So what do you plan to do with yourself, now that you’re home?” said Mrs. Motley. She was sitting at the kitchen table opposite Stew Pot who had draped his peacoat over the back of his chair. Along with a silver tea kettle, the china cups, saucers, and sugar bowl were arranged on the table between them. His apology, which he had just finished, had been long and rambling, and they had now moved to discussing his life situation.
“I’m going to get a job,” he replied. “And I mean honest work. Mom says there’s a Help Wanted sign at the car wash over on the drag. Probably just part-time, but it could be a start. No more crime for me. This change is for real.”
“Well you certainly look different,” Mrs. Motley said.
“There’s not much to do in the joint constructive. I read the Bible and lifted weights. At first the lifting was just to pass time, but I eventually saw it was good discipline.”
“And is that discipline what brought you to the Bible?”
“Oh no, my spiritual awakening came as a result of counsel from Brother Crown.”
Stew Pot grinned and set his cup on its saucer.
“Brother Crown is someone I met when I was inside. He’s a man of God, a great man of God walking day and night in The Light. He’s turned a lot of fellows in prison around. The way I see it, sinning Stew Pot is dead. God gave me the strength to kill him.”
“So, are you going to get another dog?”
“I was planning to,” he said. “I like pit bulls, and I think I know what your concern is.” He broke into a smile again. “I won’t let this one do its business in the yard.”
She thanked him, then asked what else he’d done in prison besides read and lift weights.
“I listened to gospel music, and I’m not talking about gospel that sounds like honky-tonk. I mean no-frills gospel. Anything else is Devil racket. I talked to Mom about that. Now don’t get me wrong, Mom is a good woman. But even good folks make mistakes. I told her a person is either walking in The Light or they’re not. And you can’t be walking in The Light if you’re listening to songs straight from the Devil’s piano. If music doesn’t praise God, I don’t want it. Don’t care if it’s jazz, country, or opera.”
“Opera?” said Mrs. Motley.
“Especially opera,” said Stew Pot, pointing at the yellow oil tablecloth with a forefinger. “Most operas you hear aren’t even sung in English. Right off, that ought to make you suspicious. You ever read translations of opera lyrics? Sin, pure and simple. Opera is the same as rock and roll, just more melodic. It wraps sin in a prettier package.”
Stew Pot nodded his head in agreement with himself.
“That’s how the Devil gets to folks,” he continued. “He wraps sin in a pretty package. In the case of music, a package that gets people bobbing their heads and tapping their feet to the point that the bobbing and tapping feel so good, people don’t listen to what the lyrics are saying. That rock and roll, and that opera, and that country music, and that nasty blues like my dad used to listen to, are all about the same thing—drunkenness and salaciousness.
“So like I said, I had a talk with Mom yesterday. I took those records of hers by Ray Charles—ha, now there’s the blind leading the blind—and Johnny Mathis, and so on, and I tossed them in the trash. I threw out all her soap opera magazines too. Soap operas are as bad as regular opera—a lot of wanton behavior masquerading as entertainment. But then what can you expect? TV is the Devil’s twenty-four-hour playground. Radio is just as bad. And movies? Don’t even get me started, same for novels and poetry. I threw out her TV, radio, and record player because they were tainted from all the sinful programming that had run through the circuits. Her phone service got shut off awhile back, which is just as well because those receivers were probably tainted too. When we get the service back on we’ll get new, clean telephones. I dumped her revealing clothes because no decent woman should be in blouses with the tops collarbone low or skirts and dresses with the hems knee-high.
“Yesterday I struck a blow in my fight against sin. I’m dedicating my life to walking in The Light and I’ll take on Satan wherever I see him. I’m going to spread the Word. And if anybody tries to stop me they better watch out, ’cause I got the Lord for backup.”
He took a long sip and Mrs. Motley did likewise. She’d heard such uncompromising arguments before, most notably from her mom’s mom. According to Grandma Lucy, Jews hunted Christian kids for sport, nuns and priests had sex orgies every night, and Muslims sacrificed Protestant virgins to Muhammad. Grandma Lucy could never be argued off such beliefs and Mrs. Motley made no attempt to argue Stew Pot off any of his. (She could just imagine what he’d say about her record collection in the living room which included operas and Broadway musicals, as well as more than a few albums by Mr. Charles and Mr. Mathis.)
“I’ve given it a lot of thinking,” said Stew Pot, “and the first thing I feel I should do is apologize to anyone on the block that I may have hurt or offended in the past.”
Using a measured tone, Mrs. Motley said she didn’t know if that was such a good idea. “Perhaps you should wait, give folks a chance to get used to your being back.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Mrs. Motley, but you can’t delay repentance.” He grinned again, drained his cup, and glanced at her wall clock over the sink. “I should be going, but before I do, would you pray with me?”
She nodded yes, but only because she didn’t see any way she could get out of it. From her experience with her grandmother, she knew how uncompromising people could get angry when refused. And she did not want to run the risk of irritating Stew Pot even a little bit because it was now sunshine clear that Stew Pot was more than a little off.
“Would you place your hands on the table?” he said.
Mrs. Motley did so. He placed his large hands palms-down over the backs of hers and her arms got goose-bumped. His short fingernails were clean and the pink undersides of the hands surprisingly smooth. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. She followed suit.
“Our Father,” he began softly, “Who art in Heaven . . .”
Minutes later they were both standing at the table as he pulled on his peacoat, he smiling and she anxious for him to step through the kitchen doorway. However, as he was buttoning up he said: “Okay if I leave by the front?”
There was no way Mrs. Motley would ever order another Black person to leave by the back door, the way so many had been forced to do for so many years by so many Whites.
Stew Pot headed down the wainscoted hallway with the Bible in hand. She followed close behind, his broad torso making it impossible for her to see past him. Mrs. Motley sent up a silent prayer that she would make it through this second Stew Pot visit the way she had the first, without her neighbors seeing any of it.
This prayer was answered, sort of.
As Stew Pot moved through the doorway, directly across the street a lanky mailman named Mr. Bird was pushing his cart down the Hicks’s walkway after making a delivery to their letterbox. Although he didn’t reside in Parkland, he’d been delivering mail there for so many years that his face was as familiar as any in the neighborhood.
Mr. Bird stopped cold when he caught sight of Stew Pot rocking down Mrs. Motley’s steps. She watched helplessly from the foyer as Stew Pot crossed the street. She imagined Mr. Bird was recalling the days when Stew Pot and Hitler had made mail deliveries to the block a scary thing, because Mr. Bird had a look on his face like people get when they’re caught in the open by someone they owe a lot of money to. When Stew Pot reached him and began chatting away, all Mr. Bird could manage at first was a weak smile.
Mrs. Motley knew Mr. Bird to be a fine man. Save for vacations, he hadn’t missed a day in years. However, he did have one professional failing—he greatly enjoyed trading in gossip. He could often be seen exchanging the latest Guess-what? with this or that resident on the sidewalk or at a front doorway. (He never did this with Mrs. Motley because early on she had politely told him she was not interested in such talk.)
Mrs. Motley saw Stew Pot gesture with the Bible toward her house. Mr. Bird’s eyebrows arched. Then he asked Stew Pot something. Stew Pot responded with affirmative nods, which caused Mr. Bird to snatch a glance across the street. He said something else to Stew Pot, who got even more animated, which caused Mr. Bird to slowly nod yes to show he understood everything he was being told.
* * *
After Stew Pot bid him a happy goodbye and strolled off westward, Mr. Bird renewed his stop-and-go pace in the same direction. From the blue couch Mrs. Motley watched the mailman until he was out of sight. (He had already delivered the mail to her side of the street.) She had no idea how many neighborhood folks Mr. Bird would speak to that afternoon about his conversation with Stew Pot, but she knew it would be at least a few, and a few would be more than enough. There was no doubt in her mind that by suppertime, on the block and beyond, her conversation with Stew Pot that afternoon would be the hot topic of conversation. She was right about that.
The most common reaction from immediate neighbors was bewilderment.
“Motley let him in her house? What in the world for?”
“Mr. Bird said Stew Pot told him that Stew Pot and Mrs. Motley had tea in her kitchen, and then they prayed, and that he—Stew Pot, that is—found God while in prison and that Mrs. Motley gave him a Bible as a welcome-home present and now Stew Pot’s going to be an evangelist. Oh yeah, he also said he’s going to apologize to everyone on the block.”
As for Parkland-at-large, the judgments were generally less harsh, the admonishments diminishing in intensity the further away you got from Stew Pot’s home. A few such Parklanders, upon hearing of Stew Pot’s religious conversion, were even willing to move him from the neighborhood’s “weird and dangerous” category, to “weird but harmless,” reserved for Parkland residents whose behavior was considered by the majority to be merely oddball, arousing little fear or face-to-face mockery. On Mrs. Motley’s block, a goodly number of neighbors said she had some serious explaining to do at the block club meeting, with a few wondering out loud if she would even show.
At supper Mrs. Motley gave the no-show option serious consideration. Although her argument for why she’d given Stew Pot a Bible was clear in her own head, an explanation for why she’d seated him at the kitchen table was not. In her mind the kitchen encounter was like a weird dream—Stew Pot on his knees sobbing, his strange fears and judgments, his vague evangelical plans.
As usual she took her evening meal in the apple-green dining room where the sheen of the rectangular expanse of table produced a near flawless reflection of the crystal chandelier and its minor constellation of lights. Her place setting was formal as well: china plates, sterling silver flatware, and a crystal water glass which, depending on one’s point of view, was either something very classy or something kind of sad.
She idly moved her pork chop and peas around with her heavy fork. If she didn’t attend the meeting, folks were sure to see it in the worst light. However, she also had no desire to stand and deliver, as it were, before nearly every neighbor on the block, some of whom would not be happy. One neighbor who she knew would be especially angry was Mrs. Butler, who lived with her teenage grandson in the corner house at the west end of the block on the other side of the street. She and Mrs. Motley had a history going back to the early 1970s when Mrs. Butler, who sported a big afro at the time, had led a Parkland group that sought to have certain books—Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick among them—taken off the library shelves of the grade school where Mrs. Motley was librarian. Mrs. Butler’s crew contended that the books on their hit list were racist and a threat to the healthy emotional development of Black children. Mrs. Motley had vigorously opposed those efforts, which produced a lot of angry finger-pointing and name-calling from Mrs. Butler and her crowd—“Boot-licking Uncle Toms” being one of the less profane descriptions they’d used for Mrs. Motley and those who supported her. The whole thing fizzled after only a few months, the victim of community indifference as much as anything, but not before hard feelings had developed on both sides. Eventually Mrs. Motley got over hers, as victors often do. As for Mrs. Butler, in the tradition of many a failed revolutionary, she’d never forgotten or forgiven. (According to Mrs. Hicks, Mrs. Butler’s resentment was also due to envy: “Your husband left you in good financial shape, while hers just up and left.”)
At her dining room table Mrs. Motley put her fork down. To her left, on either side of the wide window that overlooked her west yard, were a couple dozen framed photographs of various sizes; black-and-white images depicting previous generations of her family. There wasn’t a smiling face in the bunch. Usually she found the stern looks comforting, proof of the determination they’d used to free themselves from poverty. Now the faces seemed to admonish her. What are a few cranky neighbors, the faces seemed to say, compared to Klan nightriders? Embarrassed, she looked to her right at the hulky sideboard. There sat photos of her husband, son, and granddaughter; all with high foreheads, chestnut hues, and gaps between the top front teeth.
If her husband were alive, Mrs. Motley knew he’d have seen Stew Pot’s return as a perfect reason to sell the house, since he had never much liked living in it. (He’d had an equally negative attitude about working at her dad’s insurance firm, though not so negative that he ever quit.) And if Mrs. Motley were to call her son at Fort Sill with news about Stew Pot, Master Sergeant Motley would surely say, as he’d done many times before: “Ma, that house costs a fortune to heat in winter and another to keep cool in summer. Why hang onto it?” As for the granddaughter, Mrs. Motley didn’t know what the child might say. She hadn’t seen her grandbaby in eight years. The girl’s mother had full custody and refused to let Alison-Jean visit the US. One of Mrs. Motley’s cherished hopes was to one day sit alongside her granddaughter on the blue couch as they turned heavy black pages of leather-bound albums filled with family photos and memorabilia.
Giving up on supper, she cleared the table and went to the living room couch. Along with its red leather cover and large print, her Bible had lots of illustrations. On more than one occasion her son had laughingly pointed out that the illustrations were inaccurate because in every picture the people, with their pale skins and straight hair, looked as if they’d arrived in the Holy Land directly from Oslo. Such comments never failed to irritate Mrs. Motley, who always replied that the people’s color was not the point.
That evening she sought solace, as she often did, in the Book of Psalms, beginning with the well-known Chapter 23: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . When she got to Chapter 27 she paused, then read a line aloud: “The Lord is my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
ERIC CHARLES MAY, author of Bedrock Faith, is an associate professor of Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. A Chicago native and former reporter for the Washington Post, his fiction has appeared in the magazines Fish Stories, F, and Criminal Class. In addition to his Post reporting, his nonfiction has appeared in Sport Literate, the Chicago Tribune, and the personal essay anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck.
Adapted from Bedrock Faith, by Eric May, Copyright © 2014 by Eric May. With the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books.