn’t know whether to tell Pete it was just an act. I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like these nightmares I have where someone is chasing me, trying to kill me, and I don’t know why or where they will turn up, which Momma would say is from the movies I watch.
When he finally let me go, I just crumpled to the ground and sobbed. My blood and tears fell on the floor in a pattern like Fourth of July fireworks.
Now here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to come on tour with me in place of my son. You’re going to spend your summer with me bringing people to the Lord and putting that smart mouth of yours into His service for once…
What did you say?
I said hell no! I’m telling…
But before I could get up off the floor, Pete swung his leg back and landed his boot right in my gut near my hip bone, knocking the wind out of me. While I gasped and sucked the air, he grabbed my collar again and shook me like a doll. My ears were still ringing, and now blue spots floated in front of me, expanding and spreading until the whole shed and everything in it looked blue. My hands were blue. My legs.
You don’t need to tell anybody anything but yes right now young Samuel. Anything but yes will have consequences. Anything but yes and it will be worse than you ever imagined. Worse for you and worse for your Momma. You don’t want to find out how much worse…
I don’t remember how I got out of there. Afterwards, I laid in my bed, crying and plotting. There was a reddish bruise on my belly inside my hipbone, and red streaks on my neck that went away before dinnertime. I took pictures of all of it with the camera I got for Christmas, but by the time they would be developed it wouldn’t matter. I had blood on my face from the inside of my mouth, but no marks. The worst hurt was all over, in my muscles, because I clenched everything for two hours waiting for Momma to get home.
When she did, I didn’t say anything. I cleaned off my face and ate tater tot casserole in silence with Momma and Pete at our new maple table. Placements shaped like poppies. Poppies also make poison. The school had called about my absence that afternoon.
I just don’t know what to do Sam, Momma said, shaking her head in that slow, pathetic way she does that makes her look old somehow. Tell me what I can do…
She began to cry, and Pete rubbed her shoulder gently in a circular motion.
Now don’t be upset Donna Lynn dear, he said. Sam and I had a little talk and I think we might go on revival tour together this summer…isn’t that right Sam?
Don’t cry Momma. Please?
Then Pete started talking about how well-spoken I was and how I could be a big help now that Paul has moved on. How this was just what I needed, and how he just knew I was ready to come to the Lord. I avoided looking at either of them. Momma wiped her nose with her napkin and rested her head in Pete’s neck. I sucked the inside of my lip where my tooth had stabbed it and thought about how long you need to leave a jar of mayonnaise in the sun before it becomes a lethal poison.
Ann Stewart McBee was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her short story collection How Rabbit Went Down and other Mishaps is available from Hoot-n-Waddle press. She teaches English at Des Moines Area Community College. The limited use of her hands due to Rheumatoid Arthritis does not prevent her from writing in the same way that air pollution does not prevent one from breathing.