Authors: Angela Pneuman
Copyright Â© 2014 by Angela Pneuman
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Lay it on my heart / Angela Pneuman.
1. Teenage girlsâFiction. 2. Mothers and daughtersâFiction. 3. FamiliesâFiction. 4. Mentally illâFamily relationshipsâFiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations, and events are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. With the exception of Lexington, the author has created fictitious county and town names for full artistic freedom.
“How strange it is that they can't tell us what they themselves seem to know,” a tall, thin beast murmured.
One of Aunt Beast's tentacled arms went around Meg's waist again. “They are very young. And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space.”
“Oh,” the thin beast said. “Aren't they
âMadeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
Y MOTHER AND I
get along better with a room or two between us. The way she's humming now, to herself, is the kind of thing that would make me crazy up close: but there's something separate and free about the fact that she doesn't know I'm listening. Like she'd be doing this same thing if I didn't exist, or if I was someone else's daughter she knew only from church or the IGA. She breaks into a soft, nervous soprano. “My Favorite Things.” The words lilt over the opening and closing of her dresser drawers, over the sound of Mayor James's lawnmower next door approaching and retreating like something that can't make up its mind.
It's August, hot, and I'm waiting in the foyer on the bottommost stair, trying to catch the breeze from the window.
“Charmaine?” my mother calls now from the bedroom, breaking off the song. She likes to exaggerate the French pronunciation of my name, for fun, in a way that pains me:
. “Come help me dress,” she says. “I have something to share with you.”
In the bedroom I find her pulling her beige half-slip over her head, letter from my father in one hand. The international mail was so slow that it didn't arrive until just this afternoon, as we're about to head out to collect him from the Bluegrass Airport.
“We're not French,” I say.
“We're a little bit French,” she says, speaking through the thin polyester fabric. “Maybe.”
She shrugs the slip down past her shoulders and bra, settles the elastic at her waist, and flaps the letter at the bed, where our black cat, Titus, sniffs at the airmail envelope. “Your father's had a new revelation,” she says.
I perch on the bed and study the Jerusalem postmark. God's own city. Where my father, a man after God's own heart, a prophet, has spent the past month. Prophecy is one of the rarest spiritual gifts. Usually it involves God telling my father what kinds of things to bring to people's attention, but sometimes it involves God telling him what to do. Like visit the Holy Land. Or before that, take a year's leave from The Good Word Press, where he writes up his prophecy, so that we can live, as we've been doing since last summer, on faith alone.
“What kind of revelation?” I say carefully.
My mother is frowning into the grainy mirror over the dresser, eyeing the tiny roll of loose skin that spills over the waistband of her slip.
“Phoebe,” I say. “A revelation like to live on faith alone?”
“Let's hope not,” she says. “
. I think we're done living on faith alone. It's exhausting. Look here. Never forget to draw in the muscles, see? See?” She waves her arms until I look, then sucks in her stomach, pointing at the way the loose skin disappears. “Then you'll never need a girdle. A project, he calls it, which sounds practical. If I had to guess, I'd say your father's starting a new series of articles. About our year, maybe, or his trip. Maybe he'll even write a book.” She steps into the bottom half of a cornflower blue suit she sewed herself.
is what she calls it, if anyone asks.
Inside the airmail envelope is a postcard made out to me. It shows a tall, thin boulder rising from a faded landscape of rock, standing craggy and pale against blue, blue sky above an even deeper blue sea below. The Dead Sea. Which is really a lake, my father explains on the back, underneath which, quite possibly, lie the ruined, sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The boulder is supposed to be Lot's disobedient, unfortunate wife. That's all the note says. I flip the card back over and study the picture, wondering if this particular choice has anything to do with his revelation. Lot's wife. One way you can look at the boulder makes her seem stuck in mid-motion, like she's trying to move forward and turn back all at the same time. The other way makes her look like she's hunched into herself, maybe under a shawl, watching her home disappear under a merciless rain of fire.
Phoebe adjusts the skirt and squares her shoulders. She studies me with a serious, confiding tilt to her head, which usually means she's about to share something she'll want to stay just between us. Like her secret tailoring jobs that have kept us in peanut butter for the past year, which my father never thinks to question. Or how she has it on good authority that my grandmother, Daze, thinks my father married down. Since my father's been away, I'm beginning to wonder if all information can be sorted into what I wish I knew and what I wish I didn't.
“Listen,” Phoebe begins, but I don't want to. I scoop up Titus and jiggle him in Phoebe's direction until he relaxes into my arms and starts to purr.
“I'm a fat black kitty,” I say from behind his soft head.
Phoebe sighs and pinches the pads of Titus's foot. She loves him almost as much as I do. “Look at these little black beans,” she says in her half-scornful, half-babyish cat-talking voice. By the time I let him down and stand up, she's already on to something else, giving me the once-over. “What's that you're wearing?”
It's a brown dress, one that Daze bought me.
“Where's the pretty white one I made for summer?” Phoebe says, pouting.
I shrug. I'm not about to tell her how tight it's gotten in the chest, how the roomier brown one does a better job hiding the bulky evidence of my first period, tooâthe awful belt, the safety pins, the cotton pad thick as my forearm. In 1989 you can't even buy pads for a belt anymore, but Phoebe found a year's supply at a closeout sale. Fifty cents a box. And if I reminded her of any of this now, I'd have to hear the words
, whispered at me in her best private voice.
Outside, the sky is a low, humid ceiling. Everything under it is muddled with heat. We head north out of town, past the campus of the East Winder Seminary, past the retirement home named after my grandfather, the famous evangelist Custer Peake. Daze, his widow, lives there now. We pass the tree streetsâElm, Maple, Walnutâthat dead-end at the seminary's neglected athletic field. On a hill in that field stands our huge water tower with the light-up electric cross on top. Underneath that tower, before I was born, Custer Peake led more than four hundred people to the Lord in one of the world's largest spontaneous revivals. It went on for two weeks. People stood or sat or camped, even, listening to my grandfather over the PA system someone rigged up on day three. They came from all over, even from other states, once the word got out. It made the papers. It made the television news in Lexington and Louisville, both. On day six, my father came home from college in Ohio to see what all the fuss was about, and on day ten, as the sun set, my grandfather sent him to meet a delivery truck from Clay's Corner carrying two hundred loaves of Wonder Bread for communion. That's when my father spotted her. A petite girl, standing at the edge of the crowd wearing a sun hat and cutoff dungaree shorts and the kind of halter top frowned upon in East Winder. She raised an eyebrow at him like she was waiting for something, like he'd already spoken to her and she hadn't quite caught it all. Right then and there, before he even knew her name, the Lord laid Phoebe on my father's heart as the woman he was supposed to marry.
There's a back road from East Winder to the Bluegrass Airport, two lanes that twist and turn their way out of Rowland County. Phoebe drives with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, or sometimes the clutch, the knuckles of both hands turning white on the steering wheel. Shifting gears is a crisis, with a lurching that nearly sends me through the windshield. In the airport parking garage, she takes a moment to close her eyes, collect herself, and thank the Lord that we've arrived. She feels around for my hands, which I tuck securely into my armpits. I can't help it. But then I feel sorry, which is the kind of thing that happens when you're born again. First you have your original reactions and feelings from your fallen, sinful nature. Then the Holy Ghost kicks in and shows you what to feel bad about. After Phoebe says, “Amen” and opens her eyes, I give her a tiny smile and pray again, a short, invisible prayer of apology.
Unfortunately, where prayer is concerned, I do not have either my father's gift of hearing the voice of God, or my grandfather's gift of sensing God's presence. They say God was so close to Custer Peake that everyone standing in the room could feel the spirit when he prayed. When I pray, all I feel is my voice spilling into a dark, silent space, a space with its own force of gravity that could pull me right in after it. Like what happens at the edges of the black holes we studied in science. But even though they're called “holes,” they're not empty. They are really full of very dense matter. And my father says that with God, there is no real emptiness, either. When we worry that we are forsaken, we should search our thoughts and behavior for anything that might be preventing us from closer contact. There is always something to find.
At the airport gate, Phoebe and I take a seat in a low row of chairs. People like to say we are the spitting image of each other. We are both five feet tall, though Phoebe has stopped growing, of course, and I am on my way up. We are both brunettes. Until a month ago we both had simple, short, bob haircuts that Phoebe kept up herself on Saturday nights in the kitchen after giving my father his trim. Now I'm trying to let mine grow so I can wear it in a ponytail, even though Phoebe warns that this will do nothing for my appearance. I have the Peake face, is what my grandmother says. A set of squared-off bones and prominent features that can be a little severe in youth but that she has seen approach classic beauty by middle age. Phoebe's face is rounder, sweeter looking. She has her own grandmother's chin, which comes to a pretty, dimpled point and makes her look worried even when she's not. Which is not very often. Daze says this kind of face looks young for a long time, right up until the day it doesn't.
Now Phoebe stands up and nudges my calf with the toe of her blue-dyed satin pump.
“Stand up with me, Charmaine. Look alive.” Then she remembers about my period. “How're you feeling?”
I look around to make sure no one is listening. “I don't think so.”
“Nothing bothering you in your middle? In your
?” She whispers the word
and waggles her eyebrows. Phoebe has a hard time keeping her face still, is another thing Daze says. She doesn't just have her feelings on the inside like the rest of us; she stretches her face around them as if everyone needs a demonstration.