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March 2023 Issue [Readings]

At Eloise’s Night Light Lounge

From a new edition of Divine Days, which was published last month in the inaugural volume from Seminary Co-op Offsets, an imprint of Northwestern University Press.

That evening, several gifts saluted my return to Eloise’s Night Light Lounge, and customers were treating me to drinks before I took over the six o’clock shift from our barmaid Gracie Rae Gooden, but within ninety minutes I was in deep trouble with that celebrated oddity, Miss Daisy Dawes.

Here’s how it happened. As the voice of Ray Charles sang out from the jukebox “You Are My Sunshine,” I had begun a certain vignette concerning an extremely prominent South Side minister who was known to be a racetrack hound and a man of heavy debts, who knew firsthand the wages of sin.

Betraying the barkeep’s vows about repeating thirdhand gossip as firsthand reality, I bore witness in wrongheaded full flight to a left-handed rumored tale concerning this preacher’s current preoccupation, amid the lore of his sex life, which many felt rivaled that of the mythology spun out concerning his favorite race, the Kentucky Derby. The delicate particulars of this denouement? One shepherdess in Sweet-Briar’s flock had so loved him that she had donated her only begotten lamb to be not only fondly raised by the pastor’s hand for the child’s spiritual fulfillment, but as a sacrifice to appease the minister’s bodily appetite. (I think the boy’s name was Billy Hyde, but rumor had it that Sweet-Briar spelled it Billie.)

Belly bursts of laughter went up all around me like gaseous balloons set free at a circus performance. I was riding high, a little daft on the customers’ applause. Frankly, when I am telling a story, I get so carried away, I lose all track of objects or persons peripheral to my spieling. The problem is: if the storytelling is going good, on my own solo stellar flight into tale-telling space, I’m tempted to add yet another layer of improvised verse to the saga. Can’t help it.

Now as I turned my head to the left to open a new fifth of Old Forester, I discovered among Aunt Eloise’s most polite, though somewhat eccentric customers, little Daisy Dawes had been over there on my left-hand side, brooding and brewing up a storm. Her sour, heavily made-up face was getting more evil than an emery board of gritty toenail shavings, apparently because of the indelicate, inglorious remarks about the preacher’s involvement with the kid. Daisy Dawes had mounted the barstool as one tiptoes up to the precipice of an impassioned, jawboning protest, a mean momma in her long white mink frock purchased at the Catholic Salvage with her store-bought hair down. She owned thirteen and a half wigs that I knew about; her overstuffed bloodred purse was the shape of a pregnant kangaroo’s pouch.

Miss Daisy Dawes was about to fly over that bar rail after me like the last of some long-gone band of rangers bent on carrying me to the final resting place in paradise—well, purgatory.

So heady was I from the pomposity of my storytelling that at first I heard myself actually exclaiming in Daisy Dawes’s direction. “Without her broomstick, Daisy Dawes can’t hope to fly,” I bellowed to my bar-rail groundlings, for her high heels had sunk into the very cushion.

The customers tried to settle Daisy Dawes down. Talk her down? You might as well have been talking to that man wasting away in the last phase of the moon.

Claiming that my mother had struck a deal with Lucifer for my soul five minutes after I left the birth chamber (I’m mightily refining her language here), Daisy Dawes convicted me, without a trial, on the cliff of death. I was a dead man going down slow in Satan’s arms, off that cliff and straight on down to hell for telling a tough tale about her Sweet-Briar’s body and soul.

Even from the distance of nine feet, her breath was bad, so bad it was getting to me. It hit me like a billy goat’s yawning. Those large, yellowed, tobacco-stained teeth with all of those gold fillings, billeted in that tiny mouth of hers. Daisy Dawes was a gone weird sister.

Life had tenderized Daisy Dawes, but it had also pinched her into a Miss Mean Meat, a brittle vixen. It had stewed her over and boiled her up to a lean-hearted brew, and you needed a steak knife to pierce her soul to the quick (meat at the core was tough).

Just as I was getting vague and murky, sorry and sentimental, she let loose howling and started cursing me up a blue-cross streak to the red-eyed nines about who did my mother think she was to mutilate (I’m grossly paraphrasing here, in order to refine) the integrity and the reputation of the Rev. Honeywood “Sweet-Briar” Cox by bringing me into the world in the first place. She fell upon the ghosts of my parents with the devouring passion of a jackal for a felled animal on the forest floor. Perhaps it was not me Daisy Dawes was looking at, but a phantom with a voice similar to my own, who had revealed her worst fears about the preacher man. And the Ray Charles recording was still spinning out “You Are My Sunshine.”

It now appeared that for some mysterious reason, Daisy Dawes had reached an impasse, an anticlimax. Did she think I was the Antichrist making the circuit? She seemed stalled in the gates of time, lost as to just what to do and not to do next.

Adept at creating a cross-eyed look, I threw one up at Daisy Dawes, thinking this would do the trick—humor her into howling. This put- down would set her up and bring her down. She greeted my cross-eyed look by sticking out her tongue at me like a cobra and that was when I made another discovery: the tip of Daisy Dawes’s tongue was forked about an eighth of an inch. I was almost driven to the ropes. Daisy Dawes, like many people with bad teeth, had always kept her hand up before her mouth when she talked—in a guarded, shame-faced way, as if to hide her thoughts behind her pall cast of smoke from those Kools.

One side of my mind heard an ancestral voice warn, “Wings you ain’t got on your back—you better have in your feet,” while the other side heard an ancient baritone that I long ago learned to call Wendell “Jasper” Pines: Fool, you’re stalled on full and rooted in an unnatural wrong, ’cause in your high-stepping you stomped down and low-rated—with no more grace than an elephant—this colored lady’s Tar Baby (electrified) fighting piece.

Miss Daisy Dawes commenced to lift (with tenderhearted, sweet-smiling musing and lyrical delicacy) her bloodred purse and drew out a .44, and I saw all my hopes of getting off scot-free go up in black-and-blue smoke before I could catch my first breath—or was it my last? She cried: “NIGGER, I’M CALLING YOU OUT TO FLY YOU ON HOME!”

With Ray Charles singing in his blues-layered, gospel-streaked, festive voice, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you . . . You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” I just knew I was a goner—without having a little woman way cross town to pine away over my dead body on a clean white table. (Hell, somebody had jammed the box but the needle was stuck on Ray Charles’s soul.)

I opened both my eyes. Let me take it all like a man. She’s only aiming for my heart, since she’s already pole-vaulted my head through the streets of Slaughter. I half expected that my followers who had so enjoyed my spiral of tall tales, only to abandon me in my moment of dire need, would suddenly reemerge in the aftermath of my emergency. Naturally, just as the gun sounded they would demand justice. As my body crumpled, they would start to eulogize my Hermes-like spirit and sing, “Oh, didn’t he ramble, till the butchers cut him down.”

All of a sudden, the right leg of the rickety barstool gave way as Daisy Dawes shifted position and she toppled, falling backward in slow motion, so devastating had this vision behind her become in her imagination. Simultaneously, the .44 went off and I hit the floor. The violent discharge of the bullet was so powerful that both of the hands on the wall clock stood stock-still like the hairs on an electrified man’s head (mine?) in the funny papers. But where had the bullet lodged? Well, one thing was for sure, it didn’t lodge into my breadbasket, my short ribs, or my heart—or, thank God, into my long john-brer-bear-meat or I would have been long gone. That would have really stopped my clock. No corn to come off the cob.

Fortunately, the waiting arms of three female regulars caught Daisy Dawes. These were registered nurses who often stopped in for a nightcap with tall tales to tell, after getting off from the evening shift, about their experiences at Forest County Hospital. As they laid her body down across a clean white table in the third booth, they attempted to shield Daisy Dawes as much as possible.

“What are you ladies doing? She should be sitting up. She’s having a seizure,” I screamed.

“Why, Daisy Dawes is just plain-faced mad, and tired of putting up with people who have such little respect for her person—meaning men, period,” explained Dawn Davis.

“And she don’t like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ by Ray Charles, either. She ain’t too hot for Ray Charles. So you put another quarter in that jukebox before she wakes up,” Sondra Spencer said in her righteous voice.

“Now I know the woman’s crazy, with a hole in her soul to match the one in her head.”

“You almost got one in your brain,” Sondra said.

I began to think: Who was I to mock Daisy Dawes’s preacher man? After all, hadn’t he set up a senior citizens’ home for his congregation, fed the hungry (some of them, anyway), and spoken to the down and out with uplifting talk and canned goods (as Rev. Boddie, old “little rock” himself, had administered before Sweet-Briar) in the prisons when few other preachers gave a damn about the dire conditions of the least of these—and long before the Nation of Islam had spread-eagled its wings over the wretched of this earth?

Rev. Sweet-Briar spent little time at the two-dollar window and a lot of time at the track; the church’s money, too—in the form of his salary—he let it be known. The money of the down and out? I did not know. He did some good and some bad and stank no higher than any other in the nostrils of the Redeemer he prayed to. The odor of his humanity would go up on a stretcher of fate and faith, when the end of the world was to be. He was bound to the lot of his sins and gifts. True, Old Sweet-Briar had put together a lot of spare parts and helped repair several lives—lives thrown away upon the dump heap of time—but, I believed, without the instrumentality of divine intervention that Daisy Dawes claimed for him.

Yet Daisy Dawes’s defense almost proved that Sweet-Briar was false as a fox guarding the chicken coop, though she saw his weakness as vulnerability, not as wickedness.

But if life with father was so all-embracing, why then did Daisy Dawes need to tote a gun, or for that matter come here to Eloise’s Night Light to drink, dialogue, and make merry, or meditate three times a week? I looked down at the face of Daisy Dawes once more (now in a final stage of repose) and I saw behind the reddish makeup, in dire relief, the tiny hairs about her chin that you sometimes see on a woman greatly advanced in years. At that precise moment I heard the ancient voice of Wendell “Jasper” Pines directly answer my question: Because she’s human, son, and because she is also lonely for the full meaning of all of His baptizing and His bathing light and His complex ways to the light, in places where the light is dim in her world, and to her eyes in His light, even though Jesus is the Light of the World. And all of this drives her to be fitfully remade, or reborn, anywhere and everywhere she can find light shining in that little old wooden church of her loneliness.

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March 2023

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