BY JIM BUTLER
Even while he was attacking his friend Walter Bob Feston, practically accusing him of being possessed by the Devil, Jackie Barron knew that he was out of control, sounding like a revival preacher he once heard, calling down hellfire and damnation. It was not like him.
Jackie went to church, of course. Going to church and loving Jesus was taken for granted in Cherokee, Tennessee; it was like eating supper, or loving your mother. Being a good person just naturally meant going to Sunday School in the church basement at nine o’clock on Sunday morning, then going upstairs for the sermon at ten o’clock, and—this was mostly women—going to Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night.
Jackie did all that, but he sure never went around talking about God and Jesus all the time – or any of the time.
He didn’t have a clear picture of Heaven—angels and harps and clouds didn’t really sound like all that much fun—but he had a clear picture of Hell in his mind. Brother Jennings preached about Hell a lot, and the way he described it—just as clear as if he’d been there—it was all horrible fires that burned your feet, and having sores all over your face, and everybody screaming “I’m sorry!” after it was already too late. Jackie knew he would do pretty near anything not to go there.
Still, that didn’t really explain why Jesus and the Devil and everything just seemed to take him over that day at Walter Bob’s house. He’d gone there to trade comic books, the way he always did. He had read his new Captain Marvel and Submariner and The Torch enough times, and he knew Walter Bob would have the new Superman, and Plastic Man, and Wonder Woman—who was darn good for a girl, although Jackie wouldn’t ever want anybody to see him buying one.
When they finished, Walter Bob didn’t want Jackie to leave. Jackie knew that was because Walter Bob didn’t have too many friends—maybe not any others. He was funny-looking and he was the only kid in sixth grade—maybe the only kid in town —who wore glasses, and the other kids made fun of him.
Jackie thought he was okay, and sometimes they played checkers together. The truth was, Jackie kinda liked being somebody’s only friend, and he liked it that Walter Bob looked up to him—the way Jackie looked up to Eddie Garrett, who was popular and tough and already doing stuff with girls.
“Wait a minute,” Walter Bob said. “Don’t go yet. I heard a real good joke from my cousin and I’ll tell it to you. You want to hear it?”
“Okay,” Jackie said. ” Go ahead.”
Walter Bob, very excited, snickered through his nose and said, “It’s really a riddle, and this is what it is: What was the last thing Jesus said on the cross?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“He said ‘Jesus Christ that stings!'”
Walter Bob laughed his laugh that sounded like hiccupping. Jackie didn’t laugh. He knew you weren’t supposed to make jokes about Jesus. Walter Bob knew it too, because he took one look at the darkness on Jackie’s face and stopped laughing.
“Walter Bob … how could you tell that? You go to church, your mama sings in the choir … and you took the name of the Lord in vain. You made fun of Jesus!”
Jackie could tell by the look on his face that Walter Bob knew he was in trouble, but he was surprised by the panic in his friend’s voice.
“I didn’t think about it that way, Jackie. I’m sorry! I shouldn’t of told that, and I never will again! You’re not mad at me, are you? Don’t be mad.”
Jackie knew what it was like to be afraid of what grownups might say about something, but this was the first time anybody ever looked at him and looked scared.
It felt strange. It didn’t feel bad.
“Will you tell your mother and Brother Jennings or do I have to?” he said. “If you don’t tell – and I don’t, either – it’s the same as lying. I can’t lie for you, Walter Bob – that’s a sin, too. And I don’t know if we can be friends any more. Maybe you should just take back your comic books and give me mine. You said a joke about Our Lord Jesus Christ!”
There were tears behind Walter Bob’s thick glasses now. He got up from the washtub he’d been sitting on and fell on his knees next to Jackie.
“Please don’t be mad at me, Jackie! I’m sorry! I’ll beg God to forgive me; I’ll pray on my knees all night; I’ll put all my allowance money and my lawn-mowing money in the church basket next Sunday. Please don’t tell! I’ll do whatever you think I ought to do. I’m ashamed, Jackie!”
Jackie had never known a feeling like this before. Somebody was begging him for something. Somebody was on his knees to him. He could dispense mercy. Or not.
“Get on up, Walter Bob,” he said finally. “If you beg Jesus to forgive you … and you read a chapter of the Bible every night … I know He will. He’s merciful. I maybe can’t be your friend for a while, but I won’t tell anybody. And you can keep those comic books. You just need to be all clean with God before the next ones come out.”
Walter Bob, his swallowed sobs jerking his chest in tiny spasms, took Jackie’s hand and held it tightly. “I promise!” he said. “I hope I die if I ever say anything like that again. Just please don’t stop being my friend. Please.”
Jackie put his free hand on the other boy’s shoulder and said “He forgave the people who crucified Him; I know He’ll forgive you. And I will, too.”
Jackie took the comic books he had traded his for, and walked slowly home, thinking about what just happened. He was surprised because the more he thought, and remembered, the more he didn’t feel good about it any more. Not at all.