IT was mid-morning of Second Sunday in August, and John Lewis was drinking beer on the back porch of his father’s house in Burnside, He had moved his chair from the left to the right end of the porch so he could watch a snake that had crawled from the woods into the weeds and grass that filled all except a corner of the sunny yard like a small jungle. The dark-gray snake was a water moccasin. Head lifted, upper body straight and unmoving, the snake rested like part of a poison tree left to rot.
In Burnside, Second Sunday in August began the week-long revival at St. Matthew’s Baptist Church. People who had gone away made it a special point to come home for Second Sunday, and John Lewis had returned yesterday with his family for the church meeting. He had driven from New Jersey in his Buick Electra 225, making the trip in less than ten hours.
Now he sipped beer and watched the moccasin. Probably the snake had come to high ground looking for food and water because the creeks and rivers had dried up in a drought of biblical proportions. The snake was a big one, all right. Judging from his head and upper body, he was about six feet long, perhaps longer. John thought that if he lay side by side with the snake, they’d probably both be about the same length. Twenty, 30 years ago, some farmer plowing in the lowground would have killed that snake before he grew.
But the closest thing to a farm John had seen in the last few years was a patch nine feet square behind him and to his left, where his father had planted a few squash, some pole beans and cabbages. John shifted quietly in his chair. He didn’t want to frighten away the moccasin, who held himself as still as gray sculpture. From time to time, the snake’s delicate tongue flicked out, as though tasting the air.
Although he was tempted to, John did not look at the small garden. He had bought a hamster yesterday and tied it in the garden this morning so the hamster could feed on the scorched cabbages. Now there was the question of the snake. John saw the snake clearly. He wondered if the snake saw him. And did the snake see the hamster? More importantly, did the hamster see the snake? Time would tell. John opened another beer and kept his eye on the unmoving snake.
John had come from Jersey with his wife Lucille and their three children, ages eleven to 15. The two girls, Mary Margaret and Cecile, were the oldest. The eleven-year-old boy was in fact John, Jr. , or John Henry Lewis IV, to give him all his titles. But after the assassination of President Kennedy, Lucille had insisted on calling the boy John-John, after Kennedy’s son, which John Lewis took as the clearest indication of his wife’s contempt for himself.
Sometimes he caught her looking at him with accusing eyes, as though she were saying, “If something like that could happen to a white man like John Kennedy, what can a nigger like you do to protect a black woman like me?” So the Kennedys, along with Abe Lincoln and Jesus Christ, belonged to that pantheon of white men that good niggers are supposed to worship or admire, and perhaps name their children after, since every one of them loved niggers.
At any rate, on the way to Burnside, John had bought the hamster from a roadside stand for John, Jr. over Lucille’s strenuous objections. As always, his daughters took their mother’s part, which made John even more determined to buy the hamster. The fat little rodent—built like a truncated English tram, with large cheek pouches, outfitted in glorious brown—rode the rest of the way to Burnside either sleeping or nuzzling in the boy’s lap.
Lucille insisted that she had read somewhere that hamsters were carriers of some “horrible” disease. It was always her last line of defense, quoting a real or imagined article she claimed to have read by some authority to back up her objections to whatever. Usually, John gave in; but the hamster pleased him as much as it did John, Jr. —perhaps even more so, because it was visible evidence of his increasing rebellion against Lucille—and he drove in grim silence until Lucille fell asleep and then awakened ten minutes later with complaints or advice about something else.
Within the hour, they arrived in Burnside. John’s father, a dusty scarecrow, and his mother, a supple old woman in thick cotton stockings, were happy to see them as usual. The house had five rooms and had been put up more than 40 years ago in the days when neighbors got together to help raise barns, stables, churches, and houses as a friendly community affair. There were a kitchen, living room, dining room, and two bedrooms, the second of which was reserved for company. It was into this room that John and his family were squeezed each year. His parents snored in the other room filled with the odor of camphor, which they used to help them breathe as well as to keep away evil spirits.
In the room where John slept with his family, there were two beds of the old iron variety, with hand-sewn mattresses— down here, they called them “ticks”—that were stuffed at one time with eider down when ducks had been plentiful. But in recent years, the ticks and pillows were filled with straw packing that was brought to John’s mother by friends who worked at the new glass factory outside of Dillwyn, one of several factories on the outskirts of Burnside.
In a peculiar way, it was this room that John enjoyed most when he came home for Second Sunday. For one thing, Lucille, Mary Margaret, and Cecile shared one bed, because Lucille thought it would be unnatural for a husband and wife to sleep together in a room with their children. At the same time, she objected to John, Jr. sleeping with his sisters. So she slept with her daughters on the grumpy old mattress in the largest bed. The girls lay as stiff as poles alongside their mother—they were turned with their heads to the foot of the bed, while Lucille slept the proper way—as though to keep her from rolling out of bed and breaking her neck.
John and his son shared their bed in utter luxury. And what memories came marching back to John Lewis! He always waited until Lucille and the girls had drifted off into fitful sleep. Then John wrapped his brawny arms around his son and pulled him to his chest. He could feel the boy’s heart bumping along like a tin can dragged over cobblestones, full of love and excitement.
“When I was a boy,” John whispered into his son’s ear, “this was the bed I slept in.” He kept his voice low so as not to awaken Lucille or activate the chinches that nested in the mattress. “When I was a boy,” John said, repeating himself to assure his son that he, too, had been nine or ten or eleven, “this bed seemed as large as a barn to me.” Had the boy ever seen a real barn? “No, larger than a barn. As large as the playground where you roller skate.”
“That large?” The boy probably had seen a barn, but his heart slowed down as he came home to familiar ground.
“Yes, that large. And in this bed by myself, I felt as small as one tiny pebble would feel in the middle of your playground.”
The boy’s long, thin body squirmed. “Can pebbles feel?”
John Lewis smiled in the darkness, but he felt little pleasure. At what point did a boy turn the corner that led away from childhood into being a man? Sometimes John thought that Lucille wanted to keep their son a child forever.
“I used to think that rocks and pebbles could talk,” John said. “I never really thought about them feeling.” He strained to tell his son how he, as a boy, had felt a special kinship with nature.
“You’ve seen tobacco, you remember I showed you that field of tobacco on the way down? Well, when I was your age, tobacco was like an uncle I didn’t love.”
One time, probably hallucinating in the hot Virginia sun, he had clearly heard a tobacco plant call him Nigger Nigger! as he’d reached down and cut her body cleanly from the stalk. But a brown rock had been standing nearby. Now you are a boy, the rock said. One day you will be a man and know that you are not a nigger.
John had been ten or eleven. He was in the field cutting tobacco with an army of men. He wanted to hug the rock; instead, he moved on to the next plant. His legs were weak, and every time he closed his eyes, he saw blood. He cut tobacco with a vengeance, wondering all. the time whether he had really heard the rock and, if so, whether it had been right.
He still didn’t know, Lucille certainly treated him as though he were inferior, “Tobacco smelled,” John went on, “it was messy, and we had to care for it every day, nearly all day. And it had fat worms on its leaves. . . .”
The boy shuddered and mashed himself closer to John, who tightened his arms around the boy’s back. Lucille would have thought this decidedly unnatural—perverted would have been her way of putting it—but John loved the feel of his son’s body, and he could tell from the way the boy strained against him that he, too, loved the feel of his father.
John had watched his son grow like a stalk of corn, and he was always filled with amazement that there had been a time when the boy did not exist; and then he was a swelling and a series of complaints in Lucille’s belly.
During her pregnancy, John sometimes thought—although he never accused Lucille directly—that she was trying to murder the baby with baking soda as she grumbled of gas pains, backaches, and even tipped around the subject of abortion, until abortion was out of the question. Then the boy came into being, bald, red-faced, squalling, and looking for all the world like John’s father’s father, who was also named John, after the disciple Christ loved.
Lucille had refused to see the child for three days, which hurt and angered John, as though she were deliberately cutting three days off the existence of their only son. But then, some pristine urge had fought its way to the surface through her pain and self-pity, and she had alarmed the whole maternity ward in the middle of the night by demanding to see him in her loudest, but most cultured voice.
Perhaps that was why John Lewis felt a special kinship for his son that he did not feel about the girls. They were younger, smaller models of their mother: prim, prissy; to them, everything they disliked or didn’t understand was messy. In truth, John felt he probably disliked his daughters very much; they reminded him of the evil stepsisters in “Cinderella.” Also, John had an eerie feeling that if he lowered his final guard, he and his son might be devoured by those three female creatures.
His son’s breathing had quickened, and John was aware that the boy had asked him a question for the second time. “Did the tobacco worms look like caterpillars?”
“Worse than caterpillars,” John said. “Caterpillars are kind of fun things, you know what I mean? But tobacco worms are green, fat, and ugly. You have to kill every one, or they’ll eat up the tobacco.”
Moving from the tobacco field, John talked, still in a quiet whisper, about cutting corn—”They were like green cousins, the corn stalks, with yellow silk for hair.” —and helping to thresh wheat—”Friends, not relatives, so much of it, blowing in the wind, bowing to the combine’s blade.” And his aunt the wind. The rain his mother’s softness. The thunder his Grandfather John. The lightning his father. And, bending and bowing in the wind, the trees always seemed to be the brothers and sisters he never had. And himself.
He was whispering to himself now. The boy was sleeping hard against him. At the same time, Lucille awakened. “What are you whispering about?” she demanded. John felt like a child caught doing wrong; Lucille often made him feel that way. “I guess I was talking to myself,” he said.
“Well, go to sleep.” She sounded as though she had a mouthful of spit. “Tomorrow’s Second Sunday, and we have to look good. You know how niggers are down here.”
Yes, John knew the people down here. A new generation had emerged, and they were very much like Lucille; in part, like himself, like niggers everywhere. However, it was interesting to John that in Burnside, the new generation thought they were controlling the old even as they themselves were being controlled. Tomorrow morning, for example, John’s father and mother would go to Dillwyn “to buy a few things,” because John had given them a hundred-dollar bill when he arrived. The old folks in Burnside expected their children to come home for Second Sunday with a new car, flashy clothes, and a pocketful of money. And the children who had gone away always lived up to their parents’ great expectations. This ritual had begun with the earlier myth that streets up north were paved with gold and rows of Cadillacs parked along golden curbs.
But by now, even the oldest and most ignorant folks knew better. And certainly the niggers from up North knew they were scuffling worse than dogs just to stay alive. But none of this was apparent when they came rolling into Burnside for Second Sunday. Some had saved all year in order to put on a big show. Some had hit the number at the last minute; some had pawned, begged, borrowed, or stolen—just so they could fall into Burnside looking prosperous.
And the old folks always took them at their word. “We sure could use a few things from the store,” they’d say, shrewdly, of course, lest one thought them stupid simply because they were old.
John never waited to be reminded; he walked into his father’s house with money in hand. But their small place was not as clean and certainly not as modern as John would have it be, not for the kind of money he was spending. For one thing, they drew their water from a well, and it had an earthy, unpleasant taste. Also, they still used an outdoor toilet that seemed certain to collapse one day, old as it was.
But John stayed with his parents mainly for Lucille’s benefit. She had been born and bred in New Jersey, and she looked upon this annual trip “down South” as high adventure. Also, it gave her ample opportunity to remind the children that John had been born here, in this very house, had lived here until he graduated from high school; and that among the five of them, John was the only one who had come from down here.
When she approached the hot, fetid toilet, she did so with an Alice-like curiosity, almost on tiptoes, as though there was something niggerish and outlandish and tremendously exciting about having to relieve oneself in the same way that slaves had done a hundred or more years ago. She warned the children not to fall in, and to watch out for rats and snakes and spiders, until they became terrified of the toilet. Then Lucille took them by the hand, as the need arose, and led them there, head leaning with a kind of educated curiosity to one side as though they were approaching a monument to the memories of all good dead white men. To add to their sense of reverence, Lucille referred to what she and the children did in the outhouse as BM’s and tee-teeing, and FA, which meant “false alarm.”
Each year, John had watched Lucille’s dramatics with mounting resentment. Sometimes he wished the outhouse floor would give way while she was squatting delicately and dump her upon the waste of his ancestors and their company. She seemed to think that everything in Burnside was so damned quaint. In that respect, she was certainly typical of the so-called upper-middle-class black, who had either been born in the North, or, like himself, had escaped the South.
Those around his age who stayed in Burnside had become “city.” But they were still as subject to the old folks as though they’d also gone away. They got sharped up for Second Sunday and went to church like everybody else. They worked in factories, drove new cars, bought new clothes, and in every way tried to outshine those who stayed and those who left and came back every year. They were like salmon at the spawn, desperate to fight against the current and wound themselves on the rocks of the freak show known as Second Sunday. And they grinned in embarrassment while the old folks in their old clothes showed who could shout the hardest, sing the loudest, hustle their young with the least shame, believe the strongest, and live the longest, all in the name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, white man. . . .
John yawned; he was getting sleepy now. Anyway, at least he and his family would look as good, if not better, than any other family at church. Until she decided to stop working, Lucille had been a primary school teacher. In public, she was poised, cool, elegant. She had “class”; she knew it, she showed it. John was an administrator in the Veterans Administration hospital in East Orange, New Jersey and earned a damned good salary. In another few years, he’d be eligible for retirement, even before he was 40, He hadn’t done too bad by himself, if he did say so himself. How many other sons could give their father a hundred dollars just like that. . .?
Now he could hear chinches threading through the straw-filled mattress on vermin feet. Soon, they would bite him; they were already biting his son, he could tell from the way the boy moved and scratched in his sleep, John unlocked his arms from around his son, and rolled over, and fell asleep. Curled up like a fetus, with hands mashed between his hairy legs, he did not dream at all.
That had been last night. Now, today was Second Sunday. As John expected, his parents, Lucille, and the children had piled into his Buick, with his father behind the wheel, and had gone to Dillwyn. “We just going to buy a few things,” John’s father had said; and it was true that now people in Burnside bought their food at a supermarket set like a gleaming glass-and-aluminum gem in what used to be a hay field when John was a boy. The Dillwyn store was open Sundays until noon. But the real reason for the trip, as John well knew, was because his parents wanted to show off their son’s new car, to show off their daughter-in-law and grandchildren, as an indication that somebody in the family had had enough gumption to go out and get something, except sickness, old age, and death. . . .
It seemed somewhat strange to John Lewis that this Second Sunday morning he had stayed home when the others went shopping, that he should be drinking beer on his father’s back porch, watching a motionless snake to the right of him, ignoring the hamster tied in the garden to his left, until it was absolutely time to look. He wondered if the heat might not have affected him. He finished one beer and started another. After he graduated from high school here, he had joined the Army and was sent to Europe to help blunt the threat of Soviet aggression there. Then he had fallen into the equally aggressive arms of Lucille.
Something was getting to him, because he found himself thinking of a nursery rhyme he had learned years ago:
This is the farmer sowing the corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
The rhyme, John thought, might have been about him, about the roundelay of his life. Jack was just another way of saying John. And Jack also meant male; he’d known that for a long time.
Nature, too, was like that rhyme, a marvelous, mysterious chain composed of a series of interlocking links. John believed in nature as some people believe in God. That was part of what he’d been trying to tell his son last night: “When you go to church tomorrow, don’t let all that hollering and stomping scare you. Just look outdoors at a tree. That’s what I used to do.” All on his own, he’d learned about the chain and found that he was part of it. Break one link, or several, and the chain weakens and goes haywire. Take this yard, for instance. At the far end, there had once been a beautiful flower garden, but that had long since been choked to death by weeds.
As for the vegetable garden where the hamster was tied across from the waiting snake, John’s father had planted it more out of some feeling he still held for the past, than for any practical purpose. So, in a sense, both gardens represented in miniature what had happened in Burnside on a larger scale.
Nature had been tampered with beyond her ability to endure, so she had killed off her farms and fields and flowers, like a mother gone beserk, killing all her children. She had opened her arms to the factories and her nostrils to the suffocation of gasoline fumes. And she had allowed the land to be overpopulated with deer, rats, jiveass niggers, money-hungry white folks, and monster snakes such as the moccasin, that other men in other times would not have tolerated.
Trees, and even bushes and the tops of weeds, were smothering from dust thrown up by trucks and automobiles. And the red dirt roads were littered with beer cans, cola bottles, even automobiles that had been abandoned to rust. Man and man’s mess everywhere. Was it any wonder that nature had withdrawn inside herself, like a child that tries to reenter a dark and comfortable womb?
John scratched his right bicep—the chinches had bitten him last night. There were bites on his chest and belly as well. It was nearing noon, and in a little while, the people of Burnside would pass through the church doors to thank God for His goodness. It would take them from Sunday to Sunday to say their thanks, pray their prayers, save a stray soul or two. . . .
Now John knew why he’d been sitting here watching the snake. Now he was ready to look at the hamster. He was surprised that so little time had passed; he felt that he had been involved in eternities. John opened his last beer and swiveled in the chair, his eye seeking the hamster for the first time since he’d spotted the snake.
He felt a keen sense of disappointment. In another time and place, the sacrificial beast would have been beautiful, robust, strapped to an altar. The hamster seemed to sit on its silly butt and nibble at the withered cabbage plant. On the other side of the yard, the snake—what a magnificent creation!—the snake had lowered his head tentatively and moved two or three feet into the grass. He had obviously spotted the hamster and was measuring the distance between them.
John almost felt like a referee at the final battle between good and evil. He turned his chair so that it aimed straight ahead in order to preserve detachment and objectivity. But was it really true that good and evil were involved here? Or that even his own so-called objectivity could be believed? After all, John had bought the hamster, had tied it in the row of cabbages, and could determine the outcome of the encounter by either freeing the hamster or killing the snake.
He drank some beer. Wasn’t he himself a part of the eternal pattern, the struggle for survival? It was true that he had bought and tied the hamster; man did things like that. But, if the question of equality was at work, then whatever force had created the hamster and the snake had also created him.
There was yet another element that made them equals. Excitement. The snake was heading now for the hamster with rapidly increasing undulations. The weeds and grass fell away from his progress like a crowd that steps aside to let a hero through.
In whatever way, the hamster detected danger; the stubby rodent seemed to freeze with a mouthful of cabbage and a small piece of brownish green in one paw. The sun was excruciatingly hot and cut the earth with razor strokes, slicing away the air.
John’s excitement was purely sexual. He stood up quietly, his muscular body stiff and sweaty. At the same time, he heard the familiar power of the Buick as it stopped in front of the house. His parents and family had returned. In a little while, they would all be dressed and on their way to church. John almost cursed; he wanted nothing to interfere with this drama.
But the snake was careening toward the hamster; the grass slid away and the weeds jerked aside as though touched by the music of lightning. The hamster had not moved; almost stupidly, he seemed to be made of brown rock.
But at the precise moment John thought the snake would shoot from the grass and plunge his fangs into the hamster, the snake stopped. Once again, his tongue tested the air. Now John could see all of him as he lay like a double-S in the low grass where it touched the garden.
He was at least six-feet long, as thick in the middle as John’s own wrist, the perfect phallic head sending out and receiving the slender tongue.
The hamster began to tremble, slowly at first, as though the earth under him shook once or twice, and stopped. John could hear the car doors slam in front, his father’s voice, then the childrens’. And of course there was Lucille’s shrill monotone.
Nothing could stop what was happening now. The snake lowered his head, and his body rippled with the slow, lovely grace of poison quicksilver. Now the hamster was vibrating, shaken by the hands of unseen ecstasy. A third of the snake’s body slid onto the hard red ground where the cabbages grew, a third of the distance from the hamster.
In a little while, it would be over. John felt neither sorry nor sad. He threw his head back and let the last of the beer gush down his throat. It seemed to sing and sizzle in his belly.
He turned his back on the cabbage patch and stepped down from the porch. No force in heaven or on earth could stop what was going to happen. John tossed the empty beer bottle into the woods along with the other garbage. Then he went around the corner of the house.
He could hear Lucille’s voice over everyone else’s, along with the crackle of brown paper bags from the supermarket. Man had made a mess of nature; now nature, in her own cruel way, was making a mess of man. And of his woman.
John heard the hamster yelp, an outraged and almost joyous final cry. Nature had reasserted herself, however momentarily. And he could hear Lucille’s voice—sharp, complaining, unnaturally high. It reminded him of the one-syllable song that a real woman, a woman who is really free, utters repeatedly at the last moment of fulfillment.
So Jesus Christ and John Kennedy, all the martyred white men, could go to the devil, He, John Henry Lewis III, to be precise—he was his woman’s true emancipator. He went around the house with mighty stride, body flushed, a growing heat in his loins. The sun, nature’s eye, was so hot it made him feel light-headed.
He and Lucille would stay home while the others went to church. She wouldn’t want to. She’d argue and bitch and try to get him to go. She’d look at him as though he was the lowest kind of nigger; didn’t he know she’d bought a special outfit just for today?
She’d say, “Whoever heard of anybody missing the opening services on Second Sunday?” But she’d stay with him awhile. Maybe he’d keep her home the whole damned day.