Cephas Logan is impatient to start his Tuesday visits to shut-ins from church; irritation shows in a quick, angry stride from the house to the car. He glares aggravation at his wife following in his wake, who'd rather stay home with their daughter Sally than commiserate with sick people. Pausing by the open passenger door, Rose shouts a reminder there's leftover meatloaf in the refrigerator, and she'll be back in time to cook supper. As her mother climbs in the car Sally hears "Rose, you've made us late. Again."
So little seems to have changed since Sally was a teenager standing behind the same screen door. In those days Cephas worked fifty or sixty hours a week at a sawmill, and visited sick people on Saturdays. Other than the day of the week though, nothing much is different, except Sally's thirty years past being sixteen.
She watches her Daddy pull onto the county road too fast, listens as the sound of the car fades. His impatience, his rush, his fondness for explaining what everyone else is doing wrong grate as strongly as they did decades ago.
Soon the only engine noise is from a distant tractor, and Sally takes her coffee onto the porch and lights the day's first Marlboro. Exhaling smoke toward her Daddy's vegetable garden, she wonders if there's another middle-aged lady anywhere in the world who hides cigarettes from her parents.
Rufus, a tabby tom who lives in the barn, creeps across the lawn to assume a ground-hugging pose below a sweet apple tree. The cat spends hours in the same spot every day, waiting for a redbird or jay to stray near enough he can claw it out of the air. That a bird so stupid has never appeared is of no obvious import to the cat.
Cephas Logan appreciates Rufus's abiding expectation a miracle will occur.
Sally wonders why the cat doesn't give up.
It's not the only difference between Cephas and his daughter, his belief in miracles, her cynicism. But their decades of quarrels and tension are rooted in this single disparity.
Cephas, a Pentecostal preacher for the Carr Valley House of God, knows the sun stood still at Jericho. He's certain a man lived three days in the belly of a big fish, convinced that once upon a time, the only two people on earth lived in a perfect garden.
Sally manages the largest North Star branch bank in Minneapolis, and has known for a long time the earth moves, not the sun. Whatever a fish swallows turns to fish shit, and the only perfect garden she can imagine is the dozen straight-as-a-string rows where her Daddy chops weeds every evening.
While she's distracted by the cat's vigil, Sally's left hand betrays her, strays to cup the curve of her right breast and rediscovers the frightening, foreign thing growing there. Awareness of the touch is slow to penetrate Sally's day-dreamy state of mind; when it does she snatches the hand away so quickly her knuckles collide with the swing, hard.
The hand will ache the rest of the day. Her angry "Son of a bitch!" might be aimed at the pain, the tumor, or God. At that moment they all seem part of one grand betrayal.
Sally smokes until fire reaches filter, then flicks her cigarette until the embers drop onto the yard. Wadding the butt into a tiny ball, she tucks it into the pocket of her jeans, to be thrown away where her Daddy won't see it. Sally doesn't want another airing of the cigarette sermon Cephas first delivered when she was fifteen. There's nothing in it about health risks, just conviction God hates smoking, and Scriptural evidence Sally may burn for eons for using them.
She wants another cigarette; instead Sally slips into the house to rinse her cup at the kitchen sink. A touch of her Mama's morning cooking hangs in the air, an understated aroma of frying sausage and fresh biscuits. Sally yawns at the oppressive quiet of the house, wonders if she would sleep if she lay down.
Evenings in her parents' house, Sally misses the traffic, sirens, the horns and occasional shouts outside her Minneapolis apartment. Where the only night noise is occasional creaks from eighty year old walls, she lies awake, her mind tightly focused on things she'd rather not think about. During the day can hardly keep her eyes open.
Drifting toward a room that was hers until she left home, half her lifetime ago, Sally wonders why the familiarity of her parents' house is cloying rather a comfort. Stretching across the bed, she promises herself that when her folks come home, she'll finish the task that's brought her back to them.
She'll tell about biopsies and prognoses, about scheduled surgery and soliloquies from a cowardly husband who "needs space."
The white canopy bed that was a surprise twelfth birthday present seems big as a barge, and she mutters a few curses at Tony for leaving her alone. When the crying begins, it carries her into a fitful doze.
The telling she avoided for weeks is easier than Sally imagined it ever could be.
After dinner she follows Cephas and Rose to the front porch. Her parents settle onto the swing and Sally sits in a rocking chair made by her grandfather. A whippoorwill's cadenced call drifts from the fields beyond the house, and the scent of newly turned soil and green growth, carried by an evening breeze, is so rich it's almost a flavor.
"I don't believe Ben Fraley knew who we were today, poor soul." From the way he bows his head and falls briefly silent, Sally knows her Daddy's offering up one of the scores of quick prayers he aims at the Almighty every day. "Ben's eighty five," Cephas says when he looks up. "I don't reckon he's all quite all there these days."
Before her father can further describe the afflictions he and Rose witnessed, or express unending disappointment Sally hasn't found a "church home" in the moral wasteland of Minneapolis, she says, "There's something you need to know."
Cephas falls silent, and Rose stiffens in anticipation.
Long before Sally went to live on her own, the phrase was a signal.
Ahead of announcing she was pregnant, two months before high school graduation, Sally said to her parents, "There's something you need to know." Six weeks later the same words prefaced a relieved retraction. The missed periods were a false alarm, and Sally didn't marry Bobby Collins after all.
She lived at home though college, used graduate school to find the distance she'd craved as long as she could remember. "There's something you need to know," Sally said, the day she got an acceptance letter from Michigan State's School of Business Administration.
Taking a job in Minneapolis was "something you need to know" too.
A month before marrying Tony Perez, a Puerto Rican with skin dark as Rose‘s coffee, and Jewish besides, Sally made a quick trip to Kentucky, sat on the porch after dinner to tell her mother and father, "There's something you need to know."
After she says the words, the swing stops moving, and her somber parents wait for new disappointment.
Sally blurts, "I've got cancer."
And to her horror, begins to cry, violent sobs tearing at her throat.
In the space of three breaths a blinding headache settles between her eyes. Sally cries and cries, her emotions a force beyond her command. It would be easier to stop the moon from rising over Tolliver Ridge than to control her weeping. It goes on and on, and once she falls quiet, it's as though the tears and sobs recede on their own, that Sally herself has little to do with the sudden quiet.
She doesn't recall slipping from the rocking chair, but as her breathing returns to normal, Sally's head is in Rose's lap, and her mother's hand gently strokes her hair. Rose produces a clean handkerchief to blot Sally's tears, then pushes the damp linen into her daughter's clenched fist. Rose always carries two or three flowered handkerchiefs; Sally's never seen one of them used for anything other than another person's comfort.
Sitting on her heels, Sally wipes her eyes and her Daddy looks away as she blows her nose loud as any man. "God," she mutters, thinking only of the bright pain between her temples. "I need a drink."
Her mother rises suddenly, almost leaping off the swing. As Rose rushes into the house, Sally wishes there were a way to bite words out of the air, swallow and make them unsaid. Moving mutely back to the rocking chair, she considers an apology as her father gazes toward the unseen whippoorwill's song. Sally wonders how long he'll preach at her, once he finds his voice.
Sally and Cephas sit in strained silence until Rose comes back with a pint of Old Fitzgerald bourbon and a can of Pepsi. "Do you need to mix whiskey with something before you drink it?" she asks.
Sally accepts the bourbon and the Pepsi, and Rose slips her hand into a deep pocket in her old-fashioned house-dress, withdraws the cigarettes and Bic lighter that had been under Sally's pillow. "I imagine you'll want these too," Rose says. Cephas clears his throat, and Rose shoots a hard look at him as she settles back onto the swing. "Don't say a word," she warns. "This is medicine."
Sally feels awkward, holding a whiskey bottle with her parents just a few feet away. It's empty by about a third, and she wonders how that happened. As Rose looks on expectantly, Sally unscrews the cap and pours a long jolt down her throat. Chasing the bourbon burn with cold cola sweetness, she takes a deep breath, and whispers, "Thank you, Mama."
Rose nods. "That come from Willard Stevens, three years ago. When he got saved at a spring revival Cephas made Willard give up the bottle in his coat pocket. Works good as any cough syrup, for colds and things."
After another long dose of bourbon Sally hands the pint back to her mother. "Thank you," she says again. She takes a drink of Pepsi, and tells them the rest.
Her doctor recommends a double mastectomy. There are tumors in both breasts, most too small to be discovered with a self-inspection. "Guardedly optimistic" is the phrase the doctor used. It was a worthless statement, and Sally resented the physician's off-hand remark she ought to have come right after discovering the first lump.
After Sally flies back to Minneapolis on Thursday, there'll be a weekend to rest before going to the medical center Monday morning. Six or seven days in the hospital, three or four weeks of recuperation, and she can go back to work.
Sally saves the hardest revelation for last.
She tells them Tony's gone back to Puerto Rico "for a little while." Sally admits she doesn't know how long that'll be, wishes she didn't feel compelled to make apologies for her husband. "Tony's no good around sick people," she explains. "He'd be more trouble than help."
In less than five minutes her parents know everything Sally does about the sharp turn in her life. During the telling Sally keeps her gaze fixed on the acres of corn and tobacco around the farm. She doesn't look at her parents until she runs out of words, and when she does turn toward them, focuses on a single bright tear skidding down her father's cheek.
There's a long silence before Cephas gets up and goes off to bed, stopping to briefly lay his hand on Sally's shoulder. Sally notices for the first time her Daddy shuffles as he walks, lifting his feet just high enough his shoes don't drag. It's how old, tired men move.
Sally expected a lecture, a tidy explanation the cancer was her fault, assertion that if she'd stayed home, lived the life for which she was raised, this wouldn't have happened. Her father's leaving without calling the cancer "a judgement" is as unnerving as a curse.
Rose and Sally talk until the breeze makes the porch too cool for sitting. They move to the kitchen, and talk until birds sing to a sky luminescent with new morning.
Soon as Sally's out of bed, Rose begins trying to talk her into attending evening church services, and her badgering never lets up. She's still at it on the back porch in late afternoon, while she and Sally sit watching Cephas in his garden. He hacks at the ground with a sharpened hoe, bends to toss uprooted weeds into a wheelbarrow, then steps to the next plant.
"Your Daddy loves you," Rose says, peeling potatoes for supper. "He just don't know how to show it. Never has." Rose hardly looks at her fingers or the paring knife, peers at her daughter's face more than at the work at hand. "It'd mean the world to Cephas, if you went with him tonight," she says for perhaps the twentieth time.
After a deep drag off a no longer secret cigarette, Sally studies the cat, hopeful as ever under his tree. Mid-week services are loud and long, attended by the most devout of her father's congregation. When she comes home Sally seldom goes to church at all, and never on Wednesday evenings.
When Sally doesn't speak, Rose asks, "You don't think I'll get sick on that airplane then?"
"Long rides in a car don't bother you," Sally says. "Being on a plane isn't much different."
Sometime in the night they decided Rose will fly back to Minneapolis with Sally, stay until she's able to go back to work. There was no use suggesting Rose not come, though the prospect of her first airplane ride clearly frightens her. Sally dreads changing planes at O'Hare while watching over a woman who thinks walking around downtown Lexington is a challenge. But once Rose offered to go, Sally realized she very much wants her mother at the hospital when the cutting begins.
"Cephas is scared to death." Rose's voices isn't much more than a whisper. "So scared. And there ain't a living thing he can do about it."
Sally wonders if this is why she came here in the first place, to bring Rose back to Minneapolis. It's a relief to know her mother will be with her, but there's an unfinished feel to the decision, as though something's left undone.
Rose drops a skinned potato into the water-filled cooking pot at her feet. "Your Daddy can't talk about nothing that scares him. To nobody." Rose reaches into a paper sack for another potato. "Except God, maybe. He won't even talk about being afraid to me."
Sally studies her Daddy deliberate movements in the garden. She remembers a time he didn't need more than two hours to make the rows neat as a seed catalogue picture, and in those days the garden was larger by half. At the rate he works now, Cephas will be out there till dinner time.
If time's slowed him down, it's worked a few kindnesses on Cephas as well. He's aged into an archetypical vision of an old fashioned preacher more comfortable with hellfire and brimstone than any social gospel.
His hair's turned white as an angel's robe, and forms a carefully sculpted halo. The weight Cephas gained after retiring from the sawmill suits him. For years he stayed thin to the point of emaciation, though he ate ravenously every time he came to the kitchen table. The mill burned away all those calories, but by itself, a fiery passion for Jesus isn't enough to keep him skinny.
"Honey?" Rose's voice is close to pleading. "Look at me."
Sally turns toward the solemnity in her mother's eyes. Any other time she'd mount a playful argument, remind her mother of the Biblical injunction that wives are to submit to their husbands. Her husband Tony --her Jewish husband-- wouldn't approve of his wife attending services in a Pentecostal church. Her mother's eyes make it clear this is no time for anything playful.
"I've never interfered between you and your Daddy," Rose says. "You had a right to your own life, even when you did things that were hard to know about." Rose is silent a few heartbeats, her lips a thin, tight line. "And I know more than you think I do."
"I never doubted that," Sally says, remembering a morning when was a college student, running late for a morning class. She left the house in such a rush her birth control pills were left lying on a bureau rather than tucked away in a drawer. That evening she came home to find the pills put away. Rose never mentioned them.
"It's different today, but when you were born, we thought of you as a late baby. We were married seven years before I got pregnant." Rose drops the last of the potatoes into the pot. "Back then, to be twenty five and having your first baby seemed late. Did you know your Daddy carried you around on a pillow the first six months? He was afraid he'd hurt you."
Sally nods. She's heard "the pillow story" a hundred times.
"He was always afraid something bad would happen to you," Rose says. "And now this..."
Sally looks back at her father, stooping to pick up one more weed. "All right, Mama. Just this once," she concedes.
After all the fuss, Sally's surprised --and a little angry-- when her mother decides to stay home. "You and your Daddy go on," Rose tells her as they wash dinner dishes. "You can talk, just the two of you. Besides, I haven't had time to myself in I don't know when."
Cephas tries to convince Rose to join them, though Sally knows he's wasting breath. Once Rose announces a decision, she seldom changes her mind. Sally leaves her parents fussing at one another, the nearest they ever get to a real fight, and goes to her room to put on a navy skirt and flowered blouse. Women do not wear jeans to the Car Valley House of God. Once dressed, she waits outside, thinks about smoking, but the ensuing lecture would last all the way to church.
Sally wonders if her father is bothered more by spending time alone with his daughter --a trial for both of them-- or by not having Rose at his side. If Cephas outlives Rose, he'll spend whatever time he has left wandering world as lost as any soul for whom he's prayed.
"Everybody dies," Sally whispers, low enough the words don't reach beyond the screen door at her back. She's almost used to the notion she might die. Thinking of her parents that way, though they're past seventy and one or both will surely die soon, is hurtful. Sally looks for something to distract her, can't even find the cat to study. She stands quite still, fighting tears and the image of either parent left alone.
It takes Cephas a long time to give up on changing Rose's mind, and by the time he joins Sally on the porch he's in a hurry. They walk to the car not quite together, Sally two paces behind, stretching her legs to keep up with her father's long stride.
"Seems like we're always late to things any more," he mutters when they're seated in the vehicle, as though he and Sally go somewhere together more often than once or twice a year.
"You're the preacher, Daddy," Sally says. "They can't start without you."
A thin smile stretches across her father's face. "You're right about that," he says, but still turns too fast onto the country road at the end of the lane, with only a cursory look for on-coming traffic. He drives the five and a half miles to Car Valley House of God as though racing an invisible someone or other.
As Cephas steers down a gravel lane leading off the county road to the church, Sally's surprised by the number of people waiting for them. At least thirty five people stand in the yard. Wind down the hillside ruffles the long skirts of the women, around whom a dozen or more children run and shout.
"Brother Logan!" a tall somber man calls from the fringe of the crowd. "Can we have a word?"
Cephas leaves Sally at the car and walks toward a clot of men that includes the tall one, and is soon engaged in an animated discussion. For as long as Sally can remember, the church deacons --unctuous, influential, and all male-- have always had something or someone to talk about before services. Political and social machinations within a tiny church in the middle of no where are as complicated as Congress.
When she gets out of the car, Sally's engulfed by a perfumed assemblage of women. Several recognize her, though she'd be hard pressed to put a name to more than three or four faces. There are introductions to Caudills and Thompsons, Blankenships and Stewarts and others, none of whom Sally will remember. Those who don't know are informed this is their preacher's daughter.
Sally feels uncomfortable and at home at the same time. Her skirt, modest by Minneapolis standards, is three or four inches shorter than the shortest dress worn by any other woman, and the old question of how many grandchildren she's given Cephas and Rose takes her by surprise. Sally hasn't thought about motherhood in a long, long time.
There are more questions with little chance to answer any of them with more than half a dozen words: Where does she live now? What does she do there? Where's her husband and why didn't he come to church? How long will she stay? By and by the chattering queries ebb, and Sally moves with the women, feeling herded, as though they suspect she might sit in the car rather than come inside for the service.
Once through the door Sally sees little has changed since she was last inside the chapel. The building still smells of lemon Pledge and old paper, the same print of a near life-size long-haired Jesus knocking on a door hangs behind the pulpit. The pews are the same dark walnut benches, seats polished by decades of devout behinds.
The Car Valley congregation tends toward stoutness, the pews old and loose. The room's briefly alive with protesting wooden creaks as the worshipers settle in. An upright piano against one wall erupts with sound moments after Ruby Perkins, one of the few women Sally recognizes, occupies the bench before it. There's more creaking and the rustle of clothing as everyone stands to sing.
Sally's surprised to remember all the words to "There Is A Fountain." As she sings Sally watches her father, secure and poised in front of his congregation as he was. . . what? Embarrassed? Nervous? Something other than poised anyway, riding to church with her.
They sing the hymn in a march tempo, and as the last notes fade Cephas calls out the number of another song. Sally pages through her hymnal, notices many in the congregation don't bother opening their books. They launch quavery voices into the second hymn with hardly any pause, knowing not only the words by heart, but the song's number as well.
Sally doesn't falter at the chorus, sings "O how I love Jesus / Because He first loved me!" as if she means them, as though she'd not said other, quite different prayers in the course of converting to Judaism for Tony. She wanted to be a good Jewish wife, a wife like her mother, tried so hard. She tried so hard, for a husband who left a week after the doctor confirmed what Sally had already guessed.
Songs done, the congregation seats itself, and Cephas begins to preach. Sally pays no attention to the words, which she knows are spoken with no preparation. Her father hasn't written a sermon in his life. He shares the belief of many mountain preachers that if he opens his mouth to speak, God will give him words.
Cephas falls into the cadenced, half-shouted preaching his congregation expects. They hang on every word, call out "Amens" of approval, but Sally has no idea what excites them. She doesn't hear words, only the sermon's rhythm. Her father paces back and forth, citing Bible verses, pointing now at his God in the ceiling, then at Satan in the worn floorboards over which he strides.
Every moment of the service is like a re-run of an old movie she thought she'd forgotten. Before she was old enough to say "No," how many hours had she sat in these pews, among these people, as her father's unschooled preaching fed her fever to get far enough from Kentucky she'd never hear it again?
And here she is, as though she'd never gone anywhere.
The sermon's force eases, and her father's voice is almost conversational as he announces another hymn. Voices swell into the "come to Jesus" lyrics that end all of Cephas Logan's services, even weddings and funerals. It's an altar call, an invitation to come forward to be saved, healed, forgiven.
"Just as I am, without one plea," the congregation sings. "But that Thy blood was shed for me." Sally sings too, and doesn't have to look at her hymnal. The words are familiar as her own name. At the beginning of the second verse she idly looks at her father, and cannot look away. Sally reads for the first time the profound pain living in his eyes. The fear about which her mother spoke is there, etched on his face, visible as the lines across his brow.
At that moment Sally would do anything to give her father even a minute's relief. Their relationship has been adversarial for as long as she can remember. She'd not change any of the decisions she's made over the years, would fight all over again for the freedom to make them. This old man her father has become, though, doesn't look like an adversary. He's just old and tired, and he's hurt enough. She would do anything to help him.
And Cephas shows her how to help.
He looks hard into her eyes, broadcasting a silent plea, then moves his gaze to the kneeling rail in front of the altar. Before realizing she's decided to stand, Sally is eases herself forward.
Her father's face forms a disbelieving gape as Sally kneels on the narrow strip of carpet in front of the rail, bows her head and closes her eyes. As her father's hand rests on the top of her head, she wonders what in the merry hell she's doing, on her knees, in a Pentecostal Church so far from her rational Minnesota life.
Others touch her, women from the congregation come forward for a "laying on of hands." Sally has witnessed so many scenes like this that even that even with her eyes closed she could choreograph what's happening around her. She knows men have moved from the pews to stand near her as well, and they'll lift their arms, palms turned upward as they pray loudly, publicly for her soul and salvation.
Someone begins speaking syllables the believers take as a sign God is with them, and has given them words from forgotten languages birthed at the Tower of Babel. "Yanoweh sahm sabaya contraiga maranatha," someone half-shouts, and another answers: "Jonovah rabheemanos corinthia sabadama."
Sally opens her eyes, lifts her face and gawks at radiant happiness she's never seen in her Daddy's face. Reaching into memory for the Hebrew words learned in the course of conversion, she mutters, "Shemah Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai echad," pauses and says the words again, loud enough her father has to hear.
"Thank you Jesus," Cephas says, then repeats the words with a different emphasis. "Thank you Jesus," he tells his God.
"Ayts haim he le machzikim ba," Sally replies, a prayer, something, words about a "tree of life" her mother-in-law taught her. "Ve'tomchecha me'u'shar."
After a while her knees begin to ache, and Sally rises to slip back to her seat, the hands on her arms and shoulders and back withdrawing as she rises to her feet. There's more prayer, but her father seems drained. The service is over much sooner than Sally expects.
Cephas always stays until the last car leaves the graveled lot, but her Daddy gives her a big hug when he comes down from the front of the church, whispers in her ear, "Let's go home." And they do, barely pausing to murmur "Good night" to the crowd moving to rediscover the breeze out in the yard.
They drive in a silence much lighter than the quiet of their trip to the church. As the car passes under a light at an intersection, Sally looks at her Daddy, sees he's still smiling. She wonders if she ought to feel guilty. She's never lied to Cephas, at least not as an adult. Perhaps she ought to say "Hebrew is not ‘unknown tongues,' Daddy, and I wasn't caught up in any ‘Holy Spirit' back there."
Watching headlights stab through darkness, Sally allows herself to know what her doctor meant when she said "Guardedly optimistic." The cancer is probably going to kill her. The reality of her looming death briefly takes Sally's breath away.
She's has what she needs.
Her Mama will be there to help her through this last hard thing.
Her father won't worry his little girl is in Hell.
It's worth a lie.
~ end ~