Read Freshwater Road Online

Authors: Denise Nicholas

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

Freshwater Road (7 page)

BOOK: Freshwater Road
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Already, Celeste had adapted to her Freedom Summer orientation
schedule. Classes in nonviolent philosophy and action every day. Drop to
the ground, protect your head, go into a ball. If the fire hoses come out, forget
it. There's no protection. Voter registration booster meetings were held every
night at local churches with speakers from the clergy and from the leadership of One Man, One Vote. The Mississippi State Constitution of i89o and
its strictures on Negro voting were featured at the meetings. The sermons,
the boosting part, were designed to keep the brethren riled up and raring
to go on the march toward enfranchisement. The brethren included the
volunteers. At the end of each meeting, the church body stood to sing
freedom song after freedom song, just like Margo said. Celeste garbled the
words, reading sometimes from a mimeographed sheet, trying to catch the passion of the more experienced summer volunteers, the dedication of
the locals.

To calm herself on the pavement, she quietly hummed "We Shall Overcome," feeling more and more like a fanatic whose beliefs separated her
from the rest of the world. She spotted a suit-wearing white man coming
toward her and opened her face to respond to his queasy smile, thinking
this brave soul was about to break the barrier, to step up, take a flyer, and
maybe even have a conversation about what was going on in Mississippi.
She plastered some terrified version of love on her face to accompany her
limp smile. He zoomed by, grabbed the flyer, and hissed "Jiggaboo" in
her ear all in one seamless motion. She dropped a handful of flyers to the
pavement as she spun around to see him scrunch his flyer into a ball and
lob it gracefully into a trash can. He disappeared into the bustling morning
flow of pedestrians.

Jiggaboo?A stinging rippled around the coils of her brain, igniting tenuous but deceptively wiry ganglia of self-hatred. From a long-ago joke, a
lampoon, the ever-vibrant denigration of Negro people, that word, jiggaboo,
sneaky thing, still lived in a backyard shed. You can't hate Negro people and
not hate yourself, Wilamena. Celeste heard Shuck say that on a long-distance
phone call years ago. Now, she was the alone-on-a-strange-street-jiggaboo
girl a.k.a. Celeste Tyree. She'd been caught and stripped naked, revealed,
branded out there on the street. Call a spade a spade. Did anyone else hear
him? And why did she think about that at all? J.D. had pulled the cover
off of her, showed her she was passing-not like Wilamena, but in a more
subtle way, a more dangerous way, because she didn't think she was. She
came down here to right her rudders, to get straight with herself. Jiggaboo
Girl. She smiled.

The flyers scattered on the pavement, got caught up in the shoes of
passersby. No one offered to help gather them. They stepped on them,
kicked them away from their shoes. Lines drawn in the red earth. She'd
come here to shore up her own Negro-ness, to plunge herself into the real
deal after lounging on Shuck's racial cushions for her entire life. For too
long, she'd thought she was above it. Wilamena stood in the wings. Shuck
was right. They were all Negro people. Black folks. But why did no Negro
person stop to help her? Wilamena had walked away, married a man who
looked suspiciously white, though he wasn't, and escaped to a more pliable
place. Wilamena wasn't going to be a Jiggaboo Girl for anybody or anything. A sleight of hand, a face without stereotypical earmarks. Wilamena could
slide by. Shuck couldn't. Wilamena wanted to be out of it more than she
wanted to be with her own children. That was the rub. Escaping the jiggaboo meant more to her than anything. Celeste couldn't escape even if she
wanted to. When the sun hit her, she went dark.

"It's against the law to throw trash on the street. Step this way." She
hadn't seen the police car U-turn, hadn't seen the officers get out and walk
up to her, so busy was she trying to gather up the errant flyers from the

She would willingly have gotten down on the pavement to retrieve the
remaining flyers, but now the officer had her by the elbow, ushering her
toward the open back door of the squad car. She lumbered into the back
seat, closed her eyes, praying and stumbling around for the words to a
freedom song, something to hold on to, remembering Margo's admonishments. Sing the freedom songs, try to stay alive. When she opened her eyes,
she saw nothing but the cold-eyed stares of pedestrians. Now she was a
jiggaboo criminal in the back seat of a police car.

It was a short three blocks to the police station. As they drove into the
underground garage, Celeste's mind swirled with a collage of stories she'd
heard from Margo and other volunteers who'd been arrested, a couple of
them raped or beaten or both before they got to whatever floor they were
being taken to. Celeste tried to make herself disappear, to curl up into a tiny
ball on the back seat of the car. The garage was dark, dank, and smelled of
layered exhaust and cigarette smoke. Police cars parked at angles. Uniforms
walked and talked, all with white faces, all giving her hard looks. She was
the enemy in her peach summer dress.

The two officers, young and scrub-faced, sandwiched her between them
as they entered the elevator. Celeste drifted to the back wall as the doors
closed and the airless box lifted, her eyes focused on the lighting floor numbers above the doors. Margo had walked them through the arrest procedure
all week long. She had to stick to what she'd learned. Stay calm. Stay alive.
Sweat poured out of her body. On the third floor, the officers again directed
her between them as they exited the elevator and strolled ever so quietly into a
square interrogation room. They sat her at a small wood table. High windows,
too high to see anything but big blue sky and grand puffs of white clouds
sailing by. Nothing on the walls. The room was close. She needed air.

"What's your name?" The taller of the two spoke. He'd removed his hat, which left a red line imprinted across his forehead and whiter skin between
the line and his hair. His eyes were blue-gray, his hair black and shiny as a
new forty-five record.

"Celeste Tyree." She trapped his eyes then looked down quickly. "Am
I under arrest?"

"We ask the questions." No cartoon accent drawling across the air. Just
straight talk, hard. Clipped. Where was he from? Had he come south, too,
just like she had, only on the opposite side of the line?

The other officer floated to the back of the small room, put his foot up
on the seat of a chair. He looked younger; maybe he was a trainee, too.

Neither officer had on a name tag. Okay, Margo, now what? Just dark
blue uniforms with metal buttons, clanking handcuffs, billy clubs sticking
up in the back, the gun, all hard, all opaque. She looked at their shoes, black
thick-soled things with shoelaces.

"Where you from?" The questioning officer frowned into her face in a
dare. Careful, girl. Miss'sippi ain't nothing to play with.

She wanted to ask him the same question. Insolence, she knew, would
not be tolerated. Survive. Remember the porter at the train station. Take
low to keep the peace. Tap dance if you have to. "Detroit." She kept her eyes
down, the Negro look. She'd been warned about locking eyes with southern
cops. It's cause for a hit, a punch. Margo told her that. Keep your eyes down
to camouflage anger. When you look them in the eye, make sure there's no
anger, no resentment, no harshness in your eyes.

"You a communist?" He put his strong hands on the table near her. She
could see his hands. Sun-tanned. He was nearly the same color as she, but
not quite. He had the golden brown skin, like Momma Bessie's turkey at
Thanksgiving. She had already passed that.

"No, sir." In another place, she'd have laughed at the question. He was
standing so close to her she could smell his sweat and soap. Early in the
day sweat. Thick sudsy-smelling soap, mixed with salt sweat. By evening
he'd be rank.

"Your parents know you down here stirring up trouble? You could get
hurt down here." He moved back a step.

"My parents know where I am." She'd been told to say no more. If
they kept her, Margo would know when she went back to the corner to
pick her up. She wasn't supposed to leave that corner. She'd know. She'd
come to the police station to get her. They hadn't said she was under arrest. In truth, they didn't have to. They could keep her and tell the world they
never picked her up or that they released her and all the while she could be
rotting in a cell or worse, released into the hands of the Klan in the middle
of the night.

The two officers left her sitting in the little room. She blessed her sweating body-at least she wouldn't have to go to the bathroom. The officers
came back, directed her up and out the door, back into the elevator. Down
they went into the garage, into the car, and back to the same corner. The
older officer opened the car door for her, careful not to touch her, and told
her to have a nice day. Her imagination had scurried to outrun reality. The
officers rode away. The box of flyers was gone. Celeste waited for Margo
in the brilliant sun. She'd survived her first encounter with the police in
Mississippi. Not even a hit. Lucky she was, just like Shuck. She felt proud,
standing under the awning of the shoestore waiting for Margo, praying
she'd be on time.

That afternoon, Margo took Celeste and Ramona around Jackson like
they were junior high school children on a field trip, showing them the city
itself, pointing out the churches that were pro-movement and those that
were not. They were the sideshow at a circus as they slow cruised around
the city. Celeste, her confidence brimming over, told the story of her trip
to the police station, which didn't really compare to the stories being told
of real beatings, of terrified runs for one's life, of real arrests. But it was her
story to tell.

That evening, they ate rich southern food at Mercer's, the Negro-owned
restaurant near the One Man, One Vote office. They felt free and good even
living under such a clear threat from the police and the local whites. They
were watched, and they knew it. They were followed, and they were sneered
at on the streets. They stood in the pro-movement church and listened to
speakers and sang freedom songs until their throats went raw.

The day after the news hit about the three missing volunteers, mimeographed copies of new check-in procedures were posted on the bulletin
board, stuffed into every mail slot, and taped to both sides of the bathroom
door. A shrill quiet fell over the bustling One Man, One Vote office. After
less than a week of orientation, Margo told Celeste and Ramona they were
ready to go to their project cities. They hugged their goodbyes, waved their
copies of the new check-in procedures in the air, and tried to ride high over
their feelings of dread. With three of their volunteers already missing, the summer camp illusion was completely gone. Ramona left for Indianola in
the Delta and Margo for Aberdeen.

The Mississippi sun pounded Celeste and Matt Higgens as they loaded
her suitcase, along with two boxes of children's books for her freedom
school, into the trunk of his late model Dodge. Matt told her he was from
Kansas City. He had a round face and a stocky build, and was dark as live
oak bark. He wore his de rigueur movement overalls over a white dress shirt
with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Celeste felt her scoop necked tan
cotton dress would ignite if she didn't get into the shade. She'd dressed to
meet the woman who would be her hostess in Pineyville, and wanted to be
spiffy looking when she stepped out of that car.

They headed out, Matt crawling through Jackson. They picked up
Route 49, leaving Hinds County for Rankin. Route 49 would take them
south to Hattiesburg, where they'd pick up Route ii to Pineyville. It might
have been out of the way, but nobody in their right mind was going to take
any shortcuts over the back roads. Celeste had shoved her copy of the new
check-in procedures into her book bag along with a postcard from J.D. that
she'd taken from her mail slot in the One Man, One Vote office. She pulled
out the new rules, which were full of emphatic capitalizations: (1) If you
travel away from your project city, call before you leave, call the Jackson
office when you return. (2) Keep vehicles serviced by friendly mechanics.
(3) Drive UNDER the speed limit at ALL times. (4) If you blow a tire, ride
on the rim until you're in a safe place. (5) NO TRAVELING ALONE.
(6) Report any harassment or violence to this office first, the FBI second,
and the local authorities third. (7) STICK TO THE MAIN ROADS.

Celeste shoved the sheet back into her book-bag and turned off the
crackling radio, leaving the noise of the engine and the sound of the wind
whipping along the sides of the car.

"You don't look like the kind of girl whose parents would let her be a
civil rights worker. You down here looking for something to fill yo' hot
pussy, or you here to get these niggers off their asses and out to vote?" Matt
dipped his head twice and chuckled. If he'd been walking, it would have
been a dipping stroll, the words spoken out of the side of his mouth from a
face beneath a greasy do-rag holding the processed hair in place. He either
longed to be a thug or he'd already made it.

Celeste stared at him over the top of her black-framed sunglasses, which
continually slid down her nose on a river of sweat. Her forehead wrinkled in disbelief, and her neck stiffened like it was being held in a brace. "Jesus.
What kind of looks would qualify me to be down here, Matt?" She thought
he'd run the car into a ditch the way he kept turning toward her. She remembered Ramona's comment about the " high-yellow first line of defense"
at Howard. Was that where he was going with this, too?

"I been to Detroit, baby, I know. Yo' momma would shit a brick if she
knew someone as black as me even sat next to you. You a red-bone. That suntan ain't hiding much." He bumped onto the gravel shoulder, then bumped
back onto the pavement. Sweat pebbled across his dark forehead and began
to stream.

BOOK: Freshwater Road
10.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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