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the yada yada Prayer Group GETS REALa Novel
By neta jackson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Neta Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCHICAGO-NEW YEAR'S DAY 2003
The call of nature-Willie Wonka's, not mine-got me out of bed at the bleary hour of seven thirty, even though the New Year's Eve party upstairs had kept me awake till after three. Three a.m.! But Willie Wonka's bladder was on dog-time-old dog-time at that-making sleeping in on holidays a moot point. Stuffing my feet into my scuffs and pulling Denny's big terry robe around me, I stumbled out of our bedroom mumbling thinly disguised threats at our chocolate Lab as he led me to the back door.
Coming into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of pale blue sky and the rising sun bouncing off a row of windows at the top of a nearby apartment building like golden dragon eyes ... and for a nano-second I entertained the illusion of a blissful day in Key West. But when I opened the back door to let Willie Wonka out, a wall of icy air killed that pipe dream. I slammed the door after Willie's tail and peered at the little red needle on the back porch thermometer.
Brrr. Ten degrees.
Then I smiled. Add the windchill factor, which was sure to kick up by noon, and surely the Uptown Community Church youth group would cancel the so-called Polar Bear Plunge they had scheduled for today.
But by the time Denny and the kids wandered out of their bedrooms around eleven o'clock, the thermometer had inched up to almost twenty degrees, and everyone looked at me stupidly when I asked if they were going to cancel. "Mom," said Josh patiently, pouring himself a heaping bowl of oat flakes and raisins, "it's a Chicago tradition." As if that explained anything.
"Happy New Year, babe," Denny murmured, wrapping his arms around me from behind-and the next thing I knew he had untied the belt, snatched his robe off me, and disappeared with it into the bathroom.
"I was just warming it up for you!" I yelled after him, scurrying back into our bedroom in my pajamas. Time to get dressed anyway.
"Mo-om!" whined Amanda, wandering into the kitchen ten minutes later while I was making another pot of coffee. "I really need a new bathing suit. This one is so ... so babyish."
I turned and eyed my fifteen-year-old. Apart from the fact that it was absurd to be talking about bathing suits in the middle of a Chicago winter, there was nothing "babyish" about this busty teenager, who was indeed filling out her one-piece bathing suit in all the right-or wrong-places. I declined to comment. "Go get some clothes on before you catch cold," I ordered. But I grinned at her back. I'd make some hot cocoa and take it along-that'd be a big hit after "the plunge."
The phone rang at 11:25. "Jodi!" said a familiar voice. "Are these niñitos still going to do this craziness?"
I allowed myself a small grin as I cradled the phone on my shoulder and stirred the pot of hot chocolate. "I'm afraid so, Delores. And not just 'niñitos,' either. Denny's got his bathing suit on under his sweats, in case he gets brave. Is José coming?" Like I couldn't guess. Delores Enriquez's fifteen-year-old son had been showing up rather frequently, trailing Amanda like Peter Pan's shadow. Or was it the other way around?
"Sí. Emerald, too, but just to watch. Edesa and I are coming up on the el with them. This I've got to see for myself."
Two more phone calls followed in quick succession from Yada Yada Prayer Group members. Florida Hickman wanted to know what elevated train stop was closest to the beach where the Polar Bear Plunge would take place; Ruth Garfield grumbled that only love for Yo-Yo Spencer and her brothers would get her and Ben out on New Year's Day for such craziness. "But what can we do? A car they don't have. We'll be there at twelve. Then straight to the doctor so they don't die of pneumonia. Oy vey." A click told me the conversation was over, and all I'd said was, "Hello?"
THE SMALL CROWD GATHERED AT LOYOLA BEACH along the bleak lakeshore of Chicago's north side, wearing ski jackets, knit hats, and fat mittens, looked oddly out of place tromping over the sand. Even more so because a mild December had delayed the usual buildup of ice and frozen spray sculptures that usually marked Lake Michigan's winter shoreline. The lapping water looked deceptively harmless.
"Going in, Jodi?"
I squinted up into the face of Uptown's lanky pastor, who could easily have played Ichabod Crane in community theater. Widowed and childless, Pastor Clark was Uptown Community-a mission church that stubbornly hung out its shingle in Rogers Park, Chicago's most diverse neighborhood. Today he was bundled in an outdated navy parka with a snorkel hood, a long hand-knit scarf wound around his neck, hands shoved in his jacket pockets.
"Me? Not for love or money!" I held up the armload of beach towels and blankets I was carrying. "I'm here on life support."
He chuckled and trudged on to greet others gathering to witness the Polar Bear Plunge. The crowd was growing, and I saw Leslie Stuart's silver Celica pull into the beach parking lot. "Stu" had been attending Uptown Community for several months, ever since we'd met at the Chicago Women's Conference last May, even though she lived in Oak Park, on the west side of the city.
"Hey, Jodi. You going to take the plunge?" Stu's long blonde hair and multiple earrings were hidden by a felt cap with earflaps. She was grinning, flap to flap.
"Don't think so. Calendar says January."
"Ah, c'mon. You know what Oliver Wendell Holmes said: 'You don't quit playing because you get old; you get old because you quit playing.' Hey-there's Delores and Edesa!" She waved both arms in their direction.
I bit my tongue. Stu was probably in her midthirties-not that much younger than I was. But she didn't have to make me feel like an "old fogy" just because I was smart enough not to jump in the lake.
"Ack! I left something in the car." Stu ran for the parking lot, passing Delores Enriquez and Edesa Reyes as they headed my way, bundled against the stiff wind adding whitecaps to the choppy gray water. I dumped my load of blankets and towels so I could give them each a hug.
Delores and Edesa were members of a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church and had attended the same conference that had brought women together from various churches around the city. None of us imagined that the prayer group we'd been assigned to for the weekend would take on a life of its own. But when Delores got an emergency phone call that weekend saying her son José had been caught in gang crossfire in a local park-well, no way we could stop praying after that, just because the conference was over.
"Where are Emerald and José?" I asked.
Delores jutted her chin in the direction of the knot of excited teenagers gathering at the water's edge, still bundled in their winter coats. "Such antics!" The forty-something mother wagged her head. "Mi familia en México? They will think we have all gone loco." She rolled her eyes. "But whatever Amanda and Josh do, Emerald and José want to do it too."
"Don't mind Delores, Jodi," Edesa said cheerfully. "Underneath all that fussing, she's happy José is alive and can do something fun and crazy!" Edesa's dark eyes danced in her warm mahogany face. Edesa-college student, baby-sitter, and "big sister" to the Enriquez children-wore her African-Honduran heritage as brightly as the neon-orange wrap that held back her mop of loose, nappy curls. And she'd rescued Amanda's grades last spring tutoring her in freshman Spanish.
"Hey, Ben! Over here!" I heard Denny's voice hail Ruth and Ben Garfield trudging over the hard-packed sand like two refugees trekking out of Siberia, following Yo-Yo Spencer and her half brothers, Pete and Jerry. The boys ditched the adults and joined the teasing, shoving group of teenagers at the water's edge, as Ruth and Ben stopped to talk to Denny.
"Hey." Yo-Yo nodded at Delores and me, then arched an eyebrow at Edesa. "You gonna take the plunge, 'Desa? Jodi? Anybody?"
"Are you serious?" Edesa shook her curls and laughed.
Yo-Yo grinned, reached inside her overalls and bulky sweatshirt, and pulled out a swimsuit strap. "I dunno. Thought I might if some other adults did." She tipped her spiky blonde head toward Ruth and Ben, who were still talking to Denny. "Didn't tell Ruth, though, or she woulda given me a nonstop lecture all the way here. Didn't tell Pete or Jerry, neither. Ya know them two-they think you're dead meat if you're over twenty."
I hooted. Yo-Yo "dead meat" at the ripe old age of twenty-three? Ha!
A flurry of activity near the shoreline caught our attention as the teenagers and even a handful of brave-or merely foolish-Uptown adults started shedding coats, sweatshirts, sweatpants, shoes, and socks and dumping them in piles on the beach. "Oh, good grief," I sputtered. "Denny is really gonna do it. Stu, too."
The Polar Bear Plungers formed a ragged line, backs to the water, facing the huddled onlookers. Bundled up as I was, I still felt the bite of the wind nipping off the lake, making my eyes water. Denny was jogging in place, trying to keep his blood going, while the younger set hopped up and down from one bare foot to the next. Josh-the oldest Uptown youth at eighteen-held up both hands like a prizefighter, dressed only in his swim trunks, complete with shaved head. "We who are about to freeze," he yelled, grinning defiantly, "salute thee!"
The Polar Bear line went crazy, cheering and yelling like gladiators about to enter the arena.
"Hey, wait for us!" somebody yelled. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Chris and Cedric Hickman-Florida's boys-running toward the line of half-naked daredevils, leaving a trail of their clothes and shoes on the sand as they stripped to their swim trunks. Behind them, Florida was hustling in our direction, picking up clothes as she went, trailed by a tall black man carrying a young girl piggyback.
"Bless You, Jesús!" Delores breathed. "It's Carl Hickman! And Carla. The whole family!" She winked at me. "Now maybe that's worth coming out today to see."
I felt torn between wanting to greet Florida and her husband-it was a first, Carl showing up at an Uptown event with his family-and not wanting to miss The Plunge. Just then the ragged line broke ranks and ran into the water, yelling at the top of their lungs. Beside me, Yo-Yo kicked off her shoes, dropped her denim overalls and sweatshirt, and ran toward the water.
"What? Yo-Yo's going in? That girl, she is crazy, yes?" Without turning my head, I knew Ruth and Ben had joined our little cluster. "And Denny! A heart attack he is going to have."
I was trying to keep track of my kids in the water-Amanda was still wearing her bright red knit hat-to make sure they came out again. But I couldn't help laughing at Denny, lifting his legs high and waving his arms, looking for all the world like a marionette pulled by invisible strings. A majority of the teens plunged headfirst into the numbing-cold water, then came splashing out, still yelling and dancing up and down. Denny, probably figuring he'd gone far enough proving his manhood, turned when he'd waded in up to his waist and splashed back to shore.
I rushed forward with my armload of towels and blankets, trying to locate my shivering family. "You're nuts," I told Denny, throwing an old quilt over his shoulders, but he just grinned, as proud of himself as if he'd climbed Mount Everest. Josh ran up, grabbed a towel, and ran off again to pose with the youth group for somebody's camera.
"Here, Yo-Yo," I said, handing her an extra beach towel, as we rejoined the group of Yada Yada sisters and the ragtag assortment of husbands and younger kids. "Hey, Florida. Carl, it's great to see you ... and Carla!" I grabbed the eight-year-old and gave her a hug. "You guys coming to the Warm-Up Party at Uptown? Pastor Clark drove the church van here to give a ride to anybody who needs one."
Carla hopped up and down in her white pull-on snow boots, tugging on her daddy's hand. "I want some hot chocolate!"
I bent down to her level. "I've got some in the car. Yours will be the first cup when we get to the church."
"No! I mean over there!" The little girl pointed and all heads turned. Sure enough, Stu-back in her sweats and felt helmet-was passing out Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate from a huge Igloo cooler to a cluster of grateful teens. Right on the beach.
"Sure, baby. Come on," Carl murmured, as she pulled him away.
I groaned inwardly. Upstaged again. God, why do I always feel like this around Stu? Then I scolded myself. Suck it up, Jodi Baxter. Who gave you a patent on bringing hot chocolate? I looked at Ben and Ruth. "You guys coming to the Warm-Up Party?"
"Don't look at me," Ben Garfield groused. "Ask Ruth. I'm just the cabbie."
"Of course we come," Ruth announced. "We didn't drive all this way to just watch these young people catch their death. Though the purpose of such nonsense, I don't see." She looked this way and that. "Where's Avis? Doesn't she go to your church?"
"Ha!" I snorted. "You're not going to get Avis out of the house to watch a bunch of crazies dip in the lake in midwinter-not unless it was a baptism or something."
"Well, now, see?" Florida grinned slyly. "I been prayin' that this here Polar Bear thing be like a prophecy, an' someday we gonna see all these kids come outta that water washed in the blood of Jesus."
Yo-Yo had one leg back in her overalls and one leg out. But she froze in midhop as if someone had yelled, "Red light!" in the kids' party game. Her blue-gray eyes widened. "Whatcha talkin' 'bout, Florida? Washed in what blood?"
Excerpted from the yada yada Prayer Group GETS REAL by neta jackson Copyright © 2007 by Neta Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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