The Last To Go

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The summer of 1936 was the hottest in Owensboro history, and Rainey Bethea spent it mostly on the front porch greeting churchgoers and spitting into the magnolias. At dusk, when the air cooled and the town settled, Rainey walked to Second Street, to Woodworth’s bar, and drank. After the two purses he’d stolen, April had been bad; May was when he redeemed himself. So June was left undetermined, and the first seven days of the month were blissfully indistinguishable.
When Rainey walked, he kicked the dirt, sending clouds of dust sailing into the blue grass, spiraling on through the night. He didn’t think about much, really, though at times he’d hear distant voices and he’d become hopeful. But the voice he longed to hear was buried deep in the ground, long disappeared, miles away in Virginia. After his mother died, Rainey had jumped on a train from Roanoke and was thrown off somewhere outside of Daviess County. He’d had his brushes with the law, disturbed the peace a few times, pocketed some nice looking things here and there. The last time he’d been in jail they’d given him a ring to wear, so that people would know to be scared of him, so that everyone walking down the street’d be warned that he was no good. Mrs. Charles Brown took pity on him though—a short, determined black orphan. So he kept a nice room in her house and earned his board weeding her endless gardens.
Near the back of Mrs. Brown’s property there was a rotting old Baptist church. On nights when he was too tired to amble down to Woodworth’s, Rainey’d just wander into the shack, slide into one of the crumbling pews, and sigh. He never spoke, and rarely did he pray. He simply sat and observed, inhaling the sodden air of the church, trying to determine the scent, the taste of God. And so, the night he stumbled, drunk, into Lischia Edwards’ bedroom, the faint memory of cedar and melted wax lingered on his tongue.
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The full Virginia moon settled over the Bethea house, hanging low and bright, glistening like a wet eye. The night was like every other night before it, and Rainey slid into the shadowy comfort of sleep, listening easily to the winged chorus outside his window. When the door creaked open, he smiled, expecting to see his mother in her night slip, dark hair about her shoulders, come to set a glass of water on his night table and kiss his cheek and blow cool air on his forehead. He pulled the sheets over his head, pretending to be asleep, and lay silent, waiting. But there was no water, no kiss. He heard, instead, the blunt, heavy footsteps of his father, home after drinking. He heard the unzipping of pants, the stinging sound of the razor-like teeth separating from each other, and he felt the cold sting of his father’s belt buckle pressing against the side of his stomach. He heard the whisper of fabric brushing against skin; he felt rough brown hands grasping his body, sweaty, hot breath wetting his neck.
The sounds of his father’s voice grunting words he couldn’t understand, syllables swimming aimlessly in his ears, drowned out the cicadas’ mournful song. As his father pushed him onto his stomach and pulled off his underwear, he shut his eyes and promised himself he’d never have to see again. He knew that if he looked, he would see that beautiful woman standing in his doorway, robe wrapped around her slender body, her calm eyes staring blankly into his own. His body tensed with pain, and the stench of whiskey stung in his nose. He felt the weight lift off of him, watched, bewildered and numb, as his mother clasped his father’s arm and led him away. After some time, his sheets settled again, as though nothing had ever disturbed them. Outside, the night was ascending, and the soft wind moaned, trapped in the hollow blades of grass.
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It was easier than he’d thought it’d be, getting into her room. He’d known Mrs. Edwards for a while; they’d been good friends when he worked at Emmet Wells’ place. She was sweet. When he’d finish his work, she’d give him glasses of water with ice, and she’d sit with him and ask him real questions, like she wanted to know him, like she didn’t care if he’d run away from his home, or if he was a criminal in some ways, or if he wanted nothing more than to strangle his father until his black, black skin turned a satisfying shade of blue. She was the same age his mother would have been, and her eyes shone the same shade of brown.
As he staggered drunkenly in through her open window, he couldn’t help but close his eyes, remember the moist heat of some summer breeze, long ago, and a soft, warm hand tightly gripping his own. He started when Mrs. Edwards awoke, and, without thinking, thrust himself off the windowsill onto her bed. At first, he cradled her. The skin beneath her nightgown was soft and loose, like the skin of an apple left in the sun. He knew that if she continued crying as she was now, he’d be dead by morning. Her brown, brown eyes were wide with fear, and as he wrapped his hands around her wrinkled neck she whimpered in vain.
Rainey didn’t know what to do when the arms stopped flailing beneath him. The room grew quiet and the cicadas chirped restlessly through the open window. He stood up, bewildered. Frantic, he zipped up his pants, cringing at the sharp sound, fastening his belt buckle, the cold metal gleaming. He rummaged through the array of jewelry on her night table, running his fingers over her beautiful golden rings, tempted by their glint in the moonlight. The song of the night insects drowned out the silence of the room, and as he slid out the window, he let the scent of the lavender in her window box swim in his nose. This, he thought, must be the smell of emptiness.
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Rainey walked stiff legged and rigid in his Sunday Best, trying to keep as still as possible, trying to imagine what his mother felt like at that moment. At the front of the processional there was him, his father, and his grandmother Florence, the one on his mother’s side. Florence dabbed at her eyes with a lacey handkerchief. But Rainey stared in wonder at his father, who looked blankly ahead, as though his eyes had been scooped out and replaced with glass. He smelled metallic in the heat and his whole body shone with sweat.
Rainey drowned out the sounds of people crying and just stood, motionless. He looked for solace from the sun in the church, seeking shade under the high rafters. But the ceiling wasn’t high enough to hold him in. He sat in the pews feeling swollen, like he was going to burst. He poked gently at his stomach, his thighs, everywhere that still ached, feeling the tender skin pucker at his fingertips. He cringed at his body’s willingness to surrender. He knew that leaving would be bad, but the only thing worse would be staying. He missed his mother, and that was that, and that was something he couldn’t ever escape from. But he could escape from his father, from spending the rest of his life with the sheets pulled up over his eyes, fearful under the blankets, feeling like he was split in half. He heard the ringing of the church bells, hallelujah, but the sound was muffled by the roar of the passing train. Rainey smiled, tilted his head back, and listened. He hadn’t ever heard anything more beautiful in his life.
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The afternoon sun was brutal and sweat dribbled down the back of Rainey’s neck as he settled beneath the bushes on the bank of the river. The last boat had just left. So, in a frenzied panic, he’d sunk into the shade of the leaves. As he was growing comfortable in the grass, he noticed the band of swollen, tawny skin that stood out sore against the black of his hands. It was the skin his ring was supposed to cover up, his black prison ring, the one that warned everyone that he was dangerous, that he was not to be trusted. His eyes shut for a minute. All at once, the smell of lavender filled the air and the motion of swiftly removing his own ring to replace it with golden ones repeated in his head. All those stolen rings lay hidden under the floorboards of the old church, and his own ring lay on the table next to that awful, rotting, putrid woman.
As he rose, numb, Rainey averted the wary glance of Red Figgins, who worked on the riverbank. He stumbled down to the water in a trance and waded in. Red knew him well enough to know about the ring, to have noticed its absence, and Rainey knew he was already on his way to tell the supervisor, to call the police, to get him in real trouble. Rainey just wanted to cool off, really. He just wanted to escape the heat that ravaged his mind. Bending down to the river, he cupped his hands. He held the cool water in his palms; he soon heard sirens approaching. He lifted his arms into the air as car doors slammed behind him. He let the hallowed water seep into his skull, douse his brain, slide down his burning temples over his lips. His eyes rolled back and the world became slow moving and white. He collapsed in the river, shaking violently, and he felt the pinch of fingernails and hands and barking voices lifting him up. He didn’t dare move; he didn’t dare blink. This time, he couldn’t bear to see the looks in their eyes.
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Rainey was instructed to stand firmly on the X above the trapdoor. He nodded complacently; he had no other choice. As it got harder for him to swallow, the twine scratching his neck, Rainey heard the faint moans of Mrs. Edwards, smelled the lavender branded on her skin, felt the smoothness of the rings. And then a man in a stiff suit pulled the lever, and in an instant, Rainey Bethea slipped silently below the stage. Some say they saw him clasp his hands and bow his head in silent prayer before he went. Some say they even heard him cry out for mercy, craning his neck toward the sky, begging God for some unattainable glory. But most simply say they saw a stranger swaying before a crowd, forehead glistening in the afternoon heat, just a man who didn’t seem to be thinking about much of anything.





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