The congregation rose to their feet in a cacophony of thumps and rustling and throat clearing as they prepared to sing. The flower-petal hem of Grace's knee-length skirt clung to the back of her sweaty thighs. She gave a discrete tug, then fixed her eyes on the massive wooden cross on the wall behind the pulpit.
"'I am weak but Thou art strong,'" she sang in a loud, clear voice. Her papa had loved to hear her sing. Even after he lost interest in living, she could make him smile with "The Man I Love" and "Summertime."
"'Jesus, keep me from all wrong,'" she continued. Right or wrong, Papa drank in life like a man dying of thirst — big, impatient gulps. The day he took his daughter through the front entrance of the Stardust casino and sat at a gaming table with white folk for the first time, head high and shoulders back, he said his how-do-you-do's, anteed up and won enough in that single day to feed them for a month. Amen.
"'I'll be satisfied as long...'"
Tears welled in her eyes and her voice faded. She ached to relive that moment, to stroll through the Stardust and see her papa sitting proud and playing the game he loved. In a few days it would all be nothing but a pile of forgotten rubble.
I'd like to see it one last time.
She dug a tissue from the side pocket of her purse. Her hand trembled as she wiped at her eyes and damp forehead. "'Who with me my burden shares?'" the rest of the congregation sang, already on the second verse. "'None but Thee, my dear Lord, none but Thee.'"
Grace doubted even the Lord shared the burden she struggled under. She felt disconnected, her life fraying.
Pull yourself together. Everybody's starin' at you.
She drew her back straight and picked up the hymn mid-sentence. "'...closer walk with Thee! Jesus, grant — '" Her mind went blank. Grant what?
The congregation sang on but their words didn't make any sense, an unintelligible drone in her ringing ears. Fear iced through her. She tried to draw in a breath but her lungs constricted against the assault of smells. Darkness narrowed her vision.
Lord Jesus, I'm going to faint.
Air. I need air.
"Excuse me," she mouthed to Mrs. Turner sitting on her left. Gladys Turner gave her a tart-lemon look but squeezed back against the pew to let Grace by.
Mr. Turner was a big man with feet to match. Grace managed to plant the heel of her white pump square on the top of his size thirteen wingtip. She knew he wore a size thirteen because his wife never missed an opportunity to remind members of the Ladies' Social Club what a time she had finding clothes to fit her "mountain of a man."
Grace muttered "sorry" to the mountain and reached the aisle at the far left of the sanctuary. Darting through the side exit as though headed for the restroom, she hugged her purse to her bosom and did a green-apple-quick-step down the narrow, beige hall, past classrooms, the choir room and the pastor's office. She passed the restroom without slowing and reached for the exit.
Heat robbed her breath as the solid metal door clicked shut behind her. Sun-baked blacktop replaced the smell of perspiring bodies. Grace paused on the concrete landing, gripped the railing to keep from pitching over the edge, and squinted against the glare of chrome and windshields. I want to go home. She located their yellow-cream Lincoln in the parking lot, and began to dig in her purse for the keys as she made her way down the short flight of steps. Ed can get a ride home from his sister, she thought, as she passed Arleeta's sporty steel-blue Honda. Harold bought it from Bob's Best Deals six months ago so his wife could drive to church in style. Grace rode in the car many times, even drove it once when Arleeta over-indulged at a church potluck and feared throwing up on the steering wheel. It fit Grace perfect. And it had air conditioning.
The keys dangled from the ignition, the driver's-side door unlocked. "Leeta, Leeta," Grace scolded, "how many times have I warned you?"
She dug deeper in her purse for the keys to the Lincoln. Sweat snaked down her back and her hands shook as she tore through pockets, hoping she put the ring in the wrong place. The longer she stood in the hot sun, the more urgent her need to flee before she passed out. She pulled her house keys from her purse, hoping they had tangled with the car keys. She'd read somewhere that it was best to keep the two rings separate but couldn't recall why. If the keys were on the same ring, she'd be halfway home by now. What good did it do her to be able to get into the house if she couldn't get to the house? Her chest tightened.
What's wrong with me? Am I having a heart attack?
The forgotten lyrics came to her. Jesus, grant my humble plea. She felt her eyes drawn to Arleeta's car sitting unlocked, key in the ignition.
Not one to question fate nor Jesus, Grace hustled over and got in.
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