THE NEW GOSPEL TRAGEDY
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“Peggy-Ann, you hear about Zeke Parsons’ little girl, how she smacked his face? You ever hear of that, little girl hitting her own daddy?”
“Daddy must’ve been drunk again.”
“That’s right. He was so drunk, he beat the puppy he give her last week for her birthday, and she just hauled off and hit him so hard he fell down and stayed there.”
“Your family would have problems, too, Bobbie-Sue, if your Ralph drank the way Zeke does. Lord, I don’t think I’ve seen that man sober since that business with his momma back when he was what-sixteen? fifteen?”
“I wasn’t living here yet, remember? But I hear folks say that was a tragedy, sure enough, and maybe justice, too.”
“I know just what you mean. I can remember old Miz Parsons putting on airs all over the county, getting the first TV anybody ever saw round these parts. Used up all the insurance money from when her man got killed by that saw broke loose...”
“My momma said if he hadn’t been...”
“...and ran wild down at the mill. Him hardly cold in the ground, house needs fixing, but there she was parading around town for days inviting everyone to gather on her lawn Saturday evening after the set was supposed to arrive. Why she even mailed an invitation to old Miz Boone, and they hadn’t spoken in near twenty years, my momma said.”
“Folks say she invited Miz Boone just to show her up.”
“That’s right. Anyway, the day that television set arrived, the whole town knew, and right after dinner, just about everyone was scootched all together on Miz Parson’s front lawn. My momma wasn’t gonna let me go, but I screamed and hollered something fierce, and finally my daddy says, better take her than have her come screaming up to that house, make fools of us.
“We went there, and up on her porch is this giant brown piece of furniture, near big as a coffin, setting on top an old door Miz Parsons had laid across two sawhorses. It was plugged into a great long extension cord run out the living room window. Teeny-tiny screen in those days, no more than 10,12 inches, but, my, they put it in a huge cabinet, nothing like the twenty-one inch Sony we got in our living room now. Sound supposed to come out some fuzzy cloth either side of the picture tube. TV came from Montgomery Wards all the way over to Beulahville, the truck late because none of them delivery boys had been out this way before and they took a wrong turn at Arthur Hodges’ place.”
“I remember him, died of a heart attack week after we move here…”
“When it finally arrives, Miz Parsons tells the boys to stick it up on that door, and she makes sure she doesn’t turn it on even for herself til everybody shows up. Now there’s that great big box, everybody looking up at it like it was some kind of preacher passing through to give us the word itself.
“Well, right before eight o’clock, Miz Parsons gets up from the rocking chair she’s sitting in next to the platform, and she raises her hands high, that short white hair of hers looking like some kind of halo. She’s about to start speaking to the crowd when she looks round and realizes something’s missing. So she twists her head back toward the house and calls, ‘Zeke! Zeke Parsons, you get out here right now!’ And there comes Zeke out the front door like he’s been caught in the bushes with Maybelle Grimes again. I remember thinking, Why isn’t that boy proud? He slouches down those porch steps and stands off to one side while he watches his momma.
“Miz Parsons sees he’s there and turns back to the crowd. Almost like she’s teasing, she says, ‘Guess everyone who wanted to come must be here by now,’ and we see her eyes rise over us to the street. Everybody’s head turns, and I hear my momma whisper to my daddy, ‘I don’t believe it!’ Whole crowd just stares at Miz Boone coming towards us, keeping to the dirt sidewalk in front of the house. You remember how it looked then, before the county got round to laying the concrete, three, four years later?”
“And never touched it again in all...”
“It had rained cats and dogs that afternoon, too, so poor Miz Boone is standing there with her long black skirt trailing in the mud because there wasn’t any way she was going to set foot on Miz Parsons’ property. Pretty soon, Miz Parsons realizes she ‘s not getting attention any more, so she raises her voice and says, ‘Well neighbors, here comes the First Television Program Ever in the History of New Gospel!’ And she reaches up and turns on the television, her not even five feet tall and could hardly reach the knob, she set that TV so high. There’s a big hush and time passes, but nothing happens. ‘Hey Mabel,’ my daddy calls, ‘looks like the damned thing’s busted!’ ‘Now you watch your swearing, Lucas Burns,’ says Miz Parsons, ‘and don’t you be so all-fired impatient. This here TV needs time to get started, get all that electricity circulating everywhere it needs to go.’ So everybody laughs at my daddy, and I shrink down like I don’t belong to these people I’m standing next to.
“And sure enough, a couple of seconds later, light starts to spread over that screen. Everybody goes ooh and aah. But there’s no picture, just lines and dots, flashing away. More time goes by. And still the only thing coming out of that set is these light patterns. Miz Parsons reaches up and fiddles with a knob here and a knob there, and now we can hear a lot of buzzing and crackling coming out of the fuzzy cloth. Miz Parsons smiles at us like she just swallowed a cup of castor oil but she’s in church, and says, ‘Now you all be patient out there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, remember.’ But pretty soon, the crowd starts murmuring, and I see Miz Parsons getting all red in the face, foot stomping on the porch without making any noise, like it could shake that TV into life.
“Right about then, we hear a soft kind of snort from back of the crowd, so soft you can’t even be sure you really heard anything. But everybody turns round again, and there goes Miz Boone, dignified as can be even with mud sucking at her shoes every step she takes. Her white hair is bobbing as though she’s keeping time to the hymn music on Sunday morning, and her little black purse is flapping against her hip. I mean, you knew she was just as smug as could be even though you couldn’t see one bit of her face.
‘The whole crowd’s watching Miz Boone, but something makes me turn, and I see Miz Parsons, eyes flashing the way I used to imagine the devil’s would if someone called him. She grabs her rocking chair and yanks it over alongside that TV and she climbs up, the chair rocking back and forth and her skinny arms waving in the air to keep her balance, and she gives a big kick to get one leg up on the platform, and somehow it gets there. Then up comes the other leg, and those arms still waving like she’s some kind of puppet on a string because the door she’s standing on is moving side-to-side and front-to-back on them sawhorses. But even while she’s keeping her balance, she’s reaching for the top of the set where there must’ve been a whole other bunch of knobs to adjust the picture. She reaches out one hand to grip that TV for balance while the door keeps shaking, and I see her fingers on the other hand turning one thing after another this way and that way, and she’s cocking her head back to watch the screen and see if she’s making any difference.
“All of a sudden, you hear a man’s voice booming out of the set, saying nothing you can understand, and some face comes on the picture tube. Everybody turns to peer at the porch again, and I sneak a look at the street where Miz Boone has stopped in her tracks but isn’t turning round. Then I look back at Miz Parsons, and I see her lift her arms above her head and start to shout ‘PRAISE THE...’ And just at that moment, that platform gives way, and she’s falling over backward, arms stretching out like she’s trying to float on water, and the TV falling with her, and the impact so heavy the boards on the porch snap, and she goes right out of sight, and the TV, too.
“Zeke leads the rush up the stairs over to the hole. He like to jump down there, but a bunch of men grab hold of him first. I see this ring of faces up on the porch staring down into that hole and studying on it. Then everybody starts shouting, and people fetch axes, try to chop through the top and sides of the porch to reach her. My momma and daddy and everybody else rush forward to see if they can help, but I just stay put, so I’m all alone on that lawn. I see all those axes, rising and falling, Zeke swinging in there with the rest, and hear the boards splintering, and hear men cussing but nobody, not even Reverend Johnson, saying anything about it. Finally, it seemed like 20, 30 minutes, but must’ve been a whole lot shorter, they make a hole in the side of the porch, and two boys, Tom Hodsen owned the dry goods store and Freddy Jones worked for him, crawl in. Zeke runs down and tries to follow, but folks hold him back again. I edge forward and peek through a crack in the crowd where I can see that the men under the porch are trying to pull that monster TV out of the way because Miz Parsons is trapped underneath it. She’s not moving or saying anything so far as I can tell, and these men are desperate because they can’t do anything without hurting her.
“Suddenly I see Zeke race round the house and come back carrying a couple ropes. He dashes up the porch and hands the ends round. You look up there and the men are passing down rope, and then you look down under the porch and you see the rope getting looped round the TV, and you look up again and see the men heaving, and you look down and you see the set rise just far enough so the two men there can slide Miz Parsons out from under it.
“They pull her out the hole and onto the lawn, Zeke looking down over the porch rail, straight above where she’s laying. Albert Williams leans over her mouth and says, ‘She’s still breathing.’ He listen some more and adds, ‘just barely though.’ Martha, Albert’s wife, had had the good sense to run down the street to fetch Doc Sloane, probably the only person in town not out on that lawn. He comes running up, huffing and puffing with his spectacles bouncing up and down on his nose and him holding his black bag in front so it keeps banging against that big belly, and he squats over her and does a lot of listening and thumping, and then I see him shake his head and signal to Sam Carpenter who goes off to fetch something to put over her.
“Just then, I feel someone touch my shoulder, and I jump like it was the devil himself. I turn, and who do I see standing behind me, gripping onto me, but old Miz Boone! She’s just staring like a zombie at her dead sister. Her fingers keep squeezing my shoulder, but something makes me stay quiet and just look at her. I didn’t exactly feel any pain; it was more a kind of pressure, made me feel important to this grown-up person, however strange she might be, like I was that platform up on the porch only solid and not about to fall.
“Miz Boone, she just stands on the grass, that hand clutching my shoulder. Her own shoulders are sagging like I never saw on that proud lady, and up behind her wire spectacles I swear I see a tear come out and start to run down her face. Then she jerks her head like she’s waking from a long sleep, and she looks down at me and sees what she’s doing to my shoulder. She pulls her hand away, then pats the shoulder a few times, like you smooth out a blanket when you’re making a bed. She reaches in that little black purse and pulls out the daintiest handkerchief you ever did see, hardly bigger’n her hand itself and with a fancy ‘K’ embroidered in one corner...”
“Her first name was Katherine, neighbor told me one time.”
“...and she dabs it ever so gently at her cheek like she’s fixing her makeup instead of wiping off that tear. Then she smiles at me, but a sad smile, like I’m some kind of long-lost friend she never expects to see again. She pats my head and turns and walks off that lawn, through the mud, down the street and out of sight. I turn round, and I see everyone still looking at Miz Parsons, now all covered up. Only thing Sam could find to put over her was in the Parsons’ backyard shed who knows how many years, a scuffed rug falling apart, and her so tiny it’s like somebody just swept the floor and hid the dust under there.
“Up on the porch, I see Zeke sneaking into the house all alone. Next time I see him is at the funeral, and everybody could tell he’d gotten hold of liquor somewhere.”
“Folks say he was spying when his daddy...”
“Almost fell into the grave, he did, right in the middle of Reverend Johnson’s preaching. It was a proper disgrace, kept the whole town talking for days after.”