ONE OF THE last to leave stopped at the door and shook the preacher‟s hand, going on about the sermon in a familiar wheedling tone, and Brother Leroy‟s cautious laugh wended back into the
sanctuary, relief telling in the sound of a sigh. Then wearily he strolled toward the pulpit and, spying
Cliffie, seemed surprised, but said only, “Cliffie!” head hung as in a recapitulation of believing that
the long Sunday had ceased. He stopped at the altar and stared at her.
Shambling out between pews, she blurted, “I‟m gonna have a baby,” and watched for shock to register on his mercurial face. “Roy Harris‟s,” she added. “He don‟t want to get married.” She‟d
waited so long
it seemed years
for a way out to ripen with time, and now that her secret was said, she felt sapped.
Leaning against the altar table, Brother Leroy‟s whole body shrank like somebody dead whose soul is withdrawing with his breath. “Why, Cliffie!” he said in that detached squeak of a voice, always
used when, even knowing better, he hoped to stave off a full confession, as though in not knowing all he might be spared, being not God but man and ultimately without that power they all believed him to possess. She waited with him while his blue eyes glazed over and he thought her news through, or maybe banked it by the numerous possibilities adrift in that unsullied holy mind where the sins of others came and went and scarred: none of his, theirs, his cross. Like a dead man, waxen and bloodless, he seemed to tally up those possibilities and the futility of it all, to dredge deep for strength and answers, and finding none, reached back, as though with the hand of another
a hand not at all accustomed to dipping into the collection plate (he always insisted that one of the deacons collect the money, as he always insisted that each sister and brother confess to God instead of the preacher)
and took from the offering a couple of bills, which somehow ended up a ten and a five. He stared at the bouquet of bills and appeared to be vowing not to think, but to act
alone, without God present
and handed it to Cliffie. Then bending, blue shirt brightening in a print of angel wings across his sweaty shoulder blades, he tore a scrap of paper from a sack of new red potatoes, an alternative offering. Nervously, he flattened the scrap on the table and scribbled, then passed it on to Cliffie, too.
“Go to her,” he said, tapping the paper with his pen. “You can walk there, Cliffie—
the schoolhouse in the quarters. Go to her, first thing.” He talked through his teeth and shu
ddered, holy, wan face alight with wonder at himself, and seemed to steel against an inner quaking from the
Lord. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on us all!” He gazed up at the ceiling, where the old lanterns shed a
heavenly white light on it all: the situation and possibilities, the weak human condition that spells
itself in sin. “She‟ll take care of you.”
All the time Cliffie had been standing there she‟d been waiting for a solution and thought at
first that he meant her to go to a doctor. But on the scrap of paper
sack she read the name “Witch Seymour.” Cliffie had heard of the Negro woman who‟d earned the name “Witch” for her potions, which usually worked, but if they failed, she went in there. That‟s how the tobacco hands had put it,
telling of Clorox dosing and douching, and as a last resort, a coat hanger.
Hot bile rising in her throat, Cliffie pinned the preacher with her eyes. She‟d believed that surely, if he didn‟t fix things, he might offer some advice, as her Sunday
-school book said. If not a miracle, anything but filching from the collection plate
and offering the name of a butcher. She wadded the bills with the paper scrap and hurled it at his feet. From the front stoop, she canvassed the open church grounds, where children spirited like untold demons in the dusk and grown-ups formed into puddle-like shadows, the smell of night