As published in WragsInk‘s 2012 Anthology of Philadelphia fiction
People stopped to watch when the Rev. Major Jealous Divine strode into the lobby and clapped a black hand on the front desk. “I’ll take it,” he said.
The concierge cleared her throat. “The desk, sir?”
“That too. The whole damn thing, now get me the man in charge.”
She leaned over the desk and looked him over. White suit, white hat, gold rings. “The owner, Mr. Porter. He’s upstairs in the sky parlor. At breakfast.”
The Rev.’s eyes shone at that. “The man upstairs, then. Take me to him.”
“I’ll have to telephone first. What was your name?”
The top floor of the Lorraine Hotel twinkled with piano music and sunlight and from it the Rev. could see out across the city. To the West, Eastern State Penitentiary, a squat black pock against the grid and City Hall to the South. Shot up white against the sky like a promise awaiting fulfillment. East, the Delaware and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge spanning it and shouldering up the sun. “The sun rises on the capital of the world,” said the Rev. “You’ll see.”
“Finest city there is,” Mr. Porter agreed. “And here we sit, at the crown of her finest hotel.” He raised a toast to the future and the Rev. frowned.
He encompassed the parlor with a gesture. The people breakfasting, piano playing, frowned on all of it. “Consider this parlor, Mr. Porter. The crystal stemware and marble floors, the women you call ladies. Men you call gentle. And you call it all a crown because it is pretty and that prettiness fashions itself into a pride that you’ve pinned to your shirt and augmented with every new feather blown in this place because it is yours. The Lorraine is yours, and yours with it all that it holds.”
The Rev. pointed his fork at a young couple sitting at the table next to theirs. The man was clean-looking and dressed expensively and the woman was beautiful. “Consider these two.” The couple noticed the black man point and heard him clearly but averted their eyes in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable, in vain. The Rev. continued and did not whisper but pointed with the fork throughout. “Consider this couple and taste again that pride of yours. Go on. Like one of your wines, swill it around from cheek to cheek.” Other tables began to take notice of the negro dressed in white, pointing his fork. They had seen his face in some paper or other.
He continued. “This man is successful for such a young age, for any age really, and this woman is beautiful. And they chose your hotel and not some other. There are others, of course, but only one Lorraine, and what is prettier than young love in the morning? It’s got a fine taste to it, doesn’t it?”
He paused here and studied the young man and woman who now met his gaze openly. And although she smiled, the young man’s face was set against what came next. “But your pride is empty, Mr. Porter, and their prettiness false. Your wine, a counterfeit, for much of what glitters is filth, and this jewel in your crown is tarnished with sin as sure as The Word. Harlotry. Adultery,” and he stabbed at the air with his fork, once at the man and once at the woman who rose meekly and quit the parlor without looking back.
Who left behind the young man to search for a waiter, to settle the bill.
The Rev. leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. Took it in, let it out, watched the smoke open up slowly like incense.
Mr. Porter drank and put down his coffee. “What is it you want, Reverend?”
“Can you taste their shame, Mr. Porter? Do you savor it?”
“I’m a busy man, Reverend.”
The Rev. clipped an ash in the silver tray between them. “The pride you savored. Just minutes ago you gorged yourself on it, puffed yourself up like a peacock and strutted across this parlor flashing feathers you claimed were yours, and now you pluck out those you see molted. You play with a one-sided coin and shirk responsibility. Steward, your time here is through.”
Mr. Porter looked down at a pocket watch and stood. “On that, we agree. You’ll excuse me now, Reverend. You know the way out.”
He began to walk away and the Rev. stood and he spoke and his voice filled the parlor. “I am a Jealous God,” he began. “So says the Lord and so says Me.” His sermon drove on and was hardened by the marble floors it strove against and the piano was stilled and stilled also Mr. Porter who felt the Rev.’s gaze like a light on his back.
The Rev. Major Jealous Divine bought out Mr. Porter that afternoon for $485,000 and before the week was out affixed His name to the hotel, forever wedding the Lorraine’s destiny with His own. The sky parlor was made into a place for worship and from it the Rev. looked down in judgment upon His city and professed His word to all that would listen. And that first night while standing across Broad Street and considering the palace He chose for His own, the Rev. Major Jealous Divine saw in the shape and plan of its architecture the promise it held and prophesied to the night air and to no one that for generations the Divine Lorraine will serve as a haven for pilgrims white and black alike, an alter at which they will drop to their knees and offer up their souls in clouds of cracksmoke like incense.