238. At The Front Door

“Good day.
I’m Riah McKenna.”
They both paused.
He looked her over calmly.
“Why, of course.
I know your name.
We haven’t had occasion yet
To speak, but I believe you came
To our bazaar last Christmas?
I recognize your face.
You have a son–James?
One fine-looking boy.
And you’re–Methodist?
Your pastor, I know well.”
“Yes, sir.
Thank you, Reverend Croslin.”
“Call me Preacher, dear.
My people do.
Puts them at ease, it seems.
Won’t you come in?”

She stepped across the threshhold.
She had never spoken yet
To any man of God, man of the cloth,
At least, not alone–
Maybe saying Happy Easter,
And in her church.
Not in this place.
He led her to his study:
Thick brown drapes.
He seated her,
Then sat behind his desk,
Piled high with volumes–
Riah stared.
“Writing Sunday’s sermon.
The laymen tend to think
It’s my invention, but it
All must be backed up–
My ‘homework,’ here.”
Riah nodded.
“Well! Enough of preachers’ woes.
How can I help?
A cross to bear?”

His manner seemed
Modest, seemed all right. She’d
Thought he’d know the purpose
Of her call.
Riah clutched her purse.
Minding her manners:
“I’m obliged to you, sir,
For your time.”
“Don’t mention it.
I’m sure you’ve ample cause.
You speak right up.”

Her head swam as he
Smiled across the desk.
She squeezed her voice up, out:
This first seemed hardest.
“Sir–Preacher, I’m a friend
Of Louise Kemp.”
The man’s face changed.
She waited for some comment,
But none came.
He’s watching, she thought,
There’s that awful watching
That I hate.
“I heard….I know
She did something bad.”
Riah wished to emphasize this,
But there were no words–
“Real bad.
And then I heard–
I heard you’re going to
Church her. This
Sunday’s, what I heard.”
She halted there. His
Eyes could not be read.
“That’s business of the church,
Mrs. McKenna.
The church will vote, this Sunday,
You’re correct.”

It was true!
And she had not believed it,
Till this minute.
No one had been churched
She could recall.
I should leave, she thought:
I’ve told him nothing,
Just a question.
This preacher here, he
Thinks I’m decent, still.
Well….I’m a decent
Person, same as you!
Bible-fearing, and right-thinking–
He’s looking at me strange.
“Sir, I wonder–
Could you see your way clear
Not to do it.”

He mused on her
While taking in her voice.
He waited.
Then he pulled his glasses off.
Large purple veins, she noticed,
Laced his hands.
“Beg pardon, ma’am?”
He saw her different now.
She dropped her gaze,
And started up again:
“She needs a talking-to. And
She needs punishment, I know.
She did wrong.
Maybe you could have her–
Clean the church.”
His mouth opened,
But no sound.
“To make it, though, where
They won’t talk to her–
Why, as it is,
They hardly chat! And….
She’ll lose her business.
Not that that’s much,
But she doesn’t have
A lot of friends.
Lives out yonder, it’s
A lean-to, all it is–”
She could not go on.
“What will she do?”–
Riah finished lamely.

The preacher joined hands.
He kept his eyes on her,
It seemed an hour.
She heard a clock chime
In the other room.
A fly was bumping, tickling,
At her leg.
She could not speak;
She would not rise to leave.
At last he picked a speck
Off of his glasses,
And replaced them.
His tone, not cold, was firm.
“Mrs. McKenna.
Do you know your Bible?”
Riah’s hands were white.
She shook her head.
She whispered: “No.”

He leaned forward.
“Please stop me if I shock you.
My dear,
Fornication is a sin.
Adultery is a sin.
Breaking marriage vows,
And tempting someone else
To break his, too,
That’s twice a sin, twice
Deadly. Now.
Do you believe that God
Wants sinners punished?
Riah answered: “Yes.”

He moved his brows as if
He were perplexed.
“So–punishment should not be
Strict, you think?
Mrs.–may I call you Riah?”
“Yes. Please do.”
“Tell me, Riah, have you ever
Spanked your son?”
She gripped her hands, and twisted.
“Yes, I have.”
“If he runs in the road,
You’d do it then?”
“That hurts him, does it now?”
“Yes. It does.”
“But you believe pain is worth it,
In the end?”
He smiled, as if she’d
Answered her own question.
“What about eternal life then
And its worth?
She’ll be churched, yes–
For the greater good.
Both hers, and ours.
Folks must be kept away
From those who sin.
Sin leads to sin–
You believe that?”
“Yes. I do.”
This punishment will help her
Mend her ways.”

“You’ll never take it
Back, though!” Riah broke in.
“Things will never be
The same.”
“Riah! Dear, the woman is
Diseased! She
Must be quarantined!
Mind, and body–
Wild, out of control!
Shall I quote Scripture
On the unclean woman, on the–
Riah flinched.
“Need I do it?
God is very clear.”

At this she frowned.
“He is?”
The preacher gaped,
Amazed. “Most absolutely.
Right and wrong, as
Plain as black and white.”
“But–what about the story
Of the stones? Those people
Chunking?” She had
Thought of this all night.
He tilted his head oddly.
“Jesus and–the whore,”
Surprised, she spoke the word.

He pushed himself up, standing.
“In a case of good and evil,
Men must judge!
God acts through us.
Do you challenge Him?
The gentleman, a pillar
Of his church, has gone to them
And made a generous amends.
She has not. God wills this–
Do you challenge Him?”
Riah said, “No.”
She admitted it–
He made sense, no escape. But…
Shuddering, she asked:
“You prayed on this?”
His eyes froze her blood.
“Madam, you forget yourself.
I surely did.
I did this day.”
Grim with thought,
She tried a final question:
“And He told you–church her?”
Seconds passed.
“I heard it plain.”

Riah stood to go.
He’s right, he’s right.
She turned away:
“I’m sorry.”

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