Chapter One: Petal, Mississippi
Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely. The two-week bake of August sun beginning to mask its humiliation, blending the old man's emission to a color like that of rusted girder. On a day not spent dealing with death, Even would have stopped one more time to wonder over the bigger insult: that Canaan's middle-aged forehead got split by glass and bled out, or that the bottle bearing skin and blood soared over a rail and dropped into the water that he loved. Death or no, Even's suspicion was the same as two weeks back: both. Both were equally bad.
Patting for a shirtfront pocket that wasn't there, he fixed a mark on the sun and gauged the time later than normal by half an hour; summed the earth's indifferent swing as more proof of inconsequential man. On an ordinary day he would have stood still in the spot -- left foot in Hattiesburg, right foot in Petal -- and considered the river Leaf. The way the trees leaned in low as if made curious by their reflection. The way those leaning trees formed a diminishing edge that followed the water like the furrow of a snake. On a day less strained he would have made a box of his hands and peered through like a blindered horse, feeling less overwhelmed by the viewing of segments. He had never known such colors. Never dreamed brown was such a rainbow. He'd always thought of brown as brown, the color of burnt toast or worn-out shoes. But after months on end he'd learned to parcel out the values into new shades fast approaching the limit of his imagination -- Ten-Minute Tea. Steeped-Too-Long Tea. Barely Tea. Wet Bark. Sun-Baked Bark. Old-as-Sin Bark. Old Soggy Leaves. Just-Dropped Leaves. Fresh Wet Leaves. And these were just the browns. He was yet to go on to green, which he was just now beginning to see.
Sniffing the air, he drew in smells of hot grease and pork. Meat grilling somewhere inside Petal's boundaries. Still on the bridge, he searched the water, hopeful for a rainbow in spite of the approach of suppertime, spying out travel-blackened logs lying like sleepers inside a purple shade, but no rainbow. Too late for that. The sun so low, brown was just plain brown again. He glanced over once, saw a vague tea-colored ripple -- catfish probably -- and shrugged. Willie Brackett's blood was to his undershirt, red soaking in and turning stiff in the breeze, brushing against his arm like a crusty leaf. He walked on. Glanced up once to a maroon sun. Glanced back down again.
When Even passed under the caution light at Central and Main, he saw Canaan sitting on the warm deck of the loading dock of the Feed and Seed. Leaning against the wall, his shades on his bony nose, Canaan had put aside the bandage he'd worn for two weeks. On approach, Even saw the scar was healing up to that of question mark tilted to its side and he wondered over it. Canaan didn't stop reading. Just said from behind newsprint as Even approached, "I do say, Even Grade, somebody dead? Or Hercules Powder givin' overtime to their most talkative nigger? Which is it?"
Canaan looked up. Sometimes when he was startled he took on a resemblance to that of dried-up mummy and that's how he looked then. His mouth frozen open inside a face so lined, tears or sweat or blood would never have a choice in direction. "Thy God, who?"
"Two somebodies -- Willie Brackett and James Evans. You got something cold?"
Canaan handed him a green bottle and a slice of hard cheese. Sitting down to the edge of the loading dock beside a man old enough to be his father, Even bit into the cheddar and drank deep from his Coca-Cola. Canaan folded up his newspaper, crossed his arms over his chest, waiting. Realizing nothing would be coming out quick, he pushed his glasses up on his nose and said, "I've known Willie's mama since she got that boy -- she ain't gonna make it through this one. Not this time. Lord, what a mess."
"If she'd got there 'fore I picked up his face and tied it back on with my shirt, she'd be dead right now."
"That why you wanderin' around in your undershirt?"
"Yes sir, it is." Even munched on the cheese and thought how good an apple would be with it.
"You there when it happened?"
"Almost. Left the area on break five minutes earlier -- "
"You know how it happened?"
"I got me a pretty good idea." Even finished his cheese.
"Well, you wanna tell me 'fore I have to read the cleaned-up union version in the Hattiesburg American?"
Even looked back toward the bridge; wondering where to begin. Canaan knew most of it. That the "Bull Gang," a group of twenty-seven Negroes with varying degrees of mechanic skills, worked whatever the union said to work -- scraping out, hosing down, tightening up, loosening what needed to be, by careful degrees. Doing during their swing every low-down shitty job that needed doing, deep down where nobody else wanted to go. He knew they did it with both eyes wide open and steady on their work buddy.
Canaan knew Even worked irregular hours. He knew it was against union regulations. He also knew it didn't matter worth a shit because the union wouldn't let in the Negro in 1956. Union needed the Bull Gang like they needed their balls, but they'd rather take a rusted knife to their own crotch than admit it. Could've used their dues, too. But that didn't matter, either. Not one little bit. Colored was Colored and that was that. No use worrying over it. Better to work at worrying over whether or not your buddy's got his head on straight and able to watch the couplings right, or if he's worried about home or his woman or the numbers he's played and lost big on again and what he's gonna say to the bookie who broke his finger last month and said, "I'm goin' lower next time, nigger -- " Better to wonder if that same nigger's closed off that valve good as you would, and is standing there readin' the gauge pressure like his own mama's where you're at. Flat on your back in the mud, breathing turpentine, underneath a pipe labeled three ways in yellow on black: "Warning" and "Toxic" and "Danger." No use worrying about a union in the face of pressing matters that pressed on a body a helluva lot more. Canaan knew these things as good as Even did. Better to tell it as it happened. And so he did.
He told about the siren five minutes into break. How he knew before it quit its scream what had happened. How he knew it was Willie and James because James was horny for a woman he couldn't afford who was driving him crazier by the second. Knew Willie let him slide because he'd had one just like her a few years back and sweet was sweet, no matter the cost. Even knew these things and told them to Canaan. He finished by saying how once the air cleared in sub-level two, the crew had found them both thrown against a boiler in a heap -- James still clutching his wrench, burned crisp by molten resin, and Willie splayed wide, his arms spread out like Christ, with no face.
"And that's why I'm an hour late home and shirtless." He finished the last of his Coke and set the bottle on its side, spinning it easy with his finger. He didn't tell Canaan how he couldn't help crying, Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...while he picked up a sheet of skin that used to be a face and put it back on a bloody smear of a thing, or how he fought puking while he pulled off his old blue chambray and wrapped up the head before Willie's mama showed up looking for her only son and found him faceless.
The caution light at Center and Main blinked steady on and off in the middle of the empty intersection where most traveled through on a tractor or beat-up truck, but very seldom in a car. The Quarter -- pronounced "niggertown" by the white folks -- was still out of sight, still a mile beyond with his small house and others just like it lining red dirt streets named after flowers.
"I'm headed thataway -- " Even nodded his head in a direction away from town.
"I'll be on directly. Been reading more about Arkansas and what's stirring there." Canaan tapped the newspaper, still folded in his lap.
"Well, you read then, while the light's easy, but I'm tired."
"I guess you are. After what you seen, you don't need an old man's predictions." Canaan picked up the paper and opened it to its center. Spinning the bottle one more time, Even patted his shoulder and stood up, stretching, meaning to head for home.
"When I was a boy, my daddy took me down to the train depot to see a dead whale." Canaan's low voice was behind him, feathery in the hot wind. "Cost him a quarter just so I could sit up on his shoulder and touch the side of that big ole ugly thing. Never seen so many people in all my life, all straining for a look at something big, dead and pitiful. Folks said it'd washed up in Gulfport and some bright boy thought of carting it up from Biloxi, in steamy summer, stinking to high heaven, just to make a buck or two. Gulls followed, too. Thousands and thousands of 'em. They covered the train cars in front and behind, turned 'em white and noisy. Flew over the crowd. Shit over most everbody. All those birds just sitting there staring. All I could think when I saw that whale and its tiny slitted eyes -- barely open and blue-cloudy -- was how ugly a thing it was for us to be standing underneath a broiling sun looking at a thing so pitiful. That's what I thought. Just seven, and I thought that. I remember thinking there weren't a tarp big enough to cover a thing of that size, but I sure wished there was." He crossed his legs and shook open the newspaper. "Shirts have been lost over lesser things, Even Grade -- I'm sure sorry 'bout those two boys."
Even didn't answer, just raised his hand and waved as he walked underneath the yellow light blinking overhead. He found himself back on the sidewalk and moving past the barbershop and Owl Drug. Canaan's blood there, too. His blood pennies dribbled across half of Petal because some boy in a truck took good aim and hurled a Coke at a wobbly old Negro.
The Quarter was closer now, still not in sight, but closer. Breath came easier thinking of Bellrose Street -- a strange name for a place not at all like a bell or a flower, but where his house sat with its faded front porch and the green metal chair. He passed Virginia Street with its tall trees, then on past Cedar Knot Avenue where a couple of kids were rolling a ball out into the street. By that point his neck was relaxed and in spite of things, he found himself humming.
A sea of curly dock grew wild along the clay road, standing in waist-high clusters. And though he'd never noticed the wildflowers before June, he'd met them since and been told more than once that their seeds, still white and hidden, would turn rust-colored once the weather cooled and the days shortened. He'd been told a tea could be brewed from boiling out the yellow root; a tea good enough to cure the stomach and the gums and certain cases of jaundice. He'd been told the leaves were fresher and better than the juice of a ripe lemon and that the seeds could be ground up as meal or coarse flour and baked up as bread. Thinking on it, he watched the curling leaves, caught up and moving in greenish blue waves. A month ago, the hedge was just one more patch of fast-growing green springing up wild on the side of a road he walked day in and day out. Now that patch had a name and a purpose and a deep-seated sermon. Judy had said to him sometime around the middle of June, "The language of 'dock' is patience -- you remember that, Even Grade, next time you see it growin' alongside the road or in a wasted place." And while he hummed some nonsense song, he did remember and thought on the true patience of a man and what it might mean and put to sum all the other countless lessons such a woman with such a memory might equal. Stretching his neck, hearing it pop in all directions, he hummed louder, his hands swinging free.
Contrary within himself over his two-sided emotions -- feeling such good, sweet relief his week's shift was over on one side, but sick to death over Willie and James on the other -- he reached down and pulled off a dark green, wavy leaf and rubbed it between his hands. Waxed and cool, it felt soft and thin along its curl. Folding it up accordionlike, he put the length of it in his mouth and chewed, feeling it unfold and open against his teeth like something still living. He tasted a similarity to lemons and something deeper in that spoke of well-seasoned fish and lemon meringue pie and all those tart, clean foods of summer. Never knew patience could taste so good, was his thought as he saw his street coming at him just a hundred steps away. Knowing he'd turn in and see his porch with its single green metal chair. He liked to sit there at night, leaning back in study of the stars while his nearest neighbor, who was still back a ways reading yesterday's paper on the loading dock, yelled out his thoughts from the porch next door.
Under a hard noon sun the white water tower at the top of the hill had a way of looking like a stripped-down widow woman, all flaked-out and peeling, pale and ugly and sad, but with the sun falling and the sky near purple at the horizon, the tower seemed stately again, its weaknesses shored up and braced; covered over by the evening light. Spitting out patience to the side of his porch he climbed the steps with tired, aching feet, glad to see Saturday on its way, just behind tonight's moon now, with nothing marked down on that fresh page to do either, but whatever it was that happened to come to mind.
-- I'm goin' Lo Lo to see Lo Lo, she so Lo Lo, she need Lo Lo...
At the beginning of August, Even Grade was still a happy man.
Copyright © 1999 by Melinda Haynes