Reverend Langston Penniman sat on the edge of his bed, stretching his black fingers. Everything had either twisted up on him or shrunk except his stomach. Once six-foot-five, he now plunged to six two, still tall, but not the imposing dignitary he once was standing behind the lectern in front of his congregation.
His parishioners aged, too. So hard nowadays to attract the young, he thought, standing from the bed he shared with his wife of fifty-two years. His knees cracked. He’d gotten his cholesterol under control, but at seventy-five, his health headed south as his age pushed north.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Reverend Penniman had a hard time staying relevant, what with tattoos, body piercing, rap music, not to mention homosexuals getting married and reefer being legalized. For a man his age, changing was like pulling a mule uphill through molasses.
The smell of bacon and eggs drifted down the hall. He heard the coffeemaker gurgle. How he loved his mornings with the Montgomery Daily News—not Internet news—something he could hold in his hands, smell the ink. He even enjoyed licking his fingers to separate the pages.
Off in the direction of the Alabama River, he thought he heard a siren, not far from his church.
“Breakfast ready,” Flo shouted from the kitchen.
Flo was the sweetest gift the Lord ever bestowed upon a man. Oh, he was fortunate, he thought, passing her picture on the dresser bureau and the photo of their three boys and two girls. Proud of his church, he was even prouder of their five children. Three graduated from college, all of them respectable citizens.
“It’s gonna get cold if you don’t come and get it.”
“I’m a comin. Just let me wash up.”
The siren sounded closer.
The Alabama spring day was warmer than usual. At nine in the morning, it was headed off the charts, as the kids say nowadays.
Reverend Penniman washed and dressed. At the bureau, he brushed back the sides of his white hair, his bald crown parted like the Red Sea. When his kids teased him about looking like Uncle Ben, he grew whiskers just as white. His boys joked he looked like Uncle Ben with a beard. He chuckled. He would have preferred Morgan Freeman.
“I’ll feed it to the garbage disposal if you don’t come and get it.”
“I’m a comin now, sweet thing.”
He heard the siren turn the corner at Bankhead and Parks.
Reverend Penniman looked at the cell phone lying on his dresser. He’d yet to master how to get his thick fingers to press one picture at a time, or type on that itty bitty keyboard. He couldn’t even hold it in the crook of his neck.
He hurried down the hall. The floorboards of the fifty-year-old house creaked just like him. Not quite shotgun, his house did have a similar layout what with add-ons for the three boys.
The siren was upon them.
“Lord have mercy,” Flo said as she put the food on the table. “That sure sounds angry.”
“Sure does. Let me take a look,” the reverend said from the kitchen’s entrance.
He went to the living room window and saw a police car pull into his driveway, the siren cut-off. Two uniformed police officers, one black, the other white, got out of the cruiser and headed up his footpath.
He opened the door.
“Are you Reverend Penniman?”
“I am. What’s the problem?”
“There’s a girl up on the bell tower of your church. Says she’s gonna jump,” the black officer said.
“Good Lord!” Flo cried, standing behind her husband.
“Let me get my keys,” the reverend said.
“No time, sir. Come with us. You’ll get there faster.”
Flo took off and came back with the reverend’s cell phone. “Here baby. I’m gonna meet you there, soon as I shut down the kitchen. You should at least have your toast. I can put it in a baggie for you.”
“No time,” he said as he hurried out the door with the officers.
Reverend Penniman sat in the back of the car with a screen separating him from the policemen. “Who is she?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” the young white officer answered.
“What’s she look like?”
“Black teen, skinny, baggy pants, chain hanging from the pocket, hoodie pulled over a ball cap.”
“You know her?”
“Like one of my own.” The reverend looked out the window as the car pulled away. He clasped his hands together and said a quick prayer for the troubled girl. Lord, help me help her, he repeated to himself. “Did she ask for me?”
“How’d you find me?”
“Your name is on the marquee of your church.”
“I’m Officer Johnson,” the older man said. “This is Officer Perry.”
Officer Perry reached forward and turned on the siren. The noise deafened everything, including the pounding of Reverend Penniman’s heart.
They drove toward downtown Montgomery along the banks of the Alabama. The RSA tower soared above the city’s skyline.
The speed limit was forty. The reverend guessed they were doing twice that. His right knee pumped like the needle on Flo’s sewing machine.
The siren screamed. The lights blinked and rotated, flashing red and blue on the hood of the car. Reverend Penniman felt like he was up on that bell tower, on the edge, with his arms stretched out, his body holding back the weight of all his parishioners who had wept in his arms.