In Spirit & Truth


David Hopper



“I guess I can only share my half of the story. You already know a lot of it, especially all of the things she might have told you. Shoot, you were there for some of it! I think it would be best to tell just a little bit at a time, though. That way, you’ll be older when we reach the harder and more grown-up parts. Maybe I’ll even write the whole thing down some day.

“Of course, it all starts in Alabama. I was only ten, not much more than you are now. Even so, August of 1963 set the path for my life. Yours, too, I suppose. That summer, I touched a Negro for the very first time. I also met my best friend and started to keep secrets.”



There were five of us in the huge Buick Roadmaster that afternoon, my big brother Donny up front with Grandpa, me in the back between cousins Will and Junior. That made me the runt of the bunch and, as such, used to sitting on the hump. I didn’t mind, though. My feet touched the floor there and I could just see the radio over the dip in the seat back. As we drove along, I liked to crane my head up to stare at the numbers on the lit up dial, imagining the announcer on the other end. He’d be leaning in toward the microphone in some smoky, faraway studio, maybe Memphis or Mobile.

But radio in Alabama was very different from radio back home in Michigan. It seemed like the only stations you could tune in during the day played hillbilly music or ancient-sounding songs about dear mother and the home I left behind. It wasn’t until late at night that we could pick up our kind of radio, CKLW, a really powerful AM station out of Windsor, Canada. CKLW played all the early rock and roll hits and, years later, songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We loved all that new stuff, even though Donny did think I Can’t Get No Satisfaction was pretty dumb, when it came out. Being right across the river from Detroit, CKLW was also one of the first stations around to play all the Motown groups, like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Little Stevie Wonder. Just the name “Motown” sounded so new and cool. In the south, they said it was “Race Music.”

Normally, on these regular “rambles,” as Grandpa called them, we’d glide along the two-lane between Westin and Tomkins Bridge, never faster than forty-five miles per hour, listening to the farm report and the local “Tradin’ Post” want ads. Donny always laughed at the farm report. He liked to imitate the part about sowbellies being down and soybeans trading higher. Honestly, I didn’t understand the joke, but that didn’t seem to matter. Donny could make me grin anyway.

Will and Junior were busy using me as a volleyball, there in the back seat, so we didn’t notice at first that Grandpa had pulled off the blacktop and coasted to a stop, under the shelter of a magnolia. He cut the motor and radio and sat quietly for a long time, looking south over a sunburned field of butter beans, a low hedge beyond, and cotton in the distance. His left hand was draped over the wheel and his right held a soup can with the label ripped off.

Will turned to look back the direction we’d come. “Where are we, Grandpa?”

“I took the old road west outa Whitlock. We’re not too far from where you boys’ aunt Rayelene lived before all three of your mamas was born.” Grandpa gazed out the window again, looking entirely too serious, I thought, and only turning occasionally to spit into the can.

The inside of that car got hotter by the minute; I could only take so much of sitting. “Are we gonna see Rayelene’s old house?” I asked.

It was a reasonable enough question, I thought, since every time we rambled with Grandpa, we seemed to end up at some grimy, vacant shack, a backwoods cemetery, or a smelly-enough-to-make-you-gag old chicken house. This being August, and a particularly hot and humid one at that, I’d gladly take a cemetery. I’d only seen Aunt Rayelene once, though, and that was in her casket. She was the first dead person I ever met.

“No, Bobby, there’s something else back here you boys need to come see.” With that, Grandpa opened his door, stepped out, and flung the contents of the soup can onto the rusty dirt at the edge of the road. He set the can on the hood and flagged us. “All right boys, get out and let’s take us a walk ‘cross here.”

We tumbled out and Donny and I, always the visiting northerners, looked both ways before crossing the blacktop. Will and Junior were locals. They knew how unlikely it was to see anybody else way out here, let alone occupying the same spot on so many miles of steaming blacktop at the same moment you happened to be. We stiff-legged the ditch on the far side and cut straight cross-grain with the bean rows. Reaching the hedge, Grandpa stepped on the bottom strand of barbed wire, raising the top one for each of us to slip through. Then, he straddled the wire and pointed toward a gentle swell far ahead. Our dungarees made a high swiping sound as we stepped through row after row of scratchy cotton.

Junior was the first to see over the crest to the lower land beyond. “Anybody live here, Grandpa? Who owns this place?”

The cotton ended just over the ridge at a bare red barnyard. Low chicken wire draped from stake to stake, lying flat on two sides; scrawny chickens wandered at the edge of the yard. Straight ahead was an overturned outhouse, complete with a swarm of flies over the stinking pit it had covered. To its right was a tool shed, missing the door. Beyond was the house, if you could call it that, all saggy and unpainted. We’d come up behind this old homestead.

“I knew who lived here.” Grandpa pointed to the shack. “Colored.”

Boy, that perked us up. Grandpa always used the word “colored,” never a better term or a worse one.

“His name was Clarence Duckworth. Everybody said, ‘Mr. Duckworth’ to his face but, one time, I heard another old colored boy call him ‘Duck.’ I don’t think too many knew his Christian name.”

I thought that was a funny thing to say and wondered if that meant I had some other name, too. Bobby Johnson didn't sound particularly “Christian” to me, like Isaiah or Ezekiel. But, then again, Duckworth surely didn't.

“So, did you know him from church, Grandpa?” I’d always understood that the sum total of Grandma and Grandpa’s social life revolved around the First Baptist church in Tomkins Bridge.

For a second, he looked almost as confused by my question as I was about the whole “Christian name” business.

“Well, no… Coloreds don’t go to our church. Never have. They have their church up by Damar. They like it better with their own.”

Turning again to round the front of the shack, Grandpa stopped to let me catch up.

“Where’s Mr. Duckworth now?” Donny asked. He was looking at two broken front windows and his eyebrows were pinched.

“Well, boys, that’s what I brought us out here for. Y’all know what that thing is?”

Like a line of soldiers, we each wheeled an about-face to see where Grandpa was gesturing. Leaning crooked against the broken-down stone well was a four-by-four board, maybe six-and-a-half feet long (taller than Donny, anyway) and charred black from halfway up to the top. Lying next to it on the ground was another board, maybe a two-by-six, not as long but blackened from end to end and with some traces of burned up twine around it. I didn’t have time to think how these two pieces must have fit together. Donny knew.

“A cross? Did somebody burn a cross here?” He sounded agitated. “Was it the Klan?”

“Shoot, naw, it wa’n’t no Klan!” Grandpa’s face turned sort of disgusted, like he’d tasted soured milk. “Just some young boys out of Ruxton got drunk and stupid and come by here last week, probably thinking they was all big men. Tore up the place, looks like. I don’t know what all else.”

“But, where’d the guy go, Grandpa? Mr. Duckworth. Is he OK?” Now Donny looked really worried. That made me worried, too.

Grandpa rubbed his bristly chin with the back of his hand and looked out over forty acres of near-ruined, unpicked cotton. “I don’t know. He mighta had family outside Damar. A lotta coloreds live down that way, you know. I ain’t heard of nobody that’s seen him since.”

We walked the rest of the way around the shack and Grandpa sat on a weathered splitting stump. He pulled out his knife to carve off another plug of his Red Man tobacco. After a few minutes working the new chew, he spit and took a deep breath. I’d spent enough of my ten years in church to know that meant it was time for the preacher’s message.

“All them boys who did this are sittin’ in jail right now, all the way down to Birmingham. Too stupid to know you can’t get away with that anymore. Nowadays, there’s too many coloreds out makin’ noise. Why, if you was to get you a gun and go after one... buddy, they’d arrest you, just like you shot a reg’lar man!” He sounded truly amazed at the thought.

“Now, I’ve talked to Mr. Duckworth before. He worked at the gristmill in the edge of Ruxton. Seen him around for years. Always respectful and quiet. Anyway, I helped him with a blowout one time, other side 'tween Ruxton and Pierce. He was driving the mill’s truck at the time. They had him drive it on deliveries outside Ruxton before sundown. ‘Bout five-thirty, though, I see him rolling a flat away from the mill’s truck, off toward Pierce, so I stop and ask if he wouldn’t rather take it the other way, on into Ruxton, since that was sure a lot closer by half, at least. He says no, thank you Sir, but he’d rather not be goin’ into town this late in the day, it getting’ dusky earlier and all. So, after a while thinkin’ it over, we work it out for him to go back and stay with the truck and I’d take in the tire. I was back and he was on his way to the mill before serious dark. He thanked me sincerely and offered to pay me somethin’ for my trouble. Course, I refused. But I never really talked to him any other time.”

We cousins sat there a long time, just trying to decode the moral of the story. Grandpa’s stories usually had one. Maybe Donny figured it out. I know I sure didn’t. Finally, Junior broke the silence.

“Did he shake your hand, Grandpa? How’d his hand feel?”

“Shoot, just colored, I guess.”


That evening, back at the house, was wring-out-your-shirt hot. The room Donny and I shared was on the west side of Grandpa’s place. It had a good view of Mr. Burrell’s chicken houses, if you can think of that as being any kind of a good thing. Anyway, what with the stink, we had to forget the breeze and keep the windows shut. You’ve seen an Alabama chicken house at night, right? They keep a yellow light burning in there all the time. At least, I know Mr. Burrell used to. It had something to do with the chickens being fooled into laying eggs like it was their last earthly chance to do it. Day and night, anyway, they’d keep these dark shades pulled down to cover the screened windows all along the side walls. After dark, though, you can see thin lines of yellow light where the shades don’t quite reach the bottom of the screens. Each house is maybe sixty or eighty feet long, so if the moon isn’t out, they look sort of like a line of Pullman train cars.

I imagined that if you watched long enough, you might see one of those shades go up and a young boy would cup his hands and push his nose to glass. His eyes would be really wide and he’d try to make out the shapes of oaks or barns or water towers on the crest of the passing hills. I thought I’d probably see the upper berth there next to him, a dignified-looking, black Pullman porter turning back the pale blue covers. I don’t know how you’d ever get to sleep on a train, though. Shoot, I’d be too busy looking for people in their houses and thinking about New Orleans or San Antonio or wherever this run was headed. Would I be traveling alone? Maybe I’d be with Donny. That would be so great. Mostly, I wondered if the boy would notice me with my face against the bedroom window, watching his train clatter by.

“Donny, did you ever meet that guy Grandpa told us about?”

Donny jumped a little on his side of the bed, squeaking the bedsprings. I must have caught him dozing off. “What?”

“That Duck guy, did you ever meet him or see him around town?”

“Uh… No... Not that I know of, anyway.” Donny was almost eight years older and already had his license for a couple of years now. Daddy would let him take the Fairlane into Ruxton sometimes. About twice a week, though, he’d take me and, occasionally, some of the cousins to the municipal pool. On any ninety-five degree day, oh boy, that first plunge into rippling blue water felt so heavenly, I didn’t even mind the chlorine. We’d spend the whole afternoon there and I’d get really red. Other times, though, Donny would go into town alone. He’d be gone for a long time, he always said just looking around.

“Grandpa said Mr. Duckworth drove for the grist mill. Is that the one across the road from Uncle RW’s house?”

Donny let out one long yawn, then answered, “I think that’s the only mill between the Bridge and Ruxton. Maybe RW would know him.”

Just then, Grandma called from their bedroom, “You two young gentlemen better hush up and get to sleep. It’s after ten o’clock and some people 'round here has surely got to get up in the mornin’ to fix your Sunday breakfast.”

We lay still for a few minutes, stretched out on top of the covers in our skivvies, listening to the hum of the fan on the dresser. Donny whispered, “Let’s talk to Uncle RW at church tomorrow. He’s bound to know something.”



August mornings in north-central Alabama are so stuffy that the dew doesn’t burn off till noon. That day, along about seven forty-five, I soaked my good church shoes on the way to the car. As we pulled away, Donny and Sister couldn’t seem to roll down the back windows fast enough. Back then, Daddy considered air-conditioning an almost sinful luxury or, at the very least, a foolish way to spend your money. In fact, he seemed to enjoy talking about the silly, wasteful kind of folks who drive Cadillacs with air-conditioning, automatic transmissions, and power steering. “More green than gray, if you ask me,” he’d say, rubbing his thumb and two fingers together on one hand, while knock-knock-knocking his skull with the other.

Daddy worked for General Motors back home in Michigan, so he knew exactly, maybe too exactly, what went into all those fancy Cadillacs. That could be why he only drove Fords. We’d lived in Michigan for longer than I could remember. They say I was still a baby when Daddy gave up on his 240 acres of the original Johnson family farm, over south of Tomkins Bridge. Mama told me more than once that all he ever really wanted was to farm when he got back from the war, but after back-to-back dry seasons, that second year’s harvest didn’t even cover the seed loan. When he heard from an in-law that the auto plants were hiring in places like Pontiac and Wayne and Allen Park and Flint, we moved north.

I never had a southern accent and Donny and Sister lost theirs at school in Michigan, I guess. In a lot of ways, I didn’t think we were anything like our hoard of Alabama cousins. At home, Donny played rock and roll and jazz records and our neighborhood didn’t have outhouses or corncribs or pigs. All the streets were paved. Most of all, we had blazing fall colors and cold and snow. Grandpa said I was just making it up when I told him about us building snow forts in drifts way higher than my head.

Every July and August, though, the assembly lines and the metal fabrication plants and the foundries would all shut down for model-year changeover. Changeover used to be a really big deal back then and Daddy would be laid off for a long time, four to six weeks, sometimes. So, we’d make the long haul back to Alabama, to live with Grandma and Grandpa. Sometimes it would be even longer, when the union was on strike. Daddy thought the UAW was wrong most of the time so he hated walking the picket line, but he’d get it over with, like swallowing bad medicine. Then we’d go south. We never knew if or when he’d get called back. The one sure thing was exactly where we would be every Sunday morning we were down there.

That Sunday was a special day at Grandpa’s church. The second Sunday of every third month, Tompkins Bridge First Baptist Church had what they called an All-Mornin’ Singin’. Sister loved how they pronounced it “Sangen,” like some foreign language. Just about everybody we knew would be there. Mama claimed that between her side and Daddy’s, I was someway related to every single one, including the pastor. Grandpa’s church was one of seven in that tiny little town and at least four of those were Baptist. The sanctuary of First Baptist had pews for about 125, but they’d still have to bring in rusty folding chairs when they had a Singin’. That day, there was just a narrow aisle down the middle to get in and out. Daddy said there must be at least 200 people packed in.

I sat between him and Mama through the announcements and for the first fifteen minutes or so. That’s when people just got up when they felt like it and moved to sit by other people singing the same part. Somehow, they knew exactly where to go without being told: sopranos to the front left, altos front right, tenors back left and basses back right. Daddy had a high singing voice, kind of like the “high lonesome” guys you’d hear on the Opry, so I usually sat by him, in the tenor section. That day, though, I followed Donny when he moved back by the leathery, dark brown farmers with the low booming voices. There’s no way I could ever actually sing that low, but it was still more fun to be there in the middle of all those old rumbling guys in their bib overalls. That corner of the church always smelled like tobacco and manure and sometimes you could even pick up a hint of whiskey, but nobody talked about that.

The singing at Grandpa’s church was completely different from our church back in Michigan. Up north, the hymnals just had round notes on the page, but at Grandpa’s church, the hymnbooks had what they called shaped notes. Each note was a different shape, like squares and triangles, depending on which line or space it was on. The shapes had names, too, like Fa, So, La, so people knew the note by the shape instead of the way our band teacher taught us to read lines and spaces. I asked him about it one time, but he’d never even heard of shape notes and claimed that the lines and spaces were the only right way to write and read music.

Right or not, the folks in Grandpa’s church sure could sing better than the people I knew up in Michigan. Partly, that was because every June, all the kids would spend at least a week in what they called Singin’ School. They held it at the high school, but it was run by pastors and song leaders and ladies from six of the area churches, not counting the Catholics, so kids grew up singing nothing but hymns with shaped notes. Some years, they’d hire professional traveling music teachers. Other times, one of the pastors’ wives would head things up.

Grandma even talked about going to Singin’ School when she was a little girl. It was no wonder, then, that all these tough old farmers could hit every note, even on the bouncy, fast songs. Mostly, people really sang out like they weren’t the least bit afraid of a wrong note. They sang so much louder than up north, too, almost like they believed it more or something. Anyway, Donny and I sang bass that morning, even though I did sing it a whole lot higher than the gravelly old men sitting around us. From “Oh When the Redeemed” to “You Ask Me Why I’m Happy,” to “Beulah Land,” those guys could really move!

At one point, Uncle RW’s huge, rough hand squeezed my shoulder from behind and slipped me a stick of Juicy Fruit. It was a rare thing and always nice to see RW, one of my favorites. He spent a lot of his free time at the Evangel Nursing Home, ever since his second wife, Naomi, had her stroke. She couldn’t talk but laughed all the time. I thought it was nice that she was so happy and how all the girls who worked there must be taking good care of her. I ended up sliding back by him as they finished up on “Rocking in My Savior’s Arms,” which I really liked because of the basses’ “rocking, rocking, rocking” part, almost like a boogie-woogie. It was a good morning.

Lucky for us, an All-Mornin’ Singin’ also meant that Brother Jenkins wasn’t planning to preach at all that day so, after the benediction, all us men went out on the porch to smoke and chew and spit and talk. Naturally, most of the talk was about how hot it had been and sure, it just rained last week but it wasn’t quite as much as we coulda used and anyway, it might not again for a while. As always, Brother Jenkins was already out there puffing away, holding his cigarette in his left hand and swinging it behind his back whenever somebody would step up to shake his right. By the time I’d waited in line and shook his hand, though, I noticed that Donny was talking with Uncle RW, just off the end of the porch.

RW was saying, “No Sir, last time I saw Mr. Duckworth was Wednesday a week ago, when he dropped the truck off at the mill. He waves and smiles when I see him and there warn’t nothin’ different that day. He always walks home on that windrow lane that cuts between my two eighties, then along the old road, old County 7, to the rut road that goes way back in there where most of them niggras live. You know he’s got him a daughter that lives back behind ye grampaw’s land, don’t you?”

“Really? Have they always lived back there?” asked Donny. “I’ve been back as far as the creek and I never saw any buildings.”

“Well shoot, ye grampaw’s land goes way beyond that, to where the creek loops back around. You never follered it all the way to the Runoff?”

Donny said, “I’ve heard some of the cousins talk about there being some kind of waterfall somewhere, but I thought it was over closer to Greenlea.”

“Shoot, no! It’s right where ye grampaw’s land ends. My mama said that’s where ye great-grandaddy on ye mama’s side lived, or maybe that would be ye great-great granddaddy. Anyway, he built the old house when he first moved here. My great grampaw used to live on the other side of the Runoff, in the same old house where Mr. Duckworth’s daughter lives now. My own daddy lost that house and land to the bank in ‘34, though. Kicked Mama and Daddy and all eleven of us kids right out to the mailbox. I was already mostly growed, but Mama was still carryin’ number twelve. It was hard times, for sure.” RW looked down at the bulging yellow calluses on his own hands.

“I ain’t sure who owned it after the bank and why they was s’all-fire desperate they woulda sold it to a niggra, some niggra woman, at that. Well anyway… That whole valley ain’t nothing now but growed-up woods and kudzu, all over again, so it ain’t good for farming. When the state road finally come through after the war, the county stopped taking care of the old road. Course, they didn’t hardly need to no more, what with nothin’ but niggras livin’ back there on it. I bet there ain’t much left of that old road by now, ‘cept a way for the ‘lectric linemen to reach the poles.”

I wondered where Mr. Duckworth’s daughter worked and why she didn’t live with him. “Has she been living there a long time?” I asked.

Uncle RW jerked his face down my way, like he hadn’t realized I’d joined the conversation. “Hey, Bobby!” RW’s eye had a little sparkle I liked. “I don’t know the whole of it, but Mr. Butterfield at the mill told me she lived there with her own mama till the mama passed and left her the house. Mr. Butterfield claimed that the mama and Mr. Duckworth was never married, but I don’t know the half of it. Either way, I don’t think Mr. Duckworth ever lived over there.”

I still couldn’t quite understand Mr. Duckworth living one place and his woman and, now, his daughter living someplace else, especially since they couldn’t have been more than a fifteen-minute drive apart, by way of that old road. “But why didn’t Mr. Duckworth have them live at his house?”

Uncle RW glanced my way again, shifted his weight and spit, like he’d rather to have been done with that part of the story. “Well, complete as I know it, Mr. Duckworth always lived with his own wife in that house your grampaw took you to, over toward Rayelene’s place. She was just a nice niggra lady, his wife. She passed, oh… maybe ten years ago now. I don’t know what her legal name was. Ever’body called her Sister Duckworth. Nicest niggra lady, far as that goes. The two of them never had children, though, so that’s why Mr. Duckworth’s probably alone now, wherever he is, I guess.”

I still had all kinds of questions, but with RW ready to spit again, Donny flicked my Adam’s apple with his finger and said we’d better go jump in the car or Daddy might leave us at the church for the night. Donny knew I hated it when he thumped me like that, since I had to jump to try and get him back. I was still rubbing my throat in the Fairlane when he asked Mama if she knew the colored lady back behind Grandpa’s property.

“I think I saw her old mama once at the post office in Ruxton. I don’t know that I ever met her, though. She’d be about my age, I guess, but they didn’t go to our school in the Bridge.” She was quiet for a minute, then changed the subject. “Oh, Donny, I forgot to tell you… After you drop me and your daddy off at the house, I want you to take Sister and Bobby over for a quick visit with your aunt Loberta.”

All three of us kids groaned in the back seat.

“She wanted to see y’all before we head back to Michigan, Tuesday mornin’ early. And remember to not eat anything while you’re there.”

Loberta lived not too far away, just north of Ruxton, and was Mama’s great aunt, I think, but she had to be the single worst housekeeper on the planet. Mama wouldn’t even visit there anymore, ever since she was still expecting me. The smell had made her throw up, so now that Donny could drive, we kids had to go alone, holding our breath long enough for a visit. I’m sure Mama was convinced we’d all come down with food poisoning if we ever ate over there, so she said to tell Aunt Loberta that we were expected back at Grandpa’s for Sunday afternoon dinner.

Well, we survived the visit to Loberta’s, although Sister looked like she was about to cry when Loberta wanted her to come into the kitchen and see her grandmother’s special china. Sister gave Donny and me the dirtiest look after he said we’d be out by the car when she was finished. Partly to make it up to her, I think, Donny drove well over the speed limit with all the windows rolled down.

Driving west out of Ruxton, however, Donny startled Sister and me by hitting the brakes a little too hard and pulling into a gravel lot. Sure enough, even though it was a Sunday and everything was closed, there was the owner of the gristmill, Mr. Butterfield, in his ladder-back chair, rocking away on the front porch.

The gristmill outside Ruxton was older than anybody alive could remember. I knew that was true, because Daddy told me about going there when he couldn’t have been more than eight and it was really old then. He said they had a big steam engine out back turning the overhead shaft that ran down the middle of the building. All the milling machines got their power through big rubber belts looping over that spinning shaft. Before the steam engine they had horses on a treadmill, turning the grindstones slowly. It had been a big improvement when the steam went in because it sped up the whole process, but the noise was incredible. Later, they replaced the steam engine with a big diesel motor, so they wouldn’t have to stoke the fire all day. Finally, electric motors replaced the smoky diesel. Inside, though, it was just like Daddy had seen it when he was my age. No telling how many million miles they had on all those wide rubber drive belts.

I loved the smell of that mill. Have you ever stuck your head into a barrel of seed corn? Add a hint of stale cigar and machine oil and you’ve got it.

Mr. Butterfield was about as rough-cut as a person could be. I never saw him or heard him speak without a half-burned, half-chewed cigar jammed way back into his cheek and just barely sticking out of the corner of his mouth. You’d think his lip would get blistered, but I guess by that point it was too soggy to even smolder. Donny and I invented a story once about him and his family and how everybody, his wife, his kids, even his dog gnawed on cigars like that. Donny imitated them eating and taking baths and snoring with a fat Tootsie Roll stuffed in his jaw. Daddy even guessed the joke when I played the dog trying to bark around his stogie.

I was still thinking about that dog when Donny and I stepped onto the long wooden loading dock and asked about Mr. Duckworth.

“No, I ain’t seen Mr. Duckworth since day ‘fore them boys acted up. I bet ye a nickel he left ‘cause he knowed they was a’comin’. Hell, I finally had to hire me a different damn niggra boy to do the haulin’.” Mr. Butterfield squinted and looked us up and down. “You Cora Beth and Jasper’s boys?”

“Yes, Sir. I’m the oldest. My name’s Donny. This is Robert. He’s ten. He’s the youngest. We have a sister in the middle, too.” He motioned a thumb toward the irritated looking girl in the car.

“Robbie!” Mr. Butterfield’s eyes popped open, boring into me like he’d recognized a long-lost relative or maybe somebody who owed him money. He flashed a gap-toothed, tobacco-stained grin. “Named the caboose after ye old great-grandpap on ye mama's side, did they? Why, he was already a dried-up old fool when my pappy moved us here from Kentucky in ‘11. Pappy called him a stubborn old Mick. Acted like he just got off the boat. His tongue still rattled when he talked, but that didn’t stop him from it.”

Mama had said we had some Irish, some Indian, and probably a whole lot of other stuff in us from her side. I knew even less about the Johnson side. Daddy’s parents were long gone before I was even born and I’d never thought to ask him about it. At any rate, I said I wasn’t sure I was named after anybody in particular and that most people called me Bobby. The mill man and Donny talked a little while about what a good corn crop it was going to be and to say “hey” to Grandpa and Mama for him. Pulling away from the mill, we saw the old truck that Mr. Duckworth must have been driving that time Grandpa met him, rolling his flat on the road outside Ruxton.



Sunday dinner was huge and loud, as always, with at least six kinds of peas and beans, fried okra and squash blossoms, washtub sized bowls of collard greens and Polk salad, fried chicken, goopy dumplings, mountains of biscuits, and dish after dish of banana pudding and I don’t know what all. Also normal was the constant parade of cousins coming in and out the screen door, milling around like night bugs around a porch light, saying things like, “Oh no, Grandma, I already ate down at Mama’s. No, no, we was just stoppin’ by to see how all y’all is a’doin’. Well, but yes, them dumplins do smell extra good today.”

After a few minutes of this, they’d squeeze in another chair or take a plateful to the couch. Then, just like magic, when it came time to clear the table or wash the dishes, not a single night bug could be found.

I ate too many biscuits again; I couldn’t finish my big chunk of raisin cake. Afterward, Donny said he was stuffed and dying for a nap. Thinking back on it now, how I wish I had forced him to stay awake. I know it sounds like such a little thing, but it turned out to be like a huge fork in the road, with him going right, toward the back bedroom and me going left, out the front screen door and down a completely different path.

I really didn’t have any plan in mind, so I started walking aimlessly along the field road that ran from Grandpa’s barn to the south fields, toward the valley at the back of the land. The road, really just two ruts as wide as the tractor tires, ran right down the middle of Grandpa’s property, with a series of forty-acre fields on each side. The ruts stopped at the field farthest back. Everybody called it the “bottom eighty.” That year, it was all in corn for the neighbor’s animals. Grandpa rented out a few of his fields that way, to make the property taxes on the whole place.

The bottom eighty wasn’t a nice straight rectangle like all the other fields, since the ground sloped away towards the woods, kind of like half of a bowl. Grandpa always made sure that whoever plowed it would follow the curve of the slope and the edge of the woods at the bottom. He said doing it that way helped keep all the good soil from washing away into the trees. Over years of doing this, though, the trees and brush had crept in around the edges to where the field was now more kidney-shaped, like one of those swimming pools you see on TV sometimes. It looked really cool from the top, where I stood at the end of the rut road, but it meant that you had to break through wall after wall of cornstalks to get to the woods. I had a stick with me that I pretended was a big machete knife. Cutting and slashing for the longest time, I was pretty well pooped by the time I crashed through the last row.

I had been so caught up playing jungle explorer, I didn’t even realize how hot and grimy I was till the temperature dropped in the deep shade at the far side of the bottom eighty. It took a while for my eyes to get used to the dusky light there, mostly because kudzu had climbed into the tops of the biggest trees along the edge. The shade was dense enough to keep the underbrush down, making the forest floor easy to walk. You only had to change direction now and then to get around the rotting trunks that had fallen in windstorms or been pulled down by the vines. The further in I went, the more the sounds of the field, like the hot breeze in the cornstalks, the grasshoppers and other bugs, faded behind me. Everything there smelled green and brown and musty, like when you dig potatoes or pull up peanuts.

I don’t know how long I walked straight ahead but, eventually, I came to the creek, flowing from my right to left. The water wasn’t very deep at that point, but it was really wide. I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans to wade across.

Now, to hear my mother tell it, Alabama has every kind of poisonous snake known to man and they all like to live right at the edge of a creek. In fact, they probably all lived right at the edge of this creek. Mama was deathly afraid of snakes, even the pretty little garter snakes behind our house in Michigan. It was almost like a safari story, her telling us about stepping barefoot on one in the backyard. She acted out the head-to-toe heebie-jeebies as she described how “I like to run away.” Daddy said not to tell her about the one he let me hold in my hand after finding it in the basement, right in front of her dryer. He grinned later and whispered did I reckon it was the same one, come back to visit her.

I didn’t see any snakes, deadly or otherwise, at the edge of this creek, so I waded through, found a mossy rock on the far side, and put back on my socks and shoes. Even though the water was cool on my feet and the sun wasn’t beating down, the air in the woods was so still and stale and humid that I was getting drenched and itchy. Huge beads formed on my upper lip, but I kept moving straight ahead, since it was all gradually sloping downhill and easy walking.

I had to stand still and strain my ears at first but, soon, I could hear water, not the gurgle of the wide creek behind me, but the soft echo of falling drops, more like spring rain in a puddle. The sound seemed to be coming from a little to the left of the direction I’d been walking. I took note and headed that way. Gradually, those soft puddle drops started to multiply, growing stronger with every few yards. The ground was sloping down a little steeper, too, and the spongy floor was giving way to craggy rocks. Ahead, I had to veer around some smooth boulders, a few of them coming up past my waist. They were all so near-perfectly round, I imagined some giant spilling his marble bag.

The hard ground under foot and the giant marbles must have been reflecting the water sound, since now it seemed to be coming more from my right and much louder. I did my best to aim my steps in that direction, but with more and more huge marbles to dodge, I had to keep looking and listening, just to stay on course.

Grandpa used to tell all us cousins the old plowing trick every farmer knows. “Pick out a tree or rock or fencepost way over yonder and just keep the team or tractor aimed at that tree or rock or fencepost. If you don’t, you’ll be jiggledy-jaggin’ all over that field. Boys, there’s nothin’ crookeder than a man who don’t know how to plow straight.”

Well, I’d been driving Grandpa’s tractor since I was two, sitting in Daddy’s lap. So, I looked as far ahead as I could in the direction of the sound and picked out the fattest tree, which wasn’t too hard, considering how there weren’t all that many trees to pick from. In fact, the farther I went, the ground was turning into smooth, solid stone. Since fewer and fewer trees could even get a grip into that rock, the sun was now able to reach all the way down. The air was less muggy here and smelled a lot sweeter, sort of like after a quick summer shower back in Michigan. By now, it even sounded like a light rain. Looking overhead, I noticed two things. First, not a cloud in sight! Second, I realized I was walking out into a clearing, in the middle of a huge stone floor. At least, that’s how I imagined it to be. That floor was smooth, like somebody had polished it, with all the colors and sparkly flecks of the walls of the county courthouse in Ruxton, only it wasn’t flat like that. In fact, it had waves and ripples in it, just the way moving water does. If you were to squint, you’d think it was water, bobbing and dipping along downstream. In fact, I was still doing just that, squinting real hard and walking along the rippled stone, when I realized my left sneaker was suddenly soaked through.

I popped my eyes wide but the sun was so bright, reflecting off the water, that it took me a few seconds to adjust. The creek had turned, just like Uncle RW said it did. Now, it was coming from my left and I was standing in it, almost up to my laces. This late in August, of course, the water level was low, but I could imagine that in some rainy springtime, the whole wavy floor around me would be flooded and this little creek would be roaring. As it was, the three or four inches of silky water slipping over the bumps and dips of rock hardly made a whisper. Instead, the echo of the rain shower came from my right.

Too late to do anything about wet shoes, I walked downstream for a minute or so, till I realized that the floor ahead of me just ended, like somebody had broken it off in a clean, smooth curve. I was afraid to get close to the edge but, creeping up, I could see that the drop was really long, maybe twenty feet or so. I remember thinking, “Oh, I get it! This is why they call it the Runoff.”

A split second later, another thought occurred to me. If it were that rainy spring I’d just imagined, there’d also be a slippery stone floor, this roaring creek, and me getting swept right over the lip. I could even picture which side of my forehead would be bleeding from banging on some boulder down below, a big red splat on the rock, and me facedown in the water next to it.

Going over the edge didn’t seem like a great idea, so I stayed back and followed the curve to my right, eventually walking out of the water onto dry stone. Stepping over some higher rock at the end of the table’s curved edge, I was able to butt-scoot down into the steep valley below the Runoff, coming to a stop at the edge of a round pool maybe thirty-five feet across.

I don’t know if you ever had one of those times when it just seems important to take everything in? For instance, if you were walking down a city street somewhere and knew that you were about to be the only eyewitness to a bank robbery or a car crash, you’d probably be thinking how you should pay attention to all the stuff, like the color of the two cars or the kind of clothes the robber was wearing or maybe the exact time in the afternoon or the temperature or whether it was icy or dry or if the teller getting robbed acted scared or mad. Of course, nobody knows when they’re gonna see something like that. Normal people aren’t really ready to pay close attention when the time comes. Donny said that’s partly what cops mean when they say that you can’t trust eyewitnesses. Anyway, that was one time where I got the strong feeling that I should pay special attention.

Even though the water looked clean, the surface of the pool was all jumpy from the droplets falling over the edge of the stone “shelf” or “table,” (I guess you could call it that) I’d just been standing on. As a result, I couldn’t really tell how deep the pool might be. From where I stood at the water’s edge, though, the ground sloped pretty steeply, so I figured the bottom probably dropped right out and the water would be way over my head, out in the middle. The rain-like drops coming over the lip above seemed to be spaced apart just perfectly. Falling from the curved edge, they formed a lacy curtain, draping across the middle third or so of the “table” lip. At first, I thought the sun made the sparkling curtain stand out from darker stone behind it. Refocusing, I noticed that the sharp curve of the table’s lip overhead was just that: a broken knife-edge with the bottom of the table angling back into darkness behind the crystal water-curtain.

My mind raced. If that were the ceiling of some imaginary room behind the curtain, the floor would be the stone I was now standing on, rising up from the edge of the dancing pool. I guessed that the floor angling up and the ceiling angling down would have to meet somewhere, far back behind the lacy crystal waterfall. I couldn't be sure, though, since the sun sparkling off the falling water made everything behind look black as tar. Not wanting to get soaked, I’d have to work my way around and past the curtain to be able to make out the real size and shape of the “room” behind. Turns out, that wasn’t at all hard to do.

Ducking around the left edge of the rain-curtain and stepping in under the table’s edge, I was hit by the dark, wet, cutting smell of last night’s campfire, when you stumble out of your tent, rubbing the smoky grime out of the corners of your eyes and busting to pee. The raindrop waterfall echoed back into the room. Getting accustomed to the dingy light, I realized I was standing in a pretty big space, with more than enough room to park a couple of cars, I guessed. What with the floor sloping up and the roof angling down, though, you could walk back only so far before you had to tip your head, then bend, then crawl, then drag on your belly like a soldier under barbed wire.

I was already stooped way over, ready to crawl, when I saw two white dots, back in the dark. My heart flipped so hard I hit my head on the ceiling a little. It didn’t hurt much, but I was so caught off guard that I stopped dead still, holding my breath. I stared at the eyes, watching them blink now and then, trying to think of what to do next. Quick! Does Alabama have wolves? Or bears? Finally, I had to breath and sort of sputtered when I did.

“What’s yo’ name, boy?” Came a small voice from below the eyes. The voice was thin and high, so it almost sounded like part of the echoing raindrops.

“I’m Bobby. Uh… Bobby Johnson. My grandfather owns this land.”

“Naw, he don’t. My mama does.”

“Oh… Uh, OK. So you live here? Is your mama Mr. Duckworth’s daughter?”

“She say so, but she call him Mr. Duckworth, too, not Daddy. Her last name is Cummins, like her mama before her. How you know Mr. Duckworth?”

“Well, I never met him myself, but my Uncle RW knows him a little bit. Uncle RW lives over by the mill where Mr. Duckworth works… or, worked.”

All this time, I didn’t move a muscle. The eyes didn’t move either, except an occasional blink.

“I told you my name. What’s yours?”

The eyes disappeared. I jerked when they reappeared a good six feet closer. Now, I could just make out that this was a little girl. No, a little Negro girl, a lot smaller than I was, but I couldn’t tell how old.

“My real name Millicent Cummins, but most folk call me Mercy. Why you talk so funny?”

“I don’t talk... Oh. You never met anybody from up north? I live in Michigan. This is how everybody sounds in Michigan.”

Of course, that wasn’t quite true. My mama sounded a lot more like Mercy than she did like me. Quite a few of the guys Daddy worked with at the factory were colored, too. They lived on the south side of Pontiac and near Eight Mile in Detroit and they didn’t sound at all like me, either, or this little girl, for that matter. More than anything, most people on TV seemed to talk like me, so I figured that was normal.

“Do you play under here a lot?”

“Sometime I play. A lotta time I sleep here when they too much goin’ on in the big house. Mama don’t mind, ‘cause we so far back in here. Shoot, you the first white boy I ever see that could see me.”

“This is the first time I ever came back this far on Grandpa’s land. I didn’t even know this place was here till this morning. Uncle RW said his grandpa used to own your mama’s house years and years before your grandmother moved in there. He said my great-grandpa had a house on the other side of the creek, but that house has been gone as long as he can remember.”

“I know where that is. The fireplace and chimney, they still standin’. I play there, too sometimes. I can show you, if you want.”

I had been half bent over for so long, I didn’t realize how stiff I was getting. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Mercy crawled by me, till the ceiling was tall enough for her to stand. She jumped up and started skip-sliding down the sloped floor. I didn’t want to lose her, but I rose up a little too early, banging my head again on the very same sore spot from before. I was still rubbing it when I stepped back out into the bright heat of the day. Mercy was halfway around the pool and climbing out of the valley. I had to hurry to catch up.

Seeing her up close and in good light, I noticed that she wasn’t as short as I first thought. She was just a little shorter than me, but a lot skinnier. In fact, her arms were half as big around as mine, and I hadn’t even gotten any of the new muscles yet that Daddy told me I’d be getting. She was wearing a sort of loose sleeveless dress, like Mama might call a jumper. I know it was made from flour sacks, because I could still read the Robin Hood name on her back. Her legs were not any bigger around than my arms, but I could see really tight little muscles moving under the skin of her calves as she practically jumped up the bank to the higher ground of the forest. Her skin was black. No, really black! It wasn’t that kind of milk chocolate color you saw on some of the Motown singers. Mercy’s skin was so black, it made that played-in old sack dress look white like an angel. Sometimes when she’d swing her arm back, though, I’d see a flash of the palm of her hand. It was at least as white as mine, whiter maybe! I didn’t know that colored people could have white parts like that.

Reaching the floor of the woods, Mercy pressed straight ahead with a long, quick stride. Her arms swung free, looking so natural and smooth, it was almost like she really knew how to walk and I just did it how I thought people should. It wasn’t that I had any trouble keeping up with her. Instead, it was almost like she could go on like that for days and I was gonna be ready to sit down after a while. Good thing, though, we didn’t have far to go.

Up ahead was all that was left from my great or great-great-grandfather, the guy I was named after. The stones of the fireplace were worn and wavy, just like the table at the Runoff, with all the same sparkles and color specks. The chimney was made of a flatter light brown stone. It was in pretty bad shape, too, crumbling in places and missing chunks in others. Right in front of the hearth was a big old wooden spool, the kind you’d see the Bell Telephone guys pull cable from. It was set on its side to make a table. Mercy must have used it with her dolls; a couple of small plates and a fork were set out on top.

Mercy sat down on the ground by the spool. I looked around for a chair or anything else, but settled for the dirt in front of her. For as skinny as she was everywhere else, she had a round little face, with pudgy cheeks, a short, wide nose and big round eyes. Her teeth were whiter than any I could imagine in Alabama, especially with all the tobacco stains I’d seen. Her hair was shiny, blue-black as a crow’s feathers, but busy as steel wool. She had it kinked into little twists all over her head, each one tied with a skinny white ribbon. I remember thinking then that Mercy was completely different from anybody else I’d ever met.

“You live in DEE-troit?”

I loved how everybody I met in Alabama always thought that since you lived in Michigan, of course you must be from Detroit. I also liked how they called it “DEE-troit.”

“No, we live more than thirty miles north of there. We live outside of Pontiac, in a place called Brinks Township.”

“That where they make Pontiacs?”

“Yep, that’s where they make some of ‘em. In fact, that’s what my daddy does. Now, he works on the assembly line where they make the Bonneville. He used to help make Cadillacs!” I felt kind of proud to say that.

Mercy’s eyes grew wider. “Is it a big place? That car factory.”

“Oh, yeah! It’s huge!” Now I could impress her a little. “Once, when I was little, I don’t know, six maybe, my dad took me there. It was hot and so stinky, it burned my nose. Really loud, too. But I thought it was really neat, with these air tools hanging down and a conveyor belt and everything!” Telling the story made me think about how fun that visit had been.

“I remember how we stopped at this one place on the line where the hood comes sailing down from someplace up above. These two guys with bulgy muscles and big wet armpits worked across the line from each other. They would slap that hood on so fast, I thought at first they were just puttin’ one bolt on each side. After a few minutes, though, I could see how each guy would line up his side of the hood, look at the other guy’s eyes, then zip in three bolts really fast! And the whole time, they’re standing on the edge of the moving belt. By the time they stepped off, they were, like, twenty feet or so down the line. The cool thing was, it was all timed out so that, by the time they walked back to where they started and grabbed more bolts out of a box, the next car was right there and that car's hood was already floating down. It was great how the right color hood came down every time!”

I paused for just a moment, but Mercy didn’t make a peep. So, I kept going.

“Guys on the line looked like it was so automatic, they didn’t even have to think about what they were doing. It was kind of like they didn’t have to pay any real attention, so they talked all the time, mostly about deer hunting and drinking and women and stuff, with lots of cussing and laughing. They all looked so relaxed, you’d think they were sittin’ in a fishing boat or something, except for the way they had to yell over the noise of the machines and the air wrenches.” I caught my breath. “Daddy said he never wanted me to work there, though.”

Mercy’s eyes were locked on mine and her jaw was dropped a little. She didn’t say a word. Suddenly, I felt a little nervous, having her stare at me that way.

“Uh… So… What does your daddy do?”

Finally, she blinked and looked down. “I ain’t sure ‘cause I never met him. But Sister Franklin, she say he livin’ in Chicago.”

“Your sister’s name is Franklin?” I almost laughed out loud.

“Naw, Sister Franklin is one of the aunties at church." Mercy sounded almost like an English maid on TV, the way she made “auntie” sound like “awntie.”

“She’s your aunt, then?” I asked.

“Naw, she not blood!” Mercy shook her head like maybe she thought I wasn’t too bright. “She just a nice fat old lady at the church. Sister Franklin is just what everybody call her.”

“So, do you have any brothers or sisters? I have one of both and I’m the youngest.”

“No, it just me and Mama.” Mercy paused for a moment. “She say I had a little half-brother, but he died right after he was born. I was still little myself, so I never seen him, but he buried right ‘cross the creek over there.” She held out a skinny arm to point. “Naw, I don’t know no relatives. I see Mr. Duckworth once in a while when we out someplace. He don’t never come here. Mama’s other folks is long dead. She say she got a older brother someplace, but she ain’t heard from him since she was twelve. He may be dead by now, too, all she know.”

“So, who do you play with? Are there any neighbor kids around here?” My face must have said I felt sorry for her.

“I go to school! I’m goin’ into fourth grade! You think I don’t go to school?” She sounded irritated, like I had insulted her. “I play with other girls at school. Sometimes, I even play with the boys, ‘cause I can run fast as any of them. They don’t like it when I win. I say ‘too bad,’ but they don’t like that either. The girls don’t like it when I play with the boys. Mostly, I play with some of the girls.”

“Do any of the girls come over here to play?

“Naw, they mamas don’t let them come back in here, ‘cause they say my mama got too many friends hangin’ ‘round. They don’t know that Mama says she’ll never let any of them men touch me. Shoot, they couldn’t catch me, anyways.”

“Is that why you spend so much time under the Runoff?” In my mind was a picture of a little black girl being chased by a whole crowd of frantic black men, almost like the big black horses in a fox hunt.

“Naw, I like it under there… ‘cause it’s quiet once you forget ‘bout the water. It’s cool on the hot days. I swim. I take a nap. I build a fire at night when it get cool. Mama says it ain’t healthy to eat alone, but sometimes I even cook in there. Mama has her house and I stay with her mostly, but that’s my house.” Her voice sounded proud.

When Mercy mentioned her mama’s house, something made me look straight up. I could tell by the tint of the sky through the trees that it must be getting pretty late.

“Oh, man! I wonder what time it is? I better get back to my grandpa’s house or they’re gonna be looking for me. Is there a shortcut from here back up to my grandpa’s field road?”

“Sure, follow me!”

Mercy acted like she was opening the back door to the cabin, as if there still was a door or walls. She held it open for me, carefully locking it behind. I followed close as she set off into the densest part of the woods. Her steps were quick like before, but she kept turning around every few seconds to see that I was still there. Within minutes, we were standing where the stage would be at the bottom eighty amphitheater. I was out of breath. Mercy had a little smile as she looked up into the curving rows of corn. There were tiny sparkles on her forehead, but she didn’t seem to be at all winded.

“I know the way from here and I’ll be able to hear if they yell for me.”

Mercy didn’t move, but kept looking at Grandpa’s corn.

“We have to leave really early Tuesday morning to drive back to Michigan.”

Mercy didn’t look at me, but still had that little smile. “Mama gotta work tomorrow, but I’ll be ‘round all day if you want to come over and play.”

Before I could say yes, no, maybe or goodbye, Mercy was already in the woods, stepping quickly along the trail we’d just followed. Over her shoulder, she added “Don’t bring nobody with you if you do come.”

Once I got through the walls of corn in the bottom eighty, I ran most of the way back to the house. Mama was worried when I stepped in the back screen door.

“Lord, Robert Aaron, where you been? What happened to you? You look like some boys has been beatin’ on you!”

“No, Mama, I just walked all the way to the back of Grandpa’s property, into the woods.” I didn’t think I should mention crossing the creek and going all the way to the Runoff, especially when she’d already used my middle name.

“Why, you’re filthy, Son! Grammaw already has supper goin’ on the table this minute, or I’d throw you right in that washtub! Get in here and take this rag. At least clean off your face and neck. You look like you was a’hoeing a field! Wait! Leave those muddy shoes out on the porch. What’d you do, take a shortcut through the hog waller? Now, you put on the undershirt you wore under your church clothes this morning. Leave that dirty shirt on top of Grammaw’s washin’ machine. Lord, Lord!” She was still shaking her head as she turned to go help Grandma with the food.

I did a quick scrub, changed shirts like Mama asked and hurried to the table so I wouldn’t be the last one there. Mama had had her fuss in the back room and I didn’t want another one here, especially from Grandpa. We were already opening our eyes from Grandpa’s prayer when I finally noticed that Donny wasn’t at the table.

“Where’s Donny?”

Daddy handed me the biscuit pan and said, “Donny is having supper at Aunt Reeter’s house tonight. Reeter’s sister’s girl is sweet on him.”

“Jasper, Honey,” Mama’s voice was light and singsong. “I don’t think Donny would want us talking about some girl being sweet on him.”

“Oh, Mama, he’s not interested in her,” said Sister. “He said he wouldn’t go on a real date with her, even if she wasn’t sort of related. He’s just being nice to Aunt Rita, because she always sends him a birthday card. He said he likes getting the cards all the more since Rita thinks his birthday is in March, not November.”

I remembered one of those cards, with a silly little toy horse on it when Donny must have been seventeen or so.

“Still,” Mama continued softly, “he would be embarrassed to hear us talking about him and some girl bein’ sweet on him. Now don’t nobody bother him about it when he gets home tonight.”

Grandpa looked up from about his fourth ear of corn. “What girl we talking about? If it’s that middle’un of Suzie’s, I’d be ashamed to be seen with her. Why, she was the one that was struttin’ around with no clothes on right next to where we was a’paintin’ last week. That top part barely covered her teats! What, she must be sixteen by now? You’d think she was throwin’ a show for Donny and me. She was makin’ it hard for that poor boy to climb a ladder. Buddy, if I was to walk down the street wearing little bitty britches like that, they’d come and lock me up.”

“No, Delmer, we’re not talking about any of Suzie’s girls.” Sometimes you could tell when Grandma had heard enough from Grandpa. “And if I saw you a’walkin’ down the street in bitty britches, I’d lock you up, too! We’re talking about Reeter’s sister’s oldest ‘un, Jean.”

They all went on and on like that, but I could only think about three things. First, after one bite of biscuit, I realized how hungry I was. Second, I shuddered at the image of Grandpa dancing around in little bitty britches. Third, I couldn’t wait to talk to Donny. I knew Donny better than anybody, I thought. He wouldn’t mind me asking him about cousin whatever-her-name-was when we were talking in the bed later. I’d tell him all about finding the Runoff, something he’d never done. I’d even tell him all about meeting Mercy and how black she was and how nice and how her palms were whiter than mine and how I was even thinking about going back there tomorrow to play. Donny would be impressed at my adventure and would ask me all kind of questions.

After a big supper and a little more scrubbing with the rag, I climbed in bed to wait for Donny, but fell asleep before I could even wonder what was taking him so long.


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