Long Before Jonestown: Indianapolis, 1956

by Annie Dawid

(This story was originally published on May 8, 2017 by Fictive Dream, an online site for short fiction.)

The phone shrilled. ‘Is this the nigger-loving Jones home?’ asked a male voice with a Georgia accent. Definitely white.

Marceline hung up.

‘Jim!’ she called to her husband in the front room as she finished drying the breakfast dishes. ‘Another crank call.’

Jim rushed for the phone. ‘Hello? Hello, you bastards!’ His face gleamed with energy.

‘I hung up.’

‘I told you to keep them on the line!’ Jim yelled. ‘We need to get these calls traced, and they have to be connected for at least a minute. Was it the KKK again?’

‘I don’t know.’

Again, she had hung up when he wanted her to engage them – even flirt – anything to keep them on the line. Ever since they’d opened Wings of Deliverance on Fifteenth Street several months before, with its half-black, half-white congregation, the calls came daily. Their former church, Community Unity, was smaller, in a poor neighborhood, but Wings of Deliverance was a proper mid-sized church with stained class and arched windows in a white neighborhood. They lived in the red brick parsonage, with more than enough room for her and Jim and Agnes, a girl they planned to adopt from a parishioner who could no longer care for her.

Usually the calls came in the middle of the night. Jim said the last caller warned they’d burn them down if Jim continued to preach to integrated congregations in their neighborhood church, but Jim wouldn’t be knuckled under. She loved that about him – his principle, his willingness to follow his beliefs, no matter what. Her minister father also embodied principle, but he’d never put his life – or his family’s – on the line for it.

It was 6:45 a.m., time for Marceline to head out to Indianapolis General to begin her shift on pediatrics. Jim was getting ready to start his ministering for the day, which would include supervising the soup kitchen, organizing volunteers who transported elderly parishioners from their homes, to an afternoon meeting in which other volunteers would help them with Social Security. Every day, fundraising gobbled more of his time.

‘Next time, get me sooner!’

While Marceline located her handbag and combed her thick, short hair, Jim went on haranguing her. As usual, she decided the best response was to ignore his unhelpful chatter and concentrate on what mattered most – to the church and to them – and focus on principle.

‘I’ll stop by the church on my way home, and we’ll settle the arrangements with Agnes’ mother.’

‘All right, Marceline. Go out in the world and save the babies.’ Arms around her waist, looking her full in the eyes, Jim kissed her on the lips then shut the door.

At work, Marceline’s mind replayed the Georgia man’s words over and over as she took vitals, assisted doctors on their rounds and worked in physical therapy with a 12-year-old accident victim who had lost his right arm and leg.

‘Honey, show me how powerful that left arm is,’ she said to the boy, Peter, who had stopped propelling his wheelchair, sobs racking his skinny frame. ‘You can do it sweetheart. I know you can..’ She bent down to kiss the wild red curls on the boy’s head. He’d been rescued from his mother’s car, which had rolled when she’d fallen asleep at the wheel, ironically after her night shift cleaning the offices at Indianapolis General. After work, Peter’s mother had first driven to her sister’s, where Peter spent most nights, wanting to see him before he left for school. They were on their way to breakfast at the Pancake House, Peter had told Marceline, for a special treat.

‘Mrs. Jones, I can’t. I just can’t.’ He cried into her arms now, the two of them blocking traffic in the corridor. Marceline hadn’t known his mother, but she felt especially close to Peter, as she often did to her patients, as if she could have been his mother. There seemed to be no division between her heart and the boy’s. Maybe she could adopt him too. Instant family.

‘C’mon. Try again, honey. Do it for me.’ She wiped the boy’s eyes and grinned. He was so sweet and so injured. She ached to make him better. ‘Do it for your grandma. She’s coming to see you this afternoon, and she’ll be so proud if you can get down the hallway by yourself.’

‘All right, Mrs. Jones.’ Peter sighed, whistling inadvertently. ‘I can do this.’

She tousled his hair again, the long curls inviting her fingers. She loved the way his hair furled back into itself, thick as forest undergrowth. ‘Of course you can. ‘

It was amazing he hadn’t been burned, like his mother, whose last act had been to shield his body from the flames.

During her lunch hour, Marceline went to the office of the state board for the welfare of indigent children, where she would get papers to make official the Jones’ status as Agnes’ foster parents. The girl’s mother, one of their poorest parishioners, had agreed it would be best for her daughter to stay with the minister and his wife. All said it would be temporary, until things improved at home, but Marceline knew Agnes would be with them always.

Two years before, when Jones met the Cliftons at their first Indianapolis church, Agnes stuttered so much that she could hardly be understood, a problem Marceline was sure stemmed from Mrs. Clifton’s nastiness. Agnes’ family was like many families the Jones ministered to in this city, white and black. Both parents worked, both parents drank. From time to time, the father disappeared on alcohol-fueled binges and would be found, days or weeks later, in another part of the city, without memory of his doings. Filled with resolve to change, he would swear off the bottle, come home, clean up, and return to work at the Lily factory. The mother took her frustrations out on the children, Agnes more than the boy, sometimes beating her, more often neglecting her as she wept into her own beer before or after a day at the uniform cleaning plant where she starched policemen’s tunics.

When Marceline had suggested fostering the girl, Jim immediately agreed. The Jones’ would live Christ’s apostolic life not only in church but at home, taking in the young and old – anyone who needed help. Within the next few years, Marceline hoped to start convalescent care for the elderly, when they had enough money to buy a building.

Marceline was surprised to enter a nearly empty waiting room, and the man she had spoken to over the phone was available to see her at once.

‘We so appreciate what you’re doing, Mrs. Jones,’ he said, ushering her into a windowless office. ‘There are so many Agneses in this city, and so few families like yours willing to take in a troubled child. Of course, there is a small stipend from the state for her expenses, as soon as we get her declared an official ward of Indiana. Not much, but it should help with groceries.’

‘Of course that will be helpful.’ Marceline’s cheeks burned. She felt embarrassed, as if they were talking about receiving money in exchange for Agnes. ‘Actually, I’d forgotten about the compensation. My husband and I have our own church now, you know, Wings of Deliverance on Fifteenth and North New Jersey, and many volunteers willing to cook meals and babysit and help in all kinds of ways.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard of it,’ said the man. ‘I’ve heard about the soup kitchen, what good food you offer.’

Marceline smiled ruefully. ‘Here we are, in a nationwide postwar boom, yet we have so many poor in a world of plenty.’

The man sighed in agreement, placing several forms in an envelope before her. ‘You’ll be adding Agnes to your other children; is that right?’

Now Marceline sighed. ‘No. We don’t have any children of our own. My husband thinks it’s selfish to procreate when there are so many kids in need. I do agree with him, though at times I think it would be nice to have my own child. Then I see kids like Agnes, and the children I work with at the hospital, and I know he’s right. We need to take care of who’s here already, not bring others into the world.’

‘I’ve heard people say that before,’ said the man, who was appraising Marceline in her nurse’s whites, ‘but it’s just talk. You a nurse and your husband a minister – you live what you preach. But there are plenty of minister couples in this city who don’t foster anything except their own bank accounts.’ He looked away, shaking his head. ‘I shouldn’t say that out loud. I apologize.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Marceline, wondering if this man himself had fostered children. On his desk was a photograph of boy twins. She wanted to ask if they were adopted but didn’t. ‘You probably see a lot of kids in dire circumstances. Like our church, I’m guessing.’

‘Well, here I am gabbing away, and you probably need to get back to the hospital.’ He stood up. ‘Thank you, Mrs. Jones. I know Agnes and her mother thank you. You’ll have her sign the forms tonight and get them back to me tomorrow? Then I’ll have your first check in the mail by the end of the month.’

Marceline stood up and shook his outstretched hand. ‘You do good work here, Mr….’ She paused to look down at the nameplate on his crowded desk. ‘Mr. Jellyby. Thank you for your help.’

When she arrived at the church that evening after her 12-hour shift, Marceline could hear Jim’s voice booming from the office behind the sanctuary. Two white couples, the Beams and the Cordells, were taking notes non-stop, and a large, blonde woman sat by Jim’s side, head bobbing perpetually in agreement.

No one looked up when Marceline opened the door. She cleared her throat.

‘Hi, honey,’ said Jim with a big smile. ‘Come sit down. We’re talking press strategy about these KKK threats. Patty thinks we can get some good publicity out of it. Sympathetic articles might bring not only more members but maybe funds from some of the liberal groups around here wanting to look good.’

The group laughed. ‘What liberal groups?’ said one of the men. They were like-minded, these six people around the table, with Jim as their leader and cheerleader, urging them to do more and better, partaking of his energy when they were too tired to continue. Jim often said he never got tired. Marceline believed him.

At the doorway, she remained standing. With the staff, she felt out of place, as if she didn’t belong in Jim’s circle of grace, despite the fact it was she and Jim who started the church. Her name was on every document. Everything they’d done together since the day of their marriage nearly seven years before was a mutual effort, and Jim insisted on calling Wings of Deliverance ‘our’ church. Yet the staff didn’t recognize her as Jim’s equal.

That’s your own fault, Marceline, she chided herself. If she were here more often, they would. But her work at the hospital was imperative to support their family and the church. That had always been their plan, mutually agreed upon. Overtime pay at Indianapolis General was especially useful, and since they’d opened their new doors, she’d worked six days a week. Consequently, she was not a fixture at Wings of Deliverance, though she never missed Sunday morning services. Sitting with the congregation, she was comfortable.

‘Has Agnes’ mom showed up yet?’ she asked Jim. Instead of joining the meeting, Marceline decided to make herself a cup of tea and wait in the sanctuary.

Jim looked at Patty. ‘Has she?’

Flustered, Patty mumbled, ‘I don’t know. We’ve been back here for a couple of hours. I haven’t heard anyone come in. What time was she supposed to get here?’

Marceline looked at her watch. ‘Fifteen minutes ago. Sorry I’m a little late. Maybe she’s running late too. You go ahead with your meeting.’

With that, all heads turned toward Jim, who immediately went back to the Klan threats, and how they might serve to build the church’s till.

In the kitchen, Marceline pondered the telephone call again and others prior to this morning. How did Jim know it really was the Klan? The Georgian hadn’t identified himself. His words were harsh, but not really a threat you could report to the police, at least Marceline didn’t think so. Jim had taken most of the other calls.

Was he sure the Klan was involved and not just some garden-variety nuts who hated black people and whites who treated blacks as equals even more?

She knew Jim still felt terrible guilt over his father’s participation in the Lynn, Indiana chapter of the men in sheets. Was it true his father was a participant and not just a sympathizer? After all, sympathizers were legion in Indiana, where the Klan was said to have its most ardent supporters, especially back in the 1920s.

Pouring herself some tea, leaving the kettle on low so she could make Mrs. Clifton a cup when she arrived, Marceline wondered why she doubted Jim’s version of history on this matter. His mother, Lynetta, had confirmed the KKK stories about her late husband. She’d said he was a bitter man after his return from the trenches in France, and that his hatred spewed everywhere – onto her and Jim, onto the blacks in Lynn and the Jews running the world’s banks, etcetera, etcetera. Marceline wished she’d been able to meet James Jones, the elder, instead of having to rely on memories of her mother-in-law and Jim. She didn’t quite trust either of them to offer the straight truth on the subject of the late Jim Jones.

Marceline took her tea into the sanctuary, seating herself in the pew nearest the door, contemplating. She and her sister had been brought up to tell the unvarnished truth; lying was the worst sort of sin, her parents repeated countless times, and she’d absorbed the lesson well. But Jim had a more practical approach to the truth, perhaps. He liked to tell stories, and whichever version of a story would get the desired result was the version he told.

For reasons she couldn’t quite articulate, Marceline didn’t want to believe that her father-in-law could have joined the KKK. Maybe he said racist things, maybe he didn’t like Jews, but actually joining the Klan and wearing a white hood? According to both Lynetta and Jim, the man wasn’t well, but surely he couldn’t have participated in cross-burnings and the lynching that had happened outside of Lynn in 1919.

The door opened, and a small woman burst in, followed by a plain girl who looked around ten, her face turned to the floor, dragging a small plaid suitcase.

‘Mrs. Jones! He’s gone off again! I left the boy with my neighbor till I get back, but I just can’t take care of Agnes no more. She’s too ornery. Doesn’t mind me and talks back. I just can’t do it.’ The woman spoke not to Marceline or to the girl but to a place above Marceline’s head.

‘Please, Mrs. Clifton, sit down. You too, Agnes. I’ve got some tea warming in the kitchen. Would you like some?’

The girl nodded, but her mother shook her head. ‘I’ve got to get back to Earl. You have papers for me to sign?’

Marceline smiled warmly at Agnes, who was actually almost 12 – her birthday next week – though she was small and slumped, straggly hair shielding her eyes. Marceline ached for the dark quiet girl who could never measure up in her mother’s eyes to her adorable tow-headed little brother.

‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’

Inside the kitchen, she nearly collided with Patty, who was pouring instant coffee for Jim with the water Marceline had left on the burner.

‘Oh, did you need this? I’m sorry,’ said the woman, her cheeks a bright pink. Marceline was sure Patty was infatuated with Jim, but it wasn’t unusual for a female staffer to develop a crush. Jim never encouraged them, and eventually, the woman calmed down. Jim said it came with the job, especially when the woman was also a parishioner he counseled.

‘That’s all right,’ Marceline said. She and Agnes would go home and have plenty of tea as well as a good dinner, which she was sure Agnes wouldn’t have eaten tonight or most nights of her lonely life.

Marceline brought the envelope to Agnes’ mother, who signed the forms with such haste and messiness that Marceline wondered if Mrs. Clifton knew how to write.

‘You mind Mrs. Jones, Agnes. Mind her better than you mind me.’ Mrs. Clifton stood up, still wrapped in her inadequate coat, and left.

‘Would you like some nice meat loaf and potatoes and carrots? I got it all ready before I left for work this morning, hoping you’d be having dinner with us tonight.’

Agnes nodded, eyes brimming. Her brown hair was unevenly cut around her shoulders, and her dress was too small.

‘We’ll have tea and cookies for dessert. Would you like that?’

The girl nodded again.

‘Let’s go then, sweetheart. I’m hungry!’

As Marceline gathered her things, Agnes finally spoke. ‘Isn’t Pastor Jones coming?’

Without turning to face her, Marceline answered, ‘Not tonight, honey. He’s working. My husband works very very hard, and sometimes he’s here quite late. So let’s you and me go and eat a yummy meal! He’ll have his later.’

She took the girl’s hand and covered it with her own gloved one, vowing to buy Agnes some mittens tomorrow. The wind battered them on the steps of Wings of Deliverance, but Marceline shielded her new daughter from the gusts, whispering into her ear, ‘Don’t worry, sweetie. We’ll take good care of you. You’re safe now.’

(Annie Dawid is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other literary work in this edition is Jonestown, Japantown. Her two book reviews are New Materials Worth Reading in New Jones Biography and Jonestown Plays Minor Role in Novel. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at annie@anniedawid.com.)

Last modified on October 28th, 2017.
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