The sermon and another choir song ended before Iris was able to collect herself. She did not like crowds. She did not like strangers. She did not like people intruding on her personal space. Lloyd’s reclusiveness had rubbed off on her. She couldn’t help but smile a bit thinking about Lloyd Sutton. She smoothed her dress and stood with the rest of the congregation when she realized the service was about to end. She watched as everyone, or almost everyone, bowed their heads for the benediction. The small gray-haired, loc’ed lady was looking directly at her…and so was the big-eyed, long-legged, deaconess.
Iris gathered her clutch and bible and turned to exit her pew when a tall male usher put a hand to her elbow.
“Good Afternoon, Sister Murphy. I’m Melvin Collier, head usher here at St. Andrew. Won’t you join the pastor and new members in the ladies’ parlor for light refreshments?” Melvin Collier held out a very official looking gloved hand toward a door in the wings.
“Oh. Thank you, but I will not be staying.” Iris kept moving toward the church exit to make her point.
“The pastor insists, sister. Just stay a few minutes,” he said with a charming smile. He moved slightly in front of Iris. She followed the usher to a room furnished like a Victorian parlor—complete with tapestry wingback chairs, small mahogany tables, and lace curtains. “This is the Women’s Ministry room,” Melvin announced. “Make yourself comfortable. Refreshments will be served momentarily,” the usher said before leaving her in front of a massive ornate bookshelf. And there she stood.
Ladies wearing slim rectangular pins, which read, New Members Committee, on their suit lapels, entered through a pair of French doors. They carried an assortment of petit fours, tea sandwiches, and drinks. Other new members and visitors meandered in moving past her unnoticed. The room began to fill up, but Iris recognized no one. No one except the small lady with the hand sanitizer.
She watched her take a seat in a high-backed wing chair nestled in a far corner. She rifled through her handbag for a moment before lifting her eyes to look directly at Iris. She smiled and nodded. Iris nodded back. As soon as Iris prepared to take a step out of her cozy place on the wall, she was blocked by a large pink hat. The wearer of the hat turned to face Iris and said, “Oh! Theeeere are you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!” The woman’s voice was a high shrill C-minor. She reached out with both arms and pulled Iris into a hug. “Your grandmother was one of my best friends. I’m Luceal Baxter, but everyone calls me Ceal.
“It is nice to meet you Ms. Baxter.”
“No. It’s a pleasure to meet YOU. I’ve read—oh—I mean I’ve heard so much about you. I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity.” She was holding Iris’ hand tightly when she turned and yelled across the room. “Laura! Come here and meet Maggie’s grand!” Iris tried to pull her hand back, but Luceal tightened her grip.
“Oh! Ceal, she’s a pretty lil thang. Lil’ chocolate self!” the lady called Laura said. She was wearing a white shirtdress and deaconess’ hat.
“Iris, I want you to meet my sister, Laura. We’re fraternal twins in case you’re wondering.” But Iris was not wondering. She was only thinking, Oh no, there are two of them! She did not want there to be two of them. Or one of them. Nor did she want to meet any of these people. In fact, she had never said St. Andrew would be her church home. She merely said she would stay on in Sweet Fields since her granny had left her the house and everything she owned. Iris was on the verge of panic. She did not like crowds, strangers, or questions; she knew questions would be coming soon.
The one called Laura spoke first. Her makeup was too perfect. This is what made Iris nervous. “Now, Iris. Your grandmother, God bless the dead, hosted all of our Tuesday Tea meetings and our Saturday Sewing Circle meetings. You know Maggie was the only one who had a house large enough to host such gatherings. We were hoping you would be willing to host next month’s meetings,” Laura asked leaning in but speaking rather loudly. Laura’s voice went up on the word meeting, and the collar of her little white shirt dress vibrated with excitement and anticipation. Laura’s perfectly manicured left eyebrow remained raised as she waited for Iris’ answer.
“I will not.” Iris said shortly. Tea? Sewing? What year were they in? She would not have nosy biddies in her granny’s home to snoop and ask for things. Laura’s eyebrow dropped, and Iris thought she heard the woman growl. Iris reaffirmed her position about the manifold meetings the woman proposed. “Absolutely not.” She arched a brow at the one called Luceal, the one who said she had “read” about her. SHE most definitely was not coming into her Granny’s home. While her sister, Laura, was much too made up to be comfortable with, Iris thought that the one called Luceal could use a visit from Clinton and Kelly of “What Not to Wear.”
“You’ve been here a month. We’ll give you another month to get yourself together, and we’ll talk about it over brunch. We know you’ve got to move your family down here with you.”
“There is no family. There will be no Tuesday Teas, nor will there be Saturday Sewing,” Iris said having finally snatched her hand from Luceal’s grasp. Using that same hand, she smoothed the hair at the nape of her neck and looked for some salvation in the room.
“But why?” Laura wanted to know. “Maggie would have wanted it that way, don’t you think? You—her granddaughter carrying on her community traditions. “
“Oh quit harassing her, already Laura and Luceal. And stand back! Are you trying to steal her breath? Jesus!” Laura and Luceal stepped aside to reveal the small lady with the hand sanitizer. “Let the girl breathe some FRESH air and get her bearings,” she said while taking a small vial from her neck and spraying the air around the twins.
The two sisters slunk away leaving Iris standing with the small, gray-haired lady. Iris, already tall and wearing stilettos, stood head and shoulders over her. For closure, Locke yelled at the twins’ backs, “…and how would you mewing cats know what Maggie wanted. Just, please…” Iris observed how the loc’ed woman threw those words at the women as if she were throwing out old pot liquor. She had never felt more grateful since she moved to Sweet Fields.
“I’m Belle. Belle Lynne Locke. You may call me Belle. I would shake your hand, but I don’t have my gloves on.” She said shifting her eyes from her hands to Iris’ hands. “No offense, dear. I’m rather particular about germs and such.”
“I am rather particular too,” Iris said, not explaining exactly what she was so particular about.
“I noticed. Now, those two sisters are trouble. Stay away from them, they are full of evil germs. Don’t tell them anything. Not even the time.” Belle said, rolling her eyes in their direction. Locke began to walk in the direction of the two wing backed chairs, and Iris followed, almost dutifully. “The stories I could tell you about the Baxter sisters will curdle your blood, but we’ll save that for another day,” she said turning to look at Iris full on. So, you’re Maggie Murphy’s granddaughter. Maggs and I were thick as thieves in our girlhood days. She was a clever woman, your grandmother. And it looks like you’re particular just like her.”
“What do you mean by that?” Iris asked arching a thick eyebrow.
“Oh calm down. I mean the way you kept smoothing your dress. Maggs did that all the time. She couldn’t bear to have lines or wrinkles in things—table linens, bed linens, clothes, kitchen towels, you name it. I also noticed you can be quite terse. You said ‘There is no family and there will be no teas or sewing’. Very short and to the point. And no contractions! I like that most. That’s how city people talk. Quick, sharp, and rude. I mean, by southern standards, that was rude, but you can’t be rude enough to the Baxter sisters. You keep that city-sharp tongue of yours ready. You’re going to need it.”
Before Locke could continue, Prentiss LeBeaux was at her side. “Sister Locke.” His voice smiled when he said Locke’s name. He was warm toward her, and while he never once touched Belle Lynne Locke, his hovering way let Iris know they had history. Rev. LeBeaux turned to greet Iris. “Hello again, Sister Iris. I can’t tell you how good it is to have you in our midst. Now, if you’ll excuse Ms. Belle and me, we’re going to step away for a moment. You don’t mind do you?”
“Oh no,” Iris breathed. Belle Lynne Locke’s forwardness had made Iris uncomfortable, but she couldn’t help think about how relieved she was to see the stately little woman and her sanitizer during service and how thankful she was to be the recipient of her rescue mission afterward. She watched Pastor LeBeaux as he walked away with Locke. He bent his head down toward the small woman, listening tentatively. Iris noticed how his right hand hovered ever so gently under Locke’s left elbow, which was crooked just enough to allow her Louis Vuitton pouchette to dangle from her arm. While the chatter of the gathering never stopped, all eyes were on the pair as they continued on in quiet conversation, as if no one else was in the room. Long money, Iris heard her granny’s voice speak gently in her ear.
Later, Iris stood on the church steps, slid on her Kate Spade sunglasses, and decided to walk home through the park. Pendleton Park was lovely this time of year. Though she wished they had been grouped by color, she couldn’t help but smile at the tulips that lined her path through the park.
The Pendleton was directly across the street from St. Andrew and her home—it still felt funny to call granny’s home hers—was just two blocks away. She strolled along carefully and admired her grandmother’s house when it came into view. The large Victorian sat on the corner of Magnolia and Cuyler. The olive green paint looked fresh and the whitewashed trim and fence, crisp. It was a beautiful house, and her granny was meticulous about its curb appeal. She eyed the porch swing and decided she would have her Sunday dinner al fresco.
Iris enjoyed the porch swing well into the evening. A few children rode by on their bikes. The adults walked by and waved to her. She nodded in response afraid that a warm smile and hearty wave would be misinterpreted as a welcome for them to join her on the large porch. When the sun shined its final light, she turned to go inside and recognized the slightest flutter of curtains in the front window of the house across the street. Her grandmother told her about him. Bennett Banks, the man who watched all things and said nothing. Iris decided that she would deal with him later, on an evening when she was not so sleepy and over worn from the day.
Just as she climbed into her grandmother’s California king-sized bed, the phone rang. She stared at the cordless phone blinking green lights at her for a long moment before answering.
“Hello,” she clipped out.
“That’s interesting. You don’t ASK ‘hello?’ like most people when they answer the phone. This is Belle. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“I am just getting into bed. How may I help you?” Iris asked flatly.
“I have a question for you. Did you notice the two ladies trying to kill each other during service today?” Belle sounded like she was smiling.
“Kill each other?” Iris asked while propping herself up against a mountain of pillows.
“Oh, yes. If looks could kill, the deaconess and the organist would be at the Willie Richmond’s Funeral Home.” Belle giggled.
“Oh yes! I did notice them. Did you notice how they both reacted when the reverend stood up?”
Belle cackled loudly. “I knew I was right about you. You don’t miss a thing! What do you think it’s all about?”
“Well, I don’t know any of them, but it seems like the ladies both want the reverend’s attentions. Is he married?”
“Rev. LeBeaux? No. He lost his wife of 20 years about five years ago. They had been married since they were 18 years old. Clive and I had been married forty-three wonderful years.” There was a long pause. Finally, Belle continued. “I hear Jacqueline Black, the deaconess, is fairly new in town. She came about a year ago. That woman is on a mission. You mark my words.”
“How do you know all of this? I thought you were new to the church.”
“I am new…somewhat. This is my hometown. I grew up here. Got married here. Clive and I visited often, but I decided to come back for good when Clive died. “
“So how long have you been back in Sweet Fields?
“Not long. Today was my first Sunday back in church. You want to know how I could possibly know the goings on of St. Andrew if I don’t talk to people, don’t you? Well, I read lips. I don’t have to talk TO people to know what’s going on. I just look at them while they talk. I can stand at a safe distance—away from germs and viruses and STILL be in the proverbial loop.” Belle laughed an eery giggle. “Now don’t you go telling people my secret,” she chided.
“Your secret is safe with me. You’re the only person I’ve had a conversation with since I’ve been here. I, uh, prefer to keep to myself.” Even as Iris spoke these words, she wondered how was it that this woman had drawn her in with such a short exchange over the phone.
“I see. ‘You, uh, prefer to keep to yourself.’ Well, I think something’s made you that way; we don’t have to talk about it tonight. But we will talk about it ‘cause I like to know who I’m friends with.”
“Friends? Who me? You don’t even know me.”
“Child, I know all I need to know for now. You keep to yourself. You tell it just like it is, and your eyes move ‘cross people faster than mine do. That means you see a lot that other people don’t see.” There was silence. Belle had read Iris like a book and in doing so shut down the conversation for a few moments. Finally, Belle broke the uncomfortable silence. “Well, Iris. You know I like that name. It’s an old lady’s name, but you’ll grow into it. I’m going to bed. I will see you tomorrow.” And with a click of a button, Belle was gone.
Tomorrow? What was tomorrow? Iris had plans for tomorrow. Apparently, Belle did too.
Commentary: Had it not been for Locke, Iris would have been over taken by the Baxter twins! It seems that church may not feel like the safest place for introverts like Iris. Have you ever thought about how overwhelming it can be for new and introverted Christians to become a viable part of a church without feeling overwhelmed? What should Iris do? Or maybe the real question is, what can churches do to help introverts feel comfortable in their congregations?