I believed in “forsaking all others until death do us part” before my husband of twenty-five years almost killed me. “Years ago, when we were living in Detroit, I fathered a baby with another woman.” Poisonous words dripped from the dry, cracked lips of my husband, Pastor Phillip Sampson.

Every unholy word proceeding from his mouth, I dissected into syllables. “This cri-sis is God’s op-por-tu-ni-ty to mani- fest our faith. Are you rea-dy to show God we trust Him?”

Is he talkin’ to me, the one who snatched his raggedy ass off the streets?

I wanted the nonsense to stop, for him to yell “April Fools”, even though it was in the middle of balmy January. Phillip caught his rhythm, droned on in preacher’s cadence. A pulsing vein divided his scrunched up forehead. His captive audience of one slumped deeper into the overstuffed butterscotch leather couch. In free fall, unable to catch hold of anything to break the impact, a groan swelled in the pit of my throat and entered the universe as a feeble yelp.

Dizzying pain shot through my brain and radiated every cell of my body. My shattered heart galloped out of my chest. Metal shrapnel from Phillip’s word bomb showered me like confetti. Bitter bile erupted in my acid gut.

It was the day after my forty-fifth birthday. I, Aubrey Sampson, First Lady of Trinity Baptist Church, bargained silently with the Lord, “Help me, Holy Ghost. I’m too young to have a heart attack.” In my mind white clad nurses shrieked, “Code Blue, Code Blue”. Would I make it to the hospital with a discernible pulse?

Phillip’s lips moved up and down like a marionette on a faulty string. Maybe it was bad lip syncing. He forgot the lyrics and was testing me, I hoped.

Time and silence were all I needed from the vertically challenged stranger masquerading as my husband. His gray pinstriped suit, starched white shirt stretched tight over a pooching belly, Allen Edmond wing tips and gold, diamond encrusted tie clip looked familiar. But there was nothing familiar about this man who booted me into the twilight zone of fear.

My mind reverted to a place of safety, the precious interlude before the fork tongued preacher stormed into my glass menagerie and shattered it. He found me mind and body at rest, reclining on the couch in the family room, mesmerized by the purple and hot pink bougainvillea climbing a top heavy trellis in the sprawling yard. At the outstretched property line giant bird of paradise flagged on a gentle breeze. Branches of seven foot sago palms reached skyward like protective swords.

The precise moment before the bomb dropped, I gave thanks for an abundance of blessings—a loving husband and son who made me proud every day of the week. In my spirit there was peace, a flowing river of gratefulness. My meditation was soft, baggage lighter since I surrendered to my role as First Lady of Trinity Baptist Church in Yorba Linda, California.

The Bible rested on my lap, open to scripture for Bible study scheduled for the following evening. Phillip dragged in with the dread of a man about to preach his best friend’s funeral. Imaginary chains shackled his hands and feet.

I peeked above the rim of my reading glasses and smiled. For the first time in memory Pastor Phillip Sampson was at a loss for words. Free flowing words were the trademark of his thriving ministry. The youth ministry dubbed Phillip “The Rapping Reverend”. His ability to deliver sermons without notes and quote scripture faster than fire from an AK-47 propelled him to the precipice of ministerial majesty. Phillip Sampson had words to uplift the downtrodden, rally the sick and bring comfort to those in mourning. He spoke truth to power, disarmed high ranking conservative men and lured them into his social justice army.

Word peddler, Pastor Phillip Sampson, used urban charisma to draw a crowd to his mega church in the bastion of conservatism. With a library of sermons, metaphors and religious cliches he thrived in the midst of affluent Orange County. Left leaning Phillip was an anomaly in the predominantly Republican County with an African American population of less than two percent. A self-proclaimed mover and shaker, Phillip invited the natural enemy into his camp and embraced them.

Orange County, the least likely site for Phillip’s firebrand preaching and calls for social justice, welcomed him. Many dismissed him as a fluke while others read The Rapping Reverend for what he was—a miracle. When he got the “call” to Orange County Phillip hemmed and hawed for day s. He did not want to leave Detroit where he was an up and coming young preacher, gaining traction with the ministerial elite. Running the rails as a pulpit associate, Phillip had a clear path to becoming HNIC at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. The presiding pastor at Tabernacle, Reverend Doctor Kenneth Sheets, was staring ninety up the yang yang. Sheets kept his congregants on edge about the minute and the hour when he would take his last wheeze and keel over in the pulpit.

The lure of the West was hypnotic for me. California meant freedom from the hawk of Michigan winters and more frequent visits to my mother and father less than one hour away by plane. Above all, I was ready to shed the heavy yoke of vigilance each time I ventured into Detroit streets. I thirsted to reclaim the lightness of my joy.

I moved with energizing expectation of westward movement. Phillip moved with dread of re-establishing himself and pastoring a forty member congregation for the rest of his life. Keep in mind, this was before I knew that his steady supply of Motor City “poontang” was being cut off.

And so I innocently cooed, “What’s up, babe?” as he hovered above me. His negative energy bounced off recently painted Dunn-Edwards “pale beach” walls.

Phillip’s tongue went in retreat. Two beats. He asked if I was busy. I lied, “Never too busy for my boo. Shoot.”

Phillip cleared his throat. “Bree, I’ve got something to tell you … and it’s not good.”

I marked the passage, Proverbs 6:26-27(King James Version). “For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.” A laminated book mark, featuring a painting by William H. Johnson, slid between the pages. I smiled at smoldering coal eyes of a milk chocolate girl with knock knees. Was it sorrow or glee in the girl’s penetrating gaze? I closed the Book.

Phillip’s chestnut skin had turned ashy gray. Inches shrank from his compact frame, reaching five feet, seven inches on a good day. Guilt tacked twenty years of hard time on his chronological age of forty-seven. Perennially bright, twinkling eyes cowered under a blanket of fear. A bluish gray haze circled each pupil. When did he get cataracts? I thought to myself.

It took several minutes from the moment he dropped the bomb before I inhaled my first real breathe. I dug out of my slouching, caved chest position, lifted upright and planted heavy feet on the floor. My bones creaked as I stood and squarely faced my husband.

When it finally emerged my voice was tiny and frail. “How old is the child?”

“Donovan is twenty. You should meet him. He’s a nice kid.”

Twenty years ago, we had been married for five years. Our son Miles was in kindergarten at Troy Montessori School. Phillip was an associate minister at Tabernacle. I was happy. Thought he was happy.

The story repeated in my head like a broken eight track reel. I’m too old for this shit, I mused.

Phillip’s sonorous voice droned in the timbre of an early morning sermon falling on sleep deprived ears. “I had a relationship with a woman in our congregation. Her name was … is Delia Upchurch. I didn’t know about Donovan until recently.”

“How recently?”
“Six months ago.”
“Six months! And you’re just telling me?”
“The boy … young man, got in touch with Miles.”
“Aw, hell no!” Rage shot from my eyes. “You mean my son, our son, knows about this?”
“I tried to protect my family.”
“By sticking your dick in a whore’s pussy?”
“She’s not a whore, just a lonely … ”

The Bible cannoned from my hand like a Frisbee. Phillip swayed in fear thickened air. A Tai Chi practitioner. He bent backward, ducked low, mimicking Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. Not low enough. The metal zipper of the whizzing Bible grazed his left brow. Like ketchup squeezed too tightly, blood spurted on his immaculate shirt. A Swarovski crystal vase filled with three dozen long stem red roses, my birthday present, crashed to Brazilian walnut flooring.

“Baby, it was twenty years ago. By the grace of God we can deal with this … and Donovan.”

“We? There is no we … Get outta my fuckin’ face,” I spat at him. Rabid eyes scoured the room.

Phillip’s hands shielded his face, fearing more incoming explosive devices.

Simultaneously, our gazes fell on a black fireplace poker with a curved hook.

Phillip moved with the swiftness of a man free of chronic football injuries. There was no spasming back pain as he accelerated into second gear. At a safe distance he pivoted, glanced back at me standing Medusa still.

Phillip slinked into the shadow of the mile long hallway. The master bedroom door slammed. Family photos clattered on the wall. The lock turned, shutting me out, but only temporarily. I was the one who stashed the spare key.

Glued to the spot, I wailed until snot backed up in my skull. My ears clanged, eyes bulged like a victim of Graves’ disease.

My world went dark. A blue velvet curtain fell on the wonderful life as I knew it.