When I was a girl one of the many games my cousins and I played was one I called “worthless sinner.” The competition centered on who among us was the biggest, and therefore most worthless, sinner.
“I stole change out of mama’s pocket book.”
“I drank off half the whiskey in the bottle Uncle Jack keeps in that paper bag in his glove compartment.”
“I trampled Aunt Dot’s tomato plants!”
“I watched cousin Bobbie having sex with her boyfriend on the couch in the middle of the night!”
“I let Billie play with my nipples until he wet himself!”
I suppose the thing was a variation on “poor-mouthing”—competing with statements like “we’re so poor, we can’t afford insoles: we go ’round with our feet in the dirt, but they’re so black they look like the bottoms of shoes.”
Who was poorest, who was baddest, who was going to hell without even a glimpse of the pearly gates? Who, after all, was the most damned? Oh, my cousins and I were pretty sure we were all going to hell. Sanctity was beyond us; sin altogether too tempting—the taste of liquor, the smell of sweat on flushed skin, the giddy exhilaration of shouting “Goddamn!” loud enough for the deacons to hear.
We were Baptists after all, hardshell and stubborn. We knew everybody sinned and fell short of the demands of God. But our religion contributed to our thinking ourselves oddly special. Did Yankees think like that? Did Catholics or Jews?
The preacher shouted our names and raised his Bible in the air to denounce our falling away from righteousness, our mealy-mouthed, warm-spit indulgence in the acts we had been told would darken our souls and lead us up Satan’s dirt road. Dancing, we had been told, was a stratagem of the Devil; rock & roll, the gateway to perdition. But oh, it felt so good to stomp and spin and break a sweat in time to a drumbeat or a steel string guitar. We rocked on our heels and grinned at each other, teeth gleaming with sugar-daddy spit and arrogant ambition. Oh yes, we were going to hell, but hell looked to be a party.
Oh Sin! Oh, the possibilities! If things you might enjoy or things that might make you laugh out loud were all equally outlawed, then what were you to do when the blood pumping through your veins sang wild enough to make you want to jump and shout? You can’t save all that up for Sunday morning. Sometimes it just has to come out. And then where are you? On your knees at the front of the church with your daddy’s hand heavy on your shoulder and your mother’s tears watering the hymnal she is waving in your direction.
There was a kind of glory in that—to feel oneself Jerry Lee Lewis outrageous. To have the whole community look at you with a gimlet eye and a flat angry mouth.
“You’re going right to hell.”
“Uh huh, I probably am.”
We were ashamed of ourselves, but not too much so. Behind the shame was pride. Look what a stone cold sinner I am, or was, or still am. Was that honesty, or bombast?
And we were conditioned to admit our sins, to stand up and witness our worst and most humiliating deeds. To look at our neighbors and see them looking back. There was something about acknowledging one’s sins, saying, “I swear I’ll not do that again” or perversely, “Yes, I will, but I won’t call it sin.”
In the modern world, sin has less resonance. A good therapist can trigger insights that tell you why you sneak into people’s bedrooms and go through their dresser drawers. If it’s a neurosis or an obsession, maybe it’s not a sin at all. Maybe with the right medication or mantra, you might achieve a new non-sinful present. It could be possible—redemption accomplished by self examination and exorcism.
And stories? Stories allow for the most profound exploration of sin: how we come to it, justify it, revel in it, or mourn our abandonment to its implications. You can have your sin and your righteousness. Testify. Preach. Say what happened, or might have happened, or should have happened.
Did I tell you how I got this scar on my left calf? It’s a sin what I can’t bring myself to say, though with a little encouragement, maybe I will. Maybe.
The most dangerous stories are the true ones, the ones we hesitate to tell, the adventures laden with fear or shame or the relentless pull of regret. Some of those are about things that we are secretly deeply proud to have done.
“Yes, I put sugar in her gas tank! Do you know what she did to me?”
“Yes, I set fire to their garden shed!”
“Yes, I slept with her. I slept with her every time I could, and when she let me, I took pictures of her lying there post-orgasmic, limp and sweaty.”
We tell the story and we wait for the frisson that follows on our audience’s open-mouthed awe. We recount acts of self-exaltation or indulgence for which we must invent a justification. We say, “This is what I did. Oh god forgive me, this is what I did.” Then we sweat or grin or stare back fiercely at the audience.
It’s all story.
So what is specifically Southern about sin? Do we do it better, with greater abandon? What crime of region or language marks us unique and original? What can we tell that has not been rendered passive by psychologists or social analysts?
That, you will have to judge from the stories you will find here. I have to say, for a Southern anthology, this one is a little light on gluttony. But all the other biblical reference points are applied. Wrath in its many incarnations sticks out its knotty fists. Lust looms—not just desire, but longing that redefines what the soul reaches for most wildly, carnal pleasure taken without regard to custom or law. And there is Pride, that sense of superiority in the midst of a conviction of one’s pitiful nature. What St Augustine called "the love of one's own excellence" is definitely a Southern affectation. You’ll find it here whenever the voices turn sly. Then there is Vanity, which is never as confident as it pretends, not in the really interesting characters. War has been characterized as the offspring of Pride and Greed—the war between the sexes, the classes, the regions. There’s plenty of that here.
Finally there is Envy and Sloth. Envy loves a good story, the story of how that one got what we should have had. But Sloth follows right behind and is too lazy to say how it all happened. Envy is pain at the good fortune of others, Aristotle is supposed to have said. Sloth comes along and pretends to no such impulse, but truly all Sloth has to boast about is never acting on Envy or Rage or Lust or much of anything. Not much Sloth here.
This is the thing.
Sin smells. Sin smells of sex and sweat and the tang of fruit buried too long in the ground—peaches or muscadines, winey and sharp, drawing flies or yellow jackets. Sin sings. Sin sings like a blues harp or a slide guitar, the notes sharp enough to make your ears burn. Sin dances. Sin dances words across the page, telling all those lies that sound like truths, and disguising terrible truths in a language we want desperately to believe.
Take a deep breath and see if you don’t know what I am talking about.