The sun was roasting him. And the Southern road was swallowing him up. The land seemed ravenous. And there was a hunger in his head that had been there for a long time. Since he had been born. Blind as a potato. Now he could see. Maybe the hunger had been there before he was born. Maybe he had been born into it. Blind. Without a hope of seeing until his mother had done what she had done, and what had happened to her had happened to her.
He could see. Earth was visible everywhere, stark in the sunlight. Trees and grass and fields in a static, lush, violent aliveness. They all welcomed him. As they never had before. He inbreathed them deeply, thinking he could pull it all inside himself and manage it someway. If he breathed deeply enough he could hold the brown-gray shanties, the brown spindly-legged children tumbling in the dirt, rolling in worn-out weeds, like out of an old family photograph that stood forever on the edge of the heart’s first ventricle. If he could pull it all in, then he could manage his heart.
“What am I missing?” He was looking.
He shaded his eyes from the sun. He slowed the coughing car and watched the children kick the soft shadows in clouds of dust that whipped and dressed their ankles in ash. Right now he could feel the earth itself. The centrifugal force of a century spinning to a close. Sooner than they thought. He could feel it. So why couldn’t Mississippi?
He pulled his car to the side of the road. Lit a cigarette, dragged, and blew the heat through his nostrils. The sun was eating everything in sight. He moved into the passenger seat. Crouching into shadow, searching out the window like he was missing something, or somebody, he thought he shouldn’t miss.
After a while in which he pulled in deep drags of cigarette smoke and heat, he focused on one of the children. In the center of the boy’s forehead the mark where he had probably stood too close within the zone of a mule’s hind kick. The hoof had only scraped him. But it had force enough to etch a half-moon in the center of his forehead. A kick like that should have killed him. If it had been a kick. God knows what it had been. He should have been dead. The man thought.
Instead he was alive, his head thrown back and laughing out a song.
Peckerwood, peckerwood, don’t peck me.
Peck that nigger behind the tree.
Then the boy ran and hid behind a tree. The man watching him from the car was thinking of woodpeckers, how they knocked on wood, listening for food. Wasn’t that the way it was? Woodpeckers and peckerwoods. Why peckerwood? He knew why. “Get that through your wooden head, boy.”
With his eyes the man who had been born blind had seen some things. He’d been to war and back. He’d worked in a factory in a textile town. He’d picked cotton that bit his hands like an ungrateful dog. He’d loaned his body out for day labor that only a mule should have done. Once he’d outworked a machine, drilling a hole in the side of a mountain. Or had it been a hill? It was a mountain. He’d beat that machine. Doing the work no man was born to do, but which he especially had not been expected to do. He was a minister’s son. He’d been born behind enough prayers to line the streets of his life with gold. But he hadn’t chosen those.
His father, Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Stone, was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and a scholar who knew ancient secrets. His historic old church had been a way station on the Underground Railroad. For some, it had been the last stop. Others went right on to Canada, afraid to stop running, determined to be freely free somewhere. When he was a boy, Reverend Stone’s son would go down into the caverns beneath the church and play down in the dark. Once he’d fallen asleep, and awakened to the sound of whispered voices, one plaintive, one harsh. “Goooooo,” the harsh voice pounded the walls and woke him up. A low plaintive cry answered this harsh command. He looked around and there was no one else there. Frightened by the failure of his sight to see, he’d run to his father and told him what he’d heard, what he’d dreamt he’d heard. His father just kept writing his letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines. His favorite pastime: correcting White people. A hobby that gave him much pleasure. Finally, Jeremiah Stone put his pen aside, and looked into his son’s eyes.
“You heard voices? In trouble?” he asked the boy. “And what did you do to help them?”
Thinking of that time, the man rubbed his eyes and watched the boy with the mark on his forehead and wondered what his father would want of him now.
He thought of all the lives he’d led. It seemed to him that some years were centuries long and some months, decades. He thought, “Didn’t it take four hundred years for the Israelites to come out of captivity and cross the Red Sea?” Once he had lived a lifetime in a moment. The moment his father had died. That was it. He felt himself fill up and empty out tears from a river of memory he had not known he’d known of. The moment was of such torment and such bliss, he’d thought he’d died then too. Except for his mother, he would have vanished. Peeled away skin, then bones, then cartilage, then muscle, then arteries, then veins, then organs. The last to disappear would have been his eyes. They weren’t totally his anyway. The seeing parts.
But he hadn’t died. Or maybe he had, because since that moment he’d been searching for a life to lead that would balance out into that 1:09 a.m. moment. Where hadn’t he searched? Searched to find a life out of which would flow that rich flight of love, so exhilarating that the loss of it was a plummet into a lake of tears, but never a death. No. Not a death.
His early life had been a strange one. He’d come out of his mother like a comet, trailing afterbirth like a bloody, messy comet’s tail. After one live birth and six miscarriages he’d been born to Reverend Jeremiah Stone and Mrs. Mercy Stone. Born blind. Yet his mother was not one to submit to circumstance. For years she searched a way out of the dark for him. It was she who had done what God didn’t do. She who gave him sight. Thinking about the gift made the man put out his cigarette half-smoked. His throat half closing with the ache of his love. But he didn’t want to think about it. He’d thought about it enough. It was the reason he’d run so fast through so many lives.
In one life he’d been a college student, tall and younger than usual, graduating early and with distinction from a Black university in the Northeast. And on to law school. Then more distinction as a graduate student at an Ivy League university. That life had pleased his parents. He’d lived it for them.
His brief time in the service he didn’t like to think about. His father brought his only son home and probably saved his life. In another life, three months long, he’d been a gambler. But he’d given that up because living solely by chance and wit seemed presumptuous, begged too much favor from God. He’d awakened one morning in a rented room in a boardinghouse, and the first words out of his mouth were, “You’re always waiting to get something.” He had nine thousand dollars in the bank. Nine hundred dollars on his person, in his pockets and shoes.
Having lived solely for money, like a spoiled child might live for jawbreakers and bubble gum, he needed something for his soul, which lumbered and squalled inside of him. Too big for his body.
He went looking for a life that fit his soul, the way a man shops for a suit or a pair of shoes. The biggest thing he could find was music. It was everywhere, coming out of storefronts, record shops, churches, or on street corners, in parks, in barbershops, in his mother’s kitchen.
He’d hung around musicians for months. He fit inside the musicians’ schedules, staying up until the sun crawled out of bed. Sleeping two or three hours, then going to work as a janitor. He’d taken up the instrument he’d studied as a boy. His mother had given him the horn too. He’d struggled with it until he was certain he had no gift for making music beyond the memorization of notes, their studied execution. His music had no metaphor; not because he’d gone so far into one sense the vocabulary for the other didn’t work, but because his music was not rich, original enough to provoke creation. He’d have to just live it. Walk it and talk it. Act it.
So he decided to love music, but to leave it behind, taking only what would stay in his head, or whatever leaked into his consciousness from his soul. He accepted being a religious listener, and translated the freedom and intelligence of music into moody fragments of a life.
One morning he stacked all his records (from Coltrane to Ellington, from Muddy Waters to Mockingbird July, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to James Brown, from Aretha Franklin to Nina Simone, from Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday, from Delta blues to African percussion) in his blue Ford, squeezed himself in, under the boxes tied to the roof, the boxes crammed on the seats and floor, and pulled the music-filled trailer hooked up to his back bumper to the front door of his mother’s house.
She wasn’t home, so he used his key and began to unload and put the records on the shelves in the room of his boyhood and on the shelves in the basement next to his father’s books. After every seventy-eight, every thirty-three, every forty-five had been carefully placed, so that no harm would come to them, no warp disturb their exquisite and delightful and soul-feeding sound, he went to his father’s study and began to read every book he had never read and had been meaning to, then he would reread every book that had told him something he needed for his life.
His mother came home from church. She stood in the doorway of his father’s old study and listened to the son turning pages for a long time. She could smell the change in him. Was his aftershave more subtle? Later she would tell him he smelled like a man who had just taken a bath and has just begun to sweat. A little salty. And something else. She couldn’t put her finger on it. If she could have put her finger on it, she would have been able to see it.
There is always a Sunflower. That is what my daddy says. One place or another is a Sunflower Café. It’s not one place. But places that keep replacing another place. There is always, he says, a place called the Sunflower Café somewhere between Mimosa and Letha. One time there were two places called the Sunflower, but people kept getting their addresses mixed up, so people kept complaining to the people who came up with the name after the first one had been in operation for a few months. And, eventually, grumbling all the while that his freedom to think up what come to him had been taken from him against his will, the owner began to call his place the White Lily. He resented it all the while because he remembered the day he’d come up with the name Sunflower, riding one day down Cadoree. It flashed in his mind like a sign. He could see the image, born in his mind, intimate and special, and it was his. Someone might have told him that there was a sign there on Cadoree for the first Sunflower Café, but he would have said the sign didn’t matter. And maybe it didn’t. Maybe the idea of the Sunflower was just brooding along the road waiting for someone to stumble upon it and pick it. Even if it was already picked.
When he drove into town some people were walking around looking bored with the heat. He drove through the center, which was a gas station, a general store, and a furniture store, a lumberyard, and three other dusty establishments. Then he waited for somebody Black to amble by. When they came, he followed. They stood back from the road and waited for him to pass.
“Can a hungry man get something to eat?” His head and arm out the car window.
“Mmm-hmmm, sugah. You sho can.” She looked like she wanted something, but he hadn’t been missing her.
“Keep going right down Flood Street. There’s a nice little restaurant called the Sunflower Café. Woman named Miss Saphronia cooks there. She do all right with the skillets.” She paused. Smiled. “I do a little better.”
“Girl, come own.” The flirt was snatched, glance and drawl and all ample hips down another road that wasn’t so much a road as a way. The man parked his car and began to walk alone and hungry.
Saphronia’s was easy to find, once someone who lived in Letha had pointed him in the right direction. He saw the homemade sign, in black scrawl on a gray background. It was a small, once-white dwelling place with a screened-in porch that bridged the heat of the day and the heat that poured from the kitchen. He passed through the screened-in area, where flies swirled crazily on the outside looking in with a multitude of eyes at the foods of the day; he opened the door to the restaurant proper and stepped inside.
At the counter, he dropped his duffel bag and slid into a seat next to a big man who was hunched over a plate that was piled high up to his wrists almost. The man glanced up as the stranger took the seat.
“How ya doin?” Reverend Stone’s son offered. They eyed each other—a whole face to last forever in half a second’s memory.
“That sun is doin it today!” He wiped his face. In winter his skin was tan. In summer, as in this moment, it was glorious in a well-done pinto-bean sheen, seasoned to perfection. “This is definitely not our sun. In Africa the sun slides on you behind a layer of clouds. They know how to give it to you over there. Nice and moist.”
The big man grunted.
Reverend Stone’s son couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s plate.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I got to get me some of those greens. Woo!” He clapped and dry-washed his rough hands together. The big man next to him, shirt open and with a red scarf wrapped around his neck, glowed into his plate. He had his corn bread poised in his left hand and in his right hand the fork was so quick it was invisible. It made a tick-tick as it touched the plate.
Saphronia stood in front of him. Evil. Hot. Impatient.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said respectfully.
But anything he offered her was inconsequential. She was short. “Whatchu gone have today? We outta croquettes. Willie, we got any biscuits ready?” She shouted the second question over her shoulder. Her blouse popped open in the turn and she buttoned it without blinking or looking down.
He smiled agreeably. “I don’t want any biscuits no way, miss.” He pointed to his neighbor’s plate. “I want some of those greens, some fried chicken, dark meat, fried okra, and tomatoes—”
“No mo’ tomatoes.”
He looked disappointed. Hunger hollowing out his eyes.
“I gi’ya some corn relish we put up ourself.”
“Thank you, miss. That sounds good to me.”
Because she found him pleasing, she slid some ice water down the counter toward him. He was nice, even if he did wear the bushy hair on his head and a beard had started on his handsome face.
The men who ate supper at the Sunflower Café would not talk when their mouths were full. Their mouths were filled with pork bits, salty and fatty, muddy-spicy rice, collards, and corn bread. There was rich silence around them. They breathed, sweat, and ate. A few couples talked low over the thin, handwritten menus. He sighed and sank into the silence. When he’d ordered, his voice had been soft, and almost like a boy’s instead of a grown man traveling.
Briskly the overhead fan whipped round and round. The heat laughed a little, let up in a thin patch of coolness that ripped through his bushy head. The man on his right, shirt open to his waist, sat back on his stool and chewed with his eyes closed.
The Reverend Stone’s son was happy and relaxed. He was certain that the food would be delicious and filling. What his hunger roared for.
He turned on his seat and stretched his legs into the cool flight of air.
He was looking over his life, or lives, thinking that he could travel and collect things for his soul for years and years more. Steam warmed his face and woke him from his thoughts. The woman’s voice had come to him shortly. He gave himself to the nourishment at hand.
He had left the Sunflower Café feeling fat and ready to live. At the end of the counter he had passed his coins and dollars to the woman. He was always surprised by the cost of things. So little or too much. They had conversed in that lazy, full-mouthed language that is more like reciprocal humming.
Saphronia had taken all of him into her eyes: blue work shirt and jeans, the hair full and neat, a new beard and mustache outlining the heavy-lipped mouth. She remembered his eyes that etched her body and searched his surroundings so curiously. She thought his ways were “nice and pleasant.” He was a kind man. He left a generous gratuity and a boy’s grin.
He slow-walked toward the center of town. Absently, he kicked dust into the ditch. He was picking sweet pieces of chicken from between his teeth. The earth took all of his moments’ sounds and played with them. He could hear his own steps and the wind moving through his teeth when the dark meat was free of his white teeth.
He looked for a mailbox to drop in a crumpled letter that he’d carried in the pocket over his heart for the last thirty miles. His mother would laugh to hear about the postcard that said, “Letha, Mississippi.” He smiled at the thought of her. Laughing.
With that same smile and his inquisitive eyes, he raised his head to see more of this territory of his mother’s birth, and of exodus when the great highways had parted the soil. Her father had had to run because he had killed a White man who tried to steal his land. They had lost the land anyway.
He wondered how far he was from Money, where Emmett Till had been murdered for talking to a White woman. Had he whistled? The fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago had been taken from his uncle’s house and killed by White men. His beat-up body dropped into the river. He’d never forget the mother of Emmett Till, who’d chosen an open casket for the swollen, ruined body. “Look what they did to my son!” she said. He could never forget. “How far am I from Money?” He spent a long hour walking in circles.
He could smell the wild onions in a nearby yard. He took his breath carefully. When he found his car it would not start. The engine whined under his fingers. No energy sparked and his wheels would not rotate. He sat in the dead car. The window was down and night was floating through on cricket sounds, the rattle of the wind moving as subtly as snakes through the green onion lot and through the bushes. The moon came through his windshield between the cleavage of trees like a candle fed on white fire.
A man with a red flag around his neck was walking under the round white moon. Even in soft moonlight his deep-black skin was blue toned. His shirt was wide open, flapping in the small breeze that his walk created. His chest bare.
It was his stool neighbor from the Sunflower Café. They had shared food together, so they knew each other. The blue-black man grinned at Reverend Stone’s son as if they were brothers; he searched under the hood of Stone’s car. He performed impromptu surgery. At last he straightened and said, “This thang dead, man. Done seen its last go round for a while.”
The minister’s son said, “Shit.” But without too much conviction, because death was no surprise. He turned around and around in a circle like he was gathering direction. He shuffled one foot in mild disgust.
“My name’s Ricochet,” the blue-toned man said after a while.
“They call me Stone.”
“Stone.” Ricochet, who was marked with grease, shook Stone’s hand and marked him too. They fell to talking. Stone leaned against the car and took out cigarettes. They traded smoke signals.
“Must be a sign,” Stone said.
“I came here looking and this afternoon I found somebody and I can’t go nowhere I can’t walk, so I guess I must be about my business right in these parts. There must be something I gotta do or see.”
“What business you in?” Ricochet asked. “Land changing around here. I can hear it. But the White man be steady kickin against it. Steady kickin.”
“Yeah,” Stone grunted.
Ricochet had to go. Ricochet tossed his cigarette butt away. He prepared to leave.
“Wait a minute,” Stone said hurriedly.
“Yeah?” Ricochet asked.
Then Stone didn’t know what else to say.
“You must be lookin for the Voter Registration people. None in this town. They over in Mimosa.”
“Can I walk it?” Stone asked.
“I’ll drive you.”
Somehow he decided to go to Mimosa with Ricochet to the Voter Registration workers. That sounded good. He could learn something. He was free, with flexible directions. His bones grew loose in the atmosphere as the tension evaporated. He walked along the highway with Ricochet, moving away from the angry chorus of crickets, the farmhouse dogs relearning the wails of their ancestors, the rattle of leaves when wind spilled on them.
Listening. He was always listening. Straining to learn all the vagrant noises that struggled on the edge of his mind’s music, he placed them in a universe rounded and respectable with tone and voices. In the center. Only to his ear, like an echo, came his own voice. He treasured this gift of listening.
He was listening to Ricochet tell him how he’d gotten his name. “When I was a baby boy learning to walk, I’d bounce off one wall and up against another. Plus, I’m wild like a bullet. Don’t nobody mess with me, including these crazy-ass peckerwoods.” They were driving then in an old beige Ford, dented and scratched.
Stone smiled and listened to the night that rolled past the rolled-down window. Dull and sharp night cries were scattered around him, the trees, the crickets, the distant dogs.
Ricochet was making him laugh. His crazy stories tumbling out one behind the other: the one-legged dog who peed upside down, the woman who washed her hair in dishwater. Stone hoped he’d remember everything later to write in his journal where he kept his life.
Behind them sudden light crushed the studded silence and the dark. Stone turned around, trying to see. A car eased behind them in a quick pass. Ricochet’s eyes darted. Inside the passing car, faces hung like angry moons incongruous under sheriffs’ hats. The shotgun in the window had a voice that came out of a double-barreled nose. The voice commanded them to stop. They did. Ricochet said, “Don’t say nothing to these crackers.” Then the double-barreled voice said, “Get out the car.” They did that too.
Reverend Stone’s son spread-eagled against the car, his hands touching the roof, but not touching Ricochet. Then in a whirl his jaw was on the hood of the car. Blood was at his mouth. Flashlights were spreading his thighs, and fingers following his body.
“Shit,” he thought. “Crazy crackers.”
From the other side of the car, he could hear Ricochet talking. “Sheriff, I ain’t done nothing. I was just taking my cousin over to meet me—” A rough, heavy, puddingy-crushing sound of a rifle butt against flesh. Then again. Then again. The sound came. And Stone heard himself shouting all the while with each thrust. “Leave him alone. Leave him alone, motherfuckers.”
Somebody hit him on the back of his head, punched him on his sides, aimed for his groin, but he shifted and the blow glanced across his thigh, stunning him. His knees buckled after someone else beat the caps with a stick. He fell.
When he awoke he thought that he thought he had dreamt he had fallen inside another life that he’d dreamt in a bad dream. It was pitch-dark. The air was thick. He raised his hand to wave it before his face. He could barely see it.
In the corner there was a frame of sky. A full white moon in blackness with lesser flecks of brightness. All of the world that was for him was bound in a frame, steel striped and obstructed. The rest of everything was a stench that had volume and solvency. It rose from a hole in the corner over which insects danced and flashed toward skin. Odors hovered and swelled in the sheetless mattress. Ricochet was thrown across a cot in the next cell. He was halfway on the concrete floor. His blood had congealed and his hair matted with it.
Stone wondered where the sheets were. Then he laughed at the idea. His laugh ripped out of him. Crippled him. He laughed at himself. Why hadn’t he known that it was a brutal cliché? A Black man now. He was a rerun of a life that had already been lived. His was ending now.
Then he swore that he was dreaming. He fumbled through the darkness opposite the toilet hole; found bars. He cursed at them and shook them. A deputy came and switched on a light. Brightness stabbed his eyes.
The deputy stood in the doorway, cradling a rifle like a newborn child. Face red under the light. His hair lying red and thin upon his scalp like a baby’s. He stood there with his lips moving, saying nothing. His jaws working, grinding, grinding his teeth. A slight man. Medium height. A common face.
Stone knew that there were lines he was supposed to say. Words to spout out of him like blood from the neck of a sacrificial fowl.
“There’s been a mistake. This is crazy!” The words flew back at him, crazy and hollow in the emptiness.
“Mistake, huh?” the man said. “You made it. You been traveling with the wrong kind of niggers.”
Stone was standing in the ancient darkness. His knuckles bent tight around the bars. He was panting and mouthing familiar obscenities. But his eyes were wide and he was startled. “This man is gonna kill me.” Came to him. It made him weave on his feet.
He knew that even before the deputy turned. And the door stood empty and open. And he could see into the cluttered, filthy office where piles and piles of paper lay with nigger names and nigger numbers identifying them. His own duffel bag with notes and miscellaneous clothes—shirts, crumpled jeans, a red scarf, clean and ragged with wear.
Nothing moving, but the sound of the deputy’s boots gone now beyond the outer door. Now muffled in the old, dry dust. The door to the jailhouse left wide open.
Stone just stood there. His arms raised and his hands still tight on the bars. He was leaning his head against the steel. Listening to the ordinary sounds of night, sharply perceptible through the wide-open door.
What made him so ragingly sad was the meaninglessness of his own end. That he should go down this way in this time. In this time before he had lived the life he was preparing to live. He was going to die with his life unfinished and he was dying because he was randomly Black and unlucky. He should have known so many things.
He had come looking for some magic, but the land held no malevolent magic. People hold to their traditions. Custom was what they knew, the blind behaviors of alleys in the heart. Systems survived.
He listened to his story tightening to a close: cars, the wheels, treads chewing the gray dirt—cars, ordinary, passing and stopping before the open door under the full white moon.
When they came for him, he fought. He fought like his father. He fought like his mother had fought for him. Like his army of uncles. Like Nat. Like Gabriel. But they beat him down with rifle butts and sticks. Six of them. They dragged him to the car, through the night, toward the slow and ripe smell of water. Another car followed. They were rolling on a road with many turns, moving toward water. They were beside him and in front of him, beating him.
“You trouble-making sons of bitches—”
“Ought to leave things alone.”
“You trouble-making niggers.”
“Who you think you are, boy?”
Who he was came to him then. Exactly who he was. He played limp, sick. The rider beside him reached down. Treemont Stone shoved him hard, down. He reached over and opened the door, shoved the rider out and jumped out after him. Then he ran, his handcuffed hands leading him on. He darted into the bushes and they had stopped the cars and were after him. The bushes were wild; he’d knock down a clump and rush through and the clump would grow up behind him. He’d twist through branches and the branches twisted back, grabbing him. He was panting and his panting was a raggedy chant. The ground grew moist and he ran from his own footprints.
Soon he was back near the road, darting low across it, hunkering down to get to the other side. But they spotted him and came running. He dashed into the darkness.
Then he heard them. Amazing sounds. Screaming and crying children being whipped. It was them. Awe and terror and wonder in their shouts.
“Oooooh,” echoes and echoes behind him.
He turned. He could hear them scrambling, scrambling to get away from him. Rushing and stumbling. Some of their guns in the dust. One shot rang out. Then another. And one last one that hung in the darkness.
He felt himself, afraid one of the shots had hit him without his knowing. But he was whole, bloody and heaving. He made his way back a little, and their cars were screeching away, and they were wild-eyed inside.
Then, there in the road, he saw what they had seen.
And fainted dead away.
Three days had passed. He’d slept in a tunnel; one end beginning in darkness, the other opening into light, light like a host of suns. In sleep he’d wandered fitfully from one end to the other. Attracted to the warmth of the light, the obliterating sweetness of all those suns, and pulled back by the comfort and intriguing terror of the darkness. He dreamt of his mother in the darkness. She was weeping. He dreamt of music, a melody he could never have played. But he heard it. Fleshy blues was in it, and soaring like field hollers, grunts like work chants, and jazz like the rise of birds on a high hill. Finally, he dreamt of his father. He was standing in brightness, smiling at him and shaking his head.
Then Stone woke up.
The first thing his eyes focused on was a silver-white spray of hair. Then he saw the kindest face he had ever seen leaning over him, looking into his eyes. She smiled. And he was happy to be alive.
“What time is it?” he asked, like a boy who has overslept.
“Time for you to get up.” The white-haired woman walked out of the room.
He didn’t get up. He lay there in that high, deep bed and took account of his body. He was sore all over. He felt his face and it was swollen like a cushaw. His legs were still as railroad tracks.
Sunshine came running through the window, so bright the cotton curtains were translucent. He looked into the sunlight and blinked. The light disturbed him.
He remembered something. Men had been chasing him. White men with evil on their minds. Sweat broke out on his forehead. Little bumps of it, like an allergic reaction to dying.
Then he remembered what he’d seen on that road.
He remembered what had saved him.
Who had saved him?
Who would believe him?
From the smell and feel of himself he knew that he was clean. Someone had bathed him. The white-haired lady. He wasn’t embarrassed at the idea.
After a while he climbed into his freshly laundered clothes. He was moving like an old man. Railroad tracks don’t bend, so he sat on the high perch of the bed and pulled his stiff jeans over his stiffer legs. He crawled upwards into his shirt. Each button was tedious. His fingers had drawn up. Someone had given him a haircut and shaved off his beard.
He combed his tough hair with a big-toothed comb he found on the dresser. The dresser mirror was cloudy like someone had breathed on it to be sure he or she was alive. And the breath lingered, living on the glass. He did the best he could with the comb. By now, the little bedroom with its big bed was suffused with the good smell of food.
There was a plate for him. Grits smooth as satin and white as cotton. Eggs like scrambled-up suns. Light-brown biscuits and pieces of golden fried chicken.
“You better eat that before it turn cold.”
So he did as he was told.
And swallowed the hot, black coffee she poured into the white china cup with the gold trim.
He wiped his greasy mouth with a paper towel. And he felt good. She was pouring him another cup of coffee.
“Can I call your family?” she asked. Or did she hum it?
He blinked in amazement and opened his mouth. Dumbfounded.
“Hurry up, Treemont Stone. I got to drive you to the gas station so you can use the phone there. They listen in on this one here.”
He called his sister collect. He only said one word, “Viv.”
Vivian grilled him. “What have they done to you, Montie? What have they done?”
“I’m okay, Viv.”
“You don’t sound okay.”
“That’s just the connection. I’m really okay. I’m staying with Miss—” He drew a blank. She’d said her name, hadn’t she?
His sister knew. “Miss Grace told me they brought you to her house and I say praise God for that! You tell her I am thanking her for what she’s done. If the doctor would permit Mama would go down to get you. But you know. After a day and no word from you, she cried awhile. Then she brightened up and said you were fine. You know she has her ways of knowing. I’ll come and get you.”
“No. Don’t come. I’m coming home soon. I’ll call back when Mama’s up.”
“Tomorrow. You’ll come home tomorrow?”
“No. I’ll call tomorrow.” He was looking around the gas station. Looking at Miss Grace sitting behind the wheel of her car. Looking past her to the highway. He wouldn’t be leaving here for a while, not even to see his mother’s smiling face. He knew then he would find the last things. The last things he needed to know for his life he’d find here in Mimosa, Mississippi. That’s where Miss Grace told him he was.
She told everybody who asked who did not know that he was her nephew: Timothy Grace. One of her brothers who’d gone to Detroit and never set foot in the South again. Everyone accepted him because Miss Leah-Bethel Grace said so. They called him T-Baby. He went with her to Mt. Tabor Church. She picked up some flyers and they didn’t tarry. She dropped him back at the house.
“We’ll talk tonight,” she promised him, and gave him the back-door key.
He spent the day cleaning up; gratitude making him even more industrious than usual. He washed the breakfast dishes, made up his bed, swept the house and dusted. When he finished these tasks, he sat and thought for an hour or more. He grew agitated and took all the dainty china cups out of the cabinet and washed them along with the souvenir plates.
He walked around the house and looked hungrily at every picture on the wall. The Graces must be legion. He smiled over a lineup of school photos. Boys and girls in white shirts or blouses and blue uniforms. A brown, apple-faced girl smiled through small, almond-shaped eyes. She looked hopefully into a distance. Like she could barely contain herself. A real dreamer. He read the inscription and signature in the blue ink at the bottom of the photo: “For Aunt Silence, who is golden. Love, from Maggie.”
Hanging beside the picture of the girl was the picture of a boy who looked like her. His face masculine and somber, but smiling too in the smile Stone was beginning to recognize as a Grace trademark. The boy’s picture scrawl read, “To my dear Aunt Silence, from Lazarus.”
And more photographs signed Honeybabe, Pearl, Sam Jr., Ernestine, Shirley, and two grammar-school miniatures from Anne and Frances. That same smile.
“It’s a million of them.” Mercy Stone’s only son chuckled to himself.
His favorite photograph was one of Miss Leah-Bethel (who must be Aunt Silence) when she was young. It was a club shot with everybody dressed flamboyantly and looking celebratory and happy to be together. There she was, Miss Leah-Bethel with a man who looked like her, and a woman who looked even more like her, and a man who looked alone. The photographer had even captured the smoke as it drifted by. He sensed too that she or he had captured the state of each soul. The portraits of four lives moved him. He was drawn to it. He stood in front of it and searched out every detail. Trying to glean the lives inside the photograph. Something here touched him so deeply he felt full of a goodness.
Worn-out, he left the house in a hurry and went into the yard, where he roamed and inspected trees (fig, pecan, pear, crepe myrtle, mimosa), shrubs, fallen nuts, and insects and birds until the falling sun dimmed the air. He thought, “Maybe the land is magic. Black people survived.”
He went back into the kitchen this time and looked for something to cook. She would be hungry when she got home.
He put some music on the record player in the living room. Mockingbird July radiated through the rooms as he peeled the potatoes into long, unbroken spirals of skin and bald white balls, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for a salad, peeled onions without weeping, and opened a can of mackerel and made croquettes. He liked to cook. In one of his lives he’d worked in a restaurant. But he washed more dishes than the ones he filled when he filled in when the cook was too sick or too drunk to do his duties. When everything was ready, he went back into the living room and waited for Miss Leah-Bethel who the kids in the photographs called Silence.
When she came, she wasn’t alone. He had fallen asleep in the rocking chair under the wall of pictures. The hubbub woke him up. Hours ago, there’d been a huge boom that had jostled him from his nap, but he’d drifted back into the restorative darkness. Now the house was full of people and they were talking excitedly and angrily. He searched for Miss Leah-Bethel in the throng.
She was in the dining room talking on the telephone. “Nothing left? I suppose they came like the wind and didn’t a soul see nothing.” She paused and looked around her, not seeing anyone. Not seeing him. Her sight had disappeared; he could tell it was in her ears, coming out of her mouth. She sounded big and stormy. “I suppose we should just thank the God who made us only two people were hurt and we taken them to the hospital. Concussion. Broken ribs.”
Then she was talking even more forcefully. “Lord, I am fed up with these people trying to stop us from being free. We doing God’s work. I hope the next bomb they call themselves making blow up in their hands. That would be fair. Lord knows it would.” She listened again. Nodded. “We working from right here. If they coming for somebody again they better bring an atomic bomb.” She hung up. She saw them and everybody was one. Even Stone.
The crowd of people was boisterous, waffling between salvation and relief and outrage. God had not blinked his eyes on them after all. They were still alive. And they were hungry like the living.
They raided the refrigerator. Heated up the food he’d cooked: croquettes, potatoes and onions. Somebody brought in tamales and french fries. A woman was frying fish and a man brought in a kettle of greens from the Sunflower Café and a block of corn bread compliments of Saphronia. Treemont got down every dish he’d washed that day. And they used up a pile of paper plates. Eating like starving children or grown men and women who’d worked hard for a long time with nothing on their stomachs.
He was right with them, answering to the names Timothy or T-Baby, or once or twice Gracie.
When the phone wasn’t ringing, somebody was talking on it.
Miss Leah-Bethel wouldn’t sit still long enough to eat, and Treemont was right behind her. He and another man carried the big mimeograph machine into the bedroom from someone’s car.
In the living room they pushed back the couch and put in a banquet-size folding table. There was a chair in every corner. Some people stood. Others sat on the floor with plates on their laps.
The workers got down to the work and he listened. He listened to the sound of his life.
In the middle of the night Stone was in the kitchen, clarified with joy, and washing dishes. A few workers sprawled on the couch fast asleep. And a man sat straight up in a corner chair dead to the world. There were sentries at windows wide awake and watching. Across the street Mr. Marshall watched all night and slept throughout the day for Miss Leah-Bethel. He was old then, and proud to be needed. And Treemont Stone was proud to be needed, so he broke suds and broke into a soft whistling. Little arabesques and twirls of sound haunting the area over the sink, falling into the dishwater, silent against the stainless steel, the china, and the plastic glasses that could be used again.
It hit him in that moment, a jabbing finger in the solar plexus. He had been grieving all those years. Guilty because his father, who’d been a giant, had died while he had lived. He’d been rudderless. Lost. And spinning aimlessly in a sea of grief-glinting months. He’d told himself he was getting ready all that time to start his life. But he hadn’t been fixing to do anything. “Fixing to do nothing,” he said to the pane above the sink.
“Digging yo potatoes.” That’s what the girls on his block growing up used to call it. That hesitation dance, bobbing and weaving outside the double Dutch rope, feigning, but not jumping in and dancing on hot, light feet.
Right then and there he decided to live. And keep learning as he went. The music and the books—he needed them, to keep his head on straight.
He chuckled gruesomely, thinking about what it was like to lose a head, lose it completely, then put it back on.
Miss Leah-Bethel said, “What you in here being happy about?”
He looked at her full in the face, willing her to read his heart. “I got to tell you something,” he whispered back urgently. He went and shut the kitchen door.
They sat at the tiny table in the corner. It was piled high with voter registration leaflets, but neither of them moved them. He leaned on them and looked at her close-up again. Outside the window, the wind bobbed inside the fig tree. The tree was beautiful. Profuse and delicate. They looked at each other, and she just burst out laughing. Laughing from way inside. From her feet. Down to the floor. And through the floor. To the earth. And down through the earth.
“You’re not supposed to laugh yet,” he told her. Laughing too because he couldn’t help himself. After a while she quit and started up again in little deep giggles.
“Old Mr. Death thought he had us tonight,” she said. Then she sighed. And was quiet, looking at him, and waiting for him to tell her.
And after a while he did.
“Those people who brought me to you, where’d they find me?” he asked.
“Up in the bushes along Old Letha Road. Up around there.”
“You know what happened?” he asked her.
“I know somebody was after you. And then something got after them.” This cracked her up again. She laughed through the floor and to the earth again. Outside the window he could see that fig tree laughing. But he couldn’t see the wind.
“Miss Grace, do you know what got after them?” he asked her curiously.
“Mmmmmmmm hmmmmmmm,” she answered, sweet as a little biddy girl.
But neither of them would say it.
“I’ve been thinking about my father. He died a while ago and I’ve been running away from that. Tonight, this morning, I would say, I decided not to run anymore.” He’d been afraid the words wouldn’t come, but they did.
“So I’d like to stay here a little bit, and work with you before I go home. Is that all right with you?”
“That’s fine with me.”
After they’d finished talking about room and board and working, he felt better. Content even. He felt like he’d just made a contract with an angel. He told her that.
She said, “You just sold your soul to God, not me.” And then she went to bed.
He finished the dishes, and stayed up the rest of the night writing in his new spiral notebook Miss Grace had given him. Writing everything that had happened to him. He wrote like a man in a trance about Letha and Ricochet and the sheriff and the riders and dying and not dying; Reverend Jeremiah Stone; Mercy Stone, his mother, who had given him so much; Vivian; Miss Grace, who some children with the same smile called Silence; the civil rights workers; himself in all his lives; and the shimmering woman who’d saved him on Old Letha Road. Her only weapon her head in her hand.