I’m in a Pentecostal church somewhere in a swampy track of Alabama working as a portrait photographer for a church yearbook company. I drove here from North Dakota and have been eating white cross Benzedrine to stay awake and buzz through the tedium. Today is Saturday and I’m scheduled here through Monday. I find the preacher, a big galoot with rheumy eyes, and he shows me a Sunday school room where I can set up my portable studio. Two chaste young women, Jan and Janice, show up to help me with forms and whatever else I might need. They bring families into my room to be photographed, and after one group leaves I say stupid things like, “Bring in the next victims.”
I arrange families in oval compositions on benches and boxes, standing and sitting. Crying babies and brooding teens, moms and dads grinning like they mean it. I do a moronic patter and tricks with hand puppets for the kids. I have two strobe lights on umbrellas and a boom with a hair-light snoot, another strobe aimed at the canvas background. I’m shooting 12 exposure rolls of color with a twin-lens Mamiya camera. A couple of weeks from now a sales crew will be here with color proofs and special deals on portrait packages. Homogenized happiness and American families on the wall above the fireplace.
During a break the preacher wants to know have I accepted the Lord Savior Jesus Christ into my heart?
“Yeah, sure,” I tell him. “I was baptized when I was a little kid.”
“That’s not the same thing, son. You need to think about the future beyond the life you are living. You need to wash away your sins.”
“Yeah, well. Thanks for your concern.”
Last week my boss told me I need to bring up my sales average; my pictures aren’t all that great and I don’t earn any bonus unless sales go up. He tells me when he was a photographer, before he got promoted, he used to get so worked up by a good Sunday sermon he would volunteer to get re-baptized. Every time he did it, sales went up.
“You got baptized and your sales went up?”
“Each time I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior, even when he was already my savior, my sales doubled.”
“Yeah, well. I could use a bonus.”
I finish today’s scheduled appointments and the sun is low so I go outside and stand in a thicket of weeds to get a good picture of the church building. I go eat a couple of burgers at the local A&W then back to my room. I’m having dirty thoughts about my helpers, Jan and Janice, when everything below my waist starts itching, intensely. I pull down my pants and I find chiggers, an entire population of the little fuckers, like tiny specks of rust with microscopic legs, from my ankles to my pubes, eating me alive. I go out and hop in the car and drive ten miles in both directions looking for a drug store but nothing is open. Back in the room I strip and shower but the chiggers are firmly embedded. I figure I need to kill the parasitic cocksuckers but all I’ve got is a tube of Ben-Gay menthol I use for my sore neck. I squeeze out the tube and rub it in from the waist down. This turns out to be a mistake.
I’m on fire. My dick is so hot and red I could light cigarettes off the tip. I drink most of a pint of scotch and don’t get to sleep until an hour or so before the alarm goes off. It’s time to go to church so I eat a couple of Bennies and take a cold shower. My lower half still itches but the burn has quelled from broil to bake. The blood-sucking mites are gone to the wind and my lower half is dotted with runny pustules. I put on my Sunday suit and tie and when I get to the church the service has already started. The preacher is talking about sin. My camera is out of film but I walk around and take pictures anyway.
It’s baptism Sunday and the preacher calls for those who are seeking salvation. Up front a plexiglass aquarium/baptismal hot tub. Janice, the cuter of my two helpers, takes the call and heads up front. I’m bundled with electric nerve-endings and I’m ready to scratch the itch with a wire brush. I need to laugh and scream and run in circles. The preacher wants to know who else will be saved today, who of us needs to be cleansed of our sins. “I do,” I volunteer loud enough to hear above the ringing in my head.
A church deacon takes me to the dressing room. He gives me a skeptical look, a baggy pair of swim trunks, and a tee shirt. A minute later I’m standing next to the holy bathtub in front of the congregation and suddenly I need to pee. My legs look like festering road kill. The preacher man is wearing waders like he’s going trout fishing. He’s got Janice, who has changed to shorts and a tee shirt, and he dunks her under and he yells nonsense up to the heavens. His hands have full access to Janice and maybe he doesn’t have a boner but I doubt it.
I’m led forward and down some steps into the pool. The preacher man looks at me and down at my legs and steps backward like he’s been hit in the chest. I don’t know if it’s my pocked legs or the warm yellow billows of urine that have taken him aback. He grabs me and yells holy hell in my face and I would start screaming but he dunks me backward and under and all I can do is glub.
A month later my boss calls and tells me I’ve got a big sales bonus coming and it’s all from this church. I tell him praise the lord.