Cowboy Church

My left knee bounced up and down. Toes on the ground and heel jiggling. Was the movement becoming automatic and beyond my control? The Sunday school lesson at my grandmother’s Methodist church bored me. The teacher proclaimed, “Animals do not go to heaven.”  She said something to me. I noticed but didn’t hear. My parents showed up after the service and the teacher pulled them aside. I wasn’t out of earshot. I kept my indignation to myself.

We drove a few times a year to visit my grandmother. She ushered my family into her small, two-bedroom apartment through the back door. Her housedress was light green with a busy floral pattern. She bent toward me, preceded by a smoky aroma of Emeraude and Newports. “Give me a kiss!” she implored while shoving her cheek into my face. I held my breath and marveled at the softness of her skin under its fine veil of powder. She promised a surprise for me. “You girls sit here at the table while I talk to your mom and dad. I’ve put out a couple of carrots for you and here are the swords.” She carried a plastic container from the windowsill and placed it on the Formica table. “See how many you can get in there!” I hoped that this wasn’t my surprise.

It was kind of fun to pierce the carrots with colorful cocktail swords. My sister and I kept it up for a few minutes, then ran out of swords. We scooted off our chairs, bouncing into the living room. “Linda Sue, will you promise to put flowers on my grave?” My blood ran cold. I imagined myself in a frilly pastel dress, ankle socks, and church gloves. I carried a bouquet of white flowers. Shadows flitted over the casket, there to bid my grandma farewell. I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I was eight years old and unfamiliar with the tradition of placing flowers on graves. My great grandfather’s funeral the previous year was open casket, but no one made me do anything. Seeing him dead was much less frightening than imagining Grandmother dead.

I blushed and fell silent. My mother admonished me with a raised eyebrow and a hiss. I pointed at my sister, “Yes. Will she have to do it, too?” There was some muttering about the baby sister and how she was too young. I resigned myself to the responsibility. I’d be old enough then to not be afraid. My grandmother smiled and asked me if I was ready for my surprise. I nodded my head and hoped I wouldn’t have to do anything else on her grave. “Tomorrow morning we are going to get up early and go to the Cowboy Church at the drive-in movie theater. You’ll like that, won’t you? The cowboys will be riding horses and you can put the offering in the hat when they come around.” I heard the word “horses.”

The raspy voice of Cowboy God did not impress me any more than the Sunday school teacher’s admonitions had. Granted, words had to battle to emerge from the drive-in theater speaker like truths from a casket. The speaker clung to the rolled-down window of Grandma’s new Chevy Nova. When the horses came around I strained to see. The haunches of the yellow horse paused by the driver’s window. Dad placed the offering in the hat because I couldn’t reach it from the backseat. The inverted Stetson obscured my view of the faces of both horse and rider.

“Oh, that was special!” I thought Grandma’s exclamation was unwarranted. “We’re going to go to Furr’s now.” Furr’s was a buffet-style restaurant. I was a picky eater. There was a lot to choose from, but not much choice. In a whisper, I asked Mom if Furr’s was a restaurant for old people.

Mother helped my sister and me through the buffet line. When we got to the end, the checkout lady said, “That little girl’s eyes are bigger than her stomach.” I looked at the sad green beans on my tray. Mother replied, “It’s okay, she can eat what she wants.” My little sister’s tray was laden with fried chicken and desserts, like a barnyard church potluck. I realized the lady wasn’t talking about me. I watched the red Jell-O on my tray quiver. I wondered if it had taken on a life of its own.

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