Rhonda Parham was a frightened woman. She knew that they were coming. Coming to punish her. She had thought she was free of them, but it seemed she was wrong.
Collette down the valley had called to say there had been a meeting right after church yesterday. Collette and the other young women were not allowed to attend, a fact that only added to her fears.
Rhonda had waited all day yesterday, thinking they were going to knock at the door at any second. But they hadn’t. She’d sat in the arm chair, her knees close together, her low-heeled sandals with the crisscrossing straps staying firmly on her feet. She’d even pulled out a dress, one of the few left, and ironed it. But they hadn’t come.
Then Rose had called this morning to say Mrs. Moore’s LTD was just seen pulling up in front of Mrs. Pearson’s house. The Young Women’s Adult Bible School of New Hope Baptist Church took care of each other as much as they could. Rose took a big risk in calling her since her phone was part of the party line.
“I can’t be on for long, I just wanted to tell you, to warn you. Call me as soon as they are gone!” Then Rose had hung up.
Rhonda went to the window and peeked through the heavy curtains. The dirt road in front of the mobile home was empty and no dust was visible in either direction. She was safe for now.
But just in case, she took back out the dress and re-ironed it. Wearing just the full slip, she would wait for them to come. And they would come. Rhonda had sinned, at least in their eyes. Bobby Joe had too, but that didn’t matter. It was Rhonda’s fault.
Starting to sit down in the arm chair again, she heard the hunting dogs up the road start barking. Someone was coming. She grabbed the dress and slipped it over her head. She was doing up the last front button when she heard the sound of car tires popping the gravel as it came around the last turn. She didn’t bother looking, just sat down to put on the sandals.
She answered the knock, opening the door and trying to look surprised to see them. There they stood, the Senior Women’s Adult Bible School Class. All but Mrs. Snyder of course; she’d not left her house except for church in twenty years.
“Ladies, what a pleasant surprise! Come on in.” She held open the door as the seven women came in, each of them trying to not stumble as they came up the cinder-block steps into the trailer. “Have a seat, please. Can I get you anything to drink?”
Mrs. Moore sniffed. “No, we are fine. Sit.”
Rhonda couldn’t help but obey. The women found seats on the edge of the couch, the ottoman and the ladder back wooden chair by the sewing machine.
“We’ve come to tell you how disappointed we are in your recent, shall we say, behavior.” Mrs. Moore sniffed again.
“We are very disappointed indeed.” Mrs. Goings adjusted her glasses.
“It is a sin what you did. But God will forgive you if you take him back.” Mrs. Johnson held her glossy black fake leather purse on her lap.
“Take God back?” Rhonda couldn’t believe she had said that out loud.
“No, child, take poor Bobby Joe back.” Mrs. Moore looked as if she was about to birth puppies.
“Oh! You are here about the divorce papers. I am so glad I finally got the nerve to do that. I had taken all I could from that man.” She crossed her legs at the knees, tugging her ends of her dress to keep herself covered.
“Nerve indeed.” Mrs. Goings clutched her purse, identical to Mrs. Johnson’s.
“I just could not take the drinking and the…well, the nights he was not here in this house but someone else’s.” She could feel her face begin to burn.
“He may have strayed from you because you did not act like a proper wife. He would not drink as much if you had fulfilled your vows to obey him.” Mrs. Johnson pulled a white hankie from her bosom.
“Obey him? You mean to not cower in the corners when he came home, drunk as a skunk and madder than a wet hen? You mean to not be able to make a proper dinner out of Budweiser and peanut butter since that was the only food in the house?”
“Exactly. No one ever said being a wife was pleasant. But it is a woman’s duty tolerate it.” Mrs. Moore was obviously the Sunday School class leader. “It is God’s Will that we not expect pleasure, but that we be grateful for whatever we may be blessed to receive.”
“Did you find your pleasure when Mr. Moore dallied in the barn with that young harlot?” Again, Rhonda couldn’t believe she was speaking aloud.
“Yes, especially that. When Mr. Moore, as you said, dallied in the barn, it meant he would leave me alone for several days and not require I see to his sexual needs.” The old blue-haired woman shifted in her seat on the edge of the couch.
“And it never crossed your mind that what he was doing was wrong?”
“Of course it did! I prayed for him every night. Prayed that God would forgive him for taking his frustrations out on that woman. And I prayed that God would forgive me for being glad about it.”
“Just as I was glad Mr. Johnson found pleasure with another woman enough so that he had children by her. I gave birth to one child and hated every second of it. If he felt he needed to go elsewhere to sow his seed, then I was not going to begrudge him that choice.” Mrs. Johnson was practically spitting as she spoke, wiping her mouth with the handkerchief.
“So you are saying that I should tolerate Bobby Joe’s behavior just because you have tolerated similar behavior from your husbands? I don’t think that is very fair, ladies. I admit I am not as strong as you and I don’t have the obviously immense patience that you have. But the God I believe in would rather I be happy and healthy than living a lie of a marriage.”
“What is so difficult in doing that? And it is not a lie of a marriage. It is just the way it is.” Mrs. Moore sniffed, the stale air of the mobile home was bothering her allergies.
“Ladies, I am sorry you came all this way to tell me what you could have said over the telephone. But I will not take those divorce papers back.” Rhonda stood to escort them back to the door.
“If you do not, then we will be forced to take action against you.” Mrs. Moore stood too.
“And what action would that be?”
“Preacher agrees with us. If you do not stop the divorce, we will have no choice but to tear up your church letter.” Mrs. Moore’s voice was almost too loud.
“My church letter? What is…you can’t do that, can you?” Now Rhonda was frightened. These women were serious.
“Yes, we can. We cannot sit idly by while you commit an unforgivable sin. We will not allow you to go to Heaven with the name of our church next to yours in The Holy Book.” Mrs. Johnson stood too, hooking the purse over her forearm.
“But I thought no one could get into Heaven without their church letter?!”
“Precisely.” Mrs. Moore helped the other ladies to stand.
“This is blackmail!”
“Precisely indeed.” Mrs. Goings nodded as she smoothed down the front of her dress.
“We decided to take such desperate measures since we need to set an example for the other young women. They need to understand that such a sinful behavior as yours cannot and will not be tolerated.” Mrs. Moore walked toward the door. “We will leave you now, to think about what you believe is more important, your happiness or your Salvation. Good day, Mrs. Parham.” Mrs. Moore led the others out through the trailer’s narrow doorway and back into her black LTD.
Rhonda sat down with a thud, her bravado gone. She was from this valley. She’d been raised here in this valley. She’d had her letter at the church since she was seven when she’d given in to Preacher’s pleas. Not wanting to go to hell if she were to be hit by the school bus the next morning, she’d walked down front and knelt in front of the table, the one with the engraved words ‘In Remembrance of Me’ across its front. She’d stared at those words as Preacher and the Deacons had laid their hands on her and prayed for Jesus to save her seven-year-old soul from sin.
And now the wives of those very same Deacons were threatening to remove that salvation by tearing up her church letter. She had not considered this to be their punishment. She could remember when another woman had been made to stand in front of the congregation and beg for forgiveness. The next morning she was gone, she’d packed up and moved to town.
But this…this was beyond anything Rhonda had imagined. Without the church letter, she would be worse off than the harlot who lived in the trailer park off the highway. She needed to decide which was worse: continuing to live with Bobby Joe or going to hell.
Originally published in Muscadine Lines, an online magazine, in Vol. 35, 2011.