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When Monique Bryant falls from grace, she falls hard. Formerly, a good girl with high aspirations to be a star in corporate America, things do not turn out as planned and it is all downhill from there. Seemingly unable to halt her descent into the life of exotic dancing and drugs, Monique decides to enjoy her ride down the highway to hell! But when the church refuses to accept her back and a family crisis threatens to rob her of what little dignity she has left, what she finds out is that it is her against the world. Knocked down, bowled over and trampled by life, Monique is not one to give up. Becoming a true believer in "that which does not kill me makes me stronger", Monique fights back, clawing her way out of the hole that her big butt and a pretty smile has dug for her.




Monique Bryant pushed through the church door hurriedly, gladly shutting out the strong, blustery winds left behind by a late-night storm that had swept through downtown Charlotte. Monique had been frightened by the storm and felt certain that it was a sign from God to her----and everyone else in Charlotte---to get in line in 2012. She had stepped out of the old year convinced that time was running out for her and if there was any salvation to be had in the New Year, she wanted her share. And then some. Lord knows, she had sinned.

As she strolled down the aisle of Little Rock AME Zion Church, she felt consumed by angry stares and the cold glare hit her like a slap of freezing ice. All eyes were on her and she instantly experienced the almost uncontrollable urge to spin around in her Steve Madden suede heels and to run out into the driving force of the wind. Better that than this, but by now the church usher was at her side guiding her to a seat.

The head usher, sensing that Monique was going to be seated where she could be seen, jumped up and rushed to intercept her.

The congregation watched.

“Those seats are reserved,” the head usher said, smiling saintly. She patted the younger usher’s hand. “I’ll show her to her seat.” The woman roughly gripped Monique’s hand as though she wanted to squeeze the blood out. “This way, please.” Monique was spin around forcibly.

“Reserved seats in a church?” Monique whispered. “Have I been missing from action that long that God had started to play favorites?”

“Ssssh!” The head usher tugged at Monique’s hand violently.

What did it matter, Monique thought. She knew how church folk were. Following the head usher, Monique suddenly realized that soon there would be nowhere to go but outside if she was escorted any further into the bowels of the cavernous church, but just before they reached the big, swinging doors, the usher---with a measure of immense pride---pointed Monique to the far end of the last pew in the church.

“Enjoy the program, chile,” the head usher uttered sweetly. “God bless.”

Monique felt ostracized, but didn’t want to think about it, yet it was hard to mistake the “hate” vibes the church members were sending her way. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she recognized that everyone in the Queen City had turned against her. She was an outcast!

Throughout the whole service, Monique looked for diversions to help counter how totally numb she felt in the company of church folk whom she had believed would welcome her with open arms. God, had she been wrong.

The whole time the preacher had verbally steamed up the gospel, whipping his flock into a near spiritual hysteria, Monique had never felt more alone. Heads---with colorful hats---fully turned around to cast hate-filled eyes at her, but would dutifully look away after a second or two. This Monique could deal with. What really disturbed her was the choir. Their collective eyes never looked away. They were all on “Hater-Aid” and suddenly, all at once, Little Rock seemed to be the last place on earth for her to get shown some love. It was like Whoa!

Monique had had enough and was ready to go, but halfway through the closing hymn, the head usher came rumbling down the aisle in her direction.

“Don’t go nowhere,” the old sista snarled like a thug out of a movie.

“Why not?” Monique whispered. “Am I under arrest?”

“Don’t you worry ‘bout no reason why I tole you what I just tole you, chile. You just do it.” The head usher moved her body into the pew, nudging Monique over and when she was sure she had Monique completely blocked in, she stood stiffly and sung the remainder of the hymn in a rusty contraltro.

Departing the pulpit with a dramatic, “Thank you, Jesus,” the preacher beat a hasty exit to the back of the church so he could be on hand to personally see the congregation out. It was a cruel world out there, sheer madness in certain places, so Reverend Arnold was real touchy-feely because he never knew what fate awaited some among his worshippers. In Charlotte, the seven days between services was time enough for anything to happen.

Like a dressed-up congo line at Shoney’s buffet bar, the congregation paraded down the aisle, all eager to get a hug or hand shake from the preacher who certainly knew how to work a room.

“Hey there, Sista Martha. Jesus surely must have taken the calories out of the food he’s been blessing Brotha Joe to bring home and put on the table. Looks like you getting all the taste, but none of the weight. Hallejuiah!”

Next was Brotha Calvin. “Reverend Arnold, you know we been praying that my boy get out of jail.”

“Yes,” Reverend Arnold said eagerly, “and what miracle has our prayer wrought?”

“Fool boy confessed to the crime,” Brotha Calvin cracked, “and now they gonna give him life.”

“But at least, he’ll be out of jail.”

“Yeah, he’ll be in prison.”

“Our bad,” Reverend Arnold snapped. “We forgot to be specific, but you tell that boy about Joseph. He went to prison behind some woman to.” He dismissed Brotha Calvin, stepping around to stoop down to greet a little boy. “Now, I hope you have stopped saying bad words.”

“Some of ‘em.”

“And why haven’t you stopped using them all, son?”

“Because I know too many of ‘em.”

“Oh, Jesus, have mercy on the children,” Reverend Arnold wailed loudly, “because if the devil don’t get them, the white folks will. Have a little mercy on the babies, please, Jesus.”

Within minutes, the reverend had whittled down the crowd to zero and without warning stormed off towards his office next to the choir box.

“Well, what you waiting on?” It was the head usher speaking. “Go.”

Monique started towards the door.

“Not that way.” The usher placed her wide body between Monique and the door. “You keep right on, chile, and something bad gonna happen up in the Lord’s House this morning.”

“Hmmph” Monique huffed, “and they think the streets are unsafe.”

“Like they say on TV, roll out. I don’t be liking for nobody to keep the reverend waiting.”

Monique rolled out.

When Monique and Sista Benson arrived at the study, Reverend Arnold was slouched against the doorway. His robe was flung carelessly across a chair. “Come in,” he said to Monique. To Sista Benson. “Close the door.”

“I don’t have long,” Monique announced softly.

Reverend Arnold lit up a cigarette, still leaning against the wall. He inhaled, exhaled, talked. “You make it look too easy.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Just look at you, Miss Bryant, all fly in your Givenchy gear, strutting up in my church, plumper than a Thanksgiving turkey. Hard for me to tell if you came to repent or to show off.” Reverend Arnold took another drag off his cigarette. “We all know what you do. Where’s your remorse?”

Monique dropped down in a soft-back chair. “My goal for this year was to get my life together. I felt the church would be a good place to start. I just didn’t know I had to bring any other ingredients with me.”

“Believe me, you do.” The preacher snubbed out his cigarette. “Beginning with a contrite heart, and in your case, a special prayer line, you could’ve look more the part of a prodigal sista. But no, you come sashaying up in here, according to your own whim, looking like a paid ad for sin.”

“I-I don’t believe you just said that.”

Reverend Arnold chuckled. “The one thing you should know about me is that I have perfected the art of not playing around when it come to this church. That alone is enough for me to ask you to stay away from Little Rock.” He tapped another cigarette from his pack. “Now, what I do suggest is that you join the ministry up at the women’s shelter. They serve up a lighter fare of the gospel there which has a great appeal for junkies, prostitutes, and women who take off their clothes for money.” Reverend Arnold smiled. “I even recommend that you try out for the choir.”

“No, thanks,” Monique said firmly. “I think I want to attend this church. And sing.”

Reverend Arnold paced the floor. “Consider this, if you would. We just started a new program where we attempt to teach the youth of the church how to survive as a Christian in a pornographic world. Now, how would it look if they stare up in the choir and see you every Sunday. That would defeat our purpose.”

“And how is that?” Monique cracked.

“You just might remind them that’s it’s easy to bounce back from sin and drugs. They see you sitting up there in your Jill Sander gear and that might be a big enough endorsement for them to go out and get high or sell booty.” Reverend Arnold blew smoke rings. “You feel me, sista. Your mere presence could be corrupting and I can’t allow that to happen.”

“So what am I to do, stay in the gutter?” Monique was close to tears.

“Jesus, no,” Reverend Arnold protested. “I applaud your efforts to get back on your feet and God knows nothing will alter that perception, but I feel the most crucial element in your full recovery will be to not ever step foot in my church again.”

When Monique raised her voice in protest, Sista Benson burst through the door like SuperWoman. “Is she sassing you, Reverend Arnold?” The usher towered over Monique menacingly. “She done been warned. It just might be that she think I’m playing so it might be necessary-----.”

“No, I don’t think so, Sista Benson.” Reverend Arnold wrapped his arms round the usher’s big shoulders. “Everything is fine.”

“You sho’ ‘bout that, Reverend, ‘cause this whole situation done set my soul on fire.” Sista Benson stared at Monique’s expensive outfit, then snarled. “Chile, do you know how much it will cost to steam the blood out of that pretty dress you got on?”

Monique stood.

“What that mean? You standing up. You trying to cross my path or something? You trying to get showed something?”

“By who, sista?”

“By me, that’s who.”

“Be quiet,” Reverend Arnold shouted wearily. “Both of you.”

“No!” Sista Benson yelled. “I want a piece of this hussy.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Sista Benson.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“But you’re upset.”

“And what God-fearing woman wouldn’t be, standing face to face with a hand-maiden of the devil.”

“Well,” Monique began, “I can’t help how you feel, but I ask you to say some prayers before you even think about putting your hands on me----“

“Stop it! Both of you. Up in here acting like heathens.”

“Don’t worry,” Monique smiled, “I’m leaving.”

“Good riddance.”

Monique sighed, glaring at Sista Benson. “If fate would ever be unkind and have us meet in a dark alley.”

“Ain’t got to be no dark alley, chile. The next time I see you, it’s on. We can be in the mall, at the grocery store, at a PTA meeting. Wherever we at, when we meet again, I’m bringing it.”

Monique opened the door. “It’s official, then. We got a date.”

“Lord, have mercy,” Reverend Arnold wailed. “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Once Monique was out of the menacing company of Sista Benson, she struggled with the inner turmoil she felt. How could the church be so vengeful? All she had wanted to do was to regain the innocence that had been stolen from here so long ago. Tears welled in her eyes, but she realized that crying would not remove her pain or take away her disappointment. She simply had to play the hand she was dealt. It was now or never.

Driving through Center City, she opened the car window, letting the wind blow over her. She had a lot of problems in her life that needed fixing and if the church had the nerve to turns its back on her, then she would make it on her own. She would take her fight to the streets and compel this bitter earth to teach her its secrets so she could get in where she fit in. She had no other choice. The streets loved her. Everybody knew her name.

By the time she drove past the Harvey Gantt Center, the tears were streaming freely down her face and she didn’t try to stop them. Where had all the sunshine in her life gone? Why hadn’t her prayers been answered. Was it because she got high? Or because she was a dancer? Or because she just didn’t give a damn anymore.

Turning right at The Bojangles on North Tryon Street, Monique visibly flinched as she watched the sky over West Boulevard erupt into a spasm of dazzling lightning so white hot that it looked like God was stir-frying the heavens. The thunder BOOMED with wondrous might as though it was a majestic passage from God’s own autobiography, but when the rain came and the wind picked up, Monique grew extremely nervous.

God was after her.

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