After I preached the last sermon I’d ever deliver, I sat in my neon green, Honda Accord, with my dad’s Bible in one hand and a Glock 17 in the other, contemplating how to get away with a robbery. Soon, this gun will make me money, send me to prison or kill me. My once perfect life, has come down to this.
When the sun began its tiptoe across the horizon, there was nothing that triggered such a thought. When you realize that you’ve given your all—yet if you should die before you wake, no one would care; it’s a dark and solemn place to dwell. That’s where I find myself tonight. And after I reconciled the potential jail time due to what I’ve already done, at this point, it doesn’t matter.
I delivered the shortest sermon I’d ever preached. I’m sure the sixteen people in the storefront church appreciated it. Seventeen, if you counted the pregnant white girl twice. It’s hard to minister on fumes. When you’re worried about the here and now, it’s damn near impossible to expound about the hereafter. I’m full in spirit, but in every single other way, I’m empty.
What does abject hunger feel like?
When you’ve gone a week without a decent meal. When starvation trickles up your spine. When it plays tricks on your mind, you hallucinate. Bones appear in your face, in places you’ve never seen before. Instinct compels you to lick your lips for comfort from time-to-time, and before your tongue can settle in your mouth, your lips are dry and need to be re-licked. Then the cramps kick in. That’s abject hunger.
You try to go to sleep. Because if you can just go to sleep, maybe you can find rest. You can find peace. You can awaken and things will be different. But you can’t.
After the church service, I did something my dad would’ve called a moral turpitude. I bought a four pack of wine coolers. I did so to escape—if only for the moment. All I know is this: When you’ve worked this hard to build a church, to be recognized for your endeavors nationally, it’s not supposed to end this way. I wasn’t supposed to be destitute at this point in my life. Wasn’t supposed to lose my congregation the way I lost them—and I wasn’t supposed to be contemplating the unthinkable in this hour.
The wind acts as an accelerant, which causes the clouds to roll. The taste of the earth floats on the air, and before I know it, soft sprinkles dot my skin. There’s a zing that teases my nostrils in the darkness of night, in a city bustling with activity—far from ready to fall asleep. An Über crammed with co-eds stops. They spill out. They’re laughing, half lit; enjoying the first vestiges of a new day.
From a window on the fifth floor, a man screeches profanity at the top of his lungs to a group of young men sitting in their car blasting music.
“Turn that shit down! People gotta go to work.”
He’s ignored, and even if they heard him, they knew he’d never come down. People never come down in neighborhoods like this. They scream, pout, and go back to bed.
If one painted a picture and dubbed it, “Monday Night in Atlanta,” this is what would be captured in the frame. From my viewpoint I see the best and worst of Black America. Morehouse men talking to dope boys. Pinstriped professionals stepping over vomit. Everything one could both love and loathe is confined within three city blocks of a city that will let you call her ugly because she’s far too confident to care. If you closed your eyes in this part of town, you would feel so close to heaven you could hear the key of David being played, so close to hell you’d smell souls frying.
This is where I find myself tonight.
On one side of MLK, there’s a mural of Trayvon, George, Breonna and Ahmaud. The artist has added Rayshard’s smiling face, along with three additional blank spaces and the caption, “U Next?” beneath them. On the other side, twinkles of moonlight shine on crushed takeout cups, Colt 45 cans, and discarded Swisher Sweets wrappers. There’s a homeless man or woman sleeping at the bus stop, and the scent of vomit swings haltingly low to the ground.
I decide if I am going to do this—I need to game it out. In the age of Corona everyone’s face is half-covered, so there’s no need for a ski mask. Check.
I have a Walmart bag for whatever is in the register or stashed behind the counter. Check.
Once I’m out the door, I’ll jump in the car. Then it occurs to me. My car is disabled as well. Plan B—dip into the night and deal with it later. Check.
I’m told that in neighborhoods like this, for insurance purposes, they can’t chase you. If you have a gun and get out the door, they have to let you run.
God, I pray that’s true.
I massage the back of my neck, bite the inside of my lip, reach between the center console of the car, and retrieve a keepsake from my youth—a Kingsman chess piece from my first national chess tournament. I was ranked in the top two hundred players under thirteen. I hold it to reconnect. It takes me back to the south side. But on nights like tonight, I need it for peace. There’s something about the ridges of the crown and the smooth black finish of the base that centers me and forces me to think strategically. It binds the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional man within. Never have I needed this more.
My throat is bone dry in spite of my beverage of choice. I glance at my watch, put the Bible in the back seat, and cover it with my hand.
“Father forgive me,” I murmur, “for what I’m about to do.”
I look across the street. My heartbeat settles. My breathing returns to normal. The king has done its job. I return the chessman to the console. Through clenched teeth I murmur, “It’s time.”
Across the street is the world-famous Busy Bee Café. Next to it, there’s a liquor store, followed by a pawn shop, liquor store, nail salon, comedy club, liquor store and strip club. All except for the Busy Bee are open for business. I know if I pull a gun out in a pawn shop, booty club, or liquor store, light will shine through me before I hit the ground. That leaves two options: rob the comedy club or rob a nail salon.
I exit the car. I hold the half empty wine cooler in the same sweaty and unstable hand I hold the Glock. To balance myself, I lean against my wet-from-the-rain Accord for support. It’s slippery, but it allows me to gain my composure and stop my spinning world. I’m a tad nauseous. Since I haven’t eaten, I dry heave. My body isn’t used to alcohol, even under normal conditions. Nevertheless, I wipe the creases of my mouth and stick the gun in the pit of my back under my belt as if I were on a cop show. Maybe it’s my situation. Maybe it’s the alcohol, but I don’t have a clue as to where I’m going, even if I can get my feet on one accord.
I stagger across the street and see this athletic-looking woman, no more than thirty years old. I blink a couple of times to refocus. She has a high sense of style, making her stand out in the neighborhood this time of night. As she speaks, she moves her hands rapidly and snaps her fingertips from time to time to emphasize a point. Her shoulder-length hair is in what the kids call dookie braids, and she’s dressed in a white pantsuit with a white double-breasted vest and a leopard-patterned ascot and face mask.
The woman turns the street into a runway in Milan as she moves like a model in white stilettos. I watch her walk up to a black Audi, pull down the mask, and if my eyes aren’t deceiving me, they make an exchange. Newsflash: All drugstores haven’t been closed by the virus. She runs to the safety of her pearl white Escalade, forearm over her head to avoid getting too wet. Even though the vehicle is common in this part of Atlanta—there’s something eerily familiar about it as she gets behind the wheel and swiftly closes the door.
The comedy club, Laff-a-LotZ, is free. There’s a line to enter with a group, all wearing red Trap Music museum t-shirts and talking loudly about their visit to “The A.T.L..” If I rob the comedy club, I’ll keep it short and to the point. I’ll just tell him or her, “You know what time it is!” Then I’ll place the gun on the bar. Miss Glock can finish the conversation.
I join the line to enter. For as far as I can see down the street, trees line the road on both sides. For the most part, they’ve grown strong and healthy in the middle of this concrete jungle. I lean against one in front of the club to take shelter from the drizzling rain.
Once inside the small rectangular club, I notice the deep purple–colored walls are checkerboard with mirrors. People are talking loudly, most mouths covered with masks, trying to be heard over the thumping sound of the Mississippi Slide blasting from the speakers, which makes the walls throb. The dance floor is filled with the vibrant energy of line dancers moving as one as if they have practiced the synchronized moves before the club opened. A few people, for some reason, wear their protective masks under their nose, which makes no sense to me. I reach into my pocket and put on my KN-95 to the sound of bottles clicking and laughter all about, just before the comedian comes to the small octagonal stage off the dance floor.
It’s been months since I’ve been around this many people. Tonight, folks laugh a little louder and dance a little harder since it’s the first week A.T.L’ians have been allowed to mingle after the citywide mandatory, night club restrictions. On top of that it seems folks are tired of the daily Trump foolishness, fake evangelicals calling sins wins, Sou-sou money clubs, police killing Black men, gaining weight, R. Kelly, COVID killing everyone, gaining weight, Karen’s going wild, Kevin’s protecting Karen’s, home schooling, missing family, sweat pants, seeing too much of family, Zoom calls, looking for toilet paper, gaining even more weight and then going to sleep; and like Ground Hog Day II, having it happen the very next day.
I’m cold and damp from the rain, so I embrace myself, moving my hands up and down my biceps for warmth. I scope out the joint. That’s what they do on TV. If I make this lick and get to the door, I’ll be able to survive until I can sell another house. This has to work out.
In the murky, dimly lit back of the room, in front of a faded poster of Killer Mike, a woman is selling neon red, battery-powered roses. She moves from person to person and is rejected repeatedly. I watch her unmasked face mouth a few words, receive the rejection, and move doggedly to the next person, unfazed.
The bartender puts a stack of bills as thick as a woman’s fist in a bag. He has my attention. He tucks it in a spot behind the bar. That’s the stash house. Yeah, I used to watch The Wire.
When I move, I notice my reflection in the mirror and it’s jarring. One thing I miss about having a home is brushing my teeth in the morning. Odd, right? It’s not only about hygiene. I miss seeing my face. When your car has become your residence, there are times you forget how you look. Now my face is gaunt, and my clothes don’t fit. My eye is a puffy, but not as bad as I thought it would look. Could have been a lot worse.
When we started the church, which my ex named Compassion Central, my light brown skin—the residue of my deceased Italian father—was smooth. Now it resembles a catcher’s mitt, and my curly COVID fro is salt and pepper, in the spots where I’m not going bald. The soaking wet brown tweed, six-hundred-dollar Hugo Boss sport coat I’m wearing, brings to mind something homeless people would roll up to use as a pillow.
No wonder Bishop said he was praying for me after giving me a five dollar, “love token,” from the offering.
“Screw forty-two, I look fifty-two,” I whisper to myself with a wistful smile. My hazel eyes, which at one time would evoke questions from strangers, “Are they real?” are empty, sullen, and emit darkness. People used to ask me if I had work done on my teeth. I always replied, “I’m blessed.” Now the blessings are dingy and yellow, and when I scratch my beard, flakes of dandruff eject like an eight-track. If a person in this club knew me from when the church was open, they’d walk past without saying a word. That wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen tonight.
I find a stool at the bar, closer to my target—the stash house. A guy one seat over motions to the bartender with two fingers and a jerk of his head upward just like in the movies. Within a few minutes, the bartender, brings out two shimmering drinks. The woman selling neon roses is drawing closer. I didn’t notice her make a sale, but she’s persistent.
The guy who ordered the drinks wears a red doo rag under a spearmint green derby and has a crooked smile that exposes teeth on only one side of his mouth. From time to time, he whispers into the ear of the woman perched between his legs then leans back to peep her expression. She appears to admire every word he’s speaking.
The woman with the roses comes up to him. I can hear her pitch. “Excuse me, kind sir. Rose for the lady?”
He flicks her away with the back of his tattooed hand. And then the woman positioned between his legs removes her mask to sip the drink when he suddenly shouts, “What the fuck!” He pushes her away in disgust as if he has seen her unmasked face for the first time.
“What?” she asks. The bartender drops another thick, rubber-banded stack of bills in the burgundy bank bag. He’s getting sloppy.
The patrons banter back and forth, and my mind is on one thing. Like a heavy-handed timpani player, my heart pounds in my chest as I bounce my fist against my knee. The fact that I’m here, in this situation and facing such a dilemma is abhorrent. Can’t dwell on that now. I’m down to my last—and I’ll do what I have to do.
Slowly I stand.
The bartender walks behind the shelf of drinks and into a storage room behind him. I played basketball in high school. Even at my height I could easily jump across the bar, grab the bag, and run out. There’s no way they’d fire a gun in a club this crowded. No flipping way.
I grasp the edge of the bar and steady myself. Then, the voice poses the question.
“Just because you don’t understand, this is what we’re going to do?”
I look back toward the door. The one bouncer is on the other side of the room and although crowded there’s, there is a path to get out of here.
I bend my knees.