Stores of Mercy
Excerpted from the novel Glorybound

Aimee Lemley pulled the wet laundry from the washer on the back screen porch. Earlier that morning, she and Crystal had come home from King’s Service Station and emptied out of the truck cab like heavy water. Crystal had then left for work on foot, and Aimee had watched her sister out the window until the corn-silk ponytail blurred. Now she hefted the basket to her hip with one arm, pulled on rubber Tingley overshoes without her canvas shoes underneath, and slipped out the screen door, careful, out of habit, not to make the spring whine.

Any morning fog that had fallen was burned off already. A few of the trailers in Painted Rocks Estates had their lights on, showing Aimee a number of faces still creased with sleep. The Lemleys’ was the only doublewide in the park, the first place on the left as you pulled off Route 50. When the park had been new, theirs was the showcase trailer you could walk through, and then you put your name on the list for one of the others. The guy would say, “Remember it’ll be half this size,” but people most likely forgot. The Lemleys got the place years later, after the bank foreclosed on whoever had the doublewide at that time. It was no longer a showcase by then, but blue lattice framed the front door and front cinder-block steps, and Aimee and Crystal had found that pretty, along with the rocks at the park’s entrance, with red paintings on them. Indian paintings, the bank man had said, unearthed when they’d dug for the park’s septic tanks. Later, Joshie Dixon, who lived one trailer back, told Aimee the paintings weren’t done by Indians at all. “Girl, everything round here’s a sham.” He had looked sad for a second; then he’d twisted his face up and pinched her.

Aimee started with the underwear on the clothesline at the back of the three lines that ran the length of the trailer, post to post. The lines were gathered and propped in the middle by long sticks cut at the top like slingshots. She started with the underwear on that line, farthest from the road that pulled in from Route 50, closest to the Dixons’ kitchen window, but their blinds were down. She pulled each piece from the broken Rubbermaid basket, shook it once, clasped it to the line and let the wind slip through and around. She hung the towels in a solid sheet of terry, the socks haphazard among the work pants and blocky shirts that Crystal wore and the few underthings that their mom, Dotte, had put in the wash. Not much else from Dotte since she hardly ever dressed. And then Aimee’s own skimpy dresses, upside down with their slight sleeves or straps dangling.

 

Before starting the washer, Aimee had changed from the blouse and the long skirt she’d taken from her mom’s closet, though she hadn’t returned them and wouldn’t until midday, when Dotte would come out of her bedroom and drink her coffee cold. Aimee had no dresses of her own that would suit a prison visit, so she’d sneaked the clothes the night before. Then, that morning at dawn, she and Crystal had walked down their long-chute hallway, headed for the Cuzzert Correctional Facility to visit their convict daddy whom they had not seen in ten years. It had all seemed like too cruel a joke—a prison built in their West Virginia town for an economic boon that had yet to show itself; their daddy ending up an inmate there, without having sent word for so long; his sentence for a hit-and-run to serve time just an hour’s drive from Painted Rocks. Too cruel.

The sisters drove their pickup north on Route 50, far enough to see the steel sign grow from the berm as they rounded a bend: Cuzzert Correctional Facility for Men, 15 Miles. So strange and foreign, bright heavy letters coming out of nowhere like that. The old bent fence posts cowered before it. Well, it was too heavy to bear. They got as far as King’s Service Station and lost their nerve, or their store of mercy. They turned the truck around in King’s gravel lot and came home, Crystal to the diner and Aimee to the wash. Aimee left Dotte’s clothes in a heap, peeled her slip from her sweaty body and kept near-naked for three cool minutes. She chose her new short mint dress, didn’t safety-pin it, though it was low in the front and all but backless, made of T-shirt cotton. She’d bought it from the little girls’ rack at the Family Dollar and told the cashier it was for a little cousin.

Used to be, Dotte made all Aimee and Crystal’s dresses. Stiff calico prints, blouses buttoned to the top or hooked into an eye in back, close to the neck as a choker chain. Dresses fit for Holiness girls, though they were never chaste enough in her daddy’s estimation. He would say to Aimee, put a sweater on over that. One time, she came to the doorway of his Bible-study room and asked, could she cool by his box fan? “Not till you straighten up,” he said, so she stood taller, straighter. “I mean not till you quit acting filthy, strutting around.” He slapped her behind as she turned to go. “Get yourself a sweater on,” he called after her, “that dress cuts too low,” even though it was July, the dress already so snug to her neck that she’d slipped the topmost hook from its eye.

But her daddy was gone. As good as dead for ten years, before he’d come home to roost, so to speak, at that prison. Still, he had no claim now, and Aimee’s dresses were flimsy as could be, not like the ones hand-sewn. Her dresses were mint now, dark indigo; they cut low, low and fell mid-thigh in a ruffle. They were red-ribboned, like a bleeding fish in water.

 

The tiny straps of an upside-down dress caught at Aimee’s bare leg, and she brushed them away. Between her legs, a hum. Always there when she hung her dresses on the line. She grew aware of her body as she pinned them up at the skirt hem, sensing a peculiar union between her body and her spirit and her wet dresses, all three flying just a little off the ground, wild, but held fixed by the two clothespins.

She pulled her peach-colored dress from the pile, the only one of her mom’s hand-sewn dresses she’d kept. It was simple and unadorned, yoked at the waist; she’d had it since high school, but her figure hadn’t changed much even into her early twenties, so it still fit. On Sundays, she wore the dress to Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle. The short sleeves of the dress ended blunt. The neckline V–ed just to her collarbone, no lower, and into a line of pearl-headed buttons rimmed with fake silver. Though Aimee despised the dress, she’d kept it because she loved the buttons. She fingered them and saw that one was coming loose. They were hard to keep on the dress, the kind of button sewn on through the post sticking out the back, not through a pair of holes or a set of four with a sure crisscross of thread. The buttons flopped and could catch easy on a table if she bumped it, but they were elegant if you didn’t look too close.

“These buttons would break your heart, Daddy,” she said out loud. And her body hummed deep, more and more, responding, like a hymn of response after a Word, to a nonspecific shame.

“Break your heart, break your heart,” she said in a sort of airy song. The straps of the upside-down dress reached for her leg again. “Nunh-unh,” she said, “no you don’t,” and she kicked them away. She held the peach dress, with its pearls going down single file, and she gently plucked the loose button from it.

“And this is for old June, may she rest in peace,” making like she was placing it on a gravestone in front of her. “We’re still breaking hearts.” And she laughed and threw the pearl button hard toward the road. It skittered to a secret spot in the ditch, and there was humming all up inside her. Her love for June was a bronzed, blessed thing that she reached for when she couldn’t shake the shame.

* * *

June Tatum was dead now four years, but during services at Glorybound, her chair was still unfolded with the rest and set with white asters, or dried bittersweet if it was winter. She’d been a regular, considered by the small congregation to be a woman-prophet, different from men-prophets in that she had been allowed to prophesy but not to lead from up front. It was the men who led. It was Aimee’s daddy, Reverend Cord Lemley, who led.

When Aimee was a child and she looked at June, she felt hints of things she never understood: gratefulness and mercy, awe, blackness and sorrow, a mean little joy. June Tatum was revered and pitied both. She sat in the front row of metal folding chairs beside the altar bench and amened and praisejesused with her deep-toned voice when Aimee’s daddy would get preaching. June was a big woman and she wore the same dress every week: a two-piece skirt and top, dark blue with huge white lilies all over, with strained elastic around the skirt’s waist, short sleeves that puffed then narrowed just above the elbow where her fleshy arms bulged out. And the dress top had five big buttons down the front, each a diamond set in a rim of metal, maybe pewter, in a pattern that reminded Aimee of the wrought-iron railing on the Tabernacle steps. Five fat jewels down June’s mountainous front. The buttons sparkled if the Sunday light hit them just so.

As a little girl, Aimee sat with Crystal in the second row, opposite June, beside their mom and behind their daddy’s preaching chair where he sat before worship began. Once it began, he stood up front and paced and swaggered and jumped like an acrobat on fire. The people of Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle met in the redone basement of a coal company house, owned by Miriam Louks’ aunt before she died and donated it for the church. It was built in the 1930s when Cuzzert was a coal mining town and every man was either a miner or under the age of fifteen.

Miriam lived upstairs and kept the basement clean. She broom-swept the green carpet that covered the cement floor, the carpet worn thin from the stomping and dancing that people did when they rose from their chairs. Miriam washed down the bathroom where, beside the toilet, she’d written on a card in neat cursive: “Please don’t flush tissue down unless you really must.” She had plugged a Glade potpourri fixture into the wall outlet, but she’d never replaced it; it had browned, clinging there like a locust hull. She and Dotte decorated the Tabernacle with various framed pictures of Jesus: under rays of light or half in shadow, with the thorny crown and then without, with the beads of bloodsweat and then a clean marble forehead. Miriam also managed what Aimee and Crystal called “the numbers.” On a board she got from the Methodists, a hanging board with slats and movable tiles, she recorded the Weekly Attendance, the Record Attendance, the Love-offering amounts. None of the numbers she posted ever went above thirty.

The girls braided each other’s hair, or rooted around in Dotte’s purse, for the first half of every service, until Cord’s preaching went loud and the electric faith of the Glorybound worshippers ricocheted around the room. Then the girls sat up and raised their hands and waved the handkerchiefs they’d pulled from the pockets of the purse. They watched June Tatum as she rocked, second row back, as her buttons glinted then went dull. How could June Tatum, who wore the same dress every week, have such pretty buttons, Aimee wondered but never asked.

June walked with a cane. She was a couple hundred pounds overweight and blind, which was one reason why they said she was a woman-prophet, because a prophet has to go without something and she went without sight. Even though she was blind, people said she could open the Bible and speak the Word on that page. She wore her gray hair back in a ratty ponytail, in a white scrunchy, like the kind Aimee saw the high school girls wear. But what drew Aimee’s gaze most, besides the buttons, was June’s grizzled face. She shaved her upper lip and jaw and chin, just like a man. She was the only woman with stubble that Aimee had ever seen, so she obsessed over June, wondered when she had started shaving, and why. If she was blind, and she felt hair on her face, then how did she know women shouldn’t have hair there? Did she go around feeling other women’s faces for comparison? Or did somebody tell her about it? Aimee thought Miriam Louks was the kind of person who would tell her about it. And since June was blind, did she cut herself ever? She missed some parts altogether; some patches were thicker than others, varied like a cut field. She couldn’t have shaved very often because the stubble was thick whenever Aimee saw her, on Sundays and on days when they spotted June at the Save-a-Lot grocery and Dotte made a point to speak to her.

When June rocked forward into a shout and back into a murmur, the chair strained under her. Aimee watched and wanted more than anything to touch June’s face. She knew a prophet was meant for something, and, in secret, she thought maybe the stubble proved June was meant to be a man. A man who would lead from up front, different from the way her daddy did. And she wondered, would the stubble be soft, not like Daddy’s, sandpaper half a day after he shaved.

 

One Sunday, Crystal leaned over to Aimee’s ear, just before the hymn of invitation when the church would get wavery, and she whispered: “Dare you to touch June Tatum’s face.” That was all she said, then she straightened her sock on her right foot to make it look like that’s why she had leaned over. Aimee sat stone-still. She had never breathed a word about June’s face to Crystal, but a sister knows. Aimee nodded her head down as their daddy moved into a prayer of preparation and getting-right before the hymn started, but she nodded back up and shot a glance at June.

June’s eyes, mostly white like a poached egg, were wide open and her head, instead of bowed, was facing up, blotchy red with sweat and shining some. The mixed feelings sputtered up in Aimee: she felt so sorry for the huge woman, and she felt so cruel, but she also felt a strange surge of something else, something better. She touched her own face absently, a face she knew to be pear-colored and smooth and rosy in the right spots. Lovely. She knew it even young, before everyone said so, a face framed by her long black hair that held its waves like shelves for the light to sit on. She could not interpose herself, she knew, could not take on June’s self and give June her own doll self. But that is what she wanted. Out of pity and envy both.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” she whispered, “but next week.”

Crystal grinned with her eyes squinted shut.

 

The next week, as folks filed in, Aimee sat in the chair beside June’s. The big woman tapped her way to her chair and sat, seemingly unaware of Aimee’s presence. June had worn the same dress, of course. This was the closest Aimee had ever been, and the buttons drew her in. She sat close enough to see June’s nostrils flare as she breathed heavy, close enough to see that the diamonds in the buttons of the dark blue dress were fake, maybe even plastic, glued cockeyed in their mounts of dull tin grate which could have been itself gray plastic, but she couldn’t tell without touching. And she remembered that’s why she was there—she’d planned all week to touch June’s stubbled jaw line during the opening prayer when everybody would be bowed down and no one would see her do it.

Aimee felt hot as her daddy started with a prayer murmur that would crescendo into a calling-down of the Spirit to anoint him with a Word to say in the name of Jesus. She felt the heat drift down from June’s body, too, and drape her face and her bare ankles below her dress, her hands, like a hot mist. Both of June’s hands perched on her cane in front of her. They were pale and helpless, strangely small compared to the rest of her, and they quivered to the rhythms of her watery breathing. June’s hands looked to Aimee like the small minnows she’d caught when she had gone fishing with Crystal once at their cousin’s pond and they’d not pulled the line quick enough and the minnows had swallowed the oversized hooks. Their stomachs tore when Aimee and Crystal pulled them out with a jerk; the girls knew no way to get the hooks out. Crystal cut the lines on both of their poles and lay the fish side by side on the bank of the pond. One flopped over the other, on top, as though to die in a small heap were a comfort.

“Might we be supple in your hands, O God—break us and make us, O God, O glory, break our hearts and make us again, like clay in your hands.” Her daddy was getting louder now, with the soft cooing yes-oh-yes chorus of the people in the folding chairs gathering after his words like the little minnows in Aimee’s mind, swimming after baited hooks.

“Make us bold, Lord God, in the Holy Ghost power,” Cord stomped. “Yes, Lord, I say yes, and we ain’t leaving till you do, I say.” He stomped twice and a cry came from the back, a shrill echo, “Ain’t leaving,” and Cord answered the cry, “We say, ain’t leaving,” and some chairs grated on the thin carpet as a few people stood. The final Amen was nearing, when Aimee knew all would stand and raise their eyes, and the basement would tremble, so with no further meditation, she reached up to June Tatum’s face and stroked her thick jaw with her fingertips.

At Aimee’s touch, June shot up out of the chair quicker than Aimee might have thought possible. Crystal choked out a laugh from the other side of the room. June’s empty eyes looked wildly around, obeying instinct. When she stood, the third fake-diamond button on her dress caught on the back lip of the chair in front of her, and the button shot off onto the green carpet in the corner. June wheeled around, pivoted on her cane, looking lost, and walked out of the basement as quickly as she could, which was halted and awkward even so. The Amen must have come by then because eyes were wide and were looking at the door that June left ajar behind her. Aimee held her left hand in her right and searched for any eyes that had seen what she’d done. She found Miriam Louks watching her from a few seats back, that prim mouth in a sour pucker. Aimee’s daddy emerged from his prayer as though from a deep cave and plowed right into the Word, without looking at her. But later in the service, when Dotte’s shaky voice went up somewhere into a chorus of hallelujahs and everyone followed her up that long stairway of sound, Cord looked over at June’s empty seat, and then at Aimee, hugging herself. She looked in his coal-black eyes and saw herself in him. He was handsome and dark and the sweat pasted his shirt to his chest. His look hemmed her in close, the way she felt in their long-chute hallway in Painted Rocks, or in the slim pass beside the washing machine on the back screen porch when she walked by him and his eyes fell to her face in a hot hail of shamefulness and he told her to get a sweater. He knew she’d done something. He kept her back from the staircase of praise everybody else was climbing.

 

After the service, Miriam Louks scuttled around picking up. She found the escaped dress button that Aimee had watched sparkle and dull intermittently in that corner all morning, a tiny reprimand. Miriam turned to two of the other women who were trying to figure out what had sent June off—the Spirit? The toilet? Some kind of coughing fit coming? Aimee stood apart from the huddle of women, and Crystal slipped up beside her.

“What on earth moved her?” one woman asked, meaning what had moved her heart, but conjuring up in Aimee’s mind the difficulty of moving a mountain.

“Mercy, that dress,” Miriam said in a voice people reserved for prophets. A voice that coated over the mixed feelings that prophets drummed up in you, the pity and the jealousy, the gratitude and the horror, coated it all like Pepto-Bismol coats a sick stomach. Miriam closed the button into the skinny folds of her old-skin palm and looked at Aimee. “Don’t those buttons just break your heart? Don’t they?” The other women yessed her, with the same coating over the remorse and contempt and fear, but Aimee didn’t understand. How could buttons break your heart? Like her daddy had prayed to God to break their hearts—she’d heard him pray that a lot—to be supple was the word he used, and sometimes when he said it, he made movements with his big hands like he was molding a pliable clay himself. A button’s a button, she wanted to say to Miriam Louks, and she wanted to get it back. It didn’t belong to Miriam, and Aimee suspected she would not give it to June to sew back on. And why didn’t her own buttons break Miriam’s heart? She thought then, maybe they did.

“What’d it feel like, Aimee? A porcupine face?” Crystal whispered.

“I don’t know. It felt wet,” Aimee said. “Maybe like grass.”

“I think she was crying when she went.” Crystal looked at the floor. Aimee could tell she was sorry she had laughed out loud right when the button had flown off.

“It felt like moss,” Aimee said. It felt rough but soft, and she couldn’t decide between the two sensations. It did not feel like her daddy’s face when it was close to hers. Was it the only time June had ever been touched on the face? People held her by the elbow sometimes and guided her, Aimee had seen that. But on her face, that was different. Surely someone had touched her when she was little. Surely. And Aimee shut her eyes, tried to imagine what it might be like to hear voices but feel nothing for so long, see nothing, and then out of that nothing, the feel of fingers on her face.

Aimee shivered. She did not like to be touched, or to be looked at as something lovely. And everyone touched her. Even now, Miriam reached for Aimee, stroked her long black hair as though petting a horse. People treated her like she was a pretty hollow bone, with no spirit whistling around inside, no prophet’s ache, just sawdust and a doll’s fiberfill stuffing.

Now you see what it’s like, is what she thought. It was a punishment for June, or an initiation. Or a gift.

Aimee imagined that June would feel her dress button missing, the threads spilling out loose like sprigs of plant. June would have to get a new dress. But the next week, the same dress, a new button. Dull copper from a pair of jeans. When Aimee looked close, she read Riders on it. It somehow made June look more like a wild woman-prophet than ever. It made Aimee love her and follow her out of the basement that morning, to the edge of the road, like a disciple.

* * *

Aimee’s line of Monday wash hung wet and still, heavy without the play of a breeze. She sat on the steps of the screen porch to cool herself, lost in her mind for an hour, maybe more. Then she stood and walked toward the road, pursuing, before she realized it, the path of the silver-rimmed pearl button she’d thrown to the ditch as if it were a worthless stone.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “If I’m meant for it.” Maybe tomorrow they would visit their dark-haired daddy in one of those rooms with glass between them like on TV, and they’d talk on a phone through the glass, unable to touch. She trailed the button to the ditch, and she kept walking, down Route 50 in the direction of town, in her short backless dress and her Tingley overshoes too loose.

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