Look Away

“The most I’d heard from her on the subject was that, when she was a girl, things were one way and, by the time she’d grown into a woman, things were different way.” A short story that revisits the trauma of a small town’s history with anti-integration…

by: Lincoln Hirn

When my grandmother died we held the service at the old Annesville Church of God, back home in Virginia. My sister and I hadn’t been inside for years and my mother, nowadays, only went at Easter. But my grandma had gone every Sunday, up until the end, and so that’s where we had it. 

The day of the funeral, a Tuesday in August, was hot, and the walk from my car to the white, columned steps at the front of the building was enough to make me sweat clean through my suit. Still — before getting into the air conditioning — I stopped, just as I’d done each time I’d gone to church as a child, and I looked up at the bullet holes that dotted the front of the redbrick building. There were eleven of them, in all, and they’d marred the church for a hundred and fifty years, during which time they’d stood vigil over, in the pastor’s words, “the church’s heritage.”

That heritage being the Civil War, of course. Legend has it that a brave rebel militia, way back when, had stood their ground on the steps of the church, fending off the yankees, while the sweet Southern belles of Annesville had hidden, under the pews, from Lincoln’s hordes. At least, that was the story my grandma had told me years ago, when she’d first pointed out the scarred old bricks. It wasn’t until I’d gone to college that I’d learned there wasn’t much truth to the legend. The bullet holes weren’t from federal troops at all, it turned out, but from Southern conscription officers. Seems it wasn’t just the Virginia belles hiding under the pews, but their husbands and brothers, too. I’d tried to tell my grandma this, once I’d learned it, but she wouldn’t have it. She’d just said that she loved me, but that she’d put her faith in the preacher’s history over mine. Afterwards, my mother told me not to press such things with her, and I never brought the bullet holes up again. Still, though, I couldn’t look at those pockmarked bricks without thinking back to all those Sunday mornings when I’d stood before the church’s door, eyes tracing, over and over, the patterns the bullets had made long ago.

Inside, I recognized some of the congregation along with the preacher. I hadn’t realized he was still around.

“Oh, yes, Pastor Michaels,” my mother said, when I mentioned this to her. “After you left he got a few offers from bigger churches. But he always just said he’d stay here. Which is just as well. I couldn’t imagine this place without him.”

In his opening remarks the pastor, his voice slow and ancient, spoke highly of my grandmother, and lamented that so few shared her zeal for Christ and community. As he spoke, the air conditioning dried my sweat against the seat and made me half-sure that, when it came time to rise, I’d find my suit stuck fast to the pew. A pew where I knew, long ago, my grandma had sat not just during Sunday services but during her schooldays, too. Or, rather, what would have been schooldays, had the schools not shut down for two years in protest of integration.

“So, you were just able to play all day?” I’d asked, when first I’d heard about the school boycott, when I was about six. My grandma had laughed at that.

“Play? Oh yes, we played. We rode our bikes down the big hill beside the post office, and we waded, knee-deep, through the creek behind the closed-up school, because it still ran high in those days.”

Eventually though, my grandmother told me, a few mothers and a young Pastor Michaels had organized a tutoring program for the town’s white children. And so, from October, nineteen fifty-seven, to June, nineteen fifty-nine, she’d gone to school in the church. Which had sounded wonderful, back when I was little, because the church was a much brighter and prettier building than the town’s ugly, singlestory elementary school. Once I got older, though, and learned about integration for myself, I asked her what she’d thought about the school closures when she was a girl.

“Oh, we didn’t much think about it at all, while it was happening,” she’d said. “Mother just told us, one August, that we wouldn’t be going to school that year. She never told us much about why, just that there was something in Richmond between Black and white folks. But me, you know, I was just a kid, so I thought it was the best thing I’d ever heard. Then, two years later, my mother said that the Blacks and the whites had worked it out, and that we could go back to school. That’s all I knew about it then, because that’s all they told us.” 

It all seemed so far away, when she’d put it like that. 

When it was my turn to speak — a final reading, after my mother had given the eulogy — I peeled myself free from the old wooden seat. As I walked up to the pulpit I thought back to the last Christmas that I’d spent in the church, before my mother had finally prevailed on my grandmother to let us have our Christmas Eve at home. The pews had been a little over half-full, that night. And, though Pastor Michaels had done what he could to hide his disappointment, we could all tell that he’d thought, or at least hoped, that he might’ve drawn a few more for Christmas.

My grandma, later that evening, over iced white wine and cookies, told us all about Christmases back when she was a girl, when the church had been full to bursting.

“Where’d they all go?” I asked.

My grandma looked into her glass. “They died, honey. Most of the ones that were there when I was younger, at least. And a lot of their kids left, so they don’t come, anymore, either.”

We were quiet, then, for a moment or two.

“Well, Pastor Michaels is still holding on, at least,” I said, finally. My grandmother laughed.

“Pastor Michaels will hold on until the rapture, darling. I worry about a lot of things,” she said. “But not him. He’ll always be here, I reckon. At least until after I’m gone.”

She’d been right. For there he was, ushering me toward the lectern with a withered hand. When I got up to the front I turned around and looked back out across the mourners. Assembled in front, of course, was the family: my mother, my father, and my great aunt, along with my older sister and her husband, and their two kids. Behind them were the white haired old congregants, some of whom were old enough that they probably remembered going to school in the church, too. Further back, there were clusters of middle-aged people. I recognized a few of them from around town, but most were strangers to me. Three people sat in the very last occupied pew, just to the left of the aisle. I didn’t recognize any of them. Later, I found out that they were my grandma’s hospice nurse, the man who’d driven her to church during those last few years, and the local doctor who’d helped keep her comfortable, there at the end. 

“Why would he come?” I asked my mother, once she’d told me. “He’s a doctor, right? He can’t go to all his patients’ funerals.”

My mother laughed, then, and tousled my hair, just like she’d done when I was a boy. “You’ve been away too long to remember, love. It was a small town when you left and it’s even smaller now. He doesn’t have so many patients. He has the time.”

After that, I’d wondered if the doctor had come to the funeral because the death of my grandmother, the death of anyone who’d lived so long in town, felt like an event to him. Because the town was small — my mother was right about that. And, once we’d put my grandma in the ground behind the church, next to my granddaddy, it had gotten smaller still. So maybe the passing of one of the town’s old residents, one who likely wouldn’t be replaced, wasn’t something the surviving townsfolk could so easily overlook.

It wasn’t until I was halfway through my reading — an old verse that I’d memorized at the behest of my grandma, long ago — that I realized that the doctor was the only Black person in the church. This made me wonder what my grandma would have thought if someone had told her — all those years ago, when she was a girl, hiding out from integration in her makeshift school — that a Black man would, decades on, see her off to heaven from those very same pews. I didn’t know what she’d have said, back then. I couldn’t remember her ever saying anything objectionable about race, though she’d certainly been no activist. The most I’d heard from her on the subject was that, when she was a girl, things were one way and, by the time she’d grown into a woman, things were different way. 

I don’t think she’d ever given it much more thought than that. 

I wondered, next, if the doctor knew about the old church’s role in Annesville’s anti-integration struggle. If he did, did he know that my grandmother had been one of those students who had been sequestered away in the little church? If he didn’t know, would he have still come to the funeral if he did? 

When my reading was finished, I took my place alongside my grandma’s coffin and helped the other five pallbearers carry it out into the little cemetery behind the church. It was almost noon, then, and it had grown so brutally hot that, when at last it was time to lay my grandma down, the brass coffin handles were so warm that I was worried I’d come away with blisters, were I to hold on much longer. Pastor Michaels, though, seemed completely ignorant of the heat, and he did not abridge his service one bit in deference to the weather. And so I watched on, sweating, while the old man went on and on in the August sunshine. 

Eventually, mercifully, the Pastor let us go, and we rushed, fast as we could in the heat, toward the air-conditioned sanctuary. From there we’d go to our cars and on back to my mother’s house, where we’d have a reception and talk about my grandma over grape juice and Wal-Mart cookies. The old white hairs would be there (Pastor Michaels included) and they would all tell stories, I knew, about the Old Days and about my grandma. Though I wondered if they’d hesitate, first, just to make sure that the doctor wasn’t within earshot.

Before the cookies and the grape juice and the stories that I’d rather not hear, though, we all lingered in the church, soaking up a few last minutes of air conditioning. Finally, once we’d had a chance to cool off, a line of mourners began to trickle out of the church. We processed out down the center-aisle, the same aisle that I had walked down so many times as a child, that my grandma, and granddaddy, and mother, and sister, and Pastor Michaels, and all the other children and teachers and parents who’d schooled there before integration, had all walked down, for years and years and years. I walked until I came to the entrance, where I left the cool of the church and re-entered the misery of the August midday. 

Then I stopped, and I looked back at the church’s outer wall, just as I had a hundred times before. Again I followed the bullets’ pattern, and as I did so I wondered if I’d ever have to see the old church again, or if I could finally leave those eleven wounds behind for good. It was a thought that made me feel  for a brief, fleeting moment — like I’d been absolved of a sin that I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. But then I remembered my mother. Though she was no devout churchgoer, I knew that she’d want to rest next to her mother and father, once all was said and done. And so my hopes for absolution withered. Because I couldn’t say goodbye to those bullet holes, then, after all. No. All I could do was turn away, walk back towards my car, and hope that I wouldn’t see them again for a good while yet.


Lincoln Hirn was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and, since leaving home, he has lived in both Virginia and North Carolina. He now resides in Connecticut, where he spends most of his time trying to keep warm.


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