Sound check. Cochlea peeling feedback. Tuning till doomsday, then more tuning. Roadies flopping and panting across the stage, lion taming cables, speakers, amps.
C to E minor was home for her. Shudder, slide, shudder. Then thump the strings with the right hand, pop ‘em upside the head like a sobering smack for a falling down drunk sprung from a dive. They were the first chords she got down cold, that gave her a tingle that lasted for hours until Katy intruded with demands to do laundry, wash dishes or practice hymnals she had to memorize until her throat rang raw. Save the motherfucking prayers, she thought, angry that she hadn’t said something to Divinity in the moment. Save that dizzy shit for a more willing dupe. A captive audience. A roach spinning on its back.
Nothing happened from above. No heavenly lightning strike, no incinerating rebuke, no ear to ear knife swipe, no primal samurai sword gutting. Something about Divinity’s posture, her big show with the bible in the studio, gave her an inkling that she knew the jig was up too. Grasped a bit of it at least, her preacher thing now running on fumes, wheeler dealer theatrics, the knack she’d had since womb dispatch, the prized Negro gift of oratory honed in debate contests, bathroom mirrors, pews damp with waiting, damp with comingled body fluids. She’d always been blessed with speech, magnificent cut-glass diction, the molasses voice that men who couldn’t find other jobs and wormed their way into the ministry would die for. The thinking was that Divinity never had to really work for it. Came into a room and owned it with the alchemical curl of her lip. Spread her arms and poof. Still, she hadn’t been able to get her own church until some white philanthropist ponied up for the first year’s lease on a storefront nobody wanted. Becoming the Phoenix rising after years of roof raising to a handful of families, plotting on phone trees, saving their meager Christmas bonuses for her collection plate. They would help her. An invisible, dear devoted core getting back at all the bishops and prophets and pillar men who’d spewed we shall overcome at marches in Little Rock then blocked her path at every ecumenical board and committee meeting. She’d memorized their home numbers, spouses, kids’ names, hobbies. Tendencies.
“Get in your fucking places, blokes,” a roadie yelled at the arena attendants picking up junk in the aisles. “Shit, we don’t need to eat off the floors. Fuckers will probably trash the place anyway after Jude leaves, judging from those groupie crazies at the radio station. Miss Tharpe, we’re ready for you and your boys.”
Card, Thurston and Butch filed onto the stage silently, corralled by Mick hours before, backbiting put on hold for the moment. Rory plugged in her guitar, the air rippling with the bustling attendants, some stopping to watch as she cued up a fast arpeggio churning blues number. The three of them plodded through their parts, Thurston cueing up too fast on the downbeat, Butch letting loose a scattered bridge and Card slapping his bass ragged with his open hand.
“Get it together,” Rory growled as they shambled to a close, the clock ticking down to Jude’s entrance. It had been years since she’d been in an arena that big, cavernous, bumptious, baby goblins of stage fright coming at her, antsy, suddenly, about Divinity being in the audience, tossed among the record company execs, assassins with submachine guns lurking in the exits sitting in judgment with her cartoon bible. They would play all the mainstays. Throw in an original that Rory squeaked out after months of stewing inactivity, procrastination, doubt, when she’d tried to write at the end of meals, hiding in the toilet, collapsing on the edge of her motel bed with the guitar, mixing up chords at every angle, the C to E minor old faithfuls failing her in the face of figuring out installments on four months of unpaid doctor’s bills for her back pain and gallstones.
These were all alien matters to Divinity, she was sure. Shielded from calamity by her god force field, her sharp nose for profit and hoarding and saving every penny she got. In the news clips her second cousin sent from back home she’d read about the cathedral and community center Divinity was trying to build with the aid of white donors, rumors that she’d fucked one or several of them spread by her nemeses on the Baptist convention boards. A secret part of her relished the smear, the whiff of freshly ground dirt spread over the old neighborhood’s prudish high regard for the budding junior prophetess of 1930.
They finished the rehearsal and went backstage to their dressing rooms. Card and Thurston haggled over a joint. Butch did his ritual finger dunk in warm water and Epsom salts, bracing for the long night. Mick lingered in the corridor, going over the set list, busying himself with the smallest logistics, breaking out his inhaler for strategic hits when no one was looking, avoiding Rory’s orbit, swallowed up in the turbine of Jude’s handlers and sycophants.
“Fifty minutes to showtime, motherfuckers,” a voice screeched over the loudspeaker.
“Let’s blast these rednecks back to the swamps,” a tech chortled from behind the towering Marshall stacks anchored in an iron wall around the stage.
Rory walked back out onstage for one last look. The attendants stood poised in place at the arena exits, seat rows bathed in the dank glow of the footlights. Katy sat in the back, blue put-on-airs Monday night revival meeting hat perched on her head, nodding to something. Precious Lord. Take my hand.
Cotton Plant, Arkansas, 1930.
Route 9 quivered with the distant menace of engines. Congregants walking, driving, getting the hang of the rattle traps handed down to them with a wink and a prayer for at least another hundred more miles before sudden death on a two-lane blacktop. Backbone of Calvary Church headed to an after Sunday service fish fry for the Browns, Clemons, Langhornes off to Cleveland in the morning for railway jobs, weekend shifts in sanitation, road maintenance. A damp evening showcasing child prodigies on piano, guitar, drums with the most suspense and anticipation over the first pulpit appearance of little Divinity Brown offering blessings for new beginnings.
She’d practiced her delivery again and again in the mirror. When everyone had gone to bed she was still practicing, drawing out words, pausing for emphasis, making musical notes of end phrases like she’d heard bishop do, his kindly russet brown face pushing her to new heights of mastery.
Again and again, in front of him with Sunday school finally over and a barrage of lessons baring down on her, she wended through the scripture lines she’d chosen all by herself, Romans, Jeremiah, First Corinthians, full to bursting with pride at her powers of recall. How clever, what a big smart girl, what a credit to her name. The others so plain, less blessed. A few paces farther away from God.
It was the russet stench of bishop’s crotch that woke her up, trickling sweat, tingling with exhaustion in her empty hotel bed. She always asked for queen-sized, to contain her thrashing, blunt the endless chain of night visitors.
Ten years and three months old fingers. Just long enough to fit over the head of his cock. To give her the strength to suffer God’s silence. To give her the strength to devise the countdowns. Count for the missing tiles on the ceiling. Count for how many floor tiles she could jump on before hitting a crack. Count for the number of pinstripes on his suit pants, the creases in the long black preacher robe draping like a sickle over the swivel chair in his office. Count for the time it would take between the end of her practice sermon and the footsteps approaching in the hallway to reach them. For the doorknob to turn, the crescent of Rory’s face rising in front of them as bishop repositioned her cursed with age fingers to his shoulder.
She got up from bed and took an aspirin. The room shifted into soft focus around her. Warm rain pissed in fits and starts on the roof. It was only the third integrated hotel she’d ever stayed in in the South. She could feel the tremor of the white bodies who’d slept there before, shrouded in comfort and dream, furtive fucks, sour business dealings over a smoke and Kojak reruns. She fished out her concert ticket. A good night for a first salvo, to root for our electric girl, for Cotton Plant’s long heralded resurrection. She laughed to herself, went to the closet, picked out a new outfit, new armor, not too pastorly, straight or prim for the rednecks and gutter heathens who’d paid top dollar to see their clay footed goddess Jude.
She showered off the night visitors, dressed and went downstairs.