Midwest Baptistries

On Sundays, Fischer eats six strips of turkey bacon at exactly 8am. This is so that he doesn’t shit himself later when he’s soaking wet on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

The thing to know when you have irritable bowels — the thing it took Fish till his 18th birthday to understand — is that you never change the schedule. Not when it counts. And so on this Sunday morning like all the others he drapes a paper towel over a plate, arranges six strips of turkey bacon in a row, then microwaves it for 90 seconds. The service he’ll be attending starts in 40 minutes and it’ll take him 30 to get there, so there’s a schedule to follow. Instead of waiting for the microwave timer to ding, he steps out of the RV’s kitchen and through a sliding door into the adjoining bedroom to get dressed.

Up until today he’s always worn the same thing to church: On the bottom, a nylon bathing suit fit snug against his wiry frame. On top of the suit he dons tan dress slacks and then completes the ensemble with a sky blue, short-sleeve button-down. Most Sundays he would head out the door like that and easily assimilate himself into just about any congregation. But today is special. He retrieves a white bow tie from the top dresser drawer and angles himself into the RV bathroom to get a look in the mirror and try to figure out how to tie the thing around his neck. Failing to achieve anything that resembles an actual bow tie knot, what Fish ends up with looks most like an improvised bolo tie — two long strands of silky fabric dangling down over his chest. He calls this good enough.

Before leaving the bathroom mirror, Fish uses one hand to push back his shoulder-length brown hair, and with the other he applies pomade from the cabinet over the sink. A fresh outbreak of acne on his left cheek requires some closer examination and he notices that his stubble is due for a shave, but decides there’s no time for it today.

Shoes on and bacon in hand, he goes out the only door and begins the long walk.

 

The place Fish lives — where the RV rests permanently — is right in the middle of a dense patch of trees. To those driving by at 70 or 80 miles per hour on Route 16, the forested area looks like a mistake — cropping up amongst acres of farmed land. His little brother Leon happened upon the spot during one of his crossbow expeditions. He’d wandered further from home than usual that day — unable to find any rabbits or squirrels to shoot in the fields nearer the two-bedroom ranch their mother had moved them into after she left their father.

Leon had been eager to show Fish the RV, and in the weeks that followed the discovery, the two of them rehabbed it the best they could. This meant first prying open the locked door and filling trash bags with everything they found inside—open cans of food, soiled clothing, a pile of diapers in one corner. After that they’d moved to the outside, where they duct-taped plastic over broken windows and scraped away rust. Nobody would have called the RV liveable when they were done—but then, the idea had never been to live there. It’s funny how things can go, Fish thinks on occasion.

In the middle of the long winters, when no corn or soybeans provide any texture to the vast swaths of hard soil surrounding the site, the trees that hide Fish’s home stand out in the strangest way — abrupt, jutting skyward out of a bland canvas, and yet somehow so easy to overlook.

 

Fish has walked two miles and is halfway to the church when he passes the old house. Like the RV he lives in now, it sits just off Route 16 — but instead of being hidden in a forest, the house is in plain sight and looks more decrepit with the passing of each year. He’s losing track of time since that last night. When he tries to put a finger on just how long it’s been, the only thing he can think is not long enough yet. The way it looked that night as he watched from a distance, huddled down in a ditch and not far from where he stands now, is still too vivid — the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles swirling, uniformed people going in and out of his house, eventually carrying out the body on a stretcher.

Had to figure that as far as any official documents were concerned, the bank would own the house now. Wasn’t a chance in hell that Mom had paid it off before that last night. The bank would have owned the RV where Fish lived as well, if anyone else but he and Leon knew it existed out in its forgotten, nameless patch of woods. As it had worked out, Fish moved into the RV without any sort of harassment from state or government officials. This struck Fish as odd for a while — being 13 years old at the time and by his limited understanding, fitting the bill for an unguarded minor. It wasn’t until years later when he realized that maybe he’d never been bothered, or helped, for that matter, simply because nobody knew where to find him. Even then he knew—by instinct, he thinks now—that it was good he hadn’t been found. He knew from things he’d read in the newspapers that people were looking for him. Sought for questioning—those were the words they used. But Fish knew where the questions would lead, and didn’t trust himself to make anyone believe it had been an accident. The RV in the woods had been a place of refuge at first after that last night at the house, when he was too afraid to go anywhere else. Further inaction after that was what turned it into a hiding place.

He still checks the mail when he walks by the old house. Lately, he’s been getting letters from Leon. Once or twice a month. His little brother says he’s okay and that Doctor Richard takes care of him just fine on the days he’s around. But he’s scared, he says, and he wants to come home. At the end of every letter Leon writes the address where Fish can find him and gives him an updated schedule when the Doctor will be working and unable to interfere. It’s funny, Fish thinks—no need to write the address again when it’s right there on the outside of the envelope. He’s never been to Coal City, but knows it’s only a few miles south.

 

The doors open from inside and two teenagers with towels draped over their shoulders exit into the hallway. Fish slips inside before the doors close behind them. It’s a basic Sunday school room, as evidenced by a pair of bookshelves lined with Bibles and loud posters hung on the walls—the one that catches Fish’s eye depicts the silhouette of a cross on a hill set against a vivid orange sunset, a follower kneeling in prayer at the foot of the cross.

The classroom has been converted into a co-ed changing room. It’s divided at its center by black curtains functioning as makeshift walls. Paper signs reading Men and Women are hung outside the dividers. Fish parts the curtains on the Men side and finds it empty on the other side. He loosens the tie from his neck and unbuttons his shirt, leaving just the T-shirt beneath. His pants come off to reveal the bathing suit he donned earlier that morning, and after retrieving a white towel from the stack set out on a table in the center of the room, he finds that he’s ready with time to spare. A quick check-in with his stomach indicates no need to spend any time in the bathroom before this baptism. Six strips for the win.

The process at Endless Mercies has been very different. Unlike everywhere else he’d attended, the requirements before being accepted into the baptismal party at this church had been lengthy. Fish has been to Endless Mercies nearly a dozen times now, so that there are faces that he recognizes and people who greet him when he comes through the doors. He’s taken the classes where the seriousness of the commitment he’s making get explained in detail, and he’s begun to believe that he really will come up from the water—this time, unlike the other times—as one of those “new creatures” he keeps hearing about. Through the walls to the sanctuary he listens to the swell of another chorus of “The Old Rugged Cross”, and feels an expectant stirring blossoming from some unnamed place he supposes might be called his heart of hearts. This is hope, he thinks, and maybe he deserves it by now. Maybe the whole journey hasn’t been in vain, and today he will arrive at the destination—be saved. It doesn’t matter how long it takes—he knows someday he’ll have something to say when he plays back his mother’s question as it pertains to the state of his soul and where he’ll spend eternity—how about now, Fishy? He wishes she could be there, but knows that in the meantime it’s his top priority to make sure their paths cross again down the line and on the other side.

 

The year he did the murder was the same year he went through puberty, and all things considered, Fish looked back on it as a fairly pivotal stretch.

Their mother had worked as a night nurse in the psychiatric ward of the hospital in town. When she first started bringing the man around the house and introduced him to Leon and Fish, she called him Doctor Richard. He had jet black hair that he kept slicked back against his scalp, and seemed to always be wearing the same denim jacket with indistinguishable patches sewn into the shoulders and down the sleeves. Mom told Leon and Fish that the jacket was part of his riding “get-up,” and by this she meant that along with the leathers he wore over his scrubs, it was just what he wore anytime he got on his Harley Davidson and rode it over to their house.

Nearing 20 years of age, Fish felt his memories of his mother starting to go. But when he called her to mind, he could still hear her praying for him. Her voice in his head sounded just the way it had when she used to tuck him in at night—a practice she’d kept at until he was far too old for it by his own reckoning. Each night, she’d lead him in the sinner’s prayer: A simple apology to God, followed by Fish’s request that Jesus would come and live in his heart. After they said amen together there would be a pause, and then her question—”How about now, Fishy? Do you feel any different?” When he didn’t say anything, she’d kiss his forehead and assure him that they’d try again the next night.

It was Leon who first raised the question with Fish some weekday evening as they lay in their bunk beds:

“You think this guy’s really a doctor?” Fish had sat up in his bed, thinking about it. Through the bedroom walls, they could hear Richard singing along with the radio in his falsetto. But the station was playing jazz and there was no real vocal part, so what they heard was just Richard’s high-pitched, unmelodic stream of conscious at war with the instrumentals.

CATCH AND RELEASE – CAT SCRATCH – LOOK AT ME GO – HEY NOW

Then Leon went on—”‘Cause it seems to me like maybe he’s not a doctor, and it’s more likely he was one of Mom’s psychiatric patients that she’s taken some special liking to, for whatever reason.”

Fish was usually the one to defend their mother, but when it came to Doctor Richard everything was confusion. The strange man came and went from their house seemingly at random, and never took off that denim riding jacket with its patches, unless it was to play dress-up in their mom’s closet, as he’d done multiple times — sauntering out in one of her dresses, a full face of poorly drawn-on makeup. Whenever he came out of the bedroom like that, it made their mother laugh, and soon they’d disappear into her bedroom for a long time.

From what the boys could tell, the Doctor wasn’t especially nice to their mother, except for when he was kissing her, or that one time when he brought her flowers—though Fish was later able to match the ones his mother took from Doctor Richard and put in a vase with some wild ones that grew just outside the front door of their house.

LOOK AT THAT – WATCH IT BLEED – PLEASE – SUGAR IT’S JUST YOU AND ME

They heard their mother’s laughter mix in with the Doctor’s vocalizing, and soon he trailed off, laughing along with her. Before Fish and Leon had gone to bed, the pair had started in on their second bottle of wine.

“The way I see it,” Leon said, “Mom might have busted him out of the place.”

Fish was still sitting up in bed, staring out the window at the first stars to dot the deep purple twilight. “It’s a hospital, not a jail,” he said.

“But there are rules and you can’t just come and go — not the psychiatrics. For some of them, it’s like a jail, just about.”

The radio switched off. They heard footsteps down the hall, more laughter, and then their mother’s bedroom door being shut.

“She wouldn’t do that,” Fish said. “She wouldn’t break hospital rules.” Now Fish couldn’t help but think back over the things he’d observed in a few short weeks—Doctor Richard’s eyes twitching around a room, the stupid grin that never left his face when he peeled a potato or diced a carrot, how he shrieked at the top of his lungs sometimes when he rode away on his motorcycle. And the dressing up.

“Why do you think Mom might do that?” Fish asked his brother.

Leon stirred in the top bunk. After a pause, his voice came back sleepy. “I don’t know.” Another pause—”For love, maybe.”

 

Outside the sanctuary doors, the baptisees at Endless Mercies form a circle and join hands for a prayer from the pastor.

“Lord, we give this morning to you. I pray that every man and woman here would never walk away from the commitment they are about to make, and that they’d feel your guiding hand in their lives from this day forward. Make it their greatest joy to serve you, and give them a special portion of grace today, that they may see you for who you are—holy and set apart. Amen.”

The circle breaks apart and the baptisees line up to enter the sanctuary. When the doors close behind Fish, he looks out on a congregation which has to be close to 500 members strong. Endless Mercies is the largest church he’s ever been baptized in, and the grandeur of the building only adds to his sense that it has all been leading to this. The room is dark and cavernous, lit dimly from above—a thousand canned lights on their dimmest setting. Low-level, heavenly orchestral tones swell through the sound system, drowned out by applause as Fish looks up at one of the big screens and sees that the first baptisee—fifty yards ahead of him on the stage—has just been pulled up from the water. Fish bites his bottom lip and wraps his arms around himself, trying to steady the constant shaking taking over his body. He looks back on all the failed attempts he’s undergone at other churches; the changing out of wet clothes and back into his suit, drying off his hair, trying to peer within and see if he’s clean, if anything is different. The process, he now realizes, has been necessary, formative—and always bringing him one step closer each time. He’s learned a bit more about God each time he’s gone under, and thankfully he knows enough to understand that this could not be a trick. The energy flowing through him, teased out by the music and lights, increasing the closer he gets to the stage—it’s real, and he will soon be absolved and born anew, for real this time. No room for doubt.

 

He hasn’t kept track of how many times he’s been baptized—doesn’t know just how many Sunday mornings have preceded this one at Endless Mercies. It’s never been a game to Fish. The only reason he’s found it necessary to repeat the process more than the one time is out of fear it hasn’t worked. If he ever wants to know roughly how many times he’s gone under the holy water and come back up, all he has to do is go through the bedside drawer in the RV where he deposits the Sunday morning brochures after each service. The drawer itself is nearly full, which tells him even without any pencil-on-paper calculations that his baptism count is probably approaching the triple digits.

The possibility of erasing any uncertainty keeps him going back to the well, as it were, even if that means walking to churches in an ever-expanding radius from where their home is.

Fish has developed an intimate knowledge of how most churches in his region of the Midwest conduct their baptistry procedures. Far and away, the preferred receptacle for the practice is a watering trough—be it for pigs, cattle, or horses. Just about any sturdy metal trough will do, given that it ranges between, say, 150 to 300 gallons. There is, then, the issue of warming the water, which some churches handle better than others, in Fish’s experience. A few potfuls of water brought to boil on a stovetop and then added to a trough of cold water just before the proceedings get underway is always appreciated. But he didn’t guess any church will ever top the level of comfort achieved by the folks out at County Line Church of God, where an inventive electrician is among the congregants—who has gone to the trouble of fashioning a trough heater. The instrument is basically a metal heating element plugged into a power cord, and made safe for submersion in water by what the pastor told Fish is basically just a shit-ton of silicon caulk shielding the end. Fish had been glad not to be the first to enter the trough that Sunday, but when he did, could make no argument against it being the Cadillac of baptismal troughs.

Not all of his baptisms take place in a sanctuary. The mobile ministry wagon came through town two summers earlier, and in that case, Fish had climbed a stepladder that led up to the bed of a modified pickup truck, where the minister received him into the trough and made quick work of dunking him and then seeing him back down the stepladder. The whole thing lasted no more than five minutes and cost him only twenty dollars.

Fish recognizes the danger in relying solely on repetitive baptisms to redeem his soul, and in order to avoid a works-based approach to his salvation, he sees to it that enough of his time is spent receiving the spoken Word. In addition to the services that often came before or after his baptisms, he also attends the revivals—often held in tents across the county, and usually put on by the more charismatic strain of like-minded believers. On one occasion he’d walked nearly fifteen miles in ninety-degree heat, as Leon had been out of town, in order to attend a revival put on by the Church of the Lucid Visions. He hoped that listening to Pastor Mac Petersen would provide him with one of the visions he’d heard tell of from so many—visions that could include glimpses into heaven itself. Of course, should he have been fortunate enough to open that portal, which he’d unfortunately not been able to do, Fish knew exactly what he’d be looking for—his mother, wherever she might be, so that he could know for sure she had made it, and if she could hear him, let her know that he was doing all he could to see to it that he would join her someday. As it happened, the Lucid Visions revival was a bit of a bust, as no portals opened for Fish and he heard no voices, unlike many other congregants around him—most of whom held their eyes closed tightly and shouted, seemingly in touch with something he’d not been able to find. He even passed on what would have been his turn going into the baptism trough. But this he did for good reason, after seeing something slither up the side of the trough and disappear into the water at the end of the snake-handling portion of the evening.

 

An usher gives Fish the signal. He climbs the stairs up the stage. The minister is waiting for him, waist-deep in a trough larger than any of the others Fish has been inside.

A deep quiet sweeps through the sanctuary as Fish climbs into the tank. Standing next to the pastor in the too-cold water, he shivers, feeling his nipples go hard and his scrotum tightening. He looks out over the congregation and feels his eyes squint shut reflexively when met by the harshness of the overhead stage lighting. The spotlights shine down—stars blacking out the rest of the sanctuary from Fish’s vantage point.

The pastor adjusts the mic clipped to the collar of his T-shirt, and then begins: “And here we have a young man I’m very proud to know. Everyone, this is Fish. Now, Fish came to us a few months ago without the first clue why he was here. Isn’t that right, Fish? All he knew was that something was missing. Now, is there anyone here who can relate to that feeling? The good news is, this young man is a quick study. We told him all about the grace of Jesus and wouldn’t you know, he said that was something he would very much like to have. Well, Fish, I think I can speak for this congregation and say that we’re just so glad to have you here. And I think there’s a whole heavenly host on the edge of their seats right about now, just waiting to burst into applause when you come up out of these waters. Now if you’ll cross your arms over your chest and plug your nose with this hand—yes, just like that, look at this, he’s a professional!—we’ll say a little prayer and then I’ll go ahead and baptize you in the name of the Son, the Father—”

Fish wishes he’d been more honest. The truth of it is, there isn’t one thing they’d told him in those pre-baptism classes he hadn’t already known inside out before he ever showed up at Endless Mercies. His problem—the best he can tell—isn’t on the side of knowledge. No, it’s got to be that his stains are too dark and haven’t washed out just yet. Isn’t that why he keeps being drawn back to the waters? He can only hope the urging comes from God, and that one of these times (today?) it will be enough, and he’ll receive all of it—forgiveness, salvation, and most importantly, the assurance that he’s going to be there one day, with her again, and get the chance to apologize more properly.

He’s underwater—the pastor’s hands holding him in place and his long hair swirling up over his face. His eyes open and he tries to keep it away—to focus instead on the blurred colors of the lights he can make out above, through the water and way beyond the pastor’s vague shape. But just like every other time, it’s in the moment of submersion that it plays itself out unprompted, and there’s nothing to be done but watch and wait for it to be over. Images flashing like lightning behind his eyes with each underwater blink.

The four of them around the dinner table. The Doctor complaining about the rabbit Leon shot being tough. Leon insulting the Doctor — calling him a dickless something-or-other.

Flash.

The Doctor flipping over the kitchen table. A beer bottle busting open on the floor. Leon picking up a steak knife and using it to ward off the Doctor, who won’t stop swinging at him. His mother ushering Fish out of the kitchen and into his room.

Flash.

She’s tucking him into bed but he’s trying to get away—to go help his brother. Then the bedroom door is kicked open—hinges exploding out of the drywall—and the Doctor is in the room with them, pushing his mother against the wall and trying to kiss her. Fish is running back to the kitchen and looking for Leon, whom he finds sitting on the floor, crying, with the steak knife sticking out of his own forearm.

Flash.

Leon’s crossbow is in his hands, all sharp points and taut cables, and he’s garrisoned behind the overturned table—butt end of the crossbow against his chin, training it down the hallway toward his bedroom.

Flash.

The corner of the jean jacket coming into view through the bedroom doorway. Waiting for the rest of the figure to cross the threshold. Pulling the trigger sooner than he means to and feeling it buck against his body as the tension is released.

Flash.

She’s falling down. Body bumping against the wall and jacket falling open to show that she doesn’t have any other clothes on underneath. The arrow sticking out of her neck like a Halloween prop — not far enough to come out the other side, but in deep.

Flash.

A moment where nothing happens and everything is quiet, until the Doctor is coming out of the bedroom and Fish is seeing that he’s wearing his mother’s sundress and his manhood is poking against it, tenting the material around his waist. He’s stepping over her body and walking down the hall, towards them. And then he’s scooping up Leon who’s not even fighting it, and the two of them are disappearing through the front door and into the night.

Flash.

Under the water at Endless Mercies, Fish opens his eyes and feels an immediate need to breathe, just as the pastor begins pulling him up.

 

He starts the walk back to the RV in the woods. There is plenty of time for Fish to think about how salvation must work. He wonders if it is supposed to come all at once, or if it might have a delayed onset. If it’s the latter—or even if it can be in just some cases—then maybe today is actually different—maybe he’ll start to feel it later today, probably when he’s doing something unimportant like washing up his dishes or making a fire out in the pit. He wonders exactly how it will be. He’s been through the classes—and knows to expect “forgiveness” and “being clean.” Those things hold some appeal, certainly, but for Fish, he holds onto hope that one of these days he’ll come up from the water and be without any memories. No more flashes of lightning when his eyes close. Like a baby—they call it being “born again” for a reason, right?

It’s more than an hour later when he reaches the turnoff for his patch of woods off Route 16. His pants are soaked through at the crotch from the wet bathing suit he still wears underneath. Before Fish turns onto the worn dirt path, he gazes south down the road, at how it narrows and then disappears on the horizon. It’s noon and the sun bearing down on the asphalt creates a wavy haze. Leon is that way, he thinks—somewhere down there with the Doctor, waiting for Fish to come and get him.

One of these Sundays he’ll keep walking past the turnoff for the RV in the woods, all the way to Coal City and Leon. He’ll do it any week now—just as soon as he’s saved.

Devin Wieland lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife Emily and their three sons. He spends his days writing code as a software engineer.

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