A. K. Herman
On an unusually warm September day, Ronald was on Fulton Street, across from Star Botanica Inc.: Religious Items, Candles, Incense, etc. He ate a beef patty and scanned the faces of people passing by for any sign of familiarity. He ate slowly to calm his nerves. He should have gone to the Bronx like his wife, Marva, had suggested. In the Bronx, he was less likely to meet anyone from church, but he didn’t know which Botanica in the Bronx had La Pastora. He didn’t know if the spirit work was any good, and there was no one he could ask. There was a lull in the parade of buses and livery cabs on Fulton, so he dusted off the orange pastry flakes on his jeans and sprinted across the street.
Just before he went in, he looked for La Pastora among the figures that stood and sat in the store window display. The last time he was at Star, she was at the front in white robes, her kind, porcelain face looked out at him, and her arms were held wide as if she was about to embrace a person who had not yet arrived. But now, La Pastora was tucked in a corner behind Xhango, who was striking a Hulk pose in red cut-off pants. A yellow-haired deity in a blue cape and relief gold jewellery on his chest brandished a sword that blocked La Pastora’s face – goddess upstaged.
Ping, ping! The bell hit the glass door when Ronald opened it.
Inside, the store looked different. The bare wooden counter was still there, but opposite the counter were shelves from the floor to just above Ronald’s head. The eye-level shelves were crowded with red and pink candles shaped like vaginas, penises and humans. Below that were candles in glass containers: bright yellow, white, black, red, green and blue. Under that were foil wrapped incense sticks and dark bottles with the names of the oils they contained written in black marker on white masking tape. Ronald took some sage incense sticks from the shelf and walked to the back of the line of customers that ran along the counter. When it was his turn, the girl leaned her shaved head to one side and asked, “What you need help with today?”
“Mi want to burn two light. One to pass mi exam-dem. One fi mi wife to pass her exam and she to finish school.”
“That’s it? Anything for money, work or you see a woman you want.” The girl smiled. She was probably as old as his daughter, Shereen, and Ronald fought the urge to ask why she wasn’t in school.
“Nah, just di-exam-dem and school. And mi want to burn di light wid Pastora. You still work wid her?”
“Yes, we work with all the good saints.” She took two yellow candles from the shelf behind her, put them on the counter and brushed each one with a paintbrush dipped in oil. She clasped both candles, closed her eyes then murmured something Ronald couldn’t quite hear. When she opened her eyes, she threw silver glitter from a rusted metal can on each candle then gave Ronald two small white envelopes. “Parchment. Write your desire on this. Your wife too. Then, put the parchment under each candle and let them burn without stopping. It should burn in front of La Pastora. You have a picture? Nine-fifty for the small one and fifteen for the big one.” She reached across the counter and tapped the front of the glass case with one finger.
“No, mi have that.”
“You know how to write the desire…what you want? We have a book that tell you how to do it. Four, ninety-five.”
“Mi know how. How much?”
“You know Father Cuffy here today, right? He is the best workman in Brooklyn right now. Everything he say come to pass. I could keep the candles here while you wait to see him.”
“Not today.” He searched his mind to see if the urge was strong, to see if La Pastora wanted him to see Cuffy. “No, next time. How much fi ebriting?”
“Thirty for the two candles. Three each for the parchment. Thirty-six.”
He held up the incense so she could see it.
“Plus three. Thirty-nine altogether.”
He gave her the cash.
Ping! The bell chimed as he left the store.
Leaves reddened in October, and a cold wind whipped up dust and paper. Ronald closed his eyes, leaned against the black wrought iron gate that separated the New Community Church from the outside world, and raised the collar of his coat to cover his nape. The women’s group was bubbling out the wooden front door, all pastel hats and dark wool coats. At the end of the parade of hats, he saw his daughter, Shereen. She lingered near the door with Harold, head of the youth group, and Jacqueline, a thin girl who looked on at the other two, mirroring their actions, like a shadow. Shereen was laughing at something Harold said. Harold had both hands in his pockets and a tug in his impeccable cheek exposed a dimple. Each time his lips moved, Shereen covered her heart-shaped mouth with her hands and laughed. The other girl smiled whenever Shereen laughed. Ronald thought that his daughter was laughing too loudly and was walking toward the door to give her a look when he felt a hand on his back. He turned.
“Brother Davis!” The voice filled Ronald’s head.
“Pastor Columbus.” Ronald grasped the greyish knobby root held out to him. “Sermon strong today, Boss.”
“Thank you, Brother. The sermon is not mines. Is the Lord’s. Cause–” he paused then exclaimed, “–Jesus said, Speak!” He bent his knees and straightened up again. “Speak! And I will putteth words in thine mouth. Eh heh.” The root gripped Ronald’s hand.
“Amen,” the people mumbled. “Praise Jesus.”
Out of the corner of one eye, Ronald saw Marva weave between the church people and head toward the wrought iron gate. He hoped that Marva had collected Anthony, their ten-year-old son, and was ready to go.
“Praise di Lawd,” Ronald said. The people corralled behind the gate seemed to be holding their breaths.
“Now brother. I want to talk to you about a personal matter.” Columbus touched his shoulder and for the first time, Ronald noticed that the pastor wasn’t wearing a coat. His bright orange shirt and gold brocade waistcoat were brilliant in the reddish light.
Ronald touched the shorter man’s shoulder with his other hand so that they looked like they were in a distant embrace.
“A delicate matter.” Columbus smiled, showing perfect dentures. “A matter to be discussed among men.”
Conversations had started up again, but a few brothers stood with their backs to the main conversation. Ronald sensed tension in these men. The back seams of their coats were wires pulled tight.
“You know that God know what is best for His children, eh. You agree?”
“And sometimes God make a choice for we that we don’t know we need. Eh, heh, brother?” Columbus’ eyes, laced with red veins, searched Ronald’s. “You agree, brother?”
Ronald nodded again so the pastor would continue.
“Now.” Columbus tiptoed and leaned in as if he was about to kiss him. “God has blessed you with a beautiful daughter, a daughter who is about to become a woman…”
Ronald lowered his coat collar and made a line in his brow so he could look like he was thinking, listening hard.
“…and the Bible say, for women to remain godly, they should cleave to a man of God. And through this man, the woman would find communion with God lest she be lost from the flock. You see what I saying, eh?” Columbus brought his lips to Ronald’s ear. “It only a matter a time before Shereen tempt the youth leader to fornication. Let we do right in the eyes of God and marry them in the church so she might find God through him and continue to live in righteousness.”
“Mi…mi go have to take a rain check on that and get back to you.” Ronald smiled and stepped back, the pastor still holding his hand.
Columbus clasped the handshake with his other hand and stepped back too. “Okay, you going get back to me. You talk like those Americans now, eh! You will take a rain check, eh? But don’t wait too long.”
“Not too long.”
“Look like Miss Cleo want talk to you, Boss.” Ronald smiled at the pastor’s wife.
Columbus let go of Ronald and turned to face her. “Oh yes. My dear.”
“Fletcher, we have distribution in half hour and we want you bless the food.” Cleopatra’s pale blue Starship Enterprise of a hat bobbed above her broad face. She smiled at Ronald and her silver front tooth looked black in the blue umbra of the hat.
“Right, right.” Columbus looked at his watch. “Is already one.”
Cleopatra draped an arm around her husband and led him away.
Ronald felt like he was swaying and went through the open gate. Marva, Shereen and Anthony waited on the other side.
When they turned the corner at 35th Street and Church Avenue, Marva asked, “What him want?”
“Ebriting,” Ronald said.
Ronald blew into his cup of hot Ovaltine. The steam settled on the window, and obscured his view of the street. He lifted his finger to write something in the brief, white fog that had settled on the glass then dropped it to his side and turned around to find Marva standing at the kitchen door.
“Early morning you worrying? You drinking tea and looking out?” She smiled and put one arm around him.
“Mi want mi own house.”
“But we have a house.” She gestured at the ceiling and walls.
“This di-church people-dem house. Church is co-signer. Fletcher and Cleopatra have di-paper-dem too. So, is really dem house.”
“We didn’t have credit for mortgage. What you saying? If they didn’t help we—”
“Marv, mi don’t think dem really help we. Mi thinking now…that…that we coulda do it fi we-self. Mi going tell you something.” He looked out the window at a tall broad-shouldered woman in a black coat over white scrubs and white plastic shoes with holes that showed her socks. The woman reminded him of his mother, a grand woman who cleaned houses for a living and sent him to school under the threat of death if he didn’t attend. Ronald faced Marva. “Is frighten mi did frighten, why mi did ask Fletcher to co-sign on di house. Frighten ‘bout di great Amerika and credit and things mi didn’t understand. Frighten and grateful ‘cause dem help we find work and…get papers and–” he put the cup on the windowsill and pulled her near him. “–and after all that, mi still frighten to go on mi own in di big Amerika. Mi get papers but mi still feel somebody going ketch mi.” He grabbed the air just in front of his face with one hand and held it in a tight fist then pressed the fist on the glass. “Look at mi. Big man like mi fraid to buy him own house?”
“We can transfer the house to we.”
“It more than papers now. We live three blocks from church. We attend service ebri Sunday. We in coat drive. Food drive. Orphan drive. Bumbo claat drive! We lock in. And now…now dem want mi daughter.” When he first migrated, Ronald fought to change his speech to match Marva’s more refined patois and because he didn’t want to announce to everyone he met that he was from the wrong side of Kingston. Now, patois soothed him, like a well-loved meal. His mother’s Jamaican patois on the phone was like blue-jays in the morning– sharp, noisome music.
“I talk to Shereen aw’ready. I tell she to have little to do with Harold. Jus’ hello and thank you. I tell Tony not to talk ‘bout things that happen in the house. If they ask you any question, tell them to ask me or you daddy.”
“Look at we. Something wrong. You go to college under di cover of darkness. Mi did study accounting at Mona and now mi putting up dry wall, and taking insult from di-Italians-dem. Mi taking CPA classes at night-time. And we can’t tell nobody in church? “Marv,” he whispered, “We burning light to make things go good for we.” Then raised his voice again, “If that is di case, we not in any church.” He sucked his teeth, the sound like paper tearing. “We…we…mi don’t know. But we have to get out. Cause dem own we. And now Fletcher want married Shereen to that…that bwai. And him ask mi in di churchyard, where ebribody can hear. He…what dem Amerikan say? When you do something wicked but you do it nice-nice. People know you doing wickedness, but you so nice-nice that somebody going look crazy to get wrathed wid you?”
“Passive aggressive.” She scraped a spot off the window with the nail of one thumb.
“Yes. We have to be passive aggressive too. Underneath.” He folded his arms across his chest.
Marva moved so she faced him. “I could ask Cleopatra. I could ask she where we paper is. And we could talk to the bank or to a real estate agent to tell we how to get the co-borrower off the house.”
“Dem have some places on Nostrand Avenue. You could check—”
“No Ronnie. No place round here. We have to stop thinking so. We have to get somebody, someplace else, like in Manhattan. Or, you know what? We should talk to people. You talk to the man-dem in work and I go ask people in school and in work. They can recommend somebody good, somebody they work with aw’ready.”
“You correct. But Fletcher get di jobs fi we. Boss man know di-people-dem. Him might know staff in di nursing home too.”
“He say so, but I there three years, and nobody never call he name or he wife name to me. I think he just send we there and we get things on we own luck. You ever hear he name mention? If he and Vincent and Glen was fren-fren, he woulda be there sometime or they woulda talk ‘bout him.”
“Alright. You have a point. We should feel di people out first before we ask dem. You never know who people is till you know who people is. You feel out Cleopatra.”
“I go do that. You still worrying?” She touched his forehead.
He wrinkled his forehead so that more crooked lines formed under her finger tips. “Mi didn’t married to you for you shine eye alone, you know.”
“Make you married to me for, Mr. Davis?”
Ronald leaned to one side until he could look behind her, and pointed at her ass with his bottom lip. “Mi did see a bumpa walking ‘round by Miss Joyce and mi did say, mi going married that bumpa.” He slapped her hard on the ass. “First chance mi get,” he shouted.
She laughed and hugged him. He rocked her from side to side, his erection fingered her stomach.
“Daddy, we not going to church today?” a voice asked.
Ronald stopped moving and saw that Shereen spanned the doorway with both arms. “Yes.”
Anthony, looking gift wrapped in green dinosaur pyjamas, shot under Shereen’s armpit and hugged both his parents.
“We getting ready or we having a family hug?” Shereen shrugged and rolled her eyes.
“We going. You and you brother go bathe. Start to get ready.” He looked down at Anthony. “Go wid you sister”
“But, Daddy…you and Mame come to bathe too.”
“Go.” Ronald flicked his chin toward the doorway that Shereen had already left vacant.
The boy went.
“Bathe and dress,” Marva yelled, then put one hand over a giggle.
“Yeah bathe. Mi and you mother soon come,” Ronald added. They held hands as they went up the stairs to their bedroom and locked the door.
According to the written program, the service was supposed to be over after the last hymn. Ronald looked up at the LCD screen above the sanctuary and mouthed the words to the last verse of “How Great Thou Art” that kept repeating across the screen. Pastor Columbus, in a burgundy suit with matching satin waistcoat, was next to the pulpit with the mic in one hand. A woman screamed from the front pew and Ronald tiptoed to see who it was.
“Hallelujah,” The Screamer shouted and walked until she was in the middle aisle, facing the congregation. The Screamer looked like a thin puppet in a shapeless grey jacket and skirt that reached almost to her ankles.
“Bangee-muhnah-canophanee….” The Screamer shouted and started spinning around and bending at the waist as if she was trying to fling her torso into the congregation. Ronald touched Marva with his elbow, but didn’t look at her. “Is Sister Lewis turn to ketch it,” he whispered.
The church stewards, in white gloves and gold braided military style hats, got up and stood on either side of Sister Lewis, who still spun at the front.
“I wanna see,” Anthony whispered.
Ronald nodded no, and raised an eyebrow. Anthony relented.
“Then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee,” Columbus said on the mic. “How great is the Lord. How great is our God….”
At the front, Sister Lewis closed her eyes and hung her head forward until her chin almost touched her chest. “Sssssssssssssssss…” She made a sound like someone had poured salt in a wound. “Hagai-tho-menaniah-bangee-muhnah-seraphim. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Ssssssssssss…”
Someone else stood up at the front, and swayed from side to side. The person was short and between the hedge of shoulders, Ronald could only make out a navy hat with a pearl tassel that swung with each sway.
“Hymn number seventy-two, eh, “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” Columbus pointed towards the back of the church so that the boy working the screen would switch the hymns. Behind the sanctuary, Harold at the synthesiser adjusted his jacket and played the refrain so that the congregation could catch the metre.
Ronald and his family sang with the congregation, all eyes on the screen. “A great and mighty wonder! A Lord that I adore. Disciples…”
Columbus sang along on the mic, a melodious baritone that hung near the ceiling and vibrated.
“A-hep! A-hep! A-hep!…” Cleopatra repeated from the front row across the aisle. Ronald felt Marva’s elbow poke his side. Cleopatra stood up and her shoulders lifted with each A-hep. Her large bumper kept time with her shoulders and distressed the fabric of her burgundy skirt.
Cleopatra a-heped her way to the front of the room and lay on the floor in front of the pulpit. The church stewards leaned in, hands at their sides. After a few moments, she got up, faced the people with her eyes closed. She leaned her head to the left as if trying to hear a secret then jumped up and down, losing a burgundy shoe and shaking the awning of her hat. Without warning, Cleopatra turned and held hands with the other two women at the front to form a circle.
When the hymn ended Columbus spoke, “And evil ways shall perch. And errors have decayed. And Christ shall weed his spectre. Our God. Our Lord for all.” He paused. “Let us encircle brothers and sisters. Bring your burdens. Your questions. Your worries. Your fears. Bring them all to Jesus. Stewards…”
The stewards walked down the side aisles with their gloved hands clasped at the front. One of them stopped at Ronald’s pew and gestured towards the front of the church. “Brother Davis. Sister. Children. Come and hear God’s message.”
At the front of the church, Ronald held hands with Cleopatra and Shereen. Marva and Navy Hat were across from him. Anthony and Sister Lewis completed the circle. He and his family closed their eyes and repeated the prayer Sister Lewis recited. When the prayer was over, Navy Hat began, “I see that things going well for you and your family. There was many stumbling blocks in the past…’bout money….hmmm…’bout family-life, but you overcome that. You, Brother Davis, had a curse on you. From your father side of the family. I can’t see who do it, but that in the past now.” She narrowed her eyes to peer into Ronald’s. “That is true?”
“Yes.” This was the answer he had to give.
“But I see hardship in the future.” Sister Lewis’ eyes were closed as she spoke. “Troubles. Not sure the source…I see a woman …youngish. Can’t see she face. Don’t know if she the source of trouble or if she is the one who will see trouble.”
“A-hep!” Cleopatra got on her tiptoes, yanked Ronald’s arm toward her then planted her feet on the floor. When he glanced at her, she squeezed his hand. “Things hidden will reveal. Secrets will come out. Watch and pray, Brother and Sister Davis. A-hep! Troubles ahead…ssssssssss….”
In the background, Columbus was on the mic, “Hymn number thirty-four. “Blessed Assurance.”
The congregation sang, “Blessed assurance, Jesus…”
“Let us pray,” Cleopatra began, “Heavenly Father, whom in thine…”
During the singing of the benediction, Ronald wrote a note on his program and showed it to Marva: Home now. No meeting.
Marva put on her coat without looking at him, helped Anthony with his coat, then held her son at the shoulders. Ronald whispered to Shereen, “We walking straight out di gate. Put on you coat.”
“But youth group, Daddy?”
“Mi nah playing, chile!” His eyes felt hot.
Shereen’s eyes widened for a moment then she put on her coat.
Once the benediction ended, the stewards walked to the back and opened the varnished doors.
Ronald placed the palm of one hand on the inlet of Marva’s back and felt her body stiffen. The moment the man who drove the church van got up, she headed straight for the door. Ronald followed her and the children, the murmur of the church behind him.
They missed two Sundays in a row. Sister Lewis called on the afternoon of the first Sunday and Marva lied that Anthony had brought home the flu. On the second Sunday, Ronald answered the phone. Cleopatra called to say that she had added their names to the roster of the Healing Group so that the group could make a prayer visit. Ronald leaned against the fridge as he talked. He watched Marva’s shoulders drop when he said that the family was fine and would return to church the following Sunday.
“Yes, yes. Mi can do that. Saturday evening. No problem.” He paused. “Same to you and God Bless, Sister.” He hung up, squatted near the ground and put his face in his hands. The darkness and the skin smell made him feel like he was somewhere else. He pressed his hands into his eyes until red swirls formed in the darkness.
“What you going to do for them next Saturday?” Marva’s voice was high-pitched.
Ronald uncovered his eyes and stood up. He felt giddy and the light was too bright.
“Dem want mi to drywall di church basement.”
She shrugged and went back to the dishes.
“What you did want mi to say? Eh Marv?”
From the back, her shoulders looked square under the frayed cream sweater. Her bright colored headtie made her head look small.
“It don’t matter now, Ronald Davis. You say yes aw’ready. But you didn’t ask what I think ‘bout it first.”
He heard water hit the dishes in the sink, opened his mouth to say something then closed it and went back to the books spread across the living room table.
During the break, Ronald sat on a bucket of joint compound and the other two men, Felix and Winston, sat on plastic lawn chairs across from him. Felix was talking about how the church had changed his life.
“…to call me Dragon because people used to fraid me,” Felix, the new member from Trinidad, said. “Now, look at me? Working in a place with a roof, not out on the corner selling coke and baking soda.”
“You used to mix it with soda?” Winston was also from Trinidad, but had been in New York long enough for the edges of his Creole English to dull.
Felix shrugged. “Well, yeah! How else yuh go make a living selling powder? Yuh need to give them pipers a piece of a high so they go come back for the nex’ piece.”
All three men laughed.
Ronald watched Winston’s jowl tremble. The scar across Felix’s bony cheek danced. It was men like Felix that made him and his wife leave Jamaica. Outlaws in gold-rimmed shades with scars across their necks and missing fingers, who ruled over entire villages and fired at the police for kicks. He used to be afraid that a bullet might pierce his head if he stood near the front window of his mother’s two-room house.
“So this church, Columbus help you fi real?” Ronald asked.
“Way I see it.” Felix turned off his laughter. “Is God who help me. The church is just the means to a end. Yuh understand? Is like smokin’ a pipe to get a high.” He gathered the first three fingers on one hand as if holding a pipe to his lips. “The pipe don’t get yuh high, is the thing inside it. But yuh need the pipe and the fire to burn the thing that does make you reach high up. Yuh understand?”
Winston nodded his meaty head and shifted on the chair. It creaked.
“You want exchange?” Ronald pointed at the joint compound bucket.
“Yeah, Oh …gosh.” Winston said and they exchanged seats.
“Columbus—” Felix stopped as if listening. “Columbus like them gangstas, dangerous men from Trinidad East-West Corridor, who could get people to do things they don’t want to do. Cause Columbus understand that if yuh know what a man want, yuh could own him. A food. A fuck. A money. A house. A car. Once that man take the thing he wanted from yuh hand, yuh could pet him like a dog and he go lick yuh hand. Then when yuh ready, beat him like a dog too and he go convince he-self that you do something for he that he couldn’t do for he-self.” Felix stood up and stretched.
Ronald too had seen the Columbus that Felix described and wondered if Felix had more to say. “What island Boss from?” Ronald asked, as Columbus, over the years, referred to various islands in the Caribbean. His speech betrayed no particular creole or pidgin. And he never, as far as Ronald knew, talked of a better-than-here-paradise that most immigrants imagined home to be once on foreign soil.
“He from all about, man. He live all about,” Felix said.
“And Miss Cleo?” Ronald added quickly, like an empty glass on an already full tray.
“She is a retired ho from Venezuela.” Felix walked over to the wall they had been working on and put his hands on his hips.
“Make you say so?” Ronald kept his eyes on Felix
“Cause I know women like she. Used to have them by the two and three when I used to run business through Margarita Island. If yuh listen good, yuh go hear the Spanish underneath she proper talk.” He turned around. “Don’t look at me so, Winston. You don’t like what I saying about yuh pastor and he wife?”
“No. I—” Winston began.
“Look, what I say don’t change nothing. I saying it as I see it. And like I say, God help me through Columbus and the church. That is why I here on a Saturday working for free.” He stretched both arms toward the ceiling and his t-shirt lifted at the back. There were two long, blonde scars across his waist and, above that, clusters of shiny raised skin indicated that there were more on his upper back.
“Let we finish. Is just two wall. Mi don’t want stay till late.” Ronald stood up.
Winston opened the joint compound bucket. They took the floats from the sink and started again.
Later that evening as they were cleaning up, Columbus called hello then descended the staircase. “Evening brothers,” he said when he entered the basement.
Felix was at the sink and tapped elbows with Columbus.
“Evening, pastor.” Winston shook Columbus’ hand.
“Thank you for doing this, eh. We just had a meeting and the church elders, Brother Phillip and all the rest, waiting upstairs to thank all of you before you go.”
“You’re welcome. Is nothing,” Winston said.
Ronald turned from packing away his tools and shook Columbus’ outstretched hand. “Thank you, Brother Davis,” Columbus said.
“No problem. No problem.”
Columbus held on to Ronald’s hand, led him to one corner of the room and leaned in. “How is the family?”
“Ebriting good. Ebribody good.”
“And the young lady? You ready to get back to me?”
“We was busy and ebribody did sick. No time to really discuss it wid Marva.”
“Hmmm. Your wife help you with decisions, eh. My wife too. You know, my wife told me that Mrs. Davis asked about transferring the title of the house to you and about taking us off.”
“Okay.” Ronald’s heart beat fast.
“This is something we always wanted to do. But church business does keep me so busy that these things slip through the crease. I will do it as soon…in fact, I will do it next week.” He sighed. “And I ask your forgiveness for not doing it sooner.” He touched Ronald on his shoulder with the other hand. “Do you forgive me brother?” His eyes drooped at the sides.
Ronald could feel Winston’s eyes on him so he smiled. “No problem, Boss. Life like that you know.”
“Good, good. I am so lucky to have you as a friend and as a brother.”
The other men started up the steps.
“Good night,” Felix yelled when he got to the church upstairs.
“Wait, mi go walk out wid you,” Ronald called after Winston.
At the top of the stairs, Felix was already gone. Ronald shook the hands of church elders held out to him and made sure that with each step he headed for the side door.
Marva gathered her skirt in her lap, stooped near the floor and leaned the green candle until three drops of wax had marked the centre of the white enamel basin. She stuck a square of parchment to the wax then made the candle bow again, and spilled wax on to the parchment to form a pale green glob, like phlegm on snow. She pressed the base of the candle into the glob and held it there. “Bring some water,” she said to Ronald without looking up.
He heard her, but found that he couldn’t move. A thought percolated inside him, its tiny bubbles filled his chest, forced their way up his neck then out his mouth, “Marva, mi don’t think we should do it,” he whispered.
“You getting the water or I need to do that for mi-self too?” She looked up at him. She hadn’t yet washed her face, and there was a whitish thing at the tails of her eyes.
“Marv. We getting di things we want. But to interfere wid people? Mi always say, mi go never do that.”
She stood up and faced him. “We not getting everything we want. We want Shereen to make her own decision ‘bout who she want to marry and when. We want to go church when we want. We want the house on we name. Is been three months since he say he go change it, and him nah do it yet! We not interfering with them. We just want them to do what we ask.” When he didn’t answer, she continued, “I know you think this is obeah, but is not. Is the same thing we doing all along. We asking for a favour. As the candle get soft and melt, so them get soft and melt. No harm. No foul. Ronnie?”
“You see what I saying? If we don’t do this, these people going to own we till we dead!”
The candle flickered and made a hissing sound. They both turned to face it.
“See, the candle talking aw’ready.” Marva went closer.
Ronald filled the basin and placed it near the wall with the picture of La Pastora.
“I go feel more comfortable if we rest it in the hall bathroom and full the tub,” Marva said. “Them things does flare up.” The flame doubled in size and the candle hissed. “Lawd!” She took a step back.
“Di kids-dem use that bathroom. We go have to lock it and Tony wouldn’t want to use di downstairs bathroom in di night.” He thought for a moment. “Put di basin in a bigger basin of water. We have one in di basement. I go get it and wake dem kids to go to school.”
In the corridor, Ronald heard beeps coming from his daughter’s room and knocked on her door.
“Yeah,” Shereen answered.
“Mi can open?”
She sat with the grey covers over her legs, and the phone in both hands. A space between the curtains let in a column of bright light behind her head, and turned her head into a dark cut-out shape.
“You say you prayers?”
“Since this morning.” She pointed at the Bible on the nightstand.
“Get up and get ready fi school, I going wake you brother.”
Anthony’s door was open and Ronald looked in. His son was buried under two Transformers battling in bright blue space with white twinkling stars. Only a thin hand proved there was a boy there. Ronald stepped in the room, reached under the cosmos and held his son’s foot then let it go and stepped back to the door to watch him. He tried to remember when he had slept so, body askew, someone else taking care of things. Anthony turned in the bed, sending a ripple through space. Ronald felt like he was intruding, left the room and went back to the candle.
When she got to her family’s pew, Shereen stopped for a moment, smiled and gave a thumbs up next to the bouquet of off-white lilies. Ronald gave two thumbs up with his hands still clasped at the front of his body, but Shereen had already gone as she walked along the centre aisle to “Ode to Joy.” The organza hem of her white dress skimmed the floor. Marva smiled and raised one eyebrow. Ronald read her face: See, Shereen look the best. When the bridal party reached the front of the church, the music stopped and Pastor Columbus took the mic.
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let Jacqueline and Thomas rejoice and be glad in it.” He raised both hands in the air and looked up at the ceiling. In his white suit with the silver embroidered waistcoat, Columbus looked like Elvis and Ronald bent his head to hide his laughter. Since Columbus had transferred the title of the house to him and his wife, and they owned the deed, Ronald found the short, brocaded pastor and his probably-was-a-retired-ho wife comical. How come mi never see it before? was the question he kept asking himself. When he raised his head, Jacqueline and Thomas were kneeling before Columbus, who hovered one hand over both their heads and began to pray, “Almighty God. Today we have…” Ronald stopped listening. Jacqueline looked small next to Thomas, a tall, handsome man who had only joined the church three months before. Everyone, not everyone, just Marva and Felix and Shereen, called Thomas “the dark horse,” he who had come out of nowhere and won Jacqueline. Ronald and Marva agreed that it was Columbus making the marriage happen. Shereen said it was Jacqueline’s mother, but Ronald couldn’t picture that slight, soft-spoken woman from Jamaica marrying her only daughter to a stranger.
“You may now kiss the bride,” Columbus said into the mic. “Arrhhh, save some for later eh, Thomas. She is all yours.”
Ronald craned his neck to see better. Thomas had bent Jacqueline backwards and swallowed her lips with his. Jacqueline was either trying to push Thomas away with her thin, lace-encased arms or she was trying to put her palms against his chest. It was hard to tell. People laughed and some began to applaud. The claps caught like a fever until the entire church was clapping. Then, Thomas raised Jacqueline up, held her hand and turned to face the audience.
“The mic still on?” Columbus said to someone at the front then, “May I present to you. Mister. And. Misses. Thomas James Tourney.”
Pastor raised one hand and motioned for everyone to stand. “And before the lovely couple depart, I just want to acknowledge the bridal party.” He pointed at the four bridesmaids. “Look how lovely they are. Like virginal brides. Brides in Christ.”
“And, I think one of these lovely young women will be here before me soon taking the wedding vows,” Columbus paused, “Brother Davis, you know what I’m talking about.”
The warmth in Ronald’s chest rose to his face. From the pew in front, Sister Lewis and someone he didn’t know, turned around and smiled at him and Marva.
“But I don’t want to let the pussy out of the bag, as they say.” Columbus covered his mouth and widened his eyes as if he had said something he didn’t mean to say. A few people laughed, sudden and loud. Their laughter bolted up to the ceiling like geysers.
“We let the couple depart. Play the procession.” Columbus pointed one finger at the back of the church and music started.
Outside, newly budded trees had turned April a bright green. In places, small piles of grey snow waded in black puddles of water. Ronald and his family went through the gate and stood on the sidewalk to watch Jacqueline’s mother stuff the train of her dress into a black, shiny car. People talked over the sound of sirens. Car horns played odd music along the Avenue, car doors opened and closed. Ronald was still skimming this after-wedding world, when an acrid smell burned his nostrils near the bridge and left a bitter taste in his mouth. He looked up. Dark grey pillow after dark grey pillow of smoke ate up the blue overhead. Sirens drowned out the after-wedding noises.
“You put the new one in a basin a water?” Marva whispered to him.
“Is not we.” Ronald looked up Church Avenue.
“It look like it coming from ‘round thirty-ninth.” Marva’s cheekbones jutted out at him. “You close the window? The curtain could ketch if it open. You close it?” She asked in a hoarse whisper.
He searched his mind for the scene where he filled the basin with water, parted the curtain, pulled the window down and moved the lever till he heard a click. “Mi don’t know.”
“You close it or not? O God, Ronnie. Talk.”
“Mi don’t know.” He walked in the direction of the smoke.
When he turned onto 35th Street, the smell was even stronger, and smoke burned his nostrils and eyes. Hot wind blew into his face. Fire trucks blocked the street and he couldn’t get close. He felt light-headed and sat on the sidewalk. Ronald heard his heart beating in his ears and remembered something he had read about how breathing slowly helped situations like this, so he focused on Marva’s calves, two shapely balusters that held up her coat, and counted each breath. By number twenty, he felt better. A little after that, he was somewhere else, and Marva’s calves were the only two things in the world.
A month after the fire, while they were still in church housing, they sent the children to relatives in Jamaica. With the children gone, they hardly spoke. Ronald felt that his wife blamed him for the fire though she never said so. He felt other things too, but they were hard to put into words. One night, Marva interrupted their silent bed with a whisper that she felt watched in lodgings controlled by Cleopatra and her women’s group, who visited once a week to tidy and drop off donations.
“Like di walls dem listening,” he whispered back.
They whispered more and laughed that night on a shared pillow until Ronald slid his hand across the isthmus of her waist.
She guided his hand to the space between them, then interlocked her fingers with his. “In we place. Promise.”
He nodded as if he understood and traced the front of her headtie with one finger until she smiled and her eyes glistened in the filtered streetlight coming through the thin discount store curtains. After she fell asleep, he tried to interpret her words. She not comfortable ridin’ in a borrow room in a house fi people in trouble? You not a man ’cause you can’t provide a house for we. Mi can’t bring mi-self to touch you till you do better. You can’t touch mi till…He didn’t sleep that night.
Within a month, he found a rental on Eastern Parkway. They left their borrowed room as if going to work and didn’t return. That evening, Marva video-called the children and gave a tour of the three-bedroom. There was laughter and shrieking as they tried to explain things to Marva’s mother who kept asking, “Make dem do it so?” about everything in the apartment.
After the call, Marva started crying. Ronald hugged her and found that he couldn’t let her go. They ended up on the living room floor, their clothes as bedding. At first, they faced each other, then, without warning, Marva straddled him. He tried to sit up to embrace her but she pressed both hands on his chest and kept him down. She moved mechanically, and ground his pelvis into the varnished wooden floor, then jerked her head back, a tremor along the median of her stomach and chest. She got up without looking at him and went to the bathroom. Her sobs then the sound of the shower. Since then, that was the only way they did it. He felt that Marva said words with her body that she couldn’t form with her mouth. He had only eight words for her, but never found the opportunity to say them: Mi did tell you not to do it.
A month later, they went to the New Community Church for the last time. They headed toward the train station then passed it and walked all the way. It was warm and Brooklyn was alive with bright clothing, music from cars and the heat of Summer.
“Ronald? You daydreaming?” Marva touched him on the shoulder, as they waited outside.
“A lickle.” He smiled and looked at the door beyond the wrought iron gate. “Ready fi it?”
“You go. I go wait outside here till you come out.”
Ronald shrugged and looked with envy at the blue sky that had cleansed itself of grey smoke. White cotton wool clouds jeered at him.
Marva folded her arms and leaned against the gate. He pressed the buzzer.
The church office was a square, wood-panelled room with framed pictures of Columbus and the church elders. The young woman behind the desk got up as soon as Ronald walked in.
“Mr. Davis.” She shook his hand. “I is Annie Evers. I have to get the insurance papers from the files in the back.” She pointed to a fat brown chair in front of the desk. “Take a seat if you want.” She went into the file room next to the desk.
She returned and opened a manila folder on the table in front of him. “These is copies of the original policy with the church and these–” she took out five opened envelopes “–is all the correspondence from the insurance company about the investigation and about filing a claim about…am…the fire.”
He raised an eyebrow and passed a finger along the cut in one of the envelopes.
“They sent them here because they didn’t know how to get in touch with you, while you was in the shelter. And the church address was listed as a next address. I open all the mail. Automatically. To sort it.”
“Mi know. Is just—”
A woman screamed. Ronald felt like cold water was poured on his head and stood up.
Annie froze then backed away.
The woman screamed again. “Marva.” Ronald looked around the office for a way out. “How mi get to di church?”
Annie covered her mouth with one hand and pointed at the file room.
Ronald went through the door at the other end of the file room then along a corridor to another door. Behind it, he heard Marva’s screams and men’s voices. He opened it and ran in.
At the front of the church, Columbus held Marva’s hair with one hand and Felix and Winston held her arms. With his other hand, Columbus hit Marva with a fibre broom with a wooden handle, while reciting a prayer. About seven people, men and women, stood near Marva. The men’s lips moved fast as they read aloud from open Bibles.
Ronald ran toward his wife and at the same moment, Columbus roared, “Hold him.”
Ronald felt people grab his shoulders and hold his arms behind him. He could only see the white gloves and faces covered in white gauze.
“Watch, Brother Davis, as I rebuke the spirit that has possessed your wife.” Each time Columbus hit her with the small broom, she squealed. The broom had a red tassel with a bell that chimed each time Marva was struck. Ronald counted each chime, as he tried to pull free from the stewards. He swung his legs forward to gain momentum, but couldn’t get away.
After a few moments, Marva got quiet and only Columbus’ voice echoed in the near-empty church.
“Tell me why you sought Satan through idols and candles?”
“I don’t know.” Marva’s voice was like a child’s.
“God has punished you. He take your house, eh. For taking the path of Saul, eh. For taking your family down the path of Saul. Say you accept Christ, the son of God, as your Lord and Savior.”
She said it.
“Say it again.”
“A third time so that I know the evil spirit has left you.”
“I accept Christ as my Lord and Savior. Christ is the son of God.”
Columbus gave the broom to one of the Bible readers and held Marva at her shoulders. Felix and Winston let her go and she dropped to her knees. Columbus and all his attendants backed away. Ronald felt the iron grip on his shoulders ease, then it was gone.
He went to Marva and helped her to stand up. She held on to him as they walked toward the side door where he had come in. Columbus said something but Ronald didn’t listen.
“How?” Marva asked when they were in the corridor.
“Insurance papers.” Ronald wiped the wetness from her face.
“You have them?”
“In di office.”
“We get them and go.” Her voice had regained its strength.
In the office, Annie leaned against one wall with her arms folded across her chest. Ronald closed the folder on the desk and took it.
“This all? All di papers you have fi we.”
“Yes,” the secretary said.
Ronald walked toward her and raised one arm as if he was going to hit her.
“Yes, is all. Everything.” She ducked and ran to the other side of the room.
Ronald and Marva closed the wrought iron gate behind them and held each other as they walked toward the Nostrand Avenue train station, headed for home and another life.
A. K. Herman was born in Tobago. A. K. writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and placed second in the Small Axe Literary Competition. A. K. has published in Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Journal, Aster(ix) Journal, Doek! and Rigorous. A. K. lives in Brooklyn and is working on a novel.