“Hell Bent” first appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Birmingham, AL in 2005.
Cousin John Mauer was the bane of my existence. He thrived on aggravation, and the fact that he was relation made it worse. I had to put up with him at school and most every Sunday, since the family attended Flat Rock Methodist Episcopal Church. If he wasn’t pounding his younger brother, Melvin, he was making faces at me.
Mama said John was the pure example of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” because Aunt Texie never laid down the law. She’d married young and lost her husband before Melvin was born, but it didn’t excuse shirking her duties as a parent. Mama said, “She’s nothing but a damp noodle.”
I was only eleven, but I was smart enough to know that if I ever sassed Mama or acted up in public, I’d taste wrath straight out of Genesis. She used soap or a switch, depending on the crime. Of course I was a girl, but if she’d had boys, it would’ve been worse. My daddy was still around but he shied away from churchgoing and left the discipline to Mama.
At thirteen, John was blazing the trail for Melvin, acting up in the most inopportune places. Early in December he talked several other boys into leaving a herd of farm cats in the schoolhouse. We knew who the party pooper was, but since the teacher couldn’t prove it, the whole school sat out recess until Christmas break, not exactly what you’d call justice.
“It’s equal punishment like taxes,” Grandpa said disgustedly. He didn’t usually get worked up about much, but when it came to his ornery grandson, he’d speak out. “In my day, that boy would’ve been taken to the woodshed and smoking by the time he got back and I don’t mean tobacco, neither.”
He talked it in a too-loud voice, because he was deaf as a post, a fact John liked to imitate. He’d shuffle around with one hand cocked on his ear, “eh? eh?” just to get a laugh, but after a while, it wasn’t funny.
The idea of confirmation hadn’t changed John much. In fact, it probably made him worse since he figured he must be doing right in the eyes of the Lord to be allowed to join the church, which made me wonder what He was up to.
“God uses all kinds of people,” Grandma said. “Why look at Moses, Rahab and even King David! They weren’t perfect.”
Grandpa offered one of his amens.
Then she frowned. “But I suppose we shouldn’t judge John too harshly; we were all young once.”
That’s where she was wrong. I was young, but that didn’t give me license to be ornery. John was a full eighteen months older than I was, two years older than his brother Melvin, so he should be setting an example, but the only one he’d set so far was how to break into reform school. Even so, he’d get his comeuppance, Grandma insisted. “Don’t forget the Law of Retribution.” Meaning good always wins over evil, but usually takes its sweet time. The fact that John was up for Confirmation was a kind of twisted punishment. It meant he had had to meet the bishop and sit through classes for a year’s worth of Sundays with Rev. Job who would bump any unruly child down a couple of notches, so I guess the Lord was already working on John.
I’d wondered what it would be like to stand up there in front of the whole church, hoping you didn’t do something embarrassing like stuttering or stumbling. I didn’t like being on stage at a piano recital, my knees shaking under the keyboard. I knew Confirmation would be one of those times to dread.
Grandpa sat between Mama and me in our Easter finery, like foliage between bright blooms. My grandmother, the church pianist, looked as fancy as a magazine model, wearing a new hat with its fragile veil covering half her face. You wondered how she could see the music. That morning she played a triumphant chord as the choir sang the reverend up to the pulpit. It was a sight, all decked out in yellow bells, jonquils and tulips that folks had brought in. About every pew was filled on account of Confirmation and it so happened that the back of John’s head was within spitting distance. I could have spit at him just on principal, but I feared I’d burn in Hell if I did that. Church was serious business and Confirmation made it doubly so.
John sat up there in the Amen Pew with Aunt Texie in a rose-colored frock and Melvin, polished up like the rest of us. John wasn’t paying attention until the reverend called out, “John Vernon Mauer.” My cousin shifted up to the kneeling rail like a hangdog in low gear. I supposed Aunt Texie was wondering what would come next, him gazing over at the choir and my grandmother, and then back at us.
Like with the rest of those being confirmed, the reverend laid a dry hand on each head. It wasn’t necessary to baptize any of them since their folks had seen to that when they were babies, though in John’s case it didn’t seem to have “took.” In fact he may have been more ornery because he figured he was inoculated against sin.
Right when the preacher said, “The Lord bless you and by His grace strengthen and confirm you…,” I could see that somebody had written in white letters “Hell Bent” on the bottom of John’s shoes. I was sure Melvin had done it, because he was the first to snicker. And then someone else started laughing. Folks craned their necks to see what was so funny and the reverend, John and my grandmother looked around, bewildered.
Grandma saved the moment by beginning the next hymn, “He Arose,” and everyone joined in, cutting short any further embarrassment. Luckily John was the last one to be confirmed, and when the music started, the reverend motioned for the group to go sit down. Then Melvin pointed to John’s shoes and whispered for him to turn them over. I could tell what they were doing because John’s ears turned blood red, and he started swinging at Melvin. A gasp swelled the sanctuary as the reverend almost stopped his sermon.
Aunt Texie flushed pink to match her dress and scooted over to separate them like a couple of three-year-olds. But John reached around to swat at Melvin, then Melvin reeled back, bumping Texie who finally nabbed Melvin’s ear and punched John up side of the head. It was worse than pictures of Jesus driving moneychangers out of the temple.
“Those boys are a disgrace,” Mama whispered to Grandpa.
“Amen,” he said out loud, but it was hardly out of place. The way those boys were acting, John would count bars in a jail cell and Melvin would follow suit. Mama said that’s the way it is in families. The oldest usually sets the pace for the younger ones, so heaven help Melvin.
When the last hymn was sung, everyone was to greet those who’d joined the church. It was all Aunt Texie could do to get John up there, but then he broke out of line and ran after Melvin screaming, “You rotten little creep!”
It didn’t make any difference to them if it was Easter Sunday or not. John commenced to kick his brother in the shins at the kneeling rail, yelling, “I’ll teach you!” You would have thought they were out in the barn lot.
The reverend put Melvin in a chokehold and took John by the scruff of his neck, his own collar about to pop off, and he said, “Enough.”
They should’ve been ashamed, but they weren’t, so he led them out the door to a forsythia bush, broke off a couple of switches and showed those boys what a whipping was all about. It was quite a sight, the reverend punishing Melvin and especially John, right after confirming him. The preacher looked as mad as Jesus did at the moneychangers.
On the way home, Mama said she was purely horrified. “Texie better get a handle on them before it’s too late. Why I’m ashamed to admit they’re kin, acting like that in the House of the Lord, much less Easter.”
My grandfather, who was driving, said, “Amen.”
“Those ignoramuses,” Grandma said. “I’d pay to send them to reform school.”
All three of us stared at her, but Grandpa kept driving.
I was relieved knowing that I shouldn’t be nervous about Confirmation next year. There’s nothing I could do more embarrassing than what Melvin and John had already done. And with any luck, Grandma would call up that Reform School and we’d be rid of them both inside of six months, thanks to her Law of Retribution.