“I jus’ has to save a life, Miss Karen,” Abraham said, trembling. Sweat seeped into the collar of his starched shirt, buttoned tight against his Adam’s apple. “Lawd knows, Miss Karen, I jus’ has to!”
Karen Winton, a volunteer CPR instructor, recently relocated to Columbia, Tennessee, didn’t know which was more inappropriate; the ancient, exhausted, dark chocolate colored man kneeling in his frayed black suit, or being calling Miss Karen.
“Mister Broom,” Karen said, “You don’t have to call me Miss…” but it was no use. Abraham had begun again, hands clasped, pumping into the elastic chest of the CPR dummy and counting: “one, two, three…”
Karen slipped into to a cheerleading mode, “Make sure you use your weight and not your muscles, that’s right, 30 pumps and two assist breaths. You’re doing great…”
But the tall man, folded impossibly on the floor next to the Red Cross dummy, only reached twelve before crumpling panting. He looked to Karen, his forehead resting on the mannequin’s cloth-covered arm, as if he might be sobbing, but he was just catching his breath.
“Mister Broom.” Karen said the name louder than she intended and the rest of the class looked up at her. She blushed and covered a tiny moth-hole the Abraham’s worn shoulder pad with her hand. “Mister Broom, let’s take a little break ok? Come over here and have a drink.”
Both of Broom’s knees snapped as he struggled to stand. They walked to the edge of the room and Karen offered a Dixie cup from the cooler. The dark man wrapped his long fingers around the paper cup in and drank slowly, his eyes closed. When he finished he looked directly into Karen’s eyes and said, “Thank you kind, Miss Karen.” A broad smile spread across his face revealing perfect white teeth. Karen began, “Mister Broom…” but Abraham raised his hand and said slowly, “As a youngun I was taught respect, Miss Karen. Them’s old habits and old habits don’t never die.”
“But you have to tell me why it’s so important to learn CRP at your age. I mean, meaning no disrespect, but wouldn’t it have done you more good as a younger man?”
“Well that may be so, may be so,” Broom’s eyes lost focus. He stared at nothing for a moment and then back at her. “Miss Karen, is there someplace we could go and talk?”
Karen invited him to sit in one of the padded chairs in the office, she sat in the other. Abraham peered into the dark well of his long life, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He waited so long that Karen began to worry he was sleeping with his eyes open. Karen opened her mouth and Broom began.
“My daddy was born in Clayton Mississippi in 1860. I was born in Athens Alabama in 1905 when he was 40. My momma was 25 but she didn’t live long after I came along, she left me and my four brothers and two sisters for my daddy to raise. He died when I was 15. Our family lived in a one room cabin near the Tennessee River. It was small, but clean. As good-a life as we could ‘spect, I guess. Grew a little corn, fished the river, made our way as best we could. My brothers had itchy feet. So when they was old ‘nuf, they went they north like most black folk.
“They went straight north, ya hear?
“If you lived in South Carolina you’d go to New York. But us folk in Alabama went to Chicago. That’s jus’ the way we was taught. My daddy learned from his daddy and I learned from him. Don’t go east. Don’t go west. Taught me to follow the stars and go straight north. My sisters married local and had babies. By the time I stopped growing I was alone in that cabin. I kept the corn up, chopped wood, whatever I could do. ‘Fore long I married Della and we began havin’ babies too. I never really wanted to go too far from my home.”
Karen watched the man making his carefully measured speech. The suit, which probably fit him well 20 years before, was now easily two sizes too large. Even as the pants billowed around his stick-thin legs, Abraham Broom’s boney wrists stuck out of the jacket sleeves giving him a scarecrow appearance. The sweat had dried from his forehead leaving his skin with a waxy shine. Karen did the math, if Broom was born in 1905 that would make him 102. She had figured the man was in his 80s or 90s. She thought, this guy is a walking relic!
Karen imagined his long life stretching back before she was conceived, trying to picture Abraham Broom’s brothers and sisters. A big family, she thought. She was an only child. And here in this small southern town she was an anonymous soul who lived alone in a studio apartment two blocks from the Red Cross office. She worked days at the nearby Saturn plant in Spring Hill, and though there were professional relationships in her life she kept to herself. She was never quick to make friends and now as a middle aged woman, she claimed she preferred her solitude.
He resumed abruptly, shocking Karen, “There was moonshiners in Parley’s woods back then,” “Hell, I ‘spose there’s moonshiners there even today. But back then, them Reese boys didn’t cotton to none of us black folks. Called us nigras, they did. Ignorant sons of bitches.” He looked up at her, “‘scuse my language, Miss Karen. I have forgotten myself: now where was I?”
Before Karen could answer he continued, “I’ve known me plenty of white folk. Mistah Sneed, the man who owned my cabin—he was a fine man. But them Reese boys was nothing but trash. They spent most nights makin’ that corn mash and most days drinking it. They was ugly-mean. That’s all there was to it.”
“When my daughter Sarah was born she was a sickly child. Her lungs didn’t work right. She always had the croup. And one day my Della calls me in from chopping and tells me that little Sarah has stopped her crying, and that’s a bad sign, Miss Karen. That signals the little one’s strength has done give out. And Della, she tells me to go fetch the doctor. Normally I would take a wide detour around Parley’s. I never had no truck with them Reese boys. But Della say ‘you hurry. Run, Abraham! I don’t think she’s gonna last’ and so I runs by the river, and I tries to be quiet.”
“Mathew Reese, the oldest of the three, saw me and called for his brothers, Samuel and Robert. They was big boys. They ran me down and held my face in the water; nearly drowned me. Then they dragged me and tied my wrists up to a big twisted sugar maple limb.”
“I still remember it to this day. I was soaked to the skin and the flies was buzzin’ round our heads. Matt, he says ‘What the hell you think you doin’ nigra?’ “
“I was scared. I was worried about my little Sarah and I tried to tell them boys, but they just laughed and said they didn’t give a damn about no black dog’s child. Matt and his brothers were piss yo-self drunk. They had willow switches and my shirt was tore off.”
Abraham rose from his seat and let his jacket slip from his shoulders. With his skinny, long, trembling fingers he slowly unbuttoned his shirt and cuffs. Karen’s neck and face flushed. She thought briefly about how bad it looked for a student to be stripping down in a closed office. Instantly the thought was replaced by the realization that this man was old enough to be her grandfather. In an impossibly deft movement Abraham peeled the shirt from his shoulders and let it hang from his waist. His back was covered with a Jackson Pollack of crisscrossed thick and thin pink scars reaching from his shoulder blades extending into the waistband of his black trousers. Karen struggled to think of something to say, but the image blanked her mind.
Broom had turned away from her. She sat, unable to move. He spoke to the wall but Karen could clearly hear the tremble in his voice. “It’s been 77 years and I still cry for my baby girl. I guess a daddy never gets over the death of his daughter.” He turned and began re-buttoning his shirt.
“They left me hanging there. I was passed out in the noon sun. It is a wonder to Gawd that I didn’t die m’self. There weren’t nothing a black man could do about it. I mean, the police woulda done worse. I just buried my little girl and went back to my life. But the injustice of it burned me more than those willow sticks. It jus ate at my heart and made me mean. Della told me I needed to get right with my Maker. I wasn’t sleeping. So I would get up and wander by the river at night.
Without thinking, I wandered close enough to hear them Reese boys and I watched from a safe distance. Have you ever heard the saying ‘mad enough to make my blood boil?’ Well, Miss Karen, I was out of my mind, mad with grief and my heart was black and filled with vengeance.”
“I couldn’t think a nothing else. Next night, I came back to my hiding place but I brought my ax. I hid, hardly breathing by the hole they’d dug as a privy. It stank and the flys was thick, but I waited, still. I didn’t see which one came out first and he never saw me. I split his skull open like a ripe melon. Now you would think that the forest at night was a quiet place but that’s not quite true. The night sounds are just different from the day sounds but they are there. Crickets and katydids, owls and other night birds. Them boys were already plastered; they couldn’t a heard a thing if I was standing right next to them.”
“I picked off another later on his way to have a piss and by the time the third one recognized that his brothers were gone I snuck up behind him and kilt him where he stood calling. The katydids never skipped a beat.”
“I buried the bodies in the soft clay by the river along with all my clothes and I kicked over that still and set them woods on fire. By the time I got home the pink of sunrise had streaked the august sky. I never told no one about it. I heard stories, but I pretended ignorance. Them boys weren’t no goddamn good anyway and none too sorely missed. Asides, that fire burned up a hundred acres of dry woods that summer. There wasn’t nothin’ left for evidence. People jus’ assumed that they started the fire and burned up in it.” He looked at Karen and his bottom lip trembled. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on the arms of her chair.
Abraham’s tears had dried in the cool conditioned air. Three quarters of a century and a hundred miles away from his act of retribution he bowed before this white, middle-aged, CRP instructor from Ohio and begged: “You won’t turn me in will you, Miss Karen? You know I killed them in cold blood: I couldn’t let them live. And now, before I meet my Lord I must save a life. I jus has to Miss Karen . I jus has to!”
Karen laid her hand on the ancient man’s curly black head and silently granted the only absolution she could.
Story Notes: This is a story that was told to me by my wife, Karen. It was told to her by a CPR instructor named Dan from an experience he had a few years ago. The elderly negro man in Dan’s rendition called him massa Dan. This is not uncommon in the south. But when I submitted this story to my undergraduate advisor, he replied that it was totally unbelievable that a black man in 2009 would call a white man massa. It may be because the man that Abraham in my story is fashioned after is actually trying to say mister. It may be because my advisor lived his whole life in Seattle. In any case, it is also common to call female teachers by their first name preceded by miss, so it does not alter the tone and setting too much to have made that change. But so you know, he really called Dan massa. And old habits do linger in the south.
Abraham’s Absolution by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ronheacock.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/abrahams-absolution/.
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