To Hell and Back

Baker’s Pick
Robb C. Sewell


My loft’s window seat is uncomfortable, yet it provides me with a bird’s eye view of my neighborhood. I kick off my boots and stretch my legs. A Bible lies unopened beside my feet.

I look outside the dirt-stained window and run my fingers along a crack in the glass. On the street below, life goes on. Neighbors sit on their stoops. Children run down the street and into an alley. Two feral cats hiss at each other. As for me, I watch as life passes by. I like it that way.

“Well, God,” I begin. “I don’t know. Where do I start?”

It’s stifling in my loft so I open some windows. I spot the Bible at my feet and slowly reach for it. As I hold it in my hands, I imagine an intense stream of heat emanating from its cover, searing my fingers. As the image fades, I weave my fingers along the lettering on the cover.

My family never owned a Bible, although we did go to a Catholic church until I was seven years old. My dad, rest his soul, just couldn’t tolerate organized religion. Man, did it ever piss him off when I first started to go to a born-again church back in my sophomore year of college.

“How could you go to that church?” he asked. “You know nothing about these people. It could be a cult, Matt.”

“Dad, it’s not a cult,” I whispered.

“How do you know that?” he demanded.

I wanted to scream, “My God, I’m your son. Do you really know me so little to think I’d join a cult?” But I didn’t, I couldn’t voice my indignation. Instead, I stayed silent, my father’s imposing figure strangling the words from my throat.

“Son, please,” he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. “I’m only concerned about what you’ve gotten yourself into. Your grades are dropping. You seldom come to visit anymore. I don’t like what’s happening to you.”

Finally, I summoned enough courage to demand feebly, “Why can’t you just be happy for me? Is that too much to ask?”

The heat is getting worse. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. I rise slowly from the window seat and go to the kitchen. I snatch a tray of ice cubes from the freezer and walk back to my window to the world. I remove my tie and let it fall to the floor. Then I open the buttons of my black silk shirt and rub the ice against my chest. My hands brush against the cross that hangs around my neck.

I open my Bible and its cover falls against the window seat. I look at the scrawl on the inside cover, my eyes stinging from staring too long. It reads, “Matthew, welcome to the family. Your brother, Evan.”

It was the first week of the semester when a knock sounded upon my door. A young couple, Evan and Stacy, were going through the dorm, inviting people to a campus Bible study. Their little spiel intrigued me: all about God having a purpose for my life. I figured, “Why not?” After all, I had experimented with lots of stuff since I first came to college—drugs, alcohol, sex with women, sex with men. Religion was something else to try.

And so began my introduction to the International Church of Hope. The next sixteen days rushed by as I studied the scriptures with my newfound friends. Soon, I learned that I was a sinner and that I was damned to Hell lest I repent of my sins. The path to salvation was laid out before me. Clearly, it was time to leave my sinful ways behind. Caught up in the euphoria of the church and friends who claimed to love me heart and soul, I made the decision to be baptized and become a Christian, born again in God’s love, compassion, and glory.

I return to the kitchen and scour the cabinets for a clean glass but they’re all in the sink waiting to be washed. Perhaps I’ll get to them tomorrow. I head to the refrigerator and snatch a can of Coors Light. I pop it open and take a long, refreshing drink.

Slowly, I walk back to the window seat, beer in hand. I take another gulp and look out the window. My neighbor, Mrs. Slocume, is just getting home from her job at a local department store. I invited Mrs. Slocume to church once.

She turned me down. Meeting people and converting them was extremely important in the International Church of Hope. It was far more important than school, work, or family. I always felt that sharing my faith with people was fine, but I also strongly believed that meeting people’s physical and emotional needs was equally important. There were more needs in this world than just saving souls, I would argue. One simply had to walk the two blocks from my loft to the campus bus stop to see a glimpse of humanity’s needs: the homeless looking for food, shelter, and money; the poor struggling to make ends meet. As I studied the Bible, I saw that Jesus not only shared his faith with people, he also sought to meet their physical and emotional needs. I shared this conviction with the guys in my Bible study but they blew me off, saying evangelism was more important than anything else.

Evan admonished, “Your convictions are great, bro, but I think your priorities are screwed up. You can feed people all you want. You can nurse them back to health. But ultimately their greatest need is for their souls to be saved. That’s our purpose in life, bro. You need to be saving souls. After all, Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to feed the hungry.”

As always, I sheepishly backed down from my convictions as guilt infested my heart. After all, what Evan was saying sounded good and wise. Who was I to challenge his authority, the church’s authority?

I stretch my legs out once more, and bring the beer can to my chest and lay it against my skin. I sigh heavily. I catch a dim reflection of my sweat-riddled face in the window. I’m in need of a shave, I realize as I draw my fingers across my stubble. I run my fingers through my dark brown hair. I’m the only member of my family to have brown hair. My mom and my brothers are blondes. My dad, rest his soul, always had gray hair for as long as I could remember. I’ve tried other hair colors. I’ve been blonde, and I’ve even been a redhead for a few weeks. Now, I’ve gone back to my roots—in more ways than one.

I drop the Bible to the floor and lean my head against the brick wall. “I don’t know; it used to be so easy to talk to you,” I pray. How could things change so quickly? I spent two years as a member of the International Church of Hope and now I can’t even utter a single prayer.

Though I enjoyed most of my time in the church, in my heart I harbored doubts about the church, its leaders, and its beliefs. The vehement intolerance and arrogance spewed from the pulpit disgusted me. I was troubled by the church’s emphasis on reaching out to popular, attractive, and wealthy people to the exclusion of the average man or woman. Questions nagged at me, keeping me awake through many nights. Yet, with all of my doubts surfacing, I continued to attend church services.

Night is beginning to fall. I crush the beer can and toss it toward the garbage container. It misses and lands beside my bureau, drops of beer spilling onto the floor. I look out the window and see my reflection staring back at me. I turn away for a second, and then look back. My hair brushes against my shoulders, caressing my neck. When was the last time I tied it together in a ponytail? I spot my silver hoop earring and smile. Ah, yes, the ear piercing incident.

It happened about two months after my conversion. I had always wanted to have my ear pierced but never dared to do it while I lived at home for it was against my dad’s wishes. So, one day, I went downtown, intent on getting my ear pierced, and then spent the next two hours walking around, wavering between indecision and fear. Would it hurt? What would my parents say? Finally, I did the deed. I liked it and thought it looked cool. The next night was the weekly Bible discussion and here I show up with my newly pierced ear. Man, did I ever get stares from the members of the group! The next day, Evan approached me and reprimanded me for getting my ear pierced without seeking advice.

“Advice?” I snapped. “About getting my ear pierced? You gotta be kidding!”

Evan drew close to me. “You know we discussed this when you were studying to become a Christian. A disciple needs to seek advice.”

“Well, I didn’t realize I had to get permission to get my ear pierced. Don’t tell me I also need permission to get my hair cut, or about the clothes I wear, or when I can take a piss.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” Evan snapped. “It’s important for you to seek advice. You’re still a baby Christian, aren’t you? Whatever you do or say, how you look, it all reflects on the church and God.”

I rise from the window seat and walk to my dresser. When I get to the bureau, I kick the beer can toward the garbage container. It misses and splatters stains against the wall. I lean against the brick wall and close my eyes. The feel of bricks against my skin is rough at first, but I quickly grow used to it.

As sweat runs down my face, I take off my shirt. My fingers softly touch my cross. I always wear it. I wear it while I shower, while I swim, while I’m having sex, Holy Father, forgive me my sin, I know what I do. I lay my shirt across the bureau, drop my jeans, and take off my black boxer briefs. I reach into the bureau and snatch a pair of black silk boxers. The coolness of the silk against my skin is refreshing.

I stand silently, gently pulling the hair on my legs. Words fail to pour from my heart, my soul. Nothing comes. No praise. No confessions. No petitions. Nothing. Nothing at all. Instead, my heart and soul brim with anger, pain, and resentment.

I recall Evan’s letter to me, a plea to reconsider my decision to leave the church. I stopped going to church about six months ago and in the days and weeks that followed, I resisted any attempt by church members to contact me. The telephone would ring and ring but I wouldn’t pick it up. Evan and some of the other guys came by from time to time but I wouldn’t answer the door.

My final break from the church came after the annual Super Bowl party, which was really an opportunity for the church to bring more people into its fold. Evan wanted me to come to the party but I wasn’t up to it. Only two months had passed since my dad’s fatal heart attack and I simply wasn’t up for a damn football game. So, I stayed that night at home in my loft, adrift in memories.

Suddenly a loud knock came upon my door. I slowly walked across the concrete floor and opened the door to find Evan standing there.

“Bro,” he said as he walked into the loft, brushing against me. “Where were you tonight? We missed you.”

“Obviously, I’ve been right here,” I said, shutting the door.

“I’m only concerned about you, Matt,” Evan said as he sat on my wicker chair. He laid his Bible on his lap. “I was worried that something might have happened to you.”

“Look,” I said, rubbing the back of my head. My hair fell through my fingers. “I just needed to be alone tonight.”

“Well, I don’t think being alone is the answer for you. You need people around you. It wouldn’t hurt for you to get out and get your mind on something else for a change. You know there was this guy at the party tonight and I really think the two of you would have hit it off. He’s thinking about majoring in English.”

Evan reached for his Bible and slowly began to unzip its leather cover. I snapped, “Look, I’m really not in the mood to hear something from the Bible right now.”

“What’s with you, man?” Evan asked. Holding the Bible in his hands, he continued, “This is what you need to hear. This is where you’re going to find answers.”

“Well, right now, I don’t want answers, okay?” I snapped. “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. My heart isn’t in it. I’m finished.”

Looking down at his Doc Martens, Evan said softly, “Bro, do you know what you’re saying?”

“I do… in every way. And I’ve never felt better. I’m tired of it all. The hatred preached from the pulpit. The double standards. The hypocrisy. I’m so tired of feeling guilty all the time. Like I can’t do anything right. I’m tired of worrying if I’ll get rebuked because I didn’t seek advice. I’m just so tired… tired of it all.”

“Why are you doing this? Why are you saying these things?” Evan asked; his hands shook ever so slightly.

“I’m saying what’s on my heart. I’m through.”

“Bro,” Evan said as he got off the chair and walked toward me.

“Just leave. Get out.”

“Bro, do you know what you’re doing? You’re turning your back on God.”

“So you say,” I whispered. “I won’t ask again. Please leave.”

Slowly, Evan walked toward the door and opened it. Rocking the doorknob in his hand, he said, “Give me a call when you want to talk.”

That night, I drove to my hometown. My mind was entranced with the twinkling white lights that had been strung along the trees on Devon Lane, the hamlet’s main thoroughfare. I drove past my family’s house and finally stopped my jeep at the entrance to the North Woods Cemetery. It was close to four in the morning and the wrought iron gates were closed and chained. I trudged through snowdrifts until I reached the southern end of the cemetery where my dad is buried. I climbed the fence and jumped over, falling into the snow. Wiping back tears, I continued on until I reached his grave.

I sat down in the snow and leaned my back against a tombstone. Through tear-laden eyes, I stared at my father’s grave and then toward the sky. Snowflakes softly danced upon my face. “I’d have done you proud, Dad,” I said. “It’s over. It’s finally over.” I brushed the snow from my dad’s tombstone and slowly walked away.

I light a candle and then turn off the lights. I walk back to the window seat and set the candle down. My knees are bent. I lean my forehead against my sweaty legs. Tears bitterly pierce my face. My fingers gingerly caress the cross, nestled against my chest hair. I hold the cross in my hand and stare at it. It is tarnished with age. My hand forms into a fist and clutches the cross. I tear it from my neck and hold it in my hand. I wipe the tears from my eyes. The candle flickers. Minutes pass; they seem like days. I reach for the window and drape my hand outside. One by one, my fingers unlock and the cross slips away.

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Robb Sewell is a communications specialist. He received a B.A. in English from Rutgers University and is presently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. E-mail: rcsewell[at]comcast.net.

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