I’ve been thinking a lot about Cincinnati lately, recalling the first glimpse…
I had known all my life the world would end with the new millennium, that Jesus would return and save the faithful and leave the wicked, and that girls who didn’t want to be left behind had better behave.
I knew this because my father told me, me and the rest of the congregation at the Little Martha Church of the Word. As a preacher he knew how to read the signs. The Bible was clear, Daddy said, and the world was clearer. The wicked were ascendant, you had only to look around you at society and the kinds of sin people were getting up to these days to see it. Why, the President of the United States had committed adultery. Even the news people on TV warned that doom would strike on New Year’s Eve, that every bit of technology that propped up our world would come crashing down.
The TV people called it the Y2K but Daddy called it the Tribulation. Chaos would sweep in, he said, the lights wouldn’t work and the gas pumps wouldn’t work and the computers would go haywire and the banks would shut down and we had just better hope that Jesus would rescue us from these turbulent waters.
“I never trusted that old Internet,” sniffed my mother, who had never used it. In school we had a computer lab and we had been taught how to make simple little codes, programs that would solve easy math problems. Our teacher mentioned getting electronic messages that passed invisibly through the air.
But there was no computer in our house, no invisible messages from the air except from God, handed down to my father at night as he read his Bible and delivered by him Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights in the little wood-paneled sanctuary, sometimes thumping his hand down on the pulpit, sometimes pacing the faded red carpet at the front of the room.
“Y’all had better look to your lives,” Daddy said, “and get right with God, because that Second Coming that’s been foretold is near. It’s knocking at the door. The signs don’t lie! Will you be ready to open that door?” He would point to different people in the church, emphasizing his point.
“Amen,” we said back, “praise Jesus.” If, in our deepest hearts, we weren’t sure if we were ready to open the door, we didn’t speak it.
Daddy spoke of the coming End Times more and more regularly as summer of 1999 turned toward fall. If we were all going to Heaven at the end of December then I didn’t see a whole lot of point to school work, but my teachers did not share my view. Mr. Rice, the math teacher, looked at me oddly when I said God would crash the computers and sweep up the saved and that therefore I would not need to learn algebra. Then he smiled tightly and said it wouldn’t hurt me to learn it anyway.
“Who do you think gave us math, Ruthie, but God?” Mr.Rice asked. “It is far too logical to come from chance and chaos. I’m sure Noah found mathematics to be helpful. So you might need it after you’ve been…swept up.”
I was not entirely clear on how the actual Rapture was supposed to work. Daddy’s sermons were big on the Signs but short on the logistics. Would we levitate, like the girl who was possessed by the Devil in a movie I watched at my friend Birdie’s house even though I wasn’t supposed to see R-rated movies? If we levitated, how far would it be, and would we run out of oxygen? I had learned in science class that the earth’s atmosphere thinned. Would we just disappear here and reappear in Heaven? That seemed more efficient, but if we did, would we be in our regular clothes or were the robes issued on the way? Should I learn to play a harp now, or would there be lessons?
Birdie said I was being an idiot. If you needed to learn to play the harp before you got to Heaven, she said, there would be harp teachers all over the place.
Birdie’s people were Methodists and the church she went to was neat red brick, with stained glass windows that her mother helped wash and what Birdie bragged was new carpeting. It dominated a whole block in town. At Birdie’s church, everyone sat quietly, and at noon on the dot they sailed out to their Sunday dinners at home or the Bonanza steakhouse. Our church, Little Martha, was cinderblock, tucked under a curve in the road outside town. It had wood paneling on every wall inside and the windows were just glass, covered by my mother in frosted plastic sheets she got at the hardware store. At Little Martha sometimes people spoke in tongues, if they felt compelled by the Spirit, and we got out whenever Daddy ran out of things to say. If it was a fifth Sunday he took us to Dairy Queen for a treat.
According to Birdie, the world was not going to end December 31st. She had asked her preacher about it and he had outright told her this was wrong. “Misreading the signs,” he said. We didn’t speak for a week after she told me that, a little too triumphantly.
“You’ll be sad when you’re left here with the wicked,” I said. “You and your preacher and your whole church.”
In December, Daddy decided it was our church’s duty to warn the unbelievers, just in case they could make it under the wire, so he took to spending afternoons standing in front of the post office, preaching about the coming End Times. He first tried this in front of Walmart but their security people ran him off. The post office people sent a town police officer to ask Daddy to move it along, but he successfully argued that the sidewalk was public property and that his First Amendment rights allowed him to stand there and say whatever he wanted, and the officer said he guessed Daddy was right. Then Daddy asked if he had been saved and the officer said not to push his luck.
So Daddy went regularly, and on a Wednesday in mid-December school had let out early so I walked down to the post office to see him.
When I got there he just looked like someone loitering, as there was no one passing by to preach at. For a second he was a stranger, just a man in a dark coat, and if I hadn’t known him, I’d never have thought he was waiting to reveal the Word of God. I asked him how things were going and he shook his head.
“Slow, Ruthie,” he said. “People don’t want to hear things that make them uncomfortable.”
We watched cars go by for a little while, Daddy standing while I sat on the curb, picking at gravels. I had expected more action and was about to suggest I go home when we spotted two men walking up the sidewalk. One of them carried a manila envelope, suggesting he was heading for the post office, and Daddy perked up. I could see him stand up a little straighter. As they got close, Daddy stepped forward (not quite blocking their path, the policeman had been clear about that) and launched into his preacher voice.
“Gentlemen!” he said. “I have an urgent message for you from the Lord.”
That was as far as he got, because the man without the envelope stepped right in front of Daddy and said, “Jerry, you need to quit this nonsense.”
I recognized Birdie’s preacher—Reverend Randy Smalley, a pink, well-fed man—and my heart sank.
“Buddy,” said Daddy, “you’ve been listening to the Devil. And you need to get your finger out of my face.”
The man with the envelope hissed, “Randy, I’m just going to run in and get this sent off.” He scurried into the post office like a beetle.
Reverend Smalley laughed at Daddy and said the Devil had given up on trying to turn him.
“Jerry, you’re misrepresenting Biblical teachings right here in the public square,” he said. “Revelations is metaphorical, not literal. You’re embarrassing the clergy of this town.”
That was enough for me. I jumped up off my curb and stepped up beside Daddy.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told Reverend Smalley. “Daddy’s telling us what the Bible says. He reads the signs. They’re clear as day. You’ll wish you’d listened when you’re left behind here, and the demons have their way with you.”
Daddy put his hand on my shoulder—maybe he thought I needed to be held back—and Reverend Smalley looked down at me. His pink face did not smile.
“It’s a good thing to love your father, little lady,” he said. “You remember that.”
The man with the envelope reappeared at the post office door with the postmaster, who announced that he’d be happy to call the police if there were any problems. But the argument, barely begun, was over. Daddy and I went peacefully.
Still, it worried me that Birdie was being led so far astray. I waited until that evening after supper, Daddy’s favorite pot roast, when he was full and happy, to bring it up. He’d told my mother a tamed version of our meeting with Reverend Smalley, but she’d heard enough to tell me that Daddy could evangelize on his own.
Even in the cozy kitchen, with cheery yellow wallpaper and warm, meaty smells, I found it hard to speak. I didn’t want him or Jesus either one to think I doubted them.
Daddy sat at the kitchen table, using a toothpick to poke out the remains of the pot roast. “What’s on your mind, Ruthie?” he asked.
I sat and twisted my fingers, looking helplessly at a wall hanging of cheerful-looking mushrooms.
“Cat got your tongue?” he teased. I sighed.
“What Birdie’s preacher said today,” I said. “Why does he think you’re wrong? Doesn’t he read the same Bible as us? What if Birdie doesn’t get taken up, and then she’s left here alone? Just for listening to that man?”
“Aww, doll,” Daddy said. “You saw today how the Devil talks a good game to the unbelievers. But our church doors are open to ever who wants to come in and hear the truth. You tell Birdie she can come any time.”
“But I’ve asked her,” I said. “She said her mother was set on them being Methodists. They’re going to make her get Left Behind with them.”
Daddy sighed and patted my hand.
“Ruth, Jesus knows His children,” he said. “I can’t promise anything about Birdie’s mother, as a grown woman, but Birdie’s yet a child. He knows who the innocent are. If she’s a praying kind of girl, the Lord will hear her.”
He inspected his toothpick and stood up, confident he had solved the problem, and headed into the living room to watch Family Feud. “God help the demon that tried to get hold of that Birdie,” I heard him say to my mother.
When the last day of school before Christmas break came, Birdie would not let me say goodbye.
For starters, she said, since she didn’t believe the world would end, she would be seeing me in January. For seconds, she added, my goodbye implied that I did not believe she was sufficiently pure to be Raptured, which was an insult.
“You’re lucky your daddy didn’t make you all go to a compound to wait for the end of the world,” Birdie said. “The news said some people like you are doing that. You’d have nothing to eat but beans and weenies.”
“I hope I see you in Heaven!” I yelled after her as she walked away on the last day of school before Christmas break. She didn’t turn around. I honestly wasn’t sure if she was pure enough for Jesus to save her, especially with Rev. Smalley’s influence, and would have liked a hug, but I decided she still had a few days to repent and that I would pray extra on her behalf.
We spent Christmas at church. With the world ending in just six days, there was no point to presents, only hymns and Daddy’s sermon, and some candy. I didn’t say anything, but it was gloomy.
“It doesn’t seem like Christmas without presents,” my little sister wailed, risking her immortal soul, I thought, by showing Greed—one of the Big Seven—so late in the game.
Daddy narrowed his eyes at her and sucked in his breath, probably readying for a lecture about how immortal life was the greatest present of all, but my mother stepped in and shushed him and told Lydia she’d get angel wings in Heaven and wouldn’t they be pretty and that made Lydia happy and shut her up.
December 31st was sunny but cold, ice coating the tree branches.
We had not sold our house, not because Daddy was second-guessing himself but because he said real estate was an earthly distraction he did not need as the End Times approached, and besides it just did not matter. Any sinners left behind were welcome to come live there and shelter from the chaos, he said. Maybe they’d find some guidance in all the Christian novels my mother had stockpiled.
So I woke up the morning of December 31st in my own bed, in the room I’d had for my own since I was eight, with striped flowered wallpaper my mother and I had put up and white ruffled curtains she had made and a window that looked out at the mountain behind the house. I lay in bed and looked at the cracks in the ceiling that sometimes looked like a dog’s face if you let your eyes cross just a little. I wouldn’t see those cracks again, I thought. I wouldn’t lie in this bed again. I wouldn’t see my favorite doll, Phoebe, whose hair I had cut off when I was five, and who now spent her days sitting on the oak dresser that had been my mother’s when she was my age.
I spent the day that way. I wouldn’t eat breakfast again (I spared a hope that there was bacon in Heaven). I wouldn’t take another bath. This was my last time to open my closet, my last time to put on a dress—my mother insisted that Lydia and I dress up to meet Jesus—my last time to step out the front door. I was the sentimental type and couldn’t help a few tears as I said goodbye to the only home I had ever known.
“Buck up, Ruthie,” Daddy said. “The house will probably be burned down by the wicked soon after we’re gone anyway.”
He locked the doors, though, out of habit, and for the last time we got in the car to drive to the church. Daddy had told the congregation to meet there, so we could be Raptured together and be praying when we met Jesus.
We arrived early and the gravel parking lot held only Brother Vencill’s beat-up Lincoln. Daddy parked in our usual spot, near the door, and we stepped out into the cold dark air, our breath coming in clouds. I hoped Heaven would be warm.
It was our last time to walk in the church doors, across the faded carpet, and sit in the hard wooden pews. Our last time to stare at the bloody crucifixion painting of Jesus that hung on the back wall.
Daddy’s aggressive determination to see us all safely Raptured had scared at least one family not into repentance and preparation but into Methodism, and out of our church entirely. We were a small congregation to begin with. But all of the members showed up that night. Daddy went around shaking everyone’s hand. It felt like a party. Other girls’ mothers had made them dress up too.
Daddy had been working on this, his final sermon, the summation of his life’s work, for weeks. He delivered it with a vigor and intensity that suggested he believed Jesus might be listening, perhaps outside the door, waiting to lead us to glory personally. As this was meant to be a festive occasion, he interspersed it with a few hymns, chosen for their appropriateness to the evening’s theme. “Meeting in the Air” had always been one of my favorites.
The clock ticked on, rounding the 11 p.m. mark and galloping toward the fateful hour. Daddy was still going strong, and I could tell others were taking comfort in his reminders of the unpleasant hell that earth would become shortly after our departure. He laid out what little we would be missing, how exciting things would be for us in just a short while.
Finally he announced that the time was 11:50. Almost midnight.
“Y’all come up here,” he said. “Come on up to the front here and let us all circle around and pray together. Let’s be praying when Jesus shines his holy light upon us and takes us Home.”
We all stood up and shuffled forward and pressed ourselves into something like a circle, Daddy pulling Mama and me and Lydia into the middle with him. Someone’s elbow kept hitting my head as people jostled into position. The Bible is big on kneeling but never speaks of how uncomfortable it is.
“Get down, Lydia,” my mother said, pulling on my sister’s skirt.
“But I want to see what happens,” Lydia protested.
I knew how she felt. Praying at the moment of Rapture was a nice idea but I had never liked things sneaking up on me while my eyes were closed. I, too, wanted to see what happened.
We knelt there, uncomfortably, and my father prayed, and the minutes seemed long. Finally I dared to peek, and I saw Brother Tabor look at his watch, then put his hand on my father’s shoulder and hold his watch wrist in front of my father’s eyes.
It was 12:06. Midnight had passed and we were still there. Daddy took a deep breath and said “Amen” and people opened their eyes, confused.
“Clearly,” Daddy said, “what we expected has not come to pass.”
People stood up, and some of the women began quietly crying while Daddy and the elders fell into debate over what might have gone wrong.
Someone said time is a human construct and perhaps the Rapture was not scheduled to human time, or at least not to Eastern Time. Brother Vencill eagerly agreed with this, saying that the U.S. adopted daylight saving time and it might have thrown Jesus off.
“Daylight savings is the spring time, Earl,” Daddy said sadly. “This is the standard time we’re on now.”
“Or maybe it’s on Jerusalem time!” Brother Vencill said, unwilling to let it go.
“I’ll just say it,” said Brother Tabor. “Maybe there’s no Rapture after all. Maybe we were wrong.”
Everyone stared at him. He had said something no one had dared say, not just today but for months. What if Daddy was wrong?
“Now, we don’t know that,” Brother Vencill said. “Maybe it did happen. We don’t know what’s going on outside.”
This was a new thought for everyone. What was outside? Would we walk out the door and find the Rapture had happened but we had been judged unworthy? If we walked outside the church, would we find that other people, maybe whole other congregations, had been more righteous and had been saved, and that despite all our precautions and good behavior, we had been left behind? Would there be empty clothes lying all over the place? Was there fire and chaos already? Or maybe we had been Raptured and we simply didn’t feel it, and we would walk out the doors into Heaven. Daddy looked hopeful.
There was only one way to find out. We would have to walk back out the front door, the one I thought we’d never cross again.
Daddy took in a deep breath, like he was readying himself to do something big. I guess he was.
“I’ll go look,” he said.
“We’ll all go,” Brother Tabor said.
He meant the men would go, but I was as curious as anyone, and I wasn’t the only one skirting behind them as they marched up the aisle between the pews. Daddy reached the door first and paused, just a moment, and then yanked it open. Behind us one of the more excitable girls screamed nervously, so on edge it had jostled out of her just at the idea of what we might see.
But we saw nothing but the same black night we had come in from.
No fires, no chaos that we could see or hear. No demons capering or gibbering. Just the congregation’s cars, sitting where they’d been parked a few hours ago, when there was excitement still before us.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “I just don’t know.”
“Joyce, get the coats, we’re going home,” said Brother Tabor to his wife, who startled like a rabbit and looked like she’d rather stay with the group a little longer. But she gathered their things, and once they had bustled out, Brother Tabor shooting Daddy a long look and promising to talk later, others began to leave too.
“Take heart, Preacher, maybe the demons just got started in town,” Brother Vencill said, patting my father’s arm reassuringly. “They’ve forgotten us country folks out here.”
And then he left, and the church was empty but for us. Daddy sat down heavily on a pew and dropped his head into his hands. I wasn’t sure if he was praying. For the first time I wondered if anyone was really listening. Outside in the night, balls had dropped and confetti had been flung, like every year. But something had changed, cracked as 1999 flipped over to 2000, as we kneeled in a church waiting for something that would not come. In whatever way, Daddy had misread the truth.
Now that odious Reverend Smalley would gloat. I looked at the back of Daddy’s head and wondered how I would face Birdie.
Finally Daddy stood up.
“Get your coats,” he said.
“Jerry—” my mother said.
“I said get your coats on,” Daddy said. “Let’s get on home.”
He turned off the lights and locked the door, and we drove away from the church, in the car I thought I’d never see again. I watched out the window, looking for signs, for demons or chaos, anything that looked like what Daddy had promised. But I saw only darkness and the queasy green glow of the radio console lighting my face’s reflection in the window, like I was a demon myself, completely changed in the same old world.