On the way to work, Shirley Lamothe stopped on her porch to pet the new cat. She had ceased naming the felines long ago. The strays tended to congregate around her modest, wood frame rental house because she put out dishes of food and water and allowed them entry into the house if they so desired. They kept her company, as Brian stayed mainly sequestered in his tiny boyhood bedroom, playing memory games on his computer and watching war and history documentaries on Netflix. He joined her for meals, cut the grass, put the garbage out, and he would do just about anything else she asked without complaint. After the bicycle accident that happened the summer before he planned to enroll at Louisiana State University on an academic scholarship, a piece of him submerged so deep inside himself that only part of him ever came back. He could function, but the damages kept him from fully integrating into the world.
She squeezed the porch railing and eased down the three wood steps. Good thing she could walk to her workplace because her old Corolla no longer sufficed for much commuting. She used it to drive Brian to his Burger King job a few miles down the highway, a position he was happy to get after Save Mart fired him. They still wondered why.
Her joints ached as she crossed the quiet residential street and entered the back parking lot of Hope, Faith & Charity Christian Church. The stillness of the neighborhood during weekdays while children dallied in school made her feel like a trespasser sometimes. The crunch of every sycamore leaf she stepped on sounded like it reverberated down the whole block. The patter of squirrels was the only other sign of life. She liked watching the little critters scurry up the trees and across utility lines.
When she reached the back double doors of the church, she stopped for a few moments to sit on the concrete bench. She served as custodian and event organizer assistant for the non-denominational house of worship. The part-time job paid her fifty-seven dollars a week, a tidy little sum that supplemented her Social Security check, Brian’s disability check, and meager income from his part-time job. It not only paid the utilities but also allowed her to stash a portion away for emergencies. She marveled at how so many people burned through fifty-seven dollars on manicures, pedicures, dining out, or a new pair of shoes.
A small flock of sparrows gathered in the back garden of the church underneath a purple hydrangea shrub. They appeared to be taking a sand bath, drilling holes in the ground with their tiny beaks and then merrily spraying the granules amongst them. As she started to stand, the back doors opened and the three officers of the Church Board appeared.
“Here, let me help you, Miss Shirley,” said Todd, the Board president. Todd looked younger than his fifty-two years. With his huge, pearly teeth and toned muscles, he could have passed for thirty-eight. Shirley could usually pinpoint someone’s age down to the exact year, but Todd had stumped her. She wanted to snap that she was perfectly capable of standing up on her own, but she simply muttered, “It’s okay, Todd. I’m all right.”
He took her arm anyway, making Shirley feel older than her sixty-five years. The various injuries she had suffered during her life had slowed her down physically a bit more than she liked, but she certainly did not need assistance to stand or walk. “You had a meeting?”
Tina, the Vice-President, spoke up. “Yes.” She always spoke in a high-pitched, rushed tone. “Just a general meeting, basic church business.”
Shirley wanted to say, gee, thanks for the details, but she resisted. Tina peered at her through her thick bifocals in the same way that a young scientist looks through his microscope at a rare bug. The Church Board treasurer, Alec, a retired accountant, greeted her briefly then hurried off. He usually lingered, as retired folks often do, basking in the luxury of free time.
“Do you need me to start working on the mail-outs for the gala?” Shirley asked.
Tina’s face stiffened. “Oh, don’t worry yourself with that right now, dear. We’re not at that stage yet.”
“If you say so,” answered Shirley. The fundraising gala, Family Game Night, was only six weeks away. It had a way of creeping up on people and blindsiding them if they didn’t prepare for it in advance. The loyal church members watched the participation dwindle over recent years, just as church attendance had, since plenty of the mainly elderly congregation passed away or moved away to live closer to their children or to nursing facilities. Either young people, millennials as they called them nowadays, did not prioritize church, or Hope, Faith & Charity Church failed to attract them. Pangs of sadness jabbed at Shirley whenever she thought about the dismal numbers. This church served as her rock since she had moved to the rental house thirty-three years ago. When life dealt her blows like Brian’s accident, the death of her abusive alcoholic husband, her parents’ deaths, she always turned to Hope, Faith & Charity Christian Church. The part-time job here elated her. Besides needing the money, she found purpose in every task she performed.
“Well, I’m going to get to my dusting,” said Shirley as she sauntered off. She felt Tina and Todd’s eyes follow her into the church. When she turned around, they averted their eyes, gave friendly waves, and strolled to their cars. She ignored the small boulder forming in the pit of her stomach. That’s what happened when something didn’t set right with her. Her gut warned her. Pushing her thoughts aside, she retrieved the dusting supplies from the usher’s room and set about tidying the church pews and placing bibles back in their holders. She needed to take her little breathers more often than she used to. She didn’t mind that she spent three hours performing a job that used to take two. She sat in the pew and uttered a few prayers. She always saved the last prayer for Brian. Where did the young man that aspired to be an archeologist go?
She hobbled to the back door of the church to exit and was surprised to see the Pastor sitting on the concrete bench. “Pastor Jacob, it’s good to see you.”
Pastor Jacob stood and shook her hand. “How are you, Shirley?”
“I’m just fine.”
“You look tired. Why don’t you have a seat?” They both sat on the bench and remained silent for a few minutes. Shirley watched a blue jay chase away the little sparrows that played there earlier. “Beautiful day,” she commented to break the increasingly awkward silence.
“Each day is a gift, and one like this is a treasure. How do you like to spend your days, Shirley?”
The question threw her off guard. Pastor Jacob delivered inspiring sermons from the pulpit, but he never engaged in too much personal conversation, at least not with her. “Well, I keep busy. My job, keeping the house up, cooking, church work, and I like to have some of the ladies over for coffee and cards.”
He nodded as if approving. “I see. I see. I imagine the physical work is becoming difficult.”
Her heart started racing. Where was this going? “I wouldn’t say that. It keeps me active.”
“Not to be indelicate,” he continued, “but I see you struggling to get around.” He lightly touched her hand.
“I’m just an old bird, but I like plugging away,” she said, trying to sound light-hearted. “I intend to keep going and going until the Good Lord decides it’s time to quit.”
Apparently, the Good Lord, through Pastor Jacob and the Church Board, had determined that morning that Hope, Faith and Charity Christian Church no longer needed her services. As she sat on her tattered recliner in her tiny living room with Mr. Whiskers curled up beside her, Shirley recalled her restrained reaction. She revered the Pastor and masked the cut to her heart and her anguish over the dismissal. He framed the decision around her health, and she almost fell for it. Was she that old? No! This was a cold budget decision. Students from the high school needed service hours, and the church had worked out a plan to provide them the opportunity to fulfill those hours by performing the job she used to do. But that was a good thing, wasn’t it? If the church saved fifty-seven dollars a week, they could put that money to better use. Putting young people to work was a valuable opportunity for them, wasn’t it? As much as she tried to convince herself, her heart remained on the ground like that of a jilted lover.
She withheld the news from Brian that night over their leftover meatloaf dinner. He would simply notice after a couple of days that she stopped walking over to the church in the morning, and she would make it sound like a mutual decision, and everything was fine. After all, her dismissal was one of life’s blows that she must accept. Dismissal. Firing. That’s what it was. Did the church really need to save fifty-seven dollars a week? Couldn’t they find other services for the kids to perform? What would happen if the kids didn’t show up, or when they completed their service hours commitment?
Brian retreated to his room, and Shirley washed the dishes and put the food away. There was enough meatloaf left for both of them to have a sandwich tomorrow for lunch. After puttering around the kitchen a little longer, Shirley ambled outside to the porch. She poured generic cat food into the bowl and added water to the dish. The sun had started to set on the warm September evening. She batted at mosquitoes trying to feast on her bare arms. Losing the job was just another event in her life she must learn to accept.
Shirley had a job interview at the Dollarama located next to Brian’s Burger King in a strip mall. If they could get similar hours, that would be great. Brian sat in the passenger seat beside her. He had never mentioned her church job, but surely, he had noticed she stopped going to work there in the last couple of weeks. She still attended Sunday services, but the Church Board members and Pastor seemed to avoid her. Maybe they noticed the dusty pews, disorganized pamphlets, and feared she would mention it. When she stopped in the Life Center for socials, she fought her temptation to complain that the counters were grimy and dishes were left in the sink. What did they expect from teenage volunteers?
She pulled into the Burger King parking lot. Brian opened the door but turned to her before he got out. “What the church did to you is the same thing Save Mart did to me.” Before she could respond, he got out of the car and loped toward the front door. The change in weather caused him to lean more towards his right side than usual, and his left foot dragged along the pavement.
She was early for her interview, so she decided to splurge on a cup of coffee from the shop next to Dollarama. As she walked toward the front doors, the sun hit in such a way that she got a good look at her reflection in the glass. She almost wondered who that old woman was that dressed just like her! Is this how the pastor and Church Board saw her?
That Sunday, Shirley stayed in bed instead of getting up to go to nine o’clock services. Maybe Pastor or someone would call to find out why she skipped. She might tell them idleness disagreed with her. When Brian knocked on her door to ask if she was all right, she got up to cook him breakfast. Later, she peered out of her bedroom curtain and watched the members dispersing to their cars after the services. When Tina looked toward her window before she got into her Camry, Shirley stepped away from the curtain.
The next Sunday morning, she didn’t stay in bed. Instead, she put on her old khakis and gardening gloves, and moseyed outside to pull the weeds in her flowerbeds. She had neglected her garden lately, so she had at least an hour’s work ahead of her. When services let out, she still plugged away in her yard. She resisted turning around when she heard people parked on the street near her house get in their cars and pull off. When she tied up the garbage bag to haul it over to her can, the street was deserted. Everyone had come and gone. Nobody walked over to say hello. Nobody even called out to her. Did they not see her?
On Monday morning, as she checked her grocery list, she received a call. It was from the assistant manager at Dollarama. They offered her a part-time cashier position: Saturday and Sunday mornings. Her initial response was a polite “no thank you. I don’t think I can work that into my schedule.” She slowly set the phone down. How could she work every Sunday morning? She would have to give up services at Faith, Hope and Charity Christian Church. She picked up the list and slid it into her purse. After fishing for her car keys, she started for the front door. As she stepped onto the porch, she looked in the direction of her church. Hadn’t they given her up? They had rendered her irrelevant, and if that exercises faith, hope, or charity, she didn’t want a part of it. There were other houses of worship in this world, after all, some in close proximity to her house.
Instead of heading out on her errands, she raced back into the house. She called the Dollarama manager back.