CHURCH BURNED TO GROUND
The burnt ruins of the First Church of God’s Wanderers shocked churchgoers Sunday morning. Eyewitness and burn victim Calvin “Oat” Jenkins said the following: “I was just getting there ahead of time for Sunday School, and the place was on fire.” The cause of the fire is under investigation. Items destroyed in the fire include twelve oak pews, a podium, six boxes of dry cereal, and the Candle Stand of Holy Wonders. Church members will meet in the second-grade classrooms at Alcott Elementary School. Donations accepted.
– Pottowa County Gazette
I do my job well. Every day, I light all of the candles carefully, little flickering fireflies dancing in glass cages. I light one for Mary Capshaw, who is pregnant again but doesn’t know it yet. Tamara Mitchell gets the next one; she has to have a little nip of vodka even in church. Her husband has more than a little nip. He doesn’t come to church at all.
Next, I light some candles for the children. Children don’t have it easy. I should know. I used to be one. “Calvin, don’t play with matches. Calvin, put down those fireworks.” My mother always kept me away from fire.
I love fire. I love the light it makes. I can stare at the base of a flame for hours, appreciate the movement and the colors. I think I want to go to Hell; I heard there’s fire all the time.
I came to The First Church of God’s Wanderers because they said the pastor preached fire and brimstone. It was very disappointing when not a single flame came jumping out of his mouth. I didn’t see no brimstone neither, just spit and sweat. The people in the audience always look like they’re waiting for some fire-breathing circus act, too. They lean forward and wave their hands around, all excited like it’s Christmas morning.
The circus really does have the best fire. I’ve been to the circus nine times. Those men coated in spangles swallow fire easy like it’s a hamburger and fries. I listen intently whenever Pastor Beckworth talks about Hell: I want to know how to see the big fires I thought I might find at church.
“Pastor Beckworth,” I said one Sunday, “how’d you get to this Hell place?”
“Mr. Jenkins,” he began in his booming voice, “now, why would you be wanting to know that! Would you like to pray the sinner’s prayer? Sister Campbell-Carter will pray with you, won’t you, Sister?”
Sister didn’t want to pray with me. I could tell, but she told me to get on my knees anyway.
“Repeat after me,” she said, waving her gloved hand back and forth in front of her nose for some reason.
I said the prayer. I also lit three candles that afternoon. Not knowing how long I would have to wait before I got to go to Hell, I went to bed. The next morning, I was still in my little bedroom in my little apartment on Eighth Street above the bakery. Sister Campbell-Carter had led me through the wrong prayer.
My job includes putting out new candles. I pick the brightest colors from the candle closet. The flames look better if the candles are red or orange. They each go in their own special holder, a little glass cup. I make sure all the rows are straight. Each cup has a scripture sticker on the front that I pick out.
I hide behind the podium with the baptismal font and listen to the people talking to Pastor Beckworth. I hear all the secrets of the town. One time, Esther Carson kissed the pastor right there in the second pew. Sure, he acted surprised, but he kissed her again. It was just like on my shows. Secret love. Of course none of those people are churchgoing folk.
“Oh, Esther, that is a sin,” the pastor said while gripping her hand.
“But, Pastor Beckworth, don’t you like it? Don’t you want to kiss me?”
“Yes, Esther, but it’s a sin. You will have to light five candles for forgiveness.”
They kissed and kissed and kissed some more. They didn’t know I was watching. They sounded like two cows chewing their cuds. No one else ever knew what happened. Esther never lit any candles either. I lit them for her, five glowing reminders of her adultery. I lit five candles for Pastor Beckworth, too.
Catherine Marie Munson didn’t see me behind the podium when she stole money out of the offering plate. Pastor Beckworth left it sitting in plain sight in case some poor person needed money to tide them over for the week. Catherine Marie didn’t need any cash. She owned the church, the town, and most of the county. Her three dead husbands had provided well for her.
“Come to me, little quarters and dollar bills,” she chuckled to herself, as she stuffed money down her shirt, the change dropping to the floor.
I tried not to gasp. Pastor B, as we sometimes called him, always made a big pitch on Sunday morning for everyone to give to the poor. “We got a lot of needy people here in Pottawa County. Think about them starving, sleeping outside, being cold. Now, how much does the Lord want you to give to the needy?”
The congregation practically threw dollars at the plate on Sunday mornings. Small children gave away their candy money, and Pastor B made a big show of emptying his wallet into the brass plate. The regular offering plates were made of sterling, and I have seen Pastor Beckworth empty the silver plate money directly into his wallet.
Mary Capshaw didn’t know I was there when she came and knelt in the front row. Her pencil-thin fingers clenched into fists and pounded the red velvet altar carpet as her skinny knees trembled. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” she pleaded.
She was new to town and didn’t have many friends. I wanted to come out and comfort her but thought I might scare her. I lit a candle for her instead.
Catherine Marie and the ladies’ auxiliary came by later for tea, cookies, and Bible study.
“I hear that Mary lost another baby,” Catherine Marie said (almost triumphantly, in my opinion, like Mary didn’t deserve to have a child). Everyone deserves to have a child, even Miss Munson and Miss Esther.
“Now, Catherine, that isn’t very nice,” the other ladies clucked.
“Do you like my new ring? It came from a super-expensive jewelry store in New York. It cost—” She whispered the cost so low I couldn’t hear from behind the baptismal font.
I don’t much like that Catherine Marie. Neither do the other ladies in the auxiliary. I hear them talking about her sometimes after church. They say she must have killed off all those husbands. They also say she spends too much money on those fire and ice jewels she wears. I never seen that woman wear any fire on her hands, but I watch closely just in case she might. I would like jewelry made out of fire.
Martha Sue Beckworth, the pastor’s wife, always says Catherine is going to Hell for something called “materialism.” Martha Sue spends a lot of time in the sanctuary. She likes to dust the pews and is nice to me. She sings real pretty hymns. Her voice is just like what I imagine the angels sounds like. I guess she’ll be going to heaven. Every once in a while, I find peanut butter sandwiches in the office that must be for me. Peanut butter is only for special people. My mama made peanut butter sandwiches.
Last week, I lit too many candles. It was a hard week with lots of sinning and sadness. All of the candles tipped over and sent flaming red trickles of wax splashing against the walls. Little flickers of fire burned the wood walls. The fire burnt into the plaster on the walls, making smoky pits that grew slowly into a full-fledged fire. I tried to stomp it all out with my work boots, but I couldn’t get to every fire. I couldn’t reach the smoldering pieces of wall that fell as the candles scattered around me. They all dropped to the floor and shattered their little glass holders. I grabbed the remaining candles and tossed them at the pews like baseballs. The wax dripped red and sticky, burning fireballs across my fingers and arms, forming around me like a cast. My clothes were covered with the wax, and I spun around sending out spider webs of red and orange, the blood of a thousand sinners.
I figured I was finally in the fires of Hell. I tried to capture the fire in my hands; I tried to get those little flames to dance along with me. I could hear music, and the loud rejoicing of the other fire-lovers called to me in the background. Maybe that sinner’s prayer worked after all! I will never know. Pastor Beckworth got there early to prepare his sermon and pulled me from the church.
“Brother Jenkins, I have saved you,” he said in his big exaggerated preacher voice, loud enough for everyone to hear. The ambulance and firetruck drivers, the ladies’ auxiliary, his wife, and Catherine Marie all witnessed his bravery. He made sure of that.
“Let us pray!” He shouted. “Thank you, Lord, for protecting us all from this tragedy, and especially for saving the life of Brother Jenkins. Let us be thankful that we have our lives. We can rebuild a church, but we cannot rebuild a soul. Now pray, people. Pray.”
By the time he finished, I was in an ambulance headed to Mercy Hospital. I ate the peanut butter sandwich I had put in my pocket for lunch while I waited for them to check my burns. The wax embedded in the bread just added to the flavor. For a few joyous minutes, I could still taste the fires of Hell.
Writing by Amy Barnes appears in several publications including McSweeneys, The Higgs Weldon, The Giggle Guide, Stone Soup Magazine, Gayot, Everyday Health, Crixeo, Parent.co and School Leaders Now.