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Here is one of those rare and remarkable debuts that herald the appearance of a major new talent on the literary scene. Inspired by real events, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands is a wise and luminous story about a northern family, a southern town, and the senseless murder that sparks an extraordinary act of courage.
To this day, my family is in disagreement as to precisely when the nightmare began. For me, it was the morning Daddy and Luther discovered Marvin, beaten, shot, and dying, in the Klan’s stomping grounds off Round Lake Road. My brother Ren disagrees. He points to the small cluster of scars that begin just outside his left eye and trail horizontally across his temple to the top of his ear. Ren claims it started when the men in white robes took the unprecedented step of shooting at two white children. Others say it was when Mr. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP and Mr. Hoover’s FBI came to town. Mother and Daddy shake their heads. In their minds, the real beginning was much earlier....
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Lay that Trumpet in Our Hands
Luther's on the back porch knocking on the door. Inside my cocoon of bedcovers, first thoughts, like moths, flutter. Temperature's dropped and the men have come to work the smudge pots. I see them in my mind, dark, bundled bodies shuffling, soft calls anticipating the all-night battle against a freeze, gloved hands passing shiny thermoses filled with fresh, hot coffee, maybe something stronger. No, no, the dusky wings whisper: winter's gone, the trees long into bloom, new fruit already the size of sweet peas. I wake with a start. What is Luther doing here, now?
There it is again, his distinctive tappety-tap-tap. Across the hall, Mother and Daddy's voices arc in surprise, recognition, then concern. Daddy's feet hit the floor. I hear him yank on pants, belt buckle jangling, jerk open their door, and stride to the back. In my room Buddy's tags jingle at the window, nose pressed against the screen, tail gently slapping wood. I slip down beside him as, suddenly, the porch light slants across the tangerine tree outside my window. A breeze carries the scent of blossoms and the sound of voices into my room.
"Good Lord, Luther, what is it?" Daddy asks.
"It's Marvin, Mist' Warren. He ain't come home. Armetta's about worried herself to death. The boy went out 'round eight, telling his mamma he'd be back 'fore midnight. Ah been looking for him since one. Run into Jimmy Lee just now, swears he saw Klanners cruising the Trail where Marvin's s'posed to be."
"The Klan? Where on the Trail?"
"Joe's Jook, up to Wellwood. Marvin's sweet on one of them girls up there."
"Marvin had any run-ins with the Klan?"
"Nawser, but the girl say he left 'round 'leven."
"What do you think?"
"Ah'm hoping we could check on Mistuh Myer's Valencia grove this morning, drive slow-like past Round Lake, take a look."
"Come on in. I need to get my shoes on and some coffee."
Opening my door, I see Mother, a blur of dark curls and blue robe, flash through the hall and into the dining room. Buddy and I trail her into the kitchen.
Luther's at the table, chair nearest the door, staring down into the frayed innards of his field cap. Daddy's at the stove fumbling with the coffeepot. Mother moves to help him. Touching her elbow in thanks, he turns to retrieve his work boots from the porch.
"Sorry to bother you, Miz Lizbeth," Luther says to Mother's back. "Hey, Roo," he says to me, abbreviating his usual greeting. Everything about him, normally cola-colored, is gray-cast: his eyes glow darkly in ashy nests of wrinkles; a frost of unshaved stubble smudges his chin; his clothes, usually pressed and proper, hang loose and rumpled. Buddy pads over to him, tail wig-wagging, and rests his muzzle on Luther's knee.
"Luther and I need to take a drive, honey," Daddy says low-voiced to Mother. "Marvin's missing and it's cruise night on the Trail."
"But, Marvin's not . . ." Her eyes zigzag between the two men.
"Thought we'd check on Myer's Valencias, swing by Round Lake," Daddy says calmly, talking code in front of me.
"Can I go?" I ask.
"Reesa Roo, we don't know what's out there." Daddy lifts a booted foot onto the side bench, tying leather laces. "Besides, aren't you supposed to be watching for the DeSoto? She's due in today and your mother says her room's not ready." Thrust and parry, Daddy's a master at it.
"Your mamma comin' in today?" Luther asks, his smile showing a glint of the 24-karat canine Marvin calls his "golden dog."
"Yep, we get her for Easter this year," Daddy replies, tying the other boot.
"She somethin', Miz Doto is. And Ah love that car!"
"Fits her perfectly, doesn't it?" Daddy says, shrugging into his jacket.
My grandmother's DeLuxe, drive-without-shifting, custom DeSoto coupe is the source of our family's nickname for her. Once, when I was two or three, I answered my parents' request to "watch for the DeSoto" with an eager "Here comes Doto!" and the name stuck.
"Coffee's ready, sugar's on the table." Mother lays spoons and two steaming mugs in front of them. "Get you anything else?"
Luther's eyes thank Mother for her kindness, then dart to Daddy's.
"I think we'd best get going, honey," Daddy answers, not sitting, swigging coffee deeply.
Luther stands, visibly relieved, and ducks out the door, tossing "See y'all later" over his shoulder.
Daddy throws his good arm around Mother and pulls her to the barrel of his chest. "Warren, take Buddy with you," I hear her urge in a whisper.
"Don't worry, Lizbeth," he replies with a kiss. "Bye, Roo, don't forget the hospital corners on Doto's bed. Here, boy!" As the shepherd jingles after him, I see Mother check the time on the kitchen clock.
"Where on Round Lake?" I want to know.
"Reesa," she sighs, clearly unsure how much she wants to tell, "there's been talk about a lemon grove, one of Mr. Casselton's, but . . ."
Mr. Casselton. In our county, where local boosters declare citrus is king, Emmett Casselton, owner of the sprawling Casbah Groves, considers himself the area's crown prince. In our house, where the only thing worse than an "arrogant son of a bitch" is an "ignorant damn Cracker," Emmett Casselton is both.
"You mean the Klan's taken Marvin to the Casbah?" My voice, my whole throat quivers on the phrase favored by local biddies, black and white, to reel in wayward children . . . "You better be good," they warn, "or the Klan'll take you to the Casbah!" I never understood it, never connected it to Emmett Casselton's vast acreage--until now.
"I don't know, Reesa. I doubt it. I do know, however," Mother says, retreating behind her Poker Face, "in the time it'll take me to fix breakfast, you can finish your grandmother's bed. Go on now. I'll call you when it's ready." Gentle hands turn me toward the door.
The window at the top of the stairwell glows oddly orange; daybreak's flaming the treetops of the back grove. Marvin, where are you?
Both my younger brothers lay sound asleep in Mitchell's room. I switch on the light in Ren's room opposite, its windows facing west and the driveway. Daddy and Luther should just about be there by now.
Ren's mattress is bare, except for the tidy stack of Doto's pink sheets. During the nine months she's elsewhere, our grandmother's sheets, two sets of them, sit folded in the upstairs linen closet. The sheets are from downtown Chicago's Carter-Ferris-Mott store. "I can't sleep on anything else," I heard Doto tell Mrs. Ruth Ferris at last year's Florida Party at the big Ferris house south of town. From there, she launched into "My aunt Ethel was a Carter, of the Cape Cod Carters; I'm sure we're related to your father-in-law's partner." If he's in that lemon grove, Buddy will find him.
Southerners set great store by their ancestry, but it's a rare Rebel who can go toe-to-toe with my Yankee grandmother and win. Doto dotes on her lineage the way other old ladies delight in dahlias or Staffordshire teacups. Given half a chance, she blatantly brags she named Daddy, her firstborn, for "Richard Warren of the Mayflower"; her daughter Eleanor for "the wife of William the Conqueror" and Uncle Harry for "the Revolutionary War hero General Light-Horse Harry Lee, of the New York Lees, not those people in Virginia."
Shouldn't they be back by now?
Stuffing and fluffing Doto's pillows, I hear, finally, the roar of the truck engine, Buddy's barking and the urgent blast of Daddy's horn. I run to the open window and yell, "Daddy, what's wrong?"
He jumps out onto the driveway and shouts, "Roo, get your mother. We need blankets, towels--quick!"
Hurtling down the steps two, three at a time, I nearly crash into her, arms full of linens from the downstairs closet. Together, we race out of the house to the truck.
Luther's on his knees in the back. Daddy grabs towels and blankets, yells "Stand back now!" and springs to the sideboard, bending low. A raggedy moan rises from the shadows of the truck bed. Mother steps forward to peer over the side and, with a sharp gasp, spreads her arms like wings and folds them backwards, trapping me behind her. I wiggle away and dash to the tailgate. Jumping up on the back bumper, I see with a shock the blood-covered body in the back.
Marvin Cully, who I've known all my life, who taught me to pick tangelos without ripping the fruit cap, who showed me the secret of steering a go-cart, who started the game of rhyming my name, lies drenched in blood in the bed of my father's truck. His head and eyes are covered with something, a familiar fabric, one of Ren's striped T-shirts, turned into a terrible blood-soaked turban. Bright red, dark brown, dried black blood is everywhere: congealing in cuts on his jaw and neck, seeping through rips in his shirt and pantlegs, oozing out of scrapes on the tops of his bare feet. "Marvin! You all right?" I cry as the sickening sweet smell heaves my stomach into my throat. His lips, bleeding in a bright red trickle onto his chin, don't move, can't answer.
"G'wan now, Roo!" Luther yells in a garbled plea, replacing a stained picking sack with a soft towel under Marvin's head.
"Lizbeth!" Daddy barks, settling blankets over Marvin's chest.
Mother's hands, like claws, yank me down, turn me around, clutch me to her chest. "No, Roo, no!" she cries, walking stiffly backward toward the house. Her heart, like mine, drums in my ear.
"Lizbeth, call Doc Johnny! Tell him we have a bad case of Klan fever, really bad! We'll be at his back door in ten minutes. Okay?"
"Okay," Mother says, steering us onto the walk. "Go!"
"Damn them," Daddy swears. "Damn those damn Crackers to hell!"
The truck engine growls and jerks into reverse down the driveway. As the front porch door slams behind us, two figures float in the bright sunlight now filling the stairwell. "Mother?" the boys call, sleepily scratching themselves.
"Ren, take Mitchell into the kitchen," she commands, waving them off to the back. She reaches for the phone to dial Doc Johnny and as she does so, lets me go. At my side, a dark, damp nose sniffs its concern; I feel myself sinking, sobbing into the furry softness of Buddy's neck.
Our house is old, "turn of the century," my parents say. "New England saltbox in a Miss Scarlett petticoat," Doto always calls it, meaning the wide screened porches that flounce around the ground floor with the kitchen, like a bustle, in the back. When my parents bought it from old Mr. Swann, the house had two big bedrooms upstairs but, after Mitchell was born, they converted the broad side porch into a downstairs bedroom for themselves, with a smaller one in the back for me.
After Mr. Swann sold it to them, he just walked out, leaving his linens, china, dining room table, his piano in the living room--everything but his clothes--behind. Said he wouldn't need them where he was going. As it turned out, Daddy says, that piano was a lifesaver. When Daddy caught the polio, the summer I was born, playing the piano helped him regain the use of his right hand and most of his right arm. It also kept him from going nuts, he says. Still does.
Daddy glances at me when I enter the living room, but keeps on playing, nodding his okay to join him on the bench. He's dressed for the funeral in white shirt and dark tie; his suit coat hangs off the mantel, like a strange, coal-colored Christmas stocking.
Strangeness has descended on our house like a winter fog bank, blurring the lines between the last few days: Marvin's dead, gone forever, the words singsong in my head trying to convince my heart they're true; Doto here, finding everything in an uproar; Doc Johnny unable, or unwilling, to state the cause of death; Constable Watts shrugging it off as a jook-joint fight, stopping just short of calling Daddy a liar about Round Lake Road.
"Besides," the string-bean Cracker laughed, tall and rangy in his constable uniform, "everybody knows the Opalakee Klan don't kill niggers like they use to." Daddy came home fuming. "In the old days," he told us, meaning before the polio, "lawman or not, I'd have pretzeled that peckerwood." Before I was born, they say, my father had a torrential temper, huge as a hurricane, fast and physical. But the polio, he says, taught him patience. The man I know is more circumspect, with a temper that veers toward geological. When Daddy's upset, he turns to stone, granite-faced, flinty-eyed. Now, he sits rock-like at the piano, a one-man Mount Rushmore, fingering his thoughts.
The song "I am a poor wayfaring stranger" is one of the saddest in the Mayflower Baptist hymnal. We'll sing it on Palm Sunday, the week before we sing the happiest song, "Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o'er His foes."
"Daddy," I ask him, "is it true, what Doto says about Richard Warren being called the Stranger?"
"Yes, honey. On the Mayflower, the Pilgrims were the Saints and they called the people like Richard Warren, whose company was paying for the voyage, the Strangers."
"When we studied them last fall, Mrs. Beacham said she never heard of such a thing."
"True story, Roo," Daddy says, fingertips teasing out the chorus.
"Doto says she's afraid she jinxed you by naming you after him."
"Maybe so, Roo. Sometimes I know exactly how he felt."
"Will the funeral last long?"
"Several hours, I guess. There's the service and the burial, then the gathering at Luther and Armetta's. Afterwards, there's a meeting with Reverend Stone and some elders."
"You mean about finding out who killed Marvin?"
"The Klan killed Marvin, Roo. The question is why. And what's to be done about it."
"But you've always said the Klan was nothing to be afraid of, just a bunch of good ol' boys playing boogey-man."
Daddy lifts his hands off the keyboard and drops them in a ball in his lap. His back, ramrod straight when he plays, curls forward, shoulders falling. The right one, his "polio shoulder," dips lower than the left. His chin juts forward in a craggy outcrop.
"Like Doto says, we are strangers in a strange land. The Klan's been around here for years--stupid stuff mostly, burning crosses, pestering couples parking in the dark, picking on Negroes they thought were getting uppity, whatever that means. But this week, they crossed the line."
"But May Carol's Daddy's in the Klan. May Carol says it's nothing but a card club, an excuse to play poker. And, Armetta works for them in their house!"
Susan Carol McCarthy is the award-winning author of three novels, Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands,True Fires, and A Place We Knew Well, and the nonfiction Boomers 101: The Definitive Collection. Her debut novel received the Chautauqua South Fiction Prize and has been widely selected by libraries and universities for their One Book, One Community and Freshman Year Read programs. A native Floridian, she lives in Carlsbad, California.