By Sikivu Hutchinson (from Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe)
They got up from their work stations to see the commotion outside the window, pressing into the pane, agitated, fingers hot and stiff as dynamite sticks from four solid hours of dialing for Jesus dollars.
Would you look at that. That’s her. White woman they play 24-7, one always trying to sound blacker than us.
Trying to sound? Bitch outright steals.
Ain’t nothing halfway about it.
Ears bleeding, girl.
Radio blowing up.
Every time that so-called new song of hers comes on, I’m like, where the fuck’s my .38 Special?
I’d like to scoop out them dj’s brains with a butter knife my damn self.
Girl looks smaller, raggedier and paler in real life.
Rich as sin. See all the bodyguards she brought with her and that tricked out car? You read what they said about her so-called ‘net worth’ in Billboard?
Ain’t nobody read that crap but you.
Bet she never worked a hard day in her life and look where she is. Making millions off of buck dancing.
Must be real nice.
Don’t matter that she butt ugly. All you gotta do is be white and wet behind the ears. That’s the gold-plated ticket. They still making movies and shit about Marilyn Monroe and her no-acting flat ass been dead as a doorknob forever. What they ever done on Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne?
Difference with them is they black and still breathing. Nothing better than a dead bleach blond white girl.
Whole industry built on it. The young ones shit gold, the old ones wanna be more holy than Jesus. Talked to a white woman today who wanted me to come pray with her on the plantation. Crops failing, defaulted on her mortgage, kids flown the coop. Shocked that none of the neighborhood Negroes would drop all they shit to go wait on her.
Should’ve taken the money and run. Seventy five percent for you and twenty five percent for boss lady.
Hold on, here she comes.
Patton strode in with a new hat, a bowler tipped cautiously over her left eye, flashing insomniac red after a night poring over Accounts Receivable ledgers. “How’s the numbers coming girls?”
“Today’s top recruiter gets a front row seat at the revival concert with Miss Tharpe.”
“Don’t be ungrateful.”
“We wouldn’t dream of it.”
“What’s that white lady here for?”
“Don’t worry about her. Take your break and give me a solid three hours then you can be nosy.”
The women grumbled and settled back into their seats. One stayed standing, winding a salt and pepper lock of freshly pressed hair around her trigger finger.
“I can’t do three hours.”
“Sure you can.”
“I got to pick up my babies.”
“You said that last time, Sharla. We found out you went to the track instead.”
The women guffawed, sucked their teeth. “We know they was running some good horses, girl,” one said, ribaldly stressing her words. “And if you got to choose between babies and horses—”
“Can’t do three hours.”
“Calm down,” Patton said, the vein on her forehead starting to throb.
“What’s the white lady here for?” They asked again.
“What kind of business?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“You can’t tell us what’s our concern. We work up in here day in day out nine, ten hours a pop and y’all keeping secrets about who’s really running this joint, this church.”
“There aren’t any secrets about who’s running the church, Sharla. It’s all part of the public record. And maybe you’re forgetting that you get a regular paycheck from this ‘joint’—”
“That don’t mean that you own me, or nobody else in here.”
“Whoever gave you the idea—”
“You, with the way you talk down to us.”
A phone rang in the back row, the workaday commotion, the drumbeat rustle and flow of the room sucked out in the venom of her words as the women leaned in, waiting for a response, squashing grins behind their hands, averting their eyes to hide the glimmers of glee, biting back their anticipation of a bare knuckled brawl.
“Can you get that please?” Patton said quietly.
A woman hovering in the back row picked up the phone, cleared her throat with fanfare, and began her spiel, keeping her gaze on Patton.
“Now,” Patton said, easing onto the table at the head of the room, spic and span pinstripe blazer flaring up gently around her waist. She took in the women one by one, lingering on the more hardened faces, coaxing with pregnant pause. “Our numbers are up but we still need a push to meet our monthly target of one hundred sanctified subscribers who’d be willing to take that extra step and dig a little bit deeper into their pockets, purses and safe deposit boxes before the year is out—”
The woman on the phone stopped her conversation. “I don’t think you heard her, ma’am.”
“In addition to the glory from God, they can count anything they donate as a tax write-off.”
Sharla picked up her purse and moved toward the door. “I said, who’s propping y’all up?”
“Stop talking nonsense—”
“You brought that guitar dyke, now you got that skanky white woman don’t know her head from a hole in the ground when it comes to music to turn tricks for these church revivals while we’re busting our butts with no benefits, retirement or overtime.”
Patton stood up, the life going out of the room, a dying baby bird. “You want to make this into a career with benefits then step up and get serious. You want to talk about busting butts? The Pastor and I are here at hours you didn’t even know existed, keeping the light, heat and water on so you have a place to work, bring your babies if you need to. Remember, ladies, we family.”
“Right, and you the daddy.”
“If I need to be. Whatever I’m called to do.”
“Ain’t that a blip. Growing yourself a pair just like the other peckerwood crooks funding you.”
“Her’s are bigger,” A trembling voice piped up from the back.
A few of the women cackled, then fell silent, turning quickly to their phones in synchronized clatter.
“Clever,” Patton said. “What did God say to Lazarus?” She picked up a phone receiver, playing with the twisted chord. “A paid day off for anyone who knows.”
“Can you give us a hint, Miss lady?”
“Give you a hint about what?”
Reverend Divinity swept into the room with Jude, the white lady, her freshly dry-cleaned minister’s robe on, towering over the white woman blinking wide-eyed at the neat rows of rotary phones, hold buttons flashing like fangs in a maw.
“Miss Lady here is quizzing us about bible knowledge,” Sharla said.
“I’m sorry but I didn’t know you had a new name,” Divinity said.
“I don’t, Pastor, she’s just forgetting—”
“My place? Some of us were wondering where y’all are getting the money to run this thing.”
“Speak for yourself, girl, we just wanna get paid.”
Jude smiled, giddy as a kid lazing through the aisles of a candy store. Divinity clapped her hands. “Some of y’all may know Jude here, Jude Justice, the singer. Well, she’s interested in learning more about what we do. Wants to give to a needy family. Get involved with our program of redemptive education.”
“Just show me the way,” Jude blurted out. “Like I said, I’ve been a longtime admirer of your radio show on that televangelist network thing. Parents got it on all the time whenever I call, which granted ain’t often. It’s better than any of that other Good Ol’ Boy guilt trip shit, I mean stuff, they got on there. Sorry, ladies. I’m always a tad uncouth before dinnertime.”
“Like a zoo animal,” Divinity said. “We don’t have any red meat here.”
“You got me on that one. Looks like you running a pretty tight operation here.”
“You’re lucky. Not many folks get a guided tour of our offices.”
“Then I feel very blessed to spend time with you lovely ladies.”
Patton grunted. “Excuse us,” she said, motioning for Divinity to go into the hallway. She closed the door behind them. “How much is she writing the check for?”
“Undisclosed. At least five figures.”
“Her ass can give more than that.”
“Slow down, baby. Never heard you get vulgar like that before.”
“What’s she doing here, Divinity? The girls are already riled up.”
“A few of them think you’re a front for white boys like Sprat.”
“They’ll have a field day with Jude then.”
“Careful. This isn’t a game.”
Divinity reached over, plucking invisible lint from Patton’s lapel. “I’m depending on you to keep the ship together.”
“Right, I just need to know what your intentions are with her.”
“She’s got money, influence, and she’s a seeker. No mystery.”
“What’s this about her looking for a family to sponsor?”
“Woman ain’t no spring chicken. Filthy rich, no kids. Feds, lawyers circling for the kill. Thinks country Negroes are a good investment opportunity.”
Patton waited for Divinity to continue. Divinity didn’t flinch, qualify or reframe. A drowning kitten caterwaul went up from behind the door. Jude was singing, urging the women to join her, butchering another spiritual in a raspy incantation. Patton imagined the knives in their eyes. Decades of biting down silently on bitterness chewing them up, cyanide in their guts from mopping up the piss of all the Judes that had crowded their lives since birth.
Divinity ignored the sound, turning her attention to a ringing phone in her office.
“I have an appointment with the board. Keep the white girl occupied until I’m through.”
“Occupied with what?”
“You’re a mind reader. I never need to tell you anything.”
Divinity took a step back, giving Patton an approving onceover. Patton drank in her curdled perfume, the familiar stench filling the hallway, the dark, teasing outline of a perimenopausal mustache playing on her lip. The years they’d been together knotted around them invisibly, burnt vines in a forest crumbling to ashes. Who would die first? Who would look up at the victor in gloating lamentation?
“I always liked pinstripes on you,” she said to Patton. “Gives you that landed gentry look. By the way, I thought I heard you offering the girls a day off if they could answer a question about Lazarus.”
“Told you you were a mind reader. My Sunday sermon will be about resurrections. Second acts. What we get in exchange for faith. All the shit hours we’ve put into praying, hoping, wishing, groveling on our knees. Speaking of resurrections, I’ve invited the white girl to sing with Rory and the choir at the revival tomorrow night, shake her pancake ass, rake in the dough. Sprat will have a team film it. It’ll go over like gangbusters with all the Ofays who claim they love them some gospel. Burnish her street cred. Make us a national name. We’ll get first distribution rights in North America and overseas. Instant revenue stream.”
Patton pulled away from Divinity, scratching restlessly at her arms, face gaunt, whittled down to a rusted nub of suspicion. “She shouldn’t be here. You didn’t hear them. They were at my throat before you came. Now you throw her into the mix. The treachery of a white woman is ten times worse than a white man for some of them up in there.”
“Then we’ll use it to our advantage. Which one of them doesn’t want to see her get her ass whupped…figuratively that is.”
“You know it ain’t figurative.”
“Before I was ordained, the head pastor of this church used to take me to cockfights on the low. Used to love to see the birds dance before they ripped the shit out of each other. Said it was training before you graduated to bigger animals. We’ll give ‘em a little training tomorrow night.”