Jan/Feb 2021  •   Fiction

The Parable of Kim

by Amelia Franz

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, Henna I-design by Jess Volinski-San Francisco, 2012-web

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

I felt him before I saw him. Felt him behind me with a sense clear as vision or sound.

Brother Dale Flowers. He always switched out the black and white numbers on the attendance board hung on the wall behind the pulpit, updating "Attendance This Sunday," "Attendance Last Sunday," and "Tithes and Offerings." Sometimes I'd feel his eyes on me and look up, and those eyes would dart away like pretty fish in a tank. He looked middle-aged from the neck up, with salt and pepper hair and little bitty lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes, but younger from the neck down. Lean and whiplike in straight-leg Wranglers with a real sharp crease. One time he pulled a pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket, shoved a piece halfway up with his thumb and silently held it out to me. I hesitated. It seemed like a long time, but finally I reached out and took it, unpeeled the wrapper and laid it on my tongue while he watched. It was just a stick of gum. It was nothing at all. That's what I'd told myself.

I spun and stepped back in one motion, right off the little concrete porch outside the fellowship hall. Val and Cheryl and Denise had already left with their parents. Wasn't nobody out there but me. I moved so fast the barrette slipped from my hair, and I kneeled to grab it, but he kneeled, too, and then his knee was touching mine, Wranglers to pantyhose, and I could hear my heartbeat all the way up in my eardrums. Something in my chest shot up and then plummeted down, like when you go up a steep hill and come down the other side too fast.

His eyes were the color of the Jim Beam Mama keeps in an unplugged deep freeze and thinks nobody knows about but her and God. He had thick palms and long, clean fingers, squared-off at the tips. There was a moment after his hand moved. While it hovered over my leg. I could have pulled back, hollered, slapped his face, but I didn't do any of those things. And then he laid it on my thigh and gave me the gentlest squeeze, and I felt myself go all warm down there.

It made me want to take a shower. But on the inside, where soap and water can't get to. I snatched the barrette, and we stood just as his wife and little girl stepped out.

Sister Jeannie. I helped her with Sunday school sometimes, passing out cookies and pouring Kool Aid, making sure nobody spilled it on their nice clothes. Sticking colorful paper cutouts to the flannelboard while she told the stories. Joseph and his coat of many colors, the prodigal son, the parable of the good shepherd. That last one was my favorite, so she always let me tell it. How the shepherd left the 99 to search for his one lost sheep until he found it, huddled among the rocks so cold and scared and alone. I never came right out and said, Jesus is the shepherd and y'all are the sheep. No matter how far you stray, he'll never stop looking till he finds you. I wanted their hearts to tell them, in their hearts' own time.

Her eyes flashed from mine to Brother Dale's, then back to mine. I watched her expression shift from confused to surprised to something new and hard and grownup that made my cheeks sting like she'd slapped me across the face. Even Miranda stared at me like she didn't know me. How many times had I rocked her in the nursery when she was a baby? I'd made her angel wings for the Christmas pageant from straightened-out clotheshangers and white tissue paper, measured gold tinsel around her head for the halo. I'd brushed her hair until it gleamed and told her she was the prettiest little angel I'd ever seen. But she turned from me and buried her face in the blue jean skirt Sister Jeannie always wore.

Sister Jeannie hiked her shoulder bag higher and clamped it tight to her side. I'd never noticed how her fingernails were all bitten down and the ends of her fingers just swole-up balls of flesh. She didn't speak or look my way again.

Brother Dale followed the two of them down the concrete path to the parking lot, and they all climbed into a Pontiac the color of the mercurochrome Mama used to put on my cuts and scrapes. It cranked with a whiny, metal-softly-brushing-metal sound, and the tires popped over the crushed shells all the way out to the blacktop.

I turned and looked into the fellowship hall. I could see Mama inside, talking to Brother Cecil, the preacher. She was spooning Cremora into a styrofoam coffee cup, stirring it with the little plastic stick. I knew I ought to go right in there and tell them Brother Dale had touched me. They'd do something about; of course they would. They'd know it wasn't my fault. I was 16, and he was a grown, married man.

But the words of Brother Cecil's sermon came rushing back to me. He'd preached on stumblingblocks that evening, on how one believer can cause another to fall into sin. That's how Old Slewfoot works, he'd told us. Especially through the opposite sex, take it all the way back to Eve. And then he'd quoted Matthew chapter five: Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery in his heart. It's why godly young ladies needed to stay prayed up and adorn ourselves in respectable apparel, he'd said. Just like the Apostle Paul wrote. With modesty and self-control, so we don't cause our brothers in Christ to stumble.

I leaned back against the building. The jagged mortar between the bricks poked my shoulder blades and bottom through that thin cotton dress we'd bought at Penney's. I'd put on a little weight since then, and the fabric cupped my rear end like a second skin. I remembered walking up to the choir tonight, right past Brother Dale in his pew, third from the front on the right hand side. We didn't wear robes or anything like that. Anybody who wanted to just went up to sing when the preacher's wife started playing the piano. Songs like "Power in the Blood" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" from the old redback hymnal.

Before church, I'd stood in front of my full-length mirror and turned all around, examining myself. I'd run my hands over my body, admired my Coke bottle curves. In my closet hung seven or eight other dresses I could have picked to wear. Looser-fitting dresses. What made me choose this one? And whose face was I picturing when I pulled it off the hanger?

That wasn't even a real question, because I already knew the answer. I felt the tiniest bit queasy.

When I was eight, I burned my hand on a cast iron skillet, helping Mama with cornbread. Just reached out and grabbed the handle without a potholder. I tried to run to the sink to put my hand under the faucet, but she caught my wrist and held me, just long enough to lean close and whisper, Think how hot hell's gonna be. I don't wanna go there, do you? It hurt so bad. I shook my head, and then she let me go. I held it under the stream of cool water a long time, and then she dried it and rubbed butter on it. I know why she held me back from the water that day. She wanted me to always remember.

And I did. I stood there looking off into the pines, thinking about me and Brother Dale in the lake of fire, seven times hotter than any flame on earth. Where there'll be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But then my mind drifted to Sister Jeannie. She hardly ever testified or even talked much about herself. But one night she'd stood up and praised the Lord for delivering her when she was all strung out on dope down in New Orleans. He'd given her the victory over pills and vodka and all the rest of it. And when she said "all the rest of it," she closed her eyes and pressed her lips together so tight they disappeared. I thought she was finished, but she wasn't. When she could speak again, she said it was just like her favorite Psalm. He'd brung her up of that miry clay and set her feet on solid rock, and she just had to praise His name. I'd sat there wondering what she meant by "all the rest of it."

Now I wondered about her again, what she was doing and thinking right this second. I wondered was she biting her nails down to the quick.

After a little while, Mama and Brother Cecil came out. She was carrying her Tupperware cake taker and a half-empty bottle of Sprite.

"Hey there, stranger," he said. "What you doin' out here, all by your lonesome?"

I shrugged. I tried to smile.

"Teenagers," Mama groaned and shook her head. She made a clucking sound with her tongue.

Brother Cecil gave me a broad grin, planted his feet wide apart the way he does, and rubbed his hands together. "We sure do 'preciate all you do for the church, Sister Kim. I don't know what the children's ministry'd do without you."

It occurred to me that I wouldn't be telling Bible stories with Sister Jeannie anymore. I turned from them and looked out to the sign next to the road, ringed by spotlights staked in the ground: This church is a soul saving station. On one side was a cross and on the other side a shepherd with a staff. All along the bottom, a border of craggy gray rocks. Brother Cecil's son, Luke, had painted it himself. I stared at it a good long while, until they finished talking. Then we said 'bye to Brother Cecil and walked out to the Pinto.

"Why so glum, chum?" Mama asked me just before we got to the car. She nudged me with her elbow.

"Just ready to get home," I said. It was true. I couldn't wait to change out of that dress and slip into my big, fleecy robe. Lay on my bed with my legs tucked way up under me, and wait.