Gender: Male Age: Secret Location: N/A
|Introduction: A word from the author- I do not believe in content warnings that discourage readers from being exposed to something new, or something that will make them "feel". So despite this "semi-warning", I hope you will experience the following story as it was meant to be experienced - WITHOUT warning, raw and real.|
Sound of a baseball bat crackin' and I felt a sharp blow to the back of my knees and I was on the ground in the dust but I sat up quick as I could, cross legged with my hands bound behind my back with barbed wire. I heard voices all around me, voices I damn sure recognized and when they pulled that burlap sack off my head I saw 'em. There was sheriff James standing right in front of me, Mr. Thomm, Mr. Jack, the whole damn town it looked like. They was all Klan and I knew I was a dead man 'cause they was lettin' me see their faces. We was out at the edge of town, that old dead oak loomin' over me, ol' brittle, crispy trunk full of jagged knotholes, lookin' like screamin' faces. The faces of all them niggers they lynched out here. I figured they was gonna hang me from that tree, too, but then a couple of them boys tore my shirt off while sheriff James dipped an old horsehair brush in a bucket and slapped hot tar across my chest, I could smell it, that thick, steamin' tar mixin' with my own searin' flash and hair.
When I was a boy, me and my brothers poured kerosene on a old tom cat and set that poor fucker on fire, I still hear that wretched, pitiful thing screamin' in the dead of night, smell that stink. I hate myself for havin' done that.
Maybe it's come time to pay.
I bit my tongue and I tasted the blood, felt it stream down my chin. They was all laughin', and Sheriff James just keep slappin' that hot tar on my bare skin, across my belly, my shoulders and my face, I saw ol' Mr Thomm rip open a goose feather pillow before I went blind, they opened my trousers and must've poured the rest of the tar in my lap.
"Rape my daughter now, niggra" Mr. Thomm said.
And I heard him spit.
Margaret Thomm was my girl, hell we knew we couldn't never be together but I was her's and she was mine and we both knew it. We just didn't think no one else knew it, but damn there's a depression on and you gotta find love where you can. You sure as hell don't throw it away.
Hell, people is droppin' like flies all around us in the dust.
I first met Margaret when she used to come in to the hardware store I worked at, Ol' Mr. Jack's hardware store, pickin' up tools an' supplies for her daddy. She was plump and happy, gold hair an' freckles on her rosy cheeks and she was sweet on me, she said so. And we stole off every chance we could, back of the store, the woods, even danced together over at Miss Ruby's place.
I loved that girl, and she loved me, she said that, too. Made me cry when she said it.
That barbed wire was cutting' through my wrists as I was strugglin', they weren't holdin' me still no more. I started thinkin' maybe they done hung me and broke my neck and I was dead and in hell, roastin' and sizzlin' on a spit. I could hear myself screamin'.
I was coming apart, little bits of me were fallin' off and I didn't wanna live no more. I was tryin' to cut into my vessels with that wire and hurry up this damn awful process but even though my wits was fadin' fast they wasn't fadin' fast enough.
Gad damn my guts was boilin' now and all of a sudden it was hotter than I ever though it could be. And cracklin', and howlin'. And I knew them boys had poured them feathers all over me and set 'em on fire, no doubt.
I was thinkin', "This is it, this how I gotta die, Lord?"
I vomited and spat out my own hot, heavy blood.
"Fuck you!" I hollered.
"You just a damn demon, done nothin' but suffer me all my damn days."
The tears flowed and burned like salt in my wounds and I cursed god out there in that dead darkness on the edge of the desert, a damn inferno lightin' up the night like an ol' tom cat on fire.
And the laughter, all the world's wretched children is cruel as the devil.
* * *
"But they were only 20 cents last week!"
I became acutely aware I was raising my voice.
"Well with the way all them new buildings are poppin' up all along Main Street I had to raise my prices, Maggie."
If I didn't know better I'd think Mr. Jack was trying to swindle me.
"That's what they calls the law of supply an' demand, Miss Thomm!" said Malcolm, the negro that worked for Mr. Jack. He'd been around about as long as I could remember, one of the smartest men I knew.
"That's just another way of sayin' the more you needs something', the more you's gonna have to pay," he winked at me and I blushed. Everyone was staring.
"Fine," I said and tossed Mr. Jack two bits, under protest, and I snatched my 25 cent box of nails off the counter and stormed right out the front door of Mr. Jack's shop for dramatic effect.
Malcolm was already outside loading the lumber into daddy's Chevrolet pick up.
"Whatcha buildin', Miss Margaret?" he asked.
"Daddy contracted to build the new bank up on Main Street, he just sent me to fetch supplies."
"Well I'm sure glad he did," he said.
"Always brighten my day to see you, Miss Margaret."
I was surely blushing now.
"Thank you, Malcolm." I said as I climbed into the truck and started it up.
"Always nice to see you too." I said.
I watched him limp back to the shop in the rear view and tried to sort out my feelings, Malcolm and I had developed a friendship over the past few months but what I was feeling was something more. But what to do? My mind was racing through scenarios and consequences and when I began to develop a splitting headache I shook off those forbidden thoughts and threw the truck in gear and headed home.
The sun had gone down and the house was cold and dark, daddy was sitting in the study smoking his pipe, shivering. I immediately set about building a fire in the stove; I swear, since daddy had started smoking opium it seemed as if he would rather freeze to death than lift a finger to do something as simple as build a fire.
"Why can't we just wire the house for electricity?" I asked.
Daddy just grunted and nodded off, when he smoked that stuff he was always in and out.
Daddy always said electricity was like a bad habit, once you start using it you don't stop.
After momma died of consumption two winters ago, daddy started visiting the opium den in town, old Mr. Li said smoking the poppy would soothe his pain but if you ask me it just made things worse. It was like a demon took hold of him. I was practically running things now, putting in bids for jobs, fetching supplies, supervising construction crews, plus managing the household all by myself; and now taking care of daddy had become more like caring for an infant child.
I fixed a dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes and greens, which daddy didn't touch, and went on to bed. I left daddy sitting in his chair, his chin resting on his chest, sawing logs with his arms dangling at his sides like broken branches on an old oak tree.
I found myself sobbing as I lay there waiting for sleep to take hold, the weight of the world on my shoulders, or so it seemed. I cursed myself for my selfishness and before I knew it I woke from a nightmare in a cold sweat with the smell of burning flesh in my nostrils and the echoes of screams rattling around in my head.
I couldn't shake it off and felt the need to go check on daddy; he was right where I'd left him, slumped in that kitchen chair.
He was far too big and heavy for me to move him so I covered him up with one of mamma's old quilts and went on back to bed.
The next day construction began on Mr Jerome's new bank. Eugene Jerome was an investor and philanthropist from New York City and we were still waiting on the money to arrive from out of town. I visited the construction site and after making my rounds to make sure everything was running smoothly I returned home to do the books. We were hemorrhaging money due to daddy's opium addiction and I was at my wits' end. After making a futile lunch for daddy I headed into town to blow off some steam.
The sun was setting, casting a dusky shadow over Cleopatra Hill by the time I arrived at my favorite club, Ruby's.
Ruby was the product of an illicit union between a wealthy landowner from Prescott and one of his slaves.
Ruby was an outcast who had found a place to fit in and thrive here in Jerome, she ran the bordello on Main Street and this hot little jazz joint as well. The place was dark and smoky and there was always a slick five piece combo performing on the corner stage to fill the spaces between conversation. Malcolm was there, sitting at the bar sipping illegal whisky and laughing at a surely off color joke the bartender, Charlie Addams, just told, I felt better already.
Charlie was a nice guy, he worked in the copper mines by day and tended bar for Ruby at night.
Malcolm's eyes lit up as I took the stool next to him at the bar.
"Buy ya a drink?" he offered.
"Sweet Jesus, yes!" I said.
The bartender poured me a shot of whiskey and as soon as the little glass was filled I downed it, cringing as it burned my throat.
I rapped on the bar with my knuckles.
"Another," I demanded.
"Damn, woman!" he exclaimed.
"Somethin' on your mind tonight," he asked, astonished at my uncharacteristic overindulgence.
"It's nothing, Malcolm," I said.
"Nothing to concern yourself over."
I felt his eyes on me but he decided not to pry any further.
"What say we pay a little visit to Mary Jane," he suggested.
"Jus you an' me."
"Now that sounds like the best plan I've heard all day," I said as I hopped off the stool and headed out the front door and around back, Malcolm limping along behind me.
We both took a seat on the packed earth, our backs resting against the building and Malcolm produced a rolled cigarette from the front pocket of his overalls, lit a match and set light to it, inhaling deeply before passing it to me.
I took a long drag and held it in my lungs until my toes tingled and a warm wave of bliss washed over my body, forcing the tension right out of the top of my head and up into the night sky.
Under the influence of the sacred plant I found myself unable to conceal my emotions any longer, I poured my heart out to Malcolm. I told him all about daddy, how he was slipping away. I told him all about our money problems and, as always, he held out a kind hand to hold mine. We sat there in silence for several minutes until I looked up to see Ruby standing in the back doorway of the bar. It was clear by the look on her face that she had heard everything. She lit a cigarette and stepped out of the lighted doorway and into the darkness, becoming a shapely silhouette as the door eased shut behind her.
"Malcolm, would you kindly leave Miss Margaret and me alone for a spell?" she asked.
"I promise I will return her to you no worse for wear."
She smiled reassuringly, winking at me as Malcolm stood up without saying a word and tipped his hat to the both of us as he made his way back into the club through the back door.
Ruby reminded me of my mother, strong and capable, full of compassion and smart as a whip. She sat down beside me and I rested my head on her shoulder, still weeping.
"You know, Maggie," she said.
"You're about the smartest woman I know."
I don't know why but I started to blubber even more shamelessly. Calm and straightforward, Ruby just kept on speaking.
"But that father of yours is going to drag you down like a stone. I know Mr. Li's boys have been making deliveries of China White out to your house and if your daddy's not even able to drag himself into town, then he must be pretty far gone."
"Ruby," I stammered.
"Hush, child." she said as she put her arms around me, rocking me like a helpless infant.
"Maggie," she said.
"I know you're a good woman, and a woman of character." she hesitated, as if searching for words that didn't exist.
"And one thing you are surely not is naive."
She took a deep breath, I felt her tension.
I knew what was coming.
"I want to make you an offer," she said.
"I'll do it," I blurted out suddenly.
Ruby was stunned.
"But Maggie, I haven't even…"
"I'll do it," I said.
"I want to, I could make more money in one week over at your place than daddy and I have brought in all year!"
I had made up my mind.
"I'll do it."
"All right then," Ruby said.
"You come by tomorrow and we'll go over the particulars."
She stood up and held out her hand to me.
"Now, come back inside," she said.
"I'll buy you a drink."
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