Blessed Assurance

 

Unfortunately (and to John’s distrust of God) it seemed his son was turning out to be a queer. He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Roll in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear.

Delmar was his only son, Arletta, the younger child, being a girl. Perhaps John should not have permitted his son to be named Delmar—Delly for short—but the mother had insisted on it. Delmar was her father’s name.

“And he is my son as well as yours,” his wife informed John.

Did the queer strain come from her side? Maternal grandpa had seemed normal enough. He was known to have had several affairs with women outside his home—mostly sisters of Tried Stone Church, of which he was a pillar.

God forbid! John, Delly’s father thought, could he himself had any deviate ancestors? None who had acted even remotely effeminate could John Recall as being a part of his family. Anyhow, why didn’t he name the boy at birth John, Jr.  after himself? But his wife said, “Don’t saddle him with Junior.” Yet she had saddled him with Delmar.

If only Delly were not such a sweet boy—no juvenile delinquency, no stealing cars, no smoking reefers ever. He did the chores without complaint. He washed dishes too easily, with no argument, when he might have left them to Arletta. He seldom, even when at the teasing stage, pulled his sister’s hair. they played together, Delly with dolls almost as long as Arletta sister’s hair. Yet he was good at marbles, once fair at baseball, and a real whiz at tennis. He could have made the track team had he not preferred the French Club, the Dramatic Club, and the Glee Club. Football, his father’s game in high school, Delly didn’t like. He couldn’t keep his eye on the ball in scrimmage. At seventeen he had to have glasses. The style of rather exaggerated rims he chose made him look like a girl rather than a boy.

“At least he didn’t get rhinestone rims,” thought John half-though didn’t think felt faint and aloud said nothing. That spring he asked, “Delmar, do you have to wear white Bermuda shorts to school? Most of the other boys wear Levi’s or just plain pants, don’t they? And why wash them out yourself every night, all that ironing? I want you to be clean son, but not that clean.”

Another time, “Delmar, those school togs of yours don’t have to match so perfectly, do they? Colors blended, as you say, and all like that. This school you’re going to’s no fashion school—at least, it wasn’t when I went there. The boys’ll think you’re a sissy.”

Once again desperately, “If you’re going to smoke, Delmar, hold your cigarette between your first two fingers, not between your thumb and finger—like a woman.”

Then his son cried.

John remembered how it was before the boy’s mother packed up and left their house to live with another man who made more money than any Negro in their church. He kept an apartment in South Philly and another in Harlem. Owned a Cadillac. Racket connections—politely called politics. A shame for his children, for the church, and for him, John! His wife gone with an uncouth rascal!

But although Arletta loathed him, Delly liked his not-yet-legal step-father. Delly’s mother and her burly lover had at least had the decent to leave Germantown and change their religious affiliations. They no longer attended John’s family church where Delmar sang in the Junior Choir.

Delly had a sweet high tenor with overtones of Sam Cooke. The women at Tried Stone loved him. Although Tried Stone was a Baptist church, it tended toward the sedate—Northern Baptist in tone, not down-home. Yet it did have a Gospel Choir, scarlet-robed, since a certain untutored segment of the membership demanded lively music. It had a Senior Choir, too, black-robed, that specialized in anthems, sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the Bach cantatas, and once a year presented the Messiah. The white-robbed Junior Choir, however, even went so far as to want to render a jazz recessional—Delly’s idea—which was vetoed. This while he was trying to grow a beard like the beatniks he had seen when the Junior Choir sand in New York and the Minister of Music had taken Delly on a trip to the Village.
“God, don’t let him put an earring in his ear like some,” John prayed. He wondered vaguely with a sick feeling in his stomach should he think it through then then think it through right then through should he try then and think it through should without blacking through think blacking out then and there think it through?

John didn’t. But one night he remembered his son had once told his mother that after he graduated from high school he would like to study at the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne in Paris! John had studied at Morgan in Baltimore. In possession of a diploma from that fine (in his mind) Negro institute, he took pride. Normally John would have wanted his boy to go there, yet the day after the Spring Concert he asked Delmar, “Son, do you still want to study in France? If you do, maybe—er—I guess I could next fall—Sorbonne. Say, how much is a ticket to Paris?”

In October it would be John’s turn to host his fraternity brothers at his house. Maybe by then Delmar would—is the Sorbonne like Morgan? Does it have dormitories, a campus? In Paris he had heard they didn’t care about such things. Care about such what things didn’t care about what? At least no color lines.

Well, anyhow, what happened at the concert a good six months before October came, was well—think it through clearly now, get it right. Especially for that Spring Concert, Tried Stone’s Minister of Music, Dr. Manley Jaxon, had written an original anthem, words and score his own, based on the story of Ruth:

Entreat me not to leave thee,

Neither to go far form thee.

Whither thou goeth, I will go.

Always will I be near thee…

The work was dedicated to Delmar, who received the first hand-written manuscript copy as a tribute from Dr. Jaxon. In spite of its dedication, one might have thought that in performance of the solo lead—Ruth’s part—would be assigned to a woman. Perversely enough, the composer allotted it to Delmar. Dr. Jaxon’s explanation was, “No one else can do it justice.” The Minister of Music declared, “The girls in the ensemble really have no projection.”

So without respect for gender, on the Sunday afternoon of the program, Delmar sang the female lead. Dr. Jaxon, saffron-robed, was at the organ. Until Delmar’s father attended the concert that day he had no inkling as to the casting of the anthem. But when his son’s solo began, all John could say was, “I’ll be damned!”

John had hardly gotten the words out of his mouth when words became of no further value. The “Papa, what’s happening?” of his daughter in the pew beside him made hot saliva rise in his throat—for what suddenly had happened was that as the organ wept and Delmar’s voice soared above the choir with all th sweetness of Sam Cooke’s tessitura, backwards off the organ stool in a dead faint fell Dr. Manley Jaxon. Not only did Dr. Jaxon fall from the stool, nut he rolled limply down the steps form the organ loft like a bag of meal and tumbled prone onto the rostrum, robes and all.

Amens and Hallelujahs drowned in the throats of various elderly sisters who were on the verge of shouting. Swooning teenage maidens suddenly sat up in their pews to see the excitement. Springing from his chair on the rostrum, the pastor’s mind deserted the pending collection to try to think what to say under the unusual circumstances.

“One down, one to go,” was all that came to mind. After a series of pastorates in numerous sophisticated cities where Negroes did everything whites do, the Reverend Dr. Greene had seen other choir directors take the count in various ways with equal drama, though perhaps less physical immediacy.

When the organ went silent, the choir died, too—but Delmar never stopped singing. Over the limp figure of Dr. Jaxon lying on the rostrum, the “Entreat me not to leave thee” of his solo flooded the church as if it were on hi-fi.

The members of the congregation sat riveted in their pews as the deacons rushed to the rostrum to lift the Minister of Music to his feet. Several large ladies of the Altar Guild fanned him vigorously while others sprinkled him with water. But it was not until the church’ nurse-in-uniform applied smelling salts to Dr. Jaxon’s dark nostrils, did he list his head. Finally, two ushers led him off to an anteroom while Delmar’s voice soared to a high C such as Tried Stone Baptist Church had never heard.

“Bless God! Amen!” cried Reverend Greene. “Dr. Jaxon has only fainted, friends. We will continue our services by taking up collection directly after the anthem.”

“Daddy, why did Dr. Jaxon have to faint just when brother started singing?” whispered John’s daughter.

“I don’t know,” John said.

“Some of the girls say that when Delmar sings, they want to scream, they’re so overcome,” whispered Arletta. “But Dr. Jaxon didn’t scream. He just fainted.”

“Shut up,” John said, staring straight ahead at the choir loft. “Oh, God! Delmar, shut up!” John’s hands gripped the back of the seat in front of him. “Shut up, son! Shut up,” he cried. “Shut up!”

Silence…

“We will now lift the offering,” announced the minister. “Ushers, get the baskets.” Reverend Greene stepped forward. “Deacons, raise a hymn. Bear us up, sisters, bear us up!”

His voice boomed:

Blessed assurance!

He clapped his hands once.

Jesus is mine!

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” he cried.

Oh, what a fortress

Of glory divine!

The congregation swung gently into song:

Heir of salvation,

Purchase of God!

“Hallelujah! Amen! Halle! Halle!”

Born of the Spirit.

“God damn it!” John cried. “God damn it!”

Washed in His blood…

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