“I’m so glad to see so many faces here tonight. I think we may have beaten last year’s record.” Pastor Roberson, a stylish man in his mid-forties with an athletic build and expensive power haircut, goes on to thank everyone for coming, mentioning half the crowd by name, before cutting to the chase.
“Tonight,” he says, “is about waiting for the one you love, about saving and eventually sharing one of God’s gift’s with your soul mate…” His words are measured out, as if to the beat of a pop song, and every few minutes he references scripture, reciting verses verbatim from ever his present notecards. He’s notorious for this. He can’t remember Bible to save his life. “…and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one. Mark 10:8.”
I look around and find a hundred somewhat familiar faces spread throughout 12th Street Baptist’s indoor basketball court. Dozens of chairs line the walls and several long folding tables, covered with chips and punch, are placed beside the emergency exit. Oliver and Sunny stand beside one of them, Sunny munching on a paper plate of Dorito knockoffs.
“Your sister and Jason are really hitting it off.” Grace whispers. She’s dressed in a blue, shin length flowery dress, her brown hair pulled back into a beautiful French braid. “They look sweet together.”
She points to my sister and her brother nestled in a dark corner. Morgan is wearing her Mission Trip Mexico 2012 t-shirt while Jason Laurent (a few days out of the South Dakota oil fields) stands in boots, stained jeans and a buttoned up flannel shirt. They’ve been roped into being chaperons tonight.
“I think she’s dating someone at her community college.” I say, not sure if the thing with Brandon (or was it Bryan or Brent?) has been resolved, if commitments were made or not.
“I know of a boy, young man really,” Pastor Roberson continues, “who even saved his first kiss for his wedding day.” He runs his hand through his salt and pepper hair, stirring it up before carefully patting it back into place. “Now that was love, not only for God, but for his future bride!”
Several girls swoon. A boy laughs.
“I think it’s good June didn’t come.” Grace whispers.
“Yep.” I agree. Guilt pings me but Grace is right. June would’ve been miserable, spending the night along the wall, sitting fat in a folding chair and smoldering like a third string defensive tackle on a losing Super Bowl team; Denver Broncos, 27; June P. Rodriguez, a big fat goose egg.
“Did she like the Valentine you made her?” Grace asks, “I loved mine, thank you.”
“June said she hated it.” I whisper, “Said it was a ugly piece of crap, then slid it into her Economics folder, making sure the corners didn’t get dog-eared.”
“She’s a sweetheart.” Grace says, her voice like vanilla ice cream, sweet and smooth, “She really is. In a corn chip smelling sort of way.”
I stifle a laugh as Pastor Roberson turns the floor over to Brother Stephens, our Youth Group leader, who leads a prayer. A hundred people bow there heads as he thanks God for safe drives from wherever and asks for safe drives back to wherever, for the forgiveness of sins, that if any present aren’t saved that they may be so tonight, etc.
In terrible form, I always keep one eye open during prayers. I haven’t expected to see Gabriel or Elisha or the hand of God since I was five (I’ve since learned that God doesn’t operate that way), but curiosity keeps the habit going. It’s like peeking through a neighbor’s window. They may seem friendly at the neighborhood’s swap meet, but who are they really?
I watch as Sunny, his head down in reverence, mutters his own prayer while Oliver peeps at his iPhone. A boy in front of me scratches he butt with one hand and holds a girl’s hand with the other. Pastor Roberson picks his nose.
“…in your Son’s name we do pray, Amen.” Brother Stephens finishes.
Music, one of the WOW collections from yesteryear, begins to pour from the ten thousand dollar sound system, and the crowds disperse. Some mill about the punch bowl, sending Oliver and Sunny fleeing, while others hug the walls, filling the dozens of empty seats. Grace and I find chairs near the stage, half concealed by a cluster of balloons and a large broken box fan.
“Not many people are dancing.” Grace points out.
“They will.” I remind her of the slow start last year, of the steady rise in precipitation to an eventual Footloose style dance-off at the two hour mark. Things began to get a little raunchy after that and Brother Stephens had to separate a few couples. Bumping and grinding (what June calls the dry monty) isn’t appreciated much at 12th St. Baptist. At least, not until you’re married.
“Morgan and Jason are leaving.” Grace says, pointing as the pair slips out the back double doors. Concerned blooms in me. “He’s probably just going to show her his new truck. It’s a white 4×4.” She pulls a book out of thin air, opening it to a Star Wars book mark, “I’ve ridden in it a few times. It has a rear safety camera.”
“Don’t you want to dance?” I ask. The book’s cover (a green smiley face, it’s tongue out and teeth bare) mocks me.
“I think I’ll just watch. You?”
“Don’t think so.” Just the thought of it makes my stomach turn. I haven’t danced with anyone since Paw Paw at my sixth birthday party when we swayed around our patio, my feet resting on his. I doubt my moves have improved since then. “I can’t dance.”
Grace shrugs, consigning our love lives to God. She hasn’t noticed the awkward boy in the brown vest hovering lonesome by the equipment closet. He hasn’t taken his eyes off her since we arrived. Dork love is in bloom.
“Maybe we should try it. At least one song.” I gently close her book and slide it away, Douglas Adam’s Complete Hitchhikers Guild to the Galaxy will have to wait, “Whose that boy over there?”
She looks and turns away. “That’s Chad Mumford.” Her face contorts and you’d think she’d taken a bite of an Eureka lemon, “He’s had a thing for me since eighth grade. His teeth are terrible and he smells worse than June. I think he’s mental.”
“Oh…” My front row ticket of a sweet Leave it to Beaver romance blows away like trash in the wind. I return to her book which she opens. Without a word or moving an inch, she excuses herself from my company to enter a far away world run by depressed robots and alien psychopaths.
Around us, more people begin to dance, filling the gym floor with the awkward, Jesus friendly dance moves only white people could improvise. Only the popular kids, most of them wearing Hollister and Abercrombie, stand aloof, their noses up as they wait impatiently for 9 p.m.
“Can I sit here Mable?” Sunny asks. He takes a seat beside me before I can reply, his eyes wide as they take in a scene, a van Gogh of light and sound and movement. “Wow! My church can fit in your church’s gym!”
I nod, watching Chad Mumford circle around the chips and dip, sipping on a small cup of punch. He passes Oliver a few times but they don’t speak. Oliver still has his nose in his iPhone, as dead to the present as Abraham Lincoln.
“There’s a lot more people here too.” Sunny laughs, a claustrophobic unease in his voice, “Lighthouse runs about fifty or sixty on a good Sunday morning. And that’s everyone, not just kids.”
“Do you think you’ll dance?” I ask, though the thought seems unimaginable.
“No, I’ll think I’ll wait. Seems strange to dance at church.” But then, eager to clarify, he stutters, “I’m not against dancing though. Sister Hanna at Lighthouse is, but most of us aren’t.” He closes his eyes, searching for something hidden for safe keeping, “Let them praise His name in the dance: let them sing praises to Him with the tambourine and harp.’ That’s Psalms 149:3, Brother Calder’s favorite verse.”
“Oh.” The name conjures memories of a barrel shaped, pork fingered man with a wide polka dot tie and peppermint breath, the Pastor of Sunny’s Lighthouse Independent Church. “That’s cool I guess.”
We sit for a while, songs change, tempos going from up to down to up again, like waves on the ocean.
“Olie was pretty upset about the science fair thing.” Sunny says above an upbeat tune, “God’s not Dead” by Newsboys, “He wanted to ask Camille Rollins to this thing but he never sees her anymore, not with us being kicked out of the Science Fair Club. She’s dating a boy named Clint now. His project is on batteries.”
Chad Mumford inches closer, standing just behind the cluster of balloons, hands grasping an empty cup, sweat beading on his forehead. Was I like this with Timothy? Thinking of him now is like recalling a sad pathetic dream.
Someone dims the lights to a cool blue, and the song changes to something slow “Unclaimed Melody” by the Righteous Brothers. Bodies move closer, small hands rest on broad shoulders, larger hands press into the small of backs, dresses drift gently like jellyfish on a moonlit tide.
Mom loves these things, not the dancing part but the whole True Love Waits thing. To here her tell it, every pair of bra and panties she wore before June 20th, 1993 came with complimentary Yale padlocks. I never asked if Dad waited until their wedding night. I sure hope so.
The song ends and bodies drift apart. Sonny sets off to find Oliver, leaving the seat beside me open. Chad eyes it but stays put behind the balloons, unsure of himself. His teeth can’t be that bad, can they?
At the far end of the gym Morgan reappears through the double doors. Sweating, she carefully adjusts her belt and straightens her tangled blonde hair. Her face is an exclamation point with a large smile showing white teeth. She moves towards the punch table and begins a conversation with Mrs. Radley. She doesn’t notice that her fly is open.
My heart sinks, my heart sinks, my heart sinks….
The tune changes to “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King, and Pastor Robeson gives the time. “8:55. This is your last chance ladies and gents.” I can hear a nervous Chad Mumford cracking his knuckles.
“It’s the last song.” I tell Grace. But with a book in her hand, and her mind immersed in the product of someone else’s grey matter, I might as well be talking to the wall.
Chad Mumford peeks around the balloons, first at Grace with a painful longing, then at me, questioning. Tonight? Now?
I shake my head. No.
He wilts. His shoulders slump and his round face droops, the nervous knuckles growing still. After a few minutes he heads for the double doors, past the drifting sea of people, past Oliver and Sunny drinking punch, past Mrs. Radley telling Morgan about her last kemo treatment, past the kids to cool to cut a rug for Jesus. He slips out with the ease of a ghost.