Content warning: suicide, homophobia, slurs/derogatory terms
Reverend Langston Penniman sat on the edge of his bed, stretching his black fingers. Everything – except his stomach – had either twisted up on him or shrunk. Once six-foot-five, he now plunged to six-two, still tall, but not the imposing dignitary he had once been standing behind the lectern in front of his congregation.
His parishioners had aged, too. So hard nowadays to attract the young, he thought, standing from the bed he shared with his wife of fifty-two years. His knees cracked. He’d gotten his cholesterol under control, but at seventy-five, his health headed south as his age pushed north.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Reverend Penniman had a hard time staying relevant, what with tattoos, body piercing and rap music, not to mention homosexuals getting married and reefer being legalized. For a man his age, changing was like pulling a mule uphill through molasses.
The smell of bacon and eggs drifted down the hall. He heard the coffeemaker gurgle. How he loved his mornings with the Montgomery Daily News – not Internet news – something he could hold in his hands and smell the ink off. He even enjoyed licking his fingers to separate the pages.
Off in the direction of the Alabama River, he thought he heard a siren, not far from his church.
“Breakfast ready,” Flo shouted from the kitchen.
Flo was the sweetest gift the Lord ever bestowed upon a man. Oh, he was fortunate, he thought, passing her picture on the dresser bureau and the photo of their three boys and two girls. Proud of his church, he was even prouder of their five children. Three graduated from college, all of them respectable citizens.
“It’s gonna get cold if you don’t come and get it.”
“I’m a comin. Just let me wash up.”
The siren sounded closer.
The Alabama spring day was warmer than usual. At nine in the morning, it was headed off the charts, as the kids said nowadays.
Reverend Penniman washed and dressed. At the bureau, he brushed back the sides of his white hair, his bald crown parted like the Red Sea. When his kids teased him about looking like Uncle Ben, he grew whiskers just as white. His boys joked he looked like Uncle Ben with a beard. He chuckled. He would have preferred Morgan Freeman.
“I’ll feed it to the garbage disposal if you don’t come and get it.”
“I’m a comin now, sweet thing.”
He heard the siren turn the corner at Bankhead and Parks.
Reverend Penniman looked at the cell phone lying on his dresser. He’d yet to master how to get his thick fingers to press one picture at a time, or type on that itty-bitty keyboard. He couldn’t even hold it in the crook of his neck.
He hurried down the hall. The floorboards of the fifty-year-old house creaked just like him. Not quite shotgun, his house did have a similar layout what with add-ons for the three boys.
The siren was upon them.
“Lord have mercy,” Flo said as she put the food on the table. “That sure sounds angry.”
“Sure does. Let me take a look,” the reverend said from the kitchen entrance.
He went to the living-room window and saw a police car pull into his driveway, the siren cut-off. Two uniformed police officers, one black, the other white, got out of the cruiser and headed up his footpath.
He opened the door.
“Are you Reverend Penniman?”
“I am. What’s the problem?”
“There’s a girl up on the bell tower of your church. Says she’s gonna jump,” the black officer said.
“Good Lord!” Flo cried, standing behind her husband.
“Let me get my keys,” the reverend said.
“No time, sir. Come with us. You’ll get there faster.”
Flo took off and came back with the reverend’s cell phone. “Here baby. I’m gonna meet you there soon as I shut down the kitchen. You should at least have your toast. I can put it in a baggie for you.”
“No time,” he said as he hurried out the door with the officers.
Reverend Penniman sat in the back of the car with a screen separating him from the policemen. “Who is she?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” the young white officer answered.
“What’s she look like?”
“Black teen, skinny, baggy pants, chain hanging from the pocket, hoodie pulled over a ball cap.”
“You know her?”
“Like one of my own.” The reverend looked out the window as the car pulled away. He clasped his hands together and said a quick prayer for the troubled girl. Lord, help me help her, he repeated to himself. “Did she ask for me?”
“How’d you find me?”
“Your name is on the marquee of your church.”
“I’m Officer Johnson,” the older man said. “This is Officer Perry.”
Officer Perry reached forward and turned on the siren. The noise deafened everything, including the pounding of Reverend Penniman’s heart.
They drove toward downtown Montgomery along the banks of the Alabama. The RSA tower soared above the city’s skyline.
The speed limit was forty. The reverend guessed they were doing twice that. His right knee pumped like the needle on Flo’s sewing machine.
The siren screamed. The lights blinked and rotated, flashing red and blue on the hood of the car. Reverend Penniman felt like he was up on that bell tower, on the edge, with his arms stretched out, his body holding back the weight of all his parishioners who had wept in his arms.
At the corner of Graves and Buckley, the cruiser slowed as the siren cut-off. Officer Johnson made a right turn. People rushed along the sidewalk, their cell phones pressed against their ears.
Halfway down the block, Reverend Penniman saw more people standing outside his church than he ever had inside. A fire truck parked in the lot with men unloading a ladder.
The police car jumped the curb and drove to the side of the brick building. He saw Akeesha’s great-grandmother Greaty in her burgundy wig, mussed like a tornado whirled through it. She cupped her black hands on the sides of her mouth, screaming and crying at the roof. Her pink housecoat hung open, revealing her cotton nightie.
Before the car came to a stop, the minister jumped out.
Greaty saw Reverend Penniman and ran to him. “You get my baby off the roof, you hear, Reverend? She done gone and have a meltdown.”
“We’ll get her down. Just craving attention like all teenagers.”
“She cravin’ nothin’ but death. She gonna jump. She all I have!”
The reverend ran to the front of the church. Greaty followed. He gasped, “Good Lord.”
Akeesha teetered on the edge of the bell’s shelter. Her baggy pants flapped in the breeze.
Two firefighters carried a ladder to the roof. They propped it against the gutters.
“Get away,” Akeesha screamed. “I’ll jump, you try to get me.” Her voice carried over the mob.
“I know the child. I can get her down,” the reverend said.
“Don’t think so, Reverend.”
The minister turned to see Officer Johnson standing beside him. “Then why’d you get me?”
“It’s your church. I thought you’d be younger.”
“I’m young enough and I’ll get her down.” He gazed up at the girl. “Akeesha!” he shouted using his pulpit voice. “I’m coming to you, child.” He sprinted around the side of the church, to the back, amazed at how his body complied with his will. Officer Johnson’s leather holster crunched with each matching stride.
Akeesha had broken the frame of the door and busted in.
“If I have to cuff you Reverend, I will,” Officer Johnson said.
“You really want to save this child?” Reverend Penniman asked. “I’ve known her since she was four. I’m the only father she’s ever known. Now you let me do my business.” He pushed open the door when he heard car wheels on gravel.
“Langston,” Flo yelled out the window. “Where do you think you’re going?” She slammed the driver’s door.
“Good Lord, woman, I don’t need you pestering me too.”
Flo ran up to her husband. “Officer, you arrest this man if he so much–”
“You gotta save her . . . she my baby – she all I have!” Greaty screamed, coming around the corner.
“Calm down,” Reverend Penniman said.
Greaty wiped her face with the sleeve of her house coat. “She never been so upset. She so angry. Them girls who beat her up. Them punks who tried to rape her.”
The reverend looked at Officer Johnson. “Get all those people away from the front of my church. And tell those firemen to take down the ladder.
“I’m the one in charge here, Reverend.”
“How about we get Captain Martinez?” Officer Perry asked. “They can secure the reverend with a rope and harness.” Before his superior had a chance to argue, young Perry ran off.
“Thank you,” Reverend Penniman shouted.
“She a good girl except for her sin,” Greaty sobbed.
Flo put her arm around Akeesha’s great-grandmother.
“Flo, take her to the car,” Reverend Penniman said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Keep him safe, Officer. Don’t let him do anything foolish,” Flo said as she led Greaty away.
Reverend Penniman heard the whirling blades of a helicopter. “Good Lord. A child’s life is at stake and this is turning into a circus,” he said, entering the back of his church.
“How’d she get up to the bell tower?” Officer Johnson asked.
“There’s a room with pulleys. A stairway curls around, leading up to the bells.” Reverend Penniman could kick himself for letting Jake show Akeesha the inside of the tower.
Officer Johnson shot up the stairs.
“Wait! You can’t go that way. You’d come out behind her. I swear, man. You let me handle this my way or that girl is going to die.”
Officer Johnson turned on the landing.
The reverend had him in an eye-lock. “Please,” he said, not used to the sound of the word or the helpless feeling that it carried.
“Why is she up there?” the policeman asked.
“She’s a homosexual.”
“My brother’s gay,” Officer Johnson said.
The minister watched how the cop’s eyes captured a memory, something powerful enough to soften his features.
Reverend Penniman climbed the fourteen steps to the landing. He’d always been proud of his bell tower, but right now he wished his ancestors had never built it.
Officer Perry returned with Captain Martinez and a boyish-looking black man. Both men held gear as they climbed the steps in three strides.
“Well Johnson, your call,” the captain said.
“We’ll feed Reverend Penniman below her, on the roof.”
“Thank you,” the reverend said.
The reverend led the men around a corner to a loft with stairs to the church roof.
“Got your Nikes on, I see,” Martinez said. “Good.”
“Now put that contraption on me and let me out there.”
The firefighters held the harness for the reverend to step into. They hooked the cloth rope to the straps, gave it a tug jolting the reverend backward, then tossed the rope to another man who waited below. “Side-step going down the incline. It’s not steep, but we got you no matter what.”
“Get rid of the ladder and the looky-loos. And stay well below. I don’t want her knowing you’re around.”
“We’ll be down on the first landing,” Captain Martinez said.
“I’ve had enough talk, gentlemen.” Reverend Penniman took the steps to the roof, praying as he went for Akeesha, for Greaty, but most of all for himself. That he’d say the right thing, be sincere, because Akeesha had the gift of honesty. He prayed, asking the Holy Spirit to fill him with wisdom.
The door to the roof was ajar. He gently touched it. He felt the rope tug the harness. The door swung open.
The roof slanted and leveled out several feet down. The area around the tower was flat.
He smelled the fumes from the asphalt as he stepped sideways onto the shingles, planted himself and managed the incline. He took his time placing his right foot, then his left, and held for a moment. He did it again until the roof flattened out.
Applause and shouts broke out. “Get back!” Officer Johnson shouted. “Everyone!”
The reverend glanced at the Alabama River, the spectacular Montgomery skyline like a masterpiece God painted. Then he looked below. He saw the van of a local TV station, the helicopter off in the distance, the crowd herded across the street by young Perry, and so many cell phones held up to the bell tower it looked like Beyoncé held court.
He heard sniffles, then crying.
“Akeesha. I’m here to talk, child.”
“Won’t do no good.”
“Well, I didn’t climb all the way up here thinking it wouldn’t do no good. You and I have a way together, now don’t we?”
“Prayin’ don’t work. I’m still gay.”
“No reason taking your life.” He thought back to the convention when one minister had said that let the gays kill themselves, we need to protect our children. Only problem with that was all the molesting he knew came from men with little girls. He left those conferences feeling tired and old, the same men year after year with their stale jokes and self-righteous rhetoric. He felt trapped by the old ways and frightened by the new.
“Everyone knows. It’s on Facebook.” Akeesha whimpered. “My girlfriend broke with me.”
Reverend Penniman made his way around the side of the bell tower, feeling the tug of the harness. He looked up at the teenager.
Her hoodie covered all but the bill of her ball cap. She wiped her tears with the black leather band she wore on her wrist. “I wanna die.” She inched forward to the lip of the shelter. Her hand left the arch.
“No!” Reverend Penniman yelled, his arms stretched out as if he could catch her.
The crowd oohed.
He moved slowly around the tower until his back was to the mob. “Sit on the ledge, baby.”
“I’m goin to hell when I die. Bible says so.” Her voice quivered. “Greaty found out. Said I’d bring shame on her house – more than my mama in jail. Said a woman’s body parts were made for a man to make babies.”
Her voice trailed off.
“Greaty loves you, child. She’s running around, screaming and bossing, telling us to get her baby off the tower. You hear me, child?” He watched, horrified, as she balanced herself on the rim of the tower. A slip and she would die.
“They callin me a freak.”
“Sit down now. We need to talk.”
“Jump faggot!” someone hollered across the street.
Reverend Penniman looked back at the crowd. Officer Johnson grabbed the man. Perry hauled him away.
“They all stupid.” Akeesha sobbed.
“We can work this out.”
“Don’t dish with me, Reverend. Talkin’s no good,” she shouted.
He lifted his head up to see her lip quivering. “Can be,” he said.
“I’m goin to hell. Might as well get it over with.”
“Now, don’t talk like that.” He thought of all those times they had knelt together, holding hands, their eyes shut tight. The way Akeesha had repeated his words to rid herself of the sin of homosexuality. When they’d been through, her face had been wet with tears. He would never forget how she had wiped her fingers several times across her jeans, like she’d been holding hands with a leper. He had known then she was yet to be cured.
He had talked to his daughter about it. Rose had told him the gay people she knew had said they’d been born that way. She’d told him his generation treated the Bible like a deli, picking and choosing what to live by, who to hate and the nonsense of fearing God. His conversations with his middle child had made him reflect. That’s all it had done. He loved his children equally, but Rose had the gift of benevolence.
“You jump, I’ll try to catch you. Then I’ll die trying to save you. You know that’d make Flo mighty mad, child.” He took a careful step back to get a look at her face. She gazed out at the Montgomery horizon. Her calm scared him.
He remembered the first time Greaty had brought Akeesha to church. She’d been four, always carrying her dump truck and running it along the pews. During the sermon, she’d nestle into Greaty’s bosom, thumb in her mouth. Her short hair had been braided. When she got older, she’d sung in the choir. For extra money, she’d gardened around the church. He’d take her to McDonald’s afterward. They’d talked. She was a good girl – even if she did look like a gang banger – thoughtful and quiet, never swore, didn’t do drugs. But she’d suffered at school. It had shown in her grades, and she’d finally dropped out. He was the only man in her short life, and she clung to him like a daddy. Her great-grandmother looked after her like a one-eyed cat watching two rat holes. She ain’t goin to end up in jail like her mama, or dead like her granny. She gonna be respectful, yes, indeed, she gonna be a fine woman when she grow up.
“Akeesha,” he said with a stern voice. “You want to give Greaty a heart attack? I told you how worked up she is.”
“She always worked up.”
“She loves you.”
“Quit lyin!” She spread her arms out.
“I’m not lying. You’ve seen her below. Running around. Now you hold onto that post.” The noon light threw no shadows. The wind rippled his shirt. He felt the sun beating down on his bald spot. “God loves you.”
“Then how come we pray to change me?”
“Cause you wanted to be like other girls. Remember? I’m not a psychiatrist. Praying is all I know.”
Reverend Penniman took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow. In the 1980s, he’d buried a young man who’d died of AIDS. He’d never forget how his boyfriend had thrown himself on top of the casket, crying and shouting the dead boy’s name. The reverend had never thought homosexuals had had feelings until he’d witnessed that young man’s grief.
“We prayed to make your life easier. So you’d be happy.”
“Didn’t work. My life be easier if people left me alone.”
“You’re probably right, child.” The reverend wiped his mouth with the handkerchief and put it in his pocket. Even if his heart struggled with what he was going to say, perhaps he could save her. “Maybe God made you perfect the way you are,” he said, thinking of Rose.
“You lyin so I don’t kill myself.”
“No, child. I’m saying it cause God has a reason for you being here.” He heard sniffles. Then he saw her skinny hand swipe across her face. “Oh baby, come down and let’s have a good cry together.”
He watched for any movement from her feet.
“Quite a view up here,” he said, trying to sound casual. “We live in a beautiful city. Don’t you think?”
“I wanna go to California.”
“Now, why would you want to do that? What about Greaty?”
“What about her?”
“Girl, I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you. I haven’t eaten today. At my age, I’m on a schedule, and I get awfully tired if I’m hungry. We can talk better down here. Sit behind the tower. Alone. I want to talk to you like a grown-up.”
“I am grown up.” She shifted and pulled the hoodie off her head so it fell around her neck. “Jalissa broke with me. Who gonna love me?”
“Child, there’s a whole lot of people in the world. There’s got to be one just for you.”
“You not being honest.” She tugged the hoodie back up. “You wanna boy to love me. I don’t wanna boy.”
“Darlin baby, I admit I don’t know much about such things. All I know is that I love you, and that love is greater than any judgment I cast upon you.” He hesitated, and thought about the words that flowed out of him so effortlessly. It sounded like something coming from Rose’s lips, not his.
He looked up. “Akeesha!” Where’d she go? He held onto the tower. He circled it fearing she jumped from the other side. “Akeesha!” he cried. He didn’t dare to take that part of the roof. The slant angled too steep.
He felt weak, a little dizzy, but his adrenalin rushed. He went back the way he’d come, the harness tugging. Sweat poured into his eyes.
The door to the roof creaked open.
“What you wearing, Reverend?” Akeesha stood in the archway.
“Lord have mercy, child!” His heart felt like a bowl of confetti. She had climbed inside the tower and taken the stairs to the roof. “You could have answered me when I called. You done scared the daylights out of me, child.”
“What you mean, your love greater than your judgment?” Akeesha asked.
“Oh, oh, my darlin baby – we should enjoy this magnificent view of our city and thank the good Lord for the beautiful child that you are.”
“I’m not beautiful.”
“In God’s eyes and mine you are.”
“I swear on my sweet Flo’s life.”
“Then why we waste all that time prayin when I’m already okay?”
He caught a glint of the stud that she wore in the center of her tongue.
“You not as smart as you think, Reverend.”
Reverend Penniman let out a hearty laugh. “Well, I’ll tell you a secret, Akeesha, I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I have to make it seem like I do or no one would come to my church.”
“They won’t come anyway, lyin and all.”
He thought about what Rose had said, how the young have turned away from religion. “You know my daughter, Rose? She’d agree with you. You know she’s studied in India. Traveled the world. Says God is always expanding – not sure what that means.” He walked slowly toward the girl. “You know something, Akeesha?”
“You taught me something.” His voice fractured. “You taught me, child. And I’m truly grateful.”
“Taught you what?”
“Can we sit here, for a minute? I’m really tired.” He slid down the wall. The harness grabbed at his thighs as he sat.
Akeesha walked like she’d been on the roof a hundred times. Maybe she had, he thought. She sat next to him.
“You taught me to accept you.” He slowly pulled the hoodie down so he could see her face. “I’ve always thought of you as one of my own. Flo, too.”
Akeesha took his gnarled old hand. She spread each of his fingers to include hers. He felt love in her fingertips.
The confetti in his heart flung out over his beloved Montgomery. It showered like a vital rain. “I think there’s only love in God’s house,” the reverend mused. “So much of life is good.”
“Can we go to KFC?”
Reverend Penniman smiled. “Not McDonald’s? We always go to McDonald’s.”
“Sure enough. My treat,” he said. “I could take you to a fancy place where we sit at a table with a white cloth and linen napkins. We can order ribs. They have finger bowls with water so our hands don’t get all sticky. Eat as much as we want.”
“No. KFC,” she said, standing and holding her hand out for the reverend to grasp.