In the acclaimed A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill created an unforgettably candid story of violence, love, and redemption with teenaged D'Ray Reid at its center. Now, with his jail time behind him, D'Ray has returned home to find that the real fight for survival is only beginning...
Everyone was shocked when Mr. Henry took D'Ray Reid under his wing. After all, Mr. Henry's real son, Stanley, was murdered by D'Ray--a crime D'Ray committed to save his brother, Little Man. Yet in the years since, Mr. Henry has tried to show D'Ray how to become the man Stanley would never be.
After Mr. Henry's death, D'Ray seeks out his own mother, Mira, hoping to rebuild their broken relationship. But D'Ray's homecoming is more tumultuous than expected. Arrested for a crime he didn't commit, Little Man has escaped and is in hiding. Mira blames D'Ray for Little Man's troubled history, but she has her own secrets to hide. And putting things right will mean uncovering a legacy of lies and hidden agendas, and realizing the only way to be free of the past is to stand tall and confront it at last...
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August 31, 2010
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Excerpt from Family Ties by Ernest Hill
I stood before the window watching large torrents of rain fall from the eave of the roof. But my mind formed no lasting image of the rain; instead, the sound of the rain cast a strange spell upon me, a spell that cautioned me to fully contemplate what had just happened. And as I did, fresh tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I mourned from a place deep within my soul, and as I mourned, I felt rise in me a rage that echoed the voice that told me to leave this place and to forget these people and to begin life anew in a town where I was not known. A town hundreds of miles from Lake Providence, Louisiana.
I turned from the window and removed the tiny suitcase from the closet. I pulled open the dresser drawer, and I was about to remove my clothes when footsteps in the corridor made me turn and look. Behind me, in the shadows of the hallway, I saw the dim form of a heavyset woman. It was Mr. Henry's sister, the one we called Miss Big Siss. She eased forward, and I could see that she was still wearing the long black dress and wide brim hat she had worn at the funeral. She made it to the doorway, then stopped. She looked at me. Our eyes met.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Her question caused me to pause. I looked at her, then sank onto the bed, fighting against raw emotions tugging at my already moist eyes. I opened my mouth to answer her, but no words came. I turned my head back toward the window again. Outside, the rain had ceased, and in its place hung a dreary, ominous-looking haze. But I was neither seeing the haze, nor the trees, nor the tiny vegetable garden nestled just beyond the hurricane fence; instead, I was seeing the undertaker as he slowly lowered the steel blue coffin into the recently excavated earth. Suddenly my emotions broke and I began to sob again.
"Hush, now," she said."Henry wouldn't want that."
I felt the bed give, and then I felt her arm about my shoulders, hugging me tight, gently rocking me from side to side.
A moment passed and then she spoke again."Henry lived a good life," she said, then paused. I closed my eyes. I felt my body begin to tremble."But he had gotten old and tired, and it was just his time to go." She paused again, waiting for me to say something, but I remained quiet."He was proud of you," she said."I hope you know that."
I didn't answer.
"You were like a son to him."
I still didn't answer.
"And I thank you for what you did for him."
Suddenly a lump filled my throat; I opened my eyes and looked at her."I didn't do anything," I said.
"Yes, you did."
"No, ma'am...I didn't."
"You did," she said. "Before he closed his eyes, you allowed him to see his dream. And I thank you for that."
I didn't answer. I couldn't.
"But now there's something I want you to do for me," she said.
Suddenly, I pulled away and looked at her with eager eyes.
"Anything," I said."Anything at all."
"I want you to go home," she said."I want you to talk to your mother. I want you to work things out."
Stunned, I rose and moved next to the window. It had been ten years since I had seen my mother, and at that time she had made it perfectly clear--she never wanted to see me again. I turned and looked at Miss Big Siss. I opened my mouth to speak, but sorrow choked back my words. I raised my fist to my mouth and cleared my throat. My eyes blurred, and I shook my head.
"She doesn't want to see me," I said.
My voice broke again, and I lowered my head, feeling warm tears collecting underneath my chin.
"Nonsense," she said. "What mother doesn't want to see her child?"
"You don't believe that."
"She told me not to come back."
"Just before the judge sentenced me."
"She didn't mean it."
"I was fifteen years old, and she told me I was dead."
"People say a lot of things, especially when they're angry."
"I wrote her when I was locked up. I tried to apologize. I tried to explain. But she would never write back. So, I kept writing and I kept telling her that I had changed. And she finally sent me a note." My voice trembled and I broke down again."You know what it said?"
"No, child," she said."I don't."
I opened my mouth to answer but I could not. Suddenly my mind began to whirl. I turned from the window and made my way to the far wall, feeling the tightness in my legs, hearing the mounting tide of blood pulsating through my veins. I leaned into the wall, balancing myself with sweaty palms. Anger seized me. I bowed my head and lowered my eyes, seeing the letter again. I bit my lip and pushed hard against the wall. I stared at the floor a moment, then spoke again.
" 'Time will tell.' "
"That's all she said."
I paused. But Miss Big Siss remained quiet.
"She never came to visit," I said, sobbing."And she never wrote me again. She doesn't want to see me. She's made that perfectly clear. And if she doesn't want to see me, I don't want to see her."
"Life is short," Miss Big Siss said, "even when it's long."
"I can't go back there," I said."I can't go back there and take a chance on her rejecting me again."
"I have never asked you for anything," Miss Big Siss said. "Not as long as you've been living in Henry's house--but I'm asking you now . . . No, I'm begging you.... Please go see your mother while you still have a mother to see."
"I can't," I said.
"I just can't."
"How do you think you would feel if something happened to her before you had a chance to make things right?"
I didn't answer. I wanted to, but I did not know what to say.
"You would feel terrible," Miss Big Siss said."That's how."
"I don't know," I said.
"Well, I do," she said.
In the hallway, I heard footsteps moving toward us. I looked at the door. Miss Ida entered the room, and like Miss Big Siss, she was still wearing the clothes she had worn to the funeral.
Miss Ida looked at me and then at her sister."You tell him yet?" she asked.
"No," Miss Big Siss said."Not yet."
"Tell me what?" I asked.
"Sis and I talked it over," Ida said."And we want you to know that you can stay in Henry's house as long as you want to, and we want you to have his truck."
I shook my head."No," I said."I can't accept that."
"It's what Henry would want," Miss Big Siss said.
"No," I said again."You all divide his things among yourselves. You're his family. Not me. I can't take his things."
"When I first saw you, I hated you," Ida said.
"Ida!" Miss Big Siss said, shocked.
"All I could think about is what you took from us."
"Ida!" Miss Big Siss said again.
"But then, over the years, I got to know you," she said. "And I watched how hard you worked to make things right with Henry. And gradually I saw some of the pain leave his eyes. And I saw him get up and live again. You did that. You took his life from him; then you gave it back. And as the years passed, it was like he wasn't mad at you anymore. At first, I couldn't understand it. Oh, I knew Henry was a true believer. And I knew his faith was strong and that he believed in love and forgiveness, but not me. I just wanted him to keep on hating you just like I was hating you. But he didn't. And over time, I guess I figured if Henry could forgive you, I could forgive you too. Son, take his truck, and live in his house. It's what he would want."
"His family should have his things," I said.
Miss Big Siss rose and moved next to me.
"In Henry's eyes, you are his family," she said.
"That's right," Ida said."As far as Henry was concerned, you're just as much his family as anyone else. Child, Henry loved you. Don't you know that?"
"Then it's settled," she said.
"No, ma'am," I said, shaking my head again."I can't."
"You can and you will," Ida said."It's what he would have wanted."
"But I'm leaving."
"Leaving!" Miss Big Siss shouted, stunned.
"Yes, ma'am," I said."Leaving."
She looked at me and then at the suitcase.
"Where are you going?"
"Where in Texas?"
"Didn't know you knew anyone in Dallas."
"I don't," I said."I was offered a job. A good job with an engineering firm."
"And you decided to take it."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
"Why?"Ida asked."Why so far away?"
"Just figure it might be a good time to start over somewhere."
"Well, ain't nothing wrong with starting over," Miss Big Siss said, "as long as you running to something and not from something."
I didn't answer.
"When you planning on leaving?" Ida asked.
"In an hour or two," I said.
"Well, at least take his truck," Ida said."The house will be here if you ever decide to come back."
I nodded. Then I saw her turn and look toward the front door.
"We got a house full of folks across the street," she said."I guess I better go back over there and check on Mama. She's been real quiet since the funeral."
"I'll be on directly," Miss Big Siss said.
Ida looked at me again."Plenty food over there," she said. "You better come on and get something to eat."
"I'm not hungry," I said.
"Well, I'll fix you a plate," she said. "It'll be over there when you want it."
Then she turned and disappeared into the living room. I heard the screen door open and close as she made her way out of the house and back across the street. I was sitting there thinking about what she had said, when I heard the sound of Miss Big Siss's voice again.
"Family is everything," she said. "But family ain't much good when the circle has been broken."
I remained quiet.
"I'm not worried about Henry," she said. "He's with his wife and child, and all three of them with Jesus. But I am worried about you. Your papa is in jail. Henry is dead. And you and your mama ain't talking. Before you leave here, I want you to go home," she said. "I want you to go home while there is still a home to go to."
"I'm alright," I said.
"You're not alright," she said. "And you won't be alright until you make things right with your mother....Go home. Go home and talk to your mother. Sometimes, time changes things."
"You think your mother hates you," she said, "but you're wrong."
I didn't answer. Instead, I looked around the old house. I could feel Mr. Henry's presence lingering in the space that he had once occupied. I shook my head again. I wanted to hate my mother, and I wanted to hate my father, and I wanted that hatred to give me the strength to leave this place.
"Son, your mama loves you," she said."And I suspect deep down you know that." She paused. I remained quiet."When your mother said those things to you, you were a troubled little boy caught up in a bad situation. But you're not that boy anymore. Now you're a man--a twenty-five-year-old man with a college education. Go home and let your mama see what kind of man her child has become."
There was silence. I looked at her, but I did not speak.
"Will you go?" she asked.
I hesitated again. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time that I went back to Brownsville. After all, I wasn't a child anymore; I was a grown man with a college degree. And perhaps my mother would be proud of what I had become. Perhaps she would see that I was not like my "no-good daddy." No, her child, the one they had called outlaw, the one who had done six years in juvenile hall for first-degree murder, the one for whom she had cried a river of tears, her son, D'Ray Reid, had made something of himself. Yes, I would go, and like the prodigal son, my return would be cause for celebration.
"Will you?" I heard Miss Big Siss ask again.
"Will you go with me?" I asked her.
"Of course I will," she said.
Then there was silence.
"Does that mean you're going?" she asked.
I looked up. Our eyes met. I nodded.