The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
—John Ray (1670)
Emerald. Ike loved her name. He stood in line with the other members of the church and greeted her after she'd opened her heart to the preacher's invitation and accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She wore a green velvet dress that Sunday morning a week before Christmas. Against her light brown skin and green eyes, Ike felt the dress made her look rich and educated.
Ike believed as his Momma and Daddy taught him, that you ought to give people the benefit of the doubt because there's more to things and people than the eyes can take in at first. He took that to heart like everything else his Momma and Daddy and his preacher and Jesus and the Bible said.
Forty-one and a deacon like his Daddy, he had been to most every Sunday and Wednesday night service at the same Baptist church since he could remember.
Emerald started attending Ike's Sunday school class, began singing in the choir, was baptized, and joined the church.
February. A misty gray Sunday morning. Emerald was wearing her dress. The preacher was dancing down the aisle, he said the church was tingling with the Holy Spirit. An angel had visited him in a dream the night before and told him that something magnificent was going to happen in the church today, that there was going to be singing, dancing, clapping, tambourines, organ, glorifying the Lord. In the middle of a solo, Emerald, silenced the church.
"During my days of perdition—"
"Bless her Lawd," came support from the deacons and members of the congregation.
"—I sang in clubs and juke joints," Emerald said. "And I'm here to testify that the Devil do exist."
"Tell the truth, sister. Yes, Jesus, speak to her. Tell the truth."
"Places of drinking—"
"—and women and men dancing and fornicating—"
"Yes, come out with it, sister."
"Men and women disrespecting theyselves and Gawd's Commandments—"
"Amen. Hallelujah, sister. Testify. Tell us, tell us."
"And I have seen debauchery and lewdness and black folk taking Gawd's name in vain."
"And I too was that sinner. I sinned before Gawd. I disrespected the bodily temple He bestowed on me by drinking liquor and smoking crack cocaine and marijuana."
The whole church stood with their arms up, shouting hallelujahs and amens.
"Folks, I have seen the Devil with my own eyes—"
"Smelled him with my own nose—"
"Yes, Lawd. Hallelujah."
"Like our Lord in the desert, heard him with my own ears."
"Tell it, sister."
"Lucifer be a seducer."
"And he be a deceiver."
"And he promises many riches, many castles, fame, golden palaces—"
"Lucifer be a seducer," someone repeated from the congregation.
"And a deceiver," another shouted.
"Praise Jesus. Speak to her Lord."
Emerald said, "But all Lucifer gave me was sorrow and addiction until I hit rock bottom, in the streets where I sold my body to support my habit, until I woke up one mawnin' in prison."
"Speak to her Lord. Make her Your instrument of thy deliverance oh Lawd."
"Oh, I thank the Redeemer for reaching down to this poor sinner," Emerald said, "with His grace to cleanse my heart so when He calls me home on that day I will be with Him in Heaven for all time."
The piano softly played the prelude to the song that Emerald was to sing. The congregation sat. Sweat poured down Emerald's face. She mopped her forehead with a handkerchief. "I'm gonna sing a song that means a lot to me. I've had a little sinus trouble the last couple of weeks. So y'all pray for me. This is an oldtimey hymn. I hope it speaks to y'all's hearts like it speaks to me. It's 'Hide Thou Me'." Then in a mournful tempo Emerald sang in a round deep voice that filled up the whole church and spilled out the door and windows.
To Ike, Emerald's voice was like a prophet. There were many Amens and Hallelujahs and Speak to her Lawd and Yes, Lawds from the congregation as she sang. Hands supplicated to heaven and people mumbled prayers with tears of mercy. Ike knew that Emerald knew what it felt to be discouraged, and to be down and lost, but to be found and claimed by the Redeemer. The Holy Spirit bonded him to Emerald that night.
It wasn't until a year later that he worked up the courage to ask her to marry him. He'd never been alone with her, never been to her apartment even. It surprised him when she said yes. They married at the church two weeks later.
Happiness being married brought his desire for children of his own. He didn't bring it up until their first wedding anniversary. Emerald said she'd had her tubes tied after her fourth child, a time she'd have done anything to get a rock of crack cocaine, an addiction that killed her third and fourth children at birth and sent her eventually to prison for five years.
Ike did not swear oaths, believing in the literal word of the Bible. He also believed it was only for God to judge people. It made him sad to think about all Emerald had been through, but took it that God had a purpose in bringing her into his life. He had been in jail once, too.
In the mid-eighties, he'd gone to Atlanta—the only time he'd ever gone outside of southeast Georgia—to visit his sister Viola who lived there with her new husband after she graduated from Spellman College. Ike was riding the bus, reading his Bible. A black woman got on the bus with her little boy. A skinny black man with greasy hair under a black leather cap followed them. He sat next to the woman and leaned his mouth inches from her ear, talking to her just loud enough that Ike could make out a few words. The woman had her boy in her lap. She cupped her hands over her boy's ears and tried to ignore the man herself. It only made the man talk louder. When the woman turned and slid away from the man, he started jabbing her in the arm with his long fingernails. The woman stood and the man grabbed her pocket book, which she had hooked on the arm she had wrapped around her little boy. The man jerked again, knocking the boy to the floor. Ike shot up and grabbed the man's wrist and squeezed. The man tried to jerk loose and went for something in his coat pocket. Ike bent the man's arm back until he heard a crack and then another, louder crack. The man screamed. The bus braked hard. The woman yelled for Ike to stop hurting her husband. The boy sat on the floor, crying. The bus driver came running back, asking what was going on. The woman kept hollering. The man cussed, hollering his shoulder was broke. People ran out of the bus. Soon police officers stormed in. They slid the man in an ambulance and handcuffed Ike. He got carsick cramped in the back of the police car with his arms behind his back and bent over and twisted. He prayed.
At the jail, he was strip searched, fingerprinted, and photographed. He told the officers what had happened, that he was just trying to protect the woman and the boy. They shoved him in a cell with a young white man who said he was in college and told Ike, "Man, chivalry is dead, like God, didn't you know?"
"God ain't dead," Ike had said. "I just couldn't let that man do that."
"It don't matter. You see where it landed you."
Things got straightened out. Ike was released the next morning. He heard his name called out.
"Easterwood, Isaiah. You're being let go." He stood. The jailer approached with a ring of large heavy keys and unlocked the door. "You're a free man. Charges have been dropped."
He called his sister. He had no choice. She picked him up at the city jail. She asked some questions, but he didn't talk. He rode in a cab to the bus station and got on a Greyhound that afternoon and never went back to Atlanta.
When Ike married Emerald she was ten years out of prison, off parole, clean and sober, and working steady. Her four grandkids stayed with her more than with their mothers. She said her girls didn't have sense enough to raise them. She made sure the grandkids had clean new clothes and shoes and food to eat. Ike admired that. But what he couldn't understand was Emerald's two daughters. They were always having some kind of trouble getting or keeping a job, trouble with their boyfriends or their babies' daddies, or with the law or social services. Always in the center of some kind of mess or trouble, everybody hollering and cussing, laying out of work, disrespecting themselves and others, and not going to church and reading their Bibles every day. He kept his mouth shut.
Ike had worked twenty-one years fixing the diesel trucks and tractors for the Camden County Public Works Department in Kingsland. He'd had but one boss during that whole time. Mr. Carl managed the garage and just pointed to the trucks and the tractors that needed worked on, and then left Ike alone. He never gave Mr. Carl any trouble. He did his work, was never late, never stole, and had only taken sick leave a few weeks after he got hit by that semi-truck one foggy December morning, the first cold morning of 1996.
With the settlement money from the wreck with the tractor-trailer truck, he bought a two bedroom vinyl siding house behind the Brunswick hospital so Emerald would be right there close to her work, kids, and grandkids. But with the grandkids there most of the time and all the turmoil with Emerald's daughters and their boyfriends and other folks, Ike stayed at his sister's house in Kingsland or at his parents in St. Mary's during the week. He stayed at the Brunswick house on Friday and Saturday nights, sometimes Sunday, too. He came to accept that the arrangement worked out better, saving him on gas and wear and tear on his little truck.
After work, when there was enough sun during the week, and on Saturdays, Ike mowed people's yards while his partner handled the customers, the money, and the blowing and edging.
Ike liked his jobs. Neither one required much talking. It gave him time to recite Psalms, meditate on his Sunday school lessons while he hummed or sang church hymns under the machine noise.
Time went by as time went by as the Lord gave it.
Everything started getting tense when Emerald hurt her back.
She worked at the nursing home cleaning up after elderly people, people with Alzheimer's, and other people unable to get around and care for themselves. She got hurt lifting folks out of wheel chairs, on and off toilets, off the floor, into and out of beds. She started having constant pain in her back and hips, and numbness in her legs. It got to where when she came home she didn't have the energy and hurt too bad to keep up the house. Ike couldn't understand why her girls didn't help. He didn't say anything. He did what he could around the house when he was there. It worried and hurt him when she stopped going to church and the weekly Sunday afternoon dinners at his parents' house. She said she couldn't stand all that sitting and riding in the car. She went out at sunrise on Saturdays and bought groceries at Wal-Mart. Other than that, though, she stayed in bed most of the weekend. Much of the time she was as ill-tempered.
One Sunday he brought her a covered plate his mother had fixed, coaxing her out of the stale smelling bedroom to the living room to eat and watch TV. While she ate he went back to the bedroom and changed the bed sheets, then started a load of clothes in the washing machine, and then carried the garbage bag from the kitchen to the can outside.
"The kids been here?" he asked from the kitchen that Sunday.
"I run Tya off last night. Caught her taking money out of my purse yesterday. I ought to call the po-po and have her ass locked up."
That would just cause more problems, he thought.
"That boy she be running with be calling from the jail. I keep telling him I ain't taking no collect calls. I just finally unplugged the phone."
He stepped into the living room. "I got some money. How much do you need?"
She adjusted the blinds. "Car be needing some gas."
"I'll fill it before I leave," he said. "You going to work, tomorrow?"
"When y'all gone cut the grass?"
"Sometime this week when we be over this way."
"Where's the zapper?" she asked.
He pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet with wet hands. He found the remote control jammed between the armrest and the cushion on the gold velour couch. He handed it to her along with the twenty.
She didn't look up. She turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, settling on a black and white movie.
"You see the chiropractor this week?" he asked.
"I'm supposed to see her two times this week." She held up the bill he'd given her and waved it back and forth. "Twenty dollars every time."
He walked back to the kitchen.
She hollered out to him over a TV commercial, "Why don't you reach in your mad money and pull me out one of them folded hundred dollar bills. I be needing more than this. I knows you got it."
He placed the clean forks and spoons in their plastic compartments in the top drawer. "You can get by on that twenty till I get back and cut the grass."
"That ain't enough to put gas in the car and buy food."
He looked in the freezer. "There's enough food in this freezer to get you by until then. I ain't got no money for you to blow on them lottery games."
"I don't blow my money on that. I just buys a couple of tickets every Saturday."
"This drawer in here is almost full of old lottery tickets."
"The girls buys 'em, too. With their own money."
Uh-huh, he thought. He asked, "What medicine you taking?"
"Pills, pills, pills . . . "
"Where you get 'em?"
He peeked around the doorway. "How much you take today?"
She turned and studied him for a bit. "Well, damn, maybe it ain't none of your business, Detective Ike."
He stared at her and shook a medicine bottle.
"What you got? Where you get that?"
"Right here on the kitchen counter."
"Give it here."
"You ain't got to be so hateful. Why you gotten so hateful to me, Emerald?"
" Bring me that bottle of pills." She almost fell out of the chair. "They mine. Bring them to me or I'll cut you."
"This bottle say X-an-ex, X . . . an . . . "
"It's Zan-ex you ignorant . . . "
"What's its supposed to do?" he said.
She twisted in her chair, annoyed. "It's for pain."
"How much do you take?"
"Couple this morning. It depends on the pain."
"That all you taking?"
"No." She studied a chicken wing.
"Why you need to know all a sudden what I be taking?"
"In case I got to call 911 or something."
"Shit, you ain't around enough for that."
He sat on the arm of the couch and watched her eat. After a moment, during a commercial, he asked, "What else you taking besides that Zan-ex?"
"I be taking other medicine, too, so I can sleep."
"I don't remember."
"Where you keep it?"
She didn't say anything. She just sunk her spoon in a bowl of fruit cobbler.
He noticed her head kept dropping and then she would catch it. "Sleepy?" he said.
"Hm?" She stared at the TV She had it turned so low he could barely hear it.
"Food good?" he asked.
He loaded the dirty dishes and cups and pans into the dishwasher and started it. The small bathroom smelled like urine and fish and mildew. He scrubbed the toilet, sink, tub, and linoleum floor with Pine-Sol. Emerald was in the bedroom asleep when he finished. While he scoured the kitchen counters, he heard the shower start. He turned off the dishwasher.
It was dark by the time he filled her car with gas. It was filthy. He threw some cups, fast food wrappers, and a couple of empty Newport cigarette wrappers in the garbage can at the pump, shook off the sandy floor mats, and wasted five dollars to sit in the car while water jets and brushes knocked the first layer of pollen and black sand off the exterior.
On the way home he drove through a thunderstorm. Rain whipped like curtains and pelted the car.
Weeks passed in the same routine.
Emerald got no better. She hadn't been to church. He drove up to Brunswick early Sunday. The house was dark and quiet. Emerald snored on the couch in the gown and housecoat she'd been in on Friday afternoon when he'd left to clean yards.
He bent down and shook her shoulder. "Emerald? Em? Em? Wake up. It's Ike."
"Hmmm?" She rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand, rolled left then right, but didn't open her eyes.
"Emerald. It's Sunday. I come to take you to church. Wake up."
"What? Whatchyou doing?"
"Sunday. Church. Get ready. I'll take you."
"Naw, naw. I ain't going to no church. I cain't sit on them pews. Go on."
"Wake up. I'll make you some coffee. Everybody's been askin' about you. They want to see you. Want to hear you sing again."
Emerald rolled to the back of the couch and covered her head with the pillow. "I ain't singing for no more motherfuckers for free."
"Aw, now. You don't mean that."
She sprung around and pushed Ike. "What did I say, nigger?"
He was stunned.
"I said I ain't going to no church. Not today, not never. Now get out of my face, motherfucker." She stood and stumbled, held the wall, then weaved down the hall to the bedroom. Shut the door. Fumbled with the lock, but eventually locked it.
Ike stared at the floor. She'd left the TV on. His throat tightened, his eyes welled with tears.
After a time, Ike shuffled out the back door. Ignoring the TV, the fast food wrappers and bags and cups falling into the kitchen floor out of the black plastic garbage bag, the dishes heaped in the sink, the skillet and boilers of crusty food on the stove, the grass that needed cutting and the leaves blown.
He drove the thirty minutes south to his church. He missed Sunday school and came in late for the service while everybody was standing and singing.
Miss Emma, his mother's neighbor, hugged his neck. "Here's my man."
He rocked and clapped in time with the others in the back pew. Tears mixed with the sweat pouring off his face.
A Sunday afternoon at his parent's house a couple of weeks later, Ike's sister Viola had him cornered on the back screened-in porch. "Isaiah, I'm worried about Emerald."
His mother was putting the dinner dishes in the dishwasher with his niece while his father napped in his recliner under the portraits of Dr. King, President John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, with the Braves game blaring on the television.
Ike said, "I am too. When I got there Friday, the house was a mess, clothes everywhere, dishes piled in the sink, and her girls won't lift a finger to help her."
"Me and Momma have offered—"
Viola lit a long cigarette. Exhaling, she said, "I've been hearing things."
"I don't want to hear no gossiping."
"I don't care what you don't want to hear. This is something you need to know. I've been hearing bad things for a while. I haven't told you 'cause I knew you'd say that. I wanted to check things on my own."
He unstacked two green plastic chairs and sat in one. Viola stood, looking out on the back yard. "I'm really worried about her."
The phone rang inside. Ike's mother answered it and cackled.
Viola said, "I've tried calling. She won't answer the phone and won't call me back when I leave a message on the answering machine or with one of her girls."
"She treats me the same, always has."
Viola was the first and only person in their family on both sides to go to college. She went on scholarship and now worked as a social worker in Jacksonville. She was always on the go.
"I've gone to the nursing home several times," Viola said. "Of course nobody will tell you anything. I never have seen her car there. One of the ladies at the church saw her at Wal-Mart a few weeks ago. Did you know they cut her hours because of her back? My friend said she was afraid they were going to fire her. Did you know that?"
He adjusted in the chair. It was tight on his hips. "No."
"Has she gone to the doctor?" she asked.
"To the chiropractor."
"Other than the chiropractor."
He coughed into his fist. "I don't know."
"My God, Ike, don't you know anything?"
"I ain't up there with her that much. I'm working most of the time, when I'm not at church."
"And she ain't at church either."
"Says she can't sit or ride in the car or sit in the pew."
"Don't sound like a can't, but something else."
"I don't know. I just try to stay out of her business. Keep my mouth shut."
"You're her husband." Viola swatted at a mosquito hovering close to her ear. "I know a back surgeon in Jacksonville, another one in Atlanta."
Ike looked across the back yard. "Atlanta's too far."
Viola crossed her arms. He didn't like her long red fingernails. They weren't real. That made him dislike the nails even more, like the tattoos Emerald's daughters got to defile their bodies. Jezebel vanity and foolishness. "Well, I gave her his name and number when I left a message on the machine."
"I appreciate it," he said. "One of her girls probably erased it and she didn't get it."
"I can call the doctor's office and make an appointment for her. You think I should?"
"Naw. Hold off. I'll tell her."
"If her back is that bad she's probably going to need surgery."
His heart and stomach jumped. "Surgery?"
"Yeah, but what I'm concerned most about right now is her meds. She shouldn't be taking any narcotics."
"Because she's a drug addict."
"She was a drug addict," he said.
"Isaiah, you're always an addict. Has she been going to her meetings?"
"NA. It's like AA for drug addicts."
"I don't know, Viola."
She gave him a mean look and shook her head.
He noticed she had stopped wearing her wedding ring. You could still see the ring indention on her finger. She wasn't divorced, but nobody knew where her husband had gone. It had been three years. Her little girl was nearly nine now and barely remembered her daddy. That was the only thing Ike liked about staying with his sister and niece during the week—there was a man in the house. But then there was no man in his house. And apparently that was causing some problems.
"I'm worried if she's in that much pain that she'll start self medicating," Viola said. "I've seen that dozens, hundreds of times. Then you're going to lose her, Ike."
"What you mean, self medicating?"
Viola's daughter poked her head out the door. "When you coming inside, Momma?" She stepped out on the porch. Viola pushed her back inside. "I'll be there in a minute, baby. Let me talk to Uncle Ike for a minute or two." She closed the door and looked at him.
"Well, she has access to a lot of medicine where she works . . . "
"She knows better than that," he said.
"She may know better, but the sickness in her head, the addiction. Pain all the time . . . Back pain is rough."
He didn't know what to think.
Viola inhaled deeply, exhaled, and took another draw before opening the screen door and flicking the cigarette out into the black sandy yard shaded by live oaks. He hoped this was the end of this talk and they could go back inside the house where it was cooler and he could lie down on the couch and watch the Braves. Then his sister faced him. She was a tall big-boned woman. Ike was over six-foot-three and weighed almost two-seventy-five. When Viola wore heels to church as she did now, she was taller.
"I'm really concerned about Emerald self medicating. Do you know what I mean?"
He nodded. He didn't know if he did or not.
She said, "Do you know a guy named Antonio Sapp? From Brunswick. A drug dealer, mostly. He's called Itchy on the streets."
Ike shook his head and scratched a hard to get place on his back. The house he'd bought for Emerald was his only connection to Brunswick.
"The word I've gotten is that . . . " She reached in her purse and retrieved another cigarette and a lighter.
He watched the smoke rise from the first cigarette lying in the yard.
She lit her cigarette and stowed her lighter in her cigarette case. "I had somebody run his criminal history. He's got a record. Burglary, assault, drug offenses. He went to prison back in the eighties and then a stint from ninety-five to two-thousand. Now he's a maintenance man for one of the motels in Brunswick on I-95. I can't remember which one right this instant."
"Is he one of the girl's boyfriends that be calling the house all the time?" he asked.
She tucked her cigarette case in her purse and set the purse on the other plastic chair. "No."
"I talked to an officer in Brunswick. He knew about Itchy, knew where he lived, and gave me his address."
"He's an old friend of Emerald's. He's one of the girls' daddy."
Ike raised his eyes and looked at her. "How do you know all this?"
She opened the screen door to let a wasp out. "I called Itchy's old parole officer. He told me." She looked at Ike, exhaled smoke through her nose. Her daughter stuck her head out again.
"Momma, when we going?"
"In just a minute, baby. Go inside." The girl stepped back and closed the door.
Viola said, "I rode over by his house at different times. I got to tell you a few times I've gone by there the last couple of weeks, Emerald's car has been parked out front on the street."
"Maybe one of the girls drove it over there."
"I guess, but don't think so," she said.
She flicked her half-smoked cigarette out the screen door. It hit the trellised wall of wisteria their dad had built when they were kids. "We like you staying with us. It's a big help and eases my mind you're there. I don't mean to interfere. It's your marriage. That's what's important. But you're at our house more than you're with her . . . " Viola had her hand on the doorknob. "I didn't want to hear any of this, either." Then she went in the house.
After a time, Ike went inside the house. The television was off. The house was quiet, except for the dishwasher running. Ike looked out the front window. The cars were gone. Everybody had left to go back to church. A covered plate was on the kitchen counter. Ike turned on the television. The Braves game was over. He flipped through the channels. Nothing was on he liked. He turned the television off. Then he lay on the couch, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
Tuesday, after work, Ike called Emerald at the house. He talked to one of her daughters. She didn't know the whereabouts of her momma, but the washer had gone out. He told her to have her momma call the Sears man.
Ike called again on Thursday, after work. He talked to the same daughter. He heard kids in the background. Emerald had gone to the laundromat and Wal-Mart. She didn't know whether or not her momma had called the Sears man about the washing machine. He told her he'd check the washing machine when he got there the next night. He'd cut the grass and change the oil in Emerald's car, too. Just before hanging up, he asked to have her mother call him, but the phone went dead while he was talking.
He drove to Brunswick on Friday after work. Emerald was there. His partner and he cut and edged the yard, then they checked the washing machine, but couldn't get it to work. He asked Emerald to call Sears. She was on her way out the door to take her daughters and her grandkids to Darien to her sister's, and said she would call the next morning. He bought his partner supper at McDonald's. Then he bought oil and an oil filter at Wal-Mart for Emerald's car. He stayed up as late as he could for her, falling asleep on the couch.
He woke before the sun, meeting his partner at the Waffle House for breakfast before beginning a hot day of cutting people's yards on St. Simons Island. He got home at about seven. Emerald's car was in the carport. She was asleep in the bedroom. He changed her car's oil. The inside of the car smelled of spit-up, McDonald's, and soiled diapers. He got a plastic garbage bag and loaded it. There were broken and discarded happy meal toys, fast food wrappers, soiled diaper wipes, a folded-up wet and soiled diaper in a plastic grocery bag which wasn't tied shut, a half empty potato chip bag, numerous empty corners of clear plastic baggies, a chocolate pop-tart that had melted on the cloth backseat, and empty plastic Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper bottles. The ashtray was full of lottery receipts and scratch-off cards. He found an empty Coca-Cola can under the driver's seat, wrapped in aluminum foil with a tube stuck in it. Next to it was a disposable cigarette lighter and an empty prescription pill bottle with the label peeled off. He vacuumed the car's inside. There were a number of stains in the tan carpet he didn't have the cleaner to get out, and new cigarette burns in the front seats he'd have to fix later. He had to go over the outside with Comet twice to get it cleaned to his satisfaction, which uncovered new gashes and scratches and dents to touch-up. Then he went inside the house, stuffed his wet and dirty clothes in a plastic bag to take to Viola's, and showered. Emerald didn't wake up. His clothes were in the closet of the other bedroom so he didn't have to open the door and worry about waking her.
He dined out for shrimp and fish and iced tea for supper at Jinright's on Highway 17, down from the house. A slice of cheesecake would have satisfied his sugar urges, but he'd been managing his diabetes with diet to avoid the insulin his parents and sister injected every day.
The Braves were playing on the west coast. Somebody called the house a couple of times after eleven o'clock. When he answered, they hung up. He figured it was one of the daughters' friends. He fell asleep on the couch with the television on.
An infomercial blared when he awoke early Sunday. He guessed it had played all night. He shaved, showered, and dressed in his brown suit, the only suit he had left at the house. He locked the back door and closed it softly. He stopped by McDonald's for a sausage biscuit and a coffee to go, and then drove his little white truck the thirty miles to St. Mary's for Sunday school and church.
He yawned all through church, napped on the couch at his mother's, and after dinner decided to stay with Viola instead of driving to Brunswick. He called Emerald. The phone rang, but nobody answered. He felt the urge to drive back to Brunswick then, but waited and called again an hour later. Emerald answered this time. He told her he was going to stay with Viola. She sounded drowsy. She said she had been at the laundromat washing and drying clothes. She wasn't sure she was going to work the next day. He asked whether she had called the doctor. She said she couldn't get through. She had forgotten to call the Sears man. He said he would call. She didn't say anything about her clean car.
Before leaving for Sunday evening church services, Ike asked Viola for that man's address. He wrote it down on the back of a torn envelope his parent's electricity bill came in.
He went to Brunswick after work on Monday. Emerald pulled in right after him. She had two of her grandkids with her. She fed the kids fish sticks, french fries and apple juice. They watched an hour of cartoons. Then Emerald gave the kids a bath and lay them in the single beds in the other bedroom. They showered and watched TV After the news, she went to her bed. He slept on the couch.
She gave him a suspicious look when he drove up in the driveway on Tuesday evening. "Two nights in a row?"
He smiled. "That okay?"
"Your house, too, I guess."
She fixed crab cakes and hush puppies for supper. Her daughters came over. They sneered, but never spoke a word to him. They argued with their momma about working and money and getting the grandkids to and from daycare.
He went outside and watered the yard. A patch of dollar weeds had erupted. The azalea blossoms had dropped off. The crepe myrtles he'd pruned in January were going to bloom in June and fill in good.
When the kids left, he turned off the water and went back inside and cleaned the kitchen while Emerald showered. She came out to the kitchen as he was putting away pans and dishes.
"You going to be here the rest of the week?" she asked.
"You need me to?" he said.
"I'm all right."
"The girls didn't even speak to me."
"Did you speak to them?"
"You the adult."
"They adults, too," he mumbled, bearing down on the counter, trying to wipe away grease from the stove. He didn't look at her. "They stole any more of your money? They need to quit all that running around and get to church."
"My kids. That ain't none of your business." She walked out of the kitchen.
"I'm tired of them causing a ruckus all the time, cussing and wearing hardly any clothes like street whores."
She turned on the TV and hollered back from the living room. "Who you calling whores? Nigga, you better watch your goddamn mouth." She came back into the kitchen and got her purse off the top of the counter.
"Watch your mouth," he said.
"Don't tell me to watch my mouth, motherfucker."
"I didn't call nobody whores," he said.
"That's what you said, Mr. Deacon, all high and mighty."
He faced her. "That's not what I said, woman. You ain't listening." His voice sounded loud in his ears.
"Oh, I'm listening," she shouted. "Bunch of shit coming out of your goddamn mouth."
He turned toward her, raised his right hand, and back-handed her in the mouth. She screamed and held her face.
"I told you to watch your mouth. You ain't gone take the Lord's name in vain in my house."
She fumbled in her purse. He grabbed her arm. Her purse dropped.
"Stop it, Ike. Let me go. You're hurting me. Goddamnit. Quit it, damn you."
He let go.
"Ain't no nigga man gone hit me." She squatted and pick up her purse and coming up, she flicked open a box cutter and waved it at his chin.
He raised his arm again.
"You try hittin' me again nigga, I'll motherfuckin' kill yo nigga ass."
"Put that away, woman."
He lunged at her. She came down with the blade and sliced his forearm. He slapped her again. She flew across the kitchen and hit the refrigerator.
"Devil ain't gone have his way here," he said.
She turned and waved the blade at him.
"Put that box cutter down, I said."
"I'll cut you again, nigga," she hissed. "And have your motherfuckin' ass locked up. Don't you try coming at me again."
He did not move.
She backed out of the kitchen and down the hall, breathing hard, her black eyes hard and mean, holding the box cutter tightly, pointed at him.
He wrapped a dishtowel around his arm and followed her, a body length between them.
She backed into her bedroom, closing the door and locking it.
He stood there for a time. Then he walked up the hall, and went out the back door to his car.
As he waited for traffic to go by to get onto the main highway, Emerald's daughters drove up, stopped, blocked him, and got out cussing and screaming, banging on his hood. "I'm gone kill your ass, motherfucker." One girl carried a small chrome pistol. She lifted her arm and, with the semiautomatic turned sideways, started firing. He lay across the seat and shifted his truck in reverse. Bullets dinked the truck's windshield and passenger door, and ricocheted off the side mirror and hood. He lifted his head just enough to see out the back window and drove backwards as fast as he could control the truck, while shots fired. He stopped two blocks down the street, looked over the steering wheel, and saw the girls jump in their car. He didn't look to see if they were heading his way, but sat up, put the truck in gear, and raced down dark roads for fifteen minutes before he felt comfortable that he was not being followed. Then he drove south on Hwy. 17 and then on Interstate 95 to his sister's in St. Mary's. He didn't tell Viola.
Ike waited three days, until Friday evening, to call Emerald to apologize. He left a message on the machine.
He called her on Saturday around six after cutting grass. He didn't leave a message. He cleaned up at Viola's house and drove to Brunswick, getting there a little after eight. Emerald's car was not at the house. He stepped in the back door from the carport. The house was dark. Her bed was unmade. The sink was full of crusted dishes and plastic cups. Drops of blood still stippled the floor. Dirty clothes piled outside the washer and dryer closet. Somebody from Sears had called him at work to re-schedule the service call because nobody was home when they'd come on Thursday.
He didn't spot Emerald's car when he drove around the housing project where her daughters lived down the street from the Hercules plant. He drove by the laundromats on Norwich Street and Altama without sighting the car. On the way back to the house, he stopped by a McDonald's and got a Big Mac meal and a strawberry shake to go. The Braves were on the television. He fell asleep on the couch before the game ended.
He awoke around midnight, went to the bathroom, and then walked up the hall and picked up his keys and wallet off the floor next to the couch. He pulled out the paper in his wallet that had the man's address. Antonio Sapp. Itchy. Union Street. He did not want to drive out there. He called Viola. She told him just to get what things he had left there and come back to her house. It wasn't going to do him any good to look for her. He agreed.
He locked the house door, got in his car, and headed to Highway 17, back to his sister's in St. Mary's.
On Fourth Street, Ike spotted Emerald's Marquis parked under a streetlight in front of the Club Lock Down.
Ike turned round at a corner used tire dealership and parked along the road in the club's sandy lot.
The Marquis's back passenger window had been busted out and replaced with plastic and duct tape. The hubcaps were gone and the driver's side mirror dangled. Somebody had pried out the trunk lock and the trunk was being kept down with a bungee cord. The front corner panel on the driver's side was dented in and there was a long gash down the driver's side.
An acrid odor spewed out of the window crack as a man and a woman inside hunched over the console and passed a glass pipe to each other.
Ike tapped on the window. The couple passed the pipe. Ike tapped again. The couple passed the pipe. Ike tried opening the door. It was locked. He took his key and unlocked it. He opened the door and snatched the man out of the car and threw him to the ground.
"It's a cop," the man said. "Run."
The woman fell out of the car and ran across the street and into the darkness.
Ike knelt on the man's chest.
"I cain't breathe, man."
"Where'd you get this car?"
"I rented it."
"Who'd you rent it from?"
"A crack dealer."
"What's his name? Where's he at?"
"It's his old lady's car. They stay out on Union Street."
"What's his name?"
"I don't know."
"What do they call him on the street?"
"Itchy. Itchy. That's all I know him by."
"What's his old lady's name?"
"I never know her name, man. She got light skin, green eyes. Crack whore."
Then Ike entered a month of work, fasting, and prayer while living with Viola, trying to take her advice and staying clear of Brunswick and letting Emerald lead her own life even if that meant she was drinking and drugging herself to death. "There's nothing you can do about it," Viola said. "She'll just bring you down with her."
And he prayed, and worked until his body and mind could not function. Then he ate and slept and woke the next day and did it all again and tried to not think about Emerald.
Late in the third week Ike began to pray, "Oh Lord, look down upon your poor sinner, and protect me as the Devil rains downs his wickedness, forgive me thou poor sinner my trespasses . . ." then raspy voices, Emerald, Emerald, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha . . . Oh thou poor sinner. Seek thou God's forgiveness. Where is thou's wife? Ah-Ah-Oh-Oh is she lost, ah-ah-oh-oh, ah-ah-oh-oh. Is thou wife seek debauchery and drunkenness? Where was thou, husband? Thy wife's protector. Thou coward, sinner, debaucher, and drunkard, by abandoning thy wife. Why so far from thy calls of help, from thy cries of anguish. Rescue thy wife. But I am despised by thy wife. When she sees me she mocks and scorns me. She curses and shakes her head at me.
The next day the same voices invaded his morning and evening prayers. Five days and each time Ike began his prayers they were drowned out by God calls by day, but thou does not answer; by night, but thou does not give relief. Oh poor husband, rely on the Lord. Let Him deliver thee. If He loves thee, let Him rescue thee. Then do not stay far from me, for trouble is near there is no one to help.
Each day while he tried to meditate the voices grew louder. By the sixth and seventh day all he heard underneath his daily work was the voices. They became his dreams and awoke him in his sleep. He told his sister and consulted his preacher. His preacher prayed over him. The sisters sang hymns and prayed and they ate the covered dishes they brought. After the Thursday evening deacons meeting, the brother deacons got down on one knee and laid hands on Ike's shoulders and prayed with deep voices. But despite these good people's earnest supplications the devilish voices taunting Ike would not quit. The voices taunted him through hard unceasing sweaty work under greasy trucks and tractors and in the evenings cutting yards until sunset.
Thou canst defeat Satan. For Emerald's flesh is devoured in drugs and debauchery. Man shall leave his mother and lie with his wife; it is sin to lay with another man's wife. Thou art not a man if thou does nothing and let another man lay with Emerald. Wouldst thou be a coward? It is sin to allow a wayward wife . . . it is sinful . . . It is said, A worthy wife is the crown of her husband, but a disgraceful one is like rot in his bones. Wouldst thou be a sinful husband? Emerald is among Satan's numbers. Oh thee believer I have seen, I have seen . . . Where is thy God? Thou art forsaken, oh poor sinner. Rescue thy wife and cast thy soul into the pit. As long as thou keep silent thy bones shall waste away, thy strength shall wither as in dry summer heat, thy heart will become like wax and melt away within thou, and like water, thy life will drain away. I declared my sins, my guilt I did not hide, and the Lord took away the guilt of my sin. So much for you, thou deluded husband for thy wife seeks intoxication and the pleasure of the flesh. She shuns thy pain and grieves not, repaying evil for thy good. Pursue thy wife into the darkness, even with good intentions, and be afflicted with a deadly disease from the sick bed thou shall never rise, and never shall mercy rest upon thy heart.
He left from God's house in the late afternoon to find his wife.
Ike opened the screen door and knocked on the front door of the house. Nobody came to it, so he knocked again. After a moment, the front porch light came on and the door cracked open. A short, shirtless, dark-complexioned man wearing shorts peeked through the six-inch crack.
"I come for Emerald."
"Yeah?" asked the man, sniffling.
"She ain't here," said the man. He kept sniffling.
"I'm her husband." Ike pointed. "Her car be right there on the street."
"Whatever, man. She ain't here. Don't know her." The man closed the door.
Ike stood at the door. He knocked. The man didn't answer. Ike knocked again. He jiggled the doorknob. It was locked. He shouted, "Emerald. Emerald. It's me, Ike. I came to take you home. Why you in there? Emerald. It's Ike." He pounded on the door.
The man hollered back, "Nigger, I said she ain't here. I gone call the po-lices."
Ike stepped back from the door and ran into it with his left shoulder. The door flung opened with ease. He stood in the middle of the dark front room. The man was on the couch. Assorted junk, lawn mower engines, a bicycle, and tools, were strewn on the floor and against the wall.
"I come for Emerald. Where she at?"
A shotgun style house with a front room and a hall ran the length of the house down the left side to the kitchen in the back. Between the front room and the kitchen were a front bedroom, then a small narrow bathroom, and then a back bedroom.
Ike walked past the man on the couch to the dark hallway. The man ran out the front door.
The hallway was black, except for a dim light coming from the back of the house. He let his eyes adjust.
He called down the hall. "Emerald?"
He groped and let his hand follow the wall. The door to the front bedroom was cracked open. He pushed it. "Emerald? I come to take you home." Shadows moved in the room.
A man's voice. "You need to go home, preacher man, before somebody gets hurt. Breakin' into other people's house."
"I didn't come to hurt nobody," Ike said. "I just come for my wife. Emerald? Is Emerald here?"
"Ike, go home," Emerald said. "This ain't your house."
He stepped into the room. Some of the pink light from the front streetlight seeped into the room's window. A man reeking of liquor and cigarettes pushed Ike out of the bedroom and up against the wall. "Nigger, you better get your ass home." The man's words came out fast and sharp like the sound from an air wrench.
Ike froze. He could not speak.
The men were less than two feet apart, but Ike could not make out the features of the man's face. He was a head taller than the man who moved quickly from side to side before him, jabbing him in the chest and stomach with his fingers.
Emerald yelled, "Stop, Itchy. Go home, Ike. Don't cause no trouble. I ain't going home."
"Go on. Go on. Go on." The man kept jabbing.
"Go on home, Ike," she said.
"She ain't going no where with you," the man said.
Ike tried to deflect the man's jabs, but he couldn't see well enough in the darkness.
The man snarled, "I'm gone fuck you up, nigger."
Ike sidled down the wall toward the back of the house. The man kept shouting at him and jabbing his chest. The more Ike backed, the louder the man hollered, and the meaner his words. "Get your nigger ass out my house motherfucker before I cut you. Get on, now. Now. Now." Ike kept moving. "You going the wrong direction, preacher man. You deaf?" The man kept jabbing, jabbing, jabbing, searing Ike with the Devil's finger. Protect me Lord.
"Not the back, Ike," Emerald hollered. She sounded like she'd come into the hall now. "You can't get out the back."
Ike kept moving toward the light in the back of the house. Then he realized the man was not following him.
Emerald said, "Where you going, Itchy? What you doing? What you looking for? Just let Ike out. Just let him go out the front door. Come back in the bedroom and shut the door, Itchy. Let him go out the front. He'll go out the front." Then she hollered to Ike. "Ike, go home. Go home, Ike, before somebody gets hurt."
Ike turned. A nightlight was plugged in the wall socket next to the sink in a small filthy kitchen with a sink full of pots, cups, and dishes. The back door, next to the sink, was blocked with a stack of motel air conditioners. He heaved the top air conditioner onto the cluttered kitchen table, knocking junk onto the floor.
"You dumb motherfucker," Ike heard the voice behind him, steel snap, Emerald screamed, and then a boom and another boom, and the wall and cabinet at his right ear exploded, sending Ike over the table in the middle of the kitchen, stunned, bleeding from the head, arms, and back, gouged with wood shrapnel, and unable to hear out of his right ear.
"Where are you, preacher man? Did I kill your sorry ass?"
Ike winced as he pushed himself up to his hands and knees. He turned his head and wiped the blood pouring into his eyes. The man looked as if he had a long thick pole raised. "I told you to get your sorry ass out of my house and you didn't you dumb motherfucker."
A blow to the back took Ike's breath and dropped him to his knees. Quick jabs with the end of the stick cracked his ribs.
"You gone get up? Huh? You gone get up? That'll teach you to come into some man's house and think you can be Superman." He jabbed Ike in the back. Jabbed him again. "Get up, preacher man. Get your ass up."
"What? What? What you say?"
"I can't see. I can't get my breath."
"I don't care if you crawl out of here. Get going." He prodded Ike with the stick. "What's wrong with you?"
Sticking out of the sink was the handle of a large kitchen knife. Ike grabbed the handle and pointed the blade at the man. The man swung, hitting Ike in the head twice. Ike buckled and swung the knife blindly. The man screamed and fell to one knee. He hit Ike with the pole once more. Ike lunged and stabbed the man in the leg. The man backed out of the kitchen.
Ike's hands and knees quaked and he wheezed trying to catch a breath. Blood poured out of his nose and streamed from the top of his head into his eyes.
He had wanted no trouble, no trouble, he had wanted no trouble.
Hazy pink light hinted the way out toward the front.
The way of the wicked leads to ruin. They will not survive judgment.
The man backed slowly toward the front with the stick held above his head. Ike, stooped over, shuffling sideways, protecting his injured ribs and arm, held the knife out at arm's length, and kept a couple of body lengths behind the man. Emerald was howling. "Stop this. Stop this, now, Itchy. Let him out. Oh, stop before somebody gets killed. Oh, God, stop this." And she moaned. Ike could not distinguish her words. The man pushed her in the front bedroom as he and Ike made their way toward the front door.
When Ike passed the bedroom door, Emerald jumped on his back and began hitting him in the head and clawing him. Ike stumbled in the dark. She jerked his neck and used some kind of twisted cloth to strangle him. Emerald grunted, "You bastard, you motherfucking stupid fucking bastard." He grappled the cloth loose enough to breathe. "Let go, woman. Let go." Emerald yanked and pulled. The cloth untwisted and unraveled. It was her dress. The green velvet dress, but ripped and crusty, stinking of cigarettes and beer, fish and sour body. Emerald coiled the dress around her fist and whipped him over the head with it. "Die, you motherfucker. Die. Die. Die." He bent forward and smashed her against the wall, but she held on to the dress. "Die, die." He tried to get hold of one of her hands, but she bit him through the fleshy part between his thumb and index finger. She raked his eyes with her fingernails and then bit his ear. "You bastard, you stupid bastard. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you." The man swung the stick, hitting Ike in the stomach. When he reared back to swing again, Ike thrust the knife forward. The man hollered and covered his chest with one of his hands. Ike kicked and slashed. Emerald still whipped and screamed. Ike slashed and stabbed and hacked. After a time, he could not tell how long, Emerald let go. The linoleum floor was wet and slick. He stepped over Emerald and kicked the green velvet dress loose from his foot. The man leaned in the doorway, coughing. Ike watched the man scramble across the street and collapse in the school playground.
Wheezing hard, Ike followed and kneeled by the man who thrashed and gurgled and waved the stick, a thick walking cane, in his outstretched fist.
Ike tried to stop the blood gushing from the hole over the man's heart. The blood gushed out of the man's chest onto the black sand. The walking cane fell. The man coughed up blood. A few seconds later, the man lay motionless, staring vacantly.
Ike pushed himself up and nearly blacked out. Blood saturated him. He got to his feet, and still carrying the butcher knife, he held onto his ribs and limped across the street. He could not bear to go in the house. Bloody hand prints on the door. Emerald was dead. He knew. Oh, God, he knew. He hadn't come here to kill. What had happened to him?
He collapsed against his truck tire, paralyzed in the legs, shivering all over, gasping to catch a breath, unable to focus.
He brought the knife blade up to his eyes and stared at the coagulated blood. Oh, God, what have I done?
Thy God stands behind the door knocking no longer. Thy God calls not thy name. Thou art unworthy to dine in His house or to rest like a child on His throne.
Sirens blared it seemed from every direction. Dogs howled and barked. People gathered outside their doors in their night clothes curious and confused.
Thou are not blameless. Thy rebelled against thy God, thou did strut away from Him. Thou did not give thy God the praise and the victory.
Ike sucked in air and gripped the knife handle in both hands and situated the blade tip so it could slip between the two ribs protecting his heart.
After much concentration, the thrust into the chest seem like an involuntary jerk, as if someone outside himself did the stabbing. His whole body seized, blood gushed down his chest, stomach, pooled onto the sand. His ears rang, his vision dimmed, his lungs like heavy weights.
I am numb and utterly crushed.
He palm hammered the knife butt, driving the blade's steel edge which punctured and tore vessels, arteries. He breathed heavily, coughed blood.
My iniquities overwhelm me, a burden beyond my strength.
He mumbled supplications, expecting no response.