Jolene's Baptism

 (This is one in a series of Jolene and Granny Barnes stories, best described as dark southern humor. It's what I write when I need a glass of wine.)

Jolene, an orphan from birth, never learned to swim because of her fear of alligators.  When she was a child, she’d often wake in the middle of the night, screaming with visions of alligators circling her, inching closer and closer to her sinking raft. Granny Barnes would pad across the hall to her room and climb in the bed with her only granddaughter. She’d whisper through her gums, “Baby, you are a blessed child. A very blessed child.”

Jolene didn’t feel blessed; she felt cursed by an intense fear of the horrid, hungry monsters living in southern ponds. Granny Barnes would hold her close and say, “Jolene, you’re as blessed as the itty bitty baby Jesus, and that’s a whole lotta blessin’."

By the time Jolene reached her teen years, she’d heard the story of her baptism hundreds of times, and the facts of that holy day fed her fears, resulting in ongoing nightmares. 

One night, Jolene came home late, well past midnight, with liquor on her breath, the scent of sex on her body, and one more skeleton to add to her cluttered closet.  Granny Barnes followed her to the bedroom and said, “You know, you could have drowned, but the good Lord saw fit to save you.  And here you are sinnin' like a Jezebel. He might as well just throw you back in the pond with them gators.”

Jolene said, “Granny. I’m tired. I just want to go to bed. All I’m doing is sowing some wild oats while I’m still young enough to do it. Please don’t tell me that story again. You know I have nightmares.”

“The preacher held you in his arms in the pond. Just the month before he'd asked forgiveness for lusting after the young widow Lawson. We was all just praising Jesus and pullin' down the holy spirit and a-baskin' in the love of God on that beautiful summer day. I declare there musta' been a hundred of us there to watch the baptism. Your Uncle C.J. had gone out early that morning to shoot any gators that might be in the waters nearby. We was all so worried about the gators that we failed to even consider the depth and drop-offs in that dark pond. You was just a squalling and your little face was red as a ripe Big Boy tomato.  You looked like you was going to explode right there in the arms of the pastor. Just split right open.”

Granny Barnes, who had already removed her teeth for the night, pushed her head out like a turtle stretched from his shell. She smacked her gums together two or three times, then snapped, “The preacher was baptizing three people that day, but he saved you for last since you was just a baby and hadn't done all the sinnin' that the other two drunks had done in their lives. Them two heathens got their souls washed mighty clean that day. Mighty clean. They had themselves a good baptizing, and then it was your turn.” 

Lips-a-smacking, she followed Jolene around the bed to her dressing table. “When the time came for you to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I handed you to the preacher, and he took you in his arms like you was the one and only Baby Jesus. You was kicking and screaming like the devil was a-chasing you, and you just a tiny thang. I reckon your Uncle C.J.'s shooting spree got you worked into a tizzy. And then, it happened.  It happened with no warning, but I can see it like it was just yesterday.” 

Jolene sighed and said, “Granny, please. I know the story.”

“Child, you was so hard to handle that the preacher nearly lost his grip on you and had to take a few steps backwards to steady himself, and when he did, he disappeared. Sank. He went under like Satan himself had done sucked him straight down to Hell with a nonstop ticket, all on account of his extramarital affair. The widow Lawson screamed so loud and long that confusion hit me on the head for a minute and left me stunned. Then I realized you was in the preacher's arms, heading straight to hell too. 

Your Uncle C.J. dropped his rifle and dove in the dark water after our little screaming tomato. All of us forgot about the preacher. All of us except for the widow Lawson, that is. My little orphan Jolene, stolen by Satan before she'd even been baptized, was sinking all the way down to hell in the arms of the womanizing preacher. 

When your uncle came up with you clutched in the crook of his elbow, we started rejoicing and speaking in tongues and shouting and praising the Lord.  We was huggin' and kissin'. I even kissed old man Jones. Mrs. Jacobs broke out singing When the Saints go Marching In, and pretty soon we was all joinin' in. Somebody was pulling the widow Lawson from the pond cause she'd fainted and was out cold. In all the chaos, we plum forgot the preacher was buried in the pond water, lost on Baptism Sunday, bless his heart.”

Jolene, who was taking off her mascara and looked like she’d been splattered around the eyes with motor oil, shuddered, and said, “Granny, every time I do something you don’t approve of you tell me about how I drowned the preacher. So what’s the point of the story this time?”

Her granny smacked her gums and said, “Well, I’m just sayin' that we could've left you in the pond like we did the preacher, but we didn’t.”

Jolene said, “Granny, stop it. Just stop it.”

Her grandmother leaned close and said, “Well, you know the gators probably ate him.” She walked to the bedroom door, turned back to her granddaughter, and whispered, "Sweet dreams, baby.” 

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