written in high school, 1997.
Miss Josephine Callais sang a little louder than usual in the choir on Sunday morning. She belted out the hymns from the bottom of her heart with complete reverence, but also with complete ignorance of her volume. Her deep vibrato made her sound like she was trying to sing while driving along a bumpy dirt road: “AH ah AH ah AH…”
“That woman is making a racket, yeah,” murmured Mrs. Dardar to her husband.
“Hmmm?” groaned Mr. Dardar, waking up from his nap.
“I said, ‘That woman is making a racket,'” she repeated. “And don’t sleep in church,” she added a few moments later. She slammed her elbow into his side. Mr. Dardar grunted, shifted his position, and began nodding off again.
Margaret Pitre sat on Josephine’s right and kept rolling her eyes and sighing softly to herself whenever there was a rest in the music or she didn’t know the sixth verse. On Josephine’s other side was Olive Sonnier, equally annoyed, and rather amused; she would glance at the woman through the corner of her eye, then look up at the ceiling, as if she were asking for divine help to keep her from laughing.
Josephine knew all the words; she clutched the red hymnbook to her ample bosom with clasped hands, focused her eyes on the stained glass cross above the door of the church, and channeled all of her soul into every hymn. She was only forty but looked twenty years older. Her pale, thin lips were lost in her face, for she refused to wear lipstick. Foundation and powder, however, were fine with her, and the make-up, a shade or two (or three) too dark for her skin tone, sank like draining rainwater into the deep wrinkles on her face. Josephine wore a simple lilac dress with a white belt. Everyone could see that her brown hose were knee-highs; whenever she took in a breath to carry her booming voice through a phrase, she lifted her shoulders, which of course took the dress with them, revealing a short glimpse of her white knees. (“Scandalous!” whispered Mrs. Griffin to Miss Boudreaux.) Josephine’s auburn hair was neat and combed, and fell around her broad shoulders to frame her joyous, round face.
On the outside, everyone remained grim and solemn; this was, after all, church, and worship was a matter not to be taken lightly, and certainly not a time to enjoy oneself. On the inside, though, everyone was laughing. And most everyone knew why, on this Sunday, Josephine Callais was so happy. Next Sunday, she would be her old self, murmuring the hymns and drifting off periodically during the sermon.
Mrs. Theriot, attending the church for the first time with Mrs. Pierce, stared at Josephine, mouth agape; she leaned over and asked, “Is that woman, you know… all there?”
Mrs. Pierce smiled, clacked her dentures together, and opened her Bible to Psalms (right in the middle; that’s how she knew where it was), and spread the book over her lap. “I’ll tell you about Josephine,” she whispered at last. “You remember Roy Terrebonne?” She continued upon her friend’s nod. “Well, you know he used to be married to Josephine. She wore lipstick then. They always wear lipstick when there’s a man involved. Anyway, they were married for about two years. Josephine was real busy with church. She taught catechism to my niece one quarter.”
“So what happened?” prompted Mrs. Theriot.
“I’m getting to it, honey, I’m getting to it. Six years ago, Roy took up the notion to leave her. Nobody knows why, but I have some theories, and I’ll tell you about them later. One night in June, or maybe July or September, Roy just packed his suitcase, jumped in his fishing boat, and took off down the bayou. She tried not to get a divorce, cause then she couldn’t take communion till she got an annulment from the Pope.”
“Me, I can understand that,” inserted Mrs. Theriot. “Just protecting her soul.”
“Well, it didn’t work,” said Mrs. Pierce with a touch of drama. She paused to increase the effect of her words. “She got the divorce and wrote the Pope that same day. One of my friends got to go to Rome once, and he heard the Pope speak. Very inspiring, he said. Who is the Pope now? Didn’t we have one die a few years ago?”
“What about Josephine?” hissed Mrs. Theriot.
“Shh!” came a voice from behind them.
Mrs. Pierce pursed her lips and continued. “Some people are so rude. Anyway, every Sunday she had to sit up in that choir loft and watch everybody else go up and get communion. Just sat there picking her nail polish, somebody in the choir told me. But somebody else told me she spent the time reading the introduction to her hymnal. I don’t know, maybe she did both. And I know for a fact that she prayed every single night that God wouldn’t let her die before she could take communion.”
“And?” urged Mrs. Theriot, drumming her fingers on her Bible.
“My hairdresser’s daughter is a nurse in the emergency room at Lady of the Sea Hospital, and she said that Josephine used to come in practically every day with a 98.9 fever or a headache or something, crying because she was afraid to go to Hell.”
“The poor thing!” was Mrs. Theriot’s insight.
Mrs. Pierce nodded. “And she just got her annulment in the mail yesterday. Today she gets to take communion, and that’s why she’s making such a show.” Smug because of the knowledge she had been able to bestow on her ignorant friend, Mrs. Pierce beamed, and highlighted a verse in Psalms just for the thrill of it.
By that time, Josephine was singing even louder, her mouth wide open, her body swaying out of time with the music, her face lifted to Heaven.
“She’s rattling the windows,” commented Mrs. Dardar to her husband, who had drifted off again.
“Hmmm?” asked the poor man.
“I said, ‘She’s rattling the windows,'” answered his wife.
Mr. Dardar murmured something about hurricane weather and the bayou being high, and the whole parish flooding. His chin dropped slowly down to his chest, and he got another poke in the ribs from his wife.
Between the choir’s performance and communion, Josephine sat twisting her fingers and crossing and uncrossing her ankles. Wouldn’t it be just like Satan to kill her off right before she could have communion? She’d be just like Job then – well, sort of – and maybe then she’d be declared a saint. Wouldn’t the Pope feel sorry then?
The congregation watched as the choir stood up to go down and get communion. Josephine had jumped up, and her hymnbook fell on the floor with a thud that echoed through the sanctuary, waking up Mr. Dardar for a second or two. It was a lucky thing that he woke up, for he was about to start snoring, and that was no attractive sound. Besides, it would have cost him his Sunday dinner. On the way down the steps from the loft, Josephine tripped on Mrs. Sonnier’s dress, then stumbled at last to the front of the church.
All eyes were on Josephine Callais as she opened her mouth so the priest could place the round white chip on her tongue. They stared as she drank the wine. As she returned to the choir loft, her head was high and her shoulders were lifted, revealing those knees again. “Just scandalous,” said Mrs. Griffin once more. “The woman has no modesty,” said Mrs. Dardar. “Hmmm,” said Mr. Dardar.
Mrs. King later told the women in line with her at Delchamps that she had seen (with her own eyes!) light shining down from heaven on Miss Callais’ face when she took her seat in the choir loft.
“Well why not?” Miss Boudreaux had asked. “She ain’t going to Hell now, is she?”