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Deacon King Kong (26. Beautiful)

Sportcoat’s funeral twenty-two months after the Deems Clemens shooting was, without a doubt, the greatest funeral in Cause Houses history. It was the usual Five Ends Baptist Church catastrophe, of course. Reverend Gee was twenty minutes late because his new Chevy—six-years-old new—didn’t start. One of the flower delivery guys fell in front of the church and broke his arm, having tripped over a wayward brick left out in front that was part of the new renovation that seemed to be ongoing—money coming from God knows where. He fell through the open rectory door, sending moonflowers everywhere. The Cousins, Nanette and Sweet Corn, got into a hissing match in the choir pew over the ownership of a hat. The hearse carrying the body from the funeral home was late as usual, this time because old Morris Hurly, affectionately known as Hurly Girly, claimed he got in a fender bender on the BQE with an oil truck, which prompted him to do some quick rearranging of Sportcoat’s body as it lay in the casket inside the hearse, which was hurriedly parked smack in the middle of the church’s brand-new garden out back, for lack of a parking space in front. Several angry attendees, glaring out the church back door—including Bum-Bum, Sister Bibb, and several members of the now-bulked-up Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses, thanks to its new president, Miss Izi—watched in disgust, noting there were no bent or dented fenders on the shiny limo, and guessed correctly that when Hurly Girly saw the line of people standing outside the church stretching around the corner and into the projects courtyard, he panicked and decided to tidy up Sportcoat.

“Morris wants to impress new customers,” Bum-Bum fumed, watching as two men in black suits from the Hurly home stood guard over the limo’s open tailgate, while the rear end of the aged Morris, a grim-looking soul with a completely white Afro, dangled out the back, his shiny shoes getting muddied from the black soil of the new garden. Back and forth his shoes went, in and out of the limousine, as he made last-minute adjustments to Sportcoat.

“Look at him,” Bum-Bum said in disgust. “Morris looks like a ferret.”

Still, it was a homecoming that beat all, a celebration of celebrations. All of the Cause Houses came. Folks from Mount Tabernacle, St. Augustine, and even Mr. Itkin and two members of the Jewish temple on Van Marl Street showed. The line stretched past the Elephant’s boxcar, up Ingrid Avenue, down Slag Avenue, and all the way back into the plaza of Cause Houses, nearly all the way to the flagpole. The free distribution of cheese at the funeral might have helped, some said, and where it came from still no one knew, but it arrived the night before in bulk, weight, and volume never before seen, crates of it, neatly stacked in the basement of the church, waiting, when Sister Gee came to open the building at five a.m.

The viewing lasted nine hours.

Five Ends only held 150 people—that was what the fire code allowed. Twice that many actually squeezed in for the service. There were so many people that someone called local Fire Engine Company Station 131, which sent a truck over. The firemen took one look at the crowd and left, radioing for the cops, who sent over two squad cars from the Seventy-Sixth Precinct. The officers took one look at the crowd and the line of double-parked cars that required onerous traffic-ticket writing and announced they’d been called away for an emergency accident in Bay Ridge that would hold them up for approximately three hours, exactly long enough for Reverend Gee to shout his sermon to all about what a great man Sportcoat had been, and for the Cousins to lead the Five Ends choir in some of the most saintly and heavenly rousing and hollering that anyone had ever heard, joined in the end by Joaquin and Los Soñadores, who were, praise Jesus, drowned out by the hollering of the Cousins, who, as usual, stole the show.

It was a death extravaganza, only this time the usual suspects—Sister Gee, Sister Bibb, Hot Sausage, Pudgy Fingers, now legally in the care of the Cousins, who fought over him with the same tenacity with which they fought over everything else—were amended by Sister Paul, who now, at 106, enjoyed a special seat on the dais, accompanied by none other than former deacon Rufus Harley, janitor of the Watch Houses, who had sworn up and down that he would never, ever darken the doorway of that hotbed of hypocrisy and holy impotence known as Five Ends Baptist Church as long as he drew air. Also there was Miss Izi, flanked by all seventeen of the newly sworn-in members of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses. The gentle giant Soup Lopez was there as well, along with Joaquin’s cousin Elena from the Bronx and Calvin the subway tollbooth operator—those two talked trains. Bum-Bum, accompanied by her new husband, Dominic the Haitian Sensation, along with his best friend, Mingo the witch doctor, were in attendance, as were several members of Sportcoat’s All-Cause Boys Baseball Team, now grown and retired from baseball, save one. And an unusual conglomerate of outsiders: Potts Mullen, the retired cop, and his former rookie partner, Jet Hardman, who was currently working for the New York City Harbor Patrol, the first black ever, having broken that color barrier at the NYPD Bomb Squad, the Department of Internal Affairs, the accounting department, the traffic division, and the mechanic transportation division, which fixed squad cars—all of which broke down five minutes after Jet finished working on them.

And finally two of the most interesting parties: Thomas G. Elefante, formerly known as the Elephant, resplendent in a gray suit, along with his mother and his new wife, a hefty, shy Irish woman said to be from the Bronx; and Deems Clemens himself, the former drug-dealing terror of the Cause—now a twenty-one-year-old rookie pitcher for the Iowa Cubs, a minor-league affiliate for the hapless major-league Chicago Cubs, accompanied by baseball coach Bill Boyle from St. John’s University, with whom he lived for a year while pitching St. John’s to the NCAA finals in his only college season. The wound that the right-handed-pitching Clemens had received in the shooting twenty-two months earlier was, thankfully, in his left shoulder, and had healed nicely, along with his mental state, which had improved dramatically when he vacated the Cause Houses to live in Coach Boyle’s home.

Deems’s appearance—he arrived twenty minutes late—and the news of his good fortune in professional baseball blitzed through the church mourners like a cyclone. “It’s just our luck,” Joaquin mumbled. “The only guy from the Cause who goes to the bigs gets drafted by the lousy Cubs. That team hasn’t won a World Series in sixty-three years. Who’s gonna bet on them? I won’t make a dime on him.”

“Who cares?” said Miss Izi. “Did you see his car?”

She had a point. Clemens, who had owned a used Pontiac Firebird during his drug-selling days, had arrived driving a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle.

After the service and burial, a large group of about forty neighborhood residents gathered in the basement of Five Ends and talked late into the night, in part because there was so much food to eat, and in part because there was so much cheese left to distribute they had no idea what to do with it all. The arguing about the cheese distribution took hours. It was later determined, from an eyewitness account of Bum-Bum, that ever-vigilant cheese cop, and old Dub Washington, who had fallen asleep in the old factory at Vitali Pier and had wandered outside in the middle of the night to forage through the garbage on Silver Street, that the cheese had arrived the night before in a refrigerated eighteen-foot box truck containing forty-one cases, each bearing twenty-eight five-pound hunks of delicious, delectable, delightful white man’s cheese. It had been distributed because it could not be stored, but despite the crowd at the viewing, the church ran out of takers, so it was hurriedly decided after Sportcoat’s service that they would spread the love into the wider Cause Houses district. They shoved eight hunks into the trunk of the two squad cars of the cops from the Seven-Six who had returned from their Bay Ridge “traffic emergency.” The cops protested that it was too much, so they were instructed by Sister Gee to carry half of the cheese out to Ladder Company 131 over on Van Marl Street and share it with their fellow city workers. The cops agreed but didn’t give the firemen a single curd, since the cops and firemen in the Cause District hated each other just like they did all over New York. Word was spread also to the Watch Houses. A line formed outside the church, residents from both housing projects came back in droves, and still there were not enough takers. Many of the people who did show up were forced to carry home more than they could handle. They hauled blocks of it in shopping carts, sacks, shopping bags, wagons, purses, baby carriages, and mail carrier carts swiped from the nearby post office. There had never been so much cheese in the Cause District. And sadly, there never would be cheese there again.

It’s hard to say if the cheese, or Clemens and his Volkswagen, or Elefante’s presence caused more of a dustup in the church core group that stayed into the night, discussing matters, arguing and joking and regaling into the wee hours, accusing one another of the treachery of knowing Sportcoat’s whereabouts and the circumstances of his mysterious death. No one seemed to know. No one had ever seen anything like it before in the Cause. But at seven p.m., after the tables had been cleared, the dishes washed and the last of the cheese distributed, the church swept clean, and the remaining leftover moonflowers given away because there were so many, the outside neighbors peeled away, leaving only the hard-core souls of Five Ends Baptist: Sister Gee, Hot Sausage, Sister Bibb, and Bum-Bum, along with two visitors, Miss Izi and Soup. The last two were not church members but were allowed special attendance as representatives of their various institutions: Miss Izi as the newly elected president of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society, and Soup, who no longer went by the name Soup but rather carried the moniker Rick X, a proud member of the Nation of Islam and also the top seller in the Brooklyn Mosque #34 sales division, having sold the most bean pies and newspapers in that mosque’s storied history. He was also wanted in Kansas for false imprisonment related to a domestic squabble and robbery, but that, he assured the group, was a long story.

The six talked late into the night.

The conversation danced up and down, draping the walls with conjecture as they pushed various theories into play, then oblivion, and then back again. Where did Sportcoat go for the last fourteen months? Did Sportcoat drink at the end? How did he die? Why did the Elephant show up? And where did all that cheese come from?

The cheese business burned them most of all. “After all these years,” Miss Izi said. “Nobody still knows. That’s just stupid.”

“I grabbed the driver of the truck,” Bum-Bum said proudly. “I saw the truck coming around three thirty and ran out and caught him before he pulled off. There were two of them. One had just got in the truck. The other one, the driver, was coming out of the church. I grabbed him by the arm before he could get in his truck. I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ He didn’t say much. He had an Italian accent. I think he was a gangster.”

“Why you say that?” Miss Izi asked.

“He had a lot of pockmarks on his face.”

“That’s nothing,” Miss Izi said. “That could be from learning to use a fork.”

That caused a flurry of laughter and comment.

No one seemed to know much more than that.

Then they turned the heat on Hot Sausage. For the better part of an hour, they grilled Sportcoat’s best friend. Hot Sausage pleaded ignorance. “The man went to jail,” he said. “It was in the paper.”

“It was not in the paper,” Miss Izi said. “The man was supposed to go to jail. He was supposed to go to trial. That was in the paper. Sportcoat didn’t go no place.”

“Well, he wasn’t here!” Sausage said.

“Where was he then?”

“What am I, a Ouija board? I don’t know,” Hot Sausage said. “The man is dead. He did a lot of good in his life. What you worried about?”

The argument sallied forth until midnight. Where did Sportcoat go? When was he sighted? No one seemed to know.

At last, around one a.m. they got up to leave, more dissatisfied than ever.

“After twenty years of guessing how the old coot would depart this world, this is too much,” Bum-Bum said, glaring at Sausage as she left. “I can’t stand it when somebody who got a reputation for blasting hot air suddenly grows cold when they know something you don’t.”

Hot Sausage paid her no mind. He was busy keeping an eye on Sister Bibb, his secret lover, who was making ready to leave. He had watched glumly for the last hour, waiting for the wink, the nod, the head shake, some sign that all was okay and that the coast would be clear to follow her home for a bit of humpty dumpty in Sportcoat’s honor. But Sister Bibb offered no sign. Instead, as the clock struck the hour, she grabbed her purse and made for the door. Then as she reached the door and silently turned the door handle, she nodded at him. Hot Sausage leaped to his feet, but Sister Gee put a hand on his arm.

“Sausage, can you stay a minute? I need a private word.”

Sausage glanced at Sister Bibb, who was halfway out the door. “Do it have to be now?” he asked.

“Just a minute. It won’t take long.”

Sister Bibb, standing at the open door, moved her eyebrows up and down twice in a quick motion, which sent Sausage’s heart soaring, then he watched as she slipped out. He sank dejectedly into a folding chair.

Sister Gee stood before him, hands on her hips. Sausage looked up at her like a guilty puppy.

“All right. Out with it,” she said.

“Out with what?”

Sister Gee pulled another folding chair and sat backward on it facing him, her forearms pressed against the chair, her legs straddling it, her dress pushed down to cover her upper thighs. Her long brown face stared at his, and her bottom lip pressed against her lower teeth. She thought a moment, nodded slowly, then rocked back and forth calmly.

“Man is a curious creature, don’t you think?” she said casually.

Sausage looked at her suspiciously. “I reckon.”

She stopped rocking and leaned forward, smiling. Her smile was disarming, and Hot Sausage felt nervous.

“I don’t know why I have the desire to mind other folks’ business,” she said. “That’s the child in me, I reckon. But then again, life takes ahold of you as soon as you leave your mother. I don’t know what it is. But the older I get, the more I become what I really am. Do you find that, Sausage?” she asked.

Hot Sausage frowned. “Sister Gee, I’m all tuckered out. If you’s in the mood to start chunking away about dirt and the ways of man and things that happened in Chattanooga back in 1929 that you read about in a book someplace, we can go at this tomorrow.”

“The truth will be the same tomorrow,” she said. “It just won’t take as long to tell it.”

Hot Sausage spread his hands. “What’s there to know? The man is dead. He drunk hisself to death.”

“Then the booze got him? It’s really true?” she said.

“It is.”

It was as if an anvil had dropped on her. Her shoulders sagged, and Sausage saw, for the first time that day—after hours of handling the funeral ceremony, playing the puppeteer for her inept husband, arranging the flowers, calming the Cousins, comforting the bereaved, distributing the programs, arranging the manner of service, greeting the people, dealing with the cops, the firemen, the parking, essentially doing her husband’s job in a dying church, a church that, like many around them, was held up more and more by women like her—her deep, heartfelt sorrow. She bowed her head and covered her face with open palms, and as she did so her own pain unsealed his, and he swallowed, clearing his throat.

They sat in silence a long moment, her face covered with her hands. When she took her hands away, he saw that her face was wet where the tears had smudged her makeup.

“I thought he licked it,” she said.

Sausage beat back his own sorrow and considered the situation. He thought it through quickly. His chance for a night frolic with Sister Bibb, he realized, was ruined. He was too tired for some action anyway. Sister Bibb would wear him down to a nub. He might as well tell what he knew. When it came down to it, he saw no harm in it. Sister Gee had done a lot for him. And the church. For all of them. She deserved better. He spoke up.

“Well, it is true,” he said. “And it isn’t.”

Sister Gee looked startled. “What?”

“All of it. And none of it.”

“What are you talking about? Did he drink himself to death or not?”

Sausage scratched his head slowly. “No. He did not.”

“How did he land in the harbor? That’s where somebody said they found him. Did he jump in there?”

“No he did not! I did not see him jump in no harbor!”

Sister Gee demanded, “What the hell happened then?”

Sausage frowned and said, “I can only tell you what happened after I come outta the hospital, for that’s when I seen him in his right mind.”

“Well?”

Sausage continued: “After I got out, I found Sportcoat. He was at his place. He wasn’t arrested. He wasn’t in jail. Cops hadn’t talked to him, not even your friend the sergeant who come to the service today. Sport was walking around free. First thing he told me when I seen him was, ‘Sausage, I quit drinking.’ Well, I didn’t believe him. Then I didn’t see him no more for a few days. That’s when the Elephant come around. Now from there, you know more’n I do, Sister Gee. For you was the one that the Elephant spoke to. You and Sport. I don’t know what you all three talked about, for the building of Five Ends Baptist come before my time. But Sport was talking crazy at the end. I thought it was on account of him stopping drinking.”

“It wasn’t that,” Sister Gee said. “He wanted to rebuild the garden behind the church, make a garden full of moonflowers back there. That’s where the idea to build the garden in the church come from. It wasn’t my idea or Mr. Elefante’s. That came from Sportcoat.”

“Why’s that?”

Sister Gee nodded at the back wall of the church, newly repaired and painted. “Mr. Elefante had something in that wall that belonged to his father. That old painting on the back wall that you all mucked up by trying to make Jesus colored wasn’t just some old painting. It’s a copy of something famous. Mr. Elefante wrote it down on a piece of paper. He showed it to me. It was something called Last Judgment. By an Italian man named Giotto.”

“Giotto? Like Jell-O?”

“I’m serious, Sausage. He’s a famous painter and that’s a famous painting and right there on the back of our church was a copy of it. For twenty-two years.”

“Well, if Mr. Gelato got famous out of it and he’s long dead, I ought to be famous too. Fact is, me and Sport painted that thing nice for your husband some years back, when he wanted to make Jesus colored.”

“I remember that ruination,” Sister Gee said. “There was something inside the painting that Mr. Elefante wanted. It was hidden in the cinder block right behind Jesus’s hand.”

“What was it?”

“I didn’t see it. From what Sister Paul said, it was a fancy box with a bar of soap in it.”

“Wasn’t no gold, or cash, or rocks?” Hot Sausage said.

“Rocks?”

“Jewels.”

“Nope. Well, the box had a doll in it. A little statue. Shaped like a fat lady. The color of brown soap, Sister Paul said. They call her the Venus of something or other.”

“Hmm. Nothing somebody doing day’s work would find on her job, I reckon.”

“Very funny.”

He thought for a minute. “That do seem strange,” he admitted. “What else did Sister Paul say?”

“She said she was there when old Guido Elefante stuck it in the wall and was glad to live long enough to know the son got hold of it. I didn’t ask the son no questions. You seen what Mr. Elefante done for the church, didn’t ya? He asked me how much was in Hettie’s missing Christmas money box. I told him what I thought it was—four thousand dollars. I told him that figure includes some liars who said they put money in there and likely didn’t. He said it don’t matter and gived me that much anyway. Plus he redid the pulpit. Rebuilt the whole back wall after he tore it open. Put a whole new garden in. Got someone to fix that foolish painting y’all did and make it a regular black Jesus. And redid the slogan about man being in the palm of God’s hand. Never did figure out why that slogan was there. But it’s a good one, and we’re keeping it.”

“What about the cheese?” Sausage asked.

“That was the Elephant’s daddy who did that.”

“His daddy’s been dead longer than Moses. It’s been twenty years, at least.”

“Honest to God, Sausage, I don’t know where it came from,” Sister Gee said. “Sportcoat knew. When I asked him where the cheese was from, all he said was, ‘Jesus sent it,’ and not a word more.”

Sausage nodded thoughtfully, and Sister Gee continued. “The only other time he ever referred to it was when the Elephant drove me and Sportcoat to visit Sister Paul out in the old folks’ home in Bensonhurst that time. Turns out Sister Paul and the Elephant’s daddy was old friends, was all I could make of it. How that happened, I don’t know. What the Elephant and Sister Paul spoke about, well, that too was private. I wasn’t in the room. I did overhear Sister Paul say something to the Elephant about a hundred dollars and driving a truck. I overheard ’em laughing about it. But I didn’t see no money change hands. And I seen them shake hands. Sportcoat and the Elephant.”

“Bless me! The Elephant and Sportcoat shook hands?” Hot Sausage said.

“Hand to God,” Sister Gee said. “They shook hands. And when the Elephant was digging out the back of the church in the dead of the night without our permission—though you and I know he had plenty permission, in fact he had all the permission he wanted—Sportcoat was the only one from our congregation he’d let help him. I seen it, too, of course. Wasn’t supposed to. But Deacon told me they was coming, so I hid behind the choir pew and saw the whole thing. They was together on it, them two. But after they lifted that little doll thing from the wall, I never saw ’em together again.”

“Then what?”

“Then Sportcoat dropped clean out of sight. And I didn’t see him no more. Ever more. Now you tell me the rest, Sausage, for I done told you everything I know.”

Sausage nodded. “Okay.”

And then he told it. Told what he knew and what he’d seen. And when he was done, Sister Gee stared at him in awe, then reached over her chair and hugged him where he sat.

“Hot Sausage,” she said softly. “You’re a man and a half.”

 

 

The Staten Island Ferry docked lazily into Whitehall Terminal at South Ferry and the riders clambered aboard. Among them was a dark, handsome woman in a bowknot bowler cloche hat tied with a ribbon atop her neatly combed hair who stood at the railing, her hand covering half her face. Not that Sister Gee thought that she’d be recognized. Who from the Cause Houses ever took the Staten Island Ferry? Nobody she knew. But you never know. Half the people in the Cause, she remembered, seemed to work for Transit. If anybody saw her, she’d have a hard time explaining why she was on the boat. You can’t be too careful.

She was dressed for summer pleasure, clad in a cool blue dress, with azaleas stitched across the side and hips and with a casual open back, revealing brown, slender arms. She had turned fifty the day before. She had lived in New York for thirty-three of her fifty years, yet had not once ridden the Staten Island Ferry.

As the ferry pulled away from the dock and arced into New York Harbor, heading due southwest, it offered her a clear view of the redbrick Cause housing projects on one side, and the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island on the other. One side represented the certainty of the past. The other side the uncertainty of the future. She felt suddenly nervous. All she had was an address. And a letter. And a promise. From a newly retired, newly divorced sixty-one-year-old white man who had spent most of his life, like her, cleaning up the mess of others and doing for everyone but himself. I don’t even have a phone number for him, she thought anxiously. It was just as well, she decided. If she wanted to back out, it would be easy.

As the weather-beaten boat eased across the harbor, she stood on the deck, glancing at the Cause Houses disappearing in the distance, and at the Statue of Liberty floating by on the right, then mused as a seagull rode the wind near her, skimming the water at eye height, gliding effortlessly alongside the deck before pulling away and rising. She watched it pump its wings and move higher into the air, then turn back toward the Cause Houses. Only then did her mind click back over the past week to Sportcoat, and the conversation she’d had with Hot Sausage. As Sausage recounted it in the basement that night, it was as if her own future were being revealed, unrolling itself before her like a carpet, one whose design and weave changed as it stretched out ahead. She recalled every word he said clearly:

When they was building the garden in back of the church, Sport come to me. He said, “Sausage, there’s something you ought to know about that Jesus picture out yonder in the back of the church. I got to tell somebody.”

I said, “What is it?”

Sport said, “I don’t quite know what to call that thing. And I don’t wanna know. But whatever it was, it belonged to the Elephant. He found it in that wall and paid the church a whole truckload of money to reclaim it—more money than any Christmas box could hold. So you don’t have to worry about Deems no more. Or none of his people. Or the Christmas money. The Elephant done took care of it.”

I said, “What about the policeman?”

“What the Elephant got to do with the police? That’s his business.”

I said, “Sport, I ain’t studying the Elephant. I’m talking about the police. They still looking for you.”

He said, “Let ’em look. I been talking to Hettie.”

I said, “You been drinking?”’Cause he was always mostly drunk when he talked to Hettie. He said, “No. I don’t need to drink to see her, Sausage. I see her clear as day now. We gets along like when we was young. I was a better man back then. I miss drinking. But I like being a man with my wife now. We don’t fight now. We talks like the old days.”

“What y’all talk about now?”

“Mostly Five Ends. She loves that old church, Sausage. She wants it to grow. She wanted me to fix that garden behind the church and grow moonflowers for the longest time. I married a good woman, Sausage. But I made some bad choices.”

“Well, that’s all behind you,” I said. “You done cleaned up.”

“Naw,” he said. “I ain’t cleaned up. The Lord might not give me redemption, Sausage. I can’t stop drinking. I ain’t drunk a drop yet, but I wanna drink again. I’m gonna drink again.”

And here he pulled a bottle of King Kong out his pocket. The good stuff. Rufus’s homemade.

I said, “You don’t wanna do that, Sport.”

“Yes I do. And I’m gonna. But I’mma tell you this, Sausage. Hettie was so happy when I got to do the garden over behind the church. That was something she always dreamed about. Not for herself. She wanted them moonflowers and the big garden with all them plants and things behind the church not for herself—but for me. And when I got the church to agree on it, I told her, ‘Hettie, them moonflowers is coming soon.’

“But instead of being happy, she growed sad and said, ‘I’mma tell you something, darling, that I shouldn’t tell you. When you finish that garden, you won’t see me no more.’

“I said, ‘What you mean?’

“She said, ‘Once it’s done. Once them moonflowers is in, I’m gone to glory.’ Then before I could kick at it, she said, ‘What’s gonna become of Pudgy Fingers?’

“I told her, ‘Well, Hettie, it approaches my mind like this. What is a woman but her labor and her children? God put us all here to work. You was a Christian gal when I married you. And all the forty years I carried on drinking and making a fool of myself, there wasn’t a lazy bone in your body. You raised Pudgy Fingers good. You was strict to yourself and true to me and to Pudgy Fingers, and he will be strong in his life for it.’

“Truth be told, Sausage, Hettie couldn’t bear no children. Pudgy Fingers wasn’t hers. He come to her before I come to New York. I was still back home in South Carolina. She was in New York by herself waiting for me in Building Nine. She opened the apartment door one morning and seen Pudgy Fingers roaming the hallway. He wasn’t but five or six, wandering around, trying to get downstairs to the blind children’s bus. She knocked on the lady’s door where he lived and the lady said, ‘Can you keep him till Monday? I got to go to my brother’s in the Bronx.’ She ain’t seen hide nor hair of that woman since.

“When I come here, Hettie already had herself a child. I never made no bones about it. I loved Pudgy Fingers. I didn’t know how he come. For all I know, Pudgy Fingers could’ve been Hettie’s blood from some other man. But I trusted her, and she knowed my heart. So I said to her, ‘The Cousins is gonna take Pudgy Fingers. I can’t care for him.’

“She said, ‘All right.’

“I said, ‘Is you worried about him? Is that why you hung about?’

“She said, ‘I ain’t worried about him. I’m worried about you. Because I was born again unto the Word, and that gives me strength. Has you got that?’

“I says, ‘I has got it. Been born again to the Word for a whole year and then some. I said I was before, but I wasn’t. But I am now.’

“‘Then I’m finished here. I loves you for God’s sake, Cuffy Lambkin. Not for my sake. Not for your sake. But for God’s sake.’ And then she was gone. And I ain’t seen her since.”

He was still holding that bottle of Kong when he told me this, and here he uncorked it. Didn’t sip it. Just unscrewed the cap and said, “I wanna drink this whole thing down.” Then he said to me, “Walk with me, Sausage.”

He was acting funny, so I went on, and we walked down to Vitali Pier, the same spot where he pulled Deems out the harbor. We walked down to the water, and standing on the sand there, I gived him the news on Deems. I said, “Sport, Deems called me. He’s doing good in triple-A ball. Said he’s gonna make it to the big leagues in about a month or so.”

Sportcoat said, “I told you he can still pitch with one ear.”

Then he patted me on the back and said, “Look after them moonflowers behind the church for my Hettie.” Then he walked into the water. Walked right into the harbor holding that bottle of King Kong. I said, “Wait a minute, Sport, that water’s cold.” But he went on ahead.

First it come up to his hips, then to his waist, then to the top of his arms, then to his neck. When it got to his neck he turned around to me and said, “Sausage, the water is so warm! It’s beautiful.”

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