I can still feel the prickle of the kerosene heater we dragged from room to room in the winter, the soft yield of snow muffling the sounds of footsteps, and the creak of opening doors. Knit gloves, fuzzy and pink, pilled with too many runs through the laundry. The smell of potatoes with butter and salt, squash boiled slick and sloppy, and the thick smell of bacon that seemed to smother the house on Sunday mornings. Mother, worrying the pork with a spatula as it popped and crackled, was already dressed for her job as the organist at Grace Lutheran.
Last night she waited, open magazine on her lap. This was how we spent most evenings together in our little rented two-bedroom house. While I watched belligerent advertisements and cartoons, she would sit, glancing at the clock while never turning a page, hours stuck on the same article about new hairstyles or murderers loosed in far away cities. My father's absence was like tennis shoes on the floor, our splintering secondhand furniture, cartons of school milk: normal, everyday.
It was my birthday, a Sunday, when he stumbled in bleary-eyed while I was sitting at the baby blue Formica table eating cereal. Our eyes met as he came through the back door. Mother stood at the kitchen counter wearing a simple cotton dress. She held his suit out far from her body like she might hold a dead animal, pinched between thumb and forefinger. She flung it at him.
"Put it on," she said.
He looked down at the suit like it was some joke tailored at his expense.
"What for?" he asked. His voice was hoarse and his breath stank like a heady mix of cigarette butts swimming in beer cans.
"It's time for church," she said. "It's time you went to church, time we all went together." She walked away. He sighed, knowing he'd lost. I finished breakfast with a cartoon king on the cereal box and cleaned my own bowl.
We weren't religious, but we went to Grace Lutheran. Mother decided it would be less trouble, and look good, if we went to where she worked to pray. We lived off of Wildcat Road, a twisty gravel road a few miles from town, so we climbed into my father's beloved Ford pickup. My only dress was a hand-me-down, a bouncy and too big yellow jumper that hung too low on my slight frame. With my black hair I looked like a bruised and limp banana. I picked at the white and pink embroidered flowers that ran up the side, and the soft tugs at the fabric were the only noises in the truck. Mother was in the passenger's seat and held her purse like a shield, eyes fixed on something unknown to me off in the distance. My father grimaced at the bright sunlight and occasionally clawed at his tie.
We pulled into the church parking lot. Widows, arm in arm, teetered into the building in shopworn Sunday dresses. Little boys played in the parking lot, giving chase in their neatly pressed tan pants and penny loafers. I felt like a fool in my secondhand clothes.
When he stepped out of the car, my father let out a long, deep belch so guttural that the playing children stopped cold and a few of the grannies turned around with puzzled faces. Mother pulled me into the building, walking stiffly, leaving him standing by the car, his fist pressed to his pursed lips and the other hand on his troubled belly. An old desiccated woman clutched Mother's elbow at the church doors.
"Margaret," she said with desperate heaving breaths. "It's so nice to see you in with the family. Honestly, you must be here every day!"
Mother supplemented our income as the part-time church secretary, but she belonged in politics. Her secret strength was of quiet and courteous control, even while her husband was probably throwing up in the bushes by the big wooden cross that faced the convenience store across the street: a smile, a little lie, and a firm handshake. Talking to this withered old spinster, my mother's lips widened, her teeth – she took great pride in her straight white smile – showed their pearly luminescence, and her sharp-cornered grin beamed.
"Thank you, Glenda," Mother said, squeezing the old woman's arm. "It's about time we brought everyone on board."
We sat at the front pew, the church air full of soft conversations between the older women, gruff mumbles between the men, children squealing and their parents shushing. Timothy Figg, the senior pastor of Lady of Grace, walked slowly to the simple wooden lectern. He was an albino; his hair was a dull white flaxen color, thin and combed over. The pastor burned easily and even in winter had a roasted pink tint reminiscent of potted meat. His vestments were simple: a purple stole that dragged the ground and the alb that trailed behind him like a bride's train. He was legally blind, but insisted on stumbling up the podium steps unassisted while scanning his notes, nose so close it smudged his index cards. I could hear his grumbles, words half-eaten and spat out.