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Deacon King Kong (8. The Dig)

three days after Hot Sausage predicted his doom, Sportcoat decided to stop in at the Watch Houses to see his buddy Rufus.

Despite Sausage’s prediction that the world was going to end, Sportcoat hadn’t seen a sign of it. He teetered through Building 9 as always, arguing with Hettie in the hall, then wandered over to the Social Security office in downtown Brooklyn, where they ignored him as usual, then on to his various jobs. The church ladies at Five Ends stepped in to walk Pudgy Fingers to the bus stop to take him to the social center and even kept Pudgy overnight, cycling Pudgy between them. “Five Ends takes care of their own,” Sport bragged to his friends, though he had to admit to himself that his friends were fewer and fewer with Hettie gone and that Christmas money missing. The church ladies helping with Pudgy Fingers hadn’t said a word about it, which made him feel even more guilty about not knowing where it was. He’d seen them place their precious envelopes bearing dollars and quarters into the Christmas Club collection tray every week. He’d already sought out Pastor Gee in his office after Bible study to clear the air.

“I didn’t hide that money,” he told Pastor Gee.

“I understand,” Pastor Gee said. He was a humorous, good-natured man, handsome, with a cleft chin and a gold tooth that sparkled when he smiled, which was often. But he had no smiles that day. He looked troubled. “Some in the congregation are in a snit about it,” he said carefully. “The deacons and deaconesses had a meeting about it yesterday. I stepped in there for a minute. There were a few hot words thrown around.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing I could say. Nobody knows how much was in the box, or who put in what. This one claims he’s got a certain amount in there. That one says she got much more. The deaconesses are with you; they understand Hettie. The deacons ain’t.” He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “You sure it ain’t stuffed in a drawer someplace at home?”

Sportcoat shook his head. “It ain’t no advantage to a man with a fever to change his bed, pastor. I’m about sick of the whole deal. If I ain’t looked for that thing every day since Hettie died, you can throw a dipper of water in my face right now. I done looked in every nook and cranny. And I’ll look again,” Sportcoat said, feeling doubtful. He had looked everywhere in the apartment he could think of and came up with nothing. Where the hell did Hettie put it?

He decided to seek out Rufus, who was from his home country back in South Carolina. Rufus always had good ideas. Sportcoat took the bottle of Seagram’s 7 Crown that he had clipped on his way out of Itkin’s store last Thursday and headed over to the boiler room at the Watch Houses, where Rufus worked. He figured to trade the Seagram’s for a bottle of Rufus’s Kong and in the process hear Rufus’s thoughts and advice.

He found Rufus—a slender, chocolate-skinned man—on the floor in his boiler room, wearing his usual blue grease-covered Housing Authority uniform, his hands and nearly his feet stuffed inside the guts of a large electric generator that was roaring in agony. The generator engine was accessed by an open panel door and Rufus’s body was nearly completely inside it.

The generator was roaring so loud that Sportcoat had to stand behind Rufus and yell until Rufus glanced up from the floor at him and grinned, displaying a mouth full of gold teeth.

“Sport,” he yelled. He adjusted the machine quickly and cranked it down a decibel, then pulled a long hand from the jumble of wires jutting from the machine to shake hands.

“Why you wanna wrong me, Rufus?” Sportcoat said, frowning, stepping away from the outstretched hand.

“What’d I do?”

“You know it’s bad luck to greet a friend with your left hand.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Rufus hit a button and the machine whirred down to a slow grumble. Still seated with his legs splayed apart, Rufus wiped his right hand with a nearby rag and offered it. Sportcoat shook, satisfied. “What you got?” he said, nodding at the generator.

Rufus peered at it. “This thing acts up every week,” he said. “Something’s chewing on the wires.”

“Rats?”

“They ain’t that stupid. There some bad things going ’round Brooklyn, Sport.”

“Tell me ’bout it,” Sportcoat said. He reached into his pocket and produced the new bottle of Seagram’s. He looked at the fresh liquor and sighed, deciding not to exchange it for some Kong after all. Rufus would give him the Kong anyway. Better to share, he thought. He cracked the label, then pulled a crate next to Rufus, sat down, sipped, then said, “Fella from our home country come into Mr. Itkin’s to buy some wine. Said he woke up in the morning and found some leftover jelly in his wife’s sifter.”

“No kidding. She was baking?”

“Baked cookies the night before. He said she cleaned off everything afterward. She let the dishes dry overnight. Then this fella, her husband, he come into the kitchen in the morning and seen that jelly in her flour sifter.”

Rufus produced a low whistle.

“Mojo?” Sportcoat asked.

“I reckon somebody mojoed him,” Rufus said. He reached for the bottle and took a sip.

“I bet his wife done it,” Sportcoat said.

Rufus took a satisfied swallow and nodded in agreement. “You still worried about Hettie?”

Instead of answering, Sportcoat held out his hand for the bottle, which Rufus surrendered. He took a deep drink and swallowed before he said, “I got to replace the church’s Christmas Club money. Hettie kept track of it. She never told where she put it. Now the whole church is bellowing like a calf about it.”

“How much is in it?”

“I don’t know. Hettie never told. But it’s a lot.”

Rufus chuckled. “Tell them sanctifieds to pray for it. Get Hot Sausage to do it.”

Sportcoat shook his head sadly. Rufus and Sausage didn’t get along. It didn’t help that Rufus had been a founding member of Five Ends Baptist Church and had quit fourteen years ago. He hadn’t walked into a church since. Sausage, whom Rufus actually recruited to join Five Ends, was now a sanctified deacon, which had been Rufus’s old job.

“How you gonna replace something you don’t know what it is? It could be nothing in there but some thimbles and three teeth from the tooth fairy,” Sportcoat said.

Rufus thought a moment. “There’s an old somebody from Five Ends who might know where it’s at,” he said thoughtfully.

“Who?”

“Sister Pauletta Chicksaw.”

“I remember Sister Paul,” Sportcoat said brightly. “Edie Chicksaw’s momma? She still living? She got to be well over a hundred if she is. Edie’s long been dead.”

“Long dead, but Sister Paul’s yet living to my knowledge,” Rufus said. “She and Hettie was friends. Hettie used to go out and visit her at the old folks’ home out in Bensonhurst.”

“Hettie never told me nothing about it,” Sportcoat said, sounding hurt.

“A wife never tells her husband everything,” Rufus said. “That’s why I never got married.”

“Sister Paul don’t know nothing about church business. Hettie done all that.”

“You don’t know what Sister Paul knows or don’t know. She’s the seniorest member of Five Ends. She was there when the church was built.”

“So was I.”

“No, old man, Hettie was there. You was still back home getting your toes sawed off. You come a year later, after the foundation was dug. Hettie was there when the church was built. I mean the building itself. When the foundation was dug out.”

“I was there for some of it.”

“Not when they was digging the foundation and doing the brickwork, son.”

“What’s that prove?”

“It proves you don’t remember nothing, for in them early days, Sister Paul collected the Christmas Club money. She done that before Hettie’s time. And I do believe she might know something about where that money might be now.”

“How you know? You quit Five Ends fourteen years ago.”

“Just ’cause a man ain’t sanctified no more don’t mean he’s missing his marbles. Sister Paul lived in this building, Sport. Right here in the Watch Houses. In fact, I seen that Christmas box.”

“If you was a child, Rufus, I’d pull my switch out and send you hooting and hollering down the road for lying. You ain’t seen no Christmas box.”

“I walked Sister Paul to and from church many a day. When things got bad around here, she was afraid someone would knock her over the head for it, so she’d ask me to walk her to service from time to time.”

“She ain’t supposed to walk around with the Christmas box.”

“She had to hide it someplace after she collected for it. Normally she hid it at church. But she didn’t always have time to wait for church to empty out. Sometimes folks would linger eating fish dinners or the pastor would preach overtime or some such thing and she had to go home, so she brung it home with her.”

“Why didn’t she lock it in the pastor’s office?”

“What fool would keep money ’round a pastor?” Rufus replied.

Sportcoat nodded knowingly.

“Sister Paul told me once she had a good hiding place for that box in the church,” Rufus said. “I don’t know where. But if she couldn’t keep it there, she’d bring it home till the following Sunday. That’s how I know she had it. ’Cause she’d come down and ask me to walk her over. And of course I was happy to do it. She’d say, ‘Rufus Harley, you’re a man and a half, that’s what you are. Whyn’t you come back to church again? You’re a man and a half, Rufus Harley. Come back to church.’ But I ain’t a church man no more.”

Sportcoat considered this. “That was years ago, Rufus. Sister Paul got nothing to help me now.”

“You don’t know what she got. She and her husband was the first coloreds to come to these projects, Sport. They come back in the forties, when the Irish and Italians ’round these parts was beating coloreds’ brains out for moving into the Cause. Sister Paul and her husband started the church in their living room. In fact, I was there when Five Ends was digging out its foundation for the building. Weren’t but four of us doing all that digging: me, her daughter Edie, your Hettie, and this crippled Eye-talian man from ’round these parts.”

“What cripple?”

“I done forgot his name. He’s long dead. He done a lot of the work on Five Ends. I can’t recall his name, but it was an Italian name: Ely or some such thing. Ending with an ‘i.’ You know how them Italians’ names go. Odd man. A cripple, that fella. Only had one good leg. Never said a mumbling word to me nor nobody else. Wouldn’t give a Negro the time of day. But he was all for Five Ends Baptist. He had some money, too, I reckon, because he had a backhoe and hired a bunch of Eye-talians who didn’t speak a lick of English, and they finished the job of digging out the foundations and painting the back wall with a picture of Jesus that’s there. That picture of Jesus out back? That Jesus was painted by Eye-talians. Every speck of him.”

“No wonder he was white,” Sportcoat said. “Pastor Gee had me and Sausage help Sr. Bibb’s son Zeke color him up.”

“That was stupid. That was a good picture.”

“He’s still there. But he’s colored now.”

“Well, you shoulda left it like it was, on account of the man who brung his front loader and all them Eye-talians. I wish I could remember his name. Sister Paul would remember. Them two got along good. He liked her. She was quite the beauty in them days, y’know. She was well up in age, had to be north of seventy-five, I reckon, but Lord, she was . . . I wouldn’t throw her outta bed for eating crackers, that’s for sure. Not back then. She was well upholstered.”

“You think there was . . .” Sportcoat moved his hand in a shaking motion.

Rufus grinned. “Y’know, there was always a lot of tipping going ’round in them days.”

“Wasn’t she married to the pastor?” Sportcoat asked.

“Since when did that monkey stop the show?” Rufus snickered. “He wasn’t worth two cents. But to be honest, I don’t know if she and that Eye-talian was doing the ding-a-ling, knock-a-boo thing or not. They got along good, is all. She was the only one he’d talk to. We wouldn’t have built Five Ends without him. When he come along, we got all that digging done. And there was quite a lot of it. That’s how that little church was built, Sport.”

Rufus paused, remembering. “You know he gived the church its name? It was supposed to be Four Ends Baptist, see: north, south, east, and west, representing God’s hand coming from all them directions. That was the pastor’s idea. But when the Eye-talian added that back wall painting, somebody said let’s make it Five Ends, since Jesus is an end to Himself. The pastor didn’t like it. Said, ‘I didn’t want the picture up there in the first place.’ But Sister Paul put her foot down and that was it. That’s how it come to be Five Ends and not Four Ends. They still got that picture on the back wall, by the way?”

“Sure do. Weeds and all is up around it, but it’s there.”

“Do it still say over the top, ‘May God Hold You in the Palm of His Hand’? Y’all ain’t paint over that, did you?”

“Lord no. We ain’t painted over them words, Rufus.”

“Well, you ought not to. That’s a credit to him, see, that Eye-talian. Long dead now. Doing God’s work. A man ain’t got to stand in church every Sunday to do God’s work, y’know, Sport.”

“That ain’t telling me nothing.”

“You asked me about Sister Paul, Sport. And I told it. You ought to take a ride out there and see her. She might know something about where that box is. Maybe she told Hettie where to hide it.”

Sportcoat considered this. “That’s a long subway ride.”

“What you got to lose, Sport? She’s the only one living from that time. I’d go with you. I’d like to see her. But them white folks out in Bensonhurst is a rough shuffle. They’ll throw a pistol on a Negro in a minute.”

At the mention of “pistol,” Sportcoat blanched and reached for the Seagram’s again. “This world is damn complicated,” he said, sipping deeply.

“Maybe Sausage’ll go with you.”

“He’s too busy.”

“Doing what?”

“Oh, he’s in a frolic about something or other,” Sportcoat said. “Running around accusing people of doing stuff they don’t remember.” To change the subject, he nodded at the generator. “Can I help? What’s wrong with it?”

Rufus peered back into the guts of the old machine. “Ain’t nothing wrong with it that I can’t fix. G’wan out to Bensonhurst and take care of your business and look in on Sister Paul for me. Leave the bottle, though. A man needs a little shake and shimmy.”

“Ain’t you making some homemade King Kong?”

Rufus crouched down onto one knee and stuck his head back in the generator. “I’m always making King Kong,” he said. “But it’s a two-part thing. You got to make the ‘King’ first, then the ‘Kong.’ The ‘King’ part is easy. That’s cooked and ready. I’m waiting for the ‘Kong.’ That takes time.”

He hit a button on the side of the machine and the generator sputtered, coughed for a few seconds, howled in agony, then roared to life.

He glanced at Sportcoat, yelling over the din: “G’wan look in on Sister Paul! Let me know how she’s doing. Wear your running shoes out in Bensonhurst!”

Sportcoat nodded, took a last sip of the Seagram’s, and headed out. But instead of using the back emergency exit door, he took the door that led to a short hallway and stairs to the front door, which opened to the plaza. As he opened the outer door, a tall figure in a black leather jacket emerged from a broom closet underneath the stairwell that led upstairs and silently crept up behind him with a raised pipe. The man was two steps away when a baseball suddenly whipped down the stairwell from behind, struck the man in the back of the head, and sent him clattering back into the broom closet and out of sight. The next instant two boys, no older than nine, scampered down the stairs, whipping past a surprised Sportcoat. One of them scooped up the ball, which had come to a rest near the door, and blurted a hasty “Hey, Sportcoat!,” then the boys vanished out the entrance, leaping down the front steps and out of sight, both of them laughing.

Sportcoat, irritated, quickly stepped out the door into the outside plaza to yell at their backs: “Slow your roll! Ain’t y’all ever heard of a baseball field?” He marched down the steps in their direction, never noticing the man behind him.

Inside the broom closet, Earl, Bunch’s hit man, lay sprawled on his rear end with his feet protruding out of the partially opened door, his back resting on the wall. He shook his head to clear his brain. He had to move, quick, before somebody else came downstairs. He smelled bleach. He suddenly realized his rear end was wet. His feet were atop a wheeled yellow bucket full of dirty water that had overturned. He inched his back off the wall, placed his hands on the floor to brace himself, and found his right hand landing on the wet end of a mop. The other hand was on some kind of contraption. He shifted and kicked the door open wide with his feet. In the light he saw, to his horror, that his left hand was sitting on a sprung rat trap—with a furry dead customer inside. He jumped to his feet with a yelp and burst out of the closet, down the hallway, out the front door of the building, speed walking through the plaza toward the nearby subway, wiping his hand frantically on his leather jacket, feeling the cold air blowing at his drenched pants and sneakers.

“Fucking old man,” he muttered.

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