1. Henry Sands
Most folks passing through Pyrite stop and fill up at my gas station, which happens to be a Texaco, because it’s the only one here, and a long way to the next one in Kingman. I scrape the bugs off their windshield and wash it, they use the washroom, then have a soda to wash the dust down, complainin’ about the heat, always wantin’ to know how people wind up in a hellhole like this.
My wife Mabel wonders the same thing. She don’t like it here much, but I tell her what I tell them, which is a man’s got to make a livin’. After the money boys ran the stock market into the ground a few years back and threw the U.S. into a depression, I was let go from the Ford dealer in Flagstaff and we didn’t have no choice but to move on before winter set in, while I still had a few dollars left in my pocket. With all them Okies headin’ out Route 66 to California thinkin’ they’d make a livin’ pickin’ fruit, I figured a gas station would be a good bet, ‘cept I didn’t have enough money to buy one. So I stopped at damn near ever’ one from Winslow to here, askin’ if they needed a good mechanic. Old man Crocker run this one back then, and took me on because his eyes was failin’. He was tough old bird, looked like he was made of bailing wire and beef jerky, but the years wear you down.
About two years ago old man Crocker finally gave up and went to live with his daughter in El Centro and I worked it out with the bank to take over. By then the Okies had pretty much quit comin’, and the two other stations had folded up. I managed to hang on because people were nursin’ their cars instead of buyin’ new and I do good mechanic work at a fair price. Been doin’ all right but we ain’t gettin’ rich, sure as hell not rich enough to move where Mabel would like, say L.A., maybe, where her sisters live. At least the boys don’t complain, but they’re young enough that it don’t matter to them as long as they got dirt to play in, and there’s plenty o’ that here.
Nothin’ changed much the first few years we was here, ‘cept the town got smaller. Then about a year and a half ago the new school teacher, a fella name of John Seekin, showed up with his Negro wife and two kids, both nearly grown. He was a good-sized fella, but soft in the middle and in the way he spoke. The boy, Marshall, was the oldest, nineteen or twenty. He was a big, dark, strappin’ boy with a man-size chip on his shoulder, but polite enough to folks that treated him all right. The girl, Isabel, was a little thing, light in color like there was a white man somewhere back in the family line. She was pretty like her mama and had a figure that turned men’s heads. They both went by a different last name, Jefferson, I believe, so it stood to reason they weren’t his kids.
You could tell that the folks that called themselves the city council, which always made me laugh ‘cause this ain’t a city by any stretch, wasn’t none too pleased about their end of the deal when they saw his family in tow, but they like to never got someone to take the teachin’ job, so they couldn’t say much if they wanted a teacher. Seems no one else was desperate enough for money, so they pretty much kept their mouths shut around him and let the man do his job. He seemed pretty damned good at it from what I could tell. My boys liked him all right and seemed to be learning more than I ever did in school.
I personally never had anything against the Negroes, and neither did my daddy. He’d hired more than one colored cowboy back before the Great War when he thought he was gonna make a fortune on beef for the troops. He lost his shirt when the war ended a bit too soon, but he always said those colored boys earned their pay and didn’t complain about the chow. I wasn’t but about eleven or twelve then and pretty good on a horse, but I can tell you they taught me a thing or two about cowboyin’. Not that it done me much good after the old man’s cattle operation folded up and he took to truck farmin’. I couldn’t abide farmin’.
Pyrite ain’t much to look at, just a wide spot in a long road. It sits near the center of a shallow valley about fifty miles wide. The sawtooth mountains around it few damn near bare except for mesquite, ocotillo and greasewood, with a varieties of cactus and spring flowers thrown in. Ain’t nothin’ worth money will grow here because there’s barely enough water to drink, let alone water crops. The wind blows near constant, and ever once in a while it kicks up a sandstorm that’ll seize up an engine in a minute if you don’t have the sense to turn it off and wait it out. Even on a good day, dust blows in through ever crack in ever wall and your teeth feel gritty if you ain’t had a drink in less’n thirty seconds or so.
I reckon for the Okies it didn’t seem much different than where they come from, so if they didn’t have the money for gas to move on, they just squatted. Same for the coloreds. Some homesteaded and built shacks on their land with scrap lumber and corrugated sheet metal for a roof. Even if they found work at the bauxite mine up the east side of the valley or one of the businesses along 66, most of the Okies and coloreds moved on after a year or two, leavin’ their shacks to fall apart. There ain’t many places that get any hotter in the summer, and in the winter the wind makes thirty degrees seem a lot colder. I guess they figure there has to be somethin’ better down that road. Me, I’m stayin’ put ‘til I can see better times ahead.
The best houses in town are cinderblock or plaster over chicken wire and tarpaper, built mostly by whites that’d come here to open a diner or a bar or a general store. Some of the fanciest have a swamp cooler on the roof that keeps the heat down to a tolerable level. We finally got one of those, an’ now Mabel complains less about the heat. Anyway, no one would rent a decent place to the Seekin family, and they had to live out of a tent for a few weeks. So did we when we come here, ‘fore I could save a few bucks to rent a place. Finally they bought a broke-down little tarpaper house not too far off the highway, over where most of the coloreds had settled, and began fixin’ it up. Did a nice job on it, too, and before too long had the tarpaper covered with shingles painted white, cleared a driveway, and lined it with white rocks so’s you could see your way in after dark. Nina, the wife, put in a little garden she watered faithfully until they had fresh vegetables and flowers. I had to admire her for that.
I ‘member one mornin’ a few months after they first got to town, I was fixin’ a flat on an old Buick from Ohio, I think it was. I could smell bacon and eggs cookin’ at the Roadrunner Café and was thinkin’ about walkin’ over there for a bite to eat at a table where I could watch the station. Just then John Seekin come in to gas up his car, a Model A sedan with New York plates, and asked for ten gallons of gas. He’s a tall fellow, always dapper, wearin’ a clean white shirt and necktie, no matter how hot it is, with slacks and a snap-brim hat.
He was polite, askin’ how I was doin’ and all, but his heart wasn’t in it. Like I said, everyone in town got their gas at my place, and when they did, chewed the fat a while, so I knew from what I’d heard that he wasn’t makin’ any friends. I thought makin’ him feel a bit more welcome was the right thing to do, maybe cheer him up a little.
“You got your little place fixed up nice,” I said while I was pumping the gas.
He looked over his shoulder and said thanks without much enthusiasm, so I tried something else.
“Had the oil changed since you left New York?”
“I guess not.”
“With all the dust hereabouts, that’ll kill an engine fast.”
“You’re right. I know. Just had other things on my mind.”
“Well, I’m here all day every day ‘cept Sunday, and it won’t take twenty minutes, so when you’re ready, just bring ‘er in.” He didn’t answer back, so I said, “Folks don’t listen when you tell them somethin’ for their own good, but I tell ‘em anyway.
He kind of chuckled then, and said, “I don’t suppose there’s a whole lot of choice unless I want to drive fifty miles to the next station.”
I hung up the gas hose and started cleaning his windshield. “I reckon not. All the same though, I use Quaker State and I do good work. Used t’ be a mechanic at the Ford dealer up in Flagstaff, so I could overhaul your engine blindfolded, but I work on anything that burns gas or diesel. Name’s Henry Sands. Call me Hank.” I stuck my hand through the window to shake, and that seemed to warm him up some. Then I finished up the windshield.
“John Seekin. Glad to make your acquaintance, Hank. Do you have kids?”
“Two boys, one in first and one in second grade.”
“I’ll be sure to remember them when school starts again next week.”
“Well, they’ve got the devil in ‘em, but they’ll mind you or I’ll see they do.”
I cranked the engine for him while he adjusted the spark, like I do for all my customers. He smiled and says, “I’m sure they’re fine boys.”
“They got good hearts. Welcome to Pyrite, Mr. Seekin.”
“Call me John,” he said, and pulled away. Seemed like a nice enough fella, and we got along fine. I rolled up some Bull Durham, lit my smoke, and walked on over to the café.
2. John Seekin
Hank seems like a nice enough fellow. Ropy, his cheeks gaunt and clean-shaven with a sun-blasted complexion, dressed all in brown khaki work clothes topped by a grey Stetsson, he looks as indigenous to the desert as a cactus. I’d probably been a little cool to him in the past, but you get thick-skinned after you put up with so much prejudice, and you’re afraid people are only being nice in hopes you’ll buy something or give them some fodder for their damnable gossip. Sometimes I forget there are people who judge others only by their character.
I’ve got other things to worry about than making friends anyway. This job teaching at a two-room schoolhouse was the bottom of the barrel and barely pays enough for us to survive, but I’d burned my bridges the moment I married a woman of color. The school board gave lip service to tolerance, but when it came down to who had to go when revenue dried up, I was the one who had crossed an invisible line and embarrassed them in front of the taxpayers. After they failed to renew my contract, I must have sent resumes to every school district in the country, but no one had enough money to even keep the teachers they had. I only found this job by going through the help-wanted ads of every major newspaper in the U.S. So goodbye New York City, hello hell.
I should have had sense enough not to marry Nina in in the first place, at least not right away. But her chin-up dignity, her strong character, and the looks of a Nubian queen were irresistible. If there’d been just us, love would have been enough. But Isabel and Marshall had lifelong friends in New York City, and something of a future. Marshall had just graduated and Isabel had two years to go when we got married. We could have waited and let her finish high school and given Marshall time to find a job before we got married, or with luck, find a gallery to represent him while he kept up his painting. Isabel wanted to teach grade school, and the two of them might have been able to stay and help each other out. But no, we had to live our lives our own way, and by doing so took away all of the options they might have had. I feel rotten about that.
Marshall has genuine talent as a painter. His paintings of the streets of New York City are full of life, but there’s a dark corner in every painting that exposes a facet of its culture the city fathers would sooner forget. Here in Pyrite he’s yet to find his muse. He’s built like and even looks like Jack Johnson, the great heavyweight fighter, but has the sensibilities of a real artist and perception far beyond his years. Now here he is languishing in this Godforsaken desert, hundreds of miles from anyone to appreciate and perhaps cultivate his talent. No wonder he is bitter and holds Nina and me responsible, although he loves her very much. He grudgingly tolerates me. If not for his protectiveness of Isabel, he would have stayed in New York and made the best of it.
Isabel is neither as complex nor as haunted as her brother. Her sunny optimism seems unstoppable; she takes every day as a new world, full of possibilities. She seems to dance through life, unaware of her own considerable beauty, finding good in everything and trying to tease Marshall out of his thickening shell. After their father died in a construction accident, Nina tells me, they quickly became very close. He became her rock, and she his confidante. He would die for her. I hope to God their closeness goes no farther.
Poor Nina hates this brutal heat, but the dust is worse. She loves a house that’s spic and span, but she dusts one day and the next day there’s a fine powder over everything, winter or summer. There’s no relief from it. Maybe even worse is that there’s no escape from the sameness of the days. We only see a movie once in a while on a school break when we can afford to take the kids to Kingman for an evening away, if you can call it that. There’s good Mexican food there, but if you want Italian or Chinese or even a fresh bagel, all you can do is dream about it. Thank goodness Nina is a good cook. And music? Forget it, unless you like the amateur bluegrass band at the Lion’s Club on Saturday nights.
3. Nina Seekin
Of my two children, Marshall worries me most. Maybe I should say I fear for him. Things bounce off Isabel that eat away at Marshall, and I don’t seem to be able to help. He hates it here because it’s not New York City, and because people call him “nigger” behind his back. He’ll turn around and call them “cracker,” and the next thing you know they’re ready to go at it. If Isabel wasn’t nearly always there to make him walk away and cheer him up, I don’t know what he’d do. I suppose he’d pack his things and go back to New York City, even if he had to “ride the blinds,” like the hoboes. But he’d never leave her here. He sees himself as her protector since Roy died, not realizing she’d do fine almost any place. She just has that knack of getting you to smile. And Lord knows we need reasons to smile these days.
Marshall worshipped his father, always looking to please him. Roy was a good man, but he didn’t understand his own son. He looked like the son Roy wanted, all big and burly like him, but Marshall has always lived in his head, always seeing what others can’t or don’t see and wanting to make pictures of it. He can’t help it. He played sports so his father could come out and cheer for him, but he didn’t have the drive it takes to be really good. Instead he was always anxious to get someone’s expression down on paper or capture the light under the shadow of an awning. And Roy just didn’t know how to appreciate that part of his son. To tell the truth, he wasn’t too good at appreciating anyone.
A couple of years after Roy died, I fell in love with John, so sweet and respectful and handsome, and I started seeing through rose-colored glasses. I thought John, being an educated man, a man who understands about art and the like, might be able to draw Marshall out some, but Marshall wasn’t having any of it. He was already too bitter over the loss of his father, and the fact that John was white didn’t help.
John and I thought the world was changing and that it would accept us, or at least leave us alone. He taught at the same school for colored children where my kids went, and they liked him pretty well. Isabel still does. We knew many of the children and their parents, so we didn’t expect them to be against our marriage. Of course, the parents weren’t the problem at all. It was the school board that thought we were setting a bad example. When you’re in love, you think everyone else sees the world as a wonderful place like you do, but they’re just carrying on in their same old way, probably bitter that they don’t have what you have. The reasons don’t matter. What we did wasn’t right for the children, but now we can’t take it back, and here we all are, thousands of miles from the place where we belong.
To make matters worse, the heat and the dust take a toll on my energy all summer long, and the winter is almost as bad, what with the wind howling and pushing dust through every crack and your lips and skin all dried out and peeling. I miss my family back home. The children do too. All this space around us makes me feel so alone, soisolated. I feel like giving up sometimes. I’ve made such a mess of things.
I wish John had my faith in God and the peace to be found in Jesus. He says the Lord helps those who help themselves, and he’s right about that, so we go on trying to make the best of this situation we got ourselves into. Bless his heart, John works like a slave trying to dig us out, but I think sometimes it’s better to just accept what you can’t change and take strength in the Lord.
4. Marshall Jefferson
Isabel thinks I’m bitter and angry at Momma and John for thinking only of themselves when they just had to get married. Well, she’s right. Momma had no business marrying John, and I told her so the day they set the date. “Sweetheart,” she said, with that patient smile she has, “I love John dearly. How’s prejudice ever going to end if people, whatever their color, aren’t willing to do what they know in their heart is right, even if others don’t like it?”
“You think I don’t like him because he’s white?” I asked. “Momma, he doesn’t fit, that’s all.”
She smiled sadly at me. “You mean, he’s not your father.”
“No! I don’t mean that,” I said, “All right. Maybe partly that. He’s just so…straight-laced. He calls Scott Joplin a dilettante, and he thinks the blues is primitive.”
She smiled that smile again. “I’m not sure I disagree about the blues. Anyway he was raised on the classics. The point is, I need someone, and John is a fine man with a good heart.”
“And you’re going to marry him even if your family is against it, Momma?”
She looked at me like she was pitying me. “Honey, you know Isabel thinks the world of John. It’s you who doesn’t like John.”
“I like him okay, Momma,” I said, “but it’s the rest of the family I’m talking about. I’ve heard your sister asking if you’re sure you know what you’re doing, and Uncle Leo just leaves the room when the subject comes up.”
“Honey,” she said, “My sister just wants me to be happy. As for Leo, he’s just showing his own prejudice. It’s not fair of him to lump John in with every white man who ever came looking for a colored woman for the wrong reasons. John is a good man, and my family, including Leo, will one day accept him for that.”
I said, “Momma, we’ve got a good home and a good family. Why do we need him?”
“Maybe you don’t. Isabel doesn’t either, really. He’s not to replace your father. I need him, and I love him. Besides that, your daddy didn’t leave us much, and it’s not easy making ends meet. You and Isabel will be gone soon, and I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life a lonely old lady knitting baby clothes to make some kind of living. You can tolerate the situation for a few years. Would you do that for me? Because if you can’t, that’s something we need to get straightened out now, not later. Can you do it?”
I thought of Isabel without me around to keep her out of trouble, and knew I would. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud, so I just looked at the floor and nodded.
That was pretty much her last word on the subject. I’m still trying, but he’ll always be a stranger to me.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d been able to stay in New York City, where we had lots of good friends and a big family, and a neighborhood where people would smile and wave when they saw us because they’d known us for years. Even if they’d never gotten used to John, they’d still have treated us well. John had his own house where they could have been together, at least until Isabel and I had left home. But Momma and John had to show the world that they could marry and live together like anyone else, and that had to do it now. Once that was done, there was no going back. And with Isabel still in school, I couldn’t just walk away and wash my hands of it after John lost his job and took the job in this blast furnace.
People around Pyrite are barely civil to us. The white people act like they’re doing me a favor by paying me in nickels and dimes for lugging rocks to build a fireplace or putting up a fence to keep their goats in or building a chicken coop or whatever other menial job they don’t want to do, with the sun cooking my back like a slice of beef. If there was better work around I wouldn’t get it. And the way these crackers look at Isabel and make some crude comment under their breath makes me want to bust their heads wide open. One day I will if they’re not careful.
What I hate most about living out here is that people seem to be walking around dead, just waiting to be buried. A man with a brain has nothing to stimulate it. No museums, no libraries, nothing but hillbilly music, and no one thinks beyond the daily grind. I doubt anyone within two hundred miles could even tell you what country Paris is in.
I wish I could go there, like Palmer Hayden did, where everything exciting in literature and art is happening. Where would he be if he’d been stuck out here? Maybe when Isabel turns eighteen I’ll find a way to get us there, or at least back to Harlem. Life is all around you there, people coming and going, doing their jobs, having loud discussions in restaurants, playing chess in the parks. The city is alive twenty-four hours a day. It teems with life. It practically begs you to join in and be a part of it, and for me, to capture moments in its life forever. There are art galleries there, even a couple that encouraged me to keep bringing them new work. One even compared me to Aaron Douglas.
In the meantime, I’m trying to adjust my thinking and find subjects in the few people of color who still live here, but they treat me like one of the white men who have oppressed them all their lives. They’re poorly educated if at all, and they’re suspicious of the way I talk and act. I don’t blame them. They’ve probably never known a black man who doesn’t say “Yassuh.” They all make excuses when I ask to sketch them at work or at leisure.
I’ve found one young white girl, Helen, who will sit for me, but she is childish and can’t make conversation about anything but movies and movie stars. At least she has good features. She loves the attention and is therefore willing to sit still while I sketch, though her mother hates me and I have to bring her to our home, where she marvels that some black people live just like whites. “Is it because your momma’s married to a white man?” she asks. Her naiveté is irritating, so I put her in awkward poses. She puts up with it.
The one thing I don’t hate about this valley is the landscape, with its saturated colors—deep purple, blue, red, magenta—early and late in the day, the crystal-clear air, and the ever-changing skies. It’s beautiful at times, but my paintings are not about beauty. I’ve painted Helen and Isabel and my mother into different parts of the landscape, even the manmade parts, but the paintings are lifeless. My work has lost the sense of life people saw in my city paintings, because there’s so little life here. I have nothing to say about this place, because it isn’t my place. Another year here will bury whatever career I might have had. I must get out.
5. Isabel Jefferson
Marshall tries too hard to protect me, like I was still 10 years old and might take candy from a stranger if he wasn’t looking over my shoulder. All the other girls, when I was back in the city, their brothers didn’t want nothin’ to do with them, but Marshall was always there, watching over me, asking questions about my friends, telling the boys to watch out. He seems to butt into my business more as we get older, and I feel like I’m being smothered. He doesn’t seem to realize that I’m almost grown and he needs to give me some room. I’ve always been a good girl, and no one ever had any cause to worry about me getting in trouble or something. Sometimes I think he loves me too much, or like he’s my father. It doesn’t seem natural somehow. I know if it hadn’t been for me, he would have stayed in the city, where he belongs. I wish he had, because there’s nothin’ out here for him. For me either, I guess, but a girl can get by until she finds a good man.
And John, he doesn’t make enough money to take care of us like he wants to, and he thinks he’s failing us, but at least Momma and me understand he tries hard. He’s a decent man, and he loves my mother, she loves him, and he treats us good. It’s a shame Marshall has to work like a slave for a few dollars to help out. I don’t resent John for it like Marshall does. Momma worries about us all so much, and I feel so bad for her. I know if I found a way to leave here, it would be so much easier on her and John, because Marshall would go on back to New York if he didn’t feel like he had to watch over me, and then there’d be just the two of them to live on John’s salary.
I’m smart enough, but I never made real good grades like Marshall. Even if I did, it wouldn’t help any. There’s no jobs for white girls, much less a colored girl. I don’t see what else I can do but try and get somewhere where I can find a good man and make my own life. Maybe go to Los Angeles and wait tables until I find something better. They’re using more coloreds in the movies all the time, and folks tell me I’m pretty, so why not see can I get a part, even if it’s small? Everyone starts somewhere. I’m saving what little money I make cooking and washing dishes at the Roadrunner Café. It’s adding up while I keep my eyes and ears open for the first chance to leave here. When it comes, I’ll take it and then we’ll all be free.
That time can’t come too soon. I think Marshall using Helen to model for him, even if it’s as innocent as he says it is, is playing with fire. A white man with a black woman is one thing, but a black man with a white woman is another thing entirely. This may not be Alabama, but it’s not New York City either. I know that look she has, like Marshall is some kind of god sent to save her from the kind of life her momma has. I can tell her head is full of dreams about their future together, and who knows what she tells people. He thinks I’m exaggerating. He says he isn’t doing anything wrong, she’s over eighteen, and if folks don’t like it they can go to hell. His stubbornness will get him in trouble. Best for him to just be somewhere else, and I’m the one holding him here.
Dear Diary: Lately I been thinkin’ a lot about Marshall, since he and I’ve been keepin’ company. He says it ain’t like that, but I know better, and he’s just shy. Momma don’t like him and says it just ain’t proper for a white woman to be with a black man, but I can’t see why. All the ones that ever came through here seemed like nice, polite folks. He always talks proper to me, which is more than I can say for the white boys in this town, if you can call it that. They make jokes about my red hair, like, does the carpet match the drapes, and say I’m skinny as a chicken, but Marshall says nice things, how I’ve got good bone structure and the color of my hair in the evening sun shames his palette, I think he calls it. That’s how I know he likes me too.
Momma says if Daddy was still alive, he’d run that boy off. I said I don’t mean no disrespect, but I’d like to see him try. Marshall won’t take lip off anybody. A few days ago, one of the railroad crew was just leavin’ the store and came out the door with me when I was lockin’ up. When he saw Marshall waitin’ for me out front in his daddy’s car, he said somethin’ mean, like “Why don’t you go on back to niggertown,” and Marshall got out of his car and said “Why don’t you try and make me?” That roustabout he looked Marshall up and down and said, “You ain’t worth it, boy,” but he walked away and I knew he was scared to try.
Momma says people will get the wrong idea. They can have their dirty minds if they want, but Marshall has always been a perfect gentleman to me. He tells me about New York City and how there’s always a good movie show to go to or why he likes to make pictures while I sit for him, and he ain’t never asked me to take off any of my clothes. When he’s done, he walks me home or takes me for a ride if he can get his daddy’s car. We don’t have a car any more, and I have to walk to get to where I need to be, so it’s always fun to take a ride. He talks about takin’ his sister and leavin’ Pyrite when she turns eighteen, and he says I can go with them if I want but I have to pay my own way. I don’t mind if I do. Isabel is nice, and I want to stay with Marshall. Some day he’ll see that he was meant for me and me for him, like in It Happened One Night when Clark Gable finally realizes Claudette Colbert is the one for him.
7. Nina Seekin
I was ironing John’s shirts in the living room and Marshall was in his room getting frustrated, trying to coax a drawing out of a big piece of paper, when I saw the sheriff’s car pull into our driveway. That scared the daylights out of me. I put down the iron and went and opened the door, watching the car pull up, not even noticing if the flies got in. It stopped about thirty feet away and a big man with a red face got out, putting on a felt cowboy hat. He walked like he thought he was important, chewing a toothpick, with his night stick bumping the leg of his khaki uniform every step. I know how white men like him expect black folks to act.
When he got close enough to hear, I said, “Is it Isabel, officer? Is she all right?”
He stopped about five feet away, as if I had some disease like malaria he didn’t want to catch. He hooked his thumbs in his pistol belt. His knuckles were raw, like he’d been fighting.
“I don’t know nothin’ about Isabel. I’m here to see Marshall.”
“About what? Has he done something?”
“That’s between us. Is he here or not?”
I thought of saying he wasn’t home because I didn’t like his look, but lying has a way of making things worse, so I said “I’ll get him,” and went back inside. As I’d expected, Marshall was defiant right off the bat.
“What’s he want?”
“He won’t say.”
He put down his pencils. “Stupid redneck, anyway.” I followed him to the door. He stepped into the opening and said, “You want to talk to me?”
The deputy had moved farther away. “Step out here where I can talk to you, boy.”
“Why can’t you say it front of her?”
“I don’t think you’d want me to say it in front of her. Now step out here like I asked you to, and we’ll get along.” He had his hand on a big revolver.
I could see Marshall’s temper rising. “Swallow your pride, son,” I said in as low a voice as I could, “and be polite. He has a gun and a badge. Now go easy.” He gave me an irritated look, but he went.
The deputy, if that’s what he was, turned and walked over behind his car. Marshall looked over his shoulder at me and then followed him. The deputy put his boot up on the back bumper and started talking in a low voice. I couldn’t make out what he said. I could see Marshall trying to interrupt a couple of times, and getting cut off. The third time Marshall interrupted, the deputy stuck his finger into Marshall’s chest, and was raising his voice, saying “Look here, boy,” when Marshall said loud enough for me to hear, “Don’t put your hands on me.”
The deputy’s foot dropped off the bumper and raised a little cloud of dust on the ground. “I’ll do what I goddamn please boy!” He wrapped his hand around his nightstick.
“You’ve got no right to tell me…” Marshall was saying.
Right about that time they both heard John’s car crunching on the gravel as he turned off the road into our driveway, and they looked in that direction. To my relief, the deputy relaxed a little as he watched John drive up and park alongside his car. John got out and walked around the front of his car toward them. “Is there some kind of trouble?” he asked them.
“Not yet,” the deputy said, “but there will be if I can’t talk some sense into this boy.”
They all dropped their voices again after John got up close to them. There was some finger-pointing by the deputy, and John raising his hands in a conciliatory manner, while Marshall squirmed around and made it known he wasn’t happy with the discussion. But finally the deputy seemed satisfied. He and John shook hands, then the deputy gave Marshall a stern look, got in his car and backed out. Marshall picked up a rock and threw it across the road behind the deputy’s car. I hoped the deputy didn’t see it. John walked into the house while Marshall walked off into the desert, cursing under his breath.
“What was that all about, John?” I asked him.
He took off his hat and his jacket. “Nothing you need to be concerned about, sweetheart. Are the kids eating dinner at home?”
“That’s it?” I asked. “A deputy sheriff pays Marshall a visit and it’s nothing I need to be concerned about?”
“It’s all settled, Nina. Let’s not blow it out of proportion. Boys will be boys, that’s all. No need to go into it.”
And that’s all I could get out of him. He went into the bedroom and I stood there watching Marshall for a moment. The eerie silence I can never get used to had returned to the desert, broken only by the sound of the wind. I watched a sheet of newspaper blowing along just above the ground until it got caught in the branches of a greasewood bush. The ends of the branches looked like claws. The paper fluttered like a butterfly trying to escape a spider’s web. I closed the door.
8. Henry Sands
It was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, if we had a sidewalk. I was in the shade of the mechanic bay, where it was a little cooler, smoking a Camel and drinkin’ a Nehi orange laced with a little vodka, when I seen the grass-green De Soto 6 convertible with California plates and yellow spoke wheels, a ’33 I believe it was, blowing steam from under the radiator cap as it come out of the east into town. He must have spied the Texaco sign at the last second, because he made a sudden left and pulled right up to the door of the mechanic bay and shut it off. The top was down, so I could see right off that he was what some folks call a High Yella, with a big salesman’s grin and dressed in a light blue shirt with the armpits soaked a dark blue, and white pants. He waved at me and got out. He wasn’t real tall, but thick, with a hard belly. He come right up to where I was standin’.
“My name’s Edison,” he says, and sticks out his hand. First time a Negro ever offered his hand to me for a shake. I had to switch my drink to my other hand to shake his. I noticed he didn’t have that deep-south accent most coloreds do. He sounded more like Seekin’s wife and her kids. His hair was marcelled and his alligator shoes looked new. I’d put him at about twenty-four years old, a decent-lookin’ young fella.
“Call me Hank.” I nodded at the De Soto. “Nice car, but it looks like you’re overheatin’ a mite.”
He looked at it and squinted. “Can you fix that?”
I ain’t one to make idle promises. “Dunno. Depends on why. I didn’t hear nothin’ knockin’ when you drove up, and it didn’t diesel when you shut it off, so I imagine the engine’s still okay. How long it been steamin’?”
“Five or ten miles maybe. Lucky I wasn’t farther.”
“Let’s take a look. Mebbe you just threw a fan belt.”
“I’d appreciate it, sir.”
“We’ll get her figgered out.” I finished my Nehi and put the bottle in the rack, walked over to the car, pulled up one side of the hood, and folded it vertical so it stayed put. There was steam hissing out from under the radiator cap. Edison followed and looked over my shoulder. Then he pointed at the radiator cap, which sported a chrome greyhound dog.
“Should I add some water?”
“I wouldn’t touch that radiator cap for a while ‘less you want it blowin’ boilin’ water from here to Sunday. This thing’s hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Why don’t you open the other side of the hood and give’er some air?”
He did that while I looked around. The fan belt was good, the radiator hoses looked good top and bottom, and so did the radiator core. I couldn’t see any water dripping from under the engine block, so I was pretty sure none of the soft plugs had rusted or blown out. The oil was clean and no water in it. That left the water pump as the culprit.
“Unless I miss my guess by a long shot, I’d say your water pump froze up. I ain’t got one, and the nearest place that might is a good fifty miles west. I can call ‘em, but even if they have it, it’s too late to get it today and they’ll have to drive it out from Kingman. That’s gonna cost you at least ten bucks plus five for labor. Have you got enough?”
He smiled like he wasn’t worried about it. “As long as it isn’t worse than that, I guess.”
“Well, it’ll take a while to cool off enough to where I can check and make sure that’s it. Meanwhile I’ll see if I can get the pump.”
I suggested he walk over to the Roadrunner Café and get a bite to eat to kill some time. He did. I called my parts store in Kingman and asked Benny if he had one. He said the pump would have to come out of Los Angeles and might take two days to get there. The train don’t stop here, so his boy would have to deliver it to me. I told Benny that before I ordered it, I’d have to make sure the pump was the problem, and I’d call back. Then I went and fixed a flat tire, finished putting a rebuild kit in a carburetor, and took care of a couple of gas customers.
By then the De Soto’s engine had cooled down enough that adding water wouldn’t crack the engine block, so I threw an old blanket over the radiator to protect the paint if the radiator turned into a gusher, slipped my hand under it, and slowly unscrewed the cap to let off the pressure gradually. Then I took off the blanket, filled the radiator back up, and started the engine. I took a long stick I keep around for this sort of thing, and put one end against the pump and the other against my ear, bein’ careful to keep the stick away from the fan. Sure enough, I could hear the bearing growling in the pump and knew I’d been right, so I shut it off and called Benny back to get the pump on order.
About that time here come Edison from the Roadrunner, still smiling. I brought him up to date, and he said to go ahead and order the pump. I told him he’d need to put down a good deposit before I went ahead, and right then he pulled out a roll and handed me a twenty. He musta had a couple hundred in there. “Will that do it?” he asks, but not in an uppity way.
“I reckon that’ll do fine to pay for parts and delivery,” says I. “I’ll call and order the pump an’ a new gasket. Might as well replace the fan belt while I’m there. No extra labor charge.”
“You’re the mechanic. Do what you think it needs. Is there a hotel here?”
“There’s one at the edge of town but it’s a dump and they don’t allow coloreds anyway. Best I can offer is a cot in the mechanic bay and a blanket. No extra charge, and there’s a washroom you can use.”
“That should do just fine. I appreciate your trust, Mr….”
“Sands. But this ain’t Birmingham, so like I said, call me Hank. I’m glad to help out, but it ain’t a question of trust. I take the money home at night and you got nowhere to go anyways. Why don’t you just pull it around to the side and put the top up while I call and get your parts ordered? I’d roll up the windows too. Keeps some of the dust out. Ain’t no use pulling the old pump until they call and tell me the new pump’s in Kingman. By the time they get it delivered, I’ll be ready for it. You’ll be on the road an hour after that. Meanwhile, there’s a few National Geographics in the office there, but otherwise you’ll have to entertain yourself.”
As it turned out, he’d already met Isabel over at the café, and entertained them both by filling her head with stories about Hollywood, so he went on back there to wait for her to get off. Lucky for him that Louise and Bob, who run the café, feel the same as I do about servin’ coloreds. Money is money and people are people. Anyhow, Isabel come over to the station with him when she got off and seemed pretty impressed with what a shiny convertible he had. He was one big smile. I smelled trouble brewing, but I mind my own business. I did tell him, though, that if there was to be any foolin’ around, I didn’t want it bein’ done in my place. He seemed embarrassed and promised there wouldn’t be.
9. Marshall Jefferson
One morning before the wind came up I drove John to school and borrowed his car so I could put up a chicken-wire fence around their henhouse for one of the white families that lived west of town. After I had finished up I went to have a soda at the Roadrunner and see if Isabel wanted me to wait around and give her a ride home. Louise was always ready for gossip, and told me she’d already left with some “citified negro” from Los Angeles who’d been sniffing around her since yesterday. I tried not to show how surprised I was, because I didn’t want her thinking she knows more about my family than I do. They were on foot, she said, so I finished my soda fast and went looking for them.
I finally spotted Isabel leaning up against the back wall of the abandoned Mobil station, hands behind her back, and one foot propped against the wall with her skirt blowing up in the wind. The “citified negro” was a dandy a few inches shorter than me. He had one hand propped against the wall next to her head and the other at her waist. They were grinning at each other and neither one was paying much attention to anything else. As I pulled around and stopped, they both straightened up and wiped the grins off their faces. When I got out and she saw it was me and not John, she seemed relieved, but she shouldn’t have been.
Walking right up to them, I asked “Just what’s going on, Isabel?” Her boyfriend set his jaw but stepped back a little, like he was intimidated by my size advantage.
“Marshall!” she said, trying to be gay. “Meet Edison.” He stuck out his hand. I ignored him. “He’s from Los Angeles and his car broke down. Mr. Sands says it’ll be fixed tomorrow or the next day and then…”
I cut her off. “Is there some reason you didn’t mention him at breakfast? Or did you just meet?”
She looked toward him and said, “Well, we practically just met. I mean, he came in yesterday and we talked.”
Edison started to speak. “Look, I think you’re getting the wrong idea. We…”
I stuck my finger under his nose. “I’ll talk to you in a minute. Right now I’m talking to my sister.” I turned to her. “Isabel, get in the car and wait for me.”
Right away she got indignant. “Marshall, you have no right to tell me who I can see or what to do.”
“I have a right to protect my sister, even if she doesn’t know she needs it. If Momma was here, she would agree with me, and you know it. Now please get in the car.”
Edison spoke again. “Now, calm down. I don’t want to cause any trouble, Marshall.”
“You already have. Do you know she’s only sixteen?”
He actually seemed surprised. “I didn’t. I…”
“You’d best just get your car fixed as soon as you can, and then get on back to Los Angeles.” To Isabel I said, “Now let’s go, before this gets ugly.”
She sniffed at me and said, “It already is.” Then she said to Edison, “Excuse my brother’s manners. Maybe we can talk tomorrow,” and started walking for the car.
“Don’t count on it,” I said to him, and followed her. Now she was holding her skirt down against the wind.
10. Isabel Jefferson
I was really angry at Marshall for butting in, but it got worse. He hadn’t even turned onto the highway before he said, “Isabel, I’m very disappointed in you. Don’t you see what kind of man he is? Don’t you?”
I stared him down. “You’re such a great judge of character. You tell me. What kind of man is he, Marshall?”
“The kind of slick nigger looking for an easy girl to take advantage of while he’s away from home. For all you know, he’s got a wife and three kids.”
“That’s ridiculous. You don’t know him. You wouldn’t even talk to him.”
“I don’t need to. I have eyes.”
He kept on like that, but I looked out the window and ignored him. I just hated him for embarrassing me half to death. What right did he have to hunt me down? I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Why, back in New York City, most girls my age are engaged if they’re not already married. I’m sick of him treating me like a child.
Edison is very nice and I think his intentions are good. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a sharp-dressed, good-looking man making good money selling cars off his daddy’s lot. Marshall never gave him a chance, but just presumed the worst of him. I may only be sixteen, but I’m mature for my age and I have good sense. Momma and John both say so, and Marshall should give me more respect for that. Besides, I’m nearly seventeen.
I see now that misery truly loves company. I won’t let Marshall stand in my way. Or in his own way either. God knows whether another chance like this will ever come along. If I don’t take it, I don’t see how I’ll ever get out of here, and if I don’t get out, neither will he. He’s too blinded by his anger to see that. So when Edison leaves, I’m going with him, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Maybe tonight I’ll stop by the Texaco after Mr. Sands closes up and see if he feels like talking some more…
11. Henry Sands
We was lucky gettin’ the water pump for the De Soto. Ben called it in the same day I ordered it, and it was on the train the next morning. It got to Kingman in the afternoon and Ben had his boy run it out to me, but by then it was too late to get the job done that day so I got it put in the next morning. Edison’d asked me to fill the tank and change the oil while I was at it, and by noon the car was runnin’ like a Swiss watch, no leaks and no steam.
I knew of course that he’d been spending most of his time moonin’ around Isabel, because the two mornings after he’d slept in the shop he’d be up and gone as soon as I opened up, and there wasn’t much else to do in town. I’d told him that mornin’ that his car would be done by lunch, and sure enough, she was with him when he come for it. She held on to his arm like she was afraid he might fly away without her while he paid. The whole bill come to $37.80, and he handed me another twenty to go with the one I already had and said to keep the change.
I suppose he was tryin’ to impress the girl, but I was kind of insulted by that an’ told him he was already payin’ a fair price, an’ gave him his change. He had the good graces to look a little embarrassed and apologized, so I told him to forget it.
Then he put the De Soto’s top down and opened the door for Isabel. The wind was blowin’ dust in sheets across the road, so I warned him not to drive in a dust storm. He waved to show he understood. They drove away an’ that’s the last I saw of him.
12. John Seekin
At breakfast, Marshall remembered me telling him that the Ford needs an oil change again, and he volunteered to take it this morning and have it done. He even said he’d put some gas in it for letting him use it yesterday. I thought maybe he’s finally thawing a bit, but more likely he just wants to use the car. Either way, at least it would be done. I only hoped he wouldn’t run right over and take Helen for a ride, and gave him the key. When Nina got up to do the dishes, I reminded him of what Deputy Peterson told him the other day.
He only snorted. “That cracker’s got no right to interfere with who I see. The constitution guarantees freedom of association.”
“That’s true,” I said, “but the constitution doesn’t carry much weight out here. That cracker is the law in this county, and most of the people in it agree with him and the girl’s mother. So you’d be wise to refrain from associating with her, especially in the family car. All right?”
He shrugged. I repeated myself. “All right?”
Marshall wouldn’t look at me, but finally said, “All right. All right.”
He started to go, and I said, “Wait.” He gave me that exasperated look young people have for the older generation, and sat back down. “I know you don’t like me for marrying your mother, especially because that’s what got us here,” I said, and his eyes dropped down to his lap. “And I know that you think you should stand up against racists.” He started to speak, and I held up my hand. “But don’t you see the parallels between your mother and me and what you’re doing? We had a right to marry, but we should have considered the repercussions of standing up for our right when racists still run things. That’s the same position you’re in. You think we were wrong for standing up for our rights, considering the consequences that followed. What makes it wrong for us then and right for you now? Do you really believe your right to see Helen is worth landing in jail or worse?”
He stood up, suppressing anger, and said, “This is different. I don’t have a family to take care of and no one was calling you boy and telling you to stay away from Mother. I am not a slave! If I’m arrested for associating with a white girl who’s over eighteen, I will take it to the Supreme Court of this land if I have to.”
His naiveté left me speechless for a moment. I could not find the words to explain to him the gulf between what he was taught in Civics and the real world. I started off, “Marshall, it’s not that easy…,” but he was through listening.
“I am of legal age and she is of legal age and I will not be told that I cannot associate with her, but if it is so important to you, I will not do so in your car! Does that satisfy you?”
And with that he stomped out of the room and out the front door. Nina came into the room, wiping her hands on a dish towel, and asked, “What was that all about?”
“Nina, catch him before he goes. See if you can convince him to stop seeing Helen. I can’t get through to him.”
She did her best, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough.
13. The Deputy
I was patrolling my regular route out of the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department in Kingman, headed northeast a few miles from Pyrite, which is where I’d always turn around, it being just inside the border before Route 66 crosses into Coconino County. I still had a burr under my saddle from thinking about that nigger boy Marshall and the sass he gave me when I was trying to explain the facts of life, him talkin’ ‘bout how she’s eighteen and can see who she wants to. Folks round here don’t cotton to mixing the races, especially when the black one’s wearing pants. Bad enough his stepdad’s married to a Negro without him chasing a white girl who ain’t got a father to protect her from the likes of him. If his stepdad hadn’t shown up, I’d’ve had to box his ears with my billy to get his attention.
That’s why it struck me as mighty interesting that there he was, him and two more of his kind, one of ‘em a nigger girl with a body that’d make an old man moan, pulled over on the other side of the road, like they’d been headed for Kingman when I came up on them.
They was all out of their cars, an old Model A still idling and a late-model DeSoto 6 convertible, so busy yellin’ at each other that they didn’t notice the badge emblem on the door of my Ford V-8. I wasn’t more than a hundred feet away when I saw Marshall deck the high yellow one, who wasn’t anywhere near his size. That’s all I needed to see, so I pulled across the highway, stopped by their cars, and stepped out. Then lo and behold, what do I see but a pretty little white girl with red hair sitting in the Model A, looking sorry to be there, and knew it was Helen. That got my blood boilin’.
By then the colored girl was down on one knee, showin’ a lot of pretty leg while she was tryin’ to help the one on the ground get up and askin’ Marshall why the hell he did that. The boy’s lip was split and he was getting’ blood on his nice clean shirt. Marshall was sayin’ he’d better leave his sister alone or he’d get worse.
“There won’t be any more of that,” I said, and put my hand on my billy as I walked up to them.
“Officer, he was trying to take my sister out of state for immoral purposes. She’s a minor and that’s a violation of the Mann Act,” says Marshall like he was the first nigger lawyer in the state. “I was protecting her.”
“You just hold your horses, boy,” I says. “You goddamn sure ain’t a G-man, and the only violation I seen so far is you committing a battery on that boy. Now you back off and give him some room.”
The girl helped the boy up, as she was saying to me how they was getting’ married in Kingman before goin’ on to Los Angeles, and she had permission from her parents. The white girl, Helen, had got out and was standing on the running board of the Model A, watching. I motioned her to stay put.
“She’s lying!” says the big boy.
“I didn’t give a shit if she is. You’re the problem right now, boy. Now I want you to turn around, get down on your knees and put your hands behind your back.”
“I was defending my sister! You can’t arrest me for that.”
I unstrapped my billy and slapped it into the palm of my hand. “Like hell I can’t. You do as I say, boy, and do it now!”
The other boy spoke up and says, “It’s all right, officer. I don’t want to press charges. We can handle this ourselves.”
I pointed my billy at him, because you’ve got to keep control of these situations. “You stay out of this. I don’t need your goddamn permission. This boy committed a crime in my presence, and I’m arresting him.”
The colored girl looked scared. “Officer, that really isn’t necessary.”
“I’ll say what’s necessary. Can you drive that car?”
“Then I want you to get in it, and drive that girl home.” She looked back and forth from her boyfriend to Marshall, which began to rile me. “Do it, girl.” She twitched back and forth, like her body wanted to move but her feet was planted, so I shook my billy at her. “You best move your black ass before you really get me pissed off.”
Marshall came a step toward me with his eyes bugged out and started to say something, like “You don’t…” before I popped him up side the head, not real hard but hard enough to drop him to his knees. His sister started toward him.
I put my billy in the middle of her chest to stop her and says, “I ain’t telling you again, girl. You get the hell out of here and do like I said.” She backed away, movin’ kinda wooden-like, and then the two girls got inside the Model A, got it running, turned it around, and headed back to Pyrite.
Meanwhile, I got around behind the boy, used my boot to push him flat on his face, and got the cuffs on him. It felt kinda good. The other boy stood by his car, afraid to move, mopping at his lip with a handkerchief. I left Marshall on the ground, and went and got a pencil and some paper from my car, which I took back and handed to the high yellow boy.
“Now, I want you to write your name and address, and a telephone number if you got one, at the top, and it better be right ‘cause I got your license number. Speakin’ of which, I need your driver’s license and some proof you own that fancy car. When you’re done with all that, you holler and I’ll help you write out what happened here, and you can sign it. Then I don’t give a good goddamn what you do, as long as you get outa my county before I see you again.”
I dragged Marshall to his feet and got him in my car, then I helped the boy with his statement. He had a dumb coon name. I can’t think now what it was, but he owned the De Soto, all right. He had the registration to prove it. When he was done, I watched him make a U-turn and head back to Pyrite. I knew what he was up to and didn’t give a shit. By nightfall him and the smart ass’s sister would be in California, land of the fruits and nuts. When he was down the road, I went back to my car to deal with Mr. Marshall Jefferson.
14. Henry Sands
As I recall, it must have been right after it happened but before anybody knew anything about it that Isabel drove her daddy’s car into my station. Helen was with her. They both got out and Helen walked away without a word, looking like she was going to be sick. Isabel didn’t look too good neither. She handed me the key and asked if she could leave the car there and her father would pick it up later. I said that’d be all right. She said, “Tell him Marshall’s been arrested for assault and he’ll need to bail him out.” Then she just started walkin’ back the way she’d come.
I watched her till she got to the edge of town and saw that De Soto convertible pull over, pick her up, and turn around. Later that day, Barney Platt, who lived out near the school, stopped by the station in his old Model T and let John Seekin out. He come up to me and asked how his car got there. I told him what little I’d seen and what Isabel’d said while his face sort of fell. Then he just shook his head, took the key, and drove away without another word. He would never talk about it again, or his wife either.
Talk about what happened exploded like a bombshell all over the county, especially Pyrite, the next day, after an article run in the Kingman paper sayin’ Marshall had hung himself in his cell after he was arrested for assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest. It said the deputy had witnessed Marshall battering an unidentified Negro male on Route 66 a few miles west of Pyrite and stopped to investigate, but charges for that assault weren’t filed. It didn’t mention neither one of the girls.
Everybody that come into the station for weeks after had somethin’ to say about it and wanted to know what I had heard. I couldn’t tell ‘em much. One or two folks had actually passed by where the deputy had them all stopped, but what they saw didn’t explain much, and they all knew better than to stop and get in the deputy’s business. You could give yourself a headache tryin’ to sort out all the possibilities.
Well, Helen didn’t keep quiet for long. By the next day she was lettin’ everyone know she was mad as a wet hen about what happened. She’d tell anyone in earshot that the deputy was a brute and that Marshall never did what the deputy said he did and he would never have killed himself. I reckon I’d agree, ‘least with the last part, from what little I knew of him. They finally fired her from the general store because customers got so tired of hearin’ it that the cash register practically stopped ringin’. Next thing I knew she up and left town. I saw her waitin’ at the bus stop in front of the Roadrunner Café one day, with a bag so big she could barely move it and somethin’ big and flat all wrapped in brown paper and tied with string that she wouldn’t let the bus driver touch when he come. She made such a fuss about him wantin’ to put it in the baggage compartment that he finally let her carry it on.
Isabel never come back, but the last time John came in for gas, six or eight months later, his Model A was all loaded down with what looked like everything they owned stuffed into it or tied onto the roof or the fenders. He told me Isabel and Edison was married and expecting a baby. They had gotten John a teaching job at a school in L.A. run by their church. I told him my boys thought the world of him and would miss him, and to change his oil regular. He thanked me for bein’ a decent man, I think was how he put it, then he says Nina’s waitin’ on me, wished me luck, and said goodbye. I watched that Model A puttin’ along ‘til it passed the last building on the west of town, wonderin’ if it would make it all the way to L.A. without bustin’ a spring, then I went back to work.
By the time they’d left for good, folks had pretty much stopped talking about what happened to Marshall and his family, and were talking instead about keepin’ our noses out of Europe’s business. I didn’t expect we would, but there wasn’t a goddamned thing I could do about that neither.