What of the Ranch
by W. B. Emerson
Vera Cooley was thick-set like an ox, with soft almond-colored skin and straight white teeth. She carried her weight well though, managing to pull off the appearance of an Aunt Jemima who had just discovered the haute couture of a fashion magazine. She liked furs, expensive clothes from department stores where black folks didn't shop, Estee Lauder sprayed on her neck and on the backsides of her wrists before driving her new Cadillac into town to shop for expensive rings. In church on Sunday mornings the parishioners rarely failed to notice the rock-sized jewels that choked Minister Cooley's fingers. But I only knew her as a mother, not aware of her flaws and inconsistencies.
Ma was actually a pastor, the shepherd of a fire-and-brimstone black church out in the cornfields of Michigan, but everyone referred to her as Minister Cooley. She sat regally on an oversized orange chair that looked like a throne, cushioned in the seat and padded in the back. There were three throne-like seats at the front of the church behind a large wooden rostrum with a cross in its center. The one in the middle, where Ma sat, was differentiated from the others by the addition of wooden armrests. Her pleated, red gown was loose-fitted and sequined in faux-diamond studs in an exaggerated V at the neck. To her right was Douglas Pemberton, whom everyone called Elder Pemberton. He was only the assistant pastor, those in the know understanding that it was Ma who wore the pants in the church.
Douglas was a tall and dark-skinned man with a vacant expression continually evident on the face of his unusually small head. But I always thought he was a nice man. Nowhere near as commanding a presence as Ma, Douglas played the part of figurehead well. He leaned over and whispered something in Ma's ear, which caused her to reveal her perfect teeth.
The basement of the parsonage had been completely transformed to look like a place of worship. Down its center were long, brown pews, hard to sit on for long periods of time due to lack of padding and ugly to look at. The sides and rear of the basement were also peopled with these wooden sentinels, the only breaks in their ranks to allow parishioners room to maneuver through the maze of brown. The floor of the church was littered in tiles of little off-white, black, tan and gray speckles, along with the occasional balled-up, phlegm-ridden Kleenex or a Jesus-knock-on-door fan attached to a tongue depressor. Walls of brown wood paneling were defeated by a velvet painting which took the form of a genuflecting Anglo Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the left side of the church facing the three thrones. On the right side hung a large rug of Anglo Jesus as shepherd with staff in hand herding a flock of sheep. These were in addition to other Christian icons throughout the church, a sculpture of hands in the prayer position, a carved-of-wood Christ dying on the cross.
At the very front of the church to the right of the three thrones was the bandstand, made up of clear-skinned young black men with rounded afros in suits of bellbottom trousers and shirts and jackets encumbered by giant collars and lapels. On the drums sat a six-foot-six teen awaiting the opportunity to begin pounding away again on his noisemaker. This was Dougie Moss, the sixteen-year-old son of Douglas by way of a previous marriage. Douglas was often praised for having married a woman who had seven kids of her own before she met him. The woman, Sally Jo Pemberton, and three other church members had died in a horrendous highway accident back in 1973. That was when God's Tabernacle was still in Chicago, the city where the church had its genesis under the revered woman preacher Bishop Bobbie J. Matheson, known to all as Mama. She was actually Ma's mentor and the brains behind All for All and the property in Michigan, having begun the church in 1948.
Ma looked out from the pulpit at her twenty-four-year-old son, Donohue King. Donohue was her only biological child, but there were other young people she cared for after the '73 deaths. Hattie Michaels for instance, who was a beautiful sixteen-year-old with a shy smile and alluring, heavy-lidded eyes. She could often be spotted in church combing her fingers through her hair while sheepishly throwing glances at Dougie. I was a spoiled five-year-old with precious tendencies and a special case, given to the bishop after my biological mother said she had seen visions where the spirit told her to give me back to God. The woman, Lizbeth Jefferson, took this to mean she should give me to the bishop. After her death, I was bestowed upon Ma, who had taken care of me much of the time while I was under the bishop's care. I was an outgoing child, cute and very clever. And being that Ma had a fondness for those outgoing, cute or clever, I became her favorite, even above Donohue. Donohue had his mother's beautiful smile, Ma thought as she looked out at him, but little else. I would be heir to the throne if Ma had her way. And since Ma always got her way, such would be the case. She was already making great progress in grooming Miles Loughton, a tall, light-complexioned, young black man about Donohue's age who managed to appear handsome despite having a big nose. The de facto leader of the band, Miles sat confidently at the church keyboard ready and able to accompany any member who felt moved to worship in song. Rounding out the band was the dark-skinned, bug-eyed Matthew Jefferson, the son of Lizbeth and my biological brother, and Jeffrey Moss. Tall, dark-skinned and stocky, Jeffrey was one of the seven adopted children of Douglas and brother of Dougie.
Standing in front of the bandstand behind a glossy, wooden table with the words DO THIS IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME carved into it was a morbidly obese, hot chocolate-colored woman with her hair in a stern, black bun. She wore a white nurse's uniform and stood practically motionless from the waist down, her great weight making any unnecessary movement a chore. Joanna Pike was understood to be one of those selfless types who, nonetheless, charged greatly for her virtue. In Joanna's case the price was respect and order. She too had taken charge of some young people left parentless after the '73 deaths and demanded that they walk the straight and narrow. This meant no back-talking, no getting into trouble in school and behaving in church, to name a few things. She cast a sidelong glance at Carlton Watson, one of the six young people in her charge, who was standing by the most rearward pew of the church talking to Philip Sweeney. Carlton was a loud-talking, teenage beanpole with persistent body odor and a gregarious personality.
"You hear me?" he whispered repeatedly to Philip, trying to regain the young man's attention as it drifted slowly back to the proceedings of the service.
Always engaging and outgoing, Carlton caught the glance thrown him by Joanna and quickly snapped to attention, breaking off his conversation with Philip. Talking in church was one of those things frowned on, especially during prayer, Joanna just happening to open her eyes at the exact moment Carlton was misbehaving. At least Carlton's older sisters, Clarissa and Joletta, were behaving themselves as proper young ladies should. They stood with their heads bowed next to a pew on Joanna's right.
Slouched and solemn at the front of the church next to Joanna was emaciated-looking Christina James. The mother of Philip and his sisters, Colette and Yana, she was a solitary and quiet woman who loved anything that called for self-denial and emotional hardship. She had lazy eyes that could only look at you in a disinterested way and spoke with a slow, uneducated drawl. Wearing a long, gray cotton dress and a white blouse buttoned all the way to the collar, she wouldn't have been out of place if God had miraculously transported her back to the nineteenth century. It was said that Christina once complained to Beulah Mabry about not being able to find shoes in her size, due to the smallness of her feet. Beulah, a firebrand who worked and looked like a mule, volunteered in jest to knit her some boots. The stout woman always got a good laugh out of that story and stood near the solitary pew closest to the stairs that led up to the living quarters of the parsonage. Beulah was Ma's roommate. Ironically, despite all the power Ma wielded, there was precious little space available in the living quarters of the house, so she and Beulah were forced to share a room, Beulah sleeping on a foldout couch next to Ma's bed.
In fact, I was the only person who had my own room in the four-bedroom parsonage. Hattie and two other girls under Ma's care, Tina Moss and Kate Loughton, slept in the largest room of the house. The room had been intended for Mama to stay in, complete with its own bathroom with a sunken tub and a king-sized bed big enough to sleep four comfortably. The fourth room in the house was occupied by Donohue and Miles. Several people thought it strange that I, a mere five-year-old child, should have my own room, but that was simply the way it was, by order and will of my mother. She treated me more like a doll than a person, dressing me in expensive outfits and stocking my room with practically every toy I could ever want. My effeminate qualities were simply overlooked as mannishness, and I was pretty much given reign of the house. But I was a relatively well-behaved child, which made the fact that I was given so much a little easier for some to swallow. Besides, everyone was a little heady and still getting their bearing, having come from the city to the country. Members were still learning their way around the area of dirt roads and open skies. But they were finally able to live in peace and quiet. In fact, tiny Monette, with a population of less than two thousand, would've probably been too quiet, eerily so for some folks. But the members of God's Tabernacle, who had endured years of the worst Chicago had to offer, couldn't get enough of Michigan's rural tranquility.
The property sat on a parcel of land surrounded by nothing but trees and yellow cornfields. A long, dirt, S-shaped driveway led to the community, which was unobstructed from view on the road that ran perpendicular to the place. Capable of holding about twelve cars, the driveway ended in a good-sized parking area. The two-car garage, where Ma and Douglas parked their vehicles, stood between the apartment building and the parsonage, both made of multicolored red, black and white bricks. Sidewalks connected the apartment to the parsonage and led from each building to the parking area. Three white, filmy globes attached to sleek, black poles lined the driveway, providing lighting at night.
Beyond the immediate living environs of God's Tabernacle and also owned by the church were acres upon acres of rolling hills, sloping valleys and lush green, thick-leafed trees, strong and healthy in appearance. There was a nobility in those trees, something that let you know that God's Tabernacle was a safe place and a place that was serious about trying to create a new type of life for people who had for so long known only the dark and difficult side of living. There were only three other houses within a mile radius of the place, which suited the members of God's Tabernacle just fine. They were in no hurry to reach out to the surrounding community. The bishop had fostered within them an independence that assured them that, apart for the church leaders, God was the only person they needed to rely on. He would sustain them when they lacked, comfort them when they hurt and defend them when they were treated unjustly. Those outside of the fold were to be looked upon with suspicion if not outright fear. Nothing good came from the secular world. Nothing. Everything they ever needed and ever wanted was within their reach within the confines of God's Tabernacle.
Someone driving by on the dirt road abutting the community would have little knowledge of the maelstrom of movement and level of religious fervor that were being played out underneath the ground in the basement of the parsonage, a place where the church met several times a week for services. On Sundays there was Bible class, morning service and evening service. Wednesday nights were reserved for Bible study and Friday nights were when members met for tarrying service. The latter could be some of the wilder meetings where people spoke in tongues, flailed about on the floor and clapped their hands for hours in attempt to gain some favor from God. Sunday services could be just as wild, but they were tempered by the participation of the fledgling church choir, a message from a speaker and the testimony portion of service. The younger members referred to their elders as "brother" or "sister" fill-in-appropriate-name. Those higher up in the church hierarchy earned the right to be called "minister" or "elder" so and so. Minister Cooley was the only designated minister in the church and Elder Pemberton the only elder.
Several of the members of God's Tabernacle had remained behind in Chicago. There were those who felt their lives in the city were simply too entrenched to pull up everything by the roots and head out to the middle of nowhere where they knew no one or even if the community would function. They had jobs and families to consider. A lot of those who moved to the property in Monette were young people, orphans who had little chance of fending for or making good lives for themselves in Chicago after the death of their parents in 1973. The people who moved to Monette were those most considered to have little to lose and everything to gain, people who wanted or needed to start over, experience something new and different in effort to heal after the deaths of '73. They were the trailblazers, the pioneers, even the ones considered intrepid. They couldn't fail because there was nothing to go back to. They had given everything—their money, their strength, their lives—to God's Tabernacle and the dream of living at the Ranch. The parcel of land out in the country was all they had now, the land and each other.
After Christina had finished the prayer, she seemed to be seized by something. She screamed out, jerked her slight frame a little and fell to the floor barely evading a large, old iron floor fan, industrial-sized, whirring out air noisily onto the congregation. It had become hot in the unventilated space with all those bodies breathing out hot air and sucking it back in. Many waved the paper Jesus-knock-on-door fans in front of their faces, the fans themselves appearing as the blur of hummingbirds' wings. Still there was little relief from the heat. The more mature members of the congregation understood Christina's faint to be another manifestation of the spirit. God often worked in extraordinary ways at God's Tabernacle. It was not uncommon to see church members crawling on the floor, drool oozing from their mouths in effort to make a stronger connection with God. Others danced around the church as if they were on fire or hopped up and down in place to the accompaniment of a driving drumbeat, base guitar and wheezing organ. Joanna rocked back and forth in place while speaking in tongues and gazing down at Christina. It wasn't long before the woman dressed as a nurse made a diagnosis. This was no manifestation of the spirit. There was something wrong with the woman.
"Minister Cooley," said Joanna, turning slightly to look back at Ma and waving her forward. It was amazing just how earthbound Joanna's weight rendered her. Her steps were those of a penguin. Ma, despite her weight, was quick to move from her throne over to Christina. The congregation remained on its feet, the older members coming forward to join Ma in a circle around Christina. Chants of "Jesus" began to emanate from the circle, as Ma kneeled down and put her hand on Christina's shoulder lightly shaking her.
"Sister James. Sister James," Ma said, continually shaking the woman, careful not to get on her knees in the gown. Not yet, at least. If it were necessary she would gladly risk soiling one of her favorite outfits for the woman, but not yet. She may come to, soon. "Sister Mabry, go get some water," Ma commanded. Beulah, as if shocked by an electric current, raced to the bathroom at the rear of church just behind the stairway leading up to the living quarters. There was always a stray cup on the counter of the bathroom sink. Beulah returned with a glass of water and a rag she had discovered on top of the dryer, which was also housed in the bathroom next to the washer. The bathroom area was actually divided in two halves. The front section held the washer, dryer and a sink. A door separated that section of the bathroom from the toilet and a shower in the back section. The rag was dipped in the water, rung out and dabbed on Christina's forehead and face. Just as Ma felt that it'd be necessary to get on her knees, Christian began to slowly turn her head back and forth, indicating that she was coming to. Her faint was at least graceful, like everything about Christina. She had managed to repose in a position that barely mussed her neck-length thick hair. Still it was decided that the woman should be taken to the hospital. Although the community was insular and faith healing a big part of the culture, members of the church were not averse to going to doctors if they felt a visit was warranted. In the case of Christina, it was decided that it was better to be safe than sorry.
Donohue backed his mother's long lime-green, dealer-new Cadillac from her side of the garage, as Ma went upstairs to change out of her gown into something more street-worthy. Led by Douglas, Sunday service would continue as usual while Ma and Hattie carried Christina to the hospital. Hattie, or another one of the girls, often accompanied Ma on errands and leisure trips. In addition to enjoying their company, Ma felt it was important to train the young women in the ways of God at every possible opportunity. She would teach them how to be proper young ladies. Lizbeth, my biological mother, was the designated church driver and would normally ride along with Ma on such a trip. But Lizbeth was in her apartment, prevented from attending service by her over-emotional daughter Janet, a fat girl who shared her mother's bug eyes and over-developed breasts. She was on her period, an event that had sent the fifteen-year-old into a depression every month since she began receiving her visitor a couple years ago.
Christina was assisted in getting into the front seat of the car next to Ma, as Hattie scooted into the back, excited to be part of such an important mission. Since they were all new to the area, members of the community welcomed any opportunity to leave the confines of the Ranch and explore. Only a few of them had cars; many were either too young or too citified to even have licenses. There wasn't a lot to see until you crossed the Michigan border into Elkhart, Indiana. But Ma sometimes took a different route allowing you a different view. That day she stuck to the way she knew best in effort to save time. Taking a cursory glance at the car's interior, Ma thought she loved Cadillacs almost as much as she loved Jesus.
"Hattie, you okay back there," said Ma, taking a cursory glance in the rearview mirror after studying Christina in the passenger seat. The woman was sitting with her head back, eyes closed. Ma thought it wise that Joanna had opened a few buttons on Christina's blouse. She wondered if she hadn't fainted simply because she was trapped in all those hot clothes. Christina and her old-fashioned clothes was something else, Ma thought.
"Yes, ma'am," said Hattie, looking at the soft eyes reflected in the mirror. "You think they'll ever build something out here?"
"I don't know. I guess so. But I kind of like being out here alone. At least you ain't got to worry about folks robbing and shooting like in Chicago," said Ma, marveling at the verdant fields racing past her.
"If more folks do move here, it could be bad news," said Christina in that lazy, sing-song tone she was known for. Ma noticed she still had her eyes closed as she spoke.
Elkhart, a town of about forty thousand south of Monette, was where the church community did most of its shopping. Members felt Monette didn't offer them enough in terms of groceries and other products. The major grocery stores and retailers were all in Elkhart, as was the hospital Ma was headed to. When asked how she was doing, Christina said she felt fine, but Ma still thought it was best to have someone look at her. It was probably just heat-related, but you never knew. Besides, Ma had long feared that something might be wrong with Christina, physically speaking. She was frail, ate little, looked too thin and gave you the impression she might just one day evaporate into some mist and be blown into the atmosphere never to be seen again. Ma was surprised she hadn't fainted before. Maybe she simply hadn't told anyone or hadn't told Ma specifically. It was known within God's Tabernacle that once you gave Ma an in to some private aspect of your life, you'd be beholden to her even more. It was enough that she controlled all of your money; you didn't want her controlling decisions about your body and health as well. Still this was the very position Christina found herself.
Hattie, running a hand along the car's white leather seats, briefly let a thought about long-legged Dougie float through her mind. But the thought was quickly banished. She had been under Ma's tutelage long enough to know that it wasn't proper for a young lady to think such things. She didn't want to wind up pregnant like a teenage girl she knew back in Chicago. Hattie was determined to remain a virgin until her wedding night. That way she could give her husband all of herself, every part of her would belong to him. But she wondered if her husband-to-be would be a virgin. It didn't seem fair that she remain pure and chaste and get a husband who had been around the block a few times. Hattie remembered Ma saying in church once that the boys should be virgins like the girls, but when Hattie looked at the boys in the bandstand they all had these blank looks on their faces, especially Dougie.
A cloud of dust quietly enveloped the green Cadillac, a faint camouflage as the car traveled slowly down one of Monette's country, dirt roads. Ma wondered if they'd ever pave them, thought about whether Mama had made the right decision by having the church move out of Chicago. But it wasn't Mama; God had moved the church. Exactly what he had in store for it was a different story. Ma would lead them, be their guide. She was sure they were as uncertain as she was about the move, but God had put her in charge and she wouldn't let him down. Mama drove a Cadillac, so Ma decided to drive one. Mama had furs and jewels and expensive clothes, so Ma would acquire them too. It wasn't easy walking in the footsteps of a legend. Ma would have to pretend she knew what she was doing until she really did. She'd at least have to look the part of a great leader if she were to command the respect Mama did.
"Elder Pemberton said his message was about fighting the good fight," said Ma, looking down at the speedometer and noticing she might be going a little too fast on the dirt road, the strained sound of the little rocks beneath the tires an indicator. "He always talk about that," said Christina, who opened her eyes at the mention of the man. It was no secret in the community that she had a crush on Elder Pemberton and tried to downplay the fact by disparaging him at every opportunity she got.
"Well, the truth is the truth no matter how many times it's spoken," said Ma, with a knowing grin.
A squirrel darted into the dirt, paused and then headed for a green expanse of trees and bushes on the other side of the road. Once the car reached U.S. 12, the main road into Elkhart from Monette, the driving would get a lot easier, as all the streets in Elkhart were paved—at least the ones Ma had come across. She glanced into the rearview mirror catching sight of Hattie, a beautiful and chaste girl just like Ma had been as a teenager before she was taken advantage of one sweltering summer night in Mississippi. That's how she got Donohue. She had been sixteen, the same age as Hattie. But that was long ago, back in the days when black folks couldn't even drink out the same fountain as whites in the South. Times were changing now. Jimmy Carter, a nice Southern gentleman with a liberal mind, was sure to help out the blacks if he was elected come November. Ma had a strong suspicion the man would win office simply because folks was still turned off by Nixon's mess. And Ford's association with Nixon made him undesirable as president.
The road before Ma had become as smooth as silk, which gave release to her legendary lead foot. Ma liked to go fast when she drove. After being cooped up in Chicago—where she always rode the bus—and being burdened with the care of leading a group of people at the ripe old age of forty, it was good to fly, roam on the wind a little. It was good to see trees and fields pass her by, unable to cling to her. She was free behind the wheel, if only for a moment. Having traveled the last ten minutes without ever seeing another car, faces behind windshields became visible, as did brake lights. There were never any walkers like in the city; the area was solely the domain of big, metal cars, people eaters. Slowly street signs, light posts and store marquees began to appear announcing Elkhart's downtown. Red, white and blue flags and posters clung to the tops of the light posts and on storefronts heralding the bicentennial. America had turned two hundred just a month ago, an occasion that elicited a great deal of revelry at God's Tabernacle. The flags reminded Ma of the big picnic the church had thrown last month where there was lots of fried chicken and watermelon, macaroni and cheese with cold red juice and chocolate cake. No, Mama hadn't made a mistake. This is where the church should be, a place where the saints could live good, clean lives, breathe fresh air and worship God the way they wanted.
Elkhart General Hospital looked small compared to Cook County's massive campus. Ma had driven into town to be told that Christina was fine. It was just the heat that had affected the woman. She should be sure to drink enough water on hot days and not overexert herself. The doctor confirmed what Ma had thought all alone, but it was good to hear it from a professional. The people of God's Tabernacle were her responsibility, and she would take care of them no matter what, just as Mama had taken care of them. Mama had bought the saints food and clothes and paid the bills, and Ma was doing the same. She was the church's new Mama, in a sense. As for the people of God's Tabernacle, they allowed Ma to lead, allowed her to succor them in a world that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar and unsafe. Just a week ago the news reported a bunch of people got sick in Philadelphia and no one knew why. The Bible spoke of things like that happening in the end times. That's why Mama had bought the land for them. It was a place where they could be safe and hide away from the outside world, a world within a world where only righteousness reigned and God's law was adhered to.