Chapter 4 continues

The story so far: Dave Meyers has domestic troubles.

The following Sunday morning, Allen put on his best suit and necktie, and set out for church. Having been told by his landlady that there were a number of churches in town, he had checked them all out on his walks and decided it might be expedient to worship with the Lutherans, his own sect, especially since Rev. Miracle Mayfield, chairman of the school board, preached there.

The church was an unpretentious white frame structure with a small steeple, minus a couple of shingles on the roof, not far from where he lived. As he approached the meeting hall that morning, the street was crowded with cars, a few pickups and even a tractor. Townspeople and farmers democratically mixed. In the church, however, it was not hard to tell the farmers from the townspeople. The farmers all had necks burned from the sun and, when they turned around, a patch of white high on their foreheads where their straw hats had sat.

Rev. Mayfield, in the flesh, turned out to be neither as dynamic nor as intimidating as Allen had feared. He didn't have flared eyebrows (though they were rather thick), he didn't have deep-set eyes, he didn't have a shock of wild hair. Middle-aged, wearing glasses and carrying a little excess weight on his frame, he might have been a banker or a realtor. He looked, in fact, a little mundane, receding hairline, cheeks that had fallen into little pouches, the kind of man who spends his days reading ledgers, preferring understatement to hyperbole. Allen suspected that the suit he wore under his robe was probably a little frayed. A regular guy. When he came forward to greet the congregation at the beginning of the service, he appeared entirely unpretentious, reading a series of announcements without the slightest hint of evangelical fury.

Then there was Jack Palmer, school principal and choir director, smiling smartly as the choir rose to sing its first hymn under his direction, "Nearer My God to Thee," a favorite in the little church Allen had attended in north Minneapolis throughout his childhood.

He'd been a church-goer all his life — his aunt had seen to that. When he returned from the army in 1946, he had acquired a healthy share of skepticism, to be sure. Still, out of habit, out of fondness for the minister, old Rev. Haage, perhaps even out of fondness for the hymns, he'd attended church fairly regularly. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes with his aunt, occasionally finding old high school acquaintances there as well. At Christmas and Easter his father, wearing his only suit (bright blue) and his face burning from shaving lotion, always came up on the streetcar to attend services with them.

But home from the wars, Allen no longer took the divine message very seriously. Religion seemed to him, whenever he thought about it — heaven and hell, saints and angels, miracles and commandments and holy writ — rather silly. Nevertheless, he'd found himself asking God for help whenever he was in trouble, as he'd done when he was a child. When old Haage had requested his assistance teaching Sunday School, he agreed without hesitation to take a class.

After the choir finished "Nearer My God to Thee" and sat down, Allen noticed some of his students were members. There, in the middle of the second row, sat Helen Vorgt. After two weeks of school, she had proven him right that she was the smartest student in his class — perhaps in the school. Her face held a strange fascination for him. He thought of it as a poetic face — a small chin, conspicuous cheekbones and dark hair bobbed in back and falling nicely over her forehead. Her black-rimmed glasses were like Patty Porter's, but unlike his colleague's, they gave her an intellectual look. Was it the intellectual look he admired? Or was it something else? He didn't know.

Once or twice their eyes met and held each other for a brief moment before, out of modesty, he thought, she turned away. So did he.

Rev. Mayfield's sermon began low key. He reminded the congregation of what they no doubt already knew: that they were all sinners. But he did not intend to dramatize their derelictions, he said, nor did he look at any of them pointedly when he used such multisyllabic words as licentious, avaricious or intemperate. He believed in hell but would not magnify its horrors, he said.

"We do not speak of hell in holy places. Nor do we flatter Satan's inordinate vanity by featuring him in the house of God. Neither, on the other hand, do we refuse to acknowledge his existence, nor the existence of hell. And you know the pull that Satan has on you — every one of you — always downwards. You feel it sometimes when you attend the movies. You feel it in the un-nameable magazines you read in the drugstore. Pulling you down. Dragging you down. But you understand as well the power and the grace of Jesus. Whenever you are tempted, you need only speak one of those wondrous names of the trinity — God the Father, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. In the face of those names, all temptations will turn to dust.

"Do you want to be saved? Of course you do. Do you want earthly pleasures at the same time? Of course you do. But I am here to tell you that you cannot have both. Weak as you are, subject to the cheap charms of temptation as you are, you would like to enjoy both. I say again, you cannot. If you tell me that you are not strong enough to resist temptation, I tell you that you are. For you are not alone. Jesus Christ is at your side. Turn and behold — there he is. There he is, my friends, waiting for you, pulling for you. For he offers salvation, an eternity of bliss. He sacrificed himself for you — painfully. Think of that. Sacrificed himself for you. If you do not accept Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and without reservation as your savior, you are condemned to eternal punishment in hell."

The minister paused. His body appeared to enlarge. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. His eyes flared. "In hell, my friends, you will burn. Your body, love it as you might, will be covered with sores and scars. You will vomit copiously and suffer incontinence without end. You will wallow in despair. Your prayers will turn to ashes in your mouth. Your teeth will rot. So yes, you'd better believe in hell. You'd better believe in the devil, for he gleefully awaits your presence, my friends. He wants you. In order to escape him, you need only want Jesus Christ more."

When the sermon was over and the collection plate passed around, Allen shrugged. So much for understatement. He put 50 cents in the plate, thinking that the minister would now go home, spread a napkin over his formidable belly and eat a big Sunday dinner. A few minutes later, at the front door, crowded with parishioners talking and greeting each other, he patiently waited his turn to shake the minister's hand. To his great surprise, Rev. Mayfield greeted him by name.

"Allen Post," he said. "The new senior English teacher. Thank you for attending."

"My pleasure," he mumbled hypocritically, then hurried out, reminding himself that Rev. Mayfield, as president of the school board, probably made it a point to learn all new teachers' names. Unless they were Catholic, he thought irreverently. Unless they were Mac's or O's. Or heaven forbid, unless they were Goldbergs or Feinsteins or Karps.

On the street, he looked for Helen Vorgt. But she was gone. He went to The Food Box and ordered fried chicken for lunch.

Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues.