There are no windows in the church. No clocks, either. That’s what bothers Rayne most about the service. She doesn’t mind the elder at the pulpit, glaring at them, judging them, positioning their fate, wondering about their salvation. She doesn’t mind the cramped rows of chairs before him, thighs to thighs, and the cramped, suffocating atmosphere of the dozens of faithful followers there, shoved in this ever-warming box. She doesn’t even mind that her mother drops twenty dollars in the basket when they have only two heels of bread and a quarter of milk at home. She just minds the absence of time. The disregard for hours or minutes; the assumption that every moment belongs to this building on Henne Street, on this narrow road in central Louisiana. The concept that there is nothing else for them to do than worry over their providence, which is something they all do anyway.
The elder leans forward so they know he is serious. He is always serious, but when he leans forward he is very, very serious.
“He puts no trust even in His servants. And against His angels He charges error,” he says. The elder is a humorless man with olive skin and a straight mouth, like a razor. He has the whitest and straightest teeth Rayne has ever seen. This irritates her, because she is only seventeen and believes that her teeth should be straighter and whiter than a church elder in his sixties. But that is how this goes: The elder isn’t just more wise and pious in spirit, he is also superior to her in the ways of teeth. Today he quotes Job through them: “How much more than those who dwell in houses of clay? Whose foundation is in the dust? Who are crushed before the moth!” Here, he bangs the pulpit with a closed fist, but only lightly because this isn’t meant to be a brow-sweating show where people speak in tongues and jump out of their seats. When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you. So says the Bible. So says the elder.
He has his Bible open in front of him, but he doesn’t reference it. This way, everyone knows, as they sit uncomfortably in their chairs, daring not to move, that he needn’t any reference for Scripture; it is all tucked neatly away in his head, an envious vault of godly information that would one day lead him down a pearly, brightened path to the kingdom—and them too, if they would only listen. Not even the other five elders, who sit in the very-front row like obedient kindergarteners, have a vault as sturdy as this.
Rayne shifts her leg to the left, just a bit. The fat thigh of Miss Winnie Rodemich spills over to Rayne’s seat and the only thing that separates their skin is the patterned print of their skirts. Rayne hears Miss Winnie breathing. Rassp, rassp, rassp. Like a sleeping snake. But Miss Winnie is no snake. There is nothing stealthy about her. She doesn’t notice Rayne’s movement. Miss Winnie keeps her eyes on the elder, nodding accordingly and dutifully. Rayne’s mother does the same. And between them: Rayne herself.
The elder goes on to explain Job to them, so they can appreciate all its lessons and teachings, so they can also delight in a tripling of riches one day; all they had to do was have faith, even when their lives crumble around them, even when everything they love is gone, even when they lose every morsel of their existence—even then, especially then! notes the elder, pressing the tip of his index finger against the pulpit—they should trust and believe. When you trust and believe, he says, you are rewarded. Maybe the rewards won’t be here on Earth, he adds (now raising that same finger), but you will be rewarded.
Rayne wonders what time it is. How many ways are there to count the time?
There are ways to tell time without clocks or windows, of course. Watches and cell phones and such. But the elder discourages wristwatches. He doesn’t forbid it—that is a violation of free will—but he discourages it. And cell phones? No one would even consider such a thing. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
It’s difficult to keep mental count when someone is speaking and there are only two slivers of fabric separating your skin from Miss Winnie’s, or when the air has grown so humid and warm that you feel a dryness in your throat and a coldness on your neck, so instead Rayne counts heads. Row one, seat one, is one-second. It is the head of Hattie Milburn. She sits in the same seat for every service. She is closer to her providence than anyone in the room. Old, very old. Tired, very tired.
Rayne grows weary of counting heads when she reaches Verah Hamlett on the third row. Verah Hamlett has the blackest hair Rayne has ever seen and it sits just at the shoulders. When Rayne sees Verah’s black hair, she forgets the hotbox of salvation in which she’s trapped and remembers another day that the Lord had made. Two weeks ago, when Verah’s grandson kissed her in the hidden trail behind the dairy factory. He went up her shirt for a second, but only a second.
Rayne’s cheeks burn. The elder looks at her, like he knows what she’s thinking. Then Job answered: I know what Rayne Miller did with Ben Hamlett. Who does not know such things as these?
Rayne runs her tongue over her imperfect teeth and wonders what time it is. It could be noon. It could be later. It could be raining. Who can say?
There is nothing to do but move your thigh to the left, just a bit, and listen to your elder. So says the Book: The Lord will raise up for you a prophet from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
The elder straightens his back, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He tightens his lips between his perfect teeth. Rayne straightens her back, too, because this is it. This is the end of the service. She knows all his movements and a straightened back means the end. Miss Winnie knows too; she drops her head and relaxes her shoulders as if she’s worked very hard for these many hours, and maybe she has. Listening can be hard work. Very hard work, indeed.
The elder’s eyes sparkle when he opens them, as if God placed two perfect crystals in the center of each pupil before bestowing him with the holy spirit.
Rayne glances at her mother as the elder begins his closing remarks. Her mother is stoic and expressionless, as always. She will not move until the elder wishes them goodwill and blessings and sends them on their way. She is committed to the appearance of obedience.
When, finally, the elder wishes them goodwill and such, the dozens of people rise from their chairs, but none of them stretch. Stretching would mean that they’d been uncomfortable, and what is discomfort when you’re learning how to save your soul?
The mutterings of conversation begin once the elder has left the room. The group separates in little packs that move toward the door like trained mice. They mutter: Great service. Wonderful talk. Much to think about. What a pious man, Job. The lower mutterings concern dinner and lunch and other non-service things. The Other Five Elders shake hands. Yes, good service. Very good service, indeed.
“I think I’ll cook soup for dinner,” Rayne’s mother says, once they’re out of the hotbox. She never talks until they’ve officially left the service and now that they’re halfway to their car—the one with the spare tire and dented fender—she feels it’s okay to speak. Rayne’s mother doesn’t talk about secular things when they’re Inside. It’s one of her personal unspoken commandments. Thou shalt not speak of soup in the Lord’s house.
“Okay,” Rayne says. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. It’s not raining; the sun shines bright, but it’s impossible to tell what time it is. She won’t know what time it is until her mother unlocks the passenger door and they get in the car. Then she can look at the clock on the dashboard, and she’ll know. Only she has to subtract two hours and twelve minutes from the dashboard time, because the car’s clock stopped working long ago.
Rayne immediately looks at the clock when she gets in the car, but today it will not tell the time. Today it says 88:88. Rayne taps it with her index finger.
“Clock’s broken,” she says.
“Doesn’t matter what time it is,” her mother replies. “It’s Sunday.”
This is the day the Lord has made.
“Still,” Rayne says, “I’d like to know what time it is.”
Her mother starts the car. It takes two tries, but it finally rumbles to life. The lot outside the hotbox has cleared out quickly. People are ready for lunch. Or early dinner. Who knows which, when you don’t know what time it is?
“Pass me that tape from under there,” her mother says, motioning her chin toward the floorboard of the passenger seat. Her mother listens to the same three tapes because the radio doesn’t work, even though the cassette player does. Rayne suspects that they own the only vehicle in the civilized nation that plays tapes.
When Rayne reaches under the seat, her fingertips brush against something papery. She pinches whatever-it-is between two fingers. It’s a five-dollar bill.
“Hey, look,” Rayne says, waving the five dollars in front her mother’s face like a found bar of gold. In the following moment she regrets this and wonders why she didn’t just secretly shove it in her pocket, because her mother, who has not yet pulled out of the lot, says:
“Well, shit. Bring it inside, then, before we leave. You heard what the elder said today, about Job.”
Tripling of riches.
Rayne glances at the five dollars then at the hotbox. Even though she has no idea where the money came from and she knows it isn’t rightfully hers, she feels a sense of ownership because it was under her seat. And now it would go toward their salvation, instead of inside her pocket.
But no point in arguing.
Honor your mother. Whoever reviles mother shall surely die. So says Matthew.
“Alright,” Rayne says. She opens the car door and says “be right back” over her shoulder as she steps back into the sun. She cranes her head back and squints at the sky. Two o’clock, maybe. It could be two o’clock.
The hotbox is deserted. Cleared out, just like that. The chairs are all empty. Pulpit unoccupied. Rayne clutches the money.
“Hello?” she says. She peeks around the pulpit to see if the offering basket is sitting there. It is, but it’s already empty.
Cleared out, just like that.
She considers dropping the money in there anyway, but worries that it’ll be found by someone other than the elder, and she knows the elder is still there because his car was still parked in the same place, under the awning. Might as well give it directly to him.
“Hello?” she says again.
She walks down the short hallway that leads to the church offices. There’s a crack in the door of the elder’s room. It’s a small room, a clean room. Tidy, like his suits. Rayne raises her knuckles to knock—ready with the five dollars—but something stops her. A wash of curiosity stops her. An as-yet unknown voyeuristic spirit stops her. And something else, too: The elder’s teeth.
A straight-lined set. White, like pearls. Detached from the mouth, resting between the soft pads of the elder’s fingers, lingering over his desk as he brushes them gently with a toothbrush. An odd place to brush your teeth, Rayne thinks. An odd thing to see a set of teeth in someone’s hand. An odd mouth, the elder’s. It doesn’t look thin like a razor anymore. His lips sag inward like a deflated balloon. He doesn’t see her. He’s focused on his teeth. The way he brushes them reminds Rayne of the time a harpist visited her high school. The woman played song after song, but Rayne looked at the woman’s face more than she listened to the music, and the elder’s face reminds her of the way the woman’s face looked that day. Like every note was to be played carefully or the melody would fall apart.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep that have just come from the wash. Each of them is matched, and none of them is missing.
So says Solomon. So says the elder.
Rayne steps out of the light and drops the five dollars at the foot of the door. He’ll discover it, think it fell out of the basket. He’ll put his teeth back in his mouth and become whole again. The salvation of his people, five dollars richer. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Just before she turns from the hall, she sees the clock at the other end, above the exit door. Out of sight, with moving hands.
It is three-seventeen.