That was what the billboard said -- "Is she out of control?" -- and you thought you were going to drive off the road staring. It said it in big letters next to a picture framed in the middle. The face of a woman, a blonde, in motion, blurred, black and white. A hand cut across it, fuzzy as the rest, and for a second you thought she was being slapped. Then it occurred to you that maybe she was doing the slapping.
For the life of you, you couldn't tell which was true, though. But it didn't matter, since after staring at it the first time you just glanced at it the next time, and then only maybe. It also had a big phone number you could call, 24 hours a day.
"She sure the hell is out of control." You wondered how many people said that when they drove by. It had lots of lights shining up on it at night and looked a little spooky.
* * *
Leigh liked the First Christian Church on Woods Road behind the mall. You could go there almost anytime and find the doors unlocked, and usually there'd be some hot coffee ready in the kitchen, sometimes even a sugar doughnut or two in a paper box from The Donut Hole on Pecan Street.
She would drop a dime or a dime and a nickel (it was whatever you felt like) in the coffee can on the counter, sit at the baby blue formica table and enjoy the quiet for a while like people were meant to do. It was always silent, and nobody ever came around. One time when she went down to the church on her lunch hour like that, Leigh drank some coffee as usual, dropped the paper cup into the trash and went out into the Fellowship Hall, a long linoleum-floored corridor lined with black and white photographs of past preachers and lots of the deacons. They were all men, except that one woman. A gorgeous blonde. Her story was that she'd been on the board just one week and then quit when the men voted down her proposal to pay for a box of bibles to give to the poor black children on the other side of town. They put her picture up anyway, kind of had to since the other women in the church had made a fuss. It was here everyone gathered after the service to say hello, catch up a bit, the men with bibles tucked up under their arms, the women in their huge hats doing the same with their purses, everyone being friendly a few minutes and then hurrying off to their big Sunday lunches. From there she usually went straight to the cold-drinks box to get her herself a Tab for the road, even though she knew full well it was high time she stopped it.
But that day, for some reason, and this had never happened like that on these visits, something drew her over to the velvet-padded doors to the sanctuary. Something was making her want to look in. She had no idea was it was, though, and found herself trying it before she even realized what she was doing. The first thing she saw in the little diamond-shaped windows was herself. Automatically, she checked her hair, fluffed it here and there with her fingers, and tried to see how her mascara was doing. You had to look right. After all, this was the Lord's House.
Then she huffed her breath into her hands, sniffed and thought how good a job she did on not ever having bad breath. That was important, not only down at the mall where you waited on people up close all day, people you sometimes knew personally, but everywhere in this life.
Appearance is everything, her daddy'd said and she still remembered it even though it was kind of corny. Who knows, maybe that was why they'd been keeping her on down there even though half the mall had shut down already on account of the slowdown. All she knew was that she wasn't going to do like all those people who just give up on themselves, let themselves go to hell. She could think of a few examples. Then she found herself trying to remember what she'd just been thinking before thinking all that. But there was no filling the blank. It was just there, and now gone.
So she told herself she sure had a lot to be thankful for and that maybe that was probably why she'd gotten in to dropping by the church like that. Sort of without really knowing why, or having any big reason. It was all black inside the sanctuary. As she looked through the little window, she reached over to the panel of light switches.
The first one lighted the choir area up front at the right.
The next one got the altar and cross. She paused. It was the Cross of Jesus. You couldn't just rush. The third one got the pulpit up on the left. But she felt like she'd done something wrong and quickly turned a couple of them back off, leaving only the pulpit.
Then she thought better of that, too, and redid it so only the choir was lighted. Nobody could say anything about lighting up the choir area, could they?
She figured the rest of the switches were for the pews and left them alone before she got in trouble, before someone burst out from the other end of the sanctuary and started yelling, "Who is that down there turning on all the lights? Don't you know this is a church? Who is that? Come forward!" It was silly to be afraid, though. There was no one. There was never anyone around during the week, except Wednesday night. Leigh was religious, but not full-time. She'd go to the Sunday service when she got the urge, but never to any of the rest of that stuff, no way. She had a life to live, Diana to raise.
* * *
The padding on the door gave in deep when she pushed on it, like fat or something. There was no creak, no sign to give her away, but she seized the handle on the inside to keep it from flying back shut and making noise.
It was as hot as the attic in summer and smelled like baby talcum.
She sat down on the back row, stretched her arms out and clasped the top of the next pew, took a long look at the shiny maple choir stalls and tried not to think.
She'd read that to find peace first you had to make yourself stop thinking. Stop thinking about money, about the car, the stuff at the cleaner's, the idiots at the Green Stamps store, the bottle in the freezer, how she'd never been in a hotter church in her whole life.
Leigh tried, bowed her head onto her sweaty arms and tried. But she kept thinking and thinking. And it would come back, the face of the woman on the billboard all out of focus. No eyes, just a wash of gray, hardly even a face, really, just a form. Anybody's form.
The hand was sharpest, seemed to reach out of the picture. "I'm out of control," it was saying. "I'm out of control and when I'm out of control I slap people. I slap my loved ones. I go crazy. I cannot help myself. I cannot help myself, but if you call the number that is underneath my picture, then they will send someone over, one of the specialists waiting right now for your call. You can help me, you can. Just call and they will come and stop me from doing what I am doing. I have a drug problem, I have an alcohol problem, I have any number of problems. I need your help. I need your help now. Please call, please call before I get so far out of control that I -- " She stomped her foot. There was no way somebody could make the mind stop thinking, Leigh thought. You just couldn't do it, no way. You kept on thinking no matter what you did, even in your sleep.
A little harder and she would have sprained her ankle with high heels on like that. "Mama, how'd you hurt your foot?"
"Twisted the damn thing when I stomped my foot getting mad down at the church about how you can't stop yourself from thinking, that's how."
Just a little harder and ... Leigh went ahead then and started to do what she should have been doing all along, praying. The heart was mostly blank, though, and there were no great urgencies to speak of, so she just went through the Lord's Prayer. It was too hot for anything else. And they'd be wondering at the Green Stamps store where she was. It was inventory week. In no time, she felt like a new person. Every time she went down to the church she came out feeling better, but this time it was even stronger. And it was so strong she just knew it would last. Even a good Easter Sunday service and all the show had never left her feeling so close whatever it was everybody was searching for. Was it God? Or what's-his-name, Buddha? Did it matter what the name was? Leigh completely forgot about getting a Tab out of the box like she liked to do.
* * *
The good feeling, the inspiration, lasted the whole day. Even the afternoon valium wasn't needed. Best of all, she stayed off the cigarettes, despite the horrible boredom.
The store had one customer all afternoon, a gal who'd brought in a grocery sack full of Green Stamps, enough almost to get a damn car, and spent a good two hours looking everything over and making up her mind what she wanted, which was everything.
Why didn't these people read the catalog at home and come in with some idea what they wanted to get? Leigh tried hard not to be prejudiced, but there were times when she just didn't feel like it. Blacks were blacks, Mexicans Mexicans. She knew it was wrong, though. But not one cigarette until closing time. Good for you, girl, one of the no-count ladies she worked with said as they were leaving, good for you, honey. The glow started to fade when White's was out of Tab. She had to drive all the way over to Piggly Wiggly. She drove all the way over there thinking and smoking, the radio in the avocado Thunderbird tuned to KKOW, all the air-conditioning vents set to refrigerate her face and neck.
Twenty to 25 is a good speed, she always told Diana. Just let the jerks go around you if they don't like it. Little did they know she had over 400 cubic inches under the hood, in case they had any ideas. And any self-respecting lady carried a Derringer in the glove under the road maps and stuff. It was getting dark and the pink and yellow Piggly Wiggly sign was already on at 6:30. It was Friday so there was a crowd.
Leigh parked as near as she could to the door and looked out over the hood at the stacked wooden cases -- Coke, RC, Dr Pepper, Big Red, Diet This, Diet That. But no Tab, at least not in sight.
She didn't want to go in, never liked to, always made Diana do it. She got in moods like that, not wanting to see people, not wanting to get or be involved in anything to do with people. A daddy was putting his boy on the yellow coin pony next to the purple helicopter. They were laughing and waving their cherry suckers at each other. Leigh felt like she was in a fish bowl in a refrigerator.
The radio gurgled: "Have you checked out Gibson's lately? I want to tell you, neighbor, they got some might fine deals down there right now. Garden hose, 50 feet, only 6.99. How about a step-ladder for those jars on the top you just can't ever seem to reach? Now listen up, only 15.99. Now if that ain't a bargain, neighbor, then I don't know what it is!" Something had happened, the little boy was crying now and his daddy was carrying him off and shaking his head. Leigh threw her into reverse and squealed out of there. It wasn't that far. She went out south from town past the Johnson & Johnson plant, then took the farm-to-market west. The cops were busy with the rush in town and wouldn't be out there, no way. So Leigh took her on up, like she liked.
The nice boy at the Exxon had told her it was good to let her rip once in a while, blow all the junk out of the engine. Leigh didn't care so much about that, really. What she liked was being pushed back in the seat, being pinned there as everything flashed by, posts and houses and fields all blurred, a clear shot all the way up to Lake Loma. Once in while she'd imagine herself rocketing herself up that road at about 130 and flying that baby lock stock and barrel straight out into the water. She didn't have any special reason for thinking such a thing. She just did once in a while. No big deal. Tonight the road was empty. Some of the leftover church feeling came back when the man on the air said, "The Lord is only a phone call away. Dial one, 800, My Jesus. That's one, 800, My Jesus. Your call will be entirely free." Leigh began to laugh. "Hello, Lord? Is that you?" And she laughed some more. "Giddy-up."
The needle was over to 115. The crush on her body made her think of the good times with Larry. "The Lord wants to have a personal conversation with you, with you personally ..." Larry'd been a long time ago, and now it was the new Ice Age. She turned the radio off.
Leigh'd read that some of the astronauts had felt God in the silence of space, and one of them had even said that he thought that the silence was God.
There was the first stretch of the lake. She eased off the pedal, but her heart shot on ahead out of sight.
* * *
Leigh did not get on to her child like some people do. Besides, Diana was a little slow, not retarded or anything like that, just a little dopey. So there seemed no call to be abusing or berating her. She was what she was.
She was a 17-year-old mother, was what. Little boy, almost two already if you could believe it. Dead sure who the father is, so to Leigh it was the Lord's Work that the son of a bitch flipped out, packed his bags and high-tailed it West someplace, thank God. Diana got upset, naturally, but now she was over it. Leigh had to hand her that.
There was enough dope smoke coming from the living room to kill a cow. Leigh threw her coat down on a chair, hooked the keys on the edge of the bulletin board, then thought better and put them away in her purse. She listened for a minute from the hall so see if there were a bunch over her friends over. The TV was going, that was all. "Honey, you're going to have to run down and get me some Tab. I just can't handle all that tonight after this week. If you can walk, that is." "Mama shh!" It was the strangest sight Leigh thought she'd ever seen. Even the old man having a heart attack at the airport that time and tumbling out of his wheel chair didn't seem like anything next to this.
Diana was down on her knees in front of the color TV with that baby in the arms, right up close. There was a big mess of Coca-Cola bottles, chips and doodads on the coffee table, and you could tell she hadn't changed that child in hours.
The drapes were shut. Leigh turned on the overhead. "Mama the light! We can't see!" "What the hell are you doing? You're going to hurt Nicky's eyes like that. Diana!" "Shh mama." "Shh nothing. What are you doing?" "They going to fix Nicky's earache, mama. We're on hold a little bit right now while everybody who's got an earache or a child with an earache gets to the TV set." "I don't believe this." "Mama roll a joint, have a beer, do something. Just leave us alone. This is important." "I will not. Leigh went over and yanked the cord on the drapes. They came halfway open, got stuck.
The dachshund started scratching to get in and whining like she hated.
"Get off that glass!"
The dog backed up a few of its little fat steps, stood there.
But Leigh was still mad and for good measure cracked the sliding door and told it, "I catch you scratching my glass with those ugly toenails of yours I'll make hotdogs out of you!" "Mama! Leave Sam alone. Jesus." "Don't be saying Jesus like that in this house." "Have a beer, mama, you're all uptight. Then come watch. It's going to be great I'm telling you. Nicky be still!" The baby looked like it wanted to get the hell out of its mama's arms. "Easy on that baby, young lady."
Couldn't even go to work anymore and come home without finding the whole world turned upside down. The baby'd been the excuse not to go on with school that semester, and Leigh knew damn well that meant she wouldn't ever go back. Hell, she couldn't even get the girl to go to the store!
The poor thing was paranoid of people, of people looking at her, looking at her in her 16-year-old body and pushing along that little two-year-old bastard who kind of looked a little Negro didn't he, didn't he. Mama why can't we move, why can't we sell the house and go live in some other town mama. You hate it here, too, I know you do. Leigh got the vodka out of the freezer. The level was down, way down. "You been in this bottle, Diana Louise?" "Hurry up! They're about to start." Leigh poured herself a shot, thick as corn syrup, carried it and a handful of Cheez-Its to the patio door.
The stockade fence just stood there at the end of the bare yard, sturdy as ever, keeping the world out. Sam was doing his rounds, trotting along his trails.
The barbecue pit had rusted through and dropped its load of ashes and half-burned briquettes on the corner of the porch.
It felt like snow, somehow, but you could see the stars up there. The TV was giving off an orange glow, like a fireplace. "Now I would like you to go ahead and place your hand, like this the flat of your hand, just as I am doing here on the other side, just place your palm to the screen. If you are with a child, then take that child's hand, too, and press it to the screen. Do not be afraid, just take your sick child's hand and gently press it like this to the television set. And if you know anyone else in your home or workplace or wherever they might be I want you to ask them to come and kneel with you here and press their hands too against the screen. If you know anyone at all who is in need, who has a pain, who has kidney problems, or heart problems, or respiratory problems, or even, yes, problems of the mind, all these problems can be healed, they can, through the Lord Our God Jesus Christ. Just bring that ailing person with you to the television set and place their hands upon the screen with us here. I know you are there, I know you are in need, do not be afraid, we are with the Lord, yes the Lord Our God and Savior." "Mama?" came the voice.
It was the lost little girl's voice. Leigh chewed her Cheez-Its, ignored her.
After a little while she opened the sliding door again and said to Sam, "Go get in your house before you get cold. Go on." The dog obeyed and she flipped off the porch light.
There was something spooky about how that baby was staying so quiet there squished up to the set like that, something sick. Leigh thought it all was like a bad car wreck, you know, those wrecks you know are bad way before you get up next to them. Where people say things like "Nobody could've liked through that," and drive by real slow because they want to see a body before it gets put in the ambulance. It was always true that there is no way you can keep yourself from wanting to look. Wanting to see the dead middle-aged blonde being pulled out of that thing.
"You going to run get me some Tab or not? Diana Louise, I'm talking to you!" "Shh mama. Drink your drink." "Feeling the healing flowing in through your hands, dear friends, feel the love of the Lord flowing through this miraculous medium, yes, healing, healing, healing through the love of the Lord! And now I need to speak with you personally about a very important matter regarding -- " The girl changed stations, switched the baby to the other arm. "Wonder what the movie is. Mama did you get a paper?" Leigh shook her head, went for a refill. "Why'd you turn it off? It was just getting good." "He was fixing to ask for money. I always turn it off when they do the money stuff. Real sharks." "Go change that baby." "I am, I am. Jesus." "Don't you Jesus me." A few minutes ago she was carrying a doll in the same position she was holding that live one right then. Leigh'd got it for her at Gibson's on sale right in the middle of the summer, one that cried and peed like all little girls want them to do.
"I hate your bad moods mama. I am just so sick of them." "That TV cure Nicky's earache?" "I don't know. We just did it. It was only a minute ago mama. How could I know?" "Go change that baby." "Well then stop talking to me mama so I can. Oh look what's been on!" It was some horror movie she'd been waiting on since the beginning of creation to see. Down she dropped again onto that couch with that baby and whole room stinking and nobody doing the errands or the chores or cooking anything or cleaning anything up.
Down she went in front of that TV. Back Leigh went to the freezer. It was a while yet before the scary part.