Authors: Denise Nicholas
Tags: #20th Century, #Fiction, #United States, #Historical, #General, #History
Celeste slashed him a look, then rolled her eyes so hard she thought
they'd lock into a hateful glare. "If we're fighting for rights, I guess that
includes my rights, too, hot pussy, red-bone looks, and all." She'd never
said the word pussy in her life, and now she'd said it to a honcho movement
guy. "You may be a big time civil rights movement veteran, but you sound
like a street thug to me." She gave him one more serious eye-roll and turned
to stare out the window, tears burning just behind her eyes. Shuck had
taught her well how to back people off of her, but it felt like she'd damaged
something of herself in the process. Shuck never wanted her to wear her
heart on her sleeve. Don't let 'em see you cry. All she could think now was
that she'd been in Mississippi a full week and not called him like she knew
she was supposed to do. Didn't matter where she was-she'd promised to
call and let him know she was all right.
On both sides of the highway, flat farmland spread as far as the eye could
see, vegetables wilting in the heat of midday. Giant live oaks cornered frame
houses with deep porches sitting at least a half-mile back from the highway.
Nothing moving but the car. Celeste never felt so alone.
Another sneaked glance from Matt. "Bet yo' daddy's a doctor, huh?"
"He's a numbers man. Owns a bar." The blustery air shredded her words,
and she didn't care. She mumbled, "If he was here, he'd kick your ass all the
way to New Orleans." No way he heard her, and good thing he hadn't.
Matt's head whipped around. "You jiving?"
"Why would I be jiving?" Celeste folded her arms across her chest, her
hair flying around her head, the ends slapping her in the face curling into
her mouth. Forget looking nice for her arrival in Pineyville.
"Yo'daddy's a gangster? Back-up a minute, let me take another look at
you." Matt's disbelief insulted and diminished who she was minus Shuck. "Girl, you hot. You got all kinda shit going on, sitting over there all quiet
and fine." Matt patted his hands on the steering wheel in time to some
unheard rhythm. "Bet he drives a Cadillac."
"Yeah, he drives a Cadillac. So what?" She eyed Matt quickly; suddenly
she wanted to say that as much as she loved Shuck, he wasn't the one riding
down a forlorn highway in the middle of Mississippi, laying his life on the
line for the cause. That Cadillac was safe and sound in Detroit. And so was
"Probably been in more gunfights than John Wayne. I love me some
gangsters." Matt nodded his head up and down, dropping the corners of
his mouth into a fake frown.
"You don't know what you're talking about." Celeste wanted him to shut
up, to get her to Pineyville in one piece and say a quick goodbye.
"Girl, you probably don't know your own father. He wouldn't tell you
everything. Want you to grow up all proper. Go to the right schools, be
around the right people." Matt was on a roll. What did his father do, she
wondered? Kansas City wasn't that far from Detroit.
"You gonna sit there and tell me about my own father? You need to quit."
She wanted nothing more than to get away from this movement honcho
who seemed like he wanted to break her down. Something in it sounded
like J.D. telling her he knew more about the blues than she did.
"All right, now, don't go getting huffy with me. We in Mississippi. I
might be the one who saves yo red-bone ass. Know what I mean?"
"I might be the one who saves yours, too." Celeste sucked her teeth.
She had wanted with all her heart to say, I might be the one who saves your
black ass, but didn't. She was sitting in his car, at his mercy, on a road going
to what sounded like hell, with no way to do a thing about it if he put her
out of that car.
This wasn't the movement she'd spent months thinking about in Ann
Arbor. The speakers who came to campus talked about the awakening of
the south, the drive to register millions of Negro people who hadn't voted
since Reconstruction. They spoke of courageous young students, Negro
and white, from all over the country putting their lives on the line for what
was right and just. Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman. Now here she was
stuck in a car with a guy who wanted to talk about gangsters, red-bones,
and her sexuality.
They drove deeper into trench Mississippi, gutbucket Mississippi, the baking red earth stretching out on all sides, armies of insects slapping into
the windshield. At this rate, by the time they got to Pineyville, they'd
be driving blind behind a crust of dead bugs. Celeste closed the window
half way to soften the beating she was taking in her face and hair. The car
butted over the unevenness of the pavement. No smooth expressway here.
Keep a good watch on the road, they'd said in Jackson. The three missing
boys might have been held captive in some storm shelter or basementmaybe their captors moved them from place to place. Maybe they were
free, escaped, trying to flag a friendly soul down. She stared, searching the
landscape as if the very act of looking might conjure the missing three.
Anything but having to deal with Matt anymore.
The thumping tires and the press of warm air lulled Celeste, and she
rested her head back, strengthening herself with memories of Shuck and
summer rides in his Cadillac with the top down, cruising the Detroit streets,
stopping at his stops, the men back-slapping and number-writing, always
happy to see Shuck. Hey man, how you doing? How them kids? All right
now. Starched collars and cuffs, cufflinks like gold nuggets in the sunshine,
stocking-capped-slick hair, pinkie rings and wide movie smiles. Smelling
like heaven came out of an Old Spice bottle. Smooth. Shuck stepping up
on the shoeshine stand, the crack-slap of the rag as one of his cronies gave
him the best shine on the west side of Detroit, and Billy and her sitting up
on the high seats, feet dangling, watching, listening to every word of the
repartee. That was a long time ago, she thought, and opened her eyes. No
place to hide in Mississippi.
Matt was eyeing his rearview mirror. He slowed, though they'd never
reached the speed limit. "There's a state trooper behind us. If they stop us,
let me do the talking."
Celeste turned to see the trooper's flashing lights, following so close it
seemed it would touch their back fender. Celeste reached for something,
anything to hold onto and came up with the mumbled words to a freedom
song. She spoke the words as if they were a prayer, pushing the meaning up
into her head and down into her stomach just like blonde-haired Margo
had taught her. This wasn't Jackson. Out here, things were different. The
melody came into her voice and she sang quietly. Ain'tgonna let nobody turn
me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Matt snorted quietly. "That shit works in church." He pulled onto the
gravel shoulder. "It don't do a muthafuckin thing out here." He took a good breath, then sighed deeply. "No strong black woman smart talk cause
they'll kick my black ass. You hear?"
For a fleeting second, she wished they would.
The trooper's brown uniform was pressed and crisp. He yanked open
the door, his steel gray eyes piercing in a slash of sunlight under the brim
of his cowboy-style hat. The billy club was in his hand, and she saw the
black handle of his holstered gun, the silver handcuffs like Indian jewelry
shining on a brown blanket. He pulled Matt out of the car, and Matt's
limp body nearly fell to the ground. No resistance. Remember that. Do
not resist. The trooper dragged Matt along the side of the car, and Celeste
heard his shoes scuffing and grating over the gravel. She lifted out of her
seat, twisting around to see, didn't know if she should get out of the car,
try to talk to them quietly, plead for Matt. Matt had told her to let him
do the talking. She'd heard around the office that he'd been arrested more
than half a dozen times.
"Turn round and face front," the trooper barked.
He shoved Matt into the hands of the other trooper and came back to
the opened door.
"I said, turn round, less you want some of this!" His lips were drawn up
into hard lines making his teeth look big. His arm muscles pressed against
the fabric of his shirt. He cracked his billy club against the side of the car.
It sounded like a gunshot. Celeste's spine jolted like a steel rod had been
shoved through her body. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me
round, turn me round. She sang softly, her breath coming in frightened
pants. Fear deadened her memory so that she could only recall two lines of
the song. Matt said it didn't work out here, but there wasn't anything else.
The words drifted in and out of her mind like a ghost echo as if they weren't
really coming from her at all.
A thud and the car lurched. She had to be still, be quiet. They had guns,
billy clubs. Cattle prods. Margo always said if you got stopped like this,
hold onto your training, pray and sing, otherwise you'll only make it worse.
You can't win by fighting here. They have all the guns. Celeste kept singing.
Gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, on my way to freedom's land.
"Bet you got them three boys right here in this car, nigger." The trooper
spat the words out, his accent chopping off the consonants.
An excuse to open the trunk. Sweat poured into Celeste's eyes. Her
hands gripped in tight fists in her lap. She sneaked a look back. The trooper stood to the side of the car. Matt and the other, the one holding him, were
hidden by the opened trunk. She hoped they wouldn't take the freedom
school books or her suitcase. The trunk slammed shut, rocking the car. Then
the sound of punches, and a sharp crack. Matt moaned. His nonresistance
didn't stop the blows that followed. Now she didn't want to turn around,
didn't want to see what they were doing; she set her eyes on a black-barked
shade tree marking the turn into a dusty side road. Beyond it stretched rows
of crops, peanuts maybe or beans. Neat. No dark people cranked over at
the waist between the rows.
"Nigger. Go back where you came from."
She'd love to be gone. Far off in the tranquil blue sky, rain clouds began
to pile up like scoops of vanilla ice cream. There was the sound of air expelled in a moan. They must have hit him in the stomach. She didn't know
which trooper was talking now. One of them snarled at Matt about niggers
chasing white women. If they got on that, Matt was doomed and so was
she. Better to be anything else, to have horns even, than to be accused of
chasing, whistling, winking, even looking at a white woman. For a moment
she thought of J.D.-those last times together, when a kind of desperation
perverted their lovemaking, changing it from the joyous connection of
two people clamped together by a fierce electrical charge into something
dark and painful that they both identified as the falling away of love and
attraction. She had hardly believed they could go from one to the other so
fast. In the end, there had been silence. J.D. went back to his studio and she
cowered in the apartment on North Oak Street, depleted and sad. Celeste
felt pitiful and weak now again, sitting there by the side of the road listening
to two white Mississippi troopers beat the shit out of a black man. Her head
down, she prayed they wouldn't kill him.
"You just a bunch of communist outsider agitators. Come down here to
stir up our nigras. Everything was fine til y'all got here." After each phrase,
Celeste felt the car rock.
There might not be anything left of Matt to drive her to Pineyville. If
he needed a doctor, what could she do? Drive to the next town and call
Jackson, or just turn the car around and go back the way they'd come? She
knew how to drive. And where was the traffic? It was midday. There should
be cars driving by. The troopers must have stopped traffic in both directions
so no one would see. Had they been followed all the way from Jackson?
The troopers shoved Matt back into the driver's seat. His shirt was missing two buttons and one of his overall straps was hanging off his shoulder. "Git
in that car and you niggers git going. Next time, it'll go harder for you."
They slammed the door, then swung their billy clubs like bats, smashing
the front and back driver's-side windows. Celeste turned her face away from
the shards of flying glass and covered her face with her hands. Crystals
landed in her hair, pricked her legs, hit the seat, bounced off the dashboard.
They were booby-trapped in glass. The troopers got in their own car and
pulled alongside. The trooper in the passenger seat slowly raised his gun and
pointed it at Matt's head. She opened her mouth to scream before tearing
her eyes away from the awful black hole of the barrel. Across the fields she
saw a quiet tree, heard the whistling of a errant bird. She grabbed at the
door handle, ready to crawl out of the car, roll onto the ground, and run
for the tree's shelter. But Matt pulled her down on the seat under his arm
so fast it took all the air out of her body. He held her underneath him, her
snot and tears spreading across her cheek, little pieces of glass sticking into
her arms and scraping her face.
"We know y'all hiding them boys. Trying to make us look bad."
She heard the cops laugh, and then the loud blast of the gun firing.
Celeste expected Matt's warm blood to come streaming down over her. The
troopers sped away, the acrid smell of burning rubber wafting into the car.
Matt sat up slowly, releasing Celeste. She looked up at him expecting
the worst, but there was no gush of blood. A thin line of it meandered down
her forearm, about to round the curve there and drip onto the car seat.
There were shallow scratches in crazy patterns on both of her arms. She sat
still, afraid any movement meant another cut. She touched her face for more
blood, then climbed out of the car to shake out her clothes and hair. The
troopers might turn onto a side road and come at them again or call ahead
to the next town, tell the local police to stop them this time. they needed
to call Jackson, call the FBI, call somebody to let them know they were in
danger on the road to Pineyville.