2018.08.08 I’ve finished a draft of Chapter 1. And I know how the story ends. But it’s going to take a loooooooong time to write the middle. My rock star writing tutor, Susannah, says there are many ways to write a novel and one perfectly acceptable strategy is to jump around writing individual chapters as they occur without knowing exactly how they fit together, and connect the dots at the end. This approach is ideal for an ADD poster child like me. So here’s Chapter (approximately) 21.
Sunday Chicken Dinner
Mayola gently opened the kitchen door and was greeted by the mouth-watering aroma of browning salt pork. She bypassed the kitchen and tip-toed into the bedroom shared by her three nieces. The older two were still asleep while the youngest, Sarah, her goddaughter, seemed to be lingering in what she liked to call “that place between sleep and awake.” “That be what Tinkerbell the fairy call it, Auntie” she had once explained to Mayola.
Mayola surveyed the room, bathed by sunlight spilling through the uncovered window. She had offered to make curtains, but Sarah had said the window was just fine the way it was. The light, now that it was September, had shifted slightly, softened slightly, and cast a muted glow across the room. Which was very crowded. Three single beds occupied nearly every inch of space and had been placed up on wooden blocks so that bins for clothing could be stored underneath. The mismatched linens were worn and the pillows long since flat, but the girls didn’t seem to mind. And they got along (mostly) very well. Twelve-year-old Sarah idolized Addie Mae, who had just turned fourteen. Junie, who was sixteen, intimidated and occasionally teased her, but Sarah was deeply attached to her as well.
Mayola dearly loved all her nieces and nephews but had a special place in her heart for those three girls. She fussed at them, worried about them, occasionally spoiled them, and prayed for them every day. One of her great joys was spending time with them every Sunday. Which was the best day of the week for the Collins family.
All week long, and most Saturdays, Julius Collins washed dishes in a cafe and his wife, Alice, cleaned white folks’ houses. They worked hard and kept long hours. As did their seven children, who were expected to excel in school, participate in after-school and church activities, and do their share of chores around their tiny, but spotless, home. But Sundays were different; they belonged to the Lord. And the Bible was very clear about His expectations for His day. So the Collins family always worshipped together, rested, and sat down together for Sunday Chicken Dinner. And they always included Mayola.
The aroma from the kitchen had drifted into the bedroom and reminded Mayola that there was work to be done. Nobody loved Sunday Chicken Dinner more than Sarah and Mayola knew she would want to help with the preparations. So she patted Sarah’s head, which sported twelve tightly woven braids, each secured by a small white barrette. “C’mon, Tinkerbell,” she cooed. “Let’s us go help your mama.”
When they walked hand in hand into the kitchen, Alice greeted them with a look that said, “bout time y’all was here.” But her voice was warm. Alice was like that. “Mornin, y’all. There’s plenty to do. Mayola, you can start breadin’ the chicken. Put more pepper and salt in the flour this time. Sarah, you get to workin’ on the biscuits. Be sure that dough is all even, you hear?”
Sarah jumped onto a well-worn stool and washed her hands as she had been taught. She carefully rolled out the biscuit dough until it was nice and even and just as high as her thumb when it lay flat on the table. Mayola had taught her that trick. Alice said Mayola was the second-best cook in the family.
Mayola, wearing a flowered apron she had found at the Goodwill Store, took a bowl of chicken pieces from the ice box. The chicken had been soaking all night in seasoned buttermilk and brine. She dipped the pieces, one by one, into the heavily peppered and salted flour, back into the marinade, then back into the flour, before spreading them out on a rack to rest. When they returned from church, she and Alice, each working over a cast iron skillet, would simmer the chicken pieces until tender and then flash-fry them in melted Crisco. The result was the crispy-on-the-outside-falling-off-the-bone-on-the-inside piece of Heaven that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Ladies Auxiliary cookbook referred to simply as “Alice Collins’s Fried Chicken”. It was legendary.
The prep work was nearly done. While Mayola prepared the chicken for frying, Alice added vinegar, water, salt and a pinch of sugar to the salt pork drippings to make a rich broth. Then she added mounds of fresh collard greens which would simmer for the next four hours. A bowl of white rice, a plate of sliced onions and tomatoes, and a pitcher of sweet tea would complete the meal. Alice pointed to the make-shift table consisting of several planks resting on a pair of saw horses. “Sarah, you go on and set the table now.”
“Yes’m,” Sarah replied. She covered the table with a bright yellow vinyl cloth and set out ten plates once used in the “big house,” mismatched cutlery and paper napkins. And empty jars for the tea. She ran outside and picked a few dandelions from the yard, placed them in another empty jar and set them on the table. “Cuz today is special.”
Alice dismissed Sarah and Mayola with orders to rouse the rest of the family. Sarah ran to wake her sisters. “Addie May! Junie! Get up. Let’s us get dressed. ‘Member it be Youth Sunday and we s’posed to wear white.”
Despite sharing a single bathroom, everyone in the family managed to be washed, dressed and ready to pile into their ‘56 Pontiac Safari station wagon for the trip to Sixteenth Street. Sunday School started at 9:00 AM sharp. That day, September 15, 1963, the Collins family arrived a few minutes early.
The Sixteenth Street Church building resembles a fortress. Built of red brick in a Romanesque style, it features twin towers on either side of a façade graced by three bold arches. Visible above the arches, and framed by the towers, is the cupola that crowns the sanctuary. The main entrance is seventeen feet above street level and is accessed by an imposing stairway that stretches fifty feet across the front of the church.
Sarah held Mayola’s hand as they started up the steps. “I love to come here, Auntie. It feel safe.” Neither of them had any way of knowing about the strange telephone calls that had come into the church office that morning.
They reached the main entrance. Mayola would enter the sanctuary where the four adult Sunday school classes met. One in each corner. Sarah turned toward the stairs to the basement, where classes were held for the children and teens. At 10:00 AM the classes would be dismissed and the young people would reunite with their parents for the 10:30 worship service. Today the youth would undertake the tasks usually performed by the adults. To her delight, Sarah had been chosen to help take up the collection. She looked up at Mayola and tried to frown. “You got plenty of money for my basket, Auntie?” Mayola nodded, and on impulse bent down and kissed Sarah’s head. As Sarah moved toward the stairs, she turned, waved and called out, “I love you, Auntie.”
After Sunday School, before heading back upstairs, Addie Mae and three of her friends decided to stop in the basement restroom to primp before the big worship service. Sarah, feeling shy, stayed back against a wall and watched in admiration as the older girls peered into the mirror, smoothed their hair, adjusted their glasses, and twirled around in their pretty dresses. The last time Sarah saw Addie, she was reaching out to tie a sash for her friend, Denise.
Then came a blinding light and a deafening roar. Screams. Darkness. Silence. And pain.
The church building had been rocked by an explosion that was heard for miles. Created by fifteen sticks of dynamite placed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the explosion had blown a hole more than two yards wide in the rear wall of the church basement and left a three foot crater in the restroom where the girls had gathered.
Sarah struggled to breathe as acrid smoke and dust clogged her lungs. Mounds of debris pinned her against the bathroom wall. She was unable to open her eyes because they had been penetrated by forty-seven shards of glass. She moaned softly, calling for her sister.
Her moans brought frantic church members, including Mayola, running to the basement. They stumbled over boulders and felt their way through the smoky darkness to find Sarah barely alive. The bodies of Addie Mae and her three friends had been blown apart by the explosion and lay a heap nearby.
As the ambulance pulled away from the church, Sarah, with Mayola by her side, had slipped back into that place, between sleep and awake, where she had rested so peacefully and happily just hours before. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she asked again about Addie. And when she would be able to see. And she asked Mayola to save her a plate of Sunday Chicken Dinner.