Excerpt from The School of Beauty and Charm

I was born again, for the first time, when I was seven. That year smiley faces covered the country and people ended conversations with “Have a nice day.” In March of that year, a string of tornadoes whipped through Counterpoint, Georgia, lifting pine trees as if they were birthday candles stuck in a cake, then scattering them willy-nilly across the roads. Houses flew to new yards, and cars sailed through the sky like lost kites. Dogs landed in trees; cats went bald, and hamsters left the hemisphere. For the entire month, the wind whirred and sucked with relentless fury. It was obvious, at least to the Baptists, that God had taken out His vacuum cleaner. Clearly, He had found me, Louise.

“Remember who you are,” my father warned me each time I left the house. Not one to leave anything to chance, he would add, “You are a Peppers.” Then he straightened his shoulders and smiled hard, demonstrating the posture of a Peppers facing the world.   

Pepperses are white, not albino or Swedish or anything like that, but regular white. We are also white on the inside. Except for my mother, Florida, who is high-strung, we never raise our voices or blow the horn of an automobile. We have no rhythm, and when we watch others dance, we tend to blush. Spicy food burns our tongues. Every other November, we vote Democrat, which, down South, used to be the same as voting Republican. Florida is always careful not to cancel Henry’s vote by voting for a different candidate. The whole family avoids discussing sex, politics, and religion, favoring the topic of the weather, which averages seventy-five degrees in Counterpoint year-round.   

A Peppers is smarter than the average bear, as Henry likes to point out, with a stern reminder to be grateful because God could just as easily have given our brains to other people. According to Henry, most folks don’t have a lick of sense. He doesn’t know how they survive. There are a few people smarter than us – geniuses, probably, but they don’t have much personality.   

That’s how God made the world; Henry doesn’t know why. God is white, upper-middle class, and Southern Baptist. He has sideburns like Henry, and small, straight, white teeth like everyone else in our family, but whereas the Pepperses are on the short side, God stands about twenty-one feet tall. Inside Bellamy Baptist Church, His head grazes the faux cathedral ceiling, forcing Him to bend down to see His flock up close. He wears square glasses from Revco and one piece of jewelry: a gold Masonic ring. In His back pocket He carries a small black comb and an ironed white handkerchief. He drives a four-door Ford without electric windows.   

God’s son, Jesus Christ, looked like a Hell’s Angel in every picture I ever saw, but Florida explained that these portraits were done long after His death and may not have been accurate. “Jesus lives inside of you,” she said. “Your body is His house.”