SHORT STORY

Say Amen

Brother Roger liked his church because it was his. His church, his congregation, his sermons. When he'd worked at the plant he'd had to take orders, but here he was his own boss. He thanked God every night in his prayers that he didn't have to answer to anybody. He had a good congregation. Yes, a good group. They liked his style.


When Brother Roger called "Amen" to the congregation he expected an "Amen" back and never a snicker from some unsuspecting visitor. This was God, after all, that he was talking about. "Oh, my Brothers and Sisters!" he would raise the call from the pulpit. His thin young body would begin to vibrate, and the Bible in his hand would shake, and he would let his passion for the Word, spoken by — Yes, he would think to himself, his own voice — carry through to the congregation. "My Brothers and Sisters we are here to find JESUS today! Say Amen!" And the congregation would say in unison "AMEN!" And he would nod to them and say "YEA!" and they would say "YEA, Brother," and he would point his Bible at the confused — maybe snickering — faces in the back and say, "I call upon the LORD to save your soul," which would shut them up. He was awfully good, usually, at shutting people up when he wanted to. He had God and he had style, an unbeatable combination.


Brother Roger used to wear just any old jeans around, but since he became a preacher he wore only the best. When he'd been growing up his mother, God rest her soul, used to tell him to always dress up when the preacher came over, and now that he was a preacher himself, even though she was gone he didn't want to disappoint her. He figured she was watching. He tried to always wear a white shirt, or at the very least a clean colored one, though it was hard in the summer months to stay looking saintly. He gave it his best shot, though. He never wanted to disappoint anybody.


A couple moved to the city from Texas and the wife called Brother Roger at home. Her voice was low and firm.


"Brother Roger," she said, "we want to move our membership to your church."


"Why of course," he replied. He always got a little nervous when someone he hadn't personally converted came into the fold. He was grateful she'd warned him. "I hope you enjoy the sermon Sunday morning."


He sweat over that sermon. He wasn't highly educated, but he liked to think his style made up for that. When he preached to new folks, though, he tried to make the best impression possible.


That Sunday morning was a day so warm the sunlight was shimmery on the sidewalks. As the cars pulled into the dusty parking lot and the mothers in the basement clucked over no air-conditioning in the Sunday-School rooms, Brother Roger checked a mirror and thought about tying a headband on until the sermon, because the sweat was so bad on his face. He was in the office of the church, a tiny wood-panel lined room that the people passed on their way to the classrooms. He heard a man sneeze in the doorway behind him.


"Brother Roger," said the woman who had called him the day before. He recognized her voice although it seemed even deeper than it had on the phone. He turned to greet the couple.


"We came a trifle early to meet you. This is my husband, Jim." She gestured to a very tall man in the doorway who was sniffling into his hankie. Brother Roger knew Jim could see the little bald patch on the top of his head. He went to shake Jim's hand. The woman stepped back so he could reach past her and he smelled how clean she was. He was conscious of the sweat marks ringing his armpits.


"Brother Jim," he said, pumping the man's hand, which was big and a little clammy. "I'm mighty pleased, mighty pleased to meet you and your little wife, here. How do you like our city?"


Jim sniffed. He looked at Brother Roger like he was sizing him up.


"We got told about you and your work, Brother," he answered. "We was admiring how much you done in such little time." Jim glanced around the office, and flicked back a lock of his hair, which was dark and a little over-long.


Brother Roger stepped back and the wife eased back out the door to stand by her husband. The heat was beginning to flatten the careful curls by her ears. She held her Bible tightly under one arm, next to her side. "Where did you study?" she asked him, smiling slightly.


Brother Roger stiffened a little. "I started out a lay preacher," he said.


"The good Lord has just been using me as He will, and I haven't had time yet for formal school. You could say the Bible's been my only teacher."


"Only one you really need," answered Jim. He started a nervous chuckle, but sneezed again, barely able to get the hankie to his nose in time. Mrs. Hatch looked at Brother Roger. Her eyes seemed to narrow a bit. Brother Roger thought about his shaking hands with Jim, and about germs. Then he thought about how close she held her Bible. She said, "You teach the adult class."


"Yes," answered Roger, though she hadn't said it like a question, and got his Bible. He closed his eyes and thought about Jesus for a quick second on the way down the hall, as he always did in moments of nervousness.


Before the sermon Brother Roger introduced them to the rest of the congregation. "Mr. and Mrs. Hatch wish to move their letter of membership here from Texas and I say 'Praise the Lord.'"


"PRAISE THE LORD," they responded. Jim sneezed. Mrs. Hatch smiled shyly and looked at Brother Roger like she was a little girl and he was her daddy. With his fingers Brother Roger had tried to comb some hair over his bald spot but didn't have enough and it was all slick on his head anyway.


"All in favor of the Hatches say 'Aye,'" he said.


"AYE," They answered. There were no nay votes. Brother Roger mentioned that the ladies of the church should do something next week to welcome the new members. Mrs. King, the busybody, stood up and proposed a potluck Wednesday night. They all voted on that. The Hatches went and sat down on the front pew. Mrs. King said "Praise the Lord." The congregation answered "PRAISE THE LORD."


Brother Roger gave Mrs. King a stern look, and Mr. King a sterner one, and looked at his watch resting on the pulpit. He didn't like to wear a watch that they could see because he didn't want them to know that he knew when he went overtime. He cleared his throat. Jim sneezed, and blew his nose noisily into his sodden hankie.


"My Brothers and Sisters," began Brother Roger. He picked up his Bible and opened to a page about halfway through. He hefted the open Bible in his hands.


"THIS is why we're here today: We are here to hear the words of JESUS today!" He slammed the book shut and into the pulpit in one smooth motion. "Today we will talk about prayin'."


By the time the sermon ended Brother Roger wasn't sure if he would be able to bear the Hatches. Instead of shufflers or snickerers he now had a sneezer. Whenever he would call "Amen," he would get a great "AMEN" back, with a sneeze. In fact, he decided, the sneezes were timed — were aimed at the very dramatic moments in his sermon. As he called for the congregation to stand for the final prayer and then the closing hymn, he blinked at the salt from the sweat on his forehead. He was glad this morning was over.


He stood at the doorway shaking hands with the folks as they left. "Brother Roger, we would be pleased if you came to dinner with us," he heard Mrs. Hatch behind him. He saw Mrs. King working her way towards him; he knew that she would try to comer him into letting her do the solo next Sunday. Mrs. Hatch was looking at him with big brown eyes as deep as gravy on Thanksgiving, and her cotton dress held a little spot of sweat right where her breasts met. He thought about her husband. He thought about how tall Jim was, and how short she was, and how he was going bald.


"ACH-oo, ACH-oo, A-A-ACHshshsh . . ." Jim sputtered right behind him. "It's too hot a day to fix for yourself." His voice was gruff.


The Hatches had rented a little house about a mile from the church, right off the highway leading into town. There was a lot of corn growing around, and dogwood trees, and Roger was glad that he sat in the backseat of the car while Mrs. Hatch drove. Jim sneezed and sneezed. She didn't seem to notice or mind. Roger noticed the dimples in her elbow as she shifted the gears in the little hatchback. Her fine hair had lost all its curl and was clinging limply to the back of her neck. Brother Roger was grateful for the breeze from the open windows, but worried that his own hair would get messed up. They had insisted on driving him out here, before he could change. "You can come back with us tonight for Training Union," Mrs. Hatch had said. Her round, pinkish mouth had pouted so slightly he had to say all right.


"Nice little place you got here, Brother Jim," said Brother Roger as he ducked out of the car. He looked around at the few starving weeds in the bare dirt lawn and listened to the cars whizzing by just a few feet behind him.


"What brings you out from Texas?"


"Just testing my luck, I guess," answered Jim. He wiped his nose. He studied Brother Roger with eyes that were red-lined and tired. "You want some ice water?"


"Sure."


"Mandy keeps some cold all the time in the 'frigerator." He went on in. Brother Roger followed him, noticed a small mirror on the wall next to the door and did a quick check.


Mrs. Hatch — Mandy — came out of the kitchen with hotpad mitts on. She had already twisted her hair into a tight bun and looked noticeably cooler even though he could feel the extra heat from the kitchen boiling out to the hall where he stood, careful now not to look at the mirror.


"The roast is done," she said. "I put it in before we left this morning so we wouldn't have to feel the heat." She wiped a mitt across her forehead. She batted her eyes at him. He was only startled a second.


Brother Roger heard a sneeze and followed it to the little dining room, where Jim was already laying out the dishes. He looked at Brother Roger with a sheepish grin. He was a big man, but Brother Roger noticed for the first time that he was shaking slightly, clinking the silver and ruffling the napkins.


"My wife, Brother Roger," he said, kind of low, but like he had phlegm in his mouth so Brother Roger had to lean over the table, "she means a lot to me. A man tries to make his wife happy." Jim sighed. He looked at Brother Roger like he was going to spit. "You've never been married, have you, Preacher?"


"No," answered Brother Roger. He didn't see any reason to get so defensive about setting a table. "I'm only thirty."


In a couple of minutes Mrs. Hatch brought bread and butter to the table and dished out the roast and potatoes and carrots that had cooked all morning. Jim sloshed the ice water down by his place and brought over a box of tissues to get him through the dinner.


"Those allergies are pretty rough," commented Brother Roger, sympathetically.


"Will you say Grace, Preacher?" said Mrs. Hatch, folding her hands by her face. She narrowed her eyes to look at him as steam rose slowly all around her. By this time Jim's sneeze did not come as a surprise. Brother Roger bent his head.


"Father," he intoned in the voice that had got him through so many bad spots in the past, "we thank you for the bounty you have laid before us, for the wisdom you have shown us in giving us this Day and grant, Lord, that we may do your will in our actions and thoughts. Amen."


"Amen."


"My Daddy was a preacher," she said as she passed him the potatoes. She was clearly proud. "He was the preacher of the biggest Southern Baptist church in Childress, Texas."


"A fine man," said Jim. He was slicing up the roast with real zest. "Her Daddy could keep people in their places." He nodded at Brother Roger.


"He believed in scholarship," Mandy said, "he studied and studied that Bible."


Brother Roger always got uncomfortable with this subject. His back came up. "The call to preach takes more than book-learning," he said. "I preach what I think ought to be said instead of lettin' some commentator talk through me. The Lord tells me what to say. I don't need no school to teach me how to minister to my church."


Mrs. Hatch's eyes seemed bigger than ever. Brother Roger knew that he was blushing, but hoped they'd take it as a sign of the heat. Jim was sitting quiet, watching them. His eyes panned from one to the other like he was waiting for one of them to start a fight, or leave the table. After a long pause, Mrs. Hatch dipped her head back to the meal. "How long you been preachin', Brother Roger?" she asked, like regular conversation.


Brother Roger looked at her. He wished her hair was down. He forced himself to relax, pick up his fork. He smiled at Jim, who had narrowed his eyes. "Almost a year now," he answered. "And I've been blessed by startin' in a fine place, with fine people. One day I was just prayin' about what to do with my life – I'd been laid off at the plant – and I was feelin' so low, when the Lord pointed me here. He closed the window and opened a door, you might say." He always felt better when he thought about how blessed he was. "And I been doin' a fine job of preachin', if you don't mind my sayin' so."


"Why mind?" answered Jim. He shoveled in a mouthful of carrots. His full head of hair flopped forward. "A person can say most anythin'. To my mind, the actin' is the test." He began sawing at his roast. "Everybody gets tested eventually, don't they, Preacher?" he asked, glancing at his wife. "O'course, we knew your record when we came here. You look to be as upstandin' as we all should be."


"Well, thank you, Brother Jim," answered Brother Roger. He began to feel a bit reassured about his style.


When the meal was through Brother Roger insisted he help with the dishes. It wasn't as though he liked to do dishes, in fact he didn't really feel it was a man's place to try to do housework, but she looked so frail, he decided; she looked so frail and fragile that her wrists were almost see-through, so she shouldn't do them on her own.


She poured a big sinkful of suds and gave him a cloth to wipe with. Jim stayed to put things away when Brother Roger finished drying them. The kitchen didn't seem to have any air in it at all, as though they were all three swimming around like the plates and serving spoons. When she handed him the first glass he noticed that her fingers were calloused, and around her fingernails was red and flaking skin. But the back of her hands and her forearms were so very white and smooth, like just-squeezed milk, that he couldn't help but wonder about the rest of her under that cotton dress. Jim began to sneeze again. And again. He went to the bathroom for a roll of toilet paper to blow his nose with. When he left the room she turned to him and leaned her elbow on the sink, almost in the wavy suds. She wiped her right hand, wet from the dishwater, over her breast, and suddenly he could see the outline of a nipple standing up under the cotton.


"My husband doesn't like to leave me alone in a room with another man," she said. "But a preacher would understand, wouldn't he?"


Brother Roger stood there, holding the plate and towel, noticing the way her hair was falling back down, around her face. He thought about how he was taller than she was. "Sweet Jesus," he said, and he was under the current, he felt himself pushing toward her with the weight of the whole ocean that whirled up into his brain, all he could see was her little mouth, and her brown eyes and her nipple pointing up at him and he bent forward.


"Mandy!"


He heard it, gruff and nasal and angry, and he dropped the plate, it fell and fell. Jim was in the doorway. He came in like slow motion, his arms outstretched. He took her cheeks in his palms, like he was going to kiss her, but instead he pressed, and pressed, while his own face contorted with pain. It seemed he was trying to crush her face in.


Roger watched him crush her, watched him press her, waited for the plate to sound crashing on the floor. She flailed out and grabbed at his arm and Brother Roger came to.


"Stop it, stop it!" he yelled then. He pushed back at Jim's arms. Without seeming to notice Roger at all, Jim fell away from her, sneezing and coughing and sobbing all at once. He put the palms of his hands into his eye sockets. He staggered back. She leaned against the sink, put her hands on her cheeks where his had been. She looked at him for just a second, then she grabbed at Roger.


"You wanted it, didn't you?" she whispered at him fiercely. "I know you did. They all do." Brother Roger tried to back up, but she had hold of his shirt.


He gaped down at her.


"You promised me," muttered Jim. "You promised me ..."


"You should have known better," she said to her husband. "Testin' me like that, self-righteous bastard." She looked at Roger. "Don't expect I'll be sorry," she spit the words at him. "Though I promised I wouldn't do it to another preacher." She smiled, almost coy. "We left Texas after I did them all, all I could find. I guess he thought you'd be different." She smoothed down his shirt, her damp hands seeming to be right on his skin. He jerked back and hit the sink.


Roger steadied himself against the counter. He looked at Jim, who was crying silently to himself. He looked at her, the steam rising up to him like it was smoke, from all around her, from the whole room. He thought about all the work he'd done on that sermon yesterday, about praying. He closed his eyes briefly, but he couldn't clear his mind to think about Jesus. She laughed, softly.


"You should have known better," she murmured. She went over and put her arms around her husband. "You can go now," she said.


"I —" Roger said. He looked at the shattered plate on the floor. He shook his head, stepped over the glass and let himself out of the house. The air seemed almost cool. He stood still a moment and listened to the cooing noises of Mrs. Hatch, soothing her husband; and to the cars speeding by on the highway. By the time he walked back to town, he thought, he'd have figured out what to do.