The Book of Ephesus

 

Chapter One

Godspeed

 

 

E

phesus felt something unfortunately familiar well up in her chest. Her breath came in jagged waves as she raced down the hallway. The office door had barely shut behind her when she kicked off her pumps. They sailed from her feet and came to rest in the thick shag carpet. The rug was the color of day-old blood and the five-inch heels lay nestled deep in the shaggy knap like they too wanted to hide.

            “Oh God!” she cried into the empty room. “Help me, Lord. Just help me!”

            She padded awkwardly over to the cracked-leather wing chair noting a doily, some old Mother must have knitted for Bishop Mitchell, laying spread-eagle across the headrest. She dropped into the seat and heard it and her hip bone protest the impact. She ignored the hardness of the chair and bent over, nearly touching her face to the carpeted floor. She’d read somewhere that the head between the knees could help you catch your breath—but she must have gotten it wrong because this particular brand of genuflection was only making her already shallow breathing worse. Still, she stayed in that position too emotionally knotted for the moment to work herself free. Her umber-colored ponytail was flipped forward over her shoulder. It, at least, rested in a puddle at her feet.

            “Mama,” she mumbled at her ankles, “I wish you were here. Then you could go out there and preach this funeral for me.”

            At that moment Yvette Mills knocked on the door and entered without waiting for permission. Ephesus continued to stare at her feet trying to regain her composure by focusing on the run in her brand new stockings. The culprit was her big toe; it needed a trim. She still hadn’t found someone one in or near the town who could do a pedicure exactly the way she liked it. She was very particular about her feet.

            “Phe,” Yvette crossed the room and called her by her pet name. “Don’t let Malcolm and Weasel, sorry I mean Lisle, upset you like this.

            Yvette’s play on Lisle Mitchell’s name brought the requisite smile, or a portion of it, from Ephesus.

            “How about a cup of tea?” Yvette asked the back of her friend’s head.

            Ephesus reluctantly raised up to look at the small kitchenette in the back of Bishop Mitchell’s office. She saw a microwave, but no kettle, and shook her head. She’d inherited a distrust of anything heated in a microwave from her mother. She thought the whistle from a good, cast-iron tea kettle signaled the way tea should be served so passed on the offer.

            “No, thanks Yvette. I’m okay. I’m feeling better now.” But, she wobbled a bit as she sat up and then stood. Her voice was strained, “I was just surprised that’s all. I’m sorry I ran out of the church like that.” She sounded small and young.

            Yvette reached into her purse, took a miniature Butler’s Brush from a leather holder and began to whisk away imaginary lint and dust from the other woman’s navy blue suit.

Ephesus made a face, “Yvette why are you doing that? You know I hate that thing.” Yvette ignored her and continued brushing and pushing at Ephesus so that she had to turn slowly around in a circle.

“You know I take my job as an armor-bearer seriously,” Yvette said softly after Ephesus completed a 360 degree turn.

Yvette had found the little brush set on one of her antiquing trips. She thought it made a good metaphor for times she had to get Ephesus to calm down before one of her speaking engagements. As Yvette continued to brush at her jacket Ephesus began to breathe more deeply. The brushing was a ritual that signaled to Ephesus that it was time to get it together. Or, in the words of Ephesus’s maternal family “pull the Blackshear out of her genes.” Whenever Ephesus did anything that required particular tenacity, boldness or strength the Blackshear side of her family credited the ability to their bloodline. Not that they disparaged Ephesus’s Cooper half. The Blackshears were just a large and closely knit group who took their role as family to be a calling and a commission.

“Now that’s better.” Yvette replaced her brush and brought out a powder puff from a tiny, pink-plastic bag. “Listen Phe, you didn’t run out of the church. I’m sure most people didn’t even notice,” she tried to sound hopeful.

“Thanks girl,” Ephesus smiled bravely at her friend. “I know I’ve only been back in town for a year, but this is still Fortnight. The news that Ephesus Cooper couldn’t preach a funeral because Malcolm Mitchell showed up will already be “Down-the-Hill” and over in Sarah’s Crossing by morning.”

“Not if you get your behind out there and preach!” Yvette did her best imitation of Aurora, Ephesus’s mother.

Ephesus stood for a few more seconds while Yvette took down the shine from her nose and forehead and then she searched for her shoes. When she slipped them back on she felt immediately better. She wiggled her toes around in pearlized, kid leather the color of maple syrup and flexed on the balls of her feet. She looked a little like a prize-fighter about to take the ring. Good shoes were to Ephesus what chaps were to cowboys. You could do the job without them, but they sure made the ride a lot smoother.

Just then the Piney Grove Church of God by Grace Senior Choir, which was Piney Grove’s only choir, started up another ten verses of Amazing Grace. Ephesus was suddenly reminded of her duty when she heard the soloist hanging from the rafters by a High C. It forced her to remember why she was in the Bishop’s office feeling ragged. She’d been leading the funeral procession into the sanctuary when it happened. She’d kept looking back to see if Dr. Hall was holding tightly enough to the bereaved. The old woman clinging tightly to his arm looked like a flower out of water drooping along beside him.

The rain had dictated they start the march from inside the vestibule instead from outside the church as was customary. Iris DuBlaim or Miz Du, as she was commonly known, had requested that they not go in until it was almost time for the eulogy. She’d told Ephesus she just couldn’t sit there the whole time staring at her only grandson’s closed coffin. They’d only made it as far as the first few pews when Ephesus, looking back yet again at Miz Du, turned forward  and marched straight into his arms. Although he only slowed her down for a second or two and although their contact was brief, the damage was done, Ephesus was stunned.

Somehow her feet kept moving and though she tried to stop herself she looked back again and this time it wasn’t at Miz Du. Her eyes met Malcolm’s and he had the audacity to smile!  A word came into her head she hadn’t used since college and Ephesus quickened her pace willing Dr. Hall to drag Miz Du a little faster. She reached the mourner’s bench and waited until Miz Du was seated. Then she turned, walked in front of the green metallic casket that was centered before the pulpit and stretched out her hand to it. She leaned in for the obligatory prayer, nearly overcome by the scent of hybrid roses riding along on the sweat and humidity, mumbled something, and exited the sanctuary through the Deacon’s Corner door.

            Bringing herself back to the present, Ephesus set her jaw, flipped her ponytail behind her back and turned toward the door. Yvette scooped up the Bible and a leather folder from the table where Ephesus had dropped them. She gave Ephesus one final pat and the two of them headed through the door. Just before they got to the side entrance that would put them mid-way the sanctuary Bishop Mitchell came ambling toward them.

            “There you are Minister Cooper.”  Bishop Malcolm Mitchell Sr. may have once been built like a football player, but a few too many fried-chicken Sunday dinners had had their way with the comparison. As she stood waiting for him to catch up to them she could almost believe some of the old heads when they talked about what a ladies’ man ‘Big Mal’ was in his younger days. He stooped his once muscular shoulders forward and glared down at Ephesus searching her face as he spoke.

            “Hey, Minister Phe!” He loud-talked like those middle-aged folk whose hearing had been compromised tend to do, “I thought you left the sanctuary like a bat out of whack and I came to see if I could git you on the right track,” he grinned widely.

            The only thing that irritated people more than Bishop Mitchell’s tendency to tell all your business in the pulpit, his two Sundays out of the month sermon on tithing, and his refusal to let go of his ‘fro, even though he only had about a quarter of it left, was his penchant for rhyming.

            “Oh, no Bishop,” Yvette stepped between him and Ephesus, “Minister just had a little woman’s issue, but she’s all fixed up now.” Yvette snaked her free hand through Ephesus’s arm before the Bishop could catch her double meaning and the two of them headed down the hall looking much the same as they had when they were teenagers.

            Ephesus rolled her eyes at Yvette, sorry that she had used such a lame excuse but glad that she’d kept her from having to say too much to Bishop Mitchell.

            She was stepping through the door that led into the church when Bishop Mitchell shouted after them, “I’m glad ‘cause I thought maybe you might’a been undone when you turned around and saw my son!”

            Ephesus who hadn’t stumbled since she was eleven, not even in a pair of double platformed, slingbacked spikes, almost lost her footing.

            Ephesus Elizabeth Cooper was a short woman but she walked like she was tall. It came from being the only diminutive person in a family of giants. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Her mama’s mama had been short. But, June had died when Ephesus was a small girl and so Ephesus knew she got her height or lack of it from maternal grandmother only because her family loved to tell her so. Ephesus’s walk was so distinctive that she was known for it in town. Many people said it was that way she walked that stopped her from getting a man. She had the audacity to move like she was the Queen of Sheba and everyone looking should bow or get back. There was something about the way her head and shoulders laid low and let her hips take the lead had made many a man from Fortnight to Fayetteville hesitate when it seemed like opportunity was knocking. Her walk was made even more infamous and eye-catching by her shoes. Almost every shoe in her closet was a minimum of four inches and very expensive.

            Juxtaposed against the talk about her walk, was the speculation about her grooming practices. Old folk swore the fact that Ephesus never combed her head was the other reason why she couldn’t get a man. She had an imposing head of what some people called “dreadlocks” that she kept pinned up or tied down most of the time. When she’d first begun to come home from college on breaks with her hair matted up on purpose she’d kept the Clip ‘N Cut Salon juicy with supposition. But then the hairstyle caught on with several of the other young folk in town and it wasn’t such a strange thing anymore. Still, Ephesus’s “locks” trailed the back of her knees when they were free and it was always a surprise to see all that hair. She routinely had to stop people from trying to touch and feel it without permission.

            Pony-tail swinging and hips swaying was how she re-entered the sanctuary and climbed into the pulpit. She stopped in front of the center seat—the one done up to look like a throne. As she sat, she gathered her mass of hair, bound by a black silk cord, and moved it around in her lap so she could play with the ends. Yvette stepped in front of her and placed her note pad and Bible on the podium and then resumed her position with the congregation just behind Iris DuBlaim.

The previous Sunday morning Miz Duhad been on her way to Marion County Memorial Hospital when she found her grandson, Bryan, door-nail dead on her back porch. She had been headed there so early that morning because she knew several of the nurses on the maternity ward and hoped they’d let her up to see her new great-grandbaby even if it was well before visiting hours. 

Della Brogden had called Miz Du just before midnight to tell her that Tiana had given birth to a baby girl. Iris had almost choked on the bitterness of her tears when she had to tell Della she didn’t know where Bryan was or when he’d be coming home. She had given up on keeping track of Bryan. She couldn’t keep up with all his many friends, especially since she’d had her long distance phone service disconnected. Bryan had run up a bill of almost four hundred dollars and she’d had to dip into her savings to pay it. It made her mad every time she thought about it, and she’d just finished cursing her daughter Helene for dying and leaving her such a hellion to raise when she found his body.

Small and thin, with skin like a wrinkled brown paper sack and hair that was as much black as gray, she recalled clearly everything she’d done that Sunday morning before finding Bryan. After checking to make sure she’d turned off her stove, she’d poured the rest of her coffee into her dieffenbachia plant—the one right next to the kitchen door. Next, she’d smashed her green rain hat on to her head. Then she’d taken her keys from the counter in her left hand and grabbed both her purse and the pack of newborn diapers she’d bought on sale at the Penny Mart with her right. Because of the way the big bag of diapers was swinging, Miz Du didn’t see Bryan at first. She’d managed to turn around, lock her back door, and take at least two steps forward before came upoon him sprawled at the edge of the porch.

            It was after seeing Bryan that her memory got foggy. Although, she did recall not needing those jackleg paramedics to pronounce him officially dead, any fool could see her wild, vibrant grandson was not in that body lying on her porch, and she had told them so. The paramedics and the police had tried to follow procedure and leave Bryan’s body for the coroner to examine. But it had been raining steadily in Fortnight since the New Year and Miz Du wasn’t having it. Even if the authorities were willing to chance leaving him underneath a waterproof tarp Iris DuBlaim’s grandson was not going to mildew on the back porch and she let them know that too. Subjected to Miz Du’s episodes of wrenching wails and shrill reproaches the weary chief of police finally made the paramedics take Bryan’s body to the hospital.

At first Miz Du hadn’t known who to call; she was in such a state of shock. There were a few church ladies who were her garage sale-ing and spades-playing friends, but she had no real family other than Bryan in Fortnight any more. She wasn’t the kind who allowed people to get that close to her and it had only gotten worse as Bryan had grown into a trouble-man. She finally did what most of the folk in Fortnight did when they were in need—even those who didn’t attend Cornerstone Worship Family Worship Center. She called Pastor Aurora Cooper.

            Aurora Blackshear Cooper’s own Sunday service was just about to start when she’d gotten the message about Bryan. That was why she’d sent Ephesus over to see about Miz Du. Ephesus had hurried to the DuBlaim residence and had been expecting to help make the arrangements and comfort Iris, but she’d been a little blindsided by the request that she deliver Bryan’s eulogy. Everybody knew her mother was the one to preach a funeral. But Bryan rarely darkened any church’s doorstep and had, in fact, haunted all the clubs and liquor houses from a young age. So Aurora would have preached the funeral, but she wouldn’t have tried to sugarcoat such a quick and hard life. In fact, Aurora always said the worse thing to do was to try to preach somebody into heaven who had no business being there. Knowing Aurora’s reputation Miz Du had hoped that Ephesus, being a younger, softer version of her mother, would cut Bryan some slack.

Iris had also asked Ephesus to preach Bryan’s funeral because she didn’t want Bishop Mitchell to do it. Although, she was an almost semi-faithful member of Piney Grove Church of God By Grace, Iris didn’t want to have to tell Bishop Mitchell too much. Everyone knew you’d hear your business as the subject of the Sunday sermon if you weren’t careful.

            Ephesus was now seated in the pulpit and her mind was back on business. She was thinking yet again about what it meant to bury someone as young as Bryan. He was three months shy of graduating high school and two more from his eighteenth birthday so his passing was a shock to the rest of the young folk who believed they had their whole lives in front of them. His death messed with their sense of immortality. But, the teens from South Marion high weren’t the only ones crying and shaking and promising God they were going to do right this time for sure. Bryan had run with rough crowds since he could run, and the rough crowd had all come to pay their respects as well.

            If people were aware of Ephesus’s tardiness they didn’t seem to mind. The faints and the fallings had just begun. Ephesus scanned the room; she was looking for Tiana, Bryan’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Several young girls from the high school were being led out of the church, overcome by the heat and the grief. If nothing else Bryan had been a charmer. No one could meet him when he was in form and not walk away smiling. Even the teachers at South Marion who hated it when Bryan made it to school were amazed by his intellect. Bryan could show up one or two days a week and still make decent grades.

            Some of Bryan’s football team from Junior High were chock-a-block in one pew and their old jerseys; tiny black ribbons pinned to their left sleeves. Even most of the folks from the rough crowd looked sad, though too practiced at burying the young to actually cry. A few of them were looking as intently around the room as Ephesus, searching for something or someone. When Ephesus looked to the right, she saw Malcolm Mitchell Jr. on the front row of the Deacon’s bench. He was staring at her hard. She unconsciously gripped the bundle of locks in her lap tighter and began twisting the end of one of them vigorously and stared right back. She wasn’t going to let Malcolm think he could intimidate her. He’d already had her bent double in the back room contemplating her ability to fulfill her duties. That was as far as she was going to let him go.

            They might have gone on playing the ocular game of chicken if Malcolm’s wife Lisle hadn’t leaned almost into his lap to whisper in his ear. Ephesus rolled the ends of one or two more of her locks rapidly between her fingers in a practiced way. When their eyes met, Lisle didn’t have the decency to look away so neither did Ephesus. Ephesus began to congratulate herself on having remained relatively calm during the whole exchange. This was the first time in more than a decade she’d been subjected to the presence of both her ex-fiancé and her ex-roommate. Ephesus though very quickly about what her mother would do and smiled very politely at Lisle Mitchell.

She would never remember whether Lisle smiled back because just then a strange man came down the aisle of the church and made his way over to Miz Du. The old lady looked up through sheets of tears and began to shake and cry even harder. She tried to stand, but the stranger eased her back into her seat and got down on one knee and took both her hands in his. After a moment Dr. Hall, who looked somewhere between offended and relieved, slipped over so the man could sit next to Miz Du.

            Ephesus tried to remember if Bryan’s father was still alive. She had heard Miz Du say Bryan’s mother died when he was little more than an arm-baby. But at that moment Della Brogden began screaming and Ephesus had to abandon curiosity for indignation. She didn’t mind loud grieving but she detested false sentiment. Della knew full well she couldn’t abide Bryan. She’d low-rated him so much when she found out Tiana was pregnant that even those folk who lapped gossip like a fine wine crossed the street when they saw Della coming.  Now, here she was screaming and rolling out of her pew. And it wasn’t going to be an easy roll. Piney Grove Church of God by Grace was a large building but it still had wooden floors and no central air. Although March was typically a cool month, the number of people in the building were generating a lot of heat. Most everyone in the building was damp, if not sweaty, and Della looked downright wet. This meant that scraps of paper, dust mites, loose change, and bits of piedmont sand were going to do their best to stick to her as she thrashed around on the floor.

Ephesus forgot about the strange man because it took three ushers, two men and one woman, to get Della out of the church. The two men had to hoist the load while the lady tried to keep a super-sized white handkerchief over Della’s knees. This was extremely difficult because the cloths were only meant to cover those slain in the spirit, not those possessed by one. 

            It was then that Ephesus finally saw Tiana, who’d been sitting near the door, wipe her own tears with the back of one wrist and follow her mother and the ushers out of the sanctuary. It seemed that none of the other Brogden children showed up to say good-bye to the love of their little sister’s life.  As the choir took Della’s performance for their cue to sing another song Ephesus wondered who was watching Tiana and Bryan’s baby, and rolled another one of her long locks between her fingers.

            After a few more minutes and another chorus or two the crowd seemed to quiet down and Ephesus saw Tiana slip back inside without Della. She knew it was time to shorten at least this part of Tiana’s and Miz Du’s misery and signaled the choir director to end the song. Then, she stood and assumed the pulpit. She swung the mass of hair back around her shoulder, bowed her head and sincerely asked God to forgive her for being distracted and self-absorbed and to grant her access to the spirit of peace. She stood so long with her head bowed that a real hush began to fall on the people. Some were wondering if Minister Cooper had gone to sleep, but those who knew the worth of prayer silently echoed her plea. Even Miz Du stopped her sobbing to stare at Ephesus.

            When she raised her head there was something very different about Ephesus Cooper. She wasn’t distracted or irritated, but focused and calm. When she spoke even the timbre of her voice was changed. She understood and accepted that the weight of the day had come to rest upon her. It would be her words that would accompany the town’s last memory of Bryan. So neither pounding rain nor remembrances of ancient pains nor even the freshest of wounds should detract from sending Bryan on his way.

            Ephesus’s deep rich voice pealed over the congregation.

“In this place today some friends and some foes, some lovers and some enemies of Bryan DuBlaim have gathered to bid him farewell.  Some have come through hell to say goodbye to Bryan,” Ephesus looked down at Miz Du, and the old woman nodded “while the rest of us only braved high water.” Many people bobbed their heads and there were several mumbled “Amens.”

            “But whatever you have suffered,” this time Ephesus looked at little Tiana and didn’t allow herself even a glance at the Mitchells, “don’t you dwell only on your own pain and miss the testimony in Bryan’s life or the message in his death.”

            Those who’d come expecting to hear a sermon began to get excited and their rustling in the seats grew louder.

            “We have lost another young one,” she continued, “a young man full of angst but also a young man full of promise.” Ephesus shook her head slightly as if agreeing with herself.

“His was a life marked early on by the death of his mother. But God, who always has a ram in the bush, had his grandmother step in to raise him.”

“Amen,” shouted an old woman who was also caring for her grandchildren.

“I would be remiss if I stood here today and spoke about Bryan as if he were perfect. He was not,” she hesitated, “and none of us are.” “Bryan liked a good time and he liked everyone around him to have a good time.”

            At the end of Ephesus’s statement many of the young girls, and more than a few of the older women, nodded and got a faraway look in their eyes. But the women were not the only mourners caught up in memories of Bryan. Several of the guys thought of how they owed Bryan money and one person in the congregation recalled how he owed Bryan his life.

            “When Miz Du asked me to stand up for her grandson and offer a tribute I have to admit I was nervous. I babysat Bryan a time or two when he and Miz Du first moved to Fortnight, but I didn’t know him all that well as he got older. When we did have occasion to talk we were usually butting heads because I was chastising Bryan about something or other. But, I always walked away from our encounters a bit frustrated. I would wonder how in the world that boy had talked himself out of trouble again.”

Ephesus smiled and leaned back from the microphone.

            “But no matter what he had or hadn’t done, I always learned something from my dealings with Bryan.”

Her voice had slipped into a low southern furrow at the word “dealings”.

            “Bryan could make me laugh about anything and that taught me that, contrary to popular opinion, I can and do indeed like to laugh.”

            This brought a collective chuckle from the folks in the crowd who knew her reputation.

            “Bryan could make me see the bright side when it looked as though there were none to be found, and I watched him do that with most of the people in this room. I was there the day Howard Lassiter tried to rob the Feed and Seed with that rusty old 30.6 and while the rest of us were wondering if we should be scared, Bryan walked up to Howard, took the gun from his hands, put his arms around Howard’s shoulders and said, “Come on man, I’ll help you pay your rent.”

            Ephesus looked out into the audience at Howard who was crying almost as hard as Miz Du. “Howard, you remember how he talked Old Colonel Brogden out of pressing charges and even talked him into giving you a job?”

 Howard could only nod his head while his wife wiped dramatically at his eyes with a handkerchief.

            “Oh yes, you see, Bryan DuBlaim was not perfect, but he had some perfect things he did the brief while he was on this earth. You know, we should all strive to do some perfect things while we are here,” she went on quickly, “and if we can string enough of those perfect things together, then, will our living have been in vain?”

            The question hung in the air only a millisecond before the congregation responded to her challenge. 

“No!” Not hardly!” Of course not!” came the cries echoing from different areas of the sanctuary. The organist chimed in with a few low and dark chords, beginning the call and response best handled by those raised in southern soils.

The electricity in the air inside the church began to increase matching its tempo to the thunderstorm outside. Folk in Fortnight loved to be stirred. They enjoyed being roused from the day-to-day routine of pursuing survival, if only for a rainy afternoon in an old wooden church. As Ephesus went on she lost the little bit of treble usually present in her speaking voice. Ephesus was a skilled orator, but she was more than that. People heard her voice and the locks on the gates of their hearts sprang open. For the old folks she called up memories of when their elders ran the world and they still had room to dream and time to make mistakes. For the young, she connected them to their history and the collective heart of their community in ways they could actually understand.

            Listening to Ephesus, seeing her standing there just taller than the podium and glowing like King Midas was her personal friend, helped some people admit that when they left the club, or put down the pipe, or rolled over in bed and they still felt empty. Something in Ephesus’s voice, in her demeanor, promised them that they if they would only look long enough, and in the right place, they too could indeed find that thing she had. Her voice promised that the peace and grace she eminated was available to anyone who wanted it. So for the next half hour the cadence of the rain and Ephesus, Ephesus and the rain, drummed the grief and guilt, the anger and the affection from the hearts of the people. Under Ephesus’s tutelage they let go of Bryan DuBlaim and bid him Godspeed.

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