By Kris Kristofferson
The man in the white shirt stopped talking and ground a cigarette into an ash tray. The other ten men that filled up the dimly lit living room sat in silence. Then one of them spoke up.
“How come you picked Willis, Dad?” He was younger than the rest of the men in the room, thin and raw-boned, and though his face was expressionless, his eyes looked worried.
“Why?” the man in the white shirt asked. “You know him, Chet?” All the eyes in the room were turned on the young man, who was leaning forward in his chair, looking down at his hands.
“Yeah, I worked with him for Clemson before I went into the service,” he said, and he felt his throat tighten as he looked up. “How come you picked him?” His father looked at him for a few moments, then started fishing for a cigarette.
“Hell, no particular reason, I guess. It’s just he’s done better than most, and I think they all look up to him.” He paused to light the cigarette. “And he lives out on the old Point Murietta road, not right in the middle of niggertown.”
“Yeah, I know,” Chet said. No one said anything until one of the men laughed and said,
“Well, Chet, I guess this isn’t exactly a top-notch homecomin’ for a boy that’s been out of touch so long.” They all laughed a little, and the man said, “You know, Carlton, that boy’s getting to look more like you than you do,” and they all laughed again, nervously, and got up to leave. Chet’s father looked at his watch.
“We’ll meet at your garage at eight thirty, Harry,” he said. “That gives us two hours. The rest of you spread the word around and tell them to be on time. You don’t need to bring gasoline, because we’ll have enough at the garage.” The men nodded, and filed out of the house.
When they were gone, Chet said, “I think I’ll head on down to Burke’s for a while.”
“Hell, we got anything here you want to drink,” his father said.
“No, I kinda want to look up some of the old crowd.”
“Sure, you go ahead son.” He paused, “You have your watch with you?”
“Yeah,” he said, and he stepped out of the door.
He got into his car, a 46 Ford coupe, and headed into town. He had a sick feeling as he drove along, and he turned the wind wing so that the air hit him in the face. His hands felt moist on the steering wheel, and he didn’t drive fast.
When he pulled up near the bar, he saw there were a lot of cars outside. He got out and walked to the door, which he pushed open. Inside, he made his way toward the bar.
“Chet, you old sonofabitch! I heard you were back. How the hell are you?” one of the young men at the bar said as he turned around on his stool. A few others called their greetings. Chet sat down at the bar.
“Oh, pretty good, I guess. I’m still getting used to this easy living.”
“I’ll bet you hated like hell to get out of the goddam’ army. I did a hitch in there too, you know.” Chet laughed.
“Yeah, it was tough, but I’ll manage.” The bartender came up and Chet ordered a beer.
“How’s your old man these days?” the young man asked.
“Just fine,” he said. The bartender brought the beer and Chet sipped at it. The other man lowered his voice.
“I guess you know all about the party last night. I understand your Daddy’s doing the organizing.” They didn’t look at each other, but Chet caught the eyes of the other men in the mirror behind the bar.
“Yeah,” he said.
“That’s really some house that nigger’s got.”
“Yeah,” Chet said. He felt his throat tighten and he caught himself. “It seems like a damned shame, after he went to so much work building it,” he said calmly. “Hell, he doesn’t even send his kids to the school, anyway, does he?”
“Naw, but that’s not the point.” The other man looked down at his beer. “Anyway, you know where he got the money, don’t you? He got it pimpin’; at least most of it. And all them goddam’ niggers got together and helped him build it. He didn’t pay to have it built.” Another man at the bar said in a lowered voice,
“That’s the way they do all their building. One of them will do the labor on another one’s house, and he pays him back by doing the carpentry on his place. So they do it pretty cheap.” Chet smiled and attempted a laugh.
“Cheap to you and me, maybe, but you can bet your sweet ass that Willis has damn near everythin’ wrapped up in that house.” The first man looked at him.
“Yeah, but you can’t look at it that way. I mean thinkin’ about it personally. It’s a thing that’s got to be done, and it’s just too bad it has to happen to him.” A man at the end of the bar said out loud,
“It’s all right with me if he don’t own a thing but that goddam’ house. I never liked the bastard anyway.” They laughed, and the bartender told them to keep it down. Chet lowered his voice.
“What if somebody gets hurt?” he said. “You know there could be a lot of trouble about that.” The other man laughed.
“I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that,” he said quietly. “You sound almost worried about that nigger.”
“Oh, hell,” Chet said. He drained the rest of his beer.
“Come on, we’re going to go round up some more of the gang. Manny and a bunch of them are down at the union hall.”
“You go ahead on,” Chet said. “You don’t need me.”
“Well, you’ll be there, won’t you?”
“I don’t know; I might and I might not.”
“Well, I thought you’d be going, seeing as how your Daddy’s kind of running things,” the other said. “But suit yourself.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t going for sure,” Chet said. “I just don’t feel too hot.” The others filed out of the barroom. Chet sat alone at the bar and ordered another beer.
It was seven thirty by the clock over the mirror, and his hands started to sweat again. In an hour they’d be moving toward Willis’s house in pickups, and Willis wouldn’t know anything about it till he heard them coming.
He couldn’t do anything about it even if he knew, Chet thought, but it didn’t help much. But he knew he was taking the easy way out. He nursed the same beer until ten after eight, and the bartender said,
“You better take off, son, if you’re goin’ to catch up with your friends.” Chet pushed the glass away and paid the bartender; then he went out to his car. He got in and spun it out into the street, heading it toward Harry’s Garage; then he changed his mind and swung a U-turn in the middle of the street.
His mouth felt dry, and he licked his lips as he headed out of town toward the Point Murietta road. Once on the road he floored the accelerator, and when he had gone five miles he screeched to a stop, in front of a house with a white picket fence around it.
He started to get out, then he changed his mind and pulled the car up the road about a hundred yards, by a row of acacia trees. He jumped out and ran back through the dust he’d kicked up.
He couldn’t open the latch on the gate, so he vaulted over the fence and ran up the steps to the porch. A light went on over his head as he pounded on the door, and a Negro woman opened the door slightly. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I’ve got to see Johnny,” he said.
She turned away from the door, and he went in. A tall, well-built Negro of about thirty-five or forty stood up as he walked into the living room.
“Well! Chet, when’d you get out of the Army? Come on in, boy, an’ have a seat.”
“I haven’t got time to talk, Johnny,” he said, breathing heavily. “There’s a gang coming up here tonight, in about fifteen minutes, and they mean to set fire to your house. What time is it now?” The woman said,
“Oh,” and started to cry, and Johnny said dully,
“Well, they’ll get here in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know how many of them; probably close to fifty.” The Negro didn’t say anything. He just stood staring past Chet. After a while he said,
“Well, I appreciate your telling me this, boy.”
“Well, you’d better get what you can and move out,” Chet said. “There’s no time to stand around talking.” He wiped his hands on his trousers. The Negro just stood there.
“I’m not goin’ nowhere.” Chet’s mouth opened. He started to say something, then he didn’t.
“Look, you don’t know what they’re liable to do when they get all liquored up and excited like that,” he said. “You’ve got to think about your wife and kids, Johnny.”
“This is my house, Chet; I cain’t leave it.” He turned to the woman. “Go tell Alma to come here.” She left the room and returned with a young girl of about eighteen. The girl was not pretty, but she had an attractive, fully developed body. “There’s a gang of whites goin’ to be here in a few minutes,” he said simply, “an’ it won’t do for you to be around. Take the rest of the chil’ren and head on up the back road and get on in to town to one of your friends.”
She left the room.
“Johnny, you can’t stay here, there’s no tellin’ what they might do to you, or -” Chet looked at the woman, “to your wife.”
“This is all I got, Chet.” Chet tried to keep his voice calm.
“Look, you can’t do any good by stayin’. You can’t stop fifty men. You’re liable to get yourself killed.” He swallowed. “I’d talk to them if it’d do any good, but you know it wouldn’t.”
“No, I know,” the Negro said. “But you got to look at it from my side. We’ll do the best we can.” The sound of trucks pulling up in front of the house stopped their talking. “You better get yourself out of here, Chet. If they find you here, you’ve had it.” Chet said,
“For the last time, let’s go. You’ve still got time.”
“You go ahead on,” the Negro said. Chet looked at the two of them and walked out through the back of the house. When he got outside he walked across a field until he came to the row of acacia trees where his car was parked. Then he walked back down the road to the house, where the men were piling out of the pickup trucks.
They were massed in front of the house and a couple of the trucks had their headlights on the front door. Chet moved his way through the crowd. “Howdy, Chet, glad you made it,”
“Howdy, Chet,” people greeted him, and he did not respond. The front door opened and Johnny Willis stepped out, followed by his wife.
“There somethin’ I can do for you folks?” he said. A man in coveralls, a sport jacket, and a hat stepped forward and said,
“We’re goin’ to show you and all the rest of the niggers around here that we mean business about the school.” He turned to the crowd. “Hand me that gasoline.”
He had just gotten the gasoline container in his hand when he was spun around by the big Negro. A smashing blow sent him sprawling, and the whole mob jumped the Negro. He swung furiously, and the first few men went down, but he was finally overwhelmed by the weight of the mob.
The woman screamed as they pounded and kicked him on the ground, and some of the men started sloshing the gasoline on the house. A match was lit, and the walls burst into flame, lighting the front lawn.
Chet saw the blood-streaked face looking at the flames without expression, and then Willis turned and caught his eye, but he couldn’t look him in the face, and he turned and pushed his way back through the mob and went to his car.
He sat in the car staring at the flames that enveloped the house. He felt weak and he had trouble starting the car. Almost unconsciously he headed the car back toward town, taking the dirt road behind the burning house. He stared ahead of him and kept seeing the Negro swinging away at the mob.
I did all I could, he told himself again. I couldn’t have helped him any. Goddam’ him, he should’ve left when I told him to. But he felt rotten. He swung around a corner in the dirt road and stepped on the brakes as his headlights showed a crowd of about fifteen boys, some of them the ones that had been in the bar with him, in the middle of the road.
Then he saw the girl. It was Alma, the Willis’s daughter. He pulled off the road and got out of the car. They were all laughing and shouting, and he could tell they were all pretty drunk. The girl was surrounded by them, and she kept trying to get out of the circle.
One of them grabbed her and she pulled away and was grabbed by another. She broke loose, and the group followed her and stopped her again. “Take it easy, Honey Chile,” someone said, “Don’t you like white meat?”
They all laughed. They grabbed at her and ran their hands over her body as she tried to move away from them. Chet bit his cheek and looked away. He knew what was going to happen to her.
They all laughed and he turned around. One of the boys was holding her up and another was trying to remove her skirt. As she looked frantically around she saw Chet, but he looked away again. She struggled loose, and they laughed at her as she tried to move away from each of them. Then Chet was pushing his way through the crowd toward her.
He grabbed her from behind with his arm around her waist, and spun her around. He lifted her up and shouted, “I’ve got firsts!” and started running out of the circle. They laughed and backed away, and he moved a little way out from the group and dropped her down. Her back was to the crowd, and he ran his hand up the back of her sweater.
“Take it off!” they yelled.
“Where’s the rest of the kids?” he said under his breath.
“They run off,” she gasped.
“Take it off!” they yelled again.
“Here’s the key to my car,” he said. “Don’t talk. It’s right over there about ten feet from you. I can hold the first couple of guys off, but you’d better be gone quick. Now get going!” He gave her a shove and she stumbled for the car.
She waited at the door looking at him, and his heart stopped beating. “Get going!” he shouted.
“I cain’t,” she said, and she crumpled down on the ground, crying, “I cain’t drive!” The words hit him and seemed to suck out all his breath. He turned and faced the mob. Stunned at first, they began slowly to realize what had happened.
“Why you dirty, nigger-lovin’ sonofabitch,” one of them said, and lunged at Chet. Chet hit him flush on the face and sent him backwards with blood spraying from his nostrils. He swung again and hit someone on the shoulder; then a light exploded in his head, and he found himself on his back. He was being kicked, and he grabbed at a leg, and another foot crashed into his groin. He doubled up in agony and felt a fist smash his face. Then he lost consciousness.
When he woke up, the road was deserted. He moved, and pains shot through his chest, and he guessed that he had cracked some ribs. Every muscle felt as if it were tearing when he moved, and his face and clothes were caked with blood.
He couldn’t shut his jaw all the way, and one eye was swollen shut; he could feel a couple of vacant spots where his teeth had been broken out. He tried to spit, but couldn’t open his mouth wide enough. He finally managed to get up, and saw that his car was gone. One of the girl’s shoes was by the side of the road.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and made his way toward the highway. Once on the highway he stopped, and waited until he saw the lights of a truck. He thumbed it down, and climbed up into the cab. “How’s it goin’, but – What the hell happened to you?” the truck driver said.
“Bit off a little more than I could chew,” he mumbled.
“Where you headed?”
“Can I take you to a hospital?”
“No, I’ll wash up when you stop for gas. Where you headed?”
“Hell, I’m going all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
“Well, that’s just fine with me,” Chet said.
“We’d better stop and get you cleaned up at the next station,” the driver said. Chet looked out the window.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess we’d better.”