Night Shift

by Diana Pollin


part 1 of 3

I

“Hosanna! Praise to the Lord in the Highest! Go forth now Sisters and Brothers! Go forth and walk forever with the Lord for He is bountiful, for He comforts the Righteous, for He bestows his blessings on the Courageous and when I say COURAGEOUS I mean those who have SEEN — and when I say SEEN, I don’t mean those who take a peek around and shade their eyes, but I mean those who have the COURAGE to look, those who have the COURAGE to examine, those who have the COURAGE to SCRUTINIZE, those who have the COURAGE to come up from the cellar of darkness where the voices of Satan, the tongues of Beelzebub and Baal wag out their warnings of sham danger, where the enemies of the Lord speak in the smoothest honey tones to those who are only too glad to remain in the comfort zone of SIN, in the land of BLINDNESS, in the kingdom of IGNORANCE!

“Why go out into the wide world and SEE when the land of Nineveh overflows with milk and honey? Why do I ask you? Well, I’ll tell you! Because Beelzebub’s milk is sour and sickening and the honey is oozing out of bees that work the hives of Satan but make no mead for the Children of the Lord!

“Evil wants no Good looking over its shoulder! Evil seeks the thick rich dark fecund soil of Hell before it breaks ground and blossoms like a poison plant in the world above, evil loves the no man’s land of darkness, evil hates the rays of the Sun.

“It is EASY to turn your head away, it is EASY to make up all sorts of excuses — your eyes are playing tricks on you, it’s none of your business, it’s the way the world works — and a thousand other reasons to turn your eyes from what the Good Lord has put forth before you, but be aware that He is testing you because the TRUTH is no easy exercise!

“Remember Daniel in the lions’ den! Well, I want you all, I want us all, to carry that same ironclad invulnerable unassailable shield of courage and faith your whole lives through! I want you all to carry that razor-edged spear of TRUTH, to pierce the armor of self-deceit and cowardice forged in the smith’s shop of Satan, the war plate we all wear when we cannot, when we will not SEE.

“That is the hard metal standing between us and the light of the Lord, because the greatest, the vilest, the fiercest adversity to the Lord’s TRUTH springs not from the henchmen of the Princes of Darkness but from ourselves!

“Do you have eyes and yet fail to see! If the Apostle Mark, who walked with Jesus, said that, then I guess he said it for a reason! I’ll bet you my last dollar, he wasn’t preaching to cowards! Go forth now with the blessing of the Father! Go forth with the light of the Lord, look, watch and see! For it is the Truth that shall set you free! Let us pray. A minute of silence, if you please.”

The Baptist Church of New Abyssinia, on the heights of virtue, descends into prayer. Silence, before the assault on evil. The fluted pillars wait to resound. Bellicose rhapsodies snake through entrails, grip throats, dash against the ordained minute of silence. Another 30 seconds, then the Hosannas will shoot like cannonballs, loose and feral. Behind me Satan! What is the geography of evil? Does it grovel in the most inhospitable caverns of the soul or does it walk like a commoner behind royalty?

Still, the tempter moves quickly, a minute is an eternity and there is no telling what mischief he can do. Send old Scratch down to that fetid cellar to soak in the brine of infamy. God’s Truth is there, in this church, plain for all to see, riding on the mad sunlight ripping asunder the clouds of November, the eerie light of miracles is blazing, the Holy Cross above the mensa is crimson which means...

“Amen.”

“Hush up, the preacher told us...”

“Told me nothing. That’s a sign of God above the altar, don’t you see?”

Ah... men! Two notes lumbering about the bowed heads commence a strange festive mood. All eyes are turned on the preacher’s missus, sitting like an angel at the organ... an angel of Patience! Faith has moved mountains, but never overnight.

She is wearing a choir robe, only her head and hands emerge like black petals on a long white stem. A veiled parishioner adjusts her white lace gloves and whispers to her neighbor, “Mrs. Andrews, that’s her name, I think, is from Trinidad. They’re Christian over there, but a little weird. Look now, she’s smiling at Marion Peters, first pew, in the center.”

The black-suited gentleman and the white gloved matron nod. He is smart but smarmy and she feels ill at ease, but talk is a gift that glows brightly on her sense of usefulness.

“In the center?”

“Yes! You’re a newcomer? What’s your name?”

“Gabriel.”

“Well, bless my soul! Like the Archangel.”

“Yeah.”

Miss Electric Piety drawls out another bar, the missus’ hands fly over the keys like a spider caressing its newly spun web. Reverend Andrews, at the lectern, shifts papers around and says with a boyish smile, “Delia and I will be serving coffee in the study, as usual. Are there any announcements?”

Marion Peters shuts her eyes. The others may howl Hosannas and shake like tuning forks, she clams up and plunges to her knees in molten intensity. Dazzling is the church this Sunday and pristine like the lilies of the field that dwarfed the heavy splendor of Solomon with their bell beauty, unadorned and undaunted at the king’s passing by, while in the same long-stemmed vase, beside the virginal blooms, the matronly hollyhocks decked in mauve and exuding a captious perfume shade the altar.

Reveries of field lilies, the darlings of the winds, dancing in gracile waves on a green carpet... Marion Peters falls to her knees, joins in their delight, but a minute is short and cruel.

That Prayer interrupts her rapture, snares her soul in the trap of its iniquity. She sees a skull-headed mantis swinging a sickle and marching across the white fields. She cries in shame and blames the pure turpitude of her flesh, helpless before evil, even with prayers of love.

God, crafty Magician, can You not turn dung into diamonds? Where do you go when That Prayer speeds you past the flowers, past their roots squiggling in the dark fecund soil, past the worm leaving his segment-children who will eat your flesh as they have read your mind? The first triumph of evil, Marion Maybelle Peters, is not in the deed but in the thought!

He slips in beside her, the finely dressed gentleman, smelling like a spice garden. He is wearing a dark silk suit and the loose smile of a golden watch chain drips out of a vest pocket. A bowler hat sits on his head, which she suspects is bald, and gold rings circle his wide fingers. Now isn’t he the picture of old Scratch called in by That Prayer? He must have heard it and slipped in, unwelcome, yet — alas — expected. A disgrace! Mrs. Andrews, leaving the organ, relieves her of the embarrassment of shaking his hand.

“How are you doing Marion? You okay?” The Reverend’s missus is beautiful, she walks in a perfume of paradise, sweet but not intense, her voice is a soothing melody but there is firmness in her gaze.

“I guess I am okay,” Marion answers, amazed that Delia Andrews came over to her while three hundred souls are snake-dancing before the Lord.

“You remember that hibiscus you gave me? Well, can’t get it to be like yours. You have the touch. And the strips, they’re doing fine. Took the graft well, as some plants will do when the soil is foreign. Let’s leave this hothouse of Sunday screamers, I want to show you something. Follow me.”

They go through a passage behind the altar, down a narrow flight of stairs to the basement, which shelters the large study where a wide and generous window ledge looks out on the street. Marion moves the African violets out of the strong, killing sunlight.

“I should have drawn the shades,” Mrs. Andrews said, doing what she had neglected. “The last thing I want is to destroy them. But I do make sure the four o’clocks are in a shady spot. I feel a special love for those flowers; they go against the grain. Bloom not in the sun but in the coming darkness. Delicate but sturdy. And yet so simple and beautiful, flowers of the field, like the lilies of Solomon.”

“Four o’clocks are what I do best,” Marion stuttered, “they just... well, just grow wherever I place them.”

“He hasn’t knocked them over, has he?” Mrs. Andrews asked, adjusting the tiny pots and throwing her a sidelong glance. Marion’s hand patted down the bang that hid the bang on her forehead. “I am sorry,” the pretty lady added, “it’s just that I can’t stand to see you suffer. Be honest, Marion, you have suffered too much. You can’t leave him?”

Marion choking back the tears, answered, “Maybe I still love him. Maybe... maybe I am just afraid... afraid that he’ll come after me. All he wants is the money, the money to go on with his drinking, his partying, his smoking.

“Sometimes I think it’s the smoking that gets me more than the rest, he does the other stuff at bars, but the house stinks. He defiles everything, every temple, including the Lord’s.” She stroked the leaves of the sad dainty violets. “Mrs. Andrews, you are so lucky, your husband is perfect!”

“The name is Delia. No, Marion, my husband is not perfect!” the lovely lady said correctively. “It is just that there is more tolerance. Perhaps I can bear the pain. When I look at you, I see fear and a will to live, as well as the pain. When will the next hit come? And where? He is out of work again?”

“Yes!”

“And living on what you make as a cleaner?”

“Yes!”

“I have something for you, dear. Come here.” Delia led Marion by the wrist to a dark corner of the ledge. “You know, I come from the Barbados. I am a minister’s wife, but that does not mean I overlook the country gods, the ones who relieve pains, help women in childbirth.

“You know what I’m talking about. We have only one earthly life to live, so why live it in pain? The Good Lord never meant us to bear the burdens of the World, that’s what He hired the saints to do! Some are more gifted for suffering than others.

“Be honest, Marion, you don’t have that gift, you have the gift of ten green thumbs and that’s a great gift, it’s the gift of life! You never expected to hear that from a minister’s wife, but there it is. And so this is my gift to you. A little plant I sneaked in from the Barbados looks like a dragon’s tongue. It’s supposed to bring sufferers good luck, reverse the suffering.”

The plant’s main stem was an ugly speckled maypole sprouting glassy spiked leaves, but it was a gift and thus a part of the giver, and she could not refuse it.

“You got to take care of it. My people call it the spider plant, because its spikes are pointed, like a spider’s prickly legs. Sometimes, a spider will get into them. When that happens, you can wish away your sorrows. I saw a spider there this morning, it’s gone now. One day it will be back! Think about it!

“Promise me you will not throw it away,” Delia whispered, taking Marion’s hands in hers. “Use it instead. The spiders, they carry messages, you know... to certain powers. Are you staying for coffee?”

The first parishioners had straggled in, their voices were hoarse, needing fluid comfort, coffee, but also the Reverend’s good sherry and beer. They would be parading around as those with the light of grace, and Marion despised their salvation which was waiting to fall from their lips as so many miracles told over cups of coffee.

They would see the ugly plant and make an instant connection between it and her soul, and laugh as saints were sure to laugh in that smug way at the damning of the damned, as in paintings she saw of old men with joined hands and tedious looks, springing to Heaven while skull-headed mantises did herdsmen’s work around a pit.

She left with the plant wrapped in a shopping bag. Wasn’t there a tall, stout black clad figure following her? She hastened home in fear.

II

Tuesday arrived in a drizzle, it was five in the morning and she tiptoed from bed. The alarm clock was her enemy; it would wake her sleeping drunken husband, she had learned with the instinct of the farmer to wake with the day breaking timidly in winter, devoid of promise.

She had learned to be meek, and not to expect to inherit the Earth as her religion had told her, but to take pleasure in small pleasures, like watering the plants in the early hours of the morning when, left by herself, she could be verbal and overflowing with her admiration.

The posh opulent petals of the begonias, exuberant and showy, the piquant sensuality of the hibiscus, and its more sophisticated grace, the demure violets, surely the shy virgins of the lot, wearing golden dots and the row of four o’clocks, sublimely simple, honest and friendly, her favorites... They needed her care and her love, the spider plant was apart on a higher shelf, a special, eccentric, and ostracized guest.

She saw from her kitchen that Santos, of Santos Soda Beer Cigarettes Candy News, was cleaning his store window. He was a hateful little man, plying his trade in a dingy little hovel between two dilapidated buildings off Atlantic Avenue. But he kept his store window sparkling clean, rubbing its glass in round caressing strokes, as if it were his third eye.

He had demanded payment that Roman owed him for a pack of Marlboros, and she had quarreled with him over selling Roman cigarettes, but the snide mercantile rat insisted that he could not stop people from coming in. She yelled that he would never see her again, to which he answered in a sneer, “never say never,” sounding like the voice of an oracle, strong despite its softness and able to mask other noises of the street, even the loud rumblings of the subway train in the grating below.

For some unknown reason, the memory of the subway train interrupting their rude conversation brought her thoughts back to the spider plant. She took it down from its shelf, tested its soil and saw a small black visitor exploring its speckled leaves. The plant needed no water; she put it back on its high shelf and wished the small beast a happy day. It was time to go.

A quick glance in the full-length hall mirror. Her face had a pretty upward swing to its features. She was pleased with how she looked that morning; a new mood had come over her, it tempered the forked tongues that would always come after That Prayer, it even covered her torment with the sort of merriness the damned might feel as Hell’s fires licked their cheeks.

The train took her directly to 42nd Street, where she checked in at the office and got her “mission”— the night shift.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Diana Pollin

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