Toe Stepping

Sanderia Faye


I wasn't going to a funeral, but I might as well have been. I changed dresses at least twelve, thirteen times before deciding on a pleated black dress with tiny buttons down the front from my neck to below my knee. Tiny pearl buttons had always been challenging for me to fasten, and now my fingers trembled worse than they did when I used to hold my hands out for daddy to hit them with a ruler. I would stand there, fingers shaking as the ruler came down across the back of each hand five times. One time he whipped me because I argued with Mr. Phillips, my seventh grade teacher. The answer Mr. Phillips wrote on the board to the math problem was incorrect. Daddy said, as he always did, that a child should be "seen and not heard." It wasn't my place to tell him whether it was right or wrong. I learned obedience long before seventh grade. That day I just forgot my place. When the deacons came over for a visit, I politely excused myself from the room, and so did mama. We didn't talk back to daddy. He knew what was best for our family. But today, for the first time, I planned to stand up for myself, and hopefully the change in me would have an effect on my husband and my son.

I usually started with the buttons at the bottom of the dress and worked my way up. Today, I fastened them down to the waist and had flat worn myself out. Figured I should give it a rest and hang these other dresses back in the closet. If Pastor came in and saw this mess I made, he'd preach a sermon and threaten to have me committed, which is probably what he wanted to do anyway. Funny how a person and his name can change. When we were in high school, his name was Richard Jones. During the last semester of our senior year, I rarely heard his name called without hearing mine; Richard and Vivian, prom king and queen, most handsome and most beautiful, most everything good. Now, everybody in Dallas called him Pastor. Would they call him OCD, if they could see this closet? He required me to color coordinate and hang every piece of clothing on wood hangers. Three-fourths of the clothes in the closet belonged to him. On the back wall was a floor-to-ceiling shelf with shoes arranged by color and date of purchase. Pastor needed to see all of his clothes so that he could select what he needed to wear after the spirit hit him. Blue, brown, and black suits with some man's name attached to the collar of every one of them, Ford, Armani, Lauren, and others as long as they were all in the same price range. White long-sleeved shirts lined the bottom row. Jesus didn't look favorably on men who wore short-sleeved shirts to church. Pastor wore a shirt twice before he donated it to our church's free store. His sweat left a yellow stain under the armpits, and the cleaners couldn't get it out.

It wasn't that I didn't own more clothes. They were in a closet in a bedroom down the hall. My dresses and pumps in this closet were the same color as his. On Sundays, after he decided on his suit for church, I selected the same color dress to wear, and then I went into the other closet and chose a hat with a little bit of color. A preacher's wife's dresses and skirts had to be at least three inches below the knee, only pearls, no other jewelry except a plain watch, and pumps no higher than two inches. I could wear a touch of color on a basic black or blue dress during the week, but never, ever any color on Sunday.

I placed the dresses on the hangers and hung them in their appropriate place as I hummed "Stand" by Donnie McClurkin. Then I slid the palm of my hand across the hangers to make sure they were aligned. I pinned my hair in a bun with bobby pins. My skin was cold black, but the color was gone from my face, so I pinched my cheeks, and when that didn't bring the color back, I gently slapped each side of my face. I worked as a hand model to put myself through nursing school. Several designers asked me to walk the runway, but I was too embarrassed. People glaring at my body seemed sinful. I checked myself in the floor length mirror and still enjoyed the way my figure looked. But the top half of the dress was off by one hole.

The thermostat read sixty-eight degrees. The underarms of my dress were soaking wet. I felt the sweat gather in my bra and roll down my stomach. It was August, a few days before our tenth anniversary. To steady my hands I made the bed. I pulled up the heavy brown comforter from its perfect fold at the foot of the bed, then organized the pillows from the largest to the smallest, the same as they were arranged on the showroom floor. From habit, I sliced a dented line down the middle of the bed with the side of my hand. When my son, Marcus, was little and saw me do it, he called it a karate chop and wanted to help me, but I wouldn't let him. Dividing that bed into perfect halves was my way of silently rebelling.

My hands steadied, I was able to unbutton and re-button the top half of my dress. I dabbed at the sweat with a white hand towel, before retrieving my pearls from the jewelry box, along with matching earrings and my Timex watch. From the other bedroom, I retrieved a hat with a red band. Hidden in the back of the closet were the red dress and black and red shoes that matched the hat. In the mirror, the buttons were still off by one. I never had this much trouble with this dress.

I unbuttoned and refastened the buttons, missing the hole again. Tears came to my eyes, and doubt followed close behind. I fought with both of them. This was the day. I fell to my knees by the side of the bed and cried out to God to give me strength. Why was I asking Him? He didn't agree with what I was about to do. I didn't even agree with it, but it had to be done.

I pounded the bed with my fist, then got up off my knees and tried the buttons again. My fingers were just as unsteady, and I was tired of fooling with it. I grabbed the sides of the dress, snatched it from top to bottom, and watched the buttons scramble across the beige carpet. Now what? I kicked several of them with my black pumps and stomped a few with my heel. What was I going to wear? I was running late, which was not allowed for a preacher's wife. "After you done all you can you just stand," played over and over in my mind.

As I hummed it, I yanked the covers off the bed, then pulled the dresses I'd tried on earlier off their hangers and threw them on top of the sheet. Which one of the brown, blue, or black dresses? None of them seemed right. "After you gone through the pain." I held my head up as I walked down to the other closet and picked out the three-inches-above the knee red dress, black and red heels, diamond earrings, and my Piaget watch, got dressed in less then five minutes, and left the room.

As I ran down the stairs, I brushed against our wedding picture, and when I stopped to straighten it, I saw my piercing eyes starring back, questioning me. "Where you going? What you going to do?" Richard wore a black suit in the picture. Of course, it was a much cheaper suit than the ones he wears now. Had he always been the way he was now or had something happened to change him during those years we were apart? I wasn't the same girl he knew in high school. I'd hardened. We were high school sweethearts, but we lost touch after I went off to college. "Far away from home," daddy said when people asked him where I attended college. He designed it so nobody would know. He was determined to keep us apart. A strict Southern Baptist girl and a holiness preacher from the wrong side of town could not mix. Richard was called to the ministry when he was nine-years-old. He knew God called him because he didn't stutter when he preached. Regardless, daddy disagreed with them playing secular music at their church. He told anybody who listened that he never heard of drums and guitars at a place of worship and that the whole lot of them was bound for Hell, not a place he and his family would be visiting.

When I got to college, I acted like the stereotypical girl who had been reared by strict religious parents. I fell in love with the first boy who flirted with me. I sinned and ended up pregnant my sophomore year. Daddy disowned me. He was the head of the deacon board at our church. He couldn't force the boy to marry me. He tried. It was a disgrace before God and man for his daughter to have a child out of wedlock. Didn't I know I was carrying a bastard child? He even tried to get me to marry one of the young deacons' at the church. When that failed, he invited Richard to the house and called me on the pay phone at the dorm to talk to him. I hung up as soon as I heard Richard's voice. I was too ashamed.

From that day forward, I kept my head down and took whatever jobs I could until I had Marcus and finished nursing school. With a nursing job, I was able to take care of him, and I spoiled him rotten to make up for the lack of a father who'd graduated before he was born and never looked back and a grandfather who disowned him. Marcus was very light-complexioned like his father, not a bit of my color in him. I checked his ears to see if the edges around them were darker than his face, and they weren't, and neither was the skin around his cuticles. He was light, and he remained that way. His hair was as straight as white boys'. I asked the nurses if they were sure he was my baby. They reminded me that he was the only baby in the nursery. There was no mistake. Marcus was my son. Later, I noticed that from the tip of his nose up to his hairline, he looked exactly like me, but it didn't keep people from starring and wondering if I was his nanny.

The wall leading down the stairs was lined from top to bottom with pictures of Pastor and I, but not one single photo of Marcus. I generally scooted down the steps so fast I didn't pay the pictures any attention. Pastor was handsome, always had been. It was his good looks and charm that drew me to him in the first place. He was tall, not lanky like a lot of the boys. He was the starting tight-end on our football team. Like me, his skin was cold black. His face was chiseled and his eyes were small, round, and multicolored. Daddy thought only the devil would make eyes that changed colors depending on the time of day.

When I reached the kitchen, I stopped and chatted with Mrs. Geneva as I did every morning. I generally sat at the antique kitchen table and drank coffee from a China cup and saucer while I watched her cook eggs and bacon on the glass-ceramic stove.

"Well, look at you," she said with a big grin across her face. "I been wondering where you was. Where you off to in that get up?" She took my hand and swung me around. "Pretty," she said.

Any other day I would've gone over the day's agenda and gossiped with her for a while before I started my day at the church clinic where I counseled pregnant teenagers, which was the primary reason our church continued to grow so rapidly. Pastor advertised that we were pro-lifers, which drew all kinds of folks to the church.

"You should eat," she said.

"No time today," I said and waved her off. My stomach felt queasy. I usually welcomed the familiar smell, but today it was heavy and overbearing. "Make sure Marcus gets to camp on time." I poured a cup of coffee in the silver Mercedes coffee cup, made sure the cap was on tight, and walked down the stairs.

I checked in on Marcus in the basement. He wiped the sleep from his eyes as I opened the door. He would turn sixteen next month and was "smelling" himself already. In the last few months, he'd become more aggressive. He demanded I take him to get his driver's permit, buy him a BMW convertible, and allow him to drive it alone. It was my fault for giving him everything he wanted and more. But no way would I stand for him driving alone without a proper license.

"Mom," he said as he unfolded his long body out of bed. "Is something on fire? Why you so sharp today?"

I did a turn and curtsey for him because I couldn't remember the last time he gave me a compliment. Many mothers I counseled wondered aloud where they went wrong with their child, but not me. I knew. He was only five when I married Richard and we moved into his house. I see the signs now, but I didn't see them then. I worked at a hospital about two hours on the outskirts of the city. Richard was in town to preach a revival. His ministry wasn't thriving back then, and he took other jobs to make ends meet. Revivals paid more. The revival was held at an old rundown church, and one night as Richard climbed the steps to go inside it gave away and so did his leg. I was the nurse on duty when they brought him into the emergency room. I believe the entire congregation was in the waiting room. When I heard his voice, time reversed and I became a teenager again.

"Please, please don't fuss over me," he said.

Simultaneously, the congregants tried to tell their versions of the event. Richard calmed them and got them seated while he gave his information to the desk nurse. I stood frozen at the back of the desk when I heard his voice. I believed then that when I saw him sparks flew, the unfinished sparks from high school. When our eyes met, he gasped. It took him a minute to gather himself and finish the application process. I grabbed the wheelchair from the corner.

"Please, sit here," I said, and when he was finished, I rolled him back to X-ray. I assisted the doctor, and while he plastered Richard's broken leg, we caught up. Where have you been? How are you doing? What are you doing here? When was the last time you were home? How is your father? The questions ended there. I felt like a girl again. He looked the same. He said I did, too. He asked me to dinner.

"Will you come to the service tomorrow night?" he said. "And I'll take you to dinner afterward."

That night at the hospital or the next night at dinner, I didn't think to ask the important questions. Have you been married before? Any long-term relationships? How did they end? It had been over ten years since I'd seen him or heard his voice. When did he leave home? Why? What type of man have you become?

We sat across from each other at a family style restaurant as if it was our first date, the one we weren't allowed to go on in high school. I ordered snapper, and he asked for the rib eye, well-done. We talked about those days, our senior year, how my father kept us apart, old friends, and lost love. After the bill was paid and the table cleared, he got down on one knee. He opened a small black box.

"Marry me," he said. "I planned to ask you after graduation, but your father sent you away right after the ceremony."

I'd cried when I realized I wouldn't have a chance to tell my friends goodbye. I thought I'd be around all summer, but my father had other plans. He drove me to the university right after graduation. As soon as my clothes were unpacked, I said goodbye to him and mama. Not a long goodbye, daddy didn't stand for any display of affection. "No child of mine is going to lay around all summer and come up with a baby," he said. I cried for weeks. I called Richard until my quarters ran out, and he hung up on me every time.

"I shouldn't of ignored you," he said. "I should of took your calls."

I accepted his proposal as my eighteen-year-old self from my high school sweetheart as if time hadn't passed, as if we hadn't changed. Marcus needed a father, and I needed to go back and have the life I dreamed of with Richard.

The minister of the church where the revival was being held married us on the evening before the week-long revival ended. Richard was on crutches, and I wore a light blue dress.

We trailed Richard into his humongous house. I walked up the stairs behind him with Marcus in tow. When we got to the kitchen, he told Marcus that his room was down the other set of stairs to his right.

"Your room is down them stairs," he said. I turned around to go with Marcus, but Richard stopped me. "He's a big boy. Let him go."

"But . . ."

He set the bags at the bottom of the steps, caught my hand, and pulled me up the stairs with him as if we were teenagers. We passed a bedroom on the second floor and two more on the third floor not including the master bedroom. Masculine, dark colored furniture, browns and blues, no pictures on the wall, sparsely furnished, and a smell like an old wet man. Marcus called out to me.

"Mama," he said. I looked back, and he started to climb up to me.

"Sit there on the steps, sweetie," I said. "Mama will be right back."

I thought Richard was excited to show me our bedroom, and I would come right back to get Marcus. Richard picked me up when we reached the bedroom door, carried me across the threshold, and fell atop of me on the bed while kissing my face and then my lips. When the kissing got a little more serious, he got up, locked the door, and shed his clothes as he walked back to the bed. The mood was playful, and I thought nothing of it when I told him to wait a minute, let me get Marcus settled, feed him. He pinned my shoulders to the bed. His facial features changed from playful to menacing. I still didn't think he was serious until I tried to move his hand away from my shoulder, and he pushed down harder.

"Later," he said, the word seething through his clenched teeth. "You need to be my wife now."

I instinctively said nothing as if I was back in my parents' home, as if I'd misbehaved and my father was chastising me with the ruler. A child did not talk back to her father, not ever. Did a woman to her husband? Not my mother. The man is the head of the household. He knows what is best for his family. A woman and her child are to be "seen and not heard." What was wrong with me? Richard would do what was best for Marcus and me.

I hadn't ever left Marcus alone in our home without checking on him for more than an hour. But we stayed in that dark damp room for hours. When Richard removed his hands from my shoulders, and without him having to ask me, I obediently took off my clothes. I lay naked on top of a thick bedspread that scratched my body. He rolled me over, and the covers back. When we were underneath, he pulled the covers over our heads as if we were kids pretending we were camping. All we needed was a flashlight.

After he finished, he laid on top of me. I didn't try to move. For hours, we remained in that position in silence. He snored softly in spurts. At times, I wasn't quite sure if he was sleeping or not. Then I heard a tapping at the door, and my child's voice.

"Mommy," he said, tap-tap-tap. "Mommy."

Somehow, I eased away from under Richard's heavy body and into my slip and was about to turn the doorknob when he placed his hand over mine, and stopped me from opening the door.

"I need to feed him," I whispered.

"After you feed me," he said and drew me back to the bed.

"Sit down in front of the door," I said to Marcus, unsure if he heard me. "Mommy will be there in a minute."

It was pitch dark when he allowed me to leave the room to cook supper. I ran through the house looking for Marcus, calling his name, but he didn't answer. I found him sitting on top of his luggage in front of the garage door.

"Let's go home now, Mommy," he said.

I dried his tears with the hem of my dress, wiped his eyes with the back of my hand, and tried to explain to him that we were home.

Afterward, I carried his bags to the unfinished basement, which was a catch-all room for laundry, car parts, old furniture and clothes, and papers. Marcus's room had been partitioned off but still needed to be finished with sheetrock and a coat of paint. A wrought iron bed with boxes, shoes, dirty laundry, and god knows what sat in the corner. Other items were strewn across the floor and stacked in piles along the open walls. A sheet that used to be white separated his bedroom from the garage. Thank God Marcus thought it was a great place to play. He jumped up and down on the squeaking bed. Nobody would believe the mess this house was in when we moved in.

Back in the kitchen, I rattled dirty plates and pans as I washed them in the sink. Richard couldn't expect Marcus to sleep in the basement. He didn't have any children. I needed to explain to him the dangers of having this much distance between a child and his parents. The white refrigerator was stocked with meat, venison, squirrel, raccoon, and no fresh vegetables, turnip greens, squash, or butter beans. A few cans of creamed corn, baked beans, and cornbread mix were in the pantry. I sat Marcus on top of the counter next to the sink. We played slaps while I cleaned and cooked. He wanted hot dogs and French fries.

When Marcus took the last bite of his fry, Richard came in the kitchen and stood beside me at the sink.

"Your job is to fix up this house," he said. "We have to look the part of a thriving minister and wife."

He didn't believe this house was representative of the caliber of preacher he wanted to be. How could he get to where he wanted to go if he couldn't entertain other ministers and their wives in his home?

Marcus jumped down off the counter and landed on Richard's toes. Richard was barefoot, and he squealed in a high pitch before he yelled.

"Watch yourself, boy," he said, and slapped him hard across the face. "Don't you ever step on my toes again." He rubbed his foot. Marcus started crying like I'd never heard him cry before, stopping intermittently to catch his breath, snot running from his nostrils. "Get to your room now," Richard said, as he grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him to the stairs.

I watched him. I didn't say a word.

I started remodeling the kitchen and dining room, and I ciphered a few extra dollars here and there from the kitchen budget to fix Marcus' room at the same time. Richard never noticed.

Yes, I knew what happened to my boy. I cupped his face in my hands and stared at him softly.

"What's wrong with you?" he said.

I let my hands fall to my side and laughed off whatever I was feeling. "You just getting big is all," I said. "Don't you give them no trouble at the camp."

"Mama, you getting me the car this week?" he said, as I walked toward the door.

"You not getting it," I said.

"But, you said . . ."

"I didn't say nothing."

He hit me in the back of the head, twice. Over the years, he did to me and sometimes to other kids whatever he saw Pastor do. If Pastor slapped me, Marcus punched me in the stomach.  He got into so many fights at school I began to home school him. His language was atrocious. He was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, but I knew better. I knew what his profanity stemmed from. I knew what we did behind closed doors that nobody in our congregation would believe about us.

I couldn't shake the feelings even after I got into the car and was in bumper-to-bumper traffic as I headed down I-20 toward Dr. Josephina Sanders' office. I yelled at drivers to move along, get out of my way, which I never did before. Dr. Sanders practiced Obstetrics and Gynecology on the sixth floor of an office building near Baylor hospital in the Deep Ellum area of the city, about a ten-minute drive from our church. We'd protested in front of her office once every quarter for about three years now. She was unlike most of the doctors who tried to hide from us or called us names. If she passed us on her way out for lunch, she greeted us, got to know us by name, and invited me up to her office on several occasions to appeal to my nursing background. Mostly, we disagreed on when life began. My position was at conception and hers was not.

"All of your medical training confirms my position," Dr. Sanders said with conviction.

And I was equally firm about mine. "All of my biblical training proves that I'm right," I said.

After going a few rounds with her for over a year, we agreed to respect the other's opinion. Sometimes I'd go up and eat lunch with her and chat about the girls I saw at the church clinic. She became my gynecologist, and I even started recommending the girls go to her after I understood she wouldn't try to talk them into having an abortion. As a matter of fact, it was her last resort. I never would've known that if we hadn't started talking.

So, a few weeks ago when she confirmed I was pregnant, we discussed all of my options. She was taken aback when I wasn't excited when she gave me the news.

"We're pregnant," she said, and I burst out in tears. "Take some time to think about it. Talk it over with your husband."

She was adamant that I talk it over with Richard. She wouldn't perform the procedure unless she felt confident that I had discussed it with him. I poured out my whole story to her, my reasons for not wanting to keep this child. I told her how Marcus had turned out. I was certain it was my fault. I couldn't see Richard treating his own child any better than he did Marcus and me.

"You have to gather enough courage to speak up for yourself," she said. "If you sneak behind his back and do this, you won't ever forgive yourself."

I was her last appointment, and we talked until way into the evening. She didn't tell me anything I hadn't said to my girls. They all had problems. They all felt as if they were the only person who had ever been in their situation, and so did I that day. I left her office depleted, washed out as an old dishrag. On the drive home, Donnie's song came on the radio, and I actually heard it for the first time, "Stand." I had no other choice.

It took me almost all of three weeks to muster up the nerve to tell Pastor. Dr. Sanders called and talked to me every morning. On the one hand, he behaved as I thought he would, and on the other, I didn't expect it. He was so excited to be a father. After the way he treated Marcus, I didn't believe he wanted any children. He never talked about it, never said he wanted a son.

"Ain't no way you doing this to me, Vivian," he said. "You can't without my say so."

I walled my eyes at him and turned my head. From past experience, I knew the conversation wouldn't last long. He'd put his foot down and was assured I would obey. I always did until now. I pushed him to talk. I wanted to know why he treated Marcus as if he was spurned by the Devil.

"You know," he said.

I shook my head. I couldn't speak. Finally, after ten years I got up enough courage to ask him.

"He is a bastard," he said. "Conceived in sin."

I slapped his face. He slapped mine harder. He touched his face where my hand landed. It seemed to sink in that I'd hit him, and he slapped me twice more.

He looked at me as if I'd told him I'd given him an incurable disease. We argued. When words were too much for him, he punched me in the chest. I welcomed the sting. After all, I was about to commit an abominable sin.

"Do you know how long I've waited to have my own child? Does Sarah ring a bell?" He said. "Your child wouldn't even get baptized."

"You could have adopted him. Gave him a proper name. Treated him as if he was your son," I said.

"Adopt the Devil?" He said. "Who did you lay down with? That boy don't look nothing like you. How in God's name can he be white if he your child? People talk you know."

I crawled to the edge of my half of the bed and lay there quietly. He continued to talk. Told me I wasn't doing no such thing, and if I did and God didn't kill me, he would. I was convinced, and I wasn't changing my mind. For the rest of the week, he walked around the house with his chest stuck out. He'd put his foot down, and I let him believe I'd act accordingly.

I pulled into the covered parking space at the office building and took the elevator up to the sixth floor. On my way up, I asked God to forgive me. I was sure Pastor wouldn't divorce me. He would lose too many members over the controversy. I sat in a pink oversized chair and picked up a People magazine. I thumbed through it over and over until the nurse called my name.

"Are you sure?" Dr. Sanders said.

On the way down in the elevator, I checked my reflection in the door and shifted my dress. One of the nurses agreed to drive me home and sit with me until the next morning. The elevator door opened and we walked through the lobby as if it was any other day. She opened the door for me, and I walked out to the sidewalk. When we turned the corner to go to my car, I saw them and they saw me. The sisters from the church marching in a circle and carrying professionally printed signs. We decided early on that we wouldn't use the harsher signs. I saw my sign first, "A Person Is a Person No Matter How Small," by Dr. Seuss. And I almost lost my footing when I saw Pastor carrying it. The nurse caught me by the arm. I moved her hand away. I didn't want to appear weak.

"Vivian," he said, and began walking toward me.

I turned my head and continued to my car.

"Vivian," he said. He stopped following me and raised his voice. "Vivian, you don't have to step all over my toes."

I stared down at my red shoes and lifted my eyes to see where I was going. The sisters from the church put down their signs and gathered around Pastor, comforting him. I felt their piercing eyes on the back of my neck and turned. They were all there wearing brown and black dresses, pumps, and hats with colored bands and flowers. They looked as if they were wearing uniforms except for the outlandish hats. I raised my head and our eyes met. I saw my shame written across their faces, especially Pastor's. But I kept my head up and tipped to the car.