The Shalt Nots
Because I was a Roman Catholic heathen condemned by my Alabama neighbors to an eternity of sulfur and fire, it was difficult to find friends as a child. I first tried with the girl who stood in her backyard before school every morning and screamed thirteen times in a row because she heard that being hoarse was sexy. Then there were the Beardon boys, who spent every afternoon from 3:30 to 5:00 poking dead squirrels in the street with sticks, though all the neighborhood adults said in hushed voices that they’d never seen dead squirrels in the street before they moved in. Then there was Michelle Thorton, who lived in a white split-level six houses over and spent every morning painting her nails at the bus stop and every bus ride home peeling off the polish so her mother wouldn’t see. The first time she came to play at my house, she looked up from the circle of Barbie skirts petaling around us to see the top of my dresser.
“What’s that?” I knew she was pointing at the Virgin Mary, the one who had been my mother’s, who wore robes of a blue more beautiful than the sky and stood on a gold pedestal, a snake snaking itself towards her feet. I thought maybe I could distract her from this line of questioning with my best toy, a doll so prized I had only once played with her and then stopped after ten minutes when her hair started coming out in my brush.
“Oh, my American Girl doll? It’s Molly. The one from World War II. She has a Christmas stocking with real watercolors and a yo-yo that works.”
Michelle rolled her eyes and made a motorboat noise with her lips. “Yeah, duh. I have, like, all of them. I mean that,” she said, pushing her pointer finger closer, the way my mother did when she caught me playing with something she thought was disgusting, like that slime that made fart noises when you pushed it into its tube. I knew there was no way out.
“That’s the Virgin Mary.”
“What, are you Catholic or something?” She asked it the way someone would ask if I liked to eat Cocker Spaniel sandwiches, so I couldn’t say the words. I just nodded. “Don’t you, like, worship Mary and all that?”
I was prepared for this. For two weeks’ worth of Catechism classes, Mrs. Lucas had talked while we colored in dittoed line-drawings of Mary, some with her holding her chest open and indicating her light bulb heart with an upturned palm, about how Mary was an intercessor, sort of like a mediator between us and Jesus and God, who were, we’d just learned, apparently the same person. “No. We just pray to her.”
“You pray to her.”
“So you worship her.”
“Not really. I mean, she’s not the one answering the prayers.”
Michelle made another motorboat sound. “But you pray to her. And you look at this statue while you do it?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“So you pray to statues, too,” Michelle said, and before I tried to explain that, I realized I had already lost: her lips pushed against each other and her eyebrows went up a little and she looked like she did every time she won at checkers, even if she cheated, which was the only way she ever won at checkers.
“I guess so.” I picked up a pink skirt and slid it over Barbie’s hips to her pinky-finger-width waist. “My Barbie just decided she wants to be a nurse.”
Michelle started putting her Barbies back in the official Barbie carrying case I hated her for having. “So my mom was right,” she said, shoving Barbies’ unfolded skirts into the wrong compartment. “I mean, have you even been saved?”
It was a question I couldn’t answer because it was a question I couldn’t understand. To me, being saved was what you did in a video game so that if you accidentally fell into a fire pit or got hit by a spinning turtle shell, you wouldn’t have to start from the beginning. In real life, I gathered that being saved involved your heart and grape juice and Jesus, but other than that, I thought there must have been some kind of secret code, like the one you punched in to give Mario and Luigi endless lives or to warp from world 1-2 to 5-1. Michelle and the Beardon boys and the screaming girl and all the other kids in the neighborhood not only knew how to give Mario and Luigi infinite lives, they were all saved.
I sat and didn’t answer and watched Michelle slam her official Barbie carrying case shut. She didn’t even fix its snap into place before saying she wasn’t allowed to play with heathens. She stomped off without a look behind her, blonde hair shining in loops and curls from the top of her high-held head. I sat in the floor and closed my eyes and counted to fifty, the way Mrs. Lucas told us to do if we ever got mad, before following the tracks her Reeboks made in the carpet to find my mother in the kitchen, humming Heart songs while baking pork chops.
“What in the hell was all of that?” she asked.
“Her mom won’t let her play with people who worship statues and Mary,” I said, reaching into the pantry for two Moonpies– the one I was allowed to eat and the one I would sneak upstairs in my pocket. My mother made a hmph noise, her lips pushed against each other and her eyebrows pushing down against her eyes. She sliced an apple in half and then the halves in half.
“Well, it’s her loss. Don’t let her bother you,” she said. “She doesn’t know anything about anything and besides, she was awfully dramatic.” I went upstairs and sat on the floor with my Barbies. They stared, blue-eyed and unblinking, at me, and I stared back, and none of us knew what to do.
I spent most of my time playing by myself, singing songs from Cats in the front yard while jumping over the jump rope attached to a stick every kid my age had gotten for Christmas. Sometimes I’d hunt for quartz crystals and arrowheads in the backyard. Most of the time I found sandstone and pretended to be surprised. “Look at that,” I’d say aloud, so that if someone heard they’d think I was making discoveries so magnificent and fascinating as to either make them want to hang out with me or make them think I was too cool to hang out with them. “Sandstone! Well, I’ll be!” It was hard to keep acting surprised because I always knew that I wasn’t. I was so bored I was sure I was going to die, and so I started riding my bike to the end of the neighborhood, to the circle my mother called a cul-de-sac. At its center I stopped and pretended to check my bike’s chain while filling my pockets with fallen hickory nuts and persimmons, both of which I’d pop in my mouth after looking both ways for my mother, who told me not to eat them or I’d get worms.
One day I finished five persimmons in a row, all of them so ripe that the pulp pushed the peel apart, then looked up to see a driveway leading to an open garage and inside of it, a girl staring at me. She was about my height and had two stringy slabs of light brown hair that hung down near her cheeks and eyebrows that pushed down against her eyes like a cartoon character’s eyebrows do when they’re confused.
“Are you eating those persimmons?” she asked. I realized that technically they were her persimmons and I should say no so I wouldn’t get arrested for theft, so I did. Her eyebrows pushed down against her eyes even more. “My mom said not to eat those because they’ll give you worms.”
“My mom did, too,” I said, and I stood with my hands in the pockets of my shorts to hide the fact that they were full of persimmons, and she stood on the driveway with her hair and her cartoon eyebrows, and we looked at each other.
“I like to eat them anyway,” she said. “I like the way they squish.”
It was clear that we were going to be best friends.
The next afternoon, I scrawled practice words across my handwriting notebook – question, query, queue. I spun through homework exercises converting decimals to fractions and back again, and I didn’t even say that it was stupid to convert them if I was just going to put them back. My mother rewarded my new good attitude towards homework by letting me ride my bike, with my Tupperware box of Barbies balanced in its basket, to Meghan’s cul-de-sac, hoping with fingers crossed over the bicycle’s handles that her garage door would be open. It was, and Meghan was there, surrounded by Barbies and their glorious blonde falls of hair. I started pedaling very slowly and singing “Memory,” which finally made her turn her pushed-down eyebrows to me and wave me up to her garage. I stood still near the entrance with my Tupperware box for a minute, shocked not only at the depth and breadth of her Barbies’ wardrobe – underwear and outerwear, a pair of shoes for each outfit, six lace bridal gowns with matching hats and veils – and at the little boy sitting next to her, who had snot crusted impressively around both of his nostrils as well as the same strips of hair as Meghan did, only shaped into a bowl cut.
She tilted her head towards him. “This is my brother, Michael.” Michael kept making vroom noises at his toy garbage truck, and because I didn’t know what to do with little brothers, I made a little nod in his direction and said hi. For a second he pointed his nostrils my way and I could see there was something wet and leaking about his nose, so I was glad when he went back to vrooming. Meghan picked up two Barbies and made them face each other, then stared at me until I realized I was supposed to sit down next to her with a Barbie of my own. And that was that.
Every afternoon, I packed my Barbies into the basket that hung from my bike’s handlebars. I rode past the persimmon and hickory nut trees, and while they were still green, we played in Meghan’s garage, which smelled like spilled oil and the rust on the tools her father had hung on the cinderblock walls. Even though I was afraid that her father would come home early and catch us banging our Barbies against each other in the experimental way we approximated sex, it was still perfect. The concrete floor felt cool through the jersey fabric of my shorts, and we could play without parental supervision. This was important, because Meghan’s mother was bonafied crazy. The whole neighborhood said so. She stood in her driveway, wearing her Dorothy Hamill bowl cut and plaid sweaters and Peter Pan collars, counting all the cars that used the cul-de-sac just to turn around in so that she could complain at the next meeting of the Home Owner’s Association. Sometimes she went on scouting missions through the neighborhood, looking for lawns unmowed, hedges untrimmed, azalea bushes with too many pink blooms wilted to orange or brown. Later, she’d feed the homeowner’s mailbox a series of letters folded carefully into three equal rectangles. But she hated the garage and its smell and would only enter by making a space between the door and its jamb large for her head to fit through so her mouth could tell Meghan and Michael that their father was on his way and me that I needed to pack up and go home, and so we spent September giddily banging our Barbies against each other while Michael inserted each of his G.I. Joe figurines into his nose in their ordered turns.
School had become so unutterably boring that I spent most of each day drawing tiny pictures of cross-eyed animals in my textbooks. As third graders, we were in the wide, barren desert of boredom that comes in the middle of a Catholic grammar-to-middle-school education. We’d gone through all the exciting sacraments in a rush, following each others’ pinafores in single file to the back of the church for our First Holy Reconciliation and then to the front of the church for our First Holy Communion. Now the only thing we had to look forward to was Confirmation. Depending on who described it, Confirmation either sounded like a horror movie in which we would all be possessed by a spirit who would literally do God knows what to us. After Confirmation, we’d switch from pinafores to plaid uniform skirts, and with those skirts came the responsibility to be wise and understanding and choose to do the right thing all the time. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bishop all said so. We’d started to learn all of the cardinal and venial sins, which sounded like it would be a lot of fun but was really just a bunch of ditto sheets we had to fill out over and over again until we could correctly classify every sin Brother Benjamin called out in class. Adultery? Cardinal. Murder? Cardinal. A white lie? Venial. Sassing your parents? Cardinal if Brother Benjamin asked, venial if Ms. Fitzgerald asked. It was just rote memorization.
One October afternoon, after scoring a 93% on a test about the venial sins, I knocked on Meghan’s door and heard a set of footsteps too slow to be Meghan’s or Michael’s. The door opened. Meghan’s mother appeared. I was so used to seeing only her head that I almost didn’t recognize her with her body, which was covered in green corduroy pants and a sweater appliquéd with an orange leaf, an acorn, a pinecone separated from its tree. It was the kind of thing I’d only seen a teacher wear, and so was the expression she made as she held the door open, sort of like a smile but not quite a smile, the kind that means I know that in this situation, I am expected to smile, and I am therefore moving the muscles of my face in the direction of that expression. Her voice sounded like a teacher’s voice, too, the kind of false-cheery that let you know her thoughts didn’t match her face.
“It’s so nice to see you, Emily,” she said and stood to the side so that I could step inside the house, which smelled like the potpourri aisle in Wal-Mart. There were crosses everywhere – hanging near the ceiling, surrounded by leopard print in a gold frame, processing in elaborate patterns up the stairs – but not a single crucifix, not a single Jesus with his head lolling leftward and ankles nailed together, a banner with its unreadable Arameic floating above him.
“Meghan’s upstairs,” she said, gesturing with one arm while the other one closed the door on the space outside the house. She nodded towards the crosses-not-crucifixes that lined the way up the stairs. I thanked her because I didn’t know what else to say and made my way to Meghan’s room, where I’d only been allowed once before and then only after I swore to Meghan’s mother that I wouldn’t sit with my shoes on Meghan’s pink lace-trimmed comforter, which, she told me, was custom-made and very expensive. She followed me all the way to Meghan’s room, which looked like the displays they set up in J.C. Penney’s to show what a little girl’s room should look like: a giant white bed with four poles rising to fly the flag of the white lace canopy. In one pink corner there hung a white hammock where Meghan’s stuffed animals spent all day squeezed against each other until one or two fell to the ground.
“Remember, Emily, we don’t sit on Meghan’s bed,” Mrs. Smitherman said, though there really wasn’t any room to sit on the bed anyway, what with the pillows ranging from scallop-edged to lace-trimmed to round. I had once seen Meghan herself scream Hi-ya and then push every pillow off the bed in one impressive karate chop so she could spend the afternoon using her custom-made comforter as a trampoline. Michael and Meghan sat on the floor with identical expressions, like kids in cereal commercials who can’t tell that they’re not eating healthy cereal. Mrs. Smitherman waited to make sure I sat on the floor with them. Michael kept both his hands and all of their fingers in his lap, and Meghan’s Barbies sat in front of her wearing their clothes and accessories. Though my own mother had said that if I had left my own Ken doll out in the sandbox for neighborhood cats to tinkle all over then I’d have to buy a new one myself, Mrs. Smitherman had replaced Perfume Giving Ken with Rollerblade Ken, who wore a lime green skating outfit and neon shorts in a pattern too amazing to be believed. Every time I looked at him I felt a hot spark behind my eyes, I wanted him so badly. A venial sin. Michael and Meghan kept smiling their U smiles and looking from side to side until Mrs. Smitherman finally opened the thin line of her mouth to say, mostly to me, that she’d leave us alone as long as we promised to be good. Michael and Meghan promised in musical harmony and I promised, too. I watched the back of her sweater, which had a green series of leaves stitched onto it, as she left the room, and by the time she and her sweater were gone, Michael’s finger was in his nose and both Barbie and Ken were naked.
“Meghan.” The word came out sounding strange, all quiet and mysterious and frightened, and I could feel my heart bird-flapping in my chest the way it did when I was in my mother’s closet reading what her romance novels had to say about throbbing menhood and heard the garage door opening.
“What is wrong with you?” Meghan asked. She picked up her Ken and opened his legs like a pair of scissors. I could see the lines that were supposed to be his plastic whitey-tighties. I felt hot and a little sick.
“What is wrong with you? Your mother is, like, right there.”
Meghan raised one eyebrow and put down Ken and picked up Barbie and said so in such a smooth and casual way that I either wanted to be her or hit her.
“I mean, she’s, like, right there. She could come in right now. She could be listening right now.”
“Oh my God.” The words came out like three musical notes, one high and one low and one higher, to let me know she was making fun of me. But she let Barbie fall a little bit in her hand so that the one leg she’d pulled upwards pointed towards the hammock on which her stuffed animals struggled for space, and she bent her head towards the doorway.
“Oh my God,” Michael said in the same three notes, and he bent his head in the same direction, and so did I, and for a minute there was just that strange silence that snuck into every Alabama house in October when the air conditioner was finally off.
“She’s not out there,” Meghan announced, and pulled back Barbie’s leg with a decisive finality. Michael turned back to the Viper Corps and I cupped my hand around my ear, and then I stopped hearing the silence and heard what they heard: the tap and click of computer keys and Mrs. Smitherman’s far-down-the-hall voice humming the bridge to “Praise Him, Praise Him, All Ye Little Children.” And then Meghan nodded in a solemn way and Michael nodded back.
Michael carefully picked up his Python Patrol Cobra Commander and inserted his entire mirrored mask into his left nostril, and Meghan picked up Barbie in one hand and Ken in the other and banged them into each other, over and over and in the rhythm of her mother’s song, GOD is LOVE, GOD is LOVE. I realized I was going to die. Then I realized I was standing up. Then I was in the bathroom at the end of the hall and the door was closed behind me. I examined my face in the mirror to make sure it was still my face. I took inventory: there were the two barrettes my mother put in my hair every morning so it wouldn’t fall in my face, and the pink plastic glasses that Jennifer Williams called nerd goggles, and the line of silver braces that ran along my big square front teeth. There were the teeth themselves, which looked as much like peppermint Chicklets as they always looked, and there was the hole in my eyebrow from when the boys pushed me down on the sidewalk and a rock got stuck in my skin.
The more I realized that I was me, the more my heart stopped winging in its fast way in my chest, and the more I could breathe without opening and closing my mouth and making a weird little heek noise. I made the sign of the cross and watched the Emily in the mirror do it backwards. I wondered if the Emily in the mirror was committing a venial or a cardinal sin. Mrs. Smitherman had stopped singing after the third verse, which said to thank Him, thank Him, all ye little children, and so I did. And then I realized I hadn’t died, so I thanked Him again. It made me feel good enough to walk down the hallway. By the time I got back to Meghan’s pink room, Mrs. Smitherman was sitting on her bed with both hands on a book. Michael and Meghan sat on the floor below her. They all had identical U-shaped smiles and small shining blue beads of eyes that traveled a little to the left and then to the right.
When Mrs. Smitherman asked me to please sit down on the bed beside her, my mouth felt strange and dry, the way it did when I looked into my fish tank long enough to realize that my favorite goldfish wasn’t just taking a break from swimming. It was the kind of thing a mother said when she was about to tell you that your fish would never start swimming again, so I said I was okay standing and then asked what had happened. Meghan and Michael and Mrs. Smitherman all looked at each other and pushed their mouths down into the same thin lines, and then turned them back into U’s to look at me.
“Nothing’s happened, Emily,” Mrs. Smitherman said, “not yet. But something could.” She cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her voice was clearer and friendlier than I’d ever heard it before. “Meghan and Michael and I just wanted to talk to you. About how you need to know about Jesus.” Then she moved her hand a little on the cover of the book she was holding. It was a Bible, thin and worn. Its brown leather cover had her name stamped in gold on the front, which meant it was the kind of Bible my mother said Protestants used and took to church with them. Our Bible was so big it took two hands to lift it. My mother, like her mother, kept everything important inside, like birth certificates and lists of when the girls in the family started their periods. I knew a lot about the Jesus in our Bible, and I thought all Bibles talked about the same Jesus. I started to feel dizzy, thinking about how maybe they didn’t. How many Jesuses could there be?
I stopped looking at the cover of the Bible and started to look at the carpet, its wide beige expanse. There were so many nubs of it underneath my feet, and each of them bent in a different direction, each dyed a slightly different color from ecru to oatmeal to tan. I squinted a little bit and when I did, the tiny heads of thread disappeared. I stopped squinting and they came back. There must have been thousands of them, working together to make carpet the way cells worked together to make skin. By the time I realized Mrs. Smitherman was talking, I realized she had been talking for a while, and while I was looking down at the carpet, she had moved her face close to me. I felt the heat of her breath and I smelled it, too, something antiseptic with onions underneath it. She was using that breath to talk about Jesus, about His love and His lamb’s blood spilled for me and my sins and my salvation. I didn’t want to look at her.
“Look at me,” she said, and she was a mother, so I had to. Little clumps of mascara hung onto her bottom lashes and inside the rims of her eyes, which were black pupils then blue irises and then white that wasn’t quite white but the kind of red my mother’s eyes turned when she had been crying or yelling or both. “Jesus died for you, Emily.” Then her left hand was on my right shoulder and her right hand was on my left shoulder and I was shaking a little frontwards and backwards. And then I wasn’t shaking but she was shaking me, and asking me did I even know that, did I even care. I heard the word yes, twice, and I guess I said it, and I guess Mrs. Smitherman was satisfied enough to stop shaking me. She let go with her right hand so she could pick up the Bible.
“This Book is the light of the world,” she said. I heard two more yeses and wondered if they were mine. But one was a boy’s voice and both came from the floor, and I realized that Meghan and Michael must still be there. And then they were there, and Meghan floated the blue beads of her eyes upwards and smiled a smile that seemed too serene for her face, and Michael ran his fire truck over his toes and hummed, Jesus loves me, yes I know, which made Mrs. Smitherman smile a little and nod. “Jesus does love you, Michael,” she said, “and Meghan, and Emily, Jesus loves you too, or He will, if you let Him into your heart.”
My mouth opened. I started to say something about how we sang that song, too, in the music room where there were crosses just like her crosses, except with Jesus Himself hanging from them, but she was busy talking in the grand tones Father Mullen used when we were standing and swaying through the long Gospel passages that came around holidays and Holy Days of Obligation, about how I shouldn’t make graven images or likenesses and bow down to them or serve them. She shook me a little again and got closer to my face, holding the Bible up next to her face so that it named her in gold leaf on its cover – Jo Anna Smitherman – and asked me if I knew what that meant. I figured that I was supposed to say I didn’t know because she wanted to explain, and so I shook my head.
“I know what you do in that church,” she said. “I know what they are teaching you to do in that school.” I kept looking at the Bible and reading the words again and again – Jo Anna Smitherman, Jo Anna Smitherman. They kept telling me that I was still where I was and she was still who she was. “Do you worship the Virgin Mary, Emily?” There was a small piece of spittle on her bottom lip, and looking at it made me so sick I had to look at the carpet, which Mrs. Smitherman took as a yes. Her hand curled itself tighter around my arm and she shook me some more. I tried to forget the spittle. I tried to count the pieces of thread that made up the carpet.
“Oh Jesus, sweet Jesus,” she said, “have mercy, sweet Jesus,” and Meghan and Michael said it below us, too, “Have mercy, sweet Jesus, have mercy.” There were twenty-eight pieces of thread in the shadow of the cab of Michael’s fire truck. There were sixteen under the fireman’s head. Then Mrs. Smitherman held the Bible in one hand and hit the cover with her other hand, over and over again, the way Meghan made Party Lace Barbie hit Rollerblade Ken when they were both naked. “Exodus 20:6, Emily: ‘for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’” There were forty-two threads in a line around Michael’s left shoe. “Accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior, and you will be saved. Hate Him by worshipping your false idols, and you will suffer, and your children will suffer, and their children after them.”
A small bar of sun came in from the blinds and it made a small bar of the carpet orange. This meant that the sun was setting. This meant that time still existed and was still passing. I looked at the bar and followed the line it would have made if it were longer. That line would have led to my shoes, which meant I had feet. And then I looked up.
Meghan and Michael and Mrs. Smitherman were all looking at me with their identical smiles. They were waiting for me. What they didn’t know was that I had remembered I had feet, and I’d remembered what feet do. Or rather, my feet had remembered what they were supposed to do, and my arms had, too, because I was bending down and picking up my Barbies and their outfits, and then my mouth remembered that it could speak. It said something about the sun setting and my mother and dinner and trouble, and then my feet were taking me downstairs and I was saying the Act of Contrition and asking forgiveness because I had just told a lie. A white lie. Only a venial sin, one that could be absolved through confession. And if Jesus was sweet and had any mercy, he would understand.
Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry — How to Recognize a Lady (Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife,(Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); This Is Our Hollywood (The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions as well as such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, and Copper Nickel. Follow her on Twitter at @emmabo.