“Uh, um, Miss Gen?”
Geneva turned her attention to the little one before her. John tugged on the hem of his red and blue plaid button-down shirt as he met her eyes. He was small enough to go to children’s church, if his family had attended the regular service, but big enough to go with his father to the barbershop for his weekly cut. Those eyes—dark brown, warm eyes—caught the world in glances before looking down again, before anyone could catch him looking.
His father had stood before her in a starched white shirt and clip-on black tie instead of these clothes that made more sense in the Georgia summer, especially when the air conditioning was out most of the time.
But John, son of Jamal, son of John, son of John, son of Emanuel and back to a name forgotten and beaten from him, carried those same eyes. And no matter whether they came to church in denim overalls with a frayed bib, a clip-on tie with a starched shirt or a plaid button-down with khakis, they all asked the same thing.
She bent so she wouldn’t hover over him. She hadn’t frightened someone in a long time and never one of her own.
“Yes, John?” she asked.
He turned to look up at his father, Jamal. Jamal gave a slight nod. He turned those big dark brown eyes back to hers and bit his lip.
“I, uh, may I?”
He didn’t need to say anything else. He’d come up to her. That was enough. She winked. “I think I have something for you,” she said. She straightened, ignoring the sharp pain in her lower back.
She tugged off her white gloves—left and then right—and tucked them the underneath the belt of her black usher’s uniform dress. She’d heard tell other churches had changed from the polyester shirtwaist dresses to ushers wearing suits with skirts reaching down to their ankles. But Mt. Hope Baptist was an old-school type of church. Ushers wore black, polyester dresses, white gloves and kitten heels. They weren’t a lot of those churches left and not a lot of parishioners either, which could explain the new pains when she moved.
She unzipped the black pocketbook that sat right next to her stack of church programs and opened it wide, then looked at John again. He waited, hands clasped in front of him, twisting from side to side. She held up her right hand, wriggling her fingers before reaching inside the pocketbook like a magician reaching into his magic top hat. Little people loved theatrics. She closed her eyes, scrunching her face as if she’d just bitten into an orange that had turned out to be sour. A giggle came to her ears and with it, joy tingled her fingers.
She pressed her flat palm along the bottom of her bag, brushing against soft Kleenex tissues and the lip balm she kept there, waiting for the pebble to form. Would the candy be butterscotch or peppermint or strawberry?
When the little ones asked, she was just as surprised as they were with what would come from the bag. It would normally start with a pebble, the kind that would sometimes slip into her kitten heels when she walked across the gravel parking lot, the kind that was just big enough to annoy her, but not large enough for her to stop and remove it. As she rolled the kernel around with the palm of her hand, it grew larger, then thicker until the cellophane surrounding it formed, slipping between her fingers. It was one of the few things she could still do.
But the pocketbook’s bottom stayed flat against her palm. Maybe she just needed to warm up. She circled her palm at the bottom, waiting for the pushback. Nothing came.
She opened her eyes, grabbing the handles of the sturdy purse to open it wider. Black. Leather. It could survive decades with a good dyeing and had. She looked inside it. The white Kleenex tissues she kept to wipe the tears of church mothers overcome with the Holy Spirit were pressed to the side. Maybe it was stuck in a crevice of the bag. She tipped the bag toward her. The lip balm rolled along the bottom. Nothing else.
“That’s all right, Miss Gen,” John said, his head down.
She dropped the purse on the table and looked at John. But it wasn’t all right.
“I’m sorry, John,” she said. “I thought I had—” she couldn’t say packed because she really didn’t pack them.
“Say thank you to Miss Gen, Little Man.” Jamal set his hands on John’s shoulders. They were small hands, nails square-shaped. Jamal had been careful with his nails as his mother had required. His face was thinner now though she still saw the little boy of big cheeks and wide eyes. It was the way that life operated, but would she ever get used to seeing a little boy’s face on a man’s body?
“Thank you,” John said. It was the same voice his grandfather had used as a child.
“Come on,” Jamal said. “Let’s go into church. Service is about to start.”
She handed Jamal a program. The two entered the sanctuary leaving her alone in the vestibule with time to think. No one else would typically be coming inside. The early morning service had been instituted as a way of gaining more members, to being more accessible to the younger people as Reverend Mills said. She was in favor of that. As members died or moved to non-denominational churches with stadium seating instead of hard-backed pews, membership fell off. She could no longer stretch a repast meal to feed all the grievers after a funeral or bless the altar so that those who came forward to pray felt peace as soon as their knees hit the pillows. Conjuring candy, however, was simple. It was the one thing she figured would never leave her.
She paced the length of the vestibule, her kitten heels muffled against the worn red carpet. The early morning service wasn’t drawing in new members. Neither had the praise team or the sermons outlined on the back page of the church program. It was all dying.
She came to a stop at her station, staring up at the two portraits hanging there. She always stood there so she would not have to see him on a regular basis.
The reverend’s portrait was fine. It showed him wearing his black church robes. He looked like the kindly grandfather who’d always slip a dollar bill in a child’s hands after service so they could buy a package of pork rinds at the corner store.
The other portrait was nothing like that. It was of a man with shoulder-length flowing brown hair, against the baby blue of a clear sky, eyes looking toward heaven with blue robes floating around him.
She looked up into those blue eyes. He'd never looked like that. Considering she couldn’t even manage a piece of candy, she figured she’d learn what he looked like now soon enough. Ebbing power would call him like standing water drew mosquitoes after a thunderstorm.
She slipped the white gloves from her belt. She tugged them on one right after the other. Discordant tones floated from the sanctuary. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.
The coolness told her he was there. It was like the opening of a refrigerator door. Well, that didn’t take long at all.
She turned. Now. There was the one she remembered. A couple of inches taller than her, blonde hair that you usually didn’t see on white men past their twenties unless it came from a bottle or a stylist. He'd gone with swathing himself in gray again, which set him as an outsider.
A gray suit was too light for these parts and not respectable enough. If you were coming to church, if you were coming to a black church, the suits were either black or navy blue. It was a suit you could use for church, a job interview, or a funeral, with a color to denote the seriousness of the occasion.
Any other color meant you had extra money. You wore a gray suit when you had extra. And not a lot of folks around here did.
His smile touched his eyes. Of course, he was sincere. He thought he'd won.
He set a piece of cinnamon-mint hard candy on the table right in front of the church programs. It looked like a regular peppermint except the center and stripes radiating to the edge were pink instead of white. This candy had never appeared at the bottom of her pocketbook. The children probably didn’t know it even existed. It was her favorite.
She looked up to the sky-blue eyes. “No, thank you,” she said.
She turned and started arranging the programs. First in the order of service was the call to worship which was more of a warning to parishioners that service was about to begin. Mother Johnson would play a hymn on the organ. Lately, the woman had been partial to Fanny Crosby. Gen would get nothing from that. But then the deacon board led praise and worship. It was too early for the entire board to lead the singing, but she could always count on Deacon Wynn. If she could just get to praise and worship she would be fine.
He stepped beside her, cutting through the morning’s staleness.
“You don’t mind if I take it, do you?” He said.
He unwrapped the piece of candy and popped it in his mouth. Puffs of peppermint pierced the air as he spoke.
“I’ve missed you, Saddie.”
When was the last time someone had only called her by her first name? Whatever name she used was tagged with a title in front of it—Mother, Miz, Miss, Usher. Her existence depended on being able to trip through the generations just being the old church lady who always had hard candies in her bag.
She wasn’t Saddie anymore. Saddie was 1865 on the edge of a cotton field, her feet sinking into the red clay wet from the morning dew. She’d been new to this world, growing stronger as the man in the blue spoke words over those gathered. He’d worn gray back then, too. No. Saddie was gone. She was Geneva and he was just a visitor. She needed to treat him as such.
“Is this your first time visiting with us?”
“Pardon me," he said. "Is it Mary, now?”
Mary was 1919 when she almost died. Mary breathed smoke. Her saliva was red from blood. So much blood. That time, he'd been the picture of respectability with his bow tie and suspenders, thinning hair slicked back with the butt of a shotgun cradled in his palm resting against his shoulder. It had been a literal picture—postcards made to commemorate the picnic.
Her right hand reached for her neck. She dropped her arm when she realized what she was doing. Stay focused. “The Senior Usher Board will be selling a hot plate of fried chicken, collard greens and potato salad for a fundraiser in the fellowship hall after the main service. That is, if you’re interested and will still be in the area.”
He placed a peppermint on the table. Then another and another. She could not even conjure one and he just kept creating them, forming them in a straight line. When the line reached the width of the table, he started forming a cross. He snapped his fingers. A cinnamon disc popped from the air and dropped with a thud against the table.
“Come with me,” he said, holding out his hand. “They aren’t feeding you well enough to even make candy, Martha.”
“Geneva,” she said.
He didn’t say it. He didn’t say you’ve lost, time to let go, but he meant it. She only needed to take his hand. She wouldn’t die at first. She’d settle into his world of stadium seats instead of pews, air conditioning instead of fans advertising Johnson’s Funeral Parlor on one side and a picture of MLK on the other. She wouldn’t serve. She would observe. It would be slow and cool and easy.
Or she could stay.
He snapped his fingers. A yellow butterscotch candy landed on the table. “No one sees you,” he said. “No one believes. I mean, I was able to walk right through the front door with nary an invite. Now how pray tell was I able to do that?”
Before she could answer, the sanctuary door swung open. Jamal walked through. It was Jamal, right? Or was he an older version of John, or was he a younger version of Emanuel? She glanced down at his hands. Square nails. It was Jamal.
“Miss Gen,” he said, then stopped. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you had a visitor."
She stepped in front of Jamal, blocking Jamal from view. Her visitor had already pulled too many others away from her care. She wouldn’t give up Jamal and his line. "That's fine," she said. "How can I help you?"
He held out his hand. “John wanted to make sure you got this,” he said. There, in the center of his palm, sat a plain piece of peppermint candy. Not pink, but with a white center and the red stripes around it. “Mother Johnson gave it to him, but he wanted you to have it since you’re always giving them to everyone else.”
Her shoulders sagged. She didn't realize how much tension she held until a reprieve was presented to her. “Thank you, Jamal,” she said. She took it. "And thank John for me." He gave a nod. His eyes slid to the man behind her and then back to her own with the silent question. Are you all right?
She gave a slight nod. “I'll see you inside.”
“See you inside.” He nodded and went back through the sanctuary doors.
She slipped the candy into her mouth. She sucked hard on the peppermint, the faith and kindness of a child humming through her. Her hands tingled for a moment underneath the gloves.
The first chords of “Blessed Assurance” started signaling the beginning of praise and worship. She was going to be okay.
She picked up a program. “Here’s a program,” she said. “If you go on down at Morrison's, you can get 10% off your meal with a church program since you aren’t going to be around for the dinner after the main service.”
His eyes flashed black before returning to the coolness of blue. He waved his hand over the table, the candies disappeared. “Whenever you’re ready to rest, Geneva, I’ll come for you.” he said. He snapped his fingers. A white life saver candy materialized in the air, landing on the table.
“It’s Miss Geneva,” she said. She snapped her fingers. The white life saver candy disappeared.
He chuckled. The coldness swept over her as he faded away leaving her alone in the vestibule.
She smoothed the front of her polyester dress. He might come back. He might win. But it wouldn’t be today.
She slipped her pocketbook over her shoulder and tucked the programs to her chest. She took one last look around the vestibule. Everything was in place. She walked into the sanctuary, then pulled the doors shut behind her.
It was early morning service. Time to get to work.