PART IV: In Command at Last
Angela had just returned from a conference in Washington, DC, on ministering to the poor. Frigid January winds swept through the downtown streets and alleys of Antioch, leaving an occasional soul scurrying from an office doorway to a waiting automobile or a frost-windowed café, beckoned by pastries and coffees.
Lumps of humanity in tattered clothes huddled together against brick walls or behind garbage cans, indistinguishable from the squalid rubbish around them. Thin gyres of smoke rose in the breeze from tiny fires along the riverbanks and under railroad trestles and highway overpasses, where confused minds conjured up missions along the Ho Chi Min Trail.
Angela was reviewing the upcoming day’s food needs when the mission chief maintenance engineer opened the squeaky door. “Miss Angela?”
“Good morning, M. J. Please come in and shut the door so we can preserve a little heat in here.”
“Miss Angela, I got a woman out here who wants to talk with you private like.”
“What does she need, M. J.?”
“Don’t know, Ma’am, but she seem mighty agitated.”
“Send her up, M. J.”
A couple of minutes later a small woman in a faded purple knit cap stood hump-shouldered before Angela. Her wide eyes appeared incongruous with the defeated look across her face, perhaps a reflection of her battles with the weather or other unfathomable nightmares. Her hands were hidden in children’s mittens and her tiny frame was covered with a war-surplus-store Navy peacoat buttoned from top to bottom. And her feet were hidden in oversized galoshes. Her glazed eyes locked on to the mission director.
“How may I help you?” Angela said, inviting the woman to sit.
“I had enough.”
Angela waited, but nothing more came from this small shadow of humanity.
“Enough of what, Miss…?”
“Millie. M’ name’s Millie, and I had enough o’ Jeffrey’s must do’s. I got the croup and my ches’ hurt.” She pointed at the front of her coat. “I need to be inside out o’ the cold, but I can’t take no more must do’s from that Jeffrey.”
“Are you speaking of our desk clerk, Jeff?”
“Uh-huh,” she wheezed.
“What do you mean by must do’s, Millie?”
“What us girls gotta do fo’ him to get in the mission after dark.”
“Like what, Millie?” Angela asked leaning forward as if afraid of missing a word.
“You know.” Millie lowered her eyes as she coughed.
“No, Millie, I do not know.”
“He says, you know…he says it’s part of his benefit for managin’ the mission. If we don’t do what he say, we’re out.”
“He’s demanding favors of you to come into the mission at night, Millie? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“You know it’s true.”
“No, Millie. I don’t know anything about this. Explain to me what you’re saying about Jeff,” she said.
“He make us give him b. j.’s up in his room, that’s what. He say we put up o’ we out. Mary done told him to go to hell, she got a death o’ cold now an’ sleepin’ down at the river, but she don’t care no more. She says she ain’t never comin’ back while he’s here.”
“Millie, Jeff’s our day clerk. He’s not even on the desk in the evening. How can he be preventing you from entering the mission after dark?”
“The night men are in on it, too.”
“How so, Millie?”
“Skeeter and Tullie got a list he make up o’ girls who can get in an’ them what can’t. If you willin’, you get in an’ sit in the day center. If your name ain’t cleared by Jeffrey, you ain’t gettin’ in, that’s all, I can’t take no more.”
“Now he says we gotta do Skeeter and Tullie, too. I fed up, ain’t gonna take no more. I done told the girls I gonna ask you if it’s true it’s one of Jeffrey’s benefits for managin’. Them other girls say I crazy an’ after dark I gonna be down on the riverbank with Mary, but I don’t care, I can’t take no more.” Tears rolled down her bony cheek as she continued to wheeze, her hopeless eyes rising toward Angela’s face.
“Millie, are you aware of any other mission staff members who’re in on this?” Angela asked, a look of pain in her face, her hands clinched.
“Does Jeff know you’re up here with me now, Millie?”
“No’m, don’t think so. I been waitin’ in the alley across the street for him to come out for a smoke. Soon as he goes around the corner I run in the door and see M. J. at the desk. He’s real nice to us and says for me to wait in the back hallway ’til he come up an’ see you.”
“Now, listen carefully, Millie, here’s what I want you to do.” The woman sat transfixed, nodding with each request made. M. J. was ushered back into the office and instructed to take Millie out the back to the van and drive her down to the riverside to find Mary. He was then directed to escort the two women to the Women’s Home for the rest of the day. Angela called ahead so the agency would know to expect them.
“Tell me about Jeff, Samuel.”
“He does his job; I do mine.”
“Does he abuse the women at the mission?”
“Don’t know, ma’am. I’m mostly in the kitchen.”
“You mean to say things may happen here at the mission that you don’t know about, Samuel?”
“Yes’m, I reckon so,” he said as he peered at the floor, his feet shuffling.
“Look straight at me, Samuel,” she said, her eyes sulfurous.
His head rose, surprised at her command.
“Do you believe in the work we do in this mission?”
“Why, yes, ma’am,” he said with rising inflection.
“Do you believe we’re here to carry out the work of aiding and comforting the poor and destitute in a spiritual atmosphere, Samuel?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Is Jeff demanding sexual favors of the women here?” she asked as she rose, leaning forward her palms flat on the desk.
Samuel stood like a marble statue, his eyebrows in crescents, his forehead furrowed. Several seconds passed as the two stared at each other. His expression dropped with his chin, his eyes on his shoes.
“Is this happening here?”
“Is this the treatment our clients should expect to receive here?”
“Stay right where you are, Samuel. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” She marched around him and stood at the top of the stairwell and shouted, “M. J.?”
“Yes, Miss Angela?” echoed up across the walls.
“Get right up here… Now!”
“Coming, Miss Angela.”
“You’ve taken the two ladies to the Women’s Home?”
“Tell me about Jeff.” M. J. and Samuel appeared as characters from a Laurel and Hardy film.
“He does his job,” came an uncertain reply as M. J. shifted his meager weight from one leg to the other.
“Don’t bullshit me, M. J.” she said.
“Ma’am?” he said, his mouth agape.
“Is he fooling around with our ladies at the mission?” She’d moved to about six inches from M. J.’s face, her tiny fists on her waist.
His chin dropped as if an anvil had been lowered onto his head. Samuel stood with his arms crossed behind his back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling tiles as if searching for a new leak.
“Yes’m.” M. J.’s voice seemed strained as if he were out of breath.
“Who else is in on it?” she said.
“Um… I’m not really sure.”
“Who else, gentlemen?” she spoke so loud M. J. squeezed his eyes shut as if he anticipated being struck in the face. Silence. Slowly M. J. raised his head and turned toward Samuel. The chef continued inspecting the ceiling as if he were all alone in the room. The scene resembled a kitten playing with two trapped mice.
“She knows?” whispered M. J. to the chef as if the director were not there.
“Well?” The director took a step back and eyed them both.
“Tullie…and Skeeter, too,” M. J. said.
“No’m,” said the two in unison.
“Does Tommy know about this?”
“How could he have missed it?”
“He’s busy with the chapel and checkin’ on folks outside,” M. J. said.
“Are you both aware that this is a holy mission?”
“Yes’m,” said both.
“Does this behavior belong in the environment we’re attempting to create for our clients?”
“No’m,” came replies in concert.
“Good. Gentlemen, be seated. We’ve got a few daunting tasks to undertake before this evening has ended.”
They could see it in her eyes. She’d taken control. And a new day was dawning for the Holy Light Gospel Mission. Nothing would ever be the same.
Fred Miller is a California writer who specializes in penning short stories of eclectic themes, his first selected by Constance Hunting, the New England poet laureate in 2003. Over fifty of his stories have appeared in publications around the world in the past ten years.