'Mamie Pullen, if you don't stop those devils from jamming that sweet old spiritual, Steal Away, I swear before God I won't preach Big Joe's funeral,' Reverend Short threatened in a rage-croaking voice.

'They're just trying to show their gratitude.' Mamie shouted to make herself heard. 'It was Big Joe who started them on their way to fame when they was just hustling tips in Eddy Price's joint, and now they're just trymg to send him on his way to heaven.'

'That ain't no way to send a body to heaven,' he said hoarsely, his voice giving out from shouting. 'They're making enough noise to wake up the dead who're already there.'

'Oh, all right, I'll stop' em,' Mamie said, and went over and put her black wrinkled hand on Deep South's dripping wet shoulder. 'That's been fine, boys, but you can rest a while now.'

The music stopped so suddenly it caught Dulcy whispering angrily-'Why do you let that store-front preacher run your business, Aunt Mamie-' in a sudden pool of silence.

Reverent Short turned a look on her that glinted with malevolence.

'You'd better dust off your own skirts before criticizing me, Sister Perry,' he croaked.

The silence became weighted.

Baby Sis chose that moment to say in a loud drunken voice, 'What I want to know, Reverend Short, is how in the world did you get outside that door?'

The tension broke. Everyone laughed.

'I was pushed out of the bedroom window,' Reverend Short said in a voice that was sticky with evil.

Baby Sis doubled over, started to laugh, caught sight of Reverend Short's face and chopped it off in the middle of the first guffaw.

The others who had started to laugh stopped abruptly. Dead silence dropped like a shroud over the revelry. The guests stared at the Reverend Short in pop-eyed wonder. Their faces wanted to continue laughing, but their minds pulled the reins. On the one hand, the expression of suppressed vindictiveness on Reverend Short's face could easily be that of a man who'd been pushed out of a window. But on the other hand, his body didn't show the effects of a three-story fall to the concrete sidewalk.

'Chink Charlie did it,' Reverend Short croaked.

Mamie gasped. 'What!'

'You kidding or joking?' Alamena said harshly.

Baby Sis was the first to recover. She laughed experimentally and gave Reverend Short an appreciative push.

'You takes the cake, Reverend,' she said.

Reverend Short clutched her arm to keep from falling. She grinned the imbecilic admiration of one practical joker for another.

Mamie turned in a squall of fury and slapped her face.

'You get yourself right straight back to that kitchen,' she said sternly. 'And don't you dast drink another drop of likker tonight.'

Baby Sis's face puckered up like a dried prune and she began blubbering. She was a big strong-bodied mulelike young woman, and crying gave her an expression of pure idiocy. She turned to run back to the kitchen but stumbled over a foot and fell drunkenly to the floor. No one paid her any attention because, with her support withdrawn, Reverend Short began to fall.

Mamie clutched him by the arm and helped him into an armchair. 'You just set right there, Reverend, and tell me what happened,' she said.

He clutched his left side as though in great pain and croaked in a breathless voice, 'I went into the bedroom to get a breath of fresh air, and while I was standing in the window watching a policeman chasing a thief, Chink Charlie sneaked up behind me and pushed me out of the window.'

'My God!' Mamie exclaimed. 'Then he was trying to kill you.'

'Of course he was.'

Alamena looked down at the twitching bony face of Reverend Short and said in a reassuring tone, 'Mamie, he's just drunk.'

'I'm not the least bit drunk,' he denied. 'I've never drunk a drop of intoxicating liquor in my life.'

'Where's Chink?' Mamie asked, looking about. 'Chink!' she called. 'Somebody get Chink in here.'

'He's gone,' Alamena said. 'He left while you and Dulcy were in the crapper.'

'Your preacher's just making that up, Aunt Mamie,' Dulcy said. 'Just 'cause him and Chink had an argument 'bout the guests you got here.'

Mamie looked from her to Reverend Short. 'What's wrong with 'em?'

She intended the question for Reverend Short, but Dulcy answered. 'He said there shouldn't be nobody here but church members and Big Joe's lodge brothers, and Chink told him he was forgetting that Big Joe was a gambler himself.'

'I'm not saying that Big Joe didn't sin,' Reverend Short said in his loud pulpit voice, forgetting for the moment he was an invalid. 'But Big Joe was a dining-car cook on the Pennsylvania Railroad for more than twenty years, and he was a member of The First Holy Roller Church of Harlem, and that's how God sees him.'

'But these folks here is all his friends,' Mamie protested with a look of bewilderment. 'Folks who worked with him and saw him all the time.'

Reverend Short pursed his lips. 'That ain't the point. You can't surround his poor soul with all manner of sin and adultery and expect God to take it to his bosom.'

'Jus' what do you mean by that?' Dulcy challenged hotly.

'Let him alone,' Mamie said. 'Everything has done gone bad enough without all this argument.'

'If he don't stop picking at me with his dirty hints all the time I'm gonna have Johnny whip his ass,' Dulcy said in a low grating voice intended only for Mamie, but everyone heard her.

Reverend Short gave her a look of triumphant malevolence.

'Threaten all you want, you Jezebel, but you can't hide it from the Lord that it was your own devilishness that drove Joe Pullen to an early death.'

'That just ain't so,' Mamie Pullen contradicted. 'It was just his time. He's been taking naps like that, with his cigar in his mouth, for years, and it was just his time that he happened to swallow it and choke to death.'

'If you want to put up with this chicken-season preacher's lying, you can,' Dulcy said to Mamie. 'But I'm going home, and you can just tell Johnny why when he gets here.'

Silence followed her as she turned and walked from the apartment. She slammed the door behind her.

Mamie sighed. 'Lord, I wish Val was here.'

'This house is full of murderers!' Reverend Short exclaimed.

'You shouldn't say that just because you've got a grudge against Chink Charlie,' Mamie said.

'For Christ's sake, Mamie!' Alamena exploded. 'If he'd fallen from your bedroom window he'd be lying out there on the sidewalk dead.'

Reverend Short stared at her through glazed eyes. A white froth had collected in the corners of his mouth.

'I see a terrible vision,' he muttered.

'That ain't no lie,' Alamena said disgustedly. 'All you is seeing is visions.'

'I see a dead man stabbed in the heart,' he said. 'Let me fix you a toddy and put you to bed,' Mamie said soothingly. 'And, Alamena-'

'He don't need no more to drink,' Alamena cut her off.

'For Jesus Christ's sake, Alamena, stop it. Go phone Doctor Ramsey and tell him to come over here.'

'He's not sick,' Alamena said.

'I didn't say I was sick,' Reverend Short said. 'He's just trying to stir up trouble for some reason.' 'I'm hurt,' Reverend Short stated. 'You'd be hurt, too, if somebody had pushed you out of a window.'

Mamie took Alamena by the arm and tried to pull her away. 'Go now and telephone the doctor.'

But Alamena pulled back. 'Listen, Mamie Pullen, for God's sake be your age. If he fell out of that window it's a cinch he couldn't have walked back upstairs. I suppose he's going to tell you next that he fell into the lap of God.'

'I fell into a basket of bread,' Reverend Short declared. At last the guests laughed with relief. Now they knew the good reverend was joking. Even Mamie couldn't restrain herself.

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