Well, don’t you know that just when I got out into the big middle of everything that blasted organ cut off. I was walking—clanking—down the center aisle in hideous silence for all to see. Reverend Lewis was just sauntering up to the pulpit, oblivious to the fact that his words could have broken the stillness and saved me humiliation. He finally motioned for the crowd to rise—but that just left them standing there, in a dithering hush, with nothing to ogle but my everlasting journey down the longest aisle the Lord has ever wrought upon his people (no offense to Him).
By the time I’d passed the Negro section, I think the color of my cheeks had ebbed to a mere tomato. But by the time I squeezed into our usual pew at the front, my blood was frothing: couldn’t I just enjoy the service like all the others? The others, mind you, who had pounced over every inch of this town after running most of us out? Or so Daddy said.
And speak of the chatterbox, he arrived at my side before the end of the prayer. He gave my shoulder one full pat, unaware of the great mortification that had just occurred under his watch.
Reverend Lewis yelped “Amen!” and we moved on to “the twelfth chapter of the Book of Psalms.” The reverend and his people went back and forth but I soon fell out of reading. My makeshift courage (my orange corsage) was looking lovelier every minute. Luckily it was on the side away from my father, so I could admire it as big as I pleased.
By the time the organ was cranking out “Up From the Grave He Arose,” I was well on my way to good spirits. Everybody around me started to pivot and scoop for hymnals. And I was already humming away as I, too, slid my hands around the pew pocket. But there was nary a hymnal. I straightened back up, I looked left, I looked right. I even rocked onto my toes to peer down the far ends of the pews. All empty. Daddy didn’t have a hymnal either but he was looking on with Mrs. Hannway. The same thing for the stranger on my left.
I really did try worshipping with everybody else. But I hadn’t actually sung the song for a year or two (or five...not since ’61?). And the more I tried to sing, the less I knew, and the sorer I got. All I could do was loll there, dead in the water like some windless sloop.
But didn’t I have a right to these words? To get to sing them like everybody else?
I looked right, past Daddy (warbling away), and saw the pew stuffed to its end. So I looked left. It was full but not crammed.
And then, over the thundering third verse, I began my spate of “Exuse me”s and “I’m sorry”s and sometimes even “So sorry”s. Heading back for that wretched center aisle.
Most of the folks I squeezed past were as pliant as bur reeds. I could see they were thinking how this never happened at their churches up North. They shuffled their bodies with haughty huffs but I bore it, just as I should have. But when I got to the man at the end, an elderly fellow who was more than a little tone deaf, I tried to wedge past only to receive the most self-righteous eye roll I’d ever seen.
“Well, I’m sorry,” I said in a real acute whisper.
“No you’re not,” he shot back. Then he immediately went back to singing. The insolent codger!
I flushed with shame as I was thrust from the pew. Of course I couldn’t challenge his abuse now that I stood in plain sight of every parishioner (yet again!). So, what could I do but offer him a winsome smirk—a way of saying to everyone else, “No no, that might’ve looked nasty but Mr. Oswald is such a dear. He can just get a little carried away when he’s singing alto.”
Thus began my flaming flight to the back of the church. At first I felt real sheepish. I tried not to look at anyone, I kept my head down. But then I remembered why I was hoofing it back there in the first place: wasn’t I due what all these people already had? They all had hymnals, and I bet half of them sang flatter than Old Man Grumpy. So I lifted my dress and my head—all the better to march with!
Most of the folks grimaced at me or even glared an apology to whoever was standing next to them. But the few pious sheep of the flock (all Southerners, I’m sure) kept to their singing and one boy even flashed me an impertinent grin. But by this time, all of it was impertinent. A faith in what I knew I deserved was firing me up. Like I had that great piece of news I’d heard before anyone else. How it bore me on! Then I was past the Negro section and had thrown open both doors.
Breezing into the foyer, I almost smiled as I gulped down big breaths of relief. I’d nearly spun a full circle before I spotted the stack of hymnals. With both hands I grabbed the one on top. I was already turning to the right page (Hymn 138 praise be!) as I scampered back to the entrance.
But one of the oak doors blasted open. I sprang back to avoid a smash. Boy was I was ready to loose my tongue on that varlet. But, to my disappointment, it was only Ezekiel.
Ezekiel is one robust man—a foot taller than Daddy and almost twenty years younger—but he sure moves slow. And by the time all his burliness had come through the doors, the song had hit its last chorus.
“Hi,” I said, smiling and trying to get by.
“Miss Winnie, what you doing out here?”
“Just going back in.” I leaned towards the door.
“Real handsome sight in there. The flowers, and folks looking their best.”
“Yes. Well, I’ll see you after the service.” I grabbed the door’s handle and threw it back. But the music had stopped. And the heads were bowing. And I was left there, at the brink of the congregation.
I should have gone in. It would have been real easy—no one looking and me sneaking in on silent toes. But I’d never seen our sanctuary like this: churchgoers stacked pew after pew, heads down, bodies fixed. Here and there husbands had arms around wives. Mothers had hands around the necks of their little miscreants. And after the “Amen,” smatterings of conversation kept the people up, or slowed their sitting to a jolly drifting. It looked to me like there was a whole lot of satisfaction going on between these Northerners and, to be frank, I thought it was disgusting.
Well, the insincerity got me so caught up that I missed my chance to go back in. Now some deacon or other went to the pulpit to blab about some calendar of evangelism and I let the door close with a squeak from it and a sigh from me.
To think I’d have to wait even more! The announcements would go for a hundred years.
I slunk back to the foyer.
Why not get a little talking in while I was out here? “Ezekiel,” I called out.
He was heading, oddly enough, for the outside doors. But he turned and took a step towards me. “Yes, Miss Winnie.”
“Where do you think you’re sneaking?”
“Well, that’s no good.”
He waited politely.
“May I ask why?”
“Well, as you know, my hearing’s been real poor since the accident. So there ain’t much of the service I can hear.”
Was that silence I heard? I whirled around as I tossed him a “Well, Happy Easter!” and scurried back to the sanctuary. I gave a tiny prod to the left door. But only to hear a new deacon blathering on about Fellowship Stew.
I turned back to the foyer as I looked down at my hymnal. To come out here to get what I should have already had! And then to be kept from going back in!
And there was Ezekiel going out the doors. “Ezekiel.”
The shambles of clouds and mist and morning lit up the open door. I couldn’t see his face but I could discern his good ear turning towards me.
I took a few steps towards him and saw the light trickle out as he came back in.
“It’s just a shame you’re going to miss Easter.”
Then he laughed. “It’ll still be Easter out there.”
“But can’t you enjoy just being here? Being with people like you—your friends, I mean.”
“Course. But the problem, Miss Winnie, is that when I can’t hear anything I start up thinking. ‘Bout if Miss Pam’s all right and hoping my two boys ain’t giving her trouble—if they was unruly I’d always be the one to take care of it, but Miss Pam’s too gentle for that. So then I get anxious that she can’t be enjoying her Easter if my boys is acting up. But that ain’t to say I ain’t thinking ‘bout my boys also.”
I’d been trying to listen to the sanctuary when Ezekiel finally stopped I heard Reverend Lewis praying. The sermon was here!