I slide into the tan leather seat of Daryl’s Monte Carlo. The car smells like evergreen air freshener and cologne. A yellow crocheted cross hangs in the rearview mirror.
I’m a good daughter.
Mom wanted me to meet Daryl, the new preacher at her new church in her new life. He goes to school too, she said. Bob Jones Bible College. He plays bass in a praise band and takes mission trips to Mexico. He’s a real nice guy. Just a fine young Christian man. Good looking, too, she said.
I turn and smile at the fine young Christian man.
So nice to meet you, I say.
Daryl stretches his neck to see my parents’ carport and front door. He’s wearing a brown leather jacket. A gold chain hangs in the silky v-neck of his baby blue sweater. His cropped hair shines.
“Shouldn’t we pray with your mama before we go?” he asks.
Mom had said they prayed together, out loud, for the church and each other. Maybe even for me.
“She’s at the church finishing the Mary and Joseph costumes,” I say.
“Still? I thought she said she was about done. Said she’d be home by now.”
He blinks several times as he squeezes the steering wheel. His shoulders tighten. His jacket sleeves are too short. Dark hairs sweep the pale round bones of his wrist.
After a moment, he shrugs: a quick tick of the neck.
“Fine,” he says. “K&W’s just down the road. They got chicken pot pie and real good fish sticks. Your mama loves their banana pudding.”
Mom is born again. Now she likes fruit for dessert.
We stand in the K&W Cafeteria line with families and old people in wind suits. I haven’t been here since high school. The same brass rails route us through the room towards the heat lamps and servers in white paper hats. Every few steps we pass a print of the Blue Ridge Mountains, each a shade of watercolor blue.
If he had asked, I would have mentioned that I’ve been homesick for Barley’s. They have Magic Hat on tap and put pine nuts on their pizza. But I know he doesn’t drink. It’s a sin of the flesh.
I had prepared myself for questions about San Francisco and graduate school, if I go to church out there, if I live the Christ-like life with Christ-like friends. But Daryl asks nothing.
I remind myself that I’m a good daughter.
“You’re from Spruce Pine?” I ask.
Daryl crosses his arms and stares at the menu board on the wall.
“Since a baby,” he says.
His eyes run back and forth over the menu. Chicken livers. Stromboli. Steak and pasta. Fried flounder.
“How’s working at the church?” I ask.
He taps his class ring on the railing.
The line curls past the beige dining room. A family fills a corner table. Their heads are lowered, eyes closed.
That’s where Daryl will clasp his hands. He’ll bow his head. He’ll say, Lord, bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies. Forgive our sins. Deliver her from evil.
We get closer to the self-serve trays and the rolls of silverware. I can see the salad bar. Cups of green Jell-O cubes are shoved into ice chips.
“So, what are you going to get?” I ask.
“I wish she’d called me,” he says. “I told her on Sunday there’s no use making things from scratch. Nothing wrong with bathrobes in a Christmas pageant. I even offered mine. It’s brown and real thick.”
“I was Mary one Christmas,” I say. “I wore a choir robe.”
The robe was glossy pale blue. Mom bobby-pinned a pillowcase on my head to cover my hair.
In front of us, a little girl in a red dress and patent leather shoes climbs the railing. Daryl watches her swing her butt into the air. Her skirt flips up. White tights bite into the creases of her thighs.
Daryl’s eyes widen. His mouth slides up into a crooked grin. His shoulders fall; he tilts his head back and laughs.
“Your mama,” he says, “she was chasing those three-year-olds all around Sunday School last week. She had kids just all over her. Her hair got tugged out her braid and fell all around her face. And she got that big smile.”
Then Daryl turns to me. He beams, amused and delighted and so full of what they call the light of God, the glorious gift of love, the joy of eternal life.
His breath breezes my cheek.
“You don’t look much like her,” he says.
And then Daryl closes his eyes and lifts his nose to the food line, to the servers spooning sweet potatoes and collard greens, fried zucchini and cottage cheese with pineapple bits, to the swirled white cream and yellow pudding, the soggy vanilla wafers, the browning banana.