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Deacon King Kong (24. Sister Paul)

Marjorie Delany, the young Irish-American receptionist working at the Brewster Memorial Home for the Aged in Bensonhurst, was accustomed to the wide range of strange visitors strolling in asking stupid questions. The amalgam of parents, kids, relatives, and old friends who wandered into the lobby angling to get into the rooms, and sometimes the pockets, of the home’s permanent residents—the aged, the dying, and the near dead—ran the gamut from gangsters to lowdown bums to homeless children. She had a keen sense of humor about the whole business and a large streak of compassion, despite having seen it all. But after three years on the job, even Marjorie was unprepared for the unsightly elderly black man who ambled in wearing the blue uniform of the New York City Housing Authority that afternoon.

His face was seized in a crooked smile. He seemed to have trouble walking. He was sweating profusely. He looked, she thought, mad as a hatter. If he weren’t wearing the uniform, she would have had Mel, the security guard, who sat near the door and spent his afternoons reading the Daily News and nodding off, toss him. But she had an uncle who worked for Housing, and he had several colored friends, so she let him amble to the desk. He took his time about it, peering around the lobby, seemingly impressed.

“Looking for Sister Paul,” the old man mumbled.

“What’s the name?”

“Paul,” Sportcoat said. He leaned on the desk for support. He had a blasting headache, which was unusual. He was also exhausted, which was also unusual. He hadn’t had a drink since he spoke to Hettie fourteen hours ago—though it felt like years ago. The effect of not drinking was enormous. He felt weak and agitated, sick to his stomach and trembling, as if he were in a nightmare falling off a cliff and stuck in the air, spinning ’round and ’round as he fell, no bottom, topsy-turvy, just falling. He had just come from seeing Deems and Sausage at the hospital and couldn’t seem to remember what he’d said to either of them or even how he got here. The nursing home was fifteen blocks from the hospital in nearby Borough Park. Normally, Sportcoat could make that kind of walk in a cinch. But now he’d had to stop several times, both to rest and to ask for directions. The last time he’d asked, he was actually standing right in front of the place when he stopped and asked a white man, who simply pointed over Sportcoat’s shoulder, swore under his breath, and walked away. Now he was standing in front of a young white woman behind a desk who had a look on her face just like the folks did back in the Social Security office in downtown Brooklyn when he went to see about his late wife’s benefits. The same look, the irritated questions, the impatience, the demand for documents that had odd names he’d never heard of, pushing forms through the window at him with titles he couldn’t even pronounce or understand; forms that demanded lists and birth dates and more papers, and even some forms that demanded names of other forms, all of which were so complicated that they might as well have been in Greek, the whole conglomeration of document names vanishing into thin air the moment the clerks uttered them. He could not remember what a “Lifetime Sheet for Pro Forma Work Information Record” was from the moment the words came out of a clerk’s mouth, or what it was supposed to be or do, which meant by the time he walked out of the Social Security office, tossing the form in the garbage as he left, he was so addled by the experience that he worked to forget about it, which meant it was as if he hadn’t been there at all.

Now felt like one of those times.

“Is that the first or last name?” Marjorie the receptionist asked.

“Sister Paul? That’s her name.”

“Isn’t that a man’s name?”

“It ain’t a he. It’s a she.”

Marjorie smirked. “A woman named Paul.”

“Well, that’s all the name I knowed of her in my time.”

Marjorie quickly flipped through a list of names on a sheet of paper at her desk. “There’s no woman named Paul here.”

“I’m sure she’s here. Paul. Sister Paul.”

“First of all, sir, like I said, that’s a man’s name.”

Sportcoat, sweating, felt irritable and weak. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed the white-haired elderly security guard stationed near the front door. The guard folded his newspaper. For the second time that day, Sportcoat felt an unusual feeling: anger, which was overcome again by fear, and the usual feeling of utter confusion and helplessness. He didn’t like being this far from the Cause Houses. Anything could happen out here in New York.

He turned back to Marjorie. “Miss, there’s women that do got men’s names in this world.”

“Do they now,” she said, her smirk widening.

“I seen a woman with a man’s name throw a pistol on three fellas last Wednesday. Killed one of ’em dead, blessed God. Now, she was a Haroldeen, that one. Evil as any man. Pretty as a peacock, too, with feathers and all. That was a whole evil person altogether, man and woman combined. A name ain’t nuthing.”

Marjorie looked up to see Mel, the security guard, approach them. “Anything wrong?” he said.

Sportcoat saw the security guard coming and realized his mistake. Now the white folks was getting ready to start counting fingers and toes. His head was pounding so hard he could only see spots in front of his face. He addressed the security guard. “I’m here for Sister Paul,” he said. “She’s a church lady.”

“From where?”

“I don’t know where her home country is.”

“Home country? She American?”

“Course she is!”

“How do you know her?”

“How do anybody know anybody? They meets ’em someplace. She come from church.”

“Which church?”

“Five Ends is the church. I’m a deacon there.”

“Is that so?”

Sportcoat grew frustrated. “She sends money in letters every week! Who sends letters every week? Even the electric company don’t send letters every week!”

The security guard looked at him thoughtfully.

“How much money?” he asked.

Sportcoat felt his anger growing new, raw, ice-hard edges, ones he’d never felt before. He spoke to the white man in a manner in which he had never spoken to a white person in his entire life. “Mister, I am seventy-one years old. And unless I am Ray Charles, you is close to my age. Now, this young lady here”—he pointed to the receptionist—“don’t believe nothing I say. She got an excuse, being privileged and young, for young folks believes they has the mojo and say-so, and she has most likely lived her life hearing folks talking up and down and in and out, saying what they think she would like to hear rather than what she ought be hearing. I ain’t against it. If somebody’s hearing a song and don’t know but that one song alone, well, nothing can be done. But you is old like me. And you ought to see clear that a man my age who hasn’t had a drink in a whole day ought to get a little credit for still being able to hear his own heartbeat—and maybe even deserves a lollipop or two—for not speaking in tongues about the whole bit, being that I am so thirsty for some rotgut at the moment I’d milk a camel for a drop of Everclear or even vodka, which I can’t stand. It’s four dollars and thirteen cents, by the way, that she sends to church every week, if you have to know. And I’m not supposed to know, for it is a church. And I’m only a deacon. I ain’t the treasurer.”

To his surprise, the white security guard nodded sympathetically and said, “How long you been dry?”

“’Bout a day, more or less.”

The security guard offered a low whistle. “Her room’s that way,” he said, pointing down a long hallway behind the desk. “Room one fifty-three.”

Sportcoat started down the hallway, then turned around, irritated, and grunted, “What’s it your business how much she gives to God?”

The old security guard looked sheepish. “I’m the one who goes to the post office and gets the money order,” he said.

“Every week?”

The elderly man shrugged. “Gotta keep moving. If I sit around here too long, they might give me a room.”

Sportcoat tipped his hat, still grumbling, and made his way past the desk to the hallway, the young receptionist and Mel the security guard watching as he went.

“What was that all about?” Marjorie asked.

Mel watched Sportcoat’s back as he tottered down the hallway, stopped, straightened out his clothing, dusted off his sleeves, and plodded farther on.

“The only difference between me and him,” Mel said, “is two hundred forty-three days.”

 

 

Sportcoat, sweating now, feeling delirious, dizzy, and weak, marched into room 153 and found no living human being there. Instead, he encountered a turkey buzzard sitting in the corner, facing the wall, in a wheelchair, holding what appeared to be a bowl of yarn. The bird heard him enter, and with its back to him, spoke.

“Where’s my cheese?”

Then the bird spun the wheelchair around to face him.

It took Sportcoat a full minute to realize that the creature he was staring at was a human being who was 104 years old. The woman was almost completely bald. Her face muscles had drooped, giving the impression that a powerful magnetic force was pulling her jaws, lips, and eye sockets toward the earth. Her mouth sagged nearly into her chin and it was turned down at the corners, giving her a look of perpetual frowning. What hair she had looked like scrambled eggs in string form, in wild clumps and in single strands, giving her the appearance of a wired, harried, ancient, terrified professor. The edge of a nightgown could be seen under the blanket covering her, and her bare feet were shoved into a pair of bed slippers two sizes too big. She was so tiny she covered only a third of the wheelchair seat and sat hunched over, curled, in the form of a question mark.

He had no clear memory of Sister Paul. He had been drunk a lot during the years she was active in the church, before she moved to the nursing home. She left before he got sanctified and saved. As it was, he hadn’t seen her in nearly two decades, and even if he had, he realized she was probably nearly unrecognizable to anyone who didn’t know her well.

Sportcoat swayed for a moment, feeling dizzy and hoping he wouldn’t pass out. A sudden burst of thirst nearly overwhelmed him. He saw a pitcher of water on the nightstand on the other side of her bed. He pointed at it and said, “Can I?” Without waiting for an answer, he staggered to it, picked it up, and took a short sip straight from the pitcher, then realized he was parched and gulped the whole thing down. When he was finished he slammed it back to the table, panted heavily, then burped loudly. He felt better.

He glanced at her again, trying not to stare.

“You is some kind of dish,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Son, you looks like a character witness for a nightmare. You ugly enough to have your face capped.”

“We can’t all be pretty,” he grumbled.

“Well, you ain’t no gemstone, son. You got a face for swim trunk ads.”

“I’m seventy-one, Sister Paul. I’m a spring chicken compared to you. I don’t see no mens doing backflips at the door over you. At least I ain’t got enough wrinkles in my face to hold ten days of rain.”

She glared at him intently, her dark eyes like coals, and for a moment Sportcoat had the dreadful thought that the old nag might turn into a witch and throw a mojo at him, a horrible spell. Instead, she threw her head back and laughed, displaying a mouth full of gums and one sole yellow tooth, which stood out like a clump of butter on a plate. Her howls and cackles sounded like the bleating of a goat.

“No wonder Hettie put up with you!” she guffawed.

“You knew my Hettie?”

It took a moment before she regained herself, moving her empty jaws in a chewing motion and chortling, “Course I did, son.”

“She never told me about you.”

“Why should she? You was a drunk and not listening no way. You don’t hardly remember nothing. I bet you don’t remember me.”

“A little . . .”

“Uh-huh. Men used to ask me to bed in eight languages. Not no more. You drinking now?”

“Not since I saw . . . no, not right now.”

“You look like you could use one. I bet you could.”

“Could indeed. But I’m trying to . . . uh . . . naw. I don’t want one.”

“Well, you set tight, mister, and I’mma tell you a few things that’ll drive anybody to drink. And after I’m done, you go ahead and do whatever it is you got to do. But first, where’s my cheese?”

“What?”

“My cheese.”

“I ain’t got no cheese.”

“Then that’s the thing I’ll tell you first,” she said, “for it is all connected. I’ll tell it this once. But don’t darken my doorway again if you ain’t got my cheese.”

 

 

Sportcoat sat calmly in a chair near the window, rubbing his jaw, taking deep breaths, after Sister Paul had motioned him to push her closer to the window where they could both see the sunshine. Once he had locked her chair as she requested and pulled a chair up to the window she started in:

“We all knowed each other,” she said. “Hettie, me, my husband, my daughter Edie, Sister Gee’s parents—they was the aunt and uncle of the Cousins, by the way. Nanette and Sweet Corn. And of course your friend Rufus. We all come up from various parts of the South around ’bout the same time. Hettie and Rufus was the youngest. Me and my husband was the oldest. We come up following Edie, who brung us out the South. Me and my husband started the church in my living room. Then we got the congregation, and after a while we got enough money together to buy us a piece of dirt just outside the Cause Houses. The land was cheap then. That’s the beginning of Five Ends. That’s how it got started.

“See, the Cause was all Italians in the forties when we come. They built them projects for the Italians to unload the boats at the harbor. That business was dead when we come. The boats left. The docks closed, and them Italians didn’t want us. Fact is, you couldn’t walk down Silver Street to go downtown. You had to take the bus or the subway, or get a ride—nobody had no car—so you’d just run past if you had to. You didn’t walk down Silver Street unless you wanted to lose your teeth, or if it was very late or you didn’t have no bus money.

“Well, we didn’t mind too much. The South was worse. Myself, I paid them Italians no more mind than I would watching a bird snatch crumbs off the ground.

“I did day’s work for a white lady lived up in Cobble Hill. One night she had a party and I worked late. Well, it was cold and the buses was running slow, so I walked home. I done that from time to time when it was late. I didn’t walk down Silver Street. I skirted the outside. I come all the way down Van Marl, and when I got to Slag Street, I turned and come that way, skirting along the harbor where the factories were. That’s how the colored walked home late at night.

“I was walking down Van Marl that night—I reckon maybe it was just three in the morning or so, and I seen two, maybe three blocks coming at me two men running to beat the band. White men. Hauling tail. Coming right at me. One right behind the other.

“Well, I’m a colored woman and it was dark and I know however that cobweb spins out, I’d likely be blamed for whatever wrong happened. So I hid in a doorway and let ’em come. They run right past me. The first fella zipped past, and right behind him come the second. That second feller was a cop.

“When they got to the corner of Van Marl and Slag, the first fella running stopped in the intersection and turned around and pulled a pistol on the second feller, the policeman. Caught that cop by surprise. He looked to blow that cop’s head off.

“And don’t you know, outta nowhere come this truck and boom! Hit that feller standing in the intersection. Cleaned him up good. Deadened ’em right there. Then the truck stopped and it got quiet.

“The cop ran into the street and checked out the man with the gun. He was deader than yesterday’s spaghetti. Then he went to the driver. I heard the driver say, ‘I never saw him.’ Then the cop said to the driver, ‘Don’t move. I’m going to a call box.’ He ran off to one of them police call boxes to get help. Ran clear around the corner and out of sight.

“Well, that was my time to go. I come outta the doorway and walked fast down the sidewalk past the truck. As I was scooting past, the feller driving the truck, he hollered, ‘Help me, please.’

“I wanted to keep walking. I was scared. That wasn’t none of my business. So I kept going a few more steps. But the feller driving the truck begged me. He said please, please, help me, begging me to help him.

“Well, I reckon the Lord said to me, ‘Go ’head on and help. Maybe he’s hurt or injured.’ So I goes to the driver’s side where he’s setting and I says, ‘Is you hurt?’

“He was an Italian man. He spoke with such a hard accent it was the devil understanding him. But the gist of it was he said this: ‘I’m in trouble.’

“I said, ‘You ain’t done nothing wrong. The man jumped in front of you. I seen it.’

“He says, ‘That ain’t the problem. I got to get this truck home. I’ll give you one hundred dollars to drive this truck.’”

Here Sister Paul paused and shrugged, as if apologizing for the ridiculous problem she’d stumbled into. Then her age took over and she yawned, then continued.

“I was just an old country woman. I hadn’t been in the city that long, see. But I knowed trouble. So I said, ‘Drive on, mister. I ain’t gonna meddle in your affairs. I ain’t seen nothing. I’m going home to the Cause Houses, where I live. Goodbye.’

“Well, I turned to leave and he begged me to stay. He wouldn’t let me go. He popped open the truck door and said, ‘Look at my foot. It’s broken.’

“I look in there. Seems like he hit the pedal so hard he broke his right foot some kind of way. His right foot was twisted cockeyed. And then he lifted his left leg with his arm and showed me his other foot. His left one, the clutch pedal foot, he had to hold that leg up with his hand. That foot was lame. He said, ‘I had a stroke. I only got one good side. I ain’t got no feet to drive.’

“I said, ‘I can’t give you my feet to drive, mister. That’s God’s work, giving a man feet.’

“He said, ‘Please. I got a wife and son. I’ll give you a hundred dollars. Can’t you use a hundred dollars?’

“‘I surely could,’ I said. ‘But I likes being free out here. Plus I’m old. I can’t drive nothing but a mule, mister. I ain’t never driven a car or truck in my life.’

“He got to begging and pleading so much, Lord, I didn’t know what to do. He was an Italian man and he seemed sincere, even though I couldn’t hardly understand every word that man was talking. But he kept saying, ‘I’ll give you one hundred dollars. We’ll drive the truck together. Please. I’m gonna go to jail for twenty-five years this time. I got a son. I already messed up on raising him.’

“Well, my daddy went to jail when I was but a little wee girl. He gone to prison for trying to start a sharecroppers’ union back in my home country in Alabama. I knows the feeling of not having your daddy there when you need him. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I had already put one foot in it anyway by standing there talking to him at three in the morning. But I turned to God and I heard His voice say, ‘I will hold you in the palm of My hand.’

“I said, ‘All right, mister. I will help you. But I ain’t taking no money. If I’m going to jail, I’m going for what the Lord told me to do.’

“Well as God would have it, I moved that truck some kind of way. My husband the Reverend Chicksaw was a truck driver, and I seen him drive a truck many a day back home in Alabama, so I done the pedals and turned the steering this way and that like the man told me to, and he shifted the gears, and we got that thing a-roaring and jerking along for a few blocks, and not too far up the road at Silver Street, he shut off the motor by turning the key and I helped him into his house. There was another Italian man waiting who come out saying, ‘Where you been?’ and runned to the truck, and then a second man ran out the house to the truck and they drove that thing off and I never seen it again. Meanwhile, I helped that cripple get in his house. His good leg was all cockeyed. He was messed up bad.

“His wife come downstairs and he said to her, ‘Give that lady one hundred dollars.’

“I said, ‘I don’t want your money, mister. I’m going home. I ain’t seen nothing.’

“He said, ‘What can I do for you? I have to do something for you.’

“I said, ‘You ain’t got to do a thing. I done what God has told me to do. I prayed before I done what you asked and God said He would hold me in the palm of His hand. I hope He holds you the same. And your wife too. Just please don’t tell nobody what I has done—not even my husband if you is to meet him, for I lives over in the Cause Houses and you might see him about, preaching in the streets.’ And I left out. His wife did not say a mumbling word to me. Not a word. If she did say a word, I can’t call it. I was gone.

“Well, I didn’t see him no more till we was building the church. See, we couldn’t find nobody wanted to sell us the land. We had saved up our money, the church did, but them Italians didn’t want us out there. Every time we’d offer to buy a building someplace, we’d look here or there in the paper, we’d call and they’d say it’s for sale and soon as they’d see us they’d say, ‘No, we changed our mind. We ain’t selling.’ And the thing is, whoever was running them docks was closing them down and them Italians was moving out fast as they could. But they still wouldn’t sell to us. Every one of ’em was selling what they could, the devil keeping score. But our money was no good. Well, we kept asking around, asking around, and finally somebody said, ‘There’s a fella over yonder on Silver Street who’s selling some land. He’s over there on the dock in that old railroad car.’ So me and my husband went over there and knocked. And who should answer the door but this fella.

“That just knocked me out. I didn’t say a mumbling word. I acted like I never seen him before. He done the same. He didn’t make no fuss about it. He said to my husband, ‘I’ll sell you that lot over yonder. I’m building a storage house on one side of the lot. You can build your church on the other.’

“And that’s how Five Ends got there.”

Sportcoat listened, his eye squinting in concentration. “You reckon you still remember that fella’s name?” he asked.

Sister Paul drew a shallow breath and leaned her head back in the wheelchair. “I remember his name rightly. One of the finest men I ever knowed. Old Guido Elefante.”

“The Elephant?”

“No. The Elephant’s daddy.”

 

 

Sportcoat felt thirsty again. He rose from his chair at the window, picked up the empty water pitcher, and went to the bathroom, where he filled it up again, drank it down, then returned and sat by the window.

“Honest to my savior, if it wasn’t you telling it, I’d say you was stretching my blanket. That’s the strangest thing I ever heard,” he said.

“It’s the God’s truth. And that ain’t all of it. Not only did old man Guido let us have our lot for six thousand dollars. No bank would loan us nothing. We took out a mortgage with him. We stepped on that lot without spending a penny to nobody’s bank. We gave him four hundred dollars and got to digging: me and my husband done a little, but it was mostly my Edie, Rufus, and Hettie. Sister Gee’s parents, and the Cousins’ parents, they come along later. In the beginning it was mostly us. We didn’t get far. We didn’t have no machines nor money for none. We dug by shovel. We done what we could.

“One afternoon Mr. Guido seen us digging and came by with one of them big tractor things and dug out the entire foundation, including the basement. He done it in three days. Didn’t say a mumbling word. He never did talk much. Never said much to nobody but me, and he didn’t waste too many words on me neither. But we was grateful for him.

“After we started bricking up the walls with cinder block, he stopped by again and pulled me aside and said, ‘I wants to repay you for what you done.’

“I says, ‘You done it. We building a church.’

“He says, ‘You got a mortgage on that church with me. I will give you the land if you let me set a gift inside the church.’

“I said, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. We gonna buy the land over time.’

“He said, ‘You don’t have to. I will give it to you. Take the note and burn it if you want.’

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know nothing about burning no notes, Mr. Guido. We owes you fifty-six hundred dollars on a straight mortgage to you. We’ll pay you free and clear in a few years.’

“He says, ‘I ain’t got a few years. I will tear the mortgage up right now if you let me put something beautiful on the back wall of the church.’

“I said, ‘Is you saved to Jesus?’

“That tied him up. He said, ‘I can’t lie. I am not. But I got a friend who is. I got to save something for him. I made a promise to him to keep something for him. I plan to keep that promise. I wanna get somebody to draw a picture on the back wall of the church where he can see it, so that when he comes by this church someday, or his children, or his children’s children come by, they’ll look at it and know it’s there on account of me and that I kept my word.’ He said wouldn’t nobody know about it but us—me and him.

“Well, I talked about it with my husband, for he was the pastor of the church. He tried to talk to old Guido hisself, but the old Italian wouldn’t say a word to him. Not a mumbling word did he say to my husband or nobody else at Five Ends. I seen him talk to the building inspector from the city who came around saying you have to do thus and so when we was getting ready to build. I don’t know what was said there, but that inspector needed talking to ’cause you just can’t build nothing in New York by saying it, not even back in them days. You had to go through the city. Well, Mr. Guido talked to him. But not a word did he waste on nobody colored but me, to my knowing. So my husband finally said, ‘If it’s okay by you, it’s okay by me, since you is the only one he talks to.’

“So I went to Mr. Elefante and said, ‘Okay, do what you want.’

“A couple of days later he come by with three of his Italian men and them fellas got to work bricking that cinder block. They knowed their business, so we left them to it and worked the inside. We put down the floor and finished the roof. That’s how it went. They worked the outside. We worked the inside. Colored and white working together.

“After Mr. Elefante’s men built the walls about waist high, he come to me at lunch—” She paused and then corrected herself. “Well, that ain’t right. I came to him at lunch. See, those days when we broke for lunch, the Italians went one way to eat at home and the colored went the other. But I always made Mr. Guido a little something for lunch ’cause he didn’t eat much, and I’d bring it back to him a few minutes early because he hardly didn’t go to lunch. I come back early one afternoon and found him working as usual, bricking up that back wall. When I walked up on him, he says, ‘Is you alone?’

“I said, ‘I just brought you some vittles ’cause I know you don’t eat.’

“He looked around to make sure nobody was about, then said, ‘I got something to show you. It’s a good-luck charm.’

“He brung this little metal box and opened it. He said, ‘This is the thing that bought your church land.’”

“What was it?” Sportcoat asked.

“It wasn’t nothing,” Sister Paul said. “It looked like a piece of soap shaped like a fat girl. ’Bout the color of an old trumpet. A little colored lady, is what it looked like. He closed that soap thing in the metal box, set that box inside the hollow part of a cinder block, put his concrete and mortar on it, done something to the bottom so it could set in there good, and set another cinder block over it. You couldn’t tell one from the other.

“Then he says to me, ‘You the only one that knows. Even my wife don’t know.’

“I said, ‘Why you trust me?’

“He said, ‘A person who trusts can be trusted.’

“I said, ‘Well, I ain’t got nothing to do with where you puts your soap, Mr. Guido. I keeps my soap in the bathroom. But you a grown man, and it’s your soap. It ain’t gonna do you no good where it’s at, but I reckon you got more soap at home.’

“I do believe that’s one of the few times I seen that man laugh. He was a serious man, see.

“When his men come back, they built that wall up before the day was done. The next day he had another Italian feller came by with a black-and-white picture of a painting. He called it a Jell-O or some kind of painting. That feller copied that painting exactly as it was, right to the back wall of the church. It took him two days. The first day he drawed a big circle and colored it in some. Framed it out some, I guess. The second day he drawed Jesus in his robes right in the middle circle—with Jesus’s hands outspread. Them hands touch the outside of that circle he drawed. One of them hands, Jesus’s left hand, is right on the cinder block where that soap is. Right on top of it.”

She paused and nodded.

“And that thing is in there yet today.”

“You sure?” Sportcoat asked.

“Sure as I’m sitting here. Unless the building fell down to dust. Then they finished bricking the other walls, helped us finish the inside, do the floors and such. And at the end, that same painter came back and put up the lettering on the back wall over Jesus’s head that says ‘May God Hold You in the Palm of His Hand.’ It was the prettiest thing.”

She yawned, her story finished.

“That’s how the church come to have that motto.”

Sportcoat scratched his jaw, perplexed. “But you didn’t tell me about the cheese,” he said.

“What about it? I done told you,” she said.

“No you didn’t.”

“I told you about the truck, didn’t I?”

“What do a truck got to do with it?”

She shook her old head. “Son, you so old your mind has shrunk to the size of a full-grown pea. What do a truck carry? The truck I drove for Mr. Guido was full of cheese. Stolen cheese, I reckon. Old Guido started sending me that cheese five minutes after we opened the church doors. After I let him stick that good-luck soap box with the colored doll in it or whatever it was in that wall, I could do no wrong for him. I asked him many a day to stop sending that cheese, for it was good cheese. Expensive cheese. Too much for our little church. But he said, ‘I wanna send it. People need food.’ So after a while I told him to send it to Building Seventeen in the Cause, for Hot Sausage come to run that building after a time, and Sausage is honest, and I knowed he’d give it out in the Cause to them who could use it. Mr. Guido sent that cheese for years and years. After he died, it still come. When I come here to this old folks’ home, it was yet coming. It comes to this day.”

“So who’s sending it now?”

“Jesus,” she said.

“Oh hush!” Sportcoat hissed. “You sound like Hettie. That cheese got to come from someplace!”

Sister Paul shrugged. “Genesis twenty-seven twenty-eight says, ‘May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine.’”

“This is cheese.”

“Son, a blessing favors them that needs it. Don’t matter how it comes. It just matters that it does.”

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