HELL or HIGH WATER — For years, I believed that my adolescent scheming and poor behavior had been enough to make a man of the cloth abandon his faith and parishioners to the whim of Satan’s many wolves.

And that I may have even been a member of his pack.

Now, with the gift of time, I’ve realized I may have slightly overestimated my own role in his freakish and rather unfortunate defrocking, however close I came to the situation.

It all started with a pair of black panties.

My brother Greg had been dating a girl from the east side of Modesto by the name of Cathy. Her mother, a short and busy woman with black hair and an inexplicable taste for 1980s pantsuits, was a lifelong member of an east side church.

Greg likely grew tired of refusing requests to attend said church, and eventually offered me up as a substitute. Overweight and over-eager, I leapt at the chance to tour a strange church full of strange people. Anything to break up my rather dull weekends, bookended as they were with Stephen King novels slapped around an unhealthy, repetitious marathon of Nintendo sidescrollers.

I donned my best ill-fitting long-sleeve shirt and favorite husky jeans for the day, dusted off my Mom’s old Bible, and stood outside on the curb for a long 20 minutes in valley heat before Alta — yes, that was really her name — pulled up in her light-colored and slightly rusted Ford Escort.

The ride across town was quiet. I didn’t know what to say, and was pleased she didn’t pester me the typical stupid questions about school and sports and girls and, in that context, God, who I’d pretty much decided was about as real as Snuffaluffagus.

We arrived and found a parking spot in the massive lot, most of which was already full, and together we mounted the wide steps to the church. Two men in matching black vests held the doors for us, smiling all the while. They gave me the creeps, and I looked back to check if Alta felt the need to slip one of them a buck or two for the trouble.

Apparently, she was saving her wad for the bowl.

We sat on the hard wooden pews and awaited the festivities to begin. I thumbed through the dog-eared hymnals arrayed in the slot in front of me, and showed Alta where some jackass had scrawled a mustache on the Virgin Mary, and put a gun belt around puny Joseph’s waist.

She wasn’t amused.

Soon enough the crowd died down, and the lights dimmed as if this were a Las Vegas lounge act. A flurry of women approached the podium, delivered little bits of news on this or that missionary or ailing parishioner, then filed off stage left.

Finally, the big act. Balding and sporting a slight paunch that made him look six months pregnant, the preacher took to the bright lights with barely contained enthusiasm. He wore the large plastic spectacles that were the trend of the day, and waved his hands around. A lot.

There was God in his short speech, certainly. He also mentioned his wife Penelope, and son, Wade, who was serving on a mission in Mosquito Country, as well as several other deacons and church officials who needed the attention.

He mentioned a few things he and God had recently been considering — mostly stuff about church funds I didn’t understand — then he dismissed the children.

Unfamiliar with the schedule, I was busy counting Jesuses — on the wall, in the faux painted glass windows, the busts that lined that back wall, the long-suffering hanging Christ that dangled angrily over the preacher’s head. I’d reached almost 25 messiahs when Alta tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a polite, but non-negotiable shove toward a side door where an extremely plain old woman beckoned for me.

Yellow fingernails, missing tooth, a bun held in place with an unlikely, and flagrantly unchristian, chopstick — I took my time in reaching her, hoping that the years would catch up to her before she could lay claim to my soul. No such luck.

I followed out a side door and up an exterior staircase to a large room that would’ve made a bitchin’ bachelor pad. Posts of Jesus covered every bare inch of wall space, and a group of kids roughly my age sat around a long, wooden table in the center.

I took one long look and decided to find God. Today. Seated second from the end, wearing a dress light on frills but luminescent in class and color, sat Lisa. I don’t remember her last name. Don’t need to.

Eventually, I caught on that the group was memorizing the books of the Old Testament. If I were to come back, I’d be expected to make progress. I knew I’d be back.

But, just to make sure, as the morning session came to a close, Lisa with the long dark and curly hair leaned back in her seat, pushing off with her fancy white pumps and revealing, for the merest of seconds, her underwear.

It sounds creepy now, looking back as an adult. But this brush with chance intimacy, a glimpse into things past and future, electrified me, set loose a storm of hormones and pumped gallons of sweat out my palms and through the soles of my feet.

I was hooked on God, brought in with the bait of young beauty. Attending church was now a sacred service unto the Lord, and Lisa. To make matters much worse, she was nice. She waved as we snuck back amongst our families and friends moments later.

I came back the next week, reeling off the chapters: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Palpatine, Noriega, Mondale and Lucas … .

Yet she, I discovered, was prone to absences — a gymnist, or something, she had to make practice a priority and would only make it to church about once a month.

I found ways to pass the time. The third week, for example, I invited my best friend Gamaliel, who had often invited me to his own family’s rather gothic Catholic services. I thought I’d give him a glimpse into the reformation to see how the other half lived.

Then, the defrocking.

Bored with the Sunday school class, sans Lisa, Gama and I took a long detour during a bathroom break and found ourselves wandering through the empty back halls of the church.

Across from the kitchen, we found an office with the door left wide open. Curious and scheming as always, we entered the plush room and picked various knick knacks up off the shelves, sat on the black leather office chair and spun ourselves around until we had a sort of religious experience ourselves, then filled our pockets with candy from the bowl on the desk.

As we were readying to make our way back to our class, the paunchy preacher entered the room, his face flushed and his comb-over horribly askew.

He took one look at the two of us, chocolate marring our cherubic faces, and started to cry.

Gama first, and then I, emptied our pockets of (almost) every last chewy tid bit in seconds, but the waterworks continued. The pastor, in a fugue of soul-saving enthusiasm, clutched both of our heads to his perfumed chest and sang out a long and exhausting prayer asking the Lord to guide us two young men to a life of righteous pursuits and heavenly intentions.

After several minutes, he leaned back in his chair, exhausted and depleted of all his Holy energy. Gama and I, still wet from his tears, backed out of the room and ran forthwith up the back stairs to the sweltering Sunday school class, where we hastily finished our Jesus worksheets and tried to blend into the puke green wallpaper.

Later, when we joined the congregation for the last of the service, the preacher took to the podium. Sweat stained the armpits of his pressed cotton shirt, and formed nervous droplets on his upper lip.

In a few terse sentences, he explained that sin was a part of living in a fallen world, and that recent events had revealed to him that he himself had become unfit to bear a shepherd’s rod. To the collective gasps of a hundred coiffed women and their dozing husbands, he resigned his position by praying, finally, that God would love and protect us all.

Like a hive suddenly thrown on the Interstate, the congregation splintered into a thousand buzzing little groups who passionately argued back and forth about what it was that drove the preacher over the edge.

At the time, and for years afterward, I was utterly convinced that Gama and I had broken the old preacher’s spirit by stealing his candy. On the drive home, as Alta kept her eyes focused on the road, I ditched the last of the contraband — a Charleston Chew — grateful that I hadn’t eaten the evil, sweet-tasting caramel nugget. I never went back.

I was in my 20s when I finally thought back long enough to realize that the preacher man was almost certainly talking about some personal problem of his own rather than the two candy-thieving boys in his office.

And his tearful speech, still clear as a silver cross in my mind’s eye, reinforces my long-held opinion that religions with any kind of clergy who claim a greater proximity to God than their parishioners, are more about control than about exalting human souls.


James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at faulk.james@yahoo.com