Book One

Johnny Cobb



It wasn’t just a boat. It was the beginning of it all; that mahogany craft who’d feather across a shallow lake or in-shore sound. Some place littoral. The little boat had transcended something that only floats time. Over the years, that eleven-foot skiff and everything that followed in its wake would melt the huge block of ice that had formed around my heart. How I’d sensed that at the time, I do not know. Many changes swept over me in those weeks and months after Ruth passed, reshaping and reordering the person that now speaks these words. My place in the world, how and where I’d plant my size thirteen working boots, had been uprooted when she died. It was as if a great funnel of wind had ravaged an ancient oak whose roots had just grown beyond the shadow of its leaves.

A dead woman, a wife, and boat sharing a name; this is where my story begins.

*                                                 *                                            *

The Ruth Henry David, belonged in a fisherman’s hand, not mine. I’d come from the dark red loam of the South. Only things fluid I was drawn to were ideas and draft beer. The boat wasn’t mine, never was. It’d killed my wife, Ruth. I had a mind to burn the damn thing. But I was meant to give it away, to make it go away. It shoulda’ belonged to a man who made his living there in the sea–a  fisherman whose fate and reputation and identity rose with the tide and the day’s catch.

The great oceans, the right and left coasts of the Atlantic and the Pacific, seemed too far away. The middle south had a hold around me, not like a noose   but more like the thick arms of another black man telling me that it would get better in years to come, that we deserved to be here, to stay the course, that we were part of that land, bound at first with chains, then with song, and now with blood lines and will.

Of course, I’d fought the idea at first, taking that boat away instead of letting the lake just have it. Nobody knew of its owner. And there was little chance they’d appear after someone had died in it. The boat had always been there, nestled between the saw grass and the lake’s murky edge. People had been using it to row around the lake since I could remember. But it belonged to me now on account of it was jinxed. I could burn the little boat or I could move it, seeing where it’s travels would take me.

At first I resisted the trip that I’d be taking to gift it properly. I’d have to go down to the Gulf, the closest ocean that I knew of then. And to do it on the words of one white man whose name I did not know. Who’d a thought it? But there was no denying the push from something near my head and the pull from another force at my feet. I had to go.

I’d lost a wife and our child-to-be but would saved a man for the time being. It could never be a trade, but in the area between “whys” and “because so’s,” it was at least a bridge.

Ruth’s Uncle Chuck hadn’t returned after her drowning and the boat was just left there at the lake. Chuck, whose disposition oscillated between dark heavy weather and bluebird skies, seemed to be forever starring in his own movie. He wasn’t so much conflicted as he was fragmented.

About the boat, I was told that one of the white folk who kept a hunting shack near the lake had tied it to the dock that night Ruth left us. A few months after her dying, one of the other local blacks sent me a message to please come and fetch it. He had tried to get word to Uncle Chuck through a mutual acquaintance but Chuck wasn’t ready to return to the site of Ruth’s drowning, later as he would claim, for fear of lacerating self-doubt. Most people figured then he’d just gone and checked himself out; put a lot of distance between him and what happened. But I was sensing it was something else then. Some folk thought he’d gone off to off-himself. I didn’t believe that. Ruth’s uncle never did anything easy. And I wasn’t ready to go looking for a man who didn’t want to be found. When he was ready, Chuck would find me.

In the meantime, I wrestled with my own absence that visited me each night as I lie alone without her, struggling with it all, thinking at first that no one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. No one ‘cept me. Those were some hard moons to sleep under.

One night, early into the short, thin winter of ’51, one hundred twenty-one days since she died, my thirty first year of breathing God’s air, I left our bed and drove the farm-truck out past the last row of alfalfa. Telling the dogs to stay in the truck, I walked alone into the wall of cypress and moss and earth so deep and unpredictable that you could fall into a bog, get stuck up to your armpits and no man would find you until the turkey vultures had picked your upper torso clean down past the bone to suck even the marrow from your center. Before that night, I wouldn’t go in that place beyond our property even during the day with six men, five dogs, and three guns. Somehow, I wasn’t afraid that night.

Darkness and aloneness, they deserved each other like I deserved them.

And there, past the wall of old growth that swayed and pumped in the wind, creating moon shadows like child’s fingers on a bedroom wall, in the heart of it was a hard pack clay trail winding its way through the tall shrubs, sometimes straight and narrow, other times winding back on itself. It was paralleled by a thin, crisp stream with river rock supporting the banks where it might have eroded the path. At places, the waxing gibbous moon would slice through the hanging limbs and I’d see foot prints in the middle of the path.

I walked for hours, feeling closer to the world that I had tried to separate myself from. The path never forked. Never was there a chasm so wide that I couldn’t hurdle it. At some point the path made a small keyhole and turned back on itself. Any denial of Ruth’s death would from then on simply be a fear of my own fear.

In the morning when the sun rose, I found myself asleep in the bed of the truck, warmed by dogs, leaves, and the beginning of acceptance.  I turned around and headed home, thinking that the young black poet had said it right–my soul had grown deep like the river. Still, I wasn’t ready to jump in nor cross it. Just try and make some peace with it.

At first, I’d asked around if anybody in the area could use the boat. But people are funny about things like that. I’d heard that a boat can take on a certain spirit, maybe its own personal history. The roots might be in Caribbean voodoo or it might be set in the tales laid down over the years from the great explorers and pirates alike, seaman from Portugal and Spain and England. All the locals knew this boat had originally been a white man’s boat used on occasion by common black people, a boat that had already killed a person. A lot of these folks were the type to keep one eye on their Southern Baptist dogma and the other on the color of a man’s skin.

But they too believed that the most trustworthy of vessels are always named after a woman who had been the love of a seaman’s life. The Queen Mary is as sound as the day she was rolled down the ways in 1936. The Arizona, the Titanic, the Indianapolis — all bottom havens for fish, and human skeletons and the memories that haunt those still on top who might’ve followed her down.

Uncle Chuck had stenciled in charcoal the words “Foolish Pleasure” across the transom just the day before the accident, some sort of thinly veiled reference to his penchant for cards, the game that had won him the next day’s use of the boat when cash or violence were not options.

Months later, when I finally went to pick it up, she was part sunk, banging against the old pier and half-filled with dirty lake water, rusty beer cans, and two unused life jackets that were already fading in the thin January sun. The stillness made me shiver and I fought the memories, almost deciding to abandon her. A voice came up behind me.

“You know there are people ‘round these parts that say Negroes can’t swim, that they weren’t meant to be cleansed by water. This here section of the lake is one of the only places where the black man is allowed to go in the water. Closer to town black folks can’t even go on the beach.”

Suffocating halfway between desperation and despair, the sound that joined me felt at first like two vocal hands around my throat. In the distance, a dog barked and the sound carried out over the water. I lowered my eyes but did not turn around.

“This hate, it’s a burden for the white man and the Negro alike,” the voice softened a bit. “The difference is that the Negro is constantly aware of it; it moves before and behind him, a two-sided shadow, a gray past and a gray future. The southern white man is the same but different. Those too are chains, having to live inside that fear that someday the Negro might rise up and resist. And then what, I ask you? How many will suffer in the wake of this past ignorance carried down the years like a flesh-eating disease? I got a family. It’s a good one. What will happen to them when the South burns?”

A long silence moved between us as the mirrored lake reflected the absence of sound. And then another dog bark. It penetrating even the sun’s brilliance, daring me to speak. The water was so smooth I would’ve been afraid to pick up a rock and skip it across for fear of cracking the surface.

I started to say “Yassir,” to move slowly to the left and face the voice. But then I heard a clicking metallic sound and gravel-crunching footsteps moving toward me. It sounded like chain and an air of musk oil cologne mixed with day old sweat seemed to envelop my head. A large hand came up on my shoulder and the voice spoke in the same even, factual baritone.

“I was here that day. I saw you pull her out. Saw her with child. Nothing a man can say to another ‘bout that.”

Out on the lake, a small carp jumped up and snagged a mosquito. They were rising early for such a mild day.

“Come on, son,” the voice said. “I think if we can get this chain around a bulkhead we can winch her out with my truck. Got to be a man somewhere who’s got better use for a nice little boat than letting her die a slow death by abandonment.”

I turned slowly, gaining my senses and a feeling of hope released from indenture. Facing the large man, it was as if I was seeing a vision — part awe, part disbelief.

“Well,” he continued, “Had you picked out a name for the child yet?”

We stood on even ground, me well over six feet back then before gravity started pulling me down. But though I could say he looked thicker, he was no taller, and his skin, like any man’s, was shaded by its location and his occupation: darker in the arms from working outside, redder around the neck from underexposure.

“Ruth had a feeling,” I spoke slowly, clearing out the effigies that had snuck into my mind under the fear, “that it was going to be a boy, so we had mostly settled on Henry David.”

“And so it is,” he concluded. “After we load her up, you’ll have a little boat called the Ruth Henry David, if you’d like.” I’d also heard that the only thing worse than misnaming a boat by gender was changing the name after she’d been owned. But I did not speak those words.

Over the years I’ve found that when men are supposed to talk to each other, they clam up, and when they ought to respect the silence, they gaggle on like coyotes claiming a kill. When some men are full of bravado, maybe after their own form of kill, their balls swing like a clock pendulum, ticking away at the coward beneath. They will speak loud and sloppy on any subject that enters their mind. At times like these you can spot the better man by the language of his hands, his back, and the way he holds himself up against the sky and the angle of the earth that has just been pitched at him.

I never learned the man’s name. He never offered, I never asked. We pulled the Ruth Henry David out with the chains and his truck and our backs. She was loaded in silence onto the back of my truck, tied down and made ready to move. I wiped the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand as the stranger returned with a can of black paint and a small brush.

“Go ahead, young man, it’s not a tombstone.”

I painted the name, the letters almost child-like on account of my heart’s pounding, and opened the door to the truck, pausing just long enough to push out my hand at the man coiling a length of rope and chain. He shook it tightly, motioned to the chains and said one day neither of us will carry these. I nodded, said yes sir, someday. Someday.

“I know of a man down in Panama City Beach on the Gulf,” he spoke while tying off the rope, almost after the fact. “He fishes the outer bars for shrimp and bass and amber jack. Wife just had a boy. Reckon he might be in the market for a skiff like the Ruth Henry.” He turned back to his rope, handed me a piece of paper with some writing on it and said no more.

I turned the key in my truck. The motor started on the first try.


Heading south to the Gulf, skirting the Mississippi/Alabama state line, across Mobile Bay then east along the Florida Panhandle on Route 98 from Ft. Walton and into Panama City, there was time to think about how it had to be. Since the Ford would overheat if I drove it too long under any sun, the trip took me three days. I was skirting the main roads, thinking that a black man caught with a boat lacking proper ownership papers might prompt the questions that had no acceptable answer.

Still, it wasn’t unpleasant.


*                                                 *                                                  *


Back in the spring of ’51, Panama City Beach seemed a town trying its damdest to be one, but was falling short. Its main road ran parallel to the coast, not but a hundred yards from the water in places and was slurry-tarred over a bed of gravel that had already leaked through the asphalt at the intersections. There was a small gathering of shops: a restaurant with a hand-painted sign in the window that said, “No catfish on Friday,” a bakery that smelled like Sunday mornings, and a bait and tackle store that advertised “Our live bait is guaranteed.”

Across the empty streets was a filling station. Gas was eighteen cents for a gallon, a penny more than up in Mobile. The town was real quiet, and for me on that mid week afternoon in early April, 1951, it seemed real hot. There’d be no place to hide in this town, if you were looking to. Especially for someone who was defined by his wound — the loss of a good wife doesn’t wash off with one bar of soap. A Negro with a short fuse, regardless of fault, needed to keep clear of white boys playing with matches.

I opted for the small family diner and pulled the truck into the dirt lot. Entering the side door, I removed my hat and sat near the back in the Negroes Only section. The place was quiet, well lit, and near empty. I couldn’t recall which day of the week it was, but it felt like a Wednesday, maybe a Thursday, but definitely not a Friday or a Tuesday.

“Specials are there on the board. Soup’s split pea today and we’re out of the chicken fried steak.” She wore her hair up in a high bun and the strands running down her cheeks she kept off to the side by blowing air through pursed lips. The eyes and nose said Creole, the name tag said Winnie. Her voice was mixed-up South. She looked forty but I would’ve bet cash money her date of birth put her ten under that.

“We’re out of menus and fixin’ to shut the lunch specials down in a few minutes so you best be thinkin’ ‘bout what you gonna’ order right quick.”

“That soup any good? I mean, did you try it for yourself?”

Winnie looked around to see where the others were and lowered her voice. “Reckon they’re gonna’ scrape the pan and you’ll end up with a bunch of burnt up black peas that ain’t supposed to be black.”

“I see. Well that being the case, and you looking like a woman who knows her job, just bring me the bologna sandwich and a cup of black coffee if you don’t mind.”

Winnie, the mixed-breed waitress, seemed like the kind of woman who wasn’t raised as much as she was jerked up by the world, a consequence of some bourbon and lustful night. In her hybrid hostess world, she had to show covert kindness to the Negroes on the installment plan. I liked her straight away.

“You ain’t from around here, are you?” She over-filled my coffee, spilling a little onto the counter, and let it lie there.

“No ma’am. I’m from north of Mobile, ‘bout half way ‘tween Mt. Vernon and Chatom off the I-45.”

“You down here to fish or something, ‘cuz I seen that boat on your truck outside.” The last part of her sentence trailed off as she spun around with an arm full of dirty plates, one eye on the manager who had an ear open to any conversation between the help and the customers.

I sensed her dilemma and spoke to the two thin slices of Weber’s bread that held the bologna and impotent lettuce in my hands.

“No mam. I’m not much for the water. Just down in these parts to deliver that boat to a man, a local by the name of Davis, Mr. Harry Davis.” I pulled the slip of paper from my shirt pocket to prove it so. “He’s a commercial fishing type, I hear. I’d be obliged if you might consider how I’d find this Mr. Davis.”

The manager moved in our direction, a tall, thin white man except for the shelf near his waist that appeared as if he was hiding a basketball inside his shirt.

“Listen, boy, our gals is awfully busy here so if you’re looking for conversation or information I suggest you join the other coloreds in the back or go see the Chamber of Commerce.” He threw a look at Winnie, told the kitchen staff to shut down the lunch orders, and moved back into a conversation with an Ozzie and Harriet looking pair sitting at the counter drinking well-iced cokes.

I got the bill from my waitress with an address on the back, paid it with a pocket full of quarters and slipped the yellow paper in my jeans pocket. The manager looked over his shoulder to see me leave, but I turned and faced him for just enough time that it took for me to conjure up the right combination of hate and empathy. He must’ve seen it, though I doubt he felt it. He could match the hate but not my empathy and looked away in the pity of what I hoped but didn’t think would be self-disgust. I’d made an enemy but it was his world, not mine that would define the term.

I left a dollar on the counter and walked out into the heat and the hate of Panama City Beach, Florida. Thinking I’d have myself a little nap before I went looking for the man, Davis, I drove the beach road looking for a shady spot close, but not too close to the water. It was well past noon and I could see men doing things here and there but most of them weren’t doing anything at all.

My mind wandering a bit, I’d see Uncle Chuck in the shadows of old cypress, lying on his back staring at the rays of the sun. Other times he’d appeared as a reflection in a puddle after a rain. Once he was right there in the rearview mirror and I turned around to see if he was sitting in the back seat. And then there was the time he came to me in a dream, begging my forgiveness for the death of Ruth, like he had caused it, like I could forgive him. It’d be like forgiving someone for having a poor singing voice. Man, there are some things that just is and the consequences, tough as they might seem, are a part of living.

Problem with Ruth and her uncle though, is that they were both a party to her dying; one doing it, one bearing witness, like Jesus dragging his cross to Gethsemane. A lot of people saw and spent the rest of their lives wishing they’d done something more than nothing. But cause? Guilt will kill you like dying on a slow, self-erected crucifix. I wasn’t taught that in Sunday school. But I seen a lot of it and I didn’t want it to kill me nor Chuck.

I needed to keep moving until something grew up under me and kept me from drowning, too. I reckon Uncle Chuck must’ve known that as well.

This little skiff with her name on it had something to do with it; a connection I couldn’t say but could feel like a feint pulse at the wrist.

My hardscrabble apprenticeship with dying was not a chosen profession. But neither was it a calling or a curse. Later on, I’d look back on it all indelibly, as if it had been written down and swore to by the Horseman of the Apocalypse. It just had to be.

I decided to skip the nap and stopped to have a better look at Winnie’s directions. The ’42 Ford Stepside truck that I’d cobbled together with old junkyard toss-aways and sweat equity, like my life at that point, needed kid gloves. Both of them had been gunked-up and in need of parts, but they were running true. Back then, most folks wanted their cars to go faster and built them around the accelerator. I always enjoyed the view from that tall cab and the confidence in knowing that if I stopped to have a look around, she’d start right back up. So, I built her around the carburetor and the brakes. I’d find this guy Davis’ house and drop the boat off, then decide from there. Decide what, I wasn’t sure. Maybe something would be decided for me.

The beach was dotted with small cedar wood-sided homes, mostly vacant and boarded up, standing sentinel to what families might’ve lost when their fathers went off to war and didn’t come back. But there were other signs too — sights and smells of new blood, young families with extra money spending a few weeks in the early summer sun and warm gulf waters, sunning themselves on the sugary sand of Panama City Beach before the winter set in and they migrated back north to jobs and schools and resolutions to enjoy life more.

About a mile south along the coast road, I spotted a long pier with large equipment and thick-armed men working toward the end. I needed a bathroom break and knew that construction sites offered some of the best chances for a black man to take a legal piss. I stopped the truck and figured I’d walk off that bologna sandwich, relieve myself, and look into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the safety of American steel.

Topping my tightly-curled hair with a straw hat, I walked slowly out onto the pier and suddenly had this strange feeling of being lost and found at the same time. I’d lost a lot, even wondered if I could simply lose myself.  But at the same time, I felt like I was about to find something. Or maybe I had and couldn’t recognize it or name it so it just sat there, waiting for me to open some door and let it in so it could introduce itself.

Suddenly, I was a fifteen-year-old kid again, living in a distant aunt’s basement outside of Birmingham, working at the cabinet shop as clean-up boy while I watched carefully how the men handled the wood and respected the machines. And there was that one night after I’d gotten off of work and walked a different way home and the wind was blowing cold and stiff from the South. I’d looked in a window at the public library and had seen rows of books and the faces of a few black men peppered among the long tables, faces intent and serious and regarding their books like the men at the shop regarded a new plank of mahogany intended for a rich man’s dining room table. And I’d walked in to a musky smell that mixed with a hint of pine sol and the checkered floor glistened under the rows of single white bulbs. Nobody regarded my presence and though I had always enjoyed the few books I’d been exposed to as a child in the Negro schools, they were few. What originally attracted me to the library was a simply a warm, well-lit place. Nothing else that I knew at the time.

I asked the lady at the counter what it took to borrow the books, either to read at the long desks or at home. I remember her name badge. It was a black metal square with white letters spelling out the words, Lillian, Head Librarian. And her hair and voice matched the color of her name — airy, like high cirrus clouds.

“Well, now,” she said, just above a whisper, her lips barely moving but her eyes unwavering, and I had to lean my head in close to hear and bits of sawdust fell off my shoulders onto the counter.

“This is a public library and you are welcome to take any book from any shelf and sit to read it or look at the pictures. If you’d like to take a book home on loan, you’ll need to fill out a form and show some identification, like an identification card or work permit.”

I told her I had neither but I had a job and a place of residence. I had a home.

“The library’s policy is that we need some form of identification to issue you a card to be able to check out books.” She was clear in her thin voice but there was something like compassion in the way she moved her hands when she spoke.

“I suppose I could find someone to write something up to tell you that I am who I claim to be and that if I find a book I’d like to ponder outside of when I might sit at one of these tables I could borrow if from you, legally that is. I wouldn’t want to go against any regulations. I might just have a look around and see if there is anything here that interests me. But it wouldn’t change anything, now would it?

“What might you be referring to, young man?”

“Change who I am and if your library don’t trust me.” I said it slowly and without any malice. “Maybe, I’ll just have a look around, if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Lillian said with the ends of her mouth moving up almost to what could be labeled a smile. “You’ll find the titles categorized by subject matter but if you tell me what you’re interested in, I might be able to save you a lot of hunting.” Something in Lillian seemed to be melting and I grinned back unknowingly.

“Well, Miss Lilibrarian,” the words tripping over themselves, “I’m interested in lots of subjects but have never had much of a chance to hunt them in books. I’d like to just look around, if I might.”

“Of course, young man. You’re quite welcome to explore.” And she pushed her glasses back up her nose with a long thin finger and turned toward another man who had piled books and a library card on top of the counter; the books more than the card saying who he was.

*                                            *          *


Those were my thoughts when I met Jed Riot. It was at the base of that fixed steel pier: part construction zone, part permanent man-made metal. They were thoughts of self-identity rolling around my head and how so many of us had been fixed by labels of insignificant things like skin color and jobs, not who we spent time with or whether the characters were real or between pages. Old Jimmy Grayfalls, an Indian figure from my youth, used to say that a man was defined by his parents until he was old enough to hold his head up and test his eyes against the northern winds. After that, it wasn’t where the wind carried him but how the man shaped it with his thoughts and courage. But Jimmy said a lot of things that I never understood as a kid.

“Hey there young feller, you here to apply for the job?” Jed Riot looked to be in his late thirties and was short, wide, with a thick head of wavy red hair stuffed under a metal construction hat. His bare arms were sleeved with green ink tattoos displaying snakes and flags and women’s legs that didn’t seem real but looked real pretty. When he spoke, he looked up at me with hazel eyes, a look without judgment or malice. His smile was as open as a church. I wanted to like this man, needed to believe he was speaking the truth.

“Well not really sir, I was just having a look, maybe use your construction site’s washroom if’n you got a colored man’s.” He nodded to the left, said go right ahead and I asked as I turned my body in that direction, just casual conversation if not respect for allowing a man a legal public pee, “You making this pier longer or something?”

“Nope, just putting back what Gladys stole when she blew through here last July. Bitch, she was. Knocked down the last fifty feet and the bait shop that old man Davis ran since they built this thing in ’33.”

“Davis,” I asked him. “Any relation to Harry?”

“Yep, Harry’d be Walter’s only son, a local fisherman with a new boy of his own. Why you asking?” Jed took off his hat and scratched his head hard and fast like a dog will.

“The name’s Cobb, Johnny Cobb.” I stuck out my hand and said I was from outside Mobile and it was a long story but I had something to deliver to this Davis family, something that I needed to get rid of and was told they might be able to use. “It’s hard to explain, Sir, but I’m kinda’ ‘supposed’ to deliver that little boat.”  I pointed in the direction of my stepside.

“No need ‘splaining things to me. Sounds like it could be personal or spiritual or both. That it over yonder on the truck?” He cocked his head toward my truck that sat in the dirt lot where a few men from the job, white as well as black, were sitting on a bench drinking from silver Thermos cups. “By the way, I’m Jed Riot. Sort of in charge of this little project.” He shook my hand. I felt the thick calluses. I liked him straight away.

I said yes, that’s the boat and I had directions to Harry Davis’ house a few miles out of town and wanted to get it there before dark so as I could still find a place to stay tonight.

“Listen, young Johnny Cobb, it’s a ways back in the bush down some old dirt tracks. He’s got pert near eighty acres and I doubt you’ll find his place without a lot of wandering. And the Davis place ain’t on no map.”

I said I was much obliged but I was going to have to try anyway, holding back the memory of the stares I had been thrown by half a dozen white folk in the half a day I’d been in his little town.

“Well, suit yourself, but even if’n you do find the house, I seen Harry puttering on his boat down in the harbor this morning. Men like that who make a living from the ocean don’t punch no time clock. He could be back home now or not for a week. Told me he’d like to see his Pa’s old Bait Shop re-built a’fore summer tourists and I ought to be the one to do it. Only got three hands though.”

I hadn’t had a white man speak that many straight-up honest words to me in one stretch since I attended the Pentecostal School for Boys one year and there’d been a young teacher by the name of Jeremy Wicksmith. These words, past and present, disregarded color. I was momentarily caught, shocked, denying it and then finally, pleased. At first, I thought that Jed Riot was angling for something but decided as he drew me a map on the back of a Tommy’s Diner napkin and shook my hand again that even though there might be some Negro-haters in that place, in one full morning I’d met two good folks. It was hard to know what to think and an ambiguous curiosity about that town opened in my mind. It would not be unmanageable. Parts of it could grow on a man, would have to because Jed Riot’s words to me were a universal thing, more than just a sound between a resigned silence: just two men talking, one helping the other. Not a guaranteed occurrence in the lower thirteen states in the year nineteen and fifty-one.

Pride and hate, learned or innate, had held the South hostage for a hundred and fifty years. Now, those man’s words hovered over me like a halo, like a blues song — just enough hope bleeding through the despair. I was naked to the sound not because of its content but its context. And the notes of that song reverberated deep inside me, stirring up some kinship along with an embarrassing shame that I even felt this way; that it should’ve been natural, should always be natural but never would because there would always be hate and prejudice. But goddamit, I would do my best because what the hell else could I do? I ought not even been noticing it; the world was doing its thing to me and the only choice I had was to hug my thin future like a mother’s arms and then move out away from them and relish what good there was in the knowledge of what they’d taught me.

*                                            *          *

“Hey, Mr. Johnny Cobb.” I was almost at my truck. “I clean forgot to ask. You know how to operate any machines?”

I stopped and lifted the brim of my hat to better judge the time and to guarantee the sincerity. “Why you asking, Mr. Riot?”

“My crane operator got thrown in jail last night for beating up a kid in a bar fight. Reckon he might be there for while, seeing as it was…well, never mind. I need a replacement.”

“Well, Mr. Riot, we drilled some pretty deep wells up on our farm and the mechanical workings of machinery have always come easily to me. I’ll look at it if you need the help.”

“Be appreciated. We’re thin on nuts and bolts men around here. Most of them went on up north after the war to earn some real money. Caint say I blame them. Maybe in the morning, if you’re still in these parts.”

“I’ve a feeling I will be,” I told him and studied the napkin to Harry Davis’ place.

I got a feeling, I whispered to nobody, my delicate sensibility rising up for the air it demanded, and turned the key to the truck.




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