We're All Sinners
Shasta Grant

Crystal was born again at a county fair in New Hampshire when she was ten and baptized in the pastor's pool a year later. Tom had paid $50 for a booth at the fair and unloaded boxes of tracts from his pick-up truck, along with a plastic folding table and metal folding chairs. A banner hung from the top of the tent: Jesus Loves You! He called out to people passing by, arms full of cheap, oversized stuffed animals that would litter the town dump in six months time. He invited people to sit down, held their sticky cotton-candy hands, and prayed. Most people walked by, avoiding eye contact. A few shouted obscenities or silently flipped the bird.

"Are you a sinner?" he asked nobody in particular. Crystal, whose mother was collecting tickets at the teacups ride, stopped when she heard the question. Are you a sinner? Crystal had just been on the teacups five times in a row; the ground was not quite level surface after all that spinning.

Crystal had never been to church before. Most Sunday mornings her mother, Brenda, was either not home yet or not awake. Saturday nights meant parties and men. They lived in a doublewide mobile home at Eagle's Nest Estates, on the north side of town. Crystal's father was long-gone but he still sent his $200 court-ordered child support every month. The return address fluctuated: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida. Brenda had been a beauty when she was a teenager; she was even voted Homecoming Queen her senior year. Every October, the King and Queen led the homecoming parade, riding in the first float, waving to the crowd and tossing candy to the children. The parade started in the parking lot of the printing company, wound down Main Street, looped around the town common, and ended at the high school.

"Are you going to heaven when you die?" Tom asked, looking at Crystal.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw a group of teenage boys walking by, loudly sipping on giant-sized soft drinks.

Tom motioned her over to the booth. He asked her name and invited her to sit down in one of the metal chairs. He asked her again if she was going to heaven.

"I don't know," she said. "How can I tell?"

"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?"

Crystal shook her head. He told her if she was saved, she would be born again into the family of God and she would have two families: her family here on earth and her spiritual family in heaven. He asked her if she was a sinner. She thought of all the empty beer cans that littered the kitchen counter, the joints she found in the ashtray by her mother's mattress, the men pulling on their jeans as they walked past her bedroom door, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing. But she wasn't like that. Behind her back, grown-ups whispered to each other that she was turning out to be a good girl, despite her circumstances.

Crystal said no, she was not a sinner. Tom smiled and took her hand in his.

"We're all sinners," he said. "We're all children of God." Had she ever lied, he asked? Had she ever stolen anything? Been jealous of someone else? Had she ever dishonored her parents?

Crystal could hear the music from the teacups behind her. It came to a stop as the ride ended. "I'm going to barf!" someone shouted. She thought she better get back to her mother and pulled her hand away from his. She stood, kicking up a small puff of dirt from the ground.

"I gotta go."

"Wait!" Tom said. He pressed a small booklet into her hands. "Don't forget: Jesus loves you!"

"What are you doing over there?" her mother asked.

"I don't know. I thought they had free candy."

Crystal got back in line for the teacups. She spun around and around until the fair was a giant blur. Then she walked around the animal pavilions. She stared at the 318-pound pig with nine suckling babies, a tenth one trying to push his way in, unsuccessfully. She wandered through the poultry barn, where she held a tiny chick. She fed handfuls of pellets to the goats. She bought an Italian sausage for dinner and ate by herself, while the sky dimmed. When the lights flickered on throughout the fairgrounds, she went back to the teacups and her mother. She got the car keys and sat in the backseat, reading the book Tom had given her and tracing the cross on the cover with her fingers, until it was time to go home.

The next day Brenda swapped places with the ticket collector at the carousel, because Crystal was tired of riding the teacups. When Brenda wasn't looking, Crystal wandered off and loitered near Tom's booth, pretending she was interested in the beeswax soaps and lotions at the Bee's Knees table. She wondered if he'd call out to her again and he did.

"Hey, Crystal!"

She squeezed some beeswax lotion onto her hands from a sample tube and went over to see Tom. Today he really did have candy. Had he heard her? Or had God spoken to him?

"Crystal! I'm so glad you came back. I wanted to apologize for yesterday. I think I might have frightened you."

She told Tom that she wasn't scared; she just wasn't sure how a kid could be a sinner. He said everyone was a sinner from the moment they were born.

"Even babies?" she asked.

"Yes, even babies," he said.

She wanted to tell him that she'd thought about his questions all night and was worried now, both for herself and her mother. She had lied before, of course. And she cheated last week on a math test, looking at her neighbor's paper.

"I want to go to heaven," she said. "I want to be saved."

"Good," he said. "Let's start there."

Shasta Grant has work in Corium, WhiskeyPaper, The Journal Compressed Creative Arts and others.

Detail of painting on main page: from "The Order of Birds," by Georges Braque (1953).

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