maria flook My Sister LIfe  
My Sister Life (Maria Flook)

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  Paren walked into the Tidewater Praise Assembly Spirit-Filled Church, too weak to stand up. Piers cupped her elbow, and they followed the deacon into a basement guest room below the Spirit-Filled Chapel, an old farmhouse gutted to make a giant room.

Her basement room was next to a large kitchen with a six-burner restaurant stove and piggyback ovens. Women shared kitchen duties and Karen would be expected to pitch in. The deacon said his congregation had monthly camp meetings and "feasts," for believers who came from other counties as far west as Roanoke and Wytheville. On the chipped Formica counter, Karen saw a mousetrap set with a spoonful of crunchy peanut butter.

Cheap reproductions of Jesus hung on the walls of the whitewashed room. It wasn't the familiar Head of Christ she'd looked at for two years, but Jesus with a lamb tucked under each arm. Jesus grinning madly with a full row of Pepsodent teeth. There was one casement window up at ground level, but tufts of grass screened the daylight.

The deacon showed Karen the bathroom and a new toilet that flushed upward to the septic line. He explained that the purchase and installation of the "flush-up" commode was voted on by members of the congregation. Karen was glad to see a toilet after peeing on the floor of the Alum-a-room shack. But she couldn't stand up much longer. She curled on the cot, pulling its stale sheet over her shoulder. Its cotton hem showed an aggressive patch of mildew, a dense sprinkling of black dots. She was too tired to worry about a little mold.

Piers stood over Karen. "I never want to see you back at Bailey's Trailer Village. You hear what I'm saying? "

"You don't have to worry. Good luck with your RCAs."

"Will you shut up--" he whispered. He kissed her once and left her in the basement room.

That first evening, the deacon's wife brought her into the ranch house and drew her a bath. Karen helped the woman remove the water logged baby toys that had been left in the tub. Karen was pleased that a baby lived in the house. When she drained the tub, she told the woman, "I haven't seen a bathtub ring as bad as that since I used to chase my sister through the dust."

The deacon's wife dotted iodine on Karen's weeping sore where her tooth had punched through her lip. Karen went into the "Swap Shack," a room inside the church lined with boxes of donated clothing and other worn-down items. She found some pull-on slacks made of polyester fleece. The natty fleece looked like the lambskins in the Jesus portraits.

Karen sat down to dinner with the deacon, his wife and their little toddler. She recognized the three remaining lemon vinyl chairs. The deacon borrowed a folding chair from the church hall to make room for Karen. She ate her food and tried to answer their questions. Was she baptized? Did she get submerged, or was she drizzled with water? The drizzling kind wasn't as good as getting dunked.

Her plate was full--grits, cornbread, some kind of chewy ham slice, a pitcher of buttermilk and sliced tomatoes with dribbled bacon grease. She had trouble swallowing the salty mush.

In the morning, she mopped the linoleum in the church and scrubbed the miracle flush-up toilet, which was used by the congregation before and after daily services. Deacon Lauer made her stop working to hear sermons in the chapel. He brought her into the spirit-filled hall for morning renewal and for the evening prayer meeting. It was a circus. She watched young men in glossy rayon suits stand up to give impromptu speeches. The members responded with shrieks and boisterous "Hallelujahs." She was surprised at the noise level, when Veronica's Catholic church was whisper-quiet.

"Ever hear of a church mouse," she asked a woman seated beside her. She pressed her ears with her fingertips as the loudmouth youths screamed about Satan, but she saw she offended the believers and she dropped her hands in her lap.

After listening for an hour, Karen thought she really wouldn't mind having some Pepto-Bismol. Her stomach wasn't right.

On the third night, she was awakened by a noise. She looked up to find a man crouched at the casement window above her bed. A second face crowded the window. The faces bobbed there for a few seconds, like the moon and its pale after-flash. Then they disappeared. Karen jumped up and ran to turn on a light. By this time, the men had come down into the church basement and were standing in her room. She recognized one of the men from the revival meetings. Karen had seen him speak at the eight o'clock Vibrant Prayer Meeting and again at the Morning Renewal. He had been introduced to her as a subdean or some kind of field preacher. The congregation treated him like a celebrity. He had recently been arrested for giving sidewalk sermons and was jailed for disturbing the peace. When he was released from jail, he started preaching again even before he was off the courthouse stairs. He was arrested a second time. He had chanted and ballyhooed about Jesus until his voice was gone.

Standing beside the field preacher was a pimply teenager, maybe his son or a nephew. James had sneered at these revivalist types preaching on the traffic islands. He called them "sky pilots." Jehovah's witnesses often came into the Norgetown, interrupting Russell Staver's transactions on the telephone. JWs banged on the door of her trick pad while she was with a client and left pamphlets and maps with directions to the local Kingdom Hall on the washers and dryers.

Rose and Peaches wore crosses on neck chains. James told Karen that whores get the Glory if they spend any time at all in jail. "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," James told her, as if falling into God's hands was like landing in jail.

The two men standing at the foot of her cot told Karen that they were there to "save her."

"No kidding," she said.

"You've been corrupting sailors on their way to Nam. And those Langley pilots, who only got a fifty-fifty chance on a good day."

Karen sat down on the cot and cocked her head in disbelief. The dean was mixing in God and country. She'd heard everything now.

The subdean locked his eyes on Karen the way a dog watches its dog biscuit. "Ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out."

She remembered James reciting from his King James Bible, "A whore is a deep ditch." She tried to bolt, but the man twisted her wrist.

"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red iike crimson, they shall be as wool."

Karen said, "And how are you going to do that?"

"With God's love manifested in us."

The young boy said, "That's right. I seek not my own will but the will of the father which hath sent me."

Karen shrugged her shoulders.

Together, the men pushed her back on her bed. She struggled but couldn't get up. The subdean looked as if butter, no, as if lard wouldn't melt in his mouth. The pimply kid watched in nervous respect for his elder. Again, the man began pitching: "Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction; as clouds of rain in the time of drought."

He quoted the Bible directly as he penetrated her and just as immediately found relief. He was as worked up from preaching to her as if he had been talking smut. But when the young kid took his place, he forgot his Bible lessons. He was making it up as he went along.

Karen drummed his chest with her fists, but he tugged her arms out straight.

She smelled the Gold Bond camphor rising from their trunks where they had dusted themselves with the medicated powder. The men thought her whore germs might be controlled if they applied it beforehand. It was just two of these talcum-powdered spiritualists, but it was two against one. Flatbacking these Jesus stylists, she wanted to tell Rose Pearson and Valerie, if she ever saw them again, that she did it missionary for the missionary.

She shoved the youth off the bed. He stood up and pulled on his trousers. He cinched his belt. He said, "She does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not known it." He looked at his elder for approval.

Karen said, "Oh, shut up. Go suck on Mary's tit."

Her dirty mouth was a reminder to them that they were out of their league, and they left in a hurry. Karen went to the flush-up toilet and lost her dinner. It wasn't the piggyback sex, but her daily fare had again been grits with red-eye gravy, and it was impossible to digest. She rinsed her mouth and got dressed in the same fleece pants from the Swap Shack. She put on her loafers.

On her way out, she noticed the mousetrap had been reset with a chunk of potato salad. She lifted the trap with kitchen tongs and dropped the whole thing in a hamper. She tried the door at the top of the stairs. The knob wouldn't turn. Her assailants had locked her in, worried that she might spill it to the deacon. She turned around and went to the other end of the church basement. She climbed out the bulkhead.

There wasn't any moon. She followed the lane divider on the county road. She could follow the yellow line anywhere--to Miami, New York, California, any of those exotic locations--or she could walk the line all the way home. She had heard about drunks weaving up the center line of a rural highway and sometimes getting hit. James told her that these crazy drunks get cold and lie down on the asphalt, which is still warm from the heat of the day. Karen sat down on the pavement and flopped back. The yellow line met her crown and began again at her feet. The snaking streak on the blacktop reached out from her native source and connected her to every pitiful option--every tar-paper shanty, trailer park or ranch house along the way.

But the road hadn't warmed up during the day. She felt the cold enter her spine and she stood up again.

She kept walking. The cleats on her loafers lisped, a comforting metallic chirp. There wasn't a single car until a police cruiser rolled up behind her. When its floodlight snapped on, her shadow shot up like a tall black paper doll.

She sat down beside the officer.

"Now where do you belong, Miss Midnight? " the officer asked.

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Excerpted from My Sister Life by Maria Flook. Copyright © 1998 by Maria Flook. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © Jerry Bauer