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Meant to Be: A Novelby Rita Coburn Whack
Turning around, I was just in time to see old Mother Brock hike her long white skirt above her knees and climb onto the pew.
“He ain’t nothing but a honey!” A white handkerchief held high in one hand waved surrender toward heaven and the joyous shout signaled all of us in the old woman’s path to clear the way. Scooting sideways, I watched her legs, stockings knotted just above the knee, rise above one pew and thump down on the next. The Spirit had “gotten a holt” to Mother Brock and she was pew-stepping, bench-hopping happy, going at it from row to row.
“Walk that bench, Ma Brock,” Essie Tolbert encouraged. “Walk it now!”
Elder Yancy stood. Tall enough to reach the ceiling fans and as dark as the sin he rocked back and forth against, he closed his eyes. His arms, reaching out, trembled over the heads beneath them as he moved in the rhythm of his tambourine.
With a “Hallelujah! Praise His name!” Sister Hattie Jones sailed from the choir stand. Her robe flared, then billowed like a large puff of cotton. Descending, it settled close to her waist, held tight by two balled fists. She swished the robe around her body and headed for the side aisle.
Combing each aisle like a lost traveler, Sister Jones asked folks for directions most Sundays. Eyeballing whomever she felt called, she’d stick her pointed face in theirs: “Will you praise Him? Can you rebuke the Devil? Won’t you give all glory to God?”
I rubbed the piece of paper in my Bible as if it would help me. My aunt Ada always said the church was “the best ground for spiritual warfare,” but I hadn’t prepared to deliver my speech during one of its battles. I’d written my words while Sarah Vaughan’s voice rang clear above the bass, saxophone, and piano on my record player. Then I’d called
Mama Ada, who I’d never witnessed saying more than a quiet amen in the middle of a church service. We went over what I was to say. It had all been calm. Well, that was then, and this was now.
Reverend Tyler stood and the pianist, Mr. Fulton, tried to strike a few solemn chords. But unlike Reverend Tyler, Mr. Fulton was still enchanted. His feet pumped the pedals as his hands played another chorus of “When I Get to Heaven Gonna Shout.” On the risers behind him, choir members cried and swayed; some held each other or fanned those seated.
Reverend Tyler cleared his throat. I swallowed hard against the lump in mine and made my way across the pew, saying “excuse me, ma’am” and “pardon me, sir” as proper as I could in the middle of a holy war. At the back of the church, I was careful to cross over the center aisle since, unlike Mother Brock, I didn’t have a big position in the church and lacked permission to walk down the scarlet carpet that led to the altar.
Behind the glass window of the nursery, a mother seemed not to notice that the diaper covering her breast had fallen.
The infant on her hip, a trickle of milk sliding from the corner of his mouth toward his chin, looked at me from the biggest tit I’d ever seen. The breast, so swollen it stretched the black dots around the nipple until I thought of buttons, pointed at me. I looked away.
Ahead, Hester Cochren, as if sin could seep right through his toothy mouth, eyed the dresses in front of him from the waist down. I thought of the “Jelly, jelly, jelly” song. The pianist hit a few slow chords and seemed like he was praying for calm.
Reverend Tyler, not one to join in these celebrations, held up both hands and said, “All glory be to God.”
As I made my way to the front of the church I met the half smile on Sheila Flowers’ face and thought it was a good thing I wasn’t God. In the middle of all the hoopla I could have made the neighborhood bully disappear, and I knew for sure the entire eighth grade would have less worry and misery.
At the altar, Mother Brock was whispering to herself and taking the privileged center aisle back to her seat. Reverend Tyler’s voice continued to quiet the storm inside the Second Baptist Church of Moleen. I stepped forward and waited for his acknowledgment.
“Let’s welcome Miss Patience Jan Campbell.” The sound of my full name was an embarrassment. “P.J.” would have been just fine. I could just hear Sheila calling me “Patience” in front of a crowd. Reverend Tyler kept going. “Miss Campbell just turned thirteen, and as is our custom, she’s going to come forth and share her favorite verse, with a self-interpretation.”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” exclaimed Elder Yancy’s wife.
“Mercy, mercy,” I heard a woman say as I walked up the side steps and over to the podium. I wished my mama had stopped preparing Sunday’s dinner long enough to come. Placing my Bible on the podium, I opened it and read from Ephesians: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Then I looked into the congregation and spoke.
After my first words, “I think this scripture means that children know every shut eye ain’t sleep and every head bowed ain’t praying, so grown-ups ain’t fooling us or God,” it seemed like a pall fell over the church. Satisfied I had everybody’s attention, I kept going and don’t rightly know what I said, but I finished up with “So nobody should hold a child back from God just ’cause they may be having trouble finding Him.” The air changed again, hot around my face, dry and even more still. It stayed that way, and later when I left the church, I didn’t have to weave around pools of chitchatters. My path was more than cleared. A group of women gathered in the parking lot, shifting hips, straining necks, rolling their eyes to meet the brims of wax flower-burdened hats. One snipped, “You know what the Good Book says, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ ”
A chorus of “uh-huhs” rose until another soloist stuck her neck down toward me. “Well, somebody better get ready to catch that one ’cause she’s bound to tumble, as big as that chip is on her shoulder.” I forced my head up and was careful not to go any faster than I needed, thinking they should have each taken a hand fan-with perfect family portraits of gussied-up mother, father, sister, and brother on one side and the name of the nearest funeral home on the other-and cooled themselves off. Especially since I knew what they did not. If they craned their necks down a little lower or accidentally touched me, taking that “every child that’s a child of God is my child” idea far enough to lay a hand on me that wasn’t trying to put the blessing of the holies in my bones, Charlie Guss Campbell would walk the streets of old and new Moleen until he found them. Then he’d put his “size 13 triple E’s so far up where the sun don’t shine” they would truly be pleading the blood of Jesus. Humph! I strutted past them biddies looking as high up as they were looking down.
Children of Discontent
By the time I turned the corner, my daddy was done doing what he did most Sunday mornings, fixing on dilapidated old cars that sounded like motorcycles and would be headed to the junkyard by the year’s end anyway. He was sitting in his favorite spot on the porch, so I sat next to him and rubbed my face, fighting the urge to scratch the acne that almost covered it.
“Hot as Mississippi,” he greeted me and I watched him caress the sky with homesick eyes.
“Yep.” It did seem like heat was pouring down from the sky in waves. But I was only agreeing to the heat; I’d never been anywhere near Mississippi and probably wouldn’t choose a South filled with the stories I’d heard. “North Mississippi,” which is what grown folks called Chicago since so many people from Mississippi had settled there, was just fine with me. In fact, Chicago and not the West Side, but as close to downtown as I could get, was my next stop. After reading books and watching TV I’d decided Chicago was close enough not to be confused with a fairy tale you couldn’t get to, and the best place for a girl like myself.
“Well, Sister P.J., how was church?” my daddy asked, teasing and looking at my Bible and fancy dress. It was down past my knees, lemon yellow with a big bow in the back. I stuck my Vaseline-shined legs out and crossed them at the ankle, making sure the ruffles touched and leaning them to the side like Ada taught me, even if I was just sitting on the porch. I knew my daddy thought of Ada when he saw me going to and coming from church. I wondered if he knew she called herself “my brother’s keeper” when she took care of me. They always talked about each other as if they were sad and happy at the same time. I hugged my shoulders to keep from scratching my face and told the truth.
“The kids were okay, I guess, didn’t pay them no mind. The sermon was good, I got to speak. Ma Brock walked the bench and it all got out of control. Them old church biddies know how to dress better than they know how to act and it went on too long.” I started to say I was glad I’d had some gum and an extra Nut Chew to tide me over, but remembered I wasn’t supposed to go to the corner store, so I swallowed my bubble gum and looked at my daddy to see if he could tell I’d been to the store.
“I reckon you ’bout summed it up. Hot as Mississippi,” he repeated.
“Tell me about a hot day, Daddy, the hottest day you can remember in M-i-s, s-i-s, s-i-p-p-i.” I spelled the letters out like we did when we played double Dutch and asked for the story to make up for my stopping by the corner store.
“Well, let’s see.”
My mama always said my daddy enjoyed telling a story. So I knew any stalling he was doing was just trying to figure out which one he hadn’t told in a long time or seeing if he could conjure up a new one, but he began each one the same.
“We didn’t have enough money to buy a gnat a wrestling jacket, a pot to piss in, or a nearby window to throw it out.” Now he was ready to begin. “So every day was hot. Heat is what po’ folks got to deal with every day, all manner of heat.”
This time, I watched his hair and it looked like dried grass, higher than any other grown man I’d seen wear their hair, and darker. It was the pitch black of dreams when they cannot be reached, darker than night and hard to remember.
His skin was not much lighter than his hair, and his eyes, a dimming white with coal black pupils, looked out onto the street.
I imagine my daddy had always been large, never very tall, but more than sturdy. This was the summer of 1967, he was forty-eight, and what my mama referred to as a “sturdy build” was called fat by most people.
“We had an ol’ red plank house, roof was tattered till air coming in could’ve been air conditioning. But it was hot too, and my mama was always standing in the yard.” I imagined Hannah, my grandmother, her long thick black hair in waves down her back, shining without oil. She was a Black Indian, mixed Cherokee, and my daddy always said the redness of her skin was only the beginning of that color in her. I never knew her, she died before my daddy was grown, but her spirit still visited Ada and both my daddy and Ada talked about Hannah enough for me to see her when they did.
“Before I was old enough to go to school, my mama stood me up on a high table in the kitchen, hugged me, then sat on the floor. ‘Jump!’ she shouted, stretching her arms out. ‘I’ll catch you.’
“I’d put on a hesitation at first, knowing I shouldn’t be standing on the table, but it was my mama who’d turned the place of meals into a space to play.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2002 by Rita Coburn Whack
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