Every prayer group meeting starts precisely the same. Men in shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows (when the temperature rises above seventy), or wool sweaters politely folded back against their wrists carry crockpots while the women walk behind in a single line, carrying lighter plates. They place the dishes down delicately and then slowly backstep away as if the food might suddenly demand their penance or refuse to participate in the weekly meeting. There is reverence in their counterfeit kowtowing (low and slow) as each woman tries her best not to bump into the other. The hot dishes become veiled in regency.
Millie is new, so she waits for an opening to emerge and then slowly approaches the table, reverent. She smiles at the offering, (always a weekly repeat of seven-layer dips that were popular on Pinterest a decade ago, casseroles made from recipes written in looped cursive by grandmothers and great aunts, fruit suspended in gelatin, made from 70s vintage cookbooks, the difference their origin stories). Quietly, she places her tray of lemon squares near the cluster of desserts, hoping that the size difference in her cutting isn’t too noticeable. It’s her fault that the squares aren’t precision perfect, but the morning had been so rushed dealing with William and Sarah who were, at this very moment, upstairs listening to their first real lessons on why they were damned and needed to seek forgiveness.
Instead of remaking the dessert, Millie spent time she didn’t have arranging them on the decorative spring plate, (in such a way that no one could ever know how many there were to start and how many had been eating), freeing up everyone in the group to avoid the shame of eating as much as they wanted. This important lesson was intuited from her mother in law, Carole (with an “e,” Carole would always specific when meeting new people as if that most-common letter in English somehow made her better than), a woman who is always mindful of the guilt other people carry.
Michael stands in the doorway, chewing a hangnail. This week’s attendance is low, well, lower by one since Tracey’s husband Kurtis was out of town for work, which made the assembled scripture reading group off by one, skewing the usual balance between women reading and men evaluating the room or dozing with their eyes open. Fifteen people who’d all grown up side-by-side, convinced that an ancient man was a veritable god assembled into the dank basement every week. Michael counts the group attendance again, realizing he’d forgotten the two transplants from down south (and once again wonders what would ever bring them to his small tucked away town).
Distrustful of one another’s motives and adept at couching language in code, four women stand at the far edge of the desserts table.
“That’s a nice skirt,” Julie says to Michelle. Millie’s ears tuned to listen for underlying discord, train on the conversation. (Millie knows what Julie means is, “As a seamstress, I know that came from the discount bin at Walmart because I can see the faulty stitching and I don’t even have to get close to you to know that it’s made from a blend of polyester and rayon.” Millie’s face moves an imperceptible fraction, the slightest, most microscope raise of her blended-blonde eyebrows.)
Mille senses but doesn’t see a cross-group glance between Carole with an “e” and Tracey but her eyes don’t track fast enough to catch the silent discord.
Michelle smile-nods but doesn’t say anything, focused on the lipstick smudged on the outside left corner of Julie’s lower lip. She’d never tell her, of course, since that would be so embarrassing for Julie; better let her discover that on her own.
Katelyn, younger by five years, wants to talk about the idea of going on a group bible retreat over summer. But since she can’t relieve glory-day memories of the women’s ability to cheer, wave flags, and twirl batons, her words get lodged whenever she tries to speak.
Opposite them, their husbands and brothers stand in small crescents, half-arcs of possible comfort. Interconnected marriages keeping original bloodlines strong, these fifteen are steeped in generational-guilt and shame that stretches like taffy. Michael still hasn’t moved from the doorway, preferring to watch the group attempt to diffuse the room with competitive humility. He wonders again about the newbies.
The group first learned to be distrustful of their own moral compasses while sitting cross-legged and sleepy in the children’s room. A doughy man taught them that they were all born tainted and foul, and whatever their original, deep, and authentic wishes were, in fact, tarnished by their inherited sins. (In that stuffy room, they cultured and fermented the earliest silent language lessons of judgement.) After learning to mistrust themselves, they tamp down showy emotions, cover needs with quiet coveting, which brings the newly minted sinners back, week after week, standing inky and embarrassed. Nothing ever changes in rural Minnesota.
From the group of men, a loud crack of laughter displaces the heavy air. Millie and Katelyn track their eyes toward Susan. Susan shoots her husband a glance, her brown eyes narrowing into slits, thin lips forming a straight line across the concave expanse of her face.
Joe’s cheeks redden and he crosses his arms, nodding his head slightly toward Susan, (a silent apology). Katelyn explores the mounds of Susan’s face, searching for an indication Susan might use words instead of conferred disappointment. Instead, Susan purses her lips and swallows everything she won’t say. Millie knows that movement – it means Susan and Joe will have a stern discussion later, in the privacy of their en-suite bathroom, far from the earshot of their children. (Even in their anger, they’re muted.)
Susan squares herself, making her torso into a brick, adding weight to her shoulders and forcing a crimp in her neck. (No one who wasn’t from the town would notice anything.) But Katelyn has been watching these women since she first longed to join their coveted prayer group. The smallest movements tell the biggest stories, unravelling the hierarchy of the town she still can’t understand. That day in the Hy-Vee, Millie and Tracey’s conveniently out of town husband, pushing the same shopping cart, three packages of cookies and a bottle of on-brand ginger ale in their cart. She didn’t tell her husband what she saw, (because who would ever believe that sort of foul alacrity could exist, here?), bit her tongue and prayed harder and tried to forget. She never spoke a word about what she witnessed at Island Market, the kind of arsenal that would usurp the reigning church queens, the repeat of the market trip to Hy-Vee, but this time with chips and pretzels added to their obviously communal basket. It was too easy to make the leaps, the connections, to plug into the equation the adultery. There’s a blip of an instant when Katelyn considers speaking up, but Michelle leans in first.
“Tracey, what’s going on with the play these days? I heard that the set looks really nice.”
“Well, it would be a lot better if I was better at directing, or if we had someone with more experience,” Tracey says.
The women nod, understanding underneath Tracey’s words are her pride.
“But Joan said you’ve done so much extra work.”
Tracey shakes her head and looks around the room for something to distract the group. “We’ve all done a lot of work,” she says finally, looking at the ground.
Millie is hungry. Of course, she’s going to wait for someone else to approach the potluck and lead the way since being first would be spotlight-mortifying. Her stomach growls audibly. Carole, with an “e,” blinks her eyes rapidly at Millie and shakes her head.
Millie blushes and examines at her shoes, thrifted from the best Goodwill in the next town over. Her sister, who recently moved to Chicago, has been trying to make Millie understand that old shoes will ultimately cause foot and ankle problems. Millie can’t get past the idea of being better than anyone else, shoes notwithstanding.
Last year, Tim and Samantha, a couple from Ohio, moved in two doors down from Millie and her husband Steve, but aside from three hellos and one accidental run-in at a fall farmer’s market, the couples haven’t had much chance to talk. Not that Millie would even know how to begin speaking to a couple who wasn’t from town. She’s in the habit of peeking out her front window to check for Samantha before going out to get the mail, tossing back the shades on the patio to make sure Tim isn’t outside before she goes out to hang sheets and linens.
Millie hears Tim’s name float across the room and looks up to see Samantha beaming at her, Samantha’s penny-colored eyes wide and genuine, a lipsticked-smile stretched across her face. Samantha is still holding her uncut store-bought pie in one hand and a bottle of diet off-brand soda in the other hand.
Katelyn considers speaking up, smoothing the way for oblivious Samantha, but the couple have only lived in town for a year and a half, not nearly enough time for anyone to actually get to know them. Since Katelyn’s own stance in the group is already precarious, she decides to let Samantha stand and falter, wavering and wilting like too-early spring flowers left to freeze during a late snow.
“I didn’t know where to put this,” Samantha tells Millie. “The table looks so amazing and perfect, it seemed like this lunky pie would just get in the way.”
The pie is too perfect, too, even to have come from Samantha’s kitchen, but Millie doesn’t tell her neighbor that. She also doesn’t say that only a monster would show up to a potluck without having first cut and parceled out the offering they’re bringing, because who would ever want to be the first person to slice into a pie. And finally, Millie doesn’t say to down-south Samantha that the very last thing anyone would ever want is to acknowledge the decorative attempts of the women present, not to mention that peaches are so incredibly out of season and way too festive for a prayer group meeting. Instead, Millie leads innocent Samantha toward the table and makes room amid Julie’s cheesecake bars and Katlyn’s cookies for the pie, even though Millie knows that no one is going to cut into it.
Conversation lulls as it always does when the group has stood separate for what feels like a long enough time. Usually, Tracey’s husband will be the first to start the inchworm progression to the food, so without him at the meeting, the two self-segregated gendered groups might simply stand, coalesce, rooted in their silent existence for the rest of hour when they’re supposed to be eating, reading, worshipping.
Down south Samantha tries to push Tim toward the group of men standing near the drinks, but he’s stuck to her side like a roll-on glue stick. His glances volley back and forth between the groups, not understanding that the lead-up to food is a process, an event, a ritual meant to be savored. Tim leans in and whispers to Samantha that’s he’s hungry. She shakes her head, tries to swat away his forearm, still covered in thick wool even though it’s late spring.
Noticing no one has plates in their hands, precariously balanced glasses of soda and juice, Tim looks back at the table and then to Samantha. He tries again to whisper in her ear, but Samantha wide-smiles at Millie and Katelyn, mentally calculating how long it might take before they accept her into the group. Tim taps her shoulder, trying to get her attention, wanting to prepare Samantha. He’s hungry and annoyed. When no one makes a move toward the table with increasingly cooling-off hot plates, Tim decides enough is enough. He looks around the room, making eye contact with Joe, Michael, and Kurtis.
“Well, will you look at that?” Tim says. “There’s no line! Time to make a plate, I guess.”
Tim reaches for a handful of chips as Millie begins politely coughing into her pink gelled manicured hand. Her coughing grows louder, more insistent, staccato punctuation to his movements. (Stop and wash your hands, Katelyn almost shrieks, and then remembers herself, the crowd, the room. She sniffs loudly, hoping to get Tim’s attention. Tim turns to her and smiles, delighting in the fact that his wife has found a group of friends.) His hands make contact with the plain potato chips, greasy even in low-light. Millie exchanges a look with Carole with an “e” and Tracey, and that’s when Katelyn knows her fate is sealed. The vision from Hy-Vee comes back, bright and crisp.
“I know you’re cheating on your husband,” she slithers.
Jessica Evans is a Cincinnati native who practices uprooting and restarting her life every few years. She’s part of a community that comprises less than one percent of the US population. Most recently, she lived in a Bavarian forest. Soon, she’ll be calling Washington, DC, home.
A previous Pushcart nominee, Evans’ work has appeared in several online and print journals, with work forthcoming in Mineral Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, and Collateral. She’s the prose editor for Headline Press, a reader for Fractured Literary, and the flash fiction editor for Mineral Lit. She also serves as a mentor for the Veteran’s Writing Project. Find her in the afternoons sipping hand-harvested dandelion tea. Connect with her on Twitter @jesssica__evans.