he church looked even bigger from its wide front steps than it did from the road, its white edifice looming over her, the steeple with its glimmering gold cross seeming to reach all the way to heaven.
It felt as imposing as Notre Dame, or even more so. At least with Notre Dame, you knew what you were going to get: a centuries-old solemnity and a reliable brand of peace. Whereas in this foreign place, Juliette had no idea what was going to happen.
She’d expected to have trouble finding her way to where the Youth Group was meeting, but she just followed the teenagers, white and black, who seemed to be swirling all around her, laughing and talking as if they were normal kids and not complete religious freaks. Most of the boys were wearing some variation of the suit and tie and white shirt that Darrell’s uncle made him wear to school, and the girls looked like they’d stepped out of a rerun of Little House on the Prairie.
Juliette had dressed in one of her grandmother’s printed silk numbers, with a flowered straw hat perched atop her newly black hair and old lady pumps on her feet. Her mother had looked at her oddly, unsure whether this outfit was better or worse than the torn cut-offs and black belly shirts Juliette had taken to wearing.
“You look…..nice?” Cora had said uncertainly. “Where are you going in those clothes?”
“I’m going to church,” Juliette said, her chin in the air, as if that were the most normal thing in the world.
“What’s this all about?” her mother asked, frowning.
“Does it have to be about something?” Juliette said. “Can’t I just want to be close to God?”
That shut Cora up. Jimmie Sue gave her a sharper look. Spooky: It was harder to put anything over on the old fortuneteller than it was to fool her mother, but whether that was because Jimmie Sue had real psychic powers or just a keener nose for trouble, Juliette wasn’t sure.
“Now, boys and girls, we’ll join hands, and rise up! Up, boys and girls, lift your hearts up to God!”
Juliette had to insert herself between two girls, both of whom gave her dirty looks, and grab their sweaty hands. In fact, the whole room smelled like body odor, as if all those fake silk dresses and too-big suit jackets had gone too long between cleanings.
Many of the kids had their eyes closed and were chanting along with the Darrell’s uncle the minister, who Juliette had come to think of as That Asshole Dwayne.
“Ask the Lord to purify your bodies, boys and girls, as he purifies your souls!” That Asshole Dwayne cried. “Take me, oh Lord, take me, and make me thy servant! Cleanse me until I’m pure as the Holy Ghost!”
And while you’re at it, thought Juliette, take my clothes to the fucking dry cleaner.
She winked her eyes open and saw, across the room right beside his uncle, Darrell with his eyes open too, staring at her. She grinned and stuck her tongue out at him, wiggling it, and he immediately squeezed his eyes shut and took up the prayer again. It was all Juliette could do to keep from laughing out loud.
“Oh, Lord,” prayed That Asshole Dwayne, “save me and protect me from the scourge of drugs in our community.”
The kids all chanted after him.
“And save me, dear Jesus, from the temptations of the flesh that have ruined so many around me.”
The kids, many of whom Juliette knew from school wore the silver rings of abstinence, obediently repeated the minister’s words.
“Now, pray, children, pray to the Lord to show you the way and the salvation, Let your voices rise….”
That’s when Juliette let it fly, dropping to her knees and launching herself into the middle of the group. The polished wooden floor was slicker than she anticipated, and she slid nearly clear to the other side of the circle, her face on a level with That Asshole Dwayne’s crotch.
“Praise God!” she cried, throwing her arms into the air. And then, having no fucking clue what else somebody would say when they were praying, and because she’d seen it in a movie and thought it would be a dramatic theatrical touch, she started speaking in tongues.
Well, it was mostly French, but these yokels didn’t know that. And it sounded more authentic than just going ubada-dubada like a total freaking idiot.
Everybody else had stopped talking, stopped moving, and just seemed to be standing there frozen, staring down at her.
Even That Asshole Dwayne was struck dumb, though when it seemed he’d decided Juliette had commanded the floor for too long, he moved in and laid his big hot hands on her head and took over the prayer.
“Oh, Lord, protect this girl, possessed of your spirit. Save her and guide her…..”
Juliette couldn’t bear the feel of the minister’s hands on her head, the hands she knew had hit Darrell, beaten him. She hurled herself to the ground, thrashing her legs and talking louder, faster, crazier.
“This bully isn’t a man of God, he’s a monster, how can you not realize that?” she shouted in French, throwing in a few bibbity-bobbities in the unlikely case that there were any A students in the group. “He’s torturing Darrell and he’s stealing your money and you’re all a bunch of sheep to be going to a stupid group like this at all.”
“Okay, now, okay,” said That Asshole Dwayne. “Darrell, can you and Matt please help this young lady outside where she can collect herself. Come, children, let’s the rest of us kneel down and pray.”
Had Dwayne understood what Juliette was saying? Hard to believe. Yet why was he kicking her out so fast. She leaned heavily on Darrell, trying to shrug off the meaty hand of Matt that seemed to be straying uncomfortably close to her breast.
Once they were outside, she turned to Matt.
“Will you be an angel,” she said, “and go get me a glass of water?”
The minute Matt disappeared, Darrell hissed at her, “What do you think you were doing in there?”
“I’m trying to save you,” she said.
“Save me? How?”
“Come on,” she said, taking his hand and holding it tight. “Let’s run.”