The sun made its way across the sky, pressing down on Cabbage T., ensuring the town retained its misery.
LuJane took her own sweet time, walking slow.
Once she found out not one of the girls she knew would agree to join her walk along the hot and dusty road to Freedom Boulevard with her, she’d been tempted to hide out close to her own cabin. She knew it was best to stay out of Mu’dear’s face for now, but fearing hearing her or Poppy’s call, she’d decided to make her way back to the center of town, find Callie, and share her news.
She wanted to see Callies’ face when she heard Able Handy was having shirts made by Mu’dear. LuJane wanted to gloat about seeing him half-naked. The tale was worth being roasted by the sun.
Don’t mean a dang thang dat it ain’t true. It kin happ’n!
LuJane sang, “I’m gonna see ‘im naaaaked…” and refused to pay any mind to figuring out how to fix the tale she’d already told Poppy and Mu’dear.
After her head bumped Poppy, the fresh lie she’d come up with—meant to fix the first one—didn’t seem like such a good fix after all. She needed to come up with something better. She had to. That was all there was to it.
LuJane worked loose the two pearl buttons Mu’dear sewed on the collars of all her dresses. Pulling at the buttons called to mind the past few bicker filled days. Mu’dear’s face and voice swhirled around her head. To push her away, LuJane opened her mouth and loudly sang,
“Dere’s a great camp meetin’ in de Promised Land…”
Her lips snapped shut when she realized it was the same song Mu’dear had been practicing every day to ready herself for her choir solo. LuJane could see the roof of the church as she walked along. Its tall white cross rose above a huge tree that was blanketing the entire Churchyard in shade.
Able had mounted the cross on the roof after Simmer came to town and claimed the building in the name of the Lord. The house-turned-church was the largest building (next to the haunted and abandoned big house) on the whole plantation.
Before Simmer came, Cabbage T.’s boldest children would sneak through the back pantry window and run through the houses’ spacious rooms. They’d play hide and seek beneath the sheets draped over old furniture, and jump on the sofas and the beds. None of them realized the footprints and handprints left in the layers of cobwebs and dust were evidence of their trespass, so each and every one claimed innocence whenever they were caught. LuJane was always one of the first ones in and last ones out. She loved the old house and celebrated with the rest of Cabbage T. when the Reverend Simmer turned it into a Church, not because she was partial to hearing his sermons, but because Mu’dear thought herself as a singer, which meant she’d surely find a way to be included in the church choir.
She’d be out of the way at least one day every week and that suited LuJane just fine!
Mu’dear told Poppy she sang to celebrate freedom. As far as LuJane was concerned, Mu’dear singing was freedom. The church was opened to the choir for practice every Wednesday and Thursday night, and every Wednesday and Thursday night Mu’dear was gone.
LuJane rejoiced in the hours she spent alone with Poppy. She loved hearing him talk about his work. Sometimes he would teach her a song. Or they might play a game LuJane made up. Or she might watch him carve on a piece of wood. She took great pleasure in getting him a drink or fixing him something to eat. Thanks to Mu’dear, Wednesday and Thursday were her favorite days of the week.
Sunday was not.
On Sunday, she had to sit and listen to every song Mu’dear had practiced through the week and listen to Reverend Simmer’s sermon. The only good thing about Church was the building and the benches—her own Poppy had made the thirty beautiful wooden pews spaced across the polished floor in the front room. The benches were silky from being well oiled, and LuJane liked sliding across them. They faced a wide staircase and landing leading to a second floor.
It had been there, on the landing, that LuJane first laid eyes on the Reverend James Simmer. He was in the midst of draping a long table with a white cloth and had hung a large framed picture of a bleeding hearted Jesus below the big window in the stairwell.
Mu’dear, Poppy, LuJane, and a bunch of other folk had gone to the church to welcome the new minister, and that’s when he’d said to them, “This church is African Methodist Episcopalian, but you all will be welcome.”
Mu’dear and Poppy, along with most everyone else in Cabbage T., decided belonging to something called the A.M.E Church was a good thing, so they joined and committed their souls to the care of the man who’d come to town to lead them all to Jesus.
In his very first sermon, the Reverend Simmer harped on the ills of Colored folk. He told them Satan himself could stare each and every one of them in the face and not a man, woman, or child sitting on any one of the benches would have the common sense to know it was the devil.
It was their ignorance, (he hollered) that allowed evil to rule their days; and sin, (he screamed) that was leading them down the wicked paths they walked. The Reverend Simmer preached that they should all put their best efforts toward enjoying Lincoln’s Emancipation, because what was given could easily be taken away.
He told the men to watch what they say and what they do and who they do it to because God was ready, willing, and able to bind them in heavy spiritual chains that would rival those of slavery and drag them straight to hell. He told the women his experience had taught him that a Negress was so burdened by sin, she required special prayer and forceful instruction to be made ready for the kingdom of heaven.
He would begin, he told them, by baptizing them all. He took the women first.
Every woman and each girl-child, was bathed in the holy waters of Cabbage T.’s largest lake. Afterwards, they all received holy communion and confession until he, their shepherd, was convinced their demons (the kind that prey on fallen women) were at bay. He told them Satan might run rampant through the cabins and fields, and up and down Freedom Boulevard, but he would not, could not, pass the threshold of an A.M.E Church!
Poppy’s benches were filled to overflowing.
The Reverend James Simmer most often preached a sermon that taught the lesson and blessings of the tithe. If the congregation did not give unto God, how could God justify giving unto them? The folk of Cabbage T. came to know verses from Leviticus and Numbers like they knew their own names.
On many a Sunday, Simmer would hand off a penny to anyone who could quote Deuteronomy 12:11 word for word. It became a competition among the children to see who could catch Simmer’s eye and get the nod for permission to recite:
“Den to th’ place th’ LORD yo’ God will choose as a dwellin’ fo’ his Name—d’ere you are t’ brang er’thang I comman’ you: yo’ burnt offuhrin’s an’ sacafices, yo’ tithes an’ special gif’s, an’ all th’ choice possesshuns you have vowed t’ th’ LORD!”
So many different folk spouted Deuteronomy so many times, LuJane found herself mouthing the words in her sleep.
Reverend Simmer told them all how important it was to God that His prophet was well cared for. He quoted Chronicles and Samuel, and planted seeds in the minds of his congregants that grew to support Simmer’s most fervently taught lesson. No one was too particular about tempting the punishment they were taught to expect, that everlasting damnation awaited the souls of those who did not support the church—so everyone answered Reverend Simmer’s call as best they could.
If there was no money in hand, a family might offer fresh-baked loaves, cakes or pies, whole smoked hams, fresh eggs or milk and cream. If none of those things could be delivered to his porch then anything else that might be given would be given. LuJanes’ Mu’dear made the Reverend Simmer’s robes and shirts and the rest of his clothing at little or no cost. Simmer desisted from paying even a penny to anyone else for anything else.
He was their Shepherd. They were his sheep. And with his white blond hair and startling blue eyes, the Reverend James Simmer was most beautiful to them. The most devoted in town agreed he looked just like Jesus—and they loved him for it.
The extent of Simmers’ effort to return their affection was offered, every now and again, as a Sunday treat (if his eye determined the offering basket to be sufficiently filled). On those mornings, he would invite congregants to witness the Holy Spirit’s descent to speak through him.
The Church would erupt in collective ecstasy as he spoke in tongues as one of God’s most holy. After the very first time the Church saw him in his throes, those who stood witness came to believe that within the rapture of the Reverend James Simmer, their own sins could be completely washed away. When Simmer screamed, “Who among you is ready to receive Jeeesuuus?” the shouts and wailing, the stomping and sobs of surrender, the flood of faith, would sustain true believers until the bells were rung the following Sunday, and the doors of Heaven were thrown wide to invite them back inside.
Pushing his most devout congregants toward frenzied jubilation stoked Simmers’ ego like nothing else. And the effort put into each of his performances brought concentrated doses of amusement whenever he recalled each service. Who among them would allow and outsider to tell them James Simmer was using their altar as a stage? That he was honing a craft; perfecting a delivery intended to reel them all in. How could they know their place of worship was merely a stepping stone; a carefully chosen position in a Colored Bucktown where he was simply taking the time to earn the money he needed to travel further north; that his plan was to leave all their souls behind. Who among them would believe it?
He’d taught himself their favorite hymns, and some of the old folk’s favorite slave songs too. He would smile when tears spilled freely from the eyes of folk thrilled by his soulful renditions. Who else would take time to learn most of their names or visit so many of their cabins? Indeed, what other white man would pat an arm or two and quote verse while sitting at their table?
None need know his true intent was to ensure there wasn’t too much largess in the cabins of those who’d been stingy with their tithes…
He obliged them. They obliged him. All was as it should be. A full church on a Sunday, a full offering basket, and the wet passions of the devout—what else was needed to fulfill a ministers’ dreams?
He would continue practicing on the good folk of Cabbage T. and wait for the day when enough money was set aside to build a Church of his own, where he’d stand before a large, well-heeled, congregation of white folk willing to present him with everything he believed he deserved. Until that day, he would rehearse with the audience at hand.
LuJane grinned. She did like looking at him. He was very pretty. But she’d heard tales, and standing in the shade of the church, she decided to ask Callie about the whisperings she’d heard.
“Got t’ be lies,” she muttered. “All dat talk goin’ round. Lil’ Bit talkin’ ‘bout ‘im kissin’ on ‘er…”
She rounded the church yard and made her way between row houses until she reached Callie’s home. LuJane found her hanging clothes on a line that stretched from a bent nail on one of the porch’s pillars to the branch of a tall pine tree.
“Hey gal!” Callie called when she saw LuJane. “Come on! I wont’s yuh t’ meet my Mama!”
Forgetting about the Able Handy tale she’d come to tell, LuJane stepped through the gate, waited for Callie’s mother to go squeeze water from another load of clothes, then quickly shared what she’d heard about the Reverend Simmer.
“Yeah well, he could’a been kissin’ on ‘er…” Callie shook her head, “he sho’ don’ ack like no Rev’rn, even in ‘is own house. Don’t ack like he married neith’a. Lil’ Bit might be talkin’ true.”
LuJane wasn’t having it. “Hush up! Dat’s a white man! He ain’t gonna do nothin’ like dat in no Colored town!”
At that, Callie slipped an arm around LuJane. “It don’t matter whut color he is,” she said, “he a man ain’t he? An’ dere’s one thang dey like t’ do all th’ time! An’ t’ git t’ do it dey can be some sneaky, connivin’ thangs—jist as bad as some womens sometimes.”
She continued in a murmur, more to herself than to LuJane. “Dey say thangs t’ make you think dey nice an’ make yuh thank dey care ‘bout yuh when dey don’t. Or dey push you t’ do somethin’ yuh don’t want t’ do, den use it agin’ yuh jist to make yuh do it a’gin.” She nodded, “Some jist wants yuh ‘cause you b’long t’ somebody else. Yuh cain’t believe in none o’ ‘em, dey don’t allow fo’ it.”
LuJane didn’t know what to say behind all that. Callie skipped to the water barrel and came back with a dipper full of rain water.
“Here. Y’all lookin’ parched! Gwon, sit on the step ‘til I gits done wit all dis.”
LuJane swigged from the cup and went to sit on the porch step to watch Callie hang the rest of the clothes.
She forgot about Able and the tale of him coming for shirts. Instead she thought about Simmer. She thought about Lil’ Bit. And she wondered how Callie came to know the things she spoke so surely of.