Part III: Crisis
Months later a lanky dude in a white homburg poised at a rakish angle, his hair slicked down with pomade, leaned over the desk and leered at her. He wore a maroon sharkskin suit with a matching silk ascot, patent leather shoes with two-inch heels, and held a glossy black cane with a head encrusted with fake diamonds. “Me and you gonna get along real good, baby.”
“What makes you think so?” said the director of the Holy Gospel Light Mission.
“Be cool now, baby. Lennie’s the man. You run the mission; Lennie run the street. We can work this out together, you and me, sugar, you get my drift?” He produced a smile replete with a sparkling gem embedded in an incisor.
“Don’t try to bullshit me, Lennie. I’ve been here long enough to know the names of the downtown pimps. You can’t pander here. And all you’re going to receive are directions back down to the street.”
“You got it all wrong, baby, Lennie can take care of all yo’ needs, pearl jam and all. Just give Lennie a little access to the place…say, after 10 PM, and this man will put enough bread in your sweet little hands all yo’ troubles will just disappear. Poof. What do you say, momma?”
She had the look of a wounded animal, angry and focused. “I’m not your momma, Lennie, and as for the term ‘disappear,’ it relates to you vacating the premises. The word on the street is you trashed one of your girls because she wasn’t producing enough bread for you, as you call it. Now unless you—”
“It ain’t that way, sugar,” he interrupted, his arms spread, his cane in one hand as if he were a one-man vaudeville act about to break into song. “Lennie would never harm one of his mares.”
The director stood, her fists white-knuckled on top of the desk, her face red. “Wanda’s upstairs being ministered to as we speak, Lennie. We brought her here last night after ER had sewed stitches into her face. Now get your sorry butt out of here before I bust your balls.
Stepping back a couple of feet, his face turned dour. One hand slipped into his pants pocket and a pearl-handled stiletto emerged. A gleaming blade shot out with a click. Amusing himself by cleaning one of his neatly cuticled fingernails, he thought he might instill a little common sense in this woman. “Lennie’s just trying to help you out, honey,” he said. “Certainly would be a pity for someone to mess up that pretty little face of yours… you know what I mean, babe?” His words punctuated the dull air in a manner he hoped would cut thin slices from her bravado.
“You better leave now, boy,” a bass voice echoed behind him.
“Who you callin’ boy,” Lennie said as he spun to face Angela’s most recent hire, Sammy. In a hamburger-stained apron, he stood in the door, eclipsing all light from the hallway, a meat cleaver in one hand. Angela had never paused to study the immense size of the new mission chef until this moment. She could see edges of his girth on both sides of the street pimp and his ebony arm muscles glistening as he tightened his grip on the cleaver.
Lennie leapt to one side, dropping his stiletto and cane, and whipped his hands upright in a defensive posture. Lennie the man, with his knees bent, offered the following, “I’m cool, man. You cool, too. Lennie don’t want no trouble here. Lennie jes’ leavin’.” His homburg bobbed like a Halloween carnival apple and his eyes conveyed a simple plea for survival.
“Ain’t gonna be no trouble, and you ain’t never comin’ back in this mission again,” the gravel voice said.
“I’m outta here, no problem, man—I’m gone,” the pimp said as he shuffled with care around the huge torso of the chef. Sammy glared at him as if he were about to pounce on a rat.
Angela and Sammy stood in silence listening to the clickety-click of heels descending the stairs as Lennie made a quick exit.
Sheepishly Sammy turned toward Angela as if he were not sure if he’d used the proper words. Looking at her and then back at his feet, he waited. Angela felt a shiver of surprise, never having noticed his robin’s-egg blue eyes before. Realizing he was embarrassed that she was giving him the once-over, she said, “Thank you, Samuel.”
Silence followed. The mission chef stood motionless.
“Was there something else?” she asked.
“Yes’m, we need some cabbages, we’re all out.”
“I’ll give the hope chest a call and send M. J. right over. How much do we need, Samuel?”
“One box’ll do, ma’am.”
“I’ll take care of it right away,” she said as her eyes returned to the budget lying on her desk. The chef remained fixed in place. She looked up at him. “Yes?”
“Well…uh, Miss Angela…uh, nobody ever called me Samuel but my momma,” he said, his head down, his bulk shifting from one foot to the other.
“Well, if you’d rather I didn’t call you that, I won’t do it again,” she said.
“No’m…I mean…it’s special…I appreciate it, I mean.”
“Well, good. From now on you will be called by your given name, Samuel.”
“Yes’m. Thank you.” Now for the first time in the short while he had been at the mission, she witnessed the broadest of smiles on this giant of a man. He nodded and turned, shuffling out of her office.
As the weeks passed, Angela became more familiar with the subtleties of the street people as well as their cultural mores and food preferences. Once she’d purchased lamb because of a good price without consulting with the chef, only to see most of it uneaten and jettisoned after an evening meal. The poor, she learned, would cling with tenacity to their own style, perhaps the one tether left linking them to a sense of self-esteem and dignity. No matter how far they’d been beaten down or how dejected they’d become, sparks of hope seemed to manifest in their tastes and mannerisms.
The most conspicuous exception belonged to the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed. These people would wait and follow the lead of the crowd. And their eyes betrayed a characteristic listlessness that required some direction, and that usually came from the artful types who preyed upon the weak and challenged on the street.
In the refrain of a spiritual during evening chapel, she became aware of an unusual energy in the voices around her. And though these people owned nothing more than the clothes on their backs and items in their pokes, they sang as if their possessions had multiplied with each note she heard. As she rubbed the back of her neck she seemed to connect with the reality of the moment. And promised herself that someday her daughter would be allowed to share this feeling that stirred within her now.
“The board is pleased with your progress over the past year, Ms. Gibson,” Reverend Hutcheson said. “They’ve authorized me to inform you we’re raising your pay to twelve dollars an hour; I hope this will be acceptable to you.”
“That will be fine,” she said, swallowing hard as she remembered just how tight her budget had become. Jessica would be entering the second grade soon and her material needs were increasing.
“Also,” he added, “we’re introducing a health benefits plan for our employees and the premiums will be funded by mission income. That should help some.”
“Is something bothering you, Angela?”
“Well…do you think I’ve been here long enough to take full charge of the mission activities?”
“Why, I thought that was understood,” he said.
“Well, when you gave me the job, you said I should make no personnel changes without your approval… I believe that’s what you said.”
“That’s true, Angela, but you’ve recommended some good hires over the past year and I think you’ve won the confidence of the staff, certainly that of the board. Why, are you anticipating some changes?”
“Not at this moment, sir, I just wished to know if I had the authority to do so.”
“Yes, yes, of course you do,” he responded, his eyes revealing some doubt that he’d received the full story, but he said nothing more.