How to Be on Time
“Find a friend at First,” read all the signs around the First Christian Church in Lincoln. I had meant to find a church, and on a walk about my neighborhood in the week after moving in, I found a sign advertising a Tuesday service at noon. Nice break, I thought, from a day of unpacking and arranging. Towering over me, the building was large but somehow seemed humble, the auburn bricks almost shabby. It reminded me of a friendly, docile, medium-sized dog with wiry grey hair covering his eyes and cascading down his sides like a tablecloth – an old guy with a bark that was powerful, gruff, though seldom heard, with a warm heart. I meandered up to the nearest street corner of 17th and K. Not a bad walk from home. I decided to return tomorrow.
Tuesday service was in the chapel. Wood paneling adorned the walls, the floors were mostly painted concrete, and boxy gilded light fixtures hunkered over creaking wooden pews. The organ featured extremely intricate woodwork, with a spindly grate over the pipes and what looked like medieval turrets across the top. I couldn’t imagine dusting it but loved looking at it. I did not take communion, although the reverend, Penny, explained that all were welcome. I did sing the bass part from the hymnal. Afterward, the reverend and a man who I had seen ahead invited me to Sunday’s service.
The sanctuary looked newer, with seating on three sides of a central dais, with blue-padded, straight-backed chairs and similarly upholstered pews. An organ, two pianos, and a drum set sat on a stage behind the far seating. Maybe it was because I had attended the traditional rather than the contemporary service, but the congregation seemed rather small and I could well remember when my parents had been the age of the next youngest folks there. The sermon was very good, the people were exceptionally welcoming, and I very much liked at least one of the hymns, so I decided I would return the following Sunday.
The reverend, who assured me that there would be others my age once the semester started at the University, had mentioned a congregational potluck dinner two Wednesdays later at 5:30. The next time I went for groceries I bought a new Pyrex baking dish with a lid, some wild rice and frozen vegetables, and six pounds of chicken breasts. I was not sure that I would attend the potluck until the next Sunday, when it was announced again and I made my decision to go.
On Tuesday night I ran around like a kid on Christmas Eve, getting things ready for the next day, setting and resetting alarms on my phone. When I finally lay down in bed, I would jump back up for a glass of water, then to use the restroom, and then just to walk the room thinking about the people I would meet the next day, what I would say to them, what they might say to me. I imagined their handshakes and their compliments. Eventually, I willed myself to remain in bed, shifting about and turning over. It was a battle to keep my eyes shut, even to keep from smiling, until I finally settled into sleep. On Wednesday morning, I took three large chicken breasts from the freezer and put them on separate plates in the refrigerator to thaw all day.
I came home from work at 4:00 PM and began mixing things in the new Pyrex dish. I had made this dish before and decided to use milk this time where the recipe called for water in order to help prevent the chicken from drying out. While it was cooking, I found a picture frame stand I had been using to display a decorative plate on my bookshelf and taped a piece of notebook paper to some cardboard for a sign listing my name, my dish (Chicken & Wild Rice), and the ingredients. As the time against the yellow rectangle of light on my rented microwave approached 5:30, I began to fear that I was running late.
I do not like to be late.
I can remember being late to class as an undergrad. Walking briskly through the musky corridors of Baldwin Hall, hustling up to the door, reaching for the knob. Through the yellow window prone to rattling in the heavy wooden door, I could see my classmates inside, chatting amongst themselves, but also looking toward the front of the room, where my professor was ordering things at the desk and asking everyone about their collective weekend. Class had not yet begun, although it should have five minutes earlier. I had missed nothing and could feel free to enter without worrying about interrupting anything. My hand hovered over the doorknob, so close I could feel the cold of the murky brass without touching it. My eyes were frozen on that yellow glass. Everyone was looking forward. Staring. Waiting for an interruption. I backed away slowly, then turned and darted down the hall and down the steps and out into the crisp air, rebuttoning my coat for the walk home.
I didn’t always arrive miraculously in time for roll when I was late. Sometimes I would step up to the door and find my professor speaking or writing on the chalkboard or leading a discussion. Either way, it didn’t really matter. I would become paralyzed with anxiety. I would hang my head and trudge back across campus to my room, embarrassed and disappointed in myself and trying to think back to what could have possibly made this so frightening to me.
When I was a child, birthdays brought crowds, and crowds always scared me. My parents held parties at our house for my brothers and me, inviting both sides of the family. The half-circle gravel driveway and the secondary drive circling the shed filled up with cars, trucks, and SUVs of all makes and colors. My maternal grandparents were always the first to arrive, and my grandmother brought the cake, which she had spent the day making. Our family photo albums catalog a grand array of custom cakes, shaped and iced to resemble Big Bird, Scooby Doo, the red power ranger, and always with the birthday boy’s name and age.
As more family members began pulling into our driveway, I took my position on the bench on our front porch with a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. I greeted each group as it approached, holding the door open for them. Thank you, they would cry, What a good doorman you are, and You make such a nice doorman. Are you going to be a doorman when you grow up?
The sun lay like a great yellow egg yolk over the spindly treetops across the bean field on the other side of Highway 81, and I checked my Happy Meal wristwatch. It was time to go inside. When I opened the front door and stepped onto the mud-stained carpet of our kitchen/dining room, the house was utterly bursting with relatives. I could remember holding the door for all of them, but, my God, there were a lot when they were all in here together! All six chairs were filled at the dining table, and all five at the bar, and a card table had been set up with folding chairs by the stairs. Others leaned against the newel post and the closet door and the end of the counter, while my mother, grandma, and a couple of aunts milled around the kitchen, mixing Kool-Aid or putting candles in the cake or taking the lid off the ice cream. Downstairs, cousins roamed the living room while their parents supervised from the couch, one eye on the television. The soft, steady wash of light highway traffic and cicadas I had been accustomed to on the porch were replaced by the overwhelming din of communication. I knew all of these people, saw most of them on a weekly basis, knew their voices well, but here I saw only a very large crowd, heard only the fluster of many voices. It simply was too much to absorb.
While the party progressed toward cake, ice cream, and gifts, I slunk off to my bedroom or to the space under the stairs or the back of my dad’s closet. When my mom inevitably came looking for me, I’d call out sheepishly, “I’m under the stairs,” or I’d peek out of my cracked bedroom door and roll something down the steps.
Besides my own birthday parties, I also ran away from holiday dinners, family reunions, and Sunday School. In my early elementary school years, I spent every recess period lying in the ditch at the edge of the playground while the other children played on the swings, the slide, the merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters and chased each other around the yard. I wasn’t simply a recluse; I was terrified of crowds, a fear that came out of a more general fear of people.
The root of my fear lies in my Kindergarten experience and in the cruelty of one Mrs. Robin Thompson. Mrs. Thompson chose at least one victim from each of her Kindergarten classes – usually, from what I understand, a young boy – to abuse physically and psychologically, to isolate socially, and to otherwise torment over the course of the year. One of the simplest and meanest things she did was to restrict access to the restroom. When her poor young victim deigned to raise his hand and request use of the facilities, she would simply deny him – repeatedly if necessary – allowing him to wet or soil his pants before the entire class and either walk about in soggy underwear for the rest of the day or borrow a pair from the nurse’s office. She eagerly joined in the children’s poking fun at this victim whenever the opportunity arose and, in fact, often led in the ridiculing.
My clearest memory of this guided humiliation is the day we learned the letter B.
Since I first learned to read, I have loved words, and my earliest pleasures were rhyming and alliteration. My fascination was birthed in my discovery of the alphabet. On B day, when Mrs. Thompson asked the class for words that started with the letter B, I am sure that mine was the first hand in the air. Instead of calling my name, however, she called the name of another student. Bear. “Very good,” Mrs. Thompson cooed, walking to that student’s desk, and she peeled a sticker from one of two sheets in her hand and presented it to the proud student.
No matter, I thought, I know plenty of words that start with B.
But then she called on another student – boy – and another – butterfly – and she didn’t call on me until she had already heard a great many words that started with B, working her way around the room distributing bug stickers to boys and Barbie stickers to girls. By the time she called my name, I was the only student who had not yet answered, and each of the twenty-nine B words I could think of had already been spoken – baseball, bedroom, blue. I wracked my brain as the expectant silence grew and grew and filled my lungs with each breath. I cannot say for sure that every child in the classroom turned to look at me in that moment, but that is precisely how I remember it.
“Well,” I stammered. I had thought of a word, but it was a terribly embarrassing word to say in class, yet every other one I came up with had been said already. “Well,” I went on, “sometimes … b-boys call, um, call their girlfriends … babe.”
Babe. Mrs. Thompson began laughing, loudly, cruelly – like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty with her evil black horns and her ice-blue face. “Babe!” she repeated, mockingly, as if it was just too funny. And the whole class followed suit.
Laughing because she was laughing.
Laughing because I had said the wrong word – laughing, perhaps, because it could just as easily have been any one of them to say the Wrong Word.
Laughing because, all of a sudden, I was not like them at all, was not one of them.
Laughing at me, because my love of language, of letters, of learning, had temporarily outweighed my fear of embarrassment.
Laughing – assuredly, undoubtedly, and unforgettably – at me.
“Come on up here,” cried Mrs. Thompson, like some sadistic game show host, gesturing that I should go to the front of the classroom, and, meekly, I did. “Let’s have a hand for the babe,” she jeered, patting the heel of her palm. There was a smattering of applause, but most of my classmates by now were laughing too hard to control themselves. “Here,” she said, reaching for the pink, sparkly sticker sheet on the corner of her wide wooden desk, “You want a babe?” And the laugher roared even louder as she removed from the sheet and handed to me – and the pain of this moment resides with me this very day and has never subsided – a girl sticker. I quietly took it and watched my shoelaces drag the ground as I made my way numbly back to my seat. I did not raise my hand again for C or D or any of the letters and thus spent many days in the principal’s office for refusing to participate. I never learned how to tie my shoes and never made any friends at all. If you ask me for a word that starts with B, it may take me several minutes to produce an answer that can pass my inner screening for embarrassment.
Doubtless, I’ll also be fretting over my voice and posture and your reaction to my answer and its effect on your perception of my masculinity.
I checked the time on my car radio as I approached First Christian. 5:40. Ten minutes late. Could I still go in? I realized I had never actually driven to church, had always walked from home, and this complicated things. I crossed a one-way street and realized at the next block I should have turned down it for the parking lot, so I made a large circle and came back, took that street and turned into a neighboring lot. This one wasn’t for the church, so I circled again, took the alley. I checked the clock again. My palms began to sweat and stick to the steering wheel. Here, every space was marked by a sign that warned of towing for non-members of the church, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a place I was allowed to park. I circled again and found another parking lot where I felt comfortable parking. The lot was full, but there were no people outside. They must be inside already. What were they doing in there? It was almost 5:50 by the time I shut off my engine. I imagined them asking the blessing, imagined my entrance drawing an awkward pause in the prayer. Would I be an interruption? How many people would be there? I didn’t know anyone yet, and I was late: Not the best first impression. I wondered what they would think of a newcomer barging into such a (potentially) intimate event. It had been called a “congregational potluck dinner and meeting” – was I even part of the congregation yet?
What if I had no place in this meeting, if I was an intruder?
I turned the key. My car growled back to life, and I drove home. I took the streets coolly, and they carried me quickly home, without a single red light and no traffic. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and turned up the AC. I turned into my parking lot and then into my space and turned the key once more, depositing it in my pocket before placing my hand on the door. I stepped out into the cool breeze and took a deep breath. A single cloud passed overhead. I carried my dinner, in the new Pyrex dish and wrapped in a clean bath towel, back into my apartment, set it on the counter, sat down, and cried.
My shoelaces had come untied.
Andy Harper holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha and currently is pursuing a PhD in American Literature at SIU-Carbondale. His work has appeared most recently in Boston Accent Lit, IDK Magazine, Lime Hawk, and Jenny.