Deacon King Kong (25. Do)
It was a dream so alive—and so many of them seemed dead before they started—that at times Elefante felt he had to keep himself from levitating when he thought about it. He gripped the steering wheel of his Lincoln tightly as he considered it. Melissa, the Governor’s daughter, rode beside him in silence. It was four a.m. He was happy. It wasn’t so much that Melissa had accepted his invitation to “look into her father’s affairs,” but rather the way she handled her own affairs—and his.
He’d never met anyone like her before. She was, as they say in Italian, a stellina, a star, a most beautiful one. From the first, she was shy and reticent, as he’d seen. But beneath the reserve was a sureness of manner, a certainty that belied deep confidence and engendered trust. Over the weeks as they courted, he saw how she was with her employees at her bagel shop and factory, the way she figured out important problems for them without making them feel stupid, the politeness she showed them, her respect and deference for older people in general, including the old deacon, the rummy who’d worked for his mother, whom she’d finally met just a month ago. She didn’t refer to him as “colored,” or “Negro.” She called him “Mister” and referred to him as “Afro-American,” which, to Elefante, sounded dangerous, odd, and foreign. That was hippie talk. It reminded him of Bunch Moon, the colored bastard. He’d heard through the grapevine that Peck had dispatched Bunch—badly. There was danger everywhere now, full-out shooting coming because of the whites, the blacks, the Spanish, the Irish cops, the Italian families, the drug wars. It wouldn’t stop. Yet despite the dark days ahead he felt himself moving into a light of a different kind. The wonderful, bursting, gorgeous, eye-opening panorama of light that love can bring into a lonely man’s life.
The romance was new territory for them both. A couple of lunches and a quick dinner at a Bronx diner had dissolved into long, peaceful dinners at the Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg, then lovely walks along the Brooklyn Esplanade as the cocoon of affection and lust blossomed into the kaleidoscope of bursting, passionate, gorgeous love.
Even so, he thought, as he steered the car down the FDR Drive, the Chrysler Building at Forty-Second Street receding in the distance, to love a man by the light of day when the sun is shining and there is a promise of love is one thing. But to rumble into the housing projects of Brooklyn in his Lincoln to pick up the old deacon in the dead of night was quite another.
He pondered it as he spun the Lincoln into the Battery Tunnel, the fluorescent lights along its ceiling glinting across Melissa’s face as she sat next to him. Until then he’d always believed a partner brought worry, fear, and weakness to a man, especially one in his business. But Melissa brought courage and humility and humor to places he’d never known existed. He’d never partnered with a woman before, if you didn’t include his mother, but Melissa’s quiet sincerity was a weapon of a new kind. It drew people in, disarmed them. It made them friends—and that was a weapon too. He’d seen that happen with the old colored woman in the Bensonhurst nursing home who called herself Sister Paul.
He thanked God he’d brought Melissa to the old folks’ home the week before. He almost didn’t do it. He took her along as an afterthought, to show his sincerity and openness. She’d turned matters in his favor.
The old deacon had assured him that he’d told Sister Paul all about him. But when he walked into the room, the old biddy, wrinkled and covered in a gray blanket, gave him the malocchio, the evil eye. She ignored his greeting and, without a word, extended an old claw, pointing at an old tin coffee can near her bed. He reached for it and handed it to her. She spat in it.
“You look like your daddy but fatter,” she said.
He placed a chair close to her wheelchair and sat in it facing her, trying to smile. Melissa sat on the bed behind him. “I ate more peanuts than he did.” He said it as a joke, to loosen things.
She waved that off with an ancient, wrinkled hand. “Your daddy didn’t eat no peanuts to my recollection. And he didn’t say but four or five words a day. Which means you is not only fatter, but you uses your talking hole more.”
He felt the color moving into his face. “Didn’t the deacon talk to you?”
“Don’t be coming in here sassifying and frying up air castles ’bout some old deacon! Do you do?”
“Do you do?”
“I asked you a question, mister. Do you do?”
“Don’t sass me,” she barked. “I’m asking you a question. Yes or no. Do you do?”
He raised his finger to make a point, to try to slow her down. “I’m only here bec—”
“Put that finger in your pocket and listen, sonny! You walk in here without a can of sardines, nor gift, nor bowl of beans, not even a glass of water to offer somebody who is aiming to give you a free hand to the thing you come for. And you don’t even know if you gonna hit the bull’s-eye on that or not. You is like most white men. You believes you is entitled to something you ain’t got no hand in. Everything in the world got a price, mister. Well now, the bottom rail’s on top, sir, for I has been walked on all my life, and I don’t know you from Adam. You could be Italian, being that the old suit you wearing has got wine stains all over it. On the other hand, you could be some fancy-figuring devil-may-care wino pretending to be Mr. Guido’s son. I don’t know why you is here in the first place, mister. I don’t know the deacon that good. He didn’t explain nothing to me about you. Like most mens, he don’t feel he got to explain nothing to a woman, including his own wife, who did all the frying and cooking and hair straightening while he rumbled ’round throwing joy juice down his throat for all them long years he done it. I been around the sun one hundred four whole times and nobody’s explained nothing to me. I read the book on not being explained to. That’s called being an old colored woman, sir. Now I ask it again. For the last time—and if you don’t show your points here, then you can slip your corns inside them little Hush Puppy shoes of yours with the little quarters inside ’em and git on down the road. Do you do?”
He blinked, exasperated, and glanced at Melissa, who—thank God—said softly, “Mrs. Paul, he does do.”
The old lady’s shriveled face, a mass of wrinkled, angry rivers, loosened as she turned her ancient head to look at Melissa. “Is you his wife, miss?”
“Fiancée. We’re gonna be married.”
The old biddy’s anger loosened a bit more. “Hmph. What kind of feller is he?”
“He doesn’t talk much.”
“His daddy didn’t talk much neither. Talked a lot less than him, that’s for sure. Why you wanna marry this loser? He comes tumbling in here rough and wrong, asking questions like he’s the police or some God-sent minister. His daddy never asked me but one single question. Never asked me na’ar question after. Is he that type of man, this feller of yours? Is he the type that’s good for his word? Is he the type who do stuff and don’t talk about it to nobody later? Do he talk or do he do? Which is it?”
“I hope so. I think so. I’m gonna see. I think he does . . . do.”
“All right then.” The old lady seemed satisfied. She turned to stare at Elefante, but still spoke to Melissa, as if Elefante were not in the room. “I hope you is right, miss, for your sake. If you is, you got something. For his daddy listened. His daddy didn’t set around spouting questions and blasting air and making pronouncements and pointing his claw like he was top dog. His daddy didn’t point his finger at nobody. He gived us that church free and clear.”
“I wish somebody would give me a church,” Melissa said.
The old lady seemed suddenly outraged. She grew furious. She arched her head back, glaring, staring at Melissa, enraged, then suddenly threw back her head and burst into laughter, her mouth wide, showing one stained, rancid old tooth. “Haw! You something, girl!” And then Melissa went in, smoothing things out, talking it over, chatting easily with the old crocodile for the next two hours, until the salt in the old lady dissolved, vanishing completely, revealing the kind, odd soul who lived beneath, sharing her life and past, pouring out the soul music of an old black woman’s suffering, sorrow, and joy: her late husband, her beloved daughter who spent her young life building Five Ends church and died fourteen years before. With Melissa’s coaxing, Sister Paul worked through her beginnings at a sharecropping farm in Valley Creek, Alabama, north to Kentucky, where she met her husband, and their move to New York following their daughter. Then he got the calling to teach Christ’s wisdom, and by the time she reached the point in her narrative about the birth of Five Ends Baptist Church and old Mr. Guido’s role in building it, and of course the box that he’d hidden there, she was talking to them both. But she didn’t stop there, for as she spoke she revealed an even greater treasure, the old Cause neighborhood of Elefante’s youth, the one that he’d forgotten in his years of hardship and hustle, rolling back the neighborhood he remembered as a boy, the Italian kids playing Johnny-on-the-pony and ring-a-levio in the street on Sunday afternoons; the Irish kids over on Thirteenth Street hammering pink stickballs for the length of two sewers; the Jewish kids on Dikeman guffawing as they tossed water balloons on passersby out the upstairs windows of the tenement building where their dad ran the grocery store on the first floor; the old dockworkers, Italian, colored, and Spanish, arguing about the Brooklyn Dodgers in three languages while they rolled dice; and of course the Negroes from the Cause Houses, hurrying past in their Sunday best toward downtown Brooklyn, chuckling nervously as he acted like an idiot in front of them in his teenage years, drunk, angry, threatening, pissing behind a parked car as the Negroes passed, even chasing their children down Silver Street at night. How could he be so dumb? He saw himself then as his mother had referred to him in rage when she learned of his behavior: a dumb paisan, worrying that the colored, the Irish, the Jews, the outsiders were invading our block. We got no block, she said. The Italians don’t own the block. Nobody owns the block. Nobody was king of nothing in New York. It’s life. Survival. How could he have been so stupid? he thought. Is this what love does? It changes you this way? It allows you to see the past this clearly?
When the old lady was done, he felt as if he’d been blessed and had communion, his sins washed clean by confession. It was evening, and she’d nearly talked herself to sleep. He had stood to thank her and to leave when she asked, “Your mother still living?”
“She is,” he said.
“You ought to honor her, son. For whatever good your daddy has wrought, it’s she who held him up to it. She does what these days?”
“She works her garden.”
“That’s nice. Maybe you ought not tell her you and I spoke.”
“Who said I was gonna do that?”
Sister Paul eyed him thoughtfully a moment, then said, “I’m one hundred four, son. I knows every trick. You’ll be wanting to check on me, hoping she’ll remember that hundred dollars your daddy offered me for driving that truck. She’ll recollect it surely, for that was big money in them days, and I reckon them was tight minutes for her, setting in her living room in the wee hours with her husband’s right foot pointing one way while his ankle was pointing the other, and that truck full of trouble in front of her house, and you laying upstairs snoring with a smeller full of snot and a life full of headaches ahead, for I bet raising you wasn’t no bed of roses. A wife knows everything, son. If she wanted you to know what happened that night, I reckon she’d a spilled the beans long past. Why worry an old mother’s heart? If some harm was to come to you on account of what I just told you, then I got her sorrow to carry too. I’m old, son. I got no reason to lie.”
Elefante considered this a moment, then said, “All right.” He paused. “Thank you . . . for everything. Is there something I can do for you?”
“If you’s a praying man, pray that the Lord sends me a hunk of my cheese.”
“Your daddy liked my vittles, see . . .”
“My food. He liked my cooking. He put a hurting on my fried chicken. I gived him some one afternoon when we was building the church. He gived me a piece of his cheese in return. Italian cheese. Don’t know the name of it. But that cheese was something! I told him that! After we got the church built up, he sent that cheese to us for years. Now he’s long dead and I hear tell the cheese keeps coming. Like magic. From Jesus, I reckon.”
That was Elefante’s opening, and he cleared his throat, the big man again. “I can find out who sends i—”
“Did I ask you that, son?”
“Maybe my moth—”
“Son, why you keep wanting to get your momma all gooked up in this mess? You asked me what I wanted and I said it. I said just pray for Jesus to send me a hunk of that cheese. I told old Sportcoat to do it, but he’s scarce these days. Jesus sends that cheese, son. Nobody else. It comes from Jesus. I’m asking you to ask Jesus to send me some. Just a piece. I ain’t had it in years.”
“Um . . . okay.” Elefante stood and moved to the door. Melissa followed. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Well, if you want, you can tip Mr. Mel before you leave.”
“Who’s Mr. Mel?”
“He’s that old white feller by the front door who makes sure none of us old folks escape.”
Elefante looked at Melissa, who nodded down the hall at the building entrance, where an old security guard could be seen, nodding off into the Daily News.
“I been sending my tithes to Five Ends every week for twelve years,” Sister Paul said. “Four dollars and thirteen cents, from my Social Security. He walks it to the post office every week. He gets a money order and puts it in an envelope and mails it. Unless the post office is paying him in beers and liquor, I owes him twelve years’ worth of stamps and envelopes. Plus the cost of making that four dollars and thirteen cents into a money order. Now Mel’s donated that whiskey down his little red lane free as the rivers run for as long as I been here, till he quit a year or so past. But, honest to my savior, he’s a good man. I’d like to pay him what I owes him before I gets my wings. You think you can spare a little something for him? He won’t take money. He says he’s too old.”
“Does he like anything else other than booze?”
“He favors them Mars candy bars.”
“I’ll give ’im enough to last the rest of his life.”
They made the move into the wall that night at 4:20 a.m. Elefante and Sportcoat. Melissa remained in the car at the curb, the lights out and motor running. No need for her to risk getting busted. She had done the work, and the research too. After hearing the description of the object, reading a few newspapers from the period, then calling the man in Europe to make arrangements for transfer and sale, she knew what it was. Apparently “the soap” her uncle Macy—the Governor’s brother—had hidden and brought back to America among his “collection” stolen from the Vienna cave in 1945 was not soap at all. It was the oldest three-dimensional object in the world. The Venus of Willendorf, the goddess of fertility. A tiny piece of limestone, carved in the shape of a pregnant woman, said to be thousands of years old. And it was sitting in the palm of Jesus’s hand, a colored hand, painted on the cinder-block back wall of Five Ends Baptist Church of the Cause Houses in Brooklyn, New York, by Sister Bibb’s son Zeke with Sportcoat and Sausage’s help, at the direction of Pastor Gee, who some years before felt that Jesus should be transformed from a white Jesus into a colored man. What hand was there looked like a blob. But it was a hand nonetheless.
There was no moon out as Elefante and Sportcoat made their way along the side of the building to the pitch-black yard of the church, hidden by high weeds, the twinkling lights of a few Manhattan skyscrapers seen in the distance. Elefante had a flashlight, covered with a black cloth, and a hammer and stone chisel. Sportcoat glanced at Elefante’s tools and said, “I don’t need no light.” But when he led Elefante to the back wall, he took the light and flashed it a moment, revealing the portrait of Jesus, now badly discolored, a white man painted brown, his arms outstretched, the two hands roughly eight feet apart. Then he handed the flashlight back to Elefante.
“Did Sister Paul say the right hand or the left hand?” Elefante asked.
“Can’t recollect. Ain’t but two hands there,” Sportcoat said pointedly. They started on the left hand, carefully tapping around the brick. They chinked the mortar away until the brick was nearly free. “Wait,” Sportcoat said. “Gimme a minute to get inside, then just chink that brick in toward me. There ain’t nothing on the inside wall. Tap it. Don’t hit it too hard now. It’s hollow. That hammer’ll bust a hole in it.”
With the head of his hammer, Elefante carefully tapped at the edges of the cinder block softly. The block gave way with a few taps and the cinder block tumbled inside.
It occurred to him as it fell in, What if the thing falls?
He heard the old man on the other side grunt as he grabbed it. Elefante spoke through the wall: “Anything there?”
“In that cinder block. Something like a bar of soap in there?”
“Naw. No soap.”
That caught Elefante off guard. He could see the old man’s face in the hole left by the cinder block. He stuck his head in the blank space where the cinder block had been removed and looked, at an angle, shining his flashlight at the cinder block below and the one above. Nothing. He could see inside the church, and saw the old man’s eye peering out at him.
“There’s nothing here,” he said. “These blocks are staggered. That thing could’ve fell off the edge of these blocks and bounced all the way to the bottom and broken to pieces. We’ll have to take the whole wall of the church down to see the bottom. Let’s try the other hand.”
He moved to the other side and had begun chinking away at the cinder block of Jesus’s right hand when the sound of the church door opening and the old man’s feet shuffling across the pavement stopped him.
“You gotta get inside to catch this cinder block when it falls in,” he said.
“I do?” Sportcoat said.
“Yeah. We’re looking for a box of soap. It can’t break. It’s valuable.”
“Well this ain’t soap,” Sportcoat said. He held up a dusty metal box.
“Why you trying to bust my cojones!” Elefante said, snatching it.
“I ain’t got nothing to do with them things.”
“I thought you said nothing was in there.”
“You said soap. This don’t look like no soap. It’s a box. It was mortared to the side of the brick.”
“Side of what?”
“The cinder block. Somebody put a metal plate on the side and fixed this to it.”
“I thought you said there was nothing in there.”
“You said soap, mister.”
“Stop calling me mister!” Elefante squealed in excitement, and dropped to his knees and thrust the flashlight at Sportcoat. “Shine it.”
Sportcoat complied. Elefante opened the box and pulled out a plump stone figurine, about four inches high, with large breasts.
“What do you know,” Sportcoat said. He resisted saying “a little colored lady.” Instead he muttered, “It’s a doll.”
“Just like he said. No bigger than a bar of Palmolive soap,” Elefante muttered, turning it back and forth.
“I seen country mice that was bigger,” Sportcoat said. “Can I touch it?”
Elefante handed it to him. “It do feel heavy,” Sportcoat said, handing it back. “She’s a hefty little woman. I seen a few of them in my time.”
“Like this thing?”
“Hefty women with big love knobs? Sure. This church is full of ’em.”
Elefante ignored that, glancing around instinctively. The yard was dark. There wasn’t a soul about. The Lincoln sat at the curb, motor idling. He had it. He was free. Time to move.
“I’ll drop you off. Then call you later. I’ll take care of you, buddy.”
Sportcoat didn’t move. “Wait a minute. You think, on account of me and Sister Paul helping you here, you could help me find the Christmas box too?”
“The Christmas box. All the Christmas money. Money saved up by people in the church to buy gifts for their children. My Hettie collected it every year and hid it in the church someplace. Christmas ain’t but a month away now.”
“Where is it?”
“If I’d known, I wouldn’t be asking you to help.”
“How much was saved in it?”
“Well, when you add it all up, and figure out the liars who claim they had this or that in there, I reckon it’s probably about three or four thousand dollars. Cash.”
“I think I can handle that, Mr. Sportcoat.”
“Come again? Mister?”
Sportcoat pawed at his forehead with a wrinkled hand. There was a clarity to the world now that felt new, not uncomfortable, but at times the newness of it felt odd, like the feeling of breaking in a new suit of clothing. The constant headaches and nausea that had been his companions after leaving the swigfest for decades had lifted. He felt like a radio tuning in to a new channel, one that was beginning to fuzz into range, slowly coming in clear, proper, the way his Hettie had always wanted him to be. The new feeling humbled him. It made him feel religious, it made him feel closer to God, and to man, God’s honored child. “I ain’t never been called Mr. Sportcoat by nobody.”
“Well what do you want to be called?”
Sportcoat thought for a moment. “Maybe a child of God.”
“All right. Child of God. I can handle it. I’ll get you a new Christmas box.”
Elefante moved to the car.
“How we gonna explain this brick missing from the wall?”
But Elefante had already moved to the car. “I’ll have it fixed tomorrow. Just tell the church not to say a word. Tell ’em to ask Sister Paul. I’ll handle everything else.”
“What about Jesus’s hand? They gonna be mad about that. It’s gotta be fixed back.”
“Tell ’em Jesus is gonna get a new wall. And a new hand. And a new building if they want. You got my word.”