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Last Sunday, Christian churches around the world remembered Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Revelers along the road spread palm fronds and, according to the New Testament, many laid their coats on the road to make a path for this unlikely king who broke all the rules of protocol, hanging out with beggars and thieves and women. Less than a week later, he would drag a heavy wooden cross to the site of his own crucifixion.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist church on Bible drills and songs and keen attention to the pageantry of Holy Week. On Easter, the congregation was a field of pink and yellow hats and dresses, the choir quaking with magnificent anthems of the resurrection. On Good Friday, I fully expected the sun to go dark at 3 in the afternoon. On Palm Sunday, I was struck less by those palm fronds than the people who laid down their coats on the road, a gesture that puzzled me and engendered wonder.
Across town, literally on the other side of the tracks, my grandfather founded a church focused less on the pomp and pageantry of the Christian calendar and more on the teachings of Jesus, ministering to the poor and outcast. Most Sundays, and certainly Easter Sunday, we had a massive dinner at Granddaddy’s house after church. My mother and Great Aunt Ida bustled around the kitchen getting things ready while we waited for Granddaddy who visited the county jail after services each Sunday.
Aunt Ida filled her mismatched bowls and serving platters with ham and potato salad, green beans, homemade biscuits, and a quivering mound of jewel-toned Jello studded with fruit cocktail from a can. She was a tiny woman armed with a serving spoon ever aimed at your plate, insisting you needed more.
After Sunday dinner, we often loaded into the station wagon and made the hour-long drive across the Kentucky-Tennessee border to visit our other grandfather, who lived out in the country on a dirt road that marked the edge of the known world. On two-lane highways, we wound through the curves and hills, drunk with the combination of dinner settling in our stomachs and rolling motion, the incantation of black-and-white road signs: Do Not Pass. Pass With Care.
One Sunday afternoon we are nearly to the point in the highway where we turn off on the dirt road to our grandfather’s house with its raised porch and dusty yard and flurry of chickens. It is a chilly, wet day following a night of thunderstorms. We pass a side street with modest brick houses set on big square lots, and there in the middle of the street is what looks like a coat laid on the road. More than one of us yells at my father to stop. There’s something in the road, we tell him. It looks like a coat in the road. There are no other cars on this remote stretch, so my father turns around easily, palming the big steering wheel.
We turn onto the side street and as our steaming station wagon draws nearer, we can see that there is a person wrapped in this coat, with skin the dusty matte purple of plums. My father rolls down his window and lights a cigarette. He looks at the coat in the road and the person inside it and says: “Looks like a dead nigger to me.” What happens next is not clear but I believe he goes into a nearby house and calls the police. The person in the coat is not dead, it turns out, just unconscious.
Eventually we roll away and turn down the dirt road, gravel spitting out behind the back tires. We arrive at my grandfather’s house and are ushered in from the cold to the wavy heat of the coal fireplace. My sisters and brother and I stare into it, drawing as close to the flame as we can, while across the room our father tells the story of what we saw on the road as if it’s a funny story, but I know it is not. It is a horror story that I will keep secret and try to forget for the next 40 years until finally I get up the nerve to ask my sister if she remembers it.
“Oh my God, yes,” she says. A key turns, unlocking shame and fear, and I can see the woman inside the coat, dressed in her Sunday best, her pocketbook on her chest, just beyond the pale curve of dark memory.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.