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Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

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BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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Gil turned back to Fix. Fix sat in the chair, head bowed, slumped a little forward, like a stone bear.

“Beat me if you want to,” Gil said. “I’ll get the whip. Beat me if you want to, but don’t send me away from this house. Don’t send me away from home, Papa?”

Fix sat there like stone. He was not hearing anything anymore.

Russ put his arm around Gil’s shoulders and let him out of the room, with me a step behind them. The people in the other room had already heard what had happened, and they were not looking at Gil the way they did when he first came there. They gave him plenty of room to pass this time, and I saw a woman holding back the same little girl who had spoken to him before and wanted to come to him again. The little girl struggled and struggled, but the woman held her back, pressing the girl’s head against her thigh.

We pushed our way out onto the porch. Through the screen, I could see the sun going down behind the trees on the other side of the bayou. A thin purple cloud lay across the sun, making the sky look like a nice, serene painting.

“You had to do what you did,” Russ said.

“I could have run the other way,” Gil said.

“And that would have been better?” Russ asked him.

“It couldn’t be any worse,” Gil said.

While we stood out on the porch, Luke Will and that other rough-looking guy came out there.

“If you think this is the end of it, you’re crazy,” Luke Will said to Gil.

“Get out of here, Luke Will,” Russ said. “You don’t speak for this family.”

“Somebody better do it,” Luke Will said.

“Nobody voted for you,” Russ said.

“Maybe I’ll just take it as my duty, on principle,” Luke Will said.

“I don’t want no trouble out of you, Luke Will,” Russ said. “Stay away from Marshall, and stay out Bayonne. I’m warning you.”

“You don’t scare me, Russell,” Luke Will said. “You or that fat belly of a boss you got there don’t scare me the least.”

“Just don’t start any trouble,” Russ said. “I’m warning you.”

“The trouble already been started,” Luke Will said. “When niggers start shooting down white men in broad daylight, the trouble was started then.”

“We don’t need your kind to settle it.”

“Somebody got to do it ’fore it gets out of hand,” Luke Will said. “Next thing you know, they’ll be raping the women.”

“That’s how it is,” Russ said to me. “If they can’t get you one way, they’ll bring in the women every time.”

“Maybe you don’t mind if they rape your wife or your little daughter,” Luke Will said. “Maybe something like that’s been going on all the time, and you just don’t care.”

He grinned at Russ. He wanted Russ to take a swing at him. But Russ was too cool for that.

“You see the psychology behind it all?” he said to me.

But I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to say a word while those two were standing there. I wasn’t going to even breathe out of my mouth.

“You and your kind, your time has passed, Luke Will,” Russ said.

“It ain’t my time you better worry about,” Luke Will said.

“I’ll be around when you and your kind are long gone. You might kill him off in there,” he said to Gil. “But I’m go’n be around. Let’s go, Sharp.”

They let the screen door slam behind them. They were both big men, big country red-necks, the kind Bull Connor used as his deputies back there in the ’60s. They went across the road to a white pickup, which had a gun rack in the cab and two guns on the rack. The truck also had a CB radio, and Luke Will got on the radio and began talking. The other guy, Sharp, started up the truck and drove away. We watched it go down the road.

“What are you going to do?” Russ asked Gil.

“I don’t know,” Gil said.

“You want my opinion?” Russ said. “Go on back to Baton Rouge, try to get yourself some rest, play football tomorrow. Play the best game you ever played in your life.”

Gil looked at Russ as if he couldn’t believe what he had heard him say.

“What?” he said. “My brother is dead. Papa in there hating me, Claude hating me, Doucette, Tee Beau hating me—and you talk about a football game? Are you crazy?”

“There isn’t a thing you can do here tonight,” Russ said. “Tomorrow you can do something for yourself, and for all the rest of us—play the best game you ever played. Luke Will and his kind don’t want to see you and Pepper in that backfield tomorrow. He doesn’t ever want to see you and Pepper together.”

“And what about my brother?” Gil asked. “Claude? Papa? Doucette and Tee Beau? How would it look to them?”

Russ shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “A lot wouldn’t understand. Many would hate it. But that game is going to be seen on TV by millions, and more of them will be pulling for you and Pepper than pulling against you.”

“Damn the public,” Gil said. “I’m talking about my family. Not the damned public. My family.”

“I’m thinking about your family, too,” Russ said. “Especially Tee Beau.”

“And Papa?” Gil asked Russ.

“Tee Beau,” Russ told him. “Tee Beau. Tee Beau’s future. You want to do something for your dead brother? Do something for his son’s future—play in that game tomorrow. Whether you win against Ole Miss or not, you’ll beat Luke Will. Because if you don’t, he’ll win tomorrow, and if he does, he may just keep on winning. That’s not much of a future for Tee Beau, is it?”

“What about my papa?” Gil asked. “I’ve already killed him. Bury him tomorrow?”

Russ laid his hand on Gil’s shoulder.

“Gilly,” he said. “Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow. You can help Tee Beau tomorrow. You can help this country tomorrow. You can help yourself.”

Gil looked away from him.

“Well,” Russ said. “No more speeches. I have to report to Mapes. I’ll be out there in the car if you want to talk.”

He left the porch, loosening his tie. Halfway to the road, he had already taken off the tie and the coat. He hung them on a hanger in the back seat of the car; then he got in front to speak on the radio.

“He is right, Gil,” I said. “We ought to go back.”

Gil didn’t answer me. He was looking across the road toward the trees along the bayou. The sun had sunk a little below the thin layer of purple cloud.

“What you say, Gil?”

“Leave me alone,” he said. “I just want to think. Dammit, don’t you see I just want to think?”

Jacques Thibeaux
aka
Tee Jack

He comes in
just before sundown every day for his two Jack Daniels on the rocks. He talks sometimes; most times he’s quiet and moody. The rest of the customers, no matter how long they’ve known him, won’t start a conversation unless he speaks first. He has his own place, in the corner by the cigarette machine. From that corner he can look at the door where the nigger room used to be. He took that spot years ago so he could tell when one of his niggers came into the nigger room, and he would nod for me to go serve him something—beer, wine, whatever he wanted. Well, the nigger room’s been closed now some fifteen, seventeen years. Happened when all that desegregation crap was going on—niggers didn’t want to be segregated no more, so they stopped going in there. They would come to the store now and get their bottle and go squat against the wall outside to drink it, but they wouldn’t go into their own little private room no more. And surely they wouldn’t come in here round my white customers. Oh, once or twice, couple of them got up the nerve to try it, but from the way my white customers looked
at them, and from the way I served them (shoving them their drinks and slopping some on the bar), they soon found out they wasn’t welcomed. So they quit trying to desegregate the white drinking room, and just bought their bottle out of the store, and went outside or in their cars or took the bottle back home to drink it. You see, this here ain’t no Marriott, and it ain’t no Holiday Inn, either—not yet, and I doubt if it ever will be. This here ain’t nothing but a little old bitty combination grocery store and liquor store setting in the fork of a road between a bayou and a river, where you got a room for white customers and another little private room for black customers, and that’s all there is to it. When they refused, some fifteen, seventeen years ago, to come into their own little bitty room, why I just sold them their bottle from behind the counter in the grocery store and let them take it on the outside, or anywhere else they wanted to drink it, didn’t make me no never mind, long as they wasn’t in here bumping up against my white customers. You can call me anything you want, but that’s how things are in little places like this. This ain’t no Baton Rouge and it ain’t no New Orleans, and it ain’t no Marriott and it ain’t no Holiday Inn—not yet, and God I doubt if it ever will be. Say what you want, I don’t care.

But he still looks that way, toward the nigger room, each day when he comes in for his two bourbons on the rocks. Like I said, the place been closed down these past fifteen, maybe even seventeen years, and I’m using the room now for my stockroom, but he still looks there when he’s drinking. Anything could be on television—football, baseball, basketball, Jap volleyball, Chinaman Ping-Pong, niggers and white boys running all over the place, nigger fags and white fags throwing little white pom-pom girls up in the air—anything. Still he looks toward that door. I wonder if he’s hearing ghosts in there. I wonder if he’s hearing singing coming out of there.

Sometimes when I’m here by myself, I cock my ear that way to listen, but I never hear nothing. A rat, maybe, trying to get into one of them croker sacks or one of them bags I got stacked in there, but that’s about all.

You know, I sympathize with him. ’Cause you see he never wanted none of this. Never wanted to be responsible for name and land. They dropped it on him, left it on him. That’s why he drinks the way he does, and let that niece of his run the place. Let her have it, he don’t care. Don’t care if it go to hell. He want it to go to hell. To hell with it. He go by the name ’cause they gived him that name, he live on the land ’cause they left it there, but he don’t give a damn for it. That’s why he drinks the way he does. Get up and drink. Take a little nap, wake up and drink some more. Take another little nap, wake up and come here. Like clockwork. Don’t give a damn for nothing. Women or nothing. Pussy or nothing. Politics or nothing. Nigger or nothing. Buy them a drink ’cause Nate or Dan or Brother, one of them, left it in a will to buy it. But he don’t give a damn. And I don’t blame him. Things just too complicated. I reckon for people like him they have always been complicated—protecting name and land. It’s just too much for most people. Feeling guilty about this, guilty about that. It wasn’t his doing. He came here and found it, and they died and left it on him. You know, something just struck me. Maybe that’s what he’s doing when he looks at that door—cussing them. No, not the niggers who used to be in there singing—the ones who brought them here, the ones built that room. Yes, that just right this moment struck me—he’s cussing them out when he’s standing there gazing at that door. Sometimes he even miss his mouth with that glass, for looking at that door.

I had two other customers in the bar when he came in, and me and one of the customers had been talking about the killing. When Jack came in the door, I nodded to my customer
to lower his voice. We weren’t suppose to know about it yet. But something like that can’t stay hidden long in a place like this. When that nigger Charlie didn’t show up at the mill with them two trailers of cane at one-thirty like he was supposed to, Robert Jarreau, foreman there at Morgan, waited till round two-fifteen before he called to find out what was the matter.

Wait—hold it—let me tell you how that worked now. Beau delivered six trailers of cane to the mill six days a week during grinding. Or I should say his nigger Charlie did. The first load, two trailers each time, came in around nine, nine-thirty. The second load was ready by noon, but Beau always let Charlie eat dinner before delivering it; then after he had eaten, he would then get the second load of two trailers to the mill by one-thirty, quarter to two, depending on traffic from other trucks and tractors, of course. After delivering that load, then he would go back for the third load, which he would deliver around four, maybe four-thirty, depending on the traffic again. So when Robert didn’t see that middle load come in, that one-thirty, quarter-to-two load, he waited till two-fifteen, two-thirty, then he called Fix’s house to ask why. That’s when they told him what had happened. Robert came over to the store around three o’clock and told me. After he had himself couple beers, he left for the mill again. For the rest of the day I waited and waited for the action. Me and one of my customers got to talking about it, and he told me where he came from—he was from Mississippi. He said folks there knowed how to take care little matters like these. I told him we had some folks right here in St. Raphael Parish who wasn’t too bad at it either. I had another customer at the bar, a sallow, thoughtful-looking fellow, but he stayed quiet. Even stood a good distance away from me and the fellow from Mississippi. Didn’t make me no never mind, and didn’t seem to worry the Mississippi fellow either. We
just went right on talking like he wasn’t even there. When I saw Jack coming in, I nodded to my Mississippi customer to lower his voice.

“How are you, Jack?” I said.

He nodded. Didn’t say anything. Just went over to the corner, facing the door to the old nigger room. I served him his first drink, Jack Daniels on the rocks. I could see he wasn’t in no mood for talking, so I went back to my Mississippi customer.

“Got to move on,” he said. “Having supper with some of the boys in town. You sure you don’t want to put a little bet on the game?”

“Don’t like to take money from a new customer,” I said.

He laughed. A pleasant fellow.

“Better pray nothing happen to Salt or Pepper,” he said. “Ole Miss would run the draws off ’em.”

He finished his drink and left me fifty cents tip.

“Thanks,” I said. “Can’t wish you good luck, ’cause you know who I’m pulling for.”

BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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