The church basement was the same as every other church basement on the face of the Earth. Even if you have never ventured into a church basement, it is exactly the way you think it is.
A church basement, and especially this particular church basement, has a layer of dust that floats around the air. If you catch the light at the right angle, you can see the individual pieces of dust and grime and animal hair that has drifted off of the clothes of the woman with too many dogs. It has strange stains on the patterned carpet. Several of which have been hidden under pianos or storage boxes. Unfortunately, the stains seem to be spreading. That or the piano takes long jogs at night and can never manage to get itself back in quite the right spot.
The women who ran the book club really did try to keep it nice though. The funding of the Church was lacking, and the book club was the first on the list of things to be done away with if necessary. In fact the members of the church did disband the book club several years ago, and attendance came to a near complete stop. But the women of the ‘Readers Dozen’ book club refused to give up their weekly baked goods and literary analyses for the sake of cost.
A contract (contract is a loose term in this context, mind you) was written on the back of a muffin liner in a church pew. The pastor looked questioningly in their direction for long enough that even Alette started to pay attention again. Now, this contract stated that the members of the Readers Dozen book club would hold meetings in the Church basement every Thursday evening and would not receive any funding for books or desserts from the First Baptist Church of Casper, Wyoming. Lenore, a founding member, also included that the club “would refuse any offers of donations and instead donate them to soup kitchens or libraries respectively.”
Several members thought that this was perhaps excessive, but Lenore maintains to this day it was the only way they would have gotten approved.
Of course they were never actually approved.
None of the ladies were officially given a key to the church or pointed in the direction of said key. But someone always seemed to find a way down the green carpeted stairs and into the basement.
And the pastor really wouldn’t mind them using the basement anyway if he didn’t know.
It was a staple of the book club, and quickly becoming the main purpose, to bring at least one dessert each.
The baking is actually what made Catherine aware of the book club. Alette and Annabel had come into her bakery and twisted her arm into donating the day-old muffins to the club.
The thing is, they so conveniently left the box of muffins on a table on their way out. Catherine, who had studied food waste in grad school before she had dropped out, always felt bad about the amount of pastries she actually tossed out at the end of the week. With her guilt, and perhaps some curiosity, Catherine had delivered the muffins to the church one evening in June.
The drive to the church was quick, and Catherine only had to slam on the breaks for a squirrel once (a record for her).
The backdoor to the church was open slightly. Catherine figured that no one would be terribly upset if she slipped in to see if the club was there; it was a church after all. Churches have to be welcoming.
She heard chattering on the far side of the lobby. The carpet was slightly sticky, and the air remarkably dusty in the light. Catherine tiptoed down the length of the dark lobby. The sun flickered in through the small windows, illuminating the path enough for her to make out the leg of a table just before she rammed into it.
She gasped in pain, and gripped the box of muffins. The cardboard of one side dented in and Catherine felt a muffin crush under her thumb. She took a few deep breaths and continued on her way, still following the sound of laughter.
Catherine soon reached the top of a flight of stairs. A child-sized chair propped open the door to the basement.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” She called, “I brought the muffins you wanted.”
The laughter stopped.
Two women with white curly hair, and a woman with a delicately placed head wrap, slowly appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
“Who are you?” The woman with the head wrap asked. She spoke in a kind way, it reminded Catherine of her great aunt Flora.
“Um, well I’m,” Catherine felt a sudden coldness: for all her kindness, Great Aunt Flora had always terrified Catherine, “you wanted muffins?”
Another woman, slightly younger with magenta lipstick that had been smudged above her upper lip, peaked around the corner.
“Oh yes,” She waved Catherine down the stairs, “Alette and I forgot the muffins at your little bakery this morning.”
Catherine made her way down the unusually steep green staircase, trying her best not to fall or even worse, drop the muffins.
“I was just telling the girls about how cute your shop is, wasn’t I?” The women who had now moved away from the base of the stairs nodded. They moved as a herd around the corner, abandoning Catherine to navigate the stairs alone. She stumbled twice on the last step alone and nearly dropped the muffin box when she grabbed for the railing.
When Catherine was at last away from the stairs, she was able to see the woman with the magenta lipstick rubbing gently at her chest and neck while telling a lively story that no one else seemed to care about.
Amid a suspenseful pause in the story, the woman grabbed the muffin box out of Catherine’s hands, and distributed muffins to the members of the book club. When she was done she set the, still very full, muffin box on the top of the piano, and spun on her heels to face Catherine.
“I need to introduce everyone,” the woman spoke with a wide smile. The lipstick made her mouth look like it had been cut open to the sides, Joker style.
“Well if you don’t remember, my name is Annabel Poe, I was 49.” Again the woman rubbed at her sternum.
She gestured over to the group. “And these lovely ladies are some of my best friends and I hope you find the same friendship in them as I did.”
The group of women were now sitting in metal chairs in a circle, each with what looked to be a copy of Madame Bovary.
“That there,” she gestured to the woman with the hair wrap, “is Lenore Abebe. She was 43. She was a lawyer, real smart. But you will see that she is not eating any of your muffins because according to our ‘contract’ we aren’t supposed to receive any ‘donations.’” The oldest woman of the bunch snorted around a mouthful of lemon poppyseed muffin.
Annabel moved to her next.
“That is the one and only Alette Notley, she was 96, a tumble down the stairs, poor thing,”
Alette grunted, “No decent hand rails these days. Men.”
The ladies ignored her.
“And this is Elissa Dido, but we just call her Queenie. 59.” Queenie had a red, long sleeve blouse on, with an excessive amount of bangles and bracelets trailing up her arms. When she lifted her blueberry muffin up to her mouth, her jewelry made her sound like a small child had gotten into the china cabinet. Queenie waved gleefully at Catherine and in doing so, made her bracelets click together in such an irritating way that Catherine was tempted to cover her ears.
“And last but not least this is Sylvia Hughes.” Annabel pointed to the last woman, one of the three who had greeted her at the staircase. The woman glared up at her, and if Catherine were any less forgiving she would have mentioned the obvious eye roll.
“Sylvia was an alcoholic. 63 years old. A shame she’s still as bitter as her drinks.” Annabel said it with a chuckle, but Catherine could sense the truth behind the comedy.
“Well I’m Catherine,” she waved to the group. No one waved back. “And I’m very glad that you got clean Sylvia, my mother struggled with-”
“Got clean? Oh honey I didn’t get clean, I died. There’s a difference.” Sylvia’s voice was rough, hoarse. It sounded like she was choking out every word she spoke.
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” Catherine cleared her throat, “I don’t understand.”
Annabel pulled a chair around for Catherine, who declined the seat with a polite smile.
“Well honey you really might want to sit.” Spoke Alette. “Might fall over.”
Catherine sat in the stiff metal chair, joining the circle with the women.
Queenie, in her mousy voice, began to explain, “Sweetheart, I’m so glad you chose to join us today, it makes this a lot easier to explain.” She paused and looked at Catherine.
A silence fell over the room.
Alette rolled her eyes, finished the last of her muffin. “You died hun. And I’d put good money on the fact that a man had something to do with it.”
Catherine started to laugh. The ridiculousness of these claims brought against her.
Then the anger set in.
“Don’t say that about Jonathan,” she got up to leave. “He would never hurt me.” The group was chattering behind her while she stormed out.
“No one said anything about a Jonathan.” The pained voice of Sylvia. Catherine stopped at the base of the stairs. The door at the top was shut. She was the last down the stairs and she had not closed the door.
She turned around. They hadn’t said anything about him. How could they know anything about it at all.
“You see sweetheart,” Lenore spoke this time, “we are all dead. And men really have a lot to do with women dying, now don’t they?”
“The world is filled with women who said ‘He wouldn’t hurt me’ and lo and behold men are still men.” Alette spoke, annoyed to even be mentioning men at all.
The women waited for Catherine to speak. She stayed silent.
Lenore continued, “I had lung cancer. But my husband didn’t want to pay for the treatment. Ed never let me work, but I would sneak out to shifts to afford the treatment while he was at his own job. I guess the cancer and the work just wore me out.”
“And I,” Sylvia said, “was strangled by my stalker.” If her voice was any indication of her honesty, she was most definitely strangled.
Annabel cleared her throat next to Catherine.
She instinctively jumped back, arms up to fight.
Annabel smiled. “I was stabbed by my husband.” She rubbed at her chest. “I am kind of glad he never learned how to do the laundry now though. He got caught because he couldn’t get the blood out of the sheets.”
Catherine looked around in horror.
“I was pushed down the stairs. By my shitty nephew.” Alette spoke, staring at the ground. “There’s a reason I never married a man.”
A chorus of ‘amens’ rose from the circle of women.
Catherine remained in stunned silence.
“I killed myself.” Queenie’s soft voice spoke. “My husband was not kind,” she did not look up from the ground.
Waiting for her own story to work its way out of her throat. It never came. It was lodged deep in her chest.
“It will come in time.” Lenore said. “It will come.”