Mrs. Anderson [Or a Study of Apocalypse as an After-School Special]
by Julie Marie Wade, Winner of the 2012 Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize
The thing you have to understand about Mrs. Anderson is that she wasn’t warm, not like Mrs. Sauter, who was the warmest mother of them all. She wasn’t beautiful like Mrs. Neupert, and she wasn’t quirky like Mrs. Meyers. She was efficient and accomplished in her motherly role—after all, she had a lot of practice—but I think the adjective that best describes her is practical or matter-of-fact. It is also possible, though not confirmed, that she was lacking in imagination.
The Andersons bought the house where my parents used to live during the early years of their long marriage. The house sits on a small bluff about a quarter-mile from where we live now, though it is smaller than our house and lacking a view of the water. Kristin is the oldest of the five Anderson children, and she explains to me in her practical, matter-of-fact way that even before she was born, there were others: “Two siblings. We don’t know if they were boys or girls. My mother miscarried.”
“What exactly does that mean?” I ask. We are perched on the fence overlooking her yard, shelling peanuts and feeding them to the squirrels.
“It means she was with child, and then God decided to stop the pregnancy.”
“So the baby just vanished and her stomach got flat again overnight?”
“She hemorrhaged,” Kristin replies, and when I look confused, she sighs like I am the stupidest person on earth—“started bleeding and bled the whole baby out.”
This strikes me as quite disgusting, but at least with Kristin I am always learning new words.
* * *
Kristin is also the first friend I have ever had who comes from what can be properly called “a big family.” Not only that, but her family operates by their own set of—some might say rigid, or unimaginative—rules. Kristin’s father is a commercial airline pilot whose name tag says “SKIP,” but it turns out that’s only a nickname. His real name is Kermit, like Kermit the Frog, but when I ask if he was named after the Muppet, she folds her arms and becomes impossibly cross.
“It’s a family name,” she says. “It’s been in our family for years. Kermit the Frog was probably named after him.”
“Oh,” I say, “sorry.”
But because Kermit’s name starts with “K,” all the daughters’ names must start with “K,” too. So far there is just Kristin and her little sister, Karen. “My parents are always trying to bring glory to God by having more children,” she explains. “There could be a Kayla or a Kara in our family soon.”
Because Mrs. Anderson’s other name is Marilyn—though she is nothing at all like the movie star with the full white skirt and the red pouty lips whose image proliferates on lunch boxes and pot holders and tins of salt-water taffy at the shore—all the sons’ names must start with the same letter. They have Mark, who is just two years younger than Kristin, and Michael, who looks different around the eyes, and the brand-new baby, Matthew, who has just appeared in the single year I have known Kristin.
“Can you tell me more about Michael?” I ask.
“The angel or my brother?”
“Well, he was named after the archangel Michael of course, the way Matthew and Mark were named after the New Testament Gospel writers.”
“The Old Testament is more interesting,” I declare, tired of being the one without opinions. “I think they should have named your brother Jonah.”
“That doesn’t follow the M-rule,” Kristin snaps back like a blond rubber band.
“Naming him after the angel helps us remember how close we are to God and how close God is to us.”
“Is there something—wrong with him?” I press. This is the good thing about Kristin: she values factual information more than she appreciates tact.
“He has Down’s syndrome, which means he has an extra chromosome. God makes some people special so we can all remember that we are at His mercy—that He is the one who decides.”
* * *
Tonight at my house we are having breakfast for dinner, which means my father is in charge—French toast dipped in egg batter and sizzling bacon and orange juice from a frozen can. My mother sits at the table with her glue gun, arranging seashells around a circular mirror, preparing to make an all-season wreath for our wall.
“Kristin told me about Down’s syndrome today. She says Michael was born with an extra chromosome because God wanted us to remember how vulnerable we are.”
“Well, that’s a crock if I ever heard one,” my mother replies.
“They always were a little strange with their religion,” chimes my father.
“Down’s syndrome is most likely to occur when a woman is too old to be having children,” my mother clarifies. She comes to where I am standing and holds the cylinder of concentrate under a steady stream of hot water. “Bill, do you know how old Marilyn Anderson is?”
“I’d guess mid-forties,” he says.
“She is forty-eight years old. Judy Brown told me. Michael was born when she was forty-five, and this new baby”—she purses her lips—“well, when is enough enough?”
“The Andersons believe in Heaven-ordained procreation,” I say, parroting my friend. “Kristin told me all about it. Plus, they have a wall-hanging with that Bible verse about go forth and multiply.”
“What about all things in moderation?” my father retorts.
Clearly, he doesn’t understand the rules. “Dad,” I say, “that’s a secular cliché. The first one comes straight from the Bible.”
* * *
I have to admit, the Andersons are a little strange about their religion. For one thing, the kids aren’t allowed to write letters to Santa Claus or go on Easter egg hunts or dress up for Halloween. In fact, when my favorite holiday comes around, Kristin misses the costume party and can’t even bob for apples from the old whiskey barrel in Joy’s backyard. Her whole family hunkers down in their basement and gathers around the fireplace that doesn’t work and sings praise songs. If you ring their doorbell for any reason on Halloween night—to trick-or-treat or share your candy or just to say hello—you know they’re in there—you can see the soft light flickering through the lower windows—but no one will come upstairs to answer the door.
“It’s the Devil’s holiday,” Kristin elucidates. We have started a dog-walking business, so now we stroll around the neighborhood with a motley crew of good-natured mutts and slow-footed cocker spaniels.
“But it’s so fun,” I protest. “It’s the one day a year when you get to be somebody else.”
“If you’re right with the Lord,” she says, all pert nose and smug intonation, “you don’t need to change who you are. You don’t even want to.”
I look down at my shoes as if they are the key to my soul. I am afraid to say it, but I think Kristin already knows. I want to.
* * *
“Kristin Anderson says she has seen her guardian angel,” I tell my grandmother and my great Aunt Ruth who is visiting from Canada. “Do you believe that’s possible?”
“Of course, dear. Anything is possible. Ruthie, shall I bring you more coffee?”
“Yes, and let’s have some cookies, too.” Aunt Ruth is the oldest, thinnest woman I have ever seen, but her appetite rivals my own. She sits up to the table in her frilly pink blouse and her little knit cap with the floppy side flower that she has crocheted herself.
“But if anything is possible, then doesn’t that mean there might not even be angels—that there might not even be a God?”
Then comes a silence so deep I think I hear the house sinking further into the earth. Aunt Ruth looks at me like I have just denied her dessert for three days.
“God is the given,” my grandmother says at last. “And God makes all things possible.”
It’s clear I’m going to have to try a different approach. “Well, have either of you ever seen your guardian angel?”
Aunt Ruth helps herself to three large oatmeal cookies and munches thoughtfully awhile before she replies. “When Mac died, I felt a presence. I knew we weren’t alone in that hospital room. I knew God had sent someone to bring him home to Heaven.”
“But did you see anything? Some feathers? A bright light even?”
“I think you’re missing the point, dear,” my grandmother intercedes. “It’s not what you see that’s important. It’s what you know in your heart is true.”
* * *
My heart cannot be plumbed, let alone parsed into language. My heart is a pasture grown wild with weeds, trampled by beasts, and newly overcome with clouds. But inside my mind, which I can picture like a long hallway that leads to a messy dressing room, I set about the task of sorting my thoughts into piles—what I’ve been told versus what I believe, what I doubt versus what I know for sure. If I know it, I decide, I’ll drape it over my arm. If I doubt it, or if I can’t be sure, I’ll hang it back up on the rack.
Everything I know from school returns to the rack because it is based on someone else’s knowledge, someone else’s promise that 8 times 8 means 64; that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent Italian Columbus to the New World; that waters really boils at 212 degrees F. Even Fahrenheit is something I take for granted, more of a hanger than a thought itself—something to hang an idea of temperature on. Before long, I am running out of hangers. I discover that most of what I think I know I haven’t discovered for myself, least of all where God and angels and matters of salvation are concerned. Words have the effect of markers in a book, but even words aren’t the real content of those pages.
* * *
“Are you having a crisis of faith?” Kristin asks me, a look of concern on her typically stern, preadolescent face. She has just returned from ballet practice, her first year dancing en pointe. Even this is just a concept, I sigh. Someone decided to stuff cotton wool into flat-toed ballet slippers and call them pointe shoes. Someone decided girls should be twelve years old before they can wear them, but Kristin is only eleven and has been granted special privilege by her teacher. For every rule, I see, there is also an exception, which makes nothing seem very hard-and-fast, nothing unalterably so.
“I don’t know. That’s just it. Suddenly, it’s like I don’t know anything anymore—not for sure—nothing that I can’t poke holes through.”
Kristin’s room is yellow as a canary or as the high-hatted man who cares for Curious George. She used to share her room with Mark, and yellow is the agreed-upon, gender-neutral color. (Why isn’t it pink or green? Why do we even need gender-neutral colors?) At one end of her bed is a painting of angels, each with a translucent robe and a tiny harp, serenading some shepherds in a field. At the other end is a framed photograph of pointe shoes, a whole row of them, dyed every vibrant color of the rainbow.
“First of all, if you’re trying to poke holes through things, then you’re not thinking like a good disciple of Christ. You’re thinking like a person of this world.”
“But I am a person of this world,” I protest.
Kristin sighs and shakes out her long mane of yellow hair. “Only in the technical sense—and only for a little while.” As she unwraps the tape from her toes, I wince at the blood thickly crusted over her nails.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Of course—but it’s worth it. Dancing is like the body’s own way of praying, of giving thanks to God without words.”
I have been dancing a long time, and it has never felt like an expression of praise to me. Of course, I am a poor dancer, and my teacher doesn’t think pointe shoes are in my future. So maybe the truth is different for everyone, inherently conditional. Maybe Kristin’s body is praying while she pirouettes with perfect grace while my body is simply longing for a playground—or a pizza.
“Why don’t you come to church with us?” Kristin offers. “The van seats eight, but we only have seven, and there are services almost every night of the week.”
* * *
In my sailor dress and my scuffed patent leather shoes, I wait with Kristin on the sidewalk while Mrs. Anderson backs the van up the long, steep drive.
“My father had to fly today,” she says, “but he always tells us he’s closer to God that way and doesn’t mind.”
“What does your bumper sticker mean?” I inquire.
“Well, you know, if we were driving when the Rapture came, we’d all float up to Heaven and our car would probably crash.”
“Oh,” mulling it over. “So what’s the Rapture?”
Mrs. Anderson has just climbed out of the driver’s seat as I say it. I think how she has the body of an umpire, lumpy and soft, how she should be out on the field calling plays and blowing whistles whenever a team wants to take a time-out. Today she looks strangely like a human potato in the drab brown dress and flat penny loafers, but a polo shirt and catcher’s mask could suit her well.
“Julie, why don’t you sit up front with me? Kristin, you sit in back and help with the babies.”
* * *
It is a long drive to the Casey Treat Christian Faith Center, and Mrs. Anderson notices right away that I didn’t bring a Bible. “Check the glove box,” she instructs. “There should be extras in there.”
“It’s not that I don’t have a Bible,” I say, feeling suddenly embarrassed. “It’s only that they print what we need to read from it on our programs in church.”
“So you are familiar with church?” she clarifies, her eyes transfixed on the road and her jaw line tight, her cheeks hardly moving as she speaks.
“Sure. I’ve been going to church my whole life.”
“Do you know what kind of church it is?”
“Lutheran,” I say proudly. “I come from a long line of Swedish Lutherans on my father’s side. And my father helped to convert my mother before they got married.”
“What was she?”
This question is one I haven’t thought of before. “Oh,” I murmur, “I’m not sure. Nothing, I guess.” (Was that possible?) “Her family doesn’t go to church.”
“The reason I ask,” Mrs. Anderson begins in her cool, even tone, “is that you were asking Kristin back at the house about the Rapture. Does your church not discuss the Apocalypse?”
“I’m an acolyte,” I say. “Are they related?”
“Not quite,” she replies. “What have you learned about the end of the world?”
I search the ransacked dressing room of my mind for answers but find nothing. Even the mirror is foggy now, like someone has been breathing too hard.
“I’ve heard of it,” I tell Mrs. Anderson. “My father always says ‘It’s not the end of the world’ when I spill something, though my mother usually acts like it is. I guess I thought that was just an expression…” My voice trails off, and I resist the temptation to gulp.
“No, Julie, the end of the world couldn’t be more real, and our life here on earth hinges on our preparation for life in Heaven. Christ is going to come like a thief in the night, and we have to be ready. Whether we go to Him first in death, or whether He comes to us.”
“So you’re saying we might not have to die?” What an enormous relief to imagine! Since death is what frightens me most, I am anxious to endorse any prospect that suggests I may never have to face it.
“If the Rapture comes in your lifetime, and you are a professed believer, Christ will lift you up to Heaven and spare you the Seven Years of Tribulation.”
“That’s when things get really bad,” Mark interjects, a little candle-flame of a boy, flickering in the image of his sister. “It’ll be like watching a horror movie, but you’ll get to watch it sitting on a cloud in Heaven.”
“Provided you have a sure and proper faith,” adds Mrs. Anderson, in that very practical, very matter-of-fact way.
* * *
The Andersons’ church is more like a sports arena with bench seats than a regular sanctuary with pews. The ushers carry walkie-talkies, and the minister and all his assistants wear microphones clipped to their ties. Despite its high ceilings and extravagant organ and monumental wood cross, the Casey Treat Christian Faith Center is ugly—so ugly I would call it “butt ugly” except that Kristin insists “butt” is a bad word.
“No part of the body is ugly,” she has stated on several occasions. “It’s only ugly minds that make people think that way.”
A brief glimpse of my inner dressing room—the floor desperate for a sweeping, the busted light bulb longing to be changed.
* * *
Casey Treat is a lithe, red-haired man with a greasy pompadour and a smile as suspicious as Ronald McDonald’s. I dislike him instantly, though I can’t be sure that his convictions are wrong—only his style of presentation.
“Are you ready?” he shouts, working the crowd into a frenzy. “Are you ready for the day when Jesus comes?”
A chorus of “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” startles me from my semiconscious doodles. “Are you ready for Jesus to lift you up?”
Now everyone has leapt to their feet, and Kristin pulls me to standing, clapping her hands and swaying.
“But you know—not everyone is as blessed as we are. Not everyone is going to be lifted up by Jesus.”
We sit down again, and Casey Treat strides the full length of the elevated aisle—like a runway model showing off his Christian armor.
“There are some among us who are going to be left behind.” He pauses dramatically to wipe his brow. “Yes, even in this room, there are some who will be left behind—those with insufficient faith—those who have not loved Christ enough to let Him save them.”
A low wail escapes the crowd’s collective lips.
“And they are going to suffer unspeakable things.”
I look around, feel the acid churning in my stomach—the ache of digestion when there is nothing at all to digest.
“It could be your child—or your parent. It could be your aunt or your uncle or a distant cousin. It could be that woman you always see at the supermarket, the one who smiles and says hello and seems like such a kind soul—but she didn’t know Jesus.” He bows his head. “She didn’t know Jesus, and where is she now?”
“In Hell!” someone shouts.
“That’s right, Sister.” He looks up, unbuttons his sport coat, brings his hands together as if in prayer. “That kindly woman you always see at the supermarket is burning in Hell for all eternity.”
I shudder—a full-body hiccup I can’t control; Kristin glances at me and frowns.
“You have been commissioned,” Casey Treat resumes, walking backward toward the altar, arms outstretched. “You have been commissioned to evangelize! What does that mean? To spread the Good News!” He sends his arms Heavenward, and the congregation rises like a wave at a football game. “The blood of every man, woman, and child that you fail to save is on your hands. Do you want to stand before the altar of Christ with sinners’ blood on your hands?”
The room is shaking its collective head. Boys with buzzed hair and black ties are snaking through the aisles, offering plates like flying saucers balanced on their palms. My father has given me a dollar for just this occasion, but when the plate passes by me, I clutch my purse close to my chest. Kristin arches her brows, gives me a nudge, but I have nothing I am willing to hand over.
* * *
“How come we never talk about the Apocalypse?” I demand to know. My mother is primping before her bedroom mirror while my father searches through the closet for his coat.
“What is there to say?” she asks, indifferent to my growing agitation. “We won’t be here when it happens.”
“What if—hypothetically—we were?”
“Julie, you know that’s not going to happen,” my father replies, his voice steady as the operator repeating a number. “We’re a Christian family, and we’ll be with the Lord when the time comes. I don’t see any reason to dwell on all this gloom and doom.”
“But what about the people who aren’t raptured?”—not daring to reveal my fear that I may be one among them.
“Tough shit!” my mother retorts.
“Well, it’s true. Why should I feel sorry for them when they had their whole lives to get with the program?”
“But maybe they didn’t!” I protest. “What about really little kids who can’t talk yet, and animals, and people who don’t speak English so they can’t understand the Good News?”
“If this is what comes from playing with Kristin Anderson,” my father says, folding a clean white handkerchief into his pocket, “then maybe you girls need to take a break from each other.”
“Dad, there are going to be terrible monsters in the End Times! There are going to be plagues and famines and fires raging out of control—and Satan is coming to earth as a dragon with seven heads!” I am about to cry out that I have never seen my guardian angel, not even once (a sure sign of faithlessness), and that I will never dance on my tip-toes in pretty pointe shoes, and that because of this Rapture business, I may never even have a chance to fall in love. Instead, I bite my lip and lean against the doorframe. He hugs me and lays a gentle hand on my head.
“Satan has no power over you as long as you put all your faith in the Lord. And that’s where it is anyway, am I right?”
He looks down at me and wipes the tears from my cheeks. I nod my head, but inside I am quaking with the growing certainty of my unholy demise.
“Linda, she feels hot to me.”
“She’s fine, Bill.”
“No, I think she’s running a little temperature.”
My mother approaches, annoyed with us both, and presses her cold hand to the front of my head. After a moment, her clenched lips loosen, and she takes me back to my bed.
* * *
While I am sick, which is a rare occurrence, I try to calculate the odds of the Rapture happening in my lifetime, the bitter irony of cheating death only to be left behind. But maybe I won’t be, I reason, the thermometer lolling under my tongue. If I believe the Rapture is a real possibility, then doesn’t that constitute some measure of faith in God?
My mother comes to take the thermometer out. She tells me to be still—an impossible imperative—then hands me two chewable, grape-flavored Tylenol and lays a cold compress over my eyes.
How much is enough faith? I wonder, thinking of a track star vaulting over a bar—how, sooner or later, even the best athletes fall back on the mat, chests heaving, legs wobbling beneath them, the bar at last having been raised too far.
As I fall to dreaming, swimming through the dark heat, I pass Kristin in her scuba gear, her long-necked flashlight of perpetual preparation. When I wake, my mouth dry, sticky with saltine paste, the waste of a good, sun-filled afternoon, I attempt my prayer: When is enough enough, God? How much certainty can you expect from me?
* * *
“I don’t understand how you’re allowed to have a birthday party when you’re not allowed to celebrate any of the other holidays.”
Kristin wears a white dress with blue violets sewn into the fabric. Her new year has straightened her further, like an invisible zipper sliding up the spine. While I look on, she brushes her hair about a million times, admires herself in front of the vanity mirror. “Our birthdays are the anniversary of our creation. To celebrate a birthday brings glory to God.”
“Where are your parents?” I ask, suddenly aware of the house in a silent thrall.
“It’s Tuesday.” She points to the clock like Vanna to the wheel. “Four-thirty. Hel-lo. They’re doing the Lord’s work.”
I sigh, unable to hide my disdain. When Mr. and Mrs. Anderson are doing the Lord’s work, we have to stay in Kristin’s room or go to the basement and watch Christian videos with Mark and the other kids. No making noise or playing games or using the main-floor bathroom—the one I like best—with the fluffy carpet and the colored toilet paper.
“They’ll be done in time to make dinner, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Kristin proclaims. “My dad is grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, and my mom is making a macaroni salad.”
“So, what should we do in the meantime?” bored of her primping, her boasts of newly shaved legs.
Now her hair falls around her shoulders, a golden spider web of static cling. “I have some scented stationery,” Kristin says. “Do you want to write our wills?”
Later, in the kitchen, I offer to help Mrs. Anderson slice or peel, secretly hoping to be assigned a more dangerous task—pouring oil into a heated pan or climbing up on a stool to root through the highest cupboards.
“I’ll say one thing, Julie. Your parents have certainly instilled in you a fine set of manners.”
It seems like a compliment, but I sense there is more behind it than simple praise, more behind her colorless eyes than what she is willing to say.
“Tell you what. Take a Ziploc bag and hold it out for me each time I say.”
“Are these party favors?” I ask, watching as she drops a granola bar, a pack of dried fruit, and a York peppermint patty into each translucent sack.
When she doesn’t reply, I rack my brain for an explanation. “Are they for Mr. Anderson when he flies? Kristin says layovers can be long, and he’s bound to get hungry.”
“No, dear,” she says, and I am surprised by the softness of her tone, the replacement of my name with a term of tenderness.
“Well then, are they earthquake kits?” We are each required to keep a sealed bag filled with non-perishable items in our cubby at school. That way, when the Big One hits, we won’t starve to death waiting to be rescued—provided we can make it through the rubble to our food.
Mrs. Anderson is concentrating on her task and seems at first not to hear me. Then, as we are loading the small sacks into a large box with rumpled, cardboard flaps, she answers, “Rapture kits. These are for those not delivered in the Rapture.”
* * *
I, Julie Marie Wade, being of sound mind and body (though having just recovered from a fever), do hereby bequeath all of my valuables to my friend, Kristin Anderson, not to be shared with any of her many siblings, unless they outlive her, in which case Karen can have first dibs…
* * *
We drag the box down to the basement, stuff it under the stairs where my own parents store our Christmas tree and related decorations. Mrs. Anderson writes FOR THE RAPTURE in all caps with a black marker, then stops, then regards me a moment across her smocked shoulder, lips flat as a level on the picture frame of her face.
“Would you like one?” she asks, still holding the masking tape, hesitating before she makes the final seal.
“No thanks,” I decline, though I follow the box with my eyes as she pushes it further and further away, back between the Good Will donations and the surplus hymnals. I make a memory of the spot, press it to the wall of my mind like an old-fashioned photograph plate, the kind that takes a long time to develop. On the little tab beneath the picture frame, I jot the words Just in Case.
Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University and a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. She has received the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry, the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Oscar Wilde Poetry Prize, the Literal Latte Nonfiction Award, the AWP Intro Journals Award for Nonfiction, 2 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes, the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Prize, the American Literary Review Nonfiction Award, and an Al Smith Individual Artist Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council. Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press 2010), which received the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press 2010), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books 2011), and the forthcoming collection of prose-poems, Postage Due (White Pine Press 2013). She lives with her partner Angie Griffin in the Bluegrass State, where she is a doctoral candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the Humanities program at the University of Louisville. Her collaboration narrative/interview was just released from So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. Visit her at www.juliemariewade.com.