It was smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, and J.D. needed money bad. He had no formal education beyond the fourth grade and no marketable skills to speak of, but his resourcefulness was unquestioned. God had endowed him with the triangular face of a fox and the smooth tongue of a preacher. No one was ever sure which aspect of his physiognomy was innate.
Raised on a struggling Georgia farm by hard-working, God-fearing stepparents, he had learned to herd their few scrawny cattle, milk their two cows, ride and plow with horses and mules, and slop the hogs. On Sundays he and his folks were always to be found in the little country church up the road next to the cemetery. Sometimes the preacher would ask him to “testify” to his faith, which he did with such verve and believability that churchgoers used to whisper among themselves after the service: “You know, sometimes I think that boy is better than our preacher.” Once, the preacher asked him to “witness” at a tent revival held just outside the little town close by. On the second night, J.D. doubled the audience, and when the free-will offering was taken up, the people begged that “the boy be given a cut.” From the simple “thank you” he said by way of acknowledgment he certainly could not be judged conceited, but the grin on his face did remind Old Man McKutcheon of a sly fox—and he said so to his wife.
The McKutcheons lived on a scraggly piece of property next to J.D.’s stepparents, Felix and Moina Hale, and had ample opportunity to observe J.D. over the nearly two years they had lived there. The McKutcheons were the Hales’ agèd Uncle Phocian and Aunt Clemmie who resided in a tenant shack to the left of and in front of their relatives’ property, not far back from the sparsely-traveled county road. They too liked J.D., who sometimes brought them a simple warm meal his stepmother had thoughtfully prepared for them. While he watched them eat, he often talked to them about God and quoted Bible verses. The old folks were not able to go to church more than a few times a year now that they were crippled up with arthritis and plagued with numerous other aches and pains and were thus grateful when young J.D. occasionally stopped by and dispensed his religious thoughts. Aunt Clemmie often said to her husband, “You know, that boy should have been a real preacher.” Phocian’s reaction was always guarded, and he used to reply by asserting that something about that boy made him uncertain, apprehensive, even a bit suspicious of motives. It could have been J.D.’s eyes, for, unlike most animals, whose attention is invariably centered on their prey, his never rested long on any object but darted here and there, making the observer nervous to a high degree. The only time his gaze seemed to claim a focal point was when he held his head tilted back, his hands and arms raised on high, and stared into the sky, presumably looking for a sign from God. This practice clearly annoyed Uncle Phocian, who expressed his feeling to his wife. “Takes all kinds,” explained Aunt Clemmie protectively.
Three years older than her husband, Clemmie was pretty much confined to a wheelchair and spent most of her waking and dozing time sitting in it on the little porch of their tenant house. No matter the season, her attire consisted of a gray, white, or ivory dress of substantial material and typical farmhand clodknocker shoes. Her salt-and-pepper hair—now mostly salt—was drawn severely back and twirled and knotted at the nape of her neck. Her spectacles were always out of adjustment and sat low on her prominent nose. She couldn’t see much to read through these specs long in need of re-prescribing; she therefore looked over them and did the best she could for close and faraway objects. Like Negroes, she maintained, she didn’t feel dressed without her glasses and couldn’t bring herself to discard the useless accessories. Her most peculiar attribute was the lush hair growth on her arms from the elbows down to where her sleeves ended. The question must have crossed visitors’ minds: Am I looking at some kind of lady ape, especially when she spoke, for her voice had a certain animalistic screech to it that one would never expect from an old lady in her middle seventies sitting in a wheelchair? If these characteristics led some people to conclude she was somehow dangerous or untrustworthy, they would soon discover she was anything but; in fact, she was harmless and kindhearted to a marked degree.
Her husband gave the impression of a stalwart caregiver. Though understandably not as hardy as he had been in his youth, he nevertheless conveyed the perception of firm commitment to her well-being. He did all of their little cooking and whatever cleaning and straightening struck him as necessary or as pointed out by Clemmie. They rarely had visitors, but whenever they did, his attention was always tinged with a certain wariness of other people’s intentions. It was never clear what he feared; they had no money and no possessions of value. Dressed invariably in a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned up tight to the neck and dark beltless trousers pulled up high over his waist, with or without suspenders, his outfit was complete when he clamped down on his now balding head a tattered black-wool brimmed hat. Well, to be honest, not quite complete until he had cut off from a Red Mule tobacco brick a sizeable chaw and stuffed it in his jaw. After some chomping, he could—and did—spit juice clear across the 10-foot span of the porch, where it landed and wallowed in the dust of the yard. Chickens rushing over to peck at it unknowingly were repelled by the acridity and shook their heads in disgust and disappointment.
During the mercilessly hot Georgia summers the old couple were constantly seeking a breeze. Even at night it was almost untenable in the house, and they spent many a sleepless night tossing in bed and drenched in sweat. Sometimes they gave up and, with a lighted kerosene lamp in hand, came out onto the porch in their nightclothes, where Phocian would peer at his Bible and read at random to his wife. At the end of every verse she would always say, “Phosh, that is such a comfort!”
Lately, there had been talk going around about the impending End of the World preceded by the Rapture. Several preachers in this part of the state had been voicing warnings to their congregations and urging them to “get ready to meet Jesus or suffer the consequences.” J.D. was not unmindful of all this furor and went about quoting various passages of Scripture but most often paraphrasing the book of Revelation, admonishing everybody to fear God and give Him glory, ”for the hour of His judgment is come.”
Suddenly one day a business idea came to J.D. His folks had a basic little sawmill in their barn. Since there were few hills, and no mountains whatsoever in the region, he offered neighbors and church people roundabout the opportunity to order from him custom-built extra-long ladders they could use to reach the roofs of their houses and thus be more accessible to the Savior when He appeared in the sky at the time of the Rapture to take them bodily up into Heaven. He explained to his stepparents that he would share with them any money he earned and that this activity would not interfere with his regular duties for them around the farm, for, he explained, he knew a couple of niggers who had asked for work and could help him with the ladder project. Despite his obvious sincerity and the attention everybody was paying to the upcoming Final Days, there were very few takers. As a sort of display for those who wished to greet Jesus partway up and for others who might not be favored with the Rapture but killed in the predicted earthquakes and flooding, he had dug a grave at Prospect Cemetery and placed a wooden coffin with a ladder propped against it nearby. Next to this blatant advertisement was a crude wooden sign reading: “Ladders and Coffins by J.D.” The preacher was appalled that this action implied there were some miserable sinners in his church who were not going to be Raptured and needed “planting” in his church cemetery. He advised J.D. that he was withdrawing his invitation to him to join him personally in the sky above the church when Jesus came down close enough to grasp the preacher by the hand and pull him up. He would have to “make it on his own,” he averred. He even suggested J.D. build a coffin for himself and dig a hole in advance. Alarmed at the preacher’s reaction to his work plan, J.D. assured the pastor he would do his best to convert any doubters before selling them coffins.
J.D. immediately went to work on Uncle Phocian and Aunt Clemmie. “In the interest of fairness,” he suggested they not purchase a long ladder because, after all, it would be very dangerous for two old people to climb up on the roof. Besides—and he had seen it written somewhere, J.D. assured them—Jesus would be sure to swoop lower for such fine old folks. However, no less doubtful of Phocian’s chances of being Raptured than Phocian was suspicious of the purity of J.D.’s motives, he recommended that they advance him $10 so that he could begin constructing their coffin “just in case.” With the help of the two colored men, for whom he would have to request two more dollars, they would begin digging right away at the edge of the field between their house and the Hales’. Everybody knew, he explained, how trifling farm niggers could be, and they might just put the job off if J.D. didn’t have the digging money for them right away, and then the bodies would be left to cook in the heat or freeze in the winter or be chewed up by wild animals. Not a pretty prospect, everybody agreed. He told the old folks he’d be back late the next day to pick up the money so as to complete the deal. That’s when he launched into a long and tedious prayer, eyes and arms raised on high, that “these grand old servants of thine dispel all of their doubts and put their utter trust in thee and thy Son.” He repeatedly called on God to hear and heed him and to bless these old folks, to purge them of all uncertainty and ready them for the Rapture to come. Aunt Clemmie shouted a couple of Amens and mentioned “what a comfort all of this was,” while Phocian, mouth now quite full of tobacco juice, groaned and muttered something unintelligible and suddenly spit juice, wad, and all toward the edge of the porch. Unfortunately, instead of the unappetizing mouthful sailing over the edge of the porch it caught the young man full in the crotch and ran down his right leg into his shoe. Uncle Phocian said he was sorry and fetched a bucket of well water from the back porch, which he splashed on J.D. with a good-sized dipper. J.D. held his temper with difficulty, but when he got home that evening he told his stepparents that “the crazy old coot doused me with cold water and ruined my good pants and shoes.” He never learned that Uncle Phocian had a good laugh at the whole incident.
The two old people had no children of their own, though years ago they had kindly taken in two children belonging to Phocian’s reckless and irresponsible sister. These children had deserted their benefactors after growing up, and thus Phocian and Clemmie had no one at this point in their life from whom to seek help in reaching any important decision. In their ignorance and presumed near senility they trusted J.D. up to a point and scared up the twelve dollars from meager savings amounting to just over twice that. They comforted themselves with assurances that they would soon be together in Heaven with Jesus Christ or at least together in a box in a hole.
On the basis of a gentleman’s agreement that he should construct a single coffin large enough for the two old folks, J.D. went to work on it, and the next day sent the two niggers over to dig the grave. Old Man Uncle Phocian, still harboring many doubts about the whole affair, quizzed the two Negro men about their belief in the Rapture and the End of the World. After all, the order and content of the protracted event was confusing to most people. Did the Tribulation precede the Rapture; did both precede the Final Judgment; when were the earthquakes and floods supposed to arrive? Was the Rapture also called the Second Coming of Christ? Did everybody being Raptured have to be sinless? He had put these questions to J.D. and to the preacher but had never received clear answers to any except the last question, namely, all sinners were to be excluded—well, that is, at least the most provably notorious.
“Do you think the Rapture will really happen?”
“Sho do,” said one. “Jes don’t know ‘xactly when. Our preacher done tole us it might be dis fall. He didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout dis summer. ‘Sides, we colored folks ain’t got no money fo’ ladders or coffins right now. Dat’s why we heppin’ you out making yo’ ladders and coffins.”
“You can’t never tell ‘bout things like that,” chimed in his partner. “Some people done had it so hard dey is really tired ob livin’. Weze gonna start diggin’ thater hole, like Mr. J.D. done tole us. ‘Sides, you can’t never know when you is gonna die and need a coffin. It be good to have one around jes in case, you know what I’se sayin’? You can give J.D. de diggin’ money tomorrow when he come by. Den we dig de hole when he gib us our money.”
Phocian wondered how he had ever gotten into such a mess costing him money for a doubtful outcome, but his wife assured him it was all for the best. When J.D. came that afternoon to collect the $12 owed him, Phocian turned the money over to him with the admonishment, “You better know what you’re talking about.” J.D.’s response was reassuring to Clemmie, but her husband still had his doubts: “Just be sure you are on your porch, dressed in something white, one week from tomorrow when the Rapture will occur early in the morning. I received God’s promise in a vision last night that His Son will gather you up in His arms and carry you both to Heaven at the very first sign of the Rapture.” Like adding frosting to the cake, the boy then launched into one of his lengthy implorations of God. Phocian wondered whether God was listening. Clemmie found it all comforting.
Late the next day the two colored men showed up with shovels and began to dig at the edge of the field between the two houses but in sight of the tenant house. It was understandable that they would want to work when the day had gotten a little cooler, but nobody realized how long it would take to do the digging down to six feet. At first they thought they would have to dig a somewhat wider hole to accommodate a coffin with both bodies resting side by side, but J.D. told them, no, they could lay one body on the top of the other and save themselves the trouble. As for him, he needed to hurry off today to talk to other neighbors in order to meet the Rapture deadline in one week. He was keen on getting everyone to pray to God to forgive their sins so that they could all be a part of the Rapture. To be left behind at the time of the Rapture was to be fraught with great physical and, what is worse, spiritual danger. It was simple: one’s immortal soul would be lost as one suffered the fires of Hell. If not a ladder, then better buy a coffin and trust to God’s merciful Final Judgment. The people began responding one way or the other, and J.D. began filling his pockets with cash.
Not everybody was happy with J.D.’s success, and some, despite their best efforts to rationalize his actions, began to smell a rat when it wasn’t evident that the preacher had a long ladder at his house or coffins for himself and his family. The more pious suggested that such behavior was typical of a man of God who thought more about his parishioners and neighbors than himself. Old Phocian McKutcheon was among those growing daily more suspicious. He was not an educated man, but he did know the Bible well. He was particularly concerned at this time with Matthew 24:36, where Jesus clearly states that only God knows when the End will come: “About that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father.” How come J.D. thinks he knows? Or the white preacher? Or the colored preacher, who says it won’t happen this summer? Why all the disagreement if everybody believes the Bible? Uncle Phocian was ready to throw it all out and regretted giving J.D. their money. He intended to ask for it back. They could ill squander it during the Great Depression. Besides, too many of his doubts were coming home to roost.
The next afternoon the two niggers came with their shovels and began digging the McKutcheons’ grave. Phocian and Clemmie could see the activity from their porch. Clemmie kept muttering her mantra about what a “comfort” all of this was while Phocian paced about, spitting tobacco juice off the porch and mumbling about the “loss of their savings” and “jackleg preachers and “phony predictions.” One of the Negroes came over to the porch at about the halfway point of digging and said to Phocian: “We sho will miss you and Miss Clemmie and feel sorry for you in case y’all don’t git Raptured.” Later, Phocian said to Clemmie: “You know, I think he really meant he’d miss us. I also think he believes this Rapture business is nothing but a scam cooked up by the white preacher and J.D., but knowing coloreds as I do, I know they would never say anything like that. When J.D. comes by later tonight, I’m going to ask for our money back.”
There then began the first serious argument the two old people had ever had with each another. When Clemmie objected strenuously to demanding their money back from J.D., Phocian held his ground and castigated his wife for continually putting her faith in the dubious prediction of the end of the world. When she cited faith in the various scripture passages J.D. and the preacher had quoted to them, he reminded his wife that Christ Himself had assured them in Matthew that nobody knew when the End would come, not even He Himself, only the Father. He added that he didn’t care that J.D. and maybe some others had had “a vision” that the End was near; he knew that other preachers had said the time was not now. “I firmly believe that God meant for us to rely on the Bible and our common sense.” This ostensibly final statement he directed at his wife, who began to cry but through her sobs added, “Do what you think is best for us.”
The men finished digging the grave late that afternoon and left. Phocian and Clemmie had a bite of supper and came back out on the porch to wait for J.D. to come check the colored men’s work. Clemmie expressed her apprehension about asking J.D. to return their money but agreed to let Phocian try to persuade him.
J.D. was in high spirits when he arrived shortly before dark. Without any prompting, he expressed utter and complete confidence in his and the preacher’s conviction that the Rapture would occur on the specified date and that those without serious sin should climb up on their roofs and await the Messiah. While walking from the house to the open grave, he reassured Phocian that he and Clemmie would be personally caught up into the heavenly realm by Jesus Himself, who would swoop very low to the ground and, understanding that two old people such as they would need more help than most, grasp them by the hand and help them on their ascent. Phocian was not at all in a receptive mood and, ignoring this generous, yet unfounded, promise, stated flatly that he didn’t believe there was going to be any Rapture and if by any chance there was– he was rambling on now—he wouldn’t need the grave after all, for, besides, he and Clemmie would prefer to be buried in the church cemetery. He further explained that others had named different dates for the Rapture and still others had expressed severe doubts that it would come off at all. He was flat-out with it: “I want our money back. Aunt Clemmie and I cannot afford to risk so much money on an event that we don’t expect to occur. Please refund our money. You may take back the coffin and keep the digging money if you will have the men fill in this grave tomorrow.”
J.D.’s reaction was not a pretty sight to witness. He had been hoping to hit the old folks for even more money. His wily but sanctified look disappeared forthwith and his face became contorted and even in the growing twilight took on an obvious ruddy hue of deep-seated anger. He became loud and abusive toward Phocian, swearing that he would take nothing back and return no money. Neither did he back down from assurances that the Rapture was a sure thing on the promised date. No one could have imagined that this “man of God,” this “wonderful would-be preacher of the Christian Gospel,” could be acting in this fashion. His fury was such that Phocian feared for his safety and stepped hastily to one side as the boy lunged for him. In doing so, however, J.D. lost his balance and plunged into the newly dug grave. On the way down he struck his head hard on a heavy iron digging rod that was stuck upright in the dirt close to one side of the grave. He hit the bottom of the grave, a terrible wound on the side of his head, and did not move any more.
Phocian stood at the rim of the grave and stared in utter disbelief six or more feet down below at J.D.’s still body. All sorts of things went through his mind: What would he tell Clemmie? What should he do? He could not possibly climb down into the hole and try to drag the body out. There was no help available anywhere that he knew. Just this morning he had learned J.D.’s stepparents were not at home, for they were in the little city six miles away attending a revival emphasizing the coming Rapture. There were no other neighbors. There was no telephone, and no telling when the next car or truck might pass by. He began to think practically. Why bother to bring up the body anyhow? J.D. was obviously dead and now was buried—why not leave things the way they were? Who knows; maybe this was ordained by God to show God’s agreement with Phocian. They would know in any event in a matter of days whether there was a Rapture or not, wouldn’t they?
Phocian reasoned that any police investigation would only complicate matters. He had not been responsible for J.D.’s demise; it was an accident, and a clearly deserved one at that. What to do?
He figured the answer lay before him in the form of two wheelbarrows brimful of dirt removed by the workmen from the hole they had dug. Grasping the handles of one, he pushed the wheelbarrow to the edge of the open grave and dumped the contents on the bottom half of the still body below. Watching carefully for any signs of life, and seeing none, he poured all the dirt from the other wheelbarrow over the top part of the body and sighed audibly to himself. The body was gone from sight, and Phocian headed to the house. The diggers were due back tomorrow to pick up their tools. He would tell them he had changed his mind, that he and his wife didn’t wish to be buried there after all but in the cemetery, so the men would please fill in the hole completely. They had plenty of dirt piled up here and there around the open grave.
Aunt Clemmie met him at the door when he returned to the house. It was already dark, and she was getting worried that he had been gone so long. “How did it go with J.D.?” she asked. “Did we get our money back?”
“Well, no,” he said. “At first I thought he might be willing to give the matter some thought and let us know tomorrow, but I don’t believe we’ll be getting our money back. I’m afraid we are stuck with the coffin also. I can store it in the shed out back. Those colored guys are due back tomorrow and can put it in there for me after they fill in the grave. It is dangerous to leave that hole in the field. Somebody or some animal might fall in. We didn’t get much for our money. Just a pine box and a hole in the ground. As for getting Raptured up, don’t count on it. On top of it all, I’ll probably have to give those niggers two dollars more to fill in the grave.” They went to bed that night weighted down with worries. Most important of all, the Rapture was supposed to occur in four days. J.D. had said they should be dressed properly and waiting on their porch early in the morning.
The two nigger men showed up bright and early the next morning and went to work right away filling in the grave. They had just finished the job when Phocian met them in the field and explained that he and Aunt Clemmie had changed their minds. He told them he’d give them each a dollar for this extra work. He also told them he had given them a hand the night before by dumping in the two full wheelbarrows loads he found nearby. That way the men wouldn’t have so much more to dump in. “Thankew, Mr. Phocian. We sho needs all de money we can get deze days,” said each man, one sentence at a time. “By the way, Mr. Phocian. We see’d Mr. Hale dis mornin’, and he wanted us to ask you if’n you seen Mr. J.D. las’ night. Nobody knows where he at.”
“I saw him for a few minutes when he came by to check your work. Then he left without saying where he was going. I haven’t seen him since.”
“That too bad, Mr. Phocian, ‘cause Leroy and me done had to get down into the grave at one point so as to spread out the dirt, and we wuz pretty sure we saw Mr. J.D.’s dead eyes staring at us. Of course, we knew that didn’t make no sense, so we covered them up some mo’. We ain’t tole nobody, but we sho could use a little more money if’n you could spare some mo’ befo’ de Rapture take you away.”
“Get away from me, you crazy niggers. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and if I did, you’d be in big trouble. Now scram and don’t let me ever see you around here again. No telling what you two been up to.”
The morning of the announced Rapture dawned bright and clear and without foreboding of a world catastrophe. Phocian and Clemmie sat dutifully waiting on their porch dressed in their best and whitest clothes. Clemmie was looking forward to being hoisted up into heaven by Jesus Himself and told her husband how she felt. The flap of every big bird’s wings or the rustle of a tree branch in the breeze drew her attention upward, such inconsequential activity often eliciting from her little squeals of delight punctuated with “Oh, there He is” or “He didn’t forget us,” while Phocian sat immobile in his rocker and scowled. When the day advanced uneventfully into afternoon, Phocian predictably proclaimed, “See, I told you there wasn’t going to be any Rapture.”
There was no answer. He stepped over closer to her chair. Her head was slumped. She wasn’t breathing, but her expression was blissful. He looked up just as a pure white cloud passed over and vanished.
That was the moment he also saw a Georgia State Patrol cruiser swing into the yard. He could just make out the two niggers in the back. One was pointing at Phocian. END