PART II: THE NIGHT CREW
Skeeter, a bony man in his late twenties, sported an Afro poking from the sides of his faded cap, bill reversed, a tee with a running shoe logo across the front, and pants with frayed cuffs a good six inches above his shiny ankles. Low-cut tennis shoes, mottled and partially laced, covered his oversized feet.
Abandoned at age three by a woman he referred to as his “ho momma,” Skeeter had been trundled through the foster home of a psychotic sadist who’d locked him in a closet for days at a time. He’d been whipped by another for sport. He’d lived with physical abuse, pederasty, alcoholism, and drug abuse, and each time he ran away, the social services lady would counsel him into another foster home. So skewed had his image of propriety become, he finally split from the system at fourteen to run numbers and solicit for prostitutes in slum neighborhoods around town. Thus, untouched by any remnant of the nurturing process, Skeeter had graduated into the hardscrabble street life of Antioch, South Carolina, and had become what street people call a survivor.
Unfazed by human emotion or nuances of character, he was deemed a qualified administrator of order at the mission. With verve, he policed the mission to the letter of the rules laid down to him. Others learned not to test him on variations of order nor to tease him in any form or fashion. Skeeter simply did not understand this type of game. “Don’t f*** with him” constituted the consensus of the knowledgeable street crowd concerning this wiry character.
Tullie Brown was a thick-shouldered man, slick pated with small beady eyes, pursed lips, and muscular arms that had served him well as a former loan shark enforcer. Like Skeeter, he’d been dropkicked through a host of bizarre foster homes including one where food had been withheld for extended periods. Sometimes this was done as punishment, other times, on a whim. Tullie was one of those rare commodities on the street who’d become overqualified in his chosen career field. He had trouble distinguishing between friendly persuasion and extreme unction, his mind envenomed to a fault.
His former employer explained it this way: Tullie would approach a truant debtor with a firm handshake and a broad smile. And while he joked and reminded the client that he was in arrears, the client, thinking he might have escaped a brutal reminder, likely as not would fail to notice blood dripping on his shoes. The trouble, of course, was that it was his blood. Tullie’s colleagues agreed to a man, that he would have made a splendid politician; he just didn’t understand the rudiments of sound business practice.
As a character called “Twelve-Fifty” described him, “Tullie is socially challenged to the felonious level, impervious to subtle decorum, and insensitive to pain in others, real or otherwise. The man lives in a different world.” Tullie had been banned from the mission often but could slip back in with relative ease, The Reverend’s edicts appeared to be fluid at best. Tullie, whose corrosive foibles included acts of violence, led many to conclude that Reverend Hutcheson possessed the forgiving character of an Abe Lincoln.
Skeeter had recruited Tullie to be his second-in-command as muscle was sometimes needed to calm those who failed to understand the import of the mission’s evening rules of conduct. Also, Skeeter felt that Tullie might represent a personal liability insurance policy of sorts should Big Willie, a local drug lord Skeeter had crossed, ever decide to complete the contract he’d put out on him.
These two greeted incoming guests at the door for the evening meal with Skeeter logging in the guests on a clipboard as Tullie gave each the once over. Everyone knew they could expect a meal, a night’s rest, and a chapel service for those who wished to participate, but no crap would be tolerated from anyone who wanted to survive the night here.
Toward the far end of one of the long dining tables, Angela watched as the room filled with strange, sometimes eerie, versions of humanity, all rife with an aroma produced under a South Carolina sun. Some wore combs across the back of their heads, some with cornrows, some with dreadlocks. Clothing covered a spectrum of faded tints, complete with rips and tears in various places. Most carried their worldly belongings in a paper grocery bags under one arm or plastic sacks tied to loops in waistband strings.
One by one they signed in, filed through one door into the kitchen and emerged from another with a plate of beans, a slice of bread, and a cup of water. After initial stares at Angela as if she were a new exhibit at the local zoo, the hundred and twenty or so guests sat with their dinners as the noise rose to a roar.
Lost in a sea of blank faces, Angela sat mesmerized by the street lingo and the array of gestures in her midst. And I thought I knew something about these people.
A tide of fear flooded her stomach as she realized she’d been called to minister to people filled with dilapidated dreams and blurred visions of reality. Now, hopelessness crept in over her aborning confidence, plunging her into a bottomless pit of despair.