I burned at my studies. At the beginning of the school term I read my civics and English and geography volumes through and only referred to them when in class. I solved all my mathematical problems far in advance; then, during school hours, when I was not called on to recite, I read tattered, second-hand copies of Flynn's Detective Weekly or the Argosy All-Story Magazine, or dreamed, weaving fantasies about cities I had never seen and about people I had never met.
School ended. I could not get a job that would let me rest on Granny's holy Sabbath. The long hot idle summer days palled on me. I sat at home brooding, nursing bodily and spiritual hunger. In the afternoons, after the sun had spent its force, I played ball with the neighborhood boys. At night I sat on the front steps and stared blankly at the passing people, wagons, cars...
On one such lazy, hot summer night Granny, my mother, and Aunt Addie were sitting on the front porch, arguing some obscure point of religious doctrine. I sat, huddled on the steps, my cheeks resting sullenly in my palms, half listening to what the grownups were saying and half lost in a daydream. Suddenly the dispute evoked an idea in me and, forgetting that I had no right to speak without permission, I piped up and had my say. I must have sounded reekingly blasphemous, for Granny said, "Shut up, you!" and leaned forward promptly to chastise me with one of her casual backhanded slaps on my mouth. But I had by now become adept at dodging blows and I nimbly ducked my head. She missed me; the force of her blow was so strong that she fell down the steps, headlong, her aged body wedged in a narrow space between the fence and the bottom step. I leaped up. Aunt Addie and my mother screamed and rushed down the steps and tried to pull Granny's body out. But they could not move her. Grandpa was called and he had to tear the fence down to rescue Granny. She was barely conscious. They put her to bed and summoned a doctor.
I was frightened. I ran to my room and locked the door, fearing that Grandpa would rend me to pieces. Had I done right or had I done wrong? If I had held still and let Granny slap me, she would not have fallen. But was it not natural to dodge a blow? I waited, trembling. But no one came to my room. The house was quiet. Was Granny dead? Hours later I unlocked the door and crept downstairs. Well, I told myself, if Granny died, I would leave home. There was nothing else to do. Aunt Addie confronted me in the hallway with burning, black eyes.
"You see what you've done to Granny," she said.
"I didn't touch her," I said. I had wanted to ask how Granny was, but my fear made me forget that.
"You were trying to kill her," Aunt Addie said.
"I didn't touch Granny, and you know it!"
"You are evil. You bring nothing but trouble!"
"I was trying to dodge her. She was trying to hit me. I had done nothing wrong..."
Her lips moved silently as she sought to formulate words to place me in a position of guilt.
"Why do you butt in when grown people are talking?" she demanded, finding her weapon at last.
"I just wanted to talk," I mumbled sullenly. "I sit in this house for hours and I can't even talk."
"Hereafter, you keep your mouth shut until you're spoken to," she advised me.
"But Granny oughtn't always be hitting at me like that," I said as delicately as possible.
"Boy, don't you stand there and say what Granny ought to do," she blazed, finding her ground of accusation. "If you don't keep your mouth shut, then I'll hit you!" she continued.
"I'm only trying to explain why Granny fell," I said.
"Shut up, now! Or I'll wring your neck, you fool!"
"You're another fool!" I came back at her, angry now.
She trembled with fury.
"I'll fix you this night!" she said, rushing at me.
I dodged her and ran into the kitchen and grabbed the long bread knife. She followed me and I confronted her. I was so hysterical that I was crying.
"If you touch me, I'll cut you, so help me," I said in gasps. "I'm going to leave here as soon as I can work and make a living. But as long's I'm here, you better not touch me."
We stood looking into each other's eyes, our bodies trembling with hate.
"I'm going to get you for this," she vowed in a low, serious voice. "I'll get you when you haven't got a knife."
"I'll always keep a knife for you," I told her.
"You've got to sleep at night," she whimpered with rage. "I'll get you then."
"If you touch me when I'm sleeping, I'll kill you," I told her.
She walked out of the kitchen, kicking the door open before her as she went. Aunt Addie had a habit of kicking doors; she always paused before a partly opened door and kicked it open; if the door swung in, she flung it back with her foot; or, if the door was shut, she opened it with her hand for an inch or two, then opened it the rest of the way with her foot; she acted as though she wanted to get a glimpse into the room beyond before she entered it, perhaps to see if it contained anything dreadful or unholy.
For a month after that I took a kitchen knife to bed with me each night, hiding it under my pillow so that when Aunt Addie came I could protect myself. But she never came. Perhaps she prayed.
Granny was abed for six weeks; she had wrenched her back when her slap missed me.
There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good. Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us. I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack. But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code. Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn.
§ § §
As summer waned I obtained a strange job. Our next-door neighbor, a janitor, decided to change his profession and become an insurance agent. He was handicapped by illiteracy and he offered me the job of accompanying him on trips into the delta plantation area to write and figure for him, at wages of five dollars a week. I made several trips with Brother Mance, as he was called, to plantation shacks, sleeping on shuck mattresses, eating salt pork and black-eyed peas for breakfast, dinner, and supper; and drinking, for once, all the milk I wanted.
I had all but forgotten that I had been born on a plantation and I was astonished at the ignorance of the children I met. I had been pitying myself for not having books to read, and now I saw children who had never read a book. Their chronic shyness made me seem bold and city-wise; a black mother would try to lure her brood into the room to shake hands with me, and they would linger at the jamb of the door, peermg at me with one eye, giggling hysterically. At night, seated at a crude table, with a kerosene lamp spluttering at my elbow, I would fill out insurance applications, and a sharecropper family, fresh from laboring in the fields, would stand and gape. Brother Mace would pace the floor, extolling my abilities with pen and paper. Many of the naive black families bought their insurance from us because, they felt that they were connecting themselves with something that, would make their children "write 'n speak lak dat pretty boy from Jackson."
The trips were hard. Riding trains, autos, or buggies, moving from morning till night, we went from shack to shack, plantation to plantation. Exhausted, I filled out applications. I saw a bare, bleak pool of black life and I hated it; the people were alike, their homes were alike, and their farms were alike. On Sunday, Brother Mance would go to the nearest country church and give his sales talk, preaching it in the form of a sermon, clapping his hands as he did so, spitting on the floor to mark off his paragraphs, and stomping his feet in the spit to punctuate his sentences, all of which captivated the black share-croppers. After the performance, the walleyed yokels would flock to Brother Mance, and I would fill out applications until my fingers ached.
I returned home with a pocketful of money that melted into the bottomless hunger of the household. My mother was proud; even Aunt Addie's hostility melted temporarily. To Granny, I had accomplished a miracle and some of my sinful qualities evaporated, for she felt that success spelled the reward of righteousness and that failure was the wages of sin. But God called Brother Mance to heaven that winter and, since the insurance company would not accept a minor as an agent, my status reverted to a worldly one; the holy household was still burdened with a wayward boy to whom, in spite of all, sin somehow insisted upon clinging.