The Moon Above: Part 6
Chapters 11 and 12
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Beneath the House of God
I ARRIVED EARLY one day at Uncle Abe’s church, which was still how I thought of it no matter what it was named. I came by once in a while, when I wasn’t working my jobs or working on my French, to help out. I felt I owed him. On this day, I walked in and heard a thumping sound from below.
Nobody answered but the thumping continued. I didn’t think he was having some kind of real holy-roller service down there, not in the afternoon, so I walked to the back and out the service door. There was a set of stairs that led to the basement, which connected only from the alley through an old coal chute with heavy metal doors. The owners had used it to bring in food when the church had been a store, and it looked like that’s what Uncle Abe was doing now. The metal doors were flattened back against the pavement like the petals on a dead flower, and he and my father were carrying boxes in from a ratty truck so old it looked like it should have a horse pulling it. My father was resting his arms on his knees and breathing a little heavily, and Uncle Abe, true to form, was bathed in sweat.
“Hey, little man,” Uncle Abe said when he saw me. “Now that you’re here, we can use your help.”
I had come around to help however I could, which I had figured would include moving hymnals or straightening the pews, which were not yet bolted to the floor and had a tendency to move around when the service got a little boisterous. I had not expected to help load heavy boxes down a steep ramp.
“What is all this?”
Uncle Abe wiped his brow but did not look at me. I noticed my father wasn’t looking at me, either, he was concentrating on the backs of his hands, which rested on his dirty knees.
“Just some stuff I agreed to store for some people. Since we have the basement of sorts down here, I thought I could help them out. Sort of the neighborly thing to do.”
The basement was not so much a basement as a gaping void studded with two-by-fours to hold up the floor, and I did not like going down in it, much less dragging heavy boxes. I pictured myself knocking one of the two-by-fours loose and having the whole church cave in on me. I might go straight to Heaven by dying in a church, or I might go straight to Hell for knocking it down, and I did not want to find out which. But Uncle Abe looked like he was on the verge of a heart attack, and my father was not far behind him, so I decided I would help. Plus, Uncle Abe had helped set up my French lessons, and I owed him so much for that.
The truck was not all that big, but there were a lot of boxes and it took us a long time. They were heavy, too, and it wasn’t long before I was sweating and panting along with my father and Uncle Abe. The boxes were all the same size and weight and seemed to be packed pretty much the same. After a while, once I thought about it, it seemed odd that they would be so uniform.
“What’s in these?” I asked.
“Cans, I think,” Uncle Abe said.
They seemed heavy enough, but they didn’t slosh or rattle.
“Not sure,” he grunted as he carried another down the concrete slope into the basement. “Didn’t ask. They said they needed some stuff stored, so I’m going to store it.”
“Who is they?”
“Some people I know.”
His tone indicated that perhaps I should stop asking questions, and I didn’t really care that much, so I did. When we finally finished, we were all exhausted, sweaty and dirty. Some spiders had taken a liking to the basement, too, after the two-by-fours had been installed, and we were covered in gray webs. We had barely gotten finished when I noticed two men standing beside the truck. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t place them.
“Just a minute,” Uncle Abe said, and went up to talk to them.
When I saw them together, I realized where I had seen them before. They were the men who had come into the back of the church that first Sunday and looked around. Apparently, they liked what they saw, or at least liked the basement. Uncle Abe stood with his back to me, blocking my view of the men. They talked for a while and things looked like they were getting heated, but they kept their voices low, even Uncle Abe, and that was work for him. Finally, one of the men reached into his front pocket, pulled out a thick wallet and gave Uncle Abe some money. Then the men went away, giving my father and I nearly imperceptible nods of greeting.
“Sorry about that,” Uncle Abe said as he walked back to us, counting out his new cash. “A little difference of opinion on whether I needed your help.”
He gave some money to my father and some to me. The roll he handed to me seemed to be about half as thick as the one he gave my father. My father pocketed his without comment, but I was now more confused than ever about what was going on.
“Who were those men? What’s in those boxes?”
Uncle Abe rested a meaty hand on my shoulder. Even his palms were sweating.
“Johnny, sometimes it’s possible to ask too many questions. Those men are acquaintances of mine and they need some help and I’m helping them out, and I’m glad to do it. And they’re glad I’m doing it so they’re helping me out, too. I appreciate your help, and your pop’s help, so I’m just sharing some of the appreciation with you. I don’t know what’s in those boxes, and I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter to me. All I know is that they are in need and I’m helping them out. And it would be good if you would keep this under your hat. Your mother doesn’t need to know about it. Nobody in your building needs to know about it. Nobody in the congregation needs to know about it. Let’s just keep this between us, all right?”
I was learning how to keep secrets the more I hung around with Uncle Abe. But this time I spotted an opportunity.
“How often do those parishioners need help?”
My father looked mildly alarmed at my question, but Uncle Abe just gave me a long look, then the corners of his mouth started to tilt up.
“They are thinking that they will be in need about once a week, maybe once every two weeks.”
“I was just figuring that you could use some help,” I said. “The two of you looked like you were nearly worn out when I showed up.”
In fact, I had noticed that once I arrived, Uncle Abe and my father seemed to take things a little easier than they had before, letting me bring down two boxes to their one. I was willing to work at whatever it was, and now I had a reason to get money beyond just the ordinary use for money: I needed to save up for my studies at the Coffey School of Aeronautics. I was already working some, but this seemed steady enough and, although I wasn’t sure how much money my uncle had given me — thinking it would be rude to count it right there in front of him — I was pretty sure it paid better.
“I could possibly use some help,” Uncle Abe said.
My father was getting angry. “Now, look here, Abe, don’t get him involved in this. He’s just a kid, he doesn’t need to be here working with us.”
“I don’t need to be helping some parishioners?” I asked him. “That seems like something the nephew of the preacher ought to be doing.”
My father fumed, but he was reluctant to tell me what was wrong with my assessment.
“Come on, Carleton,” Uncle Abe said. “He is a kid. That’s the beauty of it, I can see that now. God sent your son here to help me because he’s a kid.”
“That’s ridiculous. Don’t start in with this God told you to do stuff,” my father said. “It seems that God is forever trying to find corners for you to cut.”
“Maybe he is! The Lord works in mysterious ways, we all know that. He wanted me to have a church, now I have a church. He has seen fit to tell me to use the church building for other purposes when chance arises, and now chance has arisen. And he has sent a young man here to help me, a young man who is not likely to run afoul of the powers that be because of his age.”
I was tired after all the work and didn’t feel like continuing to argue about what God wanted. I knew what I wanted.
“Dad, just let me do this. Let me help unload these boxes of whatever they are. If you don’t, I’ll tell Mother.”
He gave me a look that pained me. It pains me still; I never forgot it. I could summon it right now, if I wanted to, and it would make me feel as bad now as it did then, so strong was it. The years have not diluted it one bit. But at the time, I did not back down. I wanted some money, this was a way to get it, and he couldn’t say much about it because he was taking it, too.
We never talked about it until it was too late. The “work” was steady, to the point where I eventually dropped one of my other jobs. I’m not sure what my father did with his money. I didn’t notice any sudden increase in our standard of living. As for me, I squirreled mine away in a box that I kept under my bed. I kept some schoolbooks on top of it to weigh it down. After a while, the pile grew until it pushed the books right over the top. It was just getting me closer to the sky, I thought.
Establishing My Territory
I WAS LEAVING Dominique’s one afternoon: Very fluent by this time, fluent enough that I believe if I had been dropped into France I could land in any restaurant and order anything on the menu. I couldn’t read much French, and could write even less, but I could speak it, or so Dominique said, like a native. We had actually come to focus more and more on language lessons and a bit less on sex. We were almost like an old married couple, or at least what I imagined an old married couple to be like.
I was headed down the stairway, listening to my footsteps echoing off the cheaply painted walls. The carpet was thin as paper and did not absorb much sound. I heard footsteps ascending to meet mine and was halfway down when I saw a familiar face. Another Race man, a bit older than me. It was the guy who brought policy numbers to Dominique, and to probably half the other residents in the building. He looked at me and recognized me, too. I gave him a noncommittal nod and would have passed by if he hadn’t opened his big mouth.
“You come around here too much,” he said, his voice nearly a hiss.
He was above me on the stairs now, looking down on me in more ways than one.
“You need to leave Dominique alone. She mine.”
He was so angry he didn’t realize I was making fun of him.
“Yeah. She mine. So, you need to take a walk.”
I had tried not to think about Dominique when I wasn’t with her. I was busy with school, I was busy helping Uncle Abe and I was busy trying to worm my way into the Coffey school. She was a white woman, to boot, although one with physical skills I had never heard attributed to white women. I did not think of her as mine. I also did not like to think that she might be with other men, although I knew it was a possibility, and Uncle Abe had hinted as much. But I certainly did not think of her as belonging to this joker, and I did not appreciate him trying to stake a claim.
I should have thought about it a little more before I responded. He had a seedy look about him and wore a tight blue shirt that showed off his lean, muscled build. I was a skinny, tall kid who wore a loose white shirt that hid mine. He was tough and looking for trouble, and I was doing neither. And yet I seemed to have developed some sort of spine. I had filled my head with stories about Race men and women doing anything they set their mind to, and I guess that included not allowing themselves to be scared away from white women.
“She not yours. She can make her own choices.”
It was difficult for me to talk like that. Mother would have come close to smacking me for saying something so grammatically incorrect.
He took a step or two back down. “What are you saying to me?” His mood was clear.
What I said next could determine whether I walked out of this building with all my teeth. “I’m saying you don’t own her. If she wants to see me, she sees me.”
He was on me like a panther. He hurled his whole body down the steps and slammed into me. I saw him coming and shifted to the left, so I was able to swing him around and keep most of his weight moving straight into the wall. A pile of dust fell from the landing below when he hit, and I heard his breath fly out of him with a whoosh. His eyes got wide. I didn’t wait to see what he would do next. I tucked into a fighting stance and pounded away at his midsection. My shirt didn’t show it, but my muscles had developed nicely from carrying all those boxes into the basement of Uncle Abe’s church and from pushing a broom at the Coffey school.
He tossed me a quick punch and tried to push away from the wall, but I deflected it and kept punching at his stomach. I don’t know exactly where I had learned about that. I must have read it somewhere. If I punched him in the face, I stood the risk of cutting my fist on one of his teeth or even breaking a knuckle on his jaw. He started spitting up blood and was getting it on my shirt sleeves, but I could not stop because I could still feel him trying to push off the wall, and if he ever got off the wall, I figured I was done for. My arms were getting tired, but I ignored the burning in my biceps and kept plugging away, hit after hit, none of them powerhouse blows but all of them steady enough to keep him busy just trying to breathe.
I finally stepped back when his knees buckled, and he fell to the carpet. My arms ached but the fight was knocked out of him.
“You don’t tell me what’s mine and what’s yours,” I said, trying to make my voice menacing, but it sounded like the wheezy threat of a scared kid.
“Hey!” someone shouted above, the sound echoing down the stairwell like the voice of God. “What are you niggers up to?”
A sizable white man in a too-small shirt, his belly jiggling like he was an out-of-work Santa Claus, came down the stairs with surprising speed. I did not care to talk about anything with him, and neither did my opponent, who staggered down the stairs before me, still spitting blood. I made sure to keep him in front of me.
“Ah!” the man shouted when he reached the landing where we had fought. “Nigger blood! On my carpet! I’m calling the police!”
I doubt he actually did, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I saw which way the policy runner headed and I went the other way, mainly so he wouldn’t try to jump me somewhere else. I ran toward an L station until I noticed that people were looking at me because I had bloodstains on my shirt. I quickly took it off and bundled it under my arm. I had on an undershirt, so nobody noticed or minded.
I ended up walking all the way back home, mainly so I had time to stop trembling before I got there. I was cool by the time I arrived, but I hid the shirt under my mattress so mother wouldn’t find it. We didn’t have enough money for me to go throwing away perfectly good shirts, but I couldn’t very well let her clean it. I would have to scrub it myself, later. Or maybe I should ask Dominique to clean it. The whole thing was her fault, anyway.
I was no longer shaking but my nerves were still jangling long into the night. I lay there, awake, realizing that I could fight if I needed to.
“YOU CAUSED ME A LOT OF TROUBLE LAST WEEK,” DOMINIQUE TOLD ME.
We were lying side by side, naked in bed, with the soapy afternoon light washing over us. It was no longer an erotic thing but just what we did after having sex. I liked the gentle slope of her hips rising above the tangled sheets like some surfacing fish.
I wasn’t, really.
“Are you jealous of me, Johnny?”
Her brilliant green eyes looked unblinkingly into mine. It wasn’t any sort of accusation. She was just curious.
“I’ve been with that boy that brings me the policy numbers. And you got me in trouble with the landlord. He knew where you both have been. I had to give him a little taste, too.”
She pulled the sheet back to expose dark hair, so it would be perfectly clear what she was talking about.
“And you saw what a fine specimen he is. But I gave it to him, same as you. What do you think of that?” She was trying to shock me.
“I don’t like talking about this.”
The truth was that Dominique was very good about making me feel like I was the only person who mattered. I never went anywhere with her outside the apartment, I did not know any of her friends, I did not know very much about her family life. Looking back, I just remember her presence: her skin, her eyes, her hair, the way she moved underneath me and on top of me, the way she breathed in my ear. She could wrap around you like smoke and shut off your air until she was the only thing left. She could do this to the extent that I never thought about her with other men. I knew they were around, but when I was with her, she choked off those thoughts.
“It’s who I am, Johnny. All my life, men have wanted things from me. Well, one thing, really. I have learned to give it to them.”
“I never wanted anything from you.”
“No? Or should I say, non?”
I lay back and the pillow fluffed around my head like water, covering me. I had not thought of it that way, at all. I had come here for language lessons and thought the more hands-on part of the training had just blossomed on its own. She thought it was part of the transaction. Then it hit me hard, as hard as that unlucky policy runner would have hit me if he had gotten the chance: I was in love with her and she was not in love with me, never had been and never would be. I actually cried, a little; a lone tear squeezed its way out and began moving down my cheek, only to be soaked up by the pillowcase that still hid my shame from her.
I had read about love, but only in an academic way, the same way I had read about engines and propellers and bearing grease. It was a means to an end, a way to move you to the kind of life you wanted. I had not expected to feel it in bed with a white woman who was much older than I was, whose world was close to mine but not part of it. I had not expected that the first time I would feel romantic love I wouldn’t recognize it until it hurt, until it ached. It was gone the second I knew what it was.
I did not answer her until I had my voice under control.
“I never thought of it like that,” I said finally, pulling my head up so she could see my face.
She still lay there, unblinking green eyes on me, a lioness waiting for its prey to emerge. She could probably have stayed that way all day, never moving.
“I know you didn’t. I don’t either. I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t want to be, Johnny. I think you’re the only man I have met who really didn’t want this from me. Or at least, not only this.”
“Do you want to be with the others? With that punk I beat up on the stairs?” I sounded so much tougher than I felt. I didn’t beat up the punk, I just got the drop on him. I had resolved to keep a close watch out for him in the future, because if he ever got the drop on me, I would be finished.
“He’s not a punk. He’s actually a nice boy. But I don’t want to be with him. That’s just about money. Let’s just say I get my bets at a discount, and I don’t have to go over there and check on the numbers.”
I didn’t feel like my time with her was a transaction, and she didn’t seem to feel like it was either, but there was definitely a transaction going on here. Uncle Abe had set it up, for one thing. “Why did you agree to teach me French? I don’t pay you.” “You don’t pay me in money,” she said playfully.
“But when I started, I didn’t pay you in anything. You didn’t get anything out of it. So why do it?”
It was her turn to lay back in the sheets. She lived in a cheap apartment, but her bed had the softest sheets I have ever felt, before or since.
“Johnny, Johnny. Sometimes people do things and they can’t explain. I don’t mean I can’t explain it, I mean I’m not supposed to.”
“Why I’m with you. I’m supposed to be with you, but it’s my choice, too. I want to be.”
She reached out to stroke my jaw, but I batted her hand away, a little harder than I needed to.
“What do you mean, you’re supposed to be with me?”
“Are you going to beat me up? Like you did with that other boy?”
“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Did I hurt you?”
“But what did you mean?”
She sighed. “My brother. He does business with your uncle. He knew you were interested in learning French and he knew I was interested in
— young men like you. So, he and your uncle worked out a deal.”
“That’s all I’m going to say. I am not doing anything I don’t want to do, if that makes you feel any better.”
I got up and put my clothes on and left without saying goodbye. I was physically tired from the rollercoaster of feelings that our simple conversation had launched. I think I went home and went right to bed. I resolved that I did not love her, had never loved her, and would never see her again. My resolve lasted until the following Tuesday.
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