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When It Gets Cold in the South by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

alt text: image is a color photograph of a snowy forest; title card for the flash fiction piece “When It Gets Cold in the South, You Get a Jesus, You Get a Jesus, Everybody Gets a Goddamn Jesus” by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

“When It Gets Cold in the South, You Get a Jesus, You Get a Jesus, Everybody Gets a Goddamn Jesus” is one of three stories picked as an Editors’ Choice Selection in the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors chose these stories with particular attention to the unique possibilities of flash fiction.


Exodus Oktavia Brownlow’s “When It Gets Cold in the South, You Get a Jesus, You Get a Jesus, Everybody Gets a Goddamn Jesus” is a story that brings the reader close to the situation at hand through the use of a first-person-plural point of view. The reader sees the world of the story through the eyes of the child narrator(s) as they attempt to make sense of the frightening world of their family:

When it gets cold in the South, Mama puts Devilish-Daddy out, again.

It’s where he belongs, she says, cold is like warm milk to funny daddies like the one y’all got. All it gone do is sit there in his stomach, and lullaby his insides. Make him fall asleep in the big blankets of white out there.

What Mama says don’t sound like what we be learning in school. We try to make sense of it, and ask her how cold could keep anybody warm?

This intimate, colloquial voice exposes the reader to the horror of the children who are trying to understand a frightening situation in a world of adults who won’t quite explain what’s going on, a world where women and children are forced to depend upon all kinds of men, even the devilish ones. Thus the children—and the reader—are left to make what they will from the clues they are given, clamoring to patch together understanding from a place of powerlessness. Brownlow’s stunning use of tone and brevity gives the reader just enough emotion and scene to break a heart, or strike a match of righteous anger.  —CRAFT


 

Honey, MS, 1973

I

When it gets cold in the South, Mama puts Devilish-Daddy out, again.

It’s where he belongs, she says, cold is like warm milk to funny daddies like the one y’all got. All it gone do is sit there in his stomach, and lullaby his insides. Make him fall asleep in the big blankets of white out there.

What Mama says don’t sound like what we be learning in school. We try to make sense of it, and ask her how cold could keep anybody warm?

She shuts us all down before we even begin, says to mind what our mama has told us, so we do.

 

II

At night, when she tucks us into bed, that’s when the knocking begins. Devilish-Daddy don’t ever try to make his way back in when Mama puts him out. Usually he wanders himself away, foot-branding ballroom-pattern dance steps in the soft white.

When the knocking gets louder, Mama says Hush, pushing down on our lifting heads. Pray, she orders, and we pray to our Father, wondering if heaven will be a place that Devilish-Daddy will try to break his way into too. Thinking that God’s gates got to be stronger than the soft pine of our home’s door.

Our Father, Devilish-Daddy shouts against the whispered wishes, heard through the thin walls. Who art outside, he mocks! Hallowed be my name, for it is my kingdom in which you rest, and it is my will that shall be done, he yells!

Devilish-Daddy hears our holy calls, tries to make us an offer—You get a Jesus, you get a Jesus, everybody gets a goddamn Jesus, he promises. Everybody gets saved but me.

 

III

Mama be telling a story when she says this time is the last time because she can’t even look us in the eye. We know that Mama can’t go to work with Devilish-Daddy against her, he has to work with her some kind of way. And then everyone knows you ain’t a woman if you don’t got a man at home, so every mama will take back any daddy no matter how bad they are.

With all this knowing, the worst kind of knowing is knowing that he’ll be back soon, walking his talon-toed self inside, click-clacking alongside the floor.

He’ll touch us on the left shoulder.

He’ll ask us if we missed him.

 

IV

We nightmare about real life, about the first time Mama put Daddy out. She had said it’s ’cause he was funny-acting, and all we thought was that funny was a funny word to use, because what Daddy got ain’t funny at all. Funny is when you laugh so hard tears well up and poots pop out. What Daddy got makes us all fearful, so we call it the devil because that’s what scare black folks the most.


In the nightmare, Daddy can’t keep a job with the devil in him, and everyone knows you ain’t a man if you can’t keep a job.

Instead, he makes work out of the hallways, walks them until his hot feet burn away at the wooden floor, and make ash out of it to where his talon-toes dustpan it all up.

We shift our eyes away from the smacks he gives to himself, his wide-finned hands flap across his cheek, leaving his mouth fish-gasped. Fuck! I done fucking shit my fucking self! We cover our ears to his cussin’. When a trail of dodo sludges down from his drawers, we stuff our noses. To keep the taste of the air from savoring on our tongues, we mash our mouths down hard.

 

V

We dream about real life, about how black folks love to talk about other black folks getting funny in the head.

We make something sweet out of it by telling our classmates how their daddies’ demons are only summoned up from the bottom of liquor bottles. Hidden demons that are too scared to come out on their own, and need the help of poison promises.

Our daddy’s devil is always with him up inside his head.

He don’t need no help!

Y’all daddies’ just some demons!

Our daddy is y’all daddy boss!

 

VI

We wake to Mama asking Daddy—You cool down good enough?

Cool, cold, Leroy Brown. The coldest man in the whole damn town, he wails from outdoors!

Cool down that funny head? she cackles.

Mama’s kind of sweet-making don’t seem sweet at all, only a sad in-between in the way canning-pickles taste.

His head is a hot place. Hot like hell, sometimes, and all it takes is a cool place, every now and then, to make him back right.

 

VII

Daddy’s funniness has got him believing that he God.

When Mama has left early for work, when the day has turned dusky, half-morning half-night, he takes us outside.

And on the sixth day God created man, and I created you, right? Look, look, watch, he says. The sun looks to be coming both up and down. He smiles. Look at what I’ve given to you. Daddy rests us in the big blankets of snow. This is the best bed for a child. A pure bed of white for God’s little angels.

But God is bountiful with his blessings. He brings light and warmth and ease.

Devilish-Daddy is benevolent with his curses. He brings darkness and coldness and unease.

We don’t say nothing.

We mind what our mama had told us.

 

VIII

In the new day, stark cries fill the Sunday sky, as souls ride the highest high notes of hallelujah to touch heaven’s gates.

Sun strikes through the clouds. Tarnished strains in glass.

Oh, Lord. Oh, Jesus. Have mercy, the mourning morning court-choir sings.

Daddy is strapped down, baptized in mummy-wrapped skin, saved and swaddled.

From above, our ballroom-danced footsteps loop and wander away through the sheets of snow, notes of a soulful hymn.

 


EXODUS OKTAVIA BROWNLOW is a Blackhawk, MS, native. Her piece “Chicken-Girls and Chicken-Ladies and All the Possibility of Pillowcases” will be included in Best Microfiction 2022. Her debut fiction chapbook—Look at All the Little Hurts of These Newly-Broken Lives and The Bittersweet, Sweet and Bitter Loves—is set for publication with Ethel Zine and Press in April 2023.

 

Featured image by silviannnm courtesy of Unsplash 

 

Author’s Note

I can’t seem to get away from long titles. They call to me because often the long title is a string of thoughts, of thoughts, of thoughts that don’t make any sense until I put them in or with a story. For “When It Gets Cold in the South, You Get a Jesus, You Get a Jesus, Everybody Gets a Goddamn Jesus,” the case is both.

As someone with OCD, and a maladaptive daydreaming complex, I don’t think there’s ever a time when I’m not thinking. Just bites of bits all blending together. All the time. And so, a few months prior to CRAFT opening their 2021 Flash Fiction Contest, the words You get a Jesus! You get a Jesus! Everybody gets a goddamn Jesus! echoed and stood against all the other thoughts. Shouting, imprinting, and unforgettable.

I thought about a mom simply trying to put her children to bed. I thought about Jesus, and praying, and the underlying threat of receiving (getting) a Jesus. What that meant, exactly.

In Black culture, Jesus has always been a Black person’s best savior, our biggest bet on receiving any kind of goodness in life. With this piece, I wanted to explore Black family dynamics in the south during the early 1970s, as well as the security of religion (how this often became our solace against a world that did, and sometimes still does, not like us), mothers and fathers (and minding them), and of course, Black mental health. Specifically, in strong, Black male leaders.

The father character, Devilish-Daddy, suffers from schizophrenia, succumbing to its insidious grip in a household that he has help to build. Untreated and definitely unacknowledged as an illness (just a devil), it soon begins to become something beyond management. However, because the priority of keeping our Black male leaders in the household safe is usually upheld over all else, he becomes a problem to be patched-up, not treated, nor dealt with in a way that would indefinitely exclude him. In the end, Devilish-Daddy is saved over his own children, and his wife.

This piece honors the often-innocent sacrifices made in Black households. It is a testament to my ancestors who could have never dreamed of acknowledging their own traumas as issues to be healed. It is because of these sacrifices, and my ancestors’ persistence, that I may go on to become aware of my own, and I constantly recognize this as a privilege to treasure.

I wrote this story from the perspective of the children because for me, it felt like the safest place. In spite of what happens, in a sense, they are the ones who are truly saved when set against the realities of the characters who are left behind.

 


EXODUS OKTAVIA BROWNLOW is a Blackhawk, MS, native. Her piece “Chicken-Girls and Chicken-Ladies and All the Possibility of Pillowcases” will be included in Best Microfiction 2022. Her debut fiction chapbook—Look at All the Little Hurts of These Newly-Broken Lives and The Bittersweet, Sweet and Bitter Loves—is set for publication with Ethel Zine and Press in April 2023.