Heather McDonald


Carol can’t boss me into that suit, but at half past ten every Sunday morning she stomps across the kitchen. She takes a sip of cold coffee, and then slams her mug on the counter. She’ll be fine as long as I grab my suit jacket and keys. Once, I ignored that sound of her heels stabbing the linoleum. We’d still make it on time if I’d finished reading Marmaduke, but she didn’t agree. She threw the coffee cup at my head, and screamed that she may as well leave me. Leave me all alone in this house. I ducked just in time, and quit bothering with the funny pages before church. It’s just not worth the fuss.

It only takes ten minutes to drive into town on a Sunday morning. Most of the stop lights are blinking yellow. The smell of Carol’s lipstick and perfume lurks along the dash and windshield in the mid-morning sun. We don’t talk much until we get out of the car. I put my coat on, and she looks me up and down. She brushes off my shoulders, scrapes at some smudges with her thumbnail.

“We’ve got to get you a new suit,” she says.

“Suit’s not that old,” I say.

We bought it for the funeral. It’s only been a couple years.

We walk up the stone steps of the church and she says her “Good Mornin’!” to the older people we pass. She talks extra loud to the usher, Paul. Since his stroke, he can’t talk straight. I shake his hand and say hello like normal.

I follow Carol to the pew. We sit on the outside of the right row towards the back.

It’s spring. The ladies have on Easter hats with pink bows. The men wear yellow paisley ties. They’re all bankers, lawyers, and doctors with skinny wives and blonde children. Everything is a little glossy and gold. I’m a contractor. I get by with gray.

I sit on the aisle so I can stretch out my legs. The organ plays while people find their seats. I go through the bulletin and look up the hymn numbers. Pieces of paper fall out the folds of the program. Note cards and flyers giving you more places to donate your money, prayer cards for the sick and the dead. I use them to bookmark the hymns.

Carol looks around and leans in to whisper.

“Is that Paul Coffey? Doesn’t he look different? I think that’s new hair. Jan looks thin. I’ve seen her walking at the Y.”

The minister, Andy, starts with scripture. I follow in the Bible. Andy likes to read about fishermen. If Carol’s looking involved with her head tilted to the side, I’ll flip to Revelations. I’m more interested in the end of days and Satan, angels and heaven.

Then the kids get called to the front for the children’s moment. They waddle down in their Sunday clothes, usually sucking a finger and picking a nose. One of the kids says something stupid, and everyone laughs. Carol leans in and whispers again.

“Isn’t Dick’s grandbaby something? Beautiful little girl,” she says.

There’s always a bald baby with a bow on its head. Ginny was prettier than all of them.

At our old church, Ginny would run down the aisle with her long brown hair flying in every direction. She’d get up there and ask good questions. She didn’t show off like these lawyers’ husky kids. She was only six, but she’d ask where God’s parents lived and whether Jesus got into trouble. I’d wink at her after, even if Carol was giving her a talking to about being a good girl. She was my Mouse.

The kids take forever to get out the side door to the nursery for the rest of the service. They doddle and hop around and ask for juice. I swear the crappy kids do it on purpose.

Carol grins, hard, clenching her teeth like she does right before screaming or crying.

Andy gets up to speak. He’s balding and wears little glasses. He looks like he reads a lot of books. Carol thinks he’s never done much in his life. His Daddy was a Presbyterian minister, and you can’t get it much easier than that. His sermons tend to be all up in the air, about things you can’t really touch. Carol wishes he had more passion for Jesus. She likes a red faced preacher who jumps around the pulpit.

She loved Bobby, the pastor of our old church off Cool Springs Road. By the end of each service he was sweaty and swaying with the Holy Spirit. When Ginny disappeared he hung around the house with his Bible. He put his freckled hands on my shoulders. He said we should pray. I was more concerned whether the police had searched all the drain pipes and wells. Kids fall down all kinds of things. They were building more houses in the field behind the house, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the drain pipes the size of Ginny’s shoulders. After two weeks of walking lines and peeking into holes, somebody found her in a dumpster all the way down on the other side of Charlotte. Someone snatched her. We were in the house doing Saturday morning chores while Ginny got yanked in pure daylight. We didn’t hear her scream. We didn’t sense something was wrong. We just saw her flying back and forth on the swing one minute, and then never again.

So when preacher Bobby said we needed to pray for her soul, I punched him. He said he forgave me, but after a while we couldn’t take all the looks, all those church people telling us how hard they’d prayed. They’d tell us about their dreams, how they saw Ginny and spoke to her. Some came up sobbing, saying that God had given them a message for us. I’d had enough, but Carol swore quitting church could send Ginny to hell.

Everyone in town must have known, but the Presbyterians would think it was rude to bring up Ginny. Since our first Sunday, Andy never asked us pray with him, or talk about God’s plan. Even when Carol’s eyes ran red and I smelled like a still, he’d smile and say “Good morning.” I like him fine.

Andy’s sermons are quiet. They let me think about other things. I look up at the sanctuary’s tall walls, the organ’s brass pipes, and the woodwork on the pulpit. The light’s soft. It’s hard to have bad thoughts here.

After Andy finishes his sermon, we pass the offering and sing hymns. Sometimes Carol sings hard, or says the Lord’s Prayer in a high-pitched voice. If I look over, I’ll see her eyes half-closed. When Andy tells us to greet our neighbor, she’ll smile down the pew at everyone else.

We walk out and people seem a little happier, whether because church is over or they think they’re filled with God and Jesus. I like beating the church traffic, but Carol will snap at me if I walk too fast. She wants to be social, she says. She walks slow and looks around. She says “Hello!” a couple times.

“You want to go down to the fellowship hall for coffee and donuts?” I ask.

“You know I’m on a diet,” she says.

We drive down Broad Street towards our side of town. Years ago, it was the place to start a family. Now everything smells like fresh asphalt. Carol stares out her window. She sticks her thumbnail between her two front teeth like she does when she’s thinking.

“Wendy’s?” I ask.

“Feels like I heard that same damn sermon from him last week. Sure would be nice to try something new,” she says.

Carol hates it when I park near the dumpster, so I take a spot by the door. I order while she sits at the table in the corner, by the front window. She watches the traffic. I carry over the tray and see they’ve got the sign up on the new Toys-R-Us across the road.

I lay out our yellow wrappers of food. I get a Jr. Cheeseburger and a salad. She gets a grilled chicken sandwich and a salad. Carol looks at me funny for a minute until I realize I forgot our drinks. Two coffees, black.


Heather McDonald grew up in North Carolina and has her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her fiction can be found in The Big Ugly Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Wordstock Ten, Opium Magazine, and This Great Society. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Derek, and their four bikes.