No Brighter with Fire

No Brighter with Fire

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Tim Parrish is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy the following excerpt from Parrish’s memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist. Warning: This excerpt contains racially offensive language.

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On April 2, 1966, Olan and I thumped the paper football back and forth across the kitchen table, Olan keeping score on a wrinkled piece of paper. An explosion in the distance vibrated our windows. We froze. Alan’s feet clomped down the short hall, then Olan and I sprang up and joined him and Momma in a circle in the living room. “Esso?” Momma asked. Daddy was at work thirty miles away at Wyandotte Chemicals, but any plant explosion sent panic through us because we knew men at all of them. The three of them gave each other concerned glances, but I felt mostly excitement. Alan pushed through the front door and we clustered in the yard. We peered toward the river and the plants, where the sky was no brighter with fire than usual.

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“The Russians?” Olan asked.

Alan sneered. “You see a mushroom cloud, stupid?”

“It’s nighttime.”

“You can see a nuclear bomb at night.”

“How would you know?”

“I know, dummy.”

“Shut up,” Olan said.

“You shut up,” Alan said.

“Boys,” Momma said, still staring, her knuckles pressed to her lips.

Next door, Mr. and Mrs. Goudeau and their five daughters spread out onto the driveway.

“What y’all think it is?” Momma asked them.

“Got to be a plant,” Mr. Goudeau said in his thick Cajun accent.

“Times, Tunes, and Cartoons will say,” Olan said, disgust at Alan still in his voice. Olan spun, stomped to the house and slammed the door behind him. I thought of joining him in a show of solidarity, but there was too much going on outside.

“It wouldn’t be Cuba, would it?” Momma asked.

“There’s no mushroom cloud!” Alan said. He crossed his arms, adjusted his glasses and looked straight up between the canopies of trees in our front yard. The night hung quiet except for police sirens now whooping. I thought of walking the few steps over and talking to Sherry and the other Goudeau girls but stayed next to Momma. I wished Daddy were there, pointing out satellites like he sometimes did, stars that moved across the sky and didn’t twinkle like real stars.

The air and ground jolted. We crouched. The sound rolled around on us before traveling along and dying like thunder. Olan crashed through the door and back outside to join us. We peered away from the river now. “Howell Park,” Momma said. I pictured the old jet fighter we climbed on near the pool and wondered if it had somehow blown up. Our other next-door neighbor tore from his house in his police uniform, still buckling his gun belt. Momma called to him what was going on, but he jumped into his car and screeched off without answering.

“The windows almost busted out,” Olan said.

“They musta blown up the pool,” Alan said, his lips a dazed half-smile. “I heard Mr. Bowman say they might.” Mr. Bowman was the local Boy Scout leader, and, although I didn’t know it yet, the head of the local Klan.

“He did?” Momma said.

“Yep.”

“The swimming pool?” I asked. Nobody said anything.

The next morning Daddy came from work wearing a bemused smirk, newspaper in hand. He kissed Momma and sat at the kitchen table with her and me. Alan and Olan walked in, Alan buttoning his shirt, Olan holding a toothbrush. “They blew up the building at Howell and tried to blow up Webb,” Daddy said. “I figured it’d happen once they let the niggers in. I heard some of them Klan fools at the Boy Scout meeting say something last week.”

“I told y’all,” Alan said.

Daddy frowned and pointed. “Don’t nobody say a word about that to nobody. Y’all go on get ready for school.”

“I wanta go see,” Olan said.

“Y’all get dressed,” Momma said.

Alan and Olan slumped and trudged off. Momma poured Daddy a cup of coffee and went over to scramble eggs and fry patty sausage.

The Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission had closed the city pools two years before, right around the time the federal government had ordered them to be integrated. The previous week, BREC had voted to reopen them, but I hadn’t gotten excited about returning. Daddy had made it clear that none of us would be going.

“Was it loud?” Daddy asked, glancing at Momma and me.

“We heard both of them,” Momma said. “We were in the yard when we heard Howell Park.”

“What’d you think, Timmy?”

“I thought that jet blew up.”

Daddy chuckled and sipped his coffee. “I know a old boy who works over there. Maybe we’ll go look at it after school. You wanta go, Momma?”

“I don’t think so.” She and I had often gone to the pool together during summers, and she had been sad when it closed, not outraged like Daddy over the reason it had to be closed. She came over and scooped eggs onto his plate. He set the newspaper at her place and tapped the article on the front page. She sat down and stared at the words with her hands in her lap.

“They ought not even fix it,” Daddy said. “Federal government’ll probably come in here and charge us extra.”

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Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist by Tim Parrish
University Press of Mississippi, 2013
Where to buy: RJ Julia | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

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