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Authors: Jeff Fields

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A Cry of Angels

BOOK: A Cry of Angels
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Copyright Information
ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-3863-7
Copyright information from physical edition of book:
Paperback edition published in 2006 by
The University of Georgia Press
Athens, Georgia 30602
© 1974 by Jeff fields
Foreword © 2006 by The University of Georgia Press
All rights reserved
Printed and bound by Maple-Vail
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines
for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.
Printed in the United States of America
10 09 08 07 06 P 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fields, Jeff.
A cry of angels : a novel / by Jeff Fields ; foreword by Terry Kay.
p.  cm.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-2848-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-8203-2848-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Orphans — Fiction. 2. Georgia — Fiction.
3. Aunts — Fiction. I. Title.
PS3556.I38   C79   2006
813'.54 — dc22   2006008022
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available
Originally published in 1974 by Atheneum.
Cover photos: Above: View of the Chattahoochee River by Madeline Saluzzi, © Car photo and cover design by Lou Robinson.

To Pat and Jennifer,

who took the journey with me


The publication of this book was made possible in part by a generous donation from Mrs. Robert Middleton Heard, in memory of her husband.


Copyright Information

Dedication and Acknowledgments








When Jeff Fields was fourteen, nudging against fifteen, he left his home and moved into a boardinghouse in Elberton, Georgia. To provide for his needs, he took a job at the Elbert Theatre, first as usher, then as projectionist. It was a watch-and-be-wary, learn-on-the-go lifestyle.

Thus, it is not a great surprise that his novel,
A Cry of Angels
, first published in 1974 by Atheneum, features a young man named Earl Whitaker, a fourteen-year-old orphan living in a boardinghouse operated by his great-aunt Esther.

By his own confession, writing the book was, for Fields, a "correcting," a way of creating the illusion of joy that he had missed in his own life. As Jeff Fields, he had had to survive the uncertainty of day-by-day existence essentially alone; as Earl Whitaker, he was embraced by a company of quaint yet caring people, an unexpected, gathered-up family offering membership and protection.

In his correcting, Fields wrote a remarkable book, a compelling coming-of-age experience peopled with distinctively individual characters: the great Indian Em Jojohn; the young black man Tio; the inspired Jayell Crooms; the evil Doc Bobo; and a host of others, each as vivid as a colorful stroke in a mesmerizing painting.

And there is this: the period is the midfifties, one of the most significant in the history of America—post-World War II, predesegregation, lightning-like changes in technology, migrations from farm to town, town to city. There was, in that time, a lingering of what had been—some of it fiercely defended—and a tease of what could be. I find all of those elements in
A Cry of Angels
, both in action and in mood. As such, it is an important biography of many generations, reaching backward and forward.

Still, none of this would matter if the writing did not soar on wings of poetic language. It does, in dialogue and in narrative. Some of the scenes are so poignant they leave the telltale tracks of chill bumps and beg for immediate rereading.

It has been more than thirty years since
A Cry of Angels
was first published, yet there have always been admirers eager to pit its literary merits against anything with a Southern setting offered during succeeding years. I am one of those people. Over time, I've purchased a number of copies of
from the bookshelves of antique stores and flea markets. They've all had the same appearance—well handled, a little tattered, passages pencil-marked, pages dog-eared—and I know they've been read with passion. I am certain this new edition offered by the University of Georgia Press will receive the same treatment, and for a good reason: when Jeff Fields set about "correcting" his childhood, he created a family all of us would gladly celebrate.

Terry Kay

Athens, Georgia


The storm broke and thrashed along the river in the summer darkness, with water slanting, leaves flying, trees bent and writhing in the wind.

Beyond the metal crying of Dirsey's beer sign, wrenching violently on its pole, behind the rattling windows of the rough board and tarpaper building crouched at the mouth of Twig Creek, work-stained men in clay-crusted brogans stood silently in the yellow light and watched the drunken Indian dance in the circle of beer bottles on the floor.

Round and round he circled and swayed, a seven-foot giant in khaki clothes, his long hair brushing the flypaper coil, arms outstretched, heavy boots squeaking the boards.

Lightning slashed across the late August sky, tree branches sprayed the roof.

The Indian was aloft, soaring now, moving slowly to the rhythm within him, mumbling his wordless chant.

"Unh-huh . . . unh-huh . . . unh-huh."

He was finally home, after four months of his legendary rambling trips on the road. With considerable reluctance my great-aunt had sent me to guide him back to the boardinghouse. Normally Miss Esther forbade me to go anywhere near Dirsey's place, but when word had come after supper that the Indian was back in town, she sighed and nodded acquiescence: "Better for the boy to lead him out of Dirsey's tonight than for me to have to pay him out of jail in the morning."

A man at the bar started to sway and clap. The farmers and quarry hands began to take it up, dirty overalls and rock-dusted caps swaying back and forth tauntingly in the light.

"Unh-huh . . . unh-huh . . . unh-huh."

Jutting black bands of hair shrouding his eyes, the Indian clamped his felt hat on tight. Head tilted back, he stared glassy-eyed through half-closed lids. The great body bounced and dipped, rolls of fat bobbing in the Sam Browne belt he had taken off a cop in Memphis.

"Hallelujah!" someone shouted, and they were all laughing and clapping. They slid out of booths and off stools and everyone crowded around. One dared another to touch him.

"Leave him alone," ordered Dirsey. "He pays his way. Stand clear and leave him alone."

I crawled up on a stool at the end of the bar to see over the heads of the men, straining through the smoke and dimness for his eyes. They were still glazed. Full of pain. And danger.

Suddenly he scooped the twelfth bottle of beer off the bar and turned it up, chugalugging, the frosty liquid foaming between his great thick lips. He bent over and set the empty down with the others, completing the circle on the floor. The monotonous chant was beginning to die. I knew now it wouldn't be long.


He was rigid, staring frozen-eyed from a puffed red face. I jumped down and took cover behind the bar.


With a savage kick a bottle went skidding under the booths. A startled farmer jerked up his feet.

"Aiiiyah! Aiiiyah! Aiiiyah!"

One by one in rapid succession the other bottles went spinning away, over the ducking heads, off the walls, rapping against table legs and spinning little jets of foam across the floor. The men were laughing and jumping in mock fright, climbing the bar, jostling one another.

A bottle struck a burly ledgehand across the head and the others cackled with glee. Goaded by the laughter and pointing fingers, he stepped forward to protest.

The Indian seized him and hurled him into the wall, and returned to his ferocious, kicking dance.

Dirsey leaned a fist on his hip and shook his head.

When the last bottle was gone, the Indian stopped. The ledgehand was crawling to his feet. The Indian looked down on him. Waiting. The man feigned grogginess and sank into a chair, scowling, salvaging pride.

The Indian stood sweating, gathering his breath. I crawled out from behind the bar and moved slowly through the crowd toward him, watching his face darken with recognition as I came. His face was a mask of rage looking down on me from near the ceiling.

"Em, it's time to go now," I said gently.

He didn't move. He stood staring down at me, the hatred hot in his face.

"Come on . . . come on." I reached out and touched his arm and felt the muscles, knotted steel, quiver beneath his sleeve. He shook me off, fury dancing in his eyes.

"Better git that kid away from him!" someone said.

"Shhh," said Dirsey, "shhh . . ."

"It's all right, Em," I said. "You're home."

Abruptly he jerked away and shoved through the crowd.

Dirsey stood at the cash register, smiling, jingling the change in his pockets. The Indian dug in his pockets and emptied all the money he had on the counter, then turned briefly to the crowd that stood grinning back at him.

He watched them a moment, his eyes flitting from face to face, then, with a shiver of disgust, he turned and lunged out the door and stumbled away through the rain.


"Earrr'uhl . . . Earrr'uhl . . ."

The voice sang softly in my ear, wafting on the scent of Tube Rose snuff. It was Farette, the boardinghouse cook, waking me up.

"Aw, Farette, no . . . please."

"I got a dipper of cold water," came the voice coaxingly. "You set up and drink it, it'll wake you up. You lay dere, and I'll po' it down yo' back. Dat'll wake you up too . . ."

I pulled the pillow around me. "I was up late, Farette, I had to bring . . ."

"I was up late myself! I don't need no excuses. What I need is you outa dat bed and wakin' folks up."

It was no use. I threw off the pillow and sat up. "
he is . . . !" Farette stood beaming, a wiry little black woman with an assortment of pigtails laced across her skull.

She handed me the dipper. "Now hurry and go get 'em up, and don't forget about the new boarder." She closed the door.

The new boarder! The schoolteacher! I jumped out of bed and climbed hurriedly into my clothes.

Like everybody else in the boardinghouse, I had been aching to meet the girl who had come to marry Jayell Crooms. She had arrived the night before to begin her stay with us until Jayell could get them a house built, which was to him as important a prerequisite to a proper marriage as the wedding ceremony, if not more so.

All we knew about her was her name, Gwen Burns, that she and Jayell had met that summer while he was on the campus of the girls' college she went to in Atlanta, designing a small art center, and that she had already been hired to teach at Quarrytown High.

All the boarders were puzzled by the abruptness of Jayell's engagement, coming so quickly as it had on the heels of his broken romance with Phaedra Boggs. Jayell and Phaedra had courted for two violent years before they called a halt, and now, a mere three months after the end of that tempestuous affair, old Jayell was committed to another girl.

One of the boarders, Mrs. Metcalf, an incurable romantic, said there was no accounting for true love, it just blooms, and two people can know at first glance that they are right for each other and nobody else. It had happened that way with her and her late husband. At a house party given by a mutual friend, they had met one morning on the path to the privy, and he had tipped his hat and allowed her to precede him, and she knew in that moment that that man was made for her!

Miss Esther, more practical, said Jayell was just on the rebound from his breakup with Phaedra Boggs. It was as simple as that. Why else would he have taken the commission to design that art center in the first place? Despite his wild reputation he was still known as one of the most brilliant young architects in the state, and his services were constantly in demand, but none of the previous offers had lured him out of town, had they? No, sir, he was just so tore up over the Boggs thing he had to get away for a while, and when he got there he was ready for the first skirt that swished at him.

BOOK: A Cry of Angels
3.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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