A Strong Woman
Chapter 1

This story takes place in October and November, 2008

When it rains it pours – at least that's what it says on the Morton Salt containers. It had rained in September, and as events unfolded it became clear that it was pouring in October.

It was a Saturday and I was in the church office doing "elder stuff," as I call it. My church, MJT Christian Fellowship, had appointed me an elder nearly a year before, and I'd wound up making it a habit to, whenever possible, keep Saturday free from work and family and sit in my office in the church building. Taking the time from work was usually easy – I'm a PI who has enough money to work when I want to, and sit around when I don't want to work. Time away from my family wasn't much harder, since my work habits mean that I can usually spend time with my wife and daughter anytime I want to.

So it was Saturday, and I was struggling with some Greek. I don't know Greek, but as a preacher I've made it a point to get together as many references as I can, even books that mostly are too advanced to help me much, and I make do fairly well. Usually what I eventually learn from the Greek winds up confirming the English translation in the New Testament, but I do it anyway, on the theory that you can never have too much insight.

I was about to think that in this case, though, the insight wasn't going to come unless I could somehow gain about 200 IQ points – which would, I thought sourly, give me an IQ of about 50, the way my brain felt just then. And then there was rescue. I looked up eagerly as I heard a knock – not on the door, I knew, for that was open, but on the jamb as I saw when I raised my head.

"The lady upstairs told me you were down here sweatin' your brains out, an' I should come on down and give you some relief. So here I am." And she smiled as broadly as anyone I've ever seen.

She was a slender black woman, about average in tone, which made her a couple or three shades darker than Cecelia's milk chocolate skin. She had big dark eyes, gigantic hoop earrings, and an Afro that must have been as large as a basketball. She was wearing a sleeveless light blouse, for it was still warm outside during the day, in a light blue color. It hung outside her jeans, which fit her legs well and ended above, I saw as I stood up, sandaled feet.

"I'm Albuquerque Moreno," she said, "and I'm surely glad to meet you."

"I'm Darvin Carpenter," I told her, extending my hand across the desk.

She took it, her grasp firm and brief. "Well, Darvin Carpenter, I thought I'd come and talk to you, so if you don't mind I'll just grab a chair an' do that."

I grinned – this lady was something else. "No, I don't mind at all. That's what it's there for."

I sat down, and so did she. "You got a nice office here," she said.

"It does what I want it to do," I told her. "You got a nice Afro there. I ain't seen one like that since the 70s."

She laughed. "I a black woman, Darvin, an' I ain't about to do my hair like I'm white." I wasn't going to have to keep after this woman to use my first name, I realized. I also wasn't going to have to worry about her being too formal with her English – she'd been there just a minute or so and already she was sounding like she'd stepped out of the projects, though somehow I had the impression that she had an education. "You know, if someone wants to straighten her hair, or bleach it, or whatever, that's her thing an' I won't say 'boo' to her, but I black, an' I proud of it, an' this is the mos' natural hair a black woman can have."

I leaned back in my chair, an ordinary computer chair with plastic arms and blue cloth upholstery. "Back in the 60s, they used to call an Afro a 'natural.' There was a reason for that."

"Hey, now, I didn't know that!" The lady's voice had the nasal tone of so many black women, the sound that makes me wonder how anyone could think that honky derives from the way whites supposedly speak through their noses. And though her English was as ungrammatical as my own, and in anyone else her breezy manner would have come across about like that of a low budget used car salesman, I had the sense that this was one of the most genuine people I'd ever met.

"Lots of people don't," I said. "The 60s was a while back, after all. But if I don't keep this deal on track, we're gonna wind up chasin' ever' rabbit between here an' the Big Rez an' never get anywheres." Cecelia would have put her finger in my ribs hard if she'd heard that. "Why don't you tell me what you need to talk about, Miss Albuquerque?" Her use of my first name had put us on that basis, but I'd lived in the south long enough to use the honorific as a means of showing familiar respect.

"You can call me Burque – it's less of a mouthful." Her TH had come out sounding like an F, as is the case with some blacks – and, for that matter, with some southern whites. "As to why I'm here, well, I came to be a Christian the other day, an' the guy who brought me to the Lord tol' me he went to this church, an' I could talk to any of the elders if I wanted to know more."

I grinned, and then I stood up and walked around the desk and gave her a hug. I think it surprised her, but after a moment she hugged me back. We let each other go, and I sat down again. "That's in the nature of a welcome into the family of God," I told her. "As to the church, lemme do a quick rundown of our history, an' give you a booklet that'll give you an outline of what we believe, an' then I'll answer any questions you got – that I can answer, anyways."

The next morning I was due to preach, and when I got home that evening I printed my manuscript, used the hole punch on the credenza behind my desk in the study, and put it in the three-ring binder I'd take into the pulpit. I used to preach with few if any notes, but I came to realize that I was spending about three quarters of my time chasing rabbits that had nothing to do with my points, and so I'd gradually worked my way into using a full manuscript. It worked for Jonathan Edwards, and it works for me too, though I'm nowhere near Edwards' caliber.

On Sunday we got to the church building at our usual time, and greeted people from the foyer to our pew, which is the second from the front in the center section, on the right-hand end of the pew. I'd been sitting there back in 1994 when I met Cecelia, and she'd taken up her station to my left when we'd began to grow close. When Darlia came along in 1997, she first spent her Sunday mornings back in Albuquerque – she was born in Alabama – in Cecelia's lap, and then moved over to the left as she grew, where she sits to this day.

I was looking over the bulletin – don't ask me why I still do that, when as an elder I know everything that goes into it before they print the thing – when I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Darvin, honey, it's sure good to see you this mornin'!"

I looked up, and I saw the face the voice belonged to. "Hey, Burque, you didn't tell me you was comin' to church this mornin'."

"I hadn't decided yesterday," she said. And then her eyes left my face. "An' this mus' be the fam'ly you was tellin' me about yesterday."

"Yep. This is my wife Cecelia, and my daughter Darlia. And this," I said to them, "is Albuquerque Moreno. I met her yesterday when she came in for information about MJT."

Burque put her hand out. "Pleased to meet you, Miz Carpenter, an' you too, Miz Darlia."

Cecelia shook hands silently. She is emphatically not ebullient, vivacious, or anything along those lines, especially with people she's just met, and Albuquerque's brash approach must have grated on her. But Darlia was different. She grinned, and she said in her husky voice, "Miss Albuquerque, you talk like my dad, 'cept he don't sound black."

I nearly laughed, but Cecelia's rigid face stopped me. Not only is she not comfortable with the kind of initial full-throttle friendliness that Burque had on display, but her notions of English don't leave any room for the kind of casual, colloquial speech that I use, that Burque seemed to speak, and that Darlia shows a preference for.

Burque didn't know any of that, of course, and she did laugh. "I don't sp'ose he do. He be a white man." She slapped my shoulder. "Where at should I sit – just anywheres?"

"Yeah, that's about it. We ain't too picky around here."

"Okay, then, I'll go find me a spot."

When Burque was gone, Cecelia looked at me. "Did my ears deceive me, Darvin, or was that young lady just slightly less forward than a politician running for reelection?"

"That's the second time I met her, and yeah, she can be overwhelming. But I don't thinks she's fakin' it – that's just the way she is, or so it seems anyway."

"Her English is horrid. I haven't spoken like that since I was 12 or 13."

"Her English, Cecelia, is no worse than many blacks', and I include some college graduates in that list. It's better than a whole lot of people, black, white, brown, and purple."

"Daddy, there aren't any purple people!" Darlia said from her spot.

"Then what did the purple people eater eat?" I asked her.

"The people eater was purple!" she said.

"Shush," Cecelia told her. "This isn't a library, but you should nevertheless not shout at someone who is within two yards of you."

"Yes, Mom."

"And don't sulk."

Darlia nodded, clearly not quite ready to quit sulking entirely.

Cecelia turned back to me. "You didn't mention Miss Moreno – I am assuming she is unmarried – to me yesterday or this morning."

"It slipped me," I said, and it was the truth. "I'd have got to it eventually, but she got kind of previous."

Finally Cecelia must have seen something of the humor of it all, for she gave me a slight smile. "Yes, darling, she did. And I for one would have appreciated a warning. Blizzards of good cheer require preparation this early in the morning."

I smiled back at her. "You know, C, I been married to you for 13 years, an' that's the first time I've ever heard you say anything negative about mornings."

"Whereas for you to praise a morning requires an act of God – and even then you do it kicking and screaming. You are not a morning person, and I sincerely hope the resurrection occurs after the sun has passed the meridian, for if it doesn't, I verily believe you'll look the Lord in the eye and say, grumpily, 'Wake me up after lunch.'"

After the times I've provoked her into uncontrolled laughter, it must have pleased her mightily to seem me choke in the effort to keep from disrupting things.

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