Folks say the bayou in Red River Parish is full to its pea-green brim with the splintery bones of colored folks that white men done fed to the gators for covetin their women, or maybe just lookin cross-eyed. Wadn’t like it happened ever day. But the chance of it, the threat of it, hung over the cotton fields like a ghost.
As far as I knew, their first names were “Nigger” and their last names were like our first names: Bill, Charlie, Jim, and so forth […] none of them were ever called by a proper first and last name like mine, Ronnie Ray Hall, or my granddaddy’s, Jack Brooks.
A lotta folks called [sharecropping] a new kinda slavery. Lotta croppers (even white ones, what few there was in Louisiana) didn’t have just one massa, thye had two. The first massa was the Man that owned the land you was workin. The second massa was whoever owned the store where you got your goods on credit. Someimes both a’ them was the same Man; sometimes it was a different Man.
Purty soon [Bobby’s] people figured out we was friends, but they didn’t really try to keep us from associatin, ‘specially since I was the only boy on the place right around his age and he needed somebody to play with and keep outta trouble. They detected he was givin me food, so they put a little wood table outside the back door for met to eat on. After a while, once Bobby’d get his food, he’d come right on out and me and him’d sit at that little table and eat together.
Things was a-changin. Uncle James took sick and died, and Aunt Etha moved away. Last time I seen her, she was cryin. I couldn’t figure out why God kept takin all the folks I loved the most.
Lookin back, I figure what them boys done caused me to get a little throwed off in life. And for sure I wadn’t gon’ be offerin to help no white ladies no more.
[Deborah and I] had actually been labeled “lost,” “nonbelieving,” and “unsaved,” possibly because we had no fish stickers on our cars. (Which reminds me of one friend who, though newly “born again,” retained the bad habit of flipping off other drivers while barreling down the road in her Suburban. […] The Holy Ghost prompted her to scrape the fish off her bumper until her finger got saved.)
It got to be the 1960s. All them years I worked for them plantations, the Man didn’t tell me there was colored schools I coulda gone to, or that I coulda learned a trade […] I didn’t know about World War II, the war in Korea, or the one in Vietnam. And I didn’t know colored folks had been risin up all around Louisiana for years, demandin better treatment.
I didn’t know I was different.
In those days, a man in Angola without a knife was either gon’ wind up raped or dead. For the first few years I was there, at least forty men got stabbed to death and another bunch, hundreds of em, got cut up bad. I did what I had to do to protect myself.
It seemed manipulative to me to make the hungry sit like good dogs for their supper. And it did not surprise me that even when Brother Bill split the air with one of his more rousing sermons, not a single soul ever burst through the chapel doors waving their hands and praising Jesus. At least not while we were there.
Another thought nagged at me, though. Could it possibly be something he saw in me—something he didn’t like? Maybe he felt like the target of a blow-dried white hunter searching for a trophy to show off to friends, one he bagged after a grueling four-month safari in the inner city. Meanwhile, if I caught him, what would I do with him?
It was at Starbucks that I learned about twentieth-century slavery. Not the slavery of auction blocks, of young blacks led away in ropes and chains. Instead, it was a slavery of debt-bondage, poverty, ignorance, and exploitation. A slavery in which the Man, of whom Denver’s “Man” was only one among many, held all the cards and dealt them mostly from the bottom of the deck, the way his daddy had taught him, and his granddaddy before that.
Our prayers for healing at Rocky Top had not beaten back the lethal invader the doctors discovered inside my wife. Wounded and nearly blind with fear, I clung to the scriptures:
“Ask and you shall receive…”
“Pray without ceasing…”
“I will do whatever you ask in My name…”
Grimly, I shut another verse, this one from the book of Job: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
[…] Sometimes we just have to accept the things we don’t understand. So I just tried to accept that Miss Debbie was sick and kept on prayin out there by that dumpster. I felt like it was the most important job I ever had, and I wadn’t gon’ quit.
“Let’s forget about only living one year, and let’s just trust God,” she told me. “Dr. Goldstein is just a doctor. We serve the living God, who knows our number of days. I intend to fulfill each one of mine.”
The campfires and camaraderie worked magic on Denver as he began to know what it was like to be accepted and loved by a group of white guys on horseback with ropes in their hands. Exactly the kind of people he had feared all his life.
“You asked the man how you could bless him, and he told you he wanted two things—cigarettes and Ensure. Now you trying to judge him instead of blessin him by blessin him with only half the things he asked for. […] Cigarettes is the only pleasure he got left.”
Pulling out a picture of Jack, [Michael] moved to the edge of the bed and placed it in Deborah’s palm, gently folding her fingers around it.
“Will you watch over him from heaven?” he said. “Be his guardian angel?” The moment later became a mystery. No one ever saw that picture of Jack again.
Quietly, I asked the nurse to remove the tubes and IVs that had bound her for a month. Then I asked the nurse to give us a few minutes alone, during which I held my dead wife and wept, begging God to raise her as Christ had raised Lazarus.
When He didn’t—and I truly believed he could—my heart exploded.
And now that Deborah was gone, I had begun to suspect [Denver] felt like a hanger-on. I didn’t feel that way about him at all. In fact, during her illness and since her death, I had come to consider him my brother.
What kind of man was the Man? For decades, one Man kept sharecroppers barefoot and poor, but let a little colored boy earn a brand-new red Schwinn. Another Man let an old black woman live on his place rent-free long after she’d stopped working in the fields. A third Man kept Denver ignorant and dependent, but provided for him well beyond the time he probably could have done without his labor.
“Mr. Ron, they’re livin better than I ever did when I was livin here. Now you know it was the truth when I told you that bein homeless in Fort Worth was a step up in life for me.”
Still, I can’t deny the fruit of Deborah’s death—Denver, the new man, and the hundreds of men, women, and children who will be helped because of the new mission. And so, I release her back to God.