It happened on one of those rare nights in the late fall of southern climes, when the days are warmer than you’d expect and the nights are sweeter still in the way the land holds the heat like the way you’d resist a lover’s goodbye.
The repair on the pier was nearly complete. I’d had many weeks of good work, honest work with honest men, as most men go. And the stars in the sky seemed close enough to finger and the sound of the breaking waves as they gave themselves up against the sugary sands reminded me of the passing of all things. I was still young but it felt like my soul was aging in dog-years. The hundred plus days since Ruth had passed could’ve been a hundred years. What did I know of these things except that they happened? In my quarter century I had seen things come and go, known them, felt them like a wound that refuses to close and heal until persuaded with the sweetest of care. But they had not settled in that place where meaning meets purpose and peace rolls in on the morning fog. Something was shifting inside of me like tectonic plates.
It was to be my last day working the crane out on the newly refurbished pier, and knowing that, I’d come in well before the sunrise to watch the stars set, imagining that Ruth set herself inside Orion’s Belt to surround my center. I climbed the long ladder to the control booth as if going to visit her for breakfast and stopped in my chair, fingering the controls that’d lifted and set the new pilings to replace and extend what nature had destroyed once and could do again in one of God’s long exhalations. It had only been a few months but quietude was beginning to settle in my chest and the shadowy figures in the wake of my recent history had gone to rest for the time being. If it wasn’t happiness, it was moving in that direction.
I opened my thermos and sipped the hot coffee that Harry’s wife, Marge had packed for me. Tasting the hint of some Hispanic liqueur, I smiled at the thought of Harry, up even earlier than me, making his unique blends that differed with the day and his mood and what he could get in trade from his connections on the docks.
The coffee slid down my throat and I could see the first of the day’s rays bended over the distant flat lands in the east, past the curve of the Gulf, past the beaches of western Florida, past the long sandy finger of itself and into the Atlantic which came up against Africa and the beginning of everything.
I put the thermos back in the pail and noticed a small black and white photo of the boy set next to a fried fish sandwich. It was a young Phin. He must’ve been nearly two months old at the time, and though too young to show the traits of his lineage, something in the photo reminded me of what Harry had said that first night out in the shed, that all he wanted was to keep his boy from getting hurt. That’s all. That’s all anyone really wants though, right? Or should want; to keep the ones they care most about safe.
I looked at the photo and could hear a few cars pulling up in the dirt lot way down below me. It was just a picture of a kid, a baby who couldn’t talk yet, who couldn’t defend himself or fight back. All he could do was feel and make noises to display his pleasure or discomfort.
But when a photo is set up against a lived life and the boy is a man with a past all his own to carry around his neck or in his back pocket or on his sleeve, it’s not that hard to see it, even if it’s a lie — you can pretend that you knew way back then by the way they see you looking at them behind the photograph. It’s not that hard to interpret a memory, even it you get it all wrong at first. Memories, like pictures of small children, grow into themselves.
I took the photo out of the pail and placed it in the pocket of my work shirt. We would’ve had kids like that, Ruth and me.
I could hear the ruffling banter of more men arriving now, as they pulled up or were dropped off, talking between staccato spurts of ribbing laughter, sometimes loud and glowing, then silent and reserved. I could see the pulsing light of their cigarettes, realizing the fire and the smoke and the places it passed through their body, enjoyed for the feeling it gave them along with addiction, disease, and then the crushing back into the earth from where the tobacco had been harvested. This sentimentality was new to me. And as good as the whimsy felt, it also felt like a risk.
“Hey, Cobb,” it was Jed who’d spotted me up on the crane in the pale, growing light and yelled. “What’re ya’ll doing up there? Training for your new job as the first black prison guard in the South?” I heard the light-hearted laughter of the men I’d shared racial jokes with for the two months and two weeks I’d been on the job. There was a disarming musicality that set free the tension when I called Jerry-the-welder, “a damn in-bred, red-necked Klansman with a room temperature IQ,” or when he looked at me during a lunch break and said, “Hey, Cobb, this here egg salad be needin’ some pepper. Can you scratch some a yer skin on it?” It was the song of men, struggling to define themselves in the definition of others who were different. It was men who’d come back from a war in another country fighting a foreign tyranny but wrestling with the memories of their grandfathers and their grandfather’s fathers owning men for the sake of their strength in the fields, that American tyranny of prejudice. They were men who were happy to be where they called home, satisfied in the sweat of the red-necking sun. They weren’t immortal but they’d made it back alive and were happy to have the simple security of a place to stand without fear. Just gimme a place to stand, they said, and they could move the world in the right direction.
“C’mon down here, Johnny,” Jed called out through a long megaphone he’d found in the trash and used to practice vaudeville imitations with. “We gots to all have us a little snort to celebrate this pier I let you guys build for me. Git yer butt down before another hurricane comes along and rips this beauty apart.”
“A’ight big white trash boss man,” I played along, “this valuable crane-riding dreamer is a comin.”
Three steps from the bottom of a ladder I’d climbed a hundred times, I missed an edge with my boot, caught my foot between two metal rungs, breaking my lower right leg in three places. That was the beginning of me learning how to fish.
What surprised me first was the sound, the way a snapping bone, or in this case two of them at once, truly does sound like two brittle twigs held in each hand and snapped over a knee. The second thing was the unique reactions of the men who stood over me, who helped me or didn’t help me but watched me. Much can be said of how a man responds to another man’s pain.
The crane ladder had short steep steps, rungs stacked almost on top of each other. It was steel with eighth inch holes drilled through the steps to let the mud and water run through and grip the soles of work boots as they pushed operators up to the small cabin. Not many people used the steps; they weren’t allowed or they just didn’t trust themselves in the knowledge that even if they were able to climb them well enough as they faced the ladder, the return journey down when their back was to the world below and they’d seen or done what they’d gone up for in the first place was complete, the climb back down held more dangers.
I knew this and reminded myself each time I left my perch for lunch or to call it quits. But on that day, that last day, maybe the last time I’d descend them at all, my mind still in the cabin or the past or the heavens, I missed a step, just slipped a little on the third rung, before the third rock from the sun, three feet from dirt and it sucked my leather boot into its grip. At first I thought maybe I’d just fall through a bit and my other foot would catch or my hand would reach out and grab another step as it might a stuffed animal prize while riding a carnival ride. But one of those hands held my pail with the coffee and the rest of Grace’s fish sandwich. The other seemed to be cocked in an upward right angle like the way a rodeo star loosens it for balance or the way a beauty queen waves at her admirers as she floats by in a parade. Either way, it didn’t save me and when the foot lodged and the body kept moving, the lower tibula and fibula snapped at that crisp, biting fulcrum. Damn it hurt, too. But not right away.
I hit the construction dirt with my shoulder and lay there in an odd contorted way, almost comfortable looking I suppose, except for the fact that my lower leg was bent in a place not intended for bending and the sharp, jagged ends of the two bones protruded from beneath the cuff of my jeans. The skin around the open wound had interesting edges that quivered and curled back on themselves, rolling up as the taut skin of the shin pulled the opening wider. There was little, if any blood, the bone’s bayoneted points having missed the major vessels of the leg.
In the morning dusk, with workers still arriving and getting their tools and plans together, nobody paid much close attention to me right away. A rough carpenter who had been finishing up the long hand rails that ran the length of the pier, just some older guy from St. Pete named Johnson, was the first to say anything.
“Hey, Cobb. Nice dismount. You trying to make the Olympic Team and get a free trip to Melbourne next year? I hear the Aboriginals are as dark as you are.”
A few others looked over and thought I was just playing it up, seeing as though it was the last day before they took the big crane away.
“Crane boy,” called out a white kid from Ft Walton Beach who was helping pour concrete, “you ain’t geeting any sympathy from us. We gots two more weeks of work. Your job is done, less’n you want to smooth ‘crete with us ground folk.”
Jed Riot, who had been speaking with an inspector from the city, looked up from his fixed gaze on the table in front of the small trailer that served as an office.
“Jesus, Cobb,” he started to walk with a worried purpose in my direction. “What the hell did you go and do?”
“Reckon I busted up my leg. And from the sight of those two white sticks creeping out of my boot top, I did a good job of it.”
Jed called for the first aid kit from the office, which consisted of a rusty metal box filled with band aids, some rubbing alcohol and a triangle-shaped sling in a wax paper bag. Billy Ray, the plumber, said go get a doc and someone else said holy shit Cobb really fucked up good. But most of the men kind of stood around, not knowing how to act. There was well-hidden pity, there was disgust, embarrassment, there was disdain, there was sadness and if I was correct, in one or two there was a little bit of pleasure in seeing a black man who’d happened onto an important job get just what the hell he must’ve deserved.
The hopeless thing, though, was the way most of the men felt the confusion. Some of these guys had been fighting in Europe and Africa and the South Pacific not even seven or eight years ago. But to them, the task at hand had always been clear: in wartime the job was winning the war. Out in the field of battle where the rhetoric could never fly like the bullets, justified or not, the reason was of no concern like the concern for one’s life and that of the men in his company. Stuff like skin color was put away for awhile. Now, that awhile was almost gone for some of them and what we might’ve shared in getting the job of building something special was slipping away as well.
But a soldier who’d been in the shit always knew what to do in the shit, I thought. Some of these men might not have served or served as a token but necessary accessory, loading ships and fixing airplanes. The only way to tell would’ve been to look in their eyes and wait for someone to make a move.
In front of them lay a man in need of help, me for God’s sake. And that man had tried to close the door on oppression by laughing about it, repressing it, ignoring the subtle barbs because they were out-weighed by the “atta-boy’s.” He had pulled on the handle but forget to turn the lock and caulk under the edges. The man had tried to erase the pain of personal loss by changing the Code of the Southern Man, one day and one well-done task at a time. But how could he hold back the tide? How could the man stop the leaky heritage of a hundred years? Dark water would find a way in, he thought. You let your guard down, Cobb, the voice was saying. You fell when you were so close. And now when you’re no longer up top looking down, the delicate controls in your hands that held sixty-foot long pilings in the claws of the great crane, you were just another black man with a busted leg.
The extrication was made complicated by the way in which my foot was embedded between the rungs of the steel ladder, the way in which I lay there calmly. I must’ve still been in a form of shock and though nobody wanted to think it, the fact that some men had never seen the inside of a black man’s body before.
Just after the pain came on with a sudden gush and I began to tremble, a scruffy electrician they called Sparky who’d severed Uncle Sam as an Army medic, took charge and instructed the men to lift my body to an angle in line with the foot, hold straight traction on the boot and slowly move me off the ladder and onto the army stretcher someone had pulled from the back of a truck. Jed, for his part, stood as a kind of vigil, unsure of the technical stuff but doing what he could to keep the situation as light as possible.
“Now, Cobb, don’t think I’m going to pay you for a full day after this stunt.”
“That’s fair, Jed,” I wheezed back at him. “But I’m not paying for a new ladder if my bones bent those steps at’all.” Someone said they was gonna need a map to put all those bones back together and I thought there were a lot of ways to mapping the body and it’s place in the world. But I didn’t say it.
When they moved me, the bones slipped back under my skin as my leg straightened out and someone said, geez Cobb, what a way to start and end your day. All of our days. I thought I heard a distant stupid negro but the pain in my head was beginning to cloud my thoughts and all I wanted was to get the hell away from that place that I had grown so fond of.
“Here, this ought to ease it a bit,” it was Sparky putting a needle in my left tricep and driving the warm fluid into my body with the plunger. “I brought home a case or two as a lovely parting gift from the Army. It sure files down the edges on that hurt. I keep them in my car along with a few other souvenirs from my duty in the Pacific theater, and that’s not the one downtown either.”
“Much obliged, Sparky. The pain’s only coming in waves now but I reckon that’ll change, huh?”
“Count on that. Hey, Cobb, you know anybody in this town good enough to call in a favor? T’would be better if a real bone doc got a look at that. You’re too young to say it don’t matter ‘cuz you’re too old.”
“I know Jed pretty good and a few of the other Negroes from the job. And some of the other guys like you been cordial enough.” I was wincing between words, feeling light headed and faint, the drug doing something, though I wasn’t sure what.
“Ain’t you staying out at the Davis place up in the brush aways?”
“Yeah, they been terribly good to me, makin’ me feel like kin and all.”
“Well, only way you gonna’ get this leg fixed up correct is for Harry Davis, a man who’s owed a lot by people of this town and ones up and down the road, to take you into the hospital in Pensacola or St. Pete and tell them you his kin.”
“Oh, they’re gonna’ believe that one, for sure,” I slurred through thickening lips. “I could just be his long lost brother who fell asleep on the beach, got an awful dark sunburn and was run over by some kid driving a jeep on the sand.”
“This is not the real South, Cobb. This is a strange mixture of southerners on vacation, military families, fisherman, snowbirds running away from Minnesota and guys like yourself who end up here because it’s at the bottom of the continent. Texas and the rest of Florida don’t count ‘cuz they just stick out there waiting to get knocked off by a strong country or a stronger hurricane. This here is the Redneck Riviera where the people who act like they have money but don’t, mix with those who’ll never have it and could care less if’n they ever gain it. It’s a strange collection, Cobb. I don’t pretend to understand them and I’d never try and predict what they’d do. But I can tell you that loyalty is a big thing in this county, maybe the biggest. And damn, Cobb, the beaches sure are pretty to sit on and think while them bones knit up.”
Good night, Johnny, the voice said.
Whatever you say, because you’re in charge.