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|Street of Angels|
Street of Angels
© Copyright 2009 by Joe V. Derkacht
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All names, locales, and incidents are either fictitious or used fictitiously and are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead, or to actual places and incidents, is purely coincidental.
Scripture quotations are from the KJV or are the author’s paraphrase.
Cover art is by the author, Joe V. Derkacht.
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Street of Angels
Some people don’t think I should have written this book. Maybe I should put that differently. Some people don’t think I have been the one to write it. Who do I think I am, anyway, especially with nothing but a jailhouse education? It’s not like I’ve lived here in Calneh, Alabama, one of the Deep South’s sorrier cities, for all my life, either. What do I know about these people, the way they think, the way they talk? Aren’t I really just a newcomer, when it comes down to it?
All good questions, I guess. My only answer is that I live here nowand that I’m the one who talked to all these people and either knew or know them well and was willing to dig up a fact or two that no one else seemed interested in doing. Most importantly, I guess I’m the one who had the time and inclination to do all those things and then actually sat down to write it all out. Whether or not (not, to be perfectly honest) everybody in this neighborhood likes me, or thinks I am or used to be a pretty big jerk, this is still the only book anybody ever wrote about Flowers Avenue or is ever likely to.
Which brings up the question of why anyone would want to write about a poor neighborhood (the ’hood, to some) in the wrong part of Calneh, and especially about things that happened “way back when,” when things were much worse than they are now. Why not write, as I’ve been asked, about one of Calneh’s Civil War heroes, or about the resurrection of its old Southern mansions, or even something about why the Japanese chose to build an auto parts factory here?
For everyone who asks those kinds of questions, I have a question of my own. If you lived in a neighborhood where angels sometimes walked the streets, wouldn’t you want to write about it, too? Now there’s question for you.
While Flowers Avenue Baptist Church’s Rev. John Hankins (Reverend Johnny, to his parishioners) wasn’t much of a preacher, unless you think reading from a typewritten script is the same as preaching, he did have a certain flair for church growth. If he had learned anything from his seminary days, it was that if you involved the kids, sooner or later you’d also have their parents. That explained his first act as pastor, that summer of 1955, erecting two basketball hoops and painting court boundary lines in the church parking lot.
The boys from the north side of the street soon regularly flocked to Flowers Baptist for Sunday afternoon basketball. Afterwards, they sat around eating snacks provided by the church, and Rev. Johnny, daring to appear without notes, even, would give them the gospel.
What happened next wasn’t quite as Johnny had planned. After a month or so of seeing the sweaty young men playing their games in the church parking lot, some of the girls in the neighborhood began to show interest. Did the guys want to play ball with them? Nowadays, nobody would probably think twice about such a proposition. They’d simply wave the girls in, and they’d be playing head-to-head against the guys and probably winning--at least some of the time. Trouble was, back then in the 1950s, in the South, the whole idea was more than a bit scandalous. But Rev. Johnny knew something good when he saw it. The guys were hearing the gospel and becoming involved, so now maybe he could involve the young girls and after that everyone’s parents, and soon he would have himself a thriving congregation.
Basketball, though, especially against the boys, was not the right vehicle. It would have been too unladylike. It was his wife (willowy but deceptively athletic, always a mean spiker at church camp volleyball games) who came up with the idea of switching from basketball to volleyball.
Volleyball? To his mind, it just did not have the same appeal. There wasn’t the masculine quality, the drive through the key, weaving in and out of defenders to go on the attack. Besides, he hoped to point someday to one of the boys playing college basketball and be able to say he’d a hand in shaping the young man’s life. Who could tell? Maybe a few of the boys would go on to play professional ball. That was, of course, in addition to the boys he hoped would go to Oklahoma Baptist, where he had gone to college to prepare for the ministry.
After considerable nudging from his wife, whose sharp elbows could be awfully persuasive, he broached the subject of volleyball the next Sunday afternoon with the boys.
Volleyball? This was long before the era of surf, sand, and sun, where golden tans predominate and the possibility of all that media exposure, meaning it did not have the same cachet as it would today. In fact, it did not go over all that well with the guys, and he had not so much as even mentioned the girls. Just at the moment they were about to take a vote, one surely doomed to failure, Reverend Mrs. Johnny pulled up in their two-tone, green-on-beige, Chevy Bel Air, the same ’53 coupe in which he had screwed up enough courage to propose marriage one night shortly after graduation from Oklahoma Baptist.
“Ummh, men,” he said, prudently waxing fervent. “I know it would be a bit of a self-sacrifice, but there is something else we need to consider here. As good Christians, and that’s what we’re learning about here, you sometimes are faced with decisions that may not seem the most pleasant. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the common good, I mean. That’s something we learned in our little talk last week, wasn’t it?”
Actually, his talk the week before had been about how to be saved, which was what he always talked about, whether Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, or Sunday afternoons with the boys. But he was pretty sure he had thrown in something appropriately related from the lesson on Moses and The Burning Bush, where Moses had to remove his sandals, for it was holy ground. Anyway, he figured they understood his point.
By now, the boys were looking downright popeyed. Few of them had been to church much before, except maybe to Vacation Bible School during summers a few times when they were younger, but here he was, stringing together words like self and sacrifice. What did he mean by it? Was he to start charging them for the snacks the church provided? If so, only one or two of them could pay. The rest could barely support their popcorn habit or their worse addiction to Junior Mints when they went to the Paramount Theater. Even then some only made it to the latest movie because Billy Ray was an usher and would sneak them in through the back door for free--a grand old tradition practiced far outside the bounds of the South. Or were self and sacrifice prelude to something far worse? Did he mean to jump them about their bumming the occasional cigarette from friends, or for smoking butts discarded by their parents?
“What I mean boys--men,” he corrected himself, “is that with volleyball, we could include a lot more people. We are trying to reach people for the Lord, aren’t we?”
Brenda’s flats clack-clacked on the pavement as she drew closer, and her hip-length blonde braids flew. The boys were silent. He seemed to have lost them. Were they wondering if the old folks from the church wanted to join in, walking canes and all? Or did they worry maybe it was Brenda, and they were thinking about contending with those sharp elbows of hers when she was driving the key?
“Who do you mean, Rev?” Ronnie Tatum asked, self-consciously raising his hand. “D’ya mean the--the Negroes? Are we supposed to be reachin’ out to them?”
“No, no, I didn’t mean the Negroes,” he answered hastily. “I doubt they would want to play ball with us anyhow. What I meant was there are quite a few girls--gals of your own age--in the neighborhood, who would like to join us on Sundays. Do you think you’re up for it guys, playing volleyball instead, or is that asking too much?”
There. He’d finally said it. Brenda stood beaming at his side, one of her braids having worked itself free in all its blonde, madcap effulgence. She was his angel. She stood two inches taller than he, even in her flats, but she was his angel.
“Girls, huh,” one of the boys muttered. “I dunno,” another said. “Does that mean we’d have to play sissy rules? I mean, they’re always afraid of hurting somebody’s feelings an’ all, you know.”
Brenda hooked one arm inside of Johnny’s, and turned on her highest wattage smile. “Fellas, it’ll be fun, and y’all know it! Besides, it won’t hurt you none to meet a few of the girls in the neighborhood.”
They stared at her, suddenly still and oddly silent. Didn’t she know three-quarters of them were their sisters or cousins, for gosh sakes? What was she trying to say?
“Look, men,” Rev. Johnny said, lowering his voice in a conciliatory tone, “we can give it a couple weeks. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll go back to basketball.”
He tried not to wince, as Brenda pinched his arm.
“I dunno. Why can’t we just go back to basketball right now?”
“Just two weeks, fellas,” he pleaded, bracing himself for a second, harder pinch. “I promise.”
“Oh hell--heck, I mean, Rev. Sorry, ma’am,” Ronnie Tatum said. “The girls’ll be fun. We won’t have any problems with ’em.”
“I could just hug you, Ronnie Tatum!” Brenda gushed.
“Oh, no need, Mrs. Rev,” Ronnie said, warily eyeing her sharp elbows and bouncing the basketball on the blacktop. “No need.”
After a few weeks the guys figured they liked playing volleyball with the girls. Naturally the girls were annoyed with the boys for insisting they replay a point whenever someone missed her serve or failed to return for volley. The church did grow as a result, but it was not always in the way Brenda or Johnny wanted. Two of the girls were pregnant within the year, and Ronnie Tatum married one of them (not his cousin). Come to think of it, though, it was never clear whether Ronnie was the responsible party in the first place, and he and the girl eventually became serious about church and even went on to Oklahoma Baptist, where Rev. Johnny had received his Bible training and played a little basketball.
Next door to Flowers Avenue Baptist Church where Reverend Johnny, the white minister, read out his sermons from the pulpit each Sunday and Wednesday, daring to peek up from his script only when turning a page, there was the McIlhenny place. Set way back from the street on an outsized, overgrown lot, the house was one of those where the porch went all the way around, so as the family could set out its rocking chairs on summer days to take in the sights (those “sights” being mostly slow-moving traffic composed of a few raggedy old pickups chased by barking dogs, or kids playing softball with a half-busted bat that’s gonna kill somebody if they don’t wrap another roll of black electrical tape around it).
Sharing space with a few trees, a shacky standalone garage, and weeds barely penned in by a battle-scarred picket fence, no one would claim that the McIlhenny place raised the neighborhood’s property values. The house’s only saving grace was that its white paint was not peeling--so far. Ol’ Leonard McIlhenny (no relation to the Louisiana McIlhennys of Tabasco renown) had painted the house just a few weeks before his passing. (Well, he called it painting; most folks would have said he rubbed it into the wood, the preferred method to someone of his penny-pinching ways.) As anyone could have told Leonard, if he’d been inclined to listen, he should have raised the house and put in cinderblocks or poured concrete for a new foundation, instead of worrying about paint. As things now stood, the rot would one day reach right up from the ground and claim the house just like it had a number of other places in the neighborhood, if the bugs didn’t do the job first.
Of course, being dead, Leonard left all such worries to his widow, Stella Jo, and to her son Michael, the poor cripple everyone knew only as “Angel.”
Stella McIlhenny was busy cleaning house, with dust rising around her and the Hoover like rain clouds coming up off the Gulf. Saturdays were for cleaning, since Sundays were the Lord’s Day, which everyone knew was for rest, (and she would have rested plenty on Sundays, if not for opening the church early to air it out and to stoke the ancient boilers, and then playing piano for the choir and sitting through the services) followed by the usual chicken dinners with her son and the occasional guest.
Her cleaning was not what it had once been, and now that she saw she had been slacking greatly in her duties, it was time to whip herself into shape. She couldn’t understand why no one had said anything. Wasn’t one of the ladies of the church always dropping by for some reason or another? Couldn’t they have said something, laid out a few broad hints, maybe? It was as if scales had fallen from her eyes, and for the first time she was seeing the garbage she’d let pile up since Leonard’s passing. There must be three years of newspapers scattered throughout the house! In the kitchen, she had to fight her way past grocery sacks filled with the refuse of countless dinners, lunches, breakfasts. She was lucky she didn’t have rats!