We awoke at dawn Sunday to the crack of lightning and the rumble of low thunder. A storm blew from the southwest, delaying sunrise, and as I lay in the darkness of Ricky's room, I again asked the great question of why it rained on Sundays. Why not during the week, so I wouldn't be forced to pick cotton? Sunday was already a day of rest.
My grandmother came for me and told me to sit on the porch so we could watch the rain together. She fixed my coffee, mixing it with plenty of milk and sugar, and we rocked gently in the swing as the wind howled. The Spruills were scurrying about, throwing things in boxes, trying to find shelter away from their leaking tents.
The rain fell in waves, as if trying to make up for two weeks of dry weather. A mist swirled around the porch like a fog, and above us the tin roof sang under the torrents.
Gran carefully picked her moments to speak. There were times, usually once a week, when she would take me for a walk, or meet me on the porch, just the two of us. Because she'd been married to Pappy for thirty-five years, she'd learned the art of silence. She could walk or swing for long periods of time while saying little.
"How's the coffee?" she asked, barely audible above the storm.
"It's fine, Gran," I said.
"What would you like for breakfast?"
"Then I'll make us some biscuits."
The Sunday routine was a little more relaxed. We generally slept later, though the rain had awakened us early today. And for breakfast we skipped the usual eggs and ham and somehow managed to survive on biscuits and molasses. The kitchen work was a little lighter. It was, after all, a day of rest.
The swing moved slowly back and forth, going nowhere, its rusty chains squeaking softly above us. Lightning popped across the road, somewhere on the Jeter property.
"I had a dream about Ricky last night," she said.
"A good dream?"
"Yes, very good. I dreamed the war suddenly ended, but they forgot to tell us. And one night we were sitting here on the porch, listening to the radio, and out there on the road we saw a man running toward us. It was Ricky. He was in his army uniform, and he started yelling about the war being over."
"I wish I could have a dream like that," I said.
"I think the Lord's telling us something."
"Ricky's coming home?"
"Yes. Maybe not right away, but the war'll be over soon. We'll look up one day and see him walking across the yard there."
I looked at the yard. Puddles and streams were beginning to form and run down toward the Spruills. The grass was almost gone, and the wind was blowing the first of the dead leaves from our oaks.
"A Painted House"
"I pray for Ricky every night, Gran," I said, quite proud.
"I pray for him every hour," she said, with a hint of mist in her eyes.
We rocked and watched the rain. My thoughts about Ricky were rarely of a soldier in uniform, with a gun, under fire, hopping from one safe place to another. Rather, my memories were of my best friend, my uncle who was more like a brother, a buddy with a fishing pole or a baseball glove. He was only nineteen, an age that seemed both old and young to me.
Before long my mother came to the door. The Saturday bath was followed by the Sunday scrubbing, a quick but brutal ritual in which my neck and ears were scraped by a woman possessed. "We need to get ready," she said. I could already feel the pain.
I followed Gran to the kitchen for more coffee. Pappy was at the kitchen table, reading the Bible and preparing his Sunday school lesson. My father was on the back porch, watching the storm and gazing into the distance at the river, no doubt beginning to worry that floodwaters were coming.
The rains stopped long before we left for church. The roads were muddy, and Pappy drove even slower than usual. We puttered along, sometimes sliding in the ruts and puddles of the old dirt road. My father and I were in the back, holding tightly to the sides of the bed, and my mother and Gran rode up front, everybody dressed in their best. The sky had cleared, and now the sun was overhead, already baking the wet ground so that you could see the humidity drifting lazily above the cotton stalks.
"It's gonna be a hot one," my father said, issuing the same forecast he uttered every day from May through September.
When we reached the highway, we stood and leaned on the cab so the wind was in our faces. It was much cooler that way. The fields were vacant; not even the Mexicans were allowed to work on the Sabbath. Every harvest season brought the same rumors of heathen farmers sneaking around and picking cotton on Sunday, but I personally had never witnessed such sinful behavior.
Most things were sinful in rural Arkansas, especially if you were a Baptist. And a great part of our Sunday worship ritual was to be preached at by the Reverend Akers, a loud and angry man who spent too much of his time conjuring up new sins. Of course, I didn't care for the preaching-most kids didn't-but there was more to Sunday church than worship. It was a time for visiting, and spreading news and gossip. It was a festive gathering, with everyone in good spirits, or at least pretending to be. Whatever the worries of the world-the coming floods, the war in Korea, the fluctuating price of cotton-they were all put aside during church.
The Lord didn't intend for His people to worry, Gran always said, especially when we were in His house. This forever struck me as odd, because she worried almost as much as Pappy.
Other than the family and the farm, nothing was as important to us as the Black Oak Baptist Church. I knew every single person in our church, and they of course knew me. It was a family, for better or worse. Everybody loved one another, or at least professed to, and if one of our members was the slightest bit ill, then all manner of prayer and Christian caring poured forth. A funeral was a weeklong, almost holy event. The fall and spring revivals were planned for months and greatly anticipated. At least once a month we had some form of dinner-on-the-grounds-a potluck picnic under the trees behind the church-and these often lasted until late afternoon. Weddings were important, especially for the ladies, but they lacked the high drama of funerals and burials.
The church's gravel parking lot was almost full when we arrived. Most of the vehicles were old farmers' trucks like ours, all covered with a fresh coat of mud. There were a few sedans, and these were driven either by town folk or by farmers who owned their land. Down the street at the Methodist church, there were fewer trucks and more cars. As a general rule, the merchants and schoolteachers worshiped there. The Methodists thought they were slightly superior, but as Baptists, we knew we had the inside track to God.
I jumped from the truck and ran to find my friends. Three of the older boys were tossing a baseball behind the church, near the cemetery, and I headed in their direction.
"Luke," someone whispered. It was Dewayne, hiding in the shade of an elm tree and looking scared. "Over here."
I walked to the tree.
"Have you heard?" he said. "Jerry Sisco died early this mornin'."
I felt as if I'd done something wrong, and I couldn't think of anything to say. Dewayne just stared at me. Finally, I managed to respond. "So?"
"So they're tryin' to find people who saw what happened."
"Lot of folks saw it."
"Yeah, but nobody wants to say anything. Everybody's scared of the Siscos, and everybody's scared of your hillbilly."
"Ain't my hillbilly," I said.
"Well, I'm scared of him anyway. Ain't you?"
"A Painted House"
"What're we gonna do?"
"Nothin'. We ain't sayin' a word, not now anyhow."
We agreed that we would indeed do nothing. If we were confronted, we would lie. And if we lied, we would say an extra prayer.
The prayers were long and windy that Sunday morning. So were the rumors and gossip of what had happened to Jerry Sisco. News spread quickly before Sunday school began. Dewayne and I heard details about the fight that we couldn't believe were being reported. Hank grew larger by the moment. "Hands as big as a country ham," somebody said. "Shoulders like a Brahma bull," said somebody else. "Had to weigh three hundred pounds."
The men and older boys grouped near the front of the church, and Dewayne and I milled around, just listening. I heard it described as a murder, then a killing, and I wasn't clear about the difference until I heard Mr. Snake Wilcox say, "Ain't no murder. Good folks get murdered. White trash like the Siscos get killed."
The killing was the first in Black Oak since 1947, when some sharecroppers east of town got drunk and had a family war. A teenage boy found himself on the wrong end of a shotgun, but no charges were filed. They fled during the night, never to be heard from again. No one could remember the last "real" murder.
I was mesmerized by the gossip. We sat on the front steps of the church, looking down the sidewalk toward Main Street, and heard men arguing and spouting off about what should or shouldn't be done.
Down the street, I could see the front of the Co-op, and for a moment I thought I could see Jerry Sisco again, his face a mess, as Hank Spruill clubbed him to death.
I had watched a man get killed. Suddenly, I felt the urge to sneak back into the sanctuary and start praying. I knew I was guilty of something.
We drifted into the church, where the girls and women were also huddled and whispering their versions of the tragedy. Among them, Jerry's stature was rising. Brenda, the freckled girl with a crush on Dewayne, lived only a quarter of a mile from the Siscos, and since they were practically neighbors, she was receiving more than her share of attention. The women were definitely more sympathetic than the men.
Dewayne and I found the cookies in the fellowship hall, then went to our little classrooms, listening every step of the way.
Our Sunday school teacher, Miss Beverly Dill Cooley, who taught at the high school in Monette, started things off with a lengthy, and quite generous, obituary for Jerry Sisco, a poor boy from a poor family, a young man who never had a chance. Then she made us hold hands and close our eyes while she lifted her voice to heaven and for a very long time asked God to receive poor Jerry into His warm and eternal embrace. She made Jerry sound like a Christian, and an innocent victim.
I glanced at Dewayne, who had one eye on me.
There was something odd about this. As Baptists, we'd been taught from the cradle that the only way you made it to heaven was by believing in Jesus and trying to follow His example in living a clean and moral Christian life. It was a simple message, one that was preached from the pulpit every Sunday morning and every Sunday night, and every revival preacher who passed through Black Oak repeated the message loud and clear. We heard it at Sunday school, at Wednesday night prayer service, and at Vacation Bible School. It was in our music, our devotionals, and our literature. It was straightforward, unwavering, and without loopholes, compromise, or wiggle room.
And anyone who did not accept Jesus and live a Christian life simply went to hell. That's where Jerry Sisco was, and we all knew it.
But Miss Cooley prayed on. She prayed for all the Siscos in this time of grief and loss, and she prayed for our little town as it reached out to help this family.
I couldn't think of a single soul in Black Oak who would reach out to the Siscos.
It was a strange prayer, and when she finally said "amen," I was completely bewildered. Jerry Sisco had never been near a church, but Miss Cooley prayed as if he were with God at that very moment. If outlaws like the Siscos could make it to heaven, the pressure was off the rest of us.
Then she started on Jonah and the whale again, and for a while we forgot about the killing.
An hour later, during worship, I sat in my usual spot, in the same pew where the Chandlers always sat, halfway back on the left side, between Gran and my mother. The pews were not marked or reserved, but everyone knew where everybody else was supposed to sit. In three more years, when I was ten, my parents said I would be allowed to sit with my friends, providing of course that I could do so without misbehaving. This promise had been extracted by me from both parents. It might as well have been twenty years.
The windows were up, but the heavy air was not moving. The ladies fanned themselves while the men sat still and sweated. By the time Brother Akers rose to preach, my shirt was stuck to my back.
"A Painted House"
He was angry, as usual, and he began shouting almost immediately. He attacked sin right off the bat; sin had brought tragedy to Black Oak. Sin had brought death and destruction, as it always had and always would. We sinners drank and gambled and cursed and lied and fought and killed and committed adultery because we allowed ourselves to be separated from God, and that's why a young man from our town had lost his life. God didn't intend for us to kill one another.
I was confused again. I thought Jerry Sisco got himself killed because he'd finally met his match. It had nothing to do with gambling and adultery and most of the other sins Brother Akers was so worked up over. And why was he yelling at us? We were the good folks. We were in church!
I seldom understood what Brother Akers was preaching about, and occasionally I'd hear Gran mumble over Sunday dinner that she'd also been hopelessly confused during one of his sermons. Ricky had once told me he thought the old man was half crazy.
The sins grew, one piling on top of the other until my shoulders began to sag. I had yet to lie about watching the fight, but I was already beginning to feel the heat.
Then Brother Akers traced the history of murder, beginning with Cain slaying Abel, and he walked us through the bloody path of biblical carnage. Gran closed her eyes, and I knew she was praying-she always was. Pappy was staring at a wall, probably thinking about how a dead Sisco might affect his cotton crop. My mother seemed to be paying attention, and mercifully I began to nod off.
When I awoke, my head was in Gran's lap, but she didn't care. When she was worried about Ricky, she wanted me near her. The piano was now playing, and the choir was standing. It was time for the invitation. We stood and sang five stanzas of "Just As I Am," and then the Reverend dismissed us.
Outside, the men gathered under a shade tree and started a long discussion about something or other. Pappy was in the middle of things, talking in a hushed voice, waving his hands in an urgent manner. I knew better than to get close.
The women grouped in small clusters and gossiped along the front lawn, where the children also played and the old folks said their farewells. There was never any hurry to leave church on Sundays. There was little to do at home except eat lunch, take a nap, and get ready for another week of picking cotton.
Slowly, we made our way to the parking lot. We said good-bye to our friends again, then waved as we pulled away. Alone in the back of the truck with my father, I tried to muster the courage to tell him about watching the fight. The men at church had talked of nothing else. I wasn't sure how I figured into the plot, but my instincts told me to confess it all to my father and then hide behind him. But Dewayne and I had promised to keep quiet until confronted, then we'd start squirming. I said nothing as we drove home.
About a mile from our farm, where the gravel thinned and eventually surrendered to dirt, the road met the St. Francis River, where a one-lane wooden bridge crossed over. The bridge had been built in the thirties as a WPA project, so it was sturdy enough to withstand the weight of tractors and loaded cotton trailers. But the thick planks popped and creaked every time we drove over, and if you looked at the brown water directly below, you'd swear the bridge was swaying.
We crept across, and on the other side we saw the Spruills. Bo and Dale were in the river, shirtless, their pants rolled up to their knees, skipping rocks. Trot was sitting on a thick branch of driftwood, his feet dangling in the water. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were hiding under a shade tree, where food was spread on a blanket.
Tally was also in the water, her legs bare up to her thighs, her long hair loose and falling onto her shoulders. My heart pounded as I watched her kick the water, alone in her own world.
Downriver, in a spot where few fish had ever been caught, was Hank with a small cane pole. His shirt was off, and his skin was already pink from the sun. I wondered if he knew that Jerry Sisco was dead. Probably not. He would find out soon enough, though.
We waved slowly at them. They froze as if they had been caught trespassing, then they smiled and nodded. But Tally never looked up. Neither did Hank.