“Can you tell the court the first time you remember Mr. Tate coming to your home?” Mr. Dupre asked me.
That was the day I sat on the witness stand in the county courthouse outside of my hometown of French Lick, Indiana. It was the summer of 1964 and I was nearly twelve years old. That summer should have been a summer like any other. I should have been enjoying it like all of the other kids. But it wasn’t and I didn’t. No, that was the summer Delmar Tate was killed.
I remember the first day Mr. Tate came to our home all right. He was selling vacuums door to door. Mama was on the phone and motioned for my older sister, Harmony to brush off whoever it was that came knocking. I didn’t like Mr. Tate the moment I saw him. He was tall and lanky, wore a cheap wool suit and his dark hair was slicked back with so much grease he smelled like a walking drug store.
“Well ain’t you cute as a sack of puppies,” Mr. Tate said, gazing at Harmony’s bosom a bit too eagerly. “Is your mama home, sweetheart?” Upon hearing a man’s voice Mama decided to take front and center as she always did with the men. “Why hello there Miss,” Mr. Tate spoke as he ogled Mama too. “I was just asking your little sister here if your Mama was home.” I ain’t never heard nobody lay on the charm so thick it done gagged me from across the room. Of course my mama was flattered and invited Mr. Tate in. As she sat on the sofa pretending to be interested in his presentation on how this vacuum sweeper could change her life, my mama, the great Trista-Lynn Lawrence did what she did best. She came on to Mr. Delmar Tate and he seemed to take all too kindly to her advances. It was only a matter of days before Mr. Tate became a regular guest for supper, and not long after that he moved in.
“And Sunny,” Mr. Dupre started with his next question. “Your mama appointed Mr. Tate to watch over you and your sister while she went to work. Isn’t that right?” I ain’t never had the occasion to deal with any lawyer before that summer. But Mr. Dupre was the kindest man I ever met.
Each night after supper my mama would go down to the tavern and work until midnight or so. The tavern was packed on account of the shift workers from the rail yard next door. Although my mama left us home with Delmar Tate, we didn’t need him watching over us. Harmony was sixteen that summer and besides that, we had been tending ourselves at night for as long as I could recall. Harmony was the one that cleaned the house, helped me with my homework, and made sure I brushed my teeth and said my prayers before bed. Harmony was more like a mother to me than my own Mama was. Next to Boudreaux Brown, whom everybody called Beau, she was my closest friend.
Beau Brown lived with his Meemaw down by the river behind the woods. I loved him since the first day in Miss Lucy’s Kindergarten class. At recess some of the other boys were making fun of me on account of my stuttering. “S-S-Sunny can’t s-s-speak!” they called out, taunting me until I began to cry. It was then that Beau hauled off and kicked the biggest one, Bobby Perkins, right where the sun don’t shine. I ain’t never seen a boy cry so hard in my life.
“Can you tell the court about Mr. Tate’s behavior while your mama was away at work?” Mr. Dupre continued in the stuffy courtroom that day. In my mind, while sitting on that witness stand, I used to pretend that my Daddy was a lot like Mr. Dupre. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting my Daddy, thinking him in the likes of Mr. Dupre somehow helped to fill that empty space in my chest. If only my Daddy hadn’t been killed in the war like Mama said, then maybe none of this ain’t ever happened.
As it turned out, and to nobody’s surprise but Mama and him, Mr. Tate wasn’t a very good salesman. Night after night he’d come home, put out that he still had the same number of vacuums he left with that morning. Mr. Tate was the kind of man to take to the bottle when he was in a foul mood. Problem was, he was nearly always in a foul mood and the drinking only made things worse. On Mama’s nights off she’d drink with him until they both passed out; but not before bickering and hollering at each other. Mama got real mean when she got drunk. I remember one night she told Harmony to quit dressing like a slut or she’d end up barefoot and pregnant before she was even eighteen. Truth be told, that was Mama’s life. She was the one who slept with nearly every boy in town back in her day and she was the one who got pregnant with Harmony and never finished high school. Harmony cried herself to sleep that night even though I done told her that it was just on account Mama was jealous and drunk. Harmony was going to make something of herself. She worked real hard in school to get good grades and saved money by bagging groceries at the Five and Dime. She was fixing to go college one day and prayed every night to God, asking Him to help her find a way to get as far away from French Lick as possible.
“Sunny,” Mr. Dupre continued with his questioning. “Can you tell the court what happened the night of June thirtieth?” Mr. Dupre knew I didn’t like to talk about that night. I practiced saying it over and over in his office beforehand on account I didn’t want to stutter on the stand. I could tell by the look on his face he didn’t like Mr. Tate neither. But I agreed to tell it because Mr. Dupre said it would be real helpful to Harmony. Besides, I loved my sister and wanted to do right by her.
It was a Tuesday night. Harmony and I put on our pajamas and were fixing to watch “A Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, like we did every Tuesday night. Mama had already left for her shift at the tavern and Delmar Tate was passed out drunk in the recliner. Just as our show was finishing up Mr. Tate stirred a bit and mumbled for Harmony to fetch him another beer. Problem was, he done drank all of the beer and when Harmony told him such he became irate. Mr. Tate began hollering and cussing, calling her a liar; saying that she was hiding it from him. Harmony told him she ain’t hiding nothing. Mr. Tate didn’t take too kindly to her back-talk and told her he was going to whip her hind end. Mr. Tate then told me if I knew what was good for me I’d be getting myself to bed right quick. I didn’t want to leave Harmony, but I knew by the look on her face she wanted me to go to my room, so I did. But I couldn’t sleep.
I could hear Delmar Tate’s belt slap against Harmony’s bare thighs. I held the pillow tight over my face to block out Harmony’s yelps and to silence my own tears. I started praying to God that He’d somehow make Mama come home early. I just thought if Mama saw what he was doing she’d get rid of him once and for all. I told God I wanted a new daddy, so long as he was nothing like Delmar Tate. I so badly wanted to run to Harmony, to help her and protect her. Funny thing was, when Harmony came into the bedroom a few minutes later she crawled into bed with me to comfort me and stop me from crying. “Shh. It’s gonna be alright,” she whispered. “Don’t cry for me, baby girl.”
I don’t recall how long it took for me to fall asleep or at what point Harmony got into her own bed. But I do remember it was late when the bedroom door opened slowly, allowing the light from the hallway to peek in. While pretending to still be asleep, I glanced from beneath the covers and saw the figure of Delmar Tate standing in my bedroom. He didn’t say a word, but I watched as he put himself underneath the covers with Harmony and as he climbed on top of her. I watched as he covered her mouth with his hand to keep her quiet. I saw her eyes open wide, like a frightened deer in the woods and I watched the tears roll down her cheek. My heart leapt into my throat and I wanted to scream; but I was frozen. It was as if time stood still and I was just a mere bystander to a horrific sight. Harmony and I never talked about what I saw, but I was pretty sure she knew that I knew what that man had done to her.
I remember that day on the witness stand as clear as a bell. Mr. Dupre continued to ask the questions, while my mama continued to look at me with disappointment. My palms grew sweaty and I could feel the warmth of discomfort rise up the back of my neck. He asked me to go on and tell the jury what happened the following Saturday, on July fourth.
July fourth was a huge deal in French Lick. The whole town would gather for a day of festivities. Everyone would bring their blankets and picnic baskets to the park in the center of town. There were games and entertainment for folks of all ages. There was even a live band and dancing in the gazebo. As far back as I could remember, we’d always attend the party to visit with friends and neighbors until the big fireworks show. That Fourth of July was no different, but Harmony and I sure were.
Harmony barely spoke two words since the incident with Delmar Tate just a few nights before. Mama kept asking her if she was sick and Harmony kept telling her it was just her time of the month. I think she was hoping her excuse would be reason enough for Mr. Tate to keep his distance, at least until she could figure something out.
“Come on,” begged Beau. “I want to show you something!” As soon as I arrived at the picnic, Beau was ready to go off exploring as we often did. We ran back into the woods behind the church and found our favorite log down by the stream. It was there he pulled his latest prize from his knapsack.
“Another BB gun?” I asked, teasingly.
“Not just any old BB gun,” Beau said in defense. “This is a Crosman V-300 Spring Air BB Pistol!” You would’ve thought it was Christmas or something the way Beau was going on about it. After several minutes of chasing squirrels with his new toy we stopped to rest against an old tree stump. I didn’t realize I had been kicking at the same rock in the dirt over and over until Beau cleared his throat. It was true I was never much one for talking, on account of my stuttering. But with Beau I could, and most days would talk his ear off.
“What’s wrong with you today?” he finally asked.
“Ain’t nothing,” I mumbled.
“Sunny,” Beau said looking me straight in the eye. “Don’t lie to me. You’re my girl,” he reasoned. “I can tell when something ain’t right.”
By then I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I hadn’t told a soul about the unspeakable things I’d seen and it was festering deep inside me. Without warning, the tears started to flow and I couldn’t hardly catch my breath, I was crying so hard. Beau didn’t know what the trouble was, but he knew enough to keep still until I could get a hold of myself. When I told him what that man did to my sister, I saw the same look in Beau’s eyes that I’d seen the day he kicked Bobby Perkins in the groin. It was a look that told me he was sad and outraged at the same time.
“What about you?” Beau asked, softening his voice. “Has he touched you?” I could tell that was a question Beau didn’t want to ask and yet knew he had to.
“He ain’t bothered me,” I answered, keeping my head down.
“Here,” Beau said handing me his newest possession. “Take this.”
“What for?” I asked, pushing his hand away from me. “I ain’t gonna shoot him,” I said.
“It’s a BB gun, Sunny,” Beau contended. “It ain’t gonna kill nobody. It’s just to scare him off if he tries to touch you.” Beau convinced me to take the pistol and hide it under my pillow. Just as he was stubborn, he was as sweet as could be. For the rest of the afternoon ‘til dusk we just sat at that stump with my head against his shoulder, neither one of us making a peep. Beau always seemed to know the right thing to say and the time when saying nothing at all was everything I needed to hear.
After the bursts of rockets and oohing and ahhing from the crowd Mama rounded up Harmony and me and we headed home with Mr. Tate. The day wore me out and both Harmony and I were fixing to go to bed soon when Mama and Mr. Tate started in on one of their arguments. Luckily for us, it didn’t take long for the both of them to pass out. I waited until Harmony was in the bathroom brushing her teeth before I slipped Beau’s BB gun underneath my pillow. As I said my prayers that night, I asked God for a favor. I told Him about the awful things Mr. Tate had done to Harmony. I told Him to watch over us and to please keep that man away from us. I told God I missed my daddy, and at that very moment a peace came over me and I knew that Daddy was there; an angel watching over me.
It was all too familiar when sometime in the middle of the night, the hinges on my bedroom door began to squeak and the light from the hallway crept in. My heart began to pound as I saw Mr. Tate quietly raise the covers and slide himself in next to Harmony. I couldn’t believe he was attempting such a thing when Mama was right in the next room. I knew I had to do something. I knew I needed to stop him. I could hear Harmony’s whimpers. As strong as she was and as much as I needed her, she needed me more in that moment than she ever had before.
My throat was dry, my tongue felt heavy and my body started to tremble. I knew it was now or never. Ignoring the dizzy spell that done come over me, I slowly sat up and with every bit of strength I could muster yelled as loudly as I could, “Stop! Get off of her!” Those were my words, all right. But it sounded like someone else’s voice.
Harmony broke into hysterics, crying and screaming. “Mama!” I hollered. Mr. Tate yelled for the both of us to shut up. Mama came rushing in. Never mind the fact that Mr. Tate was trying to do up his trousers as fast as he could and Mama caught him red-handed. Mama shoved him out of the way and slapped Harmony across the face, yelling at her and calling her names; blaming her for supposedly making advances towards Mr. Tate. There was a wild look in her eyes as she wrapped her fingers around Harmony’s neck and began shaking her. I yelled for her to stop, but there was no stopping my mama.
I felt my fingers slide around the cold metal beneath the pillow. I stood, with the gun pointed directly at my Mama, hoping to scare her. But before I could say a word, Mr. Tate came at me. And just as easily as I had pulled that trigger at nearly a dozen or so squirrels earlier that day, I pulled the trigger and shot Mr. Delmar Tate.
“And did you suspect that when you pulled the trigger, you would in fact kill Mr. Tate?” Mr. Dupre asked me in court. I didn’t know much about guns. But I told him what I’ve told many others that day since.
“No sir,” I answered on the witness stand. “It’s a BB gun. It ain’t supposed to kill people. I just wanted to make them stop.”
“And did you in fact, make them stop?” questioned Mr. Dupre.
“Not soon enough,” I replied with all honesty, my voice breaking just a bit.
Once Mr. Tate fell to the ground, Mama released her hold on Harmony and ran to his side. I don’t remember much else about what happened after that. But I do remember Harmony laying there like a ragdoll, not moving, not breathing.
Mr. Dupre said the state would not bring charges against me. I was old enough to hear the rumors. I was old enough to read the papers. They were calling Mr. Tate’s death a freak accident. Apparently, because he was shot at close range, the BB went through the skin and tore a key artery, causing him to bleed to death.
Mr. Dupre made it so I could stay with Meemaw during my mama’s trial for the death of my sister. He was as kind to Meemaw and Beau as he was to me. He came over nearly every night for supper until the trial was over. He said he wanted to make sure I was okay, since he reckoned it would be hard to testify against my own mama. But I think he needed Meemaw and Beau as much as I did on account he was a single man with no family of his own.
The jury found Mama guilty and she was sentenced to life in prison. As for me, there were never any charges brought, just as Mr. Dupre had promised. I continued to live with Meemaw and Beau and Mr. Dupre continued to come over every night for supper. In fact, it was Mr. Dupre who walked me down the aisle when I married Beau just six years later.
It’s hard to believe nearly fifty years have passed since that summer. I’ve often wondered what could make a mother discard her own children. And yet, what compels others to love someone else’s children as their own? I know they say it was a freak accident. But to me, it was the Good Lord, Almighty making it so Mr. Tate couldn’t hurt nobody no more, making it so I could have a loving family and a father like Mr. Dupre, and making it so Harmony could get as far away from French Lick as possible.
I ain’t ever pretended to know the mysteries of God, so I don't know why Harmony had to die for her to get away. But I heard Meemaw once say, “When God takes away something good, he replaces it with something great.”