On the bus ride from St. Louis to Sikeston to visit his grandparents, thirteen-year-old Ardell Beaton sat alone because his mother was on her honeymoon. If she had been there, she would have been working a paper fan to cool him down; she would’ve kept him from drinking up all the water in his official Gene Autry canteen only an hour into the trip, and she would have told him to quit staring at the fat man in the gray suit and fedora sitting across the aisle, mopping the back of his neck with a hanky, mumbling to himself and jerking his head no, like he was mad at what he was saying. The fedora was pulled down so far on the man’s head it almost covered up his ears. All this made him much more interesting to Ardell than the other passengers.
Sitting a few seats behind him were two old ladies discussing their maladies in great detail. One had gout and the other had something Ardell had never heard of. Across from the old ladies was a soldier who did nothing but stare out the window like he was hypnotized by the passing soybean and cotton fields. He looked kind of sad, so Ardel wondered if maybe the poor guy had received a Dear John letter while he was fighting overseas, and now he was coming home and there’d be no girl waiting for him.
But at least he was alive, and should be thankful for that, thought Ardell, whose father had been killed two years earlier, fighting Japs on the Coral Sea. He didn’t like his mother getting married again so soon, and to a 4-F insurance salesman with a girl’s name, no less. Once, while Francis was taking a bath, Ardell went through his wallet, hoping to find evidence that he was a Nazi spy. But no such luck. He was just an insurance salesman with bad feet.
In the back of the bus, behind a chain with a sign on it marked “Colored” were a dozen or so Negroes-- men in shabby dark suits or overalls, women in drab cloth dresses. They were mostly quiet, except for a pretty mulatto gal wearing a hat with fake grapes on it, and her darker boyfriend who wore a zoot suit and a pencil mustache. Those two were cutting up occasionally, but Ardell couldn’t make out what they were saying over the noise of the wind rushing in from a few open windows.
The bus driver watched them in his rear-view mirror. He was a middle-aged white man whose shock of red hair and big, sad eyes reminded Ardell of an orangutan. As the shadows from passing trees chased each other across his face, Ardell thought about all the fun he was going to have at Grandpa’s: hunting rabbit and squirrel, gigging frogs and catching catfish out at Pinckney’s pond, listening to the Cardinals on the big radio in the screened-in porch. He thought about the Gates twins, Sam and his sister Wanda, who lived a few streets over from Grandpa. Both of them had red hair and freckles and were real good ata moment--after all, the fat man had invited him to look. “They tell me it’s a gift from God,” the fat man sighed, “But I don’t happen to agree. It’s what makes me have those spells, and when I have them I see things--ugly things sometimes, and I have to fight with myself whether I should tell folks what I saw. But sometimes I know I have to.” He stopped to see if Ardell had anything to say, but Ardell was still staring at the bump. “I saw things about you.”
Seeing that he now had the boy’s full attention, he continued, his upper lip twitching with perspiration.. “ I don’t want to scare you, but I don’t think you should go to Sikeston.”
“Why?” asked Ardell, glancing quickly to where the soldier had been standing, and seeing he was no longer there.
“Because something’s going to happen—something bad.”
“How do you know?” asked Ardell.
“I saw railroad tracks, and fire, and a big black book.”
“A black book?”
“And railroad tracks, and fire.”
Railroad tracks and fire didn’t mean anything to Ardell, but when he heard the Words black book, he immediately thought about Grandma’s scrapbook. She kept it on the top shelf in the basement closet next to the guest bedroom where Ardell and his mother always slept. It was full of newspaper clippings going way back, depicting local tragedies. One was about a woman who was standing on the dock, holding her baby and waving to her husband on a river boat. Suddenly the baby slipped out of her arms, fell into the muddy water, sank like a rock, and wasn’t found for three days.
Another one showed a woman who had been sentenced to die in the electric chair for murdering her cheating husband. She was smirking at the camera, a cigarette dangling defiantly from the corner of her mouth. There were horrible car crashes, suicides, house fires, and factory disasters. Every time Ardell visited, he would take the book down and look through it to see what had been added. He liked it because it was scary—scarier than Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy put together. Ardell wondered how the fat man could possibly know about it.
“I’m going to see my grandpa. He won’t let nothin’ bad happen.”
The fat man replaced his fedora and shook his head. “I hate to tell you this, son, But what’s going to happen has to do with your grandfather.”
Ardell clenched his fists. “Don’t you say nothing bad about my grandpa.”
The fat man held up his hand, his eyes darting around to see if anyone was watching. “Please. I’m only trying to help you.”
The bus driver called out for everyone to board. When Ardell got up, the fat man clutched his arm. “ Why don’t you get off with me at Cape Girardeua, and I’ll make sure you catch the next bus back to St. Louis. What do you say, son?”
Ardell jerked his arm free, jumped up and shouted, “I ain’t your son, you big fat queer!” Then he ran and got in the bus and the seat directly behind the driver, who was counting the passengers. When the fat man shuffled by, Ardell did his best to ignore him.
After making sure everyone was on board, the driver closed the doors and jerked the the bus back on its way. He was so glad to have someone to talk to, he started telling Ardell his life story. Ardell didn’t see the fat man again until the bus stopped at Cape Giradeau, where he got off and fell into the arms of a very thin woman in a white dress. For the rest of the trip, Ardell tried not to think about what the fat man had told him. But the black book kept coming into his mind. He remembered the time his mother came downstairs and caught him with it and said, “Quit lookin’ at that nasty old book.”
When he asked her why Grandma kept it, all she said was, “That’s just more of her hillbilly hoodoo.” He vowed to put the fat man out of his mind forever.
The bus skirted dusty little towns, rolling over rivers where old men fished for their supper and kids splashed around to escape the broiling sun, to where the Union Pacific and Burlington North railways came together, until it stopped at the station in Sikeston where Grandpa was waiting. He stood a little over six feet, and except for a slight paunch, was fit for his from a lifetime of physical labor. He was dressed in his favorite gray work shirt with the case for his reading glasses sticking out from the pocket. He punched Ardell playfully in the belly, then gave him a big hug, and while they waited for the driver to unload the luggage, Grandpa put his arm around his shoulders and said, “We’re gonna have us a good old time. Yes sir. A good old time.”
The big black 1934 Ford Pickup still looked brand new. When Ardell hopped in, he could smell cigarette smoke and bird dog. The engine turned over easy as pie and they were on their way.
Grandpa pointed to a small cinderblock building dwarfed by the huge metal tower standing next to it. A sign on the building said KPRT. “That’s where me and the boys are gonna be playing three nights a week.” The fiddle player for The Missouri Ramblers had quit and Grandpa had auditioned for the job and got it. He had been trying to get in a real band for a long time so he wouldn’t have to work in the shoe factory anymore.
“That’s swell, Grandpa,” said Ardell.
“Yes sir! The best band in Missouri,” Grandpa said.
Ardell had completely forgotten about the fat man until he suddenly realized that the way Grandpa was going home went over some railroad tracks, and he remembered the fat man’s prophecy—railroad tracks and fire. His insides went hollow. His eyes fogged over as he imagined the roar of a train rushing down upon them, the screech of metal on metal, the truck exploding into a blazing fireball. He couldn’t help it. He was more scared than he’d ever been in his life. Then he recalled that the road coming up ran parallel to the tracks and went by Van Dyke’s Ice Cream Palace, before going under the tracks at a trestle.
“Grandpa, can we go to Van Dyke’s and get some ice cream?”
Grandpa shook his head. “ No, sir. Your Grandma’s fixing us squirrel and dumplings, and blackberry cobbler. She’d skin me alive if I let you fill up on ice cream before dinner.”
The railroad tracks were fast approaching. “Please, Grandpa. I been thinking about ice cream all the way here. My throat is hot and dry as a dirt road.”
Grandpa laughed. “All right. But you better not tell on me.”
“I won’t” said Ardell, and felt his heart settle as Grandpa took the turn.
As they pulled into Vic’s Ice Cream Palace, a little white brick building nestled in the shade of a hundred year old walnut tree, a tall man in a cowboy hat who was eating an ice cream cone and talking to two bobbysoxers, waved and started over.
“That’s Harold,” said Grandpa, “He’s my new boss--one of the best guitar players I ever heard.”
Harold, a big smile on his long, thin face, leaned against the truck. “Hey, Virge, this your grandson?”
“That’s right. This here’s Ardell, My daughter Bonnie’s boy.”
Harold shook Ardell’s hand. “You a ball player, Ardell?”
“He sure is. You ought to see him pitch,,” said Grandpa, “He’s a lefty”
“Well, that’s all right,” said Harold, “The Babe was a lefty. What you think about your grandpa bein’ on the radio?”
“It’s great,” said Ardell. “Will I be able to hear him in St. Louis.”
“You sure will,” said Harold as he reached in his pants pocket and pulled out some change. Why don’t you go on and get you some ice cream while I talk business with your Grandpa.” When Grandpa started to protest, Harold cut him off. “No, now this is on me.”
Ardell took the money and went into Vic’s ice cream parlor where Vic’s daughter Melba was scooping vanilla ice cream out of a big tub behind the counter. She smiled at him, revealing three gold teeth. Ardell heard girls giggling and looked over in the corner and saw Wanda Gates and two other girls at a table sipping sodas. He waved to her, and she nodded coldly, like she didn’t want to let on that she knew him. She had grown since the previous summer, filled out quite a bit in front. As he turned back to get his ice cream, he heard one of the girls say, “Who is that?” and Wanda reply, “Just some little friend of my brothers.”
Ardell ordered a chocolate ice cream cone and when he took it outside he saw that Harold was back talking to the bobby soxers and Grandpa was sitting in his truck, his head bowed, almost like he was saying grace. Ardell hesitated, watching him, seeing how old he looked, the sun beating in on him. He’s giving thanks for being in a real band and not having to work in the shoe factory anymore, thought Ardell. As they drove along the gravel road, they saw a group of colored men, women, and children picking cotton.
One little boy, hauling a sack on his back that was almost bigger than he was, waved at the truck as it passed. Grandpa waved back. “I used to pick cotton for a nickel a day,” he said “That’s mighty hard work. Yes sir, mighty hard work.”
The supper of squirrel and dumplings was one of the best Ardell had ever eaten. Grandma could cook like nobody’s business. She was part Cherokee, and though she denied it, her high cheekbones gave her away. “Injun’s almost as bad as nigger,” she’d say. Her hair was still mostly black, and she had a scar that divided her left eyebrow where she had fallen off a horse as a little girl. She always had a look in her eye like she knew more than she was ever going to tell. She watched with curiosity as Grandpa and Ardell devoured her food, eating only a few bites herself. When Grandpa had finished his blackberry cobbler, he scooted back from the table and said, “That was mighty good, Grandma. Mighty good.” Then he slapped his knee, which was an invitation for Ardell to sit on it, and even though Ardell thought he was getting too big, he still wanted to do it.
Grandpa hugged him and said, “What do you want to do tomorrow? You want to go fishing out at Pinckney’s lake, or you want to go dig around them mounds over in Matthew?
“I wanna do both,” said Ardell and Grandpa laughed and rubbed his stubbled chin against Ardell’s cheek.
Grandma started clearing the table. “You boys done found all the Injun garbage there ever was,” she said “Why don’t you leave them poor blackheads rest in peace.”
While Ardell was helping wash the dishes, and Grandpa was having his coffee and cigarette, Grandma said, “Oh Ardell, Sam Gates was asking about you. I told him you’d go over there after supper.” And then she warned Grandpa. “And Harold was calling for you.”
Grandpas smile faded. “I already seen him”
As the sun set, casting a burnt orange glow over the white ranch houses and silent streets, Ardell walked to Sam’s place and found him at his back yard ash pit shooting tin cans with a bb gun. “I just shot that weenie Mussolini.” Sam’s voice was deeper and he had grown at least two inches. Ardell felt like a little kid next to him. Wanda soon came out the back door in a nice pink summer dress and sat on the porch steps, and asked, “What are you boys up to?”
Ardell made a point of ignoring her, but Sam answered, “Me and Ardell’s going to the dump to shoot us some Jap and Nazi rats.”
Then he winked to Ardell “You wanna come, too?”
Wanda tossed back her long red hair. “That sounds awfully nice, but I have a date with Jeff. He’s goin’ into the Navy, you know.”
“Aww, who cares about the navy?” said Sam. “The Marines are the ones that do all the real fightin’.”
Ardell took the bb gun from Sam and aimed at a Van Camps Pork and Bean can sitting on the edge of the bricks. “That’s what I’m gonna join—the Marines.” He pulled the trigger and the can rattled to the ground.
Wanda smiled, and said, “The war will probably be over by then, and I’ll be an old married lady.” She got up and stretched, making sure Ardell could see what he was missing ,then spun around to walk back in the house. She called over her shoulder, “Daddy called from Little Rock and said you have to stay in the house tonight.” Then she went in, and Ardell had to face the heart-breaking fact that he would not be kissing
her this summer—or most likely ever again.
“Why do I gotta stay in for Pete’s sake?” Sam asked himself, then snapped his fingers. “I know. It’s cause of that nigger.”
“The one they got down at the jailhouse. Tonight must be the night they’re gonna get him.”
“What did he do?” asked Ardell.
“He stabbed this lady and when the went to arrest him, he stabbed one of the cops too.”
“So the—“ Ardell had started to say “nigger” but then he remembered how much his mother hated the word,. “So he killed two white people?”
“Nah, the cop just got stabbed in the mouth, and the lady hardly bled at all. But that don’t make no difference. The lady’s husband’s over fightin’ the Japs, for Pete’s sake. They’re gonna lynch that nigger good.”
“Everybody! All the men in town --except my dad, he’s travelin’ for his company—and maybe the preachers.”
“My grandpa ain’t gonna be there,” said Ardell, the muscles in his neck tightening.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Some of those men he plays music with are kin to that lady that got stabbed.”
Ardell knew that Sam was wrong. Grandpa was good as gold, that’s what Ardell’s mother always said. He never said anything bad about coloreds; it was only Grandma who did that. When Aredell returned, she was sitting in her rocker darning socks. He heard a slow sad song being played on the fiddle coming from somewhere in the house, and when he walked by Grandpa’s bedroom, he saw the old man sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes closed, his chin tight against the end of the fiddle, his hand moving the bow slowly across strings. Ardell remembered how he once overheard Grandma and his mother talking. Grandma was making his mother laugh by telling her about their honeymoon, and how Grandpa wouldn’t get into bed but just sat on the edge of it playing his fiddle until finally Grandma gave up and went to sleep.
Ardell drank a glass of milk then went downstairs to his bedroom. The moonlight poured through his window and lit up the wall next to his bed upon which hung a picture of Jesus standing in the clouds, his arms outstretched, welcoming a parade of American soldiers into heaven. It comforted Ardell to know that his father was with Jesus. When Ardell was almost asleep, he heard the phone ring upstairs. He waited and listened as it rang over and over again, seeming to grow more and more urgent, until finally it was answered and its satisfied echo hung in the air. After a while there was movement upstairs-- doors opening and closing. Ardell covered his head with his pillow so that he could hear nothing and finally he fell asleep.
In the morning he woke up to the smell of coffee and sizzling bacon and though he was very hungry, he dressed slowly before climbing the stairs to the kitchen.
Grandma was at the stove, using a fork to turn over the bacon in the skillet. “I was just about ready to call you.”
Ardell rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock. It was almost nine. “Where’s Grandpa?” he asked.
“He’s feeling poorly this morning. He said he was sorry, and he’d take you fishing tomorrow.” She went to the icebox and brought out a bottle of milk, poured a glass and set it in front of Ardell. When the bacon
was done, Grandma put it on a towel to soak up the grease. Then she broke two eggs into the skillet. They hissed and popped. When they were done she brought them and the bacon to the table, then stood looking out the screen door that faced the street. When she turned and saw Ardell picking at his food, she said, “What’s wrong boy, you sick too?”
Ardell hung around the house pitching horseshoes in the back yard and helping Grandma weed the garden until he could stand it no longer. He went down to the basement, opened the closet and pulled down the black book. He sat on the sofa and riffled through it, past the old familiar clippings, many of them yellow with age, until he came to the last page. There was a new clipping. Ardell could smell the glue. What immediately caught his eye was an object in the photograph. At first it appeared to be an old log lying in the middle of the street with one branch sticking up. It was only after reading the caption under the photo that the object began to take the shape of a man, burnt and twisted, one arm reaching out for help that would never come. The man had been wrenched from his cell, shot, dragged from the back of a car, doused with kerosene, then set on fire. At least four hundred people had participated. The police had up a token resistance, then stood aside. Ardell closed the book and put it back on the shelf.
Years later when Ardell, then a grown man, stood over his grandfather’s coffin and looked down upon the peaceful, kindly face and the thin, gray, slicked back hair, he wished he had taken the fat man’s advice that summer day and turned back. He remembered hearing how the morning after the lynching, hundreds of coloreds had taken off down the railroad tracks leading out of Sikeston--women carrying babies, old men with canes, young men and boys carrying heavy bundles. Grandpa had played with the Missouri Ramblers for a few years, never quite making a living at it, until they quietly dissolved. They had made one record. Grandpa was listening to it when he died.
Grandma followed him in death a year later. By that time, Ardell had found a woman he loved enough to marry and Grandma had taught her how to make his favorite dishes. He was happy with his wife, but there were times when she would smile at him and he would look into her eyes and see the darkness behind them.
Steven Douglas Lavender has been published online in Word Riot and The Dead Mule School. He is currently in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. He was born in St. Louis and has lived in Des Moines, Denver, Wichita, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.
Copyright 2005, Steven Douglas Lavender. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.