Read Freshwater Road Online

Authors: Denise Nicholas

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

Freshwater Road (5 page)

BOOK: Freshwater Road
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A hard something landed in Celeste's lap, waking her from a doze. Behind
the continuous murmur of voices in the office, typewriter carriages banged,
bells sounded, and a radio played. "Sign that. I'll take you to the apartment in a minute. I'm Margo." Celeste grasped the clipboard, frowning
up at the short, pretty, blue-eyed white girl with edge-straight blonde hair
cut just above her shoulders. By the time she got "hi" to her lips, Margo
had pivoted into a small army of coverall-wearing Negro and white young
people moving around the airless office /storefront picking up papers, diagramming patterns on a blackboard, sticking pins in a map of Mississippi.
Celeste wondered if the pins marked the locations of dead bodies, burned
buildings, or some other horrendous occurrence. On the walls, pictures of
Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers. Through the front windows, she saw that the police cars hadn't moved.

Margo huddled over a mimeograph machine near the back wall with a
young dark-skinned guy, she cranking the handle of the old inky cylinder
while he caught the copies. Celeste eyed them through slits. The last thing
she'd expected in this office was a white girl telling her what to do, even if it
was only signing some form. Mississippi and the civil rights movement meant
pushing two years of Ann Arbor's surrounds of white people to the rear.

Here, both Negro and white student-types were working and talking
together in easy familiarity. Hard to tell who was in charge. Serious faces,
cigarette smoke spiraling up to the white-tiled ceiling, and music coming from a small radio in the corner, Wolfman Jack's gravel-choked voice punctuating the melodies. It had the feeling of a campus gathering, without
the food and alcohol.

Celeste walked to the bulletin board to see the photos of rural-looking
Negro people grinning with their arms around overall-wearing studenttypes. Everyone seemed to be old and young at the same time. And, photo
after photo of burned down buildings. She went back to her folding chair.

A ballpoint pen dangled at the end of a thin string attached to the
clipboard. A typed page and a carbon under it, the word "release" in caps
across the top.

In the event ofyour injury or death, neither you nor your family
or heirs to your family have a legal right to sue or to otherwise seek
compensation from One Man, One Vote.

This whole trip was going to break Shuck's heart. Beneath the fine
suits, the stingy-brimmed hats, the sleek cars, and the smooth demeanor,
Shuck was a race man. But Mississippi was a different story. He'd want to
come down here and snatch her back to sanity. She'd better call him soon.
He'd need to hear her voice to know that she was OK. Wilamena would
more than likely hiss and fume and blame it all on Shuck being a race
man, constantly talking about Negro this and Negro that, filling Billy and
Celeste's heads with all that Negro-ness. She'd have preferred to have them
less anchored in things Negro. More classical music, less jazz, more London
and Paris, less Harlem and Chicago. And for sure, less Detroit.

A line of typed dashes stretched across the bottom of the page. Celeste's
full name was typed under the line and the dates of her stay in Mississippi.
A note at the bottom: Be sure to send one copy home to a parent or guardian
before leaving for yourproject city.

Celeste's departure date, the end of Freedom Summer, August 21, was
two months away. She might be dead by then-or a hero, a northern agitator
hero who'd managed to register an entire town of disenfranchised Negroes.
She saw herself as a cross between Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman, the fires
of righteousness flaming in her heart stoked by the news reports that had
been coming out of the south for the last three years. Her departure date
floated on the paper as if the ink had run out, as if there'd be no leaving
Mississippi. She signed on the line and pulled the copy from under the
carbon, then slipped it into her book bag. Shuck said your decisions were your own when you crossed from teen to adulthood. Age eighteen marked
the beginning of adulthood, but the years between eighteen and twentyone were a kind of nebulous grace period you were given if you appeared
not to have good sense. She'd be twenty in November.

The clatter in the office scaled down as the volunteers filtered out in
groups of two and three. When Margo led her out to a 196o Ford and told
her to get into the back seat, the police started their engines, too. Had police
cars, lurking around midnight corners, followed the other volunteers when
they left? She'd seen enough squad cars on the way from the train station
to handle it. Was this the routine or was special attention given to new
arrivals? Her suitcase gave her away.

Margo's car stank of decomposing cigarettes and sweaty armpits. Celeste added her own train-funk to the haze of odors. From the dark of the
car's backseat she watched the back of Margo's head as they rode through
the deserted streets of downtown Jackson. The two police cars followed half
a block behind them. More than likely, the police knew when she'd arrived
at the train station, knew the volunteers' every move. Already Mississippi
felt like a moldy hole, a long dark tunnel without enough fresh air, too
much moisture, and no light at the end. This interminable night ranked as
one of the longest of Celeste's life. When she checked behind them again,
the police cars had disappeared. She wanted to relax, but something told
her the effort would be a foolish waste of time.

"If you're with a white person and you get stopped by the police, let
the white person do the talking." Margo's pure New York City accent
leaned against the slow southern night as she drove well under the speed
limit, checking to the right and the left and eyeing the rearview mirror at
every intersection. Perspiration slicked her face to a moony shine. A dark
bandana covered her blonde hair. "Act like you're the maid getting a ride
home from work."

"Are you serious?" Celeste rolled her eyes at the back of Margo's head.
"Nobody's that dumb, even in the movies." Then, she remembered the
porter at the train station. Was he acting servile to survive? To get paid,
for sure. Now she wished she hadn't looked at him so harshly. She might
find herself bobbing and weaving, shuffling to save her own life before this
summer was over. Could she do that? What would it do to her? She tried to
follow the thought to its conclusion. And what in God's name would Shuck
think about her riding around in the backseat pretending to be somebody's maid? He'd want her to survive, pure and simple. Pride could get her a
one-way ticket to a tongue lashing, or a beating-or worse, get her tossed
into a fast-moving river.

"You'd be amazed." Margo double-checked her rearview mirror, then
accelerated. "Another car fell in behind us when the police cars turned
around. He's gone."

Maybe it was still the police but in an unmarked car, Celeste thought.

At the next intersection, Margo slowed. "When it comes to the movement, every white person in the south is the police. They all follow us.
There's no real distinction between regular white people and the police
down here."

Celeste sank deeper into the backseat, her heart skipping through its
beats like a drummer on smack. Margo knew what she was thinking before
she'd opened her mouth. She dug her fingers into the crack where the seat
meets the seat back and brought her hands out with dirt and lint pieces
sticking to her fingers. "So what do I do if I get stopped with all Negro
people in the car? Jump out and start tap dancing?"

"You might have to." Margo turned into a residential section of woodframed houses set back beyond night-black lawns. "It's already happened.
Some volunteers were stopped and the cops made them dance in the middle
of the highway. Guns drawn."

Celeste's neck tensed as though her vertebrae were fusing. What to say
now? Nothing. Just listen. Pay attention. She caught Margo's eyes in the
rearview mirror.

"Be respectful and pray. Sing freedom songs in your head. By the end
of orientation, you'll know the words to a lot of 'em." Margo let her eyes go
back to scanning as they moved quietly through the streets.

No lamps lit the windows, no porch lights were on, and the shrubs
and hedges were just dark shapes in the night. Not even the trees moved,
just the car gliding in slow motion over the black tar. Celeste ducked her
head well below the back window, gasping for air, legs sprawled across the
bump, peering out like a child. She tasted again the train coffee and that
mayonnaisy ham sandwich from the stop in Memphis.

Margo turned into what looked like a housing project of low, dark-brick
buildings. "Try to get the name of the officer stopping you. The patrol car
number, details that can be reported to the FBI. Try to stay calm. Try to
stay alive."

Celeste bucked herself up a bit, and pushed aside her bristling selfconsciousness at being a trainee with a white-girl boss who obviously knew
more about staying alive in Mississippi than she did.

"Remember names and squad car numbers. Sing the words to freedom
songs," Margo repeated. "As soon as I get you ready for Pineyville and the
other straggler ready for the Delta, I'm going to Aberdeen." Margo put her
arm on the car window ledge, the warm air fluttering her bandana. She
looked so in control, she made it sound like they were going off to be camp

Celeste strained to sense Margo's fear. Maybe she was so afraid herself,
no one else's fear had a chance. She glared beyond the car's front lights.
"Pineyville? Where's that?" She checked the map of Mississippi in her
mind. Greenwood, Vicksburg, Natchez, Yazoo City. Names like dreams
that pillowed nightmares.

"Down below Hattiesburg, a few miles from the Louisiana border."
Margo stopped the car in front of an apartment building with windows
across the front, then turned off the engine and the lights. The engine ticked
down to nothing. "Used to be the Piney Woods before the loggers cut down
all the trees." She sat low in her seat but alert, head turning like a radar
scanner. "The Gulf coast is nice, but it's still Mississippi, and when it's not,
it's Louisiana or Alabama or Florida. Same goddamned thing."

How much farther down below could they go? Where did Mississippi
end? Celeste stopped a moan that formed in her throat, and said, "Aren't
you afraid?" She didn't want to be the only one afraid.

"Yeah." Margo turned a little in the car seat and looked directly at her,
and Celeste saw a wide-eyed girl very much like herself. They were about
the same age. They had come to Mississippi for the same reasons. "Only a
nut wouldn't be afraid in this place."

Celeste sighed, thanked God she wasn't alone. "That helps."

The shrieking of cicadas and mole crickets swelled, aroused by the sound
of the car, the low-talking voices. Nothing romantic about it. No harking
back to benign nighttime stories of the sounds of the south, no animated
crickets and puffy-haired Negroes with smiles and songs on their lips. This
was a tunnel of death. Her mouth tasted like sandpaper. Then, suddenly,
the quiet mushroomed around them. Celeste heard her own heart beating.
All she could see were dark trees, hedges near windowpanes lit only by the
reflected moon. She sat up a bit to see the surrounding area.

"Stay low." Margo's voice was sharp. "There's a car under the trees
across the street. It's always there." Margo turned to Celeste and smiled
a creepy smile in the soupy darkness. "The Klan shot out the street lights
when they found out we were housing volunteers here. We think that's
one of their cars."

Celeste glared at the car, caught between wanting to thump Margo on
the back of the head for scolding her like she was a child and being thankful that Margo had warned her about the lurking danger. Nothing moved
inside the dark car. Just black windows and no heads.

"How long've you been here?" Celeste's voice crackled between her true
voice and the hoarse whisper of fear.

Margo pulled a single key out of her bag and held it up in the streak
of moonlight coming through the front windshield. "Six months." She
sounded proud. Celeste didn't want to look up to a white girl, but she had
sense enough to know that Margo had already passed tests that she hadn't
even studied for. She had to give Margo her due, relax inside for a moment,
and listen to her as she would her teacher.

"For the next few days, you go through nonviolence training with the
stragglers. Y'all are the last group. We need to get you going to your projects
so you'll have time to do what we're here to do." Firm-voiced, Margo laid
it out, though the "ya'll " was a tight fit with her New York accent. "You'll
be running your freedom school and your voting project at the same time.
The voter education classes take priority. That's pretty much it. Oh, and try
not to get killed." Straight faced and no nonsense. She handed the single
key to Celeste and indicated with a nod that it was time for Celeste to get
out of the car.

Fear approaching terror hurtled through Celeste. She opened the door
and hunched over to climb out of the backseat. The civil rights demonstrations on campus seemed so harmless. That was another world. This was the
real deal. Run a freedom school and try not to get killed. She'd read it in
her packet of materials, knew the school was a part of the summer project,
couldn't remember precisely what she was supposed to do. She needed to
sleep, to bathe, to eat a meal that had a green vegetable on the plate. Negro
people were her people. She didn't want a white girl from New York to be
more courageous on their behalf than she was. She had to submit, though,
because it might be the difference between life and death. Mississippi wasn't
Ann Arbor or Detroit, and she needed to keep that foremost in her mind.

"Your contact's Reverend Singleton." Margo never stopped scoping the
darkness, even as she leaned across the front seat and talked to Celeste out
of the car window. A real soldier. "He's the point man in Pineyville. I'll fill
you in over the next few days."

BOOK: Freshwater Road
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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