She always felt so warm here, so comfortable and totally at ease, although she had long realized that her comfort and warmth were, after all, empty. The aqua-robed choir, shuffling side to side, to the right with a clap, then to the left with another clap, all in perfect unison. Their swaying, swooshing robes were a frame—almost a bright blue ocean backdrop from a school play—to the white-suited dervish who spun, rocked back on platform heels, stomped one foot forward and then the other, punctuating his words like a rhythm section all to himself. But of course the Reverend Alvin Foster had a rhythm section too—two besuited teenagers on bass and drums, one of them his favorite nephew, and as always Sister Marian on tambourine, banging away, a glow of sheer joy spread across her face.
The choir voices soared, rising to the low rafters and shuddering the small church to its very frame. Words of forgiveness, of salvation, of eternal bliss filled the crowded room, sixteen bars of fervent singing which then dropped to the melody hummed en masse as Reverend Foster paused his dance and resumed his sermon, continuing at first with the choir’s heavenly message before gracefully easing to a more cautionary tone.
“The world’s one big temptation, my people. Satan is out there on those streets, tempting all the time, making his wicked ways look pretty good if you’re not careful. He’s out there on the streets, in Babylon, in Sodom, just waiting for you to slip up and fall into his arms. Too bad you can’t stay here in the church all the time, stay safe and protected by God’s word. But it don’t work that way. You gotta go out in the world, live your lives, work your job, raise your families, do as good as you can and hold off Satan for as long as you can.
“And being out in the world gets you closer to other people. We live for others, to bring them to the spirit. That’s what unites us, every one of us here, every one of you. You, Claire Miller. Don’t think I don’t see you up there in the balcony, Miss Claire, looking lovely as ever. You bring others into the spirit. And you, George Eastbrook. You bring others into the spirit. You, Louise Harkness. Every one of you, bringing others into the spirit. That’s what we have in common, our common ground.”
In the fourth row Tonya Harkness sat with her hands resting in her lap. She looked away from the pulpit and at those hands—the long slender fingers, the small creases at the knuckles, the bright purple polish and perfectly filed nails from yesterday’s manicure. She had been sitting in the same position for a while and, realizing her arms and shoulders were stiff, discreetly stretched with a shrug and the pressing of her palms into her thighs, her fingers spreading against the denim of her Jordaches.
Her grandmother, observing Tonya’s motion from the next chair, also looked away from the pulpit and at Tonya’s hands. Then, with a glance at her own white dress, she emitted a nearly inaudible snort of disapproval—inaudible to everyone but Tonya, who would have heard it in her mind if not her ears. Jeans and a tight blouse versus a starched dress, disrespectful against respectful, improper versus proper. All the things that Tonya heard so many times.
Tonya felt so warm here, at First Redeemer, but her grandmother’s gesture reminded her how feeling comfortable, accepted, was wrong since she believed none of what she heard. As she watched Reverend Foster prance, shake his fists, his voice rising and falling as emotion rose up from inside him before dissipating again, she admired the depth of his belief even while realizing she had none of that belief for herself. She heard the beautiful words that flowed so freely, falling from his lips as if dancing in midair.
They moved steadily down King Drive, Tonya consciously shortening her long stride to help her grandmother keep up with her quick, choppy steps. The sermon still echoed in Tonya’s mind, the rhythmic words refusing to subside, competing with the steady patter coming from her grandmother as they proceeded.
“Child, you got to get right with the Lord.”
Tonya nodded in silence. She had long struggled with how to tell her just how she felt, what she believed and didn’t believe. She envied the faith of her grandmother, of Reverend Foster and the other parishioners at First Redeemer, though she knew it made no sense to pretend she felt any differently than she did.
“I do what I can, Grandmom.”
“Well then, you gotta do more,” the old woman said, casting another glance at Tonya’s jeans.
They turned the corner at 48th Street, Tonya to the outside, her shoulder subtly guiding her grandmother toward home.
“Everything you do should be for His glory.”
“I’m there every week, Grandmom.”
“Barely there. You never sing, barely keep your eyes open being out late the night before. And those jeans.”
Tonya glanced downward again, involuntarily, as if she had forgotten what Jordaches looked like.
“Everybody else is in their Sunday best, and you looking like you just strutted out of some gin joint.”
“Nobody calls them gin joints any more.”
“So you admit you go to those places, then. What they call them don’t matter. Those jeans tell the Lord you don’t think he’s worth getting dressed up for.”
“Do you think God really cares how I dress? Isn’t how I live what’s important?”
“And disrespecting the Reverend,” her grandmother muttered, shaking her head. “Right there in front of his church.”
Even as Reverend Foster talked to the parishioners ahead of her, she could feel his gaze upon her from far down the receiving line. Though he glanced only fleetingly she felt him take her all in, tight blouse to tight jeans and high heels. His look had always bothered her, ever since she was a teenager, but she came to realize that many men looked at her the same way, so maybe the Reverend couldn’t really be faulted.
“Greetings, Miss Harkness,” he said, his teeth gleaming as he shook her hand, his grip warm and damp.
“How are things at the market these days?”
“Busy. Too busy.”
“Yes, I know what you mean.” He no longer gazed at others down the receiving line, but turned his full attention on her. Subtly, deferring to Mrs. Harkness, the grandmother, as well.
“I’m sure you’re doing fine work over there. People need help these days.”
“More help than ever.”
“Yes, yes. But still I can’t help thinking you’re competing with us, with our pantry.”
“You’re private, Reverend,” Tonya said, struggling to maintain a smile. “We’re state. You and us do the same work. You take care of yours, we take care of the rest.”
“And the building fund,” her grandmother continued. “I saw you didn’t give again today. You think we want to stay in that storefront forever? The place used to be a gin joint, or a saloon or whatever they call it. Whatever, a place of sin. No sanctifying can ever wash that away. Reverend wants a temple—not for him, for all of us.”
Tonya pictured the Reverend’s gold teeth, the ones in the back that he bared every time he beamed his broad smile on her. The diamond chip embedded in the eye tooth that caught the sunlight in the receiving line, outodoors on warm summer Sundays. The elegant, hand-tailored suits.
“Where’s that money going, Grandmom? A marble baptism font? Stained glass? A nice new car for the Reverend?” She regretted the words as soon as they slipped out.
“Don’t you dare, dare question how the Reverend spends the money. That baptism font brings children into the Lord’s family. That stained glass lets in the Lord’s beautiful sunshine. And it don’t look right for the Reverend to be driving that old Buick around. You can trust him. He’ll do what’s right for the church.”
And himself, Tonya thought. As they crossed Calumet she had calmed herself, and thought it safe to reenter the conversation. Once across, her grandmother paused for breath.
“I just wonder what all that’s for, is all. It will be a pretty building, sure, but what’s that do for the neighborhood?”
“It shows the neighborhood the glory of the Lord,” the old woman said, her voice tense and strained. “It shows peoples the beauty that’s waiting for them in heaven.”
“Meanwhile, they have to live—”
Tonya stopped herself, partly from realization of the bluntness of what she was about to say, but also from the sudden screech of tires from behind them, somewhere around King Drive. She heard the car roar as it accelerated, engine whining as if strained, and as Tonya turned away from her grandmother the car raced past them. She followed it with a turn of her head, and only seconds after it sped through the stop sign it veered sharply across the opposite lane and directly toward a El track pillar which stood, solid and unyielding, just beyond the far curb. The car skirted the end of the alley, hit the curb and plowed straight into the pillar, head-on without slowing. With a sickening smash of crumpling steel and shattering glass the car came to an abrupt halt. With rising alarm Tonya saw the hood bent upright and steam surging upward, the silhouette of the driver’s head remaining still.
Her grandmother hadn’t ceased her talk.
“Yes, the glory of God. Heaven is waiting for anyone who wants it bad enough. You just have to—”
“Grandmom! Look at that!”
“—sacrifice and give, and serve the unfortunate.”
“Grandmom! Hello? That accident, see that?”
With a shout Tonya tore herself away and ran toward the car, briefly noticing her grandmother’s perplexed look as the old woman stood transfixed. As Tonya neared the rear of the car she saw, below the bumper on the cracked alley asphalt, some sort of liquid slowly spreading outward. Praying to herself that it wasn’t gasoline, she hurried to the driver’s door—unlocked but bashed in at the front edge—and after several tugs finally wrenched it open. A middle-aged man was slumped over the wheel, moaning and incoherent, and realizing he would offer no help she grabbed him by his coats at the shoulders and pulled him toward the opening. Though he wasn’t heavy he still outweighed her by twenty or thirty pounds, and she could only slowly drag him away from the car and a few yards up the alley before dropping him again and collapsing herself to the ground, her legs folded beneath her.
She gathered her wits again and reached instinctively into her purse for her cellphone before remembering its battery was dead, the charge having run out late the night before after the last of many calls to her friends elsewhere, making the rounds, trying to find where the party was next. She saw the phone’s blank screen before flinging it back into her purse.
“Grandmom! Grandmom! He needs help!”
The old woman still stood in the same place, back at the corner at Calumet, but had sunk to her knees with her hands clasped before her. Even from the distance, half a block away, Tonya could see her lips moving in the so-familiar pose.
She turned back to the man, who was now face-down in the alley. She grasped one shoulder and turned him partway over. As gravel fell from his cheeks she thought she recognized him from somewhere, but a greater urgency came over her and she strained to remember her first aid classes from back in college. A quick glance back to the corner showed her grandmother still kneeling in prayer. Tonya realized she would have to get help on her own.
A memory came to her, and she pressed her index finger against the man’s neck, at the edge of the jaw, and felt what must have been a pulse. Something like breath, faint and irregular, came from his lips, so between the breath and pulse she decided leaving him would have to do for now. She hoped, prayed, he was no more than unconscious, but knew she could do no more for him there.
She stood and rushed to the apartment building at the corner—across 48th from her kneeling grandmother—and pounded on the street door, yelling for help, Someone please, but got no response, and as she left the doorway she vaguely sensed the curtain fluttering in the window half a flight up. But when she stopped for a clear look she saw nothing, and continued across the deserted street toward another apartment building, this one boarded up with plywood. As she reached the opposite sidewalk her grandmother was struggling to her feet, her eyes blinking in the sunlight as if emerging from sleep. Tonya helped her up with a hand placed gently under her arm.
“I prayed for that man,” the old woman said, stooping slightly to brush dirt from the knees of her stockings. “Is he okay?”
“I think so,” Tonya said hurriedly. “But he needs a doctor. He’s breathing and all—” She remembered who he was—the husband, or boyfriend, of a woman Tonya helped every week at the WIC Market, making sure she got her assistance check and that everything else was okay with her before the woman went off to wind her way up and down the aisles. The man always hung behind, both when the woman sat at Tonya’s desk and later as she shopped. He wasn’t with her on every visit, which made Tonya think that maybe he wasn’t totally in the picture for her.
“I’m sorry, chile, I couldn’t do more,” the old woman said. “But I prayed.”
“That’s alright, Grandmom. You did what you could, and he needs your prayers right now.” She smiled at her. “You’ll be okay here alone for a few minutes, won’t you?”
The old woman nodded in silence as Tonya hurried away in the opposite direction, back down 48th toward King Drive, where she knew there was more traffic. There she hoped to find something—a parishioner at First Redeemer who hadn’t left yet, a passing neighbor who was willing to help, a cop who wasn’t too disinterested. Anyone.
Back at the boulevard she at first saw nothing, the street deserted. She looked back down 48th toward the car, which still steamed below the tracks, and then at her grandmother on the opposite sidewalk, standing with her hands folded, facing Tonya as if patiently waiting for her. From the distance she looked so small, powerless. Tonya realized she could go no further for help but had to stay at the corner; she couldn’t leave her grandmother alone, nor stray from the car.
She looked north up King Drive toward 47th, where the stoplight had just turned green and cars began moving toward her. She yelled and waved her arms as the first cars neared, yet none of them even slowed as they rushed past. Turning south to follow them with her eyes, she thought she saw the roof lights of a squad car, which briefly brought her hope before the car turned away onto a side street. Again turning toward 47th, she saw another pack of cars moving toward her. The first few passed her as indifferently as the others, but just behind, a dark sedan seemed to slow as it eased into the right lane. To Tonya it seemed as if the car—a Buick, she saw—was coming directly toward her.
The car stopped at the corner, and as the passenger window descended she saw the familiar face, the broad smile with the diamond chip in the top tooth. As she urgently told her story, Reverend Foster looked at her as he always did, something dark or even dirty behind that smile, but as her words sunk in his look softened, then tightened into one of concern. He leaned forward, chin above the steering wheel, as he looked past her down 48th. Still talking, she turned to look back, seeing her grandmother next to the empty street, with the wrecked car just beyond.
“You go on back to your grandmother,” Reverend Foster said calmly. “Get her home. I’ll wait for them.”
He gave her a brief smile of reassurance—she thought the smile was genuine, with nothing behind it—before settling back and facing forward again, pulling his cellphone from inside his suit coat. As she rose she heard three beeps—911, she knew—and, reassured that help would soon come, hurried back toward her grandmother, her high heels clicking echoes off the brick walls of the surrounding buildings.