Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
The reverend scanned the congregation. We held our breath; a single thought pulsed down the pews:
What kind of worship?
“What kind of worship, you ask? The most tempting of all evils, an evil that wears a holy mask. Freda Graves believes she is a prophet; she has opened the doors of her own house as a church. Every Tuesday night she commits heresy just a few blocks from this hallowed ground. She has lured away the weakest among us; now she will seduce the strong. Her followers claim to speak in tongues. They lay hands on one another. Oh, my friends, I am afraid, for the devil speaks in his own tongue.”
Reverend Piggott's bald scalp glistened. He raised his fists to Heaven, and his fragile body stiffened beneath his heavy robes.
“Do not venture near this woman. Even the blessed are not immune to trickery. She preys on the needy; she snatches tired souls. Oh, we cannot afford to rest. Do not stop by the side of the road though your feet are weary. Do not think that you can save her; she is beyond reason. Professionals must handle this matter.”
I wondered what he meant by
. I pictured all the officers of the church dressed in red robes, led by Reverend Piggott in his violet frock. I saw them marching down Main Street, a band on parade without their instruments. They'd cut down Fifth Avenue and stride along Wyoming Way, straight to the steps of Freda Graves's front porch. Those good men of Willis would batter down her door and drag her off to a tower where they could torture her with talk and rebuke her into reason.
But from what I'd seen of Freda Graves, it would take more than human force to stop her. She was the kind of woman who could walk across a flooding river, a child on each shoulder, a newborn calf cradled in her arms. She would be the last person to flee a burning house, and the first to brave a blizzard to search for children who hadn't found their way home.
As we left church I caught sight of Miriam Deets walking arm in arm with her husband, Lanfear. He was a heavy man, soft and thick, with rounded shoulders and stubby hands. He had a simple look: his features small and unfinished, his mouth and eyes like slats in his fleshy face, his nose a mere bump. His hair had no particular color at all, like sand or dust. But Miriam gazed into that face with adoration.
Father watched them, seeing Miriam's simple love for a foolish man. He grabbed Mother's arm roughly. He couldn't get away fast enough.
The town buzzed with tales of Freda Graves. Reverend Piggott's sermon stirred up a frenzy of curiosity: he won her more converts in a day than she would have been able to snare in a month. Even so, people were afraid. With all that speaking in tongues and laying on of hands, Freda Graves would have as many followers possessed as she had saved.
We heard of candles and wailing, chalices of wine dark as the blood of a lamb. We didn't know what to believe, but one thing was sure: we knew exactly who attended these prayer meetings. A woman doesn't have neighbors for nothing.
Joanna Foot was one of the faithful. Elliot had returned from Arizona. Olivia Jeanne Woodruff rolled her dusty Winnebago into his driveway one day and gave him a boot in the butt. Joanna took him backâon a trial basis. He had to prove he'd mended his wicked ways before he got any idea about slipping his shoes under her bed. She told Elliot he'd have to show her and the Lord and “that holy woman” that he could live as a righteous man. Public humiliation demanded public repentance. She promised that if he could do right by her for a full year, she might
letting him sleep somewhere other than the couch.
Minnie Hathaway belonged body and soul to Freda Graves. Over the years Minnie had lived up to Freda's expectations, trotting across the street after church to wait for Elliot to open the doors of the Last Chance. Once when Elliot dawdled too long, she pounded on the glass so hard it shattered, and Dr. Ben had to put eight stitches in her hand. Now she was on the wagon and drinking down the preaching of Freda Graves for courage.
“That'll never last,” Arlen said. And Mother answered, “Give the woman a chance.”
Minnie had even talked one of the other boarders at the rooming house into attending the meetings. Lyla Leona, the Fat Lady of Willis, was shaking and praying. For the time being, she was out of business and living on her savings, which accounted for the unusual hostility a certain group of men harbored toward Mrs. Graves.
Myron Evans was among the first converts. “Well, at least we know there's one night a week when we won't have to worry about him jumping out of the bushes,” Arlen said.
In all, Freda had fifteen or twenty people coming to her house every Tuesday night, and the crowd swelled each time Reverend Piggott warned of her evil ways. Some loyal Lutherans talked of breaking her windows or setting her garbage on fire. “Jews live in the East and Baptists stay in Mississippi,” my father said. “Nothing but Mormons in Salt Lake City. Here in Willis, folks are Lutherans. If they don't like it, they should move.” Mother suggested we could tolerate one alternative, especially since Freda Graves had worked some minor miracles: keeping Minnie Hathaway away from the bottle and persuading Lyla Leona to look for another line of work. But Daddy said, “You tolerate one thing and pretty soon you'll be tolerating everything. We'll have the Indians dancing around a buffalo head on a stake in the middle of Main Street if we don't keep a lid on this.”
I longed to see for myself what went on at these meetings, but Mother forbade it. Knowing how little she admired Reverend Piggott, I thought she'd be glad to try something else. My mother's father was a minister, and she never forgave him for hearing a call that made him desert his wife and child. I began to suspect she had little use for religion of any kind.
I remembered the time when Nina was chosen to play Mary in the Christmas story. For three days before the performance Nina moved as if in a trance, smiled as if her knowledge and her pain were too great to bear. She barely ate and refused to dirty her hands scrubbing dishes. I did her chores gladly, satisfied with my small sacrifice.
The night of the play, Daddy was so proud he could hardly sit still. He wanted to jump to his feet and applaud till his palms burned. Reverend Piggott laid one hand on Nina's golden hair. “Like an angel,” he said, “the vision of the Virgin herself.”
Nina was still glowing the morning after her debut, but Mother told her those pious ways didn't wash at home. She made Nina eat her bacon and fried eggs, made her scrape the plates and scour the grease out of the pans.
Later I found my sister thrown across her bed. She sobbed so hard I thought her bones would shatter. “I hate her,” she said. “I hate her.”
I believed my mother was as good as anyone I knew, better than most, fair and forgiving. I didn't think people could be good unless they feared Godâor at least their parents. My mother's folks were dead. If she wasn't afraid of the Lord's retribution, what kept her on the right path? Sometimes I doubted I had the proper respect for God, but I dreaded the punishment of my father and tried to do the right thing most of the time. Trying to understand all of this only made me more curious about Tuesday nights at Freda Graves's. Sooner or later, I knew I had to worship in that house. I thought of myself speaking in tongues, having a private language just between me and God, having a voice so sweet He'd hear every word. My soul billowed up with the joy of it. My heart beat too fast, a flutter like wings in my tight chest.
hope this is the end of it,” Mom said. It was a Tuesday night, and she was referring to the cherry pie Miriam Deets had just delivered, warm from the oven, to show her appreciation to my father. Miriam had appeared at our back door with her gift just as we finished our supper. Two of her tow-headed toddlers clung to her skirt, bunching the material in their sticky fists, hiding behind her and peeking at us with wide animal eyes.
“The end of what?” Dad said.
“Don't play the fool with me, Dean. I know all about that chicken.” We'd already been to church three weeks in a row.
Daddy didn't look at me straight, but caught me with the edge of one eye, a glance that said he'd just as soon rip out my tongue as see my face. “This pie has nothing to do with any damn chicken,” he said.
“Then to what, pray tell, do we owe
. Deets's gratitude?”
“I got her husband, Lanfear, moved from pulp to planingâanother buck an hour.” Mother had to ask him to repeat the words, and even then she looked as if she couldn't believe it. “He's been at the mill six years,” Dad said, “can't keep a man in one place forever. Anyway, Josh Holler is the one who deserves this pie. He handles all the union business; he arranged everything.”
“You talked Josh Holler into this.”
“We do agree sometimes.”
“I've never heard of a time until this.”
“Josh thought it was long overdue.”
“How many times have I heard you say Lanfear Deets was the stupidest man you'd ever met? Lazier than an Indian, you said, and as long as you were foreman he wasn't moving up a single rung.”
“Changed my mind.”
“His work improved.”
“When? A couple weeks ago? A Friday night?”
The legs of my father's chair scraped backward across the floor. “I don't have to listen to this,” he said. Daddy won every fight because he never stuck around for the end. He barged through the living room. The screen door popped shut with a snap, loud as a firecracker exploding at dusk.
I hoped this was the end of it too, just as Mother said. Surely my father had more than made amends for twisting Lanfear's arm over that twelve-dollar debt.
I had no trouble sneaking out of the house that night. Mom thought I was going to Gwen's. She was too preoccupied to demand more than a white lie. I hopped on my bike and sped toward the west side of town. Here the houses were low to the ground. Shingles peeled off the roofs. The smaller the house, the brighter the paint. These shacks were built quickly to accommodate the modest boom of the lumber business. There wasn't time or money enough to dig foundations or pour concrete. Houses were raised on slabs of rock or piles of brick. Some were slapped together in early spring, with nothing but the frozen earth to support them. Now the homes sank and slipped. Porches leaned, windows sagged, roofs sloped in threatening ways.
Haverton Grosswilder built these houses and sold most of them to his employees. He started the mill but never worked there. He was an old man now, though his daughter, Marlene, was my age, and his son, Drew, was just two years older. People said his young wife was pretty, but she never left the house. She had some kind of terror of the outside world. I thought this was justified. If she walked through the west side of town, her husband's slums, folks might knock her down and steal her shoes.
I ditched my bike in the bushes about a block from Freda Graves's. I didn't aim to go to the front doorâI wasn't ready for that.
Her house had been painted white years ago; now the paint blistered, revealing a layer of dirty red. Her backyard was overgrown with dying duck grass and dandelions gone to seed. I crept around one side of the house and then the other, but all the shades were down. Mrs. Graves would have to be an idiot to leave her windows exposed, so anyone who just happened to be passing could get an eyeful of salvation. I was about to give up when I saw she'd been careless after all. I spotted a bright slat. The window was shut, but the blind was a good inch from the sill.
I peered into the room. Freda Graves stood in the center of her flock, head thrown back, eyes closed, arms flung wide to embrace a vision of the Lord only the blind or the blessed could see. She wore a long dark skirt and a gray blouse with a high collar. Her congregation clustered at her feet, open-eyed as children, rocking and swaying to the beat of her words, shouting the word
in unison whenever there was a pause in her preaching.
. Mouths opened wide; I saw the word hover in the stale air, but I heard nothing.
The size of Freda Graves amazed me: the sweep of her arms describing Heaven and earth, the mass of gray curls grown full and tangled, the legs so solid that each step looked final, rooted for a thousand years. She seemed too big for her own house. The ceiling hung low, too close to that furious head. Unlike other adults in my world, she did not loom large in memory as she shrank in real life. She was great in the mind and in the flesh.
When she ceased her praying, the crowd stilled. They barely seemed to breathe. Slowly, Freda Graves began to speak again, a pantomime of passion, waving her hands, staring at first one follower and then another. The words came faster and faster. At last her gaze rested on one man. She pointed and said nothing.
She'd chosen Bo Effinger. He stretched out on the floor and the others gathered around him, laying their hands on his thighs and belly, his neck and chest. Bo was six and a half feet tall, with white hair, no eyebrows, and the biggest feet I have ever seen on a human being.
Freda Graves laid her hands over his face and prayed again. The others mumbled too, each one taking a turn. Joanna Foot and Minnie Hathaway, Myron Evans and the Lockwood twinsâEula and LuellaâElliot Foot, Lyla Leona, and half a dozen more. All of a sudden, Bo began to tremble. His fingers twitched and his legs shuddered. The people holding his arms and legs put their weight into him to keep him from thrashing, but Bo Effinger was a big man and the ripples jerking through his wiry muscles nearly lifted him off the floor.
The big man rolled to his stomach, pounding the floor with his fists, beating the rug with the feet of a giant. This is how being born must have been for Bo Effinger. He was a trapped child. His mother gained fifty pounds carrying him. The bones of her brows thickened and her palms grew wide. She swore he was the size of a calf when he finally came, and she kept crying out, “Cut me, cut me,” but Dr. Ben wouldn't do it. He took the forceps to Bo's head, pinched and yanked. Mrs. Effinger often told this story to account for Bo's slow ways and missing eyebrows. She said Dr. Ben ripped them clean off her baby's face and they never grew back.