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Held at Gunpoint

(“Held at Gunpoint” first appeared in Image; the story received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize)

A new couple—a white couple—came to the funeral service, but Preacher Butler went ahead and told it anyway. “Morgan Cook served sixty-five years in this white folks’ pigpen and now he’s gone to the resting place.” Everyone nodded—they hadn’t seen the couple slip in, sit on the back pew. Preacher fluttered his robes, told it some more about Morgan lighting the white man’s world, then everyone listened to the stuttering tape to the grandkids.

Afterwards, out in the sunshine, the couple—kind of young-looking, but maybe a little old—shook Preacher Butler’s hand. “Morgan was good to us all,” the man said, not giving Mr. Cook a last name even in death. Not ugly, just ignorant like white folks were. The man looked up at the glittering waterfall. “Living water,” he said and smiled.

The couple came back to Sunday service, drank grape juice with the congregation. Took the time to meet all the little babies running around at fellowship hour. Acting nice and polite.

So maybe they weren’t white after all.

*****

Preacher was cleaning up after the service, mulling over his new guests, when his grandson, Peterbilt, sidled into the sanctuary, wanting to know what was taking so long. “Terry,” the boy wanted to be called, but a boy who didn’t even have a mama had to have a nickname. The boy stood at the end of a pew, fooling with the holly strapped to its side. The boy’s legs, skinny as a bird’s, poked out from baggy shorts, and it December.

“Leave that off, boy.” The child’s hands could fidget like the devil’s own. “Give me a minute.”

“Who your white friends?” Peterbilt had quit the holly berries, and wandered over to the far aisle near the stained-glass windows.

“Guests of this congregation.” Preacher lined up the accordion pleats on his robe, folded and tucked.

The boy walked the far aisle. As he walked, he batted the line of red bows on the windowsills—bat! bat! bat!—but Preacher couldn’t see it doing any harm. The boy was mad, because of his white friend, Miss Jennings, an elderly lady Peterbilt had met on his private ramblings over on the lake. The two of them were booking picture frames, hunting frames all over the county, buying them cheap and ripping the insides out, then selling the frames to the Salvage Center in Florence. All of it Peterbilt’s doings, as far as Preacher could tell, the boy coming up with the idea of it. Thinking he’d stepped out, acting big about being in business with an old white woman. Peterbilt didn’t like to see those two sitting on Preacher’s back pew.

Preacher tucked his robe into its box. He didn’t hang it—the coat hanger left peaks made him look like an old vulture behind the pulpit.

“You think they’re married?” Peterbilt called, trying to besmirch. He was in the back of the church now, leaning over the baptism pool. His voice rang hollow from inside the fiberglass pool. In a minute, he’d give in, run his tongue across the pool’s shimmering green ridges.

“He’s a Westgrove, from over on the Peninsula. Don’t know what she is. Get out of that pool.” Preacher locked the closet door, pocketed the key—hard to keep people around Cherokee, Alabama from using what wasn’t theirs. He lowered himself down the altar steps, favoring his right hip. At the bottom, he straightened, paused. Then he limped down the aisle, hauled Peterbilt off the baptismal stoop.

“They’re not married . . . yet.” Peterbilt was squirming to get under his own steam. “But they asked me to do it.”

Peterbilt’s mouth opened.

Preacher slapped him on the butt.

The boy tore down the aisle.

Preacher locked the Tabernacle doors, turned off the waterfall on the way out. As they walked the front sidewalk, the raised hand inside the stilled waterfall waved them goodbye.

*****

Preacher was on his knees, in his own bedroom. He was cogitating, wandering clean away from his talk with God. He was, in fact, stuck and couldn’t find his way out: he was calculating the list.

First on the list was Alicia, Peterbilt’s mama. Alicia had been an angel—puffy pink dresses in elementary school, and, come high school, a glittery swimsuit that twinkled as she marched around the football field. When she began to swell, the school board took away her swimsuit and kicked her off the field. After little Peterbilt came, she quit their school altogether and started in the Mayor’s office, worked her way up to his personal assistant. She never once named the name of the baby’s father, but Peterbilt was a good baby, happy. Then God killed Alicia—the baby’s only mama, Preacher’s only daughter.

Preacher’s only wife—Mary Grace—was second on the list, which brought Preacher quick-like to his brother, Canada. Long gone from the south and living in Washington D.C., Canada would send the Baker’s postcards of the White House or President Lincoln or the velvet lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. Mary Grace would finger each card, studying Canada’s spiking hand. Finally, when Mary Grace hadn’t been good and finished nursing Alicia, she took the train up to Washington, D.C., and never came back. After that, Preacher’s heart had turned hard as a mud lump for a while, but he struck fealty to the Lord, and he’d hung in there through this and that, through all the things.

But it cracked Preacher’s soul that now, on top of everything else, the Lord was sending him white folks.

*****

Tuesday morning, Preacher Butler had just crossed the train bed to the Kincaid’s place when the Cherokee cops flipped their light, pulled him over. Preacher got out of the mail truck, stared at the U.S. Mail sign on top of the Camino—orange reflectors on each side—while he talked to the police.

The men had been here before.

Everyone used to be okay about Preacher having the mailman post. When Crowder Sistrunk, drunk, had rammed his heavy mail truck into Alicia’s car, killing her, they’d handed Preacher Butler the job. Turned out to have been a fit of moon madness that soon passed. But Preacher tried to keep the job—preaching didn’t feed mouths in Alabama.

“Going mighty slow, boy.” Gerald Ainsley frowned a big, overblown frown. Gerald’s mama cut hair at the white beauty parlor outside of town. Gerald had run around with a head full of permed curls when he was a little boy. He wore a crew cut now.

“I’m rural route.” Preacher spied a dead possum by the side of the road, bald as a baby. He stared at its gray belly.

“Aren’t you too old to be behind the wheel?” Chuck Murphy, Gerald’s partner, knew they were past Cherokee city limits, was mad at Preacher for saying it about rural route.

A white pickup truck smeared with red mud drove by. The man lifted a finger from the wheel, drove on.

“Seventy-two. I’m on until I’m seventy-two. You men like for me to look, see if you got some mail coming on this lucky Tuesday?”

A screen door slammed. Mrs. Kincaid walked onto her porch, peered over the junk in her yard. A piece of cardboard tacked on her mailbox, said, “Yard Sale.” A pink bike with ribbons on the handlebars leaned against a pecan tree. The three cars and backhoe parked beside the bike weren’t part of the sale. The two bed frames and white kitchen table were.

“Jimmy, get up here with my mail.” When Mrs. Kincaid hollered, she lined one hand along her mouth. “Tell those two boys with you to come, too, buy something.” She shifted, waiting.

Gerald waved off Mrs. Kincaid, turned to Preacher. “Pick it up or lose it.”

Chuck grinned, knowing that as soon as the preacher hit the gas, they’d stop him for speeding in the mail car.

Gerald knocked Preacher on the shoulder when he passed.

Preacher Butler studied a blue plastic bag snagged in Mrs. Kincaid’s pecan tree. Below, the ribbons on the pink bicycle rattled in the wind. When he got back in the mail car, the seat was still warm. He re-started his route.

*****

Preacher was in the kitchen slicing carrots for dinner, dipping them in a bowl of cold water. Peterbilt was gone like he always was these days, out ransacking with Miss Jennings. She’d come by the house to introduce herself, “Since I’ve been spending so much time with your Terry,” she said. Just a dumpy old white woman, hard to tell what Peterbilt saw in her.

The doorbell rang.

The white couple was standing on the stoop. A long scarf limped around her neck. He had on black gloves, a nylon windbreaker. The church gave Preacher his house, so he stepped aside.

“We’re sorry to burst in, Mr. Butler,” the woman said. She was taking off her scarf, eyeing the oven door Preacher had hinged open. “A little hot in here, isn’t it, Mr. Butler?”

Here on church business and twice she’d said “Mister,” no “Preacher” coming from her mouth. Ignorant.

“Mr. Butler doesn’t keep his kitchen for you, Cammie.” The man pulled off a glove, shook Preacher’s hand. “Cady Westgrove,” he said, like Preacher had so many white men asking him to marry them he couldn’t keep ‘em straight.

“You peoples come in.” Preacher stared at the uncut carrot on the table, but they went ahead and sat anyhow.

“We want to get married now, while the church looks so pretty, decorated for Christmas.” The woman was pushing up her sleeves, saw Preacher’s carrot. She picked up the paring knife, started chopping the carrot.

Preacher eased the cutting board towards her.

The man took the woman’s hands off the knife. “It’ll be small. Just us,” he said.

The woman picked up the man’s glove, fanned herself with it, then took a deep breath, let it out. Her face was flushed.

“I marry on Saturdays, after mail delivery. You the only people on the list.”

The woman cocked her head, raised her eyebrows. “Next Saturday?” she said, skipping her opportunity at the end of the week. A nervous woman, nervous about getting married to anyone.

The man and Preacher gazed at the woman steady while she drummed her fingers, then Preacher walked around the table, laid his hands on her shoulders, felt her start. “You peoples ready to get married?”

The front door swung open. Peterbilt stepped into the room, opened the door and closed it, opened and closed it, fanning out the heat.

“Boy,” Preacher said.

Peterbilt spied the white couple, stilled, then slowly shut the door.

“We’ve come in the middle of things.” The man tapped the woman on the back twice.

“Next Saturday?” Preacher asked.

The woman stood up quick, kicking her chair onto the linoleum behind her.

Peterbilt righted it. “You two have to get married?” he asked.

The man glanced at Preacher, but the preacher had lived to see it all, and he let it lie. More than likely, the two of them had known Mr. Morgan Cook slightly, felt they ought to come to his funeral. Then first time jitters made them come back to show they weren’t afraid of being in a black church. Before they knew it, they were in over their heads. But you never knew.

“Next Saturday, then,” Preacher said.

The man and the woman didn’t bother to put on their scarves and gloves, just carried them into the cold.

Peterbilt picked up the carrot, snapped it between his teeth. “I like Miss Jennings better.” Orange crunch showed in his mouth. “She gives me money.”

Preacher opened the refrigerator, bent low, looking for the celery.

Peterbilt took the stub of carrot and went into his room.

Preacher turned, eyed the empty room. The chopped carrot rounds floated in the bowl of icy water.

“Lord,” he said. Wanting to discuss this thing the lord had laid upon him.

The Lord didn’t answer.

*****

Preacher Butler’s great-grandfather Andine had taken the Butler family away from Alabama, early in the 1840s. Left with his owner and cleared timber from the Mississippi Delta until they called it a plantation. Stayed on as a house servant in Greenville after he was freed, gave his family the name of Butler, died only when he turned ninety-two years old. The young white man of the family came to Andine’s funeral.

Walking for the dead owner.

Wearing a suit.

Wiping sweat in the beating-down sun.

But when the Great Flood hit Greenville in 1927, the white folks didn’t care who Preacher’s great-grandfather had been. They lined the family up on the levee just like everyone else—Preacher’s Daddy and Mama, Preacher and his two little brothers—and held them there at gunpoint as the waters of the Mississippi rolled through Greenville toward the Yazoo ridge. Thirteen thousand of his people stretched for seven miles up and down the river, all of them pinned on the levee while the rescue workers paddled the white folks to safety.

Even when the paddling was done, the plantation men still steadied their rifles and kept the people there on the levee, waiting for the waters to subside, afraid if they lowered their sights, the labor—cut loose from the cotton rows for the first time—would follow the retreating water out of town and never return to that place in the world.

By the time the white men unclicked their guns, Preacher’s brother Tinny, only six months old and puny, had died from the pellagra so that his Daddy spit on his grandfather’s Mississippi soil. He sold his Red Cross supplies for a mule and a cart, and told the family: “We going back to Colbert County, Alabama.” As they creaked through town, Preacher Butler eyed all the other people standing on the platform waiting for the train to Chicago, not a one of them thinking Alabama was a good place to go.

Preacher was six years old the first time he saw the red dirt of Northern Alabama, and when he turned fourteen, President Roosevelt flooded his new homeland and made Pickwick Lake. Seemed like floodwater was following him wherever he went, so Preacher left the Rosenwald School and walked next door to the church and dunked his own self in the wetness.

Over the years, Preacher had listened to the Lord’s slow building talk and learned to tell it to the people. But it was harder to tell it to yourself, and when Preacher turned to inquire of the Lord if He knew what He was doing asking Preacher to cleave these white folks unto each other, His Holy Presence could not be found.

*****

The white couple was trying to figure out how to use the tinsel tree in the wedding ceremony. The ladies of the Alter Guild would’ve preferred an evergreen, but Preacher feared fire so a silver tinsel tree stood in the back of the church between the baptismal pool and the Sunday school doors. “Just us,” the man had said, but here they were, worrying over the tree.

Preacher sat at the piano, keeping an eye on the couple, but scratching on his sermon at the same time. Peterbilt—the boy shadowed Preacher now, showing up whenever the white folks showed up—was in the middle of the church re-arranging hymnals in the pew trays. He was wearing a red knit cap he’d bought with Miss Jennings’ money. She’d called, told Preacher about the hat, like he’d be whipping Peterbilt for stealing it otherwise.

The white woman was staring at the tree, her hands out, palms up. The man was shaking his head. You could tell the woman wanted to move the tree, the man didn’t want her to ask. The man looked a little old to be having a baby, but she could still carry one, probably. Hips matter on a woman, and she didn’t have much of any, but she was young. Babies come, babies go. Sometimes the mama dies. This one, you could tell, wasn’t ever going to lose an argument with her husband. She spun around and flounced down the aisle.

“I like that tree. I want to use it.”

“Get married in the back of the church.” Preacher concentrated on his writing. It was only Tuesday, but he had potluck on Wednesday, and Sunday came fast on the heels of Saturday. Already, it was so far into the night that Preacher was having trouble reading his own words.

The woman turned to her man, jerked her head for him to come forward. Preacher felt Peterbilt abandon the hymnals, scrunch toward the center aisle where he could see.

“Want to get married in the back of the church?”

The man shrugged. “Why not?”

Now Preacher had himself a wedding on a knocked-up white couple happening in the back of his church.

Peterbilt kicked his feet against the pew, started signing, “What a friend we have in Jeeee-sus.”

By the time it was all over, the three of them had decided Peterbilt would sing at the wedding, on the condition he could bring Miss Jennings as the witness.

Forgotten on the piano bench, Preacher Butler knocked his knuckles against his sermon, shut his eyes. His thin fingers spread across the scratched-on paper. His lips moved in silent prayer to the God who was pointing the barrel of the white folks gun at his head.

*****

Sometimes, Preacher left off his mail route and drove over to Old Lee Highway, idled in front of the place where the Rosenwald School had been. Sears and Roebuck money flowing down from Chicago had sprouted the schools all over the South, just for the little black children. Now, the old school was a memory. The two-acre garden was gone, the shop was missing, too. Black and white learned together in the new building—brick—and Peterbilt said they had computers inside.

It was Friday afternoon, turned off mild for December. Preacher let the mail truck chug past the curb, slow. A standing pool had gathered at the end of the driveway after the morning’s blowing rain. The water in the pool sank deep, reflected the brick building, the billowing sky behind.

The bell rang.

The little children in red and blue coats ran through the doors, laughing down the concrete steps, free for the weekend.

In the puddle, dots of color waved: red and blue splotches, fluffy white clouds and brown muddy water. Ebbing and flowing with the red and blue and white were streaks, streaks of silver-glazed light.

Lifting his eyes, Preacher gazed, behind the brick schoolhouse and the bare tree limbs, beyond the horizon and into the sunsetting sky. There, he watched as the clouds angled and dropped, opening the way for the schoolchildren to stairstep to heaven. To flash red and blue while they swapped and traded—a jackknife for a bouncing yellow ball, a Sammy Sosa for a Mark McGuire, a Tootsie Roll for a cinnamon stick, with Peterbilt right in the midst of them, aloof, but hunting his own something and finding it in an old dilapidated white woman—everyone grabbing treasures and hoarding, good and bad, wanted and unwanted, only to turn the treasures out, palms up, when the Glorious One reached down from his Holy Hill and accepted the gifts as His own, then tickled the flesh of the children’s emptied palms.

The sun settled into dusk. Preacher Butler eased away from the quiet schoolhouse curb. He pulled into the street, headed toward home.

*****

There wasn’t any form for the wedding, any lines that had to be said. Preacher Butler had to pronounce, but other than that, the church left him on his own.

The white couple was standing in front of the tinsel tree, Peterbilt beside them in his good-looking black suit, Miss Jennings in a red wool dress. The bride wore white—Preacher Butler didn’t raise an eye. A cold wind sang around the church. Four pairs of feet shifted inside, waiting on the preacher.

“Dearly beloved,” Preacher said, because he didn’t want to but he was under the hand of God.

“The presence of the Lord,” rolled off his tongue, to remind himself of the truth of it.

“A mantle of your love,” Preacher declared and held the woman’s eye, because sometimes the wrapping could be so heavy.

“So help me God,” Preacher made the man say again – “So help me God.”

And before the pronouncing, before the power given to him by church and state flowed from his lips, Preacher doused his hands in the blessed water of the baptism, held his hands under until they cried for help, held them in the holy water until they renounced the power of Satan and all —his kind, held them under until they flew into the air, gasping for breath.

And with his dripping hands, Preacher grasped the hands of the woman and the man and lifted them to the Lord, proclaiming in a voice that carried to Kingdom Come, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit itself, I pronounce you man and wife.”

And with his left hand Preacher grabbed the woman and with his right he grabbed the man, and he pulled them close to his ribs. There next to his heart he gave them what he had to give. “Let no man,” he whispered, “Let no man—black or white, woman or child, thieving brother or wayward wife—separate what God has joined together. Amen.”

And while his boy rolled his eyes at him—his Grandpa, making a big deal out of everything—Preacher raised his voice to the bounds of the church. “Amen, we say, and if You ask and ask and ask, we will yet say it again: Amen!”

The startled husband and wife went with the little boy and the old woman to sign the register, leaving the preacher alone in the church where he fell on his knees beside the pool and praised God for his watered, emptied hands.

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