As Sam, Lloyd and I slid into our usual pew on Sunday morning, I reached for the hymnal to look up the hymns that were listed in the bulletin. Not that I intended to sing any of them, especially because hardly anybody but Sam and the choir could sing them, but I did like to participate in the service by being on the right page.
It was both a pleasure and a relief to begin taking up our weekly routine after so many upsets and worrisome occurrences. Mr. Pickens had come walking in with a little more swagger than usual on Friday afternoon, acting full of himself and carrying on with Lillian and Lloyd until I’d about had enough of him. But Hazel Marie was packed and ready—wearing one of her new maternity outfits—to go on their close-to-home honeymoon at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. She was excited about going, but she tried to hide it, telling me earlier that she was trying to be a proper married lady with good manners and a sedate outlook. She said she didn’t think it was appropriate to get all giddy and excited about things now that she was the new Mrs. Pickens.
“Hazel Marie, honey,” I’d said, “marriage does bring change to your life, but don’t feel that you have to totally redo yourself.”
So off they went, and the house had settled down to a semblance of the way it once was. I told Lillian to take the whole weekend off and everything had gotten so quiet that I hardly knew what to do with myself.
Of course, I had to face the members of the Lila Mae Harding Sunday school class that morning and was inundated with questions about Hazel Marie—a clear indication that the word had gotten around. I had my story down pat by then and just rattled off the same reasons, excuses and explanations that I’d been giving, so easily by this time that I’d almost come to believe them myself.
When Pastor Ledbetter rose up behind the pulpit, he gave me a hard look, even while he was welcoming visitors and announcing the first congregational hymn. I had counted on Emma Sue’s telling him the news because I hadn’t been able to bring myself to lie to his face. I suppose I’d been guilty of skirting the truth to him before, but never on the scale that this instance would have required. So I knew from his stare and tight lips that his feelings were hurt because he hadn’t been asked to do the remarriage or the renewal or whatever it was that Hazel Marie and Mr. Pickens had. I couldn’t return his look, nor was I able to give him any assurance of my continued respect for his office, if not for him. As a matter of fact, I was feeling just a little shame that I’d gone to such lengths to make sure that he would have nothing to do with helping Hazel Marie in her plight. He was, underneath it all, a man of good heart, which, however, could not compensate for his also being a man of rigorously held views as to what was right and what was wrong. Even worse, he made sure that everyone knew just what those views were, and woe betide any of his flock who stepped over the line.
While the choir sang the anthem, I looked through the bulletin to catch up on the announcements of the various activities that were offered to church members. The Every Member Canvass was coming up soon, so we were urged to prayerfully reconsider the amount of our tithes and offerings because the church was in dire need of a youth minister. The Knitwit Group would be meeting in the Fellowship Hall for a demonstration of some new stitches. The Young People’s Group was making plans to go to Carowinds in Charlotte, and they needed a few more chaperones, plus any donations anyone wanted to make. Canned foods for the hungry were being collected in a basket located in the narthex. A marriage enrichment program for at-risk couples was starting Monday evening in the church parlor, and there was a sign-up sheet in the secretary’s office for anyone wanting to attend. I sniffed and read on.
Then my eyes nearly bugged out. The enrichment sessions, called Stoking the Embers, were to be facilitated by Fred Fowler, BA, MA, PhD, a Christian psychologist with thirty years of experience in rekindling the flame of Christlike love in limping marriages.
I swallowed so hard that I almost strangled myself.
Dr. Fred Fowler!
Could it be the same Dr. Fred Fowler who’d been part and parcel—and instigator—of the most shameful moment of my life? How could the pastor have brought that redheaded fool back to the church? What had he been thinking?
Oh, I knew what he’d been thinking. And it certainly hadn’t been about
feelings. In fact, it was a slap in the face. It was all I could do to sit there, stiff as a board, and endure the rest of the service. Just as the pastor began his sermon, Sam put his arm around the back of the pew, encircling my shoulders, as was his custom. I couldn’t even look at him. Did
know about Dr. Fred Fowler? Did he know about Dr. Fred Fowler and
? I wouldn’t put it past Pastor Ledbetter to have told him. But no, I reassured myself, Sam knew nothing about that episode in the bridal parlor. He would’ve said something, asked me about it, indicated in some way that he knew what had happened. Sam wasn’t a man to close up and silently suspect the worst. And there’d been no change in him or in his attitude—no narrowed eyes, no snide remarks, nothing except a willingness to fall in with the pastor’s plan of getting us to a marriage counselor who, to my certain knowledge, was a sneaky, underhanded and pitifully poor excuse for a leader, guide or facilitator of any kind of an enrichment program.
Just see if I ever had the pastor do anything for anyone in my family ever again. I no longer felt even a smidgen of regret for bypassing him during our recent troubles. He’d be lucky to get the merest greeting from me ever again.
I sat there stewing and simmering, getting more and more agitated as he droned on and on about whatever his sermon topic was that Sunday. I couldn’t tell you a word he said or any one of the three points he made. All I could think of was how quickly I could get out of the church and what I could do to forestall a meeting between Dr. Fowler and Sam. For even if the pastor had held his tongue, would Dr. Fowler?
Finally, that interminable sermon was over and we rose while the choir and the pastor sang their way down the aisle during the recessional hymn.
“I don’t feel well, Sam,” I said, as the congregation bustled around, gathering themselves to file out of the church. “I’m going out the back.” I pushed Lloyd out ahead of me and, going against the flow of exiting congregants, headed for the back of the church.
Sam could go out the normal way and shake the pastor’s hand if he wanted to, but not me. The only way I could get out of that counseling session the following night was to get sick and stay sick.
“What’s the matter, Miss Julia?” Lloyd asked, hurrying to keep up with me as I headed around and past the apse and down the back stairs to the Fellowship Hall. “You got the flu like Mama had?”
“I expect I do, so don’t get too close. I don’t want you catching it.” Out the back door we went, Lloyd trotting along beside me as I sailed past the cars in the parking lot, around that brick monstrosity of a Family Life Center, across the street and finally through the door of my house. “I’m going to bed, Lloyd. You and Sam can fix your own lunch.”
“We’ll fix you some, too.”
I glanced back and saw Sam crossing the street, a worried frown on his face. Hurrying up the stairs, I called back to Lloyd, “Don’t worry about me. Tell Sam that all I need is to get in bed and not be disturbed.”
I didn’t just lie across the bed, I undressed and got in it, determined to be too sick, too weak, too something to go get counseled. As I pulled the covers up almost over my head, I remembered the reason that Dr. Fred Fowler had been so attentive during his first foray into our church. I sprang straight up, gasping for breath as the recall struck with full force—Pastor Ledbetter had primed him to evaluate my mental capacity in the hopes that I’d be declared too incompetent to administer Wesley Lloyd Springer’s estate. And it had been during his evaluation, of which I’d been completely in the dark, that I’d been enticed to make a spectacle of myself in the bridal parlor of the church. Oh, how close I had come to being made a ward of the state and having every cent of Wesley Lloyd’s estate in the hands of Pastor Ledbetter and his handpicked elders.
If it hadn’t been for Sam and Binkie and a scrap of paper scrawled on by Wesley Lloyd that changed everything, who knows what would’ve happened? Sam stood up for me then, but would he once he knew how I’d closed my eyes and thrown myself at the most repulsive man in the Western world?
Hearing Sam’s footsteps on the stairs, I flung myself back down and pulled up the covers.
“Julia?” he whispered as he tiptoed to the bed. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I groaned. “Just a little stomach upset. And some dizziness and an awful fatigue. And a scratchy throat, and I’m aching all over.” I couldn’t think of any more symptoms and hoped those would do.
“I’ll call Dr. Hargrove.”
“No,” I said, more strongly than I’d intended. Then, modulating my voice, I whispered hoarsely, “No, Sam, all I need is some rest. I’ll call him tomorrow if I’m not any better.”
“Well, can I bring you a bowl of soup?” Bless his heart, he sounded so worried.
My stomach growled, giving credence to my claim of an upset digestive system, but in reality making me aware of how hungry I was. “Maybe just a cup,” I whispered pitiably, “and a soft drink to settle my stomach.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“And plenty of ice, please.”
Hearing him leave, I threw the covers back and wondered how long I could keep up the pretense of illness to my trusting and concerned husband. Through tomorrow night, at least, I told myself. Then I could legitimately drop out of being counseled on the grounds of having missed the introductory session. And if Sam felt the need to get psychological help in order to stoke his embers, why, he could just get it by himself.
Of course, the best outcome of all would have been if Sam had decided not to go, either. But he felt an obligation to support the pastor because he’d been specifically asked to be there. It was the same with anything anybody came up with—the Kiwanis, the Rotary, this fund drive, that fund drive—ask Sam Murdoch; he’ll support it. All I could do was hope that he’d feel enough concern for me to want to stay home.
Hearing Sam’s footsteps coming up the stairs again—thank goodness for that one creaky tread—I quickly rearranged myself in bed. He came in, bearing a tray with a cup of soup, some crackers, a can of ginger ale and a glass filled with cracked ice.
Setting it on the bedside table, he reached over and felt my forehead. “You’re a little warm, Julia. I wish you’d let me call the doctor.”
I wanted to tell him I was warm because my embers were glowing, but I just moaned and assured him that all I needed was a little time in bed. “It’s just a twenty-four-hour bug, Sam. I’ll be better tomorrow. Maybe the next day.”
“Well,” Sam said, as he prepared to draw up a chair and watch me eat. “Lloyd’s worried about you, but he’s a little disappointed, too. He wanted to go to that dog show, the field trials over at the fairgrounds, remember?”
“Oh, that’s this afternoon, isn’t it? I’d forgotten, but you two go right ahead.”
“I can’t leave you alone, Julia. Not with you sick like this.”
That was exactly what I wanted to hear, but tomorrow night, not today. “That’s sweet, Sam,” I said, reaching for his hand. “But really, do go on and take him. All I’m going to do is sleep all afternoon, so there’s no need for the two of you to sit around here while I do it.”
After a little more encouragement, he finally agreed to leave me to suffer in peace. “I’ll lock up good,” he said, “but I don’t feel right about going. If Lloyd hadn’t been looking forward to it so much, I wouldn’t. We won’t stay long, though.”
Finally, they left. I heard them go out the back, heard car doors slam and the car back out of the driveway. With relief, I sat up on the side of the bed and devoured that meager lunch. Then I put on a robe, went downstairs to the kitchen and fi xed a sandwich, being careful not to leave any crumbs lying around as evidence. I had left the tray in the bedroom, too, for appearances’ sake.
But after wandering around the house for a while, I got bored and went back upstairs. What was I going to do with myself for twenty-four hours? Well, for one thing, I thought as I got back in bed, I could try to sort out my feelings. So far, my thoughts had been bouncing from one side of my head to the other, and I couldn’t tell which was causing me the most distress.
Number one, I began, as I leaned against a pile of pillows, Sam was altogether too willing to go to a psychologist to have our marriage enriched. Was it, as he claimed, only because he wanted to cooperate with the pastor? Sam was an amiable soul and readily disposed to put himself out to be helpful, even if he had little use for counseling by committee or by a self-styled expert. Still, I couldn’t discount the possibility that he sensed something wrong with, or missing in, our marriage or, heaven forbid, me. The thought of Sam’s being unhappy made me ill, and I mean really ill.