It’s just a skillet. That’s what’s pictured on the book’s cover—a black iron skillet atop a leggy burner rack, and underneath, a ring of peacock-blue flame. I’m off to the side of the stove, out of the camera’s sights, dribbling water onto the pan’s surface to create the cloud of steam. In the book, you see—near the very end of Sticking Points—Anna recalls the time she encountered two small eyeballs and a pair of pronged feet on her kitchen sink, and tiny pieces of meat sputtering and crackling on the stove. Anna and Wade’s 10-year-old, forbidden a BB gun, had downed the bird with his homemade slingshot. Wade had warned Todd that anything he hit would have to be eaten. Wade never expected he’d fell a mockingbird.
I don’t think anybody (the precious few) who read Sticking Points ever figured out that photograph—its connection to the cooked bird and Anna’s festering questions about the burnt-sacrifice rules in the Old Testament.
Those were heady months, leading up to publication. Soon, there sat my book on the major booksellers’ websites in all its blazing glory. But then an acquaintance—she’d purchased a copy before I had a chance to send her one, because she was impatient to see what I’d written about her—called me. “Who’s going to read this?” she shrieked. “Nobody cares about this religion stuff! I couldn’t even follow!”
When I encountered her later at somebody’s house and the book was mentioned, I fled upstairs to the bathroom to cry.
As the months crept along it became evident that I’d failed, profoundly. I chewed myself into mealy little bits. The grief was insidious. It flattened me.
At least I made it through my reading at a Mennonite writers conference. I didn’t dissolve right up there in front of everybody. The scene I’d selected was Anna’s run-in with Justine and Frank Becker one hectic Saturday morning at Conoy Evangelical Brethren, Anna and Wade’s church.
Down in the church kitchen, folks are cutting up tomatoes and onions, with meats and cheeses at the ready—the proceeds from the youth group’s hoagie sale will go to a mission school in Honduras. Peg, one of the youth-group sponsors, is wishing the church could do more, maybe send the youth group on a mission trip. A trip? thinks Anna. Passports? Fly everybody to Tegucigalpa?
Peg has a brochure from a service-adventure organization. There’s a photo of skin-and-bones children lined up to receive their handout food. Another photo shows service-adventure teens painting a dingy concrete-block classroom. And in several pictures a tent revival is in progress. “Without supplying for the souls, too,” the caption reads, “the world will be lost.” Something about the grammar seems shifty but Anna can’t quite put a finger on it.
“The need in these places, wow,” says Justine. “The spiritual need.”
“What would it cost to go there, though?” says Anna. “Tons, I guess.”
“So?” rejoins Frank who has lumbered over to the luncheon meats in Styrofoam trays on the far counter, glimmering under plastic wrap. “What’s the meaning of sacrifice, anyway?” Anna turns to see him weasel forth a salami slice. With a few practiced flicks of the wrist he rolls up the meat to pop it between his wet teeth.
“That’s the big thing, I know,” says Peg. “Really, though. No sacrifice, no gain. Can’t we pare back expenditures? Give up some nonnecessities?”
So, Frank, give up your 10-packs of Swiss Miss cakes, thinks Anna. Sacrifice your Doritos and Cheez-Its and Pringles. Your Mounds bars. Your peanut M&Ms. The pasty pink salami meat is studded with peppercorns and pallid snips of fat, and with every swallow his gullet wobbles. “Yes well,” she says, “about sacrifice, maybe it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.”
Wade is still studying Peg’s brochure. “This Go Teams organization,” says Wade. They’re a pretty fundamentalist bunch.”
“Oh, you bet,” says Peg. “The youth, when they fan out on their community-service projects, find opportunities to lead people to the Lord, one on one. And everybody’s welcomed to the evening services where many more get converted. That’s the main thrust—bringing folks to salvation.”
“I led my friend to Christ,” says Justine. “In fourth grade, out on the jungle gym.”
“You’re kidding,” says Anna. “Did—did you—did you have her pray the sinner’s prayer, or what?”
“She repeated something after me. I explained that her sins were washed in the blood. Jesus died, Jesus paid her ransom.”
“You said that?”
“What was I supposed to say?”
“Bulls? Goats and bulls? You told her that Jesus, in dying, took their stead?”
“No, I didn’t say that. Do you expect me to completely remember the train of conversation?”
“But why would’ve God exacted a ransom?”
Justine’s auburn-fringed head snaps around on her neck. “Why are you grilling me?”
Anna blurts out something about the hideous Old Testament sacrifice stipulations. Frank tells her to calm down. He wants to take another look at the brochure but he can’t find anything to wipe his greasy hands on, and Wade offers to hunt down some paper towels. Anna clanks down her knife to go chasing after him, and the two of them meet up in the shadowy broom closet.
“Wade!” she gasps. “I couldn’t help it! I’m such an imbecile.”
“What’d you do wrong? Speak your mind?”
“Anna, we’re with friends. What are friends for? We don’t all have to see eye to eye.”
“Relax.” He looms close and chucks her chin. “I’ll give you anything that foreign-missions outfit is raking it in.”
“But you don’t know.”
“And you’re no imbecile—you’ve a nimble wit. You’re funny.”
Did she hear right? Nimble wit? Not thimble?
Later that day somebody from the audience nabbed me, a man with thick black glasses. He’d enjoyed my piece, he said, because his church, too, was making plans for a mission trip.
“And you’re sure that’s okay?” I asked, smiling thinly.
“Oh yeah,” he replied. “I’m the pastor.”
Were things that muddled?
All this time later, I’m not sorry my plot ploys weren’t clonk-on-the-head obvious. I don’t rue my deviousness in starting out Sticking Points with harebrained, obsessive Anna thinking she’s dug herself out of a pit of unbelief, only to tumble in again, inextricably. But, oh my, the parts I wish I could change. I cringe, paging through. I can understand why my sacrificial offering—the welter of words I laboriously cooked up and laid before the world—got passed by.
It’s not the same as what happened with Cain’s offering, exactly. For one thing, that was vegetables.
In that sad story in the Old Testament about the two brothers bringing their sacrifices, Cain just went out and collected a couple of butternut squashes without inspecting the undersides for slugs or rot. Or he dug up potatoes disfigured by scab, or he picked too-long-gone green beans, the pods knobby and bent from arthritis. He didn’t try hard enough. No wonder it provoked God. But suppose Cain had taken those squashes he’d grown and boiled them, scooped out the flesh, added salt and puddles of brown butter, and put his luscious casserole to sizzling on the altar? Or suppose he’d made a potpie, one laden with chunks of the squash, and bean pieces (cooked first to a succulent tenderness), and cubes of potato, too, lovingly trimmed? Can’t you see him loading the crust full, topping it with another crust and crimping the rim like an expert, brushing on a beaten-egg glaze, cutting slits, and settling the pan amid the coals until the whole thing turned golden brown and some spillage ran jazzily down the sides? Umm.
Did his offering have to be meat? If he possessed only fields, no cattle? Well, so, a bird. Cain could’ve added morsels of killed pigeon, or raven. Please, not mockingbird.
The oozing-out part—that would’ve only made his potpie more tempting.
Drippy pies are the best, in my view. In that way, I’m like Anna. Near the book’s close, she remembers how her berry pies used to give her fits. Fruit fillings tend to bubble over, near the end of the baking time—the juices leak through the topping crumbs and slop up the rims—and she always had to apologize for her gunked-up crimps. A dinner guest, though, set her straight. Anna was pulling from the cupboard her huckleberry pie with jellied bruise-blue blobs hanging off the sides, and moaning over the sloppy look of it, when Birdie broke in. “Homemade! Now that is what I call a treat to the eyes! I cannot for the life of me see why anybody pays for those perfect cardboard store pies.”
“Oh, but—” Quickly, Anna recuperated. She scooted her dessert across the table, with the pan turned so that Birdie could cut herself a piece from the worst-gobbed part.
A sticky, mucked-up edging around a crust means somebody took the pains, concocted her offering herself. It’s nothing to wail about. But mucky writing is a whole different story. My pages I proffered—the drizzles of savoriness I toiled over—didn’t appeal. The stickler theological questions never reached an audience, made people squirm at the notion of a vengeful God.
The uselessness—that’s the thing. Telling you—if you, too, have despaired over your own useless deeds—is about all I can do, if it helps any. That, and I can always go bake something.
Shirley Kurtz lives near Broadway, Virginia.
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