Iris sat primly on the end of the fifth pew in the middle section of St. Andrew Baptist Church—the oldest African American church in the state of Georgia. She smoothed her taupe sheath dress on her lap once more and adjusted her clutch at her side. This was her first service at St. Andrew since her grandmother, Margaret “Maggie” Murphy, died a month earlier. Iris had decided to stay on in Sweet Fields and live in the large Victorian house she inherited from her grandmother. Now, it was time for her to join the community, and attending a church service was the first step. A pupil of human behavior, Iris couldn’t help but observe and analyze the congregation of her granny’s church.
A motley collection of twelve women in white shirtdresses and white hats with scarlet trim sat to the far left of the pulpit. Each wore a magnolia on her lapel to further signify her affiliation with the deaconess board. A few were fanning themselves, and two elderly ladies were already nodding off, even though the service had just begun. Others were enjoying the choir’s lively rendition of Andrae Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon.”
As Iris scanned the faces of the congregation, one face demanded her attention. A pair of active bulbous eyes sat beneath a dramatically low blond widow’s peak. The woman with the eyes was the color of vanilla custard, and she glared at Iris as if she were interrogating her. She held the carriage of a deaconess, an influential deaconess. Iris’ suspicion of the big-eyed woman’s position was confirmed by the magnolia. The custard colored woman also wore a shirtwaist dress like the other deaconess members; however, Iris noted that her dress was noticeably shorter when she walked into the church. The dress stopped at a dangerous height, several inches above the knees, revealing the longest pair of bird legs Iris had ever seen. The legs were covered by thick flesh tone stockings, the kind that dancers for football teams often wore underneath their small shorts. Her eyes continued to question Iris. Not one to back down, Iris returned the woman’s glare and eventually slid the corners of her mouth upward into a dry smile that did not fully reach her eyes. She smoothed her dress again and turned her attention to the choir.
It had been a long time since she had heard the song they were singing. The organist, a robust woman with a large dark burgundy colored bouffant looked straight ahead as she played. She paid no attention to the director or the choir. Odd, Iris thought. Did the choir sing the song so often that the director and organist need not communicate about its nuances? Iris tried to follow the organist’s gaze; it looked as if the organist and the large-eyed deaconess were glaring at each other. But the organist was no match for the deaconess, as the organist eventually looked away first. She banged on the keys with more gusto when the showdown came to its disappointing end.
Iris weaved a story in her head about the two ladies. They both looked to be about the same age—early to mid forties. In a fist fight, Iris’ money would be on the organist. She was a large woman, solid—not soft and pillowy. In a battle of wits, Iris would put her money on the large-eyed woman. She seemed clever; her eyes never stopped moving and taking in information. It was a man, Iris figured. It was always a man. Was one the wife and the other “the other woman?” Or were they both single and after the same man? Did this man attend the St. Andrew? Yes. Most likely. Anyone who was anyone attended St. Andrew.
Iris scanned the deacon’s board. About twenty men of all ages sat in their Sunday’s best suits and ties, clapping and singing. Perhaps the object of the women’s affections sat on the deacon board. But which one?
Iris had begun an analysis of each man but was interrupted on the third gentleman when she was distracted by the pastor who was approaching the podium. The pastor, Prentiss LeBeaux, was tall and broad-shouldered with a thick mustache. He was an attractive gentleman with an athletic build, honey-colored skin, and thick wavy hair sprinkled with touches of gray throughout. The honey wasn’t just in his skin; it was also in his voice. Iris was sure he had used the combination of his baritone and long-lashed gray eyes to charm countless women. She let her eyes trail the pastor’s frame from the shoulders of his navy suit down to his fingers. His fingers. They were not adorned. No wedding ring, but still a visible quarter inch indentation of commitment. That explains the slight droop of his neck, and the way his large hands dangle from the wrists–lonely hands, Iris thought. His shirt collar was neatly tucked, except for a slight puckle of white at the neck, on the back right side. Iris knew what this meant. There was no one at home to tuck and dust him–to be sure his collar was completely tucked and the small bits of lint were dusted from his back and shoulders. She was almost sure of it. He was the man.
Iris glanced at the thin frog-faced woman just in time to see her eyes alight with admiration and respect onto the pastor’s distinguished figure. There was something Iris saw in the bulging eyes, a wildness restrained by fetters too loose. There was wildness and something else. Iris looked at the woman’s mouth and saw her tongue peak out to subtly lick her lips–top and bottom. The woman then pressed her lips together into a slight pucker. Lust. That’s the other thing Iris saw in the deaconess’ eyes. Iris shot a glance to the right of the pulpit at the organist who had stretched her lips into a wide, toothy grin. Right. Of course, it was the pastor. The two women were vying for the attention of the pastor of St. Andrew. Who wouldn’t be? He was very handsome, and from what Iris heard from her grandmother, the pastor was quite charming too. Grandma Maggs had called the pastor, “a very nice man, nice to his own detriment.”
Throughout the service, Iris continued her survey of various people in the sanctuary. She noticed a small lady tucked into the pew across the aisle from her. She repeatedly sanitized her hands after every handshake, hug, or touch. Iris was content to watch the little lady with the gray sister locs, but someone whispered for her to stand.
“We’d like to welcome Mother Murphy’s granddaughter back to St. Andrew. As you know, Mother Murphy went to her heavenly reward last month, and don’t we miss her, church?” The congregation shouted hearty amens. The pastor continued, “Well, her granddaughter, Iris, moved back to Sweet Fields and decided to make St. Andrew her church home.” The congregation clapped and shouted, “amen.” Iris wanted to crawl under the pew or better yet, walk right out of there. It was, in fact, very hard for her to keep her feet planted at her seat. I will not walk out. I will not walk out, she thought. She felt there was no need for this kind of public display, and hoped she was smiling as she smoothed her dress over her lap.
“Sister Iris, come up here so we can greet you and welcome you into the St. Andrew fold” the pastor urged. Iris did not move. She nodded and smiled. “Come on, dear. Don’t be shy. Everyone remembers you from the time you were knee-high to a grasshopper.” Iris stood and stepped out into the aisle. She did not walk out of the church, but she refused to look at any of the faces watching her. When she finally reached the front of the church, the pastor stepped down from the pulpit and pulled her into a bear hug. His cologne filled her nostrils. His large arms were squeezing her ribcage. She wanted to pummel his muscular back with her fists, but fought back the urge. When he finally released her, she gasped for air, but the freedom didn’t last long.
Soon she was bombarded with unsolicited affections from men, women, and children—none of whom she knew. Hugs, handshakes, and, to her dismay, a kiss on the cheek! Who did that? How dare they! Finally, the parade of strangers was over. Iris did not run back to her seat at the end of the fifth row, like she wanted to. Instead, she regained control and took confident long strides back to her seat. The little lady with the sanitizer stuck out a green-gloved hand as Iris passed her. She did not look at Iris, only straight ahead. Iris got a good enough look at the little lady to note her smooth walnut colored skin, her small triangular wooden earrings, and the hint of soft pink gloss on her lips. The woman slipped a tiny vial of sanitizer into Iris’ trembling hands. “Use this,” she said in a voice almost too loud for worship service. Only then did the woman turn to take Iris in, fully. Iris noted her quick nod of approval, the kind that only people with long money, as her granny would say, could give. The loc’ed lady then turned her tiny head toward the pulpit as if the exchange never happened.