Establishing Witness, by Joan Spilman

                                                   ESTABLISHING WITNESS 

            

Grandma Vernie sat on the porch swing and looked down the road for the Methodist

preacher. Sprawled lengthwise beside her was Nida Ruth, her twelve-year-old granddaughter with curly auburn hair and gold wire spectacles. The child snored gently, her head pushed up against Vernie’s forearm, her mouth opened slightly to reveal an upper row of widely spaced teeth. Vernie glanced down at the child in half-pride, half-exasperation. She’d called Nida Ruth to help her watch for the preacher (her vision was haloed), only to have her fall asleep five minutes into the vigil. Occasionally, the motion from the swing or the wind in the ivy would disturb her and she’d shift and stir, but she’d never open her eyes. Instead, she’d asked in a clear voice meant to let Vernie know she’d never really slumbered, “Seen any sign of him yet?” and her grandma would answer, “No, miss, no sign at all.”

            The preacher wasn’t coming now. He probably didn’t have the nerve. They’d been waiting since one and now it was a quarter past four and he still hadn’t come. All of the church people and most of the neighbors had been on time. Then the funeral should have started but it hadn’t. They’d waited over an hour for the preacher during which time the women sat clustered and chatting while the men stepped out to smoke on both the side porches. At exactly five minutes past two, Vernie had nodded to Essie McClure to start the playing. Essie had had to play “Oh, for a Closer Walk with Thee” through three times before they’d quieted enough to listen. Brother Bob Yarwood had done a fine job, but it wasn’t the same as having a preacher. Even if the boy had been half-witted, he still should have had a preacher.

            “A funeral with no preacher,” she said, shaking her head.  “I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

            “I know what you mean,” mumbled the child and stuck her foot down and under so Vernie wouldn’t rock.

            Vernie sat unhappily. 

            “No dignity,” she said, then kicked at the child’s foot and began to swing. 

            They could have had a preacher if they’d really wanted one but some situations called for a bit of moral fiber. Ernest Lee was her boy but he was too soft. He’d have called Dellrose Methodist if she’d let him. She wouldn’t let him.  There is no preacher, she’d said, standing like the wrath of God in the middle of the living room, ever had to be ask to call on his flock in time of need, they’re jus’ supposed to be there. When Ernest Lee had pointed out that maybe this Timms fellow wasn’t there because he wasn’t really their preacher, that their preacher was a Baptist and laid up Mills General with kidney stones, she’d quickly pointed out the facts. Doll Gass, her special friend and a Methodist, had told her that she would see Pastor Timms knew of their predicament, and she was sure Doll had done her part. The rest was up to Timms. He’d been told. And until the arrival of the first caller, she’d stalked through the house with an air of silent violence. 

            Later, when the men had run out of smokes and the women began trotting to the bathroom, Vernie began to have doubts. If Ernest Lee had asked her then, she’d have told him to call Dellrose and get Connie, the secretary, on the phone. Connie was Doll’s niece’s sister- in- law.  But he’d been too busy shaking hands to think about a preacher and so she’d sat, stone-faced with what everyone thought was grief, and watched as her plans turned to ashes.

            “Ya’ll want some chocolate cake? A  thin, high voice wound down the hall from the kitchen, unfolding as it came like a dry, ridged leaf. The voice belonged to Kaylene, the girl’s momma.  “Double chocolate with cream cheese in the icing.”

            Nida Ruth stirred. 

            “No, thank you,” said Vernie.

             “There’s enough left for two, maybe three, pieces,” 

            Nida Ruth opened her eyes and made a face. 

            “Maybe later,” said Vernie.

            “Well . . .  all righty,” Nida Ruth sat up as her mother’s footsteps faded back through the house.

            “What’s the matter with you?” asked Vernie, cupping her chin and turning her face toward her. “You sick?” 

            “No, but I’m not eating nothing brung on his account. I ain’t gonna to eat a bite.” Nida Ruth hissed like a wet kitten and Vernie  loosed her grip. 

            “Suit yourself,” she replied mildly. “Every tub sits on its own bottom.”

            Nida Ruth settled back against her. Vernie jerked her arm up in protest but failed to dislodge her. Nida’s cheek was stuck to her arm like glue, perspiration binding them together. Vernie looked down at her in defeat. Nothing ever turned out the way it should, she thought, and  today was a prime example. Here she was with a story bursting inside her, a revelation both dark and deep, stuck without a preacher to confirm it. Left out  on a limb without a man of God. 

            Without a preacher, all her observations, whose culmination lay cold and rigid in the chrome plated coffin would sound too fantastic, too wild. She’d be taken for a rambling old woman, but she’d only been sixty when the first sign had plopped in her lap, as stark as the belly of a dead fish. Now, everyone called her Grandma Vernie, whether they were related or not. Without a preacher, she would have been laughed to scorn. She knew how they’d treated all the other prophets. Elijah had had his raven, and Moses his watering rock, and she’d needed Pastor Timms. 

            He hadn’t come.

            A slow flush began at the base of her neck and traveled up her throat, splotching her skin until she appeared in the throes of an allergic reaction. She’d never have a chance like this again. The boy in the coffin; all the people assembled. It would’ve been perfect but for that good for nothing Timms. She heard he was young, too. She didn’t doubt it.

            With a violent motion, she started up the swing.

            “Grandma,” muttered the child. “Don’t rock.”

            “I got to, miss, I got to.”

            If only he’d come, she’d have said, “Folks, may I have your attention?” and they’d have looked up, politely impatient in the face of an old woman but she’d have understood. They were thinking she was going to be emotional. She wasn’t. She’d hadn’t looked in the coffin because she’d gotten a good look at the half-wit when he was born.  Long and knobby even at birth, with a shock of black hair, the only sign the boy belonged to her son. The rest of him looked like nobody she’d ever seen and over the years he’d continued to grow, despite his brain (or lack of it) into a larger version of the baby he’d been. His face stayed smooth and his limbs uncoordinated, his eyes guileless as a hollow moon.

….. to be continued

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