Tierra sits, her hands folded demurely in her lap, as she waits for her father’s Cadillac to turn the corner. Yellow curtains flutter out of an open kitchen window. A stray cat meows from atop a junk car next door. On the other side of a torn screen door, her mother mumbles curses in the same tone she used to utter prayers. Like Tierra, her mother also hates Sunday mornings, but for a different reason. The thought of having to lay eyes on Tierra’s father makes her sick to her stomach. She can’t believe she once took his word for gospel. Now he is just another man whose promises did more harm than good.
It is not long before Tierra’s father’s long, shiny car pulls up in front of the house, and she climbs slowly into the back seat. No one inside the car greets her, although the adults smile tight little smiles and her half-brother, Tommy, looks at her expressionless. His eyes large and round in his chubby face. After she is securely fastened the seatbelt, her father revs the engine and pulls off as if all of hell is chasing him. Then again, maybe it is.
Tierra’s father pastors a holiness church though he’s not much of a pastor, preferring the glory of the pulpit to the indignities of the day-to-day needs of his congregation. Years ago–before Tierra was born– he was known to visit the Sick and Shut In and to dunk the newly saved in the Baptismal Pool. But since he’s taken to wearing expensive suits and a fancy Rolex, he expends his energy on the whoops and runs that tease the congregation into a frenzy of Preach, Pastor, Preach and Amen! Amen! Sometimes, working them into such a froth that they run to the altar to lay their crumbled dollars on the pulpit hoping to sow a seed into his word.
The church is known for its Friday night fish frys and Saturday morning rib dinners—the only place in town where you can get seasoned meat, homemade potato salad, a dinner roll, and collard greens with chunks of fatback for just $5. For twelve years the church has collected money from these dinners for its Building Fund but not one red brick has been laid or an architectural plan drawn. Only Tierra’s father knows how much is in the account and he uses it for those things he believes he deserves as the Man of God. His last purchase, a small gold tooth he flashes when he smiles at the pretty women in the congregation.
Tierra’s friends at school call her Tee Tee and her mother calls her Sweetie Pie — and Tierra Latrice Covington when she’s misbehaved –but at her father’s church she is never referred to by name. Instead, she hears the saints whispering behind calloused hands held up to tight, judgmental mouths: that’s pastor’s illegitimate daughter! Only Martha, her father’s wife, bothers to call her anything at all. That little bastard is what Martha likes to say.
Tierra’s father’s car reminds her of the long, black limousine she rode in to her great-grandmother’s funeral. She closes her eyes remembering how her mother had stood looking at the casket dry-eyed and stiff-backed after her father had eulogized the old woman. Her great-grandmother had been kind and generous, but she had the eyes of God and a heavy dose of discernment. Often seeing more than she let on.
Tierra’s great-grandmother had been a faithful tither and a watchful member of the church before hospice. Whatever she asked for in Jesus’ name she received. But there had been one favor that caught the preacher off guard. A request he had been powerless to say no to. Rumor had it that he had sat next to the old woman’s bedside and held her frail hand as he prayed. Her eyes closed out of fatigue and piety, his open as he looked at the high, round butt of her granddaughter who had turned her back to him when he entered the room. Her big belly casting an oddly shaped shadow against the wall.
They say the old woman sat up briefly and looked the pastor straight in the eye. Make sure that child is raised up in the church, and she pointed to her granddaughter’s protruding belly. He had looked at her all sheepish-like. That’s the least you can do, she added, before falling back against the pillows in a coughing fit; her granddaughter rushing to her bedside with a glass of water. He let himself out, and that had been his last home visit.
In the front seat, Martha fusses over the air conditioning and turns up the volume on the gospel radio station. From the backseat, Tierra stares at the woman’s profile and wonders why the powdered skin on her face and the darker shade of her neck don’t match.
Tommy is quiet on the drive to the church, though he does stick out his tongue once when he doesn’t think anyone’s looking. It’s Martha who actually pays attention to Tierra, though it’s not the attention that Tierra wants. Martha seems to find fault with everything she does and criticizes her constantly. It’s a shame that whore doesn’t know how to comb your little bastard’s hair! And If we’re not careful she’ll grow up to be a slut just like her mother. But no matter how hurtful Martha’s comments, Terra’s father remains silent. His lips pressed into a dash across his dark, handsome face. No hint of the glimmering gold tooth.
Once they arrive at the church, her father parks in the space reserved for the Pastor and First Lady and disappears into the sanctuary of his office to pray. Martha drags Tierra into the bathroom– the one that only she has a key for– and digs into her handbag for Vaseline and a brush with hard bristles.
Tierra tries not to protest too much for fear she will get a few licks from the hairbrush against her exposed legs. Instead, she focuses on Tommy who sits just beyond his mother’s gaze and makes faces at Tierra. When he is sure his mother is distracted by her task, he slips his fat hands into her purse and retrieves small things like lip gloss and breath mints. Things he doubts his mother will miss. When he recognizes Tierra’s complicity, he takes coins and dollar bills to buy snacks from the vending machine in the basement of the church. Once Tierra’s hair is properly combed to her stepmother’s liking and the Vaseline applied to her skinny brown legs, Martha frees the children to roam the church for an hour while she prepares for the Virtuous Woman Bible Study she teaches.
Despite her hatred for Sunday’s, this one hour is heaven to her. She and Tommy play tag in the narthex until one of the women from the Usher Board shoos them away with a warning, You better get on up to Children’s Church before Pastor gives you both a whoopin! Laughing the whole way, they race off to the Deacon’s Prayer Room and watch, amused, from the shadows of the room. As hard as they try, they can’t stifle their giggles when the old men begin to sing the old-timey songs hoping to invoke the Holy Spirit. But one stern glance from a deacon sends them skittering back down the hallway.
The summer before, the basement had been converted to a teen hang out and the young ones like Tierra and Tommy aren’t allowed, but if Gina is there she will make space for them on the couch while she sits and laughs with her boyfriend, Anthony, and their friends from school. Tierra and Tommy sit wide-eyed chomping on their potato chips and sipping their soda while the older kids talk about the things that teenagers talk about. Tierra knows she wants to be just like Gina when she grows up, and Tommy has already decided that as soon as he turns sixteen he is going to ask Gina to marry him, failing to take into consideration that time never stands still for love and Gina, ten years his senior, will probably already be a wife and a mother by then.
“Are you singing a solo today?” Tommy asks, bashfully looking up from beneath his long eyelashes.
“I sure am, sweetie. Are you going to sing along with me?”
“I am! I am!” Tierra screams and the other teenagers sitting near Gina roll their eyes at her over-exuberance. Tommy gives her the evil eye, jealous that she has diverted Gina’s attention away from him.
“Well alrighty then.” Gina laughs. We better get upstairs so we’re not late for service.”
Gina and her friends walk ahead to don their crimson robes and to take their seats in the choir stand; Anthony horses around with the other guys as they make their way to the last pew where they can draw nasty pictures on the church bulletin.
Tierra and Tommy finish their snacks and walk back upstairs to look for Martha. Once seated in the sanctuary, the organist begins to play, and their father lumbers towards the heavy pastor’s chair in the center of the pulpit. Tierra sits rigidly, her thighs pressed tightly together, next to her step-mother hoping the woman won’t pinch her for not sitting still. Tommy sits on the other side of her and smiles up at Gina who sits in the choir stand. She doesn’t see him because her eyes are closed in prayer.
“Praise the Lord Saints,” Tierra’s father exhorts, and the congregation shouts back in unison, “Praise the Lord, Pastor.”
“This is the day the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Her father clears his throat. “Let’s hear a selection from the choir.”
He heads back to his chair and Gina walks slowly to the microphone positioned at the front of the choir stand. The sun streams in through the stained- glass window behind her, the image of the Madonna and Child illuminating her beauty, her sweetness. Tierra is struck by how much love she feels for Gina in that moment. Is this what it means to be a Christian, she wonders. She glances away from Gina toward her stepmother, hoping that she will feel the same love there, but the woman’s puckered face makes her turn away again. However, there is something in the way that Martha looks at Gina that makes Tierra follow her gaze.
When the song is over, there are shouts of Amen and Hallelujah and Gina moves to return to her seat.
“Young lady,” Tierra’s father barks; Gina stops mid-step. “Come stand over here a moment.”
Gina looks around confused and walks over to stand where he points. At once Tierra and Tommy look at each other fearfully having heard their father use that tone with them on more than one occasion. Tierra looks up at her stepmother again hoping to find an answer in her powdered-too-light face, but the woman has her eyes closed and her mouth open, pretending to pray in tongues.
“It has been brought to my attention that you’ve sinned,” Tierra’s father says without preamble. “Is there anything you want to confess to the church body?’
Gina hangs her head in shame and begins to cry softly. No one moves to comfort her, not even Anthony who sits stone still his hands clenched around the church bulletin that he has defaced. Tommy moves to stand, the box of tissues that sits on the pew next to him now in his hands, but his mother grabs his wrists. “Sit down this instant!” she says through clenched teeth.
“Young lady?” Tierra’s father implores.
Gina opens her mouth to speak, but the words don’t come. Overcome with emotion, she bends over at the waist holding her stomach as her body quakes with sobs.
Tierra’s father turns and faces the congregation. “This young woman is guilty of fornication; She’s had sexual relations outside of marriage and is with child.”
There is a collective gasp from the congregation and a few people hypocritically shout Lord Have Mercy!
Tierra turns to look at Gina’s mother who sits a few rows back, but the woman’s face is in her hands as if she is too ashamed to even look upon her daughter. Tierra turns around completely and looks at Anthony, but he has slipped quietly out of the church. Martha pinches her, and she quickly turns back around.
“Women who fornicate are sinners,” Tierra’s father barks, “and as the Shephard of this flock I cannot allow someone to lead my congregation astray.” He puts his large hands on Gina’s shoulders and she collapses to her knees, the red fabric of the choir robe pooling on the carpeted floor like blood.
“Sit her down, Pastor,” one of the Mothers of the Church cries out. The same one who first taught Tierra what the word illegitimate meant.
“Yes, I’ll sit her down until she gets right with the Lord,” he says.
Tierra watches in horror as two of the female ushers come and lift Gina from the floor and walk her out the back doors of the church. Gina’s mother grabs her Bible and walks out behind her daughter. Until she feels the wetness on her cheeks, Tierra doesn’t realize she is crying; she glances over at Tommy and he is crying, too.
After the service, Tiera rides home in silence with her father, Martha, and Tommy. On the front porch, her mother waits. She is leaned back, her face upturned toward the sun, her knees slightly apart, and her head tilted back, the hot sun on her face. When she hears the car, she stands and smiles at Tierra, reaching for her hand. Before Tierra grabs it, she turns toward her father’s car and spits on the ground.