Picnic at Angola

By John Haggerty

All through the hot summer of 1957, whenever they had the time, Patricia wanted to picnic down near the prison at Angola. She liked to be right up close, as close as they could get without the guards shooing them away. She and Clemson would drive down one of the levees until the fences were in view, and there, with the great brown Mississippi on one side and the flat expanse of fields on the other, Patricia would stare down at the distant lines of men, chained together into long, insectile bodies, working their way slowly through the cotton.

Clemson didn’t know why she enjoyed it so, and he never bothered to ask. He was not curious by nature, and it was agreed that, if a man were to marry Patricia, that was a good quality to have. He was big in a formless sort of way and walked with his head forward and down, as if surveying the works of man from a tremendous height. Patricia was thin, with unruly hair that people charitably called naturally curly, and a set of mismatched features that seemed to have been pieced together from the faces of several more beautiful girls.

Photo: Chain Gang Coming in from the Fields

Chain Gang Coming in from the Fields (Credit: Angola Prison Ministry)

They sat on the levee eating cold fried chicken and potato salad, the early summer sun a leaden disc in the hazy sky. “What do you suppose they did, all of those men?” Patricia would muse. “What did they do to deserve such a fate?”

Clemson adjusted their parasol to keep the sun off her face. His mother had instructed him that her complexion was not one that could suffer many more abuses.

“I imagine that they have lived lives of great wickedness. They must all have been very wicked, don’t you think, Clemson?” Clemson sat down cross-legged, and his body sagged a little, like a boulder coming to rest in a bed of soft earth. “But the word penitentiary is interesting, isn’t it? A place for penitents, for reflection on sin, for a noble suffering that leads to redemption. Is this what you believe, Clemson, that there is a home in heaven for everyone? Is there some sort of grace available to all? Can even the very, very wicked find salvation?”

Salvation was a word that the preacher had used a lot at Patricia’s father’s funeral nine months earlier, Clemson remembered, and he had intended to ask his mother what it meant. He had enjoyed the funeral, the way the casket sat up at the front, black and clean and tidy, and how it had seemed to fit right in there with the other straight lines of the room, like the last piece of a puzzle that someone had just put in place. It would have been perfect, except that next to him, his mother and her best friend Adeline had whispered to each other all through the service, and the distraction made it hard for him to relax.

“She’s nobody’s idea of a prize,” Adeline had said.

“That hair,” his mother said.

“I think it’s the eyes. Too big and too close together. And those thin lips. And that long, crooked nose.”

“Well,” his mother said, “it’s the flightiness that’s the real problem.” Adeline nodded her agreement. “Always buried in some book or other, always chattering away on some subject. A body just can’t follow, and shouldn’t have to, if you ask me. Do you know,” his mother’s voice lowered even further, “she was going off to school somewhere? She was pretty near packed when, well, you know,” she cast a glance toward the front of the room.

“Can you imagine?” Adeline said.

“Worst thing in the world for a girl like that, filling her up with more ideas, more nonsense and folly,” his mother said. “If you can see God’s wisdom in these sad events, well…” The women exchanged a look and then closed their eyes in prayer.

“What if one of them were innocent?” Patricia asked, staring at the prisoners. “Can you imagine a more awful fate, caged in with a host of terrible men, forced to labor away under the most horrid conditions? I mean, if you had really done something, if you had the sense that you deserved retribution, somehow that would make it more bearable. But if you wracked your brains, and you thought and thought and thought and in the end had no idea why you were being punished…”

“She got it all from her father,” Clemson’s mother said, “them living up in that big white house, and his fine clothes, those silk suits of his that he had to go to New Orleans to buy. Nothing around here nearly good enough. How he would get all turned out and go riding up and down on that black horse of his. Oh, he was quite the little lord, wasn’t he, looking down on us commoners from up on that horse.”

“The sin of pride, that’s what it was,” Adeline said.

“It goeth before destruction. Scripture tells us that much. And the sins of the father — that was my first thought when I heard about the state of affairs he left. The sins of the father.” She nodded to herself.

“If anyone can teach her to be a proper lady,” she said, “it’s you.”

Patricia was watching the inmates again. “Do you know,” she said, “that the Hindus of India believe that our souls are reborn again and again, and that, if we do evil, the actions of our previous lives continue to affect us until we have discharged that debt? Perhaps some of those men down there are paying for things that they did hundreds of years ago. Do you believe that, Clemson? That might offer some consolation, don’t you think? That their suffering is for a purpose, even if we don’t know what that purpose is?”

Clemson picked up a chicken leg and cleaned it in two bites, sucking the last bits of flesh off before tossing the bone into the river. Patricia had made it and the crust was gray and soggy, falling off the meat in greasy scabs, but he liked fried chicken very much so he didn’t really mind.

His mother’s chicken had been the best at the funeral reception, Adeline had said. “Your Clemson isn’t going to eat as well as this if… you know,” she added, glancing across the room to where Patricia stood in her shapeless black dress, greeting the guests with small, abrupt gestures. Clemson wondered if he could chance a fourth piece of chicken, or if it would result in another scolding from his mother.

“It’s not entirely her fault, of course,” his mother said. “She never had a proper feminine example to follow, her mother dying young like she did. And it’s not as if he could be bothered. Just pushed her off on the help, didn’t he? Brought up by books and Negroes — I suppose we should count our blessings.” She watched Patricia for a few moments. “Everybody knows Clemson could do better. But he’s a good Christian man, and when he sees someone in need, he can’t help but reach a hand out to help.”

Adeline gave Clemson a thin smile, which he liked because it ran straight across her face, as if drawn by a ruler. It was the tidiest smile he knew. “A girl like that, alone at her age, and with those debts her father left,” Adeline said. “You’re an angel, Clemson, an angel.”

“If it weren’t for Clemson, I suppose all of that land, land that’s been in her family for generations, it would all be foreclosed on and sold off piecemeal. She would be left with nothing. The thought just broke Clemson’s heart.”

“And not only will she have Clemson, but she’ll have you,” Adeline said. “If anyone can teach her to be a proper lady, it’s you.”

“It’s not a burden I take up lightly,” his mother said. “But I will do my best with her.”

Patricia picked up the edge of the blanket and began pulling idly at it. She spotted a bug climbing up the stem of a plant topped with a mass of reddish flowers and bent to look. “I suppose you would call that a June beetle, wouldn’t you, Clemson? Of the great order Coleoptera.” She pulled the stalk closer. “And I do believe this is purple loosestrife, which is a terribly naughty plant. It is not a native to our shores and causes ever so many problems.” She plucked the plant up, shaking the beetle off, and held it closer to get a better look. “It’s quite pretty, really. I don’t suppose it thinks that it’s doing any harm.” She rolled onto her back, holding the flowers up to the sky. “I read that it originated in Eurasia, which sounds tremendously exotic and exciting. Why, I wonder, would it want to live here, with boring old us? And do you suppose that it gets lonely, even among all of the other masses of purple loosestrife? Does it wake up sometimes in the night with the feeling that it’s in the wrong place, that it’s living the wrong life? Does it dream purple loosestrife dreams of the steppes of Asia, of the Eurasian rain on its petals, a different sun on its leaves, nodding in the eastern wind as adventurers and the children of Genghis Khan pass by?” She jumped to her feet and began wandering up and down the levee, squatting now and then to get a better look at something on the ground.

Clemson stood up and closed their parasol. He tossed the remains of the food into the river and folded the blanket. He carried their things to the car and began packing them carefully into the trunk. He laid the blanket down first and smoothed its surface. The parasol went in next, and finally the wicker basket, which his mother had bought in Tupelo for much less than the asking price. He stepped back, taking pleasure in the symmetry and orderliness of it all. It was a perfect fit.

 

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About John Haggerty

John Haggerty's work has appeared most recently in Nimrod, Salon, and The Pinch, where he received the 2013 Pinch Literary Award in Fiction. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, Calamity Springs, a finalist for the 2013 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. He is a member of online writers' co-operative, The Fiction Forge.

One Comment

  1. Mary Jo
    Posted March 2015 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    This is excellent. Gorgeously subtle. Well done!

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