Claude Fitzgerald had not yet slurred any words, but sooner or later you knew he was going to. He wore green vestments over a white alb, which held some significance in the liturgical calendar. But no one cared about that. What mattered was the color of his face. And on this day, his face was red. When the face was red, the slurring of words soon followed. This was what you noticed and listened for. These signs of his weakness made Mass interesting.
Tru Hathaway pretended not to notice such things. Later, though, she would be on the telephone, just like everyone else, weighing in on the priest’s behavior. “They need some outlet,” she would say. “That’s why they do it. Maybe the Pope should let them marry.”
But during Mass, you would never know she had such thoughts. She was a good actress and a model Catholic. Attentive to her missal. Kneeling, standing, sitting at exactly the right times. Never looking around to see what everyone else would do. When it came to her faith, she was a leader. Knew all the responses by heart. Said them louder and responded more quickly than anyone else. She wanted people to know she was old Catholic, not a convert, a fact that held the same importance for her as the difference between old money and nouveau riche. You could tell just by looking at her that she was there for God. Also, she wanted to do right by her two boys, Moses and Stephen, who sat on either side of her during Mass. It was for this reason that she landed a backhander across the elder boy’s face as Father Fitzgerald preached his sermon.
Dolores Merritt, whom everyone called “Rez” because she hated the name Dolores, was sitting in the pew behind them and saw it all. Like everyone else, she too watched and waited for the priest’s weakness to manifest itself. But in order to take part in the joking that would come later—the mimicked speech, the hilarious reenactments—she was forced to pay attention now. It was a bit of a bore, this church stuff. The same Gospels coming round year after year, followed by the same old sermons. But she listened anyway, even though it took some effort to keep the words from lulling her into a sleep-like trance.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love,” the priest said, “I am become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” So far so good, Rez thought. But when he said, “Love is patient and kind. It keeps no record of wrongs,” she looked at him hard. Did he say, “weccod of wongs?” she asked herself. But no. She was imagining that. If he had said “weccod of wongs,” she would have heard snickers, seen the heads turn, noticed the raised brows, the eyes of others cutting this way and that. Besides, even if she had heard right, it was no fun unless other witnesses could back you up.
The priest cleared his throat. She could hear phlegm gurgling at the base of his deep voice. But so far, every word came out straight and solid as a steel rod. Perhaps he would get through the whole sermon this time. Maybe the slurred speech would come later during the Offertory. She wondered how it felt to have your authority reduced to ridicule like this. If he knew, for instance, that the altar boys told jokes about him on the playground during the school week. Said he held their hands down when they poured the wine. Told them not to be stingy with it. Reeked.
Rez turned her attention to the white lace on the sleeves of her new blue dress, a thin-wale corduroy that also had lace around the collar. She was thinking how good it felt to be wearing that dress with its sash tied in a neat bow round her waist. Despite an earlier protest, she was glad Aunt Norris forced her to slather lotion on her legs before leaving home. They looked shiny and soft now instead of ashen as they sometimes did at school. Even her knees. She wondered if they would turn out shapely and “fine” like her mother’s and whether those legs, which everyone admired, would be enough to keep her parents from divorcing. Funny how you could be looking down past your waist like that and still detect movement just ahead.
She had seen the trouble coming during the Confiteor when everyone was saying mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Everyone, that is, except Mrs. Hathaway, who frowned at her son Moses and shook her finger in his face. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault—that’s what the Latin meant. Oblivious and silent, Moses had been gazing fixedly at a clear glass marble he had removed from his pocket.
This would not do. His mother had spent a lot of time teaching him the Latin, making sure he could pronounce every syllable by heart. Mass was show-and-tell time. If you sat there like a dummy, people might think you a dunce. It would not reflect well on the old-Catholic family you belonged to. Also, it was disrespectful to God, regardless of what you might think of Father Fitzgerald.
The marble was a fine-looking thing, slightly larger than most—called a shooter, an aggie, and sometimes a hunchy. One did not see clear ones often, not with blue and green flecks floating among bits of mica. Moses had become captivated by the way it held the sun’s light, flashing a rainbow on the pew just ahead. This was physics he could appreciate but not yet comprehend, though he understood quickly enough that his mother was not impressed. He put the marble away but took it out again during Father Fitzgerald’s sermon.
“Love bears all things and endures all things,” the priest said, his red face glowing as proudly as the Little Engine That Could. When he got to, “Love never fails,” it was as if he were really saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can.” But he still had the rest of the sermon and a lot of Latin to get through before Mass was over. Besides, the congregation was betting on his weakness.
“When I was a child, I thought as a child,” Father Fitzgerald managed to say without difficulty. “But now that I have become a man, I put away childish things.”
It was then, as if on cue, that Mrs. Hathaway gave Moses the back of her hand. It landed smack in the middle of his face. A hard silent blow between the eyes and nose that sent his head jerking backward. Rez looked to see if he would cry. But he did not. Not even when the hunchy slipped from his hand, bounced on the hard-tiled floor and rolled toward oblivion.
He did not cry. Nor did he look around to see if anyone had noticed. But acted as if nothing had happened. As if he had been sitting there listening to the priest all along.
But Rez had seen. Rez knew.
This happened during eleven o’clock Mass, the one with all the incense and the long drawn-out prayers. The one where you had to stay in your seat afterwards and pray the Benediction with its endless litany to the saints and the singing of “Tantum Ergo.” The priest put a white satin stole around his shoulders and placed a black biretta on his head. He put the Communion host in the center of a circular gold frame that looked like the sun Moses captured with his marble. Father Fitzgerald, still red-faced as ever, held up the frame and turned it from side to side. The altar boy shook incense from some gold-colored contraption with a chain, and the sanctuary was filled with a foggy smoke. It was a terrible smell. If you did not know this was sacred, it might stop your heart. Like a scary movie with people coming up out of the ground or something.
This was what you had to look forward to at eleven o’clock Mass. All that praying, the staying afterward for Benediction, and looking to see if Father Fitzgerald’s weakness would manifest itself in the slurring of his words. Anything else—like Mrs. Hathaway’s backhander across Moses’ face—was gravy.
If you were poor, the whole thing took about four hours. You had to get up early, almost like you were going to school. Then you had to walk to the bus stop and catch a trolley across town. The trolley ran along thick black overhead lines that looked like airborne train tracks. It took you from the southwest side of Atlanta near the Negro colleges through downtown, then onward to Auburn Avenue where you passed night clubs, several Protestant churches and a slew of black-owned businesses—places for hair, insurance, pharmaceuticals and bail bonds. The journey ended near a fire station, where the doors were always open, and you worried sometimes that one of the big red trucks, whose engines towered far above your head, might one day run you over if it came out too fast. You quickened your pace past the firehouse but could not keep your eyes off the silver pole the men slid down when the alarm rang out. Sometimes you saw the men playing cards, smoking tobacco, and drinking coffee inside, their blue pants held up by suspenders pulled over long johns. Like Father Fitzgerald, these men were also white, and there was something about this lolling about in long johns that reminded you of the priest’s weakness. You walked another half block until you got to St. Jude’s, the only Catholic church in Atlanta set aside for people of color, though all the nuns and priests who worked there were white.
If you were Moses Hathaway, you wondered why the church was named after St. Jude. You knew from your mother and the story of your own birth that St. Jude was the Patron of Hopeless Cases. You prayed to him when everything else failed, and you kept your fingers crossed, hoping he might be able to work a last-minute miracle for you—the ecclesiastical equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
In a way, Moses had been that rabbit once, his mother’s pregnancy after several barren years regarded as a miracle. Now that he went to St. Jude’s Catholic Church and attended its all-Negro parochial school, he wondered about the journey he took six days a week and what there was about all this that made it hopeless.
It had been only a few days since the not-guilty verdict was announced in the Emmett Till case, and Father Fitzgerald had been having a hard time. When it first happened, he had wanted to say something about the murder during Mass. After all, he was the pastor of an all-Negro church in the Deep South, and a great wrong had been committed.
A black boy from Chicago, who had come down to Mississippi to visit relatives in the delta, made the mistake of stopping by a small grocery store where he showed a little too much interest in the white woman who worked there. Had he whistled at her or merely winked? Or was it that he said something flirtatious before leaving the store? It did not matter. It was enough that he was black and she was white, his behavior a slur. That was why her husband and brother-in-law, came in the middle of the night and took the boy away. That was why his body, weighted with a 70-pound fan, had been found later in the Tallahatchie River, badly beaten, wrapped in barbed wire. His eye gouged out. A bullet in his head.
The priest did not want to contemplate what that night of horror must have been like for the 14-year-old boy. And he certainly did not want his parishioners to dwell on it. At least not in church. So when the murder first happened back in August, he had made a mess of things trying to talk around the event, which he knew they had all read about in the newspapers and in Jet magazine.
But then came September, just a few days ago, and the Mississippi jury had delivered a not-guilty verdict. The two accused men admitted taking the boy but claimed they had not killed him. The evidence against them was so strong they had trouble finding an attorney willing to take their case.
Before sitting down to examine the newspaper that night, Father Fitzgerald reached for a bottle of Jack Daniels and poured himself a shot. He went over to the small record player and dropped a 45 over the spindle. The Harp-Tones were not as well-known as the Ink Spots or Mills Brothers, but there was something in their harmony that reminded Fitzgerald of why he had signed up to pastor an all-black congregation in the first place. Their clean-cut purity and satisfying harmonies made him think of angels. He wondered sometimes if heaven might be filled with voices more like theirs than the European antiphonal music he’d been raised with. Or maybe heaven had an eternal jukebox where you could pick the music that made you feel closest to God.
The record player in the St. Jude rectory was not a jukebox. It was covered in leather and looked like a small suitcase. The needle sounded like bacon frying when it slipped into the groove. But Father Fitzgerald filtered that out and forgot all about it as the Harp-Tones began to sing his favorite:
I want a Sunday kind of love
A love to last past Saturday Night
Glad to know it’s more than love at first sight.
The music made the priest feel warm all over, and he took the Jack Daniels in a single gulp to turn up the heat a little. Then he poured another drink, set the record to play another time and sat down to read the paper.
It had been a busy week—two funerals, a wedding, a baptism, confessions, a meeting with the nuns who ran the church school—and he had waited till Saturday to read the full story in the newspaper. The music was good, and he played the song again, not intending to have another drink this time. But he poured one anyway, as long as he was up, then took the bottle back with him to his chair. As he read the story of the small-town murder and the men who got away with it, neither the booze nor the music provided the anodyne he had hoped for.
In the musings that came with alcohol, he saw himself leading a raid on the small town where these things had happened. The bourbon burned in his chest, and he felt like the firebrand he had been in his youth when he rooted for the Brown Bomber against that Nazi propagandist Max Schmeling. That was when the priest’s teenaged self joined the supply drives to support the Lincoln Brigade’s fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Back then he’d been brave enough to slip behind the high school gym, slide his arm around a girl’s waist and pull her in close, amazed that such a thing could happen with neither a scolding nor a slap. Surprised to find that her melting beneath his kiss could turn out to be the sweetest thing on earth.
Which was why Claude Fitzgerald had given up that sweetness to become a priest. He wanted to show God how much he loved Him. And the best way to do that, he thought, was to make a sacrifice that would please God the way Abel and Abraham had done in the Old Testament. It had been easy for Fitzgerald to pledge his manhood back when he was eighteen, especially since the seminary provided a free college education. But in the years since his ordination, he became less sure that the sacrifice he made was the one God wanted. At eighteen, it had been impossible to foresee the demands of twenty-one, thirty, and now thirty-five. At eighteen, it had not occurred to him that God, who was silent on a great many matters, might actually be indifferent to the vow of celibacy.
The priest did not like thinking about this, so he poured another drink and looked at the newspaper photographs of the two murderers. He searched their faces for signs of smug stupidity but could not find any. Roy Bryant and J.W. Miller were not toothless stereotypes but looked as ordinary as anyone the priest had ever known. One of the photographs showed Bryant kissing his wife, Carolyn, the one Emmett Till had supposedly slurred.
Disgusting. Indecent. Obscene.
The priest thought about the necking he’d done in movie balconies back in high school. Cheeks flushed, breathing hard, the cautious probing beneath folds of pleated wool. Near occasions of sin, fraught with danger yet delightful in recollection even now. Then his mind segued to beautiful Tru Hathaway, and he imagined himself in the newspaper photo, Tru’s face submissive to his kiss. But there could never be anything foul like that with Tru. That picture was not taken to convey the successful defense of white womanhood—but a symbol of the white man asserting his property rights. Something too many Mississippi residents believed in. The priest could imagine the voice of a like-minded photographer, his thickly ignorant accent saying, “Why don’t you give her a kiss, Roy?” That part of it vulgar too.
No it would never be like that with Tru.
With alcohol, Father Fitzgerald remembered the abolitionist John Brown, whose failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had fired his youthful imagination when he studied it back in high school. Drink made it easy to see that history in light of the present injustice. With adulthood and Jack Daniels, the priest could see what he had not understood before—that revolution is an act of love. That’s why Brown had turned to violence back in 1859, believing that only attacks on slave holders could put an end to slavery. Believing also that despite the refusal of Frederick Douglass to participate, the attack would trigger a slave rebellion, overturning an unjust social order. John Brown’s body lay a-moldering in the grave because he loved justice deeply enough to sacrifice everything.
Wasn’t there an unjust social order now, thought the priest? Hadn’t that trial and the sleazy courtroom kiss been a slur against justice and the martyred child? Slavery was gone, but its evil remained. You kill a young boy in the most heinous way imaginable and get away with it? Claude Fitzgerald had become a priest to fight evil through the power of prayer. Now he saw there were some things you could not pray away. Sometimes God wanted you to fight. Because there was no other way. After all, hadn’t the archangels taken up the sword to rid heaven of Satan?
Perhaps it was this kind of sacrifice more than celibacy that God wanted. Yes, the priest thought. He would get a gun. He would go himself to Mississippi and find the two men who did this terrible thing. He would look them in the eye, and he would kill them. In the name of God and all that was right and holy, he would wipe them from the face of the earth.
The priest got up from the big wing-back chair where he wrote his sermons and lurched to the bedroom to change into street clothes. Atlanta was a big city. There were places where he could buy a gun without being recognized.
He took off the stiff Roman collar and pulled on the gray sweatshirt he wore to the gym. He grabbed a black newsboy cap and yanked it over his head, then kicked off his shoes and sat down on the bed to put on sneakers. Bending over to tie the laces, he found himself making a lateral move. Just a few moments on the pillow was all he needed.
Manly ambition of one sort soon conjured other aspects of manhood as the priest closed his eyes and let go. Gone the father, gone the son. Gone the tight white chains of priesthood and ethnicity. One by one, he let them go until bourbon’s freedom allowed him to see her. Minus this escape, he had to think of her as daughter or sister, a member of his flock. But with Bourbon Jack there was none of that. Just a beautiful woman. A damned beautiful woman—a goddess really—on the hungriest night of his life. He would not allow himself to long for her too much. Would not cave in to onanism. Did not want to add the sin of lust to everything else. He wanted only to close his eyes for a moment and think of her. To allow the beatific vision to come forth, bringing with it the strength he needed for what lay ahead. Tru, he heard his mind say. An invocation.
He felt her clinging to him, melting into his arms, holding him with the breathy tether of desire. But there were things that had to be done. And he was the one who had to do them. It was hard to let her go. But he pushed away from her and set out for the place he knew would be his end. This would be an act of self-immolation, his kamikaze flight in the name of justice. He took the parish car and set out for Money, Mississippi—population 400, the scene of the crime, only a hair’s breadth away from Greenwood. The road atlas lay flat on the passenger seat and would put him there in the deepest hour of night. All he had to do was follow the signs to the cotton mill near the Tallahatchie River. There would be a tattered phone book dangling from a chain in a glass-paneled booth near the railroad. Finding them would be easy. He had decided to take the two murderers one by one in the middle of the night. Not just for the element of surprise. But to give them a taste of their own medicine. In his mind’s eye, he could see the heroic John Brown, the fierce look of determination on his face as he pushed through to Harpers Ferry and the fate that awaited him. Not all wars were won on the battlefield, the priest thought. Some were won in silent combat under the veil of night. They would not be expecting a white man to be the avenging angel. But then he didn’t plan to knock.
There would be pleasure in creeping up on them unawares. The two of them—the insulted white wife and her defending husband, protector of white womanhood—in a bed of wrinkled sheets, besotted by their unquenchable thirst to feel superior. He would not kill the woman. Leave her to heaven, he thought. But there would certainly be pleasure in waking the brave boy-killer, witnessing the terror in his eyes when they opened to the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson the priest found readily enough at a pawn shop. If he got only the one and not the other, that would be something, the priest thought. But he hoped the gun’s silencer and maybe gagging the wretched wife would be enough to give him time to get to the guilty brother-in-law as well.
It was easy enough to find the place. The ramshackle grocery store had been all over the newspapers. The men lived close by. A black man prowling about this time of night might seem suspicious. No one would suspect a white man, a priest without his collar. He did not believe in white privilege, but there were some things only a white man could get away with.
With his mind brimming with these thoughts, the trip time passed quickly. He parked the car, opened the glove compartment and felt for the gun, then set out by foot for the first of his prey. In a stand of brush near the dusty road, he heard a noise and turned to face it.
“Claude? Is that you, Claude?”
The priest froze, looked around, saw nothing. Said nothing either.
“Why are you persecuting me, Claude?”
“Who are you?” the priest demanded. His voice was a hoarse whisper. He could feel the Jack Daniels, a fiery reflux in his throat, but could see no one.
“I think you know who I am,” the voice said.
The priest shook his head. Remembered Saul on the road to Damascus.
“No, it can’t be,” he said, less to the voice than to himself. “It cannot be.”
In the morning, he was back in Atlanta still wearing the sweatshirt he tugged over his head the night before. A harsh light beat through his bedroom window. He felt for the gun but there wasn’t one. John Brown and Jack Daniels were gone. His head pounded.
The priest went into the bathroom to shower and shave. It was Sunday morning and already nine o’clock. He did not know what he would preach at the eleven o’clock service, which would come all too soon. He drank a cup of coffee and tried to clear his mind. What could you say to an all-black congregation at a time like this, which would not be some bullshit about turning the other cheek? Hadn’t they been turning the other cheek for the last three hundred years?
He sat down to write a few notes. But nothing would come. Not a word.
After Mass, Father Fitzgerald stood outside shaking hands with the parishioners. He was an average man with average gray-green eyes and close-cropped hair. In the sunlight, his face glowed even redder than during Mass. But he smiled broadly and seemed happier than usual. As if he had won a race or received a prize only he could see.
He shook hands with the churchgoers and wondered if his talk had reached anyone. He made no reference to what happened in Mississippi. Never once did he mention the name Emmett Till. How different everything seemed in daylight.
He saw now that it was not for him to lead night-time raids into the breast of evil. He was no John Brown. And yet, he did not believe his thoughts of the previous night had been wrong. Revolution was an act of love. Otherwise, America would still be a British Colony. The Bastille might still torture and enslave innocent men. Fascist dictators would flourish the world over. No he had not been wrong to see revolution as love. But during Mass something had happened to him. And now he knew. There was the love of kissing girls in movie-house balconies and the love of parents for their children. There was puppy love and marital love. There was love of country, love of freedom, the love of truth and justice. All these were aspects of love. And yet, not one of them was transcendent or unconditional.
Claude Fitzgerald was the son of peat-picking farmers from County Cork, who had become a priest for a reason. He had forgotten that reason for a while, but remembered it in time for this morning’s service. There was already enough hate. He could not make the world better by whipping up more of it.
Something had happened to him during the night. Some nudge in a dream he could not fully recall. His mind was still fuzzy from drink. Opening the Bible at random, he landed on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians by accident. Wound up reciting it almost verbatim during Mass, even though it was not the selected reading for this time in the church calendar. The sermon he had been too busy and then too drunk to write found its way from his lips to the congregation. What had he said? He could hardly remember now. But he did recall the moment when he felt something shift. The precise moment when he realized that he loved them. Had looked at each of them from the pulpit and felt his deep love pouring over them. “You could talk about love all day and all night,” he had told them. “But in the end you must be love. You must be the love that sees others in their innocence, not their corruption. That is the transcendent, unconditional love that conquers all. ”
As he looked into the eyes of those who remained to shake his hand afterwards, he wondered how many had understood. He turned toward Tru Hathaway but tried not to stare at her too long. She was so unaware of her own beauty that it became even more exquisite for her lack of caring about it. Gazing at her, the priest remembered his abandoned teenaged self and understood how Emmett Till might have forgotten the boundary whose tariff must be paid for with death.
Father Fitzgerald smiled broadly at those who greeted him, requesting prayers, asking him to visit a housebound relative, inquiring into the meaning of a catechistic mystery. But his gaze kept returning to Tru, a rare orchid in the midst of dandelions. The hourglass figure, her tawny complexion, and the way she looked in red. So this was what a Creole was. He had seen other light-skinned women of color—mulattoes, octoroons, quadroons, and what have you. But only now did he understand the essential truth behind the murder of that young teenager in Mississippi.
It was Tru they had wanted to kill. Her mixed race was a fact that went back to the beginning of time. And yet, this was what Till’s murderers had tried to prevent. They wanted to annihilate history, launch a preemptive strike against the blending of races, a fait accompli they could never reverse.
Against the will of her would-be murderers, Tru looked radiant in the midday sun, a reluctant goddess with her two boys like acolytes beside her. She was talking with Rez Merritt’s aunt, Norris Nichols, whose own sexless frame seemed to take on life by association. The priest wondered if Rez would eventually take after her instead of her too-sexy mother who almost never came to Mass anymore. The aunt was a wiry, self-righteous spinster for whom being a woman no longer seemed to matter. He wondered if this self-imposed neutering was what God intended celibacy to accomplish. “Where is Rez anyway?” he heard Tru say as if hearing his thoughts.
“She ran back inside to get her gloves,” the aunt answered. “But I wish she’d come on.”
“I’ll go look for her,” Moses said, pulling away from the group. His brother started to go with him, but Tru grabbed his arm.
“Don’t you tarry in there,” his mother said. “We need to get home, you hear?”
“Okay, Mom. I’ll just tell her to hurry up.”
The church was dark compared to the bright light outside. When his eyes cleared, he saw Rez kneeling in front of the empty sanctuary. She looked small from this distance, but he recognized her blue dress. The church seemed holier now that everyone had left. He noticed the small altar to St. Jude on the right and a similar one for the Blessed Mother to the left. Rows of votive candles in little red glasses flickered before each of them, lit by parishioners seeking the special favor or intercession these saints were known for. From this distance, he felt something soft for Rez, who did not kneel at the side altars but at the main one, right up front where the priest distributed Holy Communion.
He did not want to disturb her. He figured she was probably praying for her parents. Everyone knew they were on the verge of divorce, which was why Rez stayed with her aunt more often these days.
He decided it was not right to shout in church, even though they were the only two there. Slowly and with the reverence he had been taught to show for the house of God, Moses made his way down the aisle. He was about halfway to the sanctuary when she got up and ran to meet him.
“Rez,” he said, his voice just a bit louder than a whisper, “your aunt…”
She placed her index finger over her lips to shush him. She opened her hand to reveal the clear mica shooter, offering it to him like a jewel in the center of her palm.
Moses looked at the marble but did not take it from her. Acted in fact as if he did not know what it was or why she was showing it to him.
“I love you, Moses Hathaway,” she said, closing her fingers around the rejected prize, then ran from the church.
He looked at the heavy wooden door closing behind her, the dark blue dress a knife disappearing in a wedge of light. The smell of incense was still strong inside the church. But not as strong as the feeling building up inside him.
He did not like it that Rez knew about the marble. He did not like the way his mother slapped him in the middle of Mass, either. It was wrong to play with a marble in church, so he deserved what happened, he felt. But to be humiliated in front of everyone—had he deserved that? Surely he had been right to keep perfectly still as her fingers splayed across his face, the sting of her hand a slur against his pride. You want to see rainbows, it said? Well here are a few stars to go with them.
Yes he had been right to keep perfectly still and pretend it had not happened. The moment would pass. Disappear. Then he could go back to being the Moses she was proud of. The miracle boy. The one she sacrificed everything for.
Her whole life. That’s what she was giving him. When she cooked and cleaned and helped his studies. Taught him this or that subject on her own before the teachers ever got to it in school. So he would be brighter than everyone else. Always ahead of the game. The best.
But the price was high. It cost more than tuition. A lot more. Her whole life. That’s what she was giving. And said so.
And yet, there was something else he wanted from her, which he did not get. Not from sacrifice nor the justice she handed down. He could not name this other thing but almost felt it when Rez opened her palm to reveal the small round world of the shooter and offered it to him. It was a fleeting thing, this feeling. Soon it was gone. Disappeared as quickly as Rez vanishing into that yellow cleft of light beyond the heavy church door.
Moses wondered for a moment why his mother had changed. She had been soft once with a gentleness that matched her good looks. But something had happened to her—he did not know what. He tried to figure out why it was important for her to be perfect, to be the best at everything, and to make sure he and Stephen were perfect too. A while back, while flashing math cards during homework time, she had given him a clue. He got one of the answers wrong and could tell she was frustrated. She put the cards down and looked at him.
“There are people out there who don’t like Jackie Robinson and are hoping each day that he will fail. Do you understand what that means, son? It means we must become better-than in order to be equal. We have to beat these people at their own game. Otherwise they will say, ‘You see, I told you so,’ and they will use that to keep us down. It’s not right, but it’s the way things are.”
What people, Moses wondered? And what did Jackie Robinson have to do with learning decimals? He wanted to ask but could tell from her face the subject was closed. She gathered up the math cards and started again. Like Jesus picking up His cross on the way to Calvary. She had a distance about her then he both admired and feared. As if she were a priest officiating at a secret liturgy only she knew the words to—the hopelessness of her cause a petri dish for miracles that could only be had through discipline and sacrifice. The rest of the world against you. Tooth and nail.
Moses patted the pocket where the marble had been. And was sorry now it was gone. That was a silly thing to say, he thought, remembering Rez and marching toward the door. We're too young. We can’t possibly know what love is.
On the front steps of the church, Moses saw Father Fitzgerald speaking to his mother while Stephen, Rez, and her aunt stood quietly by. The priest talked and his mother listened. Then his mother talked, and the priest listened. There was a chaste easiness between them. As if they were members of the same club, which had rules and regulations the others knew nothing about. In that instant, Moses thought he could see what he’d been looking for during Mass when a shaft of sunlight passed through the marble and became a rainbow. Reds, blues, yellows melting into greens, a purple radiance near the end. The same original shaft of light had been transformed into a fragile fan so beautiful you could hardly take your eyes from it. The priest was one color, his mother another, yet somehow the same.
Moses looked at the smiling faces of the parishioners still casually chatting outside the church. Despite their cynicism at the beginning of the service, they seemed just as pleased as the priest that he had made it past his usual difficulties. Moses wanted to enclose this moment within a crystal sphere. Tuck it safely away. Keep it forever.
But soon the priest looked at them and soberly said goodbye. Moses knew what would happen next. Because they had done it every Sunday for as long as he could remember.
They would shake hands and walk together past the firehouse. They would stand with other parishioners on the Auburn Avenue corner where the trolley stopped. When it arrived, they would move to the back without being told and take their seats. Perhaps one day this slur against their humanity might disappear. But for now, this was the world they lived in--the only life they knew.
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