Yellow caution tape around the crucifix says: DO NOT CROSS.
The irony’s not lost on me. Neither is the stench—a nauseous mix of worn hymnals, wooden pews, and the dried blood of a slain deacon. Alone in this sanctuary turned crime scene, I lift the tape with one hand, cover my nose with the other. Got it from my father, this keen sense of smell. That man could sniff anything short of a hustle fifty yards out and he followed that nose of his straight to the grave. But that’s another story. This one’s about a convicted evangelepath.
Her voice is hoarse, soaked in a drawl that betrays her Louisiana roots. In a loose black dress, the skinny, light-skinned woman stands at the back of the storefront church, her face swallowed by the shadows of a flowery, sequined flying saucer on her head. I’d never officially met the First Lady of the House of Renewed Minds, but the big and fancy church hats of Cecilia Hayes had a reputation—and a wingspan—that preceded her.
“Uh, young man, what do you think you’re doing?” She comes down the aisle toward me, touching the back of each pew on the way for balance. “Don’t make me call the cops.”
“I’m John Raven, a reporter with the Birmingham Herald—”
“We sent out a statement, so there’s nothing more to be said, so c’mon now.”
She lifts the tape, sweeping the air with her other hand for me to step under and out. Of course, I can’t do that. Not today. I’m on assignment, the biggest one of my life, truth be told. The courts ruled that Bishop Jermaine Hayes, being “telepathic” and all, should’ve been able to foresee and, thus, prevent the murder of Deacon Lydell Harris. Since he failed to do so, Bishop Hayes was convicted as an accessory under state law.
But I know better.
I know he didn’t prevent a damn thing because he couldn’t prevent a damn thing. He’s no mind reader. The man’s a fraud, plain and simple. And with this investigative report I’m writing, I’m gonna expose the hell out of him.
“All due respect, ma’am, I’m tryna save your husband,” I tell her, which is true but obviously not the whole truth. I omit the bit about wanting to save him only to unmask him, so I can vindicate my own father.
She takes a deep breath—traces of vodka lurk under Listerine and a heavy cloak of cinnamon perfume. Under the wide brim, her eyes shift and shift, then settle on the floor where the deacon had been stabbed twelve times by one Willie McCain, still at large.
“Did you witness the incident, ma’am?”
She motions to a chair to the right of the altar. “I, uh, was sitting there. It was during the overflow offering, Bishop had just finished praying …” She shakes her head, tears welling up. “… that’s when Brother Willie, he ran up and—and stabbed him, stabbed Lydell. For nothing.”
Her hand trembles as she dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief, then pats her sweaty neck.
Crouching down by the pulpit, I picture the scene as described. “For nothing, huh?”
“Mamaaaa,” whines a pudgy boy from the back. “Could we go see Daddy now?”
He looks to be around eight or so. Wrinkled slacks, shirt buttoned wrong and a black fedora way too big for his head. He drags his scuffed-up loafers down the aisle.
“Junior, get out of here,” the First Lady says. “Go back to the car please.”
He keeps moving forward. “What’d I do, Mama?” he says, eyes fixed on the crime scene.
To obstruct his view of this mess I walk over to introduce myself, holding out my hand. But the boy recoils, hiding behind his mother.
She rolls her watery eyes. “Forgive him.”
“It’s all good. I know it’s a lot going on, but I ’preciate you talking to me, Mrs. Hayes. And I will do my best to prove your husband’s innocence, believe me.”
As I’m backing away, she looks up at me with recognition flashing under her wide brim. “Wait a minute, did you say your last name was Raven?”
“No relation,” I say and exit the church.
On my way to see Bishop now. They got him locked up at Jefferson County Jail, but they’ll be moving him down to Mobile to be put away indefinitely. I was able to secure a face-to-face interview before then, which I can’t say I’m not cold sweating about.
Bishop Hayes wasn’t the first registered evangelepath. But he’s the last one in Alabama. Another one popped up in Tuscaloosa, but when it came time for him to register, he confessed to being a two-bit hustler preying on the vulnerable. Far as I’m concerned, that’s what they all are. Hustlers. But you can’t go running around the Bible Belt spouting those kind of claims. Not these days. These days, rather than being preached at, folks want to be seen and heard, to feel like they’re connected to the so-called “anointed” on an intimate level. And it doesn’t get much more intimate than mind reading.
I park a few blocks away from Jefferson County Jail, to avoid all the commotion. Chants of mercy ring out, growing louder as I approach, thrashing against a cloudy afternoon sky. But I can’t exactly make out the words till I hit the corner, coming face-to-face with a crowd of congregants, all kneeling outside the jail, lifting their hands and repeating:
“… that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God … that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God … that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God …”
Those words. Those haunting words turn my body ice cold. Feel like I’ve got a meat grinder in my gut, my mouth filling up with saliva. Everything’s gone blurry and I can’t tell up from down. A hand touches my shoulder and I hear a husky voice saying:
“Boy, you look good and ready to keel over. Here. Drink some of this here.” Her other hand brings a paper cup to my lips. Some red drink goes tumbling down my throat, the rest dribbles down my chin and onto the sidewalk. “Come sit yourself down, get your bearings.”
The feeling comes back in my legs as the chanting stops. With my hands on my knees, I shake my head. “I—I’m good now, thanks. Thank you.”
I wipe my mouth, squinting up at the heavyset woman above me. With her round golden face and red lipstick and big curls, I recognize the lady from the church’s website. Elder Barnett. The heart and soul of the House of Renewed Minds, from everything I read.
“Who you here to see?” she asks.
“I’m with the Herald.” The gravel in my voice hasn’t gone away, so I beat my chest with my fist, clear my throat. “Got an interview. With Bishop Hayes.”
“Do you now?” she says. “Well, I’ll tell you on record, that man’s a saint, y’hear me? And this whole conviction is all kinds of wrong. I’ve known Bishop since he was nine years old and lemme tell you, all he’s ever cared about was doing good in the world. I’m Elder Hazel Barnett, by the way, and you can quote me on all of that.”
“Alright, thanks.” I motion toward the jail again. “I, uh, don’t wanna be late.”
“Oh, right, right, your interview,” she says. “Well, tell Bishop we all out here praying for a miracle. I know he can read us from in there, but still.”
“He can hear you, I’m sure,” I mumble, making my way toward the entrance of the jail, passing the crying congregants as they silently palm their heads and open their hands to the sky in a synchronized repetitive motion. As if dispersing thoughts into the air.
If I was a believing man, I’d be praying right about now. The deeper I move into the jail, the louder my heart thrashes against my chest, hollering at me to let this go, to walk away. But I can’t. Or won’t. I need to face this man.
The white guard leads me down a musty hall to a restricted holding cell. “Ten minutes is all you getting, understand?” he says. “If for any reason you want out before then, just knock.”
I nod hard, hoping to dislodge the rock in my throat. The door opens. I go inside alone. In the past seven years, I’ve interviewed all kinds of people, from the lowest to the highest of lowlifes. The whole reason I got into this field is because I know stories are like assholes—everybody’s got one, no matter how full of shit it may be.
Bishop Jermaine Hayes kneels on the other side of double-pane glass in prayer position. He looks different from the last time I’d seen him. Could be the gray beard masking the lower half of his auburn face. Or the all-white prison uniform. His bald head reflects a circle of light from above, which his flock would no doubt see as a halo. The blind see what they want to see.
“I’m a reporter with the Herald. Just got a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”
He waggles his finger, squinting at me like I look familiar, but before he gets a word out, I begin the interview: “Willie McCain, he’s a longtime friend of the family, that right?”
Hayes nods. “Brother Willie and I go back, what, twenty years? Met him at the VA hospital, the medical center. Yeah. Real good brother. Our family’s guardian angel.”
“So what happened?”
Bishop looks up and lifts his hands. “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?”
I know the scripture. 1 Corinthians 2:11. The same passage Families Against Open Minds use to reject evangelepaths and the followers who believe mind reading is “of God.” The same passage those same followers use to back up their belief, claiming that since we’re all part of the Spirit, a man can indeed read another man’s thoughts by the power of said Spirit. But I’m not here to debate. I’m here to get the truth, nothing but.
“You don’t know what happened? I thought you could read minds.”
He starts to say something, then stops and looks away. “Heavy is the head that hears the thoughts. But I don’t have the brain power to understand His mysterious ways.”
“You have no powers to speak of.”
He rubs his beard. “Is that what this is about? My powers?” He starts walking toward me. About a foot away now, squinting at me through the thick glass. I hold my ground. “You know,” he goes on, “Moses told God to get lost.”
“He didn’t wanna lead the Israelites ’cause he didn’t think he could handle it.” He taps a finger on the glass between us. “You ever felt like that? Incapable? Unable to move forward?”
He doesn’t smile so much as curve his mouth into a holier-than-thou, Sunday-Best kind of smirk. He thinks I’m in denial. But I’m not the one.
“So you’d rather keep living a lie?”
He stares at the floor, cracking his knuckles, flooded suddenly with despair. “It was my fault. He … I deserve what I get … I shoulda stopped him. I shoulda been there.”
“That’s what they said about Jesus …” He trails off, then looks up at me, making me regret my poor choice of word. He leans forward, studying my face, remembering. “You’re Raven’s boy!” He puts his hand to his mouth with revelation. “Goodness gracious, I knew you looked familiar. How you been? Last time I saw you was—”
“Right, right, that’s right,” he says, his eyes drifting upward to retrieve the memory.
But there’s nothing right about what he did to my father. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t have been a funeral in the first place. “You had some nerve showing up there.”
He knows what I’m getting at and lifts his hands to deflect the accusation. “Whoa, whoa, slow your roll now. Shawn came to me for instruction, alright? What happened to him happened after he quit our sessions.”
I’m not trying to hear none of this.
“What you want me to say, son? Huh? That I’m a charlatan? A con artist? I understand you’re hurting, looking for a scapegoat to stone. I’m a lot of things, but I’m no fraud.”
“And yet, you couldn’t even figure out who I was.”
“Oh no, beloved, it don’t work that way. Your mind needs to be open for me to read it.” He backs away and kneels on the floor, assuming his original position, a doomed man in prayer. “But I see you got yours all made up about me.”
Right then, the door opens behind me and the guard declares: “Time.”
The transfer of Bishop Jermaine Hayes is set for 3 p.m. Friday. That gives me just over twenty-one hours to figure out how to reverse the court ruling, which I know sounds impossible considering this is Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, the “Yellowhammer State” where seven-year-old Atarah Smith was killed by a church bomb.
Eleven others were injured that Sunday morning in Montgomery. The victims included the preacher, who would later admit he’d read the mind of the murderer days before the incident. His confession helped the police find the bomber, but public outcry and protests forced lawmakers to add an “evangelepath provision” under complicity in the state’s Criminal Code Title 13A. So now mind-reading preachers can preach if, and only if, they agree that should a murder or suicide take place in their church, the preacher in charge will be held accountable and convicted as an accessory.
Most evangelepaths, in turn, left Alabama for the greener pastures of more liberal states. Not Bishop Jermaine Hayes. He stayed, thinking he could capitalize on the market opportunity. And now, as a convicted accessory, he will be sent to a mental institution to think long and hard about what he did wrong. But I know the only thing he did wrong was lie about who he is and what he can do. A lie more devastating than any bomb. A lie that cost my father his life.
Per the law, his only chance of freedom is if somebody steps forward as a “penitent,” a testable telepath who takes full responsibility for the murder, pardoning the preacher in charge. That never happens. Which means it’s all on me. I need to prove that Bishop Hayes is a fraud to get him off before tomorrow. The only one who might help me with that is Willie McCain.
I don’t know much about McCain, save for what I read in the Herald archives: Army vet, two tours in Iraq, no relatives in the area, no record. No reason, far as anybody could tell, for snapping that Sunday morning. But if I can get Willie McCain to go on record and expose Bishop for the four-flusher he is, I might have enough to keep him out of the asylum to pay for his sins in public. Now all I gotta do is find the fugitive.
After fifteen minutes of aimless driving, I remember I’m no detective. The police can’t even find Willie McCain, so how the hell am I supposed to? And my stomach’s rumbling. In Southside, a few blocks from the VA hospital, I pull into Gracie’s Bar-B-Q Pit, my go-to spot to empty my head and fill my belly—plus check in with one of the regulars.
Dr. Alyssa Williams usually comes in at quarter to eight, on the way home from the research institute at UAB. She moved here from St. Thomas to study neurology, which officially gave her the authority to unofficially diagnose me “muddafuckin clueless.” This was after my father’s breakdown, before she called off our engagement.
At half-past seven she enters, goes to the cashier to pick up her to-go order. She doesn’t see me yet. I’m sitting at the bar, grubbing on a smoked chicken sandwich drenched in white sauce, with a side of greens and a jar of sweet tea. A commercial flickers from the TV overhead, telling me to enhance my vision with ocular implants. But I’ve got my eyes on the vision to my right—this super brain wrapped in a curvy, post-baby frame with onyx skin.
“Long time no see, doc.”
She doesn’t seem so happy to see me, though, not that I blame her. “Good night, John.”
“How’s Sabryna? She still breaking telescopes?”
Alyssa waves to the cooks in the smokey kitchen, taking her bagged-up food. “T’anks!” Then turns back to me. “Don’t act like you care.”
“What you mean?” I slide my plate and drink down the bar to get closer to her. “I do care. Of course I care. I’m a caring individual.”
Then she taps the corner of her full lips—lips I wish I could say I’d forgotten the feel of. “You’ve got some sauce …”
I lean forward. “Get it off for me.”
“Hell no.” She leans away, pushing me back. “Nasty boy.”
I grab a napkin to wipe my mouth. She shakes her head, suppressing one of those magnetic smiles. Figure my antics bought me a few seconds, but I don’t know how to ask what I want to know without proving her point about me, that all I ever care about is work.
“What do you want, John?”
“Not a ting, mi gyal. Just checking in with you. You safe?”
But after five years together, she can see right through me. “You not slick, you know.”
“Me? I’m innocent as a lamb.”
“You wanna know the results, right? Well, we found nothing.”
“What about the tests? With the EEG?”
“We’ve done hundreds, believe me,” she says. “EEG, TMS, all the technology out there. But with brain-to-brain interface, we’re still at the level of synaptic transmission so—”
“Yo, slow down, what’s that mean?”
She huffs, sets her bag on the bar, blinding me with that diamond boulder on her finger. “With a special helmet on, I can read an impulse you have to touch my food, for instance,” she says, rustling her plastic bag. “But reading your mind? Your actual fully formed thoughts?” She shakes her head, which makes me start shaking mine because this makes no sense, none of it.
“Alyssa, I’m telling you these preachers aren’t telepathic. I—they’re using something. For real. Some kind of device.”
“If so, it wouldn’t be real telepathy,” she corrects me. “Telepathy means you’re reading thoughts out of the air. No helmet, no devices. Look, I can’t explain how they do what they do. All I can tell you is what we found.”
“Which is nothing.” I turn away from her to get back to my meal, now cold.
Alyssa exhales. I don’t need a helmet or any kind of device to know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking: This is why I left you. The language is no doubt a lot more colorful in her mind, but that’s the gist. She grabs her bag to leave.
“John-John,” she calls me and I smell a lecture coming. “I know what this means to you, this crusade you’re on, but you …” She sucks her teeth. “I should go.”
“I what? Speak your mind.”
“You, my dear, have a God complex.”
“That’s not true.”
“Deny it all you want, John. You hide behind all your stories, acting like you’re soooo righteous, like you’re the only honest person in the whole world.”
With a hand on my shoulder, she looks at me like I’m ill or something. “I care about you, man. And one of these days I hope you care ’nough about yourself to get out of your own head.”
Knowing me, Alyssa doesn’t wait around for a response. She leaves me be to go back to her astronomer husband and daughter and their sweet home in Fairfield that could’ve been mine. Should’ve been mine. I chug some sweet tea to wash the bitter taste out of my mouth. No point in dwelling on what she was saying or what I’m missing. I need to stay focused.
Not long after she leaves, I’m paying the cashier when I catch a breaking news story on the TV. Turns out, the police have finally located Willie McCain. Inside Deacon Harris’s house.
With a self-inflicted bullet hole in his head.
I can’t get out.
I want to. My mind’s telling my body to pull the handle, open the door and step outside. But for the past twenty minutes, I’ve been sitting here in my parked car, a block away from the deacon’s house. Stuck. Not because of all the police, even though I do try to steer clear of the badges if I can help it. Not because I’m in Homewood, a suburb “over the mountain,” where the white folks live. I can’t move because I’m thinking about my father. Our last conversation.
“Son, you get me the hell outta here,” he said.
By here, he meant the medical clinic on the north side of the city. After his nervous breakdown, I didn’t know what else to do, so I sent him there. I was only trying to help. But sitting in the cafeteria, he was convinced this wasn’t helping at all. He was frail by then, smelling like sour milk. His brown cheeks were sunken in, eyes bloodshot and bulging. A web of veins popped out of his neck like they did back in his preaching days. But this was no sermon.
“Forgive me,” he pleaded, “I—I’ll do whatever you tell me, please—just don’t leave me up in here, son, I can’t stay here—I’m not crazy, I’m telling the truth, now!”
He slammed his fists on the table and then two staffers rushed up to seize him.
“Don’t touch me!!” he cried.
And what did I do? I just sat there, frozen, watching as my old man got hauled away like a child, squirming and screaming: “That ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God! That ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God!” His voice echoed down the hall and soon faded away. But that last look on my father’s face never left me, the distressed eyes and sagging lips of a fallen man realizing he had failed.
Three days later, he somehow got hold of a gun and shot himself.
None of this is on me. He chose to pick up his cross. He chose to walk through the valley. I told him to say no when Bishop Hayes approached him. Told him Bishop was a glorified cult leader, that the whole evangelepath movement was corrupt, abuse of power. But my old man was blinded by his beliefs. A tunnel visionary to the tragic end.
So now here I am. Years later. At the scene of another man’s suicide. He was supposed to be the key, the one to help me finish this assignment. But now he’s dead and I can’t even bring myself to enter the single-family home of the late Lydell Harris.
I wait for the medics to take Willie McCain’s body away, then I get out and approach a flabby, chalk-white officer standing outside. He doesn’t have much to tell me though. He doesn’t know why this man decided to kill himself in this particular house. Or why this night. Or what the note means.
“Wait, what note?”
“Y’ain’t quoting me on this, we clear on that?”
“Yeah, off the record,” I tell him.
“‘Sorry I couldn’t save you, Jermaine.’”
“That’s what the note said—” He frowns at two guys carrying a rug out from the house. “Good Lord! Hey, I told you boys to wrap that up, didn’t I?” He goes to push them back inside. “Y’all a real bucket of rocks, ain’t ya?”
But not before I catch a whiff of something on that dirty rug. Something underneath the fresh blood. A familiar scent of cinnamon. Takes me a couple seconds to pinpoint where I know that smell from, but then I remember. The storefront church. The sanctuary turned crime scene. The First Lady with her big and fancy hat.
As the day of reckoning breaks, I’m back at the church again. The First Lady was here yesterday. But why? Why here instead of standing by her man? Why was she acting all suspicious about me snooping around? What didn’t she want me to see?
The door’s locked. But there’s a silver Camry parked out front with the engine still cooling down. Somebody’s definitely home. I knock. And knock again.
“Church is closed,” comes a woman’s voice from the other side.
Not the First Lady, but I recognize the husky tone. “Elder Barnett, it’s me, it’s John.”
“The reporter with the Herald. You said you’d talk to me, remember?”
Moments later I’m in her office, a small cluttered space full of prayer books and boxes. Looks like she got about as much sleep as I did, spinning around like a well-dressed whirlwind. Elder Barnett reminds me of Sister Liz, the secretary at my father’s first church. Part soldier, part sage, “I’m not single, I’m married to Jesus” types. When I was little, Sister Liz used to school me on all the behind-the-scenes church business. Hopefully, Elder Barnett is equally as charitable.
“I can’t get not one attorney to touch this case, you believe that?” she says, flipping through business cards. “All the good Bishop’s done for this community, but now he need help, they wanna act like he a leper. Lemme tell you something, I’ve known Bishop since he was nine, understand? He was special even then. Fancied himself a little therapist like, uh, you remember on Charlie Brown? The little white girl with the psychiatry booth? What was her name?”
“Lucy. That’s right. Bishop was the Black Lucy. Used to have all the younguns from ’round the way coming over to sit in his mama’s rocking chair, listening to whatever they had going on. Or he’d be out in them streets, seeing to the sick and shut in. We didn’t know nothing about his powers back then, but that boy had the spirit all up and through him, yes indeed. All he ever cared about was doing the Lord’s work, ‘his Father’s business.’ Mmhmm. But anyway, I’m rambling and I gotta make some calls, so gone ’head and ask me what you wanna ask me.”
“Um. The overflow offering. What was that for?”
She goes to her bookshelf, grabs a fishbowl filled with more business cards, dumps them on her desk. “That was for World Renewed.”
“Our global ministry,” she says. “Bishop wanted to connect with more folks, you know, across the nations, so we decided to move in the direction of a virtual church.”
A virtual church. I do remember reading about that in some of the older articles, but I thought that was voted down years ago. “Was everybody on board with that?”
“Well, no, not exactly since that meant he’d be preaching remotely via satellite, but like Paul said: ‘My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus—’”
“Ehhh, you know how some black folks be. Some of us don’t take too well to change. Wanna keep everything as is and such.”
She’s still flipping through cards, not paying me much mind, which gives me the go-ahead to keep firing away. “Was the First Lady against it?”
“Hmm. I don’t recall her voting for or against.” She pauses, holds up a finger. “No, wait, Cecilia wasn’t at that meeting. She was out sick, if I recall—”
“What about Lydell Harris?”
She cocks her head, waving a card at me. “What you getting at?”
“Mmhmm. Well, Deacon Harris wasn’t a huge fan, no. As the new treasurer, he didn’t believe a virtual church was an appropriate use of our funds. And we was plenty deep in the red—but don’t go putting that in your story.”
“I mean it.” Then her phone rings and she answers: “House of Renewed Minds, this is … oh yes, yes, can I have you hold on for just one second?” She covers the receiver with one hand. “You finished?” she asks me, but I know she’s not really asking.
The bigger the hat, the bigger the secret. Sister Liz used to say that all the time and right now, her wise words seem to be ringing truer than ever. All roads lead back to the First Lady. She’s clearly involved, but I can’t say exactly how just yet.
To finish this puzzle, I drive to Fairfield, hoping to catch Alyssa before she goes to work. In her research, she hooked up evangelepaths and their flock to a polygraph machine and cross-checked the answers. It was voluntary. Reports said they all passed, but now I’m wondering if the First Lady was on that list. Or was she too afraid to show her bare face, covered in lies.
After about a minute of knocking, the door opens. There to greet me is a lanky white man in a suit and tie. The man Alyssa left me for—and married. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s early, I know, but is she here by any chance? Tried calling but she didn’t answer—”
“Baby, who’s that?” Her voice echoes in the foyer behind him.
The man opens the door with a sarcastic “speak of the devil” smile. Then walks off, saying nothing, which confirms that I’ve been the source of a recent disagreement between them. But I can’t be bothered with that now.
“Did the First Lady do the polygraph?”
Alyssa rushes to the door. “What the hell, John?”
“I need to know if she took the lie detector test.”
“So you gon’ wake up the whole house for this foolishness?” She pulls her robe tighter. “You done know that’s confidential.”
I could always measure her level of vexedness by the thickness of her homegrown accent.
“Not officially,” I say. “On background.”
“Yuh sick de man? I gone.”
She tries to close the door.
“Hold up.” I block it with my hand. “Just wait, I think I know what’s going on for real. I’m right there, right on the verge, but I just need you—”
“Geh from heh!”
Again, she tries shutting the door.
Another block by me.
“Look, Alyssa … I know why you left me. I neglected you. I put my career before you. Working all the time. You were right there in front of me and I didn’t see you. I’m guilty of that. I—I fucked up, alright? And I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I shoulda been there …”
Hearing those words of my mouth, the missing pieces suddenly fall into place and while Alyssa proceeds to give me a deep-fried piece of her mind, I’m already running off the porch back to the car, to finish the race and complete the task at hand.
So this is where it ends.
Right here thirty miles due north of Mobile, Alabama. Right here at the historic and decaying Searcy Hospital, once known as the Mount Vernon Hospital for the Colored Insane.
The complex looks like a haunted plantation house, with its white columns and rotting houses overgrown. In the 1800s, this place was a U.S. Army munitions depot. In 1900, it was converted into a state-operated psychiatric hospital, the first to treat Alabama’s black mentally ill. The hospital’s been closed since 2012. But in what some decried as a cruel and unusual twist, officials chose to use this creepy site to house any convicted evangelepaths. It was either this or capital punishment, they said. But I, for one, didn’t see much of a difference.
I’ve been sitting across from the hospital for a while now, watching people. Congregants from all over, coming by car and bus. No sign of the First Lady yet. Speeding down Highway 5, the three-hour drive gave me a good deal of time to get my thoughts in order. I wasn’t aiming to put the First Lady on blast in front of everybody, but I needed to press her enough to make sure she confessed her infidelities before officials took Bishop away, into the depths of this dungeon, destroying my best chance to vindicate my father.
I’ve never actually been to Mount Vernon before, believe it or not. I’d read up on the history, knew that J. T. Searcy, superintendent of the state’s mental health facilities, wrote a report back in 1902, basically stating black folks were healthier as slaves.
According to Searcy, “… the selfish interests of their masters enforced sanitary, regular and moral habits and the practice of higher methods of thought, as well as regular muscle exercise … Since then, their rapidly increasing insanity is a result and an indication that many among them are mentally degenerating.”
My father never had any mental issues before Bishop Hayes recruited him for his so-called “brain training sessions.” My father was a simple man, a strict no-frills type of pastor who spent his life trying to grow his small church, to change the world in his own way. But then Bishop got in his head. Had my old man convinced he could read minds.
I stand back from the crowd. Scanning. Some familiar faces I recognize from the jail, but most of the folks have their heads covered, shielding their faces from the sun. There’s Elder Barnett directing foot traffic. Police patrol the area in riot gear. Still no sign of the First Lady. Or maybe she’s already here, hiding. How will I find her? I’m running out of time.
“Excuse me, pardon me,” I say, sliding through the mass, peeking under brims of the womenfolk as they flap their fans and dab their eyes and whisper prayers for the wind to carry.
“Elder Barnett?” I tap on her shoulder as she’s handing out ribbons.
She turns around, surprised to see me. “Mr. Reporter, uh, sorry I had to kick you out this morning, but I had a call—”
“Have you seen the First Lady?”
“Cecilia? I know she here somewhere ’cause her and Junior got a ride with Sister Irene.” She looks around, then points. “There you go right there.” The First Lady stands alone, near one of the dilapidated farmhouses. “She not in a good state right now, so I’d leave her be, I was you.”
But I pretend not to hear that and run over to her. She’s pacing back and forth, muttering something to herself under one of her trademark hats. I call out to her. But she doesn’t seem to hear me. I try again. This time, she looks up at me. She’s a soggy, sloppy mess. Part of me hates myself for what I’m about to do.
“If I could have a word.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, waving me off. “Now’s not a good time.”
But now’s all I got, so I come out with it: “I know about you. You and Deacon Harris.” She stops pacing, which lets me know I’m on the money. “I don’t know how long it’s been going on, or none of the details. But I need for you to come clean.”
She squints at me. “Who are you?”
“We met yesterday. I’m the Herald reporter, John Raven.”
“Yes, that’s right. My father was Pastor Shawn Raven, an associate of your husband. I told you I wasn’t related, but that was a lie, and now I need you to come clean about yours.”
“I need you to confess about your affair.”
“With Deacon Harris, I mean. I figured it all out, see.” I’m moving in closer now and she’s just standing there trembling. “Bishop had everyone on his mind except for you. So you found comfort in the arms of another man. And look, I’m not here to judge you or shame you or nothing like that. But all I need is for you to confess what you did, and say Willie McCain found out and acted on his own accord, hoping to save the Bishop from a scandal. Bishop had no knowledge of this. It was just a friend of the family playing his role as Bishop’s guardian angel. That’s all that was. I need you to take responsibility for this, for everything.”
The First Lady stares, oozing mascara.
“If you don’t speak up, I sure as hell will.”
She doesn’t move. She’s not talking. So I start walking away.
Predictably, she calls after me: “Wait.”
I turn around to face her, feeling bad for my manipulation, but not bad enough to stop her from telling me what I desperately need to hear, for my father’s sake. The First Lady closes the gap between us. She looks over my shoulder, paranoid she might be seen or heard. Her eyes shift and shift, settling on a dead patch of grass. She picks at her fingers to hide trembling hands and when she speaks, her voice is on shaky ground.
“Listen to me,” she says. “Yes, my husband was a busy man, always in his head and yes, that was hard for me. But I did not, do you hear me? I did not have an affair with Lydell.”
“I smelled you on his rug, your perfume.”
“Lydell wasn’t … he let us stay with him—at his house, I mean. Whenever Jermaine was out of town. It was his idea, my husband’s.”
“Because I …” She looks around again. “He didn’t want me to be, um … tempted.”
“Uh-huh. So he sent you to stay with another man so you wouldn’t be ‘tempted.’”
“It wasn’t like that.” She pinches the flesh around her throat. “The drinking … it made me do things, irresponsible things. Touching money I didn’t have the right to touch.”
She looks down, which serves as a nod and a way to hide her face. My mind flashes back to our encounter the day before. The vodka on her breath. The sweat on her neck. The unsteady walk of a woman who twisted her ankle falling off the wagon. And all those big and fancy hats that don’t pay for themselves. But her sticky fingers don’t negate an affair. Far too many signs still point in that direction.
“What about the note?”
“Willie McCain. He left a note that said, ‘Sorry I couldn’t save you, Jermaine.’”
“I don’t know anything about that. But I’m telling you the truth.”
But this can’t be the truth, not the whole truth anyway. Under the influence or not, the First Lady has more story to tell. And if she’s not willing to spill voluntarily, then we’ll just have to bring this debate to a jury of her open-minded peers.
“What are you doing?” she says. “Let go of me!”
I’m pulling her toward the crowd now. “I don’t believe you.”
But I don’t get very far before one of the white police officers grabs me by the arm. “What’s the problem here, sonny?”
“This woman’s a liar and Bishop is too!” Everybody’s watching me now and I’m yelling at them, erupting with words I’d been holding in so long. “He deceived all of you, can’t you see that?! The man has no powers! Bishop can’t read your goddamn minds! It’s all a lie!”
Another officer rushes over to seize me. “You crossed the line, boy.”
Elder Barnett goes to console the First Lady as the police drag me away. And I just need everybody to know the truth, so I’m trying to break free, hearing myself holler out:
“I’m not crazy!”
My head is slammed against the hot hood of a squad car. And from this vantage point, with the world flipped on its side, I watch as Bishop gets taken out from the back of a police van and escorted through the herd of people toward the hospital entrance. The wailing congregants fall on their knees, hands lifted up:
“… that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God …”
Bishop doesn’t flinch or fight and neither do I as a representative from the district attorney’s office rereads the sentence. Never have I ever felt so powerless. The rep has a hand on Bishop’s head, like this cop has a hand on mine.
Then I hear it. One word. A lone innocent voice in the wilderness.
Junior runs up, hatless and helpless. He doesn’t get far before somebody holds him back. But something happens right then. Bishop looks up at his son and there, in that split second, I catch that look on Bishop’s face, the distressed eyes and sagging lips of a fallen man realizing he has failed. And I have too. Failed. I failed my own father by denying him, denying the truth and, I confess, denying myself.
In this vulnerable state, in this moment of surrender, my mind expands, reaching out, passing over the outstretched hands of those who believe in miracles, finding the mind which, like the Red Sea, has opened up for me to walk through. And I’m hearing things. Thoughts I can’t claim as my own. Thoughts from the mind of the boy who yelled, “Daddy!” The boy they call Junior. Sorry I couldn’t save you, Jermaine Junior.
And now I know.
I know this innocent boy was preyed upon in that single-family house in Homewood. And I know this happened while his father was away, his mother asleep. And I know he was too ashamed to tell his father, so he told Willie McCain, who took it upon himself to make the deacon pay during the overflow offering.
As I’m watching Bishop about to be put away, I’m remembering too. How Junior recoiled when I reached out to him. And how his blood-stained words echoed in the sanctuary turned crime scene: “What’d I do, Mama?” A question of confusion. A statement of confession. A revelation of horrifying truth that I, John Raven, had been too blinded by my beliefs to see.
But now I know.
And I also know Bishop knows. I don’t need to read his mind, either. I can tell. I can see it in his face, those eyes. I can hear it in the shadows of his words: “It was my fault. He … I deserve what I get … I shoulda stopped him. I shoulda been there.” But he wasn’t there. He was out trying to save the world, recruiting impressionable minds to create man in his own image when his own house was a heap of ruins. He knows, yet refuses to face himself. He’s no Moses. He’s a manipulator. And this is exactly what he wants: to go into exile, to disappear, to hide and die as a way to escape the everlasting torment of life after failure. Of deep-set regret. Of knowing he left his only son to be attacked by a wolf while he was out playing shepherd.
But he doesn’t deserve to go out like that. That’s not fair.
“Here I am!” I scream at the top of my lungs. “Send me!”
The cop presses my head down harder, telling me to keep quiet, but I refuse to do so.
“Send me! Send me! Send me to the hospital!”
I know now that this is my true calling.
“I’m a real telepath! I’m the one! Send me!”
Even if that means I have to take the fall for the sins of this man.
“I take full responsibility!”
As I’m being led by guards through the crowd gathered on this day, I think about Jesus. Maybe his story isn’t about love or freedom or redemption. Maybe he too felt guilty about forsaking his own flesh and blood to “be about his Father’s business.” Maybe all the thoughts in his head weighed so heavy that he let himself be crucified on Calvary—“the place of the skull.” Or maybe he just got sick of living a lie. Who knows. I can’t read that man’s mind. But I’ve accepted my fate, and I sacrifice myself without pretense of martyrdom. I’ve denied myself and taken up my cross to follow the guards, these gatekeepers who will now question me and test me to verify my powers of telepathy. I will tell them the truth about who I am, show them what I can do. I will prove myself, letting them know I’ve got every right to be sentenced to this asylum, per the “evangelepath provision.” They will have no choice but to believe me. I will take Bishop’s place. And as they lead me now into the abyss of this historic and decaying hospital, just before I cross the threshold, I look Bishop Jermaine Hayes dead in his eyes, saying nothing out loud but smiling as I whisper in my mind these three words I know he can’t read: Vengeance is mine.