Read an Excerpt
What I Really Think of You
By M. E. Kerr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 M. E. Kerr
All rights reserved.
IF I WAS TO SAY that finally Opal Ringer is going to tell you what she really thinks of you, would you laugh?
You always used to laugh. I never had to do much more than just show up and you'd all start nudging each other with grins starting to tip your mouths.
Now you come to see me, and I pretend I don't particularly see you, but I see every one of your faces.
I know all your faces so well.
I see every face out there but one.
He doesn't come. I think he wants to, but I know he won't.
I start my story with the day I first saw Jesse Pegler. That was when my whole life first started changing.
You were all in my life for longer than I like to remember. You never changed me, just made me dig deeper under my strangeness, made me pull the crazy blanket over my head to look out at your real world through eye slits.
But Jesse Pegler brought me just a little closer to your world.
If any of you say to yourselves, "Did you ever think Opal Ringer would be famous for anything?" remember that I wouldn't have, the way you always thought I wouldn't have, if it hadn't been for a certain Sunday at the end of May.
Woke up to hear my brother, Bobby John, arguing with Daddy over who'd get which bumper sticker.
Daddy already had three of them things plastered on the back of our van, one saying I KNOW THE WAY IF YOU ARE LOST, one saying HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS, one saying COME TO THE HAND FOR A HAND.
The Hand is Daddy's church: The Helping Hand Tabernacle.
Daddy and Bobby John like bumper stickers the way Mum likes Good & Plenty candy and I like nice things. More about me and nice things later, but now is not the time.
I went downstairs in my robe and got a glass of milk out of the refrigerator.
They were all at the table in the kitchen, where these two new bumper stickers were sitting, still in their cellophane wrappers.
Mum said to Bobby John to take the green-and-white one because his car was green.
"The green-and-white one happens to be the one I want," said my daddy. (The green-and-white one said FAMOUS LAST WORDS: DON'T BUG ME ABOUT JESUS.)
Mum said, "I don't even know what it means."
"What'd you buy it for if you don't know what it means, Arnelle?"
"What it means," said Bobby John, "is that some fellow is resisting Jesus. Some fellow is saying, 'Hey, don't bug me about Jesus!' And he's an inch from being saved."
"Oh, I know that," Mum said.
"You just got through saying you didn't," said Daddy.
"Royal," Mum said to him, "take the blue-and-white one. Why won't you just take the blue-and-white one?"
(The blue-and-white one said YOU REALLY DO ONLY GO AROUND IN LIFE ONCE, SO GO WITH JESUS.)
Daddy started talking about how Bobby John was spoiled clear rotten and thought he could get his way in anything. Daddy said a child should be beholden to his father, never mind that Bobby John was nineteen years old.
I gave the cat some of my milk in a saucer on the linoleum floor, and parked myself on the kitchen stool.
Then I started doing it again: Watching everything including me as though I had a spirit in me could leave my body and look down at myself.
Down at The Hand they'd make something out of it if I was to tell them, say I was having an out-of-body experience or some dumb thing.
I looked at the room.
I saw me on the stool first. I was sixteen, and had black hair falling past my shoulders and light-brown eyes. Had the pale face all Ringers have. Look like ghosts. I was famous for not smiling, and more famous for not talking a lot when there was more than one person around. Seems like there always was, so you wouldn't have called me a mouth.
Daddy was the mouth. Well, he had to be, being a preacher. He was a big man but skinny, and his thick black eyebrows met at a point on his nose. He looked fierce, put the fear of God in you. Well, he was supposed to. But Mum said remember to smile, Royal, now you got a nice smile, and the little ones come to services have to see that smile or they're going to cry. You point too much, Mum said, you point when you shout, and those little tykes don't know they didn't do nothing wrong. You scare them, Royal.
I'd never seen Daddy in anything but a white shirt and dark pants, tie sometimes, sometimes not, but he wouldn't put a colored shirt on his back if the Devil was about to eat him.
One thing he liked was nice coat linings. He liked the satiny kind, red, silver, black, gold. When he opened his coat and waved his arms around, you'd see the lining and it was real nice.
Bobby John looked like Daddy, was what you'd call the spitting image. But he was not Daddy and never would be, and that was what made his life hard, I guess. He was supposed to be following in Daddy's footsteps, but it was like an ant trying to put his legs down in elephant tracks.
Bobby John had the same coal-colored, bushy hair, and the same bright-blue eyes, and he was as tall, but give him a sermon to preach and folks found places to scratch, worked their jaws hard to keep from yawning, and took peeks at their wrist-watches. Bobby John knew it, and got worse as he went along. His nerve ran out on him, like a cat running from the fleas on her own back, and all you wanted to say was somebody get that poor boy down from up there. You thought of Bobby John as a boy. We all did.
When we were little, it was always Bobby John who told me stories about the Devil. Anything to do with the Devil got to Bobby John. His very favorite Bible story was about the pigs who committed suicide: At the Sea of Galilee, Jesus met two men whose bodies were filled by devils. The devils were afraid Jesus would get them out, so they asked Jesus to let them go into the bodies of pigs in a nearby herd. Jesus let them do it, but it drove the pigs crazy and they drowned themselves in a lake.
Anytime Bobby John got himself into trouble, he said he knew he was going to, because right before he did he felt something heavy inside him. Said it had to be Satan himself.
Daddy'd tell Bobby John Satan had bigger things up his sleeve than all the dumb little things Bobby John did, but Bobby John stuck to his story.
One thing Bobby John was, was stubborn, and I gave him credit that morning for fighting Daddy. There was no way he was going to get that bumper sticker he wanted, if Daddy didn't want him to have it, but he sat there insisting, while Daddy'd say half the time Bobby John couldn't even get his car to run. Work on getting that car to run, Daddy'd say, never mind what you want the back end to say. If that bumper sticker was on your car, Daddy'd say, half the time no one'd see the thing but the cat out in the backyard.
I loved Bobby John for trying, cringed every time Daddy shamed him by bad-mouthing him and calling him "boy."
Arnelle Watson Ringer, born and raised in the Tennessee mountains, pretty as a picture in her day, but fat and back to not liking to wear shoes if she didn't have to.
She was a secret listener to records of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Crystal Gale, and would any day rather hear Loretta sing "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" than a whole heavenly choir sing "Abide with Me."
She could sing a mean song herself, but since she got so fat wouldn't solo no more, stayed up with the choir. Anyway, I'd have rather caught her voice coming from the bathroom, when she was soaking in the tub, crying out "I Knew You When" like she still weighed 116 pounds and had love problems.
My own voice was real good, too, but the shaking in my knees wouldn't quit and I'd like to faint before I got up in front of anybody.
Mum was the one I told some of my troubles to, when and if I told them at all. She'd put her arms around me after a while and say, "Well now shush. Hush, honey," as though hearing me pained her as much as what I was telling her hurt me. Her green eyes teared and she laughed as though her eyes weren't ever supposed to leak unless she was seeing hungry mouths or twisted bodies. Patted me. Said, "Hush. Shush," waited for me to be finished.
One time when I was real little Mum and I had a talk about bumper stickers and the van. On the sides of the van JESUS IS COMING was written in letters so big you'd thought they were advertising the message to giants. Plus the van was rusting and painted pink, and had a speaker to play recorded hymns over.
Mum said, "What're you, ashamed to go in it?"
"Well, I just feel like everybody's looking."
"We want them to look, honey."
"I know you do. You blast that music so's no one'd have a choice anyhow."
"Do you get teased about it at school? Is that it?"
"I know they talk behind my back."
"What do you think they say? They say we love Jesus."
"That ain't what they say."
"Don't say 'ain't,' honey. I know you get that from me and I apologize. What do you think they say, Opal?"
"Say we're Holy Rollers."
"They don't say we're robbers. They don't say we're adulterers. They don't say we're liars. Now, if they was saying we was robbers, and adulterers and liars, then I'd like to hide my face along with you, but Opal Ringer, what they're saying is we're slain in the spirit!"
"They don't even know what slain in the spirit means!"
"Well, they know we love Jesus."
"They know we got Jesus' name all over our van is what they know, and that's not painted all over their cars."
"You're a preacher's child, Opal Ringer. It has its pain but it has its joy, too. Tell you you'll never find your daddy coming up the front walk with a load on, and right there you're ahead of the crowd."
"Okay," I said. "Forget it."
"Oh hush. Shush. I know. I know." Hugging me hard. "We ain't living our lives for what a bunch of snotty school kids think of us, honey."
"You're telling me we're not," I said.
But right before I met Jesse, I'd about made my peace with being a preacher's child. I'd almost come to not care.
That Sunday morning while I drank my milk on the kitchen stool, and watched my father win the argument over who got the bumper sticker, I was planning what I'd wear to The Hand.
I was accepting that it'd be just another Sunday.
I wasn't looking for anything special out of that May day.
That's when things happen, you know. Things happen when you're not expecting them.
And something else I'm bound to say: While these certain things are just beginning to happen, your dumb mind doesn't even know it right away.
Your dumb mind doesn't even give you any warning that your whole life is about to change.
That's what amazes me.CHAPTER 2
MY NAME IS JESSE PEGLER. The most important thing about me has always been who my father is. There were things I couldn't do because of who my father is, and things I had to do for the same reason.
Before he got on TV, you had to drive to the outskirts of your town to see him, unless you were in the jail or the hospital. Then he'd sometimes come right to your cell or your bed on the ward. But most people had to get on a bus or in a car and go out to where our advance men had pitched our tent with the letters the size of fence posts on both sides proclaiming:
BROTHER PEGLER, EVANGELIST FOR JESUS!
People would be streaming in from all points those Sunday nights, and my brother, Bud, would be warming them up with "The Old Rugged Cross," "God Sent His Son," or "Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee." The Challenge Choir would be backing Bud up, though Bud never needed them for support. Bud never needed help shining: He was a born star.
My mother and I would be in our Sunday best, sitting in the front row, and my father would be out behind the tent pacing and praying in his shirt sleeves until he got the cue from the choir, telling him the tent was filled to overflowing and it was time to put on his jacket and get out there.
The cue was the first chorus of "Farther Along." I always got excited when I heard it, knowing he'd be out any second. I always got goose bumps, knowing he'd be dynamite, blast them sky-high with his preaching.
He did, too. He does.
My father always liked to say he was just a tent preacher. He still said it sometimes, although his tack was changed like his tent.
You might have seen my father on television. He's there in living color every Sunday morning, sandwiched between cartoons and politicians being interviewed by the press.
If you have seen him on TV, you probably haven't forgotten him. How do you forget a minister in blue robes with gold tassels running up a white staircase to a white-and-gold balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean? When he reaches the top, while he catches his breath and holds his hands palms up, eyes squeezed shut, the TV screen explodes in a riot of color and organ chords, as though the picture tube was about to blow, and you see:
IT'S UP TO
YOU! GUY PEGLER GUY PEGLER IT'S UP
YOU you you you you you
guy guy guy guy guy guy
Then my old man turns around, blond hair blowing in the wind, blue eyes sparkling behind big black owl glasses, white teeth flashing his big, broad smile, and his voice booms: "JESUS wants YOU to win! So do I!"
The Challenge Choir comes in at that point chorusing:
"Run, climb, reach for a star!
You make yourself what you are.
Where there's a will, there's a way—
Win one with Jesus today!"
On this particular morning at the end of May, my father began his sermon (he calls them "challenges") with a quote from a poet called Edgar Guest:
"Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That maybe it couldn't, but he would be one
Who wouldn't say no till he's tried."
Seal von Hennig and I were watching the service on the TV in my father's study.
"Do you want a Coke?" I asked her.
"I want my teeth more. You're never going to have your dad's smile if you keep on drinking Coke around the clock."
"Just what I always wanted," I said, "his smile. I could live without looking like either one of them."
I was always being compared to my dad or Bud.
Bud was the whole reason Seal was there that morning. It was the closest she could come to being near him.
My sixteenth birthday was a real event. It was the day Bud ran away. It was also the last time my father ever preached a sermon under the tent, and it was the first time he didn't preach as Brother Pegler. He became Dr. Guy Pegler; the Dr. was an honorary degree from a Bible college.
For a horrible three minutes he dragged me in front of the cameras. He told all of Boob Tube Land I was his youngest son, and then he asked everyone if I wasn't really a chip off the old block, look how good-looking I was. We stood there, the two of us, sandy-haired and blue-eyed and tanned from the hot summer sun.
The entire live audience applauded. There were probably plenty of viewers at home ready to barf, but we only heard from them by mail, long after the moment had passed, and we didn't see all the mail that poured in, anyway.
"Yes, Lord, thank you for this boy! I love him! I love him!" my father shouted out with his arms raised up. "I love him."
No mention of Number One Son, naturally.
That was who my father really loved. And my mother. And Seal.
I guess the thing Seal von Hennig was most known for in Seaville was attending the Seaville High Spring Hop with a snake wrapped around her neck. It was the only time I didn't wish she was my date instead of Bud's. My mother said if there was a stray dog or a lost cat within a five-mile radius of Seaville, Seal'd find it somehow and cart it home.
Seal was at the tail end of a thing with Eddie Eden, whose father was a conservationist and ran an animal preserve. He'd lent her this snake named Passion, and all through the Hop it was hanging down her back, the forked tongue flicking away. Bud just grinned. Nothing ever bothered Bud, not even the fact Eddie had lent her Passion.
It was because of Eddie that Seal became the St. Francis of Seaville High, committed to the care and salvation of all animal life. Her real name was Sally von Hennig, but she got the nickname her freshman year when she was busy taking around petitions to protest the seal hunt off the coast of Labrador. She was after the kids to stop their mothers from buying fur coats, and she organized a picket line in front of Cross Hardware when they stocked traps for raccoons and squirrels.
My father said what Seal did was really commendable, not just because it was humane but because it was unusual for someone as rich and beautiful as Seal to be so altruistic. I wasn't sure how unusual that was, but I did know Seal always got gung ho on any subject that interested the boy she was dating. She was known for that around Seaville.
My father used to tell Bud he chose well, and after Bud left, my father said he hoped Bud realized what he gave up when he told Seal good-bye.
Seal still acted like she hadn't heard Bud right. She was always at our house, and still so taken up with ACE my father was ready to put her on staff. ACE stood for A Challenge Enterprise, our official name.
It was our second summer on TV, our first in The Summer House.
Even though we were almost at the tip of Long Island, on Sunday mornings traffic would pour into Seaville from as far away as New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
The cars in our parking lot were bumper to bumper all the way back by noon, when my father's picture came on the enormous screen across from the balcony where he stood, and his voice thundered across the loudspeakers.
Excerpted from What I Really Think of You by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1982 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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