By Marley Andino
My sixth-grade science booklet bored me, especially the part about the Great Flood. “There is an invisible water cape surrounding the Earth. God let the water cape fall and the great flood destroyed anything Noah did not save, including the dinosaurs. God let the water cape fall because his children did not obey him.”
I flipped to the front cover and read over the Ten Commandments. I set the Christian flag on top of my cubicle, and waited for Mrs. French, the word covet stuck in my head. If I was going to keep from sinning, I’d need to know what it meant.
“Ma’am. Am I coveting my neighbor’s wife?”
Mrs. French, room monitor and Pastor’s wife, shook her head. “Don’t be forward, young lady. Now pray.”
I didn’t pray much. I figured if God was all-knowing, he already knew what I was thinking.
“God,” I prayed, “this water cape is ridiculous. Please help this day pass. And please let me know if wearing a scapular is a sin or not.”
I sometimes wore my scapular under my shirt. Mom said not to call it a necklace, but it looked like one to me, a brown cloth pendant with a tiny image of the Virgin Mary. Father McKenzie gave them away after Sunday mass at Immaculate Conception. I was an altar girl, so I didn’t feel bad taking extra. But at school, Pastor French told me scapulars were false idols, which just made me more confused.
“Mom, they want me to sign a paper.”
“What kind of paper, dear?” She was frying pork chops, which I hated—unless they were burnt. She looked at me through steamed-up glasses.
“A paper that says I accept thelordjesuschrist as my savior.”
“That’s nice, but you’re Catholic. You’re already baptized.”
I wanted to ask if being baptized was the same as being saved, but talking to mom about religion just brought out Bible quotes. I looked over at my little brother, drooling in his highchair.
Pastor French said babies are all born sinners, but I didn’t believe him.
Safe in my room, I looked at the tract they gave me at school: TheDeath Cookie. I was used to being singled out for conversion—my brothers and I were the only Catholics at Hopesville Pentecostal Academy. Mom said that any Christian school was better than thatmalarkey taught at public school, and Hopesville was the only one in Matthews County. The cartoon Pope on the tract looked funny making his deal with the Devil. See, the Pope was tricking the people with this thing called Holy Communion.
I signed the Acceptance of The Lord Jesus Christ on the last page and tore along the dotted line—better safe than sorry. I stuffed the Acceptance into my book bag and hid Pope-Devil in my sock drawer where Mom wouldn’t find it. Mom hardly came upstairs. All that chaos is depressing, she liked to say. It’s true my brothers’ room was a mess. Dad brought them home old lab equipment—banks of oscilloscopes and green radar screens—that they turned into spaceships. But I kept my room neat, my bed made. I painted the walls pink like calamine.
When the house turned quiet, I snuck into Dad’s office at the end of the hall and studied his paperbacks on the top shelf: Nero Wolfe, Mickey Spillane, James Bond. I wasn’t allowed in his office, or to touch his books, but he was away on a trip and Mom was downstairs, busy with the baby. I hid Goldfinger under my arm. James Bond fought bad guys in a tuxedo, sniffed out double agents, and saved the world from nuclear war.
If there was one thing Pastor French and Mom agreed on, it was that some kind of war was coming. Sometimes after dinner, Mom read aloud from the Book of Revelation. She took me with her to the co-op in the city, where we shoveled soy grits into bags. Mom pointed out tall brick buildings downtown, marked with yellow and black signs. “Fallout shelters,” she said, nodding like it was something to remember.
When Dad was gone, I helped her stack sealed buckets of dried beans and powdered eggs down in the basement. Mom said Dad was helping in his own way—keeping us safe against the Russians.
That night, I lay in bed with my second-story window open, inhaling damp marsh air and looking down onto the convenience store lot next door. I made spying into a game, but the truth was I was scared of what was out there: the dark, the rough men’s voices, their hacking spit. They were just fishermen, out for a beer, but I lip-read using Dad’s binoculars and listened for anything—the slam of a trunk, the crunch of boots on crushed oyster shell, a pine branch scratching the gutter spout outside my window—that signaled they were coming for me.
At midnight, I woke with a crick in my neck, binoculars tangled in the pillow. I switched on the lamp by my bed and tugged the scratchy scapular from under my t-shirt. It was warm and smelled smoky like Mass. I turned Mary over and read the tiny letters on the back:Whosoever dies wearing this shall not suffer eternal fire. I wondered how everyone else could sleep, knowing everything was fragile. I didn’t want to be damned, or hurt, or die, but I didn’t know how to stop it.
I took the book from under my pillow and drifted in a life raft at sea with 007 and Pussy Galore.
“God invented the telescope. Some people believe that a man named Galileo invented the telescope, but God directed Galileo to use God’s own invention.”
I closed my science book and glanced at the backs of the other students. All twelve of us were lined up in our chipboard-sided cubicles, and everyone but me was busy working on their booklets. Each cubicle had three tall sides, to keep us from getting distracted. We worked alone. There were no teachers, and talking wasn’t allowed. Mrs. French stood by the door—blocking the only daylight in the one-room building. Her ankles are sagging. Tasseled loafers should be a crime. She seemed to read my thoughts and gave me a frown.
I turned to the self-test at the end of the booklet. I could pass the tests without reading the lesson. You just had to know what they wanted.“The _____ (crosses, dinosaurs, clouds) were wiped out when the water cape flooded the earth.” I circled dinosaurs, imagining I was a prisoner signing a confession. James Bond would never sign one. He could get out of anything.
I finished the rest of the booklets: Math, Social Studies, English, all plastered in School of Tomorrow logos. I could do a week’s work in one day if I wanted. The only sound was the red, white, and blue Christian flag on its tiny wooden stand being raised when one of us had a question.
I sat boxed in, staring straight ahead, wishing I could be anywhere but Hopesville. I wouldn’t be a missionary—like the ones in my English booklet, skinned alive by Pygmies—or some scientist thinking a water cape killed the dinosaurs. I’d have security clearance like Dad. I’d dive to the seabed in a submersible, live in the Congo. I’d be Tatiana Romanova keeping watch on Bond aboard the Orient Express.
Before dismissal, Pastor French read the day’s Bible lesson out loud in front of the room, then he called Aaron Finch to come up and recite from the Book of Job. Aaron stood there, ridiculous in his uniform—navy pants, red button-down, blue tie covered in tiny Bibles and flags and eagles. He was the only senior, and had to practice preaching to graduate.
“He stretches out the north over the void, and hangs the earth on nothing.” Aaron held the bible out in front of him. “He binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not split open under them.”
“Praise the Lord!” Pastor French called. “Dismissed.”
Pastor French held the door as we filed out into the sunlight. I turned and handed him my signed Acceptance. He smiled and shook my hand like I was a lady. I touched the scapular under my shirt—just to make sure it was there.
“Mom, that school is weird. They don’t even teach.”
“Nobody likes school. I’m making dinner…Dad’s home, talk to him.”
I walked upstairs to Dad’s office and stood in the doorway. He sat at his huge, mahogany desk, working on green-paper diagrams, drinking a Tom Collins. I liked Tom Collins’. They were sweet and fizzy, and the name seemed like something from one of his books.
He didn’t look up from his drawing. “Ask your mom.”
I stepped back and watched him sip his drink. I wondered what it would take for me to be an engineer, to travel the world. One of these days—when he wasn’t busy—I’d ask him how he did it.
Later, I sat cross-legged on my bed, in t-shirt and curved Turkish slippers, typing up spy stuff on the Underwood I’d rescued from the shed. My feet were too big for the slippers, but that was okay, Dad gave them to me. On our way home from the airport, I asked Dad where he’d been. “A mind-numbing conference in Venice,” he’d said. “Oh, and Istanbul.” I wanted to ask him every detail—did everyone wear slippers embroidered in silver, did they really drink coffee from tiny cups?
The typewriter keys clacked and jammed. I was headed to Venice on the overnight train. In the sleeper car next to me Bond dozed, not knowing it was up to me to save us both. I tugged the paper free, and signed it T. Romanova. I tried saying Istanbul the way Dad did, like it was as boring as our swampland out back, but it didn’t seem real. Everything I knew that was real, I learned from Dad’s books at night: saviors, atom bombs, and false confessions.
Marley Andino is a Virginia-based writer and sculptor. She was selected as a 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review Nonfiction Scholar. An excerpt from her memoir DRY LAND appears in the spring 2014 issue of River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction.