There came a time, before the sermon but after Joys and Concerns and some singing, when all the children had to leave their pews and walk all the way to the front of the sanctuary, sit on the ground, and listen to someone tell us a story.
I was never a normal child.
Even at eight, I knew the reason these stories were told was not to entertain the children. If the church had been looking to entertain us, they would have had half as much talking and twice as many video games. No, we were brought up for a story so the adults could stare at us, note how cute we were in our Sunday dresses and slacks, and then watch us listen to the story while feeling as if something was being accomplished, because we were good little boys and girls and not heathens destined to roll and boil in Hell for all eternity.
Knowing the grown-ups and their secrets, I attempted to create various ruses to escape the children's story. I would dart out to use the restroom moments before the story was to begin. In the bathroom, which was new, spacious, and very bright, I would make faces in the mirror, wash my hands very carefully, try to make my hair look like Brandi's always did (less flat, more blonde), and then slowly sneak back out to join my family in their pew when the story was finished.
Maybe it was my utter lack of stealth that made my parents get wise. They stopped letting me leave the pew and started forcing me to walk up, sit down, and listen.
But I wasn't going to take that. I hated the stories, mostly because they were boring, but also because they involved strange old people I didn't know or trust, the kind of old people that smell like powder and wore shoulder pads. I never trusted shoulder pads. Shoulder pads are made of lies.
The next Sunday, I developed a severe stomach ache, right before the story was set to begin. I clutched my stomach, folded myself in half, and stared at the ground.
"It hurts!" I whispered to my mother. She stared at my father.
"Are you going to be sick?" He asked me.
"I don't know..." I said. I had not mastered the skill I knew some children had, of vomiting on command.
"When I was a little boy," Dad began. "One Sunday my stomach hurt. It hurt so bad, I asked to stay home from church. My parents told me that, unless I threw up, I was going to church. I did throw up. And do you know what happened?"
"What?" I asked.
"My parents took me to church anyway, because there was nothing left for me to throw up. My stomach was empty," Dad said.
Now, I may have been eight, but I knew Dad was calling my bluff. A compromise was reached. I could sit in the pew this Sunday, but next Sunday, I had to go up front with Paul. It was my job, my parents told me, to make sure Paul sat still and listened.
He was ruining my escape plans. Thanks to him, the next Sunday came and I had to cart myself up front with all the other children. I was sure most of them were four or five years younger than I was. Next to them, I looked freakishly old. It was like if my friend Bryan's much-older brother Tim had gone up with us. He was in high school, I thought. He had to be about to get married. And that was what people saw when they looked at me, a bizarre woman-child who would at any moment start drooling from the corner of my mouth, rocking back and forth, and soiling myself.
I flopped down on the rough carpet and stared at my shoes.
That day, I was wearing a pair of shiny black mary janes with my scratchiest lace-edged socks. My mother had planned this in order to ensure the greatest level of discomfort. One of the shoes was buckled wrong.
I slowly undid the buckle and stared at the shiny black strap. Then I undid the other buckle.
At that moment, something clicked in my brain. Both the straps were the same. Both the buckles were the same. What was there to stop a person from fastening one strap to the opposite shoe's buckle?
Naturally, I did just that. I was amazed to see that it actually worked. You really could buckle your shoes together! I quickly buckled the other strap on the opposite shoe.
Now my feet were strapped together, my ankles crossed, and I had done something I was sure no other child had ever thought to do. I was a genius. This was the best discovery I had made in my life.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
Yes. You know what was happening, right? You've figured it out. I regret to say my child-self was still utterly clueless.
When I looked up, all the other children were gone. I saw my brother's shoe as he walked around the pew and headed down the aisle. They had left me behind, and now, to put it delicately, I was screwed.
My feet still securely buckled together, I tried to stand up. I fell down. Untwisting my ankles, I tried again. But now there was no slack between my feet.
I inched one foot forward, the other forward, one, then the other. But I was moving so slowly! I tried to go faster, but again, I fell.
Now the congregation was starting to notice. I reddened. They couldn't see my feet; they had no idea what I was doing. They just thought I was being silly. They couldn't see how difficult this was.
I was only inches from where I had begun and already precious time was running out. The organ music had begun. Soon the pastor would appear, and I knew that if I was still stuck up there when the sermon started or even still hobbling to my seat when the pastor started talking, Hell would open right up inside the church and it would swallow me whole.
"LAURA," The Devil would boom. "COME DOWN TO STAY AT MY HOUSE! WE HAVE MARSHMALLOWS, CANDY FOR BREAKFAST, AND WE WATCH PG-13 MOVIES EVERY NIGHT!"
Terror growing within me, I did the only thing I could do. I started hopping.
Like a rabbit, I sprang high in the air and came back down, jumping as far as I could as I raced back to my seat. Now the whole congregation was laughing, loudly. But they didn't understand. My mortal soul was up for grabs, and the only way I could keep myself from cavities and adult situations was to get back to my seat before my lace-swathed ankle ended up in the rough grasp of Satan.
I fell, I got back up, still I hopped. When I finally reached my seat, my mother had gone pale, my father looked as if he might explode.
"I'm sorry," I said desperately. "I was stuck!"
Then they noticed my shoes.
For the next six months, the shoe story was all my parents could talk about to everyone they knew. They told my grandparents, my cousins, my aunt and uncle, our neighbors and friends. My mother particularly enjoyed telling it.
Finally, when I heard my mother recounting the story to my grandmother for the second time, I burst into tears.
Through my tortured wails, I begged her to stop.
"Towa mamo omy lyyy!" I cried. "Iwa vogeee!" This meant, "It was the worst moment of my life! I want to forget it!"
Mom, of course, understood every word.
And I never had to go up and listen to the children's story ever again.