The Right One for the Job

By Jamal Michel

O-2webur Glorious Pentecostal Church.” The sign to its entrance stood like a small picket fence on the outskirts of a dirt road. James pulled at his tie. His mother turned and looked at him, unwilling to let up on showing how perturbed she’d been that morning after having dressed him. He was getting baptized. Most of the kids in the neighborhood had already experienced this, but when James was born both of his parents needed to be present to sign off on the baptism. His father couldn’t make it to that. He now drove James and his mother to church, thirteen years later, humming the hymns of last week’s service. There was no one reason he missed on the signing; he was at work and hadn’t been able to make it after his wife’s water broke. The congregation thought up all sorts of stories, that maybe his father was unfaithful, or that maybe James himself was damned. Sunday school was a tortuous ordeal as a result. James sat alone all the while his teachers told of the shortcomings of Job, and how God would eventually save him. He wondered about God, where he had been in Job’s time of isolation, and if he knew what he was doing to James as well. A sort of resentment had been planted then.

The sun struck the surface of the passenger side window as the car door opened, the rays crossed up and over his father’s face. James shielded his eyes. He looked around a moment, at the rundown gas station a few yards away, at the shadows the crows made hovering overhead, circling him as if knowing his identity. There were lines he had been rehearsing for the baptism, lines his mother drilled into him like he were a cabinet with a flimsy shelf. They all walked and stood under a large oak tree just outside the church.

“Let’s hear it, son,” he heard his mother say. James ran through the lines in his head, but thought about it a moment.

“Mama, why am I doing this?” he wanted so badly to understand where it was this man he was professing to presented himself.

“Come here, honey.” She motioned James over to where she stood. “If you listen closely enough, you could hear this tree, you could hear it profess its love for the Lord because of the beauty that surrounds it. Go on, take a listen.”

James moved in, stepping on a root that jutted out of the ground, and pressed his ear against the jagged trunk of that tree. The bark scratched the side of his head, and through the soft whirring of the breeze around them, James heard nothing. He didn’t hear the tree or see the beauty, he only looked at his mother as she smiled, self-assured to have answered her son’s question.

“Well, enough of that,” she said. “We need to practice.” James thought about the words again and this time let them leave his mouth, but he couldn’t hear them. He felt his mouth open and close, his jaw motioned up and down, yet he heard no sound. His mother smiled, clasping her hands together over her mouth, her eyes slowly welling up with tears. He could hear his father in the distance whistling “Without You, I’d Fail.”

“We are so proud of you, hun’,” his mother said, her words stifled by a subtle sob, “We’ll head inside. You should come in when you’re ready.” James watched his parents ascend the wooden steps to the church and close the door behind them. He sat at the foot of the oak tree and tried whispering the lines to himself, but there was not one word to be heard.

“What the hell?” he asked aloud, looking up, his neck growing hot and his cheeks feeling it too. The oak tree swayed in the gentle push and pull of the cool air. Looking down, he drew an X in the dirt, over and over again until it penetrated the earth. He stood up, covering over the X with a few sliding motions of his foot. The oak tree still hadn’t spoken to him, but James tried once more before heading into the church to see if he could actually get something from it. Taking in a deep breath, he stepped closer to the tree now, placing a hand on the side of its trunk before pressing his ear to the bark. There was a crow in the distance that cawed, and the wind picked up slightly, cooling the sweat on his forehead, but still there was silence. He stepped back, and stared straight up the oak to the large, twisted branches that reached out to the sunlight. He kicked it, and turned to make his way inside.

The church was crowded that morning, more so because of the gossip swirling around the day’s main event. Walking down the aisle, James spotted the Richardsons and their two boys who used to play dodge ball against him at Sunday school, the Moores and the Walkers, the neighbor, Aretha, who babysat James until he was nine, and a sea of other faces he had never seen before. His parents were in the front row, seated next to the pastor who stood up the moment James entered.

“And he has arrived!” the pastor bellowed, his voice booming and lurid. James watched as a hundred black and white faces turned toward him now, all wondering things he himself wasn’t wondering, but could probably predict. There were whispers and a few chuckles, but overall the crowd seemed to embrace, not James, but the moment at hand. “Come forward, my son,” the pastor motioned for him to approach the pulpit, “you have a date with your destiny.” James made his way toward the man overseeing the baptism without looking anywhere else, but straight ahead. The crème colored marbled steps were polished the night before and he could see the reflection of stained glass windows, and the image of the Virgin Mary, who hadn’t been looking in his direction. There was a small column holding up a basin of water on the stage and the pastor took James by the shoulders and stood him before it. “Today we are truly blessed. Blessed is the man who takes the oath, an oath of everlasting love and glory for the Lord above.” There were shouts of “amen” some murmurs, and a few hoots, in agreement. “This young man has been anointed by the hand of God, anointed and brought forth by the grace of his loving mother and father. Can I get an amen?” The congregation hummed, sang, and shouted, not for James, but out of the provocation of the pastor.

Standing there, in front of his parents, his community, James ran through the lines again in his head, fearing the pastor would expose his silence as a sign of blasphemy. “Are you ready, son?” The pastor turned his attention back to James, who nodded in response. “We are ready!” the pastor shouted, beginning with a prayer he usually opened baptisms with. Everyone but James hummed along, and while the church prayed, he scanned the audience, wondering about the placement of things that day. The pastor turned to him, singing an unfamiliar song, and dipped his hands in the basin. James looked up at him and the pastor began, in his loud, booming voice.

“Do you, James, accept the Lord in your life? As the ruler and master of your destiny?” James hesitated a second, replaying the lines he said to his mother earlier, the lines he whispered under the oak tree a moment ago. He opened his mouth once more and allowed those empty words to leave him, hearing nothing, but accepting that whatever was being said, he was glad he couldn’t hear it. Seemingly pleased with the response, the pastor leaned James over the basin and passed handfuls of water over his head and face. He could see his parents out of the corner of his eye, his mother tightly clasping her hands in prayer as she held his father. Standing him upright again, the pastor looked out into the crowd and at James now. “We have ourselves a new man!” he thundered. The crowd cheered and shouted, hooting and hollering God’s name and praising that moment and that moment alone. “Will you live your life in belief, son?” The pastor was right in his face now, and the crowd became hushed by this. James didn’t have anything else rehearsed, he didn’t know what to say right then. He saw the thousand beady eyes of the congregation watching him, almost threateningly. He saw his mother and father, smiling unreservedly, and saw again the cascading wave of faces he never knew before that day. He looked at the familiar and unfamiliar, the young and the old, the children of the Sunday school who lashed out at him, and while he did this his attention was suddenly struck. Sitting at the end of a row behind his family he noticed a young girl he had never seen in the community before, a white scarf tied around her forehead like a bow. She was looking directly at James now, her eyes piercing him. He could look nowhere else. Her auburn hair was pulled behind her ears, and the way she made an effort to smile at him stirred up a sort of reverie. She reminded him of the weather outside, the way the sun struck the surface of the passenger side window, the manner in which the birds swirled overhead when his family arrived at the church. There was music now, he saw the oak tree in his mind and heard music that seemed to come from the girl at the end of the row. Her eyes were opened to James, and while it seemed that all were looking at him, she could actually see.

He could feel the water trickle down his face and heard it hit the wooden floor of the stage. He looked up at the stained glass, the image from before now as attentive as the congregation. The girl with the white scarf seemed to answer the question James had wondered about for so long, and yet there she sat, just as flesh and bone as the boy on the stage. He looked down at the marble steps that led him to that moment, and realized how closely they resembled the smooth skin of the girl who still looked nowhere else but his direction. The pastor backed away, hoping to regain James’ attention.

“Son, will you live your life in belief?” he repeated, staring at the boy who cared for no one else’s attention but the girl in white. James reimagined the moments of his life that brought him there, and there was a sudden feeling of appreciation for why they played out that way. Looking at the young girl, James opened his mouth.

“Yes,” he heard himself say, “Yes, I will.”

___

Jamal Michel is a recent graduate from Florida International University and will be starting graduate work at Duke this summer, pursuing an MA in teaching. He has been writing since the fourth grade. He is an American-born Muslim of a mother from Guyana and a father from Haiti.


Comments are closed.