Sweet Home Alabama
Copyright© 2013 by Robert McKay
It didn't surprise me that he knew – Cecelia would have told him and Mama. But he made it clear anyway. "Cissy done tol' us about it."
"Yeah, I did."
"Does it bother you?"
I took a deep breath. "Yeah, it does. When it was over I puked my guts out. I spent a lot of time up in the loft tryin' to deal with it. I have a feeling it's going to be with me for a long time."
"Good. It ought to bother you."
"Well, it does. Daddy – an' Mama, Darlia, an' Cecelia, too, y'all are my family too – I'm a Christian. An' Christians aren't supposed to go around beating people up."
"No, they ain't," Daddy said. "But me an' Maryellis been talkin'. We think we know where we stand, but we ain't sure. Answer me a question, if you would, Son. When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, what did He mean?"
"Well, the context was religious persecution. If someone slaps you because you're a Christian, He was saying, let that person slap you on the other cheek as well. If you're going through religious persecution, don't fight back. Don't pick up a sword – or a gun today – and start killing those who are persecuting you. Instead you're to respond the way He did. You're to show your persecutors the same compassion, the same love, the same refusal to destroy, that He showed His persecutors."
He looked at Mama and nodded. "That's what we thought. Now, when this man said he was gonna whip Cissy, was it because you're a Christian? An' maybe you don't know this, Son – an' maybe you don't know it either, Darlia – 'cause you don't have ancestors who were slaves, but if they did whip Cissy, it would be out in the sun, with men around droolin' over her." He glanced at Darlia, not wanting to be more specific, but I was sure she understood. I most certainly did, and I could tell that Cecelia did – she'd probably understood it the minute Howell had said it. "So when he said it, was it 'cause you're a Christian?"
"No. He probably doesn't even know whether I'm a Christian."
"An' when he swang on you, was it 'cause you're a Christian?"
"No," I said. "It was because I married a black woman." As I said it, I realized just how little I pay attention to Cecelia's color, except as part of her beauty. I don't know when I've thought of her as a black woman. She's just Cecelia, without reference to color, but as I said it, I realized just how that one adjective set her so far apart from whites in some minds.
"That's right. So when he swang on you, he wasn't persecutin' you for your faith. He was tryin' to beat you up, just 'cause you married a black woman an' stood up for her when he insulted her."
"Okay," I said.
"So I want you to remember what happened. I want it to bother you. I'd hate to think my son enjoyed hurtin' people. But don't let it bother you too much. Far as I'm concerned, Cissy ought to've let you hit him some more. A man like that's just filth."
"Now, Jud," Mama said, the first thing she'd said in a while, "violence never solved anything."
"Oh, didn't it?" Daddy said with some heat. "Why don't you tell that to U.S. Grant and Abe Lincoln. We ain't free 'cause them Union soldiers stood up there an' begged the south to free us."
"And we're not free because Dr. King beat people up either." Mama was heated too.
"Okay, you're right there. But there's a place for non-violence, and I'll tell you, Maryellis, if some cracker ever talks about whippin' you, that won't be the place for it."
Mama just looked at him, and then after a moment nodded. "I guess you're right, Jud."
"I knows I'm right," he said, and then turned to me. "Son – Darvin – you had a hard time today. You done what it's hurt you to do. I say it was the right thing, but it hurt you. It should hurt you. If you could beat that man up an' never have any botheration, I'd be real worried 'bout you, an' 'bout Cissy too. But you done the right thing,"
I looked down at my bowl, where my ice cream had melted to slush. "When I was a cop it was a real small department, and the officers almost never drew their weapons in the line of duty. But a few years before I was there, a drunk driver had attacked a cop with a tire iron, and the officer shot him. And what everyone said when they told me about it was, 'He did the right thing.' What they meant was that sometimes shooting someone is necessary, and proper, and the one who shoots shouldn't beat himself up over it."
"An' now I said that to you."
"You did." I looked at Cecelia, and then back at Daddy. "I've often said your daughter is the best pastor I've ever had. But Daddy, you're not half shabby yourself."
"I ain't been a deacon all these years for nothin'. There's a lot to it, but part of it is helpin' the preacher to comfort the agitated an' agitate the comfortable. You been agitated."
I had to smile at that. "Yeah, I have been. An' I'm liable to be agitated some more. But you've helped me see things a little better. You're right – if it didn't bother me I'd have something bad wrong in my head, or my heart ... both, probably. But it does, so I'll try not to worry about it too much."
The next morning I got up and, as usual, found that Cecelia had gotten up before me. When I went downstairs everyone was just finishing breakfast, so I got a Coke out of the refrigerator and went out on the porch. I sat down in the swing, with my shirt untucked and nothing on my feet, and looked out over the neighbor's field. But I didn't really see it, and Cecelia startled me when she sat down next to me. She had a cup of coffee in her hand, and I wondered how she could drink that stuff. I've tried coffee all sorts of ways, and the only way I can stand it is if there's so little coffee in the cup, and so much other stuff, that I can't taste the coffee.
"You are not yourself this morning, Darvin," Cecelia said, gently pushing with her foot on the porch floor to set us swinging.
I bit back the temptation to snap at her, asking who I was if I wasn't myself. Instead I said, "I'm sick unto death of all this."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her turn and look at me. "I forget sometimes that you are not a native of Leanna. The family has accepted you so thoroughly that you seem to be one of us by more than marriage."