Going to Glory by Thomas J. Hubschman
Veda liked summer mornings best. Any season was a good one to be up with the sun, but in July when the sky was ablaze with light at 6:00 A.M. she felt like she was present at the moment of Creation. Even as a little girl her biggest thrill was to wake before anyone else to witness the glory of a new day.
Her husband was still asleep when she left the house. So were her two grown children, neither of whom shared her enthusiasm for the new day's brilliant arrival. But she, as she made her way toward the subway, noted with fresh delight the welcoming red-and-white signs in the window of a bagel shop and recorded the presence of each parked car and stray pigeon scavenging for crumbs at the curbside as if they were the first of their kind. The world seemed new as a bakery's day-breaking fragrance, restored by the long night's benediction like a bride at the dawn of her wedding day.
When she bought her token at the subway entrance -- almost bought two -- she showed her brightest smile to the clerk in the change booth. She knew what it was like to sit in one of those glass cages doling out brass slugs for eight hours. In her day the booths were neither bullet-proof nor air-conditioned. But no matter how oppressive the heat or ill-humored the commuters, she had always presented a cheerful greeting to each new face. Until her early retirement for a lower-back problem, she scarcely missed a day in seventeen years on the job.
"Good morning, sister. Praise Jesus for this glorious morning!"
There was no one on the platform but a homeless man asleep on a bench, his shopping bags clustered around him. His shoeless feet reminded her that her son had been on the street himself this past winter after he was discharged from South Beach Psychiatric and his father would not allow him back into the house. She had searched for the boy in all the municipal shelters of Brooklyn, until eventually he turned up at his grandmother's. The old lady brought him back home herself and then gave his father what-for. "Didn't I put up with your own tomfoolery? Who gave you the right to shut your flesh and blood out in the cold? For two cents, boy, I'd take you over my knee."
Veda's heart ached when she saw the scabs on the young man's arms and legs. He was better now, as long as he took his medication, but he and his father had still not made it up. If one of them walked into a room, the other left. She prayed to the Spirit to put love in their hearts, but so far the Spirit had not responded. Rabbi Ben said there was a sin somewhere in her own heart that was holding Him back. Search as she might for that offense, she was unable to find it. But today, she recalled with a fresh thrill, her son would be freed from his affliction, and she from her guilt.
"And you too, brother," she said to the sleeping derelict as the "F" train thundered into the station, "you too shall be brought to glory."
The boardwalk and, beyond, the sand were so ablaze with light that she had to put on her sunglasses. An old man and his dog were the lone figures on a midway of shut-up hot dog stands and Keno parlors. Even the Cyclone seemed the gray relic of a bygone civilization. In the noonlike brilliance it was easy to forget that the day was just beginning, that on an ordinary Sunday thousands of raucous teenagers would shortly repossess this world. She could more easily imagine claiming it herself, turn the clock back three decades to her own youth, when she used to come here with the boy she was to marry, along with a group of other youngsters whose parents were all down-home Southern Baptists like her own. Growing up in such a godly environment, the most ordinary pleasures -- a trip to the beach, even the church picnic -- could seem like illicit adventure. Coney Island was the glittering repository of sin itself, of holding hands in the Tunnel of Love, of all but strangling the boy you cared for as the roller coaster thrilled you like the orgasm you had not yet had. But today the Cyclone's drab latticework seemed more dream than memory. She could not conceive ascending those dizzying peaks even in the giddy days of her youth. Certainly, that young man who pursued her through her teens, always on the lookout for a furtive kiss or feverish embrace, no more resembled the man she had just left snoring in Park Slope than this abandoned amusement recalled the screaming delights of her youth.
"Good morning," she greeted the elderly dog-walker. Lost in a dream himself and no more expecting to come upon this tall beaming dark woman than to meet a ghost out of his own sunken past, he grunted a reply and reined in his doddering pet. "Praise the Lord for this glorious day!" He couldn't know it, but soon he too would be delivered from his sad introspections. Rabbi Ben said the Jews had turned their backs on the Spirit, but she had to believe that every man, woman and child of good will would be brought to glory along with the Ten Thousand Elect.
There was no one on the beach itself but a klatch of homeless people wrapped up in rags like bedouins. Soon the sand would be crowded with faithful. The official gathering place was Brighton Beach, just a short walk down the boardwalk. But even with dark glasses on, she was unable to see that far. Boardwalk, beach, sky, even the blue water of the ocean throbbed with a fierce pure light. The face of God shone like this. Soon every human being would behold It as directly as she was now confronting this blazing white star.
Her high heels began to chafe. But how could she have worn flats today? "Always remember you're a lady," her grandmother told her, "like your mama." Grandmama was gone now too. No one was left from that side of the family but a maiden aunt in Georgia, and Veda wouldn't know where to begin to look for her father's people. It had never been clear where they were from. "Out West," he used to say. But his wife teased him, "West Indies, maybe. West Africa." Veda never did solve the mystery, not even when her father was an old man living in the brownstone which her own family now occupied. "Out West, girl," he replied right up to the day he died in the same bed she and her sister used to pile into until their mother had enough of their fussing and sent them back to their room. Would her daddy who cared nothing for church or religion be brought to glory this morning? She couldn't bear to think of him spending eternity in a cold grave in Greenwood Cemetery while everyone else -- Mama, sister Sarah dead of polio at just ten years old, and Grandmama -- were reunited. Surely the Spirit's love included even atheists who abstained from fornicating, lies, and other uncleanness?
She was dressed the same as she would be for church. The congregation had debated what attire was appropriate. Most agreed that Sunday clothes were best. A minority opted for something more casual. But already her brow was frosted with perspiration. She wiped it with a hanky she kept handy in her dress sleeve and squinted into the glare. A group of figures shimmered in the heat rising from the boardwalk ahead. She tried to see if her preacher was among them, but even shading her dark glasses she could not pick him out.
Someone called her name. Turning, she saw three floral bonnets heading her way. The faces beneath glistened with sweat.
"Veda, honey, I knew that was you. 'There's Veda,' I told Cora. But she said, 'That's not Veda. How could Veda get ahead of us if we was on the same train?' I told her, 'Veda takes the "F" train.' Ain't that right, honey? Did you walk all the way from Coney Island?"
They embraced each other.
Some other women joined them, and a man as well. An elderly couple, locals out taking the sun before the heat became oppressive, watched from a nearby bench. Behind them a complex of tennis and handball courts, a pool and miniature-golf amusement were being readied for the day's activities by young men in white elastic trucks. Veda and her co-congregationalists ignored them all, chattering away as if they were about to embark on a bus outing. The old man and woman eyed the dark strangers as if they were exotic and perhaps dangerous sea birds that had landed on the boardwalk in search of a free meal.
"Has anyone seen Rabbi Ben?" Faye Wilson asked.
"Wilma saw his car."
"Here comes Margaret. Margaret, did you see Rabbi Ben?"
The old man turned toward his wife, his palsied head trembling with equal amounts of amazement and insult.
"Good morning, sisters. Good morning!"
Her pastor's resplendent figure was no less a revelation than his marvelous translation into their midst. Powerful muscles -- he was well over six foot -- strained against the seams of his white linen suit. A red tie flapped on a snowy shirtfront. His head was bare, a garden of reddish-blond ringlets. Two bright blue eyes were almost lost behind a shield of thick glasses, making it seem as if he were looking at you with the entirety of those huge lenses. Sideburns thicker even than the dense growth on his head ran halfway down his cheeks, which in this strong light seemed fair. A blunt nose suggested Africa to some, Odessa to others. His lips could stretch thin in a Scotsman's grimace, other times fill out to a black man's pout. Veda had a half-hillbilly cousin in Georgia who resembled him. Sheila Donneley, who traveled all the way from MacDonald Avenue to attend services, said he was the "dead spit" of her brother in Armagh. Alice Chan claimed he looked like a television quizmaster in Hong Kong.
Without any sign or word or felt will to do so, they began moving as one toward the beach. Veda hung back in the second rank. Like the rest, she had taken off her shoes. The sand was warm but not yet the hot coals it would be in a few hours. Still, everyone was fanning with whatever was handy -- newspaper, pocketbook, Rabbi Ben's "Wake to Glory!" Early sunbathers, their skin gleaming with lotion, watched them troop by. Gulls circled above, annoyed by this uncalled-for intrusion on their breakfast hour.
Rabbi Ben had told them only what the Bible itself said: that He would come from the east enthroned on a cloud surrounded by angels. She had forgotten how he worked out the precise time and place, but it was all right there in Revelations. She looked back to see if the rest of the Ten Thousand had arrived, but spotted only Chatty Thompson and Rose Negelman, hurrying to catch up. Rabbi Ben's congregation must be the vanguard, she decided--a kind of welcoming committee. After all, if there were only ten thousand saved in the entire world, they couldn't all be expected to journey to Coney Island. Some, perhaps most, were too poor to afford the trip. The Lord would have to personally collect them. Perhaps He would appear simultaneously in different parts of the globe.
The water had become an immense mirror whose only purpose was to reflect the sun. She couldn't see anything for the glare, but everyone around her was calling "Behold! He comes!"
The tide was out, leaving a slick border of wet sand between beach and breakers. She used to be afraid to swim even here at Coney where the waves scarcely reached her knees. Her friends would drag her screaming to the water's edge, freeing her only when she threatened to tell on them. When her own children were small she didn't give a second thought to her old phobia, concerned only that her boys were safe and having a good time. But she had worried about her old fear returning today.
Rabbi Ben lifted his arms skyward as if raising a great weight, his white suit stretched tight across his shoulders. His back was to her, but she pictured his face the way it looked when he was in the thrall of his weekly benediction, eyes shut tight, cheeks scarlet, sweat streaming down his cheeks.
"Behold!" someone cried, but because of the gulls' angry calls she couldn't tell who. "Behold!" someone else shouted, this time right beside her. The water had become an immense mirror whose only purpose was to reflect the sun. She couldn't see anything for the glare, but everyone around her was calling "Behold!" and "Behold! He comes!" They moved forward now as a unit rather than each picking his or her way cautiously through the surf. Veda felt the same thrill she got during prayer service when the Spirit seemed to enter Rabbi Ben, and then through him passed into the congregation at large. She heard herself cry, "Behold!" although she had still not seen anything.
She felt the water's cold embrace, but the sensation seemed to belong to someone else. Faye Wilson took her hand and, reaching out, Veda took hold of her other neighbor's. Rabbi Ben was a few yards ahead, his arms now extended toward the horizon. Chatty Thompson's powerful voice was raising a hymn. Other voices, sometimes audible, sometimes lost to the surf and the circling gulls, joined in. Veda had a small but pretty voice. Even so, she rarely gave it full rein, not even when she felt the Spirit during prayer service. But this morning, up to her thighs in salt water and squinting painfully at the distant waves where something was indeed approaching, she sang loud enough to drown out every other sound. She no longer noticed, even as abstraction, the icy water on her thighs. She scarcely was aware of the other women around her.
She tried to raise her arms like Rabbi Ben, but found her hands still tethered to her neighbors'. She pulled free and thrust them wide, advancing into deeper water, filled with a joy which she knew was perfect faith, for so long hers only piecemeal and for the moment, but now filling her to the brim. She felt like Saint Peter about to cross the stormy waves to his beckoning Master. Peter had sunk when his belief wavered, but she was so buoyed up by her own that she knew nothing could harm her.
Song poured from her as she strained against the waves, her long hands reaching toward the shining image ahead. Not fear of the salt water lapping at her face--that bogey of her old unsaved self -- not the sin which had weighed her down like lead weights strapped to her ankles, nothing could stop her now from embracing her Savior. Death itself was rendered impotent by the Lord of Life returning in glory to His people. The shouts she heard behind her were echoes of her own rejoicing, the strong arms suddenly around her waist were limbs of angels -- blue-shirted, silver-badged attendants of Divine Majesty sent to escort her safely across the waves.
All contents copyright © 1997, 1998
The Blue Moon Review, All Rights Reserved.