THE TUNNEL IS long and dark, and though his feet are moving it feels like he is being pulled by some other force, and then the tunnel recedes and he is alone before the vastness of the Georgia sky. To his right in a lavender glow swirl wisps of indigo cloud that surely will dissolve once the sun rises. To his left is darkness. He feels poised there, on the edge of night and day, on the cusp of summer and fall, because the morning is so much cooler than he’d expected. The shirt he’s wearing is not sufficient, but at least it is his shirt, he remembers it from so long ago, and the reason it’s too thin is because it was summer back when he was arrested, his clothes exchanged for a prison uniform. So long ago now. He stands there, shivering, taking in how tall the sky feels, how tiny he is, and it is just so amazing to be standing here alone that tears well in his eyes.
He walks slowly, because he does not want to limp on his first walk as a free man even though his right knee aches as it has for the last two years, since the fall at the bridge. He knows that his right shoulder carries higher than his left by a good inch or two, a result of the chain gang, swinging an ax until his very body was transformed.
He’d forgotten how it feels to walk in the outside world without hearing his wrists and ankles jingle. It is as though sound has been removed from his body, like some prophet has cast out the demon.
His old shirt fits loose around his slop-thinned waist but tight in the arms. He has crushed rocks and laid asphalt, he has built roads and repaired bridges, dug ditches and laid sewage pipes. He even assembled coops for poultry, not unaware of the irony that he was a prisoner building a prison for lesser creatures. He once killed a four-foot copperhead coiled beneath fallen leaves two autumns ago—or maybe it was three;
time moves in a haze now—by bringing the head of his shovel upon the beast’s endless neck. He had later wondered at his own reflexes, thinking perhaps it would have been smarter to let the snake bite him, let it inject that poison into his veins so that in a few hours all this misery would pass. There had been days and nights he wished he’d done so. But now he feels differently, because those days and nights have fled and he has survived to see this breathtaking dawn.
The pants he’s pretty sure aren’t his. They fit his torso well enough, but they’re three inches too short. They must have belonged to some other Negro prisoner, maybe someone who won’t be out for years, so Jeremiah walks with the fall air chilling his ankles.
He hears birds calling even though the nearest tree is hundreds of yards away. He doesn’t see any birds in the sky yet, though it’s brighter now, the east a dark blue and the lavender shifting over to the cloudless west. The sun has peeked over the flat earth and Jeremiah has acquired a shadow, it is long indeed and with each step he takes, that giant shadow makes a mightier stride.
There had been a time when he’d thought he was through with God. He learned not to ask the Lord for release, not to ask for concrete and specific things—a visit from his beloved, or at least a letter—and instead to ask for the intangible. Calmness. Patience. The ability to make it to the next tomorrow. Walking slowly now, he thanks the Lord he’d briefly given up on, the Lord who’d not given up on him, the Lord who had seemed to inflict far too much wrong upon Jeremiah, so much wrong that it seemed beyond any mistake, beyond any difficult and inscrutable lesson, beyond anything but outright malice. Was God evil? Jeremiah had wondered in those first weeks in prison. That questioning has passed. He cannot help himself from saying, “Thank you, Jesus,” saying it loud enough that someone would have heard him if he were not so alone.
He’s walking faster now, the shock of the world’s vastness fading only a bit, the unsettling aloneness, the lack of other people attached to him at either side, and though he does not know what he’s walking toward, he knows he needs to get there, faster, his shadow keeping pace.
He’s not even a quarter way down the wide dirt drive, the soles of his old shoes making faint impressions in the dawn-damp earth, when
he turns around and gives the prison one last look. The limestone gleams white in the sharp-angled rays of the morning sun, American and Georgian flags hanging limp atop their poles. The prison is silent from out here, no buzzers or alarms or cries, no movement, indeed he’s the only thing that seems alive, until a sudden twitch draws his eyes to a formerly motionless silhouette above. One of the guards with a rifle, looking down on him.
“Nigger, you’d best move a lot faster’n that!”
Jeremiah cannot help but increase his pace despite the shame of it, despite knowing that he is free and that the guard no longer owns him. He feels like an escapee, though he does not know what he is escaping into.
Georgia State Prison sits on the outskirts of Reidsville, or perhaps in the center of Reidsville, Jeremiah isn’t sure, or maybe the problem is that Reidsville is the sort of place with no center, only outskirts, and anyhow Jeremiah had never before been outside Atlanta so he has no clue where he is.
The warden who’d handed him his old clothes and some notarized papers along with seventy-five cents had given Jeremiah directions to the train station, but Jeremiah has already forgotten them. It was so hard to listen to minor things like turn here, straight there, bear left, when the enormity of his release hung so close. He had told the warden that he was going to the train station because his family was going to pick him up from there, which was a lie, because his mother and sister fled Georgia sometime in ’46 and there is no one here for him.
No, not quite no one. There is his girl, and though she stopped sending him letters years ago, the memory of her touch and her laugh were about the only things that kept him going. He’s dreamed of her so many times he wonders if his imagination and longing have transfigured her in his mind, if she actually doesn’t look or sound at all like he remembers. Yet the thought of her powers him forward.
The warden of course had not returned his watch, so he doesn’t know how long he’s been walking. Long enough to wish he’d been given a canteen.
The newly paved road is shaded by two rows of mighty oaks. On
either side lies farmland, peanuts and corn and even some cotton. He passes meager shacks, roofs leaning and windows nonexistent. He smells honeysuckle and ragweed and he’s wiped the dust from his nose with his shirtsleeve, as even a kerchief is beyond his means right now, nothing in his pocket but the seventy-five cents. He doesn’t rightly know if he’d had those seventy-five cents when he’d been arrested or if they’re some state-sanctioned allowance.
October and the red wasps are out, hovering over flowers and darting across the road. He remembers how the wasps always seemed to get in the way this time of year, but now he doesn’t mind them, yet another aspect of life he’d almost forgotten about.
Then he hears, faintly but distinctly, a siren.
He walks faster, his heart announcing itself to every part of his body. Hands shaking, feet nearly tripping, fingers scratching at imaginary bugs on his cheeks and chest and neck. The sirens grow louder. Why is he scared? Those sirens couldn’t possibly be for him. It sounds like at least three different vehicles echoing across the plains. He tells himself it’s a caravan to or from the prison, but the panic won’t abate.
The sirens fade, to the point that he’s not sure if he hears them anymore or if perhaps he’d only imagined them. Perhaps he will be hearing them in his sleep, intermittently, forever.
He knows the prison is on the Negro side of town, so when he sees a small clapboard structure in the distance and smells biscuits, he thanks Jesus again, trusting that this is an establishment he’s allowed to enter.
Two cars are parked in front. A sign over the door informs him not of the name of the establishment but the fact that God watches over the premises, which is either a blessing or a warning to potential thieves. Inside it appears to be part café, part grocery. Four aisles on the right are lined with goods, and to the left sit three small tables and a counter. A thin old Negro woman, sixty if she’s a day, and the first female he’s seen in months, observes him warily through thick eyeglasses, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, stacks of cigarette boxes on either side of her shiny metal register.
He smiles and for the first time in he can’t remember, he talks to a free stranger. Not sure if his “Good morning” sounds dated in some
way, if his smile or his very manner is off. How do strangers in 1950 say hello? he wonders.
Five minutes later he has sopped up every last bit of gravy with his biscuit and has ordered a second. It is beyond delicious. And the coffee, good Lord, it’s doing such things to his heart and mind that he’d not thought possible. He is a blank slate, and every taste is imprinting itself on him like a new language, a new sense entirely.
I am not a fully formed thing, Lord. I am clay. I am not cast into the mold I have been consigned into. I can still be anything. He prayed this repeatedly over the years, so many times, both a promise and a plea.
He is standing to leave now, tired of the woman’s long and suspicious looks his way, as if she is waiting for him to do some wrong. As if he’s just dying to break another law. In truth, he was disappointed to realize when he paid that he’d figured the math wrong and he has but a dime left. He’d like to buy some smokes but those are beyond his reach, and how is he going to afford a ticket to Atlanta?
The door opens and a bell chimes and in walks a Negro man, his hair white and Brylcreemed back in waves from his shiny forehead.
“Ay there, Marcie, how you doing?”
“Fair to middlin’. Gonna be a beautiful day, Reverend.”
Overhearing strangers is so odd, that and the glances the reverend has cast his way, unless Jeremiah’s imagining it, which maybe he is. His instincts tell him he needs to leave. He walks toward the door, trying to give the reverend plenty of space, afraid of any accidental contact, wary of tripping others’ alarms.
Outside it seems three hours warmer. The sun is awake now and has amassed its power. He should have asked them how much farther it was to the station, but he’d been afraid. Afraid of what? He doesn’t know.
Then the door opens behind him and he hears the reverend’s voice.
Jeremiah turns. The reverend is walking toward him, a bag in one hand. He is a tall fellow and his frame bears evidence of more than just reading the Good Book. To the preacher’s left is what must be his blue Ford pickup, as it hadn’t been there earlier.
“Good morning, Reverend,” Jeremiah replies.
The reverend takes in the too-short pant legs, notes the hair in need
of a trim. Jeremiah wears a beard as well, not because he prefers it but because his weekly trip to the prison barber for a shave is normally scheduled for a few hours from now.
“A good day to be alive, isn’t it?” the preacher asks.
“Yes, it is, Reverend.”
Crows call in the trees above, blaming each other for misdeeds.
“How long has it been for you?”
“Five years. And one month. And six days.”
“Ah yes, no one knows arithmetic quite like a man in prison.” The reverend pauses, perhaps trying to determine what crime Jeremiah must have committed to receive such a term.
“Where are you headed?”
“Atlanta. Somehow. Train, I suppose.”
“Nearest station is in Statesboro.”
Another town he’s never heard of. “Okay.” He points down the road. “That way?”
“More or less. But it’s about thirty miles from the ground you’re standing on. What’s your name?”
“You know the Good Book?”
“Jeremiah was a prophet. He foretold God’s covenant with Israel. That they were the chosen people and would be saved.”
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil.”
The reverend smiles, reassessing him. “You do know it.”
“Wouldn’t lie to a preacher, sir.”
“It’s one of my favorite chapters.” Silence for a beat. “But there was an if. Just like there is in modern times, there’s always an if. The if was, God would save them if they worshipped Him and only Him, not any false gods. We sin, but there’s always forgiveness. Like a parent’s unconditional love. But with God, there is that one condition: that we worship him.”
Jeremiah is surprised to find himself being taught a lesson after five years and one month and six days of ostensibly being taught a lesson, but this happens to be one with which he agrees.
“There was a fire this morning,” the reverend says. “White folks’ house burned down, don’t ask me how. You’re a lucky man.”
“How’s that?” Lucky is something that Jeremiah surely hasn’t felt in a good while.
“One of three things occurs when they release a Negro from that jail, son. One is that the prisoner has family or friends arrive to pick him up. Two is that, if his people don’t have a vehicle, the prison takes him by bus to the train station, where his people meet him. And three, if he doesn’t have any people to meet him at all, they let the prisoner walk. They give him seventy-five cents, am I right? And about an hour or two after he’s done walked away and maybe spent that money on a pack of cigarettes or some food, the local Reidsville police arrest him for vagrancy.”
“I got out legit. I didn’t bust out.”
“That don’t matter.”
“I’ve got these here papers,” and Jeremiah reaches into his pocket, only to stop pulling when he sees the way the preacher is shaking his head and laughing.
“Don’t matter, son. That’s how they do. I seen it happen too many times. That house caught fire this morning, all the police headed over to help the volunteer firemen. Which means that whoever was supposed to arrest you had greater things to deal with.”
The preacher pauses to let this sink in.
“I was you? I’d get down and pray to God tonight and thank Him for setting that fire, and ask that He didn’t kill anyone to do it, because if He did then you’ve got those deaths on your soul as thanks for your freedom today.”
Jeremiah thinks about this. It seems exactly the sort of randomly violent act God would commit, to confuse and test us. He had heard that the local cops did such things, of course, and he had met many prisoners who claimed to have been released and then re-jailed in shockingly quick time, but he’d not considered that such a fate could befall him.
“I didn’t ask Him to kill no one for me.”
“I’m not saying He did, son. I’m just saying the dice were cast in an unusual way this morning, and you’re the beneficiary of a strange roll
indeed. And it’s gonna cost me half a tank of gas to drive sixty miles round trip and two dollars to buy you a ticket to Atlanta, but that’s what I’m gonna do, because if the Lord sees fit to set a fire to keep you out of jail, the least I can do is make a small sacrifice on your behalf. Get on in.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thank Him, like I said.”
A siren interrupts their exchange. Jeremiah turns his head and the land here is so flat that he can see, far behind them, a squad car racing their way. He looks at his Good Samaritan and sees that the preacher’s air of casual wisdom has been replaced by something less secure.
“I’ll . . . I’ll go my separate way,” and Jeremiah starts to leave.
“No. You stay here.” Still, the reverend sounds nervous as he watches the road. The squad car will be upon them in seconds.
“I don’t want to cause you no harm.”
“Just hold tight.”
Jeremiah’s hands are shaking. Why would they be after him again? Why do they act this way? I don’t understand this world. Not this world meaning the outside as opposed to prison, but this world meaning everything. Given all that has befallen him, he knows that some basic ability to make sense of events and rules and cause and effect is essentially broken in him. The world operates according to a perverse logic he is doomed not to fathom.
The squad car slows down and pulls into the lot. Gravel crunches as it parks beside the pickup.
Please, Lord, not now please not this I have tried to be faithful and good and I must find my girl and we will grow old and worship You together please please I will be Your servant I ask only for this please.
The preacher gives Jeremiah the briefest of looks, not even turning to face him, and he says, “I’m sorry, son.”
“Hey there, Odell,” the officer says as he exits the car and walks up to the preacher. Whitish-yellow face, like freshly whipped butter, and the butter’s starting to melt because his skin is shiny, Jeremiah can see the glisten even though the officer’s wide-brimmed hat blocks out the morning light. His tan uniform shirt is damp in the armpits and he sounds tired.
“Good morning, Officer,” the reverend says.
“Who that you got with you?”
Jeremiah looks away, avoiding eye contact. “Jeremiah Tanner, Officer, sir.”
“Just got out, huh? What you doing with him, Odell?”
The reverend, too, stares straight ahead. “I was just offering a ride to someone. Didn’t mean no trouble by it.”
“Hell,” the cop says, just like a basic exhalation, as if unaware it’s not a polite word to use around a man of God. “What a morning.”
“Those people okay?” the reverend asks.
“The fire. I can smell it on you.”
Jeremiah can, too, the cop carrying with him a miasma of burned wood, a scent familiar from winter fireplaces but different, too, something else mixed in, bitter and sharp.
“It was awful. Awful.”
Please, Lord, please spare me please.
Seconds pass and that appears to be all the officer can speak of the matter. He stands there with one hand against the roof of the pickup, and at first Jeremiah had taken this for a proprietary mannerism (I own this pickup and the two of you both) but with each passing second it seems different.
“Are you all right?” the reverend asks.
Please, Lord, please do not let this man take me.
Jeremiah is still afraid to look directly at the officer but he’s watching from the corner of his eye and it seems like the officer takes one of his hands, the one not holding on to the truck, and drags it up his own body as if trying to make sure it’s all there, and it lingers over his heart. Then the cop falls.
“Officer Dave?!” the reverend calls in alarm. The officer lands on his side, a wholly unnatural and strange position, one arm pinned beneath him and the other hand still gripping his chest as if trying to find a handle there, something to switch it back on. The reverend gently rolls the officer onto his back.
More wrinkles have gathered on Officer Dave’s forehead than Jeremiah has ever seen on a white person. The cop seems to be holding his
breath, his face red, his entire body clenched like the fist that can’t find a handle for his heart.
“Officer Dave, can you speak?” The reverend is panicked and only later will Jeremiah wonder if he’s seen this sort of thing before, because surely preachers visit many a deathbed but how many times do they see the hand of God strike so clearly and violently?
The officer lifts his head a bit off the ground, like he’s trying so hard to reply that his entire body moves even if his tongue won’t, and then his head hits the ground and he unclenches.
“Oh Lord! Oh Lord!” The preacher is as still as the cop for a moment, and then he reaches for the white man’s wrists, checking for a pulse. “You hang on there, Officer Dave, you hang on!” From here Jeremiah can’t see the preacher’s face as he intones with the sudden clarity of his profession, “Lord Jesus, please spare this man. Please let him see his family again, Lord.”
Jeremiah wonders if the reverend knows that the Lord has received wildly conflicting prayers from this very spot, within seconds.
Did You do this, Lord? Did I?
The reverend stands, looking first at the squad car and then at Jeremiah and then back at the fallen man. “We gotta . . . We gotta get him to a hospital. Help me get him in!”
Getting Officer Dave into the pickup is difficult, as they are both wary—or Jeremiah certainly is, at least—of touching a white man, especially a defenseless one. They carefully lift him from either side, almost like pallbearers, and part carry, part drag him, his shoes etching long trails in the gravel. They manage to sit him in the passenger seat, and after Jeremiah closes the door, the cop’s head leans onto the glass, looking uncomfortable and perhaps dead already, but the reverend insists he’s alive yet.
Jeremiah picks up the man’s hat, which had fallen off, and he holds it in his lap as he hops into the back of the truck. The sun shines hot on Jeremiah’s skin as the reverend hits the gas and they speed off, leaving the squad car and grocery behind like a tiny island of civilization in the midst of God’s wilderness. The wind is too loud as they speed along and Jeremiah is left with his thoughts, his shockingly answered prayers, his profound confusion.
You light a fire for me and kill innocents, Lord? Have You struck down this man as well? For what have You marked me? What is in store?
He stares at the cop’s hat, upside down in his hands now, sees the sweat stain and feels the dampness there, and he holds it to his nose and breathes in, taking the scent of the woodsmoke and holding it in his chest.
They reach a town and the reverend drives through a stop sign while honking his horn. The truck pulls into a circular drive beside a white building that back in Atlanta would have been considered small but here it’s the county hospital.
A thin white man in a blue smock is waving his arms in the universal symbol of do not proceed which Jeremiah knows so well from his time working the rail yards but the reverend proceeds nonetheless, pulling up right in front of this outraged white man.
“We don’t take coloreds here!”
“I got a white man that’s sick! A policeman!”
The white doctor or orderly looks through the window now, and though Officer Dave’s mussed and sweaty hair against the window hardly looks official, he can see the uniform shirt and the badge and now the white man realizes this is a serious matter. He looks back at the reverend, then at Jeremiah in back, as if searching for weapons or signs of blood.
“We were talking and he just up and keeled over! Don’t know if it’s his heart or heat exhaustion from the fire or what, but he needs help!”
The white man tells them to wait there, and they do, at least until he’s disappeared into the building.
“Get out,” the reverend says as he opens his door. Jeremiah climbs out of the pickup, and the reverend reaches into his pocket and hands Jeremiah a five. “That’s plenty for a ticket to Atlanta.” Then another five. “And that’s insurance against the Atlanta police using your empty pockets as an excuse to get you for vagrancy.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
“You’d best get away from here now. Gonna be crawling with cops in a minute.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll manage. Now walk down that way to the corner and you catch the bus to Statesboro. Bus don’t come soon, might want to hide someplace. I’ll do what I can for you.”
The preacher grabs Jeremiah’s shoulder now, holding him for a second, seeming to want a last, good hard look at this man for whom the Lord has made such a startling intervention. He says, “May the Lord bless you and keep you safe,” and Jeremiah nods, then walks away.
The Lord sends the bus in mere seconds. It is nearly empty and Jeremiah sits alone in the back, the wind through an open window warm in his face.
He rides for what feels like an hour. Finally the bus passes through the ghostly beauty of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss—so foreign from Atlanta, like another world—and then past the one stoplight en route to a small train station flanked by palmetto trees. Three colored people stand outside in the colored waiting “room,” a mere platform with a roof but no walls. The white waiting room is indoors.
As he boards the train, stepping onto the front colored car that smells like soot, he ponders the reverend’s words about his namesake prophet’s warnings. He marvels at the morning’s events, wondering if he has the strength to endure whatever the Lord might throw at him next. Why would Jeremiah, who already loves God, need to be tested like this? And if Jeremiah truly does love God, why does he always think the Lord so cruel, so manipulative, so hurtful? Is this really love, or something worse? If Jeremiah is undeserving of all the ills that befell him these last five years, is he also undeserving of being spared at the expense of Officer Dave and the white people in the burned house? How would the preacher figure that kind of arithmetic?
Jeremiah sits by the train car’s window and feels the world pull out from beneath him, first with a weary immensity and then with more speed and power until he is near weightless, hurtling north toward the city from which he’d been exiled.