HomeSouthern VoiceTellin’ Tales

Tellin’ Tales

by Bill Smith

Standing at the altar with his newly baptized friends, Bobby Cole smiled and shouted at the congregation, “Hallelujah … Last night I was abducted by aliens … praise the Lord!” His Mama shook her head and stared at the floor, his Daddy muttered “Jesus” under his breath, and his sister, a high school student, glowed.

He wanted to testify because his story was good, but Preacher Twitty interrupted, smiled, raised his hands to the ceiling, and prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for bringing all these lovely children into the church.” Mrs. Humphrey, the choir director, hovered around the children and shooed them down the aisle to meet their families in the fellowship hall.

At dinner, Mama laid a platter of fried chicken on the table, “Did you feel the presence of Jesus?” His sister poured sweet tea over ice cubes in tall glasses and smiled. He wasn’t sure what he felt, but he remembered the air conditioner in church was louder and colder than usual which could have been caused by Jesus or an invisible angel or an alien. He thought about how hard it is to tell the difference as Daddy blessed the meal before them. 

Several forkfuls into the meal, Daddy told his favorite church story about his baptism when the preacher got electrocuted. He squinted at a blank spot on the wall above Mama’s head. He folded his arms, put his calloused hands under his armpits, closed his eyes, and began:

“In those days we walked down to the river and Revern’ Bob dunked each of us under the water. It meant something ’cause Revern’ Bob was from three generations of preachers, and when he touched you, you felt the strength of Jesus washing your soul. You knew you was a new person.”

Bobby asked, “Did it feel cold like … ” but his sister kicked his foot and shook her head. Mama wrinkled her eyebrows at him.

Daddy rocked back and forth, rubbing his face with his right hand like he was brushing away cobwebs. He crammed most of a biscuit into his mouth, put his hand back under his armpit, swallowed, and rambled on.

“Revern’ Bob was a good man. The Lord used him as a lesson for us all. I was the youngest and the last baptized. His hands were wet with holy water when he grabbed the microphone. He shouted “Hallelujah” as sparks crackled and flew from the electric cord. He grabbed at me, but I moved back just in time.

“Miz Fannie Mae Sadler, the choir leader, flicked her cane and knocked the drop cord loose from the outlet on a wooden post at the water’s edge. Revern’ Bob twitched in the mud at my feet, and I saw smoke rising from the tufts of hair in his ears. Praise the Lord, it was the damnedest thing I ever seen.”

Bobby perked up. He had never heard about the tufts of hair in Rev Bob’s ears before, so he wondered about alien ears.

Daddy took another bite of a biscuit and continued, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. Who woulda figured He’d use Revern’ Bob to put the ever-present fear of death in us all? I swigger. The Lord is great, and we can all learn from Revern’ Bob. That’s a fact.” Everybody around the table nodded in agreement.

Bobby ate in silence, listening to Daddy, who ate big forkfuls of sweet potato pie and revved up for another memory.

“That funeral was the biggest thing to ever happen here in Onslow County.” His hand brushed across his face as he rocked back and forth.

“The Humphrey boys said the church paid cash money for his casket—knowing them it was probably too much—but Revern’ Bob deserved a good burial. His relatives drove all the way up from Charleston. The church was so packed the choir had to give up their folding chairs and stand for the service.”

Daddy rocked faster and squinted as if closing his eyes put him at the funeral. “I’ve always felt real special, being the last soul, he saved.” He swallowed the last bite of pie and continued, “The ladies’ prayer circle laid out a spread of food that would have pleased Revern’ Bob—hushpuppies, Brunswick stew, chow-chow, boiled peanuts, deviled eggs, ambrosia, chess pie, syllabub—all his favorites. I swear you could almost see him drooling in his coffin. Even though it poured rain, it was a glorious day. The good Lord sent healing rain to off Revern’ Bob in a shower of holy water.”

Bobby wondered if aliens liked deviled eggs and if his Mama’s eggs would be too big for their mouths, and if they didn’t have teeth, they could eat syllabub. He noticed Daddy’s weaving made him look like the toy bird he won at the county fair last year. When you put a glass of water in front of it and wet its beak, it bobbed and dipped into the water even after you got tired of looking at it. He realized the toy bird, Daddy, and aliens were all bald. He was thinking about alien food and being bald when Mama started clearing the table.

Daddy still hadn’t buried Revern’ Bob. Bobby bit his lower lip to keep quiet. Daddy swirled tea around in his mouth, opened his eyes a little wider, swallowed, and said, “The Lord surely made a comfortable room in his mansion for Revern’ Bob. That man was a giving man, a preacher of preachers. He was a Christian soldier and he held the banner high.”

Daddy leaned forward, put his elbows on the table, rested his chin in his right hand, and looked at each of them one at a time. As his eyes watered, he spoke in a low voice: “Your Gra’mama knew someone was going die that day because a bird flew into her picture window the evening before. She told me, ‘Sugar, somebody’s gonna die tomorrow, so wear your new necktie in case it happens at your ceremony.’” There was never a lull in Daddy’s talk, so Bobby wrinkled his brow and gave up trying to say anything, but he listened to how Daddy talked and for details he had never heard.

On Monday morning Mrs. Thomason told her fifth graders “a new Christian is in our class.” Bobby looked around and blushed when he realized she meant him. Mrs. Thomason asked him “to share his rapture with the class.”

Bobby stood by his desk, relieved she wanted to hear him tell the class about his aliens because he added some new details from an X-Files DVD he saw one night at Uncle Bud’s trailer. He wiped his face with his hand and described the light from the ship Mulder had seen. Words flowed from him like soda from a knocked-over Pepsi bottle, but Mrs. Thomason cut him off. “Well, that’s nice, Bobby,” she said. “Children, it’s time to decorate the bulletin board for the Halloween Festival. Take out your scissors and one piece of construction paper from your desks. I’ll show you how to make ghosts and goblins.”

Bobby liked making ghosts. He followed Mrs. Thomason’s directions to the letter. He was surprised ghosts and aliens looked alike, only a snip or two of the scissors separated them, so he opted for an alien instead of a ghost. In show-and-tell, Mrs. Thomason praised everybody’s ghost but his and Sammy Nader’s which looked like a fat whale. She asked him, “Why is your ghost gray? And why does it have big black eyes when everybody else’s has hollow white eyes?”

Bobby explained, “When I was cutting out my ghost, I noticed it’s hard to tell the difference between ghost and alien heads. I thought ghosts and aliens might be related … ”

Smiling as she interrupted him, Mrs. Thomason said, “Class, it’d be nice to take an early recess on account of the pleasant weather.” On the way out the door, Sammy whispered, “I bet ghosts and aliens are like … cousins.”

Sammy Nader, who lit altar candles so he could snuff them out at the end of church service, not only liked his story but also believed it and wanted to hear more about it every time they saw each other. Sammy liked Bobby telling him about aliens because he was always adding new details. He was following his Daddy’s advice, “Listen, look, and learn.”

Standing in the church parking lot after church the next Sunday, Sammy pressed Bobby for details about his aliens. As Bobby spoke, Sammy, hands by his side, interrupted, “Me and Daddy saw a UFO last summer when we were gigging for flounders near the Sneads Ferry bridge. A big white light zipped across the sky faster than a sparrow chasing a seagull. Then it bounced on the waterway out in the ocean, went up in the air, and then ‘Bam’ … it disappeared. My Daddy said, ‘Don’t tell anybody about. It’ll be our secret.’”

Bobby stood open-mouthed, thought about the seagull, sparrow, and bouncing light, and wondered how he could use them in his alien tale: “How big was the light?” Sammy couldn’t remember, but recalled his Daddy whispered, “We gotta leave before them aliens come back and kidnap us.”

Sammy’s father honked and motioned him to get in the car. As he slid into the front seat, Sammy put his fingertip under his nose to signal “Shhh.”

On the Sunday dinner before Thanksgiving, Uncle Bud told stories about the boys at the county garage while everyone passed around a big bowl of coleslaw and a plate of hushpuppies. Bobby smiled because he liked how Uncle Bud changed stories a little bit every time he told them. As his uncle talked, Bobby pushed baked beans with a hushpuppy from one side of his plate to the other, sipped his sweet tea, and listened to his uncle’s story about the corn snake in the grease pit. Bobby thought about his aliens and wondered if they should be a family or just three buddies like the boys at the county garage who put snakes in each other’s toolboxes.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as Sammy waited for his Daddy in the church parking lot, Bobby pressed him for more details about his real alien experience. Sammy told him, “I don’t remember much ‘cause I was scared. I wish you could talk to my Daddy ‘cause he can really tell a story.”

Sammy asked, “Tell me more about your flying saucer.”

Bobby whispered, “The saucer was real big and had flashing lights like the window display at Sabiston Brothers’ Hardware last Christmas when Santa rode by on the fire truck.”

“Which part of the display?” Sammy asked.

Closing his eyes, Bobby put his hands under his armpits and whispered, describing the color of the lights framing the snow-covered plastic town in the window.

He and Sammy drew the display in the parking lot gravel. Bobby grinned as he compared the blinding light of a spaceship to the running lights on Santa’s sleigh. All these new details sounded good, so he was disappointed when Sammy’s father honked at the curb and motioned for him to get in their car.

The next weekend at Sunday school Mr. Beasley told them the story of Jacob’s ladder, and taught them the words to “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” He handed out construction paper and scissors and told one half of the class to make a ladder and the other half to make some paper kids to climb the ladder to Heaven.

Sammy, who smelled like corn flakes, told Bobby, “We could make a ghost like the one you made for the Halloween Festival.”

Nodding his head, Bobby cut out a ghost and Sammy painted it gray.

After class, Mr. Beasley looked worried and said he wanted them to talk to Preacher Twitty before the church service. Sammy couldn’t because he had to light the candles on the altar, so he could put them out later. Revern’ Twitty was putting on his black robe when Mr. Beasley pushed Bobby into the study. He heard the door handle click behind him, knew he was alone, and stood in silence waiting for the preacher to talk.

“How are you on this our Lord’s fine day?” Bobby mumbled, “Fine.”

Revern’ Twitty posed before a mirror, adjusted his robe, smoothed down his half dozen brown hairs, and talked non-stop like Daddy, “Don’t you just love Thanksgiving? When I was a boy about your age, I looked forward to our family reunion and all the food my Mama Ouida cooked. After dinner, my Uncle Gilmer—God bless him—climbed our oldest pecan tree, and jumped up and down on the biggest branches and shook pecans loose. We had so much fun picking up those pecans and ripping off their husks. I still see faded dark green stains on my fingers when the light’s right. Papa Joe spread the nuts on the concrete slab where he worked on cars, and we cracked them open with ball-peen hammers. My sisters picked the meat out with little forks, and Mama Ouida baked pecan pies for dessert that night. My mouth waters when I think of those pies.

“The Lord made us a wonderful world, didn’t he?” Revern’ Twitty said, tilting his head and pointing his chin to his right.

Bobby opened his mouth to answer, but Revern’ Twitty rolled on, “One-time Papa Joe—he’s with the Lord, too—wanted a piece of her pecan pie real bad after dinner. Mama Ouida told him there wasn’t any because ants had got to it. He loved her pie so much he cut a piece crawling with ants, put it on a plate, walked into a closet, shut the door, and ate it in the dark.

He said, “You can’t be bothered by what you don’t see.” Lordy, that was more than thirty years ago. I’ll bet you’ll have some stories you’ll look forward to telling someday.”

The preacher cracked open the side door to the sanctuary and peeped at the congregation. “My heavens … the choir is entering. We have just enough time for you to get to your pew and me to say a prayer before I meet the congregation. Bobby, it’s been good swapping stories with you. You come back anytime you want to talk to me, you hear?”

Outside in the hallway, Bobby sighed and wondered why Brother Beasley wanted him to talk with the preacher. He knew his parents would be proud he talked with the Revern’. He could tell them about gathering pecans if Revern’ Twitty didn’t mention it in his sermon.

By mid-December Bobby had figured out his story and was ready to tell it. He hadn’t seen little gray aliens, but in the past few months he had almost talked himself into believing he had just like Sammy Nader did. Besides, he knew a good story when he heard one, even if he made it up.

On the last day before Christmas vacation, when Mrs. Thomason asked them all—even Sollie Feldstein—to make a Christmas card for their families, Bobby thought he’d take the opportunity to tell his story. On the front of his card, he drew three aliens with a bright white circle in the background sky above them. Below them, he sketched a boy, his big sister, and their Mama and Daddy. He showed his card to Sammy Nader, who approved and asked if he could color the aliens.

Before lunch, the children taped their cards on the wall so everyone could look at them later that night at the Christmas pageant. Before class ended and the Christmas vacation began, Mrs. Thomason invited the children to describe their cards and read the greetings inside them. Jenny Kellum volunteered first, stood beside her card, talked about the cradle and manger and read the words she had written inside.

Although Bobby waved his hand high in the air, Mrs. Thomason didn’t pick him. She picked Sammy Nader, Sollie Feldstein, and even Ruthie Peters, who wiped snot on her book bag. When there was no one else left, Mrs. Thomason looked at the clock over the door, noticed there were only five minutes before school ended, sighed, and motioned for Bobby to stand up by his card and explain it to the class.

As he stood up, it occurred to him to take a new approach. He looked at Mrs. Thomason, smiled, and asked, “I forgot to draw beards on the three wise men. Can I do it now?” Mrs. Thomason shrieked, “Yes, yes,” as she nodded and jumped up from her chair like a bug had bit her big behind. With his back to the room, Bobby carefully drew a beard on each alien.

Then he turned to face the class, raised his head to the right, put his hands under his armpits, looked at Sammy, and mouthed, “Watch this.” But before he could utter another word, Mrs. Thomason praised his card and backed up to the blackboard, leaning against the chalk tray. She smiled at the class and put her right hand over her heart. Standing right beside him, she bent forward. Bobby noticed the whole class leaned forward in her direction, except for Ruthie Peters who was wiping snot on her socks. Mrs. Thomason raised her fingers, and patted her chest as she explained again the story of the three wise men and the star of Bethlehem, “Every time I see the Star of Bethlehem like this one,” she said pointing to the white circle on Bobby’s card, “I think back to a Christmas long ago when my own children were about your age. My sweet daughter Rachel was in the Christmas pageant and my precious son Nathan was a wise man, just like one of these,” she said, pointing to Bobby’s bearded aliens.

She continued, “Little Nathan forgot his lines, and bless his heart he made up a speech right off the bat to fill the silence. Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be and bless this food to stove by thee.’ Well, the whole congregation laughed and smiled, and the spirit of the season settled on us all like a new snow.” She dabbed her eyes with a tissue and smiled as the bell for Christmas vacation rang.

Bobby stood quietly beside his card. He felt empty like the time he saw his favorite marble circle down the toilet in the boys’ restroom. He heard Sammy Nader sing “Jingle Bells” and the other kids laugh and scream as they left the room. Even Ruthie Peters seemed happy. Mrs. Thomason stood by the door telling each child, “I wish you the Holiest and Merriest of Christmases.”

As he walked down the bright noisy hallway into his Christmas vacation, Bobby thought about Mrs. Thomason’s wishes. He wished he had left beards off his aliens. On his way to the bus, he wondered about the difference between making up details and telling what actually happened. He wondered who taught Mrs. Thomason to lean forward and pat her heart while she talked. He was still thinking about it when the school bus pulled up and Mr. Aman opened the door.

Bobby plunked down on the only open seat beside Bonnie Johnson, his older cousin, an 8th grader. She smiled and asked, “Are you going to the pageant tonight, Bobby?” He nodded.

“I’d like to hear about your card. I can’t go to the pageant ‘cause we’re picking up my brother at the Raleigh airport.”

He patted his heart, leaned towards her, tucked his left hand under his armpit, and described his three bearded wise men. 

Bonnie smiled at him, “Thank you … I don’t feel so bad about not going now.”

As the bus rumbled across the parking lot, Bobby saw Sammy Nader sitting on his bike with red ribbons dangling from its handlebars. He had crossed his arms and put his hands under his armpits. Pointing his chin towards the sky, Sammy leaned forward into Solly Feldstein and Ruthie Peters, who stood close to him with wide eyes and open mouths.

Bobby smiled, glanced at Bonnie, sat back in his seat, “Were you picking up your brother from Raleigh when I got baptized?” She nodded, “Yes.”

He swallowed, put his left hand back under his armpit, patted his heart with his right hand, and whispered, “The night before my baptism, I got abducted by space aliens.”


Bill Smith is an Emeritus Professor of English at Western Washington University and a community volunteer that writes grants for local nonprofits, focusing on adult literacy, organic farming and “dirt therapy” for veterans. He was born and raised on the coast of North Carolina and later lived and taught in Boone, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, before moving West. Now he is feverishly writing fiction, hoping to produce a collection of coastal Carolina short stories before he becomes organic soil. 

Approaching Christma
Holidays With the He