The following is a portion from my yet-to-be published novel, Of Little Faith. Because Easter is approaching, I thought this would be a good time to share it. -- Carol
The foyer was quiet, except for the drone of the organ beyond the closed doors. Service had begun and I was late.
A gray-haired man with sagging jowls approached me. "Happy Easter, Laura."
I nodded, but couldn't figure out how he knew my name.
"Don Simpson," he said, shaking my hand. "Head deacon."
Another nod, but this time with a forced smile.
"I helped officiate at your father's..."
"Of course," I said, still not recognizing him, but the name was familiar.
"I'll be seeing you at Pastor..uh, I mean your brother's today, for dinner."
That's right! It was Jenny's mere mention of Don's name that had made Beth tremble.
"Sorry I'm late," I said.
"Never too late," he said, taking my elbow and leading me to the closed double doors. He opened them and, instantly, an aromatic blast of lilies and every other possible perfume rushed at me. I swam through the fragrance, not stopping until reaching the first row where Don left me before he walked up to the altar to join Eric, who was standing off to the side.
Beth looked up, tears springing to her widened eyes. She slid closer to Jen, her thickset body quivering like a bowl of yesterday's Jell-O, and patted the created space next to her. I squeezed in and told her in a whisper not to get all soppy or I'd walk out.
The low tone of the organ suddenly burst into a loud rendition of "He's Alive!" and the congregation rose. In Pavlovian fashion, so did I. Eric made eye contact with me. He was singing the hymn without glancing at the hymnal in his hand. I remember when he used to sing Elvis tunes with just as much passion. Maybe more-as long as Mom wasn't in earshot.
After the hymn ended, Don strolled over to the lectern. "Let us pray," he said, and thanked God for creating so beautiful a day to celebrate history's most important event. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Beth was surreptitiously watching the deacon. She never had a boyfriend, as far as I know. I'm not that surprised, but to think-thirty-two and no boyfriend.
Once the offering was collected and another hymn sung, Deacon Don surrendered the lectern to Eric.
My brother the pastor, his chest swelling, exploded, "My it's good to be in the house of the Lord today!" His joyful outburst inspired a rousing "Amen!" from the congregation. He warmed the flock with a humorous story, earning him a chuckle or two before he opened the Bible and read from the Book of Acts. He then looked up at the congregation and said, "It was with great faith, these men, these apostles, went out to preach the good news to the world." He lifted his Bible for verification. "This was a corrupt world, one not eager to hear the error of its ways. Much like today, much like our neighbors."
Beth's perennial permed head bobbed in agreement.
"But, we must learn to expurgate our sinful nature and take on a new spirit, a spirit filled with abounding joy."
Someone behind me said "Amen."
"This is what the Resurrection is all about. Abounding joy. Not death, but life!"
More "Amens" came from the congregation.
"Now," he said, "please turn to Luke twenty-four with me."
The riffling of pages filled the sanctuary. Beth brought her Bible closer so we could share, but I found that my thoughts were beginning to wander, much like when I was a child. Besides, I could preach the sermon myself. Verbatim. Maybe that was why Eric was up there. Living this life means little challenge. It's a role he can play.
Other than the fact that it was Eric up on the altar and not Pastor Allen, nothing had really changed since I'd stopped coming all those years ago. The austere sanctuary has been kept the same. There's the picture of Jesus over the choir loft, his eyes gazing heavenward. And there, by the window, was the Ten Commandments carved not in stone but a thick oak plank. I used to try to tune out Pastor Allen's melodramatic hoopla by seeing if I could rattle off each commandment in my head, preparing to challenge Beth, as futile as that could be. I once knew them by heart, but do I still? I lowered my eyes and tested myself.
One by one, I mentally scrolled through them, making it all the way to the ninth: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. The verse hit me like an electric bolt, causing Beth and Jenny to look at me with startled expressions. I tried to gather myself, tried to recall the tenth commandment. But I couldn't, the ninth bringing me back to a time that had been buried deep in my psyche. Why had no amount of therapy unearthed it? Now it surfaced, rushing through my every pore. I began to regret not scheduling anymore appointments with Dr. Davis, but I knew I couldn't escape the memory. Perhaps unwisely, I allowed myself to roll back in time:
Dinner hour in the Sumner house usually proved to be most stressful. I suppose to the outsider, it appeared to be a warm family gathering. My mother insisted upon all of us dining together and would tell anyone who would listen that, for her, it was a priority. I cannot speak for my father or siblings, but for me, I saw it more as an opportunity for my mother to have our undivided attention while she criticized Dad and the world in which we lived, all in the name of God's righteousness.
One particular evening I was the last to sit at the table, after having been in my room popping a pimple on my forehead while listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, with the volume so low I could barely hear Shake, Rattle and Roll. I'd hide the record in the sleeve of my Word Choir album, so as not to be discovered.
After we all bowed our heads and Mom made Eric ask the blessing and before I had a chance to scoop some macaroni onto my plate, Mom said, "You have an appointment, Laura, with Pastor Allen this Saturday."
"What?" I said.
"You heard me," she said.
Beth's voice low, tremulous, she said, "Why are you having her go to him?"
"Well," Mom said, passing the meatloaf to my father, "your sister is at a very crucial point in her life. At fourteen, she needs spiritual guidance."
I couldn't imagine what I'd done, other than simply being a teenager. Dad chewed his food, slow, meticulously, and I wasn't sure if he was watching the drama play out or if he were somewhere else.
"Pastor will be able to explain why that music you are desperate to listen to is the devil's music."
"Why don't you tell me, Mom?" I said.
"He'll also tell you why it's so dangerous to be boy crazy at your age."
"I'm not boy crazy," I said. There was just one boy, a junior I couldn't stop thinking about, but he didn't even know my name. I was sure of it.
"And, just so you know, we decided you see him on a weekly basis."
"We?" I said, looking at my father, futilely hoping he would intervene.
"Not your father," Mom said. "He's chosen to pass as the spiritual leader in this house. "
There was still some food on my father's plate, but without saying a word, he got up, bringing it to the sink, and walked out into the backyard.
"Pastor Allen and I," Mom said. "We decided."
"Mom," Beth said, her bottom lip quivering, "does she really need to go?"
"Beth, if it wasn't for Pastor Allen, you wouldn't be in charge of the youth group. And you wouldn't have had that chance to go to Kansas."
Beth sat motionless, her eyes transfixed on her plate.
I said, "I'm not going." Belt or no belt, I meant it.
"That's where you're wrong, young lady," Mom said, with just as much certainty.
I rose from the table and brought my plate to the sink. I looked out the window into the backyard where my father was practicing his golf swing. Beth came up alongside of me, placing her dish on the counter. It was her turn to wash. She turned on the faucet, squirted some liquid soap in the rush of water, but then whirled around and raced into the bathroom just off the kitchen. I turned off the faucet.
With a mouthful of meatloaf, Eric garbled, "Aw, Ma, don't make her go."
"Don't talk with food in your mouth, young man."
Choking noises came from the bathroom, then the sound of Beth's dinner splashing into the toilet.
So it was.
On Saturday morning at ten o'clock I had my first meeting with Pastor Allen at his office, which was in the back of the church. It was obvious that Mom had prearranged an agreement with him so that I didn't duck out. She pulled up in the front of the church and gave her horn a toot. The door swung open with him standing there. Once I entered, after dawdling up the walkway, he waved my mother on her way for the hour.
At that first meeting, I purposely wore my dungarees, instead of the ordinary dress most girls wore when socializing. I wanted to be shock-inducing and rebellious, imitate the fashion photos I'd seen of women wearing pants, but the way Pastor leered at me made me feel seductive, even lewd. I wasn't comfortable with the white-haired man doing a slow-dance with his rheumy eyes down my girlish body. The following week I wore a long skirt and blouse buttoned up to the neck. However, it was as if Pastor was looking right through my clothes while he talked to me about the Lord.
"Laura, dear," he said, "you must know the awful time you're giving your mama." He sat perched in front of me on his desk.
I kept my eyes down, my hands folded on my lap, counting the minutes for the session to be over.
"She cares about your walk with Jesus. She cares about you."
If I were to show him the welts on my legs, I wondered if he would still believe she cared.
He hopped from the desk and crouched before me, his damp, doughy hands on mine. "She loves you, Laura. The Lord loves you." He paused, sucked up some air, then said, "And, of course, I love you."
I pulled my hands away, realizing too late the mistake I'd made. Now his hands were free to rest on my legs, the cotton of my skirt feeling much too thin. "I wanna go home."
"Why we've a good forty minutes left." His thumbs caressed my thighs. "The way I see it, I could be a very big help to you, Laura. You just might get to keep listening to that music you so dearly love...with your mother's blessings."
His face, beaded with sweat, was inches from mine.
"See?" he said. "I bet you didn't think it'd be like this." His words came faster. "Like I'm trying to tell you, we all love you." He hesitated, looked to be struggling for just the right words. "And, you know, Laura, love has so many parts to it."
"I wanna call my house," I said, my eyes cast downward. "I don't feel well." But it was as if Pastor didn't hear me.
He brought his clasped hands to his chin. "But you're a smart girl and first you must show me how much you love me. Then I bet we could talk your mother into comin' round a little bit to your side."
He started breathing funny, his breath warm on my face.
"Remember last week we read about Mary washing Jesus' feet with her hair?" He reached out, running his hand through my pony tail. I pressed as far back in my chair as I could, but it wasn't far enough. "You don't have to do that for me, of course." He chuckled. "But what do you think that verse teaches?"
I began to tremble, tears filling my eyes. My throat was too tight to speak.
"Don't know?" he said. "See that's why you're here, for me to teach you." He pulled me into him, smothering me. "What that verse teaches, Laura, is how willing Mary was to please her Lord."
I pushed away, but his thick hands found my legs again and he began rubbing them, squeezing them.
"And Mary was rewarded for pleasing Jesus. It's a lesson we must learn: How to obey and please without asking questions."
He slid his hands up my thighs and I pushed away as hard as I could, causing the leg of the chair to catch on the carpet, tipping me over. I landed hard on the floor, the wind knocked out of me, my skirt hiked above my knees. I tried to push it down, but Pastor's hands got there first.
It was an hour that lasted days, and when the long-awaited horn beeped, I raced down the sidewalk to mother's car. I didn't turn to look, but I knew Pastor was returning my mother's cheerful wave.
I scrambled in, slammed the door shut and locked it. For the first time I could remember, I was grateful to have my mother nearby.
"How'd it go?" she said, pulling the car into the street.
I shrugged, staring at the houses, all the same shape and style, whirring by.
"Laura, I'm talking to you."
My mouth was dry. I didn't know if I could talk and sure enough I began to cry. I couldn't help it. Between sobs, I begged her not to send me back to him.
"I don't think two weeks has helped the likes of you."
My fear began to turn into anger. I said, "I'm not going back."
"What did you say?" Her tone made it clear she was not to be challenged.
"I'm not going back." This time I said it with more conviction and fewer tears.
"Obviously, you need more lessons on respect, not to mention obedience. You are going back, young lady."
"Please, Mom, I can't." I couldn't stop thinking about how his hands groped me, fondled me, reached inside me, probing-all the while with me fighting him with fists that were useless, screams that were muffled. "He makes me feel funny."
"That's the spirit of God."
"No, Mom, it's not!" I said, sputtering. "He touched me!"
My mother lifted her foot from the gas pedal and the car behind us screeched, beeped its horn, then swerved around us, the driver giving us a nasty gesture. She gaped at me. "What are you saying?"
I spilled the entire story, how Pastor Allen touched me, how he tried to make me touch him and how I refused. I was quick to ease my mother's worry and told her he hadn't gone all the way. All the way, a phrase my friends and I whisper among ourselves, something I would do in a heartbeat if John Blakely asked me.
Without another word between us, my mother made a U-turn. Her expression was set as she drove back to the church. I was tempted to scoot over and sit by her, hoping for a comforting hug, but we reached the church before I dared to budge.
"Come with me," she said, lunging from the car. I trailed behind her, amazed at how enraged she'd become toward a man she revered for as long as I could recall. Where would we go to worship now? We reached the office and a smiling, composed Pastor Allen opened the door, a Bible spread open in his large, roaming hands. I stood behind my mother until she made me come forward.
"Tell him what you just told me." Her face was flushed to purple.
I stuttered, noticing the chair was back in its rightful spot. Papers that had been scattered all over the floor were stacked neatly on his desk next to the phone I knocked off when I attempted to reach it. The white wisps of Pastor's hair were swept neatly in place, his trousers zipped.
"What's that, Laura?" He looked at me, his eyebrows furrowed, a faint smile on his placid face.
I hesitated at first, but then did it. I blurted the whole story, how he'd unzipped himself, fondled himself when I wouldn't. I showed my mother the button that popped off my blouse in the struggle.
"So," my mother said, "you see my problem." She sidled up alongside of Pastor.
He snapped his Bible shut and placed a hand on my mother's shoulder, his smile melting into an expression of pity. "It's clear to me what she's trying to do," he said. "And she certainly does have an overactive, debased imagination. She knows way too much for her age. Perhaps it is that music that gives her these horrid, horrid ideas."
I stared at him. "You made me promises," I said. "You...you told me if I did what you asked me to do---"
"Laura!" mother screamed. "Enough."
"I must admit, Elizabeth," he said, "you do have your hands full with this one. When you told me how difficult she is, why I thought perhaps you were having typical teenage problems."
"I don't know, maybe we should send her to Kansas, like we did Beth," my mother said. "It's done wonders for her."
Beth had been away for several months at some retreat and when she returned Mom raved at the difference, praising Pastor Allen for pulling the right strings to get Beth accepted. One thing I knew for sure, I wasn't going to any retreat. I'd run away before that happened. But, to my surprise, Pastor didn't think it was such a hot idea.
"Elizabeth, I'd love to try and get Laura in, but they can only take a number of girls each year and well, I'd feel it was a waste of time, anyway." He turned toward me, blocking my mother's view, his hard blue eyes cold. "I could've helped you. We could've been friends."
When I refused to apologize, my mother latched onto my ponytail and yanked me out of the office. I begged for her to believe me during the car ride home, but I don't think she heard me, her breathing loud and angry. As soon as we got home, she marched to the closet and pulled the belt off the nail, ordering me to my room.
"What on earth is the matter now?" father said, meeting us on his way downstairs.
"Why don't you ever stop her?" I cried. "Why do you let her--"
Mother nudged me up the steps. "It's of no concern to your father."
"Elizabeth," he said, "do you really need to do that?"
She stopped, the belt in her hand. "Yes, I do."
"What on earth happened?" he said.
"Happened? You of all people should know what happened," she said. "A man who has a daughter just like him should know what happened."
Dad's face went white. "Don't punish her for my mistakes, Elizabeth."
"Oh, she's making enough of her own. Don't worry."
He said nothing more, but trudged down the steps, abandoning me yet again. She has the belt, Dad. What do you think she's going to do with it?
Beth opened her bedroom door and stood there, watching me. "What he'd do?" she said. At first I thought she meant Dad, but then she added, "Did he tell you he loved you, too?"
Before I could answer, my mother pushed me into my room. "The Ninth Commandment warns us not to bear false witness against our neighbor." The bedroom door slammed. "What you tried to do to a godly man like Pastor Allen has got to be punished. Do you understand what accusations like that can do to a man's career?"
She wrapped the end of the belt around her hand. "I just praise God He gives me the wisdom to see through your little ploys. ‘Thy givest mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit.' Now lift your blouse."
There was no escape. I obeyed, lifting my blouse.
A loud crack jerked me from the memory. I looked up toward the altar to see that Eric had dropped his Bible on the lectern for effect.
"We must claim our faith," he said. "Not hide it, but let it shine so that no darkness...no matter how deep...can overpower it." He lowered his voice. "Let us close in prayer."