A short story by T. L. Criswell
My car sits idle about two hundred feet away from the front of the building. There is a line to get inside the parking lot, which is nearing capacity. I count the cars ahead of me. There are six. I clutch the steering wheel and ease my foot off the accelerator as the parking attendant stands there looking like a ringmaster. He smiles, takes a bow, and waves his bright orange flag signaling the next car in line to move ahead.
My anxiety catapults to what seems like maximum capacity as the sound of the beautiful noise becomes less distant. My restlessness had awakened my sleep-deprived body and led me to this place. I need to be inside that building. I need healing.
This morning as I lay in my bed I heard it. There was a soft whisper of an unfamiliar voice, “Patricia get up and go to church.” I jolted upward feeling delusional. I looked around the room but no one was there. Maybe that voice was grandmother since she was the last person I had spoken with the night before. She was my rock; a great listener, non judgmental and the only person that I shared everything with.
Last night while on the phone with her I broke down and cried. After countless unsuccessful attempts, I had officially broken it off with Thomas and I was lonely. I was twenty-eight years old and for the first time in my adult life, I had no one to call my own. The fact that it was the middle of November and what most considered the official kick-off of the holiday season made it even worse.
Grandmother’s silence spoke volumes. I knew what she was thinking although she would never say it. “You reap what you sow.” So sulking over Thomas was my punishment for hurting Steve. She adored Steve.
When it came to relationships I always struck out. Over the past five years I’ve had one broken engagement, two dead end relationships and now there are no current possibilities in sight. I always seemed to be attracted to the wrong men. Charles was physically abusive, Anthony was verbally abusive and Clinton was an alcoholic.
After being in all of those dysfunctional relationships, I finally met what Grandmother called “the perfect man” my first week working at the bank. His name was Steve.
He was the type of guy that every woman claims to want: young, ambitious, tall, dark, handsome and available. Once he saw me, he made his move. He introduced himself and handed me his business card. He worked for a computer software company. I was impressed. I smiled as I gave him my business card and from that day forward we quickly became an item.
Steve was the model of chivalry. He opened doors, pulled out chairs, bought flowers, cooked dinner and would even massage my feet. Whatever I thought I wanted, he would make sure that I had it, if only that were enough.
After about six months of dating, he wanted to meet my family since I had long met his. I was hesitant because I knew what would happen. I believed that we needed to slow down but Steve wouldn’t hear of it.
A week later I introduced him to my family and just as I suspected, grandmother fell in love with him. She welcomed him right into the family. The only problem; I didn’t feel the same. There were no butterflies. I hated myself for it too. I soon realized that Steve was not the problem I was.
When I shared this with grandmother I remember how she practically cried. “Butterflies? Patricia no! If you want Butterflies then have him take you to the park, there’s plenty of butterflies there. You’ll regret it if you let that good man go. Please pray about it and I will do the same. Ask God to soften your heart. Give it a little more time.” She pleaded.
But unfortunately time was not on my side. He took me to dinner the next evening. We went to the Japanese restaurant where we’d had our first date. I was going to use that as an opportunity to try and reason with him.
The waiter came over and escorted us to a booth in the back. He set an expensive bottle of wine in front of us. Steve held my hand and told me how beautiful I was. Boy was he making it difficult. After we ate our meal, I said; “Steve we need to talk about our relationship.” He smiled thinking it was a good thing. Before I could get the next sentence out three waiters were headed in our direction rolling in a cake on a cart. My mouth was agape. The cake had a few candles and the words “Will You Marry Me” was scribbled in pink letters. The waiters started opening more wine as Steve dropped to his knee. I bowed my head in tears as he “popped the question.”
The waiters and Steve thought that those were tears of joy so they all started clapping and cheering as he placed the rock on my finger. I said nothing.
After dinner we made it safely back to my place. He had our entire life planned out. He was going to have keys made for me to his apartment, he wanted to add me to his life insurance policies and bank accounts and he wanted me to have all of his email and phone passwords in case I needed them.
I stopped him. “Steve please stop it!” I yelled. “You’re moving too fast. I need a little space. We’ve been together only six months and it feels more like six years.” I took the beautiful ring off and said; “I can’t accept this right now. Let’s take some time and make sure this is what we really want to do.” He looked so hurt. I wished that I could have taken the harsh words back and said them a little kinder but it was too late. He bowed his head and put the ring in his pocket and left out the door. I would never forget the agonized look on his face.
It was close to a year before I would see Steve again. I went to an after work affair with a few of the girls from work. We were drinking, laughing and having a good time when one of my girlfriends tapped me on the shoulder and whispered “look over at the door.” Steve walked in the door dressed in all black. He looked really good. I started fingering my hair and fixing my clothes as I contemplated walking over to him. Before I could take my first step, a blond, blue eyed, “runway model” looking girl walked up and wrapped her arm around him. He smiled and kissed her softly on the lips as they headed to a table. All of my girlfriends eyed my reaction. I couldn’t help myself. I suddenly felt sick and dashed out the bar without even saying good-bye.
When I made it inside my car I could see Steve and Barbie through the window. They looked so happy and in love. I pulled off. “I knew that there was nothing I could do or say; because I was the one who sent him that way.
That debacle with Steve set me back a few days. I was jealous. That was the type of happiness that I wanted.
Several days later my life did change when I decided to go car shopping. That was the day I met Thomas. He managed the car dealership that his father owned which was handed down from his father. His office was in the front of the building and encased in glass. I felt him staring at me when I walked through the door. I thought he was handsome but a little short for my taste.
He introduced himself and asked my name before he turned me over to one of the sales associates. The sales associate was a young man who had only been on the job a few weeks. He appeared to be a little nervous. We walked around the dealership for about a half an hour before I thanked him and asked for his business card. I could see Thomas staring at us the entire time from his office with his hand on his chin. The associate then handed me his card and just as I was turning to leave I saw Thomas throw his hands up and run out of his office in haste. He gave the associate a sharp dismissive nod and the poor guy went away. Thomas was a veteran at the car sales business. He was not going to let any money walk out the door if he could help it.
Thomas then went to work and turned on the charm. “Excuse me Ms. Parker, I can’t believe you’re leaving. You looked damn good in that Jeep Grand Cherokee.” I blushed a little. “I like it but I really don’t know if I want to give up on the Ford Expedition just yet. I’m really just weighing my options.” When he heard I was going for the competition his eyes grew wide and he put his hand over his heart as if he was having a heart attack. “A Ford? So you’re just going to stand there and insult me like that?“ He gently grabbed my arm and said, “Ms. Parker follow me.”
He led me outside to the back of the dealership. We stopped in front of a black Jeep Grand Cherokee that was a limited special edition and belonged to the dealer. It was fully loaded, with the latest technology and every amenity that one could think of. He opened the driver door and said; “Hop in.” The inside of the car was just as beautiful. The two-tone leather interior, bucket seats and a leather steering wheel “had me at hello”. He closed my door and got in on the passenger side. He handed me the keys and said; “Now drive.” Once my foot hit the pedal I was in love. That car drove like a dream. Thomas was smooth too. I learned all about him and that Jeep in less than twenty minutes.
He was a single man, with a young daughter. He had grown up in that dealership and he knew cars like the back of his hand. Five years ago he became the manager. He said that he made it a rule to never fraternize with customers but my beauty was so captivating that he just couldn’t resist. I don’t know if it was the smell of his cologne, his dark wavy hair or the way he said my name “Ms. Parker“. He really turned me on. I bought the Jeep and everything else that he was selling which included himself. I really thought I was getting a good deal. I never realized that I would pay a much higher price with my heart.
He did have a child but he was not really single because the child’s mother was still in the picture. She called constantly and he always left the room to take the call. Other women would also call his phone but he always claimed it was business. I tried not to let it bother me because I really wanted to believe in him. I really wanted to make it work.
He lit a fire inside me like no other. His “debonair devil may care” persona was what I liked the most. He made me feel alive. I really let my hair down and exchanged my conservative work wardrobe for a more risqué look. My skirts became shorter, slacks became tighter, and my heels became higher. I looked forward to dressing up and going out with him because he was fun. He gave me more than just butterflies; it felt more like dragonflies.
He loved the casino. He claimed that downtown Detroit had some of the best nightlife ever. So every time we went out on a date that’s where we went. I didn’t mind either because they had some of the best bands, restaurants, and hotel suites. After we’d finish eating and dancing we’d go up to the room and have a good time. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night, he’d be gone. He’d return in the wee hours of the morning sometimes with a pocket full of money and the other times with a long face.
We kept this lifestyle up for over a year. Then suddenly I grew tired. Hanging out started getting old and it seemed as though Thomas had a problem. Thomas swore he didn’t have a problem. He said that gambling was a form of entertainment so I let it go. This would be the beginning of our troubles.
He stopped taking me to the casino pretending that he’d quit. He’d lie about his absence stating that he was working a lot of hours at the dealership. Deep down inside I knew better. On several occasions he’d come over and his eyes would be glossy from drinking and he’d smell like smoke. I even spotted lipstick on his collar a few times. When I’d address it we’d argue, break-up, he’d beg me back and then we’d make-up until the next episode; which was usually the following week. This had become our new normal.
So Last night when he called, I ended it all. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed and wanted more. I wanted to be a wife, and a mother. But most of all I wanted a man who was solely mine.
He held the phone in silence. I remember saying, “Hello? Thomas are you still there?” He responded, “Yes love I’m still here.” He then took a deep huff into the phone and said, “Patricia, we’ve been through this many times before and my position on this issue has not changed. I’m just not ready for that right now. I guess it’s time I quit being selfish and let you go. I wish you the best my love.” Thomas then hung up the phone without even saying goodbye.
My head started pounding, my breath became shallow and my heart begun to ache. My plan had backfired. Thomas was not going to let me force his hand so he called my bluff. That was not the response I was hoping for. I’d been with that man for almost two years. I deserved so much more than that. I wanted him to beg like he did in the past. I wanted him to say that he was really sorry and that he really meant it this time. I wanted him to say that he’d change just for me. Most of all I wanted him to say, “Please don’t go.” But he never did.
Grandmother sat quietly on the phone and listened as I whimpered and rehashed my past. I wanted the kind of love that she and Grandpa had. I was ready for that now.
They’d been married for over fifty years and had raised ten children and eight grandchildren before he was called home to glory.
Grandmother had old-fashioned values and believed in God, marriage and the church. According to her, they all went hand in hand. You couldn’t possibly have one without the other. I can still hear her words from the night before, “Patricia it’s going to be alright. You are a beautiful young woman who’s not even thirty. You have a good job, a beautiful home and a beautiful spirit. That Thomas man is a fool. Any man would be lucky to have you. I’ve raised you in the church and I believe that you need to find your way back there. Find yourself a good church home and ask for God to send you your “Boaz.”
I smiled. I knew what to expect when I called her. The love story of “Ruth and Boaz” was one of her favorite bible stories. It didn’t matter what problem I came to grandmother with, it always ended with God, the Church and the bible. I blew her a kiss through the phone and ended with the familiar words; “Yes ma’am I will.”
She was a wise woman and knew platitudes when she heard them. “Patricia dear, you’ve been saying that you’re going to get back into the church for years. Didn’t you say that you found a nice church close to your new home? Maybe you should really think about joining. I believe that would solve all of your the problems.” She then ended the call with “I love you dear.”
I knew I had been making her that promise for years however, I had been to many different “houses of worship,” many denomination’s, some were loud and boisterous, some were solemn and reflective but none seemed to touch my heart and soul the way it needed to be touched.
As a child Grandmother forced me to go to church. My mother worked the midnight shift as a nurse at the hospital so I spent a lot of time with Grandmother. It seemed as though we lived inside the church. Wednesday’s was bible study, Saturday’s was choir rehearsal and on Sunday’s the church had morning and afternoon services.
At that young age I did not have a mind or voice of my own. I was indoctrinated at an early age with the belief that if you didn’t belong to a church or fellowship inside of a building and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you could not possibly have a relationship God. He could not hear your prayers if you did not come to him directly and that meant worshipping inside the building.” Many things I did not understand however I never questioned. I just believed because I was told to believe.”
I can recall taking a science test when I was in the 5th grade. The question was asked, “How was the Earth formed?” I didn’t study for that test because I just knew the answer. The Church had been preaching about that all my life. I put “God created the Earth.” My teacher marked the answer wrong and sent a note home to my grandmother. “Patricia needs to use her science book to study for tests. Religion is not allowed in schools.” When I asked Grandmother to explain she really couldn’t. From that day forward, I was confused.
When I became an adult and moved out on my own, the pressure of going to Church eased. Although I had fear, I learned to push the fear along with the guilt to the back of my mind and slowly pulled away from the church. Unless there was a funeral, a bad break-up, or a wedding; the physical church ultimately became non-existent.
I awoke feeling sad and depressed when I realized my house phone hadn’t rung all night. I reached inside my purse and grabbed my cellphone. My heart began to flutter when I noticed I had a message. I closed my eyes as I pressed the voice mail button all the while praying that it was Thomas. The tears trickled down. It was a missed call from my cellphone carrier telling me that I could pick up the phone I had ordered.
I immediately jumped up and ran to the shower. I couldn’t prolong the inevitable any longer. I am two years shy of turning thirty and just starting to realize that grandmother is probably right. I’ve been trying to do it on my own but each and every time I fail. So God here I am.
The parking attendant did another bow and the next car moved ahead. There were now two cars ahead of me and they were running out of spaces because they started double parking cars.
I look at the brand new castle-like building in awe. I hadn’t been here since the new construction was completed. A little over two years ago it was a big abandoned field that housed burned out homes, cars and debris. Now the brick building was sumptuously adorned with beautiful pine trees, white pavement that sparkled and large stain glass windows that shined. A huge ceramic statue of Jesus greeted you at the door; making even a homeless person feel welcomed.
This church had gone from a small storefront building to all of this. I had visited the old church a few times in between my break-ups. My girlfriend Kathy had introduced me to the Pastor and the First Lady who were very friendly people and knew everyone by name. But the look and size of this building told me that those things would probably be different.
My car is the next in line. I begin to grow impatient. I eye the empty spot across the street from the building but quickly change my mind. I didn’t feel safe. The neighborhood was sad and impoverished.
The homes were old, dilapidated, and not uniform. Some were big, some were small, some were brick and some were framed. However, they all shared one common thread; despair. I couldn’t help but to wonder why the church chose a place with so little hope or promises to lay its foundation?
My eyes become glued on a large brick rundown home across the street. The paint is chipped around the trim, the metal awning attached to the home is rusted and beyond repair. Old toys, appliances and other unwanted material is shoved in the corner of the porch. Even though the outside is unflattering, I could see a beacon of promise on the inside. There is a tiny little person wearing a soiled t-shirt, holding a bottle with colorful beads in her hair peeking from under the sheet that was tacked to the window in place of a curtain. The little person gleams as she presses her smiling face against the window appreciating the beautiful songs and praises that fill the street.
As I take my eyes off the upbeat little girl, my sadness suddenly dissipates. If an innocent child could find a reason to smile by living in less than stellar conditions then I know that I can smile. I have a good job, a nice home and a hefty savings account. I am blessed!
I decide against the jam-packed parking lot and whip my car around and park directly across the street from the building. “I am favored. God definitely has my back.” I whisper to myself. I grab my handbag, and my gloves and my leather bound bible and head across the street with my head held high feeling optimistic.
The air inside the vestibule is warm and thick. It smells like a mixture of candles, sweat and some of Grandmother’s perfume. Several ushers wearing all white with matching gloves hand out envelopes and are preparing to help the churchgoers find seats. Most are led up a set of stairs to the balcony. I fall in line behind the crowd when an usher hands me an envelope and put one finger up signaling she has one seat left on the main floor.
When she opens the double doors, the vibe and energy inside the “sanctuary” is overwhelming. It looks like one big party. This was pretty much the Church’s grand opening and the Pastor didn’t disappoint. Every member in the room was up and out of there seats jumping, shouting dancing and praising. This “sanctified” Church is rocking.
I head toward the back when the usher points to a single seat right up front close to the pulpit. I smile at her as I unbutton my coat. She just doesn’t understand how much of a blessing it is for me to sit so close to God’s servants.
I reach inside my purse and pull out a crisp one hundred-dollar bill and place it in the envelope. “God I’m putting this entire hundred dollar bill in the offering plate because I need you big time.” I whisper to myself. I tuck it inside my bible making a mental note to myself to fill it out when the church settles down.
As I settle in, I turn around and face the front. I immediately lock eyes with the first lady who has the microphone. When she sees me, she acknowledges my presence by offering a wide smile and nodding her head. I smile back. She and the Pastor both are “singing praise” along with the choir, the organist and the drummer. “Yes Lord. Thank You Jesus. Yes Lord. Thank you Jesus,” They shout throughout the church.
The more they say this, the harder the congregation praise. The women were stomping, crying, shaking their heads, speaking in tongues and dropping to their knees. It was evident that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. You could see that they were going through a much-needed deep spiritual cleansing as all of their evil sins were being ejaculated from their weak and feeble bodies one by one. “Yes Lord. Thank You Jesus.” The pastors shout again keeping the praise going.
As I witness these ladies, I start feeling sad all over again. I immediately throw my hands up, close my eyes and begin to cry. I look up and start praying to God. “Please touch me like you are touching these ladies. Cleanse me. I want to be free from all the hurt and pain. I’m tired of being weak. I want to be strong. Please fill my heart and soul with your love and make that love stronger than any love there is.” I shake my hands really hard and practically beg.
I then hear the pastor walking through the church touching and praying over people. The choir is now at a hum, and the organist and drummer lower their tones. The nurses begin to fan the ladies and try and help them to their seats. I continue to cry and pray with my arms stretched wide open.
The first lady then say’s “I feel it. God has sent a special someone in this building who really needs him.” I start shaking my head as the organist begins to turn her volume up and press down real hard on the keys being sure to hold the notes. “God wants this person to know that it’s going to be alright. He hears you.” She says. Tears race down my face as I curse Thomas inside of my head. “Damn you Thomas. Just damn you.” I can feel the lady next to me whispering and crying just as hard.
Suddenly I hear the first lady shout “Sister Parker you!” She put extra emphasis on the word “You”. The organist was at full volume now. A bolt of lightening feels as though it went through my body. My eyes pop wide open and I place my hand over my heart. I look to the right then to the left of me.
First Lady doesn’t blink as she looks me square in the eyes and repeats; “Sister Parker yes you! This time she sang the word “You” stretching it out until it became five syllables making it sound like “You- oooh-oooh-ooh-ooh.”
I become the center of attention. She then shakes her head, stamps her feet and gives me the “Michael Jackson” finger point signaling for me to come on down. I start to shake. I had been going to church my entire young life and I had never received the Holy Ghost. I had never been called to the front of the church. They say he comes when you need him. Well he has perfect timing because at a time when I am the most vulnerable; he answers. He was really showing up and showing out.
I knew grandmother would be proud. I wish she were here. I step away from my seat and run up to the First Lady like a contestant on the “Price is Right.” I am now ready to surrender and receive all that he has in store for me. I want to be like most Christians and be touched by the spirit. I want to speak in tongues. I want to memorize and quote bible scriptures. I want to tell Thomas that he was nothing but the devil and he needs to come to church so he can be saved. I want to go out into the world and share this testimony. How I was once broken and weak until God touched me with the Holy Spirit. I wouldn’t care about ridicule from others either. I just want to go out and spread his word.
The first Lady grabs my hand and again I start to cry. She puts her arms around me. It’s clear that I am a complete mess. She starts praying for me; speaking words that I don’t understand. “God knows what you are going through and he want’s you to know that you’ve come to the right place.” I shake my head as the drummer and organist tunes become faint. The congregation starts shouting, “ Yes Jesus. Thank you Jesus.” The nurse then hands the First Lady some oil. The First Lady dabs some of the oil on her finger then on top of my forehead. The drummer softly beat the drums as she says a few more strange words ending with “In the name of Jesus” then she pushes my head back. I become weak and almost ready to fall when I hear that unfamiliar whisper. It’s loud and clear. “No! Stand here.” The first lady and I both look puzzled. I have no idea why this is happening. I know God heard me. Why else would he call me up here?
She tries it again but this time she prays louder. The organist and drummer follow her lead and turn up their volume. She says those strange words again ending with “In the name of Jesus” and pushes my head once again. The whisper returns as if it’s a demand “Stand here! ” I do as I am told. But this time I straighten my posture as if I were a soldier. The Pastor gives me a strange look out the side of his eye when I don’t fall. He sees that I’m sincere and to save his wife and me from further embarrassment, he directs all the attention over to him.
“Hallelujah everybody. You know what?” He says, “I’m not even going to preach today. We’re going to turn this day into prayer service. Now who all wants prayer?” Everyone in the church jumps up and down waving there hands back and forth and on cue the choir jumps in and starts singing. The praise starts all over again. The First lady releases my hand and joins her husband. She takes the oil and began to bless several members of the church with it. The women fall down, the men start to dance and the children start to cry.
I tiptoe over to my seat in a state of confusion. I have no idea of what just happened. I bend down ready to take a seat when I hear the whisper again. “It’s ok for you to get out of here. You have all the tools that you need. You, my dear Patricia Parker don’t have to come to a building to find me. I set you up to be a free thinker. You know right from wrong and good from bad. The choices that you make are solely up to you. There’s no need to search outside for what’s already inside of you. Just listen to the voice that’s on the inside and that’s where you’ll find me.”
I shake the chill off and grab my things. What just happened? A backwards testimony?” I say to myself. Most people say that when they were troubled or lost God lead them to the church. My testimony would be just the opposite. When I became troubled and lost he led me away from the Church and told me to look deep down within. “Wow!”
I fumble inside my purse looking for my keys. When I get outside the building, I see the little girl with the beads. She looked so pretty. She was wearing a pink coat with matching boots running and holding hands with another little girl that looked almost identical to her. The mother was several feet away. She struggles with a baby on her hip while pushing another in a stroller. She yells for the two girls to slow down. Although this woman was over an hour late for service she was determined.
At that moment it became crystal clear as to why the church chose this neighborhood to lay it’s foundation. So people like her didn’t have to travel far to worship.
I thought of how I looked over at her home and judged her circumstances. I was ashamed of myself. I considered myself blessed because I had more than she. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This woman had much more than me. She had the unconditional love of four beautiful children.
I slid the unsealed envelope out my bible and handed her the one hundred dollar bill. “Ma’am, please accept this. This was put on my heart to give to you.” She looks as if she wants to cry but I won’t let her. She wants to give me a hug, but her hands are full. I smile. “Happy holidays. Now hurry into the building before you miss what’s in store for you.”
As I turn away, I make a mental note to myself. Take the word blessed and favor out of my vocabulary. It was condescending. It didn’t feel and sound right. Just because I had more than the next person doesn’t mean that God likes or favors me more. My circumstances were just different for whatever reason. We all have separate callings and purposes and that’s just the way life is. We all are born and created different and unique and there’s really nothing that we can do about it. I can’t explain why the world is the way it is no better than Grandmother could explain why my science teacher marked my paper wrong when she asked how was the earth formed. Some things will always remain unknown. What I do know is that we all were created from the same source. That’s a fact!
I step onto the curb being sure to look both ways before I cross the street. My cellphone suddenly vibrates. When I make it to my car I notice that I have three missed calls. Before I could hit the voicemail button the phone rang. It was Thomas. I laugh out loud as I look up toward the sky and shake my head. I know this is a test. Normally I would be ill prepared for these types of tests, but not today. “The only way that something can survive is if it’s being fed.”
I take one last look at my phone and smash it to the ground. I stomp on it a few times to make sure that it’s dead. Just like my relationship with Thomas. I pick up the mangled phone and throw it inside the car. I’m going to give it to my cellphone company to make sure that they bury it along with the phone number. I’m not going to take the coward way out and blame it on the devil either. “Nope.” It’s not the devil. It is me! I am the one who chose all of those dead end relationships. I am the one who made a complete mess of my life. All the signs were there and I ignored them. I placed very little value on myself and they took advantage because I allowed them to. “You teach people how to treat you.” I know that now.
As I start my engine, I wave goodbye to the church building forever. I am no longer going to force it. Just like the voice said; you don’t have to search outside for what’s already inside of you. You can’t save a soul that’s not really lost. Maybe that soul just needs to be fine-tuned.