All The Nonsense of Suffering
Bethany Peters will tell you about the time her daughter crawled into the sewer pipe at the creek in the backyard and came out the other end at the waste treatment plant speaking in tongues. Her daughter was three years old at the time, and Bethany says she has dyslexia. Bethany Peters will tell you about how Christ came into her own life at a time when she considered prostitution. No one asks how she would have made such a living in Pickerel Lake, Michigan population 2,572 where downtown is an abandoned strip mall hosting weekend flea markets where you can get last year’s calendars at half-price (people collect them for the pictures).
Bethany Peters will tell you about her first encounter with the Devil, at Morris Street near the P.O., where the stoplight was a stop sign in 1985. She had her groceries in a paper bag, and a carrot stick in her mouth, when the Devil (disguised as a house painter in overalls, with a dirty clergy collar) jaywalked from across the street and said, “Ma'am, can I borrow your spirit for a minute?” Bethany Peters was as big a woman then as she is now. She put her weight forward and said, “No sir, I believe I am redeemed by the blood of the Lamb,” and she dropped her groceries and slugged him in the gut. No one witnessed the event, but Mr. Terry (who’d driven in from the farm for a quick shave at Sam’s) later found Bethany flat on her back on the crabgrass by the P.O. Her groceries were all over the street: a can of evaporated milk, six packs of Nilla Wafers, and a jar of sweet pickled ginger for her daughter, who was six at the time. Bethany gave her testimony the next Sunday, and pastor Bob made her a church deaconess.
She will tell you she always gets what she prays for. She will tell you she is part of the royal priesthood of God. She will tell you about the time she came home from church and found a wolverine in her kitchen, eating the bread biscuits she’d made for the Christian woman’s quilting bee. She’ll tell you how she got him out: by shaking her ceramic chimes from the patio, singing the hymn, “Christ is made the sure foundation,” which scared him out the front door, since Bethany Peters is tone deaf.
She will tell you, without flinching, how her husband died; she isn’t squeamish. She doesn’t mind blood, other people’s or her own. She will tell you he was found crushed by a snow plow, having passed out in a drift near the Dutch Oven Bakery. His body was found in three equal parts. He was a contractor and a gambler and an alcoholic and sometimes he hit her in the face with his Sunday slippers. Bethany told everyone this in open confession at church many years later. “It really didn’t hurt at all,” she wept over the microphone. “But my spirit has never recovered.” The other members crept around her, laying on their hands, praying for emotional healing, reconciliation, and for Christ’s quick return, which will destroy all the nonsense of suffering, once and for all. Bethany cried and cried. She will tell you she never cried so much as then.
She will tell you she is dieting, even though she eats what she likes. She is a big woman. Her body is as wide as a water heater, and her breasts hang like long water balloons to her middle, concealed in a variety of calico dresses made at Joanne’s Fabrics. She will tell you she has a younger brother named Guy, a small man with a handsome space between his two front teeth who is not a believer. He has been married three times, and now he runs a liquor store in the U.P. Bethany will tell you that we are all held accountable for what we know, and that God is merciful. She will not say much more about it, though.
What she will tell you is this: her daughter got accepted to a state university after three years of community college. She is studying criminal law, although Bethany was hoping for something less serious: Home Economics, Physical Therapy, or religious studies. She will tell you that her daughter is the apple of her eye, as Elijah was the Apple of God’s eye. She will tell you she is glad she didn’t have boys, because boys grow up hating their mothers until they are adults, and then they overcompensate for the rest of their lives, calling long distance on weekends, or sending gift packets and coupons for hair conditioners in the mail. Bethany Peters will tell you she would not trade motherhood for all the hair conditioners of the world.
Bethany will tell you about Joshua and the battle of Jericho; she will tell you Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary Magdalene; she will tell you the genealogy of Saul the Benjamite, from memory; she will tell you that Moses never said to Pharaoh, “Let my People go,” because Aaron did. She will tell you that Jesus’ last words were not “It is finished,” but “I finally did it!” She will tell you he died of dehydration, the most natural consequence. “Drink eight glasses a day,” she will tell anyone she meets at the supermarket. She will tell you about the abundance of mercy or the peace that passeth understanding. She will tell you about justification through grace and the atonement of sins. She will tell you she is happy to see you, and God bless.
What Bethany Peters won’t tell you is that her mother was Jewish and her father was a soda salesman, with a head as bald as a baseball who spent his afternoons at the off-track betting depot in Muskegon. She won’t tell you about the time when she was four and her Uncle Joe took off his clothes in front of her when getting ready for the bath. She won’t tell you about the time in seventh grade when she broke Melissa Bricker’s nose with her physics notebook. She won’t tell you she didn’t start her period until she was sixteen. She never told anyone about that. She never told anyone about the time she stole money from her husband to buy a wrist watch with a compass, because she’d always wanted to know where she was going. She won’t tell you she hates black people, at least not in so many words. She won’t tell you she prefers women in dresses and men in hats, or that she threw a fit the day they let the girls wear slacks in church. She won’t tell you she is diabetic, and that she takes medication before bed. She won’t tell you she has a gun under the floorboards in the pantry. She won’t tell you about her miscarriage when she was twenty-seven or that she gave it a name: Lily Rose Peters. She will never tell you about the time she caught her daughter heavy petting on the back porch with Jeremy Keyswater. She will never tell you about the time she hit a doe with her husband’s Jeep, and backed up over it to put it out of it’s misery. She will never tell you that she hasn’t shaved her legs in sixteen years. She will never tell you how she lost her front teeth when her husband jabbed her with his elbow. She will never tell you she is sorry but she doesn’t have time to talk right now. And she will never tell you about the two German Shepherds she keeps in the cellar, tied to the furnace with rope, their mouths shut with duct tape, or how she feeds them Oleson’s day old steaks and tomato juice, hitting them with kindling or snapping their sides with a hot wet rag, nourishing their tempers, and in the end times, when the world is one big riot, she will loose them on the antichrist, once and for all.
Sufjan Stevens (New School Literary Journal)
A Michigan native currently living in New York City, Sufjan Stevens is a graphic designer, an amateur seamster, a crocheter of ski caps, and a writer of short fiction. He has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School. Having once studied oboe technique and reed making at Interlochen Academy of Music, Sufjan has since given up the double reed for the electric guitar.