I promised you an excerpt!
There are times in my life where I have wondered if I was truly brave or incredibly stupid. This was one of those times. The stale, musty air in the general store- that also functioned as a part time soda fountain-was given a swift kick, sending floating dust mites into a tornado as the door opened letting in yet, another Clearwater Springs native. The warm draft moved across my face causing another bead of sweat to join the rest that gathered underneath my hair, underneath my arms, and between every crevice in my body. But I did my best to look as comfortable as I did not feel. My feet were crossed at the ankles, one hand on top of the other to hide any hints of emotion, and I leaned my body half way across the soda fountain counter to appear detached. It was too much to ask for this small town to have stools.
The slamming of a glass of beer against the counter and a loud belch almost had me jumping out of my skin.
“Now son, you ain’t seen no good lynching in Georgia. Not like the one we had here last week,” the man, Tom, said loudly, accruing the agreements and nods from all the men around him. Tom was an interesting fellow. He had a decent sized plot of land, a nice looking wife, a boy and a girl, but it appeared he needed the blessings of his fellow man to be happy. Noted. I mentally wrote this down.
I had found that the key to being a good investigative journalist was to act indifferent around people who liked to talk. The less you seemed to care, the more they wanted to make you care. But according to the social mores of the area, it was now my turn to talk.
“I assure you as a Georgian, I have seen bigger and better,” I drawled and studied the dripping wet glass of Coke that stood in front of me on the counter waiting to be drunk. It was not going to happen. Mother would say it was a sin to waste such a luxury, but mother had not heard stories like this told with such relish. Each swallow brought a stomach cramp, the likes of which compared only to the time in which I had eaten a bad steak. Not an experience I wanted to go through again.
“I’m telling you Rudy, Georgia ain’t got nothing on Tennessee. See in Georgia, you got too many uppity Negros running around causing a ruckus. Why the things they do there would never be allowed here. That’s what started it all,” my new friend Tom said leaning against the counter of the store. The rest of the white men hanging around nodded in agreement. If it was one thing I had learned about this town, there was very little dissension.
“I do not know what you are talking about, I have never let none of them get uppity with me,” I said. “No one in my family would allow such a thing.” I shook my head and looked down to hide the anger and disgust I had with them and not with these so called uppity Negroes. My hand clenched into a fist, turning even paler. I inhaled and released it. I was certainly not here to start a fight, and even if I did start a fight I would lose. Plain and simple. God had built me for many things, fighting was not one of them.
“You might be from a good town, but I’m telling you I visited my cousin Little John, ya’ll remember Little John. Him from Atlanta and boy I tell you them Negros down there bout near run the place.”
“They don’t run Clearwater Springs, Tennessee!” Judd interjected. I rolled my eyes. A bigger idiot I had not met. He was the man I had encountered first when I arrived in Clearwater Springs. He had some cotton land he had been trying to sell me since I stepped off the train. It was true. I had grown up in Georgia, but nowhere near a cotton farm or plantation or whatever the things were called. Fortunately for me, Judd did not notice my ignorance. Or plain did not care so long as I showed interest in buying his land. And since I came down to Tennessee solely to find out why Ben Carter was murdered so savagely, that was unlikely to happen.
“Why the one we just killed had laid his hands on a white man,” Bill said continuing Tom’s story. I looked at Bill and took his measure: small size, small eyes, small ears. And that was saying something since I would never get an award for height. He was probably king only in his own castle, and a peon in the rest of the world.
“How come he did that?” I shrugged to emphasize that there were more important things to talk about. “Not that it matters.” That was too much. I mentally cursed myself. I always said that one sentence too much. I sighed with relief when Bill kept going.
“Aw he worked for them O’Brien’s. Ain’t never met a family I liked any less,” Bill stated.
“Piece of filthy trash, if you ask me.” Another person added.
“That Jack O’Brien, why he’ll beat a horse within an inch of its life for no other reason than it looked at him funny. I’m sure he found some reason that made no sense to try and whip Ben,” Judd offered. That one had to be heard.
I raised the Coke to my lips and attempted another swig. “Then why kill Ben Carter?”
“Any time a Negro hits a white man, he’s gotta be handled or else all the Negros will get out of hand,” Bill said. “It’s Biblical Georgia Boy. Remember Noah’s son Ham? He looked on his father’s nakedness and was cursed. A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. That there is talking about the Negro race. They at the bottom where God wants them to stay. We can’t let things get out of order.” Everyone in the store made noises of agreement including me. Madness. I inhaled deeply to stop the acid from rising in my stomach. I had my answers. Now I needed to get on the first train out of this frightening town. I knew with certainty if they realized that I was in fact not a white man but a Negro passing, what they had done to Ben Carter would only be child’s play for me.
I flipped my covers off me and did my best not to wrap them around Lula’s face. She snored like a man. A really fat man.
I shuddered as the sound of another nasal vibration filled the room. Yes, siree. It was time for me to go. I placed my feet on the worn wood that dipped and shined from being stepped on for so long and reached under the bed for my bag. I must have checked it ten times already. But I didn’t want to forget a thing. I had one task to complete in Chicago: find a husband. Preferably a wealthy one so I could send money back to Uncle Rufus.
Gentle tapping pulled me out of my valise. “Lily Rose, that you?” Uncle Rufus said in what he must have thought passed for a whisper. But Lula slept through tornadoes. No, really. The way that wind whipped up that one time last year, sent us all to the cellar. Except Lula. We surely would have left her behind if not for Uncle Rufus.
I slid the bag back under the bed, rolled my eyes at Lula’s shaking the room again and walked out of the room.
“How come you always know when I’m awake?” I said into the dark living room. I saw movement by the front door and then it swung open.
“I always know when something is bothering my Lily Rose,” he said, his voice deep and raspy, presiding over the cotton fields like a king over his subjects. Aunt Rachel said Uncle Rufus only had two tones: loud and loud. “Come outside and sit with me a spell.”
I waited till the door was shut behind me before I spoke again. “I’m not bothered by anything.”
Uncle Rufus took a seat in the rocking chair on the porch. But I couldn’t sit, not for nothing. I danced on the tips of my toes across the small porch.
“Always were a bit of a lightning bug Lily Rose. What are we going to do without you?”
“Have peace and quiet I imagine,” I said with a smile.
I didn’t have to see Uncle Rufus to know he smiled. “Your aunt loves you.”
“Hmm,” I said neither agreeing or disagreeing. She loved something alright: finding fault in me. I just wanted to look nice and sophisticated and it was my hard earned money. Don’t see why I couldn’t have bought me that fancy hat up in Little Rock. I looked down at my Uncle. Once upon a time it had just been us. Then he had gotten married.
“I’ve been praying for you Lily Rose. I think you’ll do just fine. Got your stuff all packed up?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what I was doing when you knocked on my door. Checking one more time.”
“Don’t think I didn’t know it. You keep opening and shutting that bag and the handle will come clean off.”
Unfortunately, that was probably true.
“When you get up there now, things will probably be different.”
Oh how I hoped so. “Yes, sir.”
“I know I don’t have to tell you to mind your manners.”
“I went down to Jim Baker’s store and brought some paper for letter writing and such. Don’t you forget about us down here.”
“I never would, Uncle Rufus. I’m not like-,”
“Not like Dolores? Well, I supposed it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you were.”
I stamped the bottom of my foot, hard against the wood, not sure if I was mad at what he said or how right he might be if I married me a fancy husband up north like her. But I wouldn’t be Dolores. I wouldn’t forget where I came from. I would be Uncle Rufus’s Lily Rose. And I would come back. Or at least write back. “How can you say a thing like that?”
“I always admire a person who accomplished exactly what they set out to do. And make no beans about it child, Dolores has gotten everything she wanted.” He said the last bit mournfully.
“Well she ain’t got me.”
“She’s always had you.”
“You’ve always had me.”
“Dolores gave birth to you child. She’s always had you,” he said gently. “You make nice with your mama.”
“I’ll try,” I said softly.
“You’ll do,” he said gruffly.
We were both silent, listening only to the sounds of the horned owls hooting at each other.
“How was Mary?”
I had gone over to Mary Wakefield’s house and said good-bye yesterday.
I shrugged. “Same as always. She cried.”
He made a funny noise between a snort and a grunt. “But you didn’t?”
“No sir,” there would be no tears from me. Not even for my closest friend here.
“Mr. McNeal gave me extra pay and Mrs. McNeal gave me a book,” I said. I didn’t tell him it was on fancy manners. Uncle Rufus thought my manners was just fine, and maybe they were for this little town in Arkansas. But Mrs. McNeal knew I was probably going to be needing some help up in Chicago. I turned to Uncle Rufus to change the subject. “Are you going to stay out of trouble sir?”
“Now, Uncle Rufus-,”
“Don’t Uncle Rufus me. I only ever do what’s best for this family.” I looked away toward the night sky and watched stars slowly winking out. I didn’t like that Uncle Rufus was starting to get political. I couldn’t see any good coming of it. But I wouldn’t say anything more. It was the only thing me and Aunt Rachel agreed upon. I knew Aunt Rachel got on him all the time and if she couldn’t get through to him, I wouldn’t.
“You know we’re going to miss you girl?”
“I know.” But what I was doing was going to help this family. Just he wait and see. And maybe, if I was really lucky, it would help me too.