The Sunday School Race
“You must always wear rings in your ears, I’m always telling you that.”
I turn around and march myself back to the room. She is always telling me that, which makes me want to do it less. I pick up a pair of silver earrings that my aunt gave me last year for Christmas. I look in the mirror. The sun reflects off of my watch and into my eyes. These studs are thick– so thick that they have a hard time getting through my already drooping earlobes.
I have been wearing earrings since before I can remember. My mother took me to get them pierced when I was a few months old.
“You didn’t cry. Not for your earrings, and not for your shots. Such a calm baby, we couldn’t believe it.”
I can’t either.
“Let’s go!” A bellow from my brother down the stairs. The knee length, poufy dress on my body shows no signs of the fist fight I got into last year with the boy who tried to stick his hand in my underwear or the blood from when I fell off of Jacob William’s bike after winning the annual secret Sunday school race. Today is the anniversary of that win; one year since I stood in front of all the children of Baptist Central church of God, skinned and proud.
Baptist Central Church of God is on Allen Street. It is a long street. Everybody who lives on it is poor and everybody went to Baptist Central at some point. Monday through Saturday, the street is populated by lines. A line for the bus that stops right outside of the deli. A line for the food pantry run off of the same back room we were just crowded into. A line for coffee from the cart parked outside Mrs. Carter’s house. All day, line after line. But on early Sunday mornings, there were no lines. No bustling, no yelling, no pushing, no crying babies, no rustling plastic bags from KeyFoods, no carts full of miscellaneous items, no men on the corner yelling “hey lil
mama.” On Sunday mornings, all I could hear from my tiny bed near the window of our second floor apartment was the low purr of the bus rolling by and the occasional barking of a dog that I’ve never seen. It is like this for about an hour before my mother comes in and wakes us up for church.
The church is loud. There are mothers counseling a pregnant woman who is eight months along. “Give the baby a little water every day. Just a teaspoon, it’s good.”
“No,” someone disagrees. “All the baby needs is your milk. That’s all it needs.”
They go back and forth. Another steps in, “You will know when she arrives. You will just know.”
There is a group of men discussing politics. “We should not vote for him just because he’s black.” A chorus of dissent erupts. “You think they think like you! They protect their own.”
“We are simply doing what they have always done.” Fellowship seeps from every wall in the building–bringing with it a chorus of laughs, praise, and the spirit of the Lord.
The children fidget and scratch themselves, unable to stand still. They simply cannot conceive of it– stillness. It is a foreign subject, and they are not interested in learning. One girl pokes another girl’s back. She looks back at her friend with confused eyes and an expectation of an explanation. She receives none. Another girl comes over and grabs their hands, whisking them off into the sea of parishioners. The stained glass tints the light inside. It is subdued yet awake. Vibrant with the holy spirit, yet reverent. We are in the Lord’s house.
The choir begins. I am not listening. The voices circle around my thoughts. I am thinking about The Lord of the Flies. The librarian said I was a bit too young to read it, but I took it out anyway. I think of it often since I’ve started reading. Just some boys on an island, causing so much grief.
“It’s what boys do, you cyan’t worry bout dem,” says my aunt.
The pastor begins. I am sitting in between my mother and father. My mother waves her hands every so often, sometimes a wave, sometimes they shoot up above her like she’s just won a race. My father is silent. Sometimes he nods his head. Sometimes he closes his eyes. I asked him once if he falls asleep. He said no. My brother says he does, but he can’t admit it because it’s a sin.
Today’s sermon is about sin. They’re all about sin. How it necessitates redemption, groveling, begging for forgiveness. It seems to me that sin is greedy for attention. Always wants to be acknowledged, whether you believe it is there or not. “Sin is as omnipresent as God himself.”
The pastor ends, and the offering begins. The pretty older girls walk down the aisle with baskets. Their smiles are wide and pasted on. Later on, I would think about this. How strategic it was. Who could say no to a pretty, sweet, smiling little girl?
My mother puts two envelopes into the basket like always. Five dollars in each. I didn’t understand why she did that until the one time she didn’t. Mrs. George was sitting next to us that day and gave my mother a look that made me feel the way American Idol contestants probably feel when they think they did a great job and get rejected by all the judges.
The basket passes over me. Usually there are scattered ones, fives, and the occasional twenty. I look inside. There are so many twentys. It is potluck, after all. Second only to Easter. Even Mr. Leslie from down the street with two dogs and a wife who’d gone mad came to potluck.
The choir begins again. I listen this time.
How great is our God…
I close my eyes. I’m not sure why, it just seems like the right thing to do. My mother pulls me in. Her skin feels like Shea butter after it’s been warmed in between eager hands. The lines on her hands are deep, like crevices where only hard work and enduring love reside. Her dress is pure cotton–better for the skin she always says. I look up, her eyes are closed. She sways back and forth, humming along, holding my brother on her other side.
Sing with me how great is our God.
Now, we are crammed in a small room at the back of the church where Sunday school usually is held. Today is the only day when boys and girls are together. The teenagers watch us so that all the parents can go to the adult potluck tables. All necessary elements converge. The air feels nervous and optimistic. This is the eleventh year, I heard from another girl. We’ve never gotten caught.
There is a back door in the back room. It leads to an alley. Years ago, the church was a crack house. Servicing the friends of the neighborhood– a haven for their insatiable thirst. The choir director once gave a testimony about it. She described a place of destitution. “No love thrived there,” she proclaimed. Women and men were living in sin, together, happily. She was addicted for four years until she conceived her son, Charles. The twelve step program required her to accept the Lord as her guiding light and gave her the strength to turn her life around.
Before I knew her testimony, I knew her son. Charles and I met when we were four and they started attending service regularly. Broad shouldered with large teeth that inspired a strange mix of fear and comfort when shown, he was by far the smartest boy in our Sunday school class. He was also the cockiest. He corrected everyone– especially me. I remember the first time I beat him was during a quiz on the ten commandments. He boasted about knowing all ten
commandments by heart for hours leading up to it, and forgot the easiest one on the day of: honor thy mother and father.
I and some others walk out the door as soon as we hear the blessing of the food begin.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
Six bikes lay across the wall. They belong to older kids who come earlier to usher. One is bright blue with a basket on the front end and a bell on the handle bar. It reminds me of the eighties. My mom would show me pictures of her life back then.
“They made things with real leather back then,” my dad said.
Her, books in hand travelling a few miles to school on a bike. There is always sun in her pictures from back in Guyana. Sun, trees, and smiles.
The rigamarole is quieted by Rachel, the oldest of us, “Clara is automatically in, the rest of you,” she says pointing to the crowd, “you gotta run for it.” The first five people to touch the wall are in. Five boys, including Charles and three girls are preparing themselves. The boys disrobed. Starting with their navy blue jackets that served as a sort of uniform for a young boy in church, they placed them neatly on the ground. Gabriel, an usher for the congregation, took special care. He probably remembered that time his older sister got beat for spilling mustard all over her new church dress. They moved onto their ties. All five boys were wearing different colors: one dark brown, one a baby blue color that could only have been made to match the sky, one hunter green, one deep burgundy like the wine at the Catholic mass that grandma made us go to once a year, and one simple black one. The boys finally take off their dress shirts, revealing a white tee shirt beneath. The girls simply stand, waiting. They are all wearing dresses: one a bright green with a white camisole underneath, another lavender shade with pink dots all over, the last an orange hue with hints of red and gold.
“Hands on the wall!” Ready.
The race begins. Their feet hit the ground with intention. Each step pushing them forward. We sit, waiting to see whose hand hits first. It is Alice’s, lavender girl. Then Michael and Gabriel, black and baby blues ties, respectively . Then Sandra, green girl. Then Charles, who wore the dark brown tie. The losers enter the audience with shame. The six year olds comfort them as they were instructed to do. The winners do not hide their brimming pride.
I told you so.
You didn’t even run that fast so cut it out.
I ran faster than you.
“Alright!” everyone grabs a bike. Alice and Charles dash ahead of the rest of us. Alice
grabs the one that reminds me of my mother and Charles gets the dark blue one with the adjustable resistance on it.
I touch the first bike I can see. It is red with flames on it. It belongs to a boy named Eric. The only thing I know about him is that his mother is frequently yelling at him after church for whispering dirty things in the other girls’ ears. I can see the finish line from here.
We line up at the beginning. The tag on the inside of my dress itches. Alice stares at me while I adjust myself. Weight shifted on her right side, Sandra stands waiting, bored, it seems, for everything to start. Her camisole looks like it needs shifting but she doesn’t move. The boys
rolls up their sleeves and their pants. I look over to Charles. His ankles are ashy. Everyone’s body appears calm and prepared. Everyone eyes are filled with the desire to win.
The race begins. “Keep pedaling,” I think, “As hard as you can.” I look to my left and Alice is right next to me. Her face is scrunched like she was just forced her to drink Senna. Charles is to my right. His mouth is open like he is yelling something but I can’t hear the words, just a long note pitched perfectly to a prepubescent boy. I am pushing the pedals forward and forward as hard as I can. I look forward and notice Alice is closer than before, the lavender cloth is breezing in the wind behind her. I push forward once more and am met with resistance. I feel my dress tug but I can’t tell from what.
Now, I can hear more sounds. These ones sound melancholy and pained. I feel pain on my left arm. And my chin burns. My wrists are throbbing. The sounds are crying. I open my eyes to find watery vision.
Is she ok?
Yeah, real bad.
How bad is it?
Bad. Real bad.
I lift my face off the ground and see a crowd has gathered around someone. A boy comes up to me, “You good?”
My lungs hurt as I draw in breath to respond.
“I think so.” I sit up on my butt and try to steady myself. I can hear screaming now.
It hurts! It hurts!
We have to get someone. Now. She can’t walk.
What are we gonna say?
One of you can carry her.
We’ll make something up but we can’t leave her here.
She screams anytime we touch it.
The youngest kids run inside. I can see clearly now. The worried faces on the older kids mean that we have to start thinking of lies. We were all out here playing tag and someone stepped on her ankle the wrong way. She tripped and fell on the crack in front of the deli, we tried to get her to walk all the way back, but she couldn’t.
Rachel and two others talk in hushed tones. Sandra and the other racers all stand near Alice.
“The least you could do is come over here and make sure she’s ok.” Is she talking to me? “Yeah, Clara, this is your fault, the least you could do is say sorry.”
Standing up is the worst part. It is like the moment the adrenaline wears off and you feel
the true extent of your injuries. My whole body hurts and my wrist is cut pretty badly. The bottom of my dress is ripped and colored gray like the ground where I fell. Tears run down my eyes without my telling them to and each step feels like marching through jello.
I make my way over to Alice. I am met with glares. Rachel is the first to speak to me.
“You didn’t have to push her to win.” “It was an accident.”
“Didn’t look like one.”
Charles is next. “You just wanted to win again so bad. You didn’t care” “My dress got caught on my chain.”
“Sure.” None of them believe me. I am met with a wave of fear and indignation. None of them believe me. “My dress got caught on the chain and I lost control of the bike. That’s the truth.” It is Sandra’s turn. “Why’d you wear that dress? If you knew you were gonna race, you should’ve worn a shorter one like we did.” “My mother made me.” I wish I wasn’t hurt so I could scream. That it wasn’t my fault.
What is going on?
It was the same voice that instructed the choir to begin each Sunday, but now it is rougher, covered in discomposure and eager to punish. Rachel instructs us, “We were playing around. We were playing around.”
“Alice, what happened? What did you all do? You’re not even supposed to be out here.”
“We were playing around, mama. Clara kicked Alice in the ankle.”
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t.”
“Then, what happened Clara.”
Everyone’s else face dimmed. Rachel’s eyes fall to the ground. I know what it means. It
means: take this one.
Charles’s mother keeps talking the whole way back into the tiny back room of the church.
The rest of the kids are occupied with something, a toy, a hand game. Miss Mary mack, mack, mack. All dressed in black, black, black. Eyes glance towards us as we walk into the room. Alice wipes the tears from her eyes as she sits down in a plastic yellow chair. I feel it deep, down in my gut- a gnawing at my stomach. I am not going to like this.
Charles’s mother returns with my own. The soft smile that was present earlier is replaced with her visible anger. My fingers tingled with the instinct to protect my butt.
It always starts with yelling and then five or six slaps, followed by tears and the overwhelming sense of shame.
What is wrong with you? You were not even supposed to be outside. Look at your dress, do you know how much that costs. Now you’ve embarrassed yourself and our whole family. Look at me when I’m talking to you.
I cannot. I felt it all at once. The shame, the burning, the throbbing, the tears, the anger, all of it.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
I saw my mother’s hand fly, cutting the air in front of it. It lands on my cheek with
precision. The flash of heat and the stinging after. She picks my hand up and marches me out of the room. I watch the younger kids stare at me with sympathy. I watch the older kids turn away their eyes. I watch Alice looking down at her ankle. I watch Charles staring at me. My body feels exhausted. There is no wind left to take in or take out. Outside of the room, my mother kneels in front of my face. “If you ever make me embarrass you in front of people like that again, so help me God. Sit.”
I take a seat in a red plastic chair. Adults walk past me- some look, others don’t. The faded stains from last year are replaced by new ones. Someone brings me three band-aids. I sit with my legs crossed and my hands in my lap, waiting, patiently.