Allie was in the midst of memorizing the Nicene Creed when Laura and Erin’s gossip distracted her from her holy efforts.
The three girls—thirteen, seventeen and sixteen respectively—were crammed together in the stuffy cloak room of Holy Cross Episcopal Church where acolytes dressed and prepared to serve in church services. The organ music from the pre-service intermission shook the stone floors and carved wooden archways of the annex, and sang to Allie like a comforting, omnipresent guardian angel.
Laura enjoyed sharing gossip as generously as the coffee and donut holes she served in the Fellowship Hall after services. As usual, Laura was saving her best gossip for last, and currently she was working her way through her week’s list, which was stuck on a recent school trip abroad.
“Paris was so dirty, y’all,” Laura complained. She tossed her frizzy black hair over her shoulder to zip up her white crucifer’s vestment.
“Laura, Paris is really old,” Erin replied, in a voice that sounded perpetuallystoned. “Like, a thousand years old or some shit.”
Erin aimlessly braided her greasy blonde bangs and balanced her wooden torch between her knees. Allie couldn’t believe Erin got away with Doc Martins in church again.
“But still, y’all,” Laura replied, “it was.”
Like most things, Laura’s verdict on international travel was supposed to be taken as the most informed. After all, she was Senior Server at Holy Cross that year, and as that Sunday’s crucifer, she expected the other girls to follow the yarn of gossip she spun between smacks of spicy pink gum as faithfully as the brass cross she carried during the 11 o’clock service. In that cluttered cloak room located just off the chapel, Laura’s word was Gospel.
Allie rolled her eyes and picked at some wax spilt on the sleeve of her torchbearer vestment. It looked like a hot, creamy tear shed during the early service processional. It was surrounded by other stains that left permanent, black-green slashes in the fabric, like the lashing scars of a martyr. Allie loathed acolyting with Laura and Erin. For high school girls, they were both pretty immature. She hoped that when she got to high school the following year, she wouldn’t be as obnoxious as they were. Rather, she hoped to be like Jennifer, a local high school girl who spent the summer babysitting Allie and her three younger siblings.
Technically, Jennifer wasn’t Allie’s babysitter. They were more like friends, and she treated Allie like an equal while she looked after Allie’s younger siblings. All summer long, took them to the country club pool, the orthodontist, tee ball practice, dance recitals, various fast food-hosted birthday parties, and the occasional misguided Bible School session. Sometimes, if it was just Jennifer and Allie, they would put down the top of Jennifer’s red Cabriolet convertible, blast cassette tapes and coast the curvy, kudzu-dappled roads of their small town, drinking Cheerwine ICEES from the gas station.
“Well, I’m just saying that I’m glad I went,” Laura concluded in a blasé tone, interrupting Allie’s daydreaming. “I mean, it is Europe, y’all. Still, it wasn’t all that.”
Allie fidgeted with the silver cross pendant around her neck. She turned the cross horizontal, aimed it at Laura, and quietly made gun shot noises under her breath. To Allie, a summer’s escape from their small town to places only mentioned on Jeopardy or traced along the bumpy, rainbow-hued surface of the school library’s squeaky globe sounded divine. Allie and Jennifer talked about them all the time.
Lazy afternoons with Jennifer were always fun. Sometimes after they had put Allie’s stepsiblings down for a nap, she and Jennifer sat on the porch swing, drank lemonade from concentrate, and looked through their respective school yearbooks together. They talked about boys they liked and girls they didn’t, although Jennifer always reminded Allie to be cool to everyone and not to gossip too much. Jennifer warned Allie about the newly consolidated county high school that she would be going to the following year. Jennifer told Allie that she and her friends were considered “stuck up townie girls” by girls who grew up in the country, and that some of the more redneck variety spat in their hair in the hallways.
“They think we’re snobs,” she explained, “but we’re really just shy and don’t know what to say.”
Allie couldn’t help but include Laura and Erin in this group, even though they had grown up in town just like she and Jennifer. She decided that trashiness came from the inside, not what area of the county you grew up in.
“Anyway, on to other news,” Laura said as she cinched the white rope around her waste, completing the final step in donning her crucifer’s ensemble. “Guess who’s pregnant?”
“Who now?” Erin asked almost bored by the information, striking match after match and dropping them into a waxy Dixie cup left over from Sunday School snack.
“Jennifer Morris!” Laura said with a smirk.
Allie’s head popped up, her face registering a profound level of disbelief. Neither Laura nor Erin noticed.
“Nu-un!” Erin shouted naughtily.
“Shhhh!” Laura said, holding court and clearly enjoying herself. “I know, doesn’t seem like the type, huh?”
Allie tried to control her outrage.
These girls have to be jealous of Jennifer, Allie decided.
It wasn’t hard to be. Jennifer was a petite brunette with soft features and a regal profile. Her shoulder length hair was always done, as were her bangs, and she always appeared very put together, dressed in cute outfits coordinated with jewelry and a nice headband, barrette, or scrunchy. She smiled all the time, and never wore too much makeup. Jennifer was popular, but not in a bitchy, queen bee way like Laura. Jennifer was pretty, gentle, and nice to everyone. In fact, she had been crowned Queen of the 1992 Sweetheart Dance the previous Valentine’s Day, which Ali thought sounded a lot more glamorous than Prom or Homecoming Queen. Jennifer ways wore Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers perfume, and gave Allie her own towering yellow bottle of fragrance for her birthday. Jennifer was skilled in both fashion and in offering advice on boys, like the time she talked Allie out of embracing the popular grunge music scene.
Pretty girls shouldn’t wear flannels, she explained. They should borrow them from their boyfriends at football games or bonfires.
Nice girls like Jennifer didn’t get pregnant, Allie thought, as her mind drifted back to a steamy day earlier in the summer.
It was another lazy day at the country club pool. Allie and Jennifer sat beside the pool, tanning beneath the sun-scorched magnolia blossoms that dangled over the chain link fence. Allie had spent a good half hour whispering about Eric, the cute, college age lifeguard who head banged to Pearl Jam songs blaring from his boom box atop his wooden tower, despite irritated glances from the women in daisy-printed bathing caps. As always, Jennifer made sure that Allie’s stepbrother’s floaties were on tight and that her stepsisters had on plenty of sunscreen.
Allie enjoyed when Jennifer babysat on nights where her parents went to dinner parties, and she and Jennifer would lie stretched across her four post bed watching MTV’s The Real World, flipping through piles of Seventeen magazines amidst the multicolored contents of Allie’s Caboodle beauty case strewn across the comforter.
The conversation drifted to Jennifer’s friend Brian. Allie asked if he was Jennifer’s boyfriend.
“Remember, he’s my best friend,” Jennifer said, “And even though I totally like-like him, we can never be together.”
“Why not?” Allie asked, concerned.
“Because he’s with that trash, Layla,” she replied dismally.
Allie was confused. “Isn’t that the name of the Eric Clapton song that’s always being shown on MTV’s Unplugged all the time?”
“Yeah,” Jennifer replied, “but she’s named for the faster version from back in the day.”
“Well what’s wrong with her?” Allie asked.
“She’s just trash, that’s all,” Jennifer said. “Don’t tell your mom I said this, but she’s a slut.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “They say ‘slut’ on Melrose Place all the time.”
“Oh, okay. Anyway,” she continued, “Layla doesn’t deserve Brian. But he’s like a lot of guys you’ll meet. With Layla, it’s just about sex and being blonde. But now Brian has to be with her…because she’s pregnant.”
This statement made Allie’s stomach hurt. It seemed really scary and embarrassing to be pregnant, especially in high school.
“But she’s in high school!” Allie protested, unable to control the naïve words blurting from her mouth.
"Yeah. I know,” Jennifer replied. “They’ve already told everyone, though. They’re gonna get married this Christmas after the baby’s born. It's just awful. Brian’s, like, trapped here now, with this girl who won’t be going to college or anything. Now he can’t go, either. It’s just awful.”
Allie thought about it for a minute.
“So I guess you can’t like him anymore, huh?” Allie had never had a boyfriend but she knew all about crushes, but was unsure what one did when a crush got another girl pregnant. The thought terrified her.
“Boys suck,” Jennifer said and wrinkled her nose.
Allie shook off the memory of this exchange and frowned at Laura, who basked in the gossip.
“Who’s the daddy?” Erin grunted.
Laura gazed at her reflection in the mirror and fluffed her hair with her lavender fingernails.
“Well,” she began, “rumor has it that it’s either one of those nasty Littlejohn boys or the one and only Clay Hardin.”
Allie shuddered at the sound of that name.
Clay Hardin had been the one annoyance in an otherwise perfect summer. Perhaps what was so disappointing about Clay was how little Clay actually resembled the sweet, dashing prince in white tennis shorts that Jennifer had described to Allie one night that summer.
“I met him at a Fourth of July party at the lake," Jennifer gushed. "He’s really funny and loud and everybody likes him. He’s really into tennis and drives a black Jeep Wrangler. I think I’m going to go out with him this summer before I go to App State.”
“Cool!” Allie said excitedly, and bounced on the bed. “When can I meet him?”
Jennifer laughed lovingly at Allie’s enthusiasm.
“Well, actually I’ve been meaning to ask your mom if I could invite him out to the pool with us sometime,” she continued. “He works at Papa’s Pizza, and said he could bring us all free lunch. Or maybe stop by the house. Do you think I’d get in trouble?”
“Only if it’s not at night and you keep the door open,” Allie reasoned, parroting her mother’s criteria for her own visits from neighborhood boys.
“Oh totally,” Jennifer replied. “We just started dating and everything, but I think I really like him. I know he likes me.”
“That’s good,” Allie said. “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?” Ali flipped through an old issue of Seventeen to a well worn love quiz.
“Yes, so long as they don’t get you pregnant,” Jennifer replied as she rummaged through Allie’s endless assortment of makeup and plastic jewelry.
“Well, I bet it’s Clay Hardin,” Laura said. “You know how obsessed she was with him all summer.”
Allie said nothing and thumbed through a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and counted the numbers of times “Lord” appeared on each page in an effort to distract herself from the gossip.
What did they know about Jennifer? Neither of them were friends with her, and they certainly didn’t see her everyday.
“I thought they broke up,” Erin said, confused. Erin said as she scrawled “Kurt Cobain” upside down in Sharpie on the toe of her boots.
“Yep, and it’s about time, too,” Laura continued. “I always thought wildman Clay could do so much better.”
Allie loosened the starched collar of her vestment and tried to contain her anger.
When Jennifer finally introduced Clay to Allie and her siblings, it took about half an hour for Allie to realize that Clay was a jerk. She did not understand how Jennifer did not notice this. Unlike her best friend Brian who used to occasionally stop by the house, play hide and seek or kickball, and joke around with them, Clay was intent on bossing everyone around. He always seemed angry about something, and had no problem with trying to make out with Jennifer on the couch, or pinching her sides in the pool and telling Jennifer in front of everyone that she had love handles, even though she looked the best in her bikini out of all of that summer’s babysitters. They fought constantly, on the phone, on the porch, at the pool, and sometimes Jennifer cried. Allie tried to understand what Jennifer saw in Clay.
The worst was when Allie went with her school friends and their Baptist youth group on a trip to Carowinds theme park and Clay made a scene in Hanna-Barbera Land supposedly defending Jennifer’s honor. As they rode home in the claustrophobic van, Allie sat by Jennifer, whose arms were crossed in a pout.
“Clay actually PUNCHED Yogi Bear today!” Jennifer was mortified, nearly in tears. “The guy in the costume put his arm around me for a picture and Clay hit him.”
“He was getting fresh,” he shouted from his seat in the back of the van.
“Clay, this is a church trip, dammit!” Jennifer yelled. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Allie didn’t understand it. One minute they were fighting, the next they were kissing and making up.
“I heard they ‘made up,’ if you know what I mean,” Laura said with trashy insinuation.
That’s not true, Allie thought, nervously tapped her black Mary Jane flat against the floor.
Jennifer hates Clay. They had finally broken up the week after the Carowinds incident.
It had not been pretty, and Allie’s mom had scolded Jennifer for letting a boy like that call her house and run up her phone bill fighting.
Allie tried to imagine Jennifer—seventeen years old, tennis star and Queen of the Sweetheart Dance—pregnant by a hot headed jerk who punched cartoon characters and told her she was fat and who had a tendency to gently rough her up when he thought no one was looking.
“Y’all are awful,” Allie finally said.
Erin and Laura turned toward to her.
“What was that now?” Laura looked appalled that Allie had spoken up.
“Jennifer’s not like that. Jennifer rocks. You don’t know anything and need to stop spreading rumors.”
“Honey, it ain’t a rumor if it’s true!” Laura laughed.
Allie stood up and faced the two girls. She hoped they could not tell that she was shaking beneath her vestment. This was upsetting her. This was not how church talk was supposed to be. She tried to calm herself by repeating The Nicene Creed to herself, but the words disappeared as quickly as communion wafers dissolving on a tongue.
“Well, I’m just telling you what I heard!” Laura added.
“Whatever, you’re such a bitch,” Allie muttered and set down the book and felt guilty for cussing in church. “Why do you always have to talk about people? Like last week, when you kept telling everyone how Erin was copying your outfits.”
“Thanks, Laura,” Erin said, offended.
“Look, we’re not talking about me here,” Laura snapped. “We’re talking about stuck up slut bags like Jennifer Morris. What do you care about her anyway?”
“She’s my friend, that’s why,” Allie replied.
“Oh really?” Laura scoffed. “Last I checked she wasn’t hanging out with lame-o middle schoolers.”
“Jennifer must be getting practice for when she has her own baby,” Erin snorted.
“Yeah, haven’t you noticed her wearing baggier clothes?” Laura added and cut her eyes to Erin, who laughed under her breath.
“That style’s in right now, Laura.” Allie shot back. "I'm sorry you don't have cable or a brain."
“You’re pretty sassy for a middle schooler,” Laura noted.
“Well, haven’t you seen her stomach getting bigger?” Erin asked.
“No, I don’t usually look at other girls' stomachs, lezbo!” Allie shouted.
“Whoa, calm down, Allie, Jesus Christ.” Erin replied defensively.
“She says it’s an ulcer,” Laura said cattily.
“Yeah,” Allie said confidently, “an ulcer. So what?”
Laura and Erin looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“Listen, little girl,” Laura said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And neither do you," Allie shot back. "So why don’t you just shut up, okay?”
It was true that Jennifer had started wearing baggier clothes and Allie thought maybe she’d gained some weight. After all, she wasn’t playing tennis this year. But Jennifer was the first to mention it.
“I know I look awful,” she said the previous week, as she sat on the side of the bed while French braiding Allie’s hair. “I’m just taking some time to make sure I get into a good college.”
The memory of this interaction was shattered by Laura’s snide tone.
“Do you actually think Jennifer would tell a kid she babysat that she was pregnant?” Laura yelled. “You’d totally tell your mom!”
“I don’t have to tell my mom anything, because it’s not true!” Allie insisted.
“Believe what you want to believe, Allie.” Erin interjected. “It’s true.”
“No it’s not! Jennifer is not a slutbag!” Allie’s eyes filled with tears.
The verger opened the door, sternly hushed them all, and beckoned them with his scepter to line up for the processional.
Carrying her torch to the back of the church, trailing a good distance behind Laura and Erin, Allie felt a rage and a fear she had never experienced before.
How could girls like that talk about someone like Jennifer that way? It can’t be true, she thought.
As she waited for the service to start, Allie repeated to herself parts of The Nicene Creed that she could remember.
We believe…in all that is, seen and unseen.
She got stuck on that line and repeated it again and again.
Seen and unseen…Seen and unseen… They don’t know Jennifer like I do. It’s not true.
The verger motioned to Allie to get into line. The service was about to begin. Allie continued her mantra, although her angry emotions could not be squelched.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.
Only sluts like Layla got pregnant, Allie told herself.
Nice girls with tennis trophies and plans for nursing school who could French braid hair and do swan dives and wore Sunflowers perfume and crushed on their best guy friends and shopped at The Limited did not get pregnant by jerks like Clay Hardin.
Allie had to believe that.
The chapel doors opened and passionate organ music flooded the annex. The entire congregation stood as Laura, Erin and Allie entered the chapel and led the procession to the altar. Allie cut her eyes to Erin and Laura, but remained stoic as the parishioners turned to bow at the brass cross that towered down the aisle.
Begotten not made, Ali told herself, repeating the Nicene Creed. I believe in all that is, seen and unseen.
Allie reminded herself to pray for forgiveness for all that she had said earlier in the cloak room.
But I still don’t believe these gossipy bitches, Allie thought, and raised her torch high.
I believe in Jennifer.