The Preacher in The Garden of Evil
The serpents of rotten apples
The preacher is on Thursdays, after bible study. I've been going since the year I turned sixteen. He tells me to go around to the back door of the church, where there is a green lightbulb for the porch light. But don't knock, he says, and when the last car has pulled away and there is only the big black one left, he pulls the door open and points me to his office. By now I know just where it is, but still, he points.
When my mama was still at home and we were still living in our old apartment, before she did the thing, we used to go inside for Thursdays, but never for Sundays. Mama said on Sundays he was all wrapped up in robes, silk and satin, with purple and gold trim, speaking like thunder was coming out of his mouth, acting like he was the almighty himself. But on Thursdays he was satisfied with being a man. He didn't speak Thunder, only English.
I had moved in with Grandmama on Bamboo Street when I was about thirteen, after Mama did the thing, and the preacher would drive down the street in the big black car, with the windows rolled up, with the air blowing cold inside. Usually he just blew the horn or waved a carefully manicured hand as he drove by, but from time to time, he would stop in front of some church member's house and roll the windows down, and talk bible with some old man or some young woman.
One summer day, it was hot as hell and Grandmama didn't have no air, so I was standing out on the porch with my friend Tangy, before they moved, and the preacher stopped. Me and Tangy both had on shorts and t-shirts because it was so hot. I think we might've been fifteen then.
"Grandmama!" I called to her through the screen door when I saw the preacher stop. He smiled big, the way Mama used to say he did when he was trying to get you to put your light bill money in the collection basket.
"Yes sir, Reverend." Tangy answered. She was smart and cute, long and thin. As hot as it was, she was nervous talking to the preacher and she rubbed the yellow skin of her arms like she had a chill.
"I haven't seen either of you young ladies in church in a long time. You've become lovely young women since the last time the Lord has seen you in his house."
We each thanked him. Then the preacher looked right at me.
"How is your mother doing?"
"She's alright." I looked down at my feet for a second when he asked me about Mama.
"I've been meaning to go down there and pray with her, but you know the church just keeps me so busy."
"Help me remember your names again, it's been so long since I've seen you ladies." When he rubbed his thick black and gray mustache the gold band on his finger shined in the sunlight.
"And I'm Flower."
"Flower. Flower." The preacher said my name over and over, and his lips and teeth moved like he was chewing on it.
Grandmama finally came out, round and solid, drying her hands on an old dish towel, smiling and waving at the preacher, throwing "Praise the Lord's" and "God bless you's" into the opened window of the big black car, like fresh flowers at a summer wedding.
They talked for a few minutes and the preacher quoted some scripture. When he asked how she was doing Grandmama told him it was tough with the two of us trying to get by on her social security check, and the preacher said he'd pray for us. The Lord will provide, she said, smiling. The preacher offered to ask the congregation to help, but Grandmama was too proud.
When they had finished talking and the tires of the big black car were just barely starting to roll away, the preacher's last words were, "Such beautiful young ladies, sure does my heart good."
Not long after that day, I was walking past the church on my way home one evening, just as the street lights were starting to come on. The big black car was parked in the front, but the lights were off inside the building. Only the green porch light was on in the back and the white bulb by the front doors. It was hot and sweaty, and I was looking forward to getting home and sitting down in front of the window fan.
"Young, Sister Flower!" The preacher called from the steps of the church. He smiled again. His jacket was off and the top of his blue shirt was unbuttoned. He looked like a regular man.
" Wait right there young lady; I'll give you a ride to the house. It's too hot out here for you to be walking all that way." I normally wouldn't have accepted a ride from any man, but he was the preacher, so I waited.
The inside of the car smelled like the preacher's cologne, and the leather of the big seats was cold against my bare legs. I put my hands in my lap because I was afraid to touch anything. Everything was brand new.
The preacher turned down the church music on the radio, and with no sound, it seemed like the preacher filled up the whole car. Everything about him made a sound or had a fragrance, and I felt small sitting next to him.
"Were you really going to walk all that way, as hot as it is out there?"
"Yes sir, I do it all the time. It's not that bad."
He laughed softly, and ran his heavy hand, easy, back and forth, over the leather steering wheel.
"Where is the other pretty girl, your friend, Angie?"
I laughed then.
"Tangy, not Angie, Reverend. She's at home, I guess."
The preacher drove the car real slow, and once in a while he blew the horn or waved at somebody sitting out on their porch. When he wrapped his thick fingers around the gear shift between the two seats, the back of his hand touched my leg, and he let it rest there. He didn't speak then, except to ask twice if it was cool enough for me inside the car.
And then he patted my leg, friendly, like an uncle or a grandfather would. But then he stopped patting and let the hand rest there on my leg, and the other hand, the one with the gold band that had shined in the sunlight that day in front of my grandmother's house, wrapped around that brown leather steering wheel, the veins dancing, as he drove slowly towards Bamboo Street.
When he stopped in front of the house, he unbuckled his seatbelt, and for a minute I thought he was going to get out and come in, but he reached for his wallet and handed me two unwrinkled twenty dollar bills. I felt my hands were shaking when I took them.
"Thank you." It was little more than a whisper, but all I could manage.
"I know y'all need it. Your grandmother's proud, but take this so you don't have to ask for what little she's got." He was the uncle again then, and he patted my leg.
Grandmama had come out onto the porch to see who it was, and seeing the preacher dropping me off, she smiled and waved.
"Thank you, Reverend! Thank you."
"It was my pleasure sister! Happy to help." I balled the money up tight in my small fist as the big black car moved slowly down Bamboo Street and turned at the corner.
My mama was always pretty. Everybody said so. She had high cheekbones, full lips, dark black skin that was so perfect she sometimes looked like a painting, and eyelashes so long they got tangled up together if she didn't brush them out. When I was a little girl they used to say she could've been a movie star.
A man had killed my daddy over a pool game, and when I was small I used to dream I'd kill him when I got big, to get him back for what he did to my daddy, but the law beat me to it. Some years later, they beat the man, Willy Charles, so bad that he spent the next few years in a wheel chair before he went on and died too.
Mama never went past high school; in those days not many people from the neighborhood did, but they said she was pretty enough that she didn't need to; all she needed was to meet the right man and be smart enough to play the game right.
We were living in a little apartment near the shopping mall, and Mama always had some boyfriend with a new car and a good job working at some office or in some factory. She'd starting going with this man named Mr. James. Mr. James was from Lafayette, Louisiana; he was very tall, light skinned, and he had thick wavy hair that looked almost like a white man's.
Mr. James was always jealous of some man looking at Mama when they went out for a drink or to get something to eat, but Mama laughed because some man was always looking at her or trying to get her phone number or something. She was pretty enough to be a movie star.
And then one night Mr. James got drunk; he couldn't even walk straight, but he kept drinking, and he wouldn't stop fussing at Mama about some man who had smiled at her or something. Mama told him he needed to take his drunk ass to sleep, but he just kept on drinking and kept on fussing.
I woke up in the middle of the night, to the sound of Mama screaming as Mr. James was hitting her. He cursed at her. Called her names I was not allowed to say. He hit her over and over again until I guess he got so tired he finally went on to sleep. He fell out on the bed with all his clothes still on. I got up and stood at the opened door of her room because I was afraid to go in, and I watched Mama lay in the bed for a while after that, crying quietly, with her hands covering her face, but after a long time she got up and went to look at her face in the bathroom mirror.
She looked in that mirror. She saw what Mr. James had done to her face. She saw her nose broken and one of her eyes swollen shut and two of her teeth chipped. I guess she couldn't take it.
Mama went to the kitchen while Mr. James was laying in the bed, knocked out and drunk, and she got a big knife, and she went right back to that bed; she climbed on top of Mr. James, then she looked at him for a minute, and ran her finger along the bridge of his fine nose; she ran her thin fingers through the thick wavy hair, and then she cut his throat. Then she got down, sat in the chair at the foot of the bed, crossed her legs, lit a cigarette and watched him bleed to death.
Grandmama baked me a cake on my sixteenth birthday. She didn't have the money to really throw me a party, but Tangy and a few of my other friends from school came over that day and we all played music and laughed in the front yard.
I didn't even notice the big black car until it stopped and backed up. And then there was the preacher, in his suit and tie, smiling again, like Mama said. Grandmama smiled back. It had been some months since he drove me home that evening, and I had started to think it was all in my mind.
"Well, it seems like I was about to miss out on a celebration!"
"Yes, Reverend," Grandmama answered, "but the good Lord must've brought you right here. It's this child's sixteenth birthday, so we are having a little something for the big day!"
"Well, well," the preacher said, and he rubbed the thick mustache. "isn't that something! Flower, has grown into a young woman now! It seems so long since she used to come to bible study and sit all quiet in the back with her mother. What a blessing it is, indeed, what a blessing."
"Praise the Lord." Grandmama answered. "Can I get you some cake and ice cream, Reverend?"
"No, no sister. Thanks you, but my doctor has me on this crazy diet, and I'm trying my best. Lord knows, I'm trying my best! But I will give Ms. Flower a little something before I go." He reached for the wallet. He took some money out and folded it, and put it in my hand, then he took my fingers and folded them on top of the money, like he was making a fist for me out of my own hand.
I didn't even look at the money then, when my friends asked how much it was after he had left, I told them forty, assuming it was what he had given me before, but when everybody was gone and I had helped Grandmama clean up, I went to my room and pulled a hundred dollar bill out of the little pocket in the front of my jeans. I had never had a hundred dollar bill of my own before.
That's when the preacher started telling me to come on Thursdays. I went because I was afraid not to go. And I stood by the back door that first night for what seemed like a long time, looking down at my hands and bare arms, noticing the tone of my dark skin in the green light, before he finally came for me. Big. Smiling. He had me clean up at first, empty trash cans from the bible study, pick up soda cans that had been left behind, polish the empty pews, wipe tables off.
But when I was sweeping the floor he came up behind me, wrapped his arms around and put his hands over my chest. The preacher unbuttoned my jeans from behind, and for a time he played with the small hairs, but then he reached further down and pushed his finger inside of me, but just the one finger, and I jumped a little when I felt the chill of the gold band. I stood still; I didn't turn around, because I thought if I turned around he would do other things, and I was too scared to tell him to stop, so I just stood there shaking, squeezing the broom in my hands, and I could hear his breathing, and I could smell the same cologne from the car, and the preacher squeezed and rubbed and breathed.
He gave me a hundred dollars again that night and told me what a good job I'd done cleaning up.
I didn't spend the money. I didn't even want to touch it. Looking at it made me want to cry. Then I saw the electric bill that came printed on pink paper, and I knew that meant the lights were about to get turned off again, so I took the preacher's hundred dollars, and I hid it under a couch cushion, where I knew Grandmama would find it the next day when she was cleaning. She thanked Jesus when she found it.
He never talked to me about what he did. He never spoke about the Sister, called the church's first lady, his wife. At the end of the night he gave me the money and thanked me for cleaning up the church or asked me how school was going. It was like he thought if he never spoke of it, he wasn't really guilty of it.
For two whole years I have gone to the church on Thursdays and waited by the back door, under the green light, until the last car has driven away, and I have been telling my grandmother that the preacher pays me to clean up after bible study. It's like Mama used to say, there's a little bit of truth in every good lie.
I told myself I would stop going to the church when I started college. I will give Grandmama all my student loan refunds so that she will be okay. I can get a job to make up the difference. The preacher laughs when I tell him this late one Thursday night, as he is straightening his clothes, fixing the tie after he gives me the money.
"How are you going to buy books, Baby, or pay for clothes, food and all the other little things a college student needs?"
"You will buy my books the first year, after that I think I'll be okay." I can tell he wants to laugh again, but he doesn't. He thinks this is a kindness. He thinks he's a gentleman for it.
"I can't do that Baby; you're my little Flower!" The smile, again. The fucking smile. He walks over to where I am sitting and pats my leg like he always did, and then he lets the hand rest there on my leg, like the matter is settled.
I pound the table with my fist, not too hard, but hard enough that the preacher moves his hand. He has never seen this in me. I look straight into his dark eyes; I am not small next to him.
"Yes, you will." I am trembling, and the thick, salty tears make their way down my face, and I slap the palm of my hand down over and over on the same spot on my leg where the preacher had rested his heavy fingers before. "You will buy every single book. If not, I will be my mother's daughter."