Wasn’t nothin’ we could do once the religious woman started comin’ to our house on her bicycle. Johnny C. bit down on one of the apples he filched from the tree that spanned the alley between our front yard and the backyard of the family who rented the house in front of ours. He smiled his mongrel smile.
We suspected that other family wouldn’t last long. We figured they’d be movin’ out soon. They didn’t belong here. Their kids waited too patiently at the bus stop in the morning and they always broke for home just as soon as the streetlights came on, even before the first fingers of dusk started to cool off the sky, even before the real games started. They knew the religious woman by name and they claimed she always sang the sweetest on Sundays.
We probably hated those kids, Johnny C. and me, hated the way their lunches were packed so that the bread of their PB&Js didn’t smush against the bottoms of their backpacks. We hated their polished teeth and the clean abalone gloss of their fingernails. With vicious glee we showed those kids the half-moons of dirt under our own fingernails, the greenish gore of our scabs, the fevered light in our eyes. We hated the religious woman too. She came with the grey length of her hair twisted up into a tight bun; she came, I suspect, to save our souls.
“You ain’t supposed to eat those,” I told him. To that, Johnny C. just shrugged and took another bite of sour fruit. “The little green ones ‘ll make you sick,” I said.
But Johnny C. just kept right on eating one snot colored apple after the other.
“I swear for God,” I said to Johnny C., “if you wind up glued to the pot it won’t be no fault a’ mine.”
Johnny flashed me the stump of his six-year-old’s finger. I know he’s seen daddy do it. I know he’s seen me do it too. That one secular finger, it should a’ been our family crest.
“Whaddaya think she’s gonna say today?” Johnny C. asked about the religious woman.
“Dunno,” I said, “but it won’t be anything good.”
Johnny C. pulled another apple from the tree. “Do you think she’ll read to us for a while?”
The religious woman came even though the sidewalks lurked under six inches of standing water. All of our rain and all the rain from up the hill converged on Mitcham St. until the ground under our feet swoll-up, and the sulfur stink of the foundry rose out of the earth like a tainted memory, and it was by that sweet stench we all knew we was still home, knew that we were still ourselves. The religious woman’s woven reed sun hat dipped low with the cold weight of our rain, and the long flaps of her home spun dress rode up ‘cause there wasn’t no way she’d put on pants. She almost got washed away and out to sea when Mr. Cordova drove past in his work truck. A grey wave of asphalt stained water rose up to clutch at her rubber soled shoes and mighty thought the Lord might a’ made her, that ol’ sasquatch of a woman almost tipped over into one of the gutters that lead to a sewer pipe bigger than the mouth of God. Wouldn’t that’ve been a sight? The religious woman lost in the sewers, delivering salvation from a pulpit made of flushed gum wrappers, pontificating to a congregation of rats.
“Why didn’t daddy call her?” Johnny C. asked. “Why didn’t daddy tell her not to come?”
“’Cause daddy don’t know any better.”
Daddy tried to pay her once. This was back when daddy was still workin’, back when the brickyard payed out overtime. We saw him try to slip the religious woman a sweat stained twenty and we saw her push it back into his hands. Watchin’ over the children was the Lord’s work.
“How do you think she sees with that hat all drooped over like that?” Johnny C. asked.
“Prolly’ she doesn’t,” I said, “and what a fool like her needs with a hat like that is beyond me anyhow.”
From our spot on the porch, the religious woman looked like somethin’ drowned and wilted, somethin’ cast away from the old world to be nibbled at the edges by our new one. See, the religious woman thought she was gonna save us all. She thought she was gonna ride down Mitcham St., nose held high as our plastic bottles and broken bits of heirloom cannin’ jars went floatin’ by in a slip stream of borrowed rain water, passing out donated school supplies and double knitted socks until all our parents dried up, forsook their sinful ways and found Jesus. Hallelujah!
She thought she could heal Johnny C. and me with homemade cookies.
But, even Johnny C., with his own second hand plastic Batman book bag hooked over the handle of his bedroom door, even when he had one a’ her cookies crammed through the busy network of his teeth, even my little brother knew a scam when he saw one.
“You think I should go tell daddy she’s comin’?” Johnny C. asked.
I looked over to the little boy, his narrow chest growing goose flesh in the gathering chill, bruises from where the Cowl boy whooped Johnny C. down by the Danver’s St. school yard huggin’ at the scant meat of his ribs. See, our daddy took one look at the bruises from the Cowl boy and knew that Johnny C. had lost the fight. Our daddy bowled league nights with Anton Cowl’s own daddy. Our daddy did not like to lose.
He took his fists to Johnny C, first screamin’ that no boy a’ his was gonna take a lickin’ from a known pussy like Anton Cowl’s son. Then our daddy didn’t say anything. He kept beatin’ on Johnny C. ‘till I thought the neighbors would call the cop ‘cause a’ all the cryin’. ‘Cept Johnny C. didn’t say too much either. He took after daddy that way, keepin’ his mouth shut when he should a’ been shoutin’ loud enough to bring the last of the house down around us. Wasn’t ‘till later, when Johnny C. an’ me were in our bedroom with just the sliver of light from the hallway to separate us that I realized it was me doin’ all that cryin’.
The religious woman came to pray with us the next day. Daddy let her in and then went off to the basement with his rubber duck boots pulled over his bare feet to kill the power so we didn’t all get electrocuted in the damp of another rain. The religious woman made us pray for our daddy to find a new job. We prayed for him to see the error of his ways, then she walked with us down to the Dixie Mart and bought us both popsicles. She got a Tootie Fruity from the soft serve stand.
The religious woman came the day after, and the day after that.
Daddy didn’t offer to pay her.
“Nah,” I told Johnny C., as I thought about all them bruises, “daddy can figure out on his own who’s here and who ain’t.”
As we watched, the religious woman rode through a knot of gutter trash. Coupons from Gleason’s Butcher Shop and the weekend Super Saver went flyin’ off into the culvert like startled birds and where they’ land the rain beat em’ into hard papier Mache bundles. Tomorrow, they’ll crack like eggs when the Stroud brothers go trompin’ ‘round the neighborhood lookin’ for aluminum cans to take over to the recycle plant. Thirty-eight cents for an honest pound ain’t a whole lot for a day’s work, but by six-o-clock they’ll have enough for an eighteen of Schlitz and a full tin of Grizzly to split between em’. It ain’t such a bad life really.
“Do you think she’ll bring candy?” Johnny C. asked. “Do you think she’ll make us sing?”
“Why in the world would she make us sing?”
“I dunno,” Johnny C. said, “I just thought we might sing.”
He held his hand out to try and catch some of the water dripping off the overhang. Flecks of rust caught in his fingers while the clean water dribbled through.
The crumpled end of an Old Crow bottle sidled up under the religious woman’s front tire and she almost went ass over tin cups again.
Watchin’ the religious woman wobble around, I figured that her God must be real. Wasn’t ever a woman so klutzy, yet she screwed her face up into somethin’ so ugly as to be profound. I guess I figured the face of Jesus would look somethin’ like that.
I raised my hand to wave her in, even though our daddy never left to look for another job, even though I swore up and down I was too old to need a babysitter. I raised my hand because she might make Johnny C. some cookies and because, God willing, she just might sing.
“Hey where’s she goin’?” Johnny C. asked.
The bicycle and the sanctified woman on top of it passed our drive way. She didn’t even look to us sittin’ there, but I knew that she knew we saw her, and I knew that she chose to ride on anyhow. We watched as she turned into the yard with the apple tree. We weren’t the only house on Mitcham St. with need of spiritual guidance, or the only house with kids who needed some extra time and love. I knew that. Johnny C. knew that, but it hurt just the same.
“Maybe we’ll see her tomorrow,” Johnny C. said, “or maybe we won’t.”
And that was life on Mitcham St. Maybe or maybe not.
Johnny C. picked up a few of the driveway stones, nothin’ but little pebbles and grit really, and spun them towards the flooded street where their splashes blended in with the falling rain. I went down with him and picked up one of the stones that ringed momma’s old garden. We helped her pull them out of the strip mine across the street. She chose them ‘cause of their round faces and glittering white backs. Most times, I could only think how much like skulls they were. It fit inside my fist, made my knuckles as big as our daddy’s. The weight felt right in my hand, like some kind of puzzle piece we were missin’. The sky opened up, thunder scolding what I wanted to do.
The religious woman’s God did nothing to stop me.
Like most intentions down on Mitcham St., the rock went hard and true. It bounced off the religious woman’s barn door shoulder and put a big ol’ rip in the gingham top. The religious woman fell off her bike then, finally. Her palms caught the most of her almighty weight but her feet and skirt got tangled in the spokes so she laid, crab like in the rain.
I left Johnny C. in the rain and ran inside. The back of my mouth tasted like melted popsicle. From the basement I could hear our daddy laughing. I don’t know if the religious woman ever managed to get up. She might still be out there, palms scuffed and bleeding, the soaked denim of her skirt ridding up the white pillars of her legs. Maybe the rain really did carry her away, out to sea, or to another neighborhood were the people aren’t so shitty, to a congregation of devout little boys who ain’t got a whole mess a tangled hair brushin’ against their sunburned necks and faithful little girls who weren’t afraid to kiss their daddies’ goodnight.