Several years ago I participated in a cultural exchange with teenagers outside of Paris. I went to live with a family there for two weeks, and when I returned, a French kid lived with my family for two weeks. The host families picked up all the French kids from a local high school, and as one of the host families were backing out of the parking lot, something went wrong with their car and the accelerator got stuck. They sped in reverse through the parking lot basically out of control. No one was hurt, but it was pretty scary. “Welcome to America! We drive like crap here!”
Anyway, apparently this was not a unique event. I read about another car having a similar Christine moment and wrote this short story.
Emmitt loosened his tie and pulled at his shirt collar. All around him, he saw people fanning themselves with church bulletins or wiping their glistening foreheads with handkerchiefs. This summer was unusually, and unbearably, hot. And of course, the 19th century church didn’t have central air conditioning. There were window units in the offices and the rooms used for Sunday school, but it would have been impossible or impractical to cool the nave.
Why couldn’t June be happy living the life of a heathen, Emmitt asked himself, only half jokingly. This had been her family church. The church she was baptized in. The church they were married in. And the church Emmitt was baptized in as an adult, since the reverend here had questioned the validity of Emmitt’s earlier baptism, which occurred in the church down the road some thirty odd years prior, in a building since torn down to make way for a new, air conditioned church to keep its congregants praying in comfort. Emmitt wished he was there. Actually, he wished he was at home with a cold beer and a television. But if he had to be in church, he wished he could be in one that had an inside temperature of under one hundred degrees. He didn’t fear the fires of hell. It was hotter in church.
He looked at June and the make-up melting off her face. But underneath it all, a smile, gazing up at Reverend Thomas as if he himself were the son of God. Emmitt wanted to close his eyes, but he knew he would get a sharp poke in the ribs if, when, he started snoring.
June hadn’t been like this with the last pastor, Reverend James, the one who married them and insisted on Emmitt’s second baptism, because one hadn’t been enough. But June said that Reverend Thomas reawakened the Christian in her. He inspired her to bake pies for church picnics and make needlepoint crosses to sell at fundraisers. He inspired her to sing in the choir and volunteer for different causes—coat drives for the homeless, food drives for the hungry, and helping at the Sunday school for kids whose parents wouldn’t let them play on the weekends. Emmitt had no idea that his church was so active, nor that there was so much suffering in the world.
“Keep an eye on her.” The thought came to him unbidden, as though whispered in his ear. Emmitt stopped himself from looking around to see if someone next to him had, in fact, said it to him. Instead, he stared ahead at Reverend Thomas.
“Who was he?” Reverend Thomas asked dramatically. “We all know it takes two.”
Every head in the nave bobbed up and down in assent, privy to some joke or knowledge Emmitt himself was ignorant of.
“Was it you? Was it me? Was it all of us? And what did he do? Adultery is more than a sin of the body.” He dropped his voice. “It is a sin of the heart and eyes. Just as Eve’s lust when she saw the apple led to the original sin.”
Reverend Thomas’s eyes swept the audience, all looking up at him enraptured. His eyes lingered on June. Or did Emmitt imagine it? Did he imagine June’s lips moving so slightly, as if mouthing something to him?
“Her lover,” the voice in his head said again.
This time, Emmitt looked around for the unknown speaker, if any. He wanted to be inconspicuous, but with every head uniformly pointing forward, he failed.
“What is it, Emmitt?” June asked in an angry whisper, not turning her head, looking at him only through the corner of her narrowed eyes.
“Nothing. I thought I heard,” Emmitt’s voice trailed off. Thought he heard what, exactly?
“Reverend Thomas is giving an excellent sermon about the sin of wandering eyes,” she continued to hiss, “and here you are committing it.”
“Who was her lover?” Reverend Thomas continued. “Does it matter? We all bear that sin. We all bear the original sin. But does being born a sin excuse us from further sin? No more than the boy born into a home of abuse is excused from committing abuse onto his own family when he becomes a man. We are born imperfect, but that is not a license to act it.” Reverend Thomas shook his head to emphasize his point.
Emmitt finally closed his eyes and lost himself in the heat.
He was at home, lying on the sofa with his bloodhound Riley at his feet. June was in the kitchen, humming a song she had been rehearsing at choir practice. The smell of baking apples infused the hot air.
“Junie,” Emmitt called as he got up. “Junie, is that apple pie I smell?”
She didn’t hear him and continued humming.
“June?” he asked again as he came to the kitchen entrance.
She was wearing her blue apron, the one with the yellow flowers and bumble bees. The one with the pink frills around the edges. The one with the dark brown stain down the front from the first time they tried to barbeque. The one she refused to throw away no matter how ratty it got. She was wearing that and nothing else.
“Junie…I…” Emmitt stammered.
June bent over to remove the pie from the oven.
“Is this pie for me?” Emmitt asked. He tried not to stare at the folds between her legs.
She straightened up suddenly. “Emmitt,” she gasped. She looked guiltily at the steaming pie in her hands. “Pay attention!”
Emmitt felt something sharp between his ribs. “Really, Emmitt!” June scolded. “Do you have to fall asleep in church every Sunday?”
He shook his head groggily. “Is the sermon over? Was I snoring?”
“Yes and yes!” June hissed. “Go get the car,” she ordered. “I’ve got to speak to Reverend Thomas about the church picnic. He hasn’t told me how many people are coming, so I don’t know how many pies to bake.”
Emmitt had already turned his back and was headed down the aisle and out the door, but the word “pie” made him start and begin to remember the dream. She hasn’t baked a pie for me in years, Emmitt thought sadly. Throughout their courtship, she had baked him every sort of pie he could imagine. Shepherds’ pies for dinner, followed by pecan pie for dessert. Or chicken pot pie with blueberry pie. Homemade pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving with pumpkins from her father’s farm. All with flakey, buttery crust that she had lovingly made from scratch. He had imagined live would be a parade of endless pastries, sweet and savory. He was wrong.
He left the church, shaking hands with Dr. and Mrs. Thorne, “wasn’t it a lovely sermon”ing with old Mrs. Gatewood and her spinster daughter. In the dusty parking lot, he walked slowly to his Oldsmobile, put the key in the door deliberately, with so much effort and thought, trying to use every part of his mind to perform this one task so he wouldn’t have room in his head to think about anything else. But he still saw them. June and Reverend Thomas. Talking, laughing. Her fingers on his arm. Her tossing her hair. Him smiling.
Emmitt shook his head and the images faded.
“Impossible,” the voice came again.
But Emmitt wasn’t so sure.
He got in the car and turned on the air conditioner. Sweet relief. In a few moments now, he would be able to relax in his cool home with a glass of beer and Riley by his feet. And June in the kitchen. Humming and baking a pie. Baking a pie that was not for him.
He checked his rearview mirror for safety, preparing to back out of his parking space. It was clear, and he backed out slowly, thinking of his dog and his beer until June and Reverend Thomas came out from the church’s great wooden doors and appeared in his mirror.
Emmitt shook his head, as though it was something in his eyes or hovering over his face that made him see, or think he saw, Revered Thomas’s hand on his wife’s ass.
Together, they walked down the church steps, down the steps newlyweds walk down in a storm of rice, away from the crowd, talking and laughing, moving closer to Emmitt’s car. Her dainty fingers on his arm or tossing her hair. Reverend Thomas smiled, showing all his whitened teeth.
Emmitt’s foot touched the accelerator, and it fell to the floor of his Oldsmobile. Around him, people screamed.
“The car’s out of control!”
June and Reverend Thomas continued smiling and laughing until they heard the screams and saw the car come barreling towards them.