Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 4, 2004
Laurie Oot Leonard
Preacher found him. Preacher found him, and that was a very good thing.
The late morning sun blinded Preacher as he drove his battered powder blue Cadillac along the dusty Mississippi roads, heading for Biloxi.
Driving along the country road, he would think on how to spend the least amount of time in the city. He loved his small farming community. Over the rise, the land lay like a patchwork quilt, soil waiting to be planted. He slowed down to take in the colors and smells of the day: bald-faced Herefords grazing in the roadside pasture, fresh manure piles raising steam in the grass. Geese flew overhead, honking their return.
Life was good.
Preacher passed the tired farm of his friend and neighbor, Mays Wilson. Mays and his wife, Queen, had lived down the road from Preacher for years. They were a fine couple in their thirties with a solid marriage, just the type that Preacher hoped to have in his church. No babies yet, but there was still time, plenty of time, and the joy of the creation of life, well, Preacher just took to smiling.
Mays was coaxing a balky mule down the row, his blue-black skin glistening with sweat in the sun, plastering his red flannel work shirt to his back. Preacher drove by, raising his hand in greeting, and Mays smiled back broadly. The reins slapped against the skinny gray flanks, pitching the plow forward, peeling up new sod like a lemon rind.
Preacher dreaded the monthly trip, holding his hat in his hand, looking down at his shoes and moving the dust around with the toe of his worn, but polished wingtips, wanting to be anywhere but here, asking for money for his little bayou town. These awkward meetings with the church officials made him nervous. The doughy white men pumped his hand, patted his back, and called him "Boy," making the bile rise in the back of his throat. If his people weren't depending on him, he would run out the door, jump into his caddie, and sail down the road, back to Kaiser, spitting grit and road rash on all those fat white boys.
His neighbors needed him to beg, for the used clothes from the J.C. Penney, the dog-eared high school textbooks (only twenty years old), and the leftover seedcorn donated by the local Agway. He carried bags of canned goods and macaroni to the car, sliding brown paper across the torn leather seats, hoping not to crush the day old Piggly Wiggly baked goods. When all was packed, the “Thankees, Thank yous” started. He hated this most of all. One by one, he reached for a pale, smooth outstretched hand, grasping each with his calloused palm, mumbling about the glory of Jesus and goodness of the Biloxi Christians, while “bastid” and “muthafucka” remained tightly hidden behind the beautiful white smile.
Waving to the men, he opened the door and sat in the driver's seat, familiar curves of the cushions hugging him. “Thankee, Jesus,” he sighed. The engine turned over loudly, and he slowly drove out of town, back toward home.
Queen heated the water in the big cast iron kettle on the outdoor fire. She had a lot of wash to get done today, and the washing machine had quit last week. She had searched throughout the house for any spare change to use at the Scrub a Dub Laundromat, checking her pockets, and rummaging through the junk drawers, even turning the couch cushions over and running the dust mop under the bed. No clinking coins for her pocket.
Queen thought, “Just gives me and Momma mo' quiet day.” Momma didn't come over too often; she thought Mays was too dark for her Queen.
Queen worked part time at Bronson's Tool and Die, down the West road, twenty miles away. She didn't mind the work much, grinding steel brackets smooth to ship to the carmakers in Detroit. It was boring but easy compared to raising crops. Gave her lots of time to plan her quilts. She wanted full time work, but couldn't get it, as the company only hired white girls full time. That saved them from providing the black girls with health insurance. They thought it would keep the women from having more babies. What a joke, she thought, as she roamed through the house with the ripped plastic laundry basket under her arm. She smiled and blushed under her golden skin, remembering lying with Mays and the wonderful things they did together, at night on the blue-ticked mattress.
At dusk, she would wait to hear the tired mule clip-clopping down the lane, then set out a pan of warm water and hard soap on the green formica porch table. Mays would feed and water the beast, then come and wash some of the day's grime away, as Queen wanted him freshened for supper. The screen door slammed behind him, and he moved to the old oak kitchen table. She was already there, with a plate of fried chicken, collards and potato salad, waiting for him. “Ah have the best woman,” he would think, as he dug into his food, winking at her, washing it down with cold Mason jar iced tea.
After eating, she would take his hand, and they would retire to the bedroom. Queen's hands unbuttoned the plaid work shirt, soft from many washings. She eased Mays out of his other clothing, shoes, socks, denim and cotton, and lay him back on the blue pinstripes. He watched her undress in the fading light, catching the shine of her hair on the last of the sun's rays. She would slip under his arm, and hold and be held, breathing in the essence of him, his scent that only she knew, and he would cover her mouth with kisses as the moon rose full.
Momma's knock on the screen door brought her back from her daydream. She hoped her blush had faded, as Momma would know. Momma knew everything, or at least she thought she did, and she was not one to keep quiet, with her thoughts to herself. Everyone dreaded Momma's sharp tongue, and most folks would cross the street when they saw her coming.
Except Mays. Mays bore the brunt of Momma's “oh- pinn-yuns”, and took them in with quiet grace and a smile. He greeted her kindly, “Good day, Miz Castleberry” and would offer his hand, which was always ignored. “Fine day, Ma’am,” would elicit a “harumpf” and he would politely excuse himself to the barn or fields. Queen would shake her head.
“Momma, why you treat Mays so bad?”
Momma would look around the looksmall, neat house, and into the yard, watching Banty hens scratching in the red dirt. “I wanted better for you, Queen. Not some farmhand so tired at the end of the day he cain't even talk. I wanted a man with schoolin' for you, so you’d get out of this town, not some dark mule wid a plow.”
Momma’s gaze looked farther east, past the county seat, past Biloxi, past the sweat and grime and dirt of poor Mississippi towns, past the perky breasts and smooth bottoms and lost innocence of poor Mississippi brown girls.
Fourteen and alone, she had bore Queen in her Daddy's shack, way back on the bayou, while hearin' the gators slide their rough skin over the sandy soil and “plunk” into the swamp. Those critters could smell the birthin' blood, callin' to the skeeters to come for the feast. She slapped the bugs away in between each long, agonizing push. The blood called them to come, but no one, nutthin' would ever hurt her chile. Nutthin’.
The last heave spat out the baby, out onto a pile of clean rags she had quickly shoved between her legs. She heard the mewl creep up into a strong wail, and panted to catch her breath, from her labor and her awe. Reaching down and drawing the baby to her, she looked upon the most beautiful child she had ever seen. She was the color of golden honey, with a head full of dark ringletty curls, and eyelashes longer than a trip to the city. “She looks like her Pappy,” thought the mother, “the I-talian,” remembering the hot evenings that she and he made hotter behind the dime store.
She got lost in the remembering, until the wailing became louder. “Queen be her name. Any man love my baby best treat her like a Queen” and she gathered her daughter to her breast.
Preacher sped over the dusty roads in a hurry to return home. He had a meeting with the church board and wanted to deliver the donations before dinner. He crested the top of the small hill noting the neat rows of newly planted seed corn. Preacher slowed as he came upon neighbor Wilson.
“Mays ain't got any work done,” he saw the mule standing alone, still hooked to the old rusted plow.
Preacher's eyes scanned the horizon, settling on a patch of red about 50 feet away, on the ground, near the hedgerow. He pulled the big car to the side of the road, sliding in the soft earth and gravel berm, slamming it into park as he jumped from the driver's seat. “Mays! Mays, you awright?” Preacher called, hearing no response. “Mays!”
The crows were quiet. The Herefords chewed quietly away, smacking at flies with their white tasseled tails. Preacher started running to the fallen man, yelling louder as he got closer, polished shoes tripping over clods of Mississippi mud. “Mays, oh Lawd, Mays!” But the gentle man did not awaken. Preacher dropped to his knees, his sides heaving, a stitch from running caught him in the side. He drew his friend to his chest, rocking him.
“Sweet Jesus, Lawdy, Lawdy, Lawd.” Mays grew pale under his blue-black skin. His eyes were closed, and a sweet smile curved his lips upward, as if he had been caught napping. There was no rise and fall of the big man's chest, only stillness in the field, and the sorrowful sound of a grey mule braying.
Momma stirred the sheets in the galvanized kettle as Queen went into the house to fetch more water. The screen door banged on its hinges and Momma took in a deep breath and wound up for the next session of her tirade, grabbing the grimy collar of a workshirt. She soaped up the neckline and rubbed it between her strong, brown, bony hands.
“No good man,” she chewed under her breath, scrubbing all the while for emphasis. “Cain't even fix a washin' machine,” she grumbled on, tossing the now clean shirt in a rinse bucket.
She stirred the boiling sheets with a hickory stick, remembering how she used to wash her daddy's and Queen's clothes like this, every Wednesday, unless it was raining, filling the cabin with the smell of Fels Naptha and clean, wet cotton. She was a young mother in the bayou, until the skinny hound startled her, flying out from under the creaky porch, baying as if a 'coon had showed up and sat down for lunch.
kettle. She looked up from her work, eyes trailing down the lane, where the crazy red hound was baying and moaning. The stick fell from her hands into the red dirt of the yard and her mouth, for once, was silent.
Preacher's car was slowly moving up the lane, but Preacher wasn't behind the wheel. One of the Davis boys, half growed, was driving the big blue car, and Preacher was leading the mule, still harnessed, pulling a makeshift sled. Other neighbor men walked on either side of the beast: Otis Meachem, the five and dime store clerk; Cornelius Templeton, the school janitor; Moses Redding, the neighbor who farmed cross lots from Mays and raised the most beautiful sunflowers this side of the Mississippi. John Brubaker and Emmett Brown and Georgetown Foreman, and a few of their sons and nephews, a small procession of men and menchildren, slowly marching up the lane, the mule dragging a sled with a red shirted body on it.
Queen yelled from the door, “Hush, Dog!” as she backed out of the house, her hands carrying two full buckets of cold water. She turned around on the porch, looking down the drive, her mouth forming the words to chastise the dog again. Preacher's car. The mule. The parade of the men. The buckets dropped from her hands, tipping, spilling and sloshing water all over the porch, running down the boards and off the lip, into the flowerbeds below. Her hand went to her mouth, gulping in air, but her lungs were empty, as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She stood for a lifetime, then moved, stepping onto the stairs, full weight, one at a time, and deliberately moved to meet the men.
Momma, also wordless, met her halfway to the drive. The two women clung to each other as the distance between them and the men became closer. Queen spied the red flannel shirt; this morning it had been neatly folded and smelling like the wind when she cast it out and shook out the wrinkles, helping him ease his broad shoulders and muscled arms into the soft cotton, buttoning from the bottom up, and kissing his chest on the way up.
“No more. No more,” she thought, as the sobs rose from the great red dirt and through her and out into the sky, great racking sobs that shook the trees and made the chickens hide. Her legs would not hold her. Momma tried to catch her by the waist and pitch her up on her hip, the way she carried her as a baby, but Queen was growed and a woman now, for the first time, Momma saw.
Queen crumpled to the ground, sounds escaping from her that no men have heard, or can bear to listen to, great screaming gulps of loss and wailing, the universal note of a woman's sadness.
The men and children lowered their faces and scuffed their toes and their shoes in the dirt, except for Preacher. His chin stayed up, bearing himself as a witness to his friend and neighbor, bringing him home. This was his duty, his calling, to his people, not to leave them when they needed him most.
The news traveled fast, and by four o'clock the house was filled with women. They took over after their men had brought Mays’ body into the house and laid him on the bed. Each had a task: some finished the wash, one shooed the bravest children who wanted a peek away from the house windows. Women were cooking and cleaning and setting out dinner. The leader, however, was Momma, and the other women deferred to her and asked her guidance, as Queen was too distraught. “Miz Castleberry, you want a blue cloth for the table? Miz Castleberry, shall we use the Sunday china or the everyday? Miz Castleberry, you want sugah in the iced tea or honey?”
They deferred to her judgement, not only because of her strong personality, but because she was a powerful woman of spirit who also had experience in the ways of the bayou dead, as she had buried her father a few years back. The women wanted all of the appropriate customs and practices to be right (Preacher didn't have to know). They did not want to come face to face with Mays' haunt on the road home, because the chicken’s neck had been wrung in the wrong direction, or salt had spilled on the floor.
A straight-backed chair was set at the end of the bed for Queen. Momma took her by the hand, the way she did when Queen was five and lingering at the window of the five and dime, staring at the doll whose eyes closed as she lay down.
“Come now, gal,“ Momma coaxed and guided her to the end of the bed, to the hard seat. Queen sat down, barely aware of what she was doing, great hiccups filling her mouth. Momma directed Miz Brown and Miz Bruebaker to come with her into the bedroom. They brought basins of warm water, soft cotton cloths, and a fresh cake of sweet scented soap. The older women undressed the body, removing mud caked boots, peeling off socks, sliding blue jeans and BVD's over the stiffened thighs. They loosened the buttons of the flannel shirt and removed it, revealing cool flesh and a still chest. Queen groaned at the sight of her mate lying on their bed, and began to rock and moan softly. The three older women washed the farmer gently, preparing the body for his final bed. They dressed Mays in a Preacher begged Italian silk suit. A hymn rose up from Miz Brown and they all joined in, voices floating from the bedroom to the kitchen, rising and falling, sailing out into the yard.
Though there was a hole in his heart as big as the Biloxi Walmart, Preacher did a fine job of telling the virtues of Brother Mays, including stories of generosity and compassion for his fellow Mississippians. He heard a record number of “Amens“ and “Hallelujahs“ before his sermon was over, his flock fanning approval with their cardboard “Vote for Driscoll “ advertisements. The white pine box was loaded onto a flatbed wagon, pulled by the faithful mule that had not deserted his master in the spring-plowed field. The mourners walked behind, and the procession snaked its way up to the cemetery.
Momma stayed with Queen. She was worried. Queen, once buxom, was growing thin and gaunt. She cried and lay upon her bed most of the day, only getting up when Momma threatened to beat her.
Momma came into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. Queen had her back turned, so she, at first, did not see the bundle in Momma's hands. “Baby,“ Momma crooned,“ I have something for you here,“ and she handed the bundle to her daughter.
The red flannel shirt enveloped the jeans and other clothes that Mays had worn on his last day on earth. Queen shook out the shirt and brought the soft red cotton to her nose, breathing in the scent of him, almost as strong as when he was flesh and bone. Lordy, she missed him, missed him with a fire that would not die down, that rose up and choked her if she forgot to tend it. She cradled the clothes, as the child she would never have, pressing in a flannel dimple and soft cheek.
Hours later, she sat up and drew the scissors from the dresser next to the bed. Her fingers slid down the cool metal of the blades, reminding her of the icy sharpness of a cold plow in March dirt. She took up the red shirt and began to cut, slicing the arm seam all the way up to the shoulder. She separated all of the seams and placed the pieces in a neat pile on the top of her bed. The jeans were a little harder to cut, as the stiffness of the material made her hand hurt but nothing was wasted, not the socks or the underwear. All were cut, along with the other soft cotton work shirts and denim, and his khaki dress slacks. She searched the bedroom for other material: an old pillow case, his favorite Sunday dress shirt, and a piece of the blue and white striped mattress ticking, that held the stains of her blood, and his sweat, and the strongest scent of him.
She started to piece these snippets and remnants of cloth back together, her needle sliding to and fro, like a lover's hand over smooth brown and blue-black skin. A prick of her finger dripped her own fresh blood upon the red flannel, matching, so no one could tell where his ended and hers began. Queen sewed for hours, stopping only when exhausted, then awoke and continued to cut and piece and stitch.
Momma was worried. She even told Preacher when he came to check on them, but Queen would see no one, having locked herself away.
Days later, she finished, and rose from her bed, unwashed, disheveled, a mess. She drew herself a bath and lathered her hair, powdered her thin body when she stepped from the tub. When Queen walked into the kitchen, Momma thought she was seeing a ghost.
“Sit, child, sit,” and she brought Queen some toast and chamomile tea. “What you been doing?”
Momma pried, but Queen remained silent. She rose from the table, set her dishes in the sink, and turned, walking back to the bedroom. Momma sat at the table for a few minutes, but she was not going to let Queen go back into the shell. She followed Queen's path to the bedroom.
Queen was lying on the bed, facing the window and the moonlit sky. Covering her was a hand-pieced quilt, made from the pieces and patches of May's clothes, ripped apart and put together again, a tribute to her lover. Momma sat down next to Queen's back, and began to trace the pieces with her shaky fingertip.
“This piece was that church shirt that Miz Foreman passed on to Mays; this one the shirt you done give him for Christmas, and this one the overalls that was your granpappy's, that Mays wanted after Pappy passed. I can still see them both, wearing them pants and plowing with an ole mule,” Momma chuckled.
Her fingers walked the path of a short but well-lived life, ending on the patch of red flannel. A lump rose up, choking her. The words fell in the night air. “Daughter, I’m sorry, so sorry” and she began to cry, her tears joining Queen's on the beautiful quilt.
Queen turned to her mother, raising her hand to Momma's cheek and wiping the water away.
“It's okay, Momma, it's okay,” and she snuggled in the quilt and took in the scent of her lost husband. “I am covered in his love, covered in his love,” and she closed her eyes, while Momma traced each piece with her hand and hummed a lullaby.