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Authors: Thomas Mullen

Darktown (11 page)

BOOK: Darktown
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“Chandler, my boy. How's life on the outside?”

“Much better, Officer Dunlow.” The tall Negro looked somewhat relieved to see that it was Dunlow he was dealing with. Rake was not used to seeing that reaction—usually people felt the opposite way about his partner. “Much better indeed.”

Chandler Poe had already treated himself to a fine shave and a hair
cut since his release from jail. His usually unkempt reddish hair was pomaded and combed.

“Glad to hear they let you out,” Dunlow said. He stood a bit more closely to Chandler than he would to most white men. The old Southern maxim recommended you keep Negroes close so they wouldn't get too high, and Dunlow seemed to take it literally. “You must be feeling awful grateful right now.”

“Yes, sir, Officer Dunlow. Most very grateful.”

The bootlegger cut his eyes at Rake, at which point Dunlow laughed. “Officer Rakestraw is with me, boy, so you don't need to worry 'bout that.”

“It's just that, Officer Dunlow, I only been out a day. I ain't yet been able to—”

He stopped talking when Dunlow's left hand appeared on his shoulder. Chandler was as tall as Dunlow, but a lesser weight class entirely. The hand looked as though it could have snapped the Negro's clavicle like a wishbone.

“Well, opportunity is knocking, boy. There's a whole town full of nigras that've been deprived of your talents the last few weeks. Best get on that.”

“Yes, sir.”

The hand lingered on Chandler for another moment. Rake realized his own stomach was taut as he braced for what was next. But Dunlow merely lifted his giant hand and brought it down again. A friendly pat, perhaps with a bit more force than necessary, but that was all. For now.


late what a mistake he'd made in coming to the funeral.

It wasn't like he attended every funeral his father presided over, but this one was special. He knew the church would be packed, knew that people were upset, angry, and in need of what his father alone could provide. He was here to be a part of his community, even though with each passing moment he was reminded that he was no longer a part of it the way he'd once been.

He felt eyes on him from the beginning. He was used to receiving attention at his father's church, but these were not looks of love or respect. No, the funeral of James James Jameson was proving to be a very different experience indeed.

He sat beside his brothers, Reginald and William. William, who was still at Morehouse, was the son most likely to follow in their father's footsteps. Reginald had always appreciated life's nonspiritual splendors a bit too much. Lucius himself had considered the pulpit, had felt the weight of his father's expectation that he one day lead this church, had even practiced writing a few sermons in his teens. But something hadn't clicked. He had expected to hear a voice, see some sign. What he got instead was a draft card.

Lucius watched the reverend and was impressed, as he always was, by the man's command of the crowd. Reverend Boggs was the same height as Lucius and a good deal wider. He often teased his son that Lucius, too, would have that physique one day, though Lucius felt the girth had less to do with genetics and more to do with the minister's prerogative to take a heaping helping of whatever was served by families he visited to celebrate with or console. He was a busy man indeed, and there were
days on which the reverend had three different dinners across town, a gastronomic sacrifice but one he managed to make for the Lord. In front of a crowd, though, that size became commanding.

Reverend Boggs told his congregation that he knew they were angry because he was, too. He knew there were times when they wanted to cry out and accuse God of turning his back on them, because he, too, felt abandoned sometimes, he, too, wanted to know what the Big Man would say in response. Every sentence he spoke got heads nodding, the
mmm hmm
s coming steady now like the inhalation and exhalation of a single body. But every sentence, whether the reverend meant it or not, seemed to give voice to what Lucius feared they were thinking:
Why did the cops kill another one of us? When will they stop? And why didn't your own son, Reverend Boggs, why didn't he do anything about it?

Lucius had met Jameson once, years ago, at a church social. He'd not had the highest impression of the fellow, but he realized that might have been snobbery talking. Jameson was uneducated, as was his mother and his siblings; his family had only recently joined the church. Perhaps Jameson had felt out of place in his ill-fitting button-up shirt and too-loose slacks and dragging vowels; maybe he'd been making so many bad jokes because he didn't know what else to talk about around Negroes like these.

“Triple James” was later arrested for the savage, near-fatal assault of a sixteen-year-old white boy (who survived, but in the kind of permanently damaged state that made many wish God had been more merciful and finished the job). At the highly publicized trial, some of the police officers seemed to make things up as they went along, but the jury (all-white by law) clearly had not been troubled by things like evidence or fairness, deliberating a mere ten minutes. A white boy had been viciously beaten outside a club in a colored part of town, and that was all that mattered. How this white boy had gotten to that part of town, and what exactly he'd been planning to do there—these matters had not been discussed, as they would have been disrespectful to the victim. Jameson had lived near the club and had recently been booked for another assault, so he had “a violent history,” according to the prosecution. (That assault charge had stemmed from a fight he and two
other Negro teenagers had gotten into, instigated when one of them had insulted the other's sister, and umbrage was taken, and things went a tad too far, and, though no one had been seriously hurt in the tussle, a squad car had arrived while the fight was still ongoing, and all three had been given a week in jail.) He was a black boy with a record, so the dots had not been difficult for white jurors to connect.

Boggs felt aware of his own posture as his father preached.
Please stop talking about the police and the unfairness,
Boggs thought.
Please get to the “Let's all rally together” part.
It wasn't like him to question his father's decisions in church like this, but he felt further from the reverend than usual. He was not in uniform, but he may as well have been.

Then Reverend Boggs segued away from the murder for a moment and started another story, one his son knew so well that he saw what was coming as soon as he heard the word “train.”

He's going to tell the Uncle Richard story.
Lucius didn't even need to listen, he'd heard it so many times.

Back in 1904, Reverend Boggs had been little Daniel Boggs, the son of a postman who'd proudly been wearing his uniform and making deliveries downtown for years, keeping his three sons fed and well clothed, living in a house he had bought with his own money after years of careful saving.

And then there was that week when the hysterical white papers reported about rapes and attacks by Negroes, warning their readers that the darker race was getting more emboldened with every day that white men did not stand up for themselves. No one in the colored community quite knew where these stories had come from, or why they so suddenly seized the white people's imagination. It was as though all the whites were possessed by something at once, a virus, and all you could do was wait for it to pass. Except that when white people caught the virus, it was other folks who got killed.

Little Daniel Boggs had been only four, born in the first month of the new century, and he hadn't known anything about the white people virus, hadn't known that his father had been warned not to go out that day, that the virus was spreading, making some white people speak in tongues, beat their breasts, arm themselves with pistols and rifles and
spades and butcher knives. Yet Mr. Boggs, the trusty postal carrier, walked to work nonetheless, and he even made a few deliveries until he saw the crowds, heard the yelling.

All that little Daniel knew was that suddenly his father was home, in the middle of the day, out of breath. Then the curtains were drawn, the lights were shut off, and the doors were locked. Throughout the day the back door would be periodically unlocked when friends and relations, in need of shelter, rapped on it, knowing well enough not to let themselves be seen at the front door.

Soon Uncle Richard showed up, a gash where his right ear met his head, another just below his hairline, redness covering half his face. Daniel had never seen anything like it before, all that red, his favorite uncle transformed into some ghoul. Daniel ran screaming. His mother had to chase him down in the boys' bedroom, grabbing him by the ear and hissing into it that the boy must be silent immediately. The Boggs family couldn't let
know anyone was here.

So Daniel sat on his bed crying as quietly as he could while the adults tended to Richard.

Now and again he could hear
hear how the virus was making
roam through the city.

He heard the adults talking about fire and smoke, he heard popping sounds that apparently were gunshots, according to the expert opinion of his older brothers, who stopped into the bedroom to tell him so before going back into the parlor with the adults. The virus was tearing through different neighborhoods and there was no telling when it would hit theirs.

It sounded close.

It was a few hours later when Uncle Richard visited him. A faint amount of twilight through the curtains kept the room from pitch darkness. The virus continued to make strange sounds from outside, yelling and hollering and fireworks and noisemakers, even some singing.

Richard was bandaged up, one along his ear and another on his forehead, looking like pictures of Civil War soldiers Daniel had seen in books. Richard smiled at the boy, asked if he was all right, asked if Daniel had run crying from his favorite uncle.
You weren't scared of me, were you?
And Daniel had felt so badly then, so afraid to hurt his uncle's
feelings, that, even at the age of four, he lied and claimed the reason he'd been crying was because he'd broken his favorite toy train.

He would always wonder what made him say that. It was true that the axle of one of his wooden trains had broken a few days ago, but he hadn't been all that torn up about it. Yet he said it, and Uncle Richard smiled.
Well, let's see what Uncle Richard can do about that. Where is it?

Finding one broken train in a room of three boys, in almost complete darkness, was not easy. Yet they found it, and then a screwdriver appeared in Richard's hand. Richard was a carpenter and had been at work when the virus had taken the white people. He'd run here directly, his pockets crammed with tools. Only after years of retelling the story would Daniel wonder if Richard always had so many screwdrivers in his overalls or had he perhaps loaded up on sharp instruments as protection before fleeing. Uncle Richard assessed the toy and spun the wheel on the busted axle and reached into another pocket and took out a small wooden dowel. It would not have amazed Daniel any more had Uncle Richard taken a white rabbit or a dove from one of those pockets. The dowel proved too thick, but ah-ha, here in this other pocket he had one that fit better. Lord only knew what project the man had been working on, but he was perfectly equipped for repairing toys that day, as if he'd come direct from the North Pole.

Within minutes, thanks also to some wood glue from another pocket, the train was good as new. Uncle Richard had been leaning against the wall, and he rolled the train across the wood floor to his admiring nephew, who smiled and rolled it back. So Richard rolled it to him again, and they went like that for a while, Daniel laughing (and Richard gently reminding him not to laugh too loudly) and not quite noticing anymore the giant bandages on his uncle's head.

Then the virus got louder.

Daniel sent the train back to Uncle Richard, whose great big hand covered the entire toy. He did not send it back. He picked it up, slowly stood, and slightly parted the curtained window, putting a finger from his other hand to his lips.

The virus was making the white people sing “Dixie,” and they were close enough for Daniel to make out all the words.

Daniel wished his uncle would push the train again but he knew something important was happening. Uncle Richard was here, so nothing could possibly go wrong, yet he felt scared.

The virus was making glass break. Then another popping sound, then another. More glass.

Someone screamed. Then footsteps and hollers, as if the person who'd screamed was being chased. It was a game, Richard explained in a whisper, just a strange game people are playing. But don't talk anymore tonight.

Later, in the middle of the night, Daniel would need to use the toilet, would walk into the hallway and see many of his uncles and cousins gathered there in the parlor and the foyer, the light dim and his brain muddy and his mother shooing him. He would wonder for a while whether he was only dreaming the fact that his father and uncle were holding rifles.

Two days later, after the white people's virus had passed, people slowly dared to leave their houses. Daniel's father returned to work after conferring with friends, and Daniel and his mother and two brothers went out again, hoping to find a grocer's that was open, as their pantry had gone bare.

As they walked, Daniel noticed that many of the street poles were wearing hats. The sign at the corner of Juniper and Pierce wore a gray derby. A bus stop sign a block away wore a plaid driver's cap. A black fedora was perched atop Courtland and Ellis.

And there on Peachtree and Auburn sat a blue mailman's cap, as unmistakable as his father's laugh. Daniel tugged on his mother's sleeve and pointed it out,
Look, Daddy's cap!
and did not understand why her face turned stone blank when she saw it, did not understand why she gripped his hand more tightly then and hurried the boys along and told them with a harsher tone than usual to hush up.

Daniel would remember those hats for years, recalling them when, as an older boy, he learned they were there because they had belonged to Negroes who'd been killed or beaten by the mob, the headwear tossed up like trophies. One slight remove away from the tribal peoples who'd placed their enemies' heads on stakes for vultures to pick at. It had not been his father's hat, but it could have been.

BOOK: Darktown
5.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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