The White Road, Page 2John Connolly
Virgil let out a little sob and tried to move the flow to the right. He’d only had three beers but it seemed like he was peeing out the Mississippi. Please stop, he thought. He glanced a little to his left and saw a black gun held in a black hand. The hand emerged from a black coat sleeve. At the end of the black coat sleeve was a black shoulder, a black lapel, a black shirt, and the edge of a black face.
The gun nudged his skull hard, warning him to keep his eyes straight ahead, but Virgil still felt a sudden rush of indignation. It was a nigger with a gun, in the parking lot of Little Tom’s Tavern. There weren’t too many subjects upon which Virgil Gossard had strong, fully formed opinions, but one of them was niggers with guns. The whole trouble with this country wasn’t that there were too many guns, it was that too many of those guns were in the hands of the wrong people, and absolutely and positively the wrong people to be carrying guns were niggers. The way Virgil figured it, white people needed guns to protect themselves from all the niggers with guns while all the niggers had guns to shoot other niggers with and, when the mood took them, white folks too. So the solution was to take away the guns from the niggers and then you’d have fewer white folks with guns because they wouldn’t have so much to be scared about, plus there’d be fewer niggers shooting other niggers so there’d be less crime too. It was that simple: niggers were the wrong people to be handing out guns to. Now, near as Virgil could figure it, one of those selfsame wrong people was currently pressing one of those misplaced guns into Virgil’s skull, and Virgil didn’t like it one little bit. It just proved his point. Niggers shouldn’t have guns and-
The gun in question tapped Virgil hard behind the ear and the voice said:
“Hey, you know you talkin’ out loud, right?”
“Shit,” said Virgil, and this time he heard himself.
The first of the cars turns into the field and pulls up, its headlights shining on the old oak so that its shadow grows and creeps up the slope behind it like dark blood spilling and spreading itself across the land. A man climbs out on the driver’s side then walks around the front of the car and opens the door for the woman. They are both in their forties, hard-faced people wearing cheap clothes and shoes that have been mended so often that the original leather is little more than a faded memory glimpsed through patches and stitching. The man takes a straw basket from the trunk, a faded red check napkin carefully tucked in to cover its contents. He hands the basket to the woman, then retrieves a tattered bedsheet from behind the spare tire and spreads it on the ground. The woman sits, tucking her legs in beneath her, and whips away the napkin. Lying in the basket are four pieces of fried chicken, four buttermilk rolls, a tub of coleslaw, and two glass bottles of homemade lemonade, with two plates and two forks tucked in beside them. She removes the plates, dusts them carefully with the napkin, then lays them on the bedsheet. The man eases himself down beside her and removes his hat. It is a warm evening and already the mosquitoes have begun to bite. He slaps at one and examines its remains upon his hand.
“Sum’bitch,” he says.
“You watch your mouth, Esau,” says the woman primly, carefully dividing up the food, making sure that her husband gets the breast piece because he is a good, hardworking man despite his language and he needs his food.
“Beg pardon,” says Esau as she hands him a plate of chicken and coleslaw, shaking her head at the ways of the man she has married.
Behind and beside them, more vehicles are pulling up. There are couples, and old folks, and young boys of fifteen and sixteen. Some are driving trucks, their neighbors sitting in back fanning themselves with their hats. Others arrive in big Buick Roadmasters, Dodge Royal hardtops, Ford Mainlines, even a big old Kaiser Manhattan, no car younger than seven or eight years old. They share food, or lean against the hoods of their cars and drink beer from bottles. Handshakes are exchanged and backs are slapped. Soon there are forty cars and trucks, maybe more, in and around Ada ’s Field, their lights shining on the black oak. There are easily one hundred people gathered, waiting, and more arriving every minute.
The opportunities to meet up in this way don’t come along so often now. The great years of the Negro barbecue have been and gone, and the old laws are buckling under the pressures imposed from without. There are some folks here who can remember the lynching of Sam Hose down in Newman in 1899, when special excursion trains were laid on so that more than two thousand people from far and wide could come see how the people of Georgia dealt with nigger rapists and killers. It didn’t matter none that Sam Hose hadn’t raped anyone and that he’d only killed the planter Cranford in self-defense. His death would serve as an object lesson to the others, and so they castrated him, cut off his fingers and his ears, then skinned his face before applying the oil and the torch. The crowd fought for fragments of his bones and kept them as tokens. Sam Hose, one of five thousand victims of mob lynchings in less than a century: rapists some, or so they said; killers others. And then there were those who just talked big, or made idle threats when they should have known better than to shoot their mouths off. Talk like that risked getting all sorts of folks riled up and causing no end of trouble. That kind of talk had to be stifled before it became a shout, and there was no surer way of quieting a man or a woman than a noose and a torch.
Great days, great days.
It is about 9:30 P.M. when they hear the sound of the three trucks approaching, and an excited buzz spreads through the crowd. Their heads turn as the headlights scour the field. There are at least six men in each vehicle. The middle truck is a red Ford, and in the bed a black man sits hunched, his hands tied behind his back. He is big, six seven or more, and the muscles in his shoulders and back are hard and bunched like melons in a sack. There is blood on his head and face, and one eye is swollen closed.
He is here.
The burning man is here.
Virgil was certain that he was about to die. His big mouth had just helped him into a heap of trouble, maybe the last trouble he’d ever have to endure. But the good Lord was smiling upon Virgil, even if He wasn’t smiling so hard as to make the-beg pardon, the gunman, go away. Instead, he could feel his breath on his cheek and could smell his aftershave as he spoke. It smelled expensive.
“You say that word again and you better enjoy that leak, ’cause it will be the last one you ever take.”
“Sorry,” said Virgil. He tried to force the offending word from his brain, but it came back each time with renewed force. He began to sweat.
“Sorry,” he said again.
“Well, that’s all right. You finished down there?”
“Then put it away. An owl might figure it for a worm and carry it off.”
Virgil had a vague suspicion that he’d just been insulted, but he quickly tucked his manhood into his fly just in case and wiped his hands on his trousers.
“You carrying a gun?”
“Bet you wish you were.”
“Yep,” admitted Virgil, in a burst of sudden and possibly ill-advised honesty.
He felt hands on him, patting him down, but the gun stayed where it was, pressed hard against his skin. There was more than one of them, Virgil figured. Hell, there could be half of Harlem at his back. He felt a pressure on his wrists as his hands were cuffed tightly behind him.
“Now turn to your right.”
Virgil did as he was told. He was facing out onto the open country behind the bar, all green as far as the river.
“You answer my questions, I let you walk away into those fields. Understand?”
Virgil nodded dumbly.
“Thomas Rudge, Willard Hoag, Clyde Benson. They in there?”
Virgil was the kind of guy who instinctively lied about everything, even if there didn’t seem to be any percentage in not telling the truth. Better to lie and cover your ass later than tell the truth and find yourself in trouble from the start.
Virgil, true to character, shook his head.
Virgil nodded and opened his mouth to embellish the lie. Instead, the clicking of the spittle in his mouth coincided perfectly with the impact of his head against the wall as the gun pushed firmly into the base of his skull.
“See,” whispered the voice, “we goin’ in there anyhow. If we go in and they ain’t there, then you got nothin’ to worry about, least until we come lookin’ for you to start askin’ you again where they at. But we go in there and they sittin’ up at the bar, suckin’ on some cold ones, then there are dead folks got a better chance of bein’ alive tomorrow than you do. You understand me?”
“They’re in there,” he confirmed.
“How many others?”
“Nobody, just them three.”
The black man, as Virgil had at last begun to think of him, removed the gun from Virgil’s head and patted him on the shoulder with his hand.
“Thank you…” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Virgil,” said Virgil.
“Well, thank you, Virgil,” said the man, then brought the butt of the gun down hard on Virgil’s skull. “You been great.”
Beneath the black oak, an old Lincoln has been driven into place. The red truck pulls up beside it and three hooded men climb from the bed, pushing the black man onto the ground before them. He lands on his stomach, his face in the dirt. Strong hands yank him to his feet and he stares into the dark holes of the pillowcases, crudely burnt into the fabric with matches and cigarettes. He can smell cheap liquor.
Cheap liquor and gasoline.
His name is Errol Rich, although no stone or cross with that name upon it will ever mark his final resting place. From the moment he was taken from his momma’s house, his sister and his momma screaming, Errol had ceased to exist. Now all traces of his physical presence are about to be erased from this earth, leaving only the memory of his life with those who have loved him, and the memory of his dying with those gathered here this night.
And why is he here? Errol Rich is about to burn for refusing to buckle, for refusing to bend his knee, for disrespecting his betters.
Errol Rich is about to die for breaking a window.
He was driving his truck, his old truck with its cracked windshield and its flaking paint, when he heard the shout.
Then the glass exploded in on top of him, cutting his face and hands, and something hit him hard between the eyes. He braked suddenly, and smelled it upon himself. In his lap, the cracked pitcher dumped the remains of its contents on his seat and on his pants.
Urine. They had filled a pitcher between them and thrown it through his windshield. He wiped the liquid from his face, his sleeve coming away wet and bloody, and looked at the three men standing by the roadside, a few steps away from the entrance to the bar.
“Who threw that?” he asked. Nobody answered, but, secretly, they were afraid. Errol Rich was a strong, powerful man. They had expected him to wipe his face and drive on, not to stop and confront them.
“You throw that, Little Tom?” Errol stood before Little Tom Rudge, the owner of the bar, but Little Tom wouldn’t meet his eyes. “’Cause if you did, you better tell me now else I’m gonna burn your shit heap down to the ground.”
But still there was no reply, so Errol Rich, who always did have a temper on him, signed his death warrant by taking a length of timber from the bed of his truck and turning to the men. They backed off, waiting for him to come at them, but instead he threw the timber, all three feet of it, through the front window of Little Tom Rudge’s bar, then climbed back in his truck and drove away.
Now Errol Rich is about to die for a pane of cheap glass, and a whole town has come to watch it happen. He looks out on them, these God-fearing people, these sons and daughters of the land, and he feels the heat of their hatred upon him, a foretaste of the burning that is to come.
I fixed things, he thinks. I took what was broken and made it good again.
The thought seems to have come to him almost out of nowhere. He tries to shake it away, but, instead, it persists.
I had a gift. I could take an engine, a radio, even a television, and I could repair it. I never read a manual, never had no formal training. It was a gift, a gift that I had, and soon it will be gone.
He looks out at the crowd, at the expectant faces. He sees a boy, fourteen or fifteen, his eyes bright with excitement. He recognizes him, recognizes too the man with his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He had brought his radio to Errol, hoping to have it fixed in time for the Santa Anita because he liked to listen to the horse races. And Errol had repaired it, replacing the busted speaker cone, and the man had thanked him and paid him a dollar extra for coming through for him.
The man sees Errol looking at him, and his eyes flick away. There will be no help for him, no mercy from any of these people. He is about to die for a broken window, and they will find someone else to repair their engines and their radios, although not as well, and not as cheaply.
His legs tied, Errol is forced to hop to the Lincoln. They drag him onto the roof, these masked men, and they put the rope around his neck while he kneels. He sees the tattoo on the arm of the largest man: the word “Kathleen” spelled out on a banner held by angels. The hand tightens the rope. The gasoline is poured over his head, and he shivers.
Then Errol looks up and says the last words anyone will ever hear from him on this earth.
“Don’t burn me,” he asks. He has accepted the fact of his death, the inevitability of his passing on this night, but he does not want to burn.
Please Lord, don’t let them burn me.
The tattooed man splashes the last of the gasoline into Errol Rich’s eyes, blinding him, then climbs down to the ground.
Errol Rich starts to pray.
The small white man entered the bar first. A smell of stale, spilled beer hung in the air. On the floor, dust and cigarette butts formed drifts around the counter, where they had been swept but not cleaned up. There were blackened circles on the wood where soles had stamped out thousands of embers, and the orange paint on the walls had blistered and burst like infected skin. There were no pictures, just generic beer company signs that had been used to cover the worst of the damage.
The bar wasn’t too big, certainly no more than thirty feet in length and fifteen across. The counter itself was on the left and shaped like the blade of an ice skate, the curved end nearest the door. At its other extreme there was a small office and storage area. The toilets were beyond the bar, beside the back door. Four booths stood against the wall to the right, a pair of round tables to the left.
There were two men sitting at the counter, and one other man behind the bar. All three were probably in their sixties. The two at the bar wore baseball caps, faded T-shirts beneath even more faded cotton shirts, and cheap jeans. One of them had a long knife on his belt. The other had a gun concealed beneath his shirt.
The man behind the bar looked like he might have been strong and fit once, a long time ago. There was bulk on his shoulders, chest, and arms that was now masked by a thick layer of fat, and his breasts were pendulous as those of an old woman. There were old yellow sweat stains beneath the arms of his white short-sleeved shirt, and his trousers hung low on his hips in a way that might have been fashionable on a sixteen-year-old but was ridiculous on a man fifty years older than that. His hair was yellow white but still thick, and his face was partially obscured by a week’s growth of scraggly beard.
All three men were watching the hockey game on the old TV above the bar, but their heads turned in unison as the new arrival entered. He was unshaven, wearing dirty sneakers, a loud Hawaiian shirt and creased chinos. He didn’t look like he belonged anywhere above Christopher Street, not that anybody in this bar knew where Christopher Street was, exactly. But they knew this man’s type, yes they did. They could smell it on him. Didn’t matter how unshaven he was, how shabbily he dressed; this boy had “fag” written
all over him.
“Can I get a beer?” he asked, stepping up to the bar.
The bartender didn’t make any move for at least a full minute, then took a Bud from the cooler and placed it on the bar.
The small man picked up the beer and looked at it as if seeing a bottle of Bud for the first time.
“You got anything else?”
“We got Bud Light.”
“Wow, both kinds.”
The bartender looked unimpressed.
“Two-fifty.” This wasn’t the kind of place that ran a tab.
He counted out three bills from a thick roll, then added another fifty cents in change to bring the tip up to a dollar. The eyes of the three men remained fixed on his slim, delicate hands as he replaced the money in his pocket, then they returned their gazes to the hockey game. The small man took a booth behind the two drinkers, leaned into the corner, then put his feet up and directed his face toward the TV. All four men remained in those positions for about five minutes, until the door again opened softly and another man entered the bar, an unlit Cohiba in his mouth. He was so quiet that nobody even noticed him until he was four feet from the counter, at which point one of the men looked to his left, saw him, and said:
“Little Tom, there’s a colored in your bar.”
Little Tom and the second man dragged themselves away from the TV to examine the black man who had now taken a stool at the lower end of the L-shaped bar.
“Whiskey, please,” he said.
Little Tom didn’t move. First a fag, now a nigger. This was turning into quite a night. His eyes moved from the man’s face to his expensive shirt, his neatly pressed black jeans, and his double-breasted overcoat.
“You from out of town, boy?”
“You could say that.” He didn’t even blink at the second insult in less than thirty seconds.
“There’s a coon place couple of miles down the road,” said Little Tom. “You’ll get a drink there.”