“I just want to praise His Name,” the preacher is leaning so far forward that he looks as if he might just fly out of the pulpit. He
stresses his pronouns. “I don’t know what yoooou want to do, but I just want to praaaaise His Name. I say, Iiiieee just want
to praise His Holy Name. Oh, yes, God is Goooood.”
He wipes his brow, the sleeve of his robe flapping like a big black wing. A voice behind me calls out. “Preach it, Brother Taylor,
preach it.” The woman to my right nods her head. “You know that’s right,” she says. “You know you right.”
Brother Taylor wants more. “I just wish somebody would help me,” he pleads. “I need to hear somebody say amen.”
In the chorus of amens somebody cues the drummer. He hits a beat and grins at the organist as the choir director leaps to his
feet. The mass choir rises in an unruly wave with black robed arms and gold braid flying, open palms reaching for heaven and
“Ev-er-eeeeee thing is gonna be all right!”
A big man in a green suit is the aisle getting the holy ghost, shoulders bent down, spinning in circles, feet beating a fast pulse
on the red carpet, eyes squeezed shut, beads of sweat standing like diamonds on his brow.
The choir director bounces on the balls of his feet, gaining momentum until the floor can’t hold him and he shoots into the air, a
clenched fist propelling him toward heaven. At the peak of his leap, his arm cuts across the air in a wide arc. The fist flies open
and his slim brown fingers snatch up a fistful of air which he throws to the choir. They break into a frenzy and Ev-er-eeeeee
thing is gonna be all right!
It’s been a long time since I’ve been the only white person in a room and it makes me feel a little lost in time. Nobody seems to
notice me, but I’m sure they do. I feel like a fraud because once I belonged in places like this and now I don’t. Now I’m an
intruder, feeding off their faith because I don’t know if I have any left of my own. I’m a chronic misfit. There’s comfort in feeling
that difference could be as superficial and obvious as it is here.
At my job, 200 miles away, a job I worked so hard to fit myself into, I’m the only single parent, the only one with biracial
children. I don’t own a house or a lawnmower. I can’t participate in their endless discussions of yard waste. I cringe inwardly
when my co-workers issue frequent blanket condemnations of the people on welfare.
I don’t tell them about my past, the life I lived in filthy tenements raising little brown children on food stamps and free school
lunches . I don’t know how much my middle-class co-workers suspect about me, but I feel clothed in shame nearly every day.
This is an affluent church. The congregation is well dressed. They’re collecting information to develop their own credit union.
Definitely not the type of people Al grew up with.
Al’s life intersected with mine when we both were torn between our loyalties to the lives we lived and the desparate need to rise
up out of them. One Christmas Eve, I went with Al to deliver an old man to his negligent daughter on the southside. We drove
past the housing project where Al had grown up and the streets where he’d first discovered alcohol and drugs. Al pointed out
landmarks of his early life with a mixture of wistfulness and wonder.
My son Jonah was six years old when we first met Al. Jonah had heard somebody, probably Al himself, say that Al was an
alcoholic. It didn’t’ make sense to Jonah. Where we lived, the alcoholics were obvious, stumbling and falling in the grimy
streets, leaving pools of steaming urine on the sidewalks on cool spring mornings. Al was clean and kind with a broad, white
smile in his dark, dark face. “Are you an alcoholic?” Jonah wanted to know. “Of course,” said Al. He had ridded his life of shame
along with the alcohol.
“Is that why they call you Al?” Jonah asked him.
Al had questions for Jonah, too. “Can you read?” Al asked Jonah. Jonah was indignant. We hadn’t yet diagnosed his reading
disability but Jonah already knew that becoming a reader, for him, was not going to be easy. He didn’t like Al’s casual
assumption. “I’m only six years old,” Jonah said. Al laughed with his whole body, rocking back and throwing his mangled
fingers in the air the way he did.
We’re all brand new. That was Al’s philosophy. Never expect anything. We’re all only six years old.
The last time I saw Al, I told him Jonah had graduated from high school. Al was shocked. “But, but, but,” he sputtered, “he’s
only six years old!”
The man in the green suit is still dancing. He’s got the Holy Ghost. He looks something like Al, and, like Al, appears oblivious of
what anybody thinks.
Yesterday, one of Al’s brothers said that Al was never embarrassed to be Al. If he wanted to sing, he would. If he wanted to
dance, he would. Didn’t matter if there was anybody on the dance floor. Another brother got up. “Oh yes, Al would dance,”
the brother said, emphasizing his words exactly the way Al always had. “Don’t matter what anybody said. Al would dance!” He
paused,looking just like Al, waiting for the right beat to make his point. “And, there might not even be any music playing.”
Al always started a sentence with And. You might not see him for six months or a year, but as soon as he saw you he’d start
out saying “And....” like you’d just seen him a minute ago and he was still in the middle of a sentence. “And...” he’d say
stabbing the air with a hand that curled like an apostrophe, and launch into the middle of discussion that never ended.
Brother Taylor is dancing in the pulpit. He uses his hands like Al did, building up momentum until he looks as if he might just fly
into the air. I don’t know how to describe Al’s hands.
The first time he came to visit I was in the kitchen. The kids, being kids, asked the question that they were supposed to be too
polite to ask. “What happened to your hands?”
Al, being Al, was not embarrassed. He told them about the chemical fire his first day as a tool-and-die maker. His body was
one big checkerboard of square patches from the skin grafts, looking like an aerial view of crop formations. His fingers were
curved and bent, what’s left of them. There were nine fingers, maybe. Or eight and a half. When he was finally released from
the hospital he had a choice whether to receive his settlement as a lump sum or as an annuity. He chose a lump sum and spent
it all on alcohol and drugs. The lump sum was a good choice, he said. An annuity would have allowed him to stay drunk for the
rest of his life.
“Don’t you have regrets?” I asked him once, about all the wasted years he had before he got clean. I regretted for him all the
missed sunshine, and snowfalls, and days at the beach. He never experienced those things in the first thirty years of his life, the
years he’d spent in a prison of his own self-destructive thoughts. And they were things that he loved so much.
“No,” he said without hesitation. “Because it all makes me who I am.” He’d stopped then, the way he did, waiting for the right
beat, “And I like who I am.”
One of the women in the choir faints and the church nurses dressed in white rush to fan her with their programs. Al didn’t
believe in organized religion, couldn’t understand how anybody could just sit and take somebody else’s word about God, but he
loved ecstasy. He loved joy once he stopped searching for it in alcohol and drugs.
“Sometimes,” I said to him once, “I think there’s something sexual about the way people fallout in church.”
“Of course,” Al said.
Al’s brothers put stress on their words exactly as Al always did. One of them talked about going to visit Al in the hospital. I
just caught the tail end of his story. “And I stayed.” he said. Stress on the verb. I stayed.
Al was always seeking enlightenment. He loved Jesus, but in a fellow traveler kind of way, not in the usual pew and hymnal way
that people do. He would never call himself a Christian. “I have no use,” he said, “for anybody telling me what I have to
believe. I have a problem with authority,” Al would say.
Al didn’t believe in exclusion. Talking about AA, about some new thing he’d discovered in the program or some new observation
about alcoholics, he knew I never drank much of anything, but he didn’t leave me out. “You would have made a really good
alcoholic,” he said to me once, with conviction.
I love people who believe. I just love conviction.
When I finally left Chicago, left welfare and public housing for a “good job” two hundred miles away, Al drove the rental truck
that moved my ragged furniture, my mismatched belongings and my children out of the city. As he pulled into my new town, I
breathed deeply. The air was fresh. The streets were clean and green. “Everything is better here,” I said. Al didn’t speak. Out
of the corner of my eye, I saw him shake his head.
It wasn’t better. It was different. It was cleaner and quieter and safer. But it lacked the intimacy of poverty. It lacked the
color and character and originality that I had left behind. My children and I have always missed the closeness of those years
when we lived in one room and slept in a single bed. I spent those years struggling to remove them from that poverty. I
succeeded in doing that while they were still too young to know the cruelty and despair of it. And they’ve never fully forgiven
Chicago’s not familiar to me anymore. The food pantry where Al worked, where I’d gone for milk and canned goods and later
stayed to make coffee and answer phones, moved from an old house into an impersonal storefront during the years I’ve been
gone. In the new building, Al’s office has a lock on it. I don’t recognize too many people anymore. Many of the ones I
remember best have died.
We’re not staying in the old neighborhood this weekend. My daughter Sarah is in college now. Her friend Gino, who she met in
Memphis but who lives in Chicago, has offered us room at his house. The church is across the street. I came to the service by
myself while my children slept late and Gino played with his keyboard. Gino’s only been in this church once - when his father
made him go in and walk up to the pulpit to tell the preacher that somebody got to move their car out of his spot.
Gino’s father died six months ago. I discover that money I’ve sent Sarah for textbooks and college expenses has gone to Gino
when he needed bus fare to get back to his dying father. His father’s car still sits in the parking space in front of the house
most of the time. We used it to go to Al’s funeral. The 8-track tape deck still works.
The choir director, still bouncing on the balls of his feet, swings his arms like a boxer. As he throws his fists, his fingers fly
open. When the hands draw back, whatever section of the mass choir they have flown at leans forward before erupting into
even higher levels of frenzy, their black-robed bodies quaking, belting out the chorus. “Ev-er-eeeeee thing is gonna be all right!”
I work in a cubicle. I’m finally making enough money to have some choices about my life and some opportunities for my
children. The cubicle walls are gray. The air is dry and stale. It has already been breathed by somebody else. Twice. Outside
the church, soft petals of snow flutter in the cool air, clean and white and new in a world that doesn’t have Al in it. Here in this
city where everything is not better, is a job I hate in an office where I don’t belong. My co-workers talk about lawn care and
baby showers. I don’t know how to talk to them. I keep a picture of Al at my desk.
I had written to him once, “I’ll always think of you bouncing down the street with that big hat and a big smile on your face.” A
few days later the mailman was at my door holding a package with the picture of Al, big black hat circling his dark face, white
Brother Taylor dances back to the pulpit. The choir is in a frenzied final version of the chorus. “Ev-er-eeeeee thing is gonna be
all right!” before the congregation and the choir fall into their seats.
“I just want you all to praaaaise His Name,” Brother Taylor shouts. “Can you do that for me?” He pleads. “You’ll feel better if
you do.” he turns to the side, grinning, looking out the corner of his eye. “You’ll feel better if you do.”
“I just wish somebody would help me,” he pleads. Heads bob in agreement. Voices call out. “Praise Him, Brother Tay-lor,
I need to feel these voices to wash over me. I don’t know anybody in this church and they don’t know me. They don’t know Al
and they don’t know he’s dead.
The people who loved Al had met at the food pantry on Saturday. On Sunday I’m in this church alone. Saint Paul Missionary
Baptist. The only white person in the place, I can’t keep a beat to save my life. I watch their hands and try to get in sync with
them, but I my focus is not good. The members sway from side to side in a natural wave. I rock forward and back in my seat,
sometimes laughing, sometimes sobbing. If I’d never known Al, I’d been feeling self-conscious, but Al was the first person to
help me understand that it’s not what you look like that matters, it’s what you are. Sometimes in life you’re lucky enough to
meet somebody who knows what you are and who you are. Somebody who tells you that everything you’ve done in your life
makes you what you are – and what you are is okay.
Brother Taylor catches his breath at the pulpit. “I want you to reach out to your neighbor,” he says. “I need you all to tell your
neighbor that ev-er-eeeeee thing is gonna be all right!”
In eighteen hours I have to be back in that cubicle where nobody really knows me and nobody ever knew Al, and Al is dead and I
don’t want to go.
“I need you all to tell your neighbor!” Brother Taylor brings the congregation to their feet, and I stand with the rest of them.
I’m wearing the dress that I wore to the funeral, but they don’t know that. They don’t know that I had a friend once and now I
The drummer raises his arm to start the choir on a new round of song. I turn to my left, to the woman who has taken my
hand. She turns to me, too. The drummer hits a beat. The choir is back on their feet, arms in the air, and Ev-er-eeeeee
thing is gonna be all right!”