Friday, February 15, 2013

Before He Knew It by Claire Kole

Pamela Grace, a single mother working two jobs and struggling to get by in life, finds refuge in the church - but her faith is about to be sorely tested; by Claire Kole

And I said: 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!' - Isaiah 6:5

Pamela Grace looked like a greyhound. She was a thin, delicate looking woman with straight, shiny dirty blond hair and wrists you could wrap your pinky finger and thumb around. And much like a greyhound, Ms Grace had pitiful and haunting brown eyes that always seemed to glisten like she was about to cry. It was as if she had seen a ghost and never got past the trauma or she knew some disturbing secret that everyone else did not know. She was a fragile woman living a fragile life.

When Ms Grace and her husband bought their house five years back, she had been wary because she knew several people who lived on streets with happy-sounding names where catastrophe then struck them. Ms Jane and her family lived on Blueberry Lane when her son was diagnosed with and died of cancer. And Brett Chatowski had slipped off a ladder while cleaning the gutters, hit his head, and died leaving his family to live on Pleasant Street alone. Her husband had dismissed her fear and convinced her into buying the suburban home. Ms Grace lived in an emerald green house on the cul-de-sac of 12 Sunview Way with a gravel driveway and a white picket fence in the backyard where her two small children could run around. Now it was just Ms Grace and her kids ever since he left and they got a divorce. So their catastrophe was the death of a marriage.

Her neighbors were kind and friendly to her - life was not. It wasn't enough for Ms Grace to be a full-time nurse during the day and a part-time waitress at night, but now she could add single mother to the juggling act.

It was Monday morning once again. Ms Grace grudgingly turned off her alarm clock that flashed 5:00 in obnoxious red digital numbers. For the past few years she had been searching for a way to get a few more hours of sleep - but to no avail. She needed the first waking hour for showering and dressing in her nurse's scrubs, making the kids' lunches, and taking care of any bills that needed mailing or messages she may have missed from Brickley's. They often called to tell her she needed to cover a shift that night because another waitress had called in sick. That first hour, however excruciating it was to get out of bed, always passed quickly - there was never enough time. The second hour dragged as she woke the kids up and proceeded to dress them, feed them, and prepare them for school. She spent countless hours warning Noah about bullies and making sure Delilah had done her homework. Then she loaded them onto the bus with some kisses and got in her car for the half hour commute to work.

Between eight and five, Ms Grace acted as nurse - a role few envied. She spent the day giving shots to screaming infants, explaining the side effects of chemotherapies to patients she already knew were dying, and pulling charts for doctors who barely acknowledged her existence let alone her hard work. One of them still called her "Jill" even though Pamela had worked at the hospital for two years. After a full day at work, her scrubs were wrinkled and stained with iodine, her hair was disheveled, and she felt angst about nearly everything having to do with the hospital. In the afternoon she would receive a phone call while hanging an IV bag. "Ms Grace? Delilah's had another accident I'm afraid and she would like you to get come get her."

After driving for an hour, Ms Grace would pick Delilah up who would be very bleary-eyed and congested from crying over the embarrassment of wetting her pants in class. "It's ok baby," Ms Grace crooned while hugging her daughter and patting her back. "It's ok. Sometimes it happens. You're fine. You're my special girl." After one ice cream cone and an early drop-off at her neighbor's house where the kids played during the evenings, Ms Grace would prepare for her part-time waitressing job. She'd put the cheap smock on with the plastic gold nametag that read "Pamila" on it. Misspelled from day one, it had been over a year and the promise to fix and replace it had not been fulfilled. Not that it mattered in the dim lighting of Brickley's - a barbeque joint that was open from seven p.m. to three a.m. where mostly truckers ate and addressed her as "doll" anyway. Usually Pamela worked prep at 6:30 until 8:30 or 9:00 serving ribs that made her hair and uniform reek of pork. The complaining customers inevitably under-tipped.

Her boss's reprimands as she tried to serve five tables all by herself seemed to match the cheery letter she had received from the hospital declaring there would be no bonuses and a cut in pay for everyone. Yet she labored through with a neutral attitude and after she had picked her kids up, bathed them, and settled them into bed, Noah would toddle back into the living room. He had trouble sleeping and needed to be read to at least three or four nights of the week. "C'mon honey, let's go read the story about the bears again," Ms Grace would say gently. Pamela could not remember the last time she went to bed before midnight and felt ready for the coming day. Except for Sundays.

There was one saving grace in her life and that was Holy Peace Church on Grey Street. Church was Pamela's solace. For one hour every week, Ms Grace got to sink into calmness and the soothing presence of God and Reverend James Thorne. This is where Pamela was happiest. This is where Pamela felt safe. This is where Pamela was free. No longer someone who drew blood and took temperatures or served plates full of chicken wings, but a child of God. Not a caretaker to a sniffling seven year old boy or an art project participant with a six year old girl, but an actual person in her own right - a blessed creation of her Maker.

Pamela looked at the sea of profiles in the congregation. There was Mr Keeble in his tweed jacket who always made sure to ask how Pamela was doing even though her response was always the same, "I'm getting through." There was the idyllic-looking Covette family - their daughters now high school and college age, pretty as Pamela had once been in her twenties. And of course elderly Miss Madison who never missed one service and clung to the Reverend's words as though they were the last in the world she could fully understand. Perhaps they were. Pamela always made sure to pass the peace onto Miss Madison. Sitting in a back wooden pew of the small church with its dusty stained-glass window depictions of the crucifixion and its beige carpeting, she could do anything she wanted - confess, pray, send thanks, and listen. Anything but sin. She could even daydream or get lost and Pamela did these frequently.

Whenever Reverend James Thorne stood at the pulpit and delivered his sermon, Pamela paid attention and got lost at the same time. She heard the words he used and noticed the way his mouth and lips moved when he spoke - the playful formations his mouth made. She noticed the flashing excitement in his dazzling hazel eyes when he preached about divine grace and everyone being saved. The way his hands maneuvered through the air, making fluid motions to illustrate his point. And then there was the way he looked standing up in front of the flock, leader of them all, a perfect bridge to God. He had heard the calling and Pamela - a simple follower - had heard his deep, rich, growling voice attached to his tall and worthy form. But above all, Pam came to church to feel relieved. She wanted to feel pure and clean and holy like the hymns the congregation belted from the back of the church, like the words that echoed out of Reverend Thorne's mouth. And at Holy Peace she could do this, she could feel this way.



"Please stop playing with your food, Noah!"

"Whyyyyyyy?"

"Because you'll spill the milk and cereal will get everywhere and I don't have time to clean it up!"

Ms Grace clacked across the kitchen - another typical Sunday morning, or any morning, in the Grace house. She prepared a meal for the kids to take with them to Michelle's house. Church had become such a place of worship and peace to Ms Grace that she couldn't even allow her own beloved kids to ruin it. So instead she shelled out $10 a week to the knobby-kneed, big-breasted teenager across the street so she would watch them. It's hard to hear the voice of God over a crying six year old who sounds like a pterodactyl.

Ms Grace was in her blue Honda, smiling and getting ready to turn onto Fifth Street when she noticed the rusty brown pick-up in front of her had a WWJD sticker emblazoned on the back. She thought of the sermon that lay ahead, smiled, and chuckled slightly at her own joke - WWJamesD, she thought. Then she became a boiling pot of anger as the car cut her off while riding the brakes, causing her to almost hit the back of the vehicle. How rude! Clearly some people hadn't learned what they should have from church.

Her blood pressure settled some though as she walked into the quiet sanctuary and was handed a bulletin with all the baptisms listed. She made her way to her favorite pew and sat down, closing her eyes to feel the organ music wash over her. Reverend Thorne was an incredible preacher - not only in the eyes of Pamela and the rest of his very loyal and devoted congregation, but he was considered such by several important boards of ministry. He had been a top Religion major in college, a top seminary student, was prolific in his various internships, and had even won two awards for his sermons. Pamela always wondered how that worked - was there something akin to the Oscars but for ministers? Pamela had attended several different churches in her life, and Reverend Thorne was the best preacher she had ever experienced. He really made you connect with the word of God and was excellent at making real life examples part of his repertoire. An hour and five minutes later, Pamela left the church feeling cleansed and renewed for the long, rough week ahead.



After the divorce, Reverend Thorne had called Pamela at home. "Ms Grace, I'm worried about you. I know you're going through a very difficult time right now, but I want you to know that the church and I are always here for you. You've never been one to ask for much, so I thought I'd call you and see how you were doing. Do you want to talk?"

"Oh, Reverend Thorne! Thank you so much, that's very kind. It's been... rough. Would you mind if I came by your office to talk just a little bit?"

"No, no that's fine. My office is actually a wreck right now though - spring cleaning, you know? We could meet somewhere else if that is convenient for you."

"Why don't we meet at Lite Coffee and we can talk there. Does that work for you, Reverend?"

He had been so caring and considerate. The more they talked, the better she felt. "How can I be here for you? What unresolved issues, if any, can I help you with?" His tone was so gentle, his face so handsome and benevolent staring at her from across the table. Unresolved issues? How about the anger issues Jack had and how berating her and slapping her a few times during their marriage had been his way of expressing that anger? Or how about Jack's expectation that she raise the kids with minimal help from him? Or Jack's cheating - the comments he made about other women to her face?

"My husband and I just had too many probleMs He had several issues with other women too," Pamela said quietly. It was still hard for her to talk about it. He listened calmly and receptively with sympathy in his tone.

"Mhm. That is quite a problem. I'm so sorry to hear that. Women should never be used - anyone really. Men should respect women, not treat them as inferiors or tools for their own recreation. I'm so sorry you had to deal with that." She enjoyed his company and admired his devotion to his morals. If only she had married a man more like Reverend James Thorne instead of one like Jack Miller. As he continued to speak, Pamela pictured how they must look in the coffee shop together. Two good-looking people chatting over coffee just like a couple. Pamela imagined holding hands with him across the table and gently caressing his foot with hers under the table. And, in her mind, when they were done he would say, "Are you ready to go, dear?" Oh, what a wonderful relationship indeed.



"I'm not going to tell you again, Noah! You can't leave your toys in the middle of the floor - someone is going to trip and break their neck!"

"But Mooooooooooom!"

"No buts! Move them!"

Ms Grace was struggling with the tiny little drawstrings on Delilah's capris. Finally, she managed to tie a bow, but in doing so she noticed that the little wooden beads at the end of the drawstrings weren't wooden at all, simply brown plastic that appeared to be wooden. Ms Grace scrutinized them, and then frowned. She - like most people - did not like things that were different than they appeared. She always felt duped when one thing turned out to be another, and slightly insane for not noticing what something truly was in the first place. "Ok girly, move your tush," Ms Grace said giving her daughter a little pat on the rump as she started walking towards Michelle. Ms Grace stood up from where she had been kneeling and brushed her bangs aside. "Thanks again, Michelle."

"Sure," the lackluster teenager in black skinny jeans replied.

Pamela got to church ahead of schedule and so was able to actually read through her entire bulletin - a rare treat. In black and white 12 point Garamond font it declared what Pamela had expected - Communion. Holy Peace for some reason practiced Communion every other Sunday which made Pamela very nervous. She couldn't explain what it was about the holy rite that made her squirm, perhaps it was because it called for members of the congregation to draw forth and be seen making such a commitment in front of everyone else. Pamela remembered feeling the same uneasiness on her own wedding day. Still, she had successfully dodged Communion a few times by using the restroom for an extended amount of time during that portion of the service and the few times she had been up she had been served by Reverend Shelley Briggs - a delightful woman who was all smiles.

Today would be different. When the breaking of the bread was announced, Pamela decided to receive Communion with the rest of her pew. They lined up and waited patiently as the line inched forward one person at a time. She was so busy feeling anxious and scouring the crowds around her for a helpful face that it wasn't until she was four people away from the cup that she noticed who would be serving her Communion. Pamela's cheeks flushed at the sight of Reverend Thorne and she felt them grow hot. She arrived in front of him and kneeled. He put his hand on her head, feeling her soft hair. Pamela involuntarily gulped.

"The body of Christ broken for you, and the blood of Christ spilled for you," he said quietly. Then she lifted her weight off her knees and stood up. He held out the wine-dipped piece of bread as she followed the actions of everyone else in the congregation by opening her mouth. At the feeling of him pressing the bread onto her tongue with his fingers, firmly, she felt her breathing become shallow and some muscles down inside her thighs tightened involuntarily. Because of her nervousness and flustered state, Pamela accidentally closed her lips about two seconds too early and caught his fingertips as he pulled them away from her mouth. Her lips had grazed just the tip of his nail and the flesh of his finger. No one noticed but them. He smiled amicably at her - no harm done apparently. She briskly walked back to her pew to regain her composure and figure out why she had experienced such a reaction.

That was a rare Sunday when Pamela got to stay at the church all day because Michelle accepted extra hours and Pamela wanted to attend as many Bible Study sessions as she could. Sometimes she felt out of place since there weren't many divorcees among the other women in their mid-thirties, but overall it was an engaging experience and the most socializing Pamela got to do all week with people who Pamela wasn't afraid would either die or leave her no tip. However, after Communion Pamela found herself plagued with a thousand questions. What did I just do? Did he notice my lips close around his fingertip? Why was I so nervous kneeling in front of him? His hand was on my head. He pressed the soaked bread onto my tongue. Is that really what I want? What would have happened if no one was there to see us?

Time always flew at Holy Peace and before Pamela knew it she had covered Job, Mark, and Isaiah in her classes despite the constant distraction of her sensual thoughts, and was bidding goodbye to her study group. It was nearing six o'clock and Pamela knew she should get home soon to relieve Michelle from the duty of watching the kids, but she just had to turn in the borrowed Bible she had used for her first discussion group of the day. She would just hop downstairs, return it to the library, and be on her way. As Pam walked the violet halls she felt grateful that the day had afforded her plenty of time to somewhat distract her from that morning's episode and she decided to dismiss the entire situation as uncanny and irrational. Her hand reached out and pulled on the door handle - it was locked. She peered at the library sign - they had closed seven minutes early. She looked around helplessly for somewhere to leave the Bible. That's when Pamela noticed Reverend Thorne's door was slightly ajar. As much as she didn't want to run into him again that day, all the other offices appeared to be locked. Probably just forgot to shut his door all the way, she figured. It appeared as though he too had gone home for the day. Sometimes he worked late nights - diligently writing his sermons and poring over materials that would add to his delivery. She decided she would slip the Bible onto his desk and then leave - he would never know who had done so and it was of little consequence so long as he put it back in the library.

Pamela crept up to the door slowly and pushed it open. His office was extraordinarily messy with magazines everywhere and trash strewn on the floor. Her ears filled with noises - heavy moans, loud breathing, a woman wailing. Pamela's eyebrows shot up and the rest of her face became paralyzed. She saw heaving breasts, a man thrusting his hips, naked skin everywhere. The Bible fell from Pamela's hands a second before Reverend Thorne heard the noise and slammed his laptop shut. He gazed at her in the darkness. His only free hand rested on the Holy Bible. His other hand froze as he grasped himself.

It was silent. He raised his left eyebrow slowly. "Come here," he whispered to Pamela. The tension she felt in her jaws melted away a little as she felt her heart hammer against her breast. She held her breath without realizing it. The Reverend looked oddly vulnerable yet sexy sitting in the dark gripping the very organ that Pamela could see the blurry outline of through her peripheral vision but which she dared not look at directly. She felt a gravitational pull towards him - she wanted him. Pamela gulped once, completely immobilized by what she had just caught him viewing and doing. Their eyes locked.



Mrs Grace got home early that day from the hospital. The traffic had been unaccountably light and she was cheerfully looking forward to having some down time and spending time with Noah, Delilah, and that busy husband of hers. He'd been working extra hours lately and always came home tired and ready for bed or a nap so she rarely saw him for any decent amount of time in the last two months. She dropped her coat on a chair and got a glass of water from the kitchen. She heard high-pitched squeals coming from upstairs and decided to go see what game the kids were playing with Mr Grace in the playroom this time. On her way up the stairs though, she glanced out the window and noticed something strange - her kids. Her kids were out playing in Michelle's yard. Her skin became clammy and her cheeks flushed as she dashed up the few remaining stairs and burst into the bedroom. He was stuffing himself in between her legs, her large breasts obscuring part of his face, her long auburn hair flowing down off he edge of the bed. "What the HELL are you doing?" she yelled. It came out loud and Pamela was scared by her own fury. Her husband looked up as the bitch was grabbing his organ with both hands. "Hey honey - get your ass over here," Mr Grace said with a smirk.



Pam blinked. The Reverend was before her. Their gaze broke as she turned around and quickly walked away about a minute afterwards. What the hell just happened? Did I really see that? Was that really what he was doing? Her mind raced and she felt as though her temples would explode. That man, that man of God who preached so beautifully every Sunday to avoid sin and corruption, that man who her own body had been lured towards just earlier that day, that man who had surpassed her keen intuition and sense of judgment. That man had fooled her! And she, Pamela Grace, felt dirty for having been attracted to him instinctively. I can't believe I was even tempted! I'm pathetic, so pathetic. How could that be? Do I need to tell someone? Is that burden and responsibility up to me? Certainly this is not allowed in the church. Do I need to protect people by divulging his secret? Questions - that's all there was all the way home for Pamela Grace. She had been tempted by the very thing that ruined her marriage. Sex. The thought alone panicked her. She learned a terrible truth that Sunday. She learned that he, Reverend James Thorne, was no purer, cleaner, or holier than she was - and she was infinitely worse than she ever imagined.



The next Sunday Pamela sat emotionless in the back pew. She looked at Mr Keeble, the Covette family, and Miss Madison. How oblivious they all were! How trusting and naïve - oh how they hung on his every word! All of them - the entire congregation. They had no idea. She did not feel she was in a place of worship, and she met everyone with a skeptical eye trying to decide how much of a hypocrite they actually were as well. Just like me. But it mattered less to her because they were not in charge, they were not telling her how to live her life, they were not spouting the word of God. She watched with fiery disbelief as Thorne approached the pulpit.

Throughout his sermon, Pamela noticed his snarling mouth and sticky lips and the grotesque movement of them as he spoke.

"Happy is the man who doesn't give in and do wrong when he is tempted, for afterwards he will get as his reward the crown of life that God has promised those who love him."

She noticed his shifty eyes - prime traps for deception - scanning the women in the crowd, imagining carnal pleasures.

"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law."

She noticed his meaty hands groping the air and molding it into something it was not.

"You have heard that it was said, `Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

She noticed his tall and menacing form, cloaked in camouflage.

"All of the above Bible verses illustrate my key point, which is to live a life of unbounded devotion and love towards God. Do not get swept up in the rich wonders of lust and sexual prowess that our culture so desires and reveres these days."

All she noticed were lies, lies, lies. Hypocrisy. She had never even considered it before.

A betrayal of her love and trust of the church. Of him as a pastor. How could she have fallen for this man? She loved him for his generosity, his gentle demeanor, his charitable nature and dedication to morals and God. She did not love him for this.

The congregation began to pray.

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever, amen."

It was his best sermon yet. But Pamela had no idea. She was too busy crying over everything she had lost and all the knowledge she had gained - about herself and him.

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