Authors: Terry E. Hill
Tags: #Fiction, #Gay, #African American, #General, #Urban
For Scot Harrison, who taught me to love unconditionally and to laugh without fear.
For Michael Pincus, who taught me it's okay to get mad as long as you remember that love and integrity trump all.
To Sha-Shana Crichton, for her commitment to writers, readers, and literature.
ynthia Pryce scanned the pages of the Sunday paper. A silk robe sloped gracefully around the calves of her slender legs. Hair, the color of burnt caramel, curved leisurely over cheekbones that most women would gladly pay thousands to replicate. Cynthia looked perfect even with no one there to impress. She had no choice.
It was six o'clock on Sunday morning. The city lay at her feet as she looked from the twenty-third floor of the rooftop condominium. Morning light drifted into the penthouse while floating clouds peeked through the windows for a glimpse of the beautiful woman.
Crystal vases and glass tables throughout the condominium sparkled from the light flowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Soft beige carpet served as a lush backdrop for Cynthia's expensive and eclectic taste in furniture. Scandinavian leather sofas and chairs stood in the center of the living room, and a Louis XV armoire held a state-of-the-art sound system and music collection that ranged from classical to gospel and included every genre in between.
Original paintings by Bearden, Barnes, and Motley hung in places of honor above the fireplace, behind the sofa, and at the head of the dining-room table. Freshly cut flowers, magenta, mauve, and pink, arranged by the skillful and nimble fingers of Cynthia's favorite florist, were poised to greet visitors in the large foyer, as well as the dining and living rooms.
Hands and fingernails that never went a day without special attention lifted a second cup of coffee to her lips as she searched for mention of her pastor, Hezekiah T. Cleaveland, in the paper. Cynthia slammed the paper to the coffee table when the last page was turned, rattling her coffee cup and plate, which held the remains of a half-eaten poppy seed muffin. The story she had waited for was not there, as had been promised. She looked again to the front page. The headline read,
FATHER KILLS FAMILY AND SELF
DESPONDENT OVER FINANCIAL LOSSES
Cynthia pushed the paper to the floor.
Who gives a fuck?
she thought while reaching for the cell phone on the dining-room glass table.
She entered the number that had been called frequently in the last month.
“Hello,” a raspy voice answered. “What do you want? It's six o'clock in the morning.”
“Lance, it's Cynthia. Where's the story? You told me it would be in this morning's edition.”
“My editor won't run it until I give Hezekiah a chance to respond. I tried to convince him the evidence stands on its own, but he wouldn't budge.”
Lance Savage sat up in bed and rubbed his squinting eyes. “I've got a meeting with Hezekiah tomorrow. He thinks I'm doing a story on the new cathedral. I can't wait to see his face when I drop this bomb on him.”
“He'll deny everything,” she said. “When you meet with him, make sure Naomi isn't there.”
“Naomi isn't available for the interview. I think Catherine will probably sit in, though.”
Cynthia laughed. “That's fine. You'll certainly get a reaction from Catherine if you can't get one from Hezekiah.”
“That's what I'm hoping. Does she know anything about this?”
“I doubt it. As far as Catherine is concerned, Hezekiah walks on water. If she does, let me know and I'll deal with her later.”
The joy in the Sunday morning church service at New Testament Cathedral was palpable. Brass instruments, drums, violins, guitars, and pianos caused the auditorium to pulsate with rhythmic music. Images on the twenty-foot-high JumboTron screen alternated rapidly between sweeping images of the 15,000-member congregation standing, clapping, and singing, to the 200-member choir and orchestra performing songs of inspiration.
Shots of Hezekiah and Samantha Cleaveland standing at the front row, smiling and waving their hands in the air, filled the screen throughout the morning. The captions below their images read, “Visit our Web site at www.NewTestamentCathedral.com to make your love offering today!”
On cue, the pace of the music gradually shifted to a more melodic and reverent tone. A soprano sang a hypnotic tune and the audience obediently chimed in. A billowing hum from the crowd rolled from the front of the church to the top rear row and filled the room as congregants softly sang in unison and looked upward to heaven.
The camera followed Hezekiah as he walked up the steps to the center of the stage. Behind the pulpit to his left and right were waterfalls made of a series of stacked boulders, greenery, and gently flowing ribbons of water. The stage backdrop was an electric wall of light that periodically changed from blue to green, lavender and a hazy yellow to accompany the desired mood of each moment during the service.
“Good morning, New Testament Cathedral,” Hezekiah said when the music began to subside and the audience settled into their seats.
The room replied in unison, “Good morning, Pastor Cleaveland.”
Hezekiah was well over six feet tall. He wore a crisp white shirt and a sleek tailored black suit that was stitched to perfection around his muscular frame. A cranberry-colored necktie complemented perfectly his flawless skin, which seemed to glow under the bright lights.
Hezekiah flashed his radiant signature smile approvingly in acknowledgment and continued, “This is the day the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
For the next fifteen minutes the jumbo screen was filled with the image of Hezekiah Cleaveland delivering the Sunday sermon, interspersed with shots of members of the audience reading a verse in their Bible that he had referenced, nodding their head in agreement to a word of wisdom just shared, and his wife, Samantha, looking lovingly up at her husband and pastor. The sermon ended on a euphoric note that had all the attendees up on their feet, clapping, and Hezekiah looking pleased and exuberant at the podium.
After a final uplifting song from the choir and orchestra, Samantha joined Hezekiah on the stage. The last shot that appeared on the screen was that of the beautiful couple waving to the camera with a caption that read, “Always Remember, God Loves You And So Do We! To make a love offering, call us toll free at 1(800) 555-4455 or visit our Web site at www.NewTestamentCathedral.com.”
The service had ended and members of New Testament Cathedral gathered in the Fellowship Hall. The cavernous room was filled to capacity. It served as the meeting place for thousands of congregants after the morning service. Sunday hats, which seemed to defy gravity, dotted the room: swirling turbans, perfectly erect feathers, fluttering satins, and wilting silks crowned freshly coiffed heads and made-up faces. Colorful dresses and well-constructed suits filled every inch of the room.
The space vibrated from the roar of laughter and gossip. Words of encouragement were exchanged, assignations planned, schemes plotted, and reputations ruined. The multiple conversations fused into an indecipherable buzz above their heads.
“Pastor Cleaveland outdid himself this morning,” came a comment from a cluster of women in the center of the room.
“Jason got laid off last week. I don't know what we're going to do now,” was heard from two women huddled near the entrance.
“I can't believe she wore that to church. Looks like she should be at a cocktail party,” a woman said while rolling her eyes and shielding her mouth.
“She should have left him years ago. He's slept with half the women here,” was observed simultaneously by three different sets of women referring to three different men in the hall.
“Look at him over there in the gray suit. Girl, that man is fine. All he would have to do is smile at me and I'd give him whatever he wanted and a little more just to make sure he came back for seconds,” said a woman as she peeked from behind her leather-bound Bible.
Children balancing cookies on paper plates and spilling fruit punch from plastic cups wove through a forest of high heels and freshly shined leather shoes. The elder women of the church had taken seats against the rear wall of the hall, beneath a stained-glass window. Parishioners took breaks between animated conversations to kiss the church mothers weathered cheeks and tell them, “You're looking good this morning, dear,” and that they were praying for them.
Rev. Willie Mitchell stood in his usual spot in the center of the room. His bulging stomach made it impossible for him to button the coat of his favorite cream-colored suit. A red necktie formed a puddle on the top of his belly and then sloped down like a neon arrow advertising his oversized gold belt buckle. The thick hand in his pocket unconsciously caressed and massaged keys to a new appliance-white Mercedes-Benz. He threw his head back and laughed as Reverend Pryce's wife, Cynthia, commented on the abrupt ending of the morning sermon.
“I guess Samantha was afraid she'd be late for her afternoon manicure,” she said, checking to ensure no one other than Reverend Mitchell had heard her. The silk flowers on her hat shook as she spoke.
“I'm glad he cut it short. I could hardly stay awake,” Reverend Mitchell responded.
Unlike Cynthia, the reverend didn't look over his shoulder. He wanted everyone to hear his harsh critique of the morning service.
Hattie Williams graciously accepted kisses from the younger members. She sat embraced in the glow from the window and soothed by the warmth on her shoulders. Hattie was the senior mother of New Testament Cathedral. She had been a member since the first service held in the little storefront building ten years earlier.
Hattie was eighty-two years old. She was a stately and imposing woman but her warm smile could melt away the fears of any troubled soul fortunate enough to be in her presence. Her silver upswept hair was held in place by a row of well-positioned black bobby pins. A shiny patent leather purse filled with tissues and peppermints matched her sensible Sunday shoes perfectly. Hattie wore a simple lavender floral-print dress with a white ruffled collar which she had made herself. In one hand she held a handkerchief used to occasionally dab perspiration from upper lip and in the other, the smooth curved handle of a wooden cane for maneuvering the steps in the church.
A barrage of emotions suddenly pulsed through Hattie as she clutched the handle of the cane leaning against her swollen knee. She knew the feelings were not her own but instead belonged to others in the room. Sifting through the hidden passions and pain of others each Sunday morning had almost become a game for her. She inherited the empathic gift from her grandmother. Once she thought it a curse but now she considered it a blessing. Silent prayers were said for the more desperate cases and stern rebukes issued to those with nefarious intentions.
She immediately recognized the pool of jealousy surrounding Willie Mitchell.
That man's going to have a heart attack worrying about how much money Pastor Cleaveland has,
Hattie looked to her left and saw Scarlet Shackelford handing a cup of red punch to a little boy in a black suit with his crumpled white shirttail hanging from the rear. Scarlet's chiseled face resembled a tormented angel imagined only in the mind of an artist. Her pastel silk dress twirled gracefully around the calves of her slender legs.
Hattie preferred to keep a safe distance from the young woman. The pain she experienced in her presence was sometimes even too much for her to bear.
That girl needs to forgive herself for having the pastor's baby,
she observed as she fought to block the still raw emotions pouring from Scarlet.
It's been over five years and still nobody knows anything about it.
Hattie suddenly felt Samantha Cleaveland enter the hall. Only Samantha carried with her such extreme feelings of anger and hate and only Samantha could so skillfully conceal it from others. The hate however, was transported in a body that rivaled the beauty of a marble statue intricately carved by the hand of a master.
Shoulder-length glimmering black hair surrounded her flawless pampered skin. The mint linen suit she wore had been designed to accentuate her sensuous curves. The heels of her elegant shoes were the exact height to contort her calves into the perfect feminine silhouettes. Proud, commanding, and in control, her body moved through the room as though carried on a horse-drawn chariot.
She's going to hurt somebody one day. Lord, you better keep an eye on that one,
Hattie thought as Samantha passed. Hattie acknowledged her only with a slight nod of her head.
The few remaining worshippers said their final good-byes in the parking lot.
Reverend Mitchell honked the horn of his lumbering Mercedes and waved to the security guard at the gate as he turned onto Hezekiah T. Cleaveland Avenue. The street had been named in Hezekiah's honor the year he broke ground for the senior citizen housing complex behind the church. If there were any other exit from the parking lot Reverend Mitchell would have taken it. He often wondered why his backroom lobbying against the street name change had failed.
Maybe I should have made a bigger contribution to the mayor for his reelection campaign,
he thought while plunging the car into oncoming traffic.
Samantha Cleaveland waited patiently in the rear of the black Lincoln Town Car and watched as Hezekiah handed a twenty-dollar bill to a young man wearing a wrinkled shirt and pants too short for his long legs.
“Who was that?” she asked as Hezekiah folded his body in next to her.
“That was Melanie Jackson's son, Virgil. He used to play drums for the youth choir. I had to fire him after the police caught him trying to break into the church. He was released from jail a couple of months ago. He said he's been off drugs for over a year. You remember him.”
“Yes I do remember him. He doesn't appear to be off drugs. Don't get involved with him, Hezekiah. He looks like he could be trouble,” Samantha said with contempt as the limousine turned onto Cleaveland Avenue.
She prayed the driver would go faster and turn quickly off the street that bore her husband's name. The sooner she was off that road the better she would feel. She regretted all the campaign contributions she had made and the luncheons she'd hosted to get the street named in his honor.
Now I've got to look at those damned signs every time I come to church,
she thought as the car idled at a missed red light.
Maybe I should pay that thug Virgil to knock them all down. It would take the city years to replace them in this neighborhood.