That old-time religion

Nervous thoughts in a town of 80 churches.

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I wanted a dust storm. When I arrived in Portales, New Mexico, my friend Stefan said it was too late in the year. He said dust storms throw red in the air and there’s no horizon. I wanted the soil to blow and cover everything with blush like it could rouge its way into your heart — like an old woman in too much makeup, trying hard to convince herself she’s beautiful.

We drove down I-70 through town, crossing streets with names like Third and Avenue B. The soil hid underneath the rocks of a front yard or caked the trunk nuts of a quad cab. The scene was crooked trampoline, dog chained to a bumper, a tree without leaves and its branches lilting, wishing there were rain.

This wasn’t the place God forgot. It was the place he left alone.

For a population of roughly 13,000, there were some 80 churches. When it came to religion, Portales was straight Calvary Baptist sprawled on a stone lot. Other churches shied away, more shed than building, Christmas lights, almost always green, strung over the door.

Stefan said people come to Portales because they have to. I was there for work and, at first, the town looked like it wanted to say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” But it offered no apologies. Apparently, the sign for Friday Night Midget Wrestling at the Dawg House (down the street from yet another church) was normal. The place looking like it could be a strip club, but the paint too peeled off the sign to tell, sat right next to Allsup’s gas station — just another spot.

The furthest I’d been into the southwest before this was Archer City, Texas, where Larry McMurtry wrote the novel The Last Picture Show and where Peter Bogdanovich filmed a young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd for the movie version. I joked that the slow smoked brisket that tasted like a slaughtered cow brought out the Delilah in me. I looked for cowboys, did my best to two-step — nothing delicate about it.

And just like in Archer City, the friendliness of the people was somewhat graceful, reminding me of my own church days when we let the visitors serve themselves first at potluck: “Thank you for coming. Please, help yourself.” Now I haven’t been in a church in years. Having them everywhere made me nervous as hell.

Nervous enough to think things even a lapsed Christian shouldn’t think, thoughts in that little-kid-defiant-I-could-totally-have-Tourette’s internalized monologue. These crackers could taste better if they were the body of something. Every word in this sermon is Lot’s Wife. Lick me. Grape juice ain’t wine. Mary Magdalene quit your whining and tell Jesus you want it.

I was baptized twice and I swear each time I wanted to spit water at the preacher’s face.

I hadn’t said a word out loud, but still wondered if the guy walking toward me heard anything. To wonder is hardly faith. And my wordless outburst was less than nine days wonder, lasting about as long as Stefan said the church marquee reading “Mitt Romney: Our Last Hope” lasted on election night.

I said hi to the man, his spurs jangling like change in a tithe envelope passed to the collection plate. He grinned but said nothing back. When a breeze kicked up, I swore, somewhere beneath the sound of tires on gravel, something whispered, “Bless us, oh Lord, to these thy gifts.” But thoughts aren’t much more than a reflection. And I couldn’t see any water close enough for a revival.

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