“Hey li’l brothers,” Corky slurred as we stepped off the sidewalk to let him pass by on his bicycle. A broken headlight dangled from two frayed wires, the once fiery red frame was faded by rain and sun and tarnished by rust and seasons, and spokes were missing from the wobbly wheels. He smelled of old liquor, new sweat, and days without bath or change of clothes. A lens on his glasses was cracked but he didn’t seem to notice.
“What’s happ’nin brother?” He stopped and leaned unsteadily on one leg to greet the minister of the little Baptist mission for white folks across the railroad tracks. He leaned too far and crashed to the ground with a thud and a moan. The bemused minister untangled him from the thicket of arms, legs and metal, lifted him onto his feet, and brushed the red chalky dust and tiny jagged rocks from his shirt, pants, and skin.
“Corky, are you okay? What in the world…?”
“No…nope…yep…yes, I’m okay. Hey, where’re you off to?
“I’m goin’ to the noon Holy Week Service in town. It’s at the First Baptist Church today. Let’s park your bike. You can come with me.“
“Well hell. You Baptists go to church all the time. Even on a Thursday. You all must need it more than other folks do!”
“The services are for ev’rybody…Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians…ev’rybody. I reckon we all need it! Come on. It’ll do us both good.
Hello there, boys. I almost didn’t see you. Come here. Close your eyes. Hold out your hands.”
We said hello to the minister, careful not to look him in the eyes as Momma and Poppa taught us to do with white folks. He wore a blue shirt, ‘Dickies’ pants like the ones Poppa wore in the fields, and tattered black shoes. This must have been his uniform because it was what he was wearing every time we saw him. His bespectacled eyes were circled by perfectly round lenses in wire frames that hooked around his ears and made him look more like a college professor than a new minister just out of minister training school and just starting ministering in our town. We came to him, closed our eyes, held out our hands and felt the small, barrel shapes of the chewing gum they sold in big barrels at the counter of the S & H Green Stamp store on Main Street. It was a store we couldn’t enter but that we knew well from the detailed stories of all the things inside by our white friends whose families were welcome to shop there.
“Thank you, sir!”
“You’re welcome. Now you boys run on to where you’re going and do what you need to be doing. Blow some bubbles along the way!”
The minister put his arm around Corky’s shoulders and they started up the road toward Main Street. As they lumbered along side by side the midday sun sat high in the sky and cast their shadows straight down behind them. A minister and the town drunk going to church together! It was a sight to see. We were finished with the chore Poppa gave us to do so there was time before we had to be home for lunch.
“Carver, I’ve never seen a drunk person go into a church before. What ‘cha ‘spect’ll happ’n? You reckon he’ll get struck by light’nin’?”
“I don’t know but I figure som’pin’ll happ’n.”
Carver was only five years old but he knew the scientific method like a seasoned scientist. At home on the farm he was always leading me through the steps of his way of thinking. We found that it helped us to think this way about people and events because it helped us work our way through our place and position in the world and ways of white folks.
“Well, we did the first step in the method. We asked a question.”
“Let’s follow behind ‘em and see what happens.”
We’ve never been inside of the white folks churches downtown before. We’ve only seen the outside of them. The church we go to is plain and simple. It’s a one-story building with a steeple on top. It’s made with pine boards painted white. There’s an iron bell in the steeple, a bell that rings us awake and calls us to church on Sundays.
The white folks churches, on the other hand, are beautiful and stately. They’re the tallest buildings in town. They’re made with bricks, stones, and oak wood and look like castles on each corner of the town square. There are copper bells in their towering steeples, bells that ring in each hour of the day and play hymns at noontime.
The First Baptist Church is the biggest church of all. The town doctors, lawyers, bankers, and planters go there, the men and their families who run our town, who cast long shadows over us black folks that stretch from Jim Crow to the Civil War all the way back to the slavery days. We hid behind the grand old magnolia tree on the front lawn to watch the minister and corky climb the steps to the heavy oaken doors that opened in toward the entrance hall.
Two men in their Sunday suits stood at the doors to welcome them to the service. We could see around them inside of the wide doors. On the wall there was a picture of Jesus with long brown hair and a long beard with light around his face looking up to heaven. Under the picture there was a long table with the words “This Do In Remembrance Of Me” carved into the front of it. There were colorful spring flowers and gold offering plates on top of it.
The men reached out to shake hands with the minister and Corky. The minister took his hand from Corky’s shoulder to offer a handshake in return. Corky wobbled at the sudden freedom and fell into the arms of one of the shocked men. You should have seen that usher’s face! He looked like he had just eaten a plain radish chased by a spoonful of castor oil! He pushed Corky back onto the embarrassed minister and into the other usher. He must have breathed in Corky’s smell because he turned his face away wretching and gagging.
The discombobulated group held onto each other and sort of jitterbugged their way into the church. They stopped in stunned surprise in front of the table. Corky raised his arms. A bottle of liquor he was hiding in the waist of his wrinkled, baggy pants fell out and crashed onto the marble floor. Streams of whisky flowed everywhere. Pieces of glass gleamed in the flood of light.
“What the …?!”
“Get him out of here right now!”
The poor minister looked frantically around for a broom or a cloth to clean up the mess. The smell of the whisky wafted over the lawn and burned our noses. What were the folks in the sanctuary thinking?
“Go on. Get him outta here! We’ll clean it up.”
The bewildered minister took Corky into his arms and limped him down the steps and onto the sidewalk. They hobbled away.
The men came out onto the steps. Nervous chuckles gave way to relieved belly laughs.
“He oughtta’ve known not to bring him here. Especially when he’s drunk. Somebody needs to sit down with that boy and let him know what’s what.”
“Yeah, the next thing you know he’ll be tryin’ to bring nig..."
We moved on around the tree and started home.