First off, I’d like to thank Miss Karen for telling me this story. Karen, you know who you are.
Our story starts with a young man. This young man had a large snake tattoo on his neck, slithering upward onto his shaved scalp. The frightful tattoo was one of many.
On his forearms, for example, were even more disturbing tats. And these were not the kinds of artsy tattoos you see on suburban, middle-aged dads who drive minivans. These were crude, Sing Sing-style tattoos done with the ink from a BIC pen.
The young, tattooed custodian entered the fellowship hall during women’s Bible study hour one Wednesday morning, pushing a mop. He quietly went about his business, cleaning the church, listening to rap music on earbuds.
The old women in the Bible study group were seated in a semicircle of folding chairs. They stared at the illustrated man with slack-jawed horror.
These were church ladies with hearing aids, Coke-bottle glasses, and quilted Bible covers. These were decent women who wore Chanel No. 5, and lily-white Keds. Who was this man?
“Is that our new custodian?” asked one old lady in pearls and polyester.
“Surely not,” whispered another. “He looks like an inmate.”
He was, indeed, a former prisoner. The young man had just gotten out of county lockup. The church hired him to do odd jobs, sweep floors, vacuum the sanctuary, and chlorinate the baptismal.
He was a good worker, and a nice guy. There had been complaints about him, of course. Lots of complaints. But none were based on his character. Just his appearance.
Which brings us to Karen.
Karen is 74 years young. She has been attending this 200-member church in the piney woods since infancy. Her husband used to be the treasurer here before he died.
For years, Karen has headed up the committee that produced the annual cookbook on the mimeograph machine. Karen was church secretary once. She has a key to the sanctuary. She arranges the flowers. She does everything here but preach the sermons.
After Bible study, Karen invited the young man to supper.
Initially he turned her down and said he didn’t want to impose, but you do not turn Karen down. She is a church lady’s church lady. And all church ladies wield spellbinding powers over the stomachs of mortal men.
“I’ll cook rice savoy casserole,” she said.
That evening, the young man was at her dining table, gorging himself on extra-large helpings of a casserole that was at least 82 percent butter. He ate enough deviled eggs to choke Cool Hand Luke.
Once he was finished eating, he and Karen began talking. He told her his story.
He was trying to get his life together. He wanted to go to college. He was saving up to buy a car. He wanted to get married, have kids, a dog maybe. Before he left, Karen embraced him, and invited him to Bible study.
This took him off guard, but he hesitantly agreed to come.
The next Wednesday, at women’s Bible study, the group was startled to learn it had a new member. The tattooed young man was sitting in the semicircle among them. A quilted Bible cover resting upon his lap.
“Ladies,” announced Karen. “I’d like to introduce you to Michael. Our newest member.”
Michael stood and introduced himself.
Over the following months, the women became fond of Michael. Actually, that’s inaccurate. They flat-out adored him. They brought him things. They cooked for him. They gave him truckloads of baked goods that were sugary enough to disable a human pancreas.
Someone gifted Michael a used Oldsmobile. Another woman let him live in her garage apartment. Michael was often seen at the houses of these old women, helping with hard work, doing repairs, lifting heavy things, and cutting lawns.
After a few years, Michael began facilitating the Bible study itself when Karen wasn’t able to attend. Soon, he was even in charge of sending the prayer-chain emails.
But all good things have an expiration date. Especially good things.
Michael became sick. Very sick. And it happened fast. Cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitis C do not mess around. There was no coming back for Michael.
One fateful Wednesday morning, he found himself lying in his hospital room, amidst blinking monitors and medical machinery. You can imagine his surprise when 14 white-haired women pushed their way into his room unannounced.
The ladies were all carrying folded lawn chairs and quilted Bible covers. They positioned their chairs in a semicircle around his bed.
“What’re you doing?” Michael asked weakly.
“What’s it look like?” said the coiffed-hair brigade. “It’s Wednesday. And you’re one of us.”
That day the women prayed for him. They wept over him. They kissed his face like mothers. They arranged his flowers.
He died a few weeks later.
At his graveside service, two of Michael’s pals attended. These were men cut from the same cloth Michael had come from. They had inked forearms, denim clothing, steel-toed boots, and roughened hands.
One of these young men asked Karen flatly, “Who are all these ladies at Michael’s funeral? And how did they know Michael so well?”
Karen answered by hooking arms with the young man.
“Come to my house for supper,” Karen said. “And I’ll explain everything.”