Helen W. Mallon

Judith Richards Goes to Church

      Bill, steady Bill, always wakes up first. The smell of his coffee is what draws Judith out of bed. Avoiding the main staircase, she descends the narrow kitchen stair in her bathrobe. It comforts her to imagine Bill leaning against the counter with his Ipad, catching up on the world.

      On this particular July morning, Judith stopped short. Halfway to the kitchen, she clutched the neck of her robe. She heard a woman yelling. It’s Tricia, she thought. Then: Robert. Robbie!

      She placed a shaking hand on each wall. She steadied herself with the truth: Robert could only die once. His wife had only shrieked once. Tricia fell silent when Judith and Bill ran inside the house and found her shaking him. Now Judith struggled to categorize the voice. It did not have the vitality of Tricia’s cry. It sounded like the broken shriek of an ancient crone.

      It was two years ago. You were all seated in Bill’s car, ready to go out to dinner, when Robert said, Hold on. I’ll just be a minute. He had left something inside. As you waited and he did not return, all you felt was the annoyance. Your mother’s heart did not contract in warning. You did not fly to him when he collapsed on the wide stair landing as if he’d been shot.

      Tricia leaned over the back seat, over-helpful and pleading. He’s been really stressed at work…Maybe I—Could I go help him?

      He’s not a child, you snapped, not looking back at her.

      Bill tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs. He’s thirty-five years old, my dear. It’s time he learned to be punctual. If we help him, he’ll never learn. The thumbs told you what Bill really felt.

      The night Robert died was an ordinary evening of frayed tempers. No one could have prevented the aneurysm. Still, while Bill called 911, you did something you had never done before, even when Robert was born two months premature. Your chest split open, and prayer flew out, beating violent wings against his body.

      Now, listening further to the sound from the kitchen, Judith’s shoulders relaxed. The shrieking came from a video. It was canned raving. She opened the door at the foot of the stairs. “What on earth are you listening to?”

      “I’m clearing out old stuff. I thought you saw this weeks ago,” Bill said. He held out the screen and restarted the news clip. Judith sighed. The woman wasn’t a crone after all. She was youngish and blonde, yet worn somehow. A politician. She was Southern; she was pleading, pleading, before the South Carolina Legislature. Her ancestor had been President of the Confederacy, but the flag must come down, it is hateful, take it down, why this delay? Judith already knew the facts: This woman’s speech had given the flag removal debate its final push, but after last month’s distasteful encounter between Judith and her book group, she had been avoiding any media.

      Bill switched off the device. He kissed Judith on the cheek and poured her coffee. “Happy Sunday.” Ever since their marriage, Bill had greeted her this way at the beginning of the week. After Robert’s death, he stopped for six months.

      Bill was shaking his head. “They took it down, and now they’re gonna build a multi-million dollar exhibit for that damn flag.” And he laughed.

      Judith hesitated. The corner table was set with this week’s napkins, blue striped with white. The Nantucket basket held fresh bagels. “I’ll drink my coffee on the patio,” she told him. Bill’s mild eyes widened, but he only said, “It’s a beautiful day.”

      Outside, she stood beside a wrought iron chair. She had come to hate her garden, but she kept at it because Robert had loved to sit there, nursing a beer and teasing her. “You saw the flowers last year. Do you need to do it all over again?” She hated that it was alive. Lush with plump peonies and scarlet roses, fragrant with box hedges. Sunlight isolated individual blades of grass across the lawn.

      That damn flag.

      At last month’s book discussion, someone—who was it? Had derailed the afternoon by complaining that lately the news was dominated by negativity. The topic should have been a memoir by a young woman who finds spiritual awakening through a life of madcap adventure and casual sex.

      “Since when is the news dominated by positivity?;” Judith had asked.

      A scrum ensued, the other women gaining strength from their mutual agreement: All they report is how ‘unfair’ everything is, one said. If it isn’t about the police, they focus on some crazy who just wants attention. Of course, it was a tragedy. But we have a black president, not that he’s done such a great job.

      “Obama acknowledged we’ve come a long way,” Judith insisted, “but eighty percent of”—they bulldozed right over Judith’s statistics, saying that cops have to make split second decisions. When some thug—

      “Why assume they’re thugs, just because they’re black?” Judith demanded. Barbara, in whose house they met, declared that her son’s law partner was black, and no one called him a thug.

      But they act threatening, someone else said; they bring it on themselves. And racism works both ways.

      “Maybe it does,” Judith admitted, “but how many of us had to teach our children not to look too white, for their own safety?”

      That’s exaggerated, they said. If you don’t want to be taken for a thug, don’t dress like one.

      They have a culture of violence.
      They’re encouraged to complain.
      The educated ones are all right.
      You can’t pin crazy on racism.

      In the end, Judith sat mute and defeated, her heart like a cinder. She knew how they felt about her: We can always depend on Judith for the liberal’s point of view.

      Judith was the only Jew in the group, and they expected her to think differently. Not that anyone had actually said that. Still, she felt like a mascot.

      If only Bill hadn’t laughed: They’re going to build a multi-million dollar exhibit for that damn flag. Judith felt it would be far better to burn it without ceremony, relegating it to the no-longer-existent past.

      After Robert died, you resolved to face his loss without illusion. To regain your shattered equilibrium, you scoured the house for anything that had been his and gave it to Tricia. His wedding album, his Friends Select yearbook. Happy Meal figurines that rattled in a drawer. His Temple business school diploma. A stuffed platypus. All the leaven of life. Bill was broken. He stood by, silent and uneasy, as the boxes were filled. You kept only one thing: The snapshot of the newborn Robbie in an incubator, wires springing from his body, a plastic ventilator tube taped to his mouth.

      You have never practiced Judaism and were raised by parents who did not attend services. This act was your anti-Passover, one in which the first-born of Israel did not survive.

      Now, a month had passed since the massacre in a Charleston church, and Judith’s voice was shrill in her head. You are a coward. You thought of doing it then, but you could not overcome your damned awkwardness. You will not be a coward today.

      Judith got dressed and told Bill a fib about needing to see her chiropractor today, right now. She called Tricia. Something unavoidable had come up. Tricia understood; next Sunday would be fine for the playground. The children had friends to play with. Judith felt guilty, but Tricia had toughened. Rather, Judith knew she had misjudged her. Tricia was strong on her own terms. She was careful to shield her children from the extremity of her grief, yet she never disallowed theirs.

      On the shelves in the garage, Judith dug around until she found an old coffee can that would do. The brand name was covered with varnished paper, now browned and muddy. She cleaned it with a damp rag. From a plastic box of rummage sale items, she pulled out an old silk scarf. She wound it around the coffee can and secured it with a small knot. It looked nice. She filled the can with roses from her garden and poured in a little water.

      This is ridiculous.

      You waited too long.

      If not now, when?

      Judith took the old Volkswagen. The drive to Germantown took half an hour. Some of the book group women wouldn’t set foot in Germantown. Judith parked half a block from the church, made sure the car was locked. She walked with firm steps across the half-cobbled street, carrying her improvised vase of roses.

      The church was red brick, modern in design, set at a harmonious angle to the street corner. Judith half expected to be questioned by a security guard. Instead, she was warmly welcomed by a friendly, polished woman her own age who wore a fitted dress with a lacy texture. She introduced herself as Gertie. Judith was underdressed; she had quickly settled on jeans, dressed up by a fine T-shirt with a cardigan draped around her neck. No one else entering the church wore jeans. No one else was white.

      “I brought these,” and she held out the flowers, feeling like a child offering a crayon drawing, “to honor”—she hesitated, expecting Gertie to catch her drift.

      Gertie blinked. It had been weeks since the attack.

      Judith went hot. “The shooting victims in Charleston? I know it’s been quite a while. I’ve been meaning to visit your church, but this is the first Sunday I had free.” Surely the lie was obvious.

      But the other gave her a lovely smile: “What beautiful flowers. I’ll make sure they go on the altar. I’d like you to meet the pastor. Will you stay for the service?”

      Judith nodded Yes.

      Gertie looked around the milling crowd. “Well, but I think he’s in the prayer meeting”— and she passed Judith on to an usher, a solid tank of a woman in a long skirt, who wore white gloves. The usher took Judith firmly by the hand. “Seat Judith next to Amelia,” Gertie told her. To Judith, she explained, “Amelia Gates is a missionary.” When Judith thanked her, Gertie leaned toward her and spoke in a low voice: “Amelia’s family still lives in Charleston.” Judith swallowed. She felt as if she had been entrusted with a grave confidence.

      As the usher maneuvered Judith through heavy, painted doors into the sanctuary, a little girl handed her a program. The child was small and very brown-skinned. She had long, silky black hair with bangs.

      The missionary shook Judith’s hand politely as she stood to allow her to slide past. Judith had already forgotten her name. The woman was in her mid-thirties, and she had loose curly hair. She wore a red sleeveless dress. Judith sat to her left, gratefully rooted in a pew. The missionary gazed calmly toward the altar, not realizing she had been identified with the tragedy. Judith felt something like celebrity awe at being seated next to this woman from Charleston, but the feeling curled up into panic. Judith couldn’t think of anything polite to say, so she nodded hello to the woman on her left, an ancient lady in a turquoise suit who offered her hand graciously. It felt very dry. Judith’s roses shone between two vases of creamy white lilies at the base of the lectern, which stood on a raised dais.

      The church was filling up with old men in suits, a few ladies resplendent in hats, professionals, young families, the occasional pair of adolescent girls.

      “Fan?” the small girl with bangs held a bunch of paper fans, stapled to flat wooden sticks, over the back of the pew in front of Judith. “No thank you.” Judith smiled, shaking her head. She was already holding three pieces of paper, and she wasn’t sure what to do with them. The women seated around her each took a fan from the little girl, although the church wasn’t particularly warm. Judith began to feel she had been rude. The rustling died down as the pastor strode to the pulpit. He wore a green robe and a kind of scarf with green trim. He was young and handsome.

      Anybody could walk in here and shoot him.

      “Welcome!” he spoke with joy and confidence, “to the house of the Lord!”

      Amens broke out. Music erupted from a small band down by the altar.

      Not like Robert’s funeral mass. Even tone-deaf Bill found the strained soprano painful.

      The music was beautiful and lilting. Judith stood with the others and clapped with the papers in her hands. She shuffled through them furtively, annoyed that she couldn’t find the program of service. The only thing that made sense was a list of birthdays and a long prayer. The woman from Charleston sang with her eyes closed. The old lady hitched along the seat, took the papers, and folded them back, offering Judith the proper page. She thanked her with relief.

      An older man was praying up front. His voice was deep and sonorous. He spoke one phrase Judith never forgot: “And may we forgive those who attack us with harmful intent.” Then he recited a litany of names, not just the dead in Charleston, but people Judith had never heard of. People who had also been shot, or who had died in police custody. The man called for a moment of silence. Judith had had no idea the numbers were so high. She had only lost one person.

      “Oh, my God,” she murmured aloud. The woman from Charleston turned slightly, noticing her. Evaluating, but to what end? Several rows ahead, a little boy stared at Judith curiously. She lifted her hand to wave, and he smiled, then ducked behind the back of the pew. His father, a heavy man with a beard, shifted the skinny boy with a hand on one elbow and set him to face forward.

      At the front of the church, the choir broke into song. The old lady to Judith’s left remained seated, but the woman from Charleston already stood, clapping. Ahead of them, standing appeared to be a fifty-fifty proposition. Judith felt safe glued to her pew. She jumped up as it became clear that most people were rising from their seats. The little boy reached up and his father lifted him into his arms. For a moment, she saw Robert as a young child, held in Bill’s arms. But lingering on the memory felt self-indulgent, and she looked at the choir. It was a group of about nine people, mostly adolescent girls. Judith thought she’d heard the hymn before, but with such different rhythms that it was hard to place. Where? Surely not at Robert’s Catholic funeral. She settled on swaying side to side, aware of her stiffness.

      “Shall we praise the Lord again?” The pastor, impish, tossed out a challenge to the congregation.

      “Amen!” someone called from the front.

      The next song was beautiful—and long. Having committed herself, Judith gamely swayed until the girls trailed off, followed by a flourish from a man on electric guitar.

      “Now I’ll let you sit,” the pastor joked, and sinking down, Judith gripped the front edge of her seat.

      Gertie stepped in front of the altar, a buzz of energy. “On behalf of the hospitality committee, I want to extend a warm welcome to our visitors. Is anyone here for the first time?”

      “Let’s not be shy,” the pastor encouraged.

      Judith raised her hand. The woman from Charleson gave her a nudge. “Stand up.” But her voice was kind. “Say why you’re here today.” Some others had already introduced themselves: A woman who grew up in the church but had moved away; a couple from another city who were visiting family.

      Judith stood and pitched her voice loud. “I am Judith Richards from Blue Bell.” She wiped her palms on her thighs. “I came with flowers today to commemorate the shootings in Charleston.”

      You don’t commemorate shootings. You commemorate people.

      Judith rattled on, propelled by anxiety. “I know I waited too long, but I am here. I want you to know, I cannot not sit idly by while my friends make racist comments. I am here to show solidarity between all the races. I am here to make a difference for you, for, for all black people.” She felt like a false, white tooth in a mouth full of natural ivory teeth.

      The pastor’s expression of thanks was so smooth that Judith could not read his emotion. Gertie nodded approval, but her gaze was unfocused. A few people in the front of the church shifted slightly to glance at Judith. The woman from Charleston stared straight ahead as if she were carved from wood.

      The old lady who had not stood up for the singing leaned toward Judith. “That was a very nice speech, dear.”

      “Thank you,” Judith managed.

      Your roses gleam between the lilies.

      The pastor was working the service back to normalcy. He invited everyone to greet one another. The woman from Charleston had already walked down the aisle.

      Judith had planned to stay put, but she stood when people began strolling about. Given where she stood, it was easy for folks to walk by and shake her hand. Everyone was polite. Some were truly warm. Others greeted her automatically, revealing no feelings. “Hello,” Judith chanted, reaching out. “Hello.” Some dropped her hand as soon as they touched it. A few shone upon her, their faces alight with a love that made her feel giddy.

      The woman from Charleston was approaching.

      Judith grabbed her forearm, attempting to pull her into a hug. She gave up. They stood apart. “I understand you’re from Charleston,” Judith gushed. “I know just how you feel.” In her confusion, Judith realized that she had just compared the natural death of her son to the racially-motivated massacre of nine people.

      When she looked up, the other’s eyes had a stony sheen. Judith felt her draw away although her body did not move.
“Thank you,” the woman said. Then she was gone, greeting others. New people stepped into her place, offering Judith their hands.

      When Robert was eleven, you and Bill took him to the Art Museum to see a show of Van Gogh portraits. Afterward, walking to the car, Robert slipped his hand into yours. His was soft and sweaty. He almost reached your shoulder. You scarcely dared to breathe. You knew it was the last time Robert would take your hand.

      Judith wished she had accepted a fan from the little girl. The air in the church had become oppressive, filled with humidity. The high, white ceiling had suffered water damage.

      It was time for the offering. Music swelled. Judith dug in her wallet. How much should she give? Flustered, she pulled out all the money she had, and when she discovered a hundred dollar bill, she stuffed it back so quickly that her wallet fell at her feet. After she picked it up, the woman from Charleston tapped her hand. The snapshot of Robbie in the neonatal intensive care unit had fallen out. It lay in the woman’s palm. Judith took it and thanked her, stammering. The woman offered a tight smile without meeting Judith’s eyes.

      They both joined the line at the front of the church. Judith put a twenty in the tithe box and nodded to the pastor. She saw kindness in his eyes.

      Anchored again in her seat, Judith settled down for the sermon. First, prayer and a long reading from the Bible. She braced herself.

      You have told no one, not even Bill, that it hurt you when Robert converted to marry Tricia. How could you? You had no right to object. You have never professed a faith.

      The text came from the Old Testament: something about a little boy who belonged to the royal family of the Jews, and a terrible woman was trying to kill him. But he was kept safe, hidden away in God’s house. And then, one day, he became king over Israel. “How excellent is thy loving kindness, O God! Therefore, the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings!”

      It was an ancient story; it was art. A kind of magic. Enter the story, and there is belief. That little boy was rescued. “God’s house is a place of safety,” the pastor exhorted, “a place where all can come for refuge.” The swell of his voice rose, and a wind rused through Judith’s chest: Holy, Holy.

      She resisted it. What could faith do when someone bursts in with a gun? No place was safe. Robert had not been safe. The EMTs could do nothing. Even if Tricia had rushed in before Bill stopped her. Even though, for the first time in her life, Judith had prayed. No one could have stopped the artery from blowing out in his brain.

      You envy them. They have someone to blame.

      Judith could not listen to the sermon, so she watched. The little boy had fallen asleep on his dad’s shoulder. The pastor was in his late thirties. The same age Robert should have been. A similar build, firm yet not heavy. His glasses—they were familiar. Her mind clicked. The same glasses Robert used to wear. Though she knew it was irrational, she felt resentful. How dare this man, who was alive, so casually flaunt those glasses?

      Stop it. You’re being crazy.

      “‘Therefore,'” the pastor cried, “we will not be afraid though the mountains fall into the heart of the swelling sea.'”

      “Hallelujah!” shouted the woman from Charleston.

      Music shook as if from underground, guitar low and pulsing.

      He kept on and on as if in a foreign language. He was pacing now, almost dancing. From him flowed incantatory truth that Judith felt in her belly, hot and fearless. It was not to be trusted.

      Anyone could walk in and shoot him in the head.

      Beneath the lectern, the roses flamed large, a violent red against his flowing robe. Something was wrong. No, not the flowers: her eyes seized on the vase. But it wasn’t a vase. It was a coffee can, faded decoupage covered with silk. It didn’t belong in this church. It didn’t belong with people who would casually throw it away.

      Judith had missed something when she cleansed the house of all evidence that her son was not dead. Robert made that vase when he was at, what, that camp. In middle school.

      The pastor was crying out: The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on behalf of the world. On your behalf. On my behalf. The woman from Charleston now stood by the musicians, and she began singing to the low thrum of the band. She could sing. Her face raised above the sway of her body, she was a great bird. Her voice was liquid, deep, and warm. Many sang along, the music rising and falling with a tidal pull.

      God is so good. God answers prayer.

      You prayed only once in your life. You were a fool.

      Judith fought for equilibrium, but something like acid coated her eyes.

      The old lady offered Judith a tissue. Judith leaned over to accept it.

      The lady patted her arm with a gnarled hand, but Judith looked away. Could she ask them to return the coffee can? No! An old expression floated up from Judith’s childhood memory, an odious one: Don’t be an “Indian giver.” Shame bubbled up, further confusing her brain. Should she run out to a store, find a real vase to exchange for the coffee can? But that would be patronizing. Her mind darted, finding only cul de sacs. Could she steal it? Bribe the little girl with the bangs?

      Tell the woman from Charleston the truth?

      Judith was plunged into a dark tunnel. She was afraid of saying the wrong thing again. Her grief was merely individual; theirs was historic, ancient, and pregnant with meaning. To admit hers, she believed, would nullify theirs.

      Judith drew in a breath and held it. The music was retreating into the walls of the church, a low thrum. Pressure built in her head. If there is a God, let the woman from Charleston understand. Let her offer to return the coffee can.

***

Henel-W-MallonHelen W. Mallon’s short fiction explores the tension between spiritual aspiration and human frailty.
Her book The Beautiful Name: Four Short Stories was released in June by Books To Go Now. Her writing has appeared in Passager, Philadelphia Stories, and Relief: A Christian Quarterly, among others.
She has published book reviews in Fiction Writers Review and the San Francisco Chronicle and is a regular contributor of reviews to thePhiladelphia Inquirer.

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