They’d gone down to the river to forget the day’s heat, spent the evening drinking beer and shooting the empty cans. They talked about their recent high school graduation, whose team might go on to win the World Series this year, how quickly the summer was passing and once gone, what their lives might then be.
That, Reed took as cue to pose the question he’d been wrestling with inside his head since they’d arrived. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, the right one fidgeting with the diamond ring pushed deep inside. He’d been carrying it around for days.
He took a breath and spoke.
What Reed had not expected was for his cousin to laugh in response. Reed felt the blood rushing to his cheeks as Jojo folded at the waist, holding his belly like it might split if he didn’t.
Several times Jojo moved his mouth as if to say something but only laughter sputtered out.
Reed pulled his hands from his pockets. Jojo had always bested him when they fought as children but he was willing to take a shot at him.
Jojo was grinning like he was still enjoying the best joke he’d ever heard, but he stopped smiling after a few moments of studying Reed. “You’re damn serious,” he said. Jojo shook his head. “She’s a nigger; you can’t marry her.”
“She’s a Negro. And what difference does that make?”
Jojo frowned. “In this county, I’d think it’d make a lot. Now I don’t blame you for wanting a go at her,” he said as he picked up the rifle leaning against his truck. He yanked open the door and put the gun on the rack. He turned to Reed. “I’d like that pleasure myself.”
Reed pushed himself to open his fists.
“But to marry her? Tell your daddy,” Jojo said. He climbed into the truck and shut the door. Leaning out the open window, he gave Reed an answer to the question asked, along with the one caveat. “Get his permission and then—and only then—will I stand at your wedding.”
Opening the door to the barbershop, Earl Crowley could hear conversation inside but when he stepped in, it came to a stop. His eyes were curious as he scanned the group of men staring at him. He pushed the door shut.
He looked at his fishing buddy and nodded.
Jerry looked down at his feet.
“Afternoon, Earl. I’m ready for you,” the barber said. Crowley had a standing appointment once a month on the last Wednesday, if he wasn’t on some official business.
Crowley took his hat off and placed it on a hook on the wall.
“Not too much off the top this time, Sam. I’m losing it faster than it grows back and you ain’t helping none.” Crowley looked out to his audience.
Not even a chuckle.
“Huh,” Crowley muttered.
The barber snapped the cloth in the air and spread it around Crowley. “How’s everything Earl?”
Someone in the shop chuckled.
Crowley tilted his head at the man, who raised the newspaper in his hands to cover his face.
“Good to hear your boy’s got himself a job, Harlan. Should keep him out of trouble.”
Harlan replied (though to the man beside him), “What was the preacher saying that time about worrying about the tree in one’s own eye and not the splinter in mine?”
Crowley frowned. What in the world? He turned and glanced over his shoulder to the barber. His eyes asked for help.
Sam gave it to him. Running the comb over Crowley’s ear, he said, “Rumor has it you’re getting a daughter-in-law.”
Crowley didn’t think Reed had any romantic interests. He’d been hanging around Ernestine Watson’s girl, but he’d told his son to end that. “Can’t say I know what you’re talking about.”
“Reed got a ring from the jeweler’s some days ago.” The barber chuckled. “That oughta be some wedding.”
A wave of chuckles went round the room.
“Whites trying to marry Negroes. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Them Crawford boys are planning a little reception of their own,” someone said.
“Say they wanna keep order ‘round here if those in charge won’t.”
“A Negro’s never married anyone other than their kind while I’ve been sheriff,” Crowley offered.
“Has integration come to Shetford County?” Sam said.
“Bet we’ll be seeing escorts for the niggers when they want in our schools.”
Crowley was aware that his boot was dancing on the foot rest. He stilled it. In his mind, he saw himself ripping the cloth off and storming out of the shop, but he was determined not to let them see they were getting to him.
“Earl, you still thinking about running for re-election?”
“Since you’re my campaign manager, Jerry, I expect you’d know that’s a yes,” Crowley barked. He asked the barber to hand him a magazine. He snapped it open and glared at a page.
He had things to do at his office but soon as this haircut was over, he was heading home. He had to go see what his son was up to this time.
Reed had planned to talk to his daddy but he woke just before noon to an empty house. He thought they could talk in the evening—there were things important enough to interrupt Earl Crowley’s workday but this was not one of them. But then Jojo had called and suggested he get out of town.
Reed had time enough to throw some clothes into a suitcase that had once belonged to his mama, to call the Watson house, and to write a hasty note of explanation. He was at the foot of the stairs when he heard the key in the front door. It opened, and there was his daddy. Reed balled the note in his hand and let it fall.
“Vacation?” Crowley asked, nodding toward the suitcase. He bent over and picked up the wadded paper. “Guess this here’s my goodbye.”
“Something like that.”
Crowley grunted and stretched the paper open. He ambled into the kitchen as he read.
If you had good sense, you’d head on out the door, Reed told himself. Instead, he set the suitcase down and followed his father.
Reed’s mama had decorated the kitchen in red and white with an apple motif. As a boy, it’d been his haven, reciting his day to his mama as she cooked supper; and later, as he did his homework next to Ernestine Watson’s girl as her mama cooked. Reed couldn’t remember the last time he and his daddy might have sat down at the table to share a meal or anything.
Crowley had removed his holster and placed it on the table. Next to it was the letter. He was rummaging through the refrigerator when Reed walked in. “Don’t like the living conditions ‘round here?” he asked, his back to his son.
“You know,” Reed said. “You already know.”
His daddy turned around, a soda pop in his hand. He opened a drawer, took out a bottle opener and popped the top off. Leaning against the counter, he said, “Why don’t you tell me?” He lifted the drink to his lips, his eyes on his son.
When Reed was ten, he’d gotten caught trying to steal some candy from Old Man Gibson’s store. He’d sat quietly on that cracker barrel while Gibson detailed the incident to his daddy over the phone and then again when he arrived. Still his daddy had turned to him and said, “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“I’m marrying Diane Watson.”
“Like hell you are.” Crowley shook his head. “You ain’t got the sense God gave a rock.”
“Daddy, please.” The red bicycle with the horn. The old pickup we’ll spend the weekends rebuilding. The girl I love.
“You like Ernestine Watson,” Reed said.
Ernestine wacked Earl Crowley’s knuckles with a spoon.
“Ernestine, that hurt.”
“Good. Maybe you’ll learn to stop opening my pots.”
“I just wanted to see what smelt so good.” Rubbing the back of his hand, Crowley asked with a grin, “You wanna get fired?”
Ernestine grunted. “Go ahead,” she told him as she lifted the lid and gave the stew a stir. “You’ll be hurting more than you are right now.”
“I like the way Ernestine Watson kept this house and you after your mama died. I like her cooking down at the diner. I like that Ernestine Watson and her folks are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. That’s how I like Ernestine Watson and that gal of hers.”
Crowley laughed. “What the hell do you know about love and with a ni—”
“Don’t,” Reed interjected.
Crowley strode over to his son. “Good white people do not marry Negroes. You hear me?”
“I hear you. I’ve heard you all my life, but I can’t listen to you anymore. You’re wrong.”
Crowley grabbed Reed by the shoulders and slammed him down against the table. “Now, look here!”
As Reed tried to wrestle his way free, he became aware of something pushing at his back. He worked his arm until his hand was under him, unfastening the leather strap. He wiggled the gun out. Was it really his voice saying, “Get off me.”
Crowley laughed at the gun barrel poking him, said, “You are a damned fool.” He backed up.
Reed pulled himself from the table.
Crowley shook his head and then made a quick move for the gun.
When it went off, both Reed and his daddy stared at the other in surprise.
Crowley staggered back, leaned against the counter. He glanced down at the blood spreading across the uniform’s material.
“Daddy, I didn’t mean. . .” Reed let the gun slip from his hand. He stepped toward his daddy.
Crowley waved him away. “You get on out of here!”
Reed didn’t move.
“Trouble’s coming for you. Now, go!”
Reed slowly backed out of the kitchen.
Crowley listened to the front door close, his son’s truck engine to start. He shuffled toward the phone on the wall, dialed the number to the jailhouse quick as the rotary dial would allow. Bloody prints on the plastic beige.
He needed an ambulance.
“And listen, Reed’s headed out to the Watson place,” he told the deputy. “He’s leaving town and I want you to follow him . . . no, just to the county line. After that, he’s on his own.”
Crowley let the receiver fall loose. It dangled in the air next to his head as he slid to the floor.
He thought once more of his son and a wry smile came to his lips.
“Go on,” Crowley told his mind and it flashed back to his first love. A girl with eyes dark as chocolate and skin rich as mahogany.
Maybe it was in their blood, he thought with a chuckle.
Then his lips pressed tight. He couldn’t see any way he could explain to his son the thing about Ernestine Watson’s girl, the part that she was his girl too.