Norma Jean James believed in a lot of things. She believed that gardening was soul food and that butter should be its own food group. She believed that hot rollers were the only way to curl your hair and that there should be as many libraries as coffee shops on corners. But above all, she believed that Jesus Christ was her savior, just like her mother and grandmother and the legions of women behind her.
She sat at her kitchen table, sweet tea in her right hand, and Bible in her left. Dappled sunlight filled her kitchen, as did the scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Her only vice was her voracious appetite for horoscopes, which she regarded as fun reads and not true markers of her future. According to everything that she had read, it was supposed to be a good day overall, with only minor blemishes.
Her Bible was open to Philippians 4:11-13. I am not saying this because I am in need, she read, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. It reminded her to be content in her life, that she had plenty already, and had more than plenty to give. She was retired, but her schedule was busier now than it had been when she was a full-time librarian. Her husband had passed years ago, her son had moved north, and it left her to fill her time with soup kitchens and Bible study and clothing drives. Her duties weighed her, at times. She dampened herself in public, letting people see herself as they wanted. She prided herself on being a chameleon, even if it left her hollow for hours after an event. After all, she reminded herself, reading the last line of the passage, I can do this through him who gives me strength.
Some days, though, she didn’t feel strong, because–and these were her guarded secrets–she believed in other things. Norma Jean James believed in the stars, patterns seen all over in nature. She partly told herself that it was quite all right to believe in these things, but Deuteronomy said otherwise. Thus the horoscopes remained solely as entertainment. On days when she felt weak, she filled her entire being with gardening, baking cookies, and reading. Today was a weak day. She had Bible study tonight, but otherwise, she intended to fill her day with precisely those three things.
There was a purple folder to her right bursting with weekly newspaper clippings. She filled it this past Sunday during a weak spell. She pushed it away, across the table, and turned a page in her Bible instead. She eyed the folder; her hands trembled from the temptation. She shook her head, willing away her weaknesses. Instead, she lifted her glass of sweet tea. The folder called to her just the same. She set the glass down on the table. Her hands shook as she reached for the folder and–
Spilled her glass of sweet tea. “Son of a biscuit!” she cursed. Norma Jean James lunged for the folder. It was one of those paper ones, and the tea had drenched the bottom corner. She yanked it open and pulled out newspaper clip after newspaper clip, lining her kitchen table from edge to edge with the semi-saturated paper. Edges curled and ink smeared. But they were still legible, thank goodness.
From the front of her house, the screen door slammed. Norma Jean James flinched in equal parts from the noise and her realization: Sally Mae was here. Sally Mae was her dearest friend both at church and in life in general. She usually loved her unannounced visits, coming into her house as if she lived there. They had gone to school together and had raised their children together. Although Sally Mae could be vapid and judgmental at times, Norma Jean James loved her fiercely. Which was why she couldn’t let her see these newspaper clippings.
“Hello, darlin’,” called Sally Mae.
“Why hello, there,” replied Norma Jean James. She willed her voice to sound light and unbothered.
“Do I smell cinnamon rolls?” Sally Mae was still in her front foyer, taking off her shoes.
“Yes, ma’am. Would you like some?”
“Is that even a question?” Sally Mae’s voice was strained and breathless.
Good, thought Norma Jean James, she’s still taking off her shoes. “Would you like some coke with your roll or some sweet tea?” she called.
“Sweet tea, please,” Sally Mae called back.
“Okay, dear. How does the back porch sound?” Norma Jean James got to work, gathering her finer dishes and glasses for her company. She would distract Sally Mae and get her straight to the back porch. She wouldn’t have to compromise. Her newspaper clippings would dry, and Sally Mae would remain ignorant.
“Well, it’s quite humid. I just went to the hairdresser yesterday. Can’t we just stay inside?” Sally Mae’s voice was unlabored and traveling closer. Norma Jean James didn’t have much time.
“I would love to sit out and listen to the birds today if that’s okay with you. I just fed them, and I think I even saw a Kirtland Warbler,” she said, the lie sliding off her tongue. “After all, Job 38:41 says, Who provides food for the ravens when their young cry out to God and wander about in hunger?”
“Yes, but according to Matthew 10:31, Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. And quite frankly, Norma Jean, my hair is more valuable to me than many, many sparrows.” Sally Mae entered the threshold to her kitchen, smiling. And then, she gasped.
Norma Jean James started, thinking she had positioned her body perfectly to hide the newspaper clippings on the table behind her. But instead, she realized what caused Sally Mae’s gasp. It was much worse than the newspaper clippings.
“Your Bible!” she cried.
Norma Jean James’s Bible, still open to Philippians, was soaked. The sweet tea had already settled into the thin pages, causing waves and distortions. “Oh, dag nabbit!” It was her family Bible, holding generations of signatures and her whole family tree within its front cover. “I must have spilled it getting your cinnamon roll,” she lied again.
“Bless your heart, you’re usually not so clumsy,” Sally Mae replied. She retrieved Norma Jean James’s older and more raggedy tea towels, soaking up the mess. “I think if we lay this on your back porch, it will dry out fine. The pages may never lay flat again, though.”
Norma Jean James wiped the sweat from her brow. “Oh, thank goodness. That’s a good plan.”
Norma Jean James felt, rather than saw, Sally Mae go still.
“What on earth are these, Norma Jean?”
She reached her hands in front of her, reaching toward Sally Mae but not touching her. “It’s not what you think.”
“Are you practicing divination, Norma Jean?”
“No, no, of course not. They’re just a fun read, that’s all.”
“Consulting horoscopes is a violation of God’s word, Norma Jean.” Sally Mae’s voice turned harsh and uncaring. “You should be praying, not looking at these, these–” her voice broke, but she continued, “these hidden arts.” She poked her finger at the clippings and then her Bible. “It looks like you were so worried about these drying out that you ruined your family Bible.”
“You said it wasn’t ruined.” Norma Jean James’s voice sounded whiney even to her own ears.
Sally Mae shook her head in disgust. She lifted a hand as if to strike her, and then lowered it, curling her hand into a fist. “You may be my oldest and dearest friend, but I renounce you and your practices of sorcery,” she spat. “We will pray for you at Bible study tonight. I hope you can reform your spirit and enter the church in good graces yet again someday.” Her eyes glistened, her cheeks were splotched with red. Sally Mae opened her mouth and closed it, much like a fish out of water. Norma Jean James wanted to do something to rectify this situation. However, she also knew that all of their church teachings prevented either of them from doing so. Sally Mae pursed her lips closed, turned, and stalked down the long front hallway.
Norma Jean James stood stock still as Sally Mae undertook the arduous task of putting her shoes back on in absolute silence. After the screen door slammed once again, she returned to her newspaper clippings, her weekly horoscopes from half a dozen newspapers and magazines. She dragged her finger along the table, searching. She felt as inside out and upside down as a pineapple upside-down cake, but she still knew what she was looking for.
There. Bottom row, third from the left. “You will find freedom this week, but expect to experience a fleeting but significant loss.”
Norma Jean James hummed to herself. Sally Mae would come around–it was written in the stars. Plus, Sally Mae loved the scripture from Matthew 6:14-15. She would forgive her.
Meanwhile, Norma Jean James had things to plant, cookies to bake, and books to read.