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First pages

Prologue

The afternoon emitted a unique pitch, the aggregate of countless summer tasks. Lawn mowers droned over postcard-shaped swatches of grass. Bees dusted their feet with pollen. A plane’s whine, thin and nasal, cut through the hot blue sky.

Inside a neat brick house, Mrs. Patty Poltzer plunged the morning's cereal bowls in and out of gray dishwasher, humming Pachelbel's Canon in D. She'd heard it at a wedding and liked it. She washed the last dish, a bowl belonging to her Himalayan Persian cat, Fancy. And where had he gone? That fat cat disappeared after she'd fed him, though licking the bowl usually kept him occupied for a good ten minutes. Patty peered past her grapefruit tree's dense foliage and there he was—sitting in the neutral ground, streams of traffic flowing on either side.

Images of Fancy crushed beneath the wheels of an oncoming sedan urged her into a run, though she rarely exceeded a jog, because the flopping of her generous bosoms was both undignified and uncomfortable. Fancy did not attempt to prolong his taste of freedom. He sat in the grass, staring up into a burly oak tree, entranced.

"What are you looking at, you bad cat?" She scooped him up and shaded her eyes against the sun, peering into the oak’s twining branches. Her eyes focused on the biggest beehive she had ever seen, larger than a sack of potatoes, hanging from the tree like a swollen pustule. It bristled with a dark carpet of swarming bees. They emitted a deep, thrumming buzz.

Patty dropped Fancy. So great was his indignation—and when she shrieked, his terror—that he fled back to the safety of his yard, where he observed a single bee disentangle itself from the living mass of its peers and describe a spiral in the sky.

It flew to the intersection of Porteous and Vicksburg, which was marked by a two-story brick house. The yard's grass suffered from a modicum of neglect, sadly lacking in clover. The bee drifted into the house through a poorly mended screen door.

In the back yard, three-year-old Gates sat in grass that felt warm and frayed. She watched an ant scale a blade of grass. Her father was watching her watching the ant when a ringing phone summoned him inside.

"Miles, it's Patty. My cat got out," came the report, choked out around tears.

"Okay... " Miles said, unclear on why this crisis should concern him.

"Fancy was in the neutral ground looking at bees. Thousands of bees. Millions! Swarming over each other, crawling on the hive. Bees on top of bees! And the buzzing! I still hear them buzzing! I don't know if you still capture hives or not, but..."

"I do that sometimes, but Sarah went to church and I have Gates for another hour. So maybe I could take it down tomorrow?"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry to be freaking out like this—it's just that I've already called Animal Control, and they said bees aren't animals, and the guy at City Hall said the city doesn't control the bees, and he was very rude about it, and Audubon Zoo says they have a staff entomologist who sometimes handles cases like these, but that he's out of town, and Chris can't help, and I'm extremely allergic, and, well, I'm kind of having a little crisis!"

"Okay, okay. Don't worry about it. I'll do something," Miles promised, watching Gates as she picked clover and wove it thoughtfully through her toes. It would be an hour before Sarah finished her liturgical dance practice.

Miles laid out his the tool he had inherited from his stepfather Bartholomew, an amateur apiarist: smoker, scissors, string, knife, buckets, blank frames, a box, a top and bottom board. He could almost hear his stepfather's voice as he donned the white jumpsuit.

"Come on, hon," he said to Gates, who gawked at the get-up. "Let's go take down a hive."

Patty Poltzer's house was a five-minute drive away. Gates waited in the car while Miles investigated the hive. He heard it before he saw it. The buzzing of a healthy, busy hive said all was well with the world. The hive was suspended from a thick, healthy branch fifteen feet up. Miles suspected the colony had hung there for years without creating a stir. He carried Gates inside to Patty, who had already started mixing a batch of cookie dough. Then he donned his veil and took up the smoker.

Resembling nothing more than an old oil can like the one wielded by the Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, the smoker was fitted with bellows that pumped smoke into the hive. As smoke filled their home, Miles imagined what the bees were doing.

"Woodland creatures, they fear fire more than anything else," Bartholomew had told him decades ago. "They go into the hive, deep, and gorge themselves with honey, so they'll have the resources to sustain themselves during the hunt for a new home. Most of the time they're too busy eating to sting."

Miles took a knife from his leather tool belt and detached the hive from the tree. It was a delicate, almost surgical procedure. He sliced the tough outer comb of the beehive, unwrapped each layer of comb and tied it to blank frames, which he would deliver to the university's entomology department.

Miles was careful to include enough honey, brood and pollen to enable the bees to make a fresh start in the apiary. After tying each layer of hive to the frame, he placed it in a box. With the existing hive removed, and the tied combs secure, he focused his efforts on collecting as many loose bees as possible. He was herding the last ones into a box, feeling almost fond of the bewildered bugs, like a shepherd herding sheep, when Patty appeared in the neutral ground. Her face was ashen, her feet bare.

"Patty, what are you doing? There are still bees out here," he said through the veil.

She held the phone out. "It's Sarah."

"I’ll call her back. You didn't have to come—"

"It's Sarah."

But it wasn't Sarah. It was a man who identified himself as a police officer, and he was calling about Sarah. There had been an accident, he explained.

Miles watched bee spiral away. He nodded a few times and turned off the phone and kept watching the bee. Miles followed it as long as he could, watched it spinning, gleaming, and sparking goldly in the yellow-blue sky, until was unclear whether he was watching the bee or some mote of brightness in his own eye.

Chapter 1

(Ten years later)

 

The August sun hung heavy and voluptuous in the sky, like an overripe mango. Gates stood motionless. Her calves and arms burned with lactic acid, each molecule of the stuff chewing at her muscles like a tiny, malicious maw. A strand of hair escaped from her ponytail and stuck to her face. It itched. She refused to scratch it.

“I am a terra cotta soldier,” she thought. “No. Stone. I'm made of stone.”

Footsteps crunched on dry grass behind her. She felt eyes assess the angle of her elbows, the uprightness of her posture, most of all, her stillness, before yelling into her ear.

“Feet!”

“Together!” Gates yelled back.

“Stomach!”

“In!” Her scream ripped through her like a serrated blade.

“Chest!”

“Out!”

“Shoulders!”

“Back!”

“Chin!”

“Up!”

“Eyes!”

“With pride!”

“I can’t hear you!”

WITH PRIDE!” Gates roared.

“You can sit down now,” John Ed said softly, his approval that of a dom who has utterly exhausted a willing submissive.

Gates exhaled and dropped her arms from the horns-up position to join her father’s marching band students. Her stomach growled as she watched John Ed conduct the band off the field. The graceful, fluid movements of his hands and the swell of his calves as he raised himself up during the drum solo held her attention. He led the band through the parking lot in parade formation, and they filed into the band room silently, instruments down, but in formation still.

Miles cleared his throat. Gates leaned against a vending machine in the corner of the band room, standing apart from the students. She knew what came next. She could recite “The Speech” by heart.

Miles drew a large triangle on the board. At the top of the triangle, he wrote “State Finals.”

“That’s where we want to be at the end of October. We’ve made some progress so far. How far do you think we’ve come?”

The freshmen murmured. None of them had known parade rest from marking time before that Monday. A skinny, pale boy approached the board. His shirt depicted a martial artist mid-roundhouse kick with the slogan “We bust our’s to kick your’s!” The boy picked up a piece of chalk and drew a line halfway up the pyramid.

“Right here,” he said in a burst of confidence.

“You want to know where you really are?” Miles drew a slash mark about an inch from the pyramid’s base. A collective slump overtook the students. Sensing their despair, John Ed took the podium.

"There’s this study out about marching band," John Ed said. "Some researchers decided to monitor the heart rate and breathing of a tenor sax player during an eleven-minute show. The stresses, heart rate, and breathing are similar to that of a marathon runner. But marching band is a mental game, too.”

“You have to know where you are on the field,” a flute player chimed in.

“And you have to jazz run to get there, sometimes,” Miles added. “What else?”

“Note for note. Rests. Downbeats. Upbeats.” John Ed’s face shone from enthusiasm and a generous coating of sunscreen. “So what this means is, don’t listen if other kids call you a geek. You are not geeks. You are athletes.”

The students stood, forgetting their sore calves, blisters, sunburns, and cheered heartily. Even Gates felt heartened. She had to hand it to John Ed. He knew how to deliver a rousing quality to her father's timeworn speech.

Gates ate a candy bar as she and her father drove home. Miles had repeatedly urged school administration to stock the vending machines with bottled water and granola bars, healthy snacks that would provide sustenance for his band members during their long rehearsals. He eyed her candy bar with disdain.

“So,” he said, shifting into third. “How did we look today?”

“Watch their slides,” she said, chewing a bite of chocolate and nougat. “They’re not cranking them as much as they should be.”

“I look out while they’re marching, I see all these heads bobbing up and down.”

“What about the egg exercise?”

Miles shook his head. “The instrument room still smells like sulfur.”

The egg exercise was designed to teach students to keep their upper bodies motionless while marching. Instead of holding an instrument, they held spoons containing raw eggs. But the exercise backfired. Yolky carnage still stained the school’s walls, eternal testaments to the foolishness of combining teenagers and raw eggs.

Gates crumpled her candy bar wrapper and put it in the ashtray. “What if we used hard-boiled eggs?”

“John Ed's coming over for dinner Sunday night, by the way. I expect you to clean your room before then.”

“What? Dad, why?”

“Because it’s a pigsty in there.”

“No, I mean, why does John Ed have to come over?”

“He’s my drum major.”

“You never invited the drum majors before.”

“That was different.”

“Different how?”

“Those drum majors didn’t have anything…” Miles paused. “They didn’t have anything at stake."

“And John Ed does?”

John Ed had been a genuine rebel as a sophomore, Miles explained. Midway through his junior year, he'd been caught smoking weed, dropped out of school and gone into a diversion program. He emerged amazingly, utterly rehabilitated. Not only that, he was a gifted musician with a knack for commanding the band’s attention. Even Miles looked up to John Ed, and John Ed was only eighteen years old. Miles thought John Ed had a good stab at a music scholarship, as long as he didn’t mess anything up.

“John Ed is a recovering marijuana addict,” Miles said. “The pressure of being a drum major could drive him back to using.”

Gates wished she weren’t any only child. She sometimes wondered if the attention her father lavished on the band (and now John Ed) was the result of some misguided paternal impulse. “That makes, like, no sense.”

“Will you just clean your room, Gates? Just do that for me.”

"Fine."

“Thank you.” Miles tapped his finger to Sousa’s Semper Fidelis, which emerged tinny from cheap speakers.

“Acolyting on Sunday?” Miles said after a few measures. It was a foolish question; they both knew Gates acolyted every Sunday. Miles only wanted to change the subject.

“9:45 service.”

“All right, then.”

For some reason, Miles felt as though a problem had been resolved.

Chapter 2

Each Sunday, Gates and Miles attended Broadmoor Methodist, a church with proportions to rivaled those of a small university. Weekly donations routinely reached $30,000 and plans for more buildings were underway. The church had expanded along roughly concentric circles. Walking from the outermost edge (which was bordered by parking lots) to the sanctuary at the center, Gates and Miles passed the newest buildings first. It was not unlike walking straight through a log, where the most ancient wood is the center, the newer growth at the edges.

Gates walked a few paces ahead her of father, who had taken his time locking the back seat doors, securing the wheel with an anti-theft device menacingly titled “The Club” (though who would steal a 2004 Honda from a church parking lot, Gates wondered?) and then double-checking to make sure the doors were still locked.

The walk was a slow one, as Miles paused frequently to greet fellow members, falling further behind his daughter, who had picked up her pace in order to avoid being late for the service. Also, she was sick of watching women flirt in their mealy, pious-yet-horny way with her dad—serving him coffee after the service, complimenting his ties. Gates knew Miles had eyes for none of them. Between his church, his band, and his daughter, Miles’ life was comfortably full.

Kids did not greet Gates, not did she greet them. After she began acolyting, she quit attending Sunday school and lost touch with the fashions and habits of the more youthful congregants. Sometime in the past few years, the girls had exchanged their patent leather Mary Janes for ballet flats or low-heeled sandals, their cotton floral dresses for miniskirts. They wore makeup and had obviously spent a good amount of time on their hair. They looked as though they were going to some exceptionally wholesome dance party. Gates felt certain that they laughed at her knee-length dress and tights. She kept her head down and her mind focused on her acolyting goals as she passed the middle school girls.

Miles poured himself a cup of coffee when they entered the Fellowship Hall, which resembled a school cafeteria in all respects except for the vaulted ceiling. As an afterthought, he offered a cup to Gates. She declined, but was inwardly pleased by his gesture. It was a sign of her maturity, she thought.

Miles and Gates approached the dusty wooden cabinet where the acolyte robes, and choir robes were stored. It didn’t seem long ago to him that the robes were too big for Gates. Now she no longer needed his assistance rolling up the waistband and safety-pinning it into place; the robes were actually a bit short following a growth spurt that had left her thin and lanky.

“One green robe, coming right up,” he said.

“Pentecost lasts forever.” Gates preferred the purple robes of Lent or the gold robes of Easter. Gates marked the passing of a year by Liturgical seasons rather than the seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Her father did something similar, dividing the year into musical categories: marching band, concert band, and band camp.

“Advent’s right around the corner,” Miles comforted her. Gates pulled the long green skirt over her Sunday dress, then the top with its wide sleeves and embroidered bottom. She enjoyed everything about the uniform except for the dickey, which made her neck itch.

“How do I look?”

“Very reverent,” Miles answered. He didn’t tell her that she looked more like her mother with every passing day. It was a truth that felt too painful to Miles.

Mrs. Poltzer, the Sunday school teacher (now youth director) had often reminded Gates that Gates’ mother was in heaven with Jesus. Gates did not remember her mother, but she did enjoy the implication that she looked angelic.

“Who else is acolyting today?” Gates said.

Here Miles’ and Gates’ paths normally diverged. Miles would stay in the Fellowship Hall with his fellow congregants until the sermon started, while Gates waited in the narthex along with the ushers and her co-acolyte. She was a little anxious because the other acolyte’s robes still hung in the cabinet.

“It’s only nine-twenty.”

“If you’re on time, you’re late,” Gates said, invoking a marching band slogan she had taken to heart years ago.

“If you’re early, you’re on time,” Miles finished. He knew that if marching band practice was slated to begin in twenty-five minutes and his students weren’t anywhere to be seen, he would feel a similar anxiety.

“Well.” Miles looked at his diligent daughter with fatherly pride. “Do your best.” Giving an encouraging slogan to an acolyte was tough work. Go get 'em, Tiger, sounded unnecessarily aggressive. Break a leg was too theatrical and invited mishaps. Good Luck seemed vaguely blasphemous.

Gates shrugged, neither encouraged nor discouraged by the phrase she heard weekly, and headed toward the sanctuary. Miles noticed the robes were not only too short; they were also a bit too small. Gates took shorter than normal strides in the narrow skirt. He would ask Patty if there was room in the budget for new robes.

Gates enjoyed the walk to the sanctuary far more than the walk to the Fellowship Hall. She gave everyone benevolent smiles, which were returned with pleasure and, Gates thought, a hint of respect not unlike that given to the preachers. Outfitted in robes, childish Sunday school clothes covered, Gates saw herself as holy, angelic, and more advanced in the church hierarchy than the common members. From this lofty position, she offered eye contact and greetings with impunity.

“Hi, Mr. Bergeron!” She greeted the elderly usher.

“Morning, Miss McCormick.”

Throughout her seven year tenure as acolyte, Gates had seen a lot of changes: ministers came and went, Sunday School teachers were promoted to Youth Directors, church members died, babies were christened. Mr. Bergeron had remained as constant as the stained glass windows. Gates’ affection for him was tinged with reverence. She held him in high esteem because he was the only usher whose diligence rivaled her own. But even if he had lacked that quality, Gates would have liked him for his big ears, gentle hands, cryptic smile and ubiquitous candy.

Mr. Bergeron extended a palm full of peppermints, butterscotch, and Hershey’s kisses. Gates took a Hershey’s kiss. Though she was fond of butterscotch, she worried that walking down the aisle with one cheek distorted, swelling from its candy cargo, was undignified. And chomping on butterscotch would do little to convey the image of propriety she sought to project.

Gates stilled any qualms she had about eating candy before acolyting by reminding herself that athletes were encouraged to consume small quantities of high-energy food prior to competitions. Viewing her acolyting activities as no less intense than theirs, Gates permitted herself the sweet indulgence.

“What time is it?” she asked Mr. Bergeron.

He examined a heavy, silver pocket watch. The watch was just something else Gates liked about him. “Nine thirty-six.”

“You watch isn’t slow, is it?” She shifted, wrapping the foil into a tight ball.

“Timmy’s going to make it. Don’t worry.”

Gates did not like the name Timmy. She had already decided she would not like her peer acolyte, and the name only compounded her distaste. It sounded too much like the name of an endearing, consumptive orphan. “Where is he?”

“Poor tyke, he’s got stage fright. I told him you’d coach him through it.”

Gates had no intentions of holding a scared young acolyte’s hand. She generally disliked her fellow acolytes, viewing the good ones as competition for the role of “Best Acolyte” (a role that existed only in Gates’ mind) and the bad ones as besmirchers of her flawless Sunday performances. If Timmy knew anything at all, he would be more afraid of going up against Gates than going up before the rest of the congregation, who devoted the same attention to the acolytes as to the minister—not much.

“This is his first time?” she asked, horrified.

“He’s been through the training.” Mr. Bergeron flicked his lighter open and closed.

Gates was of the opinion that beginning acolytes, like beginning drivers, should be subject to a tiered training approach, learning the basics and acolyting a few slower services: the casual Friday night service, for instance, which drew very few members. “Hmm,” she said disapprovingly, in a tone not entirely unlike her father’s.

“There he is!” Mr. Bergeron announced.

The figure in the narthex could have stepped from a greeting card. Flaxen blond hair framed blue eyes; from the trembling lashes, teardrops glistened. His dear little hands barely protruded from the over-long sleeves, giving the boy a look of doll-like proportions. Even Gates had to admit, grudgingly, that Timmy was adorable.

Timmy stood next to Mr. Bergeron. “Who’s that?” He pointed at Gates and shifted the peppermint in his mouth from the left to the right cheek.

“She’s an acolyte, too.”

“But she’s so old.”

“Gates has been doing this since you were a little baby. She’s our most experienced acolyte.”

Gates noticed that he did not say best. She compressed the silver ball of foil between her forefinger and thumb, squeezing it until a red indentation emerged on the pad of her fingertip.

The first strains of the prelude sounded, a piece Gates recognized as Saint-Saens. Timmy’s tears threatened to reassert themselves.

“Just follow me, kid,” Gates said, feeling tough and cool, like a gangster from the thirties. Timmy looked questioningly at Mr. Bergeron.

“You’ll be fine,” the old man said.

Timmy held his hand out for another candy. Mr. Bergeron either ignored or did not notice Gates’ glare. Timmy stuffed a second peppermint into his mouth, looking like a mumps-afflicted orphan rather than the consumptive variety.

Mr. Bergeron lit Gates’ wick first, then Timmy’s. “Be very, very careful,” he admonished the boy. Timmy nodded and sucked his candy contentedly.

Gates slipped into the ultra-focused yet meditative mind frame of an operating neurosurgeon. She did not notice her co-acolyte’s enthusiastic candy slurping or the way the congregation uttered a collective Aww at the sight of him. She paid attention only to the details that affected her acolyting. She noticed his shorter stride and adjusted her pacing so they walked at a steady tempo (Gates, unconsciously, walked to the beat of the organ pieces). She carried her wick on the left hand side, opposite Timmy, to avoid incinerating his robes.

The sanctuary’s vastness always startled her, but when it was filled to the gills it seemed even larger. This Sunday was one of average attendance, but Gates had acolyted on Christmas and Easters and seen it standing room only. The Christmas Eve candlelight service had a special place in her heart, not only because of the beauty of the experience, but because Gates’ role was even more pivotal, as there were not two but thousands of candles to light.

When they approached the circular altar, Gates and Timmy took opposite paths. Gates walked clockwise to her candle in the center of the altar, and Timmy walked counterclockwise. She lit the candle, watching Timmy out of the corner of her eye. She held her wick to the candle a few moments longer than necessary, waiting for Timmy to light his candle so they would give the illusion of perfect symmetry and timing.

As they settled onto their special bench behind the minister, Gates had to admit that Timmy had done a passable job. Now that one of their major tasks was done, Gates allowed herself to relax a bit in the warm orange glow of the stained glass. Maybe she’d judged poor Timmy too harshly. After all, she had been new once, too. Gates nudged her young counterpart and gave him the thumbs-up, feeling magnanimous.

Gates folded her hands and assumed the expression of prayerful introspection that she had developed over the years. Unlike other, lesser acolytes, Gates never fidgeted or whispered. Though any casual observer would assume she was listening to the sermon, Gates was counting rafters on the ceiling or recalling favorite scenes from movies. Still, even most adults lacked her ability to maintain a façade of devotion.

Even more impressive was her ability to sustain this façade. Early in her acolyting career, Gates had signed up to acolyte at the 8:30 and 9:45 services. It wasn’t uncommon for her to pull a double header. When the 11:00 acolyte called in sick with a cold, Gates stepped up to the offering plate. She never displayed a hint of restlessness or discontent throughout the three services. Mrs. Poltzer often spoke of that legendary Sunday, calling it the “Gates Trinity.”

Gates glanced at Timmy. He was cheerfully picking his nose. Gates decided to ignore it.

“What we must do,” the pastor was saying, “is love one another. This is the lesson Jesus taught us. To love.”

The task of clearing his nostrils appeared to be endlessly fascinating. Gates administered a firm but inconspicuous poke to Timmy’s ribcage.

“OW!” The boy said, very audibly. Gates frowned. She hadn’t poked hard enough to cause pain. The assistant pastor fixed Gates with a disapproving stare.

“No horseplay!” he whispered.

She yearned to explain herself, but it was impossible with the minister in the midst of preaching.

“But how,” continued the minister, “can we love one another? It’s hard sometimes. Some of you might not even love each other right now. Maybe your neighbor got your favorite parking spot on the way here!”

The congregation chuckled. The burgeoning membership placed an increasing strain on the parking lots, which had not increased proportionally. That was another benefit to Gates’ acolyting. Because she had to be at church early, Miles never resorted to parking in the neighborhood. Some congregants had thoughtlessly blocked people’s driveways and returned to notes on their windshield of a decidedly non-Christian vernacular.

“To be able to love like Jesus,” continued the minister. “We must open our hearts to Jesus. He’s out there, knocking. Will you—” (here the minister extended an index finger to the crowd in what was later described by Mrs. Poltzer as an electrifying gesture) “—let Jesus in?”

When Mrs. Poltzer told the children that Jesus wanted a relationship with them, to talk to them, and to live in their hearts, Gates couldn’t quite believe it was true. She knew Jesus was accepted to be real, but that the Son of God was literally dying to be her best friend just seemed a bit implausible. She took it to be one of the many lies that adults tell children.

“It’s make-believe, isn’t it?” six-year old Gates had asked her father on the way home from church that morning.

“What’s make-believe?” Miles asked.

She waved vaguely at the church. “You know.”

Miles was alarmed. Was his daughter losing her faith even before she had lost all her baby teeth? “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Gates explained the events of Sunday school class.

“Yes,” Miles said. “It is true.”

“Does Jesus really live inside of you?”

“Yes,” Miles said, though her questions nourished seeds of uncertainty (remnants from his early life as an agnostic, he was sure) that had long lain dormant.

That afternoon, Gates crept into her father’s office, a room that smelled of Old Spice and Wite-Out, knelt on the Berber carpet, and sincerely asked Jesus to come into her heart. The office remained dark; the air conditioner hummed nonchalantly. Gates was reminded of the time that she had tried with all her heart to summon a Care Bear. With the nubby carpet wearing a pattern of mottled red into her knees, she felt the same sense-not disappointment, not betrayal-but clinical, detached observation. So this is what happens, she thought. And she felt a vague sense of relief because she had followed Mrs. Poltzer’s orders.

Gates’ reverie was interrupted by the shuffling procession of gray-haired ushers towards the altar. It was time for the offering. She tapped Timmy (very gently), and together they gathered the offering bowls. Gates was from the old school, which taught the acolytes to interweave their fingers between the heavy brass bowls, to make the rims easier for the older, sometimes arthritic ushers to grasp. Even though the weight of the bowls crushed her slim fingers, Gates internalized her suffering for the greater cause. Timmy, she noted, had not been taught to handle the bowls in this fashion. The usher struggled a little getting his fingers around the narrow, smooth rim

 

When Gates collected the bowls, she turned clockwise toward the altar while her partner turned counterclockwise, avoiding any unseemly clanging of the bowls. She tried not to be too conspicuous about examining the haul. There were a few twenties, and the bowl was filled to the brim. Rarely, she spotted a Benjamin in there. Gates judged the sermon by the quantity of large bills. She figured people paid more for good sermons. Even after six years, she could never predict the “hundred-dollar sermon.” People did tend to give more on Easter and Christmas, but Gates suspected this was out of guilt.

Soon, the minister concluded the sermon.

“Go in peace,” he said.

Gates rose, lit her wick and snuffed out the candle, careful not to use too much pressure lest the wick become embedded in wax, and impossible for the next acolyte to light. While the congregation sang, she walked down the aisle with her little flame, toward the open double doors and the pure light of a Sunday morning.

 

 

“Great job,” Miles said when he met Gates in the fellowship hall.

Gates felt a bit like the rock stars her peers often spoke of as she handed off her stick. The church was her stage, her father the adoring groupie, the fellowship hall the restricted, backstage area.

“That other acolyte—ugh!”

“I noticed he was out of step.”

“Probably thinks people can’t tell. If he thinks about it at all.”

“Well, he’s lucky you were there to keep him in line.” Miles wondered if there was a future for his daughter in acolyting, if she might develop and head a training staff, eventually flying around the country, going from church to church to lead acolyte workshops. Drill writers did that for marching bands. A drill writer from California taught Miles about the now-infamous egg exercise. Perhaps students in California were too laid-back to hurl eggs at one another.

Patty approached while Gates scanned the acolyte schedule. Patty’s plumpness suggested buoyancy rather than mass. Her feet, encased in loafers, lightly touched the ground before lifting her into a bounce. They bore her weight with great stealth; loud footfalls rarely betrayed her presence. She would sneak up on people and cry, “Oh, I’ve surprised you!” with mirth as she watched her target flinch.

Miles didn’t want her to startle his daughter. “Good morning, Patty,” he said, louder than necessary.

Mrs. Poltzer halted, frozen. “Oh, hello Miles,” she said, with what Miles thought was a hint of disappointment.

“How about that sermon?” Miles said.

“Electrifying,” Mrs. Poltzer pressed a hand to her bosom. “When he said we need to have love in our hearts…”

“Even for those we don’t like,” Gates piped up, casting a pointed glance at Mrs. Poltzer. Mrs. Poltzer had been the grief counselor a few years back, but Miles had turned down the counseling sessions that she insisted his grief required. Gates thought Mrs. Poltzer harbored a secret crush on her dad.

Mrs. Poltzer watched Gates slide the robes onto a coat hanger. “Getting a little big for those robes, aren't you?”

“Maybe you should order new ones,” Gates suggested.

“Maybe…” Mrs. Poltzer said noncommittally.

“Is there something I can help you with, Patty?” Miles asked.

“Actually, I came to speak to Gates,” Mrs. Poltzer replied.

“Okay.” Gates suddenly found her interest in the acolyting schedule rekindled and she returned to it with vigor.

“Why don’t you come into my office, Gates?”

Gates’ father gave her a mystified shrug.

“You too, Miles,” Mrs. Poltzer said.

Gates, seeing Miles’ questioning look, returned the shrug.

Father and daughter settled themselves on folding chairs. Both crossed their legs, resting left heel on right knee.

“So. Gates,” Mrs. Poltzer said, smiling warmly from behind a WWJD paperweight. “Why haven’t I seen you at any of our junior high youth group events?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I'm a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans, and I’m a freelance journalist. My bylines have appeared in Time Out New York, Huffington Post, BRIDES, The Bitter Southerner, Thrillist, Jackson Free Press, xoJane, Thought Catalog, Punchnel’s, Neutrons/Protons, Gambit Weekly, and a number of anthologies. In 2015, I published a book with a small LGBT press (Prizm/Torquere). For kicks, I sing and play keys and tenor sax in a couple local bands.

Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
INFERNO by Eileen Myles and LETTERS TO A YOUNG JOURNALIST by Samuel G. Freedman. I like INFERNO because of this quote: "The feeling you have before you perform--like you're going to be executed. You feel like you're going to shit right there. It's a holy feeling."
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I wanted to write an AA book after I got arrested and sent to rehab in 2001. If you want to hear good stories, don't read my book--go to a 12-step meeting. Stephen King says he doesn't remember writing Cujo, because he was so high on coke and cough syrup. That's the kind of stuff you hear in AA!
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
It works if you work it.

Next in:
Literature & Fiction
Closure
A second chance at first love.
The Girl Who Became a Goddess
A goddess is based on a remarkable girl.
The Saxophone Player
Broken dreams after the Vietnam war.