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Baptism by Fire - Rebekah Scott

by Rebekah Scott

Harold stood in the aisle, a can in each hand. Should he go with the industrial strength, or the regular formula? The ingredients were similar, but the phrase “industrial strength” implied that it might be too strong for him. He couldn’t decide.

“Can I help you?”

Harold jumped, almost dropping both cans. He turned to see a younger woman looking up at him with wide brown eyes.

“Well,” Harold felt his face flush. “I’m just trying to decide here what strength to buy.”

The woman glanced at the cans, then scanned the shelf where the rest sat in a neat, gleaming row. “What is it you’re gluing?”

“Uh….” He had no intention of telling her the truth. “It’s for my son. He’s got an art project.”

“Oh, well, if it’s just for paper or cardboard, I’d go with the regular strength.” The woman gestured to the can in his right hand.

“Actually,” Harold cleared his throat, “his project might get wet.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I mean, it − it needs to be waterproof. The glue.”

“Oh,” the woman frowned. “In that case, you might want to try this,” and she reached up for a third kind of spray adhesive. “Here, this stuff should do the trick.”

Harold took the can from her and tilted his head back to study the label through the bottom half of his bifocals. “Water resistant,” he murmured.

“Just be careful,” the woman said, replacing Harold’s other cans on the shelf. “I think that kind might stain fabric.”

“Thanks,” he said. He wasn’t worried about that. As long as it didn’t stain skin, he’d be fine.

That night, Harold stood in his bathroom armed with his can of glue and a comb. The harsh bulb over the sink reflected light off the top of his smooth, pink head. Harold grimaced as he read the warnings printed on the back of the can. Use in a well-ventilated area. Allow glue to dry for one hour before introducing to water. Flammable.

He sighed as he flipped on the bathroom intake fan. Then he took a deep breath and held it, spraying the glue in a circular motion on his head. The glue was cold and wet, sending a chill scuttling down his back. With his comb, he carefully pulled what few strands of hair he had remaining across his scalp, feeling them stick to his head with a tenacity he never experienced with his usual hairspray.

Once he was satisfied that the hairs were perfectly positioned, he gave his entire head another blast from the can. Then he set the egg timer resting on the counter to sixty minutes and left the bathroom quickly, expelling his breath in a whoosh. Nothing to do now but wait.

Harold had recently taken a teaching job at a Christian school in Georgia. The school was affiliated with a soaring Baptist church – the kind that televised its sermons, the pastor wearing more spackle on his face than the cracked walls in Harold’s kitchen – and Harold was required to be baptized. The pastor had explained it to him already. It would be quick and painless, and the pastor would even hold Harold’s nose for him so he wouldn’t feel the burn of chlorinated water in his sinuses. Harold felt grateful for that, as he’d always had sinus problems.

What he was worried about was his hair. Harold wasn’t a vain person, and now that he was eligible for senior citizen discounts at restaurants, he knew his looks were fading. Thick bifocals, sagging jowls, teeth that were yellowed from years of coffee – he accepted all these things. But ever since he’d begun losing his hair, he had been cripplingly self-conscious about it. Because he stood in front of a classroom all day, Harold was particularly sensitive about how he looked from behind.

But now he was going to be in front of an entire congregation. More eyes would be on him tomorrow than had ever been in his life. And he was going underwater. Ever since he’d learned that he was to be completely submersed, Harold had been having nightmares about surfacing from the baptism, his matted comb-over clinging to the side of his face like a frightened rat.

Which is why he’d gone to the store for glue. He paced his small townhouse, popping in and out of rooms and flipping distractedly through his lesson plans, waiting for his egg timer to ring. He didn’t want anything to ruin his chance of making a good impression on his church. This baptism was his opportunity to start over. He hadn’t always followed the straight and narrow; his twenties and thirties were fraught with questionable deeds and sketchy characters. After his mother had passed away, Harold decided it was time to grow up and start over. He’d finished college, rebuilt his shattered credit, and made himself somewhat presentable to the opposite sex. Maybe someday he would break down and buy a hairpiece, but for now, his comb-over was sufficient.

Harold returned to the bathroom and eyed the egg timer. Only two minutes to go. He plugged the sink drain and turned on the tap. Time to simulate the baptism. As he waited for the sink to fill, he studied his hair in the mirror. It didn’t look bad. Maybe a bit helmet-like, but the casual observer wouldn’t notice it was glued in place. He was glad he’d gone with the waterproof glue and not the industrial strength after all; he might have had a hard time prying his hair from his head once the baptism was over.

He wrapped a towel around his neck and shut off the faucet, listening to the final drip-drip. Then came the ding from the timer. He took one last look in the mirror, drew a breath and plunged headfirst into the sink.

He emerged a second later and wiped his eyes, then leaned forward to examine the results. His hair was still in place, and to his surprise, he saw that droplets of water hadn’t even penetrated the layer of glue. They beaded on his glistening hair, and slid toward his forehead as if his comb-over were a freshly waxed car.

“Well, how about that?” Harold murmured, smiling at himself in the mirror. He was ready for tomorrow.

Harold woke up early the next morning. The baptism was scheduled to take place right after Bible class, and he wanted to make sure the glue had plenty of time to dry. He went through the same ritual of spraying the glue on his head, then combing his hair over and spraying again. He coughed and tried not to inhale, but he could still taste the noxious fumes. It reminded him of the model airplanes he used to build as a child. He shook his head, sheepish that his child self would be laughing at his adult self, were they ever to meet. Enjoy your hair while you’ve still got it, kid, he thought, replacing the cap on his can of glue.

Harold huddled in the very corner of the room during Bible class, paranoid that people would be able to smell his glue if he got too close. After class ended, he hurried past the coffee-hour table, forgoing the donuts and fellowship in order to get to the baptism tank before someone noticed the smell. He found Pastor Roberts behind the pulpit and shook his hand.

“Good morning, Brother Harold,” the pastor said. “Fine morning to be baptized.”

“Yes it is.”

The pastor grinned. “Miss Gale will show you where you can change, and then you can come back here and we’ll start.”

Harold blinked. “Change? I thought I wouldn’t change until after I got baptized.”

Pastor Roberts laughed. “You don’t want to get your clothes all wet, now, do you? We have a special suit you can wear, down in the basement. Miss Gale will show you.”

As if out of nowhere, a large, heavily perfumed woman appeared beside Harold.

“Good morning, Brother Harold,” she said cheerfully. “Follow me.”

Confused, Harold did as he was told.

Miss Gale took Harold down the plush carpeted steps to the church basement, which was busier and brighter than a casino. Harold nodded as he passed various church-goers streaming toward the stairs. He barely heard the greetings aimed his way. All he could do was wonder what sort of suit the pastor had in mind for him to wear.

“Here we are,” Miss Gale said, bringing Harold into what looked like gym locker room. “I wasn’t sure if you were a large or an extra large, so you can take your pick.”

Harold eyed the wall where two suits hung. They were maroon bodysuits, short-sleeved and knee-length and couldn’t have looked more unflattering.

“You can change here and leave your clothes in one of these lockers, where you’ll find a towel and a pair of shower slippers. I’ll wait outside to bring you back up.”

Miss Gale closed the door, leaving Harold to stare at the bodysuits as a new kind of panic seized him. He’d completely forgotten about his glued hair. Now he realized that he was about to be a hundred times more embarrassed.

When he was twenty-three, Harold had wanted to do something daring and controversial, so he’d gotten two tattoos – one on each leg. They were ugly and faded now, but at the time, they’d been glorious, colorful pieces of art he had loved to show off. He was fifty-six now, and his legs hadn’t seen the sun in years. They were pale, hairless, and from knee to ankle each one sported a picture of a naked lady, perky-breasted and big-bottomed, winking out at a world that hadn’t seen them since the early eighties.

Harold looked at the clock over the door. The service would begin in ten minutes. He looked wildly around the room, hoping an idea, a way around the potential humiliation, would pop into his mind. He imagined the horrified faces of the proper Baptist wives, the uncomfortable coughs of God-fearing Baptist husbands, when they all saw the vulgar outlines of voluptuous women on each of Harold’s white legs.

Then Harold remembered the television cameras mounted throughout the sanctuary, and his heart sank a few more degrees. His baptism would be broadcast to hundreds, perhaps thousands of homes. His scandalous legs would fill the living rooms of countless old ladies and homebound church members. He would never live down the shame.

What am I going to do? Harold went to the body suits and pulled the extra large one from its hanger. He held it up to himself in front of the full-length mirror and saw that the legs reached just below his kneecaps. Not even the naked ladies’ heads would be covered.

Maybe he could leave his socks on. Sure they had holes in the toes, but if he pulled them all the way up, they might hide the tattoos. Hastily Harold hiked up his right pant leg and tugged at his sock, pulling it as high as he could. Looking in the mirror, he saw that the sock only reached to just below the woman’s breasts, almost accentuating them.

“Dammit,” Harold hissed.

“Brother Harold?” Miss Gale knocked on the door. “You about ready?”

Harold looked around the room, wondering if he could squeeze through the high, narrow windows that peeked into the flowerbeds outside. He was about to climb up on a chair and find out when suddenly an idea came.

He went to the door and found Miss Gale waiting in the empty hallway.

“Brother Harold, you need to change,” she said, looking at her watch. “Service starts in three minutes.”

“Miss Gale, I have a problem, and I think you’re the only one who can help me.” Harold eyed Miss Gale’s tan legs, encased in opaque pantyhose he was certain would fit him.

Miss Gale followed Harold’s gaze.

“I need your…your pantyhose,” Harold said.

“Beg your pardon?”

Harold did his best to explain, opting to keep his tattoos hidden. He didn’t want to offend her.

“I understand,” Miss Gale said when he’d finished, “but I...I can’t show my legs in public, either.”

Harold nodded, though he was crushed.

“I have awful varicose veins,” she continued. “And I haven’t shaved in weeks. I always wear pantyhose, even with shorts.”

“I see.”

They both stood for a minute, even as the opening music was piped in through the speakers that lined the basement ceiling. Time was running out.

“Okay, fine,” Miss Gale said suddenly, and stepped out of her beige high heels. “Get back in there and start changing. I’ll hand them to you.”

Harold ducked back in the locker room without a word. He was too uneasy about the entire situation to even thank her. Within minutes he was dressed in the pantyhose, body suit, and shower shoes, the naked ladies only vague shadows beneath the tinted nylon. From a distance, they were invisible.

With seconds to spare, Harold and Miss Gale made it behind the pulpit, where the baptism tank sat below them at the bottom of four rubber-lined steps. Four more steps sat opposite them – the ones Pastor Roberts would descend. A thin screen separated Harold and Miss Gale from the hundreds of people seated in pews. Harold removed his glasses and placed them on a ledge above the stairs.

“I’m going to hide out in the ladies’ room until church is over,” Miss Gale whispered. “I’ll be able to hear the sermon from in there. And congratulations.” She squeezed his arm and left in a rose-scented cloud.

Harold realized that he hadn’t even noticed her legs. He wondered if they were as bad as she thought. He was certainly uncomfortable in her pantyhose, which had still been warm when he’d wriggled into them. Her legs must be pretty unsightly if she wore these things in the summertime.

He thought of her as the music ended and the pastor welcomed the congregation. She had a pretty face, and a sweet smell. He wondered how many other women would have relinquished their pantyhose to a veritable stranger. He thought of her smile as Pastor Roberts asked everyone to turn to the next hymn, signaling to Harold to descend the baptism steps and meet him in the water. He did so, remembering the bounce of her curls and the swish of her round hips beneath her skirt. And as Pastor Roberts recited the baptism scripture, Harold thought of Miss Gale hiding out in the ladies’ room, embarrassed of her legs, and he smiled. Pastor Roberts held his nose and laid him backward into the chilly water; Harold resurfaced with his hair intact, his tattoos disguised and his soul washed clean. He was reborn.