At the Revren Daddy Love's funeral--a long, loud service where they alternated tween dancin and weepin--a swarm of rumors buzzed through the pews. Women leaned across husbands and whispered to each other about Daddy and Sister Gayl and Lil Henny and Big Angela and Tish and Babs and on and on til what everyone was really saying was Girrrl, every pair of female lips in this con-gre-gayshun done tasted Daddy's sweet juice.
The Deacon preached, "The Revren took from our wallets! . . . Took from our wives! . . . Even took from some a our daugh-ers!"
"Wellll . . ." they called back.
"Was he the way he was because he wanted to be or because we wanted him to be? We'll never know."
"Tell it . . ." they said.
"But that's no nevermore cuz now that he gone we all gone be a lil poorer. Yes, I say, we's all a bit poorer t'day! Cuz Black currency ain't money. No! It's joy! The twenty-dollar bill of our currency . . . is theater. The dramatic theater of daily life. The ten-spot is rhythm. The fiver is hope, the deuce is freedom, and the dollar is good, hearty laughter."
"Preach!!!" they yelled.
"And, of course, the C-note is love. So by our math, the Revren Daddy Love was . . . a multimillionaire. And, the Revren Daddy Love was . . . a big spendah!"
At the wake, the rumors flew, and a gaggle of questions chased after them. The married women arranged fresh potato salad and hot corn bread, the unmarried women gulped the good champagne out plastic cups, and everyone wondered aloud, "You think Daddy took all he could get or gave everythin he had?"
The Revren Daddy Love caused much discord, but none on two subjects: first, Daddy was colossal. Freckles on his hi-yalla skin as large as dimes, a belly as great as a jumbo TV, a mouth that made mailboxes jealous, and a frame so titanic he would just swallow a girl up with one of his patented post-service hugs. No matter how rotund she was, Daddy could still hug her in surround-sound stereo because Daddy was super-sized, as though God had intended him to be quite literally larger than life.
Second thing everyone knew about Daddy: in every crevice and crack of his giant body Daddy Love did love women. All women. Daddy's love was as blind as faith and as democratic as the sun. Any woman, regardless of shape or style, could come to Daddy and find herself ecstatically baptized by those eyes, eyes the color of pure honey, eyes that shot an electric current through a girl's body and loved her better than most men could with their hands. It was the affirmation, and all the affirmation, a female needed to know she was magnificently woman. Women saw how seriously Daddy Love appreciated them, and, wildly appreciating his appreciation, they rewarded him and rewarded him with no regard for vows or jealousies or the horde of rewards he was getting from a horde of rewarders. But was it really Daddy getting the reward? For a week or two afterwards her husband would feel happier having her around, her family would eat better, and her entire house, no matter how small and drab, would seem a touch brighter, as though someone had installed a window that moved throughout the day to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Was his flock particularly lost or uniquely found? The center of those conversations was the church choir, Love's Angels. Those twenty-one women joined not for the singing, which was third rate on a good day, but for the special confession ritual.
Daddy always said his choir had to be held to a higher standard and when they sinned they had to receive special attention. On Sundays just before service, an Angel who had sinned would go to Daddy's office and confess. They would talk about what she'd done and why she'd done it. Then, the Angel would raise her skirt until her bottom was bare and free. Daddy would remove his belt and apply a slow battery of stiff thwacks to those bare, free cheeks with a sharp, stinging force that was said to make her brown skin wiggle hotly and then, for a fraction of a moment, sing out, in torrid pain, a sound like high, tortured notes from a muted trumpet. Angels confessed almost as often as their singing cheeks allowed. And on those rare occasions there was space for a new member, women waged war to get in.
That's how things were at St. Valentine's Blessed Temple of Godly Love, Sanctified Ascension, and the Holy Glissando, located in Brooklyn, at the comer of Grace Street and Divine Avenue, in an abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Now it may be easier to believe we could have a Black president, a nigger boycott on Cadillacs, and an all-white NBA all at once, than to believe in a single abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, USA, but it's true. What happened is someone at headquarters gave some franchisee the green light to build a three-floor KFC palace even though there were, within reasonable walking distance of the corner of Grace and Divine, three KFCs, two Church's Chickens, one Roy Rogers, one Kennedy Fried Chicken, one General Tso's Fried Chicken, and two Miss Mannie Mack's Fried Chickens (one of which shared space with Al's Fried Chicken Shack). Guess someone upstairs just couldn't stand that franchisee's ass.
Only three days after the KFC palace opened, corporate paid a visit to their new pride and joy and quickly realized their geographical error. In a panic, they commanded the ill-fated franchisee to make up the competitive difference by frying his chicken in a heavier, thicker oil and three and a half times as much of it. Years later, the star-crossed franchisee would crumble during cross-examination in his trial on federal civil rights violations and admit that corporate had indeed hollered, "Deep-fry those niggers!" He was all but thrown underneath the penitentiary when, through pathetic tears, he conceded that yes, he had noticed the vile smell of his toilets, and yes, he'd heard about the jolt in sales of Pepto-Bismol, and--yes, yes, oh God, yes!--eyewitnessed three men, on the very same day, crashing to the floor from heart failure right inside the store, and yet he still continued to deep-fry even though he said to himself, "Ah thinks the chicken is comin out a lil too greazy."
It ain't take long for Daddy Love and his followers to turn that mountainous grease pit into a church. There was already a tall red steeple, lots of seats, tons of parking, and plenty of private office space. In the beginning most felt it wasn't too bad using bits of leftover chicken in communion to signify the body of Christ. And after a while people came to like using the drive-thru window for confession. But Daddy never did have that greazy kitchen cleaned out properly. He just slapped some thick wooden boards on top of it and built his pulpit over that. Bet he'd like that decision to do over.
You might have never known the building had been a KFC if not for the sixty-foot sign that displayed the KFC logo and a portrait of Colonel Sanders. The pole that held up that sign withstood every sort of abuse they subjected it to until they were convinced that the pole and the portrait had been constructed to outlast that KFC palace, America, and maybe even Earth. So every Sunday they filed into service under the unchanging halfsmile of that good ol neo-massa Colonel Sanders. That's just one of the reasons why only Daddy Love and his most loyal devotees ever called the church by its real name. To everyone else it was the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls.
After ten years at Kentucky Fried Souls Daddy Love had become a ghetto celebrity. He was known for his curious congregation, his unique vision of the Bible, and his way of riding slowly through the neighborhood in his 1969 convertible white Bentley, chauffeured by one of his Angels, passing out fives to the little boys and tens to the little girls. But first and foremost, Daddy was known for his preaching. He preached with a dynamism that hypnotized and bewitched, employing rhythm and volume, intensity and repetition, moans, grunts, hollers, hums, and a raw spiritual force beamed down from up on high to give his sermons wings that you could grab ahold of and go with him as he took flight, transcending English, while you nestled inside his truth--strings of words dipped in a magic that let him say crazy things no other preacher could say and pull you into a new awareness that would make you do crazy things, that, if you really knew how to listen, might make your life a little better. There was no place you could go in Black New York where they ain't know about Daddy. But he had grown tired of being a local legend. He wanted to float in the rare air. He'd stepped up to the plate and seen the fence separating those who were legends for a certain generation and those who had crossed over into history, and he wanted to smack a grand slam. He wanted to ascend the Black imagination and fly at the altitude of C. L. Franklin and Adam Powell and Martin King, those spiritual pilots who rest atop the Black imagination like nighttime stars: brilliant patches of light with a sort of everlasting life that we can look up to for direction anytime we lose our way. He would get there with one magnificent, never-to-be-forgotten performance, an extraordinarily epic manifesto-sermon punctuated with an impossibly dramatic flourish that would come together to form a story passed down from generation to generation and lift him into that rare air. On the last Sunday of his life Daddy Love arrived at Kentucky Fried Souls two hours early.
As the congregation filed in, the warm clack and click of fine Sunday shoes could be heard over the light sounds of the choir quietly singing "Love Me in a Special Way" and the organist and drummer and electric guitarist and three-man horn section backing them. Once they were seated a hush came over them. There was a long, silent moment that neither a nervous cough nor a baby's cries dared break, then Daddy Love emerged from his office on the third floor, escorted by two busty and freshly absolved Angels. He raised his large chin slightly, pursed his giant lips delicately, and, with a voice smooth and bassy like jazzy tuba riffs, said simply, "Love is here."
He was wearing what amounted to, despite their obvious lavishness, a lounging robe and house slippers. The slippers were thick, plush, and fire-engine red, with a busy logo across the front. The robe, made of rare silk, was a matching fire-engine red with thick black trim and long ends that draped on the floor below him. A black belt knotted tightly about Daddy Love's giant stomach pulled it all together. The combined worth of every single item worn by any family in attendance was not as great as that one robe. No one knew whether Daddy wore it out of vanity, or because he knew we needed to see him look like a prince, or both.
To thunderous applause, Daddy made his way down the stairs, an Angel on each arm, with a walk that combined a bull's brute, a rooster's righteousness, and a pimp's peacock. When he finally came to the lip of the pulpit, Daddy reached down and snatched a bit of his billowing robe off the floor, sucked in his great stomach, and squoze himself through the doorway of the pulpit. He then faced the podium and placed his hands on its far edges, giving him the appearance of total authority over that spiritual cockpit. He looked out at his flock and said with bottomless earnest, "Praise the Love."
They cheered and Daddy eased into his sermon. "Back in the day Love knew a man who'd died and gone to heaven. This man had been married for decades and loved his wife dearly. But in matters of love he was something of . . . a microwaver. He liked that quickfast heat, that fast food, that slambang dunk. He took more time in choosing his words when he spoke than in pleasing his wife when the conversation ended!"
"Oooooh chile!" the women called back.
"When he arrived at the pearly gates and got through the line to see Saint Peter, the good saint told him, `You've led a good, clean life and been an upstanding member of human society. But you are not yet ready. God has made it clear: there will be no microwavers in His heaven.'"
"No microwavers up there!" the women said.
"The man knew there was no appealing God's will, so he came back to earth and came to see Love. He said, `Daddy Love, I have been turned away from the gates of heaven! What did I do?' Love sat down beside him and said, `It's not what you did do--it's what you did not do. We'll sit and talk about loving in a Gawdly way and you'll go out and practice loving in a Gawdly way and one day Heaven will again summon you and this time you'll stroll right in.'" Daddy gingerly opened his heart-red Bible. "We started in the Song of Songs, chapter three, verse five. It is written, `Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.'"
Daddy Love gazed out over his flock and those light eyes began narrowing slightly and everyone knew that the Word was about to take him over. "Do not . . . arouse . . . or awaken . . . love . . . until it . . . so desires. Brothers and dearly beloved sisters, what's that mean?"
"Tell us what it mean, Daddy!" someone called out.
"It means you can't . . . hurry . . . love," he said tenderly. "It means we must let love grow naturally. To surrender--yes, surrender, my brothers--to love's pace. For that is the only way to truly love our sisters in . . . a Gawdly way."
The women let out a tremendous mmm-hmmm.
"So Love told his friend that the only way God would want us to love is in a slow, tender--that's right--tender way that surrenders to love . . . that doth not arouse love until it so desires . . ."
"So, SO tender!"
". . . and Love told his brother, `While you're in the kitchen, stirring up love, adding spices, you got to let that love cook at its own pace. Cuz that's the only way to get some tender food, you got to let the slow heat have at it for a good, long while! Can Love get just one witness?"
"Bring us through, Daddy!" they cried out.
"So you're laying there in your . . . kitchen," he said, and slowly closed his eyes and smiled, winning laughs. "And you're there, stripped of society's shields--Love's talkin bout clothes. And you're admiring some of God's sublime handiwork . . ."
"Oh YES!" a man cried out from the back.
". . . and you're letting things simmer and bubble and it's getting hot but love's still not done cooking and you're trying to keep from arousing love until it so desires . . . So what you gon do?"
"Teach em how to cook, Daddy!"
"Follow me now . . ."
"We right behind ya!
". . . Love knows the way!"
"Oh Lord, Love does!"
". . . Patience . . . my brothers and beloved sisters, patience . . . is Gawdly!" Daddy Love cried out. "So, watch Love now: linger," he said softly, "before you love." The women murmured their assent. "The good book tell us, `For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.' Now that's true, but love won't burn like blazing fire if you don't handle it properly. Linger before you love!" And then, his mammoth form shaking like a riot, Daddy thundered, "BE NOT MICROWAVERS, MY SONS, BE OPEN-FLAME GRILLERS! Linger before you love! My God wants His heaven filled with love barbequers who let the coals roast and the flames lick and wait until the sweetest and highest and most uncon trollable of feminine moans has been extracted and then say unto themselves, Ah, I have just . . . gotten . . . started!" Love shot his arms above his head as though he had scored a miraculous touchdown and the women broke into ecstatic screams and hysterical dances because they knew the coming week would be a good one and they began celebrating right away, halting the sermon for ten long, loud minutes.
"I can feel the dungeon shaking!" Daddy said with a broad smile as they finally quieted. A man in the third row smiled sweetly at his wife and relocked his fingers within hers. "I can feel them chains a-falling clean off!" Laughter sprinkled through. "But Love's got more. Stay with me!"
"WE AIN'T GOIN NO PLACE, DADDY!" a sister cried out, and even Love had to laugh.
"Love once knew a woman who'd died and gone to heaven! In her years on earth she'd been chained by the manacles of repression and the shackles of inhibition. She'd been something of a ram, banging her head against those who loved her, and something of a jellyfish, stinging those who got too close, and something of a praying mantis, loving a man and then devouring him."
The church moaned.
"When she got to heaven Saint Peter said, `You ain't ready.' So she went to Daddy Love and Daddy Love went to the Good Book.
"Good book say . . . `The spirit of God dwelleth within you,' and that is true. Oh yes, that spirit dwelleth within you," he said, and his eyes landed in the front row on a well-preserved woman under a faded scarlet hat, "and . . . you," gazing at a woman seated next to her with long braided hair flowing from a sun-yellow beret, "and mos definitely . . . you," freezing on a girl, her tight ponytail held in place by an unblemished white ribbon. It was Lily Backjack, a favored Angel, who had seemed as pure as a new day, who had then abruptly left the church and, soon after, high school . . . For a moment Daddy's eyes locked onto the slight bulge in her stomach and he let out the first part of a very deep breath and a single drop of sweat quivered at the edge of his eyebrow, then broke away and soared down toward his Bible.
"The spirit of God dwelleth within all! So if you want to feel the spirit of God, to experience the full grip of God's love, you must grip another of God's creatures firmly! You must lock onto another body in which God dwelleth and experience that love . . . wildly!"
"Lock onto me, LAWD!!!"
"So one day many years later this sister was called back to heaven. Things had not gone so well her first time there, but she was unafraid this time. On earth she been as free as an eagle and she knew she would get into heaven. When she got to Saint Peter he took her to see God because He Himself wanted to ask her about her time on earth. And when she got to the Father and found herself at the trial of the millennium, she was asked one question: `Did you, in your time on Earth, did ya love your fellow human beings . . . in a Gawdly way?' Oh Lord, my brothers and beloved sisters, when that question comes to you, you've got to be able to say to your Lord a resounding `Yes Lawd! Yes Lawd! A thousand times I did! Yes Lawd!' Can Love get an Ayy-men?"
"But this time she was ready for the Almighty's question and she told the King of Kings: `My Lord, I have let freedom ring! I have let freedom ring from the bedroom to the backseat, in the ocean and in dark caves and in midair, inches below your home, in first class--I have let freedom ring! And the Lord smiled on her then and gave her wings and I tell you now, her time in heaven was as long and fruitful as the very member of our Maker must be! HAAALL-LAY-LOOO-YAAAAAHHHH!!!"
And with that they unleashed a roar that tested the walls, and the organ and the drums and the guitar and the horns leapt into the thunder with righteous riffs and hardly a body was seated for everyone was dancing, wild and free, clogging the aisles and shaking the tables, rocking their asses and flapping their hands madly in the air. They had not a care in the world, certainly not that it was Sunday morning and it seemed no different from Saturday night.
As Daddy came down from the pulpit, the organist led Love's Angels into song and they followed as one, in high, soulful church voices.
"Ain't no way . . .
for me to love you . . .
if you won't let me!
It ain't no way
for me to give you all you need,
If you won't
let me give all of me!"
One sister stepped forward and took the lead: "I know that a woman's duty . . . is to haaave and love a man . . ."
"Looovve . . ." the other Angels backed her up.
". . . But how can I, how can I, how can I . . ." she sang with her hands windmilling furiously, "give ya all the things I can . . . if you're tying both of my hands?"
"Tie me . . ." the Angels sang.
"It ain't no way . . . !" the leader sang, then opened her eyes and saw Daddy standing by her side, his massive body filled with the spirit, his shoulders trembling.
". . . For me to lovvve you," she sang into Daddy's eyes. "If you won't . . . let me." Daddy then began rocking from heel to toe, heel to toe, gaining momentum like a child on a swing, then he bent low and leapt a full foot into the air.
With his prodigious size no one expected to see Daddy Love hold even that much sway over gravity, so none was prepared for what came next. Daddy Love, empowered by momentum, bent again, deeper this time, and leapt into the air. First he was a foot off the ground, then two, then four, then six, the titanic Daddy Love, robe still fastened tightly round his ginormous body, floating up and up, ten feet, twenty, his eyes closed, his hands outstretched, his face as peaceful as a just-fed baby. The music had stopped, the Angels were silent, and the church was filled with statues, mouths agape at their gargantuan leader hanging placidly, fifty feet in the air, almost close enough to touch the ceiling.
A woman, her mouth still open, touched her husband gently, as if full consciousness of the moment might end it. "It's a miracle," she whispered.
Then, someone stirred. Lily Backjack. Even hanging fifty feet in the air, with his eyes closed, Daddy Love could feel her stare, so cold ain't nothin in hell could burn you worse.
As Lily walked up the aisle toward the stage, her white ribbon floating and her belly protruding, everyone scrambled out her way. Daddy just hung there, high above them, frozen. All you could hear was the hard, steady clack, clack of her tall black vinyl boots. When Lily reached the stage she grabbed hold of one of the thick wooden boards and gave it a malevolent jerk to make a sliver of space. It was all she needed. She reached into her pocket, pulled out a single match, looked up at Daddy Love, and forced a smile his way. "Now, alla thems will know," she said, "whether or not I loveded you." She lifted up the sole of her right boot and in one fluid arc lit the match against her heel and dropped it into the small void. Pools of old, nasty chicken grease waited to suck it in. Lily turned with a flip of her curly hair and began walking back down the aisle. For three seconds, that clack, clack of her boots was the only sound. Then, an evil boom. As Lily, pushing a tortured smile through a river of tears, continued walking down the aisle and out of the building, the entire stage turned suddenly into a giant pool of tall, magenta flames.
Through the four seconds it took to clear the church, Daddy Love stayed calm. And during the following four seconds, as the stage grew and grew into a vast barbeque pit over which he hung like a giant, meaty, hi-yalla, free-range, Perdue chicken, Daddy refused to panic. But when he saw three men--who had disappeared just before he began to fly--burst from behind the curtain at the back of the stage, sprint through tall waves of fire, and race out the door trailing bright yellow, only then did Daddy Love lose his cool. He began to shake and wriggle, but he could only twist and turn and help himself be cooked more evenly. He could not loosen the wires that held him up. He could not lose altitude, could not free himself from the invisible cross he'd put himself on. An edge of robe drooped down and a flaming tongue leapt up, a hungry shark, and bit into it. He reached down and snuffed out that small blaze, but the fire was growing fast, climbing the walls and scrambling round the floor, dancing, wild and free, broiling the aisles and wrecking the tables, appearing to be flapping its hands madly in the air without a care in the world.
Daddy Love looked out over our burning church and saw that in the corner there was someone left, a boy lying on the floor, clutching his ankle, cringing in pain, the joint spilling blood that was a red much fuller and blacker than that of the yellowish red of the fire racing toward him from all sides.
"Daddy! Fly down! Save me!" the boy screamed out.
Daddy struggled again to free himself and succeeded only in making his robe fall full open so the boy could see he had on a cheap pair of white cotton briefs.
"Daddy!" the boy bawled like a babe. "Save me, Daddy! Aaahh!"
Then Daddy Love stopped squriming, wiped his sweaty face, closed his eyes, and bowed his giant head in prayer. He felt not the fire leaping and licking from all sides at his toes and neck and ass, but only the need to call on the Lord. "Father!" he screamed out above the deafening cackles of the burning building. "Have I strayed? Have I gone wrong in trying to give my flock the sunshine they need to get through, to get through the days, to get through the jungles keeping them from happiness? Hath I erred in trying to use your name and your teachings to show my flock how to be happier and freer and more loving? Have I not employed your name to make lives brighter? Lord, any mortal can see a man's fall, but only you know his internal struggling, the tears shed in the midnight of his soul. Please Lord, don't take the boy. Reach down and touch us now!"
Daddy looked into the corner, but a blindingly yellow patch of flames had taken it over. Inside his giant chest, hot tears began shaking loose. Then he looked up. The boy was floating slowly and calmly in the air, ten feet, twenty, forty, up toward the ceiling, out of the reach of the fire on each wall, snatching out at him and missing. Soon he reached the ceiling. Fire had chomped at almost every inch of wall and crevice of floor and the boy floated through a fire-eaten hole in the ceiling and landed on a part of the roof. He looked back through the hole at Daddy Love, fire from everywhere closing in on him as he dangled helplessly in midair. Daddy looked at the boy and mouthed, Don't linger now. The boy leapt from the roof half a moment before it caved in and landed squarely on the KFC sign. As they crowded in the parking lot around Kentucky Fried Souls and watched the walls of the church crash in on one another, leaving the immense palace a huge pile of blackened rubble, a rumor began slithering through the crowd--Girrrl, Daddy ain't gilded lil Lily . . . was that no-good Bishop! Meanwhile, the boy sat safely, waving gleefully, sixty feet up, atop the portrait of that good ol neo-massa Colonel Sanders, as a fractured but breathing memory of Daddy Love began its ascent into rare air.