Frankie's stepmother smelled like booze and sounded gargly when she spoke. "Now listen Frankie. Your gonna take your little brother up to Grandpa's Bakery on the greyhound. You boys are gonna stay there for a while." Frankie shuffled his feet, "Can I have some money?" "Ahh, Frankie, you'll have to pay the bus fare. I haven't got a cent. Ask your Grandpa."
The bus ride was long and they were tired when they jumped off and hit the pavement. Looking around, Frankie realized he'd made a big mistake. As the door slammed shut and the bus crept away from the curb, Frankie stared back at the driver. Around them, San Francisco was all scary old buildings with peeked roofs with windows like big eyes, dark and darker. He'd dragged Paulie off the bus at the wrong stop, somewhere on Mission Street but he didn't see Woolworth’s or the Cable Car turntable. The Ferry building, his secret talisman for the city, was lost in the haze.
The only human for miles around was a big man in a hard-pressed dark blue suit. He looked down at them standing there like stunned rabbits, his one good eye brown as muddy water, the other a terrifying mass of flesh, scar tissue and tears, unseeing but utterly mesmerizing. Frankie could not help but look into that eye. The man took a step forward and cried, "Boys! At last I've found you. The time has come. I told 'em I'd make 'em see God in California! And I will make em see God before I'm through. And you gonna help me." He caught Frankie by the sleeve and the boy was struck mute, frozen, hypnotized, not sensing danger until Paulie grabbed his other arm to pull him away. The Man wobbled but tightened his grip, talking loudly into Frankie's face. His suit shone blue-black and glossy, crisp. His shirtfront was white as paper, his yellow teeth pointing places teeth don't usually go.
"Son, give a listen, give a care." He drew Frankie closer. "My name is Skipdeath. Known as Pastor Skipdeath in my home parish. I am a preacher of the gospel and man of the cloth. I need you to join with me in service to the Lord." Frankie stood still listening while Paulie tugged a little harder at his sleeve. "How'd you think I got the calling? How'd you think I got my name?" Paulie stopped pulling so hard, looked up and shrugged, "I dunno."
"I beat death, that's how, I been dead and I come back. Twice." He laughed through his huge smile, stopped and waited for his story to take, then bellowed on. "I needs your help boys." Paulie tugged harder. "Now don't shy away. You gon’ help me win my race with the Devil on God's green Earth." Paulie was looking for something, holding onto Frankie’s sleeve. Skipdeath shouted, "DO YOU SEE THE PEOPLE?! You See This Humanity? I got to share every one of my sermons before this day is done." He wagged a finger at a pile of mimeograph pamphlets on the nearby bus bench. Frankie looked around and saw nobody close. "I needs ten dollars more to open my ministry in Hollywood, and with you helpin', I'll be leaving on the six-forty starliner." Skipdeath swept the intersection with his huge gold limned fingers, taking in the traffic and few pedestrians. Frankie looked for passersby, but said only, "uh-huh."
Paulie stepped back defiant. "We don't know you mister. You let him go!" But Frankie wasn't afraid, he liked Negroes, at least he thought he did. So far he only saw them on TV being beat up by white men with dogs. Skipdeath was the first one he'd ever seen up close. The preacher drew his arm around Frankie and pulled him close, looking deep into Paulie's eyes. "Hey little Brother, you crazy? Why you want to treat me so mean?" He tightened his grip, pulling Frankie close. He smelled like aftershave, piss and wood smoke. Frankie wilted into the deep, slick coat sleeve, nearly buried in the slippery cloth. His eye's fixed on the maroon glow of the huge silk tie, held close by a string of small gold links. He felt safe. "Paulie, shut up."
Skipdeath went on. "I ain't no bad man, Son. I am a consecrated preacher and a man of God. I just needs a little a yo' help. You boys got any money?" Frankie stiffened, but Skipdeath thought of something and jumped back. Paulie grabbed Frankie around the waist, like he did when they wrestled. They tumbled on the sidewalk and rolled into the gutter beyond Skipdeath's reach. Paulie jumped up ready for battle, retreat or maybe to look for a cop, but Skipdeath wasn't coming anymore, he just chuckled to himself and placed his big ass onto the bus bench where he'd been sitting before they'd arrived.
"Come on boys, look at this face, I ain't got but one good eye and peoples cain't look at me. I needs your help. You see those peoples?" He gestured at the sparsely populated street, "I got to save every soul, starting with you. Got to get each and every one to finance the Lord's work, any little bit of cash or coin will secure my ministry, do the lord's work." Free money sounded good to Frankie, he always needed money, but Paulie yelled at Skipdeath, "You can't have our money mister, we only got enough for the cable car." Skipdeath let out a howl like an old hound dog and threw his head to the side like he'd been jawpunched, but he came back smiling. "You got a hard heart son, got no charity for an old nigger like me, got no religion, eh? You love your brother little man? Your brother love you." His voice dropped to a gentle drawl, full of love and honey. "Why you think they call me Skipdeath? You wanna know?" Paulie just stared into his huge black face. "I'll tell you why. Cause I been to the other side. I got the shine of the Lord in my good eye, Ya see it?" Paulie looked close. Frankie whispered, "How could you beat the Devil?" then both boys were silent. "Let me tell you son. I was a railroad man, when I was a young I always worked the rails. That's a good job for a man like me. Made it to Road Inspector, takin' short runs looking for track need repair or just oiling." He raised his right hand and they sucked in their breath. Only half a hand, a gnarled claw, middle finger to wrist, white and ghostly skin almost as white as Grandpa's. Frankie thought he could see through it. Skipdeath went on. "Fell under a train in the fitting-out yard, thinkin' about somethin' and not thinkin' about my job, fell under a train going two miles an hour. Hit my head and smashed my eye and fell into a deep sleep, a deep dark sleep. They said I was dead, doctor at the yard said I was dead and put me in a box. My wife, bless her soul, was fit to be tied, didn't want to live without me. Say she screamed and cried for three whole days." He rocked his bottom on the bus bench and continued. "Right there in the middle of my funeral, all my family singin' for my ever lovin' soul, I sat straight up in my casket, I really did. Looked around and blinked my one good eye and asked for a drink of water. My auntie screamed and the preacher shouted ‘Hallelujah! The lord ain't ready for him yet.’ I tried to smile and two ladies fainted, a man ran out but my wife threw her arms around me and proclaimed me God's miracle. So they call me Skipdeath ever after and everybody in north Louisiana wants to talk to me about the afterlife and if I know when they gonna die, so I become a preacher. But I got tired of the questions an' come West to preach the everafter in California." Traffic flowed and stopped in the automated rhythms of the traffic lights, and Skipdeath fell silent. Frankie finally spoke. “You said you died twice.”
“You a smart man, son. Yes, I died once 'afore the rail yard tried to kill me. Playin' hide and seek when I was four years ol', I spent a night in an ol’ icebox. Nearly froze at night and nearly fried during the day. Always wantin' for air. My Mamma searched for me everwhere and then somebody opened the ol' icebox in the yard and I fell out dead. Took three days a praying and warm baths to make me live again.” He looked hard at each child and knew he’d made a proper impression.
Frankie was impressed and started selling Skipdeath's sermons with great dedication. Paulie was pretty good for the first hour but got tired. They chased down every citizen who came within a block. Frankie thought he might start a church at school for money if it was this easy. He was always looking for ways to make money.
The boys gave Skipdeath their take as it came in, and he paused occasionally to count the money. When the boys tired, he settled up and handed over four dollars and some coins. Frankie and Paulie cheered. They'd had less than a dollar between them when they got off the bus, and this was real cash money. Skipdeath got down low, looked at them smiling, and was about to speak, ready to say thank you, but looked over their heads and his smile collapsed. When the boys spun around to see what he saw, two pink-skinned men were walking hard at them. When they turned back, Skipdeath was gone. The boys spun back to face the non-descript men. Paulie pocketed the cash.
"Whatcha got there son?" The tall red-eyed one said as they cornered the children. "Tell me son, I'm a policeman!" Frankie had never seen a policeman in street clothes. "Idiot, you know what they got." The second cop was fat and short, closer to a kid's height. He stabbed his hand into Paulie's pocket and pulled out the four dollars. Paulie pulled back, yelling, "Hey! that's mine." "Where'd you get the money? What’s your name kid? You get that cash from the Nigger, son?" Frankie grabbed at the cash. The big red-eyed cop snatched his collar and tossed him like a rag doll across the back of a car, his huge thigh in Frankie's groin. Stubbly face in close. "Relax kid, we're the good guys."
The fat cop laughed out loud, "Be good boys or we'll call your mother." The red-eyed cop let Frankie drop to the curb. Paulie, unable to stay invisible, started to cry. The fat cop counted four dollars. "Looks like lunch Jack." He turned back to Frankie. "Son, did you suck that old Nigger for four dollars? You little faggot." Paulie stopped crying and got ready to fight. "No, you suck mister!" The cops loaded them into the rear of their prowl car, asking all kinds of questions. The fat one said "crack the window, Jack, let's go have lunch and then figure out where they live." The boys slumped down defeated.
After a short time that felt long, Paulie watched a black claw snake in through the window and pop the lock. Frankie snatched something off the front seat and they made their escape. The boys eventually made it to North Beach, but it took hours. When the cops got back to their patrol car, one of Skipdeath’s sermons fluttered beneath a wiper blade and two children were not in the back seat. Frankie kept the leather enclosed gold star under his mattress. He never showed it to anyone, he just looked at it sometimes after bedtime.