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CHAPTER 31

There is no more moving religious spectacle than a black funeral. If you've been to one, you know. If you haven't, you don't. Grief and remembrance are not sacrificed to the false gods of propriety and decorum but released into the air like primal music, channeled through the congregation in a collective discharge of pain. Ruby's funeral should be like that, but it isn't. It's a ritual struggling under the weight of a political circus.

The church itself is under siege when I arrive, Annie in the backseat with my parents, Kelly in front with me, the other Argus men in a second car behind us. Sited on a hill in a stand of oak and cedar trees, the one-room white structure stands at the center of an army of vehicles, including a half dozen television trucks parked in a cluster beside the small cemetery. Lines of parked cars stretched down both sides of the church drive to Kingston Road, the winding old two-lane blacktop leading to the southern part of the county, where the Cold Hole bubbles up from the swamp.

A black-suited deacon waves us away from the drive, but Kelly ignores him and accelerates up the chute created by the parked cars, stopping only when he reaches the church steps. Camera crews instantly surround the BMW.

An old white-haired black man appears on the steps and jabs a finger at the human feeding frenzy around us. A wave of young men in their Sunday best rolls into the reporters, pushing them bodily away from the car, assisted by the three Argus men who drove up behind us. The old man comes down the steps and opens the back door of our car.

"I'm so sorry about this, Dr. Cage. Afternoon, Mrs. Cage. I'm Reverend Nightingale. Y'all come inside. One of these young mens will park your car for you."

Annie climbs between the seats into my arms, and I hurry up the steps with her as the camera crews close around us. A cacophony of shouted questions fills the air, but all I can distinguish are names: Marston, Portman, Mac-key, Mayor Warren As soon as we clear the church door, I turn and see my mother and father fighting their way through. A deacon slams the door behind them, leaving Kelly outside to help defend the entrance.

Two hundred black faces are turned toward the rear of the church, staring at us. People are jammed into the pews and packed along the walls like cordwood. The building seems to have more flesh in it than air. Only the center aisle is clear. Reverend Nightingale takes my mother's arm and leads her along it, through the silent staring faces. Dad and I follow, me carrying Annie in my arms. The rear pews hold a bright sea of color, oscillating waves of blue, orange, yellow, and green (but no red, never red) and, like proud sails above the waves, the most stunning array of hats I have seen outside of a 1940s film. All the children are dressed in white, like angels in training. As I follow my mother, Ruby's voice sounds in my mind: You never wear red to no funeral; red says the dead person was a fool. The nearer we get to the altar, the darker the dresses get, until finally all are black.

At the end of the aisle Reverend Nightingale pulls my mother to the left, and I see our destination: a special box of pews standing against the wall, protected by a wooden rail. Despite the throng in the church, this box is empty. It's the Mothers' Bench, seats reserved for "sisters" who have reached a certain age (eighty, I think) and accepted "mother" status. Today it has been reserved for us. As we take our seats behind the rail, I see an identical box against the other wall. The Deacons' Bench. Behind its rail sits Ruby's immediate family: her husband, Mose; her three sons (all tall men with gray in their beards); her daughter, Elizabeth, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief; a handful of grandchildren (all in their twenties) and two infants.

A single camera crew has been allowed inside the church to tape the ceremony. The logo on the camera reads WLBT, the call letters of the black-owned station in Jackson. As I pan across the crowd, I see several familiar faces. In the first row sits Shad Johnson, wearing a suit that cost enough to buy any ten suits behind him. A few feet down the same pew sits the Payton family: Althea, Georgia, Del Jr., and his children. Althea nods to me, her brown eyes full of sympathy. In the second row sits the Gates family, the most powerful force in black politics in Natchez for forty years, now upstaged by the urban prodigal from Chicago. Several pews beyond them sits Willie Pinder, the former police chief. Pinder winks as I catch his eye. And in the last pew, sitting restlessly in the aisle seat as though prepared to make a quick exit, sits a man who looks very much like Charles Evers. The former mayor of Fayette and brother of Medgar looks like a man who does not intend to be bothered by anyone.

Suddenly the back door opens and two white faces float through it, Caitlin Masters and one of her photographers, escorted by Deputy Ike Ransom in his uniform. Ike remains just inside the back door, like a sentry, while Caitlin and her photographer slip through the crowd at the back wall and stop beside the WLBT camera.

In the shuffling, sweating silence the organist begins to play, and the purple-robed choir rises to its feet, beginning a restrained rendition of "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross." The rich vibrato of two dozen voices fills the building, making the church reverberate like the soundboard of a grand piano. The whole congregation knows the words, and they join in softly.

As the last chorus fades, Reverend Nightingale makes his way slowly down the aisle and ascends to the pulpit. He is a small man, with fine white hair and frail limbs, but his voice has the deep, resonant timbre of the best black preachers.

"Brothers and sisters. Mothers. Deacons and officers. Visitors and friends. We are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Sister Ruby Flowers."

A collective Mm-hm ripples through the church, punctuated by a couple of soft Amens. Reverend Nightingale touches the rim of his spectacles and continues.

"Everyone in this room knows how loyally Sister Flowers supported this church. She was born in 1917, and came to Jesus when she was nine years old. Reverend Early was pastor then. He was a godly man, but sparing with his praise. Yet as a boy I often heard him speak of how lucky he was to have womenfolk like Sister Flowers in his flock."

Yes, Lord, comes the reply. Yes, sir.

"In the last few days a lot of reporters been asking me what Sister Flowers was like. Do you know what I tell them?"

Tell it.

"I say, 'You know how when you got two people, and you got to carry something heavy for a ways? Like a big chest of drawers? There's different ways you can pick up on it. You can pick up on it straight and level, with your legs and your back, and take your share of the weight"-Reverend Nightingale pauses, letting the image sink in-"or you can kind of fudge it. Pick up with just your arms, or pick up a little high, puttin' most of the weight on the other person."

Soft laughter, guilty recognition. But Reverend Nightingale's face is set in stone.

"That was not Sister Flowers," he thunders.

No, Jesus, comes the chorus. I know that's right.

"Sister Flowers picked up square and straight," he declares. "She picked up whenever she was asked to. And more than that, she picked up when she wasn't asked to."

Praise Jesus.

"Sister Flowers was not a rich woman," the reverend says in a conversational tone. "But she gave unstintingly of the money she made. She had a generous heart. She bought flour and sugar and butter, and she baked cakes deep into the night to sell to raise money for the poor." Nightingale raises his right hand, forefinger extended toward Heaven. "During the Depression? Sister Flowers visited white families, collecting old coats and sweaters, hats, shoes, and mittens for the wintertime, bringing them out here to kids who didn't have nothing between them and the cold." The finger descends, admonitory now. "You children today smirk and turn up your nose when I say old coats and old shoes. But what you don't know-and you better thank God you don't know- is that when you're cold, you'll take whatever coat you can get, and praise Jesus for it."

Lord, yes! Praise Jesus!

Reverend Nightingale turns to the Deacons' Bench and remarks on what fine children Ruby raised. My parents always felt Ruby's children didn't do enough for her after they were grown, considering the sacrifices she'd made for them. But they did what Ruby most desired that they do, went North and found good jobs, raised families. Part of the price of their success may have been embarrassment at their mother's humble position, or confusion at her unwillingness to leave Mississippi, a place they regarded as backward and evil.

"Sister Flowers was not seriously ill or afflicted," Reverend Nightingale says soberly. "She was taken before her time, by the hand of a stranger. The police don't know who set that terrible fire. But I know who it was."

A gasp of shock from the pews.

"It was a man cut off from the Lord. That man is suffering right now. Today. And I hope he'll soon see the only way to wash his soul is to come forward, confess his sins, and pay the price of justice."

Reverend Nightingale grips the forward edge of the podium with both hands. "And I know why this man killed Sister Flowers. Because he wanted to stop Mr. Penn Cage from finding out who killed Brother Delano Payton."

Silence blankets the room. Every eye focuses on me.

"Now, some of you may feel anger toward Mr. Cage because of what happened to Sister Flowers. But not one soul in this room should blame him. Because Penn Cage is doing what no man-white or black-has done in the last thirty years. He is putting himself and his family on the line to find out who murdered Brother Del.

"And why was Del killed?" Reverend Nightingale slams a hand against the podium with a report like a pistol shot. "To keep the black man in this community down! To keep honest black men from getting a leg up. To keep us from making a working wage at a good job. A job with some dignity."

He removes a white cotton handkerchief from his coat pocket and wipes his forehead. The mass of bodies is turning the little building into a convection oven.

"You may wonder why Mr. Cage, a white man, is doing what he's doing. He must be gonna make some money some way, right? He must want to get on Oprah with a book or something. But that's not it. No, sir. I'll tell you why Mr. Cage is doing what he's doing. He's doing it because he was raised by Sister Flowers."

My mother's hand closes around mine.

"And he wasn't raised by Sister Flowers alone. He was raised by Dr. Tom Cage. And Dr. Cage been takin' care of black people in this town for nigh on forty years. If you couldn't pay, did Dr. Cage turn you away from the door?"

A great tide of No, sir! Lord, no! issues forth from the congregation and rolls through the church, accompanied by shaking heads and murmurs of gratitude. When I turn to my left, I see a sight I have never seen in my life: my father sitting with his head bowed, staring resolutely at the floor, his jaw muscles clenched as tears run down his face.

"And Mrs. Cage," says Reverend Nightingale. "Mrs. Cage was one of the ladies who helped Sister Flowers gather up them old coats in the wintertime, and made sure they got where they needed to get." He smiles at my mother and goes on. "Thursday last, after that newspaper story ran about Del, I asked Sister Flowers about Penn Cage. You know what she said? She said, 'Pastor, that boy was raised right, and he'll do whatever he's got to do to make things right about Del.' "

Ruby and I never discussed the Payton case. But the realization that she knew I was working on it, and approved, eases my conscience in a way nothing else could.

"Some of you older members may remember," says Nightingale, "that Del Payton visited this church several times when he was a boy. Del was a member of Beulah Baptist, out to Pine Ridge. But that boy had too fine a voice to confine it to one house of worship. Several Sundays we were blessed to have Del solo here at Mandamus. And many a family"-Reverend Nightingale says fambly-"requested Del for solos at funerals. I know right now Del is beatifying Heaven with that sweet voice, preparing the host of angels to receive Sister Flowers."

"Praise Jesus," answers the chorus.

"Right now we're going to have a solo by Sister Lillian Lilly. Sister Lilly is a gospel recording artist from Jackson, and she's come down to bless us with her talents. Afterwards, Brother Shadrach Johnson wants to speak to you for a few minutes. You all know Brother Johnson is running for mayor, and the election's getting close. He believes what's happened in the past few days is important to us all, and he's gonna talk to you about that. Sister Winans?"

From the midst of the choir a woman in a flowing blue gown rises, folds her hands before her, and begins singing "Precious Lord" with such raw power and authentic faith that the initial cries of Sing it! Sing it! fade to awed silence, and many of the elderly members of the congregation weep openly. When she takes her seat again, the air is brittle with expectation, and it is then that Shad Johnson stands and walks up to the podium. How must he look to this audience, in his two-thousand-dollar suit that shines like a deuce-and-a-quarter on Saturday night? He must look, I believe, like a savior.

"Brothers and sisters," he begins in a gentle voice. "When I came into this church, I thought I was a stranger to Sister Ruby Flowers. But when I heard Reverend Nightingale's impassioned eulogy, I knew I was wrong. I knew a hundred women like Sister Flowers when I was growing up here in Natchez. Five hundred, probably. Strong black women who sacrificed everything so that their children could climb one step higher up the ladder to a better life."

Yes, Lord

Shad nods to his left, and the assistant I saw at his headquarters hurries toward the back of the church. He stops beside the WLBT cameraman and says a few words. The cameraman looks confused, but a moment later he shrugs and touches the controls on the tripod-mounted camera.

"Brothers and sisters," Shad resumes, "I've asked that the camera be turned off, so that I can speak frankly to you. We all know what's happening in this town. Why there's so much agony in our hearts today. Sister Flowers died hard. She died scarred and in terrible pain. She died at the hands of a murderer. Undoubtedly at the hands of a white murderer. And the consequences of that act are tearing this community apart. At this moment two of our children are sitting in jail for taking the life of a man who once ordered the beatings and murders of African Americans. You feel anger over this. You feel rage. And that's only natural."

Shad holds up his hands and brings them softly together. "But I've come here today to ask you to set aside that rage. Because we are poised on the brink of a great victory. The plantation mentality that has paralyzed this town for so long is finally eroding from the inside out. Significant numbers of white people have grown tired of the self-aggrandizement and profiteering of men like Riley Warren. And those are the people who can put me into the mayor's office. Not you, my good friends. Lord knows, I need every one of you. But without those good white people, all our work will have been for naught. The sacrifices of Ruby Flowers and Del Payton? All for nothing. Think about that. Del Payton died thirty years ago. He died for civil rights. But how much better off are you, really, than you were in 1968? You can drink from the public water fountain. You can go into a restaurant and eat next to white people. But can you afford to pay the check? How good a job can you get? If this violence escalates any more, I don't think we'll ever see those men from BASF in town again. There are too many towns where things are peaceful to put a good plant like that in a trouble spot.

"So." Johnson lays his hands on the podium. "What am I asking you to do? Only the same thing Jesus asked. It's the hardest thing in the world, brothers and sisters. Especially for you younger men. I want you to turn the other cheek. Keep cool. Because if you do, the meek are going to start inheriting a little of this Mississippi earth."

Shad turns slowly, giving every person in the room a chance to look him in the eye, then stops, facing me. "And I'm asking Penn Cage, right here and now, to withdraw his charges against Judge Leo Marston."

A low murmur moves through the congregation. Even Reverend Nightingale looks caught by surprise.

"After the election," Shad goes on, "there'll be plenty of time to probe the death of Del Payton. And with me running the city, you can rest assured that will happen. But further pressure on Marston at this point could keep Riley Warren in the mayor's office for another four years. And we simply cannot afford that."

Shad is staring at me as though he expects me to rise and answer him, here, at the funeral of a woman I loved like a second mother. Every eye in the church is upon me. As though pulled by the collective will of the congregation, I start to stand, but my mother's hand flattens on my thigh, pushing me back onto the bench. At that moment Althea Payton rises from the first pew and looks around the church. She speaks softly, but in the silent room every word rings with conviction.

"Thirty years ago my husband was taken from me. Murdered. For thirty years I've waited for justice. And no man alive has lifted a finger to help me get it, without I paid him money. Last week I went to Mr. Penn Cage and asked him to help me. And he did."

Althea raises her eyes to the pulpit, from which Shad stares like an attorney facing a dangerously unpredictable witness, and points at him. "That man there wants to be our mayor. He's come down from Chicago special to do it. And he might be a good one. He sure talks a good game. But I know this. He never came to my house and offered to help me find out who killed my man. And to stand up here like this to use this poor lady's funeral to tell a good man to stop trying to do good so he can get elected well, it don't sit right with me."

"Mrs. Payton, I think you've misunderstood my motives," Shad says in an unctuous voice.

"I understand more than you think," Althea replies. "Get me elected, you say. Then I'll do good. But like the man said a long time ago, 'If not now, when?' "

"Tell him!" comes a shout from the back pews.

"Yes, Lord!" from the choir stand. "If not now, when?"

Shad is about to respond when Reverend Nightingale eases him away from the pulpit with a forced smile. Althea retakes her pew as the reverend smooths his jacket and says, "I thank Brother Johnson for that thoughtful comment. We sure have a lot to think about these days. Now, the service is almost over, but I think I'd be remiss if I didn't give our white friends a chance to speak today."

This is unexpected, but in the silence that follows, my mother stands and turns to the congregation. Her voice is softer than Althea's, but it too carries in the church.

"Ruby worked for our family for thirty-five years," she says. "We considered her part of our family, and we always will."

And she sits down.

The expression on Shad Johnson's face makes it clear that he views this statement as white paternalism at its worst, but the faces in the pews say something different.

Reverend Nightingale closes the funeral with a prayer, then directs the choir to sing "Amazing Grace."

The pallbearers carry Ruby's casket down the aisle and out the front door, preceded by the deacons, who act as an informal security force, hustling reporters away from the door with the help of Daniel Kelly and the Argus men. The congregation waits for our family to depart, then follows us out, and soon we are all gathered in the small graveyard beside the church, while five camera crews film steadily from the perimeter of the crowd.

Ruby's coffin lies above the freshly turned earth, on straps that will lower her into the ground when the graveside service is done. As Reverend Nightingale begins his prayer, a horn honks loudly from Kingston Road, blaring again and again but thankfully dropping in pitch as the vehicle goes on down the road. While a cameraman runs off to try to get a shot of the heckler, Reverend Nightingale increases his volume and pushes right through the twenty-third psalm. When he finishes, he turns to the gathered mourners.

"The family will remain seated. The members will please turn away from the body."

Though unfamiliar with this custom, I obey. From the air, this would look strange indeed, two hundred people gathered in a circle around a hole in the ground, facing away from it. I'm not sure of the significance of this ritual, but turning away from death is sometimes the best thing we can do. Reverend Nightingale recites another brief prayer, including the words, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and the congregation walks away from the grave as one.

A half dozen younger black men remain behind, beside a loose stack of shovels, and I remain with them. After Ruby's children drop flowers into the grave, they start toward their cars with their own children. I shake hands with them as they pass, and express my condolences. I sense different reactions in each, but all are courteous.

When Ruby's casket reaches the bottom of the grave, I pick up one of the shovels and spade it into the soft pile of earth. Dad starts to join me, but I touch his chest, reminding him of his heart trouble, and he rejoins my mother and Annie at the edge of the little cemetery.

I feel like it should be raining, but the sun is hot on the back of my suit jacket. As we shovel the diminishing pile of dirt over the gleaming casket, I think of the white funerals I have attended, how everyone walks away at the end of the graveside service, leaving the coffin to be covered by a backhoe or by couple of unknown gravediggers. This way is better. We should be covered into the earth by people who loved us.

After the grave is full and tamped down, and the camera crews have shot all the footage they want, only a few people remain on the hill. My parents stand with Annie and Reverend Nightingale beside the BMW, which someone has brought from wherever it was parked. Kelly and his associates drift around the edge of the hill, looking for possible threats. Caitlin and the photographer sit on the church steps, fiddling with a camera as Ike Ransom watches.

After Reverend Nightingale toddles off toward his baby blue Cadillac, Ike beckons me to the side of the church, out of earshot of Caitlin and the photographer. I walk over and speak to my parents, then join Ike.

"What you got?" he growls, stepping around me so that I can see no one but him. The blood vessels in his eyes form a red network around the dark irises, and the smell of cheap whisky blows past me with every word. "You got enough to nail Marston on Wednesday?"

"I'm working on it."

"Working? The trial's three days from now!"

"You think I don't know that?"

"So, tell me what you got."

I quickly summarize my case, from Frank Jones to Betty Lou Beckham and everyone in between.

"Will that bitch testify in open court?" Ike asks, loudly enough to be heard across the hill. "Betty Lou?"

"I don't know. She's scared of Presley, and her husband doesn't want her to testify. I've got my father working on her."

"What about tying Presley to Marston?"

"I've got something working," I say grudgingly, thinking of Peter Lutjens, who at this moment may be risking prison to get a copy of Stone's original FBI report.

Ike grabs my wrist, his grip like a claw. "What you talking about?"

I jerk my hand free. "I'll let you know if it works out."

His glare is disquieting. "Is Stone helping you?"

"No."

"You ask him to testify?"

"He won't. Look, I need to go. My family's waiting."

"You ain't telling me shit, man!"

"You need to get some sleep, Ike."

"Sleep? Let me tell you something. I been thinking. I been thinking I messed up coming to you. You may put Presley in jail, but that ain't nothing. He's dying anyway. Marston's laughing at you, man. Old Shad may be right about you leaving this alone, even though the nigger be a little bright for my taste."

"I'm going now, Ike."

He grabs my arm. "You keep me posted, right?"

I nod slowly. "Let go of my wrist."

He looks down at the junction of our limbs as though unaware he has hold of me. As the hand relaxes, a question comes to me. "Are you a member of this church, Ike?"

"Me? Baptist? I'm Catholic, man. Holy Family."

"You've known more than you've told me from the start. Whatever you have, now's the time to tell me."

His head moves forward, then back, like a man falling asleep at the wheel of a car. "You think I'm playing the quiet game too?" A faint smile, as though at a private joke. "I told you, man, everybody keeps something back. It's the only way to stay safe."

"I'm gone, Ike. Be careful, okay?"

When I come around the corner of the church, everyone is waiting in the cars but Caitlin and Kelly. Caitlin says something to him, then breaks away and meets me halfway.

"What was all that about?" she asks. "It sounded like he was yelling at you."

"He's drunk. He's losing his nerve as the trial gets closer."

"What about you?"

"Solid as a rock."

She smiles. "I couldn't believe Shad put you on the spot like that."

"Are you going to report what he said?"

"He said it, he's responsible for it."

"Good."

"Have you heard anything from Peter Lutjens?"

"Not yet."

"You think he really has the nerve to try for that file?"

"If he doesn't, he's going to spend a lot of winters shoveling snow in North Dakota."

"God, I hope he gets it. If he doesn't-"

"There's still Stone."

"Don't hold your breath. You want to come back to the paper and wade through some files? I'll help."

"Not yet. I'm going to take a drive. My parents and Annie are riding back with the Argus guys."

Caitlin takes my hand. "Want some company?"

"Not this time." I squeeze her hand. "But thanks for offering."

She looks off toward Kingston Road. "You're taking Kelly on this ride, right?"

"No."

She looks back at me, her eyes worried, then suspicious. She drops my hand. "Tell Livy I said hello."

"Livy? I have no intention of seeing Livy. Kelly can come if he wants, but in his own car. I just want to be alone for a while."

Her eyes soften. "I'm sorry. I understand. I'll tell him." She rises on tiptoe and kisses me on the cheek. "Keep your eyes open."

"I will."


CHAPTER 30 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 32