The Sum of All Sins
The gray rain pelted the parlor window of the little brick house, like crutches tapping lightly on a tin roof. A single tallow candle stood sentry in the gloom, betraying the darkness clutching the corners of the room. All was quiet, but for the slow simmering of Katie’s casserole on the stovetop. Supper would be at 5:30, as always, even if the power remained out all night.
The swooshing of a car sliding by in the rain made him think of those lonely nights in Chicago’s South-Side. Collecting three hits could take the edge off, just a little, but being away from Katie always left him maudlin and morose. And even late in the summer, the wind rippling off the river left him longing for Greenville’s gentle spring breeze, the smell of crape myrtles fragrant as a chorus of spring peepers filled the night.
Not a drinker himself, but the boys — Chick, Swede and Lefty — certainly did try to put a nightcap on the nightcap nearly every night.
What’s done is done, but how the years drag by when you’re reduced to living in your own shadow. Like watching your grave get dug one shovel-full per day, a cawing crow topped upon his perch, all noisy accusations and nowhere to hide. “Joe, say it ain’t so!”
The money? Got him banned for life, but who the hell knows what Katie did with it? Still, the liquor store paid the light bill, that is, when the lights weren’t knocked out by blowing storm. Just enough light now to read by.
Greenville News didn’t quite make it a headline, but they couldn’t exactly bury it, either. Not everyday a Negro got lynched anymore, not even around here. His sixty-year old, still bat-calloused hands trembled slightly as he read the news.
Willie Earle. Never heard of the kid. Why would he? But he did recognize some of the other names. Cab drivers, mostly. Liked to stand around back up at West Court Street when they was bored, drinking, or both. Passed around a bottle, he read. Whiskey. Like what he sold.
Probably, they’d be by tomorrow, some of them, telling their story like they was relating a fishing expedition, the high point being that they’d caught what they was after.
“Joe,” they’d say, “You should have seen him.” Their eyes would flash and twinkle in the bottles’ refracted reflection as they faithfully recalled each detail of their trip out to Pickens County and back.
Got his start out that way, at a mill sweeping floors, the machinery so loud men put cotton in their ears, though the fibers found a way into every pore of their bodies anyway, lungs clogged by 40, if you didn’t lose a hand first.
Governor Thurmond said he’d catch the vigilantes and prosecute to the full extent of the law. Like Judge Landis, only even more Southern, if that was possible. But ’47 wasn’t ’19. There was talk that Truman might integrate the colored soldiers with the whites, and now you could buy a bottle of liquor at your neighborhood store, just like his. But guys making bad decisions they’d be remembered for long after they were gone? That would never change.
He looked out at the darkness and the rain, the casserole growing cold. Katie long since in bed. (She knew enough to leave him alone with his thoughts.) Violence filled the night sky, purple lightning and cannon thunder, a cacophony of random fury as the candle’s thin flame flickered once, then twice, then died and was gone.