At Home with the Spirit
Kitty Mills stood before the floor-to-ceiling mirror in her walk-in closet and craned her chin back over her shoulder, looking as best she could to see if any outline of the black thong crept through the pale pink skirt she’d picked out for church. No one else was home to tell her if it did, but the hundred-watt halogen she’d asked Tom to climb up there and change out from that dim, soft sixty-watt — “Before you fly off again and I lose you for another whole weekend,” she’d tried to say in a playful tone that past Friday afternoon — removed all shadows from the white-walled closet and bathed her in a blank light. Not a hint of the black thread showed along her hip where she could see. She jumped up once, quickly, head still turned to see how much her unsupported cheeks jiggled under the skirt. The movement there was faint, almost imperceptible.
Kitty didn’t think she minded any mild trembling of flesh; she liked the idea of growing older. This obsession with wanting to look much younger than you were did bother her, especially as most of her good friends at church and the club spent a decent amount of time talking about how to accomplish such a feat, about how their husbands did not look at them now quite the same. And even though Kitty had turned forty-eight in January, she knew she was spoiled by the fact she had arrived at her age much better than most. People had been astonished before to find she wasn’t somewhere safe in her thirties. She said a quick, silent prayer that God would spare her false humility, Amen, and looked to the small, jeweled watchface she fastened to her slender wrist. Five minutes until the 8:30 service. She flipped off the light on her way out.
Only two weeks past Easter Sunday it was so nice she thought of rolling down the windows for the three-minute drive to church. But the lightly tinted glass and the chilled cool of the air conditioner quickly created a satisfying little world of its own, too hard for her to resist. The smell of the BMW’s leather was strong, still brand new. It had been a surprise forty-eighth birthday present from Tom, parked under the magnolia on their arced peagravel drive, the great yellow bow on the hood so pretty against the depths of blue paint almost black in the silent winter afternoon chill, the light tape outline of the dealer stickers evident on the rear driver’s side window. The long, feline 7-series had shown only twenty-four miles on the amberlit digital odometer when she first saw it, having been driven only by the guy who loaded and then unloaded it from the truck. “And by me, to get it home to you,” Tom had said. “Finally something that’s yours alone, after all these years.”
She made the right turn just before the huge parking lot at East Presbyterian. On her own, she probably would have tried to find a space at the east end of the lot, under the shade of the one large tree left after the lot’s recent expansion. But Tom had arranged for her to park the new car in the driveway of the Bellings, very close friends of theirs, so it would be absolutely sure not to get scratched. On her left slid a wide view of red brick and white windows and columns that comprised the expanded East Presbyterian. Kitty was proud of what she beheld, because Tom had been in charge of this massive work for the church, even though it was still what kept him away from her now. That part of it had grown old.
She made her first right. The Bellings only lived a block away from the church on deeply-shaded Morning Star. Yet another quick right brought her into their half-circled drive, where she remembered to park it clear of the mature trees Tom had told her would shed their blooms onto the paint. It was a little walk for her from here, but wouldn’t have seemed all that far now if she wasn’t about to be late.
And it was true — she thought, as she walked on her toes to move more quickly in her heels — by the 11 a.m. service, it wouldn’t have mattered where she found a spot in the lot, safe as she might try to be. Because of the church’s recent expansion and the people who had been flocking there since, the place would be packed by the time she made it out of Sunday School. The car would have been dinged there, sooner than later.
The lock button on her keychain made all the blinkers on the car flash twice and caused the horn to give one sighing bleat like a sheep, even where she pushed it from around the corner. Kitty hurried with her small “church” bible in the tiny purse clutched under one arm. Her calves began a satisfying burn trying to walk so fast in her heels, the tiniest jiggle, satisfying too, of her bottom beneath the skirt.
Mike Ballard saw her coming and moved to hold open the door to the marble-floored foyer of the sanctuary. “Morning Kitty.” He wore a tailored gray suit with a red-and-blue striped tie of a herringbone back-and-forth expensive sheen. “Tom out of town again? You want to sit with me and Margot?”
“Thanks” — she took the bulletin he offered, fanned herself, patted his hand — “Whew. I’ll just sit in our spot up front. I’m fine there.” Smiling just long enough to be polite, she made her way into the sanctuary and couldn’t help herself wondering for a second if he was watching behind her. But down the center aisle, she could see the organist had released the stops when he shoved his upper body into the keyboard for the choir’s processional hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” her very favorite.
The pew she hurried to, the one she and Tom and Brett and Katie had occupied for years and years of Sundays, on the center-aisle end, ten rows back from the pulpit, was empty today. As Kitty took her place third from the aisle, instinctively saving imaginary spaces for her family, she slid a red Trinity Hymnal from the shelf on the ivory-colored pewback (though she knew the words to this hymn by heart), and tried to remember anytime, even one week, when no one else had occupied this pew alongside her. It seemed further back than her memory of Brett to her immediate left in his little blue short-pant suit at five, and to her right, Katie at two in the white dress with navy piping to match her brother, both towheaded blondes, allowed to stand on the pew only during the hymns when the rest of the congregation stood to sing. A strong scent of the hymnal came to her as she found the page, like the waft of preserved children’s clothes in her cedar chest when she revisited that wide white lapel of Brett’s cute little suitjacket folded up small and square, napkinlike. It had been the seventies then. A broadwinged lapel the prevailing style. She’d always had those kids dressed up right, friends had said over all those years.
Strange enough none of the Fells family was here. George Fells and his wife had two grown daughters who had settled back into east Memphis with a vengeance, their own new families returning to this pew, husbands and children attached, week upon week, like salmon flashing back upstream to complete some ancient, irresistible pattern.
But sweet Ruth Blakemore, now widowed, her husband a founding member of the church — before that a lifelong member of the previous church from which East Presbyterian had split in the mid-60s, during (and yes, unfortunately, partially because of) the racial strife rippling like a mushroom cloud throughout Memphis — wasn’t here either. Mrs. Blakemore was always here. Like furniture. Kitty hoped nothing bad had happened to her.
The deep, silky sheen of the scarlet choir robes presented in unison as the choir turned to face the congregation when they’d reached their loft behind the pulpit, voices raised to proclaim the last verse, gave Kitty a sense of safety she could not explain, had anyone been there to tell it to. And then she realized she was fine being alone on this pew, her pew for today, and she prayed, Thank You, Father, for unexpected graces, and she joined to sing the last verse and chorus with her own light and lilting voice.
Reverend Prentse stepped solidly and quietly up into the pulpit when the Amen! of the hymn had sounded and echoed for a long second. And at that moment, an older man — too late to be walking to a pew that close to the front — fumbled into her pew at the opposite end. His knee caught one of the brown, hardbacked pew Bibles as he hurried himself in. It lifted easily from the rack, flipping to the carpeted floor covers open with a loud page flipping like cards shuffled between a dealer’s hands. She smiled down the length of her aisle to put him at ease, but the old man kept his head down, ears red.
Reverend Prentse glanced there and moved on. He held the sides of the lectern with two strong hands swept over by the sleeves of his flowing black robe and shifted his weight without removing his grip and said, “If you are a visitor to East Presbyterian, we’re glad you’re here. We gather here to worship a God not of our own making.” He always began by welcoming visitors. Kitty liked that about him. She loved the way Prentse’s deep-South Georgia accent had not faded with thirty years in the “mid”-South of Memphis, how his drawl adorned Gawd and “glad yohwah here” without sounding stupid-Southern, no thing to be mocked, but civil, welcoming, and warm. She especially liked his voice while preaching. The strong tone of it conveyed the authority, the dignity of a God deserving worship, a voice rich and feeling and sometimes even with tears expressing the true compassion of the Christ she believed in. “Please be seated,” Reverend Prentse invited. He asked the congregation to pray with him.
“We thank you, Father, for your Presence in this place in the past.” His voice reverberated from the acoustically perfect ivory tiles high above his head. “We implore you, Lord, to dwell within again this day, to be pleased by the worship we would offer, to humble and direct us as your Son’s One Body.” Kitty mouthed, “Yes, Lord,” in a quiet voice, but her mind fell away from prayer at his mention of one body, and now she couldn’t help calling to memory those of her own loved ones, somewhere else this Lord’s Day. She ran her right hand over the seat where Katie would sit were she here. But Katie was back at Ole Miss, living her own life again, away from home. Kitty’s eyes fell to her left, where little Brett had sat for years and years before, and where he still sat when he dragged himself out of bed for the early service. Now, she figured, he was sleeping in at his own place, already settled into his own routine of life after graduating UT last summer and coming back home to Memphis. Her children’s small lifetimes in her own home seemed so busy when she looked back on them now, and over so quick. So much of life in this church felt just the same way.
She and Tom had agreed, early on, that they would not herd their kids away to the nursery during worship as most parents did. Kitty had met Tom at East Presbyterian when she moved from Jackson, Mississippi — the same age Katie is now, Kitty thought, wondering how that could be true — to come to nursing school at UT Memphis. They’d not met at church exactly, but through church nonetheless. It had been a backyard Bible study for college and young career-aged folks, a landscaped and shaded east-Memphis backyard, poolside, with weekly catering from Corky’s barbecue, the house owned by the youngest son of one of Memphis’s oldest families dealing in commercial real estate. He and his wife were beautiful people, both very involved and excited about East Presbyterian, a young church itself back then. Both had gone out of their way to welcome Kitty the first week she attended, her knowing no one, her thick study Bible guarded under one arm as she walked through the trellised entryway to the backyard and became immediately nervous at the sight of so many attractive people her age and a little older decorating the outer edges of the pool. They were laughing and talking like a couple hundred friends, completely confident and at ease with what the world would probably offer up to all of them very soon. She’d sought this very place out at the recommendation of her family’s minister in Jackson, because, as he’d told her in a voice like prophecy, “Up there in Memphis, East Pres has people who actually believe what’s written in their Bibles, word for word.” And he’d been right. This place had given her so much to be thankful for.
Tom Mills’s duty on the leadership team was to make the weekly announcements at College & Career, and after he did so the second week Kitty came, he walked up and talked to her, asking where was she from, what brought her to Memphis. One of her favorite images of that late summer afternoon was the memory of his nametag, the label’s Hi, My Name Is across the top, and in his own strong handwriting, in blue ink, “TOM,” with eyes drawn in the O, and an up-and-down jagged mouth like the one on a frazzled Charlie Brown. A lighthearted, joking way of his that would come to endear him to her, his humor with just a hint of sarcasm but never mean. After that first conversation with him, she began to feel comfortable with the rest of those pretty young people too, and then East Presbyterian, and Memphis, quickly started to feel like home. It was like God knew her well enough to see she needed someone to literally walk right up and invite her in to make her transition a smooth one. To show her, for sure, where He wanted her to be for her own good.
Kitty was reminded of the old man sitting down her pew and opened her eyes for a second to see his head bowed like everyone else’s, but his ears still red from his disturbance. She decided she’d say hello to him as soon as she had the chance.
Tom had asked her out for the first time a few weeks later, a late meal after the Bible study, conversation over salad and chicken tenders at a secluded candlelit table for two in the bar at Houston’s, where they could talk without friends from church taking too much interest or interrupting. She’d returned to her little nursing dorm room later that very night and dropped to her knees, thanking God for His wondrous providence to her, and how He’d answered her prayers so soon, so perfectly. As if tailored to fit.
Then he’d asked her to date him exclusively only a month after that, to see where God was leading them. They had talked about this issue of children and the church and worship well before he proposed marriage: Kids? How many? “Two,” they’d said in unison and laughed, back at that same booth table, their table, they were calling it after just one month. In the candlelight, Tom had held one of her slender hands in his, asking, “So if kids mean so much, and Jesus welcomed children along with his disciples, if he said they had to become like little children, why do we separate ours out from the one hour we worship him every Sunday morning? Don’t you think kids should be with you, if worship is that important? One body? A family, together?”
“Yes. I really do,” Kitty had said, and she’d considered that conversation answered prayer too — she had thought about that very thing, but she had never told Tom or anyone that when he proclaimed it in such a thoughtful way just how much it had flat-out turned her on. A bright, burning thing inside. How to tell anyone his passion for God and children yet to be made her want to straddle him later that night, where they kept right on talking about life and faith, there in his cramped, cinder-blocked student housing for Memphis State Law, even in plain view of unwashed laundry in the corner of his den-slash-living area, and in clear sight of so many empty, teepeed pizza boxes? How to tell that she knew right then that Tom Mills could be her husband, her spiritual leader, capable by asking her what she thought of his plans for the future, including her as an elemental part. Kitty was aware these thirtyish years later as she sat alone on their pew, her older hand now at rest in Katie’s empty space, of that scared nursing student lit up with fear and hope and something else at the prospect of building a life with Tom Mills, a young man she was only beginning to know — in Memphis — a place she still barely knew her way around. A potent mixture of reverent fear and real hope, knowing she really believed her God had brought her to that exact point in time, and that she would do exactly what He told her to do next — even if she didn’t know what that act might be. Why else had she vowed to herself that first night at Tom’s apartment to return home to Jackson only when it could be with him, as them? A feeling beyond safety had coursed through her whole body, alive as she’d ever been. She patted the pew and wondered if she’d felt anything close to it since. Surely she had.
“Our Father, who art in heaven,” Reverend Prentse’s low voice said, the congregation adding their own hushed voices to his. Kitty caught up reflexively — the Lord’s Prayer meant he was at the end of the confession of sin now — yet on the inside she felt shame of her last thought of when, specifically, she had really reckoned her unspoken vow with herself for sure: her knees astride Tom on his ratty plaid couch with a nacho stain on the center cushion, her shirt bunched up above her shoulders, his hands at the small of her back, his lips moving along her neck, his tongue finding that triangle at the base of her neck where her delicate clavicles met. Her own hands massaging the thick dark hair on the back of his head, pulling him close and feeling his warm, panting breath on the soft baby-haired skin right above her breasts. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,” she whispered, chiming in with Prentse and the rest of the congregation, “forever and ever. Amen.”
And then Tom had prayed later that night for the both of them too, that each might be forgiven their lust for the flesh of each other’s young bodies. “Keep us pure until marriage, Father,” he had implored, “until You truly join us to another as one.” So he’d brought up the idea of marriage that early, just like that, in a repentant prayer for them both.
Kitty opened her eyes and looked down the pew, making a slight waving motion to say hello to the man. His head was still bowed, his eyes closed tight, and then when he opened them he began scribbling something on his bulletin as if he would surely forget it.
Kitty looked at the bulletin in her hand. There was usually a baptism every week, sometimes two, because the church had attracted so many young couples since the recent expansion, and she felt a slight disappointment it wouldn’t happen this day, another absence. She loved baptisms as much as anything else in her church life. Two young parents answering Reverend Prentse’s questions intently and seriously before he would take their little one in the folds of his strong, robed arm, the cupped water from a sterling bowl offered from one of the elder’s hands. His straight black robe, the silver circle of dish, the infant’s embroidered white dress, the clear somethingness of the water dripping to the fuzzed head of a baby. Then the solemn prayer asking new life for a new life, always hard for Kitty to comprehend.
Details such as these meant more to her faith than she could fathom. They scared her a little, too. “Do you ever have trouble believing that a little baby is born into sin?” she’d asked Tom just a couple weeks ago, as they jogged around their neighborhood in the early morning, as was their custom since deciding to get back into prime shape together, since their own kids were out of the house now. “That one of those little white-dressed babies needs saving when its life isn’t even really formed yet?”
“No, not really,” Tom had said. And he had explained God was sovereign and holy and good, but that the least of us is not born without sin, which, he’d said, “you can never separate one from the other. All of that works together. His ways are not our own. Mysterious, but true.”
Kitty had said, breathing hard, “I know, I know.” And Tom’s certain statement about God, one that should have eased her mind by assuring her it wasn’t something she really needed to think about after he declared it, reminded her now of what had started feeling like a quiet, building concern. “I mean,” she had exhaled, “don’t you ever wonder why that can just feel so wrong inside?” He had answered her quickly that faith couldn’t be based on feeling, because feelings were elusive and hard to trace. She’d known before she asked that he’d provide the right answer. Then he’d said, “Come on, I’ll race you back home from here,” and he took off ahead of her as the rising sun broke away beyond Galloway golf course like a balloon loosing its tether from the earth.
Their conversations on deeper things had become more and more like that in the recent handful of years, she had realized after the run, as she stripped off her sports-bra in her walk-in closet and tried to cool down. Tom still had good answers to her occasional questions, but it wasn’t like the holding of hands over their candlelit table, where they had lingered in conversation until he knew her mind and they seemed to really come what Kitty remembered as something like a shared understanding. She could not pinpoint exactly when this shift had started. Yes, Tom had been gone from home more than ever in the past three years, but almost entirely for work with the church and its just-completed expansion. Something worthy, and something they both believed in. The opposite of adulterous motel-room meetings with another woman, though it felt something like that to Kitty in her lonelier moments, especially in the last twelve months before Tom got his duties wrapped up for good. She shucked her running shorts and slid a hand along her flat belly, walked naked to the kitchen to get a cup of the coffee she could smell Tom was brewing. Since they’d agreed to get back in shape together, and since the kids were out of the house, she’d taken to walking around in the buff sometimes. It felt like a mild freedom she couldn’t remember ever having, maybe catching Tom in the right mood in some room of their old house just to see what might happen. But that morning he hadn’t been in the kitchen, so she got her coffee and took a long, hot shower alone.
Even this weekend, she thought as she focused on the announcements in the bulletin that Prentse was bringing to the congregation’s attention, his reason for being in Charlotte was to attend a sister church that had several elders in banking who’d dealt effectively with refinancing the debts of their own congregation’s expansion two years before. “This will be the last trip for church business,” Tom had assured her, a tiredness in his voice she could hear. “Promise,” she’d said, before she could stop herself. And he had promised. Maybe now, she wondered, things between them would go back to what they had been like before. Even better, since both kids were gone. He would have more time, more energy, just for the two of them.
As the offering plate made its way along the seated lines of people, the older man down the bare length of Kitty’s pew looked up to put a clutched and bent roll of bills into the gold, felt-bottomed dish when Mike Ballard handed it to him. He moved to stand and walk it down to Kitty’s end, but she made eye contact with him and waved a hand ever so slightly, mouthing silently, No, no need. (She and Tom had twelve percent of his paycheck, their tithe, automatically deducted from their account at the beginning of each month, before taxes.) The man handed the plate back to Mike. Kitty noticed he was wearing a tweed-type brown suit (too late in the spring season for that), and she guessed he must be a professor at the University of Memphis or at Rhodes. Definitely a visitor, because she could not place his face in any pew here. His suit was neat as was his white hair, and he was clean-shaven and gentle looking in a mature, academic way. Even as liberal as a Rhodes professor would probably be, she could see how even someone like that might like Prentse’s thoughtful, engaged way of preaching, and maybe, agree with the truth of what was said.
Reverend Prentse’s sermon was from the book of James, a passage about looking in a mirror and then going away and immediately forgetting what you look like. Kitty took many notes. She had a small notebook specifically for sermons — another for journaling, another for Bible study notes — that she had recently transferred to the slim leather Prada handbag given her by her daughter, after Katie found it in New York City, on sale, on her shopping spree during spring break from Ole Miss with two of her closest Chi-O pledge sisters. Kitty wrote down verbatim and underlined twice Reverend Prentse’s one question posed at the end: What face do you see most clearly when you look into the mirror of God’s Word: Your own “made-up” mask, OR the all-forgiving, clean-washed face of Christ, question mark, question mark, exclamation point — Kitty’s pen scritching hard against the diminutive notebook page in her lap. Lord, what a great question, she thought. She couldn’t help thinking of herself naked, slim, wandering the rooms of her own home and catching glimpses of herself in a mirror or window when she happened past.
The closing hymn was “The Church’s One Foundation,” for which the whole choir and congregation stood at the punctuation of Reverend Prentse’s upswept arms. Kitty closed and returned her small notebook and tiny Bible to the slender purse and took up a hymnal to sing. She felt clear inside, emptied, as she did after most of Prentse’s sermons. All of the men in the choir wore ties that showed up now to Kitty as perfect, inverse triangles, tiny trinities above the necks of their scarlet robes. Everything seemed well defined and mattered at the conclusion of Sunday’s worship service. Not like the middle of the weeks, where of late Kitty found herself strangely tired with her life and then ashamed of that feeling, because she knew how much God had shown His unwavering love to her with her faith and a loving husband and family and more nice things than she ever, ever could deserve. She felt doubly low when this mood would strike as early as Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was just part of getting older. Getting older that way, feeling tired inside, Tom seeming tired too, like an old man, bothered her more than she could ever admit to anyone.
Reverend Prentse’s hands were up like a south-Memphis Hallelujah!, turned out toward the congregation to pronounce the benediction. “The Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you,” he said, and that, if nothing else, always offered Kitty promise and assurance. She lifted her head, knowing that during a benediction your face was supposed to be upturned, collecting Christ’s radiance, reflecting it, a blessing pronounced and administered, even though most people confused it for prayer and instinctively lowered their heads.
With the service’s end a string was pulled, a long-held breath exhaled, and the congregation spread from what once held it together. Reverend Prentse bounded down the steps and shook hands vigorously, supporting the arm he was shaking in his other hand, that way of his Kitty appreciated, sincere, strong. The sanctuary’s front half of pews exploded and quickly re-adhered people in clots that Kitty knew had formed before she turned to see them. The scarlet-robed choir drained like blood out of the two doors at either end of the loft, the remnant turning inward to feed on itself. She would not have really noticed, had her own family been there with her, the landscape of sanctuary marked off in such distinct camps of well-dressed people of God.
She also probably wouldn’t have noticed that no one was talking to the old man. He had stood with everyone else but had not moved from the place he’d taken in her pew — it looked as if he had no idea where to go. Kitty knew she could ease into two or three of the groups which had immediately formed and be welcomed there, but she felt a stronger urge — a call, she might have said — nothing, she thought, compared to Abraham standing by himself in his own dry country and hearing God’s promised Leave your land and go to a place I will show you. But a small urging from her God, nonetheless, and she didn’t want to ignore that now. Kitty slid sideways across the narrow stripe of green carpeting between her pew and the pewback ahead of it, lined with the shelved red Trinity Hymnals and brown hardbacked pew Bibles, and moved toward the old man to touch him gently on the shoulder. She said a quick prayer for God to see His will done in these few moments and use her as He saw fit. Amen.
“Hello,” Kitty said, and smiled. “Welcome to East Presbyterian.” She held out her hand. “I’m Kitty Mills.”
“Praise Jesus,” the old man said, a little loud. “Name’s Earl.” He took Kitty’s right hand with his right, his was rough, and gripped hers too tight and pumped it aggressively three times, his eyes, she thought and then decided not, watching the movement of her breasts under her sheer blouse. “I was just praying somebody would talk to me. Praise Him! Ain’t a person I know here.”
Kitty sensed real gratitude in his voice. She said politely, calmly, trying to settle him, “I’m glad to know you, Earl. How did you hear about East Presbyterian?” Earl dropped her right hand from his and before Kitty could withdraw it to safety, he grasped her right forearm overhand in an awkward clamp with his left fist as if there were something of great importance he had to confide.
“Ma’am, you got a fine church here — I mean the Spirit is up and moving in this place!” He gawked about in wonder at the pure whiteness of the walls, the vaulted ceiling high above. “Your pastor preaches the full-gospel-plain-Jesus and nothing else — Praise Him!” The clawed hand tightened and relaxed on Kitty’s arm with each of his exclamations.
She felt like he was shouting even as she knew he was not. Kitty swung her arm faintly, hoping he would take the hint and turn loose. She wished he had been talking about the expanded and remodeled facilities when he’d declared it a “fine church,” because then she could comment easily on all the recent renovations she knew so well, make him feel at home in a way to calm down his excitement and put them both at ease.
“Well … that’s …”
“Ma’am —” Earl squeezed her arm again and took a more confiding tone, still too loud. People around her were looking now. “How long have you known the Lord Chraast?”
No Rhodes professor, Kitty thought reflexively. It was a strange and honest question, an impolite one people here did not ask immediately after church. Kitty felt small and childlike then, answering before she could think, “Since high school.”
“Praise His Name. That is a wonder to hear told!” His voice was enthusiastic yet had the assumed force of one beginning to learn a foreign language and eager to try it out on the natives. She wished Reverend Prentse was within reach. She wished Tom was home with her this weekend, and she found herself angry at her husband for this man, here, now. She wasn’t sure what to do.
“So Earl,” Kitty said, “how was it you found out about East Presbyterian?” She moved her left arm in a quick upward sweep to indicate them stepping out from the pew, more in the hopes Earl would release her arm, which he did not. It made the gesture comical in its obvious awkwardness, both their arms swinging as one like handcuffed fugitives. Kitty was sure she would have seen the humor in it if she weren’t so preoccupied with him letting her go.
“Well, ma’am, that takes quite a story. Joy to tell it. Fact is no more’n a year ago I was lost, lost. Loster’n a little sheep. But He found me all the same.”
Kitty led him into the center aisle, facing the immense cross at the apex of the sanctuary, hoping to catch Reverend Prentse and include him in their conversation — he would know exactly what to say.
“Ma’am?” Earl’s hand tensed on her forearm again, and his face was eager in a way Kitty wished would go away. “You know Cecil Stokes and his kin?”
The word kin confirmed he was nothing close to a professor. A refrain, long-forgotten — Kin of Jesus is my kinfolk in the cross — sprung up from inside her, a much deeper echo than the hymn they’d just finished singing. But these voices were muffled, twanging inside a shadowed, filthy double-wide trailer, from an 8-track masking-taped to a cheap card table as if to keep the voices contained within from rising bodily to the heavens. It was the only other time she thought she’d heard kin used so plainly, or ever used at all. But that fragment of song seemed so long ago, even beyond her own lifetime. Her free hand moved to her neck and fingered the small cross hanging there by a silver chain as Earl halted and gazed at the huge cross of burnished steel before them, inset above the choir loft like a picture in an elegant frame. As she clung gently to hers with a thumb and forefinger, and this strange man clung likewise to her arm, all the cross’s ties to her own faith, her life to this point retreated inside her — from Memphis, her husband, her family, further in the past southward along I-55 between here and Jackson, past the small white and plastic-flowered roadside markers of fatal collisions; even deeper down those rutted memories of strange Great Uncle Mordecai, who’d lived in Nesbitt and had erected three haphazard crosses the height of full-grown pines on the roof of that trailer, harnessed by at least thirty cables, the center cross’s shoulders draped by a threadbare Confederate flag. At four or five, she’d walked under their shadows across the pine duff and into his stinking trailer, holding tight hands with her father, feeling her very life tied to his. He’d leaned in and reassured her she needed to meet her oldest living kin once before it’s too late. She was very little at the time, too young to really remember, but she could see her father removing her cloying grip from his and placing her on the ancient man’s lap. A rasping exhale of nearing death breathed in her fresh face, and one claw of fingers groped for Play on the 8-track, one held her tiny shoulder, the toothless and wordless grinning at her awaiting some response while the ethereal music filled that dark, fetid space she had been forced to enter by her father’s choice.
Kitty breathed deeply. Here, now, attached to this strange older man, her cross seemed an otherworldly artifact to wear as jewelry. Earl stood beside her, gawking around the expansive white sanctuary for the faces of those people he knew. His grip on her forearm was so tight she could feel her pulse only a half-beat away from his.
“I do know the Stokes, Earl.” Kitty looked to her feet as if she didn’t know where they would go next, perfectly aligned in her pointed, stylish shoes. “They are very nice people.”
“Oh ma’am,” Earl said, with no exaggeration of voice now, “nice ain’t got nothing to do with it. They are holy folk, sure.”
Kitty couldn’t think of a response. She had said hello to Cecil and his wife only in passing, though the Stokes had been coming to East Presbyterian for the past six years. They’d been part of Greg Prentse’s first congregation after seminary, a small church clinging to a bare red hill in Pine Mountain, Georgia, and he still loved the Stokes like they were his own extended family. She had seen a photograph on Reverend Prentse’s desk once, all of them huddled together with the rest of that tiny congregation before a small, red-bricked church, white metal awnings above cheap stain-glass windows, green astroturf steps leading up to the front doors. Plump women assembled up the steps in eternally out-of-style similar dresses of giant flower prints. Matched to these women, men with overlarge, roughened hands extending too far out of the short arms of that one good Sunday suit, hair slicked down for the church picture, each of them showing a fierce rural smile like squinting.
Tom had told Kitty of his first interaction with the Stokes when they made it to Memphis. “The close encounter,” Tom had called it, what Cecil Stokes had said when Tom had asked him, What brought y’all to town? “The Lord led us here,” Tom had told her. “That’s all he said. And I can respect that. But he said he doesn’t have a job yet and asked if I was hiring, asked if I knew of anybody in the church who was hiring, right there on the spot. Asked me right after church. In church. Pretty awkward.”
“I know exactly who the Stokes are,” Kitty affirmed, more to herself, it seemed, than to Earl. “They’ve been coming here for years. Let’s see if they’re not in our new fellowship hall.” She had no idea why she felt the need to communicate that the fellowship hall was new. The fact had no relevance to what he asked, but it seemed to her it must be mentioned for her to keep firm hold on something near, something familiar to remind her where she was right now.
The Mills and Stokes just never crossed paths, she thought, as she led Earl to a set of double doors at the front of the sanctuary. That was all. Cecil wasn’t on any committees at church. Neither was his wife, Emily, a fair-skinned, freckled, plain woman of a quiet country sort, pleasant, always with a pack of five children about a year apart who looked like slightly different incarnations of her, each with a chubbyish infusion of flesh from her husband. Their kids always seemed happy, if a little unruly, and wore outfits of matching fabric that looked to be homemade in a common fashion similar to themselves. The whole family sat together for worship in a tight little line along one of the back rows of the sanctuary, but not the same pew every week, which made Kitty angry now. She always felt slightly uncomfortable around Emily in passing, as if Emily’s mild smile was for something she knew about Kitty, something Kitty hadn’t told her was true.
As she led him past the elevated, white-lacquered communion table, he ogled the silver pipes of the organ, the perfect ivory paint of the choir loft, the enormous arrangement of flowers obscuring the lower two-thirds of the pulpit. He shuffled like something was wrong with one of his legs. “The Lord has blessed y’all with such nice things here!” he bleated, the loose skin of his neck folding against his collar as he said it. His tone was appreciative and without accusation yet made Kitty want to offer some excuse for East Presbyterian’s opulence. She was going to say thank you but realized quickly enough that this was not a compliment and wasn’t directed at her. It sounded more like praise.
She pushed open the double doors at the front corner of the sanctuary, leading him up a new long hallway lined along the left wall with platinum-framed portraits of missionaries the church supported, and their families. The wide, well-lit hallway smelled of new Sheetrock and fresh paint. Earl halted them at the first glossy picture of a young family and began to read their letter, a paragraph mounted under glass next to the photo. “From Kenya, with love,” Earl mouthed in near silence, holding Kitty there.
He was so intent on his reading, as if a new skill he needed to practice, he dropped his grip on Kitty’s arm to follow along with his index finger. She was surprised at the relief of feeling her arm freed. To have her body back under her own control seemed a blessing she’d never fully contemplated before.
As Earl mouthed out the words, Kitty crossed her arms so there would be nothing he could grab hold of again. She faced away toward the opposite blank white wall that, she knew, would eventually chronicle the church’s recently-completed addition, once the negatives she’d hand-picked were back from the printmaker and framed. She felt those photos would have to speak for Tom’s home-mission at East Pres over the past three years — and her own by connection to him — though, right now, she did not feel those images alone would do either of them justice.
Bound to this unknown man in the newly constructed hallway, she felt even more the need to cling to something that felt truly hers. She hugged the hard flesh of her lower abdomen tight while Earl read on. Even after becoming swelled and then ever-so-slightly sagged from the births of each of her beautiful children, her stomach was flatter now than in college, when she had been a varsity cheerleader for the Rebels. It had been just that past September she and Tom had decided to go on the Atkins Diet, together, after Tom had called her from his Front Street office one Tuesday afternoon and said that twenty-five years of desk lawyering was finally making him go soft. He’d been a rower at U.T. Knoxville; she’d imagined him looking out his office window over the wide sprawl of the river in Memphis as he’d said it, envisioned him pulsing the narrow crew boat against the Mississippi’s much stronger, myriad, wallowing currents. That kind of memory reminded her of who she’d married and assured her if it now. “It’s the battle of the bulge, Kit,” Tom had announced into the phone’s receiver as if reciting legal dictation of a pending case’s facts. “Finally hitting me broadside.” She’d imagined him sliding his hand between his belt and stomach when she’d heard him grunt like an old man, a sound she hadn’t liked at all. But again, his innocent humor sounding ageless to her ears. “Let’s muster the troops,” Tom had barked, in imitation of the rowing captain he’d once been. “Whip. This. Flesh. Back. In. To. Shape.”
Kitty saw herself shaking her head, reflected in the glass of the first missionary’s photo she’d turned back to, behind Earl. That memory of Tom, and the mild transformations his desire to shed pounds had led to for both of them, were some of her few truly bright spots — if she was really honest with herself — of the past three years. She felt guilt at that being the truth, standing in the low hallway, waiting for her visitor to labor through his reading. But it was true. She had gone to Davis-Kidd Booksellers that same afternoon, surprised at how excited she was about Tom’s declaration, and compared diet books and decided for herself to diet with him. She could stand to lose just a little too, here and there. But each book had a completely different angle: eliminate fatty foods, eat everything else; get rid of red meat, eat fish and vegetables; nix all carbs and eat whatever you can get your hands on. Kitty was overwhelmed as she stood in the slanting afternoon light streaming into Health/Fitness and read dustjackets and the short quotations on the backs of each finishing with exclamation points, above names with MD punctuating them. Then she’d remembered seeing Bandy Tidwell on the way to Sunday school two Sundays before that — the first time she’d laid eyes on Bandy for a month — and she looked great. “Bandy, you look great!” Kitty had said, and she could tell Bandy was pleased but tried not to show it. Bandy had said while they clutched hands walking by one another like high-school girls on the way to their next classes, “You’re so sweet — but all thanks goes to Dr. Atkins.”
Kitty had thanked God for bringing the encounter with Bandy to mind to help her make the decision. A reminder to her that He was real in her life, present, even in the smallest things. She had put down the rest of the books and bought the no-carb, low-sugar, eat-all-else option. By the time Tom made it home late that afternoon, she’d read the first two chapters and had all the pasta and bread and anything else in the pantry with a daily value of Carbohydrates more than 15% in three Goldsmith’s bags by the back door, labeled to be donated to MIFA so it wouldn’t go to waste. It would be given to those in need, and Kitty was thankful for that too. That night they went to dinner at Houston’s and she’d educated Tom on the new diet, back in their old booth. In the candlelight bathing the menu, she had told him what he could order and what was out of bounds, and it felt like they were truly together again for the first time in a long while, facing the world side by side, their strength coupled once more to fend off some shared opposing force.
Earl shifted, focused on the next picture, and said loudly, “That’s funny. I didn’t see any neegros in y’all’s service.” Kitty moved a step to match his but didn’t respond, looked behind her even though no one else was there to hear. She recognized the young black face, Marvell, from when he had come to speak at their Sunday school class, trying to get the couples her and Tom’s age, empty nesters or those soon to be, to come down and tutor people from the neighborhood. His idea was to pair “mature” couples, as he’d put it, an expression Kitty had not liked the sound of, with at least a boy and girl, to model a family structure of momma plus daddy that 99.8 percent of them, he’d said, never had. He called it “the hood” and “the neighborhood” interchangeably, Kitty remembered. Earl began to read Marvell’s story slowly.
She’d asked Tom if maybe he thought they could do something like that together too, but he had replied that with work, their recent vow to get back in shape together, and especially his duties with the church expansion, “Where would we find the time?” “True,” she’d replied, knowing it was only true for him. She had the time, what with Brett long gone and Katie off at Ole Miss now. But if it had to come down to a process of elimination, she wouldn’t have given up the new workout time they’d created for each other, either. Their habit in recent months had been running in new fitness gear every morning — except Sundays — through their own neighborhood, down Walnut Grove and around Galloway Golf Course and back home down the opposite sidewalk. Just to be able to see the fog lifting in golden mist from the fairways and hear but not see the whack of solitary early morning golfers teeing off, and to hold Tom’s hand at the end, for their “cool downs,” the five slow circlings of their cove before they returned to the comfortable, solid old house they’d lived in since marrying. They’d sit together and drink water and coffee (no sugar, cream was okay) and eat breakfasts of fat link sausage in their kitchen’s newly renovated dining area, together, inviting the day to come.
The diet hadn’t been difficult for either of them. Pounds left quietly and quickly. They’d simply been disciplined. Both stuck to it, Tom eating burgers and steak and cheese by the cartload of Kitty’s biweekly trips to Seessel’s. So it wasn’t that long before Tom had taken down from the top shelf of his closet, stacked next to his old albums, his lucky “gameday” khakis again, and he had to use a belt to hold them up now. Thirty years older, but that rear wallet pocket familiar and worn where it had rubbed against the metal bleachers of Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium, over four seasons of fall Saturdays.
For Kitty too, it had been even easier and more flattering. Her legs quickly remembered their earlier consistency, their tone, the supple shape of cheerleading days. Like those hard lines had been hibernating there under a slight, jiggling outline of skin. Her stomach became flat and tight and did not sit the least bit depressingly over the waist of her skirt anymore, and her breasts became only a bit smaller but firmer and circled and seemed more herself. Old flesh came undone, and it was like new life to Kitty when Tom discovered her afresh and took her in new places — facing the mirror in the bathroom, in the hall off the laundry room, sprawled and panting on the long kitchen table still marked with the crayon sun a four-year-old Katie had drawn illicitly at one of its corners — there in that old house of theirs, resurrecting itself.
It had all been nearly effortless, almost without incident. Kitty did have swooning headaches the first week, but they went away once she got used to the particular deprivation of carbs. Then there was that one time Brett had been over right after New Year’s, taking over the family room with his SAE brothers to watch Tennessee play Florida State for the national title. Kitty enjoyed overhearing them talk during commercials of their graduated lives, when she would invade the room and drop off appetizers on the overstuffed footstool they used as a coffeetable. It made her proud to overhear her own son talking of his job with a venture-capitalist firm as a research analyst (a firm owned by one of Tom’s fellow elders at church), to hear him complain and brag of the routine events of his days, the responsibilities he’d assumed since moving back home to Memphis that past fall.
Her strongest remembrance from that early January evening, when she’d just finished preparing the Rotel dip with ground beef that Brett liked so much, was overhearing from the kitchen his friend Kyle say, after halftime, “Dude, chill. Ain’t my fault your mom’s turned into a damn hottie.” Nervous laughing around, then her son’s voice said, apparently for the second time, gravely, “I said shut the hell up,” right before she had walked into the now-silent room like she hadn’t heard. “Here you go,” she’d said, smiling at them like nothing was out of place, to this day feeling slight guilt for harboring such immense pleasure at those words of her child’s friend. Since then, on the weekends when Tom still had to be out of town for church business, Kitty had taken to walking by the College & Career class on her way to Sunday school, leaning in the doorway and waving, or talking to Brett and his friends in the hallway if she made it by early enough.
She looked again at the blank white wall running the length of her right, where photos of the completed expansion really should have been put up by now. “Earl, my feet are kind of hurting.” Kitty was surprised at the muted sound of her voice in the low hallway, how small it sounded. “Do you mind if we go through here and I can show you the new fellowship hall. We can find a place to sit and wait for the Stokes to come by, if we don’t see them right away.” He seemed to be too absorbed to hear.
She had no idea if the Stokes would be in the fellowship hall anyway, or anywhere else in the church. If she had to find them, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to, and now she knew she needed to pass Earl off before Sunday school started. He wasn’t going anywhere by himself.
The only place she could “fit” the Stokes was in an old, dark-gray Chevy conversion van with Choo-Choo Customs in large black cursive decals down both flanks. It announced the family’s arrival and departure at church with a throaty whumping from a hole in the muffler and a slight trailing of hazy blue oilsmoke. The first morning the Stokes had attended six years ago, Kitty had been entering the church as that van idled past. The deeply-tinted oblong window cut into half of the passenger side toward the van’s rear brought a sharp memory of boys in high school with vans just like it, older boys who tried to lure her and her cheerleading friends to Ross Barnett Reservoir for camping on Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, any weekend, to stay out there and grill burgers and drink beer and swim and sleep with them behind those smoked windows, overnight, away from home. But she never did. She’d saved herself from that. For Tom.
Kitty remembered thinking this van’s driver would soon realize he had pulled into the wrong parking lot, this one lined with cars of European makes, and immaculate, inflated SUVs. But the dark van eased past an open spot, clunked its transmission into reverse, and backed in. The big side door slid open and disgorged five fair and laughing children who boiled about that round and happy father and the calm mother who seemed able to herd them without talking much. Quite a sight, Kitty thought, but the reality would be those strange people at church for that week, possibly the next. Then they would see East Presbyterian just didn’t have any others like them, and they’d probably decide to go somewhere else. With that thought lingering, she repeated, “Earl, let’s go see if we can’t find the Stokes now.”
He awoke as if from a spell. “Oh, yes, ma’am.” He looked at her feet. “My apologies. I’m getting a little caught up in these folks’ stories.” They walked a few steps to another set of double doors. Kitty swung one open and ushered Earl into a grand three-story atrium area shedding light, sprawling from there to the church’s new, unseen extremities.
“Blest be His Name! This is about even niceter than the Opryland Hotel, and that’s the nicest place I ever even seent. This is the Lord’s house! Fit for the King!” Earl spoke, overwhelmed, his reverent silence of the hallway gone. His neck was cocked upward like an open PEZ dispenser and his voice carried well in the cavernous lobby. A group of people standing by sofas in one of the four denlike sitting areas, people Kitty knew, but not well, were staring. She waved and hoped one of them would motion them over, but they lifted hands in quick recognition and went back to talking among themselves. Earl’s voice came from behind her, “Ain’t plastic or nothing.” She looked to see he had taken the broad leaf of a potted plant between his fingers like a dollar bill.
He began turning around and around on the center of a small Oriental rug surrounded by comfortable furnishings, like a shopper in a showroom, this area free of any other people. “Let’s have a seat here, Earl. Please,” Kitty said, and gestured him to the plump armchair there. He sat but did not relax and held his knees together formally as if waiting for his name to be called in a doctor’s office. The Stokes will please, please come through on the way to Sunday school, she prayed, and then she’d relinquish this spot to them and Earl. They would be properly surprised, in a much different way than she’d been, to see him here.
Kitty took a seat on the couch placed at a right angle to his chair to be able to talk with him face to face, and to keep an eye on the main entrance of the lobby. Earl thumbed the thick tweed of the armrest under his hand and took a loud, verbal inventory of his surroundings. “A couch and chairs like in a house, coffeetable’s nice enough to eat off of. Big china cabinet full a plates, Asian rug here even though there’s carpet all over smells just like a new house ain’t never been lived in!” He craned his neck upward again. “Lordamighty.”
Kitty was not looking upward with him. Earl’s suit and shirtsleeves had worked their way slightly up his arms, and as he turned his face heavenward, he instinctively turned his palms up on the thick armrests as if to receive something valuable into them. On the inside of his right wrist Kitty could read the words WHITE FIGHTer, scripted crudely in sick blue lines the color of a bruise. A list of nots she’d known to be the truth since they’d started talking flowed from her mind. Not educated. Not a new suit, not even decent shoes now that she sat facing him and could see them. Not used to these things. Not a homeowner. Definitely not from this zip code of Memphis. Not a husband not a parent not a grandfather not any connections at all. Not judgments. Only facts needing acknowledgment. Truths to face.
Kitty willed her eyes to turn from his shoes to keep them fixed instead on the bright, glassed entryway where Cecil Stokes must come through. After the expansion, she thought she remembered, the new entrance was the only one besides the sanctuary supposed to be left unlocked. It had to be. She was aware of a twangy white noise weaving itself among her pleading thoughts. Earl was watching her with his whole face open like a set trap.
“I — I’m sorry — did you say something?” Kitty asked in a small voice.
“I ast if you think this is even a small something of what heaven is kindly like? I was reading the part not two nights ago where Jesus says in my father’s house is many mansions, but I got to go and prepare a place so you can be there with me. You cain’t come yet, he told. Then he said he’d send the Spirit on them, so they’d know the way to go before he come back to fetch them.” Earl lifted and rotated his arm and the tattoo disappeared from sight. He scratched a thumbnail lightly along the top of the coffeetable to test the depth of its finish. “You think this is something like that place he’s preparing? All kinda nice places wrapped in one — enough for eight, nine, ten houses?” His eyes looked again to the skylight above. “But God’s. A place for all us just to set and be, to rest, nothing to worry over?”
Kitty didn’t know how to answer him. The urge was strong to reply Not all of us. She saw a stack of the capital-campaign brochures sitting there on the coffeetable, showing photographed progress of the church expansion, each with the faintest bulge where its white-envelope insert gently suggesting the congregant prayerfully consider helping to faithfully pay off the massive debt the expansion had caused. “All part of the plan we signed up for,” Tom had said the one time she’d asked if he thought assuming such financial burdens could be justified from the Bible alone. “It’ll be paid off soon enough” was his answer, one she hadn’t expected from him. “East Pres has been blessed with deep pockets sitting on all those new pews. They just need a helpful reminder.”
“Good question, Earl.” She handed him one of the brochures. “This shows how our church got like this.” Kitty knew it didn’t answer his question about Jesus and mansions and the Spirit, but she hoped it would take him a week to read so she could bide her time left with him.
She watched the door. When it came right down to it, she worried, the Stokes were people she didn’t really know at all, people who might never show up in the particular place she needed them to. She might end up having to make an excuse and just leave Earl by himself. Kitty decided she was skipping Sunday school today, either way.
“A Place of His Dwelling.” Earl mouthed the capital campaign’s title slowly, loudly, in his way of a child learning to read, and then his faintly bloodshot eyes moved to the text. She wondered where Earl had even spent the night before, if he even had a place to call home, and she felt a forgotten rush of fear at what she’d welcomed here today. How different it sounds when he reads it aloud, Kitty thought. “It’s really an interesting story,” she said, and pointed her manicured nail at the first paragraph.
But that grand space surrounding them only brought the last three years of life to her mind in more finite, earthbound terms. Reverend Prentse asking Tom to be on the steering committee for the building campaign. Tom becoming vice-chair and working for months and months with the best ad and PR firm in Memphis on how to explain such a campaign to the congregation: “Introduce the idea gradually, let those who care to have monthly Q & A’s with Prentse and the elders, town-hall style, and then bring it to a congregational vote,” he’d relayed to her. Tom at late downtown meetings with the PR firm checking proofs for the brochures, the wording printed on the commitment envelopes to be mailed out to the entire church. Then him proudly showing her the final logo of a simple chapel hovering on blue lines, meant to resemble a light wind — the Spirit — accompanying the campaign’s title Earl had just pronounced so carefully: A Place of His Dwelling. It had all been done in a way Kitty was more than comfortable believing her good and perfect God worked. Except for that nagging issue of the debt it caused.
Earl had moved on and was concentrating on the Bible verses used as captions for photographs capturing the distinct phases of growth — save for one of the finished church, since the PR firm had instructed to definitely get the brochures mailed out prior to the expansion’s completion. “People are more eager to give to something if they feel it’s still going on,” Tom had said, telling her the PR firm’s practical take on human nature when it came to the more worldly issue of money. Earl mouthed each of the captioned verses in loud whispers like separate prayers. Kitty knew those verses by heart, because she’d helped Tom proof the final brochure before it had gone to print. But now they only reminded her of Tom leaving home on Saturdays as early as he would for work, onsite in a hardhat, the church’s de facto project manager. And now he was away to figure out a way to pay for it all, not knowing that an unknown, potential danger sat beside his own wife in the place he’d helped to build.
She could tell Earl had moved on to the section about the history of the church when his voice fell silent, eyes still wide and focused on what it had to tell him. She prayed for God to deliver her from Earl in a way to save them both embarrassment or discomfort — Let the Stokes come, Father, she tried to repeat — but her mind kept fixing on a past that felt closer than she wanted, one she hadn’t realized, until now, she so much needed to forget. Tom gone away, Tom so involved, Tom doing so much work — more than even the chairman — that the steering committee had presented him with a small gold shovel like the chairman’s, but they’d also given Tom three original blueprints of the expansion, matted, expensively framed. Kitty had been proud when he’d showed them to her, but far more so relieved that they commemorated the job that kept him away from his real home, from her, was done. Even if it was for their church. For their God. He was the one who had meant for the two of them to be together, after all.
The very night Tom had brought the blueprints home, Kitty had hung them vertically on the far wall of the kitchen, behind the table where their family had spent so much time as one in the past. The kitchen was the only room in their old house they’d had time to remodel, though a full redo had been planned before the church commanded all his free time. While she had washed and laid out the lettuce on paper towels for their diet salads, Kitty wondered at the clean blue lines drawn on the fine paper thin as Bible pages, the different views of the imagined church the plans offered, arrows and measurements and her eye drawn to the suggestive word ELEVATION, written in the architect’s perfect, angled script. A tiny image of one of those blueprints was printed on the back of the brochure Earl was whispering to. Now, Kitty thought, here sits that proposed act of faith, realized in this world, a mile from their home.
The blueprint on Earl’s brochure was the one charting an overhead view of the church before the campaign, accompanied by a dotted outline of the proposed expansion. The bird’s-eye view of the old sanctuary’s long clean lines split off into a Y above the summit of the pulpit and choir loft, into the two long hallways that ended in the small fellowship hall on one side, and the matching rectangle of Sunday school rooms at the end of the other. Hard, slender lines defining the growing church she knew before, where people had to cram folding chairs into the doorways of classrooms back then. But there was a real closeness to it, like they had vital secrets to share. As if they were hunted refugees from the world, gathered in the only safe place they knew. Outside the thin lines of the sanctuary, parallel blue dashes represented the outdoor space to be claimed, widening the church’s girth. Much larger blue-dashed rectangles surrounded the smaller delicate squares at the end of each hallway, expanding each of the wings outward and upward to accommodate the tremendous membership growth East Pres had been blessed with in its past decade.
The night when Tom had brought the framed blueprint of this one home, it had made Kitty think of verses describing Christ as the Head of the Church, and the pulpit and the choir loft appeared to her as His kingly head, the cross mounted on that big wall behind the choir transformed to His crown, the two hallways His arms lifted in praise, the fellowship hall and Sunday school wing each a palm held heavenward. In that way of thinking, Christ’s Body would become widened, more substantial with the outlined expansion. Each hand at the end of the outstretched arms would simply unfold to become larger and stronger, for God’s purposes.
Once more, Kitty put a hand to her neck and held to the cross there while Earl read the brochure, its information somehow essential to the life he’d recently laid claim to. She envied and pitied the unguarded expression on his face, thinking she knew too much of this church to see that history with his fresh eyes. But she had at one time. Watching him read, she knew she had clung to everything it had to offer the same way, what felt to her now like such a long, long time ago.
The trouble simply was she knew what was behind the words Earl read. All the human doings that had made this place just so. Kitty kept her eye on the main entrance to the lobby, praying for Cecil Stokes and his wife, repeating for them to come, but thinking still of that center blueprint hung behind her kitchen table, running a finger across the edge of her tiny gold cross. As she sat next to her strange visitor, other verses came to her mind now, ones she’d picked to be read at her own wedding so many years ago, words that described the Church as the cherished Bride of Christ, awaiting consummation. With that, the whole Y of the blue-lined building upended in her mind, and she imagined those extensions of the halls from the choir loft as legs instead of arms, the two rectangles at the ends as feet instead of hands. That way of seeing it meant the pulpit and the choir loft became the triangle of a crotch and not the platform for a head. Your nethers, her grandmother had always called that unmentionable place.
But if the Church is His Bride, isn’t that more like it? she thought. If He came to claim Her, to make Himself one with Her, isn’t that where the cross would go? The part that bleeds? The place that feels so good when two move together and make real contact inside? My own beautiful children brought forth from there? Kin of Jesus is my kinfolk in the cross sprang unsought to her mind, a scrap of lyric Kitty wished she’d never heard.
The unexpectedness of her own thoughts returned her to that frightened and thrilled nursing student on the ratty couch once her shirt was back on, hearing Tom’s prayed words about God and future children in an assured voice suggesting her own life, finally, held promise of really beginning. But Earl’s voice was mixed in with it, a voice she couldn’t quite understand because he was muttering slowly, at the child’s pace of reading he’d probably never moved beyond. She looked to the curling blue script on Earl’s wrist at ease again on the thick armrest as he read the church brochure and a felt pulsing, mysterious fear rush through her. She lowered her head then, a dark arrow pointing away from her formed by the V of her legs held together. Kitty thought she could just make out the faintest shade of black thong there beneath the pale pink skirt, somehow visible beneath the new skylight’s flood of sun.
Now the memory of that night when she had waited for Tom to shower and come to supper felt like pity for an older woman past her prime but oblivious to the fact. She should have been thinking, back then, those blueprints meant the broader dotted lines of expansion would make East Presbyterian thicker, just plain big across the midsection. Those small, slender feet at the end of each thin hallway would be bloated, large, filled out like blocks of concrete, keeping her from ever actively moving again. She imagined Tom in his hardhat atop a mound of dirt, those plans scrolled out like a map to direct the workmen in how to handle the form sprawled out, legs splayed apart before them, figuring how best to get her fat and fixed for life. Kitty shook her head to rid it of such an unpleasant image.
“Ma’am?” Earl said.
“Oh. I — Nothing, Earl. I thought I saw Cecil Stokes, but it wasn’t him.”
Earl shrugged. “I’m fine here with you for time being,” he said, and smiled, flipping over the first leaf of the brochure to read the opposite side.
“Yes, I’m glad,” Kitty lied, not quite paying attention as she watched the doorway, fixed only on fine here with you.
Tom had been happy that night when he came back in the kitchen for dinner and saw where she had hung those prints. Happy at her standing there admiring them. They’d sat and held hands and talked just like the old days as they ate another of Dr. Atkins’s prescribed, slimming meals, huge salads of lettuce and steak chunks and shredded Swiss cheese. When both had finished, she cleared the table of dishes but did not blow out the candles in the wall sconces burning like incense on either side of the framed blueprints climbing the wall’s center; she hugged her husband’s recently shrunken waist from behind as he looked them over, whispering in his ear how much she loved him, how glad she was to have him home again, all to herself. Kitty hadn’t really let herself feel until that moment the depths of how much she had missed him at home, with her. Tom turned and kissed her and said, “Well, well, what’s new here?” pulling loose the tie at the front of her skirt, undressing her completely and then himself, and she felt the cool wood of the table against her firm butt and on the arching and relaxing muscles of her taut back and saw Katie’s four-year-old Crayola sun above the ball of her naked shoulder where she had turned her head and gasped rhythmically to catch her breath. The vertical collection of blueprints hung right there — she thought now — like some fat girl watching them enjoy the surfaces of each other’s toned bodies, wishing she hadn’t let herself go so soft.
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” Earl’s face was before hers again. Close. Perplexed. He had finished his reading.
She knew she hadn’t proposed an answer to his question about heaven and didn’t know what rude spiritual question he’d asked her now, but she smiled at him and put her hand on his forearm as if to bring him back to this earth they shared, down from whatever blissful scene he was imagining. Herself too.
Kitty was going to repeat her question asking how he found out about East Pres, but she realized it didn’t matter now. “Earl, tell me, how do you know the Stokes?”
Earl looked bewildered by her question, or at the lack of an answer to his, and said quietly, “I’m sorry I haven’t said yet.” He shifted his rear and finally settled into the plush chair. Earl absently dropped his eyes to the scoops of Kitty’s breasts, her sculpted calves. She thought she saw an appraising grin. “I guess that is what you need to know.”
Earl rubbed the back of his neck like he was tired, staring at the solid coffee table before him as if it were something he couldn’t figure out. “You know, even though my cell at Fort Pillow was white-painted block, it kept me from sleeping some nights only after he’d leave from us talking. That little square of room just felt dark and tight and worn down, more’n more. Mr. Stokes started by passing the children’s Bible he used with his own kids for me to read from, one of those big ones with all the color pichures like paintings in it. I’d ast him questions, and he’d tell me about what he thought it means in how he tries to follow Jesus hisself. I’d been able to do my latest stretch fine until he started talking God and forgiveness and all that make-believe and I got depressed as hell. Told him so. In a weird way it was his fault I felt that bad. ‘Cause of him.” Kitty could see a transfiguring in Earl’s eyes, that he was somewhere else now, a harder place, a harder self inside it.
His eyes narrowed. “Before he showed, I wouldn’t have cared one way or th’uther. So one time he come back I take holt of him” — Earl moved to the edge of the plush chair like a man half his years, a plastic pen from beside the neat stack of pledge brochures now in one hand, and grabbed her wrist — “and I put a pen from his own pocket to his neck and ast him why he’s so sure I won’t stick him for his trouble, back here all alone? Said maybe that’d set me feeling alright. Get rid of the problem.” His grip tightened on Kitty’s arm and the other fist clutched the pen in a stabbing motion, its point in contact with her skin.
Kitty pulled, tried to make a sound, but he was so strong. “Let me —” she whispered.
Earl leaned in, and his grip relaxed, but he did not let her go. “So Cecil Stokes, you know what he done then? He leans in closer, says, ‘Brother, you think the God I serve ain’t in here right now?’ tapping his finger on my chest, real slow like.” Earl began circling a finger of his free hand around his head. “Starts pointing around in the air like a crazy man, says his words even: ‘The God I been telling you about is all over this place, turnt loose on this world after Jesus to do holy good all kinda crazy ways. That’s why I’m here. How you gonna kill the Spirit of God himself just by cutting on me?’”
Earl’s voice sounded more natural now, sinister, Kitty felt. She put her hand on the one that held her, thinking she’d pry it loose if she had to. It looked as if the two of them were confiding. Earl was. “Cecil Stokes knew what he said was truth, knew it cold, even back in my cell. Had no fear a me. Almost like he was daring me to, telling me I wanted to do more than that.” Kitty found herself wanting to look away from him. She did not want him to see her, did not want to hear one more word of what he had to say.
His eyes fell back to her breasts and returned to the slight cross between them. “If it would have felt like he was threatenin me, I could’ve settled it the way I’d always known. But all he did was promise something I couldn’t do nuthin about.” Then he released his grip on her arm and sat back again, at rest in the deep chair. “So that’s how I come to be here.” He stared at her. “You know that man? You know his family? I ain’t really talkin about his wife and kids, neither.” Earl waited for what she would say in response now, as if her answer was the true reason he’d been sent to visit.
His way of talking goodness was making the three-story atrium close in, tight, a stifling air Kitty was trying to breathe in. Her earlier conviction in the sanctuary to make Earl feel welcome was confirmed here and now as dangerous, sentimental nothingness. She just wanted to be home, curled into herself, safe. Waiting for Tom to come back to her and give answers for all this.
Earl patted and flattened his threadbare tie, leaning in close to her. “No way for you to know where they is in a place like this, is there?” Earl cast his eyes around the cavernous space as if it were bigger than any one person could hope to comprehend.
Kitty inhaled. “My family’s been at this church for over twenty years. We’re very involved. My husband was in charge of this entire expansion. I know who the Stokes are.” The words, out loud, did not make any sense even to her.
“Well,” Earl said, and he looked away from her like he thought he’d been talking to another person the whole time. He craned his neck all the way around to the wide, glassed entryway, watching the same place she had been, waiting for people he knew.
I do know what I mean, she wanted to scream at him, at God. She told herself she knew enough of what she had to about the Stokes, to be sure, about their place here, and definitely her own. Kitty could mark the change of six years’ worth of seasons by their goddamn van’s appearance. A piece of ragged cardboard duct-taped across the front grille in winter; the big, smoky side window completely removed for spring and summer and in its place a fitted homemade screen. Just last month it had broken down on Sunday morning, in the church parking lot, and she and Tom had come out of the uninspected, nearly completed east-wing construction entrance to enjoy the weather with their coffee before Sunday school. Cecil was sprawled on his back under the thing, the ring of children watching in silent awe as if the family pet was dead. An hour later, he came rolling out from under the gray mass and declared it alive just as Tom and Kitty were exiting the building to go home, as cars for the eleven o’clock service began pulling in, competing for spaces. They’d heard Cecil’s voice from underneath grunt, “Give ‘er a go!” and saw Emily’s plain country face behind the wheel, heard the engine belch loudly and whoom with life, the kids gleefully cheering like ballgame fans where their team had just smacked one way out to bring the winning run home.
It had made her want to cry when she heard them all screaming together, Tom and her cordoned off from their loud display by a fluttering fence of orange construction tape, behind the fluorescent cones marking the place to watch your step between the newly poured concrete curb and the pavement of the parking lot, excavated dirt piled between the two families like a fortification.
His sleeves rolled and smeared with oil, Cecil had looked right at the two of them and shouted, “Finally! Praise God!” and then the whole bunch poured into the van and roared out of there. Kitty had wondered if any of them had even gone to the morning service. How could they be for real if they hadn’t worried about making it inside? she’d thought then.
Kitty furtively moved her hand. She flung her small purse from beside her on the sofa, gasped “Oh!” and made a too-late grab for it as it hit the edge of the coffee table and landed beside Earl’s chair. “Whope,” he said. He was up quick, using the arm of the chair to steady himself. He squatted on his haunches like a farmer, offering up the elegant Prada purse with the pages of her tiny church Bible peeking from its top like edges of bills from a wallet.
“Thank you,” she said, and stood quickly, snatching the purse from him, though she hadn’t mean to grab. “I … I have to go now. I — it was so nice to meet you.”
The gentler Earl had returned. He stood slowly and watched as Kitty massaged her wrist where he had held it. “Didn’t mean to get holt of you that tight and do you thataway. I’m real sorry.”
Kitty was herself again, could breathe again now that she knew she would leave him. “No, no, Earl.” She rubbed her arm. “It’s fine! Really. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. I just realized how late it is, and I’m very late to meet someone for brunch. At Grove Grille.” Kitty guessed he would have no idea where this was, what it was. It sounded like it could be true.
“Yes ma’am,” Earl said quietly, lifting his eyes slowly from hers to scan the fine details of the cavernous lobby again, a fresh late-morning light pouring in. “I’m sorry I kept you. I can see how time can slip on by in a place like this, having to tend to someone you don’t know from Adam.”
“That’s quite alright! You’re welcome here, anytime!” She was batting him on the shoulder. It seemed to her she was the loud one now, her voice high and shrill, unnatural in that bright, open space. “Please come back sometime soon!”
“Lord be with you, ma’am,” she heard his voice say as she turned and walked away from him, fast, toward the wide entrance leading out to the east parking lot. She shouted, “Yes! You too!” a false benediction returned over the shoulder, walking head down so that no one she knew would stop her.
She was almost to the clear glass of the entryway when she heard him, louder, “Ma’am!” Then, “Miss Kitty?” Shouting, “Hey sister!” She pretended she did not hear. Her taut legs could not carry her fast enough, dragging, her stride casting shadows behind from the bright sun streaming in, so heavy, such burdens to her now. She felt the roof might cave in on top of her, bringing the rubbled weight of the three newly-constructed stories to rest as jagged, dusted remains, blanketing all.
She threw one of the wide doors open. Under the porte-cochere of that east entrance the dark gray mess of the Stokes van, Choo-Choo Customs in faded scrawl, was idling and puffing blue strings of smoke, one after the other like a train at station, fogging the newly planted shrubs next to the flat white of the sidewalk and obscuring the immediate air. It rocked faintly on broken springs, double doors flung wide. In the same moment a happy chatter came from behind her, over the muffler’s heavy drumming. Sounds that did not make sense together.
The Stokes must not have been at church for yet another of their mysterious reasons. But they were here now. Kitty stood still as she could, as if not to be seen. The Stokes children had been at church and were roiling out behind her, past her, clambering into the shuddering van.
Once they’d all boarded, the biggest girl slammed the side doors shut behind her, a rattled bang setting the van to rock gently like a crib. At the sound, the same deep sadness flowed through Kitty as when she’d heard those children cheering their father, their own magician in his happy resurrection of a vehicle that would have embarrassed any other family of that church to claim. She knew they’d celebrated something she would cringe for the world to know about her, what she could only envision as a lack to be seen by all, a truth she could not ever bring herself to face alone.
Before she could think, Earl was there, right next to her, holding her by the elbow. “You dropped your key from out your purse,” he said quietly, and held it up for her delicate fingers to take. Kitty fumbled at her tiny handbag, probing the big key back into the shallow depth, snaking it between her small church Bible and sermon notebook to be sure not to lose it again.
Emily Stokes was already cranking the passenger window down, a look of happy recognition dawning on her freckled, girlish face, yelling, “Hey Earl! What in the world? Get yourself over here!”
“Where’s your car at?” he asked Kitty, ushering the two of them toward the van as if she were his obligation of faith left undone. She felt small, shrinking, and answered in the same childlike way as when he’d first asked how long she’d known Jesus. “There.” She pointed at the street sign at Morning Star, barely legible from this distance. “It’s parked down around that corner.” It was amazing to her how empty the big parking lot could be in this transition time before Sunday School. How many spaces were left there to take.
“Car trouble er somethin?” Earl asked.
“Yes,” Kitty lied. “But it’s fine now.”
Emily was grinning at Earl in a way Kitty had never seen passing her in the halls. “Earl, you got a place to be? Come on to lunch.”
“Yessir, do!” Cecil yelled from the driver’s seat, leaning across his wife.
“I don’t, Mrs. Stokes. I’d sure like that.” Earl nodded his head toward Kitty. “Y’all know Miss Kitty here.” They looked at her and dipped their heads slightly, in a rural glad-to-know-you, uncomfortable greeting. “She’s way late for a lunch meetin herself. You mind carrying her to her car round that corner?’ He extended his arm to point, revealing again the sick blue script tattooed on his wrist.
“Earl, I — ”
“No trouble.” Emily looked at Kitty and smiled. “Hop on in.”
She felt Earl’s grip tighten on the hard knob of her elbow. One of the sidedoors flung open from inside, then the other. Kitty wanted to exclaim no, no, no, how unnecessary this was, but none of them awaited her response. She felt a deep fear and then relief. There was nothing she could do now, nothing expected. It moved over her like the fact of weather, how tired she was. So tired and so old inside. She wondered what the worst thing was that could happen, and she wondered why she’d worried over it so long. How much of her life she’d missed that way. Her heart pounded in her ears.
The oldest Stokes moved to relinquish one of the captain’s chairs to her and then three matching younger children scooted leftward on the rear sofa to make room for their sister. Earl climbed in and offered Kitty his hand. “Ups a daisy,” he said. Once she let him take hold of her this time, his tight, lifting grip reminded her of her father’s hand, of being way too small to understand or resist when he pulled her into a dark, filthy trailer, the words he offered her — she needed to meet her oldest living kin once before it’s too late — mixed with that haunting scrap of music, Kin of Jesus is my kinfolk in the cross. She knew, now, God would never let her outlive the memory of the words’ muffled, haunting sound.
As Earl plopped in the right captain’s chair beside hers and let her hand go and settled close to the big side window, Kitty realized the dark glass had already been removed and fitted with the homemade screen for the onset of even fairer spring weather. Before her, a tattered paperback New Testament hung in the netted pocket on the back of Emily’s captain’s chair, and as her view lifted, up between the Stokes, a faded-green pine-scented air freshener in the shape of a cross dangled from the broken stub where a rear-view mirror used to be. Even after the doors slammed closed, the late morning sunlight was enough to see the interior was worn but clean. She had expected it to be so dark and dirty inside.
The unstable gray van shuddered and then pulled away. Cecil cranked the radio’s knob and the whole family picked up singing a song they must have been listening to before. Their voices easily found comfortable places, high and low, and sang with melodic power words of a chorus, “Something so strong,” in strange, nasal, Appalachian style that sounded to Kitty’s ears like it flowed from a mountainous and alien world. She remembered the song from the radio too, from college, even though she hadn’t thought anything of it then or since. It meant nothing to her, and she was sure, this far along in life, the eighties pop lyrics couldn’t be trusted as anything close to God’s truth. Earl began humming along as soon as he picked up the tune. Crowded House. The band’s name came to her mind, effortless, from nowhere.
As she heard Earl’s twanging voice join to theirs right where it belonged, she relaxed without knowing. The slight outward spread of her thighs on the worn-out, stained cushion beneath her, the cords in her taut back, her sleek arms, her poised neck all giving way. The tight, pale skirt crept up her lightly muscled legs, revealing the start of a faint, blue-dashed varicose vein she hadn’t ever noticed. Kitty lifted her eyes to the green cardboard cross, swinging now in wild twists of spring wind as Cecil gunned the van to leave the half-circled entry. Her insides fell away as the van leapt forward, her fear immediate and giddy like a child’s on a ride at the fair. That fresh breeze sweeping through the screened window brushed the insides of her taut legs and then seemed to rush itself inside, blowing up behind the scaffolding of her flat stomach, swirling within the small domes of her breasts, from there storming into a space much more vast and empty and dark than she’d ever imagined it could be after all this time.about the author