While Stevenson sits, his heart pangs to the rhythm of his pocketwatch’s sub-dial. He worries not about an approaching train or a rural community’s curse he doesn’t believe in. He’s not from Joplin, but Chicago. Conservative scripture full of wrath and fire is not his doctrine. His God is compassionate and forgiving. Stevenson obediently preaches this and knows whenever the Elders are discontent they avert their eyes. They have averted their eyes after every sermon Stevenson has given, but when he entered the church today and no one looked up, he knew that his eulogy three days ago at Penelope Finbrick’s funeral was being blamed for the disappearance of her seventy-year-old husband, Walter. He knew that the Elders had sent word out for a replacement preacher and were a substitute available, they would have already sacked him.
Today, Walter’s pew is empty and Stevenson recalls the funeral. The Elders had stood around the plot like a black curtain. Passing through them, Stevenson heard disdainful whispers that Walter the farmer had dressed for a date instead of a funeral. Stevenson ignored the gossip; Walter’s pressed green suit was merely colorful, but he did appear fidgety. His thumbs dug at the soil under his fingernails while his eyes roamed as if searching for a single sprout on a barren field. This behavior continued while Stevenson preached how the Holy Spirit sends tongues of fire enabling anyone, even the youngest child, to communicate with those in crisis. When Penelope’s casket was lowered into the ground to be taken up into the arms of the Lord, Walter briefly squatted to see past the assembly’s feet. Stevenson put these actions off as manifestations of grief, not dissatisfaction with his eulogy, and in the parking lot offered Walter a handshake with the consolation, “Penelope is with the Lord.”
Walter got into his truck. Shadows coated his features like a char burn on paper and before he drove off said, “Then I better go get her.
The Elders averted their eyes and Walter hasn’t been seen since.
At 11:27 a.m. Stevenson tells himself to make a decision. His family is also in this front pew and has suffered for his lack of success. His wife, Caroline, has been snubbed by local women who stop talking when she enters shops. Beside her are their three children: Mary, Luke, and Veronica, ages twelve, ten, and eight. Of them, only Veronica hasn’t said if her classmates tease her for her father’s sermons. Autism keeps her vague.
In Chicago, Veronica would scream at the noise from a subway, bus, or car alarm. Her doctor’s advice that city life over-stimulated her condition sent Stevenson submitting resumes to quiet places like Joplin. Now sitting here in church, Veronica still softly loops words, but seems in a peaceful bubble. She looks with bright green eyes down her yellow dress to the shoes she cannot keep tied. Her tongue darts out frequently, has been since her father practiced Penelope’s eulogy at home, and is ready for The Holy Spirit to send a tongue of fire at any moment, no matter how much it drives her mother nuts.
Stevenson closes his pocket watch and decides if the Elder’s routine wants wrath today, by God, he will give it to them.
At 11:28 a.m. Veronica swings her feet and thinks, My shoe is knot untied. Father said, ‘No, your shoe is untied.’
Knot not tied. Untied. Knot untied.
Father goes to the pulpit to preach the good word. He uses the red silk bookmark in the bible to find the right good word. He says, ‘Turn to the Book of Genesis, 19:1.’
And suddenly everybody is opening bibles to find the right good word.
When I swing my legs, the laces tap against the pew. Giggle. Uh-oh, Mother. Mother HATES Joplin. She misses the city and is always angry, but smiles in church.
Mother smiles and whispers-whispers, “The Elders are watching. Keep your tongue in your mouth.”
If I keep my tongue in, is the Holy Spirit’s fire gonna burn the roof of my mouth?
I keep it out a tiny bit for the Holy…
Look away from Mother smiling and down at my shoes knot untied.
I meant untied.
At 11:29 a.m. as Stevenson starts to speak, the main doors of the church bang open. Walter stands in a torn green suit, shoes covered in mud, and looks like he has not slept for days. His eyes search the room.
The Elder Board averts their eyes.
11: 29 a.m.
Walter thinks, Penny? Penny? Where’s my Penny…
Stevenson believes this is a sign from God and is filled with confidence. He nods to the usher, Seymour Dunlap wearing a Purple Heart on his lapel, to greet Walter at the door. Seymour takes Walter’s elbow and sits him in a vacant pew. Walter looks under the seat as Seymour ambles to the rear of the church, closes the doors, and checks his watch.
“Genesis, 19:1, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” Stevenson’s voice lurches like a train leaving a station and builds momentum reading the scripture. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are deep in sin. Except for Abraham’s cousin, Lot, who resided in Sodom, the lewd urbanites ignored the Lord’s law and coupled with their own gender. Angels were dispatched to tell Lot, go! Crowds of wicked men demanded Lot turn over the angels to act perversions upon them. Lot offered his two virgins daughters, but the crowds lusted for angels. The angels told Lot to take his family into the desert, warning that none were to look back as the Lord’s wrath smote the cities with fire.
Loud as a train horn, Pastor Stevenson reads the last passage, “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she was turned to a pillar of salt!”
Walter thinks, They forgot her name.
Onward Stevenson drives the sermon. Obeying the Lord is a routine he demands of his people. Lot’s wife ignored this routine by turning away from God’s instructions, chose the city’s despicable lifestyle, and sets a curse in motion for centuries to come. Their mother smitten, her daughters are left to carry Lot to an isolated cave. Without husbands to give them children, they ply Lot with wine, and lay with him. The blighted offspring, Moabites and Ammonites, offer human sacrifices to their deities, Chemosh and Moloch. They repeatedly wage war against Israel until King David defeats and subjugates them.
A week ago, I sat on the edge of Penelope’s bed at the hospital. She was small in her yellow robe, but laughed at the wigs they gave her. She joked she should’ve stopped brushing her hair long ago. During chemotherapy, she avoided mirrors, not wanting to see herself fade, so her wig always sat off-centered on her head.
Penny closed her eyes and asked, “Walter, what color are my eyes?”
“Penny, Penny, where’s my Penny?” I teased like always when she asked this question. This is our routine and for fifty years of marriage I’ve known love shining through her eyes. Even when my anger, like a burning curse, has tied me up in a knot, her eyes have always set me free to do what was right. “They sparkle green.”
“Remember them,” She said and opened her eyes.
On the dresser was a clear package containing plastic silverware, a napkin, a pepper packet, and a salt packet. The salt packet had a picture of a little girl holding an umbrella. She wore a yellow dress and stared down at her shoes. It was Morton’s Salt Girl and under her arm was a container of salt with the spout open. The crystals spilled behind her, pouring even when it rained, a trail wherever she walked. The rain would slowly dissolve the salt. There would be no trail to follow.
Penny, with her gray wig off-centered, cradled my face close, “I worry about you, Walt.”
I felt ashamed, “Don’t worry, my Penny. Just get better.”
“I worry that after I’m gone, ” Penny said and her face filled with pain, “you alone with what’s in that soil…”
“It’s only dirt.”
“I didn’t mean you aren’t a good man, you are, and a good farmer, but when you’ve been out there too long in those fields, you get that way...”
“But, I’ve got you.” I said and looked at the windows. The sun was setting.
“I won’t be coming home this time Walter,” Penny said. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She opened the utensil package and dabbed her cheeks with the napkin. The salt packet fell on the sheet between us. Morton’s Salt Girl was tiny on the barren field of the bed.
“Penny,” I said and gently flattened a bump in the sheet. The oil from my hand left a smudge like a char burn on the cotton threads.
“On the television, there was this oil fire in Texas they couldn’t put out with water,” Penny said and balled up the napkin into the sleeve of her yellow robe. “They used dynamite. It exploded. All the air got sucked up so the fire couldn’t breathe and went out. That’s like you.”
We sat as the sunlight sank away. Shadows on the sheet coated the smudge and Morton’s Salt Girl.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said and kissed her forehead.
“Oh Walt,” she said and dug for the napkin, but had no strength to remove it. “Just know that after I’m gone, I’ll be with the Lord waiting for you.”
I could not see her eyes in the dark.
Father is pointing at me. No, he’s pointing over me. He said at church, he isn’t pointing at just me, but everyone. He points and shouts, ‘Lot’s wife and fate is a lesson to those who don’t obey the Lord’s routine. Know the Lord will smote thee with his wrath!’
When father shouts, WRATH, his tongue sticks out for the Holy Spirit.
Cancer. Penny hadn’t smoked or drank or done any of the things that people get cancer from. She simply got it and died painfully, a churchgoing god-fearing woman who suffered the Lord’s wrath.
But Lot’s Wife looked back, and she was turned to a pillar of salt.
The congregation sings the closing hymn, hums amen, and checks the time.
Mother sends Mary and Luke to blow out candles around the altar. She takes me to join Father at the doors. She calls this Judgment Time. The Elder’s decide if Father’s sermon was good or bad. Judgment Time is always bad.
Old-old-Seymor-Dunlap who fought for our country against Japs and never talks to me or my brother Luke or my sister Mary, looks down at my shoes.
My shoe is knot untied.
Old-old-Seymor-Dunlap laces my shoe and says, ‘Miss Veronica, conservative scripture has returned to Joplin.’
The Elders gathers around Father. They pat his back and shake his hand. Women invite Mother to tea. Mother doesn’t drink tea, just coffee, but says, why yes!
Old-old-Seymor-Dunlap’s eyes are bright blue this Judgment Time.
Outside, Pastor John Stevenson locks the doors of the church. Vehicles roll out of the parking lot towards the railroad crossing like a parade. Caroline Stevenson leads her children to their Dodge Caravan and says, “Lock the doors, John.”
Mother always says, ‘Lock the doors, John’. ‘John’ is what Mother calls Father. Father always locks the doors. Then Mother worries about the train until we cross the tracks. Father always gets us across the track.
Mary whispers-whispers to Luke, ‘Did you see him?’
Luke whispers-whispers back, ‘Yeah, he’s got IT.’
IT is what the kids at school call the curse. They say, TAG YOUR IT and run.
Mary whispers-whispers, ‘He said, ‘Penny? Penny? Where’s my penny?’’
Luke takes a penny from his pocket and says, ‘Here’s my Penny.’
I want a penny.
‘It’s mine,’ Luke says and pops it in his mouth.
‘Get that out of your mouth!’ Mother yells at Luke.
Luke says, ‘It’s for safekeeping. If I swallow it I’ll get it back later.’
Mary says, ‘That guy should’ve done that with his penny.’
And then Father appears and says, ‘What guy?’
The guy who lost his penny.
“Walter?” Father asks, but I don’t know, so he runs back to unlock the doors.
Mother looks at me and says, “Keep your tongue in your mouth.”
Penny is with the Lord. This is the Lord’s house. She should be here.
If she isn’t in this house, then she isn’t with the Lord. They forgot her name.
This is the Caravan. It’s a car and a van. Caravan. We always wear our seatbelts in the Caravan. Me and Mary and Luke’s make our seatbelts go click.
Out Luke’s window, I see a black dot down the line. That’s the train.
Luke is still safekeeping his penny.
I want a penny for safekeeping. I’d keep it on my tongue right here.
“Walter?” John says finding the farmer sitting alone in the empty church.
Walter looks away and says, “My wife turned to salt.”
John sighs and asks, “Can we talk about this on the other side of the tracks?”
The train. Every Sunday when Church is over the 12:27 train comes.
I follow the preacher out. He’ll know her name.
I see Father and the Man who lost his penny walking to a truck. The man who lost his penny turns and says something. Father steps back and scratches his head.
‘Come on John, the train!’ Mother says and honks the horn.
Father jumps. Scared. Giggles. He points to the tracks and runs to us.
The man who lost his penny shakes his head and gets into his truck.
John climbs into the Caravan and ignores Caroline’s comments. He looks out his door’s window to the diesel train pulling a long tail of cars up the line. His eyes follow the ridge of track over Joplin’s flat farmland, past Caroline’s window, where it intersects the Church’s road. The crossing is only a hundred yards away. There, a short ramp leads up to a bed of gravel the rails slice through. On the other side is a down ramp back to the road. Both ramps have Crossbuck signs with lights off, bells silent, and gate arms up. John shifts into drive and says, “Honey, we’ll get across.”
‘I don’t want to get stuck for three hours watching that train crawl,’ Mother says.
Mary tries to see the train. Luke bobs his head and blocks the window. Mary clicks her seatbelt. Uh-oh, Mary’s seatbelt’s knot untied. She pushes past Luke who laughs with the penny in his mouth and says, 'Dad, what did that guy want?’
“Walter asked me a biblical question I couldn’t answer.” John says and checks the rear mirror. Walter’s truck follows. “He wanted to know what was Lot’s Wife’s name. I forgot it. Actually, I don’t think her name is mentioned. We’ll look it up over the tracks.”
“Great.” Mother says and because we’re not in church, she doesn’t have to smile.
Not in the house. Could not remember.
Don’t look back; I am the wrath of the Lord. Smote thee.
The Caravan starts climbing the crossings ramp. John feels the front end rise and knows there is a small drop when the wheels become airborne before touching the gravel. Then, the vehicle will rock like a drunken elephant before leveling and proceeding over the tracks. John eases on the accelerator and the wheels go off the ramp.
Caroline looks back and screams, “John, he’s going to hit us!”
In John’s side mirror, he glimpses a swerving truck before his door implodes. Metal twists. Glass shatters. The Caravan is slammed sideways and without equal traction, tips. John’s airbag deploys and knocks his hands off the wheel.
The Caravan rolls over, lands passenger side down, and stops.
The airbag pins John to his seat. He can’t remember what just happened so asks his wife. She doesn’t respond. Caroline’s head leans against her door’s broken window and a metal railroad track. The smashed glass around her twinkles like crystals until suddenly, red lights flash, bells clang, and the shadow of a gate arm lowers over her face.
John fights the airbag and turns around. In the luggage area, Mary is crumpled upside down against the tinted rear window that barely hangs on its hinges. The stuff kept back there; his briefcase, an umbrella, and coloring books cover her. She struggles to upright herself. The umbrella opens. She shoves it behind her and trips into Luke hanging limp from his seatbelt like a rag doll with an open mouth. Mary faints onto Veronica still strapped in her seat and screaming. Her green eyes are terrified when John tries to reach her. His words are lost in her screams. Her teeth are bloody from biting her tongue.
My tongue burns-burns-burns!
Father is shouting! Not shouting at me, but over me! He shouts, ‘Listen to me, Veronica, we have to…’ But my tongue burns-burns-burns! Father shouts, ‘The train, Veronica, the…” and his tongue sticks out and CRASH the back window falls out and light fills the caravan and Father looks at me, but over me and sees the light with his tongue out and it must be the Holy Spirit! I want to see the Holy Spirit! Click my seatbelt.
Veronica stops screaming and climbs over Mary into the luggage area filled with sunlight. The open umbrella blocks her. She grabs the handle and pushes it into the light.
Where’s the Holy Spirit?
It’s just the man who lost his penny in a truck. Maybe, he saw where the…
Veronica steps out of the window. Her shoe falls off and lands onto the crossing.
It’s knot untied.
She reaches for her shoe beside a copper circle.
Luke’s penny! I’ll put it my mouth for safekeeping.
Veronica puts the umbrella’s neck on her shoulder, slips her foot into the shoe, and sets the coin on her tongue. Sunlight hits the penny like a tongue of fire.
I found your Penny.
Even when my anger, like a burning curse has tied me up in a knot…
I worry about you, Walt.
Smote thee knot.
John makes it to the Caravan’s luggage area. He sees Walter’s truck revving, ready to lunge, and blocking the only exit. He reaches through the rear window, grabs Veronica, and pulls her inside still holding the umbrella. He scoops up Mary. As a train’s brakes scream, the interim Pastor John Stevenson holds both daughters close and prays to be forgiven for choosing The Elder’s routine over The Lord’s.
I am the wrath of the Lord.
Walter’s truck hits the Caravan in the middle, rotates it off the tracks, receives the train, and explodes, sucking all the air from his fire. Penelope, with her silver wig off-centered, cradles Walter’s face close at 12:27.