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Chester Himes

The big gold dream

1

'Faith is a rock! It's like a solid gold dream!'

The voice of the Sweet Prophet Brown issued from the amplifiers atop a sound truck and reverberated from the shabby brick faces of the tenement houses flanking 117th Street.

'Amen!' Alberta Wright said fervently.

Her big brown cowlike eyes cast a look of adoration across the gleaming white sea of kneeling worshipers upon Sweet Prophet's exalted black face. She felt as though he were addressing her personally, although she was only one of six hundred white-robed converts kneeling in the noonday sun on the burning hot asphalt.

'On this dream every church in all the world is built,' Sweet Prophet continued lyrically.

A moaning fervor passed over the kneeling figures like a cool breeze. Spectators and converts alike were gripped, in dead seriousness, as though cast under a spell.

Black, brown and yellow people packed the sidewalks all the way from Seventh Avenue to Lenox Avenue. They crowded into the tenement windows, jammed the smelly doorways, clung to the sides of electric light poles and stood on garbage cans to watch the performance of this fabulous man.

Sweating foot cops in wet clinging shirts and mounted cops on lathered horses surrounded Sweet Prophet's throne to keep back the mob. The street had been closed off at both ends by a police barrier. Sweet Prophet sat on a throne of red roses on a flower-draped float at one end of the block and spoke into a microphone connected to a sound truck behind him. Over his head was a sunshade of gold tinsel made in the shape of a halo. About his feet was a circle of little black girls dressed as angels.

He threw back his head and said, in a voice of indubitable sincerity, 'Faith is so powerful it will turn this dirty black pavement into gleaming gold.'

'Don't I know it!' Alberta said aloud.

Her hand closed about Sugar Stonewall's fingers like a steel vise. Dressed in a wrinkled rayon sports ensemble, he knelt on the pavement beside her. She had insisted that he be near her in this great hour of triumph, even though he had not been converted. But she did not look at him; her eyes were closed. Tears trickled down her smooth brown skin.

'Put your trust in The Lord,' Sweet Prophet said.

Suddenly Alberta was on her feet. 'I did!' she cried, arms upraised. 'I did! I put my trust in Him and He sent me a dream because I had faith.'

'Kneel down, honey,' Sugar pleaded. 'You're messing up the service.'

But his plea went unheeded. Alberta was a big, muscular woman with a flat, pretty face, now contorted in ecstasy. Clad in a tight-fitting white maid's uniform, her long-fingered hands reaching toward the sky, she drew everyone's attention. Her ecstasy was contagious.

'Amen!' the converts chorused.

With the natural-born instinct of a master showman, Sweet Prophet sensed the sympathetic mood. He interrupted his dissertation and said, 'Tell us your dream, sister.'

'I dreamed I was baking three apple pies,' she said. 'And when I took them out the oven and set them on the table to cool the crusts busted open like three explosions and the whole kitchen was filled with hundred dollar bills.'

'My God!' a worshiper exclaimed.

'Money!' another cried.

'Money! Money! Money!' others chorused.

Even Sweet Prophet looked impressed. 'And did you have faith, sister?' he asked.

'I had faith!' Alberta declared.

'Hush up, honey, for Christ sake,' Sugar Stonewall warned.

But she paid him no attention. 'I had faith!' she repeated. 'And God didn't fail me. God has set me free.'

'Amen!' the worshipers chorused with heartfelt earnestness.

Upon this note Sweet Prophet stood and raised his hands for silence. His tremendous bulk was impressive in a bright purple robe lined with yellow silk and trimmed with mink. Beneath it he wore a black taffeta suit with white piping and silver buttons. His fingernails, untrimmed since he first claimed to have spoken with God, were more than three inches in length. They curled like strange talons, and were painted different colors. On each finger he wore a diamond ring. His smooth black face with its big buck teeth and popping eyes was ageless; but his long grizzly hair, on which he wore a black silk cap, was snow-white.

Silence descended over the multitude like night.

'I now baptize you, who have seen the glory and harkened to the call, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,' he said.

Sugar Stonewall picked up the basket of lunch Alberta had prepared for the celebration afterward and beat it for the sidelines. And not a moment too soon.

At the completion of Sweet Prophet's words, fire hoses at each end of the block, manned by stalwart deacons, were turned on simultaneously. Streams of water shot high into the air and came down upon white-clad figures in a veritable deluge.

Drenched by the cold holy water pouring from heaven, the converts, most of whom were women, were seized by uncontrollable ecstasy. They danced and screamed and shouted and moaned, carried away with emotion, caught up in a mass delirium. They sang and prayed, gasped and strangled in a frenzy of exaltation.

A buxom woman cried, 'My skin may be black, but my soul ain't got no color.'

'Wash me as white as snow,' another screamed, tearing off her dress so that the purifying water could wash her naked skin.

'I had faith, didn't I, God?' Alberta chanted, caught up in the mass hysteria, her transfigured face turned toward heaven. Water flowed unnoticed into her nostrils, almost strangling her. 'I had faith!' she continued, sputtering. 'And you didn't fail me, God.'

Finally the hoses were turned off, and Sweet Prophet's church band, arranged about the sound truck, began to play hymns in rock and roll time.

The drenched, half-drowned converts crowded about the throne of Sweet Prophet to buy bread crumbs, which he took from the pockets of his robe. They paid from one to twenty dollars per crumb.

Waving the sheaf of greenbacks he held between his long twisted varicolored fingernails, he crooned ardently, 'Faith will reduce the Pacific Ocean to a drop of water; it will change the Rocky Mountains into a grain of sand.'

Other persons from among the multitudes of spectators had come to have their infirmities cured by the touch of Sweet Prophet's hand. Hands lifted a crippled child. A paralyzed woman was wheeled forward on a stretcher. A worried-looking man extended an eviction notice. Numbers slips for that day's play were brushed against the throne; a pair of dice were surreptitiously rubbed against the hem of Sweet Prophet's robe.

Alberta Wright found Sugar Stonewall sitting in a crowded doorway. He gave her the bottle of drinking water from the lunch basket and told her to go and have the prophet bless it.

She fought her way to the side of the float and held the bottle aloft. Sweet Prophet recognized her, and a look passed between them. He reached forth a long-nailed hand and touched the lip of the bottle.

'Out of this water will come miracles,' he intoned.

'Amen,' a woman said.

Alberta looked dazed. As though stunned by the magnitude of her good fortune, she dug a wet $50 bill from her brassiere and thrust it toward Sweet Prophet. In return she received a bread crumb the size of a garden pea. She put the crumb into her mouth, looking heavenward, and washed it down with water from the blessed bottle,

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