I Am a Man by Robert McKay

…there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman…     –Col. 3:11


It was three months after we got married that Cecelia and I walked east on Indian School to the mountains. Summer had come, and we each carried a small backpack with water and food, for we didn’t want to depend on what we could buy.


Cecelia was wearing a sleeveless blouse that showed the muscle in her thin arms. Normally she wears sleeves, but today she’d decided to get some sun. “I suppose that with enough exposure I’d burn,” she’d said, “but all it would do is make me darker.” And she’d grinned, her teeth startlingly white in her narrow face.


We walked slowly east, passing out of Hoffmantown into the larger Northeast Heights.   We’d talked a little about moving into the far Heights, which we could afford together, but the neighborhood where we lived was quiet; we were near the library, across the street from one park and within easy walking distance of two others without crossing a major road; and two malls were nearby. And paying on a house closer to the mountains would have left us with less ready cash – what I called walking around money and Cecelia referred to as pocket money. I didn’t know if her expression was her own or one from her raising – living in Texas and Oklahoma I’d heard “mad money,” but she’s from Alabama.


We’d walked holding hands, but after we crossed Eubank Cecelia took hold of my arm. “Darvin, I’d like you to meet my parents.”


“Works for me. I had wondered why we’d not seen ‘em already…”


“It’s me, Darvin. I love you, and nothing can change that. But I was scared – I am scared – of what my parents will say.”


“About what?”


“About you.”


“They don’t like private investigators? But that shouldn’t—Oh, that,” I finished lamely.


“Yes, that. I love my parents, but they’ve lived poor in Alabama and they’ve little cause to welcome a white man into the family.”


“I know you’ve told ‘em that we’re married—”


“I told them we were getting married the same day I proposed,” she interrupted.


“—and I know you’re too honest to have hidden the fact that I’m white.”


“No, I didn’t hide it.   But…”


We walked in silence for a few steps, and then I asked, “Have you talked to your parents about us visiting?”


“Yes – they’re of two minds about it. They want to meet their son-in-law, but a white man…they’re still trying to digest that.”


“But they are trying.”




“They sound like admirable people. And they raised you, and that tells me a lot right there.


“Look, C, I can get away anytime just now, so if you can get loose from your job, and your parents are willing, I’m ready when you are.”


* * *


Cecelia’s hometown is a little place called Leanna, on State Highway 125 in northern Coffee County. We took it slow and arrived in the area three days after we left Albuquerque.   We went on past Leanna and stayed the night in Enterprise. I’d spent a week in the area several years ago, and of course Cecelia had visited Enterprise more than once growing up. We looked at the boll weevil monument, and ate supper, and went to bed early hoping to cobble together sufficient sleep before heading up to Leanna in the morning.


Alabama is a humid place. We got up the next morning about 6:30 – not because we’d set the alarm, but because neither of us was able to sleep; excitement isn’t compatible with being a log all night. There was a mist drifting by, a mist that had risen from the lawns and fields of moist earth.   I’m a desert rat, and I’d had enough of dripping atmosphere in Texas and Oklahoma.   I didn’t care for this climate, even though it was cool and pleasant enough as Cecelia and I went for a brief walk in the shining mist.


It was about 20 miles up to Leanna, so we checked out of the hotel and hit the road just after seven. We figured it ought to take no more than half an hour to drive it – you can’t drive 75 on country roads, and shouldn’t want to. The purpose of freeways is to prevent people from seeing anything interesting, but off the big roads you see all sorts of stuff.


In fact it took us a little less than 30 minutes to get there. A few years ago Cecelia had bought her parents a house at the edge of town, enabling them to move off the farm they really weren’t up to anymore. They’d insisted that the house have some land with it, and it was on the northern end of Leanna with a garden behind it big enough to feed several families. It was in sight of other houses, but it had a dirt driveway just like the country.   From the outside it looked neat and clean and well-tended, and it was clear that however much age had limited the Johnstons, they still knew how to work.


We’d come in my truck rather than Cecelia’s car, because she liked to rest her hand on mine as I rested it on the gearshift.   I pulled the truck into the driveway and shut off the engine. Cecelia and I looked at each other, and she gave my hand a quick squeeze before we climbed out.


As we walked toward the porch a couple came out, he tall and straight and gray, she shorter and plump and drying her hands on her apron. Cecelia ran and hugged the woman and then the man, squealing, “Mama! Daddy!” It was the first time I’d ever heard her sound like a little girl – and I guess for a moment she was, indeed, the little Johnston girl.


I came along more slowly, not in any hurry to interrupt the reunion. As I climbed the porch steps I took off my hat. Cecelia turned and took my hand. “Mama, Daddy, this is Darvin.”


Mrs. Johnston put out her hand and I shook it, and then the same with her husband. They both had the strong sure handshake of people who’ve used their hands for a long time.


As her parents turned and went back inside Cecelia reached up and kissed me. As she did I heard her father say, “At least he’s got manners.”


* * *


Cecelia spent the morning in the kitchen with her mother, while I served as her father’s gofer. He was working on a balky tractor, something beyond my expertise, and I handed tools and kept my mouth shut. I’m from the country myself, and know how much a flapping mouth can ruin.


We were both hot and sweaty when Cecelia came out under the tree where we were working. She was drying her hands on an apron now, and her face was shiny – no doubt she’d been sweating in the kitchen. “Daddy,” she said, “Mama says to tell you lunch is ready.”


He grunted at her – he was just then trying to turn a stubborn bolt. Cecelia came and gave me a quick kiss and went back in the house.


I had a can of three-in-one oil in my hand, and gave it to Mr. Johnston as he reached for it. He squirted a copious amount on the bolt and said, “We’ll leave that set a while.” He got to his feet, saying, “We’ll wash up at the back faucet.”


There was a faucet at the back of the house, raised on a four-foot pipe that had a towel hung over the top. He washed first, and then me. As I was drying my hands he asked in his slow voice, “My daughter sets some store by you, don’t she?”


“Yes, sir, she does.”


“And you?”


“Mr. Johnston, I’m left-handed – very much so.”   I held out my left hand. “And if it would help Cecelia I’d cut off my own left arm, and count it no loss.”


He grunted, and led the way inside to lunch.


* * *


After lunch Cecelia took me out to where she’d grown up. Her parents hadn’t owned the place, they’d been sharecroppers, but to her it had been home until she went away to college. It could never have been much, a shotgun shack with tarpaper on the roof and outside walls, and no paint, but now, abandoned – for it seemed the owner had decided to incorporate the land into his own operation – it was falling slowly down. Cecelia walked around the house, touching the walls as though their decaying tangibility took her back to childhood. I leaned against her mom’s car, which Cecelia had driven, and let her remember.


After a while she took my hand and led me across the fields, down the rows between the dark green cotton plants. She held my hand, her face in thoughtful repose. We walked silently to the far end of the field and stopped there, where a patch of woods offered some shade from the steaming sun.


“Dirt poor,” she murmured. “I’ve chopped cotton in this field. I’ve picked cotton in this field. I’ve carried water and lunch to my father and brother as they slaved in this field.


“I’ve told you I grew up dirt poor.” She stooped, and in her free hand caught up a clump of dark earth, black against the lighter skin of her palm. “Do you know what that means?”


I shook my head.


“It means that I spent all day during the summer, day after day, barefoot – not because I wanted to go barefoot, but because I only had one pair of shoes and I had to save them for church and school.   It means that for weeks on end this dirt—” she gave the fistful of earth a bitter squeeze “—ground into my skin and drove under my fingernails so that no amount of washing would get it out. It means that we worked like dogs to plant and cultivate and pick the cotton, and maybe after the rent and fertilizer and kerosene and food and everything else, maybe we’d have a little extra for my parents to get me, my brother, and my sister one present each at Christmas.”


She was looking fiercely into my face, and her grip on my hand was desperate. She turned over her other hand and slowly opened her clenched fist. The clot of compressed earth dropped between her feet, lost again in the largeness of the field. As I watched it fall I remembered the lines from the Qur’an: “If you are in doubt about the Resurrection, then verily We have created you…from a clot…”   I’m a Christian, not a Muslim, and my memory told me that the clot wasn’t earth, but in some translations the Qur’an is good poetry, and the lines seemed apt. “Do you believe this happened the 60s and 70s?” Cecelia asked me.


I nodded.


“It’s all foreign to you, isn’t it?” she asked.


“Yes and no. I grew up with Coleman lanterns and a party line – the phone was a couple or three miles away – and no electricity, but it was our choice. We preferred to live in Lanfair Valley, rather than where the amenities were. So I know the trappings – but I cannot know the lack of any other choice.”


“I want you to know where I came from, Darvin.   It’s the source of my pride, my drive, my determination. If you don’t know that my feet stand on this land, you can’t know me.”


“Cecelia, if this earth is the pedestal you stand on, I cannot erect a higher one to place you on.”


She gripped me in a ferocious hug. I could feel tears wetting my shirt as she clung to me.   “I love you so much, Darvin.”


I held her tightly as I said, “I love you too, Cecelia.”


* * *


As we finished supper that night Cecelia said to me, “Daddy has elected me to tell you about a family custom. After supper, before we leave the table, someone reads a passage from the Bible. Whoever’s reading chooses the passage – and Daddy would like you to read tonight if you don’t mind.”


“I’d be honored, Mr. Johnston. C, would you go grab my Sword, please?”


“I’m way ahead of you, Darvin,” she said laughing.   And she reached for the Bible that her father was handing her – my Bible, I saw. I turned to Proverbs, and read from chapter 31, beginning with verse 10 and finishing out the chapter.


As I slowly closed the book I looked at Cecelia’s parents. “I chose that passage because I’ve found an excellent wife. You raised a wonderful daughter, and in the few months I’ve known her I’ve come to treasure her.


“It’s probably difficult having me for a son-in-law.   But I can only imagine the joy it must be to have Cecelia for a daughter.”


Mrs. Johnston got up and began bustling about, clearing the table with much clatter. Her husband humphed and blew his nose, and rose from his chair muttering about allergies. I’m from the country myself; I knew I’d gotten it right, and blew a sigh of relief.


Cecelia and I started to help with the dishes, but Mrs. Johnston, remarking that since this was the only honeymoon we’d had she wasn’t about to let us do her work for her, chased us out. Mr. Johnston, reading the paper in the living room, said, “Y’all’d best get up to your room, Cissy. Tomorrow’s Sunday, you know.”


So Cecelia and I went upstairs to the room they’d set aside for her when she bought them the house. We showered, and slept well in that place that wasn’t so strange to me after all.


* * *


For as long as Cecelia could remember her family had been members of Mt. Tabor Missionary Baptist Church.   Even when farming they’d been closer to Mt. Olivet, which was actually in Leanna. Now that her parents lived in town it was a pretty fair drive to the country church, but they still did it.


Cecelia had explained to her parents that I didn’t even own, and would not wear, a suit and tie, so they weren’t surprised that I didn’t have one on. Mr. Johnston was of course in a suit, and Mrs. Johnston had on a lavender dress and matching hat. Cecelia had on the black and gold ankle-length dress she’d worn the first time she’d gone to church with me. I had put on my fancy boots, and a fancy shirt in black and red, and instead of the battered cowboy hat I normally wore I carried a really nice brown bullrider that I would put on once we got outside. I was as dressed up as I’d been since the wedding – and that had been the most dressed up I’d been in years.


Mr. Johnston’s truck, like mine, wasn’t a passenger vehicle. Mrs. Johnston’s car really wouldn’t work either – it was nice but small. We decided that I’d take Cecelia in my truck, and her parents would go in her mom’s car. They pulled out first, and we followed, though Cecelia knew the way as well as her parents. We were running a bit late, but that didn’t bother me; in the two years I’d been part of a black Baptist church in Oklahoma I’d never once seen the service start on time.


And it didn’t. About 10 minutes after the time things got going. There’s nothing like a service at a black church. It’s a whole different culture, one totally foreign to most whites. Yet the Bible is the same, and Christ is the same, and it’s possible to wish that whites would get as excited about their faith.


The pastor got to moanin’ during his sermon, and I remembered a discussion Cecelia and I had had several months ago, before we got married. I glanced at her where she sat between me and her parents. There was a slight smile at the corners of her mouth, and I thought I knew what she was thinking. I leaned over and whispered in her ear, “He’s not Tyrone, is he?”


Cecelia looked at me, and then her eyes got big and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Her shoulders shook, and a slight choked sound came from behind her hand.   I’d guessed right, and she was having a hard fight not to laugh out loud. Eventually she got herself under control, but through the rest of the service she kept having to hide a grin behind her hand.


The pastor apparently had been a little disappointed by the size of the offering. With a candor that was foreign to white churches, he commented at the end of the service on the amount of the offering, and then brought the service to a close. I had an idea, and looked at Cecelia as we slowly worked our way toward, and then out, the door. She appeared to have finally gotten control over herself – good.


You don’t leave a black church in a hurry.   The service is long, and the people visit and visit afterward. It took Cecelia and me quite a while to get outside. When we did she plucked my sleeve and pulled me aside. “Darvin,” she said, her face serious but with a brightness in her eyes that I recognized, “you are an evil man.”


“Evil? How?”


“You almost made me laugh in the middle of the sermon.”


“Me?” I was all innocence.


“Yes, you,” she said severely, poking me in the ribs.


“I guess it’s a good thing, then, that Rev. Garrison didn’t go ahead and lift an offering.”


Cecelia’s jaw dropped…and her eyes got even brighter…and then she clapped both hands over her mouth and hurried around the corner of the building. I could hear imperfectly smothered bursts of laughter.


One of the ladies of the church looked toward the sound, and then at me – a bit suspiciously, it seemed. “What’s the matter with Miz ‘Celia?” she asked.


I kept my face as solemn as I could. “I think something I said agreed with her.”


The lady seemed to remain suspicious but walked away. I stepped around the corner, to find Cecelia with both hands still over her mouth and tears running down her cheeks. I put my arms around her, and she buried her face in my chest, clutched me tight, and slowly got rid of the laughing fit.


When she’d finally calmed down she stepped back, wiped her face, and looked at me with her head on one side. “You are an evil man. I love you, but that was just too much. My side hurts!”


“I’m sorry, C – you know how crazy I am. I never thought it would do this to you.”


“Oh, it’s okay, Darvin. I’ll live.” And she took my hand and kissed it.


As I turned to walk with her back to the truck, I saw her father standing there. “It’s been years since I’ve seen my daughter laugh like that,” he said, and turned and walked slowly away.


* * *


That night Cecelia’s brother and sister came for supper. Albert was a pastor in Dothan, and Bella was a nurse who’d married a doctor and these days worked as a fill-in from time to time. Albert’s wife was Louise, and the doctor’s name was George Franklin. Both spouses seemed at ease with the Johnstons, though they were city people. We all ate like hogs, and everyone tried to forget the color of my skin. Cecelia was the only one who wasn’t awkward about me being white – but they were trying, and that counts for a lot.


Both Albert and Bella had to leave right after supper, and Mrs. Johnston sent Cecelia and me out to the porch swing. I sat and pushed the swing gently with one foot on the railing of the porch, and Cecelia curled up beside me and rested her head on my shoulder.


“What do you think of Mama and Daddy?” she asked.


“They’re good people. Your dad seems a bit stiff, and I’m not sure your mom’s clear on how to treat me, but I’m proud to have them for in-laws.”


She held me tight for a minute. In the momentary silence her father came out and sat down in a chair on the other side of the porch, with what looked like a cup in his hand.


Cecelia shifted a little against me. “I’m so glad you like them. It’s been so much better than I was afraid it would be. I was so scared, Darvin, that you all wouldn’t get along. You don’t know how scared I was.”


“Your parents are too good – too Christian – to ever mistreat me. And even if they did, I’d put up with a whole lot for you. I love you, C, and therefore I could never reject your parents.”


“I’m seeing a lot now that I didn’t before.”   As she spoke a pickup cruised slowly past, headed out of town. “I love you, and I love my parents, but it never occurred to me that I would be a bridge; all I could think of was your skin. I like to think that I’m an intelligent woman, but so help me all I could see was your skin.” She clenched her hand in my shirt.


“We ain’t none of us perfect, Cecelia. Don’t worry about it; I love you as you are.”


The same pickup came back down the road, but this time its lights were off. I dropped my foot from the railing and sat up. “Cecelia, take your father inside, and get him and your mother to the back of the house. Then get upstairs and bring me my gun; when you come down with it, turn off the lights as you go.”


Cecelia jerked with surprise, then uncoiled and went to do as I said. I just hoped we had time; unless I was being paranoid, when that truck came back things would get unpleasant.


As it happened the truck coasted into the darkening driveway, engine off, just as Cecelia came back out. “Get down!” I whispered as loudly as I dared, and I heard her drop. I rolled out of the swing and crawled toward her. As I took the pistol I told her to stay down, then slithered down the steps and crouched in front of the porch, knowing that as dark as it was now I’d be invisible there.


Somewhere in all this I’d heard two vehicle doors close, and now two sets of footsteps came up the driveway. Although the house was in town it was on the edge, and the driveway was long enough that they couldn’t have seen me getting into position, not from where they’d parked down by the road. The nightriders were trying to be quiet, but I’d practiced stealth in the Mojave Desert as a boy, and knew I was more than a match for these two. They didn’t even have the sense to get on the grass instead of walking on the dirt of the driveway. I crept silently to the corner of the porch.


“Here’s good,” whispered a voice. Against the faint light that lingered in the sky I saw a figure raise a long gun – a rifle or shotgun – and point it in the air. He shifted slightly and I saw the double-barreled shape – a shotgun then. I turned away just as he fired.


The twin thuds and flashes of the shotgun rounds must have scared Cecelia, for I heard a squeak from the porch. I came to my feet, my gun pointing at the dim figures.   My voice was loud on purpose.   “Don’t move! I’ve got a pistol and you’re on private property!” As I spoke I heard heavy footsteps pounding through the house; no doubt it was Mr. Johnston. “Cecelia! Get me a flashlight!”


I moved around so that I was behind the two figures. In just a few seconds I felt a flashlight in my right hand; Cecelia’s father must have brought it with him. I held it cop fashion, resting on my shoulder, and switched it on.


I still kept my voice loud. I wanted to intimidate these two. “Toss that shotgun into the brush to your left!” He did so. At the same time the other man dropped what looked like one of those campaign signs you stick in the lawn. They hadn’t even had the brains to stick their sign in the ground before shooting off their gun. “All right – back up five steps!” They did.   “Cecelia – pick up that thing and bring it around to me!”


As she did, her father came and stood on the grass near me. He was breathing heavily. I realized that my own breath had speeded up, and my heart was pounding a bit. I kept the gun on the two men as Cecelia handed me the object, taking the flashlight from me. It was a hand lettered sign tacked to a three-foot piece of lath. It said, “Stick to your own kind, nigger.”


When I spoke again my voice had a new strain in it.   “You two idiots turn around and look at me.” Just then someone – I presumed Mrs. Johnston – turned on the porch light, and we all could see. The men were unshaven, not too clean, and beginning to get scared.


“You two had better be glad,” I said, my voice still tight, “that I’m not as stupid as you are. If I were, I’d just shoot you and be done with it.” I took a breath. “Here is the law for you half-baked Kluckers. You stay away from this place, and you stay away from these people. This is my family, and if you come meddling again I’ll see to it that you’re sorry.   This ain’t the 60s, and you ain’t in Bombingham. Now git!”


They got.


* * *


Later, we sat in the living room and came down from the adrenaline. Cecelia’s father had called the sheriff, and between his standing as a solid citizen and my being a former cop – even if it was years ago – the responding deputy took the report seriously. It had been a long time since anything like this had happened in Leanna, and the deputy was embarrassed as well as angry. The south may someday rise again, but it won’t be the same south. The children and grandchildren of the Kluckers are as fervent in supporting civil rights, many of them, as the Freedom Riders were.


After we’d sat for a while, Cecelia in my lap slowly ceasing to shiver, Mr. Johnston asked, “You ever shoot anyone?”


“Just once. It was in Albuquerque. I’d located a guy who, his ex-wife said, was hiding out to avoid paying his alimony.   Turned out he was also making crank, and he took a pot shot at me as I went up the walk. Before I could think I had my gun out, shooting back. He fired once, and the cops never could find out where that round went. I fired four times – one round went into the ground, one into the wall behind the guy, one into the frame of the window he was standing in, and one into his right shoulder.”


“You mean out of five shots only one hit?” He sounded incredulous.


“Yeah. It’s one thing to put holes in a target on the pistol range. When the target has a gun it’s something else. I was shaking for an hour afterward.”


He held out his hand. “My fingers are still weak.”


“I can believe it. That was scary.”


“How did you know how to handle it?”


“Training and experience. I was a cop for two years, and I’ve been a private investigator now for seven, and I always practice – even if it’s only going over in my head the nearest cover and escape routes. By being prepared, I’m able to react automatically in a pinch.


“But pinches don’t come often. I only drew my weapon four times as a cop, and never fired it off the range. As a private guy, tonight was only the second time I’ve had my gun out, and I only had that one shooting.”


I could see him mulling it over. Most people don’t realize that getting shot isn’t the daily hazard Hollywood makes it out to be. The police officers’ deadliest disease, as Joseph Wambaugh calls it, isn’t criminal action but suicide.


Now he shifted gears. “I heard what you told those punks. You said we’re your family.”


“And you are as far as I’m concerned. I love Cecelia, and therefore I care about y’all; she’s my wife, and so y’all are my parents and brother and sister – at least, that’s how I see it.”


“I don’t suppose I’ve been a very good father-in-law.”


Cecelia stirred, but I quieted her with a kiss.   “Mr. Johnston, I have no quarrel.   I married your daughter without meeting y’all, in a far away place, and on top of that I’m a white boy. I don’t expect you to ignore all that. You just keep on being the kind of father you’ve always been to Cecelia, and you’ll do fine.”


He snorted. “Son, after tonight – and that includes what you told Cissy in the porch swing; I heard that, too – you ought not mister me. I guess I’m your daddy, or your daddy-in-law anyway.”


I felt Cecelia grab a handful of my shirt, but otherwise she gave no sign. “My parents died when I was just four years old,” I said. “I’d be proud to just call y’all my parents.”


And from then on I was “son,” and they were “Mama” and “Daddy,” just as they were for Cecelia.


* * *


We drove back to Albuquerque a couple of weeks later. The cops had caught the two would-be nightriders – and lectured me about letting them go – and they’d pled guilty and gone to jail. The stiffness and distance that had been there between me and Cecelia’s dad was gone. He still noticed that I was white, but he introduced me as “my son – the one who married Cissy.” He and Mama were great during those two weeks, and with the completion of the relationship Cecelia was happier than ever. And when we go back to Leanna every year, for both of us it’s a visit to our parents.

The End