It is Sunday, and the Earth seems to know that. Sweltering heat pushes budding blossoms into a timid bloom, deadened moss hangs from fickle tree branches, and a sapped southern wind stirs the scent of stagnant pine and honey suckles throughout the countryside.
Alabama has never been a stranger to harboring such southern beauty. Wild and rustic artistry, untamed and unkempt is she.
“Tess! Get up outta ’dat bed fo’ you be late fuh’ chu’ch! Get on up nah!”
The voice of Tess’ grandmother echoed throughout the small, wooden house.
Tess had never been late for church, except for that once when she had burned her dress with the iron. Even then, she rushed to change her clothes, making it there just ten minutes later than usual.
She stretched her tired arms out and rested them behind her sleepy head. Opening her chestnut colored eyes, she focused them on the clock. She had a bit of extra time left to leisurely laze around, and so she did.
Tess rose up from the bed ever so slowly. Taking one portly breath, she stretched her hands over her head and yawned considerably with momentary satisfaction.
Then, she stood to her disequilibrated feet and staggered to the wash room to ready herself.
Tess washed her face in the most peculiar way. She’d take a bar of soap, bring it to a lather, then smear the suds all about her acorn shaped face. After it had sat for a while, she would take a dampened wash cloth and wipe the sudsy paint off. Perhaps this is why her skin was such a radiant, golden brown…
After tending to her face, she washed up and pulled her Sunday dress over her slender body, which proved that she was all of twenty years old.
Gently, she doused her lean neck with perfume; and legs bare, she slid her feet into a pair of low heels. Tess was ready for church.
“I’m ready gram’ma…”
Tess spoke with a properly-sweetened, southern swing. Her dialect slightly differed from that of her family, and no one could understand how her vocabulary came to be so dissimilar.
Tess’ grandmother concluded that much of it had come from her mother, even though Tess had been raised by her grandmother for most of her memorable years and had spent little time with her mother at all.
“Alrite baby. Go ‘head in ‘de kit’chin and git ‘chu sumthin’ tuh eat fo’ you leave… hea?”
“Yes ma’am,” Tess complied.
After eating her fill, which wasn’t much, she took up her Bible, held it dearly to her chest, and stepped outside.
Though she had a small frame, the floor boards of the porch squeaked subtly as she shifted the weight of her delicate body around.
Noticing her elder brother walking into the yard, Tess stepped out onto the edge of the porch to greet him.
He was a tall and fairly lean man with no more than twenty-three years of life within him; he towered over his sister significantly. And when he spoke, his voice commanded authority while his words overflowed with wisdom.
“Hey sis, you betta’ git tuh’ church fo’ gram’ma get on yo’ case,” he said grinning.
“I’m getting to it,” she said. “’Sides, gram’ma ain’t gonna git me, cause I’m outside and she’s in d’ere busy with other thangs.”
“Betcha’ won’t stick around to back that up.”
“Sho won’t,” she said in a huff, then hurried on out of the gate. “See ya later, Jessie!”
Her brother smiled humorously and headed up the stairs to visit his grandmother.
The way to church was not that far, but if one chose to walk, it seemed to take forever.
Tess sidled along the road watching people hastily drive by in buggies. In order to avoid them and to keep the unsettled dust from collecting in her thick, raven-black shock, she walked in the grass along the side of the road. Not too many cars were around those parts, so a buggy raging down the road on a hot Sunday morning was not an unusual thing to see.
When Tess reached the church, she could see that everyone stood aimlessly about the churchyard, waiting for the eleven o’clock service to begin. She stood isolated, despite her inner conscience screaming that she was lonely…She wanted to talk to someone… anyone.
She remembered a teaching fromt her grandmother: “Chu’ch folks is ‘de worse thangs I eva’ did see. They wait fuh ya tuh tell ‘em something’ puh’sonal, den dey use it against yuh’.”
The church bell rang and the babbling masses poured inside of the tiny wooden chapel. Tess sat at the front of the church in the third pew.
Not many people spoke to her, but some sat behind her and wondered what she could be thinking. Her quietness spoke a great deal for itself.
In the past, her mother and father’s lives had been greatly publicized. The people in the little town loved to talk about them every chance that they could. Tess and her brother were labeled as poor and unfortunate children of gossip. This is partially why Tess never spoke to many people outside of her family.
The service was still in its youth when the church doors swung open. The choir praised the Lord with a song of devotion as a man walked into the church building. Thoughtfully, he strolled up the aisle looking for a place to sit. After spotting Tess, he chose to sit beside her.
Tess had not noticed the man’s arrival but looked up in time to notice the sickly way that fellow church members stared into her direction. Slightly, she looked over one shoulder and saw that a white man had chosen to rest his young bones beside her.
Tess was always one to watch people from a distance, especially if those people weren‘t her color. So when he sat down, her body stiffened. The church grew as silent as a grave yard, then burst into a brief uproar of noisy chatter.
“Fine mornin’,” the man whispered to Tess.
Feeling out of place and terribly confused at his politeness, she responded awkwardly, “Why yes… Yes, it ‘tis.”
Though everyone stood to sing of the Lord’s Amazing Grace, all eyes were fixed on Tess and the new stranger.
The end of the service had come, the benediction was given, and everyone slowly, but surely, proceeded outside. Tess hurried to pick up her Bible.
“Nice meeting you. Well… sorta,” the strange man tittered. Tess smiled and placed her Bible securely against her chest and exited the church as quickly as she could.
For Tess, the walk back home was always the longest. Her sluggish cadence ensured that it would be. Two buggies had already passed by and she could hear another coming up the road behind her.
But, realizing that it was a car, Tess docilely eased into the grass alongside the road to give it more room to pass.
The closer the car came, the slower it appeared to move; soon, it was positioned beside her and was rhythmically consistent with each of her steps.
Tess soon came to a standstill, and the car that so avidly mocked her speed did the same. The driver’s door flung open, and who but the strange man from the church rose from the car.
“You need a ride?”
Tess stared back at the man as if to figure out a puzzle of some sort.
“Um… No, suh… I ‘spose I ‘kin make it on my own,” she said, gradually continuing her modest waltz.
“Now wait a dang minit.” The man hurried around the front of his car to stop Tess. “Why’d you go an’ call me sum’in’ like that?”
“I’m sorry… but I can’t rightly say I know whatchu’ talkin’ about…” Tess said nervously, tightly clinging to her Bible. “Just what’d I call you…?”
“SIR!” The strange man loudly retorted, jolting the young girl’s already rattled nerves. “I’m barely old as you! I ain’t but twenty-two! Then you go an’ call me a thang’ like that…”
“Well, I di’nt mean nothin’ bad by it…’twas outta’ respeck… seein‘ that I don‘t know yo‘r name an‘ all…”
“Well, that was mighty disrespeck-ful if you askin’ me! Made me feel like some kinda old man!”
Tess had no words to spare in this enigmatic quarrel, so she sort of watched him rant about not being old.
“Well mista’…” she said, avoiding pointless controversy, “I never said you looked old… cause ya don’t… but I hafta’ be getting home now…”
“O… I din’t mean to make ya late for anythin‘… Lemme’ drop you off there.”
“I kin fair…” she said.
“It’s the least you kin do for callin’ me old,” the young man teased, opening the door and cuing Tess to get inside.
“I guess there ain’t no gettin’ ‘round it…” she said, reluctantly putting in one foot and then the other.
The ride was an awkward one, even though the young man spoke as if he was an old friend of hers. She sat quietly and listened to him with her Bible seated squarely in her lap and her hands clasped together atop it.
Normally, it would have taken Tess nearly fifteen minutes to get home; the ride, though, had only taken five. As the car pulled into the lowly drive way, the prying eyes of nearby neighbors sparked a hint of apprehension in Tess’ spirit. She opened the door.
“Thanks for the ride,” she politely articulated.
“Welcome… And yo’r name is…?”
“Tess… Contessa Rosette.”
“And, I’m Jeremy Pickett.”
Tess shut the door behind her and never once turned to watch the car pull out. She could feel the stares of onlookers burning into the flesh of her back. And in the sultry mellow breeze, she could hear faint conversation in which her name was mentioned.
As she intrepidly entered her grandmother’s yard, she knew that Jeremy Pickett had given the town something new to talk about.