It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!
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and her book:
Center Street (June 4, 2008)
Elizabeth Hancock was born to a Southern Baptist minister and choir soprano in Central Kentucky. She abandoned her Bluegrass roots to attend Harvard University, and in 1998, became the first-ever Miss Massachusetts with a Southern accent. She earned her J.D. from Georgetown in 2005, and now practices law in Virginia.
Visit the author's Website.
List Price: $21.99
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Center Street (June 4, 2008)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
In east- central Kentucky, where I grew up, yard sales were spiritual affairs. People laid the holiest parts of their pasts on the altar: china patterns in small, paltry sets, for which incompleteness was a mark of shame (the marriage clearly hadn’t lasted long enough for the set to be finished); self- help books (not deemed subversive until after they’d spent at least two weeks on the best- seller list); wine and cordial sets (reason for purging them: self- explanatory). On the first Saturday in July 1982, when my grandmother
Mimi’s new street held its annual Public Cleansing of the Sinful, the Embarrassing, the Tacky, and the Used- Up (officially known as the Town- Wide Community Yard Sale), Momma and Aunt Kit turned Mimi’s front yard into a veritable mecca of the Bluegrass. Their own daddy had passed away some ten years before, and Mimi had finally remarried. Her new husband’s house was smaller, so lots of old had to pass away, for pennies on the dollar, before the new could come. My sister, cousins, and I sat on the edge of the driveway, in awe of Momma and Kit. Wearing their signature yard sale day uniforms— Bermudas over bathing suits and halos of giant aluminum rollers— they gave off an aura that made piles of warped Tupperware seem magnetic. No other yard on the block was doing as much business. But it wasn’t our mothers’ entrepreneurship that had us concerned. All up and down the block, kids our age were cashing in on the yard sales, too. Each time a grown- up entered a driveway, she had to practically trip over a teetering, scrap- wood refreshment “stand” staffed by some barefoot child who looked like a pitiful, melting toad out in the sun. A pitiful, melting, moneymaking little toad. My sister and I knew we could do better. Meg and I took a few of Mimi’s empty moving cartons from the garage and set to work on our own stand. We set it up right at the driveway’s edge— almost in the road— where it couldn’t be missed. And sure enough, no one passing by missed a glance at what we were offering, spelled out in blood- red tempera paint:
Baptisms: 25 Cents.
And below it, in tiny print:
But if you do not have any money, it is free.
ACID- WASHED SAMARITANS
For a true Kentucky girl, it is possible to baptize out the sin, but not the Blue. And for that reason, no worse punishment can be devised for her than imprisonment in a televisionless guest bedroom in the middle of March Madness. Cold- turkey withdrawal from basketball is the most cruel and unusual penance that can be inflicted upon anyone in the Bluegrass. Age doesn’t matter, we’re all like those crack cocaine babies— addicted from the first jump ball. In fact, when I was a kid, Wildcat basketball was the only such addiction respected— no, encouraged— by the Southern Baptist Church, where being in attendance at services was held in greater esteem than being in God’s graces. If your house burned to the ground on a Saturday, well, you’d better get your rear end in the pew on Sunday morning and thank the Lord for sparing your life. Your wife died? Sorry, but you’d best show up immediately and let the Women’s League fuss over you, or else they’d take offense. But if it was Sunday and the Game was on, well, that was different. God made the Wildcats, and the Wildcats glorified Him through their goal- shattering, soul- shattering play. If your church held a Kentucky Wildcat basketball player— current or former— on its membership roll, and you managed to secure his autographed jersey for your trophy case (typically signed with the citation to the athlete’s favorite Bible verse), then you had officially acquired the Holy Grail of missions tools. Who knew how many stadiumfuls of souls that jersey might draw to the Lord’s side?
And yet my mother refused to respect the almighty force of Kentucky Basketball. It was for that reason that I silently prayed for her soul, even as I wrote in my Bible notebook and cursed her name during that one afternoon of cruelest isolation. I was almost nine years old and I was in trouble. But more than that, I was worried. I really hoped God would forgive my mother for making me miss the game. It only made me madder when I saw my little sister, out like a light on the guest twin bed next to mine. This was the one talent that always made me jealous of Meg— she could escape into sleep from anything, anytime, anywhere, and it took her less than a minute. A punishment like the guest- room prison didn’t have to be a punishment for her. She didn’t have to endure the slow burn of sunlight lowering slat- by- slat through the mini blinds and rusty bike wheels going on a last ride for the evening. Most maddening of all, she didn’t have to trudge through some dumb paperback from the preteen section of the Tucker’s Mill Elementary library (hand- chosen by Momma, who taught sixth grade at the time). I hated preteen books. As I noted in my Bible notebook, if Jesus could read one, He would proclaim that “thou art the most asinine things ever written.” They certainly weren’t made for girls like me who understood the meaning of asinine (which was taught to me by my father, by way of one of his sermons).
All the girls in those books knew how to do was sit around and whine about how ugly and fat they were and how nobody liked them. I had the good sense to know that I was beautiful even without a bra (and in the church, I was even holy- royal). Still, were I to grow up to be such a whiner, Momma would have no one but herself and Judy Blume to thank.
So, partly out of frustration with Ramona Forever, and partly because I was tired of taking my punishment alone, I threw the book against the far wall, right above Meg’s head. With a groan, she half opened one eye. Her round face was puffy with sleep and red on one side; the word shepherd from the embroidery on her pillowcase had embedded itself into her cheek. “You woke me up, you . . . you . . . booger!” Meg shouted, still drugged in sleep. (I made note of the hesitation in her speech, the self- correction her bleary mind had made before she settled on what put- down name she was going to call me. This was a cautious, practiced art in Baptist childhood— would- be “cursing” had to be manipulated so that it wouldn’t burn Jesus’s ears, but would still offend your target to the maximum extent possible. Meg had mostly learned the art from our neighbor kid Joey Stinson, a true master. Just weeks before she and I landed in that guest room, Meg had come home in frantic tears from the Stinsons’ backyard. She’d finally admitted, after Momma calmed her down, that “Joey called me a
mitch!”) I was usually ready to counter booger with something related to diarrhea (putting my holy dignity aside by necessity, in emergency circumstances), but I knew that in this case, starting a fight might result in an extended sentence. If we could just stay quiet— please, Lord— we might be released in time to see the last quarter of the game.
“You know what’s a worse name than booger?” I asked, eyes wide as I could make them. “Beazus. A girl in that book Momma made me read is really named Beazus. Can you believe that? I don’t know if her parents are crazy Pentecostals or what.”
It worked. Meg fell back on the bed and laughed. Thank goodness she was only six, and I had two and a half years of cleverness on her. Normally, Meg never joked about names. She thought her own first name, Margaret, was an old- lady name, and she was correct. My mother and father named us Elizabeth and Margaret because they wanted us to sound dignified when we were older. Momma always told us it was our Christian duty to live up to those names. And on that March Sunday in 1986, I was convinced I was doing a good job of that, despite the misunderstandings of my elders. Elizabeth was the name of the most dignified movie star ever to walk the earth, and I was convinced I was following in her footsteps. True, my parents couldn’t afford to make me one of the Kentucky “horse kids,” so any hopes of National Velvet II were out of the question. But to my credit, I took ballet and could do one- handed cartwheels, and my mother painted my nails with real woman’s polish (not the kiddy Tinkerbell brand that Meg could drink without dying).
I was certain it was only by God’s graces that Meg still had years of growing up to do, because as a six- year- old Meg was not dignified. Ever since the first traces of spring warmth appeared that March, she’d taken to wearing an old pair of our neighbor Teddy Frank’s swimming trunks as regular shorts. She just wore them day after day until Sunday morning, when Momma had to take them off with Meg kicking and screaming. Often I wondered just how the same sanctified, holy- born DNA could flow through her veins as mine. But once in a great while, Meg had a thought of pure theological genius. And there in the guest room, in our darkest hour of faith, one of those inspired questions hit her: “If Jesus is going to punish us anyway, why does Momma get to do it, too?” Meg asked. She walked her feet up the wall and picked her nose— the yogi- style meditative pose of the Christian child of the South. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I think it’s because she knows
He really won’t do anything to us, because He knows we weren’t wrong. But I prayed to Him that I was sorry, just in case.” “Me, too. But I was falling asleep and I don’t know if I got it in time to count.” I turned over and stared out the window, out to the sidewalk where the Stinson kids were coming home from the new indoor pool at the Catholic rec center. Mrs. Stinson had a popped pool fl oat in one hand and was dragging one of her kids by the other. The kid was squalling up a storm, rubbing a rear end that had been recently slapped. I let out a little giggle, the kind you always giggled as a child whenever you saw another child get spanked in public. You didn’t know where such a laugh came from or what ungodly force put it there at that time, but it came up anyway like a big embarrassing burp and was tough to swallow back.
I stared at that poor, persecuted Stinson child, and I thought about how Momma had dragged me home by the arm like that, just that morning. I thought about how I would have preferred a spanking to the jail sentence. I thought, deep in that still- undeveloped part of my little heart that was born to question older people, about whether or not I deserved punishment at all. For as my Bible notebook would proclaim, and as I would tell the Lord face- to- face if I had the chance, Mrs. Mounts was the one who really started it. Mrs. Joetta Mounts had taken over teaching both my Sunday School class and my GA group in January. GA stands for “Girls in Action,” and in the Southern Baptist Church it can best be described as Girl Scouts Gone Holy. A girl was eligible to start attending GA troop meetings when she began the first grade. The goal of the program was to instill the Southern Baptist Convention’s focus on world missions in the population of six- year- old girls, and let them grow in Christ’s charity from there. We earned a badge for each level of missions study we completed, up through the sixth grade, and these were displayed on a pageant- style sash worn each year at a recognition program. When a girl became a teenager, she was eligible to promote into the Acteens program (Eagle Scouts at the Seraphim Level). You did not get cookies to sell in the GAs, but one year I remember sampling the putrid porridge of the pagan Shuma- something tribe of Liberia. The Mounts GA group met in a little room in the back of the church that had a crooked rainbow painted on the wall, and a scary- looking Noah with a great big head and feet that looked like mashed potatoes. Week after week, we sat there and listened to fat Mrs. Mounts tell us how much we were helping the missions effort when we dressed up like Ethiopians and sang in front of the church. I felt like I was lying when I nodded, as if I believed Mrs. Mounts, but to question what she said aloud might be sassing, and I didn’t know which was the worse sin, lying or back talk. (When there were two sins at once, though, I thought it was written in the Word that the older person got to pick which one counted, so I didn’t talk back.)
At the time, Meg was not really old enough to be in GAs. She had an off- birthday and was too young to be in the big girl class by a weekend, but she was too old to be put in the baby nursery. Mrs. Mounts just let her sit and color at first, but she took the coloring book away when Meg started giving all the Bible people red eyes. (Meg wasn’t that old at the time, but she was smart enough to make the connection between superpowers and laser eyes. If the Lord could turn water into wine, by gosh, Meg knew He was entitled to laser eyes, too, and she aimed to give them to Him.) But after the coloring book was snatched, Meg just had to sit and be quiet like the rest of us.
She still managed the occasional brush with holysuperheroism, mostly when prayer circle time rolled around. Prayer circle always turned into sort of a contest by the end, where everyone competed to see who was in most need of divine help. Someone would start the bidding by asking for prayers for their momma’s bad headaches or their grandpa’s arthritis— a solid effort, but worth only a “that’s too bad” from Mrs. Mounts, at most. Someone else usually one- upped this by asking for prayers for their teenage cousin who got drunk on
Saturday night— again, a good effort, and sometimes rewarded by Mrs. Mounts making notes in her own personal prayer booklet, which looked a little like a meter maid’s notepad. It was then, when all eyes searched the room for a last- minute sniper of a bid, that Meg would make her move, simply and matter- of- factly: “Our Mimi is in a coma. That means she is part alive and sick and part dead.” It always came out sounding like a plea and a challenge rolled into one. And just how are you going to pray away that combo, lady? Mrs. Mounts never had an answer. Neither did any of our Sunday School teachers, or Daddy for that matter, when I’d ask him directly how we could force God’s hand in the matter. He said that we just had to pray about it. That that was what Great and Almighty Prayer was for. When he said this, it made me think of prayer as something more like a limp- wristed weakling, without laser eyes, and without even the upper- body strength to lift my feeble grandmother on into heaven. It scared me a little to think that this was my father’s hero.
The GA term ran from January to March, during the second half of Sunday services. At that last meeting of the year, that morning, Mrs. Mounts had promised us a movie and treats. Now, anyone who ever attended church as a child knows that any treat you were promised by a church leader would inevitably be a big disappointment. That is, unless you were a kid from the Shawneetown Mission next door and you only had rocks to play with. And if you felt even a teensy bit let down inside when you got the treat, you were supposed to feel ashamed for not being grateful that you were not a Shawneetown kid with only rocks to play with. Take Mrs. Mounts’s movie, for example. Right as I laid myself fl at- out on the cool classroom linoleum and watched her start to fumble with the VCR, I prayed with all my heart that it would be E.T. Deep down, though, I knew I had to prepare fake joy for the grainy David and Goliath cartoon it would, and did, turn out to be. And Lord, even though I knew being ungrateful was a sin, I just couldn’t repent fast enough for that treat. It was what it always was— purple- colored water with no sugar and a cup of peanuts with no salt. Like I said, I had no call to be surprised. My father has always maintained that the treats Southern Baptists give out at church are tied right to the heart of the religion. And the religion, he says, is all about trapdoors. “There are people in our church who think the earth is covered in trapdoors,” he told me once after a particularly heartwrenching choir party in which we were actually given milk and slices of wheat bread, “and each of those doors is baited with the sweetest things in life. They think once you reach out and try to take those good things off the door, Satan pushes a button somewhere and you go straight to the bottom.” “So Mrs. Mounts thinks there are trapdoors in the Sunday School room?” I asked him. “Mrs. Mounts thinks that if she puts sugar in your Kool- Aid, in two weeks you’ll be on crack cocaine.” “But can’t people just take the good thing off the trapdoor when they see it,” I wondered, “and not just stand there on it and wait to fall?” “Well, no,” he said. “The Southern Baptist philosophy rests largely on the principle that all God’s glorious, perfect children are also dumb as dirt.” Lying there on that church room floor, with the little brown flecks in the linoleum that made the tiles look like vomit, I thought about how dumb as dirt Mrs. Mounts’s cartoon movie was. But then, like a miracle, the real Savior intervened. It amazed me that a blessing could be disguised as Meg. She had been sawing logs over in the corner since the birth of David, and suddenly she was whispering in my ear. “I have a stomachache, Sissy. I’m not making it up, I promise.” I noticed that Meg had little flecks of crayon wax pressed
into her cheek, where it had lain against the floor.
“Okay, let’s go.” I sighed, pretending it was a chore to take her to the bathroom, because it usually was. Momma would never let us go to the bathroom alone, and sometimes, in restaurants, Meg would work herself into having to go just to see what the inside of a different bathroom looked like. That day, though, I was secretly relieved to get out of Mrs. Mounts’s “treat” of a movie. We walked up to Mrs. Mounts, who was asleep herself in a big rocking chair. I could see the reflection of the movie dancing across her big, frog- eyed glasses. The armbands of her short- sleeved knit shirt were squeezing the fat on the tops of her arms so tight that it looked painful. I wondered how she stayed asleep for the squeezing, but for some reason I was afraid to reach out and wake her up. Meg was not. “Good Lord!” Mrs. Mounts jumped, forgetting that she had said Good Lord. “I am afraid you caught me resting my eyes.” “Meg has a tummyache. Can I take her, ma’am?” I said as charmingly as possible. Mrs. Mounts just nodded and turned back to the movie, as if she was worried she might have missed something important.
We tiptoed out the door in our sock feet and then broke into a run as soon as we were in the mile- long hallway, and not just because Meg had to go. Something about a church hallway when no one was there to watch, shush, or boss us made it the free-est- feeling place in the world. Meg ran into the stall and left the door standing open, and I flopped down on that couch that was in the church ladies’ bathroom— as it is in all Baptist church ladies’ bathrooms— for Jesus- only- knows why. (I later concluded that the reason was obvious— Baptist churches don’t have confessionals, and the gossip has to be relayed somewhere.) Meg was moaning and making some awful noises, so I got down and dug in the big cardboard box full of castaway clothes that sat in the corner of the restroom. The GA Castaway Clothes Box was put there by Mrs. Mounts, and she said we were to fill it with old clothes for kids who “cannot afford them.” When the box was full, she was going to ship it away to the missionaries’ kids in Africa. I thought I might find something to wrap around my head and make Meg laugh. Instead, holy of holies, I found myself a miracle.
There, on top of the box, sat a pair of acid- washed Guess blue jeans, just like my cousin Suzanne in junior high had, and just like the pair I had begged Momma for in the middle of Value City the week before. She had said we could not afford them.
I felt the adrenaline— or was it pure, unadulterated Holy Spirit?—course through my body as I lifted the jeans from the box. Like a voice from above, Momma’s very words echoed through my head as I read the words Mrs. Mounts had printed on the side of the box— clothes, for children of missionaries of the word, who CANNOT AFFORD THEM.
Now, if anyone appreciated the sacrifice of the Baptist foreign missionaries, it was me. But the only missionary’s kid I’d ever met at the time was Micah Nichols, the fat- brat son of my daddy’s friend from seminary. I had to sit by Micah when my parents had the Nicholses over for supper one night, while Micah just bragged on and on about how the Southern Baptists paid for his family’s huge house down in Africa, and how they had a maid and could spend their money on whatever they wanted. He also said he didn’t have to go to school because his momma taught him at home, and the two of them just played all day with his millions of toys that were taken as “castaways” from sucker GAs like me. When I heard Meg groan again from the stall, right like a voice from the beyond, it reminded me of how Micah had laughed at her for saying the blessing with her eyes open, when she was just a toddler. Right then, I decided I could not let any of the spoiled missionary girls who Micah played with in Africa get their grubby little hands on a pair of brand- new acidwashed Guess jeans. God did not want the bratty little children to be blessed at all, and He was telling me, personally. If there was any doubt in my heart as to what I should do, it was erased when, through the large crack in the bathroom door that led out into the hallway, I spotted the glowing edge of the church trophy case, full of all the marvelous instruments of ministry. Mrs. Mounts herself had told me that when God called you to be a missionary to the downtrodden, one of the ways you knew it was Him was that He gave you special tools to minister. Now, fancy clothes may not seem like a very religious tool, but any child who grew up in east-central Kentucky and ever flipped on Channel Three would tell you differently. At age eight, I was convinced that the TV minister lady on Channel Three was the most famous and best lady missionary in the world. And as far as I was concerned, anyone could see it was all because of her beautiful clothes. Every Sunday night, I tuned in anxiously to see children line up all around her to feel of her furs and play with her fancy beads while she ministered the Word. My mother always said she was nothing but tacky trash and made me turn the channel, but sometimes I would sneak and watch because I was fascinated with the TV lady. I thought her huge, white poofy hair made her head look surrounded in light, like the picture of the angel on the King’s Way Baptist nursery wall. I could not imagine a more wonderful life than to look so glamorous, and to be a TV- star servant to the Lord at the same time. I told this to Mrs. Mounts once and she said, “Now, Emy, remember that Lottie Moon was a wonderful missionary as well, and she got by with next to no clothing or food.” (I wanted to tell Mrs. Mounts that Lottie Moon was no kind of missionary anymore because, as we learned in GAs, she was dead of starvation in China. But I bit my tongue.) I had never been so sure of anything in my life as I was that those jeans could give me the wonder- working power. I could just see my ministry— little poor, pitiful girls in my class at school like Pepsi Moffett would be drawn in by that triangle label on my back pocket.
“Where did you get Guess jeans?” Pepsi would say. “They were a blessing from the Lord,” I would say. “You, child, will be blessed, too, if you will come to church on Sunday.”
I lifted those beautiful, almost- white blue jeans from the box. For just a second, I felt a little twinge like I might be doing something wrong, but I decided it must be the Devil trying to talk me down from goodness. After all, I reasoned, if the TV lady was dressing fancy against the will of God, some- thing really awful would have happened to her and her clothes by then. Then (as if I needed the Lord’s additional confirmation) another amazing thing happened. I saw a ball of bright red vinyl sitting square in the middle of the castaway box, just like a burning bush. It was the very thing that Meg threw her Value City tantrum over, a red- and- black Michael Jackson jacket with zippers painted on the sleeves. Meg loved Michael Jackson, but Momma had looked at that jacket as if it were covered in bird doo and made Meg put it back. Momma had said we could not afford that jacket, either, even though Meg had snatched it from the bargain bin and it was only ninety nine cents. Now, I was certain that just when Meg was sick, walking straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Sunday School Cuisine, God had provided me with this jacket so that I could bestow it on her and lift her soul.
Sure enough, when I ran over to that stall, Meg lit up and jumped straight off the toilet seat. Her face was all red from having her head between her knees, and her pants were still wound up around her ankles, but her little blue eyes were dancing. She put the jacket on and started shaking her little bare butt all around the bathroom. But then the Devil started tugging at Meg’s soul, too. “Is it really okay if I take this, instead of the mission kids?” she asked me, as if I were the high- authority. I had to give her my high- authority answer, and I told her the truth as well as I knew it— that they didn’t even have Michael Jackson in Africa. “The kids down there would just throw that jacket in the garbage,” I told her, and I was proud of the wisdom that God had allowed to come out of my mouth.
The big church bell tolled, telling us it was the end of the church service, and of GAs and RAs and nursery. I was so thrilled to tell Momma about my new gift and how her own daughter was going to be a world- famous missionary that I nearly tore Meg’s arm off running through the swinging bathroom door.
Instead I knocked down Mrs. Mounts. She hoisted herself up quickly, making sure that her big wraparound skirt didn’t come open.
“Well, my goodness! We need to watch where we’re going!” she said.
Meg and I started to mumble that we were sorry, but Mrs.Mounts was already staring down at the castaway clothes in our arms. “Elizabeth Emerson,” she said, “aren’t those from the castaway box?” She pointed with her eyes at the denim wad under my arm. She didn’t say anything about Meg’s jacket, but it was talking loudly enough for itself. “Mrs. Mounts, it was a miracle . . . ,” I started to explain, but she shushed me. Daddy was right. Mrs. Mounts thought I was dumb as dirt, just like all God’s blessed children and just like her. She grabbed each of us by the hand and started for the choir room. Mrs. Mounts’s hands were covered in slimy lotion, and Meg pulled hers away and wiped it on her dress. I looked up at Mrs. Mounts’s face and was confused. I had seen her get angry in Sunday School before, like the time Davy Marsh spilled paint on her new shoes. She had tried to act like it was an accident and she didn’t mind, but her face had gotten as red as her puffy dyed hair. This time, though,
Mrs. Mounts was acting angry, but her face looked calm. Her lips were pursed up tight, the way I did mine when I thought of something inappropriate during church. Mrs. Mounts was not mad; she was excited. She just couldn’t wait to tattle on the preacher’s kids. And she thought we couldn’t tell. When we got to the choir room, Momma was practicing a solo with Mr. Eddie, the Minister of Music. Mrs. Mounts strode in smiling, just like she was the happiest she’d ever been in her life and Momma was her best friend.
“I just haaaaaaate to interrupt this beautiful singing,” Mrs. Mounts cooed, stretching out her Kentucky drawl to make it sound Georgia, the way she always did, “but I am afraid . . .”
I blocked out her voice because I couldn’t stand it, and I followed Meg over to the chalkboard to draw. I drew all the crosses and manger scenes I could sketch in a minute, so that Momma would look over and see that I was full of the Spirit, and that Mrs. Mounts was full of something else. But Momma didn’t look. She didn’t yell, either. She didn’t say we were sinful, or anything about Meg and me at all. She just waited until Mrs. Mounts left and said, “I cannot tell you how embarrassed I am.”
On the way home, our station wagon was silent as the grave. I told Momma about all the miracles that had guided me to the castaway box, but instead of shushing me like a dummy, she just told me she was not a dummy, and that Meg had better quit rolling her eyes. It was not worth the effort to keep trying. Even if I thought there was nothing to be embarrassed about, I knew there was nothing worse than making my mother feel embarrassed in front of church people. As I’ve said before, we were just as good as royalty on Southern Baptist Sundays. And right then, I felt as if I were Princess Diana and had pulled my dress up over my head during the Easter Pageant while the Queen Mother was up there in the choir loft.
“You are to give those clothes back,” Momma said. “You are to write a letter that says you are sorry and give it to Mrs. Mounts. And you will spend tonight’s Kentucky game in the guest bedroom, where you will look up the words thief, ornery, and ungrateful in the dictionary.”
And that was the end of that.
That night, Momma did eventually release Meg and me in time to see the last quarter of the ball game. The entire second half, in fact. But I stayed on in the guest room, on principle. I had to fulfill my Christian duty and transcribe a parable based on my experiences that morning, so that it could one day be used to guide the masses. It was called “The Revenge of the Gucci Ghost,” and it was the sad story of an obese church lady (who coincidentally fit Mrs. Mounts’s profile to the letter) who taught GAs, and who carried a massive Gucci handbag with her always. Even though, as my mother had told me repeatedly, “A family of four could eat for weeks on what one of those purses cost,” the woman in my story carried hers with pride. In fact, the day she bought it happened to be GA “Feed the Five Thousand Day,” when GA troops around the country collected donations for the missions hunger effort. This woman thought, perhaps, that she should donate to the hunger effort instead of buying the purse, but she reasoned that this could wait. After all, who knew how many ladies in town, starved for the Word, would approach her in admiration of her kid- leather, icon- stamped marvel. Then, with this foothold, her ministry to them could begin. So she bought the purse for five hundred dollars. And meanwhile, on the missions front in China, Lottie Moon was waiting for her plate of rice. But she, a missionary who thought of herself last, was last in the food line behind the hungry masses. And when Lottie finally got to the front, the server told her, “We are so sorry. There is no more food left to give you. We thought there would be, as we were to have a big donation from the King’s Way Baptist Church in Kentucky. But for some strange reason, the donation was exactly five hundred dollars short, so we couldn’t buy you any rice.” And that was the night that Lottie Moon died.
And as for the purse lady, her dreams were tortured for eternity with the rattling ghost of Lottie Moon, who moaned and wailed and asked the purse lady repeatedly why she didn’t just take a free purse from the castaway box. Amen. The End.
THE THREE FIND- ME- ABLIND-
If you are a wandering soul seeking a church home, the first thing any good recruiter will tell you is that Baptist church is free. When the offering plate is passed at you, it’s just a suggestion. (In fact, it might be wiser not to drop a big wad of money into it, because then people will wonder just what debt you are trying to settle up with Jesus.) This much is true. What they don’t tell you, though, is that there is a toll. And right as you enter the little breezeway that leads into the sanctuary, you’ll meet the collectors— the feather- crowned, sharp- toothed, Jungle Gardenia–scented breed known as the Southern Baptist Greeters. Before you can worship in peace, you’ll have to survive their cheek- pinching, church- program- slapping, casually- asking- where- were- you- last- Sunday gauntlet.
At King’s Way Baptist Church, the Greeters were always Gladys Cantrell, Betty Burnside, and Henrietta Crane. (And heaven help you if you volunteered to relieve any one of them from her post.) All three of them were real tight with Mrs. Mounts, and they were all about “fixing and doing” for the church. In fact, Daddy called them the Three “Find- Me- a- Blind- Person” Mice. They were best friends with one another, but in a funny way, Daddy said, on account of they were always trying to outdo one another with who could be the most
Christian. If one of them brought a bag of groceries to a shut-in (which is the secret church word for someone who is too pitiful to go to the grocery themselves), the other brought a station- wagon-ful. And the third— dear Lord, when she got wind of it the poor shut- in would find herself at the center of a kindness maelstrom, after which she’d emerge with twelve turkeys in her fridge (months before Thanksgiving, in the house where she was no longer able to use the stove), her hair and nails done, and a donated evening gown in her tiny closet (“just for a little something fancy!”). The outtakes of the Mice became legendary in short order. Soon rumors of what they were up to, of what gracious hell fires had burned behind their heavy- blushed, smiling cheeks, started to reach the level of myth. Just like you couldn’t always tell where the true kindness stopped and the competition kindness began, where the Mice were concerned it was hard to tell which tales of their exploits were true and which were just parables— legends passed down in whispers at church suppers, until the real story was so buried under mashed potatoes and fried chicken that it wasn’t recognizable anymore.
Momma was always quick to shush me whenever I asked her about the truth behind one or the other of the Mice rumors. She always gave me those you- know- better eyes and said that it was one of the “true tragedies of our church” that people would sooner gossip about the good than about the bad. That might be true, I always thought, but on the other hand, Mrs. Mounts herself was always talking about how the Bible passages came to be because they were passed down, passed down, and passed down. That meant that someone in those olden times was playing telephone tag, someone was encouraging the whispering at the church supper, and taking notes. And I bet no one called that person “Gossip.” No, she was “Scribe,” or “Witness,” and the nations rose up and praised her skill. Why, if they didn’t, the Bible itself might never have been written.
And that is why I felt comfortable, once or twice, repeating the only Mice story that was powerful enough to stick in my head. I could never remember who first told it to me, or why, and Daddy said he never heard of such a thing happening; that some teenage church nursery worker must have been pulling my leg. But he had laughed. In telling Daddy the story,
I’d given him a sermon that he’d never heard. And whether there was truth at the heart of it or not, that fact alone was enough to make my heart rejoice. I decided I’d keep repeating the legend of the day the Mice met Mrs. Monroe. The whole thing happened when I was in kindergarten, I thought. It all started when the old black man who sat in King’s Way’s back row, and who was always yelling out “Amen” in the middle of Daddy’s sermons, brought his little grandson Kevin to church with him, since Kevin was visiting his grandpa for the month of June. Well, “Glad, Bett, and Hen,” as the Mice called themselves, decided the little boy must need saving. First, Glad invited him to the RA group her husband taught, and his grandpa let him go. Glad showed up to sit in on the group that night, and also to give Kevin a Bible and a big handful of pamphlets. Well, before the class was over, in walked Bett with a sack of canned goods for the boy to take home. Right behind her came Hen, with a big bag of castaway clothes that her boy Joe wouldn’t wear anymore.
When it became clear that Bett’s frankincense and Hen’s myrrh had followed Glad’s gold, those three got all worked up into a frenzy, because not one of them wanted to come out seeming less gracious than the others. So, since his grandpa hadn’t arrived just yet to pick him up, they decided to drag Kevin into the beginning of their Women’s Missionary Union meeting, where they would introduce him together as their newest missions project. No sooner had they set up the poor child in front of the sanctuary, surrounded by his cans of Cream- of- Mushroom manna and used swaddling clothes, there came an almighty voice from above: “Where is the RA group? And what in the Devil is going on here?” Only it wasn’t from above, but from the back of the sanctuary. And not from the Holy Spirit, but from a tall black woman in a polka- dot dress, the same one Henrietta Crane happened to be wearing.
Her name was Mrs. Carl Monroe, the Women’s Missionary Union learned as she climbed a verbal Mount of Olives during her trip down the aisle to her boy. She was Christian. Her father was a fifth- generation minister up north— a fifth generation Baptist minister. Her husband held perhaps the only post higher than the pulpit in Southern Baptist doctrine that of assistant college basketball coach. And at that college, she herself was a graduate student, not of home economics or even education, but of physics.
When I pictured this story in my head, I thought of Henrietta Crane standing there, hulking over that poor boy who was just a mustard seed to her mountain, frozen in holy terror as
Mrs. Monroe came at her like Bobby Knight to an overstuffed referee. And I just bet none of the WMUers rushed to speak up in Hen’s defense. I bet they just stared down at the pinholes in their spectator pumps, wishing they would suddenly get large enough for them to crawl into and disappear. But when she reached the altar, Mrs. Monroe did not raise a chair, like Bobby Knight would have. She did not even raise her voice. Instead she knelt down by her child, whom Mrs. Crane had wrapped in a used and worn winter jacket. She took his hand and turned, as if to preach to the choir that was also the WMU and the Christmas Drive staff and the entire faculty of Sunday School teachers. She said, “Kevin, I am so proud of you for coming here and witnessing to these ladies. And look, you are even in costume to help them with some sort of dramatic presentation. Let me guess . . .” She put a finger to her chin and glared at Henrietta, who stood frozen to her post behind Kevin, her big hips jutting out round on either side of his head. (Now, I think, would be the opportune time to tell you that Mrs. Crane was the wife of the owner of Crane’s Bakery.)
“Hmmm . . . ,” Mrs. Monroe continued. “Now, we’ve got torn and shabby clothes, a mess of half- eaten food, and . . .” She put her hand on Mrs. Crane’s shoulder and looked straight into her eyes. “I know! You’re acting out the parable of Jonah. Jonah and the whale.” And as I have said, I was not there to bear witness, but I will bet that Mrs. Crane just did this little grin with eye bats that I have seen her do before. In fact, it is the same grin that Meg used to do when she pooped in her pants and thought no one could smell it. What did happen (or so I was told) is that Henrietta Crane fainted right as the Monroes left the building, and she had to be rushed to the hospital. She would later say that she just hadn’t been feeling well all day. Hadn’t been “in her right frame of mind” at all, not at all.
So, as I said, I have no proof that this parable of gossip is true. But I do know that, shortly after it started getting around, the Three Mice seemed to put a damper on their crusading.
For about a week.
A few Sundays later they were at it again, posed at the edge of the sanctuary with stacks of programs, just like it was their house and they were welcoming everyone else in for a dinner party. I bet they wouldn’t even let the Lord Jesus inside until He wiped His sandals.