Missy’s minister looked away from the pulpit – and his notes – and squinted out over the congregation with a watered-down smile.
Missy thought, Here comes the last line of the sermon
Reverend Jones only released the life vest of his notes on the first line of the sermon and the last. Eye contact wasn’t his strong suit. “If you want the world to move towards Jesus, start with a good hard look in the mirror. Amen.” Silence rode on the coattails of his last words.
The chords of the last hymn burst through the silence. Their organist couldn’t ever let the silence stand. She was a jumpy woman; Missy always noticed her picking at her clothing or her nails, and she couldn’t ever sit still.
Missy pulled out her hymnal. She stood up and saw her godson, Tad, run up the middle aisle to her. He’d just come back from the preschool class.
“Look, Mithy!” He held up a coloring book picture with blue scribbles making a beard for Jesus.
“You’re a born artist,” she whispered. Missy kissed the top of his head. She moved aside to let Tad stand between her and his mother. Instead of standing, he sat in the pew and started swinging his legs. Missy nudged him. “Stand up for the hymn, Tad.” He ignored her.
Missy looked over Tad’s head to Sharon Lane, her best friend since, well, since they had both been Tad’s age. She tried to catch her friend’s eye and nod toward Tad; she was his mother after all.
Sharon didn’t look over. Neither did Ham, her husband. Sharon stood for the song, but her hand moved through the contents of her purse, too concerned with getting everything ready to leave after the hymn and the benediction.
Classic Sharon—focused on herself.
Sharon had always focused on herself. Missy remembered a moment from ten years ago, back in middle school. They were in Sharon’s room, her walls covered in posters and magazine cutouts. Sharon had one eye closed as she carefully practiced drawing on her eyelid with a makeup pencil. Her line wiggled. Missy had flopped onto Sharon’s bed, the latest Seventeen magazine open in front of her. The glossy pages swam with bikinis, drowned in the humid smell of perfume samples.
“You need to practice, Missy.”
“I will when you’re done.”
“I’m serious,” Sharon pointed to her eye. “If you think this looks bad, yours will be worse.”
“I know. What do you think of this swimsuit? Would our moms let us get away with a two-piece this summer?” Missy held up the magazine and pointed to a red flower-print suit.
“Don’t change the subject. No one is going to do your makeup for you every day when we’re older. I won’t be able to help you. You have to look out for yourself. Not just for makeup, for everything. ‘God helps those that help themselves.’”
Missy shook her head. “That isn’t in the Bible, you know. But it does talk about helping one another. What about that?”
Sharon met Missy’s eyes in the mirror. “Sure, help others, but only after you’ve made sure you’ve got what you need. There’s a big world out there.”
Missy nodded. Sharon had a single mom. This must be coming from her. “I’ve got all the world I need right here. Friends, family, church, and God.”
“I see you nodding and blowing me off, Missy. Don’t be judgy, and don’t forget what I said.”
“Okay,” Missy said. But she thought about how helping others was all she was good at. She could draw a perfect line on Sharon’s eye. Sharon could do one on hers. Who cares that she couldn’t make one on her own?
The first verse of the hymn was half over. Missy joined in. During the second verse, Tad’s feet swung into her calves and bounced back to hit the underside of their pew. Missy winced, biting her lip to stop a yelp of pain. She shot him a look, but he didn’t notice and he didn’t stop.
Sharon wasn’t paying attention. Sharon never paid attention. Always faithful to her middle school philosophy, Sharon took care of herself first, and then paid attention to her son.
Missy put down her hymnal and rested her hands on Tad’s shins. She wasn’t his mother, but she could discipline on her own. “No kicking, young man.”
His big eyes looked into hers. His face bunched up, and Missy knew tears were coming.
“Hush, now, none of that.”
In the pause between the second and third verse, Tad melted down. His cries bounced off the walls of the church, echoing from the rafters. Sharon picked him up in one fluid motion. She held him off to the side of her growing belly, now five months along. Sharon led the way out of the pew, moving past Missy. Ham followed right behind.
Missy watched her friend leave down the center aisle and wanted both to stay and to follow. Her favorite part of every service was the benediction, given after the last hymn. Their pastor gave a good blessing, something Missy repeated throughout the week.
On the other hand, Sharon would need her. Ham wasn’t much help with his son, and Sharon was tired and testy with the pregnancy. This was Missy’s job; she was Sharon’s best friend, and she was Tad’s godmother.
Missy put the hymnal away and grabbed her purse. She followed her friend down the middle aisle, ignoring the looks – some sympathetic, some downright prickly – from the other congregants. The last chord from the organ rang through the church. The sanctuary doors closed and muffled the sounds from the service.
Sharon, Ham, and Tad were walking out the main doors when Missy got to the lobby. Tad was under control, holding his mother’s hand. Missy frowned. Her godson already showed remarkable skill at manipulating his parents to get what he wanted. Sharon would have to learn to keep that under control.
Missy caught up with them just past the front steps outside. “I’ll meet you at your place to help with brunch?”
Sharon looked at Ham, then at Missy. “Not today. I’ll see you on Friday for our usual Ladies Night, though, okay?”
Missy’s cheeks burned. They’d been doing brunch together after church for years. Missy stopped. “Okay. See you Friday then.”
The family walked toward their sedan.
Missy thought. They could have at least gotten a minivan when Tad came along. Everyone knew those were the safest. Or just walked to church. They lived four blocks away.
Missy walked back inside. Maybe she’d catch the benediction after all. When she pulled open the door, the lobby was full of exiting congregants. She was too late. She walked in, planning to say hello to a few people, perhaps do the coffee hour. She nodded to Donna Thatch, a friend from her Sunday night Women’s Bible Study. Donna was talking to Betsy Harper, a retired teacher. Together, they looked like a commercial for “What Not to Wear.” Plaid and floral print and polka dots, oh my. Betsy said something about a trip to Guatemala. Missy’s mind called up pictures from a magazine article about Guatemala – jungles, beaches, and frozen drinks. Longing and curiosity washed over her. She ignored those feelings. Travel was for people that weren’t needed at home, or who were selfish and just left – church trip or not. Missy had never traveled outside state lines.
A pair of her friends from high school walked downstairs. She followed. If they were doing coffee hour, she’d join them.
Half a flight above them on the stairs, Missy could hear their conversation. “We can’t stay too long,” Frannie said. “Not with Sharon’s barbecue this afternoon.”
“Did she want us there early to help set up?” Bea asked.
Their voices snaked down the basement hallway.
Sharon was having a barbecue, and Missy wasn’t invited.
She wasn’t even told.
Her face lit up with embarrassment, her cheeks turned to red coals. Shame knocked around in her empty stomach.
Missy rested her always cool hands against her hot cheeks, pressing hard. She stood up straight, forcing her stomach to attention. “I don’t believe it,” she said under her breath. Sharon was many things, but a planner was not one of them. She wouldn’t have been able to walk down the aisle for her wedding if Missy hadn’t arranged for the church, scheduled Reverend Jones, booked the flowers, and begged the organist. There was no way Sharon could have thrown a barbecue together on her own, especially not pregnant and with a two-year-old. There had to be some mistake.
Missy pulled out her phone and dialed Sharon’s cell. She’d just figure this out here and now. She turned away from the lobby of the church, covering one ear to block out the noise. She walked down a few steps toward the basement.
Ringing. Only ringing. Then voicemail.
Missy grabbed the handrail and closed her eyes against a sudden rush of vertigo. Sharon always answered her phone. Always. Missy had seen her answer once while driving and holding down Tad’s feet so that he’d stop kicking the back of her seat. Missy had held the steering wheel while she answered.
It had been a sales call.
Missy wondered if something could have gone wrong. A car accident? But she was the emergency contact in Sharon’s phone. She’d have already gotten a call.
She walked down the stairs, one foot in front of the other. Sharon was throwing a party without her help, and, worse, without even inviting her. Missy focused on one step down at a time. There was a bathroom off the basement hall. She’d just duck in there, let the room stop spinning, and get herself composed. Then coffee hour. Like nothing was wrong.
Missy ducked into the farthest stall, doing everything in her power to stop the tears. Once they started, her eyeliner would be ruined, her eyes would be red for hours, and her face would puff up like popcorn. No tears.
She took long, deep breaths. She focused on last week’s benediction. Be a light for God. You can’t be a light if you’re crying. You can’t be a light if you’re upset. I will be a light. It’s what I know how to do. I help people; I love God. That’s who I am.
The pressure from the tears passed.
Missy waited until she had complete control and flushed the toilet to mask her real reason for hiding. She left the stall, washed her hands, and checked her makeup. No one wants to see tears.
Missy took a cup of coffee as soon as she walked into Coffee Hour. She always preferred to have something in her hands, especially when talking to people. Her friends from high school were on the far side of the basement. She’d have to ask them what was going on. If Sharon wasn’t answering, she’d get her answer somehow.
Reverend Jones blocked her on her way. “Missy. Good morning.” Reverend Jones shook her hand with both of his. His palms were warm, and Missy took comfort in knowing that he always shook this way, always like a drowning man trying to come up out of the water. She was a hand he could hold on to. She could help him by being a loyal congregant. But right now all she wanted was to figure out what was going on with Sharon.
Missy flashed her best, brightest smile, covering everything. “Thank you for the sermon this morning. Tell me, I missed the benediction. What was it today?”
“‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ Let us all study our own weaknesses this week, so that we may learn to overcome them.” He returned her smile.
“Thank you, Reverend.”
He belatedly released her hand and smiled at the person behind her. Missy walked over to Frannie and Bea. They stood by the donuts, and each had a glazed in their hand. Both women were complaining at Ladies Night how they needed to lose ten pounds. Missy wondered how that was going to happen with donuts – and a barbecue, too.
Missy took a sip of her black coffee. Only two calories if you skipped the cream and sugar.
“Good morning, Bea, Frannie.”
“Missy! How are you?” Frannie always acted the bubbly part until you displeased her. Then, watch out.
“Just great. How about today’s service? It’s hard to think about the plank in your own eye sometimes, but I’ll be sure to check in the mirror tonight!”
“You do that, Missy.” Beatrice’s tone was dry and sarcastic. Bea had always been a bit of a grump. A smart grump, though. She took classes at the community college – Bea was the only one of them that did.
Missy asked after Frannie’s boyfriend; asked how Bea’s classes were going. Then she found the moment for the question that burned inside her. She leaned forward and dropped her voice. “What’s the story with the barbecue today?”
“The barbeque?” Frannie’s tone rose an octave. Her eyes dropped from Missy’s face to the floor.
Busted. But how could they do this to me? Why would they exclude me? “Yeah, Sharon’s barbeque.”
“Didn’t you hear about it at Ladies Night last week?” Frannie’s voice still sounded operatic.
“I was visiting my grandmother for her home’s once-a-month Bingo night last Friday. You know that. Why didn’t someone call me?”
Frannie shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I thought Sharon was going to tell you.”
“Well, she didn’t. And I just called her and she didn’t answer.” Missy kept after Frannie. She knew she should stop, but she also wanted to know what was going on.
“Come over with us,” Bea rescued Frannie. “We aren’t going until one. I was going to change at Frannie’s. Why don’t you meet us at her place and we’ll all three go over together?”
“Perfect! Thanks for letting me join in!” Missy smiled. “I’m sure Sharon will need the extra help.” She took a step back from her friends, giving everyone a little breathing room.
Bea and Frannie offered their good-byes; they’d see her in an hour.
Missy watched them go. They looked like ants after you moved the sugar pot – heads together, trying to figure out what had happened. She turned to leave to get ready for the barbecue. She wanted to look perfect, be the perfect guest. She needed to be at this barbeque. This was her best friend’s party, and her friends were her home.
Donna Thatch came up and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Missy, can you help me with something?”
Missy took one more sip of her coffee and put the mug in the bus tub under the coffee station. “What do you need?”
“I just need to set up the room for tonight’s Bible Study. Louise was supposed to help, but she took a nasty fall this week and sprained her ankle. Could you lend a hand?”
Missy couldn’t refuse Donna Thatch. No one in church could. She was too nice, too persuasive, too giving. Missy did a quick check of what she needed to do to get ready for the barbecue – yes, she should have time, just barely.
Donna led her into their Bible Study room. Missy had been going to the women’s Bible Study since she aged out of the youth group. She had been the youngest one there since she started. All her other friends somehow coupled up or just stopped going. Missy pulled folding chairs out of the closet. One big circle, usually fifteen chairs was plenty.
“What did you think of the benediction passage today?” Missy straightened a brown metal chair.
“The plank and the speck? It’s a verse worth praying on.” Donna paused. “We all have things we need to see and contemplate. That whole chapter of Matthew, though, has such interesting pieces. In just the next paragraph: ‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.’”
“There are such violent passages in the Bible.” Missy hoped her tone conveyed her discomfort. She wanted Donna to change the subject. She already had a horrible picture in her head of people being torn to pieces.
“In Jesus’ own words, too.” Donna said, matter of fact. She paused, thinking.
Missy didn’t want Donna to complete her thought. She couldn’t handle any other violent images. She changed the subject. “Who is leading Bible Study tonight?”
“Betsy. You’ll be here?”
Missy felt cornered. She didn’t know how long the barbecue would last, and she didn’t know if Sharon would need her to stay and clean up, now that she was going to be there. “I don’t know.”
“Come. We need your young blood and new ideas. Will you help me with this side table?”
Missy finished setting up then ducked out the side door of the church. She really had to hurry. In forty-five minutes, she needed to get home, change clothes, figure out something to bring, and get to Bea’s. Maybe she’d bring something that screamed for her godson? That way, if Sharon was really upset that she was there, she’d say she was just stopping by with something for Tad.
* * *
Missy parked her car right behind Frannie’s, half a block down from Sharon’s house. Bea and Frannie got out, and Missy walked with them. From the outside of the house, there was no telling that a barbecue was happening. Plenty of cars, sure, but nobody on the porch, no one in the side yard or out back, and they couldn’t even hear music.
Missy forced her best smile on her face. This is what Sharon gets for planning a party without me.
Missy let this thought guide her to the door. If she acted as though she belonged there, her presence wouldn’t be awkward. She dreaded the possibility that Sharon would freak out. With Sharon, this was always a possibility. Head high,
Missy told herself. If I need to bail, I’ll just leave.
She carried the cupcakes she´d bought for Tad ahead of her. The summer heat had started to melt the icing. She focused on one foot in front of the other, head high.
Frannie got to the door first and rang the bell.
“Why are you ringing the bell? It’s a barbecue!” Missy charged ahead. She pushed open the door.
Act like you’re invited
“SURPRISE!” Dozens of faces smiled back at her; people blew on paper horns and wore birthday hats.
Missy dropped the cupcakes.
Tad ran up to her and handed her a hat. “Happy birthday, Mithy.”
But today wasn’t her birthday. Her birthday wasn’t until next month. On August first. Oh, no, the first was this Wednesday. How do you forget a birthday? Your own birthday?
Bea scooped up the fallen cupcakes. Both containers were miraculously intact.
Hands pushed Missy inside the door. Frannie giggled. “Come on, Silly. Say something.”
Missy groped for something, anything. “Gosh.” She found her smile. “Gee.” Tears gathered for the second time today. She blinked them back. Not here. “Thank you, everyone. Can you believe – I forgot my birthday is on Wednesday?” Her cheeks burned, again.
People laughed. The faces dispersed. They hugged her, patted her on the back, handed her a cup of raspberry lemonade. She drank it down, grateful for something to cool her embarrassment, something to fill her stomach.
Sharon came up last. “You do so much for us,” she said. “With Tad, helping out around the house, when I’m tired or moody.” Sharon patted the top of her belly. “And I know I’ll rely on you even more when this one comes around. Consider this a little thank you. And happy birthday.” Sharon pulled Missy into a hug.
Missy let her friend’s arms wrap around her. Gratitude radiated from Missy’s skin.
Missy pulled away. Sharon still had on her church outfit, and wrinkles were starting to gather at the bottom and the sides. She was grateful, so grateful, but what was wrong with her? Her best friend threw her a surprise party, and all she could notice was her wrinkly dress? The lemonade became a cool orb of shame in her stomach.
Sharon laughed. “You nearly messed everything up. I was going to call you sounding desperate. I wasn’t expecting you to come on your own. Thank God Bea got ahold of me to let me know!”
Missy threw a smile on her face, projecting what she was supposed to feel. “Thank you, Sharon. I don’t know what to say. I’m just so, well, surprised!” Missy laughed galloping chuckles that could have been mistaken for a sob.
“Go, now, go around and say hi. Everyone’s here for you. Well, for you and the grill. Ham’s doing the honors.”
Missy mingled at the party. She ate. And with every person: waves of gratitude and the orb of shame. She couldn’t stop her judgmental thoughts. They came unbidden: Lauren Johnson, all teeth in that horsy face. Jason Crew: he still hadn’t outgrown his adolescent acne. Even with Ham, the man grilling food for her surprise party, she noticed that at the grill he still didn’t have to help with Tad.
Missy closed her eyes and offered a prayer.
Jesus, what is wrong with me?
She put on her best face. She tried to have a good time. She focused on her gratitude. She kept the prayers coming.
After the first guests had started to leave, Tad found her. He put his hand in hers and led her to the swing set. He pointed to his special swing with the hard, yellow plastic seat. Missy picked him up and he wiggled into place.
Missy pushed. She pushed and saw their high school friends gathered around the grill. She pushed and saw Sharon in the kitchen window, chatting with people from church.
“Higher!” His hands held on to the yellow rope on the sides.
She pushed and wondered why, at her best friend’s house, she could do nothing but think awful things about her closest friends in the world. Friends who had all come to a party for her.
“Whee!” Tad said.
His voice broke a string inside her.
I need help.
Missy glanced at her watch. Bible Study was in fifteen minutes. She needed to go, to talk about her hateful thoughts, to study what Jesus would have her do. She slowed the swing and pulled Tad out. He ran into the kitchen.
She walked over to the grill. “Ham,” she put her hand on Ham’s shoulder. “Thank you so much for the party.”
“Happy birthday,” he said, patting her hand.
Sharon made eye contact with Missy through the kitchen window and waved her in.
Sharon stood surrounded by friends. Missy smiled, noticed how Sharon did so well in the company of others, how comfortable she seemed, how at home. This was her best friend, her best friend who had thrown her a surprise party.
“Sharon, thank you so much for the party. I’m afraid I have to go. I promised Donna I’d be at Bible Study. I don’t know where the time went. I’m sorry, but I can’t stay to clean up.” Missy pulled her friend into a hug. “Thank you again. I was so surprised.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for everything. Really.” Sharon’s eyes pierced Missy’s. “Are you okay?”
No, not tears, not again. “I’m great. Just so touched. Thank you. I’ll call you later.”
Tad ran up to her at the door. “’Bye, Mithy.”
Missy pulled him into a hug and twirled him around.
The moment his feet hit the ground, Tad ran off.
Missy left the party, walking the four blocks to church. She could get her car later. With each step, she repeated the benediction from this morning.
Why. Do. You. Look. At. The. Speck. Of. Sawdust. In. Your. Brother’s. Eye. And. Pay. No. Attention. To. The. Plank. In. Your. Own. Eye?
Over and over, her feet clicked through the question.
She walked in to Bible Study. Donna had changed into jeans that were too high in the waist and too high at the ankle. She had on a patterned t-shirt that was tucked in with no belt. On any other day, Missy would have smiled and rolled her eyes when no one was looking. But today, today she focused on Donna’s smile, on the way she made everyone feel welcome as they walked in the door. Missy gave Donna a tight hug, a genuine one. She pulled away and reciprocated Donna’s smile, her authenticity, her love.
“You’re just in time. Betsy was about to start with announcements.”
Missy took her seat, looking around the circle at all the women she’d made fun of before, all the clothing she’d scorned, all the hairstyles that kept the Beauty Shack in business. She forced herself to think a positive thought about each woman.
She had to earn each one.
“Hi ladies.” Betsy opened announcements with her scratchy, low voice. “This fall is our church’s mission trip to Guatemala. We’ll go for the entire month of October. Our Bible Study group is responsible for recruiting, and our goal this year is ten church participants. Let me know if you’re interested in traveling with the group, or if anyone you know is interested.
“On a personal note,” Betsy continued, “This will be my fifth year participating. I’ve found each trip to be a perfect opportunity to refocus my life. It has helped to show me what really matters in life: not things, but people. Not what others think about me, but rather, focusing on how I live in service to God. I invite you to travel with us.”
The month of October, Missy considered. She already had four weeks of vacation accrued at work. Sharon was due around Thanksgiving, so she’d be back before the birth. Tad would have started preschool.
Missy had always thought leaving was so selfish. But maybe she needed to be selfish. Maybe she needed to work on the plank in her own eye. Maybe she needed to help herself so that she’d be patient enough to help other people.
A polite pause followed Betsy’s announcement.
Missy raised her hand. “I’ll go.”