INTO THE PURPLE VALLEY
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, 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. 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 to buy one. So I stopped at damn near ever’one from Prescott to here, asking if they needed a good mechanic. The old man that run this one back then took me on because his eyes was failin’.
About two years ago he finally gave up and went to live with his daughter in El Centro and I worked it out with the bank to take over. But then the Okies quit comin’, and the two other stations folded up. I hung on because people were nursin’ their cars instead of buyin’ new and I do good 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. There’s plenty o’ that here.
Nuthin’ changed much the first few years we was here. 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 growed. 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 wasn’t none too pleased about that end of the deal when they saw what they’d got, but they like to never got someone to take the teachin’ job, and 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 like him all right and seem 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 for cattle drives 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, but he always said those colored boys earned their pay and didn’t complain about the chow. I wasn’t but about 11 or 12 then, and 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 ranch folded up and he took to truck 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 are damn near bare except for mesquite, ocotillo and greasewood, with about a dozen varieties of cactus 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 every crack in every 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. I guess they figure there has to be somethin’ better down that road. Me, I’m stayin’ put until I can see better times ahead.
The best houses in town are cinderblock or plastered, 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. Anyway, no one would rent a decent place to the Seekin family, and they finally found 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 for old man Crocker. I could smell bacon and eggs cookin’ at the Roadrunner Café. 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 was always polite, askin’ how I was doin’, 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 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.” 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, but I work on anything that burns gas. 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 windshiled.
“John Seekin. Glad to meet you 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.”
“They’re a handful, 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.”
“Welcome to Pyrite, Mr. Seekin.”
“Call me John,” he said, and pulled away. Seemed like a nice enough fella, and we got along fine.
Hank seems like a nice enough fellow. Wiry, with a sun-blasted complexion, he looks as indigenous to the desert as a cholla 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 equal rights, 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 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. 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. Isabel wanted to teach grade school, and the two of them might have been able to stay and help each other out. But 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 are full of the life of the city, 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 a linebacker, 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. 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, 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 very close. He became her rock, and she his confidante. He would die for her.
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 worse is that we only see a movie once in a while on a school break when we can afford to take the kids and go to Kingman for an evening away, if you can call it that. There’s good Mexican food, but if you want fresh bagels or pasta, all you can do is dream about it. Thank goodness Nina is a good cook. And music? Forget it, unless you like the bluegrass band at the Lion’s Club on Saturday nights.
Marshall worries me so. Most mothers are devoted to their daughters, and I am, but it’s Marshall I fear for. Things bounce off Isabel that eat away at Marshall, and I don’t seem to be able to help. If he didn’t have her always there to 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. 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 lived in his head. He couldn’t help it. He played sports so his father could come out and cheer for him, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Always he was anxious to get a face down on paper or capture the light under the shadow of an awning. And Roy just didn’t know how to connect with that part of his son.
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 understood about art and such like, might be able to draw him 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.
We thought the world was changing and that it would accept us, or at least leave us alone. After all, John taught at the same school for colored children where my kids went, and we knew many of the childen 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 a place where we belong.
To make matters worse, the heat and the dust take a toll on my energy all summer long, and the winters are almost as bad, what with the wind howling and pushing dust through every crack and your lips and skin all dried out. I miss my family back home. The children do too. All this space around us makes me feel so alone, so isolated. 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. I guess I could say the same about Marshall.
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. “Marshall,” she said, “I love John dearly. How’s racism ever going to end if people aren’t willing to do what they know in their heart is right, even if others don’t like it?”
“You think I’m being racist?” I asked. “Momma, he doesn’t fit, that’s all.”
She smiled sadly at me. “You mean, he’s not like your father.
“Well,” I said, “he’s not.”
“No one is, son. But I need someone, and John is a fine man.”
“And you’re going to do it even if you 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 talkin’ 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 showing his own racism. 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?” And that was pretty much her last word on the subject. So I’m trying, but he’s still 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 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. But they had to show the world that they could marry like anyone else.
People around Pyrite are barely civil to us. They act like they’re doin’ 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 you 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. If you have a brain, there’s nothing to stimulate it. No museums, no libraries, 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. 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 invites you to join in and be a part of it, and for me, to capture moments in its life forever. There were 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 among the people of color who are our neighbors, but they treat me like one of the white men who have oppressed them all their lives. They don’t trust me. 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. At least she has good features and loves the attention.
The one thing I don’t hate about this place 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. I’ve painted Helen and Isabel and my mother into different parts of the landscape, even the manmade parts, but it’s not working. My draftsmanship is still good, but my work has lost the sense of life people saw in my city paintings. I have nothing to say about life in this place, because it isn’t my place, and there’s so little life. Another year here will bury whatever career I might have had. I must get out.
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 lookin’ 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. Sometimes I think he loves me too much. 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.
And John, he doesn’t make enough money to take care of us like he wants to. Like we all want. He’s a decent man, and he loves my mother, 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 have me to watch over, and then there’d be just the two of them to live on his salary.
I’m smart enough, but I could never make real good grades like Marshall. Even if I did, it wouldn’t help any. There’s no jobs for whites, much less a colored girl. I don’t see what else I can do but try to get somewhere where I can find a good man and make my own life. Maybe go to Los Angeles and wait tables. 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 I make cooking and washing dishes at the Roadrunner Café, and keeping my eyes and ears open for the first chance to leave here. When it comes, I’ll take it and then we’ll both 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. 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 eigfhteen, and if folks don’t like it they can go to hell. His stubborness will get him in trouble. Best for him to just be somewhere else, and I’m the one holding him here.
I wish Marshall would listen to me when I tell him this isn’t New York City, but he pays no attention to whatever I say. There’s a lot of grumbling about him seeing that white girl, Helen somebody, who works over at the general store on weekends. A white man with a black woman is one thing, but a black man with a white woman is another thing entirely. He’s lucky her mother’s a widow, from what I hear about the father. Nina doesn’t get out much and I don’t think she knows about it. I’m not going to tell her because it would be just one more thing for her to worry about. With any luck, they’ll tire of each other soon and the whole thing will be forgotten before there’s any trouble. But if I know Marshall, he’s seeing her just to stir things up.
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 to the door, watching the car pull up. 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, with his night stick bumping his leg every step.
When he got close enough to hear, I said, “Is it Isabel? Is she all right?”
He stopped about five feet away, as if I had some disease like malaria he didn’t want to catch.
“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. “Dumb 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 looked in that direction. To my relief, the deputy relaxed 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.
“What was that all about, John?”
He took off his hat and his jacket. “Nothing you need to be concerned about, sweetheart. Are the kids eating dinner here?”
“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.
It was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, if we had a sidewalk. I was in 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 yellow spoked wheels, a ’33 I believe, blowing steam 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 white pants. He waved at me and got out. He wasn’t real tall, but built like a boxer, and he come right up to where I was standin’.
“My name’s Edison,” he says, and sticks out his hand. 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. His hair was marcelled and his alligator shoes looked new. I’d put him at about twenty-four years old. He was a decent-looking young fella.
“Call me Hank” I says. “Nice car, but it looks like you’re overheatin’ a mite.”
“Can you fix that?”
“Dunno. Depends on why. It didn’t sound too bad 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 out.”
“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, and pulled up one side of the hood, which was hinged down the middle. There was still steam hissing out from under the radiator cap. Edison followed and looked over my shoulder.
“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 and give her 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 a few bucks. Have you got enough?”
“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 and found out the pump would have to come out of Los Angeles and would take two days by train to get to Kingman. The train don’t stop here. I told Benny, the parts man in Kingman, that before I ordered it, I’d have to make sure the pump was the problem. After the car cooled down some, I threw an old blanket over the radiator 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 hearing the bearing growling in the pump and knew I’d been right.
About that time here came 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,” says I.
“Is there a hotel here?”
“’Fraid not. We got one filling station, one café, and a general store. Best I can offer is cot in the mechanic bay and a blanket. No extra charge, and there’s 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‘ve got nowhere to go anyways. Why don’t you just pull it around to the side and put the top up? I’d roll up the windows too. Keeps some of the dust out. Ain’t no use tearing it apart 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 a couple hours 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. She come over to the station with him next day 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.
That day I had driven John to school and borrowed his car so I could put up a chicken-wire fence for one of the white families. After I had finished up I thought I’d have a soda at the Roadrunner and see if Isabel wanted me to hang around and give her a ride home. The waitress told me she’d already left with some “citified negro” who’d been hanging around since yesterday. They were on foot, she said, so I left and went looking for them. I finally spotted Isabel leaning up against the back wall of an abandoned gas station, hands behind her back, and one foot propped against the wall. The “citified negro” 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?” The man 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.”
“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 seventeen?”
He actually seemed surprised. “I didn’t. I…”
“I suggest you leave this girl alone, 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,” but she started walking for the car.
Marshall 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 paid no attention. Interfering the way he did really infuriated me. I never before felt like I hated him, but he had no call to embarrass me or treat Edison that way. He acted like a jealous boyfriend. Back in New York City, most girls my age are engaged if they’re not already married.
I’m not stupid enough to think Edison is a knight in shining armor, but he’s very nice and I believe 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 seventeen, 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.
Much as I love him, I see now that misery truly loves company. I won’t let him stand in my way, or in his own way. God knows whether another chance like this will ever come along, and if I don’t take it, I don’t see how I’ll ever get out of here. 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 gas station after Mr. Sands closes up and see if he feels like talking some more…
At breakfast, Marshall remembered me telling him that the Ford needs an oil change, 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. Maybe he’s finally thawing a bit, but more likely he just wants to use the car. Either way, at least it’ll be done. I just hope he doesn’t run right over and take Helen for a ride. When Nina stepped out of the room to get the coffee pot, 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 freeedom of association.”
“That’s true,” I said, “but the constitution doesn’t carry much weight out here, and that cracker is the law in this county. So I’d appreciate it if you’d 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.”
Frankly, I don’t think what Deputy Peterson said even registered with him. He’s far too headstrong for his own good. If I hadn’t shown up when I did, I don’t think it would have ended peacefully. Marshall simply doesn’t know to shut up or when to quit. I hope he learns before the other shoe falls.
I was driving my regular route out of the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department in Kingman, heading 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 black boy and the sass he gave me when I was trying to explain the facts of life to him, talkin’ ‘bout 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 interesting that there he was, him and two more of his kind, one of ‘em a woman, pulled over on the other side of the road, like they’d been headed for Kingman when I come up on them.
They was was all out of their cars, an old Model A and a late-model DeSoto 6 convertible, so busy yellin’ at each other that they didn’t notice the emblem on the door of my Ford V-8. I wasn’t more than a hundred feet away when I saw the big black boy deck the high yellow one, who wasn’t near his size. That’s all I needed to see, so I pulled across the highway, stopped 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, with a body that’d make an old man moan, was down on one knee, tryin’ to help the one on the ground get up while she was 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.
“That’ll be enough of that,” I says, putting my hand on my billy as I walked up to them.
“Officer, he was trying to take my sister out of state. That’s a violation of the Mann Act,” says the big boy. “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 got to keep control of these situations. “You stay out of this. I don’t need your 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?”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“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. “You best move your black ass before you really get me pissed off.”
Marshall, his eyes bugged out and he come a step toward me 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 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. When he was done, I watched him make a U-turn and head back to Pyrite. I knew 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.
The talk about what happened that day exploded like a bombshell all over the county, especially Pyrite. Everybody that come into the station for weeks after had somethin’ to say about it and wanted to know what I had heard. Some said Marshall had raped the young girl, Helen, and was kidnappin’ her, with his sister and her boyfriend helpin’. Others said Helen and him was elopin’ and they was headed for parts unknown, and his sister and her boyfriend decided to join them. Some said it was Isabel and her boyfriend that was elopin’ and her folks had called the law, and that Marshall was just out for a joy ride with Helen and had shown up after the deputy had them stopped. Pretty much all we know for sure comes from one or two folks that 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.
Isabel drove the her daddy’s car into the station, must have been right after it happened but before anyone knew anything about it. 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. Then she just started walkin’ back the way she’d come.
I watched her for a while till she got to the edge of town and saw that DeSoto convertible pull over, pick her up, and turn around. Later that day, John Seekin came walkin’ in and asked how his car got there. I told him what little I knew while his face kinda fell. Then he just shook his head, took the keys, and drove away. He would never talk about it again, or his wife either.
What really started the rumor mill buzzin’ was the article in the Kingman paper a day or two later, 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.
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 they deputy said 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, with a bag so big she could barely move it and something 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 came 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 expecting a baby, and had gotten John a teaching job at a school 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 was waitin’ on him, wished me luck, and said goodbye. I watched that Model A puttin’ along for a bit, hopin’ it would make it all the way to L.A.
By the time they left for good, folks had stopped talking about what happened to Marshall and all, and were talking about keepin’ our noses out of Europe’s business.