Which Shows You What I Know

by Ellen Ann Fentress

June 1993

“Didja hear me? Train’s pulling out.” Gus jangles the keys to our Pop Tart-cream station wagon, as he sweats in his tie and gray seersucker church suit at the bottom of the stairs. Gus’s shout-out is our regular Sunday kick-off.

“Hey, yo—Train’s Pulling Out.” His voice shifts to nearer the kitchen door. “It’s eight thirty.”

“We’re coming.” My bronze kitten heels bap down the stairs.

“Don’t you look swell.” Gus’s eyes monitor me from behind his wire rims. Actually, I never turn the corner into the kitchen dressed to go somewhere that Gus doesn’t say I look great. This morning, however, I think I look pretty damn fetching. My suit’s ivy-green–from the DKNY rack at the New Orleans Saks. My red frizz is pro-actively pulled back in a gold barrette to face off the hot slither of the June day.

“Thanks.” I grab his jacket shoulder for a handrail and land my lips on his cheek and his neat honey beard. Our gazes fuse, and we grin in synchrony. A herd of—well, actually four—white Mary Janes pound down the stairwell. Molly and Kate, in identical knit mauve sailor dresses, barrel into the kitchen.

“Hey, y’all look pretty.” Gus flings his arms out and squats to wrap an arm around each. The hallway light hits his head just so, and his rosy skull gives off a sheen. His hair, an ear-to-ear amber fringe, is damp and just-combed.

“Let’s go,” I grab coloring books and markers for pew entertainment.

Gus hikes Molly on his hip. Kate yanks a handful of his jacket. They wobble as a unit through the back door to the car. As Gus straps them in, I pluck a daylily from the flowerbed by the carport and plop in the idling wagon.

“Okay?” Gus has the air conditioning cranked to Roar.

“Okay.” I pull down the visor and skewer the daylily to my lapel with a straight pin.

Gus pokes the CD-player button.

“What do you do….”WITH A DRUNKEN SAILOR,” chime Kate and Molly a nanosecond later. A drinking ditty wouldn’t have been my idea for a preschool CD, which shows how much I know. Shel Silverstein is as fundamental to any car ride of ours as a tank of unleaded.

“WAY-HAY….” In the mirror I watch Kate’s blonde head and Molly’s red one bop like dashboard pets. I re-admire the orange lily on my inherently pretty-snappy lapel.

“…AND UP SHE RISES EARLY IN THE MORNING….” The girls’ white-grosgrain hair bows flop like helicopters to the beat.

“…SHAVE HIS BELLY WITH A RUSTY RAZOR.” Gus whaps the steering wheel in time. Gus doesn’t need a sea shanty on the audio for his shoulders to bounce. Gus always sort of jiggles–part of the spilled-over energy I love about him.

“There you go.” Gus points out the windshield with one of his steering-wheel fingers. “Name’s changed again.” The former SPEEDY CLEANING sign now says STYLECARE. “Worst cleaner in the world,” Gus says brightly. “They keep changing names to dodge liability.”

“What’s liability?” Kate asks.

“What pays the bills, sweetie.” Gus says jovially. A benefit of Gus’s spot in the local legal loop is that he is a human anti-Rolodex. He’s a constant source of info on who’s regularly getting sued. He’s always noting who’s the worst in town at what they do, whether it’s orthopedics or supermarkets that fail to watch for muggers in the parking lots. On road trips, we all shout in unison when we pass the yellow-and-cobalt 18-wheelers from the truck line that tops Gus’s roster of the inept. “All I can say is when you see one, duck,” he advises with cheer.

Outside my window, the dry cleaner drops away, and midtown Jackson slides by. Despite the Sunday morning departure drill, on a deep level I’m relaxed. Being in our family quartet releases an almost afterglowish calm in me. It occurs to me that these days, I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been. At thirty seven, I have what I always assumed adults wanted: a suitably doting, keeper spouse of a dozen years, two engaging offspring and the necessary bank balance, shelter and food to stay in business. I have bingoed.

“Hey—here.” At the 300 block of Capitol Street, Gus pulls up in front of the Governor’s Mansion into possibly the sweetest parking spot in the state.

“How come this space is here? Church starts in three minutes.” I ask.

“You gotta have faith, baby.” He flings open the door. I know he’s inwardly gloating that the parking slot is here. It validates his general theory that the only way to know if you can pull something off– and trying to park up front applies–is to try. Gus gets that, but a lot of people don’t.

He unbuckles the girls. In the morning shadow of the Governor’s Mansion and the church, we also face Mississippi’s first skyscraper: the gargoyle-dotted 1924 Lamar Life building, where Eudora Welty’s insurance-executive father was one of the suits. Three blocks up on the Pearl River bluff, the old Mississippi Capitol looms. It is where legislators voted to secede in 1861 and later where the state showcased an Egyptian mummy. An Ole Miss med student X-rayed the mummy in 1969, and it turned out to be paper-mached German newspapers and a crumbly Milwaukee Journal from 1889.

Neo-Gothic and cola-fizz brown, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral has clung to its Capitol Street corner since 1903. Outside its hob-nailed Magic Kingdom doors stands the friendliness table: a station for blank stick-on name tags and markers. St. Andrew’s is big on name tags. So is Kate, who hunches over the table and prints away.

Inside, we take our customary pew against the right-hand wall. Gus sits by the wall to catch the air conditioning puffing up from the floor vent. Kate stretches her arm along the pew’s top edge. When Kate’s arm retreats, a “KICK ME” tag is on Gus’s seersucker back, peeking up over the walnut bench top. The window above us is of the Holy Family, glowing teal and camellia red. Mary snuggles baby Jesus while Joseph stands alongside, loyal and solid. In the nine a.m. sun rays, Joseph gleams as an eternally good sport. Like Gus beneath, I think.


The usher nods that it’s our communion turn. I put a hand on each girl and move to the center aisle. Gus follows. Up the three chancel steps we go to “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” one of those politically progressive communion songs that is a St. Andrew’s natural: an earnest diversity two-fer combining a South African tune with two stanzas of bonus Spanish lyrics.

Marching, marching, we are marching in the light of God. Every week, when I wait for an open spot to kneel, the veil between this world and beyond flutters for thirty seconds, maybe. Each Sunday, I wonder if the sensation will reoccur. Sandwiched between the choir lofts on each wall, I feel the hint of something more in the web of voices vibrating and visceral in my ears. Maybe I’m over suggestible, maybe not. After all, the pulse of stars, mystic-sounding in theory, omms pretty ordinarily in audio clips, like the hum of a jumbo leaf blower. Maybe this is the communion corollary. Marching, marching. The syncopation swaddles me, and I imagine the heavenly host as a swaying South African chorus in yellow head wraps. I get a momentary awareness in my head of many voices, not all accounted for inside this church space. I fleetingly notice a sense that I have company, and lots of it. True, what I’m sensing could arguably be my share of the collective unconscious, processing whatever I’m processing as did the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. Yet something tugs me up here and I’ll take it. Who’s to say? My perception presses wider, pulled by the Jesus window bright above me, and the candle flames that shape shift. A spot opens at the rail, and I fold myself down to the needle-pointed, knee-punched cushion. “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” says the priest, plucking the wafer from the chalice for my cupped palms that hover over the rail. For a moment, I am able to believe that there’s more than meets the eye, more than can be put into a thin shiny varnish of words. I sense possibility within me and beyond me for a few seconds.

When we’re done with communion, Gus is first back in our pew. I follow, and then Kate and Molly. Gus flips the kneeler down.

Thank you, I pray speedily and by rote. Life is sweet. Let me love my family as hard as I can. They deserve it. Thanks again, God. I envision a pipeline inside me that bursts and barrels along with love, instead of sweet crude.

I slide back up on the bench. Molly and Kate are coloring. Gus remains on the kneeler. He’s sockless—as usual–the milky green-veined skin on his heels gaping below his pants’ hem. Gus skips socks unless he’s in court, and actually, only federal court is truly worth the effort to him.

What is he praying about, I wonder. What’s everyone around me—their faces down, their calves and shoe soles upturned behind them—praying for? I know about Gus least of all. Yet asking what he prays about here on our kneeler seems as invasive as being asked myself to explain what I sense at the altar rail. We stay reeling silent mysteries to each other. Sure we know about Michael Jackson’s cosmetic surgery tweaks and Princess Diana’s royal misery, but the revelations that actually matter are those we have a stake in. My thirty seconds of Sunday voices and all things Gus top my short list.

The recessional starts when communion is done. I glance over at Gus, hymnal in hand, his suit pants legs once again slipped over his white ankles. Poking up at six-feet one, his cameoed head overlaps the stained glass on his wall side. I like the image I see– his momentary transfiguration as a fourth wheel of the luminous Holy Family. It corroborates his papacita-hood. Yet something bothers me about the window. Honestly, I think I’ve half-noticed it every week, but until today, I’ve shooed the worry from my head. What’s secretly gnawed at me is the body language of Joseph—the fact is that our overhead Joseph looks a tad resigned. And here’s more: When you look hard at his leaden-glass figure, your eyes go to his hands. His left palm is lifted, and his right hand points toward it at ninety degrees. Is Joseph trying to call a time out? Of course, that could be the case because his family life’s so lovely, he wants to pause time. Or is it something else? Maybe, despite the tinted, tender looks of Joseph’s age-old gig, what I see is exactly what it looks like: Joseph is wordlessly calling for the whole business to stop.

The hymn ends, and the service is done.

“Train’s pulling out,” says Gus.


ELLEN ANN FENTRESS teaches creative-nonfiction workshops through Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, New Madrid, and Southern Women’s Review and on Mississippi public radio. She is an MFA graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars.