A Southern writer whose short stories first appeared in these pages , and whose first novel, MOUNTAINS OF GILEAD, appeared under the Atlantic—Little, Brown imprint, JESSE HILL FORD lives in Humboldt, Tennessee. Now at work on his second novel,Mr. Ford manages to recapture in his dialogue and wry comments some of the essential flavor of the small Southern community.
A STORY BY JESSE HILL FORD
THE Mayor crosses the street to Alf’s Service Station at two o’clock, and while he is having a few drinks of Early Times from the half-pint Alf opens for him free because he is the Mayor and Alf is the Bootlegger, a courtesy extended, in other words, between city officials, as it were (the Mayor joking and carrying on about the nigger trial he’s about to hear in a few minutes), he, His Honor the Mayor, happens to notice that the American flag has not been raised on the flagpole on the City Hall roof, and he has Alf phone across to the police station and ask somebody to raise the goddamn flag.
Alf and the Mayor are watching when Willy Joe Worth, ordinarily on the night shift but working days too now, double-timing some to keep an eye on the nigger demonstrations, shoulders his way through the little crowd of blacks already gathered in front of the police station in hopes that the trial will be held in open court so they can hear it. Willy Joe goes up the City Hall steps and inside the building. In a minute the Mayor and Alf see him appear on the roof. The first try, Willy Joe gets the flag on upside down, and he has already raised it and Alf is already phoning the clerk’s office in City Hall to have Miss Rosa catch Willy Joe on his way down and tell him he’s got the flag upside down when somebody hollers from the sidewalk and gets Willy Joe’s attention.
The flag comes back down. Willy Joe switches it right side up and hoists it again, this time not quite all the way to the top of the pole. The lines are fouled up some way. He fiddles with them a minute, can’t get the flag raised any higher, gives it up, and leaves it like it is.
Already the crowd of niggers in front of the police station is larger when Willy Joe Worth comes back down the front steps of City Hall and goes next door into the police station, a new building with glass across the front like a department store or a restaurant, so you can see the desk and the police and the others waiting around inside for the trial to start.
Alf opens another Coke. The Mayor has run out of chaser. “I don’t know if I should phone the highway patrol or not,”the Mayor says. He has a round red sunburned face and fat checks, like a tomato. “Just in case they get smart-alecky. Would you say it’s a hundred of them over there now?”
“Fifty maybe,” Alf says. “Or even less than that. You take niggers always seem more than what they are.” Alf works halfheartedly on the black half-moons under his fingernails, using the little blade of his pocket knife. “Anything black looks bigger than what it is.”
File Mayor nods, not halfway listening, feeling better now. feeling warmer inside himself and like he is maybe two people — himself, the Mayor, and another man calmly taking it all in and not himself involved. Everything gets clearer. The Mayor begins to see everything in depth instead of flat, like he was seeing it before. He hands Alf the empty half-pint, and Alf motions to his nigger, Washington, who takes the half-pint from Alf and slips it in his pants pocket and goes slowly out the front door of the station and on around behind the building, where he will break the empty in the vacant lot — mainly just several acres of broken half-pints, weeds, and a few empty oilcans.
Washington is back in a minute. He leans against the counter again in his usual place, beside where the kerosine heater stands in the winter, next to the flashlight batteries and the cans of household oil and lighter fluid. He’s always there, like a piece of furniture, and he never says anything. He is one nigger who never smiles, never frowns, just goes about his work, which is the way Alf likes him to be — seen and not heard.
Thus, the Mayor’s eyes can pass over Washington without really seeing him, which is the way the Mayor likes him to be-there, but not something you have to notice. Washington is like the face on a dollar bill or a sign you don’t have to read, you’ve seen it so much.
“Well, I guess I better get over there,”the Mayor says.
“Give them bastards hell,” Alf says.
“Don’t worry,”says the Mayor. He turns on his automatic smile and crosses over to the police station.
THE little crowd of niggers doesn’t quite make way for him to pass. The Mayor stops before them, nods and smiles. He doesn’t see a single black face he recognizes.
“They having the trial in open court upstairs, please, sir?" says one.
“That’s up to the city attorney, Oman Hedgepath,”the Mayor says.
“We axed him, and he said it was up to you.”
The Mayor takes a deep breath and smiles. “Now, what we got here is just a hearing, not a regular trial. See what I mean? So it’s gonna be in the little conference room. That’s how it’s gonna be. It isn’t room for spectators. I mean, that’s how it is, on that.”The Mayor smiles. “Fair to both sides, that’s the way it’s gonna be, if you’ll just excuse me.”The Mayor clears his throat.
Sullenly they step aside, and the Mayor enters the police station. Once inside he looks back. The crowd is still there. “Wanna move ‘em from out in front?" a policeman asks.
“Let’em be,” the Mayor says. “Just interested in the outcome of the hearing, that’s all. We ready?”
He walks back to the little conference room where the police sometimes question prisoners, a nice windowless room with mahogany-veneer paneled walls, fluorescent lights, and a neat green-carpeted floor. Cardboard boxes of recovered stolen merchandise line the floor along one wall, so the Mayor must step carefully to get to his place at the head of the conference table. Oman Hedgepath and the nigger lawyer are already seated. The Mayor sits down. Everybody has a green armchair, same color as the carpet, very comfortable and modern. Willy Joe Worth comes in smiling and shuts the door and takes a chair next to the wall on the Mayor’s right. Willy Joe winks. The Mayor smiles. Down straight in front of him. beyond the end of the conference table, are the four defendants side by side in conference chairs against the wall — two girls and a boy and the ringleader, the Reverend Goodman.
The chief of police opens the door and comes in. followed by three more officers.
Oman Hedgepath, the city attorney, clears his throat and stands. “I believe we’re ready, Mr. Mayor. Your Honor. The defendants are Lonnie Shepherd, eighteen; the Reverend Seale Goodman, forty-one: and Misses Caroline Tucker and Beatrice McCaslin, both eighteen, I believe these warrants so identify them. I will swear in now as witnesses the arresting officers, all at once.”Oman Hedgepath looks down at the Beale Street lawyer. “Is that all right with counsel for the defense?" Beale Street says “Yes.” The Mayor thinks “Yes. sir" would sound a lot nicer. Willy Joe Worth goes around the table to stand with the chief and the other officers to be sworn in. They are all neat in their short-sleeved blue shirts and darker-blue worsted trousers, each wearing a .38 special pistol bolstered at his side, a blackjack in his right hip pocket, hat held in his right hand, all heads crewcut and all swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They sit down then, and Oman Hedgepath asks the chief of police if he has been chief of police since October 1. 1957, if he is thirty-seven years old and a Somerton resident, and if his name is George Jenkins Fly. The chief says yes. he is all of that.
“Would you then tell the court what happened Saturday a week ago,” says Oman Hedgepath.
“Yes, sir,” says Chief of Police George Jenkins Fly, very muscular and blond, speaking in his high husky voice like a football player being interviewed on the radio, being in fact a former Somerton High School fullback, saying: “Twenty-six niggers paraded up and down Main Street carrying signs and hadn’t no permit to parade. I seen ‘em the second time they come past City Hall, and we went out and told them they was arrested for parading without a permit. Among ‘em was those four yonder, Mr. Reverend Goodman, Miss Tucker, Miss McCaslin, and Lonnie Shepherd.”
“Thank you. Chief,” says Oman Hedgepath. “How many in all?”
“Twenty-six niggers,” Chief Fly says.
The Beale Street lawyer sticks up his hand without raising his eyes from some papers he has spread on the table in front of him beside his briefcase. “I prefer knee-grows, if the court please. Do you mean knee-grows. Chief?”
“That’s what he said, didn’t he? Niggers?” the Mayor asks.
Beale Street is making a note with a sharp yellow pencil. “I will not quibble over the pronunciation of the word,” he says, “but—”
“Chief is employing the old pronunciation,” says Oman Hedgepath, “historically valid and correct. I believe learned counsel for the defense will find that ‘nigger’ is British. English. I could refer him to several examples from history and literature should he wish it.”
Beale Street raises his pencil. “It reminds us, however, of, and connotes unhappy conditions under, slavery — that particular pronunciation. But I’ve said we will not quibble.”
“Well, knee-grow reminds me of certain Scandinavian sociologists and others who have assumed an authority and published inaccuracies concerning racial matters which I find not only distasteful but provocative as well. However. I will not quibble. Your witness.” Oman Hedgepath sits down and takes off his glasses.
Beale Street stands up and slips his glasses on and looks now and then at his notes made with the sharp yellow pencil. “Now, Chief, they were parading — anything boisterous?” The ordinance is so new it is still a foldout piece of paper cellophane taped into the city ordinance book. Beale Street holds the foldout with his left hand and looks down at it. “Any loud noise or anything?”
“Naw, sir,” says Chief Fly, when Beale Street looks at him.
“That’s all,” says Beale Street. “I would like now —”
Oman Hedgepath stands and slips on his glasses. “I’ll just make an opening statement if I may, Your Honor, and say that clearly the ordinance was violated. They were parading, and they did not have a permit.”
“I’ll plead now,” says Beale Street.
“OK.” says the Mayor. “You plead guilty or not guilty?”
“The law, the ordinance is there in the book. Defense counsel has read it,” Oman Hedgepath says.
“I have a statement,” says Beale Street.
“Go ahead,” the Mayor says. “Somebody gimme a cigarette —”
Beale Street puts his hand over his heart: “Since slavery times we have had certain problems come down to us. There is great unrest all over America today on account of minorities wanting their freedom. In the paper I see where the Russians and the United States are going to sign an A-bomb treaty. That’s what we need. Talk over the table. Not war. Here in this case these people were expressing themselves— what’s in their hearts — by marching, demonstrations. That’s all. Not bothering anybody. Just marching. This is the first time they have been arrested.”
“But they’ve marched several times before without a permit,” Oman Hedgepath butts in, “haven’t they, Chief?”
“At least six times, or maybe seven,” says Chief Fly.
“Yes,” Beale Street continues, his hand still over his heart. “But you try the bootlegger for the halfpint you catch on him, not for all he’s sold. So this time it is justice to try just this instance. Leniency is in order today in the name of restraint and justice. Our trouble has been that the two races have not talked to each other in the South. Now it is getting better. Now we are at least talking. Nobody is going to get all he wants, but at the same time, somebody’s going to have to give up a little something. Talk has been about blood running in the gutters. I don’t think that kind of thing is going to happen in Somerton. I been talking to different ones, and I don’t think any blood is going to run over this thing. Yet this is a sign of the times, a sign of the unrest that is more violent in New York City than here, and I hope I am not one of those causing unrest. I hope I am one who speaks with the voice of peace and moderation. What these accused persons have done is —”
“How’re they pleading? What was it again?” the Mayor says. Willy Worth puts an ashtray down at his elbow, and the Mayor uses it.
“Not guilty, Your Honor,” says Beale Street.
“All right, get on with it,” the Mayor says.
“ Thank you. All they have done is get out and walk to express their feelings. They want freedom. Everybody wants freedom. They express it this way, and they have the right under the Fourteenth Amendment to gather and express themselves. I’m not saying the city of Somerton doesn’t have the right to an ordinance against marching without a permit, but at the same time I am saying that if moderation is exercised and mercy is shown, maybe this whole thing will die down and go away, but if the law is applied in a harsh way, it may serve to aggravate a situation that is already a bad situation. I plea for a dismissal.”
“You got anything else?” says the Mayor.
Oman Hedgepath stands up. “As city attorney I could not find a dismissal acceptable. A light fine, yes; dismissal, positively no. We have this ordinance on the books, and it is a clean, honest, wholesome ordinance. All it says is that in order to parade in Somerton you have to apply for and get a permit from the Mayor’s office, that’s all. Now, these defendants knew about the ordinance, and they violated it coldly and deliberately six or seven times before they were finally arrested. They are charged just this one time, it is true, but let me say that there is a reason for this ordinance. The city of Somerton must operate with a limited police force — fifteen men to keep law and order, both day and night. We don’t have the money to hire a beefed-up police force. So far we have kept law and order, and we are going to continue to keep law and order. But for the protection of both races, for darkies and white folk alike, we’re going to have to have advance notification as to when a march will be made the day, and the hour, and the line of march. Then we can protect these people. Otherwise, law and order cannot be kept. Somebody would get hurt. What we have here is a just charge against premeditated violators. Your Honor must make up his own mind, but I would not condone dismissal.”
“OK. anything else?” The Mayor looks around at everyone. Willy Joe winks again. Nobody speaks. “All right,” says the Mayor. “The law says I can fine you fifty dollars and give you thirty days. I’m going to take off the jail sentence and leave on the fine. I fine you. each one, fifty dollars and costs, and, by God, don’t let me hear of any of you marching again.”
Beale Street has looked down at his lap, that way he has of looking down and holding his hand to the breast of his blue suit, maybe not holding it over his heart so much as drying off his sweating palms. The Mayor decides against making a long speech.
“If everybody understands what I’ve said, then court’s adjourned.”
The defendants, the police, the attorneys all stand up and begin to move out of the room.
“We’ll appeal,” the Memphis lawyer says, so the Mayor can hear him.
“Why don’t you do it right now, then? Next door in City Hall. I’ll show you where,” Oman Hedgepath says. “You’ll have to file a separate appeal bond in the General Sessions Court office.”
“May as well do it now, then,” says the nigger lawyer.
The Mayor walks out of the room and right away sees how the crowd outside has swelled, all of them looking in the windows instead of being at home and minding their own business or working at jobs like honest folks. He opens the door and looks at their black foreheads, nothing else. He steps out, and the crowd moves a little on the sidewalk.
“It all over,” says a nigger voice.
“Light fines, that’s all. Just light fines, if you see what I mean.” the Mayor says, “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”They make way, and he crosses Main Street to Alf’s and ducks inside the station and sits down on Alf’s sofa, made out of an automobile front seat with iron-pipe legs welded to it. Alf opens another Early Times and another Coke, and Alf and the Mayor both sit quietly and watch the nigger lawyer come out of the police station and wave to the crowd. The crowd falls back, and they wave at him like a mob waving at a baseball player. Then Oman Hedgepath is beside the nigger lawyer and going with him up the steps into City Hall.
“Don’t it make you want to vomit? Look yonder,” says Alf. “Oman’s talking to him.”
“Sure.” says the Mayor. “But he’d find the General Sessions Court office anyway and file his appeal. Oman ain’t doing nothing but only walking along to see what he’s up to — to watch him in case he makes a mistake. Hell, it ain’t no way to keep the black bastard from finding the office, Alf.”
“Yeah, but it makes me want to vomit. Looks like you could arrest him for trespassing where he ain’t wanted or shoot him or something.”
“That’s just the trouble,” the Mayor says. “Nothing’s legal anymore. Nothing you wanna name’s legal. It’s all for the nigger and getting worse ever day that goes by. If they don’t hurry up and impeach Earl Warren, I don’t know what this goddamn country’s coming to. Alf.”
The Mayor feels the heat begin to ease off from what it was when he first stepped out of the airconditioned police station and crossed over to Alf’s the second time. The whiskey and Coke stops him from sweating so much. After a minute he phones his office and tells them they know where they can find him if they need him, which of course lie knows they won’t: anyway, it’s a courtesy on his part, letting folks know where they can find him, just in case.
Then the regular bunch of cronies starts drifting into Alf’s. and pretty soon it keeps Washington busy just quietly taking the empty bottles out back and busting them. The Mayor tells about the trial over and over again. Each telling gets funnier and better.
“By God, I told the son of a bitch,” says the Mayor. “ I says, by God, I don’t care if you’ve got a hundred goddamn law degrees, you ain’t walking into this court and telling me how to run it. By God, you’re just a nigger to me, and, by God, don’t you forget it!”
“Cleaned his plow, did you?”
“By God, lemme tell you, I lowered the blade.”says the Mayor. “Another smart word out of that black lawyer somebitch and I’d of had him altered — and, by God, he knew it!”
And even if it’s a lie and more than half of them know it is, anyway, it’s what they all enjoy hearing more than anything else. Each time the Mayor tells it, they all feel a little better and a little braver.