Chapter One: Going Postal
God was great. He blessed the good people and He punished the bad. Everything was right or wrong, black or white, you either went to heaven when you died, or you were thrown into hell. Life was a rewarding, happy experience if you just followed ten easy rules you couldn’t ever imagine breaking anyway. Or so I once believed.
Growing up in a series of quaint Southern towns, with a pit stop in the even quainter Midwest, my Sunday School version of who God was and how He exercised perfect control of the world solidified my faith well before my adolescence. After all, I was one of the good people and blessed many times over as a child. God saw to it that nothing bad ever happened to me because I was so good. I was loved and nurtured every day of my life. Some people might have even called me spoiled.
My mother died when I was a little girl. At that young age, it was hard for me to understand, but I was told many times over that she was in heaven now with God and all His angels, happy to be free from the cancerous sickness and pain that had made her so sad in the end here with Daddy and me. It made me wonder why anyone was upset at all that she’d died. There was no reason to grieve if that was the case and my doting father made sure life went on for me without her just as richly blessed as before.
How could you not love God? All the church youth groups, Bible studies, and various denominational Sunday services we attended only made it more obvious to me. God was the one I could always turn to when I had a problem. He was always there for me. He made everything right. All you had to do was believe He would. Or so I once thought.
Maybe I would still think so if it wasn’t my daddy lying there in that closed casket at the front of this church.
Granted, while in college, I drifted away from my steadfast faith once or twice. A break-up with a boyfriend always tested my beliefs. The old age passing of the family dog kind of shook things up. Then there was that difficult math class I thought I was going to fail. I would stay up nights praying to pass it and just barely did with a D.
It was hard for me then to keep looking at the world as a Godly, benevolent place. Things went wrong whether you were a good person or not.
But, nothing had ever gone as wrong as this. Getting a phone call in the middle of the day from that Georgia police department had completely turned my world and my faith upside down. In a matter of minutes, I knew life for me would never be the same and God wasn’t about to fix this. What was done, was done and I was just going to have to deal.
Looking back on my very blessed life now, it occurred to me that maybe it hadn’t been God’s doing at all. That, in fact, I grew up blessed because of my father. After all, he was the one who saw to my needs. He was the one who loved and cherished me and gave me everything I could ever want in life. He was always there for me no matter what. He was the person who made me who I was--God didn’t really have much to do with it. Who was God anyway?
Obviously, it didn’t matter if you were good or bad or followed or broke rules, and no matter how much you believed He could make things right, in the end He didn’t because it wasn’t His will, or some such nonsense. Why did I bother believing in Him at all if He couldn’t see fit to fix this one thing for me?
So I was alone now. For the first time in my life, there was no one I could look to. No one left who loved me or cared about me. If I still believed, at least I’d have God to turn to, but I just didn’t believe that anymore. In one summer afternoon, I had lost my father and God. I was here today mourning the loss of the one who mattered to me most.
“Harlan Cotton was a fine man,” the Reverend Eli Fowler of the First Presbyterian Church in Bankeville, Georgia, declared in a dramatic and somber tone. “And he will be sorely missed.” He bowed his head a moment as if to punctuate his statement, then once more raised his eyes to the gathered mourners before him. He shook his head. “It’s not for us to make sense of this terrible tragedy. We can only look to God, to His infinite wisdom, to show us the way. Now is the time to turn to Him and rely on His mercy to help us cope with, not only the personal loss of such an upstanding, God-fearing member of our little church, but also, the loss of a hardworking, charitable citizen of our community…and remember, of course, the loss of one loving, doting father to Miss Mya Cotton , his daughter.”
I looked up from the notebook paper pages my eulogy was written on. Somewhat embarrassed, I realized I hadn’t been paying close attention to the reverend. I had been too engrossed in studying what I had written with a critical eye. I wanted it to be perfect after all. My father deserved it. I took a deep breath to steady myself, thinking the reverend had finally finished, and was now summoning me to the pulpit to speak. Just as I began to rise, however, the reverend continued on. I half-slumped back into the pew, hoping people around me hadn’t noticed my miscue.
Another twenty minutes passed as the reverend prattled on about God’s goodness and wisdom. Perspiration trickled down the side of my face. I peeled my thighs one at a time off the sticky over-varnished wood I was sitting on and discreetly fanned myself with my papers.
“God has a plan,” the reverend droned on. “It’s not for us to question His ways. We just have to trust His loving kindness and rely on our faith to see us through.”
Listening to this, I was suddenly aware of how tight my jaw was clenched. I wasn’t the least bit comforted by the reverend’s words. Instead, deep down inside me an anger simmered. What I was hearing was making my blood boil more than the sweltering heat inside the church ever could. I had to wonder if he even knew what he was talking about.
Before my emotions ran amok on me, the reverend gestured my way.
“And now, Harlan’s daughter, Mya, would like to say a few words of remembrance.” He cleared his throat and stepped away from the pulpit to make room for me.
Somewhat startled, I shot to my feet. My skirt was sticking to the backs of my legs so I took a moment to smooth the fabric. A rivulet of sweat tickled my forehead, but I knew if I wiped at it, I’d mat my bangs even more than they already were.
I reached the pulpit and quickly scanned my notes for a last minute cram-session. My throat tightened for an instant, but I forced myself to calm down. I longed to do this right. My father deserved a proper remembrance. I had wonderful anecdotes to share and needed to paint a portrait of the great man I knew him to be.
The reverend leaned towards me. “I know how hard this must be for you, but be strong now. Look to the Lord. Don’t try to understand.” He nodded like he was trying to reassure me and stepped back again.
I sighed and stared at my notes for a few long moments, unable to focus on the words I’d written. The good reverend was right about one thing. I didn’t understand any of this. I cleared my throat. I could barely read what I‘d written, but I had to try.
“My father was everything wonderful the reverend said,” I began reading, feeling unsteady. “He was a hardworking, upstanding pillar of the community. He…was looking forward to retiring in a month and a half, you know. He worked for the United States Postal Service for forty-six years.” I tried to smile. “Yeah. Forty-six years. Most of them, right here. I think because he loved this little town. He was a member of the City Council for eight years and a member of the School Board for three. He chaired the board of the Fundraising Committee and regularly organized and attended all the town’s charity functions
to raise money for community projects. He owned a modest little house on Walker Street
with a well-kept yard that got featured more than once as a summer showplace in the newspaper‘s local pages.” I paused and took a breath. “He was, simply put, a good man.”
I stopped again, my heart suddenly racing. Violent, heart wrenching images bullied their way into my mind. I closed my eyes against them and murmured on.
“He was the kind of man his neighbors relied on in times of trouble…” The words before me simply faded away in a haze of raw emotion. “…Then, one afternoon, a very disturbed individual walked into the post office where my father, Harlan Cotton, was working, and that person…opened fire--with I was told, a rusty old Winchester rifle that took three chamber cocks to work. Well, that afternoon, Harlan Cotton, pillar of the community which he lovingly served, became a statistic.” I paused again, overwhelmed, and suddenly remembered the pages of notes in my hands. I tried to find my place, but turned away from them again a moment later to address the mourners in the pews.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. I refuse to let him be reduced to a statistic. He was such an incredible person. You really don’t know how great a dad he was. So, I’d like to take y’all with me on a little trip down memory lane to remember and honor my father for the man he…was.”
Tears welled in my eyes. I swiped at them with the back of my hand. I tried to compose myself, but my anger had such a tight hold of me, I was lost to it.
The reverend stepped forward again. He gently touched my shoulder and gave me a consoling look. “God bless you, Miss Mya, and grant you peace in these trying times,” he told me.
That did it. With an incredulous look, I faced the reverend. I realized what it was about him that was grating on me from the moment we met. There was something mechanical about him. It was something in his words and his gestures. For all I knew, he could have been programmed for funerals to console the grieving. It was all so wrong feeling. This whole scenario was wrong, I thought, and something inside me just snapped.
“God bless me?” I sputtered with open indignation. “You’re kidding, right?”
The mourners collectively gasped. I gaped in disbelief at their pinched faces.
“Mya,” the reverend said solemnly. His face was ashen and his tone rang with a strange kind of warning, along the lines of ‘how dare you screw up my funeral.’
I waved him off. “No! Don’t you dare!” I was shaking with anger now, way beyond the point of being consoled. “I just have to ask why God would turn around and bless me…after what He did to me the day my father was murdered. He didn’t see fit to bless me then--when I needed it the most! No! God, in all His infinite wisdom and mercy, took from me the only family I had in the most vile, senseless, heartless way.”
My eyes stung with tears and my chest heaved in pain with every breath. My knees were all but rattling, I was shaking so badly. I had to grab hold of the pulpit to steady myself. I was more than aware of the reverend’s astonished presence behind me. His audacity to even feel astonished made me want to go for his throat. I whirled around and directed my wrath fully upon him now.
“You know what? Screw you! You think you know God, that you know what He’s like, but you don’t. You haven’t seen God’s handiwork, but I have. I’ve seen His face. I’ve seen the stuff He’s really made of. And it disgusts me!” I paused and flung my arm at the oak casket in front of the altar. “This was His miserable doing. He could have spared my father that day, with all His loving mercy and shit, but He chose not to. Why? Because in truth, He’s a heartless bastard. God the almighty, is nothing but a cruel, selfish, sadist who doesn’t love anybody. If anything, He just plays with people--like so many chess pieces--if He pays any attention to them at all. What a useless sonofabitch God is if He can’t even stop some madman from blowing my father’s head off!”
I stopped and took a deep breath, and realized how exhausted I had become. I couldn’t go on anymore. I couldn’t take anymore of anything.
The people in the pews responded to my ranting with a stunned silence. The equally shocked reverend stared back at me with wide saucer-shaped eyes. He shook his head.
“You’re wrong, Miss Mya,” he whispered over and over as if in a trance. His programming had clearly gone awry.
I shook my head back at him. I felt as if I was suddenly being smothered. I had to get out of that sweltering church before I suffocated. Thick tears flooded my eyes, finally ruining what was left of my make-up, but I was too beyond numb to care. I managed to stumble away from the pulpit, and then made a beeline for the center aisle, flinging my notes into the air, and fixing my eyes on the exit doors.
“Mya!” the reverend called after me. “Don’t do this! You’ll regret this for the rest of your life if you do!”
“I’m already full of regret!” I snapped back, seething, just before opening the heavy double doors. “I regret ever trusting someone I love to God’s care. I regret going to church all those Sundays and all the breath I wasted praying every night to that sleaze. If I go to hell for believing that, well, that’s fine with me ‘cause I’d rather be in hell than have to be in heaven with a God I hate!”
The reverend looked somewhat bewildered now. It was as if could not understand how anyone could think like that. Let alone speak it in a church.
“Your daddy’s in heaven though,” he said in a soft voice. “I know he is.”
That bit of sincere tenderness seized my flailing heart and hurt me worse than any fire and brimstone he could have slung at me. I knew I’d hear those words echo in my mind until the day I died. For a moment, my anger faltered and my pain took hold. I was hurting bad, feeling more alone than I’d ever felt before in my entire life. I had no one now. Not Daddy. Not even God.
Summoning the very last ounce of my strength and resolve, I yanked open the doors and dashed outside into the thick heat of the midday. I didn’t start bawling in earnest until I reached the limousine. I didn’t even give the driver a chance to open the door for me. I threw myself inside and pounded on the black tinted window inside.
“Take me home!” I pleaded to the startled driver. “Just take me home.”
I didn’t want to watch them put Daddy into the ground. I didn’t want to be at his funeral anymore. I just wanted to go home and hide. Never come out. Never talk to anyone again. Never even see the light of day, if I could.
“Yes Ma’am,” the driver replied and started the car up, sealing the window between us and cranking up the air.
In my solitude, I sobbed uncontrollably into my hands, quivering with rage and pain and a newfound loathing. Then, quite simply, I cried myself to sleep.