Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
[p.37]For the 1,039th Sunday, Ida sat at the church organ. As she played the prelude music, she peered over her reading glasses at the bishop’s two counselors sitting on the speaker’s stand, at their blue serge, gray pin stripes, and balding pates. Then she thought of the night before and blushed in places no one could see.
Quickly she flipped to a different page in Quiet Music for the Church Organist and played “In the Garden.” Why did she keep using this book with its dog-eared pages? she wondered. Her fingers knew which keys to press. No thought. No sight reading necessary. Except for the three Sundays she’d missed due to emergencies, Ida had played the Gardenville Ward organ for twenty years. Almost. It would be exactly twenty years next Sunday.
The first absence, she’d sliced her finger chopping onions for a meat loaf and spent Sunday morning getting stitched back together. The second time, her daughter Raylene gave birth to a seven-pound girl. Because Raylene’s husband Jody was crawling through a jungle somewhere in Viet Nam, Ida paced the hospital floor for both Jody and herself. Then there was Louis, Ida’s ex-husband. She missed one Sunday because of him.
Except for today, Ida was always fifteen minutes early to sacrament [p.38]meeting, sliding the hymn numbers into the slots on the gothic-shaped hymn board at 9:45 a.m. She always dressed in soft pastels because her friend, Milly, who learned about color coordination from her cousin in Salt Lake City, told her she was a “Spring” and looked best in soft greens, pinks, and blues. And she always played prelude music by 9:55. This morning she wore a tailored pink linen suit and posted the hymn numbers, but, like everyone else, she was twenty minutes late. Nobody had time to catch up on the week’s news, pat babies’ heads, or inquire about missionaries in Chile, New Jersey, and Taiwan who were out asking strangers if they wanted to know more about the Mormons. The world had turned last night, and nothing was the same. The atmosphere in the chapel was edgy.
It wasn’t until 10:15, shortly after the power returned to Gardenville and there was finally electricity to run the organ, that Ida sat down to play the prelude music. And now, at 10:20, Bishop Jensen was climbing the speaker’s stand. The pockets under his eyes were puffy, his hair looked like he’d been combing it with his fingers, and he didn’t smile, say his usual “Hello, Sister Rossiter” to Ida, or walk over to the organ to shake her hand. He’d probably stayed up all night moving his sheep out of the storm, and now he was facing another uneasy flock.
Whatever the case, being ignored by the bishop flustered Ida. He was one of the few members of the congregation who recognized the Ida she knew she was—the woman who was vivid on the inside, a brighter essence than the pastels she wore. Maybe God had whispered in his ear early this morning and told him what she’d done behind closed blinds last night. She repeated “In the Garden,” forgetting she’d already played it twice.
After a brief huddle with his counselors, Bishop Jensen walked to the pulpit. He shook out the creases in the knees of his trousers, tried to smooth his rust-brown hair that wouldn’t be smoothed, and grasped both sides of the pulpit as if he needed them. Ida quickly found a resolution for the unfinished “In the Garden.”
“Welcome, Brothers and Sisters,” he said without his usual smile. “Welcome to another Sabbath, though the most unusual one I can remember. I’m sure you noticed our steeple, or what’s left of it, as you came to church this morning … “
Ida felt her neck muscles turning to steel cable and her vision filling [p.39]with floating shapes, some of them resembling microscopic creatures of the water-world. She closed her eyes and pushed her fingers against her temples to keep a headache at bay. Behind her eyelids, however, the amoeba-like shapes swam faster. Ida thought of her temple garments still hanging damp on the shower rod and felt her naked skin against pink linen. She felt the absence of the shield of the Lord.
“… and Brothers and Sisters,” Bishop Jensen continued, “it seems the Lord is testing our faith. With that in mind, let’s open our hymn books to page 243 and sing ‘Let Us All Press On,’ after which Brother Bill Parsons will open our meeting with prayer.”
She waited for him to announce her name, to say “Our opening hymn will be accompanied by Sister Ida Rossiter,” but he just carried his notebook, face open, back to his seat, as if he were in a trance. The linen side seams of her skirt scratched her thighs and hips. She didn’t have one pair of regular underpants to her name, never needing them until today. She squeezed her knees together, tighter than clam shells.
Suddenly she was aware of Morris Sant, the chorister, waiting, his arm half raised, for the introduction to the hymn. How long had he been standing there? Without waiting for his upbeat as she usually did, she pressed her fingers into the keyboard. The introduction and the first two lines, “Let us all press on in the wo-ork of the Lord, that when life is o’er we may ga-ain a reward,” became a power struggle between Morris and Ida. She set a fast pace; Morris tried to slow her down; she raced; he glared. She played as if leading a charge; she leaned into the volume pedal on the chorus’s “Fear nots.” Morris finally looked at his hand as if asking why he needed one.
Her feet knew exactly which pedals to play without the assistance of her brain. During the second verse, her attention wandered out over the audience. All the colors people wore seemed tinted with a strange hue of purple, as though the lightning storm had left a fluorescent residue in the air. As her eyes brushed past Brother Bassett, sitting in the same place as usual and looking slightly purple himself, she saw he was staring at her, as always, and she quickly whipped her head back, eyes forward, to the organ, and squeezed her knees together again.
The nerve of that man. She added an extra trill to the melody line. What does he want from me? Even he would be surprised at Ida Rossiter, [p.40]who meant music to the Gardenville Ward, a woman who personified dependability.
Maybe she didn’t make dramatic entrances into the chapel like her best friend, Milly, Bishop Jensen’s wife, who bought the latest styles at ZCMl’s in Salt Lake City and who urged Ida to be more daring. Ida loved Milly and scoffed at the rumors that Milly once pinned up the sleeves of her temple garments so she could wear a sleeveless dress to a fundraiser for a state senator.
Maybe Ida wasn’t especially daring. Louis, before he left, suggested she take some lessons from Milly to get a little spunk in her life. But she was loyal. She kept promises to God and her friends. “You’re dependable as the seasons,” ward members said, except Brother Bassett. He said off-the-wall things like, “You’re a real sleeper, Ida. Pretty, too. No telling what would happen if your lid came off.”
Ida didn’t ask nor did she want to know what he meant when he talked like that. He was a renegade, slightly crazed since his wife died, even though it had been three years now. Ida avoided him both in the ward house on Sundays and during the week in the aisles of the IGA Supermarket.
“But the Lord,” the congregation, finally coming together after the chaotic beginning of the hymn, sang the closing line rousingly: “… alone we will obey.” Morris gave Ida the cut-off signal. She prolonged the swell of the final chord. Her fingers seemed glued to the keyboard and her feet to the pedals. The C major chord swelled and swelled until the organ was playing at full volume. The chapel filled with the power of music, as if, for one moment, Ida was playing in a cathedral with a vaulted ceiling—the kind she’d seen on the educational channel. The windows rattled. The flower arrangement quivered. When she finally withdrew her fingers and feet, she bowed her head quickly and folded her arms for the opening prayer as if nothing had happened. Morris snapped the hymn book shut and sat down, his face screwed with disgust.
Bill Parsons stood to pray. Our Father, we thank thee for our many blessings.
Ida’s feet slipped off the organ bench railing. The extra gravity, maybe the devil, seemed to be pulling her pink pumps toward the big bass sound that would ruin the prayer and startle everyone in the congregation. She picked up both feet and hung them in mid-air, every [p.41]inch of each leg clinging like a magnet to the other. Without her soft cotton garments encasing her thighs, her buttocks, her midriff, her shoulders, something in her was set adrift, something was loose.
And watch over all those who are not with us today, that they may be blessed and comforted. Brother Parsons prayed on.
Ida’s glasses slid down her nose. Now her neck felt like six fused strands of steel cylinder. She wished this prayer would end and wished for the fiftieth time she hadn’t put all her garments in the wash together.
Last night, for the first time since she married in the temple and accepted the wearing of garments night and day to remind her of her promises to God, she decided it didn’t matter if she kept them off for a few minutes beyond her nightly bath. Just once. Just for the one hour it would take to wash and dry the pile of soiled clothes accumulated in her hamper.
After relaxing in her bath with two, rather than one, lavender oil beads, she decided she’d rather not step back into the not-quite-clean last pair of garments while she washed the rest. A complete stack of fresh garments in her dresser drawer would be such a nice gift to herself. A good clean start for the Sabbath. Stark naked, she gathered all the dirty clothes into her arms, walked through the living room, dining room and kitchen to the laundry room, and stuffed the clothes around the agitator arms. She added soap, liquid bleach, then turned the temperature selector to warm and the cycle selector to pre-soak.
As she stood in the yellow laundry room without any clothes in her arms or on her body, the fluorescent light purpled her forty-two-year old skin to a frightful hue. Impulsively, she dashed away from the violet tones into the light of the white crystal chandelier over her dining table. She touched her thighs and rubbed her skin that felt brand new to her at that moment. It wasn’t something she usually thought about. Skin. Her own skin. Suddenly she felt as though she were six years old, and she was glad she’d closed all of the blinds in the house before her bath. She ran through the house, turned on the stereo, danced to the German polka album her nephew had brought her from his mission in Germany. She danced until she had no breath left. She collapsed at the kitchen table in front of a long green onion and a glass of milk she’d set there before her bath. She was alone. What did it matter?
[p.42]She felt the woven chair seat against the silk of her buttocks and the glass of cold milk in her hand. What does it matter, she kept asking herself as she nibbled the sweet onion. And when she returned the milk carton to the refrigerator, her breast brushed against the cold Kelvinator door and she stopped there, unable to move as she felt her surprised nipple grow hard and stiff.
At that exact moment the storm began. In earnest. After the loudest crack of lightning she’d ever heard, she stood helplessly in darkness, staring at the pyrotechnics dazzling even through closed blinds. Every time the sky lit up, Ida watched small roots of lightning working their way through the slits of the blinds as if they were searching to destroy. Ida, the sinner, stood naked in front of the refrigerator door, her nipples hard jewels. She fumbled her way into her bedroom and into her flannel nightgown to hide her nakedness, but bolt after bolt of lightning split the sky wide open, spread across the sky like the root system of a thousand-year-old tree.
Ida found a half candle in her dresser drawer, left there for times such as these, and a half-used book of matches from Zenna’s Cafe, next to the dress shop where she worked five days a week. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she lit the candle and held it in both hands. She stared at its flickering light. Then she looked at the shifting shadows on the wall, Louis’s laughing face among them.
“Ida’s disobeyed,” a voice that sounded like Louis said. Something that looked like his teeth shone in the candlelight. “Why couldn’t you yield for me, you who like to think you’re a sturdy oak tree?”
Next Brother Bassett’s face popped into the shadows. “Your lid’s coming off, Ida. I’ve been waiting.”
“Get out of here. Both of you. In the name of Jesus Christ, just leave.” She blew out the candle and threw herself on her knees at her bedside. She prayed until her cheek dropped onto a square of her log cabin quilt and her eyes closed and her hands unclenched. Still kneeling, embracing the edge of her bed, she slept.
In the morning Ida woke on her braided rug, stiff and cold in every joint. All she could hear was the sound of water dripping from the roofs and trees, still pouring steadily from the leaden gray sky. After shaking her hands and feet and doing a few knee bends to loosen her joints, she ran to the laundry room, tried the light switch, and discovered, to her dismay, that the power was still out. She pulled one pair of [p.43]garments from the freezing cold water. She wrang the cotton as tight as it would be wrung, shook it like a rug, then ran through the house with it billowing over her head like a sail. After two laps through the kitchen and living room, she dropped onto the sofa. Her battery-powered clock said 9:30, fifteen minutes before she usually appeared at the ward house. Reluctantly, she slipped her bra, nylons, white rayon blouse, and pink suit over her naked body. She buckled the straps of her white high heels.
At the organ she felt her thighs sticking together like Scotch tape. They’d make a sound if she pulled them apart. Instead, she tightened her legs together. But that was even more uncomfortable. Too much perspiration, a steam plant, on the organ bench.
Ida turned her head toward the congregation. What were those people really like after they hung up their Sunday clothes? Did they ever touch their skin? And Ida wondered who had fancy lace underwear hidden away at the back of their lingerie drawers. Louis had always wanted her to buy some “just for special occasions.” But she’d been faithful to the Lord, faithful to the promises she’d made within the holy walls of the temple. No frills for the faithful.
And bless our missionaries that the doors of the honest in heart might be opened to them. …
When she saw Louis’s face in the shadows last night, she thought about how he loved to slip her garments off her shoulder and kiss the tip of her left breast. She recalled the glow of his forbidden cigarette in the dark. Maybe she should have stopped nagging him about his tobacco.
Pretending her eyes were closed, Ida peeked at Brother Bassett and his wide-open eyes. He hadn’t closed his eyes during the prayers since his wife died. He just stared and stared, even during the sacrament. Such a lonely man, who seemed even lonelier today. Deeper hollows in his face. Ida then checked out the Hatch boy and the Hall girl, who, as usual, couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Ida craned her neck just slightly to see what it was they were touching, then caught sight of Milly Jensen in her red quilted Chinese jacket, glaring sit-down-or-die eyes at her climbing two-year-old who straddled the bench back, kicking the wood so everyone could hear.
Milly! How did she touch the back of her husband’s head at night? Did she stroke upwards, feeling the short, newly cut hairs? Did she [p.44]kiss the bristles? Watery shapes floated across Ida’s vision again as she thought of Milly lying in bed without her garments, caressing her husband’s neck and head, nibbling his ear.
After fifteen years of marriage, Louis stopped going to church with Ida, started to lose weight and smoke cigarettes again. In the beginning, he’d sworn off beer, coffee, and cigarettes, all for the love of lda. But his new leaf had aged, crinkled, and disintegrated.
“Why do you have to smoke, Louis?” Ida cried for two days straight when she found out. “It violates your body. Your body is sacred.” For a while, in deference to Ida, Louis smoked behind the Lava Hot Springs billboard on the road out of town. He moved into the backyard until he said he didn’t care what the neighbors said. Then he parked himself on the front porch in the evenings and smoked for everyone to see.
“We can’t go to the temple anymore if you keep this up, Louis.”
“I don’t want to go to that sanctimonious booby hatch, Ida.”
“Louis. This isn’t like you. The devil has gotten his hook in you. Let’s call the bishop.”
“We aren’t calling anybody, Ida. This is my home, and we’re going to run it my way for a change, starting with you taking off those undergarments.” He bought her a shopping bag full of pink and baby blue and lavender lacy underwear—her colors—but she’d hidden them in the basement, behind the bottled apricots. After he left her, she’d given them to Deseret Industries in a stapled, plain brown bag, double sealed with duct tape. She dropped them into the donor’s bin in the middle of the night.
And bless Brother Nelson that he will be protected in his time of illness. …
Ida wished the prayer weren’t so long. She pinched her eyes tight to help her focus on Brother Parson’s thoughtful words. Then she opened them just a hair to look at Morris, the music graduate who’d gone to the University of Utah and come back believing he knew more about church music than Ida. Still wet behind the ears. He might know about music theory, but he doesn’t know the spirit like I do. He detests “The Holy City” and tells me not to use the vibrato. But she remembered rubbing her breasts ever so slightly against the Kelvinator. How could she criticize Morris after what she’d done?
And bless us that we may find the means to repair our steeple, and for these blessings we ask, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
[p.45]Ida adjusted her slippery glasses with her right hand and pushed the diapason, dulciano, and 8’ flute stops with her left. She tried to relax her legs into her work—the sacrament hymn: “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.” But her fingers felt limp, incapable of the usual flourishes-scale passages, arpeggios, chromatics. Today, on her 1,039th Sunday, she could only think of that skeleton steeple, its shingles scattered over the roof and the lawn by God’s own lightning. Her nakedness was rising like yeast inside her clothes, ready to burst out any minute.
She looked at her friend Milly, hoping she was looking up at her, sending reassurance with her doll-like eyes. But Milly and her blushon cheeks seemed to be sinking in the middle of her five bouncing children.
Children, Ida thought. Raylene, she thought again. Raylene had little LuJean, but no one to help take care of her, just a dusty picture of Jody in his fatigues. Raylene, Ida sighed. She won’t come out to church anymore. Won’t pay any attention to herself either. Buys at least three of those chocolate-dipped cones at the Dairy Creme every night. My poor Raylene!
The congregation was singing the second verse of the sacrament hymn that Ida knew as well as she knew her name, when Ida heard the beating of drums in her mind-the snares, the two big bass drums of the Gardenville High School Band. She remembered the countywide Memorial Day parade five years ago, the floats with the pretty girls, sun-tanned and moon-ripened. Opalescent smiles. Mascaraed winks. Mechanical waves to all the world from the Peach Day Queen and her court. Louis gazed after the float until it turned the corner. Ida perspired in the sun, wiping her forehead and neck with the handkerchief Raylene gave her for Mother’s Day. She nudged Louis.
“Those pretty little things aren’t for you, Louis. Keep your eyes to the front!” Louis looked at her as he never had before, with a watery stare and wire-drawn lips.
“I’m going,” he said, his voice thinner than himself.
Ida’s favorite band marched by. “Oh Louis, the Pocatello High School Band. You can’t go yet.” The twirling batons, the sequins and brass buttons, the drum major with the tall, furry hat low on his brow. Ida clapped with unbridled enthusiasm.
“Louis, don’t you love it?”
[p.46]“Louis?” She turned. She scanned the crowd, balloons, and snocone eaters. No Louis. No more Louis at all!
When Ida played the last line of the last verse for the fourth time, the backs of the patriarchal brethren changed to fronts, and everybody in the congregation turned to stare at Ida Rossiter, looking at her intently for the first time in years. Bishop Jensen leaned over to his first counselor, and Ida heard some words floating up to her and the organ. “Is something wrong with Sister Rossiter?”
Ida had enough presence to end the hymn with a resounding chord, pretending she’d done nothing wrong, bluffing as only a veteran like Ida could bluff, but her familiar surroundings were feeling strange and unreal.
The priests blessed the sacrament bread, as usual, and the deacons were passing it to the congregation in the square metal trays, but everything seemed off center to Ida. The floral arrangement sitting on the walnut baby grand, arranged and delivered by Bill Parson’s Nursery every Sunday morning, seemed to be growing taller out of its wicker basket. The gladioluses’ trumpet faces seemed to be opening and their stamens curling over the edge of the piano’s top. Ida squinted at what looked like jungle-like vines. Struggling to meditate on the body of Christ, Ida nonetheless saw only herself in her mind’s eye-dressed in a scanty pink leotard, her hair and nails sprouting wantonly. She was electrifying in all her pinkness. “Me Jane,” she was shouting as she grabbed one of the vines.
The shock of her imagination brought Ida back to the present. The roots of her hair were tingling. She was blushing to her very bones and side-glancing at the congregation to see if anyone had any idea what was happening in her head. But her vision of herself would not be crushed, no matter what anyone else could see. It was like an insistent wind.
Now Ida was climbing the vine to the starspackled ceiling of the chapel. She scraped her fingernails across the rough surface and cleared a hole big enough to climb through. Squeezing through insulation, she picked her way through chunks of plaster and finally swayed on top of the church’s peaked roof, clinging to the steeple’s last timber. She leaned against the rough plank that had supported the steeple’s copper, shingles, and paint for twenty years. She felt the wetness of the roof with her bare feet.
[p.47]“You and me, steeple,” she said. “We’ve been through a lot together these past years—you up here, a beacon for the house of the Lord, me below, playing the organ.”
Ida jumped as thunder rumbled and lightning drilled the sky. She heard a voice next to her. “Ida?”
She didn’t respond at first.
She looked down at the hem of a fiery white robe.
“Tell me, Ida,” he said, “what’s going on with you?”
“Me? Well, I … my garments, I mean, cleanliness is next to godliness. You know that. I was only trying to get my garments clean, and you know I’ve been good the rest of the time. I’ve only missed three Sundays …”
“No man is good save God, Ida.”
She thought of taking a direct look, but remembered Moses and the burning bush, about God being too holy for human eyes. The light was brighter than any she’d seen, even on this iron-gray day with clouds and a misty rain blocking out every inch of sunlight.
“Have you given up, Ida?”
Ida tried to pull her leotard down over her bare legs and arms, but there wasn’t enough pink. She stood awkwardly, wondering if her nipples were showing through the flimsy material. Ordinarily, she would have shed tears of embarrassment, but Ida felt something else happening inside.
“I thought you’d be real proud of my twenty-year record, that is if you are who I think you are. Every Sunday when I thought about sleeping in, I said, ‘No, Ida, forget your aches and serve God.’ Now you’re saying I’ve given up. When Louis left me, when I saw him once in town with one of the Peach Day princesses, even then I kept going.” “There’s a realm the human mind can’t fathom.”
“Can you understand about Raylene?” Ida asked, jamming her fists into her waistline. “She was good as they come until Jody got blown to pieces in the army. And now she lives on Cokes and fries and too much ice cream, sits in the Dairy Creme parking lot every night, just waiting. She’s my baby. My baby.”
The last “baby” echoed through the streets of Gardenville, interspersed with rain drops, and fell to the grass. Ida turned and faced the blinding light, shielding her eyes with her hands but peeking through [p.48]the slits of her fingers. “Little LuJean, too. She needs something more than a mother who sits and stares through a Chevy windshield every night after work.”
“Depend not on thine own understanding, Sister Rossiter,” the robed being said quietly before flashing up and away and off across the sky.
“Why not?” she yelled after the disappearing glow. “Why?” she yelled even louder, clenching her fists that turned purple, then white at the knuckles. “Why, why, why?” She stamped her feet and jumped up and down without remembering she was standing on the peaked roof of the Gardenville Ward in a leotard. As her feet slipped out from under her, she grabbed the lone timber of the steeple, hugging it tightly to her breast as if it were her best friend. She took three deep breaths. She looked boldly to the left, to the right, then pulled back her shoulders and head. She turned to the steeple and patted it tenderly. We’ve survived,” she said. “Barely, but we’ve survived.”
When the deacon brought a tray of broken bread to Ida at the organ, he had to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. She turned red as she looked up into his innocent eyes, sure that the young boy could read the moving pictures in her head. But this was the sacrament, after all, an expression of her devotion and her recommitment to Christ. She must calm herself. Stop this nonsense. She reached out and took a piece of the broken bread from the tray. She put it behind her teeth and closed her mouth without chewing. She let the sacrament rest on her tongue until it turned to liquid—the body and the blood—then swallowed it as if it were much larger than it was.
But then Ida realized she was sitting at the organ. She never stayed at the organ for the sacrament. Never. Always and forever, she moved over to a soft chair in an unobvious place behind the organ. What was she still doing here?
The enormity of her rashness hit Ida like a fist in the side of her head. It was one thing to dance through her living room singing “Beer Barrel Polka” and brush against door frames with her bare skin and touch refrigerators with the tip of her breast. She loved the feel of her body, free of belts and zippers and buttons and nylons, the feel of nothing between her and the air. A bird. Light and unafraid. But it was another thing entirely to have been presumptuous, even uppity, [p.49]with a heavenly being, especially when she hadn’t yet reached the twenty-year mark.
And, just as bad, Ida hadn’t taken her seat for the sacrament. She’d stayed at the organ, sitting up in front of everyone like a sore thumb, forgetting her reverence for the holy. She was not in place. She was out of order, lost at sea. Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
When everyone’s eyes were closed for the prayer on the water, Ida decided to make a move. She slid to the edge of the organ bench and stretched out over the chasm between the organ and the chair that was always hers during the sacrament and the sermons. She didn’t want anyone to see her, but as she moved with her best stealth, she stretched a little farther than balance would allow. Her heel caught between two organ pedals, C and C#, to be exact, which everyone heard. Ida wobbled, tried to recoup, bumped her knee on the corner of the lower keyboard, totally lost her balance, and then plunged forward. Her head hit the wooden arm of the soft chair which should have been holding her safely on its cushion.
Ida’s eyes opened. She saw the organist’s bench above her and elongated bodies and faces peering down at her—the bishop, Morris Sant, and Brother Bassett.
“It looks like she’s coming to,” Milly said, kneeling over Ida, fluttering the air with a small fan.
“I knew something would happen,” said Brother Bassett. Ida stared at the blur of heads and shoulders and Milly’s red jacket. She clutched the handkerchief that had been tucked neatly in her suit pocket. It was soaked with perspiration.
“First the steeple and now you, Sister Rossiter.” Bishop Jensen played with the pearl tac in the middle of his paisley tie.
“Sweet Ida,” said Milly, bending over and stroking her cheek. Ida could smell the lotion on Milly’s smooth hand.
“I’m fine,” said Ida in a wispy voice. “But isn’t it time for a hymn,Milly …”
“You stay right here.” Milly looked up at the curious men above them. She pointed her finger at the podium. “You go put the meeting back together, Clarence. Morris, handle the music. I’ll stay with Ida.”
[p.50]The circle of men dispersed slowly, leaving the two women together, Milly petting Ida’s cheek.
“Milly,” Ida whispered. “Are my thighs showing?”
“Don’t talk now, Ida.
“But Milly, I’m naked. I didn’t mean to be.”
Milly dabbed Ida’s forehead with her handkerchief and pulled the pink linen skirt back down over her thigh and her knee. “Just close your eyes. Don’t worry your pretty head.”
“But Milly, my garments. The washer … the power.”
“Ida, it’s okay.”
Suddenly, Morris was leading the congregation in an a capella hymn. “Milly, they’re singing without me.” Ida tried to sit up.
“You stop worrying,” Milly said, holding her down.
Ida’s face regained some color. Her lips changed ftom a pale blue to a faint raspberry as she looked up at Milly’s thoughtful face.
“Ida, I’ve never told anyone, but,” she lowered her eyebrows flat above her eyes as she bent close in to Ida, “I used to take my garments off once in a while. I liked real underwear on rare occasions.” She whispered so softly into Ida’s ear that Ida could barely hear the words. “But when Clarence got put in as bishop, he said I’d better wear my garments all the time like I promised. Our salvation, he said. But one day when I was about as down as a woman can get, I dyed an old pair of garments purple to pull myself out of that deep funk. Five years and Clarence still hasn’t forgotten.”
“Oh, Milly!” Ida winced.
“That’s the truth of it.”
“Milly. I can’t believe you did that.”
But then Ida smiled weakly, thinking vaguely of the feel of her skin, the delirious moment when her cells sucked in the air all around her, when she wasn’t enclosed in white cloth, when she could sing and dance in the skin that held her bones, muscles, and bodily fluids together, out of control for a brief moment in time. And Milly understood what that was like. Ida touched the inside of her friend’s wrist and then the softness under her jaw bone. “Louis always hoped … ,” she said to Milly, wanting to share his part in this unexpected intimacy.
Milly bent close to Ida’s ear again. “I know, Ida. I understand. Shhh.”
[p.51]Ida recognized the song the congregation was singing. Page 240 in the hymnal. But she couldn’t make out the words for some reason. All that mattered right now was the music. The flow of the music. Lying in Milly’s arms near the foot of the organ bench, Ida hummed along when she could.