The Meat of the Matter (2005; 3,803 words)
  “I left everything ready for you. Just heat it up.” Angelina supported the phone with her shoulder, stirring a stew and tapping her foot. She spoke as though she were reassuring a five year-old instead of instructing her husband Donnie Bateman, sales manager, Marty’s World of ATVs. She listened as he whined some more. She kept her own voice even against her muted, inexplicable anger; there was nothing novel in Donnie’s obtuseness, but he didn’t deserve more of her attention right now, either.
    “The kids have both eaten; Jenny’s next door with Judy, doing algebra, and B.J. is in the basement watching TV or playing a video game, I guess. He’ll be fine. We used to leave Jenny alone when she was ten. He’ll be fine. And she’s right next door. Yes, she’s still complaining about her stomach, but she’s fine. Probably a cramp. She doesn’t know what they are yet. She’ll learn. And, before you ask, yes, I got my oil changed today.” She listened as he spoke. “Don’t say that, Donnie! That’s such a filthy joke. I have to go to church. I love you. Bye”
    After checking off and stacking manila folders of her special church report, Angelina picked them up. She walked to the basement door, opened it and yelled, “B.J. I’m leaving. B.J.? Do you hear me?” No answer, but she could make out the electronic sounds of animated bodies being disemboweled by armor-clad mutants on PlaySation2. “Brian Julius Bateman, answer me!” The noise of gurgling flesh paused.
    “Cool, Mom. I’ll see you later. We got any more Klondike bars?”
    “NO! I’ll see you about ten.”
    “Okay, Mom, you don’t have to yell.”
    The whole world knew that this boy didn’t need any more sweet stuff. He was not the biggest kid in fourth grade but was way too squishy around the middle. He would get the talk later. Angelina knew how lectures worked––and how they didn’t––because she learned from her mother, a master lecturer from the old school. At least from the old situation comedy school where psychology is employed more than the Biblical rod. Angelina had decided lately that she’d turned out all right, in spite of her spoiled upbringing; her kids would be fine as long as they found, trusted and obeyed Jesus as soon as possible. And her own example was crucial.
    Into the car and backing out of the driveway, slowing to watch the garage door close completely, Angelina began her self-talk: Ray Renner is the problem and we won’t stand for this anymore. I won’t stand for it. Sit still for it. Put up with it. God will not put up with it. Not if I have anything to say about it.
    Clutching the wheel and involuntarily clenching her buttocks from time to time, Angelina drove to the church meeting in an April drizzle. The loud things she wanted to say, the things she had been willing to scream as a “troubled” teenager, rolled over again in her mind. She’d been able to curse freely in the face of her mother’s psychology back then. Since she knew she wasn’t going to get a spanking, Angelina had pushed every verbal impulse to the limit in those days. In the car now, she could hear her own voice from years ago.
    “That is so fucking unfair!” she said out loud in the car. The shout felt good in her voice box because she never got to scream anymore. Things are different when you have kids of your own and Jesus at your side, in spite of the weak-kneed husband you’re stuck with. You have spiritual accountability, she had learned. So, in preparation for confronting the Gospel Preservation Committee, she practiced her inner monologue as she had been coached to do by the Leadership Challenge Retreat facilitator. The weekend before, at Lakeside Lodge, a committed group of twenty women and three men from six different churches were urged into the breach once more. They must turn away the hoards of insidious “half-believers” invading their congregations, watering down and bastardizing the divine message. The Disciple Empowerment Manual they’d studied spelled out the personal strategy required for spiritual battle: “Know what you want. Say what you want––to yourself. God hears and strengthens your resolve. Your resolve becomes God-like when you are clear, practiced and ready for the action ahead.”
    I am ready for the action ahead. I am ready to let God work through me. If my husband, the sissy, will leave me alone and let me concentrate.
    Before she could pull into her chosen parking spot, the one she had planned to use from the time she left the house––the place closest to the covered walkway, main entrance of the activities center––Ray Renner sliced his BMW in ahead of her. She slammed on her brakes and pounded the steering wheel with her fist.
    Enjoy it while you can, Ray.
    Before she could open the door her cell phone rang. She clenched. She’d never learned to change the ring her phone came with, and now grew nauseous every time its eerie bells played Beethoven’s Fifth. She pushed the green button.
    “Donnie, I have to go in now. I’m meeting Mr. Richards ahead of time. Yes, I paid the Visa bill. Well, you may be too close to your limit. What are you buying now? But I made dinner for you. Are you really going to make a sale at Red Lobster tonight? Well then use the MasterCard if you must. I paid that bill, too. See you. No I’m not angry. With you. No. Yes, I still love you. Goodbye.” She hugged folders to her chest, got out of the car and hopped on her toes to avoid splashes, over to the walkway thirty yards away, there slowing to greet Mr. Irving Richards, a true servant of God, in her estimation.
    “Mizzus Bateman. How are you tonight? Are you ready to put an end to this nonsense?” Angelina felt her tension ease as she looked over and up at him, reminded of why she looked up to him. Those piercing blue eyes above cheeks of a gently wrinkled, soft-skinned and masculine face. A halo of waved, white and crisply trimmed hair––not thinning––and those eyes, again, those eyes that show back the vision that God has granted to Mr. Irving Richards.
    “Mr. Irving, I’ve never been better prepared, more ready or more drenched in the blood of the Lamb.” She clenched again.
    “Amen, then. Amen,” he spoke softly, calming her once more. Maybe he never used this soothing, liquid tone outside the walls and walkways of Kinship Universal Salvation Church of Inlet Beach. But that fatherly––that Daddy-like––voice was missing from the rest of Angelina Bateman’s life, her plain life that was now unhelpfully drenched with inconvenient secular pain.
    “Painful,” she said. “Sometimes the things we have to tackle in our work are painful.” Another sort of self-talk sometimes interrupted her planned thinking: Picking up my husband’s underwear tonight after I get home and find him snoring naked in the toile, wing-back chair in front of the bedroom TV. That will be painful. She suddenly smacked herself on the neck.
    “Mosquito, I think,” she said, seized by a facial twitch.
    “In April? I hope not,” said Irv. “Bugs make me weak in the knees.”
    Mr. Irving and “Mizzus” Bateman walked inside, each alternately nodding and shaking the head in response to words of the other. She assumed that he shared the comfort she found in mutual admiration, that guarantee of most pleasant company.
    They reached the Tammy Mingo Memorial Chapel, a room seating seventy that reflected the personality and taste of the woman who left the money to build it. Ms. Mingo was born Louise Smith but took the name Tammy, after the Debbie Reynolds movie character of 1957. The pews were white with sky-blue, foam cushions. The side walls were each covered with murals depicting Christ: on the left was a graphic representation of the crucifixion; on the right, Jesus walked beside a bright blue stream over lush grass, holding the hand of a little blonde girl in blue jeans. Everyone assumed that this was Tammy with her Lord, even though grown-up Tammy’s blonde had been massaged into her hair monthly by a talented hairdresser. Angelina found the room gaudy, but she also found it safe.
    “Shall we, Angel?” said Mr. Irving, pointing to the rear pew. He’d shortened her name to two divine syllables, just as her daddy had always done.
    She was now aware of her special dress of the night. She had decided at the last minute that Mr. Irving would like seeing her June Cleaver dress. She believed that the structure of the frock showed off her chest and legs in an appropriate fashion for her forty year-old body, still curvy but slim compared to friends her age.
    “Shall we?” said the man again.
    Shall we what? thought Angelina. Shall we take a seat and hold each other’s hand? Shall we talk about what is really happening here? Shall we look into each other’s soul and discover that we are sadly deprived of decent company, the company of Irv and Angel? Revel in the power we have tonight?
    She wanted to smile girlishly and say his name as sweetly as she did in self-talk. But her desire for intimacy would be unmasked in front of the only man left on earth for whom she nursed respect, planned her words carefully and for whom she wished to cook a pot roast in the pressure cooker on Sunday, just like Mama used to do for Daddy. There was no patriarch to do special things for at her own home. There was only Donnie who played the part of a third child in the house.
    The silver-haired, fifty year-old Irv and the frosty-haired, forty year-old Angel sat down in the far end of the left, rear pew of Tammy’s little chapel to talk privately.
    “Do you like pot roast, Mr. Irving?” This question felt suddenly intimate. Angel blushed––right in the chapel.
    “That’s my very favorite,” said Mr. Irving. “Call me Irv. I think it’s time.”
    Angel blanched and clenched. Irv went on.
    “I love it when the roast retains its wetness, when it is enriched by the injection of the large carrot, the lingering of bulbous potatoes. The rightness of mild spice, concocted to encourage gentle, even fragile, flesh bites of that which we have been given to taste. I could take the meat into my very hands and slurp around it as my mouth accepts its character, savors its richness, its vulgar ripeness.”
    Angel gulped air.
    “I know exactly what you mean,” she said. “When the sinew is made soft by proper preparation and the chosen broth of the day, knowing that the wine is coming later.”
    “We don’t drink wine at the Kinship Universal Salvation Church,” said Mr. Irving Richards.
    “I know,” said Angelina. “I’ve had Communion duty. It’s Welchade.”
    “But,” said Irv, “at my house I do.”
    “Me, too.”
    “I also enjoy a Mojito,” he said.
    Angel’s eyes widened. “What’s that? It sounds exotic.”
    “If a Martini is dry, if a glass of merlot is soft, a Mojito is moissst,” he said, letting his eyes close for emphasis. “Excuse me.”
    Then he cleared his throat in a most vulgar, juicy way, causing Angelina to look away and prepare to cover her ears momentarily. All manner of male throat-clearing and spitting made her gag. The fact that he couldn’t control himself during this intimate moment temporarily mocked her plans to team up with Irv for God’s purposes and her own.
    During the awkward silence that followed, Angelina’s self-talk recommenced. I want this man to know his worth and to stop clearing his throat. I will show him that he has power for good. I will be an instrument for good. I will speak truth in that committee and they will have no choice but to respect Irv and Angel. Someday there’ll be pot roast.
    Her phone rang, “dee dee dee DAAH,” and they both reached to quell the noise, Irv into his shirt pocket, Angel into her handbag. “I’m sorry, Irv,” said Angel, yanking out the phone, looking at her family’s home number on caller ID. She literally mashed the off button with her angry thumb. “Donnie will handle it!”
    With that, for the first time since she had become a mother, Angelina Dubois Bateman chose to be unavailable to her children and her husband. She’d had a beeper from the time her daughter was born until she convinced Donnie to buy a cell, back when small phones weighed a couple of pounds. The ability to hear a call, to respond to a call, was central to her sense of security and purpose: If they call me, they need me. And now, after years of striving to be included in church decision-making, she was there. She had answered an urgent, spirit-moving call.
    “When you answered the call to serve on the Gospel Preservation Committee, my heart swelled with pride,” said Irv.
    “It was because of you, Mr. Irving,” she replied. “I mean Irv. You were my teacher, my mentor, my advocate. Before you took me under your wing, I thought I would just explode sometimes. I still feel that way at church and I have to remember my pledge to you: when I’m ready to blow, I must take a deep breath. Irv, you saw into my soul.”
    “Through a two-way mirror,” he said.
    “A two-way mirror,” she said, her awe aroused. “That is so beautiful. How do you think of those words, those sayings? Like when you said, ‘The strong man is God’s tool; the weak man is Satan’s fool.’ ”
    “That’s simple,” he offered serenely. “It doesn’t come from me.”
    “Of course,” she said and smiled. “I knew that.” Then she stood. “I’m a tool tonight!”
    “Yes, you are, Angel. A real tool.”
    “We’d better get going. The meeting will start without us.” Angelina felt her heartbeat quicken and her breath shorten. “Coffee afterward?” she said. “Meet you at Waffle House?”
    “Absolutely.” Irv stood up first and, with his back to Angel, reached around and pulled his slacks from his crack.
    “Oh,” mumbled Angel, squelching the urge to announce her further disgust.
    Irv is my hope, she silently affirmed. We will prevail.
    They made their way down the hall to the recently opened Margaret Clifton Dubois Memorial Lounge.
    “Your mother’s is the most beautiful room in our entire church, even if it’s the smallest,” said Irv. “It puts Tammy Mingo’s to shame.”
    “You are sweet,” she answered. “It took a lot to make Donnie pledge the cash. Thirty-five thousand is not much to some men, but he comes from a long line of tightwads.” She always inflated the amount of the actual donation. Five thousand down, three hundred a month was more like it.
    As they prepared to make their entrance, she violently slapped her neck again. “Damn mosquitoes,” she said. “Pardon my language.”
    Irv shuddered involuntarily, then held the door for her. “Angels first.”    Hanging from the eight-foot ceiling was a crystal chandelier too big for the space, low enough to force a six-foot man to duck or dodge. This had come from her Mother’s house and lain in pieces in the Bateman basement until Angelina browbeat her husband into paying for its restoration. She then went on to do good work. Outfitting this memorial to her mother gave her the desired lever for respect: any woman who could point to a physical contribution by her family to the body of Christ must be listened to.
    “Listen to God as he speaks to you tonight during this urgent meeting on His behalf,” intoned Reverend Perkins, head bowed. A superbly rotund sixty-year-old, he sat in the tallest of Angelina’s chosen burgundy, wing-back chairs close to the door, away from the circle of folding chairs occupied by the committee members. Decisions about pushing his reading glasses up or down his nose would depend on whether he was perusing a document or gravely addressing the group.
    “This meeting of the Gospel Preservation Committee is called to order,” said the chairman. Ray Renner was a forty-three year old with a lot of money. At least Angelina and most of the congregation assumed this because Ray had made claims in pulpit testimony that made it clear God chose him to be rich.
    “Who has a report to start with?” said Ray. “Oh, yeah. We have all read Angelina Bateman’s report on the dangers to our curriculum from this new student series called ‘Prepare Ye.’ We appreciate your hard work on this. But may I say that I am happy to report that my wife and I have read the whole series and find it uplifting, Angelina. Our friends back in New Haven turned us on to it, so to speak, and I, for one, am not disappointed.”
    What the Hell was that?
    He had managed to dismiss all her work in twenty seconds. The room was silent, and Angelina felt her face go warm. This was the first pitch, the kick-off, the face-off, and she couldn’t speak. Her self-talk inspiration had evaporated and she was timid as ever. Mr. Irving simply smiled and looked back at Ray.
    Come on, Irv. Come on Angel, she thought.
    Angelina realized that she had failed to practice actual words she would say, that all her self-motivating rehearsal had been a broad mission statement, not a plan of attack. Ray Renner continued to praise the children’s program he’d brought to his new church, and the rest of the committee listened without interrupting.
    At last Mr. Irving talked, but his soft speech didn’t thrill Angelina this time; he was not the same man who had minutes before caused her to whisper admiration to him in the chapel. He was, instead, the man who couldn’t control his expectorant tendencies nor the itch in his backside.
    Angel winced as Irv cleared his throat and spoke. “As I was saying to Reverend Perkins in our private meeting last Thursday, I have some reservations about this change in influence for our youth. As I said to Reverend Perkins––and he agreed––we have to go easy with this kind of change. We can all agree that there are barbarians at the gates of our faith. Maybe we need to stay true to the established ways of teaching about God. Maybe these books are not in keeping with that mission. What do you think?”
    What do you think? Maybe? Agree? Can’t you people answer a direct order from God? Come on, Irv?
    Irv turned to the minister. “We can work this out like we talked about. Isn’t that right, Reverend Perkins?”
    “Isn’t what right?” said the preacher, glasses up on the nose, as if to protect himself from Angelina’s glare. “That we had a private meeting? Yes, we did, but any one of these folks could have joined us. We have an open meeting policy here, as you know.”
    “Of course. Yes. I just I mean to report that you agree with me on this new curriculum,” said Irv.
    “Now let’s be clear on something,” said Perkins. “I don’t take sides in private meetings and I share all decisions with committees.” He looked at Ray Renner. “I respect our chairman’s judgment and I defer to this committee.”
    On top of being unprepared to speak her mind when she arrived at the meeting, Angelina was now desolate at the exposure of the weak knees under her recent hero with the silver hair and golden insight. And dumbstruck at this betrayal at the hand of the Reverend. Others in the room remained silent. Self-talk ran amok in Angelina’s head.
    Why doesn’t anyone say the truth about what is going on? No, I haven’t read every single word of this damned Sunday school text but I know what I know. I know that this came from the devil because Ray fucking Renner brought it here. I love this church more than he does and we are sitting in my own mother’s memorial lounge that I personally decorated. I won’t stand by while these buttholes give Ray God Damn Renner every last bit of power. The preacher is practically kneeling down in front of him, and not to wash his feet.
    Then, to her surprise, Angelina’s words rose from her gut, past her heart and into her mouth, arousing her apoplectic tongue. She spoke in calm monotone, but disdain dripped from the edges of each word.
    “You sit there and look down your nose at us and make your evil plans right under the preacher’s nose and we sit still and let you.”
    “Mizzus Bateman, I think you may wish to take a breath,” said Irv. His Angel didn’t look at him. Reverend Perkins pulled his glasses to the end of his nose and stared over them at her. She was ready to let fly, just as she had done many times when her mother was alive, before she had, by God, built her a memorial lounge.
    Ray Renner seemed to have a smile on his face when he said, “You mentioned noses twice, Ms. Bateman. I understand that change is hard to accept, and I understand your feelings.”
    “You don’t understand one pooping thing about my feelings,” Angelina continued. “You are too far up your own poop-chute to understand anything anyone else could feel, unless we are talking about your wife or the Reverend. You are very familiar with their butts, I’ll bet.”
    “You mentioned poop twice, Ms. Bateman,” said Renner. No one else spoke to rescue Angel from herself.
    Silence was shattered by the sound of loud, agitated voices outside the Margaret Clifton Dubois Memorial Lounge, and all its occupants looked toward the door except Angelina.
    “This is all a bunch of poop. There, I said that three times.”
    The door swung open and the burly Donald Bateman entered and found his wife, now standing in the middle of the room staring down at Ray Renner.
    “Honey, it’s an emergency. It’s Jenny. It’s her appendix. She went in the ambulance. I kept calling you. I was so worried when your phone didn’t answer and no one was in the church office to come get you. It’s serious, honey.” As usual, he was about to cry.
    When the poop hits the fan, you always cry.
    Momentarily ashamed to be seen with her blubbering husband in addition to being associated with the sissy Mr. Irving, Angelina felt naked and frozen in place. She couldn’t command her legs to move nor her mouth to speak in response to all that she saw, all that engulfed her. But her husband was her way out, her only refuge once again.
    Irv stood and put an arm around her shoulders. “I guess there’ll be no Waffle House tonight,” he whispered.
    Now unsure now of what she had done and said in front of the committee but aware of a dawning worry about Jenny’s appendix, Angelina found Irv’s eyes. She searched for the magical encouragement she had so recently found there. Instead, she saw her fantasy of his strength melting in his simple stare.
    “We’ll have that pot roast some day,” he said, pitifully she thought, his voice no longer silky. “My wife will come over, too, and we’ll play cards. You take a breath and hold Donnie’s arm.”
    After her husband wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and sniffed one more time, he took Angelina’s hand and led her down the hall. She leaned heavily on his arm and didn’t look back or say goodnight, assuming that those left behind were waiting for her to get out of earshot before they began to cluck their tongues. Self-talk now elucidated her shame.
    I’m as helpless as I ever was. Doing the right thing the wrong way, sharing meat with the wrong man. Thank you for Donnie, Jesus.
    “We’ll come back for your car later,” said Donnie as he pulled out into traffic. “Bad night to lose your power, huh?”
    “Lose my power?” she said softly. “Really, I just lost control. How did you know?” She stared numbly out the windshield past the pounding raindrops and wipers. “Oh, you mean the cell phone,” she said, beginning to tremble.
    Angel Leaned toward Donnie, pulled herself as close to him as the seatbelt would allow and looked at him. “Now tell me about Jenny,” she said.