The air was heavy and still on my shoulders, pregnant in the late August heat. I was surveying the horizon from my hiding spot in the shadow of a grove of apple trees growing wild and untended in Judah’s backyard. My hands reached instinctively for the glossy fruit dangling above me, cupping the waxy flesh and relieving a small measure of the old tree’s burden. The skin was tart and thick between my teeth, sticking where canine met bicuspid. I tasted each speck of dirt, each storm-induced bruise, my tongue a receptacle for impurity. They tasted like Grandfather’s coffee, bitter and pervasive, making me turn my lips out so the sun could burn away the aftertaste.
I was watching for Judah’s lumbering black pick-up truck to come into view. It was nearly noon on Sunday and I was supposed to be sitting in a narrow wooden pew with Mama and Sydney, listening to another of Preacher Tucker’s marathon sermons and trying not to laugh as John-John started to snore. We have sat in the same spot (third from the back, left side) every Sunday for thirteen years except the week Daddy died (we sat first on the right, Sydney still curled in Mama’s distended belly, in front of the preacher who looked at Mama with dry, clear eyes and recited a Keats’ poem, never once opened his bible). I figured if a preacher can go a day without the Lord, I could skip church this once without going to Hell. So, I told Mama I threw up breakfast and she let me stay home.
Church goes on for days in the South, so I knew I’d have time to get to Judah’s and back before Mama got home. At least, that might have been true if Judah was ever home. She was the only woman in town that didn’t go to church, a subject that never died out of the rumor mill, so I knew she wasn’t there. She didn’t have any kids to cart around or a husband to run errands for, even more cud for the town’s gossip cows to chew. Nothing to do in town on Sundays, either; everybody closes shop for the afternoon to go repent like good Christians, so she couldn’t have been there.
My hazy musings had made my brain go foggy, pitched full like Georgia swamp-steam. I shook dark hair out of my eyes to clear it and took up my watch post again, my vision narrowed through too much squinting against the sun. I saw clouds of dust rising in the distance and dredged up the last bit of faith left in me that day to pray that it was Judah.
The dusty black truck with the busted front headlight peeled suddenly into view and I ran to greet her at the low-slung wooden gate.
“Does your Mama know you ain’t in church, darlin’?” She called across the patchy grass. Hanging out of the side of the black behemoth, she rifled through the spare pieces of mail she’d liberated from the yawning mouth of the metal mailbox, rusted and noisy from lack of care.
“Yes, ma’am. I told her I was sick.” I’ve reached the back tires of the familiar truck and have stopped to catch my breath.
“Well, are you?” she questioned, peeking at me from under a freckled hand, shielding her eyes from the afternoon glare.
“My throat’s kinda itchy,” I said honestly.
“Good enough for me.” She piled back into the driver’s side and reached across the wide front seat to pop the passenger side door. “Hop in, baby girl.”
I wrestled my way into the tall seat, my long legs awkward beneath me, and she set off for the old farm house half an acre away, a handful of white envelopes cradled between her thighs.