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Ray held himself still, squeezed between the hard end of the pew and the frumpy sister in a flamboyant hat. She was eyeing him as if he were a thick, juicy steak. The tie was choking him. The thin socks pulled at the hairs on his legs. The hard-soled leather shoes cramped his feet. Not because they were too small, but because he rarely wore them anymore. These days he wore sneakers. He felt out of place. He was only here because it was so important to his mother. Her talk about dying wishes and all had dragged him here. She was only seventy-two -- and a spry seventy-two at that.
He'd grown up in this church. Well, not this church. The old church. The old sanctuary with the creaking fans, the offering table his father had built, and the old, dark pews. He couldn't remember exactly how long it had been since he'd been here. Ten years. Maybe twelve. This was his first time since the new minister had come, with his big ideas about community involvement, business development, a bigger building. Mostly a bigger building.
Ray just didn't understand why this Pastor's Anniversary thing was so important to his mother to drag him here. What did it mean, except one more year in which the congregation hadn't voted the pulpit vacant? Maybe that in itself was worth celebrating. Personally, he thought it was just an excuse to take up another collection.
He put a placid look on his face, as though he were really interested in the announcements about the coming week's events. From his years in the army, he had plenty of experience masking his real feelings. He dutifully put a respectable bill in the offering plate, then handed it to the usher standing beside his pew. Glancing at his watch, he thought, if the service was over by one o'clock, he could still get a little fishing in before sundown.
When the purple-robed choir rose and began swaying in unison -- lean on one foot, tap with the other, lean, tap -- he thought of his mother's misgivings about all the changes in the church, and especially her disgruntled pronouncements about "devil's music." But not even that would make her change her membership to another church. To stop himself from snapping his fingers to the jazzy beat, he consciously opened the program and began reading it. He'd read the program from cover to cover by the time the song ended and the organist segued into a slow medley of old-time hymns.
Then he heard the voice. A voice so low and sultry, he looked up. The choir stood stock-still, all of them posed with their hands clasped together, their lips pursed piously. "I Must Tell Jesus." He followed the voice until he saw her, standing alone at the mike. The light that filtered through the stained glass fell across her face. Her demeanor was one of total reverence. The voice reverberated through him, striking a chord deep inside. Vivid memories of the old church coursed through him -- the old preacher's sermons on the scorching heat of Hell and the gold-paved streets of Heaven, the old ladies who were gone on to Glory now.
In the choirstand, Bobbie felt the Spirit enveloping her, overtaking her, filling all the empty spaces. It no longer mattered to her that this was her first solo. It didn't matter that the favored soprano, Doretha, was cutting her a resentful eye. It didn't matter that, for the Pastor's Anniversary, the sanctuary was full to the brim, even the rarely used balcony. Nothing mattered, except the feeling. Not a feeling exactly. A surrender. "I Must Tell Jesus." She couldn't even hear her own voice. Only the feeling. Guiding her, leading her through the high notes, the low notes. It didn't even feel as if she was singing. More like praying. Just telling it all to the One who could relieve her burdens. Telling Him her concern with Monika's approaching adolescence. Telling Him about the trouble at school. Telling Him how Darlene's problem was weighing her down. It was a wonder that she remembered the words to the song. But why not? She'd been singing it all her life.
Ray stopped in his tracks at the familiar voice and turned to see his diminutive mother through the throng of folk leaving the sanctuary. She wore her usual crisp white usher uniform with the black lace handkerchief in fanned pleats over her heart.
"I'm so glad you came. Wasn't that a fine sermon? Come on, I want you to meet the minister," she said, pulling him through the vestibule.
"Mama, I've got to -- "
"Come on. Help your ol' mama down these stairs now. This won't take but a minute."
Ray knew it was going to take longer than a minute, and that she didn't need any help, but he acquiesced just the same.
Toward the foot of the stairs, he had a view of the entire fellowship hall. The woman was at the table on the far side of the room, dutifully filling little glass cups with pink punch. His mother's voice dragged his attention away to the tall, well-dressed minister.
"Reverend Jackson, this is my son, Raymond. He's retired from the U.S. Army and moved back home," she said, her voice brimming with pride. "He grew up here at Mount Moriah, and he's glad to be back."
"Pleasure to meet you, Raymond," the preacher said in a deep baritone voice. "I'm glad you're going to be a part of our congregation."
"Pleasure to meet you too, Reverend Jackson." Ray knew he was expected to say that he had enjoyed the sermon, and that he looked forward to working in the church, but he wasn't one to lie. He hadn't heard one word of the sermon, and he fully intended this to be his only trip to the church this year. His eye found the woman again and he could still hear her haunting voice. He knew she was a woman of deep feeling, and he wondered how deep.
"Brother Harris," he heard his mother say. "Meet my son, Ray."
The flat tone in her voice caused Ray to pay attention. A stocky man in a one-size-too-small suit had joined them.
"Whazzup?" the man said, raising his chin in greeting and extending his fist for a dap.
Ray knew how to do it, but reserved that for men he cared about or respected. Instead he offered his hand in a formal handshake. He noticed that Reverend Jackson cut the man a quick disapproving glance. "Brother Harris is one of my steadfast Prayer Warriors. My right-hand man."
Ray thought they looked like an unlikely pair. The GQ preacher and the behemoth in the cheap suit who sported a gold tooth that matched his gold earring. Ray just couldn't get used to men wearing earrings. He knew it didn't mean what it used to. Still, there was just something unmanly about it as far as he was concerned.
"Oh, there's Sister Betty. Come on, Ray, I know she'll want to see you. Excuse us, Pastor."
As his mama dragged him around the room, showing him off to the old members, introducing him to the ones who'd joined while he was away, Ray told himself he just wanted to make his mama happy. But he knew better. His real reason for allowing his mother to detain him was to get a closer look at the woman.
"Mama, I'll get you some punch," he said, excusing himself from a conversation about the upcoming Ushers' Banquet. "Can I get you a cup too, Mrs. Long?"
Once he got to the table, he was strangely tongue-tied. He stood at the back of the short line watching her. She moved with an efficient gracefulness, an economy of movement. As she handed him a cup, she looked at him curiously.
"Are you new here?" she asked.
"Yes. I mean, no."
"It has to be one or the other," she said with a smile.
"Not really." It sounded flippant, and he hadn't meant it that way.
He saw the look in her eye that said she thought he was playing a game and that she didn't intend to play.
"I enjoyed your song," he said, making sure that his voice sounded as sincere as he felt.
She looked a little embarrassed. "Thank you."
"I like the old songs."
She nodded with a smile. "Me too. What am I thinking about?" she said, wiping her hands on her apron, then extending one to him. "I'm Barbara Strickland. Most people call me Bobbie."
"Raymond Caldwell." He took her hand in his. "Most people call me Ray."
"Oh, you must be Bessie Caldwell's boy."
"I'm her son," he said with a reproving smile.
"Well, of course. I can see the resemblance. She talks about you all the time."
"Then I'm sure she's told you I won the war single-handedly," he said with a chuckle.
"Seems like she did say something like that."
"Don't pay her any attention. I was just a supply officer."
"I thought you were a general or something like that."
He chuckled again. "Not quite. A lieutenant colonel. I worked my way up. Speaking of Ms. Bragging Bessie, I need another cup of your punch for her."
She reached for another cup, but there were none. "Just a minute. I'll have to go to the kitchen."
As she walked away, he noticed her limp, and the bandage on her foot. He followed her to the kitchen.
"Here, let me," he said, taking the tray of cups from her. "What happened to your foot?"
"Damned drawer. I mean, darned drawer. My kitchen drawer. It sticks and I have to jerk on it. Well, this time I guess I jerked too hard. Jerked the darned thing right out and it fell on my foot. Hurt like -- heck."
"What's wrong with it?" he asked as he set the tray on the table.
"The drawer? It sticks. Didn't I say it sticks? I don't know. Off the track or something. It's been that way for a while. I can't find anybody to fix it. A guy came out once, but he was more interested in remodeling the entire kitchen. Seems like nobody wants to do a small job."
"I do a little woodworking. I could take a look at it for you when I get a little time. Here's my card."
As she looked at the card, Bobbie thought that he must be about her age, and that he must have gotten a lot of exercise in the army. When he'd handed her his card, she'd noticed that he didn't wear a ring. But she'd learned the hard way that didn't mean anything. Why was she having these kinds of thoughts -- and in the church no less? What she needed was a handyman. She tucked the card in her apron pocket and looked up at him.
"Do you have any idea what a small job like that might cost?" she asked.
"It wouldn't have to cost a woman like you very much at all. Just give me a call."
Bobbie drew her chin in and stared at him, a frown forming on her brow. What did he mean by a woman like her? What had he heard about her? She almost expected him to add, "I'll take it out in trade." But he looked sincere, even embarrassed, not lecherous as his come-on had suggested. She wasn't interested in mixing business with pleasure.
Ray could tell from the look on her face that his words had come out all wrong, and he felt the heat of embarrassment on the tops of his ears. "What I meant to say is that I wouldn't overcharge you. I didn't -- "
"Who do we have here, Sister Strickland? Don't you want to introduce your friend to me?"
They both turned and looked at the woman who had joined them.
"I'm Jeralyn Jackson. The pastor's wife." She draped the fur coat over her other arm and offered him a perfectly manicured hand, graced by a diamond dinner ring.
"Yes, of course," Bobbie said in a businesslike tone. "This is Raymond Caldwell. Sister Caldwell's boy."
"Son," Ray corrected, extending his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Jackson."
"We all just love your mother here. She's a pillar of our church. I don't know what we'd do without her."
Bobbie fought to keep from rolling her eyes. Jeralyn made it sound as though she and Reverend Jackson had built the church themselves and Sister Caldwell was a recent convert. Mrs. Caldwell had probably been a member of Mt. Moriah when Jeralyn was born, Bobbie thought. More than once, she'd actually prayed over the way she felt about Jeralyn. The woman was always bragging about her husband. Always dropping a mention of her affiliation with some social organization or city board. Bobbie knew she shouldn't take it personally. Jeralyn was like that with everybody, but Bobbie felt that her comments about "proper child-rearing" were directed to her because of Darlene. Despite his "proper rearing," the Jacksons' son, Trey, was no saint either. In fact, Bobbie thought him a little odd. In their teenage years, he had had a crush on Darlene and had hung around her house. Jeralyn hadn't said much about him in the last few years.
"If you all will excuse me, I need to make some more punch," Bobbie said.
Ray watched her limp into the kitchen, then was drawn back by Mrs. Jackson's voice.
"Of course you know that your mother can be quite obstinate when she sets her mind to something," Jeralyn chuckled.
"Yes, I've known her a long time." Ray completely understood.
"I hope you'll be joining our flock. There's definitely a place for you here. Pastor Jackson was just saying last night how he needs more men to become involved in his prison ministry. Strong men. Like Brother Harris. You're military, aren't you?"
"I was," Ray said, sneaking a peek toward the kitchen.
"Well, that's perfect. Just the kind of man Pastor Jackson needs. I'll bet you know a lot about discipline and guns and everything."
"A little. Could you excuse me? I need to take my mother this punch before the ice melts."
2002 by Evelyn Palfrey
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Women school principals Fiction, Middle aged women Fiction