The brick building was a simple square box with no steeple so it could be anything. Trees with empty braches hung over a lawn of fallen leaves. Off in the back a few old grave stones implied this was a holy place. Windows were boarded on the sanctuary, but the attached living quarters at the rear of the box offered the only sign of life. Harry and his bride Viola lived there. Harry purchased the church so his brother, Wesley, could become employed as its minister. Wesley had no business sense the way Harry had managed his grocery stores, so his methodology to give away church funds as Christian charity over minor inconveniences such as the oil bill broke the church. It had been many months since the old Estey Organ piped out old time hymns. Sunday mornings the old lady in gingham ran her boney fingers over the keyboard as he bobbing head kept time with songs such as, Blest be the Tie. Members would shout the words, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”
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That idea of hearts bound together didn’t show as the members would compete to yell the loudest to be sure God would see them as those more saved than the weaker voices. Their noise only echoed the divide that grows in church congregations where the deacons decided they knew more than the preacher. Therein, dissention took root and disheartened Wesley. The church failed. Harry got a new home as Wesley’s flock dissolved.
Viola and Harry had a beautiful daughter named Jesse. When Jesse was nine, Viola gave birth to a boy. Papa Joseph upon seeing his grandson offered, “I have a five dollar gold piece if you name that boy after me.”
“What if I name him Joseph for you and Sherril for his middle name after his daddy?”
For a five dollar gold piece, the son-of-a preacher man was named.
All of this gave Harry quite a reputation around town. A reputation teenage boys would love to take advantage of. One Halloween, the boys came around to decorate the grocery store windows.
The next morning, on the entrance window right below the Tetley Tea sign, “Fuck you” was written out in white letters. Harry walked in and the clerk that worked for him was headed to the front with a bucket of water, a bar of lye soap, and rags.
“What are you doing?” asked Harry.
“Clean up that mess those boys left.”
“Leave it up,” said Harry. “I want the parents around here to know what their children are doing and thinking.”
The graffiti stayed up a week or so, long enough for all the lady shoppers to see, then Harry let Billy wash the windows.
Screened windows kept the mosquitoes and flies outside during long hot summer nights. The open windows allowed the neighborhood to witness what goes on behind closed doors in Harry’s house. This became a major amusement for the neighborhood boys. They crept up close to the hydrangea hedge and listened. The things they heard made them snicker and slap one another’s shoulder. The noise kept young Joe awake as well, and sometimes he could hear the boys outside rustle the bushes or occasional muffled laugh. The sounds were unlike any other in the neighborhood. There was yelling and lot’s of proclamations about God. Harry’s voice was bold and carried across the open lawns, “Praise God, forgive my sins, and wash me in the blood of Jesus!”
Harry and Viola carried on with such passion. But, it was passion for the nightly prayers, not wild sex acts.
This was not at all foreign to Joe. He heard it every night. Ever since he was five or so, he had spent five-hundred twenty Sunday mornings hearing just about the same thing. Everyone was going to hell, unless they screamed out prayers the loudest.
It was just such a morning after that Joe made his way to school. Boys in the back of the class whispered jokes and giggled at Joe. He felt heat rise and bit his tongue as best he could. That afternoon old lady Poff announced homework reading assignments as the last bell of the day rang out at Chandler Junior High. Joe carried books and quickly left the big front door past the Roman columns and down the granite steps of the three story building with tan bricks shinning in afternoon sun. He began his walk on East Brookland Park Boulevard on his journey to Fourth Avenue. Just over a mile and he’d be home and get ready to work in Harry’s store. Joe looked forward to the hike and on some days he’d stop at the drug store at the corner of Second Avenue to sit at the soda fountain with older teenagers hoping to learn some secret to impress girls. On the opposite corner across the street an image loomed large through the store windows. Buildings of that size should serve as a fortress or some formidable sanctuary of official responsibility. In fact the vision of Highland Park Elementary meant more to Joe than education. The mere sight of the place reminded him daily of his first crush on a girl named Janet, but she was above his class and destined to find some college boy to run off with in the future. Joe could recover from such indignities and move on, but some slights would not set with him.
That day along Brookland Park Boulevard before he reached the drug store and the monument to his failing, he arrived at Hotchkiss Field with its baseball diamond and wide patches of green grass where kids with no store to tend would spend days playing. His quick pace stopped when he heard a familiar voice. A neighbor kid born a year earlier and a clear foot taller than Joe shouted, “It’s Hallelujah Joe! Oh save me Jesus … save me!”
His laugh sparked his band of three followers to join in laughing and yelling, “Hallelujah Joe.”
Joe dropped his books. One smacked flat against the concrete sidewalk, the other landed on the corner of its spine and made more of a thud sound as it bounced to lay flat at his feet. Blood flushed to his face, and he felt his heart race as he began his run step by step faster and faster toward his aggressor. The laugher and smirk on the boy’s face dropped, eyes widened, he realized Joe was charging. Within several feet Joe left the ground and all his weight was in that one right fist that landed in the upper lip and nose of the loud mouth boy. The force sent blood flying and the sound of the cartilage breaking in the boy’s nose was as loud as the batter connecting with a home run across the field. Within seconds the boy taller than Joe was on the ground and begged, “Enough! Get him off me!”
One of his pack pulled Joe by his shoulders back and another boy struck at Joe missing his nose but landing against his left eye socket.
Car brakes squealed and mail man driving jumped out, “Knock it off! Stop it!”
The boys mistook the uniform and thinking the cops had arrived, they ran off supporting their wounded leader who was now holding his nose high to stop the bleeding that had now covered the front of his shirt. The postman approached Joe, “You okay?”
“You live nearby?”
“Come on, I’ll give you a lift. Those boys may come back.”
In the car, the man asked, “How is it you would take on a group of boys?
“They said something.”
“Let me know. I don’t want to say it and have you go off on me.”
“Called me a name,” Joe paused. The man’s expression was asking for clarity, “They called me hallelujah Joe.”
The man smiled, “That’s do it every time. They needed a good ass whipping.”
Over the front door of the store, a small bell bounced and rang as Joe made it to work for his father late that day. Joe entered with a noticeable black eye growing. Harry looked up from the butcher block, “Coming in late? They keep you after school again?”
Joe stood quiet.
“What’s this?” asked Harry. “Black eye. You been fighting again? What have I told you about turning the other cheek? Head to the basement for a lesson. Maybe this time you’ll get the idea of discipline through your hard head.” He turned to Billy, “Watch the store. Be back shortly. If a man does not show discipline to his son, he’ll never learn obedience and good manners.”
Joe did as told and headed down the narrow wood stairs to the basement. Boxes in rows stacked from the cold cement floor to the thick wood beams that supported the store. Harry used the coolness of the basement to store canned goods. Off to one side was a large tank full of oil for the furnace when winter comes. The machine sat quiet and stood jury to the sentenced you boy. Harry stomped down the steps after letting Joe spend a few moments waiting to let the meaning of the moment set in.
“Joseph,” Harry use the formal name for such executions. “As it plainly state in Proverbs, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Joe shook at the words and watched Harry pull his belt from the loops of his pants. Joe ducked as he swung and in the dark Harry swing the end of the belt with the heavy steel buckle. The buckle drew blood, “Damn you old man!”
Harry stood back shocked.
Joe stood inches from Harry’s face, “That’s the last time you’ll ever swing at me. Your religion is killing me. I have to fight in school because everybody makes fun of you. Then, you expect me to stand here and let you beat my ass. Never again.”
That night, Joe packed a small bag stuffed with beef jerky and a few candy bars from the store along with a change of clothes. He left through the same bedroom window used by the boys to eavesdrop on Harry’s night time rituals. Joe was on his own.