Returning to school from summer break of ‘79, my seven year old twin Louise and I pressed our chins on the back of the bus seat to spy on the love life of our fourteen year old sister, Tricia. Poor Merle. He’d waited until after church camp to make his move. His sharp little Adam’s apple slid up and down and he repeatedly wiped his hands on his Levi’s before lightly cupping his hand over hers. As she slid her hand free to cover a contrived yawn, Merle boldly touched her leg. We heard a dull pop as Tricia locked his fingers between her knees.
“Whaahhh!” Merle yanked his hand from her vice and shook out the pain.
Austere cheekbones, dark eyes, full lips that rarely smiled--my sister looked at him calmly before pulling her Bible from her satchel and silently reading Proverbs.
Merle shifted towards the window. We felt bad for him. He was not one of the smirking boys who slid under the seats with a mirror. He’d faithfully loved Tricia since first grade, and she used to love him too.
Maybe she thought she had no time for a boyfriend. With Dad’s new custodial job at the school and Mom’s shift ending at 7pm at Waffle House, Tricia had to figure out a way to get us to mind her.
That first afternoon after school we played in the backyard while she smeared apple butter on toast and heated Ramon noodles.
We bowed our heads as she said grace, and then I downed my milk so that I could have Kool-aid. When I saw none prepared, I poured tropical punch powder into a bowl and, upon Louise’s dare, spooned it dry and tart into my mouth.
“Lettie,” Tricia said, “Put that away and eat your noodles.”
“You’re not Mom,” I said.
Louise smiled and grabbed the canister of grape Kool-aid.
Tricia stopped eating and scraped her plate. “We need to help Mom clean. Lettie, you can dust. Louise, sweep and mop the kitchen. I’ll do the laundry.”
Louise and I ran to our room to play a Puff the Magic Dragon record and--since Mom and Dad weren’t home--dance on our beds. Tricia stood in our doorway, staring at us for several minutes before saying, “You need to do what I’ve asked.”
We didn’t notice when she left, but we did notice the telephone ring and ran into the kitchen to whisper our apologies before she could report our misdoings to Mom.
“I see,” Tricia said, shaking her head up and down.
“Yes, Sir. I understand, Sir.”
“Thank you for your message. I will talk to them.”
Tricia closed her eyes and pressed the pea green receiver against her chest before hanging up. She wiped the upstart of tears from her eyes and looked at us as though we were waifs from a Dickens’ novel.
“Who was it? Are Mom and Dad okay? Did somebody die?” Louise’s voice cracked.
“No, Louise,” Tricia placed her hands around Louise’s. “But do you understand that someday, you will die?”
Louise’s face distorted in grief. Her body quaked in my sister’s arms.
“Who was it?” I spat out.
Tricia’s black eyes struck me like a fly swat as she said, “That was one of God’s angels. Apparently, He is very disappointed with you both. He said that with all the pressure Mom and Dad are under to make ends meet, our family will fall apart unless we work together.”
I’m still not sure why I believed her. Maybe because every downy hair on my body stood on end. I hustled for the dusting supplies, and, for the first time ever, felt the hot breath of the Almighty on my neck as I polished every wooden surface.
Now, decades later when we meet at Christmas with our own families, Louise and I kid Tricia about the “God phone call” she’d made to our number. She hangs her head and moans, “That wasn’t funny. It was wrong on so many levels.”
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” Louise winks.
I just squeeze her hand, praying someday she’ll recognize that the God of wrath is also one of forgiveness and grace--One who waits faithfully beside her.
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