Even though it was nearly Easter, there were still very few nights that it was warm
enough to leave Miss Bessie out. And then there was the rain. All March it poured. For the
first time in many years the creek bed held water, not just a trickle either, enough so that when
they swung across, it was a little scary looking down at the rushing water below. Jess took
Prince Terrien across inside his jacket, but the puppy was growing so fast he might pop the
zipper any time and fall into the water and drown.
Ellie and Brenda were already fighting about what they were going to wear to church.
Since Momma got mad at the preacher (a person who teaches in a church) three years back, Easter was the only time in the year
that the Aarons went to church and it was a big deal. His mother always cried poor, but she
put a lot of thought and as much money as she could scrape together into making sure she
wouldn't be embarrassed by how her family looked. But the day before she planned to take
them all over to Millsburg Plaza for new clothes, his dad came home from Washington early.
He'd been laid off. No new clothes this year.
A wail went up from Ellie and Brenda like two sirens going to a fire. "You can't make me
go to church," Brenda said. "I ain't got nothing to wear, and you know it"
"Just 'cause you're too fat," May Belle murmured.
"Did you hear what she said, Momma? I'm gonna kill that kid."
"Brenda, will you shut your mouth?" his mother said sharply; then more wearily, "We got
a lot more than Easter clothes to worry about."
His dad got up noisily and poured himself a cup of black coffee from the pot on the back
of the stove.
"Why can't we charge some things?" Ellie said in her wheedling voice.
Brenda burst in. "Do you know what some people do? They charge something and wear
it, and then take it back and say it didn't fit or something. The stores don't give 'em no
Her father turned in a kind of roar. "I never heard such a fool thing in my life. Didn't you
hear your mother tell you to shut your mouth, girl!"
Brenda stopped talking, but she popped her gum as loudly as she could just to prove she
wasn't going to be put down.
Jess was glad to escape to the shed and the complacent (a person [here Miss Bessie]who is happy of how things are) company of Miss Bessie. There
was a knock. "Jess?"
"Leslie. Come on in."
She looked first and then sat on the floor near his stool. "What's new?"
"Lord, don't ask." He tugged the teats rhythmically (like a clock) and listened to the plink, plink, plink,
in the bottom of the pail.
"That bad, huh?"
"My dad's got laid off, and Brenda and Ellie are fit to fry 'cause they can't have new
clothes for Easter."
"Gee, I'm sorry. About your dad, I mean."
Jess grinned. "Yeah. I ain't too worried about those girls. If I know them, they'll trick new
clothes out of somebody. It would make you throw up to see how those girls make a spectacle
of themselves in church."
"I never knew you went to church."
"Just Easter." He concentrated on the warm udders. "I guess you think that's dumb or
She didn't answer for a minute. "I was thinking I'd like to go."
He stopped milking. "I don't understand you sometimes, Leslie."
"Well, I've never been to a church before. It would be a new experience for me."
He went back to work. "You'd hate it."
"Well, I'd just like to see for myself. Do you think your parents would let me go with
"You can't wear pants."
"I've got some dresses, Jess Aarons." Would wonders never cease?
"Here," he said. "Open your mouth."
"Just open your mouth." For once she obeyed. He sent a stream of warm milk straight
"Jess Aarons!" The name was garbled (said in a bad way) and the milk dribbled down her chin as she
"Don't open your mouth now. You're wasting good milk."
Leslie started to giggle, choking and coughing.
"Now if I could just learn to pitch a baseball that straight. Lemme try again."
Leslie controlled her giggle, closed her eyes, and solemnly opened her mouth.
But now Jess was giggling, so that he couldn't keep his hand steady.
"You dunce! You got me right in the ear." Leslie hunched up her shoulder and rubbed her
ear with the sleeve of her sweat shirt. She collapsed into giggles again.
"I'd be obliged if you'd finish milking and come on back to the house." His dad was
standing right there at the door.
"I guess I'd better go," said Leslie quietly. She got up and went to the door. "Excuse me."
His dad moved aside to let her pass. Jess waited for him to say something more, but he just
stood there for a few minutes and then turned and went out.
Ellie said she would go to church if Momma would let her wear the see-through blouse,
and Brenda would go if she at least got a new skirt. In the end everyone got something new
except Jess and his dad, neither of whom cared, but Jess got the idea it might give him a little
bargaining power with his mother.
"Since I ain't getting anything new, could Leslie go to church with us?"
"That girl?" He could see his mother rooting around in her head for a good reason to say
no. "She don't dress right."
"Momma!" - his voice sounded as prissy as Ellie's. "Leslie's got dresses. She got
hundreds of 'um."
His mother's thin face drooped. She bit the outside of her bottom lip in a way Joyce Ann
sometimes did and spoke so softly Jess could hardly hear her. "I don't want no one poking up
their nose at my family."
Jess wanted to put his arm around her the way he put it around May Belle when she was
in need of comfort. "She don't poke her nose up at you, Momma. Honest."
His mother sighed. "Well, if she'll look decent. . .
Leslie looked decent. Her hair was kind of slicked down, and she wore a navy-blue
jumper over a blouse with tiny old fashioned-looking flowers. At the bottom of her red knee
socks were a pair of shiny brown leather shoes that Jess had never seen before as Leslie
always wore sneakers like the rest of the kids in Lark Creek. Even her manner was decent.
Her usual sparkle was toned way down, and she said "Yes'm" and "No'm" to his mother just
as though she were aware of Mrs. Aaron's dread of disrespect. Jess knew how hard Leslie
must be trying, for Leslie didn't say "ma'am" naturally.
In comparison to Leslie, Brenda and Ellie looked like a pair of peacocks with fake tail
feathers. They both insisted on riding in the front of the pickup with their parents, which was
some kind of a squeeze with Brenda's shape to consider. Jess and Leslie and the little girls
climbed happily into the back and sat down on the old sacks his dad had put against the cab.
The sun wasn't exactly shining, but it was the first day in so long that the rain wasn't
actually coming down that they sang "O Lord, What a Morning," "Ah, Lovely Meadows," and
"Sing! Sing a Song" that Miss Edmunds had taught them, and even "Jingle Bells" for Joyce
Ann. The wind carried their voices away from them. It made the music seem mysterious,
which filled Jess with a feeling of power over the hills rolling out from behind the truck. The
ride was much too short, especially for Joyce Ann, who began to cry because the arrival
interrupted the first verse of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," which after "Jingle Bells" was
her favorite song. Jess tickled her to get her giggling again, so that when the four of them
clambered down (climbed down) over the tail gate, they were flushed-faced and happy once more.
They were a little late, which didn't bother Ellie and Brenda for it meant that they got to
flounce (drag themselves) down the entire length of the aisle to the first pew, making sure that every eye in the
church was on them, and every expression of every eye a jealous one. Lord, they were
disgusting. And his mother had been scared Leslie might embarrass her. Jess hunched his
shoulders and slunk (past tense of slink; to walk or move slowly; lazily) into the pew (seats used at a church; benches with backs) after the string of women- folks and just before his dad.
Church always seemed the same. Jess could tune it out the same way he tuned out school,
with his body standing up and sitting down in unison (anything that moves, sings etc. that happens at the same time) with the rest of the congregation (a group of people praying to a God in a church) but his
mind numb and floating, not really thinking or dreaming but at least free.
Once or twice he was aware of being on his feet with the loud not really tuneful singing
all around him. At the edge of his consciousness he could hear Leslie singing along and
drowsily wondered why she bothered.
The preacher had one of those tricky voices. It would buzz along for several minutes
quite comfortably, then bang! he was screaming at you. Each time Jess would jump, and it
would take another couple of minutes to relax again. Because he wasn't listening to the words,
the man's red face with sweat pouring down seemed strangely out of place in the dull
sanctuary (a safe, quiet place). It was like Brenda throwing a tantrum over Joyce Ann touching her lipstick.
It took a while to get Ellie and Brenda pulled away from the front yard of the church. Jess
and Leslie went ahead and put the little girls in the back and settled down to wait.
"Gee, I'm really glad I came."
Jess turned to Leslie in unbelief.
"It was better than a movie."
"No, I'm not." And she wasn't. He could tell by her face. "That whole Jesus thing is really
interesting, isn't it?"
"What d'you mean?"
"All those people wanting to kill him when he hadn't done anything to hurt them." She
hesitated. "It's really kind of a beautiful story-like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates -- or Aslan."
"It ain't beautiful," May Belle broke in. "It's scary. Nailing holes right through
"May Belle's right." Jess reached down into the deepest pit of his mind. "Ifs because
we're all vile (bad) sinners (people doing bad things) God made Jesus die."
"Do you think that's true?"
He was shocked. "It's in the Bible, Leslie."
She looked at him as if she were going to argue, then seemed to change her mind "It's
crazy, isn't it?" She shook her head. "You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don't have to
believe it, and I think it's beautiful." She shook her head again. "It's crazy."
May Belle had her eyes all squinted as though Leslie was some strange creature in a zoo.
"You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie."
"Why?" It was a genuine question. Leslie wasn't being smarty.
"Cause if you don't believe the Bible" - May Belle's eyes were huge - "God'll damn you
to hell when you die."
"Where'd she ever hear a thing like that?" Leslie turned on Jess as though she were about
to accuse him of some wrong he had committed against his sister. He felt hot and caught by
her voice and words.
He dropped his gaze to the gunnysack and began to fiddle with the unraveled (that came apart, that broke away) edge.
"That's right, ain't it, Jess?" May Belle's shrill voice demanded. "Don't God damn you to
hell if you don't believe the Bible?
Jess pushed his hair out of his face. "I reckon," he muttered (whispered). "I don't believe it," Leslie
said. "I don't even think you've read the Bible."
"I read most of it." Jess said, still fingering the sack. "About the only book we got around
our place." He looked up at Leslie and half grinned.
She smiled. "OK," she said. "But I still don't think God goes around damning people to
They smiled at each other trying to ignore May Belle's anxious little voice. "But Leslie,"
she insisted. "What if you die? What's going to happen to you if you die?"