REMEMBERING DON BELTON
Don Belton is the author of the novel, Almost Midnight (Morrow: 1986). He is the editor of the anthology, Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream (Beacon: 1996). His short stories have appeared in the African American Literature Forum, Indiana Review, and Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Short Fiction (Penguin/Viking). He has written for Newsweek, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Advocate, Utne Reader, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has lectured in the Ivory Coast (sponsored by ARTS America/United States Information Agency), at the Sorbonne, and the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has taught literature and fiction writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Bennington College, the University of Pennsylvania, and at Indiana Unversity. His awards include a Lila Wallace International Travel and Research Grant, a Bellagio/Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a MacDowell Artists Colony Fellowship, and a Dance Advance/Pew Charitable Trust Grant for Dramaturgy.
Don’s death in 2009 was a great loss to his friends, family, and students, and also to literature. To honor his memory, we want to share with you his story, “The Pentecostal Bridegroom,” first published in Indiana Review 12.1.
THE PENTECOSTAL BRIDEGROOM
for Reverend Margaret Bennett and Evangelist Alberta Evans
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower,” she preached to the congregation of the Temple of the Pentecostal Bridegroom where she was founder and pastor. Her name was known in Newark’s black district as the name of a fire-cleansed woman of God, a living remnant of the power, authority and anointing of the name of Jesus Christ. To her followers, the name of Odessa Deal was a fierce bulwark in the time of trouble.
She stood in the pulpit where each Sunday morning she presented herself: a talking sacrifice to the Spirit. She preached, beating the lectern in time to her straining cries. She doubled over, preaching, her face cracked with whoops and shouts. The men and women packed the narrow church, wrenching themselves free of their coats. They urged the preacher on with jubilant bursts and aped her motions as if they were the spectators at a championship boxing match.
When Odessa was done dipping her shoulders with the invisible opponent, when the sweat-soaked strands of her hair clung to her brow and neck, and the Spirit was done riding her, she stepped down, her eyes blazing. It was then she did miracles.
She touched twisted legs, speaking to the condition: “Heal.” She touched blind eyes and said, “Blind eyes, heal, in the name of Jesus,” and the eyes obeyed. Twisted legs were put in order. Insanity and sorrow were vanquished. She bound all the power of death, fear and illness.
She was everywhere in the church at once—now here, moving in the confusion of her hoarse scream, now there, her every step an earthwork.
“In the name of Jesus. In the name of Jesus. In the name—”
That was the name, she preached, now in the thick of the electrified congregation, to which every other name had to bow. Tuberculosis. Was it a name? Tumor. Was it a name? Rebellious child. Straying husband. Devil.
“At the name of Jesus, tuberculosis got to bow. Tumor got to bow. Rebellious child ... got to bow. Straying husband ... got to ... bow ... before the name of Jesus. At the name of Jesus, nothing, no one, can stand against you. No weapon can prosper against you. The name of the Lord is a strong tower. Sickness is from the pit,... from the Devil. Jesus came to destroy the work of the Devil.”
Odessa lay in bed awake. Mr. Deal lay beside her hard asleep. The time was soon for the sun to rise. She moved to the edge of the bed and sat, her feet moving to find her slippers on the floor. She murmured as she rose in the dark, “Good morning, Father Jesus.” Then she hissed at the Devil, “Satan, you can’t have my life today.”
Her footsteps cracked against the wood of the ragged floor. Odessa was lean and tall with hair that lay like smoke around her head, shoulders and back. She came and sat at the dressing table, turning on the kerosene lamp.
“Ride on, King Jesus.”
She braided her ferocious shock of hair into three braids, then folded and pinned the braids together at the top of her head. Inserting the last hairpin, her fingers stopped, and she stared at her image in the dressing table mirror.
When Odessa watched her face in the mirror, she did not see herself as others might see her: a once-radiant girl turning mysteriously attractive in age. To her, the face in the mirror was nothing more or less than a hallmark of her covenant with God. God had promised to fortify her life and keep her in health and grace. Each hair on her head was numbered. God had numbered every one of her bones.
Odessa stood and pulled her dress on over her nightgown. Having done this, her hands absently routed their way to the painful place at her groin. “Jesus,” she cried while the whole house slept. “Sweet Daddy Jesus.”
She told herself: This thing was a calling to walk deeper in faith with the power that had married her. She could not preach to other people what she could not live for herself.
A cyst had swollen the size of a pear on her left ovary. Odessa was thirty-eight years old and had recently married a man twenty years her senior and become the mother to his five sons.
The doctor sat next to her in the cold, bright office later that afternoon. The sunlight hurt Odessa’s eyes. The doctor was a young white woman with auburn hair. She smelled like sweet olive and honeysuckle as if her body manufactured its own repellent to the disease and death she met daily. She took Odessa’s hands in her own and held them. “You must have this operation.” The doctor looked her in the eyes. “The cyst can rupture in you at any moment and spill all that poison into your abdomen, and you will die, because it will enter your bloodstream.”
She already knew Odessa was a member of a Pentecostal sect by the way she dressed: the long white dress and the unstraightened hair pulled into a coarse bun and covered, at the crown, with a prayer cloth. She was used to seeing women like Odessa in the clinic; women, who after a round of unsuccessful healings at the hands of spiritualists, returned to her office, their illnesses advanced to the level of medical emergencies.
The doctor pulled down the window shade and put an x-ray on a lighted panel.
Slowly, Odessa glanced over at the x-ray as if it were a map of a place in a fairytale. It’s a trick, she told herself. The Devil is the Father of Devices. She refused to allow herself to focus on the filmy picture, believing that once she accepted the image, her victory would be eaten up by fear. “No,” she managed to whisper and stood.
When Odessa’s knees buckled under her, the doctor caught her. “I know what you’re trying to do, Mrs. Deal. I know you’re going for a healing. Don’t be foolish. Please have this operation.”
Odessa steadied herself and reached for her handbag. She left the office avoiding the doctor’s eyes.
She went straight to an evangelist who had his church in a second floor apartment on Springfield Avenue above the New Paradise Pool Hall. In an atmosphere of incense smoke and votive lights, she received the prayer of faith from the evangelist in exchange for seven crumpled dollar bills.
She walked home in the bright, stony air, wandering along side streets, nearly unconscious of the life around her. The few leaves left on the trees rattled angrily at her. She did not hear them. She was telling herself, “I’m healed.”
When she got home, she wrote on a piece of paper, as the evangelist had instructed her: FROM THIS DAY, MAY 8, 1948, 5:37 PM, FORWARD, I AM HEALED IN THE NAME OF JESUS. She folded the piece of paper in her Bible then hid the Bible.
For three months, after the prayer of faith was prayed for her, Odessa grew sicker and sicker.
She lay awake through the night, tears running down between her breasts as the hot pain knifed through her. When it was time for the sun to come up, she crawled into the bathroom and sobbed. She did not want anyone to know she was sick.
Odessa talked to God, and the Devil answered her back. She told God, “I don’t want an operation. I want a miracle.”
The Devil spoke to her, just behind her left shoulder where she could not see him but feel his breath bristle her ear. “You’re going to die today. That thing is going to rupture inside your stomach this morning.”
Odessa shook her head to get rid of the sound of the voice, as insinuating as the close-up cry of a mosquito.
She turned and put on her bathrobe. She threw water on her face and went down to the shed kitchen, where she hollered, as the wood caught fire in the stove, “God, you promised me. You promised me. You said it in your word. You said by your stripes, I’m healed. The Devil can’t rob from my body. He can’t eat my life. I’m healed. I’m holding your word, and if I die, I’ll be down in my grave with your word and your promise.”
When she had the coffee and biscuits started on the stove, she went into the living room and took out her Bible from the back of the crowded china cabinet. She brought out the folded slip of paper and read the date she had written there. “That was when I was healed,” she said.
She heard the Devil pass in the hallway, on his way upstairs to wake Mr. Deal and the boys. “You’re going to die today,” the Devil said as he passed.
Odessa put away the piece of paper in the Bible. She pulled and twisted at her bathrobe. She had gotten to the point where she could barely stand the touch of her own clothing. The fever steadily rose and burned in her body from sunup to sundown.
Phineas Deal was a small, pecan-colored man with watery brown eyes and a large mole on the left side of his face out of which grew a curling strand of copper hair. He had come to Newark from Trinidad and worked for every Jewish shopkeeper along Springfield Avenue until he was able to open a fruit stand on Bergen Street. Leading his force of five sons, he sold fruit, brooms, candy and, from beneath the counter, lambskin condoms, dice and playing cards. He shined shoes, blocked hats and cut hair at a barbershop on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
He had failed to notice Odessa was ill until this morning, in the breakfast kitchen, when a drinking glass escaped her hold and broke in the sink.
For a moment, nobody said anything.
Then Phineas shouted, like a startled child, “What in the world is the matter with you, Dessa?”
His words raced in the room’s air, forming an accusing cry that sought beyond Odessa’s hearing, beyond her flesh and bone, aimed for her core. The kitchen was crowded with high cupboards, the metal sink, an icebox, a breakfast table and chairs. The presence of Phineas and his grown and almost grown sons overwhelmed both the room and Odessa. She smelled the strong masculine smell they brought home with them every night that was never fully gone by morning. They were ringed elbow-to-elbow around the oak table, looking at her with ... what was it? ... pity? In a moment she realized she was too much in their hands for them to pity her, though she must have looked awful with her forehead and upper lip soaked with sweat and her red-rimmed eyes unable to comprehend a world more real than the pain snaking in her womb.
They looked at her as if she were a wonder appliance, purchased at a bargain, that was about to break apart. That was what she had become—what “woman” meant to them: the living appliance capable of being an endless source of energy, love and fire in a man’s house.
“Get out of the kitchen, if you ain’t well, woman,” Phineas said. “Seem like you ought to be able to take care of yourself and your family. Unless maybe it’s time you left pastoring down to that damn church.”
“Don’t curse God’s temple,” she whispered savagely. “Don’t do it for your own sake.”
Suddenly Odessa saw flash in her husband’s eyes the demon whose outline the doctor had wanted her to trace in the x-ray. She knew at once she was seeing the foul host she had allowed to invade her and grow near her ovaries where it now lived, its horrible mouth sucking on her life.
She backed up to a cupboard, raising her arm against the room. The room spun around then righted itself. Odessa steeled herself against the room. A voice more populous than her own spoke through her now. “Don’t worry,” she said as she set down the biscuits and fried fish before the men. “I ain’t many, but I’m here.”
During the Thursday night women’s prayer service at her own church, Odessa preached about miracles and a paradise whose fruits are the healing of all nations.
“The Devil’s been trying to devour me for three months now. Three months ago, the doctor told me I had a tumor setting right on my left ovary about to burst. I prayed and fasted and wept. I told Jesus about it. Now, I want to tell you: Satan is a liar, and I’m healed by the stripes of the Resurrected Christ.”
She stood in the midst of the congregation.
“Would you agree with me this evening in faith that I am healed of this condition?”
An old woman stood behind Odessa and held her. The woman’s body felt like a huge pillow filled with full-blown flowers. Odessa listened as the woman sang in a rich voice, dark as the start of time:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Soon, the other women were surrounding her, holding her and the first woman, and holding each other, until they were like one woman, singing in one voice.
Odessa began to tremble. She began working her way free from the massed singers with beautifully flying arms. The women moved to make room for her, forming a looser circle around her. Mutely, they watched her long-limbed dance. Odessa danced and sobbed. Suddenly the trance spent her, and she awoke in a heap on the floor.
When she returned to the clinic for her examination, the Devil spoke to her in the waiting room. It was seven in the morning. He was sitting in the chair behind Odessa. “I suppose you’re a little better,” he said and yawned.
“You lying wonder,” she said. “I’m healed.” “You’re much better,” he said.
“You’re still a liar. I’m healed.”
The same doctor examined her and pronounced both her ovaries fine: she was healed. She told the doctor, “Now I don’t have any fingerprints. Now I breathe by the word.”
Within six months, Odessa gave birth to a child.