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The Turning Point
"DEATH is inevitable. You can't hide from it, run from it, bargain with it. Each one of us has to accept that sobering fact. The best thing you can do is be ready."
Pastor Hezekiah Fowler's deep bass voice reached every person within the packed frame church without the help of the failing PA system. In the front pew, Lilly Crawford sat with her long legs demurely crossed at the ankles. Her hands clutched a flowered, tear-stained handkerchief as she stared at the white casket draped with a spray of white gladiolus. More sprays were at the head and foot and clustered around the casket and podium.
So many flowers, Lilly thought, and so utterly useless. Mother Crawford couldn't smell them now. She had loved flowers of any kind, loved to spend time in her garden, but she'd been bedridden for the past six months as her body fought a losing battle. Yet the only person who had thought to send her flowers while she could enjoy them was the one person who couldn't be here for her home going. If Rafe had come, there might have been two caskets instead of one.
To Lilly's left sat her husband, Myron, in his best black suit, his usually straight shoulders slumped, his callused hands clamped between his legs, his proud head bent in submission to a power greater than his. Next to him sat his daughter and Lilly's stepdaughter, Shayla, draped in black and misery, sobbing loudly. To her right was David, her husband, a shy, earnest young man with a nervous eye tic but, according to Shayla, a computer genius. Since David had been to his in-laws' house only a handful of times before their marriage three years ago and twice since, Lilly couldn't be sure.
"Hear me now; I said you can't run from it, hide from it, bargain with it," Pastor Fowler continued, and Lilly respectfully gave him her attention. "Each one of us in God's appointed time is gonna have to give an accounting of our sins and look God and death in the face. The best thing you can do is be ready."
Pastor Fowler's hands, work-worn from thirty years at the bottle plant lifting twenty-pound crates of beverages, clamped around the scarred wooden pulpit. Out of his mud-brown, heavily lined face his brown eyes sparkled with the fervency of his message as he leaned his robust torso over the worn, open Bible.
Shouts of "Amen" came from around the church. Lilly knew if she were to turn around she'd see heads nodding in agreement as well. The pastor was in top form. Mother Crawford would have been pleased, but a little sad as well. She had always said no one preached more earnestly than Pastor Fowler when trying to win lost souls; his fervent prayers could wrench tears from the eyes of the boldest sinner. Too bad, she'd once commented after a particularly powerful Wednesday night prayer meeting, that he didn't seem to be able to save himself.
Lilly hadn't asked for an explanation. She had lost faith in too much to add Pastor Fowler's sins, real or imagined, to the list. Besides, she knew how frightening and helpless it felt not to be able to save yourself.
"Our faithful sister, Minnie Faye Crawford, was ready," Pastor Fowler said, assurance in every syllable of his voice. "At eighty-one she had lived a long time. Was blessed with a loving husband who preceded her in death, a loving son and granddaughter who gave her countless moments of joy and blessings in her declining years. The Lord saw fit to take her first daughter-in-law, but He blessed her with another fine Christian woman in Sister Lilly."
"Amen" flared up again. Lilly closed her eyes against the looks she knew would be cast upon her. No one except Mother Crawford and Rafe ever let her forget she hadn't been the first Mrs. Crawford. To everyone else Lilly was still trying to measure up, still failing. Just as Rafe had failed.
"So, brothers and sisters, I come to you today asking this question." Pastor Fowler paused, his hard, piercing brown gaze sweeping over the gathered crowd again. "When it's your time to lie in the arms of death as our beloved Sister Minnie Faye Crawford now rests, when it's your time to close your eyes and wake no more, when it's your time to lie in front of the pulpit, when it's your time to take that last final ride, will you be ready?
"Will you be able to look back on your life with no regrets as this sister did, to count your blessings instead of your woes, or will you bow your head and weep for all that is lost, for all that should have been done and wasn't?"
Lilly's head snapped up. Wide-eyed, she stared at Pastor Fowler. Had he guessed?
No, he wasn't looking at her. He didn't know that she lived with regrets, that her blessings were few, her tears many.
Lilly didn't know she was sobbing until she felt the brush of wind on her face and opened her eyes. Standing in front of her, in her starched white usher's uniform and black armband, was Sister Lawrence waving her fan. "Mother Crawford wouldn't want you to weep for her."
Tears rolled faster down Lilly's amber cheeks. She shut her eyes again. Guilt pressed against her chest like a heavy weight.
If only they knew.
Stepping back from the pulpit, Pastor Fowler lifted his hands and beckoned. "Undertakers in charge."
Lilly shut her eyes tighter against the wailing sound of her twenty-one-year-old stepdaughter. No matter how unchristian it was, Lilly couldn't help thinking that Shayla should have come to see her sick grandmother. Houston was only a three-hour drive away from Little Elm, but Shayla always had an excuse.
The wail grew more plaintive, more demanding. As in the past, Shayla's father drew his only daughter and favorite child into his arms, murmuring words of comfort and reassurance.
"Hush, baby girl. Daddy's here."
"She's gone! Grandma's gone!" Shayla refused to be comforted.
Lilly turned to see Shayla being physically restrained by her father and her husband. David's eyes were wide behind his gold wire-frame glasses. He was as lost as Myron in his attempts to comfort Shayla, and just as concerned. No surprise there. Shayla wouldn't have married a man who wouldn't meet her many demands and go soft at her frequent emotional outbursts.
"Daddy! Daddy!" Shayla shouted as the spray of gladiolus was removed, the upper half of the coffin lid lifted.
Lilly faced forward thinking this was one time that Myron wouldn't be able to give Shayla what she wanted or what he thought she needed as he had done so many times in the past. The pain and heartache he had caused others hadn't mattered. No price was too high for Shayla to be happy. No one knew this better than Lilly … or felt the burden of it more.
The small white frame house on North Fourth Street was filled to capacity. The April day was unseasonably warm, with no clouds in sight. People spilled out of the eight-by-ten living room cooled ineffectively by a window unit onto the freshly cut grass in the front yard, careful of the borders of newly sprouting tulips on either side of the paved walkway that stopped in the middle of the yard.
The mourners were content now to mingle happily beneath the undisciplined mulberry tree in the front yard. Laughter came often. Funerals were a social event. People took the opportunity to mourn, but they also renewed acquaintances not seen sometimes since the last funeral and gave thanks that they were still among the living.
Inside the scrupulously clean kitchen there was barely enough room for the women from the church's auxiliaries to fit. Mother Crawford, the eldest member of the church, had been well respected and loved. The food had been accumulating for days. Most of the women over forty were known for their special dishes and took pride in bringing them to the home of the bereaved.
Lilly stood over the huge roasting pan on top of the electric stove and scooped out corn-bread dressing onto a paper plate. Sister Madison had a touch with dressing that made you want to savor each bite. When asked what her secret was, she'd only smile in that serene way of hers. She never told. Some of the women at the church thought that was selfish, but Lilly knew that some secrets could never be shared.
"Sister Crawford, are you all right?"
Startled, Lilly looked up to find Sister Madison staring at her with narrowed eyes in her ebony-hued face. "Y-yes."
"Don't look like it." Sister Madison glanced at the plate in Lilly's hand. "I know my dressing is good, but don't you think whoever you're fixing that food for wants more than dressing?"
Lilly jerked her gaze back to the plate in her hand. It was heaped with dressing and tilting dangerously. Flushing, she quickly scraped most of the dressing back into the pan.
"Maybe you should rest. Nobody would blame you." Sister Madison laid a broad, comforting hand on Lilly's thin shoulder. "You've been a good wife and stepmother to him and Shayla. Mother Crawford often said how blessed they all were that Myron found a good woman like you after Carol died."
Lilly flinched and grabbed the long-handled spoon in the green beans. Carol again. They didn't do it out of meanness, Lilly had finally decided, but as a compliment. Carol had been a fine, Christian woman. She'd worked tirelessly in the church. She never complained or had a cross word to say. Everyone said so. Myron most of all.
"Is that plate ready, Lilly?"
Lilly went completely still for the space of two heartbeats. Hands trembling, she quickly reached for the meat fork. "In a minute, Myron."
"Brother Small has a long drive ahead of him," Myron said.
"You go on out and talk with the men, Brother Crawford. I'll bring it to you," Sister Madison offered. "I don't think Sister Crawford is feeling well."
In the small kitchen, it only took Myron a few steps to reach Lilly. Sharp brown eyes studied her face. He took the plate out of her hand. "Go rest for a while. I'm sure the other women won't mind."
Immediately there was a chorus of agreement.
"I-I'm fine," Lilly protested.
He smiled in that old familiar way that used to make her heart turn over. "You've been on your feet enough. Go rest."
The words were spoken gently, but Lilly watched his eyes. They were cold.
Quickly untying her apron, she laid it over the back of the yellow vinyl-covered chair at the table. On her way out of the room she heard several of the women heap praises on Myron about how thoughtful he was and how blessed Lilly was to have him as a husband. They praised him for being a good Christian son, for the nice way he had put his mother away. He didn't bother to correct them.
If only they knew, Lilly thought, opening their bedroom door at the end of the short hallway. Mother Crawford had paid for her own funeral arrangements, and when Myron had learned she had paid cash he had acted so hurt that she hadn't trusted him that she had gone the next day to have his name added to her checking and savings accounts. By the time Mother Crawford died there was nothing left of the money she had done without to save.
Too nervous to rest, Lilly paced the carpeted floor and watched the luminous dial on the clock radio on the night-stand. When fifteen minutes had passed she returned to the kitchen, telling the protesting women she needed to keep busy. With looks of sympathy they let her stay.
Lilly was out of bed at first light the next morning. She never lingered. Before Mother Crawford's death it had been to check on her. Now it was to escape her husband. Easing out of their bedroom, she closed the door softly and went to take her bath. Walking down the narrow hall, she wondered how had she let her life come to this? How could she have been so wrong about a man?
She had such hopes and dreams when Myron first asked her out. That he was sixteen years older, a widower with two children aged fourteen and sixteen, had made her feel somehow special that he had chosen her.
In the town of twenty thousand, he had a good job as a short-haul truck driver, and a neat little house, and was a respected deacon in the church. In everyone's opinion he was a good catch, and for the first time in Lilly's life women envied her.
She'd grown up being referred to as "that Dawson girl," and the reference had never been good. Marva Dawson, Lilly's mother, hadn't cared what others thought of her and certainly not what they thought of her daughter. To Marva's way of thinking, her life was her own to live as she pleased. It was her turn to have some fun after what she'd suffered. Her unwanted and unplanned pregnancy with Lilly had ruined Marva's life, just as her washout of a husband had.
Johnny Dawson was supposed to be the next great Jim Brown. Instead Johnny had been cut in spring training from the New York Giants. Marva had banked heavily on him being her ticket out of Little Elm.
If she hadn't been pregnant with Lilly, Marva could have stayed in New York and used her face and figure to be an actress or find a rich man. Instead she had to come back with a disgraced jobless husband who took off to parts unknown a year later.
Unemployed, Marva had used the face and figure she was so vain about to get "her due" from other men. She had no intention of standing in line for government cheese or having some social worker look down her snooty nose at her. If one man couldn't give her the things she thought she needed, she found another.
Lilly had grown up with people talking about her mother's lifestyle and speculating on how long it would take for her to turn out the same way. The girls of the good families didn't speak to her, and the boys who asked her out were mainly interested in how fast she'd take off her clothes. Even the girls with a reputation for being fast wanted nothing to do with her. Books became her friends.
At fourteen she lied about her age to get a job at the Dairy Queen in a wasted effort to help her mother so she wouldn't have to take money from men. Marva had looked at the fifty-six dollars Lilly had proudly handed her after two weeks of work and flatly told Lilly her perfume cost more than that. Lilly hadn't offered again.
She'd met Minnie Crawford when she'd gone to JC Penney to buy a hat for Women's Day at Little Elm Baptist Church. Since Penney's was one of the few places to buy ladies' hats in town and elderly black women wouldn't think of setting foot in church without their hats, Lilly had waited on several women in her first three weeks of working in ladies' accessories.
However, Minnie Crawford hadn't looked at Lilly's name tag and stuck up her nose because some man in her family had biblical knowledge of Lilly's mother. Minnie hadn't taken her merchandise to another salesperson to ring up as a few of the women had. She'd looked Lilly in the eyes and asked her if she knew the Lord. Taken aback and sure Minnie was being condescending, Lilly had flippantly replied that He wasn't on her Christmas mailing list.
She'd always remember Minnie Crawford's reply: "Doesn't matter about your mailing list. I meant in your heart. Now, how much is this hat gonna cost me?"
Befuddled, Lilly had rung up the sale, thinking that was the last of it. It wasn't. Minnie Crawford kept stopping by, and before Lilly was sure how it had happened they were having lunch at the deli in the mall, then supper at Minnie's home.
Lilly had gone to church with Mother Crawford, as she liked to be called, out of respect for her and their growing friendship. Lilly went back because of the peace she'd found there—and because of Myron.
The first time she'd seen him, handsome and tall, in his black suit, his Bible clasped to his wide chest, her heart had beaten a mile a minute. She had been so nervous, she'd had trouble getting her words out. For the first time she had been conscious of people whispering about her and hadn't cared.
Myron had taken her home after Sunday dinner at Mother Crawford's and after prayer meeting that following Wednesday night. He and Lilly easily fell into a routine of him picking her up for church services and seeing her home. Always he was respectful and nice.
After a month of Lilly and Myron being seen together, people no longer whispered or speculated if she was as free with her body as her mother. They nodded cordially. Lilly could look people in the eye, hold her head up. Each time she was with Myron, she fell in love a little more and dared to dream that he loved her in return.
Thirty-six-year-old Myron Crawford was everything her naive twenty-year-old heart had wished for. He represented all the things she had never had: love, respectability, a family, and security.
Stepping out of the tub, Lilly grabbed a towel and rubbed it briskly over her body. She'd been starved for affection enough to believe he loved her, believe he wanted to share his life with her, believe he'd give her the children that, having been a neglected child, she'd always wanted.
Hanging up the towel, she stepped into her plain white cotton underwear and hooked her bra. If Myron had felt any love for her it had disappeared fast. He'd wanted her as a caretaker for his children and a convenient bedmate. Pulling the slip over her head, she shot her arms through the shirtwaist dress. All her praying hadn't helped them to grow closer. Then Mother Crawford had suffered a stroke a year after their marriage and come to live with them.
That had been five years ago. Lilly had been trapped by her devotion and respect for the woman she had come to love dearly, a woman who had become her surrogate mother. Trapped by the two lost children who didn't understand why their mother had to die in a senseless automobile accident on her way to a meeting at the church. Trapped by her dream.
Making her way to the kitchen, she put on the coffee. Arms folded, she stared out the window at the red roses climbing the Cyclone fence in the backyard. She and Rafe had worked an entire morning on the project as a birthday surprise for Mother Crawford. Rafe, intelligent, proud, and determined to butt heads with his overbearing, tyrannical father at every turn. Rafe, the son that Myron now refused to acknowledge. The son Myron had tried to beat and cower into submission.
Rafe had stayed because Lilly begged him to finish high school, but he had never come back to the dinner she had prepared after his valedictorian speech. His leaving had broken her heart. They were too close in age for her to think of him as her son, but he was the younger brother she never had. She wished she could have done more to shield him from Myron's anger.
She'd thought many times of leaving and taking Rafe with her before Mother Crawford's stroke, but since Lilly wasn't his legal guardian, it would have been considered kidnapping. Mother Crawford might have helped, but she had a weak heart and the doctors had already warned them that too much excitement wasn't good for her.
The first light heart attack Mother Crawford ever had was caused when Rafe and Myron's argument became physical shortly after he and Lilly married. Lilly had never seen that side of Myron, mean and hateful, spewing foul words meant to hurt as much as the belt in his hand. But Rafe had refused to bow down to his father's whipping because he hadn't mowed the lawn the way Myron liked. Mother Crawford's sudden illness had stopped that argument, but others followed.
Lilly did her best to protect Rafe, and when she failed it was as if her soul were being wrenched from her body. Before long Myron's meanness killed any love and respect she had for him. She couldn't leave Rafe, no more than she could leave Mother Crawford after Rafe left home.
Lilly understood Rafe's leaving; she just missed his easy smile, his laughter, in a house that had seen too much misery and hate. He'd been back several times in the four years since his graduation to see Mother Crawford, but he'd always called first to make sure Myron wasn't there. Lilly understood that as well. After Rafe left, Myron had turned his anger against Lilly. Just hearing the sound of his voice sent fear and loathing churning through her. She tried to hide her feelings, but apparently she wasn't always successful.
Mother Crawford wasn't blind to Myron's temper, but she was powerless to do anything about it. Lilly could see in her sad eyes the pain her son's behavior caused, but it was never discussed between them. Yet whenever she heard Mother Crawford praying and asking God to touch his heart, Lilly instinctively knew she meant Myron.
Although Mother Crawford never lost faith in God's power, she made sure Lilly went to the junior college in Little Elm to further her education. Myron hadn't liked it, but in that Mother Crawford had held firm. She'd known she wouldn't be around much longer and wanted Lilly to be able to care for herself. Mother Crawford had loved her son, but she had also loved Lilly.
Just as Lilly had loved her like a mother.
Hearing the coffee dripping, Lilly opened the cabinet for a cup. She didn't know how to contact Rafe to tell him about his grandmother. Somehow she felt he knew. The two had had a way of silent communication that had been as powerful as it was beautiful. Mother Crawford would say more than once, "Rafe's gonna call," and the words would barely be out of her mouth before the telephone would ring.
Their connection was something Lilly envied. She'd never been that close to her mother, a woman who was seldom home unless she was expecting one of her men friends. Lilly had never known the father who had walked out when she was six months old and never returned.
Sipping her coffee, Lilly stared back out the window, watched a bluebird light on the fence, then fly away. Wistfully, her gaze followed. Freedom. What a wonderful thing that must be.
Lilly was at the stove tending the bacon and sausages when Myron came into the kitchen. Immediately she went to pour him a cup of coffee. "Morning."
He rubbed his large hand over his unshaven face, then sipped his coffee, syrupy with sugar and enriched with condensed canned milk. "Morning. Anyone else up?"
"David came in a few minutes earlier. Shayla's hungry," she told him. "They're staying over another couple more days." Slowly she shook her head. "I'm so tired from caring for Mother Crawford. I wish I could just rest." The words were out of her mouth before she realized it.
He was across the kitchen and on her before she knew it, his large frame looming over her. "This was Shayla's house before it was yours. If she's hungry, you better cook her breakfast or anything else she wants."
"Good morning, Mr. Crawford,"David greeted Myron from the kitchen door.
Myron swung around with a quickness that belied his six-feet-two height and 200 pounds, his posture relaxing as he did so. "Morning, David," Myron greeted him cordially. "I understand Shayla's hungry."
"Yes, sir," David said, worry in his voice and on his clean-shaven face. "She didn't eat much yesterday. I don't want her getting sick."
"Me, neither. Tell her to stay in bed today and Lilly will bring all her meals today on a tray," Myron told him.
"Thank you, sir."
Myron didn't move until David left. He turned and stared at Lilly with dark narrowed eyes. "Don't make Shayla wait too long for her breakfast. You know what she likes. Cook it fresh. You know she don't like leftovers." Her orders given, he marched away.
Lilly was at the stove before he was out of sight. Removing the bacon and sausages, she placed them on paper towels to drain.
Rage almost choked her. Rage toward Myron, but also toward herself. She had been stupid and careless.
Rafe might have been his mother's and grandmother's favorite, but Shayla was her father's. Lilly had never understood why he felt that way unless it was because his daughter expertly played on Myron's need to feel important. He never seemed to realize that when Shayla fussed over him the most, she always wanted a new dress, a new pair of shoes, or money. Unlike her self-sufficient and loving brother, Shayla was usually out for Shayla. If it didn't benefit her, she wasn't interested.
Shaking her head, Lilly took down the plates. She had to remember Myron doted on his younger child and be more careful. She had to be as smart as Rafe until she left. And as God was her witness, now that Mother Crawford was gone, Lilly was leaving Myron.
"That will be three hundred and fifty dollars."
Lilly's jaw dropped. She stared in disbelief across the neat wooden desk at the lawyer she had hoped would take her case. Tied and tucked in her purse was all the money she possessed in the world … 394 dollars and 33 cents. "I thought it would be less."
His back straight in his leather chair, Kent Powell's expression didn't change. His long-fingered hand remained loosely interlocked on top of a manila folder with Lilly's name printed on it in neat black letters. "That's my fee. If you wish to seek another attorney for counsel, you're free to do so."
Lilly's flagging spirits sank lower. She had chosen Kenneth Powell because he was fresh out of law school and new in town. She'd hoped he would be hungry for business and charge less. She'd seen his sign hanging in front of the once-vacant house and memorized his phone number. Although his fee was twenty-five dollars less than the two other lawyers she'd contacted, it was more than she had allotted.
She moistened dry lips. "Can I pay half now and send you the rest?"
"You can, but I won't start proceeding with your case until I have the full retainer."
Hands clamped around the edge of her patent-leather purse, Lilly's stomach knotted. She had to leave today. As soon as Myron had left for work that morning, she'd thrown a few clothes in Mother Crawford's old suitcase, packed some food, and paced until ten minutes before Kent Powell's law office opened.
"I don't want to go back." Her voice sounded high-pitched and frightened to her own ears.
"A restraining order doesn't cost anything."
Her head snapped up. "It would be his word against mine. The pain and scars are on the inside."
"Don't you have a friend or relative you could stay with?" he asked, leaning forward in his seat.
Lilly shook her head. Five years ago her mother had finally hit it rich with a man who owned a furniture store in Dallas. Lilly hadn't seen her since she had stopped by her house briefly to show off her diamond ring and the Mercedes he had bought her. Lilly hadn't been invited to the wedding or to their home. As for the people at church, they were Myron's friends before they were hers.
"I don't want to be here when he's served," she finally said.
"Then pay half and send the rest when you find a job."
That would be the sensible thing, but Lilly was already opening her purse and picking loose the knot in the handkerchief. She didn't want to be married to Myron one day longer than she had to be. Counting out the full amount of money, she laid it on the desk. "I want my freedom."
Powell barely glanced at the crumpled bills. "If he contests the divorce, the cost will go higher."
Despite the fear and worry, she said, "I'm getting a job as soon as I reach New Orleans."
For the first time a flicker of doubt ran across the lawyer's young face. "New Orleans can be a difficult place for people unfamiliar with it."
"My stepson is there." At least that was the last place Rafe had said he lived. The telephone operator hadn't found a listing in the phone book. But New Orleans was as good a place as any to stay until her divorce was final. Myron would never think to search for her there. And look he would. Not because he cared, but because he saw her as a possession, just like the house or his dogs.
Standing, she held out her trembling hand. "Thank you."
"You have my card to keep in touch." The handshake was brief.
"I'll call you when I'm settled."
Lilly walked from his office and got inside her car. Fear and uncertainty dogged each step.
Forty-four dollars and thirty-three cents wasn't much to reach New Orleans and start a new life, but it was all she had. Worse, finding a job to earn more would be tough. Myron had never wanted her to work after they were married. Initially he'd used the excuse that he wanted her to stay at home to get Shayla off to school and be there when she came home. In reality, he'd used it as a way of controlling Lilly and keeping her dependent on him.
Lilly had been blinded by his true nature, a nature he hid so well from others that they believed he was just a proud man. What he was, was manipulative and possessive.
But she hadn't seen that. She'd only seen that finally she had a family she could love and who would love her in return.
She had been determined to show her appreciation for Myron's faith in marrying her, to show the people of Little Elm she was a decent woman. She had succeeded in gaining respectability but failed in her marriage. She'd stayed these last miserable years because she hadn't wanted Mother Crawford to spend her last days in a nursing home.
Starting the car, Lilly put it into gear. There was one last stop she had to make.
After parking on the shoulder, she wove her way through the stone markers to the fresh mound of black dirt. A double granite marker was already in place. Minnie Faye Crawford, beloved wife and mother, would rest forever beside her husband, Effraim.
Kneeling down, Lilly placed her hand on the withered gladiolus.
"I'm sorry, Mother Crawford. I tried to make the marriage work, but I couldn't. I know you understood and tried to help me and Rafe. That terrible fight between Myron and Rafe brought on your stroke. I wish I could have spared you that heartache and pain." Tears welled in Lilly's eyes, trickled down her cheeks.
"I'm going now, but I'll never forget you. I promise, just like I promise to always love you and never forget you were the first person to love me."
Standing, she walked to her car and drove away fighting tears, fighting fear.
Copyright @ 2001 by Francis Ray.