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Authors: Denise Nicholas

Tags: #20th Century, #Fiction, #United States, #Historical, #General, #History

Freshwater Road (3 page)

BOOK: Freshwater Road
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Celeste's head popped up from the seat back. That woman had squirmed
back into her mind, in spite of her prodigious efforts to keep her mother
at bay. Her memories of Wilamena had a blurry quality. She didn't leave
Celeste's mind for long, though, like a touch of arthritis that flares and
subsides in an aging person's body (Momma Bessie called it her new friend,
"Arthur"), unannounced and unapologetic.

The cabby caught her eye in his rearview mirror. A crooked smile emerged
on his turned-down mouth. She returned it, tight and small. Wilamena had
moved to New Mexico with Cyril Atwood, her second husband. When
they'd first gotten married, ten years ago, they'd lived in Chicago. Then
Atwood got tenure at the university in Albuquerque, with research perks in
Los Alamos. Away they went. She'd spent the years before her second marriage running in and out of town, more out than in, always with a suitcase
packed and ready. When she and Shuck divorced, Celeste and her brother
Billy stayed with Shuck. Since her remarriage, she'd never come back to Detroit, not even for Celeste's and Billy's high school graduation ceremonies.

Wilamena never did like Detroit-too blue collar, too Negro, too much
of the blues underneath the city's swagger. She used to say Detroit had a
veil of soot that most people couldn't even see. Of course, she never tired
of asking her children to visit her in New Mexico, but Celeste pulled the
curtain down when Wilamena didn't show for the graduation. She had no desire to spend weekends in a cavernous house (as described by her mother
in one of her letters) making graceful conversation about weapons research
and Indian art. They wrote and talked on the phone from time to time, curt
little conversations that crunched rather than flowed. She sent turquoise
jewelry (that Celeste kept packed in velvet bags and rarely wore) and boxes
of etched stationery. Celeste figured it was her mother's investment in their
continued communication.

Prickly Wilamena's escape to New Mexico suited Celeste fine. Now, she
could be Shuck's daughter and be done with it. No more rough ride with
Wilamena, not knowing whether she loved you or wanted to be rid of you.
Besides, what Negro person moves to New Mexico? But then, what Negro
person moves to Mississippi?

"We's y'here." The old man aimed his taxi to the curb.

Thank God, Celeste thought, shaking off her reflections. New people,
new meanings. It was all perfectly timed. J.D. gone to Paris, Wilamena
stashed in New Mexico, Billy living in New York, Shuck cool and easy in
Detroit. And she was in Mississippi, of all places.

The cabby pulled in front of side-by-side storefronts on a commercial
stretch near downtown Jackson and Celeste leaped out, the lights of the
capital building haloing in the midnight sky a few blocks away, it seemed.
Two police cars were parked across the street, the officers sitting there
watching. Inside the well-lit One Man, One Vote office, heads and bodies
moved around behind windows plastered with flyers and posters.

The old man carried her suitcase to the door. "Thank y'all. Thank y'all
fer comin' down y'here." He doffed his cap and smiled a broken-toothed

Celeste paid and tipped him like Shuck taught her to do, then walked
in, the reflection of the police cars in the glass door, fear crawling into her
like vine tendrils creeping up the back fence in Momma Bessie's yard.


Heat sizzles jitterbugged off the pavement on Lafayette Street. Shuck maneuvered his sleek white convertible Cadillac into his parking spot a few
steps from the Royal Gardens door. On Shuck's map this bar, as much as
he loved it, was just a mark in pencil, a stepping-stone to a New York-style
supper club. Women would sing blues and jazz with gardenias in their hair.
Men would blow heartbreak licks on burnished horns, feet tapping to the
beat. If he could fit Count Basie's whole band in there, he'd book them in
a New York minute. He flicked his cigarette to the pavement and walked
inside, the late afternoon sun warming the back of his head.

In the cool uneven bar light, Shuck nodded to his soft-talking regulars
already curled around their first drinks of the day. The blown-up figures in
his custom-made "best-of-Negro-life" wallpaper stepped out of hard-glossed
cars in tuxedos and draped white dresses; Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson,
Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were there. Shuck
clanked change into the jukebox, punched in Gloria Lynne, the Modern
Jazz Quartet, and Coleman Hawkins. Posey, his bartender, nicknamed the
big Wurlitzer the "party girl" because it lit up the alcove where it stood like
a hooker caught in a police car's siren light on a corner in Paradise Valley.
He took his usual seat at the back end of the bar with Gloria Lynne singing
"I Wish You Love." He stacked his mail to the side and skimmed the front
page of his Detroit News. The Tigers left for St. Louis. The mayor huddled
with business leaders on Mackinac Island. Lenny Bruce's trial convened in
New York City.

"Kids from all over the country going to Mississippi to register Negroes
to vote. Negro and white kids. Volunteering." Shuck realized he'd said it
out loud after he said it, then checked to see if anyone had heard him over
the music. He'd been following the news about the happenings in the
south. Rosa Parks had left Alabama to live in Detroit. Martin Luther King
had come through there, too. But the newspaper specifically said "Negro
and white kids volunteering to go to Mississippi," and that was a whole
different thing.

Millicent sat on a stool at the other end of the bar fingering her pearlplated cigarette lighter. "I'd kill my children myself before I'd let them go to
Mississippi." She punctuated this with a good swallow of her drink before
thudding the glass down on the bar top. Millicent was a supervisor at the
main post office, dressed well, nursed her drinks, and went home early.

Celeste had been so impressed by the speakers coming up from the
south, full of talk about the new, nonviolent revolution. She told Shuck
about the organizing on campus. He shuddered as a tremor of dread moved
through his body. He remembered her awe, her naive view of the south
apparent in every word she spoke. He stared at the newspaper and ducked
his head, sorry they'd heard him before he finished the article. They chimed
in just like they did when anyone brought up some tidbit of news in the bar.
You could barely get a thought out before they jumped all over it.

"They won't treat those white kids the way they treat us." Iris sipped gin
and tonic from a tall glass, eyeing the opulent Negroes on Shuck's wallpaper.
Her hair sat in the neat rolled curls left by the curling iron. She more than
likely had plans for the night and didn't want to comb it out too soon in the
summer humidity. Iris, with three boys and a teenaged daughter, didn't have
a steady man and wasn't going to get one. No matter. Going out and having
a good time after working all week long precluded the need for a man.

Posey, his waist wrapped in his bar apron, brought Shuck's orange juice.
"In Mississippi, a nigger lover and a nigger's the same damn thing."

"Notjust in Mississippi." Chink sat with Rodney at a small bar table near
the juke box, smoking his filter tipped cigarettes, taking shallow inhales
because the doctor told him he wasn't supposed to be smoking at all.

"That's the truth." Millicent's lips pursed in finality or dare.

Iris looked out the front windows of the Royal Gardens. "You wrong."

Shuck lowered the paper a bit, then turned to the continuation of the
article. "Says here they added one hundred new police officers, bought a truckload of new rifles, and they're using the fairgrounds as a prison
in Jackson. The governor's hired seven hundred more highway patrolmen. Damn." Shuck's butter-cream, short-sleeved shirt flared against his
dark brown arms like a lantern burning yellow in the back corner. He
wondered if all those new hired hands had any training and what kind of
training it could possibly be. He didn't want to think about it. Figured
they were just a bunch of southern white boys whose main job would be to
crack heads all summer long. "Go to Mississippi and end up like Emmett
Till. They don't even kill like normal people," he mumbled, putting the
paper down.

"Man, y'all need to forget Emmett Till. That shit happened a long
time ago." Rodney, ever vigilant and eternally afraid of the wrath of white
people, shook his big surly head in little swipes. He must've been reading
Shuck's lips.

"How you gon' forget that, Rodney?" Shuck stepped on Rodney's words
and didn't apologize, wanted to tell him to shut up, but he was too good a
customer to insult.

No Negro person in his right mind would ever forget Emmett Till.
Back in 1955, the regulars from the General Motors Cadillac Body Plant
stumbled in the door of the Royal Gardens with a jet magazine wedged
in their back pockets. They told Shuck they'd done what they always did
every time the new jet came out-bought a copy and immediately flipped
the pages to the centerfold photo of a big-legged, tiny-waisted, soft brown
girl in a bathing suit. This time, they never got to the centerfold. Emmett
Till, pressed into his fourteen-year-old's coffin, a bullet hole one inch above
his right ear, body beaten and bloated from its dead-boy float in the mudbrown waters of the Tallahatchie River, jumped out and grabbed them on
page six. It was their most god-awful nightmare come true, and not one of
them had ever even been in Mississippi.

Like every Negro in America, Shuck had heard the story of Emmett
Till, how he'd whistled at a pretty white girl in Money, Mississippi, and
that was the last time he ever whistled. But he hadn't seen those pictures.
It was like Cassius Clay had sucker-punched him hard in the stomach.
With Billy and Celeste drinking soft drinks on two stools at the back
end of the bar, Shuck wiped tears from his eyes and vowed he'd never let
a child of his go below the Mason-Dixon line in this life or any other.
Later, he talked to Billy about what had happened to Emmett Till in Mississippi. Billy told Celeste, who hadn't understood his words, but
she peeked at the photos in the magazine. The kids didn't so much as
mumble on the ride to Momma Bessie's that day, as if they too had come
to understand something that was way beyond their age, visceral and
eternal. He chastised himself for letting Celeste see those photos. He
questioned himself about Billy seeing them, too, but he was older and he
was a boy. The images mesmerized everyone who saw them and there was
more than one lesson in them, he knew.

Big Rodney's knees bounced up and down, vibrating the ashtray across
the small Formica table. "What happened to the nonviolence? Sound like
they ready for war."

"Nonviolence's for us." Chink sat slouched over his ginger ale, seeming
smaller than he really was next to big Rodney, and lighter, too.

"White folks not giving up a thing to Negroes without a fight." Shuck
knew nothing came easy except the sweet money from hitting a dream
number. "Mississippi's gonna be a bloodbath. Worse than Birmingham."

Chink uncoiled, shaking his head "no." "Nothing worse than Birmingham, man." He steadied his ice-clogged glass so Rodney wouldn't bounce it
right off the table. "They bomb so many houses and churches, people callin'
it Bombingham." Chink harbored a deep interest in the city where he'd
been born, though as time went on he admitted it less and less.

"Man, no place is as bad as Mississippi. You know that as well as I do."
They didn't know it from firsthand knowledge, but they sure knew it from
myth and whispers and the running feet of all the Negroes who'd piled into
Detroit. "Who knows how many Negroes been killed down there, or how
many houses been bombed? Bet your sweet ass they'll know this summer
with all those white kids running around. Bet you the whole damned place
will change." With Shuck, everything presented itself as a possibility for a
wager. He slid the stack of mail in front of him, slapping through the bills
and stopping when he saw Celeste's large but even handwriting on the front
of an envelope postmarked Chicago. She hadn't said anything about going
to Chicago.

"See, they not going to let white kids be strung up and shot down. They
not gon' do that." He tore the envelope open and pulled out the one-page
note. "Anybody wanna bet?" Nobody said a word.

She'd written June 13 on the top of the letter. It was already the fifteenth.

Dear Daddy:

By the time you read this, I'll be in Mississippi volunteering for the
Freedom Summer project to help with voter registration.

Shuck double-checked the envelope and looked hard at the handwriting.
It was Celeste's. No doubt about it. He reread the date on the top of the
page, the first line. She was already in Mississippi.

I know you know what's been going on down there. Lots of kids
from schools all over the country are going down. It's a big thing.
Maybe by the end of the summer, the whole racial thing will be different in the south, the rest of the country, too. This will be great if I go
to law school, don't you think? I'll be fine. Don't worry. You can leave
a message for me at the One Man, One Vote office in Jackson, Mississippi. Will call as soon as I can.

BOOK: Freshwater Road
8.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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