Michael Anthony is a writer and artist currently living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in multiple literary journals including The Opiate, SQ Magazine, and The Wilderness House Literary Review. Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of the textile industry in Paterson, New Jersey was exhibited by the American Labor Museum.
Glendora Mississippi - 1953
Reverend Tyler came by on Wednesday to see how Papa was getting along after his release from the state hospital. Since Papa had been raised to respect all men of the cloth, he was extra polite. “Are you sure we can’t get you something to drink, Reverend? Water, lemonade?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Thank you anyway, Mr. Ciboulette.”
They talked about Papa’s plans for the future, which considering his health were tenuous at best; recent events in Glendora; and, how the congregation was faring. Momma and I went to the kitchen to peel some red potatoes for her special egg and potato salad. Sitting at the table, I could hear most every word passing between Papa and the preacher.
“Reverend, mind if I ask you a question?”
“Certainly not, Mr. Ciboulette.”
“When I was down at that hospital outside Jackson, I met a man who not only believed in the good word of the Lord, but practiced it every day. He tends to the needs of the sick; comforts them; and, does so cheerfully.”
“Sounds like a good man,” Reverend Tyler replied in that melodious tone that so often lifted his sermons.
“He is. Name’s Lucius Baptiste, from Louisiana originally.”
“Your question?” the preacher asked.
“Not sure how to put this,” Papa inhaled. “But, I was thinking of inviting Lucius to our home; my way of thanking him for his help during my time down there.”
“Very Christian of you.”
“Based on what I told you about Lucius, think he’d be welcome in the congregation?”
“To hear you talk about him, I would say most certainly.”
A short silence separated the preacher’s reply and Papa’s next question.
“What if Lucius wasn’t a white man?”
A long silence followed, broken only by the creaking of the chair in which the preacher sat. I desperately wanted to peek into the parlor to see his face, but I knew it would be rude and not something Momma or Papa would tolerate. So, I sat at the table.
“Mr. Ciboulette,” the preacher began in a deep voice, “I believe all men can do charitable work and from what you tell me, this man certainly does his share. But...” then the preacher paused before adding, “knowing the congregation as I do, I am not sure the man would be completely comfortable. Might feel somewhat out of place. And you know, Mr. Ciboulette, one must be at inner peace to properly worship the Lord.”
Reverend Tyler didn’t have to wait long for Papa’s reply.
“Well, reverend, I appreciate your honesty. Good day.” And that was the last thing Papa ever said to that preacher.
Not two minutes after Reverend Tyler walked out the front door, Momma told Papa that if he wanted Lucius to visit with us, it was all right with her. Then, she said, “And don’t you worry about worshiping. If Lucius comes on a Sunday, we’ll hold our own services out along the edge of the property near that big old magnolia where you’re so fond of doing your own praying. And, all without the Reverend getting between you and the Lord.”
“You’re a good woman, Liv,” Papa grinned.
Lucius did come to visit us and just as Momma promised, we traipsed out to that ancient gnarled tree and worshipped. The five of us, Momma, Papa, Lucius, Mrs. Harshaw from Lee High School and I, stood beneath the shade of that leafy behemoth. After a few prayers and some spirited hymns, including the one I often heard Lucius hum down at the state hospital, we started back to the house.
We couldn’t have been but a few yards from that peaceful spot, when our neighbor, Floyd Carlisle and his boy, Lionel stood alongside the path. Mr. Carlisle was swinging a big old scythe with its long curved blade and enormous crooked ash handle that gleamed bronze from years of use. He was slicing down the johnsongrass that seemed to have sprung up overnight and spread into the bean field.
“Cyrus?” Mr. Carlisle called. Now this in itself was odd because despite being our neighbor for upwards of my entire lifetime, Mr. Carlisle rarely spoke to anybody, including Papa. I wouldn’t say he was a recluse, but he wasn’t about to win any prizes for friendliness at the Tallahatchie County Fair.
“Morning, Floyd,” Papa said, while leading us towards our house when Mr. Carlisle angled himself and that ever-moving scythe between us and the path.
“Cyrus, heard you was askin’ around ‘bout bringing someone to church today.”
Papa ignored him and kept walking. Momma sensed a rising tension and clutched my hand; then quickened her pace.
Still swinging that sinister tool, Mr. Carlisle called out again, “Cyrus! Said I heard something I didn’t believe. That true?”
“Floyd,” Papa responded, “Glendora’s a small town. So if you heard it, then I guess it’s so. Now if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate if I could get my family and guests back to the house.”
“Guests!” Mr. Carlisle guffawed, “I see that widow lady that works for Principal Lamar; your daughter, Katie; your wife; and…”
Suddenly, I was frightened. The tenor of Mr. Carlisle’s voice was ominous as he edged closer; that scythe still swaying and cutting. The grass bent slightly before it, then fell as it swept beneath the cut shoots. When I saw Lionel holding what looked to be a squirrel rifle, I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling.
“Excuse me sir,” Lucius said meekly, “I didn’t mean to cause anybody any trouble. If it be all right with you, I’ll be leavin’ now.”
“Nobody talking to you, boy,” Mr. Carlisle growled at Lucius as he deliberately aimed the blade at his feet. Poor Lucius backed up, but not before the tip caught his trouser cuff; ripping it clean open.
Papa glared at Mr. Carlisle; then stepped directly between Lucius and our neighbor. Momma’s hand flew to her mouth, her eyes squinting closed while Mr. Carlisle raised the scythe high over his shoulder, ready to bring it down with a mighty force. At the apogee of that frightening arc, time froze. I don’t think anyone breathed while waiting for the return swing, which would surely slice into Papa’s ankles.
There was a momentary hesitation before that silvery blade dove for the ground and Papa. I screamed, scaring Lionel who then spun towards me. As he did, the blue steel barrel of that squirrel rifle caught in a clump of grass. I guess his finger was so tight on the trigger that the sudden stop was just enough to cause the gun to go off, sending chunks of dirt and grass airborne in every direction.
Mr. Carlisle was starting that downward angle at the very moment the air cracked with the explosion. With that terrifying blade nearing Papa’s feet, Lucius wrapped his huge arm around Papa’s waist and lifted him clear off the ground. Between the momentum of his swing missing its target and being thrown off balance by the unintended discharge of Lionel’s gun, Mr. Carlisle lost his footing in the soft soil. He reeled backwards; his arms flailing and his work boots shuffling desperately to stop his slipping. Unable to steady himself, he stumbled and fell. The scythe went airborne and spiraled menacingly in the air before landing but a few steps from Lionel.
Mr. Carlisle ended up in a foot deep puddle of water that had pooled in a low spot of the field. Everything from his neck to his knees was thick with mud the color of tar.
Then, the most amazing thing happened. Papa walked over to Mr. Carlisle and offered his hand. I needn’t tell you his assistance was not accepted. Mr. Carlisle turned away and pushed up from the slick mud. All the while, he was, as Momma would say, cursing like a sailor.
How was it that Papa could come to the aid of someone who had just tried to harm him? Though I had read the passage about turning the other cheek many times, I had never seen it actually happen until that day.
A deadly stillness settled over the field. High above, a bank of silvery white clouds scudded by, blocking the bright sunshine. I watched as a blue shadow sped across the backwater and enveloped us; a light breeze danced through the grass.
“Ciboulette,” Mr. Carlisle barked, “you’re one foolish man. Let this be fair warning, if I ever see that boy’s face around here again, I won’t be responsible for what might happen.” With that, Mr. Carlisle motioned for Lionel to follow him.
Our walk back to the house was the longest I could remember. Momma kept telling me, “Katie, walk, do not run. And, hold your chin high.”
The dinner that followed was more than just a good meal; it was a celebration. We enjoyed a sweet glazed ham with those cherry-filled pineapple rings toothpicked to it, soft yellow yams dripping with clover honey, snap beans and a salad of what Momma called mixed greens. Honestly, that salad looked like something Mrs. Harshaw might concoct; and it was, because she brought the ingredients along with an angel food cake that all but melted in my mouth. That was the food portion of our gathering. But, the real feast was the wonderful conversation that enlivened our table.
Lucius charmed us with his tales of life down New Orleans way and the wildly funny story about getting treed by a gator. Mrs. Harshaw held her own with recollections of learning to ride camels across Afghanistan on something she called the Silk Road. She described it as akin to riding a drunken mule blindfolded and backwards. Papa shared some of his memories about life on the bayou; and surprisingly, Momma let us all in on the time she and her aunt rode the train from Nashville to Birmingham.
“Back in forty-five, Cousin Alfie, Aunt Eliza’s boy, sent word he was coming home from the Army. Seems he somehow ended up with a bullet in his leg. Said it happened during training, but it wasn’t real serious, just enough to be discharged. Honorably, of course.” Momma smiled, and seemed to enjoy being the focus of attention for a change.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Aunt Eliza asked me to accompany her to meet Alfie at the railroad station in Nashville and help her get him back home. Since I was staying at Aunt Eliza’s, I couldn’t much refuse. Besides, it would be such an adventure going all the way to Nashville.
“Cousin Alfie was perched atop one of those big wagons used for hauling trunks and crates around the station. He was passing time waiting for us with a young lady wearing what looked like a waitress uniform. I should mention that Cousin Alfie was, and probably still is, something of a ladies man. From the time he was but five he enjoyed the company of girls, chasing them around and the like. My aunt always said he joined the army just so he could travel and meet young ladies. Aunt Eliza was a very proper woman who may not have had much formal schooling, but she sure understood people all right, especially my cousin.
“One of the porters helped Aunt Eliza get Alfie aboard the train and we waited to head home. With his leg fairly useless, Aunt Eliza arranged for him to ride in a sleeping compartment so he could rest while she and I sat in the day car. Around noon, Aunt Eliza and I went to the dining car. Nothing fancy, just a ham and cheese sandwich, a glass of lemonade and she had a cup of tea.
“As we finished our meal, Aunt Eliza asked the waiter to bring her a cup of barley soup and another cup of tea. Said Cousin Alfie might like something to eat. She paid for everything, left a goodly tip and carefully carried the soup down the aisle, while I balanced the cup of tea. The waiter asked if she wanted help, but she declined politely, saying she could handle it, thank you.
“I kept my eyes glued on the rim of that tea cup, hoping the train didn’t hit any sudden curves or bumps. Once inside the sleeping car, Aunt Eliza headed to compartment number 14, the only one with the curtain still drawn. We couldn’t have been but six feet from it, when I clearly heard a commotion. Wasn’t hard to figure where it was coming from. Aunt Eliza spun on her heel and ordered me to stand right there, which of course I did. Then, she moved closer to the compartment where Cousin Alfie was supposed to be resting.
“Suddenly, a leg flew out of the drawn curtain. Since it was neither bandaged, nor hairy, it was plain it didn’t belong to Cousin Alfie. That leg nearly took off Aunt Eliza’s navy blue hat. She was about to turn and retreat, when those curtains parted and out jumped a young lady who had more freckles than I imagined anyone ever could have. They were everywhere, and I do mean everywhere because she stood there in nothing but her underwear and Cousin Alfie’s army hat propped atop a head of coppery red hair. I’m sure Aunt Eliza was as stunned as I was, but she didn’t say a word. That poor young woman yelped as if she had stepped on a bed of hot coals. Then Cousin Alfie pops his head out asking what the matter was. I can still see his eyes, wider and whiter than mother of pearl buttons.”
By the time Momma got to this part of her story, everyone around that table was howling. Mrs. Harshaw dabbed her eyes with a linen handkerchief; and, Papa was nearly doubled over in his chair. It was a joy to see him laugh again.
“Then what, Livie?” Mrs. Harshaw asked, trying to catch her breath.
“Aunt Eliza said, ‘Young lady, somehow I do not believe that is the full uniform of the United States Army!’ Then, she turned and marched me straight back to the dining car.
“She never mentioned that incident again, nor did I hear her say anything about it to Cousin Alfie. Least not while I was with them.”
We spent the next several minutes holding our sides and wiping our eyes as the ripples of laughter waned, only to return like gulf coast waves. It was then I noticed how relaxed Mrs. Harshaw was with Lucius. There was none of that polite distance often seen when people are in so-called mixed company.
This really didn’t surprise me considering it was Mrs. Harshaw who defied the congregation’s shunning of Momma and me by standing at our side in the pew just to prove they couldn’t catch Papa’s TB from us. And, having traveled the globe with her reporter husband until he was killed covering the civil war in Spain, Mrs. Harshaw had been exposed to cultures, people, and places most folks only read about. So, sitting here with Lucius was as natural for her as being with kin.
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly. As evening approached, Lucius thanked Momma and Papa for their hospitality, then said goodbye to me.
I learned that despite his Nawlins’ accent and his ebony skin, he was not all that much different than anyone else at our table. Mrs. Harshaw offered to drive Lucius to Ruleville so he could catch the train back to Jackson. Papa didn’t think that was a good idea, especially after the earlier incident with Mr. Carlisle.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Ciboulette,” Mrs. Harshaw said confidently, “I can well take care of myself. You forget, I’ve been in some far off places, oftentimes alone. Never once had a problem and don’t expect any between here and Ruleville. Besides, don’t think there are many cars that can catch my Fleetwood. Salesman told me top speed was 100 miles per hour, though I’ve only hit 75 so far.”
“At that rate, you could probably beat the train back to Jackson,” Papa joked.
“Just might,” Mrs. Harshaw grinned with a glint in her eye.
We clustered around the front door as Lucius turned to Papa, “Mr. Ciboulette, I want to thank you for everything you done for me today. You too, ma’am. I much appreciate it.”
Papa stepped close to Lucius and said, “It was my pleasure. ‘Sides, after all you did for me down in Jackson, I owe you. And, thank you for saving my feet out there earlier today.”
“Without feet,” Lucius smiled, “folks can’t rightly walk in the shoes of another, can they?”
Papa then grabbed Lucius and gave him a manly hug along with a hearty slap on the back. When they separated, they shook hands once more. It was the first time I saw two such men embrace and it made me even prouder of Papa.
As we stood in the doorway watching Mrs. Harshaw’s Cadillac speed them towards the golden horizon and the Allen Creek Bridge, little could we imagine that some fifteen months later they would send us a postcard from Marseille, France where they had gone to live as husband and wife.