Lorraine has never been much of a talker, but when surrounded by three avid listeners, she has no choice.
“Go on, Mom,” says Jenna. She leans forward in her Indian pose and touches her mother’s knee. “I want to know.”
Lorraine nods and clears her throat.
Carmen fidgets in her chair. Clearly, she would like to leave.
Lizzie smiles with newly formed lips, as content as a cat in cream.
Excerpt from This Will Never Stop
It was now near the end of July, and Glorious Life Pentecostal had printed flyers announcing the arrival of Rev. Stephen Fisher. They were plastered all over town: on telephone poles, in store windows, even on the bulletin board in the post office next to the MOST WANTED posters. The Mill Record inserted flyers into their issues, which was perhaps the most important advertisement because that weekly journal carried a lot of weight. People in the rural areas who couldn’t or wouldn’t get delivery from Clovington or Burlington subscribed to it, most especially in the county next to ours, Davis.
Grandma Lizzie told me that Davis County was a rough place but also deeply religious. She said that the Davis people would sit in the back pews.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because the women will drag the men, and those men wear muddy boots.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I don’t know how I know, I just do. Now stop sassing and listen to me. When that crowd comes in, we’ll be up front, and I don’t want you waving or turning around.”
“Why? Don’t you want them here?”
“Child, you get the strangest ideas. Of course, I want them here. I’m a Christian.”
“Then why can’t I speak or turn around?”
“They’re different. That’s all. Now you mind what I said.”
The flyer was printed on yellow paper with black lettering. It was plain and to the point. A thick cross with a nail sticking diagonally in the center took up three fourths of the page, and a crown was in each corner. Rev. Stephen Fisher and his credentials were advertised beneath the cross, ending with bold lettering: HUNGRY FOR GOD? TIRED OF SIN? COME TO GLORIOUS LIFE PENTECOSTAL, AUGUST 3-16. MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE GUARANTEED!
Mother was still practicing every day but she had to change times to accommodate the horde of cleaners. Pearl Ellis had divided the women into groups of three, and every morning they arrived to clean the already spotless church. They’d be finished by noon, and Mother would leave the house to practice at one. She’d had to learn all the songs in the hymnbook first because she’d be playing every night for two weeks and twice on Sundays, and Grandma Lizzie had learned that Reverend Fisher had a habit of simply turning to the organist in the middle of a sermon, flipping to a page, and saying, “Church, let’s sing!”
Mother was putting everything she had into learning how to play every song perfectly. The weeks leading up to the revival were tense. Grandma Lizzie was at our house all the time. I guess she’d forgotten about Raise your kids. I went with Mother to the church for the next few sessions, but the fright I’d received earlier had made me wary, so Grandma and I changed places. She went with Mother to practice, while I stayed at home and watched the boys. I still don’t know which was the worst deal. Rush was everywhere, and Jarrell clung to me. Rush was one tough kid, but he was allergic to bee stings and would deliberately kick off his socks and shoes and run through the backyard filled with clover. I chased after him, either dragging Jarrell by the arm or trying to run with his body wrapped around one leg. The day I dragged them both home from the dog shelter, a lean-to slapped together behind the police department where stray dogs were kept, I decided never to have kids. I was ten years old and exhausted. When Mother got home, she looked the same.
Grandma didn’t. While Mother sat at the kitchen table looking like a limp mop, she buzzed around the kitchen, fixing supper and criticizing Mother’s playing.
“You’ve got the wrong stop down, Carmen.” Grandma had been there when the Kinzey instructor gave lessons to Mother. “Lorraine, get the milk from the refrigerator. There’s a whine in ‘Dwelling in Beulah Land’ that would make a dog howl. Try lifting up the long stop. Jarrell, do you want macaroni and cheese.”
That’s how it went until the day before Stephen Fisher arrived. Mother didn’t practice at church the day but stayed in bed. So did I. I was exhausted. I didn’t worry about being slain in the spirit, something the older girls whispered about. What would happen if you were laid out on the floor unconscious? They giggled behind their Sunbeam fans.
Lena had put all kinds of suggestions in their heads. I didn’t need the hand of God to be slain in the spirit. I was so tired, I could fall down by myself.
Mother was nervous that first night. She used so much talcum powder and snapped so much gum that it was unreal. I think she had half a pack in her mouth, which Grandma told her to spit in the trash before we left, and she did. The sanctuary was packed. The Reverend Stephen Fisher turned out to be a tall man with blue-black hair, piercing black eyes, and an air of authority. He wore an expensive suit and smelled of expensive aftershave, not the Old Spice the men in our church wore on Sundays. I got a close look at him before the service because our family was introduced to him especially as Mother was the organist. She lowered her eyes and offered her hand. Grandma Lizzie looked as proud as a peacock. Jarrell cried and clung close to the only leg available (mine), and Rush, for once in his life, looked awed and stuck out his hand. I don’t remember what he preached about that first night. I do remember there were many runs to the altar. And Grandma was right. The men from Davis County did wear muddy boots, some galoshes. That’s the only time I ever saw Grandma pick up a fan, with which she covered her face. I couldn’t tell if she were laughing or crying.
After the service, Mom collapsed in Dad’s easy chair, where she slept all night. I put the boys to bed, and covered her with a quilt. She opened her eyes long enough to tell me I was a good girl and then drifted off again. I pulled the quilt up to her chin, fished a wad of gum from her mouth, and squeezed it in my hand. Her bones were too prominent, like Nathan’s are now, and I realized that during the course of a summer, my mother who wasn’t fat to begin with, had probably lost twenty pounds.
I was outside the next day, watching the boys. They were putting up the tent, and I was making sure the spikes didn’t rip into the roots of the pear trees again. I didn’t see Reverend Fisher until he was halfway up our street. He walked up the front steps, rapped twice, then let himself in. I decided I needed a drink. I entered through the front door, the same way he had, giving two raps. There was Reverend Fisher sitting in my Dad’s old chair, and my mother was across from him, wearing make-up, and looking the best I’d seen her since the accident. The thinness that had bothered me the night before now exaggerated her good looks, especially her eyes, but maybe that was because of the mascara. She was wearing so much, her eyelashes were clumped.
“You remember my daughter, Lorraine?” Her hands were moving faster than they did over the keys.
Stephen Fisher nodded and said heartily, “Hello, young lady!”
I ignored him. “Mother, I want a bottle.”
Now that shocked her. She sat up straight and looked at me. “All right,” she said, a warning look in her eyes. “But you’ll have to fix it yourself. It’s somewhere in the kitchen cabinets. Your grandmother cleaned them out and moved everything again.”
I went to the kitchen and and poked around. I finally found my bottle of Ovaltine behind the spices and a can of Crisco, along with a bottle of whiskey. Now I knew what the worry in her eyes had meant. I also knew, because the whiskey bottle was still in the cabinet, that there was some kind of test going on between my mother and grandmother.
Rev. Stephen Fisher and Mother continued to talk in the living room, so immersed in their conversation that they didn’t even know I was around. I made my bottle out in the open. I was quick about it, though, because it would be just like Grandma to come through the side door unannounced and catch me. She didn’t like that bottle, said I was too old for them and wanted Mother to throw them out.
Mother wouldn’t do it. She’d say, “You brought them in, but you can’t throw them out.”
I’d just washed my bottle when I heard an unexpected sound. Mother was laughing, really laughing. Not the forced laugher I’d heard come out either painfully or politely since the accident, but deep chuckles. I peeked through the louvered doors and saw they were smiling at each other.
An immediate dislike came over me, especially when I heard Rev. Fisher say, “I can see the two of us are going to be friends.”
“Of course,” Mother said, laughing again. “Friends.”
I hated him.
For the next two weeks, thanks to the Rev. Stephen Fisher, our world was turned upside down. We were on his schedule. Both my mother and grandmother did everything he said and in return were squired around on his arm. Some people were jealous of the attention he gave our family, and Pearl Ellis voiced it, but looking back, I think the majority of the church thought a man so incorruptible yet with a heart full of mercy was just being kind to a widow with three kids. At that time, Pentecostals had a thing about male guidance, and I suppose Mother looked like a lost ship.
If Mother’s energy had been directed toward learning the organ, now all her energy was fixed on him. Or maybe his attention was fixed on her. Hard to say because I didn’t know much about women and men. All I knew was this: Reverend Fisher was constantly dropping by, or she was at the church or parsonage planning hymns. When he was at our house, the boys would sit on his lap, Jarrell the longest, but I wouldn’t go near him. He quit trying to draw me out when he pulled one of my braids and I cringed. Later, I sat beside the phone table and heard myself discussed. He told Mother that he’s seen this happen when a young girl lost her father. Afterward, they’d get shy around men, but it was a phase that I’d outgrow. He knew because he’s counseled them. Grandma Lizzie treated him as though he were an answered prayer.
When Reverend Fisher wasn’t at our house or when Mother wasn’t planning hymns, our talk centered around him. Look at the changes he’s brought to our town! To our church! Bob Watkins, Rodney Watkins, Shelby Myers, Margaret Nast, and Phil — all backsliders brought back to the Lord! And those people from Davis? I don’t know their names, but they’re about to split the pews! Pearl makes a list. Maybe I should too, but I hate to ape her. Besides, I’ll never see them again. Oh, the wondrous changes. Yes, indeed, life’s a miracle again!
Every night we were at that dammed revival. Or at least I was. The boys were worn out with church, and Mrs. Sanders offered to step over and watch them at our house. Mrs. Sanders said she knew she was saved and didn’t need reviving. It was too hard on her heart, which didn’t make sense because Rush, in his own way, could be just as irritating as Reverend Fisher, but no one questioned her offer. Mother was glad to have someone instead of the nursery workers because Rush was throwing blocks at other kids’ heads.
I couldn’t wait until the last night of that revival. I’d marked the days off on the calendar as I’d once counted the days until Christmas. By the second week, Fisher’s sermons ran mostly on emotions because everyone had run out of sins. Besides the sermons and my mother’s music, the biggest excitement during that week occurred because of Lena Ellis. She’d lumbered up at the end of the last hymn and started babbling something to Fisher. He’d looked surprised, then red-faced, and motioned for two of the ushers.
“Take her to my office,” he said in an ill-concealed whisper. “See that she stays there.”
Mother had gotten in the habit of staying after the service. She said she needed time alone with Reverend Fisher to plan the next night’s hymns. Now that the boys had stopped going, I was walking home alone. But the night crazy Lena rushed up, Mother walked home with me. I was so happy, I didn’t even suspect this was the last peaceful night of my childhood. Mother was peaceful too, with none of that otherworldly excitement about her. I was glad to see that look gone.
Finally, the. last night of the revival. It was a whirl of voice and sound with no interruption because Lena wasn’t there. Reverend Fisher preached with a raw excitement; Mother’s excitement matched his. While Reverend Fisher roared from the pulpit, she poured herself into the keys. Only a stone could sit still on this night of nights!
I sat perfectly still.
The service finally ended, and I walked home alone. I didn’t know why because everything was over and there were no more hymns to plan. The boys were asleep, but Mrs. Sanders waited until I slipped on my pajamas. I crawled into bed but couldn’t sleep. A storm was brewing. I’d noticed it on the way home; the way the leaves rustled, the smell in the air. I was worried about my mother. She didn’t have an umbrella or a raincoat. I lifted my window and eased out the partial screen. I scooted my half bed flush against the wall and got back in, hanging my arm over the sill. If I went to sleep and if the rain started before Mother got home, the first raindrop would wake me. Then I could grab an umbrella and run the four blocks to the church. The mantel clock in the living room chimed ten.
I waited for Mother, rain, or sleep, but none came. The mantel clock chimed ten thirty, and I went to the kitchen and fixed a bottle of Ovaltine. Mother was drinking; the whiskey bottle had disappeared.
I went back to bed. No mother, no sleep. I grew angry and worried. When the clock struck eleven, the last chime struck my arm like a raindrop, and I jumped out of bed. I ran the four blocks to the church in the rising wind, barefoot and in my loose-fitting summer pajamas. The short sleeves and legs, held in place by elastic, puffed out like balloons. I wasn’t scared one bit. I knew every house, every tree, every possible bump and crack in the sidewalk. Besides, the wind that was pushing the arrow of our weather vane was pushing me as well, as surely as Mother’s music had pushed others to the altar. In no time, I was at the front doors.
They were locked, which surprised me because our church was known for never locking them. The doors were to stay open because someone, moved by the spirit, might want to come in at any hour and pray. There was no crime in our town, no mad dogs, no scandalous women or bad men, just crazy Lena who no longer shocked anyone with her mutterings and eye rolls.
I was locked out, but I knew a way in.
The side entrance was never locked; there hadn’t been a lock on that door for years. Even during the remodeling, the carpenters had been instructed to leave it alone because it led into a coatroom, which had been used for storage ever since the church was built. I crawled through the bottom shelf of a book cart, knocking half a dozen of the old hymnbooks on the floor, and rose, dusting myself off. I opened the door, which led into the vestibule, and tiptoed into the sanctuary. There, seated at the front on two folding chairs, were my mother and Reverend Fisher. They were facing each other, and he had both of his hands in one of his. The arch of candles on the communion table was flaring, and the shadows from her head bobbed up and down on the clean drywall like a flirtatious Sunbeam girl.
I stood at the back, watching. Reverend Fisher also had a silver bottle, which he drew from his pocket. He handed it to my mother; she put it to her lips, drank, and then handed it to him. I crawled on my hands and knees to the fifth pew from the front, lay flat, and tried to hear.
They were talking low, and the shadows made by the cancels licked the ceiling and walls. After the sermons I’d heard, it was easy to imagine this as a shadowy hell. I was watching more than listening, trying to count the flames, when the timbre of their conversation changed.
I sat up, alert.
I could have, should have, stopped things sooner. I should have popped up and screamed against indecency, immoral suggestions, imbibing of spirits, all the sins Reverend Fisher had ranted about during the past two weeks. I didn’t do anything but lie there, quiet as a mouse, caught in the same spell as my mother.
She’d done something bad. Her voice was broken, her sentences incomplete. “I know I did it, but I still can’t believe it. Stephen, I know these people. The Brumfields have practically nothing, and the people from Davis County? You can’t imagine what it’s like out there. I’ve got to do something to fix this.”
Mother was breaking down from overworked emotion and drink. Reverend Fisher didn’t care; his words were a righteous thread tying up all her loose ends. Changing the pattern, altering whatever plan she had. He was so smooth. He told her they’d done a fine job and she had nothing to be ashamed of. The best way for people to draw close to God was to depend on him for their daily needs. If that included food, well, in the long run, they’d be more spiritual.
“Starvation is growth?” Mother’s voice sounded clogged.
“Carmen, that’s not what I meant. Look, nobody’s going to starve. Everybody’s got gardens.”
But Fisher had hit a nerve, and Mother was really crying now. He didn’t move, not at first and then only to take a finger and lift up her chin. I watched my mother wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. It was a forceful motion, as if she’d already made some inner decision, and the movement caused her hair to fall down. Reverend Fisher was cupping her chin in his hand and drawing her close.
“Carmen,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
Their noses were almost touching.
That was it. I was sure they were going to kiss. I shot up like a missile and ran to the vestibule, pushing open the double doors. Though locked from the outside, they allowed a person to open them. They were like our school doors. I shoved both open, stepped outside, took a deep breath, and let them slam.
I started running.
End of Excerpt
“That was some summer.”
Carmen tilts her head and squeezes the beads on her left earring. Jenna, who’s heard she’s a Catholic, wonders if she’s saying the rosary. She watches her grandmother’s fingers squeeze the first stone (spiny oyster), the second (Dry Canyon turquoise), and the third (bloodstone). She knows rosaries are necklaces, so the Pope must sell earrings, too.
“I was stretched tight as a wire,” Carmen continues. “Electric.”
“Booze,” says Lizzie.
“Of course, you’re right, Mother,” Carmen drops her arm on the table; the weight causing the teacups to jump. “I was a drunk, was being the operative word in this case. I’ve been sober for years.”
Lizzie purses her lips and makes a gurgling sound.
“Good God, what did you expect? Look at the way you treated me! Look at the way you’re treating me now!” Carmen jabs her finger in the air. “I was on the brink of death. The doctors said so.”
“I’m already dead.”
“Is this some kind of contest?” screams Carmen. “Because if it is, I quit, I quit right–“
They do. After all, they’re my characters.
I press two fingers against each temple, wondering why it took me so long. Their insistence that I do a rewrite isn’t about Pearl, adding memories, or even clearing up the past. These women wanted to get back together to chew and spit each other out.
“I’m stopping,” I tell them.
“You can’t! You’re promised!” Of course, it’s Jenna. She knows only enough to see things in black and white, yes and no, win or lose. “Besides, I want to know what my grandmother did that was so awful to the town.”
“I can’t wait to tell you,” says Carmen, with an icy stare.
Part 4: Nov. 20th.