Almost Left Behind
The Rapture of the Church happened on a warm summer Sunday, coincidentally at the tail end of Reverend Randy Ball’s week-long revival sermon series entitled, “Are you ready to meet God?” The parishioners of Walnut Grove Baptist Church had, at one time, been accustomed to hold their revivals outdoors beneath the traditional white tent, but this year had celebrated the completion of their new Worship Center—a resoundingly impressive and airy sanctuary that could be transformed into a basketball court in the space of five minutes, volleyball in ten, indoor soccer in thirty, complete with the echoing effect of a high-ceilinged gymnasium—so they opted to hold revival indoors and put up the empty tent outside as a sign, hoping that the anecdotal strangers who often wander into tent revivals and reverse course on their sinful lives would find the church doors no more a hindrance than the humid heat of summer. But there were no strangers in house on the day the faithful were Raptured—only thirty or so, the same thirty who had vied for perfect attendance all week long despite the string of golf matches on television, little league games, or Christmas-in-July shopping mall specials. “Only when you have accepted Jesus into your heart,” cried Brother Randy to the collection of dour faces below him, “can you be sure of being taken into heaven when Jesus comes to raise up His Church. For the wicked will face the Tribulation, when God plagues the earth with death and disease, takes his wrath out upon those disbelieving Gentiles and wicked Jews. Only the truly saved will rise up into the air and meet Jesus in the sky in splendor and glory. . . .”
Now, his parishioners were reasonable folk who expected no more of Reverend Ball than a well-timed, traditional sermon of an hour’s length (even so gracious as to allow for occasional repeats), prayerful visits when any one of them succumbed to hospital admittance, and membership in the local Republican Party—no gags or stunts or modern flashiness—as if each Sunday, they walked into this spiritual diner and told him, “The usual, please.” So no surprise that many of them balked when their preacher, letting a moment of silence linger after his last few words, began to slowly grow behind his podium, it seemed at first, as if standing upon tiptoes, but then going to a height beyond any pointing of the feet.
Mary Ellen groaned aloud—she had known when the man pulled that stunt with the hundred-dollar bill some seven months and three weeks ago that there would be more tomfoolery ahead. Brother Randy had then pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of his pocket and asked for a show of hands as to who wanted it. Of course, they all raised their hands, giggling. Then he wadded it up, stepped on it a few times, then held the ragged c-note up for everyone to see and asked, “Now who wants it?” When he saw that everyone’s hands were still in the air, he said, “Well, my brothers and sisters, that’s how God sees you.” Afterwards, she had gone up to him and said, “My dear Brother Randy, if you can afford to stand at the pulpit and wad up ol’ Ben Franklin, I do believe we’re paying you too much,” and he laughed as if she had told him a joke.
Emma Hunter’s thoughts followed a similar vein. She recalled Brother Billy of some thirty years ago, a man who spent much of the summer of ‘72 trying to convince his congregation that George McGovern and his running mate were the two beasts of Revelations 13: “Now in describin’ the first beast, the Bible says, ‘And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.’ Now, I’m gonna show you something a bit scary here, so hold on to your seats. Says in this here newspaper that ‘Senator Thomas Eagleton, the Democratic nominee for Vice President, revealed today that he had been hospitalized three times for depression and that he twice received electroshock therapy as a treatment.’ You see—that boy’s got something wrong in his head, but it’s been healed, and when they’re elected, McGovern’s gonna set him up to be Supreme Antichrist potentate of the earth!” So the imminent end-of-the-world card had been played before, and all Emma could do this time was to yawn.
Emma’s husband, Clyde, was missing the show. He dozed while the preacher rose, his knees now visible above the podium, a silent and wide-eyed face he held upon them all; much muttering throughout. No, Clyde slept—church being the closest he ever slept to his wife ever since she demanded of him separate bedrooms on account of keeping his lusty motives from interfering with her new eveningtide Scripture readings. So he slept and dreamed of Connie Mae Flowers, the new waitress at Luann’s Restaurant. In his dream, she was sashaying by his usual table, asking him, “The usual, Clyde?” with a wink that begged his answer in the affirmative. He watched as she heaved her buxomness behind the counter, as she reached to pour him a cup of coffee only to find the stuff trickling upward instead of down. “Hmmm. . . . That’s mighty funny,” she said. “It must be the Rapture, cause that decaf ain’t going anywhere.”
That is what woke Clyde—the shrill cry of “It must be the Rapture!” A mumbled cry, a snort in his throat as he bolted upright to see Brother Randy floating above his pulpit and inching ever slowly upward. For just a moment, he was unsure whether or not he was dreaming, his train of musing having skipped a track, but then Clyde glanced about and saw with his own eyes what it was that kept their preacher’s mouth gaping silent and his eyes bug-wide as he hung in the air—
The Rapture. Yes, the Rapture of the Church entire, at least this little-c church, for when Brother Randy first realized what was happening he counted heads and patted himself on the back for no souls staying sunk in their seats, none of his congregation left behind. He looked down, so amazed at his feet not touching the ground, free from earth, his body and soul now following each other to the heavens of which he often dreamed, and he thinking, This is better than being an astronaut! And the word flew out of his mouth— “Astronaut!”—shot out of his smiling mouth, his face enraptured— “Astronaut!”—again and again until the gears in his head, all those scrambling ideas, meshed into his final sermon, which soon rolled over the panicked and excited cacophony of the people, drew them into silence as they neared the ceiling of their new worship center.
“Brothers and sisters: each one of you, sometime in the past, accepted our Lord and Savior into your hearts. You strapped on your Jesus Jetpacks and said to God, ‘I’m ready to go, I’m itchin’ to be a Cosmonaut for Christ, just let me know when we’re blasting off!’ Well, after years of waiting at love’s launchpad, we’re finally off! Off on our glorious mission! Yee-haw!”
And as his yelp of victory reverberated through the sanctuary, a hush fell over the congregation. Wives clutched husbands as they rose. Some cried for joy. Deacon Jared Phillips silently prayed that some of the sinners suffering the Tribulation would feed his dog. Widow Jenkins kept her eyes shut, gripped her purse straps tightly, muttered to herself, “Don’t look down, don’t look down.” The McKuhen boy did somersaults, while his parents tried to catch him, unsure of whether to spank him or not.
And up they rose through the vast emptiness of the sanctuary, eyes gazing expectantly to imagined heavens beyond the cottage cheese textured ceiling. Some smiling Jesus they knew so well lay beyond their sight, up in clouds unseen where He beckoned them forth into his heavenly kingdom, and each man, each woman, the higher they rose, the more those hearts clenched tight, as if onboard a roller coaster creeping slowly toward that apex where the horizon changes from sky to ground and speed from zero to infinity: and so as the last of this human construct threatened to pass from their eyes, the people of the church inhaled and held a collective breath—the ceiling so near and their God unseen just beyond it. Scant seconds and they would see more than Moses saw, see the Creator face to vast and mighty face. Only a few inches of wood and insulation separating them, and the moment neared, a mental countdown in everyone’s head, a blessed three with time enough for speedy prayers, a wonderful two of clenched hands and jittery feet, an ecstatic one marked by joy-flowing tears sparkling by the lamps in the ceiling, and then—
A stunned silence filled the vast room as the echo of thirty-plus skulls encountering the resistance of the ceiling faded. Hands rubbed the sore heads upon which bodies pivoted until all were flat upon back or stomach, still disoriented, the past few seconds a record skipping tracks—and why are those chairs so far above them, and why does the ground beneath them slope upward? Minds strained to understand, recall past events one-by-one: preacher droning on about wicked Jews and Democrats, the little Thompson boy picking his nose and flicking it at his sister, preacher suspiciously rising in the air, checking Henrietta’s watch for the time, and then
“We’re stuck!” screamed Mrs. Susanna Pike. “We’re Raptured and we’re stuck!”
A general panic ensued the moment those words registered upon the congregation’s confusion.
“We can’t get stuck here! It’s unchristian!”
“How are we going to get down? I mean, up. I mean—”
“It’s not fair!”
The little Thompson boy added to this squeaking choir the sound of his lunch heaving itself out of his stomach. He could no longer hold back the sweaty disorientation and acrophobia that disturbed him so—fears more primal than frustrated Raptures—but when he felt the tingling in his throat signaling imminent embarrassment, he did not know which way to turn, whether to face the ceiling which felt like floor or the floor that seemed a ceiling. He chose wrong and ended up spattered with half-digested mashed potato sandwich across face and chest, a beige sort of goo that matched his church clothes, at which point his sister laughed, “Haha! You deserved it, stinky-face!” and proceeded to kick the boy in the ribs.
“Mary Sue, you quit that now, hear?” shouted the red-faced mother. “There’s still plenty of time before we get to heaven for me to tan your hide!”
As the smell spread, the general unfocused panic of the group broke into various isolated conversations and recriminations. Said Typhus Mount to no one in particular: “I told you we should’ve had the damn thing outside. Much easier to get out of a tent than this place—just a quick zip of my huntin’ knife and we’d be chattin’ up Jesus in time for the game tonight.”
And Aubrey Dixon, probably the calmest of the bunch, mused, “I guess we should’ve hoped for some right sinful people to be left around to help us out of this mess. Say George, why ain’t you down there? Everyone knows you’ve been sniffin’ after your wife’s sister come three years now.”
“That’s a goddam lie!” yelled George in reply. The burly, bearded man tried to stand up to find his accuser, but his first mad step in Aubrey’s direction sank into the cottage cheese crumble of the ceiling. A clatter of voices fired at him as he tried to extricate himself: “Taking the Lord’s name in vain!” and “Raptured and you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain!” and “If I was Jesus I’d toss you back down where you came from!”
And Emma Hunter heard those words of Aubrey’s, but what stuck in her head was not the accusation of adultery; rather what she found a threat was the statement that no one was left behind—sweat broke out upon her brow at the suggestion. She scrabbled to her hands and knees, looked down at all the empty chairs, even Clyde’s chair empty. “Clyde!” she called out in a fit of shrill panic, her wrinkled cheeks jittering with the force of that one syllable. “Clyde!”
“Here I am, Emma,” she heard, the voice, his voice, which so often reminded her of a cow’s—how cows would talk, if they could, slowly dribbling out words between chews of cud: that voice. A hand waved itself above the clutter of people, a signal to her, complete with eternal and unbroken circle of wedding ring upon the fourth digit. The tears sprang to her face as if just waiting, and having finally received, the orders to march. They sped across cheekbone and jowl, illuminating her face for the reflection of nearby lamps. “No. . .” was her long, strangled cry, a huff and puff of “no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. . .” until she had fallen faint upon the ceiling, hands clutched to eyes but still not holding back the tears that came more rapidly now, as if her face were a sponge being squeezed of its sad, sad juice as she screamed louder now, “Noooooo!”
The humdrum of conversation died as Emma’s wet shrieking pierced argument and accusation, threatened to fill the sanctuary entire—Emma there, prone and still crying and her mouth letting loose with tide after breathless tide of wailing. For the moment, most were too dumbfounded to respond”—the little Thompson boy looked up to see what was happening and only realized the mistake of opening his eyes when another blotch of bile was on its way up—and she sat there alone until Brother Randy, cleared of his astronautical disposition and seeing a quite unique opportunity for ministry, tucked his arms to his sides and rolled across the ceiling to where she lay. “Now Sister Emma,” he began in a sugary voice that boomed everywhere for the microphone clip still attached to his tie. “Sister Emma,” putting a hand to her shoulder, “what is it that distresses you? I mean, we’re gonna get out of here. God’ll see to that. And we’ll all be up in heaven together, fellowshipping with Jesus, and you and Clyde together forever, and—”
And at these words, her screams rose to new heights—“Noooooo!”—with renewed power, to the point where children were covering their ears and adults were wondering if her throat were bleeding already. Worse was the feedback through Brother Randy’s microphone, which exploded forth when he leaned in closer for a pastoral embrace and had them all reeling in pain—the preacher too startled to think of finding the off switch—until Big George, all two hundred and forty pounds of him, slammed into Randy. He had freed his foot from the ceiling and lunged himself in that general direction, determined to take out either the preacher or the old woman, not caring which.
Not even Big George punching Brother Randy in the mouth, splitting his lip, distracted Emma from her wailing and gnashing of teeth. He straddled the dazed pastor and tore at his tie until fingers found the mike, tried to pull it loose, yanking at it as if starting a lawnmower. But Randy had wound the cord beneath his shirt for maximum invisibility, bringing the mike out between two buttons at the top of his shirt, so that the battery pack, when finally loosened from the preacher’s belt, shot up to his neckline and pressed hard against his voice box, his moans turned to gurgles and gasps for air until certain buttons relented and the whole contraption snaked through the air, falling through the empty space of the sanctuary to end in a final crack at the basketball half-court line.
Even with the feedback loop silenced, folk still winced at the next words in the air, Big George turning to Emma with a sunset-shaded face: “What is your goddam problem?” This time, though, no one chided him for yet another commandment violation. They watched as spectators while wide-eyed Emma swallowed her screams in a hiccup of surprise, wiped her face like a child preparing to explain the cause of injury.
“He slept with Shirley Humpwater!” she whined, pointing in the general direction from which Clyde’s voice had issued. “Shirley Humpwater! That nasty, snaggletoothed slut from Highfill who comes down and hangs out at the gas station. And she was just twenty years old when they did it, and nasty and he slept with her!”
Even the beaten preacher perked up at this bit of gossip which had somehow eluded his ears, eluded the congregation entire, all of them turning to Clyde, half in disgust that he should so copulate with such a renowned rotten-toothed whore, half in amazement that his life was perhaps not as dull as they had expected. And they sat up upon the ceiling of that church, shuffled about to crouch upon knees or lean upon arms behind them, to stare at the man whose face seemed as flat and uninteresting now as it had while he snored during the sermon.
“Clyde?” asked Brother Randy in a scratchy voice. “Clyde, is this true?”
And Clyde said, “Yup.”
“How many times, Clyde? How many times did you do this wicked deed?”
And Clyde’s eyes rolled backward as he squinted, thinking hard. “I can’t rightly say, Brother Randy. You see, I was keepin’ track by the number of condoms left in the box, but I lost it somewhere in my truck and—”
But Emma interrupted his recollection with another tearful spurt, another effusion of snot and tears which required a few seconds to form the words, “You see! You see what I’ve had to live with all these years! And he keeps trying to bring his dirty stuff into my bed. And, and I know where you’ve been! That’s what I want to tell him. I know where you’ve been. And even when he’s sleeping in the other room, I can hear him snoring, like he’s trying to torment me, me all there with my Bible trying to read and he’s snoring so’s I can’t concentrate, like he’s trying to keep me from Jesus!”
Brother Randy returned his pastoral hand to the poor woman’s shoulder. “Emma dear,” he began in what was supposed to be his silkiest preacher’s voice, “how long have you known?
“Eight years,” she sputtered.
“Eight years?” he shouted. “Eight years? God’s sake, woman, why’re you all tore up over it now?”
“‘Cause he’s Raptured!” she shrieked. “He put his plumbing in the skankiest sewer and he’s still Raptured! I been reading my Bible every day and staying awake during your sermons, just waiting for the day when he’d be gone from me. And it’s the Rapture and he’s still here and I’ll be up there at the right hand of Jesus and still hear him snoring through and through and why’s he here? Why can’t he be tribulated?” She ended in a final shriek: “Why can’t he be tribulated? He deserves it!”
“Now Emma!” Brother Randy shouted, his stern voice finally back. “I don’t want to hear no more of this! You know that once a person’s saved, ain’t no power can make them unsaved. If Clyde’s up here on this ceiling now, he must’ve accepted the Good Lord Jesus into his heart at one time or another, discounting what he did afterwards, no matter how terrible that might be.”
“But he can’t be saved, he just can’t! Would a saved person be sleeping around like that? And him all snoring up in heaven like I know he will be.”
Her words, her pleas, faded into the air as the congregation slowly turned its collective gaze from each other: husbands watching wives, wives eyeing husbands, friends sharing glances that aimed to be unknowing, children withering beneath the suspicious stares of parents; and the gazes unmet, those couples deliberately bouncing around each other, avoiding contact as these increasing seconds slowly brought a suspicion thought erased by the day’s event back to the fore, as each man and woman redefined innocence once again, revamped their working definitions to exclude at least one, maybe all. And the silence was broken only by Typhus Mount’s saying, “I told you we should’ve had the damn thing outside.”
And after a moment of thought, he removed from his boot the hunting knife he had mentioned earlier and began to stab into the ceiling, sending small slabs of it spiraling down to the floor and raising a cloud of dust that lead many nearby into coughing fits; not that he noticed, for his face the face of a determined man, the grizzled grey of one who does not take survival for granted.
“Mercy’s sake, Typhus!” Aubrey was yelling, trying to get the man’s attention. “You can’t keep hacking away like that. You’re liable to cut into a mess of electrical wires and that would be the end of you!”
So Typhus stopped for a moment, cocked his head in thought. “Hey Brother Randy!” he called out. “Can a Raptured man die of electrical shock?”
“Don’t tempt the Lord thy God,” was the preacher’s only answer. Typhus sheathed his knife with a snort of displeasure.
“So how are we supposed to get down from here?”
“Maybe,” Mary Ellen began, “Jesus will see that we’re missing. After all, I seem to recall there being only 144,000 saints in heaven, and when Jesus goes through the checklist and finds only one-hundred and forty-three thousand and something something, he’ll probably come looking for us.”
Brother Randy interrupted the nods, the hums and murmurs of assent. “Now Mary Ellen, and all of you, I preached about that just this Tuesday”—weren’t you listening? That 144,000 number is symbolic, a symbol for perfection, not meant to be taken literally.”
“Well, how do you know it’s symbolic? Bible says 144,000 saints in heaven, doesn’t it?’
“Yes it does”—but there are about twelve million or so Southern Baptists. How do you account for that?”
“But don’t you think he’d see us missing?”
“I’m certain he would, but with all the souls to be accounted, I wouldn’t blame him if it took awhile.”
The murmur died down—yes, millions to be counted, all walking up to the gates of heaven to be double-checked in the Lamb’s Book of Life (though being Raptured guaranteed it, proper procedure was to be followed), being marked off in the Lamb’s Book of Life, which they all imagined to be meticulously alphabetized. Indeed, the process could take some time, since there was only one Jesus and one Book, and a thick book at that if there were truly at least twelve million souls in it—the thought impressed itself upon them all, how long that might take, how long they would all have to saunter upon this roof, Raptured but still having to stay with the same old folk from their church for how many hours? days? weeks? The interminable near eternity of concourse with these everyday people whom the Rapture accorded the status of saints, up there with Moses and Abraham and Joshua, but who were not nearly so interesting, not the towering giants of faith whom they longed to chat up while walking the golden streets of heaven. And what of family, of the joyfully tearful reunions put on hold, of brothers and sisters, parents and children separated that much longer because these thirty people were stuck on the ceiling of their church—after the hours or days or weeks passed, would their kin give up hope, be resigned to the belief that certain of their relatives had fallen prey to the Tribulation, or worse? Old Nadine Sumpter spoke for many a person when she said, “We gotta figure a way out of this church somehow. I can’t have my babies thinking mee-maw’s been tribulated.”
“Damn right!” yelled Big George. “We can’t let the Methodists beat up so heaven!”
“I don’t know that the Methodists believe in the Rapture,” mused Brother Randy, mostly to himself, after the cheers had died down, but no one was listening to him. George had stood up, both feet firm upon the center crossbeam of the ceiling, hands at his hips in some caricature of bravado. The people half expected dashing and innovative theme music to accompany his words as he, standing proud and upside-down, boomed: “God gave us brains so we could find our way out of situations like this—isn’t that right?”
“Yes!” and “You bet it is!” and “That’s right!” they shouted.
“So first, we gotta take assessment of the situation. So let’s everyone empty his pockets and all the ladies their purses to see if there’s something maybe one of us has that we can use. We gotta be innovative. Let’s make a big pile right here and see what we have to work with.”
Big George grinned as the thirty or so people all began to rummage through pockets and purses, but his grin turned tragic as their upended contents did not stay where they were put on the ceiling but fell far, far down to the floor: lipstick tubes and pocket knives and loose change, a few anonymous cigarette lighters and bottle openers, all clattered upon the floor near Brother Randy’s inert microphone, making this noise as large as the sanctuary, so that some started, had to cover ears again, thus letting loose of even more—entire purses, wallets that a few jumped for as they spiraled down.
Big George’s face was a tangle of strain, bearing that triumphant grin now twisted by rage as he looked up—or rather, down—glaring at the floor as if he would strangle gravity, were such an act possible; only embarrassment kept him silent as the noise died down and eyes returned to him. Typhus Mount said, “Great goddam genius you are, George. By golly, you’ll have us out of here in no time.” The red-faced man could only scowl his comeback.
“My purse!” and “My wallet!” and “My lucky buckeye!” the people muttered.
“So preacher,” began Typhus again with the same barb in his voice, “you’re supposed to lead us to heaven. Why don’t you start leadin’?”
And the immense room fell into silence again, a silence that pinpointed itself upon Brother Randy. The frazzled man set up straight as he could, clearing his head with a brief shake, and straightened out his rumpled brown suit as he prayed, O sweet Lord Jesus, please lead us unto your glorious throne, help us out of this current situation, Lord, that we may join you in heaven, and Lord, be with those left behind, that they may one day reach us and”—
“Left behind!” he spat, waking from his silent prayer. “I mean, reach us! I mean, call us, you know?” His face was bright and jibbering with enthusiasm as he tumbled over the words. “I mean does anyone have a cell phone?”
Brother Randy’s enthusiasm was not catching. His excitement waned as he watched all of them look from him to each other in confusion, back to him, and he thought, That flock metaphor is really apt, finding only black, sheep-like eyes staring at him, wishing he had a violent shepherd’s crook in his possession.
“Do you. . . do you want to call Jesus?” asked Aubrey as if questioning an odd little child.
“No,” Randy replied with all the calmness he could muster. “To call someone else,” he said, enunciating clearly each syllable. “Find a friend who’s left behind or call 911 or something and get some heavy equipment over here, something to get us out of this.”
“Ohhh. . .” was the collective sigh. Betty Baker chirped, “Well, in that case, I had a phone.”
“Had? What do you mean by had?” And Betty craned her head up in the direction of the floor, where her purse lay in a beige heap. All of them looked at the same purse with longing eyes, silent eyes, and the moment dragged itself out as they all stared their hopes and prayers into that one purse. No one blinked when, on cue, the phone began to ring. “Must be that brother of mine,” said Betty. “Said he was going fishing this morning and probably has a few bass he wouldn’t mind sharing with me.” And the phone beeped and beeped until its fifth ring, at which point either the voice mail picked up or Betty’s brother decided to offer his catch elsewhere.
While everyone continued staring at the floor, Typhus spoke out: “Preacher, we’re waiting.”
And Brother Randy, eyes unmoved, said only, “Let us pray.”
“Preacher, that’s not the answer we were waiting for.” And Typhus pulled out his knife once more, gripped it tightly with his thick fingers, flexing his fingers again and again as if working up the courage for murder.
“It’s not my fault, Typhus. Obviously the Good Lord is punishing us for something, making a mockery of everything we’ve tried to achieve. This new sanctuary, it’s devil-proof, but it’s not Rapture-proof. All because Jim Martin wanted a place for his over-the-hill basketball troupe to kick around like they’re NBA stars. And you guys let yourself be led blind by it all.”
“Basketball. . .” Typhus mused. “Hmmm. . . .”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing! I just can’t!” Randy Ball could not see the speaker, or rather screamer, amidst the clutter of faces, but he could fairly accurately envision Jim’s wife, Jenny, and her face: the various loose folds of fat quivering as she spoke, her anger tinging that skin with red so that she resembled some exotic flower blown about by the breeze as she talked. And her two eyes so like little children straining to do chin-ups over her well-padded cheekbones. “I just can’t believe it! Turning on my husband like that! And him not here to defend himself, him at home sick with the flu!” (There was a spreading snicker at these words, folks trying not to laugh outright.) “You knows he loves the children! And him gettin’ the church council to put some basketball goals in here ‘cause that’s what the kids are interested in these days!”
And Brother Randy, seeing her jibbering face so clearly in his head, even with eyes closed seeing it as he saw it every Sunday morning, contorting in a squishy spasm with every “Amen!” her chipmunk-like voice could summon, snapped, leapt onto all fours and screamed back: “If that was your husband’s goal, why didn’t he put some beds in this sanctuary? Kids are pretty interested in that! Why, I bet your daughter’d be up here every single day, give the high school team some real practice in bouncing their balls around!”
A great crash punctuated his last word, the sound of metal straining against metal. “Jesus Christ!” someone yelled as expression of surprise, but someone else replied, “Where?” and “Where’d you see him? Which way did he go?”—for they could easily envision one of God’s holy angels in a yellow policeman’s parka tearing apart the roof, coming to save them at last So it took them a moment to find a very non-divine Typhus at the far end of the sanctuary as the source of the noise. He had cut the rope which held the basketball goal in its retracted state close to the ceiling for preacherly days, and it had dropped in position right behind the pulpit, where it likely would have clobbered any poor soul standing and preaching on that raised dais. He was, at the moment, in the process of climbing down the goal, gathering up the rope as he went. The congregation watched in amazement as he perched himself on the backboard of the goal and wound the rope into a crude lasso. The congregation watched in confusion as he flung the loop of the lasso in the direction of the baptistry, directly behind the pulpit, one and two and three times, finally catching the warm water spout for the rush of water they all could hear starting up. Then, tying off his end of the rope secure to the goal, he proceeded to crawl, hand over hand, feet hanging upward in the air, until he reached the baptistry and lunged himself into the dark dressing rooms behind it. They heard the clang and crunch of what might have been footsteps on brittle ceiling tiles fade away and then come back as he stuck his inverted head around the corner and yelled their way, “What? You forget about the emergency exit in the baptistry dressing rooms back here?”
That animated the flock. “Sweet Jesus, an escape!” “Hot damn!” And they proceeded to scrabble on all fours across the ceiling (though the little Thompson boy, still sick, had to be dragged by his mother.) Big George was the first there, having run over too many people, stepped on a few spiteful hands, and he began crawling down the basketball goal despite entreaties from the other men: “George, dontcha think it would be a mite nicer to let the ladies go down and be Raptured first?” But he pretended not to hear and soon disappeared.
“I can’t crawl down that thing!” cried Mary Ellen, wringing her hands on her dress. “I’m afraid of heights!”
“It’ll be all right, Miss Mary,” said Aubrey calmly. “In fact, why don’t we do that, fellas? Let’s pair up so that each man is helping someone down, some of the older ladies going first.” So down climbed Aubrey and Mary Ellen first, doing as Typhus had done and descending head first, which necessitated Mary Ellen using one hand to hold her dress down, to keep it from upending itself, which is precisely what it did when the two people reached the rope and had to put all their hands there.
“I don’t know, Aubrey. I think I got the better view,” said Clyde, who, with Betty, was right behind them on the goal. “Those are some nice panties, Miss Mary.”
Mary Ellen screamed and lunged her left foot into Clyde’s mouth, so that he let loose of the goal and spiraled through the air, end over end, until he slammed into the ceiling for the second time that day. “Ooof!”
“Miss Mary!” shouted Aubrey reproachfully.
But her face was streaked with tears, tears streaming down from her eyes and across her forehead, where they moistened her hairline. “Raptured! We’ve been Raptured and he’s lookin’ at my panties like some greedy hog!”
“He slept with Shirley Humpwater!” Emma yelled from above.
“Maybe the women should go last,” suggested Brother Randy. “To protect their modesty.”
Aubrey was a flustered red. “Damnit! We can’t go changing the system now! Let’s just concentrate on getting to heaven—you won’t care who’s seen your panties when you’re sitting next to Jesus!”
So they relented and once again began their trek, two-by-two, down the goal, across the rope, and into the dressing rooms behind the now overflowing baptistry, where they came upon Typhus perched atop Big George and attempting to reach down to the metal door’s handle, which read: “Use Only in Case of Emergency. Alarm Will Sound When Door is Pushed Open.” They gathered and watched as Typhus fingered the handle, so close to opening it. Brother Randy said, “We should say a little prayer of thanksgiving before we leave, thank the Lord for helping us out of this situation.” And so they bowed their heads and closed their eyes, and Brother Randy had time enough to say only, “Lord Jesus—” before the beautiful clangor of the alarm interrupted him; and they raised their heads and opened their eyes in time to see Typhus Mount fumble across the threshold of the open door, his yells of “Yip! Yip! Yip! Whee!” fading into the distance. Big George crawled through the doorway next, with a triumphant shout exploding from his lungs. Brother Randy never finished his final prayer. His treasured flock lined up one-by-one and one-by-one leapt with joy across the threshold, to the tune of a fire alarm, floating up through the clear blue sky, up into the arms of their waiting, kingly Jesus–rising up into the air to meet Jesus in all splendor and glory.