The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins