Didn’t matter none if she hated church, Mara was going this Sunday for sure. Grandma May’s sweet whisper carried a terrible threat at dawn that day; No Sunday Morning Worship Service, No Sunday afternoon at the State Fair.
“You never stand up for yourself, Mara.” Gene laughed.
“I do.” Mara said, “When it matters, I do.”
Mara loved her younger cousin Gene but just like everyone else in her family, Gene was constantly providing what he thought was useful advice for the future.
She could just see it now, her little cousin Gene, all grown up, with a big burly moustache and heavy dark rimmed reading glasses standing in front of a bunch of press microphones on the steps of any government building in downtown Indianapolis with a quote from his speech scrolling past underneath his wrinkled brown face, something like,” Mara Brown has been my best friend since I was 5.”
Her family didn’t have much money but for some unknown reason, they had faith. They had faith in Mara. She was going to do things differently. Everyone knew it. They all were betting that by the time she grew up, Mara would be a famous author.
“I don’t ever see you standing up for yourself; just tell her you don’t wanna go, you nerd.” Gene said. “You’re 15 now, Mara, you can decide for yourself sometimes, you know.”
Mara laughed. Her 13 year old cousin, doling out his most sage advice. He was flunking out of seventh grade and was always drunk or high but somehow, he was mighty and wise. She tried not to think about it but of course he acted just like the rest of them at times. Trying to groom the prize race horse. Life was the Kentucky Derby. And Mara was destined to win the crown.
He figured that by the time they grew up, according to the family, Mara would be on the talk show circuit and selling out auditoriums. People would be lining up to hear her read her stories and she would buy him his own Mercedes Benz.
“I’m not gonna disrespect Grandma May’s rules, Gene, she didn’t have to let me live with her.” Mara said, “Besides, it’s just stupid church.”
In everyone else’s mind it was settled. If Mara would follow everyone’s advice, especially everyone who gave up or never tried or skipped their chance in life, that by the time she grew up she would be living off the coast Italy or worst case scenario, San Diego.
The only part Mara willingly entertained was that Indiana would be a memory.
She hated even admitting to herself that she was from there. There were some things that she liked but nothing that couldn’t be left behind.
Mara couldn’t wait to leave.
She could hear all of their voices; her entire family echoing behind Gene at the podium, crab barreling him down for their time to shine for the news cameras. They each needed a chance to say how they helped Mara Brown become so famous. They wanted their due.
Aunt Melody Joan pushed her son Gene out of the way and was saying to the imaginary reporters, “I’m the one who told Mara ain’t nothing open at three am but some legs. That’s why she never had no kids out of wedlock and went on to writing them good ol’ books!”
“You shouldn’t have to go to church if you don’t want to scared-y cat. I ain’t goin, watch.” Gene said. “She can’t make me do nothing. She might be mad but she ain’t gonna do nothing about it.”
Aunt Maddy Jane, Melody’s twin sister, would jump right in at that moment, batting her eyelashes at the excited crowd, grabbing the microphone out of her sister’s hand and saying, “Yes, but Miss Mara Brown wouldn’t have never become nothing if she hadn’t listened to me when I told her to brush her teeth with baking soda because people love you if you got a pretty white smile. She got those college scholarships with that smile.”
“No, Gene, I have to go. If I don’t go, you know that she is just itching to tell my mom. I might have to go live back with them if I don’t do everything just right while I’m here. Plus I wanna go, Mara said, I like the singing.”
It seemed to Mara that everyone else had a pretty clear idea of what she could be and they all wanted to be able to say, one day, many years later, that they helped her to become great. And they were never ever going to let her forget that opportunity was hers and theirs to share.
“Just tell her you can’t find no dress shoes or no panties or something.” Gene said.
He had snatched a handful of green leaves from Aunt Maddy Jane’s smoking pouch the night before and was in the middle of the floor in Grandma May’s living room, rolling the leaves into a small piece of the front page of Grandma May’s Indianapolis Star, and licking the edges.
The truth was Mara hated church now. And the god that came with it. She had loved it so much when she had first moved with Grandma May in 1986 after Grandma’s car accident. The stories they told there and the songs they sang were so beautiful and uplifting.
They said things like, “God is love.”
Mara knew that she had to be baptized right away because much like Grandma May’s blessings, she didn’t want to miss out on anything God had to offer.
They said things like, “Pressed down, shaken together and over flowing.”
It was a magic place where you could forget. You could go there, and close your eyes and forget anything bad. You could say to yourself, no one pulled down my pants. Nobody touched me.
They said things like, “Prince of peace.”
You could say to yourself, my momma loves me, just as much as she loves her other kids, I’m just helping Grandma May right now.
Mara only started hating church when she started liking boys.
She called herself being in love with one particular boy, Marshall Rogers. He was the same age as Gene and they were born on the same day so they were best friends. Everybody called Marshall, “Mean”. It fit. He was disgusting. Everywhere the two boys went together, you could hear sanctified Christian adults screaming, “Mean and Gene, get ya’ll asses back here right now, you are in a whole heap of fucking trouble!”
“Well, I ain’t goin’, so I will be here when ya’ll get back.” Gene said, “My momma don’t make me go, so ain’t nobody else gonna make me go, neither.”
Mara shook her head. Gene didn’t realize how good he had it. Mara wasn’t allowed to make those kinds of choices. She wasn’t really allowed to feel anything without permission. Not even for Marshall. She still couldn’t tell you to this day why she had ever liked him.
He was fat and he farted all of the time.
More than likely it was probably because Mean spent so much time with them instead of his own family, that the crush developed. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters. After church on Wednesdays and Sundays he would always come to Aunt Melody’s house to stay the night. He stayed at Aunt Melody’s house every summer when school was out. He was just always there.
She might have liked him a little more because he was off limits, too. Mean was a white boy. That just wasn’t allowed. People in Hollywood could do that but not people in Indiana. At least not the good righteous black folk in Mara’s family.
Mean knew Mara liked him. Even God knew. The only person who never found out and would never, ever find out ever, was Gene.
Mara could never remember who started the whole thing but she was pretty certain that Mean made a move first.
The stuff they would say in church started to change after he told her she was pretty.
Now they were saying, “The wages of sin is death.”
Mean would hold her hand in a pew under a jacket so no one could see.
And they said things like, “Don’t be Delilah.”
Mean would rub up against Mara in line for punch after service, holding onto her hips with one hand and thrusting his body into her from behind.
And they said things like, “Don’t be Jezebel.”
Mean would wipe crumbs from the body of Christ off Mara’s blouse and it took way too long to do it.
It felt like everyone was staring at them even when they had a Bible space between them. They had heat coming off of them. It was obvious. They would stay up after everyone had gone to bed at Aunt Melody’s house every weekend watching scrambled pictures of Benny Hill episodes, kissing.
Mara thought that she loved him. She was convinced. She no longer loved the neighbor’s cute 18 year old son Ryan. She no longer loved Aunt Melody’s best friend’s little brother, Teddy neither. Mean had touched her body, underneath the clothes so he would be the one. She thought that it would be okay to love him because obviously when they grew up they would get married now. It would be like West Side Story or something and her family would have to just stop being racist because when Mara and Marshall had kids, they would be half white.
“I’m goin’ Gene, that’s final. We can’t go to the fair if we don’t go, Grandma May already said so fool. Mara told him.
Gene smoked his newspaper.
“They can all kiss my ass.” Gene said.
Mara knew why Gene was so hesitant. They had the same reason. All of a sudden, everything about church had changed. Something inside Mara had changed. She didn’t really care about pleasing god anymore, not as much as trying to please Mean. Mean, was right there, in front of her. She could see him. Touch him. She just wanted to let him touch her too all the time. As soon as Gene was asleep, Mara let Mean put his hands down her pants. It was so nice to feel, finally, for the first time, wanted. Nobody was taking anything from her. Nobody was pushing her away. Mean wanted her and that’s all she had ever wanted for herself, up to that point. Him.
They never got caught outright.
The Pastor, Pastor Wilkins, told Grandma May he had a vision.
“May June, the Lord told me something and I know it is gonna hurt your heart to hear it.” He said, “But I love you and the Lord too much not to tell you what the Lord told me.”
After that Sunday Service, when they got home Mara heard Aunty Melody Joan beating Gene. He kept screaming so loud that even Mara could not hold back her tears. Grandma May brought her into her own bedroom and told Mara to tell her the truth.
“About what, Grandma? Why is Gene getting a whooping? What did he do?”
“You don’t know what he did?” Grandma said, stamping her foot, “You gonna sit there and tell me you don’t know what the both of you did?”
“No Ma’am.” Mara said crying.
“Don’t lie to me, gal,” Grandma May yelled, “Don’t you lie to me in my own house! I am so very disappointed in you, Mara, I’m just so upset right now. Now listen here young lady you are gonna tell me straight, right now what the two of you been doing or so help me God!”
“Nothing, Grandma, nothing, we haven’t been doing nothing!” Mara pleaded.
Mara could hear Gene being held down by his mom in the other bedroom, his screams muffled by a pillow as Aunty Melody whacked his legs and back over and over again with her leather belt.
“So you tellin’ me Pastor Wilkins is a liar? You saying, My God is a liar?”
“I don’t know,” Mara said, “Please Grandma, I don’t know what you are talking about!”
“Pastor Wilkins told me today that you and Gene been holding hands and what not and kissing all over the church when no one was looking and doing all sorts of nasty devilish things and I will not have it, you understand me? I will beat the skin off you if you ever do anything like this again!”
“Why would he say that, Grandma?” Mara said, “Why would he say that, it just ain’t true! Gene is getting beat for nothing, it just ain’t true!”
It was the first time Grandma May ever hit Mara. She slapped her across the face like she was a stranger trying to rob her. Mara never wanted to feel like that again. She saw it happen to her mother all the time and her mother was so defeated. Maybe that was why she sent Mara to live with Grandma May in the first place. So she couldn’t be held responsible for ruining the golden girl.
“Pastor told me that God showed him, in a vision! God told him what you did, chile! God saw you, you can’t keep no damn secrets from God!”
They started saying things like, “God is not a man that he should lie.”
“Ask Gene!” Mara said, “Just ask him! He wouldn’t do nothing like that to me! I swear!”
“You stay in here for the night and think about what you did wrong. You better spend the whole night praying, Mara. I mean it. Ain’t nobody askin’ Gene nothing. You better start asking God to help you before it’s too late. Don’t you dare come out of this room!”
It was a simple mistake. Maybe Grandma heard, “Gene” but Pastor Wilkins must have said, “Mean.” He must have. God wouldn’t lie, Mara thought. If God lied about this, then he lied about everything, right? She asked herself.
That next Sunday, Mara waited for Pastor Wilkins after church. She waited until everyone who needed a special prayer got one. Stood in line behind them so that she could talk to Pastor Wilkins, eye to eye. They always had to stay late anyway because Grandma May was the church treasurer and she had to make sure all the money got counted up for God, cause he couldn’t do it himself.
“Pastor, does God lie?”
“No, Mara, God is infallible. He does not make mistakes.”
“When God talked to you the other day about me what did he say? Please tell me what God said, I don’t ever want God to be mad at me.”
“Well, I was sitting back in my easy chair and God brought you on my heart. I closed my eyes and God showed me an image, a very disturbing vision, of you pretending that your little cousin Gene was your husband.”
“God showed you that? Are you sure, sir? Absolutely, sure?”
“Come on Mara, let’s pray.” Wilkins said, “Your grandmother has such high hopes for you.”
Turned out, Pastor Wilkins was mad at Grandma May for correcting his personal taxes showing that he owed $2,000 to the state.
Turned out, Pastor Wilkins was mad at Grandma May because she refused to buy his wife a $2,000 dollar dress as an offering a few months later.
Turned out, Pastor Wilkins didn’t have no vision from nobody’s god at all, his bad ass daughter, Louise had been caught with her pants down with Gene and to save herself, she told her father that Mara was the one with him and she saw it all. All Pastor Wilkins did was repeated it, just to hurt Grandma May’s feelings.
Grandma May would have been even more hurt if Mara didn’t go to this new church with her. Mara knew negotiation with Grandma May was out of the question but Gene- Gene was a risk taker. He didn’t seem to care what other people felt about him, or at least he didn’t show it. Mara was always jealous of that. But she wasn’t taking no chances in ever getting slapped again by anybody, ever.
Grandma May was still sore about the whole situation. She had trusted those people at that church. Pastor Wilkins had been her Pastor since 1978. He was the reason she had gotten saved in the first place. He was the only Pastor the whole family had ever known. But when Mara told Grandma May that she didn’t believe in god no more if god was a liar, May knew that she had to find a new church home, and fast. She couldn’t let her only granddaughter, the only one worth her weight in gold; get lead astray by a thieving con artist scoundrel, pretending to love the lord.
The family never talked about it again. No one discussed why they ever left that church for a new one. Mean wasn’t allowed to come over Aunty’s house after that because they didn’t go to the same church anymore. It was politics.
“Well if you ain’t goin’ Gene, you better high tail it outta here before Grandma May gets ready. I’ll meet you at the fair when we get back, okay?” Mara said, “And stay outta trouble til’ then!”
“Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do, to get to what you do want,” Aunty Mandy Jean would tell the reporters far off into the future and she would happily tack on the end of herself praise that her first niece, Miss Mara Brown, got that little bit of life advice directly from her.
Church, it was.