Deacon King Kong (16. May God Hold You . . .)
Nine days after Soup Lopez’s homecoming party and two weeks after he blasted Deems in the face, Sportcoat, still very much alive, arrived bright and early for work at the old Italian lady’s brownstone. He had to work in her garden. It was just another normal Wednesday.
She was waiting for him and came right outside the gate when he walked up, moving in a hurry. She was wearing a man’s jacket over her housedress, her kitchen apron still tied around her waist, and men’s oversized concrete walking boots on her feet.
“Deacon,” she said, “we’ve got to find pokeweed.”
“What for? It’s poisonous.”
“No it’s not.”
“Well alrighty then,” he said.
They set off, moving down the block toward the empty lots that stretched toward the harbor. He walked behind her as she stomped forward. When they reached the first weeded lot, just two blocks away, she waded in and he followed. They both searched with their heads down. They passed several fine specimens. “There’s sandspur, beggar’s-lice, partridge weed,” Sportcoat said, “but no pokeweed.”
“It’s here,” Mrs. Elefante said. She fanned through the weeds, several feet ahead of him, swatting the plants with her hands. “My doctor would hate for me to find a bunch of it. That would put him out of business.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sportcoat chuckled. He felt good this morning. In fact, he felt good every morning he wandered the lots of the Cause looking for plants with the old lady whose name he could never remember. It was the only job he had that he didn’t need to take a drink for. Normally, ever since Hettie died, he needed a booster in the mornings. But Wednesdays working with the old lady always left him feeling goosed. She was eighteen years older than him—close to eighty-nine, she said, but one of the few old folks in the Cause who preferred to be outdoors all day. Four months into the job and he’d never managed to remember her name, but she was a good white person, and that’s what counted. He had always been terrible with names, and that was a problem, especially after he got soused. Most folks he called “Hey, brother man,” or “ma’am,” and if they had a name of any type, they’d simply respond. But after four months it didn’t seem appropriate for him to ask her name again, so he’d taken to calling her Miss Four Pie, which she didn’t mind, a point that amused Hot Sausage to no end when he told him.
“Don’t she got a real name?” Sausage asked.
“Of course she do. In fact the lady from the senior center who recommended me for the job wrote her name down for me once. But I lost the paper.”
“Whyn’t you just ask the lady her name again?”
“She don’t care what I call her!” Sportcoat declared. “She likes it when I calls her Miss Four Pie!”
“Why you call her that?”
“Sausage, she had four hot blueberry pies in her oven first day I come on the job. That whole house was stinking of blueberries,” Sportcoat said. “I said, ‘By God, miss, it do smell good in here.’ She told me her name then.”
“You don’t remember it at all?”
“What difference do it make?” he said. “She pays in cash.” He pondered it a moment. “I do believe she got an Italian name. Like Illy-at-ee or Ella-rant-ee or some such thing.” He scratched his head. “I remembered it the first day, but I drunk a bottle of essence after I come home and forgot it. It just runned right outta me.”
“Did she give you one that first day?” Hot Sausage asked.
“Give me a name? I got my own name.”
“No. A pie! She had four of ’em.”
“Do a buzzard fly? Course she did!” Sportcoat declared. “Miss Four Pie don’t play around! She knows I’m a plant man. She’s good people, Sausage.” He thought a moment. “Now that I thinks on it, to be legal and proper, I reckon I ought to call her Miss Three Pie instead of Miss Four Pie, being she didn’t have but three pies when I left that first day. She deducted herself one whole pie for old Sportcoat.” He laughed. “I’m killing ’em, Sausage! They love me out here. She’s crazy about me.”
“That’s because you probably got more teeth than her.”
“Don’t get jealous, son. She’s a salty lady. Full of sand, as they say. Why, if she was colored and bowlegged, I’d run her down to Silky’s and buy her a sip of some top-shelf brandy.”
“Why she got to be bowlegged?”
“I do got standards.”
Sausage laughed, but Sportcoat felt embarrassed about the wisecrack, which he felt was in poor taste. “Fact is, Sausage,” he said soberly, “I miss my Hettie. She don’t spare me talking this kind of devilment, and if she hears of it, she might not show around no more. I can’t have that.” To make up for his insult, he said: “Miss Four Pie’s a spicy soul. She moves her tongue however she pleases. She ain’t afraid to speak out. Fact is, I’m scared of her a little. Her husband’s long dead, and I reckon she might’ve talked him into the ground, her being so strong-minded. That lady knows more about plants than anybody around here. The hours just whiles away when I’m working under her hand, for I favors plants myself. I hardly has a need to get a glow going on the days I works for her—well, I need a little protective custody, but not much. It don’t compare to the rest of the week when I ain’t got no garden to fool around in. Then I gets parched and goes from a toot to a tear to a wallbanger, especially if Hettie don’t show, for then I get ever more bleary and swim on ahead, getting overserved, thinking about Hettie and whatever wrong I done to her and all. It ain’t good.”
Sausage was amused, but as usual, Sportcoat’s long-winded talks about his adventures in plant life bored him, so he changed the subject. But it occurred to Sportcoat that talking with Miss Four Pie about plants, as they thrust about the weeds in the lot, was one of the few things he looked forward to every week, even if she was the one doing all the talking.
They were an odd sight, an elderly white woman in housedress, apron, and oversized men’s construction boots, followed by an elderly black man in porkpie hat and plaid sports jacket, moving past the railroad boxcar, the abandoned docks and railroad tracks, and into the high weeds of discarded junk surrounding the abandoned factories that sat near the water’s edge, the glistening Lower Manhattan just across the water.
That Wednesday, as he walked behind her, Sportcoat noticed she moved unsteadily. Over the past month or so, she’d seemed tired and unsteady on her feet. When they got back to her house, she’d occasionally ask him to step into the kitchen to clean and cut up some of the plants they’d found, but not very frequently. It was an unwritten rule he’d followed as a black man who grew up in the South that he always stay outside. That suited him fine, for he was afraid to step into any of their houses. Miss Four Pie had advised him early on that her son, who lived in the house with her—a son he had never met (or maybe he had met but could not recall)—was strict and did not want any strangers in their home. That was fine with Sportcoat, who worked under the assumption that if anything went wrong in any white person’s house in any part of the world and he happened to be near it, why, there was no doubt on whose head the hammer of justice would fall. But over the months he’d worked for her she’d come to trust him. Once in her kitchen, after he did her bidding, he’d move back into the yard as quickly as possible. He was, after all, just an outdoor man. Miss Four Pie seemed to understand that.
They wandered into a lot filled with high weeds just south of the harbor and spread out from one another. He saw her disappear down an embankment out of sight momentarily. He went over to check on her and found her sitting on a discarded sink, scanning the swamp before her.
“I know pokeweed’s here somewhere,” she said. “The wetter the ground, the better the chance it’s around.”
“Maybe we ought not burn too much gas looking for it,” Sportcoat said. “I had a cousin who got sick from eating it.”
“It depends on what part you eat,” she said. “What did he eat? The root, the stem, or the leaves?”
“Lord, I don’t know. It was a long time ago.”
“Well there it is,” she said. “Me, I got numbness in my legs. Plus cataracts. I can’t see a thing. The pokeweed cleans my blood. I can see better. My legs don’t hurt so much. I can eat almost any part of it, anytime.”
Sportcoat was impressed by her certainty. She stood up and ventured into the swamp, and he followed her. The two moved deeper into it, their feet sinking into the wet grass, which became marshier as they drew closer to the water. They searched for several minutes and came upon several treasures they liked: skunk cabbage, spring beauty, and fiddleheads. But no pokeweed. They spent another twenty minutes searching westward parallel to the water. Finally, they struck gold in a swampy lot next to an old paint factory that faced the water. In the lot behind the factory was a wealth of good things: wild mustard, wild garlic, huge geraniums, and—at last—pokeweed, some of it four feet high.
They gathered as much as they could carry and slowly made their way through the weeded lots to Miss Four Pie’s house.
She was happy with their haul. “These things are big,” she said of the pokeweed. “You couldn’t find them this big in a store. Of course you can’t buy good vegetables in the store anymore anyway. Tomatoes you buy now, they look so nice and shiny and red. When you get them home and slice them, they’re all red mush inside. They taste like nothing. How can you make spaghetti sauce with that?”
“Don’t reckon I could,” Sportcoat said.
“Nothing’s the way it was,” she complained. “You ever see a son as good as his father? The son might be taller. Or stronger. Or thicker about the shoulders. But is he better? My son is stronger than his father. On the outside. But on the inside? Hmph.”
“I don’t reckon I’ve met your son, Miss Four Pie.”
“Oh, you’ve seen him running around here,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Trying to make fast money like the rest of these young people. Bigger. Better. Faster. More. That’s all they want. Always in a hurry. Never takes time for things. He needs to meet a good Italian girl.”
The thought seemed to distract her. As they made their way back through the lots to Silver Street, they bypassed some real treasures Sportcoat knew she liked: milkweed, knotweed, wild garlic, and beggar’s-lice. But she was too busy chatting happily. “I tell my son, there’s no such thing as fast money. Money’s not everything, Deacon. If you have enough to live, that’s enough.”
“You’re by golly right about that.”
They walked on and she glanced back at him. “How long you been a deacon?”
“If I had to count the years, I’d lose track. But I’d say it’s now going on twenty years over at Five Ends. My wife was a trustee, y’know.”
“Is that right?”
“I had a good wife,” he said wistfully.
“They don’t make them like they used to, Deacon,” she said.
By the time they arrived back at her brownstone, the old lady was tired and she took the unusual step of inviting him inside. She announced she was so tired she had to go upstairs to lie down and instructed him: “Put the plants in tubs and wash them in the sink. Then leave them on the counter and you’re all done, Deacon. I left your money on the counter. Pull the back door when you leave.”
“Okay, Miss Four Pie.”
“Thank you, Deacon.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
She went upstairs, and he finished the job as instructed and left out the back door, which led to a tiny yard. He walked down the stairs and turned to the left to the alley that separated her brownstone from the one next door.
As he stepped into the alley he walked dead into the Elephant.
He didn’t recognize him, of course. Few people from the Cause Houses knew which of the several Italians that moved in and out of the boxcar was the Elephant. But everyone knew the name, and the reputation and the dread associated with it.
Elefante had been home from the Bronx for a week, but the visit was still fresh in his mind. He was deep in thought about the whole business of it when he walked into the old colored man in his backyard. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I’m the gardener.”
“What you doing here?” Elefante asked.
Sportcoat smiled uneasily. “Well, the garden is where gardeners work, mister.” He watched the Elephant’s quick glance about the yard. “I reckon you must be the son, for you favors Miss Four Pie. She spoke of you all day long.”
Sportcoat realized his mistake and puffed out his cheeks quickly, blowing the air through his mouth. “The lady inside . . . the plant lady. I take it that’s your momma? I works for her. I forgot her name.”
“Is she all right?”
“Oh yeah. She just went to lay down. She had me out there . . . uh . . . we was seeking pokeweed near the harbor.”
Elefante relaxed a little, frowning. “Did you find it?”
“Do a buzzard fly? Your ma can find any plant around here, mister.”
Elefante chuckled softly and relaxed. He stared at Sportcoat. “Don’t I know you?”
“I reckon . . .” Sportcoat stared back, and then he realized it. “Lord . . . are you the fella there when my Hettie died?”
Elefante held out his hand. “Tom Elefante,” he said.
“Yes, sir, I . . .” Sportcoat found himself sweating. He felt a thank-you coming, but for what? For pulling Hettie out of the bay? It was too much to think about. This was the Elephant. The real thing. A real gangster. “Well . . . I got to be going, mister.”
“Wait a minute.”
Elefante reached in his pocket, pulled out a wad of bills, counted off one hundred dollars, and held it out to Sportcoat. “For my mother.”
Sportcoat looked down at the bills. “You ain’t got to do that,” he said. “Your momma paid me already.”
“It’s all right.”
“I been paid, mister. Your ma treats me right,” Sportcoat said. “I reckon she could run a learning school on plants, she knows so much about ’em. More’n me, that’s for sure. And I knows quite a bit from my young days. She had her mind on that pokeweed and we walked quite a bit seeking it out. She was a little shaky walking toward the end, but she done all right. We found it and she says it’s gonna make her feel better. I do hope it works.”
“Take a little extra, mister.” Elefante held out the money.
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, you already done me a world of good when your fellers pulled my Hettie out the water.”
Elefante stared a moment. He wanted to say, “I don’t know how she got there,” but the truth was, to admit that was to confess knowledge of something in which he had no part, which made it sound like a denial. One denial led to another and to another, and no gangster worth his salt went down that road. Better to say nothing.
The old man seemed to understand. “Oh, my Hettie was tired, is all. She was following God’s light. Looking for a moonflower, is what it was. It was a beautiful day when she died. Best funeral the church ever had.”
Elefante shrugged, pocketed his money, and leaned against the wall of his house. “I used to see her come and go from church,” he said. “She’d say good morning. People don’t do that no more.”
“No they don’t.”
“She seemed like a nice lady. She always minded her business. Did she work?”
“Oh, she did day’s work and this and that. Mostly she just lived a life like most of us. She lived for going to heaven, mister.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Are you a religious man?” Sportcoat asked.
“Not really. Maybe a little.”
Sportcoat nodded. He couldn’t wait to tell Sausage. He’d actually had a conversation with the Elephant. An honest-to-goodness gangster! And he wasn’t so bad! He was religious! A little, maybe?
“Well, I got to mosey on,” Sportcoat said. “I’ll see your momma next Wednesday.”
“All right, old-timer. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Folks call me Deacon Cuffy. Some calls me Sportcoat, but mostly in these parts they calls me Deacon.”
Elefante smiled. The old dud had a style about him. “Okay, Deacon. By the way, what does a deacon do?”
Sportcoat grinned. “Well now, that’s a good question. We do all sorts of things. We helps the church. We throws out the garbage. We buys the furniture sometimes. We shop for the food for the deaconesses to make for the repast and such. We even preaches from time to time if we is called upon. We does whatever needs to be done. We’re your holy handyman.”
“But mostly, truth be told, it’s women that runs most of your colored churches out here. Like my late wife, and Sister Gee and Bum-Bum.”
“Are they nuns?”
“No, I reckon not. They’re just sisters.”
Elefante’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why call them sisters?”
“’Cause we all brothers and sisters in Christ, mister. Come visit our church sometime. Bring your momma. You’ll see. We likes visitors at Five Ends.”
“Well, I’ll leave you,” Sportcoat said. “And until we meet again, I hope God holds you in the palm of His hand.”
Elefante, who was about to head into the house, froze.
“Say that again,” he said.
“Oh, that’s a blessing my Hettie used to say to everybody she met. We say that in our church all the time to visitors. In fact, if you come visit us, you’ll hear it yourself. It’s our church motto, since before I come, and that’s been twenty years. In fact, there’s a picture of Jesus with that motto right over the top of his head outside on the back wall of the church. They got them words painted over his head in fancy gold letters. You can’t miss it.”
Elefante stared at him oddly, with a surprised expression that Sportcoat read as innocence, and it made Sportcoat feel right proud. He’d given the white man something to think about. And a gangster too! Maybe he was converting this feller to the word. Wouldn’t that be something! Your first convert! An honest-to-goodness gangster! Feeling the moment, he said it again: “May God hold you in the palm of His hand. It’s a pretty picture in your mind.”
“Where’s the picture?”
“The one in your mind?”
“No. The one in the church.”
“Oh, that old thing? It’s a big old circle with Jesus in the middle and them words over top of his head. Right out back behind the church.”
“How long has it been there?”
“Lord . . . it’s been there, oh, I don’t know how long. Don’t nobody quite know who drawed that thing. My Hettie said a man drawed it up there when they first built the church. She said, ‘I don’t know how those fools paid him, for our treasury ain’t never had more than fifty-four dollars in it. They didn’t use my Christmas Club money to pay him, that’s for sure!’” Sportcoat chuckled, then added, “My Hettie kept the Christmas Club money, too, see. Kept it in a box . . . someplace.”
“I see . . . you say the painting’s . . . along the back wall outside?”
“Why yes it is. Big ol’ pretty picture of Jesus in a circle with his hands just about touching the edge of that circle. Painted right on the cinder block. Folks used to come from miles to see that picture. It got covered over some, but if you stand back in the weeds you can still see the circle and the whole thing as it was. I heard tell once that there was something special about that picture.”
“Is it a picture or a painting? Covered over? Is the picture covered over?”
Elefante stared at him so thoughtfully, curiosity etched in his face, yet for some reason Sportcoat felt, at that moment, that the spiritual part of his message was slipping. “No, it’s not covered over. Well, the church kinda painted over it a little over the years, fixed it up. Colored it up some. But you can still see him, plain as day. It’s not the words so much that’s wrote there that’s important, though,” he added, going back to making his spiritual pitch. “It’s the spirit of what Jesus wants, see. To hold you in the palm of His hand.”
“Can you see his hands too?”
Sportcoat carefully neglected to mention, “He was once white till we made him colored.” Unbeknownst to Sportcoat, the church’s version was actually a local artist’s rendering of Jesus as depicted in the centerpiece of Italian artist Giotto di Bondone’s Last Judgment, the original of which lived in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which portrayed Jesus as a white man in a beard. Someone in the congregation some years back had insisted that Jesus be colored black, and Pastor Gee, anxious to please the congregation as always, had cheerfully hired Sister Bibb’s son Zeke, a housepainter, to brown up Jesus some. With the help of Hot Sausage and Sportcoat, the three did just that, coloring Jesus’s face and hands with dark brown house paint. The result was horrible, of course, with the facial features, so carefully detailed by the original copyist, so badly distorted and the hands so badly mangled, the face and hands looked like near blobs. But Jesus, Pastor Gee noted cheerfully at the time, had emerged a Negro, and a great spirit as always, and that was the point.
Sportcoat wisely didn’t breathe a word of this, but Elefante stared at him with such an odd look that Sportcoat felt he was pattering on too much, which could, as usual, spell trouble with white folks. “Well alrighty then!” he said, and shuffled down the alley.
Elefante watched as Sportcoat walked down the alley and turned onto the sidewalk and out of sight. He felt slightly dazed, his heart still light with the thought of fresh, new love, the Governor’s mesmerizing daughter, and now this. A Negro from the colored church two hundred yards from his boxcar? Negroes? And his father? He’d never seen his father with a Negro, ever. Was he losing his mind?
He climbed the narrow stairs to the back door, opened it to the kitchen, and stepped inside, feeling dizzy, the words still in his head.
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.