Authors: Denise Nicholas
Tags: #20th Century, #Fiction, #United States, #Historical, #General, #History
Matt tossed glass out of the front seat of the car, making quick glances
ahead, behind, furtive takes, fear all over him. She wanted to tell him it was
okay that he was afraid, he didn't have to be a hero for her.
"Welcome to Mississippi." His voice hollowed over cracked lips. His
breath came in quick pants. A knot glistened on his forehead.
"You need some ice for your head." She reached in to throw more of the
broken glass out of the car then climbed back in.
"No stops until Pineyville. Be all right." Matt bumped the car onto the
road. No smart lip now. His mask-still face stared at the highway ahead.
Celeste wanted mercurochrome for her scratches, a drink of cold water,
an aspirin, a gin and tonic. She pressed Kleenex on her cuts, smelling Matt's
aroma encasing her, drowning out her own. Animal as prey. She smelled
her own stink beneath his, all anger and fear. Her mouth tasted dry, her
tongue like a salt cake.
"Did you get a name or a patrol car number, anything we can report
to the FBI?"
Matt sat like stone. "No."
She wondered where else they'd hit him. In Jackson she'd learned that
the cops go for the organs-the kidneys, the liver-and bone structures
like the spine and the kneecaps. Orientation. What to do? No ice. Try to
get Matt to talk. "Don't we need to call Jackson? You need to see a doctor.
What if you have a concussion or something?"
He said nothing.
Way off to their right, a train sped over the baking red earth, a toy to
dream on. Was it going to New Orleans? The City of New Orleans, Ltd.
Her train. Name like a lure. Music, dancing, freedom, water. That woman
in the station had said to her, "Don't want to miss my train." Celeste was
sad to see it go past, knowing that whatever sanity was left in the world
went with it. She wished Matt could speed up, catch the train, throw her
suitcase and book-bag up and help her get on board. So long, Mississippi,
see you later.
They passed through Collins. Hattiesburg was thirty miles ahead and
from the looks of things, there wasn't going to be anything much in between. Celeste scoped each side road, each driveway, looking for patrol cars,
cars with white men in groups, panel trucks with loaded gun racks. The
pain in the little cuts on her arms quieted to a dull prickle.
Matt's eyes shot back and forth from the rearview mirror to the highway. He steadied his hands on the steering wheel, his jaw dropping, his
lower lip slack, his body braced.
Celeste sank in her seat. "What now?"
Matt kept his eyes dead forward, slowing as a car pulled around to pass
them. A white sheet flung across its front seat-back lifted in the draft of
the car's acceleration as it went by. It billowed gently, like Momma Bessie's
bed sheets on the backyard clothesline. Then, like a crumpling parachute, airless, quiet, the sheet relaxed. A stretch of red satiny fabric lay next to the
snowy sheet. Four white men, two in front, two in back, glanced at Matt
and Celeste. They wore short-sleeved shirts, relaxed ties, narrow-brimmed
straw hats. Their eyes were flat. They went by, a blurry glare of recognition
passing between them.
"Klan meeting in Hattiesburg tonight." Matt smiled a creak of a smile.
"You hear about them Negroes in Louisiana?"
"What about 'em?" Celeste was so happy he was talking, she didn't much
care what he said.
"They arming themselves. The Deacons for Defense and Justice. Don't
want to hear another word about nonviolence." Matt stared ahead, watching the car that had passed them disappear on down the highway, driving
a good deal faster than they were with no fear of being harassed.
After what had just happened to Matt, she had her own new questions
about the payoff for nonviolence. Matt had gone limp, never spoke a provocative word, and they beat him anyway. You might as well have a gun.
This waiting for the spiritual power of nonviolence to tame the opponent
was already running short. So many people had already been beaten and
jailed and the summer was just beginning. And now those three volunteers
were completely missing, just gone, disappeared like vapors. Two Jewish
students from New York and a Negro kid from Meridian.
Celeste had a sudden overwhelming feeling that she'd never get back
home, never sit in Momma Bessie's kitchen again or picnic on Belle Isle
or walk along the shore of the river, looking across and seeing Canada as a
benign restful place across the way. She'd never sit at the bar with Shuck and
pretend she was more grown up than she really was, sipping the alcohol-free
concoction that Posey used to make for her and for Billy. Now she could
drink real drinks at the bar, drop quarters in the party girl, swap stories
with the regulars and tap her feet to Shuck's jazz favorites. It seemed so far
away. That wallpaper Shuck had ordered especially for his bar with all those
fine Negro people who seemed to have the world in their hands, bigger than
life up there on the walls of the Royal Gardens, smiling and reminding
everyone that they were real. It was all on another planet. She had dropped
into a foreign country, an alien place filled with death and pain. She felt
the scratches on her arms, the tiny nicks in the skin on her face, pressing
them, feeling the pricks of renewed pain.
South of Hattiesburg, the rust-red soil changed to orange. Along the road, the gravel shoulders gave way to soft sand, then rolled off into a
shallow depression. For a few miles, the land up-hilled into a forest of longneedled pines that blocked the sun and perfumed the air like a thousand
women wearing fringed-green dresses, laughing. Margo had called it the
Just after Lumberton, with the speedometer marking them at still well
under the limit, they entered Pearl River County as if on tiptoe. Celeste
felt coolness in the air, felt it on her stinging face, prayed it would last. But
within minutes the long-needled pines gave way to hundreds of decaying
stumps, dead logs scattered in the open spaces. The barren expanse screamed
beneath the peacock-blue tropical sky, a sky fit for an island paradise in the
Gulf of Mexico. The sun pounded down on it all. She flinched but there
was no getting away from its rays.
Before they reached the Pineyville town center, Matt left the blacktop
for a part-sand, part-gravel side road. No alluvial plain, no cotton plantations here. Power lines, but no phone lines. Matt pulled up and stopped
near a stunted water pipe with a spigot that seemed to periscope up out
of a square concrete platform. At the turn-off, Celeste saw a large country mailbox attached to a leaning post, beneath a street sign that read,
Detroit summers pulled thick, water-logged air from the lakes, boiled it
with car and bus exhausts, mixed in smokestack poisons, then asked you to
inhale. At Shuck's house, on an island boulevard lined with red maple, elm,
yellow birch, and hickory, the trees saved the day, so that on the ground you
could breathe in the scent of roses, lilacs, and wet, fresh-cut June grass.
The first thing a city does when it knows Negroes are moving into a
neighborhood is cut down all the trees. Thank God they'd done little of
that on the West Side except over by the projects. Not a tree in sight there.
Outer Drive, where Shuck lived, had the feel of a rich man's street, lush and
green in summer, vibrant red, orange, and ocher in autumn, and quietly
carpeted with snow in winter. The trees made the difference.
Whatever went on in those perfect houses stayed neatly behind closed
doors. None of that sitting out front loud-talking. In fact, Shuck barely
knew who his neighbors were; he nodded and greeted the people from those
quiet houses without ever thinking about who lived in which. He preferred
it that way since his life was still the nightlife. His neighbors lived and
worked the nine to five or something close to it, or so he thought. For those
who blue-collared at the plants, they put up such a good front of middle
class respectability, of nine to five instead of shifts at the plants, you missed
the blue of it all together. He appreciated that.
One night a new customer happened into the Royal Gardens still wearing his work clothes, a familiar face but Shuck knew not from where until
in conversation it came out that the man lived right around the corner from him. The man seemed embarrassed to be seen in his work clothes and
he never came back to the Royal Gardens again. Shuck's regulars worked
blue-collar, too, but they wore sports jackets and slacks to work and at home
and changed into their work clothes at the job. Those blue-collar clothes
were not for the streets.
Posey gave Wilamena's first phone message to Shuck. Shuck decided,
without telling Posey, that he wasn't of a mind to return the call. She called
a second time and a third. Posey said she was hot on the phone, fussing at
him as if he hadn't given Shuck the message. Posey told him to take care
of it because he didn't want her calling and cussing him out. Shuck knew
Wilamena never used that kind of language, but she could make you feel
like she did.
He propped the little square of paper with her name and phone number
written in Posey's grade-school scrawl against the base of his bedside lamp.
When he opened his eyes, the black ink vibrated on the white background
of the paper. In the shade of his secluded room, the drapes drawn tight for
daytime sleeping, he eyed the numbers and considered selecting two sets of
three and playing them on Monday. If he played the area code boxed, and
the numbers fell, he'd get a hit regardless of the configuration. Funny that
Posey thought he didn't have his ex-wife's number. Maybe he figured with
the kids grown and gone, it had faded from Shuck's mind. But Shuck was
good at remembering numbers.
He dozed until afternoon, surface dreaming of a Wilamena who gave
him kisses that spun him out of control, flew his heart on a balloon caught
in a sailing breeze. When he woke, he'd dreamed so hard he shuddered to
find she wasn't sleeping beside him.
Wilamena had been in the Outer Drive house only once. She'd breezed
into town for her own mother's funeral and stopped by on a moment's
notice to see Celeste's new bedroom furniture. She'd spent most of her time
there pacing in the foyer waiting for her husband, Cyril Atwood, to pick
her up. She never saw Shuck's room with its wall of east-facing windows,
the tan and blue silk comforter spread, and the matching drapes. She never
felt its deep carpet under her feet. Maybe she didn't want to see what his life
had become. But he hadn't even been home that afternoon, and he always
kept his bedroom door closed.
Shuck showered and threw on his blue summer robe over a pair of black
slacks. He went downstairs and headed straight for his high-fidelity record player in the dining room. He stacked on two LPs, staring at the machine
until the needle locked into the vinyl's grooves. Count Basie's downbeat
sounded through the silence. He retrieved the morning paper, dropped it
on the kitchen table, then went out the backdoor to the expanse of yard,
the smell of grass and leaves like a new world coming. Wilamena loved this
afternoon light, the light that signaled the softening down of the sun as
it dipped behind the giant elms and maples standing in rows all over the
neighborhood. Back in the kitchen, he fried himself three pieces of bacon,
scrambled two eggs with a splash of milk, salt, pepper, and half a palm of
grated cheddar cheese, made toast, and perked two cups of good strong
coffee. He sat in the kitchen and went through the newspaper with flat,
focused attention. After scouring the front sections, he turned slowly to
the sports page. Neighbors along Outer Drive dreamed of supper as he sat
down to his first meal of the day.
Shuck spent the two weeks since he got the first message kiting through
an assortment of reasons for Wilamena's call, knowing all the while that
it had to be about Celeste. The thought that distracted him as he drove
back and forth to the club was that Wilamena's husband might be lying
in a hospital bed holding on to life by a breath. Wilamena might just need
She'd meet him at the Albuquerque airport, her dark hair in wavy
lengths to her shoulders, wearing a dress the color of the New Mexico sky
on a postcard she'd sent to Celeste. It would sway gently as she walked.
Her golden brown eyes would flash her need for him. She'd be darker than
she'd ever been in Detroit, and he wouldn't stop looking at her. They'd
rush to the hospital, but it'd be too late. Over drinks at his deluxe hotel,
she'd ask if he was involved with anyone, tell him they should rescue their
own love. He'd sit there with a long face and hold back his heart. For once,
with Wilamena, he'd hold back his heart. They'd order more drinks, and
he'd take her up to his room without saying anything about the future,
knowing that would only ignite her passion. They'd make love like they'd
done a long time ago.
When he looked down, his plate was empty and he hadn't tasted a
thing. For years, he'd worked at convincing himself that he no longer loved
Wilamena, that he only remembered loving her.