Suburban
Gospel

A boy ponders his dad’s place in the world
against the backdrop of Atlanta’s child
murders. A book excerpt by Mark Beaver.

That autumn, Atlanta police charged Wayne Williams with the murders of two black males, and my father announced he was going to be on TV.

It was 1981; I was 13, a white kid, in a lily white suburban neighborhood of brick ranches with flower beds in the yards and bluebirds on the telephone lines — a world away from Atlanta’s city limits where in the past two years 28 people with skin darker than mine, children mostly, had been counted among the dead.

From the safe confines of our living room I’d witnessed nightly news images of helicopters hovering over parks, dogs searching wooded ravines and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. performing a benefit concert to raise money for the financially strapped police department. Through what felt like only rumors, I’d heard about the reward signs and confidential hotlines, psychic predictions and green ribbons. But Wayne Williams’ arrest meant I finally could play outside again.

The previous May, police had been staking out the Jackson Parkway Bridge when an officer heard a splash in the brown and sludgy waters of the Chattahoochee River below and spied a white station wagon disappearing into the night. Less than a mile down the road, they pulled the driver over. Williams, a 23-year-old black man, told them he was a music promoter; he said he was on his way to audition a singer named Cheryl Johnson. Though Williams claimed she lived in the nearby town of Smyrna and that their appointment had been longstanding, police found no record of any Cheryl Johnson.

Within a couple of days, two boys fishing south of the bridge found the naked body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, a homosexual prostitute and drug dealer, floating downriver. Using primarily fiber evidence gathered from Williams’ house and car, authorities would link Williams to Cater’s death, and later to Jimmy Ray Payne’s, 21 — both of whom had been labeled “retarded” and were thereby perceived as children, which meant they qualified as victims of the Atlanta child murders. Williams was now behind bars, awaiting trial. It was November.

Even in the dim wattage of my eighth-grade brain, I found it strange that a music promoter who lived with his parents in Dixie Hills and a non-existent woman named Cheryl Johnson, a singer with no voice, somehow could manage to gain more fame and notoriety than anyone I personally knew. But tonight, at 11 o’clock, my father would be changing all that.

When Dad told us he’d be on the late news, Mom and I knew the murders and Dad’s appearance held no relation. But he was secretive about exactly why he was newsworthy. What was the story? Unless they turned violent, unless they’d gone postal, postmen did not appear on the evening news.

Still, I imagined whatever acts of heroism a boy raised on “Starsky and Hutch,” “Six Million Dollar Man,” “Kung Fu” and Biblical miracles could conjure. I pictured Dad coming upon a house afire on his route, dropping his burlap mail sack to the sidewalk and sprinting through a blazing door to rescue a baby from rising flames. I saw him wrestling a thief to the ground. I envisioned him pulling a woman from the wreckage of her car right before it exploded. For a few fleeting moments I reveled in the possibility that Dad had performed some variety of miracle, too — maybe even something on the Biblical scale — and that tomorrow everyone at school would know about it, and by association mine would be the name on everyone’s tongue.

But when asked which of these scenarios involved him, Dad was not forthcoming. He seemed to relish the suspense. That night, standing in our kitchen in his standard issue uniform, he only grinned and propped his fists on his hips and stood with his shoes wide apart. “You’ll just have to wait to find out,” he said. “Thousands of people across the whole state of Georgia are gonna see me. I’m gonna steal the show from Mister Wayne Williams.”

Dad was 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, with broad shoulders and hands big as catcher’s mitts, but on this particular evening he seemed to assume even greater dimensions. His body seemed too big to be contained by the tight walls and low ceilings of our brick ranch on King Arthur Drive. He projected an aura of confidence suggesting he had long been expecting this crowning moment to arrive, and now history was merely unfolding in the manner it had always been fated to occur. He had that look in his eyes possessed by all people convinced their lives are about to experience a seismic shift in importance.

He crossed the den and patted our 19-inch Samsung black-and-white on its plastic side panel and fine-tuned its rabbit ears. “It’s a school night,” he told me — and for a moment my heart sank at the possibility of missing my dad’s burst into fame. Then he grinned teasingly, and gave me a big slow wink. “But I reckon you can stay up and watch.”

Cobb County police and the Atlanta Task Force recover Nathaniel Cater's body from the Chattahoochee River on May 24, 1981.

About my father: Despite his conviction that tonight would mark the turning point in his life’s story, he was not destined for notoriety. Instead his upbringing portended absolute anonymity. He was raised hardscrabble on a hundred acres of red Georgia clay during the Depression, the youngest of three boys who stuffed rags inside mittens to make boxing gloves, and then proceeded to beat each other senseless. There was a fourth child, too — the baby, a girl named Lucille — who completed the blurry family portrait that sat atop the upright piano in their living room for many years: the boys in overalls, the girl in a frilly dress, shoulder-to-shoulder, oldest to youngest, like steps in a staircase.

Dad’s first employment was cutting pulp in a sawmill, a mere boy grunting alongside grown men missing appendages — fingers, hands, or even entire arms — so he likely felt more than slight relief when the U.S. Army drafted him — even though Uncle Sam promptly sent him to Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training before shipping him much farther: Korea.

It was there, in a strange and ominous land, he took up cigarettes, crouched in frozen foxholes and became a Master Sergeant at age 22. Somewhere there is a picture of him in his uniform, all cornpone and teeth. He looks as though he is incapable of seeing anything beyond the camera’s eye and the next 15 seconds of his life.

Of his experience in Korea, Dad told only one story for posterity. He claimed that during the war, he once crawled miles with a dagger in his side. He never told how, exactly, the dagger had ended up piercing his body, or toward where, specifically, he was crawling. There was no context; the story’s only image was a man bellydragging through arctic tundra on the other side of the world, a dagger protruding from his abdomen, blood trailing in his wake. Bright red against the stark whiteness of the snow. The number of miles he crawled always changed with the telling. Usually he claimed to have wriggled two or three miles, but sometimes the number inflated to preposterous distances, 11 miles, 13 miles, and on one occasion I distinctly remember Dad claiming to cover 20 miles of snow-blasted terrain with a dagger in his side.

The story was of course apocryphal — though Dad, with a high school diploma so tentative that it was practically on loan, wouldn’t have possessed the vocabulary to call it such. He was missing any semblance of a scar. His gut bore no sign of violence. It seems significant to me that the only narrative he ever told about his war experiences was complete and utter bunk. But it is a testament to Dad’s fundamental pluck, grit and spine that my age was into double digits before I ever doubted the veracity of his claim.

And in truth, it is quite possible that on the night I’m speaking of — the night toward which Dad believed his life had always been heading — I believed it, still.

Although Dad could hardly be called ambitious, he must have harbored dreams that he believed lay beyond the shadows of the north Georgia mountains, dreams informed by what he now had witnessed. It would be hard to keep the boy down on the farm when he’d drunk Japanese sake. So when he finally made it home safely from war, he hugged his mama and then promptly kissed her goodbye again. After spending so much time in that forsaken Asian countryside, unsure whether it would be the last setting his eyes ever beheld, he decided that Fannin County in north Georgia was too small for his vision of things. He picked the cockleburs from his overalls and headed to Atlanta.

He got hired on at Sears and Roebuck on Ponce de Leon where he stocked inventory and met a fellow employee from the Cabbagetown neighborhood named Norma Fay who would become his wife and, eventually, my mother. He proposed thusly: “I’m thinking we oughta get married.” She waited to hear what came next, but he’d clearly said all he had to say. “Well,” she finally told him “I’m thinking we should too.” They married before the justice of the peace, on a date nobody knows, in a ceremony likely quicker than getting a driver’s license. No photographer, best man or cake. Only a couple of signatures on the paperwork to make it all legal.

And the timeline here has always been cloudy and suspicious, but suffice it to say that the Beaver clan met his new bride and firstborn son, my big brother David — whom Dad named after the Old Testament king — on the same evening. Now officially a family man, he started taking his to worship services at a Baptist church. He got saved. He quit cigarettes, cold turkey, when a church member complained of their smell. He hung a sign in the living room that read: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Then one night, while he and Mom were still employees of Sears and Roebuck, Dad attended a union meeting — just out of curiosity, he said — but when he showed up for work the next morning they gave him a pink slip. He vowed never to purchase a solitary item from Sears for the rest of his life. Unemployed, with a wife and child depending on him, he studied for the civil service exam and, buoyed by his wife’s fervent and desperate prayers, scored high enough to merit an offer from the post office.

Dad never called himself a postman. He told people he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His preferred term held authority. Rain, sleet, snow and dark of night, a man who worked for the U.S. Postal Service delivered the mail. He drove a truck through all Atlanta’s one-way streets and then let his shoe leather take him where his truck couldn’t go. The rest of us depended upon him to do his job. Doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs could not go about their business unless employees of the U.S. Postal Service took care of theirs.

Watching the eleven o’clock news meant Dad was staying up long past his own bedtime, which also meant that since nine o’clock he had been intermittently dozing off. “Four-thirty comes early,” he was fond of saying, and when he woke the next morning he would be following his usual routine, devouring two fried eggs and a plate of grits, downing a cup of coffee with cream — “just enough to turn the color” — while he watched some obscure preacher on the religious channel or studied his upcoming Sunday school lesson; then he would polish his shoes to a glossy spit-shine, scrub his dentures and spend a good five minutes combing his wavy hair and admiring his reflection in the mirror.

A view of Atlanta in the 1950s, looking toward Cabbagetown (upper left center). AJC file.

As the night moved slow, slow toward eleven o’clock, I woke him every 20 minutes or so. “I’m just resting my eyes,” he responded whenever I nudged him. Finally, it was now time for the news.

As it had been for months, the lead story that night was Wayne Williams. There must have been other stories, too — apartment fires, maybe, or bank robberies. Local politics, or traffic accidents. And of course the requisite weather and sports. But the ongoing run-up to Wayne Williams’ trial is all I remember from that night’s edition. Though Williams had been charged with the first-degree murders of only two men, all deaths officially associated with the Atlanta child murders had ceased with his arrest. The prosecution was still reviewing evidence for the trial that would commence next winter, in early 1982. Jury selection would likely begin in December. But the fact that new information was scarce did not stop the newscasts from focusing on the upcoming trial.

The 30-minute show moved toward its conclusion. The clock hanging in the den now read 11:25. In five minutes everything would be over. But there had been no story about Dad. The news anchors told viewers they’d be right back after a commercial break. I don’t recall which advertisers filled the commercials during that break, but I do remember spending that time in a panic, fretting the possibility that though Dad had performed some heroic feat, pulled off a miracle, WSB TV Channel 2 had chosen to cut it, because in comparison with child murders and vehicle recalls it was unimportant, routine, expendable. No one cared.

As the commercials ran, I found myself thinking about Cheryl Johnson, the singer whom Wayne Williams said he planned to audition the night he was arrested. Williams had claimed that Johnson gave him her phone number and address; that he drove around nearby Smyrna looking for Spanish Trace Apartments but found nothing; that he had stopped at a liquor store and called her number but it was busy. He claimed that he had called her again later, but no one answered; and a third time, when someone picked up the phone but told him he had the wrong number. Months had passed since the night of Williams’ arrest, and still Cheryl Johnson was missing. Dad would have stamped her ‘Addressee Unknown.’ I was 13, and not prone to recognizing irony in my textbooks, much less in the world around me — but it did not escape me that Cheryl Johnson, who did not exist, was more famous than my postman father. By all appearances, this fact was not going to change.

When the newscast resumed, the two anchors engaged in a little banter. They thanked viewers for watching, bid us goodnight and signed off. The closing credits began to roll. A brisk and perky tune started playing. The names of the producers, the reporters, the writers and the camera operators began to fill the screen. Still nothing about Dad.

On the screen, in the background behind the names, images of everyday Atlantans began flashing by. Little clips of footage, three to five seconds long. In each the subject is waving at the viewer. There’s a child, maybe 3- or 4 years old, sprinkling her fingers as she careens down a playground slide toward you. The next shot is a man exiting a barbershop with a fresh buzz cut. Then comes a waitress on her cigarette break; two gray-headed men playing checkers in a park; a MARTA bus driver squeezing the steering wheel; two boys, their arms slung around each other’s shoulders. Still another is clearly a homeless man, his grin a gaping hole of missing teeth. He waves clumsily at the camera as though swatting flies.

And then, just as the signoff is complete and another commercial break is about to begin, there is my father. He’s wearing his postal uniform. He’s smiling and waving at the camera with those hands that years ago ripped the husks from a million ears of corn and squeezed the udders of as many milking cows. On his right hand he’s wearing a rubber thumb sleeve that, now, helps him sort through a million pieces of junk mail.

I glanced at the real thing — at Dad, flesh, blood and bone, watching with me. I expected him to be slumping in his seat, as disappointed as I was. I expected this turn of events to show him how little his life had added up to.

But he was sitting on the edge of his recliner in his brown brick on King Arthur Drive, star-struck. His face was bathed in the glow of the TV screen; his eyes blazed with glory. Instead of lamenting how far he had to go, how much distance still lay between him and wherever he was headed, he seemed to be celebrating how close he had already come to that nameless destination — how many snow-laden miles he’d already crawled with that dagger in his side.

WSB Channel 2 News was ending their broadcast with clips of stray Atlantans waving goodbye, and one of them was a postman, a burlap strap over his shoulder, the sunlight spotlighting his full head of wavy hair, as though he’s on stage cleaning up the set after everyone else has gone home but nevertheless occupying — for three seconds, maybe four — the center of the universe. He is a man who in this moment believes for all the world that he’s witnessing the birth of his very own star.

This excerpt from “Suburban Gospel” by Mark Beaver is reprinted with permission from Gulf Coast magazine and Hub City Press.

A 1981 photo of the park where Williams and Cater were seen by witnesses. Bench in background may be where they sat. W.A. Bridges Jr./AJC


About the story

This excerpt from Mark Beaver’s new memoir “Suburban Gospel” takes place during a dark time in Atlanta’s history when African-American children were turning up dead in creeks and gullies around the city. But the focus of this tale falls squarely on Mark’s jovial dad, a postman with an inflated sense of self who loomed large over his son’s childhood.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


About the author

Mark Beaver has been published in numerous journals and magazines, including Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Ninth Letter, Tampa Review, Story South, Louisville Review, Third Coast, Fugue, Southeast Review and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of UNC-Greensboro’s MFA program and lives with his wife and daughters in his native Atlanta.