Culottes
A Short Story by Alice Clark
Written using the suggestion "Church"
Originally featured on 11-18-2008
As part of our series "Holiday Fiction Drive (The Things Holidays Drive People To, The Things Holiday People Drive)"

They skated with snow pants under their culottes. A herd of girls. Fat circles on the ice. When one of them falls, only other girls are allowed to pick her up. They pull hard with mittened hands. I join them.

We spin in circles and are awkward in our layers. There are two seventeen year old boys in the group. One hands me a CD as a Christmas present. He doesn’t say a word. My sister tells me it means something and that she told him which one to buy. I know later my mother will comment on the CD and I consider hiding it so I don’t have to talk about it. After ice skating there is the van ride.

We alternate rows of boys and girls in the seats, never sitting beside someone of the opposite sex. Brad and my sister hold hands in the last seat of the fifteen passenger van and the older teens watch. My sister is beautiful and has long brown hair. I love her for her sense of youth. We create a buffer between my sister and Brad and the junior high kids because they cannot be trusted. Later, I will ask my sister whether or not she thinks handholding is a sin, but not here.

One of my friends has a Christmas birthday and for her birthday party we have a rubber stamping party and make country snowman Christmas cards for our friends. We knew they would like them and they do. I emboss crystallized glitter for accents of snow. We eat thick brownies and then talk about the calories. I bought her something for her birthday in juicy pear scent from Bath and Body Works and it does not occur to me that boys don’t generally find pears sexy.

I have to leave early to go to organ practice, thirty minutes before the service, and Carol, the 75 year old pianist, with hair exactly the color of a red squirrel, suggests I use the harp function on the Clavinova to add ambiance. I agree with her because I have no voice. When the service begins, I turn the volume down, so only I can hear it, and just keep playing along to the hymns, “Rock of Ages” and “Just As I Am” hitting only partial chords because my fingers are afraid. My dad sits in the front pew alone and always comments that he can never hear me and I ignore it. I will make sure to say goodbye to him, in front of the pastor, before he goes back to his apartment. I pick up my Bible bag when I leave the organ and the boy from the ice has moved everyone down in the teen pew so that there is one seat left for me. It was a community choice. My sister told me.

I leave during the closing prayer and go outside. The air is painfully cold, but no one acknowledges that, and ice falls inside of my Mary Jane’s. I sit on a decorative rock outside the foyer and think about cutting, but the spirit of the Lord is not in it.

My calico skirt touches the snow and begins to form a wet spot and one of the church ladies sees me from the nursery window, and cracks it a bit, letting the biting air on the babies, and asks me what I’m doing. I stand up and walk away.

After the service my mom and I ride home. She tells me that one of the deacons told her that she needed to stay married. She says she wants to try another church and I’m surprised that I’m o.k. with that. Some new faces and new voices would be good. My friends will still call me to make sure I am not backsliding and maybe still invite me for cocoa and Bible study. She asks me to pull over because something from the church dinner is making her nauseous.

We switch and I drive and the road is covered in ice. I have no skill and just go slow. Mom reaches for a vase that is rolling around the bottom of the van and vomits in it, facing forward and looking out the window as she does. When she’s done, she tells me that I’m a good kid and that she’s sorry. She leans deeply forward into the dashboard and she looks as if she will disappear. She holds the vase in her lap, and it warms her hands until we get home. She walks directly to the bathroom.

Christmas morning we try the church down the road. My mom, my sister, and I. They don’t know we have a father or a husband here, and that makes it nice. Our neighbors go to this church and they are good people who give us friendship bread starters in plastic bags that sit and grow on our counters. Mom wants to go there because she likes their wreaths. We stand and sing a few new songs. Others clap their hands, but we think that’s not genuine and does not reflect a fear of the Lord. After singing, they ask for prayer requests and for those who need healing. Several people come forward and the pastor touches each of them with a dot of oil on the forehead. There are overwhelming chimes that remind me of the ice cream man and eerie back porches with hummingbirds. Then one woman in the line makes a cry and falls to the floor. I look at my mother and see she is nothing but afraid. I tell her that we can leave. But she’s never walked out of a church service, and so she waits, to be obedient to God. Several more fall and she looks nauseous again. The pastor says they are going to do a Jericho March to claim God’s victory. I get her to walk out the side door during a chant that provides enough distraction.

Read More By Alice Clark

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Portland Fiction Project

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