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“Even with full understanding of all that is at stake,
the flesh can be powerless under the spirit of temptation.
But when you find her, she'll be more than a lover.
More than flesh and temptation.
She'll be the salt of your ministry, bringing meaning to it all.”
My Father's words had been the first and last to run through my mind every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep. No matter how hard I tried to cover them up with outside distractions, they were inside me and therefore impossible to escape. Like lyrics to a song that had been sang to me all my life. Like a familiar face in a crowded room when I didn’t expect them to be there. Like an old friend who knew all my secrets but kept them tucked to their chest. Like ink from a needle, engraving words into my skin, permanent, visible and bold.
The distraction for tonight was Alicia, a long-haired red bone with more legs than conversation, who had fallen asleep next to me after a round or two or three. I’d neglected to get her last name but knew that we at least had a friend in common since we met in the VIP section at Bottoms where my boy Keith had chosen to throw his own co-ed bachelor party.
I hadn’t kicked it with Keith in about a year since he’d continued his career in the Marine Corp after graduating college as a First Lieutenant. Dude was as smart as whip. Really, most of my circle was. If it weren’t for the fact that we didn’t wear matching pocket protectors, we might’ve been labeled nerds. But we kept it low-key. Grades and freakish abilities to memorize lengthy passages after only glancing at them once was something we only discussed among one another and maybe family members who already knew. Me, Keith, and our third partner, Sabre, were a three-party force to be reckoned with before life sent us in completely different directions, and now we were finally being reunited.
Shit had been going down since Thursday.
“Good morning.” A tall, almond-colored sister with long, fire-red curls hanging down her back pranced into the bathroom while I stood at the sink, brushing my teeth, attempting to drown out my thoughts long enough to figure out how to gracefully put her out of my crib.
“Mornin’.” I nodded, hiking my brows at her reflection in the mirror before spitting a mouthful of minty suds into the basin. “You sleep well?”
“Yeah. I was—“
“Cool. I can pay for your Lyft. Where you stayin’?”
I didn’t mean to be short, but in my experience, that was the only way to be.
Leave no room for misinterpretation, no matter how good the sex was.
No morning sex allowed.
Don’t even offer breakfast.
The only thing that was ever gonna take place between me and this woman was over and done before the sun kissed the sky.
“Damn, that was rude.” She backed out of the bathroom door and retrieved her dress from the foot-board of my bed where she’d abandoned it two minutes after walking into my place. “Brandi said you were an ass.”
“Brandi doesn’t even know me.” I rinsed, spitted and smirked.
“That’s the point.” Alicia sighed, sitting on the foot of my bad, securing the straps on a pair of bright yellow sandals with heels that had accentuated her long, toned legs both standing and lying on her back.
“She’s been with Keith, what, two years? And is just now meeting his alleged best friend two weeks before their wedding. Ever wondered why?” She slanted a set of almost midnight eyes up at me as I walked into the bedroom with a towel around my waist, skin still dewy from the quick shower I’d just taken.
“Nah, actually, I hadn’t given it much thought.” I brushed a hand down the stubble on my chin, deciding that it’d be the look for the day because I was too exhausted to shave.
“Well maybe you should.” She stated as if she’d known me more than eight damn hours.
“Where are you staying?” I asked, ignoring her suggestion.
“Why, you wanna do this again tonight?” I was well on my way to the closet to fetch my Sunday attire but could hear the hopeful smile in her voice.
“Busy day.” I yelled back. “But the Lyft will need to know where to drop you off. That is unless you like roaming around strange cities with no destination.”
“I’ll order my own Lyft, Mr. Fold.” She said as I reentered the room, tucking a crisp, white dress shirt into my charcoal slacks.
“Suit yourself.” I fastened my personalized quill-cufflinks, shrugging and sliding my eyes from her exposed backbone to the mirror mounted over my dresser.
She mumbled something about preacher’s kids being assholes and how good dick always came with a headache. And I successfully tuned her out, rubbing a fingertip full of my sister’s handmade pomade in my hands and distributing it evenly through my short locs before footing into my Ferragamos and making my way to the hanging rack beside my bed that housed my extensive cologne collection.
“Do your parents know you’re a man-whore?” She’d stood up and located her purse on the nightstand next to her cell.
“Alicia, with all due respect, if this is your way of leaving a lasting impression, you’ve missed the mark by a mile.” I worked half a dime-sized amount of cologne between my wrists.
“Really?” She smirked, weight shifting to one narrow hip as she planted a skinny hand on the other. “And what would be a good way to leave a lasting impression? I mean aside from what I did to you last night?”
I turned completely around to face her, sliding a fingertip under her sharp chin, taking a second to stare into her eyes as she held her breath in anticipation.
“Last night was amazing.” I leaned in close to her thin lips and said. “Damn near perfect, to be honest. And one day, somebody’s gonna appreciate that thing you do with your leg behind your head. Seriously.” I grinned and she did too, chin still resting on my fingertip like she was scared to pull away.
“But it won’t be me.” I continued and her whole demeanor slumped. “I’m not the kinda dude who calls the next day. I don’t even have your number, nor do I want it. Some things are better left imagined, Alicia. Trust me on this one.”
She stood there for a full five seconds after I’d tipped her chin up and retracted my finger. I brushed her elbow in route to the bedroom door, then waited there for her to follow me out of the room. She did so with hesitance, face sagging with disappointment. I’d seen that face enough times to know exactly what it was, and it’d taken years for me to understand that it wasn’t my issue to resolve. Whether it had taken a week, five months or five years for a woman to make it to my bed, she made it there knowing that it would be her first and last time. I didn’t do riddles, not on paper or in person. At twenty-four, I was wise beyond my years. And falling in love wasn’t a wise man’s move.
“Guess I’ll see you at the wedding, then.” Alicia brushed past me, giving me one last look at that tight behind laying un-pantied under a slinky dress that had easily given me access to a finger fuck on the dance-floor.
“Later.” I held the door open and she walked out, pulling out her phone and ordering her own Lyft.
Didn’t cost me a dime.
Nobody could direct the youth choir with as much enthusiasm as my sister, Jada, and that was certainly the case on this particular Sunday. I’d shown up right on time, despite the fatigue ravishing my limbs, and landed a seat right beside our older sister, Angela, respectfully known as Penny, and my little niece Patience, referred to most as Boogie, just as Jada was leaving her seat at the end of the choir stand.
It was a rare occasion to see her up there wearing a robe looking all saved and uniformed. Jada kept up her attendance at church but had fallen into the background as far as the choir ministry was concerned. Now she seemed rejuvenated. Back to herself in so many ways. And we could give a large majority of that glory to God. But at least fifty percent had to be handed to my boy, her new fiancé, Andrew “The Jet” Julian.
“Chadwick.” Angela greeted before I could even take my seat. She knew exactly how much I hated my government name and made a point to use it as often as possible.
“Gretchen.” I tipped my chin and shot back as usual with the most undesirable name I could muster. Her chuckle let me know that I’d done well in this childish battle that had been going on since I was old enough to talk.
“That’s a good one!” She nodded, releasing Boogie from her hold so she could scoot closer to me and plant a peppermint-scented kiss on my cheek as she hugged my neck with her tiny little arms.
“Had to reach into the archives for that one. Glad you liked it!” I grinned. “And where’s my peppermint, Boogie? I know you ain’t gon’ let Uncle have funky breath.”
“Your breath’s not funky, Uncie Chad!” She smiled, cueing up a dimple and a set of brown cheeks that looked exactly like her mama’s.
“Is that right?” I slanted my eyes down at her as she tucked into my side.
She nodded yes.
“If it’s not funky then what it smell like?” I couldn’t help but ask. Boogie always said the most off the wall things and Angela couldn’t stand it.
“Boogie, put your headphones on.” Angela cut her eyes at me, knowing exactly what I was up to.
“What? She didn’t answer me yet.” I grinned.
“It smells like kisses.” Boogie blurted. “Girl kisses!” Her eyes widened as they jotted from me to her mama.
“That’s enough, Patience Marie. Put these on, now.” Angela placed a set of bright pink headphones on Boogie’s ears and cleared her throat in a threatening manner toward me.
“Man, you a hater.” I chuckled, shaking my head. “Niece was about to spit some knowledge. You hate to see it.”
“I’d also hate to see a knot upside your head.” She curved her lips as our sister stood before the youth choir that would be performing under her direction for the first time in years.
“Drew musta really put it down in Tokyo.” Angela leaned in and whispered, abandoning the fact that she’d just basically called me trifling, planting both hands on the sides of Boogie’s cushioned headphones to make sure she couldn’t hear anything but the educational video she was tuned into while tucked snugly under my arm.
“Can we not do that?” I scrunched my face with disgust.
“What? Talk about your sister gettin’ smashed on a private jet? I thought you’d be intrigued.” She flashed a sly grin, high cheekbones pushing her eyes into a squint.
“Bruh, do y’all live to make me sick? Like do you wake up in the morning and incorporate it into your daily affirmations?” I asked, glancing down at Boogie who’d already fallen asleep because anything that Angela had her watching was automatically boring.
“No. But that’s not a bad idea.” Angela winked at me before reaching into the backpack beside her and retrieving a blanket to lay over her sleeping baby girl.
“But seriously, it’s good to see her back up there.” She sighed. “Almost feels like old times, you know?”
“Emphasis on almost.” I returned, tucking the blanket around Boogie’s shoulder in response to her tiny frame shivering against the side of me. “Still a big piece missing.” I turned my eyes to my big sister.
She straightened her calf-length navy blue dress as well as her posture, eyes straight ahead as Jada motioned for the altos to do their thing. “Don’t start.” She said without looking at me. “Don’t even think about starting that today.”
“I’m not startin’. I’m just sayin’.” I had to raise my voice as the congregation started shouting in response to semi-high pitched voices glorifying the Lord.
“It’s the same difference, and I’m not in the mood.” She rolled her eyes, rubbing a hand down Boogie’s arm and clearing her throat as the sopranos took over, swaying side to side with their mouths open as wide as they’d go sending praises straight up to Heaven.
“You got a timer on that?” I asked, involuntarily slapping my thigh to the beat.
“Your mood? It’s been what, two years?”
“I wasn’t counting.” She returned, taking a deep breath, no doubt wishing I’d drop the subject altogether, grabbing a fan adorned with our father’s face from the back pocket of the pew in front of us and fanning herself.
“Well, I was.” I returned. “And I think—”
“Stop it!” She yelled, voice blending with the choir as the altos and sopranos all joined in on the chorus, forcing over half the congregation to their feet clapping and shouting and the whole nine.
“Cool.” I shook my head. I knew when my sister’d had enough. Her eyes were glistening and her lip was trembling. I rubbed her shoulder to show sincerity. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded and exhaled as I gripped her hand. Our family had more issues than XL Magazine. But this one in particular was overdue for resolve.
“Good morning, Tabernacle!” My father’s voice came blaring through the sound system in perfect timing as the choir took their seats after a stellar performance.
Angela’s eyes cleared and lit up with relief and admiration. She turned into a little girl every time our father entered the sanctuary on Sunday without fail.
“This is the day that the Lord has made…” My father stated just as he had for nearly sixteen hundred Sundays.
“We shall rejoice and be glad in it.” The entire congregation said in unison.
“Amen.” Pops said. “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna ask that you remain standing for a moment.” He made his way down the aisle from the back of the church and up to the pulpit, taking his place behind the podium.
“Tabernacle, I got some good news and I got some bad news this morning.” He spoke somberly, sending a ripple of oh no’s traveling from the front pew to the back.
“Yeah, we got a…a uh dilemma of sorts.” He squinted, running his tongue under his top lip the way he always did right before he was about to crack a joke. The congregation might not’ve caught that hint, but I’d committed my father’s mannerisms to memory. It’d saved me from many ass whippings deciphering what he said from what he meant.
“Now I know that many of you came here for the word of God. Amen?” He nodded and most of the congregation Amen’d in agreement.
“But there are a few that I won’t judge who come for the mouthwatering Tabernacle Brunch. Somebody stop me when I start lyin'.” He widened his eyes and a mixture of laughter and gasps spread throughout the church.
“Amen. It’s alright.” He huffed. “The good news is that for those of you who came for the Word, we got plenty.” He nodded, panning the audience.
“But the bad news, Amen.” He paused to inhale the way most pastors do for reasons that common folk wouldn’t and couldn’t understand. “The bad news is that if you came through those twelve foot wooden doors for brunch on this morning, we’re a few croissant sandwiches short due to the absence of Sister Opal.”
“Awwe man!” A visitor a few pews back shouted pulling every single eye in his direction.
Brave as hell.
“Don’t worry brother, Sister Opal’s ok.” Pops mentioned, knowing full well that brother with his belly sitting four inches down his lap, wasn’t concerned with Sister Opal’s well-being. “She’s away on a cruise. Even the blessed hands of the Brunch Ministry need a vacation. Amen?”
“Amen!” Sister Liles, an ex-member of the Brunch Ministries, shouted in agreement from the second, center pew, garnering several eye rolls from the congregation because everybody knew she got voted out for putting too much salt in the scrambled eggs.
And I have no doubt in my mind that if Pops would’ve spoken the bad news about brunch a little bit louder, sisters Rose and Lilly would’ve gotten up and left their seats. Luckily for him, they were hard of hearing. But there’d be hell to pay when they got back to the dining hall to find that the kitchen assistants were attempting to feed an entire congregation with one fish and a loaf of bread, and neither of them were Jesus.
“We’ll make due.” Pops nodded his head as the congregation whispered among themselves. “But you’re welcome to leave without judgment if the Word ain’t what you came for.”
The end of that statement surprised me. And what surprised me even more was that a handful of people actually stood and raised a pointer finger as they headed toward the chapel doors. Pops didn’t even look their way as he opened up his old worn Bible filled to the brim with post-it notes. Instead navigating his way to the words that would directly relate to the situation at hand. He wasn’t new to this, he was true to this. There was always a lesson on the way.
“Looks like we got a few leavers. Amen.” He peeped up from the Good Book for a second signaling that he’d found what he called The Fruit.
The four or so people that had left their seats had now stopped in their tracks, a couple turning around, eyes darting from one pew to the next.
“But ain’t it a good thing that God is not like man?” Pops asked, directing the question to every soul, both sitting and standing.
“Ain’t it a blessing to know that he won’t walk out on us when we don’t give him what he asks us for?” He continued, voice slightly changing pitch as he embarked on what would be this Sunday’s subject matter.
“If God’s been good to you this morning and gave you legs strong enough to stand, won’t you get up and follow me to where I’m about to go?”
It was amazing how he phrased a command and made it sound like a request. Those that knew him well enough stood to their feet, Bibles in hand, ready to navigate their ways to the designated passage.
“Saints, come and go with me to Matthew six, verses twenty five through twenty six.” He said with conviction.
I carefully slid Boogie from under my arm, laying her sleepy head on a pillow that Angela’d pulled from a bottomless backpack that housed everything but the kitchen sink. We stood, sharing a Bible that she’d been carrying for longer than she could read. And we read along with the Tabernacle as instructed by our father, Pastor Chadwick Fold Sr.
“25 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
We all paused, looking to Pastor Fold for direction. And he gave it expeditiously, directing us to verses thirty two and thirty three in the same book.
“32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Removing his reading glasses and placing them beside the open Bible, he peered out into the crowd, seamlessly taking a deep breath that would propel him through the duration of his sermon.
“I don’t know what you came in the Tabernacle for this morning.” He said, eyes steady and sure and identical to my own.
“I don’t know the desires of your heart, your wallet, or your stomach” He panned the audience, many of which were already shouting.
“But the Lord will provide. Even when you decide that what he already gave you is no longer sufficient, he’ll still keep on providing. Do I have a witness?” He asked, already knowing that he was right.
“See, some folks came in here hungry.” He stepped back from the podium, grabbing a neatly folded white handkerchief that had been laid to the left of his Bible by his longtime assistant, Sister Barbara Bimage.
“You, you, you walked through the church doors with your mind set on one thing, because you heard about it.” He strategically stuttered through his statement. “Heard we got a brunch cooking up back there in that kitchen that’ll make you slap yo mama. And it’s the truth, Tabernacle!” He waved that handkerchief in the air like a staff from the Lord’s hand.
“I don' ate pancakes at IHOP and waffles at the Waffle House, and Lord knows I love me some fish and grits from The Breakfast Club. But don’t none of ‘em hold a candle to what the Brunch Ministries put together back through them doors.” He pointed to a set of doors that led to the kitchen and dining area.
“So, trust me when I say I understand why folks would be busting down the doors of the church to get in here for a bite. I know what it means to be hungry for something. I can testify to the desire to have a pancake that covers the whole plate, soaked in enough syrup to cover the floors of this church. But if God didn’t say that I can have it—Somebody better shut me up ‘fore I go too far!” Pops stopped himself, did a hoop and a holler, pulling an entire row of sisters to their feet.
“If God didn’t say I could have it, then Tabernacle, it ain’t mine.” He continued.
“I don’t care how early you showed up for it. I don’t care if you put on your sharpest suit or your prettiest dress. If God didn’t say you could have that thing, that thing don’t belong to you.”
He pointed a long finger out into the congregation, directing that statement at nobody or everybody, depending on where they stood in life. You could feel the ripple of relatability traveling from one pew to the next. Spirits waking up and realizing that the word was for them, and that the hand of God had placed them in the right seat on the right pew in the right church on that day.
“Now I’m not sayin’ that the Lord don’t want you to have brunch, Tabernacle.” Pops wiped away the sweat beading on his forehead.
“The Lord wants you to eat. Ecclesiastes nine and seven says ‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart…’ It’s your intentions he’s concerned with.” He said.
“An ill-willed heart can’t carry the word of God, nor can it receive His blessings fully.” His pause for a deep breath signaled scattered applause and a few agreement shouts.
“I’m not gon’ keep you long.” He’d caught his breath and told the truth. Many Pastors promised to keep it brief, but my father was one of the ten percent that actually kept their word.
“And I promise, we’re gonna feed you ‘cause I don’t need nobody bad mouthing the Tabernacle on Three Peas Morning Show. Amen?” A group of youngsters sitting in the row across from ours had to cover their mouths, sitting in disbelief that the pastor even knew what Three Peas was although his youngest daughter co-hosted the show.
“But before you nourish your body with refreshments that our Brunch Ministry has prepared for you,” He gently laid his handkerchief down on the podium before looking up and out into the audience.
“Understand that there is an alternate form of nourishment that you should be seeking when you walk through those two wooden doors.” He whooped with the pianist keying up to add a melodic backdrop where my father’s words fell.
“Bare in mind, Tabernacle, that there is a tray of goodness prepared by our Father in Heaven for us to eat from each and every day.” He shouted, stepping from behind the podium.
“Let the record show that there is not a block of cheese sliced forty different ways that can compare to the word of the Father himself. And lest ye be filled by the power of his Holy name, ain’t nothin’ I can feed you that’ll fill you up anyway. Can anybody hear me out there?”
Several shouts of praise sprung free from the lungs of those who got where Pops was going. I found myself clapping along with my sister, keyed in on his words like the lyrics to a song I’d heard before but needed to hear again.
“Anybody out there hungry for the word of God?” Pops asked, responses of praise pouring in like rain.
“Anybody out there been void of nourishment that couldn’t be found on a dinner plate?” He slowly made his way down the set of steps leading from the stage to the foot of the altar.
“Anybody know how it feels to stand in the need of the bread of the Lord? My God!” He shouted, both hands raised as he waved them like the wings of an eagle.
“Come eat.” His voice lowered to a near whisper. “Bring it all to the altar and be fed by the Lord. He will supply all of your needs. Even if you didn’t come in here knowing what you needed from Him, God’s got you.”
My father’s hands remained raised as a third of the congregation flocked to the altar, including the four people who’d almost left when they found out that brunch might be skimpy. Jada stood and brought the choir to their feet, singing a soft selection appropriate for Altar Call as weeping and the speaking of tongues swept the front of the church in the most beautiful kind of way.
I can’t explain how this experience never failed to take my breath away. With my eyes closed, I could feel the presence of the Lord as if he were a physical being standing right beside me. My hands remained raised, numbness trickling down from the tips of my fingers to the points of my elbows rendering me nearly defenseless to the energies circling in this spirit-filled room. I was seconds away from being consumed by it all, left bare and exposed to the elements of the Holy Spirit. Then I remembered I wasn’t alone and slowly dropped my arms. I hadn’t been moved this far and this fast in a long, long time.
And it scared me.
Had me questioning why.
Angela gripped my hand, somehow knowing, even with her eyes closed, that I was into it, and standing in desperate need of something I didn’t know how to ask for. Life was good, great even. But there were voids that needed filling. I’d been raised by a man of God and there was no way I could continue to ignore the calling on my life. Yet there I stood with the stench of a stranger’s perfume still staining my nose hairs, almost completely filled with the Holy Spirit, unable to make available that small space where all the answers lie.
“I gotta go to the restroom.” I leaned to the side and whispered in Angela’s ear. My own thoughts were tugging at me too heavy to stand there and risk breaking down in front of all those people.
“You okay?” She looked up the slope of my arm and asked. “Need me to come wipe your butt?
“I’m good, man!” I smiled, planting a kiss on her cheek and raising a finger to exit the sanctuary.