By Doug Elwell
The little village of Pinhook is a speck almost lost in the boundless patchwork quilt of corn and bean fields that covers the east central Illinois prairie.
In the mid-fifties there was Ike. The boys were back from Korea and the crops looked good—all was right with the world in Pinhook and no one thought it would ever change. It was a thriving village in those days. Saturdays the square was swollen with cars and pick-up trucks. Old men on benches in the park—smoked and chewed—gestured with their hands. Younger men congregated in the barber shop or hardware store or café—some drifted into the pool hall. Women flitted about the square doing their weekly trading. At night, outside bedroom windows soft rustling leaves in the evening breeze lullabied folks into peaceful dreamless sleep—all was right in Pinhook and no one thought it would ever change. But change was afoot. It came in the form of an old Ford sedan with a flat tire and only a handful of Pinhook’s young boys witnessed it.
It was a hot summer morning and the porch swing Harry was lying on was scribing a slow back and forth arc. Its chains creaked in the rusty eyebolts in the ceiling—could barely be heard above the singing of cicadas in the trees. With a pillow propped under his head, he rested binoculars across his chest to watch one shed its skin on the trunk of a silver maple in the yard. Its hands busy trying to drag itself from it. Miss Cora Mae trundled up the steps with her groceries, saw Harry and looked in the direction he was pointing the binoculars, “What you lookin’ at boy?”
Miss Cora Mae shook her head—muttered something and went in. She was in the house when Harry’s family moved in a few years earlier and his folks said Miss Cora Mae just sorta came with it. Poor and widowed, she had no place to go so they kept her on. She was a big part of Harry’s earlier years. When his parents went out, she sat with him. He looked forward to those times when he went to her rooms to play Chinese checkers, page through her old photo albums and usually end with a rousing, stand up and holler songfest of their favorites from the Methodist hymnal. But the highlight of the evening though was her stories. When he was still small enough to sit on her lap, she spun yarns that fired his imagination. His favorites were the ones she told of “darkies” and life in the south. He never tired of Uncle Remus and Little Black Sambo and others that she made up. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but her stories were just that. He knew they weren’t real. But he loved the tall tales that always ended with a stern warning, “Don’t get too close to them darkies. Ifn you touch one of ‘em, the black will rub off onto you and you’ll never git it off.” She mystified black people for him. Darkies were exotic, of another world he could only see from the outside. Darkies for him were Stepin Fetchit and Butterflly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel and Amos ‘n Andy and Rochester on the radio—just black characters in his white world.
Tanner Clapp streaked down the street on his bike at full speed, jumped the curb in front of the house, dismounted without braking, skittered across the front yard at a dead run and let go of his bike at the same time. It was still tumbling wildly across the yard as he ran up the porch steps—eyes as big as pie pans. Winded from pedaling as hard as he could across town in the July heat, he could barely speak. He pointed frantically toward town and gasped, “Come quick! They’s some darkies in a car out by the Sinclair station.”
“Yeah? You sure they’re darkies?”
“Course I’m sure. I think I know a darkie when I see one—you don’t believe me, come have a looksee for your own self.”
Harry thought about if for a minute and decided he could watch cicadas do their dance of life and death once every seventeen years, but it might be a longer time than that before he would see any darkies in Pinhook, “Let’s go.” They flew off the porch and onto their bikes, mounting them on the run Hopalong Cassidy style. A few minutes later they pulled up next to the Nickel Plate tracks that ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards away. They joined an already assembled gallery of five or six who were perched on the rail like a flock of grackles on a phone line. They figured it to be a safe distance because you never knew what darkies might do if they took a notion. Harry thought at least they would have a pretty fair head start. He and Tanner grabbed a couple pieces of torn cardboard lying near the tracks and put them on the hot rail so they wouldn’t burn their behinds. With elbows on knees and chins resting in cupped palms, they sat there—motionless—stared.
Sure enough, an old Ford sedan with a flat tire sat on the shoulder shimmering in the heat. It was right there next to the Sinclair. A huge darkie in a white, short sleeved dress shirt, un-tucked, and a pair of dark suit pants was leaned into the trunk, rooting around for the spare and a jack. He wore a black straw fedora with a purple band. Harry saw him glance their way as he pulled the spare tire out of the trunk.
There were others in the car. A woman in the front seat fanned herself with a folded up newspaper. Her profile was framed in the open passenger side window. She looked like one of those silhouettes cut from paper by artists at the county fair. Her neck was long and slender. When she turned to look at them, Harry saw her high cheekbones. Her nose was long and straight—slightly flared. Her hair was swept up off the back of her neck—piled on top of her head in fuzzy curls. At eleven, Harry was hardly a reliable arbiter of feminine beauty, yet he could tell even from a distance that she was a pretty woman. A boy about his age stared at them through the back window. He didn’t move during the entire time it took the man to change the tire. He just stared.
Tanner whispered, “What you reckon he’s thinkin’?”
“—wonder if he’s lookin’ at us wonderin’ what we’re thinkin’?”
When Harry thought about it, he couldn’t tell whether the show was in the Ford with the flat tire next to the Sinclair or on the Nickel Plate tracks, “—reckon he’s ever seen white folks before?”
“I dunno.” Tanner said.
Harry was fixed on the boy in the car whose stare seemed to be fixed on him. He wondered if he and his friends looked as strange and exotic to him as he did to them. Protected by the interior of that old Ford he didn’t move, just kept staring.
Harry had seen Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton on the Ed Sullivan Show. But on that summer day those were the first in the flesh darkies he had ever seen. For the first time in his life he had to think about the real people who lived in a world that was unknowable to him. And his world grew that day—would never be as small again.
On the way home he passed Miss Mertie sitting in the shaded recess of her porch fanning herself with a folded newspaper, “Hey Miss Mertie.”
“Hot one today.”
“I spect you’re right ‘bout that. C’mon up hear and set a spell. I’ll fetch a glass of fresh iced tea and set a piece of pie in front of you if you wish.”
He sat on a metal lawn chair with a pillow for a cushion. Air from the inside of her house wafted through the screen door had the comforting smell of old woman. With a glass of tea in his hand and Miss Mertie settled back in her wicker rocker he told her about the darkies out on the highway by the Sinclair.
“Well I declare—bet that’ll make the Ledger Messenger come Thursday.” They sat quiet except for the clank of Harry’s fork on the dish as he ate his pie. Then Miss Mertie leaned toward him—rested her hand on his forearm, “I’ve knowed Miss Cora Mae all my life and I love her like a sister, but first thing you need to know ‘bout such things Harry is to pay no mind to what she tells you about Negroes. She dismissed Miss Cora Mae on that subject, “—lot of hooey.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but that old Ford sedan with the flat tire out by the Sinclair station was the first few scattered drops of rain from a coming storm that tinked against bedroom window panes while the villagers slept their dreamless sleeps and didn’t hear.
© Doug Elwell, 2009. This is a work of creative non-fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or not, is entirely coincidental.
Click here to read other essays by Doug Elwell published on True Stories Well Told.
Doug Elwell writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his home town newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: email@example.com.