He’d waited in the holding cell most of the morning for his ride home. Dressed in his courtroom clothes, not the usual inmate coveralls, hair wetted and combed, a man calmly biding the last of his time claimed by the state, waiting to get on with a life outside this cage. But right away, I saw him worrying that stick match between his teeth. Not a good sign the past five years had rehabilitated Randy Sprinkle.
— Randy? I said real quiet. No need to startle a man probably already rattled about what he was facing later that day.
— Well, hey, Hoss. He grinned and greeted me like some long-lost friend.
But we were not friends, my name’s not Hoss, and the trip down to Raleigh that Sunday was not my idea, but my job.
— You ready?
— Let’s do it. Randy held out his hands, two balled fists without me even having to ask.
The chrome cuffs clicked around his skinny wrists, same ones he wore when I walked him to and fro between the Cooleemee jail and the courthouse five years before.
Randy was my responsibility once more as we walked out of Central Penitentiary. Paperwork in order, all the signatures necessary to transfer custody on the clipboard tucked in my left armpit. My right hand gripped Randy’s elbow, feeling the slick fabric of his jacket, the same powder-blue suit he’d worn at trial, a pathetic color that went with his pale hair and the small washed-out eyes.
— Watch yourself. At the car, I opened the door and automatically put the palm of my hand on his head, like I was pushing him down to size to fit into the backseat, a kind of calming influence you learn in basic law enforcement.
Reading what goes on in the newspaper at breakfast, my wife sometimes shakes her own head. — What was that poor soul thinking?
— They’re not, I try to tell her, after I had my hand on their heads, putting them in the back of the car.
Usually someone so liquored-up or drugged out wasn’t in anything like a right mind, seemed as good an idea as any to break in the window, steal the car, smack your girlfriend, crash the car, knife your drinking buddy, piss in the parking lot. I mean nobody’s really thinking through anything, and all they’re having is second thoughts about getting caught by the time I come in contact with them.
But Randy shocked me that Sunday. A jolt traveled from his head, his hair, that made us both jump. More than static electricity, he had his hackles up, like an angry dog, and I’d caught that current of fear. I touched his head but I still can’t grasp what he had in mind when he torched that church.
It wasn’t like Randy was voted best criminal mind back in high school. We had graduated the same year, trooped across the town auditorium in the black gowns, sailed the mortar boards across the parking lot on our way down to the lake to get drunk and laid for the first or last time. I married Charlene later that summer, we’d been a steady thing since junior year, and we both went onto the community college, Charlene in nursing assistant and me in criminal justice. Randy, I ran into on occasion. He got a job over at the factory, stitching American flags and other decals on the ball caps. He was enrolled in the firefighter training and joined his local volunteer department. He was still the same little wiry guy I’d passed in the halls at school, or on the sidewalks in town, not unfriendly, but not friendly either, until that summer he took a notion to shave his head.
I ran into him that day at the BBQ joint when I stopped for lunch. The glare off the new Randy caught you coming in the door. He sat swiveling on a stool at the counter, showing off his new look. The boy shaved evidently that morning, with the nicks just starting to scab behind his sweating ears. It was the year all the folks in the movies and sports were shaving their heads like bad-asses, and Randy was just trying to follow the fashion, I’m sure.
I went over and slid the palm of my hand right over the crown of his skinny skull.
— Jeez, Randy, what happened to the Rograine?
He swung around on that stool and gave me a mean look.
— Get your fucking hands off me, Hoss, he said and looked mean, like he really meant it, meant to slug me.
That’s not something you say to a man in a khaki uniform with a revolver in a shiny holster, let alone the fact I outweigh Randy by fifty pounds. But I let it go.
— Just a joke, son. Simmer on down.
If I had run him in right then and there, I might have saved you the taxpayer his room and board and a lot of folks a lot of grief. But that was hindsight. I wiped the oil from his head from my hand on my pants leg before I got in and started the car.
Cracking the window, I lit a cigarette and glanced up in the mirror.
— You can smoke back there if you want.
— Bad habit. I kicked that when I came down here. Randy shifted that wooden match in his mouth.
— It won’t bother you none if I smoke?
— Your funeral, Hoss.
Rare to meet anyone in our line of business who doesn’t have the habit. Judges, DAs, public defenders, bailiffs, of course the defendants, everybody burning time waiting for the juries to make up their minds. I could have sworn Randy bummed smokes off me during the trial recesses back in Cooleemee.
— Guess we won’t be worried about cameras today? Randy said.
— Reckon not.
— You and me looked good on TV that time. Dangerous desperado and the deputy coming down the courthouse steps. Man, I don’t know who looked more scared, you or me.
I didn’t have anything to be scared of. Boy, you do, I wanted to say, but I bit my lip, bided my time. We had a two-hour drive ahead of us.
Randy had certainly had his share of the cameras, starting with the security monitor aimed at the counter of the Gas & Go store, where he stopped that summer night. You can see the time and date, 10:03 pm 8/18/94, running at the corner of the grainy black and white tape when he enters the picture.
You watch him pull a soda pop from the barrel of melting ice, roll the cold cola over his gleaming skull.
— Lord if it ain’t Randy Sprinkle, says the black girl towering over the cash register.
That’s Shawanda Tomes. Our senior year, she’d led the Lady Cougars to the state semi-finals. At six-two Shawanda had prowled the paint, all elbows and sharp knees, quick on her big feet and long arms, ready to reject most shots. You wouldn’t want to drive any lane against this girl.
— I like the look. Shawanda waves her hand over her head. — You trying to be like Mike?
Randy dribbles an imaginary ball, takes a fading jumper, dangling his tongue like the legendary Jordan.
Shawanda rings up his soda. — That’ll be ninety-six cents.
But Randy gives her a hard time. — You sure that’s right. You weren’t ever the math wiz.
Running and rewinding that tape over and over on the machine and in my mind, I couldn’t help but think here are two people with a history that goes back to high school.
Our junior year, Randy and Shawanda shared a math class with me, Algebra II, which liked to kill us all. Shawanda sat in the back row, folding herself into the tiny desk, trying to be inconspicuous. But six-two couldn’t hide from our teacher, Mrs. Connors.
— Shawanda, given the problem on the board, please tell the class what x would be.
Shawanda giggled, gave up and put her head down on the desk.
— Miss Tomes, please sit up! Connors kept tapping that piece of chalk on the blackboard, the white dust flying. What is x, x, x?
— Hugs and kisses. Ever the smart-ass, Randy volunteered a mouthful of smacking sounds.
The class cracked up, the bell rang and it was all over for old lady Connors that afternoon. I was getting my books, ready to catch Charlene in the parking lot, but I remember this moment between Randy Sprinkle and Shawanda Tomes. She loomed over his desk, then suddenly stooped and gave Randy his own x.
Randy sat there, his hand traveling in dreamy space to his right cheek. She’d kissed him. A black girl had kissed him, she had put her mouth on his white skin with lips wider than any white girl’s and (probably) softer. He caught me looking, then his small eyes cut away.
So that summer night at the Gas & Go, in full view of the security cameras, was Randy trying to sweet talk her? Was it a test? Was he just showing off when he leaned over the counter?
— You ever scared something might happen out here this late at night?
Beads and braids fly about her face when Shawanda shakes her head. — Lord, I just pray it don’t.
— See ya around.
You can see him walk off the tape, that strange overhead angle that made him look even shorter than he was, and Shawanda, taller. Another audio tape picked up his voice on the pay phone outside when he called 911.
— Nigger church on fire. Randy Sprinkle hung up.
Think how easy it was. Is.
When I drove night patrol, I went by the Ebenezer AME Zion Church, shone the light on a wooden building that hadn’t seen paint in decades, making sure the padlock was on the door. Not that it would keep you out. One or two swift kicks of a steel-toed boot would turn that door to splinters. Maybe the day had hit a hundred, but it would feel even worse within that old sanctuary. Sweat falls from your fingers like the rain the county had not seen all summer. Damn hot, but nothing like what’s to come. Empty that wastebasket down the dusty aisle and across those bone-dry pews, backtracking toward the busted door. Stand in the dark a moment, breathing hard, before you strike the match, that tender flame between your fingers. Takes no thought at all. It’s not hard to imagine. All hell falls from your hand.
There was not footage of the fire itself. No cameras there to catch the scene. Whatever you might remember from TV came, not from Cooleemee, but from other towns, other states, that summer when black churches were blazing all across the South.
Randy’s timing was off that night. By the time the first pumper roared down the road, the Ebenezer AME Zion Church was mostly memory. Although he was first on the scene, even Randy arrived almost too late to see flames shooting out the steeple just before the roof caved in. All was left was ashes when the national media swooped into town two days later.
I saw Brett Hume for Fox, and I noticed he wasn’t wearing socks when he was on camera, but you would never know, since no news show ever looks away from the face, the hair. Hell, I guess we’re lucky they wear pants under the desk as they tell us all the news each evening and on the hour.
Old Brett tried to poke that microphone in my face, but I’m not fool enough to talk about race relations. The one you will remember on TV was the Rev. Chester Tomes, pastor of the Ebenezer AME Zion church. He had a broad, clipped mustache, and gold framed glasses. When asked if he trusted the FBI to handle the investigation, the Rev. Tomes bent over the microphone and said it wasn’t right to put one’s faith in men, whether black or white, but in the hands of the Good Lord. He’d been there that night, watched his sanctuary of twenty years or more burn to the ground. The fire was still in his eyes, as he later led the candlelight vigil against hatred. It was just a couple dozen people with little candles, circling around the Confederate statue in the square. The TV crews just about outnumbered them, and the camera lights drowned out those small flames. Everyone sang “We Shall Overcome.” They prayed for mercy, for justice, for peace.
Media makes a big deal of anything that happens down South, Randy was later heard to remark, bitching on the assembly line where they sew ball caps for astronauts and Little League teams.
— By God, it was an old building. Hell, might have been lightning that hit it.
Wasn’t a week later that Randy came in for the interview. I saw the videotaped confession even though the jury never did. It ran for about half an hour, a grainy black and white tape, almost the same angle as at the Gas & Go camera. Randy comes into the room, hands in his pockets, the brim of his cap pulled low over his brow. He slumped into a gray metal folding chair in front of the desk. The FBI agent was already there, Agent Edwards out of Atlanta, all natty in a golf shirt. There’s other people off camera, Tomes, the fire chief Vernon Harper.
There was a transcript prepared as well. You watch all these people and read their lines like a script for a movie you’d watch on cable but not pay to see.
Agent Edwards: Have a seat. You know the Rev. Tomes?
Suspect Sprinkle: What’s this all about?
Agent: A friendly little talk. Chief Harper tells me you been first at the scene for the past five weeks, first at the Franklin Mills fire, the Pringle Road house, that barn back of the Bostic farm. Five fires in five weeks, first one there. Quite a streak for a rookie.
Suspect: Just doing my job.
Agent: So tell me what you were doing the night the Ebenezer church burned.
Suspect: Nothing. I was off work, riding around a bit. I stopped by the crossroads store for a pop. Then I call the call on my pager.
Agent: So Miss Tomes, clerk on duty that night, that would be your granddaughter, Reverend?
You can see Edwards frowning, flipping through his legal pad of notes, although you know damn well he knows exactly what he’s looking for. Tomes says nothing you can hear off camera. Maybe he nods his head, maybe he’s staring straight through Randy right then.
Agent: Ms. Tomes says you came in around midnight. Said you just got off your shift at American Cap Co. Funny thing is that you weren’t at work at American Cap Co. that day. Supervisor says you called in sick.
Suspect: Oh wait, yeah. I forgot. I was sick that day. Summer cold.
Agent: So you’re sick that day, but you’re feeling good enough to be out driving around on the hottest night of the year when the call comes in?
Suspect: All right, I’ll fess up to it. Sometimes I like to drive down there and shine for deer. Don’t shoot ‘em though. Just shine ‘em.
Agent: Randy, do I look like the wildlife officer or something? Riding down the road looking for Bambi and you come across this big old fire? Don’t waste my time, boy.
Agent: You’re just a country boy, ain’t you now, Randy? Forget to take your hat off inside. Got that rebel flag on the front of your truck. Can’t even take the toothpick out of your mouth when you’re talking to us? You ever told a joke about African-Americans? You ever use the n-word?
You can see Edwards slowly comes out of his seat during this speech, his knuckles on the tabletop, then his shoulders hunched, like he’s about to climb across the table. He’s right in Randy’s face, spitting almost. You can see Randy’s eyes drop, but he’s still got that grin on his face. Edwards snaps his fingers in Randy’s face, a sharp click of the bones that even the tape picks up.
Agent: We all say it, don’t we, in the dark, when nobody’s listening, when the wrong people aren’t around. Just say it again for me. “Nigger church is on fire.”
Randy squirms in his seat, but says nothing.
Agent: I need you to say it on the record. Say “Nigger church on fire.” Say it like you said it that night. What’s wrong, Randy? You don’t want to say it in front of me or is it the Reverend? Come on, ain’t like he’s not heard it before.
Suspect: Why’s he here anyway?
Tomes’ voice is soft, almost indistinct, and I keep rewinding the tape, trying to pick up what I think I’m hearing.
Rev. Tomes: I know the kind of man who done this. I just wanted to see his white face for myself.
— You getting enough air back there?
The sun was blaring through the trees as we turned back toward the interstate, a red ball bawling on the horizon, promising a scorcher of a Sunday by the time we reached Cooleemee. Out in the fields bulldozed piles of brush lay smoldering, acres cleared for the parking lots of the next new Wal-Mart or Home Depot. A gutted landscape, the twisted charred branches and stumps still scrawling black plumes of smoke against the pale sky.
— Ever miss it? I suddenly wondered aloud. — The fires?
Randy didn’t say anything. A few miles down the interstate, I heard this low voice out of the backseat, more like Randy was talking to himself, not to me.
— Fire’s funny. There was this house over on Pleasant Hill, fully involved when we got there. I got out front on the hose, had it set for a fog pattern, two or three guys behind me, and we start going in, up the porch steps, right into the mouth of the devil. If you never been face to face with it, the heat is unbelievable. It blew the door off and came out like a arm swinging at my face. Those guys were at my back, pushing me right into the fire, and I kept my eyes closed and my hand on the nozzle, gallons gushing out in a steaming fog before me. But for a second there I thought there was a man on fire in the door, waving for help. We fired the water right there, and my visor steamed up for a second with the mist. Turns out it was nothing, a metal coat rack and a plastic raincoat by the door.
I looked up in the mirror. Randy was staring out the window. End of story, I reckoned.
— Hey Hoss, watch this.
I looked again. He took the match from his mouth and scraped the sulphur to life with a ragged thumbnail. He stuck out his tongue and doused the flame on the tip.
— Taa daa.
— Good one, Randy. Circus might come calling for a talent like that.
He laughed. Later on, when I looked in the mirror, there was another match in his mouth, getting chewed down to splinters between his sharp teeth.
Randy had probably thought there would be TV at the trial, but after the district attorney and the court-appointed psychologist figured out he wasn’t the skin-headed Grand Cyclops of the Aryan Brotherhood but just a pyro punk, it was like the town changed the channel.
His public defender quietly worked out a plea bargain with the district attorney for second-degree arson, ten years max; with good behavior, he’d be out in five. I heard Randy said he was sorry at the sentencing, and he was truly, when at last it hit him. The quaver in his voice seemed genuine. Maybe he knew he would never ride with the trucks again, never feel the heat of a five-alarm fire in his face, have the pressure of the hose buck against his hip; all that was lost to him.
Done deal. He turned, thought it was all over, but Tomes and his congregation weren’t through with Randy Sprinkle by a long shot. After Randy said his sorries and sat down, the DA stood.
— At this time, the Rev. Tomes would like to be heard.
Tomes stood and spoke, his rich baritone bouncing off the portraits of all the old white judges who had hung men like him.
— Your honor, we would like to request that upon completing his active sentence, Mr. Sprinkle would be ordered to join us in services at our church.
— Ain’t you going object, Randy hissed, but his lawyer told him to hush.
Ten years, out in five. Randy had waited a long time for this Sunday. We drove into Cooleemee County on the interstate, then took the first exit out into the country, past the Gas & Go at the crossroads, then down a blacktop lane.
— This ain’t right. Randy was looking around. It was a dirt road before.
— State paved it last year, part of the rebuilding project.
A gleaming white steeple rose through the tall pines at the end of the freshly paved road, a brand new Ebenezer AME Zion Church. Showered with donations from around the nation, the congregation had raised another sanctuary on the foundations of the one Randy had burned. Waiting at the white door were two black men, big enough to play tackle in the NFL, dressed in ivory suits.
I pulled up the patrol car, opened the back door, unlocked the handcuffs. Randy rubbed his wrists.
— You ain’t leaving me here alone, are you, Hoss?
— Nope. Judge said to make sure you didn’t slip out the back door. That means I get to sit through the whole service.
— This way, sirs.
One black usher took Randy’s elbow while the other opened the white door on a blast of air-conditioning and sound from the sanctuary. Inside, everyone was dressed in white, bone, ivory, eggshell. Pews, starched shirts and silk dresses, fine hats, even white gloves and leather pumps. They were raising a hell of a holy racket, the robed choir singing and swaying, people clapping and shouting, as the ushers took us all the way down the red-carpeted aisle. Randy looked around and he was seeing the same thing I was, that all the faces were black and ours were the only white ones.
They sat us in the front pew. The choir shut up and sat and the congregants too, and the sanctuary hushed. Then the Rev. Tomes rose behind the high pulpit and cast his eyes across the congregation, fixing a cold glare on Randy for an instant. Randy hung his head reverently, as if praying, as if he got a snowball’s chance.
Tomes lifted the white sleeves of his robe like a great bird about to take flight.
— Oh, but it does my heart good to be here with you, today in this place; the preacher shouted so loud Randy jumped in his seat beside me.
Then the people behind me and Randy shouted back. — Yes! Say it.
Tomes went on. — Our people built this place, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, our grandfathers, our grandmothers. And they are all here with us in spirit. We can feel them. In 1888, they built this house with their sweat and their money, what they could save working for other folks. You know who. And they watched this place burn down when Jim Crow came. They built it back stronger. When the Klan came in the Sixties, men too cowardly to show their faces they wore hoods, when they came and firebombed this building, they built it again. And when last year, the fire consumed our church, Sweet Jesus, we built it back even bigger.
— Amen, right on. They nodded in the pews all around.
— But I have to say I had my doubts, Tomes said. — I was not always sure. I felt sorry for myself, for us. I said, Oh Lord, why Ebenezer, why this fire, why me, o God? And then I recall all the fires that test men’s souls. Remember those Hebrew boys in the book of Daniel? They won’t bow down before the golden gods of Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar throws the three in the midst of a fiery furnace. Now, you know their names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You know what happens next. Ol’ king looks into the furnace and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are walking around in the flames and there is someone with them, a man made of fire, and he holds their hands in the heart of that terrible holocaust. King tells them to come on out, and they walk out the furnace door, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Not a hair of their young heads singed. Not even a bead of sweat. They were tested and they were not burned up. They came through the fire, holding the hand of that man made of fire.
— Thank God! Tomes slammed the pulpit with his fist. — What happened to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego has happened here to Ebenezer, to you and me. We been tested by the flames. The King of Babylon has looked in on us and we are not burned up with hatred, we are not sweating despair. We came through the fire, holding each other’s hand.
Now I’d been to church before, and heard some heavy-duty fire-breathing sermons, but still the story Tomes just told, didn’t add up. The King of Babylon put three Jews in the fire, pulled three out. But what about the fourth fellow, the man on fire? When the King went home to the palace, did the royal firemen stay behind to wet down the embers? Did they sift the ashes for a trace of that missing man?
But Tomes wasn’t through by any means.
— We have a man here today, a guest. We all know who he is. We all know what he’s done. But I can’t be no Nebuchadnezzar, judging this man. I cannot see if his heart is black. I can only see that my own heart is not burned with hate.
And his white vestment flowing, the embroidered stole swinging around his neck, Tomes descended from his pulpit, carrying a bundle wrapped in a towel.
— The Lord works in mysterious ways, Randy Sprinkle. You lit a match one night and gave us a terrible gift, a burden to bear, and perhaps a blessing. In return, we give you this.
The preacher unfolded the white cloth to reveal the charred object, still reeking of smoke after five years. He placed it in Randy’s hands, the pages crumbling, the blistered hide of the covers, the Bible rescued from the ashes of the church he’d razed.
— I forgive you! Tomes shouted, lifting his arms, the sleeves like great wings.
As if on signal, the congregation stood as one and poured out of the pews toward us.
Oh Lord, this is it, I was thinking, maybe Randy as well. My hand crept to my holster in case I needed to prevent a lynching. But who would have expected this? Little black girls in white dresses came up and handed Randy crayon drawings of angels and churches and lambs and little baby Jesus. They just kept coming. He was on the receiving end of a line of people who wanted to face him and forgive him, one by one.
I could see that small word like a crumb on his lips. His mouth mumbled it, but not out loud, a knot working up and down his throat. Maybe it was all he could say, but it was no shield against the onslaught, no defense against what they did to him that Sunday. Each smile, each handshake, each unwanted hug seemed more unbearable than if they had kicked him or hit him or spit on him.
Then I saw Shawanda in her white robe descending from the choir loft, down the red-carpeted steps. She towered a whole head over him as always, but she bent down to him. I don’t know what she said to him, but I saw his shoulders slump under whatever words she whispered to him, and he flinched when she kissed his cheek.
We didn’t wait after the amens to get the hell out of there. Randy looked whiter than when he went in. His hands were black from that burnt Bible they made him hold and still shaking. I watched maybe the worst thing you could do to a man like Randy, maybe even like me. Forgive him and forget him, just walk away, leave him be in the hell of his own head, his hands smudged with what he’d done.
— That’s over, at least, I said. How does it feel?
— What? He blinked his small eyes.
— You’re free now. Debt squared with society. Must feel good?
He had his bad blue suit, the money in his wallet, his parole papers, but he kept rubbing his wrists as if asking for the cuffs again, the cold comfort of the steel on his bones.
— No need. I opened the car door for him, up front this time, and I didn’t touch his head as he got in. He was a regular citizen I was giving a ride to the trailer where his mother still lived. — See you around, Randy, I said when we pulled into the gravel drive, but he jumped out. Not even a thank you.
I watched him slowly climb the wooden stairs to the rusty trailer he used to call home. Framed for an instant in the doorway, haloed by the golden glow from within, like a man stepping into the furnace, he pulled the door shut.
Dale Neal is the author of the novel, Cow Across America, winner of the 2009 Novello Literary Prize, and The Half-Life of Home. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Arts & Letters, Carolina Quarterly, Marlboro Review, Crescent Review, and many other literary journals. He works as a journalist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and lives in Asheville with his wife and dogs.