Lily fell asleep on Max’s shoulder almost before Sophia had the Buick started. Max treasured the weight of her body as she nestled against him. Public places wore Lily out. She complained that her head was hurting before they finished their meals. He watched for signs of anxiety and noticed when Elaine the waitress brought the check that Lily’s fingers were rubbing, rubbing, rubbing the edges of the tablecloth and her body rocked slightly to the beat.
When Elaine laid the check on the table, she smiled broadly at Lily.
“Now, you come on back for supper sometime and I’ll see you get that plate of Liver and Onions you wanted.”
“What?” Her eyes searched Elaine’s face, “Have we met?”
Elaine backed off a bit, no longer making eye contact with Lily. Obviously embarrassed she addressed the others at the table.
“I am so sorry. I didn’t realize she was,” Elaine tapped her forehead, “You can take care of this at the register. You all have a good Sunday. Sorry.”
Max hated the gestures people used to avoid the words they wouldn’t say. Funny about people, they presume the gesture to be kinder or less offensive than the word. Max wondered what word Elaine meant with her tap on her forehead, the choices were endless, crazy, empty headed, brain dead, dim witted, senile—so many words imbedded in that one small tap. Max sucked air into his lungs letting it out slowly.
“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
By the time he reached, ‘forever and forever, Amen,’ his irritation subsided. A few more minutes and they’d be traveling east down I -40 heading toward Knoxville and beyond.
He looked at the backs of Amanda and Sophia’s heads contemplating how on earth he was going to maneuver Amanda so that she would tell Sophia at least the little she had told him without letting her know Sophia already knew. They were approaching the entrance ramp, when Max saw a sign that read: KNOXVILLE 21 miles. Revelation was going to have to be quick.
Once past that hurdle, he’d crawl under it if he had to, he’d have the mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina to figure out how to tell Amanda her grandmother and mother would be waiting for her in Greenville. How did he get stuck with this job? With tenderness, he smoothed Lily’s hair as she slept on his shoulder, kissed the top of her head and prayed Sophia would choose the minimum allowed speed on the Interstate.
Sophia did not slow down, she stopped, whipping the Buick to a grinding halt on the shoulder just as a semi blistered by, blowing his horn.
Amanda gasped! Max gulped. Lily slept.
“What are you doing? You want to get us all killed?”
Sophia switched off the key and turned to face the passenger side of the car. A quick look across her shoulder rendered Max speechless. Clearly Sophia’s attention was on Amanda. Amanda stiffened, turned away and stared with fixed attention on the piece of asphalt outside. Sophia waited. Max watched.
Sophia’s face didn’t suggest either impatience or anger only expectancy. Amanda wearied of the asphalt and began drawing circles on the window with her finger. She pressed her forehead against the pane. Seconds later, though it seemed much longer, her shoulders sagged and Max thought she might be crying.
“We’re less than 20 miles from Knoxville, Amanda. I don’t know your whole story, but I know most of what you’ve told us is a lie.” Sophia held up her hand as Amanda swung her head around poised to react. “Hold it, young lady! There is flat out no way Max or I or frankly anyone can force you to tell the truth. So I’ve decided to do what I do practically every Sunday morning and hope I’ll get a word of wisdom from the Lord.”
Sophia’s eyes swept all of them with a declaration of finality. “That’s right, Folks. We are going to church!”
“That won’t change anything! I won’t go!”
“Don’t know if it will change anything for you, Child, but let’s hope I get it right with the Lord for all our sakes!”
“I won’t go!”
Perplexed and unnerved by the prospect of attending a strange church with Lily, as Max felt he had never allowed his own children to refuse to go to church and he wasn’t about to let Amanda refuse.
“Amanda, as Sophia said, we are all going to church.”
With one swift look she let Max know she felt betrayed. He cringed. It hurt, but he held his tongue.
All but Lily recoiled from the others to lick their wounds. The Buick’s interior tensed and flexed with the breaths of its occupants. Except for the keys occasionally jingling and the air conditioner blowing, silence prevailed. Like people silences have personalities—good, bad, and indifferent—good silences relax; indifferent silences isolate, but bad silences generate electrical current. Decidedly the hush in the Buick felt like a thunderstorm with lightening flashing. The three involved retreated into their thoughts, but the car remained charged, a whiff of ozone seemed likely any moment, as the potential of a lightning strike grew.
Amanda wrapped her arms as tightly around herself as she could and slumped down, pressing her body against the seat wishing she could disappear. Her thoughts ran rampant. Max had squealed to Sophia. That was obvious. Max was the only one she’d told anything. And to think that just last night—her lip trembled in spite of her effort to stop it—just last night it seemed like well, they all liked her. I am such an idiot! If my own family doesn’t love me, why would this bunch of loonies. Church! Yuck! I’d rather she’d just stop the car right here and let me go. They are certainly not my only ride to the Atlantic. What’s the point of church? Just another guilt trip—it’s worse than being sent to my room to think about what I’ve done.
Granny Nan goes to church all the time, but she’s the one, the one who tried to leave me to be emptied with the other ba-a—garbage. As soon as we stop, I am so out of here. There are plenty of truck drivers—an involuntary shutter ran up Amanda’s spine—I’ll get there no matter what. Anything would be better than staying. I don’t need God and I sure don’t intend to endure the insufferable self-righteousness of losers who do.
The turn signals clicked as Sophia negotiated the exit ramp. Amanda weighed heavy on her mind. The idea of dragging a surly teenager to church had as much appeal to Sophia as passing a kidney stone like she had the year before—an experience she relived in nightmares. So why on earth was she doing it? What about Max and Lily? Max—she knew—worried about Lily and her anxiety attacks. She’d probably already had her full load of the unfamiliar today and now church.
Not too late to turn back to I-40 and stop near Knoxville to lay out all the cards to Amanda, but she kept driving. The sign for “Oak Ridge Road Harvest Fellowship Church—Come Visit Our Family” had leaped out at her as soon as the pulled onto the Interstate. Well this morning, the little slice of Americana in the Buick, would be paying them a visit. Sophia hoped they were ready. She prayed the preacher had a mighty word from the Lord, because she, for one, surely needed one.
The crunch of the tires on gravel as Sophia slowed and negotiated a turn signaled Max that they had indeed arrived at church. He peered through the windshield from his back seat position. A glimpse of the brick building, complete with steeple, settled his insides, which had churned dangerously since Sophia had decided the course of the morning for all of them. The appearance of the structure suggested a small congregation, a thought further enhanced by the gravel versus paved parking lot. He chanced a look out the side windows and saw only a few cars parked near them. Lily began to stir.
There hadn’t been enough time for Max to work out the logistics of getting Lily through the church service with the minimal amount of anxiety. Now he needed a plan. Frankly, during the short drive, after the outburst he’d thought more about Amanda than Lily.
The story her grandmother had shared haunted him. No wonder the child had run, but where on earth was she going? Max grunted quietly—he’d never been a master of conversation. Truth was, he’d never had much need for conversational skills beyond the ordinary, but today he’d be delighted if he could get a transfusion of, not only the gift of dialogue, but also the sense to use it. He had promised Amanda’s grandmother he would talk to her and he had promised Amanda he’d finish telling her about Greta. With or without sense Max planned to keep those promises—today. The exact timing would wait until after the church service, getting Lily through that would require the majority of his waning energy.
A squeezing sensation that ran from his forehead to the nape of his neck heralded the return of the persistent nuisance pain he’d endured for days. ‘Tough it out!’ He commanded, acknowledging that gulping down an analgesic might provide pain relief while robbing him of his full faculties. Heavens to Betsy! At eighty seven he needed every one of his remaining brain cells for the tasks ahead. He leaned over Lily unfastening her seatbelt when bedlam broke out in the front seat.
With the Buick securely in park, Sophia turned to open the door, when she heard the passenger side door swing open and the sound of Amanda’s clogs on the gravel. Sophia groaned, pushed upward and rounded the car in pursuit. In spite of the clogs, Amanda had enough of a head start that even though her running form resembled that of a hobbled ostrich, Sophia running at her top speed could see her chances of catching up diminished as her lungs began to burn with every painful breath. She’d run track in high school and college but twenty five years and seventy pounds later slowed her pace. Gasping for breath, she pleaded heavenward, “I’m dying here, Lord, Help!”
Providentially or coincidentally—let the great minds argue that one—at that moment, one of Amanda’s four inch clogs slipped off her foot, followed by the other one leaving her hopping painfully on the gravel. With all the authority of a middle school disciplinarian, Sophia swooped down on Amanda, who had slumped onto the gravel. Standing over her, Sophia heard her sobbing and swearing as she tried to get hold of her errant shoes and wrestle them onto her feet. Amanda’s predicament allowed Sophia time to catch her breath and the briefest moment to think before she spoke.
“Amanda, the church is the other direction.”
“I don’t, don’t want to go. You can’t make me.”
“That’s true. I can’t. Nobody can make you do anything.” Sophia lowered herself onto the ground next to Amanda. “I am inviting you to go. Just like Max and Lily invited you on this trip. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’ve been a mother long enough to know that you are wound in a little wad of hurt inside. Now if you still want to run for the hills I can’t stop you, but you at least owe Max and Lily the courtesy of a thank you and a good bye.”
Amanda struggled to her feet, and then reluctantly assisted Sophia who held out her hand for a lift. She continued to refuse to make eye contact with Sophia, choosing to study her feet.
“Max told you, didn’t he?”
“That my folks don’t live in Knoxville.”
“Amanda, Max didn’t tell me. You just aren’t a very good liar. You should thank the Lord for that.”
“He didn’t, really?”
“That’s a fact, really.”
“Now what’s it going to be? You want to come say your thank yous and good byes so we can get on into church and you can get on down the road? Or, do you want to join us for church and talk all this out later?”
Amanda looked up at her skeptically. Sophia held her gaze.
Sophia took her arm and guided her back toward the Buick as Max was getting Lily up on her feet. Relief washed over her. She wasn’t quite sure what she would have done if it had gone the other way.
The congregation of Harvest Fellowship Church, in spite of their sign on the Interstate inviting visitors, seldom had visitors in the worship service, other than family members or friends from out of town. By the time Sophia approached the doors firmly escorting Amanda, the observant members of the congregation had reported the child’s attempted escape, the chase, and the fleetness of the amply built “sister” to anyone who had missed the whole scenario.
Responses among observers and non-observers were varied, but positive; some had been quite impressed by how swiftly a woman of Sophia’s size could run, some silently applauded as they watched her apprehend the fleeing child, others cheered aloud. Members of Pastor’s Prayer Team promptly bowed their heads and prayed for the child’s soul. Others found their favorite pew for fear that one of the visitors might mistakenly assume it was available simply because it was temporarily unoccupied. White suited gentlemen stood at their posts near the front doors prepared to welcome the guests warmly. Mothers cast no nonsense—you’d better pay attention or there’s a price to pay—glances down the pews at their children. Mothers’ glances, however, were not the result of the visitors but a long established pattern that passed from generation to generation. Fact was they could be seen on any Sunday with varying results.
Pastor Lincoln Pierce quivered with expectation as he took his seat on the riser at the front of the church. He couldn’t help stealing a look at his wife, Ruth, who was grinning from ear to ear. Just that morning they’d opened their day with a prayer calling out to the Lord to send new ears to hear into their midst. As unobtrusively as he could, he checked to see that the deacons were properly assembled in the Amen section to the right of the podium. He nodded at the two Wases (Women’s Altar Service Endeavor) designees, who stood in white suits like the greeters at the door. He saw they were eagerly awaiting the entrance of the visitors. He felt, rather than saw, movement behind him in the choir loft indicating Miss Ruby Almstead had her two sopranos, one alto, one bass, and two tenors, counting Mr. Hiram Forester, who—God bless him—made a joyful noise, assembled.
The doors opened and Sophia led the way, nearly dragging Amanda. Behind her the pastor saw an elderly couple. Children all over the sanctuary and a good number of the adults were sneaking looks at the foursome. A sound akin to a captured insect’s buzz rose from scattered areas around the room.
Labelle Watts took her cue from the restless to begin the prelude. Labelle firmly believed the word of the Lord that said “Love covers a multitude of sins”, but her experience as organist at Harvest Fellowship led her to another firmly held belief that a prelude of sufficient amplitude could quiet the noisiest of congregations or at least shut out the drone of their murmurings.
Pauline and Frances, the Wases on duty, quarreled briefly over who would seat the guests finally agreeing that both should participate. Frances, who at eighty five years was the elder of the two, welcomed and ask the guests to follow her. With Frances leading the way Max followed with Lily close to him, Amanda and Sophia came next and Pauline served as rear guard. The small parade down the middle aisle drew attention from every side.
With a flourish that coincided with the last measure of the prelude, the guests were seated in the short second row pew on the organ side. Frances and Pauline—mission accomplished—marched shoulder to shoulder to take their appointed places in two small chairs at the front of the Sanctuary next to the Communion table.
Wedged into the pew so near the front, the visitors had to tilt their heads back to see Brother Arnold rise up and step to the pulpit. Brother Arnold was a meticulous man who obviously never rushed. Prior to speaking he adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat twice, shuffled through the papers before him and stood to his full height, which barely allowed him to see over the massive pulpit. Sophia couldn’t help but think they ought to get that man a stool to stand on.
His fussy mannerisms and diminutive build faded rapidly from consciousness when he spoke. With the deep tones and articulate speech of a man accustomed to public speaking, he began with a robust “Good Morning.” A few hearty souls in the congregation responded likewise. Brother Arnold shook his head and swept his barely visible eyes over the crowd. “Let’s try that again. I said good morning!”
This time everyone including Sophia, Max and even Amanda responded. Lily burped. He proceeded to thank Miss Labelle Watts for her fine prelude, and Sister Frances and Sister Pauline for their altar service. His eyes scanned the crowd before coming to rest on the tightly packed group on the second row.
“Do we have visitors this morning?”
Sophia looked at Max and Lily; Max looked back at her then at Amanda who shrugged, then whispered to Sophia, “Pretty obvious isn’t it. We are the only white people here.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Oh, that’s right. So? Are we supposed to stand or something?”
“Beats me.” Sophia whispered.
Max looked up at the man behind the pulpit, who signaled for him to rise. Max grasped the back of the pew in front and pulled himself to his feet. Brother Arnold waited, obviously he had mastered the art of the pregnant pause. Seeing Max was upright, he simply nodded. Max pointed to his chest and raised his eyebrows. Brother Arnold nodded again. It was Max’s turn to adjust his glasses and clear his throat.
“I’m Max Carnes from Todd County Kentucky and this lady to my right is my wife Lily.” True to her current state of mind Lily narrowed her eyes and stared at him in utter disbelief. He smiled at her, turning left he indicated first Sophia then Amanda, “and these are our friends Mrs. Sophia Winchester of Cookeville, Tennessee and this is Amanda. We are passing through and thought we’d stop for worship.”
The crowd applauded. Max startled; he had never been applauded in church. The last several years he’d noticed people applauded in church for special music and such even in his own church. As the applause died away, Max felt a couple of pats on his back and turning took the offered hands and shook them heartily. Brother Arnold—true to form—waited again before holding his arms up and palms down to calm the show of hospitality.
As quietness fell, he said, “I know each of you will want an opportunity to welcome our guests after the worship so I am going to ask our guests to follow Pastor Pierce and myself to the back door at the conclusion of the service.”
“Oh, dear,” Max deliberated, glancing at Lily.
“Rats!” Amanda reflected.
“This could be interesting,” thought Sophia.
Two congregational hymns, one choir anthem, a personal testimony about the Lord’s deliverance of a rebellious son who had, for sure, been hell bent, a call to the Altar for prayer, collection of tithes and offerings—during which Amanda poked Sophia and asked if tithes were better than offerings or what?—and a heartfelt, albeit lengthy, prayer by Brother Malcolm, a man every bit as tall as Brother Arnold was short, ALL preceded Pastor Lincoln Pierce’s message.
Sophia glanced down at her watch when he started; it was 11:50 AM; she never looked at again until they all stood to sing the final hymn. Pastor Pierce displayed the characteristics she liked best in a preacher. He stuck to the Bible and he delivered the message with conviction and compassion—and a hint of humor. A couple of glances at Amanda told Sophia she was either listening or in a permanent catatonic state.
Amanda saw Sophia look at her but chose not to look at Sophia. Initially, she had planned to assume a pose of youthful disinterest commonly employed by her peer group and promoted heavily in youth driven media. The result commonly forced adults to shift into overdrive to create even the slightest spark of interest in a group of teenagers.
Teachers and parents encountered this form of elder abuse more often than other adults. Some of the crueler of her classmates kept tally of the number of teachers they’d driven from the room in tears. The unwritten but well understood code of Amanda’s comrades included abandonment of any classmate who showed the least form of enthusiasm. A smile without an accompanying condescending look might mean you ate lunch alone for a week.
So knowing Sophia wanted her to listen drove her to new levels of resistance, but the story—Rats!—captured her attention. Though it sounded vaguely familiar, her religious education, which consisted of regular Sunday School and Church since childhood, but with only casual regard to all of it hampered her ability to place the story. Somewhere mid sermon, she got caught up in the vivid word pictures of the son who ran away and the other son who felt unloved.
However, it was the father in the story she wanted to know more about.
Amanda tried to figure out if he had loved one son more than the other.