Jim loved ideas. None of the youthful entertainments—neither sport nor song—could surpass the joy he felt in the mastery of concepts. Above all others he loved Emerson, Thoreau and Charles Sanders Pierce. He spent countless hours with their books and cherished what they had to say about nature and the secular ideal– themes he saw as quintessentially American. He read their works quickly and hungrily, committing long passages to memory. He did it, not hoping to grow wise so much as he wanted to possess these ideas, the way one owns a dialect or blood type.
Everyone applauded Jim for tenacity in this work, except his mother. Before her descent into madness she told him, “You must think every little thing you study is gonna leap into your head, wanting to be understood.” He heard the remark and thought it typical. His mother had no facility with ideas, stunted as she was by a dependence on strong religion. This to him was as dangerous as superstition. She forced Jim to join in on her daily rituals but he always resented this. He felt it betrayed his truest creed– that questions of being which most people laid at the feet of God were best answered, not by one inspired soul, but all the great minds of history combined.
By the time he was to graduate from secondary school life seemed to agree with his belief. He was accepted to a string of schools in the northeast where he longed to go. Even the sound of the phrase “New England” made him breathe deeply, so tied was it to his notions of progress, but this would never come to pass. As the last masterstroke of her fully lucid mind, Jim’s mother forced him to decline all their offers. She stood over him as he signed “no, thank you” letters to Dartmouth, Williams and Brown University. She mailed them off, including one letter accepting a scholarship to a land-grant school down South, in a town where the roads were barely paved and everything was hazy through a film of red clay dust. Where there was no Ivy to speak of, only Pine and tobacco fields wrapped in miles of barbed wire. A place where, she told a seething Jim, “you won’t lose your black identity.”
These and other forces led him to J.B. Wallace, councilman of the town’s 4th district, where he’d taken a job as a campaign assistant. Totally underwhelmed by the offerings of his freshman course load, he kept himself busy with politics—that other great forum of American ideas. Jim had reasoned if he didn’t like the place where he was forced to live then he could use it as a training ground to learn the ways of power.
One afternoon in particular Jim found himself in the councilman’s office. They were reviewing a speech he’d just written. It was to be delivered that night. Illuminated in warm auburn sun that shone through tall window shutters, Wallace slapped his gut in pleasure at the most potent lines, causing dust to waft up before it settled again on his rotundness.
“I got to tell ya Jimmy Jam, you really outdid yourself this time. I mean you’ve written some good speeches but this one? My Lord… this one right here takes the cake. We’ll forge coalitions to make a better tomorrow… that right there? That’s smooth as silk. (Jim found the more complex he made things sound the more Wallace loved it.) The guys down at the Rotary Club gon’ gimme that vote for sure. To think it only took a half-day’s notice… You good, boy. You real good.”
Then there was a pause. Wallace stared hard and long like he was having trouble seeing Jim which may well have been the case– him sitting as he was in the oak walled office illuminated in sun with Jim before him, in the shadows. He cleared his throat importantly, “Usually I save this assignment for myself but son, you’ve got a little something I like to call talent. I want you to write my address for the pre-election prayer service next Sunday. It’ll be at the Tabernacle Baptist Church down on 3rd street.” The councilman said it while admiring the few championship rings he wore at all times.
“It’s gotta go on for five to ten minutes. Nothing to get me in trouble with the papers, you understand?” He circled a hand like it cradled a snifter of brandy, “I’m just looking for something civic minded. Got that?” Then he added, “And I don’t have to tell a kid smart as you ‘bout the importance of church to elections.”
Jim nodded “yes” with the involuntary enthusiasm of any pupil before his master. Though he hadn’t considered it before, he found the claim instantly persuasive –the importance of church to elections– and determined just as quickly he was up to the task. This time Jim would write something truly inspired; something good enough to make himself proud. He stood to his feet and accepted the offer.
“Well good,” the councilman said. “I’ll be expecting my remarks come this Saturday night. Don’t let me down.”
It was Thursday.
Jim emerged onto the street and paced the sidewalk in front of City Hall, gathering his thoughts. He walked down Main Street, across an expansive green separating the little town from campus. A rich purple arrested the sunset sky and shone pink on the hills—an almost daily phenomenon though he’d never seen it for its proper majesty.
Back at the dorm Jim readied his workspace, clearing his desk of everything but a pen, a yellow legal pad and a thesaurus. He finally sat and within an hour produced a full draft, the length of three hand-written pages.
He leaned back in the chair crossing his feet on the edge of the desk, preparing to be moved by his own words but stopped reading after a single page. His first questions were to do with grammar and syntax but he found nothing wrong with the text on that basis. A stubborn ring of inauthenticity clung to every sentence like fleas to a dog and he needed to get rid of it.
He thought to ask his roommate.
“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about sermons, would you?”
Frank sat on his bed reading: what text Jim did not know. Aside from common courtesies– keeping his space tidy, saying hello and goodbye when either came or went—he hadn’t taken an interest in Frank at all. When he asked Jim for clarification he said, “I need to know a little bit more about how it sounds.”
Frank jabbed an index finger into the book. “That’s it, isn’t it? I always wondered what your deal was, the way you walk around here all undercover. Come to find out, you’re from a different country. Well are you?” he asked and Jim shook his head.
“Then how about your parents? Ya’ll must be from the islands,” but he said no again.
“We’re from the South. Plantations, the Great Emancipation, all of that,” he said, trying to sound humorous, but Frank’s expression changed from mild amusement to that of a confused lap dog.
“How can you be from here and not know a thing about—“ Jim by then wore a slight grimace and Frank stopped. “Sorry, man. Point taken. You’re right. I shouldn’t have assumed,” then bounded from bed to his feet.
“Alright. I guess when I think about what a normal sermon sounds like, it’s a lil’ something like this. Now don’t judge me too harshly. It’s been a while since I heard the good word so I’m a little out of practice.” He bounced on the balls of his feet and cracked his neck like a prize-fighter before the bell. He pointed directly at Jim:
I’ll tell you something, huh! ‘Bout the glory of God, huh!
God will make a way, huh! Out of no way, huh!
God delivered Daniel, huh! From the lion’s den, huh!
Gave Joshua the victory, huh! In the battle of Jericho, huh!
Didn’t he do it, ah!
Didn’t he do it, ah!
Frank’s voice bellowed pulling meaning into itself and he sang the last word in a flurry of operatic notes, bending over as each one perused a greater depth. Jim patted his jaw to assure that his mouth wasn’t open, so wrapped was he by the sermonette. Of an instant Frank had transformed in Jim’s mind from a negligible daily presence to an orb of radiating interest. “It was a little off but you get the idea,” he said hopping back onto the bed. Jim would never have guessed that all this time such a remarkable talent dwelt within his roommate- a talent that he seemed to wear with such casual indifference. He thanked Frank and returned his gaze to the three pages. It crossed his mind that as easily as Frank had spoken so might he have written the speech and for the first time since arriving to the school Jim felt a small but undeniable pang of envy.
He barely slept that night, filled as he was with nerves about the enormity of the assignment and the new realization that finishing would be harder than he’d originally thought.
What he needed was context.
Instead of class the next day Jim went to the library.
Since there was no time to read at any depth Jim opted for breadth. Focusing on protestant theology and the sermonic literature of the Southern Baptist tradition, Jim would identify the major controversies of each discourse. He read summaries first then moved on to the monographs. He read the work of James Thompson, Joe Barnhart and Arthur Emery. He perused obscure 18th century texts—Oliver Noble on the obligations of ministers and the lectures of Harold Rowly— reading so fast his head ticked back and forth like he disagreed with every page, writing all the while. He slammed each book when he was through so loudly that one student dared intervene. It was a polite note he left at the side of the desk reading, “For the love of God, would you please stop?”
It was around closing time when he finished, having amassed 50 pages of meticulously organized notes. With these materials Jim was more than sure he’d filled in the most glaring gaps of his knowledge. With them he sought to produce a speech that according to a slightly revised standard, at least wouldn’t make him cringe.
With Frank cleared out for the night the room was all his own. Jim clicked on the lights taking a moment to enjoy the solitude, when the phone rang. He didn’t want to answer but what if it was an emergency? The staff at St. Andrew’s Hospital, by then his mother’s full-time residence, had warned him about this possibility. It turned out that the strangeness that invaded her cognition was only part of the problem—a mere symptom of a devastating malaise that over the months had destroyed her nervous system, leaving her paralyzed and bed-ridden. He didn’t know what to expect with these calls, whether it would be his mother on a wild rant, a painfully detailed nurse’s update or worse.
After the fourth ring he finally picked up.
“Jimmy Jam, my man!” It was the councilman. “Screening your calls, I see. You ain’t caught up in no mess are you? Listen here. All you have to say is, ‘I was just thinking about you, girl.’ Believe me, it works every time…” he laughed and so did Jim, relieved. “Anyhow, just calling to check up on you, boy. How’s it going with my remarks?”
“Fine sir,” Jim answered. “Everything’s just fine.”
“Well I’m counting on you, now. I look forward to hearing it tomorrow night,” and just that abruptly the councilman ended the call.
He began immediately rifling through stacks of notes, twirling a pen to help jog his thoughts, then set them aside to write. Having thusly prepared, he hoped it would take no more than two times the length of the speech to get it done but hours went by, and still there was nothing. While Frank and all the other co-eds partied, Jim spent the night staring at a blank page. This was also new. Never before had he taken the time to learn something and not have assimilated the contents. He thought for an instant that he was cursed but this was illogical. The methods Jim used to transform what he read into usable information just wasn’t suited to the topic. The issue could be no more or less complicated.
On waking the next morning at his chair, the desk lamp tanning his skin, Jim stood to put on his shoes. He stuffed keys in his pocket but didn’t lock the door on the way out. He walked in an unusual hurry from the quad and around the student center. He passed the main academic building and walked through the green at the end of which sat the Tabernacle.
He walked through the lobby and into the tall, perfect stillness of the sanctuary. Suddenly aware of his haggard appearance Jim stuffed his shirt in his pants heading back to the reverend’s quarters. A couple sat in the anteroom holding hands, ogling each other. They were both rather large on the bench. With nowhere to sit Jim waited near the door. When it opened he blocked the way, slamming a fist on the ledge.
“I need to talk immediately,” he said.
The reverend stood without speaking, unsure if this was just a garden-variety lunatic or a real troublemaker on his hands.
“I’m writing this speech for councilman Wallace but I—“ the reverend raised a hand, cutting him off.
“I don’t know if you cared to notice young man, but this couple has been waiting to speak with me. You’ll have to wait your turn.” By then the paramours had gotten up from the bench and stood at the door, their eyes volleyed between the two men when either spoke.
“But you don’t understand,” Jim was nearly shouting. “I don’t know the first thing about any of this. Not about Jesus and not about the church. What do you expect me to do?”
“It sounds to me like you have a much bigger problem than I can help you with right now.” Just then the lady used a hip to wedge past Jim and the man followed her inside. “Look,” the reverend continued, “I’m booked for the rest of the day but if you want to talk about your Christian walk, feel free to contact my secretary.”
“And make an appointment!” the lady shouted.
The reverend gestured to close the door but Jim lodged a foot inside before he’d shut it all the way, “But what about the speech?” he said.
Just then the reverend’s brow turned severe and his voice was tense. “I don’t know,” he said. “Why don’t you just try… something… civic minded!” Jim breathed in his retort but the reverend slammed the door in his face and the sound went booming down the hall.
Jim sat on a mahogany pew in the sanctuary. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he thought. He’d prioritized and studied. He organized his reading and sought help, but not just in this sense. Jim thought again about the councilman’s statement. Really, it was not supposed to be this way. Not where the colonists fled; to Provincetown, Philadelphia—land of the first amendment and the establishment clause; where Everson triumphed over New Jersey and the States over Reynolds. While he’d accepted the claim off hand, sitting at the front of the church it baffled him— if prayer was not allowed in school then why was political speech allowed in church?
The idea filled Jim with a rush of inspiration but no– there was the problem of the blameless man from Atlanta. Then memory hit. The kitchen table. A lamp dangling overhead. Jim –nine– stirring a bowl of navy beans. And his mother. Head cocked, a shoulder hunched lifting the phone to her ear. Face smug the way it got when she talked about the old days. “And they were blind fools,” she said. “Fight fire with fire, I always say. How many of our people still getting the back end and he wants us to just lay down in surrender? No, I wasn’t never going to nobody’s march,” the sound rang in his ears all those years later.
He’d spent his life resisting her indoctrination. He never saw himself as anything but immune to her words. His mother had not cursed Jim, only obliged him to live in her company. By affecting the atmosphere of his life, she controlled a domain of thought that with all his might he would never overcome. He thought of his mother and surged with hate.
Night fell. Jim looked to the clock. He was supposed to meet the councilman in less than an hour, but he had nothing to show. It wasn’t the school nor was it the place that was so bad, he realized, but he was himself fundamentally lacking. He dropped his face into his hands and rubbed his eyes with the fat of his palms, finally admitting he’d failed. There was nothing left to do but call Wallace and tell him straight up. There would be no speech after all. He picked up the phone and began to dial though all there was on the other end was emptiness.
“Is anybody there?” The voice was low and raspy, oddly clear.
“Mom, it’s me.”
“Oh…” she sighed, chuckling “I didn’t hear the phone ring… Son?”
“When are you coming home?” Jim could hear the bleeping of machines in the background.
“I can’t mom, I’m here at school remember?” Again he felt a rising tide of anger. She had made him go there after all, and for what? So he could be some place close to his identity, she said. But he’d never felt so outside himself in all his life.
He hoped she would sense his contempt but of all things she asked him to recite. “You know the one I like best,” she said. Jim wanted to refuse her request, he thought he’d unlearned those incantations long ago, but the words bubbled up and formed crisp in his mouth:
Have we not opened your breast,
And removed from you your burden
Which weighed down your back?
And raised high your fame?
So verily with hardship there is ease,
So when you have finished from your occupation, stand up for worship,
And to your Lord turn all your intentions.
All except the machines were quiet when he was through. She began to shudder and coo, then her voice clicked, robotically. He knew the routine too well. She was locked in. “The Serpent,” she said, an accusation. “ The serpent… is loose! The serpent is loose… taking the souls… of men!” she groveled. “Knocking on windows. On the rooftops, it swoops down the chimney sweeps!“ Jim heard the monitors accelerate. He wondered when the nurses would stop what they were doing and notice that his mother was having what they call a psychotic episode.
“They tried…” she continued, “They tried to take you… from me. But God… He would not let you stray.” Then her voice was sweet. “My beautiful boy. Did I ever tell you… you came into the world singing?” She paused as if waiting for him to answer, then uttered with a cast like drifting off to sleep,
“Your name means Wise Servant of Allah. Hakim Abdullah. Always remember that.”
He tried to conjure his hatred again but couldn’t. It was not the monster he remembered lying there, helpless in her hospital bed, her pulse again slow and steady. He began to feel sorry for his mother. Jim wouldn’t blame her for religion anymore. He saw her only fault was choosing the wrong one.
Yet somehow, and for reasons he would later try to understand, he wrote the entire speech that night. The paragraphs came whole, in magnificent blocks of sculpted prose. They poured from his pen as if it were tethered to invisible string led without him self. He read it over and over to ensure it felt natural. When morning cracked on the horizon he showered and dressed. He ran from the dorm to the church, locking the bedroom door as the phone rang– too late, he thought, to stay back and answer.
He arrived to find Wallace in the parking lot, stony faced and shadowy under an umbrella. Wallace snatched the rain-dotted cards from Jim without speaking a word. Once they were inside he pointed to a spot at the front of the church and told Jim simply, mechanically to sit.
Church would proceed with a customary flair though Jim was too filled with nerves to enjoy the clapping and singing. The reverend stood to speak and the people hollered at his oration. One woman fell to the floor shouting before him. He considered helping her up before realizing it may not have been the point.
Then it was the councilman’s turn. He’d been ornery all morning, though instantly a smile was plastered on his face as he rose to the podium. He began “God is good all the time!” and the people replied, “And all the time God is good!”
It went off without a hitch. Wallace added a few zingers, though he mostly stuck to the script. Afterward he found Jim standing alone at the back of the sanctuary. “Something’s not exactly right with you kid, but you sure can write. You had me sweating and carrying on, but it ain’t no thang. Next time I’m going to get my speeches well in advance.”
Just then there was a violent clap of thunder and pouring rain soon followed. The councilman asked if Jim would like a ride back to the dorm. He declined. “You’re the one with places to be,” he said and then turned from the councilman toward the door.
The lobby was filled with people all waiting for the storm to pass, but he found a path to the exit.
“Wait son,” It was an older woman dressed in white, lace-gloved hands raised to block his way, her eyes all a panic. “I wouldn’t test the weather, you’ll get pneumonia out there child.”
Jim thanked the woman for her concern, looking past her toward something invisible behind the sheet of rain. He undid the last button of his suit jacket and headed straight into the downpour so heavy and loud it was like walking into static.