When You Were Young, by Tim Hanson
Night came as it always did, with the stench of bad breath and cheap cologne.
Sometimes, they’d delicately whisper her name, giving each syllable a reverent power; more often, their desires grew violent, and they’d leave bruises around her throat. No matter their impulse, though, she did as she was taught to do long ago: She recited her script, feigned excitement, and spoke a soft prayer.
By the time you’re eight, her mother used to say, you are who you are. Your personality’s been decided. There’s no changing that.
On that lone account, her mother didn’t betray her. At eight, she already understood—more than her peers ever would—the ravenous heart of man; and she knew how, when shielded under the cloak of darkness, he could commit his gravest sins. And when it came to that, it was best to let him finish.
* * *
Standing behind the pulpit, his arms outstretched, Pastor Robert Peterson spoke with characteristic bravado, a quality that had garnered him the unwavering support of the Evergreen Evangelical Presbyterian Church. “Job,” he preached, “Job knew the test. He understood the stakes. Wealth, material goods, flesh itself—they weren’t his to claim. They belonged to the Lord, and to mourn their absence—to covet them at all—was a grave sin.”
As usual, the congregation clung to his every word, savoring each syllable’s worth. Relatively speaking, Pastor Robert was a young man—freshly turned thirty-five—but he spoke with such finesse that his earthly age bore no consequence. The older congregation, reverent of antiquity, did not consider it a mark against his leadership; on the contrary, in the pastor they saw evidence of their beliefs alive and well in a younger generation, bringing a sense of optimism for the future. “So often we’re good Christians when things are going well, when favor looks upon us generously. But when life grows difficult, when our faith is truly put to the test, we balk; we complain; we pity ourselves; and we turn away from God.”
Pastor Robert stepped forward from the pulpit, approached the masses—and caught sight of a stir growing in his congregation. Set amongst the white faces was a smudge, a shadow, an unfamiliar presence causing noticeable unrest amongst his flock. “Knocked onto his knees, a shadow of his former self, Job still gave thanks. Job still turned to God during his worst hour—and he, a true penitent, received salvation—”
The eyes of his followers slowly diverted from his, looked peripherally, and glared at the interloper. And Pastor Robert’s followed theirs, until they met the anomaly: a young woman—who could’ve been eighteen or twenty-four or thirty-five—seated toward the back. She had gone unnoticed for the better part of his sermon, but whispers regarding her presence had travelled forward, prompting sneers extended back.
“For we never know,” Pastor Robert started, staring, “when we’ll be tested.”
She wore a faux-fur coat, something ostentatious and cheap. Her makeup, following suit, cried for their attention, ignorant of what its boisterous appearance suggested to the holy. But more than that: black flesh, bared for all to see; naked legs leading to a short skirt; and an inch of uplifted cleavage made prominent by a tightly fastened bra.
“Job,” the pastor spoke, “never knew true faith, until…”
He watched the sneers and uncomfortable shifts, and he listened to the words whispered under his, denouncing the whore seated toward the back door.
“Until he was tested.”
* * *
Her name meant something to men, and it had garnered quite the following.
Most first-timers became regular customers. They were always meek at first—and some remained that way until the act was over—but many grew territorial, hissing their orders and threatening her life. For these men, the money they had paid brokered not just the rental of her flesh but her total submission to fantasy; and such a world, existing only in shadows, could be utterly terrifying for most, but not for her. Some of the other girls—those far stronger than she—refused violence, outlined precautions if such instances arose, and sent their pimps to teach certain men a lesson. She, however, knew how to swallow the pain, and she understood that such a skill could prove quite lucrative—and Lord knew, she needed the money.
“Not so rough, baby,” she said now, gritting her teeth.
His hands tightened around her throat. “You don’t tell me what to do, whore,” he growled, and rammed harder. Air fled her chest in a great expulsion, one he surely mistook as a moan because he added: “You like that, you filthy bitch?”
Closing her eyes, she mouthed a silent prayer. “Oh yeah, baby. Just like that.”
When it was over, they’d always stumble away—some apologetic, others remorseful—and retire to wherever they came from, just as this creature was doing now. Most returned to ideal lives, to positions of authority and respect. Regardless of who they were, though, she always let them go, savoring the absence and burying the pain—a lesson learned long ago, in a bedroom painted pink with stuffed animals lining the walls.
* * *
“What’re you going to do about that colored girl?”
Pastor Robert paused mid-bite, looked up from his plate, and found an angry wife staring back at him from across the table. “What girl?” he asked, swallowing the large mass.
“You know the one I mean,” she said, her knife and fork resting unused next to her plate. How long had she been sitting there, waiting for him to notice? “She’s been to church twice now, dressed like a whore off the street. It’s disgusting.”
Pastor Robert knew the woman, of course. He had spotted her walking in again this morning, still wearing that faux-fur obscenity, her face powdered with makeup, her flesh bare for all to see.
“Anyone can come to church, Meredith.”
His wife must have anticipated this rebuttal because she was already moving into attack position. “Don’t give me that. This girl comes in, boobs pushed up, wearing that slutty little skirt, and you’re just going to accept that? You think that sort of thing is okay—in our church, no less?” With each question, she raised her voice a little more, each word growing more frantic. However, Pastor Robert didn’t need his wife’s urging to consider the interloper or her indecency: On the contrary, he had been thinking about her all day.
She reminded him of a girl from high school. He couldn’t quite place her name—Mary? Sarah, perhaps?—but her image had burned itself into his mind’s eye, and there it would stay, speaking secrets the pastor wished would stay buried. That girl had been the subject of close scrutiny by his inner circle, as well, and his wife, then Meredith Johnson, had also scorned the young girl and declared her a whore. This Mary or Sarah or Leah had also applied too much makeup, had also worn ostentatious clothing, and had also dared to the show the boys more skin than they had ever seen before. She was from the wrong side of town, her father a known drunk in Evergreen, and sometimes she’d miss whole weeks of school without reason. No one really knew what became of her—one day she was just gone from school and never returned—but many filled in the blanks with their own answers: Dad went to jail, so she went to live with an aunt or something; she got knocked up and went to a place for unwanted teen mothers; she ran away with her overage boyfriend who deals heroine.
And so on and so on.
Pastor Robert—then just Bobby Peterson, son of Sunday school teacher and lawyer Edward Peterson—provided his own supposition, as well: She was probably in rehab, hooked on the same drugs her father sold around town. However, his thoughts of her didn’t die when the rumors faded; rather, they took a nasty turn when he laid in bed at night, always prompted by questions in the dark: How many boys had she slept with? When did she decide to slip off that tight little shirt and let the boys fondle her chest? What did her flesh feel like when exposed? What did it smell like? What did it taste like? He later scolded himself and begged forgiveness when he sought the answers to these questions behind the locked door of his bathroom, which only drove the fire of his judgment at school, as he conceived and spread even viler rumors about this Mary or Sarah or Leah or Rebekah.
But that was then and this was now. In the twenty years since, he had grown from a spiteful young boy to a loving preacher—and he wasn’t going to let painful memories or the condemnation of his wife and her friends inhibit his holy duties toevery member of the church. “Enough, Meredith.”
Silence hung between them—not the characteristic silence they normally endured, the silence of having nothing left to talk about unless it was about those in the congregation. No, this was the silence of restrained anger, the prelude to battle. “That woman is a whore—”
“Be that as it may, I will not turn anyone away.”
Meredith sat upright, her eyes growing wide. “You will permit a whore in our church for children to see? For those awful men to drool over—”
“I will permit a woman to come to church. That is all,” he said, and returned to eating his supper.
Silence reigned only a moment longer, until Meredith marched away from the table, letting each footfall crash in the wake of her departure.
Though her smugness shown toward the woman angered him, Pastor Robert couldn’t condemn his wife’s position. Had he not earlier in the day wondered these same things? Had he not watched this girl place a ten-dollar bill in the collection plate and then planned afterward to remove it? Had he not sifted through the pile of cash and found every ten-dollar bill and rubbed them with his hands, wondering which was hers, how it was earned, what it had touched? Had he not held the cash to his face and inhaled its aroma, considering the corruption of each dollar, the depravity it had seen on its pathway here, and how it became pure again when cleansed by those blind hands of charity and good will?
No, he was not the boy he once was—he was a man, and a man of God. Others would turn her away, but he would not.
Pastor Robert finished his meal alone, drunk on his own righteousness.
* * *
One Sunday after church, while the others were filing out, she simply remained seated and stared at the cross looming above the pulpit. Its sight wasn’t something new—although it certainly was the first time her adult eyes had beheld it in church—and it resembled the image she remembered from St. Xavier quite well: the evidence of salvation through torture, the blessedness promised at the end of a hellacious road. However, at the church she attended as a child, Jesus had been nailed to the cross, his pain-ridden eyes upturned toward his Father, who let His only son endure a few more minutes of unimaginable pain. Here at the Evergreen Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Christ was absent from the cross, and for some reason this absence didn’t sit well with her, as it somehow sanitized an image that should not have been clean.
When she thought of church, as she had been more and more lately, she always remembered where she sat as a child: in the first pew, with her mother on one side and her stepfather on the other. It had been her stepfather who had extended them the invitation, who had welcomed two black members into a predominately white congregation. Even at this young age, she noticed the difference between her and the rest of the people in attendance, and it had been a topic she pondered silently each Sunday until deeper matters stole her attention.
When she thought of church, she thought of damnation. Unlike the pastor here, the priest at St. Xavier was foreboding, speaking almost jubilantly of sin and Hell. Of course, Pastor Robert spoke of sin, too, but his tenderness and guidance suggested he was willing to walk into to Hell and grab your hand before the Devil could claim you absolutely. In this regard, he was a rarity amongst preachers and certainly one amongst men.
When she thought of church, she thought of her mother beaming with pride, as the haughty white women in attendance—who would have otherwise looked down upon a poor black woman and her fatherless child—welcomed them with open arms simply because they were “Dave’s new family.” Her stepfather—a successful white lawyer renowned for his philanthropy and loving nature—had a powerful name at St. Xavier and people regarded him reverently in kind. As the Sunday school teacher, he taught many of her would-be friends, little white children who spoke kindly to her because she was “Dave’s new daughter,” thereby providing a social circle already awaiting her in this strange new place.
“We’re so very lucky,” her mother often told her in those days. “Your daddy has given us a new life. You know how close we were to not having a home, to not having each other?”
To this, she simply nodded, as she always would, even when her stepfather’s generous, loving hands reached below the blankets in the dead of night and aggressively found their way between her legs, when he whispered ever so sweetly in her ears words that should have been reserved for her mother, when he put his hands around her throat and threatened nightmares should she ever whisper a word of what happened in this bedroom.
When she thought of church, especially after Pastor Robert’s sermon today about lust and sin, she thought of her stepfather’s pale body pressed against hers and the pain she swallowed nightly because her mother needed her to. She thought of the darkness and all of its implications, the dread of waiting for the door to open and for the hallway light to splash across her bedcovers where her shivering body lay. She thought of how many times she wanted to say something, to scream on Sundays when she sat between them, to beg forgiveness and admit to God what had happened, but everyone at St. Xavier knew Dave, and such a confession would destroy her family’s good standing at church, raze her household brick-by-brick, and ruin her mother’s last chance at salvation. Even when her mother threw her out of the house when she was sixteen, after finding the used needles and the empty little baggy and all those condoms under her bed, she kept her mouth shut about Dave, and simply receded into the darkness, which she knew all too well.
When she thought of church, she thought of alpha and omega. She thought of new beginnings and the ruination of a life that could have been. Had Mama’s past before Dave been so awful to justify what her stepfather desired outside the church’s watchful eye? And had Mama known about it and simply kept her mouth shut, too, letting her daughter endure a sentence of torture so that they could have a better life, in a bigger house, in a better part of town?
When she thought of church, she cried.
So why had she started coming here?—why now? why this place?
Before she could answer any of these questions, a voice called to her, making her jump from the pew.
* * *
“That colored woman won’t leave.”
Kenneth Baker, a lay minister at the Evergreen Evangelical Presbyterian Church since time out of mind, hovered over Pastor Robert, waiting for his reply. He had been studying his notes for the eleven o’clock service when the old man barged into his office, a stern look of consternation spelling out exactly how he thought the young pastor should handle the interloper.
“Where is she?” Pastor Robert asked, willing his voice to sound more confident than he was.
The old man looked back at the open doorway, toward the sanctuary. “Still sittin in the back pew,” he said. “And that outfit she’s wearin—just ain’t right for church, Robert.”
When the young pastor saw her, he told Kenneth to let them have a moment, and the old man acquiesced, muttering a note of condemnation as he left. The young pastor watched him go, waited until he was out of sight, and then said, “Ma’am?”
She jumped forward, startled by his whisper; and then her eyes met his, and a shy smile overtook her lips. “Pastor Robert,” she said, almost awe-stricken
He walked forward, hands in his pockets, staring anywhere but at her bare flesh. “I don’t believe we’ve met yet.”
She told him her name, and he provided a brief history on its appearances in the Bible. To this, she only smiled, and the conversation, despite his years of practice when introducing himself to new members, fell into an unnatural silence. “So,” he said finally, taking a seat next to her on the pew, “what brings you to Evergreen?”
She told him she had grown up here and had attended church across town at St. Xavier. When she finished, he smiled and said the ideas of both churches were relatively the same, only the Catholics liked their bingo nights a bit more. Politely—or perhaps genuinely—she let out a soft laugh, and oh how he loved the sound of that laugh, that girlish sigh coming from something seemingly so lascivious. This paradoxical co-existence of the innocence of childhood and the sinful repercussions of adulthood in one person once more made him think of that girl in high school, and the lies he told about her, and the questions he tried answering in the dark behind locked doors.
“Why isn’t Jesus on your cross?”
It was a question former Catholics asked, and he recited their history and reasoning, and segued into a discussion of Christ and His prominent place within the church. She nodded whenever he made a point and laughed whenever he slipped something light into his mini-sermon. Again, he wondered what prompted her to come here, and already he was drafting a story: Here she was, this innocent creature, probably the victim of an abusive father or even more likely a single-parent household, where drug use and alcoholism were as common as warm meals were in others. She was probably one of many siblings, possibly all conceived with various fathers, none of whom contributed a dime to feed their hungry mouths. And now, after moving from boyfriend to boyfriend and being mistreated and forgotten and betrayed, she was here, ignorant of the cultural norms dictating this conservative community. With this in mind, the young pastor fought the urge to reach forth, grip her hands, and say, Everything’s okay and I’m different from the others and You’ll be welcome here. It was a test: God was testing him, just as he did Job, and the true test would not be simply welcoming her into his outstretched arms but convincing his flock to do the same, to accept this girl of color and her outrageous appearance openly and without resentment or condemnation. This was his duty, and he yearned to see it to its completion.
“Was this your first visit?” he asked coyly.
She smiled, shook her head, and said, “No. I’ve been here a few times before. Your sermons are nice. A lot less damning than Father Jack’s were.”
There was a flutter in his chest, and he thought once again of money changing hands, of its filth being washed cleaned by the hands of love and charity. His story for her, in turn, changed slightly. Had she fled the Catholic Church because it had condemned her, as Catholics were wont to do? Had she done something so awful—something so perverse and ungodly—that they had turned their backs on her, expelled her from their church, and condemned her to remain in a life of sin? What could be so wrong to prompt such a response—drug use? alcoholism? premarital sex? sexual perversion?
Regardless of the offense, she was here now, waiting to be washed clean by his hands.
Somewhere, down the darkest catacombs of his mind, his wife’s voice spoke notes of condemnation, about this young lady and about the girl back in high school, named Mary or Sarah or Leah or Rebekah, and all those sinful things they did behind locked doors. The young pastor ignored her, and said, “Do you wish to become a member?”
The girl frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I have anything to offer.”
The pastor moved closer toward her. “We all have our gifts,” he reassured. “We all have something special to give.”
“It’s just,” she started, staring once more at the cross hanging above the pulpit, “It’s just I’m nothing special.”
“We’re all special in God’s eyes. Just look at Jesus—the son of a carpenter, born not in a house but in a manger, a trough animals eat from. And look what was born into the world through such a start.”
His wife’s voice thundered in his ears, chiding him for such a comparison, damning him for even mentioning the name Jesus in this girl’s presence; and again, he thought of that girl in high school, and the cheap perfume she wore, so similar to the scent this girl wore now, and how when he passed her in the hallway he felt a surge of warmth travel from the top down, as if he were intoxicated, prompting him, goading him, tempting him—
“It’s just,” she said again, “I don’t even know where to start. I feel like I’ve been running for so long, and I’ve done so many bad things—”
His head feeling light, Pastor Robert suddenly reached out and grabbed her hands, and felt their warmth travel up his arms, into his chest, and into his lower half. She tried drawing them away, tried finding her way back into a dark corner where she could be forgotten, but he would not allow that—she was his task, sent from God, and he would not shirk his duty. “I know how you feel: lost; confused; unwanted.” Again, she tried pulling her hands free, but he simply tightened his grip. “You won’t be judged here—I promise you that. You’ll be welcome. You’ll have a place here. With us. With me.”
The light of the world softened around him, and colors grew muddled and extended past the outlines of the objects housing them. Pastor Robert had only been drunk once in his life—an experience his father beat him for when he was sixteen—but even that could not compare to the feeling he experienced now. For the first time in a long time, everything felt right—which was why, after the girl ripped her hands away, stood suddenly to her feet, and fled the sanctuary while mumbling an excuse, Pastor Robert felt utterly lost, bewildered, and unclean. He called after her, but she was gone, running into the parking lot, and squealing away in her car.
He had failed—but on some level, there was a deeper loss here, a deeper injury than he could even begin to understand. It was a thorn in his conscience, in his soul, one he would desperately try driving away from his thoughts that night, as he turned over restlessly again and again. And the next morning, when his wife inquired about ‘that colored girl,’ he would say he tried offering her a chance for salvation but she was all ready too far gone; and she would smile and tell her husband he had tried his best and his heart had been pure and that was all the Lord could ask for.
* * *
She hadn’t cried in a long time. Even when her mother called her a whore, as she held up needles and condoms for her daughter’s inspection, she had not cried. She didn’t cry when those creatures of the dark wrapped their hands around her neck and squeezed, and she didn’t cry when they forced themselves inside her.
Now, though—now she cried.
Mascara bled from her eyes, and a floodgate of tears, built up over a lifetime, ran down the length of her cheeks and onto her chest. Toward the end of her escape, the world existed only as a singular blur, so it was lucky—or perhaps incredibly cruel—that her car ran out of gas before she went sailing off the road. The car died in the middle of nowhere, after she had raced frantically from town. How long she had driven, she could not tell, nor did it matter—she had lost her last chance for salvation.
She learned long ago, when she was still young, not to rely on a man for anything other than pain—but for some reason, Pastor Robert had seemed different. After all, had Jesus not been a man, the lone pinpoint of light shining in the dark? But when the pastor had reached forward, when he grabbed her hands, it was not love and forgiveness and acceptance she saw in his eyes; rather, it was that savage lust she knew all too well, when the dull street lamps reflected uncaringly in the creatures’ eyes, apathetic to the violence that followed. It was a ravenous appetite—not charity or good will—that enticed flesh to meet flesh; and she couldn’t help but wonder: If he couldn’t wash the stain from her mind, from her soul, then whocould?
She never felt damned for what she had done in the darkness, nor had she blamed the divine for her plight, set into motion long ago. However, she wondered now: What had she done to deserve such a lot, to be burdened with such a life?
Eventually she found her way outside, and the cold wind offered a momentary reprieve from the car’s stale, recycled air. The car had died by a clearing, a few unkempt trees standing watch over a murky pond, and she found respite upon a fallen trunk; it was a chance to take a deep breath and wipe the mascara tears away, but they simply smeared across her cheeks.
And then it began to rain.
Cursing, she headed back to the car, but it was locked; and the keys were still in the ignition.
By the time you’re eight, her mother used to say when she was young, you are who you are.
Was she? Was she really?
The world grew colder, and she shivered against the rain’s oppression, until a single pinpoint of light broke through the dark clouds, offering a few rays of warmth. Eventually, the rain died, and she went back to wiping the mascara tears from her face, only to realize they had already been washed away.
Perhaps it was the cold; perhaps it was the onset of some nasty illness; perhaps it was her simply trying to weave a sensible narrative from a lifetime of sorrow—whatever the cause, sitting there in that clearing, in the aftermath of the rain, she felt at peace for the first time in…how long? There were no cars, no sirens, or streetlights. There weren’t the endless voices and screams and whispers, and there wasn’t the savage appetite watching her every movement. There were just the trees and the long grass and the light spilling down.
As a young girl, she once went on a picnic with her mother. This was before her stepfather and St. Xavier and Sunday school. At some point, she had wandered off to escape another of her mother’s lectures—a choice she would later be reprimanded for—but before her mother found her, the young girl had borne witness to the forest as it existed only in the morning, the light of a new day slipping between the trunks of the trees around her. It was her earliest memory, one of happiness and peace, and there was something beautiful about that.
Now she saw that sight again, and she smiled.
She could ask a passing car for help; she could head back into town, and perhaps try another church, perhaps join a support group or seek out her mother and make amends. She could try willing herself away from those creatures of the night and the money they insisted on handing her and rely on a religious community that hopefully would accept a junkie whore.
Or she could forget the car, forget what lied behind her and the mold cast for her long ago and the people promising to fix her. And she could keep pushing forward, to whatever lied ahead, to a life that still could be, to a life that was hers for the taking and one she would write without the insistent revisions and demands of others.
In the beautiful aftermath of the autumn rain, during the crisp stillness of this moment, it all seemed so possible, as it never had before.
For a moment longer, though, she simply enjoyed the clearing and the light and the warmth it offered. It was a warmth she had sought so many times before, and now it was hers, if only for a little while. # For the last nine years, Tim Hanson has taught high school English, a passion rivaled only by his love of writing. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Firefly Magazine, The 3288 Review, BoomerLitMag, Cold Creek Review, and Pennyshorts. Currently, he is working on his first novel. You can read more about Tim at TSHanson.com.