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zeal for this house

Henderson had shrunk. And the APPLE STORE with its glass windows and taunting fruit hauntingly appeared one day as if out of smoke. Seated on high haunches, as if a castle of white and gray and so much glass, the apple rising symbolically from its roof, rising even higher than the tree.

A boy draws a definitive line on the concrete with pure white chalk. He sees himself in the glass and a burst of orange, rolling, rising, behind him. He smiles at his own reflection before dropping the chalk to shatter and letting his feet carry him to Charlemagne.

Somewhere on Lancaster, further down, Ms. Lana hums on her porch with her two sisters. Pig feet simmer on a stove next to a pan full of cleaned-just-enough chitterlings. Incense swims through the house, licking the walls in bursts of sage, wrapping gently around the full folds of the sisters’ bellies. With their slippers stuffed around bulging, swollen feet, their round cheeks and brown eyes piercing, they lean too far forward in rocking chairs, tongues always clucking like the revelation of a muse.

Rochelle buries her toothpick in between teeth and tongue letting wood marinate gently in saliva, the points pressing against gum and jaw like a threat, like a knife to a throat and held.

Natalia twists the rings around her fingers, taps toes on the wood base of the porch—a rhythm she’s caught somewhere in her nerves.

The dusk is always present on this porch, these three women sucking in the day or drinking the sound the sun makes when it sets.

The hell we supposed to do with an APPLE STORE when we ain’t even got a grocery store?

Like they taunting us.

Got a half-bitten apple all big on the doors and we can’t find no fresh fruit in a ten-mile radius.

What they sell in there anyways.

Cellphones.

Rochelle hisses the word cell like a curse, her toothpick moving briefly to lips. The humidity eats at her skin, forming round beads of sweat she swats at like flies.

Them computers.

LAPTOPS.

Jordan went in there say one of them cellphones cost $500. A computer damn near $1000.

And they ain’t go no black folks working, not one. Got all these Asian college boys.

White boys whose Daddies probably own the place.

They stupid or something? With all them glass windows?

Hear they looking for a security guard.
They know they in some heat.

Building an APPLE STORE on Lancaster.

Ain’t that some shit.

According to city maps, Henderson ended at the tree, its branches spreading like wings, like bones or borders, like long brown necks stretching into cerulean blue. According to Ms. Lana and her sisters, Henderson ended two blocks down the road where Lancaster intersected with Charlemagne. But the buses stopped at the tree and the pizza shops never delivered past the tree and the kids who lived past the tree went to the school with no books, no computers and the lowest graduation rates.

Henderson had shrunk. And the APPLE STORE with its glass windows and taunting fruit hauntingly appeared one day as if out of smoke. Seated on high haunches, as if a castle of white and gray and so much glass, the apple rising symbolically from its roof, rising even higher than the tree. That “flag” was what offended Henderson most, for in defying the tree, it defied the most sacred threshold of the town, spoils of some old battle like a grave. That “flag” pushed Ms. Lana and her sisters to lean forward at dusk with pursed lips and squinted eyes, watching this final touch rise from the beast that was the store.

You see that.

Unhuhhh.

What is it?

One of them apples.

Like they taunting.

Unhuhhh.

Taunting, the women hiss the word like it is a needle pressing into skin, or jabbing, falling into a vein. The closest grocery store was twenty minutes away by car…on the far side of Bloomingdale—tall ceilings and organic everything, edamame and fresh avocado, bushels of kale and shelves full of quinoa, pita chips, hummus, wide trays of sushi, apples fresh from a nearby orchard. Different types. On Saturdays, people from Henderson carpooled to Bloomingdale or jitney drivers made runs to the store to pick up old ladies with bags of groceries.

[Monroe, the street parallel to Lancaster boasted a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Long John Silvers, a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Wendy’s in a five-mile stretch. The majority of the town ate at least one meal a day on Monroe. Fifty-two percent of the town met the medical standards of obesity.]

The town felt it. The pushing from Bloomingdale, the stores that first broke past Charlemagne and now broke even past the tree—past the now sacred marker of something all their own. It was this feeling of pushing, this pressure from the neighboring town that forced Pastor Alfred C. Louis to call a town meeting at the church. Ms. Lana and her sisters were the first to arrive, their full bodies leaning on silver canes.

Wasn’t pushing past Charlemagne enough?

You know they ain’t fittin to stop till this whole region is all Bloomingdale.

They gone push us right into the river.

Gonna do it without no remorse either.

Well, what the hell they got to feel bad about?

They’re getting their money.

Course. Long as they getting their money.

Don’t give a shit about nothing else long as they’re getting they money.

The windows of the church reflected off the faces of the community members—shards of glass like the pieces of their respective stories, bursts of gold in the setting sun cutting through the branches of the tree. The church fans in hands were more like the accentuation of a series of facts, more like accessories than tools to keep the heat from sinking into skin (or to keep the skin from sticking to clothes). Long brown pews nursed thighs, held up bodies, evident solidarity infused in old wood. On Sundays, the spirit of God erupted from live flesh and the pews like rocks remained the only constant thing besides God in the walls of the church.

Pastor Louis had carried a chair from his study to emphasize that he was indeed one amongst the people. His suit stuck to his body in the heat, an omen to the authority he was reluctant to relinquish.

There something we fittin to do?

File a petition.

Shit’s fucked up. Ain’t no way we can ignore it.

Let’s refrain from using profanity in the House of—

Let’s burn it down!

You think we need more niggas in prison?

Few more won’t make a difference.

We ain’t burning nothing down. We ain’t trying to start no war between Bloomingdale and Henderson.

Shit the war been here. Y’all all just blind as hell. Been here since they started pushing us out. Since they tore down the high rise. Shit. It’s been here since Reconstruction ended.

We ain’t burning nothing down!

And why the hell not?

We ain’t gonna gonna be perceived as nothing but a bunch of violent, angry niggers. Now there’s a right way—

A right way? You mean kissing ass? Making a new marking line, redrawing Henderson on city maps?

Nah. Last time we said it. It stops at the tree.

Ain’t nobody said nothing about conceding. But if we talk to them right we could get them to—

I’m sick and tired of begging crackers for shit we shoulda had since day one.

Half of the room erupted in raucous applause, mostly the younger people waving their fans at the speaker in affirmation. Pastor Louis leaned far back in his chair.

He was thirty-six years old, with long limbs and eyes that tended to betray their own secrets. He believed in a personal truth that could supersede an ultimate one. He believed in a God more human that he could ever reveal with the walls of his father’s church pressing down on his subconscious mind.

When the city offices contacted him about the Redevelopment Board (with the goal of “diversifying” in order to integrate with the community), he was hesitant only because of the role the position would play in defining his reputation in the community. He accepted though, with the promise of anonymity and a stipend. When the Board introduced the plans to build an APPLE STORE he nodded, stretched lips into a smile and brought his glasses down to the tip of his nose. He wondered (in a subtle, unspoken sort of way) how he could object in a room full of suits and old money, a few yuppies from Bloomingdale, and all white skin. It was these grins, the general consensus of approval, his personal isolation and the promise of acceptance that drove him to concede. The thought rested on his mind that no one important, not in Bloomingdale or in the country at large, wanted an angry, contrarian, Black man.

What I want to know…WHAT I WANT TO KNOW… IS WHO THE HELL AGREED TO THIS SHIT!?

I sure as hell didn’t!

None of us did. Think they need our permission?

Somebody had to say something.

I sure as hell remember the agreement we made about seeking the approval of—

Pastor Louis sucked the inside of his cheek and played with his tie. He imagined the room bending in the stained glass, the upper windows demolished for a second floor, a new organ, a better choir (the largest congregations directly correlated with the most musically inclined choirs), and a collection plate that filled itself without even asking, as if by an act of somebody’s God. That was his objective. It was the concept of owning things that intrigued him, the way new money felt in his palm rather than the dissonance he felt after spending it. In this way, it was not greed that drove him but obsession, a yearning in the bottom of his stomach, a hollowness full in the wide places of his suit.

The sisters noticed him in tandem, leaned forward in the pew like three old eagles, beady eyes and canes. Like a machine they leaned back again, drawing in a breath to be released later in an outburst of gossip, strange wisdom, insight gained from the twitch in the Pastor’s face.

The meeting concluded abruptly in an explosion of voices. It was past six and that meant dinner, streetlights, a return to the normalcy of their daily lives. In truth, everyday affairs left little room for these kinds of concerns. Everyday affairs swallowed the desire for something greater and if it wasn’t for what followed, the town would have forgotten the store or submitted, ducking heads into the next day’s uniform’s, scraping something minor from some rich man’s palm.

Outside, balmy air pushed the older community members home to crockpots and half full laundry baskets, porches full of bicycles, skateboards and stoops of young people. Pastor Louis was the last to leave, turning the copper key, feeling his body settle into his shoes, the weight of the night falling onto his shoulders. The Pastor almost missed him in the dark: boy with baggy jeans and wide brown eyes leaning forward, hands dangling between knees. He had sat in the back row of the church, plastic straw between teeth, watching the conversation push through the evening, watching as the Pastor allowed silence to engulf him in mystery.

You need something?

What’s your GOD look like?

The boy spoke without glancing back at the voice that addressed him. The boy’s voice pressed against the Pastor’s in the dark, mingling with the shadows in a way that seemed to convict the most remote places of the Pastor’s spirit.

The church is closed. Everyone’s gone home for the night. Did you need something?

I said…What’s your GOD look like?

He owed no one anything and after pocketing the key, Pastor Louis took two steps down the cobblestone and turned to the boy.

Goodnight, son.

The boy’s eyes grew into slits, his lips tightening around the straw in his mouth, his hands folding around the railing of the church steps. Whispering against the air, to both the Pastor and to himself…

Zeal for your house shall consume me.

The Pastor heard him. Maybe. Or he didn’t want to. Regardless, he didn’t stop until he had reached his car and drove away from the church, from the store and the tree. His own house loomed above him in the dark and only then did he consider turning back. Only then did the boy’s words begin to echo in his mind and press against the hollow places of his skull, leaking into his dreams and into his thoughts way into the night.

Zeal for your house shall consume me. The Pastor dreamed of dancing. Not with flying limbs and spirit rising in unified praise. No. He dreamed of dancing alone, raising up hands to a God only he knew and understood. It was not resentment that spurred his desire for solitude, but exhaustion. Pressure from eyes always lifted to his own pulpit, hands always ambiguously raised (in reverence for him or for God?). Sometimes he grew silent at the pulpit, pursed his lips and listened to the hum of his congregation, overwhelmed with his own power to build and deconstruct a Spirit’s flame. He believed. Surely he believed. The doctrinal idea of God had shaped him since his birth, since his back pressed against the same pews over which he now lorded. But from somewhere in his throat, he often felt like screaming at the sheepishness of his people, their eyes always pleading for some human manifestation of God.

While the Pastor dreamed, the boy scraped the end of a match against it’s box and watched it burn. He did this several times before leaving the church stairs and walking the few blocks to the tree. He had stolen three pieces of white chalk from his school, and he rolled them between his fingers in the pocket of his hoodie. He stood at the tree and imagined the APPLE of the store exploding in torrential flames. He grinned, clucked his teeth and commenced to lighting the tree on fire.

About the Author

A.K. Payne is a first-year student Yale University. She has had plays produced as parts of the City Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival and Pittsburgh Playwrights' Theatre Festival in Black and White. She is a recipient of the National Portfolio Gold Medal in the Scholastic Writing Awards.

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