Gus stood beside the living room window, waiting for the annual spring rains. They should have come by now, he noted, glancing at the battered Motley Funeral Home calendar hanging from a nail on the wall. It was May 17, 1940, and Gus’s wilted crops made him wonder if, somehow, he had angered Mother Nature. Usually the rains came between March and April, freeing him to hunt or fish the latter part of spring while cabbage, collard, and tomato sprouts strengthened in the moistened earth. That year, the stubborn rains prolonged the daily sojourn Gus and the boys took to the river and back—locals called it the Jordan—carrying five-gallon buckets of water for both their own and the sprouts’ survival.
Gus loved the rains. As a child, he lay in bed listening to the thunderous polyrhythms they drummed into the rusted tin rooftop. Something about the melody soothed his somber soul and allowed him to cry without fear of his father’s reprisal. After all, he was a boy, Chester Peace Sr. loved to remind him—as though his genitalia didn’t—and tears didn’t speak well for one who would, one day, become a man. The indelible imprint of Chester Sr.’s inordinately large hand on Gus’s tender face whenever he wept never bothered the boy who, in his heart, wanted nothing more desperately than to emulate his father. But as he grew, he never learned to control his tears. He learned instead to hide whenever he felt their approach.
The rains awakened something in him. Maybe it was their steady flow that eroded his makeshift stoicism and caused water to gush from his eyes as if from a geyser. What ever the connection, Gus always wept along with the rains. He’d convinced himself that the sky, like him, was cursed with a heavy heart that required annual purging. So every spring since his tenth birthday, when the scent of moisture filled his nose he escaped to the Jordan River and stood amid the rain, wailing away pain like a woman in labor. Whether it lasted for hours or even a day, no one expected his return to normalcy until the showers subsided.
Gus was grateful others didn’t ask why he cried, because he couldn’t have explained it. Had he known words like "injustice" or "inequity" he might’ve been able to translate his feelings into words, but with a third-grade vocabulary, such articulation was out of the question. All he knew was that he cried when things weren’t right. He wept as a child when other children mocked his holey shoes, and then he wept when God refused to grant him the courage and the will to fight. He wept for mother birds that couldn’t find worms for their young. He wept for cows left freezing in the snow. He wept for Miss Mazie—the woman whose husband slashed her with a butcher’s mallet for talking back—and wept even harder when he overheard that they put the man away. Most of all he wept because he thought people in the world didn’t care.
His hardest days were between the rains. At the most inopportune moments, in the middle of the summer or the bitter cold of winter, he’d witness a wrong and water would ooze, unannounced, across his cheeks and he’d be forced to retreat into some private place where his tears wouldn’t be cause for ridicule. Yet these momentary cleansings never resulted in Gus’s complete healing. Only the annual spring rains set his heart aright again, so, after the third grade—the end of Gus’s formal education—he began anticipating the rains’ arrival. As soon as the first buds bloomed, he’d watch the heavens for signs of inclement weather, and when the dark clouds gathered, he’d run to the Jordan and welcome the downpour. After 1910, locals noted the beginning of spring when they heard Gus wailing in the distance and, whether out of fear or simple disinterest, no one bothered traveling to the riverbank to see exactly what Gustavus Peace was doing, much less why.
He needed the rains of 1940 worse than he’d ever needed them, for the impending birth of his seventh child—the only one he had never wanted—incited rage he feared he couldn’t restrain. Yet the rains wouldn’t come. Each morning he jumped from his sleeping pallet on the floor, sniffing the air like a Labrador retriever, hoping to smell the sweet scent of moisture, only to be disappointed when his nostrils inhaled particles of dry, pungent, red dust. Having never mentioned to his wife, Emma Jean, that he felt deceived by the pregnancy, Gus had waited since her ecstatic November announcement to unleash with the spring rains instead of strangling her. His greatest fear now was that an overflowing heart would cause him to crumble before his sons. Each day, his eyes glazed over and his hands began to tremble, and he cursed the rains for seemingly having abandoned him. So far, he had remained composed, but he knew he wouldn’t last much longer.
When Emma Jean screamed, Gus released the curtain, turned from the window, and looked toward their bedroom. It was really her bedroom, he thought, for he had slept on the floor since learning of her pregnancy. He liked it that way. It kept him from touching her and creating another mouth to feed. He wouldn’t have touched her this last time had Emma Jean not convinced him that she couldn’t have any more children. Gus asked why, and Emma Jean said that she was going through the change. He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he took her at her word. The day she confessed her pregnancy, Gus nodded and promised in his heart never to touch her again. That would keep the children from coming, he reasoned, and that was exactly what he wanted.
"Push!" Henrietta coaxed with her hands cupped around the wet, slimy crown of the baby’s head.
Beads of sweat danced across Emma Jean’s shiny black forehead as she panted. With borrowed might, she clutched the sheets on which she lay and bellowed, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" tossing her head from one edge of the pillow to the other. "Oh my God! I thought havin’ a girl"—breath—"would be easier than havin’ them big, knucklehead boys."
Henrietta chuckled. She had delivered almost every child in Conway County, Arkansas, since the 1920s, and if nothing else, she had learned that a baby’s gender could never be predicted. "This might be another boy, Emma," she warned softly. "Don’t get yo’ hopes up too high. Plenty women think they havin’ one thing and have somethin’ else. Now breathe and push again."
Emma Jean sighed, refusing to relinquish hope that she was finally birthing the daughter she’d always wanted. That hope lent her strength to push again. "AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" she growled, exposing the rich, deep alto for which folks at St. Matthew No. 3 Baptist Church were grateful. It was this voice that had caught Gus’s attention years ago, teasing his soul one Easter Sunday morning with a rendition of "He Rose" that left him tingling inside. He called the feeling love and asked Emma Jean to marry him. That was fifteen years ago. Back when he was a fool, he always said.
"It won’t be long now!" Henrietta encouraged. "Just a few more pushes and we’ll have ourselves another baby."
Emma Jean gripped the iron bars of the headpost and stared at the ceiling, delirious. She wanted to push again, but couldn’t find the strength. In the meantime, she wondered if Gus had decided upon a name, since he hadn’t liked any of her choices.
"What about Rose?" she’d posed one night, leaning over the edge of the bed.
Gus grunted something unintelligible and pulled the battered quilt over his head.
Emma Jean interpreted the response as a no. "Then what about Violet? Or maybe Priscilla?"
Too sleepy to care, Gus hoped his words would close the matter. "Them don’t sound like no colored girls’ names to me," he murmured. "And, anyway, it’s probably gon’ be a boy, the luck we been havin’."
Emma Jean scoffed. "Just ’cause a girl be colored don’t mean she gotta have no ole, tired, country-soundin’ name."
Gus peeked from beneath the quilt. "You got one."
"I know!" Emma Jean shouted. "But that don’t mean my baby gotta have one."
"Well, it don’t make no difference right now noway. The baby ain’t even here yet. Good night."
Emma Jean stopped discussing names with Gus. Why, she wondered, had she consulted a fool in the first place? What would a man know about choosing a baby’s name?
"I got de head in my hands," Henrietta said excitedly. "Just give me one more good push! Come on! You can do it!"
The dance of the sweat beads devolved into a slow waltz around Emma Jean’s thick brows as she lay exhausted upon the feather pillow. Her good, baby blue sheets, which she had intended to remove from the bed in a few days, would now have to be discarded. Thinking she had at least another week before the baby’s arrival, she had prioritized other more immediate chores, but when her water broke while she was preparing Sunday breakfast, she knew those sheets were history.
Gus and the boys sat in the small living room and waited. Knowing no other way to pass the time, Gus read passages from the Bible—the few he could read—in hopes that something from the Word might still his rumbling heart. He would love the baby, he resolved, but he would never forgive Emma Jean. Never. And if the rains didn’t come, he wouldn’t forgive them, either.
Still in their church clothes, which was a clean shirt beneath their work overalls, the boys anticipated the sister they didn’t have. Of course another brother would be okay, they agreed silently, but a sister would add spice to an otherwise dull house hold. Mister, the youngest brother, didn’t care either way. He simply wanted someone else to be the baby of the family.
"What if it’s a boy?" Mister asked.
"Shut up, will ya?" Authorly insisted. "If it’s a boy, then it’s a boy. That’s all. And if it’s a girl, then it’s a girl. Jes’ be quiet ’til we know."
Mister grimaced and stuck out his tongue. He hated his brother’s uncensored authority. Why don’t you shut up! he almost said, but didn’t. One day he would say it, he swore, but for now he held his peace.
Everyone assumed Authorly the eldest, but James Earl was fourteen months his senior. No one had ever heard James Earl speak more than a passive phrase or two a day, so they deemed him far too timid to lead a pack of six brothers. Authorly’s muscular disposition and loquacious tongue, on the other hand, granted him the position of eldership among the boys, causing the others to wonder at times if he perceived himself their father instead of their brother. Having no resolve to challenge him, the others obeyed Authorly, calling him names behind his back whenever he infuriated them. Even James Earl acquiesced, yielding his obedience as an offering of gratitude for Authorly’s willingness to lead. Locals called James Earl "slow"—some said "retarded," others said "off"—and wondered what woman would ever tolerate such a puny, no-count man.
"You sho dat boy all right?" Miss Mamie Cunningham sneered, watching six-year-old James Earl stumble down the church steps.
"He’s perfectly fine," Emma Jean huffed. "He just in his own world."
"And he in it by hisself, too!"
Kiss my ass, Emma Jean wanted to say, then remembered that Miss Mamie was twice her age. Anyway, it was true that James Earl was a bit different, she had to admit. He weighed only four pounds at birth, and once Gus scribbled his name and birth date—
James Earl Peace, June 13, 1928
— in the huge white family Bible resting on the sofa end table, Henrietta guaranteed he wouldn’t survive. But he did. He didn’t eat much, but he kept on living. Emma Jean forced her nipple in his mouth every three or four hours, but, most days, James Earl lay in her arms like a corpse, seemingly unable to discern what to do. Usually once a day for ten minutes or so he’d suckle and whine like a sick puppy, and Emma Jean would cry as she prepared to wake any day and find him stiff as a board. But he just wouldn’t die. He was three before he took a step and four before he said a word. At five, he began eating solid food, so Emma Jean gave thanks for his life and stopped worrying.
The day Authorly came, Gus half-read a flyer at Morrison’s General Store announcing the release of a book some author had written. Mistaking "author" for the writer’s name and unable to distinguish phonetically between "author" and "Arthur," Gus exited the store proud he could spell the first half of a name he liked. Walking home, he discovered he couldn’t spell the other half. He knew it started with an L—he had learned his consonant sounds well—but Le didn’t look right in his mind. Trying to recall other names with the E sound, he said several aloud until he stumbled upon the final sound in his mother’s name. "Lucy," he mumbled. "The Y must be the E sound," he decided, sticking out his chest as he visualized the entirety of his second son’s name. Afraid he might forget some of the letters, he scratched the name on the Sheetrocked wall of the Peace living room the moment he arrived. When Henrietta announced that Emma Jean had had another boy, this one damn near ten pounds, Gus said his name would be Authorly. He pointed to the childlike letters on the wall as he copied the name, one letter at a time, into the family Bible.
Authorly Peace, August 23, 1929
Henrietta smiled. Not having the heart to correct his spelling, she simply nodded as Gus’s pride multiplied. Whenever Authorly felt the need, he referred his brothers to the inscription on the wall as evidence that his coming was obviously divine since none of their names was thus inscribed.
"This’ll all be over in a minute, Emma Jean, if you can give me one more good push."
Emma Jean panted.
"Just relax and try to control your breathing. We’re almost there now."
"Take a few deep breaths like this"—Henrietta inhaled and exhaled slowly—"and give me what you got."
A weary Emma Jean gasped. She had given birth before, but she didn’t remember it being so exhausting. Maybe, after birthing six boys, she wasn’t the woman she used to be.
"This one’s got a head full o’ hair, girl! I feel it!" Henrietta said, winking at Emma Jean while tugging the baby from her womb. "This might jes’ be the little girl you been waitin’ for!"
Emma Jean was hopeful, but refused to celebrate until she knew for sure. She hadn’t even chosen a name yet, although recently she’d considered Octavia or maybe Scarlet. If it was a boy, she didn’t know what she’d do, and she definitely didn’t know what she’d call him.
Gus returned the oversized family Bible to the sofa end table. He’d give those damn rains a piece of his mind whenever they finally came, he thought. It wasn’t fair, making him carry an overflowing heart for months now, and if, at any moment, he collapsed and unleashed in front of his boys, those rains would have to pay.
Woody, the third boy, slithered out like a slimy black garden snake, Henrietta said. She had never delivered a baby twenty-five inches long, so she told Gus to beware the devil in him. Gus said he would, then scribbled
Woody Peace, July 2, 1931
into the biblical registry. The child grew so quickly some folks said they saw him grow before their very eyes. Who had ever seen a five-year-old stand three feet tall? And as if that wasn’t strange enough, he laughed incessantly as he grew. Gus tried beating him, in hopes of calming his unbridled mirth, but the spankings only made him laugh harder. Perplexed that the jeering seemed unstoppable, and obviously unable to drive the devil from him, Gus stopped whipping Woody and started laughing with him. By 1945, an inch shy of his six-foot-two father, fourteen-year-old Woody was charging people a dime an hour to listen to his outrageous tales. Most paid without complaint. It was Emma Jean’s idea. "Don’t let folks use you, boy! Make these niggas pay if you gon’ entertain ’em. Colored folks always want somethin’ for free!" Woody obeyed and cut a slit in the plastic top of an empty Folgers coffee can, which then became his personal coffer. Some Saturday evenings, he filled the can, at which point Authorly’s huge, rounded palm collected the remaining admissions. The Laughins, as Gus called the gatherings, occurred on the front porch with folks scattered across the yard. Some walked for miles to hear Woody talk shit about things he couldn’t possibly have known. Thin as a young sapling in winter, he had elongated arms that swung freely from his torso as he clowned, while his pencil-shaped legs wobbled beneath him. His erratic movements made others fear he’d fall over, but he never did. That was part of the fun, people said, watching this rail-thin Goliath dramatize stories and jokes as his arms flared wide and his fourteen-inch feet danced awkwardly upon the wooden porch. Gus couldn’t tell whether people laughed with Woody or at him, but after weeks of all those dimes, he stopped caring.
"A country man went to a fancy party one night," Woody began one sultry summer evening. At first, folks milled about the yard casually, but when Woody started, they shuffled toward the porch as though it were magnetized. His booming voice, echoing across the yard, complemented his dramatic presentation and caused others to laugh long before he reached the punch line. "He was dressed in his best red suit, with red shoes and a matchin’ red hat! The nigga was sharp!"
Emma Jean yelped. Whenever Woody performed, she screamed like one being stabbed to death.
"They had food everywhere, of all different types. Ribs, chicken, casserole, all kinds of salads, and the man was eating like he ain’t never ate befo’! Well, like I said, this was a fancy party, so the white folks had labels on each table to let folks know what they was eatin’. The man walked ’round to all the different tables, trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, then he approached a table with a label he couldn’t pronounce. He stared at the little piece of paper a long time, trying his best to figure out what it spelled, but he hadn’t never seen that word befo’. He wanted to try the food on the table, but since he couldn’t pronounce the word on the label, he just stood there, staring. The white chef behind the table said, ‘May I help you, sir?’ " Woody laughed as he mocked the chef’s voice. A few men turned away and hollered. "The Negro country man didn’t wanna look stupid, so he threw his head back real grand"—Woody exaggerated the movement—"and started talkin’ like the educated white chef. ‘Um, yessir,’ he said. ‘I’d like to try some of your whores de overs, please?’ " People shouted and scattered as if a bomb had exploded. Even Gus covered his bad teeth and laughed freely. Others tried to retell the story later, but no one could perform it like skinny Woody Peace. Emma Jean hoped the boy would become famous one day. Maybe then, she wouldn’t have to work anymore.
Gus and Emma Jean agreed their fourth child had to be a girl, so they never bothered thinking of another male name. Disgusted and disappointed when another boy arrived—this one the blackest of all—Gus suggested they call him King Solomon since, according to Reverend Lindsey, King Solomon had been a wise man. Emma Jean liked the idea so Gus scribbled
King Solomon Peace, May 20, 1933
into the family Bible.
No one paid Sol, as the boys called him, much attention until Christmas of 1939. Dressed in James Earl’s old Easter suit, he rose, prepared to recite "Silent Night" as his Christmas speech, but suddenly decided to sing it instead. His rich vibrato mesmerized the audience initially, but when Sol belted "All is calm, all is bright," complete with runs and trills adult vocalists couldn’t manage, people ignored his age and let the Holy Ghost have its way. Miss Mamie cried, "Yes, Lord!" as others stared in awe and wonder. The real phenomenon, Gus noted, was that the boy’s voice was identical to his mother’s. Gus felt the same tingling sensation whenever Emma Jean sang, and, to keep from crying, he rocked violently in every direction with Authorly whispering "Shhhh" into his right ear. No one could believe it. Sol switched to falsetto and ended sweetly with "Sleep in heavenly peace." A momentary hush befell the hypnotized congregation. Miss Mamie broke the silence with "Ouuuuuu we! That boy’s gotta gift!" "Shonuff!" others confirmed. Sol didn’t comprehend exactly what he’d done, but he loved the crowd’s response to it. So he started singing to anything and anyone who would listen. His voice became the clarion call for others to rise each morning in the Peace house hold, so if he overslept, everyone did. He loved that his voice disturbed people, leaving them weepy and vulnerable. He loved that birds gathered and chirped along as he serenaded the universe. And he loved that, in the spring of 1940, Gus asked him to sing to the seedlings and maybe they’d grow. People laughed at the boy, moving from row to row like a ministering evangelist, grazing his tender fingertips across fragile sprouts and singing at the top of his tenor range, but when, weeks later, peas, corn, okra, snap beans, and cabbage jumped from the earth in green abundance, the naysayers fell silent. Gus was grateful, but warned Sol not to get a big head.
On Sol’s first day of school, Miss Erma Briars was taken with his brilliance. He was precisely what a burnt-out country schoolteacher needed. Yet Gus saw things differently. He asked Emma Jean, "If the boy already smart, what’s de point o’ sendin’ him to school?" She ignored him and smiled at the As plastered across Sol’s worksheets. He tutored his older brothers in reading and math and loved that Authorly submitted to him, if only for a while.
"How you get smart like that?" Gus asked Sol one night before bed. "Me and yo’ momma ain’t smart."
He shrugged. "I don’t know."
Gus shrugged, too.
And Sol honestly didn’t know. Things just came easily to him, he said. And quickly. Sometimes he’d stare at other pupils, wondering why the simplest concepts appeared so difficult for them, but he never belittled anyone. Gus had told him that if you don’t use a gift to help others, God’ll take it away from you, so Sol assisted his classmates, whenever Miss Erma allowed, until most comprehended what he had understood days earlier. Little King Solomon Peace was the joy of the classroom until the day Emma Jean insisted he stop going.
Gus and Emma Jean’s fifth child was born blind. Kicking in the womb as though frustrated with its confinement, the baby reminded Emma Jean every day that she would surely regret having conceived out of desperation. In her sixth month, she knew it was a boy because, as she told her sister Gracie, "Only a man would kick a woman this hard." Miss Mamie confirmed her fear. "High as you carryin’ that load, girl, can’t be nothin’ but a ole’ big-head boy." Thirteen minutes after her first contraction, her fifth son burst forth without uttering a sound. Emma Jean screamed.
"He all right," Henrietta said. "Just quiet, I guess. That’s all."
Having run out of boy names two boys ago, Emma Jean simply called him Baby and said that somewhere, somehow his name would surface. Gus thanked God the child was alive and felt relieved that at least the boy didn’t seem slow.
Excerpted from Perfect Peace by Daniel Black.
Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Black.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.