by Christa Hogan
MeMaw visits at nights mostly, when Daddy’s asleep and our little house in town is quiet. Tonight when she comes, I’m waiting for her, damp with sweat from the heat, my head full of Beulah Mae’s warnings about hell. I can tell the moment MeMaw arrives. Even her ghost smells like smoke and tobacco.
Daddy says cancer is what happens when you smoke a pack of Salems a day, and it’s a bad habit I never better start. But MeMaw, she says, don’t hardly anyone die healthy anyway. You might just as well do what makes you happy. So I guess I’ll probably take it up one day, too. I kind of miss the smell of it in my clothes now that she’s gone.
“What’s bothering you this time, child?” she says as she settles on the edge of my bed, soft as a feather.
I know if I turn around, she’ll be gone. So I lie real still, staring at the piece of wallpaper curling away from the corner of the open window. “I don’t think I believe in God no more,” I say.
MeMaw chuckles, a rusty sound like a tractor starting far away in a field somewhere.
“It ain’t funny.” I fold myself into a tighter ball. Pull my damp sheets up under my chin.
The smoky engine of her laughter rumbles on, through the metal coils and cotton stuffing in my mattress. I wait her out.
“Pretty funny from where I’m sittin’, Elma Honey,” she says finally. “The other side of glory, and my grandchild, progeny of the Pleasant Grove First Baptist preacher, don’t believe in God.”
The backs of my eyes prickle. When she calls me “Elma Honey” I miss her fierce.
“Don’t you want to know why?”
The room falls silent, and I think maybe she’s gone. When she speaks again, she ain’t laughing, but I can still hear it in her voice. “I’m more interested in hearing what it is you do believe in.”
I’m so relieved she’s stayed that I tell her the truth without hesitation, because I been thinking on this. Everybody needs something to believe in, something true and unchanging.
“I believe in my Daddy,” I say.
“Mmmm.” I can tell I got her attention now. “Why?”
“Because.” She knows what I mean without me having to lay it out plain.
Because he’s a piece of you, and you were never anything but good.
Because when Principal Whitcomb said I should go into the new remedial class, Daddy said no child who read as much as I did was stupid and refused to sign the papers.
Because when the KKK marched through town, Daddy’s was one of the only white faces standing in protest.
And because… today.
I probably ought to have turned the other cheek, like Daddy preaches. But when someone as big and stupid as Beulah Mae calls me dummy… well then.
I was sitting with my back against the school wall at recess, minding my own business. Just trying to keep out of the sun. I was reading the part in Anne of Green Gables where Gilbert Blythe pulls Anne’s braid. She don’t take too kindly to it. I love that part. Me and Anne, we could be sisters.
I smelled Beulah Mae and her cronies ‘fore they stepped into my periphery—like sour milk and her Mama’s cheap perfume, the kind meant to make you think of flowers. Always puts me in mind of the funeral parlors I visit with Daddy instead.
“Elma, how come you don’t believe in God?” Beulah Mae demanded.
I could tell by the way she asked it wasn’t just to satisfy her own curiosity. Her hands were pushed into her hips, and her fat face was shiny with oil. Janice and Theresa stood right behind her, with matching smug smiles and crossed arms.
“What’s it to you?” I wished now I’d kept my mind to myself in the locker room that morning when Janice and Theresa got started on the new girl—Sally or Suzy or something—just because she’s a Methodist.
“What’s it matter to ya’ll which church she go to?” I’d mumbled to no one in particular. “Ain’t a one of them can even tell you if there’s a God for real.”
Being the daughter of a Baptist preacher, I probably spent more time in pews than the entire school combined, and even I ain’t so sure no more. From the horrified gasps in the locker room that morning, though, I figured there would be a price to pay for speaking my mind plain. Now here come Beulah Mae acting as collector.
“Don’t you know you’re gonna go to hell, dummy?”
A white hot rage rose up in me at her words, but I just turned to the next page and kept reading. That would have been the end of it, but there’s a good part of MeMaw in me, so I muttered, “Don’t know how someone as ugly and dumb as you do believe in God.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon outside Principle Whitcomb’s office with a bloody lip. The worst part was they took my book away. I had to sit on a hard bench in the hall with Beulah Mae until our parents came to pick us up. Every few minutes, Beulah pulled the bloody rag from her nose and shot me a promising grin to let me know that weren’t the end of it. Not by a long shot. I just leaned my head back against the cool cinder block wall to wait and tried not to worry.
I waited so long on that hard wooden bench for Daddy to come that the bones in my behind started to ache. But Beulah’s daddy came first. I had my eyes closed, so I didn’t see him charging up the long walkway from the parking lot. I just heard the big metal doors crash open. Then the bench tipped forward as Beulah Mae rocketed out of her seat.
I opened my eyes to see a big man with a face like a sunburnt snake looming over Beulah. He coiled a giant hand around her arm. I seen something then I ain’t never seen in Beulah Mae before—fear. Some of it spilled out of her and found me. Her daddy hissed at her in a voice low and ugly. Tough old Beulah suddenly looked small and fragile as a mouse. Didn’t neither one of them spare me a look as he dragged her down the hall and back out the door.
Principal Whitcomb waited until they vacated the premises. Then he tiptoed from his office, adjusting his skinny tie around his scrawnier neck. He stood on the sidewalk and watched Beulah and her daddy get in their old beat up Chevrolet truck and drive away. One of Beulah’s older brothers was sitting in the back. He grinned yellow teeth at Principal Whitcomb, who just stood there, shaking his head. When he passed by on his way back into his office, he looked to be a hundred years old.
When my daddy finally came, he took his sweet time about it. He walked up the road from the church, hands in his pockets. His lips were pursed in a whistle, but he had a far-off expression on his face. I wondered if he was thinking about that Sunday’s sermon or God or people like Beulah’s family, who always want a handout from church folks, but never try to help anyone else unless it helps them somehow too. Or if he was wondering what in the name of all that’s holy he was going to do with me.
When he pulled open the door, a wave of sticky heat filled the hallway. The glare of daylight showed off every scuff mark and bit of peeling paint. Then he closed the door and just stood there. Waiting for his eyes to adjust maybe. Hands in his pockets. Sweat beading his bald head and soaking into the arms of his pale blue dress shirt.
“Hey there, Elma Honey,” he said when he finally caught sight of me. “What’s all this about then?”
I just stared up at him, speechless. I didn’t mind telling him about my fight with Beulah, but eventually he would want to know what for. It’s one thing for Beulah Mae to know I ain’t so sure about the Almighty no more. It’s quite another to tell my daddy.
Suddenly I wasn’t so sure he’d be understanding. Not that he’d be mad. Just I would do anything to keep from disappointing him.
Principal Whitcomb appeared. “Reverend Loveland, could we speak in my office? Privately.”
Daddy rocked back on his heels. “Whatever it is, you can say in front of Elma too.”
“We-e-ell, sir,” Principal Whitcomb drawled as if he were getting ready to preach a sermon of his own. He must have been feeling bold and brave now that Beulah’s daddy was gone, and it was just this humble, soft-looking preacher left to defend me.
Sure enough, Principal Whitcomb launched directly into a windy, though mostly accurate, description of what transpired between me and Beulah that day. But also a long list of what he saw as my shortcomings, including telling the other girls that I don’t believe in God. Which, he said, “must come as quite a shock indeed to a preacher like yourself,” speaking to my daddy.
I about liked to die right then. Principal Whitcomb’s words were like knives, each one aimed at my daddy. But all the while, Daddy looked at me as if it was just the two of us, and Principal Whitcomb was a horsefly droning on above our heads. He even smiled, but it weren’t the kind of smile I expected. It weren’t sad nor disappointed nor even what Anne would call ‘bemused.’ It was just a smile.
When Principal Whitcomb finally paused for a breath, Daddy asked me, “You ready to go?” And put out a hand—soft and wide and gentle. And I took it.
We walked out of the school, leaving Principal Whitcomb staring after us too. I felt kind of bad for him. Like we’d gotten up and walked out in the middle of a guest pastor’s Sunday service.
The moment the school’s doors opened, a wall of humid air hit us. Was the first real hot day of summer. The kind that sucks the breath from your lungs and makes it so all you can think about is a drop of cool water. Like the rich man and Lazarus in the story.
Every step felt like ten million. I wiped at the sweat already beading on my forehead and glanced up nervous-like. Daddy looked back down at me and frowned a little, but then he shifted me to his other side, so I was walking in his shade. It were only a few degrees of difference, but it felt like more.
“Beulah again, huh?” he said finally.
“She got you good, looks like.”
“I got her better.”
“You know that ain’t the best way to handle things, Elma, especially not with girls like Beulah. Her family’s got a hard row to hoe.”
I ducked my head. “Yes, sir.”
He nodded, and I knew that was all he would say on the matter. “I was thinking I’d pull you out of school early this year. You could finish your studies at home.”
I didn’t trust myself to speak for a minute. “Could I get my book back from Principal Whitcomb first?”
The corner of Daddy’s mouth twitched like I said something funny, though I was deadly serious. MeMaw gave me that book, and I aimed not to lose it.
“Sure, Honey,” he said then and a tight spot in my chest eased up some. We walked on a few paces. “Now then. What’s this about you not believing in God?”
I swallowed hard. When I found my voice I told Daddy about what happened with the Methodist girl in the locker room after gym class, and about how I’d been thinking lately that since no one had seen God and things were such a mess all the time, and people like MeMaw died ‘fore their time while bad people kept breathing, that I weren’t sure no more that God was real. I waited for Daddy to get stern, like I knew he could when he needed to, but he just nodded.
“Me neither sometimes.”
The shock of his words nearly stopped me in my tracks. He still had hold of my hand though, so I kept walking.
“Am I going to hell, Daddy?” I asked finally, my throat so tight I’m surprised the words came out.
Daddy stopped then and squinted down at me. “Elma Honey,” he said finally with a fierceness that reminded me of MeMaw, “if you’re going to hell, then I’m going with you.”
Outside my bedroom window now, the street is dark and the crickets are chirping a racket in the azalea bushes.
“I never met God,” I tell MeMaw finally, “but I seen my daddy, and I reckon he’s the closest thing we got. And if I’m wrong, and there is a God, well, I bet he believes in Daddy too.”
I wait for MeMaw to laugh or tell me I’m wrong, that I’m going to burn in hell, that there is a God and it ain’t my Daddy. That she’s seen him, seen God, and that I’m heading for a heap of trouble.
Instead, she pats my arm, her touch as cool as a breeze through the sheet. “I reckon you’re probably right, Elma Honey.”
When I wake in the morning, there’s an empty place on the edge of my bed where I expect her to be.
I wait ’til I smell the coffee brewing before I head to the kitchen. Daddy’s reading his Bible like every day. I sit down across from him and watch him sip black liquid from one of MeMaw’s old teacups. I smile as I imagine the rest of the whole, hot summer stretching out before me with no more school, no more Beulah or Principal Whitcomb. Just me and my daddy.