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The Issues of Life
By K L Kluttz
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 K L Kluttz
All rights reserved.
Now that I am older, I have a lot of time to sit and think about my life, the many twists and turns I took to get me here. I've run my course and fought the good fight yet I am still here. I'm not ready to check out yet; don't get me wrong, but how many games of horseshoe with hard plastic shoes can an old man take. While I sit here and watch the staff of my retirement village speed through their shifts, I remember being their ages and how I sped through my own years. I want to say slow down and take a good assessment of all the good things in your life. I know that anyone I would approach would grace me with a polite nod and then hustle away. I do not fault them; I was the same way. As I take my own advice and consider my life, my mind is drawn to three periods that inadvertently defined me as a man. Maybe inadvertently is the wrong word, but at the time, I did not see the grand design; I was blinded or deafened by all the sights and sounds of living. So I am going to write as much as I can for as long as I can, not because I think my experience is worth more than any other man of my age, but as a record of another soul's passing through on his way to meet his maker. Maybe my son and his wife will read this or maybe they won't. Maybe no one will ever see this, but it gives me peace and clarity.
This is my recollection of the events of my fourteenth year. These happenings shook the vestiges of my childhood firmly from me and changed the lives of my parents irrevocably.
* * *
By the time I was fourteen years old, my mother's presence in my bedroom doorway as I opened my eyes was expected and welcomed. Sometimes, I would wake early and wait for her to come and watch me. Every morning she would bring the smells of her early morning labor with her. The scents of bacon, sausage, or country ham clinging to her house coat like a miasma. Mama would not stop there. She would prepare fried potatoes, grits, or oatmeal to accompany her always light and fluffy scrambled eggs. A fresh pan of biscuits was axiomatic. My mother would always say her hard working men needed a meal of substance to start their day. As I lay still, smelled those smells, I knew everything was right in my world. I would listen for her soft calls to wake me, so when she did not come, my heart beat a little faster and I dreaded getting out of bed.
I found my mother sitting at the kitchen table; the cast iron stove dark and cold, standing in the corner like an errant child. My beautiful mother looked small, old, and fragile, clearly, not her dynamo self. Her usual tight, neat curls stood haphazard over her pea sized head. As I joined her on the opposite side of the table, I looked into her watery, red rimmed eyes and nearly drowned.
"Mama, what's wrong", I asked. "Where's Papa?"
My mother reached out and gripped my outstretched hands with talons a bird of prey would envy, burying them in my flesh. She did not notice my wince. Her mouth opened and closed tightly until her full lips were compressed to a single line.
"Mama, you're scaring me!" I said, my pain diminished by my rising concern for my father. "Baby ..." She said.
My mother let go of my hands, leaving indentations printed in my skin. She stood and began to march around the table. In that moment, I thought about the children of Israel marching around the walls of Jericho.
"Mama", I screamed.
My mother turned to look at me, but I did not recognize the woman staring at me. Gone were all the steel from her back and the acid wit from her tongue. Gone were the smooth skin and bright, laughing eyes. Every line her face had defied for the last 60+ years had found her face seemingly overnight.
"Your Daddy was taken to the Sheriff's office for questioning. They found Mabel." She whispered as if we had an unwelcome audience.
For the sake of my recollection, I must explain about my parents and the community in which we lived. I was born to my parents after they had given up hope of having children of their own. Before me, my parents decided that every black child who lived in lack or just needed a little extra guidance was theirs to lead and help. After me, my parents especially my father, still carried on that ministry, believing that it was a calling from God for their lives. My parents were well-to-do compared to the people around Herringbone County. They owned their own land and were able to pay their grocery bill at the town store every month. We were not rich but we were comfortable. My parents were big fish in a segregated, small pond.
Mabel was my father's special project. She was not a child but a young woman who had a childlike, simple mind. When Mabel had been two years old, her father decided he really give her something to cry about, so he beat her until her mother grew a spine and stopped his foot from coming down her head for a third time. Mabel had healed but she carried that beating for the next seventeen years in the form of a vivid yet vacant smile. Mabel's trouble with her father did not end. He was a constant thorn in her and her mother's side. He was mean drunk and was even meaner sober. My father took to Mabel because she reminded him of his little sister who was born a little touched. She died when my father was sixteen and she was nine. She said her head hurt and then went to be with the Lord. My Daddy saw Mabel as a second chance to take care of his baby sister. He never missed a chance to help Mabel. When she called, my Daddy answered. My Mama did not like all the special care my father gave Mabel but she understood and let him. On that morning, I could see the regret of that decision weighing heavily on my mother's face. Mabel's mind may have been substandard, but her body was of the caliber artists like to immortalize.
"What? I don't understand. What would the Sheriff want with Papa?" I asked.
Mama sat back down in her chair and breathed deeply. "For now, they're questioning him about his whereabouts and the like. But I'm worried if they do not get the answers they want, they'll beat him until he changes his mind."
Candor from a woman who told me until a few months previous that babies were left on peoples' doorsteps by angels and women's swollen bellies were just an outward sign or promise from God of the future angelic delivery was even more disturbing than her pacing. My mother was speaking to me as she would normally speak to my father. It was as if she was already preparing herself for his absence and I was to become his replacement.
"Still, Mama, what does the Sheriff want with Daddy? I know he spent a lot a time with her, but she wandered all over the county. Why Daddy", I asked.
I could see the gears beginning to turn again and a flicker of hope lit my mother's dim eyes. I had served my purpose and it was back to kid time again.
"Don't worry, he'll be home soon. They just wanted to question him that's all. I was being silly. What do you want for breakfast?" She asked as she made her way to the stove and stuck a match to the preloaded tinder box.
That was it. As quickly as it had come, it was gone just as quick. For a fleeting second, I had a glimmer of my parent's world and then the door was slammed in my face. At the time, I would not have said I was sorry that it was. That world was much too big for me.
* * *
While I was going around with Mama, Papa was staring at Deputy Wilson's badge. It positively sparkled. As he watched, Wilson ran his right sleeved armed over the badge, taking care of any smudges that may have sullied its face within the last three minutes he had made the same maneuver. Not a sound could be heard in that room; nothing, not a fly buzzing or a clock ticking, only the periodic rustle of a shirt sleeve running over nickel plate. Finally, when the door opened, creaking on old hinges, it was a welcomed sound.
He stood in the doorway, an imposing figure. Sheriff Denel was a big man. He accentuated his size by wearing big hats, belt buckles, and heeled boots. He needed none of these things to assert his authority. His reputation did that for him. When he had been elected, his first duty had been to set the example for all the criminals in Herringbone County, the petty and the hardened alike. Sheriff Denel was like God in that aspect, he was no respecter of person. To him a sin was a sin, no small or big, just a sin. So when Wally Torre stole some equipment from a construction site, Sheriff Denel took one of the stolen hammers to Wally's hands. By the time, Wally served his ninety day stint; he could no longer button his own shirts or do anything else requiring minimal dexterity; his days of picking locks on storage sheds were over and everybody understood the new Sheriff's approach to law enforcement.
"John Wilbert Johnson", Denel said as he filled the doorway, blocking the light from the hallway. "Why don't you tell me why you would want to go and hurt that child that way?"
My father stared at the Sheriff, measured his words against all possible outcomes and said, "Why don't you tell me?"
Deputy Wilson shot a glance at the Sheriff and then made a move to get up from his chair. Denel restrained him with a touch on the shoulder. Denel fully entered the room and closed the door behind him. He leaned up against one of the grey walls looking like he could hold it up with his girth if necessary, his eyes looking small and mean in his fleshy face as they danced over his detainee.
"When was the last time you saw Mabel?" He asked, conversationally.
"Last Thursday, I was taking a load of tomatoes to Pete and she was walking across Cover Bridge." My father answered.
"What did you do?"
"I waved at her; she waved back and kept walking."
"Did you offer her a ride?"
"No, she was going the other way, toward the Bottoms. I was going to town."
"Anybody see your interaction?"
"My son and Pete can tell you I got to his diner at ten because he likes to get his tomatoes right before the lunch rush. He says they make his sandwiches better that way."
"So, you are sure that's the last time you saw Mabel?"
"Is this your coat?"
"Yes and no, I gave it to Mabel"
"When did you give it to her?"
"This past winter, the girl wore it all the time. She said she liked the buttons."
"Do you know of anyone who could, would, or would want to hurt Mabel?"
"Other than Nix, no."
"He couldn't have. He's been locked up here for the last ten days for D and D." Deputy Wilson interjected truculently, the disappointment of the quickly waning chance of head cracking, plainly visible on his face.
"You're sure you and Mabel didn't meet up again somewhere a little more private. Everybody knows she was special to you", Denel said steering his interrogation again after his deputy's unsolicited interruption.
Wilson smile lecherously and leaned back in his chair, eagerly awaiting my father's answer, Sheriff Denel looked as stony as ever.
"My relationship with Mabel is and always has been strictly platonic. I recognized a girl in trouble and did my best to see she passed through this world safely, but in the end, I could not keep her from harm. I did my duty as a good Christian man, but God chose to take Mabel home."
Sheriff Denel walked around the table and stood behind John. Seconds passed like hours. No one moved. The only sounds audible to my father was the sound of his own slow steady inhalations and expirations. Denel placed his hands on my father's shoulders, taking great care in finding both clavicle bones and squeezed. The pressure was not great but the implied threat was transmitted and received by both parties.
"Go home. Be available to talk to me again when the need arises."
Denel pressed harder before he let go and sauntered out of the room. Wilson sour faced and disgruntled hollered, "What cha looking at me for. You heared him get your self home, boy." Wilson reverted back to the language of his raising in his pique, stood, slammed his chair under the table and followed his boss out of the room.
"Thank you Jesus", my father muttered as he gathered his hat and quickly walked out of the room, heading for the side door before Sheriff Denel changed his mind.
Of course much of my recollection of my father's interrogation is made of the information that came to me over the years and of my own poetic license; however, I believe the spirit of the truth of the situation lies in my words. That was the first of many run-ins between my father and Sheriff Denel that summer.
On his long walk home, my father had time to consider his situation and Mabel's fate; Mabel, sweet, humble, simple, Mabel. How anyone could hurt somebody as kind and innocent as Mabel was beyond my father's comprehension. No, that is not entirely true. In his sixty-two years, my father had run into people who liked to destroy what was good simply because it was good. All the time, he had known Mabel he considered the biggest threat to her life was her no account father and her lush of a mother, but it seemed that he was wrong. My father knew he would not be satisfied until he knew what happened to Mabel and why.
Mabel had been missing for the last eight days. On the first day, people assumed she had wandered off, gotten hurt, and could not walk back. On the second day, people speculated that with all the working farms in the county that she was shacked up with a migrant worker. By the third day of looking for her, the black community began to suspect that some of the local professed Klan men had taken her somewhere. Assumptions ran wild, each notion more absurd than the last. Now that she had been found the sky was the limit for all the tall tales that would be told. The first thing my father planned to do was to talk to Mabel's mother and gather what accurate information she had and then he wanted to talk to the fishermen who found her. He had not planned on my mother's reaction to his intentions.
* * *
"Absolutely not, I forbid it." My mother yelled for the third time. "What's wrong with you? Is it not enough that Sheriff Denel thought of you before he thought of any of the ruffians from the Bottoms? Are you trying to disgrace me?" My mother threw up her hands as she stared into her husband's resolute, stubborn face.
"Naomi, I can't rest until I know", my father tried to explain again.
"Let the Sheriff handle his business without your nose being in it, John." She scolded with her hands on her hips and leaning into my father as if her height matched his own.
"How long do you think he is going to look for the killer of a black retarded girl", my father whispered.
"I don't care. I want you to stay out of this. I mean it", my mother said as she left my father standing in the kitchen. The reverberation of my parent's bedroom door slamming shook our little house and my world for the second time that day. My father looked at me standing in the dining room doorway. He looked tired and ashy faced.
"Son, tell your mother that I've gone to see Ida Mae in the Bottoms and I will be back before dinner." My father said, before he thought better of it. "No, that message isn't yours to deliver. I'll be back". The kitchen screened door slapped the frame and my father shoes clunked on the wooden porch and then the stairs. I ran from the kitchen when I heard his International Harvester start up.
"Daddy, take me with you". I yelled over the rumble. "No, your mother will kill me", as he put the truck into first gear and began rolling down the driveway. He stopped the truck when I jumped in the back. My father sat for a few minutes before his already thin patience wore through. "I said, No, now get back to the house. Don't make me have to get out this truck." He yelled. When I did not make a move to get out of the truck, he turned to look at me through the rear window. I shook my head and politely said, "No, sir. If the Sheriff asks about your trip to the Bottoms, I want everybody to say they saw me with you." My father stared at me dumbstruck. He answered my request by continuing down our long, dirt road.
The Bottoms consists of about thirty, one room shanties that are owned by one of the more prosperous white families in our little county. The occupants of this little district are mostly down on their luck without anywhere else to go. Not that the other black dwellings are much better, it's just that there was a certain stigma attached to Bottoms, even the name inferred inferiority. It is human nature for a person to seek out someone to assert his or her superiority over and the Bottoms definitely had its share of lowly characters. Miss Ida Mae, Mabel's mom, was one of the lowliest. I called her miss because my parents taught me to respect my elders; they just could not help if that same elder did not respect herself.
Excerpted from The Issues of Life by K L Kluttz. Copyright © 2015 K L Kluttz. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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