A God of Indifference
Douglas A. Campbell
I know now that I was behaving like any thirteen-year-old girl but at that moment, when Charlie Riggins swirled into my imagination, I felt so, so mature, a woman, really. He came out of the church into the noon sun, his sandy hair glistening, his shirt white as sugar against his pink, shaved neck. He was fifteen and taller than most of the other sophomore boys at Frenchville High and so handsome it made my heart feel tight. In a good way. A completely perfect way.
It was one of those warm April days in between the miserable cold-rain, wet-feet days, the grim, gray, leafless days that seemed intent on stalling the arrival of what I thought was the real spring. The sunlight sparkled on Charlie. He was wearing a suit and tie and my mind snapped a picture, with every detail in focus. I can still see it today. His face was exactly as it would be until years later – after things changed – relaxed by confidence, like he knew how spectacular he was, and I wondered, in that first moment, whether that had something to do with church.
I never went to church. On that morning, I was on my way to the Rexall drug store to buy a carton of cigarettes for my Mom. She never went in a church, either, and my Dad, who drove semis long haul then – before the mill closed – was always sleeping on Sunday mornings. So I didn’t know what went on in church, but I thought that it was supposed to be good for you in some way and I wondered whether the expression on Charlie’s face was a result of whatever happened inside the First Methodist Church of Frenchville.
I didn’t think much more about church activity that noon. I thought, though, that I probably would have a good chance of getting Charlie’s attention if I was in his church, too. And I decided right then that the next Sunday, I’d be there.
Lucky for me, Cindy Mahon came through the big, arched church door not long after Charlie, while I was still stopped dead on the sidewalk, staring.
“Hi, Cindy!” I screamed it and sang it at the same time, like any mature woman, and didn’t hide my gawking glance at Charlie.
“Hey, Viv!” She sang back. “I didn’t see you during the service.”
“Of course not,” I squeeled, running up to her like she was my best friend.
Cindy wasn’t actually my friend at all. We were the same age, both in eighth grade. Our lives were as different as cake and vinegar, though. Her dad owned the local Chevy dealership out on the edge of town. They lived in a modern house that was right on the golf course. Once, my Mom was hired to be a waitress at one of their big parties. And, of course, they went to First Methodist. Almost all the families that had businesses went to First Methodist. That’s why Charlie was there, because of his family.
“I was going to the Rexall and I saw people coming out,” I told Cindy, still loud, still glancing over her shoulder at Charlie, who was making his way toward the sidewalk. “You look so nice, all dressed up. I was thinking it must be fun to go to church.”
“You must be kidding.” Cindy tossed her short, dingy hair to the side and, to emphasize the misery she’d just endured, gritted her teeth, showing the yellow scum caked around her gums. That was one of her trademarks in school. She was rich and repulsive. I, on the other hand, was poor and popular. If she hadn’t come from a different social stratum than my family, I still wouldn’t have been her friend. But I was thirteen and saw no problem acting at that moment as though we were tight.
“Not kidding,” I said. “I’ve always thought I’d like church.”
‘God, it’s boring,” she groaned. “You sit there for a whole hour while that weasel in a black and purple gown drones on.” She smiled now, like she was pleased to be confessing to me. Good, I thought. Hold on to that feeling.
Then I saw that Charlie was getting into an older Oldsmobile parked in a line of cars at the curb. I wanted him to see me, to notice me specially. When you’re thirteen, you get noticed by being noisy.
“Hey, why don’t you come with me.” Loud enough for Charlie to hear if his window was down. I started to back toward the sidewalk. “We could get an ice cream.”
“Okay,” she said, and she swung in beside me.
What I really wanted was to pick her brain about getting into the church. I didn’t know if there was a secret password or something.
I pretended to ignore Charlie when we passed the Oldsmobile, in which he was now sitting. Out of the corner of my eye I could see he was looking at us, at me. By that time, Cindy was giggling at something stupid I was saying to make conversation.
There was an old-fashioned soda fountain in the Rexall, and I led Cindy to the chrome and maroon naugahyde stools. I don’t think she had been at the fountain any more than I’d been in First Methodist, which was good. I could be sly with my questions while she was absorbing her new surroundings. I’ll admit I felt a little creepy buttering her up that way, since I knew I’d never truly be her friend.
“So how do I get to go to church?” I asked, balancing before my mouth a long-handle soda spoon heaped with strawberry ice cream.
“Just walk in,” she said.
“Don’t you know anything about religion?”
“Sorry,” I shrugged.
“Well, first, you couldn’t go dressed like that.” Her head bobbed down and up as she looked at the tan slacks and red-and-white plaid blouse I was wearing.
“I know that,” I said.
“Well, then, what don’t you know?”
“Really? I don’t know what goes on when you’re inside.”
“You keep quiet unless it’s time to sing. There’re books with the songs in them. And you should bring a Bible. We always bring one for each of us.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Nothing. Oh, some of the old people read along in them when the preacher is talking. But you don’t have to.”
“So what’s the point.”
“You’re showing you’re a proper person,” Cindy said, then thought a bit and scooped a few spoons of ice cream into that gross mouth. “How you behave, what you wear, how quiet you can be, whether you follow the rules or not.”
“What rules? Is there a rule book?”
“Not really. You do what everyone else is doing.”
“So I can walk in there next Sunday – dressed like you, of course – and just follow along?”
“You can come with me,” she offered. “So you don’t make any mistakes.”
There were some girls in our class who wouldn’t be caught dead with Cindy Mahon, afraid they’d be labeled un-cool. I didn’t care what anyone thought, and I never would, as it turned out. In fact, I was beginning to think that when you got past actually looking at Cindy, she was almost okay.
“Thanks for the offer,” I said. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”
I had a week to work out a plan, I had a knowledgeable insider as an ally and I had as worthy a goal as any eighth grade girl ever had: Landing Charlie Riggins. I also had a carton of Kools to deliver, so I said goodbye to Cindy Mahon and headed home.
Our apartment was right on Main Street, above Mr. Torchinsky’s barber shop, two blocks west of First Methodist. Our door was down an alley, on the east side of the building, which had three storefronts, including Mr. T’s place. The green paint on the door was peeling. The outside wall was gray asphalt shingles made to resemble no kind of known wood. When you opened the door, you stepped into a stairway landing under a bare light bulb, with doors on either side and straight ahead. That last one headed down to the cellar and I’d been told since I could walk never to open it. I had no idea what the specific horror was in the cellar and never planned to discover. The door on the right opened on the stairs to the rear second floor apartment.
Our place was up the stairs behind the solid wood door on the left and overlooked Main Street. I remember being little but tall enough to look over the window sill and down onto the street and the sidewalk on the far side. For a three-year-old, the scene below was as fascinating as a tabletop aquarium might have been – when I eventually asked for an aquarium, I learned it cost too much. Down on the street, cars came and went, some parking and, while I looked down on the tops of their heads, faceless men and women stepped out and headed up or down the street.
Back then, there was a cop who kept track of the parking meters, walking slowly up the street on that far sidewalk, his blue uniform jacket buttoned tight on his neck, summer and winter. He moved slowly, visiting the shops – a fabric store, a snack shop, an insurance agency and a beauty salon owned by Mrs. Torchinsky. Always the cop made his way west up that side and, where the parking meters ended after the next block, returned on our side, where I couldn’t see him.
In those days, ten years earlier, the mill where most of the town worked was beginning its downhill slide, jobs leaving town. When I heard it talked about, I imagined the jobs floating down the Lenape River, which one time gave a reason for Frenchville to exist. When I was born, Dad had already chosen his career, driving trucks as a mill employee. Mom had quit high school to take a mill job like about half of her friends eventually did. I guess she thought she was a big deal, a fifteen-year-old “woman” who the older guys at the mill probably whistled at. I can guess this because, even when I was thirteen and she was thirty-one, there was evidence of her attractiveness that I’ll explain when I get more comfortable with telling this story. For now, I’ll just say that she wasn’t the warm bundle of loving motherhood that she might have been. It was for this reason that, when I reached the top of the stairway with the Kools in my hands, I braced myself.
“What the hell took so long?” her voice demanding even before my first foot hit the kitchen linoleum. The word took got the emphasis. At thirteen, I knew before I opened my mouth that there was no good answer when the question was posed so sweetly. But I gave it a shot, sort of.
“They hadn’t unloaded the truck yet,” I said. Mom’s reply was some parental cliché meant to put the kid in her place. I don’t remember the exact cliché, only that it was one. I’d learned the term recently and with the superiority thirteen years gives you I thought: How cliché! I kicked the last of her crumpled Kool packs across the floor and flopped the carton on the Formica tabletop next to her overflowing glass ashtray, causing a small cloud of ashes to erupt and drift down on the newspaper that she had opened to the crossword puzzle page. I tossed the change from her five dollar bill on the table and headed down the hall to my room with its window on the alley. Just as I turned at my door, I heard her.
“Vivian, you shortchanged me!” She actually bellowed it. I shut my door quietly behind me. I had planning to do.
Cindy was right. I had nothing to wear. I didn’t have a closet. All my clothes were in a cardboard box under my bed. I slid out the box and stared at its contents. A half dozen blouses, two skirts and some slacks, school clothes and underwear. And I had no money to add to my wardrobe. I took out my best blouse and a skirt, unfolded them on my bed, laying the skirt over the shirttails of the blouse.
Not terrible, I thought, but not church clothes, from what I saw emptying out through First Methodist’s arched doorway. How bad would this outfit look? I swept them off the bed and, turning toward my mirror – the one luxury in my room – I pressed them against my front, tilting my chin up and sighting down along my long, upturned nose. A smile crept into the corners of my mouth as I examined my image. The clothes might be second rate, I thought, but next year none of the other girls will go into high school with a better set of boobs.
I had never been short on confidence, despite the fact that, among all the kids in Frenchville who were my age, I was the only one living in an upstairs apartment on Main Street. For example, Cindy Mahon lived in a brand new brick home with a sweeping driveway that climbed a bluff overlooking the Lenape east of town. As I said before, her back yard overlooked the country club. Her father sold Chevys but drove a Cadillac and her family belonged to all the high class clubs, like the private Oaks Country Club. In the summer, when she wasn’t in the pool, Cindy took tennis and golf lessons with the other rich kids. But I could see, even in the first grade, that she didn’t know how to make friends, and that only got worse for her as we got older.
I was lucky. Even as a little kid, I understood how people were crippled by their things, so it didn’t bother me that I had no things. There was a song Mom was always singing when I was small. I memorized the words early: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. It’s amazing what a little child will do. I actually interpreted that song to mean that stuff isn’t important. Mom wept every time she sang it. I guess she had a different interpretation.
Anyway, I wasn’t discouraged by my puny box of clothes, but I knew I needed some help with the wardrobe part of my plan. And who better to help than my new friend. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to learn an important lesson when I asked Cindy for advice.
That would have to wait, though, because, of course, it was Sunday. I’d see Cindy in school the next day. This meant I had all afternoon to think about Charlie Riggins, and I did. I folded the blouse and skirt and set them back in the box, which I shoved under my bed. The afternoon sun was on the far side of our building, lighting the top of the wall on the building across the alley from us – the Clinton Building – and it was growing warmer outside. Kneeling on my bed, I opened the window to let spring in. The window had counter weights and its wooden sash was old and had been painted many times, so it squeaked when it slid in its track. I shoved it up hard and it made a racket.
“What in hell are you doing in there?” She didn’t want to know, and I knew that. She felt a duty to react to everything I did. So I didn’t answer. That was the best way to deal with her. Don’t make her work.
I fluffed my pillow and lay down on top of my blanket, warm smells drifting in the window, and I thought about Mom and me – the me that was now a teenager with boobs and the Mom that once was the same. But different. I didn’t know much about that Mom. If I would ask her something, she would take a drag on her cigarette, look off to the side while she exhaled and say something like: “That was a long time ago.” And that was, always, her final comment on that subject. So I had to imagine her life before me.
Here’s what I knew. You could probably put it all in a box smaller than the one under my bed.
She was a Shelly. “There’s nothing you need to know about the Shellys,” she advised me once. Naturally, I then tried to learn everything I could about the Shellys of Frenchville. It wasn’t too hard. Two years earlier, in the fifth grade, our assignment was to write some local history. I found a Shelly Street on the west end of town. It ended at the river. In the Frenchville Library, I learned that it had been a ferry landing before the bridge was built across the river and that Daniel Shelly operated the ferry until he went out of business, watching trucks and cars cross on a free bridge built by the county.
That seemed pretty important and I was excited when I went to tell Mom what I’d learned.
“Lot of good it did us,” was her response, and the conversation ended.
After that, I would go to sleep thinking about Daniel Shelly, imagining what I might have done with my ferry business when the bridge was built. My ideas were those that occur to children, not teenagers. Now, lying on my bed by the open window. I thought about young Carol Shelly and her first boyfriend. Did he look like Charlie Riggins? I doubted it. You have to think a lot of yourself to get a guy like Charlie, and Carol Shelly, if she was the same girl as the woman who was my mother, didn’t see herself as all that great.
Actually, the evidence to base her imaginary first love on was sleeping in the next room down the hall: Dad. I hate to say it, but it was always obvious to me that Mom had settled for the only guy in town who didn’t know he could get it for free: Roland Wilt.
Dad was asleep at one o’clock Sunday afternoon because that was his major in life’s curriculum: Sleep. His minors were work, eat and long bathroom sessions by which he would perfume our cramped little apartment. Conversation wasn’t a course he ever took.
To be fair, Roll-on, as his fellow employees at the Lenape Paper Mill called him, was a hard worker. His success in his chosen career rested mostly on his fondness for routines. His eyes never strayed from the known path, you could say. He never wondered what was off there, to the side. He looked straight ahead and kept on plodding. This was not a recipe for advancement. Instead, he was a “valued employee” and, some place in the apartment, had the annual plaques to prove it.
Roll-on’s sleeping habit was apparently formed when the mill was busting a gut putting out recycled cardboard and, I’m told, he was on the road delivering product six days a week and needed to recuperate. Now, the valued employee was happy to get paid four days a week, but he still slept. Inertia, you could call it.
Like I said, he didn’t talk much so I had to invent a personality for him. To me, he was less a father figure than he was a worn out couch cushion, a bit stained. It’s not that I actively disrespected him. There just wasn’t enough of him there to have an opinion about him, respectful or otherwise. His quiet manner seemed to say that he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to talk. And I never once saw him disagree with Carol Shelly. He simply went along.
To say that I modeled my perfect boyfriend on something other than Dad would not be true, exactly. I used him as a model and then looked for its exact opposite, or what I thought that was. And then Charlie Riggins stepped out of the church door and I recognized him instantly.
True, Charlie shared some of Dad’s physical qualities. Already six foot, he also had the same fair complexion. But where Roll-on seemed like a slumped sack of potatoes, Charlie stood tall, almost cocky, though not quite. Charlie seemed sure of himself, and though I’d never actually spoken with him, I was certain he would be great to talk with.
That would be good, because I talked all the time. Some of it, I’ve come to see years later, was part of being thirteen.
Now. Lying on my bed, I closed my eyes and imagined my first words with Charlie. I tried out different scenes, sometimes hearing him speak to me from behind as Cindy and I sauntered down the church walkway, other times all the way out on the sidewalk, but always some place in or near First Methodist. And always, Charlie spoke first and I, properly subdued and filled with church thoughts, replied as if wrapped in religious bliss, whatever that might look like. I never answered with the squeal of a thirteen year old girl. The things that I said in these daydreams, they always made Charlie laugh.
My locker at Frenchville Middle School was between Sheila Price’s, on the left, and Helen Cianci’s, on my right. Both girls were already standing by their open lockers when I arrived on Monday. As I approached, they each raised an eyebrow – Helen her right and Sheila her left, appropriately – and Helen, who was considered probably the coolest girl in eighth grade, began the inquisition.
“You’ve found a new friend, Viv?”
I was prepared for this. In a town as small as Frenchville, nothing escapes high society.
“Yeah, I figured it was time to climb up out of the social sewer we’ve been sharing.”
“Could have fooled us,” Sheila said, her eyebrow still cocked, like it was frozen in place. “Some kind of a lesbian thing?”
“I was hoping,” I said, leering, “but Cindy wasn’t interested.”
Helen and Sheila turned toward their lockers, a choreographed move accompanied by some sort of a disgusted snort, as I stepped between them and opened mine. “Better be careful,” I whispered, “or you won’t be sitting at my lunch table.” Exclusion is a game that only the strong – or those who don’t give a crap – can play.
I got out the books I hadn’t taken home for the weekend, and as I backed away from the lockers, I saw my new best friend at the far end of the hall. I turned and jogged toward Cindy Mahon. I was feeling like I was, indeed, moving up in the world, not to Cindy’s level but to that of a person above everyday pettiness, someone whose heart is prepared for love, for Charlie Riggins. Nothing Helen or Sheila or anyone else could have said would have brought me down from the heights, and I knew this.
What I didn’t know was how I was going to solve problem Number One – getting some church clothes suitable for the seduction I planned to commence in six days. Cindy had to be my guide, and although she had no clue about my motive, I had an idea how she could help.
‘Hey, girl,’ I called out before I reached her locker.
“Hey, yourself. By the way, thanks for the ice cream yesterday.”
“You can thank my Mom next time you see her,” I said. “She thought her Kools were a bit expensive this week. Say, are you busy after school?”
We met at her locker after the final bell and walked out of Frenchvillle Middle School onto Bellevue Street. Middle School had been the high school, a red brick building with the date 1897 carved into a gray granite block in one corner, above the foundation. Sometime in the 1960s, when the mill was still expanding and the number of kids in town was growing, it was decided that a new high school was needed. They extended Bellevue, which until then had dead-ended up the hill, and built the new high school on the hilltop plateau up there. They also built a new football stadium and athletic fields.
We headed down the hill, toward Main Street along with some of the high school kids, excused fifteen minutes before us. I took a quick look around us, on the chance Charlie might be among them. He wasn’t, which was okay. I wasn’t ready quite yet.
“Do you ever stay late in school?” I asked. I knew Cindy got a ride in a new Chevy almost every afternoon, and as far as I knew, she didn’t belong to any clubs or play on any teams, so I wasn’t sure if this was new territory for her. It was.
“Our walk to the drug store yesterday was a first, thanks.”
“So do you know where we’re going?”
“You know, that feels good, Cindy,” I said. “Sincerely.”
She stopped dead on the sidewalk, so that I got a couple of steps ahead before I turned and looked back. She was shaking her head.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Come on, I bet those church people say it every Sunday.”
“Hah! And if they did, they would do it so someone else would hear. You’ll see.”
“Well, I hope I don’t. But for now, I need to take you up Main Street a bit.”
“Easier to show than tell, Cindy. It’s about two blocks.”
In fact, it was more than two blocks, up past Mrs. Torchinsky’s salon, which, to my surprise, Cindy noticed.
“My mother comes here every other week,” she said, nodding her head to the side as we passed. I noticed that, although we’d just gone by my apartment, she had made no comment. Whether she didn’t know what to say or just didn’t know, I couldn’t tell.
Half way up the next block, on the same side as Mrs. Torchinsky’s, I tugged Cindy’s elbow and drew her into the doorway for Once Again, the local thrift shop.
“We’re here,” I said, pushing the glass door in.
Before us, in what once had been an A & P grocery store, in place of the aisles of canned goods there now were racks and racks of used clothes, women’s clothing on the left and half way across to the right, where a couple of racks had men’s cloths. Kids clothes were to the rear. It was obvious who the important customers were.
“Bet you’ve never shopped here,” I said, laughing a bit.
“Would you disown me if I confessed? Let’s start over here,” she said, now leading me toward the women’s dresses. “What size are you?”
She shook her head and smiled when I told her. “Same as me,” she said. “We can shop here, but maybe I have a better idea. What if you borrowed some of my church clothes?”’
Cindy went to the cash register and asked if she could borrow the phone. The lady who was the cashier led us to the rear of the store and the office. Minutes later, we were standing out on the sidewalk, where a car pulled up and I got my first ride in a Caddy.
We headed back down Main Street toward the Mahon home, and when we passed First Methodist, it struck me that I wasn’t a very nice person. In a way, I was lying to Cindy and, on the basis of what she thought I wanted, she was showing me generosity I didn’t deserve. Now, I had to confess. But Mrs. Mahon was driving us, so it had to wait.
You had to wonder how any girl with mouth scum could grow up in the palace the Mahons called home. I was immediately in awe, and not just because a housekeeper opened the front door even before we got out of the Caddy.
“Why, Cynthia,”” the housekeeper, a woman older than either my Mom or Cindy’s, called out. Her voice was music. That’s the best that I can do. I loved it.
“Hi, Gretchen,” Cindy called back as we made our way up the brick front walk, between azalea’s blooming purple and pink. “This is Vivian Wilt. She’s my classmate.”
“Well, this is a welcome first, Cynthia. I’m happy to meet you, Vivian.” Just then, Mrs. Mahon came up behind us.
“I thought she’d make it to high school before she brought a guest home,” Cindy’s mother laughed. “Come on in, girls. You must be hungry.”
I saw my reflection in the white china saucer on which Gretchen served our tuna salad sandwiches and made a mental comparison with the unbreakable plastic plates with knife scratches that, at home, were our breakfast, lunch and dinnerware. For once in my life, I was quiet, looking around the kitchen, with its colorful decorations, like deep blue ceramic tile counters and bright white cabinets. We were sitting at something Mrs. Mahon called an island – I’d never seen one before or, for that matter, thought much at all about kitchens. Above the island, pots and pans hung from a varnished wood structure that rose up into a space where the ceiling should have been. I stared. And stared. And wondered: Why? It was all pretty, but was it necessary?
It was when we went to Cindy’s room, at one end of the house with a window looking out over the Lenape River, that I first had my chance to explain myself.
“Look, Cindy. I’ve gotten to know you over the last two days, and I like you.”
We were sitting beside each other on her bed, which was covered with a colorful quilt with some kind of scene sewed into it, mostly in crimson. “I’ve always admired you, Viv,” she said and for whatever reason, I thought that was probably true. I only wished I could have said the same thing, and I hoped what I had to say now didn’t hurt her too much.
“I’ve got to come clean, Cindy. I haven’t been that honest with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“About why I want to go to your church.”
“Yeah?” She raised one eyebrow, a la Sheila and Helen. I took a deep breath.
“I’m not all that curious about religion.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I have to tell you, I was a bit afraid that you’d turn into a zealot. So what’s the attraction, Charlie Riggins?”
Naturally, I turned as red as Cindy’s quilt.
“Aha. I thought so,” she said, pumping her fist in triumph. “I saw the way you led me down the church walk toward Charlie’s car, girl. You know, you weren’t too subtle. So, think you can sidle up to him during the service, huh?”
“Isn’t he beautiful?” I asked.
“Not my type, but I know what you mean. So, you want to try on some of my stuff?”
Her closet couldn’t compare with my cardboard box, volume-wise. The box was a bit more compact. The closet was like another room, with its own floor to ceiling mirror. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying on outfits and gazing at myself in the mirror. At the end, I settled on a white satin blouse and a dark blue skirt and jacket. The fit was flawless, the impression dead-on for what I wanted. I said as much to Cindy.
“With that outfit and those tits, Charlie Riggins is dead meat,” she said.
I cringed a bit at her choice of words. Didn’t know why.
We sat together at lunch on Tuesday. That’s when she asked me a critical question.
“How much do you know about CR?”
“His dad owns that shop on Main where they sell work clothes,” I said. “My dad gets his work uniforms there.”
“His dad and his uncle own it. His uncle’s much older than his dad, you know.”
I didn’t know that, or that the Riggins family had owned the shop for forty years. They had opened it after World War II, Cindy told me. And it had been a good business when the paper mill and a couple of other factories in Frenchville were booming. Charlie’s father, Matthew Riggins, had gone there to work in the 1950s when he graduated from high school.
“You know about Charlie’s mother, don’t you?”
“She died when we were in third grade. There was a big funeral at First Methodist Church. I remember Charlie, who must have been in fifth grade, dressed in his suit, standing by the casket, not a tear in his eye. I always wondered about that. I was sure I would have cried if it had been my Mom.”
I thought what it would be like if my mother died, a situation I had contemplated in the past, not always with a huge amount of sorrow.
“Your Mom’s very nice,” I said.
Cindy smiled and touched my arm. “She likes you, too.”
For an instant, I lost my focus on Charlie, just briefly. I took a bite of my lunch – an ice cream sandwich – to savor the moment.
“She said I should invite you home every afternoon, if you’d like.”
I didn’t have time to respond. Out of nowhere, Helen and Sheila appeared and dropped into the seats on each side of Cindy.
“Ladies, we have been instructed to invite you both to the head table,” Sheila said.
“Oh, you are mistaken,” Cindy said, rising. “This is the head table and I don’t believe either of you has been summoned.” She winked at me, turned and left the lunch room, smiling. Her teeth were still gross, but I really liked that smile.
My life was heading in a new direction and I was instinctively happy, although content could also describe the feeling. I might or might not continue to be ranked among the popular girls once Sheila and Helen spread the word, but that was not a concern. Cindy Mahon was different, which was okay, and I was proud that I recognized this. And proud that I was choosing her over a couple of snobs who, as I had anticipated, left my lunch table in a huff to report back to Frenchville Middle’s upper crust.
I knew what they did because, in minutes, individual, long-time chunks of that crust were at my table, quizzing me about Cindy, obviously eager to be her friend, too.
After the final bell, I met Cindy by her locker. “You know how to deal with the butt-hole snobs,” I said.
“As you know, I belong to First Methodist.”
“I don’t get the connection,” I said.
“Oh, you will once you join,” she said. “But on to more pressing business. Why don’t you come home with me so we can plan your strategy for CR? Time is getting short.”
“I didn’t think there was much strategy other than showing up,” I admitted. “What are you thinking?”
“Details, my young woman. Details. I’ll explain later. In fact, I think we should reconnoiter the battlefield where this engagement will occur.”
“Precisely. Shall we go?”
You might be surprised by Cindy’s vocabulary, and I was, only because this was the first time I’d heard her use it. Even if they could, not that many eighth graders would use impressive words. But Cindy, if she disappeared into the carpet socially, had always been an academic star, one whom I had, until now, felt to be my stiffest competition. I never missed honor roll, not that it mattered to anyone at home except me. And Cindy was always right there with me. Now, instead of being competitors, we seemed like teammates.
“It’s really the best architecture in Frenchville,” Cindy said as we made our way up the brick path from Main Street toward First Methodist. “Not that Frenchville is a hotbed of design.”
I thought about the Clinton Building, until now my favorite in town, a mundane cube of red brick but with four huge arches framing its second floor windows and some neat details along the front over Main Street. I had to admit First Methodist, built with some gray stone, was impressive. Growing out of its left side was a tall medieval-looking tower – not exactly a steeple – and above that arched front door there was a huge, circular stained-glass window.
“The stone was quarried in the hills above the Lenape,” Cindy said. “Let’s go to the side door.”
I followed her inside, expecting a room like Frenchville Middle School’s auditorium, large and dark. Instead, I was dwarfed by a massive space where a fog of colorful shafts slashed down from the huge stained glass window, obscuring the heights of the arched ceiling. Under this fog, row after row of dark benches, wrapped in shadows and silence.
“Wow!” I whispered.
“I guess it’s impressive the first time,” Cindy said in a normal voice. “Perfect setting for a seduction.”
“Maybe not,” I said, staring at some sort of scene in stained glass at the other end of the church. I didn’t know much about religion, but I knew about God and halos. “Might not seem right to your big guy.”
“There’s a lot that these people do that God might not like,” she said with a sweep of her hand across the empty pews. “But they keep coming and keep doing it. Let me show you where we sit.”
She led me to the pews closest to the center aisle and right in front of the raised platform at the end, which she explained was the altar. “My family sits in this row.” She pointed to the second row and I saw a brass plaque with the Mahon name on it.
“You own this?”
“They don’t call it that. You give them money and they give you a plaque. The more money, the closer to God you get, it would seem. So you’ll be sitting right up tight with your “Big Guy,” she laughed. “And CR, you ask?”
We moved back a couple of rows but directly behind the Mahon pew.
“His tight buns usually are warming the wood right here, nearest the aisle,” she said. “If we time our entrance well, he should be here to appreciate both your arrival and your departure. The ushers direct the evacuation after the service, so the well-placed get home to lunch before the more humble of the flock.”
“Oh, I see the song books,” I said, lifting one from a small shelf on the back of a pew. I opened it. “I don’t read music, though.”
“Lip synch until you learn the melody,” she said. “You’ll find you wished more people did that, too. We have some real songbirds whose volume just doesn’t overcome their tone-deafness.”
I wondered how much of Cindy’s disdain for her church and its members was real. The place gave me a feeling I’d never before experienced – at least, never because of a building. I’d felt the same kind of awe thinking about Charlie Riggins. Or maybe different. Maybe, I thought, the Charlie feeling was love. If it was, I still didn’t know how to label this church feeling.
I didn’t accept Cindy’s invitation to go home with her. “Too much homework,” I told her
“We could do it together,” she offered, “with some of Gretchen’s sandwiches.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said. I wanted some time to think, to absorb the whole idea of having been inside a church. Just stepping in that side door was like being brought into a secret society, a place of passwords and hidden meanings. The thought of First Methodist was now competing with Charlie Riggins – competing strongly – for my attention. On the one hand, I didn’t want to lose my focus when it came to catching my prize. On the other hand, while my chest swelled mysteriously when I thought of Charlie, it did the same thing when my mind now wandered inside that building, under the fog of that dazzling window.
I was confused.
So I turned right, up Main Street, but I didn’t stop at our apartment. There was no one home because Mom had the afternoon and dinner shift at the Royal Diner and Dad was delivering cardboard out of state. I told myself a walk in the afternoon sun would help me concentrate once I got home.
I had another motive.
The industrial neighborhood in Frenchville had blossomed near where Daniel Shelly had his ferry, on the west side of town. I don’t know if that had to do with the ferry or because the land there was flatter than the rest of the river banks. In some places, the hills came right down to the water, but at Shelly Street, the hills set back and there was room for factories. Dad’s paper mill was there and an old, brick building four stories high that once was something important but by now was part vacant, part home to a couple of small businesses.
The Riggins family, when they went into business selling work clothes, wanted to be close to where the men worked, so their store was on West Main, about four blocks from our apartment and the Clinton building, and that was where I was headed, dressed in blue jeans with a plaid blouse and my school books in a pack on my back. I couldn’t have told you why I was marching up Main like I was, except that it was because of Charlie. Charlie at this time in the afternoon would be at baseball practice on top of the hill above Middle School, and if he had been at the family store, that would not have pleased me. Not at all. I wanted to go there and absorb some undefined thing, some Riggins ghosts, maybe. Not that I knew of any except maybe Charlie’s mom.
I hadn’t been in Riggins & Sons for a long time, although when I was little, I begged to go there every time my father bought new clothes. The store, one of a couple of store-fronts in the last business block – the other store, to the east, had been vacant as long as I could remember – was on the south side of Main, so except early on a summer morning the sun never came in the big windows on either side of the front door. In the shadows the rest of the time, the place was cool on hot days, warm in the winter and had this great smell that made you want to inhale through your nose. By the time I was in Middle School, I understood that the smell came from the starch, or sizing, in the clothes that were folded neatly on table tops – dark green shirts that buttoned up to the neck on one table, stacks of dark green trousers on another, a separate section for khaki work clothes, another for blue jeans, although they called them dungarees.
The smells to me when I was little were as good as the smells of food in a diner. And when I was in there with old Roll-on, he became a different person. I’ve always thought maybe this was because, like me, he was in a sort of haberdasher-induced trance. The source of this reverie was the voices of the Riggins men. They talked quietly, Matthew and his older brother, Wallace, and yet their voices resonated, seemed to carry gravity from a place of overwhelming peace, Wallace’s words maybe a bit slower in reaching you, Matthew’s a bit more musical. But both, like the smell of their wares, luring you, holding you so that you wanted to stay close, to not lose this pleasant embrace.
Roll-on would be looking at some dark blue work trousers and Wallace or Matthew would come around from behind the glass sales counter, smiling and reaching to shake hands with a “Good to see you, Roland.” Almost always, either one of them would, without a word, pass me a lollypop while asking Dad how the job was going, whether the mill was making money, and as he was speaking, his palms would begin pressing gently on the smooth flanks of the stacked trousers, caressing them.
These may have been the only times I heard my father talking. In the apartment, his side of conversations with Mom was almost inaudible grunts or, occasionally, chuckles. Inside Riggins &Sons, the man who spent his working hours alone in the cab of a truck talked politics, sports, local gossip, a spigot having been opened, thoughts pouring out, like the dead might talk if they were brought back from the experiences of the grave.
I wanted to see, now, whether the magic still flowed inside Riggins & Sons. What would it feel like, as a teenager? Would it change, for better or worse, how I thought about Charlie? Given that I probably hadn’t been in the store for four or five years, would I even recognize Matthew or Wallace, both of them old men by now?
The first change struck my ears as I opened the wooden door with its full-length glass and heard what sounded like jingling bells. That’s exactly what it was – a strap of bells hung on the door frame just inside, pulled by a string when the door was opened. The next sound was Matthew’s voice.
“I bet we didn’t have the bells last time you were here,” he called out.
He knew me. I was shocked. But pleased.
“Still like green lollypops?”
“If you have them,” I said as Charlie’s dad came toward me around the counter. “You recognize me?”
“If you’re Roland Wilt’s little girl, all grown up.”
I blushed. Felt the skin under my hairline tingling like it was going to sweat..
“You must be – what? Maybe fourteen now?”
I bet he knew that was wrong, but he was such a nice person he would do that sort of thing: Give you a bonus wherever he could.
“Thirteen,” I said, knowing I didn’t need to correct him. “Eighth grade. I was taking a walk. It’s real nice out today. I thought I’d come in because I haven’t been here for so long.”
“Well, you’ve brightened my afternoon. Now, do you know why the bells?”
“Left over from Christmas?”
“We’ll, yes. From many Christmases. But my brother – you remember Wallace? His hearing is going, so the bells warn him when a customer comes in while he’s upstairs.”
I must have given a puzzled look, because Mr. Riggins felt he had to explain. “We’re converting the upstairs to an apartment. Hoping to sell our house and save some money. Only the three of us now, Wallace, Charles and me, and three guys don’t need a big house like that.”
Of course, I’d never been in the Riggins home, but I had been by it many times. It was on the same hillside as the middle school and the church, but a bit east of downtown. It looked down over a lawn big as a cow pasture, with a view of the Lenape River. It wasn’t new, like Cindy Mahon’s home, but it more than hinted the people who lived there had some bucks. The space above Riggins & Sons, whatever it looked like, didn’t give the same message. Made me wonder.
I was now suffering from the same limpness inside that had always invaded me in this store, the same desire not to leave but to smell the smells and listen to the voices. There were no customers in the store and not even anyone walking past on the sidewalk, but I thought I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. Especially given my plan for Mr. Riggins’ son. And by now, my stomach was growling and if I wanted any dinner, I’d have to get to the Royal Diner before the elderly crowd started arriving at 5 o’clock. When Mom was working, I got my meals free there, but only before what I called the wrinkled special was paper-clipped to the dinner menu.
“I have to get back for dinner,” I said, choosing not to give the details. “Nice to see you, Mr. Riggins.”
“Very nice to see you, too, Miss Wilt. Please say hello to your father for me.”
“I will,” I said, pulling the jingling door open while feeling an extra shot of pleasure, the way he said my name.
Mom had the menus stacked by the cash register and had the yellow slips of paper on which she was writing in ballpoint “Roast Turkey Platter $4.99.” She was the only waitress in the place at that hour.
“You didn’t have to come here,” she informed me. “There’s two cans of soup, your choice, in the cupboard.”
“Thanks for the suggestion, but I think I’ll stay for the Wizened Turkey,” I said. I wondered whether Mrs. Mahon would ever invite Cindy not to eat a meal with her, but I shrugged off the twinge of disappointment. I took a book from my backpack, which I dropped on the floor, and climbed onto a counter stool, opening the book to begin my studies.
“Mr. Papas doesn’t want your stuff spreads all over the place,” Mom said, taking a lit cigarette from an ash tray next to the register and sucking on it before blowing the smoke not directly at me but in my general direction.
“Actually,” said Jimmy Papas, coming through the swinging kitchen door behind the register, “I love to see kids studying. What’s the subject, Vivian?”
“Math,” I said glancing at Mom, who was now stubbing out her butt.
‘Do you enjoy it?” Jimmy wanted to know. I looked at him, saw his round cheeks with their dark, afternoon stubble, saw how his smile pushed his cheeks back into bristly bunches.
“Yeah,” I said. For some reason, I didn’t want to offer too much information. Not that I was shy or found it hard to talk. I could talk – then and even now – like I was the TV guy selling yellow shammy cloths that were so absorbant they could cause a natural disaster if you happened to drop them into Niagara Falls. It was just when an adult asked me about my life that I sometimes seemed to clam up.
“How are your grades?” Jimmy asked.
“Straight As,” Mom answered for me, like they were her grades or something.
“Why, that’s terrific, Vivian. You know,” Jimmy said, coming through passageway in the counter by the register, a dish towel over his left shoulder, “you don’t have to sit at the counter. You’d get more work done in a booth. Here, come take this one.” He gestured toward the first booth by the door. He stooped and took up my backpack and set it on the table in the booth. When he stooped, I got a whiff of cologne, which surprised me.
I noticed Mom was scowling, but I brought my math book to the booth and thanked Jimmy. There was this quick, meaningless train of thoughts that sped through my brain. First, a question: Whether there was some reason some moms didn’t like their daughters and some did. Next, a sense of the good feelings both Jimmy and Mr. Riggins had left in me within an hour of each other. Finally, another question: Did it all have something to do with getting boobs?
Then I opened the math book and thought about algebra.
Rain came at mid-week. The days were gray and raw and the same sweet smell that had stirred within me on Sunday, of blossoms and fertile earth, was gone. In its place were the wet, black of tree bark and, at the branch tips, red buds, the teasing promise of distant green spring. I went home with Cindy Mahon Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, and while we did talk more about Charlie Riggins, we also spent time studying together. Our idea was that as a team, we could rise even higher above our classmates than we could as individuals, the way the members of Frenchville High’s football team, on which Charlie was something called an “end”, improved each other’s performance by training together.
We had a good laugh about Charlie being the “end” when Cindy noted, one afternoon, that he was the goal of my personal scheme and that the “end justifies the means.” But our work together was no joke. Cindy had suggested it, a scheme in which we did our own work but tested each other. “If we’re tough on each other and are able to find our weaknesses, we’ll soar,” she predicted. I agreed, although I wondered how much of her enthusiasm was inspired by academic achievement and how much by keeping her first-ever friend close. I decided not to worry about this. I was enjoying her as much as she might have been me, I thought.
Friday afternoon was Mom’s day off at the diner, so I told Cindy I’d be going home after school. Mom knew to expect me. The mill had been making cardboard, and Dad had been delivering it for the last week. When he worked, he usually didn’t get back to the cardboard mill until after dinner time, so he wasn’t there when I got home from school. I shook the rain from my jacket at the bottom of the stairs up to the apartment, and when I opened the door at the top, I noticed two things.
First, Mom’s ashtray, which normally would have the remains of at least a pack of cigarettes spilling over its edge, had one crumpled butt.
Second, there was the aroma. It hit me immediately and was unmistakable. Jimmy Papas’s cologne.
Some things never change. Carol Shelly certainly didn’t’. I was not yet in kindergarten when I learned where her loyalties lay.
I know now there were reasons Mom was who she was, and that once you are old enough to have seen how life slices a person, you can understand their growth rings. At thirteen, I hadn’t seen all of this and couldn’t give Mom the break I do now. What I did know was something about her younger life, specifically about her mother, my grandmother, Phyllis, or as she preferred to be called, Jesse. God knows why, but it fit. Jesse was a terror, the kind you don’t willingly invite into your life but get stuck with by birth. Mom’s birth, in this case.
There is a lot to tell about Jesse, but what is important are the stories about the mother she was. Later, maybe, I’ll get to the “why” of it. This is enough for now, though. Jesse’s first known child was Carol Shelly, and two more followed, one about every three years. Carol’s first memories are of being in charge of two younger brothers. Those memories begin when Carol was about four. A four-year-old baby sitter, overseeing the safety and feeding of an infant while her mother nurses a bottle of clear liquid, gets the lesson early on that they are incompetent. Such enforced incompetence breeds insecurity. Carol Shelly matured into a woman never certain whether a choice was good or bad, so she quit making decisions, letting others make them for her.
Lucky for me, she looked back on her childhood and decided that one child – I – was enough. So I guess I can thank Jesse, in a way, that at thirteen, I made almost all my decisions for myself. And I had already decided then that loving your daughter did not mean feeding her canned soup.
One of the decisions Carol Shelly left up to others was whether they got in her bed or not. The proof of this was revealed to me when I was about four. Funny that such a life-defining moment would happen at the same age when Mom discovered she was a nanny. In my moment, I discovered that at least some men had very hairy butts. I wandered out from my nap one afternoon and was greeted by the rising and falling moon of God-knows what stray that had followed Mom home. They were on the living room couch, and there were grunts and groans not too different from those you hear coming from behind a bathroom door. I think I stood and stared, watching the naked soles of Mom’s feet appear above the arm of the couch and then, falling, disappear. At some point, I heard her voice.
“Your nap’s not over,” she said, giggling. “Go back to bed.”
Odd how clear my memory of those words still is.
Eleven years later, opening the door at the top of the stairs and seeing and smelling the clever clues Mom had left, I moved cautiously but made certain to bang the door shut. Then I paused, waiting for instructions.
“Can you have a little consideration?” The words came from her closed bedroom door at the end of the hall, past my room. “I have a splitting headache.”
Okay, that’s the story we were going for. I set my bag of books down on the floor by the kitchen table and went to the refrigerator. I tried to be quiet, but the gasket on the fridge made a sucking sound when I opened the door and got out the milk. And the waxed paper in the cracker box crinkled more than I would have liked. But I managed to get my snack and books into my room, where I closed my door and, ready to study, awaited further direction.
Jimmy Papas, or someone who used the same cologne, had already left, so there were no more awkward moments. It was a given that Roll-on would roll in later and never notice – or, perhaps, acknowledge – the betrayal, if that is what he would have considered it.
Honestly, I had more important concerns. I didn’t want to seem to be completely ignorant on Sunday, so I had borrowed a Bible from Cindy, and now I took it from my bag. If I’d ever seen one before, I had never noticed that they had zippers holding together black leather covers. I pulled gently on the zipper tab and then unfolded the covers. The motion caused the pages inside to fan, reminding me of a trick I’d once seen with playing cards. The pages were thin as toilet paper, but stiffer, and the type was crisp and black although, as I leafed through the pages, there was some red lettering. I was overcome with a sense of awe that I couldn’t have explained, a feeling that this was a special book, special the way that the glitter of the diamonds in Mr. Brown’s jewelry store window were compared to the sparkle of sunlight on broken headlights in the gutter.
Cindy had dropped the Bible on my desk during study hall with a thud. “The word of God,” she said, with a smirk. It was a joke to her. As I leafed through the pages, I couldn’t share her flip attitude. I hadn’t gone to church before, but I knew some of the stories. You couldn’t escape them if you walked out your door into the world, and here were the names, page after page. Why hadn’t I been curious before? I had to wonder.
I found page one and began reading, and although I’d done nothing else since Sunday noon, I didn’t think of Charlie Riggins the rest of the night.
Saturday and the rain continued, which was okay. I opened my eyes in the grayness, saw out the window what was happening, rolled over, turned on the lamp beside my bed and picked up the Bible. The apartment was quiet. Through the window, I heard the sounds from Main Street: Tires hissing along the wet pavement, the grumbling engine of the morning bus as it left the stop a block to the east, car doors closing. A good morning to curl up with a good bock, I thought.
An hour later, Dad was in the kitchen, making coffee and frying some eggs and bacon. The aroma was too much. I came out of my room and sat at the dinette table with my book. The ash tray sill was almost empty and Mom was nowhere to be seen, which may have meant she was trying to avoid Dad. You never could be sure.
“Any extra of that?” I asked.
“Could be,” Dad said. I was pretty certain I couldn’t expect an extravagance of words here, so I pushed ahead.
“What would I have to do to get some?”
“I’m asking. Any chance of home fries with that?”
Dad grunted, reached into the cabinet over the sink and took down a package of shredded potatoes that he shook into the frying pan between the eggs and bacon. About what you get at Jimmy’s diner, I thought with some minor gut churning. Not the cubes of real potato with onions I would have preferred, but edible with enough ketchup. He did remember to get the ketchup out of the fridge, and in five minutes he was sitting across from me, two plates of steaming food between us. He opened the morning newspaper and began reading it before he noticed my book.
Now I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me right then to have my father apparently interested in what I was doing and actually voicing his interest.
“Bible,” I said, mimicking his wordiness.
“Oh,” he said, and then he returned to his newspaper. That was the sum total of it.
I ate my breakfast in resigned silence. Then I left Roll-on with his newspaper and returned to my room.
Of course, Mom had no clue what was happening when, Sunday morning, I appeared in the kitchen in my Sunday best, which, of course, were Cindy’s Sunday leftovers.
“You never got that outfit at Once Again,” Mom said, putting down her Readers’ Digest. This was an accusation, not worth a response, but I answered anyway.
“You’re right.” She would have to beg for an explanation.
“Then where?” she asked, grinding her stub of a cigarette fiercely in the glass ashtray.
“You like it?” I twirled to show off the whole ensemble. I had already done a lot of twirling in my room, examining myself in the mirror, with and without the jacket, combing and re-combing my hair until it shined auburn in the morning sunlight coming through my window..
“It’s not you,” she said. “You have brown eyes. The suit should be brown, not blue.”
“That sounds like Jesse talking,” I said, a dig that sent her back into herself. She tapped another butt from the pack on the table and lit it, squinting, and made like she could care less, picking up the Readers’ Digest and flipping through the pages as I passed her and got a carton of orange juice from the fridge.
I waited. I knew how this would work out. I’d played the game as long as I could remember. It took less time than it did for me to take my dinette chair – chrome and moss green vinyl – and begin my juice.
“It really is very nice, Viv,” she said, softening. “The more I look, the more I like the blue against your skin, and you have your hair looking nice this morning. What’s the occasion?”
‘\Do you like it, Mom? I borrowed it from a friend.”
“Which one,” she asked, not pushing me for the nature of the occasion. Good, old Carol Shelly, waiting for it to come to her, not even certain that her daughter owed her an explanation, or anything else.
“Cindy Mahon. Her dad owns the Chevy dealership.”
“I know them. Remember I did a party at their place? I didn’t know you were friends.”
I’d left her hanging long enough. “We’re close now. In fact, she invited me to go to church and loaned me this outfit when I said I was getting something at Once Again.””
Mom actually smiled a bit. It was brief, like when the sun shows through the haze and then slips back behind the clouds on a rainy day. She looked back at the Readers’ Digest. She didn’t look up when I went back to my room, and I’m pretty sure she kept on reading when I closed the door to the stairway behind me and headed to First Methodist. It being Sunday, Roll-on was still in bed.
Outside, the air was magic. The sun, coming after the rain, had brought out the first green tendrils in the trees, a smoky pastel crowning the forest on the far side of the Lenape River. Birds were chirping in the shrubs and the air smelled fresh as clean laundry.
I headed toward First Methodist, checking my reflection in the storefront windows as I passed the Clinton Building. Everything was in place, black Bible in my hand, red lipstick not too red. I had to smile at my own appearance, my own confidence – I guess you could say at my own industry. I was making something happen, something big, it seemed.
At the end of the Clinton block, I saw the Mahon Caddy pull up in front of the church, another block ahead. The rear door closest to the sidewalk opened first and out came Cindy, looking fantastic in her own suit, gray with lavender. She had seen me and, in high heels that were causing her problems, she tried to run toward me. I saw catastrophe approaching, skinned knees, torn fabric, so I began jogging toward her in my flats. We hugged, she still wobbling. We probably were shrieking, too. Age thirteen does that for you.
“You look amazing, Viv,” she said. “And so proper.” She arched her left brow.
“Well, you’re pretty sharp, yourself. Is that new? I don’t remember seeing it in your closet.”
“Forget about me. Let’s get into the church and see what’s up with our man.”
We locked arms and headed for First Methodist, joining the flow of church members – I hadn’t yet learned that they were parishioners – making their slow, sober way up the brick walkway toward the arched front door. A lot of them were old people, and I mean lots older than our parents. We seemed to be walking in a dense cloud of perfume behind one old lady. You might think it’s odd that, so many years later, I would remember that detail. Only thing I can say is that everything seemed magnified, the people, the sounds and Cindy’s whispered jokes.
“This one,” she said so only I could hear, but nodding to the perfumed old woman, “is one of the songbirds. That’s her husband,” she nodded to a hunched little man wearing a gray coat and a gray hat with a brim all around. “He snores during the sermon.”
I poked Cindy in the side. “Cut it out, girl. You’ll make me laugh.”
“Laugh now, sister,” she said. “You have an ordeal ahead of you once God’s spokesman gets rolling, and I guarantee it’s no laughing matter.”
The line ahead slowed even more as we approached the big granite steps that led to the arched door. The old people were pulling themselves up by the wrought iron railings on either side. As we got closer, I could see that they were being helped by two men in suits and ties. I recognized one: Matthew Riggins. Good sign, I thought. Charlie must already be inside. I didn’t know who the other man was until we got to the top of the steps, just before the door and he reached his hand toward me.
“Vivian Wilt, I believe.” He shook my hand. “Welcome to First Methodist. It’s really great to have you visit us.”
“Okay, enough, Dad,” Cindy huffed. “You’re not selling cars, you know.” It was now that I recognized Clint Mahon, his batch of silver hair, the same face that always was on television commercials for Chevys.
Mr. Mahon didn’t let go of my hand but at the same time, he reached his free arm around Cindy’s shoulders and hugged her. “I just want you to know that Cindy’s mom and I are very happy to see you both here today.” With that, he released us and moved on to the people behind us.
“Typical car salesman,” Cindy muttered. “So embarrassing.”
“He seems very nice,” I said, surprised by Cindy’s attitude.
We were now passing through the arch, the two halves of the front door to First Methodist flung back against the stones, and the line was moving into the silent darkness. I knew our destination, up near the front of the church. I was also aware that to arrive at the Mahon pew and its brass plaque, we had to pass the Riggins pew. I wanted to crane my neck, look over the people ahead to see if he was there. I also wanted to appear cool, uninterested. This was a very fine line, but I had anticipated it, had practiced it mentally all week. Cindy was on my left, same side of the aisle as the pews in question. That put a lot of bodies between me and the view ahead, a lot of permed hair and shaved necks and opaque flesh blocking my view. The man in front of me was tall, so I stretched up a bit, and that’s probably what caused it.
I teetered, stepped forward to catch myself and my right shoe landed on the back of his loafer, pinning it in place on the floor just when he was ready to take a step.
The shoe came off under my foot and the man stumbled and, I could swear, said something I was pretty sure you were not allowed to say inside a church.
“I’m so sorry!” My voice was up a notch from normal. Not surprising for a thirteen-year-old, but in the cavern that was the church, my words rose up toward the ceiling, stabbing right through the colored shafts of light coming through the stained glass, ricocheting off the soaring stone arches and coming back as an echo. Heads turned. Faces stared at me from all around.
“Not a problem, young lady,” the man said. “But could you step off my shoe?” He smiled and, as I stepped back, bent over to get the loafer. I saw other smiles and, for an instant, felt relief. But only an instant. For now I saw where we were, opposite the Riggins pew. I knew it was theirs because I saw the sandy hair, the pressed white shirt and shaved right cheek.
That is correct. Charlie was still looking straight ahead. Somehow, he’d missed my performance. And now, Cindy stepped between him and me, blocking his view while the man got his loafer back on and we moved forward.
Cindy’s mom was already in the pew and slid her butt over to make room for us. She looked like she’d stepped off the page of a magazine, everything was so perfect, even the genuine warmth in her smile. It made me jealous for my mom.
This might surprise you, since I’ve been pretty candid so far about my mother and how we treated each other. Even then, before I had grown up and really studied her, I loved my mom. And seeing Pearl Mahon sitting there as handsome and elegant as she was, I wanted the same thing for Mom and was sad that she didn’t have it.
Oh, she had some things. Mom even at thirty-five was beautiful. I was always proud of that. She could have had any guy she wanted, I’m sure, if looks was the only thing that mattered. She was tall and slender in the right places and kept her long, reddish-brown hair clean and up in a neat braided bun. She carried herself like royalty and dressed to show off her curves, but modestly. If she could have had the clothes, there wasn’t any Sunday woman in First Methodist who could have matched her, not even Pearl, who had her own way of being pretty. Not beautiful like Mom, but pretty in a motherly way.
An organ began playing up front and off to the side, and then a group of people in black robes – the choir, I’d learn in time – stood up from where they had been sitting across from the organ. Cindy handed me a book, opened to a page of music with a title on top: Blessed Assurance.
Without warning, everyone around me stood and began singing. The whole place filled with sound, with music that was vaguely familiar. I looked at the words on the page of music. They didn’t mean much, frankly, and my thoughts wandered as my eyes roamed around the audience. It was then that I realized some people were coming up the aisle between the pews. One of them wore a black and purple robe. He was middle aged or maybe older. His hair was snow white, but that could fool you. His face was shaved smooth as mine and he wore glasses with no frames.
This had to be the guy. The deadly bore. I turned to Cindy, and she smirked and nodded.
Cindy’s judgment was reliable. Black and Purple talked for thirty minutes about raising the funds necessary to do some work on First Methodist’s stones. I was able to figure that much out. I didn’t see that it had anything to do with God or Jesus, but I did see that later, when an usher brought a golden plate down the aisle and eventually handed it to me to pass along, it was piled high with thick envelopes and enough green to make a healthy salad.
Then there was a point when Black and Purple invited us to be nice to our neighbors. The woman in the pew in front turned and reached to shake my hand. I saw that this was what everyone was doing, so I took the chance to get a peek back toward Charlie while I shook the wet hand of a stout older man. Charlie was busy shaking hands and didn’t see me, but my heart pumped hard anyway. I squandered a few smiles and handshakes and turned back toward Cindy.
“And that about does it for this Sunday,” she said. “Remember, wait for the usher to let us out.”
“Oh, Vivian,” Pearl said, “wouldn’t you come home with us for lunch? Or do you have other plans?”
It was right about then – since we were two rows back from the front – that the usher waved me into the aisle. Cindy and Pearl followed and we began moving toward the door, following the more privileged parishioners who had already been herded from their pews. Which meant, of course, that in about four steps, we were passing the Riggins pew, where beautiful Charlie Riggins was smiling straight at me and saying something.
I had to piece it together later, because his voice – I swear, it rumbled like God’s – made my mind a blank. What I remember is Cindy asking: “Do you want to?”
“Go to lunch?” I asked, still thinking about Pearl’s invitation.
“No, Girl. He wants us to join a youth group. Pizza in the church basement and talking about the Ten Commandments.” She was shaking my shoulder, nodding and mouthing the word: Yes.
“But what about your mom?”
“You go ahead with the kids,” Pearl said. “I think it would be fun for you.”
Of course, I had stopped walking and a crowd was building up behind us. No real pressure. I hesitated.
“We’ll come,” Cindy answered for me and gave me a shove down the aisle.
In my imagination, this is how it was going to happen. Cindy and I would be outside in the spring sunshine, sauntering down the walk from the church, when Charlie Riggings would come up behind, calling my name. I would be a study in self-composure, pretending I didn’t notice.
Oh, how wrong I was. My mind was swirling. Composure, if I’d ever possessed any, had evaporated at Charlie’s first words. For maybe the first time in my life, my confidence was gone. I let Cindy lead me by the elbow, steering me to the side before we reached First Methodist’s front door, guiding me down a narrow staircase that bent to the right and opened into a long room brightly lit by overhead fluorescent lights. The walls were light blue, and there were two rows made up of long tables, as if a banquet was planned. At the far end of the room were a handful of kids, some jocks, some nerds, an odd collection if you judged by Frenchville’s school cults. We paused at the bottom of the stairs, gauging the atmosphere.
“Right this way,” said Charlie, coming down the stairs and passing us. “Nice to have you ladies at our gathering.”
We all sat down around the end of one of the rows of tables. I thought Charlie was going to lead the meeting, but he just sat beside Cindy – not by me – and looked to one of the jocks, a boy I didn’t know, and nodded. The boy was wearing a sports jacket that was a little too small all around. He stood and cleared his throat.
“Today we’re going to talk about the Fifth Commandment,” he mumbled, looking down, not at anyone. I guessed that Charlie actually was in charge, even if he wasn’t running the show. The boy glanced at him and Charlie nodded again, urging him on.
“Anyone know what the Fifth is?” he asked.
“You have a right to remain silent,” an overweight boy with some pens in the pocket of his plaid cotton shirt said with a chuckle. I recognized him as Stewart Long, one of the high school brains. Several other kids laughed, and the jock in the jacket group finally smiled.
“Good one, Stew,” the jock managed. “Anyone else?”
I had heard of the Ten Commandments. You didn’t have to be religious, just like you knew who Jesus was, sort of. So I raised my hand.
“Sorry,” the jock said. “I don’t know your name.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t know yours, either.”
I got more snickers for this than Stew had gotten for his joke. I wriggled forward on my chair, pleased.
“Oh, I’m Trevor,” he said, but that was it. Trevor didn’t know what to say next. But Charlie – I would have guessed this. He knew exactly what to say.
“Cindy brought us a guest today. Cindy, why don’t you introduce your friend?”
Cindy stood, put her hand on my shoulder – or, more accurately, on the shoulder of her blue suit jacket – and turned toward Charlie. “This is Viv. She’s in eighth grade with me and it doesn’t surprise me that she knows the answer to Trevor’s question because she is the smartest girl in Frenchville Middle. Vivian Wilt, that is.”
“Okay, Smartypants,”said Stew. “What’s your answer.” I couldn’t tell whether he was burned that I got more laughs or this was just his way.
“I think it’s something like: Obey your parents.”
“That’s close,” Trevor said.
“Whoa,” bellowed Stew. “There’s a world of difference between ‘obey’ and ‘honor’,” he said.
“Yes, and a lot of difference between ‘parents’ and ‘father and mother,’” a girl sitting across from Charlie said.
“Oh?” This was Cindy.
“Yeah, like just saying ‘parents’ could mean that what the man says, the woman goes along with, and maybe that’s the way it was back in the Bible days. But this is the 80s, girl, and a mom should get exactly as much respect as a dad.”
“Not bad, Alice,” Cindy said.
Just then, the lunch pizzas came, the delivery guy plopping two boxes at the far end of the table and disappearing up the stairs.
“Want to break now?” Trevor asked, turning to Charlie.
“Sure. Help yourselves, everyone,” Charlie said. “I’ll get some napkins from the kitchen.”
Cindy stood and I followed her toward the food. My stomach was actually growling. I could have eaten a whole large myself, but I took one slice when Cindy offered it on a paper plate. Back to our seats, she steered me into her chair, next to Charlie’s coat. Clever, I thought. Charlie returned with the napkins, setting a pile at the head of the table, by Trevor’s place, and another in front of Cindy and me. I took a napkin, but I had already noticed that the pizza was oily and I imagined it drooling down on Cindy’s blue suit and white blouse and I decided I’d go hungry.
Now Charlie returned with two slices on his plate , but he stopped short, taking the empty chair on the far side of Cindy. This was not going well, I thought. But, with no choice, I listened in while Charlie interviewed Cindy.
“Hey, I’d heard you were the brightest light in eighth grade,” he was saying. This was my chance.
“Actually, she is. I’m just her challenger.”
“She’s straight As,” Cindy said. “Always. But we’re working together to take it up a notch.”
This was a first for me. I would never have guessed anyone in high school paid any attention to anyone in Middle School, let alone to someone like Cindy, whose classmates – until very recently – had ignored her. I had to wonder, so I asked.
“How do you know about Cindy, Charlie?”
“Same way you know my name, Miss Wilt. People talk, I listen. Right now, you can talk. I’m going to eat.” He jammed half a slice in his mouth.
Most of the kids were finished with pizza when Charlie nodded at Trevor and the discussion resumed.
“So the Fifth Commandment actually is: ‘Honor thy father and they mother,” Trevor said. “We’re supposed to discuss what that means.”
“Sounds pretty simple,” said a girl between Stew and Alice – mousey brown hair, glasses with flesh-colored rims, white blouse and pleated skirt. She clearly had no more to offer, so Charlie spoke.
“Well, do what you’re told?” It was a question, not a statement.
“I always do what I’m told, most of the time,” Stew offered. “But sometimes, my mom can be such a Looney Tune, if you know what I mean.”
“God, don’t tell me,” Alice said, leaning in front of the mousy girl to see Stew. “You should hear my mom, like when she’s just come home from work and her job is to make dinner? And she’s worried what Dad will say and she’s all frantic? God, she goes bananas some times. Really.”
“Sounds like she has her hands full,” Charlie said. “Do you offer to help her when you see her this way?”
“No, I do not,” Alice snapped. “It’s her responsibility and she should be able to handle it. She’s an adult, for heaven’s sake.”
I kind of knew what Alice was saying. I thought about my mom and all the problems she causes herself because she puts off even the smallest decisions. And her problems pretty soon are mine, so I was sympathizing with Alice. And I said as much.
“I don’t see why a kid should honor an obviously deranged parent,” I said.
“I hear you, Alice . . . and Vivian,” Charlie said. “I guess I was just lucky to learn from my mom what this commandment means.”
Everyone in the room – even I – knew Charlie didn’t have a mom, so we all turned to him in silence, waiting.
“You know, my mom was sick for a long time,” Charlie said, gazing down at the table. “I actually can’t remember a time when she wasn’t sick. In the last year, when I was in fourth and then fifth grade, she couldn’t do any housework, so my dad had to do all the cleaning and the cooking.
“One night, after dinner, Mom called me over to her wheel chair, asked me to sit with her there at the dining room table. So I pulled up a chair next to her. You could hear Dad in the kitchen, hear the plates clanking in the sink as he washed them. I’ll never forget what she said.”
Charlie took a deep breath. We all held ours, I think.
“’The Bible says to honor your father and your mother,’ she said. “Do you know what that means?’
“I didn’t, like most kids. She patted my arm and said: ‘It means think about them and try to understand them. Understand that they are not perfect. And forgive them for that. Like you, they are humans. But also understand that they have been around a lot longer than you have, and there are things that they know just because they’ve been around. Things that you don’t know. So listen to your parents,’ she said, ‘and even when you think they are wrong – dead wrong – respect the possibility that it’s you who is wrong. Because, most of the time, it will be you. And that’s okay, too.’
“Then she said: ‘Your father has worked in the store all day. He has made us dinner. He could use a rest. Maybe you could go take over in the kitchen. What do you think?’
“And you know what? She was right,” Charlie said.
“Wow,” Alice said.“Yeah, she was telling me this because she knew she would be gone soon, and she wanted me to be good to my dad. So that’s what the Fifth Commandment means to me.” Charlie paused, but no one said anything. “You know what else?” Charlie look