Brother Bob stood behind the pulpit and read the Scripture slowly and sorrowfully: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up, so the golden curls covering his thin arms showed when he raised the open Bible. He had been preaching for over an hour. The shirt was wet almost all over with sweat. His red curly hair was combed back into an oily ducktail with curls on top and a single small corkscrew curl falling down on his forehead. His eyes were light blue, and they could look icy mean sometimes. That’s why Glorianne thought he must be a good preacher. One time when he looked at her–she still remembered it–he scared her. Her own brown eyes were wide with fear now. What did “forsaken” mean? Did it mean throwing away? Did God throw Jesus away?
Anyway, she didn’t like to look at the preacher very much and reached down to scratch where the elastic of her panties was stinging and itching. She squirmed to the edge of the painted wooden bench, sticky and wet with sweat, and started to swing her feet back and forth, hoping to make a breeze between her legs. It didn’t work. She picked up a fan and studied it. It was made of cardboard with a thin flat wooden stick stapled on for a handle. On one side was a colored picture of little Jesus in the Temple with the Elders and on the other side some Scripture and “MacDonald’s Funeral Home, Clintonville, Georgia” printed at the bottom.
“Let your Granny have that fan, Glorie–and don’t be playing in church!” her grandmother frowned and whispered.
She handed the fan to her Granny and saw the little backward movement her grandmother always made whenever Glorianne looked at her. Then she would always drop her eyes, or look away. She had always done that; it was just part of Glorie’s world, just the way things were, like the ground or church or summertime heat. She watched her grandmother make long, slow, peaceful sweeps with the fan: the gray-blond wisps at her temples were soft wings carrying the blue eyes to Heaven. Granny is a good Christian, she thought, and wondered what Hell would be like for little girls. Probably a lot hotter than church on Sunday night in summertime. She lifted her dark matted hair off her sweat-damp neck and held it there, studying her elbow, and thought about how fast Granny fell asleep at night. Probably because she was going to Heaven.
Glorie hated nighttime, when everybody was asleep but her. She hated being trapped in bed in the dark, especially in summer. She thought that Hell would be all darkness and heat. She’d lie there, or turn over and over to make mosquitoes go away, and wish for Mama to come home, and sometimes she’d still be awake when Mama did come home. The kitchen light would come on and Glorie would creep softly to the door. Mama would give her a big tired smile and whisper, “Hey there, Baby.” She’d turn on the radio very low and fix her a cup of coffee and milk. Then she’d light a Chesterfield and sit at the table in her slip to pin her hair up. She’d take the little mirror out of her handbag and prop it up on the bobby-pin box made of cedar. It had her name on the top: Inez. Mama would dip her comb in a glass of water, comb it through her hair, and make neat tight little pincurls, opening the pins with her teeth and talking to Glorianne at the same time. The hot dark room, the sweat-sticky sheets, were far away then.
Her grandmother, Evaline, was a widow with heart trouble. For three years now, she and the family had been living off the county welfare and the little money Inez brought home from her job as a waitress. She had many troubles, including asthma. She looked over at her granddaughter’s small tanned body, dirty sandaled feet swinging. She wouldn’t have minded looking after Glorie while Inez worked; she’d been looking after young ones all her life, her own seven and now three grandchildren. She wouldn’t have minded it, but–she’d been there when Glorie was born, so she knew the girl was her grandchild, but somehow she never believed it. Not part of me, of us. The spit right out of her daddy’s mouth, just like him, inside and out. Trash. He’d got Inez pregnant seven years ago and then just took off. It was hard to look after Glorie. She didn’t just look different–there wasn’t a drop of good in the girl. And sometimes Glorie even made her feel different herself, like she was separate from righteousness, strange, and a little frightening, not the way she always felt with her other grandchildren. She gave out one of her deep quivering sighs and closed her eyes. She thought about the cross and saw herself hanging there.
“Sit still, Glorie!” she whispered.
And Glorianne tried to sit still and listen. She wanted to know what that word meant–forsaken–but Brother Bob didn’t mention it again. He was standing down in front of the pulpit now with his hands raised and the Bible in one of them. “Let us sing now, brethren, and pray–pray that somebody here tonight has heard Jesus’ call and opened his heart to the Lord.” The people stood and sang, “Just as I am, without one plea…”
A man came down the aisle–it was Mrs. Johnson’s drunkard husband–with his shoulders hunched over and his head hung low. The singing became a little softer as everyone turned to see who was coming forward: “But that Thy blood was shed for me …”
There were big dark blotches of sweat under Mr. Johnson’s arms and on the back of his faded plaid shirt. He spoke to the preacher for a minute while the people kept singing, “And that Thou bidst me come to Thee . . . ” and then he sat down on the front bench, his head still bowed and his shoulders shaking. Brother Bob stood there, looking out at the people like a hungry and beaten puppy looks to his master. The song ended.
“Sing another chorus, brethren. The Holy Spirit is with us tonight–somebody else is here.” His eyes slowly swept the people as they sang, “Oh, Lamb of God, I come, I come…” Feet started scruffling softly on the wooden floor; handbags moved from one arm to the other under the weight of his gaze. Nobody came. His face looked like the picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane over Granny’s couch. Mr. Johnson stood next to him then, his hunched shoulders encircled by Brother Bob’s arm. His face frightened her; it looked like the picture she had seen one day last spring. She had run up onto the porch to get a drink of water. Granny was there doing the washing.
“Glorie, you been in that mulberry tree?”
“No, ma’am.” A lie! Suddenly she was staring into brown and white circles of fear over a mulberry-stained mouth as Granny yanked her up under the arms and hoisted her to the mirror over the washstand. “Then what is that, Glorie? What is that? You just tell me what that is!” Glorianne screamed in terror at the mirror. It still gave her bad dreams.
Then Mama was standing there, looking ghost-like through the screen door. “What in the world is all the yelling about?”
“Glorie’s been in that mulberry tree again, Inez. I’ve told her about a hundred times.” Granny sighed heavily.
“Well, she’s a good climber. I don’t think she’ll fall.”
Granny’s eyebrows rose. “No, Lord knows she won’t fall.” She knew Glorie would never be able to fall out of a tree like other children did, and then cry and want to be held and petted. “But them mulberries are full of worms, Inez, and you know it.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it so much, Mother. Let me come out there and help you with that wash. Glorianne, go play.”
The crickets and frogs were noisy as they walked the dusty road home from church. Granny’s broad back was a few yards ahead. Glorie ran from one side of the road to the other, trying to make a breeze, but it didn’t work. Were the crickets praying for rain? Had they been forsaken by the rain? She started trying to pray with the crickets by making a chirping noise with her tongue behind her teeth. It didn’t work, though–there wasn’t any rain.
Later she lay in bed, kicking the heavy sheet off her, then pulling it up again to keep mosquitoes off, trying to breathe the thick air. Hell would be all darkness and heat. Then she heard the sounds of Mama in the kitchen: the striking of the matches, one for the coffeepot, the next one for the cigarette, the radio playing low. Eddy Arnold was singing, “I’ll hold you in my heart till I can hold you in my arms…” Then there was the comb dipping into the glass of water and the soft chink of bobby pins in the little cedar box. Glorianne listened till she fell asleep and dreamed of cool sunlight splashing among the pale green mulberry leaves high in the tree.