Book Two, Chapter 8 Two-Way Mirrors

                                                    BOOK TWO





“The ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, ‘The reward of suffering is experience.’ Let this be the lasting legacy of Vietnam.”


John McNamara, Secretary of Defense for the Johnson and Nixon Administrations and

chief architect of the Vietnam War




                                            CHAPTER EIGHT


                                       TWO-WAY MIRRORS


                                  “Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

Those who have gone before.”


Uphill, Christina Rossetti


Much would happen in the ensuing years. Some of which I could say in the passing of a moment as we meet on some street in a town that neither of us had ever planned on traveling to. The baby, Phin had become almost a man on the outside, but inside he was just another kid who was happy to be a kid, never rushing into grown-upness like a lot of kids in the big city. He started driving a car around town when he was fifteen. That was around ’65 or ’66, I think. But I don’t recall him ever getting an official license or anything even when he was old enough to.

He knew of the war, of the protests, then a few years later, the deaths of Janis and Jim and a young Kennedy. We talked a lot in 1968 as he questioned the talisman of social revolution that seeped slowly at first into small towns like Idaho Springs and Portsmouth and Panama City. I think he tried to understand it all but he’d seen the deep division it had caused. And while he wanted to do something substantial to go with the depth of his feelings, ’68 was a time when things ran so deep no one could ever do enough to keep up with their emotions. After awhile I think he decided the best thing he could do was to stay at home and be with his family, help out around the house when Harry and Gillie were off fishing, work on the boat when they weren’t and just be a good kid.


He never did take to being on the boat for too long as Gillie did. Maybe he knew that it was her place or that his Ma would be alone if he went off with them. Other men offered him work but he seemed happy enough to play it close to home, read what he could get his hands on and let the rest just be. If he was concerned about the world, he didn’t march it out.

And while that world unfolded in turmoil it seems to me that Phin made   his own regular protest by trying to be a regular kid. Maybe he knew it would come looking for him sooner or later.

Some times the wolf knocks at your door and instead of letting him trick you with words you might offer to let him run along side–if he could. In that way, the wolf could pose the great question of identity. Do you know yourself well enough so as to know who am I? And what I want?

Nobody but Grace had seen Phin’s wolf then. For everyone but her, the wolf was just one of those things that snuck up on you, like watching the wind blow all your life, wondering where it came from and where it was going. And then one day it just hits you: it’s just the thickness of the air trying to find some balance, a place where there’s too much pressure looking for a place where there ain’t enough. I remember a long hot day, August or July perhaps, not September, definitely not June. I’d come down from the farm to spend a week or so with Davis’ and Harry had taken Gillie and the boat up to Pensacola for repairs. Phin was off messing around with his pals and I sat with Grace, the Davis matriarch, in the back yard. She wore a long-sleeved cotton frock with little blood stains she’d incurred picking wild artichokes from the upper field. “Tomatoes are dangerous,” Grace winked when she noticed me looking at the tiny smears of red and pink. She asked me about the farm and I told her that the Cobbs had finally earned the ownership through three generations of homesteading but there were leftover liniments of some deeper history; things with Earl and Ramsey were not good though the crops were doing okay and all I could commit to was part time residency and effort. They could have the farm, I choked out an answer to Grace, I’ll just cherry-pick the memories. Then I redirected the inquiry to the nature of the boy. Was Phin uh…okay in this tumultuous world of ours?

“I just can’t say,” was her reply. “Some days I think he’s solid as Gillie, steeled to the strangeness that creeps in on the backs of radio and TV and news. Other days his tenderness scares me to death.”

I looked at Grace, nodded. And this feeling came over me that like many mothers of that time, she’d suffer the ignominy of losing a son to a worthless war.  Her skin went a different color and I looked to see if an afternoon cloud had caused the ashen shift. “You all right?” I asked. And Grace tried to stand up as a baby giraffe making her way into a new world.

“Oh, I’m fine, Johnny, just getting these extra thumps in the heart when the weight of it all comes calling. Think I’ll go see a doctor when Harry comes back.” I tried to make her swear to a promise I didn’t know she’d keep. But Grace had held dear that iconography of the repressed women demanding independence from all things, including male doctors. I made a point to ask Jed about any female heart docs on the coast.

#                                                            #                                                                                           #


In the beginning of that period of education, maybe ’62 or ‘63, Phin tried hard to keep life from becoming an imposition on us all, even when the wolf had its jaws around his throat. How that was, I would never know.  Other times, in a moment’s laughter, that hurt temporarily lifted by the sound of joy, you could see that he had this ability to close the white space between him and those he came in contact with.

I suppose that is what saved him in the end. And maybe the rest of us along with him.

For my part, I’d stopped going out on Harry’s boat so much, only when the weather was fine and he’d been short-handed and was too proud to ask but I knew in any case. The sea just wasn’t in me. Not yet. I‘d help out around the farm up north, take a temporary job operating a machine, sometimes for Jed, and occasionally go on up to Mobile and check on Nadine and her sisters.

Life had not been great to Earl and Ramsey on the farm but I’d made it clear to them that as much loyalty as I had to them and the history of our land, I wasn’t ready to come back full time just yet. Months grew into years, and years into nearly two decades and “yet” came and went. Each seemed to accept my decision but for different reasons. The guilt I felt for leaving them seemed to me a mutual détente with the anger of loosing Ruth. Both lie dormant, not really going away but waiting for a third party to catalyze some long overdue conflict.

In the meantime, I’d found a kind of peace with the Davis family and my years traveling the South as it wrestled with its conscience of oppression. I was not unhappy.

But then Gillie died, the cancer taking her at 26. I was pulled even closer to the boy and what he could do to rescue me from myself.


*                                                 *                                            *


There was that time, the day of Gillie’s funeral in the spring of 1970 when the entire world was trying to cool off from too much of itself.  Geez’ he loved her. All these people came over to the house to offer their condolences as is the case with funerals and such. Phin was a sad, gracious host, trying to stand tall in the image of his grieving parents, protecting them as best a twenty-year-old kid can, soaking up their own ache. But the pecking order had become mutated; he was no longer a teenager anymore, but the oldest and only.  You could tell in what came out of other people’s eyes.

Somebody, told him he looked liked a fine young man, his sister would be proud. But the words sounded too heavy and too real for him. That was the first time Phin fell through a hole in his life. And his childhood became a souvenir.

He told someone who’d paid him a compliment that Gillie deserved to grow young again. That’s what she was aiming for, to knock the hourglass on its side and watch the sand leak out of the broken glass shards. They said he sounded like the old black man he’d been around since birth. I was yet forty-six then and long since smashed my own time-keeping glass.

Phin put his arm around the family friend, pointed across the room in my direction and asked the man how old he would be if he didn’t know how old he was. The friend forced a nod but anyone could tell that he didn’t understand.

And as I watched him from the corner that day, still not old enough to buy a drink, it was as if someone else had told him he had to jump the chasm from twelve to twenty-two, like something else was pried loose with Gillie’s hourglass from her cold hands and thrust it at him.

And the sand gushed down.

Gillie was the old soul, working toward an old salt. At twenty-six and with almost ten long seasons crewing full time with their dad out on the boat, she might’ve lost some of the outward signs of her femininity but inside grew the best from each of her parent’s seed. The sun and salt played heck on a man’s skin. It played hell on a women’s. She’d told me that she felt like Icarus at times, sailing too close to the sun, ignoring her father’s pleas to wear floppy hats and long-sleeved shirts, taking those memories of her mother’s stories about resilient women all the way to the end.

She knew it but was helpless to heed his wishes. The natural elements made her who she was. And in the end, what she no longer was. Grace knew it too, might’ve seen it coming but was equally helpless. Who can deny one’s essence? Chalk it up as naiveté.  Write it off as the ignorance of youth. Call it some burden of lineage—Gillie had found herself in her father’s world but was prepared to take it further, into deeper waters for bigger fish that could fight as well as she could.

Phin could not yet see that part out beyond the horizon and into the myth. And then the abyss.  He’d taken his mother’s dark Italian skin and would for years try and blame himself for getting the genes that Gillie needed more than him. Where she had grown into the hunter who needed only a thin shield to survive, he had become the soft-hearted, the reluctant survivor who’d spend years chipping off the outside coating that might’ve saved his sister.

And how could I have ever known that he might be a product of all that had happened to me as well as his own family? In trying to prepare him for all that might come his way, the strangeness in my own past might’ve worn off more than a little, like standing under a tall pine to keep out of the rain—always a bit of the tree’s scent will find its way onto your clothes.

How could I have known he’d fallen into my own heart? I only knew that after it started, I had to see it through. All the way through.

Gillie was gone, the Big C had come and swallowed her whole from the outside in. They all thought it was the first and last, a dark blip on life’s radar. How could they know? I felt otherwise because death had touched me, enveloped me. And with it came the burden of knowing, the gift of the deceased.  I was sent to the family to deliver a boat. Did I deliver some curse as well?

Harry and Grace had followed Gillie’s wishes to have her ashes scattered, “partly in Mom’s garden, partly out on the Taloosa Shoals where I’d caught my first big tuna with Dad, and the rest just toss downwind and get the hell out of the way.” It wasn’t in any written will, just mentioned after dinner when they’d first come back from the hospital in Mobile and the doctor had told them all she’d have to be tough. This kind of cancer was a known killer.

Harry said that Gillie had laughed, had asked the doctor what was really the difference between a known killer and an unknown killer? If the killer had killed before, somebody would know, even if they were dead. Harry told me that the way she approached the subject had surprised him. She’d always had that old soul; maybe she was born middle-aged and lived out her childhood as a wise woman with a will made strong by something that she’d experienced before she was born. She’d said she’d fight the good fight but if it was apparent that she’d loose, she’d throw the white towel from the corner and save those around her the pain of watching her suffer. In that way, Harry’d said, she was stronger than Phin, stronger than all of them. She was born with the innate understanding of death’s paradigm. The rest of us had to learn it.

That was a rock-hard time for Phin. For many years it was made even harder by his reply to Gillie’s death. But he shaped himself against that stone, shaping all of us with the same chisel.

Nobody could’ve guessed that the soft-hearted kid would avenge her memory by trying to harden his own heart—by going off to a war that they all agreed was wrong.


Chapter 7 Learning to Fish




          There is a German word, “Dasein”; I read about it in one of the books that Lillian-the-Librarian would eventually direct me to as we came to know each other in my nightly visits to her library. It loosely translates into: the human way to be-in-the-world, or to know one’s unique purpose and potential.  And also to forfeit it through inauthenticity.


What I remember about the hospital room that I woke up in was how clean and quiet it all was. My Dasein was working overtime. It felt like a library for sick people and the books were medicine. I liked the little room that I was sharing with Mr. Smith One Tree, the one-eighth Cherokee from Youngstown who’d had two vertebra fused and was getting the government to pay for it on account of he worked as a mechanic on the base in Pensacola when he was young enough to hold a wing in one hand and tighten or scratch a nut in the other. I liked the clean white sheets and the clean white smiles of the nurses who changed my dressing and the docs who came in and said I was lucky the bones didn’t hit any major vessels and lucky that they were the best docs in the county and could get those bones to lineup proper and lucky that I was a distant cousin of Harry Davis, while they laughed and winked deep and purposeful about how Harry could take anybody he cared about to the hospital on the Airforce base, even if he had the ways and means to do that as well on the outside.

It all felt odd as if this too, this first class care, another positive after a tough break that followed some sacred hurt which came in on the heals of dark tragedy, a roller coaster of incidents and accidents that had bore down on me aggressively and nakedly as if I was in fate’s cross hairs or a swift stream. It occurred to me that it mustn’t have been planned. It was too chaotic and neat and wildly ordered to attach any sense to it. The best I could do was to put my feet up in the river and float without catching a shoe on a rock or, worse yet, getting swept into a side eddy where the river just rolled passed you like a soundless picture show and all you could do was try and read the actor’s lips. I was in it, but I couldn’t fight it.

I lay there that night after they fixed my leg, feeling the cool breeze from the ceiling fan, lost in its revolution. Smith, the barely-Indian in the bed next to me was talking in his sleep, something unintelligible to my ears, but not to him. My leg was bound and cast in a wide swath of white plaster and held aloft by a shiny stainless metal bar and chain. What power was willed and wielded, deals made or re-made, debts paid or accrued so that a civilian could get care like a war hero might? The fan and my questions had unsettled the antiseptic air and replaced the quietude with an impermanent stillness. My intelligence had come up against the gratitude of the moment. The room began to shrink and the air thickened.

Let the river take you, the voice was saying, a man did something good for you. This is not, cannot be, and will never be, a game of quid pro quo.

The broken leg throbbed.

Never an eye for and eye.

I tried to get up from the bed but found the metal chains to my cast screwed down.

It would never be about getting paid or paying back.

Let the water soak in, it said. All the way down past your bones, past your soul and past your past until it comes around to your future. And then you’ll quench your thirst by passing the glass.

She’s gone. You can’t make her ungone.

*                                            *          *

In the morning Harry came and picked me up. The attending nurse who got me ready to leave had teeth as bright as the Mississippi sunshine. And I let her warm me, let it take me, passing the smile back.

I sat in the wheel chair as Harry rolled me out a side exit to the waiting truck where Grace sat with Gillie and the baby Phin in the cab.

“I think you’ll be more comfortable stretched out in the back with Cane and Abel,” Harry spoke flatly with impassive eyes framing his mouth.

“It’s not the first time.”

“Nor the last.”

“Harry, I wanted to…”

“Forget it. Grace is busy with the kids. I need some help baiting hooks. ‘Bout time you learned to fish.”

“But how did you arrange the hospital, the docs, the…”

“Later, okay? Let’s just say that I have—to use one of your big words, a social contract with the community. You were the fine print.”


I wish I could say it was a happy ending. Or even a sad beginning. I’d made a choice by choosing for that moment, not to choose. Harry pulled away and I looked in the dark gray pools that were the eyes of the Davis’ dogs. They knew it was only the beginning. They knew. In those big round dog-eyes I saw the shape of clouds reflecting a seamless horizon over which someone close to me or maybe me if I was lucky would sail away towards. I sometimes wonder if I was being shown the future in that animal’s iris, a dimension where life exists before it unfolds–the perfect vision of an imperfect world.

Just when I was finding some reason for Ruth’s death, which was no reason at all, and just when I was tasting the sweet human transaction of equality, the gray eyes clouded over and the dogs laid their head on my lap.

But there would be many good years and much deep blue water would pass under me and through me. Things would grow and prosper and children would begin to find their place in the world of grown men and women.

Once more the dogs looked up at me and it was just Abel who yawned and shook and made a low sound that seemed to come from another era.

I put my feet up and floated.


#                                                 #          #


On a clear morning in late spring of ’52, maybe six ponderous weeks after my fall, we left on Harrys’ 38 foot. It was a twin diesel-powered vessel with lines from a distance appearing long and thin and clean and a high bridge that looked like a secret tree fort. On closer inspection there was a utilitarian essence to the way things were laid out, the way they might have been handled on the fly, off the cuff, moment by moment. While I knew machines and men and the way they interacted, I didn’t know boats. But after living with the Davis family in an un-beleaguered domesticity for almost three months I thought I knew a fair amount about Harry. And when he finally invited aboard his boat there was no question of coming along or not. The leg was boat-worthy, the time to enter a new geography here. “No more living in the margins, Cobb,” Harry had claimed one evening after Gillie and I had finished a game of chess. “Time to fish and you’re cutting bait.”

I had no idea that you could learn as much as you could about a man by the way he organized the deck. When I limped up the gangway on my cane and was immediately guided to the rigger’s chair, I didn’t have to ask questions, already knew the drill. It was more of the gift, it was real. To deny it was to deny my dasein, my authenticity. It wasn’t the fish of the ocean that both frightened and enthralled me, nor was it the Siren’s song of old. It was the crew—just Harry, a couple of other local recruits that shared a love of the process of hunting fish and to my surprise, a savvy eight year-old girl going out on her first extended trip. Unlike most commercial fisherman, this crew cared little if they brought back a hold-full or limped in empty. They’d been out to sea pitting themselves against the odds, jockeying skills with a natural resource, another one of God’s creations, if you believe. They kept what they needed to keep friends and foes alive, to sell or to eat, and threw back all the rest. At times, they put their lives at risk. It was a good trade.

But Gillie, the eight year-old first mate was following some childhood instinct, her own dasein, her own purpose. She would always feel comfortable out on the sea, especially in later years when her younger brother would come along, when her father would say, “I’m going below to make some sandwiches. You take the helm, Gillie.” And one of the older crewman would kid her, spreading his arms out toward the edges of the boat and say, “One day all of this will yours, Kiddo.” But Gillie would say that it wasn’t her dad’s or anybody else’s to give away. She would be referring to the boat and the seas and all that was connected between the two. And she knew the difference.

Watching the young girl then and the way she moved about the boat with grace and ease and with strength and control as she grew into herself, I would gain both a greater respect and in some way, a renewed fear of the ocean. Watching the way that the crew moved, each with a duty, the total being greater then the sum of its parts and especially how the young girl with the very old soul was skipping years in her steady march toward adulthood—I knew then that my life would never exist on a straight line, in a vacuum or without purpose and complexity.

And along the way, I learned about fishing.

We stayed out ten days that first trip; chased back into port by reports of an unseasonably early hurricane in the central Gulf. The hold was full of amber jack and bass and few bins of shrimp for good measure. I saw these men and Gillie’s inherent vote for Eros over Thanatos, that they had the sea in them. But it would not find me in the same way.

A day after we off-loaded the catch I was on my way home to the farm up near Mobile.


Chapter 6 Dissension



             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.


Chapter 5 The First Homecoming



What I know of Uncle Charlie’s actions during this spell are pieced together from long conversations with Nadine and others who happened to see him passing this way and that. I can’t swear it but it’s the best I can do to keep my need to do the telling flowing when sometimes big holes in a story will mess up the smooth parts up ahead. This is how I think the tale of Uncle Chuck’s first homecoming might’ve gone.

            The old Studebaker pulled away, Nadine remembers, kicking up dust and gravel, spewing dark gray smoke from the cracked muffler. Uncle Chuck heard the two cylinders that were in need of pistons and rings. Another one likely was in need of gaskets. He watched the car pull away and the old black man who’d given him a ride all the way from Tallahassee lift and wave his big hand out the window as he drove off. It was poor man’s car.  But given two full days and some factory-fresh parts, Chuck thought he would be able to fix it. But the man was gone and he’d never caught his name.

          It had been ten weeks, two days, three near arrests and countless bottles of cheap whiskey, cheaper hotels, and the cheapest excuse for a human he could ever come up for himself; all because he killed his niece on that sweet fall afternoon out on the lake.

And now Uncle Chuck had returned to the home of his youth, or at least part of it. He’d been running around the lower South since that afternoon when he’d stopped the truck with a grieving Johnny and his dead niece, Ruth in the back. They all knew she was dead though the accepting of it came slowly. There had been no dangerous rush to the hospital or the morgue or wherever Johnny was to drive them after he said his goodbyes and stroked her still-wet hair in the back of the truck. And even the warm October eve and the blanket they’d wrapped her in, couldn’t keep his niece’s body from moving toward a colder side of the world; at least the side that Chuck had put himself in.

For two and one half months he’d asked himself why he’d stopped and run out, just leaving the two of them there on the side of the road, abandoned, while he folded himself further into himself and then the thick underbrush where he’d run from his nightmares, sometimes a step ahead but mostly swallowed in their night throats. Chuck had never run from anything. Was it long overdue guilt, fear, a chaos in his mind unwrapping itself at a time when he should’ve been cinching down the straps of courage? He didn’t think it was any of these. Chuck had always gained his strength in family; his ability to fight the good fight had always come from the women he’d raised and was raised by. Now, he’d committed the unconscionable. And it had reduced his power source by one half.

After a month on the road, he’d decided that he had slipped into some skin of an animal he’d never met. After two months, he knew that he’d forfeited membership in anything called integrity, and just the week before it dawned on him that whatever conclusion he’d come to about that private transaction with himself, it would forever be an intangible and unreachable brass ring of understanding. He’d made a mistake. And he’d spend the rest of his days trying to somehow unmake it.

There were no thoughts about how he might’ve stayed closer to shore in that neat little mahogany and teak skiff; the one he’d acquired day-use to in a game of cards. Just think, he’d been bluffing too when the stranger had put up a Sunday’s use to that neat-looking little twelve foot boat in lieu of the C-note Chuck had risen and everybody else had folded and said he was nuts or had balls or was just plain stupid. The ones who knew him well would bet he didn’t have more than five bucks in his pocket. Then again, Chuck had always been a wild card — uncaring, loose but loyal in the way that his people were to each other.

What was this gambling thing anyway? Just another way to see how people would react when the stakes were raised? Just another way for him to look for himself in the face of others? This man they called Uncle Chuck had always known he’d be a damn good soldier if only he’d had a war that was his own, that was legal. He’d avoided the thing in Europe not only because after his daddy, Willis, died, there would be no more men to carry on the name, but why should he go and fight for a country in which he still wasn’t completely free? Let the white boys go follow Generals McArthur and Patton. He was waiting for another Washington Carver.

But Chuck knew that he was capable of killing. The oppression by the white boss was more noticeable to him than Nadine and Willis, but not his sister, Louella before she’d run off. He knew he had it in him and it sometimes scared him; not the killing itself but the beating drums of its potential.

I imaged what might’ve been brewing around Chuck’s mind as he negotiated the death of Ruth.

C’mon Charlie, he tried unsuccessfully to lie to himself, it was only five feet deep. Okay maybe eight but no more than ten. You couldn’t have been more than twenty, okay maybe fifty yards from shore. You didn’t know your niece was going to stand up in the bow and try to hold a ballerina pose while standing on the gunwales, screaming at her young husband, Johnny, up on the shore to look, “see darlin’, your baby still has those moves. Look at me JC, your little wife moves like a cat even with a kitten-to-be in her tummy.”

          You didn’t know that some passing wake from a distant white man’s power boat would hit the port hull like the slightest tap on the arm from a sleeping lover that awakens her with a violent lurch and she bolts upright as if a thumping nightmare had grabbed and shook her. You forgot the subtlety of the waters; that narrow balance beam between good and evil.

          But did you ever really know them, Charlie boy? Did you cheat on the  Cub Scout swim test that summer after your Senior year out on Lake Jordan northeast of Montgomery when your mama, Nadine, had sent you away for the summer after your daddy died and Louella had still not returned and she thought it good for you to live among other boys before you had to join the race of men? And was it a white Boy Scout with a sash covered in badges that’d told the Scoutmaster about the little Negro boy hiding under the pier when everybody else was being sent one hundred yards around the anchored canoe and back to the beach?

          Oh, Charlie boy, you didn’t kill her. She was like your sister Louella, the one who had the baby at sixteen when you were only twelve but then left the baby Ruth for you and your mom to raise up because Daddy was sick by then and your sis had discovered jazz and that stuff they put in their arms with needles.

          But you could swim, old Chuck, couldn’t you? You’d fished on the banks of every stream and creek that fed Mobile Bay after Daddy had finally died and Mama had moved you and little Ruth down to Mt Vernon, just north of Mobile to live with her sisters. You remember? When your lure got stuck on a rock and you had to wade out to the waist-deep water to uncatch it? Sometimes even on hot summer days you would dunk your whole head under water and think, no problem, I could’ve swam around that canoe if that asshole with the blonde eyebrows and peely nose had given me a chance. I wasn’t hiding, just getting my courage up. They shouldn’t have sent me home. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard and so many times. He shouldn’t have said that Negroes can’t swim.

          You’d do it again though, wouldn’t you, Chucky boy?

          Hell yes. You would’ve made sure he knew that the Winters boys didn’t buy into that nigger-calling shit. 

          But in a round about kinda’ tragedy you killed your baby sister niece, didn’t you? And you’re here to ask mama to give you absolution? Oh, Chuck, what will you do with yourself?


The truth was, Charlie could never know which words would hold the badge of finality and which ones might open up his mental frontier to sodbusters. Charlie could surprise even himself. He could walk by a store glass window, make his light brown eyes deepen and his wide red lips curl back against his white teeth that chewed on the ends of his thick nappy locks that had started to fall into tight spiraled curls snapping at the collar of the only jacket he had, the only shirt he’d run away with that afternoon on the lake. Then he’d put those lips into a secret unsayable challenge to speak only what was real at that moment. Even if it killed him later.

He could’ve made it around that canoe. He was just getting his courage up.


Inside the three room farm house that sat on the edge of forty-two acres of good soil that grew alfalfa and romaine and sometimes tobacco, Nadine Winters sat with her two sisters. After Ruth had passed and Chuck had gone away and I headed south with that little boat strapped to my roof, Nadine had left her little house and moved back in with her sisters and their husbands. When Uncle Chuck returned all the husbands were still out in those growing fields, picking the crops for the man who owned the fields and paid them thirty-five cents a bushel for harvesting the alfalfa and four cents for each head of romaine. Nadine’s husband was deep in another field but she couldn’t remember, didn’t want to remember where it was. Dead is dead, she’d always say, the living ought to remember that more. She’d stopped going to funerals after Willis died, and in many ways, just stopped remembering any pain.

When I’d driven through the night to tell her that the baby she had raised and had come out right and proper as a person was dead and that her only son who was a bit of a rambler but respected as all of the Winters men were, had disappeared into the thick world of the South, Nadine had looked through me and could only say that she couldn’t make any funeral because she had to stay home in case Louella stopped by.

Now, with the dust of the old Studebaker finally settled, Uncle Chuck walked up to the house of women with a small duffel over his shoulder and eighty-five cents in his pocket.

You’re home, Charlie, he tried to convince himself. You’re a survivor, time to start pulling it all together. But when he walked up onto the narrow wooden porch with two planks missing and called out, “Mama, Loretta, Aunt Mary, it’s Charlie,” the little clapboard house with the thin white sheets for curtains felt like a foreign country, small and strange. He was ashamed for his mama and for all Negroes. And he was beyond disgusted with himself.

He heard a piano playing inside. It was a hymn he remembered from his church-going youth when his folks would dress him and Louella up in their Sunday best each week and catch the bus down to the Union Springs Baptist Church for services. It was Nadine playing because she’d always change the tempo and gave it more of a folksy blues feel to it with her chord substitutions and subtle pause before sneaking in a blue note.

Chuck set his duffel down on the rickety swing and opened the screen door. It still squeaked but not loud enough to announce his entry over Nadine’s stomping pedal action of the ancient upright. He said “Mama” out loud again but she didn’t hear him. “It’s Charlie, Ma.” And he noticed that the old brown bun she used to wear up on her head had morphed into a mere spirit of gray and silver, thin and whispy and only a hint of the great locks she once carried. Her skin was a mortician’s color, pale and icy peach. But her hands moved around the keyboard in a natural way as if she was commanding the music from somewhere other than her fingers.

How long had it been? How much rain had fallen, or failed to fall, on the crops that supported his mother and her sisters and their husbands and the memories of all their children who’d left to find a better life in Mobile or Montgomery or even Birmingham? How long had he been standing there admiring this great matriarch, wondering what she would say when she finally turned and saw him frozen in life five steps behind him?

That’s when everything went black.


“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Loretta! What in God’s good name? Is that…? Oh, my Lord, what did you go and do? It’s Charlie you blind old bat! Go and get some cool rags. Go on now!”

“I’s sorry, Nadie. I just seen’t a big man a’standin’ behin’t you, thinkin’ I was a’savin’ yo life. I couldn’t sees if’n it was Charlie. Is he a’right? I hit ‘em purty hard.”

“Loretta, I tol’ you go and get some rags and water. There’s blood coming outta’ my boy’s head. Oh Lord God, don’t You mess with him. Now git!”

The truth was that Nadine’s sister, Loretta, was nearly blind, had the diabetes and gout and was acting on pure instinct. So too was Nadine in her warning tossed up to the God she worshipped. She had never threatened anyone before, let alone the one she prayed to. But she’d done it now and she meant it and the things out of her mouth were closer to demands than requests.

Loretta had hit Chuck with a three feet section of two by four that was left in the corner for carrying the big iron cooking pot when it got too hot. And she’d hit him good and solid, right on the left temple, the worst place to hit a man on his head.

That night, after Aunt Mary’s husband had gone to fetch the doc from town and he’d stitched him up and cleaned the wound and told them to keep an eye on him because, “there wasn’t much else they could do ‘ceptin they wanted to take him to the hospital in Mobile, assuming they had some money to pay for it,” which they didn’t, Nadine went back to her piano playing and said it’s outta my hands now. Her sisters watched with disbelief as she turned her back on her only boy and walked out of the dark bedroom near the back of the little house.

They looked at each other, eyes full of question and grief and more question while the husbands went outside to get the bottle and smoke and try to forget.

Out in the living room, they all heard it — a thick, dark sound played in a minor key; brooding, horrible music they’d never heard the likes of. It was beyond the sadness of blues. It was an evil vibration of the thick wires inside of the piano. A devil’s sound.

And Loretta stroked Charlie’s clammy brow, dabbing her eyes with the edge of a soiled rag left by the doc, adding red war paint to her dark, puffy cheeks. Loretta listened to the now-rhythmic breathing of Charlie, a sound that comforted her and lay opposed to the disturbing and discordant keys that Nadine welled up from the deepest of places that even her sister didn’t know hid such dark vibrations. And she prayed.

“Oh dear Lord, I’s as sorry as I ever bin in ma’ whole life. Take me Lord and leave this man and then if there’s anything left in my account please Lord take that devil sound out of Nadine a’fore it attracts the real thing hisself.”

And the men outside behind the house shook their heads and lowered their eyes but still drank hard enough to say out loud and to each other that alotta things jus’ ain’t right.



Chapter 4 Not Quite a Morning After



I woke up early at the Davis house, the sun far from hitting the edge. Thinking I’d just get a glass of water and go back to sleep, I noticed a light on in the living room and poked my head in to see the child, Gillie, reading a book. It was a collection of poetry.

“You’re up late, or early, Miss Gillie.”

“You like poems, Mister Cobb?” She set the book down. Emily Dickinson. Made sense.

“I like any words, written or spoken, that say a lot in a small space.”

“You think she was in love, Mister Cobb? I mean, there’s a lot of really gushy stuff that’s hard to get from your ‘magination.”

Again, I was having a hard time fitting the young girl with her older soul. “I’m sure of it, Miss Gillie. I think she was in love with a lot of things.”

Gillie sensed that I wasn’t going to expand at this hour, on this subject. So, quite innocently, she came around to what she really wanted to know and I was caught with no way to politely maneuver my way out.

“How come you only told part of the story of your wife’s dying? Why’d you hold all the other stuff back?”

“Reckon it just wouldn’t be polite to dump a whole night’s telling on a family I just barged in on. Besides, I don’t know anything about you or your parents or your little brother. Seems to me a relationship should unfold slowly, on its own time.” Gillie squirmed a bit and searched her young mind for any answer that would move her quicker toward adulthood and all that she perceived it would bring.

“What if you didn’t own a lot of time, Mister Cobb? Pretty soon I’m gonna’ be nine soon and then nineteen and then all growed up and maybe married and what will I know about bein’ a grown up unless I ask other grown ups? I don’t read fairly tale books like the other kids my age. They all lie. I seen, oops…saw your face last night when you were telling the story. That’s the truth, Mister Cobb. I don’t have time for make believe. I liked your sad story.”

“Okay, Miss Gillie, you want the stuff that got passed over, here it is. Now, you stop me if you don’t understand a word because this is the part where you don’t normally practice telling it to kids.”

She seemed quite pleased with herself and sat back in the chair, closed the Dickinson text and folded her little hands like she was praying. Only they were lower, right around her tummy.

“Now where did I leave off?”

“You never really started but my daddy told me that your wife drowned  when she fell off of a boat. He told me that when he tucked me in and I told him back that I should say a prayer for her soul. Sometimes Daddy forgets to remind me to pray so I remind him to tell me so we both don’t forget.”

“Well, that makes some sense, I reckon, but your daddy is correct, she was out on a small boat, the very same one that’s sitting out in your front yard, when she fell. Her uncle, a good man, thought kinda’ wild sometimes, won day-rights to the boat in a card game. They weren’t far from shore and she was standing up and slipped. I think Ruth hit her head or something, because she was a good swimmer. Chuck couldn’t swim a lick to save himself.” I was working hard not to get emotional and mostly winning the battle.

I could see that Gillie was doing her best to follow the tale but at one point she stopped me and wanted to know what happens after people die. Like we all do.

“I don’t know yet, Ms. Gillie but I’ll send you a sing when I get there.”

“What did you do then, Mister Cobb, after you brought them in from the lake? Did you take them to the hospital?”

“Sort of,” I swallowed hard somehow realizing that I was speaking more to my repressed memory than a young girl. Still, like music coming from the backyard of a neighbor, I was unable to change the volume or the content. “Chuck was alive but not Ruth. There were lots of other Negroes around by then. The women sang and Chuck coughed up some lake water and insisting on driving me and Ruth and our child in her tummy to the hospital and I held my past in my hands while my future bounced around the bed of our truck. The world spun and the truck sputtered, splitting the fog as it crept across the surrounding marsh.  From the back, with Ruth face cradled in my lap, her lips an off color of blue in the fading light, I asked Chuck to turn on the transistor radio, to help drown the other-worldly voice from inside my head as it was coming too hard and too fast. And from that radio Woody sang that ballad of his. This land or that land. To the gulf stream waters.

Turn it off,” I screamed into the mist with so much force that I thought I might wake Ruth. “Take it back, I don’t want it! Now just leave me be. I didn’t need what you let happen.” And Uncle Chuck must’ve known that my conversation was not with him but with something after life ends.

“But others might, Johnny Cobb. Others might,” The strange voice drifted inside my own while the clouds crept in from the east and the wind seemed to die like a breath gone quiet.      Chuck slowed the truck and pulled over on the dirt road. He left the motor running and he left Woody singing and he came around to the bed and put his big black hand on his niece’s cold, blue cheek. His eyes looked dead as well, to my thinking.

“I done killed your wife and child, Johnny. It ain’t God you ought to be blaming but me. I killed her, Johnny. And isn’t nobody bringing her back. I’m a sorry sombitch Johnny, just a sorry negro.” And then Uncle Chuck bent down and kissed the wrinkled forehead of his dead niece, touched me on the shoulder and walked off into the walled sheen of cypress and magnolia and sorrow.

I called out for Chuck, told him we didn’t owe heaven nothing any more. We shouldn’t pay it any mind at’ll. But he disappeared into the thick and left me alone with the spirits and the dogs and the dead.

Chuck you get your ass back here right now. I done saved it once and I’m not gonna’ go havin’ to do it again.”

I tried to pry myself away from Ruth but when I moved her chest to go after Chuck, a pale fluid came out of her mouth and the dogs whimpered and Woody sang and crickets began their calls and I heard His voice as if he was sitting in the cab, leaning His head around the edge of the truck.

“Others might, Johnny, others might. I’ll watch over Ruth. You watch over those who most certainly will come after.” I wedged Ruth’s body between a spare tire and the two old shepherds, Isaac and Jeremiah and thought about running off into the woods after Chuck. But when a man like Chuck, who’d grown up in the thick and denseness of nature and the way things were; when he didn’t want to get found, you wouldn’t find him. I spoke to my dead wife as if she was sleeping: We’ll be there in just a bit, Hon. You rest a bit now.

I drove the last few miles to the hospital and parked around back. There the nurses took her for a period but I don’t remember how long. Later,   I watched them load Ruth into the barn doors of the local Negro hearse as it swallowed her feet last; her heels reaching out from underneath the lake-stained sheet. I saw the oil lamps reflect off the wet pavement and everything that I had ever felt about her or would come to feel in later years could not flush the lake from her lungs or our child from her belly. The last thing I saw were her heels and I thought again of her in the garden, pulling carrots or picking worms from tomato leaves. When I would see those tanned feet with the rough-hewn soles standing sentinel to the hungry crows passing high above, I knew that Ruth was sound yet evolving still, same as the earth that would envelop her.

A man in a hospital coat came up to me and asked if I had any plans on burying her.

“No sir, the thought of putting my wife in a box and letting the earth swallow her was not something I had thought often about.” Then I asked him if he was married and did he think about putting his wife or child in a grave. He called me an uppity nigger and walked away. I was young then, but that’s no excuse, only a testimony to my naiveté.

“You want the Parrish to pay for her burial in the city cemetery or you want to come back for her in the morning?” The coroner had conjured up some empathy from way down below where a coroner might store it.

My tongue had filled my throat and was cutting off any sound. I just nodded.

“Okay then,” he was back to business, “We’ll box her up and have her ready for you in the morning. You best go on home now.”

I looked across the room at the girl in the growing light. “That’s the most of it, Miss Gillie, that’s the most.”

Gillie sat there as if cast in wax, listening and doing something else I couldn’t be sure. “Wow,” she finally said. I don’t really understand some of the worlds but I’d be sad if I lost my mom or dad or Phin. Thanks for telling me, Mr. Cobb.” And as she slipped off to her room she turned once and said it must be nice to know that God hisself made a point of talking to me.

I sat there in the first hint of the new day and thought about the other middle part, the meaning of the missing words worth more than the telling of the ones that’d come out.

The death of Ruth and the unborn was my fate. They could’ve lived forever because, in fact, in my life, they already had. And what was forever anyways — just a long continuous silence without interruption? I knew I’d make the best of a solitary life if I had to.

Passing over my lifeless family to the coroner that evening, cheap whiskey on his breath, a stale, city smell lurking near the loading zone behind the hospital, the sun refusing to set as if God was waiting for my answer, I put my long knife in its own cradle, but kept it sharp and close and threatening for many years. I think He understood and was patient with my apprenticeship.

When Gillie came out of her room mid-morning she asked me where Ruth was buried and I said not yet, child. Not yet.




Chapter 3 of “In the Wake of Our Past”



In the beginning of that time after Ruth’s death, I didn’t know how to describe what it was that I was feeling. But I knew what she felt like, her cold feet on my bare legs at night, her high, disarming laugh in my ears. It was all familiar, evolving still as if Ruth continued to exist in flesh among this world. 

          It would take years for me to unravel those months after she passed. And it seems that no sooner than the coffin was shut, I was being pointed somewhere. I trusted her to show me another life, as if it were her responsibility, as if she was as important to me dead as she was alive. We’d only been married for a little over two years after a long year of courting. I could never marry again.

          And Ruth remained unvanquished.  

          In the years that followed her death, I would often wonder if I should have grieved more, should’ve cried out “why” into those many dark nights I slept alone, worked the land and the rough wood in the shop alone and rebuilt my life from the inside out — alone. As much as I loved her, as much as the pain of losing her tore at my soul, it was not hard to let her go. And that surprised me, confounds me still.  

           I went into that exiled state with the sincerity of a man on trial. Unknown as it was, that little mahogany and teak skiff tied to the back of my ’42 Ford pick-up existed as if it were the Dead Sea scrolls, full of proverbial wisdom that was centered in the one woman I would love. Her with that sardonic insight bordering on the supernatural, her guiding me, her — no longer alive — appallingly human, Ruth’s memory and the damn boat that killed her… life was strange.

          And I was about to re-frame my alone-ness while the country of America boomed with post-war economic glee. 1951 was the year I met Phin Davis.  


Even if memory is apt to be inventive, I was damn sure I hadn’t been here before. Yet the familiarity crept in and stayed like a light spring rain on thirsty crops, each new moment welcomed and appreciated. Jed Riot had been correct, the place was not signed or numbered, just hidden two, maybe three miles down a series of red clay roads that twisted and turned back on themselves as if designed to force the driver to slow their approach and have a good look around at the tall sugar pines, silver dollar eucalyptus, salt marsh grass and low, low rolling hills. The sensuous horizon made the road wind and bent the time it took to drive from the corrugated tin mailbox on the main road to where the house might be. It was more a passage than a driveway.

Jed and Winnie had mentioned “acreage” but there was no way to tell when I might find the residence of one Harry, Grace, and Gillie Davis plus? as the mailbox had said. The sun was flirting with the branches of a row of thin willows and a thought moved in that showing up right at supper time might be impolite. I put the truck in low gear, slowing to a near halt but it seemed that the trees and the light and the smell of wild jasmine that had filled the cab were still streaming by on either side of me. My truck could’ve been dead in the water but still in motion, caught in the gravity of something unknown to me.

Just then four dogs came running out from behind a wild blackberry hedge and started yapping curiously. I couldn’t make out the kind of dogs; maybe it was the fading light. More than likely their make and model were like this town — indiscernible and rough around the edges. They surrounded my truck at a safe distance, guiding me in as fighter jets would a suspect plane, enjoying the run, their pink tongues hanging out, their paws gripping the moist ground and kicking up little clods of earth in their wake. I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure I smiled for the first time in months.

Round a wide arc of mature white cedar, the sun just nudging the western edge of the world, I came into a broad clearing. In the center was an oblong-shaped patch of Bermuda grass grown quite tall but trimmed around the edges of the gravel driveway that crunched under my tires. There were several out-buildings in varying states of construction and repair, and in the dusky light there appeared a number of small to medium-sized marine craft nestled in and around the compound. Through the trees, along a short path, I could see a rather large garden, rowed, planted, and fenced. Plants I knew. This was a producing garden, the result of much work.

The whole scene — boats, small and tidy work shed, plants — spoke of care and effort; not exceptionally organized but aesthetic and nurtured in an involved way. Momentarily, I found myself thinking it would’ve been fun to grow up on a property such as this.

The dogs split off in pairs, two moving over to my truck that I had parked off to the edge of the driveway near a slightly newer ’48 Ford short bed and a surplus Willy’s Jeep. The other dogs had stopped near a split in the tree line where the path to the home began. They had all stopped barking and appeared unthreatening. Odd for dogs on open land.

“Good boys.” I put out my hand for them to catch my scent. “Are your owners around? I imagine I’d be a sight for them out of nowhere. Maybe you better go let ‘em know they got a visitor so as I don’t scare ‘em. Go on now.”

I stepped out of the truck and one of the cylinders kept firing for a few seconds. I reached for a cigarette and then remembered I quite smoking two months ago. The crickets started in as if they were laughing at me.

That’s when Harry Davis came into my life, with sound before sight.

“That’s okay, Cain. You can stay. He’s all right. You take Abel and the girls and go on back up the house and check on the girls and Phin.” The voice was gravelly but smooth, as if the stones in his throat were small, polished pebbles. It was the voice of a judge who might’ve grown up on whiskey and cigarettes, secure and authoritative but with an edge just under the surface.

It was difficult to see his face, silhouetted by the last of the day’s glow and he carried no flashlight. I could tell he was tall though, well over six feet, and what he did carry was an unexpected calmness in light of the sudden appearance of a Negro man arriving at his white home unannounced.

“I like to give my dogs names from the Bible and talk to them like humans. Figures it gives them a chance of feeling like they belong here, know what I mean?”

“Personally, I haven’t considered that,” I replied, “but then, it makes sense. Our dogs on the farm are also there for more than just keeping the varmints away from the crops. They do their job well enough, but I give ‘em names like Rex and King–normal dog names.”

I could make out the man’s head nodding and the agreeable “uh huhs.”

“Listen, sir, ah, Mr. Davis, I don’t mean to barge in on you with a surprise visit but…”

“You ain’t a surprise. I knew you were looking for me since Winnie made that bologna sandwich for you. This town’s got ears big as rabbits, ‘specially when a stranger of color drives in asking for a local. I hear you’ve run across some polite and some not so cordial.”

I leaned back against the truck, hearing this man’s disarming words as an odd collection of down-home diction and downtown intelligence. I joined right in.

“We got folks up near Mobile so poor they can’t afford to spend the night. Some are good, some not. I suppose that’s the way of any town with people in it.”

I saw his head nod in the silhouetting light.

“By the way, the name’s Davis, Harry Davis. You want to come on in and tell me what’s on your mind?”

I reached for his hand that wrapped itself around mine by one and a half. My hands had grown rough and well-hewn from the years working the fields but if my palms were sandpaper, this man’s were steel wool. He squeezed it deftly and with respect, but there was no hiding the years of bait and hooks and salt. The graceful utility of his work on the sea must’ve found their way into his movements but the power and force of the ocean onto his skin.

I followed him down the path, pausing once to apologize for failing to tell him my name. Harry laughed, said it was okay and asked if I was hungry.

“Well Mr. Davis, I wasn’t until you mentioned it and just caught that scent. Sure smells like some kinda’ stew but I don’t know if I can place the kind of meat.”

Just then we stepped into the light from a hanging lantern fixed from the overhang of a wide covered porch and I caught my first real glimpse of the face of Harry Davis. He stepped up onto the landing first and turned to look at me. There was a broad grin across a deeply-browned face with etches carved where you’d expect them to be if you’d spent a good part of your life smiling and squinting. His hair was thick and straight, sun-bleached a wheaty color and his eyes were hazel, unchallenging without any hint of suspect. He was thin, almost wiry and walked with the light step of a boxer. I sensed he was older than he looked on the outside but younger than others his age on the inside.

I’d turned twenty-five two months ago, exactly ten days after Ruth passed. But Harry could’ve been anywhere between thirty and forty-two; his face a kind of story, not ageless but timeless.

“Well, Mr. Cobb,” he spread his arms out like you would to say this is all I have, but there was much pride and virtue in his voice.

“Please, call me Johnny.”

“All right there, Johnny. This here is our home, Grace and the kids and me. Some people like to call these modular homes because they’re ashamed but sure as the sun’s down, it’s just a big trailer we hauled in on a flat bed thinking we’d get around to building a permanent one as soon as I had another couple of good years on the boat. But truth is, we spend most of our lives out of doors and this little place has grown on us like a turtle shell. We like it.”

He opened the solid wood framed door with a small carving of a mermaid near the center, then the screen and waved me inside.

“I did put this door on the house, though,” Harry said. “I hate the sound of anything hollow.”

“Darlin’, we got compny’ for dinner.”


*                                            *          *


“And I couldn’t leave the cemetery that night; just stuck my body to the warm, moist earth with my ear on a small clump of crab grass…listening. They found me like that two days later. It was a maintenance guy who told me I’d have to dig a hole and climb in if I wanted to die.”

The stew had been Paella, an exotic type of fish soup from Spain, and afterwards there’d been some small talk and home-made wine, but it was the seven-year-old girl, Gillie they called her, who’d gotten me started talking about Ruth.

She was tall and thin, like her daddy, but her olive skin, dark hair and quick, inquisitive eyes had come from her mother, Grace. Like her father, her spirit and mindfulness was disconnected to her age. I had to ask.

“Gillie, that’s an interesting name. I bet you’re about ten or eleven years old.” I’d padded it as a children’s compliment.

“Actually, I’m seven Mr. Cobb. Gillie is from Gilman, a writer mama used to read stories from. She was a kind of, what do you call them Mama? Activates?”

Grace smiled and adjusted the young boy on her breast. She allowed the time lag that seemed to exist in the small living room of the trailer, that existed in the quiet comfort of the space instead of the facelessness of time.

“Try again, honey.”

“Actionist. Activist! That’s it Mr. Cobb. She tried to make the world better for women. All kinds, like married and not married. Are you married, Mr. Cobb?” That’s how it’d started.

I looked at Harry, who sat on a small stool in the corner, fiddling with a piece of wood and a knife, allowing the bigger chairs for his girls and me. He must’ve known some of the story, no doubt, and I did what I could with a glance to get his blessing to tell a sad story to a happy child.

Harry nodded and I saw in his eyes for the first time in that softly-lit corner with the three candles still burning on the wooden kitchen table, a kind of rolling down of a thin hood over the filmy iris, like this was the way that Harry protected himself from the tragedies of life. I wondered if Harry was seeing himself in me, Grace in Ruth. Years later I would confirm it time after time, realizing that every human was always looking for himself in others, in work, in mirrors, in the sounds and smells of ordinary everyday life. But mostly in love, especially in love. A man finds himself in the love of another and he knows who he is, exactly. And even at that young moment, I knew that love, same as hurt, comes in through the eyes and moves out the heart. Harry’d just pulled down a thin shade for the telling.

Grace got up to lay the baby in his crib and put on some tea and to give me some time to compose my thoughts. When she poured the tea and sat back down I spoke, lightly at first, but gaining momentum like a big train until I had to back off and let Grace give me a rest.

“Ruth never spoke much with her lips — words just seemed to move around her, like water splitting a river rock. She could, though, speak with other parts of her body: Her eyes when she was hard-thinking, the way she waved her hands when she was excited or reeled them in when all riled up. But the way I figured it, mostly it was her feet that allowed Ruth to communicate the things that mattered to her, that ought to matter to others.

“When she was happy she sprang like a jack-in-the-box, ignoring the gravity of the time that tried so hard to ground-hold our lives. Or deep in her work out in the garden, those feet of hers, rarely shoed, the red soil drawing half moons under her toe nails, would plant themselves, fixed and firm in the moment, but pliable as the tall, thin pines that rimmed the edge of our land north of Mobile.

“And on occasion, when things went bad for her, those feet would carry her deep into the cypress groves and sway grass, the prevailing south easterlies pushing her into the sheen. It was a place that I’d feared as a child, rarely going into that swampy, misted void. But she embraced those shadows, allowing them to swallow her dismay as if the boggy soil could soften her steps and push her back out into the light.

“‘Johnny, someone spit on me in town,’ she might say, as if mentioning that the sky looked like it might rain. And then I’d hear the screen door slam, footsteps on the creaky back porch, I’d know where she was going. It was the same place where I felt that my heart could move darker and deeper into my chest; it was that thick canopy of trees on the edge of the field. I reckon one person’s lock can be another’s key.

“My wife’s feet counted time, marked the moments and the years as human metronomes, beating out a Robert Johnson beat when we heard his records leak out the broken panes of a blues club in town, or they’d note another passing season when a small crack bled from between her wintered-toes. Volumes of text were crafted by those limbs. And I loved all of their sounds. “

I took a long sip from the coffee I’d been handed. And then a longer breath before continuing. Gillie was looking at me like a seven year-old psychiatrist, scratching her chin. But here eyes were devouring my words. Harry put some branches on the fire.

“What Ruth wanted above all was for those feet and those limbs to carry her far away from the South, carry her to a place were she could learn to speak openly with all her voices, raise up a child with hope that its future would eclipse her own. She didn’t know where that place was, only that she wanted to be on the move, skipping over those canyons that ruled her life, running if she had to, but unchained within the freedom of the road. She had that itch.

“‘Johnny,’ she’d say from time to time, usually while she peeled the potatoes for a stew and I worked up a cooking fire, ‘I been talking to some of the other black folks down at the laundry mat and I been sneaking a peak at some of those books you’ve been bringin’ from the library. Now, I know this here land belongs to you and your brothers. And more so, all of you to it. But there’s better places to live Johnny, and better people to live amongst.’

“I knew she was right. And Ruth knew I was connected to the lands that our family had earned through sharecrop and sweat and one kind old white man and dumb, blind luck. My brothers and I were bound in time and blood to these ninety-four acres of soil so rich that if you threw out one seed, sixteen things would grow back. We all knew that if we left it, we’d be vandalizing our past. And we knew that the people from town would find a way to wrestle it back, compensate us a portion of what it was worth, if that. It’s rare for a Negro family to own that much good earth. And many were the nights when my brothers, Earl and Ramsey, and our friends would walk the crop perimeter road in small groups, torches bright, shotguns cradled in their thick arms with hounds baying at the night noises. Ruth knew that great conflict that nearly burnt a hole in me. I was identified in the red-brown soil that fed our family, that kept us alive. But our skin color was too close to that of the earth. And I hated guns.

“She’d never asked me to choose between her and that land. But near the end, the signs were coming at me, and I had taken up a mind to move us away. We’d use her feet as a compass and I’d pray that my two brothers, Earl and Ramsey, who were still connected to the land in name and employ, their patience with the work wouldn’t erode with the irrigation berms.

“I had begun dreaming that Ruth’s legs had become stiff and straight, timbered trunks that began to ring each passing year but never again light up a Friday night boogie or bounce from berm to berm along the creek side. It was time.

“Land I could find again, up north maybe, Canada, the Alaskan Territories. But Ruth I wouldn’t let go of. Her mother had made me swear on my own mama’s grave that I wouldn’t leave her, always do my best to keep her happy. She ought not to have though. I would of anyway. Beside each other at night, watching the candle burn down, our dreams were telling us the same thing for different reasons. I was going to tell her that next afternoon, out on the lake after supper.

“The day before I was going to tell her, she already knew. Ruth had this gift of knowing things ahead and I’d wondered about it. I’d made my decision and guessed that she knew. I’d seen her with a sense of rising awareness, the way dogs speak when they raise their ears. There was this lightness to her step that told me it was right, even before I told her we’d be going after the crops were pulled come fall. Somehow, if it would all work out with Earl and Ramsey, I wasn’t so sure.

“But time came and went, those dreams dying alongside the ceasing of her heart and the quieting of her feet as they returned to the earth for the final time. And I would return to our land without my wife and child to come. It wasn’t the same land anymore though; a different moon shone upon it.”


There were tears running down Grace’s cheeks and she’d long since tried to blot ‘em out while I told them the story of Ruth’s drowning in the boat, the complete one including the stranger who’d told me about Harry, Uncle Chuck’s disappearance and then this strange mission I’d felt compelled to complete. Grace had stopped me at various parts to clarify a point or to make sure she could see and feel the whole scene as if she was there. In a polite way, Grace and Gillie Davis were making me dredge up the essential root of the experience. Within her facial expressions, she forced my game of solitaire, at once tasting the exile that came in the words and breathing new air into the space that was left in their absence.

“That’s a really, really sad story, Mr. Cobb.” It was Gillie who was lying on the carpet resting her head on her elbows, brushing her hair out of her eyes and squinting when I told of finding Ruth’s body on the lake bottom and pulling it up. Her eyes were dry, giving away an uncanny insight to her resilient psyche. Of all of them, Gillie reminded me the most of Ruth. And more than one old black sage who knew her or had read her hands had said of Ruth that she was the type to live very long or die much too soon.

“Do you talk to her now, Mr. Cobb?” Gillie asked, almost matter-of-factly. Harry started to interrupt but Grace shot him a well-telegraphed glance allowing the inquiry. “I mean do you go visit her grave?’

“I talk to her, Miss Gillie. But not as much as I did, and right after it happened it was like she was talking to me all the time. As quiet as Ruth was, she was giving me all sorts of advice once she was gone.” I took a sip of my coffee, thinking that if any child could grasp this thought, it would be her. I hadn’t spoken openly to anybody of this. And then to be spillin’ my guts to a  family I just met? “But no, I don’t visit her grave on account of I don’t know where her body is.”

There was a thick silence in the room. I was in it and had to get along as far as I could. “I’d asked Earl to bury her on our land but not to tell me until I asked. Is that strange?”

Grace said no, not really, compared to the fact that I was even sitting here. Gillie seemed to be trying to but some simple meaning to it. But it looked as if her mind was tumbling like the inside parts of a lock.

“I don’t know if I’ve loved her anymore in hindsight because I don’t know where her body is or that she’s become what I’ve dreamt about. I do figure I’ve moved closer to what I admired in her. And I’m sorry if I’m being vague, but sometimes I think and sometimes I feel and at a time like this when they both come together things come out in tongues.”

Harry, who’d been quiet the whole time, listening and whittlin’ the wood into a bucket and nodding his head and looking at his family, two eyes at a time, finally spoke.

“The white man down on the lake who told you about me and my new boy…you never asked him his name or why he thought I’d be in the market for a new skiff?”

“No sir. I felt like there was something moving through me and I was afraid to get in its way.”

“Are you a religious man, Johnny?” Grace asked, “I mean do you ever consider what kind of thing that force might be?

“Well, yes and no, Mrs. Davis. I believe that there is a God out there, and He gives me some point to my being, though I was well and damned, excuse me, darned confounded when Ruth died. I don’t believe that stuff about “her being called home,” as the local preachers railed on with. But I can’t believe that all of her is dead, that her soul went into the ground with her body. Sometimes I go to Sunday services because it seems pointless not to try. But there remains a curious split, a give-and-take, between the living and the dying. And that’s where I get confused. I reckon that I have no call for the organized religion of people who follow a regular man no matter than what he tells him to do or not do. But I believe heartedly in a holy spirit, whatever it may be.” I was going to tell them of what I’d been taught by Grayfalls about the Great Spirit, but backed off. The story of Grayfalls was best told by a man’s actions, the time and place as important as the lesson.

There was a silence that entered the room now and seem to sweep into each person’s mind. But it must’ve settled somewhere deep and safe enough for the quiet was no trouble. The space between us was comfortable and no one felt the need to force their rhythm on the other.

There was a sound at the door, not quite a knock but neither a scratch. Gillie got up and let the last two dogs in.

Harry asked her if she’d make sure that Sarah and Micah had water before they lay down in the corner next to the other dogs. Looking at me, Harry shrugged his shoulders and said it took awhile for the Bible to even use female names.

I sensed the night winding down, heard Grace tell Gillie to get ready for bed, then get up to check on the baby who she’d laid in a crib next to the fire while Harry made some tea.

Gillie kissed her dad on the cheek, pressed out her hand to me and said it was nice to meet you. Then just before leaving the single front room of the trailer, she turned gracefully as if it was scripted, reached for the door jam and spoke in a tone somewhere between question and statement.

“Mr. Cobb, you think a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, Miss Gillie. I do that. I reckon it’s become who I am, this pondering.”

“You know what I think, Mr. Cobb? That dead people keep on thinking too. Good night.”

Harry stood up slowly from the stool, sheathed his knife then stretched his arms and legs one at a time.

“If I was in your shoes, Johnny Cobb, after that telling, I’d be wanting a belt of my home brew that’s been curing out in the shed. But seeing as that you’re too polite to ask, I’m going to insist on it. Besides, the moon ought to be up by now and I’d like to see what the weather’s going to be doing in the morning.”

We walked out into the thick Florida air that kept all things damp and clumpy most of the year. Harry stood looking at the sky, breathing, feeling; much like the farmers up north did around planting time. Only he was a fisherman, he did it by the hour without even noticing.

He led me to a narrow shed with a high ceiling that hung assorted nets and floats. There was a work bench covered in rows of reels of spools of line and hooks and underneath, a metal cabinet with a heavy lid. Harry said he’d grown the wheat and barley and hops himself and it’d been exactly thirty one and one half days. It should be perfect. He reached in and pulled out two large dark brown bottles and popped the lids on the edge of the bench.

He handed me one of the bottles, held the other up to the single light bulb with half a dozen mosquitoes buzzing in concert and checked the sediment.

“Liquid bread with a kick” I asked?

“Something like that. To family, Mr. Cobb, past and present.” He raised the heavy bottle in my direction and put it to his lips, tasting the earth that had grown the wheat and barley and hops, set the bottle on the work bench and wiped the back of his mouth with his shirt sleeve.

I took his look and drank and heard the crickets in the yard and wondered what breath had put me here. But I didn’t have to know right then and drank hard, feeling the warm beer flowing into my stomach and its effect already taking place not because of the alcohol but something else, something that came from nowhere. And everywhere.

“Your new son,” I finally asked as Harry was busy studying the mosquitoes and then reaching into the cabinet for another. “What’s his name again?”

“Well I’ll be damned. You don’t know?”

“Not properly introduced a’tall.”

“Well, there aren’t any official papers on him declaring to the world what he should be called. Grace delivered him in the back room with a little help, right where I reckon you’ll be sleeping tonight. I’m getting on in years, Mr. Cobb, so I figure he’s about the best thing I got going in my life; right up there with Grace and Gillie. I don’t plan on letting the world get a hold of him for a spell.

“That boy is heritage and I can’t deny him that without denying the purpose of my own living. He’s a gift from your God, Mr. Cobb, that spirit force you spoke of maybe. I ain’t as eloquent a thinker as you but the connection between your Ruth dying off and my boy getting birthed and you coming here…well, it’s enough for a guy like me to start thinking he ought to do more thinking. I’m a slow learner, Mr. Cobb, but once something is set in my mind, it’s like a gaff through the gills of a shark — it ain’t coming loose.

“And his name Mr. Davis? His name?”

“Oh, well, it’s Phin, Johnny Cobb, it’s Phin, after every living thing in the water.”

“Phin.” I said the word out loud and the weight of it struck bottom, surprising me. “Not Phineas?” I asked.

“A few people have adopted that but, you know, it being an odd name and such, I don’t much care. He’s our son, at least for awhile. And then he’s his own. I’m sure you understand that, Johnny Cobb.”

“I’m not sure anybody understands something like that. But I reckon we sure can have a go at it.”

“You go right ahead, Mr. Deep Thinker. Lemme’ know what you find out. I think I’ll just try and raise up these kids best I can.”

I was momentarily stalled in the icy hard thought that more’n likely I wouldn’t have a child of my own and pulled another beer out of the case without asking, unashamed of my action.

“You worry about your kids getting hurt?” It was a simple question, obvious but unfair.

There was a shift in Harry, a pulling down of more than the lids.

“Of course. But nothing’s gonna happen to my kids if I have anything to do with it. And around here, I have a lot to do with who comes near them.” I believed Harry Davis as he said this–he believed he could protect them from all evil in the world. At least until they had a chance to protect themselves. And even then he’d keep on trying.

“It ain’t gonna be like it was in ’41. We have enough work keeping our own county at peace, let alone the rest of the damn mixed up world.”

“Oh,” I asked in passing, “Did you serve…over there? I mean, in the army?” Soon as they come out I wanted to take the words back.

“Serve? Worse word y’all used all night. I like you, Johnny. But don’t ever ask me about my ‘serving,’ okay?”

“That’s fair,” I back-pedaled and made a note to keep Harry and the subject of war in separate corners of the world.

“And before I forget,” changing the subject quick as I could, “I wanted for you to have a look at this present I brought for Phin, which was a something like a gift to me and had to be passed on, if that makes any sense.”

“Shit, Cobb,” the momentary tension between us gone, “as salty as my head can be, I actually thought you were more sensical than my fresh water  friends who went off to college and think they run this town. I know exactly what you’re talking about.” Harry’s words thickened with the night air and a third beer.

“Well, she’s on the truck. The Ruth Henry David, a birthday present for the boy.”

“Coulda’ been born on the same day as your wife’s drowning.” Harry didn’t apologize for the words and grabbed two more bottles as he led me out of the shed toward my truck. “Henry David, eh? That a family name or from that nature rebel-type from up northeast?”

“Not bad Harry. You got potential.”

“That’s Grace, Johnny Cobb. She’s the one who likes to read stories about people bucking the system. Something in her blood, same as anyone, eh?”

“Yeah, sure, Harry. It’s either in your blood or it ain’t.”

“Gonna’ be nice tomorrow, Johnny,” Harry said, running his hands on the splitting teak rail caps of the boat, moving away from something else that was too close or too powerful or that he couldn’t control. It was as if he could manage boats and weather and the future of his family. But not his own past.

“It’ll be a good day to get an honest week’s work in. If’n I were you, I’d be thinking about sticking around for a few weeks and getting to know the ocean a bit. We got lots of it right here. Maybe you could find a job right on top of it.” He winked and traded an empty bottle for a full one.

“Besides, I’ve never owned a gifted boat with both male and female names. Might need you to fill in the gaps a bit; both in these split floorboards and the details you left out tonight. I take that boat off your hands, Cobb, I’ll need some book learning to go along with it, some book ideas fill in the seams.” Harry put his hand on my shoulder, “Reckon the men in this family don’t read enough,” and then added, “least not stuff between the covers.”

We stood in front of the little boat as the moon did its best to show us her graceful lines beneath the weathered exterior, the sudden hints and playful jabs turning back to a comfortable silence.

“Yep, Cobb,” Harry was admiring the moon as he might a lover, “It’s gonna’ be a good day in the morning…a damn good day.”

And as we walked back to the house, I thought how fortunate I was to have had a reason to be here. Comin’ down this way with no reason woulda’ been akin to an innocent man sent to prison.



Chapter 2 of “In the Wake of Our Past”



TV’s Ozzie and Harriet never visited the South. A lot of black kids became adults as soon as they were old enough to guide a mule. Choices were a luxury. Ruth had been raised by her grandmother, Nadine Winters, and her Uncle Chuck, the younger brother of a father who’d come only once. But with only twelve year’s separation, Chuck had also been a brother. And a friend.

This was our South back then. Things weren’t the same as up north. But they weren’t that different. There was crucifixion for skin color and depth of tenderness for the same. The Winters made more than their due. They made something together, sculpted a life out of the misery.

As I came to know Nadine and Ruth and Charles, and watched them navigate their lives as best they could, “like watching the flying of a fly ball,” as Nadine would say, “just hoping to get under it,” I began to love them not only as people but as symbols of something larger, something between family and survival, something that earned itself and the right to live on the earth.

When I look back now at the few years I lived among them, it seems that the earth didn’t deserve what they had. But it was the earth that swallowed them in the way it expands and contracts, as worlds will do. The last of the Winters lineage were living in a parallel way, but celebrating life in the most primal form — by breathing. In their early days as a family, Nadine would recall, it seemed they found a joy simply to move air inside themselves and then let it out again. A day that wasn’t a bad one was a great one. For Chuck, though, I think there were more bad ones.


Charles Samuel Winters never liked the name Chuck. But once it took to him, he was the kind of kid — then the kind of man — who was too discerning to correct everyone. Let them call him what they liked. He would’ve rather grown up into a Sam, or even a Charlie. But somewhere along the way, he became Chuck and that was just the way it was going to be. Even if his stomach twisted just a little every time he heard the name that was not him; every time the old Negroes noticed his distaste and regaled stories of how the Indians let their children pick their own names after they had an inkling of who they were relative to the animistic view and what path their lives might take.

Charles “Chuck” Winters hadn’t found his peace yet, let alone his spirit-animal; his life was more about being pointed in a direction and told to move. Sometimes he did because the options weren’t good. And other times he didn’t because they were. Lines in the dirt, fences in his head, times to do as he was told and much later with others, to do the telling; his young life seemed an extended negotiation. And always, it seemed, just below the surface was something waiting. He’d know that time, he’d say to me when we were alone. “I’ll know because I’m always looking,” he’d say with those dark and darting eyes, a bird of prey, a pendulum on a grandfather clock marking time. Chuck wasn’t a hunter but he gathered things and most of them were for protection of what family he had left.

His own daddy had worked the land for the white boss until he got the fever and couldn’t handle the fields. The boss was a decent man who paid him a wage, small though it was. His great grandfather had also worked for a white boss but had no choice, the scars on his back carving out that truth. His grandfather had been shot through the head by a Confederate soldier. He hadn’t suffered. The men in the Winters’ family seemed to be faring better with each generation. Still, Uncle Chuck had a volcano core, unpredictable and angry.

Ruth’s mother was called Louella. She hadn’t wanted the child, had been sixteen. The father was momentary, the ancient lustful want of nameless men who deposit their seed and disappear into the forever-night. It couldn’t be called a mistake — nobody really excused it. Just temporary pleasure, forever result.

Louella’s mother was Nadine and had convinced her to carry it full term. And when it came out, the grandmother Nadine took to raising it, called the baby Ruth, after The Babe since Nadine loved all things baseball. Nadine, who taught herself to read at nine years-old and then never walked by a piece of text, glossy or news print, had never been out of Alabama but deconstructed the white man’s newspapers like a public scholar, often making excuses to hitch a ride into Mobile just to lurk innocently at the news stand or on her birthday, spend the whole day at the Central Library. She devoured George Ruth and the New York Yankees and was skeptical of anything that had to be plugged in, including, after her daughter’s teen pregnancy, female sexuality in general. Nadine Winters might’ve been the only rural black women in the mid nineteenth century South who’d not only read Freud but understood him.

Besides Louella, Nadine had born only one other child by her husband, Willis, a farrier by trade. The son had been given the name Charles, for no particular reason, as you recall, and then was reduced to Chuck in the wake of his past. I called him Charlie on the account of it made us think of each other differently. At first, he didn’t know what to think of me. But we shared the scars of the South and were bound to each other in ways that each had no idea how the present would shape the past. We both loved Ruth to the point of future pain.

Nadine used to say that Charlie had been a good kid at first, tall and straight, with a rebel soul held in check by the threads of his family ties, bonds that made him proud and angry in the same breath. And then the father, Willis, went and died of the fever and nothing could ever be the same after that. The past had elapsed like small waves on the shore but the ripples that passed through seemed to hit a wall and bounce, sometimes doubling in size, other times canceling each other out. But they were always there, moving around.

Nadine was both a mother and a grandmother and a widower and was missing a child before her fortieth birthday. It wasn’t a mistake.

“This is life,” she’d say matter-of-factly. “Ya come on to terms with it or ya don’t.”

By the time I’d met and courted Ruth, Nadine had grown that shell around her skin. But there were still openings to her heart though it took a tire iron. One day I’d told her that if she and Louella and Charlie would let me marry Ruth, I was going to take them to New York City and see the Yankee Stadium.

“Oh, young Johnny Cobb,” she’d chuckle, “You save up your money and make my granddaughter happy. I don’t need to see no New York City. The Babe and the Iron Man Gehrig will be gone by then. Mantle’s a good kid but there’s a lot of pressure on him. Reckon the Mick don’t have the mettle- probably die like the black men in these parts—from the pressure that brings the drink that kills the liver that kills the man.” And then she’d busy herself in her little kitchen with the new propane gas oven she’d bought with money earned mending clothes, always finishing just this way, “besides, I wouldn’t want to be away if’n my other baby, Louella, come home.”

Louella had been gone fifteen years by the time I started courting Ruth, making her over thirty years old if she was alive. Nadine said that Louella had followed the heroin of a traveling blues musician.  Never a word, the ghost daughter swallowed by the night horse. Charlie’d said she gone chasing things away, not following. And in a quiet moment out on the partly-screened porch one hot July night when Ruth and Nadine were busy in the kitchen, I asked Charlie if he’d ever consider going after Louella.

“I did,” he considered me long and hard as if the question was more an investigation of him than his sister. “Found myself staring down a whole bunch of barrels. Some filled with whisky and other loaded with bullets. Not scared of the effects of booze but the bullets are a different story.” And then after considering the weight of his comments added, “decided to save my response for another day.”


That day in August of ’46 when Ruth brought me home to meet her grandma and her uncle was one of those days when, even if you were to suffer from amnesia later in your life, you’d likely remember the details not because of their significance at the time but how you would set them carefully in your memory from then on, like family heirlooms to be brought and mused about when you thought being melancholic would do you some good.

The house was set back down a winging dirt road and was built of pine siding with the period cedar trim. It was small but clean, neat, and stood out from the other houses in the area for its tidy yard of gravel and seasonal flowers. The roof was tin and windows framed in a deep shade of red. There was a mid 40s Buick in the driveway but it seemed in need of attention.

“So, you’re the young thing that Ruth’s been swooning over all week long now,” Nadine offered as I walked in with my hat in hand, looking me in the eye before returning to her chores. “But you ain’t that young. Are you?”

“I’m twenty-two, Maam, but that ‘ol yellow orb has aged me a bit.”

Ruth dropped a plate she was wiping dry and the crash split the air in the small kitchen. They all looked at the broken dish, said nothing, and then laughed and bent down to help.

“It’s not the sun that does the aging, Mr. Cobb.  It ain’t even the work done out under it that can take the years away.”

“Miss Nadine” I said, “You’re taking about having to be under the man’s thumb, aren’t you?”

Ruth said she was gonna’ go on out and get just a few more berries and excused herself. When we heard the little tune she’d been humming reach the garden, I spoke.

“Well, I agree with you Mrs. Winters, but lately I’ve been watching the way Ruth holds her head at certain angles, letting a few rays in when it suits her and then cocking her head in a new direction to fend them off when it doesn’t. I don’t see her under any man’s thumb.”

“What do you take of that, Mr. Cobb?” Nadine turned and faced me full up. She seemed to grow several inches in that moment.

“Well, I know she’s going to be as pretty as you when she ages up in the world,” and added for effect, “if she ain’t already.”

“Look, Mr. Johnny Cobb,” Nadine put her thick hands on my shoulders and looked up in my eyes, momentarily paralyzing me. “I appreciate your politeness but what I’d value even more is your honesty. Flattery is nice but it don’t sink in like it used to when Willis was around.”

Nadine had been setting out the dinner dishes and held an iron skillet in her large hands that were an extension of those biscuit-making arms. A long strand of thick black hair had falling out of her bun and she made no effort to replace it. She stopped, took a deep breath and looked at me with eyes hoping for something. Outside, I could hear Ruth and her uncle laughing as they chatted in the garden.

“Ruth is wise, Mrs. Winters, well beyond her eighteen years. She doesn’t talk about her ma or pa with me.  Reckon she looks at you and Charlie as kin enough. She has a way of protecting her insides from getting hurt but encouraging others to put their own protection away.” I took a sip of my water and looked out the small kitchen window. “I’ve learned from being around her these past weeks. Your granddaughter owns a collected view of what is and what is not.”

“You speak’n in circles, Johnny Cobb,” Nadine spoke with interest overriding a paper-thin cynicism, “but you come right to the point.”

“Yes Mam. My own family is beholden to the soil, as many of our color is in one form or another. But the earth can only teach you so much. Ruth understands human folk. It’s almost like she can…”

“Grandma, what are you doing to this man?” Ruth walked in the back door with a reed basket of berries, her face showing her disappointment. “He came over for a Sunday supper. I hope you weren’t getting into him about politics and such now.”

“No, Ruthie,” Nadine pinched Ruth’s cheek and pointed to her lower lip. “I could ride into town on that thing. I was checking up your man here. Put the lip away and help me with these here collard greens.”

“Ah, Grandma. Do you have to talk the heavy stuff now?” Ruthie shot me a concerned glance and then looked at Nadine. “Eventually we’ll get onto an argument and the night won’t ever be the same. In any case, if’n you were gonna’ get into the war thing again Johnny was too young to enlist, weren’t you?” Ruthie’s eyes morphed into a kind of fiery ice that you might also use to cool your brow on a hot August night and I couldn’t break away from them. I remember thinking that every man deserves the love of a woman like this, if only for a few hours in his life. If you could bottle a look such as that, it would weigh more than the world it would make better when opened.

But something always gets in the way, don’t it? Free will or free won’t—it’s always something.

“Well, truth be known,” my voice moving towards the women as they clipped greens on the wooden counter, face still fixed on Ruth. “I was sixteen in ’41 and they might’ve taken me if I’d applied but I got to thinking about having to aim a rifle at another person and I couldn’t picture myself pulling the trigger at them without standing up and saying, ‘Okay, your turn.’

“I know what they did to the Jews and all, but America did kinda the same thing here to the Indians. I spose’ it’s the glass houses and all. Heck, Miss Winters, soldiers are just boys dressed up in the same clothes, listening to men who can’t get along as well as the boys do on their own. That’s how I figure it, anyway.”

I could see the sides of Nadine’s mouth curl up like the edges of flowers at night as she stood at the sink and washed the greens.

“What about when you got on to eighteen and such?” It was Uncle Chuck who’d come in from outside, pulled up a chair and sat at the table looking at a week-old newspaper. His jeans were clean, cuffed in the usual way, and his tee shirt pressed around the arms as if someone had ironed purposeful creases in it.

I’d only spoken to Ruth’s Uncle a few times before that day and he’d been cordial enough. But there was no denying that I was on trial, on judgment for loving Ruth. Nobody would ever be good enough for his niece and it was all I could do just to be myself and hope that was close enough. I’d of thought the same way and respected him for it.

“I wondered about why I never heard from the government and as the war in Europe wound down, I thought I’d be clear. But when it kept going in the South Pacific I finally got a letter requesting that I show up at the draft board up in Atlanta and take a physical.”

Chuck turned his attention away from the paper and seemed to regard me in an entirely different light.

“So what’d you do?” he asked.

“I went on up there, Charlie, and took that test,” not meaning to add the silent drama that crept in as I paused to have a sip of the beer he’d just handed me.

“Lemme’ guess,” Chuck stood up from the table and walked over to his mother, Nadine at the sink, who’d moved on to cutting okra into small pieces, and put his hands softly on her shoulders. She made a throat-clearing notice that was more signal that phlegm. “The white government noticed that you already had a nice tan and decided they didn’t need any more Negroes crawling around the jungles of Guam or the Philippines?”

“Charles Samuel Winter,” Nadine spun around quickly but kept enough light in her voice to sound casual. I caught the weight though, it wasn’t hard. “Don’t you start in on that. Mr. Cobb is here to have a nice dinner with us, like Ruthie said.”

“You started it ma. I know you.”

“That’s okay, Mrs. Winters,” the beer easing the words. “I have those same feelings at times, about living in America the Beautiful, so long as you’re white. But the war, Jesus, that was a difficult thing.”

I asked Charlie if he went over and he said no because he was the last remaining Winters child and was needed to work the fields. Then he added it would’ve been different if’n he’d felt the country was in front of, as well as behind him. Bullets are color blind, he said, and finished by saying that as far as he was concerned, the Civil War was still being fought in parts of Alabama. No reason to go fight another war when you still had one right here.

Nadine chirped in and said that they didn’t know that for sure, you know, about being the last of the Winters name.

“Ma, you’re the one who kindled that idea in me. What are you talking about?”

“We don’t know for sure. Louella could come prancing in here at any moment with a passel of boys carrying our name.”

An icy silence moved in and settled upon the kitchen air. Outside the crickets seemed to be laughing and the frogs down near the shallow creek that skirted the old field house took advantage of the retreat in human voice.

Charlie broke it as he went to the fridge and pulled out two more beers.

“Well…whatja do after the physical, Mr. Johnny Cobb?”

“I failed it,” the words rolling off easily and I watched the expressions change the way they do when questions of a man’s abilities are held up for consideration. Then I told them a true story waked in my own past. It started slowly enough but like a bass run, built power with movement.

“When I was four years old, my daddy moved into the city to try and find work. The Crash in ’29 had only taken a few months to spread like a rabid disease and affect the sharecroppers. We were getting by on what we could grow but needed money for new seed and supplies to keep the tractors running and the plants growing. He said he’d send money and come back on the full moon to help us during harvests. But something happened and the money stopped showing, which I understood. And something else happened and he stopped showing, which none of us ever did get an answer to. It was like Birmingham had just swallowed up this kindly, hard-working black man with a wife and three young boys trying to work a poor but rich-soiled ninety plus acres outside of Mobile.”

Ruth, who’d caught bits of my past in the few months we’d been dating, had joined Charles and me at the small kitchen table. But Nadine seemed suspended in her tiny kitchen as if she’d become a painting, a bowl of lettuce in one hand, the other set on the counter as if to steady herself while she listened.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this answer to grow into a personal account of my history, a memoir the librarians call it. I guess I was taking the long route to get to Charlie’s question.”

“Whatever kind of memory your ‘memwa’ is, you just go on telling it, Johnny.” Ruth looked from her grandma to her uncle and they nodded at her and then back at me saying yeah, Mr. Cobb, you go tell it.

“Well, the shortened version is that our daddy disappeared and the cops never found out and ma, she died a year later of heartache. As much as my brothers and I tried to replace our pa, heartache is more deadly than heart attack, the way I figure it.

“But right around ’34, when I was nearly ten and my older brothers Earl and Ramsey had trained me well on the John Deere, we had a drought year and we lost more’n half our crops. My daddy’s brother — we called him Jacko because he was afraid of the dark and never went outside after sundown without an oil lantern — he’d been helping out but the moonshine he’d grown too dependant upon was getting the best of him. Old Jacko was like the village idiot boy, utterly without meanness or envy or desire to make his place in the world better. He was a tender man and had been taken advantage of all his life by those who built their own egos on the backs of those who had a hard time keeping up with life, let alone trying to improve it.

“He tried to apologize to Earl, the oldest at sixteen, but Ramsey, the fighter in the family and just ten months younger than Earl, had told Uncle Jacko that he’d have to choose between us and the land–which were inseparable–and the bottle, which always caused a distance. Ramsey said that Jacko ate more than he pulled out in weeds and work. But I told Ramsey he was daddy’s brother and he best leave him alone or when daddy got back he’d have his hide. It didn’t end at that but I’m getting’ further and further from my answer.”

I kept my story moving, pulsing between the way it came back into our present, folded into my story-telling and how it ended up as something for Ruth’s family to chew on. I told about how things were between the drought and the drink, how things were bad for us Cobbs; how we started to quarrel amongst ourselves and that struggle for meaning in each of us that had never been there with our Pa reminding us every morning of our youth when he’d wake us up before the sun and say, “Would you look at this my boys? All this good and great land, and all we have it to do is work our asses to the white bone and keep paying the white boss a few more years and it’s ours to keep and live on and live off of and enjoy until the good Lord comes down and plucks me right offa’ my tractor. Then you’all can keep on living here…you so desire.”

“Them’s were hard times, Mr. Cobb. We hear to testify to that.” Nadine felt the story going on and didn’t want to get in its way, but she was the matriarch and this, in fact, was a Sunday supper, so she excused herself and got up to pull a meatloaf from the oven while Ruth set the table. Both did so in regarded silence while Uncle Chuck peeled the label from his beer, put out his hands as if to say, okay, then what?

“It was the most amazing thing.” I kind of looked into the brown glass of my beer bottle, hadn’t spoken of this in many years, and never to more than an audience of one. I told Chuck that when things got real grim and the bank was threatening to take back all our land over the small payments to the government that’d become late. Then I spoke in a slightly different tone, of this old Indian, a Natchez elder as it turned out, who’d walked down our long driveway with a bridled mule in one hand and a hickory walking stick in the other.

“It was about sundown and I was making dinner while Earl and Ramsey were still out in the barn trying to gerry-rig a new exhaust for the John Deere out of some Folgers’ cans. Jacko was looking out the window, sneaking sips from his flask and complaining about the lack of lamp oil that kept him a prisoner in this little plywood shack.”

I stopped for a minute as if I was making sure I got it right.

“This Indian just stood straight and tall, looking west over our fields, like he was deciding something. My brothers had the tractor running now in the near-darkened barn and hadn’t seen him come up the path. I walked out in my overalls and bare feet, a cooking rag slung over my shoulder. The strange thing, Charlie, is that I was a nine-year-old kid and I’d heard all the stories about the Indians in the Old West, but I wasn’t in the least bit afraid. He stood there, wearing thin denim pants, leather mocs and some kind of necklace with claws under a big wollen frock coat. His face was dark like a Mexican with lines so deep you could fall in and never find your way out. But his hair…I’d never seen hair like that before — long and silvery white to his waist in one pony tail tied back with a piece of leather hide.

“‘Can I hep ya,’ I asked him, looking for any sign of weapons but not finding any save for a big Jim Bowie knife sheathed to his calf.

“‘Good soil here. Good for crops. Flat, well tended. His English was short and broken. But each word carried weight and meaning.

“‘Yassir,’ I told him, ‘we’re sharecropping it and gonna’ get the homestead out of it if’n we keep paying the taxes. You lost or something. We don’t get many visitors.”

“Looking for work,” he said, finally moving his eyes onto me and off of the dark horizon. “Name’s Jimmy Grayfalls, Natchez Nation. Work hard, trade for food and a place no sun or rain will find my bed.”

“Well, my brother Earl makes most of the big decisions ‘round here and we ain’t had much rain this past year. Things is looking pretty bleak. We got enough to eat but not a lot extra for strangers.”

“Jimmy no stranger after hard work. Rains coming three days. You and the Earl need help planting. Good trade, just for food and roof over bed.”

“But, aren’t you kinda’…old to work the fields Mr. Gray…wall?”

“You have a name, little man with nice farm?”

“Sure. It’s Johnny. We’re all Cobbs here.”

“Jimmy thinks it’s too hot and dry to grow corn this far south this year.”

Earl, who’d been listening from the edge of the barn as he wiped his greasy hands, started laughing. I jumped back, suddenly frightened in the new dark.

The Natchez turned his head slowly.

“You must be the brother, Earl. I like to trade work. Small Johnny and I talking of plan. He say you decide.”

“‘Yep, little Johnny is correct,” Earl moved toward us. “His daddy woulda’ been right proud of him. I sure hope he ain’t burning the supper.”


“And that’s the way it started.” I was trying to wrap it up. “Earl said Jimmy could stay a few days, it rained after three, just like he said, and he lived with us until about three years ago when Ramsey, who’d never really liked having Jimmy around, yelled at him for dropping a bushel of ripe tomatoes. Next morning he was gone. Eight years and he’d only lost half a step in his work. Earl used to say he’d out-live us all. Only thing left was a little note he’d left on my dresser written in Natchez. It said he’d see me in the next life. It had been a good trade.”

Nadine and Ruth had set out the food and after Nadine said the blessing, the bowls of fried okra, collard greens, boiled potatoes and meatloaf in gravy were passed around in silence.

I could see Uncle Chuck thinking hard about it and trying to make a connection that wasn’t there yet. He’d nod his head, take a bite, smile, sneak a glance at me, like he was prodding, then go back to his food.

Finally, Nadine spoke up and said Jesus, Johnny, finish the damn story.

“Oh yeah,” I was goofing with Charlie and suddenly he figured it out and said he knew how I failed the physical but to go ahead and tell the girls as long as I had invested the whole night into it.

“Well, the short version is…” I started in again.

“Christ, young man, you’all have to move in if’n I ever want the longer version,” Nadine smiled and brown okra stuck to the spaces between her teeth.

“Sorry ma’am, I got carried away thinking about those days and Grayfalls and wonderin’ where all the time went. But it’s a simple story, really. Jimmy Grayfalls used to teach me how to control my breathing and my heart rate. He used to like to hunt and even though I had no stomach nor spirit for killing any creatures, I used to like to watch his movements through what forest Alabama has. I liked the way he slowed down time to a pace that allowed him to fall behind the present in which the animal lived; the way he thought as the animal would and for that moment, became them.

“And after he’d taken its life, thanked his Great Spirit and the animal itself for the offering, he would still respect it in death more than most people do in life. He used all of what he killed and my brothers and I were grateful for the rabbit and squirrel and venison he put on the table.

“That’s when I learned it; the ability to alter your breathing and your heartbeat and the thing the U.S. Army was most concerned about — your blood pressure.”

Charlie was laughing now, not in disbelief but in admiration. Nadine bowed her head and shook it like a pendulum with her heavy smile leading. And Ruthie was still waiting for the final details

“You’re serious, aren’t you, Cobb? Cuz’ that’s too good to make up.” Charlie was incredulous. “You got out of having to go to war because an old Indian had taught you how to raise and lower your blood pressure at will.”

“Well, he didn’t really set out to teach me that. It was just a by-product of watching his artful simpleness, the way the old guy moved among the elements, like he was the river in the water instead of the rock it split.

“When I asked him about it, he said that trees breathe all the time but the white man can’t measure it because they can’t see it with white man’s eyes. I learned how to be a tree and lower my blood pressure to nothing and then how to be the fire that could burn it and send my pulse into the sun’s temperatures. When they gave me that physical for the Army in Atlanta, I wasn’t there; I was walking the forests with Jimmy Grayfalls, moving my breath through the trees as they slept and burnt and grew back in time. And when it was all done, the man with the clipboard said he was awfully sorry, I had a serious heart condition and the U.S. Army couldn’t use me. He really was sorry about it all.”

When I was done with the story we ate berries for dessert and Ruthie said she was proud of what I done; Uncle Chuck said I’ll be damned and Nadine said she thought a young Roger Maris might be good enough to play in the Negro Leagues.

When Charlie got up to clear the table and clean the dishes he slapped me on the back and said he’d be god-damned again, laughing as he said it.

It had been a good evening, one that was worth the pain of remembering.



Chapter 1 of “In the Wake of Our Past”

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.




In the Wake of Our Past: (A Work of Fiction) Prologue By Scott Tinley


Johnny Cobb

“Everybody might be just one big soul,

                               Well it looks that way to me

                               Everywhere that you look in the day or night

                               That’s where I’m gonna be, ma

                               That’s where I’m gonna be.”

Woody Guthrie, Ballad of Tom Joad


A dying can do funny things to a person. Part of them can leave with the passing of another soul and another part might gain strength, as if the deceased gifted their final breath on the dying embers of some warming fire. And often, those who are closest to the death will not know how to interpret this newfound heat within their hearts as it pushes up against the steely cold pain caused by the loss. It’s a fine line.  


Here’s a good riddle: What travels uphill faster than down? Fire, of course. If you can out-run the fire and jump off the other side of the mountain, consider yourself lucky. You will only fall though a hole in your life. It might be a space of soft clouds or clear air before you meet Mother Earth. Smack. Choose your poison or your perfume, for dying by fire will surely kill all of you. The brave ones though, they will wait at the top and hope the fires of pain will melt the snow near the peak, turn them into water that runs downhill. It’s always a risk.


When Ruth died I felt the flames building alongside the winter of my heart, fire and ice eyeing each other precariously, the glacier that her death caused was holding fast. It was like my mind starting to work differently; sharper in the middle but dull around the edges.

The words too, they came out differently — thoughtful, strange, like a neighbor who’d lived next door for years knocking on the door to introduce himself.

This isn’t Ruth’s story. Or mine or Harry’s of Phin’s or any one person who became a party to and a part of my life as it unfolded. And while it seems that this story is book-ended with tragedy, I like to think of its circularity as its truth; that it really did, really could happen this way. The lived-life just ain’t an easy thing to go through. But when you consider the alternatives—being mostly dead while you’re alive, or never even being alive at all—I’ll take what I was given.

Whether or not you think this is all made up or whether you take it as pure fact, it matters little. It’s what I remember as far as I could separate the two. I done a lot of talking early on, mostly to try and make sense of it all. And then I let Phin tell his own piece. Probably for the same reason.

The other voice that fills in the blanks, well, that’s just a sound that made itself up, split down the middle of the page but joined together at the heart. Or maybe it’s the reader’s thoughts jumping out of their head and landing on the page.

Like I said, it’s true, or at least ought to be. Because it’s like those little silver charms shaped like half a heart-shaped puzzle—you can’t buy them separately and you best be giving away the other half to the right person to complete the circle. I’ve done my best to keep my half. And I know that Phin and Harry and the others have done theirs. I’m beginning it and pray God if I don’t get to, the right person will get it done. Or not. Ahab’s whale showed us all that. White ain’t always perfect and the best we can do is try and get some color and light to stick to the canvas along the way. Job talked about it in the Bible. So did Phin, in his own way.

It starts here with Ruth, the only one I knew who started out at both ends, looking skyward, and ended up in the middle, looking down.

My God she was a woman.