Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Words of the Father

Words of the Father

Some poor people have peanuts growing in their yards and love in their hearts; the boy is happy with his G. I. Joe and the girl with her Barbie; they all sleep in one bed together since they
have only the one bedroom, and the parents expect that when their children grow up, no one will call them ‘poor white trash’ since, God willing and the crick don’t rise, the boy and girl are going
to stay in school and learn to read real nice someday, and when we visited them we were careful to walk single file down the path through the Goober pea plants to the front porch without
stepping on a single tendril, and single file back out to the faucet to wash the peanuts before they were boiled and we ate them like that, fresh and good.

But other poor people have nothing in their yard but a few blades of grass and a broken screen door, I was forced to notice that day. “Don’t go over there,” said Jessica. “His spirit is still
in his bed until he be laid to rest. Come sit on my bed with me and Barbie.”

I was wearing my new dress for the funeral, off-white with Hunter green trim, in some synthetic wool which was scratchy and hot. I remember that dress because I was wearing it to school a few months later when I got my period, and I came home with a red spot right on the border between the green and the white. My mother told me in a very matter-of-fact tone that it was simply unacceptable to have bloodspots showing on my clothes, but she didn’t tell me that I should have taken it off and gone around in my underwear at school, so I never did know what she wanted me to do other than feel ashamed. My mother had ordered the hated dress from the Sears catalog, I wonder whether in unconscious retribution for going shooting with ‘that rapscallion’ beer-swilling cigar-puffing baby brother of my father, who had come on my birthday and taken me and my older sister and brother out to the forest clearing on the edge of somebody’s pasture to learn how to use a shotgun, ‘now that you are twelve’, with tin cans and sun bleached cattle skulls as targets. This was really more for my brother than for me: my brother was feeling humiliated since he was the only one in his class at school not driving yet. “You say ‘every’, said my father, “I’ll tell you ‘every.’ If every boy in your class drives a figure eight
around every pair of stop signs from here to Memphis, and every girl in your class drives a figure eight around every pair of stop signs from here to New Orleans, every day after school, you still are not allowed to drive until you are old enough to get a license.”

The road to Memphis was infamous for liquor stores, and as for New Orleans, if you want Bible I’ll tell you Bible, and if
you want popular culture I’ll explain it that way too. There is a book in the Bible called ‘Jonah’, and in this book, Jonah is instructed by God to go to ‘that great and wicked city’, doubtlessly alluding to New Orleans. As for popular culture, there was a song beginning, “There is a house in New Orleans...”, and my sister told me that there was a mistake in that song, which should have continued, “It’s been the ruin of many a girl” instead of “many a boy” as in the published version. Guns and motor vehicles were the two essential tools for adolescents, so my father agreed to the shooting lesson, but my mother was not happy that I went, anyway. So she sat home and plotted to give me something in Hunter green, to remind me of the shooting lesson,
and there I was, with another reason to dislike the dress: It made me self-conscious in front of Jessica, whose dress was, let us say, not Sears quality. We were on the front porch, since my
father wanted to talk to the bereaved parents alone. Jessica explained that she and her brother slept out here in the warm weather. The window in the main room was too hard to open and the
ceiling fan didn’t work.

“Jimmy was too good to live-that’s why God took him,” she explained of her brother. I did not contradict her. My father had strictly warned me not to contradict the bereaved when they
spoke of the deceased. What I wanted to know was why the fourteen-year-old had killed himself, and how, but my father had said that I was too young to have to hear about that.

I stood up, and she got agitated. “Don’t go over there,” she reminded me. I wasn’t; I was only standing to stretch and let a little sweat evaporate, but it made her nervous. What was in that bed anyway? Blood? Body parts? This was new to me; it was the first time that my father had taken me with him to arrange for the burial of a suicide. He was the only minister in three counties willing to take them, even for money, and in this case there was no money to be made.

“Le’s me take you down to the Casey Jones wreck,” she suggested.
I had been before; in fact, our next door neighbors and our only white neighbors within a mile had been girls in town at the time of the famous wreck; they had taken us to the site and
described what it had looked like on the day celebrated in the well-known ballad. But I followed her without a word, through the barren yard to the dirt road and up to the highway halving the
tiny town, which I suspect had shrunk in the sixty years since the wreck, and past a house and shuttered building to our destination, where a historical plaque stood in the long grass next to the railroad crossing.

A black woman and mulatto child were approaching Barnett’s General Merchandise. “She’s awful light,” remarked Jessica.

“Must have a white father,” I responded.

“What?” she asked. “Are you ignernt? Niggers can’t have children with white people.

They ain’t got no souls. My daddy says, ‘Put a three-piece suit on a nigger and he’s still a monkey.’”

“Then why are some people that color?”

“Have you heard of albinos?” she asked me.

“Don’t argue with the bereaved,” my father had said, so I gave it up.

“Mr. Barnett is mean to my daddy,” said Jessica. “He waits on the niggers first.”

Now that was quite an accusation. Everybody knew that the etiquette in establishments which catered to both races in the same place was to wait on blacks only when there were no
whites needing service. Jessica’s daddy must have done something egregious such as try to procure goods without money on more than one occasion.

“That makes my daddy real mad. He has to drink, and then he can’t work.”

We headed back after a longing glance at the Coke machine. Jessica was eulogizing her brother to the best of her ability. “He wanted me to have his comic books,” she said. “Now I have
a doll and comic books.”

She bounded up the steps and stood in front of her brother’s bed. “Now you sit down first,” she ordered me. I hesitated, and as I stood closer to her than she wanted, a breeze wafted a familiar smell over to me from the direction of the bed. “Oh,” I said, “my brother too. He used to wet the bed all the time until my mother sewed something into his pajamas to wake him up at night.”

Jessica shed her vigilant demeanor. She lay on her own bed and started to cry. “It was my fault,” she said. “My daddy told me not to bring home a soul, but I up and brung a girl home
from school. Jimmy told the girl he was a real man, since he done quit school and went to work.

And what’d you reckon that girl said? She said, ‘You’s real all right — you’s a real baby, but you ain’t got no real mama to clean up after you.”

“Not your fault,” I murmured to her. Not her brother’s death. But all those racist thoughts and words and whatever deeds she had to her name, for those she would have to answer.

I could hear my father inside, explaining that the coroner had ruined Jimmy’s clothes, that he needed clothes to be buried in, and if not, perhaps a sheet. His mother surrendered the sheet
from the marital bed over his father’s angry objections.

My older sister played piano for the funeral that afternoon; the organist wouldn’t come, and she was more proficient already anyway. The librarian’s brother was there: my mother had
called five houses, gotten three responses, and one person willing and able to show up. The majority of that church had turned against us already for Father’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, about a third were neutral, and the librarian Father had in his pocket.

The brother still had rough edges; he was yet to tell me, in reference to the hired help that he scheduled to work
on his farm according to Central Standard Time, that “a nigger will never understand daylight savings time.” And I was yet to argue with him about it — that was the great thing, that he was
open to argument on the subject.

After the usual short service we went out to put the body into the grave my brother, my sister, and the librarian’s brother had dug. My father held his Bible aloft with a great flourish:
“‘The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ These words, which are in all the funeral services, are good words and strong words. Job says them in
chapter two. But sometimes we can’t hear them. Sometimes all we can hear is what Job says in chapter three: ‘Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hid treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, whom God has hedged in?’”

The bereaved mother looked at the Bible in my father’s hands as if to be sure that what she had just heard was really from the Holy Book. She fell kneeling on the side of the hole and
wailed, “Jimmy, Jimmy” until her husband pulled her away.

After supper I thought to tell my mother that Jimmy’s family would need a new sheet. “Yes,” seconded my father without looking up from his book, “and a new clothesline too. Why don’t you pay them a condolence call?”

I showed my mother which unmarked dirt road to take. Nobody was on the porch now.

My mother squinted and pursed her lips at the strident, slurred noises coming from inside. I knocked loudly, and the voices stilled. Jessica’s mother opened the door enough to show her red
and tear-streaked face. She acknowledged us with the merest of nods. My mother offered her the secondhand items, and she snatched them and closed the door in a single motion. From inside
there was a loud crash.

“Grief does things to people,” apologized my mother. “It really does.”

________________________

Bio: Miriam Berele grew up in rural Southern Mississippi, this story being set in the northernmost of the many counties where she lived in those days. Now she has lived in Chicago for much too long.

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