by Scottie Allen
Southern babies know the best lullaby is a Sunday morning service. Nothing is so soothing as the sweet sweep of wood fans stirring air up above while the pastor preaches in droning tap dance rhythms on the ear. Particular points ring out loud as climax notes. Words separated by silence to draw attention to themselves sound similar to the words before and after, to the sermon before and after, to the Sunday before and after, sounding out the years of childhood being Southern Baptist.
It was no different growing up in Hargrove Baptist. That particular Sunday was just like every Sunday since the church building claimed the soft Virginia ground. Sweet-faced babies slept, rose cheeks flush up against the silk summer dresses that graced the laps of southern mamas. Old men wrapped in light blue suits whispered loudly to their aged spouses, trying to fill in spaces and gaps of the sermon they could barely hear. Clusters of families sat in worn oak pews, still and staid, breathing in the permeating heat. Deacons, in dark suits and wide glasses, huddled together to count the tithes of the faithful, while the pastor, marked by age and reverent solemnity, handed a three-point life lesson to the people of his church. The bright, bold pastor’s wife sat down front, close enough for her presence to be a support, but at the end of the pew so she could make a quick exit to shake hands, to serve lunch, to direct and encourage and lead and edify.
And from the back pew, the pastor’s son, Grady Jackson, could feel himself drown in the Sunday stillness. Like always, he wore an air of nonchalance that just barely covered boredom, elbow resting up over the back of the pew. Grady was only seventeen, but he had the smooth social sheen of someone who knows how to work the system. He knew how to mingle with deacons and talk sweet with church mammas. He was born with the gift of words, a bit of his daddy in him. Grady could roll that honey-dipped tongue and make morning from night. More specifically, he could make the events of Saturday night disappear into Sunday morning under church talk and cologne. To keep peace in his house, Grady played his role well every Sunday morning.
He glanced down the pew and knew that he was not the only one who would slip out when provided the chance. The miscreants of the back row all wondered if they belonged. In short skirts and tiny tanks, the girlie girls of fifteen and sixteen brought magazines, passing down the row pictures of their favorite movie stars for their current best friend to see. The bobby browns tugged at the buttons of pressed collared shirts, killing time by scratching notes on the church bulletin. Grady knew each of them by name and reputation—had known most of them since age five or six. They all pacified church parents by being present, while still mocking the antique service with back row chatter.
Sitting next to Grady Jackson, on this day and practically every Sunday since they could sit unattended in church, was Ty Peterson. Petes was as big as a full-grown man—not just tall, like Grady, but filled out in the shoulders and chest and hips. He had the gritty look of sandpaper; his hair a disheveled dark brown and his face shadowed by stubble that made baby-faced teenage boys jealous, including Grady at times. Whether it was his brimming manliness, the loud smack of his laugh, or the way he seemed to stumble into his words, church ladies didn’t trust Petes. It was widely assumed that he was trouble. Didn’t matter that his father was deacon or that he went to the Christian School downtown, it was as if the old members could see sin under every one of Petes’ fingernails and they didn’t want any part. Most members thought Grady was being dragged by the devil with Petes as his best friend, but they were one and the same. Petes just happened to be plain as toast in the way he handled things.
God handed Grady the keys to the kingdom when it came to his looks and skill with women, and then God tortured him by making him the pastor’s son in a Southern Baptist church. Right past Petes sat Grady’s recent ex-girlfriend, a small tanned baby-doll in a form fitting J. Crew sundress. He watched her avoid his glance, and found satisfaction in her noticeable disconcertion. He reveled in the new found freedom of single-hood as he watched her shift her body away from his gaze. She dropped her chin to her chest, her hair blocking his view of her face as she picked invisible lint from her lap.
Studying her, he thought, “She had never kissed anyone before. She thought we would date through college.” He felt heat rise into his face and a slight wave of nausea pass over his middle, rumors of feelings he refused to have. Grady shifted again. He studied his shoes. Glancing up, he studied the red wavy hair of the girl sitting directly in front of him. One of the deviants down the pew laughed out loud, and the redhead glanced back disapprovingly. Grady knew she would turn. It was in Christine Bailey’s nature. He smirked in the smug satisfaction that he understood her actions so well.
She was sweet sixteen, just a year younger than Grady, and he thought she was eccentric. As long as Grady had known her, she laughed like a hyena at everyone’s jokes, made her own clothes on a sewing machine, and smiled big and sweet at the dorks and geeks. Grady felt he could get tooth rot around her candy coated intensity, but what made him more anxious was her goody two shoes faith and obedience. Grady was convinced she had friends because no one could quite make out exactly what she was—she didn’t grant them easy categorical description. He chose to stay clear of her all the same.
Grady noticed the string of words in his father’s sermon that coded for it’s impending ending. Behind the pulpit, Pastor Jackson was a shorter version of Grady. An older version that had lost hair and gained weight since seminary, physically rounding him out on top and bottom. When he finished a sermon, it was as if a train was hissing to a stop- the words steadily slowed. He was quieter now, softly urging the congregation instead of speeding them along in their spiritual journey as he was a few minutes ago. His voice grew lower and lower, till it slid to a stop at “Shall we pray?”
Grady knew the cue and bowed his head.
In low tones of reverence, Pastor Jackson bent before God Almighty and poured out words of peace for his people. He claimed glory and power in the presence of the unseen guide and deliverer, father and prophet. Pastor Jackson was known to shake the pews with his sermons, but his prayers had a way of slipping unnoticed into the congregation, calling men and women out in person. Everyone said his prayers were the reason people came back to Hargrove.
Pastor Jackson said his last “Holy, Holy, Holy are you Lord” and then “Amen.” The congregation sat still a few seconds after he finished, as if they were watching the words wind through the pews, dance in the rafters, and swirl in the sunlight from the windows before they finally dissolved into the room like smoke. Then, by general agreement that it was time, the congregation pulled the zippers on their Bible covers, gathered belongings, shuffled, fidgeted, coughed and made every kind of earthly noise, to ready themselves for the last hymn. Fred Duncan, minister of music, bounded up the stairs, as Pastor Jackson slowly ascended to sit with his wife in the front pew. Mr. Duncan politely directed everyone’s attention to hymn number 347, “Jesus, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” The sheep, all hundred and seventy in the pews that day, stood at his bidding and obediently flipped through their hymnals to find the appropriate text.
Grady was known to stand, but at some point between the ages of thirteen and fourteen, he had decided to remain silent during the hymn and had remained so ever since. His mother, realizing the trend, had told him that Good God Almighty most likely wondered if Grady still had the voice given to him on account of the silence. Grady believed that he had an understanding with God that granted them indifference to their mutual silence, this line of reasoning pleasing him to no end. Accordingly, he stood at the left end of the pew, bullying silence into the hymn. This was routine.
Just as the tone-deaf congregational choir had rounded the third verse and was well on their way through the fourth, hell snuck into God’s House. Smack dab in front of Grady, Christine Bailey fell to the aisle floor as if pulled and began to seizure as if demon possessed. Her mother, Kathryn, though in most circumstances the very picture of quick decision and immediate action, stood stock still over her daughter, her face a mix of shock and disbelief. Hugh Bailey, standing next to his wife, threw his hymnal on the pew and pulled Kathryn aside to get to his daughter. Grady a foot back from the scene, shock written on his face. In a matter of seconds, Bran Dunnigan, a Sunday school teacher who was a registered nurse, ran across the aisle and got down on her knees beside Christine, blocking Grady’s view. Claire Jackson, Grady’s mother ran from the front row, as if for lack of a good doctor someone yelled “Is there a pastor’s wife in the house?” and she felt it her duty to respond. The last chord of the hymn rang out from under Cecilla Barker’s wrinkled fingers and all at once Christine lay still, no longer dancing on the floor to the hymn. The church was silent, save for her gasping breath, panicked by the lack of control and by the lack of oxygen reaching her lungs.
Intently watching on the scene in front of him, Grady was unaware at first that Petes was attempting to get past him into the aisle. He stepped behind Grady, slightly shoving him into the pew back, in order to get by. Petes kneeled down and said something in low tones to Bran Dunnigan and Hugh Bailey. Bran Dunnigan nodded, and in a swift move, Petes slipped his arms under Christine’s back and legs and stood to his feet. Ms. Dunnigan held Christine’s head from moving, while Claire Jackson tugged at Christine’s skirt, arranging it tight around her knees. Petes turned and walked toward the back doors with Bran on one side and Mrs. Jackson on the other. Hugh Bailey followed behind, along with Kathryn Bailey, who had managed to gather her composure. Grady watched as they passed him to exit out the back. The doors swung shut behind the exiting party and Grady looked for direction from Fred Duncan who still stood behind the pulpit. Mr. Duncan squared his shoulders, leaned into the pulpit mic, and said, “You are dismissed.” Under the direction of habit, Cecilla Barker played the exit hymn. In hushed tones, pockets of members gathered to talk in eerie regularity. Another service had ended.
The back row waited in silence, not knowing how to proceed in the face of one of their own down. In humble submission to their unspoken leader, they sent glances toward Grady at the end of the pew. Grady didn’t respond at first, his face a straight line. He glanced around at the exiting worshipers. “Sweet Jesus, what are we supposed to do now?” he thought, absently asking a question he assumed would go unanswered. Finally, he turned towards the rest of the pew, towards the six or seven kids left, and shrugged. “Let’s go, I guess,” he said, and they gathered their things to go back into the world outside.
Grady’s Saab, a blue two-door with a sun roof and a new set of speakers, was parked on the side of the street just past the entrance to Hargrove. By the time Grady made it up the drive, past the marquee that black lettered the church’s worship times, Petes was already sitting on the hood of the car, denting the metal and looking for a ride. Grady approached with long strides, shaking his head in disapproval.
“Jesus, Petes. Get off of my car before I backhand you good. You know better, man. I should leave you to ride with your mamma.”
Petes raised his eyebrows in disbelief and shot back a reply, “You leave me and you can be sure I’ll have lunch with Pastor and Mrs. Jackson and share with them about your friend Mary Jane that you smoked last night. And you a church boy…”
Grady, rounding the back of the car to stand on the driver’s side, stopped sharp at Petes reply. He lowered his voice to hold it in the normal range, tilted his head and eye shot Petes, so that Petes knew something was coming.
“You better damn well get in the car, Petes and shut your mouth, before all of Hargrove falls on us like the wrath of God. Now, get in the car.” Grady swung the words out so emphatically, Petes recognized at once the precarious nature of his surroundings and immediately shoved himself off the car to take the passenger side seat. Grady followed Petes with his eyes, his posture indicating authority, until Petes had fully closed the passenger side door behind him in humble submission. Grady then followed suit, put the car in gear and speed onto the two-lane road. He could sense Petes’ slight irritation at the rebuff. Grady smiled at his stone-faced friend.
“Good God, Petes. Sometimes I wonder why you haven’t gotten us both jailed, with that mouth you got on you.”
Petes heard the mocking in Grady’s voice and crossed his arms across his chest. He shook his head back and forth without looking to his left.
“ You got a lot to talk about. What, you weren’t there last night? I thought I saw you down one or two or six beers…” He turned to Grady in accusation.
Grady half laughed and said, “Nah, I wasn’t saying I wasn’t there, I just think maybe you could leave it be without making an announcement to the church body.”
Petes gave into a smile, as Grady turned the right onto Broad Street. Petes uncrossed his arms and began to fiddle with the stereo as Grady navigated the car through the maze of slow after-church drivers, on their way out to lunch. He spoke again,
“Speaking of church bodies—you sure did pick up Christine in a hurry. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and there you were, the happy helper, ready to pick her up and carry her out. Man, that was the most excitement we’ve had in months. Was she alright?” He glanced at Petes who was still concentrating on finding a radio station.
Petes glanced toward Grady and shrugged his shoulders. “I think so. She seemed fine when I left them.”
Grady, unsatisfied with Petes’ simple short sentences, tried to come at it through the back door.
“Well, you jumped on that one. That’s for sure. Are you sweet on her? Because I think I saw you slip a hand up further than necessary and I am positive you copped a feel. I always did think you preferred red heads.” Grady made a swift left turn across Broad into the parking lot of Apollo’s Pizza.
Petes sat back, focused a confused gaze on Grady, and shook his head in disbelief. As Grady put the car in park, Petes reached for the door handle, not yet moving and to exit the car.
Grady returned his stare and asked, “What? I’m wrong?”
“That is messed up, Grady. I surely hope you didn’t just say that,” Petes responded and left the car.
Grady pulled the keys from the ignition, fighting off irritation for being reprimanded by Ty Peterson. He got out of the car, watching as Pete’s made his way up the sidewalk to the restaurant door. He tried to let the subtle embarrassment slide off of him as he followed Petes up the walk. The feeling wilted away as he walked into the startling air conditioning, the distracting conversational drone and the familiar red and white plastic interior of the restaurant.
The sun had been gone a while when Grady finally made his way back to his house that night. He knew he had successfully been gone from home long enough to miss Sunday evening service, and consequently, he was not particularly excited about seeing his mother. He parked his Saab in the driveway and made his way around the side of the garage on the back of the house, through the gate of the fence that ringed their back yard. He was hoping to miss the confrontation by slipping through the sliding glass door off their porch. From his backyard you could know the entire neighborhood—box lots of people living so close to one another with their kids and their pets and their stuff. He could smell the fading aroma of a barbeque and hear neighborhood dogs calling to each other through the soft night. He stood inside the gate, closed it with care and began to make his way toward the porch steps before he heard his parents on the back deck. He stopped fast, planting himself in the stillness of the yard. The dark covered him as he stood behind the crape myrtle, surrounded by white lawn gnats he had disturbed. As of yet, he had not been noticed. He could just barely make out his mother’s face in the light of the citronella candle that sat on the table in front of her.
“She’s only sixteen, Darrell. I mean really, honey, be serious.”
Within the context of what had happened that day, Grady knew his mother was talking about Christine. He decided to crouch down and bide his time right there on the lawn until he knew what to do next.
“I know, Claire, but she needs medical attention. Baby, from what Hugh said that girl has been fainting on and off now for months.” Darrell Jackson emphasized the last phrase. Grady saw his father lean forward in his chair, resting his hands on his knees, his back toward Grady. His father began again, “Claire, what do you think they are going to do when that girl graduates? Think she’ll just up and go to college with the rest of them when she keeps on falling? It’s just not practical.”
Grady could hear the ice clink as his mother reached out to take a sip from a sweating glass of sweet tea resting on the patio table. She took her time and then responded, “Hugh told me that they have got her to see every specialist this side of the Mississippi. I guess they have been up and down the East Coast trying to figure out what is wrong with that girl. I’m sure they are doing their absolute best.”
In the silence between speakers, Grady made pictures in his head in an attempt to understand it all. Christine falling for months. Christine perched on the cold metal bench of the doctors, silent as they hovered like angelic demons around her stark strong body. Grady could see his father shaking his head back and forth slowly, silhouetted in the candlelight. He saw his mamma reach her hand out, running it up and down his daddy’s arm. When she began to speak again, the words were so calm they just barely made enough stir to reach Grady’s ears.
“Kathryn said Christine gave up a hellstorm every time they mentioned telling the church. You know how that girl is.”
Again silence. Grady could hear the end of things in this, his mamma walking his daddy through his thoughts like he had heard her do so many times before. Grady felt the mosquitoes biting him, but decided to stay still as his mother took up talking again.
“Darrell, you remember when Grady was seven and Christine was that little bitty thing of six, and they came over here for that church picnic in our backyard?”
Grady knew where his mother was going with this, because he could feel the story like it was yesterday.
She continued, “Christine was the only girl tough enough to play tackle football with those boys. She showed Grady a thing or too, that day. I’ll tell you what- she had his head in the dirt one too many times. They told her to go play with the girls and she wouldn’t. I think they liked her all the more for it.”
She stopped for a minute, pulling back her hand from her husband’s arm.
“They still all love her, though I think they hardly know what to do with her half the time. That girl has always had kick to her. She’s no different now- she’s proud, Darrell, and smart too.”
“She is strong willed. I will give her that.”
“She’s just sixteen and trying to be independent, that’s all…”
His mamma’s voice trailed off as he crept back around to the front of the house. Inside, he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, shut the door behind him and turned on the light. The voices on the porch below simmered to a stop as they the light came on above. He waited, standing straight-backed and tense in the middle of the room until he heard the muffled meter of their conversation begin again. They would wait to scold him, then. They would wait. He felt his shoulders loosen as he went about getting ready for bed, thinking away his own sinking feelings of guilt.
I shouldn’t have to feel tense in my own house, my own room. I shouldn’t have to apologize for missing service, as if it is some mortal sin. As if I have already died and gone to hell. “Go to church, Grady. Don’t stay out late, Grady.” Goddamn it, I’m not still seven.
His thoughts continued on this line as he turned off the light to make his way in the dark towards his bed. He pushed the comforter from the bed and felt the soft cold of the sheet. In his mind, he practiced fight scenes with Pastor and Mrs. Jackson, always winning the battle in self-righteous anger. He practiced telling them exactly who he was, everything he did. He wondered how they would react if they could have seen nights when he was drunk or high. This line of thought brought him an image he didn’t want to see or consider. Christine Bailey.
Her face hung in his thoughts, though he worked hard not to see it. He swatted her back, trying not to consider who she was, or what had happened in one day. The image sat still in the center of his mind, begging his attention. He saw the nights in middle school that they sat on his couch watching movies. He remembered the month he had dated her the summer in between eighth grade and his freshman year of high school. He remembered the nights of his freshman year when he had played guitar in her garage with the rest of the band. Skipping from scene to scene, he remembered her, till he finally had to replay a single night from a month ago. Christine had found him, drunk and somewhat high on pot, fighting with his old girlfriend, Holly, outside of Ridge Theaters. He knew how it all must have looked to Christine as she walked from the movie theater: Holly pushing Grady away from her. Holly screaming a few choice words in his direction as she hopped in the passenger seat and instructed her best friend to pull the car away. Grady drunkenly lunging toward the car as it pulled away from underneath his hands. Grady stumbling as the car moved. Grady falling to the pavement. It was then, from the ground, that he noticed Christine standing on the corner, hesitant as she was about to enter the parking lot to get to her car. She only waited there a minute under the light of the strip mall signs, before she flipped her long braid over her back, crossed her arms, and walked toward him.
She stopped a foot away and stood to consider him before she cleared her throat and said, “Well, Grady. You might need a ride. Com’ on.” She threw her woven bag purse further back over her shoulder, bent down and slipped an arm under his back. Christine stumbled with him to her car, where she put him in the backseat. He promptly passed out. The next morning, she had driven him back to get his Saab. “You just needed to sleep it off, that’s all Grady. It always looks better in the morning,” she had said. “You just needed to sleep it off.”
This was the Christine he remembered. This was the Christine he avoided at all costs, not out of arrogance, though he would rather claim it was so, but out of embarrassment tinted with reverent fear that someday she might, in a moment of faithful and passionate confession, tell his parents that he had not spent the night at Petes’, but in the back of her car. She was one of the only ones he could not sweet talk or flatter. She had seen the dark side of the moon, and when she looked at him, he could feel her knowing every high and low of who he was. In all his words, he could not describe the things that irked him the most about her. Something silent that hung around her and made his skin crawl. He forced her face from his memory. He forced her away into the night and he began to land slowly into sleep. It was another Sunday, slipping into quiet.
Hargrove members liked to sweep summer from their mats with picnics and ice cream socials. Vacation Bible School one week, same as every other summer. Red clay dust clung to their soles, as they cheered the softball team in Division B of the church league. Petes played right center, and Grady played catch for the Hargrove Holies. Tuesday nights, Grady would come straight from where he worked at the Richmond Country Club Golf Course, and pull his uniform on in the car in the parking lot of Short Pump Park, always barely making it for the opening prayer. By virtue of the fact that he loved playing ball, and was quite good at it, Grady didn’t mind this particular part of the church routine. He thanked God, so to speak, for providing a church activity that both soothed his parents and gave him a good workout. As he pulled up this Tuesday, he could see Petes standing beside the aluminum bleachers, tossing the ball to Fred Duncan in warm-up. He pulled on his ball pants and the teal green Hargrove shirt and got out to search for his glove and bat bag in the back of the car. As he lifted open the trunk, he heard footsteps behind him and turned to glance over his shoulder. There was Christine Bailey wearing cut off jean shorts and peasant top, her purse hung over shoulder. She was already smiling when he turned.
“Hey, Grady.” She drew the words out in lilting notes as she walked past him towards the field, tilting her head as she said them.
He took a breath to allay his slight annoyance at her present pleasant demeanor. He lifted the bat bag to his shoulder as he pressed a smile onto his face and granted a response. He attempted to understand why he was bothered by the encounter. “Sweet Lord, I get tired of that girl,” he thought.
He fumbled in his trunk, found his glove and closed the hatchback of the Saab. He stood a minute, watching the younger guys come and give Christine fives or hugs next to the bleachers. Petes looked in her direction and called out her name with a smile. Grady frowned and made his way to the field, his steps slow and deliberate.
The game was rather uneventful until the fifth inning. Hargrove was at bat, and Grady was coaching third base, only separated from the Hargrove fans by the chain-linked fence. Petes sat on the bleachers waiting for his at bat, while he ate the burgers his mother brought him from the Burger King down the street. Grady had already spoken to many of the fans, teasing Mrs. Ramsey about her new haircut and sweetly begging fries from Mrs. Peterson.
“I’m a growing boy,” he said. “Now, don’t you think you should give food to the hungry, Mrs. Peterson? This is the church league after all.” He sunk his fingers through the fence and smiled with one eyebrow raised in jesting disapproval.
Fred Duncan went to bat and Christine Bailey stood up on the right side of the bleachers to yell something to the team. Seconds later, Mr. Duncan hit a grounder towards third, and Christine fainted from the second tier of the bleacher, her shin scraping against the metal before she hit the hard dusty ground. Grady discontinued his conversation and watched as a huddle formed around Christine. Petes threw his burger down onto the fast food bag beside him, and made his way towards the pack.
“Damn, she hit hard,” Grady thought. He felt he should do something, but couldn’t put his finger on what.
This time Grady knew what Petes was doing and he almost felt jealous that he couldn’t step through the fence and rescue the girl himself. It had an appeal to it, this rescue, that seemed to skim past the surface annoyance he felt towards Christine and grab him in the gut as something real.
“Com’ on. I’ll help you up.” Petes said.
“No, Petes. I got it.” Christine responded. The force of her words surprised Grady. She seemed somewhat annoyed, as she pushed herself up off the ground. She took two steps back toward the bleachers, before she wavered and melted down again. Petes didn’t waste any time. When she came to, he was already baby-carrying her back to the stands. Christine’s face was hard and stiff as Petes placed her on the aluminum bench. She mumbled thanks and then turned to stare back straight. Petes stood beside her, watching for a minute to see if she was okay, before he slowly walked back around the bleachers. Grady watched him, waiting for Petes to look up, but Petes ignored the gaze. Mrs. Peterson, sitting beside her son, gazed at Petes with a look of confused admiration and then patted him on the knee. Petes never looked up.
The game ended with Hargrove beating Bethel Baptist 16 to 4. The team prayed and began to disperse toward the parking lot, Petes matching step with Christine as she began to walk away. Grady shuffled behind them, feeling uncharacteristically awkward.
“How are you getting home?” Petes asked, real concern showing on his face as he talked around his gum.
“I walked. I can walk back.” She was polite, but short as she turned to give him a thin smile.
The disbelief showed on Petes face. “Christine—It’s a mile and a half back to your house. You shouldn’t do that.” Grady silently agreed from behind.
“I’ll be fine, Petes…”
“Nah, you shouldn’t do that at all. We’ll take you.” Petes was getting louder now.
Christine shook her head in protest. She looked dead straight at him. “I’m fine, Petes. I don’t need a ride. I’ll see you later,” she said and with that she walked away.
They reached the parking lot and Petes stopped beside the Peterson family mini-van. He watched her walk for a minute and then shrugged as he turned back to Grady.
“Crazy, if you ask me. She might not make it back standing.” He opened the van door and began pulling off his cleats, bracing himself with one arm on the open door.
Grady shifted his bat bag to the other shoulder and shook his head in confusion. “What do you care, Petes? She just blew you off for God’s sake.”
Petes stopped untying his shoe. He looked up at Grady for a minute, and then he glanced back down.
“I don’t know. I guess you’re right,” he mumbled.
Grady could feel the fight in him as he looked at his friend. Guilt washed him over, mixed with bitterness until finally it all pulled back away into apathy.
He glanced away and then began again, his voice light but tired this time. “You want to meet me later?”
Petes’ removed the sock from his foot. “Nah. I’m gonna go home, take a shower, and watch Survivor,” he said.
Grady waited for a minute and then made his way around Petes to go towards his own car. He glanced back towards Petes. “Well, give me a call on my cell if you decide you want to do anything.”
Petes didn’t look up, but nodded. “Alright, Grady.”
Again Grady was annoyed. He threw his bat bag into the Saab, climbed into the driver’s seat and threw the car into reverse. While turning up his music, he took a left onto Pump Road, headed toward home. After just a quarter of a mile, he spotted Christine down on the roadside sidewalk just a little in front of him. “Shit,” He muttered to himself as he pulled the Saab over and put on his emergency flashers.
“Idiot woman,” he thought. “What was she thinking, or doesn’t she? First she screws with Petes and now she screws with me.” He got out, slamming the door to his car as he walked around front. She looked up at him from her place on the sidewalk but said nothing.
“Alright, Christine, get in the car.” He said gruffly. He could see her back straighten at the command.
“You don’t have to, Grady. You can mind your pretty business and I’ll make it home. I know I can.” There was fire in her eyes and tension in her voice, and all at once he wanted to scream at her. Instead, Grady walked over to the passenger’s side door and opened it. He marched over to her, his face rock hard, and put his arm around her back. She yielded and stood to her feet, allowing him to walk her to the car. She was all the way in the seat before he looked at her face again. Though still showing the bold marks of anger, she was crying, the tears shortstopping at the end of her clenched jaw.
Once in the car, they were silent. He glanced at her knees, white skin stained with inky bruises, marking each of her falls. Finally, his annoyance grew up over everything else.
“Why the hell did you think you could walk home, Christine? Petes was going to take you. You should have just ridden with him.” She stared out the window, unresponsive. He began again, “It’s stupid to go running off when you know you could fall and kill yourself in the road. Sweet Jesus, Christine, are you insane?”
“Grady, you don’t know anything about it.” She took a breath and began to hurl the words at him. “You sit there all proud of yourself, not caring about anyone else.” She choked on the words and then began again, “I have to worry about everything. I can’t swim because I’ll drown. I have to look for a long prom dress, because if I fall my skirt will go up. I can’t drive even though I’m sixteen and I am the reason for everybody’s pity party. I never get to go on dates or… or…well, the only freaking flowers I get have plastic Get Well signs. Might as well send something that says ‘Wouldn’t want to be you, Christine. Your life sucks, Christine. Give up already, Christine…’”
Grady sat in stunned silence, staring at the road as he made the appropriate turns. She sat next to him crying, only slightly attempting to muffle the sound.
Finally in her driveway, Christine attempted to flee from the tension in the car. She tried to stand to her feet, but her whole body went loose, giving way till she was spread out on the blacktop. Grady put the car in gear, and ran around the front of the car to help her. Bracing herself on the car door, she began to rise, pieces of hair sticking to her wet face. Before she had a moment to protest, Grady had her in his arms, up against his chest. He took one step forward and then another, delicately balancing her weight on his lower back as he stumbled on.
She was still not happy and her eyes, bloodshot and searing, looked him through. “Put me down, Grady,” she said through her teeth. He looked at her face for a minute, but he couldn’t handle what he saw there. He kept walking, looking straight ahead.
He stumbled a little as he approached the steps, and she spoke again. “Put me down, Grady.” This time she didn’t even try to control the anger, shoving at his chest with her one free arm.
He shook his head. “Shut up, Christine,” he said, anger and sadness pushing the words from his mouth.
Finally mounting the porch, he put her feet down in front of a rocker next to the front door, and then he ran away. He jogged back towards his car, pulled it out onto the street, and drove away without a word.
Grady sat a stop sign just at the edge of Christine’s subdivision, his foot on the brake and the motor running, trying to collect his thoughts. The power of her words echoed in the stillness of the car, and stirred his churning blood. The words poured themselves down through his body, spinning in his stomach till he felt physically sick. He couldn’t make sense of it alone. The helplessness of the situation ate at his confidence until he was no longer sure his next move made any difference. He broke years of silence, calling out in the emptiness of the car.
“Jesus,” he said, shaking his head, his eyes closed. “Jesus, Jesus.”
He stared out the windshield allowing his mind to go blank. The motor ran on and he swallowed hard, gripping the wheel with tight hands, staring into the closing dusk. Cars swept by on the road ahead, and the car air conditioning made ice cold the wet sweat spots on his dust-covered jersey. In the soothing silence of the night, the stillness of the moment, he fell to peace in the heaviness of the situation. He didn’t dare to move as it crept into him, the quiet calm of the night, of the street, of his empty mind.
Soon enough, a blue Honda that had snuck up behind him honked and he was forced to move on, pulling onto the deserted road. He clicked on his headlights and drove on an impulse. He pulled into a grocery store parking lot, knowing what he was going to do. In a bone weary calm, he entered into the bright lights of the store.
Fifteen minutes later, Grady stood on Christine’s front porch again, the plastic wrap of the store bought flowers crackling under his dirty fingers. He rang the doorbell and waited, feeling naked on the porch.
“Can I do this? Can I pull this one off?” he thought.
He reached to pull off his baseball cap, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his arm. Still no answer at the door. He pushed the doorbell again and leaned in slightly to see if he could here it chime inside the house. Satisfied, he shifted his feet again.
Doubt flooded him. “This is stupid,” he thought. “This is so stupid. She will think I am a moron. I should leave.”
The calm that had earlier directed his action left him cold in the face of self conscious nervousness. He turned to leave the porch just as the door began to open.
Christine stood there, barefoot and in pink pajamas, her face still wet and red. She took a deep breath, and then asked him in tired resignation, “What do you want?”
Grady swallowed again, wondering where he would get his words.
“I, uh, brought these from the team. A thank you for being at every game and cheering us on.” He held out the flowers and she reached out to take them.
“Grady…” she began, her voice revealing her disbelief. “For one thing, I know these aren’t from the team and for another thing…” she waited for a minute gazing at the flowers and shaking her head, “these are God awful ugly.”
He glanced up quick to see her half smile. He shrugged. “I guess I never thanked you for bringing me home that night either. So, well…”
She seemed to take that, nodding slowly. “Well, alright. Thank you.” She was sincere, though subdued. He turned to leave, putting his hat back on his head. Feeling words come to him, he turned to her again.
“You know, Christine, my daddy says we can’t know what’s holding us up until we fall. He says its when everything fake is pulled down from around you that you finally see what’s solid and real. Then, when you feel it rock hard beneath you, you lay yourself down and rest on it without trying to grab at anything else.”
“What are you saying Grady?”
“I’m saying, go sleep it off tonight. Then in the morning, if you can stand up, do it. But if you can’t…’ He stopped for a minute, searching for the words, “well, then, Petes will pick you up. And if he can’t pick you up, then I will, and if we can’t…well, I can think of about thirty other people who will.” He glanced at her and was suddenly aware of the intensity of his words. He took a deep breath. “But just sleep now. It will be better in the morning.”
She looked confused, but smiled this time. “Alright, Grady. I’ll see you on Sunday.” He left glad he had been there.
Sunday came with gusty rain that steamed as it hit the hot pavement of the church parking lot. The Hargrove greeters sheltered the incoming members under golf umbrellas, trying their best to preserve churchwomen’s Sunday hairstyles as they herded the masses into the building. Grady arrived and ran through the rain into the chatter of the church foyer. He small talked his way through the crowd, spending phrases as his token past each member and in through the sanctuary doors. He found his place in the back pew and glanced up at Christine, who was spreading her things on the pew in front of him. He smiled when she looked up and she said hey. Her look no longer cut him up. He felt comfort in her presence. Petes came in, followed by many of the others, and service began. It all played out the same: prelude, greeting, hymn, announcements… Grady grew bored in the minutes and began to look around, keenly aware of those around him the passing moments. Grady’s daddy stood up to speak, and he listened, just barely.
It was when Pastor Jackson prayed that Grady began to feel like there was something he was missing under the words. In the moment, he felt the hair on his arms stand on end, a chill running over his body, though he couldn’t pin down what had made him so uneasy. It was like a word mocking him from the tip of his tongue. The prayer ended and he pushed the feeling aside as they began to stand for the hymn. He watched Christine, subconsciously anticipating a fall. Stepping back, her knee hit the pew bench, and she fell a bit, grabbing hold of the pew to steady herself. Petes, without even looking at Christine’s face, reached out and put his hand on her back to help her stand straight.
Grady shivered in the moment as he felt the power of the lurking thought, now realized in what he saw. In the quiet of the Sunday, the lulling rock of the sermon, the strong silence of ended prayer, the rock hard wood of the old pew bench he could feel the calm strength of an interminable structure, held steady by the unseen. Boldly, it claimed him and held him. He swallowed hard in the grasp of it, acutely aware of the misleading silence he had so long claimed to be empty.
The fans whirred and sighed as the congregation sang, sending air through every hair on their heads, counting each strand slowly in the soft wind. Church daddies adjusted their half glasses to better see the words of on the hymnal page, while the southern mammas held it out for both of them to see. And the babies slept, cradled by the oak pew beneath them and the rocking lull of the hymn, just like every Sunday.
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