We rolled into Fayetteville at three in the morning. Very few towns are appealing at that time, and most American cities are way down at the bottom of the list. It looked cold, locked up, hostile. We stopped at the Greyhound Depot. Twenty-minute rest stop.
All I had to do was to walk out with my baggage. I went into the station and had a cup of coffee that was an insult to my stomach and my intelligence. Ten minutes to go. Ten minutes to change my life. And what swung it was that coffee. It was so bad I took it personally. Because it suddenly occurred to me that when this Parrish job would be over, I’d never have to drink lousy coffee at three A.M. in dead little towns in the piny woods again.
I got on the bus and was asleep before the driver started her up.
We got into Jackson at eleven the next morning. I checked the suitcase at a locker and walked on over to the post office, whistling and swinging my attache case. People were walking far more slowly than they do in New York, and several of them nodded to me pleasantly. General delivery had a letter for me. From Mrs. Harold Wilson, 412 South Magnolia, Okalusa.
Welcome to Dixie! I rented a nice little second-floor furnished apartment for sixty-five dollars. The house belongs to a decaying couple named Garrison. The phone is 516. Phone me when you get this letter and I’ll put on an award performance at the bus station like I promised.
(Mrs.) Harold Wilson.
I phoned her right away.
A soft voice said, "Yes?"
"I’m Harold Wilson, and I—"
Instant warmth. "Oh, you’re her husband! I declare! We heard so much about you an’ the wonderful thing you’re goin’ to work on down here! She’s been pinin’ for you somethin’ dreadful. You jus’ hold on now an’ I’ll get her for you quicker ’n you can say Jack Robinson! Don’t go ’way now, y’ hear?"
Kirby must have started her performance as soon as she hit the city limits.
"Darlin’! Jus’ get in? I found the most delightful place I ever did see, an’ I know you’re jus’ gonna love it!"
"I gather the landlady is standing right next to you."
"Yeh-uss! I feel the same way about you, honey! I love this lil ole town, evvabody’s been so nice an’ friendly an’ all!"
"Can you cut it short?"
She wouldn’t. She went on and raved about the town park with the bandstand and the flowers planted all around it and the swimming pool. She said the grocery man was so nice and so was the boy at the gas station who checked her steering and suspension and found she needed an idler arm and he put it in and he charged her just for the labor and nothing at all for the inspection, and he adjusted the carburetor and timing and didn’t charge nothing at all because she told him I was working hard still going to school.
"This is what happens when I hire an out-of-work actress," I said, and immediately realized I had made a serious slip. The local operator might be listening in. Kirby recognized the danger as soon as I did.
"I’m so glad you wouldn’t let me go on with those actin’ lessons, Hal," she said. "I was beginnin’ to hate all those No’th’n girls in mah class always makin’ fun of the way I talked."
"I always liked the way you talked, honey," I said, breathing easier. "This bus gets into Okalusa at two-forty. Will you meet me?"
"What a silly lil ole question! Miss Ethelda-Grace, would you like to come for a ride to the bus station with me when mah Hal comes in?"
Miss Ethelda protested, but only weakly. She must be quite bored. Kirby knew this was the surest way to spread the news over Okalusa that I had arrived.
I hung up with a loud kiss echoing in the receiver. I bought a ticket for the Jackson-Okalusa bus, bought a copy of Pleasure, wondered why people thought those colorless bunnies had any flavor, tried to read the third-rate prose, threw it away, and had a better time reading True Detective.
The announcer finally called my bus. The friendly driver cut short his conversation with the mechanic and helped with my baggage. I thanked him and he smiled pleasantly and went back to his seat and his conversation with the mechanic.
"Y’ought to make the run to Okalusa just once, Gene," he said. "We grow cotton so high thataway the moon has to go around by way of Tinnissee. The mosquitoes get so big in the swamps outside of town they c’n stand flat-footed an’ drink out of a rain barrel. An’ the frogs in them swamps along the Chickasaw, why, when they get to bellerin’ of a night, they rattle the winderpanes ten mile off."
"You bet, Ray," said the grinning mechanic. He took out a wrench from his back pocket and adjusted the outside rear-view mirror.
"Come down an’ eat our catfish," said the driver.
"We got good catfish heah. Ain’t no reason to travel a hundred and eighty hot miles to eat yours, Ray."
"I tell you we got good eatin’ catfish, Gene. You take our catfish an’ corn bread an’ some of that white mule them hill boys make up in the laurel, an’ you got a good thing goin’." He saw me listening with interest. He swung around and included me in the conversation.
"Mister, you look like a stranger. Lemme tell about our catfish up there in the swamp. One time a cottonmouth struck me on the face, right here. It weighed seventy-eight pound, coiled. It was bigger’n a bushel basket. It plumb tore away the whole left side of my face, but all they fed me for three days straight was that local catfish from the swamp, an’ corn bread an’ corn whisky, an’ by the end of the week it healed up an’ didn’t even leave a scar. You see any sign of a scar on mah face?"
I shook my head.
"Mister," the mechanic said, "Okalusa’s in Milliken County. An’ you can hear anythin’ in Milliken County except the truth and bacon a-fryin’."
Ray closed the door, switched on the ignition, and grinned.
"Hold it, Ray," said the mechanic. "You got one more passenger." In a lower tone he added, "A jigaboo."
Ray opened the door. He said curtly, "C’mon. Step on it. I ain’t got all day."
A black man of about sixty began to climb the steps with a heavy old suitcase. Once inside, he gave his ticket to Ray, who didn’t wait till the old man could be seated. The bus started immediately and the old man was having trouble with his bulky suitcase in the narrow aisle, which was littered with boxes and shopping bags. It was obviously the bus used by country people to do their serious city shopping in. The old man paused and hesitated when he saw the cluttered aisle. There was an empty seat far in the rear, and there was an empty one beside me. I could almost see his thinking processes.
He would have to ask pardon of ten whites in order to get to the empty seat in the back. He would probably bang a few knees as well with his huge suitcase, and why go through all that humiliation when he could just sit beside me? He looked at me. The look said, Please, mister, are you gonna make a fuss if I sit beside you?
I was filled with compassion for a man who had to think over things like this when a white person could breeze on ahead, saving his mental energy for other matters. I automatically smiled and moved over a bit. He smiled, let out a sigh, and began to stow his suitcase overhead in the rack.
But I suddenly remembered that Ray came from Okalusa. And I was going to live in Okalusa. It was time I went to work.
"Something seems to smell bad," I said to the driver.
The man beside me stiffened. He had been wiping the sweat from his lined face with a clean white handkerchief. I took a deep, audible breath.
"And it smells worse and worse."
The man’s face beside me was expressionless.
Ray grinned. He was driving the bus expertly through the crowded traffic. I could see his heavy, handsome face smiling at me in the mirror above the driver’s seat.
"Ain’t it the truth!" He pretended to take a long, deep breath.
"Whew-eee!" he said. "It smelled fine till jus’ before we left. What could the matter be?" Most of the whites laughed. A few were silent. The Negroes were very quiet.
"Maybe it’s your suitcase, mister," he said. He ironically underlined the last word. "I bet y’all got some real overripe hog maws ’n’ chitlins ’n’ collard greens in that ole suitcase? It’s against the law to carry them things around in suitcases, mister."
I felt the man’s body tremble.
"I guess it’s too much for me," I said. I got up, leaving suitcase in the overhead rack. I picked up my attache case.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, with great politeness.
He didn’t look at me. He stood up to let me go out into the aisle.
"Mister," Ray said to me, "it’s the Supreme Co’t of the Yewnited States that says he c’n sits where he wants. An’ there’s nothin’ I c’n do about it. Ten years ago you wouldn’ta had to put yourself to all this trouble. I’m rightly sorry."
I went back to the other empty seat. Sixteen years ago in Korea, one Elijah Bowman, sergeant, USMC, carried one Joseph Dunne, PFC, on his back down a hill and across a valley enfiladed by enemy machine-gun fire. Private Dunne’s thigh had been broken by a bullet. Although Dunne urged Sergeant Bowman to get out and leave him, Sergeant Bowman answered, "You’re a marine. I’m a marine." Placing private Dunne eventually on a tank, Sergeant Bowman turned to reenter the fire fight. He was immediately killed by a burst of machine-gun fire. Sergeant Bowman’s home was on a farm near Ocala, Florida. He left a widowed mother who had hoped he would come back and run the farm after the war.
Sergeant, forgive me if you can.
I looked out the window. I thought of all the unpleasant things I had done in my life. I decided I had just copped first prize. I saw Ray’s face from time to time looking at me in the rear-view mirror. I averted my head. I didn’t think I could smile back at him for some time.
After thirty miles the black man got off. Ray turned and said, "Hey, mister, you wanna sit up front? The air’s done cleared up."
A few people tittered. I got up. I looked at the faces smiling up at me as I moved up the aisle. I smiled back at them. It wasn’t so hard as I thought it would be, but it took some straining. I was going to earn Parrish’s money. Every cent of it. I think it was then it really came home to me the things I’d have to do.
Ray said, "You new in Okalusa."
"They got two hotels there. No matter which one you go to, you’re gonna wish you had gone to the other."
I smiled and told him my wife had already rented a place.
"Oh, you’re married to that pretty Georgia gal! You’re the fella from up in Canada? How come we eveh let a girl like that get away?"
"I worked fast as soon as I saw her."
"Serves us right."
People got off along the highway. The bus became half empty, then there were only five people left. The cotton fields ended. The road ran like an arrow along a causeway with a deep ditch on each side filled with stagnant brown water.
The bus had no air conditioning. The air was stove-hot, and filled with moisture. My shirt stuck to my back. I pulled away from the seat and plucked it away from my sticky skin. The air was almost unbreathable. I had the feeling that if I would pass my hand through the air it would come back with a thin film of oil on it. The leaves of the swamp were all dark green. They were the same color that I had once seen on a boa constrictor’s skin. Shiny, sleek, and dark. Nothing was moving in the swamp or in the ditches alongside. The sun kept sucking up moisture from the rotting mass of leaves and decaying branches, and as a result a thin white mist was twisting and writhing above the treetops.
Something brown and thick around as my forearm was moving across the road. Ray accelerated. The heavy bus picked up speed and the wheels went over it. There was a barely perceptible bump.
"Moccasin," Ray said with satisfaction. "Got the son of a bitch! Had a cousin years ago went to the pond on a real bad hot day in August. We’d been havin’ a long dry spell, an’ that pond was ’bout the only place for miles ’round where they was some water. He shucks off his pants an’ dives in. They was fo’ty-seven moccasins floatin’ in that pond. Know how come I know how many? ’Cause when I come by half an hour later an’ I finds him dead with all them bite marks, I went home an’ took a stick of dynamite. That’s how I know they was fo’ty-seven cottonmouths."
The swamp ended. Cotton fields, miles and miles of them. Signs for cotton gins, cotton-baling machinery, and crop-dusting planes.
Then: YOU ARE ENTERING OKALUSA, QUEEN CITY OF THE COTTON KINGDOM.
Then: CITY LIMITS OKALUSA POP. 28,165 DRIVE SLOW WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN LIONS MEET TUBS. 12:30 ROTARY THURS. 12:30.
Negro shacks began to give way to little bungalows. Then suddenly we were riding down a broad street lined with big, old trees and big, old houses. Kids were riding bikes up and down the sidewalks, dogs were running alongside and barking. Lawn sprinklers were turning. The worst of the day’s heat was over. People were sitting on front porches gently waving fans and waving at the bus.
We pulled into the bus station. I saw a car with Quebec plates parked outside. My heart, to my surprise, began to beat quickly. I stood up and reached for my luggage.
"This is a nice town," Ray said. "I hope you like it real fine."
"I think I will," I said, reaching for my attache case.
As soon as I walked into the waiting room, I heard a shrill rebel yell. I had just enough time to turn around to see a blonde flash coming fast at me. Then I was hit by Mrs. Wilson. "Hit" is the right word. I was struck by two arms and a shower of kisses. Some of her hair got loose from the silver barrette she was wearing at the back of her neck, and it fell across my face. It had a good smell, of soap and sun. Then she gave me a passionate bear hug. She was a strong woman with good back muscles and she was using every one she had.
People were watching with big grins. Which one was our landlady?
I couldn’t afford to be as impetuous as she was, not with my four-hundred-forty dollar Kim in one hand, the suitcase in the other, and the attache case under my left arm. I lowered everything to the floor while she was still squeezing. "Take it easy," I muttered. She paid no attention. She was carried away by the audience.
I hugged her back. I squeezed just as hard as she had. It started out as a performance for the benefit of the town, but she gave me a kiss smack on the mouth, a direct frontal kiss that forced my lips against my teeth rather painfully. It was a hard, sex-starved kiss from a passionate lady who hadn’t seen her husband for one long week and who had been telling everyone how much she loved him.
So I muttered again, "Hey, take it easy!"
"I can’t," she hissed. "I told everyone how much I missed you."
So I kissed her back. It started out as a supporting role for my Academy Award friend, but after two seconds it got out of control. I realized the lady was serious. She was pressing her breasts against me. She was wearing a thin nylon blouse of an apricot color, and a thin nylon bra underneath. I was wearing a thin cotton jacket on top of a thin drip-dry blue shirt, and I could feel her nipples bulging into my chest as hard as cherry candy.
I finally pulled away. The first thing I saw was a thin elderly lady staring at us only a few feet away. Her pulse was beating rapidly in her throat. This must be Mrs. Garrison, the landlady.
For the first time I noticed Kirby wasn’t wearing her horn-rims. The small of her back was soaked with sweat. She was breathing quickly with her eyes averted. I put my hand at the small of her back and felt those long flat muscles tense under my palm.
"I missed you, honey-lamb!"
"Me, too." I was stiff and self-conscious. This was good. Canadian males should be embarrassed at public displays of affection. It made me look all the more convincing.
"Gimme one more kiss," she said. She couldn’t bear to leave the limelight without at least one encore.
I let her have it. Good as she was, this kiss was sedate by comparison. We both were beginning to realize that the other kiss had far more reality in it than the situation called for.
Kirby broke away. "This is Mrs. Garrison," she said, "and this is mah husband."
"I’m delighted to meet you," she said shyly. "I’ve heard so much about you."
"I found us a lovely apahtmint," Kirby said. I bent down to pick up my luggage. She grabbed the attache case, talking enthusiastically about the apartment, the trees, the people she had met, how nice they all were. I let her take the case and I followed her out to the car. I didn’t like her carrying it. And that shows you how stupid I was. I thought somehow she’d be less involved if she wouldn’t have touched it. As if she wasn’t in it already like someone caught in quicksand.
The Wilson car was parked carelessly at an angle to the curb, unlike every other car in the block. The parking meter said Expired. Leaning against the meter was a fat cop in wrinkled khaki pants and a dirty white shirt. He wore a western-style gun belt with a pearl-handled .45 low on his right hip. Sloppily pinned above his heart was a sheriff’s badge. I could see it was a good one, a Blackinton, made out of 24-karat heavy gold plate with an anti-corrosion finish. They didn’t care much for uniforms in Okalusa, but if all their police equipment was as good as the badge, it meant they had a good mayor or police chief. Well, maybe not good, but at least he took care of the boys.
He was wearing a cheap broad-brimmed straw hat. When he saw Kirby, he straightened up and tipped it.
"Afternoon, Mis’ Wilson. I expect this is your car."
"Yes, it is, Mr. Hungerfo’d. I want you to meet mah husband. Mah husband, Hal Wilson, soon to be Doctor Wilson!"
He shook hands, looked at the angle parking, at the expired meter, and then grinned.
"Mebbe I better let it go," he said. "Mr. Wilson, welcome to Okalusa. Mebbe I better start callin’ you Doctor right away."
"I—" I began, then stopped. I was speechless.
"They all take on like that, Mr. Wilson. Pay it no nevermind. You tell Mis’ Wilson to park nice an’ put in a dime now an’ then in the meters, an’ I wish you folks have a nice time in Okalusa." He tipped his hat and ambled ponderously away.
We drove past the courthouse square with the iron park benches and the usual statue of the Confederate rifleman. Then three blocks of stores and offices, then the residential district began.
"We have a lot of good houses here," Mrs. Garrison said. "A lot of planters like to live in town, it’s so pleasant, an’ there are so many things to do, not like those big lonely plantations with neighbors too far away. Mr. Garrison an’ I, we owned one, but it got too big for us, an’ there was a few bad years in a row. He knew cotton, an’ when the guvamint told him to div—div—diversify, he wouldn’t. He said all he knew was cotton an’ that was that. So the fourth year came an’ we didn’t have a penny. So we lost it all, but we did have the townhouse, an’ now we rent it out upstairs an’ maybe one or two rooms. We try to get a nice class of people, no children, an’ that’s why we’re glad to get such nice people as you an’ Mrs. Wilson."
Several blocks further we stopped at a big yellow frame house. Scrollwork ran all the way around the roof.
"Know what that is?" Kirby demanded. "That’s Carpenter Gothic. That’s why I picked this house to live in. You know why? Because that’s the way the house where I was born looked like."
A wide veranda ran all around the house. A porch swing sat at one end, at a corner surrounded by four old magnolia trees. A huge live oak shadowed the second-story bay window. Kirby pointed to it and said, "That’s our window!"
We walked up the walk. Mrs. Garrison thanked Kirby for the ride and left us in the hallway.
We went up the carpeted staircase. The room was big, with the bay window under the branches of the live oak. I stood there and watched a squirrel run up a branch, sit down, and stare at me with a look of astonishment.
Kirby said, "He wants to know what a Yankee is doin’ in this house."
I smiled. The room possessed an enormous double bed with a quilted bedspread. Kirby said Mrs. Garrison’s grandmother had stitched it together when times were bad after the Civil War. A smaller room to one side had a little desk and a couch. My study. I walked in and put the attache case on the desk. The study had a worn Persian rug on the floor. It had once cost a lot of money. The room was immaculate. I heard birds in the tree. The light filtered through the branches and made a soft yellow glow on the desk. An old lamp with a green glass shade stood on the desk. I snapped it. It filled the room with a gentle light. It occurred to me that if I were really working on my Ph.D. I could not ask for a better place than this.
Kirby sat on the bed as I started to unpack. "We’re in!" she said. "They love me. I’ve apologized to everyone for you being a Canadian. They’ve forgiven me, specially since I told them that when you were in England—"
"Wait a minute," I said. "When was I in England?"
"Three years ago," she said promptly. "You were a Rhodes scholar and you went to Oxford."
"All right. Go on."
"When you were in England, you saw how badly black immigration was working out. You don’t like it, and you’re glad that Canada has been spared this problem."
I was amused to see that when she became serious and when she was talking to me she lost her Southern accent.
"I play dumb Southern bunny with the sheriff. I’ve already asked him for road directions several times when any three-year-old idiot would have understood them the first time, but all Southerners like their upper-class women to look cool, elegant, and helpless."
I moved quietly to the door. I opened it suddenly. No one was there listening. I didn’t think that Mrs. Garrison looked the type, but people in small towns have so little to do that even nice people kneel at keyholes to get material for gossip.
I came to the bed. Kirby sat motionless, staring up at me. I bent close to her. Later I could see how my actions might easily have been misunderstood by anyone. Her mouth parted and the color flushed her skin. "Oh Joe, oh, Joe—" she said, and put her arms around my neck.
I pulled them away. Her face flushed with embarrassment.
"From now on," I said quietly, "no confidences in the room. Maybe the Garrisons aren’t nosy. We can’t assume it. We have to assume that they are nosy, that the room will be bugged. The only time we can talk freely will be in the car, or when we’re out walking alone in an empty street. All right?"
"All right." She was looking down at the rug and tracing one of the arabesque patterns in it with her right shoe. "You wash up. I’ll be back."
I had finished unpacking and had changed into a fresh shirt and slacks when she tapped on the door and came in with Mr. and Mrs. Garrison. He was a thin pale man with a full head of white hair and a shrewd, sour face. He congratulated me on my lovely wife. He said he knew a good woman when he saw one. That’s why he grabbed Mrs. Garrison.
"When I married Ethelda-Grace," he went on, "she lived on one side of the Chickasaw an’ I on the other. An’ when I went to fetch her for the weddin’ day, why, they’d been a flood an’ all the bridges was down. So Ethelda stood on one side, all impatient in her sunbonnet an’ umbrella, an’ we were married on both sides of the river."
"Don’t believe him," Mrs. Garrison said severely. "We were married in a house, like Christian people. Well, we’d best be getting along, Mr. Wilson. You want anythin’, you jus’ give a yell. I hope you enjoy livin’ in Okalusa." They left.
"Nice people," I said. I stood up. "How about you giving me a lecture tour around Okalusa and the suburbs and then we’ll go out for dinner?"
She was delighted. When she started the car, she said, "Are we casing the joint?"
"Yeah," I said. "We’re casing it."
Copyright © 1970 by Shepard Rifkin.